Vicky is already in the bingo hall, tapping her fingers on the table, with her books laid out and her dabbers all in a neat line. I knew where to find her. She is sat where Mum used to sit. She got here early so she could get that booth. People get funny about sitting in the same place, they have their lucky spots, and this was Mum’s. It’s right in the middle of the hall, with a good view of the caller and the big screen and far away from the commotion of the bar and the café. Mum didn’t like distractions; she came here to concentrate, to stop thinking about life for a couple of hours.
Mum wasn’t a winner. She’d won the odd tenner here and there, but never the big one. Still she never missed, apart from the week Dad died.
I am not a regular at bingo. Vicky used to come every week with our Mum. It’s a year to the day since she died. It was Vicky’s idea,
“Could be our lucky night,” she had said, “Mum might be with us, you know in the ether.”
I thought, don’t be daft, but kept my mouth shut. I was here for Vicky, she wasn’t having an easy time of it. I could see it in her eyes. She had looked older recently, more strained than usual for a woman with three boys under the age of ten and a husband who spends most of his time and money in the pub.
It’s the National game tonight, with £10,000 to be won. Mum always dreamt of winning the National. She would be putting her lipstick on in the mirror and without turning away she would look at me and say, “Tonight’s my lucky night, I can feel it in my waters.”
That was before the cancer got her. Right breast first, then it skulked like a silent marauder through her lymph nodes, along the centre of her rib cage, down to her liver and finally her lungs. By the time they found it, she was riddled with the stuff. Six months they gave her from start to finish. It turned out to be seven. She was lucky she got an extra month to suffer. Her last home was Glendale Hospice it was on the ‘right side of town’ as Mum would have put it. She lay in the bed, bound by bleached white sheets, She was now too weak to lift her head, or to hold a glass of water. The woman whom I had once seen carry a sack of coal on her back from the Coop to our house; a mile away on Laverna Avenue was now reduced to a brittle frame of bones and tissue, twitching with pain. Her lips were parched and cracked from the drugs and the dry heat of the hospice, and I would sit dripping water from a hankie into her mouth and onto her fissured lips. She tried so hard to say thank you, but the drugs had left her mute. In the end no amount of morphine was strong enough to quench her agony it only dulled her senses. Finally, in the last two days of her struggle, she hadn’t stirred; she and her body were silent. We all knew what was coming but said nothing. Our family was never good at talking. Vicky brought the boys in one final time to see their Nan, I was holding her hand and she squeezed it tight as if she was trying to hold on. When the boys had gone, I went outside and threw up behind a rhododendron bush. I couldn’t have told Vicky, it would have broken her.
I am already half way through a large glass of cheap Chardonnay, when the caller shouts,
Vicky says, “Let’s buy two bottles whilst it’s happy hour.”
I can taste the hangover already. The room falls silent. I stifle a laugh, its nerves more than anything. Vicky kicks me under the table. Chatting is a no-no in any game. The first game begins. This is a warm up, no big money here, but enough to pay for the night out. The caller’s calling and I can’t keep up. Vicky says,
“There’s a knack-look at the board. It comes on there before he calls it out, he’s reading from the same board as us. Your eyes are faster than your ears, daft pot.”
I give it a go, I feel like a nodding dog. Then someone calls line, then two lines, then house. I give up and reach to pour myself another glass of wine.
“Slow down,” she says, “You’ll be too drunk for the big game.”
The second game begins. I am getting into the swing of things now or so I think.
“Two little ducks, twenty-two. All the ones, legs eleven.”
I am startled by the wolf whistle that follows the legs 11 and look up and it is then I see her, sat there larger than life. Mum. Right next to Vicky, plain as anything.
“Close your mouth,” she says, “it’s rude.”
She’s all set with her markers and book of tickets, head down. Her hair is perfectly rollered and lacquered, her trademark blue eyeshadow daubed across her wrinkled lids. Vicky asks me what I’m staring at.
“Mum, she’s here.”
“Shhh, don’t be daft.”
Mum butts in,
“Her Darren’s up to no good.”
Darren is Vicky’s husband, father to her three boys. They have been together since she was sixteen.
“Ask her why he didn’t come home till 8am.”
I stare back at our Mum.
“Well go on then” she urges “Ask her”
“Why didn’t Darren come home last night Vicky?”
“How do you know he didn’t come home?”
“I didn’t. Mum told me.” Vicky gives me one of her looks.
“I told you slow up on the wine.” Vicky says.
There are grumblings from our neighbour’s booth, a women with a purple rinse puts a nicotine-stained finger to her bright candy crumpled lips and mouths, “Shhh.”
“I would leave him,” Vicky whispers, “but it’s starting again with the kids, skint all the time. We already owe money to everyone we know.”
Moments later the same woman shouts house and Vicky turns to see who’s won, at the same time she sees our Mum, right next to her.
“Holy Mother of God, what’s she doing here?”
“I am always here, I have been waiting for you.” Mum says.
More tables turn our way, looking aggravated.
It’s the National next. Vicky and I are given a few warning glances. I can see a group of women whispering and pointing, they are blaming us for losing the last game.
“Right girls,’ Mum says, “concentrate like your life depends upon it.”
The caller begins the game. There is a tension in the stale air, like the room is standing still. There is the steady hum of the air conditioning but nothing else. I am finding it hard to stay on top of the game. Mum can see,
“Come on girl, you give up too easily, you know what I am talking about now, don’t you.”
Her fingers are skipping across the numbers her eyes never leave the board. And I do know what she is talking about. I have been out of work for three months, made redundant. I have applied for over 30 jobs in the last few months, jobs in call centres, jobs in banks, jobs in shops. Things are getting tight. What little redundancy pay I had has almost gone.
I’m dabbing with my bright red marker like my life depends upon it and my sheet’s getting fuller and fuller. They have already called one line and two lines. Gone to the woman down the front with the missing teeth. I am two away from a full house.
“Eighty six,” he calls, I have that too. I just need sixty three. “Sixty three,” he cries. I shout, “Full house! Over here, over here!”
Vicky’s looking at me opened mouth, trying to see my sheet, as I wave it at the attendant who has come to verify it.
“You’re joking,” she mouths.
There are subdued mutterings from the tables surrounding us. I hear one woman say,
“Is that Maureen’s daughters?”
“Yes,” he finally says, “all present and correct, looks like we have a National winner in the house tonight.”
We both turn to Mum who is beaming.
“Tonight,” she says, “I could feel it in my waters.”
She rises from the table and before she reaches the neon exit sign she has already vanished.