“And now on to the second half of the game, ladies and gentlemen, turn to the blue page. We’re looking for that one line. All quiet on the floor, thank you. Your first number: s-i-x and nine, s-i-x-t-y nine… f-o-u-r and eight, f-or-ty eight.”
There were some callers that Beryl particularly liked. The young man with the spotty face, chapped lips and floppy blonde comb over, who usually worked the Friday night Bingo, was a likeable caller – not too softly spoken to be inaudible, nor too loud to hinder concentration, and he interacted with the hall just enough without getting annoying.
The older gentleman, with the unsightly nose ring and tinted blue Mohican, was also rather pleasant. Unfortunately, he would often get ahead of himself and start using Butlins Bingo lingo like ‘Danny La Rue’ and ‘buckle my shoe’.
Beryl wouldn’t have minded too much about the Blackpoolesque ambience of this type of calling, had the old ladies around her not have sniggered so distractingly at his saucy ’69’ and ‘legs 11’ innuendos.
Then there was Susie – the middle-aged, over zealous caller who rolled every number dramatically of her tongue. Susie was the caller Beryl disliked the most, which is why, given how terrible her day had already been, the presence of Susie behind the microphone stand was both so utterly displeasing and entirely fitting.
For Beryl, Bingo had become more than just a night of cheap thrills and a natter among old friends. It was all she had left in the world. She appreciated the familiar wrinkled faces, the hushed chatter, and the smell of cheap wine and crushed nuts. She took comfort in the distant flashing of lights on the slot machines and the chilled breeze that always whipped up through the hall from the courtyard. Most of all, she liked the silence of the game; the stillness of the room between each page, interrupted only by the muted scribbling of pens, a stifled husky cough or two and the chorus of disappointed grumbles that rippled among the tables when the last number was called. It seemed to be the only place that Beryl could find solace from her thoughts, and yet contrarily it plagued them deeply.
Bingo was for Beryl her one hope, born out of her one demise.
Like any regular Bingo goer, Beryl had accustomed herself to very strict Bingo superstitions. She always sat on the same table, just left of the bar and on the seat directly in front of the doors to the crowded smoking area – this way she could nostalgically suck up the smell of nicotine, she regretfully left behind many years ago. On the table, without fail, there would always be: a small glass of sherry, four ‘lucky’ stampers – red, purple, green and pink – ten pound coins stacked neatly to the left of her book, sixteen carefully arranged black counters, and an emerald flower brooch she pinned onto a pastel blue knitted cardigan that had begun to fray badly at the seams.
You would be mistaken in thinking that these superstitions came from a lucky streak, a big win, or any win at all. In actual fact, in all the thirty years Beryl had been going to her local Bingo hall dutifully every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, she had only ever won the Bingo once – ten pounds on one line. Of all the players in the hall, Beryl had to be the unluckiest and yet the most unshaken in her belief that these superstitions would amount to good things.
Today was not looking like one of those days for Beryl.
The letter came early that morning…
Beryl had been expecting it, though had been praying with all her might that it would not come. The dull brown of the envelope, the bright white of the newly printed paper, the blunt crease of the folded line, the dark, bold font, and the stern formal tone could all only mean one thing for Beryl. Her forehead glistened with beads of anxious sweat and her stomach lurched to and fro with anguish upon reading the first few lines.
She didn’t need to finish the letter to understand what it meant to her. Holding back the sting in her eyes, she crunched the paper up tightly in her clammy palms, threw it in the bin, and headed back to her lonely bedroom to collect her things for that evening’s session.
Beryl missed her usual bus trying to find her brooch and her favourite two stampers, and when she arrived in untimely fashion to the sight of a fresh young couple canoodling on her seat and the sound of the dramatic number calling from her least favourite caller Susie, all Beryl’s hopes soon diminished. She slumped in a chair at the back of the room, next to a large group of loud gossiping women, and tried to control her heavy panting and racing thoughts.
“That’s a good full house to the man in the bar, congratulations. Turn to the lilac page of your books. We’re looking for that one line. All quiet on the floor, thank you. Your first number. S-i-x and seven, s-i-x-ty seven…t-w-o and eight, t-w-e-n-t-y eight.”
Beryl couldn’t concentrate. The magnitude of her situation was overwhelming. The words of the letter kept playing around in her head and with every number the caller yelled, the finality of the words kept flashing bright in her mind. All around her the sound of sucked intakes of hopeful breath made her flinch and her eyes darted back and forth from her page, to the large pound signs on the board behind Susie.
“That’s a good line at the front for fifty pounds. On to your second line.”
The ink started to run out on her green stamper and the sense of desperation rapidly rose inside her. She frantically scribbled on the table to tease the flow of the ink, but couldn’t hear the preceding numbers through the hissing whispers which grew louder behind her.
“Oi Silvi, did you hear what happened to old Del on Thursday night? He only went and had a heart attack, right in the middle of the game. Poor sod. He was on for a win, Jan said. She was sitting right there. No, no, he’s all right Silvi. Tough as old boots that one. Bit of a shock though, aye?”
“That’s a good second line for one hundred pounds. On to your full house for that whopping one thousand pound prize. Ladies and gentlemen, all quiet on the floor please.”
Beryl glared at the women ferociously, her hands beginning to shake with anger and her eyes welling up with tears in a state of turmoil.
Not long ago, Phillip would have been there to calm her down. They were never affectionate towards each other and barely spoke more than a few crossed parting words at breakfast or dinner, but they loved each other dearly and always had. He never approved of Bingo though. He would plead for her to stop going, and threaten to leave if she didn’t stop gambling away what little money they had. But she never stopped and he never did leave. When he died, Beryl’s gambling got worse. She didn’t see it as an addiction, which made it all the more difficult. Now, with the last of the money in her purse, her only hope was drifting away in a muffled mumble of distant numbers.
Beryl thought back to the very first game of Bingo she had ever played.
It was in the spring of ’73 when Beryl was in her early forties. She would never have gone to Bingo usually; it had always been a ‘game of the grandmother’ and she definitely wasn’t there yet. Her father had died only several months earlier and she was worried about not spending enough time with her mother. Martha had few friends on account of her hard exterior, cold mannerisms, and the fact that she was never one to shy away from speaking exactly what was on her mind. Beryl often felt embarrassed taking her mother out and that night was no exception. It must have been unseasonably warm that first visit to the Bingo hall, as she had worn a mid-length, maroon flowing skirt that a friend gave to her days earlier. Martha had told Beryl the moment she greeted her that she looked like a ‘cheap hippy tart’ and that she should be embarrassed wearing something so revealing with thighs like hers. Beryl didn’t remember much else of her first Bingo trip, other than spending the entire evening thereafter tugging the skirt over her knees self-consciously in hope no one would stare.
Martha won two lines that evening and spent her winnings on a bag of fish and chips and a brightly coloured perm. She had been on a lucky streak, winning three full houses in two weeks, and swore blind it was because of the new perfume she had bought from the market that smelt distinctly like molding lavender.
Unlike her mother and many other people who dabbled in gambling, giving her money up to chance luck never did fill her with a rush of excitement. Beryl’s addiction was fueled not by pleasure, but by sheer desperation; a vicious cycle of hope and ever depleting funds.
The walls of the room began to tighten in on Beryl, as her stamper spewed the last of its ink and the elated cheers from the women behind echoed mockingly around her.
The Last Chance Bonus page was about to be called and the anticipation in the room amplified twofold.
Nervous giggles echoed to Beryl’s right as a group of Bingo newbies excitable readied themselves for the big prizes, with glugs of strong wine and a round of high fives. To the left, she spied Stan – a seventy-two year old butcher who was licking his lips, rubbing the palms of his hands together in eagerness, and planting a ritual smacker on the tip of his stamper. The youth of the newbies and the blithe of the elderly was intoxicating. All around her wide eyed smiles and snarling mirth appeared to taunt her.
Beryl lifted her bag from the chair, walked hurriedly through the crowded hall, past the buzzing slot machines, down the jolting escalators and out into the cold brisk air of the evening. She didn’t look back at her table, or smile warmly at her close friends Ruth and Catherine, and she didn’t say goodbye to Sally on the front desk. She simply left.
That night Beryl didn’t sleep. She sat wrapped in a musky quilted blanket on her small brown two-piece sofa, under the low light of a dusty reading lamp, and stared into the darkness. There was no one to help her. Not even herself.
The next day Beryl tried to go about her usual business. She ignored the telephone that rang endlessly all morning; pretended not to see Ruth waving at her frantically in the high street; and she hid in the kitchen that evening when the door knocker thumped loudly. Beryl couldn’t face anyone and didn’t want to. She knew people would be asking why she left the Bingo early last night. She was too ashamed to tell them the truth.
Beryl folded her clothes neatly into stacks and placed them into an old leather suitcase she had bought in her thirties for her first trip to Europe. She smiled warmly, tracing her fingers around a faded sticker of blue patterned clogs she found on her trip to the Netherlands. Beryl arched her eyebrows and sighed deeply, wondering whether her younger self could ever have imagined she would be in this situation today.
The door creaked loudly downstairs, followed by the sound of a letter sliding onto the carpet, clinking of heels on the concrete path, and the gentle rattle of the gate as someone walked away. She peered her head nervously around the landing stairs, just to make sure there wasn’t still someone in the porch. Satisfied, Beryl stepped wearily down the stairs towards to the hallway and picked up the envelope. It was un-stamped and simply addressed ‘To Beryl’. Heavier and chunkier than a usual letter, Beryl thought it odd for someone to deliver post so late into the evening.
Peeling back the sticky edge, Beryl peered inside. She frowned and squinted her eyes to clear her vision, before seating herself on the bottom stair. She pulled out the letter first with shaking hands.
You left without collecting your winnings.
Last Chance Bonus.
We thought we would leave you to do the counting.
Ruth gave us your address.
Silvi and Carol
P.S. Sorry for talking too loudly!
Beryl took out the Last Chance Bonus page they had slipped in among the wad of crisp notes and stared at the mass of purple splodges on the top box.