The Straw Hat is a post-War pub of shabby mock Edwardiana between Ladbroke's and Mecca Bingo on the upper level of Shopping City. This is Runcorn New Town in Liverpool overspill country: a reservation for dispossessed Scousers.

It is 12.30 on Friday lunchtime and a succession of grey-faced shoppers head towards the bar, lugging Kwik Save carrier bags. They are ignored by the young men who lounge around the seating bay closest to the pool table. Only the arrival of Susan Thompson causes a stir.

Susan is a local celebrity. As Britain's only female pool pro, she gives exhibitions in pubs and clubs all over the country. She has secured immortality in the Guinness Book of Records for clearing a table faster than any woman on earth.

In January she broke her own record again. It now stands at 42.28 seconds. Four witnesses, including an official timekeeper, looked on at a pub in the Shetland Islands. "You have to run round the table to keep warm up there," she says.

The accent is pure Liverpool. She was born there 25 years ago. Some years before that, her grandfather had been a class act in the city's murky snooker halls. "I know he looks down on me when I'm playing. I like to think I inherited the gift from him."

But a gift for potting balls, God or Grandad-given, is not enough. Susan found that the more she practised, the luckier she became. Pool became an obsession from the moment a friend invited her into her father's pub for a game when she was just 14.

The following year she acquired a table of her own. Between the ages of 15 and 19, she played pool 12 hours a day. School and social life went by the board. "For four years I hardly stepped out of the door," she recalls.

The table still dominates the living room of the compact council house she shares with her mother, father and brother, all of whom are unemployed. "It's like a piece of furniture we've got used to," says Jean Thompson, Susan's mother. "As long as I've got a chair with a clear view of the telly, I don't mind."

In truth, she is immensely proud of her daughter's achievements on the green baize. She spends hours polishing more than 200 trophies which line every available surface.

"That's my favourite," says Susan, gesturing towards a sizeable piece of silverware that makes the FA Cup seem modest by comparison. "The Vauxhall Pro-Am at Great Yarmouth: I had to beat 900 men to win that when I was still an amateur."

Pool remains a macho game. Susan Thompson's name was one of 23 put forward to the Professional Pool Players' Association three years ago. Only 22 were accepted. All men.

"They said I wasn't good enough,'' she says, ``but I had a better record than 19 of them."

The resulting court case made her briefly a cause clbre. And she won. "All I wanted was my rights. I've always known what I wanted to be. I never took my exams and my teachers said I'd regret it. But I think I've proved them wrong."

Well, yes and no. To make a living out of playing pool is not easy on this side of the Atlantic. Travel and accommodation expenses take substantial bites out of tournament winnings, and exhibitions are not well paid. Susan's sponsor, a Runcorn garage, recently went bankrupt and she desperately needs another.

Money may be in short supply, but what she does have is local status. As Susan walks in to the Straw Hat, cue case under her arm, a young regular called Alan leaps to his feet and staggers back in mock horror.

"No way," he says with a grin. "We're going to get beat, lads."

And get beat they do, one after the other. These are the cream of Runcorn's pool players. "They do nothing else all day," says Rollo, 28, who describes himself as a part-time scaffolder and tarmac-layer. "I've been losing to her for nearly ten years. If any other bird beat you, you'd get loads from your mates..."

While Rollo resumes rolling very long cigarettes, his mate Phil is playing shots of cunning subtlety that seem slightly at odds with his powerful, tattooed forearms. Not subtle enough, alas, to snooker Susan. She pots the black and Phil throws a burly arm round her shoulder. "You're the bollocks, you are," he says. It is a compliment.

After an hour, something unusual happens. Susan makes a slip and pots the white after the black. Alan has won a game. He celebrates as though he has just scored in front of the Anfield Kop. Even the grey-faced shoppers applaud. The landlord produces a betting slip and asks for his autograph.

Susan smiles as she slides her cue back in its case. Every now and then she allows the lads a look in.

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