The House Always Wins by Joe Bedford (2nd place Jan20)

The banknotes were transported in several large cases to the Bank of England. From them, a dozen batches were picked for inspection. Staff in rubber gloves examined the print, the watermark and the motion thread. From one inspector, the Chief Cashier took a note and held it idly up to the light.

A genuine, newly-printed £50 note: the ink freshly-pink, the Queen’s face staring out from light cotton, the Cashier’s signature, the crest of the Bank of England.

She replaced the note and walked on. It was re-bundled, delivered to a bank and loaded into a cash machine. When the note was withdrawn, it was hustled quickly into a wallet and shoved into the jacket pocket of an expensive suit. The suit, the wallet and its owner jumped onto a bus.

The money, crisp and anticipant, sped into circulation.

*

Khalid was broke and in desperate need of investment, but he knew that if anyone at the champagne mixer caught wind of that, his chances were slim. His course of action was instinctual – posture and denial.

He approached the businessmen in the centre of the room: bankers from Hong Kong. He met them with low bows. As they spoke, he sensed immediately that they could tell his laughter was false and that he needed something from them. He was exposed. His conquest wavered. Waiters drifted around offering free drinks. Khalid saw opportunity.

A waiter passed with a tray. Khalid stopped him with a prod against his chest. With the young man frozen on the spot, Khalid took the glasses of champagne one at a time and handed them out amongst the businessmen. Then, leaving the last glass on the tray, he took the £50 note slowly out of his wallet and stuffed it conspicuously into the waiter’s jacket.

When he turned back to the group, four glasses were raised towards him.

Then, he began his pitch.

*

The students in the kitchen had almost run out of booze. When volunteers for the shops were called for, Ramesh waited for Ayanna to lift her hand and then leapt off his chair to follow. Two other boys ambled with them to the door. They set off together. Ramesh sidled up to Ayanna.

Most of the beautiful women he knew were medical students with no free time. Since meeting Ayanna, Ramesh had spent most of his time trying to decide whether he stood a chance with her or not. She was incredibly beautiful and spoke five languages. He veered on the side of not.

He made jokes about his Indian heritage on the way to the shops. She laughed, but the two boys ahead of them seemed to be having more fun. As the boys entered the shop, Ramesh pointed Ayanna to the shop next door. It was cheaper. She seemed happy. They gathered up an armful of tonics and asked for two bottles of gin. With no idea whether he was being gentlemanly, or patronising, or cloying, Ramesh pushed her debit card away and reached into his pocket. He slid the £50 tip he’d received at work across the counter.

He didn’t dare look at her face, but he hoped, secretly, that she was smiling.

*

No one seemed more pleased with the new facade on Kwasi’s AfrikMart Global UK than the owner. Kwasi was so pleased that after the last screw was in place, he took the labourers around the merits of every single corner of the shop’s new signage, even the parts which had not been done to his specifications. He gave each worker a free beer to keep them there while he spoke, and made sure everybody faced towards the sign. As they finished up, he pointed out the shop next door.

The sign above Convenience Xchange now looked tacky and rotten. The wood had splintered at the edges and the paint was cracked. The photographs of fruit and vegetables by the entrance were faded and ugly.

Kwasi explained how easy it would be now to defeat his neighbour – ‘Kinaade. Nigerian bastard.’ The new sign, with the glamour of its glass and lighting, would surely mean the end of Convenience Xchange. The end of their rivalry. His neighbour Kinaade, leaning on the doorframe, heard everything.

Kwasi took the labourers’ bottles and paid the foreman in £50 notes from the till. When they’d left, he took one more look at his sign, then at the shop next door and laughed.

The street was his.

*

In Nicosia, Osman had been a musician. Since living in the UK, he had never become accustomed to the life of a workman. The bosses he found cruel, his colleagues dull. The work itself was so monotonous that he finished every day tired but still burning with impatience. At the bookies on payday, he struggled to find a distraction.

Nobody had bet on Sheffield to win and it was unlikely that anyone would. By the second half, the odds had risen to 18–1. But Osman was bored, utterly bored, and still relatively sober.

With his workmates loafing on the bench, he approached the desk with a £50 note – one day’s wage. Sheffield to win. One of the labourers overheard him, and he daydreamed through their chiding. He had planned to be a professional folk singer, like his father, but that had been put indefinitely on hold. If he won on Sheffield, that would give him the money for equipment, a demo, a chance to fly back to Cyprus. The dreams at least were not mundane. Their intangibility kept them somehow alive.

The bookie took the £50 and replaced it with a paper slip.

In front of the screen, Osman held the slip tightly, let the background noise fade, and hummed ‘Come on Sheffield, Come on Sheffield’ to a traditional Cypriot tune.

*

The street, empty an hour, suddenly clattered with footsteps. A voice mumbled in Afghan Persian – Abdur Zahir, loud and incoherent. Someone told him to ‘Shut it’ from a low window. He held his winnings under his shirt. He called back in English: ‘Beginner’s luck!’

A friend had told him there was a bar on this street with no windows, where the barmaids fucked the customers for money. He hadn’t been able to afford a drink for a month. He hadn’t slept in the same bed as his wife for a year. He tried to blot out the faces of his children as he wandered: Ashraf ten, Vida just six.

He stopped at the edge of a building and looked up. Images of women and drink rose in front of him. He ascended the stairs heavily as if his winnings wore him down. At the top of the stairs, he found a door with a board over the window. He knocked hard. A woman answered. He fell inside.

Abdur Zahir and his wife cried together openly on the floor. They held onto each other’s clothes and Abdur let the £50 notes spill out. They cried loudly, unquestioningly, and kneaded their shirts in their fists. Ashraf and Vida watched from a doorway.

Their family would make the rent.

*

The accountant seemed unable to explain to his client why the unpaid tax would cause her to foreclose on her mortgage. The landlady had let several flats already, and her father had told her there would ‘be no problems’.

The accountant left her in her dining room, undecipherable documents scattered on the table. Her name was on every one. She felt sick when she saw it. Shepa Begum – a failure. Shepa Begum – she’d tried to conquer the system. Shepa Begum had gambled and lost.

She walked to her cabinet and took out a whole drawer. Inside, duplicates of the Queen’s face smothered each other in a heap. She stuffed the notes into a carrier bag, bundled the documents into another. She cleared a space on the table and thought about what her father would say when he returned from Lahore.

It was a few hours till the banked opened. She started counting.

*

It was not the first time someone had brought in thousands of pounds in a carrier bag. The cashier took it unblinkingly and tipped it out on the desk.

He separated the notes into four piles. Then, he placed the fives into the money-counter, let them flutter through, replaced them with the tens, the twenties, the fifties. The batch of fifties was largest, almost £20,000. These were placed separately in a large sealable bag, dropped with the others into a cotton sack and taken to the vault.

Some of the fifties would be returned to the Bank of England for fraud inspection. The rest of them would rejoin the polymer notes in the cash machines.

Eventually, one of them, a few of them perhaps, would end up back in the Chief Cashier’s hand. She might lift one up to the light, glance fleetingly at her own signature on the front and then say ‘Two more!’ before slamming it finally on the bar.

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