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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

No Man’s Squash (à la Harold Pinter)

ACT I

The mid-1970s. Somewhere in North London. A glass-backed squash court viewed from behind the back wall. The glass is streaked with the dried perspiration of sweaty palms. The front and side walls are pocked with the dark impact marks of squash balls and rackets. Chunks of plaster are missing from both side walls where desperate attempts have been made to dig out good-length balls from the back corners. An empty water bottle lies in the front left-hand corner of the court. Above the front right hand corner of the court, a fluorescent tube is flickering, trying to light.

Off-stage, there is the sound of a door opening, its hinges squeaking. The door bangs shut. Footsteps and voices are heard, echoing as their owners walk along a corridor. Two characters enter from stage right; MICK, a dark-haired young man wearing a black leather jacket and track-suit bottoms and carrying a holdall, and DAVIES, an older man, balding, bearded and tramp-like in appearance, wearing a moth-eaten greatcoat and a scarf.

Both are carrying squash rackets.

DAVIES fiddles with the door-catch and curses. He pushes the door open and steps onto the court.

++++

Bloody light. I’ve been meaning to get a new tube.

MICK puts down his bag, unzips it and rummages around inside.

I’ve got a new double yellow in here somewhere.

DAVIES wanders around the court bending down to pick up pieces of fluff and items of litter.

It’s like a bloody pig-sty in here. Some people have got no manners.

MICK props his racket against the back wall and begins a series of stretching exercises.

DAVIES watches him, then looks down at the floor.

Is that blood? That’ll take me ages to get out, that will. You’d think people would have some consideration.

He scuffs at the floor repeatedly with the sole of his right plimsoll.

You could pick something up from that, if you weren’t careful.

Pause.

I’ll need some bleach.

MICK picks up his racket and steps onto the court.

Bit cold in here, isn’t it? Can’t we have the heaters on?

DAVIES: I can’t be long, mind. I’ve got to go to Sidcup later and get me papers.

MICK: You’re not going anywhere…

He pushes the door shut and starts to warm up the ball, hitting it back to himself repeatedly along the left side wall on his back-hand.

DAVIES: They’ve never been any good.

MICK stops hitting and catches the ball.

What haven’t?

DAVIES: The heaters. Old as the hills, see. Can’t get the parts.

MICK drives the ball hard at the front wall on his fore-hand. It flies past DAVIES who ducks out of the way.

How long did you say you’ve been looking after this place?

DAVIES retrieves the ball from the back right-hand corner.

I don’t know…about three years.

MICK: Made a few quid out of it, have you?

Pause.

DAVIES, still wearing his greatcoat and scarf, turns and starts to drive the ball up and down the right side wall on his fore-hand.

MICK (shouting) I said, made a few quid out of it, have you?

DAVIES glances at MICK then continues warming up the ball.

MICK walks over to DAVIES and shoves him, mid-stroke, towards the right-hand wall.

DAVIES stumbles, hits the ball into the tin and falls to the floor.

Pause.

No need for that. I heard. They let me live here, don’t they. Got a couple of rooms out the back. Near the boiler-room.

MICK stares at him, then retrieves the ball and resumes knocking up along the left side wall.

How long you been playing, then?

DAVIES gets up from the floor slowly and walks over to the right side service box.

I was in the army. Aldershot.

MICK: Oh yeah? That where you got the coat, is it?

He laughs, sarcastically, and hits the ball cross-court towards DAVIES.

DAVIES hits it onto the front wall, volleys it back to himself twice, then returns it cross-court towards MICK.

Never heard of it before I went in.

The warm-up continues, both men hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves, practising their shots.

MICK: Never heard of what?

DAVIES: Squash. Never heard of it. Big rugby man my dad was, see. Hard as nails. Drummed it into us.

MICK: Your daughter play, then?

DAVIES: My what?

MICK: Your daughter. The one you were going to stay with.

DAVIES: Oh, her.

Pause.

She lives in Walthamstow.

MICK: Walthamstow? I used to go to the dogs there. Had a little thing going with a few mates. Easy money. Then the law stepped in, so…you a gambler then, are you?

DAVIES: Throw my money away like that? Not bloody likely. Not after…

He stops to unbutton his greatcoat, then walks towards the door.

MICK stops knocking up.

Where do you think you’re going?

DAVIES: I’m warm. Taking off me coat, aren’t I.

He props his racket against the back wall and fiddles with the door latch.

Bloody thing.

They both leave the court. MICK removes his jacket; he is wearing a navy sweatshirt. DAVIES removes his greatcoat and scarf; he is wearing baggy football shorts and a  cricket jumper over a grey shirt.

MICK waits for DAVIES to step back onto the court, then follows him and closes the door.

MICK: Change sides?

DAVIES walks to the left side service box.

That’s better.

MICK: What’s better?

DAVIES: It’s a damn sight lighter on this side.

He starts to laughs, then is overcome with a fit of coughing. 

MICK starts to hit the ball up and down the right side wall on his fore-hand, then hits it cross-court towards DAVIES. Both men resume hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves.

DAVIES: Looking for somewhere to stay, are you?

MICK stops knocking up and picks up the ball.

I might be. Just for a night or two. Need to lie low for a few days, if you get my drift. You know somewhere?

DAVIES: How about fifty quid?

MICK: What about fifty quid? I don’t want to stay at the bloody Ritz, do I.

DAVIES: On the match. How about fifty quid? Make it more interesting, won’t it?

Pause.

DAVIES: I’ll make you a bed up.

MICK: You’ll make what?

DAVIES: I’ll make you a bed up. Out the back. Not much of a place but…you know.

MICK: Who did you say used to coach you?

DAVIES: There’s a kitchen just off reception. I’ve got a table and a couple of chairs. How about cheese on toast? I could knock us something up.

He resumes warming-up the ball on his back-hand. The fluorescent tube suddenly lights.

MICK: You play for the army then?

DAVIES: Mind you, the lines are no better.

MICK: What’s no better?

DAVIES points at the floor with his racket.

The lines. On this side. Can’t see the bloody half-court line.

He looks up at the front wall.

I’m buggered if I can see the service line either. Been meaning to get some paint, haven’t I. The bloke I usually get it from’s in hospital, see. Shame. Lost his marbles. Bloody good player he used to be, too. Took a game off…who was it…you know, that Pakistani lad. Or was he Australian? Anyway, he was British Open champion, whoever he was. Used to play at Wanstead.

MICK stops knocking up and picks up the ball.

How did you used to get on against him then?

DAVIES: Who, the Aussie or the Pakistani? Don’t think I ever played either of them.

MICK: The paint bloke.

Pause.

DAVIES: Oh, him. We didn’t get to play that often. I had to go away for a while, see. Never got the chance. Used to see him now and again, like, but that was…afterwards…

MICK: After what?

Pause.

DAVIES: I’ll tell you what. If you win, I’ll put you up for a couple of nights free. If I win, you pay me fifty quid and I’ll chuck in all your meals. Can’t say fairer than that, can I? No rubbish either. Cheese on toast, nice bit of bacon. You like  sausages? Can’t have any booze though. Bloke who owns the place won’t have it, see.

MICK: Your daughter ever come here, does she?

DAVIES: You can even use the telephone if you need to talk to a few people, like. What do you think?

Pause.

MICK looks at DAVIES then turns and resumes warming up the ball. He hits it cross-court towards DAVIES. Both men resume hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves.

The fluorescent tube begins to flicker again. Both men ignore it.

Lights slowly fade.

CURTAIN

Acknowledgements

To the best of my knowledge, British playwright Harold Pinter is the only person ever to used squash in a major dramatic work as a metaphor for male competition. That play, later filmed with actors Patricia Hodge, Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley, was Betrayal, premiered in 1978; I wrote about it in a previous post on this blog.

My own hommage to Pinter is based on two of his other plays, The Caretaker (1960) and No Man’s Land (1975). The characters of Mick and Davies appear in the first and the disconnecting and unsettling nature of the dialogue in both.

In 2005, Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 2008.

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!

Squash and the London Olympics

The 1908 Olympic Games began on the afternoon of April 27th when Evan Noel, the eventual gold medallist, defeated Cecil Browning in the first round of the men’s singles  racquets tournament. At the time, racquets, along with the relatively recent game of squash rackets, was one of a range of racket sports played in Great Britain some of which also appeared on that year’s list of Olympic events.

Three versions of tennis were contested at the Games. Lawn tennis (nowadays abbreviated to ‘tennis’), royal tennis (played on an indoor court and now referred to as ‘real tennis’) and covered court tennis which was an indoor version of lawn tennis.

But there was no place for squash rackets at the Games and, looking back, perhaps it’s not surprising why.

Mount Vesuvius

In 1908, racquets was primarily popular in Great Britain. In fact, there were no entrants or competitors from any other nation. The Official Olympic Games Report stated, “Racquets, it may be noted, is always so expensive a game that, except at the public schools, the number of players is always so restricted and, out of the United Kingdom, India and the United States of America are the only countries where the game is played, which may be a reason for not including it in future programmes for the Olympic Games.”

1908 Olympics Opening Ceremony

1908 Olympics Opening Ceremony

At the time, it’s almost certain that squash was played even less than racquets, particularly in Great Britain. But it’s the background to the 1908 Games which offers another clue as to squash’s omission.

The Games had been scheduled to take place in Rome but, in 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted near Naples. The Italian government felt that it needed the money to rebuild the area around the volcano and asked for the Rome Olympics to be relocated. In actual fact, it was widely believed at the time that the Italians had decided to make their request some time before the eruption, due to economic problems in Italy. Mount Vesuvius provided them with a convenient excuse.

Whatever the truth, London agreed to stage the Games. Rome would wait another 52 years for a second chance.

The British Empire

In the hands of the British, the 1908 schedule of events gave the Games the appearance of a European and British Empire championships. No Americans or Australian tennis players competed in London. Outside of Europe, the only other players were from Canada and South Africa. In the covered court tennis events, the representation was even more limited, with only players from Great Britain and Sweden taking part.

Vane Pennell

Vane Pennell

The racquets event drew its competitors from an even more limited gene pool, all seven  (and, unsurprisingly, all men) representing Great Britain which made a clean sweep of the (men’s) singles and doubles. The youngest competitor was Henry Brougham, aged 19, and the oldest Henry Leaf, aged 45. Leaf finished as the silver medalist in the men’s singles despite having to withdraw from the final due to an injury to his hand sustained during the men’s doubles.

Despite the British monopoly, the United States could claim some success in that John Jacob Astor, gold medalist in the men’s doubles together with Vane Pennell, had been born in New York. He was a boy of five when his family sailed for England in 1891, eventually becoming Lieutenant-Colonel John Jacob Astor V, 1st Baron Astor of Hever.

Astor also won bronze in the men’s singles.

Rules and Regulations

The non-appearance of squash in the London Olympics can also be linked to the circumstances at the time surrounding the sport’s regulation.  

It was only in April 1907, one year before the London Olympics, that Great Britain’s splendidly-named Tennis, Rackets & Fives Association had set up a sub-committee to set standards for squash. In the early years of the century, the game had increased in popularity with various schools, clubs and even private citizens building squash courts, but with no set dimensions.

Although the sub-committee managed to codify the rules of squash, it was not until 1923, five years after the end of the First World War, that the Royal Automobile Club was to host a meeting to ‘further discuss’ them. A further five years elapsed before the Squash Rackets Association was formed to set standards for squash throughout Great Britain

In direct contrast, the earliest national association of squash in the world was formed in 1904 as the United States Squash Racquets Association, (USSRA), now known as US Squash.

The 2020 Olympics

Today, squash again finds itself seeking entry to the Olympic family of sports in 2020 having undergone a series of reforms and re-organisations at the behest of the International Olympics Committee. In some ways, its circumstances appear to have changed, as have those of racquets, played in Britain by an even smaller number of people than that from which the competitors for the 1908 London Olympics were drawn.

And what about the circumstances of the IOC? Less than one year after the 2012 London Olympics, the organisation itself is seeking to add a new sport which will attract a younger audience.

Squash may well be it.

But, as in the case of racquets in 1908, it may take a natural disaster to make it happen.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Sports Reference website and Top End Sports for details of the 1908 London Olympics. Also thanks to Wikipedia for the biography of John Jacob Astor.

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.

Dark Side of the Squash Court

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

Dark Side of the Moon Album Cover

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

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

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

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

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

Pink Floyd on stage 1974

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

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

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

Pink Floyd on court 1975

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

They started playing squash.

Wish You Were Here

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

Pink Floyd on court 1975

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

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

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

The Kings of the Palace

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

And I’m glad I did.

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

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

A Walk in the Woods: Squash in New England

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

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

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

The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

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

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

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

The First American Squash Court

St Paul’s School, New Hampshire

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

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

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

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

Harvard Connections

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

Concord Acton Squash Club, Massachusetts

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

Henry David Thoreau

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

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

Including sport.

Harvard Squash

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

Harry Cowles’ ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’

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

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

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

The First Women’s Squash Champion

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

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

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

Eleanora Sears in 1929

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

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

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

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

You never know what squash stories you might hear.

Acknowledgements

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

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

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