By Tom Anderson
Runner-up of the Michaelmas Term 2022 ORB short fiction prize judged by Natasha Brown.
In April of 1937 the French Zoologist Auguste Cuvier began adumbrating his plan to enhance and develop the neural pathways between the primary visual cortex and the posterior parietal cortex, in the Hominidae genus. Specifically, he would work with the chimpanzees residing in the Jardin des Plantes, with the aim of developing their ability to represent what they perceive. In layman’s terms, he was teaching
apes to draw.
Cuvier was a wholeheartedly winsome man and he wanted to understand how the animals were thinking. He believed that by providing them with a method of communication it would lead to their liberation. It was to be his life’s work.
Unfortunately, through the potent combination of a general lack of interest and the
Nazi occupation of France, Cuvier’s project was halted for several years. During this hiatus he relocated to the countryside, where he threw the occasional pebble at anything that seemed vaguely German. He returned to Paris in 1945 and by 1953 he had finally garnered a picture from one of his apes. However, legend has it that upon viewing the picture he burst into tears before promptly immolating himself in the South-Asian section of the zoo. The chimpanzee had sketched the bars of his cage.
The reason that I like to begin with this story is because I feel that it aligns contiguously with my own. I can empathise with both the suicidal savant, and the immured marsupial. I can understand what it is like to dedicate oneself entirely to a project and for that same project to be one’s downfall. I also know how it all ends.
I began gambling at the age of fourteen, and now, at the age of forty-seven, I have skilfully and expeditiously burnt through all my money. You may think this an over-estimation, but by all my money, I mean all that I have ever earned through work, my moderate inheritance, two divorce settlements, a small business loan, and
several IOU’s. I have indulged in a Cuvier-esque conflagration and am left with only an ashen penury that stares back at me from the motel mirror. You see, over thirty-three years, I have sketched the crumbly black bars of my own cage.
Now, I can sense that you still feel unconvinced. I feel that you don’t want to play with me, which is, I will admit, revealing of an acute disposition. See, rather than hindering me in my pursuit of fellow players, my indigency encouraged wider and wilder stakes. It was as if I represented an easy win, my outward appearance somehow acting as a correlative for my inwardly infelicitous disposition. I would walk into a casino, and they would measure my nothingness. Those empty eyes and blue, glaucous faces, waxy from the sullen light of slot-machines, would seize me like a free scratch-card and gamble with me throughout the night. I typically won those games. I had nothing to lose, and they believed that they had everything to gain. I would often tell them of Cuvier’s story, try to impress upon them its significance. I was met with blocked ears and higher stakes. They were cocooned within the lime-coloured, velvet bower of betting: they were happy there. It was only when they emerged into the antemeridian gloam of another predetermined day that they realised all had been lost many years ago.
I apologise if this has taken on a rather sombre tone. I do not wish to suggest that you are anything at all like these people. Indeed, I would hasten to add that I do not think that you are like them at all. I wanted to tell you about them in the first place to highlight the esteem within which I view you. See, I would not offer what I am offering to just anyone, least of all to one of those slot-swilling junkies. Nevertheless, I can still sense your hesitancy. You probably suspect that there is a catch, or that I will want something from this deal other than what I have already outlined. If that is the case, which I suspect it is, let me tell you a story that I hope will ameliorate your apprehension. Let me prove to you that I am driven not by avarice, but by addiction.
Four years ago, I had a child with my second wife. A beautiful baby girl. We called her Lily, and for several years the three of us were enviously happy together. We were living in a small village to the south of Stockport, where my wife and I owned a modest pub that enjoyed a lively and devoted crowd. It was a two-storied, Edwardian building the shape of an angular horseshoe. In the central courtyard, nestled between the two protruding halves of the house, we had a few tables and umbrellas for the summer months and smokers.
My little girl was the pride of my life. I used to study her like an avid anthropometrist: cupping her tiny hands in mine, provoking her jocular, coruscating giggles, feeling the warmth of her body within my cotton arbour. I cannot emphasise enough how charmed our existence was. Lily used to love playing with her mother’s clothes and I would take her into our bedroom and let her rove amongst the drawers, rolling and tumbling in the different colours and fabrics. It was her favourite thing to do, and I can still remember her muffled murmurs of delight as she tousled in the white tulle. By this point, it had been thirteen months since I last had a game. The bars of my cage were gradually thinning, and I began to feel the incipient breeze of autonomy stirring in the distance.
One Sunday my wife had gone into hospital because of an infected eye. She had a hereditary condition that irritated the cornea, and this trip was a biannual event. She had left me to tidy up the pub, which entailed cleaning the tables, stacking the chairs, and mopping the floor. Then I was to give Lily a bath and put out the washing. Upon reflection, it strikes me that such habitual, favonian tasks could develop into that night of torment. Then again, every death starts with a breath.
My wife was in the hospital, and I was carrying out her diurnal duties. Whilst mopping, I spotted a pound coin that had been left in the scoop tray of our slot machine. I had never used this slot machine and my wife had many a time considered throwing it out, but the punters liked it whilst they had a drink, and that was that. I left the coin there, finished my mopping and shut up the bar. However, the thought of it continued to trouble me; it lay in my mind’s eye, glinting with a meretricious wink in the dull, steel tray.
Now, I feel that I ought to make something clear to you. I was never a happy gambler. I found it enervating. See, a gambling addiction is very different to a drug addiction, or alcoholism: I’m sure you can appreciate that. They, whilst horrible diseases, have a very binary solution. Do not consume drugs or alcohol. Of course, this is difficult, and therein lies the rub, but for gamblers it is different. For us, everything in life is a gamble. The clothes we wear are dictated by the odds of how alluring or employable we seem in them. Our routes to work are governed by the approximated efficiency of each method of transport. Even the attention that we bestow to our loved ones is a carefully balanced melange between the mirage of a loving family man, and the reality of a gloomy solipsist. There is no simple way for us to stop gambling. We are governed by the huddled fates who, on this particular evening, had delved inside their hooded cloaks and doled out a singular coin to this turpid fool.
I began running Lily’s bath before proceeding to hang up the wet clothes. It was a hot, dry summer’s night so I chose to use the airing line that was strung up between the two parallel windows of the house. I mechanically pulled the clothes out over the courtyard, my mind preoccupied by the coin. It seemed childish to leave it there all night. However, it felt wrong to pocket it in the till. Then again, I couldn’t just leave it there for some other undeserving vagrant to stumble across it on Monday morning. These moral moot points grew in urgency as each minute went by. I fetched Lily for her wash and lifted her into the full, bubbling bath. She always loved extra bubbly baths. However, every time she splashed around the dull metal clink of the plug would scrape against the enamel: the mellifluous ding of metal on metal. I couldn’t help myself any longer.
I left Lily in the bath and ran downstairs, seizing the pound coin in my tremulous fingers and thumbing it into the machine. It burst into life, a sweet, saccharine, artificial light, the kind of light that one gorges on, illuminated the screen and the fruits began to twirl round and round. I was hypnotised. After thirteen months I had once more inveigled myself into the world of gambling. For one, singular pound I had resold myself into this seraglio of sickness.
I am unsure as to the exact amount of time I sat supine by that machine. I vaguely remember going over to the till to acquire some more money: I had the key to the machine but to take back from it in that way felt immoral. Anyway, I cannot remember how long I was there for. I only remember my wife returning.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Cuvier had never returned to Paris. I like to think of him settling in Languedoc with a big-bosomed bonhomie of a wife. He would have become a schoolmaster in the nearby village and, after a few years, raised several children of his own. He would have taught them to read and write, explained to them the exotic, Latin names of the surrounding creatures: the skittish Rupicapra Pyrenaica; the languorous Ovis Aries; and the noble Bos Taurus. He would have taught them to draw and maybe, whilst admiring their sketches in the incarnadine wash of a setting sun, he would have mused upon his old hopes and dreams and chuckled peacefully into his pipe. Unfortunately, the purveyors of fate are parsimonious when it comes to little whimsies such as these.
My wife had arrived back from the hospital to find one of the umbrellas in the courtyard had collapsed. Upon closer inspection she found Lily, still covered in bubbles, lying crooked like a bird’s wing on the broken bench. She had clambered out of the bath and, upon seeing her favourite dress on the edge of the window, had reached out to play with it. I never even heard her fall.
I stand before you with nothing left. I have become my life’s work and all that I can offer you is my life. It was only after my daughter’s death that I realised I would never be able to escape these bars. I can do nothing but watch as fate plays card after card.
Now I hand myself over to you, and to fate. There are three bullets in that pistol. If I live, we play again; if I die, you win. I told you at the start, I know how it all ends. But I feel that if I am to go out, I may as well go out fulfilling my life’s work. This is my last game. Are you ready to play?
TOM ANDERSON reads English at Christ Church. Despite studying English, he has no idea what to put in his bio.
Art by Alex Knighton