It's Saturday morning and you were out at a dinner last night. The radio comes on at eight but a hand reaches out to turn it off. The phone rings - "It's for you", she says. One of the team has been up all night with something you thought only happened to teams in India. "It seems to be alright now but I'm going back to bed for three hours. I've left a message on my partner's answerphone". It's a two hour drive to Coventry. You think of ringing the said partner, but remember his day only really begins at noon. However, at ten to nine he rings you. You recall the previous weekend he won the county trial with a different partner, and make the obvious suggestion, but different partner has gone away for the week-end. "I've arranged to go round at noon and see how he is". It's still a two hour drive to Coventry. At least the line up for the first match won't gnaw at your guts all the way down.
Time to get up. You've retired from work and your favourite dress these days is a polo neck and slacks, but last night's suit is where you threw it. "What the hell, we might do well and there might be a photographer". Pack bag and lift arrives early - at least you don't have to think about the Stafford contraflow. Arrive at the superb Hilton at noon and the bar is open. First relax of the day (even when not driving, the M6 requires full concentration).
The draw is "from one o'clock" and you get there at five past. Team member has already done it. You think of thumping him for insubordination, but change your mind - not so much on account of team harmony, but because he is a foot taller and three stones heavier than you (as the t-shirt says "it's not a beer belly, it's a fuel tank for a sex machine"). Those whose memory goes back seven years will remember that the main reason for breaking up the old North Western CBA into three parts (like Gaul) was that there were those who felt that there was room for at least two Tollemache teams, so there was a bit of needle to this match.
It was quite a match - 276 IMPs changed hands over 14 boards with double-IMPing - but we had two thirds of them, so 18-2. They missed the game at one table on Board 1, we had plus scores on all four tables on Boards 2 and 4 but so did they on Board 3, and so it went on. They stopped short of the unmakeable game at one table on Board 7, levelling Board 1 (it wasn't the same table) but we were in the right slam (6) at one table on Board 10. Our "Rambo" pair (you hope they will forgive you for that remark) were the only one to bid and make game on Board 9 but on Board 11 they were the only pair to have the cold slam bid against them. We found the sacrifice at both North/South tables on Board 13, and somehow game came home at one table on Board 14.
You then look at the rest of the fixture list and find you have Middlesex and then Surrey next - cognoscenti in your team say they cannot decide which of these two were their pre-match favourites! By this time invalid and partner have arrived and tell you that they are raring to go. Caution prevails and you play them for only the first seven boards. Again you get two thirds of the IMPs but there are only 189 this time so 16-4. Rambos bid seven on Board 15 - it needs a finesse but it was right - and on Board 17 game for opponents came home at one table and Rambos went for 800, but after that it was all right. You hope wearing a suit was a premonition.
And so to dinner. This is your last year with the county - you are retiring to a tax haven in the summer (where there are no Grand Masters and you hope you might be somewhere near the top of the heap) - so as a "last" gesture you took the team out to dinner at the qualifying weekend. The ungrateful b.....s rewarded you by qualifying! This time you restrict your generosity by buying the wine (not much) at dinner, more to keep them sober than to cut the cost. The meal was superb. We all ate too much.
Now for Surrey. Again caution prevails and you play invalid for the first seven boards. Just as well, for during the second seven Director sends for you. You deny being that sort of doctor, but to no avail. Fortunately you always carry "Imodium" and pack him (no, not the Director) off to bed with appropriate instructions. He did us proud whilst playing, however, because on boards 9 and 10 we had a plus score at all four tables (92 IMPs in).
Retribution was at hand. Board 13 (unlucky for some, that is, us) cost us 56 lMPs. 5 +1 at one table, 6 -3 at another (one of the Rambos tried to make rather than settling for -1) and 4 on the nail at the third. The only consolation was +200 from the fairly obvious sacrifice at the fourth table. So we lose by 10 IMPs out of 242 total; 9-11. The hand:
Oxford next. Again very swingy, but no hand of special note. 176 IMPs. We take about two thirds; 16-4 again. And so to bed (after the compulsory post mortem in the bar, large malts galore) on 59 with Surrey on 58! Up at the crack of dawn because the team expect you to have done a Butler on the results so far (how meaningful is a Butler on four results?). It shows what you already knew by feel. The first news at breakfast is that the invalid has been up all night but when he eventually appears he says, again, that he is raring to go. You have one pair who protest that 10.30 is still the middle of the night so you rest them for the first seven boards and play invalid. This match is against Gloucestershire, and a factor which was beginning to get at you yesterday becomes a real worrier today. Anchor pair have regularly been three or four boards slower than the rest of the room, and this time with half the results in you are losing. What's more, one of the East/West pairs has ten minus scores (the other East/West and the North/South you know about have only seven) so you fear the worst. Time drags inexorably on, and you regret giving invalid all your "Imodium". However, in their own good time anchor pair brings in a massive card and we have just scraped 14-6. There were four minus scores on Board 3 but on Board 9 we made the slam twice and defeated it twice. Surrey have won 15-5 and you go into the penultimate match level with them, well clear of the rest of the field.
The time pressure also made you choose your next line-up before you knew the result, so you persevere with the same (ex-invalid seems fine, but you stay with them playing only the first seven boards). This match is against Warwickshire, and turns out to be the least swingy so far (only 143 IMPs). Once again your anchor pair is a long way behind, and once again you have to choose your line-up before you know what is happening. Ex-invalid is putting on pressure to play all 14 boards and two pairs are both saying that they are not playing well. You agonize, then play the doubting Thomases seven boards each. Anchor pair then come back with what is for them a poorish card - on Board 26 opponents bid to 3NT from the "wrong" (for us) hand, the club lead (obvious from the other hand) is not found and that is -22 IMPs. However, we have still won 13-7. Then, after it is too late to change the line-up, we hear that Oxfordshire have beaten Surrey and the Thomases can stop doubting. Into the last set leading Surrey 86-80 and we can't be caught for second place.
The last match is against Hants and lOW, lying bottom. "Don't get too confident", you say as if with more premonition. This time anchor pair are not so slow and you have your result before Surrey. Anchor pair went off in game on Board 40 (no one else in our match did) but there are Rambos again with the cold grand on Board 41 (no one else in our match bid it). Then, (for me, anyhow, actually watching East/West at the table), the hand of the weekend (Board 42):
At three tables the spade game North/South was bid and made, once with an overtrick. At the fourth, both members of the "ex-invalid" team managed to pass the East and West hands. North agonized for a while but passed. 25 IMPs, and we have won by 17. 12-8. Not enough, you think - Surrey now only need 18-2. Now is the real pain, because one Surrey pair are the slowest yet. Eventually they arrive, and you watch. Nobody tells you anything, but a team mate comes to you to say he heard that one board was minus 620 at all four tables! Minus 60 IMPs. You see the anguish on Surrey faces and then the director has made his announcement and you are up there for 't cup. You remember to thank the directors, the EBU for finding such a good venue, the hotel for being that venue and then the tears are coming and you quit whilst you are ahead.
The high spot of the weekend. Whilst in extremis waiting for the Surrey result most of the Manchester team come by and say they were rooting for you. So much for the needle!