I was sixteen, and had just started going into the sixth form common room. Should have gone in there on the first day I got into the sixth form, but it seemed scary on the first day and never got any easier.
So, by the time I wandered in, it had built up to such an extent that I must have looked terrified. No one spoke to me, so I walked around as if looking for someone and walked straight back out again.
One pool table, slightly worn, with six crushed cans in the pockets to avoid the balls going down. One dartboard, fairly new, dangerously close to a window. One noticeboard with a variety of faintly rude postcards stuck up on it. Walls covered in flaky green paint. Floor covered with extremely worn brownish carpet, and a variety of semi-destroyed sofas and armchairs. And that was it.
Somehow I'd expected more. This end of the building was raised up slightly so you couldn't see it from outside - all you could ever see was a load of sixth-formers looking like they were having a great time in here.
Didn't seem that great to me, but it would have been the best place on earth if anyone had spoken to me that first time.
I knew one person well, and probably another half-dozen to speak to, out of a lower-sixth of over a hundred people.
And none of them were in the common room at that time, so I wandered out, knowing that people weren't all looking at me, but still feeling my cheeks going red as I assumed they were, and went for a walk in the quad, where at least there were enough people coming and going that no one noticed one person sitting down and flicking through a book on his own.
I loved snooker, and I was competitive with the best of them. My friends, when they did occasionally turn up at my house, were forced into long tournaments on the very small snooker table I had, about four feet by two feet.
I usually won.
After another failure to find anyone I knew in the common room I actually found out when Chris was going to be there, and made my way there specially.
He was playing darts. Joy!
I walked over to him and said hello. The game was just starting. More joy!
"Fancy a game then?" he asked.
I felt an elation I can remember to this day.
"Sure," I replied, trying to hide my happiness. "What're you playing?"
"Killer," he said, and proceeded to explain the rules.
I played, and lost. But it didn't matter. It was the first time I'd played, and it seemed to have a lot of randomness in it.
But I had played. That was the big thing.
Killer became my game for a while, and although I didn't make any friends playing it, I could at least get a game fairly regularly.
Until, that is, Chris and I found ourselves in the common room on that most wondrous of occasions - when the pool table became free.
"Fancy a game of pool?" I asked.
"Not really," he said. "Don't play it."
I was shocked. Devastated even. How could you not play pool? It was the holy grail, the thing that you had to be really grown up to do (since I had a darts board at home that was obviously something it was fine for children to play with).
"Come on, Chris. We don't often get a chance."
He looked over at the free table, and reluctantly agreed.
I set the balls up, hands trembling. He grabbed a cue and looked around for some chalk. "It's over on the shelf," I said. I'd watched so many people playing, and so wanted to play myself, and just hadn't found the courage. Everyone else just walked over and asked for a game - I knew that. I'd seen them. But when I'd once tried my voice hadn't come out and I just kept on walking. I never tried that way again.
Chris broke, and the balls scattered all around the table.
My cue slipped on the cue-ball on my first shot and I fouled. The cue-ball was much bigger than I was used to. I felt my cheeks going red again, and looked around. A few people were watching, but not looking like they were concentrating on the game. Not like my hawk-eyes had been following every nuance of the game, working out what rules they played and what strategies they used.
Chris potted a couple of balls but left me an easy shot.
My hands were shaking. I couldn't miss. Not that close. I just couldn't miss.
I missed. The cue had slipped again.
This time I remembered to chalk it, and thought about what I was doing wrong. Hit the middle of the cue-ball, my father had always said (but in reference to a half-inch ball on a tiny table when it wasn't so important).
Chris potted another ball (four left - I began wondering if he did play, and began hating him with a passion). I picked them out of the pockets where they'd lodged on top of the cans and bunged them into the tray at the end of the table.
I concentrated on hitting the middle of the ball. I aimed, but hit the ball while cueing up. Three people laughed.
Chris potted two more. Two left. Now I was trying to work out what punishments I could give him when he won. Just not speaking to him would be a start, maybe. He was saying something about leaning down more. He was giving me advice.
I leant down on the table, the cue resting between the knuckles of my first and second fingers, and someone came over and laughed again. "You don't hold the cue like that," he said. He pointed at my hand as he turned round, and someone else laughed.
I looked down the table at one of my balls sitting near a pocket. I smashed the cue down into the cue-ball, and the ball went in. The cue-ball ricocheted back up the table, almost to where I was.
"I do," I said, quietly to myself.
Six more. Chris had two to go and then the black.
I looked around the table, seeing nothing but patterns in the balls, lines back and forth with options for ways to pot several. At that moment it never occurred to me that I'd miss anything. The balls just opened up to me, and told me what to do. I walked round and potted another, the cue-ball ending up just where I wanted. It didn't matter that I didn't know why - the ball was in the right place. I potted another, and another, and another, all in a haze.
When the mist cleared I heard someone clapping slowly, and Chris thanking me for the game.
I looked down at the table. Two of his left, and the cue-ball sitting by one cushion.
"Not bad at all," said the boy who'd been laughing a few moments before.
I looked round, not knowing what to do. Several people were looking at me.
I put the cue down on the table, and turned to Chris.
"Shall we go then?"
He looked surprised, but nodded. "If you like."
That afternoon one of my classmates who'd previously expressed no interest in ever speaking to me came over.
"Heard you played a pretty cool game earlier on."
I didn't know what to say. The mind worked, but the mouth didn't. He waited for me to say something, obviously expecting some kind of reply, but when none was forthcoming he continued: "I was wondering if you wanted to try out for the school team. Jase is off ill and we need someone for the match on Thursday."
The school team.
I heard the words, but something was making it difficult for me to understand. I thought he'd said the "school team". As in, play against another school at something. Something I was good at.
"Sure," I said.
He looked at me oddly, having expected a little more than "sure". "OK then. Meet me in the common room at lunch. I'll give you a couple of games and we'll see, eh?"
"Yeah. See you there."
I had to ask Chris what his name was afterwards, in case I made a fool of myself by not knowing it when I went to meet him. Neil.
Neil was waiting for me, and the pool table was sitting ready-racked. He was holding a cue out for me. I was in heaven, right up until the time I saw how many people were watching. It seemed like the entire sixth form, although as I counted it couldn't have been more then fifteen.
"You want to break?" he asked.
I remembered my first shot last time and what that would be like in front of people expecting more. "No, you can."
He told me he was the captain of the school team. I didn't know what to say to that, so I just said "ah" and continued staring at the table. He was ahead in the first game, but he'd missed a long shot and left me a couple of pots available. I didn't take them. I snookered him instead.
"Bastard", he said.
I looked over, scared whether he meant it or not. He was grinning. I breathed a sigh of relief.
He didn't get out of it. I potted a couple of balls with my first shot, and then snookered him again with the second.
He looked me in the eye again, this time not smiling quite so much. I grinned nervously. It can't have made him feel any better. He missed again.
I cleared the table.
He didn't look nearly as happy as he had earlier.
In the next frame I noticed that every time I snookered him he hit the balls harder. I kept doing it, and he played worse and worse. I won the next two frames, and then got scared. He won the next two, and the bell went.
I put the cue down, wondering what to say. Fortunately, he said all that was needed.
"OK. You're in the team. There's a minibus after school on Thursday."
I was the new boy in the team, so I played second out of the five. I didn't understand why that was, but it made sense to someone. Something about "first getting them worried" and "keeping the best for last". Neil was last.
I played against someone whose name I forgot just after we'd shaken hands, and with whom I shared no more than half-a-dozen words throughout the game. The hall we were playing in was cold, and I didn't feel I had a very good game, but I won two-one.
Neil shook my hand when I came off the table.
Everyone else said I'd played well.
I couldn't get the grin off my face.
The other school lost four-one, so Neil's game didn't matter in the end, but he won it anyway. I noticed that no one even tried to snooker him.
Next time I went into the common room someone I didn't know challenged me to a game. I accepted, not quite as elated as with Neil, partly because I'd played now, and partly because he looked like he wanted to beat me. Really wanted to. I felt scared that he would. But he didn't. I won all but one frame.
And I hated it.
Neil was different - possibly with him being the captain it wouldn't matter too much if I played and lost, but random unknown people? They might be rubbish, and if I lost everyone would laugh. They might get lucky.
I didn't go into the common room the next day. One guy asked me for a game, but I said I had something on.
Chris even asked me if something was wrong.
Wonderful, faithful Chris.
We ended up going off and having a game of cards. He won. I didn't mind for once.
The next match came round. I'd learnt that Jase had come back to school, so I assumed that he'd get his place back and I'd be out. Maybe just come in as a substitute occasionally. That'd be good.
But Neil asked me again. And Jase gave me a look which I interpreted as "next time you're alone".
I couldn't think of a reason why not, so I accepted.
I won my match again, and this time we won five-nil.
In the minubus on the way home Neil was pretending to be angry that his game hadn't mattered. Everyone was laughing. Everyone was a team. I was part of it.
Our result was even read out in assembly the next morning, because we'd got to the semi-finals of the county. Everyone clapped our result. Our result. The words felt so good.
Chris turned to me and whispered "well done" in my ear.
Even my parents were proud. They probably weren't really interested, but semi-finals sounded quite important even to them.
Neil decided that the team should play against each other to decide the order of play for the semis. We had a round robin tournament over the next week (he'd also decided that the pool team got first dibs on the pool table when they wanted, and no one complained).
I won all four.
"Well," said Neil. "Looks like you get to go last." He grinned and laughed as he added "so your game will get to be pointless this time."
And it was. We were three-one up by the time it got to me, Neil winning his match, and I won mine too. The minibus back was even better than last time, and I bored my parents witless with the whole thing.
The next day the announcement was quite sombre, because our school had never won the county. Nor ever, in twenty years of trying. We'd never even made the finals before.
Chris asked me if I fancied a game of cards, but I was too excited. Neil wanted to get some more practice and he'd asked me. The pool table was made available again, and Neil and I played all lunchtime. It was a draw in the end, but we'd played really well, and everyone had been watching, including Chris eventually. He was cheering me on, as were a handful of others. Most were cheering Neil.
We shook hands in front of everyone when we stopped playing. I looked round, standing tall as I'd ever done, seeing all these people watching me and Neil.
Over the next few days I was in the common room most lunchtimes, but tried to avoid playing anyone but Neil. I played a couple of times against other people, mainly because Neil introduced me to them, but I didn't enjoy those games even though I won.
Chris wanted to play cards a couple of lunchtimes but I told him I had to practice. He didn't seem to understand, and stopped coming to watch me play.
When finals day arrived I was really nervous. I was going last again, and Neil (who was going first) kept joking about how it wouldn't matter about my game in the end.
But it did.
Neil lost his match. Our second-place man won his, although he was lucky. Third place won his, and I was praying for another victory, but it was all-square going into my games.
Best of three.
"Come on," said Neil. "Get out there and show them what you can do."
And I did. A wonderful break, and a clearance straight off it. It was the first time I'd ever done it. I punched the air and celebrated, and Neil gave me a slap on the back and everyone was cheering.
My opponent broke in the next and potted four straight off the break. I snookered him.
And I kept snookering him until he missed. And kept snookering him even after that, while picking away at the balls. Neil kept muttering "corr - you bastard" every time I snookered the guy, but he was grinning as much as I was.
I got onto the black and took a couple of deep breaths.
Shot for it.
The black flew straight down the pocket.
I turned round to everyone else. No one was cheering. They were still watching the table.
I looked back, just in time to see the cue-ball fall as well.
I thought I'd won it for a minute. I was the hero. The school had won a trophy, and it had been me that had won it. I'd be mentioned in assembly. Everyone would congratulate me. It wouldn't matter if someone beat me playing after that, because they'd assume they'd been lucky. They might even think I was being kind.
But I hadn't won. There was still another frame to play.
This time I broke, and the frame went the same as the second. I had a shot on the black while my opponent had two balls left to pot, neither looking easy.
I looked at the angles and wondered where the cue-ball would go. Maybe a snooker would be better. Get me a better position on the black. The pot would be glorious if it worked, a tricky slice into the corner.
I glanced over at Neil. He kept staring at the table.
I looked at the pot again. And went for the snooker.
My opponent sighed loudly and came to the table. All the pots would be difficult. He played the first and the ball edged towards the pocket and only just went down. I closed my eyes and wished more than anything that he'd miss.
He played the second, and his ball ended up over the pocket. With the black between it and the cue-ball.
I could go for the snooker again, or just hit it round the table. The snooker would be easy, but he might pot his, even from the snooker. But it was the right shot. Play the percentages, I said to myself. It was the right shot. If I got it. What else could I try?
I leant down on the table and lined up the shot.
"Death or glory" popped into my head.
I smashed the black round the table.
It knocked his in, leaving the black over the pocket.
I stared at the table, and the cue fell from my hand.
He potted the black, and their team shouted. They gave him three cheers.
My three cheers.
I looked over at Neil. He didn't say a word. He didn't look at me. No one did. We all shook hands with the other team, and a couple of them told me I'd been unlucky. My team said nothing. Not at first, not during the ride home. Not until the next morning.
"Prat" one of them said to me.
Two others pointed and mumbled something and laughed. "Threw it away," someone said. "Bottled it," said another. "Loser."
I said nothing. I walked past them.
I went into the common room. Neil was playing. He'd just beaten someone. I walked over to him. "Fancy a game?" I asked.
"With you?" he said, in disbelief. "Don't think so." Several people laughed.
I stuck on to get my 'A' levels, but I left the common room alone after that. And Chris had used the time to discover the girls' school next door, so I rarely saw him either. After school I lost touch. And I didn't play pool again for ten years. I could never go near a table without seeing that last shot, lined up and ready for me to miss.