A HAPPY CHRISTMAS, WAS IT? WELL, THAT’S GOOD TO HEAR. ME? YES, YOU KNOW, TRADITIONAL: APART FROM THE TABLE TENNIS AND THE IMPENDING DIVORCE.
To be honest I blame The Daughter, since it was she who bought the damn thing in the first place; ‘the damn thing’ being – how can I describe it – a sort of scalped Tower Bridge-looking arrangement that clamps round the waist of your kitchen table and ‘elasticates’ to give you – hey presto – ping pong in your parlour. She actually bought it as a gift for The Son but he spent most of the Nativity watching ‘Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice’ via his – freshly acquired – Sony DVP-SR170 DVD Player and his Bluedio T2S Bluetooth 4.1 stereo wireless headphones. And given the way things turned out, I should probably have joined him.
Initially it was innocent enough fun, one of those typical Christmas mornings where the novelty of the new toy proves irresistible to everyone; table tennis being about as risqué as pole dancing chez nous. The boy and I had a brief push and shove, he and his grandfather had a twenty-minute joust – most of which was spent chasing the ball around the floor – and I even enticed my mother into a gentle knock-up where, I fancy, I held my own, albeit against an eighty-two-year-old who had her bat in one hand and a cream sherry in the other.
Fortunately I’m not the competitive type, unless, of course, I come up against someone who is, such as the younger, Argentinian Mrs. Simmons. Ours has been – I would say – a fruitful and jolly enough marriage but she did once mug me for my last Malteser, barge me off my sledge in the field above the church and try to teach the dog to bite me. I’m not one for holding grudges, obviously; it’s just that some things stick in your memory and some don’t.
Certainly I’ve neither forgotten – nor forgiven – our honeymoon. You’ll excuse the small, narrative detour here but we were flying from Buenos Aires to Sydney – twenty-six passengers on one Jumbo Jet – when Aerolineas Argentinas decided on an impromptu refuel in Rio Gallegos. If you don’t know Rio Gallegos – and why would you – it’s land’s last word before Cape Horn where the Pacific and the Atlantic ‘contend which is the mightier’. Anyway, turfed off the plane at Piloto Civil Norberto Fernandez International Airport, we took shelter in the cowshed of a terminal, broke out the backgammon and whiled away the early hours of the morning.
Which is where things turned ugly. Backgammon – emphatically – is my game and not hers, a gift I gave her – one hates to sound pompous but facts are facts – during our whirlwind courtship on the unspoken but strict understanding that, however capricious the dice might be, she would ultimately bow the knee to my superior boardmanship and tactical acumen. In many ways, I suppose, I saw it as an allegory of our future marriage.
Except there I was – with the confetti of said marriage still in my hair – being gammoned in the arse end of Argentina; a grinding humiliation compounded by the fact that the entire flight – passengers, pilots and cabin crew – had formed a circle around us and was cheering her on. To this day, I cannot explain why they unanimously sided with her and not me, except that South Americans are a clannish bunch and, no question, she’s more of a looker than I am.
Plus – I suppose – the world loves a winner and certainly whenever she’d throw a double, obliterate my singleton blots and lean across the board to roguishly tweak my nose, the mob bayed that little bit louder. I think what truly pissed me off was the high-five with the First Officer. I did briefly consider going to the toilet and staying there but – regretfully – there wasn’t one.
Somehow we struggled through the rest of the flight, the honeymoon and the marriage but the humiliation of that long night in Tierra del Fuego – Eugene O’Neill could have written a play about it – has always burned painfully within. Hence – to finally return to Christmas and to the table tennis – my devious delight at thinking that a seasonal stuffing at ping pong might just erase twenty plus years of hurt and – rightly, finally – restore the pants in this marriage to the man of the house.
Besides I’m not sure she’s ever come across what England’s elders and betters seem to call ‘Wiff Waff’, a game invented on the dining tables of the aristocracy in the late nineteenth century using piles of books, golf balls and the lids of cigar boxes and which, as Boris Johnson once imperiously explained, ‘epitomises the difference between us and the rest of the world. Other nations … looked at a dining table and saw a chance to have dinner; we looked at it and saw a chance to play ‘Wiff Waff.’’ Frankly, it was an open goal.
Thus on the fourth day of Christmas did I spring my ambush, warming up in the Man Cave with five vigorous press-ups while she – dozily – was stretched out on the sofa with a generous glass of Pinot Grigio and her I-Pad. Two minutes of nonchalant goading was all it took. Wearily, she chugged the rest of her wine, put down the clearance sale at John Lewis and – yawning – ambled into the kitchen where the net was as taut as I was and – had she but noticed – six inches nearer to my end than to hers. I was all set to wiff-waff my wife.
I opened up with an attempted corkspin serve which – God knows – went straight into the net. My second serve missed the table completely and rolled under the dog and my third was returned like a ricochet, so fast it missed my flailing bat and lodged itself in my Christmas gut. At the other end of the table, Mrs. Wife was scratching her bum with her ‘racquet’ and still yawning. What is the French for ‘déjà vu’?
She had just the one shot in her locker which, I believe, is known in table tennis circles as ‘The Block’; an unerring, obdurate, knuckles-first, backhand riposte to whatever I chucked over the table. Effectively, I was taking on a brick wall; indeed my loop drives and smashes – the ones which weren’t flying straight past her ears and bouncing off the bread bin – were coming back at me like tracer bullets. Without wishing to get too technical, I was pissing into a gale-force wind.
Slowly – almost imperceptibly – the children gathered round to watch, drawn in by their father’s perspiring oaths and their mother’s – frequent and unsportswomanlike – snorts of derision. It was Rio bloody Gallegos all over again; worse because while I sweated and swiped, she wondered aloud which day to invite Tom and Anne round for Christmas drinks and held a lengthy conversation with the dog about his afternoon walk. In the end I feigned a tight hamstring and retreated to the Man-Cave amid a chorus of catcalls, brickbats and slow handclaps.
Thinking back on it now from the vantage point of the New Year and the comfort of the spare room, I suspect they might all have been in on it: my merciless wife and my perfidious children. Were they all working on their wiff-waff while I was away in Swansea covering the Ospreys against the Scarlets on Boxing Day? Ironic – certainly – that the game which did so much to revive Sino-American relations in the nineteen seventies should – forty odd years later – bugger up an entire Christmas in Gloucestershire.
To be frank, I’m not sure where this leaves our marriage: counselling is one obvious option; divorce the other. Frankly, I’ll go with whichever’s the cheaper. Alternatively I’ll spend the next twenty-two years perfecting an impregnable, unassailable game of gin rummy and take her to the cleaners in Christmas in 2039. Believe me, it’ll be well worth the wait.
06 JANUARY 2017