Swiftly our man Barry moved along the chewing gum covered pavement, inhaling fresh second hand smoke, glancing with perfect ambivalence at a gang of young delinquents romping in the bus shelters. An unemphatic looking article he was, forty or so years old, depleted resources in the hair department, wearing jeans from Next, trainers, that kind of thing. Drives a diesel, could perhaps offer highly reasonable opinions about affairs of sports or politics if questioned. Aspirations for a family, a solid career no doubt, again, nothing extraordinary to report.
He reached the club and climbed the three flights of stairs. At the top there is a poster of a leathered up blonde woman lying on a Ducati TS125, beckoning you towards her with her index finger. A wonky dartboard, cobwebby, with one flightless piece stuck in treble three, desperate to fall off the wall, get it all over with. On the opposite side, another sorry looking wall-area dedicated to posters with handwritten match results that took place over thirty years ago. Ray Reardon lies down by the wall under the stairs (in cardboard cut out form). He’s been facing the ceiling like that since 1974.
Do It Again by Steely Dan played very quietly from an unidentifiable place. Barry placed his cue case onto the bar and pressed the bell for service. He waited for three minutes before a nervous young barman with one ear larger than the other appeared, taking a good look at the customer from the kitchen.
“How are ya pal, not seen ya for a while?” Barry momentarily raised an eyebrow, he was quite sure he had never come across this man before in his waking life.
“Yeah not bad. Snooker table please.”
The young barman reached down and opened up a drawer full of dusty balls, a big brown house moth prostrate on top of blue, immaculately preserved, “table 17 pal, can I get yas a drink?”
“Can I have a glass of water please?”
“No doubt, no doubt,” he said, like there might have been some doubt.
Barry produced a grateful smile as the bar man ran the tap into a pint glass, overpouring it slightly then splashing a bit into the sink, “sorry, one of those days.” Barry gave the lad a closed-mouth smile, and took glass and balls.
The club had very few light sources, and resembled a cave more than the interior of a building. Here the only real illumination– other than a dying lantern at the bar– came from the lights of active tables, of which now, there were none. While looking for their table, one had to be careful not to walk straight into the unforgiving face of a damp, mildew covered wall, and could count themselves lucky if they made it to their table without ending up face-first on the dusty baize of at least one other table.
Barry pulled out his smartphone and used the torch to navigate through the hall. A couple of rights, a forward and a left. Then at the end was table 17, the oldest table they had. And then there was light. As Barry walked, the table light flickered, then shone down upon the table. She was a beauty, eight legged, Victorian mahogany. He had not had the pleasure of playing on it before, and for a moment reflected that he had in fact never seen it being used. He emptied the ball box onto the cloth and placed the balls in ascending order of value, 2-7 then the pack. He withdrew his piece from his case, screwed it together and chalked the tip. He struck the cue ball from the baulk line, picking it up with his hand when it returned from the far cushion, landing up against the rail. Finally, he placed it in the D almost touching the yellow, and prepared to break off, bringing the cue tip forward and back, forward and back, forward and-
Barry quivered as a spike dug into the midpoint of his back, right in between the shoulder blades. He turned and saw the morbid grin of death.
“Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?” he brought his scythe to the floor, the floor quaked, six cues came crashing from the rack, onto the hard, cold, damp floor.
“About to play snooker, can I help you?”
“17 is my table. I thought everybody at this club knew that.”
“The barman put me on here.”
“Young Big Ear you mean?”
“Errrrr….” he took a few seconds to calculate the profile of the man in question, “yes.”
“Ahh yes, the new staff. I’ll have to have a ‘word’ with him. Make sure it ‘doesn’t happen again’, if you catch my meaning,” Death fired a disconcerting wink at Barry, which he acknowledged before turning his attention to the corner of the room with raised eyebrows.
“You do that. Sorry and you are?”
“Oh I see,” that explained the fancy robes and the large scythe he was carrying.
Death slammed his weapon on the hard floor, eyes glowing red.
“‘’I see’? None of this ‘I see’ business. Are you going to do the only sane thing and leave immediately, or am I…”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’ve racked up now, go play on another table. Table 16 is free.”
The light above table seventeen flickered until there was no light in the room but Death’s red eyes. The man felt a gust of chilled wind blowing. Death rose to nine feet tall and peered down at the man, jaws moving from side to side, the sound of dry teeth on teeth.
“Table 16? Do not insult me, as if I am another miserable simpleton like yourself,” his volume was loud, reverberating across the room, the old walls could have collapsed at any moment, the building being hundreds of years old, and poorly constructed at the time.
The young bartender peered over, they both watched as the ear made its way round a pillar. He was holding a tray with one empty beer glass on it, “everything all right over here?” Death stared at him until he crawled away like a beetle after its rocky residence is unduly removed by a curious child. Death shook his head and exhaled piteously before turning his attention back to Barry, wielding the sharp tip of his scythe, jagging it up and down and side to side as if he were engrossed in the act of sheaf-cutting.
“Are you not threatened by the presence of DEATH, ready to whisk you away from this earthly existence at any moment?”
“I just want to play a bit of snooker.”
“Don’t we all my friend, don’t we all?” Death issued the man with a near fatal smirk “now where was I? Sorry. Yes, leave now, you must leave now or this will be your last day on Earth. I don’t normally kill, because of the admin, I have enough clients as it is. But for impudent cretins such as yourself I might consider making an exception.”
Barry had stopped listening and got back down to play the break-off shot. As Death watched him he breathed louder and louder and louder and louder until finally the split-second he was about to hit the white, Death flicked his cue away with his scythe, causing him to strike nothing but air. The man threw his instrument to the ground, puffed out his chest and stepped deep into Death’s personal space. Smaller men would have sloshed him, but Barry was determined not to fight unnecessarily. Death clutched his weapon and moved it in towards his chest, scampered back a half-step.
“You’ve got some minerals old bird, I’ll give you that. Okay let me think…”
He stood off, phalanges tapping up and down the metal shaft of his weapon, “I’ll give you one chance at salvation, but count yourself lucky; anyone who knows me will know that clemency is not one of my virtues!” Death cackled to himself, but the man stared blankly at his ember eyes.
“What’s your highest break, twenty? I bet you couldn’t play snooker to save your life!”
The man closed his eyes and shook his head, before walking down the table to retrieve the wayward white.
“In fact, that gives me an idea. I will give you a chance to play me, and if you lose, you will lose your life, joining me and my grotesque friends in the afterlife for an eternity.”
He shook as he unleashed another prolonged death-cackle.
“And if I win?”
“If you win, you can have my cherished table seventeen for as long as you live. But let’s say the bookmakers are not quite on your side. Hahaaaaaaaaaaaaa-“
“If it means you’ll leave me alone, I’ll play you, fine,” he handed Death the cue ball, ”you can break mate.”
Death placed the cue ball in the D, then took off his baggy cloak, folding it up and placing it on the chair. This revealed a Glock 25 attached to his belt, which he placed on the side next to the man’s keys. Next he detached the blade from his Scythe and twisted off the top half of the shaft, revealing a long black cue which he chalked using a small piece of bone he pulled out of his pocket.
“Good luck chap. You’re going to need it. I’ve been bang at the billiard balls for just shy of two hundred years.”
Death got down, striking the cue ball centre right, aiming to spin off the edge of the pack and back up the baulk. He struck it well, two reds popping out and off the cushions and rolling back into the pack. He watched as the cue ball stuck itself to the rail. He nodded his head in satisfaction, then took his seat, pulling out his bone and chalking again.
Barry could only see one loose red, which lay a few centimetres from the broken corner of the triangle. If he was to take it on he would come within millimetres of the blue, and the cut was thin- about 1/6 ball.
With a second’s hesitation to chalk, he got down and stroked it in to the far left. It looked for all the Crucible like the red was going to stop at the last, but as Barry walked round, it finally succumbed to its pockety fate. Not only did the man achieve the pot, but the cue ball, following its initial collision, caressed the side of the pack, developing a few reds and leaving himself with a relatively straightforward black on the spot.
“Shot,” Death acknowledged, with very low volume and higher pitch, as if he had accidentally revealed his true voice, “one.”
Crucial shot coming up. Barry scanned the table, then cut the black in half-ball at pace, the cue ball bouncing off the cushion and torpedoing into the cluster.
With the table well and truly opened up, a high break appeared most likely. Barry went on to make three reds and three blacks look like taking Supermix from a fat sleeping child.
Death shook from side to side as his odds of winning the bet grew ever longer. He chalked his cue again, determined to make a decisive impact on the match as soon as he was required to come back to the table. Surely this ordinary looking man would be ending his break soon by virtue of some complacent blunder, having a difficult cut to the middle pocket and a couple of problem reds hugging the side cushion?
The man took a few deep breaths, got down, hammered the cut into middle, then rebounded off the top cushion and over to the side, kissing one of the side reds. The odds on death had now grown to as high as 4.4. Amid his restless tooth grinding, he was beginning to seriously consider the possibility of not returning to the table.
Death had never been so subservient in his death, the man had him moving back and forth and forth and back, picking out the black and respotting it, going to sit down and then in moments having to get up again and repeat the task. 8 blacks later, “sixty four.” Christ, I came here for a BREAK from work, not to pick balls for some chump in Hi Tec trainers. Snooker really can be awful sometimes, much like a difficult wife, but we always keep coming back…
Barry was hovering around the table like a bird of prey, diving in and making kills all over the table, precision; deadly. His average shot time was going on for 21 seconds, which was faster than the likes of John Wizard Higgins and Stuart Ball-Run Bingham.
As things unfolded further, Death reconciled himself with the fact that the match was gone and found that as the man was getting over the eighty mark, it was time to congratulate our man. He got up and looked at the man.
“Okay you win, fair and square. I concede.”
Moments before Barry had caressed the final red into the right middle, and screwed back to take the black off the spot. He looked at Death with a grimace, as if to say, do you even know the rules of this game you absolute moron? He nailed the black right into the heart of the pocket, then watched as the clue ball sailed up to baulk. Death nodded as if to commend the effort, then trudged back to his seat, before going full slump in the chair.
The final black rolled into the pocket, “one. Four. Seven.” Death immediately went over to shake the hand of his opponent, “have your life after all, and my beloved, my 17,” he smiled, and stroked the table as if it was his dog. He looked up at Barry, “never seen maxi before. Amazing stuff. I can’t believe it, I took you for a mere peasant, you play like you’re on the World Tour.”
Death then went to put on his cloak, then remembered his firearm on the side, which he clipped back onto his belt. Our man looked at it with a puzzled expression and caught eyes with Death.
“Oh this? Yes I find it a lot more convenient than the scythe, depends on the circumstances…” Death pointed to his weapon propped up against the wall, “I don’t personally like the scythe much, antiquated. They make us have them.”
“Part of the image.”
“That’s right old bird. Anyway I must take off, work beckons. What was your name sorry?”
“We must have a rematch sometime?”
“Only I’ve got a lot on my plate at the minute, rapidly growing population, what with India and China and all that, after you’re dead, perhaps?”
“Yes, when you’re dead. There will be plenty of time for snooker then. If you ever want a job, I could get you one, no bother, they do look after us,” Barry seemed uninterested, Death continued “a pleasure Mr Hawkins, see you on the other side,” and with that Death went over to Young Big Ear to settle up. He checked the time on his digital watch, exhaled slowly then disappeared, blending into the darkness of the staircase.
Barry reset the balls and got on with it like nothing had happened at all.