Deep Screw

deep-screwCameron Carmichael used to be on top of the world – literally – as a World Snooker Champion and World Number One. These days, his mood is sinking faster than his ranking. Only thirty-one and barely holding on to his top-16 placement, his automatic pass into all the big tournaments, Cameron’s considering retirement.

It might be time to hang up his snooker cue; the only thing keeping him on the circuit is a taste for the finer things in life and snooker does pay very well. And there’s something else he has to deal with – an unavoidable attraction to Ryan Miller, a cocky young challenger with an eye for the trophies that used to be Cameron’s.

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Frame 1

They say once you get older, you lose your focus. Other things come into play. You get married or settle down in a long-term relationship. You have kids. Other things seem more important than knocking twenty-two balls around a twelve-by-six table.

That’s not an exact measurement, but people already think snooker is a nerdy sport without me being pedantic about half-inch measurements and the fact it’s referred to as baize even though that is a much more inferior cloth to what actually covers a tournament table. Strachan cloth is the stuff, if anyone ever asks. Club tables are different. You’d be as well trying to pot a ball into a mouse hole from your bedroom carpet.

God, I love the game.

It’s just a shame I’m not as good at it as I used to be.

It hurts to admit that, but the rankings speak for themselves. Thirty-one is hardly ancient, but if I were a tennis player for example, I’d be thinking about retirement around about now. Andre Agassi was thirty-six or so when he knocked it on the head and from the way the media talked about him at the time, you’d think he was hobbling off Centre Court at Wimbledon leaning on his zimmer frame, wishing those damn kids would get off of what was no longer his lawn.

Snooker, a physical sport? Nah, surely not, most people would say, citing the not-very-athletic physique popular in days gone by. Cigarette smoke clouding the arenas, drinks being spilled by hands so shaky it’s a wonder any player managed to form a bridge, let alone win a trophy.

I hardly have the right to compare myself to Roger Federer or Usain Bolt. They could run rings around me but I’d like to see either of them pull off a three-cushion escape while snookered on the blue.

Still, age comes into it with snooker players. No-one knows exactly why that loss of focus exists, but exist it does. I’ve been accused by some quarters of the media of being tired of winning. I smile and give them a soundbite – a printable one – like “I wasn’t playing to my full potential,” when what I actually mean is “Don’t be so fucking stupid; the other guy, who, incidentally, is a complete trophy-stealing bastard, outplayed me.”

I’ve got a good few friends on the circuit, don’t get me wrong. I only think they’re bastards when I’m in my chair bitterly regretting missing an easy red, or pocketing the cue ball after a righteous long pot. Been happening more often these days, and my eyesight’s 20/20 so I guess I just have to put it down to the snooker gods withholding their favour and showering their magic on someone else.

Cameron Carmichael, you have had your day.

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I’m picking at the tip of my cue for no reason in particular for I don’t know how long when Stephen’s voice breaks into my random thoughts.

“Cam? Cam. Wakey wakey, dude. Your turn.”

“Huh?” I should be using an emery board for this; not that there’s anything wrong with my tip. It doesn’t need smoothing over. Professional for thirteen years and I still want to snigger at all the double entendres peppering this game.

“We take turn about. Snooker’s a game with two players, who try to pot balls, and when one misses, the other-”

“Thanks for the explanation, dickwad.” I clear my throat and grab the towel from where I earlier flung it over the back of my chair. My cue’s not that sweaty but I like to give it a good rub down every few shots.

“What?”

“Huh?” Again. I sound like a monosyllabic teenager. I’ve got the sense of humour to match.

“You just sniggered.”

“Did I? Oh.” I allow myself a brief smile. “Yeah, I was just thinking how much fun it is to rub my cue down every so often.”

“I’m getting seriously worried about you, mate.”

“Oh?” Arching my brows in as fair an approximation of ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, officer’ as I can manage without appearing guilty of anything, I look him in the eye.

“You’re getting a bit phallic with that thing.” Stephen points, briefly, then lowers his hand as if he’s scared of catching whatever ails me.

Not that anything does. I’m just a little…distracted.

“You only see something perverted in it because of your own repressed sexuality,” I shoot back. Snooker, chess, and taking the piss out of one of your best mates all have something in common – the best form of defence is attack.

My cue tends to get a bit – there’s no other word for it – oily, after I’ve been holding it for a while. That can mean I’ve either been at the table for a good few shots, hence, oil from my hands, or sat in my chair waiting for my opponent to miss…while fiddling absent-mindedly with my cue, getting my greasy little paws all over it.

Again, I laugh. I can’t help it. I decide to blame Stephen. “You bring out the worst in me,” I say.

“Any more of your pish and I’ll ban you from the club,” he shoots back.

Like that’s ever going to happen. I’m the biggest draw here and he knows it. He’s run the Long Shot Snooker Club for the best part of a decade and it’s well known we’re mates and I practise here a lot when I’m off the circuit. Having a break. Or after I’ve been knocked out of a tournament and most need the table time.

Not that he trades on it too much, but if someone comes in and sees the framed photos on the wall of me and Stephen, or me and various trophies and asks, “So, does he ever come and practise here?” what’s he going to do, lie? If photos of a two-time World Champion (one Masters and a UK as well, thank you very much) and the possibility of the presence of same pull in the punters, good for him. Good for the club’s profits.

“So are you gonna take a shot or what?” he asks. “You’re not scared of the table, are you? Lost your bottle?”

He’d probably still speak to me like that even if the club were open and full of punters or if he were ‘supporting’ me at an exhibition match. Shameless, downright rude and disrespectful of anyone’s position in life or achievements (especially mine), Stephen Parker shows his affection for his mates by calling them a fucking gaylord or useless piece of shit.

He must really love me, then.

Not in that sense. We have the kind of friendship that means we can take the piss out of each other’s sexuality precisely because he’s secure in his and I’m…I’m…

I’m trying to ignore certain…thoughts. And I’m definitely not going to act on them because if word got out that I was that way inclined, it could fuck up certain friendships I value. One might say, if such matters messed up your friendships, are those people really your mates at all? But it’s not just my social circle I’m worried about. The press would tear me apart. Snooker hasn’t quite lost its beer-soaked image and if someone asks if they can bum a fag, it’s the tobacco type that you smoke they’re referring to. Players have girlfriends or wives, or they’re bachelors. Most have got kids. Hell, I’ve got an ex-girlfriend and a little girl. Not so little; Lily’s six. She was born the year I became World Champion for the first time. Best year of my life. I went from lifting a trophy to watching my kid being born in the space of a month. I’d have liked Suzanne to be at the final with me, but she was in a delicate condition and was fearful of appearing in public, especially with television cameras around.

What she actually said was “Fuck off; it’s your fault I’m this fat in the first place. You’re not getting me anywhere near the Crucible unless you want me pissing myself and complaining about my sore back live on telly.”

I laughed about it then and I can laugh about it now. We split when Lily was three because of the constant arguing and the fact I was away so much and didn’t I care about how it felt for her to be stuck at home with a toddler while I was gallivanting all over Europe and the Far East, but now? Now we’re friends. People say that all the time; “We’re friends,” when what they actually mean is “We can barely hold back from killing each other,” but in our case it’s true. At long last. Well, true-ish. It took a while for me to stop reminding Suzanne that the house she was stuck in while I was away was a half million mansion paid for by my ‘gallivanting’ up the world rankings. It took a while for her to get it through her head that what she saw as my party lifestyle in China and Malta and the bright lights of Yorkshire was 99% work and 1% emerging blinking into the daylight and trying to remember which country I was in.

And after we’d trudged through the “You’re never homes,” and “I’m sure all the money you’re spending makes you feel less lonelys,” we reached a truce. We agreed to split, and after the split we seemed to get on better. Mind, that wouldn’t have been hard. Anything’s an improvement on wanting to kill the mother of your child and the certainty she feels exactly the same way about you.

I was certain, because she freely told me several times.

So, Suzanne and Lily stayed in the half million pound mansion that used to be their prison and is now their security, and I bought a bachelor pad at a carefully considered distance. Near enough to be able to see Lily often, far enough way to not have to see Suzanne too much.

It works. We get by.

So, evidently I’ve had relationships with women. One serious enough for us to have a kid together and make exhausting efforts to stay friends for the sake of our beautiful daughter. But if the press had even an inkling of anything other than 100% heterosexuality happening in my life, as I said, they’d tear me to pieces. Those double entendres I mentioned earlier? Oh, they’d really go to town on me with those.

“Cam?” For once Stephen sounds concerned. Not like him at all. I must look bad for him to refrain from insulting me. “You keep spacing out.”

“Yeah.” I wipe a hand over my face as if that’ll swipe away all the stress. “Guess I’m just tired.”

“Been staying up late to practise, have you?”

The ‘bachelor pad’ I mentioned? Not quite your average poky little council flat. I ripped out the basement and turned it into a man cave, complete with flatscreen and snooker table. I could get in plenty of table time at home but sometimes I prefer to get out of the house. And some company, even if it is Stephen’s.

At least he’s got the good grace to wait for me to finish my shot before speaking again.

“Unless…there’s something you’re not telling me about?”

I’m studying the layout of the table, trying to look as if I have a clue what I’m doing today but for some reason I just can’t keep my mind on the game. I don’t move my head, but I shoot Stephen a glance with a bit of frowning thrown in for good measure. “Meaning?”

“Maybe you’re exhausted ’cause you’ve got a lady friend?”

“Ha!” I’m not sure if it’s good humour or relief that makes my burst of laughter so loud, but thank God Stephen wasn’t able to read my mind and tell what I was thinking about minutes ago. Lady friend indeed. “Where the hell am I supposed to find one of those?”

“Come on, mate. You’re Cameron Carmichael. You must be knee-deep in clunge.”

“That is a truly disgusting image. Do you have no respect for women at all?”

“Hey, I love women. I just don’t get the chance to love them as often as I’d like.”

“Referring to them as women rather than clunge might be a good start. I mean, we’re mates so I’m just trying to help you out here.”

“There are more and more women going to tournaments these days. Surely you’ve noticed that?”

“And when I’m on the telly you’re not sat at home, supporting your old pal Cameron in spirit; you’re eyeing the audience for any interesting bits of skirt, am I right?”

“I can’t believe you’re not.”

“Funnily enough, no. When I’m at work, I try to keep my mind on the job.”

He tuts as loudly as he can, no doubt to put me off my next shot. An easy black off the spot which even I can’t miss.

“Come on, mate; easy red next. I could pot that with one arm tied behind my back,” Stephen says. “Oh, wait. You’re doing that thing again, aren’t you? Bleeding posh boy.”

Every so often, after potting a colour, I wait for someone to fish it out the pocket, give it a polish, and re-spot it. Stephen says it’s because I’ve got so used to people running around after me, polishing my balls. I always point out it’s force of habit, being used to referees keeping score. He calls me a privileged git, I tell him I’ve earned the right to be a ‘git’ as he calls me, and we have the same exchange of insults every time.

“I’m not usually allowed to touch the balls,” I point out, and immediately regret it. Stephen huffs out a noise that makes him sound halfway between a horse and a walrus; I assume he’s laughing. “You know what I mean. Christ, does everything have to be something filthy with you?”

“You’re playing a game where you’re used to screwing and having a man in white gloves polishing your balls and you call me dirty minded?”

“Okay, okay, I’ll polish my own balls this time,” I say with a sigh, and retrieve the black. The nearest cloth is the towel I earlier threw over the back of my chair again so for now, I just buff the ball on my t-shirt before re-spotting it. “The netting’s torn on that pocket,” I mutter, crouching down and squinting with one eye, to check that the balls are inch perfect and lined up. “And you need the spots re-doing on this table.”

“Piss off.”

“Just saying. If you want a world class player such as myself-”

“Ha! What’s your ranking these days?”

“Still in the top sixteen, I’ll have you know.” Just.

Stephen’s lounging on a bar stool, leaning back, one elbow on the bar behind him. Momentarily, I think of how wonderful it would be if he fell off and cracked his head open, but as I’d be left with a lot of explaining to do to the police, the paramedics and the press, I chalk it up to an amusing fantasy and let it go.

“You could always make a donation to the club. I’d weave you pockets of golden thread and carve a diamond black spot if you coughed up the correct amount.”

“Then you’d call me even more of a flash bastard.”

“I’m just jealous of your car.”

Cars, plural,” I can’t resist pointing out. And I laugh, a genuine laugh this time, when Stephen sighs heavily and labours to raise his middle finger in a fuck you salute of disgust. “Seriously, though. How’s the club doing these days?”

“It’s doing okay.”

He’s not lying, I don’t think. He’s got a few tables in here, all with shitty covering mind you, but my precious Strachan cloth is only used in tournament play. The baize here’s good enough, even if I do keep making jokes about him having to mow the tables every morning before opening time. All of the lights work; none flicker with the telltale death throes of a striplight that’s dying on its arse. The club’s clean. Decorating’s fresh. He had a refurb last year so he can’t be doing too badly. But still, it’s good to check. I don’t want him thinking I really am a flash git, chucking my money around, everywhere except at him, if he needs it.

“Seriously?” I arch an eyebrow then bend to pot the easy red he thought even he could manage.

“Seriously. Listen, mate, I’m only taking the piss. Takings are good and every time you’ve got a tournament coming up, we get more people in, so…”

I try not to groan and end up muttering, “Don’t remind me.”

Stephen hops off the barstool and stands exactly the way I do at times. Feet shoulder width apart, arms crossed, cue resting in the crook of one elbow. He’d almost look like a professional snooker player, if he weren’t a couple of stones overweight, and wearing battered jeans and a t-shirt with holes in it.

I’ve always preferred men who wear the full get-up. Penguin suit, bow tie, the works.

Fuck. Where did that come from?

I gulp down…something. Fear. Surprise. (An almost fanatical devotion to the Pope? And if you don’t get that Monty Python reference, doom on you.) Whatever it is, I feel the blood drain from my face.

“Is it that bad?” Stephen asks.

“What?”

“I dunno. You tell me. But I mentioned the next tourney, you said don’t remind me like I’d just suggested you chain yourself to Suzanne-”

“Hey, she’s the mother of my child.”

“Yeah, and I’m the one who sat up at nights with you, getting pissed and agreeing what a bitch on wheels she was, so don’t pretend otherwise. You just whited out on me. And all because I mentioned takings here going up when you’ve got some serious tellybox matchplay coming up. So what’s up? You getting stage fright or something? At your age? Fuck, I’m not right, am I? You’re not losing your bottle?”

“Fuck knows,” I whisper, hoping he doesn’t catch my words, wondering why I had to give voice to them at all. Then, louder, “Nervous, I suppose.”

“How come?”

I shrug. “Ranking points. Earnings. You know…” I take a deep breath and hold a hand over my mouth, massaging my jaw. It’s another tic I’ve picked up over the years; it most often emerges when I’m standing back, watching an opponent hoover up balls like he’s got the cue ball on a piece of elastic and what the hell does that mean? I’m mixing metaphors now, and bad ones. Anyway, it’s something I do when I’m trying not to grimace on camera. Gotta stay sweet when millions of people are watching. It’s also something I do when I’m trying not to say something that’s fighting to be heard. “There’s been talk of me retiring.”

Stephen’s been silent while I was talking, but there’s a strange drop in the noise level of the room. As if it goes into negative sound after I finish speaking. He’s even more silent than before, if that were at all physically possible.

He opens his mouth and for a second I think I’ve gone deaf but no, he’s just having trouble articulating what he wants to say.

“Are you…” He strokes his chin, then points at me. “Are you saying…Do you want to…?”

“Retire?” Even saying the word – again – gives me chills. “Not particularly.” I stare into the middle distance and lose my focus (bad career move, that). “There’s just been talk of it. People talk.”

“Which people?”

I shrug. “You know. The press.”

“So they’re deciding for you?”

“No. No.” I focus again, and look at him, concerned by the concern on his face. “But I’m in my thirties.”

“So am I.”

“Yeah, but…” You’re not a snooker player, I nearly say but that would sound so, so wrong. Like I was insulting him. “There’s no age limit on running a snooker club.”

“There’s no age limit on playing, either. Look at the Rocket. In his forties and he still manages to blow everyone else off the table.”

“Yeah, but I’m not him, am I? There are always outliers. Exceptions to the rule. You can’t use him as an example when he’s so fucking…”

“So fucking what?”

“I don’t know. The word hasn’t been invented yet to describe what the guy does. And yeah, I’m a few years younger than him but normally? Guys retire when they get to my age.”

“Are you thinking about it because you want to or because you think you ought to?”

“I mentioned it because it’s been talked about in the press ’cause of my age, and because…let’s face it, Steve. I’m not the player I once was.”

“So it’s a dip in form. Big deal. Speak to Mark about it.”

Mark is Mark Eliot, one-time player, three-times Masters Champion and my kinda sorta coach. He doesn’t need to teach me the rules of the game; we both know them backwards. But he likes to work on what he calls my ‘temperament’. Excise any ‘negative self-belief’ I hold.

“I keep losing, that’s my negative self-belief,” I said to him last time we met up. “And anyway, is it negative self-belief if it’s true?”

“Okay, we need to work on kicking your game up the arse and helping you win again, ’cause your ranking’s taking a dive faster than Tom Daley, your earnings are shite and I’m sick of you walking around with a face like a well-skelped arse,” he said.

Good ol’ Mark. He talks my language.

“We’ve done nothing but speak about it,” I point out.

“And? What’s his verdict?”

“Basically, I need to get over myself and remember who I am and quit with all the negative self-talk and blah, blah, blah.”

“Yeah…” Stephen cocks his head and looks thoughtful. He’s about to say something clever. Or something he thinks is clever. “Or it could be that you just need to get laid.”

My cue’s getting oily in my hand again. Or maybe it’s just that my hands are getting sweatier. “That would solve all my problems, would it?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no.” Stephen grins. “Even if it had no effect on your form, it’d do something for your mood. I reckon your game’s gone to pot – if you’ll pardon the pun – because all your vital energy’s bottled up. You’ve had no-one to take it out on for ages.”

“Take it out on? You’re a regular Casanova, aren’t you? I can’t understand why you’re still single.”

“Nor me. But you, on the other hand? It’s a mystery. You’re fucking loaded and you’re on telly all the time. You should be fighting off the skirt with a stick.”

“Have you ever thought of writing a book? You know, a dating manual? This stuff is gold; you should be writing it down.”

“Hey, I’m only trying to help, mate.” He holds both of his palms up, somehow also managing to keep his cue steady in the crook of one elbow as he does so. “You’re crapping yourself at the thought of the tournament coming up, don’t deny it. I saw how white your face went. Stick a nose and a pair of eyes on a cue ball and that’s you. Only with a lot less hair. And you’d need…okay, so it was a shitty analogy. But here’s my point.”

“Oh? You mean there is one?” I ask, my voice dripping sarcasm. “Go ahead; I’ll be interested to hear this.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, next time I have trouble sleeping I’ll just think of all your theories about my game and that should help me drop off.”

“Do you want help or don’t you?”

Isn’t that a straight-to-the-point question? “I guess.” My shoulders hitch in the hint of a shrug and I bid him, “Go on.”

“You do need to get laid. When was the last time you got some?”

“I don’t think I want to answer that.”

“Because you can’t remember?”

“Ha bloody ha.” I turn my back, ostensibly to study the run of the balls. “A few months back. That girl I mentioned I was seeing. Well, not seeing exactly.”

“Fucking?”

Oh, for goodness’ sake. “I met her in Glasgow.”

“Gaby?”

So he does retain information after all, but seemingly only when it’s to do with ‘skirt’, to use one of his less-crude phrases for the fairer sex. “Yeah. She worked in a cafe at the venue where the exhibition matches were held.”

“Bloody hell, man, that was ages ago.”

“A couple of months. That’s all.” I eye the blue and line up the shot, not really concentrating. Is my bridge hand trembling a little? Surely not.

“You only ever told me you put the charm on her and you-”

“Yes, yes, I don’t need a reminder.”

“That awful, was she?”

Damn it.” Of course, I was always going to miss the shot with Stephen banging on and on about banging. I behaved like a cad, to use an old-fashioned word, to Gaby. Didn’t even bother to get her surname. She might have told me it, but I’ve long since forgotten it if so. “No, it wasn’t awful.” I straighten up, groaning. Not with pain; I’m in my thirties now, yes, but I’m not old and decrepit enough to fight pain every time I bend over a snooker table. “It was okay.”

“Okay? Impressive. Oh, my turn, I believe.” He sidles over to the table – yes, sidles – and grins. “Cameron Carmichael the love machine. Charmed her knickers off, then fled into the night like a sexual demon.”

“The only reason I can think of for you to be so interested in my non-existent sex life is because yours is also non-existent.”

“More than likely true.” Just to rub salt into the wound, he pots a red, the blue I missed, and another red without saying another word. Not like him at all, to stay quiet for so long when he’s obviously itching to sort out all my problems. “But seriously, dude,” are the first words he says after the three pots. “What was so bad about Gaby that you didn’t want to see her again?”

“Nothing was bad about her. It’s just that we live so far apart.”

“Excuses. You travel all over. Wherever you find someone, you’ll still be apart from her for a great deal of time, so it hardly matters where her base is.”

“And it was just a fun thing.” Although, not that much fun.

It’s pretty shitty to pick up a woman who makes her attraction to you clear just so you can prove something to yourself, but that’s exactly what I did. The sex was okay. We both got off. But it was all so…so…functional. Like scratching an itch. Unfeeling. Because she wasn’t someone I really desired. She was just there. She was there, and I was there, we bumped uglies and Christ, I think I’m turning into Stephen Bloody Parker.

It’s the same old problem with another more difficult one added on top. Firstly, I’m never sure if women flirt because it’s me they like or because I’m that bloke off the telly and hey, hasn’t he got a bit of money, too? You just have to look at the car he drives. And I heard he lives in a posh area of his home town, not far from his ex and their kid. I mean, he must be loaded; he let her keep the bloody house. Haven’t you seen it? It’s the size of a mansion. Six figures, at least.

So, there’s that. Then there’s the fact sleeping with someone to take your mind off someone else is never a good idea. You’re treating the person you’re with as a substitute and that’s a pretty shitty thing to do. It doesn’t make the longing go away.

Nothing does.

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