The clouds were beginning to thin out, evidenced by the patches of sunlight dancing on the ground. The returning light combined with the slowly growing excitement of playing tennis made my heart lighten, and I began skipping down the dirt path, wobbling as I attempted to keep my feet on the lit patches of ground.
“You’re quite a lively one, aren’t you?” asked Elli.
I looked back at her and realised what I was doing. Slowing down, I correcting my stride to something more befitting of a young lady.
Elli laughed. She had an haughty kind of a laugh, with her mouth closed, so it came out more as a series of high-pitched, compressed giggles than anything. She skipped up to my side, one hand behind her back, and the other holding her tea. I was amazed that she still hadn’t spilled it. As she bounced beside me, I felt my cheeks begin to redden in a sort of embarrassment. I crossed my arms in front of my chest and lowered my head to stare at the road.
“Have you ever played tennis before, darling?” asked Elli.
“A-a few times, at school,” I said, without looking up.
“A lovely game, isn’t it?” Elli replied. “Ally and I play it often. I’m looking forward to playing again. We were going to last week, but it began raining once we arrived.”
Alice spoke up. “Oh, that was fun!” she said. “It was sort of exciting to hide from the rain underneath the awning with you. Your stories helped to take my mind off of things”
“Well, I’ve got to do something to get your mind off your studies,” said Elli.
After a few more minutes, we reached our destination. Behind a row of trees was a tall black gate covered in moss. Alice unlocked the door and we walked out onto the hard court. The court itself was a deep green, with no immediate signs of wear. To one side was a set of white benches with a striped awning above, to keep them in the shade. Behind them were several lockers, likely holding the racquets, balls, and other equipment. A single white net stood in the middle of the court.
“Wow…” I said.
“Father is proud of this court,” said Alice. “He respects the sport very much, and when he had this built he made certain it was of highest quality.”
The open expanse was inviting; I couldn’t help myself from prancing round in circles. Alice unlocked one of the lockers and took out three racquets and a few balls, placing them on the benches nearby. I took up a racquet and spun it in my hand. It was lighter than I had remembered.
“Let’s split into teams!” said Elli, holding her racquet high in the air.
“But there’s only three of us,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” she replied. “Alice has more practise, and we need two people to take her down!”
“I don’t want to be on a team,” I said emphatically.
“Wait, I think—” Alice began.
“Do you want to win?” asked Elli. She put her hands on her hips.
“…W-well… Yes…” I said.
“It’s settled, then!” she exclaimed.
Elli took a ball and moved to the front of the court, on the left-hand side. “You take the back half, darling. You know how to play, don’t you?”
“Y-yes,” I replied, moving into position.
She spread her feet apart, readying herself. After waiting for Alice to get in position, she tossed me the ball. I caught it.
“Go ahead and serve, darling,” she said.
I tossed the ball in the air, hopped up and swung my racquet. Nothing. I missed. I picked up the ball and tried again, hoping nobody had seen me. I swung hard, once again meeting air.
Elli turned towards me. “Give it a little longer, darling, you’re too early.”
“R-right!” I said. I tossed it once more, this time waiting another half second before swinging. My racquet met the ball with a satisfying pop. I smiled and watched as it vaulted over the net. Alice deftly returned the serve, her practice evident in her form. I had never seen her move so quickly before. The ball bounced past Elli, heading straight towards me. I closed my eyes and swung hard, missing entirely.
“Oh!” I exclaimed, rushing to retrieve the ball.
“Good try!” said Alice.
Elli took the ball from me. “Don’t close your eyes next time,” she said, smirking.
“Love, fifteen!” she shouted.
We returned to our positions. I frowned as I resumed my stance, determined that I’d hit it this time. I served again, and Alice returned as easily as she had before. I rushed up to the front of the court to catch it, but collided with Elli’s shoulder as she moved back. The ball bounced past us.
“What are you doing?” Elli asked, irritated.
“I-I was trying to hit the ball!” I said.
“I have the front half of the court,” she replied. “You take the back half.”
I returned to my place. “I didn’t want to be on a team to begin with,” I muttered.
“Love, thirty!” Elli shouted.
“Why is it called that?” I asked.
“What?” asked Elli.
“Love,” I said. “When you mean zero.”
“I believe it comes from a French word—” Alice began.
“Because,” Elli interrupted, “in the old days, players would profess their affection for their lover before the match began. If they had no score, they still had ‘love.’”
“I don’t think that’s—” Alice started.
“Do you love anyone, Mary?” asked Elli, in a playful tone.
“Wh-what?” I asked.
“Aww, look at you,” said Elli, “your face is all red. Who is it?”
“N-no-one!” I stammered.
“Elli, leave the poor thing alone,” said Alice.
“Ally here is in love with someone, aren’t you dear?” Elli said.
“Q-quit that,” said Alice. She was blushing.
I had never been in love before. I hadn’t really thought about it. Should I have been, by now?
“C-can we return to the game?” I asked.
“Go ahead and serve, darling,” said Elli.
I hit the ball with an under-handed swing. Alice returned it once again. This time, Elli caught the return, sending the ball far off to the left side of the court. Alice ran to catch it and succeeded, sending the ball to the right end of the court where I stood at the ready. I raised my racquet and swung; it connected with a loud pop, and the ball flew past the net.
A wide grin spread across my face, which quickly turned to shock upon seeing the ball whizz back past me.
Elli was bent over, laughing uproariously. “I’d be angry, but that was too incredible to be upset about,” she said after she caught her breath.
I retrieved the ball and gave it to Elli, avoiding eye contact.
“Why don’t you serve?” I asked tersely.
“Stand here then,” she replied. She got into position at the lower right side of the court. “Love, forty!” she shouted. She turned to me and spoke in a low voice. “Pay attention this time, darling,” she said, grinning.
Elli served, swinging high. She and Alice traded swings, until suddenly the ball came towards me. This time, I was prepared, swinging my racquet and launching it clear across the net. Alice tried to catch it, but came just short.
“Yay!” I cheered, my arms up in the air.
Elli stood with her arms crossed, one hand on her chin. “It would be nice if it wasn’t out of bounds, now, wouldn’t it?”
“Huh?” I asked.
“It crossed that line over there,” she explained. “It was out of bounds. Alice gets the point.”
“Oh, darn it all!” I shouted, throwing my racquet down and stomping to one of the benches. I sat, breathing heavily. Alice came to my side, putting her hand on my shoulder.
“You played well,” she said, her soft voice rendered even softer because of our workout.
“Don’t say that!” I replied, without looking up.
“It’s not an easy game,” she said. “It takes years of practise to be able to play well.”
“When did you start playing?” I asked.
“I was nine,” she replied. “Father thought it would be good for my health to be more active, and he thought tennis would do the job, so I began taking lessons. I continued up until a couple of years ago.”
“Why did you stop?” I asked.
“I didn’t have the time, because of all my coursework,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said.
“You quite finished over there, darling?” Elli called. She was walking in circles on the court, balancing the end of her racquet on the tip of her finger.
I frowned. “How can you stand her?” I asked Alice, in a hushed tone.
Alice looked affectionately at Elli. “She comes off brash at first, but she’s a remarkable thing. She’s honest and determined. I admire her spirit.” Alice looked at me. “You really ought to get to know her. I truly believe the two of you would get along splendidly.”
“I find that hard to believe,” I said, standing.
Elli approached me. “Are we starting a new game or what?” she asked, swinging her racquet back and forth.
“Fine,” I said, walking past her. I supposed I might as well try again.
After a moment of hesitation, I turned round to face her. “W-would you like to go for tea tomorrow morning?” I forced the words out, furrowing my brow.
“You had me at ‘tea,’ darling,” she replied. “Nine?”
“Nine. A-Alice can come too,” I added frantically. “You’ll join us right?” I asked, facing her.
“I’d love to,” said Alice.
I relaxed a bit. That wasn’t so difficult.
“Right, let’s begin,” I said, taking my place on the court and preparing to serve.
❀ ❀ ❀
The sky was painted a bright yellowish-orange. The setting sun cast a warm glow on our surroundings as we walked back from the court. Alice offered for Elli to join us for dinner, but she had something to attend to in town before nighttime. Alice and I meandered up the path back to her estate. It was quiet.
“That was a lovely game,” said Alice.
“I thought I’d play better,” I said.
“I told you, it’s not so easy,” said Alice. “Elli and I practise together regularly. If you would’ve listened to her advice, you might have performed better.”
I said nothing.
“How do you find her?” asked Alice.
“Hmm?” I asked.
“Elli,” Alice replied.
“Hmm. I still don’t like her very much, to be honest,” I said.
“She means well,” said Alice, taking my hand and squeezing it. “I hope you’ll grow to be good friends. She’s very special to me. I don’t know what I’d do without her,” she said.
We continued in silence until we reached the villa.
After changing back into our normal clothes, we ate dinner. Aunt Clara had prepared a meal of roast beef, potatoes, and Yorkshire pudding, the latter of which I may have eaten far too much of. After dinner, I retreated to my room, taking out my sketchbook and opening it up to the drawing I had made of that old oak tree. It was turning out nicely until that girl interrupted me.
I put my sketchbook down and walked to the mirror. I peered into it. The bright, wide eyes of a little girl peered back at me. Her face was round. Her thin, fair hair was tied up in bows, like her mother used to do for her not so long ago. Her dress, adorned with laces and ribbons, gave away more of a playful spirit than any sense of elegance, something her small, meager frame didn’t help. I looked into her eyes again. They were alive with stories, fairy-tales told by her mother, words that inspired her to find magic in the mundane little life she lead. I looked away. What a silly thing to be after. Elli couldn’t — nobody could — take a girl like that seriously.
I was overcome with a strange sort of uneasiness. I’d dressed this way, felt this way for so long. it was a part of me. I knew I didn’t want to be this way any longer — but I didn’t know how to do anything different, or even where to start. Adults don’t tell you that part. “Act your age,” they say. “Grow up,” as though it were something one could simply will herself to do. I couldn’t help but feel I was being left behind. I was nearly sixteen years old! All of my classmates had plans for their futures. Some wanted to become doctors, others lawyers, still others bakers and builders and priests and other things to benefit their societies. They found a camaraderie in their shared hopes and dreams, forming inner circles of those they knew and trusted. And then there was me. I tried to be friendly, but I didn’t have anyone who I could truly call a friend. Not even Bethany. We spoke often, sure, but Alice was right. I didn’t know anything about her. I wondered if she knew anything about me. Perhaps it was my own fault. I just sat by myself, colouring, like I did when I was a child. Maybe I needed to move on and find a new hobby, something I could use to connect with other people entering society as young men and women.
I looked at the book that sat on the bed. I sighed and placed it in the drawer in the end table, out of sight and out of mind. I fell back onto the bed with my arms outstretched, staring up at the canopy. My legs hung off the edge. I swung them back and forth.
“Hmmm,” I murmured aloud. I knew I needed to do something. I sat up. Elli may have already gotten a first impression, but that didn’t have to be the end of it. Tomorrow she would see a different side of me. I’d show her that she could see me as an equal. I furrowed my brow in determination, and hurried to the wardrobe to pick out some clothes. I would take notes from Alice in the morning. I’d show Elli just how mature I could really be!
Author's Note: The song "A Tennis Match" was heavily inspired by music from old Nintendo games. I have made two "retro" remixes of the song to further evoke that theme. If you are interested in hearing them, you can find them on Bandcamp. Thank you for listening, and I hope you enjoy.