The bus into town stinks of vomit. Fearful of what might lie ahead, you tread warily along the aisle. An old woman sits directly in front of you, her hair a Brillo Pad explosion. A man with self-inflicted tattoos on his hands and neck fidgets on the back seat, performing the characteristic Saint Vitus’s dance of the heroin addict. When he gets off, the woman remarks to the driver, ‘He’s had a bad life.’
These days the hole in the wall dispenses plastic banknotes with a disagreeable, waxy texture. Minutes later you are negotiating the concrete underpass which rises up in the shadow of a ruined monolith with shattered windowpanes.
It is at this point, outside the former Technical College, that you are confronted by an ice-age granite boulder sitting on a plinth, imprisoned behind the spears of a cast-iron fence. It’s the first uncanny object you encounter on this familiar journey and it reminds you of the painting by René Magritte entitled Le Cap des Tempêtes. In that work there’s a bald-headed figure asleep in a kind of wooden box lying on its side – which might also be a coffin – and a massive boulder standing eerily behind him. The Penguin edition of Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus features this very same painting on its cover. Bulmer’s stone would be a worthy adversary for Sisyphus, and you wonder whether there is any significance in its present location.
The latest addition to take-away city, vying with the likes of Best Shawarma, Pizza Box and Cuisine Marmaris, is Kaspa’s dessert house where a Knickerbocker Glory will set you back the neck end of seven pounds. Tonight, however, you yearn for something more satisfying than strips of pungent kebab meat, slices of greasy pizza or a mouthful of milkshake with the consistency of ice-cold slurry.
Pedestrians exhale plumes of E-cigarette vapour like steam locomotives as they walk back and forth along this busy thoroughfare. The fact that this is a railway town is not lost on you, although it is still disconcerting to see human beings displaying the attributes of a machine.
The entrance you seek is opposite the Navy Club. The windows are all boarded up like a condemned property about to be demolished. There’s a broken intercom and two lights above the double doors. Appropriately, the doors are painted red, or is that merely a fortunate coincidence? No lights burning means there’s no one at home. There are also two separate stair lifts, the kind you’d find in someone’s house, though you’ve never seen anyone actually using them. Beer barrels are dotted on each of the landings as if they were oversize ornaments.
The snick of the snooker balls is the first sound that you hear. Faint, but unmistakable. One of these ten tables with their beds of slate and playing surfaces of taut green cloth will become your secular altar for the evening. They stand there like a herd of six-legged creatures, though they also put you in mind of mortuary slabs intended for a race of giants. The colour green is a quite deliberate choice: not only does it mimic the colour of grass, the human eye finds that particular wavelength of light the most restful.
For some reason, whenever you see a snooker table you are reminded of the Alain Robbe-Grillet film Trans-Europ-Express. There’s a man playing Carom billiards in one of the scenes shot inside a cafe. Much of the action takes place in Antwerp. There’s also a blind man selling postcards who clearly isn’t blind. The writer himself plays the part of the film’s director and his wife Catherine is the continuity girl. A consignment of cocaine is actually granulated sugar, and a hollowed out book has a revolver hidden inside it. Nothing is what it seems.
What you can never get your head around is the notion of a billiard table without any pockets. It’s counter-intuitive and makes about as much sense as a football pitch without any goals or a golf course without any holes. There’s a touch of the uncanny about it, a Magritte-like deformation of reality. In evolutionary terms, it seems a retrograde step.
Snooker halls such as the present one are often associated with crime and the underworld. The word underworld is being used here in the sense of crime, not to indicate the realm of the dead in classical mythology, though perhaps these two locations are not so sharply differentiated as one might have thought. And they are places that invariably conjure up night and electric light. This is not a game that one plays during the day, though such a thing is eminently possible.
It’s also a realm where arcane words are in vogue. Words such as baulk and ferrule. In the immediate vicinity of the bar there’s a conversation taking place about sandwiches. Whether to butter both slices or only one. The consensus is the former. It appears that you have been doing it wrong all these years.
Because you are a longstanding member you possess a laminated card. You also have your own locker, secured with a padlock. It’s where you keep your cue. It’s a two-piece affair with a push-on extension: a lance of sorts.
When your opponent arrives you busy yourselves arranging the snooker balls into the familiar configuration, their smooth, polished surfaces gleaming underneath the fluorescent tube of the table light, which is suspended from the ceiling by hefty chains. But appearances are deceptive. Although they are more perfectly spherical than any planetary body, the phenolic resin – manufactured in Belgium – is actually scarred like the surface of the moon if you examine it with an electron microscope.
Once more, it seems, reality is mutable.