The toilet flushed. Jeanette knew what was coming next; a long yawn and the sound of cracking knuckles.

She chuckled to herself, just like almost every evening since they married.

The bedroom door creaked open. “Hey, gorgeous! Your husband not around?”

“Oh, him. Boring fart,” she replied.

“You want a real man!”

“Where can I get one?” giggled Jeanette, pulling back the duvet.

Gary pulled his T-shirt down over his head and tucked it into his boxers before climbing into bed next to her.

She put her book down on the bedside table and carefully placed her reading glasses on top.

“Listen. I’ve had an idea…”


Gary and Jeanette. It goes like this:

Early 90’s. Friday night at the Jubilee (the Zoo, to those who were there). Sticky floors, deafening thud-thud dance music. “Insanity” by Oceanic, since you ask. Happy hour. Pissed on a tenner with change for a kebab and taxi afterwards. A sea of permed brown hair and white blouses; crew cuts and short-sleeved grey shirts. He was there with his mates. So was she. He looked across the dance floor and saw a group of women looking in his direction. At the centre of them was a thin woman with a nice smile and no tattoos smiling at him. She looked across the dance floor and saw a group of men looking in her direction. At the centre of them was a grinning man getting jostled by his mates. He was tall and didn’t have a tattoo, or a moustache. After closing, they went to Tommy Savva’s chip shop and bought chips and gravy. He walked her back home—well, not quite; they sat on the steps outside the Town Hall to eat. She got gravy on her blouse. He handed her a clean handkerchief. That perfume. He wanted to lick it off. She wouldn’t admit it to herself, but she wanted him to lick it off. They parted with a peck on the cheek. And her number written on the gravy-sodden hanky. By the time he got to the Ferry Bridge and crossed back over the river, the street lights were flickering and the sky was a dull bluish grey. He didn’t notice…

…She worked for Bass at their offices on the High Street. He was a mechanic in Swad. He drove a red Vauxhall Viva covered in rust. But oh, that engine. He’d pick her up on Fridays. Her workmates teased her about that car. But soon he was fixing all theirs. Things moved fast. Two months later, they got a flat. The families met. They got on famously. They all went to Cyprus on holiday together and had a great time. One year in, the two of them sat down and talked about money. They realised they could get a mortgage. They got a house in Stretton. Terraced. He proposed to her in Stapenhill Gardens. By the big swan. On a Sunday after dinner at his parents’. His boss retired and his kids didn’t want the business. He gave it to his only employee. They married soon afterwards. Tom was born a year later, Gemma 19 months after that. They moved to a semi in the village…


Jeanette topped up Gary’s mug and put two more slices of hot, buttered toast on his plate.

“Last night…you were kidding?”

“No, duck,” he replied. “The whole floor is available to rent. I’ve looked at finance and—“

“Stop! You’re mad. Who wants to go bowling?”

“The whole town does. Check this out.”He took out the previous day’s copy of the local rag. The front cover didn’t hold back:


Our Poll Shows

Huge Support for

Ten-Pin Bowling

in Town

“They can’t even bloody spell!”


OctoBowl 2020. It goes like this:

Gary went to the library and waded through every book about starting a small business. Scoured the Internet for anything that came up from a Google search for “startups.” He then took a step back and realised that he was none the wiser. He then asked his mate Dave, who ran the first “proper” café in town (proper coffee, not Nescafé in chipped mugs, posh cakes and biscuits), for advice, took him to the pub, and poured ale down his neck.

Gary went out with a clipboard and a thick wedge of photocopied forms. Questions were asked and answered. Do you like ten-pin bowling? Tick. In your opinion, is there enough for young people in this town? No. Would you support a local facility that offered ten-pin bowling? Tick, tick, tick…

They were concerned about business rates; one reason that the local rag put forward for the whole first floor of the Octagon Centre being empty was the swingeing bills they charged people for the privilege of opening businesses, creating jobs, and drawing money into the town.

Don’t worry, they were assured by the woman on the phone; the place isn’t subject to business rates for a year at least. We want to encourage people like you to set up in this town.


At long last, they were ready. They were opening on Saturday. The local rag put a report on page five. A family-run business with local couple Gary and Jeanette at the helm. Son Tom, daughter Gemma, and her boyfriend Alex completed the team. Ten-pin bowling seven days a week from 11.30 till late. A snack bar with a licence. Hoping to recruit locally when business takes off.

There was one more addition to the team. Gemma insisted that a mascot would attract attention and give people something to talk about. Jeanette got out her sewing machine and started work at 8pm. By dawn the next morning, Otto Bowler—a beige octopus in a shirt and trousers with big black eyes, four tentacles (for convenience), and a fixed grin—was no longer just a concept.

Alex said that he looked like the old Pac-Man cartoon character, and so used three cardboard boxes, sticky tape, and paint to fashion a trilby that fit his—or, rather, Otto’s—head perfectly.


The first day was incredible. Manic, stressful and fast-paced. But. Just. Incredible.

Teenagers came and went in packs, boisterous but polite, respectful, and fun. More than one old couple gazed into each other’s’ eyes and walked off hand-in-hand afterwards. The bar was packed; Gemma and Jeanette agreed that they would have to hire someone to help there and soon.

A seven-year-old girl told Otto that she loved him and hugged him around the knees, which caused Alex’s face to turn puce and created much merriment among the family.

The whole day was a mad cacophony of clunks, crashes, laughter, electronic bleeping, and the rumble of ball on wood.


The second day was a bit quieter.

And as for the second week…

The front page didn’t hold back. “GRATE NEWS!”

The town’s fifth branch of Costa Coffee was due to open on Saturday morning, bringing jobs and prosperity with it. In fact, they were recruiting straightaway; anybody with great customer service skills, a work ethic, and can-do attitude was welcome to apply.

The third week was a bit better. But Gemma and her mum weren’t talking about taking on bar staff any more.

On Tuesday of the fourth week, Jeanette came down to see why Gary hadn’t come to bed yet. It was 3AM. He was slumped over the kitchen table.

“Cheer up, love, it may never happen.”

“It already has,” Gary replied. “Guess what we took on the till yesterday? Twelve pounds and fifteen pence.”

Jeanette cast her eyes over the mail-strewn table, shuddering as she noticed the word “REMINDER” in red ink and an envelope with their mortgage provider’s name franked onto the top corner.


They needed to do something; nobody was coming in. Business was even worse than last month.

That Saturday afternoon, Tom, Gemma, and Alex went out with flyers. They were going to target the chip shops, pubs, and bars. If they couldn’t get anybody to go bowling for a weekend, what hope did they have of staying open?

Their first stop was the Air Ambulance shop, where they were greeted with a smile and a pin to stick their flyer to the corkboard on the wall.

They stopped by the Market Square. “Hi, can I interest you in ten-pin bowl—“


A chat with a stallholder (who proudly boasted of the best vaping selection in the Midlands) offered a brief respite from the hostilities of the public, until a bespectacled, unshaven old man with a pronounced stoop sidled up next to them.

“What you selling?”

“We’re promoting our bowling alley. Fancy a go?”

“Fuck that!”


He shuffled away a few yards, then stopped dead in his tracks, remaining motionless, as if deep in thought.

Turning around slowly to face them, he exploded.

“Card shops and Costa fucking Coffee! There’s fuck all to do in this town!”

“Bu—but,” stuttered Tom… “We’ve opened a bowling alley…”

“Fuck all in this town!” he shouted back.

Their final stop was the Dart.

A bespectacled, unshaven old man (who would have a pronounced stoop if he wasn’t slumped in his seat) nudged the man next to him, fat with receding fair hair, huge eyes, and a red face. They talked amongst themselves quietly.

The fat man got off the seat and made towards them, half-charging, half-limping.

“If…I ever see you in this…pub again, I’ll…fuckin’ break your…legs,” he gasped between breaths. The effort of walking to the doorway had rendered him out of breath, but he was fucking hard.


Gary ate his slice of toast, swilled the last of his tea, and kissed Jeanette on the cheek. “Bye, love.”

“Where you off to? We don’t open until 11:30.”

“Just got something to do…”

Gary walked down the street. It was a quarter to nine. A queue was already there. He kept walking, head down, until he got to Dave’s place.

“Here, mate.” Dave cheerfully placed a warm, foaming, and aromatic mug on the table in front of Gary. “One businessman to another.”

Gary looked sheepishly at him. “Well, I wouldn’t call myself a—“

“More to it than meets the eye, eh pal?” grinned Dave.

“I’ll say. How’s things here?”

“I’ll be honest: it’s shite. But I’m lucky; I own this place and I’ve got a pension.”

“It wasn’t always like this, surely?”

“Not until these bloody Costas opened. We were the only place that did proper coffee in town for ages. Everyone now complains that there aren’t no proper cafés in town.”


Gary walked back the same way. They’d opened, but the queue wasn’t any shorter; if anything, it was growing. Steam billowed out of the door as it swung open and slammed shut.

Then he had an idea. What was that line Alex used to woo Gemma? Something to do with pet shops…

A weather-beaten couple in their 50s stumbled out, scowling as they buttoned their coats.

“Excuse me…er, excuse me!” They turned sharply towards him, saying nothing.

“I’m, er, not from this town and I’ve got my son this afternoon. Is there anywhere around here I can take him?”

Blank stares. A bead of sweat trickled down Gary’s forehead. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a flyer.

“I was looking for this place.”

More blank stares. “Please, can you help—“

The man’s face cracked into a malicious, gleeful grin. “Nothing to do here, pal. All fuckin’ Costas and charity shops.”

“But this place—“

They stumbled off, cackling. Gary stood there and watched as they turned into the Cancer Research shop, then he sank to his knees.


The queue shortened with glacial speed. I’m going to be late opening if I don’t go soon, Gary thought.

But he decided to stick it out, just to see what all the fuss was over. His patience was rewarded as he placed his hands on the counter; behind it, young, stressed-out women raced back and forth through curtains of steam.

Eventually, one of them noticed.

“Yes, sir?”
“I’ll have a coffee, please.” The young lady’s face scrunched with despair for the umpteenth time that morning.

“Latte? Americano? Cappucino? Mocha?”

“What’s a normal coffee, please, with milk?” She sighed loudly through the steam.

“That’s Flat White. Five pounds, please, sir—sir! Sir! No smoking in here, sorry! You’ll have to go outside!”

Gary turned his head. A cigarette end bounced off the floor ten yards away; a shower of orange sparks scattered across the carpet. A huge red face spat on the floor and scowled through the steam in miserable anger.

“God, this is shit! You can’t even ‘ave a fuckin’ faaaag!” he grumbled to his mate, loud enough for everybody present to hear above the gurgle of the barista, the clash of stainless steel milk jugs, and the hum of indignant chatter about there being nothing to do in this town.

The young lady stared at her shoes as her face burned.


The till opened with a clunk and a whirr as the day’s takings printed off. It wasn’t a very long receipt.

“Sod it; let’s have a drink.”

One drink led to another. The car stayed in town and they ended up in the Anchor. They hadn’t been in there since they were courting, and it had changed a bit. Disco and karaoke.

She grabbed a table while he jostled his way to the bar. He was trying to attract the attention of the bar staff when a familiar face caught his eye.

Jeanette glanced up from her phone. She was greeted by a sight that got a smile out of her, the first time she had grinned in over a month.

They chatted to Tommy Savva for over an hour. Retired for some time, he now spent weekend nights out with his pal who ran the karaoke. They were astonished when he said that he remembered them.

“You don’t share chips and gravy with anyone you’re not close to,” he chuckled.

“Tell me,” Gary asked. “You know how to run a successful business in this town. If you were us, what would you do?”

Tommy sipped his Guinness and set his glass on the dark, varnished table with a gentle clunk. “Get a Costa Coffee franchise,” he answered through the foam on his upper lip. They laughed.

“I’m not kidding…”


The letterbox clanged open and the usual array of bills, demands and promises to save Octobowl 2000 thousands on phone and broadband dropped in, paper on paper, softly rustling like rushing water.

Gary pulled his T-shirt out of his boxers, yawned, and stumbled down the stairs. One letter in particular caught his eye as he shuffled through the pile. One from the Council.

Flipping his wrist over, he saw something about business rates on the back of the envelope.

Jeanette ambled into the kitchen eight minutes later, pulling the cord on her dressing gown tight and rubbing her eyes. Gary was slumped in his chair, head in his hands.

She opened her mouth, but Gary beat her to it.

“You know what?

“Fuck this.”


And that was that; all that remained was to empty the premises before the council parasites sent somebody to asset-strip them.

It was bin day as they finished; Otto went in last of all. The little girl who hugged him on opening day skipped past, holding her mother’s hand.

Just as they passed, the lorry loading mechanism tipped the bin; she scrambled to a halt as she saw the costume tumble into the back.

Devoid of the joyful life Alex imbued him with, he had the empty, soulless face of the recently departed.

Her eyes widened. “Otto?“

Her mouth trembled and those big eyes filled up.


“Ott—.“ Her head snapped back.

Her mother whipped her along by the wrist, ankles scraping the pavement as she watched Otto depart through tears and snot.

“Come on, you little bitch. I haven’t had my fuckin’ coffee yet!”


The front cover of the local rag carried the headline “TOWN SENTRE IN £1.4m REVAMP!”

The first three pages detailed the Council’s plan to bring investment and jobs to town by planting trees and incorporating a bicycle path through the town centre.

The County Council’s economic growth leader Mick Winnit was quoted: “Town centre regeneration is an important part of ensuring the county’s economy continues to grow.

“We want to ensure they are attractive places to live, shop, work and visit, so schemes like this are important.

“Burton continues to grow and by working closely with the Borough Council we can enhance an already vibrant town centre.”

Projects already started were listed on page four: one-way traffic directions in Cooper’s Square car park; re-timing of traffic lights to reduce congestion on Union Street; and new contactless car parking payment machines in town centre car parks.

Gary and Jeanette managed page five. A picture taken for the opening day article—grinning, full of hope, bright blue skies behind them—seemed woefully out of place.

“When asked what they would do next, Gary said, “Something that pays the bills. We borrowed a lot of money to open this place. We still haven’t paid off the mortgage, either.”


The town didn’t hold back on the local rag’s Facebook feed.

It want in da town centre.”

2 expensive.”

Who want’z to go bowling?” and…

“Fuckin’ shit. There’s nothing to do in this town. Just Costa Coffee and charity shops.”

“Too right,” his mate replied. “We could do with more stuff for people to do. Like—“

“Did you go there?”

“Naaah! Fuck that shit!” his mate laughed.

“Fuck it,” he nodded. “Here, I’m putting a comment on.”

‘Dis-gus-ting, there’s nothing 4 any fucker 2 do in this town. Only Costa Coffee and charity shops. We need other stuff like bowlin 2 do 4 the kidz’…ah, bollocks. This network’s shit. No signal.”

He waddled up to the counter. “Oi, dickhead! What’s the WiFi password? And where’s our lattes?”

Gary put the steaming jug of frothy milk down and glanced towards the queue, which stretched back past the door.

“I’ll be right with you, sir…”