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A Betting Man

I walked right past him and went up to the third floor. Outside the ward I put on my mask, a rectangle of blue cellulose which covered my face from under my chin to the bridge of my nose. My glasses immediately steamed up. I pushed open the heavily-sprung door and went through. I could hardly see. I walked tentatively down the blue corridor like a diver at the bottom of the ocean. Two or three patients were strolling around, bright-eyed and alert above their masks. These, by definition, were healthy patients, people in remission who were feeling reasonably well. The sick ones were all in their rooms, in their beds, tubed up to glass bottles and plastic bags and humming steel cabinets, not feeling well at all.

John wasn't in his room. He hadn't gone very far, though. A copy of Racing Results 1996 lay cracked open on the pillow, and the laptop on his bedside table had its lid up. The numerous Sicilian family who constantly surrounded the other patient in the room didn't know where John had gone, nor did the nurse in the office. I borrowed a sheet of paper and a pen and left a note on his bed. "Came to see you Friday one thirty p.m.," I wrote. "But you'd gone out (!?). I'll try again tomorrow. Bill."

Outside, I nearly walked past him again. He was sitting on a bench, reading a magazine, close to a sprinkler that was watering the grass and the rose bushes behind him. I hadn't recognised him on my way in partly because I hadn't been expecting to see him there. He was supposed to be in bed, respectably ill, not loafing around in the sunshine like some holiday-maker. I also hadn't noticed him because he'd become depersonalised with his featureless hospital pyjamas, standard-issue mask, and shiny hairless head. I'd seen the cancer patient, someone who was intimately involved with chemotherapy, but I hadn't seen my friend John. I simply hadn't recognised him.

"Hello," I said, sitting down next to him. "How are things?"

He looked up from his magazine. "Oh, hello. I wasn't expecting you. It's nice to see you."

"It's nice to see you, too." An occasional note of formality had crept into our relationship since he'd been ill. It was difficult to know what to do about it. "How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Great," he said, with enthusiasm. "Really good. I'm bloody weak, still, but compared to last week I feel like Tarzan. And it's such a beautiful day. Look at that sky! The next person who tells me he's depressed, I'll say, try spending two weeks in hospital with gallons of nauseating crap pouring through your arms, and then go outside on a sunny day. It's great just to sit on a bench. It's absolutely amazing just to be here, instead of feeling like shit warmed up."

I believed him. His sincerity made me feel banal and ungrateful. He was, for the moment, galvanised, plugged into a higher current of life, like someone on LSD, or someone in free-fall. He'd left someone like me, who'd just done the shopping and had to be at work in an hour, way behind, on another, duller planet.

"Um... aren't you getting wet?" I asked. I knew he was, because I was sitting next to him, and I was getting wet. We were in range of the sprinkler, and every few seconds it feathered us pleasantly with a fine spray.

"Yes," John said. "Nice, isn't it? This magazine's getting fucked, though."

This was true. The magazine in his hands was slowly turning soggy. "What is it?" I asked.

"Last week's Economist. I wasn't really reading it anyway. Reactionary rag."

"Listen, the nurses don't know you're down here. Are you sure it's okay?"

"I asked a doctor," said John. "The nurses always say no to everything. They just want you lying quietly in bed, not causing any trouble. So I asked Doctor Roberta, and she said yes, so I was out here like a flash. Well, not exactly a flash. More like twenty minutes, the way I move along these days."

"Oho," I said, "Doctor Roberta now, is it? That's the pretty one, I presume. On first name terms now, are we?"

"Well, sort of," John said, modestly. "They're all very friendly, though."

"Come off it. She fancies you. You can see it a mile off."

John smiled. "She does seem to sort of like me."

"Oh yeah. And how often does she come around and examine you, then?"

"Not often enough. And they don't really do much of that sort of examining, anyway. It's all just one bloody long blood sample and counting the corpuscles, with me."

"Hard luck. She's nice, though, isn't she, your Doctor Roberta."

"She's gorgeous."

We were both smiling. It seemed normal, to be joking about women. Doctor Roberta, however, had been the one I'd instigated to talk to John about his chances of remaining fertile. One of the other doctors, a man, had said something about this in passing, in fractured English, and John hadn't understood it. I'd therefore taken it upon myself to follow Doctor Roberta out into the corridor the next time she'd passed through John's room, to ask her what the score was. She'd promptly marched back to the foot of John's bed and told him, with me translating, that he mustn't attempt to make a baby while he was undergoing therapy, but that there was a high probability that his fertility would return to normal within a couple of years. She took off her mask while she told him this, possibly so that he could appreciate her reassuring smile. But John had seemed bemused, even irritated. He didn't have any plans to have children, as far as I knew, but I'd thought that it might be one of those virility things, and that it might be nice for him to be told not to worry about it. But perhaps I 'd been guilty of thinking in terms of an inappropriate time scale. Perhaps John wanted to kick the problem inside him first, before thinking about the next generation. Or perhaps I, and Doctor Roberta, had offended against some private placatory rites by being over-optimistic. It was tempting fate, perhaps, to pretend that John was going through something that would return him to normality pretty soon, as if the long-term risks were similar to, say, having an appendix removed. Whatever he'd thought, he'd never raised the subject again, and nor had I.

"How about an ice-cream?" I suggested.

"Ace," said John. "Just right."

The bar was about two hundred yards away, down the central viale of the hospital. I would've been quite happy to fetch ice-creams for both of us, but John wanted to come with me. We sauntered along slowly. Some of the people in the bar stared at him. John seemed to be oblivious to this, but as we left with our Cornettos, he said, "They think I've got AIDS. And they think they're going to catch it from breathing the same air as me. Bastards."

I said nothing. I suspected that John might have broken a hospital rule by walking into the hospital bar in his full sick man's kit of pyjamas, mask and bald head, but I wasn't about to say so. I remembered that after my first visit to John in hospital I'd gone straight home, stripped off my clothes, thrown them into the washing-machine, and then taken a shower. I knew perfectly well that there was nothing infectious about the illnesses on John's ward, and that the masks were to protect the patients from the visitors and not vice-versa, but I was surprised at the strength of my instinctive need to clean myself. I protected myself from embarrassment by generalising. Here in the West we think we're rational and resistant to superstition and unexplained taboos, most of us, but this is perhaps only because we live rational, predictable, trouble-free lives, most of the time. We don't actually know how we'd react to the unknown, or disaster, or terror, or violence. Or how we'll react to illness and death, our own or other people's, until they happen.

We sat down on a different bench and ate our ice-creams. We talked about John's work on the laptop. He was using it to make a statistical analysis of all British horse-races over the previous few years in an attempt to find a set of common factors which would enable him to make a profit out of betting. This project was kept secret from everyone except his closest friends, partly because he didn't want other people stealing the idea, and partly because the concept tended to evoke scepticism.

In fact I was very sceptical myself, and I'd thought of a new objection. "The bookies must have done their own research into this sort of thing," I pointed out. "If they knew about any sort of winning formula, they'd just change the odds to compensate for it, wouldn't they?"

"Not if it wasn't costing them much money," John said. "If only a few people in the whole country were consistently making money out of them, they wouldn't give a shit, as long as it didn't affect their overall profits. They have to let people win, sometimes, but they don't care whether it's the same person winning because of a system, or different people winning out of sheer random luck. The secret is simply to win more often than you lose. And you need to have enough money to invest in the project to be able to ride out a losing period, knowing that you'll win in the long term. Which is where the computer comes in, because you could never work out the permutations just with paper and pencil. I have to check all possible sets of all possible variables, including stuff like weight and age of the jockey, weather conditions, track record of the horse, size of the crowd, absolutely everything I can get my hands on, and the computer has to crunch the numbers until it shows me that a certain set of variables tends to throw up a winner with something slightly more than random probability. And then you start investing your money."

"How much money?"

"A lot. There'd be no point in doing it unless the profit you make at the end of the day is worth all the work you put into it."

"And how long would you do it for?"

"Five years, minimum. That's several thousand races. You have to think in those terms, because the pattern probably wouldn't show over just a few hundred. It's a big project."

"And how exactly are you planning to finance this?"

"I'd sell my house. And I might set up a group of investors. If I could find the right sort of people to come in with me." He looked at me.

I shook my head. "You crazy bastard," I said. "You're not going to convince me to invest my life savings betting on horse races, in the certain knowledge that I'm going to lose at least two thousand times out of five thousand."

He laughed. "You'll look pretty stupid if I end up a millionaire, though."

"And if the pattern changes?" I objected. "If in the next five years it just happens to shake out differently from the last five, for no particular reason?"

John shrugged. "Of course, there's an element of risk. But then, that's true of everything. And anyway it keeps me busy while I'm stuck in a hospital bed."

We finished our ice-creams and wandered back towards John's ward. He was walking more and more slowly. I considered offering him my arm to hold on to, but British reserve and fear of giving offence won the day, as usual. The sprinklers outside the clinic had been switched off.

"It's absolutely the wrong time of day to water plants, you know," John said, sitting down on the damp bench. "When the sun's shining, I mean. The water droplets act as magnifying glasses and damage the leaves. They don't know how to do anything right, around here."

I looked at my watch. "I have to get to work," I said. "Do you want to go back up?"

"No. I like it here. Thanks for coming. I must be a depressing old fart to have to talk to, these days."

"Not at all," I said, becoming formal. I wanted to tell him how brave I thought he was and how much I wanted him to get better, but I wasn't sure it would sound right. I didn't want to sound patronising, or sentimental, or to draw his attention once more to his illness. And so I said nothing, and another chance to express admiration, or friendship, or something, was lost. "I'll come again tomorrow," I said. "Do you need anything?"

"No, thanks. I've got everything I need. Except a better bloody blood count."

I saw him again after that, several times, but never outside, in the sunshine. And towards the end I didn't see him at all, because he felt too ill, and he didn't want to see anyone except his girlfriend and his family, who came over from England in the last few days. The funeral was in England. I couldn't go.

John had been told about the risks involved in the therapy right at the start. A hundred to one, they'd told him. One person in a hundred reacted badly to the chemicals that they were going to put through him, and that person would die. As a betting man, he thought those were pretty good odds.