The Only Story(2)

The tennis club: who would have thought it might begin there? Growing up, I regarded the place as merely an outdoor branch of the Young Conservatives. I owned a racket and had played a bit, just as I could bowl a few useful overs of off-spin, and turn out as a goalkeeper of solid yet occasionally reckless temperament. I was competitive at sport without being unduly talented.

At the end of my first year at university, I was at home for three months, visibly and unrepentantly bored. Those of the same age today will find it hard to imagine the laboriousness of communication back then. Most of my friends were far-flung, and – by some unexpressed but clear parental mandate – use of the telephone was discouraged. A letter, and then a letter in reply. It was all slow-paced, and lonely.

My mother, perhaps hoping that I would meet a nice blonde Christine, or a sparky, black-ringleted Virginia – in either case, one of reliable, if not too pronounced, Conservative tendencies – suggested that I might like to join the tennis club. She would even sub me for it. I laughed silently at the motivation: the one thing I was not going to do with my existence was end up in suburbia with a tennis wife and 2.4 children, and watch them in turn find their mates at the club, and so on, down some echoing enfilade of mirrors, into an endless, privet-and-laurel future. When I accepted my mother’s offer, it was in a spirit of nothing but satire.

I went along, and was invited to ‘play in’. This was a test in which not just my tennis game but my general deportment and social suitability would be quietly examined in a decorous English way. If I failed to display negatives, then positives would be assumed: this was how it worked. My mother had ensured that my whites were laundered, and the creases in my shorts both evident and parallel; I reminded myself not to swear, burp or fart on court. My game was wristy, optimistic and largely self-taught; I played as they would have expected me to play, leaving out the shit-shots I most enjoyed, and never hitting straight at an opponent’s body. Serve, in to the net, volley, second volley, drop shot, lob, while quick to show appreciation of the opponent – ‘Too good!’ – and proper concern for the partner – ‘Mine!’ I was modest after a good shot, quietly pleased at the winning of a game, head-shakingly rueful at the ultimate loss of a set. I could feign all that stuff, and so was welcomed as a summer member, joining the year-round Hugos and Carolines.

The Hugos liked to tell me that I had raised the club’s average IQ while lowering its average age; one insisted on calling me Clever Clogs and Herr Professor in deft allusion to my having completed one year at Sussex University. The Carolines were friendly enough, but wary; they knew better where they stood with the Hugos. When I was among this tribe, I felt my natural competitiveness leach away. I tried to play my best shots, but winning didn’t engage me. I even used to practise reverse cheating. If a ball fell a couple of inches out, I would give a running thumbs up to the opponent, and a shout of ‘Too good!’ Similarly, a serve pushed an inch or so too long or too wide would produce a slow nod of assent, and a trudge across to receive the next serve. ‘Decent cove, that Paul fellow,’ I once overheard a Hugo admit to another Hugo. When shaking hands after a defeat, I would deliberately praise some aspect of their game. ‘That kicker of a serve to the backhand – gave me a lot of trouble,’ I would candidly admit. I was only there for a couple of months, and did not want them to know me.

After three weeks or so of my temporary membership, there was a Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles tournament. The pairings were drawn by lot. Later, I remember thinking: lot is another name for destiny, isn’t it? I was paired with Mrs Susan Macleod, who was clearly not a Caroline. She was, I guessed, somewhere in her forties, with her hair pulled back by a ribbon, revealing her ears, which I failed to notice at the time. A white tennis dress with green trim, and a line of green buttons down the front of the bodice. She was almost exactly my height, which is five feet nine if I am lying and adding an inch.

‘Which side do you prefer?’ she asked.


‘Forehand or backhand?’

‘Sorry. I don’t really mind.’

‘You take the forehand to begin with, then.’

Our first match – the format was single-set knockout – was against one of the thicker Hugos and dumpier Carolines. I scampered around a lot, thinking it my job to take more of the balls; and at first, when at the net, would do a quarter-turn to see how my partner was coping, and if and how the ball was coming back. But it always did come back, with smoothly hit groundstrokes, so I stopped turning, relaxed, and found myself really, really wanting to win. Which we did, 6–2.

As we sat with glasses of lemon barley water, I said,

‘Thanks for saving my arse.’

I was referring to the number of times I had lurched across the net in order to intercept, only to miss the ball and put Mrs Macleod off.

‘The phrase is, “Well played, partner”.’ Her eyes were grey-blue, her smile steady. ‘And try serving from a bit wider. It opens up the angles.’

I nodded, accepting the advice while feeling no jab to my ego, as I would if it had come from a Hugo.

‘Anything else?’

‘The most vulnerable spot in doubles is always down the middle.’

‘Thanks, Mrs Macleod.’


‘I’m glad you’re not a Caroline,’ I found myself saying.

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