'We need to sort that out. It’s bad for customers,’ said the waitress, pointing at the flickering lightbulb.
'What customers,’ joked Mike. The waitress got back to wiping down the tables without a response.
Business was bad for Brompton Station Cafe. Three weeks left, Mike reckoned. Brompton had just got its own, brand-spanking-new Underground station. It had made the Overground line, and with it Brompton Station, redundant.
'An occupational hazard,’ the ticket officer kept saying to Mike, thinking himself very witty. Mike thought the ticket officer was a prick.
'Alright, I’m going to head off now, Mike,’ said the waitress.
Mike was left behind among the empty cups. The cleaning up was left to do. He was happy to do it – the repetitive tasks of the cafe soothed him. Anything was better than going home. Every evening, when he looked at his pregnant wife as he came through the front door, he was overwrought with shame. He hadn’t told her anything yet. Sure, they’d always have her parents’ house — loaded folk, they let them live there rent-free. But that almost made matters worse. So Mike was scrubbing and scrubbing away at the griddle when he heard the shrill sound of metal clanging against a single-glazing windowpane.
Mike went to the front of the cafe to investigate. Outside the door was a tall, bald man, dressed in a long black overcoat. He waved at Mike to get his attention. His hands, Mike noticed, had rings on every finger.
'Sorry, closed,’ said Mike.
'You can’t make me a quick coffee? I’ll do you a good deal.’
'Afraid not, mate. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.’ Even charging a tenner for a coffee wasn’t going to make a dent on the 30,000 Mike owed the bank.
The man gave a resigned smile, then walked off into the darkness.
Mike got back to cleaning and soon forgot about the man.
'Pub or home, pub or home, pub or home,’ he kept mumbling to himself, unable to make up his mind.
'A pint of lager, please.’
'I’ll get that,’ said a voice behind Mike. He turned around. It was the same man who had just knocked on the window.
'That’s alright, mate, you don’t have to,’ Mike said. He was taken aback and wary that the man had probably followed him here.
'I insist. I’m sorry for bothering you earlier. I’ve just got to kill a few hours. Care to join me,’ said the man, pointing to a table.
Mike hesitated, taking another good look at the man. Again, he noticed the rings. On some fingers, multiple rings were stacked on. He sure seemed a bit sketchy, but then so did half of the people in the pub.
'Why not,’ Mike said, as he walked over to the table.
‘So what do you do?’ He asked, out of both courtesy and curiosity.
'I’m a gambler,’ the man said, smiling.
'Like one of those professional poker players?’
'Something like that,’ the gambler said.
Mike sniggered. ‘I could never be a gambler; got nothing to gamble.’
The gambler’s smile grew wider. ‘I don’t know about that; we’ve all got something to gamble.’ He paused. ‘How about I make you a bet.’
'What kind of bet?’
'I bet you 1000 pounds that you can’t get the phone number of that bartender over there,’ the gambler said.
'Hmmm,’ said Mike, fancying his chances. ‘In return for what?’
'A free cup of coffee every day from your cafe for the next year.’
Mike chuckled inwardly. He’d be closed in a month. ‘Deal.’
The pair shook hands. The man’s ring-clad hands felt cold and smooth. Mike took a large gulp of his pint and walked over to the bar.
‘That man over there just said he’d pay me a grand if I could get your phone number.’
The girl behind the bar chewed her gum for a while. ’That has to be the shittiest chat up line I’ve ever heard.’
The bartender still seemed unconvinced.
'I’m deadly serious, that man over there did.’
The bartender looked at the man, who was sitting quietly, sipping on his beer. She let out an overdrawn sigh. ‘This pub is a magnet to so many weirdos.’
'So you’ll do it?’
'If you give me 500 quid I will.’
'Are you daft? I’ll give you 100 pounds.’
'And just so you know, if you pull some shit with this, I know people who’ll mess you up.’
'I’m married,’ Mike said.
’Yeah, well that wouldn’t stop half the guys in here.’ The waitress picked up a beer mat and wrote her number on it. Mike counted the digits and, seeing all was in order, walked over to the gambler with a boyish smile.
'Very impressive,’ said the gambler. ‘But you need to call it first.’ Mike typed in the number and, as hoped for, saw the bartender answer the phone. The gambler stuck to his word. As soon as he had handed Mike the money, a loud cough came from the direction of the bar. Mike got up and paid out the bartender’s cut, then returned.
'I’ve been hoodwinked,’ said the gambler. ‘But I suppose there was nothing in the rules to say otherwise. And a bet is a bet,’ he tautologised. Mike folded up the cash and put it in his jacket pocket. ‘How about we up the stakes a bit,’ said the gambler.
'What did you have in mind,’ said Mike, riding the thrill of the 800 pounds he had just made.
'I bet you 10,000 pounds you can’t drink a pint of beer quicker than me.’
'In return for what?’ Mike asked, his heart racing at the prospect of making all that cash in one night. Definitely enough to keep the cafe afloat for the foreseeable.
'A month’s profits from your cafe.’
Mike kept a cool exterior. Internally, he was in hysterics. ‘That’ll be -500 pounds,’ he thought to himself. Mike took the last gulp of his first pint. 'Deal,’ he said. ‘I’ll get this round. Lager?’
'That’s fine by me,’ said the gambler.
Mike got up to order the beer. He congratulated himself on the idea he’d just had. Lager was carbonated, and therefore took longer to drink. If he bought a flat ale (which he ordinarily despised), he’d be much better off. Thinking himself already up 10,000 pounds, he ordered one lager and one ale and went back to the table.
'One lager, as requested,’ said Mike, choosing his words carefully.
'Too kind. Shall we go on three?’ The gambler asked as his fingers gripped the glass. Mike nodded. ‘One. Two. Three.’
Mike gulped his pint down in seconds. With plenty of practice and no bubbles to deal with, he was able to finish the beer before the gambler had even reached halfway.
'Very impressive,’ said the gambler, wiping foam from his mouth. He reached into his briefcase and passed Mike a bundle of cash. A few envious glances darted toward Mike. He didn’t care – or notice, for that matter – as he greedily stashed the wads in every pocket on his person.
’Probably not the night you hoped for, mate,’ Mike teased.
'All part of the game,’ said the gambler. ‘How about we do one last bet: 100,000 pounds.’
‘100 grand,’ Mike thought to himself. ‘That’s enough to pay off the café and some. Could get myself a new car too. Something fancy, sporty even. Maybe a new BMW.’
Plus, this guy clearly had more money than sense.
'You’re mad,’ he said, not wanting to give away his hand. ‘Haven’t you lost enough?’
‘Only bet what you’re prepared to lose,’ said the gambler, repeating another platitude.
'I bet you 100,000 pounds that I can hold my hand against the glass window of that wood burning stove for longer than you,’ said the gambler, ushering towards the wood burner at the other end of the room.
‘In return for what?’
‘Well, you tell me.’
Out of instinct, Mike put his hands in his pockets to rustle around for something of value. He felt his house keys. The house wasn’t his: his parents-in-law owned it. But the gambler didn’t need to know about that. Plus, he was certain he’d win this contest yet again. He even came up with three good reasons: first, he spent everyday, all day handling piping hot milk jugs and espresso machines. ‘Asbestos hands’, the waitress regularly called him. Second, the gambler had metal rings on every finger. Metal’s a good conductor. They’d get hot fast and burn him faster. Lastly, the gambler had smooth hands. Smooth hands are sensitive hands, he thought to himself.
‘I’ll put my house on it,’ Mike said to the gambler, nonchalantly.
‘Now that’s more like it. Let’s shake on it.’
As the pair shook hands, Mike noticed something new. The gambler’s hands were smooth, but they were also uneven. The skin felt like rock that had been under a glacier for millennia. He looked down. These hands weren’t smooth and sensitive, they were smooth and scarred.
‘Actually, do you know what, how about we call it there.’
‘But we just shook on it,’ said the gambler.
‘But I’ve changed my mind. Please,’ Mike beseeched, changing his tune.
‘We shook on it!’ shouted the gambler. Mike leaned away, fearing the gaze that met his. There was an insidious vacuum in the man’s eyes.
‘Fine, let’s play then.’
The men walked to the other side of the pub and kneeled by the stove. Everyone else in the pub quickly crowded round, as if to see a street performer.
‘On three,’ the gambler said. ‘One. Two. Three.’ The men placed their hands against the glass. Mike found the pain was immediate and consuming. He felt his skin melting into the glass. The smell of seared flesh wafted into the crowd. By ten seconds, his whole arm was shaking, and after fifteen seconds, he yielded. He looked over at his rival punter. The man was holding on unperturbed, with his hand still against the glass. He smiled at Mike and calmly put down his hand.
‘You’re crazy,’ Mike said, after groaning from the pain of the burns. He clasped on to his red, raw hand as the bartender raced towards them with buckets of ice.
‘What kind of sicko are you? You get off on this stuff?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said the gambler, laughing sardonically as he refused the offer of ice.
‘Listen, I can’t give you the house anyway,’ said Mike, as he plunged his hands into the icy water. ‘It’s not mine to give.’
‘Well, that’s not my problem,’ said the gambler. ‘You bet it, you lost, you give it to me.’
‘You’re clearly some sort of swindler, but it doesn’t matter, I’m not giving it to you,’ panicked Mike. ‘You can have your money back, but you’re not having the house. Just call it quits and get the hell out of here. You’re lucky I’m not calling the police.’
The gambler shook his head, then reached into the inside pocket of his overcoat. He revealed his hand. In it was a large knife. ‘You’re giving me that house.’
Suddenly, the crowd behind dispersed and Mike sat there alone with the gambler. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t. It just isn’t mine. You can have my car,’ said Mike offering the keys to his beat-up Ford Focus.
‘I don’t want a car,’ said the gambler, who seemed to pause as if deliberating whether or not it was worth stabbing Mike and dirtying his overcoat.
'But because I’m feeling generous, I’ll make you another bet. A nice and simple one: heads or tails. If you win, we call it even. If you lose, I get a finger.’
‘You heard me.’
‘What’s wrong with you,’ said Mike, looking at the gambler. The sinister glow of the fire reflected in his eyes.
‘I’m not the one who doesn’t keep a bet, Mike,’ said the gambler, who had continued to hold the knife in Mike’s direction. The once packed pub was now empty but for the two men kneeling in front of the fire. The only sign of its previous state was the graveyard of half-drunken pints laying scattered across the tables.
'Heads or tails, Mike?’
The knife glimmered. Mike’s voice almost gave in.
The gambler brought out a coin from his pocket and quickly tossed it up in the air. Even quicker it fell to the floor. Tails.
Before Mike could react or protest, the gambler slammed his knife down on the stone floor. Blood gushed out from the stump where Mike’s annular finger had been. The gambler picked up the finger and prized off Mike’s wedding band, discarding the finger in the nearest pint of beer. Carefully placing the ring on his hand, he walked out.