By Matt Hawkins
Mr. Green’s head appeared in the doorway of the Pro Shop. “Bring a cart around, Quint. The gentleman is waiting.”
“Yes Mr. Green.”
Quint crushed his cigarette in the ashtray, tucked half of his shirt into his pants, and mounted the steps. By the time he got to the top he was sweating.
“Yes Mr. Green,” Quint said again. It seemed to be required.
Mr. Green tossed the keys at Quint’s chest, but he fumbled and dropped them. He bent to pick them up. For a moment he felt himself teeter on the edge of the steps, and his heart rate seemed to double, then he lurched forward and both hands hit the concrete. One of them closed over the keys. When he stood up straight again he was puffing. Mr. Green smiled like a concertina and his head retracted from the doorway.
In exchange for working at the Pro Shop on weekends Quint was allowed to play free games at Royal Durham after school. He was an unremarkable golfer. He never got any better, but he never got any worse either. Quint was consistent. But he liked golf. It was, after all, one of the few sports fat people could play without looking ridiculous.
Quint brought a cart around to the old man at the first tee. The girl playing with him was about Quint’s age. His granddaughter, probably. She looked obscenely healthy, in the way only rich girls and racehorses can. Her skin glowed. Her hair shone. She was achingly pretty. She looked at Quint as if he were a golf cart. The old man’s eyes lingered. Quint wondered if it was the way his shirt cling to his chest: the biggest uniform Royal Durham had been able to supply still fit him like a wetsuit. He wondered if there was anything in the world worse than being sixteen years old and roughly the size and weight of a side-by-side refrigerator.
Quint lumbered back to the Pro Shop. A regiment of hire buggies stood here in a line. Two of them required fixing. Quint liked fixing things. Besides, the buggies were out of sight of the Pro Shop window, and thus Mr. Green. He could sit here with a buggy between his enormous thighs and a shifting spanner in one hand and daydream. Today he daydreamed about the old man’s achingly pretty granddaughter. When he felt thoroughly miserable he shook his head like a dog that has been sprayed with a hose. Then he turned to watch the golfers teeing off.
The only thing the players at Royal Durham had in common was money. Lots of it. Quint’s family had never had money. He had been brought up to think of the wealthy as a kind of homogeneous mass; working at Royal Durham, however, had showed him that wealth seemed to bestow on the most improbable specimens.
Rich people were weird.
There was a gaunt man who was folded over the ball-washing machine, pumping the handle mechanically. His fingernails were bitten down to nubs. His golf clothes were so faded and worn that he might have been a homeless man. He never blinked. He watched the balls putter around inside the machine, his eyes glazed, perhaps studying the course layout in his mind, plotting his way around it, checking the wind speed against his moist lips.
A swaggering giant with circus-tent hair was walking bow-legged to the first tee. Logos fought for space on the side of his bag. Tigers, lions, apes stared from the heads of his drivers. He teed off with a musical tink and the ball disappeared up the middle of the fairway, flying forever. He grunted and spat, then put a hippopotamus over the head of the driver and thrust it back into the bag. Four pairs of plastic eyes jiggled.
A man stood motionless beneath a tree behind the practice green. It was hard to make him out in the shadows. At first Quint mistook his bag for a giant dog. Dogs aren’t allowed here, he thought, and then laughed at himself for thinking such a stupid thing. He could have sworn it had moved though. The man looked up suddenly, as if realising he was being watched; his eyes seemed very white in the darkness. Was that a smile stretching slowly across his face? It was hard to tell from so far away.
Quint’s heart leapt in his chest, and he heard his father’s words: “Your uncle died of heart failure at 35. At this rate you will too.” Due to his incredible obesity this uncle had attained a godlike status in the eyes of the younger, leaner Quint; later Uncle Evan had transformed into the spectre of death, to be called upon whenever Quint went back for seconds.
The office window was open above Quint’s head. Mr. Green’s head was craning out of it. Mr. Green had an exceptionally long neck.
“I need you in here. Stop clowning around.”
“I’m fixing a buggy.”
“Now.” Mr. Green’s head wound back inside and the window snapped closed.
Quint got up and walked towards the Pro Shop steps. The gravel crunching beneath his shoes seemed too loud. He felt huge: a blimp set free of its moorings. He didn’t dare look towards the practice green, but somehow he knew the man was watching him.
It seemed an age before he got inside. The air-conditioner purred above his head. His head swam after the glare outside.
“Yes Mr. Green?”
“This gentleman – Quint?”
“Yes Mr. Green?”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes Mr. Green.”
“This gentleman would like to be shown into the bar.”
One of the gentleman’s eyes was half-lidded, making him look sleepy. He seemed to impress Mr. Green though. In turn he impressed Quint: anyone who could impress Mr. Green was impressive.
Mr. Green was the great grandson of Lord Durham, who had opened the course in the 1920s. Quint imagined Mr. Green still saw himself as a lord of sorts. His mother had been a Durham until she married, and Mr. Green took pains to point out that he was related. Quint had never met Mrs. Durham-Green: she had vanished mysteriously twenty years ago while playing golf. Mr. Green never mentioned this event. Most of the older members believed she had run away from her husband. Having met Mr. Green the Elder on several occasions, Quint suspected the members were right.
“I’m feeling sick,” Quint said when he got back from showing the sleepy gentleman to the bar.
Mr. Green didn’t look up from the pyramid of golf ball packets he was building on the counter.
“Mind if I leave early?” Quint pressed.
“Of course I mind. Today is my golf day.”
“Can’t Tony caddy for you this time?”
“Tony’s needed here. You have certain tasks to fulfill Quint. What would happen around here if everyone went home claiming they were sick?”
“But I am…”
“What you are is treading a fine line. There are many boys who would jump at the opportunity you have been given. Please remember where you are.” He finished the pyramid and stepped back to examine it. He seemed to have forgotten Quint was there; the boy trundled out to the buggies again.
Quint looked up from the scorecard. Mr. Green pivoted towards the stranger, a seven iron laid across his neck. This was part of his stretching routine. There was nobody like Mr. Green for stretching. Quint had already been listening to Mr. Green grunt and puff for ten minutes, his bones creaking and cracking like an old bedframe. It revolted him. Listening to Mr. Green stretch was like overhearing your parents having sex.
“Do you mind if I make three?” said the stranger.
“Fine,” Mr. Green said. “It will be two though. The boy is my caddy.” His chin tilted up slightly as he said this.
The stranger looked at Quint and smiled. He had yellow teeth.
Quint hadn’t heard the man approach. One moment he wasn’t there, the next moment he was. It was the man Quint had seen earlier – the one whose bag he had mistaken for a giant dog. Clearly it wasn’t. But it was the oldest bag he had ever seen. There was no buggy: the bag stood up on two long wooden legs that folded out. The legs were blackened, as if charred. The bag itself looked to be made of very thin leather. A network of faint lines crisscrossed it, like the lines on a human hand. Skin he thought, and shivered. For a moment he could have sworn that the bag had swelled, ever so slightly bulging outward. As if it breathed.
“Finished the front nine?” Mr. Green said as he reached down to touch his toes.
“No. I prefer the back.”
“More of a challenge, eh?”
“Quieter,” said the stranger.
This was true today at least. Nobody was on the back nine at all. Quint had checked the book before they left and it was empty. This was unusual, but the back nine was less popular than the front, and it was blisteringly hot today. Maybe some groups would come through after them from the front nine, maybe not. Quint liked when the course was empty because it meant he would have a fast round: when he had to wait to tee off his weight seemed to catch up to him. It made setting off again difficult. At school he had learned that this thing was called Inertia. The greater the mass of an object the more Inertia it had. Quint liked this concept: the idea that once he got rolling he would be unstoppable.
Mr. Green straightened out with a grunt. He wiggled his fingers like a fat man does when a pudding is set before him. This, Quint knew, was the final stage of Mr. Green’s Stretching Procedure. Finger-stretches were vital.
“That accent,” he said as he pulled a glove on over one hand. “Spanish? No – Italian?” Mr. Green loved picking accents.
“Romani,” said the stranger, rolling the r.
A pause. “Romanian?”
The stranger shrugged. Close enough, the shrug said. He was dressed in an absurdly antiquated fashion. Even by Royal Durham standards he looked odd. Mud-stained tartan socks that reached almost to his knees held puffy pantaloons in place, and a filthy handkerchief poked from the pocket of his tattered coat. His sideburns were preposterously bushy. By contrast his hair had been combed back over the scalp, clinging to it as if it had been glued there.
Romani, Quint thought. A gypsy. He was not sure if he had ever met a gypsy, but he had read about them. Reading was one of those things fat people could do as well as anyone else.
“Mind if I tee off first?” Mr. Green said.
“As you wish.”
When Mr. Green had walked away the gypsy turned to Quint. “Could you score for me?”
“Okay,” Quint heard himself say. He looked quickly back down at the scorecard. “What should I write for – ”
“D. Smith. Thank you.”
Quint wrote the names on the scorecard and clipped it to the handle of Mr. Green’s buggy. He felt as if Smith was watching him closely, but when he looked up Smith had turned away to watch Mr. Green at the tee.
Mr. Green’s tee-off preparations were legendary. He would first walk back and forth across the tee like a dog looking for a place to urinate, then, deciding on a spot, would place the ball on the turf. He would step back, crouch down with both hands around the haft of his club, sight up the fairway with one eye closed, lick his lips, stand up, perform two or three preparatory stretches, walk up to the ball, wiggle his feet in the turf, take a couple of practice swings, step forward, put the club head behind the ball, wiggle his feet again, look up the fairway, look back down at the ball, wiggle his feet, lick his lips, and adjust his grip. This would be followed by an interminable period of complete motionlessness. Finally he would swipe at the ball, which would, four times out of five, curve gracefully off into the trees.
Not this time.
The ball rode elegantly with the wind, climbing at such a high arc that it landed vertically, like rain. Mr. Green was not a good golfer. Even Quint could beat Mr. Green on a good day. But this shot was good: the ball bounced once, then came to rest beside the pin. Mr. Green whooped and punched the air. Smith clapped slowly from the background. It was a dry sound, like the croaking of a raven in a dead tree.
Smith slid a club from his golf bag. It had a rusty head and a wooden haft smooth and dark with years. The grip had come unravelled at the bottom. He went to the tee and set a cracked yellow ball on the turf.
“Yes Mr. Green?”
“Clean my seven iron. I picked up a divot.”
“Yes Mr. Green.”
Smith didn’t take practice swings. He looked once up the fairway, then back down at the ball, then suddenly chopped at it with a strange, crouching action. It disappeared into the air. When it reappeared it was on the green, rolling to a stop near Mr. Green’s ball. Smith did not whoop or punch the air: he just smiled knowingly at Quint.
Mr. Green had already set off down the fairway.
That day, Mr. Green had the game of his life.
“I’m having the game of my life Quint. I wonder what it is?”
“I don’t know.”
“That fellow’s having a good round as well though,” Mr. Green said, pointing at the dark figure on the fairway up ahead.
The light was failing by the time they reached the eighteenth. Mr. Green had shot a par and seven birdies. He was ecstatic.
“Seven under!” he said. “I don’t think anyone has ever scored seven under here. Although he is also seven under.”
“Do you always play this well?” Smith said. Quint hadn’t heard him walk up behind them.
“Oh,” said Mr. Green. “Sometimes.”
“Well no.” Mr. Green said, with a snorting kind of laugh.
Smith’s eyes glinted. In the wood behind them a bird sang one long and lonely note, and something large crashed through the undergrowth. “You truly are having the game of your life,” he said softly.
Quint followed Mr. Green up to the eighteenth tee. He stood there, screwing his shirt up in his hands, as Mr. Green placed his ball. Mr. Green acted as if he wasn’t there. Finally, Quint stepped between Mr. Green and the ball.
“What? What is it?”
“I was thinking. Maybe you should, uh…”
“Maybe I should what?”
“Concede. I think you should concede.” Quint glanced back at Smith. Could he hear them?
“What are you talking about?” Then Mr. Green broke into a smile. “Oh. You’re joking.”
Quint shook his head.
Mr. Green laughed. “Quint. You have a screw loose. I’ve always suspected it, but now I know.”
Quint slunk back to the buggy, and Mr. Green commenced his launch preparations. Quint took the scorecard out and added up the numbers again. His math was fine.
The eighteenth was a three hundred and fifty metre par four. The green lay out of sight over the crest of a long hill: the only thing visible was the flag, a speck of fluoro orange in the deepening twilight.
Mr. Green took two practice swings. A bird chirruped in the undergrowth and he waited for it to stop. Finally, he hit the ball. It rocketed, climbing progressively, as if it were mounting steps, and vanished into the dusk. It reappeared almost two hundred and fifty metres up the hill, on the left hand side of the fairway, about a metre in from the rough.
Mr. Green pumped a fist in the air.
Slow, dry clapping from nearby.
Smith approached the tee, a knotty antique driver tucked under his elbow. There was absolute silence, as if every bird and insect had suddenly dropped dead. He swung in his strangely crouched, crablike way. The club head connected with the ball with a sound like the crack of a rifle. The shot went high, higher than Mr. Green’s had, but landed short of the other ball. Smith returned to his buggy and toted it up the fairway; he seemed hungry to finish the game. Mr. Green strutted along a short way behind. Quint came last.
Smith’s second shot was low and straight. It bounced on the crest of the hill then rolled out of sight. The eighteenth had a large green: Quint knew the ball would be on it.
“Hmmph,” said Mr. Green.
As soon as Mr. Green struck the ball Quint knew the shot had gone wide. Mr. Green swore. The ball hit the crest of the hill, but got a lucky bounce and wobbled back towards the pin, before rolling out of sight. Mr. Green laughed out loud.
Quint thought he heard a soft chuckle from behind them.
Finally they reached the top of the hill. There was only one ball on the green, lying a foot from the pin. Quint went over and crouched down beside it. It was cracked and yellow. He looked up and saw Smith watching him from the apron, his golf bag propped up like a dog beside him.
Mr. Green, meanwhile, was scouting around the back of the green. He didn’t seem to be having much luck finding his ball. Then, suddenly, his face changed. He strode to the pin and pulled it out. A golf ball came out with it. His.
“An eagle!” Mr. Green cried. “A bloody eagle! I don’t bloody believe it!”
He held the ball up to the remaining light, looking at it with wonder. Finally, he strode over to Smith and held out his hand.
“You have beaten me,” Smith said, smiling. “Congratulations.”
That was when his golf bag ate Mr. Green.
Quint was never quite sure what he saw that day. It had happened so fast. Clubs had spewed out of the bag like tentacles, and he had heard Mr. Green scream as they tightened around his arms, legs, neck. Then the bag’s mouth had opened wide and he was dragged in.
A moment later Mr. Green was gone.
Quint had watched as the bag folded in upon itself – now the size of a cushion, now a book, now a postage stamp. Smith had reached down, plucked it from the ground, and put it in his coat.
Then he had turned to Quint, smiled, and vanished.
Mr. Green’s disappearance was reported two days later. The police interviewed Quint. He told them that he last saw Mr. Green walking to his car after finishing his round. He never mentioned Smith. Nobody else had been on the back nine that day. He had overheard the policemen laughing as they walked back to their van. “Did you see the size of that lad? Probably ate him.”
Quint quit Royal Durham a week later. He took some records from the old trophy room with him. He figured nobody would miss them. There was a newspaper article detailing a club championship held in 1935, which had been decided in a playoff between Royal Durham’s owner, Lord Angus Durham, and a heretofore unknown player by the name of Daniel Smith, both of whom had played brilliantly. Smith had taught himself how to play golf in a field behind the caravan where he lived with his family. At his wife’s behest he had gambled their savings on the entry fee for the championship in the hope that he would win the first prize of a thousand pounds. The playoff ended in a draw, however the judges disqualified Smith on a technicality.
Quint also relieved the trophy room of a photo of Durham and Smith. It had been taken just before the start of the playoff. They were standing in front of the clubhouse, shaking hands.
After leaving Royal Durham, Quint became a regular feature at the local public library and town hall. He joined the local historical society. He frequented online genealogy forums. When his parents asked him about it he would just shrug. This was enough to head them off, usually. Parents only ever wanted to know whether you were taking drugs or having sex (Quint’s only needed to convince them that he wasn’t taking drugs). In any case, after a month his obsession seemed to go away.
He discovered that Lord Durham had been in serious financial trouble leading up to the championship of 1935. Indeed, it was believed this had been his inspiration for holding it. He had made both the entry fee and prize money abnormally high, then stacked the judging panel with friends and associates. It had worked. He was eventually able to pay off his debts and retain ownership of the course, but had died of a heart attack in 1941 while playing the back nine.
Daniel Smith was harder to track down. He had been arrested for poaching shortly after the championship; his excuse was that his family was starving. He and his family had quietly left England while he was out on bail. Quint traced them to Czechoslovakia, where their names were recorded in registers, which were later used by the Nazis to round up the Romani and send them to concentration camps. Quint suspected Smith and his family had perished in such a camp, for he could find no record of them after 1939.