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The first novel from the brilliantly unconventional Nicola Barker is a tale of gambling, allergies, music and dogs, set in some of London's less scenic locations. Chance meetings between its cast of eccentric individuals - Ruby the bookie's cashier, violently disturbed (and disturbing) Vincent, Samantha the would-be cabaret singer, wilfully sickly Sylvia and Little Buttercup the never-quite-made-it greyhound - result in the unlikeliest of couples; and there's always the risk that it could all work out disastrously as characters select each other and try or don't try to make winning combinations. But, as Ruby, the story's soft-centred heroine, observes: 'Losing, that's the whole point of the gamble.'
Sylvia had become too sensitive. She could either listen or watch, but she couldn’t manage both. She couldn’t cope with the noise of television—the conflict of voices, music, slogans—while taking in its speedy visual menu of flashing colours, signs and faces. It overwhelmed her, but she realized that she and Brera had little else in common except the television—sitting in front of it, together. Brera picked a raspberry pip from between her teeth. She knew that Sylvia’s trip out was a form of
the geese had been fighting or moulting. The finch pecked at her T-shirt, trying to procure himself a strand of fabric. Sylvia offered him her index finger. He jumped on to it. She felt the tiny weight of him and watched the breeze ruffle the millionfold feathers on his chest. His feet were scratchy and dry. They itched the eczema on her hands. She moved him closer to her face and whispered, ‘Hello Dry-foot. Hello Dry-foot.’ The bird blinked, cocked his head and then reached up and grabbed hold
for a Sunbeam.’ Connor had taught them this tune on Sunday. Ruby felt tipsy. Was the film in? Did she need a flash? The air, at least, was clearer out here. She inhaled deeply and then started to shoot. She had no particular talent for photography. She worked on the premise that the more film she used, the more likely it would be that a clutch of snaps would turn out decently. Brera wore a long, grey, smock-like dress, her red hair loose. Ruby focused on her. It was easy. They did a song by
on the outside, eventually running close to the six dog and then overtaking him. ‘Yes!’ Vincent bounced up from his stool, forgetting about his bet, thinking only about Buttercup. ‘Go on, you silly bitch!’ He was so intent on watching Buttercup’s progress, her every move, her every stride, that he failed to notice as the number one dog ran across the finishing line, followed closely by trap two. The race was over. The hare stopped. He looked down at his slip. ‘That was quick.’ Toro put out
built into perfunctory nesting boxes, although the birds rarely hatched their eggs or brought up their young within the room’s perimeter. Pushed up against the only clear wall was Sylvia’s bed. The duvet was a dark green colour, stained intermittently by whitish bird droppings. There was little else in the room except for a large, grey trunk at the foot of her bed in which she kept all her clothes and the few other personal possessions that she valued. The room was rarely quiet. The air was