The Story of Michael Clark
By Phil Smith

Michael was supposed to be a girl; a beautiful baby girl, with golden locks, and a pretty smile. So desperate was his mother for a daughter, that when her child turned out to be of the wrong gender, she hid the fact from his father, falsified the birth certificate, and passed the child off as a girl. Thus Michael was actually born Michelle Anna Clark. It was not until the age of seven that the truth about Michael was discovered. By this point, mother and child were living alone, and the mental state of the former had faltered: when little Michelle was found to have the wrong equipment to be a Michelle, he was taken into care and his mother sent to an institution. The rest of his childhood is not a pleasant story as Michael (now formally called so) was always the outcast, never sure of where he belonged and who he really was.

Once he was old enough to leave school, Michael decided that the world of those living on land was not for him and joined the merchant navy. His first voyage was on a goods ship headed for Australia, working in the engine room as an assistant mechanic. Although life in the noisy, smelly engine room of a ship is not what most people would consider to be the good life, for Michael it was the first time that he didn't feel out of place. The master engineer was a good natured, if eccentric, man who would start every day by saying "good'y Michael, what animal will I be today?" Michael would respond by telling him the name of an animal, and the master would act like that animal all day. The devotion to this — even when talking to the captain, he would simply say 'moo' if he were being a cow for the day — appealed to the young man, and the two became friends. It wasn't long before Michael, too, started becoming an animal every day. Many a day was spent on the ship where the conversations would go, 'Oink, Oink' 'Baa, Baa'. Truly these were the happiest days of Michael's life.

It was a sad day when the whole crew of the ship was struck down with cabin fever and the Master Engineer died from the illness. Michael was inconsolable and demanded that he be put aground on the nearest island. The first island they came to was the volcanic island of Reunion: Michael left the ship as soon as it had docked and drank himself into a stupor in the bars of St-Dennis. He emerged three months later having spent every penny he owned on cheap red wine and even cheaper Evian water. With no money, and only a vague grasp of the native language, Michael again tried his hand at making a living from the ocean, this time as a fisherman. Again isolated from those around him, due to language and culture, depression soon set in, and every evening was spent walking on the rocky shores of the island. Until one day, on a solitary walk, he saw a bottle floating in the water. He fished it out and found that it was a corked bottle with a piece of paper inside.

The piece of paper was a little the worse for wear, and it had obviously been in the bottle for years. On one side of the page was an address: PFH bar, Durham, England. On the other side of the page was the following:

SA K J 7 5
HA J 3
DA K J 7 6

Should I have opened this 2C (we missed the diamond slam)?

Michael may have been a fisherman, a ship's mechanic, and a gender-confused infant in his life, but he was no fool: he could see that this must relate to a card game: but what kind of card game could be so important that this question should have been put into a bottle and thrown at sea? What kind of tormented spirit would feel the need to bottle up his angst and physically throw it out to sea? Could this person (or these people) be his new soul-mates — the ones who would truly understand and embrace this outcast — in the way that no-one else ever had? He had to find out, and thus he had to return to his native England, a place he so understandably loathed.

So he worked day and night on the boat and in the fish refinery and saved up enough money for the fare back to England. It was with trepidation that he first walked into PFH bar, clutching the piece of paper in one hand and all his earthly possessions in another and asked the bartender if the people who wrote this were around. And there in the corner were four odd looking fellows with a pack of cards sitting around a table, beer in hand. I remember his very words to this day:

"I've come from the Island of Reunion in the Indian ocean. I have to know: should the writer have opened the hand 2C?"

There was a pause. We all looked at the hand and there was a simultaneous 'yes' and 'no'. The argument started. It went on and on. No-one asked about the large scar on his forehead received when a drunken maniac attacked him with a wrench outside a brothel in Iquique. No-one noticed that he had no fingernails — lost in Sao Luis when he rescued three small children from an acid spillage. Not a thought was spared for the fact that half his head was shaven and the other half was long and dyed blue — a stunt carried out for the amusement of a local wealthy man on Reunion in return for money. Even the fact that he had travelled around half the world to find out the answer to a bridge question when he obviously didn't even know anything about the game seemed to bother anyone. Just the hand.

And Michael had found his true home at last: a place where it wasn't about him, it was about the bridge. And when everything went wrong, it was about poorbridge. A virtue was made out of all that was apparently cast out and out of place. Michael, more than any of the other founders of poorbridge.com, understands personally the importance of this ideal: even that which has been discarded as odd, unconventional and distasteful to the masses may have great merit. It is, after all, the story of his life too.