Rock, Paper, Scissors, Smoke

Dan Micklethwaite

Tommy squints up at the afternoon sun, then down at his lager, while frisking the pockets of his faded blue jeans. His hand re-emerges with a pack of tobacco, which holds filter tips, Rizlas, and a lighter as well. Though the lighter’s disposable, see-through and green, he places it carefully onto the table, like the spirit level he uses to fit kitchen floors. The bubble is way left of centre, however, because the Tawny Bull’s beer garden is wonky as fuck.

The slant calls attention to the graffiti beside it, which I think is supposed to be some kind of penis, yet looks more like the anti-spacecraft guns from arcade games of yore – complete with the lines coming out of the tip. It’s safe to say this isn’t the best pub on Earth, or even in town, but it’s where we come anyhow to squander our pay. Of course, Tommy spends a bit on his smoking stuff too, but it’s hardly as though it’s a serious habit; no yellow-brown teeth or stained fingertips, yet. It’s just something he does when he’s stalling for time.

The tobacco looks more than a little like sawdust, and as he portions it out with remarkable focus, I drain off the IPA dregs from my glass. Clink it down next to his, which is also near-empty.

‘Subtle,’ he mumbles, without looking up. He slots in a filter and rolls the cig closed. 

It’s a pretty hot day, with no breeze to speak of, yet he still needs three efforts to get the thing lit. He takes an eager but somehow luxurious drag, and then breathes out an incomplete ring, a smoke horseshoe, which floats rather lazily into my face.

There’s no doubt I could do with additional luck, if I want to get Tommy to buy the next round.

With the cigarette slack at the side of his mouth, like he’s learnt from old movies, he pats himself down again, this time for cash. He fans out his wallet like his naff pack of cards, and proceeds then to show me the front and the back, inside and out, before tipping it over and giving a shake. A solitary two pence piece makes a break for it, surprising us both, his eyes wide as it rolls with the slope of the table, finally vanishing down between slats.

He has a debit card tucked in there somewhere as well, but The Tawny Bull’s card-reader’s been patchy of late, and anyway he’s probably close to his limit – I’d feel guilty if he got himself further in debt. His apprenticeship as a joiner is just three days a week and doesn’t really offer the best hourly rate.

‘Tell you what,’ he says, slipping the wallet back in his jeans. ‘How about we play for it? If I win, you get the drinks in. If I lose, we’ll call it quits for this aft, and I’ll buy you an extra one after next payday. Sound fair?’

Not even remotely, but I still go along with it.

I usually do, no matter how often I’ve lost in the past.

‘But no blackjack,’ I warn him. ‘And I don’t fancy pool.’

He smiles, understanding. Smug as you like.

When this arrangement had started, early last autumn, it was pool we’d been playing. He was better than me, I have to admit, though if I stayed focused I could usually grab a few frames here and there. When he offered the deal, he was holding the one decent cue like a wand, or perhaps more like a wizard’s staff; not that he could actually emulate Gandalf, shitty at growing a beard as he is. But he’s always been a poser, so I thought nothing of it. I felt in good form and I fancied my chances. I had a bit of spare cash, so I figured why not?

By the end of that afternoon, I was not only three rounds of beer in the hole, but had also lost trust in the main laws of physics. He moved the cue-ball in trajectories that just didn’t seem plausible and slipped it through gaps where it shouldn’t have fit. And potted multiple balls at once, from what I could swear were impossible angles. You know, stuff that’d give Ronnie a serious test.

Aside from checking surreptitiously for evidence of tampering – of which I couldn’t find any – I haven’t been near that table since. In the wake of my first two refusals, however, Tommy stopped asking, and suggested we try rock, paper, scissors instead. But that was even shorter-lived, because I started to get these odd little headaches, I think from the way that we stared so intently, psyching each other out as we counted to three. And anyway, despite it not really being based upon skill, Tommy still beat me at that, best of five.

After that’s when he brandished those battered old cards. We had three weeks of blackjack, but he often won at that too, despite frequently twisting on nineteen and twenty. Again, I suspected it was more than just luck. Even though Tommy’s fingers are callused and scratched, ravaged by splinters, they’re still visibly nimble, and I didn’t doubt that he could have mastered some legerdemain.

That’s the thing about him only being semi-employed – he’s got too long to work on improving his grifts. Of course, he always claims that he’s been learning actual magic, but I know that’s just nonsense – it’s con tricks he’s good at, not mystical shit.

While I didn’t quite manage to fathom his methods, he must have sensed I was close, because pretty soon he proposed that we move onto this.

Origami.

I don’t know where he got the idea from exactly, but I suspect it’s just something he’d picked up online. Either that or it’s somehow tied in with his training. He’d rather go into the decorative side, rather than routinely fitting out kitchens, and I’ve seen enough to agree he’d be suited to that. As with most things he tries, he’s annoyingly good.

He smiles as he takes out another pale Rizla, and, with a well-practised flick of his thumbnail, trims enough off one side to make it a square. Holds it up for inspection. As it catches the slightest stirring of wind, it almost resembles a flag of surrender, but I know giving up’s the last thing on his mind.

No matter what size you’re using, of course, paper-folding’s not generally a competitive sport, so we had to develop our own basic rules. Simply put, if I can’t guess what Tommy’s making before it’s finished, he wins. On the assumption that he also has a much greater knowledge of the art form than me, and more chance to look up unusual patterns, he agreed to allow me three guesses per game. Though, to be honest, for the first several models, he could have given me ten and I’d have still been no closer to getting it right.

Standouts have included a sports car, which Tommy dubiously claimed was a Lamborghini Diablo; a snowboarder, performing what’s apparently known as a Cross Rocket grab; an Ankylosaurus, which is one of those dinosaurs that looks like an armadillo, only with a big bloody club at the end of its tail; and a curiously appetizing Yellowfin tuna. 

Though, I actually somehow did get that one, and the one before that – a fennec fox – so I’m a little surprised that he’s stuck with this option, rather than changing it up once again. After all, no matter how many free hours he has to master the craft, he must realise that I’ve been doing my own research too. And it’s not like I even have to learn how to make them; I only have to memorise a few different stages, just enough to formulate an educated guess. 

Yet, as he presses the paper square flat on the table, he doesn’t seem even remotely concerned.

‘Before I crack on,’ he grins, ‘have you actually got enough in your account to buy another round? I mean, I don’t want to go to all this trouble for nothing.’

‘Just get on with it.’ I tap my empty glass, slightly harder than intended.

There’s a young couple nearby, and they turn to see what’s going on. I stare right back, jealous as hell of their fresh, frothy pints.

Tommy’s noticed them too, and my reaction, but he refuses to be rushed. Only after he’s taken a last, lackadaisical drag on his cigarette, and stubbed it out on the upturned terracotta plant pot that passes for an ashtray, does he finally bother to make the first fold.

With the paper rotated into a diamond position, he turns the top point to match with the one on the bottom, and scores the edge carefully. Then he folds it in half again, from left side to right.

Already, I’m frantically trawling the database I’ve spent the past month compiling, trying to predict where this pattern might lead.

He makes a couple more adjustments until it’s squashed into another diamond, exactly a quarter of its original size. I’m definitely familiar with this opening sequence, but it could be the base for a few different models and I don’t want to waste any guesses just yet.

He turns the left and right edges of the diamond’s front panel inwards so they meet in the middle in a slightly stretched V. Then he opens that panel like a dentist inspecting a patient’s mouth, and inverts the latest two folds before pressing them flat. From this angle, it resembles an elephant’s head, albeit one that’s been prey to some poachers. I know it isn’t, though, because he carries on folding, mirroring that procedure on the diamond’s reverse. In a matter of seconds, it’s been transformed into a kite – all that it’s missing is the reel and the string.

But this clearly isn’t its final shape either.

In fact, it’s beginning to resemble something else entirely; at least, the steps leading up to it are exactly the same. I don’t guess that yet, though, because it seems far too straightforward a model for Tommy. Surely he can’t have underestimated me that much, especially after I’ve beaten him two times out of the past three.

Although maybe that has something to do with it. Perhaps this is his way of throwing in the towel. His cockiness might have been a bluff – as it turned out to be on occasion at blackjack – and he’s been trying to cover the fact that no matter how fully he might study this craft he’s finally taken it as far as he can.

He folds the edges of the front panel inwards again to make an even narrower point, which looks a bit like the nose of a leering baboon. This is yet another stage in the most likely pattern, further confirmed when he repeats the same process on the opposite side.

All he can be hoping is that I’ll hold off from making such a ridiculously blatant guess until it’s too late, so he’ll win by default and I’ll have to fork out another nine quid. But I’m not falling for that.

‘It’s a crane.’ I tap my glass, and it’s my turn to grin. ‘Same again, please.’ 

Tommy looks up, shakes his head, and keeps folding.

I can feel a steady pressure building up behind my eyes.

I take some deep breaths, trying to calm down, keep my temper in check.

After all, no matter what arcane or otherwise nefarious techniques I might sometimes suspect him of using, Tommy always likes to look as though he’s really playing fair. If he accidentally fouls at pool, even if his shirt brushes a ball as he’s lining up a shot, he’ll confess it – even if I was too busy drinking to notice. So it doesn’t really make sense for him to start lying now.

And yet, the more folds he makes, the clearer the intended conclusion becomes. It sits on the slanted woodwork like a tiny bishop’s mitre, just above the carved penis, and I know it’s only a few moves from the inevitable end. I’ve seen more than enough of these by now to be absolutely certain – they’re always the top results when I search for origami online. 

‘It’s a bloody crane, mate!’

The young couple flinch and look back across, at me in particular, more than slightly concerned. The Tawny Bull isn’t that bad of a pub that bar fights are common, but it’s never been completely devoid of them either.

Not that I would swing for Tommy, much less throw the glass that I seem to have picked up again, but he certainly knows how to wind me up something rotten. And while I’ve still never caught him actively cheating, he’s not above doing whatever else he can to postpone his defeat, in the hopes of frustrating me so much that I simply give in and go buy the next round.

I am getting close, with this headache growing worse and being desperately in need of another cold pint. But I refuse to capitulate, not this bloody time.

I’m forced to repeat my guess, albeit more quietly, hoping he’ll finally do the right thing.

‘That your last effort?’ he says, still looking almost unbearably smug. I pause for a moment then nod confirmation. He moves ahead with the final few folds: tugging out the neck and tail from either side; bending the little head down on the former. Then he shakes his own head again, slowly, and smiles.

‘Bullshit!’ I slam the glass on the wood.

He raises a finger to dismiss further protest, and then grabs for the lighter, the bubble still skewed. With the bird perched serenely on his open left hand, he sparks at the tip of a thin paper wing. The whiteness of the folded feathers becomes a trail of searing red, before turning to ashes, which sprinkle down softly on Tommy’s rough palm. The flame ascends the model’s neck, and fizzles down its tapered tail.

‘It’s a phoenix, innit?’ Tommy grins even wider as the fire jumps from the paper and onto his cuff, scorching the cloth and the flesh underneath. ‘You nearly got it, though,’ he laughs, as his left forearm chars and starts to crumble on the table, obscuring the graffiti and trickling like sand between lopsided slats.

I don’t have a snappy reply, beyond: ‘Fuck.’

I remain seated, shaking, until the last of his hair has collapsed into dust. Then I get to my feet, and though I am still unsteady, my headache is slowly but surely receding. I study the smouldering mound on the bench, thankful it isn’t yet singeing the wood, and that there isn’t enough of a breeze to disturb it.

As I pick up our empties and head for the bar, I see the young couple are rigid with terror, glaring first at Tommy’s ashes and then up at me, as though we’re both totally out of our gourds.

‘What can you do?’ I shrug, and give a smile of admiration. ‘He’s got too much spare time.’ They don’t seem especially calmed by my answer, but I’m not that worried. I’ve no doubt that he’ll somehow have been resurrected, more smug than ever, well before I make it back with our drinks. ∎


Portrait by J. Micklethwaite

Dan Micklethwaite writes stories in a shed in the north of England, some of which have recently featured in Little Blue Marble, PodCastle, and NewMyths. His debut novel, The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, was published by Bluemoose Books. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_M_writer, and visit danmicklethwaite.co.uk for more information.


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