CH TWO 22
Frank has been ‘invited’ to take part in the snooker contest. The entrance fee is five cigarettes, which he has grudgingly handed over to the banker, ‘Lord’ Thorndike who may or may not be of noble blood but does have a plummy accent and haughty way about him. Also he is never short of anything, including minders in the form of two burly lags who watch out for him in exchange for certain privileges.
There are 16 contestants taking part, most of whom have not the first idea of how the game is played or even how to hold a cue. The first round takes less than an hour, the eight unlucky participants relieved to be out of the competition but not to be relieved of their stake. It’s hard enough to accrue five real cigarettes without having to give them up on a hopeless wager.
Frank has won his first match and is pitted against Bob ‘Drystone’ Wall in the next round. They each take more time lining up their shots now that the real competition is underway and betting starts on the outcome of each game. The players themselves are not allowed to bet on the games, their only potential reward being a share of the stake pot.
Neither of the men has the benefit of a straight cue so there is a good deal of chance to the game. Frank loses the toss and has to break but Drystone misses his first shot and gives away four points. Frank takes down one of the reds then positions the cue ball behind the black and the blue, leaving his opponent snookered. Drystone takes the shot but only as far as a kiss on the black, meaning that however good Frank’s next shot he will be bound to forfeit points.
The audience are enjoying the play between the two big men, appreciating the unexpected skill of the new man. The reds go down in steady fashion but the colours give more opportunity for snooker after snooker. Even the screws are taking an interest as the men eye each other up as each takes their turn and the scores are neck and neck. Time is ticking on but neither is in a hurry to make a mistake. Drystone is getting rattled, he usually wins easily and Frank has been an unknown quantity up until now. Sweat begins to break out on his brow and he is finding it harder to concentrate. Frank piles on the pressure with yet another snooker and wins another six points as his opponent inadvertently strikes the pink.
Frank plays with him a little more, seeing that he is tiring and sweating profusely now. Eventually the last shot is played and Frank wins by two points, to the cheers of the onlookers. Drystone even shakes him by the hand but his eyes say something other than congratulations.
Association is over and the next round will have to wait until tomorrow, which suits Frank as he is more tired than he lets on and after a few words with his appreciative audience he fetches his towel and sponge bag and heads off to the washroom, closely followed by one of his Lordship’s men.
The men are left to themselves as other inmates are discouraged from entering the washroom during important business involving Thorndike’s henchmen. Frank knows that something unpleasant is about to occur but tries to look casual as he goes about his evening ablutions. ‘Scrapper’ Noakes begins by congratulating Frank on his prowess at the snooker table. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’ Frank says he used to play with his dad every evening in the winter months. They had a full size table in their barn and as a successful billiards player in his Navy days his dad had passed on to him all the skills he himself had acquired over the years.
‘His Lordship thinks you would play even better with a good cue,’ adds Noakes, ‘as it happens he has access to such an item if you would like to borrow it.’ Here we go thinks Frank, this generous offer is bound to cost him; he’ll end up out of pocket even if he wins the competition. ‘What’s the catch?’ asks Frank, ‘there’s bound to be more in it for him than there is for me.’ Scrapper says that he will be well rewarded for his efforts, win or lose, and Frank knows he has no option but to agree.
The snooker contest is forefront in Frank’s mind throughout the following day and he almost forgets to filch anything from the canteen before returning to his cell. Fortunately he remembers in time and manages to spirit away a good size lump of cheese, which he slices thinly and wraps in cling film before distributing it about his person. Most days the screws don’t bother to search him but today he is asked to assume the position for a pat down. Nothing is detected and he goes on his way, blessing the invention of the wonderful food wrap which has been useful for all manner of applications. Recently it has been used in another establishment to suffocate a particularly perfidious character who had crossed the wrong man once too often.
He hides the cheese in the secret compartment of his cupboard and is almost caught out by Scrapper Noakes who has been dispatched to fetch him for the snooker contest. ‘Here’s you cue,’ says the man mountain, handing over a very fine piece of craftsmanship, ‘look after it; his Lordship wants it back afterwards.’
Frank follows the minder to the association room where every available space has been taken by an audience eager to see the new man at work. They move back and forth like a human tide as they make way for each contestant to take their shot, not daring to make a sound. Frank easily wins the next game and is allowed to sit aside to catch his breath as the next opponents take their turn. Inevitably Frank ends up in the final, knowing that many of his fellow inmates have staked more than they can afford to lose on the outcome.
Surprisingly, his Lordship has not made the outcome a foregone conclusion and the two men are encouraged to play a straight game. ‘Rocky’ Robin Vine is a short, skinny man in his late thirties, serving a life sentence for his part in an armed robbery where a police officer was shot dead and two others seriously injured. He has been the landing snooker champion for six years in a row and will not easily give up his title. He wins the toss and asks Frank to break.
The crowd applaud appreciatively as one of the reds goes down and the next shot drops the blue. Frank has placed the cue ball in an ideal spot for the next red and follows this with a shot at the pink but misses. Rocky chalks his cue for the second time, blows away the dust and strides around the table lining up his shot before deciding on a red to the far pocket. The ball goes down with a crack and the black is sent into the middle pocket. Rocky stops to chalk his cue yet again and the audience murmur their approval or disapproval depending on whose side they are on. The black is replaced and Rocky sends a red into the end pocket, leaving the cue ball nicely on the pink, which is sent into the same one before being replaced on its spot.
The score is going Rocky’s way when he misses an easy red and Frank is back at the baize. He pots a tricky red then the yellow, another red and then the green goes down. He has a good run and when he misses his next shot there is only one red left on the table and the scores are level. Rocky slows the game down by playing a neat snooker shot after potting the last red and Frank pays the penalty. The score goes back and forth as each man plays for snookers but the colours are also being dispatched until eventually there is only the pink and the black left on the table and three points in it. Both men are sweating with the effort, the heat from the crowd and the concentration.
Frank pots the pink but the black teeters on the edge of the pocket and refuses to be sunk, leaving Rocky to finish with a flourish. The crowd clap and shout as the victor shakes his opponent by the hand and Scrapper Noakes steps forward to raise his hand in the air. ‘A worthy winner I think you all agree,’ says Lord Thorndike as he steps up to add his congratulations. No mention is made of the bets which will have to be honoured as gambling is strictly forbidden. All settlements will have to wait until the appropriate time.
Frank has tried his best and nobody seems surprised that he has lost but there seem to be no hard feelings either. ‘Perhaps we can give you chance to get your own back next time?’ Suggests his lordship. ‘I’m due for release in a few weeks,’ Frank reminds him. ‘We’ll arrange it for next Saturday then,’ says Thorndike and with that he turns and strolls away with his entourage in tow.
The crowd drift away, some exchanging a few words as they go. The cue has been removed to a place of safety and Frank takes his cue to visit the washroom before returning to his cell. He decides that the next time he filches ham destined for Lord Thorndike it will have an extra little touch of relish courtesy of his own arse.