I make my way back to the bar, head oddly empty yet under pressure. I feel the need to keep the news out of it for a while. On the way, I’m cornered by Ray. He has another whiskey for me. It’s really not what I want, but I don’t want to cause a fuss. It’s not that I don’t like alcohol but it always seems like it means a lot to them and I don’t know why. I don’t like the way they watch me drink, or the way they seem so pleased about it when I finish one, like it’s a big achievement, like I’m in their club suddenly. Ray takes me back to their table and sits me down. Solly smiles indulgently at me and cocks his head, dealing me the cards. ‘So now you know’ he says.
‘You’ll be fine’ says Ray, and he nudges me and points at the shot glass and winks at me. Brenda whispers to Solly and points at me with her eyes. ‘Do you want something to go with that?’ he asks, nodding at my glass. I feel increasingly on edge. ‘No, it’s fine’ I say quickly. I don’t much like whiskey, but I can’t stand it watered down. They seem to be waiting for something more from me. I try to relax. I look around.
The lounge is a low, broad room with portholes along both sides. It’s dark with stained old wood and a threadbare, blood coloured carpet. There’s a gentle swell. Seasickness has never been a problem for me (although I’ll always feel like throwing up on a bus if I try to read). ‘Do you feel sick love?’ asks Brenda in a soft motherly voice. Part of me wants to fall against her and sob, but that makeup is just too off-putting. I say I’m ok thanks and look at what they’re doing. Ray tells me it’s my turn. I turn my cards over.
‘What are you playing?’ I say. No one answers. Ray raises his eyebrows and huffs. It’s poker apparently, Brenda informs me, implying that it should have been obvious. So they look at me, expectantly.
‘Go on then’ says Harry.
‘I don’t know the...er...how to...’ I say, ashamed.
‘Well what can you play?’ says Ray finally. I can’t answer. I don’t play card games really.
‘Pontoon?’ I say with sudden inspiration. Harry looks like I’m beneath contempt but Ray smiles at me indulgently and winks at Solly. Brenda pats my knee.
I get through a few hands. I can concentrate for the first couple and I do ok, but then my mind wanders. Harry sneers contemptuously when I have to be reminded it’s my turn for a second time. He’s a big bloke, very red around the nose, and his little blue eyes twinkle like crushed marbles. The other woman, Liz is leaning on him, sharing his cigarettes, whispering things in his ear in a floppy sort of way. He just shrugs or ignores her. Her dress is too loose. I can see too much of her chest, which is bony and yellowish but hard to ignore. I look away, but Ray has noticed my reaction and winks again, as if it must be some sort of big treat for me. I concentrate on my cards.
‘So, Gabe...’ says Ray suddenly, rearranging his hand ‘did you have a girlfriend, you know, back... in life?’
I look at my cards. ‘No’ I say. My face is burning up suddenly.
‘Playing the field huh? Best way, chap your age, best not to tie yourself down too soon eh Sol?’ Solly smiles suggestively at his cards.
‘Maybe he doesn’t like girls’ says Brenda, smiling soppily at me again and pats my knee again. Harry laughs dirtily and lays his cards down.
‘Course he likes girls’ says Ray conspiratorially. ‘Don’t pay any attention son’ and he winks at me meaningfully. ‘Plenty of time’ he adds. I have no idea what he’s on about but I smile back.
‘Better off single, ain’t he girl...’ says Harry to Liz, elbowing her in the ribs. She smiles girlishly at me and then looks shyly down at her hands. The effect is a bit weird on a woman her age, and makes me uncomfortable.
‘Still,’ he continues, taking a drink, ‘we’ve done alright, haven’t we girl. Done rather nicely...’ he muses. ‘Another hand gents?’ We all nod. He begins to deal. ‘Left them all well provided for... Becky and the littl’uns...’ Liz’s eyes quite suddenly brim with tears and she gives Harry a little punch in the ribs. His response is shocking and explosive and ends in her walking, as fast as she can in those shoes, holding back her tears, to the bathroom. Ray looks cheerfully around at the room to see the reaction ‘Phew’ he says, loudly, but very few people seem to be looking at us. He seems vaguely disappointed. When Liz gets back Harry sends her up to the bar with a loud smack on the arse. ‘She’s a good girl really’ he says. Ray smiles at him.
‘Would you believe it?’ says Harry to me loudly, unexpectedly putting his head close to mine, still rearranging his hand ‘Been together twenty five years. Who’d have believed we’d be together in the afterlife as well. Road accident it was, A272 eastbound, just outside Hayward’s Heath, fucking moron in a van not looking where he was going, pulled right out in front of me, wham!’ he smacks his hands together loudly in my ear. ‘Me and Liz all over the shop. Right bloody mess, wasn’t it my love?’ he smiles up at her as she arrives with the drinks. She smiles, flinching like she expects a slap. ‘Stupid cow’ he mutters as she goes back to the bar for the rest. ‘Why didn’t you bring a tray?’ he yells after her. ‘Til death do us part...’ I hear him mutter as he lays a couple of cards on the table. I’ve gained another whiskey and I’ve hardly touched the first. ‘Come on lad, you’ve got a bit of catching up to do’ says Solly pointing at them. I take another sip, but he looks at me doubtfully. ‘Leave the lad alone’ says Brenda. I really want to go. I want to go up on deck, get some air, maybe have a bath, maybe go to bed. It’s getting dark outside. Solly reminds me it’s my go again. I force myself to look at the cards. I lay my hand and am beaten again. They act like I’m not very bright but I just feel tired.
‘What do you - sorry - did you drive?’ continues Harry.
‘Nothing’ I say under my breath. I hadn’t taken my test, hadn’t even taken any lessons. I can’t tell them that.
‘He’s probably a bit young yet’ says Solly
‘Got my first car at sixteen’ says Harry. He sings something about a man not being a man if he’s got a ticket in his hand and raises an eyebrow meaningfully. ‘Know what I mean?’ I smile weakly. I can think of several things he might mean and they all make me uncomfortable.
‘Leave him alone’ says Brenda. ‘He’s young. Don’t know what you do want yet, do you love.’
‘Too late now then isn’t it’ says Solly.
‘It’s never too late’ she says and her hand grips my thigh and she winks at me.
I sit for as long as I can stand it then go to stand up. ‘I’m going to have to go, I don’t feel well’ I say, as casually as possible.
‘Don’t forget your drinks’ says Ray.
‘No, mustn’t forget that’ says Solly. I down one and take the other with me. Brenda insists on gripping my hand and giving me a ‘good night kiss’. She kisses me on the lips, producing delighted jeers from all, and then lets me go. I turn, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and head for the stairs.
Up on the deck the wind is screaming in the ropes, and the wave tops are edged with bitter white crests. I head for the prow and look around. I see a woman, maybe Brenda, appear at the head of the stairway, gathering her cardigan around her for warmth, but I stay out of sight and I see her shudder and go back down. White birds roll and soar in the air above. All I can hear is wind and waves and I walk on. To my surprise I notice a couple of the loungers are occupied. A lady looks up at me. I can only see her eyes and nose and a wisp of grey hair in the opening in the waterproof cocoon she is in, but she is beaming up at me. She looks back out to sea. ‘Good evening’ I say loudly over the storm. Three fingers appear by her nose and wriggle happily at me. I’m tempted to bring my sleeping bag up and join her but I need a proper bed tonight. I wave and head back down, carefully avoiding being seen from the bar.
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