Low life

A game of dominoes turns ugly

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

I’m round at Amy and Bill’s for Sunday afternoon tea. Amy and Bill are my in-laws, kind of. When I was courting their daughter, I used to spend most of my spare time sitting around Amy and Bill’s kitchen table. She was 15 when I started going round there, I was 26, and I suppose if I were an old TV entertainer or disc jockey, I should be tidying up my affairs before officers from Operation Yewtree beat a lively tattoo on my front door. But Amy and Bill welcomed me in to their family from the start. If they had an objection to my courting their daughter, it was to my social class rather than her age. I can remember Bill grumbling that he would have preferred that his daughter went out with someone of her own class, which I suppose is rural working class.

Amy and Bill used to live in a tied cottage that smelt sweetly of the cow manure Bill brought home on his overalls every day. (Mine at that time had that complex but distinctive smell of rotting household garbage.)  But now they live in a thin-walled new-build cube in town and Bill has retired. They are class-conscious still, but less fiercely.

We are sitting around the kitchen table with a mug each of strong tea. Amy, Oscar and I are playing dominos. Bill is scanning the local Sunday paper through two pairs of spectacles perched on his nose. He reads slowly and sometimes gets stuck. He’s studying the TV schedules. Now he looks up from the paper and, after a short, extemporising gaze at the wall, says, ‘What’s “Wood Nit”?’ ‘What?’ says Amy, bracing herself for his latest imbecility. ‘It says here,’ says Bill, ‘that there’s a programme about Wood Nits on at nine o’clock.’ ‘Give it here,’ she says, snatching the paper from her husband and glancing irritably at the page. ‘It says it’s a “Whodunnit”,’ she says, her body sagging as she loses the will to live.


‘Double six anybody?’ cries Oscar, five, slapping down double six to start us off on a new game. As usual, he has resolutely kept his eye on that particular domino during the shuffle and made sure he’s drawn it as one of his seven. ‘Cheating Arab,’ says Amy, laying down a six and one next to his. As if struck by divine inspiration, she adds, ‘Fancy an apple anybody?’ We all agree to eating an apple each and she passes them round. So now we’re all playing dominoes with one hand and biting an apple with the other. Bill also accepts an apple, picks up a knife and begins to peel it with his knife. ‘Aren’t you going to eat the skin?’ says Amy. ‘No,’ says Bill. ‘But it’s the best part!’ she says indignantly. ‘You have it, then,’ says Bill, prodding the circles of peel in her direction with his knife-point. ‘I’m not eating it. It’s your flaming apple,’ she says.

I lay down a three-and-one. Oscar can’t go and has to pick up. He still can’t go and picks up again. He picks up a third sulkily, then a fourth. Bill reminds him that cheats never prosper.

While we watch Oscar take domino after domino from the pile until he can go, Amy asks me how the treatment is going. Very well, I tell her, except that my testicles are shrinking at an alarming rate. Excrement or genitalia make the best possible jokes for Bill. He explodes with laughter, hugging himself to keep himself from flying apart.  Making a circle with thumb and forefinger, I show him the size of a garden pea. It’s like kicking the man when he’s down. He keels over sideways, and nearly falls off his chair.

Talk of treatment reminds Amy of her father, who was on blood-thinning tablets near the end. She reminisces about his going once a month to see old Dr Brooking to have a pint of blood taken out — to relieve the pressure, she thinks it was. The doctor would give her father the blood in a plastic bag and he always brought it home and put it on his roses. It did wonders for them, but next door’s dog kept jumping the fence to lick the blood off the roses and it made such a fearful mess her father had to discontinue the practice and chuck his blood in the bin instead. That lovelorn look comes over her face, as it always does when she remembers Father. ‘Whose go is it?’ she says, snapping out of it. ‘Yours!’ we chorus, for it’s one we’ve heard before, and several times. ‘Christ,’ says Bill, even though he isn’t playing, but simply wants to add to the general impatience with his wife.

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  • Emma

    Jeremy Clarke I’m not sure if you read the comments but if you do, I’d like to say that I’ve been a long time reader of the Spectator and you are by far the most talented writer. It appears to me that some of the other contributors have obtained their position through various forms of nepotism but yours is an original voice. I find the snippets of your life fascinating and suspect you are a genuinely talented self-taught man. Please write an autobiography.

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