So, in the middle of one of the coldest winters for years, I find myself heading towards the festive entrance of the Morton Park driving range. I carry my clubs clumsily through the reception area, knocking over a sickly looking spider plant on the way. I look behind me, and at the fringes of the massive bag I'm carrying, I can see a figure kindly dealing with the aftermath. I cry out 'Sorry' and carry on, I can't stop now.
I pay five pounds for sixty balls, plenty for a novice in my view. The woman behind the counter looks at me as if I'm mad. I don't know why, I'm not her only customer tonight, for as I exit the double doors (the only protection from the icy blast) I see at the far end there is a man, about the same age as me, driving balls with rhythmic precision into a net positioned in the centre of the range. Under the floodlights I can see an array of targets to aim for and markers that display, for me, unobtainable distances. At this point I decide I will be happy just to hit the ball. The frost is still on the ground from the morning and it's so cold I'm wearing a scarf, my new scarf, a Christmas present from Aunt Lucy.
The clubs were a surprise present from Maggie (and she is the one that goes on about money all the time). The gift was certainly different from the usual socks and CDs. However, after I had unwrapped the gigantic parcel, which I did with the salivating enthusiasm of a toddler, I found myself craving those, more modest, things this year.
I had made the mistake of mentioning that I might give golf a try. This was after staying up to the early hours one morning watching a cliff-hanger of a playoff in the Masters. Maggie has this notion see, that I'm now at the age where my fill in job should become my career - that I have to network a bit, talk and make the right noises to the right people. When she first said this I had no immediate enthusiasm for it at all but I made the right noises (to Maggie). All the men at the office play golf, especially Nigel. She has targeted Nigel as the route to my success.
If I'm totally honest I think she is probably right about sticking at one job. And she is probably right about Nigel and the golf but it's just not in my nature to brown nose anyone. I suppose if her plan is successful over the coming months, I will just have to pretend it was my idea all along.
The first few attempted swings only result in pain in my lower back and shoulder, the ball remains firmly rooted to the top of the tee. It stares back at me laughing with its acne pitted face. To make it worse in the background I hear the continued rhythmic swish of my sole companion's club followed by the satisfying clunk of metal on ball. On the fourth attempt contact is made, the ball travelling at least ten feet from the tee. I swing back again, this time with renewed confidence but as I wind up for "the big one" I see a figure in the corner of my eye. I look out into the dark night; it appears to be a child carrying a bucket. As he approaches I can see the bucket is full of golf balls he has gathered up in between strokes. Why would he take the risk of being hit, I ask myself?
'Hello mister, do you want these for a pound?'
'Aren't you cold?' I ask him. He is wearing a thin sweatshirt with a well worn demn jacket hanging loosely from his shoulders. His curly hair invades his eyes as he looks up at me.
'Yeah I'm fine thanks mister, all the collectin’ keeps me warm.' He says, edging the bucket closer and closer to me. 'Your first time is it?'
'How can you tell?' It is a rhetorical question.
'It's just yer grips all wrong see, I'll show you if you like.' He places the bucket of balls on the ground, takes the club from me, shows me a "proper" grip and delivers the ball straight into the net below the two hundred metre marker. His face remains expressionless; he is not fazed by his success in any way. He calmly hands the club back to me. I see the man at the far end look over at us. He places another ball on his tee, shakes his head and smiles to himself. I think I hear a restrained chuckle coming from his direction as I place a pound coin in the boy's outstretched hand.
The week before Christmas I had offered Nigel a lift back from the office party. He only lives round the corner and I was still on antibiotics from a chest infection and so couldn't really drink. Maggie was thrilled, going on about the brownie points that I would earn in the process. 'Why don't you invite him and his wife for dinner?' She had said. I wasn't keen on the idea to be honest, I found him a bit brash and a bit of a bully, he was always ready for the witty put down. I remember him staggering into the passenger seat, in the car park at the back of the office buildings. He seemed almost vulnerable that night with his body slumped against the seat and his eyes looking as if they were fighting against the alcohol he had consumed at the party. As soon as he was comfortable he reached into his jacket pocket and took out a silver hip flask and swigged it enthusiastically. I remember thinking, wherever he was, sober or drunk, he always had nicely polished shoes.
The guys at work paid him lip service but kept their distance. He spent most of his time in his office at the far end entertaining the "high worth” clients. He always dressed with a sharp suit and silk shirt and tie, with cufflinks and plenty of aftershave. He had a swagger about him that said, "l am successful and don't you forget it." He would be all handshakes and smiles when the clients came in and as soon as they had left, more often than not, he would say something derogatory about them to me or the others. And this was the man Maggie wanted me to invite for a dinner party in the New Year. 'Why don't you ask him when you give him a lift tonight?' She had said. 'I'd quite like to try something with scallops. '
I feared it could be a long journey home with my thoughts having to be edited and filtered before they left my mouth. As we drove through the city that was impressively lit for the season, passed trees decorated in simple blue and silver, he would now and again boom out a comment. At the end of each remark I could see out of the corner of my eye him looking over to me for a reaction, it felt a bit like another job interview. At the roundabout by the cinema he took another generous swig from his flask. I could sense his body tense, ready to boom out again.
'So young man.' He shuffled in his seat. 'Tell me what do you do outside of work?'
'What do I do outside of work?'
'For fun I mean?'
'For fun, there's not a lot of time. Well I play the guitar.'
'The guitar. Are you any good?' That made me think for a while, was I any good? I had nothing to show for it after all.
'Well I used to be in a band, we did the pub circuit for a while to earn a bit of money. It's more of a hobby now really, it relaxes me I suppose. '
'Relaxes you? Do you know what I do for relaxation? Golf. Keeps you fit, gets you out in the open air. You should try it you know, instead of being cooped up inside playing guitar.’
'It's funny you should say that, I have been thinking about giving it a go. I know a couple of guys in the office play. ' I wondered why I said that, as the plan was to practice so that I became so good that everyone thought I had been playing for years.
'They think they can play, but I wipe the floor with them every time.' He smiled and looked out of the window. 'Next time we go for a round you're coming with us.'
There was an accident the night I gave Nigel a lift home; a victim of the icy roads. There was an ambulance and two police cars at the scene, their strobe lights blending with the seasonal display. The police had closed the road off and set a diversion; the interest from rubberneckers had helped to create a jam. The driver, wrapped tightly in a red blanket, was being carried into the back of the ambulance complete with oxygen mask.
'Look at them staring.’ Nigel Said. ‘The Romans had it right. This is the entertainment people want. Forget your mass produced turkey dinner and a disco to follow. Blood and guts, that's what they really want. ' Part of me thought he had a valid point.
Past the diversion I drove for another fifteen minutes with the low droning of his snoring blending in with the carols on the radio. With the last chorus of "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful" failing to rouse him and knowing that we weren't far from his house I decided to wake him up.
'How comes, your wife couldn't make it tonight?' It was my time to boom out. He woke up with a start. His head came up slightly from the back of the seat.
'She says she's got flu, that's she's not able to make it.' His words came slower now, more slurred.
'She says she's got flu, don't you believe her then?'
I knew that when I got home Maggie would ask me if I had invited him and if I hadn't she would be disappointed. I remember her going on about how we would have to tidy up the house before we had any guests round and how wasn't it a shame the dining room wasn't any bigger and how we might have to buy some more chairs because the ones at the moment looked so shabby. Oh, and did I think that everyone liked their lamb pink in the middle or did it put some people off? She wouldn't give me a hard time if I didn't invite him, it would just be the disappointed look again.
We turned another corner and passed a sign for the Melwood Hotel and Restaurant lit up with a multi-coloured Christmas tree on the porch. I liked the different colours because it reminded me of Christmas trees when I was a child, where everything was thrown on, tinsel and baubles and chocolates hung with string; much better than the modern minimalist style.
'That's the Hotel...that's...that's where he used to take her. Still does, I bet.' This time he didn 't look for my reaction, he just stared straight ahead.
'Sorry, who are we talking about?'
'My wife.. that's where he used to take her. Took her for a meal and then upstairs...'
I wasn't sure what to say in that situation, it felt like someone had died. I'm not sure why he had confessed this to me, I suppose it was the drink talking again, but at that moment I saw him in a completely different light; it was if all his brashness and authority had been stripped away.
Eventually after driving through the maze of country lanes we came to his drive. The long curved gravel track led to an impressive mock Tudor style house. Outside was the Mercedes we knew so well from the office car park and next to that a sporty small car. As he stumbled out of the passenger seat I noticed that there was a light on in the window upstairs.
Following his confession I wondered if his wife was entertaining up there. Maybe they had fallen asleep and forgotten the time. They would hear the car and start panicking. I looked at him slumped in the seat next to me. I felt like I wanted to do something nice for him; to nourish his already over nourished body. I wanted Maggie to cook for him. It was then that I said it.
‘Nigel I was just wondering if when Christmas was out of the way that you would like to come over for dinner one evening. Maggie's a good cook and she likes showing off?' I looked over at him and I couldn't help feeling a genuine hope that he would take me up on it. It would be good to treat him, he just looked at me for a while.
'That's..that's very kind. Very kind indeed. Yes I would like that, I would like that a lot.’
I heard the gravel crunch under his feet as he made his way to the front door. As the key turned in the lock, the light went off upstairs. On the way back to Maggie, I thought to myself how lucky I was.
Part of me hopes that he never takes me up on the offer. His wife would of course be expected to come. Hopefully he was so far gone he can't remember what he was saying or the invitation. Imagine the awkwardness of sitting there, all though the seared scallops, the lamb rack with crushed minted peas and chocolate fondant with Chantilly cream. I wouldn't be able to think of anything but his wife in that hotel room.
So, in the middle of one of the coldest winters for years, I find myself in one of the bays of the Morton Park driving range. I notice that two more hardy souls have taken up position either side of me. The air is still cold but through all the activity I have warmed up.
With the two new arrivals close by I feel an increasing pressure to do well and make a good fist of it, My grip and my swing are improving with every stroke; my last three shots have gone far and true. I suppose it's just like learning the guitar really; practice makes perfect and all that, There is a rhythm to our swinging, like we are part of a well oiled machine. It is comforting in a strange, new way.