A game of pool

I saw Sam again this evening. We were sitting across from each other on the Birmingham train, playing the polite commuter game of trying not to make eye contact, even though everyone’s squeezed in like cattle and those tables aren’t exactly big. And under normal circumstances it’s not a problem, but I realised I know her. Or rather knew her. I could see that she’s trying to make her glances as blank as possible, but it’s clear she recognised me too.

She’d been Gary’s girlfriend for a little while in 2003. That was when he was still hanging around with the gang. She had been a lot younger that him; it had been a little awkward. Not just the age difference, most of us were in our late twenties, but because of how Gary was acting.

It wasn’t that he ignored her, which he certainly did, relying on the girls to take Sam under our wing and include her. It was that he was becoming more obnoxious, louder; more embarrassing. It wasn’t like we’d had a meeting and decided to ditch him, but we’d all sort of reached that conclusion independently and then, it was like a psychic connection, decided to drop Gary from the group.

He’d always been boisterous, loud and opinionated, and our traditional Friday night at The Feathers usually ended in all of us drinking a bit too much and getting rowdy. Just, there’s a difference between a night out as a teenager and a night out at twenty six, you know. He didn’t seem to have that filter. I mean, Christ, he still lived at home with his mum. He thought that was brilliant. He used to boast about it – how his mum would make him his tea. It was tragic really. The sort of thing that stops seeming heroic after the age of eighteen.

We’d be walking back from the pub, maybe being a little loud, singing, that sort of thing. But Gary always wanted to push it. It’s not a night out unless the police get called out. And he did get arrested, too. And he deserved it. But he thought it was some sort of badge of honour, being banged up for the night. Then suddenly there was Sam. And she adored him.

You could tell by the way she’d be all puppyish with him. She never said a lot; just gaze at him. She was nice, just not very talkative. But pretty. And young. Much younger.

She had this thick, black curly hair that kind of cascaded over her shoulders. And it was shiny; professional-looking, like in the shampoo adverts. And big, brown eyes. Disney Princess eyes, that’s how Darren described them. I said he was talking rubbish, but he was right – large oval eyes. It made her look beautiful. And a little bit helpless. It made me resent her a little; that Darren thought about her. With her being younger and everything.

Not that Darren would be unfaithful. And anyway, she only had eyes for Gary. And Gary was gross about it. When he’d finally bother to pay her attention he’d give her these big porno kisses. It was disgusting, he’d come over, lean across the table and really paw at her; it was like she was meat, with his hands on her tits and everything. In the pub. It was indecent. One of us should have told her, really. You don’t have to put up with that.

Go to the bar, love, he’d say and peel a £20 off the roll and just chuck it on the table. Insolent. That’s the word for it. It was ridiculous, if you think about, he had that huge roll. You could tell he thought it made him look gangster. But he worked on a building site. I think off the books, because his boss always paid him cash. And off she’d go. Perhaps she didn’t know any different, perhaps she liked it, you know showing that she loved him. Me, I’d of told him in no uncertain terms. Perhaps I should have taken her aside. It’s about respect isn’t it

Anyway, we’d all kind of decided to ditch Gary. Plus, he was getting to the pub earlier and earlier. He was always pretty far gone when we’d get there. Kind of slurring a little bit. Don’t you have a job Gary Dunston, I asked him. And the look he gave me!

Anyway, that was the night that Sam brought her friend to the pub with her. She’d texted and asked if she could. It was kind of sweet, if you think about, asking our permission! And when she came in with the friend, it was a boy. He did the same course as her. He was young too, with pink hair and eyeliner. Still, each to their own, I suppose. But Gary. Christ, Gary. It wasn’t like he lashed out or anything. He just got sullen; argumentative.

He was talking about queers all night, being really offensive. But the boy was nice as anything, and Sam was really talkative, she really came out of herself, you know. I think with her friend there, she was much more confident. And he was really funny, too. I don’t think I laughed so much. And all this time, Gary off on his own, sitting at the bar, talking loudly about how he hated poofters. At the bar drinking pints and sambuca shots, acting all sullen.

Anyway, it was about nine thirty and the boy, Sam’s friend, said let’s play some pool. We’ll have a mini tournament: boys against girls. And I’m trying to say I’m no good at pool, so count me out. But he’s insistent – it’s only fun, plus lets all play. You know, everyone takes turns; girls versus boys; have a bit of a knock around. And he’s off to the bar to get some 50 pence pieces.

Perhaps I should have gone to the bar, or Darren, or one of us. Gary’s there, see. And I think maybe he’ll try and hit the boy. But instead, he challenges him to a game of pool.

“It’s easy playing pool against girls. You want to play, you should play against someone who’s a challenge.”

“Why don’t you join the tournament,” says Sam’s friend. I think he’s trying to be friendly, he knows Gary’s Sam’s boyfriend, so maybe it’s a good way to include him. Join the tournament he says.

But Gary’s leaning forward now and poking his finger into the boy’s chest: “fuck that. Let’s go mano -a-mano. See, I’m a fucking pool legend. Never been beaten.”

You can tell that the Sam’s friend just wants it to be fun: “Let’s play the tournament,” he repeats. But Gary keeps going on about going mano-a-mano. That was the sort of nonsense he’d say. So in the end the boy agrees to play one game against Gary. He does it in a half-hearted way; it’s a trap of some sort. A stupid trap that Gary’s trying to set. And Gary’s got this sort of smug, furtive look.

But he can hardly stand, can he. He was already hanging when we came in. It’s excruciating. He tries to flip the coin but he doesn’t catch it and has to crawl around on the floor to find it. You can see that it’s making him madder, especially as everyone’s crying with laughter: the way he’s on his hands and knees under the table and he keeps banging his head. And all the time he’s got this talk going about how he’s a big pool player, never been beaten mano-a-mano.

Then Sam goes ‘it’s here’. The coin had rolled in the opposite direction to where Gary was looking, it was sitting plain as day on the tiled floor. So she hops up and hands it to her friend.

“Oh, it’s like that is it?” Gary’s saying and Sam and the boy are looking at him like he’s crazy. He does look at bit crazy, swaying around with his trousers all dirty where he’s been shuffling around on the floor.

“Let’s just play, shall we.” the boy says, but in a tired way, as if he’s had enough of being friendly.

“That’s all I ever wanted,” says Gary and he goes over and squeezes Sam’s bum. “For luck,” he says, looking leery. But you can tell he’s done it really hard because she squeals and jumps away from him.

And they play. But Gary’s really drunk and he can hardly hit the balls: he keeps missing, or sending the white ball off the table. And every time, the boy let’s him take the shot again. “Oops, it must be the table,” and all that. But every time he misses and every time the boy lets him off, Gary’s getting really furious.

“If it’s the table, you have a fucking go at it,” he tells the boy. So the boy, he chooses a cue. He goes through all of them on the rack, weighing them in his hand. It looks odd, the boy with his bright pink hair and a serious look on his face, like choosing the right cue is the most important thing he’ll ever do in his life. And all the time Gary’s muttering, calling him Steve Davis; like the snooker player.

Then the boy has chosen his cue and he’s looking at the table. I don’t know much about, it’s pretty boring; just a way for the losers to occupy themselves while they’re getting drunk. But the boy’s got a look on his face. He’s more serious than choosing the cue. Then suddenly, bang. Bang. Bang. He’s potting the balls. And he keeps going. I’ve never seen anything like it. Soon he’s potted all his balls, he was yellows, and it’s just Gary’s reds and the black ball on the table. And the boy’s got a faraway look in his eyes, as he leans down over the table aiming at the black.

And that’s when Gary hits him with his cue. Across the back. The cue’s aren’t weighted any more and Gary’s so drunk that he doesn’t do it very hard. But the boy shouts out. I think in shock more than anything. And then Sam’s between them. And the boy, you expect him to hit back or something. Or even cry. But he just stands and stares at Gary like Gary’s nothing; worse than nothing. Like he sees him for what he is. The boy says “come on Sam.” and holds his hand out.

But Gary grabs her hand and says “No!”. The way he says it, like it’s him that’s been hurt, like a spoiled child. And he actually goes “Mine!”

The whole place has gone silent. It was a Friday night, so it was really crowded, but everyone’s just staring. Darren starts to get up, but I grab him. There’s something terrible and my first thought is I don’t want him to have anything to do with it. It’s like this whole thing is happening to strangers; at a distance.

Then it’s Gary who’s moving. He’s dragging Sam out of the pub door, and she’s fighting him. Digging her heels in, but it’s a tile floor so it’s easy for Gary to drag her. But she’s struggling, so Gary grabs a big handful of all that black curly hair and twists it. And Sam screams in pain, and someone – a man sitting at the bar – shouts Oi, but Gary keeps dragging her and everyone just sits there.

And then they’re outside and we can all hear Sam screaming and then there’s the sound of Gary’s car starting and it roars and wheel spins out of the pub car park, the wheels are really screeching.

And all this time, the boy’s kind of just standing there, then he’s out side after them. You can hear him shouting stop, stop, stop, as he runs outside. And all this time, I still have my hand firm on Darren’s arm, pulling him to me. Like I never want to let him go. And we all just sit there.

That was the last time I saw Sam. Until today. We even got off at the same station. I followed her out. She was picked up from the station by a young man in a Mercedes. I didn’t see his face.

It’s been years since I’ve seen Sam. Perhaps I should have said something?

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