Cleaned myself: 0
Monkey see, monkey do: 0
Believe in God? N (that is for nincompoops like Johnny Carver)
It’s the traditional New Year away fixture at Old Wombledonians, something like that. Half way between home and London, it’s always been a popular away day with everyone on the way back to where they come from; plus it has this sort of manor house clubhouse with a snooker room; they are always dreadful and we can put out a scratch team; and they have nice pies in big catering dishes like the ones you used to get at school dinners.
I have no interest in going of course, particularly because Johnny and a couple of others who no longer play for us, are to be given a run out and so give the regular first teamers a rest. Johnny has been on an induction course in New York for three months, and the others, for various less interesting reasons, have allowed themselves to get a bit out of shape too. God he couldn’t turn up at the Park looking like this, he’d be laughed out of court. And he’s right in the sense that it always creates a stir when a semi-retarded, journeyman second-teamer turns up at a new club. Yaah, that’s right actually.
I’m here as a consequence of having a job. For a while the weekend had looked promising. I was to drive one of Roger’s cars down to his London flat; it needs an airing he’d said and he also thought that it would be useful for me to know what it feels like to drive a good car. Then, at the last minute Big Tooth was put in the passenger seat. That meant a detour via the last game of the holidays, which has become something of an event for people like Dessie – where they say so long until the next time. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have dropped in had I been on my own – there’s this girl, she’s only small but she’s got this wide mouth, and she doesn’t belong on the fringes of Johnny’s set either. I’ve exchanged about two sentences with her all holiday and I think that I should try to make it more. I get the idea that she reciprocates. Frances by the way.
I arrive deliberately too late to take any notice of the match, hoping that a cursory disinterested beer en passant will say all that needs to be said whilst providing the opportunity for the relationship with Frances to progress a notch.
Making our way into the clubhouse we follow Big Eggo back to the bar from a fag break and soon he is in his usual position on a high stool, holding forth; we assume our position in the suburbs of the action. He normally consumes about 3,000 calories per day, and he just hasn’t been able to get out of the habit while he’s been in Manhattan. He’s put in some pretty severe hours at the gym actually, but that just kept pace with his consumption and no more; it’s the one in downtown where all the rowers go, so the set up could not be better – it’s as if they knew he was coming. Cue laughing from porcine acolytes. They all call each other bud and you never know who’s talking to who. And their shirts are too short to fasten round their fat necks, which they try to disguise with a big knotted tie that only comes about half way down their chests. The whole sorry arrangement is supposed to be made good and covered up by the club blazer but that just makes them look like that detestable brand of eager schoolboy that has grown big too quickly.
‘Bud, you’ve just gotta take those clients out. One rings you just before bedtime, you’ve done supper and all that, yah, but you’ve gotta go. Down the Garden, front row seats, Gregory Porter, drinks after. Soo crazy.’ They all seem to love it, and nearly all of them manage to laugh in the right places.
‘Then, some nights, you’re just so done in, you take a little cat nap when you get in, and when you wake up it’s time for work. It is so crazy.’ – I thought he’d just said that? Does he think that we don’t understand how crazy it is? It’s obvious – so. The measure of craziness is, so, or soo, which I take to be equal terms. Perhaps soo is a higher grade of so? Whatever the case, pretty crazy. ‘Those guys literally burn the candle at both ends. You’re well paid, but bud, you’ve got to work for it.’
I turn to Frances and ask whether she works in a place like that, and she says, ‘no, I’d never remember the feeding times.’ She didn’t give herself away by laughing at her own joke, but she did observe how long it took to be interpreted by me. I smile back and she says, ‘you?’ It doesn’t mean, ‘do you?’ she knows from the way I framed the question that I don’t, but it does mean, ‘what do you do and where do you work?’ I check quickly for the proximity of Big Tooth, and give her my prepared answer about advertising, pretending that the internship is a) a real job, and b) still continues. I don’t give her part c) yet, that I have been seconded to a new local client for a while. Now I can give that line to someone else so that it might work its way back to her. When I’ve finished, she says, ‘I sort of work in advertising too.’
‘Was it a good New Year’s party?’ I ask, now that I see her direction of travel.
‘If you like that sort of thing,’ she replies. She doesn’t, but it’s up to me to tease out why. There’s a little delay while I try to find the right question to ask.
‘I’ve never really understood the appeal of standing on the embankment with thousands of other people waiting for midnight,’ I tried. I could have done better, but it at least opened the door for her, if she was willing.
Barkis was willing all right. ‘Well it’s OK for men I suppose,’ she said.
Oh Jesus, a Me-Too moment to navigate. At least there was a promise of hearing of behaviour unbecoming from Eggo and bacon.
‘Why, what happened?’
‘Nothing,’ she said, and left it at that. Then added, ‘you’re part of the patriarchy you wouldn’t understand.’
I think she’s smiling, but you can’t tell with that wide mouth of hers.
I want to say something important, but all I manage is ‘sorry.’
‘If you’ve got a dick you can roll up a programme and piss into someone’s pocket, but women just have to let it go where they stand.’ Her smile broadens a bit now, then she adds, ‘it’s a good job those knuckle heads are so strong.’
‘Why? Did someone do it to you?’
‘No,’ she says, ‘they had to hold me over the side while I let one go.’
I sort of hope that it’s not true. I want her only to be crazy for me. Because I am in love.
‘I have very strong feminist principles in that regard,’ I tell her. She raises her eyebrows as if to say that I could easily take this joke too far. ‘Yes,’ I say, deciding that I’m all in and that we are one of those rare couples who immediately recognise a higher sense of humour in each other, ‘I refuse to piss unless I can sit down, or there is a sink available.’
I talk too much, so I look up to search out Big Tooth to say that it’s time to go, and as I do I catch Johnny’s eye. ‘It’s not you is it Sniffler?’ He means Dick Swiveller, he won’t have read the book – but he’s happy with the misremembered joke that someone else once told.
‘What?’ I say, not as disdainful as intended, in fact, slightly deferential.
‘You’re a gambler, what did you do, buy five hundred tickets?’
‘And do what?’ That’s better.
‘Won the lottery. New car, new lady friend. All the evidence bud …’
They’d been talking about a recent local lottery winner, I’d sort of picked it up out of the corner of my ear, but the girlfriend comment hits me below the water line and I need a moment to dredge up a disrespectful answer.
‘No gambler does the lottery. I don’t.’
He makes a grimace to show that he doesn’t really believe me. No, it’s to show that I am lying.
‘Don’t knock it buddy boy, our own clubhouse was rebuilt out of lottery funds.’
Look at him, a trained banker, and he doesn’t even realise that no self respecting gambler would ever do the lottery; perhaps he hasn’t reached that part of the manual yet.
‘Nobody from our club would buy a lottery ticket.’ I say.
‘Really,’ he says, looking around for support amongst the pig-apes. ‘You’re sounding very sniffy today, Sniffler, perhaps you don’t need to. But you need to spare a thought for us poor saps who have to work for a living.’
I should leave but I worry that my condemnatory exit will be interpreted as a flounce, so I find myself saying, ‘the lottery is a right wing tax, it’s not designed for the sort of people that go to our rugby club.’ I should have gone. Now I’m just as bad as him. Why didn’t I just make a joke out of the idiot’s ignorance?
‘What are you talking about Sniffler? You do talk a lot of rot at times – come down to the Park and I’ll fix you up with a tax expert to talk to – he’ll put you right about a few of your mad ideas.’ I can sense the pig-apes shaking their heads slowly in barely disguised disbelief at my ridiculous views. And now I have to leave with his put-down ringing in my ears. Timing you see. Leave them wanting to say more. Plus, Frances has witnessed it all, and suddenly I go from someone just like her to the sort of pedantic show-off prick like Eggo and his entourage.
Confident in having secured the victory Eggo’s onto new ground, ‘right, who’s holding? I think I’m ready for two pints of the black stuff.’
There’s another dutiful round of laughter while I gather up Big Tooth and leave. I don’t even say goodbye, nice to have met you properly at last, to Frances.