M. W. Leeming
M. W. Leeming
Victoria glanced across the room at the clock on the wall. It was 6.55pm.
The weeping had begun an hour ago.
Victoria sat squashed into her sofa, tightly hugging her family. Her husband, Joe. Grim faced and solemn. His clammy hand gripping her own like a vice. Squeezing. Squeezing with the ferocity of his love and his private regrets and his hope. It was too tight, Victoria thought. Too tight. But how could she tell him that?
The two children. Jack, sitting on her lap, six-years-old. He was ineligible. Freya: she was sixteen-years-old, eligible and enrolled.
They knew the odds, but there was no going back now.
The clock struck 7pm and the Network mini-cams in Victoria’s lounge came to life. Red dots blinking from the corners of the room where the walls met the ceiling. Lost among the festive sparkle of Christmas decorations.
“Good evening and merry Christmas!” said the over-friendly host with his beaming, white-teeth smile. “I’m your host for the National Lottery, Jimmy Jennings! It’s that time of year and it’s that time of night – so welcome…to the National Lottery!”
Riotous applause. Cheering. The studio audience, whipped into a frenzy of excitement.
Victoria felt a sudden panic swell from her belly and radiate numbness throughout.
It was Freya. Eyes wide. Tears streaming. She leaned forward, searching with her eyes for a last minute escape.
“Mum, please! I don’t want to do this!”
It was her first draw. Freya had turned sixteen two weeks ago.
Victoria closed her eyes. “I know it’s not easy, darling,” she said. “But we can’t back out now. It’s the law.”
Freya’s face, a pale mask of terror, slackened into disbelief. “Dad, for Christ’s sake! Are you gonna do anything?”
Joe stared at the TV. Blinked tears from his eyes. “It’s the law, love. Your Mum’s right.”
“But you didn’t ask what I wanted! You didn’t give me the choice!”
Six-year-old Jack glanced sideways at her with a vague irritation, and leaned forward. “It’s starting, Mummy,” he said.
The applause died down. “Okay, okay!” said the host. “So…just to recap: this is the second Lottery Draw of the year and I think it's worth mentioning that we had a record number of players this year, which is something that took even us by surprise. Nearly ten thousand players enrolled, which is two thousand more than last year’s Lottery. Now...as if our viewers didn’t already know, the Lottery is a bi-annual game in which members of the public compete for the prize of two million pounds” – applause and whoops of excitement from the audience – “which will be awarded to the lucky winners of tonight’s draw. But before we select our winners, we have to select our losers.”
Theatrical booing and hissing from the audience. Jimmy Jennings waved a hand to settle them down; it was a much-rehearsed element of the Draw broadcast. “Alright, alright,” he said. “I know, I know. But it’s part of the game. We all know that. And what do we say?”
Scripted response. “You can’t have winners without losers!”
Jimmy grinned. “That’s right. You can’t have winners without losers. And if our audience members cast their minds back to the Draw in June, you’ll remember that our unfortunate losers were threes.”
A sombre silence from the audience.
Victoria rubbed involuntarily at the tattoo-stamp on her arm. Ticket number #1. She glanced at Joe’s: Ticket number #2. Back in June, Freya had been ineligible. But as she’d turned sixteen a fortnight ago, and by virtue of the family’s enrollment in the Draw, she’d been entered by default. With threes having been Drawn already, Freya was allocated a ticket number #4.
“It’a gonna be one of us!” shrieked Freya. “You know that, don’t you? One of us sitting here is gonna lose! And all coz the fucking rich get their kicks watching us clamoring for their money!”
Joe grabbed her with his free hand. Tugged her forcefully back into the seat. The message was clear: sit back and shut up!
“Those are the rules, love,” said Victoria.
And as though he’d heard them, Jimmy Jennings continued: “Now…the rules of the game are simple, and as our Draw-Master makes his final check of the Lottery balls – thank you, Bert – I’ll just recap. Our players are each assigned a number from one to six. In June, the Draw machine was loaded with six corresponding numbered balls and selected, at random, ball number three. That ball has now been removed from play, so this evening, ladies and gentlemen, there are only five balls in play: one, two, four, five and six. As you know, each of our Lottery players have swallowed their patented Lottery capsules; a rather ingenious piece of technology too, I might add. This impressive little gadget – impervious to corrosion by stomach acids – attaches itself to the stomach lining. If that player’s number is selected by the Draw machine…well, then they lose. And we know what happens when they lose.”
The same theatrical booing and hissing.
“Yes, yes, I know,” said Jennings. “But…”
“You can’t have winners without losers!” bellow the audience.
Jennings nodded. “Quite right. Once we’ve selected the second of this year’s losing Lottery ticket numbers, we will then proceed to Draw for this year’s winners, and as our audience knows, there’s an incredible two million pounds for each of our lucky players with the winning ticket numbers!”
The audience was almost hysterical with excitement.
“And so…before we continue with the first Draw, let’s take a look at just some of our players around the country!”
The TV screen changed to show a series of brief clips. Families at home, anguish ridden faces. Tears, solemn expressions.
“As you can see,” said Jennings over the montage, “the tension is really mounting at home. There’s a lot riding on tonight’s Draw, folks. A lot.”
The screen flicked back to Jennings, who looked away from the studio monitor and back at the camera with an expression of deep respect. “There you go, people. That’s a little glimpse of how the players are bearing up. And so…without further ado, it’s time to start!”
Dramatic music. The studio lights went dim, and a spotlight shone down, isolating the Draw machine.
“Okay,” said Jennings, with hushed tones. “Earlier today, our independent adjudicators randomly selected Draw machine Hitler. It’s the fifth time Hitler has appeared in our Lottery Draw in the past five years. We’re using a fresh set of balls, as inspected and verified by the independent adjudicator. As you can see, they’re being loaded into Hitler as I speak.”
Jennings gestured behind him, where Bert ceremoniously inserted the five Lottery balls into Draw machine Hitler. When finished, he stepped back, clasped his hands together in front of him and nodded his readiness to Jennings. Jennings turned to face the camera again, and the image on TV screens all across the country zoomed in close to his serious-looking face.
“It’s time,” he said, “to Draw tonight’s losing number. Good luck to all our players at home. Here we go.”
As Hitler spat out the losing number, there was a sudden ear-splitting scream. The scream trailed off and became a tormented wail of despair.
“NO! I didn’t want to do this! I didn’t want to do this!”
Victoria saw the number roll down Hitler’s exit-chute and her first, instinctive feeling was relief that it wasn’t a one. Then she was aware of Freya shrieking.
“It’s not fair! It's not FUCKING FAIR!” Her tearful eyes burned murderous hatred back at her mother. “This is all your fault, you fucking bitch! I didn’t want to do this!”
The camera zoomed dramatically in on the Lottery ball.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Jennings, still in his serious hushed voice. “Tonight’s losing number is ball number four. Ball number four is tonight’s losing number.”
The audience remained silent.
“As viewers will know by now, the patented Lottery capsules our players have swallowed are remotely controlled. In a matter of seconds, all number four capsules will be activated by local control stations, and those capsules will release a potent dose of hydrogen cyanide into the losers’ stomachs. If we cross over to…yes. Yes, I think we have some footage of that coming in now.”
All of a sudden, Freya sat bolt upright. Her eyes opened wide. Both Joe and Victoria leaped up from the sofa, ejecting Jack from his position on Victoria’s lap.
“Oh shit,” said Joe.
“Darling!” yelled Victoria. “I’m so sorry we love you so much I’m sorry oh god what’ve I done!”
Freya wasn’t listening. Froth bubbled up from her throat and oozed from her parted lips. She made a strangled groaning sound. Her eyes glazed over, and then her face collapsed into an expression of defeat. Her whole body went limp, and fell forward on to the lounge carpet. The last emissions of sound from her throat came out as a thick, bubbling gurgle. It sounded like a milkshake was trapped in her oesophagus.
As Victoria began to weep, Freya’s left leg twitched beneath her slumped body and then finally went still.
Jennings suddenly perked up. “Wow," he said. "Grim scenes there, folk. Grim scenes. But now that unpleasant business is over with, it’s time to make this year's millionaires!”
The audience cheered and clapped and whooped with joy.
The winning number was six.