The green, green grass of home is one of my weekly flash fiction stories. This week I'm dedicating it to my friend Mr D in celebration of his 40th.
Smoke fills the air, thick and choking but there isn’t a cough to be heard, only concentrated silence. All eyes focus on the table. Jason thinks it looks like grass, smooth as the lawns back home where he and Tara used to run when running was all that mattered. There is no room to run here; there is just the green of this table and the game. He grips the cards in his hand tighter. Ned eyes up the baize, all natty and picked, it is old this table, the green faded in places and speckled with tiny burns where someone’s cigarette has slipped. How many games, he wonders, have been played out across this table top? Too many; too many lives held in the balance of a deck of cards. A small sigh seeps out, a slow puncture, discreet but ultimately destructive. Henry saw the green and thought of the old pound notes. He misses them, always felt like you had more in your pocket when it was stuffed with notes. These silly coins rattle and jangle around like small change; you could have twenty quid in there and not know it. There is a damn sight more than twenty up for grabs tonight, thank god. The notes sit there in a pile, a mini Everest of riches just waiting for the right person. Henry needs that mountain, or rather Lizzie needs it and he needs Lizzie which really amounts to the same thing. His bum shifts in the chair inching that bit closer to the prize.
All three men are pitting themselves against fifty two pieces of card with little more than a will to win. To lose means to lose the lot. Not just the cash but hope, a future and in Jason’s case his life. Maybe he was foolish to borrow like that. Everyone knows that Mr Ed is not to be messed with but Jason figured he’ll win big, pay him off and head home before anything else hits the fan. He hadn’t banked on the cards refusing to cooperate. His eyes flick down, just for a second; this wasn’t a tell or anything, just checking the numbers. A small smile edges round his lips which he hopes gives the signal that all is good; in fact all is not good and he might just laugh and never stop if he lets that smile get any bigger. He has nothing in his hand, sweating fingers grip numbers that do not add up. Not even a pair. This is the last game; there is nothing left to put down. Every player has put their entire stake into the pot and it comes down to these three with nothing more to gamble and everything to lose. Jason chews the tip of his tongue, a secret gesture of despair while his eyes soak up the table top and wish for home.
Henry lights another cigarette off the butt of the last. His cards lay before him, coy faces hidden like expert strippers just waiting for the moment of the big reveal. A fug of smoke bellows out from his soggy lips, joining the cloud above, a ghostly spectator with no interest in the game. He blows out another long plume, enjoying its dance and whirl into space, Henry remembers when he could move like that, lighter than air and twice as shifty. His old bones are not what they used to be but he still has a few moves left.
“Beer?” Ned asks only because he has drained his and another is essential. Like Henry his cards are face down. Ned is afraid to look at them; his eyes bounce around the table and refuse to settle on the red and white backs of the five playing cards. Weren’t little Ned’s socks red and white stripes today? Ned blinks away the thought of little Ned’s face if he tells him they have to move house again. He waves to the hostess who ambles over and plonks three beers down by the men’s elbows, a little amber liquid slopping onto the baize turning the green moist and dark. Apart from the dealer there are no other people in the room; this isn’t the sort of place you linger once luck has deserted you.
Condensation gathers on the sides of the glasses, slipping and sliding down in trickles; sweat does the same on Ned’s forehead. Slowly, as if the speed with which he moves will determine the outcome he turns the cards over one by one. Thumb and forefinger grasp the bottom right corner each time, lifting it gingerly as if the card is harbouring a deadly spider. And flip, the card is turned. There is no need to mask his reaction; this is for all to see. Henry almost drools as each card shows its face, two down and three to go. Ned pauses, guzzles down the beer fast and deep. It cools the back of his tight throat and without asking the hostess comes over with three more. Jason downs his in a fat greedy gulp making his throat husky with the sheer volume tumbling down into his blood stream.
“Whisky please or bourbon if you have it.” It doesn’t matter anymore, he kicks back in his chair, limbs loose in defeat. Those two cards are a pair there in front of Ned. The ratty green table will be the last green he sees; Mr Ed owns this place he won’t be getting out the door, never mind back home. He sets free a careering wild horse of a laugh, loud and careless, liberated by the total lack of options available.
“Turn them.” Henry urges. He glances at Jason and offers a short nod, condolence condensed into a gesture; any one of them could be in his shoes. Ned leans back for a second, balancing the chair on two wobbly legs, weighing up the situation. Then he turns the third card. Three of a kind. An inexperienced player might get excited but Ned knows fortune does not smile until she’s damn ready and only when every card is face up from every player will the game be over. Quickly, he flips the remaining cards. Nothing. Three of a kind is as good as it gets. His gaze swivels in Henry’s direction but Henry is already on his feet and heading out the door, his cards upturned and discarded.