Story in 3 parts
Part 1 - Teeing off
“Fantastic morning,” said Dan pulling his golf clubs out from the boot of the taxi.
It was a beautiful morning, not a hint of the usual haze obscuring the cloudless sky. Not a breath of wind either. The air is warm and out of the shade of the tall buildings that flank the golf course entrance and standing in the low sun, you could already feel the threat of later heat.
Leo walks over and shakes his hand warmly “Great to see you again Dan. Sorry about the early start, I tried to get a later time, but early bird was all they had”
“Early bird is perfect,” says Dan smiling and heaving his bag onto his shoulder. “We’ll be finished by opening time and can enjoy some cold beers instead of being burnt alive by the sun.”
They sign in at the club house, collecting their score cards and putting on their shoes before heading off to the first tee. As they walk, they catch up on news about their families back home, about work and the last time they’d played. The spikes of their golf shoes crunch on the gravel path, a few sparrows twitter, the clubs rattle in their bags and the traffic rumbles in the distance; the only sounds of the early day.
They arrive at the first tee, just as two young Chinese players in front of them are walking off down the fairway. Their footsteps make silver prints in the grass as the sun glistens on the bent blades, wet from the overnight dowsing of the sprinklers. To the right, a lake sits shrunken from its hardened mud slopes, the water is pale, grey and flat like polished steel. Left is the pale yellow of the parched grasses that line the narrow fairway and lead towards the distant green, bright and lush before the dark clump of dusty pines beyond.
Dan wins the toss to tee off. “The start of a winning streak,” he jokes.
They lean their bags up against a bench at the side of the Tee. The bare sand around its legs are strewn with cigarette ends. They select their clubs from the shining set of heads poking out from the top of their bags and take some practice swings. Leo hasn’t played for a while and his movements feel wooden and robotic.
Dan whacks a pine cone away to the side. “Are you still doing that internet dating?” He asks,
Leo tees up against a discarded fag packet and swings at it with his wood, more power than he’d dare if trying to strike a ball. The box spins away in a cloud of dust leaving a scut in the dry soil behind. “Yeah, it’s going pretty well. I’ve been chatting with a few women and I’ve been seeing a girl in Wuqing.”
“That’s quite a journey, says Dan.”
“About 2 hours, but that’s ok. Getting away early from work Friday afternoon, riding the high-speed train, checking into a nice hotel, it’s a little exciting, a bit different, a break from getting wasted in Sanlitun.”
“You don’t stay at her place then?” Asks Dan curiously. “How old is she?”
Leo laughs realising Dan must think she’s living with her parents. “It’s not like that” he explains, “She’s nearly 40. Funny story though.”
They check the progress of the lads ahead. They’ve left their trolleys in the centre of the fairway and are at the edge on the left, searching for one of their balls in the short, dry, straw-like grass of the rough.
“It was about a month back” Leo continues. “We went for a meal in a small Hot Pot restaurant. We weren’t sitting there long when she suddenly asks me. ‘Did I tell you that I’m married?’
“You mean, she forgot to mention it” Dan scoffs.
“Maybe. We’d spent a few days emailing then messaging, I would have expected her to have mentioned him several times, but I had no recollection of it. Looking at her across the table she didn’t appear embarrassed, guilty or concerned about my reaction to this news. It seemed quite possible she might have mentioned it and I’d forgotten, or I’d just overlooked it.”
“It’s not something I’d overlook”, Dan replied confidently, “Especially if you’ve got to go all that way; the subway, train tickets, pay for a hotel, and I’m guessing you payed for dinner”.
“You wouldn’t imagine forgetting it, but when your chatting with several women on line it’s difficult to remember who’s got children, how old they are, what their jobs and hobbies are. You know how the Chinese are, outwardly they are all so alike. Anyway, I thought it’s not that important, maybe she just wanted a night of fun with a westerner, probably not that many foreigners in Wuqing. I could have acted angry, but she believed she’d told me before. And even if she hadn’t, well, we all lie on line, hide things, exaggerate things; it’s the beauty of internet dating – you can reinvent yourself. I had my secrets and lies too. I’d told her I was only 46!”
Dan laughed “Yeah, you have no idea who people are on-line. She could be a front to some elaborate scam. Even if she’s genuine, she could just be using you for proof of adultery to speed up the divorce. Her husband could be a local thug with connections with the police.
“I’m not sure China has the same divorce laws. She started telling me about him, how mean he is, how controlling, how he treats her like a servant, that they hadn’t slept together since her daughter was born 12 years ago, and how she puts up with it all for her children and to save face with her family. I didn’t get the impression that having sex that night was a high priority for her.”
He’d sat there not sure what reaction he should present while she had explained her circumstances. If she’d mentioned her husband before, she certainly hadn’t said why she was looking for a date, going for a romantic dinner and potentially cheating. But he also hadn’t asked; did he know she had children? It was too late to remember the past conversations, next time he’d bring briefing notes. She was explaining how she was looking for a lasting and loving relationship. Disappointingly, she just wanted a replacement for her loveless marriage not a bit of excitement on the side. But then they all say that. Walking hand and hand into the sunset, getting old and grey together etc. Stock phrases they’d learned somewhere. It’s largely all this age group wanted, love and security. They were desperate for husbands, terrified of being alone and old.
“She hadn’t had sex for 12 years?” Dan asked incredulously.
“That’s exactly what I said. She had spent a good 10 minutes telling me about her sad, unhappy life, her faithfulness, her devotion and that she hadn’t done anything like this before. And, like you, I picked up on her lack of sex. She might have noticed I was a bit absent of empathy, but she just said she’d not even had a kiss.”
The golfers ahead were still looking in the long dry grass, sweeping the scruffy edges with half-hearted swings of their clubs, they should give up soon or wave them through.
“I wouldn’t believe it anywhere else,” says Dan. “But Chinese relationships are odd. Of course, it could just be the usual pretence of being a traditional girl.”
“I didn’t think so, her behaviour and clothes were very sober, she didn’t drink wore pressed slacks and a smart high buttoned blouse that didn’t give a peep of cleavage. It was a loose fit too, no clues of what treasures might lie beneath.”
“She doesn’t sound much fun, not worth going all that way for. If it’s true and she’s maintained a faithful and chaste marriage it makes a passionate affair with you unlikely. She might even want to save herself until you’re married. What does she look like, do you have a photo?”
Leo gets his mobile out and opens the gallery of pictures. He scrolls down to a photo of a middle-aged Chinese woman with a wide round pale cream face. She has beautiful dark eyes, a cute nose and a wide smiling mouth made bright red from lipstick. Her hair is up showing some sparkling earrings and making her appear slightly glamorous.
“Did she actually look like that when you met her,” says Dan. Noticing the web site name across a corner of the picture. “What’s her name?
“Quite similar, perhaps even prettier in real life. Her name’s Jing”
Didn’t you date a Jing before? Dan looks at the photo thoughtfully as though wondering if it’s the same girl.
No that was “Ping”
The screen fades and Dan hands the phone back “I dated Ping” he says. “Remember? The one with the blind dog”
They both chuckle.
“Yeah, maybe. Anyway, this one is definitely Jing.”
“She’s pretty,” admitted Dan. He thinks for a moment than adds “Her husband must be getting it somewhere. Otherwise it’s not possible to live together and never do it. He’d see her emerging from the shower in a towel, or find her dirty underwear in the wash pile, he’d succumb after a drink too many.”
“I thought the same, it is an unimaginably long time.” There had been periods lately, where he had not had any body contact. A few weeks where no hand had been held, or arm placed around a woman’s waist, but the days had been filled with memories of past love, of hopeful flirting and of imagined moments – like this romantic weekend away and where it might lead. Twelve years of nothing would wear out old memories and starve the imagination of fresh ideas. The co-incidence of her last copulation and the conception of her daughter stripped away even the passion from her past relations by the function of breeding. “Yeah, he must be cheating on her, unless he’s really cold, or gay. Either way I think she has a right to look elsewhere.”
“That’s convenient for you. Have you thought that maybe she’s the one. Uninterested in the act except to reproduce, repeatedly spurning his advances, unresponsive to his exertions, turning him off with her constant displeasure. Maybe he got tired of the effort needed to get less pleasure from her, than what he can easily give himself.”
“I never thought of that, ” Leo replies. “But even if your right, she’s still looking for love, or a better life through me. Sex has to be part of the deal.”
“And a get out later, a reason to dump her. If any of its true. I still wouldn’t be surprised if you later say she needs to borrow some money for an aging relative that he’s too mean to pay for, or for a lawyer. But go on, what did you say?”
“I suggested she should get a divorce first, then look for someone on line after. I think I sounded slightly miffed, as if I cared. But she didn’t notice. She said it was complex. she hinted at domestic violence, her low salary, the opinion of her family in her hometown.”
Dan nods understanding the importance that family has to the Chinese. He looks down the fairway shielding his eyes with his hand from the sun that’s now shining like a mirror off the lake surface. One of the players was playing a drop ball, the first given up as lost or badly placed. The other walks off to his ball lying in the centre of the fairway. They should be out of range soon and safe for them to tee off.
“It’s actually good advice.” He says walking onto the tee. It’s a narrow strip of astro-turf slightly raised above the sand and gravel that surrounds it. He plants his tee in a flat part and balances a ball on the top. They watch the guys ahead take their second shots then walk off towards the green.
“That was a great recovery shot from the guy in the rough” says Dan, “I thought it was going in the hole.” He turns towards Leo suddenly serious. “I don’t know where this story is going” he says. “But If he finds out she is cheating, and he will eventually, it could turn nasty. Angry Chinese men rounding on the foreigner. You could be responsible for the breakup of the marriage and her loss of children and her home. You would feel morally obliged to support her financially and emotionally; you know how clingy and persistent Chinese women can be. It will be all tears and stories about what he said and what he did. Her family might pitch in too. Unless she turns out to be wild in bed, I’d get out quick. There’s plenty of desperate single women around”
He squares up to the ball, Leo keeps quiet while Dan takes a good swing at it. There’s a satisfying ting as the club connects with the ball and it sails away down the fairway. They watch it bounce on the grass then roll towards a pair of magpies who look up then hop a few feet away as it stops. A good first shot, a bit of pressure on Leo.
Leo walks onto the tee with his wood. The astro turf mat is worn and curled up at the edges. patched and torn between the markers and dotted with the stems of tees sheared off level with the surface. The edge slopes down and disappears into a strip of sand before the fairways starts in tufts of thin and too long grass, missed by the mower. The first stroke is always the hardest, the one most likely to go wrong. The whole game is dependent on the outcome of the first swing. The hope from a ball hit well, the feel and sound of the club as it strikes, and the energy passed into sending the ball on its way. If it goes well for them both its a great game, otherwise as the saying goes – it’s a long walk spoiled by a game of golf. And as the evidence of the ragged tee shows, it often doesn’t go as hoped. Then you’re forced to watch as it slowly arcs away, hooked into the rough, or sliced into the lake; suddenly lost.
Dan is right, however much fun it might be at first, it could quickly turn nasty and he’d be in the middle of a crazy Chinese family, dealing with domestic violence and threats, she could be moving in with him if thrown out, or if home life became intolerable. Suddenly dependent on him. “You’re right of course, he replies. “But I’d travelled all that way, already invested time and money on the night, I wasn’t going to give up so early. I wanted to enjoy the night. Whatever her motivation, she had hopes of something. Sure, it could be terrible later, but why not play along and both enjoy that one night and see where it might go.”
“I bet I know where it went,” says Dan. “And it wasn’t to your hotel room like you hoped.”
Leo grins but doesn’t reply. They had gone back to the hotel, but just for coffee in the lobby There had been no settee where he could sit close, lean in and talk in confidence, turn the conversation to more quiet confessions that would draw them closer. Just separate chairs, emphasising their separate spaces. Too distant to hold hands or even place his hand on her leg. It would have been an unnatural and forced intimacy. He had known there’d be no progression to his room that night.
She had asked him about his plans, and he’d painted a picture of something she could imagine being part of. A re-imagining, perhaps, of the young dreams she once had of love and a simple family life. He hadn’t needed to lie, his Chinese contract would end sometime, he didn’t want to return to his little UK flat, or live in the damp and darkness of English winters and he wanted love too. Not the endless type she sought that slowly fades into the dull dryness of age. He had come to China to start a new life and her vision of walking into the sunset hand in hand felt more like giving up on life. He’s not ready to surrender it to contentment yet, he wants more. He wants that feeling of excitement that comes with fresh new love and the yearning desire of lust. Those moments where the body wakens and youthful vigour returns to give a last-minute effort at passing on the genes. The sun is setting on his life, but for a while he wants to stay away from the light.
As he talked of the future and of his desire for love he felt her translating his vision into hers, imagining a world where they would live together, share holidays in her home country. Where she will seamlessly swap from her current husband to him, her family life continuing unchanged except for the romantic love she’d gain. In return she sold him her home town, her cooking and the exciting parts of China she’d introduce. He feigned interest, remembered to look into her eyes and at her mouth as she talked, but he was sitting too far away for her to notice his trick that hints he wanted to kiss her.
Later, when she stood and put on her coat to go. As she threaded her arms inside the sleeves and pulled her shoulder length hair over the collar, her blouse had stretched across her chest and he had got a first glimpse at the outline of her breasts. It was a vision that he would picture over the following week, motivating his eagerness for more. Her dreams were weeks and maybe months away but his were tantalisingly close, within arm’s reach. Not that night but soon. There would be another night.
“Your right, he says. but it was just the first night.”
He put a tee in a clean patch of matting, placed the ball on top, then adjusted his legs and angled his shoulders towards the hole. He swung at the ball and it flew away in a long straight arc, bouncing, rolling and stopping a few yards short of Dan’s. The distance between them isn’t significant, easily recoverable.
“I’m happy with that.” He says, collecting his tee. They return their clubs into their bags and follow their balls down the fairway.
Part 2 - The approach
The sun is already stronger than the early rays they appreciated on their arrival at the golf course. They can feel it on their shirt backs and the napes of their necks as they stride down the fairway. The early wetness has almost gone from the grass, and the sandy soil, visible where the blades grow thinly, have started to pale as they give up their moisture to the dry air. The temperature is rising quickly, the stillness that felt like peace just a short time ago now holds an edge of anxiousness. Leaves hang still, the air sits inert and the little hosts of busy sparrows gone or quiet, waiting out the coming mid-day heat.
“I went up again the weekend after” says Leo.
‘I thought you might have” replies Dan. ‘Another train and taxi fare, hotel, meal for two. I hope this time you got more than a kiss that you’d get from an aunt. I know how the chase is fun, how the period of courtship, with its tensions and uncertainties elevate the excitement, but she sounds like a long project and a lot of trouble and effort. You could get someone just as pretty, less risky, cheaper and more local – with faster results.
“Like a hooker in a bar you mean?” Leo pulls out his mobile and checks for notifications. “You’re forgetting that the relationship, so far, is mostly through messaging. It’s not like the old days with the long periods of getting to know each other, progressing in slow steps towards intimacy. Time is compressed by the use of the mobile. We might have parted with a peck on the cheek, but later we continued chatting in our respective beds. We were not physically together, but the conversation continued as though we were. And in the safety of her house and in the privacy of our beds it was a closer, more erotic, experience than any bar or restaurant encounter. I messaged her all week, gradually revealing my growing feelings. By the next weekend we had already discussed those intimacies that lovers take several dates to discover. We’d become familiar and comfortable, at least mentally, with making love. Our bodies had to catch up physically with what had already been performed in our minds – at least in my mind. So, when I travelled to Wuqing the next Friday it wasn’t like a second date.”
“I’ve done some sexting myself” admits Dan. “So, I know what you mean. It is surprising how open people are when there’s no physical presence and no one watching or judging. And how erotic it can be. I guess it’s more immersive and personal than TV or magazines but it’s still a fantasy, and you’re on your own. There’s a big difference between a few lines of text and being with someone.”
“I think the difference is not so large. When those fantasies are written it makes them almost real, like a false memory. The mind knows what was written or read is fantasy, but when something has already been imagined and shared its half done and if something’s been described and not objected to then it’s half agreed. It’s not real, but the authority of the written word is very convincing.”
They get to Leo’s ball and throw the golf bags onto the grass nearby. The club’s rattle loudly. The two guys ahead have already potted their balls, one is replacing the flag pole in the hole while the other marks the strokes on his score card.
“Described and not objected to makes it agreed” Dan quotes. “Would that stand up in a court of law? Not sure it’s the same as consent.”
“I didn’t mean it as consent. I just meant that the written word is more authoritative than what you both think was said after a few Mojitos. But if it came to it, I’m sure the evidence of phone records showing the lack of objection would carry more weight than your drunken word against hers.”
“I think your phone records would be viewed as grooming”
Leo looks at the distance to the green. It’s a nice distance not so far that he’d need to whack at the ball and loose accuracy, but not so near that he’s likely to badly overshoot. The green looks flat and the heavy watering will impede the ball rolling too far. He selects a six iron.
“So after a bit of bonking banter from you,” continues Dan. “The traditional Chinese woman, 12 years the faithful, dutiful wife suddenly jumps into the sack. I’m not criticising your skill, but it’s hard to believe your verbal foreplay can be that persuasive especially if, as she claims, she’s a traditional girl.
“No, but a week of messaging certainly moves things along. It’s probably not that many words if you counted them, less than you’d say in an evening in a bar but they’re better chosen. And the time between messages counts too. If she’s constantly checking the phone, hoping every vibration is another message from you she’s thinking of you. It’s like you’re always present; it’s addictive.”
I’ll stick to traditional methods, a few drinks and I’m as funny, as clever and romantic as anyone. Plus, I’m actually there. She can see how tall, or fat, or old I am. Writing has its place but the spontaneity and physical presence of reality has to be better not to mention more honest. The emoji can’t compete with actual body language. The reason on line dating works is because they’re easier. Girls that go to bars tend to be more confident of their English, they are accompanied by supportive friends and are a bit more knowledgeable about what’s happening. Often, they have some experience of foreigners. Women on line are a more naïve bunch, they’re knowledge of the west is drawn from Hollywood movies, they believe the sites romantic hype and trust in the authenticity of those they meet, even though their own profiles are largely fake. Have you noticed there isn’t a woman on that website that’s over weight or wears glasses? It’s all as much a fiction as your sexting.
Leo addresses the ball, looking to where he wants to place it on the green. He takes a couple of practice swings, whipping the grass blades in front of his ball. The approach shot is his favourite part of the game, it can still go wrong sliced to the side, over or under hit, but when it goes right and you loft the ball into a high arc and it lands on the green it feels great, like a professional.
Dan has a point, many of the women he’s chatted with have never met a foreigner. Their profiles have lists of hobbies that they’ve never tried and favourite foods they’ve never tasted. He had thought they were trying to sound appealing, showing they have things in common with their idea of a westerner. You can’t blame them for trying to stand out among the hundreds of other women whose heights, eye colour and hobbies are as uniform as their statements of ‘looking for a serious relationship leading to marriage.’ He’s right, they are naïve. They think westerners are honourable, that the British are gentlemen, they state their intentions clearly and expect that if you contact them, then you’re serious too.
Dating Jing was worse. Dan had said it was convenient for him and it was. She couldn’t meet too often, or arrive at his home unexpectedly, even calling his mobile was difficult for her. It made it easy for him to see other girls. He was aware that her confiding to him the personal details of her married life and the extent of her unhappiness, unknown to her family, colleagues and friends had created a trust and a closeness with him. He had little to lose, at worse perhaps a black eye from the cuckold husband. But she could lose it all; her marriage, home and children. She was at a severe disadvantage and hugely vulnerable. Even though it was a position she had placed herself in, it was his choice to exploit it. It was unfair maybe immoral.
He gently swings at the ball and he feels it slice underneath and lift it cleanly into the pale blue sky. It seemed to hang in the air, barely moving before dropping onto the green. It rolls slightly and stops to the left and slightly beyond the hole.
Nice shot. Dan picks up his bag and Leo stands his bag upright and slides the club into a space. They walk the few yards to Dans ball together and he selects the pitching wedge. He has a stronger swing than Leo and he’s a bit nearer. Leo gets a bottle of sun cream out of the bags pocket squeezes a blob on his hands and rubs it into his face and neck that is already feeling the glow of sunburn.
“So, second date, but not like a second date,” Dan says getting a pitching wedge from his bag.
“Yeah, it’s strange. We should have gone to a movie, bowling, the theatre; I should have taken her flowers and stuff. Other women want to cook, introduce you to your friends, show you the local area but none of these options were open to her. She doesn’t want to be seen or discovered or explain the sudden gifts. We went for another meal and then there was little choice over what to do. It’s too hot to hang around outside, there is nowhere to go but the cool air-conditioned room of my hotel.
Dan turns away to address his ball. “Right, course there wasn’t.” he says and they both snigger. He settles himself into position then takes an effortless swing. There’s barely a sound as it connects with the ball and sends it in a low arc towards the green
Leo watches it progress, a dark speck against the brightness of sky. It looks like a good line, but until it lands it’s difficult to judge its distance, or to be certain of where it will come to rest. A tuft of grass, a stone or a small rut can nudge the ball to the side or impede its path, there’s an element of luck especially on this random course.
The hotel room had been deliciously cool, and they had drunk tea and talked, sitting on the edge of the bed. Now he could sit close, smell her perfume and the scent of her hair, put his arm behind her, or place a hand on her knee and look at her scarlet mouth as she divulged more secrets of her loveless life. Between the suggestive messages that she had not challenged and her own replies, possibly the lines she thinks this westerner expects, there’s not much room to deflect his amorous advances.
The ball lands in front of the hole and runs on straight, right of the pin, faster than Leo’s more lofted shot. It edges past his ball seemingly unwilling to stop before coming to a rest a bit further from the flag than Leo’s. It’s hard to judge how close either of them is from where they stand, but it looks as though the hole is within reach of a single putt.
“It’s anybody’s game,” says Dan.
Part 3 - The putt
The green is in an extraordinarily good condition compared with the rest of the course. The wide circle of closely cropped grass is thick and its colour made more vivid by the contrast between its lush health, the struggling lawn of the fairway and the faded hues of the un-watered rough. They leave their bags off the green, take their putters and step onto this cherished carpet. Then they turn and look back towards the tee, along the strip of ground they had played. It looked pale and dull in comparison to where they stand but fresh compared with the dry biscuit browns that border it. The brilliant sun had now climbed enough to shorten the stark shadows of the trees, almost into their roots. There is no one waiting on the tee behind them, the birds are gone, other players out of view. Nothing is stirring, not even the dust.
I don’t remember that bunker on the right Leo says seeing a large patch of sand off to the side. Is that a new feature?
Dan looks over to the right of the green to where Leo is looking. “I think it’s just where the grass has died and revealed the natural land beneath,” he says. “Do you know we’re only 65 miles away from the Tianmo desert? It must take a lot of effort to maintain the appearance of this golf course. As if to emphasise his point he pulls a baseball cap from the pocket of his trousers and fixes it on his head shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun but also covering the scalp showing through his thinning hair.
Leo turns and walks over to his ball that lies about a meter from the hole, half the distance of Dans “Definitely puttable from here,” he says confidently. He hopes the remark doesn’t jinx the shot. He’s not superstitious, but an impulsive remark often had a habit of later weighing upon the mind. Leo didn’t like the putting part of the game, it always looked easy but there was little margin for error. Play it too strong and you go past or over the hole, too cautious and you end up short. Despite his bravado he is far less confident in his ability to sink this ball with one stroke than he had in the success of his third trip to visit Jing. And when you’re so close, needing to have another shot was always disappointing.
Jing’s husband was away for the next weekend. ‘He never go away all night,’ she had messaged. Leo had replied that it was a sign that they should spend the night together. He knew how much Chinese people believed in fate and remarked on how the timing of his absence made this opportunity like a gift from the gods. To not sleep together and defy their destiny would be unlucky he’d said. The touch of guilt he’d had about his exploiting her continued to plague him, but he carried on messaging unwilling to quit so soon. He continued being sympathetic about her problems, telling her about his feelings, how beautiful she is and what a fool her husband was. They talked about things they liked, about what they’d do together and the places where they’d go. Each conversation he’d eventually turn to talk about making love. By the end of the week the act was an inevitable conclusion to whatever happened.
Dan squats down on his haunches to look at the ground, checking for any slope that might affect the trajectory or power of his stroke. He squares up to the ball, shoulders hunched over the club, taking his time, knowing that if he misses the hole he has probably lost.
Do you want the flag in or out? asks Leo
Leo removes the flag and walks off to the side – well out of the way. Even his short shadow, a deep black against the brightness of the grass, is away from Dans field of view.
Dan takes a couple of gentle practice swings, his head flicking from the ball to the hole in quick succession along the imagined route it will take. Then he straightens up, takes a step forward and bends to remove something tiny from the path before returning to his position, repeating the swings and the head turning. Finally, he shuffles forward to line the club behind the ball. The putter takes its final swing moving away from the ball. The distance and strength of the return is already precisely calculated and calibrated against the path visualized. At the apex of the swing there is a split second where velocity falls to zero, just before the moment the club begins its return towards the ball. At that point all the decisions and choices made come together and become unalterable. The two men are as still as the morning in the focus of that point where all the morning has led; along the fairway, through the air and grass from the distant tee. And before that; the watering and cutting of the field, the maintenance of the course. The consequences of the choices made and the time and energy spent hangs in the air, crowding over the hunched shoulders of Dan, pressing on the barely breathing Leo and filling the spaces between the club and ball and the ball and hole with anticipation.
Leo had booked into a different hotel instead of his usual American chain that rose a dozen stories from a carpark. This one was more out in the country; it had been built in the style of a European mansion and the rooms had been styled to look older. The décor was patterned and textured rather than the corporate monotones and easy clean laminates. They dropped their bags in the room, turning on the air conditioning to help clear the faint smell of cigarette smoke that had been left by the previous guest. Jing hung a pink nylon nightdress in the dim wardrobe then they went for dinner at an empty nearby restaurant, sitting opposite each other across bowls of dark fish, fried vegetables and gleaming white rice.
She had surprisingly ordered a glass of wine with dinner, and he wondered if it was to feel more relaxed and braver, but she didn’t seem nervous. On the contrary she was talkative and upbeat. Instead of the misery of her husband she talked about a happy childhood, frequently smiling and occasionally giggling at her little stories. She had a beautiful smile, warm and inviting, her mouth slightly open and irresistible.
She was different he thought. Her makeup and clothes were the same, another high buttoned blouse, loose trousers done up with a clean white belt; difficult to undo one handed. Still, easier than trying to tug a tee shirt over her head while she is lying on her back. He wondered if she was wearing large knickers and bra underneath or if she had decided on something sexy. He hoped he could undress her and find out rather than her disappearing into the bathroom and putting on that nightdress. There was always something contrived about waiting while the other privately gets changed. Better to slowly pull out the blouse then undo the buttons and loosen the belt. Even if done clumsily, the gradual reveal and awkward fumbling were more exciting then lying in a bed waiting, trying not to fart.
She looked the same but something had changed inside. It was nice to see her happy and confident. Perhaps she was excited about tonight, looking forward to the sex as much as him. Or maybe it was just the release from a night at home, a break from her awful life and the constant maintenance of the superficial cover of domestic bliss. She could just enjoy being herself, feeling loved and important. Tennison had said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. This night of love was a moment in the early glow of fresh romance. It was young. Other nights wouldn’t match the excitement and anticipation, nor the chance of a complete night together. Later, their trysts would be spoiled by a regret at the lies told or promises broken, arguments and tears, apologies and further doubtful promises. Half a night a week would become not enough and talking would turn to divorce and then to custody, fair settlements and maintenance payments. Tonight, was as good as it got; If it is better to have loved and lost then it’s better to end after a night where love is greatest and when the loss is least.
Dan’s club returns to hit the ball with a quiet knock. It runs towards the hole straight and as sure as destiny and disappears into the hole.
Dan walked over to the hole and pulled out his ball. “Pressures on,” he says unnecessarily.
Leo hands the flag to Dan and stands over his own ball. The game had changed now, just a few seconds earlier he was confident of winning the hole, now he had to pot his ball just to draw. A miss from here is not just to lose the hole, but to throw it away with a shot that would contrast badly with Dans fine putt. Leo’s remark about the putt being definite had been prompted by the excited certainty of winning, now that a win was no longer possible it made even a draw feel like a loss. Funny how things change.
He takes up the same stance that Dan had, the distance is too small to take as long, or to fuss with the checking of the level. He takes a couple of hurried practice swings but can’t obtain the focus that Dan had found. As the club comes down to strike the ball it feels unsteady in his hands. The ball creeps away with the same uncertainty, crawling slowly towards the hole before finally falling over its lip. With relief he picks the ball out and Dan plants the flag back in the hole.
They walk over to their bags and stow their putters; the tension dissipates away into the heat. Are you still seeing her? Dan asks.
When they’d left the hotel the morning after, Jing had recognised the receptionist as the wife of her husband’s friend. It had given a sudden jolt to a day that had started without thought of their normal lives. She hadn’t seemed concerned about being spotted but it was a warning Leo felt could not go ignored. He had called later in the week to break it off. He’d told her he didn’t want to be responsible for the end of her marriage, that his own future didn’t have the certainty that she needed to keep her family. She didn’t seem too upset, instead she talked about getting a divorce and her own place. He suggested they could try again when she is single.
“No,” Leo replies to Dan. “I let her go.”
He feels a pang of regret as he hears his own words spoken, his unconscious admission of what he’d given up, that he had lost. In the weeks of describing his love for her, finding the right expressions and words that he’d needed, he’d imagined love so that the descriptions of those feelings could be extracted. And the time spent writing and honing his messages he’d used the same synapses as love itself would use, he’d made memories of the feelings he’d described. The fantasies he’d built had convinced himself as much as her of their truth, so that he had come to feel love for her. The power of the word works both ways.
Dan records the result on the score card and they walk off to the next hole. “Another Par three,” he says.