by Michael Botur
from Hell of a Thing (The Sager Group, 2020)
*
A troop of kids up way past their bed time in their parents’ club encounter the past, present, and a disturbing future across three nights, years apart.
*

CASINO KIDS

1995

Sam watched his dad place his black case and pouch and filters on top of a barstool that was, like, as tall as Godzilla. The humongous stool said PROPERTY OF HORNBY WORKING MEN’S CLUB on the stickers on its legs. Murray rolled a cigarette and lit it with his shiny silver Zippo and blew two snorts of dragon smoke into his moustache and told his son to get him two JD and Cokes. Sam dragged a stool over to the bar so he could get up to the counter and Stella roared DON’T EVER LET ME CATCH YOU DRAGGING BAR STOOLS ON MY NICE CARPET AGAIN, SONNY. Sam said sorry and hopped until he was high enough to toss twenty bucks over the counter and Stella gave him his drinks for Murray and he brought them back and Murray nodded at his boy without looking. There was some real important dogs running on TV. Murray had fifty bucks on Red Baron to win at Newcastle. Sam fingered the edge of the tabletop. He was itching to hang with his mates. 

Someone called out ‘Mister Fixit,’ and Sam’s dad replied ‘Blake-o,’ and the men shook hands then tucked their hands under their armpits and frowned at the TV. Finally they creaked off their stools and tossed their beers down their throats and opened their long black cases and screwed their pool cues together as they talked about Murray putting a new hard drive in Blake-o’s PC. Murray could fix any engine, any electronic system. He spent weekends welding and building and demolishing without saying a word to Mum or Sam. 

Sam was hopping from side to side. ‘Can I get some chips, Murray?’

‘Ask your mother.’

‘But I don’t know where she is… ?’

‘Only one place you’ll find that woman.’ Murray pointed his beer towards the gaming lounge.

TELL YOUR BOY TO QUIT RUNNING IN MY GOD DAMN PUB, MUZ, Stella called across the bar, but Sam had already made it to the dark cathedral of the gaming lounge and all he could hear was dinging bells and chinking coins.

The slot machines almost reached the ceiling. They were covered in gold. Their screens were shiny diamond. Three cherries were spelled out in red pixels then the cherries disappeared and there were three bags of gold. Coins tumbled into someone’s cup and overflowed onto the metal drain and Sam looked around corners till he found whoever had just won. It turned out to be twin uncles with towels around their heads who were transferring the coins into a gym bag.

‘Mum!’

Mum pulled down her sunglasses for a moment and said, ‘Hello, trouble.’ Mum’s back and sides were a black shadow. Her face was glowing. Same with Gina’s dad Donald Duke to her left. Same with all the other statues perched on their stools.

Mum held her cigarette out to the left. With her right hand, she pressed the shiny red button. Fresh pictures lined up. One harp, two harps… FUCK. Lemon. Mum pulled another two dollar coin from her cup. It didn’t even scrape the sides of the slot as she fed it into the machine. Two dollars was how much Sam got for folding the laundry. Mum wasn’t around home much anymore and even when she was, she was always too mad at Murray to do laundry for him. Sam was being asked to do more and more mum-stuff, lately. Vacuuming, dishes. He even had to tuck himself in. 

‘Can I get some chips, mum?’

‘Yeah yeah.’ Mum took a sip of her black stinky drink, rummaged inside her jacket pocket and pulled out three white plastic circles. She pushed them into Sam’s hands without looking at him.

‘Like, salt and vinegar, I mean.’

Mum fingered the pineapple button ten times then punched the machine. ‘SHIT.’ She caught up on her cigarette, tapping an inch of ash off the tip.

‘You seen my friends, mum?’

‘Thataway.’ Mum pointed her smoke left and it went straight into the tattoo on the sweaty shoulder of Donald Duke.

‘Oh my GOD, exCUSE my manners!’ Mum said. She tipped her stool till her face splatted against Donald Duke’s fat wide ginger arm, then caught herself. Donald Duke was the biggest man in the world. His shoulders were round as basketballs from hauling cray pots and tuna fish. Sam smelled his fat burning where he’d been scorched by Mum’s smoke, but he didn’t flinch. Mum must’ve been drunk, the way she licked the little burn on his mermaid tattoo and stroked Donald Duke’s beard while he chuckled and told her it was nothin’. Sam watched Mum licking the big man’s arm to cool the burn.

Gross. He walked away to find his friends.

Down the corridor with all the names of the old men who died in the war painted on wood, past the kitchen with its clanging pans and swinging saloon door and noisy fans and men in white, through another door, across the polished floors where the DJ was saying ‘One-two, check one-two’ through the speakers. There was a banner big as a sail reading LINE DANCING HO-DOWN FUN-RAISER and people assembling underneath dressed like the Marlboro Man. Beyond it, almost at the end of the club, Sam found the Casino Kids. They were in a quiet corner of the dance hall, bending the plastic screen off the Coke machine. There were six kids tonight. The biggest the group had ever been was eleven. That gathering was the second bestest night of Sam’s life. The first bestest was the time of the blizzard when the city bobbed in an ocean of snow and school was cancelled for a whole week and you were an extra metre tall if you stood on the right mound and the streetlights steamed orange and Murray’s home-made heat pump exploded and from out on the street he could hear his mum screaming I BET THEY’VE GOT HEATING AT DONALD FUCKING DUKE’S PLACE.

Standing outside the boys’ shoulders as they probed the Coke machine, Gina Duke had her arms hunched in one of those farmer shirts with a pattern like the grid in Sam’s maths book. She looked like her dad, tall, thick arms, fire-colored hair around her freckled face. The lips nibbling on her fingernails contained secret naughtiness.

‘Hey dudes,’ Sam said.

Govind Singh, arm buried in the Coke machine, rolled his eyes. ‘Don’t you know dude means a camel’s diddle?’

‘Coke’s dumb, anyway,’ he said, speaking towards Gina. Everyone in the gang was a blur compared to her. ‘I’m a Pepsi man.’

‘I like Dr. Pepper,’ Gina said, ‘My dad gets caseloads of American stuff.’ Painful seconds limped until Gina added, ‘But Pepsi’s okay too.’

Sam and Gina watched the boys rock the machine, finger its guts, put the power plug into the socket, pull the plug out, and press its buttons in the magic Fanta-Diet-Diet-Diet-Fanta-Sprite combination one of the boys said would make it spew free Cokes ‘cause he read it in Mad magazine.

‘Put this in.’ Sam held out a casino chip.

Nobody breathed as Govind Singh forced the chip into the slot.

It got stuck. None of the boys could pull it out.

‘Thanks a lot, Sam-not-wise Gamgee.’

‘Here,’ Sam said, giving his second to last chip to Gina, ‘I don’t want it anyway.’

‘Thanks.’ She squinted at the chip through the black glasses covering up her dark brown eyes. Sam had accidentally been pulled into those eyes one time and a big exclamation mark had gone off inside him.

‘Want a smoke? I stole some off my dad. He’s got, like, a hundred cartons. They bring ‘em in off the boats.’

Sam took a smoke from Gina and stored it in his left fingers but didn’t put it anywhere near his lips. They watched the Casino Kids punch the Coke machine, swear at it, wipe boogers on its sides.

‘I saw your dad,’ Sam said. ‘My mum burned him accidental. She’s kissing him right now. Kissing his burn, I mean – hey – where we going?’

Gina was walking away from the group, drifting towards the cowboy people, propping her sunglasses up with one finger. Sam caught up and jogged alongside her. Mum and Donald Duke appeared down the end of the hall with a tide of incoming cowboys, tucking their guts into their belt buckles as the DJ invited them in to dance. Gina and Sam veered into the nearest toilet.

It was quiet inside and the machinery dripped.

‘Wanna see my pussy?’

‘Okay.’

Gina positioned herself with her back against the big metal thingy that Sam’s dad had taught him to pee into, watching the door. She tugged her shorts down over her bare feet and kicked them away and squatted over the big green buttons of soap. A ribbon of gold suddenly twisted out of her pussy like a drill blade. Everything was exactly like when Sam peed, except her knickers had unicorns on them.

Sam wasn’t really looking at her pee-pee, though. His eyes were on the wrist holding her right knee open.

‘You got an owie on your wrist.’

‘I know,’ Gina said, pulling her knickers up with one hand while holding the sunglasses against her eyes, ‘My dad’s got, like, the strongest hands in the universe. You shouldn’t vex your dad. It could give him a heart attack.’

‘What’s vex?’

‘I dunno. My dad just says it.’

‘Can I try your glasses?’ Sam had already pulled them off her eyes when Gina clawed his arm and forced them back above her nose.

‘NO.’

‘Gimme a turn, I said.’

Before her orange curls slid over her face, he saw a flash of purple and green around her left eye the color of the concert lights in Murray’s old videotapes. He wasn’t sure if it was makeup.

‘GIVE EM BACK!’

‘What happened to your eye?

‘I’LL SCREAM. GIVE EM BACK, I SAID.’

‘Did your dad punch you again?’

‘GIVE EM BACK I SAID.’ Gina slammed Sam against the wall and Sam was pulling her hair and crumbling and surrendering the glasses when Gina speared the air with a sharp scream. Sam watched her tonsils dance.

The door smacked her as Big Donald Duke and Mum filled the room. Gina was in her knickers and shirt. Sam had her hair knotted around his knuckles.

‘WHAT IN THE NAME OF CHRIST ARE YOUS TWO DOIN?’

‘Easy, now.’ Murray arrived, breathing hard and fast, lips chewing behind his moustache. ‘I’m sure there’s a perfectly good –

‘YOU. You and that fuckin kid of yours.’ Don Duke turned and got his knuckles ready.

The women watched.

2000

Sam emerged from the black winter parking lot. Before the club entrance were rows of shiny motorbikes. Govind came up beside him in brand new Adidas track pants and a t-shirt with skulls on it. He checked his hair in the reflective chrome of a parked motorcycle, adjusted his spikes.

‘Kids,’ nodded the bouncer.

‘Not kids any more, bro,’ Govind said, pausing to let Sam haul the door open.

‘13’s still a child to me, son. Where’s your parents at?’

The bouncer was old-ish with craters on his cheeks. He wore a tie holding his neck together, a long coat and black leather gloves. The Epitaph Riders had stomped some people last month and Stella had fired a shotgun in the parking lot and the old fogies in the granny flats had complained and the club was gonna be shut down if they didn’t get security on the doors. Everyone had talked about it, non-stop. It was the first fight since Big Don Duke had knocked out Murray Simpson five years ago.

Sam and Govind went past the bouncer as quickly as they could. He was too new and wasn’t part of the family yet. Shit, they’d been coming here longer than he had. They couldn’t wait to piss him off. Steal his walkie talkie, let down his tyres. Something like that.

Sam and Govind slapped their hands on the bartop and asked for Smirnoff Candys.

‘Nice try.’ Stella gave them a jug of Coke each. They could drink only if their dads and uncles bought it for them, except they weren’t sure where their dads were. Tugging on someone’s elbow while he played the slot machines was not cool. Asking anyone for any kind of help at the Club was not cool.

The boys struggled to get on top of tall bar stools not designed for thirteen year old butts. They struggled to enjoy the trots on TV without any money on the horses. Finally they agreed to go and play pool. No one could tell them off for that. Govind ripped the cloth with his cue and told Sam that if he told anyone, Govind would get the mafia on him. It was true – Govind’s uncle had paid for protection for their laundromat empire. Govind was being taken out of school at least one day a week to help with accounting and management. He’d probably get his school leaving certificate at 14 and finish up. He didn’t have a choice.

Past the line dancing hall where Sam’s mum had her hands on Big Donald Duke’s hips they found the Casino Kids huddled around the kitchen doors. A chef had filled a pot with hot chips for them and they were kneeled around the pot scoffing steaming fistfuls.

There was a girl with short spiked hair, dyed the color of the amethyst crystals Sam’s mum rubbed when she needed good luck. Gina. Thank fuck. Sam hadn’t seen her in forever. He’d heard her Dad had taken her out to work on the lobster boats or something.

Gina let go of her fistful of chips, stood up, wiped her hands dry in the hair of that new eight year old kid, the littlun. Gina, with her spiked pink hair and dog collar and Rancid t-shirt and cut-off denim shorts, swayed as if she was about to lean in and give Sam a kiss on the cheek.

She punched him on the shoulder instead. ‘Sup, faggots.’

‘This guy’s the faggot,’ Govind said, ‘I’ll fuck you any time.’

Sam was about to say something when Gina said, ‘I’m thirsty. C’mon. I got a plan.’

Gina walked ahead and Govind forced himself behind her so he was ahead of Sam. They grabbed a few chips and checked on the wee Casino Kids before they departed. Someone had put down a beer jug full of Fanta on the ground with ten straws in it. They seemed fine.

Gina veered left and they entered a service passage Sam had only been in once, when Govind had locked him in it while they were playing hide ‘n seek. There was almost no lighting in the passage. There was a disused toilet, a pyramid of boxed photocopy paper and lots of mops and buckets and gallons of chemicals. At the far end, Gina pushed against the wall and it swung open and the kids found themselves in a black room with automatic teller machines lined up like Easter Island heads. The ceiling sparkled and flickered and there were robotic CHOOOOPs and WHIRRRS and DING-DING-DING-DING-DING as somebody’s cup filled with coins.

They’d spilled into the casino.

‘I never knew this entrance,’ Sam began.

‘SSSH! Stay low if you wanna get drunk. You wanna get drunk, right?’

Sam gulped. ‘Definitely.’

Gina led them through the black and they arrived at the first row of zombies. One Chinese woman with two handbags under her right arm had a tall slender sparkly drink with a little umbrella in it. Gina drank that one herself and slid the glass back without the woman noticing. They crept along to the next people, a pair of sisters with arms covered in swaying blubber. These women had six cans of Canadian Club and Ginger Ale. Three were unopened. Gina divided the cans between them and they retreated back out into the supply corridor and drank the sweet spice until they melted down the wall and sat on the carpet grinning.

‘Canadian Club,’ Govind said, nodding at his almost-empty can, ‘Kinda sounds gangsta. I’m in the Canadian Club, yo.’

‘Are you guys drunk yet?’

‘Yeah, I’m so drunk. You?’

Govind had a flick knife in his hand and was twirling it. ‘Yo, Ham-Spam: you know what scarification is?’

Sam’s blood froze.

‘Leave him alone,’ Gina said. ‘Oi: gimme that.’

She swiped the knife out of Govind’s hand. The big white oval of her inner thigh poured out of her shorts as she bent her knee under her chin. She scratched an angular S into her thigh, then an A, hissing. Tiny red dots rose around the letters as she finished the M.

Gina tossed the knife into Govind’s lap. 

‘Keep it, I got another one at home anyway,’ Govind said. He yawned and flexed his muscles and pulled his gold chain out from his collar. They listened to bass pounding the walls. Distant coins clinking.

Sam slammed his empty can against his forehead. It left a circle above his eyes and didn’t crumple.

Govind began singing, ‘G’s in love with a looo-zaaa, G’s in love with a  loo-zaaa.’

‘Am not.’

‘Your old man’s a loser.’

‘Least I got an old man. I heard they wouldn’t let yours into the country.’

Govind’s eyes went red and his mouth turned to a horn and Sam was beginning to lose control of his laughter when Gina reached between Govind’s legs, snatched the knife and put it in her pocket. ‘If I go to third base with you, will you leave him alone?’

‘Whatever.’

Gina took Govind into the haunted toilet. Sam watched the minutes tick by on his wrist watch. He read every word on his empty can. Then Gina came storming out.

‘I’m goin back in the casino. Sam, you should come.’

Govind jumped ahead of him as they left the corridor. ‘I highly doubt this shrimp can come, Gina.’

Gina looked back over her shoulder. ‘I can make any boy come.’

They stole five Pall Malls from Mr. Blake-o and some salted peanuts from Murray, plus a whole jug of something stinky from Gina’s dad and Sam’s mum. Big Donald Duke was way slower since he had his heart attack last year. Fatter, too, and Sam’s mum couldn’t move quickly without coughing up black stuff. By the time they circled back on their starting positions, the people they’d robbed were getting off their bar stools and frowning and patting their pockets.

‘They’re onto us! We have to split up!’ Gina bailed and cut through to the restaurant. Blake-o was rattling his box of smokes and shouting so Sam and Govind ducked into the cleaning corridor, circled round and emerged in the steaming clanging whiteness of the kitchen where they collided against the huge tits of Stella.

‘I THOUGHT I TOLD YOUS NEVER TO – OI! OIIIII! WHERE IN THE NAME OF CHRIST D’YOU THINK YOU’RE– ’

Govind shouldercharged the far door and found himself in a pool of circular tables. Women in dresses were carving up mountains of pasta salad and watercress from a buffet.

They scurried to the black margins of the room and Sam scanned for Gina. They finally found her near the window. As they came up, they heard the silver haired man she was talking to say, ‘I suppose forty bucks is reasonable for a massage, but it’s gonna need to have a little somethin extra,’ and Gina was tapping her foot as she tucked his money into her pocket and pulled the man away from his steak.

‘Move, you guys. Playtime’s over.’

The boys parted to let her through as she pulled the man out a door, Gina’s eye briefly catching Sam’s, stopping his heart. Gina and the old man passed the restaurant window in the dark with the bouncer calling ‘Have a good one.’ There was a glimpse of the old man’s silver hair as they vanished into his car, possibly a flash of white thigh as her legs moved, possibly a vision of Sam’s name scratched into her. Sam prayed she’d come back into the club where it smelled warm and she could get a ride home with her dad at closing time.

When Gina emerged ten minutes later, staggering into her shoes, Govind was away with his uncles, feeding dollars into a slot machine, but Sam was still watching through the window.

2005

It’s Christmas and Stella has got out the can of snow spray and blasted all the windows powdery white. She’s sprayed fake snow on the rugby players on the Super 12 poster too, whitened the All Blacks, the Warriors, David Tua and Lennox Lewis. There’s a plastic wreath of holly over the doorway leading inside and fried turkey on the menu with cranberry sauce.

Not only is Bing Crosby crooning through the speakers, it’s fuckin loud in here cause there’s a 21st going on in the corner. Associates of Govind. Dudes that wear jackets all day long in the heat, gold chains and caps and white shoes.

Murray’s been humouring Sam over some snooker, letting Sam make foul after foul and only calling him out on a couple. Even when Murray tries to fuck up shots, he sinks the balls. Pointless trying to act like he’s not South Island regional champ.

Murray winces as his hearing aid picks up something it doesn’t like. He goes to drag his stool under the panel of TV screens so he can hear his ponies, realizes he’s about to get a growling for dragging a stool on old Stella’s carpet and lifts it instead. His crimson face wrinkles as he strains. Sam easily carries the stool for his old man.

They watch the Ellerslie Christmas Derby in silence, sipping their beers occasionally, rolling smokes. Sam may have failed at snooker but he wins twenty bucks on the race.

‘Look, Mum’s here.’ Sam sticks his thumb and forefinger in his lips, whistles then waves Mum over. ‘She can keep you company.’

‘I don’t need no one to watch over me,’ Murray says, ‘Specially not that woman.’

‘Easy, tiger,’ Mum says, pointing her chin at the ceiling, trying to be classy. ‘We’re all friends here.’

Murray glowers. ‘You got some extra-close friends, don’t ya, Pam.’

‘I’m worried about you, Pop, seriously. Your lungs, man. You shouldn’t be smoking.’

‘Takes one to know one.’

‘You’re gonna give yourself another stroke. Eh, Mum? Says right here on the packet. Smoking fucks up your brain.’

Sam tries to walk away to quietly replenish his own smokes from the cigarette machine when the sliding doors part and something beep-beep-beeps and in drives a big barrel stuffed into a flannel shirt stuffed into a mobility scooter, followed by a gust of wind and a skeletal thing with a ginger clown wig.

‘Christ, this guy,’ says the man who almost became Sam’s stepdad, pausing his vehicle briefly beside Sam as he looks for an avenue between tables. Big Donald Duke has a cylinder of oxygen in the front basket of his scooter and tubes in his nose.

‘Oh,’ says Gina, arriving after her dad, straining to carry a baby capsule in one arm, ‘Hello, you.’ She charms the frown off her face and wobbles over in her pumps and miniskirt and sequined singlet. Gina’s either been out scoring or she’s planning on scoring after a quick drink at the club. It looks like the baby will come with her on whatever mission she’s got planned.

Gina’s thighs are fishbelly white. Sam is sure he can see the purple M scar on her skin. She tugs her denim skirt down and clears her throat to say something that’ll cut through the awkwardness when the barrel man bellows, ‘THE FUCK’S HE ACTIN ALL LOVEY-DOVEY WITH HER FOR?’ and Donald Duke drives over to the table where Murray and Mum are having a conversation, beeping as he interrupts.

‘Those two, man,’ Sam says, unwrapping his Marlboros, ‘Those three, I guess.’

‘Your dad could’ve easily found someone else,’ Gina says, hoisting her baby capsule onto a stool and preening over her baby.

‘Nah. See you’re wrong right there. A wife ain’t a machine. Murray can fix any machine in the whole wide world, but like I say –

‘-a woman ain’t a machine, gotcha. Except this little guy thinks I’m a machine, don’t you just? Don’t you won’t you justy wusty think mummy’s a machine!’ Gina plays with her baby’s Play-Doh cheeks. Sam grabs a couple of Smirnoff Cruisers from Stella, tells her to put it on his tab, sets a drink in front of Gina.

They watch Donald Duke haul himself onto a couple of bar stools and thump the table and poke his big thick sausage finger into Murray’s face and howl with laughter and slap Mum so hard on the back she stumbles. Their conversation could descend into a fight shortly. Murray’s mates are strewn across the walls, Blake-o and Piggott and Judge, all bleached and drained these days. White hair and saveloy skin. They’ll step in if there’s trouble, but Don Duke’s still got danger in him.

Sam opens and closes the lid of his box of smokes ten or twelve times, shuffling his feet. ‘So I thought your baby might come out with a little rag on his head, y’know.’

‘Is that supposed to be funny?’

‘Kind of. I fucked the joke up. Sorry, Geen. Haven’t seen you in yonks. Just nervous, I guess.’

‘Ech. It’s called a dastār, the towel that goes on their heads. His fuckin’ uncles, Sam, they kidnapped Govind and locked him in the boot of their car and told him he had to marry me to bring honor to the family cause he got me pregnant and all this shit. Can you believe that?!’

Sam is looking at a 19 year old with a boy’s name scarred into her flesh who turns tricks and used to get hidings from her dad and dropped out of school in Year 10. There is nothing about Gina he can’t believe.

Bellowing erupts again. The way they’re pointing at the TV screen, it appears Murray and Big Don and Sam’s mum are arguing over the Lotto numbers. Everyone in the club is watching Donald Duke shouting and climbing into his scooter for a ten second drive down the wheelchair ramp to the lakes of green felt.

‘ALRIGHT THEN, SMARTARSE, WE’LL SETTLE IT ON THE POOL TABLE THEN, YA CUNT.’

Donald Duke pulls the tubes out of his nose, sets up a game of pool, tossing colored balls and triangle and cueball onto the table then driving up to the head of the table to drive a hard shot that scatters the balls, sinking one solid and one stripe.

Murray arrives, calmly opens his black case and screws his cue together before doubling over and wheezing pink spit onto a napkin. Murray hasn’t lost a game since the 80s. He sinks two balls then scratches his eye on a spiky wreath Stella has hung above the pool table. He misses his shot.

‘Paaathetic,’ big Donald Duke goes. Mum gives him a hand getting out of the scooter. He rests his huge pillar arms on the table and stalks up and down it until he decides on a suitable shot. ‘I’ll let you be solids since I feel sorry for ya.’

‘Solid’s what I am,’ Murray says, ‘I’d hate to be anything other.’ His mates are getting their arms perfectly folded, beers positioned in the crotch of their bluejeans. With Sam and Gina and Govind and his entourage, plus Govind’s uncles and Stella with her Fosters towel on her shoulder, there must be 20 people watching.

Big Don Duke thocks the blue into a hole, then the red. He gets flustered and starts sweating as he works to make the purple go down, then the orange quickly follows. He’s enjoying himself as he works on sinking the green and maroon, taking a big gulp of oxygen.

‘I’m putting out a meal shortly,’ Stella says, ‘Don’t get too distracted now.’

‘This is important,’ Govind growls at Stella.

‘Man stuff,’ Mum adds.

Murray fumbles shot after shot. Often his white ball hits nothing. Don chortles and yells for the audience to witness as he pots balls from every foul.

Don took Murray’s marriage years ago, and his honor and dignity with it, and he’s one ball away from taking Murray’s status as Hornby Working Men’s Club pool champion in front of a huge crowd.

Finally Don sinks the maroon and shakes his head with astonishment at his own brilliance. All Don has to do is sink the black ball now.

‘You seein this, Geen?’

Gina confirms yup. She’s seeing her dad destroy Murray’s dad. She squeezes Sam’s arm and gives him an I’m-so-sorry-about-this look.

Sam just winks. He watches his dad tip up off the bar stool where he’s been quietly studying the situation. Murray would have to sink five balls in a row to merely even the game, let alone getting to the black before Don.

‘Y’all want food?’ Stella calls through the crowd, ‘I’m tryina serve Christmas lunch if yous’d kindly… .’

Everyone’s attention is on Murray, who chalks his cue and puts the tip behind the white ball and drives it hard into the yellow solid, which collides with the blue solid. Both balls disappear soundlessly into their pockets.

‘Lucky,’ Don snorts.

‘Red, corner pocket,’ Murray mutters. He doesn’t seem to register the creeping grins of the crowd. Murray sinks the red then mentions the purple is going into the left side pocket, the orange into a corner, and the green hits the maroon and both balls disappear after knocking the black close to a hole, with the white settling in front of it.

‘Bit fairer now,’ Murray says, ‘Your shot.’ His moustache covers his lips.

Don curses and grumbles as he rests his fat and muscle on the edge of the table. There’s a thin whine leaking from his lips as his lungs wheeze.

Don lines up an unmissable shot and hits the white. The black jars against the hole then rolls away without going down.

‘Have another go if you want,’ Murray says.

‘DO I LOOK LIKE A MAN WHO CHEATS?’

‘With people’s wives, yup.’

Don is speechless for a moment. Then he lunges. Five people leap up to hold him back. Don drives them all forward while Murray retreats against the wall. Mum gets between the men, screaming. Five of Govind’s gangsta friends push the fat man back, then a couple more, then there’s a shick-shick and everybody parts.

Stella is in the middle of the room. Her shotgun is pointed at the ceiling. Her finger is curled around the trigger.

‘CALL IT A DRAW, YA FUCKIN BARBARIANS. NOW YOU’LL COME AND HAVE SOMETHIN TO EAT AND THAT’S FINAL.’

She levels the shotgun at Don’s face. He shows her his sweaty white palms and ten fat fingers. Stella swivels around and aims the gun at Murray, who has backed into the shadows. Murray puts down his fistful of sharp darts.

The crowd follows Stella up the wheelchair ramp towards a grid of ten tables pulled together. Stella has set out a steaming turkey, deep fried so its skin is as crispy and brittle as pastry. There are five dishes with new potatoes, steaming gold balls. Stella has lain out Brussels sprouts on a drinks tray, beer jugs full of gravy, a dish of buns, knives, napkins, candy canes, peas and parsnips, a pile of streaky bacon and fifty tiny packets of butter.

Everybody brings their stool to the table. They press their warm plates against their chests while they wait for Grace to be said. Govind, his goons, Blake-o, Murray’s mates, and Murray, with Don Duke parked outside the ring in his scooter, and Sam with his arm around Gina and her baby capsule in the middle of everyone.

‘Dear Father, who art in heaven,’ Mum says, ‘We thank you for this food.’ She takes a cigarette and plays with it while she tries to think of the ending. ‘For bringing us all together… .’

When she can’t think how it’s supposed to end, she says Amen.

Everybody eats.