Old Tennis

Old Tennis

Hugh had experienced pangs of nausea for several days now. Meeting Brett, his old tennis partner, for the first time in nearly a decade had become a torturous, nerve-wracking event. He doubted Brett had changed much since last they saw each other. He didn’t think Brett was capable of change. Brett had always been an outspoken man. The insulting kind. A man who proudly described himself as bold and ballsy when, in reality, he was vulgar and insulting. If he didn’t like someone’s tie, he let it be known. If there was a loose thread on your shirt or gravy stains on your pants, or if a few new gray hairs had materialized in your side-whiskers, he would be the first to notice, as well as the first to let you know. His criticisms of Hugh invariably went beyond Hugh’s tennis strokes. Hugh was sure that, once more, Brett would find fault with him and slowly but surely start to pick at Hugh’s delicate ego like he was working his fingernail over a dry scab, and he wouldn’t let up until he had opened the old wound and caused fresh blood to seep out.

On the morning of their little reunion, Hugh suffered another of his escalating panic attacks. He ended up shoving two fingers down his throat and regurgitating the cheese omelets and buttered toast he had consumed for breakfast. The desperate measure had the desired effect—he was able to button his favorite brown corduroys. The pants, though old, didn’t show signs of age. Hugh wished the same might be said of him.

He didn’t feel like he had aged well at all. His baggy shirt might hide the spare tire around his middle, but then there were the blemished parts that were harder to disguise, like the deep furrows across his forehead, the laughter lines about the mouth, and crow crags at the corners of his eyes. A little wart had also suddenly revealed itself in place of a beauty spot. Today, he felt like a hoary old man. What will Brett make of me? he fretted.

The reunion was Brett’s idea. He had read on Hugh’s scarcely used Facebook page that Hugh would be in town for the day to attend a trade fair, and so Brett contacted him, out-of-the-blue, suggesting they meet up for drinks. When Hugh failed to respond within twenty-four hours, Brett left a succession of strange messages, pleading and cajoling, at first, and then even hinting at a mystery illness. Eventually, Hugh accepted the invitation, more out of curiosity than any other reason.

Immediately after, he wished he hadn’t. He wasn’t sure he had the courage to face Brett again.


When Hugh arrived at Donovan’s, he found the large trendy bar was half-empty. Years earlier, Donovan’s had been a favorite watering hole for Hugh, who would regularly go there with Brett after a tennis match to pick apart each other’s game.

Hugh was pleased to find that his preferred booth was unoccupied, and so he keenly took a seat at the table. Without thinking, he caught the passing waitress by the wrist. “A large whiskey,” he said insistently.

She scowled at him, yanking her wrist free from his sweaty grip. “Whaddya think you’re doin’?”

He apologized and repeated his order, to which she said nothing and walked briskly away.

The glare she had given him when he had grabbed her arm convinced him she wouldn’t be coming back with a serving tray any time soon, and so, ten minutes later, after some frenzied hand signaling, he eventually managed to hail a different waitress. He didn’t grab that one by the wrist, which probably explained why she returned punctually with his drink.

He ordered a couple more whiskeys in quick succession.

When Brett finally materialized, he stood in the entranceway of Donavon’s beaming like an Olympic gold medalist on the podium. He surveyed the great room, taking in every face, perhaps expecting applause.

Hugh was especially pensive as he scrutinized his old acquaintance. Brett looked as suave as ever—tall, handsome, immaculately dressed, this time in tailored gray slacks. Brett’s pristine white collared shirt was tucked into his pants, which emphasized his trim waistline. He’s not changed at all in all these years, thought Hugh, disappointedly.

Brett eventually spotted Hugh fidgeting uneasily in their preferred place under the staircase and made a big show of his excitement, shaking his head in wonder and chuckling loudly. The way he glided across the room to Hugh’s table, it was as if he thought he was modeling at a fashion show, and it irked Hugh that several people turned their heads to watch Brett swagger over to him.

“Hugh, my old friend, how great it must be for you to see me again,” said Brett, enthusiastically reaching over to shake Hugh by the hand. His grip was overly tight, and he tugged at Hugh’s arm with unnatural vigor. “Is it really twenty years since we’ve seen one another?”

“No. Almost ten years.”

Brett was having a keen look at all the gray in Hugh’s hair. “Only ten, huh? It seems like much longer. I hardly recognized you.”

He took a napkin from the dispenser on the table and wiped down the seat opposite Hugh before he sat down.

“I wasn’t sure if you would show up,” remarked Hugh, bothered by Brett’s tardiness.

Brett gave him a toothy smile. “Yes, I’m fashionably late, aren’t I?”

“You can be fashionably late to a party, but not to a rendezvous,” Hugh grumbled.

“You sound like my ex-wife. The two of you old nags would be ideally suited. Think of all the bickering you could get done.” He laughed heartily at his own joke and flicked a tiny piece of lint off his shoulder before adding, “Of course, there’s the distinct possibility that one of you would choke the other to death.”

“Is that what prompted the divorce? All the bickering?”

“Well, that and the fact she found out about some of the other women,” admitted Brett casually. “A good job, really, otherwise our marriage might have turned into a boxing match.”

Hugh watched him contemplatively. They had known each other since their university days, forming a relationship bordering on friendship through living in the same house. Brett had never been what Hugh considered a friend—family aside, even these days Hugh didn’t have friends. There were work colleagues, golf and tennis partners, business associates, a smattering of regulars he would chat to at the bar. They were friendly with him, but none of them were his friends. Of all the people he mixed with, his doctor probably knew him best, and when you start to call your doctor your best friend, people like Brett move up the friendship hierarchy.

The disapproving look on Brett’s face, as he scrutinized Hugh’s somewhat crumpled polo shirt, made Hugh feel self-conscious. He was acutely aware that all Brett had seen of him had been the top half, and he had aged more badly from the waist down, or so he was inclined to believe. Despite his initial disappointment at Brett’s negative appraisal of him, Hugh didn’t regret his decision to meet Brett again. The sight of him reminded Hugh of his university days, which he firmly believed were his best days. All the same, Hugh did feel a throb of sadness when examining Brett’s face up-close. He wished he could see some significant signs of aging in the man. Quite how Brett had retained his relatively youthful appearance was a mystery. Perhaps Botox and plastic surgery play a part, he idly wondered.

Brett’s manicured fingers fluttered in the air, immediately catching the attention of the waitress. “A gin and tonic, dear,” he said brusquely. “And just like my tonic, I prefer my gin when it’s from a newly opened bottle.”

The waitress laughed, believing it to be a joke. Brett’s reproving look told her otherwise. “Oh,” she responded, a little taken aback.

Though Hugh had barely touched his drink, he quickly ordered another whiskey, deciding to stock up on liquor while he had the opportunity.

Brett relaxed in his chair. He looked at peace with the world, at peace with Hugh. They chatted cordially, idle chitchat about old acquaintances and the tennis tournaments they had taken part in, playing doubles together, and humorous episodes from their university days. It was a new experience for Hugh—a rare moment in their relationship. Gone were the usual snide remarks, replaced by flattering observations, upbeat banter, and a genuine sense of happiness at seeing each other again after so much time apart. The awkward reunion that Hugh had expected instead turned into a pleasurable social outing.

“It was a sad day when you packed up your things and moved out of our digs on Washington Avenue,” said Brett, looking mournful. “We’d spent the best part of four years living in that rat-infested dump. When you cleared out all of your things and drove away in that hideous, rusty old van, I felt incredibly depressed. I think you noticed me at the lounge window, waving goodbye to you. I could barely watch you drive away, Hugh. I had to leave the house and go for a long walk. The other three guys had moved out the month before, and I couldn’t face our empty lounge alone.”

Brett’s confession touched Hugh. He felt a sudden twinge of guilt take hold of him. They had shared, along with three other guys, a large five-bedroom house, while studying at university in Albany. After they all graduated, Brett continued to rent a room in that house for a further two years.

The day he moved out was a joyful moment in his life. He was extremely happy to be leaving Albany and especially happy to be moving away from Brett, whom he had grown to dislike. He simply couldn’t bear to hear another of Brett’s derisive comments about his slovenly appearance or his weak second serve. The fact that they had both lost a doubles tennis match in the first round of a competition, and Brett had insinuated that their defeat was all Hugh’s fault, didn’t help matters.

It’s time we moved on, Hugh had quickly decided. He took a job in Buffalo purely as a means of getting away from Brett. Best decision I ever made, he reflected, even though the company laid him off a few months later.

And yet here they were, back together again in Albany, sitting in their usual seats at a table in their regular haunt. This time, with almost a solid ten-year break in their relationship, what probably kept the smile on Hugh’s face was the thought that he was in Albany again only for two days and that his reunion with Brett was a one-time get-together. The next day, he would be flying to Chicago, which was now his permanent home.

After thirty minutes of lively banter, Brett seemed to suddenly lose his cheerful demeanor. As abruptly as a power outage, his smile dissolved, and a strange melancholy skulked across his face. Their conversation grew noticeably strained. Brett’s mention of a first-round doubles match they had lost to a couple of novices started the rot.

“Every time I watch you wave your hand in the air to get the waitress’s attention, I’m reminded of that lob you missed against Jiggers and Woolcroft all those moons ago,” remarked Brett. He was smirking, though his twisted smile was tinged with regret.

“Jigger’s watch was the problem,” protested Hugh. “The sun reflected off the watch face and distracted me as I was stretching to make the shot.”

“I don’t remember him wearing a watch. I’m not even sure if the sun was out that afternoon.”

“What does it matter anyway?” said Hugh irritably. “That silly match was years ago. I’m surprised you still remember it so vividly.”

“Did you work on your lob after that day?” asked Brett, squinting at him.

Hugh sighed heavily. “Please, can we forget that blasted match?”

“I try to.”

Hugh could tell that Brett wasn’t content to let it go. The man had obviously spent plenty of waking moments reliving that crushing defeat. Hugh doubted he would ever be forgiven for his errant lob, which Jiggers had returned brilliantly to win game point and break Hugh’s serve in the decisive set.

Brett glanced nonchalantly about him, lost in dreary thought. Barely a word passed between them for the next five minutes.

Eventually, Brett turned his attention back to Hugh, who was carefully inspecting the small drop of liquid that remained in his glass, wondering whether or not to order another whiskey. “Tell me, Hugh, would you say the last ten years have been good to you?” He gestured at Hugh’s head and torso. “Not physically, of course. I mean mentally. Would you say you’ve enjoyed the last ten years, or has it been a struggle?”

Hugh sat back in his chair and considered the question at length. It hadn’t been an especially good ten years but it could have been much worse. He decided to dwell on the positive things in his life, rather than the many negative aspects. “Well, I’m married,” he said, showing Brett his wedding band.

Brett reached over and grabbed his hand, bringing Hugh’s middle finger close to his face. He examined the ring scrupulously. “Very nice,” he grunted. “Looks expensive.”

Hugh nodded, hurriedly pulling back his hand. He checked to see that the ring was still attached to his finger. The way Brett had been ogling it, for a moment, he actually thought it might have wound its way into Brett’s pocket.

“We’ve been married for five years, and we have two beautiful daughters. We quarrel, like all couples, I guess, but we do still love each other. I’m looking forward to seeing her tomorrow. Tonight will be our first night apart in two years.”

Brett looked displeased by this declaration of love. “How’s work going, or is that a sore subject?”

“It was a tender subject until two years ago,” confessed Hugh. “Then I got a promotion. I am Assistant Manager now.”

“Assistant? Ah, yes, the fake promotion. I know all about that,” laughed Brett with a perceptive glint in his eye. “I was promoted once, briefly. I got to work an extra ten hours a week for the same money, just for the honor of having the word manager on my business card.”

He snorted into his gin and tonic.

“I got an extra eight thousand in my paycheck,” Hugh quibbled. “And I got a corner office out of it. I suppose I probably do work a few extra hours a week. But I don’t mind. The job’s quite pleasant, really, Brett. I feel lost when I’m not at the office.”


Brett pouted. “What do you do for fun, Hugh? Still play tennis? God help your doubles partner,” he added, with a mocking laugh.

“No,” said Hugh flatly. “I stopped playing tennis six years ago.”

“Oh?” said Brett, eyebrows rising with interest.

“I won the state championship tournament in Saratoga,” Hugh blandly announced.

Brett’s left eye began to twitch. “Won it?”

“Yes. I won it.”

Brett’s lips moved, but no sound came out of his mouth. He stared hard at Hugh, not quite able to get his next words out. There was a pained look on his face.

Hugh looked over his companion’s shoulder to the staircase, and his eyes clouded over as he recalled his one major title triumph as an amateur tennis player.

“After you and I stopped playing together, I realized I was no good at doubles,” admitted Hugh. “So I decided to play singles instead. I suppose I got quite good at it. I won that New York State championship, which wasn’t easy. I was like a robot throughout that tournament. Every morning, I woke up dreaming I’d won the final. I don’t know what I dreamt about when I did win the thing.”

Brett glowered at him.

Hugh was lost in thought, reflecting on those good old days, and didn’t notice the bitterness in Brett’s eyes. “I think I had something to prove—to myself more than others. Looking back on it, I don’t think I could have lost that final. I invested so much of my energy into the match that I ended up playing every shot and every point. I only dropped two games in the entire match.”

Brett grimaced and then downed the remainder of his drink. He put out a hand, signaling to a waitress, but he couldn’t seem to get anyone’s attention.

“Listen to me go on,” chuckled Hugh. “I’m boring you to death.” He saw the annoyance on Brett’s face and assumed that his old friend was too distracted trying to catch the waitress’s eye to hear his story. “Can’t get the lady’s attention, eh? I know that frustration. Here, let me try.”

He lifted his arm slightly and waved a crooked finger. A waitress immediately made her way over to their table.

“So how about you, Brett? How have the last ten years been for you?” asked Hugh.

The waitress stopped beside their booth.

“Can’t complain,” Brett responded, and then he turned to the waitress and said in a seething voice, “The check, please.”

“Oh, so soon?” said Hugh, taken aback.

“Yes, we’re done here. I don’t think I want any more,” Brett coldly replied.

Hugh took out his wallet, but Brett insisted on paying the bill. While waiting for the waitress to return with his credit card and the receipt, Brett impatiently tapped his fingers on the table.

Hugh sat back in his chair, feeling relaxed. His nausea had gone, and the waistband on his corduroys felt reassuringly slack.

Had the last ten years been good to Brett? he wondered, examining his old friend closely. Physically more than mentally, he concluded.

Two minutes later, he watched Brett stroll out of Donavan’s with a petulant look on his face. Hugh chuckled to himself and drained his glass. He thought the expression rather suited Brett.

Hugh didn’t leave the bar immediately. He sat motionless at the table, thinking back on that New York State championship final with fondness. His opponent that day was mentally defeated long before the closing game, so there weren’t many rallies played in the final set. Hugh’s hands faintly jerked as he began to relive the glorious concluding moments of the match. Solid second serve that kicks up at my opponent. His return is weak, and the ball barely makes it over the net. I surge forward, sensing victory. I angle my shot deftly over the net, and he scampers after it in desperation. For a second, I think I’ve won the point, won the match, but he stretches, groaning loudly. Somehow, he manages to get his racket head to the ball, and I watch in horror as it soars high into the air. I know I’m too far forward, and I’m convinced he’ll win the point with his fluky lob. It will land on the baseline and bounce beyond me, and the crowd will go wild. The audience loves a twist and will instantly switch their allegiance to my opponent. They’ll will him to victory on the back of that blasted lob, and for the remainder of the match, I’ll not just be trying to beat my opponent, I’ll be struggling to win over the crowd as well. Damn his lob! It might prove to be the turning point. God, help me! I can’t let him win this point. The whole match rests on the next five seconds.

Hugh was smiling inanely while he recalled the next shot. Frantically, I scurry backward, never taking my eye off the ball as it moves skyward. I finally stop when it begins to drop. I daren’t let it touch the ground for fear the bounce will deceive me, and so I drop my shoulder and, when it reaches eye level, I take a big swing at it. “Winner,” I yell as I strike the ball with the center of my racket. I watch it sail over the net and land a few inches inside the baseline before clattering against the backboards.

Hugh leaped out of his seat and punched the air with his fist. A tear of joy welled in his eye. Converting match point that day was one of the greatest moments of his life.

He was in such a state of ecstasy that he decided to celebrate the memory with another drink. He remained on his feet at the table and waved a hand at the waitress, but she seemed to look straight through him. His arm action became more frantic, but still none of the service staff noticed him. He gave up, in the end, and slumped in his seat, looking wretched. He took solace from the thought that Brett wasn’t around to witness the uncomfortable scene.


About the Author

Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of nine literary anthologies. His articles and stories appear in dozens of magazines and newspapers, and he has contributed introductions to numerous books, including twelve Stark House Press reprints of long-forgotten noir and mystery novels of the 1950s and ’60s. Formerly a book critic for the Lancashire Post and syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the U.K., he now writes for Publishers Weekly and regularly contributes to Colorado State University’s literary journal Colorado Review. You can find him online at nicholaslitchfield.com.

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