I’m playing tennis with my friend Dave Richards. It’s not a real game, neither of us has any interest in anything other than patting the ball to the other side of the net. It’s a hot summer’s evening and we’ve both finished work for the week. All the courts are full; mostly with teenagers enjoying their summer holiday; though to the left of us a sporty looking elderly couple are pelting tennis balls towards each other at breakneck speeds.
We’ve talked about his bird; we’ve talked about my bird. We’ve talked about our ex birds, and the bird down The Lion with the nice legs that started working there a month previously – who Dave reckons has taken a shine to me and I’ve definite got a chance of getting it on with.
We’ve talked about his job and we’ve talked about mine. We’ve talked about our football teams. We’ve been down here for over an hour and I’m still not sick of talking. It’s been a long week of sitting in front of my work computer, sitting in front of my TV at home, fretting about the deadline my boss had set me and ignoring my soon to be ex-girlfriend’s constant text messaging. I need to talk more because I’m enjoying myself and don’t want it to stop. It’s my first chance all week to be myself, to open up, to really get a grip on reality, on the present moment. Although as I miss-hit my shot and watch Dave running over to the next court to retrieve the fleeing ball I wonder for a moment how much more we have to say.
I ponder over what else there is in life other than birds, our jobs and football; briefly contemplate the point of it all is before settling on an inevitable question.
“You up for a drink after this?” I shout as he comes back to the opposite side of the court, serving a new shot which lands perfectly at my feet.
“Can’t, sorry,” he answers simply.
I punt the ball back over the net in reply, angling my racket lazily to give a little added force to my return.
“No time for a swift half?”
“Said I’d meet Holly at seven.”
“That’s not for an hour yet.”
“But I’ve gotta get home and shower, get changed, freshen up …” He leaves the rest hanging in the air as he concentrates on his current hit.
“Yeah, yeah I suppose,” I say, running over to my right, arm and racket outstretched, just about managing to return Dave’s misdirected shot.
The ball goes soaring into the sky and I turn away, blinded momentarily by the sun.
When I return my gaze I see Dave preparing to seize the falling ball at the right moment, positioning his body in the perfect stance, readying himself for a flawless volley which will most likely slam into the net: Although unpredictably he meets the ball faultlessly and it shoots past, bouncing off the concrete and then high over the wired fence.
I spark up a cigarette while Dave runs round to rescue the ball. I question what I’m going to do with my evening; think about my girlfriend and try to decide if I really ever loved her or not; then start to philosophise about what love really is.
The old sporty couple have stopped playing and both are looking at me. I notice them standing there with the sun behind them; two strangely motionless silhouettes against a backdrop of the empty cricket pitch behind.
Finally the woman comes over to tell me to put out my cigarette. She has long grey sweaty hair, is wearing a pink top and a short white tennis skirt. Her legs are deeply tanned. Beads of sweat have formed along the wrinkles of her forehead; which come into focus as she gets closer.
“I don’t think you should be smoking here,” she starts. Her face screwed up with disgust at my decision to partake in a few breaths of nicotine.
I turn away, facing the wall of wire mesh, take one last drag and push my cigarette through one of the holes of the fence, assuming this will be enough to make her leave me alone. Although unfortunately I can still sense her presence behind me; something which I choose to ignore for the time being.
Dave is now in front of me poking about in the bushes, searching for the missing ball.
“I think we’ve lost it,” he says, talking in the direction of the ground at his feet; not noticing the old woman who may or may not have realised that I’m done with our brief interaction.
“Time to go anyway,” I respond.
“That it is,” Dave says in a rather unenthusiastic tone; still looking for the soon to be forgotten tennis ball. “Time for getting back to things. Holly’s not one for hanging around waiting.”
“What d’ ya mean?” I ask, puzzled by his lack of enthusiasm.
“She gets a bit pissed when I’m late is what I mean,” he says, looking directly at me. He says, “You know what birds are like,” and then raising his eyebrows continues, “So, who’re your new friends?”
I turn around and the old lady is still standing there, now with her partner who’s silently mopping his brow with a white and blue tennis towel.
“This young man has no respect,” the woman says to the guy who is most likely her husband.
He looks down at the cigarette butt lying on the other side of the fence.
“You’re gonna kill yourself with those things,” he says in a confident, knowledgeable and slightly arrogant voice.
“Maybe I am,” I reply, and then my mind quietly wanders as I’m imagining what it would be like to do such a thing, if I’d prefer it to be quick and simple, like a gun to the head, jumping from a height, or drinking a load of poison … if I’d opt for something relaxing and painless like some sort of sleeping tablet concoction, or carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage; something that’d really give me time to think, to become at one with the acceptance of saying goodbye and avoir to my life of almost twenty-five years.
Later in The Lion I’m talking about the exact same thing with the nice looking barmaid who’s giving me all sorts of signs to insinuate that I’m in with a chance of spending the night with her if I’m up for it. Like, the way she’s making eye contact, hanging on my every word. But more importantly the way she’s staring at me when she thinks I’m not looking.
“And then the old lady and her husband both said together in these really weird voices that I wasn’t the sort of person who deserved to live for a very long time anyway,” I say, adding, “What d’ya reckon they meant by that?”
“Maybe they were like these old people with special powers,” she says. “They were predicting your death; or even they could’ve been cursing you!” In a mockingly ghostly voice she adds, “You are going to die tonight. There is nothing left for you in this world. But first you will meet a beautiful and dangerous femme fatal …” before giggling in a soft, slightly hysterical laugh.
I begin to imagine myself at the beach wading into the sea later that night, disappearing into the water, washing away all my responsibilities … I gaze at her briefly before looking back down at my beer, thinking about how this girl very much seems to be both beautiful and dangerous tonight: When I walked in she was standing there with her hand on the pump, all rosy cheeks and chest pushed out as though she’d been waiting for me to come in all day, but as I suddenly receive a text from my soon to be past girlfriend I wonder where this conversation is really going: what the point is of continuing all night, some of tomorrow and possibly a couple of times after that before I ultimately become bored again, back to my TV screen at home; and my computer monitor at work.
I smile and take out my phone, read the message telling my where I’m supposed to end up later: what time, who’s going, how she misses me and c u soon.
And then, with an insincerity which may well be lost on her I randomly ask the barmaid if she’s up for going to a party later – surprisingly she replies to the negative, saying she doesn’t fancy going to a party tonight and before she’s even finished getting across how she’s happy to hang out at her place for a bit if I want, I’ve more than lost interest in wasting my time with the meaningless, flirtatious banter we’ve been engaged in for the past half an hour. You could even go as far as to say that I feel sick at myself for the fake smiles, and the artificial, recycled conversation.
I mean, it’s not as if I haven’t been enjoying myself, and it’s nice to be talking to a fit girl in this sort of way but if I’m gonna live each day like there’s no tomorrow then a party’s gotta be more interesting I figure.
I make my excuses and she looks disappointed, a little insulted even; and there’s a definite period of awkwardness as I finish my beer and she’s finding other customers to serve. Although what’s a few minutes of awkwardness compared to a hell of a lot of hours of wasted time, right?
On the way out of the pub I’m thinking about my game of tennis with Dave and just tennis in general. About two people patting the ball to each other again and again, with the rules to add interest and the aggression when it’s not going right; but moreover the general futility of hitting a ball to each other repeatedly to score points which don’t count for shit.
I’m also remembering the weird moment of when Dave seemed surprisingly unenthusiastic about meeting Holly later. A moment which had lasted barely a few seconds, a strange flicker of the eye, a giveaway expression of how he most probably was experiencing similar feelings of what I was going through with my girl: The willingness to carry on outweighed by the need to get out.
When we’d talked about our relationships it had been very much on the surface things of how she’d said this and done that to piss us off and: Oh God how women have their own ways of irritating you … Why a shirt has to be hung up, why a discussion has to happen right when the football’s about to begin, or when you’re about to fall asleep; why they take so long to get ready, even to go bed; all that stuff.
As I say, my mind’s wandering all the way to the Flying Pig as I’m cutting through the park, over the rugby field and along the bicycle path in the dark. A distant thud of music can be heard once I get to the car park and lights of ever changing colours are flickering from the windows of the main building as I turn along the path to the front entrance.
I receive another text from my girlfriend just as I’m approaching the bouncers (At the party come if you want or we could meet up later? miss u baby x), which I’m not sure how to interpret. I mean, I’ve been ignoring her all week, haven’t showed much interest in seeing her tonight and the last time I called her was on Wednesday when we spoke for ten minutes on the phone. I hardly deserve a text as nice as this. Either she’s playing it cool and ready to give me a rollicking when I’m least expecting it; or she’s enjoying her space and not in any hurry to meet up with me either.
I replace the phone to my jacket pocket, only to take it out almost immediately when the bouncers are asking me to show what I’ve got on my person. Just a routine check apparently: They want to know why I’ve got a pack of cigarettes but no lighter – which is when I realise I must’ve left it in the Lion – to which I reply that that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever been asked and what the hell kinda trouble am I gonna cause by having a packet of seven B&H and nothing to light them with?