Long before the lunch bell ever went on its clamorous circuit around the linoleum-clad school hallways, my heart was already down in the snooker club.
There’s something about the way it looks. It’s always seemed alive to me. How the oval pools of light above each table only manage to kiss the edge of the cushions, lush green felt giving way to burnished brown mahogany. It makes each table its own little world. A solitary field in the middle of space. A swarming collision of skill and science and art, with the orbiting minds of the players unseen in the black.
I love it. It’s everything.
It’s the clatter and clink of the break. It’s the fulsome smell of the newly hoovered carpet. It’s the shuffled arrival of the Tuesday afternoon regulars. Everything. It’s the way that it feels that makes it home for me.
Places have a feeling. Do you understand me? They fit the way clothes fit. Sometimes the fabric moulds to you, sometimes you to it, and sometimes you become inseparable from one another. It’s like seeing a teacher outside of school, or a mechanic dressed in a suit. It’s a shock to see them like that. They don’t fit. That was the snooker club for me. It wasn’t right to see me anywhere else. It fit me. It was the only place I felt balanced and comfortable.
In the common room I slammed the door on my locker, shouldered my bag, which was full of books for the sake of show, and melted away amongst the brewing cacophony of moving students.
Outside teenagers were streaming in and out of the front gates, on their way to mob the local chipper or the shop next door for crisp rolls or brown bags stained with grease. They teemed and jumped and yelled, clustered in groups and tight knots, swaying in the current of bodies, frantic to be heard over the din. It was easy to go unnoticed.
Some minutes later and the canal was still. A few swans cruised silently through the water as I drifted along beside them. Clumps of tall grass fanned out from the banks to brush the edge of the path, and I let my hand trail through them as I passed.
The calm would prepare me for the quiet of the snooker club. It wasn’t that people didn’t talk in the club, they were always passing comments or cracking wise, but there was an air of stillness to it all the same. You could hear the focus as the players planned their next move, lined up their next shot, willing the angles to play in their favour.
I loosened my tie and stuffed it into the front pocket of my bag. I would not be returning to school today. There was no point in pretending otherwise.
My parents didn’t know how much time I really spent at the club. They had an idea, of course. And occasionally there would be flash points. Poor results, missed homework or some other school related malady. But on the whole, I think, it was beginning to dawn on them that I wouldn’t be told. This place is in my nature. You’d be as well to ask me to hack off my foot at the ankle, or stop breathing, or turn the colour of my insides green. They’d stopped yelling and pleading. There were no more slammed doors when a school missive, drenched in that subtle tone of official disappointment, would flop into the front hall, outlining my continued and repeated truancy
Focus. Potential. Work-ethic. These are words I recall with no fondness. They are official words, devoid of meaning and empty of warmth or knowledge. I had no feeling for them.
I remember the last time I’d sat on the sofa before my mother, watching her eyes as they peered over the top of her half-moon glasses, scanning the sentences for the salient points, picking out those words like familiar barbs aimed directly at her parenthood, before crumpling the paper in half and looking at me with a deep exhaling breath.
I was her charge and tacitly the letter tried to say this was her fault. The letters were always patient and conciliatory, but accusing none-the-less. Normally, the letter having been read, you could call the subsequent actions as if from script. Accusal followed by denial followed by yelling followed by my father followed by surrender followed by disappointment followed by promises of change. But this time she had simply looked at me. No, it was more. She had regarded me, if there is such a thing. She sat there and regarded me in my fullest nature and capacity, then crumpled the letter up into a ball and threw it away.
‘Go on. Dinner’s at six. Call your father’, she said, rubbing her temples with thumb and fore-finger.
I left her sat there, hand on head. You could almost see the imagined future she had for me finally draining away. Perhaps she was giving it one last look before presenting it to the tide.
I’ve always felt bad about that. The battering the public perception of my parents took because of me. I didn’t care about that sort of thing, but they did. I’d wished that people would stop caring so much about me on their behalf. I was fine. I knew what I was doing. They were just making the lives of my parents unnecessarily difficult because, at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to stop. I wasn’t going to change. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. I didn’t care to learn.
But I felt bad for mum, and for dad, they didn’t deserve that.
The club didn’t open until two, but hanging around outside was a dangerous business for two reasons. Firstly, it increased the chance that someone might see me, raising questions over my whereabouts in relation to school.
Secondly, it was because Timmy, the thin and skeletal old man that opened the club up on weekday afternoons, could be a vicious crank of a bastard depending on what mood had struck him that morning. You’d be as liable to dodge a clout as gain entry from Timmy if you appeared at the club door too early. The stench of cigarettes and beer always clung thickly to his clothes, but alcohol was strictly forbidden in the club, so I’d always put his foul moods down to this enforced abstinence. Luckily for me, I’d forged my own path of entry into the club a long time ago.
A set of bins stood against the street-side gable end of the building, leading up onto the small flat roof of the club garage. A quick dart across this open space and you were safe from view, clambering along the old brown, moss encrusted tiles. From there it was a twenty foot shuffle to the back wall that enclosed the tight concrete yard. A careful descent onto the wall and a short drop presented you before the great thick, grey steel rear door, a stout Yale lock in the top left corner.
The key to that lock I had stolen, copied and replaced in the club office months earlier for this very reason. No one knew I had it. At least, I think they didn’t. Timmy definitely didn’t. His rages at my mysterious appearances were becoming club legend. I’d emerge from my hiding place just after the first players arrived. Eventually on one of his rounds Timmy would spot me huddled in a corner.
‘Where the fuck did you come from? Where. The. Fuck. Did you come from?’
It would erupt from him, brewing from the knees and passing up through his whole body as he exclaimed it. I’d dart around the tables, keeping a healthy distance between us as the laughter of the players peeled into the gloom. I think part of him liked being mystified. It gave substance to his crank and brooding. A reason to explain his gruff and brusqueness. He never knew about my key. I was sure of it.
But Mr. Flannery, the owner of the club, I wasn’t so sure about him. He had an air about him that said he knew most things. I’d catch him looking at me with his eyebrow cocked every so often as if to say he knew exactly what I was up to.
I slipped in through the door and eased it shut behind me. I closed my eyes to squeeze out the daylight, watching kaleidoscopic flares and pixels dart and track across my eyelids. The darkness slowly enveloped me and I bathed in the familiar smells of the club. Wood, polish, chalk and age filled my senses. By the time I reopened my eyes I could see in the murk. I moved forward and leant my ear against the black wooden door, searching for sounds of movement outside of the normal pulse and creak of the old building as it eased into its foundations. Hearing nothing I poked my head around the door and into the club proper. The darkened tables lay draped in dust sheets, stood low and strong in formation down the length of the hall.
The silence was solemn and absolute as I padded gently across the carpet into the middle of the hall. The walls hung heavy with the history of the game and they people who had passed beneath this roof. Victories and defeats, hopes and regret, generations and brotherhood all infused the fabrics that held this place together and made the club the centre of life in this small corner of the world on the side of a canal at the edge of a city.
I let my thoughts wander with the ghosts of games gone by for a little while before I retreated to my hiding spot. A giant trophy case was crammed into the corner at the far end of the hall, and I had learned a few years ago the bottom panel was both loose and hollow. You could ease it off its fixings and roll underneath, replacing the panel behind you to wait in the dark beneath the silver for the first players to arrive. Slowly I had begun to populate this cubby hole with magazines and a reading light, evening sweeping out the worst of the dust and lint.
I knelt on the floor before the cabinet and removed the panel, lying down and rolling into place. I sealed myself into the dark. I did not turn on the light. I did not feel like reading. Today I just wanted to hear what the building had to tell me. I wanted to be still and listen to the stories that packed the rafters and jostled against each other like a crowd angling to see. As I lay in my secret space I could feel the heartbeat of the club.
I closed my eyes and waited.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe / ©2015 Project Bowes