Hanoi Lakes

I met Thin in a café on Le Thai To Street in the south of the Old Quarter. I was studying a street map, working out where I was, tracing where I’d been since leaving my hotel. It was a December Saturday afternoon in Hanoi, overcast and humid, looking like rain.

“Have you seen the turtle?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said. I’d heard that one of Hanoi’s lakes harboured its own giant turtle but hadn’t discovered which; lake or turtle.

“I’ve never seen it,” he said, “but some of my friends have.”

Sacred Turtle

Sacred Turtle

He was in his late thirties wearing a blue open-necked shirt and camel-coloured chinos. On the table in front of him was a glass of sweet Vietnamese coffee sitting in a bowl of hot water. He jerked a thumb over his right shoulder.

“It’s over there,” he said. “Hoan Kiem Lake. It means ‘Lake of the Returned Sword.’ The turtle suns itself on the island in the middle. When it’s not underwater,” he grinned.

He was a tour guide, visiting Hanoi from his home town of Hué to pick up a group arriving from Italy.

“Not much spare time for turtle-spotting, then.”

He told me what I assumed to be the standard turtle story for visitors; the borrowing of a magic sword from a dragon king by a nationalist hero, the driving of the invading Chinese out of the country by said hero, and the return of the sword by said hero to the turtle god who lived in the lake. The incumbent turtle was a symbol of Vietnamese independence and longevity. The Vietnamese obviously didn’t like the Chinese.

Later, I walked around the lake, scanning the murky waters in the hope of spotting the turtle. It started to rain. I paused opposite the turtle-sunning island which Thin had told me about. A three-storey stone pagoda stood in the middle of it. There was no sign of the turtle.

****

Sunday morning was clear and sunny. I guessed it was going to get hot and decided to make an early start on exploring the city. My map showed more lakes to the north-west of the Old Quarter. On the the north shore of one of them stood The Hanoi Club, home to what I guessed were the only squash courts in Hanoi. I set out, sticking to the shade, avoiding stepping into the incessant motor-cycle dominated traffic which swarmed through the streets.

DSCF3512I reached Truc Bach Lake and walked along its shore in an anti-clockwise direction. It was much quieter here than in the heart of the Old Quarter, and I felt more relaxed as I strolled underneath the trees, weaving my way around the parked motor-cycles.

The concrete, glass and steel fascia of The Hanoi Club housed a five-star hotel, high-end residences, restaurants and a sports club. Uniformed staff opened the door to the hotel lobby, served me in the coffee shop and directed me to the sports club’s reception area.

Hanoi Squash Club Rules

Hanoi Squash Club Rules

Mai took me to see the squash courts, two floors up and, disappointingly, unoccupied. Two glass-backed courts stood back-to-back separated by a snooker table.

“They are the only squash courts in Hanoi,” she said proudly.

She didn’t seem to know much about their use but pointed to a dark wooden board on the wall. The board included a series of parallel slots holding white cards bearing the names and telephone numbers of players. It was the Club’s squash ladder. The rules, in English and Vietnamese, were displayed beside it.

****

Three weeks later, I picked up a newspaper in a London cafe. A headline read: ‘Vietnam Mourns Death of Sacred Turtle.” The turtle, “known as Cu Rua or Great-Grandfather Turtle,” said the accompanying article, “weighed an estimated 360 pounds and was believed to have died of natural causes. Its precise age was unknown.”

The article continued: “It would be difficult to overstate Cu Rua’s spiritual and cultural significance in this deeply superstitious and Confucian country, where the news of the turtle’s demise prompted an outpouring of sadness and hand-wringing. And its timing, as a Communist Party congress opened to choose Vietnam’s top leaders for the next five years, was widely interpreted as a bad omen for both the party and the nation.”

Sources

Thanks to the Global Post for its article on the death of the sacred turtle. Details of The Hanoi Club can be found here.

Squash Never Sleeps

The Tournament of Champions, held every year in New York, originally started life in 1930 as a men’s only event named the US Professional Championships. In 1993, it acquired its current name and in 2001 added a women’s event.

In 1991, the tournament debuted at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Centre before making its home at the Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal in 1995. It’s been held there ever since save for its temporary re-location, in 1996, to the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and, in 1996 and 1997 as the consequence of renovations to Grand Central.

In recent years, the ToC has developed into one of the most recognisable events on the PSA World Tour and has featured a multitude of famous winners during its 86-year history. The 2008 tournament, running from January 10th to the 16th, was typical in many ways. Involving 64 of squash’s highest-ranked male and female players, it drew over 4,000 paying spectators as well as thousands of commuters passing through Grand Central.

Yet, in one way, it was particularly significant. Within weeks of the end of the tournament its title sponsor, the global investment bank Bear Stearns, had collapsed.

The Big Short

Founded in 1923, Bear had become a victim of the global financial crisis and had been swallowed up by JP Morgan Chase, the ToC’s current title sponsor. Bear, and other Wall Street firms, had been heavily involved in issuing large amounts of asset-backed securities created by bundling together tranches of ‘sub-prime’ mortgages. In other words, mortgages whose holders were unlikely ever to pay back what they owed.

The asset-backed securities concerned were known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a new unimproved version of which has now re-appeared in the global debt markets.

The story of several of the key players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the CDO bubble (and ended up profiting from the ensuing financial crisis) was told by Michael Lewis in his 2010 book ‘The Big Short’. The book highlights the eccentric nature of the type of person who bets against the market or goes against the grain.

The book has has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated film of the same name starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt.

The Game

Players in the world of global finance are nothing if not innovative. Yet herd behaviour again prevailed in the run-up to the global crisis. Banks, credit rating agencies, insurance companies and regulatory authorities alike failed to recognise that the system which they were gaming was rotten.

Since the crisis, nothing much has changed. Not even the event taking place every January in Grand Central Terminal, New York.

But, whatever the state of the global financial market, there will always be players to game the system, win, lose or just about break even. And some of them will pay for their name to be emblazoned across the front wall of a glass squash court in Vanderbilt Hall.

Sources

Thanks to the PSA for its article on the history of the Tournament of Champions and to Wikipedia for its entries on the ToC, Bear Stearns and The Big Short. Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short” is published by Allen Lane.

Squash And Love (2012) – Short Film

During a game of squash a man and a woman flirt. Their bodies brush, as they exchange a conspiring glance and smile. But will the game end as it began?

Credits

Squash And LoveCast: Carole Labouze (Joueuse) and Carl Laforêt (Jouer)

Cameraman: Bertrand Picault

Written and directed by Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Music by Eddy Benadjer and Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Produced by Les Films d’AntineA, Île-de-France, Paris, France.

 

 

Abandoned Squash Courts

During the Second World War, the East Anglia region of England earned the reputation of being the ‘aircraft carrier of Britain’. This was due partly to the ‘friendly invasion’ of over 200,000 men and women of the United States Air Force who were based at 67 airfields in the region from 1942 onwards.

Many of these airfields existed before the arrival of the Americans, as did others in the east of England used by the Royal Air Force to launch fighter aircraft against incoming German bombers and their fighter escorts. The aerial conflict between the RAF and the German Luftwaffe reached its height in the summer and autumn of 1940, a period known as the Battle Of Britain.

The RAF fighter pilots based at airfields in East Anglia and other parts of the country spent much of their time between sorties waiting to be scrambled into action. They slept, listened to music, played cards and generally tried to relax.  Some played football, others cricket and a few even competed in distinctive custom-built facilities erected to meet the special demands of their chosen racquet sport. Squash.

Ghosts of the Past

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Swannington

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Swannington

Today, almost all of the airfield squash courts have disappeared as military property has been re-developed or sold off for commercial use. Yet some still survive as decaying relics of a period of conflict and heroism.

One such court still stands on the former site of RAF Swannington in Norfolk. The airfield was home to Nos. 85  and 157 squadrons which arrived in May 1944 and became operational in August 1944.

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Nocton

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Nocton

Another survived, until recently, on the former site of RAF Driffield in East  Yorkshire. Opened in July 1936, RAF Driffield became home to a number of bomber squadrons. By 1938, these had been replaced by No.77 and No.102 Squadrons, and were eventually equipped with the twin-engined Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber.

A third court, severely damaged by arson, can still be found on the former site of RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. RAF Binbrook was opened as a Bomber Command station in June 1940 and was home to No. 12 Squadron RAF which operated between July 1940 and September 1942 before moving to RAF Wickenby, also in Lincolnshire.

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Yatesbury

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Yatesbury

Further afield, the squash court at RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire also survives. The site first opened as an aerodrome during World War I and RAF Yatesbury continued operations in the interwar years before again taking on a major role in World War II. From 1936 onwards RAF Yatesbury and nearby RAF Compton Bassett were major Radio and Radar Training Schools.

These squash courts, used by ‘The Few’, will soon be a memory. Yet, in the annals of British history, the name of one of their number will never be forgotten.

The Squash Player with No Legs

Douglas Bader was an RAF flying ace during the Second World War. He was credited with 20 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probables, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged. His story is remarkable in that while attempting some aerobatics before the outbreak of the war, he crashed and lost both his legs. Having been on the brink of death, he recovered, retook flight training, passed his check flights and then requested reactivation as a pilot. Although there were no regulations applicable to his situation, he was retired against his will on medical grounds.

Douglas Bader

Douglas Bader

After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, however, Bader returned to the RAF and was accepted as a pilot. He scored his first victories over Dunkirk during the Battle of France in 1940.

Astonishingly, despite his limited mobility, Bader remained a keen sportsman, playing doubles tennis and cricket. But it was his exploits on the squash court which continue to inspire.

“The third game I played until recently was squash rackets. This again was a game I knew very well before I lost my legs, and it is of course played in a confined space which helps.

“There is no question of playing competitively. The best thing to do is to play with someone who is good, who will not hit everything out of your reach but will adjust his game to give you plenty to do and himself plenty of exercise.
He will not, for instance, play drop shots when you are at the back of the court. I played this game regularly until the age of 37 and stopped playing because of the non-availability of squash courts and because it was mechanically rough on the legs.”

Bader died in 1982.

Note

The Few were the Allied airmen of the Royal Air Force (RAF) who fought the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. The term comes from Winston Churchill’s phrase “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.” It also alludes to Shakespeare’s famous speech in his play, Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

Sources

Thanks to the BBC website for its article “World War II US airfields in East Anglia project to record history.” Also thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on RAF airfields and Douglas Bader.

Douglas Bader’s description of his squash playing life are taken from the website of The Douglas Bader Foundation.

Hello and Goodbye

Fifteen years ago, I paid a flying visit to a city which has now established itself as a venue for major sporting events. At the time, Doha – the capital of Qatar – had already hosted one World Open squash final (in 1998) in which Canada’s Jonathon Power had beaten Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Just under a year later, I was working in the Gulf and attempting to follow Nicol’s 1999 Word Open progress in Cairo. In the pre-internet era, this involved the combined use of short-wave radio, occasional (and often imaginatively-censored) local newspaper reports and second-hand gossip gleaned by telephone from a number of expatriate Egyptian colleagues who were themselves in direct telephone and text contact with their squash-loving Cairo relatives.

World Open Final 1999

World Open Final 1999

As the tournament progressed, this strategy proved to be highly effective due largely to the continuing presence in the draw of Cairo-born Ahmed Barada who, like Nicol, was again challenging for the title. By the time the semi-final stage had been reached, I had started to make arrangements for following what was looking increasingly like a Nicol – Barada final when I received a call from my local agent, Fatih, another Cairo expatriate and Barada fan.

“Your visa runs out tomorrow,” he announced. “You have to go and get a new one.”
I was somewhat surprised but not immediately terrified at being thrown out of the country on World Squash Open finals day. Fatih’s efforts in managing my work contract to date had drawn on skills which could only be described as Machiavellian. So, I had no doubt that he would have a plan to rectify my imminent visa-less status.

“Where do I go?” I asked, expecting to be directed to an unidentifiable building on an unnamed street where I would experience bureaucratic torture and a limitless wait.

“Doha,” said Fatih. “I’ve booked you on a flight with Gulf Air tomorrow evening. You’ll be back by ten o’clock.” I waited for him to add his usual “Insha’Allah” but none was forthcoming.

I made a quick calculation. Gulf time was two hours on from Cairo time so, with any luck, I’d be touching down when the finalists were knocking up.

The evening was spent sitting in a hotel coffee shop following the semi-finals with two Egyptian colleagues using the telephonic component of the three-pronged strategy I had been using throughout the tournament. As I’d expected, both Nicol and Barada reached the final, Barada beating reigning champion Jonathon Power (who was forced to retire) and Nicol beating fellow Scot, Martin Heath.

The following day, a Friday, I turned up at the Hilton Hotel sports club for my weekly squash round robin session followed by a visit to the coffee shop to peruse the newspapers. As I expected, neither the Gulf News nor the Khaleej Times included any report of the semi-finals but did present selected first and second round results from Monday and Tuesday. Despite this, the letters pages of both newspapers were, as usual, full of entertaining cricket-themed correspondence from expatriate Indians working in the Gulf.

As it was getting dark, I flagged down a taxi and miraculously arrived at the airport without even once feeling that my driver was about to cause, or at least play a leading role in, a serious road accident. The return flight to Doha plus airport terminal waiting time took all of four hours during which time I read several chapters of my book, drank three coffees and acquired another 3 month entry visa.

One slightly more worrying taxi journey later I was sitting in the Forte Grand coffee shop following the 1999 World Open Final – again using the expatriate Egyptian / telephone method.

The final, won by Peter Nicol, was played on a glass court in sight of the Great Pyramids of Giza in front of a crowd consisting almost exclusively of Barada supporters. My Egyptian colleagues were naturally disappointed; no Egyptian had yet won the World Open and Barada was considered to have a great chance of winning the competition.

Since then, Egypt’s World Open fortunes have taken a dramatic upswing with seven of the thirteen tournaments played being won by Egyptian players. Coincidentally, three more World Open tournaments have been held in Doha, the latest of which saw Ramy Ashour beat fellow Egyptian Mohamed El Shorbagy.

Well, you know, one of these days I might actually get a chance to see a World Open tournament live.

But first, I’ve definitely got to leave the airport.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on “World Open (Squash)” and Ahmed Barada. Thanks also to Nashwa Abdel-Tawab for his review of the 1999 World Squash Open final: “Lucky By The Pyramids.”.

City Boys

By the time I was offered my first ‘proper’ job in The City I’d already got form. There’d been a couple of years working on projects for The Giant Vampire Squid on Fleet Street, helping them clear up the mess after they’d been found guilty of aiding and abetting one of their more financially creative clients. Then there was a similar stint with The Thundering Herd, coaching some of their back office people in the creative pursuit of evidence which could help the firm show that their very own Masters of the Universe had been conducting business in a way that was entirely above board, or not. And, yes, there’d been other short-term gigs for investment banks, for retail banks, and even for brokerages. I had City form all right.

Then there was the other kind of form, the squash kind. I’d been playing for more than 25 years, during which time I’d usually managed to arrange one or two matches a week, irrespective of where in the world I was working. Of course there’d been a few squash-free periods (the time I spent working in Texas springs to mind) but, all in all, I couldn’t complain.

So, by the time I was offered the proper job, I was already primed to respond positively to any offers which would enable me to maintain a healthy work / squash balance. It just so happened that the job on offer was based in London’s Canary Wharf, then the venue for a recently announced international squash tournament. And it also just so happened that, in the basement of the building in which I would be working, were the only two squash courts in Canary Wharf.

I took the proper job.

I spent much of the next ten years or so working and studying in and around London. I played on the basement courts and at a squash club located within walking distance of where I was living at the time. Most years, I even managed to get to at least one session of the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, as my local international tournament was now called.

In 2013 it was the semi-finals – and a full house.

The first match ended in a 3-1 victory to England’s James Willstrop over Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy, the knowledgeable and suitably refreshed audience showing its appreciation.

But it was the second match which saw overwhelming audience support for local boy Peter Barker in his match against reigning Canary Wharf Classic and British Open Champion Nick Matthew. Barker, born in the East London Borough of Havering had previously beaten Matthew only once in 21 attempts. But, in a physical match lasting 69 minutes, Barker ran out the eventual 3-1 winner to take his place alongside Willstrop in the final. The applause echoed round the packed arena for several minutes before Barker could begin his post-match interview.

Squash in the City may be international, but when the City boys turn up, it’s personal – and it’s always going to be local.

Sources

Thanks to World Squash for its review of the Canary Wharf Classic 2013 semi-finals.

 

Court 3: A Ghost Story (à la M.R.James)

Among the towns of Jutland, Viborg justly holds a high place. It is the seat of a bishopric, has a handsome although almost entirely new cathedral, a lake of great beauty, and a charming botanical garden.

Viborg Cathedral

Viborg Cathedral

The sun was setting as my cousin, Mr. John Anderson, whose experiences I have to tell you of now, walked up to the door of the Golden Lion hotel one cold Winter’s afternoon just over a year ago. He was delighted with the old-fashioned appearance of the place which, he was soon to learn, was one of the few buildings in the old town not to have been damaged or destroyed in the great fire of 1726. He was researching the Church history of Denmark and it had come to his knowledge that in the Rigsarkiv of Viborg were papers saved from the fire which related to the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country. He proposed, therefore, to spend two or three weeks in examining and copying these, hoping that the Golden Lion would be able to provide him with a room of sufficient size to serve alike as a bedroom and a study.

Upon entering the building, he explained his wishes to the landlord and, after inspecting several rooms, chose one on the first floor which looked onto the street. The pretty view, he reasoned, would more than compensate him for the additional amount of noise. What he did not know at the time, was what he was about to experience.

++++

On the day after his arrival, my cousin immersed himself in the Rigsarkiv library. He was, as one might expect in Denmark, kindly received and access to to all that he wished to see was made as easy for him as possible by the Archivist of Viborg, Herr Scavenius. The documents laid before him were far more numerous and interesting that he had anticipated. Besides official papers, there was a large bundle of correspondence relating to Bishop Jörgen Friis, the last Roman Catholic to hold the see. In these there cropped up many amusing and what are commonly called ‘intimate’ details of private life and individual character. There was, for example, much talk of a house owned by the Bishop in the town, but not occupied by him. The behaviour of its tenant, a Magister Nicolas Francken, was apparently somewhat of a scandal and a godsend to the Protestant opposition. He was a disgrace, they wrote, to the town; he practiced secret and wicked arts and had sold his soul to the Devil. The Bishop met these reproaches boldly, protesting his own abhorrence of all such dark arts, and challenging his opponents to bring the matter before the ‘proper court’; in other words, the spiritual court. My cousin had not much time to do more than glance at the next letter (from the Protestant leader, Rasmus Nielsen) before the library was closed for the day.

++++

As it was still relatively early, my cousin decided to explore the streets around the Rigsarkiv. Many of the buildings appeared to be relatively new, but he was delighted to stumble upon many which bore some of the architectural characteristics of the Golden Lion. He was also pleased to see that the medieval layout of the old town’s streets had been preserved and so determined to indulge himself in aimless wandering around the area. As the light began to fade, he found himself in a narrow passage-way near the cathedral looking at a brass plate fixed to the wall of a modern red-brick building; it bore the legend ‘Viborg Squashklub.’ Being a keen player, he entered the building and enquired as to the possibility of obtaining a visiting membership for the duration of his stay. The steward on duty was pleased to make the necessary arrangements and even offered to find some suitable opponents for my cousin to play. A tour of the modest yet well-maintained facilities – including two courts and a gentlemen’s changing room – followed, after which the steward agreed to contact him at his hotel with details of suitable court times and opponents. Satisfied with his day’s efforts, my cousin returned to the Golden Lion for his evening meal.

++++

The following morning brought word from the steward that he had located an opponent for my cousin who was available to play at seven o’clock that evening. My cousin sent a reply thanking him and agreeing to the match, before breakfasting and setting out for the Rigsarkiv library. On arriving at the library, he signed the visitor’s book and almost at once encountered Herr Scavenius, who had retrieved more papers for his attention. The Arkivist looked forward with great pleasure to seeing the publication in which my cousin was intending to summarise their contents, and expressed a long-held interest in identifying the house occupied by Bishop Friis’s notorious tenant almost four hundred years previously. “It is a great puzzle to me where it can have stood,” he explained. “We have the greater part of the collection of street plans from old Viborg here in the Arkiv, but the document which contained a list of town property is missing.” My cousin told him that he would endeavour to find the list and continued with his research before retiring to the Golden Lion for refreshment. In the evening, much to his satisfaction, he prevailed in his match at the Viborg Squashklub (against an accountant) before returning to his hotel and his bed.

++++

Over the following three days, my cousin continued with his research being, for the most part, alone in the Rigsarkiv library, sometimes to a late hour. Occasionally, he would leave the building to seek refreshment before returning to his labours, concentrated at a desk and two tables regularly replenished with documents by the Arkivist, whom he rarely encountered in the flesh. Occasionally, he would be joined in the library by other researchers, often sensing their presence as they moved amongst the labyrinthine arrangement of shelves rather than catching sight of them. On occasion, he would glimpse an indistinct figure or even just the hem of a cloak as it crossed a corridor between the shelves; at other times, he would notice the presence of an item of clothing, perhaps a scarf or a hat, hanging from the coat-stand by the library door. But the concentration he brought to his research frequently saw him lose track of time until he was obliged to accede to the audible demands of his stomach.

++++

On the morning of his sixth day in Viborg, a second communication arrived at the Golden Lion from the Squashklub steward, requesting my cousin’s presence that evening to play another opponent. As before, my cousin took part in a highly-enjoyable contest, this time with a physician whose stamina and accuracy rewarded him with the victory. The following day being Sunday, the Rigsarkiv was closed and my cousin took the opportunity to explore the shores of the lake before spending the afternoon and evening resting at his hotel.

Two more days in the Rigsarkiv library followed before another invitation from the steward was delivered to the Golden Lion. On his third visit to the club, however, a most unusual incident occurred. Having left the court and accompanied his opponent to the changing room, my cousin realised that he had left his towel (with which he habitually used to mop his brow between games) at the front of the court. He quickly re-traced his steps and, as he entered the corridor leading to the courts, noticed that it appeared to be longer than he had previously imagined. The far end of the corridor was shrouded in darkness although he could discern a door some distance beyond that of Court 2 on which he had just played. He retrieved his towel and, on leaving the court, determined to inspect the distant door which, he soon discovered, bore the number ‘3’. Unusually, the door was closed although it appeared to be unoccupied. No sounds, either of play or conversation, emanated from the court, nor could he see any light under the door or through the peep-hole. Although he thought this unusual, he did not investigate further and returned to the changing room, later asking his opponent whether he had ever played on Court 3. However, the reaction of his opponent left him in no doubt that his question was regarded certainly as being mischievous and possibly as disrespectful, and the two men parted without further conversation. The steward being absent from his post, my cousin was unable either to relate his experience or make further enquiries, and so returned to his hotel and his supper.

++++

It was several days before my cousin received another invitation to play at the Viborg Squashklub. By this time, he had forgotten the circumstances of his last visit, his attention being focussed entirely on his research at the Rigsarkiv. In the evening, he again attended the club where the steward introduced him to his opponent, a lawyer visiting Viborg from Malmö. On this occasion, he and his opponent were particularly well-matched, the score being 2-2 in games when their court time expired. The two men readily agreed to conclude their match two evenings hence and gathered their belongings in preparation for exiting the court. However, their attention was suddenly drawn to a loud and unsettling sound. It was the sound of a man laughing in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad. It was a high, thin voice which seemed dry, as if from long disuse. On and on it went, sailing to a surprising height before descending with a despairing moan, like a winter wind in a hollow chimney. Where the horrible sound was coming from, they could not tell, yet my cousin felt that, had he been alone, he would certainly have fled for refuge and assistance.

Instead, the two men left the court determined to discover the source of the sound. They began to discuss a course of action, but my cousin sensed that something had changed in the corridor in which they were standing. Looking over the shoulder of his companion towards the far end of the corridor, he could see a thin sliver of light shining from beneath the door to a court which he knew not to exist. He bade his companion accompany him to the door which, as before, he discovered to bear the number ‘3’. Emanating from behind it, they could hear the sound of laughter.

Being unable to see anything through the peep-hole, my cousin knocked on the door with his racket handle. However, there was no response from within and the sound continued as before. He and his companion then attempted to push open the door but it would not yield. Finally, the two climbed the staircase to the viewing gallery intending to see who the occupant or occupants of the court might be. On reaching their destination, however, they at once realised the futility of their action; the gallery looked down upon Courts 1 and 2, both unoccupied, but not upon Court 3. They descended uneasily from the gallery and, on reaching the corridor, noticed that, not only had the laughter stopped, but that the door to Court 3, together with that part of the corridor in which it had been located, had passed out of existence.

Desiring an explanation, they sought out the steward who assured them that the club possessed only two courts. He also denied having heard any previous reports describing experiences similar to their own, adding that he had worked at the club for many years. He returned with them to the corridor where the doors to Courts 1 and 2 stood ajar. Of the door to Court 3, there was no sign.

On returning to his hotel, my cousin retired to his room and gave careful consideration of everything he had had to eat or drink during the previous twenty-four hours. He concluded that nothing he had ingested could account for the nature of his experience at the Viborg Squashklub. If his sight or his brain was failing, he would have plenty of opportunities for ascertaining that fact; if not, then he was evidently being treated to a very interesting experience. In either case, the development of events would, he concluded, be well worth watching.

++++

The following day in the Rigsarkiv library, my cousin continued his examination of the episcopal correspondence I have already described. To his disappointment, it was incomplete and he could find only one other letter referring to the affair of Magister Nicolas Francken, it being from Bishop Friis to Rasmus Nielsen. The Bishop wrote: “Although we do not assent to your judgement concerning our court, we are prepared to contest your accusations regarding our trusted and well-loved Magister Nicolas Francken against whom you have dared to allege certain false and malicious charges. However, I would advise you that our brother has been suddenly removed from amongst us, it thus being apparent that the subject of your reproaches is now no longer able to defend either himself or his faith.” Search as he might, my cousin could find no sequel to this letter nor any clue as to the cause or manner of the “removal” of the casus belli. He could only suppose that Francken had died suddenly and, as there were only two days between the date of Nielsen’s last letter (when Francken was evidently still alive) and that of the Bishop’s letter, the death must have been completely unexpected.

++++

On the morning of the following day, my cousin reported his findings to the Arkivist who, while naturally disappointed, was curious as to what had become of Magister Francken. He therefore offered to retrieve whatever death certificates and other church records were held in the Rigsarkiv which might help my cousin determine the date and circumstances of  Francken’s death. My cousin thanked him and continued with his studies, leaving the library after a few hours to take some exercise on what was a clear and bright Winter’s day. On his return to the library, he returned to his place, acknowledging the presence, at another desk, of what he assumed to be a fellow researcher, and briefly glimpsing another figure wearing a black cloak disappear into the shelves. After another afternoon immersed in his studies, he left the deserted library and turned his mind to the evening’s forthcoming match at the Viborg Squashklub.

++++

Despite his previous experiences at the club, my cousin was in a cheerful mood. He arrived well before the agreed time, changed, and entered Court 2, which he found to be unoccupied. He could hear a match in progress on Court 1 but decided to warm up the ball in advance of his opponent’s arrival. After almost ten minutes, however, he realised that, not only was his opponent late, but the match on Court 1 had ended, there being no sound to be heard. He therefore decided to find out whether his opponent had arrived at the club and, propping his racket against the back wall, stepped outside the court. At that moment, something gave him cause to stop. To his left, he could see that Court 1 was deserted, its door ajar and the lights switched off. To his right, the door to Court 3 stood ajar, light streaming from it into the darkened corridor.

Fearing that the door would again disappear during the time it would take to fetch the steward, he walked towards it, with no little hesitancy. Upon reaching it, he found that, as before, it bore the number ‘3’. He paused, summoned up his courage and then, with his right hand, attempted to push the door further open. It proved to be heavy, however, and he was obliged to lean against it with his shoulder before it swung slowly inwards. To his astonishment, he found himself standing in the vestibule of what appeared to be a medieval library, not unlike that in which he had spent so many hours at the Rigsarkiv. The room was lit by candle-light, its dark wooden floorboards and panelling giving it a melancholy air. In the vestibule stood two large tables bearing what he assumed to be the library’s catalogues, each bound in brown leather. Several desks, each flanked by chairs, bounded the vestibule, their surfaces littered with manuscripts. The chair beside one desk appeared to have been turned sideways to allow its occupant egress. On the surface of the desk, amongst the documents, lay a black, wide-brimmed hat, typical of those he knew to be worn by clergymen in that part of Denmark. Beyond the vestibule stood the library’s shelves, rowed on either side of a central corridor and disappearing into darkness. In the shadows overhead, my cousin could discern the ceiling which was constructed from heavy timbers. With the exception of the vestibule the room was dimly lit, it being impossible for my cousin to ascertain its size.

6JK9_HIt was then that he sensed that there was something wrong with the atmosphere in the room. A musty smell, an unnaturally strong odour of dust, permeated the room emanating, as far as he could tell, from somewhere within the shelves. He took a few steps across the vestibule, his eyes fixed upon the darkened rows stretching away from him. Reaching the first, he strained to hear anything which would give him cause to determine whether he was alone in the room. At first, he could hear nothing but then, as he progressed further along the corridor, he heard first the rustling of pages being turned and then the unmistakable sound of a man at first chuckling and then laughing loudly; laughing in a high, thin voice. He reached the next row, the sounds becoming louder. There was still no sign of whoever now shared the room with him. At the next row, darker now, he stopped. To his left stood a figure – a man – wearing a black cloak, his back towards the spot where my cousin now stood, barely able to draw breath. The man had a bald head, a  head which looked dry and dusty, with white streaks of hair drawn across it. In that moment, the laughter ceased abruptly and the man turned slowly round, letting my cousin see his face. It was perfectly dry, the mouth open, its yellowed teeth grinning, the eyes deep-sunken and sightless. Over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones, stretched cobwebs – thick, white cobwebs.  

My cousin stepped backwards, colliding with a shelf, staring all the time into the sightless eyes before him. He struggled momentarily to keep his balance, trying to draw in his breath but, in his panic, he felt himself sinking, drowning in an odour of dust and decay, falling towards the open mouth of a tomb. He turned and ran, stumbling along the corridor towards the vestibule, towards the refuge beyond the door, not daring to look behind him, all the while smelling the putrid smell of death and hearing again the laughter of madness echoing in his ears.

++++

My cousin has no knowledge of how he reached the sanctuary of the steward’s office. The steward, who was fortunately on duty, helped him to to calm himself   before arranging for him to change back into his outdoor clothes and take a cab to his hotel. My cousin did not wish to remain alone at any time whilst he remained at the club, and refused to return to Court 2 to retrieve his racket and towel. After a sleepless night spent barricaded in his room, he checked out of the hotel and caught the earliest possible train to Copenhagen, arriving in London two days later. He subsequently related his experiences to me, by which time a further development had taken place. Some two weeks after his sudden return to England, he received a letter from the Herr Scavenius, asking after his health and communicating the results of his own research. He had found no evidence of the death of Nicolas Francken despite the availability of surprisingly comprehensive records from the period. Neither had he managed to locate the long-lost property list from the same period. However, within the correspondence relating to Bishop Friis but not yet examined by my cousin, he had found a letter from Rasmus Nielsen asking for assistance in tracing the whereabouts of a member of his movement who had disappeared. The individual concerned was a scholar who was engaged in researching the occult and other aspects of Devil worship and the black arts. Some weeks before, the man had been seen entering the house occupied by Magister Nicolas Francken since when he had not been seen. The matter had been referred to the Overkonstabel of Viborg who had questioned  Magister Francken but no trace of the scholar had been found, adding to Nielsen’s suspicions regarding the Bishop’s tenant. The missing man was of English extraction.

His name was John Anderson.

Acknowledgements

This story is based on the short story ‘Number 13’ by M.R.James. It also includes a scene based on a ghostly encounter in a library taken from his story ‘The Tractate Middoth.’

The Only Honest Drug (à la Irvine Welsh)

Squash?

Ah’ve nae really thought aboot it; Just played it, ye knaw, since Ah was a bairn. Ah still do too whin some fucker rings me up wanting a fix.

Yeah, that’s it; a fucking fix.

Ah dunno. Maybe it kinday makes things seem mair real tae some people, ye knaw? Ah mean, basically, we live a short, disappointing, fucking life; and then we die. We fill up oor lives wi’ shite, things like careers and relationships, tae delude oorsels that it isnae aw totally fucking pointless. Wi’ squash, whin ye feel good, ye feel immortal. Whin ye feel bad, it intensifies the shite that’s already thair. It doesnae alter yir consciousness. It just gies ye a hit and a sense ay well-being. Eftir that, ye see the misery ay the world as it really fucking is, and ye can’t anaesthetise yirsel against it.

Maybe that’s whit Ah’m saying. Maybe it’s nae different frae smack tae some people. Fir me, though, it’s different.

Squash is the only really honest fucking drug there is.

(Renton)

++++

OH MY GOD, WHERE THE FUCK AM I?

Where the fuck…Ah dinnae recognise this room at aw…ah can’t swallow…can’t… generate enough saliva tae free mah tongue frae the roof ay mah mouth…Ah can’t see! Whit the fuck…?

Renton

Renton

There’s something flickering over in the corner, something black and white. The telly’s oan. Ah move my heid…just a wee bit before the jackhammers start. Then, ah can jist see…thank fuck fir that…ah’m lying oan the carpet in the living room…in the shitehole ah call home…feeling… fucking freezing!

Ah start tae move, then…shite, I’m fucking soaked! Ah’m fucking freezing and ah’ve pissed myself. Mah guts feel like they’re bein’ beaten wi’ a fucking egg whisk…churning around like…aw, fuck! Ah slam the anchors oan and scrabble aboot trying tae make it tae the bog before…

++++

Ah try and piece together the last twenty-four hours. It’s Sunday. Yesterday was Saturday. The match, at Hampden. Fucking stuffed, ah imagine. Ah don’t even want tae think aboot the day. Ah can’t fucking remember whither or not ah even made it tae the game. Ah remember ah met Swanney, Sicko and Begs. Yeah, that’s right. Fucking headbangers, all ay them. Then…

Ah can remember fuck all after that pub in…Rutherglen; the space-cake, the speed, the dope, the tab ay acid. Not tae mention the bottle o’ vodka ah put away before we met in…in the previous pub…before we got the bus tae…

It’s all getting too fucking complicated. Ah decide it’s time fae action. Ah need the old slowburn, something soft tae warm me up and ease me back intae the flow.

++++

The ‘phone kicks in and blows the back off mah heid. Ah make a vague attempt tae remember who the fuck ah dinnae want tae hear from, then give up whin the list gets too big tae store in mah short-term memory. Ah lift the receiver.

“Awright, Rents?”

It’s Spud, sounding full ay fucking beans, sounding like someone who hasnae just woken up lying in his own urine.

“Spud.”

Ah’m non-committal. The last time ah went oan a recreational outing wi’ Spud, ah woke up in Leith lying in a lot mair thin mah ain piss.

“Ah got a court at three doon the sports.”

Ah’m confused.

“Whit?”

“Three o’clock, chum. Squash. We agreed, remember?’

Ah’m trying tae get a handle on when the fuck ah was in any fit state tae agree anything. The previous pub? Oan the bus tae…? Ah decide tae go wi’ the flow.

“Yeah, yeah, I knaw. Tomorrow at three. I’ll…”

“Today.”

“Whit?”

“Today at three. Monday at three, that’s whit we…”

Whit the fuck happened tae Sunday?

“…agreed, right?”

“Yeah, yeah. See you there then.”

Ah’ve got tae get a fucking grip.

++++

Ten-thirty. Ah’ve still got time tae get over tae…where? I review mah slowburn procurement options. Swanney? Yeah, yeah, he’s mah main man, mah Mister Reliable, always…aw, fuck!

Ah remember whit happened tae curtail mah socialising at the previous pub, wherever the fuck it was. Swanney’ll still be helping the local constabulary wi’ their enquiries, nae  fucking doot.

Strike fucking one.

Ah resume mah procurement review. Seeker’s services are awready temporarily unavailable tae me due tae his, in mah ain personal view, unfair detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Ah still owe Franco fir mah last major excursion intae white powder land, which leaves…Raymie. Ah dial his number. A lassie answers.

“Hello?” she sniffs. Either she’s got a cold or she’s on the skag. Promising.

“Is Raymie there? It’s Mark Renton here.”

“Raymie’s away,” she says. “London.”

“London? Fuck…whin’s he due back?”

“Dinnae ken.”

“He didnae leave anything fir us, did he?” Chance wid be a fine thing, the cunt.

“Eh, naw.”

Ah shakily put the ‘phone down, feeling cold. Only one choice now and ah’ve still got tae get tae the sports by three.

Nothing fir it. Ah ring that cunt Mikey Forrester. Fifteen minutes later, ah’m oan the thirty-two bus tae Muirhoose wi’ mah sports bag and squash racket. Ah knaw ah’m going tae get fucked aboot and ripped off wi’ some crap gear. But, any port in a fucking storm.

And mah guts are starting up again.

++++

Forrester’s maisonette is in a block five stories high wi’ a lift. It disnae work. Tae conserve energy, ah slide along the wall oan mah journey up the stairs. Christ knaws whit state ah’ll be in whin I get on court wi’ Spud, even after a chemical pick-me-up.

Ah try and pull mahsel together at Forrester’s door, but he’ll knaw ah’m suffering. An ex-skag merchant always knaws whin someone’s sick. Ah just don’t want the bastard tae knaw how fucking desperate ah feel.

Ah knock oan the door. Forrester can obviously see mah ginger hair through the wired, dimpled glass door. He takes a fucking age tae answer, fucking me aboot before ah even set foot in the place. The door opens.

“Awright, Rents?”

He looks doon, sees mah gear then looks at me suspiciously.

“Whit the fuck’s that?”

“Mah squash gear. Got a match after ah leave here. League match doon the sports.”

His jaw drops. Ah’ve got him on the fucking run.

There’s a pause. Ah can see him trying tae figure oot why someone who’s just off tae play squash is looking tae ingest something that’ll impair his ability to remain fucking conscious. He shrugs his shoulders. Ah dutifully follow him in.

Ah sit oan the couch, beside but a bit away frae a gross bitch wi’ a broken leg. Her greasy peroxide locks have an inch o’ insipid grey-broon at their roots. She’s watching a panel o’ middle-aged boilers gossiping on the telly. Forrester sits opposite me in a worn-oot armchair, beefy-faced but thin-bodied, almost bald at twenty-five.

“This is mah sister, Megan,” he nods at the bleached whale.

“Pleased tae meet you,” I lie. She ignores me, leaving the field open fir me tae keep her brother off-balance. I lean towards Forrester and lower my voice conspiratorially.

“How’s it going wi’ Gail?” I ask innocently. His relatively recent girl-friend.

“No joy yet,” he responds. He doesnae look happy.

“How long is it now then?” I enquire.

“Six weeks.”

“Six weeks! My, that is a long time. It must be quite frustrating fir a man ay yir…” Ah pause fir maximum effect. He disnae let me finish mah impartial observation, stands up and gestures fir me tae follow him tae the kitchen. He closes the door.

“It’s a fucking nightmare, Rents. She told me she didnae want oor relationship tae start oan a physical basis as that’s how it’d principally be defined from then oan in.” He soonds like he’s reading from a fucking script…and it’s no his.

“Where did she come up wi’ that?”

“She read it in Cosmopolitan.”

Ah look concerned, thin shake mah heid in disbelief, tutting

“So six weeks and nae sex then?” Ah let my incredulity segué effortlessly intae sympathy imbued wi’ a soupcon ay male cameraderie. All very fucking Gallic.

“Ah’m telling ye, Rents, ah’ve got balls like fucking watermelons.” He looks like he’s going tae cry.

“Hang in there, Mikey.” Ah pat him oan the back.

We share a brief moment. Time tae dae a deal and head tae the sports.

He digs aroond in a cupboard and produces two white capsules frae a tea caddy. Ah’ve nivver seen the likes ay them before. They’re hard, bomb-shaped things wi’ a waxy coat oan them. I stare at them and, suddenly, a powerful rage grabs hold of me frae fucking nowhere.

“Whit the fuck is this shite?” Ah scream at him.

Mikey looks at me wi’ a hurt expression.

“Opium, Rents. Opium suppositories. Ideal fir whit ye want. Slow release. Bring ye doon gradual like. Custom fucking designed fir ye needs. Ye’ll be moving ‘roond that court like a fucking whippet.””

His tone’s changed. It’s cagey, almost apologetic. Mah ootburst has shattered oor sick symbiosis.

“Whit the fuck dae ah dae wi’ these?” Ah says, then break intae a smile as it dawns oan us. Ah’ve let Mikey off the hook.

“Dae ye really want me tae tell ye?” he sneers, regaining some ay the power he’d relinquished during oor previous dialogue.

“Look, Rents. Listen tae the voice ay experience,” he smiles. “These things’ll melt through yir system, the charge’ll build up, and then it’ll slowly fade away. That’s the cunts they use in hospital, fir fuck’s sake.”

Ah dae the deal then retire tae the toilet and insert the suppositories, wi’ great diligence, up mah arse. It’s the first time ah’ve ever stuck mah finger up mah arse and a vaguely nauseous feeling hits me.

There’s nae time tae waste. Ten past two. Just enough time tae get tae the sports. Ah head fir the door.

“Cheers, Mikey, Ah’m off.”

There’s nae attempt tae acknowledge the departure ay a valued customer, but Mikey’s sister suddenly lets oot an embarrassing donkey-like laugh at some inane remark. Whither it’s frae her brother or the boilers oan the telly, ah decide tae ignore it.

After aw, ah’m heading fir mah next fix.

++++

Ah make it tae the sports wi’ ten minutes tae spare and head fir the changing room. Ah unzip mah bag and stand back as the stench escapes and begins tae invade mah nostrils. Fuck knaws how long it’s been since I washed any o’ mah kit but ah’m half expecting it tae climb oot and head fir the nearest laundrette.

Ah climb intae my shorts ignoring the broon skidmarks ingrained in the briefs. The shirt’s nae better although it’s original colour scheme has changed wi’ the cumulative absorption, over time, ay a range o’ bodily excretions, not necessarily all mine.

Spud’s warming up ootside court two, performing a range ay stretching and lunging exercises which are frightening the bairns waiting tae start their mini-squash session oan court one. A couple o’ them are trying tae hide behind their mums. The coach, a fat guy wearing a navy track-suit,  is glowering at Spud who doesnae even notice his presence.

“Spud.”

He notices me though.

Spud

Spud

“Awright, Rents?” he says, predictably. He’s wearing a luminous green shirt which sets mah guts off again just looking at it as he jumps aroond.

He stops and puts oan a yellow headband tae complete his hideous ensemble.

“So, fifty quid then is it?”

“Whit?”

“Fifty quid each. Winner takes all. We agreed, remember?”

Ah’m just aboot tae disagree wi’ Spud’s version ay whitever we did or didnae agree, whin ah feel the suppositories begin tae kick in. Suddenly, ah’m feeling surprisingly mellow and well-disposed towards mah old squash buddy, untrustworthy cunt though he is.

“Yeah, yeah, fifty quid.”

A moment ay weakness. Too fucking late tae back oot now.

++++

We knock off the occupants ay court two and start tae warm up the ball. Spud is beating twelve shades ay fucking broon oot ay it, drilling it back tae himself so ah barely get a look-in. Ah try a few drives, drops and volleys tae get a feel fir the court and try tae spot Spud’s strengths and weaknesses as he hurls himself aboot. Based oan his recent attempts tae seek gainful employment, deception probably falls intae the second category.

Interviewer: Mr. Murphy, do you mean that you lied on your application form?

Spud: No! Uh. well yes. But only tae get mah foot in the door, sir. Showing initiative and that, like.

Interviewer: But you were referred here by the Department of Employment, Mr. Murphy; there was no need for you to get your “foot in the door,” as you put it.

Spud: Ehhh… cool. Whitever ye say, boss. I’m sorry. You’re the man, sir. The dude in the chair.

Ah win the spin and serve the first ball oot. Love one and Spud’s not even had tae play a fucking shot. Ah stick his first serve intae the tin, then play a fucking air shot oan his next. Love three and ah start tae imagine mah fifty quid being flushed doon the bog despite the fact that ah’ve nae got fifty quid anyway.

Ah manage tae return Spud’s next serve and a rally develops, me fending the ball ontae the front wall, Spud running aroond like he’s got a fucking firecracker up his arse, thrashing it tae the back ay the court. The sweat’s pouring off him giving his shirt a two-tone appearance which sets off mah guts again as he zips in and oot ay mah field ay view. Ah manage tae stay in a few rallies but Spud takes the first 15-3. Wanker.

++++

In the interval, Spud drinks aboot two fucking gallons ay water frae the cooler, rushes back oan court and starts whacking the ball aroond before ah’ve had time tae catch mah breath. Ah’m still feeling mellow but then it fucking dawns oan me.

Whit the fuck is Spud oan?

A list o’ banned substances flashes before mah eyes…morphine, diamorphine, cyclizine, codeine, temazepam, nitrazepam, phenobarbitone, sodium amytal, dextropropoxyphene, methadone, nalbuphine, pethidine, pentazocine, buprenorphine, dextromoramide, chlormethiazole…

Now ah’m starting tae get mad. Here ah am trying tae come doon safely frae a two-day drugs and alcohol-induced high, and whit dae ah find? The so-called squash buddy who’s kindly arranged fir me tae share some enjoyable sporting activity wi’ him is trying tae cheat me oot ay fifty quid by taking illegal fucking substances!

Ah’m livid. Ye cannae fucking trust anybody nowadays!

Ah storm back ontae court intending tae up mah game and blow the cunt away. Ah hang in there but wi’ a growing realisation, metamorphosing intae horror, that all isnae well in the vicinity o’ mah bowels. Spud wins the second 11-7 but looks fucked and staggers in the general direction o’ the door like a blind zombie. Ah beat him tae it, exit the court like a greyhoond oot ay a fucking trap and sprint tae the bog.

Ah blunder intae a vacant cubicle, drop mah shorts and drop ontae the cold porcelain shunky. Thin, ah empty mah guts, feeling as though everything: bowels, stomach, intestines, spleen, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and fucking brains are aw falling oot ay mah arsehole intae the bowl.

Ah’m just aboot tae clean up and flush the bowl whin ah’m struck wi’ the realisation ay mah situation. Ah sit frozen fir a moment, but only a moment. Ah’ve only got aboot twenty seconds tae get back oan court before Spud claims the fucking game, the match and the fifty quid. Conflicting wi’ this requirement is the urgent need tae retrieve mah suppositories frae the pan and return them whence they’ve just beenejected.

Ah make an executive decision, paper mah posterior and fall off the pan onto mah knees. Thin, ah plunge mah hands and forearms intae the broon water. Ah rummage aroond fastidiously and get one ay mah bombs back straight away. Ah rub off some ay the shite that’s attached tae it and stick it oan top ay the cistern. Then, ah go back in and locate the other after several long dredges through the mess and panhandling ay the shite. A quick rinse under the cauld tap and, Bob’s yer uncle, they’re ready fir re-insertion. Ah slip them intae the pocket ay mah shorts and head fir court two at speed.

++++

By now, ah’m guessing that Spud’s finished rehearsing his argument as tae why ah should forfeit the game, the match and the fifty quid. “Sorry, Rents, but them’s the rules. Ninety seconds between games. Nothing ah can dae aboot it, pal.”

Whin ah get tae the court, the door’s ajar and  Spud’s bag is lying ootside. There’s nae sign ay him and and nae soond coming frae inside. Where the fuck is he? There’s naebody sitting ootside the courts, the mini-squash mums having gone up tae the balcony tae watch their off-spring terrorise the fucking coach.

Ah shrug mah shoulders and shove the court door which, surprisingly, meets wi’ some resistance. Ah poke mah heid aroond it tae be greeted wi’ the sight ay Spud lying flat oot wi’ his heid resting in a pool ay whit ah assume tae be the recent  contents ay his stomach. He’s nae moving although ah can see his chest moving up and doon, and a slight ripple effect as his breath wafts across the surface ay his vomit.

Ah wait a couple o’ minutes before summoning the first-aiders frae the front desk tae scrape Spud off the floor. Just enough time tae extract mah winnings frae the wallet in Spud’s bag. “Sorry, Spud, ah thought it was best tae leave ye in capable hands. Pity ye had tae forfeit the match, but them’s the rules. Nothing ah can dae aboot it, pal.”

After they’ve mopped up, ah wander back oan court fir a moment tae contemplate the grand scheme ay things. Life, death, drugs, squash and the wonder that is the human fucking body.

As ah hear the sound of balls smacking against the walls ay the neighbouring courts, ah walk over tae the ‘T’, smile…and put mah hand slowly intae mah pocket.

End of fucking story.

Acknowledgements

This story is based on scenes taken from the first part of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel, ‘Trainspotting’, and dialogue from the 1996 film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle. In the film version, Renton was played by Ewan McGregor and Spud by Ewen Bremner. Thanks to the International Movie Database for its collection of quotes from the film version.  

 

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.

Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

Genius? Eccentric? Maverick?

Whatever qualities he might previously have attributed to his coach, one leading squash player must have sensed that he shared at least some characteristics with another famous Yorkshire-born sports coach. “Dad’s the Brian Clough of squash,” said World Number 1, James Willstrop just before the London Olympics.

James and Malcolm Willstrop

James and Malcolm Willstrop

Whether this disclosure came as a surprise to Malcolm Willstrop is unknown. When Clough was in his heyday as a manager in the 1970s, Willstrop junior had not even been born. But Willstrop senior would certainly have been aware of Clough’s achievements, not just as a manager but as a player whose career was tragically cut short by injury. He would also have been aware of his outspokenness, arrogance and lack of respect for authority.

And, although it was rarely mentioned in the mainstream media of the time, he may even have been aware of Clough’s attachment to something which embodied another of his sporting passions. 

His squash racket.

Clough the Footballer

“Beckham? His wife can’t sing and his barber can’t cut hair.” (Brian Clough)

The sixth of nine children, Clough was born in 1935 in Middlesbrough in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Following national service in the Royal Air Force from 1953 to 1955, he joined his home town club, Middlesbrough, scoring 204 goals in 222 league matches including 40 or more goals in four consecutive seasons. However, he was also prone to submitting transfer requests on a regular basis and had a tense relationship with some of his fellow players. He was especially irked by Boro’s leaky defence, which conceded goals as regularly as he scored them. After a 6–6 draw against Charlton Athletic, Clough sarcastically asked his team mates how many goals he would have to score in order for them to win a match.

Brian Clough, Trevor Francis and Squash Racket

Brian Clough, Trevor Francis and Squash Racket

While playing for Boro, Clough was capped twice for the England national team,failing to score on either occasion. Eventually, in July 1961, one of his transfer requests was finally accepted and he moved to Boro’s local rivals Sunderland where he scored 63 goals in 74 matches. Clough’s goal-scoring powers were showing no signs of declining.

But on Boxing Day 1962, disaster struck. Clough tore the medial and cruciate ligaments in his knee in a match against Bury, an injury which, in that era, usually ended a player’s career. Despite an attempted comeback two years later, Clough was forced to retire at the age of 29.

Even today, for players scoring over 200 goals in the English leagues, Clough holds the record for the highest number of goals scored per game (0.916).

But, with his playing career ended, Clough was not prepared to turn his back on football, or controversy.

Clough the Manager

“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” (Brian Clough)

The story of Clough’s career in football management is an epic story punctuated not only with successful domestic and European campaigns, but also with controversies, clashes and  fallings out on a heroic scale.

That career started in 1965 with Hartlepool United and finally ended in 1993 with the relegation of his club, Nottingham Forest, from the English Premier League. Clough had won consecutive European Cups with Forest and League Championships with both Forest and Derby County.

Brian Clough Playing for Sunderland

Brian Clough Playing for Sunderland

But it was in the 1970s that Clough’s managerial career was in the ascendancy, first with Derby County and then, after a tempestuous 44-day reign at Leeds United, with Nottingham Forest.

Clough and the Racket

“We talk about it for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right.” (Brian Clough on dealing with a player who disagrees with him.)

It was during his time with Forest that Clough’s squash racket began to appear in an increasing variety of contexts.

Following his forced retirement as a player, Clough had kept himself fit, taking part in five-a-side games during training sessions and, until the early 1980s, playing squash. During his 18 year stint at Nottingham Forest, he played on the courts at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, a short walk from Forest’s stadium at the City Ground. His squash partners included Forest players, notably striker Garry Birtles, and members of the local press who routinely covered Forest’s home and away matches.  

But his attachment to his squash racket was not limited to his use of it on the squash court.

Intimidating Football Agents

Having been approached to join Nottingham Forest, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton recalls:

“I discovered how unconventional Clough was when my agents Jon Holmes, Jeff Pointon and I went to see him in his office at the City Ground in September 1977, after Forest had made an official approach to Stoke City for me. We hung outside his office for 10 minutes or so before someone informed us, ‘Mr Clough is ready to see you now.’ Jon and Jeff went in first and I was slack-jawed to see them both go sprawling across the floor. Clough had been hiding to one side of the door and as they entered he had angled a squash racket across their path and tripped them both up. I have no idea if he did this to gain some sort of psychological advantage in the negotiations or whether it was just a prank. It certainly threw Jon and Jeff.”

Orchestrating the Unveiling of England’s First £1M Footballer

Joining Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City, striker Trevor Francis found himself waiting in Clough’s office well after the appointed time for his unveiling to the press. “It turned out that he had another engagement,” said Francis later. “He was playing squash over the road at Trent Bridge.” When Clough finally arrived, he was wearing a tracksuit and carrying his squash racket.

During the ensuing press conference, Francis was asked, “When will you be making your debut for Nottingham Forest?” Gesturing at himself with his racket, Clough replied, “When I pick him.”

Supervising Youth Team Training with his Dog

Nottingham Forest Youth Team player Sean Dyche recalls:

“The boss used to travel on the coach for FA Youth Cup games and loved the reserves, but on the training ground he let the coaches coach. He’d come down with his dog and his squash racket and his squash ball. He’d whack that around for the dog and stand at a distance, but every now and then, he’d notice something and you’d hear his voice across the training ground.”

Over the years, the racket clearly acquired a life of its own.

Touting for Squash Matches in Europe

Former Nottingham Evening Post Sports Editor Trevor Frecknall travelled throughout Europe with Forest reporting on their European Cup ties. He recalls that Clough always took his squash racket abroad on the off-chance that he could get a game should there be a court in the vicinity. The racket would also make regular appearances in the club’s hotel, at training sessions and even in the dug-out during matches.

And it also had another function…

Signalling the Need for Tactical Changes

Watching one first team training session before a European Cup away tie, Frecknall observed another use of the racket:

“On the third or maybe fourth occasion the fluency of the kick-about was interrupted by the ball disappearing into a mass of hardy shrubs, Clough raised his squash racket as the signal for the on-field trainer to blow his whistle and halt play.

Archie Gemmill

Archie Gemmill

Each time the ball had left the pitch, it was because Archie Gemmill’s passes were just too far in front of John Robertson on the left wing.

“Mr Gemmill,” Clough beckoned.

“Yes boss,” responded the little Scotland midfield player.

“I bought you to give the ball to Mr Robertson,” drawled Clough.

“Yes boss,” agreed Gemmill.

“As you’ll have noticed, Mr Robertson is a rather corpulent young gentleman with short legs that do not move as fast as some others in the club.”

John Robertson

John Robertson

“Yes boss.”

“So your job is to pass the ball to Mr Robertson’s feet,” Clough continued.

“Yes boss.”

“You’re sure you can still do that, aren’t you?”

“Yes boss.”

“Good, because if you can’t, we can easily leave you here and find somebody else who can give Mr Robertson the ball where he wants it.”

“Yes boss.”

“So long as we’re clear…”

“Yes boss.”

Clough the Legend

“When I go, God’s going to have to give up his favourite chair.” (Brian Clough)

Brian Clough died in 2004, two years before the appearance of ‘The Damned Utd’, a novel by British writer David Peace. The book, a largely fictional account of Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds United, re-ignited public interest in Clough’s career and his life. It was commercially successful but widely criticised by Clough’s family and former colleagues as being both inaccurate and unrepresentative of the man himself.

The Damned United poster

The Damned United poster

Three years later a film adaptation of the novel, ‘The Damned United’ appeared, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Michael Sheen as Clough. The film was generally well-received by critics but was again met with a chorus of disapproval from Clough’s family.

Yet the place of Clough in the pantheon of flawed British sports heroes remains secure, the realities of his life and times interwoven with stories of what he may, or may not, have done or represented.

So whatever James Willstrop’s may believe about his dad’s qualities, he can rest assured that one thing about Clough and his life is undisputed.

The man loved his squash racket.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for background information on Brian Clough, David Peace’s novel ‘The Damned Utd’ and Tom Hooper’s film ‘The Damned United.’ Also thanks to The Guardian for its article on James Willstrop, and The Daily Telegraph for its article on Peter Shilton.

Thanks too, to The Daily Mail for its articles on Trevor Francis and Sean Dyke. You can read Trevor Frecknall’s recollections of Brian Clough in The Nottingham Post here, and find out more about playing squash at Trent Bridge Cricket Club here.