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Squash Match Excerpt from Ian McEwan's latest novel

Saturday


Henry Perowne is the central character in ‘Saturday’. The squash match in question runs to over eight pages in the novel. It is reproduced on Squash Player with the permission of McEwan, a keen squash player, and his publishers Jonathan Cape. Squash Player readers can obtain a discount on the novel by called 01206 255800 and using the reference ‘squashplayer’. (The normal price is £17.99. The Squash Player price is £16.99 with free p&p.)
 


' After he’s parked, and before getting out of the car, he phones
Rosalind at work – his long fingers still trembling, fumbling
with the miniature keys. On this important day for her he
doesn’t intend to distract her with the story of his nearthrashing.
And he doesn’t need sympathy. What he wants is more fundamental
– the sound of her voice in an everyday
exchange, the resumption of normal existence. What can be
more reassuringly plain than husband and wife discussing
the details of tonight’s dinner? He speaks to a temp, what
they call in Rosalind’s office a hot-desker, and learns that her
meeting with the editor has started late and is running on.
He leaves no message, and says he’ll try later.

It’s unusual to see the glass-fronted squash courts deserted
on a Saturday. He walks along the row, on stained blue carpet,
past the giant Coke and energy bar dispensers, and finds the
consultant anaesthetist at the far end, in number five,
smacking the ball in fast repeated strokes low along the backhand
wall, giving the appearance of a man working off a bad
temper. But, it turns out, he’s been waiting only ten minutes.
He lives across the river in Wandsworth; the march forced
him to abandon his car by the Festival Hall. Furious with
himself for being late, he jogged across Waterloo Bridge and
saw below him tens of thousands pouring along the
Embankment towards Parliament Square. Too young for the
Vietnam war protests, he’s never in his life seen so many
people in one place. Despite his own views, he was somewhat
moved. This, he told himself, is the democratic process,
however inconvenient. He watched for five minutes, then
jogged up Kingsway, against the flow of bodies. He describes
all this while Perowne sits on the bench removing his sweater
and tracksuit bottom, and making a heap of his wallet, keys
and phone to store at one of the corners by the front wall –
he and Strauss are never serious enough to insist on a completely
cleared court.

‘They dislike your Prime Minister, but boy do they fucking
loathe my President.’

Jay is the only American medic Perowne knows to have
taken a huge cut in salary and amenities to work in England.
He says he loves the health system. He also loved an
Englishwoman, had three children by her, divorced her, married
another similar-looking English rose twelve years
younger and had another two children – still toddlers, and
a third is on its way. But his respect for socialised medicine
or his love of children do not make him an ally of the peace
cause. The proposed war, Perowne finds, generally doesn’t
divide people predictably; a known package of opinions is
not a reliable guide. According to Jay, the matter is stark: how
open societies deal with the new world situation will determine
how open they remain. He’s a man of untroubled certainties,
impatient of talk of diplomacy, weapons of mass
destruction, inspection teams, proofs of links with Al-Qaeda
and so on. Iraq is a rotten state, a natural ally of terrorists,
bound to cause mischief at some point and may as well be
taken out now while the US military is feeling perky after
Afghanistan. And by taken out, he insists he means liberated
and democratised. The USA has to atone for its previous disastrous
policies – at the very least it owes this to the Iraqi
people. Whenever he talks to Jay, Henry finds himself tending
towards the anti-war camp.

Strauss is a powerful, earthbound, stocky man, physically
affectionate, energetic, direct in manner – to some of his
English colleagues, tiresomely so. He’s been completely bald
since he was thirty. He works out for more than an hour each
day, and looks like a wrestler. When he busies himself around
his patients in the anaesthetic room, readying them for
oblivion, they are reassured by the sight of the sculpted muscles
on his forearms, the dense bulk of his neck and shoulders,
and by the way he speaks to them – matter-of-fact,
cheerful, without condescension. Anxious patients can believe
this squat American will lay down his life to spare them pain.

They have worked together six years. As far as Henry is
concerned, Jay is the key to the success of his firm. When
things go wrong, Strauss becomes calm. If, for example,
Perowne is obliged to cut off a major blood vessel to make
a repair, Jay keeps time in a soothing way, ending with a
murmured, ‘You’ve got one minute, Boss, then you’re out of
there.’ On the rare occasions when things go really badly,
when there’s no way back, Strauss will find him out afterwards,
alone in a quiet stretch of corridor, and put his hands
on his shoulders, squeeze tightly and say, ‘OK Henry. Let’s
talk it through now. Before you start crucifying yourself.’ This
isn’t the way an anaesthetist, even a consultant, usually
speaks to a surgeon. Consequently, Strauss has an above
average array of enemies. On certain committees, Perowne
has protected his friend’s broad back from various collegiate
daggers. Now and then he finds himself saying to Jay something
like, ‘I don’t care what you think. Be nice to him.
Remember our funding next year.’

While Henry does his stretching exercises, Jay goes back
on court to keep the ball warm, driving it down the righthand
wall. There appears to be an extra punch today in his
low shots, and the sequence of fast volleys is surely planned
to intimidate an opponent. It works. Perowne feels the
echoing rifle-shot crack of the ball as an oppression; there’s
an unusual stiffness in his neck as he goes through his routine,
pushing with his left hand against his right elbow.
Through the open glass door, he raises his voice to explain
why he’s late, but it’s a truncated account, centred mostly on
the scrape itself, the way the red car pulled out, and how he
swerved, how the damage to the paintwork was surprisingly
light. He skips the rest, saying only that it took a while to
sort out. He doesn’t want to hear himself describe Baxter and
his friends. They’ll interest Strauss too much, and prompt
questions he doesn’t feel like answering yet. He’s already
feeling a rising unease about the encounter, a disquiet he
can’t yet define, though guilt is certainly an element.

He feels his left knee creak as he stretches his hamstrings.
When will it be time to give up this game? His fiftieth
birthday? Or sooner. Get out before he rips an anterior cruciate
ligament, or crashes to the parquet with his first coronary.
He’s working on the tendons of his other leg, Strauss
is still performing his rapid-fire volleys. Perowne suddenly
feels his own life as fragile and precious. His limbs appear
to him as neglected old friends, absurdly long and breakable.
Is he in mild shock? His heart will be all the more vulnerable
after that punch. His chest still aches. He has a duty to
others to survive, and he mustn’t endanger his own life for
a mere game, smacking a ball against a wall. And there’s no
such thing as a gentle game of squash, especially with Jay.
Especially with himself. They both hate to lose. Once they
get going, they fight points like madmen. He should make
excuses and pull out now, and risk irritating his friend. A
negligible price. As he straightens up, it occurs to Perowne
that what he really wants is to go home and lie down in the
bedroom and think it through, the dispute in University
Street, and decide how he should have handled it, and what
it was he got wrong.

But even as he’s thinking this, he’s pulling on his goggles
and stepping onto the court and closing the door behind him.
He kneels to settle his valuables in a front- wall corner. There’s
a momentum to the everyday, a Saturday morning game of
squash with a good friend and colleague, that he doesn’t
have the strength of will to interrupt. He stands on the backhand
side of the court, Strauss sends a brisk, friendly ball
down the centre, automatically Perowne returns it, back along
its path. And so they are launched into the familiar routines
of a warm-up. The third ball he mishits, slapping it loudly
into the tin. A couple of strokes later he stops to retie his
laces. He can’t settle. He feels slow and encumbered and his
grip feels misaligned, too open, too closed, he doesn’t know.
He fiddles with his racket between strokes. Four minutes
pass and they’ve yet to have a decent exchange. There’s none
of that easy rhythm that usually works them into their game.
He notices that Jay is slowing his pace, offering easier angles
to keep the ball in play. At last, Perowne feels obliged to say
he’s ready. Since he lost last week’s game – this is their
arrangement – he is to serve.

He takes up his position in the right-hand service box.
From behind him on the other side of the court, he hears Jay
mutter, ‘OK.’ The silence is complete, of that hissing variety
rarely heard in a city; no other players, no street sounds, not
even from the march. For two or three seconds Perowne
stares at the dense black ball in his left hand, willing himself
to narrow the range of his thoughts. He serves a high
lob, well placed in so far as it arcs too high for a volley, and
slides off the side wall onto the back. But even as it leaves
him, he knows he’s hit it too hard. It comes off the back wall
with some residual speed, leaving Jay plenty of space to drive
a straight return down the side wall to a good length. The
ball dies in the corner, dribbling off the back wall as Perowne
reaches it.

With barely a pause, Jay snatches up the ball to serve from
the right box. Perowne, gauging his opponent’s mood, is
expecting an overarm smash and is crouched forwards, prepared
to take a volley before the ball nicks the side wall. But
Strauss has made his own calculations about mood. He serves
a soft bodyline, angled straight into Perowne’s right shoulder.
It’s the perfect shot to play at an indecisive opponent. He
steps back, but too late and not far enough and, at some
point in his confusion, loses sight of the ball. His return
drops into the front of the court and Strauss drives it hard
into the right-hand corner. They’ve been playing less than
a minute, Perowne has lost his serve, is one point down and
knows already that he’s lost control. And so it goes on,
relentlessly for the next five points, with Jay in possession
of the centre of the court, and Perowne, dazed and defensive,
initiating nothing.

At six-love, Strauss finally makes an unforced error.
Perowne serves the same high lob, but this time it falls
nicely off the back wall. Strauss does well to hook it out,
but the ball sits up on the short line and Perowne amazes
himself with a perfect dying-length drive. With that little
swoon of euphoria comes the ability to concentrate. He takes
the next three points without trouble, and on the last of
these, clinched by a volley drop, he hears Jay swearing at
himself as he walks to the back of the court. Now, the magical
authority, and all the initiatives are Henry’s. He has
possession of the centre of the court and is sending his
opponent running from front to back. Soon he’s ahead at
seven-six and is certain he’ll take the next two points. Even
as he thinks this, he makes a careless cross-court shot which
Strauss pounces on and, with a neat slice, drops into the
corner. Perowne manages to resist the lure of self-hatred as
he walks to the left-hand court to receive the serve. But as
the ball floats off the front wall towards him, unwanted
thoughts are shaking at his concentration. He sees the
pathetic figure of Baxter in the rear-view mirror. This is precisely
the moment he should have stepped forwards for a
backhand volley – he could reach it at a stretch – but he
hesitates. The ball hits the nick – the join between the wall
and the floor – and rolls insultingly over his foot. It’s a lucky
shot, and in his irritation he longs to say so. Seven-all. But
there’s no fight to the end. Perowne feels himself moving
through a mental fog, and Jay takes the last two points in
quick succession.

Neither man has any illusions about his game. They are
halfway decent club players, both approaching fifty. Their
arrangement is that between games – they play the best of
five – they pause to let their pulse rates settle. Sometimes
they even sit on the floor. Today, the first game hasn’t been
strenuous, so they walk slowly up and down the court. The
anaesthetist wants to know about the Chapman girl. He’s
gone out of his way to make friends with her. The girl’s
street manner didn’t withstand the pep talk that Perowne,
passing in the corridor, overheard Strauss deliver. The anaesthetist
had gone up to the ward to introduce himself. He
found a Filipino nurse in tears over some abuse she’d
received. Strauss sat on the bed and put his face close to the
girl’s.

‘Listen honey. You want us to fix that sorry head of yours,
you’ve got to help us. You hear? You don’t want us to fix it,
take your attitude home. We got plenty of other patients
waiting to get in your bed. Look, here’s your stuff in the
locker. You want me to start putting it in your bag? OK. Here
we go. Toothbrush. Discman. Hairbrush . . . No? So which is
it to be? Fine. OK, look, I’m taking them out again. No, look,
I really am. You help us, we help you. We got a deal? Let’s
shake hands.’

Perowne reports on her good progress this morning.

‘I like that kid,’ Jay says. ‘She reminds me of myself at that
age. A pain in the ass in every direction. She might go down
in flames, she might do something with herself.’

‘Well, she’ll pull through this one,’ Perowne says as he
takes up his position to receive. ‘At least it’ll be her own decision
to crash. Let’s go.’

He’s spoken too soon. Jay’s serve is on him, but his own
word ‘crash’, trailing memories of the night as well as the
morning, fragments into a dozen associations. Everything
that’s happened to him recently occurs to him at once. He’s
no longer in the present. The deserted icy square, the plane
and its pinprick of fire, his son in the kitchen, his wife in
bed, his daughter on her way from Paris, the three men
in the street – he occupies the wrong time coordinates, or
he’s in them all at once. The ball surprises him – it’s as if he
left the court for a moment. He takes the ball late, scooping
it from the floor. At once Strauss springs out from the ‘T’ for
the kill shot. And so the second game begins as the first. But
this time Henry has to run hard to lose. Jay’s prepared to let
the rallies go on while he hogs centre court and lobs to the
back, drops to the front, and finds his angle shots. Perowne
scampers around his opponent like a circus pony. He twists
back to lift balls out of the rear corners, then dashes forwards
at a stretch to connect with the drop shots. The constant
change of direction tires him as much as his gathering selfhatred.
Why has he volunteered for, even anticipated with
pleasure, this humiliation, this torture? It’s at moments like
these in a game that the essentials of his character are exposed:
narrow, ineffectual, stupid – and morally so. The game
becomes an extended metaphor of character defect. Every
error he makes is so profoundly, so irritatingly typical of himself,
instantly familiar, like a signature, like a tissue scar or
some deformation in a private place. As intimate and selfevident
as the feel of his tongue in his mouth. Only he can
go wrong in quite this way, and only he deserves to lose in
just this manner. As the points fall he draws his remaining
energy from a darkening pool of fury.

He says nothing, to himself or his opponent. He won’t let
Jay hear him curse. But the silence is another kind of affliction.
They’re at eight-three. Jay plays a cross-court drive –
probably a mistake, because the ball is left loose, ready for
interception. Perowne sees his chance. If he can get to it, Jay
will be caught out of position. Aware of this, Jay moves out
from his stroke towards centre court, blocking Perowne’s
path. Immediately Perowne calls for a let. They stop and
Strauss turns to express surprise.


‘Are you kidding?’
‘For fuck’s sake,’ Perowne says through his furious
breathing, and pointing his racket in the direction he was
heading. ‘You stepped right into me.’

The language startles them both. Strauss immediately concedes.
‘OK, OK. It’s a let.’

As he goes to the service box and tries to calm himself,
Perowne can’t help considering that at eight-three, and
already a game up, it’s ungenerous of Jay to query such an
obvious call. Ungenerous is generous. The judgment doesn’t
help him deliver the service he needs, for this is his last chance
to get back in the game. The ball goes so wide of the wall
that Jay is able to step to his left and reach for an easy forehand
smash. He takes the service back, and the game is over
in half a minute.

The prospect of making small talk on court for a few minutes
is now unendurable. Henry puts his racket down, pulls
off his goggles and mutters something about needing water.
He leaves the court and goes to the changing room and
drinks from the fountain there. The place is deserted except
for an unseen figure in the showers. A TV high on the wall
is showing a news channel. He splashes his face at a basin,
and rests his head on his forearms. He hears his pulse
knocking in his ears, sweat is dribbling down his spine, his
face and feet are burning. There’s only one thing in life he
wants. Everything else has dropped away. He has to beat
Strauss. He needs to win three games in a row to take the
set. Unbelievably difficult, but for the moment he desires and
can think of nothing else. In this minute or two alone, he
must think carefully about his game, cut to the fundamentals,
decide what he’s doing wrong and fix it. He’s beaten
Strauss many times before. He has to stop being angry with
himself and think about his game.

When he raises his head, he sees in the washroom mirror,
beyond his reddened face, a reflection of the silent TV behind
him showing the same old footage of the cargo plane on the
runway. But then, briefly, enticingly, two men with coats over
their heads – surely the two pilots – in handcuffs being led
towards a police van. They’ve been arrested. Something’s
happened. A reporter outside a police station is talking to
the camera. Then the anchor is talking to the reporter.
Perowne shifts position so the screen is no longer in view.
Isn’t it possible to enjoy an hour’s recreation without this
invasion, this infection from the public domain? He begins
to see the matter resolving in simple terms: winning his game
will be an assertion of his privacy. He has a right now and
then – everyone has it – not to be disturbed by world events,
or even street events. Cooling down in the locker room, it
seems to Perowne that to forget, to obliterate a whole universe
of public phenomena in order to concentrate is a fundamental
liberty. Freedom of thought. He’ll emancipate
himself by beating Strauss. Stirred, he walks up and down
between the changing-room benches, averting his eyes from
a ripplingly obese teenager, more seal than human, who’s
emerged from the shower without a towel. There isn’t much
time. He has to arrange his game around simple tactics, play
on his opponent’s weakness. Strauss is only five foot eight,
with no great reach and not a brilliant volleyer. Perowne
decides on high lobs to the rear corners. As simple as that.
Keep lobbing to the back.

When he arrives back on court, the consultant anaesthetist
comes
straight over to him. ‘You all right Henry? You pissed
off?’
‘Yeah. With myself. But having to argue that let didn’t
help.’

‘You were right, I was wrong. I’m sorry. Are you ready?’
Perowne stands in the receiving position, intent on the
rhythm of his breathing, prepared to perform a simple move,
virtually a standard procedure: he’ll volley the serve before
it touches the side wall, and after he’s hit it he’ll cross to the
‘T’ at the centre of the court and lob. Simple. It’s time to dislodge
Strauss.

‘Ready.’

Strauss hits a fast serve, and once again it’s a bodyline,
aimed straight for the shoulder. Perowne manages to push
his racket through the ball, and the volley goes more or less
as he hoped, and now he’s in position, on the ‘T’. Strauss
flicks the ball out of the corner, and it comes back along the
same side wall. Perowne goes forward and volleys again.
Half a dozen times the ball travels up and down the lefthand
wall, until Perowne finds the space on his backhand to
lift it high into the right-hand corner. They play that wall in
hard straight drives, dancing in and out of each other’s path,
then they’re chasing shots all over the court, with the advantage
passing between them.

They’ve had this kind of rally before – desperate, mad, but
also hilarious, as if the real contest is to see who will break
down laughing first. But this is different. It’s humourless,
and longer, and attritional, for hearts this age can’t race at
above one hundred and eighty beats per minute for long,
and soon someone will tire and fumble. And in this unwitnessed,
somewhat inept, merely social game, both men have
acquired an urgent sense of the point’s importance. Despite
the apology, the disputed let hangs between them. Strauss
will have guessed that Perowne has given himself a good
talking-to in the changing room. If his fightback can be
resisted now, he’ll be demoralised in no time and Strauss will
take the match in three straight sets. As for Perowne, it’s
down to the rules of the game; until he’s won the serve, he
can’t begin to score points.

It’s possible in a long rally to become a virtually unconscious
being, inhabiting the narrowest slice of the present,
merely reacting, taking one shot at a time, existing only to
keep going. Perowne is already at that state, digging in deep,
when he remembers he’s supposed to have a game plan. As
it happens, just then the ball falls short and he’s able to get
under it to lob high into the rear left corner. Strauss raises
his racket to volley, then changes his mind and runs back.
He boasts the ball out, and Perowne lobs to the other side.
Running from corner to corner to grub the ball out when
you’re tired is hard work. Each time he hits the ball, Strauss
grunts a little louder, and Perowne is encouraged. He resists
the kill shot because he thinks he’ll mishit. Instead, he goes
on lobbing, five times in a row, wearing his man down. The
point ends on the fifth w
hen Strauss’s powerless ball falls
feebly against the tin.

Love-all. They put down their rackets, and stand bent over,
breathless, hands on knees, staring blindly into the floor, or
press their palms and faces into the cool white walls, or
wander aimlessly about the court mopping their brows with
their untucked T-shirts and groaning. At other times they’d
have a post-mortem on a point like that, but neither man
speaks. Keen to force the pace, Perowne is ready first, and
waits in the service box bouncing the ball against the floor.
He serves right over Strauss’s head and the ball, cooler and
softer now, dies in the corner. One-love, and no effort wasted.
This, rather than the point before, might be the important
one. Perowne has his height and length now. The next point
goes his way, and the next. Strauss is becoming exasperated
by a series of identical serves, and because the rallies are brief
or non-existent, the ball remains cold and inert, like putty,
difficult to fish out of a tight space. And as he becomes more
annoyed, Jay becomes even less competent. He can’t reach
the ball in the air, he can’t get under it once it falls. A couple
of serves he simply walks away from, and goes to the box
to wait for the next. It’s the repetition, the same angle, the
same impossible height, the same dead ball that’s getting to
him. Soon he’s lost six points.

Perowne wants to laugh wildly – an impulse he disguises
as a cough. He isn’t gloating, or triumphant – it’s far too
early for that. This is the delight of recognition, sympathetic
laughter. He’s amused because he knows exactly how Strauss
is feeling: Henry is too well acquainted with the downward
spiral of irritation and ineptitude, the little ecstasies of selfloathing. It’s hilarious to recognise how completely another
person resembles your imperfect self. And he knows how
annoying his serve is. He wouldn’t be able to return it himself.
But Strauss was merciless when he was on top, and
Perowne needs the points. So he keeps on and on, floating
the ball over his opponent’s head and cruising right through to take the game, no effort at all, nine-love.

‘I need a piss,’ Jay says tersely, and leaves the court, still
wearing his goggles and holding his racket.

Perowne doesn’t believe him. Though he sees that it’s a
sensible move, the only way to interrupt the haemorrhaging
of points, and even though he did the same thing less than
ten minutes before, he still feels cheated. He could have
taken the next set too with his infuriating serve. Now Strauss
will be dousing his head under the tap and rethinking his
game.

Henry resists the temptation to sit down. Instead he steps
out to take a look at the other games – he’s always hoping
to learn something from the classier players. But the place is
still deserted. The club members are either massing against
the war, or unable to find a way through central London. As
he comes back along the courts, he lifts his T-shirt and examines
his chest. There’s a dense black bruise to the left of his
sternum. It hurts when he extends his left arm. Staring at the
discoloured skin helps focus his troubled feelings about
Baxter. Did he, Henry Perowne, act unprofessionally, using
his medical knowledge to undermine a man suffering from
a neurodegenerative disorder? Yes. Did the threat of a beating
excuse him? Yes, no, not entirely. But this haematoma, the
colour of an aubergine, the diameter of a plum – just a taste
of what might have come his way – says yes, he’s absolved.
Only a fool would stand there and take a kicking when there
was a way out. So what’s troubling him? Strangely, for all
the violence, he almost liked Baxter. That’s to put it too
strongly. He was intrigued by him, by his hopeless situation,
and his refusal to give up. And there was a real intelligence
there, and dismay that he was living the wrong life. And he,
Henry, was obliged, or forced, to abuse his own power – but
he allowed himself to be placed in that position. His attitude
was wrong from the start, insufficiently defensive; his manner
may have seemed pompous, or disdainful. Provocative perhaps.
He could have been friendlier, even made himself accept
a cigarette; he should have relaxed, from a position of
strength, instead of which he was indignant and combative.
On the other hand, there were three of them, they wanted
his cash, they were eager for violence, they were planning it
before they got out of their car. The loss of a wing mirror
was cover for a mugging.

He arrives back outside the court, his unease intact, just
as Strauss appears. His thick shoulders are drenched from
his session at the washbasin, and his good humour is restored.

‘OK,’ he says as Perowne goes to the service box. ‘No more
Mister Nice Guy.’

Perowne finds it disabling, to have been left alone with
his thoughts; just before he serves, he remembers his game
plan. But the fourth game falls into no obvious pattern. He
takes two points, then Strauss gets into the game and pulls
ahead, three-two. There are long, scrappy rallies, with a run
of unforced errors on both sides which bring the score to
seven-all, Perowne to serve. He takes the last two points
without trouble. Two games each.

They take a quick break to gather themselves for the final
battle. Perowne isn’t tired – winning games has been less
physically demanding than losing them. But he feels drained
of that fierce desire to beat Jay and would be happy to call
it a draw and get on with his day. All morning he’s been in
some form of combat. But there’s no chance of backing out.
Strauss is enjoying the moment, playing it up, and saying
as he goes to his position, ‘Fight to the death,’ and ‘No
pasaran!’

So, with a suppressed sigh, Perowne serves and, because
he’s run out of ideas, falls back on the same old lob. In fact,
the moment he hits the ball, he knows it’s near-perfect,
curving high, set to drop sharply into the corner. But Strauss
is in a peculiar, elated mood and he does an extraordinary
thing. With a short running jump, he springs two, perhaps
three feet into the air, and with racket fully extended, his
thick, muscular back gracefully arched, his teeth bared, his
head flung back and his left arm raised for balance, he catches
the ball just before the peak of its trajectory with a whip-like
backhand smash that shoots the ball down to hit the front
wall barely an inch above the tin – a beautiful, inspired, unreturnable shot. Perowne, who’s barely moved from his spot,
instantly says so. A fabulous shot. And suddenly, with the
serve now in his opponent’s hands, all over again, he wants
to win.

Both men raise their games. Every point is now a drama,
a playlet of sudden reversals, and all the seriousness and
fury of the third game’s long rally is resumed. Oblivious to
their protesting hearts, they hurl themselves into every corner
of the court. There are no unforced errors, every point is
wrested, bludgeoned from the other. The server gasps out
the score, but otherwise they don’t speak. And as the score
rises, neither man moves more than one point ahead. There’s
nothing at stake – they’re not on the club’s squash ladder.
There’s only the irreducible urge to win, as biological as thirst.
And it’s pure, because no one’s watching, no one cares, not
their friends, their wives, their children. It isn’t even enjoyable.
It might become so in retrospect – and only to the winner.
If a passer-by were to pause by the glass back wall to watch,
she’d surely think these elderly players were once rated, and
even now still have a little fire. She might also wonder if this
is a grudge match, there’s such straining desperation in the
play.

What feels like half an hour is in fact twelve minutes. At
seven-all Perowne serves from the left box and wins the
point. He crosses the court to serve for the match. His concentration
is good, his confidence is up and so he plays a
forceful backhand serve, at a narrow angle, close to the wall.
Strauss slices it with his backhand, almost a tennis stroke, so
that it drops to the front of the court. It’s a good shot, but
Perowne is in position and nips forward for the kill. He
catches the ball on the rise and smashes it on his forehand,
into the left rear corner. End of game, and victory. The instant
he makes his stroke, he steps back – and collides with Strauss.
It’s a savage jolt, and both men reel and for a moment neither
can talk.

Then Strauss, speaking quietly through heavy breathing,
says, ‘It’s my point, Henry.’

And Perowne says, ‘Jay, it’s over. Three games to two.’
They pause again to take the measure of this calamitous
difference.

Perowne says, ‘What were you doing at the front wall?’
Jay walks away from him, to the box where, if they play
the point again, he’ll receive the serve. He’s wanting to move
things on – his way. He says, ‘I thought you’d play a drop
shot to your right.’

Henry tries to smile. His mouth is dry, his lips won’t easily
slide over his teeth. ‘So I fooled you. You were out of position.
You couldn’t have returned it.’

The anaesthetist shakes his head with the earthbound calm
his patients find so reassuring. But his chest is heaving. ‘It
came off the back wall. Plenty of bounce. Henry, you were
right in my path.’

This deployment of each other’s first name is tipped with
poison. Henry can’t resist it again himself. He speaks as
though reminding Strauss of a long-forgotten fact. ‘But Jay.
You couldn’t’ve reached that ball.’

Strauss holds Perowne’s gaze and says quietly, ‘Henry, I
could.’

The injustice of the claim is so flagrant that Perowne can
only repeat himself. ‘You were way out of position.’

Strauss says, ‘That’s not against the rules.’ Then he adds,
‘Come on Henry. I gave you the benefit of the doubt last
time.’

So he thinks he’s calling in a debt. Perowne’s tone of
reasonableness becomes even harder to sustain. He says
quickly, ‘There was no doubt.’

‘Sure there was.’

‘Look, Jay. This isn’t some kind of equal-opportunity forum.
We take the case on its merits.’

‘I agree. No need to give a lecture.’

Perowne’s falling pulse rises briefly at the reproof – a
moment’s sudden anger is like an extra heartbeat, an
unhelpful stab of arrhythmia. He has things to do. He needs
to drive to the fishmonger’s, go home and shower, and
head out again, come back, cook a meal, open wine, greet
his daughter, his father-in-law, reconcile them. But more
than that, he needs what’s already his; he fought back from
two games down, and believes he’s proved to himself something
essential in his own nature, something familiar that
he’s forgotten lately. Now his opponent wants to steal it,
or deny it. He leans his racket in the corner by his valuables
to demonstrate that the game is over. Likewise, Strauss
stands resolutely in the service box. They’ve never had anything
like this before. Is it possibly about something else?
Jay is looking at him with a sympathetic half-smile through
pursed lips – an entirely concocted expression designed to
further his claim. Henry can see himself – his pulse rate
spikes again at the thought – crossing the parquet in four
steps to give that complacent expression a brisk backhand
slap. Or he could shrug and leave the court. But his victory
is meaningless without consent. Fantasy apart, how
can they possibly resolve this, with no referee, no common
power?

Neither man has spoken for half a minute. Perowne
spreads his hands and says, in a tone as artificial as Strauss’s
smile, ‘I don’t know what to do, Jay. I just know I hit a
winner.’

But Strauss knows exactly what to do. He raises the stakes.
‘Henry, you were facing the front. You didn’t see the ball
come off the back wall. I did because I was going towards
it. So the question is this. Are you calling me a liar?’

This is how it ends.

‘Fuck you, Strauss,’ Perowne says and picks up his racket
and goes to the service box.

And so they play the let, and Perowne serves the point
again, and as he suspected might happen, he loses it, then
he loses the next three points and before he knows it, it’s all
over, he’s lost, and he’s back in the corner picking up his
wallet, phone, keys and watch. Outside the court, he pulls
on his trousers and ties them with the chandler’s cord, straps
on his watch and puts on his sweater and fleece. He minds,
but less than he did two minutes ago. He turns to Strauss
who is just coming off the court.

‘You were bloody good. I’m sorry about the dispute.’

‘Fuck that. It could’ve been anyone’s game. One of our
best.’

They zip their rackets into their cases and sling them over
their shoulders. Freed from red lines and the glaring white
walls and the rules of the game, they walk along the courts
to the Coke machine. Strauss buys a can for himself. Perowne
doesn’t want one. You have to be an American to want, as
an adult, anything quite so sweet.

As they leave the building Strauss, pausing to drink deep,
says, ‘They’re all going down with the flu and I’m on call
tonight.’

Perowne says, ‘Have you seen next week’s list? Another
heavy one.’

‘Yeah. That old lady and her astrocytoma. She’s not going
to make it, is she?’

They are standing on the steps above the pavement on
Huntley Street. There’s more cloud now, and the air is cold
and damp. It could well rain on the demonstration. The
lady’s name is Viola, her tumour is in the pineal region. She’s
seventy-eight, and it turns out that in her working life she
was an astronomer, something of a force at Jodrell Bank in
the sixties. On the ward, while the other patients watch TV,
she reads books on mathematics and string theory. Aware of
the lowering light, a winter’s late-morning dusk, and not
wanting to part on a bad note, a malediction, Perowne says,
‘I think we can help her.’

Understanding him, Strauss grimaces, raises a hand in
farewell, and the two men go their separate ways.
 

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