Nine Feet Apart (for Father’s Day)

It was a solid, chunky piece of wooden furniture that had given many years of loyal service to the table tennis community of our town, but the time had come for it to retire and my father picked it up for a song. We just needed a net and a couple of bats and we were ready to go.

So every evening in my early teens, my father and I left my mother in the house and snuck off to the garage to practise. She probably thought there was some kind of male bonding thing going on. Perhaps it was; God knows, we needed it.

My father taught me how to watch the opponent’s bat to read the spin and then how to neutralise it and counter-attack. Sometimes he gave me a few points start and sometimes he switched to playing left-handed to give me a chance until I became good enough to take him on without a handicap.

But a few years later my mother became ill and then not long after that it was just the two of us, still batting the ball backwards and forwards across the net whenever the silence in the house got too much to bear. Then my father remarried – too soon, like men often do – and we stopped playing table tennis altogether. But the net remained firmly in place between us for the rest of his life.

And it’s only now, decades since we stopped playing, that I’ve begun to realise that those long wordless rallies where we scrutinised each other’s tiniest movement, catching the spin and sending the ball back, were the closest thing to a conversation the two of us ever had.

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