London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared – and battle come down
London calling to the zombies of death
Quit holding out – and draw another breath
“What is the capital of Mongolia?” the husky voice calls out over the pub hubbub.
“Easy,” Big Steve says, “Ulaan Bataar,”
I carefully scribble down the words after the big feller speaks even though I know the answer already.
“We might have done it this year,” Tony says, nodding in the direction of our rivals at the other end of the pub, “They don’t look happy,”
“Didn’t you say the exact same thing last year, Tone?” I reply, keeping my eyes fixed on the three dapper gents who call themselves the Zombies of Death.
Tony chuckles and Big Steve, a stereotypical gentle giant from the town of Kendal in the Lake District pipes up:
“I really hate those wankers,”
Tony and I burst out laughing; Tony then knocks his pint which spills over Big Steve’s shorts which causes Steve to give Tony a pretend dig in his ribs. I couldn’t ask for a couple of better pals. Absolute clowns, but I love them. I notice Errol, the quizmaster amble over to us to collect our sheets.
“Is this year gonna be your year, pal?” Errol says, picking up our answer sheet.
“God knows, I hope so or them lot will be crowing like nobody’s business,”
Errol walks off shaking his head, probably amazed at how competitive we are. I predict the Zombies will be equally combative when he reaches their table. The annual Christmas quiz at the Casbah has become a tradition with my friends for 5 years in a row now. It is the culmination of the monthly quizzes that the boozer holds. Our first year we were sporadic attendees but ever since, we have been the dominant quizzing force in Battersea.
Every year we have won at least seven of the monthly quizzes. But for the last three years, on the big Christmas stage, with a £1,000 jackpot prize, we have failed. The first year we lost by three points after a disaster with the music round. I still hold Daphne & Celeste responsible for us falling apart not to mention for their musical crimes against humanity.
Two years later, Big Steve’s overconfidence cost us as he proclaimed George Orwell wrote Brave New World despite my Huxleyite opposition. It turned out, he had given a wrong answer for another question and we lost by two points to the fucking Zombies, I lost my shit. Well, I told him to study more for next year and asked if he wanted a Jägerbomb.
Last year, things got more surreal as we managed to get every question but one wrong. We had absolutely no idea who Taylor Swift was, never mind naming any of her albums. When Errol read out that the Zombies had answered every one of the eighty sodding questions correctly, my stomach heaved as though someone had punched me straight in the gut.
That little twat Osbourne on their team came jumping over like a preening, Fred Perry-clad pompadour lording it over us.
“Awight boys, better luck next year!”
“Fuck off, you cheating shit,” Tony said and stood up to to confront him. Me and Big Steve pulled him away and the tiny prancer went back to his friends to count their dosh.
Three years in a row and three bloody grand missed out on. Not this year, please Lord.
Big Steve has been to the bar and brought a couple of pints of Landlord for Tony and himself and a Camden Hells for me.
“Cheers Steve, how do you think it went?” I ask, fearing the worst already.
“I think we bollocksed up the music round again,” he says, “and I’m sure the telly round gets harder and harder,”
“Yeah,” Tony adds. Tony is a man of few words from the Finance team at work, hailing from a little town in Nottinghamshire called Arnold where half of the pubs are named after characters from Robin Hood, the mad bastards.
“It’s all shite on the box,” I reply, “No wonder I don’t know the answers. I don’t watch anything these days,”
“Look, Errol’s back on the mic,” Tony says.
All eyes in the pub turn to Errol, uncannily all at pretty much the same time causing him to appear mildly embarrassed and confused. The intensity of the Casbah Xmas Quiz can’t be matched. Not when there’s a thousand beans on the take. Errol coughs self-consciously and begins to speak:
“Hello all, I’m sure this gets bigger every year. Seventeen teams entered which is a new record so thank you all for coming. I know you don’t want me to waffle on endless so here are the results,”
Errol runs through the list of also-rans and never-rans before arriving at the final five. My stomach is churning but I’m not sure if that is because of the quiz or the innumerable packs of scampi fries that we have gobbled down.
“And now, to the business end of proceedings,” Errol displays a rare gleam of panache and holds a dramatic pause.
“In fifth place we have Operation Entebbe with sixty-seven points,”
“I don’t think we have got much more than that, and they are only fifth,” Steve whispers to us. He’s right, this doesn’t bode well for our chances.
“Fourth spot goes to Girth, Wind and Tyres who amassed sixty-eight points,” The hush around the pub is broken when a couple of young lasses walk through the front doors chatting loudly until they are shushed by virtually everyone in there so they do an about-turn and leave.
“With seventy points it is…Burn in Hell, Cilla Black,” The hush turns into a rising sound of low talking. Everyone knows that is now the Zombies of Death versus the Faraway Towns.
“So, we are down to the last two, it’s unbelievably close as it is every year,” Errol says, Tony can’t avert his eyes from the Zombies while Big Steve has his head in his hands.
“The Faraway Towns have scored seventy-three,”
No reaction from anyone – until the other score comes up, our score exists in a meaningless galactic vacuum.
“The Zombies of Death have scored…” Errol once more exacerbates the tension, “…a whopping seventy-three,”
A moment of silence descends on the pub goers before they realise it’s a tie and the place erupts with noise.
“Play off, play off!” comes the chant from the crowd. Errol, generally the stoic face of calm is caught up in the drama and grinning. He raises his hands and quiet is restored.
“Nine years ago, this happened and I can confirm a play-off was held between one member of the two tied teams. The same applies for this year. Come on boys, take a breath and send someone up,”
I know Osbourne will come up for the Zombies. Big Steve still has his head in his hands. Tony has gone even more withdrawn..
“Guess it’s me then,” I say, Tony nods and Steve finally takes his hands from his face which has been drained out of all colour, His face now has the appearance of a big white thumb. He can’t even speak.
I stand up and immediately feel like I weigh as much as an elephant. Each step towards Errol is through a field of glue. Errol’s face is masked with concern for me. He asks if I’m ok and I can only nod.
Osbourne faces me, his upturned hair and drooping, smirking lip antagonises me but I try to remain calm. It’s one question, one question.
“Listen boys,” Errol says to us, and to the rest of the boozer, “I will ask one question. The first person to answer correctly will win the prize. If you get it wrong, the other person gets a turn and this will continue until I have the right answer. I ask everyone else to please remain quiet for the duration of the play-off proceedings,”
He needn’t have said anything, there must be a hundred people in the pub and everyone is silent including all the bar staff.
“Right, here we go! Constantine, founder of the city of Constantinople, bringer of Christianity the Roman world was crowned Roman Emperor by his army in which English city?”
I stare at Osbourne, for once he is lost. He doesn’t know the answer and a tiny thrill passes through me. But neither do I. Is this going to be a case of us naming cities until we get it right?
“Is it Gloucester?” I say. It’s the nearest city from my home town of Tetbury. Errol takes on the demeanour of the Tetbury town crier as he surveys me.
“No, it is not,” Errol says, my guts drop and the crowd ‘oohs’. Errol gestures to everyone to be quiet and everyone complies.
Osbourne’s mug suddenly changes from lost to smug. He knows the answer. He fucking knows the answer. Once again, my world is collapsing.
“Errol, I believe the answer is London,” Osbourne says and glances to his team-mates and fires a wink at them. Errol holds a dramatic pause for a needlessly long time.
“That is also incorrect,” the crowd responds again, the Casbah has an atmosphere of a Wimbledon tennis final where the umpire struggles to contain the emotions of the spectators between rallies.
Osbourne is crestfallen. I hear Big Steve shout something incredibly personal at him but Osbourne doesn’t notice. He is in the Quizhole, a place of darkness I know only too well. The empty well where knowledge and pride should be.
The onus is on me but my mind is blank. A memory of a school trip pops to my mind. Of walking past city walls. Roman walls. Arriving at a huge church and in front was a statue of a man on a horse. I asked the teacher who it was, did the teacher say Constantine? I stare at Osbourne, his empty eyes showing nothing. I flick to Errol and gently nod.
“York,” I say.
Errol stares at me for countless seconds, possibly years.
“That is the correct answer,” he says.
The crowd explodes, beer flies. I am embraced by Tony and Big Steve. Even Errol has wrapped his arms around us as we jump about in ecstasy.
This could be the greatest achievement of my life. I don’t think anything can compare to this moment.
The celebrations go on for another hour or so before I have to return home to my wife and kids.