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By Stephen Baker
Grove Atlantic LtdCopyright © 2010 Stephen Baker
All rights reserved.
Flightless Steamer Duck
Only six degrees outside but Dave's already damper than a glass- blower's arse. There's a sheen to his slick face like paraffin, like the sweat that starts from a lump of meat when you put it to the fire. Fidgeting the cards in his hand, left and right, over and under. A cigar ette perched on the scalloped edge of his ashtray, the ash beginning to lengthen and the clotted smoke spiralling upward. Whisky in a stained glass, at least his fifth tonight. A cheap Canadian brand. I can taste the heartburn.
I smell you, says Joe Fish, elongated face and slicked-back hair flickering in the wash from the hurricane lamps, like a snail has run over him. The room is cavernous, a farmhouse kitchen with that sour milk smell of damp. Paraffin light trembles like a moth, skitters away from the corners where sinkholes of dark are welling up. Joe splashes a rumpled note into the centre.
The Falkland Islands, he says. Islas Malvinas. Whatever you call it, it's still the arse end of the earth. We're fighting over the scraps here boys.
He rattles his fingernails like a snare drum against the table. It's a battered thing, cobbled from ancient timbers. Gouged and scorched and pitted and tattooed and rubbed smooth by the passage of elbows and forearms, the buffeting of lives gone elsewhere. But the elbows on the table now are Joe's, pale twisted things like roots.
I'll go another twenty bar, he mutters, a second note following the first.
Joe plays distractedly, the game getting tangled up with his internal monologue. He bluffs aggressively, destructively. He sits on his hands. He chases his tail.
Working men. Aye, the great party of workers. We should stick together. Stick together like brothers.
He unscrews the top from a bottle, sniffs, grimaces, and slops a good three fingers into his glass. I take a yeasty gulp of beer. It's very cold. My eyes are stinging with the smoke.
I'm in man, says Horse Boy, tipping a note in.
He's almost gone, eyes darting wildly around the room, voice slurred. This is why I stick to beer. It's cold and calming. It slows everything down, makes everything clear. I'm assembling a cigar ette. A screw of dry tobacco on the paper, curled between the fingers, a deliberate dab of saliva. It's tiny, not much more than the thickness of a match. Just enough to deliver the required jolt.
Fighting over a rock, in the middle of the drink, rambles Joe. Me against my brother. I've no beef with him, not me. I never thought the witch would send us down here. Never in a million years.
No, not me, says Fabián Rodriguez, laying his cards face down. I fold.
He closes his hooded eyes for a moment and fronds of his long hair trickle down either side of his face. Brow ridges, cheekbones, septum.
Look out there, says Joe.
We strain to see out of the window but only our faces splash back at us, foolish lanterns swimming in darkness. Joe leans towards me, shadow congealing in his deep eye sockets.
Nobody knows where the lines are, he says. Our boys and the spics. They're all out there lost, wandering about in the night.
I'm in lads, I say. And I'll raise you two hundred.
I reach over for Joe's lighter, a big brass thing like a shell case, and relish the oily smell of paraffin as I spark up, suck in a lungful. See, you got to have some discipline in this game. That's what Branigan taught me anyway, them rainy afternoons in the County. Two pair, jacks up, is the minimum hand. Anything less is a fold. It's foolproof. Play it to the letter and you'll make at least a modest buck.
You got to have some discipline in this game. Shame I never fucking listened to Branigan.
Dave is sweating like a nun in a cucumber field and I'm sure he's on the hook. I've been bluffing hard and losing on crap cards. He thinks I'm a tool and that's the way I want it. I'm egg ing it up on a pair of queens here and I've started this nervous blinking every time I raise. And I see him notice, his eyebrows twitching and settling again. I see him notch it away for future use. Blink means bluff. He opens and closes the buckle on his watch, worrying at the hairless white flesh of his forearm.
And now everyone is looking at him. The little eyes in the heavy face dart about, searching, appraising. He plays with his watch, a big heavy designer thing, the kind you need a mortgage to buy. His cigarette froths on the edge of the ashtray, the untapped finger of ash growing.
It's an ugly business, Joe rambles. See, in the old days, it was single combat, right? Champion against champion. Achilles and Hector. Them lads were bred up for war, see? Hard as nails they were.
It was the Bronze Age Joe, I say. They never had nails.
Hard as bronze, then. Not like now. Podgy lads straight from school, with the stink of fear on 'em.
They were still fighting for the man Joe, I say, winking at Fabián. It was his woman.
Joe looks blank.
The Greeks man, I persist. They went to get Helen back. The big man's trophy wife. Ten years fighting, all because the lady scoffed too much of Paris' Milk Tray. Now I hear she was a canny splitarse, but in my book a decade of all-out warfare could be seen as over-reaction.
A slender smile creeps across the face of Fabián Rodriguez. Dave picks up his cigarette, taps the ash, takes a big drag.
Okay boys, says Dave. Fuck it, I'll play.
He's dicking around with that watch again, over and over. He's got the cards. Definitely. I wait for him to raise, pressure building in my bladder. But he doesn't. Tips two hundred in.
As I expected, Joe has nothing. Bluffing, king high. Dave has little greedy eyes like a penguin and a wobble to his chin. Plenty of penguins on the Falklands – gentoo, macaroni, magellanic, rockhopper.
Chuck the man a sardine.
I lay down my pair of queens with a foolish grin. Beat that David. Dave lays his cards down, one by one. Three kings. Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
It's a pleasure taking money off you ladies.
He scoops the pot from the table.
Next hand, Yan to deal?
Actually Dave, I'm going to get some air. Jimmy riddle. I'll sit out a couple.
I stand up, glue the roll-up between my lips and head for the door.
Outside the farmhouse it's cold, the southern winter thickening. I walk away from the faint light of the windows, down towards the shore, tobacco smoke blooming almost crystalline in the night air. Stop at the bottom of the jetty and piss into the sea, steam rising, the bladder relaxing. Simple pleasures. The darkness is viscous, complete. I breathe it in. No lights at all, only the impossible chaos of stars brushed across the night sky like silver sand. Alpha Centauri blinking. Somewhere a raft of steamer ducks rising and falling on the swell, gabbling and sighing in their sleep. They're flightless. If you don't use your wings then they will shrivel up to stumps.
Shoals of islands out there. Keppel and Pebble and Carcass and Sedge. North Fur and South Fur. Elephant Jason, Flat Jason, Grand Jason, Steeple Jason. Long low grey seals lying stretched in the white-furred sea. How long have they been here, losing their wings?
We've only been here twenty-three days. I draw hungrily on the nub of my cigarette and it sears into the roach and the smoke turns bitter and mealy.
When I go back into the farmhouse I think of The Dice Players. Georges de La Tour, isn't it? We saw it at Preston Hall, when you were just a kid.
Aye, I remember.
Think so. It's going back a few years, mind.
Entombed underground, almost like a burial chamber. A crypt. It stopped the sunlight fading the colours I suppose. Down a flight of stairs and along a dark corridor and a small room glowing at the end.
That painting. It was like a chunk of time had frozen and never thawed out. It didn't move on.
Danny, you've hit the nail on the head. Five blokes stood around the table. You're right there in the room with them, in this rich and smoky and port-and-tobacco-scented sixteenth-century darkness. But they aren't looking at you. Candlelight shivers over your skin like goose-flesh, touches the face of a man sucking at a long clay pipe, touches the open palm of a hand. Candleflames ripple in the tabletop, in that deep mahogany sheen and the dice frozen in movement. You've stumbled in, just when everything's in motion and nothing is settled. These living, breathing men, awake only to the racing dice. Tumbling like the planets, like the spheres of the universe. And soon enough they'll come to rest. But for now. For now the night is endless and the candle will never burn down and the dice will never rest.
I stop in the doorway for a moment and look at them. Paraffin light washes over their faces. Eyes lidded, turned down over the cards. I lean on the doorframe, breathe in their tobacco second hand. The face of Fabián Rodriguez is framed in the light. He's about to show. The cards are in motion.
Look, says Joe Fish, who has already folded. They'll find us in the end. You can't just walk away in the middle of a war.
I just fancied going for a wander, I say. In them new boots.
Joe cracks a broad tombstone grin and Fabián spreads his cards on the table. A run, six through ten. It's an intimate business, peeling the boots from a dead man. Puttees and socks underneath, the delicate flexure of the toe bones.
You took a dead man's boots?
Aye. We all did. Our issue boots were shite and they fell to bits in the field. I started walking, through this strange blue sunlight, bright but bitter cold. Ringing in my head like a Tibetan singing bowl, someone running a moistened finger round the rim of my skull. And snow came, scribbles of it across the russet flanks of the mountain, and my feet rattled down stone runs, tramped through tussocks of whitegrass and pigvine, squelched over cushions of oreob and sphagnum. Scribbles of snow descending across my vision, swarming across the surfaces of my brain. It swallowed the others, blanked out the mountain, and I kept walking. Berkeley Sound down below, the long firth crawling away to the ocean, water bickering in the steady wind. And I walked towards it, towards the sea. When I got there, I would carry on. Icy water mounting to my chin, swallowing me. Walking down onto the deep ocean floor until the pressure burst me.
There's no shame in it, says Joe Fish. Who's to know, anyway? The fog of war. If you come back with us now Yan, no fucker will ever know you were missing.
I notice Horse Boy on the floor, asleep. A happy knack. The lamp casts a sheen over his bare back where muscles shiver in the blue autumn night, and his close-cropped head ripples like rabbit fur. Only Dave is left in.
Joe yawns and stretches. We are the proxies, he says. For the real villains. They need mugs like us to fight it out for them because they lack the cojones. We are exploited, man. Pure exploited.
Men like us, I say to him. Coal hewers and crucible pullers and farm navvies. Ripping the guts out of hawthorn hedges in raw November. They think we're just doing what we're told. But all along we're creating ourselves. It's in our blood to mine our own history in the dark, black and glittering carboniferous lumps of it.
That's what I'm saying, he persists. We do the dying, and they get the glory.
But none of it matters man. It's over in the blink of an eye. Steamer ducks spent a hundred million years down here evolving flightlessness.
Metaphysics, says Joe Fish, I'm trying to dig you out of a hole here, and you start in on the metaphysics.
He lights a fag, a straight, and the smoke gurgles upward. When I say it doesn't matter what I mean is it doesn't exist. There is no war. Just the five of us, and the cards, and darkness outside.
Dave lays down his cards, one by one. A flush. Five spades like ripe, black fruit. He scoops the pot again, and yawns, like an elephant seal.
Call it a day? Or should I say a night?
He proffers a queasy smile, begins to get up. Must be up hundreds on the last few hands.
The night is without end, says Joe Fish. And sleep is not for men like us.
He grips Dave's forearm and looks at him steadily from the ruined face. His eye sockets loom enormously, teeth like tombstones.
Play, he says. You deal.
Almost apologetically, Dave sits. Joe releases him. He deals. Five beatific faces in the lamplight, one cloaked in sleep, four hooded over the cards.
I have two jacks and some fluff, but Fabián Rodriguez is pushing things before the draw.
Two thousand, he says, his eyes black.
We take this on board silently. Dave has lit another cigarette and like its predecessor it clings to the notch of the ashtray, smoke blooming upwards. The beer is bitter and citrus and clear. Joe Fish beaches his cards with a grunt of disgust.
Fabián has something up his sleeve, I say, pushing notes into the middle.
His eyes remain black, unreadable, a dancing mote of lamplight in the pupil.
This is more like it boys, says Dave. Proper wedge.
He too shuffles some paper into the pot. His hands go under the table. I can't see the watch, can't read him at all.
Dance for tha' daddy, sing for tha' mammy, croons Joe, leaning back, scrolls of smoke issuing from mouth and nostrils.
One card, says Fabián, jerking his head like a horse as the card slides across to him.
One card. The probabilities churn inside my head. If he's holding two pair and drawing to a full house it's one in six and a half. If he's drawing one card to a flush it's one in four.
I'll take three, I say. Makes it obvious I'm holding a pair or nothing, but it can't be helped. Empty my head and let the cards come to me, sliding across the table. Stretch out this moment of not knowing. Of not being.
No cards, says Dave. Smugly.
His dimpled hands come out from under the table, fluttering like flames. He unscrews the cap from the whisky bottle. Pours himself a generous measure, trying not to spill. He must be holding full house or better. Unless he's bluffing. The hands go back under the table. I look at him and blink three times and he sees it. His cigarette in the ashtray, untouched, the ash tongue beginning to grow.
Dance for tha' daddy, for tha' mammy sing. Joe drums on the table- top with those clubbed fingertips, the nails ridged and stripped back.
I raise. Five thousand, says Fabián. His pupils are becoming more dilated, tunnels into the centre of his head.
Thou shalt have a fishy, on a little dishy.
I will smell you Fabián, I say. This is the last of my cash, though the others don't know it. I can't raise any further. Blink. Blink.
See your five, and raise another five, says Dave. He's bluffing. Must be. Three or four solid hands in a row and it can't go on for ever. Probabilities. Hands under the table. Tobacco being slowly consumed, the untapped ash halfway to the filter.
Fabián is unblinking. Very well, I match your five.
They look at me.
Joe, I say. He holds my gaze. Joe.
Throw for it, he says, and slaps a hand onto the table, flat, with his palm upwards. He looks at my hand, with the forefinger and middle finger extended. The paraffin lamp picks out his palm, my fingers, the sheen on our faces.
Scissors cut paper, I say.
Joe reaches somewhere deep into his kit bag, and pulls out a metal cylinder, a thermos flask. He unscrews the lid and delves inside, withdraws a fat roll of notes.
Scissors cut paper, he says, passing it to me. But if you lose it, you come back with us tonight.
And if I win?
Joe doesn't answer. I turn back to the others.
Dave, Fabián, I match your five, and I raise you fifty thousand American. Blink. There is an audible squawk from Dave.
I watch a moth brushing at the window glass, drawn by the lamp, gentle and insistent. I watch a gob of sweat come adrift from Dave's hairline and sway down the side of his face, making a neat detour round the eye socket and the corner of the mouth, disappearing below the neckline of his shirt. His hands appear on the table, cards in the left, the right hand tugging insistently at the watch strap. He has the cards.
Thou shalt have a fishy, when the boat comes in.
I fold, Fabián says. It is too much.
His pupils are deflating to small, sharp coals. Blink.
I don't have that much with me, says Dave. Could get it in a couple of days, maybe.
Nobody says nothing. Dave buckles and unbuckles the watch strap. The ash on his cigarette is almost to the filter, beginning to bend under its own weight, about to drop.
Excerpted from Hemispheres by Stephen Baker. Copyright © 2010 Stephen Baker. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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