Cryptogram: Chapter One

It’s the middle of the 21st century. Stephen, Suzanna and Rokas are in the polotti hall, and Stephen is hustling..

Polotti

After the world turned sour, polotti came into being as the poor man’s pool. It is a strange game. The polotti table has no upholstered cushions and no baize to cover it. It is just wood: table top, three-inch sides. And, like all things natural, it’s unpredictable. Balls never roll precisely as the novice – even as the hustler – expects. Instead they drift and slide and come off the sides each time different by fractions.

This is so even for the table into which Jimmy Sands has worked years of daily beeswax, rubbed it, sniffed it, smoothed it, placed his cheek on it in the only act of love this bone-hearted curmudgeon has ever been known to exhibit. (This lasts until they find Jimmy hanging from a beam, after which his table never has the same care again. This is still a long way off. )

Now the burnished wood gleams even under the dim bulb overhead, and Stephen is bent over it as if in prayer. He sniffs its beeswax through the hall’s prevailing odours – the acridity of ersatz tobacco, the vaporised sweat of the drinkers – and, lacking any other god, gives thanks to Jimmy. ‘Thank you, O Jimmy,’ he silently intones ‘for this table which you have given us.’ This is all part of Stephen’s act, part of his hustle.

Stephen turns his head sideways, taking in his audience: drinkers, mostly, and those placing bets. Close to him, neither drinking nor betting, are his friends, Rokas and Suzanna. They give him eye-smiles, silent whispers of encouragement. Friends: such a thin word, Stephen thinks, no meat on it at all. But what other word is there? Not quite lovers, not yet. He straightens. He is playing a man who was in the hall when they entered. The man watched him on the table missing shots and said, ‘How about it? 50 eurars a game?’

Rokas is lounging on a chair placed out of cue distance. His legs protrude forward and his back and arms so overwhelm the sticks beneath him that he looks as if he has lost the support of invisible wires, like a pantomime giant abandoned from above by a puppeteer with aching arms.

Don’t think, just because Rokas is lounging, he isn’t paying attention. He is paying attention, all right. When Stephen is on, no-one looks away, not even Rokas, who knows nothing about polotti. And Stephen is on this night. He often is when he’s hustling: the need to dangle on the brink of losing spices his blood and daubs a sheen of channelled calm on his forehead, around his mouth and, most of all, about his eyes. To those, like Rokas and Suzanna who know him, it is this not-quite-angelic aura which is the giveaway, the sign that he’ll pull it off, that the moment when it all comes apart in his hands is not now, not yet.

Suzanna sits next to Rokas. She is not a watcher of games, doesn’t enjoy their twists and turns and tortures, and doesn’t watch polotti. At this time – it is before the game has been cleaned up – not many women do. She is here on a whim. ‘Why don’t I join you?’ she’d said to Stephen and Rokas, linking arms with them as they’d set off that evening.

She knows she is a burden to them, someone who has to be both protected and pleased. This knowledge laps at her pleasure in being here and stiffens her. And because she does not yet feel comfortable where she is, she does not look around at the drinkers and the gamblers and smile at them as she would have done were she elsewhere. Instead, she keeps herself apart, sitting on her straight-backed wooden chair as if she is sitting on an island with an empty sea all around and not a fish in it – and, if there had been, it wouldn’t have dared to flap onto the beach and say hello.

This stiffness is not in her nature. It makes her uncomfortable and she wants to be rid of it. So she lets herself observe the masculine coarseness of the place, its smells and its smoke and the sounds of men around her in all their swagger and bravado. So she sees, for what it is, the harsh and jagged undertow of the hall. And, gradually, by seeing it, she softens and is herself again.

Stephen circles the table. He adds to the polish of its burnished wood with the heel of his hand, joining his molecules to it and taking some back into himself. In this way, Stephen absorbs the table and its secrets. Often, when he’s hustling, he can do this – it’s his special skill – but polotti is a special case; it doesn’t mean all other secrets open up to him.

Stephen has clichés to follow; he is a hustler and the dictums of the hustler’s script have been rehashed time and again since hustling began. Therefore, as the script prescribes, he takes the man slowly, while the watchers, drinks in hand, and their hangers-on, move close and the side-bets ratchet up. The man can play all right and he doesn’t think he’s come to lose, so there is in the game that necessary fraction of uncertainty which is beyond Stephen’s ability to control. Both men sense it, and this is felt also by those who have money on one man or the other. And the eurars stack.

Stephen, leaning over the abyss which he himself has created, needs thirty off the last shot of the last game to steal it. He will let the struck ball linger on the burnished wood and make it off three corners. Forty. Maximum. He will turn to the crowd and hold his arms aloft. Who doubts me now?

Who doubts me now? Stephen knows who doubts him. He always knows. He feels the doubt in his gut; he feels it in his mind. He draws back the cue and finds the secrets of the table drained away and nothing left but froth. Stephen stops. He can’t play the shot.

He puts down the cue, turns to the man and says, ‘Look, my friend, I don’t want to take your money. Let’s call it quits. Cancel all bets between us. An honourable draw. What do you say?’

The man hoots his derision. The crowd cat-calls. Rokas and Suzanna swap questions across the eye-waves.

‘Okay, if that’s how you want it,’ says Stephen to the man and to the crowd. ‘Okay, so this is it then,’ he says to himself. He picks up his cue, prays to some greater god than Jimmy, and makes the shot. ‘Ha!’

Luck? Magic? Is there really something deep within, some beneficent genie come up to save him? Not even Stephen knows.

The crowd cheers. Rokas and Suzanna sit silent, not entirely sure what they have seen. They look for explanation in the other’s eyes but find only what is in their own: a sort of wonder, a sort of disbelief. And fear: fear is in there somewhere too, fear for their friend and of the abyss over which he lingers.

After the last ball has disappeared into the only remaining pocket, Stephen laughs, peels off a ten eurar note from his winnings and gives it back to the man as if it’s charity. When Stephen is on, it doesn’t make him nice.

The man doesn’t like it. He bridles. He hasn’t come to the hall to be humiliated. Not him. And how did he end up losing anyway? Was there cheating? There must have been; that last shot was impossible. He’s been diddled, he’s been done, and he aches to get his own back – aches to replace the injustice that curdles his guts with a greater distraction: with his fists on Stephen’s face. This ache is about to overwhelm him when Rokas, noticing the man’s internal monologue and his rising colour, climbs out of his chair. Like some awakened force of order, Rokas assumes the man’s cue, assumes it in a way that has finality creamed into its every lacquered orifice: that’s it, game over, I’ll play now.

The man, and all of those watching, are suddenly aware of what had escaped them when he was lounging in his chair: that Rokas is a cut above them all. He is taller than the tallest of them, his feet are flatter than any of theirs, his eyes more benign. The man in the shadow of the giant steps back – an involuntary movement, what else can he do? – and mustering what dignity he can, slinks away.

Suzanna smiles. As if Rokas would strike anyone! She joins the two men by the table and stands between them. ‘You’ll get yourself hurt one of these days,’ she says to Stephen. ‘There’ll be a back alley some time, and they’ll get you then.’

‘You think I can’t look after myself?’ asks Stephen putting on his most harmless smile, his baby smile which sits on his wide-boned stubbled face like innocence on the face of a dictator.

‘You didn’t have to rub his nose in it, that’s all. Being nice costs nothing.’

‘Oh, is that so? Well, maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t.’ Turning to Rokas he says, ‘Let’s play. I’m in the mood. A eurar to make it interesting.’

Rokas dips into his pocket, pulls out a coin and hands it over. ‘Here. For when you win.’ He picks up a ball, rolls it over the polished wood and watches it wander down the table. It hits the board on the right and slides off. ‘I’m not even sure I know the rules.’

‘Two players, one cue ball, 10 balls, 10 pockets, one ball per pocket, more sides you touch more points, fewer the pockets remaining, higher the score. You keep playing until all the balls have gone. Pot the cue ball and the game is over, just as you’d expect. Simple. You start.’

‘Why don’t I play, too?’ asks Suzanna. Playfully, she engages Stephen with her eyes. Tilting her head a fraction, she smiles enquiringly. And in her smile and also in her eyes, are other questions half-articulated and half-understood: by him, by her.

Stephen looks around. The drinkers have gone back to their drinking. Jimmy Sands is watching from the bar, disgruntled. ‘I suppose you could,’ Stephen says. ‘Do you know how?’

Suzanna steps closer. ‘Show me,’ she says. She looks up at him, amused.

‘Here,’ says Stephen. ‘Rest the cue on your thumb and forefinger… like so.’ Trespassing cautiously on what he wishes was his, and with Rokas looking on, Stephen takes her hand and forms it. He passes her his cue. ‘Now, hold it loosely in your other hand and let it run forward. Got it?’

‘Yes, I think so,’ says Suzanna. She places a ball in front of her, top-spins it twice around the table and drops it in the bottom pocket. She laughs. ‘My stepfather taught me. He had a farm, three sons and a table.’

‘And there was me about to give you odds,’ says Stephen.

‘My turn,’ says Rokas. He picks up the cue, tosses it like trivia from hand to hand, crouches over it so that it disappears somewhere beneath him and then stands up. ‘You two play. I’ll watch.’

The opening game goes unnoticed. During the second, some of the drinkers, out of curiosity, wander over. During the third, they place their bets. Rokas holds the money because, although no one in the place has seen him before, they don’t think he looks like a runner. Rokas writes it all down on squared paper he finds behind the bar: names, amounts, who against whom. ‘One at a time. Slow down,’ he says.

They want Suzanna to win, of course. They’ve seen Stephen play and know she doesn’t have a prayer – but who doesn’t cheer for the three-legged dog, the little guy, the no-hope hopeful who hangs in there though he’s taking a pounding? So those who can’t bring themselves to bet against, or who’ve got long odds, root for her. The rest keep silent, made mute by the money they stand to gain.

Ten black balls, one white cue ball. Wide pockets and any pocket will do: but room in each for only one ball. First pocket, one point, second two… More sides, the higher the multiplier, up to four.

Suzanna is a clean striker of the ball, familiar with the spins and how to move the odds in her favour. But the opening exchanges go against her. She doesn’t know the table and Stephen is fresh from it. It doesn’t faze her. She plays the easy balls. She listens to the wood, opens herself to its resistances and its surrenders, lets its whisperings lodge… because Suzanna knows what years of playing against her step-brothers has taught her and what few there have the wit to imagine: that polotti is a woman’s game, that what it demands is patience not presumption, give not take, intuition not certainty, respect not power. The game can’t be controlled; it is too close to the garrulous edge of chance for that.

And Suzanna has one other thing going for her. Stephen isn’t on any more. How can he be on as he was before? Everything has changed. He isn’t hustling now; so now he can’t ride the moment, can’t let himself be pulled along by polotti’s wild horses. And what’s he left with? Her. She’s what he feels: feels her in the rustle of her shirt as she moves within it, in her smell, in the wood itself. She is all about him – but not as opponent: as a different kind of presence for which polotti is a sideshow. Somewhere within him he suspects that he will win nothing if he tries to win, perhaps even if he wants to win. But, also, out of habit and of pride, he doesn’t want to lose, can’t let himself lose – and so is caught, pulled in opposite directions by forces he can neither put into words nor reconcile as they roil his stomach. Therefore he plays stiff polotti, polotti of the conscious mind, average, ordinary, inadequate and Suzanna starts to catch him.

The crowd love it. Even those with money on Stephen start to cheer, as if in that moment and against all sense they are able to shrug off their scummy self-

interest and back… what?… the impossible?… the uplifting?… love?… life? Who knows what, but every time Suzanna bends over the table, coyly tugs at the edge of her skirt, whispers her blandishments to the ball as it rolls, their cheers rise louder.

By the fourth game, Suzanna is 50 points behind – but she is beginning to make the angles, get the multipliers. In game six, she makes pock 8 off three sides, 32 points, and pocks 9 and 10 off two – 89 in 3 balls. She looks across at Stephen and sees he is feeling it, sees the cross-tug of emotions on him, sees him fighting the twist but not knowing how to shrug it off. Should I miss a few? she thinks. She plays with the thought and lets it pass on by. No. Let him work it out for himself.

After that 89 in 3 balls, it’s over. Mopping up remains, but she knows, he knows, the watchers know: it is done. When she pots the last ball to finish it, a straight shot into pock 10, nothing fancy, Stephen says, ‘You played well.’ But he doesn’t go over and kiss her as on another day he might have done.

Instead, he goes to the bar and orders the beer which everybody knows Jimmy brews himself. The drinkers make a space for him and he sits there in silence, mouthing his beer and his confusion in equal draughts. Suzanna and Rokas stay by the table and don’t say much either, quiet as people are after they’ve seen something out of the ordinary and don’t quite know what to make of it.

After a while, Rokas says, ‘Well, we could play, you and I, though I won’t give you much of a game.’

Suzanna spots the black balls and hands him the cue. ‘You never know,’ she says.

Rokas takes aim. He drives the cue forward but tugs it on the down-stroke so that it hits the cue-ball with a slicing action left side. The ball slews across the wooden surface and finds its way, unimpeded, into a side pocket. ‘Oh. That’s your game, isn’t it?’ he says.

‘Try again. Let the cue flow.’

Rokas tries again, strikes the ball dead centre and sends it up and down the table at crazy speed. Suzanna reaches across and catches it. ‘Try again.’

Suzanna watches him hitting balls, watches him getting the feel of what works and what doesn’t, how the ball rolls over the wood. Occasionally she makes suggestions, but mainly she is content to sink into her own thoughts.

She looks across at Stephen by the bar, at the stiffness in his bearing, how ill at ease he is, how gawky almost, and she regrets what happened when they

played. She would like to reach out to him and pass her hand over the stubble on his cheek and the hairs on the back of his neck, just so she can take the stiffness out of him – though she knows he wouldn’t allow it. More than anything what she wants is for Stephen to be again as he was when potting that last ball against the man: beyond effort, beyond desire, both vulnerable and invincible all at once. That was the best of him, she thinks, the impossible best. Should I have let him win? she wonders. He’d have been happier if I had. Would I?

Beside her, Rokas continues to hit balls. He is immersed in what he is doing, aware of nothing else around him but the small details of technique, rhythm, cue speed, angles and all the game’s other unpredictable intricacies. Suzanna watches him as he hits one ball after another up the table, to the side pockets, up the table again, hard, soft, side-spin left, side-spin right – and she feels that his concentration excludes her, is perhaps intended to exclude her.

‘What are you thinking about?’ she asks.

He looks up. ‘Thinking about? Not much. Why? What should I be thinking about?’… as if she might have a nugget of polotti truth to pass on.

‘Oh, nothing, you’re doing fine.’ She smiles at him, a smile which allows him to carry on, sanctions his own exclusive world. She thinks, Rokas does what he does because he is Rokas and Stephen does what he does because he is Stephen. When you boil it right down, how little my life changes theirs. And then an extra clause tacks itself on: or theirs mine.

This she hates. She dismisses it with a wave of her hand, rejects it utterly – and, from nothing but an empty ache within her, conjures her own dead son. He’d be 14 now, she thinks, old enough to play polotti. He could be standing here, right next to me, taller than me, I expect – but I don’t suppose he’d want to play with his mother.

Stephen comes over. ‘I’m going,’ he says.

‘Wait up,’ replies Rokas, ‘we’ll all go.’ He puts down his cue. ‘I’m getting better, by the way. Next time, I’ll be ready.’

They leave, all three together as they came, except that the evening at the polotti hall with its small victories and defeats has wearied them, and Stephen especially.

The night is clear, the stars bright and their thick coats too thin to keep out the cold. The cold bites through them and down to their teeth. Suzanna links arms with the two men and they walk like that for a while, but it is a mechanical sort of a walking with no rhythm in it and no harmony and, after a while,

Stephen stops to untie and tie again the lace of his boot. When he straightens, he doesn’t take her arm. He walks separate then and so do the others.

They pass the town’s only jazz club and read the sign outside: Coming soon, One Week Only, Corny Kelleher, the Best in the West! The words slither snakelike from top to bottom, surrounding in their coils the image of Cornet Corny himself, the black Irishman, lazing, one arm on Week, one toe on West.

On Prior Street, daubs of dull light attach to the rooms above where the street- watchers by their windows look down or move about like shadows. Stephen, glancing up, sees a man and a girl in a yellow dress, standing. The man smiles as they walk beneath and pulls the girl into his side. Stephen turns away, not wanting to be reminded of what he does not have.

The neon of the boarding house for the down-and-outs holds out against the dark, half its letters disappeared. B….IN., it reads. On the corner, through the iron surrounds of the police station, a dim blue. Here and there, a footstep in the gloom, a shout from a street over, intimation of life among the shadows, but the palpable crowds are gone. They are alone.

Silence in the pavement air, disturbed only by their footsteps: Rokas’ flat carthorse feet plodding as if he was ploughing up Prior Street, Suzanna’s trippity-trap on her half heels and Stephen, half on the pavement and half off it, peg-leg-Joe limping alongside.

Stephen moves into the road, giving the pavement over to the two of them.

They pass a few lightless shops: a baker’s which will be starting the morning’s bread soon enough and a second-hand shop: clothes and books, life’s basics. Suzanna stops and peers into the window, seeing if there is anything she can make out. The darkness defeats her.

They turn in silence into Hetherington’s Pike, a winding lane which connects Prior Street to Stanley Street where the trams run down to the station and a stop or two further on.

No-one speaks. No one has words to say. Silence wraps itself around them like skin. Silence patrols their borders and none of them can break out, none can find words which might allow them to come together at a place less lonely. To move out of silence into speech seems like a betrayal of what is real for the sake of nothing more substantial than the tawdry analgesic of chatter.

Yet this silence numbs them, and Suzanna most of all. It is too lonely, its distances too great.

They are between one bend and another of this winding lane when five men come out of a fold in the wall and stand in front of them. They are edgy, hungry pack animals, cowled and threadbare. Rokas puts his arm around Suzanna and brings her close. Stephen moves in to her other side. She is what they will fight for if it comes to it.

One of them, older than the rest, advances, his hand outstretched, rubbing a thumb and forefinger together. ‘It be your folding people we is wantin bros, your freddly eurar bills, then we be outta here. No problemo.’

Rokas towers over them all. ‘How much are you boys hoping for?’ he asks. ‘Everyting. Every little ting.’

‘Everything! Now, that’s a lot,’ says Rokas amiably. ‘Everything’s the sort of amount that can get you into trouble. Why not just ask for as much as you need and then we’ll give it to you and we can all be on our way?’

The man sighs. ‘Everyting, big fella, everyting … please. You observe how I say please, being as being polite is polite. It be like dis, see, what we don’t use right now, we put by for later, I’m speakin here o, you know, stocks, investments, dat sort o ting, mebbe a little penthouse on Prior Street, you get me. Me and ma bros here, we is collectors sure, but also in-vest-ors. So deposits please, and I’m tinking particularly here o’ – he turns to survey Stephen – ‘you. We hear polotti been kind dis evening.’

Stephen says, ‘It’s true, I did make a little money tonight. Worked hard for it, though.’

‘We also brother. We is workin hard. Don’t you tink dis is work?’ The man pulls out a jackknife, the tool of his trade, moves it from hand to hand.

Stephen shakes his head, tuts his teeth. ‘Producing a thing like that before you’ve got a feeling how the balls are rolling! Risky. Very risky.’ He pauses, as if contemplating. ‘I tell you what, though,’ he says in the manner of a man with his arm around another’s shoulders, ‘I’ll go easy on you: 100 eurars, risk free, cash in hand, that’s what I’ll give you just to say goodbye, au revoir, and no hard feelings. How about it?’

‘Take it,’ says Suzanna. ‘Please, it’s generous. It’s the best you can do. Take it. I don’t want to see you hurt.’

‘You crazy!’ says the man. ‘We aint discussin! I is workin here, not playin aroun wiv you all. So, game time is over, my bruvs, everyting you have.’ The four others step closer to their leader jerking upwards knives of their own and grinning as if by way of punctuation.

‘You sure we can’t persuade you?’ says Stephen. ‘You really want to go ahead with this?’

‘Shut it right,’ the leader answers, turning from Stephen to Rokas and back again. ‘Give us your loolah and we is on our way toot sweet or even faster.’

Stephen shrugs and head-butts the man on the bridge of his nose. As he staggers back, Stephen takes from his coat a sock with a polotti ball inside and smashes it against the man’s knee. He collapses instantly. Rokas roars, a roar from deep within himself, and his roar bounces off the walls of that narrow and winding lane and the four men turn on their tails and fly like chickens foxed in a hen coop for the next bend in Hetherington’s Pike.

Stephen’s first kick is instinct. His second is out of anger. His third comes from deep, and has in it everything within him that is unresolved. He feels the crack of the man’s rib run through his toes.

‘Get up,’ he commands.

The man struggles to his feet and, wrapping his arms around himself as if to hold the air inside, limps away. Stephen follows and, when the man turns to face whatever else is coming, Stephen reaches into his pocket and, out of pity for the man but most of all out of pity for himself, gives him 800 eurars, all that he has.

‘These are hard times,’ he says.

Stephen watches the man in his pain and pride straighten and turn and somehow get his broken bones away, clear of Stephen and the Pike, so that somewhere else he can scratch out another day and perhaps another after that.

For several moments, Stephen appears to follow his flight – but the world about him has vanished, driven out by memories of a life not so very different except that he had a uniform then, the red and blue of the Porphryian Academy, and crazy Barney beside him to take the knocks. He is dizzy with the recognition of it: himself then, himself now, those poor men, the awful circularity. He throws himself to the ground, curls up like the about-to-be-born and sobs.

His pain vapourises, rises up and is breathed in by Suzanna and Rokas who, out of love, make his pain their own, embody it as they cannot help but do with their own scarred mementos, until they too have to come to ground. They kneel beside Stephen and cover his body with their own, Suzanna on one side and Rokas, on his knees, from the other – so that anybody, regarding them, as I do, from some ethereal elevation beyond, might wonder what this mound

was in the middle of Hetherington’s Pike and think perhaps of a tent pegged out as shelter for the lost.