12 Nov

In 2007 I lived at Cooper’s Beach in the Far North. I made friends with a retired builder called Bob who’d come and clear the drains if they blocked, or make a new bottom for the cutlery drawer because the old one had rotted, or hang the blind I bought from Freedom Furniture because I couldn’t follow the instructions. He drove an old truck and I’ve just heard recently he died. I always heard him before I saw him.

It’s me Reenie. Put the kettle on.

He was President of the Croquet Club and he wanted me to learn to play.

You’d love it Reenie – best game in the world …You want to get out a bit more. I can tell you’d be a natural.

For about six weeks whenever he saw me he’d go on about croquet. He couldn’t understand that I didn’t play sport, couldn’t see balls, dropped keys – had no hand eye coordination. You can do it Reenie he’d insist. I’m not listening. I’m picking you up next Saturday and introducing you to our coach. He’s great. Merv. Been playing for twenty years. I’ll be here at nine next Saturday.

There was no escape.

You’re signed up, Reenie he said in the car. Everyone’s waiting to meet you.

There were about six women, Merv the coach, and Bob. They were standing on the narrow veranda of the clubhouse, a flimsy white-painted wooden building, holding coffee mugs. They smiled and Bob introduced me to Merv, while one of the women with quite a loud voice told everyone to get inside and see which courts they were playing on. The club is at one end of Cable Bay and the sea was glinting across the road. Sandy, Bob’s dog, was running the length of the club grounds looking as if he’d like to escape and I was wondering how I could go with him.

Merv wore a soft brown hat, low crowned and broad-brimmed. He smiled a lot and had very even teeth. He looked quite a bit older than Bob who was 79, and despite his soft round shape, or because of it, frail. He wore a sky blue tracksuit and soft black leather trainers and walked slowly towards the equipment-room.

Ever played croquet before? he asked over his shoulder.

I told him we used to have a croquet set when the children were little.

You mean proper mallets and wooden balls? Did you have hoops? Youda played garden croquet. These days they call it Golf Croquet. Nothing wrong with that except you only get one hit. What we play here is Association Croquet and you get several hits. Where did your mallets come from?

I said I thought they were made by someone local.

Useless, he said. I know who you mean. Hopeless. Bet your balls never went straight; bet they always veered off to one side.

Might not have been the balls’ fault Merv – the children seemed quite good at croquet – it was just me really.

No, Merv insisted. It woulda been the mallets. No balance, bad wood. Believe he’s given up. Look, here’s one of them mallets. No one’ll touch ’em.

By now we were in a kind of equipment room with rows of mallets on hooks. He looked at me. Not too tall. We gotta get the right size. He stared thoughtfully at the mallets and trembled slightly. The first thing is get the right size. Eventually he selected one. Don’t know if we have, but we’ll give it a go.

The pair of us shuffled out to the courts. Isn’t this beautiful? said Merv waving the mallet in the direction of the beach. Have you ever seen anything like it? Visitors can’t believe it when they come, specially them from Japan. We get a lot of visitors here cause it’s so beautiful and we play all year round. We got visitors coming today actually. From Kaitaia.  But the Japanese. The moment they get here, they get out their cameras and run out there to the edge of the court and start clicking. So beautiful here, they nearly forget what they come for. I got a son in Townsville, and once I was playing on their courts and gee it was hard. The courts are much smaller and they had three teams playing at once – you can do that because the balls are different colours – you got your first division balls, they’re red and yellow and blue and black. Then you got your second and third divisions; the seconds are green, brown, pink and white, and then, like they had in Townsville, they put a stripe around the first division balls for the thirds. I can tell you, it was mighty hard in the sun with those Aussies. And I been playing seventeen years, but you know what, it was that confusing in that heat. Twelve balls in a space smaller than this. And when you put a bit of top spin on a ball – you play tennis? Well, do you know about top spin – it doesn’t matter, you don’t need to know about it at this stage, but it just makes the game more interesting and you can get a ball through a hoop – I’ll show you later…I told my son that’d be the last time I’d play croquet in Townsville, give me this place any day.

The sun was hot so Merv gestured that we just stand on the edge of the court.

We’re just waiting for a bit cos we’ll be using the edge of this number three court, but we want to keep out of Edith and Barb’s way – can you see how Barb’s locking her knees? I don’t know how many times I’ve told her whatever you do, don’t lock your knees, but you don’t have to think about that just yet…we’ll get to that next time you come…So the first thing to remember, here take the mallet, I don’t know if it’s the right size, but we’ll see, is your back swing. See? You gotta swing your mallet back between your legs before you hit the ball. Yeah… Not bad…you’ll soon get the hang…Now, your feet they should be about the same distance apart so you’ve got a nice space between them and your mallet, about the same size as your feet…See? Now, let’s have a look at your grip. Some people like to hold the mallet like a golf grip – you know your golf grip?

Not really Merv.

Well, doesn’t matter; just make yourself comfortable at first, you’re not actually using your wrists…Are you right-handed or left?

I write with my left hand and iron with my right.

You’re a bit like me. You do some things with your right hand and some with your left. He held his mallet loosely between large soft hands.

It seems very heavy Merv I said, swinging the mallet.

Yep, Reenie. It’ll seem like till you get used to it, but as I was saying, it’s not your wrists you need to worry about, you gotta swing from your shoulder in a nice straight line. That’s the important thing to remember, nice relaxed shoulders and then the mallet won’t seem so heavy. Here, stand over this string – this is the edge of the court, and just practise swinging to get the feel of it. That’s it – well, almost – just relax a bit more…Remember, first your back swing. Yeah…not bad – you’ll get there Reenie; it’ll just take a bit a practice. You’re not going to get any drive into your swing until you start with that back swing. And you got to swing from your shoulders, not your wrists and you mustn’t lock your knees. When you lock your knees, your backside goes out and straightaway you lose your drive – can you see that? No, no, not quite… Just stop for a moment Reenie. Take a look at Barb. Are ya looking? Can you see? She knows I’m looking at her  – don’t you Barb – but she’s not doing herself any favours…He lowered his voice. Can ya see how her backside’s outta kilter pardon my French.  Pretty good Edith, he shouted changing direction and staring at the other woman. Did you see what Edith did just then, Reenie?

She slammed that blue ball.

Yep, Reenie, you’re right. She slammed that blue ball. That’s what you call a roquet: R-O-Q-U-E-T, like croquet without the C.  You know croquet’s a French game and the word comes from the French I believe, but we say it rowkie. It’s when the striker’s ball hits another ball, and then she gets two extra shots. Remember what I said about Golf Croquet? Well, that’s the difference; they only get the one shot. So just practise swinging along that line of string for a bit. It’s good to use the string because it’s nice and straight…Yep, I think you got the basic idea. Now, we’ll see how you go with the ball. Know what the balls are made of?

The ones we had were wooden.

These aren’t wooden. These are U42s and they’re the latest. They’re made outta plastic and they give a very smooth drive. Know how much a set costs?

No idea Merv. A hundred dollars?

Not too far off, Reenie.  Two hundred and fifty dollars for them four balls. But they’re the best. Now all you have to do is hit one of them. That’s called croquet. But what you have to do first is place the ball and you wanna hit the ball right in the centre so it’s sweet – you heard of the sweet spot? The aim of the game is to hit the other balls and to get through the hoops, but you don’t have to worry about that yet, you just have to get used to hitting the ball nice and straight.

The woman who’d been telling everyone to check their courts when I arrived, was sitting on a bench outside the club house. She watched me hit the balls as Merv reminded me about my backswing, my grip, my wrists, my shoulders, my backside and my feet.

She’s got the wrong size, Merv, she says. It’s too small for her. Does it come up to your tummy button love? No, look, Merv – show him, love, that stick doesn’t reach Merv. It’s got to be up to her belly button.

You’re right, Dot, said Merv. I was just thinking that myself. You need something a bit longer Reen. Mind, it’ll be a bit heavier though.

The longer stick was much heavier, but I was soon firing balls all over the court till Merv told me to come and sit down because Barb and Edith were coming down our end of the court. He explained how all the hoops were laid out and how you started at the first hoop and had to get your four balls through twelve of them and finally how you hit the peg and that was what you called ‘pegged out.’

Barb and Edith came and joined us at intervals. Barb was short and stocky with short hair under a baseball cap. She was very serious and watched every move Edith made. She bit her lips, then pressed them together. She blinked, took off her cap and rubbed her head. She kept her face turned away from us although she was listening to us. I asked Merv how long he’d been here.

Only twelve years and I shoulda come twenty years ago. I mean, just look at it, he said and waved at the sea.

I reckon I’m luckier than my sister, Barb said suddenly.

What’s that about your sister, Barb?

Just saying I’m luckier than her.

Why dya say that?

She’s gone to the Greek Islands. Cost her a fortune and she’s got to get in a plane to get there, and then there’s the language…I get all this and it’s cheap as chips.

You’re right Barb. Good one Edith. Can you see that? Merv asked me without taking his eyes off Edith. Edith’s taken that hoop. She’s put her peg on the top of it. Can you see that? And when she goes round again, she’ll put the peg on the side. Now Barb’s got to get her ball through that hoop, but she’s on the wrong side – she’s got to  – that’s it Barb, knock it to the left so she can get it through from that side. I think I’ll show you how to do a bit of roquet you and me. I call this the three Ss. Know what they stand for?

Merv walked slowly out to a corner of the court and placed a brown and pink ball some distance apart. I followed slowly.

The aim is to get this pink fella to hit the brown. But you gotta stalk the ball. The three Ss are Stalk, Swing, and Strike. The thing about croquet is that it’s a mind game.

That’s what Bob told me. He said it was chess for the feet.

Did Bob say that, did he? He would. And he’s not wrong. It’s a game of strategy and you gotta stalk the ball. So, you walk up to it, that’s right. And you line it up with the other one, got it? And then you walk back, still keeping the ball in your sights – you want to hit a lovely clean shot. Come a bit closer, check your feet, now don’t forget that backswing…No, you were looking at the brown ball. Don’t think about that ball; the one you want to hit is the pink one. If you strike him right, he’ll hit the brown…


2 Responses to “Sport”

  1. barb austin January 20, 2013 at 3:14 am #

    Oh, I am right there, looking over the hedge and wondering at you all. The vernacular is as colourful as I imagined it would be. I guess a playing croquet opposite the most beautifiul beach in Doubtless Bay is as good a reason to live in the Far North permanently, as any other reason. I know I felt the same way about playing tennis on Mt Vic as a kid. And again as an adult. The seal held puddles, the nets were tatty and the balls slipped through the surrounding wire fence. Oh, but the view was thrilling. barb

    • sightbyte January 20, 2013 at 3:33 am #

      Golly Barb, you lucky thing to be there. It is the most beautiful beach in Doubtless Bay but paled in comparison to the zeal of the croquet players…Bob couldn’t understand why I didn’t get it – he was so sure I’d be a pushover. but it would have been good to go to Mangonui School – imagine looking over that harbour every day – just like Mount Vic.

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