'Red or Blue?'
All the weight lifted from his back, flicked across the table. A second of luxurious fur, then scooped up. Diamond three feels other warmth, hand and light. Moved once, then once again in a group. To his left Spade Ace, jack, six. She isn't there.
'One Spade, pass, two clubs, pass, two hearts, pass, stop please four spades, pass, pass, my lead?'
Deposited on the table, the last of a red column. The queens can see both ways. She must be able to see him. But would she? Why would she?
Too quick, moved to the centre, pushed into a pile of four. Turned face down.
Muffled voices. 'Try the queen.'
'Making five, the losing diamond goes on the long club.'
Shaking hands swept him up in the pile. 'Can't you cash the Ace? How many diamonds can declarer have?'
The pack split in two. Cards rifled together. Seven times he felt her presence. But too fast. Too dizzy. Nothing to say. No time to say it. The cards spin out again. Caressed by thin scented fingers. To his left diamond ace and nine. On his right club seven and two. Eight other cards. Could even be eight spades, surely she'd be amongst them. But more likely there'd be some hearts too. And what if one-eyed jack was there, he'd be right next to her.
Three's ear was being tickled, he looked accusingly at nine.
So there wouldn't be eight spades now. Though there had been one occasion. But that voice was slurred, the smell overpowering. His head almost crushed, sweat trickling down his torso. This one held him gently. She wasn't even looking at them any longer.
'Two clubs.' One hand left his side. A sharp tap on the table.
A quick glance to confirm what she already knew. 'Two diamonds.'
So there weren't even four spades. Of course the queen could still be there.
'Stop please, three no-rumps.'
Was she lying on the table opposite? Six cards had left the company now. Queen of spades please. Nothing happened. Declarer could have no more spades. She was deciding which other suit to throw on the queen. Only one card would lie between them. Three tried to wriggle loose. Come on, you discard low cards, everyone knows that. But declarer was too strong.
The nine leapt from his side. Why?
'Yes well played. But why did you discard the nine rather than the three?'
This had better be good.
'The eight might have become an entry to dummy.'
Might have? Might have? And Genghis Khan might have written symphonies.
He'd heard a player say this once. Presumably Mr. Khan belonged to another club.
'In the event it didn't matter of course.'
Didn't matter. Didn't matter. He fought back the tears. Next deal. Get on with the next deal.
Large hairy fingers held him this time. Metal scraped his side. A large brown cylinder, his scalp singed, eyes stinging. Three led the outbreak of communal coughing. His only thought was to get the hand over with as quickly as possible. But then he saw her. She moved to his side. Was she smiling? Three pulled his middle in and straightened his back. Act casual.
'I wish they wouldn't smoke.'
But his thoughts were drowned out by a tannoy, 'fourteen cards, sorry everyone.'
He clung on to her as they lurched to the baize. Four piles of thirteen cards. They could teach monkeys to deal four piles of thirteen. And computers. He wouldn't let her go. Why should he? It wasn't his fault.
'These cards are very sticky. Time we got some new ones.'
A shudder spread right through the pack. They'd all heard the rumours. Condemned to an eternity of snap. Little pink fingers banging your head on the table. Your face smeared with raspberry jam and stray glitter. A mighty Ace of Spades had finished his life bent double and propping up a table leg; insects sucking the honey and banana yoghurt from his exposed back. The club suit had attempted a daring rescue. But they'd been captured and tortured. Whipped with paint brushes, a moustache drawn on the queen, her eyes gouged out. Others cut clean in two. Then they were mocked, the once proud king forced to hold hands with a giant hamster. One little tormentor turned to her trainer, 'that's my one mummy.' She was pointing at the seven, a rusty spike embedded in his navel. Their shame was accompanied by large green cut-out letters.
A dire warning: Year Five Multimedia Project.
It wasn't just him. The players talked of her often, always trying to find her. Forever devising new stratagems for her detection. This time Three couldn't see the queen, but he knew she was there. Declarer was looking for her. The jack of spades led from hand. East was too good a player for that, but diamond three felt the fingers tighten. East and three both held their breath, only the queen of spades herself was unconcerned. 'Play the king.' Nothing. The nine was led from dummy. West followed with the six. Everything stopped. Five, ten twenty seconds. Declarer shrugged as he played low. East produced the queen with an apologetic smile. One down.
To Three it was her victory as much as the player's. Of course there was the fresh linen smell, but the queen of clubs had that too. Yet he didn't blush as she approached, didn't rehearse his lines all night and forget them as soon as she was near. He didn't constantly check his numerals in the mirror on the off chance of meeting her.
The next column, diagonally above him, maybe two inches between them. But then he saw one-eyed jack, brazenly sprawled across her bottom half. How could she bear his garlic breath? His comedy villain's moustache. How could anyone wear red, blue and yellow together. Yes, but on her it looked good. Such an obvious wig, and surely he's got make-up on. Red, yellow and blue, plus mauve lipstick. And what was he holding? A lollipop. That'll impress her, a gift with a bit of class. You could see she was trying to ignore his advances, gazing into the middle distance. Her king was gone, he'd protect her. Keep your hands where I can see them pal. And your lollipops.
'Why didn't you throw the queen of spades, it's no use.'
You're talking about the woman I love. And don't call her it.
'No the queen's essential for a double squeeze.'
He felt the ink rushing to his pips.
'There's the possibility of a strip and throw in too,'
The three of diamonds fainted. Gentle fingers lifted him from the floor.
He was in the big hand. You always knew. A blaze of colour to either side. The presence of the Aces, felt rather than seen. But most of all the tension in your player's grip.
'Stop please, two clubs.' Now the other players knew. A positive response. Two more rounds of bidding. Then four no-trumps.
The mantra. Cards and players alike breathed a little faster, then didn't breathe at all.
'Stop please, six no-trumps.'
West thought longer, though probably no harder than usual, then led. Three saw the tricks stacking up below him. His player relentless. Then a pause. Won ten. Lost none. Three cards remained, himself, the ace of spades and her. Torn. He longed to win a trick. But also to stay with the queen a little longer.
Trick 11, the three of diamonds was precisely in the centre of the cloth. Beaten by a defender's six. Inevitably West led a spade, the ace and his beloved winning the last two tricks. Twelve. Slam made. He'd been his side's sole loser. The Queen of Spades looking on intently. Probably the only time she'd ever noticed him. Three tried to pull the six further over his head.
No good. The club expert dragged him from the pile. Held him aloft. He'd never liked heights. The colours swirled below, red black, black red. All the faces looking up, for once he hoped she wasn't there.
'This is the most important card in the pack.'
The heat must be getting to him. He wished the room would stay still.
Deep breaths, count to thirteen. Now backwards, thirteen, twelve, eleven, four seven....he was going to be sick. That'd really impress her. Please stop waving me about. That's better. No it's not. A sharp finger nail was tapping Three repeatedly, bending his corner to the full glare of the fluorescent lights. He pressed his eyelids tight. Only to be accosted by throat clearing inches from his ear; further explanation was coming, but whisky came first.
Suddenly he was plummeting toward the table. Then caught in mid air, He wouldn't be able to get rid of the creases for a week. Hoisted skywards again. Held up as an example to them all. It wasn't fair, other cards lost tricks. To be honest threes did little else. except when they were trumps, and sometimes even then.
'The only way to make. I knew the finesse was wrong. The queen of spades apparently doomed, and with her the contract. But luckily I'd got the three of diamonds, carefully preserved to endplay West. Yes, the three of diamonds was the hero of this deal.'
Three opened his eyes. The faces were back in focus. She was smiling at him.
'I'll write the hand up.'
An article. Their names linked forever. Are you that three of diamonds? A sudden flash. No photography please. Diamond Three saves Queen of Spades from certain death. No more autographs, my client's tired. Club Expert declares Three of Diamonds most important card in Pack. Digital cameras only please. Diamond Three to play in Gold cup? See pages 2, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 12.
She was coming over. To thank him personally perhaps?
No. Gathered up. Please stop. Just a few more minutes. Thrust carelessly into the blue box. Something felt wrong. A shiny surface squashed to his. Slipping and sticking. The long night ahead, too hot, too close. The emotion, the whisky, being bent and dropped, it was all catching up with him. Three's eyes started adjusting to the dark. Normally there'd be little to see. A twilight world of infinite blue. But this was different. Face to face. Stuck to each other. A shawl, a half-turned head. An honour card, mostly black. That smell. Holding a flower in either hand. The glimmer of a brooch. An oval face. Those dreamily distracted eyes. That delicate mouth. Smiling at him still.
A fanfare: Land of Hope and Glory, closely followed by the 1812 overture.
'No dear, I'm still at the club. Poor lamb. Is he asleep now? Kiss him for me. No, you know I never win. Yes, fine. No, no rush.'
'My husband's been held up. He'll be at least half an hour. Time for one last deal?'
'OK by me.'
Both packs were retrieved from the cupboard.
'Blue or red?'
Not blue. Please not blue.