(Spoiler alert. An animal was harmed in the making of this piece. Very harmed.)
We are a respectable lot at the Petworth Tennis Club, and our Saturday morning roll-up sessions for the men are the quintessence of amateur sport as she should be played: competent, competitive, polite and cheerful. This morning, in most ways, was just another morning.
‘For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses’ was how these things got expressed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was a quarter part of a close doubles match, and we were 30-15 down in the eleventh game, all square at five all. That was the fact. But among the various likely hypotheses was absolutely not the arrival on the court, mid point, of a large brown rat.
Nonetheless, there it was, running towards the base line down my partners doubles’ box with the agreeable skipping run you get from rodents if you study them for a minute or two. It had the jaunty air of someone who had got the Saturday morning jobs out of the way, and was now heading off for leisure pursuits. For a second or two, you could dimly imagine it going off to watch Sussex at Hove, or smoke a pipe with a friend in their allotment.
‘Rat!’ called out someone without huge enthusiasm or excitement.
‘Where?’ we all asked.
‘There,’ he pointed out.
And my partner, in between the fourth and what would have been the fifth shot of the rally, moved sharply over to his right, took his racquet to its full backswing and executed a strong sliced forehand just as the rat was at the high part of one of its skips. There was, he pointed out afterwards, simply not enough height on the rat to employ topspin, and it was too close to him for a punched volley.
Stunned by the Vectran filaments of the strings of his racquet, the rat arced its way gently through the air towards the net, where it came to rest. Jim then simply walked up, trod on it and picked it up on his racquet head before chucking it over the netting to a grass-heap in the hedge beyond. In terms of its overall health, I suspect it was at that point where the doctors call in the family for some ‘quiet time’.
‘It’s probably best to say your goodbyes now,’ the nice nurse would suggest, offering tissues to the weeping relatives.
‘May we play a let?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ said Chris, and we played one, going on to win the set 8-6 on a competitive tie break.
Being England, no one ever mentioned the matter again.