Nigel Parker had never been a clubbable man. He was always a little awkward, ill at ease, never quite one of the crowd. He remembered his school days, a painful and traumatic time when he’d been bullied by boys and mocked by tittering girls. It didn’t help that Nigel was ginger and his awkwardness followed him through university into adult life. But he did have distinctive likes and dislikes, and principal amongst these had been eating curry, walking in the countryside and drinking real ale.
Every Sunday Nigel met his best friend Gary who worked in the same God awful office where Nigel had toiled for thirty years. Their routine was always the same. At 12.30 they’d convene at the same table at their favourite curry house after which they’d choose a country walk which culminated in a pub where they’d drink four foaming pints of real ale. The Islamabad curry house had seemingly been there forever. Nigel loved the Formica tables, brusque service and knock down prices and every Sunday the waiter would bring the menu to their table. But it was an academic affair because every Sunday Nigel Parker ordered the same thing. “Actually,” Nigel would say as the waiter hovered with his notepad and pen, “I’m minded to have two rotis instead of chapattis if that’s alright?” It was always alright but Nigel’s last minute roti request always brought a laissez faire buccaneer unpredictability to their Sunday lunchtime routine.
He’d never liked the name. Along with being tall and ginger it was another reason he’d been bullied at school and as a child he’d cursed his mother for christening him with that name. But there it was. At the age of fifty three Nigel Parker had finally learnt to deal with the underwhelming cards that life had cruelly dealt him.
“Where would you like to go?” Gary asked one Sunday as they perused the screen in the bus station.
“I’m minded,” said Nigel looking up, “to take the seventy eight and get off at Queensbury Heights.” And yet. Something strange happened on this particular Sunday because as the bus approached their usual stop for some unexplained reason Nigel Parker made a surprising executive decision.
“Are we getting off?” asked Gary as their stop came into view.
“I’m minded,” said Nigel remaining firmly in his seat, “to get off at Hole Bottom instead.”
Gary was astonished. They’d never commenced a walk at Hole Bottom. “We can take that path that leads down, we might even find a new pub.” Gary felt a tingle of excitement, even exhilaration, at Nigel’s revolutionary suggestion.
“Oh, yes,” replied Gary, “if you think we might find a pub that sells real ale, why not?” True, they were hardly Livingstone and Stanley cutting a swathe through the African bush but a walk starting at Hole Bottom was daring stuff indeed.
When they got off the bus the expanse of Hole Bottom lay before them. Hills, villages, distant roads upon which they could see tiny, moving vehicles. Hole Bottom itself could only be reached down a long cobbled road which before the advent of the car was a major artery linking two isolated communities. Now it was a grubby unadopted path abandoned by two adjoining municipalities. Fly tippers had made random jettisons of black plastic bags and defunct microwaves rusted behind nettle protruding bushes. Yet soon Nigel’s gamble paid off and before they knew it they were on a fine country path. Then, after an hour or so, they arrived at a pub they’d never been in before. The beer was excellent. A thick creamy head sat triumphantly atop a amorphous body of copper coloured ale. As they drank layers of foam clung to the glass carbon dating each delicious sip. It was even served in its own glass. Its own glass.
They decided to push on and as more glorious countryside unfurled before them they continued for another couple of hours. And then they saw it. A real ale pub they’d never been in before. ‘Cask conditioned, hand pulled ales’ was the first thing Nigel noticed. ‘Free house’ said another sign indicating the landlord could buy whichever ale he wanted on the open market. Nigel liked that. Nigel liked that a lot and when they entered there were eight, yes, eight hand-pulled ales on offer. Nigel now felt like Walter Raleigh going up his own personal Orinoco. But unlike the doomed knight of the realm Nigel Parker was not going to return empty handed. No, Nigel Parker was going to taste some of the finest, hoppiest, creamy headed cask conditioned ales available on the open market. If there was a God, Nigel Parker concluded, he had truly answered his prayers.
The pub was heaving and when they looked into the beer garden they realised every table had been taken apart from one at the back. They quickly occupied it. Tattoos were prevalent on the large, working class men assembled by the main door. Many of their womenfolk had tattoos too and beer was being consumed on an industrial scale. They sat down and surveyed their freshly pulled pints. It looked tip top. A good creamy head, cool but not too cool, cask conditioned, golden in appearance.
“Do you want a sausage from the barbecue?” a girl now asked pointing to a sizzling grill surrounded by beer bellied men. “It’s free.”
Gary looked imploringly at Nigel. In fact Nigel Parker felt surprisingly hungry, the curry long digested, the beer nicely tweaking his appetite. Yet, as he always did in situations where he really wanted something, Nigel Parker instinctively said no. Gary, however, was in a different mood. “Yes, please,” said Gary. Nigel looked shocked, almost angry, but Gary stood his ground.
“Do you want any sauces?” asked the girl.
“What have you got?” asked Gary
“Tomato, brown or mayonnaise,” she replied.
Gary considered his options. Brown would be good, but he only ever had brown sauce for breakfast. Mayonnaise sounded like an odd option for a sausage but tomato sauce… now the girl was talking.
“I’ll have tomato sauce, please.”
Much to Nigel’s chagrin the girl hadn’t finished. “Do you want onions?” she now added pointing to a man in a white apron tossing sizzling onions.
“Oh, yes please,” replied Gary, revelling in the dizzying freedom of this unorthodox Sunday afternoon. “Tomato sauce and onions would be fantastic.”
The girl now turned to Nigel. “Are you sure you don’t want a sausage?” she asked.
There was an awkward pause. In fact Nigel’s stomach gave an involuntary rumble just thinking about a sausage smothered with fried onions and ketchup. But pride, as they say, comes before a fall and Nigel Parker was a very proud man indeed. To say yes now would give Gary the impression that from now on all their Sunday afternoons would be as spontaneous and unpredictable. “No,” said Nigel performing a downward cutting motion with his hand. “I do not want a free sausage.”
The girl shook her head and left.
The beer got better and better and they could only marvel at its stunning consistency. Then the sausage arrived. It was delicious. Not a bread filled banger from a supermarket chain but a locally sourced pork beauty from a nearby farm shop. Oh, how Nigel Parker could have devoured that sausage that day, oh how he could have savoured every juicy mouthful. Yet by saying no he was repeating an unwelcome pattern in his life. Why did he say no to the things he really wanted? Why did he say no to the nice Asian girl at work who asked him out for a date? Why did he say no to the offer of promotion he’d always secretly wanted? Nigel Parker always said no to things that could have changed his life for the better as if he undergoing divine punishment for sins committed in a previous life. But one thing was for sure. Watching Gary devour that flavour-bursting beauty was divine punishment indeed.
“Do you want to buy a ticket?” The girl had reappeared again, this time with a batch of raffle tickets in her hand. “It’s for a card game we play every Sunday?”
Again Nigel performed a downward cutting motion with his hand. Gary, however, was much more open to the idea.
“How much are they?” asked Gary bringing Nigel’s jerking hand to an abrupt halt.
“A pound,” replied the girl.
“I’ll have one,” Gary shot back.
“Write your name on the back,” said the girl.
“OK,” replied Gary, quickly taking a biro from her hand.
The girl again turned to Nigel. “Do you want one?” she asked.
Gary gave Nigel an imploring look. The girl gave Nigel an imploring look too and after a period of excruciating hesitation Nigel Parker laboriously reached into his pocket and produced a one pound coin. The die had been cast. This was going to be unlike any other Sunday they’d had before.
Beer continued to flow and there was an air of boisterous profanity as the large men unwound before the start of the working week. Soon Nigel noticed a crude wooden structure being erected upon which a series of oversized playing cards were placed in line. He recognised the structure from an eighties television show hosted by Bruce Forsyth; someone Nigel had always found deeply irritating.
“And now,” said the girl slipping effortlessly from hot dog waitress to quiz show host, “as it’s Sunday afternoon, it’s time to play your cards right!!”
Whoops of joy went up from the inebriated men as their womenfolk concentrated closely on their tickets.
“As you know,” said the girl dangling a cotton swag bag in the air, “I will ask someone to select a ticket from this bag and whoever’s ticket is chosen will be invited up to play for a roll over jackpot of one hundred and seventy pounds!”
To more whoops of joy the girl handed the bag to a dog lover at the front who picked a ticket out. The noise of the crowd died down.
“And the number is… forty three.” She slowly turned over the ticket. “Nigel Parker, come on down!”
Nigel Parker had won.
Nigel slowly went to the front and from his privileged position he surveyed the audience. These were the type of men who’d bullied him at school, the types of men who’d hounded him in pubs until he was nearly thirty. These were the types of men who, for whatever reason, had never quite liked the cut of Nigel’s jib.
“Do you understand the rules? For each card I turn over you have to say whether the next card will be higher or lower.” She now thrust an unwanted microphone into Nigel’s hand and turned over a card.
“It’s a six of clubs!” shouted the girl. Shouts of higher and lower reverberated around the beer garden as Nigel pondered his response.
“Higher,” said Nigel in a trembling voice.
She turned over the card. “It’s a Queen of hearts!!”
And so it continued and before Nigel knew it he’d sailed from the fourth row to the second as more and more inebriated men emerged from the cavernous interior of the pub.
“It’s a fix!” shouted one large man with a tattoo of a snake swallowing a legion of troops emblazoned across his chest.
“Fucking hell,” shouted another, “you turn up first time and win. You lucky bastard!”
The more Nigel Parker surveyed the cursing men the more he wanted to escape. The more he looked at their pinched, resentful faces the more he wanted to leave. He knew he should never have got off at Hole Bottom. He knew he should never have let Gary eat that sausage. He knew buying that raffle ticket was all a silly, stupid, crazy idea. He knew. And what he knew the most was that he now wanted out. That was it. Nigel Parker was going to deliberately lose the game.
But then he heard the word.
“I hope ginge has a special pocket to hide his winnings when he leave’s t’pub ‘cos he’ll need it.”
They had noticed he was ginger.
As he looked at the baying crowd he thought back to his youth. He thought about the insults, the threats, the sense of inadequacy. These men had never liked Nigel, never liked his face, never liked his opinions, never liked his ginger hair. Yet when he heard that word for some reason he knew this time would be different, for when he heard that word Nigel Parker decided he was going to stand up.
And then he felt it.
An odd surge of energy began to pulse through his body, a glowing energy starting in his feet, continuing up his legs and expanding vibrantly into his brain. He was on his last card. The garden was silent. The cursing men looked on. For the first time in his life Nigel Parker was going to be a winner.
Mick O’Brien returned to his native City of Bradford, England after fifteen years living and working in Spain and France. He has tried a huge variety of jobs and often draws on his working experiences as inspiration for his short stories. A lover of the countryside, good beer and good conversation he’s currently working on his book ‘adventures of a smartphone refusenik’ which takes a humorous look at his trip through the Balkans without the aide of technology.
© 2020, Mick O’Brien
One comment on “Play Your Cards Right, by Mick O’Brien”
enjoyed that look foreword to reading more