Monkey Business

I walked out of the apartment building into the early morning humidity of the Gulf and looked for a cab. In a city where buildings were being built (and demolished) at breakneck speed, I was lucky. Over the road was a Toyota car showroom, the only one in the city and a place whose location was probably known to every cab driver. This was important. Even with a simple grid system, many of the city’s streets were often known by more than one name; and residential buildings, all un-numbered, were rarely identified with prominent signs, whether in Arabic or English. When it came to telling cab drivers where it was you wanted to go, the names of hotels, government buildings, shopping malls and car showrooms were just about the only common language currency worth exchanging. So, even at six-forty in the morning, there were plenty of cabs dropping off 20 metres away and looking for the next fare. I was picked up within thirty seconds.

The driver, his licence complete with photograph dangling from the rear-view mirror, was wearing a brown dish-dasha and a white skullcap. I settled into the back seat, directed him to the Hilton Hotel and sat back as he swerved into the flow of traffic. I didn’t actually work at the Hilton Hotel but, after a month in the city, I’d discovered that it was the instruction most likely to land me within a hundred metres or so of my office in a non-descript office block just off the Corniche. Today, the ten minute journey was less terrifying than usual, the driver being one of the few in the city who didn’t appear to be on a personal mission to catch and overtake every vehicle ahead of him on the road.

I walked into the office just before seven. Alex, the programme director, and Fadi, one of the project managers were both sitting at their desks. Alex, a Scot who’d been working in the city for nearly ten years, was deep in conversation on the ‘phone. Fadi, a Jordanian in his late forties, was smoking and staring at his computer screen which, on past form, could take any time upwards of thirty minutes to display anything whatsoever. He smiled and, as usual, rose from his desk reaching out his hand in greeting.

“Coffee?” he enquired.

I shook his hand and nodded. He walked to the door and disappeared down the corridor in search of the tea boy.

I dumped my brief-case on the desk and started to unpack my laptop. Alex waved at me and continued with his conversation. As well as being my boss on the consultancy project I was working on, he was the captain of the company’s third squash team. Tonight was match night. I sat down, plugged in my laptop and switched it on.

“Who’s playing at two?” Alex was asking his mystery caller. Obviously a squash-themed conversation was under way.

A pause.

“Well, he should win shouldn’t he?”

Another pause.

“So if I play Marwan at four and move Alan to three, what does that look like?”
I heard footsteps in the corridor and guessed that Fadi was returning with the tea boy.

“So if you win at one, three and five where does that put you for next week?”

It suddenly struck me that that there were only two rounds of the league left. I was beginning to become intrigued. Fadi re-appeared with the tea boy, resplendent in his black waistcoat and trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. He beamed in expectation of my order, the same one that he’d taken every day for the last month.

“So they’ll have to pick up, what, at least seven points tonight if they’re going to be in a good position going into next week’s match?”

Further information which added to the intrigue. Just in time, I raised my finger to stop the tea boy asking me for my order.

“He’s Sheikh Mohamed’s what?”

This was a new theme. Alex appeared to be drawing on his notepad muttering noiselessly to himself.

After what seemed like an age, he continued his series of enquiries.

“No he hasn’t rung me yet, but what do I say if he does? And how do I know that he knows that you’ve already rung me? What if he smells a rat?”

I looked at Fadi, nodded towards Alex and mouthed silently.

“What’s that all about?”

Fadi shrugged, then walked over and whispered in my ear.

“Monkey business,” he said conspiratorially and gave a knowing wink.

I tried to look as if I’d grasped the full meaning of what he’d said and nodded, sagely. There was a further pause in the conversation accompanied by further drawing as whoever it was on the other end of the ‘phone responded to Alex’s triple whammy of questions.

“So we’ll only know after tonight whether he’s already rung Razi,” said Alex hesitantly, “and that will give us an indication of whether he’s going to ring me…which I reckon he will anyway…because he won’t want to take the risk that you’re going to have a word with…er…Gary is it?”

I noticed that my mouth had fallen open and closed it.

Suddenly, there seemed to be a consensus between the two parties involved in the conversation.

“Yes, yes, OK, yes,” said Alex. “I’ll talk to a few people and get back to you.”

He put the ‘phone down and examined his notes in silence. Fadi had returned to his desk, lit another cigarette and began to read his copy of The Gulf News. The tea boy was hovering beside my desk waiting for my order.

“Coffee, please, Raj” I said. “Black, no sugar.”

He smiled and scuttled off to do whatever it was that took him fifteen minutes to make a cup of coffee.

“So what was all that about,” I asked Alex after a respectful pause. He peered at me over the top of his computer screen then stood up, walked over to the door and closed it after first looking up and down the corridor. He returned to his desk, sat down and picked up his notepad.

“Well, just between you and me,” he began, seemingly ignoring the presence of Fadi, “I was having a chat with the captain of NIC’s third team. We’re playing them tonight at their place. He just rang up to see if everything was OK.”

I knew that NIC was the Emirate’s National Investment Company. As Alex worked for the National Oil Company he was, in local squash parlance, the NOC third team captain.

“They’re second in the league three points behind NGC with two matches left. We’re third, five points behind NIC, and have got NGC at home next week in the last match. NIC have got NWC in their last match but they’re way off the pace.”

I congratulated myself that I knew ‘G’ stood for gas and ‘W’ for water in Alex’s acronym-laden summary of the current state of affairs.

“So it could all come down to the last week,” I said. “That should be interesting.”

Alex gave me a weary look.

“Yes, well that’s what Ahmed doesn’t want.”

“Who’s Ahmed?”

“NIC’s third team captain.”

I prepared to make a comment which I suddenly sensed might be deemed inappropriate given the complex nature of life in the Emirates. This was a land of unelected rulers, family-dominated politics, opaque commercial practices and disenfranchised guest workers. To do business here, foreign companies needed local sponsorship and a flexible attitude when it came to meeting local expectations regarding almost any kind of social or financial transaction. Including, I was beginning to realise, the functioning of the city’s squash leagues.

I bit my tongue.

“He’s one of Sheikh Abdul’s cousins’ sons,” continued Alex, “Whereas NGC’s vice-captain is one of Sheikh Mohamed’s sisters’ boys. Bit of a tricky situation, you see.”

I went for a neutral question.

“So what happened last year?”

Alex’s face lit up.

“We won the league,” he beamed. “First time I’ve ever won anything to be honest. The boss was very pleased.”

I knew that Alex’s boss, Hosni, was a prominent member of NOC’s so-called ‘Egyptian mafia’ and a favourite of the Senior Administration Superintendent.

“Yes, well we had a well-balanced squad last year,” continued Alex. “I was playing at five, Ghazi was at one and Karim was at two. We were pretty lucky with injuries too. Nothing major.”

I smiled and nodded as he re-lived his success in captaining the team to sporting glory. For a brief moment I imagined him developing effective strategies for neutralising opposing teams, getting the best out of his players, moulding them into a title-winning unit, that kind of thing. A bit like Napoleon.

He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.

“Of course we did have one advantage,” he said.

I responded to his subtle prompt.

“Oh yes, what was that?”

“We had Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin playing at three. Nice lad. He really came on during the season. Won every match, in fact.”

Sheikh Abdullah was the President’s younger brother. Something was starting to make sense.

“Yes,” continued Alex, “although I suppose he was being coached by Sami Awad.”

I seem to remember my eyebrows raising at this point, although I can’t be sure.

“You mean the Egyptian number one?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“And former World Open champion,” added Alex.

“But how did…”

“Well Hosni used to go to school with him in Cairo. Big chums they were. Kept in touch over the years and, well, Hosni asked him to pop over and bring Saleh up to speed. And the rest of the squad while he was here, of course.”

Saleh, I assumed, was Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin.

“But how did he get onto your team? I thought only NOC employees were eligible.”

Something immediately told me that wouldn’t be a problem.

“He was working here two days a week for his dad.”

“Who’s his dad?”

Alex smiled.

“Sultan Al Najaf.”

The name rang a bell. The Senior Administration Superintendent! I formulated my next question carefully.

“Who is…”

“Sheikh Abdullah’s cousin,” said Alex, nodding.

I summarised.

“So last season, you, your boss, his boss, the President’s younger brother and the former World Open champion were all involved in…”

“You could put it like that.”

“And this season…”

“Well, we have to help one of the other teams win the league, don’t we? Nobody wants the same team winning every year. It’s not the way they do things around here.”

“But who’s involved with the other teams?” I asked.

Alex sighed.

“It’s far too complicated to explain, to be honest. I tried to draw a diagram showing who’s in who’s team, who works for who, who’s related to who, who used to go to school with who, blah blah blah. Pointless.”

He paused for breath.

“Anyway, last year was our turn and this year it’s someone else’s. All I’ve got to do is make sure that whoever needs to be happy after next week’s matches is happy…and that everybody else is happy that they’re happy. Simple really.”

He smiled, picked up his notepad and walked to the door.

“Not sure I’ll be back before lunch,” he said to no-one in particular. “I’ve got a lot of people to see, tea to drink, hands to shake. You know how it is.”

He opened the door and disappeared down the corridor just as Raj was arriving with my coffee.

Fadi put down his Gulf News, glanced at his still-dormant computer screen and prepared to order further refreshment before he tackled the crossword.

“So did you find out what he was talking about?” he asked.

I thought for a moment, struggling to formulate an explanation. Then, the nature of my conversation with Alex suddenly made sense. I smiled.

“Monkey business,” I said.

“Monkey business.”

Background

This story is based on my own personal experience of living, working and playing squash in The Middle East. The names of the characters have been changed to protect whomsoever you might think is innocent or guilty…or not.

Back Wall Boast (A Squash Play in One Act)

SCENE

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.

Back Wall Boast Bar2Pause.

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.

Pause.

There’s no doubt about that.

RON: There but for the grace of God and so on.

JACK: True, true.

Pause.

RON: In the midst of life…

Pause.

I mean it was only last week he got a game off Terry.

GRAHAM: Did he? What, Terry Jackson?

RON: In the handicap.

Pause.

GRAHAM: Oh.

Pause.

Terry must have been giving him a few points then.

RON: Twenty-seven, I think.

GRAHAM: Right, right. Twenty-seven.

Pause.

Well he’d have to, wouldn’t he.

RON: Still, he must have played out of his skin to get a game off Terry.

Pause.

I mean how old is Terry? Forty-ish?

GRAHAM: I would have thought so.

RON: And Ernie must have been…

ANDREW: Sixty-two.

RON: No. Sixty-two? Was he?  

Pause.

I thought he was older than that.

Pause.

Still.

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…

ANDREW: Maureen.

RON: Is it?

Pause.

Yes, well.

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.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

Very insensitive of me.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

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.

GARETH: No.

Pause.

Which court?

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…

Pause.

…did.

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.

Pause.

Then he hits the floor and doesn’t move.

He leans back in his chair.

Pause.

GARETH: So Alan won then?

RON: What?

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.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

GARETH: But…

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.

Pause.

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.

GRAHAM: What?

GARETH: On the score-sheet. I had a look just now.

Pause.

JACK: I suppose Alan was too upset.

Pause.

GRAHAM: I’m not surprised.

Pause.

RON: His girlfriend was hysterical.

The rest of the group look at RON.

JACK: Who?

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…

Pause.

GRAHAM: What’s it like being you, Ron?

Pause.

RON: Anyway, Ange looked after her, didn’t you Ange?

ANGE: Yes.

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.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

GRAHAM: As league organiser, Gareth, I can assure you that Ernie will not be promoted. Under any circumstances.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

He’s withdrawn, hasn’t he.

GRAHAM: How do you know? No, don’t tell me. He’s written it on the score-sheet.

GARETH: Exactly.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

JACK: And Maureen.

Pause.

RON: Yes. That’ll be it. Maybe he feels he’d be a bit uncomfortable. You know, being around when Ernie’s not…around.

Pause.

GRAHAM: And Maureen’s on her own.

RON: Yes, yes.

Pause.

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?

ANGE: Yes.

Pause.

Benidorm!

LIGHTS

Acknowledgements

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.

The Man in the Café Leblon (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)

He remembered that night. Clearly.

It had been three days before the start of the finals.

He had glanced at his watch. It was almost two fifteen in the morning. Out in the street, he could still hear  the music of the milonga drifting down from the windows of the salon. The traffic on Rua do Catete had died down by then but there were still people about, in groups, in couples, walking the warm Rio sidewalks, waiting for taxis, heading to the next drink, to the next dance. Heading home.

He had walked a few yards from the entrance porch of the building and fished his cellular from the inside pocket of his dark grey tailored suit. Pushed a few buttons. Waited.

‘Federico?’ said a man’s voice, a sleepy voice, a big voice. ‘Do you know what time it is?’

‘I’m sorry, Hector,’ he had answered. ‘I had to call. I just danced with my daughter. So did Andres.’

‘You and your tango, Federico. Does he know who she is?’

‘I don’t know. No. Not from the way they were dancing.’

There had been a pause, the sound of a light switch.

‘What about you?’

‘I think she may suspect,’ he had said, then hesitated. ‘I tried to warn her not to play tonight, Hector, to stop her being picked on by those jackals.’

He had felt himself getting angry. Then he had taken a deep breath, inhaling the night, catching the melody of a tango vals drifting down from above.

‘She knows what to expect, Federico. You knew this could happen eventually. Perhaps it’s time.’

‘I’m scared, Hector. They’re both so young, so passionate.’

He had heard a chuckle and felt annoyance. Had taken another deep breath.

‘There was never going to be a good time to tell them about each other, Federico. You know that.’

Then he had been the one to chuckle. A brief smile had flickered across his lips.

‘And then I suppose there’s the small matter of their mothers,’ his brother had observed.

He had grunted. ‘Now you’re just being cruel, Hector.’

A throaty laugh this time.

‘What do you expect at this hour? Never mind. I will see you tomorrow…or later today, that is. Buenas noches, hermano mio.’

The line had gone dead. He had lowered his cellulare from his ear and turned to walk to the kerb and hail a taxi.  

His son, the Colombian boy, had been standing in front of him, hands in the trouser pockets of his cream linen suit, long brown hair moving gently in the night breeze.

‘Hello, Papa,’ he had said calmly, unsmiling, fixing him with his dark eyes.

‘I think we need to talk.’

++++

It was the morning of the finals.

Renato Bulsara pushed open the door of the Café Leblon on Rua Dias Ferreira and removed his sunglasses. Today would be a busy day, a very busy day. But perhaps not so busy that he could not find the time to enjoy a morning coffee sitting at his favourite table.

He saw that it was free, as it always seemed to be when he visited his favourite café just behind the Copa Trade Tower. Senhor Ventura’s admirable establishment might not be the trendiest or even the quietest in the area, but he felt comfortable here. It was a traditional place occupying the ground floor of what had previously been a bank. A place where he could meet people without feeling conspicuous

He walked past the mahogany counter, greeting Senhor Ventura who was, as usual, involved in the unceasing process of marshalling his work-force in a state of mild concern. The elderly proprietor paused temporarily in his labours to smile and nod in return.

Sitting at his table, he ordered a cafezinho and scanned the interior of the café. Business was brisk, the high ceiling and chequered floor tiles of the former banking hall echoing with the clatter of crockery and the babble of conversation. The waiting staff criss-crossed the floor heading to and from tables, taking orders, carrying trays.

His coffee arrived, delivered by a young waitress wearing a black uniform with a starched white cap and pinafore. He smiled, thanked her and, as she walked away, lifted the cup and saucer from the table. Raising the cup to his lips, he took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma drifting up towards his nostrils.

He took a sip and began to return the cup to its saucer, savouring the taste lingering on his tongue. As he replaced the cup, he looked up and across the floor of the café.

Seated at a table at the other side of the room were a man and woman whose faces were familiar to him. The man was in his mid-30s,clean-shaven with a rugged face  framed with short fair hair. He wore an open-necked shirt under a navy linen jacket. The woman, was older, perhaps, with a diamond chin and short blonde bangs.

As he watched, the man handed what looked like a photograph to the woman. He pointed to it and began talking. The woman looked at the photograph, then at her companion. Suddenly, the man paused, placing his right hand over his mouth, leaving the other resting on the table. Without hesitation, the woman reached forward and took his left hand in hers.

Bulsara felt something leap in his chest, an excitement that he could not name. He quickly finished his cafezinho, paid  Senhor Ventura and left the building.

At their table in the Café Leblon, Tyler Wolf and Erika Hoskin were still deep in conversation.

++++

It was the afternoon of the finals.

In the Copa favela, the man and the boy sat talking in the shade on plastic seats. They gazed out onto a cleared area, here in the heart of the shanty. An area covered in deep golden sand. Children ran around, dressed in ragged clothes, ignoring the heat of the sun.They played queimada, chasing and tagging each other, the ‘living people’ and the ‘dead ones.’

The man smiled as he watched them. Shouting, running free, running barefoot across the sand, free of rubbish, free of the waste of the favela, free of the broken glass.

He remembered the time when he was a child. Clearly.

But there was something different in the favela now. In the centre of the makeshift beach stood an open-roofed structure with four walls and a single door. From within it, he could hear the sound of a ball thumping against its walls as its occupants played a different barefoot game.

‘So, Miguel,’ he said. ‘How would you like to like to show me how your game’s coming along?’

The boy sat up in his chair, looked at him and smiled, eyes twinkling from a face the colour of cafezinho. He stood up and grabbed the racket propped against his chair.

‘I’ll go and get them off court, Senhor Renato,’ he yelled, already halfway to the building.

Renato Bulsara smiled and watched the boy hammer on the court door with his racket handle. Some things never changed.

Now, young Miguel Paixao was showing promise, just like his three brothers, one of whom had made it to the preliminary round of the Rio Squash Festival.

Paixao,’ he said to himself, and laughed. ‘Passion.’

He picked up his racket and followed the boy across the beach towards the court.

++++

It was the evening of the finals.

The last two matches of the tournament had sold out months before John Allenby’s woes had begun to surface. Now, as he waited to step onto the glass court, he hoped that the intrigue and crises of the last week were not about to repeat themselves. At least not until the night’s events were successfully, and safely, concluded.

If it was possible, the samba dancers, the music and the laser show leading up to the finals  had eclipsed the spectacle of the opening night. The atmosphere was still electric as the spectators settled noisily into their expensive seats. The sun was setting behind the city, leaving behind its warmth as the start of the Women’s Final drew near.

Allenby scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. He found plenty of them. The President and his wife, The Mayor of Rio and his, Prince Hamza Al Omani and his entourage,Philip Sanderson, Fritz and Anne Mallinson, Hector Lopez. He started to believe that everything would be…

Senhors and Senhoras!’ boomed the PA, jarring him out of his reverie. ‘Please welcome the organiser of the 2014 Rio Beach Squash Classic and your host for the final competitive matches of the tournament, Senhor John Allenby!’

He picked up the microphone and began to walk towards the glass court.

++++

It was less than ten minutes to the start of the women’s final.

Florencia Perez waited behind curtains woven with the yellow, green and blue of Brazil’s national flag. Her ravenesque black hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing a light blue headband to match her dress, and white sneakers. She grasped her racket and bounced up and down on the spot just vacated by her opponent and Number 1 seed, Brigitta Krause.

Senhors and Senhoras!’ Allenby’s voice echoed around the stands. ‘Please welcome to the main court…Florencia Perez!’

Rio-de-Janeiro at Night

The curtains parted, the crowd applauded. She had friends here. There was even an Argentinian flag waving in the stand opposite, the Sol de Mayo gazing down at her from the light blue and white tri-band. She entered the court and shook Allenby’s hand, then her opponent’s, ready to begin the warm-up.

Allenby closed the door behind him and walked away from the glass court.

++++

It was less than two minutes to the start of the women’s final.

Florencia Perez sat in her chair outside the court and scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. She saw Erika, sitting a few yards away in the front row behind the back wall. She saw Tyler Wolf, wearing his familiar green and gold tracksuit, sitting beside her.

And there were others.

She sensed their gaze before she met it, before she found where they were sitting. Together, high up, behind the back wall of the glass court. Their eyes filled with pride. And more.

The boy from Bogota who had danced with her three nights ago. Sitting to his right, the man they called Mr. Fino. And, to his left, the tall man with the long nose who had sent her the elegant gold watch which now adorned her left wrist.

She smiled, picked up her racket and began to walk towards the glass court.

++++

It was less than an hour to the start of the men’s final.

Renato Bulsara was reaching the end of a busy day. A very busy day.

He picked his way slowly through the crowds milling around the arrivals hall at Galeão International Airport. At times like these he envied the natural footwork and movement of…who? Samba dancers? Squash players? He began to feel uncertain and, yes, mildly concerned. Like…like…Senhor Ventura! He chuckled to himself. A good sign.

He scanned the arrivals board. The flight he was to meet had landed. The passengers were now in baggage reclaim. Quickly, he summoned a porter and engaged his services. He glanced at his watch. It was eight forty-five.

He found a convenient spot from which to catch the eye of his employer’s guests and prepared to hold up the cardboard sign which his secretary had prepared for him. He looked again at the single surname it displayed.

Suddenly, the flight’s passengers began to emerge from the customs channel, looking for friends, relatives, hosts. He held up his sign, anxious that it should be in plain sight.

Then he saw them, both smiling broadly, both seeing his sign, both waving. He smiled back and waved, picking his way towards them, summoning the porter to follow him.

After what seemed like an age, they met.

Senhor Bulsara, I presume!’ said the woman, laughing. ‘I am so pleased to meet you!’ She grabbed his hand, shaking it warmly, thanking him for his welcome to Rio. He joined her laughter, looked into her eyes. Twinkling eyes, beaming from a face with high cheekbones. A face the colour of darkest ebony.

She turned, still smiling, towards her young companion.

Bulsara leaned forward and held out his hand to the child.

‘So, you must be Jeremy,’ he said.

Characters

The story focuses on characters involved 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. Unknown to her, she is the daughter of Federico Lopez, previously one of the most famous squash players in South America.  She has now reached the Women’s Final of the Rio Beach Classic tournament.

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. Unknown to Lopez, he is the half-brother of Florencia Perez.

Lopez has reached the Men’s Final of the Rio tournament where he is due to face the veteran Australian, Tyler Wolf, himself estranged from his young son, Jeremy.

Renato Bulsara is a carioca, a native of Rio and right-hand man to the powerful owner of the SombraSoft Corporation, the man known as Mr. Fino. SombraSoft is a global sponsor of squash. Fino’s real identity has been revealed as Hector Peron Lopez, brother of Federico.

In this chapter, the fates of the characters become intertwined as the tournament reaches its final stages.

Acknowledgement

‘The Man in the Café Leblon’ was first published as Chapter 21 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 were posted by Ted on the DSR website where the novel can be 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 2

It was raining hard and the rain came through the soft top of my car.

I stuffed the magazines under the front passenger seat, put on my coat and went to buy some whisky. Then I sat in the car and drank while I watched Geiger’s store.

Business was good at Geiger’s. Very nice cars stopped, and very nice people walked in and came out with packets in their hands. Not all of them were men. At a quarter to five a white sports−car stopped in front of the store. The driver prised himself out and hoisted himself onto the sidewalk. He was wearing a Chinese silk coat. He looked like the kind of guy who dines at an ‘eat all you want’ restaurant and just loses track of time.

I saw the fat face and the moustache as he ran in out of the rain. Before the door could close, a tall, dark and very good−looking boy came out to park the car.

Just after five the store closed and the brunette left. Another hour passed and then another. The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips.

It got dark. The rain eased and then stopped. I smoked more cigarettes than was good for me before the tall boy came out of the store. He brought the car back to the door, got out and opened the driver’s door as Geiger came out of the store. The boy went back into the store and Geiger drove off.

It was ten fifteen.

++++

I followed him thinking that he was going home to Laverne Terrace. But I thought wrong again. He headed east on Santa Monica, then took the freeway. It started to rain again. I turned on the wipers, straining to see Geiger’s tail-lights as he weaved through the traffic.

At the Chinatown exit he turned off and headed downtown.

The office buildings were deserted, their windows staring blankly. The streets felt dark with something more than night.

Fifteen minutes later, Geiger pulled up outside a grey six-storey building on West 7th Street. I stopped thirty yards behind him and watched as he entered through a set of double doors. A single porch light cast a sad glow on the slick sidewalk.

I opened the glove compartment, took out my revolver and slipped it into its holster.

File:TheBigSleep 13.jpg

I got out of the car and walked towards the double doors. A brass plaque on the wall said ‘Los Angeles Squash Club.’

I tried the door. It was open. I stepped into a lobby with faded black and white checkered tiles and a worn welcome mat that had seen better days. There was a second set of doors with frosted glass panels. Through them, I could see a light.

I stepped closer and watched for any signs of movement behind the doors, listening for any sounds. There were none. I pushed the left hand door open, slowly.

A large wood-panelled desk stood in the reception area, its surface lit by an anglepoise lamp. A telephone stood at its right-hand corner. I walked towards it across a threadbare carpet, treading softly. On the walls, signs pointed to the changing rooms, the courts, the bar.

I stopped to listen. Somewhere, in the distance, I heard the faint sound of voices in conversation. Male voices.

On the desk, a visitors book lay open beside the telephone. Geiger’s name wasn’t in it. The last entry was made three days ago. Next to it sat a large, thick ledger, bound in buckram with gold lettering on its cover. ‘Court bookings.’ I opened it and flicked through the pages. None of the names looked familiar.

I turned around. Behind the desk was a glass-panelled door labelled ‘Club Manager’s Office.’ It was dark behind the door. The door was locked.

I looked around the room. Glass cases contained silver trophies engraved with the names of tournament winners. Framed photographs hung from the walls showing smiling players, wearing white.

The clock on the wall showed eleven forty-five.

++++

I followed the sign pointing to the courts. It led to a corridor with a smell of old carpet and furniture oil and the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives.

After a few yards, the corridor opened out into a brightly-lit windowless room with seats and a water-cooler. To the left, a darkened corridor led to the courts. The walls of the lobby were lined with notice-boards filled with tournament announcements, competition rules, members’ names and telephone numbers, score-sheets, posters. At one end were the club’s ‘role of honour’ boards with their lacquered surfaces, carved frames and gilded letters.

I went up to them and read down the list of Men’s champions.

1930 D.Wilson

1931 L.Thornbury

1932 D.Wilson

1933 D.Wilson

1934 M.Regan

1935 M.Regan

Michael Regan.  Rusty Regan.

A big red−haired Irishman with sad eyes and a wide smile.

Suddenly, somewhere behind me, I heard a scream. It was a terrible scream, a woman’s scream, a scream made by someone insane or heading that way. Coming from the squash courts. I cursed myself for not checking where the voices had been coming from, where they’d gone to.

Then, I heard three shots. I took out my revolver and turned into the corridor leading to the courts. I looked for the light switch. Before I could flick it, there was a flash of gunfire in the corridor ahead of me. I dropped to the ground and fired back, not seeing what I was aiming at. There was the sound of a crash.

Everything went quiet. I waited until I could see well enough to be sure that the corridor was clear, then hit the lights. The doors to the squash courts lined the right hand side of the corridor. I kicked them open and checked that nobody was hiding in them.

At the far end of the corridor, I could see an open fire door swinging in the breeze. I reached it and stepped quickly outside with my revolver raised. Whoever had fired at me was gone.

Back inside, the corridor turned sharply to the right.

The club’s fourth squash court lay at its far end, light blazing from its open door.

++++

I kicked the door hard and went in.

Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.

Geiger was sitting on the floor with his back resting on the bottom right hand corner of the front wall. He was still wearing his Chinese silk coat. The front of the coat was covered in blood. He was very dead.

The centre of the court had been transformed to look like a Chinese bordello. Bamboo   screens formed the walls. There were Chinese paintings on the walls and a pink Chinese carpet on the floor. The chairs were covered in yellow silk.

There was a lot of silk in that room.

I saw some silk underclothes on the floor, too. The other thing I noticed was the smell. The sick smell of ether.

Carmen Sternwood was sitting on orange silk. She sat very straight, with her hands on the arms of the chair and her knees together. Her small teeth shone white in her open mouth. Her eyes were wide open, too. They stared crazily at nothing.

She was wearing a pair of long green ear−rings. They were nice ear−rings. She wasn’t wearing anything else.

She had a beautiful body, small and finely made, with skin like silk. I looked at her and felt no excitement at all. To me she was never really a woman. She was always just a stupid kid.

A camera on a tripod pointed at her. She was lit by studio lights positioned around the court.

The scream I’d heard had come from the drugged girl. The three shots were someone else’s idea.

++++

I took off my coat and picked up Carmen Sternwood’s clothes.

`Now, Carmen,’ I said. `Let’s get you dressed.’

She looked at me with empty eyes.

`G−g−go to hell,’ she said.

I hit her a couple of times. She didn’t mind, but it didn’t help at all. I managed to push her into her dress. She giggled and fell into my arms. I sat her in a chair and put her shoes on her feet.

`Let’s walk,’ I said. `A nice little walk.’

In the distance I could hear police sirens.

I lifted her onto her feet and looked over at Geiger, slumped in the front right-hand corner of the court.

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill.  You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you weren’t bothered by things like that.  Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you.  You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. 

Me?

I was standing on a squash court with a dead man on the floor, a gun in my hand and a drugged blonde in my arms.

I was part of the nastiness now.

Acknowledgements

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 incorporated quotes from Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘The Lady in the Lake’ and ‘The Little Sister’ in this story.

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 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.

`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.

`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.

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 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.

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?

A 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.

A 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.

Snookered in Ooty: Squash in Tamil Nadu

In January, 20-year old Dipika Pallikal became the first Indian ever to contest the final of a World Squash Federation ‘silver event’ when she faced the Netherlands’ Natalie Grinham in the Tournament of Champions in New York.

Less than a month later, in her home city of Chennai, Pallikal was again in finals action in the inaugural WSF Under-21 World Cup. This time, the event was held before an ecstatic crowd at the Express Avenue Mall, the largest shopping complex in Southern India. Throughout the 3-match final, a significant percentage of the estimated 75,000 ‘walk through’ crowd were either surrounding the all-glass show-court or hanging over the balconies of the three floors overlooking it.

Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

A week after the final, I arrived in the Tamil Nadu capital at the start of a journey across the subcontinent. I wasn’t exactly on the lookout for signs of squash, you understand, but sometimes you do tend to stumble across them.

Even if you’re just passing through.

Heat and Dust

With average day-time temperatures in the mid to high 30s Centigrade, Chennai in February isn’t exactly the ideal place to wander around seeing the sights. Except for Mad Dogs and  Englishmen that is. Even so, a fair amount of my time in the city was spent in the air-conditioned confines of my hotel and, on one memorable occasion, in a vegetarian restaurant overlooking a chaotic petrol station forecourt.

Despite India’s recent successes, I found absolutely no coverage of squash in the media, either in the newspapers or on any of Tamil Nadu’s numerous TV channels. Instead, there was wall-to-wall, non-stop coverage of India’s most popular sport, cricket, the main topic of interest being India’s performance in a tri-series ODI tournament being played in Australia. “Will Sachin (Tendulkar) get his 100th international century?” was the question on everyone’s lips. Three weeks later, when I was still travelling, India had been dumped out of the tournament, and he still hadn’t.

After leaving Chennai, I caught the India Railways sleeper to Vilapuram before heading for the former French colony of Pondicherry. Next stop was Madurai followed by Rameshwaram and then Thanjavur. The city was hotter, and dustier, than anywhere I’d visited so far but did provide me with the first sign of squash since leaving Chennai. In the window of the Deepu Sports shop, I spotted a squash racket.

Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Inside the shop, I asked one of the assistants whether I could play squash in the area. “Certainly!” she replied enthusiastically. After a lengthy pause, I cracked and asked where. “Chennai!” she beamed triumphantly. I decided not to point out that a 200 mile round trip to Chennai for a squash match might not be something that a Thanjavur-based squash player would wish to undertake. Even for a vital league match.

Back at the hotel, I switched on the TV to be rewarded with recorded highlights from the semi-finals of the Under-21 Squash World Cup. I started to feel that I was getting warmer. Figuratively speaking.

Into the Hills

Squash on Indian TV

Squash on Indian TV

To escape the heat of the plain, I did what European colonialists in India used to do in summer-time. I headed for the hills. Travelling from Thanjavur via  Erode to Mallapuram, I caught the Nilgiri Hill Railway via Wellington to Ootacamund, known to British colonialists as Ooty.

Situated at 2200m (nearly 7500ft) above sea level, Ooty, known as ‘The Queen of the Hill Stations’, is one of 80-odd high altitude towns used as places of refuge from the summer heat. The British Indian Army built 50 or so of the Stations, the remainder being built by various Indian rulers over the centuries as places of leisure or even as permanent capitals.

Before I got to Ooty, I knew that in 1890, His Highness the Maharaja of Vizianagaram presented a squash court to the Ooty Club. Nestled in the hills above Ooty, the Club is fondly referred to as the “Snooty Ooty Club” and also as “The Morgue” due to the many hunting trophies adorning its walls. It’s also the place where the rules of snooker were formally finalized in 1884 by Sir Neville Chamberlain. They’re still posted in the Club’s Billiards Room.

The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

I asked the Ooty Club’s Secretary whether squash was still played there. “No” he said. “The squash court was dismantled many years ago and never replaced.” Despite searching for it, he still didn’t know where in the Club’s grounds the court had been located. He also told me that the rival Wellington Gymkhana Club no longer had any squash courts although he did know that the first one built there had been commissioned in 1927. However, he said, there were two courts at the Defence Services Staff College also located in Wellington.

Squash at Wellington Staff College

Squash at Wellington Staff College

So, squash appeared to be alive in the Nilgiri Hills and being played by the officer classes of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force.

But what about the civilian population of Ooty?

Did any of them still play?

And, if so, where?

Back to School

On my second evening in Ooty, I stumbled across another sign of squash life in the Charing Cross district of the town. Painted on the wall next to the Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop was the legend ‘squash racket’. And, lo and behold, displayed in the window itself were several rackets….of varying vintage.

Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

The mystery buyers of the shop’s rackets proved, in one instance, to be less than 15 minutes walk away from the shop. The Hebron School, located near Ooty’s Botanical Gardens, was founded in 1899 to serve the mission community of India and South-East Asia. Now, it’s a co-educational and predominantly boarding school for children aged 5 years to 19 years. And squash is one of the school’s ‘curriculum’ sports.

Slightly further out of town is the Good Shepherd International School, a full time boarding school located on a 70-acre campus near Ooty Lake. Established in 1977, the campus include classrooms, laboratories, lecture theatres and sports facilities including squash courts. All of which gave me the feeling that squash was being passed on to at least some of  India’s younger generation in the Hills of Tamil Nadu.

Outside the Shanghai Company shop

Outside the Shanghai Company shop

The day after my Shanghai Company experience, and amid reports that a leopard had been seen in the grounds of Hebron School, I left Ooty for Cochin in neighbouring Kerala. In many ways, I was sad not to have had the opportunity to meet Ooty’s squash players. But, on the other hand, I’ve never been keen on the idea of encountering a leopard on the way to the squash courts.

I don’t think having a racket with me would help much.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to The Hindu newspaper for its article on the Express Avenue Mall and to Al-Ahram for it’s report on the WSF Under-21 Squash World Cup.  Also, thanks to the Secretary of the Ooty Club for his insight into the local squash community.

Squash and the Scientists

I first came across squash early in my professional career when I took a job at a UK scientific research establishment. The main research site covered a huge area and housed offices, laboratories, bunkers where things got blown up, warehouses, a nuclear reactor (just a little one) and, outside the heavily-manned security gates, four squash courts.

It was on those courts that I first saw squash being played, where I first learned to play the game, and where I first won a match, even though I don’t exactly recollect who my hapless opponent was at the time. But, whoever it was, there was a fair chance that it was a fellow scientist; a chemist, a physicist or maybe one of the nuclear-flavoured scientists who made the sharp bits to stick on the end of missiles.

Enrico Fermi

It’s pretty well known, of course, that the first atomic pile was constructed on a disused squash court in Chicago by an international team of scientists led by the Italian-born physicist, Enrico Fermi. There’s no evidence that Fermi or any of his team were squash players but one thing is certain. If you bring together enough scientists to work on pioneering initiatives or to push back the boundaries of scientific knowledge, they will inevitably want to socialise. They’ll want to share their leisure time, their news, their hobbies and their interests.

And, given the opportunity, they’ll want to play squash.

Squash and the Wonders of the Universe

One current pioneering initiative is the search for the Higgs Boson, the elusive nuclear particle which gives all objects their mass. The search is taking place at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, near Geneva in Switzerland. CERN, , operates the world’s largest particle physics laboratory including the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator designed to unlock the secrets of the Universe.

CERN employs almost 8000 scientists and engineers representing over 600 universities and more than 100 nationalities. Plenty of people to support a few squash leagues you might  think. And you’d be right. The CERN Squash Club was formed in 1999 and currently boasts a league membership of over 100, many of whom, I expect, will be called ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ Something-or-Other.

Professor Brian Cox

One of the scientists currently working at CERN (but apparently not competing in the squash leagues) is the British particle physicist, Professor Brian Cox. Cox is well known not only as a leading scientist but also as a presenter of popular science television series including ‘Wonders of the Universe.’

However, Cox does have form when it comes to squash both as a player and as a former rock musician. His first band, Dare, rehearsed and played its first gig at the Maple Squash Club in Oldham, Lancashire. Dare’s second single, ‘The Raindance’, was released as a 7” vinyl disc in a gatefold cover featuring five profile cards, each with trivia about the band members. Interestingly, Cox listed his hobbies as “squash, running, eating,” with no mention of physics, particle or otherwise.

Dare with Brian Cox (extreme right)

In fact, you can still check out Dare with Brian Cox on keyboards (and extremely long hair) on YouTube. But I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Squash and the Human Brain

What I would suggest you check out on YouTube, however, is Brian Cox’s lecture in late 2011 at The  Royal Institution of Great Britain, the oldest organisation dedicated to scientific education and research in the world. Squash doesn’t get a mention, I’m afraid, but there is an unusual connection between the Royal Institution itself and another prominent squash playing  scientist.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a former Director of the RI as well as being a neuroscientist and Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. She’s written several popular-science books about the brain and consciousness, regularly gives public lectures, and appears on radio and television. She also holds 20 honorary degrees.

The Baroness, who’s a relatively recent convert to squash, plays three times a week and must be one of the most ennobled and highly academically qualified squash players in history. In recent years, she’s expressed concerns that modern technology, and in particular social networking sites such as Facebook, may have a negative impact on child development. However, she’s also attracted a fair amount of criticism from other scientists who’ve questioned her claims, suggesting that she hasn’t carried out any meaningful research or properly evaluated the available evidence.

This kind of controversy is, of course, part and parcel of science which uses ‘peer-group review’ to question scientific methods and findings as well as their interpretation. Nevertheless, things can get rather personal as passions rise, egos intervene and the science gets forgotten.

Which all sounds like an opportunity for scientists to incorporate a friendly game of squash into the peer review process. That’s just my opinion of course.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the CERN Squash Club. You can find out more about Professor Brian Cox’s rocker past at ‘Love it Loud’ and get to know Baroness Susan Greenfield through her recent interview by the Financial Times.

Squash in Mordor

Amazing what you can stumble across rummaging around on the Web, isn’t it? Take, for example, what happens when you shove the word ‘squash’ into Google. As well as links to information about the racket sport we all know and love, it tends to throw up all sorts of pointers to cookery, the policing of public demonstrations and the repression of popular uprisings. Although not necessarily in that order, or indeed disorder.

But when you inadvertently find yourself straying into the imaginary realm of elves, orcs and hobbits, well that’s another thing entirely. Which just goes to show that internet search engines and  squash know no boundaries.

The Lord Of The Rings

In 2003, Director Peter Jackson’s film, ‘The Return of the King’ won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film was the third of a trilogy based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’, an epic fantasy novel written by English philologist and University of Oxford professor J.R.R.Tolkien.

J.R.R.Tolkien

J.R.R.Tolkien

The title of the novel refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who in an earlier age created the One Ring to rule all the other Rings of Power. The One Ring is Sauron’s ultimate weapon in his campaign to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth, complete with elves, orcs, hobbits etc.

The story follows the adventures of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, and his comrades in his quest to destroy the One Ring by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom in the Land of Mordor where Sauron’s power holds sway. A rather nasty place by the sound of it and certainly not a tourist destination.

Along with the other two films in the trilogy, ‘The Return of the King’ was filmed in New Zealand, home to a thriving squash community with a distinguished  history (think Susan Devoy and Ross Norman), as well as to plenty of conveniently-located squash courts.

A Squash Court in Queenstown

At the time of filming scenes on location for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, one such squash court proved particularly useful to Peter Jackson and his crew. Located in the resort town of Queenstown on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, it was used to film a scene in which Frodo, accompanied by his trusty gardener Sam Gamgee and their less than trustworthy guide Gollum climb the secret stairway of Cirith Ungol into Mordor as Sauron’s forces march out to battle far below.

Frodo, Gollum and Sam on a squash court in QueenstownFrodo, Gollum and Sam on a squash court in Queenstown

Jackson’s decision to film the scene was triggered by the suspension of outside filming in the Queenstown area due to bad weather, the town itself being hit by extensive flooding. The Cirith Ungol stair ledge was quickly built on a squash court located in a Queenstown hotel.

Actors Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Sam) both baulked at having to perform  such a pivotal scene without any preparation. At the time, Andy Serkis had not yet been cast in the role of Gollum, so the part was played  by a stand-in member the crew. Filming went ahead, with Astin’s scenes being successfully completed.

The following day, however, the sun re-appeared, the floods abated and  exterior filming was resumed. The intent was always to return to the squash court (where the set remained standing) to film Elijah Wood’s scenes but, for the next five weeks, there was no rain to interrupt exterior filming. The crew moved on to a new outdoor location with Wood finally returning to do his part of the Cirith Ungol scene almost year later.

During the whole of the  intervening period, the squash court still contained the film set, the hotel presumably having agreed an amount of compensation greater than the income it could have earned from a year’s worth of court fees. Action shots involving all three characters in the scene were the last to be shot before the set was finally dismantled in late 2000.

So the next time you watch ‘The Return of the King’, spare a thought for the squash lovers of Queenstown whose playing options were reduced for over a year.

And try to imagine what it might have been like to play squash in Mordor.

Postscript: Walking Into Mordor

If you head over to Google Maps and ask for walking directions from “The Shire”(the home of Frodo of Sam) to “Mordor”, this is what you’ll get…

The warning is the same as that delivered to Frodo et al by another character from ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Gandalf the Wizard. All of which means that I think I’ll give it a miss for the time being.

But, Queenstown? Well that’s another thing entirely. I’ve been there myself and had absolutely no problem with the Dark Lord Sauron. But I wouldn’t go via the Cirith Ungol route if I were you.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to IMDB and Movie Mistakes for their background details on the making of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Also thanks to Google for their warning about visiting Mordor.

Point taken.

Hijab Stories: Squash in Iran

In June 2011, Iran’s women footballers were banned from competing in the 2012 Olympics when their qualifying match with Jordan in Amman was called off moments before kick-off. The ban was due to the players’ kit which, following a FIFA ban in 2010, had been changed and (according to the Iran Football Federation’s head of women’s affairs) approved by  none other than FIFA’s beleaguered president, Sepp Blatter. And the kit was designed to meet Iran’s mandatory dress code for women.

Iranian squash player Nazanin Heydari

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the football ban, the reality for female sports enthusiasts in Iran is clear. In the Islamic Republic, women can only take part in their favourite sports whilst wearing full tracksuits and head coverings that conceal their hair. The code, whether driven by religion, politics or culture, is known as hijab and encompasses both the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women and modest styles of Muslim dress in general.

But Iranian women have been allowed to compete internationally in an increasing number of sports whilst still following the hijab dress code. In weightlifting, in taekwondo, in boxing…..and in squash.

The National Squash Scene

With less than two dozen functioning squash courts in what is a vast country, Iran doesn’t at first glance seem to be in a good position to develop a sustainable squash community at a national level. Government investment in squash  is minimal yet there still exist small squash-playing communities in cities such as Esfahan, Yazd, Gorgan, Arak and Shiraz as well as in the capital, Tehran. The same lack of investment applies to the private sector although, in the last three years, international squash tournaments have been held in Rasht on the Caspian coast and on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

The participation of women in the game is reflected in the recent appearance of no fewer than nine Iranian players in the Women’s Squash Association Top 250 rankings for January 2012. The National Women’s squad is currently coached by Muqaddas Ashraf, a former Pakistan No.2 with the National Girls squad being managed by Iranian-born Nadjmesadat Kasfimofrad. The Iranian Squash Federation (SFIRI) also arranges coaching for National squad members by overseas  players such as Pakistan’s Carla Khan, a former World No.18.

Carla Khan with Iranian National Girls Squash Team 2009

But whatever the limited resources available to the Iranian squash community, it’s the passion and enthusiasm of its members which helps it to survive and, occasionally, to show others how to overcome seemingly immovable obstacles to achieve success. Such as the   involvement of its male and female players in squash competitions held overseas despite the restrictions placed on their participation by politics and prejudice. And to embody the achievement of that success, you need pioneers.

The Hijab Pioneers

In many ways, the relatively recent success achieved in helping female Iranian squash players compete abraaod is a tribute to the inclusive nature of the international squash community and those who govern the sport itself.

Sahar Saaremi

In March 2008, Sahar Saaremi became the first female Iranian squash player in history to take part in an international tournament wearing hijab.  The 20 year old student of metallurgy at the Sharif University of Technology wore specially designed kit recognised by Iran’s Physical Education Organisation. The Iranian Squash Federation not only gave her permission to compete but negotiated with the tournament organisers to allow her to play wearing hijab-compatible kit. Saaremi’s family paid for her to travel to Switzerland for the tournament where she lost her qualifying match.

Just under a year later, Saaremi’s pioneering experience was repeated when three Iranian girls travelled to Chennai to compete in the Asian Junior Squash Championships. Pariya Ahinejad, Siadeh Mazidi and Sogol Samodi were leaving Iran for the first time in their lives,  courtesy of their national governing body. Unsurprisingly, they draw curious looks from organisers, spectators and players alike at the SDAT stadium because of their ‘whole body’ squash kit. Although Iranian women chess players had been a common sight in the Tamil Nadu capital, it was the first time that their girls had been seen playing in an international squash tournament.

Sogol Samodi of Iran in action against Lee Ji-Hyun of Korea at the Asian Junior Squash Championship 2009

But after these initial successes, how can the Iranian squash community continue to press its case for more recognition, more support and more investment? Well, surprisingly enough, taking a leaf from football, or rather the artistic presentation of football as a  passion shared by different sections of Iranian society, may help.

The Art of Sports Passion

In 2006, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi’s cult film, ‘Offside’, about a group of football-crazy girls trying to smuggle their way into a World Cup qualifying match successfully gave the outside world a peep into Iranian society, complete with its politics, prejudices and passion, not so long ago. The film, banned in Iran, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and was both critically and commercially successful worldwide.

Not so widely known is the Iranian short film, ‘In a Closed Room’ (‘Dar Otaghe Basteh’) also made in 2006 and directed by Ali Alaie and Roya Majdnia. The film follows an  English squash player who is scheduled to coach members of the Iranian Men’s National squad. Players from the Women’s National squad also want to learn from him but are forbidden from doing so due to…well, you get the picture.

‘In a Closed Room’ didn’t gain such a wide release as ‘Offside’ but is nonetheless representative of a kind of storytelling about shared passion and community which is truly international.

And when you watch it or your friends watch it, in whatever country, it really doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to James Hardy for his article ‘Iran’s Sportswomen: All Dressed Up and Raring To Go’ in The Times of India. Thanks also to Shirzanan, The First Iranian Women Sports Magazine, for its photographs of female Iranian squash players and its interview with Sahar Saremi ‘Think of the Future Generation’.