I had coffee with my friend Anna in the Bongo Club today, and she told me an interesting story. The Buns – a grand old pub in the south of Edinburgh – had hired a snooker table and a set of balls, but the patrons were soon adamant that one of the balls was haunted. A red snooker ball – apparently indistinguishable from its brethren – repeatedly defied all attempts to pot it. However sharp the player – and however straightforward the shot – something would always go wrong and the ball would unfailingly err.
The drinkers who daily collected around the snooker table were soon determined to conquer the ball, but they grew ever more antagonised and outraged as each game ended with the troublemaker still on the table, having survived an astonishing run of crooked shots. Champion after champion failed to pot the ball, in the same way that James Bond never gets punched on the nose however many killer ninjas he fights. The ball had assumed a virgin quality, and as with a famed beauty, strapping young men would arrive from miles around to try and get their way with it. They would always dispatch the other balls in a barrage of quick cracks, but their merry progress would end prematurely, as the haunted ball refused to cooperate and remained aloof from their designs.
There was a story associated with the ball – although nobody knew where it had come from or whether it was true – that many years ago a young sailor and his sweetheart had been watching a game of snooker, when a badly misjudged shot had sent this particular ball flying from the table and straight into a very tender part of the sailor’s anatomy. He and his girlfriend had been subsequently unable to conceive, and now whenever anybody took a shot at this ball, all of the spirits of the couple’s lost children would flock around it, bombarding it with their silent bloodcurdling shrieks and pounding it with their tiny invisible fists, furious at having been denied their allotted lives, until the ball went awry.
The landlord of the Buns was very happy with the ball’s celebrity and he offered a keg of good beer to anybody who could pot it. This attracted a wider degree of interest, and one afternoon a group of physicists arrived from the University of Edinburgh with the stated intention of applying science to the problem and thereby winning the beer for their laboratory. They weighed the ball and X-rayed it, and they fed all of their data into an especially-designed computer programme, which calculated the force and angle required to successfully pot the ball.
Whilst the computer was doing its sums, the head physicist joined the landlord over a pint of ale. “I think that we will be able to pot this ball in a matter of hours, and this will provide a great advert for the work which we do at the University of Edinburgh. You know, I believe that by going out into the community and showing what can be achieved through applied science, we can really help to inspire young people…”
The landlord eyed this fellow keenly. “So there is no possibility that the ball could be haunted?”
The physicist smiled. “As far as I can gage, there is no evidence for such an irrational…”
There was silence. A very long silence. The physicist had just noticed that there was a snooker ball at the bottom of his pint of ale.
The physicist cleared his throat. “A moment ago that ball was not in my drink,” he said quietly.
It was now the landlord’s turn to smile. “But none of your drink has been spilled – which is what would have surely happened had the ball entered the drink – how does one put it? – logically?”
The physicist stood there with the snooker ball still at the bottom of his pint. He groaned heavily. “This makes everything much more complicated. I had previously taken for granted the existence of a universe which followed strictly rational principles. Now, I have to take things such as this into account…” He waved his pint helplessly in indication and he gazed around overwhelmed at the newly inexplicable cosmos. “It was so much easier when everything was scientific. One didn’t have to believe in divine forces, an afterlife, or all of those tiresome immortal souls. What am I supposed to think now?”
The physicists and their computer were unable to pot the ball, and next to appear was the Roman Catholic archbishop of Edinburgh – complete with his mitre, crosier, and cassock – and accompanied by an entourage of officials. He gazed serenely at the keg of beer – like one who has just arrived at a ski resort looking up at the mountains – before turning to eye the offending ball. “Oh you wicked little sinner!” he berated the ball. “You miserable blaspheming little imp of Satan… Oh…. Come back!”
But the ball had apparently taken fright. It had leapt off the table and was now rolling across the floor. The archbishop’s entourage burst into action – deacons were scrambling inelegantly and nuns were tottering frantically in pursuit – but the ball had rolled out of the pub and it was now disappearing off down the high street. Two of the nuns had laddered their tights, a junior bishop had broken his glasses, half the entourage had been stung by nettles, and quite a number of them had been rebuked for unsaintly language, before the ball was finally recaptured.
For the rest of the evening, the archbishop presided over a howling gale of an exorcism, and he and his assistants battled with the ball through the small hours of the morning and for much of the following day. The ball was lacerated with blistering prayers and flecked with searing dashes of holy water, whilst the archbishop waved his crosier and screamed “the power of Christ repel you!” Eventually, the exhausted ball capitulated and the archbishop very smoothly picked up a cue and sent the ball shooting straight across the table and into the far pocket. Those at the bar clapped admiringly.
The archbishop cut a less impressive figure after he had got through most of the keg of beer. On the pub’s tiny dance floor, he was blindly groping at women’s breasts, whilst they tried to bat away his grasping hands. The archbishop would periodically stop dancing, lean forward, and drool vomit from his mouth like tea from a teapot. At one point, he erupted fantastically, dreadfully, out of all his clothes, jumped unsteadily on to a table with a violent gasp, then stood up, shook his penis at the horrified onlookers, and bellowed “look at the fucking archbishop!” Then he was outside, running naked through the night streets, huge and white and terrible. Curiously, nobody could seem to pot the ball after the archbishop’s disgrace and, upon reflection, perhaps it was the archbishop rather than the ball who had gone to pot.