The Game of Brag

A short story by Pauline Shepherd

Rabbit was happy, grinning under his old felt hat. He didn’t get to see Cynthia every day. He could still smell her earthy scent and feel the nip of her ferrety little teeth in the soft spot in his neck. He turned off to cycle the back road through the Downs. It had been a good night. First Cynthia, then up The Miner’s for last orders, and finally a spot of lamping on estate lands on the way home.
The limp fur-clad bodies swung gently from the handlebars of Rabbit’s old Hercules. Suddenly he was caught in the twin glare of headlights before the ditch came up to meet him as Councillor Jimmy Ben Matthews’ BMW roared past.
Rabbit spat the damp mud from his mouth and picked up his felt hat. In that instant he hated Jimmy Ben Matthews. He turned his bike around and ped- alled softly back along the michelin-patterned tyre tracks of the BMW. The night wasn’t over yet.
The lane down to Johnny Phelps’s yard is narrow and overgrown. You have to watch the sides of your car. Bits of old chassis and metal have been left leaning on the wall for the grass to grow through. It is said, “ No one coulden take nuthen off Johnny Phelps without his say. Take a piss and he’d knaw where you’d been.” In the shed up the back everything had a price: MOTs, eighth of soap, pi- rate baccy, beer, and on Friday night ... brag. It was Friday.
Councillor Jimmy Ben Matthews, Chairman of Planning, loved brag and he often won. When one of the boys wanted a new extension, or another ‘fully equipped’ garage to move into while the house was being rented for the summer, a nod, a whisper, and an appropriate cash investment made Jimmy Ben king of brag and benevolent caretaker of the Downs.
They’d had a good run too. There’d been Dan Williams’s roof, Betty Pascoe’s sign for the caravan site, the new bus shelter on the green, and Roger Bennett’s UPVC windows; and tonight Jack Eddy was after a new porch.
Two empty whisky bottles had brought Councillor Jimmy Ben to the swaggering stage.
One by one, Johnny Phelps, Jack Eddy, Ronnie Thomas and Standback Harry sat back and gave in.
“Thass it.” “Had enough.” “Too much for we.” “Less see un then.” A pile of twenty pound notes lay in the circle of light cast by the sixty watt bulb beneath the metal shade. Jimmy Ben laid down his cards. “Threes!” He was triumphant.
Jack Eddy looked forward to his evening pipe in the new porch.
“It’s your night, Councillor,” Johnny Phelps leaned back in his seat, “Gonna quit while you’re ahead, or shall I fetch open one of they twenty-year malts?”
The Councillor beamed, “Wouldn’t mind another,” he boomed. “But there don’t seem to be no sport here tonight.” He scraped the notes towards his ample belly.
“Wait ...” It was a soft voice from under a felt hat. “I’ll sit in,” said Rabbit
The shed fell silent. The Councillor took the measure of the wiry little man before him. He couldn’t see the face beneath the felt hat, but he sensed sport.
Jimmy Ben rubbed his hands, “Fetch your malt, Phelps,” he boomed.
A whisper circled the room as bets were placed. Rabbit was an outsider, not a regular player. There would indeed be sport. Then, as the whisky was poured, a new deck of cards was produced.
Two hundred pounds crossed the table, then another five hundred. Councillor Jimmy Ben’s shirt collar was shrinking and so was his wallet
“Take a cheque will ee?”
“Tis cash ’ere, Councillor. Everythin’ cash, take’n or leave’n.” The soft voice came out of the blackness. Jimmy Ben stared into the lamplight but he couldn’t see beyond it. He couldn’t make out the man who owned that voice, he couldn’t see the eyes beneath the felt hat.
“Take the coat then, it’s cashmere.”
“I’ll take your coat an’ then some. Your shout, Councillor,” said the velvet voice.
Councillor Matthews felt strangely elated, even as the keys to the BMW disappeared out from the other side of the lamp’s glare. He took another drink, searched his pockets, and found another key.
“Whass this then?” said the soft voice. Jimmy Ben stared into the lamp. “What’s it look like?” “Keys to your house, is a?” The shed was silent, holding its breath. Rabbit wasn’t playing the game.
There’d be repercussions. “Crack open another bottle, Phelps.” Jimmy Ben was rising to the occasion, playing to his audience. He wanted to draw his prey. He leaned into the table too quickly and he reeled as the single lamp became two lights and he was caught in the twin glare of his drunkenness.
“Watch out councillor!” The light shade wobbled as Jimmy Ben fell back into his chair. “Councillor Matthews?” “He’s had enough, reckon.” Jimmy Ben shook his head. “No ... no, I’m fine.” He sat back. His opponent hadn’t moved. Jimmy Ben reached for his wallet, it was empty. Empty apart from a Tesco clubcard, a few receipts, and the photograph. He placed the photograph on the table.
“Deal.” His voice was breathy with excitement.
Nothing in the lamp’s glare; nothing except the image of Cynthia Matthews, elegant adornment at civic functions. Sexy Cynthia was won by a pair.
In the dawn light, cars eased up the lane away from Phelps’s yard. A message went behind the hands, “No brag for a bit.” Councillor Jimmy Ben Matthews wobbled drunkenly in the unfamiliar sweat of pedalling.
Up to the big house, Cynthia Matthews stood in nothing but her smile. Two limp fur-clad bodies lay on the table between them.
“Weren’t expectin’ you back so soon, Rabbit,” she said. He could already feel her ferrety little teeth nibbling the soft spot on his neck.


(c) 2004 Pauline Sheppard


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Pauline Shepherd
Sun 20 Oct



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