Hey everybody, this is my first novel, and I'm about 6 chapters in, and would be most greatful for any comments anybody should have about it.
John sat there quietly, not so much in thought, he couldn’t think, the anticipation was too great, but rather in just a nervous stillness. His eyes scanned the room. The woman, probably mid-forties, at the roulette wheel, her eyes wrinkled beyond their years, the result of thousands of hours staring intently at a haze of swirling colour. The new dealer at the black jack table, young and handsome. The now worn out patch of the expensive carpet, the scene of a million footsteps, most of them taken with dread and regret. People watching was always interesting in casinos. On the one hand, looking around one would see the full gamete of human emotion: delight, joy, fear, sorrow, anger, frustration. If you watched one person long enough it would usually end with one of the latter. On the other it was amusing to watch the casino floosies flit from table to table. The would wander with their wide smiles, white teeth, and their large, usually augmented, breasts pushed up as high as they would go, standing by each man just so long as the cards, or the dice, or whatever fell in his favour. Then just as greed got the better off him, and his luck began to turn, they would leave along with his money and his pride. For some of the men who walked in there, that kind of attention from those kind of women would be the most exciting thing they would ever experience, and for that reason John supposed their existence was not entirely regrettable.
Then his gaze rested upon something that he had long since convinced himself he would never see again. Had he at that very moment looked into the mirrored wall behind her, he could not have gained a more accurate depiction of his look of total disbelief, than the one he saw staring back at him in her face. For a moment she was unable to move, dumbstruck by what she saw. She turned away, fiddled with her hair and straightened her clothes, and then turned back and began to walk over with a confidence betrayed only by the bead of sweat on her brow.
“Hi John,” she said, her voice soft and timid, but sweet to his ears.
“It’s been a long time.”
“Yeah. It has.”
There was an awkward pause for a moment. Over the years he’d thought of thousands of things he’d like to have said to her, words he’d longed to whisper to her tenderly, others he’d desired to bellow straight into her face. He’d envisaged himself saying them, cool, charming and aloof, but at the same time sincere and intense. Now the situation had become a reality he was merely uncomfortable, and his shirt collar felt as though it had instantly shrunk an inch.
“So, what brings you to the Alexandra?”
Part of him thought it a feeble thing to say, but another part was genuinely curious. After all it’s not everyday that one meets the single most significant woman of their past, after two decades of separation. It would be odd if he were not at least a little curious about the circumstances that had masterminded their reunion.
“I work here.” Her eyes fell to the floor a moment, before rising defiantly.
“Oh…” He studied her uniform, a bulky polyester black skirt, over laddered tights beneath a now off-white thinning blouse, unbuttoned to reveal more than a hint of cleavage. To him it was a sorry sight to see someone he had placed on so high a pedestal for so long grounded amidst this mediocrity.
“Don’t judge me you asshole. You always were such a judgemental son of a bitch.”
“And you were always desperate for an excuse to call me a judgemental son of a bitch.”
They were both embarrassed. Her for her appearance and her work, indeed for her life as a whole, though more so for the bits of it he had seen. He for having been caught pitying her, and for absurdity that anyone should be pitied by him. Equally they were angry. In that moment he was furious at her for bringing this sadness upon him as an insult to her memory, and she was enraged at how he had allowed her image to be so tarnished.
“Well if that’s how you feel then I’ll just go.”
“Because waiting tables will be so much more interesting?”
“It might be less interesting, but it’ll be a hell of a lot more pleasant.”
She was the only girl he’d ever met whose eyes could truly to be said to flash when she was irate, and much as that excited him he feared that if he were to push it too far she would follow through with her threat. He knew better than anyone that there was only so much humiliation she would accept.
“What time do you get off work?”
“What does it matter to you?” she said, sulking to conceal a growing sense of inner delight amongst the pain.
“Because it does. What time do you get off work?”
“Look John you can’t just come in here, show up out of the blue in my place of work after nearly twenty years, insult me and then ask me what time I get off work.”
“Well it seems to me as though I’ve just done exactly that. Now let’s cut the righteous indignation shit, I know that you’re eventually going to tell me, and you know it as well, and frankly I’d rather not waste my time asking you the same question another hundred times.”
“Jesus Christ, about 7.30!” raising her voice a little more.
“Good, meet me in the bar across the road at quarter to 8.”
“You’ll be there.”
He was right, she would meet him, but she’d be damned if she were going to admit to it so easily.
“I have to get back.”
“Off you go then.”
As she walked off John felt both exhilarated and rather content with himself, in the end it seemed that he’d managed to be somewhat cool after all. More than that, it amused him that after all those years he still knew exactly how to deal with her. It amused her too, though again there’s no way she’d let him see that.
“Hey Stats, come on, game starts in 15 minutes.”
God how he hated that nickname. About fifteen years ago he’d be playing in a pretty low stakes ring game in the back room of a snooker club in North London. Shades it had been called, and that pretty much captured the nature of most of its inhabitants. It wasn’t the kind of place where a guy was likely lose a pot, and then reclaim it with the 9 inch blade in his inside pocket, but at the same time it was not the type of establishment where it was wise to have too big a mouth. As luck would have it, on this particular day he had been seated next to a wiry fellow by the name of Carl ‘T’ Rex, a player of limited ability but who liked to show off what minimal knowledge he had, and this wasn’t confined exclusively to hands he was involved in. The game has been limit Texas Hold’em, and a hand had played out so as to leave two players all in with the last card to come, one holding a pair of Queens, the other with a straight flush draw.
Mr Rex had helpfully puffed out his chest and announced, “Well Tommy, I recon you’re looking at 15 outs there me old son.”
His patience had by this stage begun to wear a little thin, and he had found himself unable to refrain from replying, “I think you’ll find it’s 14 outs, considering that the ace of hearts is already on show, translating into about a 31.8% chance of his hitting a winning card on the river.”
As is usually the case with guys who like to announce their conclusions on most topics to the world, Carl Rex was a man of not inconsiderable pride, and this little correction had done a pretty good job of offending it. However considering the nature of his environment, and the fact that this correction has turned out to be entirely true, he contented himself with a little jibe along the lines of, “Alright then Mr Stats, Mr numbers-make-me-hard Stats.”
Evidently he was proud of this little witticism of his, as throughout the rest of the game he had continued with the theme.
“That one alright with you Stats?”
“Cards running alright there Stats?”
“No big anomalies today Statsy, me old mate?”
During this time a number of players had arrived at and left the table, and seeing as how at this stage he was still largely unknown on the London scene, many of those who had entered after the initial comment had left assuming this to be his recognised title.
And so Stats was born . A number of rumours had sprung up afterwards about the name, including one that he was a maths prodigy from Cambridge, trying to apply a secret, patented formula to gambling, in the hope of showing the world that the gaming industry could be beaten solely through an exercise of mathematics. He never rushed to dismiss any of these rumours. It wasn’t an issue of ego, it was more that it just entertained him to see the things some people would believe, and how warped a story could become over a few months and a few hundred recountings. He had tried for a while to distance himself from the name, including one particularly pathetic attempt to re-brand himself ‘the punisher’, but alas he had soon learnt that once the people had adopted a label for you, it was pointless to try and fight against it. Whether he liked it or not he was Stats, he had no more control over it than the name his parents had entered on his birth certificate.
He smiled as he remembered the story, and stroked his chin absentmindedly as he did so.
This second cry awakened him, and with a level of articulation representative of his state of mild surprise, he replied, “What?!”
“For Christ sake, the game, it starts in fifteen minutes, get a fucking move on!”
“Oh right, shit, okay, let’s go.”
He rose from the old arm chair he had been sitting in, sliding his hands over the wear marks on the arms as he did so. He wondered how many times one would have to rub a new chair like that in order to get the arms in such a state. The thought wasn’t with him long. He retrieved his tie from where it had fallen behind the bedside table, and turned towards the mirror to tie it. It’s odd, the act of tying a tie is essentially an exercise in muscle memory, by the time the eyes have managed to interpret that a particular step has been completed; the hands have long since begun to go about the next. Yet superfluous as the mirror was then, Stats found himself utterly paralysed when attempting to tie his customary full Windsor without one. This kind of phenomenon is perhaps excusable for a tight rope walker, knowing that in the absence of a safety net, the smallest mistake will surely see him fall to his demise, however when the consequence is the somewhat less terrifying fate of a slightly skewed knot, it is nothing short of bizarre. Fortunately for him, late as he was, the smudged and chipped reflecting glass hanging from the smoke stained wall paper had saved him this particular consideration.
The owner of that voice was not the most patient of men. James Sparks, a man now in his late fifties, who had once been known as ‘the electrician’. It came as no surprise to Stats that that name had faded away, as having spent too many hours at the table with Mr Sparks over the last few months, he could not bring to mind anybody with a less electric style. Some of the old-timers had told him that this hadn’t always been the case, but as happens so often to the older guys, age had robbed him of his nerve and his ambition, and for all intents and purposes he was now just a percentage player. That is not to say that he didn’t win, he did, as there’s always somebody just plain bad enough to pay off those percentage players. So Sparksy won enough to pay his half of the dingy hotel rooms they stayed in, and to buy his nightly half bottle of Jim Beam, but his chance for anything more had long since come and gone. The thought that maybe his had too kept Stats awake at night.
“Right let’s go.”
They walked out into the corridor, ‘decorated’ would perhaps be too generous a word, suffice to say the walls were covered with the same wall paper as the rooms, yellow and brown vertical stripes, with yellow crests inside the brown stripes. No doubt at one time this had seemed rather classy, but that time was before even Stats’ days in London, and certainly before the wall paper had begun to peel and house a bluish mould. As they walked past the reception they caught the glare of the manager, stern and disapproving. Perhaps he didn’t like the idea of two men sharing a room for so long, he certainly seemed like the kind of guy that would jump to those conclusions, and he was definitely the sort of guy that wouldn’t like it. More likely he was simply concerned. A short and mildly intoxicated conversation at the hotel’s bar had revealed their profession to him, and it seemed that two months of scrupulously paid bills had failed to convince him that they weren’t about to flee in the middle of the night with all the towels and bedroom furniture. Stats didn’t really blame him, they certainly wouldn’t be the first gamblers to do so, and though Sparks didn’t know it, it wouldn’t have been Stats’ first time either.
They returned the manager’s stare with a half hearted one of their own. In truth they had greater things to worry about than this grubby little man, and the fact he knew it was probably greater than any insult they could have chosen to throw in his direction. They said nothing as they walked; tonight was to be a test for them both, and neither felt much like small talk. The home of tonight’s game was a backroom in a small bar above what had once been a highly successful brothel, but was now merely an empty shell with whited-out windows. Back in the old days, when Sparks was just starting up, this bar had been part of a gangster cartel, and had boasted the highest rake in town. Yet in its favour it had been one of the few card rooms in the city where high stakes games could be played in relative security. After all, the gangs had no desire to rip off the players, they made more out of them legitimately, well as legitimately as such things can be, than they ever could have by fleecing them. The barman used to claim he’d seen Ronnie Kray in there once, though of course that was complete bollocks; at that time the Krays could have played Omaha Hi/Low in the middle of Scotland Yard if they’d liked, not to mention the fact that their neither of them had much of a taste for poker. Anyway, that was the 60s, now that the old gang scene had given way to pistol-packing twelve year olds and race wars, and television had brought about the poker explosion, this place was just another mediocre card den. Hell the game wasn’t even the same. Many’s the time Stats had listened to Sparks talking about the good old days of five card stud and straight pool, and how today’s world of Hold’em and 9 ball was a poor replacement. He’d seen films like The Cincinnati Kid and The Hustler, but even they didn’t quite support Spark’s notion of the rose coloured past. By the time Stats had started up in the mid 80s that world had already mostly disappeared, though it would be fair to say that he’d caught the tail end of some of it.
The past didn’t much matter now, sure it made sense to try and learn from it, but dwelling in it did nobody any good, particularly not the two of them on this night. The fact was it wasn’t just an ordinary night for them. Stats and Sparks were small time, little fish in the proverbial big pond, and tonight was to mark a step up in class. They were used to showing up with a couple of hundred in their pockets, tonight Sparks was packing a little over a grand whilst Stats had closer to two. The table maximum was to be £500, and the thought of it was exciting to Stats, but much less so for Sparks. It had taken them two months to get to this position, scrabbling all over the city to buy-ins barely bigger than their tube fare, but finally they each had a bankroll decent enough to move another rung up the ladder. The idea had been Stats’ of course, Sparks had been to the top and been unceremoniously tossed back down, and as the years had passed he’d lost most of his desire to return. Stats however was desperate, hungry, and though his passport said he was 39 years old, in terms of sheer desire he was half that. His face was somewhat boyish as well, and were it not for his attire he could well have passed for at least 26. As it was his black suit, polished shoes, white shirt and striped tie were all anybody needed to place his age exactly. Any older and one would have expected to see a neatly folded pocket handkerchief protruding from his breast pocket, much younger and there’d be no jacket and tie. God forbid he be any younger than that, or no doubt he’d have turned up in a hooded top, pulled right up to cast a shadow over his face, and with thin white wires dangling from his ears, bringing to all around the faint sound of the R n B revolution. The worst part would have been the sunglasses though. He would never get over the new kids entering the scene, wearing dark shades like they were lying on a beach in southern California, whilst actually sitting in a folding chair, 4 yards from a urinal, in the middle of rain soaked Dagenham. To him it was as ridiculous as Busted, the Cheeky Girls, and BBC News 24, but alas he lacked the authority to put a stop to any of them. Not being the sort to grumble outwardly, he contented himself with the satisfaction of knowing all of those things were absolutely ridiculous, and that soon the whole world could not fail to realise the evident correctness of his point of view.
With that in his head, his nostrils winced at the stench of stale beer and body odour, mixed with a hint of the Tesco economy air freshener the barman had sprayed two short bursts of about 3 weeks ago, assuring him that his bar would go on smelling as fresh as spring rain for another few months. He passed straight by the bar into the back room, not waiting for Sparks to catch up as he ordered his Jim Beam on the rocks, and then tried desperately to quench his ire as it was explained that he would have to make do with Jack Daniels. As Stats sat down at the table, he moved his hand subtly across his jacket, secretly checking that his money clip was still safely in his inside pocket, and then turned his eyes towards his fellow players. He checked to see if he recognised any of them. Not one; he had been gone too long.
She couldn’t believe it, it just wasn’t possible. How could John have waltzed back into her life after twenty years? And more importantly, how could she still feel her stomach flutter just at the sight of him? It was all so very wrong, so very unfair; she’d spent half a lifetime getting over him, and now without so much as a moment’s warning he’d been sitting there through a cloud of rising cigarette smoke. The sense of shock was overwhelming, but it was dwarfed compared with the feeling of excitement brewing inside her. After any painful break up one secretly dreams that their former partner will go off into the distance, maybe a mile, maybe a thousand, and that when they reach the end of their journey, they’ll realise that something is missing. You’ll wake up one morning and see them standing there with a nervous smile and tears behind their eyes, pouring their heart out, telling you that your love is all that matters in the world, and swearing that they’ll forsake all other things, lest they ever have to do without it again. John wasn’t quite on his knees yet, but he was back, and he wanted to meet her for a drink; that was something.
Then she cried; the large, painful tears that only a scorned and unhappy woman can cry, tears in which are dissolved the broken dreams of a life time. She shoved her face into her pillow and wept, wept as all the heartache this man had caused flooded over her anew, wept for the thought of all the happy years wasted on his account, and wept finally knowing that if it were his desire, she would be powerless to prevent him from doing all of it again. How had a young, confident, strong woman allowed herself to be reduced to this quivering heap, to this image of devoted, unbreakable servitude by this man? She thought back and remembered herself, her hair short, her face stern, an icon of the modern feminism that had looked on at a woman leading her country and demanded that same respect. Beyond the vigils, and the singing, and the marches of the 60s, beyond strength through solidarity, she was a bastion of a new order, the strength and endeavour of the individual, the voice of a decade of enterprise and selfishness in equal measure. Each for their own, and let the weak be damned as they fell by the wayside. She had fallen there long ago and lay there still, bloodied, grazed and helpless.
Yet through all of this, certain aspects of her unmistakeable character had never died. Bent and beaten as she was, the sacrifice of her pride remained an inner, personal disgrace. Never would she allow the world to see how miserable she had become, never would she lie down and accept their insults and their pity. Least of all would she show these things to the man who had been most responsible. Sure her tatty clothes and her low paid, degrading job gave some of it away, but the Lord would strike her down before she surrendered the rest. With that she reined in her emotions, and lifted herself up from the single bed in her tiny flat, and wiped the running mascara from her eyes. She was especially glad she had had the foresight to lie about the time her shift ended, as she had suspected this might happen, and was in no mood to face the former love of her life as a tear-stained wreck.
At last count her current account had in it around £150, not counting the £7.99 that would soon be flowing to HMV in return for the new Kaiser Chiefs album. She’d enjoyed their last, and had liked the new song of theirs she had heard on the radio the other day. She rarely bought CDs but every so often impulse would strike, often rather disappointingly in the case of albums bought on the basis of one track. Sure, once the money was spent she’d make an effort to listen to the album tracks in a vain effort to convince herself she liked them. But, sooner or later, the repeat function on the CD player would be engaged, and the same track would play over and over until that CD were confined once more to the rack, from whence it would be lucky to reappear once in the following year. At any rate she would gladly have handed over the segment of that £150 which did not belong to major music distributors to anybody who could have guaranteed finding her the right outfit for this occasion. She needed something to make up for him seeing her in her work clothes earlier. Nothing too sexy, she was anxious not to be seen dolling herself up for him, but at the same time she was eager to look attractive, she wanted him to look at her and feel sick, genuinely sick, at the thought of what he could have had for all those years.
One dress after another found its way into the reject pile, until all that remained in her usually bulging cupboard was an old jumper that her Gran had knitted her shortly before her death, and she had felt too guilty to throw away, and a leather jacket with obscene shoulder pads. She couldn’t remember if she’d ever worn that with him, the period would be about right, but she was sure she’d remember. After all she had managed to destroy more or less everything else that had been given to her by him, touched him, reminded her of him, or had even been unfortunate enough to have occupied the same room as him. The ‘cleansing’ had been remarkably therapeutic at the time, though she had soon come to realise that the momentary reprieve from her sadness had not quite been worth the significant monetary expense, no matter how cathartic it had been. Still the memory of throwing his cassettes into the fire was still able to bring a smile to her face every once in a while. Particularly the Meatloaf one, it’d been his favourite, and what’s more she had simply detested listening to bat out of hell every time they’d driven anywhere more 40 seconds away. She’d been quite pleased with herself at the time for coming up with the cunning plan to borrow it, and thus remove it from the car. Alas as usual he’d been one step ahead and unwittingly foiled her most devilish of schemes. He’d borrowed his friend’s hi-fi to make a copy and given her the original. Perhaps the one thing worse than listening to Mr Meatloaf promise to be gone when the morning came and yet never actually being gone, was listening to him promise it with random jumps in volume and a distinctly audible crackling sound in the background.
A high pitched yet guttural grunt of frustration escaped her throat as her exacerbation reached fever pitch, and she collapsed back onto her two-seater sofa. Its hard foam interior offered little comfort, a fact which no doubt explained why the catalogue had been able to offer such an ‘astronomical saving’ on this ‘modern, yet minimalist settee with detachable polyester covers’. It was tough to argue the summary had been misleading, as it certainly was minimalist, however the inclusion of a hazard label along the lines of ‘warning, sitting for over one minute may result in chronic numbness of the posterior’ would have been more sporting. On the plus side no matter how uncomfortable it was very useful for flinging oneself onto dramatically in situations such as this, particularly as attempting the same thing onto the bed could well have resulted in a nasty hanger impalement injury.
She eventually settled on a good old basic black, knee length dress. It had been relatively tight when she’d bought it, but a recent bout of illness and excessive cigarette consumption had seen her nutrition suffer just enough to loosen it off a little, which was just what the present situation called for. She topped it off with a small black handbag and a grey sweater tied around her shoulders. One could almost have believed she were as cool and business like as she was trying appear, were it not for the black stockings, the 3 and a half inch heels, and the just slightly over done make up. All in all however she looked good, and she surprised herself when she studied herself in the bathroom mirror and thought the same.
“Call. What you got?”
“Aces and Kings.”
He face turned stern, and a redness came over his cheeks, part anger, part embarrassment. He gripped his two cards, held them tightly between his right thumb and forefinger, and paused for a moment as he entertained the idea of turning them over as justification. His knuckles turned white as his mind whirred, and his face hardened further as he tossed his cards into the muck.
Stats stretched out his hands and dragged in the pot. £260, not bad, that put him about 600 up on the session. Sparks was about even, and the game was around two hours old. Both men were pleased, Stats that he had shown himself able to compete at this level, Sparks simply that his stack was still intact. Some of the men had begun to grow antsy, and the players had agreed to a 15 minute cigarette break. Sparks headed to the bar for another Jack Daniels, complaining about it under his breath even as he purchased it. That sight couldn’t help but make Stats smile a little. The whole concept of complaining about a product and buying it anyway seemed to him both hilarious and ridiculous. After all, the barman knew they had come for the game, the game certainly wouldn’t be moving any time soon, and what’s more Sparks was still spending money behind the bar, so what exactly was his incentive to listen to old man’s complaints? It’s not as though he’d have drank any more if they’d been giving bourbon away by the barrel full; sure his nerves were pretty much shot, but he wasn’t quite brain dead yet. It doesn’t matter how good you are, once the hearts start looking like spades you’re done for; and the real pisser of course is that that is exactly the point at which you start to feel invincible. Sure my seven high will be the best hand, sure he’ll fold to my bluff, no way he can beat a pair of threes. You may as well save your kids’ inheritance, throw yourself out a plane and tell yourself your arms are wings. A wing and a prayer is a pretty apt expression for it in fact, except by that time you’ve probably belted out enough expletives to nullify the prayer part.
“Not too bad ay?”
“I dunno Stats, it’s running okay at the minute, but a couple of these boys are tricky.”
“I know what you mean, the skinny sky in the corner is good, he played you to perfection.”
“It was too risky, I’m convinced he had the ace.”
“And I’m convinced he didn’t.”
“Well what makes you so fucking sure?!” he bellowed through his crimson cheeks, seething at the audacity. A few of the men glanced in their direction, and Stats waited for their stare to pass before recommencing. Sparks too a long sip, and held the bourbon in the back of his throat a moment, letting it burn as penance for the outburst it had just allowed to escape.
“For Christ’s sake keep it down. I’m sure for two reasons, the first being that he bet at you on the turn, and then bet too much on the river, that play was begging for a fold.”
“Yeah well maybe he’s just good enough to make a play like that.”
“Maybe but I doubt it, especially as the ace had been sat in my hand before finding it’s way to the bottom of the fold pile before the flop.”
Sparks took another drink, his cheeks felt hot, his head heart, his back ached, and he was in no mood to be made a fool of. Twenty years ago he’d have called that bet, he’d have called it flat, called it cold. Every bone in his body had screamed at him to call, but whether it was the arthritis that has begun to develop in his right hand, or the steel in his opponent’s eyes, or just the shattered confidence of a man who’s lived too much, he couldn’t even touch the chips, let alone move them into the middle. Every time he sat down at the table he felt it now, the fear. It wasn’t the money, he’d won and lost enough to last ten lifetimes. If it had been about the money he’d have thrown himself into the Thames long ago. No, money was replaceable, pictures with silhouettes of monarchs, not as they were, but how they had been, when they were young and strong. Money could be printed, ink could forge it, fire could burn it and hands could tear it. More importantly, once it was lost it could be regained. That was not true of respect; once that was lost, rarely would it ever be restored. He saw his reflection in the bottom of the now mostly empty glass, and despised the decrepit stranger that stared back at him. To hell with it! If was going to lose, he was going to lose, but he was going to do it with some balls. He wouldn’t be the doddering old fool, the joke of the table, the man to be pushed around, let them call his bets for a change, let them look in his eyes and ask themselves if they were really that sure.
Thoughts of this kind take hours to express, but only moments to think. The buzzing, worn out halogen light flickered once, and they were complete. Stats saw it, he saw the body language, the sudden rise in posture, the shoulders slung back, and the fierce unblinking stare. He saw it, and knew instantly what was to come, and he made his way back to the table silently.
The game continued another hour and a half. Sparks was a madman. He barely folded a hand, and for a while he held the table in his palm. They didn’t quite know what to make of it, every time he reached for chips and the corners of his mouth turned up into a little smile the table was stunned. Was it really possible that he had changed that much, had he been suckering them all along? These thoughts occurred to them, but in the face of what they had seen it simply seemed so much more probable that he’d hit a lucky streak, that the cards were rolling for him. In short, nobody quite thought the old man had it in him.
Playing for fifty quid in the backroom of the Pig and Fiddle maybe he’d have got away with it like that all night, but not here. These guys weren’t world champions, but they were no mugs either. Suddenly they called him a little more, made him shown down a few more bluffs. But it was ok, if he was anything, Sparks was an experienced player, he knew this would come, and at the right moment, and about 3 grand up, he eased back and began to tighten up his play.
It was coming up to two o’clock in the morning, and it was announced that after 5 more hands the game would end. Hollywood likes to show gamblers playing through the night, 24, 36, 48 hours at a stretch. Yes, these games did happen, in grand casinos with complementary drinks and dress codes, for the most part they did not happen in grubby bars in London suburbs, with drunks shouting and singing in the alley outside. The simple truth was that it was only Stats and Sparks for whom this game held any special significance. For the rest it was a pretty standard Wednesday night, business as usual. So it began to get late, eyes lids began to get a little heavier, and the game started to wind down.
Sparks had been quiet for a little while, and looked down at his cards to see ten, seven of diamonds, by all accounts a pretty trashy hand. The action folded around to him in the small blind, leaving just himself and a young, cleanly shaven chap by the name of Dan, whose shades rested awkwardly high up on his nose. Sparks shared Stat’s hatred of sun glasses at the poker table, agreeing that they were best suited for a sun soaked Laguna Beach. In addition he wore a grey beanie cap, which just failed to conceal the medium length red hair beneath. A Laguna Beach native may perhaps have described it as more of a strawberry blonde; to Sparks it was red, making its owner a full blown member of the ginger pubes brigade. Anyway, pubic hair aside, it was his big blind, a not insignificant £25, and Sparks wanted it. He reached for his chips and raised to £100. With barely a second’s thought his Wallacesque adversary retrieved his £25 chip from the middle, replacing it with three £100 chips. Sparks took equally little time in throwing in another two of his own. He’d watched this guy for most of the night, and was pretty confident that had he run into a genuine monster, then he’d have simply called, rather than risk scaring Sparks off with a re-raise. The flop came down, three and nine of clubs, queen of spades. The red ranger paused for a moment and checked, Sparks looked down at his queen-ten high, and sent out a bet of £500. Call. The turn was equally unhelpful, the three of hearts. Dan checked again. Sparks was relatively assured in his assessment that Dan had something, but not much, and he bet again, another £500. There was a pause, no more than four or five seconds, but long enough to be noticeable, particularly with the speed at which the rest of the hand had been played. Dan learnt back, shifted his chips in his fingers, and pushed £1500 into the pot.
Sparks was surprised, and somewhat impressed by his opponent’s play. He was sure the guy didn’t have much, and that with the right bet he could make him fold. He had let fear compromise his read once already that night, and he was not about to do it again. He sized up what was left of his chips, about £2100, not including the extra £1000 he would already have to call. He manoeuvred the piles of chips delicately, until they formed a triangle facing his opponent. He caressed the two back corners with his thumbs, feeling the slight coolness of the plastic. Then he rocked forward slightly on his chair, drawing in his breath as he did so, and pushed the whole lot into the middle. The chips were heavy, but they slid effortlessly across the felt, never deviating from their formation, like a flock of geese gliding on the warm, rising air overhead. It was beautiful in its way, and Sparks was content.
So much so, that when he heard the word ‘call’ fly back at him from across the table, it took a moment before he was awakened from his euphoria. Yet by the time his opponent turned over his cards to reveal a measly pair of 2s, he was firmly grounded back in the real world, and he felt nothing. He was beyond shock, beyond the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, beyond cold, harrowing sweat, he was simply numb. That was it. In that one moment forty five years came to end, two generations fused into one era silently passed away, and carried the greater part of his identity with them. Stats would never forget the way he looked at that moment, a dead soul inside a living carcass, a flesh clad phantom. The whole room felt it, and lapsed into a respectful silence. For Sparks, it was all over. Sure every poker player made mistakes, misread the signals, bet too much, bet too little, but it had never even occurred to him that his read would be right, and yet his opponent would call anyway. As he looked into the reflecting lenses of his opponent’s sunglasses he knew that if he were to sit down with this guy, hardly a great of the game, a hundred times, that he would lucky to beat him twice. He was finished.
It scarcely mattered that when the river card was turned over it revealed the ten of spades, and with it gave Sparks the hand, and a little under £9000. Even Dan, who felt desperately aggrieved to say the least, was unable to follow through his normal routine of jumping out of his chair and berating the play of his opponent, his luck, God and occasionally the laws of quantum physics. Stats pushed the pot towards Sparks, and the next hand was dealt without a word being said.
The final two hands were half hearted affairs after that, both failing even to reach the flop, and once the chips were cashed in, Sparks and Stats left the building, and said nothing to each other for the rest of the evening. This was worse than Stats had expected. He had expected Sparks to make a mistake. Poker was not like boxing or football where passion and an inspirational sound track could be converted into victory, quite the opposite. Poker was a game of patience and timing, and for all the determination he had seen in Sparks, in poker terms that simply boiled down to a determination to lose. So he had expected to see Sparks throw his money away on a Hail Mary bluff; what he hadn’t expected was for Sparks to play as well as he had done. The moment he had seen Sparks return from the bar he had assumed that he would see the old fella leave the place at the end of the night broke, angry and yet a little relieved. In the end his good play had been his downfall, he had brought his best game and been beaten, and that was more crushing for a man already low on confidence than any monetary loss. He knew that feeling better than most, and seeing it in Sparks gave him a chill like he had never felt in his life. He knew that there would be no relief for Sparks, not after a beating like that. When they got back to the hotel Sparks said simply that he was tired, and wished to go to bed. It was the first time Stats had ever seen him hit the sack without even looking at his Jim Beam.