Cooking With Gas

‘We’ll walk. It’s only up the road.’

So we did.

Two young men. Professionals in three piece suits. Not as unusual then as it would be now perhaps. We strode across the old market centre of an old mill town. The town was searching for a new direction. We knew where we were going. The mills that had brought prosperity and self confidence were almost all gone, one or two hanging on by their fingernails. Our client wasn’t.

He was dead.

‘What did he die of?’

‘Heart attack I think.’ Andrew stopped at the crossing. They really needed to do something about the traffic snaking its way through a medieval street plan. I said so to Andrew.

‘They’ll put the ring road in soon.’

‘You think.’

He looked at me as the green man appeared and the beeper bleeped.

‘You should stay a bit longer in the Leigh on Friday nights.’ He winked.

‘I think I’m still at the house clearance stage.’

We turned off the main street and disappeared into the warren of early nineteenth century terraces.

‘Me too, but get yourself noticed.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah.  Eddie, Keith and Simon were all in last week when the planning crowd walk in, straight upstairs. Eddie and co. buy a round and follow. Monday he tells me there are interesting developments on the old railway line into town.’

We turned a couple of corners in quick succession then took a left down some cobbled steps.

‘Where’s that going to go then? When it gets into the old goods yard? There are properties all round there now.’

Andrew slid his forefinger along the side of his nose and tapped it.

‘Keep an eye on the conveyancing files. See where your mate at the Rugby Club puts his mortgages out to in the next few months and who’s buying.’

‘But it’ll be blighted.’

‘Exactly. Lots of lovely compensation. What’s a terraced cottage at the moment? Eight grand?’

We entered a courtyard that could have been out of a Dickens novel.

‘Bit more, bit less depending where it is.’

‘Yes, well you can rest assured you can buy it for seven and sell it for twelve when the council values it for you if the road goes through and you sell without trouble, Deal yourself in, then you’ll be cooking.’

We stopped before a peeling green door.

‘Key?’

I took the bunch with its clean new string and cardboard tag and jangled it in front of Andrew.

‘Want to play “guess the key”?’

‘What the hell did he want with all these?’ He took the bunch, squinted at the tumbler lock and selected a Yale type key. It stuck half way in.

‘Bugger! Your turn.’ He handed the bunch back.

I discounted all the obvious mortice keys and selected the most worn Yale. It slid into the lock and with a slight wiggle spun the cylinder. The door pushed clear.

‘After you.’

Andrew gave me his dead pan look as he stepped through the door, then stopped and wrinkled his nose.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. Then I got it as the air rolled out past him. It wasn’t so bad as to make you gag but there was something really odd about it.

‘Did he die in here?’

‘Don’t know. I guess he must have.’

We went in a bit further. The door opened into a short hallway with stairs facing you and a door on the right. The smell wasn’t quite as bad now the door had been open a minute. We left the front door open and moved forward to the door to what was obviously the living room. The smell rolled over us again, very strong now. We both cleared our throats. Someone had to go in first. Andrew had been first into the house, so my turn.

I walked in, eyes flicking, hoping not to see anything too horrible. It was a standard terraced room. Some had a front room and a living room and a kitchen. This was configured with a living room a kitchen and a scullery. The living room had nothing in it you wouldn’t expect to find. I shook myself free of the smell.

‘He can’t be here can he? He’s with the undertaker. That’s why we’re here.’ I rationalised.

Andrew nodded and went and shut the front door. It was quieter than I would have expected. It didn’t smell like a body. Not entirely. Not really. It wasn’t that decayed meat smell, not the sickly sweetness underneath, although there was a hint of it. We stood on the threadbare carpet and shrugged.

‘Let’s get on with it.’ I said. We each had a plastic bag with a couple of foolscap envelopes in case we discovered things we needed to take back to the office. You never knew what. Simon and Andrew had found a bewildering variety of oddly coloured old bank notes in a house last year none of which were now legal tender. The Bank of England redeemed them at the face value of just over a thousand pounds. I had wondered if the estate would have been better off selling them as collectors’ items; but it wasn’t my decision.

‘You check the sideboard I’ll do the shelves then we’ll move back through the kitchen.’ Andrew said.

I put the bag on the top of the cluttered sideboard. There were ornaments and trinkets and lots of bits of metal lying about in the dust. I squatted down and opened the cupboard doors underneath the drawers.

I rubbed my fingers together, they were getting grubby already. Dusting had obviously not been a priority. I felt the grime as I took in the collection of china and odd mementoes. I rubbed my fingers again. They felt greasy, which was odd. Old polish? I discounted the china as definitely not Meissen or Ming and went on to the drawers. They too were greasy and a bit smutty even. I found some letters, a few bills, one insurance policy, a cheque book and a building society pass book. They all went into an envelope which I signed and Andrew countersigned.

‘It’s really grubby.’ I said.

Andrew looked at his hands. They too were showing signs of dirt. ‘It’s like he’s been smearing butter or something on the wood.’

We moved through to the kitchen. Everything there had the same soiled feel to it, but oddly it was not as bad as the living room. There was nothing of interest to his estate there. No solid silver cutlery or Fabergé eggs tucked away in drawers. We moved back to the scullery. If anything it was cleanest room so far. There was an old fashioned ringer washing machine but beyond that it was mostly given over to metalworking tools and a bench with boxes and boxes of nuts, bolts, screws and other bits of metal unidentifiable to me.

‘What did he do for a living?’ I asked.

‘Toolshop engineer for Hewitt’s mill.’

‘Brought his work home with him then.’

‘Retired last year. This is his hobby stuff.’

‘One year out of harness. Not much is it?’

‘Poor old sod.’

‘Upstairs then?’

We walked back through the kitchen and I checked the grill and the oven. Clean as a whistle.

‘I checked that. No hidden millions in the cooker.’ Andrew laughed.

‘I just wondered if he’d left a meal on or something. It smells like old bacon.’

‘Someone cleaned it up if it was. Gas is off according to Len.’

Len was the firm’s Legal Exec who had sent us on this errand. It needed two of us to make sure everything was above board. It was why we stuck together in the house. You didn’t want someone accusing you of walking off with the half of the sovereigns Uncle Tom had always told them was in the back parlour. We went upstairs.

One small bedroom had been converted into a bathroom. You could just about swing a cat but there was nowhere to hide a fiver, never mind a bag of sovereigns. We considered the shaving kit for a moment, shuddered at the cutthroat razor and moved on.

The second bedroom was converted into another workroom. The work bench was covered in tools and metal again. All clean and relatively tidy. There were a couple of drawers, in one of which we found twenty pounds in pound notes. They went into an envelope and we sealed it, signed it and noted the room.

The bedroom was sad, the bed unmade, a few scattered clothes. The wardrobe was full of clothes from a different era and the overpowering smell of naphthalene and paradicholorobenzene mothballs. There was nothing of value or significance in the pockets but at least the stink of mothballs overpowered the stale burnt bacon smell.

My hands were nearly black and sticky and my suit would be going into the dry cleaners the next morning.

‘All done?’ I asked.

‘Couple of girlie mags in the chest of drawers and about a dozen watches. That’s it. Time to go.’ We bagged the watches and replaced the magazines.

We descended and stuck our head into the living room for a last look round. No obvious Picasso on the wall we’d missed. A few shelves, the sideboard a television, a couple of easy chairs one of which looking the worse for wear and stained with what was presumably the side effects of our client’s demise

We locked up and left.

It was almost five when we got back to the office.

‘All right?’ Julie, the receptionist asked.

‘Yes. Need to wash up though.’ Andrew held up his hands.

‘Ew! What have you been, going through the coal hole?’

The talking brought Len out of his office.

‘Come on, hand over the loot before you go anywhere.’

We followed him into his office and placed the keys and the bags onto his desk and talked him through the finds.

‘No treasure chests that lot open then?’ He said nodding at the bunch of keys.

‘No. He just collected metal bits and pieces, tools, watches and obviously keys.’

‘Fair enough. You’d better go and get him washed off you by the look of things.’

‘What?’

Len had a big smile on his face as he tamped down his pipe.

‘Didn’t I say to take some gloves or something?’

‘No you didn’t.’ I said, holding my hands away from my sides. ‘Should you have done?’

He laughed. ‘Didn’t you read the file?’

‘No identified close relatives, house search for valuables and financial papers.’ Andrew said.

‘Clerks eh? Page two, cause of death.’ Len smiled, and picked up the folder as if to refresh his memory which was obviously not required.’

‘Neighbours called the police when they hadn’t seen him for a few days and…Did you notice anything odd?’

We shrugged and I held my hands up. ‘Everything was covered in greasy dust. Oh and it smelt like he’d left a fry up on.’

Len laughed.

‘Neighbours knocked and then opened the letterbox to shout. Then they called the police. They called the fire brigade.’ Len smiled sadly. ‘He’d been sat in front of the gas fire, watching tele. Died of a heart attack. Nobody missed him, retired, no family, bit of a loner. Sat there in front of that fire for quite a while. Not hot enough to burst into flames. Just enough to cook his legs through to the bone.’ He nodded at our hands. ‘That grease and soot is what’s left of his legs.’

Andrew and I looked at each other, at our hands and headed for the washroom followed by Len’s chuckles.

SNARE

Part 3

‘Come on dopey, first one’s only a few yards.’ Tom said, moving off through the bushes.

Ed had done all right at school once he’ stopped hanging around with Tom and actually done some work. His teachers hadn’t suggested college because they’d had him marked down the same path as Tom, but now he’d got his results, good results, he was thinking about going this year. He’d put an application in and had one offer and needed to talk to someone about a couple of others he was waiting for. The idea was to make some cash this year but so far there’d been nothing. And here he was again with Tom.

He nearly bumped into him as Tom stopped.

‘Here we go.’ He stooped and pulled aside a branch. The snare had looped neatly round the rabbit’s neck and the animal was as dead as it was going to be. Tom unpegged the wire and pulled it out from the rabbit’s flesh. He coiled the wire and peg and pocketed them, giving the animal to Ed who stuffed it in the haversack.

‘Next one’s about five yards over.’ Tom whispered.

They turned their back on the run and stepped under and round the undergrowth to where Tom had laid the next snare. There was no rabbit. The loop of wire was still set open and there was no sign of disturbance. Tom shrugged. ‘Bugger. I thought that we’d maybe get them all sprung today.’ He stood up. Never mind, leave it, we can come up tomorrow and check that one.’

‘”We.” Already apparently in Tom’s mind they were working together again. Ed wasn’t so sure. He had a route out if he was sensible. College. A job in a town or city. Money, independence. Not being a country boy on the edge of existence. Not being a sidekick to a chancer like Tom. Wondering again why Tom’s family was weird and what would happen when the luck ran out.

They checked another three snares on this side of the path, one empty, one with another clean kill and one with the animal still kicking a little as the noose hadn’t broken the neck or throttled it in the time since it had run into the trap. Tom slipped a short lead cosh from his pocket and smacked the animal sharply on the back of the neck which stopped the wriggling.

‘He’ll be a tough old bugger to eat. Give that one to my Dad I reckon.’ Tom laughed.

‘Why?’

‘Why tough or why give it my Dad?’

‘Both I suppose.’

‘They don’t die quick, they get real knotty. All that struggling. Quick kill before they realise what’s happening, they’re all relaxed see. Nice eating. Dad don’t mind, but Carslake’s customers is choosy. I start giving him tough old buggers like this he’ll drop the price or stop taking ’em altogether.’ Tom grinned. ‘Customer care boy.’

Ed took the animal and looked at it. ‘You’ll know which is which?’

‘Yeah. Look.’ Tom flipped its neck over. ‘See. Big bit of fur rubbed off this side where it was struggling.’ He lifted the head. ‘And that mark where I whacked him.’

Ed put it in the sack with the others.

‘How many more Tom?’

‘Another five. Round the other side of the warren.’ He pointed to a patch of thick briars just down the hill. ‘That’s it. Hundreds of the little beggars in there. Not far to the fields in the bottom of the valley. I’d get more trapping that side but you don’t know who’s watching from the wood on the other hill.’

Ed nodded and they moved off around the thicket and uphill back towards the track.

They finished emptying the snares. Four of the five had been good clean kills and one untouched. Tom was setting another snare on a new run when they heard a crashing through the undergrowth somewhere down by the briar thicket.

The two of them looked up and then at each other.

‘What’s that Tom?’

‘It’ll be that bloody buck. It’s getting late and he’ll be off to browse in Chucker’s fields.’

‘You reckon?’

‘Yeah, come on. Set one where you are. You’re more or less standing on a run there.’

Ed caught the wire and peg that Tom threw at him. He crouched down and looked for the tunnel through the undergrowth. He’d tight pegged the wire round a good strong trunk of a bush and was just setting it open at the right height for a rabbit head when the crashing sound cam louder and presumably nearer. Ed half crawled to where Tom was finishing his last snare.

‘Come on Tom. Let’s go.’

‘What’s the matter? Afraid of the spooky deer?’

‘I don’t know Tom, but it’s getting late and I don’t want…’

There was a whistle and both lads dropped down to the ground. They looked at each other. ‘That’s not a fucking buck Tom.’

The other noises got louder and they heard panting. A dog was quartering the wood.

They backed under a blackthorn bush, Ed biting his lip as the thorns scratched his legs.

The dog’s panting got louder and the whistling more strident. Then a man’s voice cut the air.

‘Max! Max, come! Come!’

The dog went away.

‘What is it? A walker?’ Ed whispered.

‘Keeper with a new dog?’

‘It’s bound to find us.’

Tom raised his head a little looking downhill to where the noises were coming from.

‘Move uphill Ed, slow and low like. He can’t have seen us.’

‘What about the dog?

‘Don’t sound too bright if he’s making that noise to get him to come back does he? Come on boy, move!’

The two started to half crawl, half stumble up the hill keeping as low and as quiet as they could while they made their way back towards the path.

They almost stumbled onto it through a stand of hazel that someone had coppiced years ago, now left to straggle. Tom stopped, and froze, still, barely, in the cover of the trees.

‘Bugger’s come up the lane and onto the side path. Standing up there now.’

‘Who is it?’ Ed asked.

‘Dunno. No shotgun, not Chucker or his keeper.’

‘What’s he doing?’

‘Just standing there.’

‘Waiting for the dog?’

‘Maybe.’

Tom was like stone, unmoving, eyes fixed and his voice was the sound of a leaf falling. Ed could tell it as there but he wasn’t sure how he could hear it. It was almost as if he could feel Tom’s thoughts in his head rather than through his ears.

SNARE

Part 2

They dropped down to the side of the field out of sight of prying eyes in the almshouses, into the shade of high old hedgerows. A shallow depression lay between the hedges forming a dark, green lane that ran up the hill by the side of Chucker’s 30 acre and on into Dumbar’s wood. Tom kept up a good pace in the warm Spring air and Ed was sweating by the time they got to the top of the rise.

‘Right, we can slow down now.’ Tom said, his voice quiet.

‘What we doing Tom?’ Ed asked in a whisper.

Tom stopped and crouched by the side of the lane.

‘Right, we’re going to go down the other side of the hill in the wood. There’s a few runs I put snares on last night. Need to check ’em.’

‘Snares? Shit we’re going to be in big trouble if we get caught. That what the bag’s for?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Tommy, what do you want rabbits for?’

‘Dad likes them, nice with a mustard sauce’ He laughed. ‘And old Carslake the butcher takes them for a few quid each.’

Ed considered this news.

‘People still buy rabbit then?’

‘Lots of farmed rabbit about.’ Tom nodded to the woods, ‘But these beauties? Wild, natural, sustainable, organic, all that old bollocks. Sell for a premium to the right type.’

‘Who?’

‘Weekend Barbour brigade. Hippies who aren’t Vegan yet. Knit your own yoghurt types.’

‘Must be mad.’

‘Keeps me in fags. Now are you coming or not?’

Ed looked back down the hill and then at the gap in the bushes leading to the wood, then at Tom. They’d had good fun with the fishing and the money had come in handy. He wondered if Tom might cut him in on some now. He was always skint these days.  Be in big debt if he went to Uni.

‘All right, go on then.’

‘Good lad, let’s get on.’

The two of them rose and crossed the lane, disappearing into the deeper shadows beneath the canopy.

‘Bit creepy Dumbar’s, never liked it.’ Ed confided.

‘Why?’

‘Dunno, feels funny. Lots of kids at school said so an’ all. Loads of bad stories about it.’

‘That’s why I like it.’ Tom said.’ All them daft stories keeps folk away. Lots of things in here you don’t get other places with people crashing about scaring ’em off.’ He stopped, and as if to prove his point a fallow deer buck walked across the path ahead of them. It stopped, half in, half out of the shadows for a moment, sniffed the air and walked on, unconcerned, to disappear in the undergrowth.

‘He’s kept his antlers late.’ Tom said ‘April? Should be shed by now.’

‘Big beggar wasn’t he? Ed said.

‘He was. Maybe he’s come to have you?’ Tom said, making a scary face and raising his hands in claw like manner.

‘Sod off Tommy. Let’s find these rabbits.’

Tom let his hands fall to his sides. He nodded down the track to where the buck had crossed the path. ‘Follow the big lad then’

They moved off down the trail to where the sun dappled the bushes and the path, and turned off to the left into the shadows of the undergrowth. There was a crash of something moving hard through the bushes and Tom pointed as the white patch and black horseshoe shape of the buck’s rump disappeared into the woods’ gloomy interior.

‘Should be lying up, daft animal.’

‘Forget him Tom, let’s find these rabbits.’ Ed said

‘Bit odd though isn’t it?’

‘What is?’

‘Bloody big buck wandering about bold as brass in the day, still got his antlers this time of year. Weird.’

‘You’re not scaring me Tom. It’s just a deer.’

Tom was about to say something else but stopped and moved off.

‘Come on then.’

They descended into the deepening gloom of the trees. There was no more noise from the buck, and no birdsong broke the silence. Tom and Ed moved through the undergrowth as softly as shadows. Tom had said no-one came here, but they both knew game birds lay up in these woods. There was no game shooting this time of year and the rearing pens were on the other side of the valley, but Chucker’s gamekeeper could be planning out drives and seeing what was what anywhere on the land. Both listened for the sound of movement and their eyes swept the depths of the wood for a sign of the keeper. They carried on in this fashion, cautiously following the path across and down the hillside for a few minutes. Careful, silent progress. Then Tom held up his hand and pointed at a small ‘V’ carved into an Ash trunk.

‘Down this way.’ He whispered and slid off the track to the left.

Ed could see the animal run emerge onto the path as he followed Tom.

‘Why didn’t you trap it at the end?’

Tom stopped and looked at Ed. ‘And have Chucker or one of his boys see it? Don’t be daft Ed. I thought you was a country boy.’

Ed nodded. Tom always made him feel like this. Never quite as smart, quite as sharp, quite as at ease with the wilder end of life as Tom. Tom hadn’t been phased at all by the police calling about the fish. Never bothered about the teachers on his back. Never directly rude but always challenging. Always one better behind the back of anyone in authority. Hadn’t got him a job though. Hadn’t got him out of the village. Hadn’t got him the exams to go to Uni. He was smart in other ways; ways teachers and coppers didn’t approve of. Ed wasn’t sure he did any more. There was something attractive about Tom’s wildness but it scared Ed at the same time. Tom was like the buck, part of the same natural system, but unusual, larger than life, belonging to a disappearing world. Whereas Ed wanted to get out of Dumbar’s wood and away from the buck whose antlers should be long gone.

SNARE

Part 1

Ed thought he recognised the figure almost as soon as it turned into the narrow alley behind the almshouse cottages. His immediate reaction was to jump off the wall he was perched on and escape down the path at the side of old Mrs Joiner’s place. He could get back to the road that way without having to speak to Edgworth. It wasn’t that he disliked Tom Edgworth. He didn’t. They’d been friends of sorts at school, not that long ago, but Tom was an odd one Ed thought. Not aggressive as such, not mean really and not even particularly unruly at school. Some of the teachers had had it in for him. Bit odd of them really when you thought about it. They were ‘green’ and ‘animal lovers’ but didn’t seem to like Tom’s country ways at all. Ed remembered a ‘show and tell’, some daft American idea, where Tom had brought his ferret. Didn’t like that animal did they? Ed smiled. Not really that bad a bloke Tom. They’d spent one summer fishing for trout and selling them on. Trouble was they’d gone fishing with gunpowder packed in tins. ‘Bang!’ and all the silvery bodies floated up to the surface of old Turbemere’s lake and you scooped a nice bit of earnings. Tom said his granddad had showed him that trick. Better than sitting there all day with a line and getting nicked for poaching and no licence. One bang, five minutes frantic netting and off before Turbemere’s water bailiff could get a look at you, never mind catch you.

Ed looked up the alley again. Definitely Tom. You could tell by the strut in his step that he’d seen and recognised Ed too. Couldn’t walk off now without offending him.

 Problem had been the police were a bit hotter on explosions than in grandad’s day. Lot of bother, but no charges in the end. Couldn’t prove it, and Tom and Ed had just denied it all. Tom reckoned they just visited all the kids in the village. Ed hadn’t liked it. His mum and dad had been furious having police round the house. ‘I told you them Edgworths were no good didn’t I boy?’ his dad had yelled at him. Ed had nodded. ‘And that Tom is worse than any of ’em.’  Ed had nodded again. ‘Stay away from them boy. Won’t go wrong if you stay away from them. Weird buggers they are.’

‘Why weird Dad?’ Ed had felt emboldened to ask now Dad’s ire was turned elsewhere. His father had glanced at his mother who gave one small shake of her head. ‘Never mind boy. You find some other friends that’s all.’ So he pretty much had. Couldn’t avoid Tom completely in a village mind. But there had been no more fishing trips. And now they’d left school and both found that there was no work in a village anymore, with good exams or no exams. Time lay heavy on Ed’s hands. He’d more or less decided to go to Uni next year after all. Tom didn’t have that option.

Tom bounced down the alley between the back of the cottages and the tall yellow limestone wall of the old Sterven estate, long ago split up into its constituent farms and the hall sold off. Tom drew level with where Ed was sitting.

‘You going somewhere Tom?’ Ed asked.

‘No, rooted to the spot me.’

‘Sarcastic bugger.’

‘Well don’t be a prat then Ed Bayfield. Course I’m going somewhere. Why would I be walking down here otherwise?’

‘Going for a walk?’

‘I’d be going somewhere then, wouldn’t I?’

‘Nah, you’d be walking, but not to anywhere. ‘Cept back where you started of course.’

‘Well I’m not. I’m going somewhere.’

‘Where you going?’

‘What’s it to you? You me mum are you?’

‘She doesn’t care where you are.’

‘That’s true.’

Ed jumped down from the wall he’d been sitting on and fell in step beside Tom Edgworth.

‘Where we off?’

‘Oh it’s “we” now is it?’

‘Don’t mind a bit of company do you? I’m bored out of my skull.’

Tom looked his companion up and down.

‘No, that’s okay Ed. You can make yourself useful though, carry that.’ And with that he slung the old fashioned haversack he’d been carrying at Ed.

‘What’s in it?

‘Nothing.’

‘Why you carrying it then?’

‘I’m not. You are.’

‘Very funny. You know what I mean. Why am I carrying it?’

‘Cause you’re a prat and you’re bored.’

‘Ta very much.’

Tom turned left at the end of the walled pathway and vaulted the gate that blocked the way. Ed climbed after him.

‘This is Chucker’s land. He’ll go spare if he catches us.’

‘Well he isn’t going to is he? It’s Tuesday, he’s up the market in town.’

‘I thought they’d shut that?’

‘Nah, they closed the old one, the one that sold useful stuff. It’s what they call a farmers market now. Chucker takes stuff up there.’

‘What, lambs and stuff?’

‘Can’t.’

‘Why not?

‘Can’t kill his own these days, gotta go to an abattoir.’

‘What’s he sell then?’

‘Few veg his missus grows, few birds he shoots, potatoes, and a load of crap he buys in and slaps Sterven Farm labels on.’

‘Cheeky bastard.’

‘Ah well, gives us a chance for a little enterprise, doesn’t it?’

Ed hefted the canvas sack and looked at Tom.

‘Enterprise? What? Like the fish?’

‘You can chuck us the bag and go back if you like.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘Good. Let’s get down in the lane.’

Your Call Is Very Important To Us

All Allinson needed to do was speak to someone. He might as well have wanted to be the Queen.

There was a telephone number he had kept from an earlier time.

He’d rung it on his legacy landline. The only reason he’d still got it was because he’d ignored the promises, offers and threats to change to a mobile. Same as he’d ignored all the increasingly aggressive communications about having his heating and lighting and kitchen appliances connected to the Net. They had tried to make him feel as if he were personally responsible for killing the planet. Each appliance he refused to connect was supposedly individually, directly, responsible for overheating a Polar Bear or choking a Dolphin. The role of the power companies, the motor manufacturers, Chinese coal fired industry, everyone else on the planet was apparently irrelevant. His gas fired central heating, installed under the slogans of efficiency, cleanliness and sustainability was now going to be cut off. No he didn’t have choice.

Everything was connected now, didn’t he know.

Everything until you wanted to ask a question, get an answer, tell someone something different.

He’d rung the number. It had redirected him. It was no longer staffed. An automated voice, possibly a human recording but most probably these days a computer voice simulation told him to go to a website or text a number or email but most answers could be found on one of several social media platforms which now supplied information which satisfied over ninety per cent of client enquiries. It offered to repeat the contact details and then terminated the call.

Allinson went for a walk into town. Or where the town had been. The place he had grown up thinking was the centre of the town, the place where you could get all the requirements of life; food, drink clothes, shoes, access to the offices of those supplying amenities like water, power, telephone, had been gutted like a fish. No worse than a fish. There the spine and ribs remained. Here there was nothing. There were some takeaway food shops, some betting shops, a couple of charity shops recycling things, an opticians and some hairstylists. The remaining food shops were supermarkets on the outer ring road. The council offices where you could pay your rates in the old days, your council tax now, were closed to the public. There was a website and a mobile app to pay. A building that used to be a labour exchange, then a Job Centre and now a place where terminals scrolled online jobs, lowered over the end of the street. Inside euphemistically named jobs coaches threatened to cut your benefits if you didn’t attend the indoctrinations to indentured non jobs and enslaving zero hour contract treadmills

Allinson considered firebombing something but you couldn’t get the petrol and the 24/7 total coverage face recognition cctv guaranteed capture, probably before the crime was committed.

In shops he’d been able to have conversations. To talk to people.

Now the monitoring of staff performance by chips, key loggers and video meant staff were part of the machine and if they wanted to outcompete their automated replacements for a few more paydays, they threw the purchases at you and didn’t have time to say even please and thank you. Most of the checkouts were automated anyway and only security guards patrolled the line of pay desks. He’d tried using cash once to exercise his legal right to pay using coin of the realm, only to be told that didn’t exist any more and besides the company’s commercial considerations  rated higher than his poxy rights. He’d complained until they had thrown him out and then complained some more until the police came and moved him on for causing a disturbance. He’d tried to complain about that, but the town ‘hub’ computers wouldn’t let him download the complaint form or complete the online version as it was not within the purview of the authorities IT remit. He’d tried complaining about that but…

And now he wanted to warn them of something.

He wanted to speak to someone about something the FAQs and circular non-contact contact links hadn’t bargained for.

The police station was closed to the public.

The contact numbers didn’t contact anyone.

Emergency  numbers only turned out responses for immediate threats or occurrences of violence. Longer term or lesser threats were logged on another system but it would be better if you could fill in an online form.

Allinson went back home.

The alien was still there.

The translation machine hummed and it said;

‘Any luck?’

Allinson shook his head.

‘No.’

‘They won’t negotiate?’

‘I don’t know I can’t get through to anyone.’

‘Same as us then?’

‘Afraid so.’

‘We shall have to mark this species as too primitive and self absorbed to be preserved you know?’

‘You said.’

‘We’ll be off then.’

‘Okay.’

‘Would you like to come with us? You have been most helpful, within the limits of your system.’

Allinson thought about it a moment.

‘Can I take my dog, Lexxy?’

The alien paused for a moment, spoke into a small cube, then listened to a metallic crackling.

It switched the translator on again.

‘I’ll need authorisation, but there’s no-one staffing the desk at the moment. Can you fill in an online form to request the transfer?’

Allinson stared.

‘I think I’ll stay where I am thanks.’

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.’

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.