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.