The rules of the game were the same as for billiards, with an added complication: on the centre spot on the table stood a little black skittle about four inches tall surrounded in diamond form by four blond skittles. Knocking over at least one of the blond wood pins, each of which had an ascribed value – one, two, three and four – had to be executed by a player before his aggregate total of points from orthodox billiard scoring was computed. Hit the black pin, and the game’s a bogie. First to reach 21 won, not only the game, but also a pile of greasy pound notes stacked on the mantelpiece above the gas fire that stood between the door and the counter of Larry the owner’s office. The score was 17 to 12 in favour of the younger man when, from the office, the ringing of a telephone was heard. In the silence that followed the departure of the son of the ‘wine mopper’ Larry, the owner, announced loudly, “Phone furr ye, Jackie.”
The young spiv strolled towards the office. He had almost glided through the passage made for him by the compliant spectators when he extended his cue towards me and, still with his eyes fixed on the office door said, “Dae me a favour, son. Gonnae take ma shot furr me?”
“But . . . but . . . but . . . wha’ . . .whi . . .” I stuttered in reply. I had his cue in my hand.
“Ye sound like a foreign station oan the wireless, so ye dae,” the cool one said, resolutely turning his back on me. “Ah’m allergic tae foreign stations – unless it’s Radio Luxemburg on a Sunday night.”
Whisper-laughter, whisper-laughter from his fans.
“Don’t be a hero, son,” he said softly. “Jist play a safety shot.”
“But what if I hit the black pin?” I protested weakly.
That got his attention. He turned round and spoke to me sternly. “Listen ya wee toff, and listen good. He reached into the breast pocket of his suit and extracted an ivory-backed open razor. “Ah’m gonnae tell ye how things work round here when Jackie Connor’s in charge.”
I remained silent as he flicked the razor open with his thumb and brought the wavering eight-inch gleaming blade to within a foot from my face.
“You hit the black pin,” he said slowly, “and you best hope ye’re better at running than ye urr at pool. Know whit Ah’m sayin’?”
I nodded, standing ramrod straight and determined to show no fear.
“That’s right. Ah’ll cut yer lugs aff,” he said, moving from foot to foot, his nostrils flaring. He lifted my tie from around my sternum and with a quick slash of the open blade severed the material just below the knot. As he carelessly dropped the blue and gold material at his feet he said, “Bella boy, eh? he queried as though his teeth hurt. He turned his full attention to me and I saw the deadness in his eyes and the exposed lower teeth as he snarled. “You’ll play a nice wee safety shot,” he commanded. “School’s over. Get on with it.”
I stared defiantly at Connor and heard myself say, “Come out of your frenzy, big man.” His big hands opened and closed, his knuckles bulging.. “Be assured, I continued, “ I shall win your game for you, and you will purchase a new Bellahouston tie for me.”
Connor began to laugh, emitting a high-pitched hyena-like cackle as he opened the office door with his shoulder.
Cue in hand, I stepped up to the table.