If this was retirement, why had he ever hesitated? What could be better than nipping out to the tennis club he'd joined a few months ago and having a workout in the surprisingly warm Easter sunshine?
Smiling to himself, Mark parked at right angles to the high mesh fence surrounding the courts and the clubhouse itself. He'd manoeuvred cars for years under the beady eyes of colleagues and couldn't break the habit of perfection. He grabbed his bag and headed for the clubhouse, where people were already doing their stretches on the decking. Clubhouse! It was actually a one-room wooden pavilion, not much larger than a shed, though it did boast running water and electricity. The only sanitation was a Portaloo round the back. Apparently that had been a recent acquisition: until then members had had to retire discreetly to the woods the site backed on to.
He greeted several people by name and got waves and smiles in reply. A friendly place. An ex-county badminton player, Fran would love playing here, once she was fully mobile again.
Tennis clubs had an image problem, didn't they? Or was that just when he was young? It was supposed to be awfully nice people with cut-glass accents and no brains consuming Pimms and cucumber sandwiches and deigning to hit the occasional ball so long as they didn't break sweat. Jeunesse dorée, retired colonels and all that, not to mention Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
If this club had been like that, he wouldn't have become a member – firstly because he wouldn't have applied, and secondly because he'd probably have been blackballed. Retired public servants would never make the social elite. But he rubbed happy shoulders with a retired plumber, a woman who had once been make-up artist to the stars, a couple of accountants, a nurse and an ex-teacher. There was also a taciturn man who he'd bet was – under a different name, of course – a career criminal. A lot of people simply turned up to play, asking no questions and volunteering nothing about their own pasts. And here they all were, in the grounds of a stately home, Hogben House. Not that the present owners, people called Livingstone, had anything to do with the club: they simply leased out the land and complained if the floodlights were used after ten o'clock.
Apart from the Golden Oldies, seniors who had special sessions on Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons, there were some really good young, fit players who played for the club in the local league. And he wouldn't talk down his fellow seniors, ponytailed Tony, for instance, who was just arriving on his menopausal man motorbike, his racquet sticking up out of one of the panniers like a stubby aerial. Many made up for their comparative lack of mobility with low cunning derived from sixty years of hard-won experience.
Not him. He'd hardly played since his teens, and had only recently taken it up because everyone said it would be good for him after his breakdown. It was – even when it had been so cold that he'd had to play in two tracksuits, a woolly hat and a pair of gloves. Today it was a different matter – he'd already stripped down to shorts. Even his level of play exercised muscles his gardening didn't, and got him talking to other people, not just to robins and blackbirds nagging him to unearth more worms. And yes, he loved it with a passion. Better than the gym any day of the week, especially in this idyllic setting. At his back were mature woodlands; in front of him were the eight courts – in two groups of four, separated of course by more fencing, making a big rectangle – and an expanse of cow- and horse-filled fields as far as the eye could see. On quiet days, with the wind in the right direction, if you had good ears it was possible to detect the A road that ran along the valley, but apart from an artistically placed church tower – not their own village's St Anselm's, but one he'd always intended to visit when he got round to it – there was no building to be seen. Even the Hall was tucked away behind banks of mature trees. Which begged the question of how the owner knew if the lights were on, but he let that pass.
Shrill laughter came from the furthest courts, swarming with kids: Zac French, the young man they'd recently appointed as coach, entertaining a load of kids. Zac had once been a Wimbledon junior champion, and was now leading the men's team in a charge up the league. The women members might pretend to swoon over his dark good looks, but more importantly everyone liked his friendly openness. He'd got a wonderful track record of teaching, not just the very youngest toddlers to the stroppiest adolescents, but even old-timers like Mark – his hour's coaching every Friday morning was a revelation.
Now, helped by some talented club teenagers, boys and girls, Zac was running what was officially called an Easter tennis camp for four- to eleven-year-olds. Why a camp, Mark wondered dourly. The kids stayed in the pampered luxury of their own homes, brought in and ferried home every day in the sort of vehicles he'd always loathed, huge 4x4's, tinted windows and all.
A swish new Audi unloaded a couple more of his fellow Golden Oldies, one, George, waving mockingly at Roland, just parking his bike.
'Bloody hell, what a racket!' George, a lanky left-hander with a killer serve, pulled a face as he realized he'd made a pun. 'They're worse than that Russian girl – you know, the one who can't hit a ball without screaming. It's time umpires awarded her opponents a point for each bellow, if you ask me. That'd soon shut her up. Sharapova! A screamometer, that's what they need. And as for that other woman ...' He fished behind his ears, removing hearing aids. 'It's still too bloody loud to think.' All the same, he replaced the aids.
How soon would Mark need them himself? Wearing glasses – for reading, driving, whatever – was universal. But deafness carried a stigma, didn't it? All the same, even when he jacked up the TV volume enough to make Fran squirm, there was a lot he missed, especially in US-made programmes. Perhaps Fran was right: perhaps he should at least ask his GP about having them syringed.
Most of the dozen or so Golden Oldies now milling round the clubhouse were smiling tolerantly if not fondly at the seething kaleidoscope of colour – the kids were too young even to nod in the direction of whites or navies which the club technically preferred. The boys tended to sport expensive Premier League replica shirts, while the girls predictably opted for candy-pinks, even to the extent of little frills round the socks topping their sequin-trimmed trainers. And all of them, every last one, squealed or yelled whenever a ball came near them.
The Golden Oldies' unofficial leader was Dougie, short and wiry, a doughty Yorkshireman in his late seventies with an understandable tendency to believe all southerners soft. Stepping forward, he raised an apologetic eyebrow to a newcomer – probably in his late fifties, still with a full head of hair – hesitating on the fringe of the group, and reached to shake his hand. Stephen. No surname. But none of them bothered with surnames, which pleased Mark after his skirmish with the media a few months back. Like himself, Stephen was clearly at the younger end of the retired spectrum, and gave up any attempts to say much about himself as Zac started a deafening race to see who could collect the most tennis balls.
'It's kiddie-time today,' Dougie bellowed. 'Normally we can use all eight courts; today – as you can see – we only have four until Zac's finished.' He dodged a wayward ball. 'It'll all be quiet by three, when the parents roll up and take them home.'
'A consummation devoutly to be wished,' Mark put in, wincing at another salvo of noise.
Dougie nodded. 'Now, this is how it works. Mixed doubles only. We play five-game sets, rotating the serve.'
'Five?' Stephen repeated. 'Surely a set is at least six?'
'Not with us Golden Oldies,' Dougie said. 'Everyone gets to serve once, and one person twice. If we've got even numbers, with no one sitting out, we play seven-game sets.'
'But—' Stephen objected.
'That's just how it is,' Mark murmured.
Ignoring the interruption, Dougie continued, 'We each take a playing card –' he brandished a dog-eared pack – 'to see who we're partnered with and who we're playing against. The two red aces against the two black aces and so on. Everything at random. Nothing fixed in advance.'
Stephen's smile lightened his otherwise melancholy face. 'So it's a matter of chance who gets landed with me – it's so long since I held a racquet I don't even remember which end to use. I was hoping for some coaching ...' With a rueful grin he looked towards Zac, a lighthouse above a sea of bobbing heads. 'When the schools start again, maybe ...' His face serious, he suddenly shot a question that clearly took Dougie aback. Mark too, actually. 'All these kids – are we supposed to have Criminal Record checks?'
'Oh, Zac'll have had all the checks going,' Dougie said easily. 'In any case, his own kid's here today. Libby. That pretty little lass there. In pink. Oh, not the wishy-washy pink the others are wearing. Petunia, isn't that what they'd call it?'
Or Gucci hot pink. Although she was hardly tall enough to wave even the smallest racquet, clearly Livvie – Dougie's hearing wasn't as acute as his brain – had her own ideas about colour.
Mark risked a glance at Stephen: yes, he was just as aware as he was that Dougie had missed the point of the CRB question.
Soon, having pulled out cards from those spread face-down in Dougie's hand, they were settled into four groups of four, with three people sitting out: one was Jayne, a willowy ex-city lawyer who resented every day her father's devotion to a busty Fifties star for the spelling of her first name. Younger than the others, she'd joined the club with her ex-husband, a man some twenty years her senior, who'd shocked all the members by leaving her for a woman of his own age and promptly succumbing to Alzheimer's. While the players warmed up, she rather ostentatiously retreated into the world of whatever she'd put on her iPhone and, donning dark glasses, lay back in a deck chair on the clubhouse decking as if hoping for an early tan. George, who could be relied on for help with computers, folded himself on to a nearby bench to watch the players. Dan, with a face like a borzoi and a distinguished RAF career, released his dog from his car. He was presumably going to take it for a swift walk through the woodlands behind the clubhouse, safe in the knowledge that all wheeled transport was banned – even, or perhaps especially, the lowly rollerblade. Anachronistically, the estate manager liked to patrol on a particularly tall horse, though it was perfect, of course, for spotting miscreants.
There wasn't much love lost between the club and the Hogben estate, for which Dougie blamed the man who'd recently bought it and who was apparently determined to wring every last penny from it. The house itself was used for shooting fairs, country fairs, wedding fairs. However, looking around him, Mark wondered briefly if the owner might have made more profit out of funeral fairs.
Where the income went no one had any idea. Certainly it wasn't on the roads that curled through the approach to the club, which had potholes so deep that in rainy weather Mark had been known to park up a couple of hundred yards from the club field.
He was partnering Alex, an ex-teacher whose Mary Quant bob looked as if it hadn't moved on since she first had it, although her hair was now white. He'd have preferred another partner, one whose game he could predict. All too often Alex couldn't get the ball over the net; other times she'd reach and return balls that their opponents would have thought certain winners. They were joined on the court nearest the clubhouse by Henry, a square-built American with an income from no one quite knew where, and John, a taciturn retired GP with varicose veins.
He was to serve first, looking into the sun – no fun with the light-induced blurs and squiggles that seemed to linger in his eyes longer with each passing year. Even dark glasses and a baseball cap didn't seem to help. The effort to get the ball over the net without a humiliating double fault always took all his attention. It was enough to block out all the kiddie-noise. As they changed ends, they all agreed that coming out of a game that required all their concentration was like emerging from an acoustic tunnel. They went back into it as Mark focused on receiving from Henry, who dished up gentle dobblers and lost to love. Then it was Alex's turn to serve. While she retied her shoe, he had leisure to look around a little. Outside the netting, but still safe in the car park, one or two of the children were trailing from the far courts towards the rear of the clubhouse, as if to the loo.
By this time Alex's serve had gone in – a surprisingly long, wide one, making the receiver put the return shot straight on to his racquet for a nice volley down the centre. Her next serve was an ace – she seemed as amazed as anyone. At this point, two kids decided to return to the far courts via those the Oldies were playing on – bad etiquette which was swiftly corrected. The kids moaned but eventually, in the face of implacable opposition from Alex, who'd clearly retained some of her classroom skills, they bowed to the inevitable and headed back via the car park. Calm was restored. On their way they passed Livvie, heading on her own with great assurance for the clubhouse.
The set was theirs, four-one. As they gathered round to congratulate each other and wait for Dougie to hand out the cards again, Mark glanced at the clubhouse, but there was no sign of Livvie. No doubt she'd toddled back to her father, who was organizing another ear-splitting ball harvest. But he couldn't see her on those courts, either. Like the others, he obediently took a card and settled to play, partnering John, and playing against George and Dan. A different group now sat out, to be joined by latecomers.
After a tough game, which he and John lost three-two, he joined Jayne when the next draw was made. By now, half a dozen people were waiting for a game, and two or three had already called it a day.
They were changing sides after the first game when on impulse he asked Jayne if she'd seen Livvie.
'Livvie? Oh, yes, she decided to remove Roland's bike chain, and then didn't like having dirty hands, so she started to wipe them on her skirt. Quite! I ended up scrubbing her hands with Fairy Liquid to try to get the grease off. The skirt too – she was terribly upset about the stains, and was trying to take it off. I had to take the washing-up bowl out to her – she's too tiny to reach the sink, and in any case she insisted she had to be where Daddy could see her. Fair enough, I thought. I got most of the mess off – enough to calm her down a bit. Then Dougie called me on to court to warm up and I left her on the decking having a drink of juice. Why do you ask?' she added suspiciously. Lone men weren't supposed to ask about vulnerable children, were they? He'd have been suspicious himself.
But Mark wasn't so much suspicious as anxious by now. 'Because I can't see her anywhere.'
'Oh, she's around somewhere. Come on – your serve.'
But his heart wasn't in it, and it was only because Jayne played so well that they won the game. George's turn to serve. But there was another interruption, as a lad of about ten marched straight off the kids' courts through theirs towards the clubhouse. George's instructions were short and to the point. The boy's response was even shorter – did his mother know he used such vocabulary? George and the boy argued.
Mark itched to intervene. Ever the policeman. Instead he had another look round. Still no sign of Livvie. Anywhere.
'Jayne, I'm really worried about that kid. I'm just going to check the clubhouse and the loo. Back in a sec, OK?'
It felt as if it took for ever to break into the discussion on the decking. Dougie was holding forth about something, and two women were arguing with him. When eventually he got a word in they all denied seeing Livvie. Just to satisfy himself, he checked the Portaloo behind the clubhouse: all too clearly, some of the youngsters hadn't worked it out properly, and the place was awash with pee and worse. Not the place for a child at all. In the clubhouse itself there was nothing but the kids' detritus: miniature hoodies, plastic lunch-boxes and even the odd teddy. The small sheds next to the loo where the coach stored his equipment were completely empty. Back to the clubhouse. On the decking in front was a soapy, oily puddle, which must be where Jayne had tried to clean Livvie up. George and Dan looked at him with complete disbelief as he ran straight past them, down to the kids' area. Jayne yelled something about manners, but he kept going towards Zac.