The Tango Dancer (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)

She glanced at the elegant gold watch adorning her left wrist. A gift from an unknown admirer.

Eleven fifteen. Just over eighteen hours to the Grand Opening of the glass court. Eighteen hours to the spectacle, the excitement, the glamour. Eighteen hours to her performance in the privileged presence of Rio’s great, good…and not so good. It was time for the real challenge to begin. Tomorrow she would compete with the blonde American girl in the quarter-final. Her next step on the road to becoming the world’s number one player.

She was ready now.

Drawing her black lace shawl around her shoulders, she gazed through the window of the limousine as it picked its way through the city’s chaotic streets. Streets which she had visited many times in the past. Streets filled with traffic jostling for position, looking for an opening, poised to make a move. In a few hours, it would be quieter. It usually was by the time she returned from her night-time excursions into her special world. Nights when she indulged in her passion, when she shared moments of intimate connection. Nights when she felt the embrace of her partner’s arms as their bodies moved in unison. Special nights.

The limousine drew up outside a whitewashed three storey building on Rua do Catete. A single light shone down from above its entrance porch. She waited as the motorista climbed out of the driver’s seat, adjusted his peaked cap and opened the door for her to alight. She stepped out into the warm night, her sense of excitement beginning to mount.

“Have a good evening, senhorita.”

He smiled a knowing smile.

++++

As she entered the building, Florencia Perez could hear the music drifting from the salon on the first floor. The music born in her home town. Music from the birthplace of the father she had never known. Music from the Golden Age of tango.

She strode across the entrance hall towards the staircase, her low heels sounding on the black and white tiles. In her right hand, she held the straps of a small black sequinned purse and a black satin shoe bag. Her hair was drawn back in a simple ponytail, secured with a golden band. Gold hoops dangled from her ears. She was wearing a sheer black slit dress with a jagged hemline, adorned with fringes, swaying as she walked. Ready to join the dance, the milonga.

Ready to feel the bodies of others close to hers.

++++

In the salon, the dance floor filled with couples moving to the music played by the residente, a young DJ hunched over his sound equipment at the far end of the high-ceilinged room. From her table on the edge of the dance floor, she watched as the unattached men in the room nodded their invitations to women they wanted as their partners in the next set of dances. The next tanda.

Tango BW IMGP1020 1024x494 The Tango Dancer (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)She watched the men leading their partners around the floor to see which of them she would trust to lead her in the way she wanted to be led. To see which of them would be suitable for her to choose as a partner. She noticed too whose invitations were being ignored.

After an hour in the salon, she’d accepted two invitations to dance. One was from a young olive-skinned boy whose embrace proved to be rather too close for her liking. The other was from a tall middle-aged man with light skin and a long nose who led her elegantly in three exhilarating tango waltzes. She felt safe in his embrace, following him easily around the floor, swinging her body, moving sinuously around him, feeling like a woman. She thanked him, returned to her table and sipped her drink, suddenly feeling that the evening might just turn out to be…

She sensed his gaze before she saw it, before she’d had time to see who had arrived since she’d taken to the floor. To see who had seen her dancing, seen her feeling the passion.

She raised her eyes and met his. Dark eyes.

Eyes she had seen before.

++++

He glanced at his watch and entered the salon. It was almost one. Tonight he would meet the Australian in the glass room. A chance for him to raise his profile, to move up the world rankings in a sport he’d played and loved since he was a child.

But tonight, Andres Lopez was not thinking about the sporting challenge to come. He was thinking about someone who could be very special. Someone who had not been easy to find.

Since he had seen her compete in his home town, he had followed her progress with more than a little interest. He knew that she had begun to more than fulfil her potential in competition. But, until recently, he did not realise that her beauty had transcended both her athletic ability and her sporting success. Now, from conversations with his fellow professionals, he had also discovered that Florencia Perez shared another of his passions.

In the subdued light of the salon, he nervously ran his fingers through his long brown hair,   searching for her among the tables and the dancers moving around the crowded floor.

Tango milonga los consagrados tango dancing The Tango Dancer (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)Suddenly he saw her, dancing with a smartly-dressed middle-aged man. She moved with cat-like grace, weaving an elegant path around her partner to the music of a tango waltz. He watched her as she thanked her partner and walked across the dance floor to her table.

Moving quickly, he found a table directly opposite hers and sat down, his heart suddenly racing as he tried to relax., to let the passion in the room be his inspiration in seeking her consent to dance with him. Usually, he would watch the women as they moved around the dance floor, looking for the qualities that he valued in a partner. Then he would invite them – with his eyes, with a nod of his head, with the cabeceo – to allow him to lead them, to reward their trust, and to show his own qualities as a dancer.

But now, it was too late. He could not tear his eyes away from her as she sipped her drink.
He was in danger now. Danger of…

Suddenly, her eyes met his.

In them, he sensed surprise, yes…and something else, something warmer. Much warmer. Instantly, he relaxed. And nodded. There was a pause as he sensed her curiosity, awaited her response. And then his nod was returned, his invitation accepted.

He slipped on his dance shoes beginning to notice the other people in the room. People whose passion he shared.

He was passionate about many things in his life. His country, his sport, the dance he had been introduced to in his home town. Passion that had landed him in trouble with the authorities more than once. But now, he was calm, waiting for the cortina, the musical interlude preceding the next set of dances, when she would be his partner.

When the time arrived, he stood and walked towards her, threading his way through the other dancers leaving and joining their partners. Reaching her table he bowed and held out his hand, inviting her onto the floor. She rose and stepped towards him.

The music, a tango canyengue, began to play. Instinctively, he sought her embrace and was accepted. Leaning towards her, he moved slightly from side to side, sensing the music, breathing her perfume, feeling her body close to his. Then, without knowing, as their hearts beat together, he stepped towards her. Leading them both into the dance, into the rhythm of the music.

Into the passion.

++++

It had been easy to follow her to the salon.

He had waited until she entered the building on Rua do Catete before climbing out of the taxi and striding towards the entrance. He was dressed smartly in a dark grey tailored suit and white shirt which perfectly fitted his tall, lean frame. Like the girl, he had carried his dance shoes in a small bag which dangled on a strap circling his wrist. His greying hair was swept back from his narrow face with its long nose.

After so many years, he was nervous, but ready. Ready to meet her on a night which could change both their lives forever. Inside, he paid his entrance fee and found a table from which he could make eye contact with her. But first he invited other women to dance with him, eager to take a few turns around the floor before seeking her consent.

When the time came, it felt natural. Something he had done many times before. He met her eyes, nodded and was accepted. They danced, and after they had danced, he returned to his table and sought out other women to dance with as the room filled and the floor became a single rotating embrace.

Tango feet 4 tango The Tango Dancer (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)He watched her dance with other men, including the Colombian boy who returned to his table with what he sensed was more than just an air of satisfaction. The boy danced well, his dark good looks and long brown hair attracting the attention of the women, the invitations made with his dark eyes winning their consent. Using the cabeceo, following the code.

He glanced at his watch. Now, as the milonga entered its fourth hour, he made her a second invitation with his eyes. She caught his gaze and nodded with a hint of a smile. Now she trusted him.

This time he led her in three tangos, leaving her space to decorate, to hook, to tap her toes as they moved effortlessly around the busy floor. He felt a sense of pride as they paused in silence after each dance, waiting for the next to begin.

As the last chord of their final dance died away, he escorted her to her table knowing that now, after all these years, he must speak to her. He waited for her to sit, then leaned towards her and whispered into her ear.

“Listen to me, my child. You do not have much time.”

She paused, listening to his voice with surprise…and recognition. It was a soft voice, a caring voice. The voice of a porteno, a native of her home town.

“Tonight at the Grand Opening there will be great danger. You must not go there.”

She turned her head to look at him. To look into his eyes.

“How do you know this?”

“Trust me.” he replied. “Trust one who has always loved you. One who has always cared.”

He placed something on the table in front of her, touched it with his forefinger and looked into her eyes.

“I am sorry,” he said, then turned and walked quickly away.

++++
Florencia Perez looked down at the table. On its surface lay a plain, white card. Her heart racing, she reached out to pick it up, half knowing what she would find. She touched its smooth surface, closing her eyes and letting her fingers seek out the indentations she sensed would be present.

As she found them, an image formed in her mind. An image which had been with her for as long as she could remember. Since she was a child.

An image of a very tall man with a long nose. A kind man. A caring man.

She stared at the elegant gold watch adorning her left wrist. A gift she had received on her eighteenth birthday, on the eve of her first international tournament. In the home town of a Colombian boy. A gift from an unknown admirer. A gift accompanied by a plain, white card.

Embossed with the image of a stork.

Characters

The story focuses on two characters, both of whom are competing in an international squash tournament in Rio de Janeiro.

Florencia Perez, 19, is an up and coming Argentinean squash player who has burst onto the international squash scene, competing on a ‘wild card’ in a tournament in Bogota. Her birthplace, parentage and even her true sexuality are a mystery. She speaks no English. Tall and broad-shouldered, her dark good looks have led many aficionados of the sport to regard her as the ‘Kournikova’ of the squash world.

Andres Lopez, a native of Colombia, is a young squash player seeking to make his mark on the international circuit. He has already won a lucrative sponsorship with a leading international soft drinks manufacturer. With his long wavy brown hair and vividly inviting dark eyes, he is a favourite with many of the female players competing on the World Squash Tour. In the past, his temper tantrums on court have led to him being banned by the authorities from playing.

In this chapter, a third character appears whose identity and purpose in the plot are, as yet, unknown.

Acknowledgement

‘The Tango Dancer’ was first published as Chapter 11 of ‘Breaking Glass’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 11 squash writers, chapters are posted by Ted on the DSR website where you can read it in its entirety.

For the record, the writing team comprised, in no particular order, Alan Thatcher (who conceived the overall theme for the novel), John Nimick, Mick Joint, Georgetta Morque, Will Gens, Framboise Gommendy, Richard Millman, Pierre Bastien, Jamie Crombie, James Zug and yours truly.

Why not check out The Daily Squash Report and read the full novel? You know you want to!

The Big Squash (à la Raymond Chandler) Part One

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, one day in October. There was no sun, and there were rain−clouds over the distant hills. I was a neat, clean, shaved and sober private detective, and didn’t care who knew it.

What’s more, I was about to meet four million dollars.

I was waiting in the entrance hall of General Sternwood’s home in West Hollywood. It had been less than twenty-four hours since I got a call from Bernie Ohls at the DA’s office.

‘Whatever he wants, the General’s not saying,’ said Ohls, ‘at least he’s not saying anything to me. Seems he wants the best in the business.’

I waited for the punch-line.

‘I recommended you anyway. Don’t let me down, Marlowe.’

‘I’ll try not to.’

Through the hall window I could see a lot of smooth green grass and a white windowless building with a sloping roof and one door. Beyond it was a large greenhouse and beyond that there were trees and then the hills. There was oil in those hills and oil was where Sternwood had made his money.

I heard footsteps.

‘The General will see you now, Mr Marlowe.’

The butler was a tall, thin, silvery man of about sixty, with expressionless blue eyes. He led me out of the house and headed for the greenhouse. As we were passing the white building, the door opened and two women came out. They were both wearing white tops, shorts and sneakers. I guessed they were Sternwood’s daughters. They were both sweating. Whatever they’d been doing in there, they were hot. Very hot.

The younger one saw me and gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. A smile showing little, sharp, white teeth. Then she put her thumb in her mouth and giggled. She was about twenty, small but tough−looking. Her blonde hair was cut short and she was carrying a towel in her left hand. The other woman was tall and strong-looking with black hair, late 20s maybe. She looked at me with cold, dark eyes. I wouldn’t be asking her out on a date anytime soon.

I followed the butler to the greenhouse. He opened the door and ushered me in. It was hot, the air thick and wet and the light green. From a wheelchair in the middle of the greenhouse an old man with black eyes and a white moustache watched us. Despite the temperature, he was covered in blankets.

The Big Sleep Greenhouse1 The Big Squash (à la Raymond Chandler) Part One

The butler said, `This is Mr Marlowe, General.’

The old man didn’t move or speak. He just looked at me. Then he said, `Fetch the brandy please, Norris. You’ll take a drink Mr Marlowe? I can’t join you, I’m afraid. Doctor’s orders.’

I nodded. The butler went and the old man spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.

‘Take off your coat, sir. It’s too hot in here for a healthy young man. You may smoke. I like the smell of cigarettes.’

I took off my coat and lit a cigarette. The butler brought the brandy and I drank some.

`Tell me about yourself, Mr Marlowe.’

`There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty−three. I used to work for the DA until I got fired for thinking for myself. I’m not married and I don’t like policemen’s wives.’

The old man smiled.

‘What do you know about my family?’

`Your wife is dead. You have two young daughters. They’re both pretty and both wild. One of them has been married three times, the last time to a bootlegger called Rusty Regan.’

The General smiled his thin smile.

`I was very fond of Rusty Regan. He was a big red−haired Irishman with sad eyes and a wide smile. He spent hours with me. He was a grand story−teller and a great drinker. Of course, he wasn’t a suitable husband for my daughter. I’m telling you our family secrets, Mr Marlowe.’

`They’ll stay secrets,’ I told him. `What happened to Regan?’

The old man looked at me sadly. `He went away a month ago. Without saying goodbye. That hurt me. I hope he’ll come back. And now someone is blackmailing me.’

He stared at me. `Look at this,’ he said. `And have some more brandy.’

He handed me a packet. The address said: General Guy Sternwood, 3765 Alta Brea Crescent, West Hollywood, California. There was a card inside it with the name Mr Arthur Gwynn Geiger, Specialist Bookseller, with a business address. There were also three notes signed by Carmen Sternwood. Each promised to pay Geiger $1,000.

`Any ideas?’ the General asked.

`Not yet. Who is Arthur Gwynn Geiger?’

`I don’t know.’

`What does Carmen say?’

`I haven’t asked her. If I did, she’d put her thumb in her mouth and giggle.’

I said, `I saw her outside. She did that to me.’

The expression on his face didn’t change.

`Do the girls spend a lot of time together?’

`Not that I know of. Vivian is intelligent but cruel. Carmen is just a selfish child. Neither of them ever worries about the difference between right and wrong. Neither do I.’

‘Do they have any money of their own?’

`Vivian has a little. I’m generous to both of them.’

I drank some brandy. Then I said, `I can take Geiger off your back, General, if you want me to.’ I told him how much money I wanted for the job.

`I see,’ he said. `That seems fair. Very well, Mr Marlowe. The problem is now in your hands. And now you must excuse me. I’m tired.’

He touched a bell, stared at me once more, and closed his eyes.

I picked up my coat and went out of that hot greenhouse full of flowers. The cool air of the garden smelled wonderful. The butler was coming towards me.

`Mrs Regan would like to see you, sir.’

`Why?’

His blue eyes looked straight into mine.

`I believe that she misunderstands the reason for your visit, sir.’

I told him it was none of his business, let alone hers. But what the hell, I thought.

‘Take me to Mrs Regan.’

++++

It was a big white room, too big, too white. Long windows looked out onto the dark hills. It was going to rain soon. I walked across the floor and looked at Mrs Regan. She was lovely. She was trouble. She was lying in a chair with her shoes off, so I stared at her legs. They were long and beautiful. She was drinking, and looked at me over her glass with her hot black Sternwood eyes.

`So you’re a private detective,’ she said. `I imagined an awful little man.’

I said nothing.

‘Tall, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘I didn’t mean to be.’

Her smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman’s ball.

The Big Sleep Bogart Bacall 1946 m 300x236 The Big Squash (à la Raymond Chandler) Part One`How did you like Dad?’

`I liked him.’

`He liked Rusty. Do you know who Rusty is?’

`Yes.’

`Rusty was sometimes rough and noisy, but he was never dull. He was a lot of fun for Dad. Why did he just disappear like that? Dad wants you to find him. Isn’t that true, Mr Marlowe?’

`Maybe,’ I said. I sat on the edge of a deep, soft chair and lit a cigarette.

`Do you think you can find him?’

`I didn’t say I was going to try. Why don’t you go to the police?’

`Oh, Dad will never bring the police into it.’

She looked at me smoothly and drank what was left in her glass.

`You don’t make much money, do you?’ she said.

`You can’t make big money in this game if you’re honest.’

`Oh, are you honest?’ she said and lit a cigarette.

`Terribly honest.’

`So what made you become a detective?’

`What made you marry a bootlegger?’

She went red. Her hot black eyes looked angry. I just smiled at her. `Don’t play with me,’ she said. `I don’t like the way you’re behaving.’

`I’m not crazy about you either,’ I told her. `I didn’t ask to see you, you asked to see me. I don’t care if you show your legs and drink whiskey for lunch. I don’t care if you think I behave badly. You’re probably right. But don’t try to question me.’

`I hate big, dark, handsome men like you, Marlowe,’ she said. `I just hate them.’

`What are you afraid of, Mrs Regan?’ I asked.

Her expression changed. `You could find Rusty – if Dad wanted you to,’ she said.

`He told me about Mr Regan. He wanted to see me about something else. Is that what you wanted me to say?’

`I don’t care what you say!’ she shouted.

I stood up and left the room. I walked back to the entrance hall and stood on the steps outside, smoking my cigarette. In the distance I could see some old oil−wells. The Sternwoods’ money came from those oil−wells. Now they lived in their beautiful house, far from the machines and the smell of the oily water in the sump.

The sky was black when I reached my car. I heard thunder in the hills and put the top up.

She had lovely legs. They were a smooth act, General Sternwood and his daughters. `What do they really want?’ I wondered.

++++

Geiger’s bookstore was on the north side of the boulevard, near Las Palmas. As I stopped to look in the window, a man in the street gave me a knowing smile. The door closed quietly behind me and I stepped onto a soft blue carpet. A few customers were browsing the shelves. There were big comfortable blue armchairs and some expensive−looking books on small tables. In one corner a woman wearing wire-framed glasses sat at a desk.

She got up slowly and came towards me. She was wearing a short black dress, which looked good over long legs. She had brown hair and green eyes. Her fingernails were silver. You don’t often buy a book from a girl like that.

The Big Sleep 1946 Bogart Malone The Big Squash (à la Raymond Chandler) Part One

`Can I help you?’ she asked me.

I asked her for a book. It was a famous book, but she had never heard of it. I tried another name. Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her. She didn’t know about the book. She knew as much about books as I knew about painting my fingernails silver.

`I’ll have to speak to Mr Geiger,’ I told her. `Is he here?’

`I’m afraid not,’ she said. `He’ll be here later.’

‘Mind if I wait?’ I said. ‘I’ve got nothing to do this afternoon.’ I sat down in an armchair and lit a cigarette. The brunette looked unhappy.

After twenty minutes, the door to the street opened and a tall man wearing black-rimmed glasses and a Panama hat came in. He hurried past me and over to the brunette.

He took something out of his wallet and showed it to her. She touched a button and a door opened. He disappeared through it.

Minutes passed. I smoked another cigarette. The brunette was staring at me with an expression she probably would have said was thoughtful.

The door opened and the tall man came out. He was carrying a large packet. He looked quickly at me as he passed and went out into the street.

++++

I left the bookstore and followed him. Someone who looks like that is easy to follow. When he stopped to cross the street, I let him see me. He walked on quickly and turned left, between two houses surrounded by trees. I stood and waited, as rain began to fall. Minutes passed. Then he came back and walked straight past me. He didn’t have the packet any more. He was safe now.

I watched him go down the street. Then I went between the houses and found the packet behind a tree. Nobody saw me pick it up. I went back to the boulevard and found a phone booth. I looked in the book and found that Geiger lived on Laverne Terrace, a street off Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Then I went to visit some other stores. In one of them I found a girl who could describe Geiger. She said he was about forty, a fat man with a fat face and a moustache. He dressed fashionably.

I ran back to my car through heavy rain. Then I opened the packet. I thought I knew what would be inside it but I thought wrong. It wouldn’t be the last time.

The packet was full of squash magazines.

I sat and looked at the glossy covers. Pictures of matches in play. Headlines trailing interviews, stories, best-buy features, tournament reports. Men and women posing with squash racquets. Wearing white.

I stared at them. I used to play the game myself when I was at the DA’s office. Now I played different games. Games where I could make my own rules.

Then I opened one. What was inside made me feel sick. The worst pornography I’d ever seen. The magazine covers were a front, just like Geiger’s bookstore was a front for distributing ugly dirt. To run that business on the boulevard he must be paying someone a lot of protection money.

I sat in my car and smoked and thought about it. Something didn’t feel right.

Then I looked again at the covers.

I found what I was looking for at the bottom of the pile. The cover showed two women on court playing a rally. The shot had been taken from low down on the front wall. One woman was a brunette with her hair in a ponytail. She was wearing a red sweatband and was lunging into the back right hand corner of the court to play a shot.

The second woman was standing on the T, her head turned towards her opponent. Her face was in left profile, her mouth slightly open, taking in a breath. It was a pretty mouth, a mouth showing little, sharp, white teeth.

The woman’s blonde hair was cut short.

She was holding her racquet in her left hand.

Coming next…

In Part Two of ‘The Big Squash’ the mystery deepens as Marlowe waits for Geiger to appear.

Acknowledgements

Set in Los Angeles, California, Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ was first published in 1939. Howard Hawks 1946 film version starred Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, Lauren Bacall as Vivian Routledge (Vivian Regan in the novel), and Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood.

For an appreciation of Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks movie, read Leonard Pierce’s ‘Come Into My Boudoir.’

Thanks to Rosalie Kerr for her masterly re-telling of ‘The Big Sleep’ and the ‘Good Reads’ website for its compendium of Raymond Chandler quotes. I’ve used quotes from Chandler’s  ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Farewell My Lovely’ and ‘The Little Sister’ in this story.

Brotherly Love (from the Squash Novel ‘The Club from Hell’)

The line went dead.

Weston pushed a button on the hand-set. There was a click and a low hum.

‘Did you get all that?’ asked Weston. There was a pause.

‘Loud and clear,’ came the reply. One of the workers looking after their queen, Weston thought.

‘She’s on her way.’

Weston hit the button again and swivelled towards Thorpe. The dusk was filtering into the Dubai offices of Global Trading prompting the ‘Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’ to reach behind him for a bottle and two glasses. He poured a measure of whiskey into both and handed one to Weston.

‘So,’ said Thorpe, ‘it would appear that your efforts have generated more than a little movement on the chessboard.’

Weston glanced down and brushed a non-existent speck of dust from his slacks.

‘Well, you did ask me to find out what Grigoriev was up to,’ he responded, raising his eyes to meet Thorpe’s. ‘It turns out that he was up to quite a lot.’

Thorpe chose not to rise to the bait. Weston had form as a loose cannon. As well as a ladies’ man. But he could sniff out the opportunity for a big sale.

‘As I see it,’ continued Thorpe, employing a measured delivery which Weston sensed was tinged with disappointment mixed with curiosity, ‘not only do you seem to know rather more than you have, up to now, disclosed to your superiors, but you have now shared carefully chosen parts of it with a, shall we say, disparate group of individuals searching for a missing girl.’

Weston remained silent.

‘All this,’ continued Thorpe, ‘in the context of what would appear to be a rapidly-developing conflict of interests between two rather nasty players in the global drugs trade. Players who are not only related by marriage but who are also clearly prone to the influence of their family members – particularly in relation to the noble art of squash racquets.’

‘You could say that,’ responded Weston.

Love Sculpture Philadelphia 300x206 Brotherly Love (from the Squash Novel The Club from Hell)

Sculpture, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Thorpe took a sip at his malt and grunted. His analysis had given him time to appreciate what Weston had also chosen to disclose and, more importantly, not to disclose to Mr Matthew and his assembled guests. The present whereabouts of Grigoriev and the Ivanovs; the laundering record of Steve Dwyer; his surprise at hearing of the whereabouts of his old squash coach’s nephew.

‘Sense, adapt, exploit,’ mused Thorpe. ‘But don’t trouble yourself with the possible consequences.’

‘Ah, well,‘ he thought, ‘everyone’s entitled to a little white lie or two, now and again.’

++++

It was another hour before Weston left Thorpe’s office. He stepped into the warm Gulf evening and waved down a taxi. The call with London had been short. Plenty of questions but nothing in the way of instruction. Dispassionate, workmanlike, faint praise. ‘Await further instructions’ was the message. And Weston didn’t like it. No clearance to fly to Philadelphia, no  sign of calling in the cousins. What was she playing at?

++++

Thorpe re-filled his glass and settled into his chair. The return call was not long in coming.

‘Well, Thorpe?’ she enquired.

‘If I read this correctly, Ma’am,’ he began, ‘the Grigorieva woman wants to change the peripatetic yet somewhat high-risk lifestyle she currently enjoys with her brother. To achieve this, she appears to have enlisted the support of Weston, Miss Phipps and, almost certainly, her own sister, having made a big show of falling out with the latter in the past. The sister also wants to remove herself from her current, er, domestic situation and take her daughter with her. At the same time, Grigoriev wishes to, shall we say, terminate his relationship with his brother-in-law and replace him with a less conspicuous US distributor.’

He paused.

‘Go on.’

‘And then there’s Ivanov’s son, of course,’ he continued, warming to his task. ‘The boy is prone to exhibiting somewhat psychopathic behaviour which has led to him getting into trouble in the past, and is likely to do so in the future. A high profile is, as you would concede, Ma’am, not a desirable attribute for someone involved in the global drugs trade.’

‘I should have thought not, Thorpe,’ came the reply. A little frosty this time, he sensed, in direct contrast to the temperature of his office. He pressed on.

‘Finally, there’s the Smith girl. Ivanov junior has been particularly ineffective in his attempts to secure a ransom for her from her mother and Mr. Dwyer. His incompetence alone would seem to be enough to call his continued involvement in the business into some question.’

‘Which is why,’’ came the response, ‘Grigoriev has travelled to the US to make arrangements for the Ivanovs’ imminent retirement. Under the pretext of visiting a squash tournament, I understand. Very imaginative.’’

‘I believe that cover may have been suggested by his younger sister, Ma’am,’ said Thorpe. ‘She may also have advised him to invite the Ivanovs to Dubai whilst he travelled to the US to arrange their replacement unhindered.’

‘And Weston?’

‘Wants to be present at the, er, tournament,’ said Thorpe. ‘for obvious reasons, although perhaps not the ones that might occur to Mr Matthew and his friends.’

Silence. Then, just as he was about to ask…

‘Get him on the first flight, Thorpe. Let’s give him enough rope to hang himself, shall we?’

‘Yes, Ma’am.’

‘Oh, and Thorpe?’

‘Yes, Ma’am?’

‘You may want to make sure that the sales force is at full strength over the next few days. Business opportunities in your part of the world may be about to come thick and fast.’

++++

Steve Dwyer arranged himself as comfortably as he could in his seat and sipped at his drink. The lights in the cabin were dimmed as the night flight to London headed north-east across the Arabian peninsula.

After the debacle in Dubai, he and Jill had been forced to wait more than 24 hours for the next available flight, 24 hours during which her state had changed from despair to near hysteria as her hopes of being re-united with her daughter had been dashed. Now she slept soundly beside him as Steve tried to make sense of the situation they were now in.

There had been no meeting with Jessica’s kidnappers, no hand-over of ransom money, no electronic transfer of funds, no re-union. Just a voice-mail left on his ‘phone while he and Jill were still in the air heading for Dubai.

It was the same voice, the same accent, the same cocky delivery, the same menace. There had been a ‘change of plan’, it said. His journey to Dubai had been ‘a test’ to see whether he was serious about securing the girl’s release.’ He was ‘being watched’, it said. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

And the same mantra.

‘She dies.’

++++

He and Jill were in the queue in Heathrow immigration before Steve switched on his cell-phone. He scanned the SMS message and voicemail details, looking for patterns. Plenty from James Matthew, one from Angus, a few from business contacts, even one from a squash buddy. ‘Probably wants a game,’ thought Steve. ‘I could tell him a thing or two about games.’

‘Oh, my God!’

His thoughts were suddenly shattered by Jill’s cry. Their fellow supplicants in the queue turned to look. She was talking to someone on her cell. ‘When did it happen?’ then ‘Why did it take you so long to get me?’ and ‘I’m in immigration at Heathrow. I’ll ring you back later.’

She hung up and grabbed Steve’s elbow, dragging him out of the queue. Her face had turned white.

‘That was Stephanie. Frank’s been murdered at the Club,’ she said.

++++

Twenty minutes later they were making their way through the green channel. Jill appeared calm, thought Steve. Maybe Frank’s death had given her something else to focus on, for the time being at least.

He said nothing to her as they approached the exit. He glanced at his cell-phone and began to scan his message and voicemail again. Force of habit.

He was waking up now, feeling more alert. Looking for patterns.

Suddenly, he began to feel uncertain, anxious. So many issues to deal with, so many people needing his attention, so many plans to make. Just in case.

He looked up.

Less than 20 metres away, at the end of the exit channel, stood two uniformed police officers. Not airport police. With them stood a youngish man wearing a black leather jacket. Another officer Steve guessed. They seemed to be waiting for someone off a flight.

And they were looking directly at him.

++++

It was December 9th.

He stood across the street watching the blue and red flag flapping in the breeze.

It had been easy to follow the girl, to keep her in his sights as she made her way through the city to the building. He had the street-craft, the gift of noticing patterns,  the gift of remaining inconspicuous, unobtrusive. It came naturally to him. Natural after years of learning, and surviving, in a world of shifting urban landscapes.

philadelphia skyline with rippling american flag animation Brotherly Love (from the Squash Novel The Club from Hell)

And, he thought to himself, he was going to need it if he was going to survive. Not just today, but every day until the game had played itself out. Whatever that might mean. For him. For the girl. For the others.

Yes, he was going to need it when they began to follow him.

And in the last few minutes he knew that they were already following him.

He had thought that he’d have more time before they appeared. Before they made their presence felt.

Still, they were here now. Part of the ecosystem of the city with its steel and concrete towers, its manicured parks, its river, its history, its…brotherly love. Plying their own form of street-craft, he supposed but, surely, one more suited to different landscapes, different cultures?

He’d already spotted one of them. Across the park to his left, maybe a hundred metres away. And a second, standing on the corner with Walnut. Too easy.

There was something noticeable about them. A sense of disquiet, a sense of not quite being comfortable, a sense that maybe there were other players in the neighbourhood. In the game.

He glanced at his watch. Time to move. More people would be arriving soon for the tournament. To compete, to play the game, to watch. The endgame.

He reached inside his track suit top and felt the gun nestling in its holster under his left armpit. Just in case.

He bent down, hoisted his racquet case onto his shoulder and strode towards the building.

++++

Acknowledgement

‘Brotherly Love’ was first published as Chapter 19 of ‘The Club from Hell’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 10 squash writers, the novel was posted by Ted on the DSR website where you can read it in its entirety.

For the record, the writing team comprised, in no particular order, Steve Cubbins, Aubrey Waddy, Alan Thatcher, John Branston, The Squashist, Tracy Gates, Rob Dinerman, Mick Joint, Will Gens and your truly.

Despite the appearance in the above instalment of the multi-faceted (and mysterious) ‘Jim Weston’, the real hero of ‘The Club from Hell’ is Ted Gross. Without his leadership, co-ordination and support, there would have been no ‘Club from Hell.’

Check out The Daily Squash Report for the new squash novel, Breaking Glass. You know you want to!

The Small Business of Squash at Christmas

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Samuel Pepys

Trade cards first became popular at the beginning of the 17th century in London  where they were typically distributed by businessmen to clients and potential customers. Unlike visiting cards, which were exchanged in social circles, they functioned as advertising and also as maps, directing the public to merchants’ stores, as no formal street address numbering system existed at the time. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1708) is known to have been an early user of trade cards in his professional capacity as a naval administrator, and left a collection of them which is now preserved at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Until the development of colour printing in the 1870s, few companies specialised in the bulk production of ‘stock’ trade cards, usually having an image on one side and space on the other for businesses to add their own information. Then, as production became more widespread and designs became more attractive and colourful, collecting and exchanging cards became a popular hobby. Some cards, particularly those produced by tobacco companies featuring baseball players, later developed into collectibles and gradually lost their function as business advertisements.

christmas squash copy The Small Business of Squash at Christmas

In the 1880s, squash was beginning to gain in popularity in England and elsewhere. So perhaps the existence of a trade card from that period featuring young lady holding a squash racquet shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

It’s possible that the card was advertising the services of the artist, Eleanor.E.Manly, an English Victorian artist specialising in children’s portraits whose most productive period was from the mid-1870s until her death in 1898. It also bears the greeting  ‘With best wishes for a Happy Christmas’ which suggests that it was produced for distribution during the festive period.

The earliest squash Christmas card? We’ll probably never know. But with Manly’s work still being bought and sold after in the top art auction rooms of the world, it’s nice to think that someone, somewhere may still have something valuable locked away in the attic.

And it’s got a squash racquet on it.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Christine H of Portland, Oregon whose love of antique postcards shines through on her blog The Daily Postcard.

Dark Side of the Squash Court

In 1974, I hadn’t even heard of squash, never mind coming into contact with anyone who’d actually played it. But I had heard of English rock band, Pink Floyd who, the previous year, had released what is still one of the most commercially successful rock albums of all time.

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Dark Side of the Moon Album Cover

The group’s concept album The Dark Side of the Moon was eventually to spend  seven years in the UK album chart whilst, in the US, it was to remain in the Billboard Top 100 chart for over fourteen years. Selling over 40 million copies worldwide, the album was to bring enormous wealth to the members of the group. Its monomaniacal leader, Roger Waters, and keyboard player Richard Wright would buy large English country houses whilst drummer Nick Mason would become a collector of expensive cars.

So, in 1974, the group’s followers and its record company had high expectations that an equally successful follow-up album would soon appear. The group was even rumoured to have written material for the new album and be at work in the recording studio.

But coming up with a worthy successor to The Dark Side of the Moon was proving exceptionally difficult. Relationships between the group’s members were strained and there was disagreement over the concept for their next album. What’s more, something else was about to distract some members of the group from turning up to the recording studio. Squash.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

In the Winter of 1974, the group embarked on a tour of the UK playing a set including the entirety of The Dark Side of the Moon. The first part of each concert featured new material including Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Roger Waters’ tribute to Syd Barrett, an ex-band member whose mental breakdown had forced him to leave several years before. This, together with two other new compositions, Raving and Drooling and You’ve Got to be Crazy, seemed to be a reasonable choice as the centrepiece for a new album.

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Pink Floyd on stage 1974

But, working from Studio Three at Abbey Road in London, the group were finding it difficult to devise any new material, especially as the success of The Dark Side of the Moon had left all four physically and emotionally drained. Richard Wright described the group’s early recording sessions as “falling within a difficult period” and Roger Waters as “torturous”. Guitarist David Gilmour was more interested in improving the band’s existing material and  was becoming increasingly frustrated with Mason, whose failing marriage had brought on a general malaise and sense of apathy, both of which interfered with his drumming.

And there were technical problems. On one occasion, sound engineer Brian Humphries inadvertently spoiled the backing tracks for Shine On, which Waters and Mason had spent many hours perfecting, with echo. The entire piece had to be re-recorded.

Several weeks into recording, Waters came up with another idea. He proposed splitting Shine On You Crazy Diamond and sandwiching two new – and, as yet, unwritten – songs between its two sections. Gilmour disagreed, but was outvoted three to one, leading to yet more disharmony between the group’s members.

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Pink Floyd on court 1975

But just as it seemed that the camaraderie which had previously held the group’s members together was about to vanish, two of them found a new way of sharing their frustrations, re-energising themselves and, unknowingly, bringing the group back together.

They started playing squash.

Wish You Were Here

David Gilmour and Nick Mason became squash buddies spending so much time on court that their appearances in the Abbey Road recording studio became less frequent. Nearly forty years later, Brian Humphries was to recall how frustrating he found it to get them to agree to recording schedules which, by necessity, would oblige them to vacate the squash courts for the more mundane task of crafting a new Pink Floyd album – now provisionally entitled Wish You Were Here.

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Pink Floyd on court 1975

But whatever scheduling difficulties were being experienced by Humphries, the concept behind the new album gradually became clearer to group leader Roger Waters. The two new songs he had proposed emerged in the shape of Welcome to the Machine and Have a Cigar, both barely-veiled attacks on the music business. The lyrics of the new songs  would work neatly with Shine On You Crazy Diamond to provide an apt summary of the rise and fall of Syd Barrett. “I wanted to get as close as possible to what I felt,” Waters was to say later. “That sort of indefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd.”

The production of Wish You Were Here progressed in fits and starts, with Syd Barrett paying an impromptu visit to the studio during the recording of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The album was eventually released in September 1975 with 250,000 advanced sales in the UK and 900,000 in the US.

Despite the many problems encountered during its production, the album was to become the firm favourite of both Richard Wright and David Gilmour. But even in 2011, Roger Waters, interviewed for a documentary about its making, still appeared to be moping about its flaws. Gilmour and Mason sounded like they’d rather be playing squash.

The Kings of the Palace

On December 9th, 1974, I attended one of the two concerts played by Pink Floyd at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. At the time, I’d never bought a Pink Floyd album although I’d heard plenty of their music. I hadn’t even sought out a ticket in advance but was offered one at short notice. So I went.

And I’m glad I did.

Because there was something about the concert that had a big effect on me, something that stayed with me, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t the group’s performance, the music, the light show complete with landing lights and glitter-ball, the dry ice – although I remember all of those things. It wasn’t even the concert programme which was a memorable pastiche of British ‘Boy’s Own’ comics.

It was something else. Something which took me nearly forty years to understand.

Somehow, at that concert I wasn’t just listening to a rock band. I was watching squash buddies…doing their day job.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here. Thanks also to The Arts Desk for its review of the BBC4 documentary on the making of Wish You Were Here.

Thanks to the Pink Floyd fan website A Fleeting Glimpse and to Magforum for its review of the Pink Floyd 1974 Tour Programme.

Finally, thanks to whoever recorded Pink Floyd’s December 9th, 1974 concert at Manchester’s Palace Theatre and, what’s more, uploaded it to YouTube. If you listen very  carefully, you can hear me shouting in the background!

Weston’s Game (from the Squash Novel ‘The Club from Hell’)

The match at the Heliopolis Club went into a fifth game, Gamal levelling with his trademark forehand volley-drop into the front right-hand corner.

Weston left the court to towel down, take a drink and reflect on the state of play, and on the state of his body. His three month sabbatical, enforced by the medics back in London, still had two weeks to run. In the beginning, an old friend had fixed him up with a villa in Barbados where he’d been able to swim and snorkel most of the day before eating dinner, prepared by the housekeeper, on the terrace overlooking the sea. He’d drunk no alcohol, read, and retired to bed early with only a painkiller for company.

But then, he’d felt the need for some recreation, something with an edge, something  competitive. So he’d come back to part of the world where he’d spent so much of his time in the service on assignment. Somewhere, despite recent political upheavals, where he felt comfortable, connected with history, alive.

Here, in Cairo, he’d kept up a fitness regimen to maybe seventy-five per cent of his potential. Swimming, running and weights at the club, with the occasional game of tennis, and now squash with an old friend and his former squash coach. Gamal was now in his early fifties, but was still more than a match for him.

They resumed their match, watched from the balcony by some youngsters whose parents, he reflected, obviously had the money and the connections, for them to be there. Weston started the stronger, keeping his opponent to the back of the court, but then tired as Gamal’s superior powers of deception began to take their toll. It was their third match in as many weeks but now, he sensed, he was getting closer.

++++

Showered and changed, they sat by the pool drinking iced tea and watching the sun set over the city. They talked business, politics. Then family. Gamal’s family. Weston had none. At least that was his story.

‘So how’s that nephew of yours?’ he said, switching to Arabic. ‘The squash player?’

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Heliopolis Club, Cairo

‘Ah, a fine boy,’ said his squash partner with pride. ‘And a fine coach too. But  now, I hear so little from him and see him even less. He left home over a year ago to work abroad. Always on the move, my friend. So many places around the world.’ He paused. ‘Do you know, the last my sister heard from him, he was coaching squash on a yacht somewhere. Can you imagine that? On a yacht!’

Weston smiled and lifted his face towards the setting sun.

When they’d finished their drinks, they picked up their bags and racquet cases and walked towards the reception area.

‘Same time next week, Jim?’ said Gamal.

‘Yes Gamal’ said Weston. ‘Why not.’

He left his playing partner and walked out into the early evening heat.

‘Taxi, Mr. Faulks?’ asked the concierge.

Weston nodded.

++++

Later, in his room at the hotel, Weston retrieved his cellphone from the safe. It displayed a solitary text message from an unidentified number. It read simply: ‘Call Global Trading. Urgent.’

He took a second ‘phone from the safe and connected it to a small electronic device taken from his racquet case. He keyed in a number from memory and listened. There was a click and then a low hum on the line as he heard the call being diverted.

At last, he heard the voice – precise, distant but unmistakable – of the person he most respected in the world.

‘Weston?’

‘Ma’am?’

‘The party’s over.’

‘But, I thought –‘

‘One of our sales force is reporting exceptional activity.’

‘Where?’

‘In the Gulf, although imports from the US are looking up as well.’

‘What about my sabbatical? It doesn’t end until –‘

‘To hell with your sabbatical. I need you on the first flight to Dubai tomorrow. Got that?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

The line went dead.

Next week’s match at the Heliopolis Club was most definitely off.

++++

The following afternoon, Weston found himself sitting in the Dubai offices of Global Trading awaiting the appearance of Dan Thorpe. A stencilled sign on the glass door read ‘Mr. D. R. Thorpe, Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’.

Weston had been ushered into Thorpe’s office, a scene of uncharacteristic disorder given the true role of its owner in the service. Now, looking from his third floor vantage point towards the Dubai skyline, he sipped at a glass of sweet tea and wondered what sales activity was about to be shared with him.

When he finally appeared, Thorpe looked much the same as ever, slightly dishevelled with dark hair greying at the temples and a stooped posture as he walked towards Weston, hand outstretched. They exchanged pleasantries before sitting opposite each other across Thorpe’s desk.

‘Sorry about the sabbatical, Jim’ said Thorpe. ‘Duty calls, eh?’

Weston gave a wry smile and relaxed into his chair.

‘A week ago, our cousins across the pond shared some intelligence with London about someone they’ve been watching. Someone they believe may be about to take possession of a, shall we say, shipment intended for subsequent distribution – and, presumably, consumption – within the US. They don’t appear to know where the shipment will be handed over but experience suggests it will be at sea. Somewhere in the Caribbean.’

‘What has that got to do with Her Majesty’s Government?’ asked Weston.

‘I’m coming to that’ continued Thorpe. ‘The person the cousins have been watching has connections to someone that London believes could turn out to be a threat to our national security. Someone who, coincidentally, arrived in Dubai just over a fortnight ago.’

He leaned forward and pushed a manila folder across the desk towards Weston.

‘The man the cousins have been watching is called Ivanov. Viktor Ivanov. Born in St. Petersburg. In his mid-50s. Bit of a track record but hardly public enemy number one. That’s his photograph on top of the heap. He pretty much lives on his yacht, the Ekaterina. Registered in St. Petersburg naturally. It’s now in US territorial waters. As far as the cousins can tell, it got there via the Baltic, the North Sea, the Med, North Africa, the Atlantic and the Caribbean, stopping at at least a dozen ports, including London. Quite a holiday cruise – assuming that he’s on holiday of course.’

Weston looked the photograph of a thick-set balding man with a black goatee as Thorpe continued.

‘Ivanov has his family with him. More precisely, wife number three and two children – one from a previous marriage. That’s a picture of his wife, Maria. Looks like an archetypal Russian good-time girl who’s seen better days but there’s something much more interesting about her.’

Weston looked at the picture. It showed a plump, bleached blonde woman in her late 40s, perhaps, wearing a flowered smock. She was standing at what looked like a ship’s rail.

‘Which is?’

‘She’s the elder sister of this man.’

Thorpe pointed out the third photograph.

‘Anatole Grigoriev. Also from Petersburg. And the person we believe now controls the opium trade routes from Northern Afghanistan through Iran and the former Soviet republics.’

Weston picked up the photograph. It showed a clean-shaven athletic-looking man with short dark hair. He was wearing a white shirt and slacks and was sitting under a parasol, holding a cocktail glass up to the camera.

‘He looks a happy soul,’ said Weston.

‘He should be,’ answered Thorpe, ‘Considering the amount of money he must be making. But there’s just one problem. Grigoriev doesn’t just have aspirations to control the global drugs trade. He wants to destroy the West. It appears to be personal, for some reason. That’s what HMG is panicking about. London believes that whatever Ivanov is up to is just a side-show. Grigoriev is the one who pulls the strings. And now he’s sitting in a penthouse suite over at the Burj Khalifa Hotel.’

Weston shrugged.

‘I suppose it makes sense,’ he commented. ‘Big Russian community to provide  cover. The cousins not exactly popular in the area for obvious reasons. Just us honest British businessmen left to see fair play.’

‘That’s where you come in,’ said Thorpe.

‘London wants you to find out what Grigoriev’s up to. Whatever happens in the cousins’ backyard isn’t our concern. But how Grigoriev responds most definitely is. And you may just have a way of reaching him. Take a look at the fourth photograph.’

Weston picked it out of the folder. It showed an attractive young woman playing tennis at what he suspected was the Burj Khalifa Sports Club. Long legs, high cheekbones and a pretty good-looking double-fisted backhand by the look of it. She was wearing a white visor with her blonde hair pulled into a pony-tail.

‘Grigoriev’s younger sister, Tatiana’ said Thorpe. ‘Rather different from his older one  I think you’ll agree?’

Weston nodded and placed the photograph back in the folder.

‘She certainly has friends here,’ continued Thorpe ‘But seems to spend a lot of her time in sports clubs. Money no object, of course. Tennis, swimming, golf, even the odd game of squash, you’ll be pleased to hear. Speaks four languages that we know of, all of which, coincidentally, you speak fluently. I’m sure you’re more than capable of engineering a casual meeting?’

burj khalifa sunset Weston’s Game (from the Squash Novel ‘The Club from Hell’)

Sunset over the Burj Khalifa, Dubai

When Weston had left for his hotel, Thorpe closed his office door and picked up the telephone. He pressed the scrambler and heard the familiar click and hum.

‘Thorpe?’

‘Yes, ma’am. He’s just left.’

A question.

‘No, ma’am, he doesn’t know anything about the runaway on Ivanov’s yacht. Or the private investigators.’

‘Good. Thank you, Thorpe’

He hung up.

++++

It was early evening at the Burj Khalifa Sports Club.

Weston timed his walk past the table by the pool to coincide with that of the white-coated waiter. At an opportune moment, he moved sharply out of the waiter’s path, knocking into the table and upsetting the cocktail glass standing on it. The glass hit the floor with a satisfying crash.

‘Oh, how clumsy of me!’ he exclaimed, turning to the young woman sitting there.

‘I beg your pardon, madam,’ said the waiter on cue, making to pick up the broken glass.

Weston turned towards him and spoke quickly in Arabic.

‘Please get the lady a replacement, Hassan, and charge it to my account.’

The woman spoke in accented English as Weston turned back towards her. ‘Please don’t concern yourself. It was a simple accident.’

By this time, Hassan had abandoned the glass and scuttled away on his highly lucrative errand.

‘Please. I insist. It was completely my fault, Miss – ?’ said Weston, this time in Russian.

She smiled.

‘Grigorieva. Tatiana Grigorieva.’

He extended his hand.

‘My names Faulks. Jim Faulks.’

She hesitated, took it and answered. In Russian this time.

‘You speak very good Russian for an Englishman Mr. Faulks. Are you a member here?’

‘Jim. Yes.’ he said. ‘And you?’

‘Yes. I arrived in Dubai only recently.’

‘Then I insist on helping you feel at home’ he offered. ‘Tell me. Do you play any games, Miss Grigorieva?’

She laughed.

‘Tatiana. Yes, Mr. Faulks. I do play games.’

She looked into his eyes.

‘In fact, I happen to be very good at them.’

Acknowledgement

‘Weston’s Game’ was first published as Chapter 10 of ‘The Club from Hell’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 10 squash writers, the novel was posted by Ted on the DSR website where you can read it in its entirety.

For the record, the writing team comprised, in no particular order, Steve Cubbins, Aubrey Waddy, Alan Thatcher, John Branston, The Squashist, Tracy Gates, Rob Dinerman, Mick Joint, Will Gens and your truly.

Despite the appearance in the above instalment of the multi-faceted (and mysterious) ‘Jim Weston’, the real hero of ‘The Club from Hell’ is Ted Gross. Without his leadership, co-ordination and support, there would have been no ‘Club from Hell.’

Thanks Ted!

Squash in New England: A Walk in the Woods

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Hiking in New England during the US’s hottest summer since 1895 may not be everybody’s idea of a relaxing holiday. Whatever plans you might have had to explore the Great Outdoors tend to change daily, if not hourly, as the mercury rises, the forest shade beckons and a craving for the next ice-cold drink begins.

Well, that’s what it was like for me when I hiked the trails around Burlington, Vermont, where squash is still very much part of the varsity athletics scene. Not only that, one enterprising Burlington squash player had even built himself an outdoor court, with a slight gradient from front wall to back for drainage purposes.

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The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

Things were much the same hiking the trails of Acadia, off the coast of Maine, where I came across a fellow traveller and hiker who just happened to play in Philadelphia’s squash leagues. I even experienced déjà vu on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire where a passing conversation with another hiker revealed yet another ex-college player and squash lover.

So, by the time I headed south towards Massachusetts, I already had a feeling that all I had to do to stay connected with squash was to keep travelling, hike trails and share stories with strangers. After all, I was wandering through a landscape which, over the years, has attracted travellers and hikers from all over the world. People who, just like me, wanted to go for a walk in the woods, whatever the temperature.

People drawn to the place where squash first took root in America.

The First American Squash Court

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St Paul’s School, New Hampshire

The first squash court in America was built at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in 1884. Two years previously, the headmaster of St. Paul’s had seen the game played in Montreal and wrote an article about it for the school magazine. In the article he favoured squash over rackets, largely on the grounds of its lower costs. But, despite his enthusiasm, the soft ball used in the sport proved to be unsuitable for use on the unheated squash courts of New Hampshire with its cold winters. Because of this, a harder ball was developed which was more suited for use in colder temperatures and on narrower courts.

In 1924, the US hardball squash court was standardized at 18.5 feet wide with a 17 inch “tin” – the out-of-play strip of metal at the bottom of the front wall. This contrasted with the British (international) court which, four years later, was finally to be standardised at 21.5 ft. wide with a 19 inch “tin”.

But whatever progress was being made on both sides of the Atlantic in standardising squash balls and squash courts, there was one milestone in the development of squash which proved to be ‘no contest’. In 1904, twenty years after the appearance of America’s first squash court, the world’s first national squash association was formed.

It was American and was to pre-date its British equivalent by almost a quarter of a century.

Harvard Connections

From its beginnings in New Hampshire, squash began to spread further into the US through the private boys schools of New England. This initial phase of squash development is still reflected in the distribution of squash courts throughout the country, the majority still being located in private universities and athletic clubs. Today, there are over 1,000 facilities across the US which house squash courts including those at the Ivy League universities of Yale in Connecticut and Harvard in Massachusetts.

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Concord Acton Squash Club, Massachusetts

Not surprisingly, I found that Harvard featured on the fixture list of the Concord Acton squash club which I visited, and played at, between walking excursions. Before my visit to the area, I’d already discovered that Concord itself boasts a remarkably rich literary history centred in the mid-nineteenth century. So it was as a lover of traveller’s tales that I took a particular interest one of the town’s most famous natives, the author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

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Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is best known for his book ‘Walden or Life in the Woods’, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Published in 1854, the book is part personal declaration of independence, part social experiment, and part manual for self reliance in what were then physically demanding times. Thoreau was also a follower of transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the Eastern region of the US as a protest against the current state of culture and society and, in particular, against the state of intellectualism at Harvard University.

Thoreau himself was no great traveller or walker, but others in the local area shared and outlook on life which combined intellectualism with more physical pursuits.

Including sport.

Harvard Squash

By the time transcendentalism had run its course in the early 1850s, Harvard had begun to embrace another new movement, that of intercollegiate athletics. In 1852, the first intercollegiate sporting event, a rowing race between Harvard and Yale, took place on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Other sports were to follow, tennis making its debut in 1880 and, eventually, squash, arguably Harvard’s most successful sport of all, in 1922. The first-ever intercollegiate squash match, Harvard versus Yale, followed in February 1923.

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Harry Cowles’ ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’

Harvard squash was to produce its own successful exponents including the legendary Harry Cowles who coached its men’s team for its first 16 seasons, leading it to five national titles and mentoring no less than 13 individual champions. Cowles’ book ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’ was published in 1935 and is still available if you look in the right places.

Over the years, many other notable figures were to emerge from Harvard’s squash community including one who would come to be recognised as one of the leading all-round athletes of the first half of the 20th century.

Someone who was to blaze the trail for women’s participation in sport in America.

The First Women’s Squash Champion

Eleonora R. Sears, nicknamed “Eleo,” was born in Boston in 1881. The great-great-granddaughter of the 3rd President of the US, Thomas Jefferson, Sears enjoyed all the benefits of an aristocratic upbringing. In her youth she was part of the social elite that vacationed each summer in Newport, Rhode Island, where she learned to play tennis and golf, rode horses, swam, and sailed.

In 1911, Sears began to play tennis competitively, when she and her friend Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman won the US women’s doubles championship. Over the next five years, Sears won four more doubles championships, scandalizing crowds each time with her rolled up shirt-sleeves.  In 1912, Sears nearly lost her membership to the Burlingame Country Club in Southern California, when she rode front-saddle into the all-men’s polo arena wearing pants.

But, despite receiving criticism for her unfeminine style of dress and her avid participation in athletics, Sears was unfailingly popular among the upper class circles of Boston and New York.  She was a frequent guest at the all-men’s Harvard Club, where she first learned to play squash in 1918.

Eleanor Sears 1929 Squash in New England: A Walk in the Woods

Eleanora Sears in 1929

In 1928, she helped to found the US Women’s Squash Racquets Association. In the same year, at the age of 46, she not only became its first singles champion but the first women’s squash champion in history. In 1929, she convinced Harvard’s officials to open its squash courts to women. She later served as the USWSRA’s president and was captain of the US national women’s team.

Sears frequently topped New York’s “10-best dressed” list, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) claimed her to be his favourite dance, squash, and tennis partner. She played and coached women’s squash into her 70s, and was also famous for her frequent marathon hikes, her favourite being from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, a distance of 44 miles. She once walked the 73 miles from Newport to Boston in 17 hours and during her 1912 visit to California, walked the 109 miles from the Burlingame Country Club to the Hotel Del Monte in 41 hours.

Sears, nicknamed ‘The Universal Female Athlete’ died in 1968 at the age of 86.

So the next time you travel to the US, why not visit some of the places where squash is still very much part of the local culture? New England, perhaps, or maybe further south even as far as Atlanta, Georgia where the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail ends. And while you’re there, why not take a walk in the woods?

You never know what squash stories you might hear.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as always, to Wikipedia for its entries on squash, Eleanora Sears, Concord Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, Harvard University and the Appalachian Trail.

Thanks also to Peggy Miller Franck for her article ‘The Mother of Title IX: Trailblazing Athlete Eleonora Sears’ in The Daily Beast.

And, finally, thanks to the Concord Acton Squash Club for allowing me to play in its Sunday morning ‘round robin’.

The Squash Racquet Expert

A few years ago, I decided to find a way of making money which would, at the same time, enable me to draw on my passion for squash.

A well-connected friend of mine suggested that I invest in vintage squash racquets. They must be authentic, he told me, or you’ll waste your investment. The problem was, how could I learn to distinguish high value racquets from the inferior article?

I decided to find the acclaimed expert in the field. Everybody I asked mentioned the same highly regarded teacher and so I sought him out. I managed to get hold of his number and rang him at his home.

‘Yes, I can certainly teach you to recognise high value racquets,’ he told me. I asked him how long it would take to earn and he replied. ‘I can teach you in five days, but it will cost you £5000.’

Historic Squash Racquet 300x271 The Squash Racquet ExpertIt seemed a high price to pay, but he was reputed to be the world expert and I presumed that I’d learn a great deal in those five days. So, I agreed the contract and sent him a letter to that effect. He told me to visit his house each day between 9 and 11 a.m. starting the following Monday.

Two hours a day seemed a little on the short side for such an expensive training, but I duly turned up and was greeted by a tall, elderly man with white hair wearing a tracksuit. He ushered me into a sparsely-furnished room containing a long, wooden table. In the middle of the table, mounted by its handle on a plinth was a wood-framed squash racquet with what I assumed were gut strings. Placed on either side of the table were two chairs. The Master sat on one side and I was invited to sit on the other.

‘Look at the racquet,’ he commanded and fixed his attention on it.

I stared and stared, expecting that at any moment he would start telling me what I should be noticing. But not a word was said until the end of the hour when he announced, ‘That is the end of today’s lesson. I will see you at 9 a.m. tomorrow.’

I felt that I’d been short-changed on this first lesson, but was sure that tomorrow he’d tell me what I should have noticed.

The next day, at the same time, in the same room, I found myself sitting opposite another racquet.

‘Look at the racquet,’ the Master once again commanded.

My study was intermingled with my growing eagerness and anticipation of what I was going to be told. But not a word came from the Master’s lips until I was once again told that it was the end of the lesson and he would see me tomorrow.

Vintage Grays Raccket m4n8OQm 7GKdq9Tck 2aodQ The Squash Racquet ExpertThe third day turned out to be the same as the first two. I rationalised my growing fury by telling myself that, this being the acclaimed expert, he was waiting for me to have studied several different racquets before giving me a lecture on how they all differed. Surely, in the rest of the week, he would tell me how the colour of the markings on the racquets differed, how to distinguish the fine-grained textures of the wood used for the head and the handle, the shape and symmetry of the frame and so on.

However, the fourth day came and went exactly as the others had done before them. Another racquet and an hour’s silent study.

I arrived at the last lesson on the Friday morning, keyed up with anticipation. Now all was going to be revealed and I was sure that I was going to have really concentrate to get my £5000-worth of learning into my head in  this one short hour.

I was shocked to find the room exactly the same, with another squash racquet and the same invitation – ‘Look at the racquet.’

I looked at the racquet with urgent anticipation of the wisdom that surely was shortly to be delivered. After ten minutes, I was getting agitated and after fifteen positively desperate. I could stand it no longer; my patience had finally run out. I turned to the Master and shouted at him:

‘I’ve spent £4000 so far and another £1000 today, and up to now you haven’t told me anything, just left me to look at different squash racquets. And what’s even worse, today you have not even had the courtesy to show me an authentic high value racquet!’

Acknowledgement

This kind of teaching story is found in the Zen Buddhist tradition. It’s based on the story ‘Learning from the Experts’ taken from ‘The Wise Fool’s Guide to Leadership’ by Peter Hawkins.

Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a broken heart, must be in want of sportive diversion.

It had been above three months since Darcy, having declared to her his most ardent affection and love, had suffered the reproofs of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even now, his remembrance of her words caused him inexpressible pain despite his feeling reasonable enough to allow their justice.

darcy and elizabeth 295x300 Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.  You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

How those words had tortured him.

In his great disappointment and frustration, he had first determined to busy himself in attending to various business matters which had long required his attention. Now, he found himself  travelling in the North Country with a party including his sister, Georgiana, his friend Bingley, and Bingley’s sisters.

During their travels, Darcy had prevailed upon the good will of Mr. W——– of Pontefract to further instruct him in the sportive art of squash racquets, a pastime in which he had long excelled. He had likewise succeeded, to the great joy of his beloved sister, in securing the services of Miss D——, a lady similarly proficient in that art, to provide her with sportive instruction. Now, as the other ladies of the party expressed their desire to return to Pemberley, he greatly wished to participate in further sportive diversion and healthful recreation as he struggled with his feelings of rejection.

On the morning before his party’s intended departure, Darcy’s spirits were lifted by the receipt of a letter from his steward, Mr. M——, begging his immediate presence to attend an urgent matter relating to his estate. He at once reasoned that his early return would also  provide him with the opportunity of engaging in a game of squash racquets with his steward, a player of not insubstantial experience and skill. However, he determined not to educate his travelling companions as to his intentions of seeking further sportive diversion and, following breakfast, begged his leave of them and set forth on his journey.

His ride being uneventful and the weather clement, Darcy’s thoughts turned towards his  arrival at Pemberley. Notwithstanding the urgency of his journey, he anticipated with pleasure the time he would be able to spend in gentleman-like competition with Mr. M——  in the squash racquets hall adjacent to the stables. Yet, even so, he reflected with regret that his sister knew no other young ladies in the area with whom she could prevail upon to play with her on her return, Miss Bingley and her sister being disinclined during their visits to partake in what they judged to be an un-ladylike manner of recreation. Neither could he, as a loving brother, find any suitable sportive companions for his sister although, as he drew closer to his destination, the person of Miss Elizabeth Bennet once more intruded upon his thoughts.

On this occasion, however, he did not hear Miss Bennet’s words but was perceptive only of her dark eyes, her lightness of movement and her healthful manner. Did she not love running? Did she not find joy in country dancing? Was she not determined to journey everywhere on foot if circumstances would allow it? At once he remembered her dancing at the ball at Netherfield, and, yes, the occasion of her walking from Longbourn to Netherfield to attend her sister! Now, as he drew near to his destination, Darcy made a firm resolve to explore every avenue which might be available to him to win the affection of the woman with whom, he now confessed to himself, he was still in love.

On his arrival at Pemberley, he rode through the woods, crossed the bridge and made directly for the stables where, as fortune would have it, he was greeted by his steward. Anticipating his master’s desire to enjoy some time in the squash racquets hall before attending to any matters of business,  Mr. M—— had prevailed upon Darcy’s valet to bring his master’s racquet and rubber-soled squash shoes to the court in advance of the latter’s arrival. Darcy declared himself pleased with his  steward’s initiative before removing his riding jacket, waistcoat and boots, putting on his shoes and taking his racquet before joining his steward on court.

Racquets Hall Eglinton Castle Ayrshire Scotland Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)

The encounter proved to both players at once demanding and challenging, Darcy triumphing over his steward by the narrowest of margins in just under the hour. Having complimented each other on their endeavour, the two competitors agreed to meet in an  hour to discuss the issue which had caused Darcy’s early return. Darcy then put on his riding boots and began to walk along the road leading to the house where he could refresh himself and change into fresh clothing following his sportive exertions.

Carrying his clothes and racquet, he had reached the lawn when he became aware of the presence of the gardener whose expression of surprise, on beholding his master, must immediately have told it. He then spied at some yards distant, a party of two ladies and a gentleman, whom he took to be visitors, the latter of whom he overheard to be conjecturing as to the date of the house. But it was only as he approached further towards his destination that he at once found himself standing within but a few short yards of…Miss Elizabeth Bennet!

He advanced towards the party and spoke to her.

As she saw him, she had instinctively turned away; but stopping on his approach, received his compliments with, had he but know it, an embarrassment impossible to overcome.

Her companions stood a little aloof while he was talking to her whilst she, astonished and abashed, scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face, and seemingly knew not what answer she returned to his civil enquiries about her family.

The few minutes in which they continued together were some of the most uncomfortable of his life. Nor did she seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his own accent had none of its usual sedateness; and he repeated his enquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn, and of her stay in Derbyshire, so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.

At length, every idea seemed to fail him; and, after standing a few moments without saying a word, he suddenly recollected himself and took leave.

As he strode towards the house, Darcy at once became aware of the mode of his dress, the  dampness of his attire and the disarrangement of his hair, directly come as he was from his exertions in the squash racquets hall. Yet, as he entered the hallway, any consequent  embarrassment he had begun to experience surrendered itself to the intensity of his desire to return to the presence of Miss Bennet; and this, in its own turn, gave urgency to his thoughts as to how he could realise such a happy situation before she and her friends might  end their visit to Pemberley.

No sooner had he begun to cross the hall towards the staircase, however, than the appearance of his housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, gave him cause to believe that he would soon be able to re-join Miss Bennet’s party. Mrs. Reynolds’ astonishment at seeing her master  was quickly replaced by a willingness to assist him in fulfilling his earnest wish to know in which direction their visitors were going, and in having his valet attend him with all urgency. Expressing his profound gratitude for her assistance, Darcy then made to ascend to his dressing room with all speed.

Now, as he set aside his racquet and busied himself in preparing to follow Miss Bennet and her friends, Darcy at once vowed to himself that he would again begin to hope.

Notes

Extracts from Chapters XXXIV and LXIII of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, published in 1813.

For further reading on women’s sport in the early 19th Century, see “Healthful Sports for Young Ladies” by Mademoiselle St. Sernin, published in 1822.

Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

In the first part of “Squash and Human Nature” we looked at three of the six characteristics that encapsulate what it is to be human: playfulness, scientific thinking and rule-making. Those characteristics, along with the three described in this article, have been identified by anthropologists as the ones that clearly set us apart from other species. Together, they offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of our relationships with each other and our shared passion for squash.

women competition squash 300x229 Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

Women in Competition

It’s that passion which drives us in ways that, sometimes, we’re barely conscious of as we focus on the playing aspects of squash. But there are other aspects of our relationship with squash, and those who share our passion for it, which also have their origins in human evolution and pre-date such relatively recent developments as the acquisition of language. In this context, squash is not just a game, it’s a shared expression of human nature.

Participation in the game of squash is, of course, subject to the adherence of its players to a universal codified set of rules. But participation in the story of squash comes in many forms, and is influenced by a wide range of cultural, social, political and economic factors. What’s more, it’s not confined to those who play the game.

Whatever your view, one thing is clear. Woven into the fabric of squash are behaviours  which reflect human characteristics drawing on all of those senses we share with other mammals; sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing.

But not in the way you might think.

Being Epicurean – Squash Feeding

Where other animals just eat, we make a meal of things. And the main difference is down to one of humanity’s greatest inventions: cooking. “People of every culture cook at least some of their food,” says Richard Wrangham of  Harvard University. He’s made a very persuasive case that cooked food, which delivers more calories with much less chewing than raw food, was the key innovation that enabled our ancestors to evolve big energy-hungry brains and become the smart, social creatures we are today. In fact, humans (well most of us anyway) spend less than one hour a day chewing, all of which leaves plenty of free non-feeding time for other cultural activities, squash included.

meat cars Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

Culinary culture includes the phenomenon of ritualised, familial, food-sharing, otherwise known as mealtimes. In every human society, people naturally gather in family groups at more or less regular times of day to eat what has been cooked. And, wherever you go, these everyday meals tend to be cooked by women. We don’t really know why, but it could originally have been in exchange for men’s protection, and because childcare kept women closer to home.

Individual participation in playing squash imposes its own feeding patterns. Eating and drinking before, during and after matches is typically influenced by rules of thumb which vary from culture to culture. Muslim players, for example, will fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan; and their family mealtimes will also be subject to change.

Then there’s feasting. From sharing the spoils of a good hunt to celebrating a special occasion, every society does it. Here’s where you’re more likely to find men cooking. We even see this in our own gardens and backyards, where they do most of the barbecuing.

There are, of course, some similarities between feasting and the post-match meals sometimes  shared by participants in team squash or social squash events. But perhaps it’s in meals celebrating significant anniversaries or the formation of new squash clubs that the true parallel lies. “In all cultures,” says anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “food is used to form social bonds.” Mealtimes are the centre-piece of family life, feasting bonds friends, colleagues and communities, and we also use food to consolidate more intimate relationships, such as  sharing a fancy meal with someone special, whether they love squash or not!

So food draws us together, but also sets us apart. Every culture has its own food traditions and taboos, which help define the boundaries between “us” and “them. They have distinctive cuisines too. “Ethnic differences are marked by what kind of food you eat,” says Weissner. “You are what you eat.”

All very tasty! But, just to heighten the sensual aspect of our relationship with other squash lovers, let’s focus on the intimate, shall we?

Being Clandestine – Squash Sex

Nothing reveals an animal’s nature quite as well as its sexual practices, and humans have some rather strange ones. Unlike other animals, women are continually sexually receptive and have concealed their ovulation; in other words, there is no external sign that they are in a position to conceive. Also, we’re the only monogamous primate to live in large mixed-sex groups. But nothing is quite as strange as our predilection for clandestine copulation. Why, across all human cultures, do we have sex in private? And what’s the connection to squash?

Sarah FG Naked Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and GossipA hint comes from Clive Wynne of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Sneaky mating occurs in species where there is a lot of inter-male competition and males control sex by controlling females,” he says. Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia agrees: “I think the origin of privacy [in humans] has to do with competition.” And not only between males. Women have been competing with men and with each other throughout human evolution. As a result, human sexual politics has become a lot more complicated, influenced not only by the need to survive and reproduce, but also by the emergence of culture.

For a start, women won some control from men by evolving concealed ovulation and continual sexual receptivity to confuse paternity. Then our ancestors did something completely different from other great apes; males and females started sharing parental care. And monogamy was born. “Infidelity among couples living in large groups became more risky than ever, with infanticide by males the ultimate price,” says Robin Dunbar of   the University of Oxford. So there was a need to strengthen relationships. “We have this odd thing called love,” he adds, suggesting that sexual privacy may also have emerged as a way of increasing intimacy.

David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin thinks that sexual privacy could actually be a benefit. “Humans are socially monogamous, not sexually monogamous,” he says. Infidelity is widespread in all traditional cultures and private sex allows it to occur without the loss of reputation.

So, the uniquely human characteristic of sexual privacy really has its origins in a combination  of three human behaviour patterns which will be familiar to all squash lovers: competition, culture and politics.

Which leaves us with a final characteristic which, some people say, actually makes the world go ‘round.

Including the world of squash.

Being Gossipy – Squash Communication

Well, I’ve always said that “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” OK, it wasn’t me, it was Oscar Wilde. But I agree with him anyway.

One of the defining characteristics of humans was once thought to be language, although nowadays we’re  more likely to regard it as part of a continuum of animal communication. Nevertheless, nobody doubts that it’s shaped our nature profoundly. Language is central to many human ‘universals’ ranging from education, folklore and prophesy to medicine, trade and insults. And, arguably, our way with words has reached its apogee in gossip.

Gossip men plus woman 5 small 300x199 Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and GossipA compulsion to talk about other people is only human. And it’s not nearly as frivolous as you’d think. Some anthropologists believe we gossip to manipulate the behaviour of others, which may help explain why gossip often takes place within earshot of the person being gossiped about. Says Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “A group of girls will gossip within earshot of the girl they gossip about, intending for it to be heard.”

But gossip doesn’t just serve to name and shame. When anthropologist Robin Dunbar eavesdropped on people gossiping, he found that barbed comments were relatively rare compared with innocuous ones. He believes that gossip is the human equivalent of grooming in primates. Our social relationships are too numerous to secure with time-consuming grooming, so we chat instead. “Gossip evolved for oiling the wheels of social interaction,” he says. Even the most powerful movers and shakers depend on it, though they may call it something else. After all, says Dunbar, most business could easily be carried out by phone or email, but people still prefer to meet face-to-face so that they can bond over casual conversation or a meal.

Wiessner observes that a juicy titbit of gossip is actually a gift and, co-incidentally, gift-giving is another human universal. She also goes so far as to assert that a society without gossip would simply dissolve. “People wouldn’t have any common interest to stay together.” In squash communities, as in other social groups, gossip is part of the cultural fabric which holds people together.

So it’s the human characteristics of play, scientific thinking, rule-making, sensual pleasure in  feeding, sexual privacy and gossip that uniquely encapsulate our nature and shape human culture. Underneath them all lie competition and the politics of survival.

In fact, whether we’re conscious of it or not, squash isn’t just a shared expression of human nature.

It’s a matter of life and death.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.