1: The Secret Club
I remember watching my first Wimbledon grand slam with my mum. I could only have been around four or five, but I knew it was something really special. The look on her face was one of pure joy as she sat forward on the edge of her chair, completely engrossed. Of course, I didn’t understand any of the rules or the weird scoring system, thirty- love and what on earth was a deuce? But as I watched my gentle mother becoming bright red in the face, yelling at the TV and jumping up and down, I knew I wanted to join in with her happiness. I understood that this game was something that she loved. I knew she loved us more than anything, but this lit up her whole face. I remember it like it was just yesterday. The way she turned from the screen and smiled at me so widely, that I knew right then, that I too wanted a piece of this special thing called ‘tennis’.
For the next few years we’d sit together and watch the magic of Wimbledon. I waited for it, like I waited for Christmas. Two weeks in a year when my mum became almost giddy and more importantly for me, it was ‘our’ time, our silent unbreakable thing that no one could ever intrude upon or be invited into our little club for two.
Each year, she’d try to explain the rules and stuff to me and as I got a few tournaments under my belt, I finally started to get it. The game took on a whole new meaning when I knew that ‘love’ equalled zero and ‘deuce’ meant forty - all. It was like I’d cracked long division; I’d finally got the tennis code. I became a member of a very elite club and in my head, I was as clever as my mum, definitely cleverer than my perfect sister.
I asked if I could join a tennis club, which seemed to please my mum no end. After some ringing around, she found a suitable one just twenty minutes away by car. She asked my perfect sister Claire if she’d also like to come along. I recall holding my breath for the entire thirty seconds that it took for her to decide. She, to my utter delight, decided she’d rather hang out at the shops with her friends, which was what she did whenever she wasn’t in school or in bed. Mum had told me that teens needed a lot of sleep, but to me, she was just a lazy cow. This meant I got to keep Mum all to myself, at least on a Saturday morning anyway. After every visit, we’d stop at Maccies and have a sneaky cheeseburger — another secret for just us.
I was really nervous at first. I was nearly eight years old and all the kids there seemed to already know each other and play really well. I never thought I’d match up to any of them.
After my first session, I ran off the court in floods of tears. In my head, I had believed myself to be the best player ever, because I’d played a few games in the garden already with my best friend, Molly, so, surely I’d be winning trophies straight away. I was worried mostly that I’d disappoint Mum. I wanted to see her light up, the way she did when she watched her favourite players on TV. She held out her arms, I ran into them. Stroking my hair, she told me that I’d soon get better with practice. She was right. I did get better, a lot in fact. At the age of ten I was one of the top players in the junior division. I was never happier than on a court, hitting the ball as hard as I could. The racket became a mere extension of my arm. I was good, really, really outstandingly good! Without sounding like a bigheaded jerk, I was meant for it. I’d look across to my mum who’d watch every point from the sidelines; she had the biggest grin on her face. That smile told me that she was proud of me, and that meant more than I realised at the time. My dreams of getting to play Wimbledon were not so far away. Of course being ten, I really thought I’d just rock up to the most famous court in the world and say that I wanted a go. Hmmm, to be ten again.
Tears shed – a few along the way.
Points to Life: Three Games. 0 sets.
Points to me: Six games. Two sets. I’m winning!
2: Goodbye to Childhood
The call came late one evening, not long after my fourteenth birthday. I looked to my sister, both of us wide-eyed, feeling the other’s pure terror. I held my breath. This wasn’t real was it? The phone kept ringing: a shrill horrid alarm that the three of us would rather stare at than answer.
This couldn’t be happening, not to us, not to me, not to her. My dad shot up, snatched the phone and stormed out of the room. We waited. Listening to the muffled conversation from the kitchen. Then there was silence. Dad didn’t come back in for what seemed like a very long time. When he did, he’d been crying. He tried to hide it of course, but it was obvious. His sparkly green eyes, like mine, were dull, pink and swollen. I still play that conversation over in my head daily, it’s a reminder that it happened and I’m not about to wake up and be whole again any time soon.
“Girls.” His voice cracked.
“No! No! It’s not time!” Claire squealed, and ran upstairs.
“Sammy,” he whispered, kneeling at my feet. “Sammy Cakes…” I gulped. ‘Sammy cakes’ had been my mum’s special name for me, we’d bake fairy cakes and I’d never wait for the cakes to cool down before I’d steal one. I didn’t want to hear that name now...not ever. “Sammy, Samantha…” he continued.
“No! Don’t say it!” I burst into tears. “If you say it, it makes it true.” I sobbed into his shoulder for hours, until his entire shirt collar and sleeve were completely soaked.
How could I lose her? Surely I was too young? Did I not deserve her? Was that it? Did I not love her enough? Did I do something wrong? Maybe if I’d spotted her illness earlier…maybe she wouldn’t have died. Didn’t she deserve to see her girls grow up? Watch me become a top tennis player? That had been my dream: that one day I’d be in the final of Wimbledon, and she and everyone I knew would be in the Royal Box, cheering me on. And when I held that trophy aloft, I’d turn to her first and mouth the words, ‘thank you’. But that dream can never happen, no matter how much I replay it in my mind.
“It’s not fair.” I cried pulling away from Dad’s shoulder.
I’d known something wasn’t right for a while, a year or so I guess. But I’d been selfish, ignoring that little voice in my head that was threatening to ruin my tidy, happy, perfect life.
Mum would often complain about having ‘one of her heads’, or go lie down in the middle of the afternoon. A couple of times, nearer the end, we’d been packed off to my Gran’s in the country. I loved ‘quality time’ with Gran but deep down, I knew there was much more to it. Neither Claire nor myself spoke about it. Looking back, I guess it’s because we didn’t want to know. As long as we knew nothing, then nothing was happening.
Bless Dad, he tried his best to shield us, but when mum collapsed on the kitchen floor whilst pouring my cereal, there was no doubt she was poorly. Just how poorly was the real shock.
Turns out she’d had breast cancer a few years before and had surgery without our knowledge. She was cleared after a year or so but then it came back with a vengeance, spreading rapidly to other parts of her body. She’d hide herself after chemo; Dad or my Auntie Sue would tend to her. We could hear her retching from every room in the house, but we knew little of cancer, little of our own mortality. No one we’d been close to have ever died before, apart from our cat Nigel and I was tiny back then.
Dad told us everything as we sat around her unmoving body on the cold kitchen tiles, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. I felt numb, more than anything else, numb and cheated by life. I pinched hard into my arm, so hard that I drew blood. I knew this wasn’t a dream. I was very much awake and silently praying for her to open her eyes and pour the milk on my Shreddies. I can still hear the high-pitched screams of Claire. I can still taste the tears in my throat. We visited Mum in hospital for about six weeks after that.
One Monday morning, dad came home and without a glance our way, threw his keys in the fruit bowl and headed upstairs. His bedroom door slammed, and then nothing but silence for a good hour.
“I’m off up there,” I told Claire, as I stood on shaking legs.
“Well I am. You can sit here, not knowing, all you like. I’m going.” I took a deep breath and headed out before she could object again. I marched up and pushed his door open ready to burst in if he refused to speak to me. I couldn’t handle any more doors between us. He sat on the bed, head in his hands, quietly sobbing and I crumpled on the spot. I just wanted to make him happy again, make him my happy-go-lucky dad who was always whistling or singing some random tune that he didn’t quite know the words to. My dad, with his crazy red hair and overdose of freckles, my dad who was my mum’s strength, now wasn’t my dad at all. I wanted to make him that guy again, but I knew it was beyond words, beyond gestures…even so, I had to try. Life certainly was laughing right in our faces and I couldn’t let it win. “What is it?” I asked sitting next to him on the bed. The bed he shared with mum. The room smelt like her, she always smelt like baby talcum powder.
“She’s got worse Sammy.” He sniffled, looking up from his palms. God, he looked old.
“And?” I gasped.
“And?” Claire demanded, standing in the doorway.
“She asked that you girls don’t visit anymore.”
“What?” I jumped up from the bed.
“Calm down, Sammy,” Claire ordered me, which I really didn’t need right then. She wasn’t my mum; she wasn’t even a decent sister most of the time. Then I had an awful thought, I still cringe when I think about it…I wished it could have been Claire instead of mum. What a terrible, horrid person I was. I still feel guilty. I still feel like a monster.
“She doesn’t want you girls to see her, she wants you both to remember her how she was.” Dad tried to smile, but gave up halfway.
“You’re talking like she’s already dead!” Claire shouted. “This is bullshit!”
“Claire!” Dad shouted after her, but in the light of what was really going on, he didn’t get up or really even get mad. He was broken. Unfixable.
“It’s not fair.” I cried, and plonked myself back down.
“It’s really not, Sammy cakes.” He hugged me and we stayed like that for a while.
It was a small, intimate funeral. People, family, even neighbours hugged us, told us how sorry they were and what a lovely woman she was. I know they were trying, but none of it helped. I was uncomfortable the whole time, made to wear one of Claire’s old dresses because I only had dungarees, jeans and tee shirts. Claire —being a size that some magazine article told her she should be — made the dress a little restricting. I wasn’t overweight, in fact I was developing quite an athletically toned frame, Claire just needed to eat a few more pies in my opinion.
I went looking for my dad, Claire was playing at being host, I guessed it was her way of coping. I hadn’t seen her cry, not once, which was weird. It made me resent her. Didn’t she care at all? Was shopping, going out a lot and playing stupidly loud music her way of not dealing? It was as if Mum never existed to her. I got angry just looking at her face, a face that was the image of a woman she was too easily forgetting about.
I found Dad hiding in the study upstairs. It was Mum’s workspace really; she was an accountant but worked mostly from home. Her walls were covered in photos of us. Dad had taken one off her desk and was cradling it.
“Hey, “I said “People are missing you down there.”
“Do you remember this Sammy?” He nodded at the frame. I walked over and stared at it. It was Mum’s favourite, the four of us on holiday at the seaside. I was small and Claire was about six. We were laughing at something when my Auntie Sue took the picture.
“Not really, but Mum loved it.”
“God, I miss her.” He looked at me His eyes were watering.
“I miss her so much it hurts. There’s this emptiness in my chest…it’s not fair.” I cried, I couldn’t bear to see him so sad.
“It’s not Sammy Cakes. But she’s in a better place…and she’s not in any pain now.” He tried really hard to be strong that day and I loved him even more for it.
“I want her back!” I sobbed.
“I know. We’ll get through this together, I promise. Okay Sammy?” He lifted his eyebrows. I should have realised at the time that he needed me as much as I needed him.
“It’s just Sam now.”
“What?” he asked, wiping a tear from my cheek.
“No more Sammy Cakes or Sammy…I’m too old for all that now. It’s just Sam now, okay?”
“Okay,” Dad nodded. “I love you…Just Sam.”
Tears shed – a planet’s worth, possibly a universe.
Points to me: 0 = Love
Points to Life: Game, set and almost match…
3: A New Arrival
Nearly a year after Mum’s death, Dad told us the very tragic news that we had to move to a house across town. Something to do with having only one income now, and Mum’s sickness cover running out. I had a feeling that a large part of moving was Dad’s way of trying to move on, because really he hadn’t, like not at all. Not that I had either, but it was as if he’d been frozen in time. Every room reminded me of her. He had refused to sort through her stuff for charity, until Claire cracked one day and did it all herself. Even her old sandals were still on the shoe rack by the door, I was mad with Claire for removing it all and thankful for her that she did what we couldn’t. Until the day we moved out, I still smelt the faint hint of talcum powder, especially when passing by her bedroom. We all needed a fresh start I guess, but I was sad that I couldn’t bottle up that smell and take it with me.
A year had gone by and yet I’d still come home after school expecting her to be waiting to tell me off about how dirty I’d let myself get or to be angry at a hole in my tights I’d made by climbing yet another tree. I wanted to tell her news of my day, who I’d talked with at break, who I’d fallen out with or what masterpiece I’d made in art class. Life sucked. Everything sucked. To top it all, Claire, perfect Claire, didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Being five years older than me, she’d come and go as she pleased, usually with her ‘squad’ or a new boyfriend in toe. She got herself a job at a clothes shop in town after leaving school with fairly low grades. This made life feel more balanced, her not being perfect at everything. She loved her job, so I was happy that she was happy. I often wondered if she was adopted as we were total opposites, but I knew it was just a silly dream as she looked just like my beautiful mother whereas I got Dad’s crazy red hair and ‘character-defining’ freckles. Dad told me once that that’s why mum fell for him, all those years ago, because he looked like the tennis player Boris Becker, famous for his game and his ginger hair.
I wasn’t pleased to be moving house or school, moving was pretty crappy. I had to leave a handful of good friends, friends that I’d had since forever. Friends that had built dens with me and got into a muddy mess with me. Friends that ‘got’ me. Molly was the hardest to leave. She lived next door and our back gardens joined, there was only a low wall keeping it from being one huge garden. She was there for me through it all. We promised to meet up whenever we could and to text every day, which we still try to do.
Our new house was a lot smaller, just two bedrooms and one bathroom. So I had to share my room with my turd-brain sister. She’d spend hours doing her hair and make-up and often kick me out when her mates came round.
The good thing though, was that we were a lot closer to the tennis club, just a ten-minute walk in fact. When everything else in my life turned to crap, I never stopped going. Secretly though, I was beginning to lose my love for it. It was becoming more of a thing that I should do, rather than a thing I wanted to do. I needed to keep Mum’s memory alive, but I was becoming like a robot on court. My moves were automatic, no real thought or skill. The passion, the drive I had was dwindling, I tried so hard to keep it. I knew it would have broken her heart if she’d known. I sort of believed she was still watching me. Sometimes, I’d pretend that she was sat on the sidelines, tutting if I missed an easy ball, clapping when I played an ace. I had to believe that she was still routing for me when no one else was. I mean, Dad did, of course, but he’d become like a ghost of his former self. His business was all we had to live on, apart from Claire’s tiny bit of rent, so most days he left really early and came home late, covered in paint and too tired to talk.
We moved at the beginning of summer, six weeks before I was due to start my new secondary school. I was fifteen and lonely, fending for myself, doing my best. It was hard not to play the victim card and wallow in my self-pity.
Dad came home mid-afternoon one Sunday. I was engrossed in a book, he made me jump.
“What are you doing home?” I asked, my heart beating wildly.
“I have a surprise for you. Is Claire home?”
“She’s upstairs, probably still in bed.”
“Claire!” He yelled up the stairs. “Get down here lazy pants!”
Dad came back in the room holding a large cardboard box.
“What is it?” I chucked my book on the sofa and joined him at the table.
“What?” Claire appeared in her PJ’s, yawning.
I had no idea what time she’d rolled in the night before after going out with her new boyfriend, Duke. Duke? Who named their kid after a dog?
“Thanks for joining us.” Dad began unfolding the box flaps.
“Oh my God! You didn’t?” I squealed.
“Let me see.” Claire pushed me to the side and we all peered down at the little grey ball of fuzz.
“A cat? Really?” I asked, excitedly.
“Really. A lady across the road was giving them away, this little guy’s the last of the litter.”
“The runt you mean,” Claire whispered.
The cat looked up at me and I fell in love right there. He was longhaired, with big silver eyes and a down-turned mouth. He looked miserable; I found a weird comfort in that. Claire stuck her hand in the box, yelping, she quickly retracted it.
“It bloody clawed me!” she whined.
“He obviously has good taste.” I laughed and slowly lowered my hand to stroke him carefully behind the ears. To my utter delight, he purred contently. I pulled him up out of the box.
“Whatever. Grumpy, ugly thing anyway.” Claire stormed out.
“Claire!” Dad shouted after her.
“Oh leave her to sulk,” I told him, rubbing my cheek lightly along the top of my new friend’s head. “I guess she’s not popular with everyone huh?” I smiled to myself.
“The lady said he’s about twelve weeks old and he’s had most of his jabs and that we should keep him inside for a few weeks. He’s yours if you want him? Of course you’ll have to feed him and…”
“Of course I want him! Thanks Dad.” I kissed his cheek. Claire had been right; the cat did look exceptionally grumpy but he was beautiful with it. “I’ll call him Mr. Grumples.”
Dad winked and headed off back to work. Looking back, he must have felt guilty about how lonely I’d become. I sort of locked myself away the entire summer, refusing to go out in the local neighborhood and meet possible new friends. I barely saw Molly, but we did text, even when I didn’t have anything to say. The cat wasn’t a replacement for what I’d lost but Mr. Grumples and I spent bags of time together. I’d tell him everything, he probably knew me better than anyone back then.
It was Wimbledon season. I hadn’t watched it at all since Mum had passed away. But this time I was going to make myself watch it, no matter what. It was a way of being close to her, I guess. I hadn’t watched the other matches before, but wanted at least to watch the final. That music played, that theme tune that only happened once a year, giving me goosebumps. I imagined Mum sitting next to me, smiling as she hummed along.
“Isn’t it exciting, Sammy?” She’d always ask.
I couldn’t do it, not without her. What was the point? I ran upstairs in a sudden flood of tears, slamming my bedroom door behind me. I looked at all the tennis stars’ posters that covered my side of the room and screamed out all my rage. Without thinking, I tore every one of them down. Down came Federer my idol, my inspiration. Next Raffers…then Murray and Djokovic. Lastly, I stared hard at my poster of the Williams’ sisters who were smiling, arm in arm, proving that sisters, even when in competition with one another, can in fact get along. I ripped into that like I was a human paper shredder. Then I dropped on my bed exhausted from my anger, my sadness.
“Sammy? Sam?” I looked up from my pillow to see a blurry version of my dad leaning over me. “Oh, Sweetheart.” He sat on my bed with his arms stretched wide. I sat up and fell into them.
“I can’t do it Dad. I can’t even watch it.” I sniffled.
“It’s okay.” He stroked my hair.
“No, it’s not. I have to watch it…I just have to.”
“Not if it upsets you this much.” He looked down at all my ripped icons and sighed.
“I need to do this…for her…it’s important.”
“Then I’ll sit with you and we’ll watch it together.” He squeezed me closer.
“But you hate tennis?”
“Who told you that? I don’t, I just don’t understand it…never really sat down and tried. That’s all.”
“Yes. Just never had the time and it was your mum’s thing…”
“Okay if you sit with me I’ll talk you through it, deal?” I felt a little smug that I was teaching him for once and that I was allowing him into ‘the club.’
“Deal,” he laughed, “but bear with me, I’m getting old.”
We sat through all four and a half hours that it took Murray to beat Djokovic and at the end of it I saw Dad smile, a smile that told me that he too had broken the code and was now part of my world, ‘her’ world that he never saw before. That smile brought Wimbledon back to life for me again and with it the memory of my mum laughing, shouting at the umpire and loving every minute.
Tears shed: Many days with none, but equally as many with.
Points to life: thirty.
Points to me: forty… One more point for the game…
4: Just Breathe
I got what every new kid received on their first day at school, bags of unwanted attention. I guess I was shiny and interesting, for a while anyway.
“So, everyone,” Mrs. Jones, the rather meek teacher smiled, “this is our new student, Samantha Jenkins. I’d like you all to make her feel welcome. Stand up, Samantha. Come forward and tell us a bit about yourself.”
I wanted the ground to swallow me up. A pin could have dropped, but I wouldn’t have heard it over my thumping heartbeat and my squeaky new shoes.
“Hi.” I waved pathetically. All eyes were on me. I was used to people watching me. Sometimes I even had a small crowd spectating when I played a match. But this was different; this was just me, Sam, without my racket to hide behind.
“So, Samantha,” Mrs. Jones tried to help me out, “what are your interests? Have you got any hobbies…hidden talents perhaps?”
“Err…well…” I cleared my throat and began to twist my curls around my finger. A few girls chuckled from the back of the classroom. “Well…I guess I like English and art…and I love reading.”
“What books do you read?” A raven-haired, pretty girl asked from the front row.
“I like young adult stuff mainly, contemporary, paranormal and a bit of fantasy. Anything with a hot guy in it I guess.” That earned me a laugh. I noticed the pretty girl smiling widely at me and I felt myself relax slightly.
“What else do you like to do, Samantha?” Mrs. Jones asked, shushing everyone.
“It’s just Sam.”
“Okay, Sam.” She nodded like I was allowed to have my own name.
“Well, I like to paint, although I’m not very good at it. I’m quite good with numbers I suppose, like my mum…” I felt tears instantly bubbling behind my eyes, but I took a deep breath and held them back. I wasn’t going to be the girl that cried for the rest of my educational life. “I like movies too.”
“What movies?” The same girl asked.
“Mostly rom-coms or fantasy and stuff.” I wasn’t going to admit my secret love of Disney. I was fifteen, but still a little kid inside. I watched pretty much every Disney film ever made with Mum and Claire. I remember snuggling up together with Mum in the middle whilst we had movie night sweets on a Friday, ritually. When Bambi’s mum got shot I was completely beside myself, devastated, like the world, as I knew it had ended. I refused to watch it to the end. Mum said that if I did, I would see Bambi grow up into a happy deer. But I was too traumatized and couldn’t get past that huge loss. I guess I still can’t. Turns out, I have a lot in common with Disney.
I mean take Belle, (Beauty) for instance, she had no mother either. And look at Ariel (Mermaid variety) again, no mum. Then there’s poor old Cinderella, had a mum, loses mum at young age, gains evil stepmother. God, if my dad ever brought another woman home I don’t think I could deal with that. Claire said it could happen one day and that I’d just have to get over it, but no one could ever replace the real thing. Then there’s Snow White of course, same deal as Cinders. Sleeping Beauty had both parents but slept through most of her childhood. My sister would make a perfect Sleeping Beauty, very pretty, always asleep waiting for Mr. Perfect to wake her up with true love’s kiss…whatever. Oh, and then there’s Jasmine of Aladdin fame, yet again, absent mum! I could go on. I guess Disney gets me better than most people. When you really examine those films, they’re sort of depressing. But put some bright colours on it and a handful of cheerful songs and all is okay again in the land of make believe. I wished. “Err… what else? I like music, oh and I love tennis. My dream is to get to Wimbledon someday and watch all the greats in action.”
“Do you play?” A deep voice asked somewhere from the back. I found myself taking another deep breath when my eyes found his face. A blond guy, hot and cute, like the surfer guys in those Australian soaps that Claire was always watching. He had a slightly crooked nose; I bet he broke it in cool surfing accident. His ice-blue eyes seemed to be smirking at me.
“Yes, I play.” I felt my cheeks heat.
“Are you any good?” He asked pushing his wavy, jaw length hair behind his ear.
“What?” I was totally distracted by him. “I guess you’d have to see me to judge. I guess I’m…”
“Is that an invite?” The guy leaned forward across his desk.
“So,” a white-blonde Cinderella type of girl with a little pointy nose jumped in on my moment with hot blond guy, “so, what would you call that hair colour?”
“Now, now Stacey.” Mrs. Jones frowned.
“No, I mean I like it Miss. Is it a dye? I might get it. What’s it called, Carrot Top? Spicy Ginger?” People laughed and I suddenly felt very small. I was mad at my hair, ashamed of it, which I hadn’t been since I was six and the Fray twins had made me hate it. They had poked fun at my hair all through infant school.
One day I just couldn’t take it anymore. I got home, found the kitchen scissors and hacked off all my curls in the bathroom, leaving a cropped tuft of ginger where my beautiful mane once was. My parents were really upset; I could see it in their expressions. Mum did her best to trim it into something less ridiculous, but even she was no miracle worker. Afterwards we all sat in the kitchen as they tried to get the horrid truth from me.
“Those twins at school.” I muttered.
“The Fray girls?” Mum asked.
“They’ve bullied me forever about my hair…maybe now they won’t.”
“What do they say?” Dad asked.
“Ginger nut, carrot head…stuff like that.” I let the tears fall over my cheeks for the loss of my hair and the hate those girls had shown me, that I’d bottled up for so long.
“I’m off into that school.” Dad said.
“No, please don’t,” I begged, “It’ll just make it worse.”
“They so much as look at you the wrong way and I’ll be seeing your head teacher about it.” Dad looked really angry and stomped out.
Mum stroked my newly hacked hair, “Your beautiful curls, Sammy.” She sighed. I felt guilty for making her feel so sad that day. “You listen to me,” she whispered and I wondered why. “If those girls hurt you in any way you give them a good whack and run for it, okay?”
“But Mum,” I gasped, “I’m not allowed to hit people.”
“That’s why you do it quickly and run.” She winked.
“What if I get told off?”
“If you make sure no one’s looking, you won’t. Those twins are just jealous of you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I know so. They’re mean, nasty little girls. Don’t you let them ever make you feel that you need to change? Don’t ever change okay? Promise you’ll always be my Sammy.”
“Okay. I’ll try.” I sniffled.
“Remember, whack and run.”
“I will.” I attempted to smile for her because I knew that I’d made her hurt inside.