"That's how I am," I admitted a bit self-importantly. "I want to lose it all. It's idiotic, I know. I should be embarrassed."
"Then you're a real gambler."
I finished the bottle and rolled it under the bed.
"That's me. I've always been like this."
"Not me," she said. "I hate gambling. I hate gamblers."
Yes, I thought, you probably do.
"I hate it when they win," she added.
And I wondered if I hated myself when I won. It was possible.
"Well, I am a loser," I said. "You should like me a bit more."
"Shall we sleep?" she said sweetly.
She lay and folded her hands together under her chin, and I thought there was something pleased and secure in the way she closed her eyes and let herself drift off without any fuss.
My mind filled with mathematical images and scores as I dozed against her and the sex was expended. The cards flipped by a cheap spatula, a thousand plays streaming through the dark and my eye calculating them all. A man who cannot love, but who can scan the statistics of the laws of chance. It was too late to regret how I had turned out.
But all the same I felt differently this time, and in small, aggravating ways. I couldn't say why it was. Something about her had made me feel ashamed and I felt myself spinning out of my orbit, wondering to myself whose daughter she was and where she had come from, questions that never troubled me usually. I felt ponderous and accused, and something in me retreated and tried to hide. For the first time I wondered to myself what I looked and felt like to a woman of her age, a woman in her late twenties, I imagined; how repulsive I must be, how oppressive and pitiful. I knew those things before, of course. One is never that self-deluding. It's the other way around: a man knows everything inferior about himself, but there's nothing to be done. He grits the teeth and gets through it. I picked up one of these girls once a month, and it was like a duty, a visit to the confessional. There was nothing else in Macau. The gambler who lives here is not going to find a normal wife. It's a life sentence for some and I had lived like this for years, stumbling from one encounter to the next and never caring because I knew I had nothing better to look forward to. But now, suddenly, the known system had stopped working and I was forced to look at the invisible mirror, and the shocking image there made me want to be blind. It was the way she slept against me, trustingly, and never showed her disgust, which must have been so deep that it could not express itself. I was not used to that.
I could never have told her my real reasons for being there, my long, rather comical flight from the law after a certain unpleasant incident in England long ago. One learns not to reveal a single thing to anyone, not even to a woman who is sharing one's bed for a while, and after a time this secrecy becomes second nature, an unchallenged mode of behavior. There cannot be any slip-ups. One doesn't fancy being shipped back to Wormwood Scrubs to serve one's time. Not at all. One wants to be free in the world of money, or even chained inside it so long as its marvels are available.
I half-slept curled against that sad little back, and I could smell the talc on her shoulders and the after-scent of pork buns. I dreamed of the river Ouse and the church in Piddinghoe. Thunder from out at sea rolled in and shook the placid little garden outside the window, and I tightened my grip around her and wondered if she would remember me this time the following night, or any of the following nights, or whether she would even remember the room itself when she was old. It would all be lost. When I woke up the shutters were still closed and a cat had appeared on the outside sill, nosing the gap between them. For a moment I thought I was in England and my fingers gripped the edge of the bed in a panic. Then I remembered everything about China, which was now my home. Dao-Ming was gone, as they always are. The sheet had not gone cold, however, and slightly oiled hairs stuck to the pillowcase that, when picked out, fell limp across my fingers like things that had just died. They smelled of patchouli and storms, and I thought how serious and stilted our chats had been and how unlike the usual chats I have with my purchased roses.
Excerpted from The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne. Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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