Sweetest damn thing I ever did in my life. Hitting
a golf ball. Striking through it like it didn't
exist or had existed for so long it felt more natural
than breath. From that first perfect arc until the
last--just rainbows without the rain. All gone now.
Turned into some willed solid lump that is as uncontrollable
as thought, dead, along with you.
from the city to a small, seaside village, I can
always think back to that feeling of alienation
and then, just as easily to that time when you
told me about your own first experience of being
away. We were both a long way from the golf course
and playing a different game by then. You had
quickly forgiven--or at least learnt to accept--the
disappointment of seeing your protege walk, despite
all those warnings, into this factory. "Could
have been the best player this country ever had,"
you told my work-mates as we queued for tea, "and
threw it all away for a piece of fanny."
bother to argue the point. It was just good to
be acknowledged by you and to see the reaction
of the men. I could sense that you were beyond
questioning. The sporting hero doomed by circumstance
and not the usual weaknesses. After that you began
to appear in the remote buildings and quiet hours
of this place, sharing some of your other life
that could have had no place on a golf course.
Still trying to be the coach, I guess.
this," you said. "I was seventeen and
had never been further than the little market
town of Highbridge in my life. Suddenly, I am
in a uniform and on a boat stuffed full of strangers,
all with different stories that ended up the same.
Then we get dropped off in Bombay. With all its
heat, chaos and the smell: it was overwhelming.
I just walked along the street with two other
boys from the countryside. None of us could even
speak. Then a beggar grabbed a handbag from a
mem-sahib and made off with it. 'Loose wallah,'
someone yelled. And this policeman in an immaculate,
canary-coloured uniform and white gloves who was
standing on a podium directing the traffic, gave
a blast on his whistle and held up a hand. Everything
stopped. I swear the whole city froze. Except
for the beggar trying to limp away with his prize
and the policeman who climbed down and walked
over to this rack of long bamboo poles. He selected
a heavy looking one and in a flash caught up with
the man. As he reached him he did no more than
swing the cane down with all his might onto his
head. He then bent down and picked up the bag,
and with as much dignity as you can imagine, returned
it to the lady. He climbed into place, gave the
signal, and everything came back to life, apart
from the beggar, who lay on the floor with a spreading
pool of blood hissing its way into the dryness
of the earth, already forgotten."
we came to live in the village next to the golf
course, I announced that I was going to start
playing golf. It became the family joke. "His
lordship will be popping out for a round shortly,"
they kept saying after we had got unpacked. Our
new neighbour overheard and told them that it
didn't have to be out of reach here. There was
a concession made to the villagers as the course
crossed some of their common land. "He may
be able to join the 'Artisans'." An hour
later, she produced a wooden shafted club as a
present to get me started. I stood on the back
lawn swinging away as my family looked out of
the kitchen window in disbelief.
next day I had progressed to the front lawn. Two
of the village boys walked past carrying bags
full of golf clubs. "Are you the new boy?
Would you like to come and see how to play?"
By the end of the round all their little dreams
were over. And my legend had begun. "He beat
us easily. Played every single shot with an old
hickory stick. Even bunkers and putting. He can
hit the ball for miles." What did I think?
I didn't. Not then. There was nothing so obvious
lying in my path.
had been pointed out to me before you came knocking
on our door: "That's Sam, he's the best player
in the county. They say that if it hadn't been
for the war he would have been a great professional."
I saw that for myself after the first shot. By
the end of that round, after you had thrashed
the powerful, young assistant professional, and
I had seen the wad of money pass hands, I knew
something else: You were interested in me for
more than the caddying job I was fulfilling. "Try
and hit this to the pin," you said, throwing
a ball down and handing me one of the clubs. I
can still hear your silence as that ball landed
on the green, followed by two more within feet
of each other. "You have dancing feet and
your forearms need building up--can't you get
father to buy you some spikes?" And my look
told you too much about too many other things
in my life. We reached the last green near our
exit, the strap from your bag burning into my
shoulder with a colder flame than the one raging
against my face. "Put the bag down,"
you told me. "I have some spare clubs at
home that I'll drop round tomorrow, and I might
even be able to sort out some shoes. But first
things first: a chip and putt for your caddy's
home that night with my pockets empty, as they
would be every time I tried your skill around
those greens. I took many other things home though,
including your secret exercise to tighten my grip
and forearms and one small shadow that crossed
your face and meant nothing then, but actually
joined us in more ways than any talent or love
of sport. "Off to the nineteenth hole now,"
I had said, using the only golfing term my father
knew and would ever know, "for a quick one,
was I supposed to know that the clubhouse was
out-of-bounds to members of the Artisans, or that
we were not allowed to tee off from the first
except in competitions as we would be visible
from its windows, or that we had to give way to
any member coming up from behind and wait for
any in front, crawling their way along? All I
knew then was that hitting a golf ball was the
escape, and following its flight was to leave
behind and avoid everything below and blocking
have forearms like Popeye now, each turn of that
broomstick with its rusty weight dangling from
a cord implanted in my muscles as another memory.
Useful though, considering the nature of the work
I had ended up trying to do, and how tiring and
hard it was made out to be. But there are other
types of tiredness that no amount of weight lifting
can strengthen you against. Like one humid night-shift
I can remember when sleep seemed the only escape
from the stream of flaked TNT flowing from the
nitration house--and from the lives of the other
process workers: that seemed already to me, the
real inert elements behind its birth. You were
making your rounds as foreman of fitters--and
counting them off until your retirement by now.
time," you told me and the rest of the young
crew I was working with--"and I would have
been about your ages--I was on night-duty, guarding
a cemetery that the Pathans had started desecrating.
I was starting to nod off when the sergeant came
sneaking round: 'Have a nice nap laddie,' he said.
'The last one that did got surprised by some of
the tribe and spirited away. They wrapped him
from head to foot in some of the wire they'd pinched
from one of our fences. Then the next day, with
one of those beautiful, curved Damascus blade
knives, they began to carve off all the layers
of protruding flab. We had to sit and listen all
day to his piggy squealing, knowing that they
were out there waiting in ambush for us to go
out and rescue him. And they could soot the eye
out of an eagle in a sand storm with one of those
long-barreled rifles. We found him in the early
hours of the next morning, lying on top of one
of the graves. They'd cut off his balls and sown
them up in his mouth. Grinning like a guinea pig,
he was. So, sweet dreams, lads.'"
never told you what happened when I won my first
championship. How I had arrived at the clubhouse
early and stood outside watching the rest of the
under-eighteens arrive from their public schools
or other golf clubs. I was thirteen years old
and grinning at the way they joked with their
caddies and, was enjoying the arrogance and confidence
of the favourites for the title. I was too impressed
by the bags of clubs, all matching and new, and
the immaculate outfits to notice that I looked
like some urchin carrying a pensioner's bag of
sticks for sweet money. Just to be part of it
was enough and to think that it was not out of
father had explained to me what he didn't like
about the game of golf. You can play, he had said,
and never get close to the real competition. It
is possible that the group you go out with has
no one that is in real contention. You can beat
them easily, while the person you are really struggling
against is three miles away playing against another
group of also-rans. There is no way that you can
put any psychological pressure on your real opponent.
I cannot see there is any sport in it--you are
just playing against your own imagination. He
backed up his imagination by never watching me
hit a golf ball in his lifetime.
group for this competition--the three or four
players with their official --had supposedly been
drawn at random. Somehow, I got stuck with a green-keeper's
son that looked poorer than me, and a stunted
guy with a stutter and a patch over one eye. For
our official, however, we drew the captain of
the golf club.
know the next part. That I won by so many shots
they nearly had the captain's sight checked and
the Millfield boys demanded a new coach. But you
didn't know that when it came to the presentation
they tried to get my headmaster (a member, naturally)
to do the honours the next day at my school assembly
and well away from the club, but he declined,
mentioning that golf was not part of the school's
training programme and it might encourage the
wrong sort of interest. And that I ended up getting
the cups handed to me in a corridor by some lady
member, smelling of gin and honeysuckle, and carrying
them off stuffed in my bag, feeling like a thief.
every competition I entered. I never lost a single
junior game. Yet someone whispered into the reeds
that I was a cheat. Another story told of money
missing from jackets left hanging in the changing
room, and me seen loitering near the entrance,
golf balls unzipped from bags or stolen as they
rolled too near certain blind spots. Who could
believe such stories and why?
to see you out searching for lost golf-balls when
you weren't playing. Head down and buttoned up
to the neck in some old army greatcoat tapping
away and shuffling like a heron for your prey.
I never called and you never noticed me. I thought
maybe that you sold the balls to help pay for
your sport, and how you always liked to unwrap
a new one before the start of each game and that
it might be embarrassing. Then one day I saw the
sacks of them in your garden shed, thousands and
thousands of them. A history spanning half a century
of their weakness and failure discovered and recorded
by you. Each timid or over-ambitious hook or slice
yours to claim and enjoy as the next players moved
by without giving you a second look or knowing
anything about it.
you once more--after you had retired from the
high explosives factory and I had made my own
escape--walking against a skyline heavy with an
approaching storm, an old man out killing time
with a sly glance at the passing golfers and your
trying to uncover something. To come back after
losing so many things and play the game over again.
I carried the best bag of clubs that money could
buy, stood on the fourth tee--even though I had
joined as a full member and could do as I pleased.
I got everything in to line, blocked out everything.
And then pressed that magic trigger. It was the
perfect drive. Straight out toward our mark for
position on this hole: an island in the gray sea
where once there had been a fever hospital. I
watched the ball climb and climb again and then
hit the middle of the fairway before kicking its
way at the flag. And a disease that no isolation
ward could contain stayed with me, so I walked
off and left that ball where it was. I hoped you
would find it and understand.
was away with another girl when you died. On a
honeymoon this time, with the sun beating down
on a dry and war-scarred island. The most green
and English part was the golf course. Completely
out of reach of the locals and with definitely
no concessions made. I didn't even think about
like to have been able to say something about
why I didn't become a famous and rich player.
Perhaps even, as you believed, the greatest this
country ever produced. It would have been nice
to have told it on one of those story-telling
nights when you were filling the hours with duty,
war, and empire: those great monuments that had
stood between you and your chance. I could probably
have made mine sound as genuine and likely. But
we would both have still known another truth.
That some shots will always be unplayable and
are best left where they lie for someone else
to pick up and use.