Black Knight Short Story Notables:
The Cannon’s Mouth
by Terence Kinnear
My good friend, Amy, who could easily pass for 35 although she is a good ten years older than that, has a habit of saying: “Women over 45 are invisible.” “Not in your case,” I invariably reply. She, in turn, always smiles and shows her disbelief by remarking: “You certainly know how to flatter a woman.”
But every coin has two sides, and the other side of this coin is the equally valid truth that men over 45 are also invisible – but only to women under 30. It is, of course, the eternal vanity of men to think that they look younger than they are and that all women of all ages must inevitably be attracted to them. These were the thoughts passing through my mind as I sat in the Hacker’s Café after my match, being studiously ignored by the pretty young waitress who dallied unconcernedly at the only other occupied table on the far side of the room – occupied, of course, by three very young and very fit squash players with whom I had only one thing in common: the desire to be found attractive by the young woman on duty.
I was about to get up and leave without ordering, when I felt a heavy slap on my back: “Good game today, eh?” I didn’t need to look around. The booming voice could belong to only one man: my squash partner, Greg. He threw his squash gear on the chair beside me and sat on the other one opposite. “Could we get some service over here, please?” he bellowed across the café. The young waitress was startled out of her flirting reverie with the three young men and gave them an apologetic smile and wave as she ambled across to our table, sliding her backless shoes along the floor as if she were doing a sand dance.
“I’ll have a large latte and a chocolate doughnut.” And turning to me he said: “What will you have?” “I’d like a strawberry energy shake, please,” I said somewhat timidly. As the waitress left, Greg said: “I don’t know how you can drink that crap! Why don’t you order something healthy?” “I thought it was healthy,” I said. “You gotta be joking! After a good workout on the squash court you need to replace your sugar and stimulate your system.”
I shrugged and smiled apologetically. There was no point in discussing the matter with Greg: he always knew what he was talking about and he was always right.
I suppose that every squash club has a Greg: he is passionate about squash – a true addict who plays every day, but he has never taken it upon himself either to learn how to play the game properly or even to read the Rules. Once when I mentioned an upcoming Rules Clinic to him, he responded: “I’ve been playing squash for twenty years! I know the Rules!” Maybe he did – his own rules that bore little resemblance to the actual Rules of Squash.
In Greg’s mind the squash court was not rectangular: it was an octagon, and squash was merely a form of mixed martial arts – with the added advantage that you carried a weapon (the racket) with which to propel a projectile (the ball) – and too bad if your opponent got in the way. And opponent was the right word: step on a squash court with Greg and you were a true opponent – or rather an enemy. If you got between Greg and the front wall, watch out! He would hit the ball at your body as hard as he could in an attempt not just to win the point, but if possible to intimidate you into submission.
On the other hand, if you played according to the Rules and stopped to ask for a let, he would grudgingly grant you a let – but never a stroke, no matter how much in the way he was. Once he asked me: “Why do you call so many lets?” I responded: “You mean, if you are between me and the front wall, you want me to hit the ball and risk injuring you?” He said: “You gotta take your licks in life. What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” The latter sentence – a well-known quotation from the philosopher Nietzsche – was one of his favorite sayings, one that he cited frequently to anyone within hearing.
In fact, he knew all the macho quotations and never tired of instructing everyone he met in the art of winning at all costs. The German General von Clausewitz said famously: “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” Greg not only knew that quote, too, he led his life according to it. If war was a continuation of politics, squash was a continuation of war.
On the squash court he was constantly in a war-like mood. Once, in a club tournament, he had lost the first game, and in a fit of anger he threw his racket violently the length of the court into to tin. “Conduct stroke,” said the Referee (who was also a rugby player and had a zero tolerance policy towards bad conduct). “What did you say?” asked Greg. “I said: ‘Conduct stroke’ for throwing your racket against the tin,” explained the Referee. Greg’s eyes opened wide and he shouted: “The next time I’ll throw it at your head!” The Referee, without missing a beat, said calmly: “Conduct match.” Greg was so flabbergasted, he stormed out of the Squash Club without taking a shower and was not seen again all weekend. But by Monday he had recovered and was back in full armour, ready for the week’s battles that lay ahead.
They say that a man is responsible for his face at 50. Greg’s face bore the lines and furrows of 50 years spent in the trenches of life. In a series of business dealings he had had his ups and downs, made lots of money, lost it all – and made it back again. That had happened several times over, but now he was doing well again and lived in a large house on a peaceful lake outside the city. His long-suffering wife – who had patiently and loyally supported him through all of his risky business ventures – grew up in a large city and was not at all suited to life in the woods. One day when I was visiting them, she had pointed out of the large window with a splendid view of the lake and blurted out: “Look at that bloody lake. Nothing ever happens!” Greg, however, was blind to her boredom and assumed that such a magnificent property as they now possessed must automatically make anyone happy.
Greg, himself, was not happy unless he got his daily fix on the squash court. In the final analysis, he was the ultimate squash junkie. He planned his week’s squash matches two weeks ahead like a military campaign – by means of a spreadsheet that he e-mailed to all of his opponents with the instruction to enter their name against the appropriate time and date. Nothing could prevent him from playing his daily game – not even serious injury. Once he showed up at the Squash Club with a badly infected foot, and when his opponent saw him hobble into the Club, he said: “No problem, Greg. You go home and rest. We can play next week.” Greg looked at him in disbelief. “What do you mean: go home?” he said. “I’ve just bought an oversize pair of shoes and I got a painkilling injection from my doctor.” A fanatic? Absolutely – but fully in the tradition of all ardent squash players. Greg liked to quote one of his heroes, Jonah Barrington, who once said: “If there is no blood in your urine, you are not training hard enough.”
The waitress had brought us our orders and Greg bit into his doughnut. “Squash is such a wonderful game, isn’t it?” he said, with a full mouth. He was about to launch into one of is philosophical ramblings about the benefits of squash and the virtues of squash players, and I knew better than to interrupt him. “Just think about it. It is one of the great addictions of the human race – but one without any of the dangers that accompany a chemical addiction. It keeps people – like those young guys over there — off the street corners, it is reasonably priced, its quality is never diluted nor contaminated, it does not impair your judgement, or addle the brain, or inhibit the sex-drive (thank goodness!). And yet it gives you a high like nothing else in life.” How could I disagree with any of that? Of course, I had to keep my negative thoughts to myself – that some people, such as Greg, can develop excessively competitive behaviour that fosters aggression and a win-at-all-costs attitude. On another occasion, when he was playing in a league match, the Referee kept on calling strokes against him for not clearing. Finally, in frustration, Greg said to the Referee: “In our Club we usually play a gentleman’s game.” “Maybe you do,” countered the Referee. “But gentlemen get out of the way.” The subtlety of that advice was lost on Greg: lets were for weaklings, let every man hit the ball and take his medicine!
The three young men were now leaving the café, and on their way out they passed close by our table, laughing and joking as they walked. One of them pushed the other playfully and the second one lost his balance and fell against our table, causing Greg’s latte to spill into his lap. “What the ̶̶̶ ̶̶̶ ?” shouted Greg angrily.“Sorry, sir, it was an accident.”
The waitress brought some paper towels, and the young man apologised some more and quietly moved towards the door. However, as the three men left the Club, Greg growled grimly through gritted teeth: “I’d like to get those guys onto a squash court!”
And with that, he stood up, hoisted his squash bag onto his shoulder, and strode out of the Club looking for the next battle to fight.