The late-1990s. Somewhere in South East England. A squash club bar. It is a Thursday evening in late October. Outside, it is dark. The bar is furnished with a selection of tables and chairs, and a solitary pool table. The floor is covered with a carpet bearing a geometrical pattern consisting of interlocking orange, blue and cream figures. The walls are hung with framed photographs and posters. A trophy cabinet containing engraved silver cups and shields stands against the far wall. A jumble of sports bags and racket covers is piled by a coat-stand next to the bar entrance. Music can be heard emanating faintly from the tannoy.
Behind the bar, Ange Whittaker, a blonde-haired woman in her fifties is filling the sink with hot water. She is wearing a black-and-white print dress. Four men are seated around one of the tables drinking beer from straight glasses.
Jack Sugden, a white-haired man in his early seventies, is the Club Secretary and has been for over twenty years; he still plays in the Club’s internal leagues.
Graham Adams is the League Organiser. A policeman in his mid-forties, he is tall, has cropped fair hair and plays for the Club’s Men’s First Team in the county leagues.
Ron Tetlow is a member of the Squash Club Committee and helps to organise competitions and social events. He is in his mid-sixties and has retired from playing but is a marker at team fixtures. He is of medium build, balding and wears black-rimmed spectacles.
Andrew McGrath is a club member. He is tall and has receding ginger hair, pale skin and freckles. He plays in the Club’s internal leagues.
The men are sitting in silence.
RON: Makes you think, doesn’t it?
He stares directly ahead of him, then takes a sip from his glass.
JACK: It certainly does, Ron. It certainly does.
There’s no doubt about that.
RON: There but for the grace of God and so on.
JACK: True, true.
RON: In the midst of life…
I mean it was only last week he got a game off Terry.
GRAHAM: Did he? What, Terry Jackson?
RON: In the handicap.
Terry must have been giving him a few points then.
RON: Twenty-seven, I think.
GRAHAM: Right, right. Twenty-seven.
Well he’d have to, wouldn’t he.
RON: Still, he must have played out of his skin to get a game off Terry.
I mean how old is Terry? Forty-ish?
GRAHAM: I would have thought so.
RON: And Ernie must have been…
RON: No. Sixty-two? Was he?
I thought he was older than that.
Behind the bar, ANGE is washing some glasses.
RON: He was looking forward to going on holiday.
JACK: Who? Terry?
RON: No, Ernie. With…you know…his missus…er…
RON: Is it?
JACK: Anywhere nice?
RON: Sounded Spanish I think…or it could have been Portuguese. I’m not that well up on place names, foreign countries, that sort of thing.
I’ve been to France mind you.
JACK: Have you? What part?
RON: Now there’s a question. I’d have to ask the missus. She books everything, see.
Or was it Belgium?
The group sits in silence.
Suddenly, the door swings open and GARETH Prosser enters. He is in his mid-forties, thick-set with black hair and sideburns. He is wearing a tweed cap, a light-coloured parka and a tartan scarf. He looks at the group, then at the bar, then back at the group.
GARETH: Christ! What’s wrong with you lot? It’s like a bloody morgue in here.
The members of the group turn around. ANGE starts crying.
JACK: You haven’t heard then?
GARETH: Heard what?
JACK: Ernie died last night.
GARETH: No! Ernie?
He takes his cap off. ANDREW stands up and walks to the bar, looking at GARETH. He lifts up the counter, goes behind the bar and puts his arm around ANGE.
We had a court booked for Tuesday.
GARETH walks over to the bar where ANGE is wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.
GARETH: Sorry, Ange, I didn’t realise.
He leans over the bar and touches her on the arm.
Very insensitive of me.
Pint of bitter when you’re ready, love. No hurry.
He takes off his parka and hangs it on the coat-stand with his scarf and cap.
Accident was it?
He walks over to the group and sits down in Andrew’s chair.
RON: He dropped dead on court last night.
Behind the bar, ANGE starts crying again. She rests her head on ANDREW’s shoulder.
RON: Two. I was watching, wasn’t I. Dropped in to book a court, heard someone playing, went up to the balcony. Bob’s your uncle. There’s Ernie playing young Alan.
GARETH: League match, was it?
RON: Hell of a ding-dong. Ernie keeping it tight, lobbing. Alan running around like a blue-arsed fly, getting everything back. You know Alan.
GARETH: Only we’re…well we were all in the same league, like.
RON: Alan gets the first. Ernie levels it. Slows things down, you know, like he does…
GARETH: Finishes a week on Sunday, doesn’t it Graham?
GRAHAM: What does?
GARETH: The league.
GRAHAM: That’s right. I’ll take the sheets down at six o’clock.
GARETH: Only I haven’t played all my matches yet.
RON looks at GARETH.
RON: Do you want to know what happened or not?
GARETH: Sorry, Ron. Go on.
RON: Alan gets the third. Ernie squares it at two-all. It’s nip and tuck in the fifth. Alan’s up, Ernie pegs him back, then Ernie’s up, then Alan squares it at nine all and Ernie calls ‘set one’!
He leans back in his chair, exhausted.
JACK: He must have been tired.
RON: They both looked buggered, Jack. Absolutely buggered. That’s when it happened.
RON looks towards the bar where ANDREW is chatting with ANGE. He is helping her with the washing up. He lowers his voice and leans forward in his chair.
Alan only goes and serves out, doesn’t he, so Ernie’s got match ball. He puts up one of his lob serves and moves to the T. Alan volleys it back cross-court. It whistles past Ernie on the forehand and bounces up onto the back wall. Ernie turns round and dives towards it, swinging through with his racket.
Then he hits the floor and doesn’t move.
He leans back in his chair.
GARETH: So Alan won then?
GARETH: Well it’s a walk-over isn’t it? Ernie can’t play on.
RON: No, no, no. Ernie won the match.
GARETH: How do you work that out then?
RON: You didn’t let me finish, did you?
He leans forward again.
On his way down, Ernie gets his racket to the ball and lifts it hard onto the back wall. It loops up towards the front wall, drops, brushes it and bounces twice. Dead.
Alan doesn’t get anywhere near it.
RON leans back in his chair.
GARETH: A back wall boast you mean?
RON: Ernie’s signature shot. I’ve seen it get him out of trouble more times than I care to remember.
JACK: What a way to go, eh?
RON: You couldn’t make it up.
GARETH: So you’re telling me that somebody who’s dead can win a rally?
RON: Well obviously he was alive when he hit the ball.
GARETH: Yes, but…
GRAHAM: The point is, Gareth, it wouldn’t have made any difference whether Ernie was dead before or after the ball was. Alan couldn’t get to it and Ernie wasn’t obstructing him.
RON: Neither of them was bleeding or injured either…
GRAHAM: …so there wasn’t any reason for them to stop playing, was there, let alone agree a walk-over.
GRAHAM: Look, there’s nothing in the rules that says that a player has to be alive when they win a rally, or a point. They don’t even say that matches have to be between two players who are actually alive…
RON: …or that they have to remain alive for the entire duration of the match.
GRAHAM: I’ve checked.
The group sits in silence. ANDREW comes out from behind the bar and walks over to the coat-stand.
GARETH: Anyway, nobody’s put the score down.
GARETH: On the score-sheet. I had a look just now.
JACK: I suppose Alan was too upset.
GRAHAM: I’m not surprised.
RON: His girlfriend was hysterical.
The rest of the group look at RON.
RON: His girlfriend. That redhead with the…
JACK: You mean Samantha? Ernie’s daughter? You never said.
RON: Is she? Well I didn’t know, did I. I’m no good with names.
GRAHAM: …foreign countries, places…
JACK: So she was there then?
RON: It must have slipped my mind. What with all the confusion. You know…ambulance…police…looking for the first-aid box…
GRAHAM: What’s it like being you, Ron?
RON: Anyway, Ange looked after her, didn’t you Ange?
She dries a glass and places it on a shelf behind the bar.
ANDREW puts on his coat and scarf. He picks up his sports bag and walks to the door.
ANDREW: Well, I’d best be off. ‘Night all.
He opens the door and leaves the bar.
ALL: ‘Night, Andrew.
GRAHAM: So where does that leave your league then, Gareth?
GARETH takes a pen from his inside pocket and starts writing on a beer-mat.
GARETH: Right, let’s see. Well, Ernie’s got twenty-one, Alan’s got…nineteen, Andrew’s got…er…seventeen…
He mutters to himself as he calculates each player’s points.
…I’ve got eleven and Mike’s got…er…four.
GRAHAM: So you’re telling me that the promotion spots in your league are currently occupied by someone who’s dead and someone who’s lost to him?
GARETH: Well, at the moment, yes.
RON: So Ernie could go up then?
GRAHAM: Don’t be stupid, Ron.
GARETH: It could all change of course. Andrew’s still got to play Alan. Both of them could overtake Ernie.
GRAHAM: As league organiser, Gareth, I can assure you that Ernie will not be promoted. Under any circumstances.
GARETH: So that means I should go up then.
GRAHAM: How do you work that out?
GARETH: Well Andrew’s not playing in the next round of the league.
He’s withdrawn, hasn’t he.
GRAHAM: How do you know? No, don’t tell me. He’s written it on the score-sheet.
RON: I wonder why that is? He never said anything.
JACK: Probably upset about Ernie, I shouldn’t wonder. Great friends they were. He used to go round there a lot you know.
RON: Now you mention it I have seen him coming out of Ernie’s house. Yes. All hours of the day and night. While I’ve been passing, like.
GRAHAM: Yes, yes. Him and Ernie go way back.
JACK: And Maureen.
RON: Yes. That’ll be it. Maybe he feels he’d be a bit uncomfortable. You know, being around when Ernie’s not…around.
GRAHAM: And Maureen’s on her own.
RON: Yes, yes.
I could ask him, I suppose, but…
ANGE: Oh, for Christ’s sake, he’s going on holiday!
The group turns to look at ANGE who is staring at them from behind the bar.
JACK: Oh, is he? Anywhere nice?
I got the idea for ‘Back Wall Boast’ from a UK television play broadcast in 1987. It was called ‘The Clinger’ and was set in a squash club somewhere in England. The play was one of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).
Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous story-lines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.
You can find out more about ‘The Clinger’ here.