A Short Story
In defence of Jackdaw Scrummach, it should be recorded that he was never very good at saying no. He wasn’t exactly a ‘yes-man’, but he was certainly not a ‘no-man’, and that was why he ended up knocking on Polly Seton’s door so terribly early in the morning. Or rather, why he eventually clambered through her back-window, just after witching hour, covered only by a thin sheen of rain. Had he been glibber about saying no, he would likely never have taken the bet or ended up scaling his dog-sitter’s Russian Vine stark naked, at one-thirty in the morning, sodding wet and shivering.
He would surely never have bargained the only thing in his life worth having: his luck.
Or perhaps he would.
To ignore the true nature of Jackdaw Scrummach would be thusly foolish, for his name alone is usually enough to have everyone talking. He is, or was, as all men know: the luckiest man in the world.
He’d made a career out of it.
It started with a knack for rolling sevens. He could roll any dice and it would always land seven. It would happen in anything: from Monopoly to Rumi. No matter the game, no matter the pair, he would roll a seven. As he grew so did his fledgling knack. He would think of the best number he could, raise the dice to his mouth in his left fist and then, like magician’s runes or old stones, he would cast them across the table and click-click-clack: they would roll. He would win.
When the boys at the Grantham Home for Destitute Children realised what a lucky child they had among them, they taught him poker and blackjack. He always had the winning hand.
It was then that it became his livelihood. For every game he won, the older boys gave him a little more attention, a little more protection. They’d make sure he had the best food after them, that he had the top bunk when he wanted it. That no one knew he wet himself that one time when the matron locked him in the corner cupboard beside the stove.
Luck must have decided she was his mother, he thought to himself at night. Goodnight Mother Luck. I love you. And then usually he’d fallen asleep.
Perhaps that was why she never abandoned him, why she smiled on Jackdaw Scrummach as he turned from a knobby-kneed wretch hiding behind a wisteria bush of black hair into an endearing sort of rogue. He became an affable young man who they said could make a nun giggle and an English gentleman take off his hat with laughter. His pale blue eyes seemed all-seeing, he could figure out a tell within moments of meeting someone, he could decipher another’s hand just by reading the nuances of their face. He started his own little bank, betting on horses – usually number seven – playing at cards, rolling the dice, testing his luck on petty thievery and ‘victimless’ crime, thanking his Mother Luck every night as he closed his eyes against the stars.
And just like that, he grew up and out of Grantham Home for Destitute Children and into the big wide world. It was said that he won the lottery the day after his sixteenth birthday, the day after he was turfed from the only home he had ever known. Only a few thousand because he’d shared his numbers with so many others, but it was enough to take him to the city where he checked himself into a four-star hotel. They say, days later, he won the top prize off a scratch card that he picked up off the street. A few weeks after, stories say his luck gave him an inhuman ability to creep: he tiptoed, almost invisible, into the luxurious rooms of a Lady Demora Hurst – a notoriously affluent woman that would only deign to speak to the blue-blooded, titled, and rich, though she had purchased her ‘Ladyship’ only twelve years prior. Inside the room he’d found almost a pound of uncut diamonds, because as it turned out, Lady Demora had taken to transferring all her money into lumps of the rock, believing their value more stable in the current economic climate. There was no evidence to connect him to the theft, despite the rumours that chattered away over coffee-cups and silver spoons.
Jackdaw Scrummach happily packed up after that, moved into a much grander hotel overlooking the park. And he’d been almost content, living there for nearly seventeen years.
Until the night that he was spotted climbing into Polly Seton’s house, he had been living in that exact hotel room, surrounded by luxuries and rumours. Yet none knew which stories were true, which were exaggerated, which were quite entirely fabricated. Theorists proclaimed him psychic; others believed he wasn’t real – just a myth to explain the inexplicable. But anyone sensible knew that he was no mere legend and that the only thing mystifying about him was why luck chose him.
Therefore, it was a peculiar thing for this thief, this unbeatable gambler, to place his luck on the table. When luck had carried him throughout his life, why risk it? That was certainly the main question circling as Jackdaw Scrummach eyed the other player and smiled. Though no one knew it then, she would be his final opponent.
He visited Four Corners, the card house on Banbury, every Thursday-week. Slouched against plush velvet chairs at a table that few ever approached, he sat and shuffled deck after deck. Sometimes aspiring players attended him for advice and they’d play ‘friendlies’, bartering for stories and memories. Since he never lost, he would often spend a few hours collecting their debts, their recollections of lovers, of families, of tender caresses offered freely and often. Then draining his scotch, he would tip his hat to the bar, button his coat and return to his empty hotel room where he learnt to hate Mother Luck. She kept him rich but she kept him lonely.
The woman who would walk away with his luck arrived one fateful Thursday; her violet gaze was wandering, with hardly a smile lurking around a thin mouth.
Odd, everyone thought, shabby.
She didn’t look like much of a player, didn’t look like she had much luck, certainly not to rival Jackdaw Scrummach with his enigmatic grin and sharp blue eyes.
“You’ve come to play Jackdaw?” scoffed the patrons of Four Corners as they gathered around their table. “Seriously, woman?”
For all their scoffing, it was an even match. Starting small, they bet with coins and trinkets, a watch, a set of silverware. Having placed the keys of her first piano upon the table, he upped the stakes to include a ring that carried a secret. She matched it with a bottle of wine made of sun on a winter’s day, full of small smiles between friends. Jackdaw Scrummach eyed her, mused upon her nondescript face, examined the twitch of her mouth, the crinkle around her eyes, the pallor to her skin, the sheen of perspiration. It was hard to tell her age. Life seemed to have been hard for her and in the seriousness of her brow and the gentle hands that held her cards, there seemed to be a story.
“You fear me,” he murmured to himself with a quirk of his lips and a nod. “That is quite wise. What shall I offer you that is worthy of your bottle of wine.”
She gave a sort-of-smile. Anyone looking closely might have seen more: the strain of her neck, the tension around her eyes. Tight control was her game, rigid discipline and attention.
“Perhaps the clothes on your back, sir,” she replied. “If I win I should like to take your pelt.”
He laughed, the sound whistling through many teeth. “You are mouthy too, for a girl. But if my clothes are what you deem worthy of your drink, I shall wager them.”
She won the hand. Observers gasped and a susurrus of whispers simmered between them. His grin was cool against her skin.
“Another hand, sir?”
“And shall we up the stakes?”
He laughed again, a terrible laugh. “I think luck will be on my side.”
Laying down new bets, she uncovered a key that could unlock any door and he, a key that could never be lost. He won the hand but played again: for a memory of sweet things and a recollection of a mother’s hug. He hungered after that one, her offering of maternal love. But she won the hand and he said: Again. Another hand.
He thought long and hard on this one and then he placed his offering: “The shoes that carried me through the house of Lady Demora. The unsounding shoes.”
Her own contribution had to match that, but what could match those shoes? She could offer him her name, reveal her purpose to him. She could offer him the invisibility of poverty but was unsure what wager that would make. She mused long and hard. Around them, the crowd noted the rise of his brow as she finally said, so soft and sweet: “To match: my tongue.”
“I can talk my way into Vatican City. I could make a stone cry. I could probably persuade Zeus to buy thunder from me. Sir, my tongue is my gift. It is what got me into this game.”
“My shoes are hardly comparable to your tongue.” His tone was rueful and suddenly much older than it should have been. “And my hand is good, I would not bet my shoes lightly.”
“Nor would I bet my tongue, sir.”
Jackdaw Scrummach nursed a drink in his hand, clinking as he swirled the ice. The people watched on, wondering what game this girl was playing. He revealed his cards and everyone sighed in relief. Full house. She grinned.
“Four of a kind, sir.”
“Ahh…” He smirked. “I see. One more bet. Winner takes all.”
She frowned. Had he not just lost the most precious of his gifts? This was all she had come for – the shoes that could change her life, her path of needles to a path of pins.
“I will place my Mother on the table, if you will place yours,” he said, repeating: “And winner will take all.”
Luck. Luck. Luck. The crowd hissed the word in a fluttering muttering surprise. Mother Luck.
Everyone knew he was not a ‘yes-man’. He was a ‘if luck is with me man’ – luck was all he truly had. Why would a man bet his luck, his mother? When she accepted, his smile was like wind over an ocean: cold and relentless.
All know the outcome of this bet: him climbing into Polly Seton’s window glittering in the rain like a rough gem in a wall of flint. But some say that Jackdaw Scrummach unravelled. That his hair became wild, his eyes became bright. Others describe how he seemed to deflate, to lose the glitter of his smile, the quiet confidence of his name. All that remained was a man who owed the clothes on his back, a ring that held a secret, a memory of sweet things…
As he left, naked as the day he was found on the doorstep of Grantham House for Destitute Children, he leant in and murmured in the lady’s ear, “She is a cruel lady, my mother.”
She had an idea of what he meant. She rolled a dice and landed sevens. Four Corners whispered around her, around the empty space of her table. No one would play her lightly now. She could inherit his legacy of loneliness.
As for Jackdaw Scrummach, they say he disappeared, that his luck left him and he lost everything she ever gave him. But there are other stories too – of a man with quite a different sort of luck. He’s a dog-walker and some heard him say, as he kissed his pretty wife with a smile like summer wind, “I am the luckiest man in the world.”
Perhaps he is.
Written for the “What a Character” Contest. Placed 3rd. I guess it wasn’t complete trash. But I’d still love to hear all your thoughts (constructive criticism much appreciated).
Word Count: 1,997