The old boy sitting next to me in our local was clearly hoping to join in our conversation. It’s not an uncommon occurrence: the banter flows freely most Saturday lunchtimes and we are, I like to think, a fun bunch on our day.
To give him his due, he did not try to force the issue: some folks engineer their way into a bar conversation in much the same way as a bulldozer might attempt to delicately penetrate a trifle. We’re not a stand-offish crowd by any means, but a little finesse is always appreciated. He had been dutifully restrained, but nevertheless you could sense he was dying to join in.
Having run through the usual checklist – not an evangelist, a racist homophobe or an investment banker; the only slight oddity was that he was drinking pints of ale with rum and coke chasers – we brought him into the fold, discovered his name was Jim (I’ve changed it for the purpose of this true tale) and spent a pleasant fifteen minutes or so shooting whatever breeze was wafting.
During a lull in proceedings, Jim motioned me to lean in and listen.
“You might not think it to look at me,” he said, “but I’ve been extremely lucky on The Lottery.”
I winced inwardly. This was the kind of opening gambit you might typically expect from a con artist. I envisaged a conversation that was the pub equivalent of one of those Nigerian scam e-mails. Out of courtesy, I kept these thoughts to myself and simply nodded politely and made an encouraging grunt.
“Ah, there it is!” he said “The Look! If I’ve seen it once I’ve seen it a thousand times. You don’t believe me!”
Clearly my non-verbal leakage was like an ill-maintained gutter in a thunderstorm.
“Not at all!” I stressed, attempting to repair damaged fences. “Sounds like an interesting story…”
“Well,” he said, “last year I won £800,000. But that’s not the end of it. Three weeks ago, I won another million!”
Now this was stretching a tall tale too far, but I had learned my lesson and so I began to throw in interested questions, occasionally asking for some sort of arcane detail that might normally catch out a storyteller, if only in a slight pause as they sought to fabricate new information. All these he answered with consummate ease. At no point did he contradict himself or offer up an unlikely response. After a while I was left with only two possible conclusions: either Jim was an immensely accomplished liar or a genuine two-times Lottery winner.
“Anyway,” said Jim, “to cut a long story short, I’d like to offer you and everyone else in the bar a drink on me. Help me celebrate my good fortune.”
Now this was the kind of scenario that I had long imagined in my own day dreams about being a Lottery winner. How to graciously spend my new found largesse. A pleasant enough reverie when it is unlikely ever to happen to you, but a genuine issue once it has.
“There’s that look again!” he said. “Why not let me buy you all a drink?”
My uncharitable mind had flashed back twenty years to another rich old man who, once a week on Sunday lunchtime, would routinely pop his head around the door of our regular haunt in Wembley to inform the amused topers that he had enough money to buy the pub, and everyone in it, thrice over. Old Frank had been variously considered anything from an ageing pederast to an eccentric millionaire in the popular imagination of the time. What had been beyond doubt was that he was both unloved and unwanted by the regulars. Whether his self-evident bitterness towards the clientele was the cause or the result of this state of affairs I never did find out.
“I’d be happy to accept a drink from you,” I said, making the instant proviso in my head that I’d buy him one back as contingent to that acceptance. I didn’t say it aloud, though, as I had a feeling it would have been interpreted as a failure to grasp the true spirit of his gesture. Which, upon reflection, it probably was.
Jim nodded and extracted a couple of twenties from his wallet. “A drink for my friend and his wife,” he told the barmaid, “and once right round the bar!”
This got the attention of my drinking buddies, as you might imagine, and I helped out with an explanation: “Jim has been extremely lucky on The Lottery and he’d like to buy us all a drink.”
My friends’ faces briefly registered The Look. I wondered if Jim had ever encountered anyone, aside from a Lottery representative, who hadn’t given him The Look. It struck me that everyone’s first thought was likely to be the cynical one: “Where’s the catch?”
As the drinks were poured Jim was now regaling the rest of the bar with his tale.
“The thing is,” he was saying, “if it had happened to me twenty years ago that would have been great, but I’m 76, my wife is dead: what am I supposed to do with all that money? I can’t spend it fast enough.”
“Buy a nice house,” someone suggested.
Jim snorted. “What would I want with a bigger house? Or a different place? I rattle around in the one I’ve got, and, trust me, I’ve lost more friends since I won the money than I care to count. It’s bloody hard making new ones. You can’t even buy people a drink in a pub without coming across as some sort of sad old git trying to buy a conversation. Plus I don’t have anyone to leave the money to when I go, and I’m buggered if I’m going to leave any for the bloody Government. Have you tried spending thousands of pounds a day? You’d think it would be a breeze, but it’s bloody difficult! Fast as I spend it, the interest replaces it and more!”
The faces around the bar had now polarised on a spectrum between outright disbelief and utter bemusement. For my own part, having taken the man’s pint, I felt a strange compulsion to believe him, mixed with the sudden urge to say “Tell you what, if you don’t want it, give it to me!”
I was about to say that very thing, in jest, when it occurred to me that he might very well take me at my word. It had been a strange enough encounter already and there was still plenty of time for it to get weirder. Uncommonly, I bit my tongue.
“Why have you lost so many friends?” I asked.
“I’ve always been a pub goer,” he answered, “I’ve spent a lot of time with people who’ve happily bought me beers in the past, when I didn’t have the money sometimes. So one of the first things I did when I got my win was visit all my old haunts and try to give something back. You’d think it would be easy, but people didn’t believe me. A bit like you don’t. Some of them refused. I even got barred from a couple of my favourite places.”
“Because when you sit on a barstool and get pissed, you eventually fall off.”
I searched his face for signs that he was joking, but he was deadly serious.
“That’s right,” he said. “My life is one long session down the pub, only I don’t ever run out of money. I don’t have anything to go home for, so I stay and I drink and I get drunk. Eventually I get taken home, or left to sleep it off overnight. The way I’m going I can’t see myself reaching old age. A lot of my old friends don’t speak to me anymore. You might not want to speak to me tomorrow, after we’ve had a few more. That’s my life. I’m a lucky bastard, right?”
There was infinite sadness in his voice as he stared down the tunnel of his long suicide mission.
Thoughts of counselling Jim whirled briefly through my head, then I remembered an old saying: “You saved my life. Now you owe me!”
“My round,” I said, in true co-dependent fashion.
We left the pub shortly after. Jim, needless to say, did not do so until much later. I have gone over that conversation a hundred times in my head. It was not the money that trapped Jim, even assuming there was really a stash in his bank account; after all, he could give it all away in an instant. No, Jim was trapped by his needs. It was just beyond the bounds of a mere Lottery win to satisfy them.
I suppose that is the human condition.