Wordcarpenter Books
The Mantle Pat

NEW GAME

  The Spiked Ball

The eruption of the crowd into a deafening and united roar of applause was in fact the final outcome of a dramatic few seesaw-seconds that began as the cleanly hit ball left Ketchum's racquet and began its ascent up and over Higgins' flat-footed frame.  Few had believed the Celt capable of getting there but when he did, with a slide and reach that stretched the boundaries of physical art - as well as the tendons holding down the retinas of many viewers, fewer still doubted he'd missed the point. Yet, the prodigious cloud of claydust that had kicked up with what would eventually by referred to as The Slide not only enhanced the image of Ketchum's physical talent in the viewfinder of Van Gothenburg's steelbodied Canon F2, it carried, over the net where it eventually came to rest in the form of a thin red film on the laces and coarse canvas of Hellmantle's North Stars. To a man as in tune with surroundings as Ketchum, as well as to others in the crowd who took the sport seriously, the sudden gust of wind that had,earlier in the point, dislodged a clip from Buffy Cranford-Patelles hairbun as well as a sheaf of investigative report paper from the pile tucked awkwardly under Poussin's arm, had returned.

It was with this and other knowledge that the attendant crowd watched as the flattened arc of the lob descended and eventually touched down so close to the baseline that it paralyzed line judge Lucy Degroot; she stared ahead. The lack of utterance signaled to many that the ball was in and a floodgate of cheering opened. But just as quickly the gates were drawn shut and the cheering was replaced with a collective gasp as Rusty Hugh leaned forward and asked in a superior and questioning tone, judges? But in the moment of indecision, before the hefty Czech-born, Dutch National line judge could respond, Ketchum stole the show.  The Celt who had expertly converted his end of point flurry into a relaxed version of his Rolling Stone cover pose, now followed through on a thoughtful left-handed sideburn tug with a calm tossing out of the fingers of that hand, a carefree tilt of his head to the right and thus the unmistakable communication to all that he felt the ball to be out.  And thus, the  thunderous standing applause that was unleashed upon Hugh's verdict was every bit as much for Ketchum as it was for Higgins for it grew with every humble indication of acknowledgement that the Brit gave in the moments after yet changed little for Higgins who had fallen to the ground, seemingly lost in thought -  ‘forgetting the fans' as it were.  Higgins had the point. But Ketchum, again, had their hearts.

For Ketchum, now benchward and in full stride this really was it, what it all came down to:  winning the all-important mental battle through calm, focused and mannered grace under pressure.  And yet, with each confident step the shear velocity of fan approval served to puncture the legendary Celtic concentration to the point where finally he could no longer ignore it. And so, in a sudden splash of service line sunshine he pulled up to a stop, swung around and acknowledged the crowd humbly with his racquet. The roar grew louder. An oversized grin engulfed his face. Van Gothenberg fumbled for more film.

The effect of the sudden explosion of applause stunned Hellmantle. The chaotic and paranoid mental haze that had dominated him for the previous half-hour, appeared to suddenly lift with the rising tide of standing fans and his own curious efforts to stand up. What resulted was a look of hazy-eyed confusion, of newborn vulnerability, made even more curious by an awkward burst of frantic leg scratching, the object being a deep red rash that now approached his ankles. Gradually, the leg scratching was augmented by jerking head movements as an awakening Hellmantle tried desperately to understand, at the most basic level, what was going on.

‘Jesus, Butch, how in God's name does Higgins win the game but manage to look like he lost?'  Chipper Sorensen, sports news anchor for Reno, Nevada's TV 14 had asked the question of his older, heavy-set colleague and former Nevada number 2, Butch Grogan. Luck and... Grogan cut short his throaty reply. He had wanted to say drugs but knew that would get him in hot water and he'd been in too much of that lately. Well then, continued Sorensen cutting in, he clearly can't believe his luck!   Despite the early hour of 6:45 a.m, Chip was true to his adapted t.v name and bubbling with high-pitched excitement about the match that the two had covered live since 4:30.  Sorensen continued, I mean, lets be fair here, Butch, Higgins has skidded, stumbled and otherwise fumbled his way into a 6-6 tie in the fifth.  Does he have what it takes, to repeat what he's just done?  Hard to say  came the lackadaisical reply. With that, Butch, reached for the now cold cup of coffee he had poured at the outset of the last game and braced himself before slugging it back in one gulp.  Not a fan of early mornings, and twenty years Chip's senior, Butch found it hard to show much initiative at that hour, content instead to throw out commentary consisting of one word answers, a few one-liners and the odd technical treatise. 

That said, even Butch had to admit that this had been, until now, one of the most exciting matches in French Open History.  Even more so given that Butch and Chip rarely got to cover the French. Nevada had never been a French outpost or wine drinking region. Yet, for some reason, overwhelming fan interest in the previous few weeks had led the bubbly new Programming director, Trish Farnsworth, to spring for the feed.  To encourage the sleepy desert town, she had also convinced station owner Garth Button to offer his Colorado weekend retreat, replete with the services of his Galaxy Jet, to the winner of the phone-in quiz. Though Butch had protested, Farnsworth had her way, and the result was some very laboured body English on the part of Butch who now reached over to answer the flashing red light on line 7.

 

Back in Paris, as Higgins struggled to make sense of it all, Ketchum approached the bench. The cheering had calmed down enough for Ketchum to catch a group of Spanish women in the BNP Paribas box chanting in unison - Vamos Ketchum, Vamos!  As he looked up one of them, a brunette with deep brown eyes, leaned forward and veritably sang out Cupa Por Favor! Cupa Taken by her vivaciousness and dulcet tones and by his own deep desire to immerse himself in Spain and Spanish culture, Ketchum went against his better instincts and quickly affected the Rolling Stone pose in all its glory.  He would have done anything to keep the effort between himself and the girl but in the moment he himself had discovered vulnerability and suddenly roars of Cupa!!!  And The Cup!  followed by applause punctuated the theatre resulting in an exasperated Rusty Hugh asking for quiet, please.  Unfortunately, his words were late and moments later the pressure on the BNP Paribas box from women who had jumped down to get a closer look at The Cup was too great and the brown eyed girl found herself forced to jump over the wall and onto the court. Having gone that far, she decided to go full hamburger and seconds later Ketchum found himself being pinned to the bench by an eager and sensuous Conquistadoress.  It didn't last long, but as the gendarmes escorted the woman back to her seat (Ketchum's request) a full applause rained down and once again, Ketchum found himself acknowledging the appreciation with a nod to a group of what looked like schoolgirls high up in the bleachers on the opposite side.

 

Although confused by the sight of Layton Corner's being lead back into the stadium by security, Higgins by now had managed to figure out some of what was going on: by the seat of his lime-green shorts, it appeared he had broken serve to tie the match at 6-6 in the fifth and final set. With that settled, he now realized that he had not shown a level excitement appropriate to such a result. Concerned also that Ketchum was once again stealing the show, this time care of some Spanish girls, Higgins responded by turning back to the crowd and slugging a tennis ball up and out of the arena.  Unfortunately, Higgins' mental reawakening did not coincide with a physical reawakening and the result was a weakly hit ball that only just made it out.  With attention focused on Ketchum,`not everyone, including Mr Hugh,  saw the action and thus no warnings or penalties were given.

The arc of the mishit ball carried it right over the head of Toss Longspee and a group of under-12 tennis players and students from Nice that were seated against the railings in the upper reaches behind him. For the kids, the weekend field trip to Paris and the match so far had been endlessly exciting. Luc and Ivan, two of the larger kids, had discovered a bag of grass in the players lockerroom during the autograph session the day before and had gone on to smoke poorly rolled, midnight grandes on the fire escape of their two-star hotel in the Bastille. That, in turn, had led to an escape into the city that ended up with eight of them trapped in a seedy sex club bargaining with the dope to be let free.  The sex club manager had gruffly declined their offer. Then, after a first frisk turned up very few francs, the manager had sent for three of his ugliest bodyguards who had quickly surrounded the group. But before any action was taken against the frightened, pale-faced teenagers, an Australian twang pierced the air. Seconds later, teenage jaws hit the ground as none other than Patrick Rafter himself entered the back office laughing and pleading calmly for the manager to let the boys go.  Look, Cedric, I'll take care of it Mate. You just relax and take care of your customers!  Cedric agreed and as quickly as they arrived, the bodyguards disappeared back up the stairs and into the club.

While most of the kids gathered themselves together or wiped their eyes with bits of clothing, two immediately recognized the Australian Tennis Ace and asked for his autograph. While he signed shoes and hands and whatever else was presented to him, the others craned their necks to see if they recognized anyone else from the room where Rafter had emerged. Although later, they would claim to have seen every ranked player on the circuit, the truth was it was too dark and too discreet for any of them to pick out others in the group. Nevertheless, after Rafter had ordered them a cab, told them to go easy on the dope and said his goodbyes Luc was sure he heard Rafter say Killer, dope is NOT what you need right now. Of course, this name didn't mean anything to a 12 year-old French kid, but for others, had they been there, they would have surmised that such a situation at that hour, the night before the finals, did not bode well for Hellmantle's final the following day.  Regardless, In the end, the kids made it home and after bribing the concierge with some of their find, made it into their rooms without drawing attention to themselves.

Now, late in the afternoon the next day, with the light beginning to fade, the wind picking up, and the pre-match johnny's worn off on the smoking element of the group, a couple of the kids figured now with the break in the match, the time was right for a refuel. Claiming hunger and the need for the toilets, three of them led by Luc got permission from their teacher, Miss Leduc and headed out the exit and into the stadium grounds.

Genevieve Leduc, was a pretty brunette with big teeth and tousled hair - everybit the schoolteacher. She was also young.  Luckily for her, she had connections in her native Paris which had got her the job in the prestigious Beaumont Sur Mer Prep School in Nice, the town she had always dreamed of living in since spending her summers their as a child. Those same connections also went straight to the executive of the French Open Club where none other than Warwick Biggerstaff himself, an uncle of one her brother's in law, had acquiesced to her request for Open tickets.  And though she would have preferred a better location, she realized that 25 was a large number of seats and so she had accepted gracefully the night before when she had visited the recently widowed Warwick at his Rue Foche apartment to pick up the tickets. He was a kind and distinguished older man and though she didn't fully trust her assistant Alex to take care of the kids for too long, she felt it would be rude not to stay for at least one drink with Warwick. One drink had turned to three and finally, at midnight, with Warwick being asked to turn down the music by neighbors from the balcony below she picked her moment and left.  Now, in the heat of an epic and unconventional final she sat upright, content to watch her hero Ketchum do his sexy thing while knowing at the same time that such a field trip was scoring huge points with the school-board and parents association back in Nice. 

--

A Quebecois in Tweed

After Ketchum had taken a timeout to enjoy the change in momentum, Hellmantle savored the endorphin rush of smacking the ball out of the stadium without being seen by the umpire. (After glancing at Rusty Hugh and seeing that he wasn't looking, he whacked the ball quickly and then assumed his normal gait as if nothing had happened). And since it had almost been a miss-hit, a secret Tom Foolery returned to him at the thought that the ball may have hit one of the noisy schoolchildren up in the north corner.

Due to curiosity, or perhaps due to his growing state of relaxation, Hellmantle glanced up from behind his Yonex towel towards the kids but instead caught sight of a strapping young teacher. Behind her to the right was a mischievous looking boy holding up a sign that read:

MISS LEDUC LOVES HELLMANTLE !

BEAUMONT SUR MER PREP SCHOOL

GRADE 4

Despite the fact that Miss Leduc was actually in love with the Canadian-turned-Englishman, it was Hellmantle whom she spoke of most often in class simply because he was so adored by her students. Hellmantle made a mental note of the name and would ask his most loyal friend Layton Corners to find this teacher for him to meet.

Turning back to the court while sitting in his chair he saw one camera that was not pointed at the showboating Wimbledon Champ. The Pentax HLA Series using the coveted HLA-B27 zoom lens held by the rising young tour photographer "Slick" Sally Ripken, daughter of the ironman baseball player Cal Ripken. Slick Sally zoomed in tighter just as Hellmantle picked up his tea and drank. The short, choppy clicks followed the entire execution of the drinking action. Hellmantle looked and squinted. Another short, choppy burst and the squint was diverted by a woman's voice.

There was a momentary silence in the French crowd when a verbal ejaculation erupted from behind a raised glass of Bordeaux '92. Buffy Cranford-Patelle's hair stirred recklessly in the wind and her hand cupped her mouth. "Allons y ‘Ellmantel! Vous show Johnny l'esprit de France n'est-ce pas?" The reference to French pride, as all Frenchmen innately know, is always direct cause for sincere address, so Hellmantle looked over to Buffy Cranford-Patelle and raised his bottle of Scottish tea to her and said:

"Je suis le France Mademoiselle. Nous parlons avec moi après le match, non?" A natural blush appeared on Buffy's cheeks at the impact of Hellmantle's words. The hundreds of fans who now looked at her were outside of her concern. He is a true Frenchman, she thought, willing to show the greatness of France to a lady of experience. The widow Cranford-Patelle, who had no man for herself, could not help taking a deep gulp of the French grape in her hand as she instinctively reached for her wind-born hair that had escaped its bun.

When Hellmantle sat down from his chivalrous foray, he saw Slick Sally Ripken still poised with her HLA-B27 zoom lens set on him. Finally, when the achievement of his verbal exchange with the distinguished Merovingian lady of the coveted San Graal pedigree, who had asked him to shine for the greatness of France, Hellmantle put his hand through his hair and cocked a look of le couer de li at Sally. He felt the pride of the Franks well up as he took out his moustache comb from his back pocket and slid it through both wings of his moustache. The sweat in his long ginger moustache hair held the flourish of his comb. Click-click-click. The photo captured Hellmantle's moustache flayed out to the sides like the Vikings and Crusaders before him rekindling the history of the mustachioed French heroes of old. Sally Ripken's soon-to-be famous photo had the caption:

A Spiked Ball By Any Other Name - French Norman tennis

sensation known on the ATP Tour as "Hellmantle," was able to

sneak a ball out of the stadium without the notice of chair

umpire Rusty Hugh. But it wasn't the incognito spiked ball that

the French crowd responded to, it was the stirring of French

pride through the unabashed character of their new French-

Norman hero Hellmantle.'

But what Hellmantle did not know was that the ball he spiked made it over the top of the billboard and landed on the shoulder of a man named Pascal Gufflet. Without thinking, Monsieur Pascal Gufflet put his hand on his pistol and turned towards the outside stadium wall, his finger touching the trigger. Seeing the bright green tennis ball bounce on the old uneven pavement beside him, he withdrew his A-11 super-charged pellet gun with silencer - enough for the job he had in mind - to his shoulder holster and carried on his way to his friend Daryl "Monty" Hellmontygue. He was too much of a sports enthusiast himself to bear the shouts and moans of expert play and not be able to see it, so he walked to the entrance of the Jacques Cartier Stadium patting the remote control device in his tweed jacket breast pocket as he walked through the turnstiles.

Once inside the electrified stadium, he took out his ticket and saw that he was in the right section, but to make himself look inconspicuous, Pascal Gufflet, a French Canadian Quebecois, purchased two cold Heinekens and a small cake. "France," he said to himself but under his breath. "Thank God there are still civilized countries left in the world."

As Pascal Gufflet, a full-time locksmith and part-time conspiracy theorist, walked in his old Lacoste tennis shoes to his seat beside his friend Monty, he saw a Japanese gentleman approach Monty. The Japanese man pointed at Monty's Glenn Michibata insignia on his tracksuit top, and then smiled and nodded. Monty offered him a seat, so Pascal Gufflet, not even  breaking stride, took his beer and cake a few rows above them which also happened to be a few rows down from the direct view of the Flying Dutchman Toss Longespee. When Gufflet passed Monty, he could hear them speak as old friends do.

"Glenn Michibata," said Monty, unshaven and still smelling of Pacific salmon. "I haven't seen you since you gave me this tracksuit at that opening celebration for your coin laundry stores." They shook hands.

"Seven years ago my friend," said Glenn smiling and admiring the quality of the textile bearing his name.

"I wear this all the time, even when there aren't tournaments on during the weekend." For a moment, Glenn Michibata thought he sensed an urgent desperation in the fisherman's mention of tennis. Was it the quick darting of the eyes? Was it the jittery right foot? Or was it the stale stench of sweat that encompassed Monty?

"Good quality," he replied, handing Monty a Carlsberg from his beer bucket.

"I shouldn't," he said. "I'm-"

"What? You're not working are you?" asked Glenn Michibata. Monty shook his head. He accepted the beer with shaky hands, twisted off the cap, drank deeply and almost immediately felt a bolder voice creep into his windpipe.

Sitting down near Toss Longespee, who was still wearing his prescription sunglasses, Pascal Gufflet noticed the French Open security chief Warwick Biggerstaff in the booth beside the scoreboard watching Monty and Glenn Michibata through binoculars. Pascal Gufflet slumped down into his seat in mild alarm and brought the sugary cake to his mouth, taking a big bite.

As Pascal Gufflet chewed his cake at a brisk pace, Warwick Biggerstaff turned his binoculars to a small gentleman wearing a blue Yonex shirt and cap that said "The Hellmantles." Layton Corners didn't know where Warwick Biggerstaff was but he could talk to him on his wireless phone and earpiece that he had been given by Monsieur Poussin and Carter Mason during his briefing in the stairwell. Layton Corners still couldn't figure out why Carter Mason had started to laugh when he met him in the stairwell with Monsieur Poussin halfway up from the control center 50m below. Regardless, Carter Mason thought it more effective for Layton Corners to resume his seat and scout Monty in the Glenn Michibata tracksuit incognito. There was something slippery about Mr. Corners that Carter Mason thought he could utilize to his advantage. So Layton Corners sat in the stands with his knapsack at his feet and his earpiece partially hidden by his newly purchased French scarf.

But despite the fact that security was watching Monty, Pascal Gufflet felt no fear. If Monty was compromised, he still had the detonator in the breast pocket of his herringbone tweed. Only he knew where the second bomb was, the one he had failed to mention to Monty. It was a deception born by a deep personal vengeance from an event in his past that he could not forget. It was Warwick Biggerstaff who had blackballed him from joining the elite Special Guard branch of Les Gendarmes for a minor offence involving Biggerstaff's daughter. He knew he was good enough for the job just as he knew he had morally weak fibre. As far as he was concerned, what happened with Stiffy's daughter was a separate issue, so justice needed to be served.

With the sudden splash of sun, and the birds lending songs to the proceedings, Pascal Gufflet, son of the well known professor Yves St. Jean Gufflet, teacher of the philosopher Henri Bergson, felt a comforting wave of calm when Hellmantle bounced his strings off the heel of his palm, stood up and walked to the fore court to serve. The truth be told: he loved the sport of tennis.

Just as Hellmantle was getting to the baseline, a cluster of 12 year-old boys ran up the stairs to the north corner laughing at something. They settled in the row directly above Pascal Gufflet where one of them held a large Coke that wafted of rum.

"Everything all right over there Luc?" asked the teacher Miss Leduc. With a nod and a squinty grin, Luc and his fellow schoolmates took out hot dogs from the bag at their feet and began to eat between bouts of giggles. One of the students, little Johnny Arbuckle, could not control his giggling, so he buried his head in his hands and let his face stay red. Behind them, Toss Longespee had eye contact with the man with two beers and cake who sat near the kids. Toss could tell he was French but the bow tie and herringbone tweed jacket made it look like he was trying to look English.

Luc, seeing Pascal Gufflet looking back towards him, turned his head and saw a man with long legs and sunglasses on. Just then, as both players walked onto the court, the crowd began to shout words of encouragement to Ketchum and Hellmantle. It wasn't the beginning of a tiebreak, but the beginning of a match where to be the victor you had to win by two games. The French fans, led by a few particularly enthusiastic female supporters, urged Hellmantle to hold his serve.

Hellmantle gave his towel to Guy, who in turn placed three balls on his racquet face. Plucking one for his pocket and one for his serve, he chipped the ball back to Guy and approached the line. But before reaching the line Hellmantle sized up the Brit and saw what looked like clay stains on his shorts surrounding his genitals. Hellmantle straightened his posture and squinted at the bearer of the marred white shorts. "How hard can it be to beat someone who willingly grabs his family jewels" he said to himself, and then looked at Guy for support.

"He's English," said Guy, who gave Hellmantle a nod that he had inherited from his fahter. For a moment Hellmantle felt a flood of solidarity with Guy and his French Vicountess Buffy Cranford-Patelle and the soul of the French nation. He had to stop this British invasion on French soil. It was his national duty.

"Quiet please" said Rusty Hugh. "Six-six, fifth set, love all. Monsieur Higgins a servir." Rusty had pulled the umbrella over him to protect himself from the beaming late afternoon light that shone directly on Hellmantle bouncing the ball. Hellmantle's posture was never slouched like the winner of 14 Grand Slam titles Pete Sampras. But despite not having the Sampras Slouch, he did want to employ what he called the Sampras Clutch - once ahead in a game he never let go. It was imperative that he took the first point and employ the Sampras Clutch.

Feeling a deep hunger to win, he went for his first serve hard and wide but it caught the top of the net and dropped in the service box.

"Let. Premium service." Only the sound of whistling could be heard in Jacques Cartier Stadium, but for Hellmantle it was another chance to strike the ball with the aim of the follow through to the net.

Back at the line he nodded at Guy for a second ball, but stored that in his other pocket, and took out the other. Taking a slow, deep breath, Hellmantle slid into his serving motion that was as effortless as the serve of Wayne Arthurs, and just as effective. He picked Ketchum's backhand corner but the six-foot-five Celt managed to get his racquet on it, albeit with one arm lancing out horizontally in what appeared to be anguished support of his left foot.

The return of serve arrived on the Norman's forehand. Sensing that Ketchum was still limping, instead of putting away the shallow return with a hard-struck winner, Hellmantle hit a crisp topspin to Ketchum's forehand. At first, with so much open court to hit it away, yet because it was hit softly, Ketchum stuttered on the clay in indecision. When he pushed for the ball the topspin bounced it forward causing the Brit to contact the ball at the top of his strings. Ketchum's return landed deep, which prevented Hellmantle from approaching the net. He stepped up to the ball and struck it like Juan Carlos Ferrero - with such topspin that his racquet face almost smothered the ball.

The Ketchum return was swift down the backhand line. Hellmantle bit into a classic Rusetski backspin backhand but without the same body English. Ketchum then stepped up to the ball and nailed it again down the line only to catch the tape. The ball slowed by the net chord, landed mid-court so Hellmantle returned it deep. Ketchum again went down the backhand line but Hellmantle anticipated the ball. He stepped into the backhand volley like it was ice cream. The ball landed in the open court with Ketchum nowhere to be found.

"Cinquante - zero."

 
 

 

 

 
 
 

 
 

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