– I’d get yer ginger man from Billions on the tv on a boat, take him out there to Mutton Island and let him do some inside-trading on me.
The other two shrieked with laughter. It was the three cleaners’ second smoke break since lunch.
– It has to be realistic!
– What’s wrong with that? By the time I’m that age, he’ll go mad for me.
– What’s on your bucket list, Rayzor?
Reyansh, a carer, was taking the last couple of drags before his shift began.
– What is this bucket list?
– It’s a list of stuff you have to do before you die. You know, kick the bucket. Tina’s hoping to do that big find-out-if-i-have-a-soul walk in Spain, the Casino.
– Camino, ye eejit.
– Sheila’s taking some American actor on a dirty weekend to a boggy island. What about you?
– Just hoping for a day without listening to your bullshit.
– But snooker, all the same. For fuck sake. Is that the best she could do? It’s due to start any minute inside.
– Maybe it’s her way to mess with the rest of dem in there’s heads. That cailín’s smarter than all of dem put together.
– I’m on my way in to them now, offered Reyansh finishing his cigarette.
Lilian, a resident at the care home, had turned ninety that weekend and they asked her if there was anything she’d like to do to celebrate. Could they take her up to Dublin on the train, to see something at one of the theatres – she was always listening to plays on the radio. No, she said, she’d rather be dead in Clare than alive in Dublin. What about afternoon tea at the fancy American hotel at Doonbeg? No, she didn’t care for hard scones or bits of sandwiches that cost three times what they should because they’re served on a posh doily. Was there nothing she wanted? Yes, there was something. She wanted to watch snooker in the day room when it started. For two weeks.
Reyansh entered the day room. He noticed one of those in-between-programmes montages showing on the tv. He had to look hard twice but Sumo wrestlers appeared to be in a ballet class. The continuity voice announced:
“Now, coverage of Day one of the Snooker World Championship continues live from the Crucible in Sheffield.”
There were groans from a handful of residents.
– Where’s Liveline? demanded Máire.
– Bring back Derek Davis, screamed Lorna.
John-Joe, who hadn’t uttered a word in two years, shot up and hummed along to the theme tune.
The day room was oval-shaped with one of its long sides an outer wall with four aluminium windows looking out over a mostly-ignored field. Neglected not from disinterest but from years of frustration borne from its refusal to yield any sort of crop worthy of the work it needed. Beyond the simple wooden fence at the field’s end crouched the Atlantic Ocean; still and at its deepest blue today but poised to roar at the slightest invitation of the prevailing Westerly winds. Lilian sat with her beloved ocean a glance to her right. Having raised their family in Cork, she and her husband moved home to Clare when he was appointed principal of the tiny three-teacher school in Mullagh. They’d bought a house that had been the penultimate station on the recently-defunct Ennis-Kilkee line of the West Clare railway. Living in a former train station had its quirks but it provided the solitude and space they’d craved when cramped with six children in the city. For forty years Lilian had gone to bed with the sea lolling her. A sudden stroke subverted her claim to her kids of being capably independent so here she was for her own good in St. Anne’s Residential Home. A name that was either tautologous or self-contradictory but certainly lacking in charm whichever way you looked at it. The closeness of the sea and the gentle strength of the staff’s reassurance when she visited allowed her to relent. St Anne’s Residential was now home.
– Who’s playing? asked Reyansh as he took the rocking chair vacated by Lorna next to Lilian.
– Stephen Henry and a man I don’t think I know.
– Is it a good match?
– It’s good because I have the chance to watch it but it’s not much of a contest so far. The other man can’t get into it.
Lilian and Reyansh had formed a friendship of sorts in recent months. Reyansh was surprised to find a resident as old as her so alert and articulate. Certainly, she could be reclusive and non-participatory but get her chatting on a topic that interested her, and her company was a pleasure. He’d lived in this most deserted corner of the most deserted county of a basically deserted island for nearly a year. He hadn’t made any friends to speak of. The locals were ever-so friendly to him, none of the casual racism friends in other countries occasionally reported. No, here in Ireland they were promiscuous with their idle chat but utterly frigid to connection that might lead beyond the Lotto numbers or the hurling club championships. He paid an agency almost half of his savings to set him up with a move to Europe. He’d nursed for twenty years in Chennai in a private hospital and was doing well by any reasonable measurement. But, then, the internal wreckage that emanates from a little bad luck and a few very bad choices can be hard for others to measure. Despite the counsel of those closest to him, he was getting out. Ireland or Sweden the agency had proffered. He chose Ireland.
Lilian wasn’t sure what friendship meant at her age. A few Sundays earlier she’d heard one of those polished and jarringly earnest Protestant ministers talking about the growth of friendships on the religious service on the radio. He said that often people believe friendship is based on common interests and common experiences. The truth, he implored, is that it comes to life through common purpose. The closest bonds are forged in reaching collective goals. Team-mates winning matches. Mothers in community raising children. Soldiers defeating enemies. Workmen completing projects. Lilian hoped it wasn’t true. What collective purpose had she and her fellow residents at St. Anne’s? To stay alive as long as possible? To die together?
Reyansh watched for a while. There was a magnetism to the small coloured balls on the large green table filling almost every inch of the television screen. The commentators’ occasional hushed and unexcitable descriptions of the play added to the sleep-inducing experience. It was surprisingly relaxing. He had a checklist of duties to get through but interacting with the residents was encouraged.
– There are two players but only one is getting to play.
Lilian thought a moment.
– When a player pots a red ball, she explained, he gets to keep playing. He has to pot a colour after a red, then a red again, then a colour and so on. The red balls are worth one point each and the colours a range from two points for yellow and seven for black.
– Is that why he keeps hitting black after a red?
– ‘Tis. It’s worth the most.
Snooker is both order and chaos, she thought. When the reds disappeared they didn’t come back. The colours were returned to their original spots when there were still reds on the table but the reprieve was temporary – they, too, would fall without return by the end of each frame, in pre-ordained sequence: yellow, green, brown, blue, pink and, finally, black until nothing was left, only white. Every frame in every match begins with twenty-one balls in their assigned spots. There’s no negotiation on the set up, no free will. Once the frame is up and running the balls are played according to a rigid set of rules. Within those rules, though, choice abounds. Where to strike on the cue ball. How hard to strike. Which red to play. Play safe or play for a pot. Tricky high value colour or easier low value. Man’s liberty within defined parameters. Then the chaos of the balls themselves. As soon as the cue ball is struck for the first time, no frame is the same as any that went before it. Like forming relationships, she thought. Innumerable chain reactions as each object interacts with another leaving infinite possibilities.
“A good chance to make a very large break”, whispered the announcer to his co-commentator.
Reyansh noticed an added flicker of brightness in Lilian. A few seconds and a couple of shots later, the other commentator mumbled,
“You couldn’t ave em set better than this for a maximum.”
-What does that mean?
– A maximum is when a player pots all the reds with blacks and then all of the colours without missing once. It’s the highest single-visit score possible. They call that a break. It’s the maximum break. 147 points.
– Sounds like a bit of a challenge, ma’am.
– ‘Tis. In the thousands of frames at the World Championships it’s only happened a handful of times. There’s a lot of money for doing it. I’ve been alive for a long time and watching snooker a lot of that and I’ve never seen it in any tournament. I nearly cried the night the lovely Irish fella… Ken something or other… Flaherty… Ken Flaherty missed out on it on the very last ball. I’ll never forget it, the black on its spot, the white on the cushion. Broke my heart. You get that close without it happening and you resign yourself to it just not being for you.
– Doherty! exploded Tomás who’d plunged himself into a red dust-ridden couch beyond Lilian.
– Excuse me?
– Doherty. The man’s name is Doherty.
– That’s what I said.
– Didn’t. You said Ken Flaherty. It was Ken Fuckin’ Doherty who was the Irish man who missed the last black on a 147. I could never forget it. I had 100 quid at 60 to fuckin’ 1 for a 147 to be made at the tournament. I was gonna take the missus on a cruise. Between the end of the reds and the pink I’d made me mind up. Cape of Good Hope in January when the weather would be good. He missed that black. I nearly shit me trousers.
Lilian reckoned Tomás was one of those rare Dubliners everyone enjoyed being around. He could say anything about anyone at any time. The more swear words he used to you or about you the greater affection in which you were held. Lilian imagined he walked straight off the pages of an O’Casey play. Joxer himself.
– Did you take the cruise? Asked Reyansh.
– We surely did not. The wife died six months later. Not because of the miss or the cruise. Dodgy ticker. We did get to Clifden though for one of those midweek breaks that the paper offers. She always wanted to go to Clifden. I never saw a maximum live either. Was studying the form guide while havin’ a shit when O’Sullivan did it in five minutes. Harder than landin’ a brace of salmon in the Moy in April, tunin’ in for a 147.
The three of them fell into a momentary silence.
“This for the century but bigger fish to fry after this.”
Reyansh could feel his palms getting moist as the man dressed like he was running late for a state dinner hunched down for each shot. What did he care for this game? He’d never given it a second’s thought before he came on shift. He noticed Lilian’s head rise up a few inches every time the white ball made contact with the object as if her head could keep it on course for the centre of the pocket. Tomás was fully immersed, too. His eyes were fixed on the screen. His cheeks puffed out at the moment of address of the cue ball then popped into a kind of a snort at each successful pot. There were only two red balls and the six remaining colours left on the table now.
Siobhán from the kitchen rolled the tea trolley through the swing door. It moved with a rattle of a rhythmless child practicing the tambourine.
She stopped in front of the television.
– Tea or coffee today, Lilian?
Tomás practically dislocated his shoulder waving her away.
– Can’t you see she’s concentratin’? We’re all concentratin’. Move yer arse along!
“Yes, high drama here. This red followed by the black and six remaining colours.”
They sat motionless as the final red disappeared into the middle pocket. The black was potted and the loudest cheer from the crowd so far as the white travelled on a perfect line toward the yellow. As if hearing Lilian’s silent invocations, one of the commentator’s whispered solemnly,
“People are praying for this.”
– Ya couldn’t fuck this up from here, ye Scottish prick, muttered Tomás. I need this.
It sounded ridiculous when she repeated his words in her head but Lilian felt she needed it, too. It was just a game. A few spheres on a nicely upholstered table. But somehow what was playing out in front of her was pulling her back together again. The thrill to feel her heart beat faster and faster as the finish-line neared. To witness a little bit of history on a day that showed as little promise as all the rest just minutes earlier. The possibility at her age of experiencing something she never had before. It felt like cheating. It was electrifying. She was aware that the other two were now as involved as she was. She could sense there was a collective investment in what was taking place. It was hard to explain but having them beside her was important; there was added depth or meaning in being an audience of three not just one.
Yellow down. Green down.
“And another magic Crucible moment, created by the King of the Crucible, Stephen Hendry.”
Brown down. Three to go. Blue down. “134”, Lilian noticed the referee announce the total of the break for the first time although she’d been doing it all along.
– Perfect. Fuckin’ perfect. I’ll kiss you both on the lips if he does it. With tongue.
The player was taking virtually no time between shots now. He’d finished off the colours from this position thousands of times before and he was doing it as if nothing was riding on it.
“His temperament has always been his main strength. Can he just hold it together for two shots?”
Reyansh was as much captivated now by his two charges as he was by the snooker. He held his body completely motionless, trying to prevent the squeak of the rocking chair. Lilian sat eyes glued to the screen, still, it seemed to him, trying to control the balls with her rigid stare. The rest of her was shaking gently. Tomás had his head in his hands, glancing through his fingers occasionally.
The white finished low on the pink, leaving only a shot to the middle. The picture switched to a camera behind the player. White pink pocket all in a line. He struck it, the pink glided toward the right-hand jaw, touched off it but was down safely.
– Come da fuck on, roared Thomás, jumping up screaming at the television.
John-Joe woke from dreaming he was breaking the fingers of his childhood priest. He instinctively roared back. Peig looked up from the newspaper in her hands. It was upside-down. She’d been reading the same page every day for three years. She laughed to see Tomás’ hysterics. Máire, who’d complained so angrily earlier, was fixated through the corner of her eye; her crochet needle, unconsciously discarded to her lap, teetering now over her thigh. Later she’d claim to have slept through the whole thing.
Lilian’s heart slowed down. The white was in perfect position. It, the black and pocket in a straight line. She knew the maximum would be completed; her own bit of history was in the safest hands. There’s no one else in the world you’d choose not to falter at this point. Hendry had won his first World Championship as a 21-year old, before some of the current crop were born. He was the definition of reliable. So many times Lilian had rooted for his opponents, people she liked far more. Parrot. Davis. Doherty. The most painful of them all: Jimmy White. But the Scotsman virtually never relented. Here she was willing him to succeed, his cast-iron nerve transformed from a source of frustration to a beacon of hope.
Lilian is seeing it in a sort of slow motion now. He bends over the table, pulls his bent elbow back, thrusts it forward. White strikes black, black zips toward the pocket. True and clean, it drops. An enormous shout from the crowd. Hendry is punching the air, poker-faced as always.
“Absolutely fantastic!”, cries the commentator. “There’s only one Stephen Hendry. Big congratulations from Stuart Bingham. And the referee. Well done, Stephen, you’ve done the game proud once again!”
Tomás is giving Lilian a one-armed hug that has so little tenderness it may as well be a headlock. He’s crushing her ear. She doesn’t mind.
– It’s him! They both shout at once.
– Who? Asks Reyansh.
– The Irish guy. The one we told you about who missed the maximum that night.
Ken Doherty is in the picture. He’s stopped his match on the other table in the arena and he’s shaking hands with Hendry. He’s smiling with delight. Hendry is now, too. Warriors of the game revelling in the years being rolled back
Lilian eases herself back into her chair, gently sighs with pleasure. She hears Reyansh.
– Get your fucking lips off my face, Tomás.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com