Time’s Up

Kirsty saw the red light glow on the camera, the floor assistant pointed and the producer in her ear said ‘Go’. She smiled at the dark robed figure relaxing in the guest seat.

‘Good evening.’

‘Good evening Kirsty.’

‘I take it this is a boom time for you?’

‘You’d think so wouldn’t you?’

The interviewer raised her eyebrows

‘You mean you aren’t busier than normal!’

‘I’m not saying that Kirsty,’ the guest lifted his robe slightly and crossed his legs. ‘But it’s not by as much as you’d think, sitting on your side of the equation.’

‘Well I confess I am surprised given what the ONS says is the uplift in the mortality rate month on month over the last year.’

‘I know.’

‘But there has been a15% uplift in mortality rates in the UK alone.’

‘And you’d be right in many ways to express that surprise but you must realise this is a global enterprise. In some regional sectors, the USA, most of Western Europe, China, there has been a significant rise in demand for our services. It is however a much bigger picture and its very much swings and roundabouts.

‘China?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘But they eliminated the virus entirely by the middle of last year.’

‘That’s certainly what they say.’

‘But?’

‘There’s an element of confidentiality involved here Kirsty and I don’t want to discuss individuals or even individual countries in detail, but just let’s say you can’t always believe what you read in press handounts, can you?’ His booming laugh made the camera shake.

‘I suppose not.’ Kirsty put her finger to her earpiece and listened to the producer telling her to move on. ‘But it would seem there has been a significant uplift in numbers for you then?’

‘You have to realise the  uptick from the virus itself and the closing of care services to other users has increased demand but at the same time you have to look at the other factors.’

‘Such as?’

‘Well, wars have slowed down. Seriously. Many combatants are concerned. Even ISIS said they wanted Jihad to be Covid secure!’ Again the laugh. ‘But seriously, reduced transport means fewer travel related deaths, and not just road traffic incidents, all sorts of cases related to moving people and cargo about have reduced in the interim.’

‘But what of this rumour about you taking on new colleagues to cope? The Government was touting this as a way of retraining and offsetting unemployment.’

‘It’s a difficult one Kirsty and I think it isn’t breaking too many rules to say that there is an element of mystical, nay, spiritual activity involved here. I mean I may be just one…’ the figure hesitated and cocked its hooded head to one side, ‘…entity, and bound by the basic laws of thermodynamics and time as anyone, sorry, anything, else, but I do have certain advantages over purely corporeal beings in time management.’

‘Are you saying you don’t need any help?’

‘Well I managed pretty well during all previous pandemics; awarded a significant bonus for the Black Death if you can put up with a little hubris, but I did try some outsourcing during the twentieth century.’

‘And how did that go?’

‘Well on pure numbers on the doors it was okay, but it didn’t free up as much time as I’d hoped, and there were significant admin issues with some of the recruits. People don’t always see the reason for paperwork, but believe me in the event of a head office audit you don’t want to be caught out with poor accounting procedures. Believe me.’

‘So you had to let them go?’

‘I had to terminate their contracts, yes.’

‘And the paperwork?’

‘All up to date, but it took some decades of overtime, and even on a multitasking temporally flexible being like myself, that can be taxing. So I have been considering my staffing options for the immediate future.’

‘If you don’t mind my saying so, it all seems a little unplanned, a little ad hoc?’

The cowl swivelled so that the black void as pointed at the interviewer. Her breathing became a little difficult and she reached for the water glass on the desk.

‘I may be a key player on the team, but I don’t get taken into future event confidences you know. There’s an ineffability embargo in effect. It seems reactive because it is.’ There was a long pause while Kirsty gulped some water and the hood moved aside. ‘Sorry. But it gets a little wearing after a while. A small heads up would be nice now and again. I mean in the Cold War I was on constant tenterhooks. Should I recruit temporary staff or not? Thermonuclear Armageddon could have put a real spanner in the smooth running of the operation you know. The rules say each person has to have a personal one to one conducting operation at the point and moment of demise. Try that with split second multi-million annihilation. But did I know whether it was going to happen or not? Oh no! Not even nudge or a wink.’ There was a shrug from the guest and a rattle from beneath the folds of the robe.

‘That must be very trying?’ Kirsty offered.

The figure sat up straight in the chair.

‘It can be. But mustn’t grumble. Always busy and I’m essentially a people being, so the more the merrier.’ There was a flash of a very white smile in the depths of the hood. Kirsty put her hand to her ear again and got the time warning.

‘Well that’s good to hear. I’m sorry but we don’t have your abilities so I’m afraid we’ve run out of time. Thank you for being with us tonight for this unprecedented and intriguing interview.’

‘You are very welcome.’ The hood swung to face directly into the camera and the lighting caught a glimpse of the white dome inside.

‘Goodnight all. See you soon.’

VOICE

With a snarl Ramirez cut the last line and the boat smacked into the waves. It was only by a miracle that Jarvis and I were not thrown into the heaving green waters. Even Ramirez’s two companions had to hold on for dear life.

‘Take the oars damn you!’ he cursed, ‘Or we’ll be beam on and the next roller will have us over.’

Miller and Nairut scrambled for the oars as we rocked and plunged…

‘It’ll never sell you know.’

They got the blades into the rowlocks and began to…

‘Who said that?’

‘Nobody said anything, you were in descriptive mode.’

‘That’s right I was…no. You, who are you?’

Nothing.

They got the blades [is that the right word? Can’t use “oars” again, can I? Oh I don’t know, if it’s the right word, use it twice and use it three times to show them you meant it. I think Will Self said that.]

‘He says a lot of things.’

‘I know he’s good isn’t he?’

‘If you like that sort of thing. But that’s what I mean, a ripping yarn at sea isn’t what people buy now is it? It’s not what he writes.

They got the oars into the rowlocks and began to heave on them, turning the bow of the boat into the swell.

‘Help them, if you want to live!’

Jarvis and I let go our death grip on the hull and scrambled

[did I say scrambled earlier? Bugger yes. Think of another word.]

What would Will Self do?

‘Sod Will Self. There’s no point being an iconoclast if you use that iconoclasm to make new, iconoclastic rules a straitjacket is there?’

Jarvis and I let go our death grip [is that a cliche? It is isn’t it? Change it? Maybe later.] on the hull and made a grab for the other two oars [told you to say it three times} and…

Sticking with the iconoclasts new clothes then are we?’

‘Look, who said that?’

‘No-one, it’s not a quote.’

‘I KNOW! Who the hell is that voice?’

Nothing.

…and began heaving on them to save all our lives, murderers, thieves and honest men alike, all in the same boat.

‘That’s a cliche.’

‘It’s a knowing nod in a post modern acknowledgement to a past era of literary form.’

‘Pastiche is it then?

‘More an hommage.’

‘You say that when you’re taking the mickey.’

‘Do I?’

‘You know you do. Are you taking short cuts?

‘I’m establishing a mood, an atmosphere, using phrases and style familiar to readers of a certain genre of book to ground it in certain well travelled lines of expectation…’

‘And then you’re going to subvert them?

‘Possibly. You have a problem with that?’

‘Another cliche.’

‘Will you stop that!?’

Our small vessel nosed bow first into the waves now and Ramirez grinned, the knife still clutched in his hand. ‘We’ll make sailors of you yet boys!’ he laughed. [laughed? Should it be something less friendly? Such as?]

‘How about “cackled”?

‘And that’s not a cliche?’

‘Well I thought if you’ve given up I’d embrace the zeitgeist.

‘Given up?’

‘Well is this for real?

‘I don’t know. Are you?’

‘You tell me mate. You’re the one writing me.

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (5)

‘And now in best Miss World tradition,’ Carol’s fingers curled into fists. ‘We will announce the winners in reverse order.’

The background noise dropped away.

‘In third place, with a sound knowledge of tropical birds and the albums of Anthrax and Slayer but a poor showing on organic chemistry, we have our very own Jack of All Trades.’ There were whistles and jeers and I felt the eyes of various tables boring in at us. The captain went up to receive the third place trophy and mementoes.

‘And now, in what was a very tight finish between two excellent teams, we come to the runners up.’

He paused. I felt the sweat trickle down my spine.

‘Second place goes to a team with a broad spectrum of knowledge save musical theatre… Red Horse Crown Princes!’

Ronald walked up with a face like thunder and took the prizes offered.

We looked at each other. That must mean…

‘And in first place we have a team confirming their elite league status, our knowledgeable guests from… The Rugby Club.’

I’ve heard deeper silences because I’ve attended military remembrance services. Those silences are solemn, contemplative and respectful. The silence in the Red Horse Bowling Club had another quality.

The MC still had his hands raised in acclaim and a fixed smile. He realised he’d missed the mood.

Everyone stared at our table and everyone on our table stared at me.

You know you have to say something, just to make sure the Marshal and the Judge can see you didn’t draw first, but I knew where this was going to end.

My chair clunked against the table as I rose to my feet.

‘Thank you, thank you everyone.’ That confused them and bought me a moment before the silence burst. ‘We’ve had a lovely time this evening and we’d like to thank everyone involved in organising this quiz, but as we said, we came for that enjoyment and to support the charitable work of the Club. So rather than have any misunderstanding, we said earlier we weren’t in the competition so we congratulate Red Horse Crown Princes on their well deserved victory.’

I sat down, Ronald, Ivor and their supporters glared. The MC had a hurried conversation with Jeff and the quizmaster before announcing.

‘That’s very gracious, but we have been able to see from up here that the young lady has not been involved in any answers and you have won fair and square. The Red Horse respects the spirit of quizzing and we would be honoured if you would collect your prizes.’

He smiled and his hand ushered me forward to the top table.

There was nowhere to go. I looked at the team and Carol.

They raised eyebrows and shrugged.

I rose and walked to the front.

There were a few boos now.

‘I’m not having any of that.’ The MC snapped into the mike.

I received the large, repurposed bowls championship trophy, four bowling bags with the sponsor’s logo, four jacks and four bowling mats. I immediately donated the latter two items to the club as none of us bowled and it seemed like a conciliatory gesture. There was some clapping, but the muttering outgrew it.

I thanked everyone again and walked back to our table.

The MC began a roundup of the evening but before he got beyond ‘And now ladies and gentlemen a reminder that…’ Ivor and someone who I presumed was closely related, judging by his looks and hat, but who had been better nourished as a child marched over to us. Ivor spoke.

‘That trophy should be ours. Coming here with five players. What’s the game?’

‘You tell ’em Ivor!’

‘Cheats.’

I stood up.

‘Now look. We don’t want any trouble. We came for a fun night out and we’re going now.’

‘Are you now? Nick our trophy and then sod off ?’

‘Nobody “nicked” anything.’

‘Now gentlemen, let’s not have any unpleasantness. We don’t want to ruin a lovely evening do we?’ the MC’s voice called out over the PA system.

‘We haven’t had a lovely evening thanks to them!’ Ronald shouted, joining in the growing numbers behind Ivor and his large friend.

‘Could save it though.’ Ivor’s clone said. ‘What position do you play love?’ he asked with a leer. ‘Hoo…’

Carol was on her feet before he could finish the word.

‘I wouldn’t, even if you were paying.’ She said.

He sniggered and Ivor took a step forward.

She went for her pocket.

I was hoping she wasn’t going to do what I thought she was going to do, but she did.

Next second an open wallet was in Ivor’s startled face. ‘Hold it right there! She said.

Now in many circumstances the appearance of a Manchester Police warrant card would have given most people at least pause for thought before continuing in their nefarious activities.

In the Red Horse however it wasn’t pouring oil on troubled waters but petrol on a smouldering fire.

Ivor’s large companion leaned forward.

‘That’s Manchester police. You don’t have any jurisdiction here.’ He said and made a grab for her.

I hit him as sweetly on the chin as anyone I had ever punched on a pitch and he went down in a most satisfying heap. There was a gasp around the room.

Ivor spluttered.

‘About time someone did that.’ Someone on a nearby table said.

Ivor spun around.

‘Was that you Ernie Outhwaite?’

‘Aye! What of it? I’m sick of you and your idiot brother with your stupid hats.’

Ivor, already apoplectic at the quiz result lunged for Mr Outhwaite. Someone grabbed his arm before he could grasp his tormentor, but Ronald rabbit punched the man who had intervened.

The rugby club was already half way to the door. It opened and the doorman entered. The room had already passed beyond being aware of his presence. He looked at the three committee men at the front of the room and the MC nodded at him. He waded into the room. Tables, chairs, drinks, and quizzing paraphernalia were already flying about the place and now people joined the debris as he progressed towards the centre of the fracas. He grabbed Ivor and Mr Outhwaite and held them apart, one in each ham like hand. The rest of the room calmed down.

The MC looked at us and pressed the button on the mike.

‘And a last round of applause for our guests this evening, The Rugby Club!’ There was an enthusiastic burst of clapping from at least half the room from which I gathered my opinion of Ivor’s dress sense was widely shared.

We risked a wave and opened the door.

‘Same time next year lads?’

The End

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (4)

The room went quiet. I couldn’t really see the problem. She’d let them all have a go and waited until the last call to throw her hat in the ring. But I crossed my fingers she was going to be wrong.

‘Well, if it isn’t our guest.’ The halibut smile touched the MC’s mouth again and he looked at Carol with interest. ‘Do you have a name you’d like to try?’

‘I do. My grandfather would never forgive me if I didn’t know this.’

The MC’s brow furrowed.

‘Why?’

‘Because his dad was Bernard Kelly’ Carol paused for effect, ‘winner of the Waterloo in 1953 and 1954.’

‘Bloody hell.’

Some saw the funny side, some, realising they had the descendant of Crown Green royalty in the room, applauded and cheered. Ivor and Ronald began a speculative barrage of “Ringer”, “Cheats”, taken up by others who felt their sacred knowledge of the Crown Green game was being stolen by this female Prometheus.

Jeff and the MC tried to calm things down before anything more than insults were thrown. There was as much invective flowing now between various tables as there was towards us.

I was judging the best route to the door when Jeff disappeared and returned with the huge man who had been taking the money at the door. He loomed over the MC and looked round the room. Even the Homburg wearing Ivor was quiet.

‘Is there a problem?’

The silence was absolute. The MC resumed with a smile, a genuine one this time as far as one could tell.

 ‘Thank you ladies and gentleman. I can confirm that “Bernard Kelly” is the correct answer, and I’d like to extend a warm Red Horse welcome to such a lovely representative of a legendary family.’ There was a ripple of clapping. Ronald opened his mouth a couple of times, but his sense of injustice withered in the looming presence behind the MC.

Carol sashayed up to the front and collected her coasters and the MC’s handshake was long and genuine. Mr Kelly’s fame trumped everything in his eyes. Carol didn’t showboat this time and there was spontaneous applause. The doorman’s eyes swept the room one last time as Carol returned to our table, and satisfied he was no longer required, went back to mind the entrance.

‘Well, we are honoured to have the great granddaughter of one of the greats of Crown Green bowling in our midst.’ The MC announced. He took a breath to recover from his brush, however remote, with fame before continuing. ‘Now, on to the last two rounds and I’d like to remind you all that the last round is a double pointer. The questions are harder but the reward so much greater.’

The Rugby Club looked at each other. This wasn’t quizzing according to Hoyle, but it was the Red Horse’s quiz. League rules didn’t apply if they didn’t want them to. The Red Horse was always a maverick outfit. There wasn’t any judge to run to on this side of town. We’d known that when we crossed the river.

First there was a music round and that might have soothed the savage breast, but the combination of thrash metal, swing and gospel rock was not conducive to that end. The temperature rose. We were not clued up on the works of Metallica, Tommy Dorsey or Cliff Richard but surprisingly, some of the Red Horse teams were. The gap narrowed. We weren’t playing for the prize. We were playing for honour and I had a sneaking suspicion we might have forfeited that in most people’s eyes some time ago. I knew Carol wasn’t answering any of our questions but I wondered how I’d have felt if Ronald or Ivor’s teams had pulled the same stroke. Not that there was a stroke being pulled, but I suddenly saw how it might look. Losing might be the honourable thing to do.

‘Drink?’

I pulled myself back to the present.

‘Er, no thanks. Keep a clear head and stuff.’ I said.

‘Good thinking.’ Said Steve. ‘Double points next round, we don’t want to let them in at the death.’

‘I wish you hadn’t said “death”‘ Paul said, looking over his shoulder.

‘Nothing to worry about now.’ Steve replied.

‘Not with our get of gaol card.’ John nodded at Carol.

‘They wouldn’t touch the granddaughter of Brian Kelly.’

‘Bernard, and he was my great granddad.’ Carol corrected.

‘I’m not sure how far that amnesty extends.’ I said.

‘Right, ladies and gentlemen, with the scores poised in a very interesting position, we move into the final round, and with double points up for grabs, things can change very quickly.’ He swept the room with his grin. ‘Are we all ready?’

‘Get on with it!’

‘Then I’ll begin.’

The questions were harder, but as well as being an average inside centre at the weekend, John was a pretty mean industrial chemist by day. We knocked over the questions on the Haber process, carbon ring geometry and blast furnace components without breaking stride. Naming German goal scorers in the 1966 World Cup Final proved more of a challenge. Helmut Haller was no problem but we had to go via the German author of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” to dig up Wolfgang Weber’s name. The rest were somewhere in between but we were confident we had knocked all of the questions over the boundary. Then I remembered perhaps we should be trying to lose. I was still dithering about whether to change some answers as the sheet was collected.

To keep people busy while the serious business of marking and adding went on at the top tables, there was a ‘just for fun’ picture round, but beyond a few ‘Who the **** is that’ mutterings over lesser known movie stars and Bishop Abel Muzorewa, it excited little interest. The frantic calculations by the teams believing themselves to be still in contention were interrupted in fairly short order by the MC.

‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ He called us to order.

He wasn’t going to surrender his power easily and he strung proceeding out as best he could. He thanked the waitresses, the bar staff, the organisers, question setters, markers and “of course all of you wonderful teams” for making the evening possible and the raising of so much money for charitable causes, although they remained unnamed. There was a grumbling in the throng.

He was a committee man, and he stuck to his guns, making amusing, to someone at least, comments about various well known characters from the club and their performance on the green and in the quiz. Eventually he got to the meat of the event.

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (3)

We pored over the pictures and the lads mumbled a few complaints about not getting the trophy and I suggested they could stand up and reverse the decision if they liked. The swell of noise around us was still divided between ‘bastards’, ‘cheats’, ‘pompous twat’, we could beat ‘em anyway’ and ‘leave ‘em alone’, ‘that was nice’ and  ‘doesn’t he speak posh?’ I wasn’t sure if the latter comment were a positive or a negative. It was the Red Horse, but I’d give them the benefit of the doubt.

We handed our picture sheet in and talked amongst ourselves.

‘Does this mean we can play properly now?’  Paul asked.

‘What do you mean; “properly”? Have you been holding back?’

‘Little bit.’ Paul said.

I looked at John and Steve. They nodded.

‘Bloody hell.’ was all I could manage.

‘I thought you were supposed to be rugby players?’ Carol said.

We looked at each other, at the assembled multitude in the Red Horse club room and then back at her. Steve opened his mouth. Before he could make a sound Carol spoke again.

‘And if you say “It’s the Red Horse” I’m going to tell them you’re all gay.’

It was the 1980s and thank goodness no longer illegal to like your own gender, but the Red Horse clientele would move out of the 1880s in their own good time.

‘Okay then.’ Steve said, ‘But I hope you can run as fast as you can talk.’

The MC switched his mike on again, repeating the electronic howling of earlier and brought proceedings to order.

‘While the lovely ladies…’ Carol’s eyes got even flintier than they had been when issuing her threat to us, ‘…are moving amongst you for orders before the second half, we’ll have the first of our spot prizes. These are questions for individuals to answer so anyone in the room except for staff can answer, so that includes our delightful guests,’ he inclined his head towards Carol. ‘I shall ask the question and anyone who knows the answer put their hand up. Jeff will select the person who put their hand up first and if correct they will win the spot prize. If the answer is wrong Jeff will indicate the second person and so on until we get the correct answer.’

‘Point of order.’

‘Yes Ronald?’

‘Aren’t spot competitions restricted to paying members of teams in the main competition?’

‘We’ve checked during the interval Ronald and it doesn’t say so in the rules.’

‘I would have thought…’

‘Three committee members have decided it’s open to anyone except staff.’

‘Well I think…’

‘It’s a committee decision Ronald. Bring it up at a committee meeting if you want.’ He turned to the paper in his hand. ‘Now then, this prize is a lovely tankard engraved with the Red Horse motif and our motto “Crown of Strength”. Now if you are all ready the question is: Who wrote the tune for the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in the film and show “Cabaret”?’

There was a lot of blank stares and then a couple of hands shot up. Jeff selected one.

‘Christopher Isherwood?’

‘Incorrect. Jeff, next one please.’

‘Adolf Hitler.’

‘No.’

‘Stephen Sondheim.’

‘An imaginative try Ronald.’

‘Frank?’ Jeff said, selecting the last remaining hand.

‘Bob Fosse.’

‘Sorry Frank a creditable effort but he was the Director.’

Jeff and the MC exchanged glances.

‘Anyone else?

The Rugby Club was out. Songbooks of musical theatre were not our forte. And then I saw Carol’s face. She was smirking, and her hand climbed into the air. Jeff saw it but did a very convincing act of looking to the far wall as if seeing another hand raised, somewhere, anywhere.

All eyes except Jeff’s were on Carol. Eventually even Jeff couldn’t pretend he hadn’t seen the rock solid hand in front of his face. ‘Er, the young lady here’ he said pointing somewhat redundantly to the lone hand aloft in the room.

‘John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the song.’ She informed him, ‘But it was Ebb who wrote the music.’

The MC’s eyebrows lifted and he pasted a broad smile on his face.

‘Why, that is spot on young lady! Many people think it was an original Nazi song from the Third Reich but it was specially written for the stage show. Well done. Would you like to come and collect your tankard?’

Carol stepped up. The room had that heavy silent feel to it, like the atmosphere before a thunderstorm. She shook hands with Jeff and the MC, picked up the tankard, held it aloft and beamed at the room. A rumble went around the place. A storm was coming.

We admired the tankard and prepared for the first round proper of the second half.

The talk at half time and Carol’s individual win broke any reserve we might have had about playing to win. We got full marks on the first two rounds and dropped one in the third on the value of Pi to six decimal places because we couldn’t decide whether the last digit should be two or if, as were truncating it and the next value was six it should be three. We went the wrong way.

The half time altercations must have inspired some of the opposition as well because we had not broken away from the pack completely. Two other teams, Jack of All Trades and Red Horse Crown Princes were keeping pace with us and muttering still about numbers.

There was another spot prize. I was hoping the question for the “beautiful set of Red Horse Coasters” would be more in keeping with the assembled Red Horse knowledge base and would restore some bonhomie. The MC’s smile was even wider than normal as he opened the envelope with the question in it.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, one for the aficionados I think. Ready?’ There was a chorus of ‘get on with it’ and he began.

‘Only three men have won the Waterloo more than once, who was the first to achieve that notable accolade?’

We were safe. The Waterloo was a crown green bowling competition held in Blackpool at the Waterloo Hotel each year, and that was as far as my knowledge went. I was pretty sure that made me the top wrangler on bowling in our team. Carol’s face was a mask and I couldn’t tell what, if anything she might know about double victors of the supreme championship in Crown Green Bowls. Then I remembered her grandfather; a keen bowler and member of a club that regularly sent players up to Blackpool. There was not a flicker on her face, no movement of her limbs.

There were other hands up all over the room already though. We’d be safe this time. Someone would get this right.

‘Brian Duncan’.

‘Sorry Frank. He has won it twice but he wasn’t the first.’

‘He’ll win it again this year an’ all.’

‘That’s as maybe, but he wasn’t the first. Yes, Ronald.’

‘Dennis Mercer.’

‘No. Perhaps he should have, perhaps he will, but he hasn’t yet.’

Another flurry of answers scattered names of past winners into the room, but none was the name of the elusive first double winner. The MC still had a smile on his face, but it had outstayed its welcome, like a week old halibut on a fishmonger’s slab.

‘Come on ladies and gentlemen, time’s ticking. I’m amazed no-one knows this great man. Winning the Waterloo twice should make him a legend.’

‘Well he weren’t from round here.’

Laughter ran round the room, mingled with mutterings about the difficulty of the questions.

‘Get on with it man.’

‘Thank you ladies and gentlemen for your comments.’ The smile vanished. I had a feeling that might have been his pet question. ‘We’ll reserve the coasters for another time then, unless there are any other answers…’ he waved a couple of hands away, ‘…from people who haven’t yet had a go.’

Carol face broke into a smile, ‘Well I need something to go under the tankard don’t I?’ she said, and raised her hand.

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (2)

Episode 2 of Shoot Out

I should have mentioned this was going to be in serial form. Sorry! It will appear in 5 sections

At a table behind us, a man rose. He was a tall hombre, 6’ 3” if he was an inch. His hat added another six inches. It was a homburg. Dude had to be mean to wear a homburg this side of town.

‘Excuse me Mr MC. I just want to clarify the position of this team…’ he pointed at us, ‘…they appear to have an extra player.’

The MC looked across at us. He turned to the cadaverous character from the door, Jeff, who had followed us in. There was an exchange of words before he turned back and uncovered the mike.

‘It’s okay Ivor, the Rugby Club…,’ A murmur rippled through the crowd, ‘…have brought a spectator. There isn’t room for her elsewhere but she won’t be answering questions.’

Ivor looked at the MC, then at us, then back at the MC. He nodded and sat down.

‘Bloody hell.’ murmured Paul. ‘You were right, this doesn’t feel good.’

The MC resumed his spiel.

There were ten rounds and a picture round and a music round on top of that. There would be an intermission at half way. At the end of each round drinks orders for the bar would be taken by the waitresses passing amongst us.

He wished us all good luck and handed the mike over to the quizmaster.

Round one was an ice breaker. Politics. They did things differently at the Red Horse. He started the questions.

‘Who the hell came after MacDonald?’ Paul said.

‘Which time?’ Steve asked.

‘What do you mean?’ said John.

‘He had two terms as PM.’ Steve replied before I could say anything.

‘Oh.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ I said. ‘It was Baldwin both times. It’s a trick question. MacDonald was PM in 1924 and 1929 to 1935 and both times Baldwin was PM before and after him.’ I nodded to Steve. ‘Write it down. Classic quiz trick. They’re trying to spoof us.’

Carol raised an eyebrow as we stumbled over Bohemian Queens in the European History section, cudgelled our brains about nematode worms in biology and struggled with whether the formula for the square root of -1 was E to the IxPi or not. The answer papers were collected and taken to the markers after each round. While the quizmaster asked the next round of questions the markers ticked and crossed and discussed the papers in front of them. While the next round of papers was being collected at the end of the round, Jeff scribbled the scores of the top five teams in the preceding round up on a whiteboard near the bar.

We weren’t making any friends. At the end of round two the results of round one were displayed on the whiteboard. We were equal first. A wave of murmuring swept the room. After round three the murmurs became an angry buzzing. We had gone out to a clear lead. After round four, the buzzing was accompanied by people standing and peering at the edges of the room. There were smoke signals in the hills. There was finger waving and pencil jabbing.

The picture round arrived. Last round before the half time break. The sheet of photographs landed on our table and a small, precise, bank teller of a man, rose to his feet and peered at the officials, trying to catch their eye over the seated crowd.

‘Excuse me Mr Question master. Excuse me. As we are going into the break, I’d like to raise a point of order. I can’t see how it can be fair to have one team, and one team only’ he looked at us, ‘of five, competing in what is after all a serious prize competition for four man teams.’

‘Person.’ Carol said loudly.

‘See!’ chimed in the homburg, ‘she is talking.’

‘Ivor, I think she was questioning Ronald’s lack of feminist credentials.’ the MC said, leaning in to take the microphone. If he was trying to lighten the mood, he failed; there was no answering chuckle from the assembly.

‘As agreed, by three committee members, we have extended our hospitality to accommodate the Rugby Club…’ there were boos from a couple of tables…’now now. As I said, our HOSPITALITY, so that they may look after one of their young lady followers.’ Carol glared.

‘They can do that in the car park after…’ came from somewhere near table 20 at the back. Carol began to stand. I put a hand on her arm and shook my head. The others looked at me. I rose.

I looked at the MC. The MC looked right back at me. We nodded.

I made quietening motions with my arms. I swept the room and the faces watching us and my eyes settled on the score board. We could still lose this if we worked at it but I felt a long line of Rugby Club quizzers of old at my shoulder. You can’t put fake answers down and walk in the club next Saturday. They didn’t do that. You can’t do that. You have to do it right. If you know The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s novel about a picture growing old in the attic you have to say so, even if Mac thought it was a play. Whatever happens. You have to do it right. Even if it means not walking in the club next Saturday.

My eyes went round the room one more time and landed on the homburg.

 ‘We came to play a charity quiz. We want to win but we aren’t going to cheat.’ I said staring at him ‘We’re very happy to be here in the spirit this evening was intended for.’ I just prayed none of the lads would smirk at this point. ‘So we’re going to play. As a foursome.’ The homburg started to open his mouth. I carried on. ‘But we won’t be playing for the prizes or the trophy. All we want is the fun of the competition and to help the Red Horse Bowling Club continue its proud tradition of fund raising for charity.’

I smiled at the MC and sat down. There was a silence and then someone clapped. The room took it up. We weren’t going to be lynched. Probably. Not yet.

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (1)

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.

‘On Thursday?’

‘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…’

‘Man?’

‘Well I suppose ‘person’, but we’ve got four, and a reserve…’

‘Not Mac?’

‘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.’

‘Shit.’

                                            ***

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.

We waited.

‘Should we maybe go in?’

I shook my head. ‘We said we’d meet outside.’

‘Why?’

‘Safety in numbers.’

‘You what?’

‘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.

‘You’re…?’

‘Rugby club.’

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.

GAMES

‘So! Dom. Dommy Dom Dom, the old Domster.’

‘What?’

‘Well, my old Dommeister in Chief, I was just wondering…’

‘Get on with it I’m busy.’

The head of the country looked up from his board game and surveyed the dithering Nominal Prime Minister.

‘Well. The er, thing is, not to er put too fine a point on it, the, if you will, crux, yes I think crux is the mot juste, is; do you think I should say something?’

Dom moved a piece on the board and paused, apparently lost in thought.

‘Well?’ The NPM prompted. ‘Tempus fugit and all that, and I think the populus Britannus may need a word from their Government…’ he hurried to qualify ‘…that is; me.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, panic aboard the ship of state, rats deserting the sinking, er, hand on the tiller, steady as she goes, into the eye of the storm, trim the sails and all that thing.’

Another piece completed the encirclement of yet another doomed enemy stronghold on the game board.

‘Yes. Good idea. Say something about masks. Go and get a briefing from Health.’

‘Yowser! Right to the point, good thinking , you are de man Dom! Health. Mask. Good film. Loved old Carey in that. Why can’t we have Archbishes like that now? Eh!?’

‘That was Jim Carrey, not George Carey. Now, go.’

‘Okay Dommy babes. One hot shot policy statement from Health, no wait, from me, on The Mask coming up.’

The NPM moved to the door.

‘Wait!’ came the imperious command.

‘What?’

‘Not Health, I haven’t purged them yet. Try Cabinet Office or Home Office. They haven’t got too many independent thinkers left there.’

‘Do the Home Office know a lot about The Mask then Dom Dom?’

‘Masks. No. Why should they?’

‘Well, if I’m going to make a speech about them, a bit of policy wonk babble can’t hurt can it? Can it?’

‘Just get a form of words telling everyone to wear them all the time.’

‘What even in, you know bed, rumpy pumpy time and all that?’

‘Always.’

‘Ooh er. I suppose the mem sahib might like that.’ He turned to go. ‘Hang on a minute Dom. Didn’t I make several statements saying there was no evidence they worked and the natural right of all free born Englishmen was to go to the pub and puke up over everyone? We had a party the weekend it happened didn’t we?’

‘Yes. So?’

‘Well, dash it! Aren’t I going to look a complete arse if I just turn round and say the opposite now.’

‘It will look natural. You’ll show you aren’t afraid to change your mind on a whim. That you may have been to Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club dinners but you can be as short sighted, capricious and petty as any working class oik, but with rumpled charm.’

‘Good oh! Ad astra per leporem!’

Before he could go through the door, Dom threw some dice and removed the last opposing piece from the board in front of him. He turned to the NPM hovering in the doorway.

‘And Prime Minister, use more Latin. Everyone likes that.’

MIDDLE EARTH 70 YEARS ON

‘Excuse me sir. Can I have a word about finalising the annual Harmonious Co-Existence Dinner invitations?’

The Minister’s face fell at the words.

‘I suppose so. Come in Emrik, have a seat.’

‘Thank you Minister. Here’s the provisional list of attendees suggested by the various Secretaries and Ambassadors. Not too long this year as the Eastern bloc have that unfortunate disease to cope with and won’t be travelling.’

‘Hoh! No bat’s wing on the menu then hey! Good. Can’t stand the stuff’.’

‘I believe bat eating might be part of the problem sir.’

The Minister was too busy scanning the list to catch his assistant’s attempt at humour.

‘Okay. Looks okay I guess.’ He looked up at Emrik, ‘I suppose we have to invite the Elves?’

‘Well it is rather the point isn’t it Sir? Harmony with those we find…’ he struggled for an acceptable word or phrase, ‘challenging, in a world setting?’

Minister Juguch snorted.

‘Challenging! Nobody likes them that’s the problem with them. Arrogant po faced sanctimonious goody two shoes. Can’t abide them. Bloody Elves.’

Emrik sighed a little. Just a small sigh but the Minister had good hearing and remarkable awareness of mood for an Orc.

‘What? Am I being insensitive? Racially stereotyping?’ he glared at Emrik who swallowed hard. Times were different he knew, but enraged Orc Ministers had appearances to keep up and while no-one had been disembowelled for several decades, this administration was elected on a return to Traditional Orcish Values ticket, and you never knew what may feel expedient to an embattled Minister.

Emrik brought his thumb and forefinger close together and with a grimace, nodded slightly. ‘Just a tad Minister.’ He said.

Juguch glared at the list again. Is this the seating order?

Emrik nodded.

‘I’m not spending all night having him whining about deforestation and how he can’t cultivate the right sort of moss on north facing bark because of global warming. Move Elendrip down two places, swap him with the Goblin.’

Emrik shuffled his list and sucked his not inconsiderably sized teeth. ‘That puts him next to Bingli, the Dwarf King’s representative. I mean I know it’s a Harmony Dinner, but that’s asking for trouble. And it’s Elendril not …drip Sir.’

‘Well put him somewhere else, on a table on his own in an antechamber for preference.’

‘He’s a Prince of the Blood, if he isn’t on the main table he’ll start a war. Not a good message for the efficacy of Orc based diplomacy is it Sir?’

‘S’pose not.’ mumbled Juguch. ‘How about the Tree things, what do you call ’em, Ants, they get on with them don’t they?’

‘Ents, Sir. But they aren’t coming this year.’

‘Oh, not this virus thingy from out east?’

‘No, Sir. The problem is they’re about forty feet high and don’t really say a lot. So rather than have the roof raised again we asked if they’d mind using social media to attend in a virtual capacity.’

‘And they were okay with that?’

‘Oh yes, they don’t really like being away from their woods anyway so they were very positive. Also I think they have fallen out with the Elves a bit. Some sort of contention about who cares more for the green spaces on the planet.’

‘Oh. I’d forgotten about the Elves.’ Juguch scanned the paper some more, his hand involuntarily beginning to crumple it into a ball.

‘How about I move the human representative next to you, put Elendril next to him and swap the Dwarf with the Goblin?’

The Minister looked at Emrik and the ministerial aide felt a cold sweat breaking out all over.

‘A human? A miserable weak kneed, cowardly, no special powers, abilities or significance except out breeding everyone else on the planet, whining human?’

‘Well, yes. It’s that or…’

‘Sod it, put Elendrip next to me, then the Goblin, then the Dwarf. Even an Elf’s better than a night listening to a human drone on. Stick them next to the Trolls at the end, by the Ent screen. That should keep them quiet.’

The aide rose.

‘Oh, but Emrik, get me a briefing note on moss types. I’ll have to pretend to have something in common with the boring tree hugger.’

‘Yes Minister.’

 

I have a horrible feeling this slides into whimsy. I hate whimsy. Apologies, but the idea just tickled me. It won’t happen again. Probably.

THOUGHTS ON ‘OLD HABITS’

Yesterday saw the last part of ‘Old Habits’ posted here.

I was going to say that the initial idea was about eighteen months old, but that was the last time the original file was altered before I started this rewrite for the blog. The start of the file was easily a couple of years before that, probably more, and the germ of the idea before I put fingers to keyboard was about ten years ago.

I suspect on reflection that some of the implicit timelines underlying the story work on this basis and may be stretched if one assumes it is a current event.

It started life when I was writing a fair bit about the idea of a retired, or semi retired, or possibly disgraced, former intelligence officer of some kind dragged back into a world he used to inhabit. The central conceit being that although he is generally out of touch he can still hack it, and does what he was unable to while he was working and solves, resolves or otherwise brings some sort of closure to a singular problem of his service period that he failed to address successfully then.

We’d all like a second chance at bits of our past I suspect. Or at least we think we would.

It is a story, not real life so I quickly put aside the reality that this type of revisiting past glories would take – an enquiry or a request to come and go through some old paperwork – and took a step into the more unlikely but infinitely more entertaining world of unsanctioned violence.

I was unsure when I first sat down to write this piece, or what became this piece, where it fitted. I had several starts to the basic story and in most of those, his marriage had gone south and his wife, with or without the children, had left him. This cleared the way for a more dramatic beginning chapter with actual violent action on the page, rather than the off stage version in ‘Old Habits’. It happened in his home and was not at all premeditated on his part.

The initial scene of ‘Old Habits’ in the house would easily have fitted in a couple of versions as a later part of the overall idea and could in fact have been the denouement, assuming I could tidy up the clash between absent family and present family.

So the initial draughts of the piece came out at about much the same length as the current short story but were full of discursive pieces, and not just about the type of tea he made. There were extensive tell not show thoughts as he checked and loaded the gun and made sure the electronic kit was working. This moved the action on hardly at all. By the time, in subsequent draughts, I had got him to the woods, where the showdown with the men who had been instrumental in effectively ending his career, originally took place, it was much longer and I was bored.

Looking at the story as I left it, unincorporated into the novel I thought it might belong too, it became clear it had way too much explanation jammed into it. This was probably because I was almost making notes about plot that should/would have been dropped in throughout a much longer novel. Or I was just horribly over writing it.

When I sat down and looked at the explanations, plot devices and meditations, some worked and I have lifted them for incorporation into the still ongoing novel, and some have just been abandoned in the original unfinished piece.

What was left, plus some major changes, e.g. woods to abandoned market hall, have been turned into ‘Old Habits’. I liked the original concept but didn’t want to shoehorn it into what was clearly a different story, nor did I want to write a parallel piece that was exactly the same as the other barring a few details, like a recurring Guy Ritchie film. (If I could be as successful as him from the same shtick all the time I would probably jump at the chance).

So this what it turned into. I wanted it to be short. My short stories nearly always top out way beyond what modern markets seem to want, so I set a rough two thousand word limit on it and still came out c170 words over. Out went explanations of how he had managed to get hold of and retain a revolver and ammunition, more discursion on his taste in tea (believe me it sounded really cool when I wrote it) and most problematic; the detailed explanation of the reason for the act of violence and the description of the reckoning itself.

One kind soul has suggested this emasculates the story and they really wanted a blow by blow, knock ’em down, drag ’em out, description of the encounter in the market and how the bodies were disposed of. For me that is a different, much longer story. To include that would have extended the piece to at least three thousand words and really would have unbalanced it. As part of the bigger piece of writing it would have been entirely appropriate and probably necessary, but I don’t think I could have done it justice in my, admittedly self imposed word limit.

I know because I tried, and ended up with lots and lots of scene setting, explanations, dialogue, flashbacks and action that could have become another novel in themselves, and may do some day. It didn’t however fit in a two thousand word short story.

So for better or worse, there it is.

There are I confess lots of questions about how, what and why. As long as there are no impossible answers that’s what I was aiming for.