Download PDF Here
The Lottery of Strangers, a short story by Rosemary Jenkinson
Rosemary Jenkinson was born in Belfast and is an award-winning playwright and short story writer. Plays include The Bonefire (Stewart Parker BBC Radio Award), Planet Belfast, Here Comes the Night, Michelle and Arlene, May the Road Rise Up and Lives in Translation. Her plays have been performed in Dublin, London, Edinburgh, New York and Washington DC. She was 2017 artist-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre Belfast. Short story collections are Contemporary Problems Nos. 53 & 54, Aphrodite’s Kiss and Catholic Boy (Doire Press 2018). Her writing was singled out by The Irish Times for ‘an elegant wit, terrific characterisation and an absolute sense of her own particular Belfast’. Writing for radio includes Castlereagh to Kandahar and Two People Shorten the Road (BBC Radio 4). In 2018 she received a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write a memoir.
Folk in the west of Ireland believe that if you tell a story to someone, you lose a little piece of your soul. Well, that’s according to my ex-housemate, John Paul from Donegal, but I’m prepared to tell the story and take the risk. It’s really a tale of two houses within a rented house in Belfast, a tale of two men diametrically opposed in culture and levels of hygiene.
You couldn’t help liking John Paul. He was yawningly pale, fidgety, with a complexion like porous soda bread, and in spite of his thinness, he had the constitution of a man who’d gone straight from the breast to Guinness. He worked hard as a barman but in the house he was always slothful and you’d find him in the living room, grinning at Ulster TV, his arms stretched out over the sofa, his legs flying around trying to find a comfortable nesting place to roost.
John Paul was a typical Irishman as he had the words for about forty shades of rain; he could even tell between wet rain and damp rain. He had the charming bonhomie of a drinker – ‘Tilt your arm a bit further there,’ he’d urge and, taking the cue from Gianni’s civilised drinking habits, he’d begun extolling the virtue of a daily glass of wine for your health, the difference being he’d stretch it to a few glasses to make up for all those years it had been missing from his diet. This leads us on to the antisocial side of him. He had a tendency to flake out on the sofa after a skinful and we had an inkling that the damp patches the following morning might have emanated more from poor bladder control than spilt alcohol.
John Paul’s general slovenliness was anathema to Gianni who came from Italy. He fancied himself as an Italian stallion but at five foot six he was more of a little pony. Alternately saturnine and light-hearted, he tended to dominate the household with whatever mood he was in. I was the only housemate laidback enough to have survived more than six months with him and he doused the house liberally in bleach, hoping to exorcise the wandering remains of former housemates. It was a bit much because wherever I set my towel down in the bathroom it picked up bleach stains. He worked as a pizza chef and made a lot of dough from making dough. He lived in the front room with his shy, pretty girlfriend who matched his paranoia with her own hyper-nervousness.
Two weeks ago I came home after work to find a detective sitting in our living room. I wasn’t thrilled as the police always bring me out in a cold sweat and I start wondering if they’re still after me for refusing to move from the road in last year’s anti-capitalist protests. To me their mere existence could qualify as harassment. In any case, I’m always sure democracy is only one step from the gulag.
With all those scenarios in my head I was almost relieved to know we’d had a burglary. Eilis, Gianni’s girlfriend, had managed to disturb the burglars but they’d still had time to go through our rooms and I’d had fifty quid cash stolen.
Eilis was giving a statement, her hands wrapped round her knees, looking very shaken. She was halfway through when Gianni burst in like a whirlwind.
‘It was no burglar. Someone from in here did this,’ he insisted dictatorially to the detective. ‘Finger print every one in the house.’
I stifled a laugh and the detective let slip a tiny smile, flaring her eyes at me, which I returned. ‘Welcome to the madhouse,’ I wanted to tell her.
‘You think somebody you know has done this?’ she checked with me.
I diplomatically mentioned that we’d had quite a procession of housemates who’d scarpered very suddenly, often with the keys. I omitted to say they’d usually been driven to it by Gianni, the one-man mafia.
‘Where is John Paul tonight?’ Gianni wanted to know, a strange look on his face.
‘No, Gianni,’ said Eilis, guessing what he was hinting at. ‘The burglars have trashed his room too.’
If anything I thought it looked like the burglars had tidied it.
The police said that the burglars had chiselled through the kitchen window but Gianni refused to believe it. ‘Professional, my arse,’ he grumbled. ‘Experts know nothing. You never see the doctor who leaves the scissors in the stomach and sews it back up?’ For the next couple of days Gianni skulked around our backyard looking for signs of entry and kept giving me a heart attack, his face popping up at the kitchen window like an evil fairy.
He was convinced that the burglar, whoever it was, had used a front door key. ‘You understand the way?’ he asked me. ‘Too many people looking at me when I doing well, when I have nice stuff. Next time, I touch my balls for luck. Hey, fuck you all, you who looking at me!’
I didn’t remotely believe it was any of our ex-housemates, although it did baffle me why on their way out they felt they had to steal something from us like it was a souvenir from a foreign country. Even the low-watt light bulbs would go, not to mention the cutlery that was so bent it looked like it had passed through the hands of Uri Geller. But I always loved when Gianni talked of the old times. Whatever you may say about us, Gianni and me, we have seen off the weirdos – not to mention the snails we shared our hall with for a few days. Ah, yes, and we also put flight to the landlord during the Great Rent Revolt of 2016.
However, more sinisterly, it soon became clear he’d taken it into his head that John Paul was in some way responsible for the burglary.
‘Look,’ he said, calling me out into the hall and showing me the scratches on his Vespa made by John Paul when he’d fallen down the stairs. ‘Look what the dickhead done.’
‘It’s not that bad,’ I replied. ‘You can barely see it.’
Gianni and Eilis both eyed me with hostility. They’d been hoping to merge with me in a takeover bid of the house in order to oust John Paul. To be honest, I’d had enough of their machinations and felt it was high time I opted out of their Axis of Evil. I didn’t object to living with John Paul and I was tired of new housemates every month.
On my way through to the kitchen, John Paul was standing wobbling like a scarecrow in the wind, helping himself to another can. There was never a mark on him from his entanglements with the Vespa. It didn’t surprise me as I imagined his rubbery physique would always come off better in a one to one struggle. Even when you’d just be standing there minding your own business, he’d accidentally stab you with a cigarette, being utterly unimpeded by the central commands of his nervous system.
‘Did Il Duce mention me?’ he asked and he shrugged when I didn’t answer. ‘It’s all right, better to say nothing. When I’ve been wronged, I don’t say a word. I leave it and sometimes it takes days or sometimes it takes five years for the wheel to turn but, sure enough, it does. And sometimes I’m after seeing what’s happened and I go to God, ‘Now why did you do that? That was a wee bit more cruel than I’d have been.’ Oh, it’d surprise you how cruel God can be.’
If anyone had the right to know, it was John Paul, himself a statistic of divinely inspired demographics. He’d been christened John Paul as his conception had coincided with a Papal visit to Ireland and the ensuing parental renunciation of condoms. Gianni was pretty well tuned into God’s mysterious ways himself; whenever he had a headache you’d see him crossing himself with a finger dipped in olive oil. Anyway, as I’d stepped out of the equation, I was very interested to see where God would stand on all this.
John Paul stayed well away from Gianni over the next few days. He buried his head deep in The Kama Sutra which he said was a fascinating book although he suspected the only way it would help him to get girls would be by hitting them on the head with it. I thought he was being unduly modest. After all, after a few pints he was more flexible than anyone I’d ever met.
When I arrived home on the Wednesday night all the lights of the house were on and the books and magazines in the living room were upturned on the floor. For one horrible moment I thought it was another burglary until I saw Gianni in the kitchen rifling through the bin bag in a frenzy.
‘I losta my ticket,’ Gianni wailed at me. ‘I no joking. It gone away, disappear.’
He was so upset, it took me a while to understand. It transpired the numbers he used each week on the lottery had just come up, netting him one point two million. The major bummer was, he’d misplaced the ticket.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll find it together,’ I promised him, stifling an impulse to negotiate a preliminary cut in the million for myself.
Eilis, John Paul and I joined him in the search – fortunately John Paul proved willing to put his hand down the back of the sofa. At midnight we gave up and went to bed but I could still hear Gianni feverishly pacing downstairs. I really felt for the man and prayed he would find it for his sake. I then got to thinking how I could move into his and Eilis’s room which was far bigger than mine. He’d probably leave the six-pack of bleach behind too. It was an all-win situation.
The following day when I came back from work, I noticed a few dodgy-looking individuals scouring our street. Someone was even using their foot to turn over the dock leaves and dandelions proliferating outside our front door and I wondered how the word had spread. Then Gianni emerged from the hall accompanied by a TV crew. He had gone public with his story. He was upbeat, optimistic, clad in new Milanese tailoring that he’d just paid a fortune for.
‘Believe me what,’ he breezed to me and John Paul. ‘Ever you taste rice with champagne? When I find my ticket I’ll let you taste.’
John Paul fired me a look over his Kama Sutra and whispered, ‘The shop where he got his ticket definitely sold the winning numbers. Problem is, he can’t prove he was there, as the shop camera had run out of tape. Now all the oul loony bins are crawling out of the woodwork with the same story.’
Later, we switched on the news and watched Gianni make a promise to split the money with whoever found the ticket but I felt slightly embarrassed when the interviewer waved a hand round our living room, using the words, ‘escape from rented squalor’. On the book shelf behind her you could just make out the copy of The Kama Sutra snuggling up to Hitler and Eva Braun: A Love Affair. Eilis hovered into the camera’s sights now and then, her dark, worried eyes out on stalks, her crumpled pink cardigan on her curved back, making her look like a frail prawn floating about in the murky depths of our living room.
When CNN phoned Gianni’s mobile at eight o’clock the next morning, I realised just how much Gianni, the telegenic pizza-maker with the amusing grammar, had caught hold of the public’s imagination. He was threatening to go global until the terrible news came – at noon it was announced that the one point two million had been claimed.
Gianni was inconsolable. At one o’clock, I answered the door, hoping it was maybe one of his Italian friends armed with a sedative. It was the police. Again I broke out in a sweat, sure they were onto me. Wasn’t it the same detective who’d asked me at the demo if I was determined to be arrested?
I guessed it wasn’t every day that the police got a call to investigate the theft of a million. I imagined their little hearts had initially skipped a beat at the exciting prospect of maybe for once being asked to crack a heist but they said there was nothing they could do about a case like this. A consortium of local refuse collectors had come forward with the winning ticket, claiming it had belonged to them all along.
‘It’s no possible, you understand? I always left it here, so someone he steal it,’ said Gianni, pointing to the table beside the sofa, narrowing his eyes at John Paul.
I wondered if it was possible…no, it wasn’t worthy of me to think it. All the same, he definitely held something against Gianni…could John Paul have stashed the ticket, then given it to the binmen? He could have struck a deal with them. No, I was being crazy! It was mad. Living with a succession of strangers was turning me as paranoid as Gianni.
Later that night, John Paul was drunk downstairs and I could hear him stagger into the wet yard. From the kitchen I could see him tilt his chin up towards the sky and point a cigarette accusingly into the air.
‘If you don’t mind me saying, that was awful cruel of you. Altogether terrible. I would never have gone that far myself,’ I heard him slur into the heavens as a rain that didn’t know to stop fell steadily.
© Rosemary Jenkinson