by Daniel M. Cojocaru
Daniel M. Cojocaru (he, him) was born and grew up in Switzerland (of Romanian and Czech background). He studied English Lit in Zurich and later completed his PhD at Oxford University (St. Peter’s College). But, since everybody’s a critic, he decided to start writing fiction himself, whenever his kids let him. He teaches English in Switzerland. Recently he took a small step for mankind but a big one for himself and created his own website: www.danielmcojocaru.com .
Kyle Marsh and Balt Cutch, both in their early forties, were certainly not the best players on that sunny second day at Wimbledon. They were not even good by any professional, or amateur standards. And yet, there they were, bagging more money than any of the first-round contestants by happily netting serves and unforcing errors at ridiculously slow speeds on one of the smaller courts of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Occasionally, parents on their way to another court would be halted by their toddlers to watch the two out-of-shape players for a maximum of three minutes, as that was how long it took even the smallest to realize that the sweet smell of the purple petunias framing the court held more interest than their game. So they would just wave and thank them for the weather and move on.
Marsh and Cutch had discovered their curious talent–if that was even the right word for it–when they had taken up tennis some three years before. Since then not a single raindrop had fallen within a three-mile radius of wherever they played. Word got round, twitter followers multiplied and they soon realised that, as with every rare gift, it could be turned into a commodity–especially at rain-delay-prone Wimbledon.
After about two hours the level of Balt’s and Kyle’s play had reached such new lows that they decided to retreat to the players’ lounge. Through the wide-open windows the white-noise of the chattering spectators walking the hallowed grounds of SW19 competed with the lounge’s Muzak.
“Aah. Good match, good match,” Balt said, gobbling down the cucumber slice from his second Pimm’s Cup before taking a deep sip of the tournament’s signature drink.
“Yep. who needs lessons, eh?” Kyle agreed, trying to get the waiter’s attention to order his third bowl of strawberries and cream.
“You think we’ve played long enough for the weather to hold?” Kyle asked, taking off his sweaty headband from his full head of brown hair.
“What was it? Two hours? Yeah, should be fine,” Balt said. “Do I smell pizza?”
“I still can’t believe we’re really here. Our dream come true.”
“Yep. We’re part of the Pro Tour–sort of.” Balt sighed, looking around the room, scratching his scraggly beard. “Why are we the only ones here? Where’s Rafa and Roger? They won their matches a while ago.” Just as Balt had finished his sentence, a tall, slightly stooped player, towel around his neck, entered the lounge and seated himself at the bar. “Wait is that… what’s his name again?”
“Bentista? Banderas? Something like that. I always confuse the lower top-fifties,” Kyle said.
“Me too. You can see that he’s never really gonna make it. No confidence in his posture. Not like us.” They both chuckled at their inside joke, clinked their glasses and took deep sips of their Pimm’s Cups.
“What did you say?” Bentista, Banderas, something like that turned around, chest puffed up.
“Nothing. We were just saying how honoured we feel to be part of the Tour with pros like yourself,” Kyle improvised.
“No you weren’t.” The lower top-fifty player took a step forward. “And you’re not part of the Tour and never will be, no? Just because you have freak gift, doesn’t mean you can hold racket, no?”
“Take it easy man.” Balt raised both hands in surrender, then added, smiling, “But we might make it one day, just like you.”
“No easy. You’re a…small cat.” He grimaced.
Kyle and Balt looked at each other, unsure what to make of this. Kyle leaned towards Balt, holding back a laugh and whispered. “I think he’s trying to insult us. C’mon Balt, let’s get that pizza.” Kyle and Balt both felt the Pimm’s rushing to their legs, as they got up shakily and teetered towards the exit.
“We can come back tomorrow. It’s not like he’s gonna survive the second round,” Balt mumbled.
“I heard that!”
“Yeah, well… I said it.”
“See you tomorrow!” Kyle teased, waving his hand into the player’s face.
“You will. I’m in doubles tournament too, no?”
“As if anyone cares about doubles,” Balt said.
“Not even the toddlers are gonna stop for that,” Kyle chimed in.
“C’mon Kyle. Let’s finish getting drunk before our next match. Now that’s something you can’t afford to do, Dentista!” Balt said, index finger pointing at the player.
“My name’s not Dentista!”
The following day Cutch and Marsh sat in the lobby of London’s Park Lane Hotel, laptops open on their laps, sipping Martinis. The plush carpets swallowed up any surviving rush-hour noise chancing past the revolving doors of the main entrance of these halls of privilege.
“They can’t just ban us!” Balt said.
“We’ll just take our talents elsewhere, right?” Kyle said half-heartedly.
Does the e-mail say why?” Balt asked.
“Well, apparently Dentista’s doubles partner filmed the whole incident and put it online,” Kyle said, raising his thick eyebrows.
“Bastardista!” Balt slammed his fist onto the cushioned armrest of his chair.
“Yeah, didn’t notice him either. The rat must have been hiding behind the bar or something. Just checking–we lost about a thousand twitter followers because of that! Also, lots of hate comments.”
“Not too worried about that. The publicity might be working in our favour in the long run. But the ATP are really banning us?”
“Yep. Players’ council has decided unanimously that ‘in the long-term interests of our organisation’…blah, blah, blah.”
“Et tu Federer? Unbelievable!”
“So, I guess we’re back to weddings and vineyards?” Kyle sighed.
“For now,” Balt said and took a sip of his Martini. “But we gotta do something about our image first. Any charity-events?”
“A few. Mostly floods, as usual.” Kyle paused, scrolling through e-mails, then chuckled. “Here’s a funny one: drought region. Not sure they quite understand what we do.”
“Anything we can use for a show? I have a couple of new ideas I wanna try out.”
Kyle’s face lit up. “I think I might have just the thing. Ever played on a river?” He showed Balt his screen.
“Neat! Blue Danube we’re coming for a Waltz!”
The riverbanks of Budapest were bursting with thousands of people, crowded behind high, dank sandbag-walls. The sky was laden with dark-grey clouds, ready to splash their contents onto the already drowning city like so many water balloons.
“There they are!” A front-row spectator shouted over the loud party music blaring from speakers all along the banks. A giant cargo raft came into view from behind the Parliament building situated on the Pest side of the river. But instead of cargo it sported a tennis court with a spanking new, blue Plexicushion surface slightly embarrassing the river’s colour. Marsh and Cutch wore hooded brown robes and sat on plush, potty-shaped chairs that strangely enough lent them the dignity of guardians of peace and justice in some far, far away galaxy.
“Are they taking a smoke break?” a spectator asked. It was exactly what they were doing. When the raft had come into full view of the Parliament building, the music stopped. Thus unchained, the expectant chatter of the crowd soared and settled on the raft. “Time!” The announcement came from a referee perched in the middle of the players. Cutch and Marsh put out their cigarettes, took a swig from their hip flasks and walked with their rackets to their respective baselines.
Marsh had apparently won the coin toss and was about to serve. He tossed the ball high–but not exactly straight–into the air. As his racket rebounded to hit the ball it made a laser-sword-like whooshing sound that was amplified through the speakers on the banks. The clouds immediately drifted apart, sliced open like the belly of an alien riding beast on a strange, cold planet, spilling warming sunbeams that sublimated the mud and sweat of the people into a foul-smelling, steamy incense. There was an ear-splitting sound like the meeting of two laser-blades, as Marsh finally hit the ball–and netted his serve.
The crowd was roaring. The clouds had arranged themselves into a fluffy mirror of the packed banks, a raging sea divided by Marsh’s racket. The raft was approaching the Royal Palace on the Buda side as Marsh slow-motioned his second serve across the net and Cutch whooshed his racket into position for the return–which was a spectacular mishit. The ball grazed the net and dropped to the ground behind it, as if it were one of the dank sandbags lining the banks. Most other players would apologize for such a fluke. But Balt pumped his fist and roared a menacing “C’mon!” directed more at the clouds than at Kyle. The latter applauded with racket and left hand and both nodded at each other in agreement that this was the perfect beginning of their week-long’s engagement.
Budapest catapulted them onto new levels of fame with videos of their performance and their philanthropic efforts going viral. Climate change had heated a globalised desire for reliable weather, which led those who could afford it to even offer to build proper tennis courts according to Marsh’s and Cutch’s wishes in the vicinity of their preferred wedding venues. Kyle and Balt were quick to tap into that and “build it and we will come” soon became a much-used slogan for their rapidly multiplying billboards.
“I guess, we’re properly famous now,” Cutch said, posing for a selfie with a fan in front of the mirrored façade of L.A.’s Bonaventure hotel. He and Marsh were waiting in the dry heat for their stretch-limo to the airport, having just finished playing at the wedding of a tech-billionaire’s son.
“And rich. Don’t forget rich. No more flying scheduled for us,” Marsh added, fanning himself with both hands.
They were both relieved when they had finally escaped L.A. traffic and settled into the air-conditioned haven of their chartered private jet.
“Why the long face, Balt?” Kyle asked, sinking into one of the jet’s cushy La-Z-Boys.
“Not sure.” Balt scratched his beard.
“Sad that we don’t own that jet yet?”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. This probably sounds ungrateful what with all our fame and success. But there’s just this tugging in my stomach, you know?” Balt subconsciously massaged his stomach.
“You know we’re never actually gonna be professional tennis players. We’re middle-aged, pot-bellied drunks.” Kyle sighed.
“I know.” Balt sighed and was silent for a moment. Then he brushed the feeling away with a backhand-motion and his face brightened up. “Our hair’s still great though.”
“Yep. We could go full-on early Agassi without the wig. Up top Balt.”
Balt high-fived Kyle, took a sip of his gin and tonic and said. “Don’t you wonder sometimes if we’d have had a real chance if our parents had made us take up a racket at the age of three?”
“A couple of ifs there, but yeah.”
“Me too.” Kyle paused, but then continued in a more cheerful tone. “Listen, let’s do one last dance and then, you know, we can spend our fortunes on improving our game for the rest of our lives.”
“You got something lined up?” Balt sat up straighter.
“Yep. This just came in. CIA director’s daughter.”
“Hm. I don’t know. CIA? You don’t wanna mess with them.”
“Yeah but think about it: how great would it be if the CIA owed us one?”
“Where is it?” Balt tried to prop open the foot-recliner of his La-Z-Boy.
“Iceland!” Balt sputtered some gin and tonic onto his lap as the foot-recliner popped up. “What if we can’t pull it off?”
“Balt, really?” Kyle said.
“Ok, I know. The gift never fails.”
“They’re offering to build a grass court for us on top of a geyser or something.”
“Grass court, eh?” There was a sparkle in Balt’s eyes. “You should have led with that.” Balt took out his phone. “Gonna tag @CIA right now, tweeting that we’re game!”
“That’s it then,” Balt said.
“Yep.” Kyle nodded. It was the Sunday morning after the CIA-wedding and they were the only patrons at Reykjavik’s Lebowski Bar. The weather had turned to what Kyle and Balt had learned from the locals was “Gluggaveður”: weather that is nice to look at through a window but unbearable when outside. They were still wearing their wizard robes, looking at the picturesque sleet through frosted glass and sipping neat Icelandic brandies. The wedding had been a roaring success, with their rackets producing wand-like lightning bolts that made the geysers spout in synch with their shots, split the he-who-must-not-be-named-clouds and pulled the sun out.
“We had a good run,” Balt said.
“We did.” Kyle nodded.
“It’s kind of sad though it being all over.” Balt downed his drink. “Hm. That Brennivín stuff’s got an interesting aftertaste. What is that? Dill?”
“It is.” Kyle smiled. “To both.”
“But it’s the right thing to do.”
“Do you ever wonder why it’s us? I mean the gift and all?”
“Constantly.” Kyle finished off his Brennivín.
“Let’s head out.”
A stretch limo was just pulling up as Kyle and Balt left the bar onto the empty sidewalk. Assuming it was theirs, they were waiting for the driver to get out and open the door for them. Instead, both rear doors flew open and two figures wearing balaclavas rushed towards them.
“Get inside!” The taller of the two hissed, prodding them with a gun.
Marsh and Cutch were too surprised and possibly too drunk and tired to mount any kind of resistance and slipped over the sleet-frozen ground into the limo with the two masked figures following. The driver punched the gas as dark, hopefully recycled tote bags were being pulled over Kyle’s and Balt’s heads.
When they regained consciousness, they felt hungover and disoriented. They were lying on a cold, metallic surface, their hands duct-taped on their backs. As they began to stir, they could make out faint light entering the windows of what was the back of a van.
“Sit up!” A gruff voice said.
Kyle and Balt sat up shakily, trying to take in their surroundings. A smell of burning gasoline was in the air and in the distance something like fireworks cracked and crashed. Crouching over them, bowie knife in hand, was a bald, impressively muscular giant of a man wearing camouflage fatigues.
“Turn around and show hands!” The giant said.
They clumsily did as they were told and the giant cut their tapes.
“Now get out,” he growled.
They awkwardly got onto their numb feet and ducked out of the van. There was a squelching noise as their wizard-booted feet reached the ground. Several men in camouflage uniform carrying machine guns were spread in a semi-circle at the van’s back doors. Some hundred yards behind them more uniformed men were putting up a tennis net.
“Wait, what is this?” Kyle said hoarsely.
Another man in uniform rounded the van carrying two old wooden tennis rackets and several used balls.
“We need ground dry. You play,” the giant said.
“Wait, why?” Balt said, looking up at the dark, low-hanging rain clouds.
“No concern you. You play.” Two distant booms sounded in synch with his last two words. The giant motioned towards the net with his knife.
“Hang on. Did you schlepp us into a warzone?” Kyle asked, crossing his arms.
“Is no war.”
“Do you expect us to prepare the ground for some kind of invasion? Are we in–”
“You play or you hurt,” the giant interrupted, taking a step towards Kyle.
“We can’t play in the mush. The balls won’t even bounce!” Balt said, his genuine concern for the conditions making him forget the seriousness of their situation for a moment.
The giant grinned at this and said, “Is proper clay. Also, you can’t play period. No bounce irrelevant.”
“Ouch, that hurt Shrek,” Kyle said, pouting.
“Meh–Shrek hero in your country.”
Balt massaged his sore wrists. “But you can’t really hurt us. We still need to be able to stand on court–if you can call it that–swing our rackets and stuff for it to work. And I refuse to be used as a weapon in a war!”
“Exactly!” Kyle chimed in.
“Is no war. You want your families and friends safe?”
“So this is what it’s come to.” Balt shouted over the net on the third day of their “engagement”. Kyle nodded gravely. The court had been moved to another patch of mush. Balt had won the coin toss for that match and stood, feet firmly planted in the mud, at the guesstimated baseline distance from the net, ready to serve. Soldiers surrounded the court like linesmen and ball boys with the giant sitting in a director’s chair at one side of the net “refereeing”. It took Balt several attempts to toss the ball properly. But, like a recoil starter finally igniting the engine, on his fifth attempt he made the ball rise straight into the air.
Two things happened as, to his own surprise, Balt hit the ball hard and perfectly-timed. First, a heavy raindrop splashed through the racket strings onto the ball. Second, the acceleration of the ball was accompanied by a hissing sound, as if from a far-away bullet. It was a perfect serve, but on this improvised court the ball burrowed itself into the mud underneath the centre of an imagined T-line. As it did, the giant keeled over onto the court.
More heavy raindrops fell accompanied by more hissing sounds as, one by one, the linesmen and ball boys dropped like flies. Balt stared at his racket in disbelief.
“What’s just happened?” Kyle shouted, looking around in confusion.
Balt put his hands on his hips, racket wedged between left hand and hip. “I have no idea. But that was the best serve I’ve ever hit.”
It was raining heavily now. As the cold beads soaked through their robes and reached their skins, they both could feel it in their bones that the gift had gone for good. In the distance, the whirring of an approaching helicopter could be heard.
“So that was a sniper?” Kyle shook his head.
“Our best shot.” the director of the CIA smiled, brushing a stray hair from her face.
Kyle and Balt sat opposite the director in the back of a Chinook, wrapped in thick blankets, warming their hands on steaming tin mugs.
“Well thanks for coming out here in person to save our asses,” Balt yelled into his headset over the roaring sound of the helicopter blades.
“You’re welcome. Nobody touches the people who saved my daughter’s wedding.”
“But how did you know we were missing in the first place? And how did you find us?” Kyle asked.
“Now I’m insulted. We’re the CIA.” The director smiled. “Just kidding. We knew something was wrong when your constant tagging the CIA in every tweet suddenly stopped. Once we started digging, we soon had a rough idea where you were held. But you actually provided the decisive hint.”
“We did?!” Kyle and Balt both said at the same time, high-fiving each other over the jinx.
“Our meteorologists reported a strange opening in the cloud-build-up of a storm three days ago.”
“Must have been when we started playing,” Kyle said.
“Well, those were the days.” Balt sighed.
“If it’s any consolation, there are still a couple of bottles of that aged Brennivín left from the wedding.” The director pointed to the cooler next to her. “Help yourselves. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go talk to the pilot. Top secret business.” She winked and left towards the cockpit.
“Indoors?” Kyle asked, after they both had helped themselves to a bottle of Brennivín each, not bothering with glasses.
“Yep. No reason to give up the racket just yet.”
“You gonna make the booking?”
“As soon as we have our phones back.” Balt nodded.
“I’ve missed playing on carpet.” Kyle sighed.
“You know that Dentista has retired and opened a tennis school?” Kyle said.
“So, I’ve heard. You don’t mean we should–.” Balt rolled his eyes.
“God no! But You know, in general.”
“The ITF has a seniors tour.”
“So it does.”
A broad grin lit up Kyle’s face. “You know, tennis players are like Brennivín these days.”
“The older the better?” Balt raised his bottle.
Kyle and Balt clinked their bottles at that and took deep sips of their Brennivíns.