Evidence of dreams, dreams that were pleasurable and real but whose exciting freedom was forbidden her, hung in her mind as dust hangs in the air after a car has passed on a country road. This sensation settled, and she was awake. The meagre trees patterned silhouettes; her skin goose-pimpled under the shadows. Her tennis frock was creased, legs embossed by insect and weed, brown bits cling. She shivered the regret of waking. Or dozing.
When she rose her head was in full sunlight and reflected in the window, flattered by the evening gold. She saw herself smile the smile that strangers loved. Few noticed that the eyes rarely complemented the happy composition of cheeks, lips and teeth. In the eyes they saw suspicion, fear, sadness, neurosis. But at this moment her eyes were no more than the shadows of her brows. She liked this imperfect mirror. It would be fabulous, as she wished it to be. She held her hope in a vice grip to give it the stillness of fact. And looked at her watch. Ten to five.
— Why don’t we have a game sometime? The fifth time he said it she was relaxed, and said yes. Les, the life of the party — Well what do you do with yourself when you’re not working? — Um I play squash and I . . . — We must have a game some time. Les was a laugher, but not cruel and not deaf. He kept coming over to talk. He kept seeking her. — We’ve got a date to play squash. When? — Tuesday at five? — Fine. She left liking Les and certain. Certain to see him again.
Five to five. Suspicion lived in her like a snake in a farmer’s wood pile. She treated it with respect, distance. She had, for fear of being hurt, for fear of losing control, created layers of armour about her inner self.
The family looked well in sporting white. Her brothers, their wives, and her father in his day were the tennis champions of Gippsland. She now stood in front of the mirror holding her squash racket, staring at the top of her socks and calves, forcing her eyes to see perfection.
The inner suburban street along which she ran she liked and threw into it intense speeding interest, otherwise her heart would dance with uncontrolled expectations. The houses, their individual plants and fences, had dressed all her moods. Contemplating them too long, dawdling, would bring forth all the other times excitement promised more than it gave. She jogged toward something she had planned, something that could work. A number of games, a regular booking, growth through sport, knowledge of another person, laughter, pain, deep understanding. Birth. It was all possible. She didn’t stop to hear the magpies in the lilly-pilly. Their song was too functional, too wordless. She passed the house with the rugged geraniums quickly. The Squash Courts. And her breath too short. Deep. Don’t stride. Five.
The plate-glass window had a lunatic hint of distortion. Her walk. Blush. She couldn’t practise it here in the open. The smile came, tightening in the muscles around the mouth and eyes. There need be no unease about the game. Any game. Here she excelled, lost herself. When there was the goal, the objective, the winning, she concentrated and won, or lost with an outflowing breath of fulfilment.
The abrupt sportswoman flinging glances at the car park, the change-room doors, spoke to the attendant who smiled with respect. The status quo at Squash Courts is easily defined. Darts about the identity and whereabouts of her partner pinged off her armour ignored.
Punctuality would be the death … internal trivia plugged the automatic surges of annoyance. She read the pieces of paper on the notice-board, nodded to the two sweaty men playing on her booked court to continue until her opponent arrived, looked in the glass showcase at equipment and clothing she didn’t need, and bounced the little black ball.
Waiting. The whole day had been ‘waiting’ for five o’clock. She felt sinewy and fit, felt handsome, eager to improve, felt like killing the white-spot black ball in a million skilful ways. Of all things anticipated, she had refused to entertain the idea that she would be hanging around, watching others, not playing at seven minutes past five. She went into the change-room to look in the mirror. Returned to the office. Asked were they busy. They were. Asked had anyone called with a message for her. There wasn’t a message. Asked how the attendant was. He was well. Gossiped about mutual acquaintances. Heard of a slipped disc, two cartileges in the knee, one bad back, and fluid on an elbow. There was a pregnancy and an accident which left blood on the court that took some cleaning up. The Pennant teams were all in the four except one. It became incredibly boring. She swore about this person she hardly knew who had begged her for a game and hadn’t the decency to turn up. And walked away.
She was one who was inclined to turn quickly from hope to humour, anger to arrogance, self-disgust to despair. She sat on the step in the lowering tarnished sun, gloomily thinking about herself. Then Les. She tried to recreate the sensitive gentle lover of her imagination, the person who had unreal smoothness and perfection in the areas she least knew him. But in seven minutes these smooth parts began to shape into monster characteristics. He was a con-man and a liar with a brutal disregard of others’ feelings. Right now he was probably laughing because another victim was waiting for him. Sitting on a step, looking pathetic. Gradually his features hardened into cold immobility, the ice face of one who had forgotten. Her armour became impregnable. She was a Russian doll of shells, each separated by a layer of emptiness. She could not have chosen her real emotion from any number that lay in her heart and mind. She stared blankly at the burnt orange sky. Car tyres squealed. He had been booked for speeding in his hurry to be here. Then she could laugh and forgive. They could both laugh. And hit the ball up casually talking all the time. That was one way.
She went with a smile and gave out a shrugging breath to the humourless young man who raised an eyebrow and suggested she ask the wife of one of the sweaty men for a bash. With great difficulty she kept the smile from becoming a frown and shook her head. In the instant knowing that now she couldn’t have a hit by herself, which had been another way. The men tumbled out the door of her booked court, the sweat running off them until it hit the floor in tiny puddles. Their wives came chattering down the stairs. One had been suckling her baby, and the other, much younger with shining apple-happy cheeks, grabbed her husband’s racket like a child. She absorbed the time from the clock through her pores. Mindless. Numb. It was a quarter past five. Leaning against the table she felt superior. Her brothers, the tennis players, handled the walled-in black-ball game with the disdain a breaker of thoroughbreds has for a Shetland pony. Three car-loads arrived. People crowded out her wound-licking thoughts. And there was Les.
Green ankle socks. Yellow-stained canvas runners. Football shorts too tight and ripped up one side. A navy blue singlet. White skin. An ancient nylon-stringed racket. A loudly apologetic grin. All haste. The attendant glanced up and then cast a quick eye over his bookings. She could not summon her smile. She could not look him in the eye. She strode to the door of the court. Les, following her, slammed it so hard it opened again. She studied the stains on the wall, the tape on the floor, and hit the ball. Les laughed and missed, missed and laughed.
People gathered in the gallery. Both wished to make a good impression on strangers. He tried with his voice, she with her stroke, preferring a private look of approval. Both needing to impress had impressed each other on Saturday night. Disgusted, she lolly-popped for a while. Then she caught the ball and stopped. Why was he late? He, hesitating, commented on the strange claustrophobia of the court. Tennis more fun, or some bluff. She bashed the ball, he missed. She persisted. He had to pick up his wife. The people moved slowly away from the top to watch, just as; expressionlessly, the next court, and then the next. She hit the ball carefully to his forehand, he tried too hard and mis-hit. Wife? Yes, she didn’t ring until five to five. Lucky to get here at all.
She let him have it. For a moment he didn’t understand and briefly looked her way with a question, but she was off, returning her own speeding ball from the other side of the court with a shot which clung to the forehand wall and dropped in the back comer, which she spun towards and flicked to the front left-hand corner.
He stumbled forward, but she beat him to it, running as a bird does in weightless hops. He didn’t even see the ball that she’d hit low with all her might, but gathered that it would have been difficult for any player to return. The ball came to rest at his feet. He took up the challenge. Still he found if he missed a ball she was behind, backstop, fielder and batsman. Her intention was to tie him in knots; she let him miss first and then she hit. He became exasperated, comical. She eased off gradually, pretending not to ease at all. Her face was immobile, a slight frown, her mouth set in a type of concentration. The extravaganza must have lasted less than three minutes. She glanced up at the clock; his eyes caught hers on their way down. She flashed her innocent grin, but he saw that alarming contrast in her face. And pitied her.
From above it would have seemed as though they had just started a game, but they hadn’t. They were hitting the ball alternately, not in the casual way of a warm-up, but like enemies. A trick manoeuvre had created an illusion of equality. A state of alert. Action stations. She was on her toes. She needed her skill, she swooped forward for a shot that may have gone out but dropped sneakily in, she swung it back over her head in an oval arc along the wall. He began to sprint for it, slipped and cracked his head on the white-washed concrete. The sound shocked her into a state of horror and stilled laughter. She turned away to stop her frivolous giggle from slipping out. Something like a snort escaped. The terror of being absolutely insensitive subsided, and she faced him to meet some punishment. He was curled up in a heap of pain, shame, embarrassment, anger. Holding his head to his knees, fighting off humiliation with his back. She dared not ask was he all right for fear of increasing his burden, his defeat. Zany speculations swam into her mind uncalled: what to do with the spoils of victory. March over laughing, the bitch goddess, place a foot on his back and wave the banner of her racket at the invisible stalls. Or merely stand, maybe pigeon-toed, with her eye-brows arched in concern and enquiry. Or be bluff and tough, the country girl. Or go with the nursing hands all women can summon. He got up, and in trying to hide them, expressed all his pain, shame, embarrassment and anger. Where’s that bloody ball? She dropped it into his hand, and said the things of concern and care that she knew she should, but her voice echoed in her own ears.
She felt an unbearable surge of self-hate. She hit his shots back carefully, selflessly. Politeness. She offered to see if they could extend their time. O.K. He was off-hand.
The attendant had disappeared. All courts being occupied for the next ten minutes, he’d probably gone for coffee. She went to breathe the last of the sun. Her emptiness was irritated by a sense of triumph, a worthless triumph, like being the youngest in a school grade or sitting for days on the skinniest pole, but triumph none the less, and it was a small thing she could not deny herself. She finished her few seconds in the sun, and ignored the attendant unlocking the office door. Entered the big white cell, flicked the ball from the back wall, and stood on the left, not moving, not bending, returning each ball to the front wall. He tried hard, he was unused to the rituals of sport.
She was trying to empathize with his pain when he began to apologize. Apologies. Excuses. That killed it. She stopped hitting. Trying to be logical and precise, she explained the peculiarities of the game: the serve, the scoring, the objectives, the strokes, the grip, the positioning and finer points. He nodded enthusiastically like a young labrador. When he turned away she noticed his huge buttocks and his effeminate serve. In a woman she would forgive it, rise above it, laugh benignly, accept superiority. And now she laughed because it could have been the same. Then, serving easily, softly, a serve impossible to return, she imagined how it might have been if it had occurred as she had anticipated. A man and a squash game. And she: eager, gentle, feminine, as swift as Diana. She slid into daydream, her customary drug.
The buzzer buzzed above their heads. Les started, shocked and insulted, but she remarked that they had booked from five to five-thirty, and the courts were very busy. Oh. He picked up the ball, dropped it, hit it up to catch it, dropped it, eventually chased it and grabbed at it as if it were the size of a football. She went to the office, discovered that the other men had paid for their quarter of an hour. She paid the rest and bought two drinks. Les grinned affectionately at the two cool white and tan players passing him in the doorway. He lapped up the drink, asked were there showers. By way of answering she said she couldn’t wait until he had showered. Again off-hand, he bid her good-bye and went in the direction the attendant indicated. Suddenly she needed to become champion of the Squash Club. She was third from the top of the ladder, but that was unbearably low. She stared at the boy in the office for one hard unfocused minute. An angry stare, like that of a gambler who has lost because someone else has cheated. A savage moment. Then it occurred to her that he hadn’t cheated. It was fair. The attendant came into focus. She beamed the smile that strangers loved and asked him to arrange a challenge match for her with the number two woman. He willingly wrote that down and asked would she like a warm-up with him before the match. Of course.