The Club from Hell
Chapter SIX, by Alan Thatcher
Steve Dwyer’s Ferrari drew some admiring glances as he pulled up outside the Vale Hotel. After checking into the Royal Suite, he checked his laptop. He had invited an old friend, who just happened to be an old flame, to join him for lunch.
A successful businessman, who had made a small fortune in the States, he had returned home for one simple reason. He loved a challenge. He wanted to see if he could repeat his American triumphs on English soil.
A talented squash player, he could have turned pro. Hitting winners came naturally to him. And so did making money.
The bonuses he earned working in a small but well-connected wealth management company in New York set him up for life.
But he preferred being his own boss. He opened a chain of health and fitness clubs that attracted thousands of members and generated a steady cash flow into his company coffers.
He was breaking new ground in America by making squash the focal point of the business, with at least four courts at most of his clubs.
Most Americans thought squash was a vegetable. But Dwyer knew, from his time at Harvard, that squash, the sport, was growing in popularity.
As an Ivy League sport, most colleges were now building large squash centres, hiring the game’s leading coaches and recruiting talented students from all over the world.
The headlines surrounding Trinity’s long unbeaten run, finally ended by Yale after 13 astonishing seasons, helped to create an aura about the sport.
Dwyer knew that the strong work ethic required in squash struck a chord with most Americans.
They also enjoyed the British-style banter in the British-style pub that formed the social hub of all of his clubs.
He was convinced he could ride to the rescue of a sport that many felt was dying back home in the UK.
That’s why he had invited Jill Smith to lunch.
Jill’s day began as usual with getting son Sam ready for school, and promising to pick him up at 4pm to take him for a practice session with the county juniors.
When her phone rang, Jill saw a number she didn’t recognise. The long list of digits suggested a call from overseas.
“Jill, it’s Steve Dwyer here.”
She caught her breath and stumbled on her reply. “What? Steve! How did you…? It’s…”
Steve smiled as he said: “Sorry to spring a surprise, but you haven’t answered any of my emails.”
His voice was calm and soothing and Jill tried to pull herself together.
“Oh my God. Sorry. I check every email hoping to hear news about Jessica,” she said. “When I saw it was from you I guess I couldn’t get my head round it. I didn’t know what to think. Steve, I’m so sorry. I should have answered. Where are you calling from?”
“I’m just up the road at the Vale Hotel. I was hoping you could join me for lunch,” said Steve.
“Seeing that number, I thought you were in America.”
“I must get it changed to a UK number,” he said. “It’ll make life easier.”
“Yes it will,” said Jill. “I was just on my way to the squash club for a board meeting. It should be over by 12 noon.”
“That’s fine,” said Steve. “I’ll pick you up at 12.30.”
Jill’s head was spinning. Why was Steve Dwyer calling her up after all these years? They had grown up together in the county junior squads and had been boyfriend and girlfriend for several months before Steve gained his scholarship to Harvard and moved to the States.
Their furtive fumblings at the back of the squash courts had turned into full-on passion when Steve bought his own car at the age of 18, but despite being close they knew that life would take them on different journeys.
Steve was an outstanding mathematics student as well as being a star member of the Harvard squash team, and Jill bagged her own place at Loughborough, immersing herself into sports science.
They had stayed in touch for several years but that contact slowly dried up as Steve became embroiled in business and Jill went through a variety of relationships before marrying John.
She struggled to concentrate on her meeting at the squash club. She found all the legal and financial matters absolutely draining, and she needed to get home to check up on any possible news of her missing daughter.
Soon after Jessica’s disappearance, there were several reported sightings in various parts of the country. All had been false trails. But those calls had dried up and she needed to think of a new strategy to keep the police involved, instead of simply leaving Jessica’s name on a missing person’s list, soon to be forgotten.
She had planned to leave the meeting early to go home and get changed before meeting Steve Dwyer. She normally wore jeans or a tracksuit, especially if she was playing her friend Sally, and was keen to avoid answering any questions about choosing to dress smarter than usual.
But as she stepped over the weed-filled excuse for a lawn at the side of the club, she was confronted by a rather unusual sight. For parked next to her own small vehicle stood a gleaming, obviously very expensive, sleek red Ferrari.
Her jaw dropped as Steve Dwyer stepped out of the car and walked towards her. At 43, he was just as handsome as she recalled. Six feet tall, with just the merest hint of a grey fleck in his thick, black hair, it was cut stylishly and was much shorter than she remembered. Wearing jeans and an open-necked shirt, he looked every bit the relaxed executive, with a familiar and very fetching twinkle in his eye.
The smile, that charming, disarming smile, was just the same.
They hugged silently before tears filled Jill’s eyes. She tried to explain how difficult life had been these past few months but Steve wiped away a tear with his right index finger and then placed it on her lips.
“I know all about it,” he said. His voice was more mature than she remembered, but of course it would be after all these years. And there was no hint of an American accent despite years of living on the other side of the Pond.
Jill didn’t ask how he knew, but felt obliged to be cheerful, as most British people are programmed to behave, even in the direst of adversity. Pointing towards the Ferrari, she said: “Wow. This is amazing. I’ve never seen one of these up close before.”
“Rich boys’ toys,” said Steve. “I promised myself one when I grew up, but I couldn’t wait that long, so I bought it last year when I came back to the UK.”
“Yes, I’d heard on the grapevine that you were back from the States,” said Jill. “What made you come back?”
“I wanted to look at new businesses over here,” he said. “And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today.”
“Gosh, sounds exciting,” said Jill. “But I can’t think why you would want any advice from me. You seem to be doing pretty well on your own, judging by the size of this car. It must have cost more than my house!”
“It may well have done,” said Steve. “But, like I say, it’s just a toy.”
“Let’s go for lunch at the hotel and we can both catch up on everything.”
As Steve moved towards his car and opened the passenger door, Jill hesitated. “I can’t go anywhere posh with me dressed like this, and especially not in this car. I was going to go home and change.”
Her face fell but Steve quickly reassured her. “It’s OK,” he said. “I’m wearing jeans, too.
“I don’t want to sound over the top, but I’ve actually got a suite at the hotel with its own dining room. I’ll order something on room service and we can chat away in private. How does that sound?”
A small smile crossed Jill’s face. “OK.”
The journey to the hotel took less than five minutes and Jill felt self-conscious as every pedestrian they passed gawped at the Ferrari.
Steve put his arm around her shoulder as he ushered through the hotel reception and up one flight of stairs to his suite.
Jill wondered how many illicit meetings Steve had initiated in this way.
When lunch arrived, Steve tipped the waiter and poured Jill a glass of champagne.
“Only a small one,” she said. “I’ve got to pick Sam up from school later on.”
They enjoyed the smoked salmon salad, followed by strawberries and cream, and, as the meal progressed, Jill told Steve about the awful events of the previous year.
He felt almost guilty at being so upbeat about all of his own activities.
They moved into the lounge and sat at each end of a huge, sprawling sofa. Jill felt safe at placing a large velvet cushion between them. Finally, she said: “So, why are you here? And what did you want to see me for?”
“Several reasons,” said Steve.
“Firstly, I’m buying the club.”
“What? That’s impossible.” Jill shook her head. “That wasn’t mentioned at this morning’s board meeting.”
“That’s because none of the board members knows anything about it,” said Steve. “I wanted you to be the first to know.
“And,” he added, “I want you to run the club for me.”
Jill was astonished. She didn’t know what to say. “But I can’t,” she said, finally. “It’s all been a terrible shambles. My life is a mess. We’ve got legal problems to sort out at the club, I’m looking after Sam as a single mum and I’m still trying to find my missing daughter.”
“I know,” said Steve. “I’ve instructed a solicitor to take care of all the legal matters at the club. You won’t have to worry about a thing. The aggrieved family will be offered a compensation package and it will all be taken care of away from the law courts, and the squash courts.”
Jill was amazed at his confidence, and his obvious knowledge of matters that she thought had been known only to the club board and a handful of members.
She smiled at his little joke but then became more defensive. “I’m astonished. You Americans think you can just breeze in and take over the bloody world,” she said. She was half-joking and half-serious.
Steve smiled again. “Firstly, I’m not bloody American. I’m very much an English gentleman but what I do have is confidence in my own ability.
“I’ve built a chain of clubs in America that has exceeded all my financial forecasts and I think it’s time we did something similar over here.
“British squash players are always bleating about clubs closing down as though the owners owe you some kind of favour.
“Most clubs in England were built as commercial ventures by businessmen taking calculated risks. That’s why squash became a boom sport in the 1980s and the businessmen just wanted a piece of the action. It had very little to do with any imagination or investment from within the sport itself. The squash boom came and went and now the flavour of the month in business terms is the ability to take large amounts of money off people to join a fancy gym. Where squash was once the way to make easy money, now the gym chains have taken over that role in the leisure industry.
“Even they are feeling the pinch in the recession but I’m looking at a new concept where we build community sports clubs with squash as a major part of the mix.
“Just imagine if your courts were used for other activities during the day, and that spare parcel of land next to the club was used for tennis and five-a-side football. Add a gym, a sports injury clinic, and, heaven forbid, a decent restaurant, and that way the club would be busy every day, from 9am to 10 or 11pm, seven days a week.”
“You need a lot of money for that,” said Jill.
“Bingo,” the penny’s dropped.
“You don’t have to be sarcastic,” said Jill, suddenly becoming uneasy at her surroundings.
“Sorry, I’m not. I just know that most English squash clubs are run by boring committees. They are always more worried about cleaning the loos, sweeping the courts and making sure the showers work instead of marketing the club and promoting the sport. They have no idea about business. Usually, they are a bunch of old farts who hate juniors and just want to keep things ticking over the way they have for years, while the club and the sport dies around them.”
His tone had become more forceful and Jill said: “Nice speech. Now I can see why you get your own way in business. But I agree with what you say, most of it, anyway.”
“Sorry,” said Steve. “It’s just that I’m passionate about what I do. I made a lot of money in America and I made my mind up that from here on in I would only get involved in things that I love.”
He looked at Jill as he spoke but he didn’t want to overplay his hand. He didn’t want to come across as the pushy tycoon and frighten her off. He wasn’t sure if he was doing a good job.
He added: “Look, you can work the hours you choose around your domestic responsibilities and Ben can always bring his homework to the club. If he’s anything like I was at his age then he’ll love to spend as much time as he can at the club.
“I’ve heard a lot about him and would love to get on court with him some time soon, and see how good he really is. Maybe this afternoon, if that’s possible? I’ve got plenty of free time and would love to see how good the latest county juniors are.”
Jill struggled to take it all in. “Well, that’s all very nice, but what about Jessica? I might have to drop everything at a moment’s notice to go and find her.”
Steve held his breath and chose his words carefully before saying: “Well, I hope you don’t mind. But I think I can help you there as well. I am happy to provide all the legal help you need. In fact, I have already spoken to a very well-connected private investigator. He thinks he can help. I hope you don’t mind…”
Jill began to squirm. Deep inside, she felt uneasy at someone who was a virtual stranger assuming that he could take so much control over her life.
“What? I don’t understand why you’re doing all this. You march into my life and just think you can walk all over me and get your own way because you have all this money?”
“It’s very simple, but very difficult at the same time,” he said. “When I left for America, I always imagined that you and I would get back together one day.
“But then we both went our separate ways. I got married and divorced, but really I was married to the job.
“And there, at the back of my mind, all the time I was thinking about you.
“When I heard about John, I tried to find out the reason he took that overdose, and that’s when a friend told me about Jessica going missing.
“I’ve come back to England because I miss so much about life over here, and especially you.
“I know you have a mountain of problems but I just want to do anything and everything I can to help you.”
Both were silent before Steve continued.
“I still love you. I always have done. I know I’ve been away in America, and I know it’s been years since we’ve seen each other, but I have always loved you. I’ve missed you so much.”
Tears, again, rolled down Jill’s cheeks. “It’s been more than 20 years,” she said. “It’s all too much of a shock. Do you honestly think we can just pick things up where we left off as teenagers?
“So much has happened. So many bad things. And you just come walking back into my life like this. It’s easy for you, but you have no idea what I’ve been through these past few months.
“I’m trying to find my missing daughter and I really don’t know if I can trust another man at the moment, let alone get involved again.”
She quickly brushed aside thoughts of her dalliances with her friend Gerry, who had helped her through so many difficult times at the club.
“Like I say, I just want to help,” said Steve.
“I’ll give you a lift back to the club if you like. Or I can call a cab if you prefer.”
Jill dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She breathed out a huge sigh and shook her head. “Look, it’s probably me who owes you an apology. Coming out of the blue, all this is just overwhelming.
“But, look at you. Handsome as ever, ploughing your way through life like you always did, and always getting your own way.
“You’re a lovely man, Steve. You’re saying all these kind things but I’m not sure I can take all this in at the moment.
“Can you give me some time to think about it?”
“Of course I can. There’s no rush. I can instruct my solicitors to be as discreet as possible with the purchase of the club, and, if anything leaks out, can I just ask you to act like you know nothing about it?”
Jill nodded. She moved closer to him and perched herself on the middle of the sofa. She touched his shirt, stroked his arm, then let her hand drop. “There you go, getting your own way again.”
Steve smiled. “Maybe. Maybe not. You kept me guessing enough when we were younger.
“Remember all those county tournaments where we used to sneak off outside the club instead of marking the other matches?”
Jill grinned. “How could I forget? It was lucky I had a red face from playing squash because if the coaches knew what we’d been up to I don’t think I could have hidden the blushes.”
She looked deep into his green eyes, wondering what she could see there. The tender look that came back told her everything she needed to know.
“I need a drink of water,” she said.
Steve went to the well-stocked minibar and returned with a glass of chilled, sparkling Perrier.
“They used to sponsor tournaments in France,” said Steve, placing the half-empty bottle on the coffee table in front of the sofa.
“In fact, we both took home Perrier T-shirts after playing in the European junior tournament in Paris.”
Jill sipped her water and fixed him with a look that melted his heart.
“That was where we first kissed,” she said.
“Yes, and a lot more besides,” said Steve, cocking his head to one side with a cheeky grin.
Jill put down her glass on the table. She stood up and Steve followed her towards the door.
As they walked through the dining room and passed the remnants of their lunch on the table, Jill turned and stood opposite Steve. She slipped a finger inside one of the buttons on his shirt and touched his chest.
“Are you going to show me the rest of the suite? I don’t have to pick up Sam for another hour and a half.”
Their lovemaking was passionate, desperate and, at times, intensely physical.
For Jill, it allowed her to release months of pent-up tension. As they dressed, her cheeks were flushed. She said: “I can tell you’re still a squash player. You still have the perfect length.”
Steve quickly whispered: “Thank you. And I hope I haven’t lost my touch up front.”
When Jill collected Sam from school, she told him: “I’ve got a surprise for you. I know it’s not Christmas, but a friend of mine wants to give you a ride in his posh car and then give you some free squash coaching.”
Sam’s face was a picture as he gazed at the Ferrari. If any kid deserved a treat it was him.
He had no idea who this mystery man was, and he had no idea how his life was about to change.
Having fallen in love with squash in his 20s, he has promoted a number of major tournaments including the British Open, Liverpool Open and Kent Open. He is also co-promoter of the Canary Wharf Classic and MC and Media Director for the North American Open.
A regular commentator for Sky TV down the years, he is a joint founder of World Squash Day and is President of the Kent SRA.
Next Up: Chapter SEVEN by Rob Dinerman