To gurn: to snarl as a dog; to look savage; to distort the countenance.
The evening before the world gurning finals, I was looking for a reasonably priced restaurant in Egremont, Cumbria, when I peered through the window of a curry house and saw Barry Jenkins scarfing down a bhuna. Distractedly, I perused the menu, but I knew I wouldn't be dining at that particular restaurant, because he was there. Anyhow, the menu was full of inauthentic anglicised fair; curries that had been adapted for milder palettes, with dishes like Tikka Masalas and kormas making appearances. Not my sort of thing. Barry was sat with one of his gurning groupies. He was stretching his face in between mouthfuls, raising his eyebrows and distending his jaw, feigning that the spice was too much. It was the first time I’d seen his face in the flesh—his regimen had clearly enhanced all of his glamour muscles; only the superficial ones though. I, on the other hand, had been working on the deepest muscles in my face in preparation for the competition.
Instead of dining with my arch rival, I opted to look for another restaurant. An adequate Italian meal later, I walked back to the hotel to achieve the prescribed amount of rest required for peak muscular elasticity the next day. I got my head down by 10pm, but sleep eluded me for hours. Scenes of Barry and his floozy laughing it up and knocking back beers in the curry house were looping in my mind. How could he be so relaxed the night before the competition? He was pathological. I found myself feeling jealous of his loquaciousness, even though I hadn’t gotten into competitive gurning to socialise.
I’d always been able to contort my facial features. As a young boy, I would practise in the mirror every day, even before I knew that gurning was a ‘thing’ and that it could be done professionally. I kept my form of expression secret, and used it for my own amusement. Keeping it under the radar meant that I wouldn't be labelled a circus freak.
Barry Jenkins, on the other hand, had been a British Institution for decades--the most public gurner there was. He was a rockstar with an army of followers; posing for photographs with groupies, signing their breasts, and selling t-shirts and tobacco tins plastered with his ugly mug. The prestige of being a nine-time world champion meant nothing to him; he was just a good-time boy, along for the ride—an anally expulsive greaser in a leather jacket with functional alcoholism.
I’d been entering competitions and steadily climbing the world rankings for the past few years, and Gurn magazine had seen it fit to call me the ‘most exciting new talent on the scene’, which I found a tad irritating, given all my meticulous hard work over the years. I didn’t just pop out of nowhere. Anyhow, the world finals were my opportunity to knock Barry off the top spot on the podium, and I had every intention of doing so.
As I was strolling back to my hotel, past the curry house, Barry spilled out of the restaurant, absolutely sozzled, his arm wrapped around his groupie. I cursed myself for not having taken a different route.
‘Trevor Beasley! Pint for a come with us?’
‘Come for a pint with you, do you mean?’ I pushed my glasses as high as they would go on the bridge of my nose. ‘No, Barry. I suggest you forgo the beer and get some rest. You look like you’ve had enough to drink already.’
As I awkwardly ambled around Barry’s imposing figure in the narrow street, I couldn’t make out his incomprehensible blethering. The smell of beer and cigarettes was overwhelming, and I pitied the misguided woman who had fallen under his spell. She was just one of many. I hurriedly strode back to the hotel only to squirm in a fitful sleep with visions of Barry and his floozy's nocturnal activities.
The morning of the competition, I ate two grapefruit halves, as I usually do, in front of the mirror to get in the sour spirit. I checked my form: bottom lip tuck; check. Fludgeonblahl scrunch; easy peasy. Forehead ploughs; effortless. Grapefruits are my answer to crabapples which are the original inspiration behind gurning. The first competition is thought to have been held at Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria (the crab part being crabapple) in 1297.
I was ready to take on the gurning god, and kill his rock ’n’ roll dead with an epochal special move that I’d been conjuring in secret. Or so I thought. Not long after I had finished my grapefruit, I began to feel my face going numb. I struggled to raise an eyebrow or move my lips. I called my manager up immediately.
‘Lynn, thish ish an emergency. I curn’t muve moiy faishe.’
‘Is that Trevor? You sound like a bad ventriloquist. . .’
‘I shaid, I curn’t muve moiy faishe.'
‘You shouldn’t joke about things like that on competition day.’
‘Arm not bloody chjokin’
It was then that I asked myself the question--had Barry paid one of the hotel staff to interfere with my breakfast? A grapefruit would be easy to inject with a numbing agent. Yes, he almost certainly had—I was sure of it. My paranoia seemed like rigorous logic.
‘Barry Chjenkins did it!’ I yelled down the phone at Lynn, then hung up.
With two hours to go until competition time, I stormed down the hotel corridor, and prodded the elevator button furiously until the metal box arrived. On the ground floor, I shuffled double-quick to the conference room, where spectators were already arriving. When I’d located an official who could interpret my slurred speech, I assured her that I was not having a stroke. I reported that saboteur Jenkins, but it took four times for her to understand me. She took me to my dressing room and assured me that she’d be contacting an anaesthetist to examine me. I demanded that Jenkins be detained before he could do any more damage to any of the other competitors. When Barry waltzed in casually with his hair greased back, reeking of cigarettes, like Fonzie with the sleaze turned up to eleven, he acted like we were old pals. ‘Beasley. How goes it? Ready to rock?’
‘After what you did to meee?’
‘Blimey. So you did get sozzled last night, after all? I thought you were gonna take it easy? Eight pints for me, and no hangover. That’s Irish blood for ya.’
When the anaesthetist arrived, he told me that my grapefruit had likely been laced with lidocaine, a local anaesthetic. He said that he could administer drugs in an attempt to reverse the numbness, but it would be risky for a man of my age, and my heart might not be best pleased. He suggested that I just wait it out.
‘Can’t the competition wait until tomorrow?’ The doctor asked. ‘The effects will definitely have worn off by then.’
The lady acting as official frowned deeply. ‘But our audience have bought tickets for today.’
‘Well, we can’t do anything but wait,’ the doctor concluded. After an awkward silence, he asked, ‘isn’t Jenkins vs Beasley the rivalry that everyone wants to see? Real fans would wait, wouldn't they?’
The official stroked her chin in thought. ‘What if Barry competes with someone from another heat today?’
‘Nope,’ Barry said. 'I’ll take on Trevor or I’ll take on no one.'
And that sealed the deal—we were to compete the following day. The punters were turned away, and those that desired them were given refunds. But as Barry said, ‘Screw ‘em. The real fans will understand.' Perhaps I had underestimated his character somewhat.
'This’—Barry pointed at me, then at himself—‘is what people are here to see. This is where it's at.'
Needless to say, I sourced my own breakfast the next morning; packaged cereal that had no chance of being tampered with. During my mirror routine, my moves were fresh, my muscles limber. The only difference in my countenance was a small dent in my pride for having stalled such a prestigious event.
As expected, there were dozens of empty seats because of the change of date. The atmosphere, though, did not suffer. It still provided me with flutters as I stood side-stage. I was peeking at a glass case atop a plinth which housed the gurning horse collar behind red velvet curtains. We would be donning this leather apparatus around our necks to frame our faces during competition--after the lesser gurners had competed for second, third, and fourth places.
With moments to go until I took the stage, I performed my final checks. My chops were as refined as ever. I sipped a vending machine hot chocolate, narrowly avoiding another pre-competition mishap and scolding my lips. I’d been preparing all my own food and beverages just to be sure I wouldn’t be drugged again. I removed my top and bottom teeth and placed them in a glass of water by the mirror before striding up to the stage. I visualised the unveiling of my new move, which I had dubbed Avalon. I had only managed to perform it once, satisfactorily.
‘Ladies and gentlemen. Give it up for. . . Trevor Beasley!’
I entered from stage left and was greeted with a modest round of applause. A few whoops and hollers followed.
‘And now, please welcome, the champion. It's world-renowned chin-swinger, Mr Barry Jenkins!’
A furious ovation was launched stage-ward as Barry swaggered onstage in his 50’s greaser gear. We met the referee at centre-stage, who instructed us to shake hands and bow. Barry smiled in a friendly way, but I wasn’t falling for that. I kept as straight a face as possible when not gurning to allow for a greater contrast.
Barry and I took our positions either side of the referee. The adjudicator pulled a gold-coloured tassel, parting the red curtains to reveal the leather-bound gurning hoop inside. The ceremony gave me the shivers. I won the coin toss and opted to go first. As I mentally rehearsed my three poses, the three judges looked on expectantly.
On competition day, there could be no half measures—unleash maximum contortion or go home. After I’d put my head through the horse collar and framed my face, I extended my jaw outwards and upwards and brought my bottom lip over my nose. My eyebrows arched so high that they might have been mistaken for a my former hairline. A classic move. A safe one to start with. I held the gurn for a good ten seconds before releasing it. I raised my hands to acknowledge the applause, and handed the horse collar back to the referee.
Barry looked indifferent as ever; he wasn’t easily rattled. After donning the horse collar, he popped his eyes almost out of their sockets and deepened the furrows of his crow’s feet. His cheeks had been pushed nearly to his temples. The crowd lapped it up—an adoration that was louder than my own, but I couldn't let it get to me. I still had two more poses up my sleeve, including my new signature move. After that raucous display of approval for Barry, I decided to go full pelt and unleash Avalon. After donning the hoop, I made my top lip go left, and my bottom lip go right. My nose scrunched to such a small proportion, it looked like a peach pit with its furrows. I jumped and stomped on the stage for emphasis, bending my knees slightly to enhance the power of the gurn. There was a stunned silence for a moment. The move was different. Innovative. I held my position. When I released it, the function room erupted into a cacophony of appreciation. Barry held out his hands and shook his head in disbelief. The discipline I’d shown in stretching my face daily had paid off big time, and I was riding the biggest high of my competitive gurning life. Barry smiled with a tinge of melancholy. I handed him the horse collar. He pursed his lips, protruded his chin, and widened his eyes slightly; the most pedestrian gurn that I’d ever seen. I knew he could do better. I’d seen him do it through the curry house window last night without even trying. He still had five seconds on the timer to improve, but he let the clock run out. He’d given up. He dropped the hoop, gestured helplessly at the audience and judges, then slunk off the stage. There were murmurs of confusion in the crowd. World champion Barry Jenkins had just deliberately performed the most mediocre gurn of his career. Had he fallen on his sword for me? My feelings about the man were growing more complicated by the minute.
The referee ran after Barry and tried to talk him into playing the last frame, but he was having none of it. When the referee came back onstage, he took my arm and thrust it up into the air, announcing to the crowd, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for the new world champion gurner, Trevor Beasley!’
I grinned as I was handed the trophy; it was a large golden cup cast in my own gurning likeness with my signature big ears. But it was at that moment, when I held myself aloft by the ears, that I realised for the first time that I admired Barry. He never said as much, not even when we finally went for a pint together when we became friendly, but I think that he did fall on his sword deliberately. Maybe he was bored of winning. Maybe he felt like a change. Maybe he saw that I deserved the title more than him because I cared more. Maybe he was just too damn hungover to give a toss. Anyway, I felt sad that he’d given up in such an undignified way, so I asked for him to be brought onstage so that we could hold the trophy aloft together for the press to photograph. Of course, he refused, but he stayed for one or two photos.
‘There’s always next year,’ I said.
‘Not for me. This is my last,' Barry said. It was as if he'd decided on the spot.
My special move had killed him dead. Just as I'd intended. And I felt rotten, so I never did work up the courage to ask him if he was the one who organised my lidocaine laced breakfast. My avoidance of the topic might also have something to do with the fact that the whole grapefruit shenanigan had been a tactic of mine to throw Barry off on competition day. Yes, I'd administered the lidocaine myself. But I've been too busy polishing up my trophy like nobody's business to tell anyone that. I trust that you can keep it a secret for me.