It was a mean place on the wrong side of town. It had been a pub bowling club, but the town shut the Red Horse Pub. So the bowlers moved out. They settled on a plot next to the cemetery. House prices couldn’t fall and the locals couldn’t protest about the new neighbours.
The challenge came in the fall of the year.
We weren’t bowlers, rink or Crown Green, we were rugby players. We read the note twice. They didn’t want us for our high quality rucking or spin passes. They wanted to take us down. We were Quiz League, Division A, winners. They thought leagues were for sissies. They wanted a mass face off. All teams, four players each, one night, winner take all.
Steve, John, Paul and I looked at each other. It wasn’t the way we played, but we wouldn’t back down. We were men in the man’s world of quiz leagues. We had to look ourselves in the mirror each morning. We couldn’t do that if we ran, just because it was the Red Horse gang.
The Monday before the showdown I knew I had to tell my fiancée. It was only right. I rang her.
‘I have to Carol. There are some things a man can’t back down from, and who’s going to answer the literature questions if I’m not there? Steve!? Hah!’
‘But that’s the only night I can see you this week.’
‘I know darling, but I have to do this.’
‘Well, couldn’t I come along?’
‘To the Red Horse!’
‘It’s only the bowling club, the pub shut years ago.’
‘But it’s four man teams and…’
‘Well I suppose ‘person’, but we’ve got four, and a reserve…’
‘Well, he’s keen and …’
‘He can’t find his way to the bar on his own.’
‘That’s because he’s mean, not because he’s stupid.’ I thought about this for a second, ‘But admittedly he’s not first choice.’
‘Couldn’t I just tag along for a drink and be with you afterwards?’
‘It’s no place for a woman. It’s the Red horse.’ Steve said when I asked about Carol coming.
‘I know but…’
‘Quiz night’s like lad’s night isn’t it? Paul offered.
‘I know, but I just thought it would be easier for me to play in the league games if I let her come this once.’
‘You’re going to be buggering off again though aren’t you? You won’t have to play them twice a season, home and…’ John swallowed hard, ‘at their place, next season and every season after that.’
I decided I was going to make a stand. ‘Well, it’s me with Carol, or Mac on his own.’
We parked on the road. A long way back down the road. The walls of the Red Horse Bowling Club glowered in the evening light. There are some things a man has to do. Doesn’t mean he wants to do them. The slam of the car door broke my reverie.
‘Are we going in or what?’ Carol asked.
With each step my keys beat the jingling, jangling rhythm of our march to destiny. I pulled the invitation from my pocket and re-read the invitation one last time. ‘Entry £6 per team. Quality prizes. Four players only per team. Proceeds in the aid of charity.’ Red Horse events were always in the aid of charity. Nobody ever asked which one.
‘Should we maybe go in?’
I shook my head. ‘We said we’d meet outside.’
‘Safety in numbers.’
‘There are stories.’
‘It’s a bowling club.’
I looked her in the eye and then let my gaze swing to the green and gold sign hanging on the side of the building. “Red Horse Bowling Club. Greenall Whitley.”
‘It’s the Red Horse Bowling Club.’ I told her.
Five minutes later the others arrived.
‘Registered yet?’ Steve asked me, then added ‘Evening love’ to Carol. At least I thought it was that way round.
I shook my head. ‘We said we’d wait for all of us. Safety in numbers.’
‘Don’t be daft.’ Paul said, stopping at the double doors. ‘After you.’
A large, surly man who clearly knew his finger from his thumb peg and could spot the borrow on a green at fifty paces sat in the lobby. He was behind a desk. Like him it had seen better days. This could get ugly fast.
He looked up. ‘Oh aye. We’ve been expecting you.’
‘I should hope, so we registered a fortnight ago.’
He looked more closely at us.
‘Who are your named players? There should only be four of you.’ I explained about Carol.
‘She can’t compete or confer.’
‘I’ll sit at the bar.’ she offered.
‘Can’t. No room. We’ve waitress service taking drink orders and bringing them to tables. And the quizmaster will be up there as well with his adjudicators. Quizzing isn’t a spectator sport’ He turned to a tall lanky man behind him. ‘What do you think Jeff?’
‘Aye. It’ll be all right I suppose.’ He fixed her with a steel rimmed spectacled eye and flashed an erratically toothed grin at her. ‘It’s a man’s game, quizzing. She won’t be any help anyway.’
I steered Carol away as quickly as I could. There were times for what she wanted to do to him, and it wasn’t that time. Yet. We walked across the lobby and pushed open the swing doors.
The roar of over a hundred people met us like a wall. The small clubhouse main room was packed solid, people shouting greetings, jokes, challenges and threats as they settled down in their teams to do battle on mixed trivia and themed novelty question rounds, while staff prepared to serve drinks, ask questions and mark papers. They saw us enter. A silence spread from table to table across the room.
We were the holders of the league division ‘A’ title.
We nodded at the assembled quizzers, hopeful, doomed to fail, and took table Number One.
We sorted out our pens, drinks and snacks.
The murmuring started up again.
A large man in a stained suit and open necked shirt leaned across from table 12.
‘You can only have four in a team you know lads.’
‘She’s with me. She’s not competing.’ I stared him down.
‘All right, you don’t have to pick a fight.’ Paul said.
‘It’s the only thing they understand Paul. Blink, look away, show them you’re scared, and all hell will break loose.’
‘Have you been drinking coffee again?’ Carol asked. ‘You know it doesn’t agree with you in the evening.’
The master of ceremonies tapped the microphone and an electronic howl swept over the room.
‘I’ll take that as a yes, it is working!’ he chuckled. It was about to kick off.