You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
I don’t play cards. I don’t even know how. But I’m sitting here and there are some cards in my hands. I haven’t looked at them yet because I’m not sure if I’ll know what any of them mean. Harry, Bill, and Josh are sitting around me holding cards as well. They stare at me and then stare at each other and then glance down at their cards over and over again.
The room is dark. The lights are all switched off. Only the table is bright because of a lamp Bill brought and placed in the middle. It makes their faces bright and the cards bright, but behind them all I can see is murky and damp-looking shadows.
I hate all three of them and I guess they don’t really like me, but we work together. And when they asked me what I was doing after work I guess they felt obligated to ask me to join them when I told them nothing. I know I felt obligated to say yes though I just wanted to go home and sit around in a dressing gown and wait to see if Beth was finally going to change her mind and come back home.
Bill is a big man with a big body and tiny feet. He has dry skin on his hands and his arms, and he’s always scratching. Harry is smaller but still big with wet eyes and yellow teeth. Josh is alright. He is normal size and doesn’t have any really dry or wet features. He just exists and doesn’t really speak.
What have you got Joe? Harry asks and grins.
You can’t ask that, Josh says.
I was just kidding, Harry laughs.
Yeah, but he doesn’t know how to play, and he might tell you if you ask him, Bill cuts in.
Alright, alright, alright…Harry throws up his hand.
I wasn’t going to tell him, I say.
It’s alright Joe. Don’t worry about it.
I wasn’t going to tell him, I say again.
Exactly, Josh nods and hits my arm softly.
What have you got, Josh? I ask him.
Josh doesn’t smile, but he nods again and lets out a bark of laughter and then goes back to not really speaking.
I’m in, Harry says, and he pushes some notes and coins into the middle of the table.
I’m in, too, Bill mutters, and he pushes some of his pile into the middle.
Their piles were already a lot bigger than mine, and this was the first hand. I hadn’t brought a lot of money.
Josh doesn’t say anything, but he nods as he pushes some of his pile into the middle.
I look at my cards for the first time. I have a two of hearts, a ten of clubs, a four of hearts, an ace and a king of diamonds. I clear my throat and pull at my collar. I itch my leg, and I flick some hair off my nose. I don’t know what any of it means. They explained the rules before the game started, but none of it made sense then and now I don’t think it has ever made sense.
I don’t want to ask them again, so I cough and slap my cards down and grin.
I’m out, I say and shrug.
They nod, and they show their cards.
Bill had three of a kind. He announces it, shrugs, and says three threes, and then slaps them down happily.
Josh puts his cards down. Straight, he says, and Bill’s face falls, and he scowls at him.
Harry spreads his cards wide and itches his neck. Flush, he says quietly and laughs and hooks all the pile in the middle with one arm and draws it all towards him.
Fuck, Bill mutters.
Shit, Josh says.
Harry laughs again.
Goddamn, I say just to say something, and Josh hits my arm softly again.
What cards did you have? Bill points at me and asks.
I flip them, and everybody looks.
I thought you’d have something good and not even know, Bill says.
I didn’t, I reply.
I can see that…I told you he knew how to play, Bill says, and looks at the other two.
I thought you said you couldn’t. Harry frowns at me.
Are you trying to hustle us? Josh says and grins, and then he hits my arm again a little harder than before.
I was just guessing.
So, you could have had a royal flush in there, and you wouldn’t have known?
I guess not.
Bill shakes his head and laughs sadly.
I’m sorry, I say.
What? For what? Now someone might actually win some money, Harry shouts, and he fingers some coins in his pile.
Josh shakes his head and looks at me.
Have you really never played cards before? he asks.
Not really, I used to play go fish with Beth sometimes. My words shake a bit when I say that, and I cough to try and hide it and they all look away. It’s only then I realise that everyone in the shop must know about Beth leaving.
Ahh, poker’s quite different to that, Josh mutters and doesn’t look at me again.
They take my cards and they all put their own back into the deck and then Bill starts to shuffle them around. He does it quickly and the cards flicker as they move. It’s hard to imagine without seeing it how odd his huge fingers looked moving the small cards so fast and delicately. No one speaks until he places the deck back down on the table and flicks Harry and Josh five cards. He pauses before me.
You still want to play Joe?
Yeah, I say, and he puts five cards down in front of me. I look down at my watch. It’s nearly ten.
When Beth left, it had been around ten. The neighbours phoned me about then anyway. I’d been at work and they called me and they said, “Your wife just left in your car with a suitcase…I just thought you should know,” and then they hung up and I ran out of work and I ran past the car park and the bus stop and the church and the graveyard. I ran until my head pounded a little and I had to stop and breathe. Then I ran again, and when I got to outside the house I stopped and breathed deeply again. I threw up on the drive and I walked in. The house looked the same. It smelled the same. But there were marks on the walls where pictures had hung. Pictures of her and me and pictures of just her. They’d all gone and when I walked into the bedroom, the wardrobe was open and inside there was nothing except my work shirts and one small pink sock. I cried for a bit on my knees holding that pink sock, and then I went and looked to see if she had left any pictures at all. There weren’t any pictures, and there wasn’t a note. There wasn’t anything.
Bill and Harry and Josh all look at their cards. Harry looks up and around at them both.
You know if Mr Fredricks is going to let anyone go over Christmas? Harry asks.
What? Why? Bill looks up at him quickly. Josh looks up quickly from his cards as well. I just shake my head.
Just something I heard, Harry shrugs.
You know Karen?
What about her?
That’s who I heard it from.
Karen’s full of shit.
Bill turns to him. She is, he says.
How? I ask, and they look up at me like they’re surprised I’m still there.
Bill leans across the table towards me, and his tie falls forward onto the table and messes up his cards.
You ever heard what she told Connor? he asks.
Big Conner… I forget his last name.
Not that one…
Harry hits the table, and we all look at him. He holds up one finger and then wipes his eyes.
Isn’t Carlson the big Conner and Dutson the little Conner?
Josh looks up from his cards and frowns before speaking. I didn’t think either of them was that big.
Bill sighs. Carlson isn’t big or small but Dutson is huge, got it?
We all nod, and I ask: So, what about him?
Well, Karen told him something.
Yeah, but what did she tell him?
She told him something that wasn’t true.
What was it?
I’m getting to that…
He scratches his chin and coughs a little. He looks around at our faces, and we stare at him. I was just happy we’d stopped playing cards for the moment. He looks away and down at his tie and he straightens it and then his cards before speaking.
I forgot what she actually said but trust me…it wasn’t true.
His words fall flat down into the middle of all of us and lie without moving. Josh frowns.
Harry doesn’t do anything at all. Bill’s face drops down a little and turns red. He hits the table again and then shouts…And I’d wager my whole pile here she hasn’t spoken a word of truth since she squeezed her way out into the world.
No one says anything. Josh just nods and nods, and Harry doesn’t even acknowledge him. I decide to laugh.
When I do it sounds too loud and forced for the quiet room and everyone looks at me. I think to myself, You know this is probably better than having to play cards.
Then Harry finally smiles and puts his hand on Bill’s shoulder and says, Are we here to play cards or what?
Harry looks happy and nods hard until the red in his face fades and his wet eyes stare hard at his cards. Josh rubs his cards between his fingers. His fingers are small and square, and his nails are like dirty half-moons pressed against the back of the cards. I still haven’t looked at the cards I’ve been given, and I move my chair back to get comfortable and it squeaks on the floor and then I move it back towards the table it squeaks even louder. Bill looks closely at his cards and squints. Sometimes one of them looks up. No one looks at me. I turn my cards over and pretend to study them.
I don’t know how long we have to sit and look at the cards. I look around and wonder why none of us has a drink. I want a drink. I want two drinks at least. I think about the poker games I’d seen in films when I was younger. Men sitting around with big cigars jutting from their mouths and whiskey being poured over shoulders and everyone laughing and being loud and talking the whole time.
The three of us just sit in silence and breathe heavily, and no one laughs, and no one talks and none of us smoke.
Beth didn’t like watching films or the TV. She said it was all boring. She just liked to sit around and relax, she used to say. Relaxing is my hobby, she’d say, and then she’d lie down on the bed and laugh. I try to think of how she looked when she laughed sometimes, but I can barely even picture what she looked like doing nothing. I stand in front of the picture marks on the walls at night and try to remember the photographs that used to be there. Then I hit the side of my head with my fist or I bunch the little pink sock up in my hand. I ask the picture marks if they know why she took all the photos. I ask them nicely sometimes and I whisper it to them and sometimes I ask them as if I were asking Beth and I scream at them and spit at them and then I lie down on the floor and try to forget about the things I’ve been doing since she left.
Bill speaks first, and he puts his cards down softly. I’m out, he says, and he leans back in his chair.
Josh leans forward. He smiles at us and pushes all of his pile into the middle. All in, he says.
Harry looks at him smiling and doesn’t smile back. He just shakes his head and sits back in his chair and pulls his pile slightly closer to him and doesn’t say anything.
Bill whistles and pats his pile as if checking it’s still there.
I focus on my cards for the first time. I’m holding a king of hearts, an ace of hearts, an ace of clubs, a three of spades, and a queen of diamonds. The cards are meaningless. I look at each one separately. I look at the queen of diamonds. I see the queen of diamonds. I don’t understand the queen of diamonds.
It’s like looking at one of the missing photographs in my house, and my heart beats quietly and painfully in my chest. I’m sure anymore what Beth looks like, but I’m sure the queen of diamonds looks like her. I’m sure the nose is the same and I’m sure the lips are the same and the wave in her hair is the same and I’m sure her little smile is the same. The queen has a red flower tucked in her hair and she’s holding a lute and staring off the side of the card as if she can see something better out there. I touch her face with my thumb. I feel it.
Joe? Are you in or out? Bill clicks his fingers at me. His wet eyes are almost sneering.
I’m in, I hear myself say, and I push a corner of my pile into the middle.
You have to match the bet, Joey, Harry laughs.
If you want to bet, you have to match the bet.
You have to bet everything if you’re in Joe. They all shake their heads.
I’m still staring at the queen and I’m turning the card in my fingers, trying to get her to stare at me.
Alright, alright, all in, I mutter, and I push the rest of my pile into the middle. They all shake their heads again and look at each other and laugh.
Are you sure, Joe? Josh asks, and I can see him leaning forward to hit my arm softly again and suddenly I feel embarrassed. I can feel my face turn red and I turn the queen over in my fingers again and again, and she still won’t look at me.
Yes. Jesus Christ, you don’t have to baby me, man. I know what I’m doing, I snap at him.
Josh holds his hands up and shrugs and nods, and Bill looks at me and scratches his leg and mutters, Okay then.
Harry looks at Josh. Josh looks at me. Bill looks at Josh. I look at the queen. I don’t care why she looks so much like Beth. I just want to keep staring at her. I want to hold the card close the same way I hold the little pink sock.
Josh flips over his cards. He has four jacks and a five of diamonds. He says, Four of a kind.
Bill smiles. Harry blinks. They look at me and wait. From outside the house I can hear some kids laughing and then the sound of a bottle smashing against the floor. I’d heard the same sounds before. Over and over again. But they seemed different now holding the queen. They leaked into my ears and they tickled my bones. Lovely little noises. Even the queen on the card with her tiny smile, seemed to be smiling small for them. The smile was like the smile Beth used to have when she’d be lying on my chest in the morning. We’d lie in the same position most mornings and listen to the noises coming from the street outside. Children screaming and laughing and shouting and cars moving back and forth and back and forth. She said it was her alarm clock.
Harry mutters something I can’t hear, and Josh swears and pushes his cards a little with his hand. Bill scratches his cheek, and some dry skin floats down and falls onto the table. He brushes it off the table and grins at me.
What you got this time, Joe? he asks.
I put the queen back with the rest of my cards on the table, and my hand trembles. I flip them all over and push them forward.
They all lean forward.
One pair, Bill says loudly and starts laughing. Harry blinks his wet eyes as if he can’t believe it and then he follows Bill and laughs as well. Josh just shakes his head over and over and occasionally chuckles.
Did I win? I ask.
Of course not, Harry giggles.
Not even close, Bill roars.
Oh, I say.
I don’t have a pile of anything in front of me now. Josh scraps the pile from the middle back towards him. Harry and Bill pat their piles and laugh quietly every now and then. I tap my finger on the empty space in front of me, and then I slip the queen back off the table and gather the rest of my cards and push them underneath the dealer’s deck. I put the queen between my legs and then I put her in my pocket. None of them looks at what I’m doing.
I guess I’m out? I ask
Bill and Harry both nod.
Josh looks sorry for me. I can spot you some money if you want to carry on playing, he says.
No, it’s alright, I say, and stand up.
All three of them look up at me surprised.
Where are you going?
I’m out of money.
You can stay a bit longer if you want man, Harry says. Just hang out for a bit.
No, I better get home.
They all look away from me straight away, and I can almost feel their relief.
Alright. See you. Harry waves, and he shuffles the cards.
See you, Bill mutters.
Bye, Joe, Josh nods, and leans up and gives me one final punch on the arm. The softest one of the night.
I touch my pocket and feel the shape of the queen pressed in there as I walk out of the house and onto the street. The kids I’d heard were gone, and I kick and step in the bits of broken glass they left behind. I start to whistle as I walk, and for the first time I don’t think about if Beth will be back when I get home. I whistle, and the sound echoes of something. It isn’t a long walk back to my house, and with a smile I realise I can whistle and walk all the way there. My heart feels free now that I’m out the game, and I think maybe if I whistle loud enough the queen will turn that little smile on me.
I walk under a little bridge and it is dark and I whistle. I walk along Cleveland Grove and onto Parkston’s Drive, and I whistle. I walk past the little grey church on the side of town, and I whistle. I walk past the schools and a small nature reserve with a broken gate and a car park with no cars sitting in it, and I whistle. I walk past the graveyard, and then I walk out onto the Highstreet and past the closed shops that are darker than the night and the fast-food restaurants with their bright lights still lit. I walk past open bars and I turn towards one to go in but then do a spin by the door and carry on walking instead. And I whistle.
My heart feels light, and I feel light. I feel like I can float off the ground and into the night sky. I feel like the king of diamonds. I’m the king, I’m the king, I whistle. I’m the king, I’m the king, I think. I’m glad to be out of that house, and I’m glad to be away from everyone and glad I don’t have to sit with them and listen to them anymore. I’m just glad. I’m full of gladness, and it’s all because of the queen. I feel like I’ve gotten my photographs back. It’s like carrying Beth in my pocket. She is the queen and the queen is her and there isn’t a damn bit of difference between the two.
I see another bar and almost go in again. But I catch myself and again I spin away from it. The bartender inside waves as I pass the window, and I wave back. I skip off the Highstreet and I dance onto my street and I see my dark house. I see my empty drive where my car used to be, and my heart doesn’t fall. It stays right where it is, and it sings. I push my key into the door and walk in. The house is cold, and I turn on the heating and I walk into the kitchen and make myself a coffee. I drink it straight away and it burns my lips and my tongue and I smile. I drink it down and it tastes good. Better than it has for a month.
I grab a bottle of whiskey off the side in the kitchen and pour a drink, but I don’t touch it yet. Not yet, your highness. Not yet, I whisper.
I take the queen from my pocket, and I give one final happy whistle before I can bear to look. I was right. For the first time, she isn’t smiling at nothing. She’s smiling at me. Her face seems to have turned all the way around and her lute seems to be playing the same tune I’ve been whistling all the way home and I smile back at her. I put her back in my pocket and I put my glass down. I stand up and open a drawer and take out a small nail and then I stop, turn, and walk back into the kitchen. I open another drawer and pull out a hammer. I walk back into the living room.
I go and stand in front of the biggest picture mark on the wall. It’s above the fireplace. The picture that used to hang there was of Beth. Just her laughing and holding a glass of wine. It had looked like the wine was about to spill all over her, and it had just after the picture had been taken. I hadn’t remembered that before. It had spilt over face and covered her clothes, and she’d shouted and then she’d laughed again. It was from when we’d first met. It was gone now.
I take the queen out my pocket and I hold it in the middle of the dark square and I nail it there and the queen never takes her eyes off me and she never stops playing the happy tune on her lute. I slump down in the chair in front of the fireplace and I stare at her and I pick up my glass and I finally have a drink.