A short story by David Lloyd.
So far the night had been quiet. Sian had only sold ten of her late session bingo books in her first hour of work, and wasn’t likely to sell many for a while. She had started her new job as a bingo operative a fortnight earlier. As she was the new girl she had to sell the easy books on her own separate counter, away from the other staff. She was not bothered though, on the late session book’s counter she could talk to the customers, watch them playing the board bingo and, more importantly, she could daydream.
The main book sales point was at the entrance to the large double layered old hall, whilst her counter was in the middle, under the staircase that led up to the high ceilinged, sloping balcony. She rested her upper half in a lazy position on the top of the counter, arms crossed, chin slumped, backside in the air. She looked towards the entrance of the hall, deep in thought but checking to see if anymore customers had arrived.
At the main counter they were enjoying the luxury of a slack moment. The four staff laughed and joked in their bright yellow and blue striped uniforms, flicking elastic bands and paper clips at each other. They were in their own world, oblivious to her. She knew them to speak to, but away from them she might as well be dead. She sighed; in her head The Doors’ lyrics floated about. She sang to herself, ‘Out here on the perimeter there are no stars’. The tune was interrupted by a niggling itch on her leg. She scowled and scratched at the hem of her skirt, cursing the cheap nylon that went into the sweaty day-glo uniforms.
She was feeling homesick. She had moved to Cardiff only two months earlier, to study Welsh history at the University. Sian was lucky, many of her friends back home in Neath were either expecting, unemployed, Y.T.S. (unemployed) or in jail. She knew she was lucky to have this chance, to be able to make something of her life free from the crushing pressures of peers and family. But for all that, she couldn’t help missing it all, even though it was less than an hour’s drive away. After moving, her first term’s grant disappeared very quickly in the race for new friends and experiences.
The job had been a godsend, three nights a week after college, and enough money to go out with her friends and enjoy the heady night life of Cardiff’s club land. She was lucky, not many people from her deprived background made it this far in the education game, she knew that, but still she couldn’t stop herself wishing that she was back home.
The hall was slowly starting to fill, but only a few people would buy her books, most waiting until the main session had been played. Across the narrow aisle from her counter were rows of tables, filling up with the old couples whom she was now starting to recognise. A few of them had started to recognise her, and they would chat and ask after her when she was not busy. At the far end of the hall was the stage, with lighted displays glowing in rows of numbers and pound signs, denoting the big prizes which were available. Below the high stage and its neon displays was the bar and buffet, both as quiet as her counter. She studied the barmaid who was slumped on the bar, in much the same languid manner that she herself was. Sian giggled to herself, thinking that the barmaid was probably dreaming of the hours after work when she would be knocking the pints back, instead of pulling them. In those quiet moments Sian had felt a great lethargy fall upon herself; the fuggy warm atmosphere of the club was soporific, when the work became busy it was a great effort to shift gear after such a long relax.
She dreamed of winning the big National Prize money that was on offer, but she had never been lucky like that; she tried to stop herself, it was not good for a poor student’s soul. There was no point in filling herself with false hopes, but it was nice to dream. She hoped that she would be able to make lots of money after college, and then maybe things would not be so hard. History had seemed a strange choice to her parents, but it seemed quite natural to herself. Her lively imagination had always been fuelled by both fictional and factual Welsh history: King Arthur, ‘The Mabinogion’, Owain Glyndwr, and the steel and coal booms of earlier centuries.
She liked the area that she had moved to, it was full of history, and the bingo hall was a little part of that, with its own long history. It was over a hundred years old and had lived through many guises: a ballroom, a roller rink, a cinema; for the last thirty two years it had been a bingo hall, the building having been extended and reopened in 1963. She found it interesting in its grandeur, her imagination inspired by its beauty.
It seemed very out of place with its modernised surroundings along the main road which it lay on. The hall rose above the terraced shops which it lay amongst, creating a strong contrast in both colour and height. Its candyfloss pink and electric mint facade stuck out like a beacon among the greying shop fronts. At night its warm and enticing interior glowed out onto the pavement with a comfortable opulence. Its entrance was twin towered and domed, which gave the impression of cheeks, the long row of doors between the towers forming a friendly and welcoming smile. It had made her feel good as she approached the building for her interview; she was much struck by its mish-mash of art nouveau and Arabic architectural styles.
Her historical musings were interrupted at the site of one of the regular customers, himself a walking piece of history, old Mr. Price. He approached, for his late session books, being one of the few customers who bought his books all in one go. She stood upright from her languid leaning, into the correct posture for serving the club members. That was what the manager had told her, but a quick scan of the hall revealed that none of the other staff members had listened.
As Mr. Price walked down the aisle he cut a lanky streak, tall and thin in his usual bingo suit, accompanied by his not often removed cap. As he came closer he flashed his nicotine smile, the crooked teeth straining from the gums. She had always found him strange looking. His face looked like a giant had picked him up by the temples and tried to squeeze his head like a spot. Both sides of his head were sharply indented, like his brain had sucked inwards and held its breath. He had an elongated birdlike nose, the rest of his face was taut, the skin sticking to his skull like a flesh condom. He lifted his hat in a polite greeting, revealing a balding, wispy, mole-hilled head, and spoke.
‘Hello, Sian isn’t it?’ He leaned forward to regard the name plate on her breast.
She smiled in affirmation, and he placed the cap back on his head. He dug around in his weathered pocket, the change jangling discreetly.
‘Three free ones please.’ He smiled some more, hoping the girl would fall under his charm.
‘Sorry Mr. Price, no free ones, only fifty pee ones,’ she rhymed back in a happy manner, ‘will that do?’
‘Bloody disgusting price. What’s that then, um, three for a pound. There you go.’ He grinned and dropped a pound coin on the counter.
Sian had taken a mock annoyed tone in order to play along with his game, ‘Come on you, that’s enough of your messing around. You know very well that it’s one pound fifty for three, you have the same every night.’
‘That’s right, I’ve ‘ad the same for thirty years, but there’s no ‘arm in tryin’.’ He dropped the remaining fifty pence onto the counter from his other hand. ‘Ai, thirty years and I’ve never once got away with it. Tch! You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’
Sian ripped him off three of the blue covered books from the strip, placed them on the counter and scooped the money into the cash tray below the counter. She was feeling bored so she decided to try and keep him talking. She smiled and asked after him, ‘How’s Mr Price Tonight then?’
He frowned and fiddled with his cloth cap. ‘Not too good, this cold outside makes me head ache.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, are you alright?’ She asked, concerned, but happy that he was continuing to chat, even though it was about his problems.
‘It’s alright, I’m used to it. I’ve ‘ad to put up with the blessed thing for years, ever since the accident.’
Sian looked concerned, not knowing whether to back off or coax him on. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise, what happened? If you don’t mind me asking?’
‘Well, I’ll tell you.’ He tapped his forehead. ‘That’s how I got this you see. These dents I got down the mines when I was a bach. Lucky to be alive really. Oh, but you’re working, you don’t want to hear about that now do you?’
He looked like he wanted to tell her, and she was intrigued to hear, sensing the possibility of an essay in the making. She pressed him to continue. ‘Yes, I’d love to hear, tell me about it, um, If you don’t mind?’ The manager was nowhere in sight so she did not need to worry about getting into trouble for gossiping. It was not as if she had any pressing business to attend to anyway.
His voice took on a sombre tone. ‘Well, you see, I used to work up by Dowlais, in one of the pits. It was 1938, a whole gang of us was down in shaft eleven. We were miles from the main pit shaft, checking up on the workings to see they were all safe and sturdy. All of a sudden there was an explosion, methane you see, and the whole branch came crashing down on us. I lost a few good friends that day, God bless ’em. I was trapped, me head was caught under a collapsed pit prop. You can imagine, I thought I was done for. So I lay there barely alive, but singing and praying.’
A far away look had now crossed his face, he was deep in his reminiscence, remembering every moment of the fateful day. He continued, ‘Ai, so I was singing, ready to meet my maker, when, in the middle of ‘Bread of Heaven’, I ‘eard Dai Evans shouting. ‘Is that you Pricey boy?’ he called, ‘Keep it up butt and we’ll soon find you’. So I sang on and eventually they got me out, took ’em two days, and they had me written off for dead.’
The jovial look was starting to return to his face, and he laughed in a crackled spurt. ‘Huh! They thought I was dead, with me head caved in and covered in blood.’
He grinned, sending deep furrows kaleidoscoping across his face, and suddenly he slapped himself firmly on his capped head, laughing, he leant forward and spoke loudly, ‘ but this Welsh nut was too tough to crack, oh yes! Ha! Ha!’
Sian was shocked, but moments later joined him in his riotous laughter. She had heard how much of a rascal he was from the customers, and the older members of staff. For some reason they did not like him, annoyed by his gruff manner and lucky streak. But she liked him, and could not help but feel a bit motherly towards him, even though he was four times her age.
They continued chatting; the air of the hall now floated with wispy phantasms of spiralling grey smoke, catching the glare of the neons. The hall was not busy, but the regulars were all expert smokers, filling the air in moments. The barmaid was now busying herself as an orderly line had formed at the bar, she didn’t look happy to have her plans for the night and love interrupted by the thirsty club members. The pace was picking up, the first of the sessions would shortly be starting, but she still felt languid, hypnotised by the old man’s reminiscences which filled her imagination like the billowing smoke in the hall. Sian asked him how long he had been coming; he was happy to oblige her questions.
‘Oh, I’ve been playing bingo since the first day it opened as a bingo club, and I came here before that when it was a cinema, that wasn’t very often though. Cur, you wouldn’t believe how this place has changed. I don’t like it as much these days, not with all those fancy computers and machines. It never used to be like that, they never used to rush the numbers. All they want these days is your bloody money, and the staff are never as happy or friendly as they used to be. It hasn’t got the same old atmosphere like it used to, but I still enjoy my game, I don’t know. Oh enough of my moaning, like I said, every night for thirty years, in my same old lucky seat.’ He smiled and then whispered, ‘They don’t like me here, I get on their nerves with my stories and jokes. But I don’t care, this is more of a home than my house is.’
‘Get away!’ replied Sian. ‘I know why you come here, you’re chasing after old Lil Jones and her life’s savings aren’t you. She’s been here from day one as well, and I bet this is your secret rendezvous, I’ve seen you two chatting like old buddies.’
He laughed, not offended but mirthful, as if he had found a new sparring partner. He tapped his nose and winked, ‘Well ai! If you don’t use it you lose it.’ He grinned provocatively. ‘The stories I could tell you about the women here, hooof! But that’s for another time, it’s almost time for the first session, I must take my seat.’
He left, taking his books in his bony fingers, and strode off tall and manly to his lucky seat, only stopping by old Lil’s table, to give his greetings. He turned back to Sian, who was watching, and winked, whilst giving a long and bony thumbs up when Lil wasn’t looking. She smiled, finding it hard not to laugh at the charmer.
The caller had taken the stage, shiny and elegant in his fancy evening suit with bow tie. He walked over to his console and switched the microphone on. In a deep and thick Welsh accent he called the assembled members to order. His manner annoyed Sian, as it always seemed false and forced like a third rate celebrity’s. But for the old customers he was just that, he had been calling their numbers for as long as the place had been open, and although they swore at him a lot when he did not call theirs, deep down he was an old friend. He continued with his opening announcements: it was time for Sian to vacate her post and steward the claims around the hall. She quickly locked her money drawer and went up to the main counter to get her clipboard.
Her supervisor was there to help her on the floor, and before the game started she spoke to Sian. ‘I see that Mr. Price has been annoying you. He’s a bloody nuisance ain’t he?’
Sian was unsurprised by her supervisor’s unpleasantness; having worked there for many years, her boss had developed a deep disrespect for the finicky regulars of the bingo hall. But Sian felt that she must defend her Mr. Price, after enjoying his company. ‘No, I think he’s lovely, a bit strange, but what do you expect? He is rather old.’
‘He gives me the creeps, I mean, every bloody night he’s here, hasn’t he got a home to go to. I don’t know where he got the money from either. And he never bloody moves from that seat, his arse is rooted to it.’ The supervisor seemed very uneasy about Mr. Price: she continued with a lowering voice. ‘And he used to win every night, and never once gave us a tip, stingy bastard. Every bloody night for thirty years. We used to joke that he’d still be back to play after he died! You can imagine our shock when the day after his funeral he turned up to play. Frightened the bleedin’ life out of us, the old sod.’
Sian turned white, unsure whether to laugh or be scared. In a strained voice she asked. ‘What?’
‘Aye, two years ago that was, and the bastard hasn’t left us alone since. He’s still the same bloody nuisance that he always was, but at least he doesn’t win anymore. We just ignore him now, but it looks like he’s taken a shine to you. You look shocked. Don’t worry, every bingo hall’s got its ghosts, just ignore him and he’ll leave you alone. Come on, the games about to start. Don’t you worry about it, come on.’
The caller began in his rolling stage voice. ‘Eyes down, we’re looking for the line. Your first number.’ Sian was dumbstruck, and didn’t hear the first numbers. She was too busy staring across the wispy atmosphere of the hall at Mr. Price, who sat poised to mark off his numbers, looking like someone had forgotten to tell him that he was dead.