Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The Last Round

A laugh of surprised triumph escapes my lips as the ball soars into the sky then falls to exactly the right spot on the manicured greens. I stand there for a moment, the wood still resting on my left shoulder, admiring my unexpected handiwork. It’s been years since I’ve been on a golf course and I certainly hadn’t expected to send the ball straight down the middle from the very first tee-off. 

“Looks like I’ve still got it."

I look around the calm greens of Eight Elms golf course, embarrassed that someone might catch me talking to myself as I play my solitary round. I shrug my shoulders and smile, grateful that at 5 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, most regulars were still chained to their desks or running those never-ending errands on their To Do lists. 

I’m alone – almost. A woman stands at the edge of a small thicket, hacking away at the undergrowth. She’s dressed like Central Casting’s idea of a lady golfer from another age, in tweed plus-fours, leather brogues and a pink and yellow sweater. Makes me feel an imposter in my Mum jeans and sweatshirt, like an uninvited guest at a society party. I wave hello, but she’s too intent on getting her ball out of the rough to notice me. 

I slide the heavy club back into the battered leather bag and shoulder it, ready to walk up the greens and take my next shot. It’s much weightier than Bill’s new bag filled with fancy carbon fibre clubs, but I enjoy the heft of history that almost a century gives mine. What stories of past glories would it tell if it could speak? 

A breeze tickles the nape of my neck and the low autumn sun warms my cheeks. Somewhere, a dog barks and a pair of rooks take off from the branches of a dead oak. All around, trees are changing colour for their last flamboyant shout-out before they drop their leaves for winter. A whiff of bonfire floats in the air, but there’s not a cloud in the sky. 
I feel good. Alive. More than I have in an age.

“Beats online shopping any day.” I’ve spent too many empty hours trawling the bargain sites since Mark left for college, trying to fill the void he left. But that’s what’s landed me here, playing the best game of golf of my life on a glorious late October day, with no-one to cheer me on. 

I’d been thrilled with my latest find. The 1920s golf bag was offered free to anyone willing to pick up. I clicked without hesitation and collected it that same day from a sullen old man in a neglected house on the edge of town. At best, I’d clean it up and sell to some hipster vintage-hound for a tidy profit. At worst, it would become a conversation piece to fill the corner of the living room where Mark’s guitar once stood. 

But, as it turned out, it got me back on the links. Reawakened my love for the game that brought me and Bill together, before marriage, motherhood and the menopause got in the way. I gave up years ago, when Mark was just an overgrown jelly bean in my belly wriggling to be born. Bill carried on, of course, never missing his weekend round while I took care of chores or chauffeur duties for music lessons, football practice and play dates. Who knew that I would still know how to handle the woods, irons and putters after all this time? Next time Bill heads for the greens, I’ll grab the old leather bag and join him for a game.

A few satisfying slices take me within feet of the first hole, and I nudge the ball in with a neat, satisfying plop. After the next five holes, I feel better about myself than I have for a long, long time.

A movement in the bushes catches my eye as I sink the ball at the sixth. It’s Madam Plus Fours again. She’s got company now. Her bag is propped up against the trunk of a tree, and there’s the shape of a man in the shadows. Alright for some. Others have to caddy their own clubs round the course.

I pick up my bag. There’s a dark stain at the bottom I hadn’t seen before. I hope it's just the turf's evening damp leaving its print on the leather and make a mental note to give it another rub down with saddle soap when I get home. I look up to watch the woman and her caddy as they head to the next green - but they’re nowhere to be seen.

I spot them again at the eleventh hole. The man is silhouetted against the pinkening sky. I can’t make out his features. He’s much closer to the woman now, holding one of her clubs. They're arguing, but I only hear notes of anger pricked with pleading through the evening air. 

Probably some petty argument about which club to pick for her next shot. Some people really need to lighten up. It’s just a game, after all.

It’ll be dark soon. Better finish my round. The stain on the bag looks bigger now. Probably a trick of the light - dusk has a habit of throwing up visions of things that aren’t there in the sharp glare of morning. 

Shadows like skinny giants loll against the landscape as I reach the sixteenth hole. I’ve played the best round of my life and I’ll definitely be back tomorrow. 

But in the morning. The evenings are drawing in way too fast now. 

Right now, I just want to reach the eighteenth hole and get back to my car. There’s something about the rustle of the leaves in the dark that sends chills down my spine.

The garish diamonds of Madam Plus Fours' sweater glow ahead of me through the growing gloom. She and her caddy are leaving the seventeenth hole and she’s gesticulating wildly, shouting at her dark companion. What a bitch, blaming the poor caddy for her bad game. He still has her bag on his shoulder and a club in his hand, waiting for her to finish her tirade, get it all out of her system. Poor guy, I bet he can’t wait to see her finish her round, get paid (no tip, for sure) and wind down with a drink at the bar. 

I tee up for the last hole, look up to see where I’m aiming for, and drop my wood in shock.

The caddy is holding the club over his head, threatening the woman. In a panic, I stumble and knock over my bag. The dark stain spread all the way along one side.

Gotta do something, Stop him, Help her. 
The lights of the club house twinkle invitingly, but the eighteenth hole is closer. I scramble to my feet, yelling. Maybe the commotion will scare him off.

I’m running as fast as my middle-aged legs can take me. Panting hard and looking down for fear of tripping on something. Blood pumps in my ears. My heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest. Red starbursts play at the edges of my vision. 

The dark and my panic are playing tricks with me. The denim on my pumping knees looks like tweed, and they seem to have bunched up mid-calf. 

Keep going. Stop him. 

I reach the green and stop, facing the dark figure wielding the club. 

“Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing?”

He looks at me, smiles and he steps towards me. I turn to tell the woman to run. She’s gone. Already on her way to get help, I pray.

It’s just me and the caddy. I’m exhausted. Frozen with fear. Menace flows off him like sweat. With every step he takes, a little piece of my sanity deserts me. 

Just two paces away from me now, I see his face. 

It’s Bill. My Bill. The man I’ve shared the past twenty years with. The man I lost somewhere along the way. The man I wanted to get back out onto the greens again. But it’s not my Bill leering down at me. It’s a warped version of his slightly flabby, once-handsome face. Twisted with malice, intent on harm. 

He raises the club. It’s one of the heavy vintage woods from my bag, which is now lying on its side next to the last hole. Clubs, tees and other paraphernalia have spilled out in a growing pool of dark liquid. 

I raise my arm to cover my face. In a surreal split second, puzzlement banishes panic as I see that, instead of the deep red of my sweatshirt, my sleeve is clad in pink and yellow diamonds. 

My world explodes, and everything goes black.

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