All eyes down and looking for a full house

Housie is thought to have begun in Italy in the 1500s, before migrating through Europe, played by the French aristocracy along the way. Not to be outdone, South Dunedin is a stronghold of the local housie hustle. David Loughrey travels to the flat to bear witness, and discovers a fast game is a good game.

At a distance; of space, and most definitely of time, anything can seem romantic.

The loneliness of childhood, the passions of youth or the wretchedness of lost love are recoloured with the mellow hue of nostalgia.

Even the thin, slightly disturbing gentleman with the azure, wide-lapelled suit and heavily greased comb-over, vestiges of a cockney accent and grab-bag of rhyming ''bingo lingo'' who ran housie at the local community hall is now an amusing memory, where once he struck some fear into local children.

''Legs 11'', he used to call, or ''two fat ladies, 88'', as beads of sweat formed on his upper lip and a dark desperation shone in his eyes.

Perhaps the word ''memory'' is a little strong, as the bingo master is more imagination than reality (all imagination, really), though surely he existed somewhere.

But there is a culture one attaches to the housie hall of the past, filled with cigarette smoke and charmingly obscure jargon: ''sweet sixteen''; `cup of tea', for the number three, and `the Lord is my shepherd' for 23 (obviously the first words of Psalm 23 in the Old Testament).

In some United Kingdom clubs the caller would say the number, and players intone the rhyme in a call-and-response manner, apparently.

That's culture.

In Dunedin, a search for the local incarnation of the game in which players mark tickets as numbers are drawn randomly by a caller, takes a traveller in obscure experience to Hillside Rd.

Every Tuesday, every Wednesday and every Saturday the game of numbers and probabilities, coloured dabbers and jackpots is played at Cargill Enterprises' building.

If you are keen for a night out on Wednesday you can nip down to the Southern Rugby Club.

There are also games in Port Chalmers, Mosgiel and Macandrew Rd to bring the total every week in the city (as advertised, anyway), to 10.

Hillside Rd, bless its industrial history and salt-of-the-earth soul, can look a little hard at 7pm, in the rain, on a winter weeknight.

Dark figures huddle under the awning of an empty shop waiting for the bus, and a mist of drizzle whips past a lighting tower in a nearby industrial yard.

The streets are a dark slick of tarseal.

But there is a warm light, and comforting aroma, that emanates from the chip shop next door to the housie hall, and at the hall's doorway two elderly ladies help one another in from the cold.

Inside, at the weekly Samoan Catholic Youth Group housie night, it's full.

Players fill the columns of tables - the sort only seen in community halls - that stretch along the length of the hall.

The stage fills up.

As the evening progresses a table in the entrance hall is seconded for players. Chatter bubbles from table to table: ''Where's Rosie?''

''She's over there.''

But the players are not there to talk.

They're there to play.

''We're here to play,'' someone calls when the Otago Daily Times photographer holds up proceedings by explaining what she's doing.

''Eyes down for your first number,''calls the caller.

But she doesn't do the call - that role is taken by a Toshiba laptop via a microphone.

Devoid of a sense of humour, and clearly uninterested in the rich past of the game, the laptop rattles out the numbers at some speed, without a nod to the bingo masters' lively argot.

''Five and nine, fifty nine'', it calls, ''all the sevens, 77, on its own, number nine, eight nine, 89.''

Heads bow to the task, as green, blue and pink dabbers perform a manic dance, promenading across the tickets and leaving a wet smudge with each foot-fall.

And don't let your mind wander - one moment's loss of concentration and the number is lost in memory's mist.

''Six nine, 69, on its own, number four, eight three, 83, eight seven, 87, all the fours, 44, on its own, number three'' the Toshiba drones.

Five numbers left, four numbers left, three numbers left - ''Yip'', someone else yells, their card full.

It's a fast game.

But this crowd likes its housie at breakneck speed.

''Is it too slow?'' the caller asks.

''Yes'' comes the response.

''Eyes down for your first number,''calls the caller.

The laptop lifts its game, its electronic voice raises a notch and spits the numbers into the hall of bobbing markers.

''On its own, four, two one, 21, five four, 54, all the sevens, 77.''

Green card; blue card; yellow card; orange card.

''Eyes down for your first number.''

Bingo.

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