A seasonal short story ... DEEP FREEZE

Mystery at the rugby club Mario was probably in the cellar changing the barrels. Only Angell knew differently.
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SNOW began to swirl in the air just as the light faded on Tuesday evening. Although it seemed almost too feathery to touch ground, by seven o'clock it was smothering the two rugby fields, car park, clubhouse and steward's bungalow - the small worl d of Marcher RFC.

"Sod this," said Mal Jenkins, viewing it from the clubhouse verandah. The others seemed to agree.

"We could do a bit of circuit training," said young Sawyer, the Marchers' scrum-half.

Jenkins turned round slowly and glared into his eyes. "Sod that," he said, and in the absence of Charlie Abbott, their captain - who worked for the council and must have been out gritting - Jenkins appeared once more to have spoken for the tongue-tied majority. Len Angell, 1st XV coach, summed up: "Right, lads, no training tonight, then. We'll make up for it on Thursday."

"Sod you," said Jenkins, though not loud enough for Angell to hear. He brushed belligerently past young Sawyer and went into the clubhouse. The rest of the snow-gazers did the same.

Frankly, it didn't matter in the least whether the Marchers trained that week. Sunday was Christmas Day, and they always took a break over the holiday. Their next fixture, a hostile one against Ludlow Agri College, was not until New Year's Eve.

Franker still, it wouldn't make that much difference if they never trained again. Even Angell admitted that these evening sessions often did more harm than good. What little he managed to teach them on the field was wiped from their minds by the next twohours' drinking. He'd probably get better results if he spent five minutes before each match explaining the rules of the game.

Marcher was no centre of excellence. Just a well-off village team curled up like a contented grub in the grass roots of the Courage League. To be specific, they were lying sixth in Mercia League Three, the bottom table in that Midlands sub-division whichrubbed up against the Welsh border. There were worse places to be. Mercia Three could muster only nine clubs, instead of the usual dozen, so none of them was threatened with relegation.

In the Marchers' case, the odds on promotion were just as long. At the pre-season get together, Matt Powell, their president, would remind them that a ladder of opportunity stretched right up from Mercia League Three to National League One. "It's up to you whether you climb it, but one thing you can rely on, the committee will back you all the way." The other thing they could rely on was that by the annual dinner-dance in March, the only thing being promoted would be the Easter car-boot sale.

Here, the committee were on surer ground. They certainly knew how to run a business. Skilfully each May they turned Marcher RFC into Marcher Cricket Club, and what had been the clubhouse all winter became the pavilion. So the bar stayed open to playing and non- playing members throughout the year, doing very nicely by selling its bitter some 20p cheaper than it was at either the Shropshire Lad or the Crossed Foxes.

It was this bitter that the lads, thirsty after their inactivity, were now being denied. "Where's that idle sod, Mario?" Jenkins demanded of no one in particular.

Only Angell chose to point out the obvious: "He opens up at the beginning of the week, doesn't he?"

"How do I know? We're always out on the pitch then."

Angell didn't bother to reply, just nodded towards a notice pinned on the bar shutters and headed: "Opening Hours". Jenkins, who had read it anyway, said, "Bloody ridiculous."

You wouldn't have liked Jenkins. Nobody did. Not his parents, and especially not his ex-wife. He was a malicious bully, a small, muscular redhead who began his assault on other people's tolerance by always wearing red truck-driver's overalls. They clashed with his hair, and with the club's saloon bar pretensions. He must have had at least two outfits because Saturday's was always cleaner than Friday's. The other players called them his glad rags, though not to his face.

Angell was the only man who stood up to him, or appreciated how much the Marchers owed him. Jenkins, a hooker who had learned his business in South Wales, was their one class act. God knows what he got up to in the front row, but it worked and refs couldrarely pin anything on him. He was a desperate little runner in the loose. And his throwing into the line-out was one double-top after another. Pity about the man, thought Angell, but what a player to find in a club like Marcher.

It was the man who was now sounding off. Why did the Marchers need a paid steward? And an Eye-tie at that? Why didn't the players run the place themselves like they used to? It was only to suck up to all these amateur drinkers from the village. "Next thing somebody's going to say, let's get rid of the sodding rugby team, they only bring the mud in, and turn it into a wine bar." This was one of the pet themes of Jenkins, and always worked him into a fury.

The other players avoided his eye and thought again about waiting for the bar to open. Nobody else had turned up, and young Sawyer went to look out of the door. "It's really coming down now," he called back. "I think I'll be off before the cars get snowed in. See you Thursday!"

"Hey, Boy Wonder, you watch you don't scratch Daddy's Rover," Jenkins called after him in his posh voice.

Mouthing the word "Foxes" to each other so that Jenkins wouldn't hear, the rest drifted off in twos and threes, and Angell, not to be caught, went to the changing rooms to turn off the lights. First he checked the window catches, flushed the lavatories, screwed tight a dripping tap, and while doing these chores heard Mario Perini let himself in through the back door. There was the sound of bar shutters being unbolted, then a short, surly exchange of words.

Angell wondered whether he ought to go out through the bar and offer Jenkins a lift. Not so much for his sake as for Mario's. But he immediately convinced himself that once Jenkins had exercised his God-given right to a cheap pint at the club, he would wander off to cause an upset in one of the pubs.

Letting himself out the back way, Angell realised his mistake when his leg sunk to the knee in drifting snow. But too late now. He struggled on and once he reached his car found that he could drive down the lane to Wenlock Road in the tracks the others had left: the page following in Good King Wenceslas's footprints. He felt some guilt that he hadn't shown the same seasonal goodwill to Mario, or even Jenkins. But it didn't last. Although a track had been cleared down the main roads, the side streets andcountry lanes were silted up, and he had to give the whole of his mind to the driving.

More snow fell overnight, too, followed by a deep freeze. Only half the kids turned up next morning to see the term out at Angell's school. And it was only when he shut - well, slammed - the door on the last of them, and went back to the staff room to see if any coffee was left, that he remembered Mario. He supposed he'd better phone him.

There was no reply from the clubhouse, but when he rang the steward's bungalow Mario eventually answered, "Yes?" in his usual flat style. Mario may have been born above a coffee house in Hanley, but what had become of Italian warmth and animation?

"Mario, it's Len. Sorry to lumber you with Mal, last night."

"Mal?" said Mario.

"Mal Jenkins. I was tidying up the changing rooms when you opened the bar last night. I'd left Mal in there."

"In the changing rooms?"

"No, in the bar. I should have come back and taken him off your hands. He was in one of his cantankerous moods. Hope he didn't give you any trouble."

"Sorry, Len. Don't know what you're saying. Jenkins wasn't there. Nobody was there. Didn't see a soul all evening. Didn't even see you."

"No, well, I let myself out the back way. Mind you, I could have sworn I heard the two of you talking, though."

"Probably singing to keep my spirits up. You know what us wops are like. By the way, you won't be able to train tomorrow, so I don't expect to see any of you buggers before Boxing Day. I'm putting up the Closed sign. Mr Powell's idea. President says we wouldn't do enough trade to pay the electricity bill. I'm not arguing. So ciao, as we say, until Monday."

Morning drinks on Boxing Day was a sacred rite at the Marchers. For a few days leading up to Christmas, the club sensibly conceded first call on their players' services to wives and girlfriends. But on the morning after, they cracked the whip. Players, officials and regular supporters were expected to fall in soon after 11 o'clock and not fall out until the bar closed at two. It had become the custom too, on pain of paying £5 into the 1st XV drinks kitty, to wear at least one Christmas present.

Wrinklies might get away with boring items like driving gloves and Fair Isle jumpers, but players were expected to liven up the morning with long johns, dressing gowns and underpants with saucy messages. Some of the girlfriends and groupies could also becounted on to go too far, and things often got a bit over-heated in the final hour.

By Monday it hadn't snowed any more, but neither had it thawed. Everything remained covered in a white, unshrinking crust, and as president, Powell thought he had better call Mario and make sure he'd cleared the car park. But Mario didn't answer at either clubhouse or bungalow. He was probably still out there with the groundsman's tractor.

Three-quarters of an hour later, when Powell still couldn't reach Mario, he shouted out to Joan to expect him about three and made for the front door. He was half-way to the club when he remembered that he had meant to give that hideous new tie from Joan's sister its first and last airing. Well, never mind. Have to pay the penalty instead.

At first sight the Marchers' club looked just like Scott's last camp. The snow on the car park lay where it had fallen, and there was no sign of Mario's car. The clubhouse was in darkness. The place must have been deserted for days, for kids had been in and built a large snowman in the corner of the main rugby field. Mario would never have allowed that.

Powell had his own keys to the clubhouse, and once inside was relieved to find that although it was chilly and dim, everything was in good order. There were no dirty glasses around and the ashtrays had been wiped.

Powell unlocked the bar, took down the shutters and turned on the mains. Lights appeared everywhere, the Christmas tree began sparkling and in the distance he heard a comforting little explosion as the central heating fired. A quick tour of the other rooms showed no sign of disturbance, but, returning to the bar, Powell, as an afterthought, picked out another key from his ring and opened the safe. In it was a blue canvas bag containing coppers and silver, which he knew to be the bar float. It felt heavyenough. Then he checked the paying-in book and saw that Mario had banked more than a thousand pounds on Monday. That was the weekend's takings safe. Powell picked up the bar phone and started dialling.

"Len? It's Matt. I'm at the club. Could you get down here straight away? Mario's not here...No idea. Either done a runner or he's marooned somewhere in the snow. No, nothing seems to be missing. Of course I thought of the bungalow, but I haven't had timeyet. All right, but chop-chop, eh?" He pressed down the cradle, then rang the next committee man.

By the time the first customers arrived around eleven, noisily kicking the snow off their boots and grumbling cheerfully about the state of the car park - "Tell that Mario to get the heavy roller out" - they saw nothing amiss. Senior members generally helped behind the bar on holidays and Saturdays, and Mario was probably in the cellar changing the barrels. Only Angell, who had let himself into the bungalow with the spare keys, knew differently. Mario had done a bunk. By the amount of food left in the fridge he hadn't planned to in advance, but by the number of empty coathangers chucked on the bed, he wasn't meaning to come back.

"Should I let the police know?" Angell asked Powell after he'd reported back.

"Can't see why we should," said Powell. "There doesn't seem to be anything missing. All Mario's done is left us in the lurch. That's our look-out. But I think Pringle's dropping in. I'll have a word in his ear just to cover ourselves. You never know."

Pringle was a police inspector and occasional referee. "Now, do you think you could root around in the store room and find some more Babychams and Snowballs? Young Sawyer's fan club has arrived."

So Mario's absence passed largely unnoticed; anyone who asked after him was told he was visiting his family. He had a quiet, sardonic sense of humour when you got to know him, but he couldn't add much to this sort of occasion. Not like Jenkins, who mightbe a thoroughly unpleasant man, but provided scandal, excitement, danger - something to remember the party by. By mid-day Jenkins had still not shown up. "Perhaps Santa forgot to bring him some more red overalls," said Sawyer to his giggling harem.

That had been a mistake. Sawyer hoped the remark wouldn't ever reach Jenkins, who had been getting at him for the past few weeks. It had started when Jenkins accused him of putting the ball in the scrum as if he was feeding ducks: "One for you, and one for you. If you're going to feed the second row, feed ours." Even the ref had sniggered.

Sawyer wondered if he was due for the kind of demolition job that Jenkins had done on Mario at the tail-end of last year's Boxing Day session. Do you have a girlfriend, Mario? Do you like girls? What kind of girls? Perhaps you prefer boys? The questioning went on and on until Mario, whose wife had been killed in a car accident three months before he took the Marcher job, put up the bar shutters around him.

This year fewer members had gathered, and more slowly, which was entirely understandable; but by one o'clock there must have been two hundred in the bar. Still no Jenkins, though. Thank God, thought Sawyer, who was reaching the maudlin stage, and wanted all the fine chaps and pretty girls around him to be his friends.

The sound of breaking glass followed by a cheer alerted Powell to the changing mood. "I'm not going to let this run on too long, Len. We haven't got Mario to straighten up afterwards. And I promised Joan... get a bit of hush, would you."

Angell interpreted this by rapping an empty bottle with a knife, and Powell's voice rose and faded in the din. "Only keep you a moment. Thank you... efforts in getting here... reindeers and huskies... jingle bells and all that... happy tradition and all that... enjoy the rest of Christmas... remainder of season... today's inclement conditions... so last orders half-past one." There were boos for that, but soon afterwards some of the older members began wrapping up and moving towards the door.

"No need for you to hang on either, Matt," said Angell. "There's four or five offered to help clear up. And I can see the stragglers out."

"You'll remember to check the Ladies toilets?" How could anyone forget after the time Mario locked up leaving Jilly Thomas still clinging to the pedestal? "And I don't think young Sawyer should drive home."

"I've seen to that already. Masterson's in the same state. They can leave their cars here. Frank Mason's going to taxi them. Now stop worrying, Matt. It's all under control."

"Well, I do feel a bit upset. About Mario, I mean. Seemed happy enough when I talked to him last Sunday."

"When you told him to shut down the club?" Powell looked puzzled and Angell went on. "Because of the snow. You said it was a waste of electricity."

"Good lord, no, wouldn't ever have said that. Got to keep the club open at all costs." Powell sensed that he and Len were at cross purposes, but felt he'd given the matter quite enough attention for the moment. "Have to call an emergency meeting Wednesday, start looking for a replacement. All right, Len, if you're sure you can cope, I'll be off."

Sawyer's group was the last to accept that the party was really over. In woollen nightshirts and night caps, spinning bow ties and, in Sawyer's case, a white silk tie and grey fedora, they made their way uncertainly through the mushy snow to the car park. Angell followed at a tactful distance to make sure that each got a dependable escort.

Apparently watching the ragged procession was the snowman, now much embellished with unwanted presents by earlier party leavers. It wore a woolly cap, knitted scarf and, in its crooked smile, a half-smoked cigar. Two Christmas tree baubles were stuck in its eye sockets.

"Hey, Sawyer," called Masterson. "Bet you can't take out that snowman coming round the blind-side."

Sawyer looked up and brought the figure into focus. "Where d'you think you're going, Whitey?" he said, picking up enough speed, even in his uncoordinated state, to launch himself at the figure's midriff. There was a thud and a cry of pain from Sawyer. Helay on the ground holding his shoulder, his fedora like a collecting hat beside him, his friends crouching around him in a tableau of sympathy.

Only Angell, following up to check whether the young idiot had broken his collar-bone, noticed that the snowman had also been a casualty. A patch of snow had slid from its chest to disclose a section of grubby red cloth beneath. Forgetting Sawyer, he snatched the cigar from the snowman's mouth. Another lump of snow came away with it, and what Angell saw made him brush away furiously until he found himself staring into Jenkins's grey, waxy face.

Last Tuesday night when he left the club, it had been the combative Welsh hooker, not the reserved Italian barman, who had needed his protection.

Geoffrey Nicholson 1994