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Football mad Mickey Hamburger, aged 12, wins £500,000,000 in the new Super National Rollover Lottery. He uses it to take over control of United, the most famous and successful football team in England, though now somewhat in the doldrums. Mickey appoints himself the new manager. His family demand their own roles. Though none of them likes football, they are certain they can improve the team.
The unworldly and severely logical Professor Felix Hamburger takes over the team’s finances. “It’s not rocket science,” he decides, and makes it his sole strategy to cut expenditure on over-paid players.
Mickey’s mother, Amanda Cholmondeley-Smythe, an eccentric celebrity chef, bans junk food from the Stadium. A team of in-stadium waiters, composed of unemployed actors dressed in leopard skin leotards and berets, offers organic cranberry juice, vintage champagne and sushi.
His teenage sister Brandy redesigns the team kit in mod-grunge style, and hires her favourite band, Ironhead and the Punk Chicken, to perform at half-time. Thirteen cheerleaders are introduced, dressed as Punk Chickens, with bloody beaks and sunglasses.
Amanda’s personal guru, Professor Vishnu, becomes United’s transcendental performance coach, teaching breathing and the philosophy of Yin and Yang.
The old United fans are disgusted, and boycott the games. But all of a sudden, the new United is cool. Their Marketing Director courts the media glitterati, and describes United as the first genuinely fashionable football team. Celebrities come to games, arts organizations make mass bookings. United Football Ground is the happening place.
Ray Kendall, the combative, star midfield player and Captain, is horrified by the changes. The team threatens to strike. After a heated confrontation Mickey resigns as manager, and Kendall is told by Professor Vishnu: “Mr. Ray, you are not a baby. Go and manage yourself!”
The players take control of the team, which slowly improves. United reach the Cup Final, in which they face archrivals City. They win.
“It’s just not fair,” said Mickey Hamburger. And then, getting no response, he said it again. “Not fair at all.”
He wasn’t angry. Mickey wasn’t the sort of boy who got cross, or yelled, or cried when he didn’t get his way. When he wanted something he was reasonable, and persistent, and had the endurance of a marathon runner. He would take “no” for an answer, and then take it again, and again - knowing from past experience how a hundred “nos” could eventually end up with one weary “oh, all right then.”
He was so good at getting his way that his parents had instituted a rule, called the One Parent Rule. This meant that if you asked something of one parent, and they said no, then you could NOT go and ask the other parent, in the hope that they would say yes. And Mickey had made a bad mistake, eleven weeks ago: he had asked his father for something that he wanted, a lot. He should have asked his Mum. She would agree to almost anything. But she was out that day, so Mickey thought he would take a chance. His father had not only said “no,” he was just as stubborn as Mickey was.
Professor Felix Hamburger, a piece of chalk in his hand, was working at his blackboard. In his study there were neither bookshelves nor books. The entire room, round all four walls, consisted of a blackboard. In the middle was a mahogany desk, on which sat a television, because the Professor liked it on quietly in the background when he was trying to think. If you could think with the TV on, it meant your concentration was operating at 100%. The surface of his blackboard, right round the room, was covered with tiny figures, x’s and o’s, with arrows and complicated lines connecting them. He was in the process of drawing a squiggly line connecting two parts of an equation.
“Do be quiet, Mickey, there’s a good boy. I’m trying to concentrate. I think I may have something interesting here.” He furrowed his brow to indicate how hard he was concentrating. Professor Hamburger furrowing his brow was an awesome sight, because his face was mostly forehead, and when he furrowed it, it had lines all the way across, like corrugated metal. His face was shaped like an egg, with the features on the bottom: a long horsy nose, and a mouth that pursed when he was thinking, as if he were sucking a lemon. On top was a mass of crinkly grey hair, which he hated cutting, and which grew like an out-of-control Brillo pad in every direction. In the middle of this mass of steely-looking fungus was a round bald patch, like an upside down soup dish..
“But Dad, just listen, OK? Look at this!” Mickey pointed to the TV. On it, an intense newscaster was pointing to a very large figure, with more zeros and exclamation points than you could count, which was throbbing and pulsating in red numerals:
Mickey was a shrewd judge of character: Professor Hamburger couldn’t resist a number. He looked up and computing the number of zeros automatically, said “Five hundred million pounds. I see the Balance of Payments Deficit has gone up, or something,” and directed his eyes back to his blackboard.
Mickey walked across the study to turn up the volume. It was now impossible to ignore, even for so abstract a mathematician as Professor Hamburger. The announcer looked like he was about to have a fit. As he pointed to the red figure, his eyes looked ready to pop out of their sockets.
“That’s right,” he blared. “Can you believe it? Five hundred million pounds in the new Super National Rollover Lottery jackpot! Five hundred million! With twelve weeks since it began, and still no winner, the prize has now risen to a stupendous level! And throughout the country” - here the camera moved away from the glowing numbers and settled on scenes of people standing patiently in front of Lottery Sales Counters - “people are queuing up for tickets for tonight’s draw, to see if they just might be the one in a million to take the ultimate prize…”
“One in a million!” shouted Professor Hamburger. “One in a million! If those imbeciles only knew the real odds, they would keep their money in their pockets! It’s quite absurd! Ridiculous! Why the real odds are…”
“Dad!” said Mickey. “Give us a break!”
Across the street, their neighbours the DeMarias would be listening; and everyone else in town was tuned in: Miss Exley, his teacher, Fior and Blakeney, the school bullies, Amarjit Khan, his best friend and football team-mate. Everyone feverishly computing just how they could spend all that money. Across the county, across the whole country, in the cities and in the villages, at the seaside and in the mountains, people sat mesmerised in front of their TVs or radios, and thought, and schemed, and fantasised. Five hundred million pounds! And the draw was tonight, at eight o’clock!
Even when the TV was off, and the radio silent, people could think and speak of little else. “How would you spend it?” they asked each other earnestly, at school, at work, in the playground, the beauty parlour, the swimming pool, the video shop. “What would you do with the money?” England was in the grip of lottery fever.
The new Super National and Rollover Lottery (or SNARL, as it was called - not entirely affectionately) not only offered the largest prize in history, but it got larger every week if no one won it. No one had, for the twelve weeks since it began, because you had to pick TEN correct numbers, from one to ninety-nine, and no one had yet managed this improbable feat.
On the TV screen, an attractive young blonde woman was interviewing people in front of the lottery counter in a shopping centre. She didn’t say where it was, because it didn’t matter. There were similar lines in similar places across the country. There were men and women, young and old, black and white and all the shades in between, poor people, rich people, shabby or well-dressed. They only had one thing in common, Mickey thought sadly. They were all over eighteen years old. You had to be eighteen to buy a ticket.
“It’s not fair,” he thought. “It’s discrimination. It’s childism!”
“And you,” said the TV presenter, pointing the mike at a podgy young woman with a lot of hair, dressed in overalls and trainers, chewing gum furiously, a bulging purse slung over her shoulder, “what would you spend the money on?”
The young woman had clearly thought a lot about this, and hardly paused for breath as she answered. “I’d open my own hairdressing business and buy my sisters and brothers some new cars and get my mum and dad a cottage, and get some great new clothes and a BMW, and take all my girlfriends to Ibiza for a week...”
“And there you have it,” said the blonde woman, retracting the microphone before the poor greedy girl had finished. “It's everyone's dream: spend, spend, spend.” The other people on the line nodded furiously in agreement, their heads bobbing like the branches of some enormous tree, each with his or her own dream of acquisition and benevolence.
“What a moron!” said the Professor, contemptuously. Professor Hamburger prided himself on being a rational man. He did not act on the basis of feeling, or fantasy, or hope. He tried to work out, as best he could, what a reasonable person ought to do in any situation, and then he did it. The odds against any ticket winning the lottery, he had computed, were 15 trillion 579 billion 278 million 510 thousand seven hundred and ninety-six to one.
He was certainly not buying a ticket in the SNARL. It was much worse than wasting a pound. It wasted time and energy, and it encouraged greed. Since the most avid lottery players were people who could ill afford it, who were both poor and (according to Felix) unreasonable, he regarded the lottery as a tax on the fantasies of the deprived. “TFD” he called it, not SNARL. To him, it was not just a waste of money to buy a ticket, it was positively wicked.
He turned his eyes away from the television and back to his wrap-around blackboard, to the satisfying purity of mathematics and his life-long attempt to disprove Chalcot’s Theorem. He had been working on this project since he got his Ph.D. at Cambridge, twenty-two years ago. Sometimes he believed that he was getting close, and today he was filled with hope. He scribbled away furiously.
Chalcot’s Theorem apparently had something to do with how straight lines behave in extradimensional space, which had sounded interesting to Mickey - presumably it had to do with extraterrestrial life, with spaceships and three-headed monsters? - until his father had assured him that it did no such thing. Chalcot’s Theorem had no applications, it was purely abstract. It didn’t matter if it were true or untrue, not in the real world. Disproving it had no consequences, and would only be noticed, Professor Hamburger observed, by seventeen people round the world, “at least four of whom,” he added tartly, “won’t understand it anyway.”
“Dad,” said Mickey, “I know you disapprove of the lottery, but…”
“I don’t disapprove of it, I detest it. It is for fools and imbeciles.”
“Yes, I know. You said that already. But don’t you think it’s unfair that children aren’t allowed to buy a ticket?”
Professor Hamburger kept up his scribbling. “No, I don’t,” he said emphatically. “I don’t think anyone should be allowed to buy a ticket. Damn waste of money. Particularly children. Can you imagine a six year old winning five hundred million pounds? What would he do, buy a mountain of sweeties? Or the entire contents of Hamley's?”
Mickey, who was by no means a stupid boy, could see the sense of this. “I was thinking,” he said slowly, “that the age for buying a ticket should be about, like, twelve. Kids over twelve have a lot of sense.” Mickey, you will not be surprised to hear, was twelve years old.
He was, as both of his parents acknowledged proudly, an uncommonly sensible twelve year old. He was practical and well-organised, and did well at school. His last school report had ended with a comment from Ms. Exley that had said “Mickey is a pleasure to teach. He has the capacity to make plans, to organise his time, and to think about the wider picture.”
It was the wider picture he was thinking about now. Unlike most lottery winners, who fling their winnings about randomly, Mickey knew exactly what he was going to do with the money. If he won. He wasn’t sure how much it would cost, but £500,000,000 - he could still see the figure in his head glowing red and pulsating - would almost certainly pay for it
He was a very determined boy, but boys (even very determined ones) are not allowed to purchase lottery tickets. They had to get an adult to do it for them.
“Think about it, Dad, just think about it,” he said as he left the room. Professor Hamburger didn’t even look up from his blackboard.
Brandy Hamburger was not an early riser. During the school week (she was in the fifth form at Shottley Comprehensive), she had to be at school by 8:20 in the morning, and in Physics class at 8:30. She regarded this as a form of child abuse practised by the Department of Education. She had written to the Minister and to her M.P., to point out that teenagers need their sleep.
“I am not a bird,” she wrote. “Birds are early risers, and like to chirp at dawn. I am (almost) a sixteen year old. We do not chirp. We need our sleep.” She cited scientific studies that showed that your average teenager, if left to his or her own devices, would sleep for twelve hours a day. (It never occurred to her this might mean they were extremely lazy.) Her letters pointed out, sarcastically, that if she was to get her twelve hours’ sleep, then she would have to go to bed each school night at 7:30 p.m.
On the weekends she made up for lost time. On the Saturday of the SNARL draw, she rose at 1:30, with a groan. Brandy was not good in the mornings, even when they started in the afternoon. Staggering like a sleepwalker, she made her way in her black pyjamas down the upstairs hallway toward the bathroom, barging past a cautious Mickey, who flattened himself against the wall as she walked by.
She seemed not to see him at all, and she certainly couldn’t have heard him, even if he’d had the nerve to talk to her. Through her earphones she was listening to her favourite band, Ironhead and the Punk Chicken. The volume was turned up so high that Mickey could hear every hideous beat of the music. Mickey knew better than to tangle with Brandy when she had just got out of bed. Tangling with her meant either (a) looking at her, or (b) talking to her. Either of these attempts at friendly human interaction was certain to be met with a snarl of “Just buzz off, Shrimpy!”
Anyway, Mickey was in a hurry: there was football on TV, and Mickey loved football. It wasn’t his number one game, to him it was the only game. Rugby was played by bloated goons; basketball players were freaks who shot down at the basket, not up to it. And cricketers looked like bored ice-cream salesman hanging around in a field.
So it was football all the way. His room was filled with posters of his favourite players, framed shirts, signed balls balanced on plastic plinths, and his collection of football programmes. He was never happier than when lying by himself in his bedroom, curtains drawn, with a game on TV.
He had hardly settled down when a series of piercing shrieks came from the bathroom. He hardly reacted. It was just Brandy: she might have tripped over the bathroom mat, or cut herself shaving her legs, or poked herself in the gums with her toothbrush, or caught one of her earrings, or nose rings, or eyebrow rings, on something or other. Brandy was a shrieker. “Some women,” Professor Hamburger had once informed Mickey, gloomily, “are like that. Nothing you can do but let them yell.”
Brandy stomped into his room, banging the door behind her, looking more than usually dishevelled and upset. Her normally spiky hair, dyed purple this week, but lacking its morning application of gel, flapped about like an army of sea anemones waving their tentacles, and her face, without its ghoulish black eye-shadow and white makeup base, was red with indignation. “She’s done it again!” she shouted. “This is, like, totally gross!”
“What’s the trouble?” asked Mickey, without taking his eyes from the telly.
“This place is a loony bin! I can’t believe it!”
“Believe what?” asked Mickey.
“Come and look,” she said ominously.
Mickey was torn. It was really unusual for Brandy to ask him for help. Usually she ignored him completely.
“Look at what?”
“Don’t argue with me, just come!”
“In a minute,” said Mickey. It was just like Brandy: most of the time he didn’t even exist, and then when she needed him he was supposed to drop everything. He wasn’t about to jump up just yet. “One more minute, then I’ll come.”
Brandy swooped across the room, grabbed him by his right arm - “Hey!” shouted Mickey, “that hurts! Let go!” - and hauled him into the hall towards the bathroom. He knew better than to struggle, and anyway there was a game after school on Tuesday and he was going to be in goal. Better not risk an injury.
The bathroom door was open. “Look at that!” she said. She pointed toward the bath, while keeping her eyes fixed in the opposite direction. Mickey peered into the tub, which had a couple of inches of greenish water at the bottom, in which two extremely large green lobsters were moving about sluggishly.
“Awesome!” said Mickey.