It must be near sunset because the only thing visible from one of the two windows of my Broadway studio apartment—Broadway, George St., Sydney, i.e.—is the west-facing wall of the Matthew Talbot Hostel for Homeless Gentlemen, and it is now completely in the shade.
Also, I am hanging out for a beer, not having had one since breakfast, my bar fridge, which is located in the kitchen, beer-wise, being Mother Hubbard's cupboard. But very soon. Merlin will be here.
Merlin is my best mate, and he is on his way here this very minute for our weekly poker game, bearing with him, a slab of life-preserving, cold cans of VB.
But the first to arrive is, as usual, my cousin Benny, whose arms are empty of any life-saving liquids as he lets himself in, banging a chair and rocking the blanket-covered card table as he does so.
His beady eyes are fixed on my bar fridge in the kitchen as he warmly greets me. "Merlin not here yet?", his x-ray eyes revealing the beerlessness of the fridge, and his pointed tongue licking his desiccated and disappointed lips.
Since, if Merlin is here, the only place where he will not be visible from my only door, is the bathroom, access to which is through the kitchen, and which is two square metres in area, and whose door is presently open, I take the question to be rhetorical. And since Benny always makes it a point to be here ahead of Merlin, I decline to answer, except to say: "How are you today, cousin Benny?"
Benny answers: "Dry as a Salvo's bar fridge. I tried to pick up some beer on the way, but couldn't get any."
I am always surprised at how someone who likes drinking beer as much as does my cousin Benny, has never found out how one goes about buying some. So, purely out of curiosity, I enquire of Benny, has every pub and liquor outlet between his place and mine, run out of every brand of beer, or are they all closed? To which he replies in the affirmative. Now this would usually cause me more than some disquiet and anxiety, except that Merlin is such a resourceful bloke as will find the only pub in Sydney that is open and with some beer on the shelves.
Installed in his usual chair at the card table, Benny again enquires: "So Merlin's not here yet?"
And I then say to Benny: "Benny, if our good friend Merlin is here in this room, not only would we be able to see him, but as a result of his benevolence, we would be holding, each of us, instead of this pointless and futile discussion, a cold can of beer."
The reason why Benny is always first to arrive for our weekly card game is so that he can secure his favourite chair, which faces my other window, and such has been his practice for longer than I can recall.
Now the only thing visible through this window is the same wall of the Matthew Talbot that I have already described, and therefore, the odds are very long indeed against Benny's catching sight of a beautiful lady at her daily ablutions, or of a honeymoon couple resolutely working their way through the Karma Sutra’s extended repertoire. And since Benny seems to have more good fortune at the poker table than is justified by his grasp of the game, one day, while contemplating going on the wagon, at least until Merlin arrives, I am doing some serious wondering about is there some connection between the aspect from Benny's chair and his anomalous roll of luck?
So, I am sitting down in Benny's favourite position, and I look up and what do I see apart from my window, but my shaving mirror, which hangs to the left of the window that I had assumed to be the feature that draws Benny like a magnet. My suspicions aroused, I wonder could it be something that Benny sees in that mirror during a game of poker, that could bring him such consistent luck. So I go get my bar stool from my kitchen, and I set it on the chair in such an attitude that the upturned legs terminate at about the position as would be the close-to-the-chest cards of the most cautious of poker players. I sit again in Benny's chair, and I raise my eyes. Even to an intellect such as that of Benny, a ten, jack, queen, king and ace in mirror image, would read exactly like an ace-high straight.
Thereafter, after each game, when Benny is winning hands in numbers inversely proportional to his knowledge of the odds of filling a full hand or a routine flush, I resolve to remove the mirror. But, when rehearsing this manoeuvre and sitting in Benny's chair and staring at the perfect rectangle of clean, new wall-paper then revealed, I decide that I will not be able to face Benny's look of hurt and recrimination.
Furthermore, it would mean confronting Benny with his duplicity, which would be less than the courtesy expected of a perfect host, and which would then cause Benny, being the sort of bloke he is, to give up attending a game where he has only an even chance of winning, and what is furthermore, the sort of person that is Benny might let the word get around that I had been hosting a less than clean poker game.
In any case, the chair under the mirror has always been occupied by Hardluck Harry, whose luck is not in the least very hard, except when playing poker with Benny, and who, it is widely known, can afford to lose quite a few hands of poker before he is lining up for the soup de jour at the Matthew Talbot.
It is the unwritten code of the serious card player to never enquire regarding the size of the purse that a fellow player has brought to the table, just as one would never speculate aloud as to his annual income. But due to Hardluck Harry's being sole heir to a chain of all-night, therapeutic, cash-only, massage parlours, it is safe to assume that his take-home pay is slightly more than considerable. Also, it is widely appreciated that Hardluck Harry is as mean as catshit, and also the sort of bloke that if he has a full bladder and you happen to be on fire, he wants to know what's in it for him before he points it in your direction. Another less-than-admirable practice of Hardluck Harry is that he will pick up anything that is lying around loose, and some things that are nailed down tight. One time when Hardluck Harry is on an ocean liner cruise, before they let him out of Egypt, they send out somebody to count the pyramids.
So, taking Hardluck Harry's character into account, and conceding that Benny will always be looking out to fleece somebody, I figure that it might as well be Hardluck Harry. Right on schedule, Merlin arrives, and Benny holds the table steady as Merlin negotiates the promised carton of beer around the door and the adjacent chair. Benny, as his sole contribution, neatly stacks the chilled-to-perfection cans in the bar fridge as I greet my mate Merlin.
Clutching one twenty-fourth of Merlin's bounty, Benny regains his chair just as the door again opens and the furniture is unceremoniously rearranged by Slim Steve’s difficult entrance into the crowding room. As you accurately divine, Steve is slim like Hardluck Harry is generous with his cash, and is also not too bad at drinking other folks' beer, for which, as his corpulence attests, he has a remarkable capacity. Tonight, he struggles in under the weight of two whole stubbies, which he ostentatiously bears to my bar fridge, his eyes then caressing the glittering iridescent green containers of lager therein, before he installs his contribution out of sight, behind them. Affronted by this display of parsimony, Benny, whose can is by now empty, darts to the fridge, extracts Steve's two stubbies, untwists one, and with a largesse normally foreign to his nature, offers the other to me.
As I untwist its cap, I say to Steve as follows: "Steve, I do hope that you did not break an arm carrying all this beer up the stairs." And Steve, who has a hide to match his avoirdupois, rejoins thus: "You get your lift fixed and I'll bring in six slabs of the best boutique beer that can be bought." Which is a very safe offer, my landlord being as likely to have the lift repaired as is Hardluck Harry to give away his entire fortune to the Salvation Army.
So the four of us; Merlin, Slim Steve, myself and Benny, are drinking each other's beer and discussing foreign affairs, the market and the state of the economy, while we wait for Hardluck Harry and his stake to show up. But it is getting late and we are beginning to think that maybe Hardluck Harry and his stake are not showing, and perhaps we will start the game regardless. This is causing Benny considerable anxiety, depending as he does, on Hardluck Harry for the greater part of his weekly groceries, to say nothing of the odd can or bottle of beer if only he could figure out how to buy some.
Each time that I declare that we are waiting for Hardluck Harry no longer, Benny urges us to wait, as he thinks that at this moment he hears Hardluck Harry's well-shod footsteps on the stairs.
When we three insist that we can wait no longer and I commence to shuffle the deck, Benny, now quite distraught, prepares himself for the terrifying challenge of playing poker, equipped with nothing but luck and skill.
But then, to my horror and Benny's delight, Merlin elects to restore the milk crate and cushion to my lounge suite, and sit in Hardluck Harry's now redundant chair. My tactful remonstrations fall on deaf ears as Steve claims more elbow room by moving his chair into Merlin's abandoned space, and the four of us are arranged at uniform intervals around the blanket-shrouded table—Steve sitting opposite to myself, and Merlin with the shaving mirror behind his right shoulder and Benny opposite him.
Benny can hardly believe his restored good fortune as we cut for the deal and the first hand is dealt by Steve. With one of everything in my hand, I do not even draw, and Steve folds after drawing one, leaving Benny and Merlin to fight it out, each raising the other as if they both hold five aces.
Since Benny knows already what cards Merlin is playing and is raising with such vigour, I reckon that Merlin is about to be taken to the cleaners and I am hoping that he has a poor hand and will minimise the damage by either looking at Benny, or better still, folding. But Merlin's air of confidence makes me think that he is holding some pretty fancy paper, although obviously, not as fancy as Benny's. As the host, and since I am already out, I feel entitled—with Merlin's consent of course—to peek at his cards, which I am then doing and wishing I am never born. Merlin is the proud owner of three aces, which normally can be considered a reasonable hand in five card draw, except for when Benny has already seen it and is betting like a millionaire. And given Merlin's tenacity, it is good enough to make him raise Benny all night unless he suddenly drops dead.
But eventually, the combination of Benny's grinning and my under-the-table shin kicking, undermine Merlin's confidence. So he matches the last bet, takes a look at Benny's full house, and without rancour, which is always Merlin's style, he concedes defeat without having to disclose his three aces.
Now feeling responsible for Merlin's loss, I resolve to put a stop to the carnage. But to simply remove the shaving mirror will not only expose Benny's chicanery, but will be an admission of my complicity, and will eventually cause speculation as to whether I take ten percent of Benny.
As Benny eagerly shuffles the cards for another massacre, I announce to him "Deal me out Benny, I need a shave."
The stunned silence from Merlin and Steve tells me that they are trying to think what it is that I just said that sounds like I am about to shave my face, and Benny fumbles the shuffle and gasps such astonishment as I am never before seeing, signifying that he alone appreciates the underlying design of my intentions.
The other two, justifiably in view of the extended delay in starting the game, want to know why I cannot wait until morning to take a shave, while Benny, who now sees his new prey slipping through his fingers, simply exhorts me to grow a beard, in which, he claims, I will look quite distinguished.
Distinguished or not, I am resolute, and while I assemble hot water and shaving tackle, Benny is looking at me more than somewhat miffed, unable to complain any further in case it tips off the punters to the significance of the mirror in his hand-winning strategy, and that he is not strictly on the up and up. So, to achieve one more hand before his view of Merlin's cards is extinguished by my occupancy of the shaving mirror, Benny is now dealing those cards faster than I am ever seeing anybody deal a round of poker.
In spite of Benny's urgent pleas for Merlin to pick up his hand and look at it, Merlin's cards lie face-down on the blanket while he stares in mystification at my preparations, and Benny sags dejectedly in his chair as I adopt my shaving crouch—the only available nail on which to hang the mirror being so low as to indicate that the previous tenant of my Broadway apartment was either a narcissistic child, or a clean-shaven dwarf.
As I apply the thick, creamy lather to my face with my imitation badger bristle brush, Merlin takes up his cards, and in the mirror I watch Benny and I bob and weave to counter each of his neck-stretches as he tries to catch one final glimpse of Merlin's hand.
Now normally, while going about my personal toilet, I am fastidiously tidy. But on this occasion, by the completion of my shave, the surface of the mirror is almost fully obscured by accidental—albeit, some with artful brush strokes—splashes of shaving lather, whose affect is not lost on Benny as he studies his cards and grapples with the novel concept of winning a hand of poker by fair and square means.
Finally, at ease with my conscience and also very clean-shaven, I sit down as an observer of the current hand, which now will be played according to the Marquis of Queensberry rules and also those of Hoyle.
Merlin, it is widely known, is never an ear-basher and communicates mostly by gestures and facial expressions. And also being an ingenuous bloke, incapable of any guile, and whose every gesture and facial expression reveal his innermost feelings, he is not ideally designed for playing poker. So by his glum visage, I can already tell before I take a peek—maintaining my privileged observer status—that except for a pair of twos, he has a handful of rubbish.
Then I and the other punters watching Merlin draw three cards, can clearly read by his eloquent expression that he has not improved that much. So we are surprised when he opens the bidding with the kind of bet usually associated with four aces, and which immediately squeezes out the cautious Steve. But Benny, who is taking Merlin's face at face-value and is thinking that he can easily win this hand without outside help, raises Merlin, it being clear to all who know him, that Merlin must be bluffing. Now as you know, a bluffer cannot look, nor can afford to be looked at, so Merlin has only two options, which are either to raise the last bet by an intimidating sum, or to throw in his hand and humiliate himself as a called and defeated bluffer. Merlin's usual humility is not evident today as, in a show of bravado, he doubles Benny's bet, which is exactly what Benny is praying for.
Even though Benny is thinking he has Merlin on the ropes, lacking his customary shaving mirror-inspired confidence he plays it safe and merely matches Merlin's bet, which is exactly what Merlin was not praying for, and so. Merlin has to display his pitiful pair of twos—easily beaten by Benny's three tens—and watch Benny's greedy hands encircle the pot and muster it to his side of the table.
I am so peeved at Merlin's recklessness that I want to wipe the shaving lather from the mirror and throw him to the wolves. But watching Benny, as his gloating fingers caress his new pile of winnings, tempers my chagrin, and I signal that I will sit in for this next hand, in which I will be dealer, and which is eagerly anticipated by Benny the poker maestro. As Merlin one by one takes up his cards, Benny is more interested in Merlin's reactions than he is in his own hand, and we all of us watch in fascination as Merlin's face lengthens with each card. Then Benny's delight is boundless as Merlin's hand movements indicate that he intends to hold one card and draw four. As anybody who plays poker will soon tell you, only your aunty holds one card, hoping to improve by drawing four, because the odds against your achieving a respectable hand in this fashion, are longer than from here to Mars.
But Merlin, who is not quite yet tabling his discards and is therefore not yet committed, seems to reconsider, and then, after much lip-biting, he decides to hold onto the four cards that he was about to discard, and draw one.
His transparent expressions aside, Merlin is known as a cool and calculating player with a good head for assessing the odds of filling a winning hand, so this manoeuvre puzzles Benny more than somewhat. If Merlin was about to discard four cards, reasons Benny, they must be rubbish, and at best, four parts of an inside straight. They could never include a pair, nor a three, nor be four parts of a flush. But, since he then retained those same four cards, the only possibility is that drawing to an inside straight is exactly what Merlin is doing, and as any punter with even a rudimentary grasp of five card draw poker will say to you, you are never ever filling an inside straight.
As Merlin takes his drawn card to the light, he probably is thinking that he is wearing his best poker face, and giving away nothing. But his imperceptible—except to the finely-tuned Benny—sag of disappointment, makes the cocky Benny wonder why he is ever thinking that he needs my shaving mirror in the first place.
By now the world knows that Merlin has a handful of rubbish, and to add to his problems, his is the first bid. So, he has to either immediately fold, or do a bluff to the death. Much to the delight of Benny, Merlin does the latter, forcing out Steve who must by now be wondering whether there are any halfway decent cards in this deck.
With relish, Benny doubles Merlin's bet, which, since I would need at least a full house to stay in such a high-priced game, squeezes me right out of the race.
Now the arch-rivals, Benny and Merlin face each other across the blanket, and Benny, reviewing Merlin's recent history as an unconvincing bluffer, is already counting the money. So when Merlin, his sour face still reflecting his worse-than-poor-hand, doubles the last bet, Benny decides that there is a Santa Claus, and vigorously, and also with some élan, he doubles Merlin's bid.
With again no option but to either tap the canvas or bluff on, Merlin recklessly pushes more good currency after bad into the centre. Benny, convinced and certain that Merlin can be holding nothing more superior than one pair of anything, and still having a pile big enough to prove it, turns up the heat by raising the same again.
As he sees that Benny's pile is now almost all transferred to the centre of the table, Merlin’s heretofore glum face relaxes into an at-least-three-of-a-kind type expression, which has a signal affect on Benny, who is now thinking that in spite of what he thought previously, the shaving mirror would now not be a such a bad asset, after all. Not that it would do him much good, because at this juncture, Merlin's cards are face-down on the table, Merlin having signalled that the pressure of the game—to say nothing of the several cans of VB—has been transferred to his bladder, and to allow comfortable consideration of his next gambit, he must take temporary leave, confident that, in this gentlemen's game, the secret of his hand will remain face-down and intact during his absence.
Benny is clinging to the hope that the few coins in view is the last of Merlin's cash, and that Merlin will be unable to match the last bet and consequently, will have to fold. But, as he regains his chair, Merlin's hand slides into his pocket and withdraws a wallet from which he extracts a wad with which you could choke the whole field of the previous Melbourne Cup, and which evokes a gasp of grudging admiration from Benny, whose mouth is hanging open as Merlin peels off paper sufficient to raise Benny by the same amount again. By this stage, I am hoping that to take it this far, his previous bluffing debacle notwithstanding, Merlin must be holding onto some quality cardboard after all, a possibility that has not escaped Benny, who is now probably considering throwing in the towel. But he must also be thinking that if he does not call, he will never know exactly how fancy is Merlin's cards, and even though it is the first time that he has had to pay for the privilege, he signals, by counting out sufficient only to cover Merlin's last raise, that he will look at Merlin's hand. So Benny pushes it into the centre and holds his breath as Merlin reaches for his face-down cards.
By now, the table is covered with cards and coins and notes. So to make some space for Merlin’s dramatic unveiling, I gather up the discards and the rest of the deck. Merlin smiles enigmatically, pauses for effect, turns over his cards, and clean takes the wind out of Benny, with four beautiful bullets.
Now the deck of cards with which we are playing and with which we have had many a game, is my own. Yet I never knew until this moment, that it contains so many aces, having just noticed the ace of diamonds among Steve's discards, and therefore hoping that Steve's short-term memory is not too hot, and somehow knowing that were I to go through the rest of the deck, I might discover another three aces closely resembling the ones in Merlin's hand, which would be a big relief, because it would mean that there could be no aces in Benny's as-yet- undisclosed hand, because if there were even one, Benny might be wondering whether with Merlin, all is kosher. Also, I am silently wishing that if Merlin is bringing his own cards into the game, he would consider this possibility, and not allow himself to be looked at until he knows the precise disposition of every bona fide ace in the game.
Benny is still regarding with stark disbelief, those four aces, and I am fearful that if he regards too hard and too long, he might regard something about these aces that is not too genuine. So I gather up all of the cards, and shuffle, keeping a tight grip as I do so, in case those 4 aces decide to jump out of the deck and land in Merlin's lap. But since Merlin seems to be so relaxed about things, I concentrate on the next problem, which is how to covertly recover four redundant cards that I am sure to find on the floor around Merlin's feet. But a casual glance reveals nothing, which is a relief bigger than I can describe, but which does leave me puzzled, more than somewhat.
Next day, when I encounter Benny in the soup de jour queue, he glumly informs me that so recently having come back from the cleaners, he might be unable to attend the next game, it being not too likely that he could assemble a respectable stake in time. And my faith in poetic justice and human nature is reinforced when, on the same day, Merlin presents me with two brand-new decks of cards and a suggestion that I get rid of my old deck which must be close to worn out by now.
I do not ask and he does not volunteer, about the fate of the four cards now depleting my old, worn-out deck. But a day later, when insufficient water is being issued by my toilet cistern, I discover inside it, floating face-up, three bloated poker cards, plus another lodged underneath the outlet valve, the total of which never remotely resemble four parts of any straight—inside or otherwise.
I am still pondering the significance of this, when Merlin makes me a gift of a handsome and elegant, shaving mirror, mounted on its own stand of pure mahogany, with which I can now do all my shaving in the privacy of my two square metre bathroom, where heretofore no mirror could be mounted. While I am admiring it, he produces a claw hammer, with which he extracts the nail supporting my erstwhile mirror, which, he informs me with a perfect poker face, will never be missed.