I’m pretty certain that it’s not possible to eat an apple through a tennis racket. You could maybe push some pasta or some soft cheese through the thing but I doubt even Ken Dodd, with all due respect, could ever achieve such a feat. Actually, you could push a nice ripe strawberry through the mesh and eat that; it is Wimbledon time of the year after all.
At this time of year, when even those without the time for tennis take an interest, and with just a pinch of hope for any British competitor, sales of tennis balls and rackets are bound to peak – and maybe even bottles of barley water. And reminiscing as I’m occasionally prone to do, I remember being bought a tennis racket – although I had little interest in tennis; even so, lots of us little, spirited tikes would have a bat. The fad would end almost as soon as Wimbledon itself, and dirty, chipped and almost unstrung tennis bats would be resigned to hanging on the back of the outhouse door…those black-taped handles unwrapping themselves and hanging limply in want of attention and repair. Winter was interesting at times if there was a little snow about, old bats doubling-up as crude snow shoes; although only for a moment, and after discovering almost every year that we were wasting our time… I was never particularly interested in playing out games as an Eskimo – or whoever wears snow shoes..? Enthusiasm for tennis grew quickly, peaked after a few days with the bats and then it succumbed to its nemesis, boredom. We had other, more exciting uses for tightly strung, brand new tennis rackets.
Have you ever picked up a tennis racket, and then picked up a reasonably sized stone from the ground, tossed the stone in the air, emulating the serve, and brought around the racket with determined urgency and a straining swing? Have you ever felt the pleasure of firing that stone from the face of the racket? You can literally feel the bounce when cat-gut and stone make contact and kinetic energy is transferred through the motion of the arm, through the bat and sending the projectile whizzing off into the distance (or someone’s window)?
Some of the best non-tennis games we played involved sides or teams…and occasionally rackets for that matter. An even number meant an equal and fair fi…competition. An odd number meant one team had to have the person that no-one wanted on their side – this would usually be someone who was small, cried a lot and maybe wouldn’t tolerate a lot of discomfort when things got a little rough. And rough it would get. We decided that we would have a battle game – reminds me of a comic dad used to subscribe to for me called Battle. Anyway, weapons wouldn’t be the usual sticks-for-tommy-gun type, rather our tennis rackets; not everyone had one but that didn’t really matter. The battlefield was to be a row of derelict houses and flats that for a short time, stood abandoned and crumbling on the opposite side of the road – despite there only being a few wrecks, it was nonetheless a whole other world of adventure. Sparsely clad with tiles, some of the roofs were through to the rafters; yards full of rubble, windows devoid of glass, and, mostly missing frames; plastered walls in parts revealed hints of the houses’ anatomy – thin wooden lats, exposed like ribs on an old dried carcass where plaster had given up and fallen – they actually made brilliant kindling for camp fires. Floor boards were few and far between, revealing, agonising, shin-skinning narrow traps that guaranteed pain when you stepped or ran into one; a misplaced leg found no clear path to the bottom without being brutally shaved on the way down. Thick, dirty woodchip wallpapers curled from walls like the fronds of a fern, revealing past papers still glued stubbornly in place – pre and post-war flocks, flower patterned, mostly browns and greens; from what could be recognised in places here and there; anaglypta (Ana Glypta – raised cameo; Greek). Handy wallpapers, they were Victorian in origin and very sought after for their washability – thank you Mr. Palmer for usurping Mr. Walton’s idea and having the sense to patent it. Thick and musky tastes and aromas hung in the air, at times catching the back of the throat. Once protective damp-courses made use of their purpose, however, now, overpowered by a relentless, ascending, rank dampness, they were long redundant. Age-old newspapers lay here and there along side an assortment of other abandoned rubbish; someone’s once-proud and precious purchases, lay broken, discarded, unloved and rotting – usually an old mattress or shredded sofa, it’s back broken, desperate, damp and sad. An inanimate object, sad? Not quite ‘its’ sadness, however, to think how it once was treasured and had pride poured over it, how many pounds had been toiled for to acquire it, how much happiness, comfort and perhaps sadness had it soaked up?
In those old houses were nooks and crannies ideal for hiding, great for protection from the enemy and for traps and ambushes galore! We paired off in our little battle groups and each meandered swiftly to either end of the block. Progress back to the middle through broken walls, yards and lofts though, would be deliberate and slow – no point rushing in and letting your enemy catch you. Weapons were stones and tennis rackets! Scraping around the yards and floors of the old derelicts would provide for a bountiful stash of ammunition. Pockets were weighed down with pebbles, stones, half bricks and pieces of masonry – any old bottles were acceptable too, especially those small Cresta bottles; they had the ideal mass and size for hurling, maybe not with the bat but throwing was allowed too. In fact I don’t recall there being any rules stating that we couldn’t just throw something. It was simply a free for all. The best use for the racket though, was for long-range attacks, and it wasn’t long before each side were being rained upon with all manner of artillery. Funny thing is that as a grown-up (well that’s a matter of opinion), if someone so much as flicks an elastic band, which isn’t a rare occurrence where I work, it’s not unusual to find oneself flinching – someone threw a pen at me a short time ago and I ended up with a Bindi for a few days. It hurt. And I repeatedly pointed this out, and the broken skin for days after, perhaps in the hope of sympathy – though none was forthcoming. However, back then, potentially harmful, maybe lethal missiles, and the damage they could do just never occurred to us. We were immature though, at times idiotic and randomly irresponsible. As we showered one another with stones and bricks, whether hand-thrown or fired off from the racket, each one was a bullet or a bomb. In our world if we were injured, we’d heroically battle on, lost in pretense.
As each battalion grew nearer their quarry, more care was taken to hide, duck and dodge. Quick sprints from one room or yard to another, popping heads above parapets to vigorously fling your missiles, there was no time to perfect any aim, just throw and hope! Within metres of each other, cracking, banging, smashing, shouting, screaming, diving, dashing was the order as the tumult drew to a crescendo! At that almost final last bombardment, it really didn’t occur to us that we had actually taken a few hits here and there. At least four or five of our little faces were already badged with blood but nothing serious. Wounds had been picked up on hands and knees as we’d negotiated the environment, someone, lay about four houses back, his crying loud and angry – can’t remember who that was now? But we didn’t give up, we were relentless in our game, neither side wanted to turn on their heels and flee. Neither wanted to surrender, besides, white flags were in short supply… I do remember feeling a huge, numbing blow to the side of the head, a flash of what I can only describe as blue light, though instant and somewhat akin to the quick sweep of a flashlight. I remember a dizziness like no other and the urge to vomit violently.
That was it for me. Three days later, I came home from hospital, battle-scarred, proud of the stitching to the side of my head, armfuls of comics, sweeties and a couple of Get Well Soon cards. Nothing had struck me, nothing at all but seemingly, as I had turned to run whilst simultaneously trying to launch a handful of stones at someone closing in on me with an equally terrifying cache of damage, I’d ran and turned smack-bang into a metal outside stair railing. Shortly after that and for a while before the old houses and flats were flattened and whisked off into these reminiscences, from the top to the bottom of the block, there had been erected mesh fences to prevent trespass into the buildings. Were they meant to stop us? Really? Next time, we’d just build barricades and remain static – well clear of anything overhanging!
Not sure I’ve picked up another tennis racket to this day? Nor tried to eat an apple through one…