Go to Chapters ...
The Stage is Set
Prelude to War
The Valkyrie
Come the Dawn
Footsteps into Battle
Politics by Other Means
Twilight of the Gods
The End of Empire

Expertise in the game of Snooker has been described as the result of a misspent youth, wasted in establishments of dubious virtue.

Learning to survive in a hostile environment must surely have some utility in this hectic modern world.


The Stage is Set

The Annexe was a place of education. The male youth of the time were instructed in the arts most useful for employment. As 'Schools Day Release', they would learn that there was an interesting, and technical world outside in the real world. As 'Pre-Apprentice Students', normally referred to as 'Pre-Apps', they would acquire skills that would make them more appealing to local employers. In the final stage, having secured an Apprenticeship, they learned all the theoretical knowledge needed to hold down a low-paid job for the next few years.
The College took in Apprentices in Mining, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Motor Vehicle Mechanics and Radio & TV Trades. Throw in a few courses in Mathematics, Physics, English, Technical Drawing and Physical Education, and the result was a well-rounded Tradesman, able to command a good wage at the end of their Apprenticeship - providing, of course, that they were offered a job at the end of their time. There were no guarantees on that score.

As to other educational requirements, the Annexe was fortuitously located a few yards from the other local source of knowledge - the Methil Miner's Welfare Institute. Here, the students from the Annexe could learn those other skills necessary to achieve adulthood. Snooker, Billiards, Smoking, Swearing and Survival in a Hostile Environment.
Within the Annexe, they were bound by, and protected by rules designed to further their careers. Outside influences were carefully screened and rationed as required.
In the Miner's Welfare, anyone could enter, pay the fee, and play the table game of their choice. As long as they complied with the table rules, there were no other restrictions. By anyone, I mean anyone. Miners, dockers, bookie's runners, bouncers, farmers, tinkers, and what my mother would refer to as 'hoors and comic singers' - by the last pair, I mean the rogues and wastrels of society. Women were not really welcome. Not barred, but not necessary for a good game of snooker. And no actual singers - that would interfere with the game.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a student at the Lower Methil Annexe. A Mining Apprentice, perhaps. Sent there one day a week by the National Coal Board. For that one day, you could dress in clean clothes instead of a boiler-suit. OK, it does resemble the school that you had just spent the previous 10 years of your life, but no-one had to wear a uniform. You could grow your hair long, and you had money - not a lot, but more than pocket money! And after a day of boring maths, and lessons in installing pit-props, what greater attraction could there be. For the budding hard-man, or the budget sportsman, nothing could surpass a Snooker Hall. Success on the Table provided the admiration of your peers. The Miner's Welfare had four tables - all immaculately maintained. The clientele might be a bit dodgy, but the tables were true and level. You could book in advance, and the cost was very reasonable. Where else would you go after the College? Only the dingier pubs down in the High Street would allow under-age drinking, and the earest dance-hall was way along in Buckhaven.
So, Snooker it is ...

Firstly, the rules. Simple, but inflexible, and sacrosanct. Break any rule, and the Caretaker would issue a warning for first time offenders. Ignorance was not considered a bar to users of the Snooker Hall. Break a rule for the second time (you had been warned, so ignorance was no longer an available option) and you would be removed from the premises. No argument, no appeal, and no return match!
The table was never abused. No sitting on it - all shots must be played with at least one foot on the floor - somewhat similar to a Hollywood romantic bedroom scene. Only the cue ball could be hit by the cue. None of the other colours could be struck with the cue, and the cue must never be used as a club or other implement of violence. Cracking skulls could loosen the balance-weight at the end of the cue
The person in play was free to choose wherever, and whatever angle he required to play the shot. All spectators, passers-by, and other players were required to move out of the way of the player. No nudging, jogging of elbows or other immature pranks were allowed. Snooker is a serious game!
If any player was smoking a cigarette, it must never be held over the table. No cigarette ash would ever be allowed to fall on to the green baize of the table. The correct procedure was to study the shot, decide on the angles, take a puff, throw the cigarette (still burning) onto the linoleum floor, play the shot, bask in the applause (if successful), then retrieve the cigarette (still burning), and have another puff or two.
No ball must be allowed to fall on to the floor. Due to the excessive enthusiasm of some players who preferred massive force to skill and science, the occasional ball did fly off the table on to the floor. These things happen. One impact would not usually entice the Caretaker from his duties downstairs, but several in quick succession would guarantee a premature and permanent end of play.
The one whimsy tolerated was drawing the tip of the cue along the tassells on the over-table lights, just so you could see them ripple along the shade.

The Snooker Hall lighting was sparse and diffused. The only real illumination was over the tables, and the rest of the hall faded into dark and forbidding corners. The players fluttered around the over-table lights like moths, while the spectators clung to the walls like shadowy predators in the jungle. Stay in the light, and the 'no interference with the player' rule guaranteed safety. Away from the table, size, strength, guile, ruthlessness or speed were useful in survival. Or anonymity. Non-threatening or inoffensive behaviour worked. Sometimes.
In the outer darkness, malevolent forces lurked ...

I must confess that I spent some evenings in the Miner's Welfare. I enjoyed the occasional game of snooker, though I had neither the time nor patience to become really good at it. It was a pastime - not a career. And some of my 'business' transactions were with people who preferred to be out of the sunlight. There were few moral dilemmas here. The kind of transactions that I would have no truck with, were utterly forbidden in the Snooker Hall. No deep enquiry concerning property rights was one thing, but anyone pushing drugs was rapidly advised to travel far, and soon, for the benefit of their health. We had standards.

I was known, I had my connection with the College, and stayed on nodding terms with the regular hard men. Each to his patch. When strangers wandered in off the street, I knew when to stay, or play the final black while standing near to the exit. I was no faster, as a runner, than the average man, but I had a game-winning advantage. The Snooker Hall was on the 3rd floor - why massively heavy snooker tables were always upstairs, I will never know! - and there were several flights of stone stairs leading to the street. Much practice, gained during a few desperate encounters over the years, had taught me how to ski down stairs. You never put your feet on the flat of the steps - touch only the leading edge. You can flow down the steps, with the slightest tug on the banister to swing yourself around the corners. No hard landings if you get it right, and far faster than someone running down the stairs. Gravity gives you speed. Running delivers a crushing impact on the wall as the pursuers fail to take the corner. I could reach street level long before the pack could pick up their bruised and winded bodies, and attempt the next stair in a more careful manner.
I learned this tip from some ancient pulp novel, the unremarkable plot and title lost with my youth, and thank you to that unknown author. Necessity perfected my technique. Do NOT try this at home - but bear it in mind if you ever find yourself pursued by a gang of thugs who favour bicycle chains as costume jewelry. Leave it till you have an incentive. Or better still, pick more appealing company than I did, for the evening.

That would be a fair description of the Miner's Welfare Institute, and I would have left it at that, had it not been for what occurred during the week of the Lower Methil Annexe Prize-giving. In the short space of that week, a whole underworld was overturned, scores were settled, and the Game of Snooker changed forever.

Prelude to War

The College Prize-giving was an event that I tried desperately to avoid. It was held in the evening, and I would rather be doing my night-school work (paid!) or be out and about having a little fun (unpaid!). The event would drag on for hours, bums perched on narrow wooden chairs, while guest speakers, with narrow minds and oratorical talents more wooden than the chairs, would prance around the podium, riding their own unique educational hobby-horses. A classic example being a local Member of Parliament (name long since forgotten) who spoke entirely around the theme of 'how he had succeeded in life without the benefit of a formal education'. Somehow, as he spoke, the entire audience concurred on the 'lack of an education' part, but were prepared to argue the 'success' proposition.
The previous year, I had been one of the 'lucky' prizewinners - I had scored top marks in the recently introduced 'Radio, TV and Electronics Examination. It was one of the fashionable new-style multiple choice' examination papers. It was hardly a difficult exam - the questions were fairly simple ...

A transistor is a ...

(A) small radio
(B) semiconductor device
(C) travelling salesman
(D) Cornish Pasty

... and I posessed an unbeatable advantage. Jimmy Baxter was on the national committee that decided on the format and scope of the new Radio, TV and Electronics course. With a lot of teaching to do - Pre-App, Coal Board and Radio & TV - and pressed for time, Jimmy had asked me to cobble up some sample multiple-choice questions that he could present to the national committee. As I was actually on that first course, and a Laboratory Technician, Jimmy reckoned that I knew what would be suitable. I appreciated the trust and worked hard to give him some good questions - nearly one hundred, to be told. He was quite pleased, and duly presented them to the committee.
When I sat the examination at the end of the year, I was able to note that the committee had not used all of those questions created by myself. Only eighty were chosen. I felt that the only reasonable thing to do was to ensure that I scored 100%. It would hardly be fitting to achieve less with the exam paper that I had personally written. I never felt that I had cheated. After all, it was an examination to test my knowledge of the course, and I think that I had confirmed that beyond any reasonable doubt!
Being the top student on the course (Pass with Distinction), I was awarded a book prize, and required to attend the ceremony. I tried to decline - I wanted neither the book, the ceremony nor the potentially embarrassing spotlight - but I was required to attend. The Principal's Secretary, Miss Penelope Pillan, came all the way from the main College in Kirkcaldy, to persuade me to attend. She was very persuasive, never as much as hinted what the alternative might be, but left me in no doubt that failure to show the flag at the annual Prize-giving might result in a future where dark cellars, rat infestation and other Orwellian tortures were possible.

I was sure that 'Penny Lope' as the student body referred to Miss Pillan, was a very nice person. Rizla Napier, a perceptive judge of character, called her 'Penelope', but everyone else agreed that a visit from some axe-carrying, bronze breast-plated Valkyrie from the Viking Sagas, would be infinitely preferable to spending five minutes being 'persuaded' by Penny Lope. If anyone had ever called her that to her face - an exceedingly unlikely event - then I am certain that they never found the body afterwards.
I called her 'Miss Pillan'. As infrequently as possible.

The week leading up to the College Prize-giving had been a busy one. Everyone had known for weeks, just who were the winners, but the annual conversion of the College gymnasium into a suitable venue for VIPs, assorted guests and the odd gatecrasher, had kept me working flat-out. I roped in any wandering strays who were foolish enough to spend their free periods with reach, and employed them in chair-placing, floor sweeping, and keep-fit equipment hiding. Prize winners were easy prey - they always came to reconnoitre the hall in preparation, and felt obliged to assist when press-ganged into service.
I had arranged for two of the Coal Board apprentices to do the decoration, and arrange the seating lists. Emil Brunton and George Burnside had achieved something unique in the College history - an outstanding performance in classroom work and an identical mark in the yearly examinations. After a discrete, but thorough, check to eliminate any suspicion that some form of collusion was involved, it was decided to present the Top Coal Board Student award to both of them. And richly deserved, in my opinion.
George Burnside was usually called 'Rabbie', for fairly obvious reasons. Emil Brunton ended up as 'Emily', mainly because no-one could quite figure out a name like Emil. He was even described that way in the College register.
They were bright, smartly turned out - they had even turned up earlier in the day, dressed in neat suits, complete with waist-coats. I had said 'dress rehearsal', but had only intended it to be a metaphorical statement. Well, they were young, and there's nothing wrong with that.

After the day school finished at four, I had let them go free, telling them to be back by seven, to help me with the final set-up. They elected to nip down the road to the Miner's Welfare Institute. They had a table booked for a frame of snooker and a deserved a moment of relaxation. I told them to keep a careful eye on the denizens of the snooker hall (I did explain what a 'denizen' was!). I had heard rumblings around the neighbourhood concerning possible changes in the thuggery pecking order. A top thug is confident in his place, but can turn nasty if that place is threatened, and rivals and other contenders rarely care about which rungs are occupied on the corporate ladder. Hangers-on can fall (or be pushed) off, and bystanders can get hurt in drive-by incidents. Not quite Chicago, perhaps, but even a little violence can be just as painful.
"Watch out you two!" had been my parting advice. "Be here at seven sharp."
"Aw surr!" had protested Emily Brunton. "It's just a game o' snooker!"
"Emily!" retorted Rabbie Burnside "When ah play, it's a game o' champions!"
"Aye. Wi' oor sharp suits, it'll be a real sharp game. What's there to worry aboot? We'll be back afore seven."
Young, and confident! You had to smile.
"Make sure that you do. And watch out for that bampot Malky McLaren. I hear that he's got his hand in the mix, somewhere."
"Nae tother a'baw!" piped in Emily. "We'll be back on time, so we will."
"Same for me, surr." joined in Rabbie. "We heard a' aboot McLaren's leaving day. He hasnae got the bottle, him. See yiz then!"
I watched them head for the Miner's Welfare, and with lots to do, I forced any concerns from my mind. Like myself, they would learn to run fast. Snooker taught you that.

By half-past seven, those concerns were back. No sign of Emily or Rabbie. Not like them at all. Time to go looking. I grabbed my jacket, and headed for the door, but before I could cross the foyer, the wooden doors, with their diamond-cut glass windows, stuttered then swung open. Rabbie Burnside slid in, his back holding the door open, then pulled Emily Brunton in beside him. Emily could barely stand. Only Rabbie's support kept him upright. The two smart and witty students of the afternoon had been replaced by the battered and bloody relics of a terrible beating.
Rabbie's head was streaming with blood, his right eye barely open. At least he was able to stand. Emily's inability to stand unaided, told me all that I wanted to know. A good kicking does that to you. You can try to walk, but the agony won't let you. I rushed across and helped Rabbie bring Emily into the College. I didn't try to be gentle - there were no comfortable places to hold.
Rabbie spat crimson.
"It wis that bastert McLaren, surr! I tried tae help Emily, surr. Ah did. But they held me, an' a couldnae get tae him!"
Tears streamed down his face, mixing with the blood.
"Honest, surr! Ah tried. Ah did! Ah tried!"
Together, we got Emily across the foyer, and into Rizla Napier's office. The door was unlocked - Rizla had no need of security. We sat Emily down in a chair, and Rabbie stood beside him, refusing to abandon his friend. Emily held his arms tightly around his body. Only those battered arms had saved him from far worse injury. Sensing that, possibly, he was, at last, in some sanctuary, Emily opened his eyes, and looked at me.
"Is Rabbie aw richt surr?" A tiny voice, tremulous, but determined. "Ah thocht that, if they wis kickin' me, then Rabbie could get awa'."
I looked at the pair of them, and shook my head in wonder. Two veterans of the war. Bloodied but unbroken. Who could ever find two better friends?

I stuck my head out of the office door. The foyer was filling with the curious and the concerned.
"Right, you lot! Show's over!"
I pointed at two of the nearest.
"You! Get the first aid box."
One scurried off to the nearest classroom.
"And you! Get Mister Baxter - he's upstairs - and ask him to come here."
The second student spun round, and headed for the stairs.
"And ..."
He stopped and looked over his shoulder.
"... ask him tae come here bluidy quick! Make that please!"

There would be hell to pay. But first we had to get the facts. If there was going to be a war, then we had to know what we were up against.
Though, however it turned out, that 'bastert' McLaren was going to get his share of grief!

The Valkyrie

As I waited for Jimmy Baxter to come downstairs to Rico Napier's office, I opened up the First-Aid box brought by a student. I was hoping that the box would contain something that would help Rabbie Burnside and Emily Brunton, that would ease their suffering.
Alas, like most institutionalised medical kits of the time, most of the useful items had been used, stolen or would be more appropriate to some TV drama where severity of wound equalled acreage of bandage. Even the packet of aspirin had been replaced by some wit's idea of emergency supplies - a packet of Woodbines with only three cigarettes left. A triangular bandage and some safety pins would be ideal if someone outside in the gathering crowd just happened to fall and break an arm.

I did a quick Coal Board triage. Rabbie Burnside's injuries looked dramatic, blood everywhere! Like most head wounds in a punch-up, the few cuts and bruises were relatively minor. Some sticking plaster would hold everything together until a proper medic could stitch up his face. He'd be looking around with one eye for a day or two, but no serious damage was done. He could walk. He could get up the pit.
Emily Brunton gave me greater concern. He'd been through a kicking, and all kind of damage was possible. His face was untouched - his assailant had concentrated on the body - so that was good. The secret of surviving a kicking relies on keeping yourself curled up in the foetal position and using your arms and legs as shield. If you can keep facing your attacker, and protect the ribs, face and genitals, then you can live with a broken arm or two - we were never going to be short of triangular bandages. If you expose your back, then the ribs get hammered, and the real trouble begins.
I moved Emily's arms gently away from his body. He was reluctant at first - no way could I blame him for that. It must have hurt terribly, but I had to check his ribs. Very, very carefully. Broken ribs can form their own dagger. He didn't need me to make matters worse. It was a slow process, and I watched his face closely. That is where the damage would show as I worked my way around.
As Rabbie Burnside followed my every move, I then checked out his arms and legs.
"Emily. You are going to have the worst tattoo that you have ever seen, and you are going to need a hand if you are thinking of downing a pint in the next day or so, but nothing appears broken. I hate to say this, but you have been lucky!"
Amazingly, after I had probably caused him more pain than the original kicking, he thanked me!
"I don't think your waistcoat is going to make it, though. It's been well torn. The lining is ripped, the buttons are missing, and I don't think that the bloodstains are going to come out."
"It wis the waistcoats that did it, Surr."
Rabbie picked at his own bloodstained shirt.
"When we wis playin' the game, Malky McLaren wis haundin' oot the snide remarks. We tried tae ignore him, but he kept at us. Keepin' his voice doon, so as the Caretaker couldnae hear him, he jist kept on mouthin' at us."
Emily tried to sit more upright in the chair, but he obviously wasn't about to manage on his own. Rabbie was there in an instant, and helped him sit up. Somehow, he managed it without even a flinch on Emily's face. With a gentleness like that, I knew that Rabbie Burnside would one day do great things. He had a talent.
"Ah told him tae back off ..."
Emily continued the story.
"... but he wouldn't stop. He wis there with the rest o' them, and he had tae look big. Just 'cause we wis dressed a bit fancy, he h'd nae right to say the things he wiz sayin."
Emily looked embarrassed, and more uncomfortable with the recollection than he did with his bruises.
"Ah ken that awbody calls me Emily - ah dae mind that - but Rabbie and me, we're pals. We're no funny, that way, if yiz kens what ah mean! So ah told him to 'eff off!'"
Rabbie took over for the next part, as Emily sank back into the seat, his eyes half-closed.
"Malky couldnae dae much in the Snooker Hall, while we wis still playin', so he h'd tae back off. Emily and me played it smart, and finished the game. Ah potted the black while we wis as close tae the door as we could get. Malky wis at the faur side o' the table, when we made our final break - no' a snooker break, mind ye - and we w'd hiv been awright, oot through the door, doon the stairs an' awa! But Malky h'd sent his cousin out there furst. When Emily got through the ootside door, he wis waitin'. He tripped Emily an' h'd him on the ground. I tried tae get him up, but Malky wis oot at the back o' us. He grabbed me, an' his cousin nutted me in the heid!"
Rabbie touched his swollen eyelid and lacerated brow.
"Then the cousin got me in a neck lock, and Malky laid in tae Emily. Ah thought he w'd never stop, but a car came up the brae and stopped alongside us. Malky an' his cousin buggered off. Basterts that they were! The man in the car asked us if 'we wis a'right', and 'should he get the polis'. Ah sayed we wis OK. Naebody w'd thank us for bringing the polis intae it. Especially no' around the Miner's Welfare. That's no the place for them."
Rabbie looked at his pal.
"Ah brought him here where awbody is. Ah telled him he'd be safe here."
The pair looked up at me.
"That wiz the right thing tae dae, wiz it no, Surr?"

Before I could answer, the door opened. Jimmy Baxter bustled into the room. Followed by Penelope Pillan. I'd forgotten that she was here to check the preparations for the Prize-Giving. My heart sank. When this all got to the Principal, everything would escalate out of control. It would be the Methil Annexe, complicated by police involvement, versus every hard man and nutter in the East of Fife. No-one would win. We would all surely lose. And every student for years to come, would need to walk around the shadows and run from every strange face or threatening gesture. The Miner's Welfare would no longer be a neutral meeting place between the clans.
M.A.D. - Mutually Assured Destruction - was coming to Methil.

With Miss Pillan in attendance (in the same room, there was no way I could even think 'Penny Lope!), it was time to turn Rabbie and Emily over to the senior staff. I had other, urgent, things to attend to. Jimmy and Miss Pillan would deal with the 'official' side of things, and I would deal with the murkier details.
I gave a concise report on events, entirely accurate but totally devoid of any of the ramifications. I was sure that Miss Pillan would pass them on to the Principal and the Main College. Jimmy Baxter gave me a shrewd look, but left it at that. Rabbie and Emily were in good hands - Jimmy would see to their welfare - and Miss Pillan would undoubtedly organise their medical needs with her usual thoroughness. I felt a twinge of real sympathy for them, at that point.
And organise them, she did! Within a minute, she had procured the first-aid supplies required (from where, I know not!), and led them with a firm gentleness to the nearest washroom - which just happened to be the Gents. No knocking on the door for Penny Lope. She marched in - and the recent occupants scurried out like cockroaches ahead of a broom.
"It would have been far more convenient, Mister Baxter, if this establishment had boasted a Ladies!"
This addressed to Jimmy as she ushered her charges into the washroom.
"Convenient for who?" I thought. "She does know that Emily is a bloke, don't she?"
"I'll be wanting further words with you, later, Mister Collins! Don't go away."
That threw me for a moment! Nobody ever called me Mister Collins - except Penelope Pillan, who seemed to have added exceptional hearing or mind-reading to her wide array of talents.

But first, I had to deal with the crowd. The curious and the concerned were talking each other up into an angry mob. And mobs never think. They just get up on their hind legs, and rush out into the street.
"Is Emily and Rabbie OK?"
"Wiz it them at the Miner's Welfare that beat them up?"
"We're no gonna stand for that!"
"Time they wiz sorted oot"
"Aye! Let's get ower there!"
I did my Sheriff and the Lynch Mob cliche. I had seen so many Westerns, that I could play the part from memory.
"Naebody's gaun naeplace!" I snapped out in my finest Glen-Gary Cooper.
"Emily and Rabbie are a bit the worse for wear, but they'll be alright."
Richie Walker, one of the senior students from the Radio & TV Department, stood at the front of the mob.
"An' we'll be the wans tae sort it! Ain't that right!"
I pushed myself forward, into the thick of the crowd. Every eye followed me. I could understand where he was coming from, but there was no way that I could let Richie Walker enlarge on his theme.
"Don't be bluidy stupitt, Richie! Think about it. Do ye no think that ye'll be giving them exactly what they want? Go across to the Miner's Welfare if ye like, and see what happens. The thugs that did it tae Rabbie and Emily, did it by the rules. Go in there like this and ye'll all be wrong. The College'll get banned - no more snooker - and the scumbags will own the place."
To his credit, Richie Walker did think about it, and had the grace to apologise.
"Sorry Surr! See what ye mean. But what can we dae? We can't let them get away with it!"
"Oh, never fear, they won't!"
I spoke with a conviction - more Hollywood than real.
"What are ye gaun tae dae, Surr?"
"I don't know - yet! - but I'll do something. You can be sure o' that!"
You could always guarantee that Wee Wullie would offer his unstinting support.
"See! Ah telt yiz! Surr will sort them oot, so he will."
"Oh shit!" This to myself.
"Now who's stupid! You have just talked yourself into the final reel of High Noon! I had just elected myself to the position of the Lone Sheriff. And I didn't even have an old, drunken deputy to back me up with a shotgun. Double shit!"
I felt a presence at my back, and turned slowly around. Miss Pillan was a tall woman, and I am sure that she had the flicker of a smile on those forbidding lips as she looked me straight in the eye.
"Gary Cooper? Mister Collins. Surely not!"
I did say 'mind-reader', did I not!"
With the mob at my back, and Penny Lope at my front, somehow, walking single-handed into a saloon full of desperadoes seemed the slightest of cares.
"We must 'organise' something for tomorrow, must we not?"
"Tomorrow? What? Who? We ..."
I was really starting to sound like an idiot.
"You are familiar with the Miner's Welfare Institute, are you not?"
Miss Pillan was quietly reasonable - while I was frantically contemplating flight.
"I am sure that you could arrange a table of snooker, for two, tomorrow night at seven. If possible, of course."
"What about the Prize-Giving? It's tomorrow at seven ..."
"Was tomorrow!" Very positively.
"... and the guests, the Principal ..."
"Will surely understand, given the 'unfortunate' accident that befell Mister Brunton and Mister Burnside."
I was beginning to understand the relationship between moths and pins.
"A postponement of a week should suffice."
That smile was back again.
"I'll see you at half-six, tomorrow. I'll come suitably dressed."
Penelope Pillan pulled out the pin, and let the moth escape.
"Don't forget, now."
She was gone.

As I stood there, sweating, head spinning, I could find no coherent thought to move me on. Till the unmistakable voice of Wee Wullie announced to a pacified audience who had hung on to every word spoken.
"That Penny Lope is some wummin! Ah think ye've scored there Surr, so ye have!"
I could only hope that someone would shoot me before tomorrow.
Less embarrassing!

Come the Dawn

After a dreadful night, with little sleep, and lots of frantic thinking, I had a plan! Well, two plans, actually. The first involved staying in bed and trying to pretend that it was the weekend. That way, I might eventually fall asleep with exhaustion and postpone the inevitable. Hide beneath the covers.
The second just might get me hospitalised, but that was probably better than facing everyone at the Annexe, and explaining why I was letting everyone down. I had talked myself into the grand confrontation, and that was that. I was far too scared to run away, and you can't run away from yourself.

It was a close contest, and by the time I had washed and dressed, and crammed down a reluctant breakfast, I was going to be a few minutes late when I arrived at the Annexe. That being so, I reckoned that being a few more minutes late wouldn't matter. I walked straight past the front door of the College, and headed down the hill to the Miner's Welfare Institute. I needed to speak to the Caretaker, and it made sense to do so, as early as possible. No self-respecting mafia boss, henchman or general-purpose thug would be up and about before noon. Later in the day, it would be difficult running the gauntlet. Gary Cooper had it easy - he only had to wait till twelve o'clock. I had a long day ahead, and a lot to arrange.

I found the Caretaker, sitting alone in his room. Cup of tea in hand, and the Daily Record open at the sports pages. When you work from early morning till after closing, at ten at night, you pace yourself. No rush - just do the job when the job needs doing.

"Good morning, Mister Redman."
I had known Bob Redman for years, but this conversation had to go by the book. No favours. No special terms.
"Mister Collins!"
The Caretaker laid down the newspaper, then casually lifted his mug and sipped a mouthful of tea.
"And what can I do for you, today? Don't usually see you here this early."
A polite untruth. The Caretaker probably never saw any of the Institute's snooker players before noon. It is not a morning game.
"I'd like to book a table of snooker, for two, at seven o'clock tonight. If one is available."
Another sip of tea. The Caretaker paused for a moment, cup upheld, then took another sip. You could see him thinking, but it certainly was not about who might have previously booked a table for tonight. Bob Redman never took notes, and never misplaced an appointment. Ever!
"A table at seven. Tonight. Snooker."
He raised his face up from the mug, and looked straight at me.
"Are you sure you want to play, tonight?"
I nearly panicked, and said 'No!', but my mouth wouldn't let me. I nodded, instead. The Caretaker took another sip of his tea. Then another. I tried not to fidget.
"Let's see."
Bob consulted his internal timetable for a minute.
"I've got Harry, from the taxi place down the hill. He's got a table booked all night. And Massimmo Marietti is playing one of his ice-cream van drivers tonight - one of those 'meet the boss' evenings, I believe. Then there's that new guy from Aberhill. Jeck McLaren." Bob grimaced and spat a tea leaf into the plastic bin beside his chair. "Can't see him giving up his night. He's been here a lot, recently." Bob dabbed at his tongue with a tobacco-stained finger, briefly looking for another leaf, then moved on.
"Well, Geordie Watson was going to play a few frames of billiards tonight, but I suppose if I talk to him, he'll be happy enough to pick another night. He's a quiet boy, minds his own business, and doesn't like a fuss. Things have been a bit tight here recently, and billiards needs a bit of peace and quiet. It's not a flash game like snooker."
The Caretaker regarded me for a moment, then nodded.
"I'll put you down for seven, then."
I thanked him, and pulled a pound note out of my pocket. I offered it to him, but he held up his hand in refusal.
"I don't know what's going to happen tonight, but either way, I'm not going to take your money. Wouldn't be right. I've known you for years, and you're not an idiot, evidence to the contrary ..."
A quiet smile, and a sip of tea.
"... but there's been a few things happening around here, of late. And there could be a lot of trouble coming in your direction. I heard about last night - don't like it much at all - but it happened outside the building, and there's not a lot I can do about that."
I was about to turn around, nothing more to say, when Bob reached out and touched my arm.
"Remember! It's all got to be by the rules. That's how it works here. Everyone is agreed on that. By the rules!"
He drew me closer, and spoke in a quiet voice, for my ear only.
"By the rules, mind. Break them, and you'll get a warning. The second time - you're out. So if it comes to it, pick your time. You've only got one shot. Same with your partner. Make it count."
The Caretaker went back to his tea, and the sports page. I headed for the door.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
His final words reached me as I passed out through the door. If I had totally honest with myself at that moment, the answer would have been 'No!'.

I wandered in to Jimmy Baxter's office at half-past nine. Jimmy looked up from the exam papers that he was preparing.
"Wondered when you would turn up!"
Jimmy was tactful enough not to say 'if'.
"Been somewhere?"
It must have been the lack of sleep that brought about the quixotic moment.
"In the shadow paths of early dawn where the quiet truths and subtle lies await the half-slept traveller."
Jimmy gave a very strange look, with furrowed brow and raised eyebrows.
"It's a quote, Jimmy. From somewhere. It popped into my head." From the puzzled look on Jimmy's face, it would be better if the quote popped back out again.
"I've been over at the Miner's Welfare Institute. Booking a table for tonight."
Jimmy Baxter's face switched from puzzlement to concern - for my sanity.
"Is that a good idea?"
Real concern.
"No, Jimmy. It is not. But it has to be done."
"Are you sure that you know what you're doing?"
I could only tell myself 'Yes'. I was getting a lot of practice, recently. Lying to myself. To Jimmy, I simply shrugged.
"And I hear that Penelope Pillan is taking part tonight, in whatever you have planned."
So far, the only plan in my head was surviving the day.
"Well, if you ask me." said Jimmy "You're daft!".
I could hardly disagree with him.
"But if you are playing snooker with Penelope Pillan, then I am definitely coming to watch!"
Jimmy looked up in bemused contemplation. I could hardly believe it. I could have sworn that Jimmy Baxter looked envious! Of me!
I was booked to play snooker. In the heart of Mafia country. With a woman whom I barely knew. With extreme violence as a distinct possibility. (Only for me. Miss Pillan would be safe. She was a woman, and violence towards her would be unthinkable in the macho male bandido culture that reigned in the Miner's Welfare Institute.)
Jimmy brought events back to a more practical level.
"Can I help in any way?"
I faced Jimmy, squarely, and made the only request I could.
"Don't ask, Jimmy. And don't wonder what I'm doing."
Jimmy was about to protest, but I cut him off.
"Whatever happens, tonight, the Annexe has nothing to do with it. Officially, it is just me and guest. Playing a game of snooker."
Jimmy had his head screwed on the right way.
"And un-officially?"
I laughed. It came out without prompting, but the humour was there.
"As I said, Jimmy. Don't ask!"
Jimmy shrugged, but left it at that.
"Just come along and enjoy the show."
I hoped that Penny Lope was bringing a shotgun!

Necessity may be the 'mother of invention', but desperation can really facilitate the birth. I needed a plan before tonight, and if I couldn't take the official path, I could certainly start rooting around in the undergrowth. I knew exactly where to start ...

The class in Motor Vehicle Mechanics would be starting in about ten minutes, and I needed the services of my two favourite villains. Right on cue, the diabolical duo appeared.
"Hutcheson! Cunningham! A word, if you please."
Peter 'Podge' Cunningham looked instantly guilty, but Campbell 'Too Hot' Hutcheson was more practiced in dealing with authority.
"If it's about thae bags o' cement that's sittin in the boiler-house, ah've got a receipt ..."
Hutcheson fumbled around in the pocket of his suspiciously new and expensive-looking leather jacket, and produced a crumpled piece of paper. He offered it to me in a tight grasp that dared me to pry apart his fingers, and take it. I knew the game, and took him 'at his word' - it was probably an ancient receipt for sub-standard rivets supplied to the R.M.S Titanic. I had more urgent matters to discuss.
"I need a favour from you two."
Hutcheson's face lit up, as he kick-started his internal cash register.
"I need someone taken out."
Survival instinct made Hutcheson step smartly back, pulling his bigger, but slower friend with him. The pair made a living, paddling around in Methil's murky backwaters. This was way out of their depth. Hutcheson dropped into his pantomime stage whisper.
"Noo, steady on, Surr! That's askin' a bit much, even for us! We dae mind the odd 'commercial transaction', ken what ah mean, but we're no intae bumpin folk aff!"
I do believe that I had plumbed beyond the depths of Too Hot' Hutcheson's villainy.
"For heaven's sake, Hutcheson! I don't want anyone killed!"
"No sae loud, Surr! No sae loud!" Hutcheson's cautionary whisper swept over any exasperation of mine.
"I just want someone unavailable for tonight. I want them 'somewhere else'."
Hutcheson's profit gland over-rode his caution, and brought him back into conspiracy mode. He drew Podge Cunningham and himself back into the huddle.
"How d'ye mean, Surr?"
"You know about the snooker match, tonight?" Silly question. Most of Methil knew by now.
"What? The wan with you and Penny Lope? Aye, we've heard, ain't we, Podge?"
Cunningham bent over, his massive shoulders blocking out the light.
"Oh, that's right! We heard about you and Miss Pillan. That's a really nice woman, that is. Helped us oot when my mither had her troubles. You'll be dae'n allw right wi' her."
We both looked at Podge. That must have been the longest speech either of us had heard from him. Penelope Pillan had really made her mark on Podge Cunningham.
"Aye! Umm ... So back to tonight, Surr! What exactly dae ye want us for?"
"I want you to make sure that Wee Jeck McLaren is not going to be at the Miner's Welfare tonight. I've got a game to play, and Wee Jeck hasn't got the brains to realise when to stay away. If he's there, then he'll either try to impress his dad, and do something really stupid. Or he'll follow Malky McLaren's lead, and it's anybody's guess where that'll end up."
I offered Hutcheson the clincher in the deal.
"Whatever happens tonight, I'll owe you one."
Too Hot Hutcheson, a man for all kinds of larceny, and any dodgy deal, proceeded to surprise me.
"Naw, Surr! This one's on the hoose. After what thae McLarens did tae Emily and Rabbie, last nicht, they deserve aw they'll get. We'll tak' care o' Wee Jeck." He cocked an eye to Podge, who grinned right back at him.
"Did ye have anythin particular in mind?"
"I don't want him hurt. And nothing too illegal. I just don't want him turning up unexpectedly. I'll leave the details up to you and Podge."
Which just went to prove that, where the McLaren tribe were concerned, I had no conscience whatsoever.
"Leave it tae us, Surr!"
Podge flexed the largest pair of biceps in Methil.
"He's only 'Wee' Jeck, is he no?"
Well, perhaps a faint trace of conscience. I suppressed it.

One down. Everybody else to go. I was well aware that another Rabbie (Burns, not Burnside) had stated that 'the plans of men and men aft gang aglay'. The plan for tonight would involve dealing with rats. That would promote the chance of a favourable outcome.

The next part was far more complex. Malky McLaren was next on the agenda. And tempting as it might be, to simply kick the little 'bastert' from one end of Methil to the other, mere retribution was never going to be enough. I had one chance to settle things with Malky, and I wanted it to be final. Malky McLaren would never be able to bother Emily Brunton or Rabbie Burnside again, and he would be staying as far away from the Annexe as his nasty little boots would take him. Not a hair on his head would be touched, nor even a threat of violence would be made in his direction.
I had thought long, on the 'disposition' of Mister McLaren - ex student of the Annexe, thief, bully and thug. And my intention was to destroy forever, all that made Malky McLaren the evil that he was.

I searched out Richie Walker, Colin Rintoul, and a few other of the senior students. I explained exactly what I had in mind. They spread the word to the other students, and they would organise what I had planned for Malky. Nothing violent (I made that very clear) - just a little magic. Smoke, mirrors and suggestion. Malky McLaren would provide his own, well deserved, downfall.

All I had to do now, was wait for tonight.
And my date with Penelope Pillan.
The difficult part.

Footsteps into Battle

Some days go by quickly. Some go slowly. The day of the snooker match played like a clockwork gramophone, becoming ever slower as the spring wound down. I felt like a small child, forced to attend the wedding of a close relative. It is always the same. The children are scrubbed, and changed into their finery first - hours before the event. They are then forced to run around for hours, nothing to do, and bored witless. Never daring to put one minuscule mark on those fine clothes, and forbidden to participate in any way, lest some mischief escalate into a disaster, and spoil the 'big day'!

It was almost a relief, when Too Hot Hutcheson appeared at my workshop door.
"What on earth are you doing here?"
Was this the first stumble into disaster?
"It's alright, Surr!"
Hutcheson looked far too happy for my comfort.
"A'thing's been taken care o'. Ye can depend on that!"
Depending on Hutcheson felt like examining the frayed ropes on a disintegrating bridge in a Tarzan epic. And this was only part one of the plan!
"Where's Podge?"
Where Hutcheson preyed, Podge Cunningham was sure to follow.
"Everything's fine. He'll be here in a minute. He's just lockin up his bike."
I never could grasp the concept of Podge Cunningham securing his motorbike. Who would be insane enough to steal it?
"More important ..."
I found myself imitating Hutcheson's pantomime whisper.
"... where's Wee Jeck McLaren?"
"Dundee. He's in Dundee. Podge ran him there on his motorbike."
"On his motorbike!" I checked my watch (I'd been doing that a lot, recently).
"Even if the pair of you had met Wee Jeck on the way out the door, after your class, Podge would have needed to average ..."
A quick bit of mental arithmetic.
... "nearly 90 miles an hour to get there and back."
The sudden eclipse told me that Podge had joined the conversation.
"Only 90, Surr? Ah wiz tryin fur a hunnert mile an hour."
Podge Cunningham even looked a little disappointed.
"Never mind! Ah think Wee Eck enjoyed the trip. He wiz screamin with excitement all the way tae Dundee."
"He went with you to Dundee? On your bike? Voluntarily?"
I had been given a lift home one night, round about January, when the roads were icy. Podge Cunningham resolutely refused to ever use the brakes, only the throttle. And the clutch, once only to start the journey. After that, I walked. In any weather. Podge lived up to his nickname, so needed the most powerful bike he could lay his hands on. He might have been slow of thought, but when sitting on his Triumph/Norton special, he had the reflexes of a cat. I had the bowels of a mere human.
"Naebody forced him."
Hutcheson filled in the details.
"I asked him if he wanted a lift, and Podge kind o' insisted. Nae violence, mind. Nane o' that. Just asked him. Funny thing is ... he never even asked Podge where he wiz goin."
"So, you left him in Dundee?"
Podge nodded.
"And what happens if he manages to get a bus back, or hitch a lift? He could be back here before seven."
"Ah, well, here's the cunnin bit, Surr. Podge insisted that he pay for the petrol, so he's no got any money for the bus."
Another voluntary gesture by Wee Jeck, no doubt.
"What about hitching a lift, though. He could still hitch a lift. I've done that myself, more than a few times."
I pride myself in spotting the flaws in a plan. Podge Cunningham removed that possibility, with a mildly embarrassed revelation.
"Ah don't think he'll be getting a lift, Surr. No with his wee accident."
"Podge! I told you that I didn't want him hurt."
"Naw! Naw! We didnae hurt him."
Hutcheson reproved me for accusing Podge.
"He had a bit o' an accident. He got over-excited ... and peed himself!"
Podge Cunningham nodded, and Too Hot Hutcheson continued the saga. With relish.
"No just that. He had another accident. Accident number two, you could say."
"You mean, he ..."
"Aye, that he did. The reek wiz terrible, so it wiz!
"Ah had tae clean the pillion, so ah did. He's no gettin back on mah bike again!"
I had to agree. Wee Jeck would by walking the Road, and the Miles fae Dundee.
"Did we dae alright, Surr?"
Podge looked anxious.
"You did great, Podge."
I shook his hand.
"Never seen anything done so well. You and Hutcheson, you are champions."
I shook Too Hot Hutcheson's hand as well, and never even stopped to count my fingers.
One goal in the net for the home team. I hoped that the rest of the evening would match up to the opening move.

By six o'clock, I had been through enough 'man-to-man' pep talks to last a lifetime. Every member of staff had felt compelled to 'wish me luck' and offer a multitude of helpful suggestions - entirely on an 'unofficial' basis, of course - based on their own, personal experiences. I thanked them all, even 'Buggy' Sparks, the Welding Instructor, who's 'practical' advice amounted to burning the Miner's Welfare Institute to the ground, after allowing sufficient time for the miscreants inside, to flee to safety via the exits. I declined on the basis that it would be too difficult to remove the snooker tables to a safe place before the conflagration took hold.

Richie Walker popped in just after six, to inform me that the next part of the plan was in place.
"We've got every road, in or oot, covered. At least three boys tae every street aroond the area. Ah made sure that they had at least one big student in each group - twa where Wee Wullie wiz standin."
"Did you explain exactly what was required, to everybody?"
I had to be sure that no one was tempted to give Malky McLaren the kicking he deserved.
"For definite, Surr! Made sure, and told them mahsel. 'Operation Rawhide' will go like clockwork!"
"'Operation who' ..."
This plan was developing new aspects, all on its own.
"'Operation Rawhide', Surr. Like on the telly! Where they drive all those coo's aroond."
"I think I've got the picture, Richie. Let us hope that this particular 'coo' plays his role."
Richie thought for a few moments, then asked the question that had been plain on his face since the beginning.
"We aw understand whit we have tae dae. Keep Malky away fae the Institute. Keep him runnin aroond and gettin nae place. We understand that part. But why dae ye want us tae herd Malky doon tae the bottom o' the brae? And why no until quarter tae eight? There's nothin' doon there but the Polis Station. With the fear o' the devil in him, and all us chasin him, he's liable tae run intae the Polis Station, and rat on us. He's like that!"
"That, Richie, is exactly what I want him to do. And the minute he does, make sure everybody disappears. Don't get involved - and don't stop what happens next."
"That's the bit none o' us understand."
Richie still looked perplexed.
"Don't worry about it, Richie. If you just happen to turn up at the Miner's Welfare Institute at eight, I'm sure you'll get all the answers. Off you go, now. Let 'Operation Rawhide' commence!"
I said that with a straight face. Show them confidence! If it didn't work out as I planned, I might need all the muscle I could get. Just to make it to the door. With my shield - or on it!

I was starting to think that tonight's game would be a solo effort - just the one Spartan - when the College doors swung open, and Penelope Pillan made her entrance. There should have been spotlights, a fanfare of trumpets, reporters jostling for a quote, photographers treading on each other's toes for that one shot that would grace the front page.
She was magnificent!
She advanced through the bystanders like Godiva on her white steed. To the average student who had, only in the past year, recognised that girls exist, she must have seemed like Hollywood in person. She approached one poor soul who stood there, mouth agape, and in dire danger of drooling. I realised belatedly, that the 'poor soul' was me!
"Good evening, Mister Collins. I believe that we have an evening of entertainment ahead of us."
I was so out of my depth. I was floundering. To my eternal gratitude, she turned the glamour down to the point where my brain could function again, albeit only slightly.
"Snooker, Mister Collins. Snooker. We have a table for seven, do we not?"
At that moment, I could not have cared in the slightest concerning what fate awaited me. I didn't care at all. There was a second angel in the room, and I was in Paradise! Penelope turned the wattage down to her normal Miss Pillan.
"Mister Collins! If we expect to win tonight, then I expect you to think!"
An icicle thrust through the skull must have a similar effect on the brain process. I slammed back to reality.
"Much better, Mister Collins."
The warmth returned to her smile, and the ice vanished. My mouth eventually got the message, and attempted speech.
"Eh... Good Evening err ... Miss Pillan"
Great welcoming speech. Well, perhaps not!
"I see that you are dressed for the occasion, Mister Collins. Very smart. I was unsure myself ..."
(I did not believe that for one, tiny moment!)
" ... but I thought this might be suitable."
She twirled. She actually twirled. Like a model on Dior's Paris cat-walk, Miss Pillan turned to show off her outfit. A flick of a wrist, and her half-length cloak spun off her back and hung on her outstretched hand, a flicker of deep yellow silk and black.
She had her hair pinned up at the back in a French Roll, neat and yet so very fashionable. No stray hair would ever intrude on her play. She wore a white silk blouse with long sleeves, cuffed at the wrist, and a dark-brown velvet waistcoat. It was buttoned close to the neck and held with a dark string tie with a silver clasp. A matching skirt flowed down to mid-calf, flaring out as she twirled.
Yet, no! It wasn't a skirt. Miss Pillan was wearing culottes. I had never in my life, not in Methil anyway, stood beside a woman wearing culottes. The outfit was completed by pale-brown long boots, with a Cuban heel, and topped by a wide-brimmed hat. For a moment, the Argentinian Pampas had come to Methil. Though no Gaucho had ever looked this good.
She caught my over-long glance at her trousers.
"Suitable for snooker, I think."
She also fingered the collar of her blouse.
"We don't want to distract the spectators with any unfortunate displays. Snooker is a serious game, after all."
From my viewpoint, Penelope Pillan could distract a blind man AND his guide dog whenever she entered the room. The small talk allowed me to regain some composure.
"You look delightful, Miss Pillan. The outfit is perfect."
"Thank you. The compliment is appreciated."
For a moment, the ice showed above the smile.
"Let's go knock 'em dead!, Mister Collins."
I gestured towards the door.
"After you. Our table is waiting."
I held open the door, and Penelope Pillan made her exit.

Together, we left the security of the Lower Methil Annexe, and turned to face our destiny - the Miner's Welfare Institute. Miss Pillan paused for a moment, and, with the ease of a conjurer, wrapped her cloak around her shoulders. The overwhelming glamour of a few minutes ago, must have been fading. I found myself studying her eyes - not for romance, but to see what she was seeing.
"If you are looking around for the watchers, they are there, in the shadows."
Her company had given me a boldness that I had never before claimed in her presence. She give me a considered look, then smiled.
"I was right, Mister Collins. You do think. And you do think ahead. I presume that the students lurking around in the shadows are part of your plan?"
I would have been inordinately pleased at the compliment, had it not been for the obvious transparency of my thoughts to this magician! I can only hope that my discomfort masked my deeper thoughts.
"Don't worry, Mister Collins. I am not a mind reader ..."
Were my innermost secrets drawn in crayon on my forehead, for the open inspection of the world?
"... just very good at unravelling mysteries."
I forced my thoughts into some rational form of order. This woman positively encouraged rational thought. Even demanded it. And would have no mercy on turbid thinking.
"Some of the students have decided to hang around in the neighbourhood, in the hope that there might be a little excitement tonight. Nothing official, of course, but I did suggest that the might keep an eye open on the possibility that a certain Malcolm McLaren might try to enter the Miner's Welfare Institute."
Miss Pillan's eyes darkened for an instant. I think that she was looking at me but seeing Emily Brunton.
"And if Mister McLaren should turn up?"
"Then they will persuade him to choose another road. Then another. Until Malky McLaren feels that the whole world is driving him. Like a hunted animal - no rest, no security."
Miss Pillan looked, unblinking, directly into my eyes.
"Then retribution, Mister Collins? I do not care for mob rule."
It was my turn to bring on the cold smile.
"No violence, Miss Pillan. None at all. All they will do is force Malky McLaren to seek refuge in the one place left open to him. The one place that someone who has any ambition in the ranks of the local criminal fraternity, must never go."
Miss Pillan was not a local. It took her a moment to form a map of the locality in her mind. But only a moment, mind you.
"The students are calling this 'Operation Rawhide'. After the TV programme. Herding cows and such. If they get the timing right, then we should have the dubious honour of Malcolm McLaren's presence, just as we are finishing the match. I'm sure that he will bring a friend or two."
The echo of Penelope Pillan's laughter filled the evening street.
"Mister Collins! I knew that you could think, but I must confess that I have slighted you. You can think - and wickedly too! The final act arranged before the play commences. I do like it!"
"Then, Miss Pillan, it is time we raised the curtain."

As we approached the door of the Miner's Welfare Institute, she touched my arm.
"As we are in this plot together, then we should not stumble over formalities. Please call me 'Penny'."
I nearly choked. It had been a trial, just to refer to her as 'Miss Pillan'. How could I possibly use the name 'Penny'. I could never use the derogatory form of her name that was currency in the College. She determined my thoughts, and disarmed them with a smile.
"'Penny', I said, Mister Collins. Not 'Penny Lope'. I would have to kill you in the street, in front of all these lurking witnesses ..."
She gestured to the audience out there in the dark. She lowered her voice, just for my ears.
"... though it does amuse me. I never liked being 'Penelope'. Too musty and dull."
"Then ... Penny ..."
My bravado faltered. I was straying way beyond my circle of light.
" ... if you are Penny, that would make me Neil. My friends call me Neil. Or am I being presumptuous?"
"Not in the slightest. After all, tomorrow, we can always return to normality."
She paused for a moment's recollection. Though not of me. I was certain of that.
"But tonight, Neil, we can play."

I knew not what lay ahead, in the gloom of the Snooker Hall ...
... but it would be glorious!

Politics by Other Means

As we climbed the marble stairs leading to the Snooker Hall, I brought Miss Pillan ... No! I brought Penny up to date on the other members of the McLaren clan. She already knew what was in store for Malcolm McLaren - his fate would be his own creation. When I outlined the predicament of Wee Jeck McLaren, his cousin, it could have been the light from the staircase window or my imagination, but I will always be convinced that she blushed. Improbable as it might seem.
"And what about the uncle? Is he here tonight?"
Penny was, I am sure, well read in the history of the McLarens. Malky McLaren had featured prominently, and frequently, in the reports sent from the Lower Methil Annexe to the Principal in Kirkcaldy.
"Oh, he'll be here, all right! Somebody has been disrupting the anti-social order in the Miner's Welfare Institute - and he's the likeliest, in fact, the only candidate."
"I believe that he runs the local scrap yard. All things negotiable, or disposable. And no book-keeping."
Penny knew a lot about the 'official' villainy of the McLarens, but I knew the grubbier bits.
"You probably think that the Institute is the watering hole for the Lower Methil lower orders. And you'd be right. All the local bosses come here to play snooker. It's neutral ground - only the caretaker runs the place - and they like it that way. No fuss, no trouble, they all follow the rules.
It's clean. No drink. No drugs. No trouble. And no Police - bad for business!"
Penny stopped me at that.
"Neil! I find that difficult to believe. With the kind of people who hang around here, then all manner of nastiness must be pervading the place."
"Penny. I'm one of the people who 'hang' around the Snooker Hall."
I said the words casually, but they cut as deeply as a razor. Hurt me. Hurt Penny even more. I tried to apologise, but she cut me off.
"No. If I trust you, then I should listen to what you say. The apology is mine."
She urged me to continue.
"We all do business here. And the tables are honest. But someone is trying to change everything to their advantage. Become the top man. And change the rules to suit. That brings us to Jeck McLaren. What I hear about him isn't nice at all. He wants a respectable front, where he can deal out the dirt. Lots of 'customers', fresh out of school. The other hard men won't like it much, but if he can pull it off, then they'll give him his place."
"Oh my God!"
Penny looked appalled.
"Surely the other 'hard men' as you call them, would never allow that!"
"Penny. In here, there are only winners. No losers. None. Not ever. If Jeck McLaren wins, then he'll have the means to dictate the rules. And the only people who are standing in his way are the College. Or more precisely, me. Emily and Rabbie were the challenge. Tonight's game of snooker will be the main bout. If I lose, and I don't just mean the snooker, then I'm out. Gone. And Jeck McLaren takes the prize."
My lecture in Methil Power Politics did not quite get the reception I anticipated. Penny was furious. At me!
"Neil Collins! How dare you! I have never heard such selfish nonsense."
I had experienced the force of Miss Pillan's personality on more than one occasion, but the wrath of Penny Pillan could flay the skin off a rhinoceros.
"Where do you stand with this 'me' nonsense!"
She mellowed down to mere anger.
"If you thought for a moment, you would realise that the insufferable Jeck McLaren is up against us. You AND me. That's a pretty tough combination. Throw in your Fisher Street Irregulars, and he hasn't got a chance!"
As pep talks go - on that day, there had been many - that was, far and away, the most effective. Penelope Pillan knew where to punch. There was only one answer I could give.
"Penny. You're right. Us. Not just me."
From the heart.
"I'm starting to like you, Mister Collins ..."
Now she looked abashed.
" ... Neil. You know how to start a war. Now let us finish this one together!"
The Duke of Wellington almost had it right. She scared me ... but she would terrify the enemy!

"One question before we enter the hall, Penny. You can actually play snooker, can't you?"
I pushed open the Snooker Hall door before she had a chance to answer. I never knew that women could snort like that. Before me was undoubtedly less dangerous than what lay behind.

On appearance, the Snooker Hall was unchanged from every other time that I had played a game or two. Two tables to the right, two to the left. Four rectangles of green baize, lit by the rectangular lampshades above each table. The only other light came from the small, brass-shaded lamps on the wall adjacent to each table, the minimum required to make the scoreboard visible.
And one more light. The 'Exit' sign above the door that swung closed, behind us. Leave ... or play the game!
Through the blue haze that hung around the hall, I could see three games in progress. Penny scanned the room carefully, but said nothing. This was my familiar territory. She waited for me to fill in the detail.
On our left, at the nearest table, Jeck McLaren paused to line up his next shot. He looked straight at Penny and myself. I deliberately turned my back on him, and gestured to the far table on the right.
"That's Harry Boden. Runs the local taxi operation. Very much an up-and-coming businessman is Harry. Reckons that mini-cabs are going to be big thing of the future."
I nodded in Harry's direction. Harry saluted with his cue, but his face remained expressionless. I put him down as 'neutral'.
"Myself, I'd rather walk, but on a Saturday night with a few pints inside, I can see the attraction."
I waited until the player at the near table on the left had completed potting a particularly difficult red, leaving a nice blue lined up for the corner pocket.
"This charming character is Massimmo Marietti. His friends call him 'MaMa'. His enemies call him other names. Nothing nice."
"Does he have many enemies?"
I looked at Penny. There was something very different in her manner. She was bright, bubbly, and glowing with an excited innocence.
"Not for very long. They tend to look for work in another area. Any other area."
Massimmo handed his cue to his playing partner, and came across to stand in front of Penny. He turned on his 100 watt smile. Penny returned with 120 watts. Massimmo spoke to Penny, but the words were spoken for my benefit. It was OK to chat up a woman - Massimmo never missed an opportunity - but there could nothing overtly said in my favour. Not tonight. Not in the Snooker Hall. Not in front of all the other 'hard men'.
"Mister Collins! You surprise me. I had never thought that you knew such a beautiful woman."
The smile increased to 150 watts. Penny matched it, and raised it to 160.
"Miss Pillan, I have heard so much about you ..."
"Oh shit!" I thought. Was Penny's bubbly, but slightly dim, act going to die before it had barely started?
" ... I have a grand-daughter at the Main College in Kirkcaldy. She has mentioned you on several occasions."
"Of course, I know her, MaMa ..."
She had never met Massimmo Marietti in her life, and already she was calling him MaMa!
" ... She had a little trouble in the spring term, and I was able to help her out. We always look after our students. They are a family, in a way."
"As do we, my dear." Massimmo reached out and took Penny by the hand. I pretended that I was a little jealous. In fact, I was a lot jealous, but my smile never wavered. Just ached a little.
"I must tell you, My dear Penelope, that these are dangerous times. As a woman, you may not understand these things ..."
Massimmo never noticed Penny's high-wattage smile flicker for a moment, but I did.
"... but if things go badly tonight, then our Mister Collins here, may face difficult times."
A shrug of the shoulders, and an expression of sincere sympathy, combined to show that, if I was forced to exit the hall with a lynch mob in close pursuit, he would, reluctantly, be compelled to stand by the voice of the majority.
Penny drew a little closer to Massimmo, and the smile flared up into the harsh, actinic glare of an arc-lamp.
"MaMa. Whatever happens tonight, I will always look out for my students. That will never change."
Massimmo let Penny's hand drop, and stepped back smartly, before his eyebrows were blow-torched into powder. I never considered MaMa to be a fool, and he was rapidly re-estimating his opinion of 'bubbly but dim' Miss Pillan. For the first time during the conversation, he looked directly at me.
"With such a delightful, and intelligent, companion, I hope that you have an enjoyable evening."
He turned back to Penny, and with an almost imperceptible bow, spoke his goodbye.
"With one so constant, how could the House of Massimmo do any less?"

I never knew that it was possible to have every muscle and tendon in the human body, wound up to breaking point. I started breathing again. Tried to look calm, confident. Almost succeeded. Massimmo Marietti would not go against the majority, but if events were in the balance, he would stand on our side.

As we walked towards our table, every eye in the place followed us. Harry Boden, with cold curiosity, Massimmo Marietti with his operatic smile and a growing interest. And though we never looked in his direction, Jeck McLaren, with a little hate, a growing greed, and what I hoped was the first, faint glimmer of doubt and confusion. He must have wondered where Wee Jeck and Malky were. If anyone in the Snooker Hall knew, they wouldn't be telling. Sometimes, the unspoken rules work in your favour.

Penny tipped her head towards me.
"What a charming man MaMa is ..."
Bright and bubbly.
" ... for a crocodile!"
Much softer, with a tinge of amusement.
"You had me worried there, for a moment, with your 'inexperienced-college-graduate-meets-the-real-world' performance. MaMa is smarter than he looks."
Penny chuckled. Not what I would have expected from her - but so appealing.
"I am sure that MaMa is very fond of intelligent women, as long as they are not quite as intelligent as he is. I would never disappoint him."
Now both of us were smiling.
"I know that he runs an ice-cream business, but surely there is more to him than a few cones and the odd 99."
It was vital that Penny knew exactly what she was dealing with, so I gave her the 'Massimmo Marietti Story' (condensed version).
"MaMa started out in Glasgow with an ice-cream van, and an ambition. He wanted to grow the business. Run a fleet of vans. Unfortunately, he fell foul of other powers in the ice-cream world, and after a spate of mutually destructive spontaneous-combustion events, he decided to move to the East Coast and try his luck here. Rather than arrange for the vans of his ice-cream vending rivals to 'mysteriously' catch fire, MaMa settled on a much simpler technique. He would invite those rivals to a 'Meet the Boss' snooker match - the 'Boss' being Massimmo Marietti, of course - and join a sort of ice-cream collective. No smoking vans, and no Police involvement. A far smarter approach. If the rival won the best of seven frames of snooker, then MaMa would cheerfully leave his rival to a free and independent existence."
"Just how many of his rivals actually won against Massimmo?" Penny asked the obvious question.
"Only one. And his van caught fire on the way home from the Snooker Hall. Very persuasive, that!"
"And you actually come here to relax, and play a little snooker? Neil, I am impressed."
I tried not to let the compliment go to my head, but Penny was an expert, and what's wrong with a little flattery?

Twilight of the Gods

I waited till Penny had removed her hat and cloak, then hung them up, along with my jacket, on the wall hooks beside our table. They were perfectly safe. All the best thieves in the neighbourhood were either playing, or watching, snooker tonight, in the Miner's Welfare Institute. Penny looked every bit, the professional snooker player. The waistcoat, in particular, was being noted on more than a few sartorial shopping lists. On Penny, it looked good. A touch of class.
While we chatted, and I helped Penny select a good cue - the tables might be excellent, but the cues were dreadful - we both studied the lurkers in the shadows. At Jeck McLaren's table, there were a couple of middle-weight henchmen, and Jeck's playing partner, one of his collection drivers. The two thugs were only a problem if we had to make a break for the door, and the Rules would prevent Jeck and partner from interfering with our game. The big problem would be the two heavies sitting beside the wall, one on each side of our score-board.
Obvious McLaren plants - they would have to go!

I pulled all the balls from the pockets, and began to set up the table. It gave me time to consider the problem. As I placed the reds in the triangle, I had the beginnings of an idea. Penny had found the cube of blue chalk that the previous players had helpfully left behind, and applied it expertly to the tip of her cue. Yes, she had played snooker before. She also weighed the cue in her hand, checking the balance. Cues provided by the Snooker Hall had been known to lose the weight at the end, due to mishandling.

I am not, and never will be, the world's greatest snooker player, but I do know that players very rarely score from the opening break. I invited Penny to play first. Not gentlemanly, I know - but this is snooker. You play to win.
As Penny carefully wiped any dirt or chalk from the cue ball, preparatory to placing the ball for the first shot, I stood back from the table, and lit my first cigarette of the evening. It helped me to relax, and for what I was going to do, I needed that cigarette.
Off at the end wall, I could see Bob Redman, our referee for tonight, watching the proceedings. Everything by the Rules. I intended to play the Rules. Playing snooker would only be part of the entertainment.

Penny played off with the first ball of the match. Off the side, then back cushion, to finally kiss the reds. Nothing scored, but nothing available for me to score. This wasn't going to be a quick match, but then, who was in a rush?
I moved around to the top of the table, and sized up the shot. As I surmised - no obvious scoring possibilities. A quick puff on the cigarette, which was then tossed onto the brown linoleum floor. I gave the cue ball a smart tap, with a measure of side. The ball barely touched the corner red, hit the cushion, and the side made it angle down towards the baulk cushion. It bounced off the cushion, and came to rest behind the green. As neat a snooker as you could ask for. I only wish that it had been the shot I intended. Take it where you can find it!
I picked up the cigarette for a congratulatory puff, and smugly left Penny to find a way around the snooker. Which she did! One leg on the side cushion, one foot on the floor in the approved fashion - those culottes were earning their keep - Penny faced towards the baulk. A swift click, and the unmistakable purr of top. The cue ball hit the bottom cushion, then the side, missed every colour on the way up, hit the top cushion and rolled to a stop right up against the unbroken triangle of reds. As before - nothing to play.
Normally, a knowing crowd of snooker watchers would have nodded sagely at such a fine shot. But not tonight. Everybody was watching Penny, and as nice a pair of legs as ever graced a Snooker Hall. I'm a man! Of course I was watching too!
I took another puff of the cigarette, as I contemplated my choices. Try for the same shot as before - up to the baulk - or do the amateur thing, and try to smash the tightly packed reds, and leave an opening. I was lucky the last time. Would I be lucky again?
As it turned out, the cue ball was touching the red, and I would have to play away from the red. Look it up - it's there in the rule book. Down went the cigarette, and out came the rest from the end of the table.
It was an awkward shot, and I had to use the rest to give myself height, and angle. No fancy spin, this time. I struck towards the top cushion, and the cue ball bounced the once, then rolled down to lie in the shadow of the baulk cushion. No snooker, but not an easy shot to play. I bent down to pick up the glowing cigarette, then moved around the table on the wall side, as Penny manoeuvred her way between our table, and the one where Jeck was playing. As I suspected, everyone watched Penny. I could probably play the best game of my life, tonight, and no-one would ever notice.
I positioned myself next to the, as yet, unused scoreboard, and waited patiently while Penny lined up her next shot. Playing a ball next to the cushion can be difficult. I was not making it easy for Penny. I had plenty of time to puff away on my cigarette, as she carefully worked out the angles, and the shot. I was similarly involved in calculating the angles for my shot.

Penny bent over the cushion, intending to play to the side cushion, and reach the pack of reds with a little side on the cue ball. Sadly, I was the only man in the hall who was not appreciating the view of a tightly clad derriere. I was intent on stoking the glowing tip of the cigarette to a brilliant orange. Penny played her shot, and I played mine.
The cue ball flicked off the cushion, and spun up the table, clipping a couple of reds off the pack. I, with a quick pinch of my fingers, pulled the hot coal from my cigarette - and dropped it neatly down the open front of the shirt worn by Jeck's wing-man.
Any appreciation of Penny's fine snooker shot was, I'm afraid to say, completely overwhelmed by what happened next. In an eruption of waving arms, red screaming face, and a frantic repetition of a very limited range of foul language, Jeck's henchman launched himself into the pool of light surrounding the table. Beating his chest and yodelling like Methil's answer to Johnny Weissmuller, he captured the attention of the entire hall. Nobody noticed the red ball drop into the corner pocket. Penny had opened the scoring.

Bob Redman moved swiftly, up to the commotion, like a Hollywood SWAT Team commando. No warning was given, no explanation required. For such a blatant interruption of the game, there was only one answer. With an irresistible 'come-along' grip, Bob had the culprit out the door, and on his way to oblivion. Never to play any part in the Miner's Welfare Institute. Utter confusion reigned at the McLaren table.
Nobody knew it at the time, but I had opened the scoring too!

When the tumult subsided, I pointed to the corner pocket, and invited Penny to play her first colour. I would explain everything later. I re-lit my cigarette, and watched with satisfaction, as the game re-started. Penny potted the pink without hesitation.

As the second heavy scurried back to the McLaren fold for explanations, and updates to orders, Penny and I settled down to play snooker. Penny sank another red, a black, a third red, then was unlucky not to pot a blue, by the slimmest of margins. I slid the brass marker on the scoreboard. 16 up for Penny, and I had yet to pot a ball. Time to concentrate on the game!
As I stood there, chalking the tip of my cue while I studied the table, Penny appeared silently at my side. For a woman who could draw every eye in the place if she wanted, she also had the natural predator's ability to use cover, blend with the background, and close with the prey.
"We're hunting McLarens tonight Neil ..."
A soft whisper. She could be a most unsettling person. I took a moment to remind myself of that fact.
" ... and having a little fun!"
That chuckle again.
"I presume that it was you who set off Tarzan of the Apes. That was quite a performance."
The humour in her voice had little effect, this time.
"Enjoy it while you can. It is going to get rougher."
I knew that Jeck would soon find out exactly what happened, and try to come back at us with both barrels. I knew that I had to keep him off balance, make anger rule his head. Lead him unthinking, towards his downfall. But I started to worry about Penny. If provocations went too far, and Jeck dared to disregard the rules, then she could get hurt. Badly.

I potted my first red, more luck than skill, and was lining up to attempt the brown, when the advance guard of the Annexe Cavalry arrived.
Jimmy Baxter, in what looked like a scruffy coat hired from our janitor, and a tweed hat with a trout fly stuck in it, attempted - and failed miserably - to 'sidle' into the Snooker Hall. Collar turned up, and about as anonymous as a Macaw in a Convent, Jimmy slid into the seat formerly occupied by the incendiary Ape.
"Evening, Penelope, Neil. Said I would drop in to watch."
Jimmy must have been receiving lessons in 'Stage Whispering' from Too Hot Hutcheson.
"Unofficially, of course. Nowt to do with the College."
A muffled squeak at my side made me turn from staring at Jimmy, to look at Penny. Her eyes were bulging slightly, and the expression on her face flitted from glee to imminent seizure. There were tears running down her face. I would have been concerned had I not presented a similar scene to our audience. Torn between the tension, and Jimmy Baxter's mad impersonation of Harry Lime, there was only one way to turn.
Penny and I burst into spontaneous laughter. The puzzled look on Jimmy's face only made it worse. For the next minute, all we could do was cling to each other for support. Laughing, shaking weeping.
As the catharsis wound down, I suddenly realised that there was another party present. Someone who had walked right up to us while we were helpless in our laughter. Bob Redman - the Caretaker.
"This is a Snooker Hall, Mister Collins. Not a comedy theatre. We try to play snooker with a little decorum. Take care that you do not incur a warning."
Bob then strolled away, back to his position in the gloom, at the back of the hall. He was smiling too. Even in the dark, even with his face turned away, I was sure of it.

Penny dabbed away her tears with a handkerchief. I made do with the back of my hand. I played that brown as if it was on rails. Red, black, red, black, red and then a blue. They went in quick succession. Another red, then a safety shot to place the cue ball behind the green for a snooker.
Penny racked up 28 on the brass marker at my name, and I did a victory stroll around the table, riffling the tassells on the lamp-shade with my cue. 'High Noon' was almost on us, and Glen-Gary Cooper was ready for the duel.
"Jeck McLaren, we're standin here in the street, waitin. If yer big enough!"
Naturally, I ran those lines through my head, for my own personal screening. No sense in acting like a complete fool. It disheartens your supporters, and aids the opposition if you say daft things out loud. The release of laughter is a wondrous panacea. It relaxes the mind and eases the inhibitions. A little internal fantasy does no harm. I gives you courage when you need it.

Jimmy Baxter contented himself with watching my break, then silently applauded my total. If he enjoyed watching me play, I could imagine his reaction when Penny took to the table. I was not disappointed (and I was absolutely certain that neither was Jimmy) when Penny played her way out of the snooker, tipped a single red out of its position, bounced off the top cushion, and left me snookered behind the black!
"Where on Earth did you learn to play snooker?"
I might be ahead at that moment, but Penny was by far, the superior player.
"Hanoi? As in North Vietnam?"
"No. Hanoi, as in French Indochina."
I knew the difference. I didn't just read Science Fiction. I read a lot of modern history. So much human effort goes into the Art of War. I read all I could about those military artists. This was in the middle of the Cold War - at the time, we had no idea when the end would be - and I firmly believed in the saying ...
'In order to preserve the Peace, study War'
"What were you doing in Indochina?" There was time enough. I was curious.
"I travelled there with my boyfriend. I was very daring, then."
Penny was a few years older than me. Well, more than a few. But in the gloom outside the table lamps, I was listening to a young girl.
"He was a freelance journalist. Did articles for various French newspapers and magazines. Very handsome, so 'Continental'. I thought that I was madly in love with him. I followed him on his travels throughout the country. Anywhere for a story. And learnt to play snooker against with some of the most charming rogues in Asia."
Wherever Penny was at this moment, it was not Methil. I listened, fascinated, to her story. Jimmy probably could hear her, but said nothing, lest he break the spell. And the entire Snooker Hall fell into a hush. Unable to hear, but unwilling to disturb the unheard story.
"I thought that he might propose to me, but for Albert, it was the story. Always the story.
She spoke his name as 'Alberr' - the French way. No 't'. Made it sound so romantic. Say 'Albert' in English, and you think of Stanley Holloway, old men in the East End of London and Manchester pigeon fanciers. Say it in French, and the heart sings!
"I woke up one morning, and he was gone. Just a note. He had heard that the French High Command were planning something big at a place called Dien Bien Phu. Albert was Albert, and he could charm the wings off an Angel."
The quiet voice of a young girl travelled half-way round the world to reach me in Methil. I wanted to reach out and draw her safely home, before she could utter the dread words that I knew would follow.
"He talked his way on to one of the follow-on flights to the valley. No official record, so his name will never appear on any list of the action. He never came back, and I never had a chance to wish him well."

I passed my cue to Jimmy, who took it without a murmur. I reached out and gathered Penny towards me. Unresisting, she lay her head against my shoulder, and we stood there. Laughter had made me a little more daring, a little crazy. In Penny, it had turned the key in a lock, long rusted.
Time passed. And then she turned her face towards me, the tears plain and the eyes dark.
"You remind me a little of Albert, Neil."
Then the tears were gone, and Penny was back in the Miner's Welfare Institute.
"I think, perhaps, that we still have a game to play."

The enchantment was gone. Not lost, but somewhere out of reach.
In Indochina.

The End of Empire

In any campaign, plan for everything you can think of. Allow for the unexpected. Accept change - be flexible. But never forget the objective.
I believe that, on the night in the Snooker Hall, I had followed the first three precepts of a successful campaign. I just needed reminding about the original objective. Penny must have seen the confusion in my eyes.
"Neil. Remember, we're playing for Emily, for Rabbie. And the Annexe."
I struggled with my thoughts, fought to regain focus. Reluctantly, let other thoughts fade. I tried to portray 'lighthearted'.
"Well ... as battle cries go, it's hardly up there with 'Remember the Alamo', but as this is the only war we have ... it'll do!"
I also tried for confidence in my smile, and Penny accepted that at face value.

While we were lost between two battlefields, Jeck McLaren had taken the lead in the next action. One of his thugs had been sent outside, on a fact-finding mission, and was now reporting back to his master. The background hubbub was back to its former level, and though I could not hear what was going on in Jeck's corner, I didn't need Penny's mind-reading talents to find out. Jeck was radiating fury, and hissing out orders to his crew.
Both thugs were back on door-duty, and the heavy that had ill-graced our table, was sent back to linger near our table. I didn't like it much, but there was nothing in the rules to stop it. It would take more than a cigarette, this time.

I checked my watch, and glanced at the door. The clock was ticking. Jeck McLaren must have caught the look - he leered across at Penny and myself. Whatever he had planned, no part of it included permitting our escape. I sincerely hoped that Jeck had failed to follow the precepts for a successful campaign.
Penny and I exchanged looks. With my back to Jeck and his heavy, I mouthed the words "Ten minutes". Penny nodded. Then we went back to the game.

Every red ball on the table was within easy reach. And several would have been pottable - if I hadn't been for that miserable black that Penny had laid in my path. I pulled out the rest, again, and determuned to try a bounce off the top cushion, and into a red. I had no chance of potting a red, but I hoped that I wouldn't leave an easy shot for Penny.
I carefully chalked my cue, calculated the angles, sighted along the rest, and played the shot.
Up the table. Down the table. Missed every ball there was. And neatly dropped the cue ball into a convenient pocket at the bottom of the table. Foul stroke. 4 to Penny.
I could see Jimmy Baxter sadly shaking his head. Penny was a good enough player, without handing her a gift. Penny, being Penny, saw ample reason to reward folly. She placed the cue ball in the D, adjusted it's position till she was satisfied, then sent it on its way.
Red in the corner pocket, and perfectly placed for the black. The black was in the same pocket, then back on its spot like some conjurer's rabbit. Another red in the other corner pocket, with bottom to bring the cue ball back into line. Tap. Click. Another black. Now she was ahead. She never slowed her pace.
A quick red, followed by a third black. And lined up for red number four. Down it went, like whiskey in a Western Saloon. Due to the spot being unavailable - a red was covering it - Penny had to play pink again. Only six instead of seven! At least, it wouldn't be a total whitewash.

Penny moved to the bottom of the table to play a long red into the middle pocket, leaving her perfectly placed (again!) for another black. As she passed McLaren's heavy, she stumbled for a moment. I could see the brute face make an insolent apology, open hands raised in a shrug. I started to move around the table, but Penny sent me a quick flick of the eye, to say 'No!'. This was Jeck's master plan - he would attempt to provoke me by attacking my weaker flank. His heavy would harass Penny until I was forced to move to her rescue. I almost felt sorry for his lieutenant. He would be better served attacking the guns at Balaclava.
As I wondered what the 'weaker sex' would do to her opponent, I also pondered on more mischief for Jeck.

Penny comfortably potted another black, running the cue ball back down to the baulk. I puzzled this for a moment - I would have thought that she would have been better placed for the next red if she had kept her cue ball up nearer the top of the table. All she had achieved, was to place herself within contact range of Jeck's point man. Ah ...
With Penny stretching across the table, I could see Jeck making encouraging signals to his man. The trap was set. The only point to settle was 'who's trap?'.

As my magical assistant, Miss Pillan, drew the attention of the audience with a marvellous play of misdirection, I, with absolutely nothing up my sleeve, moved swiftly over to Jeck's table. A swift pass of the hand, and the blue ball vanished from his table, and was slipped into the nearest pocket. The quickness of the hand (and Penny's shapely leg) deceives the eye! A little back-up irritation for the future.

As Penny lined up her next red, out of the gloom, Jeck's man made a lunge at Penny. Her cue moved instantly back, then forward to play the shot. I could hear a dull thud, just before the tap of the cue on the cue ball. The cue ball hit the intended red, but failed, narrowly, to place it in the corner pocket. As snooker shots go, it was an indifferent play.
As a means to removing a nuisance, it was perfect. Jeck's champion slumped back into the gloom. Apart from the small mark on his forehead, you would have thought he was sleeping. In my opinion, Penny had been too kind - I would have struck much lower. But then, I lacked her subtlety in these affairs of the head.
I racked up Penny's score to 57. A quick count of the remaining balls told me that I was running out of options. If I did not start potting soon, then I could not hope to win. At snooker. And if 'Operation Rawhide' didn't bring home the beef, then snooker would be the least of our problems.

Over at Jeck's table, confusion returned. The heavy on our side of the room was failing to respond to Jeck's frantic signals. He was not having a good night. I sincerely hoped that it would get worse.

On the snooker front, I could see a faint possibility. If I made a fine cut on the red, and nudge it in to the pocket, I might be able to line up the blue. The odds were poor, but against Penny and her snooker skills, I was never going to win with a defencive strategy. I gave it my best, and hoped for better.
The red was twitched from its position, and teetered on the edge of the pocket. A swing of the hips, and a pushing motion with the hands, finally persuaded it to drop. It had always worked when playing pinball. Now, it seemed, it could be made to work at snooker. I stopped holding my breath, and checked to see where the cue ball had stopped. Nicely lined up on the blue. Well! What do you know?
Penny allowed me one raised eyebrow. I would have said I was 'jammy'. I took the black next - but failed to pot the last red. At least, I hadn't left it hanging over the pocket. Score now 36.

It made no difference. Penny finessed the last red off the table, then knocked the blue with comparative ease. If she could plant a difficult yellow, then I would need every ball remaining on the table - and a snooker - to win. The only force in my favour would be sheer luck, and my voodoo pinball body action.
Penny took the shot. Everybody in the hall watched Penny. I watched the yellow. A twist, a gesture, and the facial expression of a constipated clown. It worked! The ball stopped short. I was in with an improbable chance to win.

The yellow was easy. Penny had done most of the work. Same for the green. And even I could pot the brown into the corner pocket from that position.
The blue was trickier, but if I could take it, then the pink was decidedly possible. I lit another cigarette, and prowled around the table, checking angles. Making it look as if I knew what I was doing.
Jimmy Baxter leaned forward, studying the table. Then, with a shake of the tweed hat, decided on the negative. Penny had done enough to win. Now she waited to see if I could do enough to snatch victory in the closing game.
Finally, I had made my calculations. Angle, spin, the nap of the cloth - forget it. Just hit the bloody ball!

The cigarette hit the floor in a shower of red sparks, and I drove the cue ball into the blue. No science. No skill. I would never be a great snooker player. But I had willpower, and I talked that blue all around the table till it gave up and rolled into the pocket.
Jimmy was astonished. Penny delighted. And the pink was easy. A quick count, and I came to the same conclusion as everyone else at the table. If I could sink that black, then Penny and I would be equal on a score of 63. Now, that would really be something!

I picked up my cigarette, and studied my final shot. And if the blue had been tricky, then this black would be near impossible. The cue ball was sitting down near the baulk cushion, and the black was tucked up tight against the centre of the top cushion. I needed a sign. some inspiration.
Across the Snooker Hall, the door opened, and Richie Walker, Too Hot Hutcheson, and Podge Cunningham walked in. Richie made the gesture of cocking a pistol, aiming at Jeck McLaren, and jerking his hand up with the recoil. Game on!
I dropped my cigarette back on to the floor. I leaned over the table, lined up my cue, and drove the cue ball up towards the black with all the force I could muster. No snooker professional would ever play such a ridiculous shot, but then, I was not a very professional player. Not even a gifted amateur. And I have played that same shot several times in later life, and it always turns out the same way.
The cue ball crashed into the black with the crack of a bull-whip. The black flew down the table, and rattled hard into the corner pocket on my right, before dropping in for my seven points. The cue ball did the same with the corner pocket on my left - with one exception. The sheer violence of the impact was enough to eject the ball back out onto the table.
Terrible snooker, but one hell of a shot!

This time, the applause was not silent. Unheard of! Actual applause in the Snooker Hall? I would probably get my first official warning from Bob Redman - behaviour tending to disrupt the play of others - but it would be worth it.

Score 63 - 63. A draw.

I know that we should have re-spotted the black, and played the decider, but I felt immensely satisfied with the draw, and reluctant to pursue the win. From the warmth of Penny's smile, it looked as if she felt the same. Jimmy Baxter congratulated us both, by raising his disreputable tweed hat in salute. The only part of the celebration that was missing, was a fireworks display ...

On cue (stage, not snooker), the fireworks commenced. Over at Jeck McLaren's table, a heated argument broke out between Jeck and his partner. Simmering frustration, and the lack of support from his favourites - Malky and Wee Jeck - had turned some minor event in their game into a shouting match.
Penny and Jimmy turned to watch this new spectator sport. As did everyone else in the Snooker hall.
Seeing my hopelessly smug grin, Penny sought an explanation.
"Can I presume that you are, in some way, responsible for the fandango across the way?"
I nodded assent. I couldn't turn my eyes away from Jeck doing the tribal dance.
"And ... ?"
Penny demanded more than a nod. I explained about the purloined blue.
"But that is cheating!"
"Only if you do it in the game that you are actually playing."
I had an informal degree in Barrack-Room law.
Penny considered this dubious legal point for a moment, then chuckled.
I was really getting to like that chuckle!

As Bob Redman moved in to quell the two-man riot, the door burst open, and in barged Malky McLaren. If ever there was a man with a story to tell that night, it was Malcolm 'Malky' McLaren. If 'Operation Rawhide' had worked, then I would know in the next few seconds.
The door swung closed. A very, very long second passed, and then swung open to reveal the uniformed figure of Sergeant Donaldson. Senior sergeant from the local police station, and a man who believed in 'practical policing'.
A stunned hush dropped down on to the Snooker Hall. Except at the one table where Jeck McLaren was attempting to hoist his partner by his shirt front. The partner was trying, desperately, to persuade Jeck to let him go, by the, unsuccessful, expedient of kicking Jeck in the shins.
Malky hesitated, his rhythm upset by the sight of Jeck and partner apparently dancing, rather than playing snooker, then turned in my direction, pointed with an outstretched arm, and shouted as loudly as he could.
"It wis him, Mister Sergeant! He's the wan! He's oot tae get me!"

That really brought the house down! Jeck stopped leading in the Institute Fandango and let his partner crash to the floor. He turned and stared, with horror, at Malky and the accompanying constabulary. The silence around the hall deepened into a raw-edged chasm.
Harry Boden stood with his cue at 'order arms', as if it were a rifle.
MaMa smiled at Malky, as he would with a reluctant ice-cream salesman.
The majority of the Snooker Hall residents faded back into the gloom.
Of all the Rules of the Snooker Hall, only one had never been broken.
Until that night.

Never bring the Police into it.

Sergeant Donaldson was, as I have said, was a 'practical policeman'. He knew everybody in the hall. By official record, reputation, or just plain recognition on sight. He never troubled himself with the petty crimes he could never prove anyway. Never concerned himself if one dubious character happened to perform some free dentistry on another.
Sergeant Donaldson concentrated on protecting the honest people of Methil from those who would prey on them. He looked after his patch, and the local underworld stayed on theirs. Conveniently located in the Miner's Welfare Institute Snooker Hall.
By unspoken accord, both sides had followed that rule for years. Not so much a 'no-go' area for the law - more a reservation for those who misunderstood terms such as 'ownership' or 'property'.

In his terror, Malky could only pour out further accusations.

"It's him! Him fae the Annexe. Jist 'cause ah gi'ed Emily a kickin!"
Jeck tried desperately to shut Malky up, but Sergeant Donaldson used a firmly planted police boot, to restrain Jeck. He made no attempt to restrain Malky. A policeman will always be interested in hearing a confession, freely given, in front of witnesses.
"Ah didnae hurt Rabbie. Honest! It wis wee Jeck that nutted him, and held him back."
Jeck made one, final, try to halt the flow, but Malky was too far gone in his speech to notice Jeck's agonised glare.
"It wis Jeck what made us dae it!"
The magnitude of his error was finally seeping into Malky's tortured brain. He tried to clamber over Jeck's table to reach me, scattering the balls in the process. Sergeant Donaldson pulled him back, more to protect him from Jeck, than conform to table rules.
"It's that effin' technician fae the Annexe. He planned all this."
I should have bowed in acknowledgement - but I'm not totally daft!
Malky subsided into tearful misery. His final words were as much to himself as anyone else.
"He kicked me aff the bus, so he did."

Sergeant Donaldson beckoned me over.
"Mister Collins, I believe?"
"Yes, sergeant."
"Are you involved in any of this?"
"No, sergeant."
"Do you have any witnesses?"
MaMa stepped forward. Harry Boden stepped forward. Bob Redman stepped forward. Practically everybody in the hall, not related to the McLaren family, closed in behind them.
"He's been here all night. Playing snooker. With a lady. We'll testify to that."
Even the experienced Sergeant Donaldson was taken aback by the statement. Not in the words - they were standard Snooker Hall fare - but by the way they were spoken in perfect chorus by everyone present.

"Very well. Then that concludes my business here tonight. Time I was off."
As he turned to leave, Malky McLaren attempted to squirm out of his grasp.
"No you don't, Mister McLaren. We need to have words."
Jeck tried the one protest. Only the one.
"Don't you dare say anything!"
Sergeant Donaldson took Jeck firmly by the elbow.
"Interfering with the process of the law? I don't think so, John McLaren. Shall we finish this down at the station?"
Before the sergeant could usher them both out of the door, Bob Redman stepped up to Jeck.
"Jeck McLaren. You're barred! You too, Malky!"
Then to the sergeant.
"Usual table at nine, George?"
When not in uniform, George Donaldson enjoyed his weekly game with Bob. Practical Policing in action.
"Looking forward to it, Bob."

Penny and I held each other at arms length, just for a moment, then she pulled us together, and kissed me. Everybody cheered, but we never noticed.

And so, the McLaren Empire - torn apart by inner turmoil, and surrounded by its enemies - crumbled into dust. History alone would judge its failure.

We had won!

In the Snooker Hall, the events of the evening were discussed, dissected, and re-told endlessly. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone had his own version, from his own viewpoint. As the night turned into legend, outgrowing its humble cast, Penny and I said our 'Good Night' to Jimmy and the Annexe students.
I slipped the cloak over Penny's shoulders, and waited till she set her hat at a jaunty angle. I accompanied her down the stone stairs to the main entrance, immeasurably relieved that my skill in downstairs skiing had not been necessary that night.

Together, we walked through the late of the evening, till we arrived at Penny's car - a bright red MG B Roadster. I held the door, as Penny removed her hat, then gracefully slipped into the driver's seat.
"It has been a wonderful evening, Neil. I enjoyed it immensely."
The confident woman of a moment before, slipped aside the inner cloak she wore, and a younger, less forceful, Penny spoke to me.
"Thank you Neil. For all that you have done for Emily and Rabbie. That was truly wonderful. And for your company, too. It has been so long since I have enjoyed myself so much."
I was lost for words. Nothing seemed adequate. I had spent an amazing evening, watching 'Miss Pillan' transform into Penny. A magical evening with a fantastic woman. I did not want to break the spell.

Penny did not press me for a response. Instead, she asked the simplest question.
"Could I offer you a lift home, Neil?"
Blood surged into my face. My heart stuttered.
"Penny! People will talk!"
"People are already talking!"
That divine chuckle scattered my defences. I tried to rally what little sense I had.
"It's been a long night. I need the cool night air to clear my senses."
I could plan strategy, but Penny was, by far, the better player.
"Neil Collins! In case you hadn't noticed. This is a convertible!"

In the years since then, Penny was proved absolutely correct. Everybody did talk! I could deny the events of that evening. I could claim to have achieved anything and everything. It made absolutely no difference. No-one ever believed a single word I said.
Whatever Penny and I did, or didn't do - the legend long outlived the fact. So write this story whichever way you wish. And say what Penny said ...

"Adieu Albert, tout de bon."

[ Goodbye, Albert. I wish you well ]

    Go to Chapters ...
The Stage is Set
Prelude to War
The Valkyrie
Come the Dawn
Footsteps into Battle
Politics by Other Means
Twilight of the Gods
The End of Empire

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