Authors: Stephen Baker
Stephen Baker was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1969,
and now lives in Derbyshire. This is his first novel.
First published in Great Britain in trade paperback in 2010 by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
Copyright © Stephen Baker, 2010
The moral right of Stephen Baker to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form
or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright
owner and the above publisher of this book.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s
imagination and not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely
First eBook Edition: January 2010
An imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd
26–27 Boswell Street London
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.
. 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,
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
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.