The air was antiseptic and unnaturally chilled in the terminal when the announcement came over the Tannoy. I was reading a book on the Battle of Britain Bunker at the closest coffee bar we could find, and resented this muffled interruption. Sometimes, I do feel like such a loser.
“Hey Winston,” Roger said. “You get a word of that?”
I looked up at my Harrovian roommate. “Gate something now open, I think.”
My travel companion from school had named me after the wartime Prime Minister—my proper name was actually Uxbridge but he disliked it—however, he wore me down with repetition and eventually it grew on me.
Turning my bamboo eco-cup in clockwise movements on the laminated table, I strained to hear for our flight details. “Hope it wasn’t ours, Rank.”
“This coffee is a shit storm in a recycled cup and ridiculously expensive too.”
I wasn’t sure whether it was his posh speak or his family’s insistence that he not change his name until he was eighteen, but Roger Rankin was someone I was immediately drawn to at Harrow. Old school posh, I guess. Whereas I was what they still considered to be new money.
“Think it was over a tenner for both and that lady tried to upsell on the croissants.”
I took a card out from my shirt pocket and flicked the edge with my thumb.
“Stewart Uxbridge,” he barked like a housemaster, “you still got that scratch card?”
I looked down into my frothy cup. “Guilty, Sir!”
“I bet you haven’t even checked it yet.” Roger fished through his spare change. “Catch.” He threw a dirham coin at me playfully but it bounced off my hand and hit the floor with a ping, ricocheting off the sugar counter and running under my chair. Roger rolled his eyes. The coffee lady stared at us, tilting her head with curiosity, while I attempted to trap the coin with my shoe and pick it up.
I never win anything. I was gifted this card the previous night, after a heated debate with the manager of a local fast food restaurant, but I didn’t bother to scratch it. Until now.
Poised over the card, I rubbed crossways, but the writing slowly revealed was tiny and almost illegible. Then the word at the top appeared: Congratulations!
I covered my mouth with a disbelieving hand and looked at my friend.
“You’ve won something?” Roger strained to read upside down under the harsh lights.
I attempted to contain my excitement. “It’s probably just a burger.”
The coffee lady pretended to wipe around the opposite counter. Each stroke of the coin revealed further letters until it became clearer.
“Bloody bollocks, Rank,” I blurted out. “Premier League tickets!”
Roger grabbed the scratch card from my hand and read aloud, “You have won two Premier League tickets with flights included to any UK airport.”
“But I never win anything.”
I noticed the coffee lady had worked her way over to our table.
“I still don’t think you have,” said Roger as he read through the small details at the bottom of the card. “You need to confirm with a UAE phone number and we haven’t got one. Why didn’t you scratch this last night at the hotel?”
“Bugger!” I slammed my fist on the table, and my expensive coffee rocked and spilled over. The coffee lady was there in a flash with her dry cloth in hand. She mopped up the spillage and gazed obscenely at the card.
“Burger Shack,” she announced.
“What’s that? I replied.
“Burger Shack!” she repeated.
“Oh, yes. I won something. Is there one here in this terminal?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Show me prize.”
“Hold up, Winston,” said Roger. “This thing is worth money. You can’t just give it away to anyone—”
“I have phone,” insisted the lady. “You give to me?”
“—besides, you might be able to trade it online.”
The heat rose in my face at this realisation. “Yeah,” I replied, “to some Dubai Brat.”
A clacking of American teens had gathered at the counter and the lady left indignantly to serve them.
Roger smirked and pushed his coffee aside. “Close call, Winston. But she’s right. You can’t use this coupon, and besides, our flight is due to leave any moment.”
“I know,” I said with resignation. “So who do I give it to?”
A rubbish collector wheeled up his mobile bin cart and adjusted his face mask. With the current health scare, it seemed that every other person at the airport was wearing masks; paper ones, cloth ones, high-tech filters with red nose balls, even WW2 looking gas masks. I considered this man as a potential recipient, but how would I approach him?
“Hey Rank,” I said,” how about that guy?”
Roger studied the rubbish collector like a fine art piece at a gallery. “He certainly ticks all the boxes. I mean, he does have a low-paid job and he would certainly be more appreciative than coffee madam.”
“You make a compelling argument but—”
“Wait, I think they know each other and look, she’s giving him a sandwich! Oh, tell me he isn’t coming over. Here’s your chance.”
“Maybe I could just leave it on my tray and—”
We both looked across in repulsion as he walked past us and stuck his filthy fingers all over the sugar sachets, the eco wooden stirrers, and the recycled napkins.
“Next candidate,” said Roger, pushing his coffee further away.
“I hope he washes his hands next time.”
The flock of Americans swooped onto the sugar counter as the rubbish collector made a hasty retreat. As they passed our table, I was assaulted by a wave of sweet and spicy perfume, no doubt sampled from the Duty Free boutique at the entrance. Most of them were on their phones as they grabbed an abundance of sugars, stirrers, and napkins. We tried to offer a word of warning, however we were consumed by our British awkwardness. They complained about the price of the coffee, and one girl looked up from her phone and smiled directly at me.
“Give it to her,” said Roger in a low and creepy voice.
“Yes, I will,” I replied through gritted teeth.
“Do it now, my son!” said Roger in his best Cockney accent—I adored the way he tried to sound so down-to-earth, as if he were channelling the common man.
When I turned back to hand her the card, she had already found a distant table with her group and, in the twinkling of an eye, she had gone. She could have been my future wife in another existence.
The moment was shattered by another tannoy announcement. “Final call for flight 91 to London Gatwick. Please go directly to gate lounge 1A.”
Roger looked at me in a state of panic unbecoming a student of Harrow. “That’s us—we have to go now!”
I grabbed my bags and stood to leave, offering a half-smile and a weak wave to the girl whom I had almost chosen. Unfortunately, it came off so badly that I decided to keep the card. No doubt she would not have a UAE phone number either, and possibly had an imminent flight too.
The coffee lady scowled at our hasty departure.
Roger clipped on his knapsack, resembling a five-year-old at his first day of school, looking left and right. “Where is gate lounge 1A?”
I wanted to help but I was still consumed by this stupid card. And in all honesty, I didn’t have a clue. Roger stopped some passing flight attendants and pleaded with them. “Gate 1A…where?”
The attendants didn’t break their stride and pointed directly through the shop to the opposite side of the building. We ran without thanking them—not at all Harrovian protocol—and bulldozed our way through shoppers.
I was still measuring the faces of the customers in a desperate bid to gift my prize. None of these people seemed worthy candidates in my eyes. Roger found the gate lounge and flapped around to grab his boarding card from his knapsack. “Grab my passport, Winston. It’s in the side pocket.”
“I will, as soon as I find mine!”
“Look they’re all going through now.”
“I know, but I just have to—” and then I was off.
“Where are you going?” Roger called frantically.
“I’m going through. Come on!”
Roger dumped his backpack on the floor and located his documents.
In the corner of the next gate lounge I spotted another garbage collector. He looked Asian in appearance, though it was hard to tell under his face mask.
“This is for you!” I announced as I handed the card over cautiously.
He seemed confused, but took the card and said, “Burger Shack.”
“Yes, it’s football tickets.”
“Gate 17—Burger Shack.”
“No, you don’t understand. I won, and now it’s for you—”
“Winston, we have to board the plane now!” yelled Roger.
Secure in the knowledge that I had passed on the baton successfully, I grabbed my boarding card and passport and was hustled through the gate lounge by the staff. As I turned to view my recipient, I saw him trying to read the card, and then he did the unthinkable. He binned it.
I silent screamed like the man in the painting, but it was pointless. I had finally won something but it was all for nothing. I was still a loser.
© 2020 Craig Brown
Craig is a writer of children’s fiction and poetry, with an ongoing interest in exploring other writing methods, painting and perambulation.