Billiards isn’t like life
Effects, curves, trajectoires. A story of green baize and matchematic
The last game to play
‘Anyone who has time shouldn’t wait for time,’ my grandfather would often say. It’s a saying, but also a fact. A saying and a fact that I was stupid enough to never give much value to. Perhaps because I always believed blindly in an- other aphorism, attributed by some to Sir Francis Bacon: ‘Time is money.’ Or because I can boast, in the long list of my many defects, an outstanding ability to completely overlook problems – particularly those that I’ve created – and to postpone the solution to a later date.
All this, in truth, is of little importance, but until recently, this was my life: putting things off to tomorrow was my passion, and avoiding problems my favourite sport, along with billiards. Billiards isn’t like life: there are simple and precise rules. It’s all a question of physics. All good players know perfectly well what effect to put on the ball, where and how to hit it, and how much curve you need to put on the it if you’re aiming for the pocket. Certain things don’t happen by chance.
Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always liked mathematics. I was the best at my school even if, in reality, I didn’t care too much for studying. I spent my time playing and winning, betting and cashing in. It was mathematics applied to life: every ball, a point; every pocket around the table, a point. The green baize was my Cartesian plane and there was no problem spotting trajectories, they would take care of themselves.
I used to leave the break to the opponent, to give him a chance to hit at least a few shots before I overwhelmed him. At first sight, I looked like a kind of nondescript loser, and some people would realize only at the end of the match that the very opposite was true. With the cold cue in hand and the tip chalked in just the right way, ready for a shot that they would never take. They didn’t always lose graciously. At eighteen, when I came of age, I was finally entitled to leave school, so I found time to dedicate to pool. I thought I was invincible, but I was wrong.
While friends and peers slowly entered into the real wold, I spent my days at Maggie’s Pool, in the Brixton area, between Brighton Terrace and Tunstall Road. Inside, six tables arranged in two lines. The only lights, fixed on the green baize, were on at every hour, day and night. The same gossamer-like shroud of diffused penumbra that hid the bravest cobwebs in the top cor- ners of the small room.
The north and south walls were covered with large mirrors that infinitely multiplied the rows of tables, magnifying the bar to ten times its actual size and deceiving the distracted eye of some complete newcomer who might have thought they were in one of those surreal places, out of time, in Twilight Zone style. In reality, very little was needed to focus your gaze and realize that Maggie’s Pool wasn’t infinite. Just like my life. It would have been simple enough to focus and understand that it wasn’t neverending, but, at the time, everything gave the impression that it would go on forever and that there’d always be time to waste.
“Everything passes, Franky! And, in the end, remember that you take stock of it all,” Maggie Walker repeatedly said, shaking her skeletal finger and showing two rows of yellow teeth stained with nicotine and coffee that would have made the day of the National Dental Association. She was the owner of the property and the clients became her family. Her husband John had long gone, victim of one of those illnesses that were the heritage left to England by three hundred years of Industrial Revolution.
As far as I knew, she must have always been old. Curly cobweb-coloured hair, neatly lacquered, hid a pair of cold eyes that were always staring at the ground. They called her ‘Mama Mag’, barely five feet tall, 105 pounds of wrinkly skin and protruding bones. Had she lived on the coast, she would probably would have been blown away at the first gust of wind: instead, she lived in the city and spent her days at Maggie’s Pool, between Brighton Terrace and Tunstall Road. Where the only gusts of wind were those let off, between one hole and another, by old Peter MacSweeney, a former miner who lived on spirits and bore an eternal grudge against Maggie’s more famous namesake, Mrs. Thatcher.
Since then, many things have changed. But not the background noise of the bar, in spite of progress and the passing of time: “Watch the 7 ball go in the corner pocket.” Clink, chang!
“12, in the centre pocket.”
Clink, chang, sock!
“4, in the corner pocket.”
Clink, swoosh, chang, sock!
Behind the bar, Mama Mag, also unchanged despite the passing years, would offer anecdotes and advice to all customers, old and new alike. I usually went to Maggie’s with Albert and Leo, two friends from school days who haven’t been on speaking terms since they fell out over a woman. We often discussed the tits of Virginia Thompson, Headmaster Thompson’s wife, and how much we would have liked to pot four shots in her direction.
“That’s a bit gross! She’s too old for you!” Albert would invariably say, making an issue of the age factor.
“An old hen makes good broth, Al,” I would answer, making it two wins out of two for the day.
“Evidently that’s fine by him,” would be Leo’s assessment. We called him Karmuccio, because of his propensity to justify every single event in life by referring to the law of karma.
“You reap what you sow. Right, Floyd?” Often Leo tried to involve in our discussions a young Rastafarian who sat in a torpor in one of the chairs near Table 5, staring into space. That day – I remember – Floyd gave a hint of a smile, turned his head towards us, nodded and then turned back to staring at nothing like always. It was kind of an event, that’s why I remember it. Rarely did the guy give any sign of life. He didn’t work and – as far as I knew – he spent his days at Maggie’s, near Table 5, with his cue in one hand and the chalk in the other, staring into space. He seemed as if he was always waiting for someone or something. For us – at the time – he was a kind of sideshow attraction, yet another drug addict with a brain fried by crack or some other synthetic crap. A shrivelled vegetable, more or less, like the rubber plant at the only window in the bar.
“Hey Floyd, want to play?” I urged him, to pull his leg and have a laugh.
“Don’t bother with him, Franky!” Leo said. “Take the balls and set them up, ready to play. Today I feel it’s my lucky day, time for me to make an ass out of you!”
“Remember that you’re 15 pounds down, my dear!” I answered. “Your break.”
I spent most of my time making the most out of my talent, drawing parabolas and straight lines, giving some poor rookies a hiding, winning all the neighbourhood tournaments, on the verge of brawls and drinking beer from the bottle that old Mag kept in the bright red fridge at the back of the room. I spent a good part of my life following the rhythm of Maggie’s Pool, tempo- rarily plugging the leaks in a slowly sinking shipwreck and avoiding prob- lems that I expected would vanish on their own, like jellyfish on the beach.
That was a really long time ago.
One day, it was very cold. At about five o’clock, I entered the bar with a heavy coat and my face covered by an orange woollen scarf. I shook off the cold and the damned autumn rain, and I was surprised: no ‘click’, no ‘chang’ or ‘sock’. The bar was silent and deserted. I looked towards the seat near Table 5. Even Floyd’s usual place was empty.
“Pig of a day, isn’t it, Franky?” The voice came from behind me. Recogniz-ing it, I smiled, turned my head towards the bar and nodded.
“Hey, Mag, what happened to Floyd? Did he finally snap out of it, after all this time?” I asked, but got no answer. “Mama Mag, are you listening? Where is everyone? I don’t have any time to lose, that bitch of an ex of mine is breathing down my neck for food, I’m 250 pounds overdrawn and, if the money doesn’t come in by Monday, I’m in the shit. I need some chickens to pluck.”
“The bar’s reserved for the whole night, Franky-boy!” she answered. “Reserved?” I asked, disgruntled and surprised. “For who?”
“For you,” she said.
A moment’s silence that seemed to last a year went through the room. “For me? Are you taking the mickey?”
“No way, boy, your time has come. But tell me, how long have you spent in this bar?” she asked.
We stayed still, looking at each other. I would have preferred her to get on and say whatever she had to say, but I answered: “Well, considering I’ve been coming here since I was 15 years old, includ- ing the vacations that I never took and all the Sundays that were like any other day to me, I’d say more or less thirty years.”
“Exactly,” said Mag, “Thirty years! That’s quite a time to waste picking up a few bob extra. There are strange people. They come here, they play pool, they make a couple of bob, they leave school, they can’t find a job, they want everything and they want it immediately; but then they don’t have the courage to take it, they would like someone to prepare it for them, nice and ready, and serve it to them on a silver platter. And then they settle for crumbs, while time runs on relentlessly.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, trying to hide my growing sense of insecurity behind a show of resentment.
“I’m talking about people like you.” The old woman, for the first time in thirty years, stared me straight in the eye. I shivered for a moment and, looking away from those piercing blue eyes, stared at Floyd’s chair. She went on: “You all think that time was tailor-made for your lives, that something will happen sooner or later, that you don’t have to move your ass, and that problems sort themselves out. Well, dear Franky, you can bet your life something’s going to happen here tonight.”
“Oh yeah? What?” I asked with a challenging look, scared by the mysterious tone of the old woman, and at the same time irritated by her strange attitude. “I’ll tell you what: what’s going to happen is that you and I are going to play a game,” she went on mockingly.
“You and me?” I asked, bursting into a loud laugh. “I could never do that, I like you too much, you’re like an aunt to me. And then everyone knows you’re poor. So just what could we play for?”
“Time!” she said. “Your time, Franky-boy, seeing that Floyd’s has run out.” “What?” I stuttered.
The woman’s face, torn by her yellowish smile, seemed more disturbing than usual. “You and Floyd are much more alike than you think. Like him, you’ve spent the whole of your life neglecting affections, friendships, dreams and aspirations, foolishly thinking that time was money and that money was the only thing that really mattered.”
“Time is money, old woman!” This was one of the few certainties that a life of games and betting had taught me.
“That’s where you’re wrong, my dear,” Mama Mag rebutted. “Time is time, while money is only money. But it doesn’t matter, now we’ll play! The rules are simple: every ball represents a moment of your life.”
“But what the hell … ?” I tried to interrupt her, as she went on with her explanation.
“Every ball I pot is a part of you that becomes mine. If I win, I take your time. If it’s you who wins, you can leave here with this.” She pulled out a small black attaché case, put it on the floor and opened it. A dazzling light blinded me for a moment: “Is that what I think it is?” I mumbled, like a baby in front of an unexpected gift.
“Just figure it out for yourself,” she said. “What do you say? Shall we play?” “Okay,” I answered, hypnotized by this gift from God.
“Come on!” the old woman said, closing the attaché case and turning off the lights in the bar, all except those at Table 5, which were infinitely multiplied by the mirrors on the wall. At first, I thought I would hit her with the cue I was holding, take the attaché case and run as fast as my legs would carry me, to a new life. But, for the first time since I’d been going to Maggie’s Pool, I felt confused, without any real choice in the matter, as if something was pushing me to accept the challenge from Mama Mag.
“Right, Mum!” I said, collecting my strength along with the balls and positioning them with care in the triangle on the table.
“Let’s see what you can do, but don’t whimper when your precious case comes away with me.” I breaked. Then it was her turn.
“Right! Keep your eye on 9, do you see it?” she asked.
“What’s there for me to see?” I answered condescendingly. There was an anxious edge on my voice, making it uncertain and vaguely shrill.
“The day of your sister Laura’s wedding. Remember? You were just over 20 years old and you were the best man. You arrived six hours late, stinking drunk, practically at the end of the reception. That day, in the bar, a group of rich kids from the well-heeled end of town turned up. Could the great Francis Banks give up such easy money? Of course not! So you spent five hours of your life, with the suit for the ceremony covered in chalk, to rake off every last penny from the pockets of those four smartass kids.”
I remembered perfectly: from that day on, Laura had never spoken to me again.
“But let me tell you that’s not all,” the old woman continued. “If you keep your eye on the 12 ball, you’ll see the time Cynthia walked out for good. I don’t know how many times she called that night, but I remember perfectly well what you had to say about it: ‘What the hell’s got into that bitch? Tell her to stop bugging me!’ Yelling as you emptied the pockets of four Japanese guys who had come in only to call a taxi.”
“That’s enough chatter, old timer! Stop going on about my wife and my sister! Play!”
At first I didn’t give much weight to Mama Mag’s words. She took the cue and moved to the short side of the table. “As you prefer, my dear,” she said. “9 and 12, centre pocket.” She let the first strike go. Thanks to a series of chance bounces against 8, 4 and a couple of times against the cushion, 9 and 12 ended up slipping into the two central pockets in front of my disbelieving eyes. “Bloody lucky!” I laughed.
I picked up the chalk, put some on the cue and sat down in my chair waiting to draw the trajectories that I had in my head, anxious to put an end to this stupid game and to get my hands on such a rich prize. Suddenly, however, I realized I was not really focused on the game.
On Floyd’s chair, close to Table 5, I found myself staring into space: thinking about Cynthia, who had always loved me and now despised me as if I were the lowest of the low, and then about Laura, who I’d never heard from or bothered to look up since her wedding day. They were the only people to have accepted my passion for easy money without judging me or preaching, and I’d alienated them without doing anything.
“All that lost time is mine now,” declared Mama Mag. Slowly, the memories of times spent with Cynthia and Laura reappeared in my mind along with an anguished, empty feeling. I didn’t feel good, I started to sweat and passed my hand over my forehead.
“Watch out for 13, my friend, do you see it? The day your father was taken to hospital. You were supposed to help him remove the dry leaves from the gutters, remember? You were 17 years old and spent the whole day acting cool at Table 4 with your friends. For how much? 40-45 pounds? That day, on the ladder, he lost his balance, fell and was taken to Dulwich Community Hospital. Three long months in a coma, before taking his last breath. And you? How many times did you go to see him?”
“Calm down Mag!” I cried out in tears. “It’s not my fault what happened. The old man had become a vegetable, I couldn’t bear to see him like that, and what could I have done anyway?”
“It doesn’t matter now. 13 in the corner hole,” said the old lady, sending the ball with a clean hit against the right-hand cushion, avoiding 2 by a hair’s breadth and nudging the orange striped ball into the pocket. The memory of my father, buried under tons of matches won and pounds squandered, came back for a moment and stood in line in my head, with those of Laura and Cynthia. Now they were there, all three of them, inside of me, giving weight to that sense of emptiness as it became more painful.
The old lady wandered around the table, scrutinizing the arrangement of the balls, ready to hit the next shot. “11 ball in the centre pocket. Watch it well, son, it’s Hilary, your first love, if you can call it that, seeing that you didn’t care much about her. Remember the day that she waited for you at the tube station for four endless hours. She was fragile, lonely, she felt empty and hopeless. She clung to your relationship like a castaway to a broken lifebelt. She spent many years asking herself what was wrong with her. She ended up in therapy, a prey to second-rate psychiatrists,more attentive to their wallets than to looking after the patient. Now, with difficulty but with her own strength, she’s got herself back on her feet and is married to a man who really loves her. It took her a long time to get over it. A long time. And I’m going to take that very same time back from you.”
With a classic shot straight out of a manual, the 11 went straight into the centre pocket and the memory of Hilary, along with the others, like a cloth left out to dry in the sun, loomed large in my thoughts. Mama Mag chalked the cue, looking at the table with the coolness of someone who knows they have the match in their hands. My head throbbed with a pain I have never felt. I was sweating and shaking.
“Now for the 10. Remember your friends, Leo and Al? Squeezed dry for more than ten years? Remember the day your friendship ended? You could have given them a bit of your time, seeing the amount of money that you wormed out of their pockets. But you pretended it was nothing, you turned the other way and continued to play.”
“It was none of my business!” I shouted. My head hurts and the fingers that now pressed on my temples are shaking and trembling. “Right, right, you can continue to think like that, if it makes you feel better,” Mama Mag murmured. “In the meantime, I’ll take back a few more years of indifference and selfishness. 10 in the corner pocket.” The cue ball ended up on the other side of the table, it was surrounded by the balls I still couldn’t get at because the old woman’s run of luck hadn’t finished yet. Mag approached the cue ball and, with the cue between her fingers, struck the ball sharply from below. It jumped over the barrier, towards the striped blue ball, the 10, that gently advanced towards the corner pocket.
“Watch out for the 15,” continued the shrew. “That’s the day your son Paul was born. Corner pocket, along with the 14 – the day he left home, 18 years later. Where were you, Franky, when your son was born? And where were you when he left to get away from his father? Did you think you’d forgotten? Where were you for all that time?” As she scuffed the cue ball, it described a donkey’s back trajectory that touched the long side of the table, pocketing the 15 on the right, then bouncing and gently slipping to the other side and nudging the 15 into the pocket.
“Paul …,” I mumbled, “didn’t leave because of me.” “Whose fault was it, then?” Mama Mag countered. “Fortunately, he’s found someone who listens to him and loves him. Good,” she finished, “Only one left now.”
By pure chance, the 8 was close to me. The number, seen on its side (∞), vaguely resembled the mathematical symbol for infinity. I smiled. “What’s there to laugh about?” Maggie asked. “I’m laughing because we’ve come to the end of the game and, I believe, my life … and in front of my eyes I find the symbol of infinity,” I said, pointing at the 8 lying on its side.
“The irony of destiny, Franky, you know better than me that everything passes and nothing is infinite, not even death, according to some cultures.” By a strange ricochet effect, unfortunately for the old woman, the cue ball was exactly between the 8 ball and the pocket her next shot should have been aimed at. And it was completely surrounded by the remaining balls, all mine.
There was really little margin for success, it was a nearly impossible shot, it would take at least two favourable bank shots to pocket the ball. While at the same time avoiding the others. “So what’re we going to do now, Franky?” Mag asked.
“We finish here,” I answered, closing my eyes. “Play, I’m ready.” “Well,” added the old lady, smiling. “In that case I’d say it’s time to wake up!”
When I opened my eyes, I saw in front of me the poster of ‘The Hustler’ hanging on the wall. Paul Newman’s icy stare trained on an undefined point above my head. I sighed. I got out of bed, drenched in sweat, and ran to pick up the phone where I’d left it the night before, on the kitchen table. I looked at the numbers in the memory display, stopping at the contact details that Cynthia had sent me a few Christmases ago in the hope that I’d ‘try’ (those were her words) ‘to do something good in life’. At the time, I didn’t pay any attention, I thought she was trying in every way possible to humiliate me and remind me I was a failure, as a man, as a father and as a husband.
At the other end of the line, the phone rang:
“Hello?” a female voice answered.
“Good morning,” I said. “I’m looking for Paul Banks. Is he at home by any chance?”
“Of course, I’ll put you over to him,” said the woman. “Who shall I say it is?” “His father.”
PH Walt Mcnee
TEXT Francesco Apostoli
March 20, 2020
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