The deadline was all he could hear. ‘Midnight tonight.’ Those two words resounded again and again in his head. There was no respite. 180 days and nights had passed since he’d watched one ball follow another, and another. Each one branded with his number. The first five numbers formed his date of birth. The sixth number of the winning set was seven. Seven, the number that hung on his front door, albeit upside down appearing as the letter L. He had been using the same numbers since the advertising campaign had saturated the television, cinema, newspapers, magazines and billboards. Even the only bus on the island was splashed with the slogan: ‘It could be you’. 180 days ago, he was that ‘you’.
‘For those of you who live on the Highlands and Islands of Scotland,’ the girl from the lottery show had said, ‘Please, please look in every drawer, in every pocket, under your floorboard, under your mattress, in your sofa, your chair, everywhere and anywhere, as one of you has yet to collect your share of the jackpot. And that share is… wait for it… a massive £360,000. Remember, the lines close at midnight tonight.’
He knew he had bought his tickets in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. He bought his monthly shopping there, and he always bought his lottery tickets on the same day at the same time at the same place. He would be on automatic pilot – the food he bought, the whiskey (Irish, because he had a personal gripe with Scotland), the lemonade, indeed everything was the same, month after month. The only thing that ever changed was where his stuff was shelved.
He was in his bedroom turning everything upside down and inside out. Drawers were being ripped from their chest with venom. Socks, many with holes in them; ill-fitting boxer shorts; his three Glasgow Celtic T-shirts; the three green jumpers, Christmas presents from his boys; jeans; shirts missing buttons; and finally his treasured Celtic strip, adorned with the autographs of the 1967 European Cup winning team, which he had won in a raffle – everything was shaken, before being dumped onto the bed.
Jeans and trousers were having their pockets turned out. He tore into one jacket, believing that the paper concealed in the lining was his ticket. The paper was an old £1 note.
He continued to curse and swear as he had done for months. His vocabulary was limited at the best of times, but now expletive followed expletive, ranging in pitch from soprano to tenor, but with a menacing edge. The bedding was removed and the bed turned over. The wardrobe was moved. The chest of drawers pushed aside. The centre of his bedroom now hosted a growing mountain of his life. A life he fully intended on leaving in his wake.
The red mist was returning, the red mist that had made him the recluse that he was, the recluse that he himself didn’t so much enjoy but endured. The red mist that had lost him his wife, his sons and his dog, that hung over the house and the life now lived.
Having rearranged the bedroom he transferred his growing frustration onto the bathroom, emptying the towel cupboard and drugs cabinet. There was no real sense in looking in the bathroom, but he needed to look ‘everywhere and anywhere.’ The ticket would be found in the last place he looked.
He went into what was his boys’ room. This was the first time he had stepped into their room for possibly two, maybe three, years. This was the room he tended to avoid, now serving only to remind him of his loss. He walked around, breathing in the musty air. The smell of life had long been sucked into the walls.
He caressed the Glasgow Celtic wallpaper, which was flaking off the wall exposing aged plaster, with affection. 1985, was the first and last ‘old firm’ (Celtic v Rangers) game he took his boys to see.
The bare floorboards were scarred with paint akin to acne. He picked up an old Celtic Supporters Association magazine. He threw the magazine on the floor and grimaced. He was reminded of the Child Support Agency. The CSA. The CSA that had prevented him from seeing his boys. Their ineluctable pursuit of his money, which never abated, had left him penniless. They aborted his capacity to be a father. The room was a visual representation of his life: empty, broken and in a state of decay.
He had to find his ticket. The winning wasn’t about the £360,000, it was about the 360° turn-around. His winning would turn his life full circle, getting his boys back. He would return to the lowlands. He would take his boys to Celtic Park every week as he had done, in the good old days. He looked to the clock at the top of the stairs.
He looked at his watch and back to the clock. His face crumpled. A storm was brewing.
He marched downstairs, into the sitting room. His face had become unrecognizable and his arms had grown thicker, as he turned the sofa over with one swift flick of his wrists. He ripped the hessian from its underside. A few grapes that had turned to raisins; a bone, belonging to the dog; a present for his ex-wife, still in Christmas wrapping; a penknife with tartan sides; some dried peas. He trawled through the selection with his large hands. Finally, a toy soldier, missing a limb, obviously killed in action, was exhumed. He didn’t have time to recall playing with the toy soldiers with his two boys, or the castle he had built for them.
The chair was flipped over, the hessian ripped. But there was no lottery ticket.
The first sortie on the bookshelf was underway. No compassion was afforded to any author. P.D. James, Rendell, Rankin, Christie, Doyle, the Chandler’s, Raymond and Glenn were fanned with incremental violence.
A noise like a growl forced its way from the depths of his gut as he snarled at the books and the bookshelf.
He turned and trudged into the kitchen. He poured a large whiskey into a half pint tumbler and added lemonade to dilute the heat, took a mouthful and left the glass half empty. His palate lacked sophistication. There was no pleasure in his drinking. He drank whiskey to get drunk. It was his only escape.
Armed with his glass, he returned to the sitting room and continued his violation of literature. Two shelves occupied by Stephen King were next. One by one they were stripped of their sleeve and searched. Indeed, one book was agitated with such ferocity he cracked its spine.
Again, he returned to the kitchen and charged his glass. He stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the sitting room. He had a look that said he wasn’t ready to lie down. He wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. No, he wouldn’t allow himself to be beaten by a deadline.
Herbert followed. His acts of vandalism and gratuitous violence continued. A pink piece of paper escaped the clutches of two pages in The Magic Cottage. He knelt down and stared at the small, flimsy rectangle of pink paper.
It was a lottery ticket. The lottery ticket.
A shriek, like that of an animal being murdered, sliced through the fetid air in the sitting room, before breaching the walls of the cottage. The fox, the owl, even the cows some ten miles away could be forgiven for seeking refuge, such was the depth of his holler.
As he tipped back his head, yet another whiskey was consumed. He held the ticket to his mouth and kissed each number as he danced around the sitting room. He skipped around the mountain of stuff, kicking books, watching them fly across the room and smash into the wall. He didn’t care. He had £360,000 in his hands. He was singing the names of his boys as he danced his way into the kitchen.
Placing the ticket in the centre of the bare table, he sat down and sighed. He poured another half pint tumbler of whiskey and lemonade.
He looked around for a pen before finding one in the ‘odds and sods’ jar, and signed the back of his winning ticket. The ticket was now his. No one else could claim the money. He knew when and where the winning ticket was bought. He had his boys back.
He wasted no time pouring the remaining whiskey down his throat, then he laced up his boots, put his woollen hat on his balding head and pulled on his wax-less waxed jacket. He would need to travel across the island to the town for the telephone box.
The CSA was responsible for him not having a phone in the cottage. This only added fuel to his fiery relationship with them. There was no way of contacting his boys other than through the postal service. He wasn’t a writer, or a reader for that matter. The books he had treated with such contempt belonged to his ex-wife.
BT was still no further forward in installing the Internet to the island, not that there had been much interest. There were notices on the ferry to and from the mainland warning tourists about the lack of reception for mobile phones. Again, no one on the island was bothered. It tended to be inconvenient only to tourists.
11.30 was his estimated time of arrival in town. He would avoid seeing anyone. He normally only went to town to catch the ferry to the mainland, the day he got his dole cheque, the first Saturday of every month to be precise. He hadn’t spent any time there since she left him, taking the boys and his dog. He didn’t want anyone to know his business. He would be off the island for good, as soon as he had the money. No one on the island would miss him.
He skipped upstairs, although he nearly fell over, to raid his loose change bottle. He tipped the coins onto the floor then filled his pockets with 5p, 10p and 20p pieces for the phone box. He took more time going down the stairs. He kicked a few more items as he crossed the living room before lifting the keys for his Traveller from the key bowl in the kitchen.
He stood on the doorstep having closed the back door, sucked in the cool fresh air and smiled at the moon.
He opened the door of the Traveller and eased himself into the leather seat. Having prodded the key into the ignition, the engine started first time. His Morris Minor Traveller, black with wooden trim, was his baby and had never failed him. Foot on the clutch, into gear, and he was driving, with surprising care, out of his muddy driveway and onto the one-track road to town. He had the ticket in his right hand, in full view, the whole time. The drive would take him no more than an hour.
The clock on the dash showed 10.25 when he set off. The car was cold inside. He had to wipe the windscreen until the heater kicked in. His eyes were not truly focused either, the whiskey had to be taking effect. Singing along to the radio, although his words and rendition were not necessarily a true representation of what he was hearing, he increased his speed. The moon was full. The sky was midnight blue, filled with twinkling diamonds. The clear sky was an ideal night for the Aurora Borealis, an ideal night to become £360,000 richer.
The whiskey was overwhelming his liver, compromising its ability to metabolize the alcohol in his bloodstream. His singing was becoming slurred. His eyes were reddening. His muscle coordination was being put to the test, as was his ability to drive.
He lifted his wallet from the dashboard and began to rake through it. Business cards, receipts and pieces of paper, with messages to himself, were extracted until finally he found what he was looking for. With tenderness, he eased out the last remaining photograph of his boys. The picture was ragged down one side, where his ex-wife had been. He kissed the boys twice. He raised his head slightly, peering over the top of the photograph. Out of nowhere, he was blinded by the sight of a fully grown cow. He pounced on the brakes whilst swerving to avoid impact. He went halfway into a ditch. He shouted to the heavens, swearing at God. The clock on the dashboard screamed 10.45.
He got out of the vehicle, ensuring that he wouldn’t trigger any movement. He opened the back door to get the shovel and stones, standard in any vehicle on the island. With great effort, stones were shovelled behind all four wheels. He got back into the car and turned the key. The engine faltered. He took a deep breath, kissed his kids, kissed the lottery ticket, apologized to God for his indiscretion and turned the key again. The engine started. He crossed himself. Putting the gear in reverse he eased the Traveller out of the ditch. 11.10pm. The car was still at least 40 minutes away from the town.
He set off again, but had reduced his speed to 30mph. His winning ticket and photograph were still residing in his right hand, despite his fingers feeling numb.
The clock on the dashboard read 11.50 as the Traveller came to rest at the top of the hill, overlooking the small town. He rested his head on the steering wheel for a moment before gazing into the horizon. His eyes followed the light reflection of the moon. The deluxe, velvety splendour of the red telephone box sparkled against the midnight sky. Everything appeared so tranquil and surreal.
He left the car at the top of the hill and walked the few hundred yards into town. There was one road in and one road out. Walking to the telephone box, he maintained his grip on the ticket. Not too tight for fear of tearing his future apart. Not too loose, for fear of losing what lay ahead. He was a mere phone call away from his two wonderful boys and £360,000, a huge sum of money. Huge.
He looked out to the horizon with a smile and opened the door of the phone box. He created pillars of five, ten and twenty pence pieces on top of the moneybox and took a final breath before lifting the phone from the receiver. He held the phone to his ear. The colour drained from his face leaving him as white as the moon. The dead line was all he could hear.
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