You will have a promising start to the year when you briefly lead your squash club’s internal leagues due to all of the top 23 players being injured, out of the country on ‘business’, or suffering from the Ebola virus contracted from the staff of the local Liberian restaurant. Later in the year you will have your racket re-strung after using it to fend off a swarm of killer bees during a knock-up with your then girlfriend.
Aquarius (20 January – 19 February)
During a session of your squash club’s weekly round-robin, you will take a hard-fought game off a 16-stone guy who once soundly beat a 9-year old Ramy Ashour back home in Egypt, leaving him in tears. That’s Ramy, not the 16-stone guy. Later in the year, you will discover that the father of the Middle Eastern-looking kid you’ve been regularly thrashing at the same round-robin is a known Taliban leader.
Pisces (20 February – 20 March)
This is the year when every single one of your gambles, both on and off the squash court, will pay off. Actually, no, come to think of it that was last year. Sorry.
Aries (21 March – 19 April)
You will make a special effort to improve your personal grooming. However, you will realise that your new haircut is unsuccessful when the guys at the squash club changing room keep asking if you’ve had brain surgery. On the transport front, when you take your car in for its annual road-worthiness assessment, the only test it passes is the “Isn’t on fire” one.
Taurus (20 April – 20 May)
After you complete a gruelling programme of coaching sessions to improve your focus and hone your killer instincts, a long-term squash opponent and bitter rival suddenly begins to read something into your on-court body language. Then again, it could be the fact that you’ve tied him to a chair on Court Two and are dancing around waving a flick-knife with “Stuck In The Middle With You” playing on your portable sound system.
Gemini (21 May – 20 June)
A quiet year. You will replace your double yellow dot ball.
Cancer (21 June – 22 July)
You will decide that you want to be able to see your feet when taking a shower and start to focus exclusively on your health. You eat less, exercise more and get plenty of sleep. As you become fitter, your stamina, court coverage and reaction times improve dramatically, leading to an upswing in form. As you climb the club squash leagues, you are invited to join the second team at around the same time your sister offers to fix you up with some of the “cute girls” at her gym. You date a series of unsuitable women all of whom turn out to have convictions for assault, develop insomnia and put on two stones. You belatedly realise that your sister has always secretly hated you and will stop at nothing to ruin your life. Nothing.
Leo (23 July – 22 August)
This year all your efforts trying to write the perfect squash-themed novel will finally pay off when you find yourself signing copies in the city centre branch of Barnes & Noble from mid-day until they catch you doing it.
Virgo (23 August – 22 September)
You know that bit in rom-coms where the ridiculously hot girl ends up with the unconventional-looking guy because he really “gets her” and makes her laugh? And you know that girl down at the squash club you’ve been mooning over for the last two years? Yeah, well next year that’s not going to happen.
Libra (23 September – 23 October)
You read that surveys show that people find moving house even more stressful than attending a funeral. When your best squash buddy asks you to help him move, you will decide that there’s only really one option.
Scorpio (24 October – 21 November)
You will decide to lay off the post-match drink for a while when your hangovers move from being merely crippling to plumbing the depths of a howling, nihilistic vortex filled with pure pain and endless death. At least on Tuesdays, anyway.
Sagittarius (22 November – 21 December)
You will finally decide to follow the same principles in your squash-playing life that have helped so many people in their personal and business lives. In other words: Prepare to fail and you’ll always…no, hang on. Don’t fail to prepare and you’ll fail to…no, that’s not right, either. Damn, I had it a minute ago.
By the time I was offered my first ‘proper’ job in The City I’d already got form. There’d been a couple of years working on projects for The Giant Vampire Squid on Fleet Street, helping them clear up the mess after they’d been found guilty of aiding and abetting one of their more financially creative clients. Then there was a similar stint with The Thundering Herd, coaching some of their back office people in the creative pursuit of evidence which could help the firm show that their very own Masters of the Universe had been conducting business in a way that was entirely above board, or not. And, yes, there’d been other short-term gigs for investment banks, for retail banks, and even for brokerages. I had City form all right.
Then there was the other kind of form, the squash kind. I’d been playing for more than 25 years, during which time I’d usually managed to arrange one or two matches a week, irrespective of where in the world I was working. Of course there’d been a few squash-free periods (the time I spent working in Texas springs to mind) but, all in all, I couldn’t complain.
So, by the time I was offered the proper job, I was already primed to respond positively to any offers which would enable me to maintain a healthy work / squash balance. It just so happened that the job on offer was based in London’s Canary Wharf, then the venue for a recently announced international squash tournament. And it also just so happened that, in the basement of the building in which I would be working, were the only two squash courts in Canary Wharf.
I took the proper job.
I spent much of the next ten years or so working and studying in and around London. I played on the basement courts and at a squash club located within walking distance of where I was living at the time. Most years, I even managed to get to at least one session of the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, as my local international tournament was now called.
In 2013 it was the semi-finals – and a full house.
The first match ended in a 3-1 victory to England’s James Willstrop over Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy, the knowledgeable and suitably refreshed audience showing its appreciation.
But it was the second match which saw overwhelming audience support for local boy Peter Barker in his match against reigning Canary Wharf Classic and British Open Champion Nick Matthew. Barker, born in the East London Borough of Havering had previously beaten Matthew only once in 21 attempts. But, in a physical match lasting 69 minutes, Barker ran out the eventual 3-1 winner to take his place alongside Willstrop in the final. The applause echoed round the packed arena for several minutes before Barker could begin his post-match interview.
Squash in the City may be international, but when the City boys turn up, it’s personal – and it’s always going to be local.
Thanks to World Squash for its review of the Canary Wharf Classic 2013 semi-finals.
In winning the squash men’s singles gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, England’s Nick Matthew repeated the feat he had first achieved at the 2010 Games in Delhi. The Delhi final was Matthew’s first as it had been for his opponent, fellow Englishman James Willstrop, who was also destined to finish as silver medallist in Glasgow.
Yet Matthew’s achievement in reaching two consecutive finals was not exceptional. The previous three men’s singles finals had all featured another prominent Briton and erstwhile England representative.
Born in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Nicol represented Scotland in the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur, the first in which squash made its appearance. In a tight five-game match, Nicol beat Canadian – and reigning World Open champion – Jonathon Power to the gold. By the time both players had again reached the final four years later, Nicol had switched his allegiance to England, claiming that he felt he was not receiving sufficient support from Scottish Squash, his sport’s national governing body. Unsurprisingly, many of Nicol’s compatriots resented this switch, even going so far as calling it traitorous. To the satisfaction of some, perhaps, Nicol lost 3-1 to Power in the gold medal match.
Amazingly, four years later and still representing England, Nicol reached his third consecutive men’s singles final. This time, it was in Melbourne where, once more, he met a reigning World Open Champion in the form of Australian David Palmer. In a tough four-game final, it was Nicol who outlasted the tenacious Palmer to take gold. Amongst the team-mates congratulating Nicol as he came off court in Melbourne was Nick Matthew, the newly-crowned British Open champion. Matthew was to finish outside the medals in fourth place but four years later would start his own gold collection.
Nicol himself had announced his retirement shortly after his success at the 2006 Games, a quarter-final defeat in that year’s World Open being his last competitive match.
But what of 2018 when the Games are due to be staged in and around Brisbane on the Australian Gold Coast? Well, I certainly wouldn’t bet against an Englishman reaching the men’s singles final.
After all, he might not be.
To find out more about the careers of Nick Matthew, Peter Nicol, Jonathon Power and David Palmer, see Wikipedia. Details of all Commonwealth Games squash competitors can be found at the Commonwealth Games Federation website.
I walked out of the apartment building into the early morning humidity of the Gulf and looked for a cab. In a city where buildings were being built (and demolished) at breakneck speed, I was lucky. Over the road was a Toyota car showroom, the only one in the city and a place whose location was probably known to every cab driver. This was important. Even with a simple grid system, many of the city’s streets were often known by more than one name; and residential buildings, all un-numbered, were rarely identified with prominent signs, whether in Arabic or English. When it came to telling cab drivers where it was you wanted to go, the names of hotels, government buildings, shopping malls and car showrooms were just about the only common language currency worth exchanging. So, even at six-forty in the morning, there were plenty of cabs dropping off 20 metres away and looking for the next fare. I was picked up within thirty seconds.
The driver, his licence complete with photograph dangling from the rear-view mirror, was wearing a brown dish-dasha and a white skullcap. I settled into the back seat, directed him to the Hilton Hotel and sat back as he swerved into the flow of traffic. I didn’t actually work at the Hilton Hotel but, after a month in the city, I’d discovered that it was the instruction most likely to land me within a hundred metres or so of my office in a non-descript office block just off the Corniche. Today, the ten minute journey was less terrifying than usual, the driver being one of the few in the city who didn’t appear to be on a personal mission to catch and overtake every vehicle ahead of him on the road.
I walked into the office just before seven. Alex, the programme director, and Fadi, one of the project managers were both sitting at their desks. Alex, a Scot who’d been working in the city for nearly ten years, was deep in conversation on the ‘phone. Fadi, a Jordanian in his late forties, was smoking and staring at his computer screen which, on past form, could take any time upwards of thirty minutes to display anything whatsoever. He smiled and, as usual, rose from his desk reaching out his hand in greeting.
“Coffee?” he enquired.
I shook his hand and nodded. He walked to the door and disappeared down the corridor in search of the tea boy.
I dumped my brief-case on the desk and started to unpack my laptop. Alex waved at me and continued with his conversation. As well as being my boss on the consultancy project I was working on, he was the captain of the company’s third squash team. Tonight was match night. I sat down, plugged in my laptop and switched it on.
“Who’s playing at two?” Alex was asking his mystery caller. Obviously a squash-themed conversation was under way.
“Well, he should win shouldn’t he?”
“So if I play Marwan at four and move Alan to three, what does that look like?”
I heard footsteps in the corridor and guessed that Fadi was returning with the tea boy.
“So if you win at one, three and five where does that put you for next week?”
It suddenly struck me that that there were only two rounds of the league left. I was beginning to become intrigued. Fadi re-appeared with the tea boy, resplendent in his black waistcoat and trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. He beamed in expectation of my order, the same one that he’d taken every day for the last month.
“So they’ll have to pick up, what, at least seven points tonight if they’re going to be in a good position going into next week’s match?”
Further information which added to the intrigue. Just in time, I raised my finger to stop the tea boy asking me for my order.
“He’s Sheikh Mohamed’s what?”
This was a new theme. Alex appeared to be drawing on his notepad muttering noiselessly to himself.
After what seemed like an age, he continued his series of enquiries.
“No he hasn’t rung me yet, but what do I say if he does? And how do I know that he knows that you’ve already rung me? What if he smells a rat?”
I looked at Fadi, nodded towards Alex and mouthed silently.
“What’s that all about?”
Fadi shrugged, then walked over and whispered in my ear.
“Monkey business,” he said conspiratorially and gave a knowing wink.
I tried to look as if I’d grasped the full meaning of what he’d said and nodded, sagely. There was a further pause in the conversation accompanied by further drawing as whoever it was on the other end of the ‘phone responded to Alex’s triple whammy of questions.
“So we’ll only know after tonight whether he’s already rung Razi,” said Alex hesitantly, “and that will give us an indication of whether he’s going to ring me…which I reckon he will anyway…because he won’t want to take the risk that you’re going to have a word with…er…Gary is it?”
I noticed that my mouth had fallen open and closed it.
Suddenly, there seemed to be a consensus between the two parties involved in the conversation.
“Yes, yes, OK, yes,” said Alex. “I’ll talk to a few people and get back to you.”
He put the ‘phone down and examined his notes in silence. Fadi had returned to his desk, lit another cigarette and began to read his copy of The Gulf News. The tea boy was hovering beside my desk waiting for my order.
“Coffee, please, Raj” I said. “Black, no sugar.”
He smiled and scuttled off to do whatever it was that took him fifteen minutes to make a cup of coffee.
“So what was all that about,” I asked Alex after a respectful pause. He peered at me over the top of his computer screen then stood up, walked over to the door and closed it after first looking up and down the corridor. He returned to his desk, sat down and picked up his notepad.
“Well, just between you and me,” he began, seemingly ignoring the presence of Fadi, “I was having a chat with the captain of NIC’s third team. We’re playing them tonight at their place. He just rang up to see if everything was OK.”
I knew that NIC was the Emirate’s National Investment Company. As Alex worked for the National Oil Company he was, in local squash parlance, the NOC third team captain.
“They’re second in the league three points behind NGC with two matches left. We’re third, five points behind NIC, and have got NGC at home next week in the last match. NIC have got NWC in their last match but they’re way off the pace.”
I congratulated myself that I knew ‘G’ stood for gas and ‘W’ for water in Alex’s acronym-laden summary of the current state of affairs.
“So it could all come down to the last week,” I said. “That should be interesting.”
Alex gave me a weary look.
“Yes, well that’s what Ahmed doesn’t want.”
“NIC’s third team captain.”
I prepared to make a comment which I suddenly sensed might be deemed inappropriate given the complex nature of life in the Emirates. This was a land of unelected rulers, family-dominated politics, opaque commercial practices and disenfranchised guest workers. To do business here, foreign companies needed local sponsorship and a flexible attitude when it came to meeting local expectations regarding almost any kind of social or financial transaction. Including, I was beginning to realise, the functioning of the city’s squash leagues.
I bit my tongue.
“He’s one of Sheikh Abdul’s cousins’ sons,” continued Alex, “Whereas NGC’s vice-captain is one of Sheikh Mohamed’s sisters’ boys. Bit of a tricky situation, you see.”
I went for a neutral question.
“So what happened last year?”
Alex’s face lit up.
“We won the league,” he beamed. “First time I’ve ever won anything to be honest. The boss was very pleased.”
I knew that Alex’s boss, Hosni, was a prominent member of NOC’s so-called ‘Egyptian mafia’ and a favourite of the Senior Administration Superintendent.
“Yes, well we had a well-balanced squad last year,” continued Alex. “I was playing at five, Ghazi was at one and Karim was at two. We were pretty lucky with injuries too. Nothing major.”
I smiled and nodded as he re-lived his success in captaining the team to sporting glory. For a brief moment I imagined him developing effective strategies for neutralising opposing teams, getting the best out of his players, moulding them into a title-winning unit, that kind of thing. A bit like Napoleon.
He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.
“Of course we did have one advantage,” he said.
I responded to his subtle prompt.
“Oh yes, what was that?”
“We had Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin playing at three. Nice lad. He really came on during the season. Won every match, in fact.”
Sheikh Abdullah was the President’s younger brother. Something was starting to make sense.
“Yes,” continued Alex, “although I suppose he was being coached by Sami Awad.”
I seem to remember my eyebrows raising at this point, although I can’t be sure.
“You mean the Egyptian number one?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“And former World Open champion,” added Alex.
“But how did…”
“Well Hosni used to go to school with him in Cairo. Big chums they were. Kept in touch over the years and, well, Hosni asked him to pop over and bring Saleh up to speed. And the rest of the squad while he was here, of course.”
Saleh, I assumed, was Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin.
“But how did he get onto your team? I thought only NOC employees were eligible.”
Something immediately told me that wouldn’t be a problem.
“He was working here two days a week for his dad.”
“Who’s his dad?”
“Sultan Al Najaf.”
The name rang a bell. The Senior Administration Superintendent! I formulated my next question carefully.
“Sheikh Abdullah’s cousin,” said Alex, nodding.
“So last season, you, your boss, his boss, the President’s younger brother and the former World Open champion were all involved in…”
“You could put it like that.”
“And this season…”
“Well, we have to help one of the other teams win the league, don’t we? Nobody wants the same team winning every year. It’s not the way they do things around here.”
“But who’s involved with the other teams?” I asked.
“It’s far too complicated to explain, to be honest. I tried to draw a diagram showing who’s in who’s team, who works for who, who’s related to who, who used to go to school with who, blah blah blah. Pointless.”
He paused for breath.
“Anyway, last year was our turn and this year it’s someone else’s. All I’ve got to do is make sure that whoever needs to be happy after next week’s matches is happy…and that everybody else is happy that they’re happy. Simple really.”
He smiled, picked up his notepad and walked to the door.
“Not sure I’ll be back before lunch,” he said to no-one in particular. “I’ve got a lot of people to see, tea to drink, hands to shake. You know how it is.”
He opened the door and disappeared down the corridor just as Raj was arriving with my coffee.
Fadi put down his Gulf News, glanced at his still-dormant computer screen and prepared to order further refreshment before he tackled the crossword.
“So did you find out what he was talking about?” he asked.
I thought for a moment, struggling to formulate an explanation. Then, the nature of my conversation with Alex suddenly made sense. I smiled.
“Monkey business,” I said.
This story is based on my own personal experience of living, working and playing squash in The Middle East. The names of the characters have been changed to protect whomsoever you might think is innocent or guilty…or not.
Yet, even more remarkably, El-Shorbagy’s achievement has since been matched by his younger brother, Marwan, who in January become the first qualifier to reach the quarter-finals of the Tournament of Champions in New York for 10 years.
At the same tournament Mohamed El-Shorbagy reached the semi-finals losing to France’s Gregory Gaulter. But three months later, on the shores of the Red Sea, El-Shorbagy he was to gain revenge on Gaultier beating him in four games to reach the final of the El Gouna International…where, coincidentally, he was to meet his fellow two-time World Junior Squash Champion, Ramy Ashour.
Here are some of the highlights from the semi-finals and the final. Maybe you’d like to try some of the shots they play during your next match.
Living just outside London, I’ve managed to get to some major squash tournaments over the years both in and outside the capital. There was the British Open during its residency at Wembley, the Super Series at Hatfield (and then The City), the Canary Wharf Classic in Docklands and the World Series Finals in West Kensington. Hailing from Manchester, I’ve also combined trips back home with visits to the National Championships (and one World Series event) at the National Squash Centre. Some footage from these events can be found on the Web and, for my own amusement and gratification, I’ve decided to post it here as and when I stumble across it.
But, to start the ball rolling, here are some highlights from the recent 2014 Swedish Open held in Linköping which, unfortunately, I didn’t get to. But I wish I had.
Semi-Final #1 – Ramy Ashour beat Amr Shabana
9-11 11-2 11-8 6-11 11-7
Semi-Final #2 – Nick Matthew beat Gregory Gaultier
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.
The sun was setting as my cousin, Mr. John Anderson, whose experiences I have to tell you of now, walked up to the door of the Golden Lion hotel one cold Winter’s afternoon just over a year ago. He was delighted with the old-fashioned appearance of the place which, he was soon to learn, was one of the few buildings in the old town not to have been damaged or destroyed in the great fire of 1726. He was researching the Church history of Denmark and it had come to his knowledge that in the Rigsarkiv of Viborg were papers saved from the fire which related to the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country. He proposed, therefore, to spend two or three weeks in examining and copying these, hoping that the Golden Lion would be able to provide him with a room of sufficient size to serve alike as a bedroom and a study.
Upon entering the building, he explained his wishes to the landlord and, after inspecting several rooms, chose one on the first floor which looked onto the street. The pretty view, he reasoned, would more than compensate him for the additional amount of noise. What he did not know at the time, was what he was about to experience.
On the day after his arrival, my cousin immersed himself in the Rigsarkiv library. He was, as one might expect in Denmark, kindly received and access to to all that he wished to see was made as easy for him as possible by the Archivist of Viborg, Herr Scavenius. The documents laid before him were far more numerous and interesting that he had anticipated. Besides official papers, there was a large bundle of correspondence relating to Bishop Jörgen Friis, the last Roman Catholic to hold the see. In these there cropped up many amusing and what are commonly called ‘intimate’ details of private life and individual character. There was, for example, much talk of a house owned by the Bishop in the town, but not occupied by him. The behaviour of its tenant, a Magister Nicolas Francken, was apparently somewhat of a scandal and a godsend to the Protestant opposition. He was a disgrace, they wrote, to the town; he practiced secret and wicked arts and had sold his soul to the Devil. The Bishop met these reproaches boldly, protesting his own abhorrence of all such dark arts, and challenging his opponents to bring the matter before the ‘proper court’; in other words, the spiritual court. My cousin had not much time to do more than glance at the next letter (from the Protestant leader, Rasmus Nielsen) before the library was closed for the day.
As it was still relatively early, my cousin decided to explore the streets around the Rigsarkiv. Many of the buildings appeared to be relatively new, but he was delighted to stumble upon many which bore some of the architectural characteristics of the Golden Lion. He was also pleased to see that the medieval layout of the old town’s streets had been preserved and so determined to indulge himself in aimless wandering around the area. As the light began to fade, he found himself in a narrow passage-way near the cathedral looking at a brass plate fixed to the wall of a modern red-brick building; it bore the legend ‘Viborg Squashklub.’ Being a keen player, he entered the building and enquired as to the possibility of obtaining a visiting membership for the duration of his stay. The steward on duty was pleased to make the necessary arrangements and even offered to find some suitable opponents for my cousin to play. A tour of the modest yet well-maintained facilities – including two courts and a gentlemen’s changing room – followed, after which the steward agreed to contact him at his hotel with details of suitable court times and opponents. Satisfied with his day’s efforts, my cousin returned to the Golden Lion for his evening meal.
The following morning brought word from the steward that he had located an opponent for my cousin who was available to play at seven o’clock that evening. My cousin sent a reply thanking him and agreeing to the match, before breakfasting and setting out for the Rigsarkiv library. On arriving at the library, he signed the visitor’s book and almost at once encountered Herr Scavenius, who had retrieved more papers for his attention. The Arkivist looked forward with great pleasure to seeing the publication in which my cousin was intending to summarise their contents, and expressed a long-held interest in identifying the house occupied by Bishop Friis’s notorious tenant almost four hundred years previously. “It is a great puzzle to me where it can have stood,” he explained. “We have the greater part of the collection of street plans from old Viborg here in the Arkiv, but the document which contained a list of town property is missing.” My cousin told him that he would endeavour to find the list and continued with his research before retiring to the Golden Lion for refreshment. In the evening, much to his satisfaction, he prevailed in his match at the Viborg Squashklub (against an accountant) before returning to his hotel and his bed.
Over the following three days, my cousin continued with his research being, for the most part, alone in the Rigsarkiv library, sometimes to a late hour. Occasionally, he would leave the building to seek refreshment before returning to his labours, concentrated at a desk and two tables regularly replenished with documents by the Arkivist, whom he rarely encountered in the flesh. Occasionally, he would be joined in the library by other researchers, often sensing their presence as they moved amongst the labyrinthine arrangement of shelves rather than catching sight of them. On occasion, he would glimpse an indistinct figure or even just the hem of a cloak as it crossed a corridor between the shelves; at other times, he would notice the presence of an item of clothing, perhaps a scarf or a hat, hanging from the coat-stand by the library door. But the concentration he brought to his research frequently saw him lose track of time until he was obliged to accede to the audible demands of his stomach.
On the morning of his sixth day in Viborg, a second communication arrived at the Golden Lion from the Squashklub steward, requesting my cousin’s presence that evening to play another opponent. As before, my cousin took part in a highly-enjoyable contest, this time with a physician whose stamina and accuracy rewarded him with the victory. The following day being Sunday, the Rigsarkiv was closed and my cousin took the opportunity to explore the shores of the lake before spending the afternoon and evening resting at his hotel.
Two more days in the Rigsarkiv library followed before another invitation from the steward was delivered to the Golden Lion. On his third visit to the club, however, a most unusual incident occurred. Having left the court and accompanied his opponent to the changing room, my cousin realised that he had left his towel (with which he habitually used to mop his brow between games) at the front of the court. He quickly re-traced his steps and, as he entered the corridor leading to the courts, noticed that it appeared to be longer than he had previously imagined. The far end of the corridor was shrouded in darkness although he could discern a door some distance beyond that of Court 2 on which he had just played. He retrieved his towel and, on leaving the court, determined to inspect the distant door which, he soon discovered, bore the number ‘3’. Unusually, the door was closed although it appeared to be unoccupied. No sounds, either of play or conversation, emanated from the court, nor could he see any light under the door or through the peep-hole. Although he thought this unusual, he did not investigate further and returned to the changing room, later asking his opponent whether he had ever played on Court 3. However, the reaction of his opponent left him in no doubt that his question was regarded certainly as being mischievous and possibly as disrespectful, and the two men parted without further conversation. The steward being absent from his post, my cousin was unable either to relate his experience or make further enquiries, and so returned to his hotel and his supper.
It was several days before my cousin received another invitation to play at the Viborg Squashklub. By this time, he had forgotten the circumstances of his last visit, his attention being focussed entirely on his research at the Rigsarkiv. In the evening, he again attended the club where the steward introduced him to his opponent, a lawyer visiting Viborg from Malmö. On this occasion, he and his opponent were particularly well-matched, the score being 2-2 in games when their court time expired. The two men readily agreed to conclude their match two evenings hence and gathered their belongings in preparation for exiting the court. However, their attention was suddenly drawn to a loud and unsettling sound. It was the sound of a man laughing in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad. It was a high, thin voice which seemed dry, as if from long disuse. On and on it went, sailing to a surprising height before descending with a despairing moan, like a winter wind in a hollow chimney. Where the horrible sound was coming from, they could not tell, yet my cousin felt that, had he been alone, he would certainly have fled for refuge and assistance.
Instead, the two men left the court determined to discover the source of the sound. They began to discuss a course of action, but my cousin sensed that something had changed in the corridor in which they were standing. Looking over the shoulder of his companion towards the far end of the corridor, he could see a thin sliver of light shining from beneath the door to a court which he knew not to exist. He bade his companion accompany him to the door which, as before, he discovered to bear the number ‘3’. Emanating from behind it, they could hear the sound of laughter.
Being unable to see anything through the peep-hole, my cousin knocked on the door with his racket handle. However, there was no response from within and the sound continued as before. He and his companion then attempted to push open the door but it would not yield. Finally, the two climbed the staircase to the viewing gallery intending to see who the occupant or occupants of the court might be. On reaching their destination, however, they at once realised the futility of their action; the gallery looked down upon Courts 1 and 2, both unoccupied, but not upon Court 3. They descended uneasily from the gallery and, on reaching the corridor, noticed that, not only had the laughter stopped, but that the door to Court 3, together with that part of the corridor in which it had been located, had passed out of existence.
Desiring an explanation, they sought out the steward who assured them that the club possessed only two courts. He also denied having heard any previous reports describing experiences similar to their own, adding that he had worked at the club for many years. He returned with them to the corridor where the doors to Courts 1 and 2 stood ajar. Of the door to Court 3, there was no sign.
On returning to his hotel, my cousin retired to his room and gave careful consideration of everything he had had to eat or drink during the previous twenty-four hours. He concluded that nothing he had ingested could account for the nature of his experience at the Viborg Squashklub. If his sight or his brain was failing, he would have plenty of opportunities for ascertaining that fact; if not, then he was evidently being treated to a very interesting experience. In either case, the development of events would, he concluded, be well worth watching.
The following day in the Rigsarkiv library, my cousin continued his examination of the episcopal correspondence I have already described. To his disappointment, it was incomplete and he could find only one other letter referring to the affair of Magister Nicolas Francken, it being from Bishop Friis to Rasmus Nielsen. The Bishop wrote: “Although we do not assent to your judgement concerning our court, we are prepared to contest your accusations regarding our trusted and well-loved Magister Nicolas Francken against whom you have dared to allege certain false and malicious charges. However, I would advise you that our brother has been suddenly removed from amongst us, it thus being apparent that the subject of your reproaches is now no longer able to defend either himself or his faith.” Search as he might, my cousin could find no sequel to this letter nor any clue as to the cause or manner of the “removal” of the casus belli. He could only suppose that Francken had died suddenly and, as there were only two days between the date of Nielsen’s last letter (when Francken was evidently still alive) and that of the Bishop’s letter, the death must have been completely unexpected.
On the morning of the following day, my cousin reported his findings to the Arkivist who, while naturally disappointed, was curious as to what had become of Magister Francken. He therefore offered to retrieve whatever death certificates and other church records were held in the Rigsarkiv which might help my cousin determine the date and circumstances ofFrancken’s death. My cousin thanked him and continued with his studies, leaving the library after a few hours to take some exercise on what was a clear and bright Winter’s day. On his return to the library, he returned to his place, acknowledging the presence, at another desk, of what he assumed to be a fellow researcher, and briefly glimpsing another figure wearing a black cloak disappear into the shelves. After another afternoon immersed in his studies, he left the deserted library and turned his mind to the evening’s forthcoming match at the Viborg Squashklub.
Despite his previous experiences at the club, my cousin was in a cheerful mood. He arrived well before the agreed time, changed, and entered Court 2, which he found to be unoccupied. He could hear a match in progress on Court 1 but decided to warm up the ball in advance of his opponent’s arrival. After almost ten minutes, however, he realised that, not only was his opponent late, but the match on Court 1 had ended, there being no sound to be heard. He therefore decided to find out whether his opponent had arrived at the club and, propping his racket against the back wall, stepped outside the court. At that moment, something gave him cause to stop. To his left, he could see that Court 1 was deserted, its door ajar and the lights switched off. To his right, the door to Court 3 stood ajar, light streaming from it into the darkened corridor.
Fearing that the door would again disappear during the time it would take to fetch the steward, he walked towards it, with no little hesitancy. Upon reaching it, he found that, as before, it bore the number ‘3’. He paused, summoned up his courage and then, with his right hand, attempted to push the door further open. It proved to be heavy, however, and he was obliged to lean against it with his shoulder before it swung slowly inwards. To his astonishment, he found himself standing in the vestibule of what appeared to be a medieval library, not unlike that in which he had spent so many hours at the Rigsarkiv. The room was lit by candle-light, its dark wooden floorboards and panelling giving it a melancholy air. In the vestibule stood two large tables bearing what he assumed to be the library’s catalogues, each bound in brown leather. Several desks, each flanked by chairs, bounded the vestibule, their surfaces littered with manuscripts. The chair beside one desk appeared to have been turned sideways to allow its occupant egress. On the surface of the desk, amongst the documents, lay a black, wide-brimmed hat, typical of those he knew to be worn by clergymen in that part of Denmark. Beyond the vestibule stood the library’s shelves, rowed on either side of a central corridor and disappearing into darkness. In the shadows overhead, my cousin could discern the ceiling which was constructed from heavy timbers. With the exception of the vestibule the room was dimly lit, it being impossible for my cousin to ascertain its size.
It was then that he sensed that there was something wrong with the atmosphere in the room. A musty smell, an unnaturally strong odour of dust, permeated the room emanating, as far as he could tell, from somewhere within the shelves. He took a few steps across the vestibule, his eyes fixed upon the darkened rows stretching away from him. Reaching the first, he strained to hear anything which would give him cause to determine whether he was alone in the room. At first, he could hear nothing but then, as he progressed further along the corridor, he heard first the rustling of pages being turned and then the unmistakable sound of a man at first chuckling and then laughing loudly; laughing in a high, thin voice. He reached the next row, the sounds becoming louder. There was still no sign of whoever now shared the room with him. At the next row, darker now, he stopped. To his left stood a figure – a man – wearing a black cloak, his back towards the spot where my cousin now stood, barely able to draw breath. The man had a bald head, a head which looked dry and dusty, with white streaks of hair drawn across it. In that moment, the laughter ceased abruptly and the man turned slowly round, letting my cousin see his face. It was perfectly dry, the mouth open, its yellowed teeth grinning, the eyes deep-sunken and sightless. Over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones, stretched cobwebs – thick, white cobwebs.
My cousin stepped backwards, colliding with a shelf, staring all the time into the sightless eyes before him. He struggled momentarily to keep his balance, trying to draw in his breath but, in his panic, he felt himself sinking, drowning in an odour of dust and decay, falling towards the open mouth of a tomb. He turned and ran, stumbling along the corridor towards the vestibule, towards the refuge beyond the door, not daring to look behind him, all the while smelling the putrid smell of death and hearing again the laughter of madness echoing in his ears.
My cousin has no knowledge of how he reached the sanctuary of the steward’s office. The steward, who was fortunately on duty, helped him to to calm himself before arranging for him to change back into his outdoor clothes and take a cab to his hotel. My cousin did not wish to remain alone at any time whilst he remained at the club, and refused to return to Court 2 to retrieve his racket and towel. After a sleepless night spent barricaded in his room, he checked out of the hotel and caught the earliest possible train to Copenhagen, arriving in London two days later. He subsequently related his experiences to me, by which time a further development had taken place. Some two weeks after his sudden return to England, he received a letter from the Herr Scavenius, asking after his health and communicating the results of his own research. He had found no evidence of the death of Nicolas Francken despite the availability of surprisingly comprehensive records from the period. Neither had he managed to locate the long-lost property list from the same period. However, within the correspondence relating to Bishop Friis but not yet examined by my cousin, he had found a letter from Rasmus Nielsen asking for assistance in tracing the whereabouts of a member of his movement who had disappeared. The individual concerned was a scholar who was engaged in researching the occult and other aspects of Devil worship and the black arts. Some weeks before, the man had been seen entering the house occupied by Magister Nicolas Francken since when he had not been seen. The matter had been referred to the Overkonstabel of Viborg who had questioned Magister Francken but no trace of the scholar had been found, adding to Nielsen’s suspicions regarding the Bishop’s tenant. The missing man was of English extraction.
His name was John Anderson.
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.’
It is asserted by many connoisseurs that the popularity and comfort of any café can reliably be perceived as standing in inverse relation to each other. So it was that, on one cold March afternoon, I found myself on the Avenue des Peupliers in a small family-run salon de thé whose owners I considered to be amongst the most refined in Paris in providing a traditional yet relaxing environment in which to imbibe the finest tea and partake of the most exquisite cakes to be found in the capital.
On this occasion, I had walked to the salon from the Grand Club de Rue Voltaire, where I had not one hour before completed a closely-contested squash match with Monsieur Charles Gommendy, a match which had, regrettably, ended with my defeat by three games to two. After a much-needed shower, during which time both I and my opponent successfully avoided commenting on each other’s competitive qualities, and on several disputed points which had punctuated the contest, I had politely declined his invitation to take liquid refreshment with him in the club bar and, citing a non-existent appointment, shouldered my squash bag and begged his leave.
Now, here in the comfortable environment of the salon, I recalled that, as I had passed by the open door to the Club bar, my nostrils had been suddenly assailed by an odour of stale beer much of it, I assumed, emanating from the facility’s carpet whither it had been conveyed via a series of spillages over an extended period of time stretching back to the 1970s when the Club had been founded. Such had been the olfactory impact of the carpet’s bouquet that I had at once determined to make for the Avenue des Peupliers in search, first, of more sophisticated refreshment and, second, of sanctuary from the sensory barbarism endemic, both to my current locale and to the immediate vicinity of the charmless building in which the Club was housed.
Leaving the confines of the club, I had proceeded towards Montmartre passing a number of cafés with whose interiors and wares I was, much to my regret, sadly familiar. Despite a feeling of fatigue brought on by my exertions on the squash court, I had found my pace quickening as I remembered the sense of despair I routinely felt during my reluctant visits to these places of researched mediocrity to confer with professional colleagues on matters unsuited to an office environment. I had reflected, with grudging admiration, that from their headquarters in whatever characterless North American cities currently harboured them, their owners had succeeded in finding the precise combination of furnishings – brown sofas, blonde wood and red walls – which offered neither style nor comfort. Moreover, each venue’s ensemble presented the appearance of having been delivered, flat-packed, in a single container, from a culture which cared nothing of the one to which it was supplying its wares. Tea, if it was offered at all in any of these dismal establishments, I had reflected, was invariably presented to the customer contained in a perforated, plastic bag immersed in scalding water, itself contained in a mug or cardboard beaker displaying the name of the corporate entity culpable for the existence of the emporium. The bag was typically attached to a piece of string, the other end of which was fixed to a small piece of cardboard bearing the name of the blend. To the best of my recollection, the skills available to those functionaries responsible for preparing the beverages offered to me were, on no occasion, sufficient to prevent the piece of cardboard and the entire length of the string from joining the tea bag in its occupancy of the scalding water. All that remained was for the customer, should he or she choose to do so, to add milk (contained in a battered communal flask with a screw-top lid) and to stir the concoction with a wooden stick. The removal of the tea bag from the scalding water was, in my limited experience, both logistically challenging and potentially hazardous, there being little choice but to allow it to remain in situ and further contribute to whatever flavour might be discerned as emerging from the slowly-cooling preparation.
Shortly afterwards, as I had neared the Avenue de Peupliers, I remember lamenting the fact that my age now obliged me to take notice of every ache and pain appearing in my body and not only to afford them my attention, but to seriously consider treating them with a modicum of care and rest. As I did so, I suddenly realised, with a certain degree of resentment, that my most recent squash opponent, the aforementioned Monsieur Gommendy was unlikely to be troubled with such concerns being, in my estimation, a mere youth of some sixteen or so summers.
Thus it was that, pushing open the heavy, oak-panelled door to the Café Angelina, I had been momentarily reminded of my Aunt Léonie’s parlour at Combray with its elegant furnishings, fine art and finely-woven carpet. I remembered, in my youth, visiting my aunt’s home for tea, sometimes with my parents, sometimes, when I was older, alone. Yet, stepping over the threshold of Monsieur and Madame.Le Corbusier’s salon, the memory had disappeared almost immediately with the ringing of the brass doorbell, attached by a spring to the back of the door where it was fixed with a steel shoe cap. Suddenly disconnected from my memories, I had removed my hat, sensing a momentary silence as the salon’s clientele paused in their conversation and turned to see who might be applying to join them in taking refreshment.
Yet, even as the sound of the doorbell was fading, it had been replaced by the chiming of a Louis XIV clock standing on the mantelpiece at the far end of the room. Instantly, my attention had been drawn to the clock with its Boulle case surmounted by a brass putto which I had often admired during my previous visits. I recalled that my eyes had sought out its handsome form complete with its glazed door, enamel plaques and ornate decorative mount, and that, even at a distance the length of a squash court, I could discern the movement of its pendulum, crafted, as I knew it to be, in the shape of Phoebus. By the time it had struck four, Madame Le Corbusier had appeared from the kitchen and joined me by the door, smiling in recognition as she walked the length of the salon towards me.
“Your usual table, Monsieur?” she had enquired, immediately upon reaching the spot where I was waiting in anticipation of my refreshment. I recall nodding in agreement, suddenly aware of the seemingly orchestrated rise in the room’s conversational ambience as the chime of the clock faded and the salon’s clientele resumed their social intercourse. In agreeing to Madame Le Corbusier’s invitation, I had immediately felt safe in the knowledge that my hostess would make every effort to ensure that my visit to her much-loved and highly-esteemed establishment would, yet again, surpass my expectations in terms both of service and comfort, let alone of the sheer joy of spending even a brief period of time in such an aesthetically pleasing and historic venue. Such indeed, I had mused, as my hostess relieved me of my overcoat, scarf and squash bag, was the feeling I had so often experienced when arriving at my aunt’s home in Combray, an imposing three-story dwelling constructed in the late 19th-century in the Provincial Neo-Renaissance English style. The splendour of that property, I had recalled as my hostess led me to my table by one of the salon’s lead-framed windows, was reflected in the status of my uncle, a senior diplomat and one-time ambassador to The Court of St.James in London. I further remembered the house being, on many occasions, the venue of glittering receptions, sumptuous banquets and colourful garden parties, attended not just by family members, but by neighbours, local dignitaries and national figures including, on one occasion, Monsieur Pierre Messmer, President of the Fifth Republic.
My hostess having left me to peruse the menu I had, at first, allowed my gaze to wander about the room, settling, in turn, on its occupants, on its many beautiful architectural and decorative features, and on the numerous objets d’art mounted on its walls and displayed in cabinets, on shelves and on plinths throughout the salon. My eyes havingbeen drawn to the early 19th-century French cut-glass and ormolu chandelier and, for a few moments, to the people, and occasional motor vehicle, hurrying by outside my window, I had lowered my gaze only to find it drawn to the handsome face of a fashionably-attired young woman sitting two tables away from my own. I had been immediately in mind of someone from my past, someone who, based on the powerful feelings of admiration I was now experiencing, had held a not unimportant place in my affections. Searching my memory in an attempt to remember who might once have held such a place, I had become aware of the approach towards my table of Cécile, one of Madame Corbusier’s admirable waitresses who, I assumed, was desirous of ascertaining what I had chosen from the menu.
Being, as I was, a regular visitor, I had needed barely a moment to glance at the menu before swiftly making an order of tea and cake which, even at the instant of its making, had become lost to my memory, distracted, as the latter was, by my desire to identify the cause of my current feelings, which I had presumed to be hidden deep within its recesses. No sooner had Cécile written down my order on her notepad and left my table, than I had resumed my observation of my fellow customer whose presence, at such proximity, continued to affect me in a way I struggled to comprehend, my thoughts accompanied by feelings of confusion, anxiety and passion. Of whom, I had asked myself repeatedly, does she remind me? At what time in my life had I encountered someone who had aroused such emotions in me? Such had continued to be my questions to myself when, after what had seemed to be an eternity but which, in reality, was but a few minutes, Cécile had appeared bearing a silver tray upon which my order resided and towards which, in turn, my attention was thankfully diverted. I had nodded and smiled appreciatively as Cécile carefully transferred the contents of her tray to the surface of my table, arranging the individual items – silver teapot, hot water jug, tea strainer, milk jug and sugar bowl, china tea cup, saucer and plate, silver teaspoon, knife and cake fork – in a precise pattern, beautifully conceived to heighten the customer’s sense of aesthetic pleasure and ease of use. I had thanked my waitress who had then smiled and turned her attention to serving those other customers to whom she had been assigned.
Turning my own attention to the ritual in which I was about to participate, I had raised the lid of the teapot and, taking my teaspoon, stirred its contents, suddenly inhaling the intoxicating aroma of the infusion as it strengthened in front of me. After closing the lid and waiting for a few seconds, I had grasped the teapot by its silver handle, lifted the strainer from its base and simultaneously manoeuvred both towards a necessary rendezvous immediately above my teacup. I had lovingly filled the cup noting, with pleasure, the golden-brown hue of its contents before returning the teapot and strainer to their original positions on the surface of the table. Further manoeuvres had then been performed which had added first milk and then a half-teaspoon of sugar to the contents of my cup before stirring the final mixture and returning the teaspoon to its home on the saucer. Reverentially, I had then lifted the cup to my lips and taken a few sips of what revealed itself to be a delightful infusion, refined yet subtly robust with a subtle, lingering hint of sweetness. In a state of high anticipation, I had then gazed covetously at the plate of petite madeleines placed conveniently by Cécile to the left of my cup, admiring their shell-like forms and, even now, gauging their lightness, their consistency and their promise. Slowly and tenderly, as though caressing a lover, I lifted one of the confectioneries from the plate with my left hand, dipped it quickly yet gently into the contents of my cup, and raised it to my lips.
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which, on Sunday mornings at Combray, my Aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
Then, as the memory had slowly begun to fade, I had dipped what remained of the madeleine in my cup and raised it, once again, to my lips. Once more, a memory of Combray had come to me, this time of a summer’s afternoon when,at the age of sixteen, in the garden of my aunt’s house, I had been introduced to Juliette, her body flexing like an elite squash player as she bowed in a show of mock courtesy and handed me something which, gazing into her eyes, I had taken from her without knowing or caring what it was. Was she, then, the object of the memory I had been struggling to recall, the memory invoked by my feelings on seeing the stylish young woman sitting near me in the salon? I recalled the slight dizziness I had felt in her presence as I looked at the exquisite shape of her lips and the movement of her mouth as she spoke, too dazed or perhaps too distant to hear her words. Now, even as I reflected on the questions emerging from my own consciousness, I recalled how Juliette had turned and walked away to resume her duties as a waitress at my aunt’s garden party, leaving her young admirer holding, as though it was a love letter, a plate of petite madeleines. Again the memory had faded, the warmth and fragrance of the garden giving way to the hum of conversation and the tinkling of fine tableware.
Suddenly, I had realised that what I sought, what I struggled to recall, dwelt not in heavenly infusions or confectioneries but within myself. The white-hooded elixir and the soft shell-like ambrosia were my guides down to the underworld, and would assist me in shaking free the anchor that kept these elusive memories so firmly held in the depths of my consciousness. Closing my eyes, I had leant back in my chair and breathed deeply, sinking into a state of torpor, suddenly exhausted by the effort of searching for the source of feelings experienced long ago and of desires still lying dormant in the depths of my being.
When I awoke, I was lying in my bed in Combray, my mother gently shaking my shoulder to wake me. At the touch of her hand I looked up. ”I’m sorry, Monsieur, but would you mind moving to a smaller table?” I found myself staring into the eyes of a young waitress and realised that my squash opponent had left the coffee shop to which we had come after our match. My empty mug, complete with spent tea bag, sat on the low table in front of me together with the cellophane wrapper from a brownie. A group of young mothers with perambulators waited in the doorway looking expectantly towards me.
I stood, picked up my squash bag, and walked out onto the busy Parisian boulevard.
Thanks to Patrick McGuinness, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford for his Daily Telegraph article “Who’s Afraid of Marcel Proust?” which celebrates the publication, one hundred years ago (in 1913), of “Swann’s Way”, the first volume of Proust’s great novel “In Search of Lost Time.”
Thanks also to Mark Crick whose recipé for tiramisu (written in the style of Proust) was a major influence in writing the above story. You can find the recipe in Mark’s book “Kafka’s Soup.” I’ve used the structure of Mark’s recipé (he’s a chef) in this story.
The above story includes a short passage of text taken from “Swann’s Way” describing what is often referred to as the narrator’s famous “tea-and-cake epiphany” or “madeleine moment.”
Part comedy of manners (the book is often very funny), part quest (for love, for self, for identity), and part anatomy of desire and sexual awakening, “In Search of Lost Time” captures a world that is both universally recognisable and unique to its historical moment.
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.
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…?
There’s something flickering over in the corner, something black and white. The telly’s oan. Ah move my heid…just a wee bit before the jackhammers start. Then, ah can jist see…thank fuck fir that…ah’m lying oan the carpet in the living room…in the shitehole ah call home…feeling… fucking freezing!
Ah start tae move, then…shite, I’m fucking soaked! Ah’m fucking freezing and ah’ve pissed myself. Mah guts feel like they’re bein’ beaten wi’ a fucking egg whisk…churning around like…aw, fuck! Ah slam the anchors oan and scrabble aboot trying tae make it tae the bog before…
Ah try and piece together the last twenty-four hours. It’s Sunday. Yesterday was Saturday. The match, at Hampden. Fucking stuffed, ah imagine. Ah don’t even want tae think aboot the day. Ah can’t fucking remember whither or not ah even made it tae the game. Ah remember ah met Swanney, Sicko and Begs. Yeah, that’s right. Fucking headbangers, all ay them. Then…
Ah can remember fuck all after that pub in…Rutherglen; the space-cake, the speed, the dope, the tab ay acid. Not tae mention the bottle o’ vodka ah put away before we met in…in the previous pub…before we got the bus tae…
It’s all getting too fucking complicated. Ah decide it’s time fae action. Ah need the old slowburn, something soft tae warm me up and ease me back intae the flow.
The ‘phone kicks in and blows the back off mah heid. Ah make a vague attempt tae remember who the fuck ah dinnae want tae hear from, then give up whin the list gets too big tae store in mah short-term memory. Ah lift the receiver.
It’s Spud, sounding full ay fucking beans, sounding like someone who hasnae just woken up lying in his own urine.
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.”
“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 at three. Monday at three, that’s whit we…”
Whit the fuck happened tae Sunday?
“Yeah, yeah. See you there then.”
Ah’ve got tae get a fucking grip.
Ten-thirty. Ah’ve still got time tae get over tae…where? I review mah slowburn procurement options. Swanney? Yeah, yeah, he’s mah main man, mah Mister Reliable, always…aw, fuck!
Ah remember whit happened tae curtail mah socialising at the previous pub, wherever the fuck it was. Swanney’ll still be helping the local constabulary wi’ their enquiries, nae fucking doot.
Strike fucking one.
Ah resume mah procurement review. Seeker’s services are awready temporarily unavailable tae me due tae his, in mah ain personal view, unfair detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Ah still owe Franco fir mah last major excursion intae white powder land, which leaves…Raymie. Ah dial his number. A lassie answers.
“Hello?” she sniffs. Either she’s got a cold or she’s on the skag. Promising.
“Is Raymie there? It’s Mark Renton here.”
“Raymie’s away,” she says. “London.”
“London? Fuck…whin’s he due back?”
“He didnae leave anything fir us, did he?” Chance wid be a fine thing, the cunt.
Ah shakily put the ‘phone down, feeling cold. Only one choice now and ah’ve still got tae get tae the sports by three.
Nothing fir it. Ah ring that cunt Mikey Forrester. Fifteen minutes later, ah’m oan the thirty-two bus tae Muirhoose wi’ mah sports bag and squash racket. Ah knaw ah’m going tae get fucked aboot and ripped off wi’ some crap gear. But, any port in a fucking storm.
And mah guts are starting up again.
Forrester’s maisonette is in a block five stories high wi’ a lift. It disnae work. Tae conserve energy, ah slide along the wall oan mah journey up the stairs. Christ knaws whit state ah’ll be in whin I get on court wi’ Spud, even after a chemical pick-me-up.
Ah try and pull mahsel together at Forrester’s door, but he’ll knaw ah’m suffering. An ex-skag merchant always knaws whin someone’s sick. Ah just don’t want the bastard tae knaw how fucking desperate ah feel.
Ah knock oan the door. Forrester can obviously see mah ginger hair through the wired, dimpled glass door. He takes a fucking age tae answer, fucking me aboot before ah even set foot in the place. The door opens.
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! My, that is a long time. It must be quite frustrating fir a man ay yir…” Ah pause fir maximum effect. He disnae let me finish mah impartial observation, stands up and gestures fir me tae follow him tae the kitchen. He closes the door.
“It’s a fucking nightmare, Rents. She told me she didnae want oor relationship tae start oan a physical basis as that’s how it’d principally be defined from then oan in.” He soonds like he’s reading from a fucking script…and it’s no his.
“Where did she come up wi’ that?”
“She read it in Cosmopolitan.”
Ah look concerned, thin shake mah heid in disbelief, tutting
“So six weeks and nae sex then?” Ah let my incredulity segué effortlessly intae sympathy imbued wi’ a soupcon ay male cameraderie. All very fucking Gallic.
“Ah’m telling ye, Rents, ah’ve got balls like fucking watermelons.” He looks like he’s going tae cry.
“Hang in there, Mikey.” Ah pat him oan the back.
We share a brief moment. Time tae dae a deal and head tae the sports.
He digs aroond in a cupboard and produces two white capsules frae a tea caddy. Ah’ve nivver seen the likes ay them before. They’re hard, bomb-shaped things wi’ a waxy coat oan them. I stare at them and, suddenly, a powerful rage grabs hold of me frae fucking nowhere.
“Whit the fuck is this shite?” Ah scream at him.
Mikey looks at me wi’ a hurt expression.
“Opium, Rents. Opium suppositories. Ideal fir whit ye want. Slow release. Bring ye doon gradual like. Custom fucking designed fir ye needs. Ye’ll be moving ‘roond that court like a fucking whippet.””
His tone’s changed. It’s cagey, almost apologetic. Mah ootburst has shattered oor sick symbiosis.
“Whit the fuck dae ah dae wi’ these?” Ah says, then break intae a smile as it dawns oan us. Ah’ve let Mikey off the hook.
“Dae ye really want me tae tell ye?” he sneers, regaining some ay the power he’d relinquished during oor previous dialogue.
“Look, Rents. Listen tae the voice ay experience,” he smiles. “These things’ll melt through yir system, the charge’ll build up, and then it’ll slowly fade away. That’s the cunts they use in hospital, fir fuck’s sake.”
Ah dae the deal then retire tae the toilet and insert the suppositories, wi’ great diligence, up mah arse. It’s the first time ah’ve ever stuck mah finger up mah arse and a vaguely nauseous feeling hits me.
There’s nae time tae waste. Ten past two. Just enough time tae get tae the sports. Ah head fir the door.
“Cheers, Mikey, Ah’m off.”
There’s nae attempt tae acknowledge the departure ay a valued customer, but Mikey’s sister suddenly lets oot an embarrassing donkey-like laugh at some inane remark. Whither it’s frae her brother or the boilers oan the telly, ah decide tae ignore it.
After aw, ah’m heading fir mah next fix.
Ah make it tae the sports wi’ ten minutes tae spare and head fir the changing room. Ah unzip mah bag and stand back as the stench escapes and begins tae invade mah nostrils. Fuck knaws how long it’s been since I washed any o’ mah kit but ah’m half expecting it tae climb oot and head fir the nearest laundrette.
Ah climb intae my shorts ignoring the broon skidmarks ingrained in the briefs. The shirt’s nae better although it’s original colour scheme has changed wi’ the cumulative absorption, over time, ay a range o’ bodily excretions, not necessarily all mine.
Spud’s warming up ootside court two, performing a range ay stretching and lunging exercises which are frightening the bairns waiting tae start their mini-squash session oan court one. A couple o’ them are trying tae hide behind their mums. The coach, a fat guy wearing a navy track-suit, is glowering at Spud who doesnae even notice his presence.
He notices me though.
“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?”
“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.
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.
The late-1990s. Somewhere in South East England. A squash club bar. It is a Thursday evening in late October. Outside, it is dark. The bar is furnished with a selection of tables and chairs, and a solitary pool table. The floor is covered with a carpet bearing a geometrical pattern consisting of interlocking orange, blue and cream figures. The walls are hung with framed photographs and posters. A trophy cabinet containing engraved silver cups and shields stands against the far wall. A jumble of sports bags and racket covers is piled by a coat-stand next to the bar entrance. Music can be heard emanating faintly from the tannoy.
Behind the bar, Ange Whittaker, a blonde-haired woman in her fifties is filling the sink with hot water. She is wearing a black-and-white print dress. Four men are seated around one of the tables drinking beer from straight glasses.
Jack Sugden, a white-haired man in his early seventies, is the Club Secretary and has been for over twenty years; he still plays in the Club’s internal leagues.
Graham Adams is the League Organiser. A policeman in his mid-forties, he is tall, has cropped fair hair and plays for the Club’s Men’s First Team in the county leagues.
Ron Tetlow is a member of the Squash Club Committee and helps to organise competitions and social events. He is in his mid-sixties and has retired from playing but is a marker at team fixtures. He is of medium build, balding and wears black-rimmed spectacles.
Andrew McGrath is a club member. He is tall and has receding ginger hair, pale skin and freckles. He plays in the Club’s internal leagues.
The men are sitting in silence.
RON: Makes you think, doesn’t it?
He stares directly ahead of him, then takes a sip from his glass.
JACK: It certainly does, Ron. It certainly does.
There’s no doubt about that.
RON: There but for the grace of God and so on.
JACK: True, true.
RON: In the midst of life…
I mean it was only last week he got a game off Terry.
GRAHAM: Did he? What, Terry Jackson?
RON: In the handicap.
Terry must have been giving him a few points then.
RON: Twenty-seven, I think.
GRAHAM: Right, right. Twenty-seven.
Well he’d have to, wouldn’t he.
RON: Still, he must have played out of his skin to get a game off Terry.
I mean how old is Terry? Forty-ish?
GRAHAM: I would have thought so.
RON: And Ernie must have been…
RON: No. Sixty-two? Was he?
I thought he was older than that.
Behind the bar, ANGE is washing some glasses.
RON: He was looking forward to going on holiday.
JACK: Who? Terry?
RON: No, Ernie. With…you know…his missus…er…
RON: Is it?
JACK: Anywhere nice?
RON: Sounded Spanish I think…or it could have been Portuguese. I’m not that well up on place names, foreign countries, that sort of thing.
I’ve been to France mind you.
JACK: Have you? What part?
RON: Now there’s a question. I’d have to ask the missus. She books everything, see.
Or was it Belgium?
The group sits in silence.
Suddenly, the door swings open and GARETH Prosser enters. He is in his mid-forties, thick-set with black hair and sideburns. He is wearing a tweed cap, a light-coloured parka and a tartan scarf. He looks at the group, then at the bar, then back at the group.
GARETH: Christ! What’s wrong with you lot? It’s like a bloody morgue in here.
The members of the group turn around. ANGE starts crying.
JACK: You haven’t heard then?
GARETH: Heard what?
JACK: Ernie died last night.
GARETH: No! Ernie?
He takes his cap off. ANDREW stands up and walks to the bar, looking at GARETH. He lifts up the counter, goes behind the bar and puts his arm around ANGE.
We had a court booked for Tuesday.
GARETH walks over to the bar where ANGE is wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.
GARETH: Sorry, Ange, I didn’t realise.
He leans over the bar and touches her on the arm.
Very insensitive of me.
Pint of bitter when you’re ready, love. No hurry.
He takes off his parka and hangs it on the coat-stand with his scarf and cap.
Accident was it?
He walks over to the group and sits down in Andrew’s chair.
RON: He dropped dead on court last night.
Behind the bar, ANGE starts crying again. She rests her head onANDREW’s shoulder.
RON: Two. I was watching, wasn’t I. Dropped in to book a court, heard someone playing, went up to the balcony. Bob’s your uncle. There’s Ernie playing young Alan.
GARETH: League match, was it?
RON: Hell of a ding-dong. Ernie keeping it tight, lobbing. Alan running around like a blue-arsed fly, getting everything back. You know Alan.
GARETH: Only we’re…well we were all in the same league, like.
RON: Alan gets the first. Ernie levels it. Slows things down, you know, like he does…
GARETH: Finishes a week on Sunday, doesn’t it Graham?
GRAHAM: What does?
GARETH: The league.
GRAHAM: That’s right. I’ll take the sheets down at six o’clock.
GARETH: Only I haven’t played all my matches yet.
RON looks at GARETH.
RON: Do you want to know what happened or not?
GARETH: Sorry, Ron. Go on.
RON: Alan gets the third. Ernie squares it at two-all. It’s nip and tuck in the fifth. Alan’s up, Ernie pegs him back, then Ernie’s up, then Alan squares it at nine all and Ernie calls ‘set one’!
He leans back in his chair, exhausted.
JACK: He must have been tired.
RON: They both looked buggered, Jack. Absolutely buggered. That’s when it happened.
RON looks towards the bar where ANDREW is chatting with ANGE. He is helping her with the washing up. He lowers his voice and leans forward in his chair.
Alan only goes and serves out, doesn’t he, so Ernie’s got match ball. He puts up one of his lob serves and moves to the T. Alan volleys it back cross-court. It whistles past Ernie on the forehand and bounces up onto the back wall. Ernie turns round and dives towards it, swinging through with his racket.
Then he hits the floor and doesn’t move.
He leans back in his chair.
GARETH: So Alan won then?
GARETH: Well it’s a walk-over isn’t it? Ernie can’t play on.
RON: No, no, no. Ernie won the match.
GARETH: How do you work that out then?
RON: You didn’t let me finish, did you?
He leans forward again.
On his way down, Ernie gets his racket to the ball and lifts it hard onto the back wall. It loops up towards the front wall, drops, brushes it and bounces twice. Dead.
Alan doesn’t get anywhere near it.
RON leans back in his chair.
GARETH: A back wall boast you mean?
RON: Ernie’s signature shot. I’ve seen it get him out of trouble more times than I care to remember.
JACK: What a way to go, eh?
RON: You couldn’t make it up.
GARETH: So you’re telling me that somebody who’s dead can win a rally?
RON: Well obviously he was alive when he hit the ball.
GARETH: Yes, but…
GRAHAM: The point is, Gareth, it wouldn’t have made any difference whether Ernie was dead before or after the ball was. Alan couldn’t get to it and Ernie wasn’t obstructing him.
RON: Neither of them was bleeding or injured either…
GRAHAM: …so there wasn’t any reason for them to stop playing, was there, let alone agree a walk-over.
GRAHAM: Look, there’s nothing in the rules that says that a player has to be alive when they win a rally, or a point. They don’t even say that matches have to be between two players who are actually alive…
RON: …or that they have to remain alive for the entire duration of the match.
GRAHAM: I’ve checked.
The group sits in silence. ANDREW comes out from behind the bar and walks over to the coat-stand.
GARETH: Anyway, nobody’s put the score down.
GARETH: On the score-sheet. I had a look just now.
JACK: I suppose Alan was too upset.
GRAHAM: I’m not surprised.
RON: His girlfriend was hysterical.
The rest of the group look at RON.
RON: His girlfriend. That redhead with the…
JACK: You mean Samantha? Ernie’s daughter? You never said.
RON: Is she? Well I didn’t know, did I. I’m no good with names.
GRAHAM: …foreign countries, places…
JACK: So she was there then?
RON: It must have slipped my mind. What with all the confusion. You know…ambulance…police…looking for the first-aid box…
GRAHAM: What’s it like being you, Ron?
RON: Anyway, Ange looked after her, didn’t you Ange?
She dries a glass and places it on a shelf behind the bar.
ANDREW puts on his coat and scarf. He picks up his sports bag and walks to the door.
ANDREW: Well, I’d best be off. ‘Night all.
He opens the door and leaves the bar.
ALL: ‘Night, Andrew.
GRAHAM: So where does that leave your league then, Gareth?
GARETH takes a pen from his inside pocket and starts writing on a beer-mat.
He mutters to himself as he calculates each player’s points.
…I’ve got eleven and Mike’s got…er…four.
GRAHAM: So you’re telling me that the promotion spots in your league are currently occupied by someone who’s dead and someone who’s lost to him?
GARETH: Well, at the moment, yes.
RON: So Ernie could go up then?
GRAHAM: Don’t be stupid, Ron.
GARETH: It could all change of course. Andrew’s still got to play Alan. Both of them could overtake Ernie.
GRAHAM: As league organiser, Gareth, I can assure you that Ernie will not be promoted. Under any circumstances.
GARETH: So that means I should go up then.
GRAHAM: How do you work that out?
GARETH: Well Andrew’s not playing in the next round of the league.
He’s withdrawn, hasn’t he.
GRAHAM: How do you know? No, don’t tell me. He’s written it on the score-sheet.
RON: I wonder why that is? He never said anything.
JACK: Probably upset about Ernie, I shouldn’t wonder. Great friends they were. He used to go round there a lot you know.
RON: Now you mention it I have seen him coming out of Ernie’s house. Yes. All hours of the day and night. While I’ve been passing, like.
GRAHAM: Yes, yes. Him and Ernie go way back.
JACK: And Maureen.
RON: Yes. That’ll be it. Maybe he feels he’d be a bit uncomfortable. You know, being around when Ernie’s not…around.
GRAHAM: And Maureen’s on her own.
RON: Yes, yes.
I could ask him, I suppose, but…
ANGE: Oh, for Christ’s sake, he’s going on holiday!
The group turns to look at ANGE who is staring at them from behind the bar.
JACK: Oh, is he? Anywhere nice?
I got the idea for ‘Back Wall Boast’ from a UK television play broadcast in 1987. It was called ‘The Clinger’ and was set in a squash club somewhere in England. The play was one of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).
Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous story-lines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.