Darren picked up a stack of chips and let them slip back through his fingers on to the table. They clicked together as they dropped, that dry, abbreviated sound you only get from 11-gram clay chips. He slipped a blue from the top of his stack and tossed it expertly into the centre circle of the baize. As he did so, Terry joined the table.
“Pound,” said Darren.
Terry sat down, leaned back in his chair and drew his two hole cards up to his face. He placed them back on the table, face down, then rubbed his temples with the tips of his fingers.
“Terry?” said Darren.
“Thinking,” said Terry.
“It’s a pound Terry. Play the hand.”
Terry looked at Darren. “I’m thinking man.”
“What about? It’s a pound.”
“I’m not thinking about a pound. Something else.” He slid a blue chip into the centre circle.
Philip said: “Where have you been?”
“Hospital,” said Terry.
Simon began counting out chips from his stack. “Two – four – five – six – fifty.” He drops a stack of multi-coloured chips – red, blue and green – into the centre circle.
“What are you doing, Simon?” asked Terry. “What are you doing going six fifty pre-flop?”
“I’ve got a good hand,” said Simon. “If you think you’ve got a better hand, put your five fifty in. Or stack.”
“You never go more than a pound, pre-flop. No-one ever goes more than a pound pre-flop, even with a pair of bullets in the hole. I’m going to be skint.”
“Pay or stack Terry.”
“I’m being striped already. I’ve been here two minutes and I’ve got fucking Wild Bill Hickok playing fast and loose on my left and I’m going to be skint in half an hour.”
“Big pot if you win it –,” said Gareth.
Terry looked at Gareth’s hand, face down with a single chip placed on it, indicating that he was out. “Well you’re not in, are you Gareth?” said Terry “You’re never in, are you? Anything over fifty pence and you’re out. Even with the nuts.”
“That’s how I play.”
“Yes, but you don’t play do you Gareth? You just conserve. You go home with your forty quid intact, but you don’t play do you? I don’t know why you come here, I don’t. If you lose more than a fiver you shut up shop. Do you just come here to eat? Is that –”
“Got your new car, Gareth?” asked Darren.
“What is it?” asked Terry.
“Nice,” said Darren.
“Safe,” said Terry. “You taking it to Bruges then Gareth?”
“Probably not, no. You know –”
“No,” said Terry. “We don’t.” He cast a glance around the room, looking for some support.
“Look,” said Gareth. “It’s a new car. You get teething troubles –”
“Simon took his sixteen-year-old Golf to Bruges, Gareth. With five of us in it and we stopped at the hypermarket on the way back. You’ve got a brand-new car. Live a little, mate.”
“Simon said: “Shut up Terry… What are you doing?”
“I’m dragging,” said Terry, pulling five fifty from the centre circle and placing it just outside the perimeter.
“You can’t drag,” said Philip.
“I’m going to be skint,” said Terry.
“Not this early in the –”
“I can drag if I want to. I’m dragging.”
“Turn them over,” said Darren.
“How was hospital?” asked Simon.
“Hospital?” said Terry. “Not good.”
Philip flipped a jack of clubs, eight of diamonds and an ace of clubs.
“Not good,” said Terry, taking another look at his cards.
“Six fifty,” said Darren, tossing his chips in.
“Clubby,” observed Gareth. “Possible flush.”
“I’m dragging,” said Terry. He pulled more chips from the centre circle.
“Terry, you can’t keep dragging. You’re not putting any money in the pot,” said Philip.
“So? I can drag. If I win, it’s mine. If I lose, it goes on the book. That’s what the book is for. That’s what we said. That’s why we have all been able to play every week for thirty years, even if we’re skint. Because of dragging and because of the book.”
“But for later in the game, when we’re down. And you’re not skint,” said Philip.
“I fucking will be if he keeps slinging it in,” said Terry, nodding towards Simon. “I’ll be skint, my wife will be skint, my kids will be skint. There’s going to be nothing.” He threw his cards face down on the baize. They landed lightly and slid slightly apart. He leaned back in his chair again and rubbed his bald head with his hands, looking out of the window at the autumnal garden. He turned back and looked at Simon, fifty-five year old milkman in the peak of health, still a good head of hair.
“Your six fifty and…” Simon counts out two reds. “…another ten.”
Terry said: “Do me a favour. Sixteen pounds fifty on the flop. Mate, why don’t you sit on my right and I can save myself a fucking fortune. I wouldn’t have gone six fifty if I’d have known you were going to go another ten.” He paused, tapping a chip on the table softly. “I’m dragging,” he said, pulling another ten from the circle.
“So far,” said Philip, “this hand has cost you a pound.”
“You can’t drag anymore,” said Gareth.
“Shut up Gareth. You’re out. You have nothing to say. What do I owe?”
Philip flipped open the book – a small, beaten ledger – and ran his pen down and across the columns of handwriting.. “One hundred and sixty… five to Darren. Forty to Simon.”
“Anyone owe me?”
“John owes you thirty seven.”
“Great. He’s not here. Where is everyone when you really need them? It’s fine. I’m dragging. That’s what dragging’s for. That’s why we have the book isn’t it? So we can play when we’re skint.”
Philip and Darren matched the bet from their pots. “Equal.” “Equal.”
Philip said: “How was the hospital?”
Terry put his cards down again, and rubbed the back of his neck. “Not good. I need to tell you guys… six months at the outside.”
“Fuck,” said Philip. “I’m sorry.” Everyone put down their cards.
“Bollocks,” said Darren. Gareth moved uncomfortably in his chair, and arranged his stack into neat piles, by colour. “That’s… that’s not great.”
“They’re going to be skint. Ria and the kids.” Terry tossed his cards, face up onto the baize. Two and eight. He began to cry, head down, hands clasped together on the table, shoulders shaking.
“Stack,” said Darren, placing a chip on his face-down cards.
“Stack,” said Simon, doing the same. Philip followed suit.
Simon’s big hands – tanned and cracked – gathered and pushed the large pot of chips from the centre baize towards Terry.
“Your win, mate,” he said, and held Terry’s clasped hands – small, soft, shaking – tightly in his own.