Croquet was known throughout the company to be the Old Man’s game. Sooner or later, any employee who caught his eye on their way up the ranks would get The Invitation, sometime in early summer. “Purely social thing,” he’d say. “But I’m having a few people down to my place in Gloucestershire for the weekend. Care to come?” The only acceptable answer was yes.
Three would be invited to make up the party. They would present themselves on Saturday in time for lunch – and to take in the crunchy gravel, the ornamental lake, the vast poplar-colonnaded drive, the neoclassical frontage. They’d have an awkward afternoon as the boss held forth. But it was known, company-wide, that the main event took place before Sunday lunch. “Anyone for a game of croquet? I’ve a bit of a lawn.” The only acceptable answer was yes.
New recruits were discreetly advised to brush up. Careers were rumoured to have faltered over such faux pas as not knowing that Wimbledon had started as a croquet club, or swinging the mallet like a golf club; they were rumoured to have ended over putting a foot on the ball after a roquet. “Croquet,” the Old Man was fond of saying, “reveals all human life: tactics, patience, skill, cunning, teamwork – and a highly developed ruthless streak that is the mark of true greatness.”
The other thing that was known, company-wide, was that the Old Man cheated something rotten. He’d get his guests sloshed on Bloody Mary (his own were rumoured to be Virgin). He always played the black ball (“Host’s eccentricity”) and he always played last (“Novices first!” he’d boom, with a great show of generosity, as if being first to play was an advantage).
He was not above discreetly tilting a hoop to ensure his ball was deemed “through” – nor, it was thought, nudging a ball with the side of his foot here and there. And, duly, he always won. When Ernest Franklin got The Invitation, he was torn. On the one hand, he wished for only the goodwill of his employer. On the other, he was quite good at croquet, and considered cheating at croquet immoral – but, mostly, like anyone who is quite good at croquet, he really hated losing at croquet.
So he – like anyone who is quite good at croquet – put his scruples to one side and decided to cheat. When he rolled up at Poplar Hall on Saturday in his hired Daimler (his Micra, he thought, might make the wrong impression), he had a secret weapon in the boot. After dinner, under cover of “a smoking break”, he unleashed it. Sneaking into the croquet shed, he replaced the black ball with an identical ball – made to order, and precisely 2mm wider in diameter. Game on.
The following morning, even the Old Man’s most accurate strokes saw his ball stall disappointingly in the hoop. His bonhomie evaporated fast. Ernest’s strong, confident start – propelling his partner Marjorie through the second hoop with a deftly judged croquet and re-roqueting her with the continuation shot – earned a teeth-gritted, “Played”. “We used to bash about a bit at my seminary,” said Ernest, modestly.
By the time Ernest was on the fifth hoop – having performed roquet after roquet, efficiently banishing the Old Man and his partner to opposite ends of the lawn time after time – the swearing was audible. Finally: clunk! Ernest pegged Marjorie out, added insult to injury by clonking the Old Man into the dahlias, and pegged himself out.
Ernest made a very great show of humility. “Just luck, Sir,” he said, and extended his hand for a handshake without the hint of a smirk.
The Old Man ignored him. He leant down and picked up his ball. He had a frown on his face. Then he picked up the yellow ball – the nearest to hand. He put them side by side. He held them up to the light. And then he put them, ruminatively, through the nearest hoop, leaning down to look at the clearance.
Ernest felt the blood drain from his face. The Old Man raised himself up and looked at him very directly and with great severity. “Mr Franklin, I think we need to have a private talk,” he said. He left a long pause. “About a promotion.”