First published in The Big Issue, edition 594 (23 August to 5 September 2019).
I am laying face-down on the physio bench talking table-tennis with the intern, Dan. (Or is it Dane, or Dean or Dave? It’s hard to put a face to a name when you’re looking at the floor.)
I’m telling Dan that my left hip is hurting again after I stretched too quickly during a rather competitive game of table-tennis in the garage against my arch-rival Walter.
I’m expecting Dane, as he’s pushing and prodding my body parts back into their rightful places, to ask me about my hip history, and my back, and referred pain.
Instead he says, “I love table-tennis. Great sport. My older brother and I used to play all the time. Writing scores in books, keeping track of wins and losses. It’s a very under-rated game. I still play when I can.”
Table-tennis is not a topic that often comes up in conversation. Not at dinner tables or water coolers or in cafes. Or in the sports pages.
Walter and I are flat-out playing it, so no time to talk about it. And when I play with my cousin John we’re too busy yacking and laughing about family and footy and snorkelling and gardening, to discuss the finer points of the great game.
But Dean is up for it, as he works on my joints. “How do you play? Defence or attack?”
“I prefer to make the play, to attack,” I say to the grey carpet on the floor, “but if I drop a few points behind I’ll go back to what my coach said when I was a teenager – Just hit the ball back and let the other player make the mistake.”
“Yes, I’d rather be the aggressor,” says Dean, pushing and prodding rather forcefully as referred pain shoots through my buttocks down to my hamstrings. “But sometimes, you know, you gotta ease off.”
While Walter is up for the intensity of competition, John prefers just to get some rallies going, to get in the groove. We start slowly, the ball going back and forth, back and forth, like a good conversation. Keeping the ball in play. Once we find our rhythm we start to take our chances. We never play a game, John and I, but we try to outdo each other from time to time. John’s half-volley rocket serve sometimes flies straight past me, such is its speed.
I tell Dave that John’s low-roofed garage is not much bigger than a table-tennis table (2.7 metres long and 1.5 metres across). The cramped confines dictate the style of play. Short, quick, strokes. Nothing extravagant like a big top-spin loop or you might hit the ceiling or trip over gardening equipment. Not much room for footwork. And balls regularly disappear into the nooks and crannies of shelves and corners, only to be found months later.
My tin garage is more spacious but like a sauna if it’s a 25 degree day. The table’s surface isn’t that flash but the table has a lovely brand name: Pro Master AAA Double Happiness.
Walter and I used to play barefoot, outdoors on his backyard lawn. The ball often flew into the thick tomato bushes. Sometimes we would play at Walter’s fishing club. I have no interest in fishing at all – none whatsoever – but was very happy to play on a large, wooden court surrounded by fishing trophies, fishing photos, fishing magazines, fishing rods and fishing club notice-boards. After seven or so hard, fast games we would then go for a dip, cooling off in the waters of the bay.
Dan asks what sort of bat I use. “Smooth, pimpled, light, heavy?”
I’m about to answer but Dan is really working the muscles and the joints up and down my back now and it feels like he’s squeezing all the air out of me. And is that his thumb or his elbow that’s digging deeper and deeper into my skin?
I want to tell Dane about playing in Geelong when I was a teenager, where the table-tennis centre was an old picture theatre. The showcase court was up on the stage, while the projection rooms were courts 11 and 12. There was a teenage girl who always played on Court 10. I was too shy to ask her out but we played doubles once.
I want to tell him about my boyhood neighbour. We both had tables but his garage was much neater, so always played there. No lost balls. Like my cousin John, we never played games. Too busy laughing.
I want to tell him about my dad, whose serve was almost as quick as my John’s.
I want to tell him about my imaginary interweb friend from Western Australia, whom I discovered was real, was flesh and bone, when he came over to Melbourne with his table-tennis bats and we had some games at the fishing club with Walter.
I want to tell the physio intern lots of little things because it’s not often you get to talk table-tennis, but he has other clients, other hips and backs and heads and shoulders, knees and toes.
I lift my face from the physio table, sit up, and shake hands with Dan. It’s the last week of his internship. We may never meet again but we’ll always have the memory of talking table-tennis.