An American state, an American city, a Roman goddess, a precious metal and a weapon. Got the connection? Confused? Not bothered? A decent quizzer would have it in seconds. Come on, think about it. Maybe you knew it? Then you will know what it feels like; a mini, mental orgasm, a hot flush of success and adrenaline. Cocaine doesn’t work that fast.
Tonight at The Crooked Billet, half of my team is already seated at a tiny round table next to the radiator that is always on. John, the team captain, works for an investment bank and knows a lot of history. He is our captain mainly because he holds the pen and trusts no-one else to write the answers. Hayleigh knows almost nothing with three exceptions, modern music, horrible TV and celebrity tittle tattle and is therefore invaluable. I am an all-rounder and none of us know anything about sport.
I buy a pint and weave between our competitors’ tables to take my seat. John takes off his glasses and squeezes the bridge of his nose with finger and thumb.
‘Marcus isn’t coming,’ he says.
‘Fuck,’ I reply. Marcus is a geek and every team needs one. ‘Evening Hayleigh.’ Hayleigh closes her copy of Grazia and slips it into her cavernous handbag.
‘Hi Rich,’ she says. She is a genuine stunner, straight out of university and fifteen years younger than us. She works at John’s bank and I think she only turns up to keep him sweet. She shrugs off her jacket and sips her glass of wine. ‘Poor Marcus. Is he all right?’
‘He’s waiting for a delivery,’ says John.
‘Twat. More orcs for his collection I expect’.
‘Have a look at the rounds.’ John slides the question sheet across to me, careful to avoid the wet circles left by my pint. It looks OK until my eyes settle on the penultimate round which is sport. Hayleigh cranes her neck to peer at the sheet.
‘They look horrible.’ She always says that.
‘Marcus is sending a replacement,’ says John. ‘A mate from work apparently.’
‘Better than nothing,’ I say and check my watch. Ten minutes to go. We chat about our weekends and regret it as Hayleigh seems to have a life. For John and I, this is the highlight of our week. We are here to win.
I generally warm up by switching between Pointless on BBC One and The Chase on ITV. Eggheads makes me angry so I tend to ignore it. I spend the intervening hour and a half playing Scrabble online trying not to look at the clock.
With two minutes to go, John nods and aims a meaningful look over my shoulder.
‘The Bastards are here,’ he says.
They are a team of hipsters from East London, who for some reason come to our quiz. They call themselves ‘Shoreditch or Bust’ which is pathetic. We call them The Bastards because they often beat us. They make their way to the only table left which has a ‘reserved’ sign on it. There are six of them which is the limit and most of them wear shorts in all weathers. I imagine them arriving on a fleet of silly fold-up bicycles, filling the air with prattle about installations and Guatemalan coffee beans. I’m sure they know their way around a Mac but I can’t figure how they win our quiz.
Tonight we will be known as Quiz Quiztofferson.
A sudden whine of feedback means Xeno has picked up his microphone. Xeno is Dave’s quizzing persona. He became obsessed with paradoxes some years ago and Xeno’s is his favourite. He frequently includes one in his quizzes. The posters that advertise the quiz, show a bearded Greek bust that looks like Aristotle and a cartoon of Schrodinger’s cat. It is that kind of quiz. Marcus is now an expert in paradoxes.
Round one is general knowledge and Hayleigh hits the jackpot when presented with this sequence of letters: ATGCLVLSSCAP. John and I hunch over the paper leaving Hayleigh to read it upside down. The pub has gone quiet so we get the feeling nobody knows what it represents. Then Hayleigh begins to quiver in delight. She is experiencing quizzing nirvana when the cerebral cortex sparkles into life and enlightenment floods through your synapses. Take a moment, savour it and then spill the beans to the expectant faces around you.
Her voice comes out as a half stifled squeak. ‘It’s the signs of the Zodiac. Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer.’ She’s bouncing up and down on her stool and attracting envious looks from neighbouring tables.
‘You beauty,’ I hiss and clutch her forearm. Excitement got the better of me and I try to let go casually.
‘Well done Hayleigh,’ says John and leans back like a satisfied gourmand after a twelve course tasting menu. When his back meets the boiling radiator he pitches forward and nearly upsets the table. The round is over and we are ten and 0 as the Americans would say. Next up is literature.
‘Where is this guy? Does he even know what we look like?’ I say.
‘Marcus told him to look for two stupid looking blokes and a fi…’ he nearly said “fit bird” but adroitly swerved it into “female”. ‘There’s a soppy looking chap at the bar. That might be him’
A podgy middle-aged man with one foot on the rail is taking furtive glances at the tables. He looks like a middle-period Orson Welles without the twinkle in his eyes.
‘I’ll go ask him. Drinks?’ I take their orders and go to the bar. He sees me coming and concentrates on his pint. ‘You Marcus’s friend?’
‘Yes. I wasn’t sure where you were. I’m Nick’
I introduce myself and direct him to our table. I notice he is drinking Fosters from the logo on his glass. That is the other reason I favour this pub; they manage to pour drinks into the corresponding vessels which is something I like. But why anyone drinks that crap is a mystery to me.
By the time I return to my team, the literature round is almost over. The questions were straight-forward but I check that John knows that Roald Dahl wrote the script for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Most people say Ian Fleming, but that was the book. John does know and we hit another full set. I reckon The Bastards didn’t get the zodiac one so we should be ahead.
Hayleigh is still buzzing and chatting with Nick who sips his lager like someone savouring a glass of Lafitte. He takes off his waterproof jacket to reveal a short-sleeved white shirt like the kind worn by bus drivers. He even has a biro clipped into the breast pocket.
‘You any good at sport?’ asks John.
Nick swallows the mouthful he has been swilling around his mouth and shakes his head. ‘Used to play a bit of football but now with my knee and all.’ He rubs his patella.
‘Good at sport in the pub quiz sense,’ says John.
‘Oh I see,’ he pauses. ‘No, not my thing.’
The music round is next so John passes the answer sheet to Hayleigh who refuses the betting shop pen in favour of her own elegant biro – a Montblanc I expect. Music can be hit or miss. Some quizzers will have researched the one hit wonders, the Christmas number ones and their years as well as Oscar winning songs. John and I rely on our eclectic tastes and Hayleigh’s contemporary nous. It goes relatively well as there are some eighties gems by Flock of Seagulls and Men Without Hats. Hayleigh chips in by recognising two Disney theme songs. Nick says nothing but bobs his head in time to the beat.
There is a short break with no marking – Xeno/Dave lets the crowd work on the songs.
‘So what do you do Nick?’ asks John. My heart sinks. He works with Marcus for god’s sake. Marcus works for Brent Council and is responsible for roads or something. We never let Marcus talk about work. To avoid hearing the sprightly badinage that will follow, I volunteer to get the next round. Hayleigh retrieves a crisp twenty from her purse, which is the size that handbags used to be, and passes it to me with a smile of gratitude. At the bar I entertain thoughts of asking her to dinner which I quickly dismiss. A boyfriend of hers joined us once, a stupid sod, but rugged, charming and handsome. Three qualities I do not share.
Aware of a presence I turn and see Nick hovering behind me. He reaches past me and picks up his drink leaving me to cradle the others.
‘Hayleigh’s fit,’ he announces.
‘Marcus said she was. Main reason I turned up.’
Nick has one of those fat lower lips that droops and is permanently moist. I have an urge to give it a good flick. He starts back for the table, his left hand pulling at the seat of his jeans.
I dump the drinks on the table and head for the gents. I know it will be dark and smelly inside. Some gents reek of those soap blocks that are condemned to paddle in a yellow stream until they dissolve. This one just reeks of piss that catches in your throat. I pull the door and brace for the backdraft. I cough, which I think has become something of a physical tic, stride in and choose the vacant cubicle. I am here to text Marcus about Nick. Fiddling with your phone at a quiz is likely to get you evicted so I need privacy.
‘WTF is Nick for? Total moron.’
I sit on the seat and wait. Marcus is never more than two inches from his phone. In the adjacent cubicle I can hear the click, click, click of my neighbour tapping on his mobile. What kind of narcissist leaves the tappy sound effect on?
My phone beeps. ‘Don’t call me a moron.’
‘Nick’s the moron, moron. You should have sent your cat down here.’
‘Said he was good at TV and movies.’
My neighbour leaves his cubicle without flushing while I begin stabbing out a lengthy rant. I abandon it halfway through, concerned the quiz must be underway. I fling open the door and see the leader of The Bastards examining his teeth in the mirror. He holds the pen so I assume he is a high-status Bastard. He sees me in the reflection and his gaze drops to the phone that is still in my hand. He raises a plucked ironic eyebrow and I grapple for a pithy remark.
I plump for, ‘Oh fuck off,’ and leave. What I should have said was, ‘pubic hair in your teeth?’ Even my esprits d’escalier are rubbish.
An esoteric Cowboys and Indians round follows where I experience my own moment of quizzing ecstasy when we are asked to name Wyatt Earp’s brothers who fought at the OK Corral. I whisper ‘Virgil’ into John’s ear then sit with my hands in my lap, staring at the centre of the table and trying not to panic. My teammates wait in respectful silence as I trawl for the answer.
‘It’s not Doc Holiday is it?’ says Nick who is shushed by John. I shake my head and shut my eyes. Something flashes by. A word, but it is gone before I can read it. The effort it took, not to snap at Nick, seems to have dislodged the information I need, and a name comes floating towards me. I smile and open my eyes.
Hayleigh is beside herself. She grabs my forearm and gives it a squeeze while I grin and slap the table. The physical contact with Hayleigh nearly makes my brain boil. The Bastards are busy congratulating and high-fiving each other which takes the shine off it a bit.
The sport round is announced and we sit quietly like penitent schoolboys waiting for our punishment. None of us can remember the name of the previous Grand National winner and it was only two weeks ago. We cobble together nine answers but question ten is the ultimate curve ball, yorker, call it what you like. I can tell Xeno/Dave loves it as he announces in his funny Geordie accent, ‘Kim Kardashian supports which US basketball team?’ He can’t help sniggering before he repeats it. A horrible question combining a celebrity nincompoop and American sport. John and I slump, defeated, while Nick slurps his Fosters.
‘Guys.’ I look up. Hayleigh is leaning forward with her hand over her mouth. We are all drawn towards her and end up looking like we’re planning the gunpowder plot. ‘The answer is in my magazine.’ She gives a big eye-nod towards her bag.
This raises the question of cheating which I am against and so is John.
‘I could go to the loo and find it. There’s a picture of her and Kanye West watching a game. They’re bound to be wearing the kit.’
I look at John, my heart beating faster. ‘No,’ he says. ‘It’s really not on.’
Hayleigh reaches down and pulls the magazine out an inch. ‘Come on John.’
He folds his arms and examines the ceiling. Hayleigh pulls a pouty face and shrugs.
The final round is film which is my forte. I live and breathe cinema, studied it at university and have clocked up over three thousand movies. I am weak on animation but reliable on anything from Chaplin to Cameron Diaz. The questions are read and I give nine perfunctory and correct answers to John, who transcribes them in his tidy handwriting onto the sheet.
However the credits have not rolled on this quiz. The final question of the night is this: ‘Which of these actors’ characters survived The Poseidon Adventure – Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman or Leslie Nielsen?’
‘Gene Hackman,’ says Nick with finality. ‘Love that film.’
The last time I saw it was probably some grim Sunday afternoon when I was trying not to think about school on Monday. My instinct would have been Borgnine but Nick seems pretty sure.
‘I remember Shelley Winters getting out,’ I say.
‘It’s Hackman,’ says Nick. Hayleigh rolls her eyes and excuses herself.
‘I thought it was Borgnine. Who plays the cop?’
‘Dunno but that’s the answer,’ says Nick. John rattles his pen on the table.
I am riddled with self-doubt. Is it Hackman?
‘Come on chaps,’ says John, eying the answer sheets being passed between teams for marking. I am still not sure, when Hayleigh returns and grabs the sheet. She whips out her pen and scribbles three words. I turn my head to see what she is doing. The blank space next to question ten in the sports round now reads ‘New Jersey Nets.’
She hands it back and winks. ‘Just came to me.’
John frowns but accepts the sheet from Hayleigh without a murmur. We are all corruptible, even bankers.
Pleased we have rescued a point I sigh and push the sheet to John, not caring that it soaks up some spilt beer on its way. ‘What the hell, stick down Gene Hackman.’ I shake my shirt by the lapel to let some air in.
Nervous energy makes me drink fast and I am now pissed and pintless and trying not to drum a paradiddle on the table
Xeno/Dave likes to read out the scores in reverse order before the last round and we are level with Shoreditch or Bust. The unconcerned Nick goes to buy drinks while we await our fate. My palms are moist and I feel a bit sick. I cannot stop my foot from tapping under the table until John gives me a look. I rub my face vigorously in my palms. If we get ten I think we will win.
We never saw Nick again. I expect he legged it as Xeno/Dave pronounced the ‘nine’ in Ernest Borgnine. The Bastards pipped us by a point. John insists on clapping the winners and shouting ‘bravo’ as if he is at the opera. Hayleigh takes a call from her boyfriend and doesn’t even mention the score. Xeno/Dave catches my eye as he passes on his way to give the winners their beer vouchers.
‘Bad luck on that last one,’ he says.
I shrug because I can barely speak.
That night I am so wound up I cannot sleep so I decide to name as many Ernest Borgnine films as I can. If I don’t count The Dirty Dozen sequels which were TV movies I make eight. Hang on, Ice Station Zebra, that’s nine.