Connor was pre-occupied with a women’s UFC match-up. Many would consider that sentence an indictment of progress. We could dwell on whether his bet on its outcome was just another attempt to make money, some kind of morbid curiosity, or if either of these motivations were merely subterfuge, and that the prospect of watching two women, toned into vulgar masculinity, wrestling on the floor, breaking that monotony only to occasionally knee each other in the crotch, was an arousing spectacle for Connor.
‘Which one is it?’
‘The Latin one, with the braids.’
‘She the favourite?’
‘Nah, the other one.’
‘It’s an undercard bout?’
‘Yeah, always more scope for the upset.’
Corina’s silence wasn’t accepting, but Connor knew she understood the why, as she lived a strain of his thought process almost daily. As gamblers it was the only difference between them. Gamblers may by a clan, but there are two distinct sects – the dreamers, call them optimists, and realists, or, to be more crude, pessimists. However, during the event they’re all dreamers, if the prize is still possible, that visualisation of success feeds red meat to the belief that they have the skill of foresight, and that it’s innate. This is augmented by elation at the prospect of circumventing the odds, luck, chance or any bogus self-serving supernatural concept that only truly matters as a means of absolution. Those experiences, essentially, is why, win or lose, they do it again and again. Managing expectations, and how much each gambler choses to do that, is always secondary and is left to before and after the fact.
But all realists like Corina wish they could gamble with the optimistic abandon that sees Connor bet on women’s UFC undercard bouts, even if he has minimal knowledge of them. Corina never strayed from her expertise – horse racing. She had a plan, a spread technique that minimised her chances of failure. Her punts were modest and measured. She was up £4700 this year, not as much as she would like, but she understood that making any kind of profit was a victory, itself an upsetting of the odds. Her highs weren’t as high, but the lows not as crushing. Seeing Connor being crushed was painful enough.
Being a gambler appears to be a lonely path, but the professional bond in Connor and Carina’s relationship isn’t rare. Walk past any bookies and you’ll see those familiar faces, with a forlorn enthusiasm, staring at screens, awaiting their fate. Gamblers, like anyone else, congregate in groups for therapy, where reassurance is guaranteed by the mass. This is part of the recovery process, this support pacifies personal failure, and being part of a tight group increases the odds of witnessing the exhilaration of success, which foments the motivation and courage to try again.
Even if the prospect of loneliness is far more daunting than enduring the dissatisfaction of incompatibility, perhaps I can suggest that being so perpetually proximate to Carina’s measured existence and deriving artificial courage from her method, a method he had no inclination to copy, was unhelpful for Connor. But I ask you, what’s worse? Consider this; this was once the blank page, now, that’s loneliness, it requires dwelling on morbidity, as there’s nothing between you and it. Avoidance of this can become destructive, either through indifference to the process, or when you realise it can never be another way.
But during engagement it’s where idealistic, outlandish or cataclysmic thoughts have complete freedom to roam and mushroom, and so something can appear. Gamblers have their own canvases upon placing a bet, but they can and must only envision its success. The variable ways it can be achieved are what leads them to it. This is the most serene and affirming part of the process, as during it they cannot fail.
It’s during the gambler’s void when ‘big’ ideas arrive. Many gamblers, and Connor is one of them, are programed to think of the biggest win possible during this phase, or the ultimate fix that would ensure it. In its extremes such ambition can lead to many unsavoury manifestations; crooked card games, poisoning horses, athletes taking performing enhancing drugs, or henchmen taking iron bars to an ice skater’s ankle.
This willing suspension of reality and morality makes fixing a professional football match seem easy. It was widely known in gambling circles that Connor’s chosen facilitator, let’s call him ‘the goalkeeper’, had sizeable debts from frequenting the dogtrack and gambling on horses.
‘Like you, he just can’t help himself.’
‘But he does it for a laugh, to unwind. I’m in it to fucking win it.’
‘Wouldn’t it be better…’
‘Fucking don’t…not now.’
‘Fucking don’t what? Will he be enough? Fair question.’
‘He’s in goal.’
‘Yeah, but if you had the ref and a few others…’
‘Look, we don’t have the money for that, he needs to let in five goals, the teams are evenly matched.’
‘They need to have at least five efforts on target. It’s a lower league game, winter, the pitch…’
‘…is a leveller, plus, it makes mistakes seem more realistic, right?’
‘Their manager likes to play passing football, if the pitch is knackered…’
‘It’s an enclosed ground, they haven’t played on it in ten days, there’s been no snow. None forecast.’
‘That’s another problem, he doesn’t want to arouse suspicions, right?’
‘Look, I get it, you’re better than me, year after year, I’m not denying it, but when it comes to football, I know what I’m doing. It’s where I’m strongest.’
Carina retreated to a reassuring silence which Connor thoroughly appreciated at this time. The bets hadn’t yet been placed, but through his resistance to compromise and whatever reason could be found in such circumstances, she knew that Connor had decided how he would assign his £20,000 reserve across various bets. All that Carina could offer, in the main, was moral support. She’d be his main emotional support, financial too, for a while, if it all backfired.
‘So, what are you thinking?’
‘I’ll put £1000 each on them winning both halves.’
‘I’ve got stakes of £1000 each on correct scores: 5-0, 5-1, 5-2. Great odds on all of them. Just can’t lose.’
‘What about changing them to four something results?’
‘Yeah, sure, but most of it’s going on them winning, and then winning by over 1.5 goals. Six bets, so I’ll spread them between three different firms.’
‘That’s a lot of money on a third division game’.
‘It’s borderline suspicious, I’ll grant you. I could spread it out more, but I want it going on the best odds possible.’
‘What’s his cut?’
‘He’s desperate if he’s only taking thirty.’
‘But he’s not taking any money up front.’
‘And he’s not putting any in. That lets him off the hook, if…’
‘…I know. I know.’
Carina waited in the living room. The television was turned off, now it was her who was pre-occupied, so much so that her bets for that day seemed wholly insignificant. All that could be heard was the sound of passing traffic from outside and the occasional blurting sound emanating from the downstairs toilet, where Connor was looking to reaffirm self-assurance by exorcising doubt from his gut. It was approaching half-one in the afternoon, and it was typical of an early afternoon in late January; predominantly overcast, that tinge of metallic blue hue of twilight loomed in omnipresence, as the sun, due to its meekness, was too ashamed to show itself and when it did too cowardly to stay and fight the ground frost that lingered from the day before.
They arrived at the ground twenty minutes before kick-off. The drizzle had started just after two and had darkened into a steady wet sleet. The pitch was muddy in both boxes, lightly saturated near the corner flags and only likely to get significantly worse if the rain continued to fall at this rate. Carina tried her best to offer periodic smiles, but Connor, who was silent throughout the journey to the ground, was now confined in a bespoke vacuum of pre-event torment, with cynicism refusing to acquiesce to his vision of post-traumatic euphoria.
By the time the teams had arrived on the pitch, the floodlights had banished the dark to a peripheral concern. The first twenty minutes elapsed without incident, before the goalkeeper’s side took the lead.
‘Fucking cunt, that’s one gone already.’
‘But you’re spread on them, you weren’t gonna win all of them.’
Connor’s mood shifted after two quick goals for the away team – a well worked header, which left the goalkeeper no chance, and a poor kick from the goalkeeper which left his own team exposed to a three on four which eventually proved costly. An unconvincing shot at goal rebounded off the defenders legs to an unmarked player, who dribbled it in over the corrugated mud and past the goalkeeper, who was still prone. It left Connor positively bullish at half time.
‘Nicely done from him on the second’ whispered Connor as he lent in to give Carina a robust peck. He was never more vital when he sensed he was on track to win, and she was never more attracted to him than in those moments.
His mood was flattened again as an equaliser went in, and it turned to a seething dismay as the next twenty minutes saw the game descend into a squalor of hacked clearances and midfield skirmishes, leaving the goalkeeper with little scope to influence proceedings. Worse yet Connor and Carina were reined in by being seated among the home fans. Carina saw the lines around his eyes and mouth tense, often a prelude to an explosion of vile exclamations.
He did explode after a corner kick was driven into the box, became wedged between the defender and attacker, and was stuck towards goal and deflected past the goalkeeper into the net by one of his defenders.
‘Fucking get in there!’
‘Still fifteen left!’
‘Yeah, fucking plenty of time! Fucking c’mon then!’
Those around Connor and Carina looked less than impressed, but they were too deflated by the goal and, huddled like Emperor Penguins, too tired and beaten from battling the wind and its daggered sleet to turn their sneers into anything more threatening.
Sadly for Connor, it was now the home side that looked threatening, as they pushed for an equaliser.
‘Just watch, they’re pushing on, so they’ll leave space on the counter.’
Carina nodded with encouragement and supported that gesture by robustly gripping his arm, partly to steal some of his warm and to offer him the warm of her encouragement in return, making sure to repeat it again as Connor looked her in the eye. She gripped him tighter after they equalised, a fixed facial grimace arrived and his eye lids began to flicker with a higher frequency. She recognised this combination too – dismay mixed with shame at the formation of self-loathing tears.
‘That’s my final score bets gone. And the margin of victory fucked and all. Fuck.’
‘There’s still time.’
‘Six minutes, two in six minutes. I don’t see it. They look fucked.’
‘Remember when you put fifty on Liverpool to win in the European Cup final, at half time, when they were three down.’
‘Yeah’ Connor replied sprightly.
‘This is nothing compared to that.’
And for a moment it seemed that way, a hopeful shot from distance that swerved slightly, aided by the wind, went through the goalkeeper to make it 4-3. That moment carried the ecstasy of relief at avoiding cataclysmic failure. It ascended like a bright white dove, shrouded by the cloud’s coal coloured smoke and spears of burning cold sleet, which reminded him that he was set to agonisingly elide success by the slimmest of margins. This resentment grew as stoppage time zipped away, with the away team effectively protecting their lead by keeping ball against the home side’s tiring legs. Carina had to hold Connor to prevent him from forcing over the hoarding in front of their seats. He was an attack dog, rabidly obsessed with a threat, but whose reach was encumbered by his leash. To compensate he gritted his teeth in between expletives asking the away team, protecting a slim lead, to ‘fucking push forwards’. He found a way emphasise his disgust by slamming the flat palm of his arm free of Carina’s clutches into the hoarding. The home stand had emptied significantly by the third minute of added time, and this abandonment had transmogrified itself into the desperation of the home team’s players as they flailed desperately after the ball. A shank from the goalkeeper straightened Connor’s body in anticipation, as it landed at an opposing player on the halfway line. He pushed the ball forwards into space, centrally, beyond the defence, enticing a teammate to chase it down and the goalkeeper out of his goal to contest the ball. The striker got there first only to direct his shot squarely in the face of the goalkeeper, and it dribbled out of play for a corner kick.
Connor slumped over the hoardings. Carina’s face was frozen with the anguish, as she began to realise what would be required of her in the coming days. The sudden gelatinousness of Connor’s body suggested he had reached a similar acceptance. It was a mixture of exhaustion at the ninety minutes, and how every shift within it had affected him and sent him through all the permutations of how his tomorrow would look and feel, and, worst of all, a reluctance to resume viewing of the game, as the agony of narrowly failing was not yet over. There was still less than a minute of stoppage time, the away team had a corner, all the goalkeeper needed to do was fumble the ball into the goal, or if that wasn’t possible, fell an opponent in the box, for the referee to see this and award the penalty, for it to be scored, and then after paying the goalkeeper his cut, Connor would come out ahead.
But the away side took it short, worked it into the corner, and the referee blew the final whistle.
© Niall Cullen (2015)