The well-known political fact that Jewish people like money and that the Scots are skinflints indicates how appropriate Jock Levine's ancestral inheritance is to his miserly being. His father, Axel, an Ashkenasi who came to England as a boy from the Ukraine, and his mother, Maggie, born in the kingdom of Fife, were responsible for his genetic make-up, a profligate act of indiscretion that by itself challenges the stereotype. Jock himself had no propensity whatsoever for profligacy, except in one fatal respect: he could not resist gambling on horses, on dog racing, on the lottery and, above all, on cards, or more precisely, poker. Otherwise, he was a hoarder who spent the bare necessity on clothing and shelter, resisting all blandishments to indulge personal whims and never dreaming of giving gifts or money to others, except under stress or compulsion. Charity should begin at home - not his, someone else's - he would say, sourly. He kept no pets, had four sons, nine grandchildren and two great-granddaughters, not one of whom ever received a card from him on birthdays or at Christmas, never mind presents. None of them visited or tried to get in touch by other means. He would complain, bitterly, that their only filial concern was to get their hands on his wealth when he died. To spite them, he refused to make a will, half-hoping they would conduct expensive lawsuits against each other after his death.
The one notable exception to his family connections was the youngest son, Pishy, now aged forty. His Lebanese mother gave him the name Pergasassy but since that was impossible for the rest of the Levines and everybody else in the vicinity of Commercial Road, Stepney, London, where the family grew up, he suffered a series of uncomplimentary nicknames, the least obnoxious being Pishy, which stuck. As a little, fat boy, he had a round, dusky face and wore spectacles across his moon-like eyes, hence the soppy appellation. Now a middle-aged bachelor, Pishy's features had not changed remarkably and neither had he very much, indifferent to unkindness from his peers when a boy and remaining unperturbed, it appeared, to insensitivity from fellow adults once he'd become a man. Unaccountably, Pishy maintained a high regard for his fellow citizens and kept faith with his father, never asking him for money, and not cutting himself off, as had the rest of the family. He lived on his own in an apartment above a surgery in which he practised chiropody. Every week he visited Jock, winter and summer, sitting in draughty, cold, unlit rooms, his old father rarely raising even a grunt when Pishy recounted the various days' adventures.
No one else attended the premises, except strictly on business. Jock Levine, a moneylender, called himself a "Financial Adviser". An astute businessman, he might have been a rich man, were it not for the gambling. Everything he did operated on the principle of increasing his cash capital. That was what the gambling was about, too, but there was some devil in his make-up that could not resist challenging the odds. He lived to gamble, to win, to have the world itself in the pot and take it home in his pocket, his very life at stake. No fool, he knew he could not sit at the gaming table unless he had chips to put down. So he had a careful rule, always to separate money making from money spending, including gambling. Keeping the profits as high as he could, he used them to make his bets, never touching the seed capital.
He owned the house and premises where he lived and worked, once a pub run by his father, Axel, and left to Jock, the only child. The clothes he wore were old, scruffy, mainly second-hand. The house, like other offices and buildings along the Commercial Road, looked as derelict and run-down as the rest but was, in fact, quite sturdy. The roof leaked, water coming in through a ceiling in an upstairs room where he kept a bucket to collect the drips, rather than pay for new slates. The place had not been decorated for years, oak panels in one room, a reminder of its former glory as a saloon bar. Bare electric light bulbs hung from lengths of twisted cable in some of the rooms, no lampshades. Jock hated electric light, almost as much as he hated taxis, which he never used, thanks to his London Transport free pass. The idea that a meter was running, secretly swallowing his money while he remained quiescent, was a kind of self-inflicted punishment akin to lying on a bed of nails. He'd screamed at his wives and children if they left lights on and even now preferred to greet Pishy in darkness, the only member of the family ever to step into the house in Jock's old age. They would sit in the gloom until the son would impatiently leap up to operate the switch on the wall.
When the Water Company installed meters, he was outraged at first until one of the officials explained that single persons were granted a special rebate and that a careful use of water would save him money. In fact, it turned out that his metered bills were less expensive than a standard charge. A Board official returned to check the meter for they couldn't believe he'd used so little. Not wasting a drop, he would never flush the loo after a pee, until bedtime, getting about six pisses a day for the price of one. Taking a weekly shower, on the day he'd wait until he was bursting so that he could urinate down the sink while the water flowed. If he could have built an outside privy to bury his dung he would have dug a hole in the earth, but by now his back yard was covered by too much concrete to allow the easy making of a latrine. On outings, he'd regularly use public conveniences, the Council's water cheaper than his own.
When Pishy joked that his father was a conscientious conservationist, Jock, not caring a fig for nature, would complain that it was wrong to have to pay anything at all for water since it fell freely from the sky. If the government could discover how to capture air and tax it, they would make that a commodity, too, he'd assert. Bottle banks, in particular, raised his ire. Sneering, he'd recall his childhood days when you could return empties to the off-licence and get a penny each for them, not give 'em away for nothing. In those far-off, good old times everything was "organic" and nearly everyone was poor, the maxim "waste not, want not" meaning something.
Money his elixir of life, he could not prevent it from draining away. Unfortunately, even the minimum of food, clothing and shelter, necessary to the most indigent of mortals, compelled him to open his purse and pay for the basic necessities. Then there were other expenses, like wives, children arising, which could distance the richest of the land from his wealth. Jock's mother had left his father when the boy was only five and he never saw her again, the husband not remarrying. The absence of feminine influence during his childhood may have left a permanent gap in his life that he forever tried to fill. In his youth, there had been lots of golden-eyed Jewish girls in Stepney but now they'd all gone to Finchley, Barnett and Golders Green. He'd seen the influx of migrants to the East End from Bangladesh, himself refusing to move away. They accepted him partly because he'd always been there, partly to use his services. A few came with gold to sell, others just to borrow sterling. Whatever the collateral, he always obliged, at the going rate, or a little higher. Sometimes the women would grumble and say, "You bad man, Jock," and snigger among themselves. In the main, he got on well with them all, especially the young women who eyed him speculatively. Pishy, with his dusky skin, was even a greater pull but would not be drawn by their wiles and remained a bachelor.
Jock had always had a weakness for women, especially young women, especially young women with plumpish parts. For example, he liked them fairly slim but with large breasts and distinctively rounded and protruding bottoms. Each of his three wives had been so physically shaped and each one had died relatively young. The first lady's death, tragically run over by a motor cyclist, had induced him to take out life insurance on his future wives. The second wife caught some mysterious disease, which confounded the doctors and turned out to be fatal. The third one, the Lebanese beauty, mother of Pishy, went home to visit her relatives and was killed by a terrorist bomb. After that, Jock gave up on women, although the insurance money brought him riches, all gambled away in poker games, and causing some malicious gossip among neighbours. Really, by the time the third Mrs Levine died, he'd had more than he could bear of wifely comforts. No matter how hard he'd tried to get them to economise each one would have made him bankrupt had he not kept a tight rein on family income.
Not only did they spend money on unnecessary items, like bits of cheap jewellery for themselves and toys for the children, each one turned out to be idle to the point of staying in bed all day, and in the case of the Lebanese girl filling herself with sherbet and making the sheets very sticky. At first, he hadn't minded at all and would occasionally shut the shop in the middle of the afternoon and spend a pleasant couple of hours in bed with his delicious spouse. His wives in turn becoming lazy, he half realised was the product of his own uxoriousness, but he couldn't bring himself to forego the pleasures of slipping between grubby sheets with them in exchange for a cleaner and more orderly household. It didn't stop him from grumbling when they spent his money but youth and beauty eventually stole masculine power from his loins, leaving him an impecunious victim. The death of the last wife, after he'd reached fifty and Pishy was just ten, severed the tenuous links he'd maintained till then with living relationships. Henceforth, he would follow his bent, keep the cards close to his chest and play the game only for high stakes.
What he wanted to do most was join the table with Soutan, the best poker player in town, as his adversary. He'd told Meff this but waited in vain for an invitation. Everyone relied on Meff, an agent rather than a player, to get a chance to sit down with the king of the game. The go-between, a thin-lipped gentleman, softly spoken and with sly eyes, had a beguiling manner. It was said that Meff looked rather like the American film actor Karl Malden while Soutan looked like another actor, much darker and tougher than Malden, Mr Edward G Robinson. Jock didn't know this because he never went to the cinema or to any other kind of entertainment, money lending and marriage his major interests, besides poker. A few years previous, Pishy had advised him to go and see a film about the game of poker, called Cincinnati Kid, but the old miser said he never went to the flicks even when you could get in for ninepence, never mind the many pounds they wanted nowadays. He didn't believe anything he did would ever persuade Meff, "Shooter" in the film, to fix a match with Soutan, or "Lancey", the greatest American player to visit London, perhaps the greatest poker player in the world.
Jock's main trouble resided in his growing old, his life nearly over, he knew. In his bones, he felt certain he had not long to live and that brought a kind of desperation. Dying, provided it didn't bring too much pain, he could accept. But nothingness, the idea of a complete blank after death filled him with horror. For the first time in his eighty years on earth, he began to question the meaning of life, what had it been all about. Sure, he had gathered everything to himself, like a squirrel saving the nuts for winter. With the hoar of old age arriving, he asked himself what had he left in his pouch to ward off the pangs of spiritual hunger. Little more than some petty cash and a few spiders, he discovered. This scanning of the barren earth in search of meaning to sustain his last days of existence bore no fruit. In his heart, he realised he'd been a loan shark and a skinflint, but that's what he was like in his essential nature. Would God blame him because he'd tried to hang onto the few shekels coming his way? Can you blame a man for acting out his true being? The trouble was, he didn't sleep too well, had dreams where he heard voices calling to him, like in the Bible, which he'd once read with his dad, Axel. If God spoke to the Israelites, what was to stop him having a few words with Jock Levine, as well.
"Wake up, Jock. Wake up."
"What? Who's that? Who's speaking? I'll put the light on. Wait."
"No need to put the light on, Jock. Listen to my words and you'll see all you want to see."
"There's no money in this house. There's nothing worth taking. You're welcome to what there is. No need for violence. Where are you? I can't see you."
"Don't be afraid, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not a burglar, Jock. Or at any rate, not a burglar who comes in the night to steal your property."
"It's only my life you want, is it? All right, all right, if it's all over, it's all over. I'll come quietly."
"It's not all over yet, Jock. You have a little time left, time to reflect."
"Reflect? What's there to reflect about? I am what I am But who are you? You're not .. you're not Are you?"
"Listen carefully, Jock, you haven't much time. I want to help you but others might not."
"What you mean?"
"Some of your associates, like Meff, for example. Why do you think he shows any interest in a nobody like you?"
"Meff? He's just an agent. He fixes you up with the major players, always big stakes. I remember, don't I remember, when my last wife died, bless her, Lord, bless her. The insurance paid a packet because she died so young. I had ten thousand quid in my skyrocket. Meff got me a game with the big boys. We played for two days and two nights. At one point I was winning thirty thousand nicker. Think of that, thirty thousand smackeroos. Then I started losing, and lost the lot. But that's poker for you."
"You're a loser, Jock, always have been."
"No, I'm not. Excuse me, er God . You are God, aren't you? Look, God, you know better than anyone life's a bit of a gamble. You lose some and you win some. That's been my philosophy."
"Your philosophy! Don't make me laugh, Jock. Your philosophy has been to worship money. How do you reckon someone like me thinks about a state of affairs like that? I don't come into it, do I? You only think of yourself."
"Excuse me, but . I mean, you don't mind my asking again Who exactly are you? You don't exactly sound like .."
"What are you trying to say?"
"Well, it's the way you talk. Not posh, is it? I mean you sound like . well, like anyone else round 'ere. You know, excuse me, but just a bit common."
"Jock, ask yourself, how do you think I should speak. With an Oxford accent? Like a Geordie? In American English? Male or female voice? When I speak to people I always use the local vernacular so that I can make myself crystal clear. Got it?"
"All right, God, sorry, no offence intended. But why pick on me?"
"I'm not picking on you. I wanted us to have a little chat. I say again, you must reflect on your life while there's still time."
"What's there to reflect about?"
"That's for you to decide. For example, you could ask yourself why no member of your family ever comes to see you."
"They only want one thing from me, how much they can get."
"Why should that concern you?"
"It's not nice, is it? Children should love their parents."
"And shouldn't parents love their children?"
"Course! I mean, they always had enough to eat and drink. Anyway, Pishy still visits. He's always been a good boy, Pishy. Perhaps I haven't appreciated him enough. All right, next time he comes I'll give him a present. I'll give him a few quid so he can go out and enjoy 'imself."
"It's not only your children but my children, the whole human race. Do you help them? The poor and the weak?"
"What you getting at? I can't take on the whole world, can I?"
"How much of your income do you give away, Jock? For example, do you give anything to Oxfam?"
"Oxfam! What are you talking about, God? A bunch of do-gooders, they're all humanists, take big salaries, not even on your side. You're not on their Board of Directors, are you?"
"No, I'm not. Just a random example, that's all. You amuse me, you really do. I don't dislike you, Jock, but I could, you know, quite easily."
"No offence intended, God. I'm glad you got a sense of humour. But just look at people these days. They fill their guts with food till they're bloated. They spend thousands of pounds on fancy gear. Shopping, shopping, shopping, practically all they do. You can't accuse me of that, God. If everyone was like me no one would be overweight, everyone would walk and travel by public transport, we wouldn't use up the world's resources and there'd be enough for everyone. Am I right or am I right?"
"You're not all bad, Jock, even you. Life is given you to live abundantly and that means to love your fellow kind, to love all living things, to love the world that's been given you. Do you love your neighbours, Jock?"
"Yeah, why not. They're all right. I help 'em out when they need a few bob. Twenty per cent interest. You pay more than that on Visa. I'm no shyster."
"You bad man, Jock."
"What? What? Who said that? What woman said that?"
"You bad man, Jock."
"Who's there? Show yourself."
"There's no one here but me, Jock. I'm going now. I want you to think about what we've discussed. The next time we meet . if we do meet again . I will want you to give me a full account of yourself. You will not be judged harshly but do not expect too much, take nothing for granted. You are, I have to tell you, a borderline case. Remember, no one is rejected who asks for mercy and the gate of forgiveness is always open to the contrite."
"All right, God. All right. Fair enough, but can I ask one last, big favour?"
"Fix me up, God, for a game with Soutan. A last fling, winner take all."
"You don't know what you say. I warn you, Jock, when the last game is played make sure you play it well. Be careful, Jock, be careful of those who lead you into temptation. Goodbye."
When he woke up he found he'd nearly slid off the bed, the bottom sheet all rumpled, the pillows on the floor, his whole body sweating. What were those voices he'd heard while dreaming? Wasn't God at all, was his imagination playing him tricks. All the same, it had been a bit unnerving, accusations of avarice and of other deadly sins. He wasn't going to think about it. Yet he did think about it. He told Pishy he'd decided to make a will. He would leave him a third of what he owned, the rest to be divided up among family members. His son said he should make a will otherwise the tax people would take most of his possessions. As for himself, he said he didn't want his father's money since he had quite enough already. One thing he should do was make an effort to see some of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Would he like Pishy to try and arrange it? Jock said that would be nice and he would have a party for them all. While they spoke, Jock put all the lights on so that everything could be plainly seen and above board. He then told his youngest boy to go and buy the best meal he could from a nearby Indian restaurant, no expense spared, and they would eat supper together. A delighted Pishy did as he was told, although he'd arranged to eat out with a friend later. He realised some kind of important change had come over his father. The two men sat down to a hearty meal together and drank cans of beer, Jock insisting his son buy a couple of packs.
The dream of God's appearance had scared Jock. The accusations struck home. People had said things like that to him all his life but when God does it you'd better sit up and take notice. Of course, he didn't really believe he'd had a conversation with the Almighty but if it had been his imagination making the voices the words had hit home pretty convincingly. Better to play safe and change his habits rather than incur the wrath of Yahweh. Actually, he felt more content with himself after that little chat with Pishy. A good boy. And why not have the family round, the whole lot. He'd put on a spread, treat them all, make up for lost time while he'd still got a chance. Yes, the idea brought contentment. He visited a solicitor and made a will. Everything was spelled out, a third to Pishy, the remainder divided up fairly among the rest. The solicitor gave him a copy of the document, which he stuffed into his coat pocket. Then Meff visited and told him he'd fixed a game with Soutan.
The announcement that he was to play
a Big One with the man himself drove all other thoughts from
his mind. The venue, Meff explained, was in a hotel near Marble
Arch. He could arrive with cash in hand or have verifiable markers
that Soutan himself would have to see. There would be no point
in taking part without minimum stake money of twenty thousand,
preferably much more. The game was due to begin at nine in the
evening and would go on until it was over, winner take all. Jock
said he'd be there. Oh, yes, he'd be there all right. This is
what he'd dreamed about, a chance to risk all, win all and take
the lot. The very notion he might lose never once entered his
head. What a chance he'd been given in old age, his days numbered,
but here an opportunity to gain immortality. He'd beat Soutan
into the ground and pocket the loot!
Jock and Pishy arrived at the hotel by taxi, a doorman ushering them in. They took a lift to the top floor where a bald-headed gentleman in a dress suit greeted them. A very large, muscular man, the usher sweated profusely, a faint whiff of after-shave lotion coming off his plump jowls. Meff also came to greet them, quickly clearing their credentials with the bouncer. The room, a good-sized lounge, was well lit with a low hanging chandelier, beneath it a round mahogany table, highly polished. The assembled guests amounted to half a dozen well dressed gentlemen, three beautiful young women in low-cut dresses with split skirts, and one middle-aged madam with blonde hair and a crumpled, smiling face. Soutan, a short, burly fellow, conveyed in his presence someone you'd rather agree with than argue against. He had very bright eyes, thick droopy lips and a way of turning his head as if he might be about to first curse and then abandon you. Instead, he gave quite a charming impression, coming straight up to Jock and saying, "It's good to see you here, Mr Levine. I've heard a lot about you," the voice deep, accent American.
"This is my son, Pishy - everyone calls him that. I'm honoured to be here, Mr Soutan, to play a round of poker with you."
"Pishy, eh? That's a good name. If I had a son, that's what I'd call him, or 'Lord of the Flies', ha, ha, ha," Soutan said, turning to the others who all laughed with him. Then he left them, going to the elderly lady with the smiling, creased face, who was called Joan and who would deal the cards during the game. Two frilly-dressed waitresses arrived, carrying trays loaded with canapés and soft drinks. For a few minutes, the guests circulated, nibbled their titbits, chatted and sipped the drinks. Then the party began, seven men around the table, Joan ready, breaking open a new pack of cards, the game on its way. They played for two and a half hours and just after midnight, took a ten-minute break, sandwiches and drinks available. At half-past midnight, with a new pack of cards, the game recommenced.
Jock played well, not winning a great deal but neither losing much when the cards went against him. By three o'clock, he was a thousand pounds to the good, Soutan about the same, the others losing. By six, Jock still winning, two of the gentlemen fell out of the game. They broke for two hours at nine, ate breakfast, and started again at eleven. During the afternoon, Jock had a run of bad hands, Soutan playing some good cards, lady luck on his side. His earlier winnings wiped out, in the evening he began to make inroads into his capital, Soutan still having the edge. Then he won, taking a large pot with three nines, Soutan also with three of a kind, but only sixes. The sturdy little man allowed himself a glance of admiration at his adversary and said Jock had played that one well. It was the heart of the game, bluffing your opponent into thinking he'd got the edge when he really hadn't, and believing it was hopeless, best to throw in the hand, when it really wasn't.
After playing for more than twenty-four hours, by common consent they agreed to break for a snooze, for four hours in the early morning. The suite contained a number of rooms, including bedrooms to which some of the men and the beautiful women retired at various intervals. Jock and Pishy found a small enclave where they could lie down on comfortable settees. Before they began their rest, Pishy said, "Wouldn't it be best, Dad, to stop now while you're winning?"
"Out of the question," Jock said at once. "How do you think I'd look with these folk if I was to quit at this stage? In any case, the game's not over yet. It will be when I clean out Soutan. That's my aim. I know I can do it."
"How much longer will it take?" Pishy asked, wearily.
"Till it's finished, lad. Then we can go home."
"You don't look too well. Are you all right, father?"
"I'm fine. Bit tired but give me a couple of hours sleep and I'll be ready to take 'em all on."
The son observed him anxiously. He knew
nothing could be done to deter Jock but wished they could go
home. He was tired and his father didn't look well. The sockets
of his ashy eyes like pools of mud, his breathing laboured, the
slowness of his movements akin to a man about to have a stroke,
he feared what might happen if the game went on much longer.
Hardly able even to doze, he observed with relief that Jock appeared
to sleep well. At six, they ate a good breakfast, the old man
quite cheerful, having washed, put on a clean shirt and now looking
refreshed. Back to the table they returned, everyone in good
spirits, the game going ahead.
"The Kid's got him."
"The Kid's gonna win."
"Lancey's still the best."
"No, the Kid's got him beat this time."
Jock felt weak, almost fearing he was going to pass out. What were those voices he could hear? He looked at Pishy, nothing strange there except the concern the boy had for his foolish father. Ah, he loved his son for sticking by him. A good, last hand this, he'd win outright. Soutan seemed quite unperturbed. "How much you got to put in the pot, Jock?" he now asked.
"Everything I own," he replied.
"How much, precisely, is that?"
"Ten thousand in cash, and .." Jock fished in the inside pocket of his jacket and brought out the copy of the will he'd obtained from the solicitor forty-eight hours previously. "And there's this, all my property. You match this will for two hundred grand - that's its worth - and you can see me. I'll sign the will over to you. My son, Pishy, here will verify it, everything I possess is yours, if you win."
"Show me," Soutan said, smiling and accepting the parchment from Jock's outstretched hand. He glanced at it and then, looking across the table at Pishy asked, "Will you countersign this, as your father says?"
The son, shaking his head in despair, eyed his father desperately, and waited.
"Sign it"!" Jock commanded. "Sign it, Pishy. Go on, do it."
Slowly, the son took a pen from his pocket, at the same time accepting the document from Soutan, and then wrote his signature in the appointed place, his birthright given away for a mess of potage. The king of the game took back the will and then very calmly looked it over once again. "Now you sign it, as well, Jock. And just to make sure it's your signature can we have some DNA evidence? There's a lot at stake here."
"What do you mean, DNA evidence?" Jock asked. He looked very weary, ill, at the end of things.
"Your blood, just a spot, so that it's proof of who you are. Let me just prick your finger a little and then you make a mark. Will you allow that?" Soutan took an ivory cased penknife from his pocket, opened a thin blade, leaned across the table and gripped Jock's hand. The sharp blade poised, he asked, "Okay?" and when the ashen-faced Levine nodded he made a neat incision into the man's forefinger. The blood flowing immediately, Soutan pressed the digit onto the page next to the old man's signature. A small red blob with a tail appeared, like a serpent with a cobra's head, the stain drying quickly. Finally, this devil of a man placed his thumb on the wound causing the red mucus to gel at once
Soutan very deliberately counted out and then added a slush pile of counters to the pot in the middle of the table. "All right," he said, a touch of maliciousness in his voice, "Let's see what you've got, Jock."
Picking up his final card, Jock Levine turned it over to reveal a Jack of Hearts. A huge sigh of regret passed around the table, Joan the croupier saying, "That's tough luck, Jock, just two pairs." They stared then at Soutan expecting to see satisfaction in his face. Instead, there was rage there and unbridled anger, emotions he never showed at the table. He hesitated before revealing his last card. He needed just a heart to win, any kind of a heart would beat Jock's two pairs and a six of hearts would clinch the game in style. Why then did the master hesitate? He seemed confused.
"You should have had another queen," he said aloud, almost a rebuff for Jock, somehow wanting him to have the edge. "There's something wrong here." He picked up his fifth card, turning it as he did so. On the table, he placed a queen, but not of hearts. Jock had won, against the odds. But all was not well with him for he rose from the chair, groaning at first, soon collapsing. While the others gathered around, Soutan left, Meff alongside. Joan stayed to comfort the old man whose life was clearly ebbing away. A doctor sent for, time running out fast, Pishy kneeled beside the settee on which they'd settled his father, eyes full of tears.
"Don't cry," Jock said. "I did it. I beat him. God switched the cards. I knew he would," and then he died.
In the family, when Pishy reported back, they discussed for a long time these last words of the old man and decided he must have seen the film Cincinnati Kid after all, otherwise how would he have known to thank God for changing the ending. Pishy thought otherwise but said nothing. It was a divine joke, he decided, God showing he had a sense of humour. After all, that represented one way of getting to heaven, even for sinners like Jock Levine, by making the Good Lord laugh occasionally at the manner in which poor mortals play out the hand they're given.