The Night Watchers


What is really luck? Perhaps it is all a good game of dice…

It’s Sunday on Port Quay. It is five in the morning and the crashing waves on the bay is the only sound audible to passers by, even though there aren’t any. Just a few minutes ago snow was falling softly against the dusty purple sky. But it is enough, enough to stir up a cackle. Night watchers have learned to use what they can to play a game of dice. There aren’t many left nowadays, but tonight they have all come here, to Port Quay.

They only have a couple of hours. That is the rule, a couple of hours between dawn and sunrise. Even if it snows. The Night Watchers hate snow. Their coats are too thin and torn to sustain the wet cold. And very few of them carry hats. They sleep on rooftops and chimneys, places warm enough to not need a hat. They only come out of their darkened doorways when nobody else is about.

There is a old Mr. Petwick now, he used to love Christmas, but that was before. He is smiling under the soft light of the street lamps, tossing a pair of dice up in the air and catching them with his left hand. Pretty Mrs. Winkle, in a black velvet dress, sneaks up behind him. She puts her thin arms around his waist, and he jumps and the pair of dice falls to the ground. “What are you doing you old hag!” he shouts and spins around to face his attacker. Mrs. Winkle’s face tightens and she glares at him angrily. “See what you made me do!! ” Old Mr. Petwick points to the ground, and Mrs. Winkle utters an alarming cry. She bends down and studies the dice, “oh thank heavens, double six!” she sighs in relief and picks up the pair of dice, and hands them over to old Mr. Petwick. “You old fool!” he spits the accusation at her and stamps away from the bridge they have been standing on. “Don’t worry, dear,” says Miss Margaret, “he is just a wee nervous, you frightened him, you see.” Mrs. Winkle blinks away angry tears and smiles at her friend. “Yes, it was silly of me, really.” Miss Maragret tries to tuck her shawl even closer around her shoulders, but the shawl is old with big holes in it. “Come on ladies!” Mr. Lang is waiting for them on the other side of the bridge. “It is time!”

Here comes the Night watchers and the wet pavements and black concrete walls begin to shine with a winter sun still a long way from awakening. You can only go so far with matches. Miss Margaret in her red stiletto pumps steps gingerly over a pile of yellow snow with a shovel pierced inside, Mr. Lang reaches for her hand, but she declines. There are fisher boats, and white yachts docked in the bay, slipping on black and white waves. Seagulls muck about with greasy white paper and riff-raff bags. The yellow street lamps pulse orange and silver on the noisy sea remaking the hour-old snow and doubling the absent stars. The light is coming on faster now, scattering shadows across the melted snow. This is when the game always begins.

They are seated on cold steel benches with little holes in them. Nobody makes anything out of wood anymore, and almost everything has less of itself, like with holes. A little air to fill the homeless blanks. A penny saved, a penny gained. “Shall we begin?” asks Mr. Petwick. Mr. Lang, a middle aged gentleman with a twenty year old tweed suit and grey spangles in his air nods enthusiastically. He loves the game. Ever since he lost his fortune on the stock exchange market, he has loved games. Mrs. Winkle ungloves her hand and offers it up in the made-up circle of blue-cold hands. “Let me play first,” she says. “Well, what is your wager?” asks Mr. Lang. “A writer’s dream.” she replies. “I challenge that!” Mr. Petwick is eager now. He doesn’t like writers. Mr. Lang raises his eyebrows, “well, what is your wager?” ” A pot of gold and a lifetime of youth.” “Good one!” says Miss Maragaret and laughs. The wager is set, and Mrs. Winkle rolls the dice. A 3 and a 5. Not bad. But still beatable. She shrugs. Now it’s Mr. Petwick’s turn. He puts a little more force in his release and the pair of dice shoot and fall on to the wet ground. They all bend down to see the outcome. A 4 and a 6! “Haha! Too bad!” Mr. Petwick is triumphant. He was never competitive before, but now…

It is Miss Maragret’s turn to challenge Mr. Petwick. Her wager is small. “A house by the sea and a puppy.” Mr. Petwick laughs . ” A puppy! Miss Margaret, this is no child’s game!” Miss Margaret shrugs. She had always wanted a puppy when she was small. It was a big deal then. ” True love!” exclaims Mr. Petwick, and stares at the crowd as though he is awaiting their admiration. Miss Margaret rolls the dice. Two 1’s. A little girl stirs wearily in her bed. It is almost sunrise. Mr. Petwick laughs. He bounces the dice down the concrete. A 5 and a 6. “That wasn’t even fun!” he looks pityingly at Miss Margaret. She has a resigned look in her pretty dirty face. “Well, mate, it comes down to the two of us.” Mr. Petwick slaps his hand on Mr. Lang’s back. Mr. Lang nods. “So, what’s your wager?” Mr. Lang smiles. “Happiness.” Mrs. Winkle sucks in her breath and reaches for Miss Margaret’s hand. “How did you…?” her voice is shaking. Mr. Lang doesn’t answer. Even Mr. Petwick has gone pale. Only Mr. Lang keeps smiling, as though…as though…it really just was a game of dice… “Well, go on, Mr. Petwick, let’s give it a go.” Mr. Petwick collects the dice in his hand, and tosses them. Two 5s! He smiles. But Mr. Lang does not seem bothered. He retrieves the dice cheerfully. “Good one, Mr. Petwick my old friend, let us see if I can beat you!” He rolls the dice. They all hold their breath. The sun blinks, and an alarm clock goes off. The world is stirring. Suddenly the street lamps wear off. The Night Watchers stare at the missing false light nervously. A cloud runs across the pink sky. A bird sighs melancholy.

Two 6’s. The sun has reached the horizon. The winner picks up the dice. The other Night Watchers are quiet, too stunned to speak. They search for the shadows and cross the bridge. Miss Marageret slips on the icy ground, Mr. Lang steadies her. Snow falls down on them and they huddle under Mrs. Winkle’s navy blue umbrella, hurrying back into the alleys, the empty garages, the dark corners where no one bothers to look. The only trace of them is a mark in the snow, two little hollows, a game of dice. But soon the sun and stamping feet will erase even that.

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