Fifteen years ago, when I was The Spectator’s drama critic, Caroline used to complain that she had become a ‘theatre widow’. I was spending at least three nights a week in the West End while she was cooped up at home. Occasionally, I was able to persuade her to come with me, but most of the time she just made a face: ‘I’d love to accompany you to the musical version of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but unfortunately I have an unbreakable appointment with the sofa and the TV set.’
Well, she has her revenge. Caroline is captain of the Park Club Ladies Second Team and if she hasn’t got a match or a tournament, she’s doing ‘drills’ or playing in the ‘social’. I’m lucky if I only have to spend three evenings a week on my own. During peak season it has been known to go as high as five, and at the weekends I don’t see her for dust. I’m now a ‘tennis widower’.
There are upsides. For one thing, she’s as fit as a butcher’s dog. If we ever get mugged in the evening, which is unlikely because we’re never together, at least I won’t have to worry about running away and leaving her in the lurch. She will be able to lay them out cold with her Federer-like right arm. Then there’s the dazzling array of cute outfits. I’m a sucker for a pretty girl in a tennis skirt and my heart always soars when Caroline comes bouncing through the front door swinging her racket, even if it is after midnight. There’s also the fact she’s got our three sons playing tennis. Nine-year-old Charlie is already better than me (admittedly a low bar). He has even torn himself away from the Xbox to look at Wimbledon — and in my household, watching sport on TV is a wholesome, grown-up thing to do compared with the alternatives.
But, boy, are there downsides —and that’s apart from never seeing Caroline. To begin with, there’s the cripplingly expensive trainer habit. Is this normal? Literally a day doesn’t pass without a new pair of trainers being delivered. She wears them out pretty fast, given how much tennis she plays, but not that fast. When I question her about this, she assures me Amazon keep dispatching the ‘wrong’ ones and she intends to return them, but the only boxes piled up by the front door are empty. She also has a fondness for new rackets, but the volume is just about manageable. I’m hoping the trainers aren’t a gateway drug.
There’s the incessant shop talk. Sometimes she brings one of her tennis partners back home after ‘a hit’, whereupon they sit at the kitchen table and replay the game, stroke by stroke. If it’s her doubles partner Zara, they leap up and high-five each other as they relive a winning shot. Is that normal? It’s about as interesting as listening to Charlie giving a detailed account of a football match he’s just won on Fifa 17. In both cases, the retelling takes longer than the actual game, or maybe it just seems that way.
Whenever I complain about her not spending any time with me — or rather ‘the family’, since I’m trying to maximise her guilt — she says I’ve brought it on myself. ‘You went off and made a life without me with all this schools stuff,’ she says. ‘You’re always out at governing body meetings and school concerts and fund-raisers and God knows what else. What am I supposed to do? Hang around in the kitchen in my twinset and pearls waiting to pop up with a freshly cooked meal whenever you deign to come home? No, I’ve made a life for myself. You’ve got your schools. I’ve got my tennis.’
I’ve tried arguing that my ‘hobby’ at least has some redeeming moral value, but she counters that hers isn’t completely selfish. After all, as a team captain she does a fair amount of organising and the West Middlesex Tennis League is one of those ‘little platoons’ that is the germ of public affection, to paraphrase Burke. In our own ways, we are both devoting ourselves to public service. Hers just happens to be a lot more fun.
I don’t really begrudge her this pleasure. She came home looking glum the other day and it turned out her beloved Park Club is closing. The owner blames Brexit, claiming too many French members have decided not to renew their subs — another reason for Caroline to be cross with me for voting Leave. But then last week brought good news: it’s going to re-open as a dedicated tennis club. I’m happy for her, really I am. I just wish I had time to play myself.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.