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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.