Jim knocked at the kitchen door and Byron got up from the table to let him in. Though the day had started bright enough, it was threatening rain now, the sky all low and solid grey. Smiling, Jim took off his coat and put it out in the bathroom where it wouldn’t get so smoky.
‘What d’you know then, sunshine?’ Byron asked.
‘Fuck all, as usual,’ Jim replied, pulling up a seat. A roll-up lay on the place mat there in front of him. ‘This for me, is it?’
‘It’s a spliff,’ said Byron. ‘Fuck the expense, let’s go mad.’
The irony of the statement wasn’t lost on Jim. He’d have to smoke a dozen of Byron’s spliffs before he even got light-headed. ‘You’re just trying to get me stoned for the backie,’ he laughed. ‘Got a light there?’
First of January, tournament, loser makes the coffees for the rest of the year. Byron, reaching beneath his chair, fetched the board out. Blue corduroy outer, blue and white inlay, pieces and dice same colours also. They set up for the off, then Jim made coffee while Byron rolled a few more spliffs. One die each to see who made the first move.
‘One — bollocks.’
‘That’s it for you,’ said Byron, rolling six. ‘I’m going to murder you today.’
‘Want to roll again?’
‘What d’you take me for, a fucking bozo? Six and one covers up, blocked in forevermore.’
‘Yeah yeah, look at that, double five.’
‘That’s fuck all, sunshine, got you just where I want you.’
Byron took the first three games, and easily. Everything that could go for him did go for him. Jim was playing catch up all along, unable to gain the upper hand. It’s going to be one of those days, he thought, already half-resigned to losing the first set.
* * * * *
With the tournament tied at one set each, they took a coffee break. Byron hobbled off to the bathroom and Jim could hear him hawking into the toilet bowl. When he came back in, they lit new spliffs, and Jim asked about Samantha, Byron’s daughter.
‘Sam’s Sam,’ he said. ‘She’s doing alright.’
‘Still off the gear?’
‘It’s hard to tell, but it looks that way. She was round here with Jamie yesterday.’
‘Grow up so quickly don’t they? She must be five now.’
‘Next Wednesday — I got some bits and pieces for her down the market.’
Tat no doubt, Jim thought, smiling inwardly.
‘Get on then, we going to carry on or what?’ said Byron. ‘Set them up there — you’re due a fucking nilling.’
Jim won the throw, starting off with three and one. A few throws later he had two of Byron’s pieces on the bench, and half his box blocked out. Byron needed lucky dice now, and luck for once appeared to have deserted him. Jim, conversely, couldn’t put a foot wrong.
‘You twat-faced cunt,’ Byron muttered. ‘You’ve got more jam than Hartley’s.’
‘Get on,’ said Jim. ‘It’s just pure unadulterated skilfulness, and you know it.’
‘You realise I’m only letting you win to make you feel better? You looked so down in the mouth when you got here, I felt sorry for you.’
‘Yeah yeah.’ Jim closed out the game with more than a third of Byron’s pieces still outside the box.
‘You jammy little twat.’
Jim, laughing hard, couldn’t resist breaking into song. ‘Where’s your nilling gone, Uncle Byron? Where’s your nilling gone?’
‘See? I told you I’d let you win a couple. Dear of you, look at the way your little face lights up.’
* * * * *
‘Glen,’ said Byron, ending the phone call. ‘Coming down for tobacco.’
‘Is he walking?’
‘Unless his mother drops him — which I very much doubt this time of day.’
‘True enough,’ Jim sighed. ‘Things just as bad as usual there?’
‘It’s pissheads, sunshine. Can’t live with them ...’
‘Can’t shoot the bastards either. Last time I went round it was off the fucking wall. I was only there five minutes before she started laying into me about this and that. Had a right shitty on because I visit you more often than I visit her.’
‘She’s a cunt when she’s on that wine, she’s fucking horrible. Mind you, Glen has his moments too.’
‘Yeah, but he’s not as bad as her.’
‘Not yet, he isn’t,’ said Byron, throwing another spliff across the table. ‘Don’t forget, though, Roxy’s got a twenty year head start.’
‘Mum was only saying that the other day — how it all started.’
‘How is she, Wendy? Still with that cockney knob head?’
‘Shame, really. She’s an absolute darling, your mother. Like mother Teresa.’
‘Ah well, he’s pretty good to her one way or another I guess. Bit possessive at times, but aren’t most blokes his age? No, it’s me he’s got it in for more than anything.’
* * * * *
True to his decree, Byron murdered Jim. The final set was a whitewash, an embarrassment, a Charge of the Light Brigade. Every dash and foray made was repelled by an outrageous display of luck and skill. On losing the final game, Jim could only shake his head and stub his spliff out.
‘Told you I’d do it,’ said Byron. ‘You’re fucking shite. Washed up, a Has Been. In fact, a Never Fucking Was would be more accurate — fuck off sunshine, panned again.’
‘Glen’s taking his time.’
‘Probably fell into the boozer. You trying to change the subject or what?’
‘Too fucking right I am, getting beaten by a daft old twat like you. Soon as I’m gone you’ll be on the phone to all your friends, passing on the news of your amazing jam.’
‘Get the fucking coffees in then, Bozo. Plenty of time for practice now.’
In time they moved on to Byron’s favoured subject, football. He could talk about it all day long without his enthusiasm dwindling in the slightest. This particular conversation concerned a promising new winger, Byron fairly complimentary for a change.
‘Two-footed, pacey as fuck, makes brilliant runs.’
‘Dives a bit, though,’ Jim said, finishing off his coffee.
‘They all do nowadays,’ said Byron. ‘It wasn’t like that when I was playing — you stayed on your feet no matter what. Otherwise it was cheating. If you did something like that, you’d get more stick off your own players than you did from any of theirs.’
‘Mind you, that goal against Madrid was pretty special.’
‘Not bad — I wouldn’t have liked to play against him.’
‘Shame about the rape thing, mind,’ said Jim, referring to a recent tabloid story.
Byron paused to relight his spliff. ‘Who raped him, then?’
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