Something happened on the court that prompted raucous applause and cheering. ‘Game, set and match!’ called out Ned Jackson, for the first time that morning saying something that Jude could understand. She watched the four players exchange handshakes over the low scoop of the net.

‘Reggie will be insufferable now,’ Oenone Playfair observed.

‘I’m sorry? Why?’

‘Well, they won — didn’t you notice? Means they’ll go through to the semis.’


‘And Reggie will be particularly pleased to have beaten your Piers. There’s always been quite a lot of rivalry between those two.’

‘Friendly rivalry, I hope.’

‘Oh, yes, friendly. . not that that means it doesn’t go deep.’

They looked up at the arrival of the four players in the dedans. Reggie immediately found a bottle of red wine and poured a glass, which he quaffed with relish. Piers, crossing towards Jude, ruffled his hand ruefully through her bird’s nest of blonde hair. ‘Not my brilliant best this morning, I’m afraid.’ He grinned at Oenone. ‘See you two’ve met. What’ve you been putting in the old man’s cocoa? He was on fire.’

‘Who’ll they be playing in the semi?’

‘Whoever wins the next one.’

Jude looked with pleasure at Piers Targett. Though in his sixties, he didn’t have the kind of metabolism that put on weight and looked surprisingly trim. His hair was white but abundant and he wore it almost foppishly long with a centre parting. Eyes of a surprisingly deep blue. The recent exertions on the tennis court had not raised a sweat on his pristine polo shirt. His long white trousers were neatly creased, with a knotted striped old school tie doing service as a belt.

He turned at the approach of his young doubles partner, who had just been chatting with Felicity Budgen. The girl was pretty with black hair and ice-blue eyes. She moved coltishly as if she hadn’t quite got used to her long limbs ‘Sorry, Tonya,’ said Piers with mock humility. ‘If the way I was playing this morning doesn’t give you the message to steer clear of old men, then nothing will.’

The girl smiled nervously. On the court she had looked secure; she had been well taught, moving effortlessly into the right positions and returning the ball with a strength that was surprising in one so slender. Outside the game, however, she was awkward, aware of her juvenile status amongst so many older people.

‘Bad luck, Tonya,’ Oenone Playfair commiserated and was rewarded by another edgy grin. ‘How are Roman and Natalya?’

‘Oh, you know. Grandpa’s lost it a bit, really.’

‘Yes, so I’d heard. Oh, sorry, this is Jude.’

‘Nice to meet you,’ said the girl politely.

‘Anyway, Tonya,’ said Piers, ‘let me get you a drink by way of apology for my appalling tennis. What would you like?

‘Oh, just a Coke, please, thank you.’

‘Sure. And what about you ladies? Oenone. .?’

‘Wally’s getting drinks for us.’

‘What a gentleman that Wally is.’ Piers grinned ruefully at an approaching young man in a smart blue tracksuit. ‘Sorry, George, my volleying was all over the shop this morning. Forgot everything you told me in that last lesson.’

The man grinned back. ‘Can’t win ’em all.’

‘No, winning some would be nice, though. George, must introduce you to a friend of mine. Jude, this is George Hazlitt, the club’s senior pro.’

‘Nice to meet you.’

‘You too.’ The professional smiled the smile of a man who had never doubted his attractiveness to women.

‘George used to be top five in the world,’ said Piers.

‘A while ago, mind.’ This was said with a self-depreciating grin. Close to, George Hazlitt was older than he had first appeared, probably well into his forties. It was his extreme fitness that made him look young.

He moved away. ‘I’ll take over the marking for this one, Ned,’ he said. ‘You go and get a cup of coffee.’

‘Thanks, George.’ The younger pro slid off his bench. As he moved through the crowd, he came face to face with Tonya Grace. Jude noticed the two of them exchange a private grin. Then the girl blushed and turned away.

A new pair of doubles was now knocking up on court, so George Hazlitt’s marking skills were not yet required. To Jude’s amazement she saw him pick up a bag from beside the bench where he was sitting and start sewing. Yes, no question about it. He had some pieces of yellow felt which he was sewing together with a large needle. His movements were practised, automatic; he hardly looked at what he was doing.

Jude nudged Oenone Playfair and nodded her head towards the Pro. ‘Does he have a side line in embroidery?’ she whispered.

The older woman grinned. ‘No, he’s making balls.’ Seeing Jude’s puzzlement, she went on, ‘Real tennis balls are handmade — and they don’t last long. It’s part of the professional’s job to keep up the supply.’

‘Ladies, your drinks,’ announced the marinated voice of Wally Edgington-Bewley. ‘Now, Jude, move along a bit, make room for me. . and I will regale you with the complete history of the ancient game of real tennis. .’

It must have been about half past twelve. Jude was on her third glass of Chardonnay and feeling no pain. From the club room area behind the dedans wafted intriguingly spicy smells. Piers had promised her that ‘the lunches are always very good for the Sec’s Cup — there’s an Indian member who does these amazing curries on the Sunday.’ The smells made her realize that she was very hungry. She’d only snatched a slice of toast by way of breakfast at Piers’ Bayswater flat. And that had been before seven o’clock.

Still, Jude was quite content. Though Wally Edgington-Bewley had continued to ply her with dates and statistics, she hadn’t taken any of it in. She had remained sitting with Oenone Playfair, but their circle had widened as Piers introduced her to more of the real tennis fraternity. She was struck by how nice they all were. And a little surprised by how mixed. Though she heard a good few hyphenated names and cut-glass vowels, there were plenty of members whose voices suggested much humbler origins.

But the main thing that impressed Jude was how much they all seemed to like Piers Targett. The whirlwind of their romance over the previous few weeks had not involved much socializing with other people. But Piers had been committed to participating in the Secretary’s Cup before they’d met, so this was really the first time he had introduced Jude to any of his friends. And she enjoyed seeing him in a context where he so clearly felt at ease.

On the court Reggie Playfair and his partner were playing their semi-final match. And they were finding the going tougher than they had in the previous round. Their opponents were both fit men in their thirties and though, according to Piers, they were ‘giving away a lot in the handicap’ (whatever that meant), they were making few mistakes and slowly grinding down the older pair. His partner was coping with the pressure better, but there was now an air of desperation about the way Reggie hurled his ageing body around the court.

In spite of everything Piers had told her and the information overload supplied by Wally Edgington-Bewley, Jude still hadn’t grasped the basic rules of real tennis. During the rallies, she could vaguely understand what was going on, but the scoring and the reasons why the players kept changing ends left her completely baffled. She didn’t mind, though. Calmed by Chardonnay, she settled into cheerful incomprehension and let her mind wander.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the far end of the court. Jude missed the first impact, but it looked as though Reggie Playfair had slipped and crashed into the side wall. The consternation among the spectators, however, suggested something more serious. Oenone seemed frozen in shock. George Hazlitt was instantly up from his bench and in charge of the situation. ‘Henry, you’re a doctor. Go and check him out. I’ll get the defibrillator.’ And the professional was suddenly running up the passageway alongside the court.

At the far end, on the painted floor, Reggie Playfair lay very still.


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