Theme Parks and Obstacle Courses
Wally and Johnny were standing outside the sliding door to the pub when Pat got back. Wally was dressed in full lycra; white, orange and lime. A racing bike with a matching colour scheme leaned against the brickwork beside him.
“You look like a fucking radioactive boiled egg,” said Pat.
“Gee, Pat, tell us what you really think. Don’t hold back now.”
“Are you coming or going?”
“Coming. I just brought my new bike home from the store.”
“Want to go to the gym?” asked Pat, his pockets bulging with his fists.
“Can’t. I’m going to see my personal trainer / tennis coach.”
“You can’t – I’m riding my new bike.”
“Then you can dink me on the fuckin’ handlebars. I’m coming.” Tennis would make an excellent outlet; it was that or stay at home, drawn ever downward into the vortex of his own thoughts. Rather than relief, the sessions with Helen of late seemed to make the vortex spin even faster.
Pat had changed into his tennis outfit; long camouflage shorts and t-shirt, along with his running shoes. One of the nodes on the sole had begun to peel away. He poked at it with his racquet. Wally soon emerged from the change rooms with his bike helmet clipped to his bag. Gone were the ‘Gilligan’s Island’-style denim cutoffs; he wore longish basketball shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, matching, from the Nike store. The Re:Public was turning a dollar and the evidence was creeping into Wally’s lifestyle from the edges. New bike here, refurbished warehouse there, designer sports gear as well. And, worst of all, the bastard was losing weight.
“Pat, I’d like you to meet my tennis coach, Nir.”
“Pat,” said Pat, extending his hand to the small, wiry man on the other side of the net.
“Hello,” said Nir, sliding his strong, thin hand into Pat’s. The hand felt all bones, like he had a grip on a handful of cutlery. Nir had wide, brilliant blue eyes and olive skin.
“Where are you from?”
“Israel. My wife is from here.”
“Nir is a barista who used to be a tennis pro,” said Wally. “He bats me around the court once a week.”
“Looking forward to it,” Pat said, striking the edge of his shoe with the frame of his racquet. The instrument hummed.
“Pat’s feeling a little bit Apocalypse Now today and insisted I bring him along.”
“Ah yes,” said Nir, laughing.
“You need to make him run,” said Wally.
“That, I think, we can do.”
Wally and Nir stood at one end of the court, while Pat stood at the other. He was far too distracted by Rita, and by all the garbage he had loosened in Dr Helen’s office, to paralyse his game with over-analysis. The racquet twitched in his hand. Wally served, while Nir stood watching. The ball came swiftly over the net, as swift as a swallow. With the precision of the preoccupied, Pat returned it. The day turned in his stomach like a black hole; detritus and gas spinning around the edges of a voracious nothing.
Wally came forward and chipped the ball back. Pat ran in for the rally and returned it cautiously, knowing he couldn’t afford to come too close to the net; because he was not as agile, Wally would out-manoeuvre him at close range. Wally rallied and sent it spinning into the air. The spin was misleading and Pat realised the ball was moving faster than anticipated. He bent his elbow at an awkward angle, but the racquet found the ball. It came down close to Wally’s feet and he had to jump aside to return the shot. This time, the ball came back along the same trajectory as his previous hit, but without the spin. Pat was in precisely the right position and he adroitly smashed the ball into the corner of Wally’s service box and out.
Wally acknowledged Pat’s point with a readjustment of his shorts band as he turned his back and stalked to the base line. Nir threw him a ball on the way. Striking a professional pose, Wally pressed the ball to the strings, stuck out his butt and threw it upward. He reached with the racquet and hammered the serve. The angle was wrong; it slammed into the canvas band at the top of the net.
“Fault,” said Wally, to himself as much as anyone. He served again, this time a little softer. This ball came straight toward Pat, as obedient as a guard dog. He swung and missed. He looked down, amazed the shot had gotten away.
“Fuck it,” said Pat, under his breath. The point didn’t really worry him. Last time they had played it had been all about competition but today, for Pat, the game was about catharsis. He wanted a hard game in order to vent his anxiety. Once exhausted, he would be too tired to torment himself any further.
The next ball was short and sharp; Wally re-attempted his fast serve. The ball that crossed the net was almost angry and Pat met it with enthusiasm. The rally became swift and aggressive with Wally descending to the net. He swatted the ball straight down and stepped back, but Pat dove forward and got his racquet under, scooping it up and over and hopelessly beyond retrieval.
“YES!!! HOWDAYALIKETHOSEAPPLES!!!” he yelled, falling to his knees, ecstatic.
“You do not play golf, do you?” asked Nir, joking.
“They don’t approve of the shorts,” Pat replied, standing up and dusting the grit from his knees.
“Lleyton Hewitt with tourettes,” observed Wally.
“What is ‘tourettes?”
“It’s the disease where you can’t help swearing.”
“I see. I think many people in Australia have that,” said Nir.
“Just serve the ball, eggman,” said Pat, levelling the racquet as if it was the barrel of a gun.
Wally returned to the baseline and caught the ball Nir threw. He bounced it a couple of times, and then held it as if it were an idea.
“Ready, Sasquatch?” he asked. Pat slitted his eyes. Evidently, the gloves were off.
The ball was tossed up slow, but the racquet found it fast. A sharp pock slapped against the block of flats next door. The ball kicked up, Wally having aimed for his body. He fended off the shot more than returned it, but fortunately, it made it back over the net. Wally zig-zagged across its path and slapped it back. Again, Pat had to back up to hit the ball, barely having space to extend his racquet. This time, Wally came right down to the net in the time the high-arcing ball provided, courtesy of Pat’s desperate return. He stretched up like he did when serving and hammered the ball down. Pat had to leap out of the way to avoid being hit by it. Nir wasn’t looking at either of them, but he nodded his approval with the slightest movement of his head.
As Wally warmed up, he started to show the capacity he had been concealing behind a rock-and-roll exterior all these years. Less alcohol and cigarettes meant he had been able to develop some fitness, which meant he had the energy to employ his skill. Even the psoriasis on his legs was in abeyance; the skin being a flushed pink, rather than a scaly, angry red. He moved assertively, rather than gingerly. Pat found that as Wally showed more of his ability, he seemed to bring it out of Pat. Pat was much bigger and heavier, but stronger as well and when the rally provided the opportunity, he’d hack and slash, smashing the ball through Wally’s defence.
Wally and Pat met at the gate for a drink of water. The insults were long forgotten; they were joined to one another by the quest to beat the agitation out of themselves.
“Don’t drink too much,” said Nir as he pushed a ball into his pocket and thoughtfully bounced a second between court and racquet. “We will play doubles. Or, you two against me.”
Nir bounced the ball absently a couple of times, then twice more, fast and authoritatively. He lifted it overhead against the strings, as if both ball and racquet had to be lifted together as a kind of supplication to the Gods of Good Tennis. As the racquet reached its apex the ball separated from it to continue to climb and then, as if it were all part of the same mysterious pendulum, the racquet swung to meet the ball as it fell. It leapt off the strings a different creature; more like a hornet than an inanimate, fuzzy rubber shell. As the ball tolled against the court, louder and shorter-lived than any sound Wally had been able to elicit from it, Pat instinctively knew that everything about his posture was wrong. He was too close when it landed; his arm couldn’t extend because of his feet and many other shreds of essential information crowded his conscious mind like the synaptic flashes of a blinking fluorescent tube. The opportunity had come and gone; the entire life of the serve had expired with that sound, as conclusive as a gun shot.
“Fifteen Love,” said Wally, spinning his racquet and bending his legs ambitiously.
“We won’t score,” said Nir. It was intended to be friendly, but Pat absorbed it as condescension.
“Yeah, right,” he said, and felt Wally steal a look at him.
Nir’s second serve was a similar affair, but slower. The first one was to let them know where they stood as inferiors. Pat made a show of running easily to intercept it. Nir turned and hit the ball to Wally, who returned more aggressively. When Pat hit a ball, he was happy if rubber met strings and the ball crossed the net; it was equivalent to James Bond living to fight another day. When Nir hit, however, it was precise. While Wally could aim for your body, Nir could aim for your hand, or your knee, or your head.
Nir rallied with Wally for a few shots, placing his returns closer and closer to the vertical line that delineated Pat’s and Wally’s halves. Wally had to stretch further and further, just making each return, until the top of his racquet met the ball instead of the strings. The fibreglass frame gave a wooden buzzing sound as the ball caromed off, parallel with the net. Pat flashed out with his own racquet and batted the ball straight down the back of the court. It landed a few feet inside the base line.
“Score!” said Pat, throwing his racquet into the net. “Howzat!”
“Can you have a lay-up in tennis?” asked Wally, laughing.
“In our game, I think you can,” said Nir. “15 all.”
The three played for some time, people coming off and on the other courts around them. They scored for a few games, but gave it away soon enough; the most compelling thing was the next point. Nir settled into his style, Wally recovered his and Pat reached towards his own, pushed right up as he was against the fundamental limitations of his ability by the other two players.
The descending sun flared against the top of the chain-link fence, cutting into Pat’s vision. The grip tape of the racquet stuck to the raw, chafed skin of his hands. Wally had been sitting out for the last couple of games; bag in front of his feet, water bottle in his lap. Pat had developed enough of a feel for Nir’s game to occasionally surprise him. They were playing like kids now, where rules were important primarily as a framework for play. Nir and Pat sallied right down to the net. Pat swung a wild shot that almost escaped Nir; he had to swat it back reflexively, and couldn’t modulate the speed. This ramped up the intensity. Nir, now having to fight to regain control of the point, started to push Pat hard. Pat ran and leaped after each shot, returning each one.
“Way to go, Patty!” said Wally, sounding surprise as much as encouragement. And, like a kid that suddenly realises it can swim when it’s out of its depth, Pat realised he had become a different player to the one who had walked on the court earlier that afternoon.
Pat began to sound the true depths of Nir’s ability as his capacity extended. He made a shot he was sure to get past, stretching arm and racquet out, superman-style. Nir stayed tight, however, and sliced with his racquet to bring the return right down the middle of Pat’s gracefully extended figure. The ball slipped under his arm and away, possessed by its own trajectory as surely as a bird. Pat landed funny, his ankle unstable on the ground that came up underneath him too early. He felt his shoe slide in the sand as he fell, momentum grinding his knee into the Astroturf.
He broke his fall with his back hand and pushed himself to standing, using his racquet to assist, like a crutch. Nir came to the net. Pat went to meet him, presumably to shake hands, but Nir shifted his racquet to his other hand and pointed. Pat followed the finger down, and looked at his knee. Blood flowed down his shin from the bright red graze on his knee.
“Blood,” said Nir. “That’s good.”
The three went into the café in single file, Pat holding the door for three university-age girls as they left. The last girl smiled and dropped her eyes as she went past, and Pat felt a thrill in the pit of his stomach. Nir went to a table and sat with his back against a wall. Seeing Nir had taken the seat he had wanted, Pat went to the seat next to him, facing into the room. Wally sat facing the two of them, with his back to the door.
“You wouldn’t sit there if this was 1920s Chicago,” said Pat as Wally pulled his seat in, the legs scraping shrilly across the polished-concrete floor.
“That’s at the barber,” he said. “Somebody I don’t need to go and see, anyway.” Wally rubbed a hand on his pate like Ali Baba polishing his lamp.
“What can I get you?” asked the dreadlocked waitress, the bells at the end of her skanks ringing as she scratched her ear with a pencil.
“Espresso,” Nir said.
“Macchiato,” said Wally.
“Latte,” Pat replied. She scribbled and went to the counter.
“You do not drink?”
“Me neither,” said Wally, not wanting to miss the opportunity for affirmation. “We’re retired.” Nir bent his eyebrows in the universal sign for ‘I don’t understand’. “We are both alcoholics.” Pat almost fell off his seat.
“But you own a pub!” exclaimed Nir.
“Well…” said Wally, putting his hands on the table as if he had been caught out. “I do. That’s true.”
“How can you own a pub if you don’t drink alcohol?”
“What’s the matter with you, Wally?” Pat cut in.
“What?” asked Wally. “I’m not ashamed.”
“You shouldn’t be,” said Nir. “Life does all kinds of funny things to people.”
“It’s not the same for everyone,” said Wally. “If I drink, well, one drink is too many, and 100 isn’t enough.”
“Are you the same?” Nir asked Pat.
“I’m probably worse. I become crazy. Dangerous. Once I passed out in London and came to in Dover.”
“Really?” Again, the modulation of the prehensile brow.
“Lost two days, just like that.”
“I do not like alcohol myself.”
“I do not like the taste. It sounds strange, but true.”
“I’d drink it if it tasted like piss. And often have,” said Pat, laughing. He had been angry with Wally for telling Nir without his permission, but talking about it openly came as a relief.
“That’s true,” said Wally. “Sometimes, I’ve drunk all night and day and night. I was talking to a doctor one afternoon in a bar, and when I told him I’d been drinking the last twenty hours, he told me that was really dangerous. You can drink so much, apparently, that you get the equivalent of toxic shock and fall down dead. How about that, eh?”
“Australians drink a lot. New Zealanders, too. Amazing,” said Nir. “I am slightly untrue. I do not drink not only because I think it is bad. It is a waste of life to be drunk.” The waitress returned with their coffees. She set them down unobtrusively.
“It’s a waste of life being sober sometimes,” said Pat, growling.
“Life is much better than death. Before I moved to Australia,” he said, nudging the butt of his racquet with his elbow, “I did my two years of military service. I became a commander.”
“What was that like?” asked Wally.
“As you would say, it was shithouse. Being in charge of other people is not for me. Once, one of my men was blown up by a land mine, in Lebanon. We were not supposed to be there, of course, such activity is illegal…” Nir shook his hand in a see-sawing motion, “But, this is our government. My very good friend was killed. First, we had to pick up the pieces and put them in a bag. Then, I had to go to his parents and tell them. Both parts were equally bad. My friend and I, we grew up together. After he was killed, I decided to just play tennis for fun. Life is too short, and too precious for drinking.”
“Or too much tennis.”
“Exactly,” he said, lifting his cup and taking a noisy sip of espresso.
“Won’t that keep you awake?” asked Pat, turning his glass in the saucer, eyeing the soil-coloured swirl in the froth of his latte.
“I am going to go home where I will have dinner with my wife. I will eat and then, before bed, I will smoke a little hash.”