Billy Blue Heart can’t lose, not this time, grand old nag. I say nag, he’s a chestnut four year old with clean legs and near perfect thoroughbred conformation. He’s also got the best jockey of the decade on his back and 200 quid of my hard-earned cash in an each-way bet on his 3 o’clock at Kempton.
But just to be sure. . .
“Alright Charlie, lager top and a packet o’ pork scratchin’s?” I shout over the crowd to the corner table.
“You know it.” Charlie winks at me and flashes that gold tooth he knows I’m here for.
Big Roy, the landlord, meets my eye as I join the jostling three-deep bar queue. He waves me through. “Usual for you two?”
“Cheers, Roy.” I pass him a tenner.
I’ve been a regular here since I turned sixteen. Roy looks after the dedicated few.
“Got a bet on?” he asks as he leaves my pint to settle and reaches up for the scratchings.
“Have I ever.”
“Your luck’s changed recently. Spotted you celebrating the last few weeks. What’s the secret?”
I tap my finger to my nose. “Good things come to those who wait.” And I nod at the Guinness as its pale brown froth cascades into black-gold before my eyes.
We both smile at my reference to the ad campaign, it was the one with the horses in the waves - very apt if I do say so myself. Roy starts on Charlie’s drink.
The Royal Oak's as dark and sweaty as usual for this time on a race day. Filled with the dregs of human existence. Those who won’t be seen dead hanging around staring at the screens in the bookies, but will happily drink away what they haven’t gambled of this week’s wages. The place has gone downhill since we were young, carpets are sticky, beer towels always damp, but Charlie insists we come. Especially since I discovered his secret.
I squeeze through the smoky-breathed drinkers, past their sharp elbows and precarious beers, managing not to spill my Guinness or Charlie’s pint of piss. How can a grown man drink lager top? Never mind. Mine is not to reason why. Mine is just to shout and buy.
I’ve been gradually increasing my bets over the last few race days. And I think I have a guaranteed system now. Charlie had his gold tooth made privately by a dentist who was a family friend. I was sceptical to start with, but anything’s worth a try, right? And as long as he has his habitual drink and packet of pig by-product as part of the ritual, he's happy as Larry. Who knows? Maybe they help us win.
Charlie, sworn off gambling since he pawned his mother's pearls and lost the money on a boxing match in '96, just takes half my winnings in return for his cooperation. An arrangement that suits me fine, especially since I'm getting more confident with my wagers.
I climb the couple of steps to the seating area where Charlie's waiting. I plonk the drinks and scratchings down on the circular table and pull up the stool he's saved for me.
“How you doin’ old man?” I rummage in the pocket of my leather jacket.
“Good, good. Gave it an extra brushing for you this morning.” Charlie taps his golden canine with a forefinger and his face splits into a huge grin. “So, it’s extra shiny.” He puts a thumb up to Roy behind the bar.
“Be careful who you show that off to! Don’t want anyone working out what we’re up to. Apart from anything else, they’ll think we’re crazy.”
I find the betting slip amongst my change and keys, casting an eye over it to double check what I’m hoping for. £200 bet each way on Billy Blue Heart in the 3pm at Kempton. The odds are OK. If he comes in first, I stand to triple my money. That’s £300 each for me and Charlie. Plenty of cash for drinks and snacks, but I’m hoping for much bigger things not long from now.
I pass him the betting slip and settle my arse into the cushioned stool, ready to be regaled with his story for the eighteenth time. I don’t mind, it’s a small price to pay.
Charlie takes a look at the slip. “Billy Blue Heart, eh? New one on me. You trying something different?”
“Well, I take the going into account and study the form before I decide. Though I’m pretty sure our system is kosher, I might as well use anything else I can to guarantee success. This horse is a dead cert today, I reckon. Tooth or not.”
Charlie turns his pint glass in his left hand and holds up the slip in his right. He opens his mouth, pulls his tongue back and bites the corner of the paper – printed side up, facing his lucky canine. He hands me the slip back and sucks air through his front teeth.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this one.” Charlie removes his flat cap and sticks it on the table, taking a swig of his ghastly lager top. “You know, my great granda' bred horses. Eight Grand National winners he had. Ran in the family for three generations ‘til my real father sold the yard and retired. Of course, he couldn’t leave it to me, I was a secret.
"My mam was married to a vicar. It would have been such a scandal if anyone had known I wasn’t his. I never sat on a horse in my life. But my real dad did manage to give me his signet ring before he died. It was rumoured to be made from a bit of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Part of it stolen during all that time it was missing after 1924. God knows how my granda' got his hands on the gold, but he was known to be a bit of a wheeler dealer, you know?
"Him and my dad had their joint initials engraved on the ring, so I couldn’t keep it like that in case anyone saw. But they'd pressed that gold against the betting slip of every horse of theirs that won. I got it melted down and used it to make my tooth you know. Of course, you know.” He taps the gold again. “Last link to my family legacy of luck with the gee-gees.”
“I know Charlie, I know. And your secret will die with me. I promise.” I gulp down a quarter of my Guinness and examine the rounded bite mark on the corner of my betting slip. “The race is starting any minute.”
I shuffle about on my stool to face the TV high up in the corner of the bar. The chatter drops off as the crowd waits for 3 o’clock to tick round. Roy is staring right at us. I give him a wave, and he shifts his gaze.
And they’re off!
Billy Blue Heart is out in front from the get-go. The race is only five furlongs on the flat, so not much time between start and finish, when the horses are going a good thirty miles an hour. Grown men pump their fists in time with hooves hammering the ground. Billy wins by a clear length and Charlie is ecstatic. He bangs his empty pint glass down on the table and stands up with a cheer, arms in the air.
“You know Charlie, I think we’re really onto something. That’s five in a row.”
“Let’s do it again next week. Sooner if we can.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t make it so public. I don’t want anyone working out our system. They might stop us placing bets. Or want in on the action. I don’t know, just think we should be less obvious.”
A week's gone by and I’m back in the Royal Oak. Betting slip in my pocket, tenner in my hand, stale hops in my nostrils. I crane my neck round to Charlie’s corner but the table's been taken by two young women in jeans and baggy jumpers. Never seen them before. My eyes search the heaving bar, my accomplice is nowhere to be found.
“Alright Roy? Seen Charlie?”
“Not today Guv. Sorry. Guinness?”
“Yeah, go on.” My heart sinks a little.
Charlie's never let me down before. Still, maybe he’s running late. And even without the tooth, which probably doesn’t work anyway really, I’ve studied the form and made a good decision. 300 quid on Lost Chord, 4 to 1 to win the 3 o’clock.
I stand to one side of the crowded bar with my pint. I have a fair view of the TV, but no seat as they are all taken. Roy, not usually a drinking or a gambling man, having observed the dangers of both in other people, is pouring himself a pint. A lager top, it seems. He puts it to one side, opens a packet of pork scratchings, and serves another punter.
The horses are lining up, and with a moment’s notice, they're off.
Lost Chord starts well. He’s out in front for about half the course, with Beneath My Wings hot on his heels. It’s going to be a two horse race. The others fall back and Lost Chord stays just a head in front. I check my slip – I’ve put it all on to win. I should have gone each way, stupid, overconfident, bastard I am.
I look back up towards the TV and my gaze crosses Big Roy’s face. He’s ignoring the punters and glued to the screen, fists clenched, cheeks red. I cast a closer glance over him – there’s a piece of paper in his right hand.
Beneath My Wings finishes a nose in front and I crumple towards my knees, heart racing, face draining colour. 300 quid down the pan! And where's Charlie?
I buy myself a consolation pint from Annie, the barmaid. Roy is nowhere to be seen as the pub empties out and I finally get myself a seat. Someone's left yesterday’s local rag folded up on the next table along, and I open it.
Front page news: Man Found Dead In Sainsbury’s Carpark. Eugh, this town is getting nasty. Probably some drug deal gone sour. I scan over the details. A man in his mid-fifties was found strangled and severely beaten, behind the supermarket in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Police are asking for information. CCTV shows a man in a dark jacket dragging the body from the back of a van and dumping it there. The van number plate is deliberately obscured and the picture in the paper from the security camera is grainy at best. Police are trying to identify the victim through his dental records, but several teeth are missing, presumed lost in the preceding fight.
Well, that’s horrible. I finish my second pint and return my glass to the bar. Roy has reappeared from the back.
“Good race that. How did you do?”
“Oh, not too great, Roy. Got cocky and put it all on Lost Chord to win, should have gone each way.”
“Better luck next time.”
Roy smiles and lifts a gold shamrock on a chain round his neck, to his lips. He kisses it and hides it back under his shirt.
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Was that Charlie and did Roy kill him? Loved the story, so well written, I felt like I was in the bar with them!! Great job!
Hi! Thank you! I was beginning to think that the story was completely impossible to follow because people didn't get it! Yes, Roy's gold shamrock was made from Charlie's tooth and Roy had taken on Charlie's gambling ritual of drinking lager top and eating pork scratchings before a race to try to pick up any other luck that that might bring him. The dead man in the newspaper with the teeth missing was Charlie. I'm glad someone understands it!!! Much relief, thank you!
Pretty clever and realistic tale, Katharine. You seem to understand those who gamble on the outcome of horse races. Did a bit of that myself (small stakes only) and it all feels like what I've witnessed. I like the lucky gold tooth and the sinister Roy. I feel like Roy may be darker than he lets on, but I'm not quite sure. At any rate, a very entertaining tale.
Thank you Delbert, I'm glad it rings true for you. Roy is most definitely dark. I'm hoping that the reader picks up on the likelihood that Roy has murdered Charlie and taken his gold tooth, having it made into the shamrock he's wearing at the end of the story. Does that not come across?
Not for me. But I can see it now that you say it.
Hey friend. I hope you're well. I'm a bit late to this - I just saw your comment today - but I did go through it with some notes. It was a good story! I liked the ending, and how you revealed it with the news segment. I also liked how you set the scene in the beginning, especially with the dialogue. notes: I say nag, he’s a chestnut (four year old) - Possibly hyphenated? I'm not too sure on the rule for it, but best to double check “Cheers, Roy.” I pass him a tenner. -Consider switching it up to: I pass him a tenner. “Cheers, Roy.” I’ve ...
Thank you Alex - really helpful. Managed to make a few edits before the deadline.
The whole theme is so unsettling and well written. The line "I think I have a guaranteed system now," is spoken like every gambler who thinks he has broken the code. The sadness in the story comes from knowing this is being played out in countless places everywhere and that people like Roy are never 'out' forever. Really well written; it made me feel like I know this world, even though I don't.
Thank you Wally for reading and for your considered comments. I wonder - did you get a sense of Roy has done to enable his foray? I'm always interested to hear whether or not my own intentions for these characters comes across in the way I intended. You are right of course, the story is very sad for all the reasons you note. And for the places that gambling ultimately drives these characters to. I appreciate your compliments as well. Thank you.
While the reader doesn't know specifically what Roy has done, you do get the sense that he is deeply responsible for the outcome. Years ago I knew someone who had a gambling problem and attended GA meetings, and just like other addicts, he cycled in and out of recovery but never quite made it. It feels like he is the prototype for who you based the Roy character on
I was hoping that the reader would get the impression that Roy had killed Charlie for his lucky tooth (turning it into a shamrock necklace). He has also taken to drinking Charlie's favourite pint and snacking on his scratchings in order to imitate his gambling ritual and attempt to take over his winning streak.
Wow. Satisfying twist and the legend lives on. Well done.
Thank you Sjan.
Right off the bat, you have developed a very strong voice for the narrator! I can hear the accent in every line. The backstory with the gold cup is such an inventive idea. What an imagination you have! Building the intrigue when Roy serves himself Charlie's usual. Ah--several teeth missing in the murder victim. Now it's coming clear. On the 2nd read, I see the foreshadowing: He puts a thumb up to Roy behind the bar... Roy is staring right at us... Subtle and well done. The prose is incredibly tight. Not a wasted word throughout. One phra...
Thank you Jon, this is very encouraging. I have done a big edit and fixed a lot of issues with tense and a few other bits. I've tried to add more atmosphere to the bar and round out the sensory description. Interesting that you pick up on the Cheltenham Gold Cup detail - its actually true that the cup went missing in 1924 and wasn't returned until the 70s - its also true that no one really knows where it was all that time. I've padded out the detail on that a bit more too. I like the interplay of the story with a bit of weird reality. A fr...
That friend who suggested the title is very clever. I love it. So, I know I said this before but you've really nailed giving the narrator a distinct voice, and it works really well. That opening paragraph is almost audible. Here are some line notes: /I’ve been a regular here since I turned sixteen[,] and Roy looks after the dedicated few. /its pale brown froth cascades into black-gold - Outstanding imagery /Filled with the dregs of human existence. Technically, this is a sentence fragment, but on the re-read, I think it works, because...
Thank you Jon! Many edits made :)
Gave it another read. I like the changes! Punchy story with great momentum, mystery, and intrigue. I hope it does well in the contest!