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Stuart Ransom, professional golfer, is drunkenly reeling off an interminable series of stats about the women's game in Korea (or the Ladies Game, as he is determined to have it): 'Don't scowl at me, beautiful ...!' – directed, with his trademark Yorkshire twinkle, at Jen, who lounges, sullenly, behind the hotel bar. 'They like to be called ladies. In fact they demand it. I mean ...' Ransom lobs a well-aimed peanut at her – she ducks – and it strikes a lovely, clear note against a Gordon's Gin bottle. '... they are ladies, for Christsakes!'
It's well past midnight on an oppressively hot and muggy Sunday in July and Ransom is the only remaining customer still cheerfully demanding service from the fine vantage point of his squeaking barstool at the Thistle, a clean but generic hotel which flies its five, proud flags hard up against the multi-storey car park and an especially unforgiving slab of Luton's Arndale.
'But why did you change your booking from the Leaside?' Jen petulantly demands (as she fishes the stray peanut from its current hidey-hole between the Wild Turkey and the Kahlua). 'The Leaside's pure class.'
Ransom is momentarily caught off his stride. He was just idly pondering the wonky pathway of spotless scalp which lies – like a seductive trickle of tropical-white sand – between Jen's scruffy, dark-rooted, peroxide-blonde ponytails, and then, as she spins back around (pinching that errant nut, fastidiously, between her finger and thumb), he ponders the voluptuous outline of her pert, nineteen-year-old breasts beneath her starchy, cream-coloured work blouse (assessing these other – rather more intimate – physical attributes with the keen yet dispassionate eyes of a man who has oft pitted his talents against the merciless dips and mounds of the Old Course at St Andrews).
'I'd give anything to stay at the Leaside,' Jen persists, gazing dreamily up at the light-fitment (where three stray midges are joyriding, frenetically, around the bulb). 'The Leaside's so quaint – perched on its own little hill, right in the heart of town, but just out of all the hubbub ...'
Jen's pierced tongue trips on the word hubbub and she frowns –
Ransom stares around him – tipsy and slightly bewildered – struggling to assess the aesthetic shortcomings of his current environs, then starts, theatrically, at the nightmarish spectre of earth-shattering mediocrity he suddenly – quite unwittingly – finds himself party to. He runs an unsteady hand through his short, brown, fastidiously managed head of hair and then instinctively reaches towards his shirt pocket (groping for his trusty pack of Bensons), but falters, mid-manoeuvre, as he peers, blearily, through the large, plate-glass window directly to his left. Beyond that window a small cluster of shadowy figures may be seen, consorting together, ominously, in the half-light. He debates what his chances are of sneaking a furtive puff inside.
'Hub-bub,' Gene, the replacement barman, parrots to himself, amused, as he polishes a low, glass table in the adjacent snug.
Ransom glances over at Gene, then turns to inspect Jen again, who has momentarily stopped considering the countless, bizarre ramifications of the word hubbub for just long enough to become horribly aware of the proximity of the front desk (not actually visible from where she's standing). 'Although there's really nothing out there to match our incomparable health and leisure club facilities,' she proclaims loudly, with suitably glassy eyes and a ghoulish smile.
Ransom sighs, squints down at his watch, grimaces, clears his throat, takes out his phone, checks his texts, and then quickly goes on to discuss how there are plenty of successful Korean ladies doing extremely well on the American circuit right now. In fact, he says, draining his glass, there are several whose careers he even takes an active interest in (Aree Song for one, Birdie Kim for another, Inbee Park for a third: 'Aren't their names just completely friggin' brilliant?') and not only because he finds Korean ladies pretty damn hot ...
He turns and asks Gene (who is now removing his empty glass and replacing his damp, paper coaster with a clean one) if he finds Korean ladies hot, and as he says so he darts a mischievous glance at Jen again, who neglects to look back because she has been obliged to move to the small, transparent hatch – which connects the bar to the overpass – and calmly inform a persistent individual who is banging on the glass there that they are no longer serving (by dint of a sharp, slicing movement across her taut, milky throat). The individual curses, gesticulates (a deft two-finger salute), then scuttles off.
'Thanks,' Jen snarls after him. 'Charmed.'
Gene – following a brief moment's thought – politely confesses to Ransom that he's never previously given this issue (about the relative hotness – or notness – of female Koreans) much serious consideration. Ransom appraises Gene, at his leisure, and decides that he is an intensely dull yet profoundly dependable kind of fellow who bears a passing resemblance – the short, swept-back, auburn hair, the square jaw, the calm, hazel eyes – to one of his sporting heroes: a young Tom Watson. His own eyes mist up and he blinks, poignantly (although why the perfectly successful and functional Watson might be inclined to inspire Ransom's compassion at this juncture is – and will remain – something of a puzzle).
'All work and no play, eh?' Ransom says, pityingly, indicating towards a neighbouring barstool with a benign and inclusive sweep of his arm. Gene frowns. In truth, he feels scant inclination to get involved in a fatuous discussion with the tipsy Yorkshireman (he's on duty and has a certain number of chores to complete before knocking off at one) but then he detects an odd look – almost of desperation – in Ransom's bloodshot eyes and slowly relents.
Okay, Gene confides (backing into the stool and perching a single, taut buttock on it), so yes, if put on the spot he will admit that he does think Korean woman are quite beautiful. They have a certain measure of ... of poise, a certain ... a certain understated ... uh ... grace ...
Ransom scowls when Gene uses the word 'grace'. The word 'grace' has no place – no place at all – in the kind of conversation he was angling for. Gene (as luck would have it) is also scowling now (and rapidly backtracking), saying that, on reflection, he hasn't actually met that many Korean women in his life, apart from a couple who work in local restaurants. He says he therefore supposes that his assessment of the virtues of Korean women – as a unified class – is based entirely on a series of ill-considered – even stereotypical – ideas he has about Eastern women, and he is sure that this is a little stupid – even patronizing – of him because Korean women are doubtless very idiosyncratic, with their own distinct features and dreams and ideas and habits.
'I'll grant you that,' Ransom concurs with a sage nod (informing Jen of his need for another drink with an imperiously raised finger). 'They've got much fuller tits than the Japanese.'
Gene draws back, dismayed, uncertain whether Ransom is joking or not. Ransom collapses forward on to the bar, shaking his head (apparently experiencing this same problem, first-hand). 'Fuuuuck,' he groans, 'I honestly can't believe I just said that.'
Gene peers over at Jen (who has chosen to ignore Ransom's request and is now cleaning out the coffee machine). He stands up and goes to fetch Ransom the drink himself (thereby symbolically re-emphasizing the wide emotional, intellectual and psychological distance between them by dint of the happy barrier that is the bar).
As Ransom continues to groan (banging his forehead, gently, on the bar top), Gene goes on to say how he once watched a fascinating documentary about a Japanese girl who was kidnapped by the North Korean government – quite randomly – as she walked home from school one day. The girl was called Nagumi ... no ... no, Me-gumi, he corrects himself. Apparently (he continues) the North Koreans kidnapped many such young Japanese during this particular historical timeframe (the mid- to late 1970s) to study their behaviour so that their spies could pretend to be Japanese while undertaking terrorist attacks abroad. It transpires that the cultural differences between the North Koreans and the Japanese are very marked (Gene quickly warms to his theme), the way they wash their faces, for example, is very different (he impersonates the two styles: one a lazy splash, the other a more frenetic rub). The way they excuse themselves after sneezing. The way they say hello. The way they blow their noses or position their napkins. All tiny but vital cultural differences.
'Michelle Wie,' Stuart Ransom suddenly butts in (having taken a long draught of his new drink, straight from the bottle), 'has massive feet. Whenever I watch her play I just keep staring at her feet. They're friggin' huge ...'
'But I still find her pretty damn tasty all the same,' Ransom avows, glancing down at his phone again and noticing, as he does so, that his hand is shaking. He grimaces, clenches his fingers into a tight fist and then shoves his hand, scowling furiously, into his trouser pocket.
'Merde! This is useless! My hand just keeps shaking!' her mother grumbles – in her strange, heavily accented English – awkwardly adjusting a toothbrush between her fingers.
'Because you're holding it all wrong,' Valentine explains. 'You're holding it like you'd hold a pen. Why not try and hold it like you'd hold a ... a ...' – she thinks hard for a second – 'a hairbrush?'
As she speaks, Valentine lifts a warm, bare foot from the bathroom linoleum (producing a tiny, glutinous, farting sound) and then dreamily inspects the steamy imprint that remains. She imagines her neat heel as the nose (or jaw) of a cartoon reindeer, and her toes as its modest, five-pronged crown of truncated horns.
'I DON'T FUCKING REMEMBER!' her mother suddenly yells, hurling the offending toothbrush into the toilet bowl.
'Bloody hell, Mum!' Valentine retrieves the toothbrush, runs it under the hot tap, squeezes on some more paste and then patiently proffers it back to her.
'I CAN'T USE THAT FILTHY THING NOW!' her mother bellows. 'ARE YOU COMPLETELY INSANE?!'
'Shhhh!' Valentine whispers, pointing to the door. 'It's after twelve. You'll wake Nessa.'
'But how do I hold a hairbrush?'
Her mother begins hunting around the bathroom for a hairbrush.
'Like this ...' Valentine neatly demonstrates exactly how to hold the toothbrush.
'But that's a toothbrush and I want a hair brush,' her mother snaps. 'I want to know how I'd hold a hair brush.'
Valentine opens the bathroom cabinet. 'Here's a comb,' she says, removing an old nit comb from behind a medicated shampoo bottle.
She passes it over.
Her mother takes the comb. She holds it correctly, instinctively. She stares at it for a moment, blinks, and then: 'Why the hell have you given me a fucking nit comb?' she demands.
'For some reason I always thought Michelle Wie was part-Hawaiian,' Gene muses – half to himself – as he polishes a glass.
'Nah-ah. You're confusing her with Tiger Woods, mate.' Ransom shrugs.
'Michelle who?' Jen suddenly interjects after a five-second hiatus (Jen is generally a bright, engaging conversationalist, but she's just completing an exhausting, twelve-hour shift and also has a small – yet resilient – raft of 'subsidiary' issues to contend with, which Ransom can't possibly have any inkling of, i.e. a) the tail-end of a painful dose of conjunctivitis – caught from her cat, Wookey, a magnificent, pedigree Maine Coon – combined with a prodigious pair of false eyelashes which are so long and audacious that they tickle both her cheeks, distractingly, every time she blinks, b) a ludicrously handsome, lusty and untrustworthy Irish boyfriend – by the name of Sinclair – who is currently living it up for a week on a lads-only break in Tangier, and c) the frightful responsibility of three E grade A-levels to re-sit over the summer. Jen longs to become a vet and is obsessed by Australian marsupials; their fluffy tails, their tiny hands, their huge, saucer-like eyes. Her favourite kind of marsupial is the sugar-glider. She even invented her own cocktail of the same name – a sickly combination of cold espresso, coconut milk and Malibu – which they sell at the bar simply to indulge her).
'Michelle Wie,' Gene says, politely glancing over at Ransom for confirmation, 'is a young, female golfer who ruffled a few feathers a while back by insisting on competing professionally alongside the males –'
'Why can't women play golf?' Ransom jovially interrupts him, with a leer.
'I don't know,' Gene answers, cautiously, 'why can't women play golf?'
'Because they're good with an iron ...' Ransom's voice cracks with ill-suppressed hilarity, 'but they can't drive! Boom Boom!'
Gene smiles, thinly.
'Sorry,' Ransom apologizes, simulating embarrassment, 'that one's old as the friggin' hills.'
'Michelle Wee?!' Jen snorts (totally ignoring Ransom's attempted quip). 'That's brilliant!'
'She's a perfectly good little athlete,' Ransom allows, 'but she's ruined her game by over-swinging. Fact is she can't compete with the men. Not possible. She simply hasn't got the power in her upper torso.'
'Although I imagine the huge advances in club technology over the last decade or so –' Gene interjects.
'Phooey,' Ransom slaps him down, irritated, 'because when club technology improves, the male players automatically hit that much further themselves.'
God,' Jen groans, rolling her eyes, boredly, 'what is this fatal attraction between footballers and bloody golf, eh?'
'Huh?' Ransom's head snaps around. He frowns. He looks a little confused.
'I just don't get it,' Jen persists (ignoring a pointed look that Gene is now darting at her), 'because golf's so unbelievably dull. I mean why rattle on endlessly about golf all night when there's so much other great stuff to talk about, like ... I dunno ...' She throws up her hands.
'Basket-weaving,' Gene suggests, wryly.
'Topiary,' Ransom helpfully volunteers.
'The comic novels of Saki,' Gene effortlessly parries.
'UFOs.' Ransom grins.
'The worst services on the M4,' Gene deftly volleys, 'between Reading and Newport.'
'The best services on the M1,' Ransom vigorously retaliates, 'between Watford and Leeds.'
'I've never been to the North,' Jen confesses (with cheerful candour), at exactly the same moment as Gene hollers, 'Leicester Forest East!' (then blushes).
'I favour Shovel myself.' Ransom shrugs.
'Although I have been to Norfolk,' Jen concedes.
'Norfolk?' Ransom echoes, bewildered. 'Norfolk isn't in the North, you bloomin' half-wit!'
'I know that!' Jen snaps.
'Crop circles!' Gene promptly endeavours to divert them.
'The Chinese Horoscope!' (Ransom's easily distracted.)
'The current export price of British beef,' Gene casually raises him.
'Which is the luckier number' – Ransom plucks at his unshaven chin with comedic thoughtfulness – 'three or seven?'
'Stones versus Beatles!' Gene's starting to sweat a little.
'Leeches!' Ransom whoops (slamming down his beer bottle – for extra emphasis – then cursing as it foams up, over and on to the bar top).
'But I love leeches!' Jen squeals, baby-clapping delightedly. 'Let's talk about leeches! Let's! Let's! Oh, do let's!'
Ransom recoils slightly at the unexpected violence of Jen's reaction.
'Jen's into nature,' Gene explains (with an avuncular smile), 'she's hoping to become a vet when she eventually grows up.'
Jen shoots Gene a faux-filthy/faux-flirty look.
'Okay ...' Ransom tosses a quick peanut into his mouth and then launches, vaingloriously, into the requisite anecdote.
'So I was playing this shonky tournament in Japan once,' he starts off, 'and I sliced a shot on the fourth which landed just to the right of the green in this really tricky area of rough –'
'Hang on a minute,' Jen interrupts, holding up her hand, exasperated. 'Please, please, please tell me we're not back to talking about sodding golf again?!'
Excerpted from The Yips by Nicola Barker. Copyright © 2012 Nicola Barker. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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