Essay 1: Warner and his Bookcovers
Essay2: Alan Warner: The Scottish Onetti?
by Alan Warner
On the night of the Grand Final he brought his wife. She wore glasses
and sat, looking heart-breakingly bored, staring at the reflections in the Bar Champagne
terrace windows, or perhaps beyond at the rivulets of sand turning over like snakes on the
terrace tiles. I saw the calculating but deeply protective sneer he crossed over the
evening's audience: Doctor Tennis and his entourage, virtually all of them beaten
participants in the tournament with some wives or girlfriends. Every one baying for the
blood of an estranjero.
Suddenly I was absurdly angry it was me in the final
with a chance of the money that I badly needed. Really, I wanted to settle down alone at a
table and carry the psychology that was required for the moment through the entire evening
and maybe beyond, simply observing my opponent, the way, in the old days, I destroyed my
hours on cafe terraces, watching passers-by - drifting thoughts, wondering of ways.
Doctor Tennis stood me a cortado and the bar a
tortilla. I watched my opponent select his free drinks, a glass of the cheap house
champagne for his wife and a beer for himself that the young new girl put in a brandy bell
glass by mistake so he good humouredly dipped the end of his nose in the spuma for the
first few sips. The place was owned by the Parisian who was drinking anis - and the
cheapest brand. My opponent: wearing the same dreary cardigan over a frayed shirt and the
brown, pressed trousers as for the semi-final when he beat Froilan Gordo on the black.
As eight 'o clock approached I moved with that sudden,
ducking, apologetic motion I use when I'm heading for the toilets. The men I talked with
hardly noticed me go - they altered the positions of their heads to count me out of the
conversation which was about Hart's apparent comeback in the Mar Azul Bar Final that
In two steps I was at his table. The chair squeaked as
I drove it backwards. His wife turned away from the black glass to deliver a neutral look
- she had several dark hairs sprouting vertically down from her chin.
'Señora.' I shimmied round the table which was too
close to the terrace windows and kissed her on both warm cheeks. She didn't bother to
stand but mumbled in the dialect.
'Good evening young one.'
I sat down still astounded his wife was not beautiful.
'So Stranger?' his hand was on the table and when he
spoke his whole body responded so the table shook.
It was then I began to believe he'd brought his wife
along only to make me uneasy - convinced my curiosity would distract me. If I'd been
younger I would have permitted myself exactly what Hart, who has taught me all I know,
would warn against as the greatest folly: letting your opponent convince you that you are
beaten before the game begins. However now I was older, softer, in other words so
destroyed by life and scoured by the pain I'd caused that I had accepted my desolation as
nightly I crossed and recrossed the patches of wasteground between the luxury flats -
(even they unable to escape far from the wonderful reality of wasteground in which the
country excels) - my pool cue unboxed, trying to make out the rippled, whipped puddles
close to my best shoes in the darkness, once again moving below skies I cursed. Now that I
was filled with sorrow my opponent's strategy would fail. Both of us were desperate men -
in other words we were no longer children - but he did not recognise he was the
stronger though I the younger, he was the more exceptional and my secret weapon was
that I no longer gave a damn for Villafeliz and its ways. My front disguised this and
might be his failing.
'The weather is filthy,' I said.
'An ill air circulates in here,' his wife spoke.
He let out a laugh that almost made me blink; he
didn't even glance at her. I thought, They really love each other and I reached for
the cheap cigarettes in my fashionable, designer jacket, as always seeking salvation in
senseless movement, (trying to vary my breakfast but eventually, resorting to the same
old, perpetual thing; trying to live without a woman but still being woken by the
infinitely weary, exotic desires; convincing myself that not shaving preserved the skin
but really not being able to face myself in the morning mirror). I could not afford to
smoke but always carry a pack as an excuse to have Helen's lighter with me, the cheap 99p
newsagent one my fingers have worn smooth which she bought on the day out in York before
she cursed me to rot in hell and left me, though I loved her.
I said, 'Señora, the game of American pool concerns
the manipulation of the physical world, which some have used as a definition of magick;
those ivory balls turning over across hours of sky-blue felt are a microcosm of the very
forces that made the universe, or if you must, that God used to form all this around us;
it is a holy game - all of us sail on that same sea, there is no bad feeling here, is that
not right my friend?'
'Is he on narcotics?' the woman asked.
Again the laugh this time much louder, 'Thats fine
Castilian,' he smiled.
I said, 'Señora - believe me my hand is steady.' I
held it out seriously then trembled it in a pantomime. They both laughed. I offered round
my cigarettes, my opponent and his wife both took. When I lit them with Helen's lighter
(which I never allowed myself to use, dreading the day the gas would empty but
still I would have to carry it with me) I concentrated, the act now over, my hand as
steady as I could - talking to pretend I wasnt concentrating on the unsteady fingers, his
heavy pupils fallen on my knuckles round the lighter, the sight of which brought the
stabbing in me, Yes old mate, looks like youre still breathing at least: Helen's
lighter so close to his nose with the little ridge-line of dried beer. I tried to think of
my opponent's long body on his wife: I hope he despises it.
'Thanks,' each said as I again recited the litany that
once had scared other players: 'Myself and two friends play in a secret syndicate up and
down the Costas. We live here in Villafeliz, run two old cars. Through the year there are
over three hundred and sixty pool tournaments here and there. Between us we play about
three on-going competitions a week. The only problem is scheduling games so no two
over-lap. This way we live well, a villa, satellite, clothes in the mode.'
She said, 'So you play every day and are young but my
husband works on the constructions all week then plays this game - which to me is just for
children - only at weekends and still he is good, no?'
He interrupted, and knowing what he did about me, it
must have been a scrap thrown to my self respect, 'Yes woman, but both he and I pay the
same amount in tax!'
We all laughed at this, moronically.
'Health,' he yelled and downed the last of his beer.
'Your husband's play is exceptional. I'd be happy
losing to him,' I smiled, convinced at last I would win.
Suddenly something was happening. She was standing up.
She was going to the toilet and he was talking to me as soon as she was out of earshot, 'I
love my wife, Stranger. I can see in your eyes youre wondering why I'm with a woman who is
a frump. It makes no difference to me, I love her down to the dirt under her fingernails.
'I was a great sinner when I was young, cooperative
wine and pretty girls were part of it, you see, you are not the only one who has lived. I
almost lost that woman yet I was smart enough to learn the joys of self-sacrifice and all
my bitterness and fear has vanished.'
(I almost believed he'd seen my diary which Hart and
Manolo laughed over during nights by the pool, drinking beer and reading aloud across the
'I dont think youve learned to love very well
Stranger, I dont think you understand the strengths it brings; when you are older you
might be a great player but you are not so young as to be able to live without love, this
is life - even if you beat me in tonight's game you already know I've won.'
I made my reply: 'And as you stand on the construction
site, cement dust in your ears while I'm at La Estrella with a three course dinner ahead
of me and fifty more like it if I wish?'
'Still I will have won as sure as the light to which I
whisper "Encore" at each dawn that finds me lying by my wife, sure as the light
shines on these Costas and the cliffs of that ocean here, it shines on your defeat.'
'You go too far, its only a pool game,' I tried.
'No, oh no,' he laughed. 'Both you and I know that
this is life, really, life: loss, gain, defeat, submission, honour, this is what is inside
you, is your soul a fool or does it stand up and say what you are?'
'Look, I'm a Costa pool bum,' I said. 'You talk of
love; I dont do this for a hired villa, summer girls, stupid clothes,' I plucked at the
jacket sleeve, 'My old Mother lives in one of the villas up in that elephant's graveyard
on the hill. She's frail, alone, she worries: me in the bars of your people all the time,
so I never touch alcohol and when I lay down 800 sterling, or 2000 one August, her
questions stop for a while. I live with my mother, I love a woman who is waiting for me in
my homeland. I havent been with a girl in a year,' I shrugged, 'So I play pool.'
Throughout this whining plea that showed the extent of
my loneliness in that winter bar, extra heaters wheeled in scenting the air we breathed
with paraffin, the wind surrounding us, clattering through the reed beds on the
wastegrounds so the stalks shook threateningly, so the waves couldnt be heard collapsing
at last, down on the dark sand, and me only there to feel the warmth and atmosphere of
living, breathing men around me, through it all he smoked the butt of the cigarette and
smiled at me. He shifted himself to check over my shoulder and said, 'When I first went
with my wife, before we were married, she became happily pregnant. One night she began
bleeding just before dawn, I'd not even said "Encore" to the rising sun. We had
to take the bus for we are still without a car. When she stood up at the Clinic stop here
in Villafeliz, I recall the blood on the bus seat. "Just as well I wore the dark
skirt," she said. Believe me Stranger, women live in another world, strange pleasures
and more often Hells that we will never know. In the Clinic the nurse turned pale at what
was down there. My wife was taken to the operating theatre. She later told me that when
they removed what was down there, they put it in a plastic basin; she was under local
anaesthetic, a nurse passed that basin across my wife's recumbent body, over her face and
those powerful lights above revealed everything that was in the clear basin, she saw the
floating death-grimace of our child. She had been back in our bed two days when she began
to bleed again - the doctor's had not removed all of the unborn child and her body was
rejecting it. Again the bus ride, the Clinic stop...the agony.' He exhaled cigarette
I said, 'Señor, sometimes life can be so unspeakable
we can come close to hating it, but that is a mistake and in this case we can see the
irony of such an instinct.'
He nodded. 'I have only one God. Only Love Stranger.
When I find myself tempted to be cruel or to think abstractly, as we are doing now, I
stand up, go quickly out and buy my wife some beautiful flowers or I go to the well above
our village and draw twenty buckets of sweetwater so the grandchildren of our old people
will not need to do so in the morning before school, or I calculate when I last wore a bit
of clothing, for I once loved clothes, and I take a piece to the charity shop. Concrete
acts not self-indulgent thoughts. I saw her suffer Stranger and I vowed," I could
have pretty women but I love this one, I've seen her suffer, I will bind our lives
together and love her, if she has to suffer again it wont be alone. I'll be with
her." If you love you are loved back Stranger, its the only way to vindicate our
stretch on this strange earth.'
I nodded, respectful, tender about the unbeautiful
woman he had chosen to layer his first and last true caress upon. I tried to look out the
window to see a star - anything - but the long, low building gave no view.
'And the game?' I asked.
'Every shot for her, for love, the money for presents,
when I'm playing well, some for the charities: a game she is bored by and after nine years
doesnt know the rules.'
'So you brought her along on this rotten night by
'Stranger,' he chuckled, 'Stranger, you know so
little; she asked to come along.'
I swallowed hard. In silence looked at his face,
hopelessly out of my depth.
He began quietly, ' I wonder if I could join your
I spoke quickly, 'I lied. I'm not in any syndicate.'
He nodded. 'I heard that. The Englishman, Hart, wanted
me to join. Hart and Manolo told me you left over three years ago, that you havent played
for years and you only do so now to prove some last thing to yourself when you know
they've bigger fish to fry elsewhere.'
I nodded, more a slump of the head. 'Will you join?'
'Of course not. What would my wife think!'
I smiled. He said, 'They also say your Mother has
died, gone these last three years and that you live alone but look after an old soldier,
an English Colonel. They say once you listened to music all the time, only ever Bach, each
evening on your terrace but suddenly you stopped and now you sit on until long after
darkness falls and despite your looks, and this jacket you always wore, you eat any old
thing, selling bits of your furniture to live.'
I smiled. I looked across to the tournament
scoreboard, the surnames and nicknames of the present audience diligently stroked - only
his and my own remaining at the top.
I saw the frequent glances over at us. The time was
twenty past. With at first just mild surprise, I saw his wife, standing, talking slowly to
a middle-aged woman. When I realised she wasnt returning to the table to talk to me I felt
an astounding affront, then I felt like crying. Looking at my opponent's wife I suddenly
felt a knife of lust as I thought about her in bed. My defeat swarmed over me. The wind
gusted. Bewildered I looked at him.
'Old Salvator Bas told me never to talk with an
opponent but I think thats taking it too far,' he smiled. 'Now we play!' he called.
A few people clapped. Without asking the girl behind
the bar placed a glass of water on the bar (in the low-cut glass I always asked for in the
old days) and a bit impatiently the girl held out the thick end of my cue. Men who had
been standing close to the table stood back. I found I still had Helen's lighter in my
hand. I thumbed it alight, holding the burning flame until its metal top began to scorch
my thumb just where it would curl under the cue. He leaned over to me and whispered, 'I'll
win the first three, you win the second three then I'll let you win on the black of the
When I broke he did not even go so far as turning his
back on the result in the usual show of nonchalance, instead he watched, then he crouched
immediately into his first, perfect shot.
© Alan Warner 1996
Essay 1: Warner and his Bookcovers
Essay2: Alan Warner: The Scottish Onetti?