The Short List

The below stories also made the final judging short list, as chosen by our panel of judges here at Playing Bingo.


Clare Banks: Final Call To Eden

A short story by Clare Banks – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

Luck is a funny thing. How one person’s misfortune might be another’s lucky break. Take that night at the Gala Club. If mum hadn’t twisted her ankle, I wouldn’t have had to go to bingo with aunty Ada in her place.And if the number 8 bus hadn’t been cancelled due to driver illness, Danny wouldn’t have been roped into giving his gran a lift.We might never have met.Our eyes should have been down, but they locked at the first card. Embarrassed, we both looked away, but then it was up, down, to and fro, like a flipping ping-pong ball, till we dissolved into a fit of giggles.It turned out the old dears knew each other, so we all ended up going for chips after.”You don’t look like a bingo kind of girl,” Danny said to me in the Black Cat caff.”What’s a bingo kind of girl look like, then?” I asked.He shrugged. “I dunno. Two fat ladies, eighty-eight, I suppose.”His gran leaned over and grabbed one of his chips. “Oi. Don’t be so rude, Danny,” she said. “Bingo’s for all sorts. Lots of young’uns do it. Besides, it’s more int’resting than going down the pub every night with those chaps from your sorting office.”Aunty Ada blew the steam off her mug of tea, scattering a few drops over the side. “I had to twist Sheryl’s arm to get her to bingo tonight,” she said. “Madam was worried the girls from her office might see her. I said, well, if they do see you, it means they go to bingo too, so what’s the problem?”She cackled at the cleverness of her reasoning, then the old dears went on to talk about knitting patterns.”So what kind of office are you in?” Danny asked me.

“Council planning department. I’m only a gofer at the moment. Until I get my secretarial certificate, I’m mostly stuck with filing and photo-copying. Boring as hell. I should three-four, ask for more.”

He laughed. “You seem to have picked up the bingo-lingo pretty quickly. On again for next week?”

I was. And the week after.

Before long, we were going out.

About a year after we’d started seeing each other, Danny got a promotion. I thought he might take me to a posh restaurant to celebrate, but we went to the Gala Club instead. I didn’t mind really. We always had a good time there.

He was acting all funny for the first half hour or so. Twitchy. His gran kept jabbing his arm. “For God’s sake, Danny. Sit still. You got ants in your pants, or something?”

At nine-o’clock, Ed, the caller asked for everyone’s attention.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Before I ask you to set your eyes down for the next card, one of our young players would like to address you.”

My mouth fell open in surprise as Danny quickly pushed his way to the front, knocking into chairs and tables on the way.

He got up in front of the mic and cleared his throat.

“Er. Some of you know me. I’m Danny. And some of you know my girlfriend, Sheryl, over there.” I went bright red as everybody turned to look at me.”

“Anyways. We met here about a year ago and it’s like a special place for us. We’re sort of celebrating tonight, because I’ve gone up a grade at work. But I thought it might be nice to… Well. I mean. We’ve been together for a while now and I thought. Well. Er, Sheryl. Will you marry me?”

Someone shouted: “Is she worth it, five and six?” That made people laugh.

I was grinning fit to split. And when I said yes, the whole bloody place cheered. Poor old Danny. He was shaking like a leaf. Back at the table, he pulled out a little blue velvet-covered box from his pocket. Inside was a beautiful little diamond ring. At that point, everyone else’s eyes were down again, but I only had eyes for him.

After we were married, we bought a little house just up from the Gala Club. It didn’t have much of a garden, just a tiny courtyard. Paved over and enclosed by high walls.

I missed my family’s garden. Dad was always pottering around weeding, or pruning or dead-heading.

I put the odd pot in our back yard to help cheer it up a bit. It didn’t really help.

But from our bedroom window, I could see the garden ours backed on to. It was much bigger and bursting with flowers and plants of all shapes, sizes and colours. Sometimes, I’d just stand there and look at it.

A posh lady lived there. Mrs Cherry. Once or twice, she’d see me at my window and wave. I met her once in town and introduced myself.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I have seen you. You like my garden?”

It’s strange that we lived so close, but were worlds apart.

I started doing the odd night behind the bar at the Gala Club to bring in a little extra money. I was thinking it would be nice to save up for a bigger place.

On our first anniversary, Danny took me for a Chinese. While we were waiting for the main course, he plonked a red silk pouch on the table by the prawn crackers.

“Go on. Open it,” he said, smiling.

I poked my fingers inside.

Out came a thin silver chain. On it hung a gorgeous heart-shaped pendant made out of a shiny brown and orange striped stone.

“Danny. It’s lovely,” I said. “What is is?”

“Kelly’s eye, number one, for our first anniversary. Actually, it’s Tiger’s Eye. Closest I could think of since no-one could tell me properly what Kelly’s eye meant. My gran said she thought it was an Army saying and your Aunty Ada reckoned it was to do with some escaped convict in Australia. I was stuck then, because neither of those things seemed very romantic.

“Then one of the old blokes at the sorting office said he remembered a comic superhero who wore a gem around his neck which made him invincible and that was called Kelly’s Eye. So that gave me the idea of this stone. Do you like it?”

I told him I loved it. And that I loved him. And when the sweet-and-sour chicken came, I told him I loved that too. I was feeling very loving that night.

From then on, it became Danny’s annual challenge to come up with a bingo-lingo anniversary present. The second year, it was a beautiful little tapestry duck door-stop. The following year, he gave me a bone china tea cup with ‘Sheryl’ written in gold lettering on it.

Some were really tricky. In our fifth year, I got a life-jacket. I wasn’t sure what to say when I ripped open the paper and this bright orange Mae West fell out.

“Man alive, number five?” I queried, holding the jacket up to me.

“It’s a clue to your present,” he said. “Although I suppose that says more man overboard than man alive.” Then he handed me a paper wallet. I nearly squeezed the life out of him when he told me they were tickets for a boat trip to France.

I got my qualifications and a better job in the planning office. Danny was doing well at work, too. It was a very happy time and the only thing that spoiled things a bit was that we wanted to start a family, but I couldn’t get pregnant.

Then I had some tests done and the doctors found I had blocked fallopian tubes.

I couldn’t stop crying, but Danny put his arm around me and said we’d be fine. Just the two of us.

I tried to pretend it didn’t matter, but it did.

Once, Danny brought up the subject of adoption. “It’s not the same,” I snapped. It was an obvious solution, but I saw it as defeat.

Then, on our seventh anniversary, Danny came up with something close to a trade-off.

He brought home the cuddliest, cutest, soppiest Golden Labrador pup I’d ever seen.

“We should call him Lucky,” he said, trying to stop the little yellow ball of fur tearing the place apart. “Lucky seven. You never know, he might bring us some good fortune.”

Of course, having a dog with next to no garden was not ideal. And with both of us at work, I think Lucky got a bit depressed and chewed up the furniture and peed everywhere.

I kept going on at Danny about moving, but he said we couldn’t afford it yet. I got crankier and crankier and we had a lot of rows.

I think we both knew I was still desperate for a baby.

Then on our ninth anniversary, Danny did the craziest thing.

It was a Saturday and he brought me breakfast in bed. On the tray, under my plate of eggs and bacon, was a pamphlet. Advertising a fertility clinic. I looked at Danny bewildered.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” he said. “We’ve been putting away all this money to get a bigger house, but it’s a baby you really want. Now, I’ve been reading up on this clinic. It’ll be expensive, even just for a consultation. But I think it’s worth it. So there’s number nine, doctor’s orders. Happy anniversary.”

I was a mix of emotions. Wildly joyful to think I could finally be a mum, nervous about the procedure, fearful that it might not work, madly in love with Danny for trying so hard to make me happy.

But if I’d known the physical and mental anguish of what I was about to go through, I’d never have done it.

As soon as I took, I started buying up Mothercare and scouring through name books. I was as sick as a dog, but deliriously happy.

Three months in, I miscarried.

I couldn’t speak to anyone and had to go on sick leave.

I just sat by my bedroom window, looking down into Mrs Cherry’s garden, wishing I was dead. It was the height of summer and her garden looked like paradise; the rampant rambling rose with fat, pink flowers, spilling over our shared wall; the unruly honeysuckle vying for space on the same wooden trellis; sweet-peas, dahlias, freesias.

Day after day, I’d gaze upon their beauty and breathe in their sweet scents. After a while, I started to feel a little better.

One day, not long after I went back to work, Danny mentioned adoption again. I dismissed it straight away and as I lay on the sofa, Lucky’s head resting on my knee, I finally accepted I wasn’t meant to be a mother. And – with a big chunk of our nest egg gone – that we were never going to move.

Of course, we started saving again, but the money seemed to go as quickly as we put it away. We couldn’t even sell our place to raise a down-payment, the housing market being so bad.

Lucky passed away on our silver wedding anniversary. He was the grand old age of 18, which in Golden Lab terms is as old as Methuselah. In his final days, when he completely lost control of his bodily functions and slipped into a stupor, I fell ill, as if coming out in sympathy with him. The pair of us. Bed-bound, throwing up and feeling miserable. Poor old Danny took some leave to look after us. He was rushing around like the Tasmanian devil so much, that he hadn’t got around to thinking up a clever anniversary present for that year.

“Sorry, love,” he’d said, as he was feeding me a thin, vegetable soup. “Duck and dive got me completely stumped.”

When I didn’t get better, it was obvious there was something a lot more wrong with me than a tummy bug. When I turned yellow, an ambulance came for me and I went into emergency surgery.

I was at my darkest, then.

Lucky was gone. I was eleven-foot of cancerous intestine lighter and confined indoors. Danny had to go back to work. The loneliness was unbearable.

Winter passed. Spring came and eventually, the summer.

One morning, I was taking down the curtains in our bedroom to give them a clean, when Mrs Cherry called up to me from her garden.

“It’s a lovely day. How about popping over for a cream tea?”

I had always wondered what it would be like to sit in the midst of all those fragrant flowers and lush, green trees.

It was better than I imagined and I sat in her swing seat, gently rocking to and fro, never, ever wanting to leave.

Mrs Cherry sent me home with some cuttings and I set about trying to turn our yard into a miniature version of hers, tending to the little pots, watering and feeding. Sadly, I didn’t have Mrs Cherry’s green fingers and as our anniversary approached, all of the cuttings had died.

Seeing how upset I was, Danny went out and bought a whole load of ready-potted flowers and plants and hanging baskets and filled up the yard as a surprise.

“There you go, love,” he said. “Twenty-six. Pick-and-mix. Azaleas. Dahlias. Roses. Chrysanths. Lilies. Jasmine. You name it. It’s there.”

They survived better than the cuttings, but when the autumn came, I doubted they would see another summer.

In the spring before our 27th anniversary, the cancer struck again. This time, in my liver. There was no coming back from that one.

“I’m afraid it’s inoperable,” the doctor told us. “At best, you are looking at six to eight months.” Danny and I just held each other and cried and cried.

With no treatment other than pain management, I just waited for the inevitable.

I wanted to pound the walls with my fists, scream out, it’s not fair. I’m not yet fifty.

When I became too weak to get up and down stairs, we moved a single bed into the lounge. Macmillan lent us a commode and their nurses came to help wash and feed me when Danny was at work.

I was as comfortable as I could be, but I missed my view of Mrs Cherry’s garden.

All I could see out of the lounge window was a bleak courtyard, with pots of dead or dying plants and yards of cracked, dirty plaster, flaking away from the high brick walls.

It was then, we decided, I should go to a local hospice.

I was almost glad of the change. My room overlooked a nice, formal garden. But I missed Danny so much and at night, I cried myself to sleep, wishing he was there to cuddle me and tell me everything was going to be OK.

After three weeks, I could bear it no longer and asked to go home.

Danny had an odd look on his face when he came to fetch me. Detached. Secretive almost. Oh God, I thought. He dreads having to care for me again. Having to clear up my smelly vomit, being woken in the middle of the night to take me to the loo, watching me waste away.

As we parked up outside our house, he jumped out and told me to wait a moment as he disappeared off to the boot of the car.

I squinted at the side mirror to see what he was doing. He came back, pushing a wheelchair.

“Borrowed it from Macmillan’s,” he said, helping me into the seat. “Blimey. You’re as light as a feather.”

He wheeled me into the hallway, but instead of turning left into the lounge, he steered me into the kitchen, out the door and into the back yard.

I cried out in surprise. Part of the dilapidated brick wall in the yard had been knocked through and shaped into an arched opening. A makeshift path led from our yard into Mrs Cherry’s beautiful garden.

As Danny pushed me into that magical place, I could see Mrs Cherry laying out a cream tea, just like the one we had the previous summer.

“How….?” I twisted around to look at Danny.

He was smiling. Sort of.

“The wall was falling down anyway and Mrs Cherry decided it was time to get it replaced. She knows how much you love her garden and when I mentioned your situation, she agreed to give you full access so you could enjoy it to the… end. You can come down anytime. And you can see it a bit from your bed in the lounge on days when you don’t feel up to going out.”

Already, the bright colours and heady scents of the flowers were making me feel more alive than I had in a long time.

“Twenty-seven. Gateway to Heaven. Happy anniversary, love.” He paused awkwardly. “I hope you don’t think it tasteless. If you know what I mean.”

I shook my head and reached back to touch his hand. Mrs Cherry waved to us as we approached.

At that moment, I didn’t care how long I would have to take advantage of this unusual arrangement. How lucky was I? To be so loved by a man who would go to such lengths to bring me paradise when my number was up.

And yes, when I’m gone, the wall will be bricked up again, re-establishing the boundary between our two worlds, soon to be smothered with a new blanket of honeysuckle and rambling roses.

And maybe, when I finally go through the true Gateway to Heaven, there’ll be my very own Garden of Eden waiting for me.

 

Tim Crump: The Friendly Warning

A short story by Tim Crump – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

It took Susan Waterford six months to get Alan to the Orchid Lane Bingo Hall, and after going about persuading him so carefully she really felt that this was her night. Alan, to his eternal credit, had put all his prejudices about the game to one side and was sitting dutifully in seat 44C with his dabber in one hand and Sue’s arm in the other.

Unfortunately for Sue and Alan, however, the industry’s attempts to re-brand bingo as a game for the youthful and brash as well as the middle aged and elderly was starting to pay off, and the clientele on 27th March 2006 included a rowdy bunch of youngsters sitting about twenty-five feet away. They were clearly celebrating something, togged up in various fancy dress outfits and pushing the boundaries of bad behaviour about as far as they could go without getting kicked out – though with no other players present for the early evening Monday session their behaviour was tolerated a little more than it would otherwise have been.

This was particularly galling for Sue, who desperately wanted Alan to see Orchid Lane at its best: They’d been going out for eight months before she even dared to raise the subject of her obsession, fearing he’d think the worst of her. After all, what kind of a twenty-two year old girl wants to spend time playing a game associated with old ladies?

All sorts, as it happens – but Alan’s perception of the game was every bit as rooted in the past as Sue’s had been when her best friend Lisa had dragged her along to her local hall just two years before, to try out bingo for the first time. Lisa enjoyed herself, but it was Sue who got bitten after almost winning her first game, eventually coming home £45 up.

Orchid Lane became an oasis of pure hedonism for Sue, where nothing mattered except the next ball – and it was a similar obsession of Alan’s that she used to break the ice as they sat together, waiting for the first game to start:

“You know when you’re about to hit a golf ball …?” she whispered.

“Mmm”, he answered, staring blankly ahead.

“Do you feel like you’re living in the moment? Like you just don’t care about anything else?”

He gave her a brief, sideways look:

“You don’t have to justify this.” He gave a lop-sided grin. “If you like it, I like it.”

He would have liked it a lot more if the idiots behind them hadn’t started telling raucous jokes whilst eating and drinking as noisily as possible. He was tempted to stand up and tell them to be quiet, but didn’t want to cause a scene. This was Sue’s domain after all, and he didn’t want to rock the boat; she’d been very patient with him about coming to the bingo, and he consequently wanted to be suitably respectful.

It hadn’t always been that way, though. Initially , Sue hadn’t wanted to push the subject too hard and scare him off, so she would casually mention that he was welcome to join her at Orchid Lane instead of going out with the boys once every two months or so.

“Thanks”, he’d respond, his grin telling her it was never going to happen.

“I would, but someone might see me. What if it got out at work?”

She knew he was only having fun with her, but at the same time she knew he was right. However, there comes a point when a human being of either sex will want to increase their territorial hold over their partner for fear of encroachment from other interested parties – and Alan wanted to check out who was working at the bingo hall and what they had to offer that he didn’t.

As it turned out, nothing: The closest thing to a rival male at Orchid Lane was Don Bishop, the youngest caller there at age forty-two. To the blue rinse set he might as well have been a Hollywood heartthrob, but at almost double Alan’s age he was no contender where Sue was concerned.

Anyone reaching this point in Sue and Alan’s story could be forgiven for thinking that Sue was as harmless as a bluebell in spring – but that would be incorrect, as her attempts to get Alan to the bingo hall had a hidden motive. Even the most well-meaning, generous spirited people of this world are driven by forces outside their control into acts of minor deception, and Sue was no different:

The foil in her well-meaning existence was none other than Sylvia, her own mother. And it was Sylvia’s obsessive meddling with her own daughter’s future that planted the seed of a seemingly harmless treachery in her offspring.

There was nothing aggressive about it: Just the odd remark here and there at dinner:

“I hear Jennifer Lawson’s found herself a nice chap. Engaged, I believe. Apparently he’s a corporate solicitor, lucky girl…”

“Did you hear about Juliette Crowther? Triplets on the way! She’ll have her hands full: Mind you, she’s twenty-seven now, so at least she’ll have them all out of the way before she gets to that sort age, you know…”

Sue took the remarks pretty well, but once the blackmailing started it was harder:

“Well, it is a shame to miss out on grandchildren of course, but that’s how some girls are these days…”

This one always came with a particularly effective, wistful stare into the middle distance, and Sue eventually caved in.

It was, therefore, not her fault by any standards that she ended up sitting with Alan on March 23rd in row C, seats 43 and 44. It had to be those exact ones, with the girl in 43 and the man in 44.

Orchid Lane had been converted from a cinema in the 1980’s and the beautiful Art Deco interior had mostly been destroyed. What was uncertain, however, was whether The Legend of the Middle Seats remained intact:

The two seats in the old Rialto Cinema that once occupied the position of what are now seats 43 and 44 C were well-known to teenagers and young lovers across the city in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. They were slap bang in the middle of the lower auditorium, and any couple that sat in them and kissed each other after 9pm would marry within twelve months, for certain.

This amusing piece of local folklore had spread rapidly in the 1950s, to the point where young men would give their dates for the night endless excuses for not sitting in the fated seats. A popular, if rather tasteless response to being led across to the middle was “Sorry Love, I wanna be nearer the aisle if you know what I mean. Had a couple of pints before I came out…”

If that wasn’t a passion killer then nothing was, but the girls would often get their revenge: Chaps of a particularly practical nature would quite happily sit in the seat, not giving a monkey’s about a stupid old wives tale. And, of course, some of them had found their heart’s desire and actually wanted to marry anyway.

No-one at Orchid Lane, however, knew of any couples that had married after kissing in the seats once the venue was no longer a cinema. But then again, who goes on a romantic date to a bingo hall anyway? Opinions as to the potency of the two seats were therefore mixed, but a number of the staff did still believe that the place had retained its magic:

Frances Harptree, head cleaner, rumour spreader and gossip merchant was firmly on Sue’s side: It was she who had worked out from old photos where the original seats were located, and had identified 43 and 44 C as their replacements. Her belief had cast a spell over Jill McAndrew, a clear-eyed, friendly, simple girl working in the admin office after her late mother got her a job there when she left school. More pragmatic however, was the infamous Marjorie Leeves:

Marjorie was in charge of admissions and security, and she’d seen it all, enduring the Blitz and many post-war years of toil and hardship. When she recited the list of couples who’d sat in the seats and duly married within a year or less, Sue was initially delighted:

“Couple after couple got married after sittin’ in them seats”, she told Sue as they supped gin and tonic together one night.

Sue’s eyes widened, and she had to remember to close her mouth. Marjorie leaned forward, her eyes narrowed:

“And you know why they all got married?”

“Why?” asked a breathless Sue.

“Because they bleedin’ well wanted to, that’s why!”

Sue looked confused as the old lady continued:

“Anyone couple choosing them seats knew full well what the score was. What kind of a fella’s gonna sit there and then not ask a girl to marry ‘im?”.

She took a large swig of her drink.

“Sorry to disappoint yer Love, but there weren’t no magic in them seats even when this place showed films instead o’ runnin’ bingo. If there was I’d ‘ave got meself a nice young merchant banker down there forty-five years ago instead of marryin’ that useless bleedin’ great dipstick I got sat at home watching the telly and pickin’ ‘is nose!”

Sue looked understandably crestfallen and the old lady felt bad, so it was an opportune moment for Frances to show up with her mop and bucket. Fifteen years younger than Marjorie and far less jaded, she never claimed to believe in the supernatural – but she knew there were forces out there that we had yet to understand. She put a reassuring hand on Sue’s shoulder:

“You make your own mind up, Love”, she advised. “After all, what have you got to lose?”

Even Marjorie agreed with that:

“Fair point… Fair point. You get that bloke o’ yours down there. I’ll be expecting an invite to the wedding, mind…”

It wouldn’t have been the first time that Marjorie had attended the wedding of a couple who sat in the famed seats: Back in the 60’s, Iris and Fred Hughes had gone for a traditional church service and held a particularly sumptuous do at the local labour club, whilst Eileen and Reg Brown had hired the freemasons hall and got a jazz band in. John and Pauline Richards had done a fabulous finger buffet and even had a honeymoon in Spain. Unsurprisingly, all the couples had moved away, never to be heard of again. They’d now have kids of their own, maybe even grandkids. Nice houses, couple of cars and two trips a year to the Med. Some people don’t know they’re born…

On March 23rd, though, Sue’s mind had not progressed to things like kids and houses. That was all a long way off – first she needed to get engaged. Sylvia was getting particularly out of hand these days, and for the first time in her life, Sue was really feeling the pressure.

Jill gave her a wonderfully innocent grin as she and Alan made their way to seats 43 and 44C. She was in on the secret, just like every other member of staff at Orchid Lane that night.

“Is it allocated seats, then?” enquired Alan, innocently.

“No, don’t be silly!” replied Sue. “This is just my lucky place to sit”.

She immediately felt silly, and qualified her remark:

“Bingo is full of superstition – it’s part of the deal. It’s weird: It just gets into you.”

She showed Alan what to do: Explained about the National games, how to arrange the tickets and about the slang they’d be hearing from the caller. It seemed simple enough, and before they knew it the first game was underway.

Aware that the entire staff that night knew about her plan, Sue turned round for support, and found Frances, mouthing “go on”, with a clenched fist. Sue smiled at her, but sadly she caught the eye of one of the noisy mob nearby: A skinny, pallid-looking girl in a black and white dress leered across at her and slowly extended her tongue to its full length before wiggling it from side to side whilst making her eyes bulge out of her head. The effect was horribly lairy and took Sue by surprise; she turned round and whispered to Alan, mortified with embarrassment:

“I’ve never seen them in here before. This isn’t normal…”

Alan dismissed the incident with a wave of his hand and grinned. It was no big deal, provided it didn’t escalate, which was unlikely: There were staff on hand to moderate that sort of thing, and both he and Sue had faith that Don – on caller duty that night – would put them in their place soon enough if necessary.

Halfway through the second game, though, things really were getting out of hand: This time one of the men – a ruddy-faced twenty-something with prematurely receding hair and a brown suit with a monstrous kipper tie – laughed at a comment made by one of his friends, puncturing the air with an unceremonious snort.

Sue and Alan both turned at this point:

“Shut up”, they said in unison.

The man quietened down and they settled back into their seats. And then it came: A large hot dog flew overhead and landed slap bang on Sue’s skirt, which was brand new. Now it was covered in hot fat, onions and ketchup, and she understandably went ballistic.

The pair of them got up and approached the troublemakers, but Marjorie and Frances had beaten them to it. Being a Monday night early session no-one else was playing, but these idiots were wrecking the game – and Sue’s big night. As soon as the two women got nearer, however, they stopped dead in their tracks. Marjorie stared, gulping in horror whilst Frances ran off screaming.

Sue’s initial concern was Marjorie:

“What’s the matter?” she asked. Even Marjorie, who’d seen it all, had trouble speaking. She pointed at the six noisy customers:

“I kn..kn..know you. All of you.”

And they all remembered her, too. Eileen, Reg, Iris, Fred, John and Pauline stood right in front of her eyes, as though a day hadn’t passed since she attended their weddings.

Marjorie promptly fainted on the spot, as the ruddy-faced man – otherwise known as Fred Hughes – approached Alan:

“We’re on your side, you pair o’ bleedin’ idiots”, he advised with a forbidding sneer. His breath stank of bitter and peanuts and his skin oozed stale sweat.

“What the hell are you talking about you idiot!?” Alan shouted. By now Don had stopped the game and the boys from behind the bar were fanning Marjorie with a magazine, checking her pulse. The repellent Hughes pulled a woman to his side and thrust her in front of Sue and Alan:

“See her? That was my wife, that was.”

The woman nodded, slowly, and as she did so a diabolical wound in her neck shone with the luminescence of congealed blood. He continued, unabated:

“We weren’t the same after we sat in them seats.” He looked sad.

“Got married like we knew we would, but them rows we ‘ad. Jesus Christ…” Poor Fred looked like he was about to cry.

“I never meant to do ‘er. Gawd only knows what got into me. I never thought it had nothing to do with them seats, but something made us come back ‘ere and we met these two.” He raised a trembling finger up to the girl in the black and white dress and her husband, AKA Eileen and Reg Brown, married in July 1963. Dressed up as the original swinging sixties couple, Reg wore a mod suit with a skinny tie and brogues to complement his wife’s dress, her Jean Shrimpton hairdo and a pair of high-heeled leather boots up to her thighs. Even by the fashions of the day however, she looked abnormally pallid.

“Strangled her, didn’t I love?” he explained. Eileen nodded, miserably. Dead at twenty-six, she’d missed motherhood and never felt ready to rest in peace.

John Richards had finished Pauline off just a few years after their wedding in 1975, throwing her from a moving car after a nasty row about his burgeoning drinking habit. Upon closer inspection Sue and Alan could see that her huge chunks of her flesh were missing on the side of her neck and right up the back of her head, whilst her kaftan was stained through with dark patches. The stench of stale blood mixed with L’Air du Temps perfume was like nothing Sue had ever smelled, or ever wanted to smell again.

“You mark my words, you two”, Fred continued. “You kiss after 9 o’clock in them seats and you can’t walk down no aisle. Not in this lifetime.”

Sue and Alan stood, open-mouthed, whilst the staff at Orchid Lane huddled together behind the bar. Fred motioned towards the stage with his head and then looked at the young couple with a genuine concern in his eyes:

“You stay lucky, the pair of yer”.

And with that, he walked off to the fire exit with his five dead friends following silently behind.

 

Paul Ewart: House Rules

A short story by Paul Ewart – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

Kel’s birth was the second most important event of the year for Gladys Pomfrett. The Betting and Gaming Act meant more to her. At least, that’s how Kel saw it, when he was old enough to know. He might have been born in 1960, but it was also the year that bingo grew up. Why else would his mum think of Kelly’s Eye when naming her boy Kelly? It was a girl’s name, according to his mates. OK he was her first born – her Number One; but really! Thank God the lads shortened it to Kel.

Gladys was hooked from the moment her dad came home from the war and said, “Ee Gladys, the fun me and the lads had playing housey-housey, before getting stuck into Adolf.’ She was only twelve, but felt there was magic in the numbers and the soldiers’ names for them.

Kel was sure that shouts of “Bingo!’ reached him in the womb. It was certainly the first word he heard as he lay in his mum’s arms. Fred Pomfrett had begun toasting his baby’s head well in advance. When told that little Kelly had arrived, he leapt from his seat in the waiting room and shouted his wife’s favourite word.

The Gaming Act gave Gladys every reason, and opportunity, to celebrate. Her main source of fun was no longer confined to small clubs and small prizes. The old Odeon was transformed into a hall of wonder. Gladys and her friends could enjoy their passion, with their husband’s blessings – and often without their men in tow.

The Times warned of “bingo orphans’ in an effort to shame mums like Gladys. But Kel wasn’t neglected. He just missed his mum on her nights out. He wasn’t too happy when she won, either. Not because he begrudged her the joy of it, but it meant his dad came home even “merrier’ than usual. Fred would tell his son, “your mum’s the Bobby Charlton of bingo.’ Then he would spout mangled versions of bingo calls – and laugh himself sick, “six and seven…a maid in heaven. Whoo hoo. Eighty eight…two lardy lasses. Ha ha.’

It was as if the fun would never end! For Kel, it never really started. He quickly came to hate everything about bingo. He developed an allergy to anything that even sounded like the game. The Beatles were out, because the drummer was Ringo. Documentaries about Australia were out, they might mention dingo. Ken Dodd’s “By jingo’ made Kel queasy. Worse was to come. He began reacting to simple word combinations. Sting; Bing; king; wing; followed by a word starting with an “o’ sound, made him anxious.

Seaside outings were fraught affairs. His dad was happy to explore the local watering holes. So, Kel would spend hour after hour sat beside his mum in some arcade. There were rewards, of course. Birthdays brought a treasure trove of tat. In exchange for arcade vouchers, Gladys amassed an inexhaustible supply of improbable items; frog-shaped money boxes, chalk figurines of unrecognisable footballers, and the like. For Kel, the only relief was their tendency to fall apart when looked at hard enough.

Bingo trains almost sent him off the rails. He thought his mum was joking; just to see the expression on his face. No such luck. Three hours trapped on a train, while a disembodied voice called numbers over the tannoy. It was the very definition of hell on wheels for a traumatised lad. No way to escape his mum’s favourite form of escapism. And then there were the holidays spent at Butlins. Sheer bingo bedlam!

Mercifully, university life gave him the respite he craved. He was surprised, though, that his mum had made such a fuss of him leaving. He had expected her to be happy to have more time to herself – if only to chase bigger and better bingo prizes. Even Kel had to admit that the cruises, furs and cash on offer must have been enticing.

It was a more mature man who graduated some years later. He no longer resented ploughing through pages trumpeting “big money bingo’ in order to get to Page Three. Even he was impressed by stories of bingo millionaires. In a weak moment, he even imagined a call from his mum, “Hello our Kelly. I’ve won the Sun Bingo. Your dad has moved into the local, with an unlimited tab. What colour would you like your Ferragi to be?’ She never was very good with cars!

His life moved on apace. Married at thirty, the end of the Noughties saw him settled, content and comfortable. His own kids were at university. Costly, he thought, but worth every penny. Television was his escape from the rigours of the day. All sorts of programmes interested him; apart from the Lottery Show – he just couldn’t watch it. Deep in his subconscious there remained an aversion to numbered balls leaping up a tube.

It was unlikely, therefore, that he would sit through a documentary his wife wanted to see -about the history of bingo. “I think I might go upstairs and clean the bathroom’, he said, when it was about to start.

“Yeh right,’ came the disbelieving reply, “and pigs might fly. Come on, I want to snuggle up with you on the settee.’

He knew what side his bacon butty was buttered. I’ll be able to tune-out, he thought. Instead, he found himself drawn into the programme. The facts and figures astonished him. He didn’t know it was popular with troops and sailors during the war. The thought that more people play it in the high-tech 21st century, than watch football or go to church, staggered Kel. “My God,’ he exclaimed, “twenty four per cent of the population were playing this when I was six. No wonder mum got the bug.’

He was fascinated by the old footage of women queuing for their regular outings, and tough, working-class men beginning to take an interest. He even caught himself straining to see if he could spot his mum. He was annoyed by the pompous TV reporters, interrupting decent folk on their night out, with their condescending questions. And he felt a totally unexpected pride in the forthright and unashamed responses. Echoes of his upbringing were sounding; faint, but there.

Kel found himself sympathising when he saw just how hard the smoking ban had hit the industry. But this was quickly replaced by wonder at bingo’s resilience. As far back as the Eighties, a computer system linked halls across the country, so they could compete with newspaper bingo. In response to the smoking ban, venues were re-inventing themselves. He loved the film of different generations mixing in bright, safe surroundings. What a relief from the curse of binge-drinking and fighting in town centres, he thought.

“Why so quiet?’ Jenny asked, a little while after the programme ended.

“Listen, sweetheart,’ he replied “I need to go and see mum.’ I’ll go first thing tomorrow. Work can wait for once.’

As he drove, Kel went over his thoughts from the previous evening. Bingo must have been a huge release for his mum. Life must have been tough. His dad hadn’t always worked, but he had always managed to drink. Fred was never unkind, but it must have cost them. The nights out with friends, and the occasional wins, surely helped them stay close. With dad gone and her health as it is, it must be a while since she has been able to go out of an evening.

Stepping out of the car, he couldn’t help but smile. On his mum’s drive sat an ageing Renault. A Twingo, of course. She was standing on the doorstep and caught his look. “I couldn’t not buy it could I?’ she said, with an Ann Robinson wink. Kel patted its roof as he walked by. Brilliant, he thought.

As they sat down in her spotless lounge, he said, “I’ve come about bingo mum.’

“Not again, Kelly. I thought you were past all that….’

He tried to interrupt, but she continued. “I know you hated it, and it put your dad in A&E a couple of times, but it also put you through university my lad!’

Kel had never asked her if she’d had a really big win. Nor had he asked himself how else his parents could afford for him go to university. He had wanted for nothing. “It’s OK mum. Really. I want to show you something. Something else you can do with the computer. It’s even better than online shopping.’

“Is there anything better?’ she said, with just a touch of irony.

After a couple of minutes fiddling, he announced, dramatically, “Online bingo! How does that tickle your fancy?’ He could see she was slightly dazed. “It’s my pathetic attempt at an apology mum. Years late I know. But I’ve set up an account for you and there’s a couple of hundred quid credit in it. All I ask, is if you win a fortune, can you buy me a red Ferrari please?’

Gladys felt the heat of tears in her eyes, “Oh son,’ was all she could manage.

“And I’m going to make you a promise,’ beamed Kel, “when you’re back on top of your game, I’m going to take you to the golf club on social night. Mum…we’re going to play this game together.’

 

Marina Jacobs: The First Time

A short story by Marina Jacobs – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

“Jack!” his mother called up from the bottom of the stairs. No reply.

Jack was in his room, preening his hair and listening to his music, which was too loud as usual. His mother, Sally, knocked on his door and when she got no reply, opened it and went in. It made her laugh, watching him dance to his music, until he noticed she was there and stopped instantly. “Mum, you could knock!”

“I did,” she shouted over the music, “You”ll go deaf listening to it that loud.”

“I can”t hear you,” Jack said as he turned the music down. “What did you say?”

“I hope you don”t have plans for today, your Gran needs your help.”

Jack did have plans; he was going to hang out at Luke”s house in the hope of seeing Luke”s sister who was home from university for the Summer. He”d had a silly crush on her for years, probably because he didn”t really meet any other girls. “I do have plans,” he told his mother.”

“Nothing more important than helping your Gran out I assume,” she said, telling him rather than asking.

“Can”t Dad help her?” he asked, “you know I”m rubbish at putting up shelves and stuff.”

“She specifically asked for you to help. No shelves involved; it”s your driving skills she needs,” said Sally holding out a car key. “You can take my car, it”s more likely not to break down than yours.” That put a smile on Jack”s face.

As Jack walked up the path to Ruby”s front door he saw her at the window waving to him. She was always so pleased to see him. Jack was her eldest grandchild. “You”re my favourite,” she”d tell him, “but don”t tell the others.” Jack knew she said exactly the same thing to all the grandchildren.

“Hello pet,” she said as she opened the door to him. “Have a sit down for a minute. I”m almost ready, just got to get my dabber.”

“What”s a dabber?” asked Jack, sitting in one of the armchairs. Ruby came into the room, took the lid off the fat felt pen she was holding and dabbed a big orange inky splodge on the back of Jack”s hand. “That”s a dabber,” she laughed. “Haven”t you ever been to bingo?”

“No Gran, I”m twenty years old, not sixty.”

“Oi, cheeky! Lots of young people go to bingo I”ll have you know.”

“If you say so Gran.”

Jack parked the car and walked Ruby to the main doors of the bingo hall. “Have fun. What time do you want me to pick you up?”

Ruby laughed. “Oh you are funny,” she said, taking his hand and leading him through the doors.

“Gran, what are you doing?”

“You”re coming with me.”

“No Gran, really, it”s not my thing,” he pleaded.

She stopped abruptly and stared at him. “Why? What”s wrong with it?” she said, feigning offence.

“Nothing,” replied Jack, looking worried. Ruby laughed.

“I”m only pulling your leg. Come on.”

Still holding Jack”s hand, Ruby led him to the tickets counter. “Two books please, and the nationals.” She whispered to Jack: “You can play on a screen now, like a computer, but I like the old fashioned way.”

“Seriously, Gran, you don”t want me in there with you, cramping your style,” he said in a last effort to be allowed to leave.

“You”re worried about it cramping your style your mean. Don”t worry, you”ll love it!” she said as they went through to the main hall.

They found a table and sat down. Ruby took a ten-pound note out of her handbag and handed it to Jack. “Go and get us a nice cup of tea,” she asked, pointing to the café area. Jack stood in the queue for their drinks and was surprised to see that the girl in front of him was about his age. She smiled at him. “Are you here with your Gran too? Jack asked, quickly establishing that he wasn”t there out of choice.

“No, I”m here with a couple of friends. We come every week.”

“Really?” he said, unable to hide his surprise. “This is my first time.”

“A bingo virgin hey?

“Yeah, well it”s not really my thing.”

“How do you know if you”ve never tried it?” she asked. Nothing he could say to that. The man at the counter took her order. “I”m Becky,” the girl said, holding out her hand.

“Jack,” he said, taking her hand and shaking it.

“You”re bound to win. Beginners luck and all that,” she said, picking up her tray of drinks. “Maybe I”ll see you later.”

Jack watched her walk to her table, very happy with his bingo experience so far.

“Here you are, I got you a dabber,” Ruby said when Jack got back to their table. She watched the bingo caller walk onto the platform. “It”s about to start,” she said, as excited as a child on Christmas morning. Jack wished his Gran good luck as the bingo caller called “eyes down.” A silence suddenly came over the whole room; you could almost hear everyone”s concentration. Jack was surprised at how fast Ruby marked off the numbers as they were called out. Ruby looked at Jack”s bingo book. “You only need one number,” she said.

“What do I do if I get it?”

“Shout “house” nice and loud.”

Jack needed number 22. “Two and four, twenty four,” called the bingo caller. “All the fours, forty four.”

“House!” called a lady in the middle of the room. There was a communal groan as everyone in the room realized they wouldn”t be winning that game.

“She always wins, every time,” Jack heard the man behind him complain.

“Don”t worry, plenty more chances,” Ruby assured Jack. They turned the page to the next game; a brand new set of numbers with as much chance of winning as anyone else”s. As they marked the numbers off, Ruby noticed Jack looking repeatedly at a dark haired girl. “She”s pretty,” she said.

“What? Who?” said jack, pretending not to know what she was on about.

“I met your Granddad playing bingo, you know; July 1958. He was such a handsome man when he was young; you look just like him.”

“That”s what Mum says.”

“I was there with my best friend, Vi, and your Granddad walked up to me and asked if I”d like a drink. He was so nervous, his voice was shaking. That made me fall instantly in love with him.”

“Gran, they just called 31,” Jack said, noticing that Ruby hadn”t marked it off. “Youhave to concentrate; you don”t want to win and miss it.”

“You have to allow an old girl to reminisce once in a while. You”ve still got it all to come.”

“One and three, thirteen,” said the bingo caller.

Ruby marked off the number, giving her two full lines. “That”s me,” she said to Jack. “House!” she called out and stood up waving her bingo book. A member of staff came over and confirmed her win.

“That”s two lines for £40,” said the bingo caller, “you”re now after a full house for £80.”

“Nice one!” said Jack, surprised at Ruby”s win.

“She keeps looking at you.”

“Who does?”

“You know who. Go and introduce yourself in the break. If your Granddad can do it, you can.”

“I already have, her name”s Becky. We met when I got the teas.”

Ruby raised her eyebrows and gave a smile showing she was impressed. “Changed your mind about bingo yet then? ” Ruby asked.

Jack shrugged his shoulders, not quite able to admit the truth, which was that he was enjoying himself.

“Another cup of tea?” Jack asked when the break started.

“Go on then. Why don”t you ask Becky if she wants one?”

“Na,” he said, wishing he had the courage to ask her. He went to get the drinks, looking around, hoping to spot Becky while he was in the queue, but saw no sign of her. Then he spotted Ruby talking to Becky and was mortified at the thought of what she might be saying to her.

“Gran, what did you say to Becky?” he asked anxiously when he sat down with fresh cups of tea.

“Don”t say I never do anything for you,” she said, giving nothing away and keeping his intrigue. “Don”t worry, I just told her she was a beautiful girl who must have a string boys wanting to take her out. She told me there”s no man in her life at the moment. Come on, we”re starting.”

They opened their books to the next game. “Thanks Gran,” Jack said, unable not to grin.

On the last game, Jack was down to just two numbers left.

“On it”s own, number 6.” That was one of Jack”s. He just needed number 12 to win.

“Last number of the session, number five.”

“House!” called a girls voice nearby. Jack saw that it was Becky and was pleased for her. He passed her table on his way out. “Congratulations on your win,” he said to her.

“Thanks. So did you enjoy your first time?”

“Yeah, it”s been fun,” he replied.

“Good,” said Becky, “Maybe I”ll see you here next week then.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said as casually as he could, knowing nothing would stop him from being there.


Gaynor Jones: The Cheque

A short story by Gaynor Jones – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

“Jean! Jean, are you in there? Get down here, quick!”

The letter box slammed back and forth as Sheila yelled through it. I nearly tripped on my slippers as I raced down the stairs, tangling my dressing gown cord around me as I flew. I flung the door open, hand on hip; ready to give Sheila what for. But then I saw that she wasn’t in trouble; her house wasn’t burning down, in fact, there’d been no emergency as far as I could see.

“What the-?” I began, but then I saw that she wasn’t alone. The two of them were stood there, jumping up down as giddy as a pair of schoolgirls at a pop concert. Sheila and Kelly were two of my neighbours and best friends; the Bingo Babes we jokingly called ourselves, after our twice weekly sessions at the Gala. Mags wasn’t with them though, she was our other friend from the cul-de-sac, but not one of the Bingo Babes – you’d as like get her at the bingo as you would a butcher at a vegan banquet.

“What on earth has gotten in to you two?”  Young Kelly, who, to be fair, was the only one of us who could pass for a babe, giggled and put her arm round Sheila, who, I suddenly noticed, was still in her dressing gown. Out in the street for all to see!

“What – ” My words were lost as they bustled past me into the hallway, and then began a chorus of what I can only describe as screeching.

“She’s got one! She’s got one too!”

“Let me see – oooh it’s the same! Open it, Jean, open it!”

It was Sheila that thrust the envelope into my hands, while Kelly stood back, silent now apart from the odd giggle. Bleary eyed, I shook my head, peeled open the envelope, and pulled out a cheque. With my name on it. And in the amount box was written: £20,000.00

* * *

“Oh I’m going to get a conservatory, no doubt about it.” Kelly melted another slice of butter into her crumpet, then waved the knife around like she was conducting an invisible orchestra. “That damp patch there – I’ve mithered him to fix it for years. And now I can knock it down – damp and all.” It’d been a couple of hours since my rude awakening, and the cheques were all we’d talked about.

“It’s got to be a new bathroom for me – with one of them baths big enough for two, taps on the side so you can stretch right out and…well, you know!”

“Sheila! I’ve not even had me breakfast yet.”

“Oh, calm down, Kelly, us oldies still like to have a bit of fun, you know.” Kelly shook her head in mock dismay, but I knew she secretly loved hearing about Sheila’s antics: she wasn’t discreet, but by George, she gave us hope for the future. Kelly turned to me, “How about you, Jean, what will it be?”

I hesitated; all those years at the bingo hall, dreaming about a big win – I’d spent that money a hundred times over in my imagination. A holiday perhaps; back to that lovely all-inclusive in Turkey we’d scraped the money together for. Must’ve been ten years ago now, that holiday. But then, I had been hankering after a new suite, and of course, if you replace the suite, you’ve got to get the curtains to match. With £20,000 I could even stretch to Laura Ashley! Still, they were only daydreams. I picked up the cheque and studied the handwriting, then shook my head. Something wasn’t right. This wasn’t my bingo win; this wasn’t even my money (though the writing on the cheque said otherwise.)

“I don’t mean to put a downer on things. But, it’s just … where has it come from?”

“Oh, I don’t give two hoots.” Sheila took a large bite of crumpet, butter oozing down her chin as she spoke. “It’s about time something like this happened, with all the grief we’ve had round here.” I cast my eyes down. It was rare that anyone mentioned the troubles in our little group – though, truly, that’s why we’d bonded in the first place. Sheila had lost a son to cancer, I had my divorce, Kelly had been trying for years for a little one, and poor Mags – so isolated, so … Mags! I’d almost forgotten about her in the excitement! (Well, seeing a cheque for £20, 000 with your name on it will that do a girl!)

“Have you knocked on Mags? Has she got one too?”

“Give over, Friday morning? She’ll be at the luncheon club already – dusting off the dried flowers or whatever she does there.”  I nodded. Although Mags wouldn’t venture to the bingo with us, she’d always come round for a cup of tea and a slice of cake for our Wednesday morning meet up. In fact, I think it was the highlight of her week. Mags had never married, never had kids – what they used to call a spinster back in crueller days. She kept her house tidy and her nose clean; she wouldn’t even join in with our gossip, though it was harmless enough. When I first moved here I thought she was, well, the neighbourhood odd-bod, as me Mam used to say. But over the years she’d melted a little, let us in bit by bit.  But still, she wouldn’t come out with us – not to bingo night, the local, or anywhere but the luncheon club.

Sheila’s raucous laugh cut through my thoughts.

“What’s that you’re saying?”

“Oh, nothing, Jean, I was just wondering who Mags might invite into a bath for two.” Kelly swatted playfully at Sheila’s arm again, but then the bang of a door made us all look up. Kelly raced to the window, peeled back the nets, and stopped short.

“What is it, Kel? What can you see?” Kelly turned to us, confusion furrowed across her brow.

“You aren’t going to believe this.”

* * *

The three of us stood on the grass verge, my dressing gown flapping in the wind. And there, across the cul-de-sac, was Mags. Laden down with bags from all sorts of shops. Hat boxes, shoe boxes – the works. She paid the beaming taxi driver, and stood on the lawn, a desert island among her sea of shopping bags.

“What the…?” I found myself speechless for the second time that day. Smiling, Mags waved us over and surprised me by opening her arms for a big group hug.

“Oh, girls, I feel like I’m in a fairy tale!” Maggie’s voice sounded different, and it took me a few seconds to realise why – she was standing up straight, and smiling. This wasn’t the hunched up, hidden away Mags I knew from the street. She retreated from our hugs and jumped up and down on the spot, clapping her hands. “Did you get the presents?”

“You? Mags. The cheques are from you?” Sheila echoed our disbelief. Mags nodded unstoppably, like one of those dogs on the back shelf of the car.

“I wanted to surprise you all, but I couldn’t think how. My head’s been racing for days.” Mags shook her head as if to clear it, then grinned at us. “You see, I’ve been playing bingo online.” Kelly’s chin dropped to the floor. Mags as a secret internet gambler! We didn’t even know she could use a computer. Mags chuckled and placed her arm around Kelly’s shoulders. “I just fancied a dabble every now and then. It helped me to have a bit of fun, like I was joining in with you.”

“But, Mags,” Sheila shook her head in confusion, “If you wanted to play bingo – to join in with us – why didn’t you just come with us?”

The smile left Mag’s face then, for the first time since the taxi pulled away. She opened her mouth, but it took her a while to get the words out. “It’s no secret that I’m … shy. You see, I’ve never really had friends before. Not at school. Not when I used to work either. People think I’m cold, a bit bristly they say.” I cringed with guilt and noticed Sheila had eyes downcast, staring at the pavement. Only young Kelly, bless her, held her eyes – she even nodded! “Anyway, since you’ve all moved in here I’ve opened up a bit, you know. You mightn’t think it,” she smiled shyly, “But it takes a lot for me to even say ‘hello’ to someone new, after all the teasing I’ve had. Anyway,” she shook her shoulders, “That’s all in the past now, this money has given me just the wake up I need. I couldn’t believe it at first, when the numbers flashed up on the screen! But now the money’s here, it’s all real. I’ve been out shopping for a whole new wardrobe. I’m going to get out of this house, this cul-de-sac, and see a bit of the world. I can’t believe I nearly let life pass me by, just because I didn’t think I had anyone to share it with.”

“You can share it with us, Mags.”

“I was hoping that you would say that,” grinned Mags, “because I’ve got four cruise tickets here – all-inclusive, round the Med, 5 star cabins. And that’s just for starters.” I didn’t think my jaw could drop any lower, and it was Sheila, in her true Sheila style, who broke the awed silence between us:

“Pack your bags, ladies! We’re off to see the world! Oh, and Mags?”

“Yes, Sheila?”

“You’ll be coming to bingo with us every week from now on, and I’ll have no arguing about it – maybe you’re on a winning streak!”

 

Tess Niland Kimber: Girl’s Night Out

A short story by Tess Niland Kimber – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

A swirling kaleidoscope of neon lights danced around the darkened stage at the Blue Lagoon social club.

“… and it’s l-e-e-g-s eleven,” bellowed the spotlighted bingo caller.

His words were accompanied by a shrill wolf whistle and a ripple of polite laughter. Carol groaned. It was the third time this evening the number had drawn this cheesy response. Sat at a table, near the front of the stage, she blinked, trying desperately to focus on her bingo card. In her slightly shaking hand, she held the dauber aloft and marked it off.

“Five and nine, the Brighton Line.”

The audience now imitated a whistling train. Carol cringed then squinted. If only the black figures on her card would stop merging …

“Is this taking your mind off your break-up, Carol, love? Bingo night at the club’s always one to remember,” winked Di from Accounts. “And as the idiot manager messed up tonight’s club bookings, we’ve got live entertainment to come afterwards …”

If her recent split from her partner Shaun weren’t enough to make her weep, the words, live, entertainment and social club, in the same sentence, certainly would be. No doubt it was some lame, tribute band, bawling out Abba hits, or one of the members who fancied himself as a ‘comedian’ with a selection of tumbleweed jokes.

“One little duck, number two.”

“Quack, quack,” shouted the audience.

There were so loud that Carol didn’t catch Di asking her,

“More Witches Brew?”

She gazed back blankly.

Di rolled her eyes. “Another drink?” she said, in an Irish whisper, loud enough to prompt a chorus of, “Shushes!” from the players nearby.

“Glass-sh of wine? Don’t mind …” Carol hiccupped and then tried again, speaking in her best telephone voice, “… don’t mind if I do-oo.”

Hearing her fake, polite tone, Di roared with laughter, the action sending a seismic wave through her ample chest which wobbled like a dish of blancmange.

Were they real or implants? Carol wondered, unable to avoid her colleague’s plunging neckline in her sparkly, blue top, as she reached for the tray of empties in the centre of the table. Di was spilling out of her blouse like the froth on the unladylike pint of bitter she’d just sunk.

“Two fat ladies, eighty eight …”

“Carol Goddard, don’t try and act all posh with us. You’re just as squiffy as the rest of us,” said Barb from Wages, adeptly throwing another fiver onto the table to top up the drinks kitty before quickly marking off this latest number on her card.

Barb was painfully thin. Her powdered face was a deathly white and she’d used so much eye liner and mascara, she looked like a frightened panda. The finishing touch was a slash of too-red lipstick, which had unfortunately bled into the fine cracks around her smoker’s lips. When she’d tapped her on the shoulder earlier to say hello, Carol had actually jumped.

“Two-Oh, blind twenty.”

Suddenly a man at the back, shouted, “House,” and the room was carpeted with groans.

“I was only one number away,” Di complained and then cackled, “Sixty nine!”

Carol shivered. She could just imagine her late mother’s distaste – not just at her choice of new friends but their idea of an evening’s entertainment. Was she really spending a night out at the bingo? If her mother had been here, she’d have breathed the unforgivable label ‘common,’ into her ear.

“Good time to get those drinks. We need to drown our sorrows.” Catching Carol’s vacant look, Di added, “That high and mighty act might work on old Matthews in the office but you’re out with us now – letting your hair down.”

As if she needed reminding, Carol thought, sinking into her chair. She was about to tell her – in no uncertain terms – that she’d only had three glasses of Chardonnay and that was as far ‘down’ as she was prepared to let her ‘hair’ go, when Barb screwed up her strips of bingo numbers and said,

“That’s the last game for tonight.” She flapped her hands to quieten the girls. “They’re fitting the live act in now. I’m dying for him to be introduced. Barman said earlier the guy’s an exotic dancer and supposed to be hung like a horse. They don’t call him Tony the Pony for nothing.”

As all the women screeched their approval, Carol blushed. She was struggling to be ‘one of the girls’ and have fun but even being newly single, this raucous night out really wasn’t her scene.

If only she was still with Shaun …

Wistfully, she remembered how differently they’d spent their leisure time. Curled in front of a snapping log fire, they’d shared slices of takeaway pepperoni pizza while watching back-to-back episodes of ‘Corrie,’ recorded on Sky Plus.

He’d loved his telly and grub, had her Shaun …

She pushed the warm memory away before it made her teary and she tried to, at least, look as if she was enjoying herself. She mustn’t be ungrateful. It was kind of her colleagues at the Inland Revenue to ask her to join them for the evening.

“It’ll cheer you up to do something different. Take your mind off your ex,” Di had said one lunchtime when she’d first suggested Carol join them on their regular Friday nights out. “We meet at the Blue Lagoon and always have a good laugh. Club usually lays on a few games of bingo.”

Although a quiet meal in an Italian restaurant was more Carol’s scene, the Friday nights had sounded as if they might be fun. And there was a bonus. Once she was out with them all, she’d get to know her workmates better.

However, as soon as she’d stepped into the bar of the Blue Lagoon this evening, she realised her mistake. Away from the formal office environment, the girls were as loud as if they were on a permanent Hen Night and were all dressed as subtly as drag queens.

With her own arms bare of tattoos and no body piercing other than those in her ear lobes, Carol felt out of place and frumpy. Up against the teeny, mini skirts and low-cut vest tops of her workmates, her frilly blouse felt positively overdressed.

Instead of taking her mind off her recent split, the atmosphere in the Blue Lagoon had spun her out of her comfort zone, making her miss Shaun with an ache. No wonder she was hitting the Chardonnay!

If only they were still together. The split had been such a shock. One minute they’d been flicking through coach holiday brochures, looking for a trip to the Lake District; the next Shaun was telling her he was moving out.

“But … but I thought we were happy,” she’d sobbed that evening when he told her their six year relationship was over.

“We were … are … but I want to do something different with my life,” he’d claimed, weakly, as he sorted through their CD collection, coldly deciding which were his. “While I’m still young enough.”

Alone in bed that night, his words had haunted her … something different … What had he meant?

Suddenly, there was a loud shriek as the microphone crackled into life.

“And here he is, ladies,” the stocky compere introduced, “Tony th-h-ee Pony!”

The music boomed out and to the theme of ‘Here Comes the Boys,’ a man burst onto the stage wearing little more than a sparkly, silver g-string and a broad, toothy smile. His bare torso, almost painted orange with fake tan, showed an obvious ledge where he was straining to suck in his stomach.

“Oh, my God,” Carol said, her hands flying up to cover her mouth.

“Throw a bucket of cold water over her,” shouted Di. “She’s come over all peculiar and he ain’t even stripped off yet.”

“Stripped off?” she repeated, her face, reddening.

One of the other girls, a big, roly poly woman with platinum blonde hair and perfume as strong as air freshener, hooted with laughter.

“It’s always the quiet ones who’re the worst!”

Carol couldn’t help herself. Just like some of the other women in the audience, she pushed away her chair and, swaying slightly from the glasses of wine she’d already consumed on an empty stomach, stood up.

“Well, that’s certainly … different!” she cheered as the chunky hunk writhed on the stage to the music.

The male ‘dancer’ pulled tantalisingly at the strip of material barely covering his manhood and stomped, out of time to the music, performing moves that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an embarrassing ‘Dad’ dancing competition.

“Woo-hoo!” Carol shouted, cupping her hand around her mouth.

“God, you’ve come out her shell with a vengeance,” cackled Di. “Good old Tony the Pony.”

Carol looked down at her still seated friend, who now seemed to have morphed into identical twins wearing sparkly, blue tops, before her bleary eyes.

“Tony the Pony? Hardly. That’s my old man.” She stopped herself and corrected, “Well, my ex-old man … And believe you me, if he ever takes off that silvery thong, you’ll see he’s built more like Shaun the Prawn than Tony the Pony!”

Carol laughed until tears ran down her face.

“Are you all right, love?” asked Barb, concern etching her powdered features. “Not upset at seeing him again, are you? Especially like this?”

“Upset? No way!” she giggled, thinking how ridiculous Shaun looked prancing about on the stage. Remembering all she’d learned from playing bingo earlier, she added, “I think he looks totally Two and Eight – overweight – who can’t Three and Five – jive – for toffees and having seen this, I know our relationship’s definitely at a Nine-O – end of the line!”

Di cracked up as Carol added,

“I reckon, girls, this is the best night out I’ve ever had. Get another round of that Witches Brew in – on me!”

 

Lynda Lofthouse: Number Eighty Five

A short story by Lynda Lofthouse – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

I sat on the hard metal seat and immediately its icy coldness makes my body stiffen in protest. There is no sign of comfort or warmth in this room, just bare walls, concrete floors and the rows of metal seats. The room is filling up with people dressed the same as me. Men and women alike all wearing white tops, each a stark contrast to the blood red numbers boldly painted on them. We wear thin shorts, so our legs are bare, as are our feet that haven’t seen the luxury of shoes for some time. I think longingly of my blanket, although thin and patchy, I could at least huddle in it and gain some warmth. Nobody is talking but I’ve been in this position before, like a lot of the others, four times before to be exact, I know what to expect. Today the atmosphere generates so much emotion it speaks volumes in the silence. Usually there is an air of anxiousness and dread but today there is a sense of expectation, hopefulness and eagerness for events to start. There is an unspoken knowledge amongst us all. Today is special. This day has been a long time coming. Five months I have been here, like everyone else in this room. We have been waiting, trying to keep hope alive.

The loudspeaker overhead suddenly crackles into life and all heads turn towards it expectantly. There is the sound of applause and then the voice of The Organiser, as we refer to him, from the hall next door. Finally this game is about to begin.

The Organiser goes through the rules and introduces The Players, droning on seeming to love the sound of his own voice echoing round. Time seems to be going extra slow and the anticipation is building. I’m gripping my hands so tightly I’ve made imprints with my nails on my palm. Eventually the klaxon sounds signifying the machine starting up. In the hall, the big glass dome is frantically throwing the small white balls haphazardly around. The numbers written on them a blur as they move against each other fighting for room within a confined space. This game is old and it used to be played for fun. Hard to believe that now as within this environment it has become a stolen relic. The Organiser says it should be a comfort, a reminder of home but really it is used as a means to goad us with memories of the past and better times. Taunt us over the agonising fact that our future will be bleak and we are prisoners, home is far away from our confinement.

“Time for fun,” calls The Organiser to a burst of laughter from the audience, “Number forty one.” The Organiser uses the old phrases and tries to turn them in to a joke for the benefit of his selected audience. I look over and see a young, rather scrawny looking man with forty one on his chest, rise from his seat and make his way to the exit that leads to the hall. Hands reach out offering pats of encouragement from those he passes. In past events, these pats were a mixture of support and empathy trying to install a degree of bravery into the selected individual. Today is different, there is support combined with envy. The difference with today’s game is people actually want to be chosen. Thankfully nobody is trying to desperately, forcibly take a place. There is an agreement that those not selected will have to rely on the chosen few to succeed on this special day. Everyone in the room listens intently for the next number as the minutes tick by and the first twenty numbers are called.

“No winner yet,” grins the Organiser stating the obvious to the audience before continuing. Two Little Ducks, Two Fat Ladies, Kelly’s Eye, Legs Eleven, Top of the Shop and Key of the Door are all called to the hall. “Staying Alive,” sniggers the Organiser to hoots from the crowd, “Eighty five.”

I know my number but I still look down at my chest automatically. Rising to my feet, I feel my excitement bubble higher, I must however maintain my composure and try and quell the sudden light of expectation in my eyes and so keep my gaze downwards. The guards must suspect nothing. I barely notice the hands reaching out to me; I focus on the exit and keep my walk steady and slow. I’m sure my booming heart is deafening to those around me but in reality all they can hear is the chatter from the audience in the hall.

On leaving the cramped waiting room, I make my way down a short passage that opens into the hall. The room is spacious and the ceiling is very high and is made of glass, the only ceiling like it in the compound, so it reveals the heavens above but there are no windows in the walls so it feels like you are in a pipe with an opening above. There is a definite temperature change. It’s warm in here. I make my way over to stand on the far side with the other numbers. I know eyes are upon me, assessing me and gauging my strengths. Am I worthy of a bid? I can see The Players sitting on their high backed chairs. Their over sized frames crush the cushioning and each hold a rectangular electronic playing card and dabber. The audience to the right are all seated overlooking us lowly participants down on the hall floor. They are all drinking brightly coloured luminous drinks from tall clear goblets and consuming luxurious looking canapés made of unknown ingredients to recipes not in any book I’ve read. That’s clearly where the food budget goes, I think as my stomach growls either with hunger or nerves of excitement, perhaps a bit of both. The Organiser is collecting the selected ball and speaks into his microphone announcing the next number.

“One score” he calls, “Number twenty.”

One of the Players waves a hand in the air “Bingo,” he shouts out. His card is checked and is declared a winning card. He is clearly jubilant to be the winner and therefore gets to chose one of us numbers as a prize providing his chosen number is on his winning card. The rest of us are up for grabs. There are twenty eight of us standing, twenty eight people waiting, praying and desperate all goes well today in this hell hole. I thank my lucky stars that I am chosen.

We all troop into another room off the hall and we all sit on wooden benches at rough wooden tables. This room has no windows or glass ceiling but is secure for the likes of us, not that we could escape, I mean where would we go? We are given a meal which is better than our usual supper. Usually it is a bowl of liquid that resembles a lukewarm watery cabbage soup and crust of brick hard bread. Today it’s more like hot mushroom soup, a different but softer type of bread than can actually be chewed without soaking it in the soup first. Everyone devours the food, some barely chew and everyone finishes every drop. It’s not exactly food from home but we eat it and hope it doesn’t kill us.

The next stage is about to begin. We are to be paraded in front of the audience. We have to demonstrate running, lifting and possible other tasks to show our individual strengths and abilities. Then there will be bidding on us. We will be sold to the highest bidder and will become their property and will be put to work for them. No confined individual is here for anything criminal of course, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time I suppose and in a situation out of our control. Nobody wants to be chosen normally, as at least in here although imprisoned, we’re amongst our own and can support each other. Once you’ve been selected and bought; you’re on your own. This has been the procedure for the last three months that this game has been played.

Suddenly there is an almighty crash and the sound of huge quantities of breaking glass. Although many of us jumped at the sudden initial noise, nobody gets up from their seat. There is no terror or confusion etched on anyone’s face. No questioning looks or wondering what could be happening. We were expecting this. We know we are safe in our windowless confined box of a room; this was all part of the plan. I hardly dare breathe as I realise that this is actually happening, it’s not a dream but real. I can picture the numerous shards raining to the floor in the hall as that ceiling must surely have all come down, a certain death for anyone underneath. We can hear shouts and loud noises as the culprits of this destruction make themselves known. As we wait; our eyes wide and our ears pricked listening to each sound coming through the locked door, we each take off our top garment. With all our strength we rip the flimsy material in half and secure each piece of fabric round each of our feet the best we can to provide some sort of protective covering. The shouts and bangs go on for it seems like minutes but we know it’s only seconds, there isn’t much time. This is a small opening that has taken huge amounts of planning and skill of not just those outside these walls but also from those within them using limited resources often at great peril. Lives have been lost already.

Finally we hear the welcoming sound of boots running. The door lock is forced and the door is flung open revealing a hero. He shouts out his orders to us and we follow them immediately with no argument or questions. We make our way back to the main hall which has been secured at each exit. The element of surprise has been a major aspect of this operation. The ceiling is now a carpet on the floor and so we carefully but as quickly as we are able, make our way over the shattered remains. I am glad of the material secured round my feet but still I feel the blood start to seep into the cloth as evil little daggers pierce my flesh as I crunch over them. Looking up I see the four ladders hanging down to the floor, the ends tethered in place to keep them as stable as possible to aid our quick ascent. The ship hovering above is the bearer of these gifts of escape and I start to climb after securing my security rope. To fall now would be death, something I am eager to avoid. I’m not as quick as I would like as my feet are now quite painful but it’s a small price to pay to be free. My arms are weak but I find some determination and strength from within and steadily climb even though my limbs are screaming at the exertion. On the other ladders, it looks like my fellow climbers are struggling too. However, I finally reach the top, high above the room which looks even more tunnel like from above. Gloved hands pull me into the craft and propel me towards a seat. I feel so much relief and tears prick my eyes but I know we are not out of the woods just yet but the flight ahead is out of my hands. Our lives are in the hands of our rescuers. The craft quickly begins to fill up with exhausted escapees who each sink weaken malnourished bodies into their seats. I settle back and rest my head and pray.

Two months later…

My hands scoop up the sand next to me and I let the dry, tiny, golden grains tumble back down through my fingers as I sit on the secluded beach. My body feels relaxed as I enjoy the smell of salty seaweed on the warm sea breeze and settle comfortably on the soft sand that is easily moulded to accommodate my fuller shape after a more nutritious diet. The last two months have been hectic with so much questioning and getting my strength back. Like the other twenty seven escapees, we had to provide as much detail as possible about our confinement, there had been no stone left unturned in questioning us. Our inside information was essential to the operation being developed to rescue the remaining captives. Nobody was to be left behind on the next mission. Intelligence acquired after the first rescue told us that all captives were alive and the original mission had been a success. The primary mission was to deliver equipment to the remaining captives needed to secure their eventual rescue. Rescuing a small group of captives was although important for intelligence opportunities and obviously rescuing people, was actually a decoy to hide the primary mission. The essential equipment had to have been delivered. Of course, this whole event should never have happened. Peaceful and friendly negotiations had taken place over years to agree to the building of a human scientific space centre. As to why we had been captured and imprisoned was beyond me. We could only hazard a guess. There had been no explanation. I don’t know all the details; to me this was an opportunity to work in an exciting new environment that should have been an amazing experience and I had felt honoured to have been selected.

Looking up at wispy white clouds slowly drifting along in the blue sky above, I knew the dangers beyond their innocence. High above them in darker depths far away from the simple natural luxury of this beach, on this Earth, in this year 2250, eight hundred and forty four human beings are waiting for rescue.

 

Robbie Neville: The Jackpot

A short story by Robbie Neville – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

Nobody would have thought I’d ever left home after the past few weeks, those beck-and-call days since my mother had an operation and was rendered helpless to all but the most menial of tasks. Every morning I’d ensure she was breakfasted, and in the evenings I’d drive straight from work every day to prepare nutritious meals, at least, I’d hoped they were. I’d even kept the house spotless, just how she likes it, despite my own flat resembling a war zone, and I hadn’t complained in the slightest; in her darkest hour I was pleased to help the woman who’d given me life. But this was taking the biscuit. “Bingo! Don’t be ridiculous. A line has to be drawn, Mum, and never crossed.”

I huffed indignantly, arms crossed in challenge, and I even avoided her pitiful, pleading eyes. With a resounding snort of disgust, I collected her empty mug; a couple of minutes in the kitchen with a teabag and a kettle would be long enough for her to dispel her crazy ideas. I was wrong; she sipped her tea with a mischievous eyebrow raised, nonchalantly reeling off a million and one reasons why I should give up my Thursday evening to join her – and her embarrassingly raucous friends – at the Gala in town.

I couldn’t help but waver eventually; when my mother wants something she’ll give hell on earth until you agree, with your tail suitably between your legs. “Come on, Dan, it’s been three weeks since I left this house, I’m going stir crazy. It’ll do me good, you know it will, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too. Anyway, loads of men go, it’s a fun game.”

I had a job to go to, and I was grateful; at least I’d get some peace and quiet there. I made sure she was comfortable, a bottle of water by her bed should she get thirsty, a sandwich and some snacks, and a couple of books she’d shown interest in. Knowing I was beaten, I tactfully agreed that I would drive her there that evening, but would stay in the car until she was ready to go home. It seemed like the best compromise, and I could while away the time on my laptop, catching up with some monotonous jobs brought home from the office.

I had to admit to being somewhat worried when I pulled up outside my childhood home at six that evening. Mum had dressed herself and was waiting at the door. Her face was beaming with excitement, she clearly needed a night out, but she looked so frail, so small. I rushed over, chastising her for not waiting for my help. “I’m fine, son. I know I’ve lost a bit of weight, but it’s not like I couldn’t do with it; I’ve been carrying those extra pounds for a few years too long.”

I had taken her bag and was supporting her as we slowly made our way along the path towards my car, ready to begin my lecture about overdoing things and not being such a spring chicken any more, when a cackling entered my psyche and unleashed a deep, ominous sense of dread. I wasn’t sure why I asked; somehow I already knew the answer. “Why is Viv standing by my car? And Nell? And Susan?”

“Viv’s Bert’s away with work at the moment, so I said you wouldn’t mind giving them a lift too.” With my teeth clenched together to avoid saying anything I’d regret, I smiled weakly as I helped Mum into the front seat, her friends piling into the back, emitting gleeful shrieks of what I perceived must be joy. Tonight couldn’t be over soon enough.

Having realised there was no point having the stereo on due to the cacophony of chuckling and gossip, I ran through the words of a vengeful song Eminem wrote about his mother in my head to block out the noise: ‘I’m sorry mama, I didn’t mean to hurt you-oo-oo…” Thankfully, the journey was short.

I helped Mum to the main entrance where her friends took over, and dived back inside the cover of my car, shoulders hunched and head down. Pulling the laptop from the rear footwell, I clicked it on and waited for it to load before retrieving my work.

“Dan?” Tap tap tap. “Dan Dwyer?”

The spreadsheet before me lost my concentration as the horrifying realisation that I’d been spotted dawned on me. Slowly, I raised my eyes to address the source of the intrusion, and suddenly I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. It was Claire from work. Not just any old Claire; the Claire I’d adored from afar since my very first day. And she was smiling her wholesome, sweet smile. I wanted to run a million miles away, knowing my slim chances of ever dating the object of my affections were now shattered, and I wound the window down lamely. “Claire. I, er, um…” I gave up; my tongue had tied itself into a knot.

She nodded across the car park towards the grand doorway that had just swallowed my mother and her gaggle of friends. “I’m just going in, are you coming?”

“With you?” It was a daft question, and I wanted to die just that little bit more.

Reluctantly clicking open my door, her silky chuckle egging me on, I felt I had no choice but to follow her. Of course I’d have to keep my head down in the desperate hope that neither my mother, nor her mates, would notice me. We bought our bingo cards and snuck quietly into the brightly lit hall, and I sat at the nearest empty table to the door, ready to escape if necessary. Furtively, I whispered, “I didn’t know you played bingo.”

She leant close and I could smell her perfume, the delicious aroma of the woman I would never be respected by again – if, at all, she ever had. “I’ve been coming here for years; my mum usually comes but she’s not been well, so I said I’d do hers for her.”

I was about to respond when the lights dimmed, the caller strutting onto the stage with a Butlins smile full of dazzling white teeth, and Claire put her finger to her lips, shushing me. “Are you ready folks? We’re playing for a line across on the red tickets. The red tickets.” The cobalt blue suit was enhanced by a St Tropez tan, his blond hair flopping this way and that with his exaggerated movements, and he pulled out the first ball of the night with a blinding grin. “Get up and run, it’s thirty one.”

My eyes darted through the numbers before me, and I felt a tinge of excitement as I dotted two cards with the thick, black ink. Carry on like this and I might just win something; now that would impress Claire!

By the time someone eagerly yelled ‘I’ve got a line’, I found myself enjoying the game, the sense of fulfilment every time I checked off a number towards my dreams of wealth and luxury. I had to admit that I was hooked and, seeing the enthusiastic smile on Claire’s face, I could tell I wasn’t the only one. Once everybody had settled back down, the room dimming once more, I waited patiently for blue suit to call again. “Staying alive, eighty five.”

For the next couple of hours, and over seven games, we dabbed away, filling our cards with comforting blobs, and the tension in the room became palpable, every person present hoping luck was on their side this time. Blue suit shouted number after number, his bouncy tone ringing through the casino-like room as a hundred pens searched and daubed, and I suddenly realised that there was only one number left on one of my cards. My heart pumped wildly with anticipation; could this actually happen? Could I win?

“All the sevens, seventy seven.”

And there it was; that was my number. I needlessly splodged the card, before shoving my chair back as I jumped up, ceremoniously waving the card in the air like a maniac. “Me. It’s me. Me.”

I beamed victoriously, waiting for everyone to congratulate me, but was soon aware that the room was quiet, my fortune unheeded, and all eyes were on another figure: my mother. Blue suit signalled to a couple of assistants to collect our cards. “Well I never! We might have to divide the jackpot between two lucky winners tonight, folks!”

I held my breath as the assistants compared the two cards to the numbers already drawn, and the prospect of defeating my mother on her own territory suddenly became important to me. Finally, with a flourish, blue suit showed us his nature-defying teeth again. “I’m sorry, sir, one of the numbers you’ve marked off hasn’t been called so,” he pumped his chest and held his arms towards Mum, “today’s jackpot winner, madam, is you. Congratulations.”

I could feel Claire’s eyes burning into my back as I hastily made my way out before the hoards of players blocked the exits. I could have coped with losing, the game was a great way to pass the time, but she knew I worked in accounts; I’m supposed to be good with numbers, yet I’d made such a ridiculous numerical error. What a prime prat. Any scrap of hope that Claire would be interested in me was dashed, and it was my fault for being so pathetically careless. I heard Mum calling me but didn’t acknowledge her; I wasn’t sure I could handle her gloating.

By the time I’d pulled up outside Mum’s house, I’d settled into a deep and despairing depression; not only had the love of my life seen me playing bingo, but she’d witnessed my embarrassing fall from glory. All I wanted was to see Mum settled for the night, back in bed with a steaming mug of cocoa, and to go back to my flat and wallow in self-pity.

Mum was full of smiles, unsurprisingly, but I could tell the night out had drained her; the dark shadows under her eyes were proof of that. And now I felt guilty; I should never have wished my own fortune over hers. The past few weeks had been such a worry, the unexpected health problems having pulled the carpet from underneath our feet, leaving me to tumble aimlessly in a state of shock as I willed her to recover. I passed her the hot drink, carefully ensuring that she had a proper grasp on the handle. “Well done, Mum, I’m really pleased for you. What do you think you’ll spend the money on? A new dress or two? A weekend break?” I smiled, and it was genuine.

She rested the mug on the bedside cabinet and shifted awkwardly under the covers, wincing with obvious pain. Controlling her breaths, she still managed to have a glint in her eye. “Well, you could say I’ve already bought a dress.”

It didn’t take much to confuse me, but I was certain we hadn’t stopped at a boutique on the way home. Mum spotted my quizzical expression and proceeded to perplex me further. “I had no idea you were keen on Claire.”

My idiocy, my embarrassment, my failure; they all bit me as one. “Yeah, well that’s not going to happen now, is it?” Immediately I regretted my childishness, but in its place was shocked intrigue. “You know Claire?”

“Of course I do, she started playing bingo, must be seven or eight years ago now. Always came down with her mum, my mate Wyn. I guess now she’s ill Claire’s had no choice but to come on her own.”

“Wild Wyn’s her mother? How’s that for a small world.” By way of explanation I hurried on. “I work with Claire, well, on the same floor, anyway. I kind of like her.” I felt my cheeks flush and dipped my head to avoid the scrutiny of my mother’s detective skills.

This evening will be the second time I have ever played bingo, but I know it won’t be the last. I pull up outside Wild Wyn’s house and wait and, soon enough, she comes out, clearly ailing but still with a spring in her step. Her daughter gently supports her as they make their way towards the car.

Claire looks beautiful tonight, more so than ever; her brunette locks cascade over her dainty shoulders, untamed now from the usual ponytail, and the stunning dress she’s wearing, a pale yellow that contrasts her olive skin, shows off her perfect figure. I’m the closest to being in love that I’ve ever been, and ecstatic that Mum’s wonderful, selfless generosity with her winnings is enabling me to take this exquisite woman for a film and a meal after the bingo. So what if we’re both overdressed for the Gala.

I park the car and we saunter slowly towards the building, two youngsters helping their grateful mothers, and as we reach the queue I don’t notice that Claire has cupped her hand against Mum’s ear and is whispering, “Thanks for giving me the money from your winnings last week for the dress, that was so kind.”

Mum glances at the back of my head with pride, with the love she’s showered on me for my whole life, and winks sweetly at my gorgeous dream date. “No, Claire, thank you – for giving me a happy son. That’s priceless.”

As we walk into the buzzing building, I realise that it doesn’t matter now whether any of us wins or loses, because we’ve all hit the jackpot already.

 

Sue Oldham: Marking Time

A short story by Sue Oldham – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

I hadn’t wanted to come, bingo not really being my thing, but my sister had worn me down with her begging and pleading, making me wonderful promises that I knew she would never keep, if I would only go with her. I relented and agreed to keep her company, even though I knew she would forget half of what she had said.

That’s how I find myself sitting at a small square table opposite Katrina. The room we are in is huge, yet jam packed with people, the whole place buzzing with noise, a sense of excited anticipation hanging in the air which even I find infectious, despite my reluctance. To my surprise I begin, cautiously, to hope to win, only to find this thought swiftly followed by an almost equally fervent hope that I don’t; what if I get it wrong? What do you shout; bingo? House? Are there rules? Is there a particular way you are supposed to say it?

Feeling totally out of my depth and like such an ignoramus, rather than simply ask my sister these questions I choose instead to act as if I know exactly what I am doing. The illusion, if I ever succeed in creating it at all, doesn’t last long. When I go up to buy my tickets the woman looks at me as if I have got two heads when I ask for only two. Katrina, behind me, giggles and shoves me on out of her way, making a mild joke to the ticket seller about me being a bingo virgin as she pays for her usual book of six, causing me to blush as I find my way back to my seat.

Keen to hide my embarrassment from my sister I make a point of rummaging in my handbag when she returns to the table, in order to avoid catching her eye. She doesn’t seem to notice, simply flops her tickets down on the table and announces she’s going to the bar. I look up and nod but she’s already gone, a picture of confidence striding out. She doesn’t even need to ask me what I want, she knows me so well.

I sigh and set my tickets neatly before me, then pull two thick felt markers out of my handbag; one green, the other pink. I put them alongside my tickets. Then I lean back in an effort to look relaxed, crossing my legs, or trying to, but the closeness of the table doesn’t allow for it and so it results in an awkward, clumsy manoeuvre which finishes with my legs crossed only at the ankles and me hoping no one had seen.

I try to distract myself. There’s quite a crush at the bar, everyone jostling to get drinks before eyes down. I allow myself a little smug smile at the use of ‘the bingo lingo.’ I’ve temporarily lost sight of Katrina so I take a closer look around the bingo hall.

There’s a large, flat screen hanging on a wall and I assume it will display the numbers as they come up. There’s a second, smaller screen at the far end of the hall. Both screens are switched on but at the moment they are showing nothing more than the words ‘Bobby’s Bingo’ endlessly traversing the width of the screen over and over in a neon purple. I look away; most of the seating is arranged in cubicles just like the one I am sitting in, on a raised and carpeted platform that runs in a large u-shape around the room. It looks as if it surrounds a dance floor, though at the moment this is also covered with tables and chairs, not one of them empty. I marvel at how popular bingo must be; there are even a few people still trying to find seats, one or two of them hoping to stand at the bar and mark their cards. I wonder if that’s allowed; then I hope some stranger doesn’t come over and ask to join us. The cubicle is meant for four after all and there is only Katrina and myself sitting here.

Katrina is back, carefully setting down drinks on table mats I had already put out for that very purpose. I see her noting my neatly set out things in readiness. She gives a small laugh, “You’re very organised Julia.”

“Not much to organise with only two tickets is there?” I joke, picking up the pink marker and proffering it to Katrina, “Brought one for you.”

“Very kind of you, thank you, but I always come well prepared. Besides, I’ve got my lucky marker,” she sits down and fishes about in her bag, pulling out a long white marker pen with black writing along its length and a lid like a small door knob. She pulls it off with a small and satisfying popping sound, checks it is working by dabbing a near perfectly round blob on the back of an old envelope she has also pulled out of the bag, then clicks the lid back on again with a snap. She puts the pen down and picks up her drink, “Cheers then,” Katrina smiles, “here’s to a big win.”

I raise my glass and smile back, but I feel that fluttery sensation in my chest and stomach again and I wonder if anyone else in this enormous room feels the same conflict of emotions as me; I want to win, I really don’t want to win, I want to win; I really don’t want to win…

It’s ridiculous and I know it. I wouldn’t dream of telling Katrina about it, she would think there was something wrong with me. She is such a seasoned player and any win, however big or small, is a cause of nothing but celebration for her. Trying not to be envious I raise my glass to my lips and take a deep drink, hoping to steady my nerves.

There is the unmistakable sound of a microphone about to be used; that sort of magnified yet muffled knocking, then a voice, loud and clear, addresses the whole room, “Eyes down in ten minutes ladies and gentlemen, thank you, eyes down in ten minutes.”

The atmosphere changes at once, so highly charged now it feels like electricity in the air. The bar empties save a few anxious customers still waiting to be served. One or two people make a last minute dash to the toilets, friends urging them to be quick. At last the noise level drops, reducing to a hum, then a whisper, then there is nothing more than a few stray and oddly out of place voices as people take their seats, get out their tickets, find their pens. There is the usual cacophony of clearing throats and sudden coughs; the microphone gives its tell-tale, high-pitched whine, and we are off.  The previous light mood is overridden by a far more sombre one and I reflect that this particular bingo hall is serious business.

My two cards don’t take a great deal of intense scrutiny, but I check and double check each number anyway. I am, naturally, marking off far fewer numbers than Katrina; she is bent over her tickets with absolute focus. I at last relax a little and, allowing myself some slack, idly flick my green marker pen as I wait for a number to be called that is actually on my card. It is a long wait, but it comes. With some alarm I realise I only need one number for a line, and have to swallow my pride and hastily check with Katrina that we are actually playing for a line. She doesn’t look up but nods and whispers a gruff ‘yes’ in response.

I am waiting for the number 36. I go over and over in my mind what I will shout if my number comes up. Just as I have decided upon good old-fashioned ‘bingo!’ the caller shouts 35. My heart leaps into my mouth, I am flicking my pen madly in a state of nervous agitation and it is all I can do to stop myself from shouting anyway. There is a collective sigh as every player in the hall pauses in their marking whilst the winner’s card is checked. Only then does Katrina look up at me.

She stares at me a long moment as if she needs to readjust her focus. Then she gives me such a warm, genuine smile that I can’t help but smile back. I am about to start a conversation with her, just to capture the rare sisterly affection a little longer, when the game is back on, this time for a full house. I see Katrina fight back a laugh, her lips trembling as she puts her head down once more and I wonder if I haven’t given her too much credit for being cool; she seems as affected as anyone else by the possibility of a win. Encouraged, I turn back to my tickets.

I didn’t win and neither did Katrina, though I noticed she was unusually absorbed in her bingo tickets and scarcely looked up at me. When I offered to go to the bar at half time she was quite insistent upon going herself, saying buying me another drink was the least she could do since she had harassed me into coming out in the first place. That smile played continuously on her lips and her eyes were bright, sparkling even.  She seemed so happy and grateful that I had come along, and who was I to argue with my big sister after all?

We had a couple of near misses the second half of the evening. I had begun to annoy myself with my constant flicking of my pen, but it was unintentional, almost like a nervous tic. I tried putting it down between numbers but I was worried I wouldn’t be quick enough to pick it back up again and mark any off, should they be called. More than once I wondered how on earth anyone could think of this pastime as leisure; my heart was racing, my palms were sweating, my stomach was in knots. I consoled myself with the thought that at least now I could pass as a bingo player; anyone looking in from the street would never guess any different.

Katrina’s last game of the night is something called a Flyer. I hadn’t bought this bingo ticket, thinking, rightly as it turned out, that I would have had enough thrills by then without this big money ticket to play; adrenalin seeker I am not. The feeling in the hall intensifies still further. There is the odd ‘shh’ from anxious players if someone even so much as whispers. Out of respect for the gravity of the situation I sit back in silence and watch as Katrina marks her card.

From where I am sitting I can tell she is doing well. I can’t believe it when she is down to only two numbers, and so quickly too. I haven’t even realised that I have picked up my green marker and am flicking it again until it slips out of my slick fingers and rattles across the table. A woman in the cubicle behind ours hisses at me to be quiet. She gives me an odd look before turning her back. I apologise as quietly as I can and turn back to Katrina. Her shoulders are shaking and she has one hand to her mouth in an effort to stop herself from laughing out loud. I laugh softly too; I hadn’t thought the woman telling me off was particularly funny – I hadn’t meant to flick the pen after all – but it seems to have really tickled Katrina.

We sit for what seems like an age, but that is where Katrina’s luck runs out. She isn’t able to mark off any more numbers. Somebody calls house eventually and there is a rather begrudging and half-hearted round of applause. I sag back against my chair in relief, glad it is over.

People are already leaving, chairs scraping noisily, the conversation level rising steadily. Katrina screws up her tickets in disappointment and downs what was left of her drink. “Never mind, better luck next time,” I try to console her.

She contemplates me carefully for a minute and then begins laughing again. “Oh Julia I am so sorry, I feel terrible, honestly I do.”

Her reaction takes me by surprise. Obviously she has no idea that I had wanted not to win almost as much as I wished would, “It’s all right Katrina, I’m not that bothered really. Bingo’s your thing, not mine,”

But she is shaking her head, “No, Julia you don’t understand,” she is laughing, “You don’t understand at all. Look,” she says, pausing for breath, “there’s a reason why I didn’t take the pen you offered me,”

“Because you brought your lucky pen, only it wasn’t quite so lucky for you this time. It’s ok, I get it,” I say, a little confused.

“It’s not just that Jules; I didn’t take the pen because, well look they’re cheap right? No don’t take offence. I only mean that, well the ink flows really quickly in those pens; they leave big blots all over the page. I mean, look at your tickets,” she reaches over and holds up my sorry little two-ticket book. She is right, the page is wet with dark green blobs which seem to have grown and morphed shape on the paper.

“Right,” I say guardedly, still not understanding.

“Well,” Katrina gives a deep sigh and stands up, grabbing her handbag, “I’ll meet you outside ok? Why don’t you go to the ladies?”

“I’m all grown up now,” I say, “I don’t need to go to the ladies, thanks,”

“Yes you do,” Katrina insists, leaning forward to make her point all the more, “trust me Julia, yes you do!” She marches off, heading for the exits with grim determination, leaving me mystified behind her.

I am aware of some strange looks coming my way; a few pointed fingers and some giggling as I head for the toilets. Annoyance building on top of my puzzlement, I reach the oasis of the ladies. A few cubicles are locked but the sink area is empty. I chose a sink, prepared to brush my hair or reapply my lipstick before I leave.

I gasp at what I see in the mirror. Fat, green splodges of ink dot my neck and my lower face, as if I have broken out in some deadly disease. They spatter the collar of my new blouse, no doubt ruining it permanently; but how on earth?

Then I realise; my nervous and constant flicking of that green marker. No wonder Katrina had spent most of the evening laughing. She had let me sit there the whole evening, looking like that. She hadn’t even tried to stop me. She could easily have taken it off me, had said it was getting on her nerves or something, but no, that would have meant distracting her from her precious bingo.

I suppose I should be grateful she had at least stopped me from going to the bar at half time. Then I wonder; did she do that for my sake? Or because she was worried someone might have pointed out to me that I looked like something from outer space? She must have known that would have been that; that I would have insisted on going home then.

I curse out loud, calling my sister all the names I can think of. I grab a pile of hand wipes and pump the soap dispenser viciously; I can’t wait to get the stuff off. What if it stains? God forbid! Trying not to panic, I rub my face and neck almost raw, leaving a green-blue mess on the white porcelain. Women coming out of the toilets to wash their hands give me no more than a cursory glance before leaving hurriedly – I must look like some sort of mad woman, swearing and scrubbing. I get most of it off my skin, but I suspect my blouse is destined for the bin.

Skin sore and glowing, I half run through the bingo hall, now nearly empty, in my need to get out of the place. The cool air outside is like a balm on my poor flesh. I enjoy it for the briefest of moments then look around for Katrina.

She is on the pavement, holding a taxi door open, waiting for me apparently. I can’t get over her nerve. She put me through all that, just so she could play bingo?

Something in the way she changes stance as I approach tells me she knows I am angry; she actually looks apprehensive. Her smile isn’t quite as bright as I draw level with her, “All right?” she asks in a tremulous voice.

“No, I am not all right as it happens, but I tell you what Katrina, we’ll discuss it when we get home and believe you me, you are going to need a lot more than a lucky pen on your side this time!”

She smirks at me then, in such a way it makes me want to hit her, “Oh and by the way,” I hiss as I slide into the taxi, “you better start thinking about what you want to shout when I finally mark your card,”

The only real pleasure I get out of that evening is the look of worried concern Katrina holds on her face all the way home.

Bingo!

 

Tony Oswick: Help!

A short story by Tony Oswick – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

Monday Night Bingo was the highlight of Emily’s week. What with the house-keeping, the shopping, looking after three daughters on her own, daily visits to ageing parents and a part-time job at the laundry, she had hardly a minute to herself. Two hours Bingo each Monday night were Emily’s ‘me-time’.

Betty was in her usual seat waiting for her. They’d been friends for over twenty years, ever since they’d worked together in the munitions factory during the war. Unlike Emily, Betty was ever the optimist. She always thought the next Bingo game would make her a fortune. If it didn’t, then her Albert would surely pick eight draws on his Littlewoods’ coupon the following Saturday.

“I feel it’s my lucky night tonight,” said Betty as Emily sat down.

“That’s what you always say,” replied Emily.

“No, I really mean it. When I win, I’m going on a world cruise. You can come with us, Emily. Albert wouldn’t mind.”

Emily smiled. “That’s very kind of you, Betty, but a cruise is not my sort of thing. All that dressing up and minding your manners. I suppose I’d have to get a passport? And who’d look after the girls?”

The two women always sat at the back of the Bingo Hall, away from the attention of the caller. His name was Sidney Eckersley and he had a habit of winking at the women in front of him while he was calling the numbers. During the interval when he went for his cup of tea, Sidney liked to chat up the ladies, squeezing and cuddling them until they gave out girlie giggles. Not that Emily had ever been squeezed or cuddled. Sid concentrated on brassy blondes, big busts and red lips, preferably all three together. Betty called him ‘Slimy Sid’.

“Did you hear the latest news?” said Betty changing the subject. “The manager at the Essoldo told me The Beatles are coming to town later in the year. I’ve read about them in the papers. They seem to be very popular with the teenagers.” Betty worked as an usherette at The Portsdown Essoldo. Monday was her night off.

“Are they? Is that good?” Dickie Valentine was Emily’s favourite singer.

“The manager said it’s going to be a sell-out. Lulu, Freddie and Billy J. are coming too.” Emily nodded. Lulu, Freddie and Billy J could have been natives of Outer Mongolia for all she knew.

“They’re looking for extra staff to help on the night,” continued Betty. “How about it, Emily? It should be fun. What do you say?”

“Oh I don’t know, Betty, it’s not really my cup of tea. All those young people and all that noise. I don’t think so.”

“Emily Armstrong, why don’t you do something vaguely exciting for once in your life?” Betty was indignant.

Emily shook her head. “It’s very kind of you to think of me but no thanks.”

Betty was about to argue but she was interrupted by Slimy Sid on the microphone. “Good evening, good evening, good evening. Welcome to Monday Night Bingo my Portsdown pretties. Tonight you’re all Sidney’s and Sidney is all yours”. It was the same every week. The women lapped it up. Monday Night Bingo had begun.

When Emily got home later that evening, her oldest daughter, Janet, was making cocoa. They sat down at the table together before going to bed.

“I was speaking to Betty tonight,” said Emily. “She tells me The Beatles are coming to the Essoldo in October.”

Janet’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What? Here in Portsdown? You don’t say? Wow. Wait until I tell the girls at school. What fab news.”

“Betty said there are some jobs helping out on the night. It was nice of her to think of me but I said ‘no’. I’d prefer to stay home.”

“What? You’ve turned down the chance of watching The Beatles? Mum, how could you? You really are a square.”

Emily didn’t sleep well that night. Had she made the right decision? She wondered what advice her beloved Vic would have given. How she missed him. “Stay at home, luv. Stick to being a housewife and mother. You’re good at that.” But Emily also remembered the trip to London she’d had with Vic the year before he died. She enjoyed seeing the sights – Tower Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben. London was so busy but it had been a fun day out.

Perhaps there was more to life than home, children, elderly parents, dirty linen and Bingo. Perhaps she ought to think again about Betty’s offer.

Three months later on a cold Wednesday October night, Emily Armstrong found herself, not in the warmth of her front room, but in the foyer of The Portsdown Essoldo ready to sell souvenir Beatles’ programmes to the teenage hordes. The crowd – Janet included – had been swelling outside all afternoon, getting noisier and more worked up by the minute. The Beatles had been smuggled in earlier, as had the mysterious Lulu, Freddie and Billy J.

“I still can’t see what all the fuss is about,” thought Emily to herself as she juggled bags of pennies, sixpences and shillings. “I really must be square.”

At six-thirty the doors opened and a stampede of shrieking teenagers re-enacted a modern version of the charge of the light brigade. Emily had never seen anything like it but, within the hour, she’d sold all her programmes.

The show was due to begin in five minutes. Betty and the other usherettes were still working inside the theatre but Emily’s duties were finished. There was just time for a cup of tea in the staff rest-room before she braved the cold outside. As she sat alone, Emily heard the first thump-thump-thump of the show, followed by an explosion of screaming. She sipped her tea and listened. The noise sounded female. “I suppose that’s Lulu,” she muttered to herself, “but you can never be sure these days.”

Finishing her tea, Emily got up to put on her coat when she heard urgent footsteps on the concrete floor outside.

“Help! Help! Can anyone help?”

Emily peered around the half-open door of the rest-room and saw a young man in a grey suit dashing up the corridor. He stopped when he saw Emily.

“Quick. Come quick. It’s Ringo.” The young man grabbed Emily’s arm and dragged her down the corridor and into a dressing-room at the far end. Bright lights around a large mirror silhouetted the backs of three mop-haired young men in black suits.

“Thank goodness you’re back Brian,” said the baby-faced mop-hair. “It’s getting worse.” The three young men parted to reveal a fourth mop-hair on a chair, his hand covering a large nose dripping blood down his jacket.

“I didn’t mean to hit him,” said the nasal mop-hair. “It was an accident. His nose is so big, it got in the way.”

“That’s a pathetic excuse,” tut-tutted the baby-faced mop-hair. “What are we going to do?”

“My Aunt Mimi always shoved a cold spoon down my back when I had a nose-bleed,” said the nasal-haired mop-hair. “One day she couldn’t find a spoon and used a fork instead. Ouch.”

Emily surveyed the scene.

“Be quiet,” she barked to the nasal mop-hair. “Get out of the way and stop talking nonsense.” Emily elbowed past the four men and grabbed the head of the bleeding mop-hair, yanking it backwards and seizing the bridge of his over-sized nose so hard that he let out a piercing howl.

“You’re killing me,” cried the bleeding mop-hair. “Brian, she’s killing me. Stop her.”

“You moan too much,” scolded Emily. “You’re worse than a baby.”

Brian wasn’t listening to anyone. He was pacing up and down, staring at his watch. “Five minutes. You’re supposed to be on in five minutes. Oh hell.”

“A clean handkerchief. Quickly.” Emily addressed the quiet mop-hair who so far hadn’t said a word.

The quiet mop-hair reached into his pocket and produced a white handkerchief. Emily pressed it against the nose of the bleeding mop-hair who again gave out a howl. But now she started to release her vice-like grip and, as she did so, the whimpering began to fade. She gently tilted the bleeding mop-hair’s head forward and, as she did, Brian and the three others watched in amazement. The tide of blood had stemmed.

There was a knock at the door. “Two minutes and you’re on. Two minutes, please.”

“It’s stopped.” Brian’s mouth was wide open. “The blood’s bloody stopped. It’s a miracle. Missus, you’re a wonder. An absolute wonder. Come on boys, you’re on. It’s time to rock Portsdown.”

One by one, the four mop-hairs hurried out of the dressing-room, each planting a kiss on Emily’s cheek. A minute later the theatre erupted and, as the thump-thump-thump began again under the bright stage lights, no-one in the audience noticed the congealing bloodstains on the drummer’s black suit.

It was front-page news in the ‘The Portsdown Gazette’. Not that Emily had sought publicity. She’d left The Essoldo as soon as the mop-hairs had gone on stage. When Janet arrived home, her daughter was far too excited about the ‘fantabulous show’ to listen to anything her mother had to say.

The following morning, a reporter and photographer from ‘The Gazette’ turned up on Emily’s doorstep. Despite her protests, they asked her questions and took photographs for the following day’s lead story – ‘Brave Emily Saves The Show’. Later in the day, a large bouquet of flowers arrived at Emily’s house addressed to ‘Florence Nightingale – With Love – From Me To You’.

Emily was an overnight sensation. She also made the local television news and one of the national tabloids ran a story on an inside page under the headline ‘Emily Bingo Rescues Beatle Ringo’.

Emily’s daughters couldn’t believe what their Mum had done but they were happy to bathe in her celebrity status. She’d not only saved the show but been kissed by all four Beatles!

The following Monday Night Bingo was different from usual. When Emily came into the Hall, everyone stood up and clapped and cheered. As she walked to her seat, the women either side of the gangway patted her on the back and shouted, “Well done, Emily”, “Good on you, Emily” and “You showed them, Emily”.

Betty was waiting for her, beaming. “Well, Emily Armstrong. You’re a sly one I’ll be bound. You really are the talk of the town. I’m so proud of you.”

As the noise began to die down, Emily saw Slimy Sid making his way towards her, his hands behind his back.

“Oh, oh,” said Betty. “You’re for it now.”

“My dear Emily,” sneered Slimy Sid. “You’re the heroine of our Bingo Hall and you’re most definitely the prettiest of tonight’s Portsdown pretties.” He reached behind his back, and produced a bouquet of twenty-four pink and white roses.

“I don’t know what to say? That’s very kind of you,” stammered Emily.

“My pleasure,” said Slimy Sid and slobbered a wet kiss on Emily’s cheek while fondling her waist more than he ought.

When he’d gone, Betty looked at Emily. “Aren’t you the lucky one then?”

Emily lowered her eyes in embarrassment and reached into her handbag for a handkerchief to wipe away the remnants of Sid’s saliva. As she did so, she noticed something at the bottom. It was another handkerchief. She picked it out and realised it was the one the quiet mop-hair had given her. The one covered with the blood of the bleeding mop-hair. The one with the initials “GH” in the corner.

“Ugh. What’s that dirty thing?” asked Betty. “It’s disgusting. Throw it away.”

Emily fondled the handkerchief and smiled.

“No, I don’t think I will,” she said.” I’m going to keep it. As a memento. Who knows, one day The Beatles might be really famous.”

 

Sim Smailes: An Evening with David Beckham

A short story by Sim Smailes – an entry in the 1st Playing Bingo Short Story Competition.

“Eyes down for a full house everybody, and on behalf of Children in Need thank you for supporting this worthy cause. It means an awful lot to a lot of people.”

That’s all right David, just keep smiling and looking this way and it will be money well spent. I can’t believe it’s really him, but it is. David Beckham, the David Beckham, is right here calling out the numbers at my local bingo hall. How fantastic is that? What’s more, the winner of this game gets to spend the rest of the evening with him as their prize. Thank you Children in Need and, if you are listening Lord, please make my numbers come up first, just this once.

“Okay, off we go…On its own, number four…”

I reckon I’m in with a good shout, you know. I’ve got my usual strip of six cards and some of the girls on my table have agreed to let me have the prize if they win. Most of them didn’t give it a second thought when I asked them but old Maude did say that if she was thirty years younger she might not have been so generous. Luckily, nobody asked her how young that would make her, as she is no spring chicken. Anyway, I’ve got my sparkly dress and high heels on just in case I win and, despite the freezing weather outside, I also decided to leave my winter coat at home. Well, as far as I’m concerned, I won’t need a thick coat if I’ve got a certain Mr Beckham to keep me warm, will I?

Back to the game. Number four, where are you? Ah ha! There you are. I am so quick with this dabber now. It used to take me ages to find all of the numbers as they were called out but practice really does make perfect with this thing and if dabbing was made into an Olympic event I think I could win the gold medal quite easily.

“Three and seven, my age, thirty seven. …”

“You’re still gorgeous, David.”

There goes that mouthy Sharon Bakewell again. She’s always calling out. Honestly, she doesn’t know when to hold her tongue. Looks like it’s already hanging halfway down to the floor anyway. He’s clearly not interested in you, dear, so just back off!

“Marry me!”

Now that is just plain wrong. Forget Sharon Bakewell. The woman who just called that out must be eighty if she’s a day. What happened to good old British reserve? Some people have no finesse these days.

“Six and four, sixty four… On its own, my old United shirt number, number seven…”

Dab, dab.

“Eight and three, eighty three… Four and nine, forty nine… All the ones, number eleven…”

Dab, dab, dab. Hmmn, keep this up and I might be in with a chance.

I wonder if he still wears sarongs? I remember how everybody took the mickey out of him back in the 90s for that little fashion statement that he made then but, if you ask me, he didn’t look at all bad. He never does. I bet he still loves swanning around his luxury LA mansion in a silk sarong and nothing else. It must get so hot out there. So hot and sticky with all that Californian sunshine. I bet he needs to run ice cubes down his chest just to cool off… Whoa, steady on girl! Think of your blood pressure.

“Seventeen, dear. He just called out seventeen but you haven’t marked it off yet.”

“Thanks, Carol.”

Dab.

“Two and eight, twenty eight… Five and six, fifty six. You know, I think I could get used to doing this for a living…”

If only! Dab, dab.

“Eight-o, blind eighty… On its own, number one. Don’t tell the wife but I’m looking for a new job at the moment. What do you think?”

“Yes, please!” Dab. Dab.

Oh no, what is Sharon Bakewell up to now? Don’t tell me she’s trying to throw her knickers at him. She is! Spare us, please. Thank goodness she can’t throw for toffee. Mind you, with her reputation, he probably won’t be the only bloke to have those things thrown at them tonight.

“Calm down ladies, calm down. You’re making me blush. Now where was I? Oh yes, five and four, fifty four… Eight and nine, eighty nine… All the threes, thirty three…”

Dab, dab, dab.

I don’t want to get too excited just yet but this is going really well for me. Maybe this is my lucky night after all. All I need are four more numbers.

“Seven and one, seventy one…Four and two, forty two… all the fives, fifty five…”

Dab, dab, dab. Three numbers. Just three more numbers. Come on David, do it for me.

“One and five, fifteen… Three-o, blind thirty… Five and eight, fifty eight…”

Oh my God! I only need one more number. My nerves can’t take it. What if I win? I’ll probably faint or do something even worse after all the Coke I’ve been drinking. How embarrassing would that be? Calm down, girl. Calm down. You’re not there yet.

“Four and six, forty six…Oh, hold on, hold on everybody. I think we may have a winner. The lady over there in the red coat is waving her card at me. Could somebody check her numbers please?”

What? She didn’t even shout ‘house’ or ‘bingo’. Oh, false alarm, it’s a hoax. It’s that red-headed comedian doing her foul-mouthed old woman character. Now, didn’t I read somewhere that she is going out with somebody famous at the moment? I’m sure it was in all the papers a few months back.

“Please give it up for… Miss Catherine Tate!”

Oh, I suppose I should applaud her as well. I don’t find her act particularly funny but at least she is doing it for Children in Need. The main thing is that she didn’t really win and I am still in with a chance of having Becks all to myself tonight. Bring it on!

“Thank you, ladies. Now, I know some of you are itching to get back on with the game, so here goes…”

“I’m not itching to get back on the game, dear, thank you very much. I left that life behind me a long time ago, I can tell you.”

Oh please go home Catherine Tate. We don’t need a celebrity heckler. Seventy seven, David. Seventy seven. Please say seventy seven. You know you want to.

“Six and two, sixty two…”

Dab. Drat!

“Eight and six, eighty six…”

Dab. Double drat!

“All the sevens, seventy seven…”

“BINGO!”

It would be lovely to gloss over what happened next or to make up a story about how wonderful my evening with David Beckham was but I don’t want to mislead you, especially as my face will undoubtedly be splashed all over this morning’s tabloids…and that won’t be a pretty sight.

As soon as it had been confirmed that I had won my evening with David Beckham, I was escorted to the front entrance of the bingo hall to pose for photographs with him. I was dancing on air by this time, looking forward to the limousine ride to Claridge’s in Mayfair where we were both going to dine in style at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant. My prize also included an after-dinner dance with Becks at an exclusive night club until midnight when I would be chauffeur-driven back to my South London home. At that moment I felt like the luckiest person alive.

With hindsight, when I posed at the top of the steps to the bingo hall I should have looked down at the ground more carefully, rather than gazing into the beautiful eyes of my handsome companion. If I had done this, I may not have slipped on the patch of ice that sent me plummeting down those steep stone steps like a sack of potatoes. I understand that the press managed to take several photographs as I lay unconscious at the foot of the bingo hall steps, with David looking on, and I fully expect to see some very embarrassing pictures of me in the papers today.

I don’t remember too much about the journey to hospital, as the concussion was quite severe initially. However, David and some of his entourage did come with me in the ambulance and one of them put a signed publicity photograph into my blood-stained clutch bag, which was very sweet.

When I finally came round I found myself in a private room in St Thomas’s. David was there too, holding my hand and gazing at my swollen and bruised face. I asked for a mirror but he and the excited nurse, who kept popping in to my room on the pretence of wanting to see how I was doing, were adamant that they could not find one anywhere. I now realise, several hours later, that they were probably being tactful.

I wish I could say that David then stayed at my bedside for three hours because he was enchanted by my scintillating personality and captivating beauty but, sadly, that’s unlikely to be true. He was there for three hours but only because he was contractually obliged to stay with me until midnight and didn’t want to risk any bad publicity. How romantic!

Well, as you can see, my evening with David Beckham did not turn out quite as I’d hoped it would. To be honest, I very much doubt whether David and I will stay in touch but if he does try to call me I guess I’ll just have to let him down gently. After all, he’s a married man and I’m old enough to be his mother!

 

 

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