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.
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.
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.
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.
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 andfallings 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.
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.
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.”
“So your job is to pass the ball to Mr Robertson’s feet,” Clough continued.
“You’re sure you can still do that, aren’t you?”
“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.”
“So long as we’re clear…”
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.
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.
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.
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 faceframed 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, paidSenhor Ventura and left the building.
At their table in theCafé 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!’
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.
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.
‘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.
She glanced at the elegant gold watch adorning her left wrist. A gift from an unknown admirer.
Eleven fifteen. Just over eighteen hours to the Grand Opening of the glass court. Eighteen hours to the spectacle, the excitement, the glamour. Eighteen hours to her performance in the privileged presence of Rio’s great, good…and not so good. It was time for the real challenge to begin. Tomorrow she would compete with the blonde American girl in the quarter-final. Her next step on the road to becoming the world’s number one player.
She was ready now.
Drawing her black lace shawl around her shoulders, she gazed through the window of the limousine as it picked its way through the city’s chaotic streets. Streets which she had visited many times in the past. Streets filled with traffic jostling for position, looking for an opening, poised to make a move. In a few hours, it would be quieter. It usually was by the time she returned from her night-time excursions into her special world. Nights when she indulged in her passion, when she shared moments of intimate connection. Nights when she felt the embrace of her partner’s arms as their bodies moved in unison. Special nights.
The limousine drew up outside a whitewashed three storey building on Rua do Catete. A single light shone down from above its entrance porch. She waited as the motorista climbed out of the driver’s seat, adjusted his peaked cap and opened the door for her to alight. She stepped out into the warm night, her sense of excitement beginning to mount.
“Have a good evening, senhorita.”
He smiled a knowing smile.
As she entered the building, Florencia Perez could hear the music drifting from the salon on the first floor. The music born in her home town. Music from the birthplace of the father she had never known. Music from the Golden Age of tango.
She strode across the entrance hall towards the staircase, her low heels sounding on the black and white tiles. In her right hand, she held the straps of a small black sequinned purse and a black satin shoe bag. Her hair was drawn back in a simple ponytail, secured with a golden band. Gold hoops dangled from her ears. She was wearing a sheer black slit dress with a jagged hemline, adorned with fringes, swaying as she walked. Ready to join the dance, the milonga.
Ready to feel the bodies of others close to hers.
In the salon, the dance floor filled with couples moving to the music played by the residente, a young DJ hunched over his sound equipment at the far end of the high-ceilinged room. From her table on the edge of the dance floor, she watched as the unattached men in the room nodded their invitations to women they wanted as their partners in the next set of dances. The next tanda.
She watched the men leading their partners around the floor to see which of them she would trust to lead her in the way she wanted to be led. To see which of them would be suitable for her to choose as a partner. She noticed too whose invitations were being ignored.
After an hour in the salon, she’d accepted two invitations to dance. One was from a young olive-skinned boy whose embrace proved to be rather too close for her liking. The other was from a tall middle-aged man with light skin and a long nose who led her elegantly in three exhilarating tango waltzes. She felt safe in his embrace, following him easily around the floor, swinging her body, moving sinuously around him, feeling like a woman. She thanked him, returned to her table and sipped her drink, suddenly feeling that the evening might just turn out to be…
She sensed his gaze before she saw it, before she’d had time to see who had arrived since she’d taken to the floor. To see who had seen her dancing, seen her feeling the passion.
She raised her eyes and met his. Dark eyes.
Eyes she had seen before.
He glanced at his watch and entered the salon. It was almost one. Tonight he would meet the Australian in the glass room. A chance for him to raise his profile, to move up the world rankings in a sport he’d played and loved since he was a child.
But tonight, Andres Lopez was not thinking about the sporting challenge to come. He was thinking about someone who could be very special. Someone who had not been easy to find.
Since he had seen her compete in his home town, he had followed her progress with more than a little interest. He knew that she had begun to more than fulfil her potential in competition. But, until recently, he did not realise that her beauty had transcended both her athletic ability and her sporting success. Now, from conversations with his fellow professionals, he had also discovered that Florencia Perez shared another of his passions.
In the subdued light of the salon, he nervously ran his fingers through his long brown hair, searching for her among the tables and the dancers moving around the crowded floor.
Suddenly he saw her, dancing with a smartly-dressed middle-aged man. She moved with cat-like grace, weaving an elegant path around her partner to the music of a tango waltz. He watched her as she thanked her partner and walked across the dance floor to her table.
Moving quickly, he found a table directly opposite hers and sat down, his heart suddenly racing as he tried to relax., to let the passion in the room be his inspiration in seeking her consent to dance with him. Usually, he would watch the women as they moved around the dance floor, looking for the qualities that he valued in a partner. Then he would invite them – with his eyes, with a nod of his head, with the cabeceo – to allow him to lead them, to reward their trust, and to show his own qualities as a dancer.
But now, it was too late. He could not tear his eyes away from her as she sipped her drink.
He was in danger now. Danger of…
Suddenly, her eyes met his.
In them, he sensed surprise, yes…and something else, something warmer. Much warmer. Instantly, he relaxed. And nodded. There was a pause as he sensed her curiosity, awaited her response. And then his nod was returned, his invitation accepted.
He slipped on his dance shoes beginning to notice the other people in the room. People whose passion he shared.
He was passionate about many things in his life. His country, his sport, the dance he had been introduced to in his home town. Passion that had landed him in trouble with the authorities more than once. But now, he was calm, waiting for the cortina, the musical interlude preceding the next set of dances, when she would be his partner.
When the time arrived, he stood and walked towards her, threading his way through the other dancers leaving and joining their partners. Reaching her table he bowed and held out his hand, inviting her onto the floor. She rose and stepped towards him.
The music, a tango canyengue, began to play. Instinctively, he sought her embrace and was accepted. Leaning towards her, he moved slightly from side to side, sensing the music, breathing her perfume, feeling her body close to his. Then, without knowing, as their hearts beat together, he stepped towards her. Leading them both into the dance, into the rhythm of the music.
Into the passion.
It had been easy to follow her to the salon.
He had waited until she entered the building on Rua do Catete before climbing out of the taxi and striding towards the entrance. He was dressed smartly in a dark grey tailored suit and white shirt which perfectly fitted his tall, lean frame. Like the girl, he had carried his dance shoes in a small bag which dangled on a strap circling his wrist. His greying hair was swept back from his narrow face with its long nose.
After so many years, he was nervous, but ready. Ready to meet her on a night which could change both their lives forever. Inside, he paid his entrance fee and found a table from which he could make eye contact with her. But first he invited other women to dance with him, eager to take a few turns around the floor before seeking her consent.
When the time came, it felt natural. Something he had done many times before. He met her eyes, nodded and was accepted. They danced, and after they had danced, he returned to his table and sought out other women to dance with as the room filled and the floor became a single rotating embrace.
He watched her dance with other men, including the Colombian boy who returned to his table with what he sensed was more than just an air of satisfaction. The boy danced well, his dark good looks and long brown hair attracting the attention of the women, the invitations made with his dark eyes winning their consent. Using the cabeceo, following the code.
He glanced at his watch. Now, as the milonga entered its fourth hour, he made her a second invitation with his eyes. She caught his gaze and nodded with a hint of a smile. Now she trusted him.
This time he led her in three tangos, leaving her space to decorate, to hook, to tap her toes as they moved effortlessly around the busy floor. He felt a sense of pride as they paused in silence after each dance, waiting for the next to begin.
As the last chord of their final dance died away, he escorted her to her table knowing that now, after all these years, he must speak to her. He waited for her to sit, then leaned towards her and whispered into her ear.
“Listen to me, my child. You do not have much time.”
She paused, listening to his voice with surprise…and recognition. It was a soft voice, a caring voice. The voice of a porteno, a native of her home town.
“Tonight at the Grand Opening there will be great danger. You must not go there.”
She turned her head to look at him. To look into his eyes.
“How do you know this?”
“Trust me.” he replied. “Trust one who has always loved you. One who has always cared.”
He placed something on the table in front of her, touched it with his forefinger and looked into her eyes.
“I am sorry,” he said, then turned and walked quickly away.
Florencia Perez looked down at the table. On its surface lay a plain, white card. Her heart racing, she reached out to pick it up, half knowing what she would find. She touched its smooth surface, closing her eyes and letting her fingers seek out the indentations she sensed would be present.
As she found them, an image formed in her mind. An image which had been with her for as long as she could remember. Since she was a child.
An image of a very tall man with a long nose. A kind man. A caring man.
She stared at the elegant gold watch adorning her left wrist. A gift she had received on her eighteenth birthday, on the eve of her first international tournament. In the home town of a Colombian boy. A gift from an unknown admirer. A gift accompanied by a plain, white card.
Embossed with the image of a stork.
The story focuses on two characters, both of whom are competing 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.
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.
In this chapter, a third character appears whose identity and purpose in the plot are, as yet, unknown.
‘The Tango Dancer’ was first published as Chapter 11 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 are posted by Ted on the DSR website where you can read it in its entirety.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, one day in October. There was no sun, and there were rain−clouds over the distant hills. I was a neat, clean, shaved and sober private detective, and didn’t care who knew it.
What’s more, I was about to meet four million dollars.
I was waiting in the entrance hall of General Sternwood’s home in West Hollywood. It had been less than twenty-four hours since I got a call from Bernie Ohls at the DA’s office.
‘Whatever he wants, the General’s not saying,’ said Ohls, ‘at least he’s not saying anything to me. Seems he wants the best in the business.’
I waited for the punch-line.
‘I recommended you anyway. Don’t let me down, Marlowe.’
‘I’ll try not to.’
Through the hall window I could see a lot of smooth green grass and a white windowless building with a sloping roof and one door. Beyond it was a large greenhouse and beyond that there were trees and then the hills. There was oil in those hills and oil was where Sternwood had made his money.
I heard footsteps.
‘The General will see you now, Mr Marlowe.’
The butler was a tall, thin, silvery man of about sixty, with expressionless blue eyes. He led me out of the house and headed for the greenhouse. As we were passing the white building, the door opened and two women came out. They were both wearing white tops, shorts and sneakers. I guessed they were Sternwood’s daughters. They were both sweating. Whatever they’d been doing in there, they were hot. Very hot.
The younger one saw me and gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. A smile showing little, sharp, white teeth. Then she put her thumb in her mouth and giggled. She was about twenty, small but tough−looking. Her blonde hair was cut short and she was carrying a towel in her left hand. The other woman was tall and strong-looking with black hair, late 20s maybe. She looked at me with cold, dark eyes. I wouldn’t be asking her out on a date anytime soon.
I followed the butler to the greenhouse. He opened the door and ushered me in. It was hot, the air thick and wet and the light green. From a wheelchair in the middle of the greenhouse an old man with black eyes and a white moustache watched us. Despite the temperature, he was covered in blankets.
The butler said, `This is Mr Marlowe, General.’
The old man didn’t move or speak. He just looked at me. Then he said, `Fetch the brandy please, Norris. You’ll take a drink Mr Marlowe? I can’t join you, I’m afraid. Doctor’s orders.’
I nodded. The butler went and the old man spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.
‘Take off your coat, sir. It’s too hot in here for a healthy young man. You may smoke. I like the smell of cigarettes.’
I took off my coat and lit a cigarette. The butler brought the brandy and I drank some.
`Tell me about yourself, Mr Marlowe.’
`There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty−three. I used to work for the DA until I got fired for thinking for myself. I’m not married and I don’t like policemen’s wives.’
The old man smiled.
‘What do you know about my family?’
`Your wife is dead. You have two young daughters. They’re both pretty and both wild. One of them has been married three times, the last time to a bootlegger called Rusty Regan.’
The General smiled his thin smile.
`I was very fond of Rusty Regan. He was a big red−haired Irishman with sad eyes and a wide smile. He spent hours with me. He was a grand story−teller and a great drinker. Of course, he wasn’t a suitable husband for my daughter. I’m telling you our family secrets, Mr Marlowe.’
`They’ll stay secrets,’ I told him. `What happened to Regan?’
The old man looked at me sadly. `He went away a month ago. Without saying goodbye. That hurt me. I hope he’ll come back. And now someone is blackmailing me.’
He stared at me. `Look at this,’ he said. `And have some more brandy.’
He handed me a packet. The address said: General Guy Sternwood, 3765 Alta Brea Crescent, West Hollywood, California. There was a card inside it with the name Mr Arthur Gwynn Geiger, Specialist Bookseller, with a business address. There were also three notes signed by Carmen Sternwood. Each promised to pay Geiger $1,000.
`Any ideas?’ the General asked.
`Not yet. Who is Arthur Gwynn Geiger?’
`I don’t know.’
`What does Carmen say?’
`I haven’t asked her. If I did, she’d put her thumb in her mouth and giggle.’
I said, `I saw her outside. She did that to me.’
The expression on his face didn’t change.
`Do the girls spend a lot of time together?’
`Not that I know of. Vivian is intelligent but cruel. Carmen is just a selfish child. Neither of them ever worries about the difference between right and wrong. Neither do I.’
‘Do they have any money of their own?’
`Vivian has a little. I’m generous to both of them.’
I drank some brandy. Then I said, `I can take Geiger off your back, General, if you want me to.’ I told him how much money I wanted for the job.
`I see,’ he said. `That seems fair. Very well, Mr Marlowe. The problem is now in your hands. And now you must excuse me. I’m tired.’
He touched a bell, stared at me once more, and closed his eyes.
I picked up my coat and went out of that hot greenhouse full of flowers. The cool air of the garden smelled wonderful. The butler was coming towards me.
`Mrs Regan would like to see you, sir.’
His blue eyes looked straight into mine.
`I believe that she misunderstands the reason for your visit, sir.’
I told him it was none of his business, let alone hers. But what the hell, I thought.
‘Take me to Mrs Regan.’
It was a big white room, too big, too white. Long windows looked out onto the dark hills. It was going to rain soon. I walked across the floor and looked at Mrs Regan. She was lovely. She was trouble. She was lying in a chair with her shoes off, so I stared at her legs. They were long and beautiful. She was drinking, and looked at me over her glass with her hot black Sternwood eyes.
`So you’re a private detective,’ she said. `I imagined an awful little man.’
I said nothing.
‘Tall, aren’t you?’ she said.
‘I didn’t mean to be.’
Her smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman’s ball.
`How did you like Dad?’
`I liked him.’
`He liked Rusty. Do you know who Rusty is?’
`Rusty was sometimes rough and noisy, but he was never dull. He was a lot of fun for Dad. Why did he just disappear like that? Dad wants you to find him. Isn’t that true, Mr Marlowe?’
`Maybe,’ I said. I sat on the edge of a deep, soft chair and lit a cigarette.
`Do you think you can find him?’
`I didn’t say I was going to try. Why don’t you go to the police?’
`Oh, Dad will never bring the police into it.’
She looked at me smoothly and drank what was left in her glass.
`You don’t make much money, do you?’ she said.
`You can’t make big money in this game if you’re honest.’
`Oh, are you honest?’ she said and lit a cigarette.
`So what made you become a detective?’
`What made you marry a bootlegger?’
She went red. Her hot black eyes looked angry. I just smiled at her. `Don’t play with me,’ she said. `I don’t like the way you’re behaving.’
`I’m not crazy about you either,’ I told her. `I didn’t ask to see you, you asked to see me. I don’t care if you show your legs and drink whiskey for lunch. I don’t care if you think I behave badly. You’re probably right. But don’t try to question me.’
`I hate big, dark, handsome men like you, Marlowe,’ she said. `I just hate them.’
`What are you afraid of, Mrs Regan?’ I asked.
Her expression changed. `You could find Rusty – if Dad wanted you to,’ she said.
`He told me about Mr Regan. He wanted to see me about something else. Is that what you wanted me to say?’
`I don’t care what you say!’ she shouted.
I stood up and left the room. I walked back to the entrance hall and stood on the steps outside, smoking my cigarette. In the distance I could see some old oil−wells. The Sternwoods’ money came from those oil−wells. Now they lived in their beautiful house, far from the machines and the smell of the oily water in the sump.
The sky was black when I reached my car. I heard thunder in the hills and put the top up.
She had lovely legs. They were a smooth act, General Sternwood and his daughters. `What do they really want?’ I wondered.
Geiger’s bookstore was on the north side of the boulevard, near Las Palmas. As I stopped to look in the window, a man in the street gave me a knowing smile. The door closed quietly behind me and I stepped onto a soft blue carpet. A few customers were browsing the shelves. There were big comfortable blue armchairs and some expensive−looking books on small tables. In one corner a woman wearing wire-framed glasses sat at a desk.
She got up slowly and came towards me. She was wearing a short black dress, which looked good over long legs. She had brown hair and green eyes. Her fingernails were silver. You don’t often buy a book from a girl like that.
`Can I help you?’ she asked me.
I asked her for a book. It was a famous book, but she had never heard of it. I tried another name. Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.She didn’t know about the book. She knew as much about books as I knew about painting my fingernails silver.
`I’ll have to speak to Mr Geiger,’ I told her. `Is he here?’
`I’m afraid not,’ she said. `He’ll be here later.’
‘Mind if I wait?’ I said. ‘I’ve got nothing to do this afternoon.’ I sat down in an armchair and lit a cigarette. The brunette looked unhappy.
After twenty minutes, the door to the street opened and a tall man wearing black-rimmed glasses and a Panama hat came in. He hurried past me and over to the brunette.
He took something out of his wallet and showed it to her. She touched a button and a door opened. He disappeared through it.
Minutes passed. I smoked another cigarette. The brunette was staring at me with an expression she probably would have said was thoughtful.
The door opened and the tall man came out. He was carrying a large packet. He looked quickly at me as he passed and went out into the street.
I left the bookstore and followed him. Someone who looks like that is easy to follow. When he stopped to cross the street, I let him see me. He walked on quickly and turned left, between two houses surrounded by trees. I stood and waited, as rain began to fall. Minutes passed. Then he came back and walked straight past me. He didn’t have the packet any more. He was safe now.
I watched him go down the street. Then I went between the houses and found the packet behind a tree. Nobody saw me pick it up. I went back to the boulevard and found a phone booth. I looked in the book and found that Geiger lived on Laverne Terrace, a street off Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Then I went to visit some other stores. In one of them I found a girl who could describe Geiger. She said he was about forty, a fat man with a fat face and a moustache. He dressed fashionably.
I ran back to my car through heavy rain. Then I opened the packet. I thought I knew what would be inside it but I thought wrong. It wouldn’t be the last time.
The packet was full of squash magazines.
I sat and looked at the glossy covers. Pictures of matches in play. Headlines trailing interviews, stories, best-buy features, tournament reports. Men and women posing with squash racquets. Wearing white.
I stared at them. I used to play the game myself when I was at the DA’s office. Now I played different games. Games where I could make my own rules.
Then I opened one. What was inside made me feel sick. The worst pornography I’d ever seen. The magazine covers were a front, just like Geiger’s bookstore was a front for distributing ugly dirt. To run that business on the boulevard he must be paying someone a lot of protection money.
I sat in my car and smoked and thought about it. Something didn’t feel right.
Then I looked again at the covers.
I found what I was looking for at the bottom of the pile. The cover showed two women on court playing a rally. The shot had been taken from low down on the front wall. One woman was a brunette with her hair in a ponytail. She was wearing a red sweatband and was lunging into the back right hand corner of the court to play a shot.
The second woman was standing on the T, her head turned towards her opponent. Her face was in left profile, her mouth slightly open, taking in a breath. It was a pretty mouth, a mouth showing little, sharp, white teeth.
The woman’s blonde hair was cut short.
She was holding her racquet in her left hand.
In Part Two of ‘The Big Squash’ the mystery deepens as Marlowe waits for Geiger to appear.
Set in Los Angeles, California, Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ was first published in 1939. Howard Hawks 1946 film version starred Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, Lauren Bacall as Vivian Routledge (Vivian Regan in the novel), and Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood.
For an appreciation of Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks movie, read Leonard Pierce’s ‘Come Into My Boudoir.’
Thanks to Rosalie Kerr for her masterly re-telling of ‘The Big Sleep’ and the ‘Good Reads’ website for its compendium of Raymond Chandler quotes. I’ve used quotes from Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Farewell My Lovely’ and ‘The Little Sister’ in this story.
Weston pushed a button on the hand-set. There was a click and a low hum.
‘Did you get all that?’ asked Weston. There was a pause.
‘Loud and clear,’ came the reply. One of the workers looking after their queen, Weston thought.
‘She’s on her way.’
Weston hit the button again and swivelled towards Thorpe. The dusk was filtering into the Dubai offices of Global Trading prompting the ‘Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’ to reach behind him for a bottle and two glasses. He poured a measure of whiskey into both and handed one to Weston.
‘So,’ said Thorpe, ‘it would appear that your efforts have generated more than a little movement on the chessboard.’
Weston glanced down and brushed a non-existent speck of dust from his slacks.
‘Well, you did ask me to find out what Grigoriev was up to,’ he responded, raising his eyes to meet Thorpe’s. ‘It turns out that he was up to quite a lot.’
Thorpe chose not to rise to the bait. Weston had form as a loose cannon. As well as a ladies’ man. But he could sniff out the opportunity for a big sale.
‘As I see it,’ continued Thorpe, employing a measured delivery which Weston sensed was tinged with disappointment mixed with curiosity, ‘not only do you seem to know rather more than you have, up to now, disclosed to your superiors, but you have now shared carefully chosen parts of it with a, shall we say, disparate group of individuals searching for a missing girl.’
Weston remained silent.
‘All this,’ continued Thorpe, ‘in the context of what would appear to be a rapidly-developing conflict of interests between two rather nasty players in the global drugs trade. Players who are not only related by marriage but who are also clearly prone to the influence of their family members – particularly in relation to the noble art of squash racquets.’
‘You could say that,’ responded Weston.
Thorpe took a sip at his malt and grunted. His analysis had given him time to appreciate what Weston had also chosen to disclose and, more importantly, not to disclose to Mr Matthew and his assembled guests. The present whereabouts of Grigoriev and the Ivanovs; the laundering record of Steve Dwyer; his surprise at hearing of the whereabouts of his old squash coach’s nephew.
‘Sense, adapt, exploit,’ mused Thorpe. ‘But don’t trouble yourself with the possible consequences.’
‘Ah, well,‘ he thought, ‘everyone’s entitled to a little white lie or two, now and again.’
It was another hour before Weston left Thorpe’s office. He stepped into the warm Gulf evening and waved down a taxi. The call with London had been short. Plenty of questions but nothing in the way of instruction. Dispassionate, workmanlike, faint praise. ‘Await further instructions’ was the message. And Weston didn’t like it. No clearance to fly to Philadelphia, no sign of calling in the cousins. What was she playing at?
Thorpe re-filled his glass and settled into his chair. The return call was not long in coming.
‘Well, Thorpe?’ she enquired.
‘If I read this correctly, Ma’am,’ he began, ‘the Grigorieva woman wants to change the peripatetic yet somewhat high-risk lifestyle she currently enjoys with her brother. To achieve this, she appears to have enlisted the support of Weston, Miss Phipps and, almost certainly, her own sister, having made a big show of falling out with the latter in the past. The sister also wants to remove herself from her current, er, domestic situation and take her daughter with her. At the same time, Grigoriev wishes to, shall we say, terminate his relationship with his brother-in-law and replace him with a less conspicuous US distributor.’
‘And then there’s Ivanov’s son, of course,’ he continued, warming to his task. ‘The boy is prone to exhibiting somewhat psychopathic behaviour which has led to him getting into trouble in the past, and is likely to do so in the future. A high profile is, as you would concede, Ma’am, not a desirable attribute for someone involved in the global drugs trade.’
‘I should have thought not, Thorpe,’ came the reply. A little frosty this time, he sensed, in direct contrast to the temperature of his office. He pressed on.
‘Finally, there’s the Smith girl. Ivanov junior has been particularly ineffective in his attempts to secure a ransom for her from her mother and Mr. Dwyer. His incompetence alone would seem to be enough to call his continued involvement in the business into some question.’
‘Which is why,’’ came the response, ‘Grigoriev has travelled to the US to make arrangements for the Ivanovs’ imminent retirement. Under the pretext of visiting a squash tournament, I understand. Very imaginative.’’
‘I believe that cover may have been suggested by his younger sister, Ma’am,’ said Thorpe. ‘She may also have advised him to invite the Ivanovs to Dubai whilst he travelled to the US to arrange their replacement unhindered.’
‘Wants to be present at the, er, tournament,’ said Thorpe. ‘for obvious reasons, although perhaps not the ones that might occur to Mr Matthew and his friends.’
Silence. Then, just as he was about to ask…
‘Get him on the first flight, Thorpe. Let’s give him enough rope to hang himself, shall we?’
‘Oh, and Thorpe?’
‘You may want to make sure that the sales force is at full strength over the next few days. Business opportunities in your part of the world may be about to come thick and fast.’
Steve Dwyer arranged himself as comfortably as he could in his seat and sipped at his drink. The lights in the cabin were dimmed as the night flight to London headed north-east across the Arabian peninsula.
After the debacle in Dubai, he and Jill had been forced to wait more than 24 hours for the next available flight, 24 hours during which her state had changed from despair to near hysteria as her hopes of being re-united with her daughter had been dashed. Now she slept soundly beside him as Steve tried to make sense of the situation they were now in.
There had been no meeting with Jessica’s kidnappers, no hand-over of ransom money, no electronic transfer of funds, no re-union. Just a voice-mail left on his ‘phone while he and Jill were still in the air heading for Dubai.
It was the same voice, the same accent, the same cocky delivery, the same menace. There had been a ‘change of plan’, it said. His journey to Dubai had been ‘a test’ to see whether he was serious about securing the girl’s release.’ He was ‘being watched’, it said. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
And the same mantra.
He and Jill were in the queue in Heathrow immigration before Steve switched on his cell-phone. He scanned the SMS message and voicemail details, looking for patterns. Plenty from James Matthew, one from Angus, a few from business contacts, even one from a squash buddy. ‘Probably wants a game,’ thought Steve. ‘I could tell him a thing or two about games.’
‘Oh, my God!’
His thoughts were suddenly shattered by Jill’s cry. Their fellow supplicants in the queue turned to look. She was talking to someone on her cell. ‘When did it happen?’ then ‘Why did it take you so long to get me?’ and ‘I’m in immigration at Heathrow. I’ll ring you back later.’
She hung up and grabbed Steve’s elbow, dragging him out of the queue. Her face had turned white.
‘That was Stephanie. Frank’s been murdered at the Club,’ she said.
Twenty minutes later they were making their way through the green channel. Jill appeared calm, thought Steve. Maybe Frank’s death had given her something else to focus on, for the time being at least.
He said nothing to her as they approached the exit. He glanced at his cell-phone and began to scan his message and voicemail again. Force of habit.
He was waking up now, feeling more alert. Looking for patterns.
Suddenly, he began to feel uncertain, anxious. So many issues to deal with, so many people needing his attention, so many plans to make. Just in case.
He looked up.
Less than 20 metres away, at the end of the exit channel, stood two uniformed police officers. Not airport police. With them stood a youngish man wearing a black leather jacket. Another officer Steve guessed. They seemed to be waiting for someone off a flight.
And they were looking directly at him.
It was December 9th.
He stood across the street watching the blue and red flag flapping in the breeze.
It had been easy to follow the girl, to keep her in his sights as she made her way through the city to the building. He had the street-craft, the gift of noticing patterns, the gift of remaining inconspicuous, unobtrusive. It came naturally to him. Natural after years of learning, and surviving, in a world of shifting urban landscapes.
And, he thought to himself, he was going to need it if he was going to survive. Not just today, but every day until the game had played itself out. Whatever that might mean. For him. For the girl. For the others.
Yes, he was going to need it when they began to follow him.
And in the last few minutes he knew that they were already following him.
He had thought that he’d have more time before they appeared. Before they made their presence felt.
Still, they were here now. Part of the ecosystem of the city with its steel and concrete towers, its manicured parks, its river, its history, its…brotherly love. Plying their own form of street-craft, he supposed but, surely, one more suited to different landscapes, different cultures?
He’d already spotted one of them. Across the park to his left, maybe a hundred metres away. And a second, standing on the corner with Walnut. Too easy.
There was something noticeable about them. A sense of disquiet, a sense of not quite being comfortable, a sense that maybe there were other players in the neighbourhood. In the game.
He glanced at his watch. Time to move. More people would be arriving soon for the tournament. To compete, to play the game, to watch. The endgame.
He reached inside his track suit top and felt the gun nestling in its holster under his left armpit. Just in case.
He bent down, hoisted his racquet case onto his shoulder and strode towards the building.
‘Brotherly Love’ was first published as Chapter 19 of ‘The Club from Hell’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 10 squash writers, the novel was posted by Ted on the DSR website where you can read it in its entirety.
Despite the appearance in the above instalment of the multi-faceted (and mysterious) ‘Jim Weston’, the real hero of ‘The Club from Hell’ is Ted Gross. Without his leadership, co-ordination and support, there would have been no ‘Club from Hell.’
Check out The Daily Squash Report for the new squash novel, Breaking Glass. You know you want to!
A couple of weeks ago I attended the quarter-finals of the 2011 Canary Wharf Squash Classic in London’s Docklands. Not a particularly adventurous outing, I suppose, when you consider that I live within easy commuting distance of Canary Wharf where I used to work for a well-known investment bank. Which, of course, had its own squash courts. You get the picture.
But, as usual, turning up at locations where members of the squash community gather to share their passion can sometimes lead to chance encounters as well as new perspectives on the game and the people who play it.
And this occasion was no different.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Canary Wharf, think glass, marble, corporate statement, Lego™, shopping and money. Lots of money. In fact, come to think of it, lots of glass, marble etc. too.
The Classic event has been held here for the last eight years and has become well established as London’s premier annual squash tournament. In doing so, it’s succeeded the SuperSeries event which used to take place in a shopping centre near London’s Liverpool Street railway station. Going even further back, the Superseries itself used to be held outside London in another shopping centre, The Galleria, located on, or in fact over, the A1(M) motorway at Hatfield, north of the capital.
But now, the Classic is held in a glass and marble hall in the East Wintergardens district of Canary Wharf. And, with Europe’s tallest building, the Canary Wharf Tower, visible through the venue’s glass roof and soaring majestically upwards, it’s an impressive setting.
Just when you thought it was safe….
With some of the world’s top players on court, and over 3 hours of competitive squash, the quarter-finals certainly offered good value. And, for a full house of squash enthusiasts, it also provided an opportunity to experience the latest technology-driven feature of world-class squash – the video review.
This was the first time I’d come into contact with the review which gives players the right to request a video replay to support their personal appeal against a refereeing decision. Each player is allowed one appeal per game with an additional appeal being made available to each player should the score reach 10-10. Having seen a replay of the incident – also visible to the audience on monitors around the court – the referee may choose to change their decision.
During the session, video reviews were requested during all four matches – with varying reactions, and verbal advice, from the audience. But the feature of the review which provided the most entertainment was undoubtedly the accompanying music beamed into the hall while the review was going on.
Subsequent themes included two pieces of music familiar to most UK listeners: the James Bond theme and the clock-ticking music used during the daytime television wordplay show Countdown. Entering into the spirit of the evening, the tournament’s No. 2 seed James Willstrop, in his post-match interview, suggested the theme to The Pink Panther as being one for future consideration by the organisers.
I think he was joking.
Between matches at Canary Wharf, I ran into one of my fellow squash coaches whom I’d last seen on the day we’d both qualified, four months previously. That memorable event had taken place at Redbridge in Essex. And, coincidentally, it was just three days after our chat that I re-visited Redbridge where the UK Inter-County Squash Finals were being held.
There was no video review technology or accompanying music on show here, just semi-final action in three competitions: the Men’s Over-35, Women’s Over-50 and Women’s League team knockout tournaments. In other words, squash competition and squash passion. And plenty of it.
Played over two days, the Finals involved 60 players, 60 individual matches and an enormous amount of organisation by the unsung heroes of the squash community. For my part, I just dropped in, watched some of the action, talked to some of the players and organisers, and generally just soaked in the atmosphere. It was like breathing squash.
And, for the record, Norfolk won the Men’s Over-35 title for the first time in 42 years, South East Wales retaining their Women’s Over 50 title, and Berkshire taking the Women’s League title for the first time. You can find a full report of the Finals on the England Squash and Racketball website.
Well I don’t know about you, but I regard pretty much any event organised by or on behalf of squash enthusiasts as being an opportunity to connect to others who share my passion for squash. And it’s not playing or even watching others play that really counts.
In the 1970s, American tennis instructor Tim Gallwey wrote The Inner Game of Tennis, a book which described his own novel approach to sports coaching. His approach included aspects of what are now possibly best known as sports psychology, performance coaching (or life coaching) and meditation. Gallwey proposed that, for each player, their sport is made up of an outer game – played against an opponent – and an inner game, which takes place inside the player’s mind.
Squash in the Mind
The inner game approach requires players to make specific non-judgmental observations about what Gallwey called critical variables associated with playing their sport. Amongst other things, these variables could include the flight or bounce of the ball during rallies, the position of the player’s feetor their squash racket head, or even the sound made when they or their opponent hit the ball. The purpose of making these observations is for the player to become increasingly aware of their playing state, leading their body to automatically adjust and correct itself to achieve the best performance it can. This inner game effectively takes place inside the player’s own mind and is played against lapses inconcentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-criticism. In other words, it’s played against self-imposed obstacles put in the way by players themselves – a problem which will be equally familiar to squash players as to tennis players!
In response to the book’s success, Gallwey followed up with further inner game books on golf, music, skiing, work and, in 2010, stress – possibly written in recognition of the increasing work life challenges faced by many people as a result of global economic uncertainty and changing employment trends. This series of writings has gradually expanded the range of tools and techniques which can be used to coach the inner game in different life contexts – from sport, to work and, increasingly, to health. In fact, the series could be seen as harmonising approaches to coaching the body and coaching the mind.
Squash for the Soul
The idea of harmonisation fits neatly with the concept of a balanced lifestyle or a healthy work life balance – something which many people strive to achieve during their lives and which squash coaches are expected to promote. And one strand of the inner game approach which Tim Gallwey describes at the end of The Inner Game of Tennis deals directly with this. He talks about “the inner game off the court” and the need for players to realise that the skills they need to achieve their life goals and overcome barriers are the same whatever they are doing. Under the memorable (and very 1970s) heading ‘Unfreakability’ he outlines the need to acquire the ability to see the true nature of what is happening around you – “and to be able to respond appropriately”.
The skills Gallwey is describing are characteristic of meditation or what he calls ‘the art of quieting the mind’. And it’s the ability to concentrate and maintain a state of inner calm off court as well as on court which is a key teaching of the inner game approach.