Simon Brett

The Corpse on the Court


‘Forty-fifteen! Chase more than a yard worse!’ called out the young marker, and the pairs of white-clad players changed ends.

To Jude his words made about as much sense as if she’d stumbled into a science fiction alternative universe. She knew the game they were playing was called ‘real tennis’ and that ‘real’ in this context meant ‘royal’. She even knew, because Piers had told her, that in America the game was called ‘court tennis’. But though he had spent painstaking hours spelling them out to her, she still hadn’t a clue what the rules were.

To be fair, it was the first time she’d been inside a real tennis court. Up until that moment her knowledge of the game had been entirely theoretical. ‘It’ll all make sense when you actually see the place,’ Piers kept telling her airily. So far his optimistic view was not being borne out. Maybe if he were sitting beside her in what she had been assured was called the ‘dedans’, he might have been able to provide a running commentary on what was going on. But Piers Targett was one of the four players on court, clearly engrossed in this incomprehensible contest.

Jude had had lovers before who’d been interested in sport — not many, it was true, more had come from the artistic community — but this was the first time she had encountered one who was into real tennis.

She looked around the court, trying to make sense of it. When he’d first mentioned the game — on their first date at Arbutus — Piers had said, ‘You know, like at Hampton Court. Everyone’s seen the one at Hampton Court. . where King Henry VIII played. . saggy net. . you know,’ he had concluded airily. ‘Airy’, Jude had soon discovered was Piers Targett’s conversational default setting.

Jude had been taken to Hampton Court as a small girl, but her main recollection of the occasion had been of crying when she got lost in the maze. Maybe King Henry’s tennis court had been pointed out to her, but it had not proved memorable to her childish preoccupations.

The court she surveyed that Sunday morning had been constructed in the late nineteenth century by the family who built the adjacent Lockleigh House on the foothills of the South Downs, about midway between Clincham and Fedborough. The Wardocks had made a lot of money in that period’s boom in lawn tennis — or ‘lawners’, as Piers always referred to the upstart — but they had retained an interest in the much older version of the game.

Members of the Wardock family had continued to live in Lockleigh House until the end of the Second World War when declining business and increasing costs had forced them to sell up. Since that time the mansion had had various incarnations. . as a hotel, a boy’s prep school, and for the last twenty years as the Lockleigh House Nursing Home for the Elderly. The tennis court was owned by the care home company, who leased it out to the Lockleigh House Tennis Club. Some four hundred members kept the court fairly busy from the first hour-and-a-quarter booking at seven forty-five in the morning to the last at eight fifteen p.m.

The ‘dedans’ in which Jude had been told she was sitting was at one end of the rectangular court. Benches were arranged in rows behind a large slot in the wall, the shape of a giant letterbox. The purpose of this was clearly not just so that the spectators could see the action. Every time a ball thundered into the dedans it prompted clapping, so clearly a point had been scored. And given the speed at which the hard balls arrived, there was comfort in the fact that stout netting stopped them from hitting the spectators.

The atmosphere among those watching was distinctly benign. Though clearly absorbed in the game, they had an air of levity about them. Applause was accorded to what Jude assumed was good play, but there were also a lot of cheery insults called out between points. Though Piers was the only person in the court who Jude knew, she felt very welcome there.

The young man who was marking the game sat at the far end of the front bench in the dedans, calling out ever more obscure — to Jude — incantations, like ‘better than the door’, ‘hazard chase the line’ and ‘more than a yard worse’. He had been introduced to her as ‘Ned Jackson, our junior pro’ and his was one of the few names she had retained from the list that Piers had reeled out to her on their arrival.

She had also taken on board the information that the event being contested that Sunday morning was the Secretary’s Cup, known rather waggishly to all members of the Club as ‘The Sec’s Cup’. During their drive down from Bayswater in his E-Type Jaguar (Carmen red with black leather upholstery) Piers had explained to her that this was ‘a doubles competition with random pairings’. His allocated partner was a teenage girl called Tonya Grace. Piers and Tonya had won through the preliminary rounds on the Saturday to earn a place in the finals.

He had also once again tried to describe the court to her, and once again assured her airily that it’d all make sense when she saw the thing.

It didn’t, though. The area was probably about the same size as a lawn tennis court, but it was walled in. The floor was mostly painted in oxblood red, though a section at the far end was green. Different coloured lines, parallel to the net, were marked on the surface. On the walls, presumably to identify these lines, large numerals were painted.

Maybe twenty feet above the ground the side walls became large windows, leading up to a pitched glass roof. Although this transparent ceiling shed quite a lot of daylight on the court, between the rafters hung large silver-shaded lamps to illuminate the playing area. Along either side at the level of the windows were wooden walkways, presumably to give access for cleaning and maintenance.

On the wall to her left and the one facing her, Jude could see sloping roofs about ten feet off the ground. And the sound of balls bouncing on the wood above her head suggested that the dedans was covered by a similar penthouse. They looked like covered walkways and indeed under the long one was the passageway through which she had been escorted to her spectating position. The walls beneath this long roof only rose to about three feet; above that wooden support posts divided the space into window-like sections. Like the dedans, these recesses were backed by strong netting, presumably for the same reasons of safety.

On the right-hand wall at the far end was another strange feature, a rectangular recess that looked like a blocked-off window.

Just when Jude was reckoning that her survey had found enough architectural eccentricities, she noticed that towards the end of the long right-hand wall a section jutted out from floor to ceiling. For no apparent reason. Or no more reason than was offered by the other oddities she’d observed. But she did notice that any ball hitting this angled feature was likely to fly off all over the place.

And of course there was the saggy net that Piers had promised. Maybe as high as five feet at the sides, going down in an inverted arc to about three in the middle.

Another oddity to puzzle anyone who had only previously watched lawn tennis was the proliferation of balls on the court. Fifty, maybe sixty, accumulated at the foot of the net or in a wooden runnel in the dedans. The balls were covered in yellow felt and about the size of their lawn tennis cousins. But their minimal bouncing capacity and the sound they made when they hit the wooden parts of the court suggested they were a lot harder.

There was something odd about the rackets too. For a start, their frames were made of wood, which should perhaps have raised memories of long summer afternoon duels between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. But the shape was wrong for such comparisons. Bizarrely, the real tennis rackets were not symmetrical. The head came out at a slight angle from the handle, giving the impression of a bent spoon. The alternative reality that Jude had felt herself a part of was now veering into Alice in Wonderland territory.

Her confused scrutiny was interrupted by the sound of a bell ringing and an eruption of applause from the benches in the dedans.

Time to seek help. She turned to the woman next to her and asked pitifully, ‘What happened then?’

‘Winning gallery,’ came the reply.


The blankness on Jude’s face prompted the woman to ask, ‘Don’t you know the game?’

‘First time I’ve seen a real tennis court.’

The woman smiled knowingly. ‘Welcome to a world of obsession and eccentricity. My name, by the way, is

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