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The Blue Moon Review
 

Golfing Stories by Neil Grimmett
Sweetest damn thing I ever did in my life. Hitting a golf ball. Striking through it like it didn't exist or had existed for so long it felt more natural than breath. From that first perfect arc until the last--just rainbows without the rain. All gone now. Turned into some willed solid lump that is as uncontrollable as thought, dead, along with you.

Coming from the city to a small, seaside village, I can always think back to that feeling of alienation and then, just as easily to that time when you told me about your own first experience of being away. We were both a long way from the golf course and playing a different game by then. You had quickly forgiven--or at least learnt to accept--the disappointment of seeing your protege walk, despite all those warnings, into this factory. "Could have been the best player this country ever had," you told my work-mates as we queued for tea, "and threw it all away for a piece of fanny."

I didn't bother to argue the point. It was just good to be acknowledged by you and to see the reaction of the men. I could sense that you were beyond questioning. The sporting hero doomed by circumstance and not the usual weaknesses. After that you began to appear in the remote buildings and quiet hours of this place, sharing some of your other life that could have had no place on a golf course. Still trying to be the coach, I guess.

"Picture this," you said. "I was seventeen and had never been further than the little market town of Highbridge in my life. Suddenly, I am in a uniform and on a boat stuffed full of strangers, all with different stories that ended up the same. Then we get dropped off in Bombay. With all its heat, chaos and the smell: it was overwhelming. I just walked along the street with two other boys from the countryside. None of us could even speak. Then a beggar grabbed a handbag from a mem-sahib and made off with it. 'Loose wallah,' someone yelled. And this policeman in an immaculate, canary-coloured uniform and white gloves who was standing on a podium directing the traffic, gave a blast on his whistle and held up a hand. Everything stopped. I swear the whole city froze. Except for the beggar trying to limp away with his prize and the policeman who climbed down and walked over to this rack of long bamboo poles. He selected a heavy looking one and in a flash caught up with the man. As he reached him he did no more than swing the cane down with all his might onto his head. He then bent down and picked up the bag, and with as much dignity as you can imagine, returned it to the lady. He climbed into place, gave the signal, and everything came back to life, apart from the beggar, who lay on the floor with a spreading pool of blood hissing its way into the dryness of the earth, already forgotten."

*

When we came to live in the village next to the golf course, I announced that I was going to start playing golf. It became the family joke. "His lordship will be popping out for a round shortly," they kept saying after we had got unpacked. Our new neighbour overheard and told them that it didn't have to be out of reach here. There was a concession made to the villagers as the course crossed some of their common land. "He may be able to join the 'Artisans'." An hour later, she produced a wooden shafted club as a present to get me started. I stood on the back lawn swinging away as my family looked out of the kitchen window in disbelief.

The next day I had progressed to the front lawn. Two of the village boys walked past carrying bags full of golf clubs. "Are you the new boy? Would you like to come and see how to play?" By the end of the round all their little dreams were over. And my legend had begun. "He beat us easily. Played every single shot with an old hickory stick. Even bunkers and putting. He can hit the ball for miles." What did I think? I didn't. Not then. There was nothing so obvious lying in my path.

*

You had been pointed out to me before you came knocking on our door: "That's Sam, he's the best player in the county. They say that if it hadn't been for the war he would have been a great professional." I saw that for myself after the first shot. By the end of that round, after you had thrashed the powerful, young assistant professional, and I had seen the wad of money pass hands, I knew something else: You were interested in me for more than the caddying job I was fulfilling. "Try and hit this to the pin," you said, throwing a ball down and handing me one of the clubs. I can still hear your silence as that ball landed on the green, followed by two more within feet of each other. "You have dancing feet and your forearms need building up--can't you get father to buy you some spikes?" And my look told you too much about too many other things in my life. We reached the last green near our exit, the strap from your bag burning into my shoulder with a colder flame than the one raging against my face. "Put the bag down," you told me. "I have some spare clubs at home that I'll drop round tomorrow, and I might even be able to sort out some shoes. But first things first: a chip and putt for your caddy's fee."

I went home that night with my pockets empty, as they would be every time I tried your skill around those greens. I took many other things home though, including your secret exercise to tighten my grip and forearms and one small shadow that crossed your face and meant nothing then, but actually joined us in more ways than any talent or love of sport. "Off to the nineteenth hole now," I had said, using the only golfing term my father knew and would ever know, "for a quick one, I suppose."

How was I supposed to know that the clubhouse was out-of-bounds to members of the Artisans, or that we were not allowed to tee off from the first except in competitions as we would be visible from its windows, or that we had to give way to any member coming up from behind and wait for any in front, crawling their way along? All I knew then was that hitting a golf ball was the escape, and following its flight was to leave behind and avoid everything below and blocking the way.

*

I have forearms like Popeye now, each turn of that broomstick with its rusty weight dangling from a cord implanted in my muscles as another memory. Useful though, considering the nature of the work I had ended up trying to do, and how tiring and hard it was made out to be. But there are other types of tiredness that no amount of weight lifting can strengthen you against. Like one humid night-shift I can remember when sleep seemed the only escape from the stream of flaked TNT flowing from the nitration house--and from the lives of the other process workers: that seemed already to me, the real inert elements behind its birth. You were making your rounds as foreman of fitters--and counting them off until your retirement by now.

"One time," you told me and the rest of the young crew I was working with--"and I would have been about your ages--I was on night-duty, guarding a cemetery that the Pathans had started desecrating. I was starting to nod off when the sergeant came sneaking round: 'Have a nice nap laddie,' he said. 'The last one that did got surprised by some of the tribe and spirited away. They wrapped him from head to foot in some of the wire they'd pinched from one of our fences. Then the next day, with one of those beautiful, curved Damascus blade knives, they began to carve off all the layers of protruding flab. We had to sit and listen all day to his piggy squealing, knowing that they were out there waiting in ambush for us to go out and rescue him. And they could soot the eye out of an eagle in a sand storm with one of those long-barreled rifles. We found him in the early hours of the next morning, lying on top of one of the graves. They'd cut off his balls and sown them up in his mouth. Grinning like a guinea pig, he was. So, sweet dreams, lads.'"

*

I never told you what happened when I won my first championship. How I had arrived at the clubhouse early and stood outside watching the rest of the under-eighteens arrive from their public schools or other golf clubs. I was thirteen years old and grinning at the way they joked with their caddies and, was enjoying the arrogance and confidence of the favourites for the title. I was too impressed by the bags of clubs, all matching and new, and the immaculate outfits to notice that I looked like some urchin carrying a pensioner's bag of sticks for sweet money. Just to be part of it was enough and to think that it was not out of reach, here.

My father had explained to me what he didn't like about the game of golf. You can play, he had said, and never get close to the real competition. It is possible that the group you go out with has no one that is in real contention. You can beat them easily, while the person you are really struggling against is three miles away playing against another group of also-rans. There is no way that you can put any psychological pressure on your real opponent. I cannot see there is any sport in it--you are just playing against your own imagination. He backed up his imagination by never watching me hit a golf ball in his lifetime.

The group for this competition--the three or four players with their official --had supposedly been drawn at random. Somehow, I got stuck with a green-keeper's son that looked poorer than me, and a stunted guy with a stutter and a patch over one eye. For our official, however, we drew the captain of the golf club.

You know the next part. That I won by so many shots they nearly had the captain's sight checked and the Millfield boys demanded a new coach. But you didn't know that when it came to the presentation they tried to get my headmaster (a member, naturally) to do the honours the next day at my school assembly and well away from the club, but he declined, mentioning that golf was not part of the school's training programme and it might encourage the wrong sort of interest. And that I ended up getting the cups handed to me in a corridor by some lady member, smelling of gin and honeysuckle, and carrying them off stuffed in my bag, feeling like a thief.

I won every competition I entered. I never lost a single junior game. Yet someone whispered into the reeds that I was a cheat. Another story told of money missing from jackets left hanging in the changing room, and me seen loitering near the entrance, golf balls unzipped from bags or stolen as they rolled too near certain blind spots. Who could believe such stories and why?

I used to see you out searching for lost golf-balls when you weren't playing. Head down and buttoned up to the neck in some old army greatcoat tapping away and shuffling like a heron for your prey. I never called and you never noticed me. I thought maybe that you sold the balls to help pay for your sport, and how you always liked to unwrap a new one before the start of each game and that it might be embarrassing. Then one day I saw the sacks of them in your garden shed, thousands and thousands of them. A history spanning half a century of their weakness and failure discovered and recorded by you. Each timid or over-ambitious hook or slice yours to claim and enjoy as the next players moved by without giving you a second look or knowing anything about it.

I saw you once more--after you had retired from the high explosives factory and I had made my own escape--walking against a skyline heavy with an approaching storm, an old man out killing time with a sly glance at the passing golfers and your pockets bulging.

I was trying to uncover something. To come back after losing so many things and play the game over again. I carried the best bag of clubs that money could buy, stood on the fourth tee--even though I had joined as a full member and could do as I pleased. I got everything in to line, blocked out everything. And then pressed that magic trigger. It was the perfect drive. Straight out toward our mark for position on this hole: an island in the gray sea where once there had been a fever hospital. I watched the ball climb and climb again and then hit the middle of the fairway before kicking its way at the flag. And a disease that no isolation ward could contain stayed with me, so I walked off and left that ball where it was. I hoped you would find it and understand.

*

I was away with another girl when you died. On a honeymoon this time, with the sun beating down on a dry and war-scarred island. The most green and English part was the golf course. Completely out of reach of the locals and with definitely no concessions made. I didn't even think about playing.

I would like to have been able to say something about why I didn't become a famous and rich player. Perhaps even, as you believed, the greatest this country ever produced. It would have been nice to have told it on one of those story-telling nights when you were filling the hours with duty, war, and empire: those great monuments that had stood between you and your chance. I could probably have made mine sound as genuine and likely. But we would both have still known another truth. That some shots will always be unplayable and are best left where they lie for someone else to pick up and use.


Neil Grimmet has published short stories in England, France, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the U.S. His work has been selected for inclusion in the anthology, England Calling. His first collection of short stories has been signed with Henry Dunow literary agency in New York..

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