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At seven o'clock of a Caribbean morning, on the island of Antigua, one Peregrine Makepiece, otherwise known as Perry, an all-round amateur athlete of distinction and until recently tutor in English literature at a distinguished Oxford college, played three sets of tennis against a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties called Dima. How this match came about was quickly the subject of intense examination by British agents professionally disposed against the workings of chance. Yet the events leading up to it were on Perry's side blameless.
The dawning of his thirtieth birthday three months previously had triggered a life-change in him that had been building up for a year or more without his being aware of it. Seated head in hands at eight o'clock in the morning in his modest Oxford rooms, after a seven-mile run that had done nothing to ease his sense of calamity, he had searched his soul to know just what the first third of his natural life had achieved, apart from providing him with an excuse for not engaging in the world beyond the city's dreaming spires.
To any outward eye, his was the ultimate academic success story. The State-educated son of secondary-school teachers arrives in Oxford from London University laden with academic honours and takes up a three-year post awarded him by an ancient, rich, achievement-driven college. His first name, traditionally the property of the English upper classes, derives from a rabble-rousing Methodist prelate of the nineteenth century named Arthur Peregrine of Huddersfield.
In the term time, when he isn't teaching, he distinguishes himself as a cross-country runner and sportsman. On his spare evenings he helps out in a local youth club. In vacations he conquers difficult peaks and Most Serious climbs. Yet when his college offers him a permanent Fellowship—or to his present soured way of thinking, imprisonment for life—he baulks.
Last term he had delivered a series of lectures on George Orwell under the title 'A Stifled Britain?' and his rhetoric had alarmed him. Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009?
Receiving no response from the blank student faces staring up at him, he had supplied it for himself: no, Orwell would emphatically not have believed it. Or if he had, he would have taken to the streets. He would have smashed some serious glass.
It was a topic he had thrashed out mercilessly with Gail, his longstanding girlfriend, as they lay in her bed after a birthday supper at the flat in Primrose Hill that she had part-inherited from her otherwise penniless father.
'I don't like dons and I don't like being one myself. I don't like academia and if I never have to wear a bloody gown again, I'll feel a free man,' he had ranted at the gold-brown hair clustered comfortably on his shoulder.
And receiving no reply beyond a sympathetic purr:
'Hammering on about Byron, Keats and Wordsworth to a bunch of bored undergraduates whose highest ambition is to get a degree, get laid, and get rich? Done it. Been there. Fuck it.'
And raising the odds:
'About the only thing that would really keep me in this country is a bloody revolution.'
And Gail, a sparky young barrister on the rise, blessed with looks and a quick tongue—sometimes a little too quick for her own comfort as well as Perry's—assured him that no revolution would be complete without him.
Both were de facto orphans. If Perry's late parents had been the soul of high-minded Christian socialist abstinence, Gail's were the other thing. Her father, a sweetly useless actor, had died prematurely of alcohol, sixty cigarettes a day and a misplaced passion for his wayward wife. Her mother, an actress but less sweet, had vanished from the family home when Gail was thirteen, and was reputed to be living the simple life on the Costa Brava with a second cameraman.
Perry's initial reaction to his life-decision to shake the dust of academia from his feet—irrevocable, like all Perry's life-decisions—was to return to his grass roots. The only son of Dora and Alfred would put himself where their convictions had been. He would begin his teaching career all over again at the point where they had been forced to abandon theirs.
He would stop playing the intellectual high-flyer, sign up for an honest-to-God teacher-training course and, in their image, qualify as a secondary-school teacher in one of his country's most deprived areas.
He would teach set subjects, and any sport they cared to throw at him, to children who needed him as a lifeline to self-fulfilment rather than as a ticket to middle-class prosperity.
But Gail was not as alarmed by this prospect as perhaps he intended her to be. For all his determination to be at the hard centre of life, there remained other unreconciled versions of him, and Gail was on familiar terms with most of them:
Yes, there was Perry the self-punishing student at London University where they had first met, who in the mould of T. E. Lawrence had taken his bicycle to France in the vacations and ridden it until he keeled over with exhaustion.
And yes, there was Perry the alpine adventurer, the Perry who could run no race and play no game, from seven-a-side rugby to pass the parcel with her nephews and nieces at Christmas time, without a compulsive need to win.
But there was also Perry the closet sybarite who treated himself to unpredictable bursts of luxury before hurrying back to his garret. And this was the Perry who stood on the best tennis court at the best recession-hit resort in Antigua on that early May morning before the sun got too high to play, with the Russian Dima one side of the net and Perry the other, and Gail wearing a swimsuit and a broad-brimmed floppy hat and a silky cover-up that covered very little, sitting amid an unlikely assembly of dead-eyed spectators, some dressed in black, who appeared to have sworn a collective oath not to smile, not to speak, and not to express any interest in the match they were being compelled to watch.
It was a lucky chance, in Gail's opinion, that the Caribbean adventure had been planned in advance of Perry's impulsive life-decision. Its inception dated back to darkest November when his father had fallen victim to the same cancer that had carried off his mother two years earlier, leaving Perry in a state of modest affluence. Not holding with inherited wealth, and being in two minds as to whether he should give all he had to the poor, Perry dithered. But after a campaign of attrition mounted by Gail, they had settled for a once-in-a-lifetime bargain tennis holiday in the sun.
And no holiday could have been better planned, as it turned out, for by the time they had embarked on it, even bigger decisions were staring them in the face:
What should Perry do with his life, and should they do it together?
Should Gail give up the Bar and step blindly into the azure yonder with him, or should she continue to pursue her meteoric career in London?
Or might it be time to admit that her career was no more meteoric than most young barristers' careers, and should she therefore get herself pregnant, which was what Perry was forever urging her to do?
And if Gail, either out of impishness or self-defence, had a habit of turning large questions into little ones, there remained no doubt that the two of them were separately and together at life's crossroads with some pretty heavy thinking to do, and that a holiday in Antigua looked like providing the ideal setting in which to do it.
Their flight was delayed, with the result that they didn't check into their hotel till after midnight. Ambrose, the resort's ubiquitous major-domo, showed them to their cabin. They rose late and by the time they had breakfasted on their balcony the sun was too hot for tennis. They swam on a three-quarters-empty beach, had a solitary lunch by the pool, made languorous love in the afternoon, and at six in the evening presented themselves at the pro's shop, rested, happy, and eager for a game.
Seen from a distance, the resort was no more than a cluster of white cottages scattered along a mile-wide horseshoe of proverbial talcum-powder sand. Two promontories of rock strewn with scrub forest marked its extremities. Between them ran a coral reef and a line of fluorescent buoys to ward off nosy motor yachts. And on hidden terraces wrested from the hillside lay the resort's championship-standard tennis courts. Meagre stone steps wound between flowering shrubs to the front door of the pro's shop. Once through it, you entered tennis heaven, which was why Perry and Gail had chosen the place.
There were five courts and one centre court. Competition balls were kept in green refrigerators. Competition silver cups in glass cases bore the names of champions of yesteryear and Mark, the overweight Australian pro, was one of them.
'So what sort of level are we looking at here, if I may inquire?' he asked with heavy gentility, taking in without comment the quality of Perry's battle-scarred racquets, his thick white socks and worn but serviceable tennis shoes, and Gail's neckline.
For two people past their first youth but still in the bloom of life, Perry and Gail made a strikingly attractive pair. Nature had provided Gail with long, shapely legs and arms, high, small breasts, a lissome body, English skin, fine gold hair and a smile to light the gloomiest corners of life. Perry had a different sort of Englishness, being lank and at first sight dislocated, with a long neck and prominent Adam's apple. His stride was ungainly, he seemed to topple and his ears protruded. At his State school he had been awarded the nickname of Giraffe, until those unwise enough to use it learned their lesson. But with manhood he had acquired—unconsciously, which only made it more impressive—a precarious but undoubted grace. He had a mop of brown curls, a wide, freckled forehead, and large, bespectacled eyes that gave out an air of angelic perplexity.
Not trusting Perry to blow his own trumpet, and protective of him as always, Gail took the pro's question upon herself.
'Perry plays qualifiers for Queen's and he got into the main draw once too, didn't you? You actually made it to the Masters. And that was after breaking his leg skiing and not playing for six months,' she added proudly.
'And you, madam, if I may make so bold?' Mark the obsequious pro inquired, with a little more spin on the 'madam' than Gail cared for.
'I'm his rabbit,' she replied coolly, to which Perry said, 'Sheer bollocks,' and the Australian sucked his teeth, shook his heavy head in disbelief and thumbed the messy pages of his ledger.
'Well, I've got one pair here might do you good people. They're a sight too classy for my other guests, I'll tell you that right now. Not that I've a vast selection of humanity to choose from, frankly. Maybe you four should give each other a whirl.'
Their opponents turned out to be an Indian honeymoon couple from Mumbai. The centre court was taken, but court 1 was free. Soon a handful of passers-by and players from other courts had drifted over to watch the four of them warm up: fluid strokes from the baseline casually returned, passing shots that nobody ran for, the unanswered smash from the net. Perry and Gail won the toss, Perry gave first serve to Gail who twice double-faulted and they lost the game. The Indian bride followed her. Play remained sedate.
It wasn't till Perry began serving that the quality of his play became apparent. His first serve had height and power, and when it went in, there wasn't much anyone could do about it. He served four in a row. The crowd grew, the players were young and good-looking, the ball boys discovered new heights of energy. Towards the end of the first set, Mark the pro casually turned out to take a look, stayed for three games, then with a thoughtful frown returned to his shop.
After a long second set, the score was one set each. The third and final set reached 4 – 3, with Perry and Gail having the edge. But if Gail was inclined to hold back, Perry was by now in full cry, and the match ended without the Indian couple winning another game.
The crowd drifted away. The four lingered to exchange compliments, fix a return and maybe catch a drink in the bar this evening? You bet. The Indians departed, leaving Perry and Gail to gather up their spare racquets and pullovers.
As they did so, the Australian pro returned to the court bringing with him a muscular, erect, huge-chested, completely bald man wearing a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex wristwatch and grey tracksuit bottoms kept up by a drawstring tied in a bow at his midriff.
Why Perry should have spotted the bow at his midriff first and the rest of the man afterwards is easily explained. He was in the act of changing his elderly but comfortable tennis shoes for a pair of beach shoes with rope soles, and when he heard his name called he was still bent double. Therefore he lifted his long head slowly, the way tall, angular men do, and registered first a pair of leather espadrilles on small, almost feminine feet set piratically apart, then a couple of stocky, tracksuited calves in grey; and, coming up, the drawstring bow that kept the trousers aloft, double-tied as such a bow should be, given its considerable area of responsibility.
And above the bow-line, a belly of finest crimson cotton blouse encasing a massive torso that seemed not to know its stomach from its chest, and rising to an Eastern-style collar that if fastened would have made a cut-down version of a clerical dog-collar, except that there was no way it could have accommodated the muscular neck inside it.
And above the collar, tipped to one side in appeal, eyebrows raised in invitation, the creaseless face of a fifty-something man with soulful brown eyes beaming a dolphin smile at him. The absence of creases did not suggest inexperience, rather the opposite. It was a face that to Perry the outdoor adventurer seemed cast for life: the face, he told Gail much later, of a formed man, another definition that he aspired to himself, but for all his manly striving did not feel he had yet attained.
'Perry, allow me to present my good friend and patron, Mr Dima from Russia,' said Mark, injecting a ring of ceremony into his unctuous voice. 'Dima thought you played a pretty nifty match out there, am I right, sir? As a fine connoisseur of the game of tennis, he's been watching you highly appreciatively, I think I may say, Dima.'
'Wanna game?' Dima inquired, without taking his brown, apologetic gaze off Perry, who by now was hovering awkwardly at his full height.
'Hi,' said Perry, a bit breathlessly, and shoved out a sweated hand. Dima's was the hand of an artisan turned to fat, tattooed with a small star or asterisk on the second knuckle of the thumb. 'And this is Gail Perkins, my partner in crime,' he added, feeling a need to slow the pace a bit.
But before Dima could respond, Mar...
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