The Tennis Church – an original short story for Christmas
This story orignally appeared in the Guardian.
Illustrations are by Dom McKenzie
For Charlie, Christmas with the parents-in-law was something to grin and bear. But an encounter with a long‑lost friend would show her selflessness in a different light“I haven’t disappeared,” said the voice on the other end of the line. No hello, no introduction, nothing.
“Pardon?” said Charlie Zailer. She never normally answered the home phone. Surely nobody below the age of 70 bothered with their landline these days? Charlie had given up doing so as soon as she’d realised that it was always one of those vacuous recorded voices saying something about insurance. Also, the cord had become progressively more tangled, which meant – after about two years, during which it had come to resemble a knotted plastic cyst – that you had to lay your cheek against the gungey white plastic on the side of the phone if you wanted to be able to put the receiver to your ear.
“I haven’t disappeared,” the woman said again. The strange thing was, Charlie recognised her voice, though she could not have said from where. Maybe she was imagining it.
“This is Charlie Zailer. Did you mean to ring me, or someone else?”
“Then you’d better tell me who you are and what you’re on about. I was hoping to be told I could get some free, no-obligation legal advice if I’ve slipped a disc on a wet pavement – no win, no fee.”
“Have you hurt your back?”
“No. That was a joke. Actually, I was hoping it would be my mother-in-law ringing to pull out of midnight mass tonight and Christmas dinner tomorrow. But enough about me!” Charlie said pointedly. If the woman didn’t identify herself now, there was something very wrong with her.
“I don’t suppose you remember me: Tasha Sisley.”
“Tasha? No way! Is that really you?”
“I don’t know,” the woman said doubtfully. “I don’t think so.”
“Yes it is! I’d know that voice anywhere.”
“I’ve been Natasha Knowles for the past 15 years – a whole different person.”
From this Charlie deduced that Natasha Knowles did not die her hair black and wear too much black eyeliner, long tasselled skirts, ripped fishnet tights and Mötley Crüe T-shirts; that she did not violently rotate her head to a soundtrack of AC/DC and Faster Pussycat and Hanoi Rocks in a way that somehow made every girl at school wish they could do it as stylishly as Tasha; that she would not lie on a dirty floor beneath the chip hatch of a nightclub, snogging a boy she’d met half an hour before and would never see again, and then go home and cry all night and write ridiculous song lyrics about him that referred to “all that we’ve been through” but did not include his name, because she didn’t know it.
Charlie wished she hadn’t picked up the phone. Tasha Sisley was a pain but she was never boring. Natasha Knowles sounded as if she could manage both quite easily.
“Look, I can’t really talk now – as I said, parents-in-law on the way, God help me – but was there something you wanted?”
“I just rang to tell you that I haven’t disappeared. That’s all.”
The line went dead.
Charlie hung up the phone. She sat and stared at it for a while, half expecting it to ring again straight away. “What the hell was that about?” she said out loud. Nobody answered.
She told Simon about it as they walked to church in the dark later. Not that he was listening properly; he was too nervous about the imminent encounter with his parents, knowing his mother would be nearly in tears throughout, and his father catatonic with terror. Fun times.
This whole midnight mass charade was hideous… just appalling. How could she have let herself get into this mess? Charlie didn’t want to think about it: the lies she’d told, the sheer pointlessness and absurdity of the entire performance…
Tash Sisley was a convenient distraction.
“Guilt trip,” Simon summed up, when Charlie had finished her story.
“Yes, that’s what I thought: she must still be in touch with Annabel, and Annabel must have mentioned I sent her a Christmas card – only because she insists on sending me one every year! – and Tash must have thought, ‘Damn cheek, Charlie sending Annabel a card and not me when they weren’t even that close and we were.’”
“It’s pointless, everyone sending bits of paper to one another,” said Simon.
“I don’t think that was it, though. A guilt trip is the only thing that makes sense, and I can’t think what else it could have been – but I don’t think that’s what it was. It sounded… I don’t know. It was just very weird.”
“Do me a favour – don’t tell my parents about it. Tonight’s going to be bad enough without adding anything else into the mix.”
Charlie made a weary noise of assent. Who was she to call anyone else’s behaviour weird, given her own life? It annoyed her that, without having to ask, she understood why Simon didn’t want her to mention the Tash mystery to Kathleen and Michael; it was proof that she had been fully inducted into the Waterhouse family, dysfunctional prison that it was. It would have disturbed Simon’s parents greatly to learn that their son was married to the sort of woman who received mysterious phone calls and allowed them to end without extracting the certainty that must be present in all things. They regarded Charlie as a loose cannon as it was. Kathleen had used those very words about her once, lowering her voice in order to call her daughter-in-law such a shocking name. It had struck Charlie as an odd description of someone who was happily married and had been in the same job for many years, but she’d been quite flattered, and had annoyed Simon for months afterwards by jumping out at him from corners and shouting, “I’m a loose cannon!” in his face.
Once while at his parents’ house, Charlie had noticed that her credit card was missing from her wallet, and said breezily, “Oh, I think it’s in my other bag,” and carried on eating her lunch, instead of running to the car and driving home to check straight away that it was safe. What if a burglar was breaking in and stealing it right now? What if it wasn’t at home, but in the hands of an international network of sex-chat-line ringer-uppers? Kathleen Waterhouse never quite put these worst case scenarios into words, but Charlie could read them in her wide, scared eyes.
The credit card had been in the other bag, safe and well, and Charlie had even rung Kathleen as soon as she’d arrived home to let her know, but it was way too late by then; her mother-in-law had already marked her down as someone who was cavalier about losing things, and, even worse, someone who owned a credit card and talked about it as if it weren’t shameful to buy more than one could afford.
“Tasha said she didn’t think she was really herself,” Charlie told Simon. “Do you think she might be having some kind of crisis?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just get through ours, shall we?”
Charlie was not religious at all, having been brought up by ex-hippy atheists, and she had held no strong opinions about churches until Kathleen and Michael Waterhouse had started the whole midnight mass battle, but now she had a strong opinion: she liked their church, the big Catholic church in Rawndesley, and she hated the church they were going to tonight, the one that was supposed to be hers: St Anselm’s in Spilling.
She’d picked it because it was closest to where she and Simon lived. If she was going to have to pretend to have a church, it might as well be near home, she’d thought, but St Anselm’s was dingy and uninspiring, and the congregation brought to mind an old people’s home and a hospital outpatients department in equal measures.
Simon hated it too. “Look at this place,” he muttered as he opened the gate and walked into the churchyard, 45 minutes early. His parents would be half an hour early – they always were – and would worry, if Simon and Charlie were not already there, that some awful fate had befallen them. (It would never occur to Kathleen and Michael Waterhouse that they themselves were the awful fate, and so they continued to befall all comers – their son, his poor sap of a wife; it was tragic.)
“Look at this!” Simon had walked back out through the churchyard gate and was standing on the pavement, shaking his head at a large display board that was just inside the wall of the church. “Jesus!”
“He’s not born till tomorrow, so you might as well show me,” said Charlie.
On the board was a sign in capital letters: “LOVE PEOPLE AND USE THINGS, NOT LOVE THINGS AND USE PEOPLE.”
“Can you see what’s wrong with that?”
“The caps-lock nutter look?” Charlie guessed. Evidently it was the wrong answer. “What, you mean the message? It’s unrealistic, yes, but what do you expect? It’s a church. Churches have to pretend people are capable of being something other than venal and stupid, don’t they, or else what’s the point of them?”
“No, not that either. I can’t believe you can’t see it. It should say ‘don’t’. ‘Love people and use things, don’t love things and use people.’ It’s illiterate!”
Charlie sighed. “OK, I’m going inside to sit on a… pew, pulpit, whatever it’s called. You coming or not?”
“No one would say, ‘Brush your teeth before you leave the house, not go to work with rank breath.’” Simon continued to stare at the sign.
“Come inside and find somewhere to sit, not stay outside pursuing pointless conversation,” said Charlie. “Simon, honestly, who cares? You’re taking it too literally. It’s just a shorthand way of saying ‘To love people and use things is the right approach, not to love things and use people.’”
“If that’s what it wants to say, why aren’t those the words on the poster? We can’t keep coming here, Char. It’s an appalling place.”
“Simon, don’t overreact. I mean, I hate it too – I’d be more than happy not to go to midnight mass at all! – but you’re getting steamed up about a poster.”
“I wish I had a black marker pen on me. I’d put a line through that ‘not’ and –”
“Simon, if you don’t put a whole drawer-full of socks in it right now, I’m going to burrow under one of those gravestones and… Oh, my God!”
Charlie stood in silence for a few seconds.
“That’s so weird. Tasha Sisley, the school friend I was just telling you about… I can’t believe I didn’t remember this before! It was, like, the main thing about our friendship. The tennis church!”
“There was a church opposite our local library. Neither of us ever went to it for religious reasons, obviously, but we used to meet boys from St Mark’s, a nearby boys’ school, round the back of it. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the details,” Charlie said quickly, seeing Simon wince. “The graveyard was our favourite summer party venue – there were more empty cider bottles than dead bodies there by the time we’d finished. Me and Tash were the only ones from our school who went.” The loose cannons. Was Tasha still a loose cannon now that she was Natasha Knowles? Had she sort of hinted that she was anything but, or was Charlie misremembering the conversation?
“We’d tell our parents we were meeting at the library to do our homework, but really we were meeting at the Tennis Church for dubious recreational activities. We called it the Tennis Church because it had this funny framed tapestry on one wall. We could see it through the window – we never went in. It was two upright tennis rackets, and in between them it said, ‘It is not enough to receive. You also have to serve.’ We thought it was stupid and corny, but the name stuck: the Tennis Church.”
“Here they are,” said Simon.
Again, Charlie didn’t need to ask what he meant. His parents were parking just behind where he stood. He had lingered too long on the pavement, and it was likely they had noticed him looking at the poster on the board. In the car, Kathleen would have said to Michael at least three times, “Why is Charlotte in the churchyard and Simon there on the pavement? What’s the matter, do you think?”
Simon would be determined not to tell them what the matter was in case the poor grammar sent them into paroxysms of Wrong Church Panic.
Charlie was woken on Christmas morning by the sound of her phone ringing next to her ear. It took a few unsuccessful attempts before she was able to grab it and press the right button. She had an enormous groan inside her that needed to come out – a severe in-laws hangover that needed to express itself – and now it would have to wait.
“Is that Sergeant Charlie Zailer?” a male voice asked.
“Yeah. Is that Santa? If it is, you’ve fucked up. I put ‘massive lie-in’ on my list, and I’ve been pretty good, too, despite secretly wishing I could pour liquid concrete down the drains of nearly everyone I know.”
He laughed. “Sorry if I woke you, today of all days. It’s DC Ryan Giles from Nottingham police. I’m ringing about someone I believe you know. Her husband’s reported her missing, and he mentioned that you and she used to be friends some years ago. Apparently she still talks about you quite a bit – when you’ve been on the news and the like – so I just thought it was worth a call in case –”
“Tasha. Is it Tasha Sisley?” Charlie hauled herself into an upright position and poked Simon in the side. “Natasha Knowles, sorry. I think that’s her married name.”
“Tell me later,” Simon mumbled into his pillow. “Not wake me up now.”
Charlie giggled. To Ryan Giles, she said, “We haven’t been in touch since…it must be 1988, and then, out of the blue, she rang me yesterday.”
“Yesterday? Well, that’s good news at least. She disappeared three days ago. What did she say to you, then – on the phone?”
“Something bloody odd that I’ve been puzzling over ever since. She said, ‘I haven’t disappeared.’ Those were her first words. I asked who she was, and she told me, and then she said it again: that she hadn’t disappeared. And that was it: she put the phone down, end of conversation.”
“Nothing else at all?”
“When I asked her if it was really her, she said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think so.’ Do you think she might be in trouble?”
“We don’t know,” Ryan Giles said. “All we know is she’s got three kids, all miserable and desperate to have their mum back – especially with it being Christmas.”
Automatically, Charlie wondered if these strangers would take Simon’s mum in lieu of their own. No, no of course they wouldn’t. Kathleen Waterhouse would arrive in only a few hours for Christmas dinner, and if the brussels sprouts weren’t cooked “properly” (which meant boiled until they were indistinguishable from nasal mucus) then she would cry and pretend already to have whatever presents Charlie and Simon had bought her; it had happened before.
“Husband’s going to pieces too,” Ryan Giles said. “They run a business together, which will fold if she doesn’t turn up soon. I can’t see Paul being able to function unless he knows what’s happened to Natasha.”
“What kind of business?”
Giles chuckled. “Raw food restaurant. Fools and their money, eh?”
“I wonder why she rang me,” Charlie mused aloud. What did “I haven’t disappeared” mean? Did it mean “Don’t worry about me” or “I still exist – somewhere”? Had Tasha chosen to leave her family? “I mean… do you think she might have known that her husband would mention me, and that you might contact me? Maybe she wants them to know she’s OK.”
“Then why use you? Why not send hubby a text?”
Simon’s phone rang. Charlie heard him answering his mum – yes, 1.30 was perfect, no, no need to bring anything – and tried not to think about lovely smooth grey liquid concrete solidifying in Kathleen Waterhouse’s drains. The conversation that was taking place over the phone now had already been had four times at least, including twice last night – once in the church and once on the pavement. Simon’s mother regarded no arrangement as made unless one constantly checked and reminded and rehashed.
“Because sometimes you need to be at one remove or else you’ll go mad,” said Charlie, “My husband’s currently having a conversation with his mother which I can just about stand because he’s doing it, but if I had to do it?” She shook her head vigorously, knowing perfectly well that Ryan Giles couldn’t see her.
“What?” said Simon. “Mum, we’ve been through this. No, Charlie is. I can’t, and I don’t want to. She’s a better cook than me. What? That was two years ago, Mum!”
Charlie mimed turning off a gas ring. Simon nodded.
Unbelievable. Once Charlie had been making some pasta while talking to Kathleen, and she’d forgotten to turn off the gas after she’d finished cooking. For the next month and a half, every night, Kathleen had rung Simon at between eleven and midnight, unable to sleep without checking his kitchen appliances were not aflame.
“Why don’t I come to Nottingham now?” Charlie heard herself suggest to Ryan Giles.
Charlie didn’t warm to Paul Knowles. Red-eyed, tearful and sleep-deprived, he seemed nonetheless unwilling to admit anything was wrong. “I’ve got a beautiful house, three fantastic girls, a lovely wife, a successful business,” he told Charlie and Ryan Giles. “Seventy people we employ now. I’ve got two stunning cars, one a Porsche Boxter Roadster.”
Charlie wondered if she was supposed to be indignant, as Knowles was, that a not-ideal event had happened in the life of a man as blessed as him, as if it were somehow against the natural order of things. You haven’t quite got your wife at the moment, though, have you? she felt like saying. And 70 employees? Do they all crowd round to hit you every day? I would if I worked for you.
His and Natasha’s three daughters – Tabitha, 13; Lily, 11; Elodie, 6 – sat around him and stared at Charlie and Giles hopefully, as if at any moment one of them might pull Tasha out of a hidden pocket.
“You should have rung the police straight away when Natasha contacted you,” Knowles snapped at Charlie. “She clearly said what she said to you under duress. She might be dead now, thanks to your lack of initiative!”
Elodie started to cry. Tabitha squeezed her arm and said, “Don’t worry, Ellie. Mummy’s not dead, I promise.”
The Christmas tree in the corner of the room was surrounded by immaculately wrapped presents, all untouched. The lights had not been switched on – for how long, Charlie wondered.
“I am the police,” she reminded Knowles. “If I raised an alarm every time something odd was said to me…” She stopped. This was odd; she was being distracted from real-time strangeness by pointless recriminations about past strangeness. Everything about Paul Knowles jarred. That he would say what he’d just said in front of his daughters, not thinking how it might make them feel…
“Mr Knowles, can we talk for a minute in private?” Charlie asked.
“Why?” Tabitha, the 13-year-old, pounced on the question as if it had been a threat. “Are you going to wait till we’re gone and ask Dad if he and Mum had an unhappy marriage?”
Pretty much, yes.
“We’re a happy family,” said Lily, the middle child. Elodie and Paul Knowles nodded their agreement.
“There was the row before Mum disappeared, though,” Tabitha muttered, staring down at her hands.
“What row?” Ryan Giles asked.
Paul Knowles laughed. It sounded false: as if he were auditioning for the part of Santa Claus: Ho-ho-ho. “Quite a bit before Mum disappeared, though, wasn’t it, love?” To Charlie and Giles he said, “Tabby makes it sound as if it was immediately before and probably the catalyst, but it was weeks earlier, and I’d forgiven her, and everything was fine. Really, her disappearance can’t have had anything to do with that.”
She hasn’t disappeared. She told me specifically that she hadn’t. She’s gone somewhere, that’s all.
“I’d still like to know what Mum did,” Tabitha said quietly. “Did she cheat on you?”
“What?” Knowles looked disgusted. “No. It was nothing like that, nothing serious.” He sighed. “A few weeks ago, back in November, I asked her what she wanted for Christmas. I wanted to get her something really special, I told her – money no object. It’s been a stressful year for both of us. The business has gone international and we’ve both been working all hours, and you know how it gets – you compete for who’s the most ground down and knackered. You shouldn’t, but you do. Anyway, I asked her, and she tensed up and went all weird, like there was something important she wanted to say. She said, yes, there was something special she’d wanted for ages. Great, I thought. Sorted. Then she went to the kitchen, and I followed her, and I watched her pull an A4-sized plastic folder out of a packet of Cheerios. Here, do you want to see it? I’ll get it. I’m sure it’s still there – she stuffed it back in after things turned nasty.”
“You should have told me this before, Mr Knowles,” said Ryan Giles as Knowles left the room.
“And us,” said Tabitha angrily.
After a few minutes, Knowles returned with the plastic wallet in his hand. He passed it to Ryan Giles. Charlie shuffled closer to him on the sofa so that she could see the contents. It was a bundle of what looked like cuttings: pages ripped out of papers, or printed from the internet…
Hotels. They were all adverts for or information pages about hotels – all in England, by the look of it – most with pictures of the hotel swimming pool prominently featured.
“She told me she’d been collecting them for years,” said Knowles. “The best present she could ever imagine getting, she said, was one night away in a nice hotel with a swimming pool on her own. That’s right – without me and the kids.” He laughed in disbelief. “I offered to take us all to a five-star hotel for a fortnight, anywhere she wanted! Dubai, Mexico, Florida – take your pick, I said. But, no, lovely though that sounded, it wasn’t what Natasha had been fantasising about and ripping pages out of colour supplements about. It wasn’t her special present.” He spat the two words out as if he could hardly bear to say them. “That had to be just one night – ‘Only one night, Paul,’ she kept saying, as if the shortness of it made it better! ‘With maybe the afternoon before and the morning after – lunchtime to lunchtime – so I’d be away for two days and one night.’ Oh, she’d really put some thought into it!”
Knowles exhaled slowly. “As I say…we got past it, she apologised, it’s water under the bridge now. It was just a bit hurtful to find out that her top favourite fantasy involved, basically, escaping from me and the girls. What?” Seeing the look on Charlie and Giles’s faces, he said quickly, “If you’re going to say that’s what this is – that she’s escaped permanently – you’re very wrong. Natasha would never do that.”
“How’s it going there?”
“Good so far. Well, relatively speaking. Hang on a sec, I’ll close the door.”
“Yeah,” said Simon a few seconds later. “It’s easier when I’m the only person they’re driving mad.”
“Did you green-mush the sprouts? I bet you did, didn’t you? Appeaser.”
“Who cares? Tastes the same. Did you find your friend?”
“Not yet, but I think I know where she might be. Though in one way it’s unlikely, because… Look, can I ask you something? Don’t laugh. Do churches ever have bedrooms where people can sleep if they need to get away from home?”
Simon laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“I keep thinking: Tash rang me for a reason. She must have known her husband would tell the police that she had a police officer friend, and that they might contact me – so she’d have known I’d find out that she wasn’t where she was supposed to be: with her family on Christmas Day. She’ll have guessed, probably, that I’d remember that whenever she and I weren’t where we ought to be, we were meeting at the Tennis Church. I think that’s where she might be.”
“Have you told her husband that, and the police that are trying to find her?”
Charlie laughed. “Of course not,” she said.
The Tennis Church was still there. It was in darkness by the time she arrived, so she couldn’t see if the tennis racket tapestry was still up on the wall. She muttered to herself, “Not enough to receive, also have to serve. And vice versa, right?”
There was no sign of Tasha anywhere near the church. Catching sight of the library opposite on her way back to her car, Charlie thought to herself, “Maybe she’s in there, finally doing all that homework we lied about doing in the mid-1980s – writing that essay for Miss Goodacre about glaciated valleys.”
Charlie stopped walking. The library was no longer a library, it seemed. It had become the Library Hotel. There was a large sign outside it, with a picture of a swimming pool.
“They should have put one in 30 years ago,” she thought to herself as she crossed the road. “We might have actually gone there.”
There was no Natasha Knowles staying at the hotel, but Charlie had no trouble finding a Tasha Sisley.
The two of them sat at the bar on long-legged stools, drinking Cokes – not even diet, as it was Christmas Day. Some sugar for special treat day! Aren’t we lucky?
“I can’t go back, Charlie. I can’t go back to the girls without going back to him.”
“Sorry, I just don’t see it, Tash. Go back, tell him it’s over, share custody of the girls. Plenty of couples do it, don’t they?”
“Yes, but if I go back, I won’t be able to say that. Once I walk back in through that door… The funny thing is, I wasn’t even unhappy. I didn’t want to get away from them in general – I just wanted one night and a couple of days with no duties. No work, no family… And all right, Paul got upset, and maybe it was selfish of me to ask. I told myself it was no big deal, but that was when I knew. If I couldn’t have my one night, I couldn’t stay with him. But… if he’d been OK about it, I could have stayed with him happily. Does that make sense to you?”
“Yes. It does. But Tash, what about the girls?”
“They’ll be fine. I can’t go back, Char.”
Charlie sighed. “Look, I get it, OK? In one way it’s easier to pretend you don’t have a family – that there aren’t four people waiting for you to turn up and provide some answers.”
“That’s not an option, though. I’m the same, if it makes any difference. Not my husband – his parents. I’d rather pretend they’re a comedy sketch than stand up to them about midnight sodding mass!”
Tasha looked confused.
“If Simon and I told them we didn’t want to go again, they’d be devastated. They’d like us to go to their church every year, and we’re too scared to say, ‘Tough!’ I hate being anyone’s doormat, so I put my foot down: I said I’d go to midnight mass at their church every other year, on the condition that they would come to mine the years in between. I picked the church nearest to my house and pretended it was My Church. It wasn’t, it isn’t! I don’t have a church! I’m a heathen, and proud of it. So… why didn’t I just say that?”
“Why don’t you?” Tasha adjusted the tense of Charlie’s question.
“I kidded myself that it wasn’t safe to stand up to them fully. I was scared of their reaction, and Simon’s reaction to their reaction… But, look, if you’ll go back home and have the necessary conversations, I’ll do it. I swear. No more midnight masses for me.”
Tasha smiled. “Listen to us,” she said. “All right. I’ll ring Tabby – not Paul. I don’t think I could bring myself to speak to him.”
“I don’t care how they feel, to be honest,” Charlie told her. “Everyone must do what’s right for them, and everyone else can feel however the hell they want.”
And so can I, she thought to herself. I can do what I want and feel what I want. That will be nearly as much of a treat as having some special Christmas sugar. Let Kathleen worry about my feelings for a change. Let her lose sleep trying to think up ways to get back into my good books.
“I am a loose cannon,” she said out loud.
“Yeah, you always were,” Tasha agreed.