Because my mother is always telling me everything will be all right if I join a tennis club, I’ve joined a tennis club.
In fact, I haven’t joined a tennis club so much as joined a group of women with a tennis coach who meet once a week for instruction at a court in Surbiton.
A friend of mine is a member of this group and kindly agreed to take me. I borrowed a spare racket of hers and dusted off some dusky pink Lycra hot pants left over from my flirtation with hot yoga.
As we gathered on the sunny court down an alleyway between two houses in a genteel residential road, she and the other four ladies wasted no time in telling me that the coach was going to be unutterably rude. ‘We’re so sorry,’ said one of them. ‘It’s just the way he is. You’ll get used to him.’
The coach bounded up as we unsheathed our rackets and looked for all the world as I wanted him to be: tall, beefy, silver-haired, tanned, the sort of chap who would have played a bit part in Dynasty.
After a perfectly nice pep talk in which he had me fill him in on what tennis I had played — lots as a teenager and not much since — he began the session with an exercise in which two ladies stood on each side of the court one end, with the other four lined up on the service line behind them waiting to step into their place, while he whacked balls to us from the other side of the net.
After the first two ladies had volleyed a few shots, I realised that something else far more complicated was going on. The ladies waiting their turn were all engaged in a series of in-depth conversations.
‘And so I told her, I’m not putting up with it,’ said one. ‘No, you’re quite right. You need to put your foot down,’ said another. While the other engaged me in a chat about how I knew the mutual friend who had brought me.
When I said we were riding buddies, we started talking about horses, then I heard: ‘Go away! Next!’ Whereupon, after the other two had whacked the ball for a while, I heard: ‘Go away! Next!’ again, and it was our turn. We hit a few balls but all I could hear were two simultaneous conversations between the other four women going on behind me.
‘I just think with house prices as they are… told her I’m not going to have the baby on her days off… not buying him a house, I’m giving him the deposit…’
I hit the next ball hard and the coach shouted: ‘Don’t try and play winners! I want boring tennis!’
The other lady hit something and he shouted: ‘Rubbish!’ I hit again, almost missed, the ball lolloped over the net and he shouted: ‘That’s what I want! Boring! Go away! Next!’
Back on the service line, as two more went forward, I joined a conversation between two ladies about one of their husbands. ‘I mean, honestly, if he were here now he would be going on and on about his last shot. He just overanalyses everything.’
The volleys were speeding up, and before I knew it the coach had shouted ‘Go away! Next!’ twice and I was back on. When I returned to the service line, the same woman was declaring: ‘And then he self-immolated on the bus!’
‘Dear God!’ I said. ‘Your husband set fire to himself?’
‘No! The Sikh who had been told he couldn’t wear a turban set fire to himself.’
‘Keep up,’ said the other lady to me.
And then I realised: the real game here wasn’t keeping the ball in the air, it was keeping a never-ending volley of snatched conversations going.
Quite clearly, the coach was having to bark orders and insults because it was the only workable method of fulfilling an almost impossible brief. Because what was happening here every week down a side return in Surbiton was a mass gossiping session, with a little light tennis thrown in as an accompaniment.
‘Thwack!… how anyone can deny climate change is beyond me… Thwack!…put parmesan in it and she didn’t like it…Thwack!… he’s having an affair with a woman he met on Tinder… Thwack! Rubbish! Go away! Next!’
First I learned how to keep one conversation going, then, as the coach swapped differing pairs in and out of play at each changeover, I built up to holding five conversations simultaneously in between the interruption of hitting a tennis ball.
‘I’m house prices, not horses,’ one woman reminded me as I took up the wrong chat.
After an hour, my aching brain had had the most wonderful workout. And my forehand had come on a bit.