‘Tennis!’ I was astounded . . .

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One summer morning, as the clock struck eleven, grandmother walked across the hall, her heels clicking on the parquet. Fowler opened the boudoir door and they both came in, followed by Arthur and the pugs. I spun round on the music stool. Grandmother stirred her egg-nog and the others disappeared. ‘What a beautiful day! It is sad Priscilla isn’t here for you to play with.’ She threw open the window. ‘But Lettice Spragg has promised to invite you to tennis one Sunday. I confided my worries to her and read aloud your father’s latest letter.’

‘Tennis!’ I was astounded.

‘Her cousin, Major Someone, his wife died – so dull, she never uttered – he and the daughter both play. I said you could go early to help her prepare.’

‘But I can’t play tennis; I shan’t know what to do.’ I felt sick with alarm.

‘It’s quite easy, my dear, you just run about with a bat and hit the ball over the net. Anyone can do it. Just watch Lettice and do what she does.’ She gazed into the garden. ‘I long to get out to the roses. Madame Butterfly and Betty Uprichard . . . Alas, my love, you must go to the village. Fowler will take you to try on your cream shantung . . .

***

‘Don’t forget your P’s and Q’s this afternoon,’ said Fowler, when we walked to Miss Letty’s. ‘You don’t want to go asking her for china ornaments, nor passing remarks. She’s given up the Sunday school you know and least said soonest mended!’

‘I shan’t want anything of hers,’ I protested grandly, because I had a shilling in my pocket. An elderly maid opened the door and it shut behind me like a trap. I was making a face in the glass when Miss Letty marched in.

‘Hello!’ she said, jerking my hand up and down. ‘How do you do?’ I bobbed. ‘How quaint,’ she murmured.

‘Have you got a headache?’ Why was she wearing a bandage?

‘A headache? No. My bandeau,’ she explained, touching it and blushing.

‘Oh I see!’ I was tempted to giggle.

‘Where are your plimsolls?’ she asked.

‘Plimsolls?’

‘Shoes like mine. Yours will make marks on the grass.’ She looked upset when I followed her into the hall. ‘What a brainwave – you can put on my galoshes. Your feet are quite big.’

‘They are heavy!’ I said, making large awkward strides in her galoshes.

‘They will do very well,’ said Miss Letty, and looked at her watch. ‘We’ve got an hour or so before the others come and there’s the lawn to mark out and all kinds of jobs. We’d better set to work.’ I followed her into the potting-shed, dragging my strange heavy feet. She stirred up a pudding of white stuff and water.

‘It’s like cooking,’ I said, taking the stick and splashing my cream shantung.

‘Don’t leave lumps on the bottom of the pail! Scrape the bottom of the bin.’

‘I think it’s quite smooth now,’ I said, ‘rather like sauce.’

She poured it in a machine and wheeled it on to the lawn.

‘It should have been mown, but it can’t be helped now. I’ve paced it all out and put in the pegs; it must be right because I used a ruler. Fix one with your eye and walk forward slowly in a straight line and don’t wobble on the bumps. Here is the first peg and there, and then there,’ she pointed, and ran about, flapping like a gull about the lawn.

‘That line’s very wavy,’ she complained, looking back at the trail. ‘You must try and do better; and keep moving or it’ll make another puddle.’

‘It’s rather hard. I’ve never done it before.’

‘Never mind, it’ll have to do. I must go in and get out the china as Janet’s off on Sunday afternoons.’

I trudged round the lawn in my galoshes, pushing the little white wheel. It was a difficult task; there were so many pegs. I threw my straw hat on the ground. I was sure Miss Letty would be pleased with what I had done.

‘Do come and see, it looks just like a Union Jack!’

‘Oh!’ she cried, running towards me. ‘What have you done? There shouldn’t be any diagonal lines!’

‘Oh dear, does it matter?’

‘Well, it’s not right,’ she looked angry, ‘but I suppose it’ll just have to do. Didn’t you see how I tilted the machine when I wheeled it out from the shed?’

‘I didn’t notice, I’m afraid; you just said: “Make straight lines from peg to peg.”’ She was impossible to please.

‘Oh well, I suppose it will just have to do,’ she said again.

‘Now we’ll take out the pegs, and while I get the tea you can whiten the balls. Here’s a bit of chalk, rub them with it until they look clean.’

‘They are dirty, quite black, and this one is split.’

‘It makes up the six, it’ll just have to do.’

‘I haven’t a bat of my own,’ I said, hoping that wouldn’t do at all and I might not have to play the dratted game.

‘It’s not a bat, it’s a racquet,’ she snapped. ‘I have an old one, two or three of the strings are gone but it will do quite well for a beginner.’

‘It’s not a bat, it’s a racquet, it’s not a bat, it’s a racquet,’ I repeated, as I worked, chalking the balls.

I had just finished when a gentleman in white came out of the house with Miss Letty – her cousin the Major. She was blushing and looked rather silly. A large girl followed and was introduced as ‘Our Elsie’. She stared at my galoshes.

‘Diana’s never played before,’ said Miss Letty, as if this needed excusing.

‘Got to start sometime,’ said the Major, spinning his racquet like a juggler. ‘Elsie’s only a beginner, aren’t you my girl?’ He whacked her on the behind.

‘I’ve played six times,’ said Elsie primly. I hated her already.

‘It’s nice for the kids to meet,’ said the Major. ‘I’m only a rabbit myself – you’re the champion, old bean; you’d better play with the kid.’

‘Oh no!’ she protested. ‘You’re far better than me.’

‘Don’t talk rot – we’d better toss.’They threw their racquets in the air and stooped to examine them for something. ‘Rough!’ they shouted and threw them up again.

They were mad. I tittered, nervously twisting my bat.

‘I say!’ boomed the Major. ‘Court’s a bit rum – the markin’ I mean.’‘That’s my fault I’m afraid!’ I said, when Miss Letty began to explain. ‘I did it all wrong.’

‘I see,’ he smiled. Miss Letty looked embarrassed. He measured the sagging net. ‘No good cryin’ over spilt milk, eh, or should I say whitewash?’

Elsie looked so superior that I decided to ignore her the whole afternoon.

‘What do I do now, Miss Letty?’

‘It’s Henry’s service, you stand on that line,’ she pointed with her toes, ‘and hold out your racquet like this.’

‘Same as the egg and spoon race!’ I giggled.

‘Stand firmly with your feet apart, bend well forward,’ she stuck out her behind, ‘whatever you do, keep your eye on the ball, and hit it as hard as you can.’

I stood still, holding my racquet before me. A ball sailed over the net and landed in a cloud of chalk. ‘Line!’ they cried, ‘You must run!’

He biffed it again at Miss Letty; she thrashed it back at Elsie, who tripped over a peg and grazed her knee badly.

‘Oh dear!’ cried Miss Letty. ‘That peg must have been overlooked; I’m terribly sorry.’ She frowned. I wasn’t sorry. It served Elsie right. The sun shone in my eyes and the balls soared up in the air like kites, or into the net. It was blazing hot. My socks fell down and my ankles felt tired. I tried to run but I stumbled about, as my feet were like lead in the galoshes. The cream shantung was covered with stains. What would Fowler say?

‘Bad luck! Well tried! Run ! Shot! Service! You must buck up, kid. Thirty – no forty love’ – it’s not a bat, it’s a racquet, it’s not a cat, it’s a jacket, or a rat or a packet. I felt quite dizzy.

A ball flew up in the air so high . . . I hoped it would never come down. ‘Wait for it!’ panted Miss Letty, prancing about. My head well back, I watched it fall . . . the sun was dazzling. I shielded my face but the blow knocked me down. I lay, still as a stone. The ball had landed in my eye. ‘I say! What jolly bad luck!’ said the Major, vaulting the net and breaking it down. ‘You’ll have a shockin’ bruise.’ I sat up blinking. ‘Oh I say,’ he helped me limp to a seat, ‘wounded soldiers never cry.’

‘I’m not a soldier,’ I said, crying louder than ever.

‘Oh Henry, what shall I do?’ asked Miss Letty. ‘D’you think I should telephone?’

‘I shouldn’t,’ I said. ‘Johnstone’s asleep and Fowler will fetch me at six.

‘It’s past five now,’ said Miss Letty, ‘let’s go in and have tea.’

‘I think she should bathe that eye,’ said the Major, taking my arm.

‘Can we play three after tea?’ asked Elsie. She despised me, but I didn’t care. No one replied. I shuddered with sobs but the Major pretended not to notice, because he was nicer than the others.

‘Shall we leave her to rest?’ asked Miss Letty, when we’d finished the cake. ‘We could knock up. Perhaps Elsie would stay with her?’

‘Oh, need I, Dad?’ whined Elsie.

‘Please don’t. I’m quite all right.’

‘It seems so heartless to leave you alone, you poor little thing.’

‘Keep your pecker up,’ said the Major, ‘brave soldiers never say die. Ha, ha, it’s not to question why, it’s just to do or die. Once more into the breach.’ He bounced a ball up and down.

‘Very well,’ said Miss Letty, ‘I will draw down the blind. How I wish Janet was here! When your nurse arrives, do shout out of the window.’

I was thankful they left me alone. I got up and looked in the glass; my eye was a bilious colour and my face blotchy with tears. I bent down to take off the galoshes. My eye throbbed.

Would it burst? I raised my head slowly and sat very still. My feet felt curiously light. Waiting for Fowler was a waste of time. I would creep out and call on Mrs Rook . . .

Extract from My Grandmothers and I, Chapter 3 © The Estate of Diana Holman-Hunt, 1960


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