I have often wondered why we have friends. What they are for. I have very rarely had a conversation on any topic with one of my close friends which was as pleasant or as enjoyable as one I have had with a total stranger. In all honesty, when it comes to a discussion on almost any subject matter, the only difference between having it with a friend than with a stranger is that the appropriate rules of manners, respect, and tolerance are no longer required. And this can hardly be construed as a benefit.  Not to mention the fact that you have most probably heard and can already predict what your friend is going to say in most instances. And this only increases your own impatience, leading you to your own infuriation, which is exactly how your partner in conversation had known you would react. So all your conversations merely repeat themselves endlessly with only the levels of infuriation ever really varying. Going upwards obviously.

I had a conversation with a guy on a train not two weeks ago. Adam was his name. For three hours we talked. On a broad range of subjects. We exchanged political, cultural, and religious opinions; applauded the service on the train; philosophised about sports and the modern game; gave inaccurate portrayals of our personal lives, in which we had never been at fault; waxed lyrical about passions for which we had really only a passing fancy; passed off things we had just read earlier that day as our own long-standing positions; and god only knows what else we talked about in between. All in all, it was a most delightful conversation. Regardless of what topic we stumbled upon to. Nothing he said aggravated me no matter how much I disagreed with him or saw through him, as he was gentlemanly enough to choose to pretend to not see through me either. And I told him as he rose to depart at Midleton that I had ‘thoroughly enjoyed our conversation today’, which I had. And he concurred wholeheartedly. We shook hands firmly and he stepped off the train onto the platform. ‘What a fine man that was!’ I thought to myself. ‘Hopefully I will never run into him again.’

But friends are friends, and for reasons so far never satisfactorily explained to me; we are not permitted to dump them like you can a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Nor are you even able to ignore them like a stranger in the street. Somehow you end up being responsible for them. Despite sharing neither blood nor any other internal fluids with them. This seems to me like quite an unfair arrangement. They say you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I remain unconvinced.

There were five of us in our poker group: myself, Ciaràn, Ricardo, Pavel, and Colm. Long-time friends. All guys. All met in college. Our poker meetings were always of a lighted-hearted fashion. Joking and jesting. Jibing and besting. The usual small-talk and gentlemanly gossip was also par for the course. We were a jovial bunch of lads by nature. At least most of the time. Especially at the beginning of the game. Though less so at the end. We tended to descend away from our naturally peaceable characters towards much more suspicious and resentful individuals as the game went on. If our games could be charted on a line graph, according to the categories of joviality and competitiveness, the graph would look like a perfect X. Joviality going downwards obviously.

I don’t remember when we first started having our poker evenings. I only really remember when I started winning real money. Before that, poker was the secondary activity. It was always ‘meeting up and (also) playing poker’. In that order of importance. The cards used not be a priority. Like scratching your balls, and watching TV.  But at some hard-to-define point the roles most definitely got reversed. The meeting/poker thing that is. As opposed to the balls thing, which as we are all well aware, could never be bettered.

Our early poker games were just for small change. No notes. Just whatever coins you could cobble together. Even still, there were continual, heated arguments about the rules when we played. It seemed it was never quite certain which version we were playing. Pavel’s aunt seemed to have brought him up playing some kind of communist version of poker whereby everyone’s bet had equal value regardless of how much money you put in. It was to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor he said. Ricardo was defiant that in Brazil certain cards were actually certain other cards at certain times known only to him. We never understood this ourselves. Ciaràn tended to deal the cards at least twice. He would miscount his deal more often than not, and insist the whole hand be re-dealt. Unless he had good cards. In which case, he would forget his “rule”, and agree to let it slide this time so as not to cause further “unnecessary inconvenience” to anyone. And Colm didn’t know any of the rules. And I’m still not sure he fully does.

Finally, the bickering and constant disputes got too much for someone – Colm, I think! – and he decided to get a copy of the official poker rules so as to put an end to our ceaseless arguing. It was a very wise decision. As we pored over the rulebook, we saw that we had all been all right all along all the time. We were all able to immediately recall situations where we had been arguing one of the points that we now had proof was part of official play. Or we remembered times when we had been so insistent that a particular aspect of play was true, and were now able to locate certain variants on the game where what we had been saying was in fact, acceptable. We each found justifications for each and every of our previous claims throughout the rulebook, and everyone was kind enough to agree to remember that things that had never happened had happened, and that things that hadn’t happened had; which was really very nice of all of us: to show our support in wilfully misremembering each other’s past actions, converting them into more righteous and justifiable acts. And this, as I have already suggested, is really what I suspect friends are for.

Nonetheless, we did at least learn the rules and stick by them. It brought about a monumental reduction in disagreements, and made our evenings a great deal pleasanter. We also bought playing chips. And a green felt for the table. We set limits on how much we would play with. Initially, it was €5 each. So the total pot was €25. Our poker evenings continued merrily in this way for quite a while, and only red wine spilled on clothes or the occasional poker or girl related fist-fight ever dampened our spirits. All things considered, we had an extremely contented year or so of poker. Sometimes we never even finished the game, and just ended up chewing the proverbial cud into the wee hours, with the overall pot left unclaimed, and not a one of us ever even thought so much as to steal it. Or in the event that the over-consumption of alcohol discontinued someone’s ability to play, never in our lives would we have dreamed of taking advantage of that passed-out opponent’s remaining money. For we were friends, and that’s what mattered. It was a nice year. Occasionally quarrelsome. But on the whole, it was very, very nice.

Over time though, the whole meeting-up aspect of cards was demoted to mere necessity. Things gradually grew more serious. And when this honeymoon period had begun to grow tiresome, the stakes were doubled to make things “more interesting”, which it did. Though it only stayed at that new level for 3 or 4 games. One evening, after we had finished, Pavel suggested raising the stakes even higher, so that the maximum total pot was €100. I wholeheartedly seconded this idea. Pavel had just lost out on the final hand when we went all-in; so while the other guys felt like they had lost a tenner, Pavel felt like he had lost the whole €50 and clearly felt the urge to recoup his losses at our following game. I also thought that raising the stakes was a great idea at the time, as I had just won that particular pot, and had suddenly become annoyed that I had only won €50, when I could have won twice as much if we had only raised the stakes a week earlier.

Ciaràn and Ricardo were less enthusiastic, and were both relieved that they had only lost €10. Colm, who was drunk and comatose by the end of the game, had nothing pertinent to say on the matter. In fact, he was drunk by the beginning of the game too. Kept shouting ‘yes’ or ‘crap’ when he looked at his cards. And lost all his money quite early in the game when he temporarily confused his interior monologue and out-loud voice; was quite clearly heard saying that he was about to “bluff” the next hand; and went all-in on a pair of hearts. What conversation he thought he had been making to us during this hand remains unknown, except possibly to Colm’s own cerebral dump. But probably not.

So the vote was split. Pavel and I were in favour. Ciaràn and Ricardo: against. Colm: asleep. Pavel was first to try to rouse him and force him to cast his vote. And wishing to resolve the matter promptly, simply tried to extract an immediate response from him.  ‘HeyColmDyathinkweshudraisethepotuptoahundredquidfornxtweek?Yeah?Whadoyoureckon?Weshould?Yeah?’ Colm looked up at him, and after presumably thinking it over very briefly so as to consider both arguments, emitted a low, but most definitely audible ‘yeah’, and then returned his eyes to their previously closed position.

‘Well, that’s that decided’, we said, and turned to pick up our coats to leave. But the boys weren’t having any of this. Ricardo accused us of manipulating our dear friend, and asking “leading questions” – whatever that means, some weird Portuguese mistranslation no doubt – which clearly wasn’t the case, and greatly offended both of our natures. We had merely wished for the decision to be made as quickly as was possible we explained. Colm had work in the morning and we thought it best not to disturb him more than necessary, as he would need to be fully alert for the day which lay ahead of him. But, they claimed we were being “blatantly and knowingly deceitful”, and insisted on re-clarifying Colm’s “actual answer”. So now it was their turn to wake Colm up and again extract his opinion.

Ciaràn shook him violently at first, and then held him very steadily by the shoulders, and keeping direct contact with Colm’s bleary, glassy, newly-reddened eyes asked him, “Do you? Colm! Look at me. Do you think? Colm, COLM! Stay with me. Do you think we should raise the pot? The pot? Colm. No, I don’t have any pot. No. No, I don’t. I don’t want any pot. The pot, for chrissakes. The amount of money we bet. Get it? The pot. Do you think we should raise the pot to 100 euro? COLM, COLM!!! Come back to me. Do you think we should raise the pot to 100 euro for next week’s game? What do you think? Huh? What do you think? Do you want the pot to be raised?’ There was a pause. His mouth opened to speak, but got closed up again before he could speak by a bit of an unexpected burp, which also contained a bit of unexpected vomit, which slipped out over his teeth and down onto his chin. He recomposed himself somewhat, and took stock of his environment. He looked about himself, admittedly in a slightly dazed fashion, not unlike an interrogatee after a 4 day, no-camera, no-lawyer, post-Patriot Act, physical questioning. And then he answered in his usual Irish drool/accent. ‘Whatever’, he said. And his face collapsed back down onto the table creating a loud face-meets-table type sound.

‘There,’ said Pavel and I. ‘So it’s settled.’

‘No, it’s not settled!’ Ricardo railed with put-on outrage. ‘He said, “whatever”, which means he doesn’t care. It means he has no opinion!’

‘Don’t be silly,’ I countered. ‘It means we can raise the pot because he doesn’t mind.’

’It means he doesn’t mind if we do raise it, but equally he doesn’t mind if we don’t,’ argued Ciaràn.

This debate went back and forth for a short period. Meanwhile, Colm had slipped off the table and was lying on the floor with a bloody nose. We think this was from when his face fell onto the table, but it may have been from when his body fell onto the tiles. He was clearly in even less of a position to convey his thoughts on the issue than he had been the previous two times, and we realised it was best to settle the issue by some other means.

So we decided to toss a coin. The atmosphere of the room was again tense with competitiveness. I threw the coin up in the air. Pavel said ‘heads’. Ricardo said ‘tails’. And Ciaràn said ‘heads’. And it was tails.
‘Yes!’ exclaimed Ricardo. ‘We’re not raising the stakes.’
‘But Ciaran lost the coin-toss,’ I retorted.
‘Yeah, but I didn’t,’ said Ricardo.

‘But you can’t both play! You can’t both call opposite sides of the coin and still be on the same side of the argument!’

As anyone in our predicament would, neither Pavel nor I were willing to accept that they had won fairly, and insisted on a re-toss. So we agreed to throw it up again. This time, we made it clear who was going to call sides. Ricardo would toss. I would oversee his execution of it. Pavel and Ciaran would call sides. Ricardo picked a coin out of his pocket, tossed it in the air, caught it in his right hand and slapped it on the back of his left. Pavel called tails. Ciaran called heads. Ricardo lifted his hand to reveal the coin.

‘It’s heads,’ he declared. ‘We win. You can’t disagree this time.’
We looked at his hand.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘It’s a real,’ he said.
‘A what?’
‘A Brazilian ‘real’. It’s our currency.’
‘How do you know which side is heads?’ we asked simultaneously. Even Ciaràn who was supposed to be on Ricardo’s side seemed uncertain.
‘I’m telling you. This side is heads.’ He assured us.
I remained unconvinced. We picked it up and studied it closely.

One side had the coin’s value, but it also had the year it was minted. The other had a design, the word ‘Brasil’, but no number saying how much it was worth. This was all very new to us. For a while, we became quite interested in this coin, the relative value in the currency compared to the euro, and current average wages in Brazil. We became distracted from our task. We learned of the huge collapse in the value of the ‘real’ in 2002, before our conversation led into a lengthy discussion on the scruples (or lack of them) of the proponents of free market capitalism, the global repercussions of its cavalier practices, and the lack of accountability or transparency currently required in the world of modern globalisation. Also, Pavel had a highly amusing story, which we had never heard him tell before, of a coin that was in his family that had taken a bullet which would have hit his great-grandfather’s scrotum, but had hit the coin instead, and thereby prevented the discontinuation of his lineage. A coin, without which, Pavel himself wouldn’t be here today. And we all enthusiastically chose to believe as fact the story that Pavel had chosen to enthusiastically believe as fact. In short, we momentarily forgot our differences and were once more returned to our good and companionable selves.

Until we heard what could only have been the sound of escaping wee coming from the unconscious sleeping, bleeding, dearest friend of ours lying on the tiles. And turning to look down at him, we saw his blue jeans, turn from a light azure, through turquoise, and on to something near indigo. This transformation beginning around the crotch, but via the miracle of capillary action managed to creep itself all the way down to his socks, into his shoes, and out onto the floor. We watched this happen with detached concern or concerned detachment. I’m not sure which would be a more accurate description. Fortunately it was his house. In truth, we always played at his house for precisely this reason. And in these types of situation, it was unanimously agreed upon that our leaving, would save both his potential embarrassment and our potential guilt.

So we went back to the original euro. We tossed it one more time, with much less tension in the air than had previously been there, and left; with Colm asleep on the floor covered in parts of himself which were supposed to be on the inside of him, but weren’t. We had won the coin-toss. We were raising the stakes to €100.

But it didn’t stop there. It was €100 for a few more games. And then it became €25 each to play for a pot of €125. We began taking it even more seriously. Getting to known the finer points of play. Studying each other’s habits. Learning tactics and gauging probabilities. Becoming fuller, better players. More professional. More ruthless. More like men.

And each time someone won, or nearly won, or just lost, or nearly lost, or won twice in a row, or nearly won twice in a row, or if someone failed to win on many consecutive occasions, or almost any permutation thereof: someone would suggest we raise the stakes. We would be divided in our opinions. Forming alliances. Vying for Colm’s vote – he never seemed to have an opinion. We’d argue. Sometimes, we’d agree to higher stakes. Sometimes, we’d keep them the same. But eventually, the stakes would be changed. Always upwards, obviously.

And before we knew it, quicker than it seemed possible, it was €200 in: €1,000 for the winner. We arrived at Colm’s house for the first game at these stakes. We were unusually punctual. Furthermore, Colm was unusually sober – one can only assume that the changing nature of our evenings had finally dawned on him. We retained the small-talk, but only as a matter of course. Our verbal tos and fros were running on automatic. We were content to merely pay lip service to the pre-poker ritual that we had cultivated in the previous two years. We dispensed with the pleasantries after a reasonably appropriate time had passed, so that nobody could have any grounds for complaining that we no longer cared for one another; and then we got down to business.

The first few hands were of little note; each man showing restraint in the early stages. There were even some remnants of non-game-related conversation, which I personally frowned upon, but was more than willing to tolerate. Drinks were few. Even Colm managed to restrain himself to a controllable tipsiness. And like this, the night edged onwards. By midnight we were all still in the game, and there was barely even a discernable leader as we had all won our share of good hands. Less than an hour after this, things had changed significantly.

Ciaràn was first out. His funds had begun to dwindle and he had had to take a gamble on a high straight, but lost out to a flush from me. He’d been particularly unlucky. He’d had a run of nothing hands, and had been caught out on a couple of pretty convincing bluffs. What really compounded his bad luck was the fact that, by looking through a glass of water which Ricardo had carelessly misplaced, I could; via the refraction of light; see his cards whenever he glanced at them. Though he briefly cursed his ill-fortune in an un-re-printable manner after losing, he was otherwise, nothing but gracious in defeat. He had played well, and there was nothing for him to be ashamed of.

Colm went out after him. In his (relative) sobriety, it seemed Colm was too cautious a player to ever have had a real chance. His erratic drunken tactics – or lack of them – had meant that he had won on many previous occasions, as his manner of play was highly illogical, and therefore completely unpredictable. It was very hard to read the thoughts of such an impulsive drunkard; especially the thoughts of someone we weren’t sure really understood the rules of play. His pile of chips slowly diminished, and he never took enough of a risk to get himself back into the game. His game ended with a whimper, though he himself appeared a tad relieved that he was now able to relinquish his restraint and finally relax. “Well, I had a good run of it there for a while,” he said, as he grabbed the (still hall-full!) whiskey bottle and took a great big gulp straight from the neck.

Pavel was next to go. I think none of us ever enjoyed when Pavel won. His post-victory smugness was an offense to the game itself. Pavel only ever won through sheer chance; unlike the commendable victories which Ricardo and I could command. He never succeeded through skill or guile like we did, but only through a continual run of beginner’s luck. Though, not this time. This time, his luck conspired against him. His inability to conceal his confidence in his cards meant that he won too little when his hands were good, and lost too much when his hands were bad. To add to his woes, the remaining players seemed unwilling to gamble against each other, appearing to take it in turns in trying to run him out of the game. And now he was out. Pavel had given it his all, and ought to have been proud of his performance; instead of being quite as vocally resentful as he was. He proceeded to express his dissatisfaction in a foul-mouthed and wholly unwarranted tirade, primarily at Ricardo and me, both of whom stoically bore the brunt of his vitriol, as we should have, as he is our friend, and we both understood that ‘these things happen’. His outburst gradually gave way to its very opposition: a stone-cold silence, which we deemed much more appropriate. We then resumed our game.

So it was down to two. Ricardo and I. Our stacks were pretty much even. He had neither as much as I, nor had I as little as him. Ciaràn dealt. A few tentative hands passed with no demonstrable advantage being gained. Until, on the fourth hand, the flop showed up a jack of hearts, a queen of hearts, and an ace of clubs. I had a jack of clubs and a queen of diamonds. Two pair. I looked at Ricardo. His face was devoid of emotion. As it always was. I had always found his calm demeanour most irritating, but never quite to the same extent as I disliked it just then. There was something recognisably inhumane about his expressionlessness or his calm. At that moment, I could not comprehend the existence of such a person. Had he no compassion for his fellow man? Did he not know how much this game meant? Not the money. Well, not just the money. But, the pride! The victory! The vindication! Why was this man trying so blatantly to come between me and what was rightly mine? I had toiled so hard to get myself into this position, and now I was sat face to face with this implacable automaton, devoid of both empathy and pity. Thus, I resolved, that for the sake of all that was good in the world; all that was just and right and fair; for all the underdogs of the world who’d never had a chance, who’d been trodden on by the cruelty and inhumanity of society; that I would beat this man! For them; but mainly for me; I would win!

The “turn” was another queen. This time: of diamonds. I had a full house.  I looked at Ricardo. He was contorting his mouth as he weighed up his options. I knew I had him. He looked over at me in thought. Then in one slow movement, with both hands, he pushed all his chips into the middle of the table. He stared back at me blankly. ‘All-in’ he said. My heart stopped. Then it raced. The blood coursed through me. I glanced again at my cards. Just to be sure. And somehow I managed to make the words ‘All-in’ come out of my mouth too. I added my chips to his and sat back to await the final card.

I looked about me. Only Colm seemed in any way interested in the result. He sat there, eyes wide, drinking the least “bloody” Bloody Mary I have ever seen. Pavel seemed unmoved and unmoving; his arms folded across his chest, a steely expression of contempt, disgust, and jealousy across his face. Ciaràn looked resolutely bored; his chin resting on his fist resting on the table; until he laboriously lowered his arm and drew it towards the fifth card to turn it over.

Ciaràn delicately turned over the river. It was the ten of hearts. My own heart was in my mouth. The game had to be mine! Didn’t it? It was surely mine. How could he beat me?  Could he beat me? Please tell me it’s mine. Oh god, to whom I have never before turned or ever will call upon after, I beseech thee, let me win! Lord of mercy, for the love of all the suffering of this unholy planet, let me have this game!

Ricardo, as calmly as ever, turned over his cards. As did I, though not quite as calmly. There was the pregnantest of pauses as we discerned whose hand had won. And then it was over.

‘Wo!’ said Colm. ‘They were close hands.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘They were.’
‘You can say that again,’ added Ricardo.

Ricardo and I shook hands, and then we all started gathering up what was ours, moving to put our glasses in the dishwasher, grabbing our coats, and what not.

‘Hey guys, what are youse doing?’ Colm asked in bewilderment. ‘Where are you going?’

‘We’re going home,’ we told him.
‘But it’s only just after one,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t anyone want to stay for a drink? Doesn’t anyone wanna stay and just talk for a while? ’

But none of us did.


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8 Responses to “Hands”

  1. William Says:

    A great tragicomic story, Colm! I caught myself chuckling every other paragraph. Brilliant. A Merry Christmas to you.

  2. Felix Says:

    Cheers Colm I am a big fan of short stories….you had me engrossed right to the end and then I realised after I finished the story I didn’t know who won…..Well I guess it is your readers!!….Thanks

  3. thedropofahat Says:

    Cheers William. Glad you laughed. Laughter is the best remedy they say.

    And thanks Felix. I don’t know who won either. But I have my suspicioins.

    Happy Christmas to you both.

  4. Kresimir Says:

    I can see this happen. Excellent story Colm.

  5. Peter McKeever Says:

    Hey Colm,

    Peter from Colm Liddy’s course here, really like the stuff. Not sure if you’ve read any of Kevin Barry’s stuff. If you haven’t, pick up a copy of his short story collection ‘There are Little Kingdoms’. Yous have a pretty similar style and I think you’d learn a lot from him. That, and it’s a fantastic collection.

    Keep it up,

    • thedropofahat Says:

      Thanks for that Peter. I haven’t read any his stuff, but I must do. Just went into town looking for a William Faulkner book, and ended up coming back with 5 other novels. How often does that happen? Though at least they were cheap.

      I am trying to start a book group with a friend. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is first up. You’re more than welcome to join us.

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