How many pips are there on the r-r-r-radio before the news?”
The walls wept with sweat and tension. Each team of five stood together in a row for most of the contest but in the tie breaker round the two nominees were appointed front of stage, each to the left or right. They were not allowed to confer with their teammates and the judges’ decision was final.
The quiz master was a local schoolteacher. He sat uncomfortably to the left of the stage in an ill fitting, chalk dusted brown suit. Miss Henchy, keeper of the parish hall and the flowers on the altar, sat beside him on a short, wooden bench. She was keeping score and time. They both leaned on a small table facing the two teams.
Barry Murphy was the hope of the visitors but this wasn’t his question to answer. A lanky boy, two years his senior, was the nominee for the other team. Beads of sweat covered his upper lip. Barry felt his own tongue swell as he faced this hostile village, agog with silence in the smoky hall. Even the coughers and hackers were silent for this penultimate moment.
The seconds ticked away like the PIP…PIP…PIP…PIP…PIP…PIP popping in his head, it’s eight o’clock and here is the news, read by…’
‘Six,’ Murphy shouted just as time ran out for his opposite number and Miss Henchy poised to pass the question over.
A nanosecond of suspenseful silence followed.
‘C-c-c-correct,’ said the quiz master.
The hall erupted. There were whoops and cheers from Murphy’s side, a boast of parents, priests, teachers, GAA officials and some classmates. These were met with howls of derision and protest from the home side.
-‘He answered too soon, it should be disallowed.’
They crowded and jostled the quizmaster who retreated to a corner to confer with the cassocked parish priest. Miss Henchy stood sentinel between the huddled pair and baying mob. A teacher from the visiting school joined the huddle.
The lanky boy from the opposite team cried, inconsolable and indifferent to the ministrations of his teammates. The crowd jostled and argued but stayed clear of the judges’ huddle in deference to Ms Henchy and her sharp tongue.
‘This is no faction fight,’ she said, ‘so hold yir tempers and yir tongues ‘til we hear the judges.’
The annual Muintir na Tire (Country People) primary school quiz contest had become a battle ground for local honour in parish politics after the school team was narrowly beaten in a hotly contested semi-final against a neighbouring village the previous year.
This year’s team was tipped to go the distance after dispatching the previous year’s champions in the first round. Young Barry Murphy, although the youngest in the team, was their ace in the hole and the only survivor from the team defeated in last year’s semi-final.
Barry watched the boy from the other team. He appeared to have shrunk and capsized within himself. He remembered him from former contests, quick witted and cheerful, friendly, too. He felt he’d let the air out of his tires.
No-one took any notice, all eyes were on the huddle of judges. The room buzzed like a disturbed hive of angry wasps. The contestants were ushered off the stage to a room behind the hall where soft drinks and tea were laid on and sandwiches with thin slices of ham, egg and onion and slivers of cheddar. No-one ate or drank. They could see the stage through the open door.
Nothing was left to chance this year. The team had its own coach, the secretary of the local GAA club and an active member of the parent/teachers committee. He attended other quiz heats and compiled a list of questions. He bought books on general knowledge quizzes, a bunch of encyclopaedia and encouraged the team members to watch a schedule of tv quiz shows.
“Keep your eyes open and your wits sharp,” he said, “the questions will always be drawn from things you are likely to know, from things that are going on all around you, whether it’s history, geography, current affairs, films or music, …it’s all there in front of you if you’re prepared to look for it and find it!”
When the quizmaster asked the tiebreak question Murphy experienced a moment of subconscious clarity. He stood there front stage, staring into the stinking mist, his mind, encased in a light of sublime calm, began to recount the pips…’Pip..Pip..Pip..Pip..Pip..Pip’ and the familiar Radio Eireann announcer’s voice said, It’s eight o’clock, this is Radio Eireann, here is the news read by….’
“Six,” he shouted as the soft yellow light burst like a bubble round his head and the noise and tumult, caused by his premature response, blasted him back to reality.
‘Woooohooooo,’ the crowd roared as the quizmaster took to the stage. They pressed closer. Divested of his jacket, tie loosened, stains of sweat darkening his cuff worn shirt. In his agitation he dropped the crumpled sheet of paper in his hand and bent to retrieve it.
‘Go on, Pat,’ a voice shouted, ‘we’ll carry the day.’ Ms Henchy joined him on the stage and cast a cold eye to silence the room.
“AAAaaaaah,” the quizmaster began, “first, I’d like you all to show your appreciation of our v-v-v-visitors and their part in tonight’s s-s-s-s-porting and e-e-e-xc-c-c-iting contest…”
Barry Murphy felt sick. He felt his gorge rise in a wave of bilious nausea and stumbled to the toilet.
Onstage, the quizmaster was met with silence until the parish priest rose from his seat to clap loudly. The crowd growled.
Holding his hands aloft to silence them, the priest said, in support of the quizmaster, “this has been a great night of entertainment and we mustn’t shame ourselves in the face of our guests. There are some here tonight,” he added, sweeping the room, “who might do well to show as much enthusiasm for prayer as they do for contention and barracking.”
Then having spoken his piece he sat down indicating with a silent nod for the quizmaster to continue.
In the bathroom cubicle, Murphy felt the acidic rush burn his throat. His body heaved and shuddered.
‘Are you alright?’
He spat, tore a strip of toilet paper from the roll and wiped the sweat and spit from his face.
‘I’m fine,’ he said, standing up and turning. The lanky boy from the other team stood there, a look of concern in his hangdog face.
‘I know. I’m Jimmy.’
They stared at each other for what felt like a ten minute conversation but was over in a second. They shook hands.
Outside the quizmaster retrieved his sheet and composure, wiped his brow, settled a stray lank lock in his comb-over, straightened his tie and cleared his throat, “thank you, f –f- father and I’d also l-l-l-like to extend a w-w-w- warm and f-f-f-f-friendly greeting to F-f-f-Father Greely of our neighbouring parish as well as the teachers, parents and su-su-supporters of the other team.” Desultory applause followed until the parish priest stirred and swivelled in his seat. The volume of applause rose.
” ‘Twas a t-t-t-t-ightly fought contest, we’d all agree,” the questioner began again, “but in the end there can only be one w-w-w-winner.”
“They’re still tied,” came a disgruntled voice from the crowd. “They should be disqualified for cheating,” came another. At which point the parish priest shot from his seat and vaulted with one hand onto the stage and surveyed the room, redolent with body odours, tobacco smoke and fearful silence.
“Both teams deserve a w-w-warm r-r-round of applause,” the quizmaster, emboldened, continued .
“Get on with it.”
Even the parish priest was losing patience.
“Having answered the tie break question s-s-s-s-uccessfully,” he went on, but his voice was drowned by the uproar that followed, ” the v-v-v-isitors are the v-v-v-victors.”
There was no time to celebrate or commiserate with the vanquished before the visitors were whisked from the hall by a back door into the convoy of waiting cars. Supporters jostled with the angry home team crowd as they scrambled into the cars. One girl scraped her shin against a car’s door in her haste and cried out with pain.
Horns blared as they left the village in their wake. The convoy of cars lit up the night sky like a colourful streamer in a parade.