Earlier in the evening I had been absolutely, positively, no room for quibbling, drunk. Not wasted, not merry, but, never-the-less definitely, drunk. I’d gone beyond being a bit loud, beyond talking a little too fast, and through to the next stage, which for me meant discussing philosophy.
The excuse for this inebriation was that it was the blue period after Christmas, when everything feels a little flat. Christmas and New Year’s parties are a distant memory; the excitement of the season has passed, resolutions have been made (and broken) and there is nothing now to look forward to until Valentine’s (or the cheap chocolate on the day after). For some years my friends and I have held a fancy-dress competition party at the end of January to fill this void and to give us something to look forward to. We’d met at a bar, gone for dinner, moved onto another bar – and then somehow lost them in the next move. I’d made a rather desultory search, and this being New York in January, and bitterly cold, I’d given up quite quickly and ducked into an Irish pub that I’d not seen before.
The last few months had been busy and I’d decided that whilst I would take it as seriously as ever, I would go low-key, minimalist if you will, albeit meticulously researched. I’d ended up dressed as an officer in the merchant navy circa 1900, based on the fact that I’d found an officer’s hat, by chance, in a flea-market.
I shrugged off my pea-coat and laid it across the back of a high backed bar-stool, and hopped up on the next one. The bar was pretty empty.
“Guinness, please.” I looked at the bottles on the wall behind the barman, and on a whim, “Oh, and a chaser of Lamb’s”. I didn’t normal drink either chasers or rum, but the Navy proof spirit seemed fitting somehow, and I hoped it would warm me up.
And now it was later, much later. And, somehow, I’d bet my immortal soul, somewhere along the way. And now, I was very, very sober. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole thing – did I really have a soul? Could it be traded via an IOU? But I’d gotten more and more uncomfortable as the play had gone on, that little piece of paper apparently worth a significant amount to everyone round the table. It had gone back and forth numerous times, and now it was in the pot of the final hand, with a pile of doubloons and sovereigns and Double Eagles and gems and who knew what else. My lips were dry; my mouth was dry. In front of me, arranged neatly, were my hole card, the eights of spades and clubs and the aces of the same suits – two pairs, an average sort of hand. Some would even say a weak hand – there are 858 distinct ways of making two pairs, that is to say, if you prefer, odds of 20:1. And yet part of my hind-brain was clamouring for attention, telling me to beware, telling me to look at the cards more closely. Except it was me against the malevolent eyes glowering at me from across the table: everyone else had folded and now I was all-in, and so was he. I couldn’t believe that the stakes were so high on such an apparently open game as five stud poker.
Pretty much everyone round the room looked slightly odd in the way that they dressed: some little tell, which made me think that they didn’t really belong to the 21st Century. Most of them were pretty jovial. One or two were serious, but friendly. But the man across the table from me had a thin, ascetic, face: sunken eyes, which were red-rimmed, and hollow cheeks gave him the look of fanatic. His suit was old fashioned in the extreme, the shirt – what was not covered up by a beard that was long and wiry – was rather dirty. Involuntarily, my gaze kept returning to the eyes: everytime I looked I began to sweat. The eyes were dark and mesmeric and yet my fancy was that I could see the fires of hell dancing in their depths.
My opponent had the beginnings of a flush – the 5,6,7,8 of diamonds. The 4 or 9 would sink me, and any other diamond would make things unbearably uncomfortable. I had called, and he flipped over his hole card…a sigh rippled round the small, fug-filled room: the ace of diamonds. There was a part of me that wanted to just flip my card over, like I was pulling off a band-aid. There was a part of me that wanted to make some kind of cool quip. There was a part of me that knew that my throat was too dry, that I would cough like my larynx was filled with cotton wool. There was a part of me that knew that come what may, I needed to make this theatrical.
I could swear that there were flames dancing in those black eyes staring at me across the table, but perhaps it was just some strange effect from the darkness of the eyes surrounded by the red eyelids. As though I were trying to stare down some dangerous animal, I kept my gaze fixed on the face opposite. Without looking down I reached out, put my hand over the card, slid it towards me with my fingers flat, pressed to the table. In all this time, there had been no word spoken by myself, my opponent, nor anyone else. Slowly, oh so slowly, I turned the card over with the minimum possible movement of my hand; my arm appeared not to move at all. I still didn’t look down. The room exploded in cheers, my back being slapped. The eyes across from me flinched first and looked. A snarl formed on the lips and he looked as if he would fling the table in my face. He got up, violently flinging the chair backwards and it tipped over as he barged out of the door noisily, curses and imprecations in harsh Russian sizzling the air. I finally looked down. The ace of hearts. A full house, and I had beaten his flush. There were only three cards that I could have turned up to win this game, and somehow, I felt I had done it in style.
The next few minutes passed in a blur. Someone commented on the time.
I suddenly realised that the man standing next to me, whom I’d been thinking of as my host, had been my challenger to brief drinking game in the bar, and had inveigled me into this backroom. His fancy dress, was more involved than mine, but still with a nautical theme: he was dressed in the finery of an 18th Century Captain. He placed the IOU for my soul in my hand and pulled out a fancy lighter, flicking it open and lighting it in one movement. He lit the slip of paper, muttering something about “can’t be too careful”, and then guided my hand to an ashtray.
I wasn’t quite sure of the etiquette here, but I felt the need to earn some good will – everyone seemed pleased that I beaten the evil looking man, but the sense of strangeness rolled back over me. I called for a round of drinks, paid off the evening’s tab for the whole room from my winnings. One chap, rather swarthy, and with a similar appearance to my erstwhile opponent had been gazing at a certain silver coin all evening. In all other aspects he had been a friendly soul, and there was certainly nothing sinister in his eyes, but his entire play had been around the potential to win this one specific coin. Whilst no numismatist, I was reasonably confident that the coin had an inherent value far beyond the face, and this coin was probably the least of the coins that I was struggling to pack away in my pockets. On a whim, I slid the silver coin over to the strange man He beamed, and winked as he placed the coin into a leather pouch. Those who had observed the exchange politely acknowledged the action, and I felt that I had earned goodwill of inestimable worth.
The Captain linked arms with me and pulled out a mobile phone, which seemed completely anachronistic.
“We’d best get you home, before you get into more trouble” he said, and you could almost hear the twinkle in his voice. He thumbed open an app on his phone: the way I felt, the movement of his thumb over the screen took on cabalistic significance, but I was pretty sure that really, he was just calling an Uber. We stepped out into the street. By this point, I felt that nothing could surprise me, but I was wrong. Around the corner came a horse drawn coach, lamps flickering wildly on the sides as the driver pulled up sharply crying “Boston by dawn!”. I must have looked panicked, because my new friend said “It’s alright, he can still make Boston after he drops us off”.
“Where would you like to be taken?” he asked kindly, as he opened the door into the coach and helped me up. I stuttered out my address, and my friend, said “Ah! Good!”, and then he repeated it to the driver, adding “And take us via the Brooklyn Bridge, would you, Peter?”
The Brooklyn Bridge was a little out of my way, and there would be very little worth seeing at this time of ni-…the morning. Sunrise was still hours off and, whilst New York is never completely silent, we were certainly in the quietest part of the night. The horses picked up speed. I blinked, or thought I did: in reality I must have dozed for a few minutes, because as I opened my eyes, we were swaying onto the Brooklyn Bridge. We couldn’t have made a 15 minute taxi-journey in the blink of an eye…could we?
The coach drew up on the bridge, and the Captain got out. “Well, good night” he said “I’m sorry you got caught up in that – I thought you were one of us, and then it was almost too late. I pick up my ship here, so I will bid you fare-thee-well. Peter Rugg is to be trusted, and he will see you home safe – but don’t accept the offer of a trip to Boston!”. I hardly knew what to say, so I said nothing, simply bowing as we shook hands. The Captain walked off along the bridge. Peter Rugg seemed to be waiting for something, and whilst I was impatient to be home, I was a little scared and so said nothing. In our respective places, we watched the Captain. At some seemingly random point, he turned and waved, and as he did so, the mast of a ship cut through the bridge. He grabbed the rigging, and waved again as the ship carried on down the East River. Peter flicked the reins and we were off.
Did I doze again? I don’t know, but another blink-nap and I was outside my building, waving off Peter Rugg, who insisted that the account had been paid, but was persuaded to accept a double-eagle as a tip, before he set off into the darkness, once more crying “Boston by dawn!”
I went into my apartment building and tried to set my muddled mind straight. What had really happened tonight? Was this wealth really mine? What was I to do with it? Was I in trouble?
© David Jesson, 2018