Meat Bingo or Death
30 December 2002
I call. I am the caller. I call and they come.
We open at eight-thirty each morning. Earlier, and we wouldn't be able to get the staff, although if we opened at six there would still be queues down the block. By the time the seafront doors are pushed to I've helped hoover over the main floor and scrub up the wide stage. We have to bleach and disinfect all wood surfaces: health and safety.
The punters pay at the door and get the glossed laminated cards from Dave. Even before the first of them have reached their tables the waitresses have begun bringing up the meat from the basement freezers. The display cabinets at the front are back-lit with clear perspex shelves and doors. From the prime table - centre, first step up - the fillet steak is at eye-level. To begin with there was an undignified half-rush to take this table and those around it. When you can see the prey the hunt is that much more exciting. Now the inner circle of meat winners rotate weekly there.
As the hunters sit, I prepare. My tuxedo has been sprayed and polished sparkling clean that morning. Even as the final chops and cuts are being arranged I am talced up and inching my way in.
When the final hunters are seated and carded and have their drinks, I check to see that the meat is neatly and attractively presented. I check the power lead to the ball machine. I run my forefinger over the trigger of the cold gun. And then I go onstage.
Some of the hunters have charms and trinkets on the tables. I think some of them are remnants of the hunting days - the real blood hunting. Not that there isn't blood here but...well. No dogs. The rich ones have elegant silver hound charms, jewelled horses. Those who don't win meat so frequently have smaller crude plush dogs. Some hunters, those who never hunted with dogs, have more traditional toys and bits.
It's been a very long time since anyone came to the hall in either red coat or jodhpurs. I think the knee-high boots are more for fashion's sake than a sign of anything else.
I walk onstage, passing one of the prey display cabinets. The hunters know and love me, and there is politely enthusiastic applause as I come to the ball machine and display board. I give my patter, rub them up gently to prepare them for the coming hours. The first game starts.
Even though there is the horrible urgency of the prizes, the prey, I do not take the numbers quickly. If it weren't for the economic need for multiple games, I would take several hours over each hunt, lingering over the figures, letting the hunters scent them as they fall and detecting those that remain. Even though our chiller cabinets operate perfectly I swear that the smell of the fresh beef and lamb becomes more and more detectable as the hours wear on. I am often thankful that the only dogs in here are metal and fluff.
I call well, I do not let my attention wander. Even so, though, I am still able to scan the hall as I call. Like me, the hunters are alert and listening. Occasionally there will be a darting of eyes from the scorecards to the meat but only from the lesser players. There is of course a high level of chance in this type of game, but I am convinced that good hunters also possess a high level of skill. Intense unbreakable concentration marks the best of the hunters here.
The end of the first game, when it comes, is always more surprising than subsequent games. The first winner, whilst not so lucky as the last winner (obviously) is somehow more special. I am still taken by the strange poignancy of the man or woman who has prime choice of the meat at the beginning of the day yet may not live to take it home.
The winner of the game comes up to the stage, and picks his or her meat. The hunter with the fewest marks on their card (and there is sometimes more than one, which is where providence and chance play their hand) also comes up, whereupon I shoot them. Both hunters leave (one carried), the stage is mopped and the cabinet disinfected, and the next game begins.
The hunt - there is skill and chance and danger. I used to start each game with a blow of the horn, but there were complaints from local residents, especially from the early morning games. Apparently the gunshots sound similar enough to the waves crashing on the shore.
Despite the obvious law of diminishing returns on this one, we always get a full house each day.