No matter how much time I wasted getting ready, dad’s big green Slazenger bag slumped by the door; a constant reminder of the hour of torture that he’d planned for us. Even my sister, who generally went along with every one of dad’s Saturday afternoon schemes in a kind of uncomplaining trance, seemed mildly put out by the presence of the bag. It was an old, garish 1970′s number with a nuclear explosion of yellow logo set against the sickly green leather. It promised us endless torture if anyone from school happened to see us in close proximity. And poking out of the broken-zipped top of the bag were three battered-looking wooden tennis rackets, each containing its own old-school cover which would keep the strings taut. They looked as though they might have been used by Fred Perry himself in his heyday.
‘Come on kids,’ dad roared up the stairs. He was always shouting, back then. Perhaps it was because his voice had to compete with the radio commentary which was available in every room just in case he happened to miss a score in the rugby or the football or the tennis or the bloody curling. Whatever: Saturday’s were an eternal buzz of masculine voices which screeched in triumph or muttered in sadness. It was a sound that punctuated our lives, and one which mum claimed she had long-since learned to simply tune out.
‘Coming!’ bellowed my sister Janet from her room across the landing. I heard her slam and lock her door, just in case mum wanted to pry while we were out, and then she trampled down the stairs. More noise: for a small girl, she was as loud as a herd of elephants. Perhaps the sports commentary had done something awful to her ears.
Meanwhile, I stared in disgust at my reflection in the mirror. I tried to suck in my ample belly and pulled my crisp white tennis shorts higher on my thighs. The fly wouldn’t zip-up and hung open like the tongue of a tired dog. I could almost hear the mocking of my classmates.
‘Fat Shelduck waddling onto the tennis court,’ they sneered.
‘Can’t even get your shorts on, Shelduck,’ they hissed. ‘And what size are they? You’re already an Extra Large.’
Being fat was trial enough already without having to be shoe-horned into ridiculous clothes like that. Dad wanted us to wear proper tennis gear; the kind of crap that he would have worn when he was a lad and excelled at every sport that he participated in. All I wanted was to be able to wear gear like Agassi wore, like all the other kids wore in P.E class. All I wanted was to be like everyone else.
In a fit of pique, I tore off the shorts, hearing a complaining rip as they were levered over my dimpled thighs, and reached for my shell-suit bottoms instead. I knew that dad would be disappointed in me, but then he pretty much was always disappointed in me. That I wasn’t the sporty-type like him made him feel like a failure. I could see it in his flickering eyes every time I picked up a racket or a cue or a bow or a pair of goalkeeping gloves.
I slunk out of the room and locked my own door too, knowing that for the rest of the afternoon, I’d have to escape into my imagination just to get through the torture.
Dad could barely bring himself to speak when we were en route to the Cricket and Tennis Club. He was seething at my choice of clothes and also a little unhappy about the fact that Manchester City were already two-down in the early kick-off. He seemed to think that by driving faster, he could somehow inspire City to get back into the game, but judging from the loud commentary, City weren’t playing ball.
‘Bastard,’ he muttered, to nobody in particular.
It always struck me as strange the fact that he took these all-too-common City no-shows as a personal insult. City were, after all, the perennial laughing stock of the football world, but dad had once had trials at the club when he was about my age and he’d loved them ever since.
‘It takes more guts to support a team like City,’ he was always saying. ‘It takes resilience and patience too. Oh sure, you can support your Liverpools or your Manchester Uniteds, but City demand a deeper commitment.’
It sounded like torture to me, but then dad was a big fan of torture and its ability to build character. It was another constant bugbear for him that I kinda liked Liverpool because of their snazzy red strip and the fact that they always won. Not that I even liked football, you understand, but I had to at least feign some interest in the stupid game.
On the radio commentary, some ex-professional was sniggering away at City’s defending. ‘Bunch of clowns,’ the ex-pro commented. Dad’s finger hovered over the off button for a moment, but he stayed the execution for a while as City mounted an attack.
‘Some of these ex-pros are rent-a-quotes,’ said dad, to nobody in particular. ‘This guy’s ex-United, so he clearly hates City. I don’t know why they allow these people on the radio. I really don’t.’
He looked over to me in the front seat and gave me his best despairing look. I knew that he wanted me to somehow ease his pain; tell him that if he’d not have got injured just before City offered that contract, he’d have been the one on the radio, and he’d have been making a much better fist of it than the other guy. I said nothing.
When we arrived at the Cricket and Tennis Club, dad spent the usual twenty minutes being slapped on the back by former team-mates from some sport or other. It seemed that great swathes of his generation simply lounged about the Club waiting to see a familiar face so that they could crack the same old dirty jokes and pretend that they were still in that dressing room, sweaty, boorish and happy.
Most of these middle-aged men would come up to dad and kinda flex their muscles a bit as they talked, as though they wanted to show that they still had it, whatever it was. But they were all a little bit in awe of my dad and the way that he carried himself. He was still lithe and supple as a teenager; only his bad knee which seized up sometimes gave any indication of the toll of time. Every one of these acquaintances would steal surreptitious glances at me and wonder how the hell I was his son.
While dad swapped old war stories – usually at least one person would ask him about his trial at City and how if it wasn’t for his knee, he’d have made their first team in a couple of years – Janet and I would linger by the vending machines and press our noses against the glass, wishing for alternative Saturdays in which we could eat sweets and drink fizzy pop all day long, just like our classmates all did. Janet once told me how much she hated these long waiting moments, thick with the overwhelming smell of testosterone and overuse of cleaning products. She hated the fuzzy carpet and the Squash League tables pinned on the walls. But she said nothing of this to dad, preferring the quiet life much as I did.
Finally, dad finished talking to the last sap that wanted to know how City were getting on – dad was like their information service for sports results of any league in the world in there – and we started to walk round to the back of the Club and to the underused, concrete-surfaced tennis courts. They weren’t much cop, the tennis courts; weeds sprouted on the bass-line and the net visibly sagged in the middle as though giving up the ghost of a pretence that tennis was anything like as important as, say, cricket. The club tennis pro sat up high on the umpire’s chair and lazily smoked a cigarette and longed for happier times when tennis might have been a career rather than a death sentence.
‘All right, Bob?’ roared dad as we passed through the creaking fire door and onto Court Number One.
Bob looked as though we’d disturbed some delicious day-dream and squinted against the bright sunlight to see who the intruders were. When he saw that it was dad, he noticeably straightened himself in the chair and offered to keep score for us.
‘If you wouldn’t mind, Bob,’ said dad, pulling one of the old rackets from the Slazenger bag and practicing his swing.
I leaned against the wire fence at the back of the court and tried to make myself invisible. Janet kicked at a few of the loose stones on the concrete surface, head lowered in submission.
Dad fished some balls out of the front pocket of the bag and started to practice his serve. He had an awkward style and wasn’t particularly accurate, but the pace he gave the balls more than made up for this. Each time he hit the ball; there was a corresponding, satisfying thwack which echoed around the court. You could tell that he was proud of his ability. As each ball jangled into the wire fence close by, Janet twitched in alarm.
‘Come on kids; warm up,’ breathed dad between smashes. He was already working up a sweat. I shivered slightly, despite the shell-suit bottoms. Janet half-heartedly performed a few star-jumps on the spot while I made busy pretending to tie my shoe-laces.
‘You against them two, is it Charlie?’ asked Bob, fingering his packet of cigarettes as though debating whether he’d be able to light-up around my dad.
‘Looks that way,’ smiled dad. It was exactly the way he liked it; kinda against all the odds. If he could, he would have handicapped himself still further by filling the Slazenger bag with rocks and humping it on his back. ‘I’m getting a bit old for it, but I’ll give it a go.’
What a hero he thought he was. But in reality, what competition did a stick-thin twelve year old and a blubbery fourteen year old have for him?
‘I wasn’t going to say anything, but if you need another partner, there’s a woman inside that’s keen on a game,’ muttered Bob. ‘She’s a good player, but her partner hasn’t turned up this afternoon. Want me to get her?’
Dad quickly looked at us and then back at Bob. Maybe he was checking whether we’d noticed the sly wink that Bob had given him when he’d said that about the woman being a ‘good player.’
‘That’ll be good, won’t it kids?’ he asked, but not in the way that would imply we had any choice in the decision. Bob gingerly climbed down from his umpire’s chair and stepped towards the Clubhouse. Dad began to perform some over-enthusiastic stretches. I sighed and reached into the Slazenger bag for my racket.
Bob was back out on the court again in less than a minute with the strange woman in tow. Although Janet was oblivious to the weirdness of the situation, my over-active imagination was highly attuned to the often inexplicable behaviour of adults. And even by my dad’s standards, this was bizarre. There he was awkwardly leaning in to kiss this long-legged, short-tennis-skirted woman on both cheeks as though he was French. There he was asking her name on three or four separate occasions as though trying to make it very clear to us that he’d never met her before in his life.
‘Annie?’ he asked, loudly.
‘Annette,‘ she said. ‘Annette Cowley.’
It seemed like a name that she’d just made up on the spot. Perhaps she’d seen the sad-sagging net and that had been the first name she could pluck out of the air.
‘Annette,’ repeated dad, as though to store the name in his mind. ‘These are my kids, Janet and Francis.’
I shuddered uncomfortably at dad’s use of my full name. I was named after Francis Lee, a City player of high repute, but had long-since been known as Frank by most adults, and Fat Frank by most children. Francis Shelduck; the name was an old-fashioned curse.
Annette smiled nervously and performed this curtsey for us as though she’d just stepped out at Wimbledon and we were the Royal Family.
‘Partner didn’t turn up, eh?’ asked dad, as much to remind us of this fact as to satisfy his curiosity. I narrowed my eyes and listened to her bumbled answer.
‘Must have got the times wrong or something,’ she giggled, stupidly.
Too many things didn’t ring true for me. Why had this woman just happened to turn up at exactly the same time as us when hardly anyone ever used the courts? Why had dad made such a show of pretending that he didn’t know her? How quickly had Bob managed to persuade her that she should make up this uncomfortable foursome with us? But it was more than just the atmosphere which set alarm-bells ringing. Annette seemed so akin to my father that they could have been cut from the same cloth; they both had the kind of middle-aged athletic physiques which turn heads; both had wiry legs and muscular arms. As they stroked the ball back and forth over the net, they seemed able to anticipate the other’s movements as though telepathically. Anyone stumbling on the scene would have assumed them a married couple; Annette was nothing like my mother.
My mum and I had the same fat-gene. It had bypassed Janet, of course, but with each passing year, mum got rounder and rounder. She used to come along on the Saturday afternoon activities with a cheerful lack of complaint, but she’d drifted away in the end. Most people couldn’t help but look surprised when they realised my mum and dad were together. With dad and Annette, nobody would have batted an eye-lid. They were moody and magnificent on court. My sister and I shuffled around the bass-line sheepishly getting out of the way of their shots.
‘Shall we have a mixed-doubles match?’ asked Annette finally. ‘Francis and I against Janet and you?’
Dad nodded enthusiastically before vaulting over the highest point of the net and lining up alongside his daughter. Despite Janet’s poor co-ordination, she was more of a natural athlete than I’d ever be. Indeed as dad began geeing her up for the match, I started to feel more and more like the odd one out.
‘What school do you go to, Francis?’ asked Annette while we were waiting for dad to give his final instructions to Janet.
‘St. Mark’s,’ I muttered, staring at the floor.
‘Ooh; what year are you in?’ she asked, with far too much interest for my liking. As if she was interested. She handed me a ball and I started to pick at the frayed hairs on its surface. ‘My nephew’s in the third year,’ she said.
I could just imagine the kind of boy her nephew would be. He’d be one of the slick-back, cock-sure, cigarette-smoking, boot-bag wielding towel-whippers that made my life a misery in the changing rooms after P.E. He’d be one of the boys that found it fun to deposit me into the bins out back of the canteen every lunch time and who would throw their insults and dog-ends at me as I tried to slink home at a quarter to four.
‘Mark Cowley; do you know him?’ she continued.
As it happened, I didn’t know him, but I was still sure that any relative of this woman was bound to be a jock-type. I was so busy trying to remember Mark Cowley that I didn’t even know that dad had served. The ball fizzed past me and rattled against the wire.
‘Yes!’ shouted dad. And then as an after-thought, he added: ‘Come on Frank; at least try for the ball!’
‘Fifteen-love,’ muttered Bob.
Dad high-fived Janet as he swapped sides in order to serve to Annette.
‘Ready?’ he asked. He hadn’t asked me if I was ready. Nor had he took most of the force off the serve as he did when he played it to Annette. He might as well have served it underarm…
Gracefully, she returned his serve, knocking a powerful cross-court half-volley into Janet’s general area. Janet made contact with the ball but drove it straight into the net.
‘Bastard,’ shouted dad.
‘Fifteen-all,’ muttered Bob.
Dad started talking to himself as he made his way to the service area for his next serve; his long soliloquy might have sounded strange to some, but I’d long grown used to the way that he would wind himself up in order to improve his performance. Watching him, I became convinced that there was some terrible inner-battle going on in him; half of him wanted to win at all costs – it was a sporting match after all – but the other half wanted to show Annette that he was a gentleman…
Again, my imagination distracted me. Before I could get out of the way, dad’s serve rocketed into my ample midriff and winded me before bouncing harmlessly onto the concrete and stopping dead. I half-collapsed, wheezing in complaint.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Annette, putting an unwanted hand on my shoulder.
‘Get up, Frank,’ sneered dad. I could almost hear him thinking that what with all the ‘padding’ around my belly, I should have been able to stand the pain of the ball hitting me.
‘Thirty-fifteen,’ muttered Bob.
Janet tried to stifle a smile. At least she’d made contact with the ball during her ill-fated moment in the sun; I was Mr. Disappointment again. Wincing, I climbed to my feet and moved towards the front of the court, where I was supposed to stand.
This time, dad put a little more oomph into his service but gave it just the right line and length that Annette could return it without much trouble. She chipped the ball over Janet’s head and into the bass-line area where dad thwacked it back again. For the next few minutes, Janet and I ran around in circles at the net while the ball sailed over our heads between the two adults. They were having their own game with little need for us. When Annette misjudged a backhand and it landed plumb in front of Janet, dad elbowed her out of the way in order that he could clip it back over to the woman. I tried not to listen to her vaguely sexual gasps each time she hit the ball, but it was hard not to hear it.
Finally, the long point ended when my dad smashed home an easy volley. He raised his hand as though to apologise for ruining the wonderful symmetry of their coupling.
‘Forty-fifteen,’ mumbled Bob.
Neither dad nor Annette said anything now. They were in the zone; sport had lifted them onto a higher plane of existence; their minds and bodies, their every nerve and sinew was engaged in this heavy ritual. It was like a first-hand look at a nature documentary. There was dad, ruffling his feathers up, proud as a peacock, and there was Annette, the woman allowing herself to be wooed by it.
Dad quickly rounded-off his service game and then it was over to Annette to serve. And she was a ‘good player’ as Bob had indicated. There was something beautiful and frightening about the way that she unwrapped her whole body into the serve; she was at one with the racket; a sportswoman personified. She was better, technically, than dad, but his determination evened them up. The game was much closer than the first, but went with serve again.
Then it was Janet’s turn. As I passed her the balls over the net, I tried to give her an encouraging look, but she was way beyond saving now. She looked scared enough to pass out. Dad followed her up to the net and breathed some advice to her, staring fixedly into her eyes.
Her first serve took me by surprise. Either she’d learned to play tennis while I’d not been looking or she’d somehow struck it lucky. Whatever: her shot had the pace and power to beat me all ends-up. Annette tutted under her breath; Janet’s face visibly brightened. Dad looked as though he didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh with joy about the fact that one of his offspring was a potential star or cry about the fact that the other one was a great, fat lump of uselessness that couldn’t do anything right.
It wasn’t a fluke, either. Although Annette managed to return Janet’s next serve, her shot lacked the required power to get past dad and he dinked the ball over the net to take them to thirty-love.
And then Janet was serving to me again; this time although the serve remained of a high quality, I somehow stumbled into a return. And despite the fact that I was sure my shot would bounce out, it didn’t. We were somehow starting a proper rally. Janet reached my shot in a couple of her long-legged strides and knocked a slow ball out to my left. Over the net, I saw the raw hope in my dad’s eyes; I saw how he believed this rally was the wonderful culmination of his many years’ toil and torture. I saw how it was right that we should be, against all odds, playing tennis which was even making the tired old pro sit up and take notice.
I took a preparatory step left in anticipation of the ball. I was going to get it. I was going to smash the ball down and win the point. I would be carried off court on my dad’s shoulders. I would… Something gave under my foot. I felt the loose stones slip and my foot creep out from under me. My racket fell from my hand as I reached out to try to steady myself. As the ball plopped past me, I went down onto the jagged concrete. I felt the instant pain in my knee and knew that blood had been drawn. I could feel cold air pumping through a new hole in my shell-suit trousers.
I felt it right that I should punish my dad for my injury. If not for him and his stupid pride and his stupid desire to impress Annette we wouldn’t have been playing such a serious match. If he hadn’t forced us to go play sports every Saturday afternoon, nothing like that would have happened. And of course as I limped into the house, leg bandaged up and arm throbbing from my Tetanus jab, I made sure that my mum saw me at my worst.
‘What happened?’ she asked, her face turning pale in shock.
I took a deep, thoughtful breath and weighed up exactly what I was going to tell her. I knew in that one instant that I wielded more power than I’d ever done before in our family; with one over-arm smash of my tongue, I could bring all of it crashing down. When I hit the floor on that tennis court, I knew beyond any doubt that my father was having an affair with the athletic Annette. I also knew that mum would believe every word I said. After all, what possible motivation did I have to lie about a thing like that?
And so, as Janet fussed around me, clucking away like a disorientated hen, and as my dad defaulted to brewing up, I enjoyed my moment of victory. Dad looked over at me pointedly. I read his eyes: Don’t mention Annette, he pleaded. Why would he be so defensive about it if he wasn’t guilty as hell? I stared back at him full of the cold fury and disappointment which I recognised from our every Saturday sports afternoon as he ground me into the concrete or the dirt or the polished wooden floor.
‘I slipped on the concrete,’ I said, bravely. ‘No big deal, but I don’t think I’ll be playing tennis again for a while.’
Dad’s hand paused on the handle of the kettle. He spun round to check whether I was going to say anything else.
‘You’re being very brave,’ said mum.
‘Would you mind turning the radio off, dad?’ I asked. His brow wrinkled in frustration but he said nothing. He simply moved to the radio and clicked the off-button. Silence reigned supreme in our house. When mum went off to the cupboard to fetch me a chocolate bar, I gave dad this all-powerful, all-knowing wink, just like Bob had done earlier in the day.
At dad’s funeral, I didn’t cry; I couldn’t bring myself to cry for a man that had lived a lie for so long. Janet turned up fashionably late and scatty as usual, almost leaving one of her troupe of children in the back of the cab. She went inside the church, but I stayed outside. I wanted to wait to see that familiar tall figure. I wanted to see her lurking by the bushes, crying her guilty tears.
My hand grew numb from shaking the hands of grey-haired, pot-bellied men that all wanted to stay too long at my side and share their anecdotes about my dad’s sporting prowess. I hardly listened. I knew that Annette would be there somewhere. And as I believed she’d irreparably damaged my life, she probably thought I’d destroyed hers. In the long sleepless nights after the tennis court meeting, I’d developed the story. Not only was my father having an affair with that woman, he was also planning to be with her. And perhaps that initial awkward meeting was supposed to be our introduction to Annette. Perhaps he wanted Annette as a replacement for my mum. Only my injury had spoiled the day, hadn’t it? And nothing had really been the same since that day.
I couldn’t think about my dad without remembering that moment that passed between us; his gratitude for my not telling, my wink as I accepted the deal. I would not tell on condition that the sports afternoons came to an end. He was weak, in the end, my dad, and on numerous occasions since then, I’d thought about whether his own injury, the one which ended his dreams of playing for City, were not some convenient excuse just in case he hadn’t made it.
After we put him in the ground, we retired to the function room of the Cricket and Tennis Club for what I’d heard a couple of the old sportsmen describing as a ‘right proper knee’s-up.’ It was the first time I’d been to the Club since the fateful day with Annette, but I soon discovered that nothing much had changed; the smell still lingered, the same cheap crisps and sweets filled the vending machines and the same Squash League tables littered the walls. I decided to slip quietly out the fire door to be alone with my thoughts. I was not close to any of my family any more, not since I’d moved to the big city with my big, creative job, and I couldn’t stand to engage in the kind of small-talk which they so excelled in.
Janet was out on the court already, eyes red-rimmed from crying. I handed her a tissue and leaned awkwardly against the old wire fence. Janet kicked at the loose stones.
‘Do you remember the sports we had to play every Saturday afternoon?’ I asked, quietly.
Janet raised her eyes to the sky. ‘God, they were awful, weren’t they,’ she spluttered. ‘But I’d give anything to have a game with him now…’
I pressed on: ‘Do you remember the last time we came here? We played a foursome with a woman called Annette?’
‘Annette?’ laughed Janet through her tears. ‘Are you sure you’re not making this up? A net?’
I looked at her for a moment; she was so beautiful, so athletically built in middle age that she might have been Annette’s daughter. She had her hair in a bob now, and it suited her, just like it had Annette.
‘Do you honestly not remember?’
‘I don’t remember every time we had to come up here or go to the leisure centre and play sports, no,’ she said.
I took the bull by the horns: ‘Do you think dad ever had an affair?’
Disappointment swept over Janet’s face: ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said. Then she thought about what I’d just said for a second. ‘You think that this woman – a net – and dad?’
I nodded, solemnly. ‘He was so guilty after we came home that day…’
Recognition dawned on her face then. ‘Do you mean the day when you hurt your knee? He was guilty because he pushed you so hard, not because of some woman that nobody else remembers!’
I stared at her, confused.
‘He loved you, Frank. All he ever wanted was for you to be interested in something; to have the same passion that he had. When you ran away to the city, he was heart-broken. Do you remember all of those radios in the house? I think that was just his way of trying to reach you…’
I couldn’t listen any more. Suddenly, all I could think about were all of the shots I’d never played and the fact that I’d never once listened to him tell the full story of how he’d picked up his own life after his dreams were shattered. My knee throbbed in complaint. Perhaps it had been me, and not dad that had been living a lie.