Long weekend allows enough time for tennis
‘May Day Scramble’ ends on a high as Vinny makes a return to his youth
At Angie’s insistence, the bank holiday morning had begun with a pre-breakfast vigorous series of stretches in the back garden at Mount Prospect Avenue.
For Vinny Fitzpatrick, the “light work-out”, as Angie breezily called it, was akin to a Middle Age torture chamber.
Unlike his wife, who was lithe, lean, and supple, Vinny’s movements resembled the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. Every stretch was a jerky effort as his 56-year-old hinges creaked with rust.
After 10 minutes he contemplated a greasy spoon brekkie, Vinny questioned his sanity at agreeing to take part in the “May Day Scramble” at Clontarf tennis club.
It was years since he last swung a racquet in anger at the hallowed turf of Clontarf LTC on Oulton Road where Angie was a leading light.
As a chubby nipper, Vinny had spent the odd summer’s evening playing thwock-thwock on the old grass courts, imagining he was Rod Laver, and where he’d once chanced his arm with a drop shot on Noleen Nagle, an early crush.
As a grown-up, he’d kept his distance. More recently, he’d dropped in to cheer Angie on when she was in a final – his wife was a 10-time club champion and the dominant figure in the over 40s section. But today was different. Today, Vinny was a participator, not spectator, and the prospect filled him with dread.
At a weak moment, he’d rashly agreed to Angie’s suggestion that he enter the men’s singles for over 55s.
“It’ll be a bit of gas,” she said. “And after the exercise, there’s a barbecue, drinks and a Eurovision retro night.”
His foot-dragging mood intensified when Angie served up a breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, porridge, poached eggs, tomato and mushrooms – there wasn’t a sausage, rasher or knob of butter in sight.
An hour later, the husband and wife combo checked in for the “May Day Scramble” at the 127-year-old club. The place was bedecked with folk in brilliant white, nearly all of them toned and tanned, much to Vinny’s dismay.
After a respectful minute’s silence for the late Elena Baltacha, over the PA, Vinny heard a request for the over 55 gents to gather at courts seven and eight. He gave Angie a peck on the cheek and wished her “bon chance” before waddling over to check-in. He half hoped to see a few wizened fatties like himself but instead was greeted with cardboard cut-outs of Cary Grant, tall, slim and impossibly young.
In their midst, a raven-haired lady held a clipboard. She was ticking off names and looked up as Vinny approached. “My my, if it isn’t Vinny Fitzpatrick after all these years,” she said.
Vinny did a double take as he recognised Noleen Nagle, one of his first flames. Before you could say “new balls, Miss Goolagong” Vinny reddened like a Cox’s pippin. “Noleen, it’s been a while,” he said, offering a beefy hand.
“It certainly has,” said Noleen. “I’ve just become a grannie now, would you believe? I see you never lost it,” she said. “Lost what,” said a nonplussed Vinny.
“That stomach of yours,” laughed Noleen in a husky voice which reminded Vinny of Lauren Bacall.
Noleen ran a tight ship in the O55s, dividing the eight players into groups of four. It meant three matches for each player, with each contest to be played over the best of seven games. The top two would advance to the semi-finals.
With little expectation, Vinny didn’t over-achieve. He lost his first match 4-0 to a big-serving bully who complained that he hadn’t had a decent rally, and his second 4-2 to a white-haired chap, who revealed with a grin as they shook hands at the net that he was also eligible for the O65 section.
The final match was a dead rubber as Vinny’s opponent, who introduced himself as Gerald “ with an L”, had also lost his first two games. While Gerald towered over Vinny, he was hampered by a noticeable limp. Sensing he was in with a sniff, Vinny did his best to mix up the play. He had to keep Gerald an L, on the run.
At 2-2, Vinny suddenly found his form of yesteryear. His wooden Dunlop behaved like a wand as he conjured up a succession of decent strokes. He took the game to lead 3-2 and soon found himself 40-15 up and serving for the match. By now, the juices were flying. He was the Rockhampton Rocket of his youth. It was time to put Gerald, to the sword.
Gerald sent a ball skywards. Vinny sensed the Garryowen would land in play and turned to scurry back. And then, it happened. After three paces, at full throttle, Vinny felt the pain knife into the back of his upper leg. Briefly, he thought he’d been shot by a sniper as he collapsed in a heap on the hard surface.
“Me hammer, me bloody hammer,” he sputtered in annoyance as Gerald, with an L, enquired as to his well-being. Vinny felt like telling him where he should shove his “L” when he felt the soft brown arms of Noleen cradling him.
“Are you okay, Vinny?” she said with a sensitivity Vinny found welcome. “I’ll be grand Noleen. Just help us to me feet,” he said.
Later, against a back-drop of “Waterloo” and a roaring barbecue, Vinny sat propped up in a corner of the clubhouse bar, bag of ice clasped to the back of his muttony leg, pint of stout to hand.
For the past two hours, Noleen Nagle and Angie had fussed, and fought, over him, one an old flame, the other very much his only flame.
He had overplayed things as his leg was attended to, cushions placed under his back, his glass and plate refilled regularly. The torn hammer had been worth it all, he thought.
Just then, he heard an intro from an Irish Eurovision song of many years standing. He recognised the singer as Cathal Dunne, which he placed as 1979. A good song, if not a great one. How did it go again? Then, it came to him.
“I’m in love and I’m alive – happy man. Got the sun inside – happy man. I’ve got a girl on my mind, love in my heart – happy man.”
Which, at that moment, he most certainly was.