Jokers

by John Jones

It started so innocently, all those years ago, when they were six years old, when he woke up to discover a big plastic spider on the pillow. Even at that age, spiders were frightening beasts to him, and he had been in tears for hours afterwards, much to the other boys amusement. Gary and Steve were childhood friends that had grown up into 34 year olds who were still good friends now, as then. They lived five miles apart in the midst of a sprawling city, Gary in a posh detached house, with a career woman, four years older than him, and Steve, in a bedsit, conducting an affair with the woman of his night school Mathematics teacher. He was unemployed, having had various jobs in various unskilled capacities, such as packing soap in a factory, and distributing leaflets like a poor postman, all the time being paid pittance. He tried to merge benefits and work, but the fear of being caught meant he was too afraid to try it. The government's advert campaign which basically said: 'Benefit fraud, we know who you are', got to him. It worked. So it was either one or the other, both were meagre finance, but in the end, the obvious choice was work, which didn't pay much more than allowance, but more nonetheless. At present though, it was back to signing on, back to the dole queue, his job as a supermarket shelf-filler having been basically stolen from him by the person whose job he had taken. They came back to their position because they had more experience. So it was back to signing on for Steve, and also back to thinking about how he was going to get back at Gary for an incident which had crushed Steve's soul and left him dejected and depressed, a reprisal which would top what had happened to him.

After the spider incident, Steve got his revenge when Gary stayed over night at his parents. When Gary was fast asleep in a sleeping bag, next to a cupboard, Steve sneaked out of his room, got the plastic bucket that they used to make sand castles with, filled it with cold water, and struggling back to the bedroom, with such a heavy weight for a young boy, poured it over Gary's face, waking him instantly. Steve collapsed into fits of laughter, the parents were woken up, the light came on, and Gary never stayed the night again, but their practical jokes on each other continued until this day. It was case of one-upmanship, a kind of light-hearted revenge. When they were 24, they were at a local seaside resort, swimming in the sea, and enjoying the heat and atmosphere, when Steve obtained the keys to Gary's car, parked just beyond the beach. He drove it back to the hotel with all of Gary's gear inside. Gary was still in the sea, and later discovered his missing car, and a missing Steve. It was a two mile walk back to the hotel, and with the wind picking up, bringing with it a cold element, he had no choice but to walk in nothing but a pair of soaking shorts, through the streets to his hotel, only to find his car parked outside, and Steve pointing and laughing.

Gary got his revenge for that the following night. They had been on a lad's holiday in a beach resort with a few of Gary's work colleagues. Gary enlisted their help in his revenge. He gave them money to buy some cheap aftershave, which they did, and then asked Steve for a 'see who can drink a pint the fastest' competition. Gary knew that aftershave would be hard to distinguish in a pint glass, as they were almost the same colour, a light brown. So if Steve had already had few real pints, and he was to be handed this one, it would very unlikely that he would be able to tell the difference until he tasted it. Secretly, crowded around in the toilets, they poured the aftershave into a pint glass, giggling like little schoolboys, and went back out into the bar. Steve took the pint without question, and the 'competition', began. Their friends counted down from three, and Steve took three or four gulps before he realised that it wasn't lager. He never made it to the toilets before he was sick, and when he did, spent most of the rest of the night in there, while Gary, at one point, was actually on the floor, foetus-like, convulsed with laughter.

So it went on, revenge for the revenge, an unending spiral of practical jokes which had resulted so far, in this most cruel joke on Steve. He pictured Gary, sitting behind a desk somewhere, laughing at his mis-fortune. Through his disappointment, through his anger at him, he had managed to come up with something that topped it, and left Gary in a much worse situation.

Gary worked for a compensation firm, the type that is always advertised on Television. 'Had an accident that wasn't your fault? No hidden costs. No win no fee. Call us today'. He was high up in the chain of command within the company, enabling him to afford many of life's luxuries and live in comfort, giving him many advantages over Steve, and enabling him to play his latest joke on him.

The job seemed so perfect. Gary knew that at Steve's night school, there was a message board in the main foyer with all kinds of activities and items being advertised. In one corner, there was a job vacancies section, which Gary knew that he looked at every time he came. He had told him, that was no secret. So Gary had made up a job that seemed perfect to Steve. Software engineer. It meant working in the animation industry and would lead to working in special effects for cinema. The line that nailed it for him was: 'We will pay you to train'. Basically, it was ideal. It was normal, full-time wages, whilst he learnt the craft. He rang up and got an interview the following day, upstairs in the college in a lecture room. He wore his best gear, got himself looking smart and presentable, and through nerves and tension, he had entered the room. There was a panel of three. Two men in their sixties, and a women in her forties, all quizzed him with the right questions, and conversed with each other, and in the end was told: 'You've got the job'. He wanted to hug each one of them, but settled for shaking their hands, and leaving the college to head straight for his local jobcentre.

He signed off benefits, as he started the job in two days, and eagerly anticipated his first day at work. When it came, he got himself smart again, and headed for the college where the job was based. He was to report to room B27 at 10am, and when he got there, found there was a meeting on in full swing. Somebody was halfway into a presentation. A projector was set up, pointing at a white-board, and everyone in the room was sat attentive, quiet, listening, until Steve walked in. The man giving the presentation simply looked at him, expecting some explanation.

"I've come to start the job", Steve had said.

"What job?" said the man. Steve had then noticed someone in the room on the far side, a hand clamped over their mouth, trying desperately to stifle laughter. Who else other than Gary? A check at reception revealed that there was no job. Gary had obviously got a few of his friends to interview him, and had simply invented it all.

What was he going to do? he had thought. What would really get him back? It was when he went into a newsagents to buy a newspaper that he saw the answer. He could only smile. It was obvious. Gary always did the lottery, proclaiming that if he won, he was going to do this, he was going to do that. Imagine if he thought he'd won, only to find out he hadn't. That would be cruel. How he would do it though? Neither of them were averse to enlisting the help of others in their quest to humiliate the other. This one needed serious planning, and help, but he was sure it could be done.

He was right, it was done. Gary was elated when he found out, as it was a rollover week, and there was only one winner of 14 million pounds. Him. He quit his job, telling his boss exactly what he thought of him and what he could do with the job, bought a bigger house and a sports car. He basically got himself into debt, and it wasn't long before he had to show his ticket to claim his winnings, and it wasn't long after that before he got that sinking feeling.

It was easier than he had thought, Steve had noticed. Two weeks after his phantom job, Steve recorded the show where the numbers are shown. So with that week's numbers, he had paid a few of his college friends to make up a replica ticket with those numbers on. All he had to do was wait a while until Gary had forgotten about that week's lottery, and watch him become increasingly agitated at Steve's lack of response. He had found himself looking over his shoulder a few times.

Steve had persuaded Gary's partner to let him make a replica of the front door key, so that he could let himself in while they were both out. He told her he wasn't going to do much, nothing overblown. What he did do, was lift up a section of carpet, then remove some of the floorboards beside their television. He had bought a video recorder specially, and set it up so that he could play programmes on the TV without their video being on, so it looked like a normal programme. He set it up to play the lottery programme, and came to the house a few minutes before the numbers were due to be drawn. It was quite precarious his technique, and very unstable. There was absolutely no guarantee it would work, but he was desperate, he had to get Gary back, had to top what he did to him. Outside the window, as Gary clutched his ticket, Steve tried to get as close as he could to the TV, standing on flowers and weeds with a remote control. He had taken out his mobile phone and rang Gary. It was only two rings, enough to distract him from the TV for a moment, while he activated the programme. Gary watched with anticipation the numbers appear with the ticket that had been swapped for the real one, when Steve had used the key the previous night to enter the house whilst Gary was asleep. He had sneaked in and found Gary's wallet, and simply exchanged them. When he was certain that Gary was watching the show with the ticket, Steve had left as quietly as he could and was halfway along the road when he had heard Gary's cry of elation. Of course Gary couldn't wait to tell him, and tell how he was going to spend it, and spend it he did, until he had to pay up.

'I'm a wanted man,' he had said to Steve. 'You'll never believe how much debt I'm in. Carol's left me, my house is going to be taken off me, and there's no way I can get my job back. It looks like I'm behind you in the dole queue'. Gary, for a reason not even he knew, was not very angry with Steve. He was just lethargic and depressed, partly because he couldn't think of anything to top it with. He had moved in with his parents who were not happy at having debt collectors knocking every day. Meanwhile it was Steve's turn to constantly look over his shoulder for a reprisal which he was sure was imminent, and it was, when Gary rang him to tell him he had something to give him. Strange though how it could only be given to him at an abandoned car valeting garage. It had long been empty, and had been used by squatters and drug addicts. Now it had been abandoned by them, and was home to insects and occasional rodents. The place was larger than a normal house garage, with an office at the side. Steve had to pass through that to enter the gloomy garage. When he had, he found he couldn't see properly so had opened the garage door, which he found opened quite easily, as though it had been used recently. The place had lit up, and Steve had turned around to see Gary hanging from one of the rafters, a knocked over step-ladder beneath him. He looked dead, his face white, a line of blood streaming from his mouth. Next to the ladder, in quite a prominent position, was an envelope bearing Steve's name. It took him a while to pick it up, his mind still in shock at seeing his friend hanging. He had torn it open and read quickly:

'Steve, I hate you. You've cost me everything. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. You'll never know how much I hate you.' At that point Steve had dropped the letter in despair, looked around the garage and saw what he seen before, but didn't take much notice of. It was a rusty saw. His mind was confused, and it believed that this was genuine. Gary had killed himself in depression at what Steve had done, at the situation he had left him with. In the brief moments that Steve believed, he had torn the serrated metal edge across his throat. Had he read the note further, he would have seen: 'By the way, only joking'. Gary had seen what Steve was doing, and had shouted out at him when the blade had gone beyond the point of no return. Steve had collapsed to his knees, clutching his pumping throat, his bulging eyes watching Gary, as he struggled to free himself from the noose. A chain had been set up alongside the noose that had gone into the back of Gary's jacket, keeping him up whilst maintaining the illusion of hanging. When he had seen what Steve had done, his struggling had torn the jacket, rendering the chain useless. He had begun to hang for real, the noose tightening around his throat. At one point in their death throes, they had reached out toward each other, but of course it was useless. Whether they continued their japery in hell or heaven, nobody knew, and in the end, neither of them had the last laugh.

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