The dinner party

The residence of Senator Salient Point sat neatly on stratosphere 180 in the Statement, which, in purely numerical terms was the exact centre.

Any higher and you were running with classes at various stages of sublimation; lower, and you were crawling back into the mire of human origin. The Senator was too intelligent to allow himself into the former and had worked too hard to be comfortable in the latter: he preferred to stay as close to the central governing structure as possible, where it was still agreeable to temporarily shift up and down when necessary. Continue reading The dinner party

Upstairs lives a writer

David Slipper was never there, and then he was. I hadn’t expected him to appear, but when he did, it seemed to make perfect sense.

I met him in the first week of May, when it had just turned warm. I was on my way home after school, struggling with three books and trying to keep distance between me and the Boczek brothers, who had once again followed me from the bus stop. The Boczek brothers were flat-nosed and had fat arms and I despised them. I never knew why they picked on me: they didn’t know my secret and I had never done or said anything to cross them. I suspect their motives would have confused them just as much had they themselves had the intelligence to question them. But bullies never reflect on who or what they are until Sweet Justice sees them working as bottle collectors, or in Aldi for the rest of their lives.

As usual, the brothers started on me as soon as I turned the corner into my street. They sniggered and jeered that I was a trespasser in “their area” and, as punishment, planned to tear up my books and “wipe their asses with them”.  I ran, but even with my long legs didn’t get very far. They caught up with me and one of them shoved me forwards. The books slid out of my arms and skated over the footpath.

“Hey, freckle head, you dropped your books!” the older one bayed.

“What are they anyway? Books about dresses?” said the other.

Arms outstretched I scrambled after the books, ready to scoop them up and flee, when my foot caught the edge of something and I fell to my hands and knees. I remained there for a few seconds; the concrete only centimetres away from my face and hoping that the brothers would get bored and move on. I felt a wave of tears froth up inside of me but I breathed it back in to my stomach.

And then David was there.

“Get lost before I beat your heads in, you little dickheads!”

The brothers’ faces sagged. David stamped once on the ground and they sprinted in the other direction.

Sweet Justice.

David gathered up my books and helped me to my feet.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You alright?”

“Yes.”

“Sure?”

“It doesn’t bother me.”

“Well, I just moved into that building there, so you just tell me if they pull that sort of nonsense again.”

“Okay.”

“Where do you live?”

“I live there too, on the second floor. With Mother.”

“That makes us neighbours! I’m David.”

He smiled and we shook hands. David’s grip was strong but he didn’t crush me. His arms were long and tanned and were covered with blonde hairs. He had a broad face with dimples on each cheek and two silver earrings hanging from his left earlobe.

“What are you reading?”

“Just history books. I wanted to take them back to the bookshop.”

“I can help you if it’s not too far away.”

My eyes bulged. “No, it’s on this road. Just down there. Another Country.” I made sure to stick out my tongue to make the ‘th’ sound.

“That’s the name of my favourite play.”

It was pleasant to walk with David. He was still carrying my books. I walked beside him matching his slow pace and I didn’t feel awkward at all with empty hands.

“Are you from Germany?” I asked him.

“Nope. You have to guess where I’m from.”

“I don’t know. America?”

“Not even close. I’ll give you a hint.” He pulled his arms towards his chest and started jumping on the spot.

I shook my head.

“That was supposed to be a kangaroo. Not a very good one, I admit. I’m from Australia, near the beach, you know?”

I knew that Australia was far away but it didn’t mean anything else to me.

“I had to get out for a while,” David continued. “So I thought Berlin would be the perfect spot to hang out. I’ve been here about a month or two now. My father has a friend who knows the owner of the apartment I’m in and I get to stay there for free. But don’t tell anyone about it, okay?”

“Do they speak German in Australia?”

“Not a bit. We have our own version of English. But I learnt German at school. Man, you’re lucky you don’t have to learn it, it’s not the easiest language in the world. Fortunately for me I don’t really need it much. The creative writing course I’m doing is all in English.”

“I think you speak German fine,” I said.

As we spoke David laughed a lot and thumped me softly on the arm every time he made joke; this made me feel glad.

“I want to be a writer too,” I told him.

“You know, I’m happy to hear that,” he said “There are lots of writers out there and like me, most of them aren’t very good. But I bet you’re going to be great.”

It was incredible. In the space of ten minutes I’d come from being pushed to the ground by the Boczek brothers to being saved by a stranger, who was a writer and from a faraway place. It was an impossible scenario: one that could only have been meant to happen. I had to get closer to him.

I told Mother about my encounter with David and it turned out that she had already seen him. It was the day the final patches of snow had melted, and he’d come trampling down the street under the weight of two backpacks “like a monkey carrying its babies”.

“He looked like a backpacker.”

“Yes,” I said nodding. “But he is really clever. And his German is fine too. He always uses ‘das’ for everything but he doesn’t have an American or English accent or anything.”

“Oh good, I find those people appalling to listen to.”

“He’s from Australia.”

“Is that so?”

“Do you know where that is?”

“Yes.”

“He wants to be a writer too.”

Mother rolled her eyes. She hated talking about reading and writing and bookshops.

In the days that followed I was feeling positive. The Boczek brothers no longer bothered me, which helped, and I was looking forward to seeing David again. I ended up going up to his floor every day, sometimes three or four times, just to see if he was there. The first time I tapped on his door, only twice and quietly, because I didn’t want to disturb him if he was sleeping or reading. But I soon lost my courage and reduced my efforts to loitering in the staircase waiting for the chance that he might come by. On one occasion, it was in the morning before school, I tip-toed up the stairs and put my ear to his door. I thought I heard voices and kitchen sounds, but couldn’t tell for sure if they were coming from his flat. When Mrs Koch from the top floor came down and nearly caught me in the act, (I told her I was collecting a parcel) I decided it was too risky and moved my operation outside.

It would have appeared a little strange just to sit out front: it was hot and there were no seats or trees, and besides, the essential factor in my plan was that our meeting be one of coincidence. So I rolled Mother’s scooter out of the courtyard and into the street. She had wanted to take it to a garage for a service. I protested saying that we could save money if I did it myself.

“You? Fixing motorbikes? This I have to see!” she said laughing.

I cleaned the body and polished the various parts, careful not to get too much grease on my hands. I knew nothing about machines and loathed motor racing of any kind, but I was able to take my time and observe the comings and goings into our house without looking suspicious. After three days David finally turned up. I saw him exit the building and coast towards me. He was wearing oversized sunglasses with gold-coloured arms. He hadn’t shaved and was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Game over’’. I instantly wanted one.

“Hey, Sebastian” he said. “Having fun?”

“Hi,” I said wiping my hands against my shirt. “Not really.”

“Did you leave that battery in over winter?” A question I hadn’t expected.

“Yes.”

“It’s probably dead.”

I looked around helplessly at the tools lying on the ground.

“Let’s take a look,” he said crouching down. He fiddled with the wires for a few minutes checked some other pieces, the names of which he didn’t know in German and I didn’t know at all. I stared at him as he worked. His t-shirt had come up revealing the skin of his lower back and bottom. I desperately wanted to say something intelligent.

“How far away is Australia? I mean, I’ve never met anyone from Australia before. Isn’t it on the other side of the planet?”

“That’s right.” He laughed and I noticed that his teeth looked unnaturally white against his skin. “I think if you started digging right here, you might make it all the way down to Sydney.”

“Really?” I asked, astonished.

“Maybe. Anyway, you probably wouldn’t want to. It’s faster to take a plane.”

David said that my battery was indeed dead, which was a relief since Mother would have gone crazy if I hadn’t discovered this vital piece of information after three days of tinkering. He wrote down the battery number on a piece of paper for me and we put away the tools.

“I’d kill for a coffee,” he said. “Shall we go to that Turkish place around the corner? My shout.”

At the cafe we ordered a cola for me and an espresso and two croissants for David. When we sat down he leaned towards me and raised his tiny cup.

“Prost,” he said and drank the coffee in one gulp. With a mouthful of croissant he asked: “Are you and your Mother from Berlin?”

“No, we’re from Dresden. We only came to Berlin a few years ago.”

“Oh, I see. Well, Berlin is a nice place. I haven’t seen much outside of the city yet. But I might take a tour of the country later if I can afford it. I might have to sell off a kidney or two first.” I found this marvellously funny and laughed so hard that cola nearly came out my nose.

David lit a cigarette and then offered me one. I took it and put it unsteadily in my mouth. The butt tasted bitter. David lit it and I sucked hard with my cheeks, trying not to inhale the smoke.

“So, who do you read?” he asked.

“I like everything. Schleiermacher, Tieck even modern stuff like Charlotte Link and Elias Canetti. They are fine writers.”

“Hmmm… never heard of any of them. I’m reading John Steinbeck and Patrick White at the moment. Have you ever heard of Tim Winton? Another Australian author. No? Well, him too. I can lend you all these if you like.”

“Oh, yes please! Do you read in German?” I was on the edge of my chair.

“Not as much as I should. But you can read in English right?’

“A little.” I didn’t want David to ask me if I actually spoke the language so I went to the bathroom. I didn’t need to go so I just washed my hands and checked for facial spots.

When I returned, I was surprised to see that my Mother was there. She was sitting in my chair and laughing. Thank God I’d put the cigarette out.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her.

“I was just on my way back from the hairdresser,” she said.

David grinned and raised an eyebrow as if to show me he was as surprised to see her as I was.

“David,” Mother said placing her hand on David’s. “Why don’t you come over for dinner soon? I want to learn more about Australia and I’m sure that David would love to talk to you about writing and books.”

“I’d love to,” David said.

“Come on, Sebastian,” Mother said. I shrugged and followed her out the door and we walked home in silence.

“When were going to tell me that you’d started smoking?” she asked when we got in the door.

“I haven’t.”

“Oh please.”

“David gave me some of his, that’s all. I just wanted to try it. I didn’t like it anyway. And besides, what do you care? You smoke all the time!”

“I was just asking, Sebastian. David should know better. I’ll talk with him.”

“No! Don’t! I mean, I won’t do it again.” I was still angry at her for interrupting my time with David in the bakery just as it had started to go so well. We were already on the subject of reading and writing and I was probably going to invite him over to read some of my stories eventually. I didn’t see why she had to bring it up, especially since she’d never taken any interest in it before.

“David is studying literature at Humbolt.”

“Uh huh.”

“Did he tell you?”

“Maybe, or you told me. I can’t remember.”

“I should also like to study something like that one day,” I said. “Don’t you think it would be good? David says he’ll lend me some books. I can’t wait to find out what types of books they read in Australia.”

“Books about Kangaroos, I expect.”

“I want to study writing too,” I said and felt my face flush.

Mother threw her keys onto the table. “We’ve already been through this a million times! How do you intend to support yourself? Money doesn’t fall out of the sky. ”

“I’ll ask Father.”

“Well, good luck with that, my boy. He’s probably already spent everything he has on that whore.”

“On Aunty Dörte, you mean.”

Mother pursed her lips and glared at me. I could see her mouth filling up with words but she swallowed whatever she wanted to say and went into her bedroom.

The next day at school I told my friends and teachers at school about David and they all were very impressed that I had met an Australian author and that he was going to help me with my writing. On the way home I even promised the guys at the bookshop that I would invite David in to give a reading or recommend areas of acquisition. They agreed it would be a good idea. It was stupid of me to embellish, but it was gratifying to have a foreign friend, particularly one who was studying at a university. That I actually knew someone who was smart and from another country and who talked to me as an equal was a grand thing indeed; especially for a fifteen year-old.

“David is coming to dinner tonight,” Mother said as I came home.

“What? When?”

“At seven. I’m cooking soup.”

“How do you know? I mean, did you see him?”

“I ran into him this morning. He mentioned he had the day off today so… I said it would mean a lot to you if he came around.”

“Mother!”

“What? I’m right aren’t I?”

It was already five-thirty so I immediately showered and began tidying the house. My bedroom was in its usual state: littered with books and magazines and unwashed clothes, and Mother had left her ashtray under the tap again, leaving a black pool in the sink. While I worked Mother sat on the sofa plucking her eyebrows.

“Just leave that, Sebastian,” she said every so often. “Everything is ready.”

Just after seven the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it!” I ran out of the kitchen.

Mother adjusted her hair, put the tweezers under the sofa cushion and did one of her practice smiles as I opened the door. David had a buttoned-up black jacket and white jeans on, which made him look like the handsome cop from Miami Vice; not the other one. He removed his shoes and took a quick glance around. I felt relieved that I had started to clean early. Mother lept from the sofa holding out her hand.

“David! Nice to see you again.”

“Good evening, Mrs Dietermann,” David said showing his straight teeth.

“Oh, please call me Helena. Would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, a beer would be good, thanks. Here, Sebastian. I brought over some books for you. The play I told you about is in there.”

We all sat on the sofa. Mother had a glass of vodka with ice, David was drinking a beer and I sat between them with a cola.

“Tell me about Australia,” Mother said. “Are the animals really so dangerous? Every time we hear about it it seems that someone or other has been attacked by a shark or crocodile.” Mother laughed and placed her hand on my shoulder as if confirming that I too shared this belief.

“It depends where you live. I’m from Sydney, which is the biggest city-”

“That’s on the east coast, isn’t it?” I already knew the answer.

“Exactly. In the cities there are not so many nasties as in the outback. Although, I was surfing once or twice when they let off the shark alarm.”

“How frightening!” Mother declared and appeared so anxious she had to put down her vodka.

Over dinner the conversation continued much in the same way: David recounted anecdotes about his homeland, Mother whooped with pleasure and, in between, I interjected with previously researched facts, all of which David politely confirmed.

I made sure to memorise everything about what he liked and disliked.

Did he like cars?

No.

What was his favourite country in Europe?

Italy.

Did he like German food?

Yes.

Mother unwittingly did me a favour and asked if he had a girlfriend. I pretended to be absorbed in my food but secretly rejoiced at the answer.

Auf keinen Fall.” No way.

After a several drinks, Mother and David started talking more loudly.

“Oh Sebastian, don’t you think David looks like Steve McQueen?”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

She ignored me and went on talking. “When we came to Berlin we had nothing, didn’t we, Sebastian? The wall had just come down and after my trainwreck of a marriage I just wanted something new. New experiences, new people and a new life, especially after living with all those dull people in Dresden. Have you been there? Those people don’t know the meaning of the word fun. I mean, we Germans may have a bad reputation, but I know how to have fun, believe me, David!” Mother roared. I put my head in my hands and wished for Sweet Justice to see that she spilled her vodka or choked on her bread; anything to stop her tattling on like a fool. But David didn’t seem to mind. He was obviously too polite.

After Dinner I showed David my bedroom and my piles of books, which I’d stacked neatly on the floor grouped by genre, then author.

“Wow! You really have an impressive collection! It’s going to take me forever to read all of these.”

“You can borrow them whenever you like. This pile is science fiction, which I don’t really like anymore, this one is history, there are some fine German history books there and that pile has the ones I couldn’t sort.”

“Great. I’ll have a good look at them next time I’m around.”

“Sorry about Mother,” I said. “I guess she’s excited because we don’t get many visitors.”

“Not at all. I think she’s very nice. She can cook a mean asparagus soup.”

Mother came in holding a cigarette.

“Sebastian, you have school in the morning,” she said. “Off to bed.”

“But-”

“Come now. You can talk to David tomorrow, can’t he David?”

“Sure thing. I have to go anyway. Lots to do tomorrow. Sleep tight, kiddo and enjoy those books,” he said and left the room. Mother looked around my room and just nodded. She was obviously pleased at how well I’d clean it.

I locked the door and pulled out David’s copy of the play, Another Country. It looked new. There were no torn or folded pages and nothing was written on the inside. I began translating it line by line with my poor English skills and pocket dictionary, and it didn’t take long for me to work out the overall setting and the characters. It was the story of an English spy who was a student at an upper class boys school. However it was the theme that made me sit up on my bed. I had never before read any book in which the hero was gay. Moreover, in one of the first scenes two boys were caught by a teacher making love! The details of what they were actually doing weren’t there, but I knew well enough. I looked around to check if my door and curtains were closed and read the page again. The revelation made my mind whirl with exhilaration. Was this the answer to why David had insisted that, out of all the material he could have given me, I have this play? I felt a new energy and read on making sure to absorb every word and write down themes and questions I thought David would find interesting. I couldn’t wait to see him again. I read as much as I could and then lay in bed, tired but fulfilled like never before. It was clear to me that David also had a secret and I wondered if he wanted to talk about it. It didn’t matter. I would be there for him regardless. I would reveal my secret to him and tell him that I understood.

That night he was in my dreams. I dreamt I was passing the bookshop and he was walking on the other side of the street wearing a black hat, which I thought looked good on him. He was speaking to a boy with frizzy, blond hair. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I was angry and wanted to run over and punch the other boy. I hesitated, unable to cross the street. I watched them talking and laughing . And then suddenly the boy disappeared and I was in his place. David asked me what I thought about Australian literature. “I think it is mature and sophisticated,” I replied. Then he held my chin and kissed me. Not like a kiss one would give a friend or aunt, but a real kiss that lasted for minutes. Our open mouths moved like the way fish breathe out of water. I woke up, masturbated and then drifted off again into an easy sleep.

The next morning, I got up early. I went into the kitchen, drank straight from the tap and looked around for something to eat. We’d eaten all the bread the night before. I opened the refrigerator and was staring at the emtpy shelves, when I heard a series of whispers and then hushing. I stopped and listened. More hushing. I went back into the living room and this time noticed the black bra and white t-shirt which were draped over the arm of the sofa. The t-shirt was reversed but I could still recognise the words inside, printed in capital letters on the front, like the flashing warnings of a neon sign: “Game over”.

Mother’s bedroom door was ajar. Peering through I saw that the bed was still made, but the pillows were on the floor. I moved soundlessly towards the door to get a better view. I couldn’t see Mother’s face, but I saw her legs and painted toenails. Her feet were splayed and were pointing at each corner of the room. She let out a horrible moan that made me flinch. David was on top of her facing the wall. A tattoo of a barbed wire just below his neck writhed over his shoulders; with each slap of his stroke, Mother’s legs stretched further out towards the outer edges of her bedroom. I swallowed hard and retreated back into the living room.

There was silence.

“Sebastian? Is that you?” I heard Mother call.

I didn’t move.

“Hello?”

I stood in the middle of the room not daring to move or breath. I picked up David’s t-shirt and for a reason I cannot explain, put it on. I waited for something to happen: the door to open, thunder to boom or even a song to start playing. I waited and I waited, shaking my head. I can still feel the same stillness of that room today when I think back. When I wait for Sweet Justice to come.

The nominee

I hopped out of the car into the evening heat and kicked out the pain in my knee. It was still humid and I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my back beneath my cotton shirt and singlet as I walked up the path to the club.

John Best, the caretaker, was at the front of the building, in his gumboots and hosing down the concrete footpath leading up to the entrance. I avoided him and walked on the grass, over the garden and through the automatic doors into a cool wall of beer and tobacco smoke.

“Hot enough for you, Gus?” said Clive, the doorman.

“Hardly, can’t fry an egg on the roof of a car yet.”

“Geez, I didn’t think you’d let anyone touch the holden, let alone have a barbie on it. We’ll have to get her out for the sausage sizzle in January.”

“Not bloody likely.” I took off my hat and coat and put them on the front desk. To the left I noticed a black and white photo hanging crooked on the wall. It was a picture of the 1973 Snooker Team. I was in the middle of seven other men, leaning on boot of a white Kingswood, smoking a cigarette and holding a cue over my shoulder. We all had neat haircuts and dark faces, and not one of us was smiling except for Jackie Spagnolo, the Italian banana farmer. We had just won the regional finals and were half cut from the celebrations. A sign behind us read: ‘Berkley River Ex-Services Club, Visitors and their Guests Welcome’.

“Who took these photos down from the snooker room?”

“It was the Board’s idea – something about making a first impression on the guests, sense of history or whatever. I don’t think many people got to appreciate them where they were anyway.”

“Well they belong in the snooker room don’t they? Wouldn’t be any history if it wasn’t for that room, eh?”

“Hey, don’t blame me, Gus. Talk to the Board.” Clive went into the cloak room.

“Ha! The Board? What a pack they are,” I said.

I walked into the bar and ordered a beer. A few heads popped out from behind form guides and nodded as I walked through the gaming lounge into the maze of poker machines. Three members of staff, each wearing a green and red tuxedo, were gathered around one poker machine and bickering with one of the oldies. “I thought it was a one,” she said.

As I approached the red wood arch of the snooker room, the clattering melodies and coins died away and I heard the soft clicking of snooker balls. I stopped and before turning the corner into where the tables were, fixed my badge to my shirt: ‘Gus Simmons, Snooker Comm. President’.

Apart from the bright lights hovering over the tables, the snooker room was a dark chamber of faded green wall paper and wooden trimmings. Tarnished shields and thin ribbons lined the walls next to a rack of twenty or more cues of various lengths. On the far wall there were dark green rectangles, shadows of where the committee’s photographs had hung, and a blackboard. Vern Bailey had just finished writing ‘Snooker Committee meeting 7pm’ in sloping block letters and was dusting off his hands. I put down my beer and cue case and went to where he and Neville Harris were playing.

“Seven o’clock? Jumping the gun a bit aren’t you, Vern?”

“We thought we’d start the meeting earlier than usual,” Vern said. “I hope you don’t mind. Me and Neville were just finishing off this frame.”

“What if I do mind? I thought I was the bloody President. Can’t start a meeting without the damn President, can you?”

“Mate, we wouldn’t have done a thing without you,” Neville said and potted a red.

“There’s a lot to get through,” Vern said. “The ladies’ night is coming up and there’ll be a few membership applications to get through.” Vern coughed his trademark cough and lit a cigarette. “And then there’s the election for next year.”

“Well, I suppose so. Maybe we could also talk about the tournament photos. Who the bloody hell took them down?”

“I had to do it. Board said so. Didn’t you know?”

“No. I thought they at least would’ve asked the President.”

“Well they didn’t really ask so much as say.”

“We’ll just have to get them back up there then. That’ll be the first thing I’ll do.”

“Mate, you’re not the next President yet!”

“Maybe not but I’ve still got a couple of hours up my sleeve and besides, who else is gonna do the job? You? What do you think about that, Neville?”

“How’s your game Gus?” Neville asked.

“No too bad, not too bad. Been hitting straight some days, off some others.”

“We’ll have to have that game you promised some day.”

“Think you’re up to it son?”

“Maybe.”

“Neville’s been teaching me a lesson tonight haven’t you mate?” said Vern. “I’d watch out if I were you Gus, might even give you a run for you money, won’t you Neville?”

“Like hell he will,” I said. “Neville can’t even piss straight. Where’s your rhythm, your composure?”

“I’m working on it, Gus,” said Neville laughing. “But we can’t’ all play like Eddie Charlton.”

“Ha! Charlton’s overrated – nothing but fancy trick shots. I’ll show you a few of my moves after the meeting.”

Neville leaned back on the table squeezing both cheeks of his rolling buttocks above the edge. “Nice job they did on the lights in here,” he said. “It’s really brightened up the place: makes the balls stand out.”

“Fella didn’t put the covers back on properly though. Look how he’s put them on – it’s all crooked. Can’t have a ladies night with the place in a shambles.”

“Gus, that was Clive’s uncle,” Vern said scratching his bald head. “He fixed them for nothing. Pretty generous if you ask me.”

“Well I didn’t, and besides, he didn’t do it for free: Gloria gave him a counter lunch at the bistro for nicks.”

Neville cracked the blue into the middle pocket.

“Speaking of the lovely Gloria I’ve already ordered a tray of nibblies, I’ll get another beer and round up the others.” Vern slapped his boney hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go, Nev.”

At seven, the others ambled in and took their regular places around the tables – there were usually eleven of us all together, but only eight had come that evening. I took my seat against the far wall under the blackboard and tapped a pen on my beer glass. “We’d better get started I think, don’t want to be here all night do we. Vern’s most kindly put a good word in Gloria’s ear and we’ll be getting some of her finest for those who’ve had a few. Ah yes, apologies from Frank who couldn’t be here this evening due to family commitments.”

“What did he tell his wife then?” said Lowey. A few people laughed and Lowey shook one of his arthritic fingers.

“Not sure, Lowey,” I said. “But since he’s not here to take minutes, how about getting a pen and paper going?” Lowey didn’t reply.

“First thing on the agenda – it’s that time again – the election of the President for this year.”

“Been another good year, Gus,” said Vern, the others murmuring in approval.

“Yes, we’ve had another decent innings, with a few successful social events, the beach barbeque and the Eucre tournament, participation at the interclub challenge-”

“Lost to that stuck up mob from Carlingford though. Cheated if you ask me,” said Colin Simons, one of the younger chaps. Colin had miscalculated a giveaway shot on the pink, and, as a result, set the opposition on a point-scoring roll which knocked us out of the first round.

“Well if you weren’t colour blind we might’ve had a chance, Col,” someone said.

“Only sees pink after a few sherries, don’t ya, Col?”

“I though pink was your favourite colour, Col?”

“Financially,” I cleared my throat. “Financially, things weren’t as bad as we’d feared: after we paid for the damage that idiot caretaker did at the Christmas party – cost us close to eight hundred dollars to get the thing refelted – we still pulled through alright, even managed to scrap together a few bob to buy a couple of extra cues for the club. The new President would be expected to build upon these successes with, of course, the support of the Committee.” I took my glasses off.  “As you all know the current President is automatically nominated for the position unless he chooses to step down. I’d like to give it another go, keep things going but, we still have to follow the formalities, so I’d like to make a call for nominations.”

As I had expected, everyone was silent. I had been the Snooker Committee President for seven years and I was confident of being relected just as I was confident that my car would have started on a winter’s morning. “Can’t have an election without more than one nominee,” I said smiling. They were all looking down at their beers. I pretended to write something down, thinking of how I would introduce my ideas for ladies’ night when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a hand rise. It was Vern.

“I nominate Neville,” Vern said.

I saw Neville look at Vern. He fidgeted with his tie and then turned his head to the floor. I flushed and felt my heart thumping in my chest.

“Ah, sorry Vern, what was that?”

“I nominate Neville.”

“Oh. Well then,” My voice faltered. I searched the pack of eyes for a hint of dissent but they were all cast down towards the floor or at their drinks; some were looking across the room. “Well Neville, thrust into the limelight are we? I hope you’ve got some original ideas for the club’s future. Do you accept the nomination?”

“Um, yeah. I accept. Thanks, Vern.”

I heard whispers of ‘good one Nev’ and ‘hear hear’ but I couldn’t tell who had said what. Neville and Vern were whispering to one another, crouched over their beers like two old beggars. The others started talking among themselves. Laughter was coming from the main bar. I heard a woman’s voice, and then more laughter. Gloria burst into in the room carrying a tray of cheeses and biscuits and a look of relief came over Vern.

“Good evening, gents, all well are we?” she boomed.

“Better now you’re here,” Vern said. “What’ve you got for us, love?”

“Just a few cheeses darling, some edam, bit of cheddar there too, and crackers. Don’t fight over them now.”

“No, but we’d fight over you, darling,” said Lowey, his false teeth clacking as he laughed.

“I’m flattered, Lowey, but don’t exert yourself on my acccount love. Enjoy!”

Gloria waddled out and everyone started crunching. I stared at Neville’s fat face. I watched him devour three crackers topped with cheese, and counted the clicks of his jaw as he chewed. Greedy pig, I thought as he washed the food down with beer.

I tapped the pen on the table. “Alright then, finished feeding your faces? Good. Right. You know the drill, one vote each. First name’s will do, there’s only two of us.”

Everyone wrote down their votes in pencil on the back of beer coasters, and put them into a battered wine cooler. I asked Vern to put the votes onto the nearest table and delegated to Lowey the responsibility of counting.
With his shaking hands, Lowey gathered the coasters into a neat pile.

“One vote for Gus,” he said and placed the coaster on the right of the table. “One vote for Neville.” Neville’s vote went over to the left. “Gus. Neville again. Another for Neville. One more for Gus.”

I shifted in my chair and felt a sharp pain in my knee like buring ice.

“Neville. And the last vote goes to, Neville Price. Five votes for Neville, three to Gus.”

“What!” I slammed my pen onto the table. “Let me check those Lowey.”

I got up, wincing as I shifted the weight to my knee, and hobbled over to count the two piles: five votes to three. My three votes sat on the table, miserable and wet with beer, one written in my tiny, scrawled print and the other in bold blue pen: I guessed it was Lowey because I saw him chewing on the end of a blue biro and the trembling handwriting looked as if someone had written it with an electric drill.

“What about Frank?” I asked. “Can’t have an election without one of the founding members present? Frank’s got to have a vote doesn’t he? It’s in the bloody rules, you should know, Lowey.”

“Even if Frank did vote for you, mate, you still wouldn’t have had enough votes. I’m sorry, mate.”

“You’ve had a good run, mate,” said Colin. “You’ve done wonders for the Snooker Club, hasn’t he fellas?”

They all nodded their heads in a pathetic chorus of agreement.

“Well, that’s it then isn’t it?” I said through my teeth. “Congratulations, Neville, I’m sure you’ll do a marvellous job.” I hated him.

I didn’t say much else for the rest of the meeting and chose not to pass on my ideas for the ladies night. I caught Vern and Neville several times talking between themselves scheming new plots. I was so furious, I didn’t even stay for a game.

The day after I couldn’t face going to the club so I did some work in the garden and cleaned out the letterbox which was filled with leaves. I thought about going for a game in the afternoon so I called Frank but he didn’t pick up the phone. I suspected that even he was part of the conspiracy. They’d planned it all along – after all I’d done for them. I’d seen the Snooker Committee through its highs and lows and it was my idea to hold free lessons on Saturdays for the youngsters, and no one had ever raised the sort of money for the club that I had.

I slept uneasily during the following nights, recounting in my head the mutiny of the previous Saturday evening; in the darkness of my bedroom I could see the staring faces of those who I thought were my friends, people I could have counted on; Vern’s grey face and drooping eyes looking at me under the lights of the snooker table. For over twenty years I had seen that face, and now, instead of a thin smile I saw a cackling laugh and crooked teeth.

When Thurday came I went to the Bistro for dinner like I always did on Thursdays, but for the first time in about ten years I didn’t bring my cue. I vowed not to set foot in the snooker room where I’d been disgraced the night before. I ordered pork and vegetables and went to eat in the far corner away from the rabble of the other customers for fear I would have to talk to someone I knew and suffer more humiliation. Gloria came over to where I was seated and began to wipe down tables.

“I heard about the other night,” she said as she went up and down the table with a cloth, her red finger nails scratching at the plastic surface. “Try not to feel bad about it, Gus.”

“I don’t,” I said and stabbed at my plate with the fork. “The pork’s tough tonight and the gravy’s runny.”

“No one’s forcing you to eat it, darling.”

“No one’s forcing you to stand there and annoy me.”

“It had to happen some day didn’t it? You can’t be President forever, you know.”

I waited for her to leave but she stopped wiping and just stood there with one hand on her hip.

“Yeah, but it didn’t have to happen that day,” I said waving my fork at her. “It didn’t have to bloody well happen that day. After all I’ve done for that committee and this club.”

Gloria sighed. “Here we go again, Gus, always feeling sorry for yourself. You can get on your high horse at those stupid meetings but you can’t bluff me, mister.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“The way you treat the other men, especially Vern and Neville. You boss them around. They’re all petrified of you. For God’s sake they’re your mates.”

“Mates? They went and stabbed in the back, those mates of mine. My father served in two world wars, you know. He helped build this goddamn club. And when Joan died, I dedicated my life to this god forsaken place and is this the thanks I receive?”

“This club isn’t everything love. Snooker isn’t everything. Where do you think you’d be without the others? Huh, Gus? It’s because of them you got over Joan, you told me so yourself.”

“I was drunk and besides, they don’t care. No one does. The Board took the bloody photos down. There’s no respect left in this place.”

“That’s not true and you know it. Things change – they move on.”

“Bah! Get me another beer will you, Gloria? And a side of brandy too if you don’t mind.”

“You’re hopeless, Gus Simmons.”

“Look, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to get angry at you but you know Vern – he’s always been been a bit pissed off because he’s never been the President. He thinks it’s my fault.”

“Maybe it is.”

“Rot! And now he’s taken Neville under his wing so he can whisper in his ear and get his own way.”

“All I’m saying is that you had better not shoot your mouth off.”

“How about those drinks, Gloria?”

Gloria dropped her dirty cloth on the table and left.

A few minutes later one of the barstaff came over with the drinks. I finished the beer and then put down the brandy in one hit which made the digesting pork in my stomach grunt with satisfaction. I wandered into the bar and ordered another round. The air seemed smokier than usual and the poker machines burped out their miserable melodies with unusal enthusiasm. I rested against the bar and began tearing up coasters. Vern came out of the toilet and walked over beside me. I had thought about turning away for a moment but decided against it; I had just as much right, if not more right to be here as he did. They couldn’t get rid of me that easily.

“Gus.”

“Vern.”

“Same again thanks, Dave,” Vern said to the bartender as he lit a cigarette. “Didn’t see you for practise yesterday, Gus.”

“Haven’t heard of passive smoking have you?”

“Still wearing the old President’s badge, eh?”

“It’s mine. It was given to me. Neville will have to get a new one made, if he could organise anything.”

“He already has I think. Colin organised it.”

“That’s bloody great. Straight in for the kill.”

“Look, if you’re still upset about the meeting, then I’m sorry mate. It’s just that Neville’s worked damn hard for the committee, and the club, and lately his game’s just come along in leaps and bounds. I thought he deserved at least a nomination.”

“Really,” I said and ordered another brandy. “He got more than a bloody nomination didn’t he?”

“Yeah I reckon he did. Called democracy that.”

“Go to hell.”

Vern picked up his drink and turned to leave. “Neville feels real bad over it, really he does. But he’ll make a fine President you’ll see.”

“Why did you do it, Vern?”

“Why did I do what?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Neville will make a fine President.”

“No, but you’ve always wanted to be President, haven’t you? I think you set it up to get me out and to give yourself a better chance next year.”

“What are you talking about?

“You figured I’d never give you the opportunity: your game was never up to scratch anyway. But don’t count on Neville to be your stepping stone.”

“Gus, you’ve had a few too many I think.”

“What would you know? You could never handle your drink.”

Vern looked at me with his saggy, sad eyes. “Suit yourself. Come in for a game if you like, a few of the fellas are there. Frank’s been asking for you.”

“Get stuffed,” I said. “Another brandy Dave, and one here for Mr Democracy.”

“No thanks.” Vern left and I finished the brandy in one gulp. I watched Vern as he trudged the old path through the pokies and disappeard beneath the red arch. “Let’s see whose fit to be President,” I said to myself and went after him.

Frank and Colin were playing on the main table, a couple of local youngsters were on the far table and there was Neville, by himself, leaning on the table closest to the door, beer in one hand and cue in the other.

“Look what the cat dragged in, Nev,” said someone.

“Gus,” said Neville. “Having a hit tonight?” Neville’s pot belly ballooned out from underneath a stained polo shirt on which was pinned a shiney rectangular badge. I couldn’t read what it said but I knew well enough.

“A hit? What, keen for a beating are you?”

“You’ve been promising me a match for a while now – wouldn’t want to think that you’re gutless or something.” Neville looked over his cue and nodded in the direction of the main table and then laughed over his shoulder, gloating at his success; his fat fingers, which were dusted with blue chalk, consumed his cue like folds of putty.

“Where’s your respect?” I said. “I’m not afraid of you, ya’ bloody tub of lard.”

Neville set up the table and chalked his cue. “You can break if you like.”

“Very noble of you.” I stumbled over to the public rack and picked out a cue that was half straight and still had a hard tip. Doesn’t take a brass belt to beat a dog, I thought.

I broke the balls hard into a red riot. I should have just clipped them and tried to leave the white at the end but I was too angry and drunk to care. I swore and went to reset the scoreboard. My knee felt raw with pain.

Neville potted a red and then the blue, leaving the ball at the far end behind the black.

“Good shot, Nev,” cried Vern and toasted his drink.

“Ha! Look where he’s left his ball! Knows I’m too good on attack doesn’t he? Has to snooker me.” I just managed to scrape the white away past the black, chinking it onto a nearby red and saving the foul.

“Not much else you could’ve done there.”

“Thanks Vern, any other bright remarks?”

Neville potted another red, then the brown and then doubled a red into the middle pocket setting himself up for the black.

“Don’t stuff this one up Neville,” I said. “President’s got to have his eye in, got to be able to deliver under pressure.”

Neville smashed the black ball into the back of the pocket. The ball swished through the net and hit the bottom with a thud. He shot me a smug smile as he re-chalked his cue. I felt like ramming it up one of his hairy nostrils.

“Lucky. Hey look at this, boy,” I shouted across the room. “He can sink them alright can’t he, Frankie? I think the photos made him nervous. Maybe it was his idea to take them down: didn’t want the old masters looking on and taking the piss out of his amateur play.”

More reds went down in between the green and brown and then the blue again. A few people had gathered around the able to watch. “What’s this? The President’s match?” one of them asked.

“No,” said Neville. “There’s just one of them here.”

My turn came and I played a few short shots because I was feeling rather cut. I fouled on the green and swore as I banged the cue against the table. “This damn cue is bent. Can’t play properly with a bent cue.”

Neville won the first frame. The other congratulated him and like a bunch of schoolchildren, followed him over to his chair where they smoked cigarettes. I stood by myself, watching Vern who was hovering at the fringe of the group: I caught his eye and lowered my eyebrows hoping to pierce him with the guilt of his betrayal.

“Must be the cue, eh Gussy?” Neville parted the men with a regal sweep of his sausage hands and stepped forward. A cigarette hung from his mouth like a soggy chip.

“Yeah, it hasn’t got much going for it – like a couple of people I know.”

Neville rested his cue on the table.”What’s your problem, old man?”

“I’ll tell you my problem: it’s being beaten by a nobody with shit for brains who doesn’t deserve to be a member of this club, that’s what my goddam problem is.”

“For Christ’s sake, Gus. It’s just a-”

“Don’t you start, Vern,” I hissed. “None of this would’ve happened if you hadn’t put up this imbecile for nomination.”

“I’m not an imbecile.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Steady on, fellas,” came a call from one of the tables.

“Now you listen here, Gus,” said Neville lifting his shoulders.

“Don’t talk to me like that, sonny, or I’ll have you.”

“And do what? What the bloody hell are you going to do? Just listen to yourself – you’re flamin’ losing it! ”

“No, you’re losing it,” I said looking directly into his beady eyes.

“You’ve got to move on, Gus, let go, or whatever. Get that bloody chip off your shoulder.”

“Piss off.”

“You’re not the President anymore, Gus, and you’re not the best snooker player.”

“This isn’t about snooker, it’s about the right person doing the job and I don’t think you’re the right person. I’m entitled to an opinion aren’t I? I was playing snooker at this club when you were still sucking on your mother’s teet you witless prick, and you’ve got the hide to just waltz in here and take over!”

“Fair go mate, you’re overreacting a-”

“You all wanted to see me out, I know what you’re all thinking.” I ripped the badge from my shirt and held it up to Neville’s face. “You want this? This is the real deal pal – you’ll never deserve to wear it.”

“Maybe I’m not the right person but more people wanted me to be President than you mate. I don’t need a badge to tell me that.”

“Don’t call me mate, son. You and Vern bullied them into it,” I bellowed.

“Grow up, Gus,” said Neville and then walked out of the room. The others looked at me, shaking their heads before they filed out after him. Only Vern remained, standing in the corner, coughing at the ground.

“So you forfeit then?” I called after him and threw my badge down at the table. It bounced and fell flat on the green expanse. Suddenly I felt overcome with fatigue and the burning of my anger fell from my head down to my knee. I limped over to a seat.

“Are you alright, Gus?” Vern said.

“What do you care?”

“I was just on my way out too, but I thought I’d give you this before I went.” Vern put a thin rectangle on the table. It was wrapped in a yellow cloth which was stained with blue chalk and cooking oil. “It’s a present from the club and the committee. A sort of, ‘thanks for your service’ gift – nothing special. Aren’t you going to open it?”

“What is it? My bloody director’s fee?” I pulled away the cloth to reveal a picture of seven solemn faces and one cheeky grin. I brushed my fingers over their heads, pausing at mine and thinking of the brand of cigarettes I used to smoke, and how much I had paid for the white Kingswood we were leaning on, and of how had given up both after Joan had died. Vern was sitting on the bonnet of the vehicle. His cheeks were a bit fuller in the photo, but he still had the same bald head. I moved my eyes to Jackie Spagnolo’s white teeth and closed eyes, which now, seemed to be the only colourful thing about that black and white scene.

I shook my head. “This…”

“The Board said it was okay. ‘After all he’s done,’ they said.”

“Vern… mate…”

“Hope you enjoy it.”

“I’m…” I was still transfixed on the photo. “I’m sorry, mate.” But Vern had already walked out.

There were several visitors playing at the tables but the room seemed empty. I rubbed my knee and got up. The pain seared my entire leg as I trundled over to the faded green wall where all the Snooker Committee photos had once hung. The original wallpaper frowned from dark green rectangles and the rusty hooks, relieved of their load, curled towards the ceiling. I slid the photo on to one of them and stood back to check the alignment.

“That’s better, mate,” said one of players behind me. “Liven the place up a bit.”

“Yeah,” I said under my breath. “Livens it up alright.” I limped over to get my badge from the main table and then hobbled out of the room and into grey smoke of the main bar.