Do you believe in luck? I mean, like it’s a force, like good and bad luck have this power; they can fuck you up or make you? I didn’t used to. Sitting in a dodgy casino, waiting for James, is as good a time as any to think about luck. You know when all this started? Well, it’s going to sound properly mad, but I reckon it started in school.
Me and James, we were similar kids. Same age, same interests; we even looked alike, scratty brown hair and baggy school jumpers. Two skinny, messy boys in the playground. We weren’t the sporty types and we bonded straight away.
Well, one day at break the sporty boys were all crowding round something. There was lots of screaming and crowing. It was this big spider that someone had trodden on by mistake. I mean it was massive, as big as my hand, though my hand was smaller then. It was brown and striped and only had three good legs left as some had been squished and the others pulled off by the shoe. One of the boys was daring another one to pull the rest off. I’ve never loved spiders and for some reason I went, ‘I will’. I think I was trying to impress the cool boys or something.
Well, James, right next to me, he scowled at me, as if he knew what was going on in my head. ‘It’s bad luck to hurt an animal,’ he said. ‘Seven years bad luck’.
‘That’s for a mirror,’ someone screeched. ‘Spiders aren’t animals!’ someone else yelled. ‘Kill, kill, kill!’ the lads chanted. I leant forward, pulled off one leg, then another, wondering if it could feel the pain. The spider scuttered round fast, the one leg dancing. James pushed me sideways, knocking me down on the concrete, stamped on the spider. The rest groaned, moving away, ‘Spoil sport,’ ‘So boring,’ ‘Goody two shoes’. James wouldn’t look at me for the rest of the day. That night I woke up in the dark from a nightmare where the spider was coming to get me. Anyway, that was when we were small, but I could never get it out of my head. I never did anything cruel to an animal before or since. I never even kicked Stella’s annoying poodle, which was an effort, specially when the stupid little thing bit me on the ankle and deserved it. And anyway, I’m still not sure that spiders count as animals. But, sometimes, I do wonder if something happened that day. Like, I’ve been cursed since. To bad luck. Honestly, listen to me. What am I on about? I should be embarrassed. Cursed. I mean, we’re talking a couple of insect legs here. Still, things have gone a bit strange.
At first it was small things. At school, just petty things: me and James would both be whispering in class but I’d be the one seen and getting detention. My exam paper got lost while James got distinction. In gym class someone fell twenty feet off a climbing wall on to me, not him, when he was standing right next to me. As we grew up the pattern got more obvious. James won fifty quid in a cereal packet competition, and I got a £30 parking ticket for being five minutes late back to the van. Some cute girl hit on him in the bar the same night my crazy ex came in and smacked me round the face for no other reason than that she was drunk. His granny died and left him a few grand. My great aunt died and left me her horrible skanky cat that I had to take to the rescue place and it shredded my arms.
The lads started joking about it. I talk more than him, so whenever I told them anything bad had happened to me, they’d go ask James, and usually find something good had happened to him. So, it went on like that, every few months there’d be some time I’d get shafted and things would go well for him.
The first biggish one was when my car got rammed in the side by a drunk driver, on the same day he found out he’d won flying lessons. Worse was when I got made redundant due to my building firm’s cuts, fifty of us gone, just like that, and that same day his Dad gave him fifty grand for a flat deposit.
I haven’t been able to get another job. It’s not good for me to have time on my hands, signed on and all, and I started messing around with my Stella’s mate. Not sure why. Don’t even fancy her that much – tarty piece, wears too much makeup. Anyway, Stella came home early, caught us at it, and the whole screaming performance, like something out of EastEnders, my ears were ringing for hours. Then again, so were hers since I socked her one when she came at me all nails. She crumpled on the floor like someone had knocked her legs out from under her. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but if you let a woman try to be the boss of you like that, you never know where it might end.
That same week, James found out his missus is pregnant. Must be due in a couple of months now. She’s beautiful she is. I don’t want to sound gay or anything, but she’s sort of otherworldly, good, like this fair-haired angel. Never sure why, as he looks weedy to me these days, whereas I’ve bulked up from the construction work, but the women always loved him. James is a lucky bastard. Luckier than any normal person should be.
Anyway, I’ve decided it’s got to end. This whole his good luck my bad luck nonsense. ‘The Luck Axis’, as one of the lads’ started calling it, the poncy twat. I’ve got to prove that there’s nothing in it. So, James has agreed to meet me here at the casino. He doesn’t normally like gambling, being such a tight arse. But, it’s the best way I can think of. A game of pure luck. This’ll show once and for all that it’s just superstition. I can’t have my life ruined by it.
And, really, it kind of is ruined already. After the bad incident Stella threw me out. I’ve been sofa surfing, but it’s no way to live. Can’t get another job. Walking past the guy who sits outside the station begging, I sometimes imagine sitting down, joining him. It’s where I’m headed: where I’ll end up soon if I can’t stop this thing.
The bar’s bright and loud. I sit with a pint while I wait. When James turns up, three minutes late, he’s still in his work suit, all dapper looking. Out of place in the neon glare and the bling and the tinned music. He’s got that quiet thing going on… charisma. Like a really wet James Bond.
We have a drink then head to the tables and throw down our money. The roulette wheel’s spinning. Our eyes meet. His are dark and kind of twinkly. It’s like we’re back in school again, comrades, out for an adventure. He took some convincing, but he finally agreed to my terms: we’d both start with five hundred quid, see where we end up by the end of the evening. I mean, he can afford it. I can’t, but mine’s on plastic. Stella’s.
I lose a bit and he wins a bit. But I’m not going to be put off my stride. I get us some shots and we carry on. I win a bit and he loses some. Then he wins a bit and I win some more. This goes on. We make some, we lose some, like a seesaw. The bright lights are blurring and the noises have all gone fuzzy now. When two of the dice separate and merge into one again in my hand, I know I’m properly pissed.
Maybe time to stop, James murmurs. I’m not stopping. I’m losing, and I carry on losing, I’m getting desperate. I’ve had enough. This has got to end. I bet an amount that makes me want to cry on one single role of the dice. I win. I grab James and dance us around. He doesn’t say much. I bet again while he just stands there watching me, all quiet, like a magician or judge or something. I win again.
By this time people are crowding round. They’ve heard something’s going on. ‘Third time lucky’ I say to James. He’s lost his five hundred now and refuses to bet more. Somewhere inside, I know that this third time won’t be my lucky one. My track record is too bad. I’m going to lose big. But I can’t stop now. I throw the dice. There’s a second around the table as though we’ve all been freeze framed, then an explosion of dancing, cheering, clapping on the back, jumping up and down. The dealer reaches over the table to shake my hand, ‘Congratulations sir, this is the largest win I’ve seen in the two years I’ve been here.’
James is smiling as though he’s trying not to. I grab him and pull him into a hug. ‘Come on man, be happy for me: it’s not true! That whole good luck bad luck bollocks. I mean, it’s been really bad for me. But, see, you lost and I won. There’s no fucking curse or ‘luck axis’ or whatever the hell it was the lads said.’
‘Let’s go, shall we?’ is all James can say. I’m disappointed he’s being such a killjoy. It’s probably because, like he’s always saying, he doesn’t believe in luck. Thinks we make our own. Easy to say when all you get is the good stuff.
We’re heading off to the door, having managed to extricate ourselves from all the congratulating gamblers. A foot away from the exit, one of the huge bouncers stands in front of us, blocking us. He puts a hand on my chest. ‘The proprietor would like to congratulate you on your good fortune as tonight’s biggest winner.’
I tell James to wait and go to see this manager guy. They show me into an office. There’s all this weird framed art on the walls; exotic animals, elephants, snakes. I find it odd when they say the boss is waiting outside for me, why outside? But my thoughts won’t line up straight so I just follow them. The last thing I see before I step outside is a picture of a striped, poisonous spider.
Outside, there’s one pure second of cool night air, then someone jumps on me. There must be three or four of them as I can feel punches from all angles. I never imagined pain like it. There’s this screaming sound that I eventually realise is coming from me. The gritty concrete comes up fast to meet my face. I’m going to die here. Now it’s here, I wish I’d lived better. Lived more. A boot in my side and someone says, ‘That should sort you out, you cheating bastard.’
The door bangs as they go back inside. I’m staying still. First, I can’t move. But I also don’t believe they’ve just left me. I expect they’ll come back and finish me off. I lie on the gravel and my face is wet. I’m not sure if it’s tears or blood. I lick my lips. Tears and blood. I close my eyes against the pain: behind them I see Stella, how she looked after I hit her, crumpled on the floor in front of me. She must have felt a bit like this. I hate to remember how I just walked away from her. I shouldn’t have hurt her.
I’m not sure how long it is that I lie here, but it seems like hours. I find I can move, and a bit at a time I raise myself. I don’t want to go back through the office, but the fence is too high to climb. I try the door; it’s unlocked. The office with the scary art is empty. I look for the picture of the spider: it’s gone. Must have imagined it.
In the lobby, James is sitting on a chair near the door. He gets up looking concerned at the state of me.
‘They think I cheated,’ I tell him, though he hasn’t asked what happened. It’s kind of ironic, I realise. I did cheat. Not how they think, wouldn’t know how to, but I cheated Stella, in so many ways.
‘Well,’ James says, putting his hand on my shoulder, ‘It’s all over now. You seem to be in one piece. Let’s get out of here before something else happens.’
He leads me out into the cool dark street. I’m unsteady on my feet, like a small child. Every bit of me hurts. Through the alcohol and the blood and the pain, as I totter along letting James support me, I feel like something’s changed, been lifted.
I stop and look up at the night sky. How come I’ve never noticed the stars through the orange street light glow before? I really thought I was a gonna in that yard. Being alive, in the night here, feels like a second chance. A chance to do things right. As for the luck axis, it doesn’t make any sense, but I feel like the bad luck’s run its course, spun itself out to the end like a thread, like a web, and I’m free of it now. Either way, I’m going to be better, do better, from now on. In the morning, I’m going to call Stella.
Catherine Assheton-Stones has short stories published in the second ‘Stories for Homes’ anthology, the humorous ‘Adverbially Challenged’ anthology and the online literary magazine ‘Across the Margin’. She’s also writes book and film reviews. She’s lived in many different places and hopes to continue exploring.
Contact her: @CatherineAsshet
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