Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Black Ball (a short short story)



The ceiling fan rattled. It did little to alleviate the late afternoon heat in the club's library, where a half dozen of the older members sat reading or dozing in wicker armchairs. A club servant in a white uniform and green fez went around collecting empty glasses, using a rag to wipe the tabletops.


Saunders saw that the servant was barefoot, and once again this annoyed him. It had been three months since he had proposed that cheap canvas shoes be provided to the club's native staff, and two weeks since he had again brought up the matter with the secretary. Why was the committee still so dilatory about it? No answer, not a word, just an impatient dismissive shake of the head. His son-in-law had a whole crate of the shoes in his warehouse by the harbor. If nothing was done soon, mildew and pilferage would overtake the inventory before you could say Jack Robinson.


Saunders ordered another gin and tonic, closing his eyes against the glare from the harbor beyond the veranda's balustrade. The servant nodded and padded away, his bare feet whispering softly on the varnished teak floor. "Make it a good one this time," Saunders called out after him


He dozed off for a few minutes, and then someone tapped him on the shoulder.


"Ballot time, old man."


It was McMartin, the membership chairman, who held out the ancient ballot box, a white cloth, and a sheet of paper.


"Who is it this time?" Saunders asked.


"Classmate of Kiernan's. Stanton by name. Just arrived in these parts a few weeks ago. Here's the application."


Saunders glanced quickly at the piece of paper. In the space for "occupation", the applicant Stanton had written "Importer". He looked up at McMartin. "What kind of importer?" he asked.


"Don't rightly know, old man. Whisky, Lancashire cotton, that sort of thing, I suppose."


Saunders opened the little drawer in the wooden ballot box that held the black and white balls. He placed the cloth in such a way that prevented McMartin from seeing his selection. "Whisky, eh?" he repeated. "God knows we have enough of that already."


McMartin said, "Wait, yes, now that I think about it, Kiernan did say something about shoes. Yes, cheap shoes. From India, actually."


Saunders glanced quickly under the white cloth, and picked up a black ball. He dropped this in the little square opening on top of the box. It fell with a thud in the felt-lined interior to register his vote.


"Shoes, you say?' Saunders muttered, handing the ballot box to McMartin, just as the servant returned with his gin and tonic on a tray. "Well, well, jolly good for him."


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