The Bingo Review
I’ve never been to the bingo before. Tell a lie. Mum used to take me to the ones in school. Long, long time ago. The PTA used to put them on twice a year in primary school because they were always raising money for something. An outdoor seating area, a sandpit for long jump, an entire room dedicated to desktop computers. I found their stress quite infectious to be honest, the way they made everything seem so urgent. Can’t be standing up! Can’t be letting kids jump into dirt! Can’t not have a computer room now we’re past the millennium and the world didn’t end! I was on their side, even though I didn’t really know who they were. Like, I didn’t know if Parent Teachers Association meant the people involved were our teachers’ mums and dads, or if you had to be a teacher with a kid to qualify. I didn’t think to analyse the evidence in front of me, you know, the actual names and faces of these people. I just got very upset about the naming of their benevolent organisation. It was far too ambiguous.
But there was bingo at Easter, as god intended, and then bingo again before we broke up for Christmas. Sometimes we’d get to the end of the school day and the teachers would be waiting to give us a piece of paper that we should take home and give straight to our parents slash carers. Really sharp edges, these things. Hard to hold onto. Mum said the paper was asking for donations, but not like the shit at the back of the cupboards, old clothes and that. It had to be really good stuff that still had the labels on. That’s because the PTA was going to make us compete for these prizes when it came time for bingo. They were going to corral everyone into the school dinner hall after hours and make them fight.
Tell a lie. There’s no fighting in bingo, mostly. The dinner hall in St. Sebastian’s was a brown laminated cube. I had my free school dinners in there while the other kids ate Pringles and Jaffa Cakes from branded lunch boxes. But we also did PE in the hall when the weather was bad. If you only had your socks on, you’d go flying. I should know, I’ve always been clumsy — I used to play in my socks and then forget to put my shoes back on, queue up for lunch, and then immediately drop my food. When it smashed on the floor, everyone would cheer and |’d go bright red and have to ask for more. But not to worry, I had my shoes on for bingo, and it was a good time, mostly. The dinner ladies would swap their red pinnies for normal-people-clothes and come with their husbands. They didn’t care for me, but it was fine because my family was there. Mum and the aunties, me and my cousins, we’d take over one big circular table in the centre of the room. The headteacher would say two fat ladies, 88 and all the kids would laugh. Two little ducks, 22, and all the kids would quack quack.
I wanted to join in but everyone in there hated us. Not because we weren’t nice but because we were so jammy, collectively as a family. That’s where I learnt what the word jammy meant. It doesn’t mean lucky, not exactly. It’s more of a sly, relentless kind of luck. It means getting away with murder, or bingo. Again, I should know; Mum would win everything. She’d dab every number with a red splodge to make a line, two lines, and then a solid full house. And it would happen over and over again. It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t make any sense — I should be more excited but I felt sick with guilt, knowing that at the end of the night, we’d be taking every single Easter egg home with us.
Mum would ask me to hurry, come on, hurry up, because she wanted to leave as soon as the last game was over. I’d have to do multiple trips back and forth to the car with all of the eggs. The way these people would glare. The booing. The ‘what a waste of bleedin’ time.’ The ‘every fucking year.’ I’d keep my head down. Try to get away from the noise but it would echo off the walls of the big brown dinner hall, and then in my panic, I’d drop a loose egg the way I’d sometimes drop my food. Dusk would make the sky and the school yard feel much closer than they were in the daytime, and the eggs would roll across the hopscotch and get away from me. I wouldn’t be able to breathe I was moving so fast, trying to do what Mum had asked of me. I wouldn’t be able to see where the eggs were rolling to, not until I’d catch a moment of light glinting off purple metallic foil and know which way to go.
Christmas bingo was much better, and worse. Better because of the music — no one had ever bothered making up songs for Easter — but worse because Mum still won all the prizes, and because people wanted them more. I remember the groaning. Made me uncomfortable and self-conscious. Made me feel guilty, but I don’t know for what. I also remember the woman who slammed her fists on the temporary table so hard it folded. She couldn’t stand the sound of ee-yar! Line! House! Bingo! Ee-yar!!! It just went on and on.
Mum would win kid’s toys, toiletries, wine, make-up, perfume. I started wearing perfume at a really young age. Mum would win all the stuff-with-labels-still-on-it that everyone in the room had donated. Hampers wrapped in plastic that had been scrunched at the top and tied with a big red bow; you know the plastic ribbons that you can score with a scissor blade to make them loop-de-loop nice and tightly. When they brought this cumbersome thing to the table, and we had our own centrepiece, it made me feel like we were the centre of the universe. I was ashamed. The plastic scrunching was louder than the groaning, too. And it was hard to even see the prize inside because the whole shape was multi-faceted like a diamond. The light just wouldn’t let me in.
Mum never had to buy a Christmas tree either, because she’d win one of those every year. That was the grand prize. She didn’t make me carry that on my own. We took it on our shoulders together. And these trees, they just accumulated over the years. We ended up with a small farm in the back garden full of artificial trees. A fibre optic orchid. We kept the best one for the living room. And when Mum died and I inherited the house, I got a knock on the door from the Internet company to say they were installing fibre optic broadband on our road, and I didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t feel like the right kind of adult to reply to that news. So, I asked the man if he wanted to come round the back to see the fibre optic I already had. He didn’t know how to reply to that either, so he followed me. Said it was one of the greatest things he’d ever seen. And when he left to install Internet that promised to deliver speeds of up to 900Mpbs using the UK’s most reliable broadband technology, I let myself cry for hours.
No, I’ve never been to the big Bingo before. Not the big branded bingo that takes place in massive buildings next to other massive buildings that house Matalans and ALDIs. Buzz, Mecca, Gala. Airplane hangers next to even bigger carparks. I know bingo happens inside them but there are no windows so I can’t really be sure. I do see women file in though, waiting for friends outside or smoking. Only women as far as I know; Mum once claimed that men go the bookies instead. And she was smug when she said it, like these idiots don’t know what they’re missing out on; like she hoped they’d never find out. I never questioned her opinions on gender or bingo because what do I know? I’ve never had a dad, a boyfriend, or a man. All I ever had was Mum.
She used to tell me that when people in England talk about ‘the beautiful game,’ they’re not actually referring to football, they’re talking about bingo. She never came home with prizes from the big bingo though. No Christmas trees or Easter eggs. I didn’t question that either. I just thought: god love her and her beautiful game. Left her to it. Even when I was old enough, I never joined her for a bingo night out. She used to come home after work, cook us a cottage pie, and then disappear for an hour or so. They built a new bingo right between our house and school, so she was pretty much sorted for life. She never invited me but I also never held it against her. I thought it was nice that she had this thing she liked to do. It took growing up to realise that maybe she didn’t actually like it, but that maybe she needed it, the same way men need to bet two hundred quid on a big muscley horse with a tiny man on its back to win by 1 length or more on this year’s Grand National.
I was at the Matalan bingo tonight, her regular, queueing up to check in and to ask where I should go and what I should do. I had been meaning to come here for a long time because I thought it would be a nice way to honour her memory, especially after there wasn’t enough money for a proper wake after the funeral and we’d all just sat around in the living room in silence. Yeah, I didn’t know how much debt Mum was in until she was gone, and then I was just very, very scared. I thought, once I get everything settled, I’ll take myself to the bingo and then I might feel settled in my soul. But when I got to the desk, the woman made me sign up for a membership. You can’t just waltz in. Okay, fine. I’d come for the 7-9PM session but everyone else was already a member, which meant I was holding up the queue (wasn’t fine at all, I felt sick). Heard those familiar bingo-groans (and getting sicker). The staff member flashed a multi-page contract at me to sign. I signed. Then she needed my postcode and a security question. Mother’s maiden name, still my own. It was always her name as well. After I said it, she turned to her side to say something into a radio but I didn’t hear what.
Paper or tablet? Paper or tablet? She pointed at the options. I could either get a paper book of bingo tickets or a chunky touchscreen tablet. The case around it was so thick it looked like the kind parents use to pacify Gen X. Well, I only knew bingo as a paper game to be played with dabbers, not fingers. I’d also been quite looking forward to doing a bit of dabbing. Wanted to see how softly I could touch the letterbox red to the sheet before the colour haloed out, bled out. Just knew it would satisfy me. When I was busy sorting things out, I’d found an Elvis dabber in Mum’s bedside table and that’s what I’d brought with me today. So, paper, please. Paper. The woman looked at me like I was dirt, and then handed me a stapled-together book, along with a plastic card so that next time I came, I could just swipe myself in. I was about to walk away and she stopped me.
If you’re using paper, do you have a pen or a dabber?
I nodded. Wasn’t sure there was going to be a next time. I heard the crunchy radio frequency behind me again. It was all feeling a lot more serious than school.
And then I had to pass through a dark portal just to get into the main event; small casino, the smell of smoking inside, green light rims around slot machines. Held my breath as I went, walked through a second set of double doors, and there it was. The bingo hall. So, so bright. The big lights were on — terrible, oppressive, even so high above us. The floor was filled with table and chair units that cut the space diagonally (not a fan of diagonals), and then every seat was upholstered in a blue and red moquette fabric, the same style you get on buses and trains. Also difficult to bear. That specific eye and mind-pain from a pattern that’s supposed to distract from graffiti and stains. The floor was the same: an orange and blue mosaic made of carpet. Horrible. Looked like every seat was taken. Two hundred women crammed into one unmoving carriage. And Mum came here every night? I wanted to close my eyes.
Urgh, I found the bar. The sign said Drinks, food and snacks. Chicken basket, sweet vegetable curry, chocolate orange sponge cake; Carling, Prosecco, Rosé; a cottage pie that made me stop, but then, I didn’t have much of an appetite. Instead of closing my eyes, I snuck looks over the top of the laminated menu while I figured out my next move, and I realised something weird. I hadn’t noticed it before. Probably because of the bus seat illusion. But in one corner of the room, all the women were dressed in red. I went up and down the rows trying to find somewhere to sit until I got to them.
Are you a student?
You look like a scientist.
Oh, because of the glasses?
(It was the PTA’s fault. The computer room in primary school had got me hooked and now I was so short-sighted that my lenses protruded through the front and back of my frames, magnifying my eyes tremendously).
I thought, she’s a scientist. But then you don’t look like you have much of a grip on reality, so maybe not.
The women in the red section laughed. I found myself laughing with them.
Do you want to sit with us, love?
I had no choice, it was the only spare chair in the room. Plus, she seemed nice, if a little ruthless. And kind of familiar? Even though I knew I was projecting because she was around Mum’s age. I slid into the unit. Nobody was eating out of chicken baskets which surprised me given the extensive menu, but there was a pint of lager on every table. The red player asked me why I wasn’t drinking. I put my bag down, shuffled back to Drinks, food and snacks, and got a pint so that she would accept me. When I got back, she had more questions.
Where’s your tablet?
Ah, I went with paper instead.
The women in the red section groaned.
No one uses paper anymore. When was the last time you played bingo? Bet you were just a little scientist kid. No, you need to go and get a tablet because, right, see your book there. You have six tickets per sheet, six lines of three. And that’s fine in theory. Means you’ve got all the numbers, so when Anthony starts calling, you can mark them down on there. But he’s fast you know. I’m not sure you’re even going to be able to keep up with him. Have you even got a pen? Bet you’ve got a little dabber with you. Haven’t seen one of them in years, have we girls?
But see this —
She held the kid’s tablet up.
I’m playing 150 tickets every single game.
No, you’re not.
You can’t be.
No one is fast enough to play 150 tickets at once.
I don’t need to be fast, chicken. The tablet does it all for me. Bet you weren’t expecting that! All I need to do is sit back, drink, and make sure I shout if I’ve won something so Anthony knows to stop the game. And he doesn’t even need to get off his high horse —
She pointed to the middle of the back wall where there was a podium and a microphone for the caller. Anthony was more or less my age, slumped in front of a huge LCD screen showing lines of numbers, lo-fi and computer-grey like this was Minesweeper instead.
— because he’s got a screen as well, and they’re connected, so he can just click a button to check if one of the tablets in the room has won. Thought you’d know about stuff like this! You’re young! You’ve got glasses! When someone plays on paper — which they never do — he has to come down to check if it’s a winner, so I’ll give you that. The lazy git.
But wait, I don’t get it. I mean, I get it. The tablet is doing it all for you. But what’s the point in playing if you’re not actually playing the game?
Playing! Who cares about playing?
The women in the red section all laughed.
Don’t know if those glasses are working but I’m not a kid anymore. I haven’t come here to ‘play a game,’ I’ve come here to win money. Your 6 tickets aren’t gonna get you anywhere. You’ve got to be in it to win it.
The synchronised laugh got a second wind and Red looked pleased with herself. I felt like I was in hell. If the tablet-based game of bingo was based on reaction time instead of skill, then the women were just playing one massive game of slaps; and the more tickets they bought for the machine to process, the quicker their hands were going to be. But I didn’t want to slap anyone. I just wanted to press the dabber to the numbers and make nice colours and see if I happened to get any lines. To be honest, I really didn’t want to win because the idea of having to shout something in this room full of colour-coordinated women made me want to run.
Oh, don’t worry about that. If you get warm, tell me what number you’re waiting for and I’ll shout for you. But you’re not going to get any lines — I mean, you might. Just, the chances of you getting a line before me are… I dunno. You’re the scientist. You work it out.
I took a nervous sip of my pint and Red took a sympathetic one. I told her I’d be one second.
You better be. The game’s about to start.
Honestly what game? What the fuck was Mum playing at? Pay-to-win bullshit trap. I made out I was going in the direction of the bathroom — women-only sign on the door, don’t know where poor Anthony was pissing, or why Red seemed to hate him so much. But I wasn’t going the bathroom, I was on my way through the nicotine casino portal to make my great escape. I’d had enough. Like, I half-considered checking the price of the tablets on the way out and making the switch, but it didn’t feel right. None of it did. And buying 150 tickets a night didn’t guarantee a win — I saw how much debt Mum was in. Made me furious, and a bit embarrassed, because I couldn’t believe she’d fallen for it. I felt my temperature rising the longer I held my breath through the portal. And I hate that line as well: you’ve got to be in it to win it. That’s the lottery’s slogan. If you’re not in it, you can’t lose anything. Leave well enough alone. And how good can it get, anyway? The house always wins. The house loves winning. The house gets you to scream its fucking name.
Stop right there, child.
It was Red. I breathed out. She was standing in front of the double doors with her arms outstretched, flanked by her fellow women in red.
You’re not going anywhere.
She walked forward and patted me down, as though she was looking for a weapon. Made me flinch.
I’ve got it. The dabber was on her. You were right.
Everyone cheered and my stomach dropped. They started clapping the woman from the front desk who I now realised was flanking with them. Red had pulled the Elvis dabber out of my pocket, the one that belonged to Mum. I told her to give it back. It was important.
Oh, I know it’s important. We all do.
They all lit up in unison, and I couldn’t breathe for the smoke or nostalgia.
This dabber belonged to your mother, didn’t it? Your bleeding mother. Oh, don’t look so shocked. We knew her. We knew you, too. Always dropping food and then asking for more. You didn’t care that we’d been in that kitchen for hours cooking it, did you?
Oh, shit. Red was one of dinner ladies back when I was in primary school.
Your mother was selfish too. Every year, taking those donations away from everyone. Never mind that other people wanted them! Never mind what it was really about, the hard work the PTA put into making the school a better place for everyone — not just for you and your mother. So greedy, the two of ya.
Listen, I’m sorry. I don’t know how she won so much. It was weird, it was just her thing. Everyone used to called her jammy. I don’t think she was being malicious. It was just bingo. Just chance. And about that food I dropped, I’m s—
No, no, don’t apologise. You don’t need to apologise. We made your mother see to it that we were all compensated. She’d almost paid off her debt, not quite, but not to worry. You’re here now to finish it.
The women locked their arms together so I couldn’t get through to the foyer. I felt insane. What debt were they even talking about? She had debt, yeah, but I sorted that out with the bank.
Oh, chicken, this has got nothing to do with the banks. This is bingo. This is our bingo. We weren’t going to sit back and take her nonsense. What your mother was doing was selfish. It wasn’t very Catholic of her, was it? Embarrassing the school like that. No. So, the PTA took up some extra-curricular activity. We set this venue up. Because she just loved the bingo, didn’t she? She wouldn’t be able to help herself, what with it being so close to your house and the school. Yeah. We knew what we were doing. And there she was on opening day. We pretended to be happy to see her and she bought it. We invited her to join our little syndicate.
Red tugged at her own t-shirt.
It’s great, we told her. Anything we win, we share between us. Anything you win, you share, too. That’s what family is for; what’s mine is yours. She was none the wiser. She came running every night of the week, here to this shrine we built, where your ‘jammy’ mother could commune with whatever devil she was in business with to constantly win. The ghost of Elvis by the looks of things.
She held the dabber up to the slot machine light like it was a bone she was inspecting.
Of course, when she did win — because she won everything, the witch — we wouldn’t let her keep a penny. It wouldn’t be fair! And it wouldn’t be forever. We just needed her to pay off the value of all those stolen prizes she took from us. Every tree, every egg. Every bottle of unopened perfume. Fantasy by Britney Spears, Daisy by Marc Jacobs…
But none of that was stolen. She won it all fair and square.
There’s nothing fair about witchcraft.
Red spit on the bus-carpet.
And well, that was the original plan anyway. Get your mother in, leave it even stevens. But we did a get bit carried away, didn’t we, girls? You see, we forgot just how good she was at winning.
You drained her for all she was worth.
Red took a long drag on the ciggy she had in one hand; the dabber was still in the other.
Yeah, I suppose we did. But it was for the greater good. You see, the PTA is an ambitious organisation, and the kids — well, we just want the world for them. And we need you to get it for them.
No, I’m leaving. I want nothing to do with you, the syndicate, or bingo. I’m done.
You can’t be.
No, when you signed up for a membership, you signed your life away. You belong to us now. Just like your mother. Our Anthony was doing a Law degree when we came up with this plan to make things right. He’s my son. Useless most of the time, didn’t even get a job in law, did he? But I made him write the contract, which we were only ever expecting to use once. Suppose your mother read the death clause after all. Either way, we knew you’d come knocking. And now, you’re going to be here every day of the week — the games start at 10AM, you know — and you’re going to use this dabber, sniff it until you reach a higher consciousness, or pray to St. Sebastian, or do whatever you need to do to keep us in business.
She put her hands on my shoulders, turned me around, and started walking me back into the bingo hall.
Because it’s time for a new computer room. We can’t be giving these children PCs. We need iMacs. We need 30 iMacs to reflect the increased class sizes.
She was marching me.
We also want to dig up the yard and make it into a fabulous wooded area. A forest school. Can’t just be you growing up with a special farm in your back garden.
The red women began their chorus:
We want the trees! We want the trees! We want the trees…
I got back into the bingo hall and I never left that room again.