Maximus Decimus Meridius, he might not have been, but in his own way, he was a gladiator to his fans. Anyone who followed darts in the nineteen-eighties or nineties cannot fail to remember Sam Wildman. Even those who had no fondness for the game were caught up in his escapades away from the dartboard, where his aim seemed to be to live up to his surname.
Seen at the top clubs and casinos, always with a glamorous woman on his arm, usually a different one each time, he was ebullient, witty, handsome and, at a time when the usual darts stars were stretching their XXL nylon darts shirts to the limit with enormous beer bellies, Sam, though he liked his ‘ciggies,’ appeared slim and fit.
Everyone said he was a lovely man. It was only when he was under the influence of alcohol that he became abusive, aggressive, and gargantuan-headed. As Roger Merrill, doorkeeper at the Ritz, says of him, “We all loved Sam when he was sober. He could do great impersonations – Prince Charles, The Fonz, Shirley Temple, Fred Flintstone, you name it. Then you could give him a dart and he’d put an apple on someone’s head, usually a good-looking girl, and throw the dart right into the middle of it from ten feet away!”
“Did he ever miss?” I asked.
“Not when he was sober.” Roger gave a wry smile. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t very often.”
In happier times, Sam would come onstage, swinging on a vine, and dressed in a leopard skin leotard, before donning his official darts-wear and taking the permitted warm-up throws with his customary solid-gold ‘arrows.’ Then he’d be taking on the best of them. Eric Bristow, Bobby George (his ‘protégé’), John Lowe etc. in all those grand finals that had us glued to our sofas, TV sets, and cans of high-alcohol, turnip-flavoured lager. Whenever he planted three darts in the treble twenty for ‘a maximum’ of one hundred and eighty, the highest possible score with three darts, he would jab a finger towards his darts with his catchphrase ‘Bootiful darts!’ which would be echoed by his fans, much to the chagrin of his opponent.
Then, in 1994, he was beaten 6-1 in the BDO World Championship final by Jocky Wilson, his worst-ever result. Subsequently, it was as if he’d vanished into thin air. He was almost never seen in public again and, by all accounts, gave all his darts away, as if surfeited with the game he’d excelled at for so long. He never played it again.
Twenty years later, here I was, Duff McConaughey, sports reporter for the Daily Telegraph, assigned to track Sam Wildman down for the first interview since he’d disappeared from our TV screens all those many years ago.
I’d tramped the grimy streets of Bolton, Lancashire, asking in shops and pubs, knocking on doors.
“Do you know where Sam Wildman lives, y’know, the darts champion?” Whilst a few younger respondents looked at me as if I was from Mars, the majority gave a smile and a wink.
“Oh, good ol’ Sam, d’you remember him swingin’ onto t’stage with them solid gold darts! Oh, he were a good ‘un awright. But I dunno where he lives, didn’t even know he lived in Bolton, like.”
Finally, I struck gold. The landlady of The Stuck Pig told me where he lived. “Oh, I don’t think Irma will let you see ‘im, though. That’s ‘is wife, she’s German she is. ‘E’s a recluse, you see. Oh, but Sam was a laugh in the day wasn’ he? D’you remember when ….”
I tramped up two flights of dirty steps of a block of grim-looking flats, expecting to be accosted at any second by a group of drug-riddled skinheads, but I made it to a dingy corridor where lights flickered onto tiles sprayed with graffiti. There were four doors and I’d been told Sam lived at number 16.
The last thing I wanted to do was knock on that door, the whole thing seemed like a set-up, a horrible joke, when I noticed that the letterbox of number 16 looked new, not like the other dirty ones. Thinking of my fee for the ‘impossible interview’ I plucked up courage and rang the bell.
I rang again and waited.
There was no sound from within, so, with my heart in my mouth, I knocked softly, just once, thinking to get away from that place pronto. To my shock, the door was opened immediately by a huge woman with incongruously long white hair. She glared at me. “Das Bell ist kaput! Vot do you vont?”
“Oh, I’m Duff McConaughey from the Daily Telegraph, I was hoping to see Mr Wildman. I was told he lives here.” I showed my ID card.
Her large round face softened somewhat. “Ja, das ist wahr, Sammy lives here, but he vill not see you.”
“Look, I’ve come all the way from London. Are you Irma?”
“Jawohl, ich bin Irma, but Sammy, he keeps himself to himself. From the bed to the TV and from the TV to the bed.” She sighed. “Same thing every day.” Her green eyes reflected desperation and compassion in equal measure.
Attempting the seemingly impossible, I played my trump card. “Look, Irma, let me see Sammy, even if it’s just for five minutes. The Telegraph will have ten thousand pounds transferred to your bank account tomorrow.”
Irma planted two arms, speckled with age spots, across her huge chest. “Also gut, Sammy went bankrupt. We really need the money.” She raised her eyes to the ceiling. “But he still won’t see you. He only sees the doctors who come. His lungs, you know, and his liver. Es tut mir leid, I’m sorry.” With that, she closed the door in my face.
Outside, grateful to be back on the grimy street again, I looked up at the flats, trying to work out which Sam Wildman’s was. Trying to imagine a spiritless life encamped on the sofa in front of the television. Then I saw something that made me gasp. It seemed to be an enormous picture of Sam, held at a window. A picture of Sam, young, smiling, holding a huge trophy. I took out my phone and zoomed it to the maximum, taking a photo of what I realised was a poster, just as it disappeared, along with what might have been a zombie, who had been holding it up.
Taken from the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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