THE TENNIS RACQUET

I was walking along the tarred pavement on my way to the town library when I saw our librarian toss a tennis racquet onto the pile of bulging black plastic bags awaiting the rubbish collectors.

In my mind’s eye I saw Christine Evans, the tall blonde woman who had in recent years turned the immaculate tennis courts on their farm into a vegetable garden…

Christine had been the local singles champion from the age of fourteen, earning provincial colours while still at school. We all missed her vivacious company during her university years and – being the close-knit community that we are – revelled in the news of her tennis prowess as a student. She even represented the country abroad.

Julian McLean, her cattle-breeding father, used to complain good-naturedly that in spite of all her successes on the tennis court, his daughter mainly used her tennis racquet to keep young men at bay. “I sent her to university to find a husband,” he would sometimes growl over his beer at the local pub. “Now I have lost her to the city.” He would shift uncomfortably on his seat – usually a sign that he was about to leave. Julian was not a man to show his emotions easily and then felt sheepish if he did.

Being ranked among the country’s top ten players was never good enough for Christine. She practised relentlessly until she was number five, seldom coming home and was constantly on the move. “A singles champion,” Julian would muse sadly, “but always single.”

Few were aware of the resolute, sandy-haired young farmer who would travel to the major tennis centres in the country whenever Christine competed. Regardless of the cost, he would sit in his chosen seat and observe her play with an intentness that seemed to envelop him. Some circuit regulars assumed he was her coach, her agent, or even a paid critic of sorts. Since no sign of recognition ever passed between them, however, he was generally left alone.

Michael Evans was the proudest man in the district when he emerged from the small stone chapel, half covered in scarlet bougainvillea blooms, with a radiant Christine on his arm.

By the time she was forty-four, Christine had developed an enviable reputation as a tennis coach: young boys and girls flocked to the farm for tennis clinics during school holidays; she travelled the university circuit giving special coaching to their champions; and won the admiration of the community for the coaching she gave to children in underprivileged rural schools.

When it came to tennis, Christine was a dynamo.

She also nurtured dreams for her children…they would get to places she had not reached. Gregory humoured her at first and at sixteen was a sought after player in the districts league. He had, however, discovered rowing two years earlier. It soon became his passion along with playing the bagpipes. Occasionally we could hear the strains of his bagpipes floating over the valley, especially in the late afternoon. Neighbours would cock their ears and smile. “Gregory’s home for the holidays,” they would say to each other and there would be a feeling that all was well.

Amy was more headstrong. Once she had settled in at senior school, she experienced greater satisfaction from road running. While the school welcomed Christine’s coaching and tried to encourage Amy to participate in their top teams, she refused. “Of course I enjoy playing,” she once explained to her mother in their sunny farm kitchen. “It’s just that there is no fun for me in competing.” She tossed her long brown hair and bounced out with the words, “Dad and I want to run the Two Oceans Half together this year.”

That stung.

Christine tried the veteran circuit and was moderately successful, but her homecomings had become hollow: Gregory would be away rowing, or playing his bagpipes on the hill overlooking the Barnard’s farm where, doubtless, Nicky would be listening to the tunes with a swelling heart.

Michael and Amy would return, bathed in perspiration and laughing after a long run along the farm roads in the area. “Had a good time, love?” Michael would sometimes remember to ask while towelling his face. Amy would dash off to shower for she had places to go and things to do.

Ripping up the tennis courts sent ripples through the community. “Has Christine gone mad?” people would whisper at gathering places like the supermarket, the hairdresser, and even at church.

Not mad. Our Christine’s competitive spirit has simply found a new channel: market gardening; living off the land; feeding the less fortunate; and, of course, winning prizes at agricultural shows.

“This old racquet?” She would have looked at me quizzically before striding away. “It’s simply the end of an era for me.”

In my mind’s eye I also saw the greying, plump, Lucy Brown who now walked with a slight limp as the pain of arthritis bit into her hip.

Lucy had been delighted to be part of the active social tennis group at the school she joined while in her mid-forties. A steady core of six teachers played together every week for years and encouraged the participation of as many others they could muster – regardless of the weather.

As her family got used to her weekly tennis sessions, Lucy felt less guilty about playing beyond six o’clock and even as late as seven, once the floodlights had been erected. She often stayed for a beer afterwards, happy in the knowledge that for that one day in the week, her family had learned to take care of themselves: John became adept at frying eggs and bacon – the only meal her husband had ever been able to produce; Alice was good at making toasted sandwiches; whilst the more adventurous Katy turned out a variety of pasta dishes – always with a salad on the side.
Lucy loved the exercise that turned her face scarlet; she felt a sense of pride in rediscovering her prowess at the net; she revelled in the sense of belonging, of being part of something that was not closely allied to either work or family. Playing tennis restored her sense of self – as herself – not as a mother, or a teacher, or a wife, or – alas – a housekeeper – but of Lucy Brown.

The end came gradually: a torn calf muscle; the renovation of the courts; the increasing demand for courts after hours by the professional coaches…the younger teachers became more competitive, more focused on their game. There was less banter on the court and these younger players preferred to head off to the pub in town afterwards instead of lingering to watch the sun set or the first stars appear.

Weekly matches became more difficult to arrange as some of the original core members either retired or moved away. Lucy now uses her tennis shoes for gardening and put her white dresses in a charity box. The young players no longer ‘dressed’ for tennis anyway.

Had I asked her about the tossing of the racquet onto the pile of black bags filled with the detritus of the throwaway society we have become, Lucy would have exhaled a deep, shuddering sigh and rubbed at the corner of her eye to clear the tear she couldn’t blink away rapidly enough.

“This racquet?” She would have smiled and spoken gently. “It is symbolic of something I once had before I became consumed by my work, my family and all that goes with it.” Her limp would be slightly more pronounced as she disappeared from view, her shoulders more rounded than they used to be.

I met up with Lila, our librarian, at the top of the library steps. “What’s with the racquet?” I asked out of curiosity, for I had never before associated her with tennis.

Her dimpled face broke into a smile and her blue eyes twinkled. “It’s a very expensive, top-of-the-range, very modern racquet that was left in the library months ago. No-one responded to my notices and so I showed it to one of the professional coaches in town. He wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole.”

“Why ever not?” I was surprised.

Lila grinned impishly. “Apparently it has a hairline crack which renders it useless. It looks good enough to me and so I hope some youngster will get hold of it – even to use as a bat somewhere!”

The racquet was gone when I returned, although the pile of black plastic bags was still awaiting the arrival of the municipal garbage truck.

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