The Odds Game
Conor and his new friend Samuel Milton took in the view as they sat comfortably in the warmth of the Eagle & Child. They watched as the rain lightly tapped against the windows, as the puddles slowly formed on the street corners. Passers-by were pulling out their umbrellas and frantically running to shelter. The tables and chairs inside quickly filled up with shivering punters shaking off the rain.
‘Have you ever heard of the human regression theory?’ Samuel asked, handing Conor a shot of tequila. He glanced to the new arrivals coming in from the cold. Conor shrugged.
‘It’s the belief that the human race will eventually peak in its ascension. Achieve all that we are capable of, and then over time, slowly regress, forgetting all that has been learned.’ He picked up his tequila and gestured to the room. ‘It can make you wonder, when will we know that we’ve peaked?’
Conor had met Samuel during his first week at University. He was staying in the opposite room at Tennyson House and had given an almost immediate impression of wealth and boyish charm. He spoke with a rich, distinctly royal English accent and projected the self-worth and confidence you would expect followed a childhood spent wanting for nothing.
‘So, what are you taking?’ Conor had asked him.
‘Strictly class A’s, often with whisky. And you?’
Samuel’s dry sense of humour had taken a while to get used to. He had a cold exterior that would deflect questions and repel interest, a demeanour that required perseverance and patience. Instantly Conor had considered him the first test of his new mindset, an opportunity to meet someone he would have otherwise never met; and after several exhausting evenings attempting to keep up with his provocative intellect and rapid switches in conversation, an acceptance between them grew. Some would call it a friendship, but it was early days.
Conor had spent the past hour sharing memories and drinking stories from back home. Samuel listened intently in parts whilst on occasion drifting his focus, distracted by the mock Tudor character of the pub, the visible wooden beams, the lamps and roaring fire place. It offered an ambience which appeared to remind him of home.
Conor would have happily listened but depending on his mood Samuel would often be guarded when talking about where he came from and, in particular, his family.
He was also proving a strong drinker; three rounds with an accompanying shot and there was no sign of effect. Conor started to imagine that he had a silver flask of whisky tucked away in his jacket pocket at all times.
‘So, how’s your course going?’ Conor asked, the taste of tequila still warm on his breath.
‘Tiresome,’ Samuel sighed.
Conor wasn’t thrown by the response.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t think it was for you.’ He was still confused by Samuel’s choice on studying Finance Math at Pembroke.
‘No offense taken, chap. To be fair it’s more my attendance at University that’s the driving factor here, rather than any purpose.’
‘So why are you here?’
Samuel looked away, appearing to choose his words before returning his attention.
‘I am here, dear boy, because I find the thought of contributing to society troublesome at best.’ His tone became less playful. ‘I’m here because parents like mine offer to pay the tuition fees of their children just to remove you from their sight. I’m here at the courtesy of my beloved ex girlfriend Michelle, who took my virginity and my heart and then replaced me with a pretty boy named Craig. Turns out she’s engaged now, which makes you wonder why stupid decisions aren’t rewarded more often!’
He took in a mouthful of his pint and swallowed it down.
‘I’m here for the stories, Conor, the experience. Something to tell my grandchildren when I have them, God forbid. I want proof that I lived… Why are you here?’
‘I told you. A degree in Computer Science.’
‘Oh yes, that’s right. Fascinating.’ Samuel rolled his eyes. ‘Why are you here?’ he asked, pointing down at the table. It was clear he meant Oxford.
Conor paused to think on his answer. No one had asked him it before. Oxford was deemed an achievement in anyone’s eyes, the instinctive reaction was to congratulate him, ask what he was studying and wish him the best of luck. But Samuel didn’t seem to carry the same enchantment to his new digs.
‘I was jaded. No, jaded is the wrong word; frustrated would be better,’ Conor admitted. ‘Back home I rotated my evenings around the same bars and clubs, regurgitating a copy of a night over and over… All my life, I’ve just wanted to do something worth remembering. I guess I’m looking for something.’
As he spoke Conor noticed a red-head by the bar ordering drinks.
‘A chance to meet people,’ he said softly. She had a lean athletic body and was wearing skinny jeans and a tight pink top.
Samuel frowned, noticing Conor’s sudden daze and followed his eye line to the bar.
‘Remember, dear boy,’ he smiled. ‘Women are an odds game that’s never in your favour.’
Undeterred, Conor rose from the table, wobbling slightly as he stood to his feet. Unlike Samuel the pace in which they had got through the first few rounds was not without effect.
‘Just give me a minute,’ he said.
Samuel watched jeeringly as Conor carefully walked towards the bar, heading straight for the girl. Weaving in and amongst the crowds and tables, he moved as quickly as he could, reaching the bar in time to see that she was being served her drinks. He casually positioned himself next to her. Aim high, aim far.
‘Hello,’ he said, trying his best to sound charming.
His greeting prompted her to glance at him for a brief second before turning back to her drinks.
Conor reeled. ‘Jesus, that obvious?’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that,’ she said, turning her head slightly, a touch of sarcasm in her tone.
‘Well, ten points in any case.’
She gave no response. Conor made every effort to keep his eye line above her neck.
‘Nice place, Oxford,’ he tried again. ‘You live here?’
‘You come here often?’ Quickly he regretted his choice of words.
‘And why would you ask that?’ she moved to face Conor, giving him her complete attention for the first time. She had dark hazel eyes.
‘You don’t do this very often, do you?’ she asked, smiling. ‘Not that I’m suggesting you’re inexperienced or amateur. No, you’ve had some experience with girls or you wouldn’t have approached at all. It’s just that you’ve got insecurities. I’m guessing it’s because this is your first time away from home. Are you studying IT?’
Conor couldn’t hide his surprise.
‘Computer Science. How did you know?’
‘You’ve got a look about you.’
‘I’ll take that as a compliment.’
‘Take whatever helps,’ she said, looking away to shield a smile.
Conor caught it but played along.
‘Thank you. What makes you think this is my first time away from home?’
‘Well, for one thing it explains this newfound courage of yours.’ She took a sip of her drink. ‘You can’t quite believe your luck, can you?’
He looked away before returning with a smirk.
The barman served the last of her drinks onto a tray and took the twenty pound note she had held out folded between her fingers.
‘So, what’s your name?’ Conor asked, feeling a sudden need to act fast.
‘Oooh, direct. I’m impressed.’
‘But not enough?’
‘Not today,’ she took the change from the barman, giving him a wink, and turned back to Conor. ‘So why Oxford? What’s wrong with the University in Leicester?’
‘What makes you say Leicester?’
‘Well judging by your accent I’m guessing it’s Leicester, but I suppose it could be Coventry or outer Nottingham even.’ Conor did his best not to give her anything. She studied his face and smiled. ‘But it’s Leicester, definitely Leicester.’
‘I have my reasons for Oxford,’ Conor said enjoying her interest. ‘But we don’t know each other well enough and perhaps we should. Can I give you my number? You can’t learn everything from a glance and I think…’
‘No, not by a glance,’ she interrupted. ‘But by watching the way that they talk, dress, compose themselves in conversation.’ Conor noticed that he was leaning against the bar and stood up straight. ‘You can get enough… And after looking at you and a minute’s conversation I’m guessing you were born and raised in Leicester. Perhaps a little excessively mothered from a young age, middle class of course, kept your head down in school and did well but not as well as you hoped.’
She squinted in thought. ‘From there you went on to further education definitely, no doubt fuelled by binge drinking and nights out with equally testosterone driven primates. But that of course led to boredom and boredom to escapism. I’m sure Oxford felt like a logical choice.’ She took another sip of her drink.
‘How many points do I get?’
Conor leaned back up against the bar, wondering whether there was any point in speaking at all.
‘Have you ever heard of the human regression theory?’ he thought to say.
She smiled and picked up her drinks.
‘Have fun, Fresher, but not too much fun. OK?’
‘Don’t you want to know my name?’ Conor called out as she walked away.
‘I don’t need it,’ she replied, disappearing into the crowd.
He stood at the bar, dazed by the elegance in which she had palmed him away. If the odds weren’t in his favour back home, they weren’t worth calculating in Oxford. He glanced back to Samuel to find him grinning ridiculously and saluting with his pint. He’d enjoyed the show.
Conor thought for a second, trying to imagine how the exchange could have played out better for him. Was it the way he was dressed? His hair? He sighed, eventually settling on a reason that his pride painfully allowed him to accept.
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David P. Philip