Wordcarpenter Books
The Mantle Pat

Wormburner

In front of the hastily erected, public Jumbotron that perched high over the main entrance to the Roland Garros tennis complex, a carnival atmosphere had developed. Thousands of jostling, electrified tennis fans, their numbers growing by the minute, now filled the sidewalks on both sides of the tree-lined Rue Papillon. What had spurred them on to make the journey was of course the drama that they had watched unfold on their television sets that afternoon, but more importantly it was the familiar, encouraging words of French television's debonair and popular host, Gerrard Feltier. 

Although he had never lifted a tennis racquet in his life and was, truth be known, ill-equipped with knowledge about the sport, Feltier's uncanny ability to rouse an audience at just the right moment with just the right amount of dramatic emphasis and pause was the stuff of contemporary French legend. The words Allons-y mes amis...ca c'est incroyable...ca c'est l´histoire, were no exception, stirring to action as they did, the souls and estrogen levels of a nation gripped in the throes of one of the hardest fought finals ever.

For Feltier, the stampede that ensued was a welcome sight, proof that he still had it, that upstarts like the suddenly popular tattoo-toothed Daniel Toulouse had a long way to go.  But that same stampede had also put pressure on the aluminium barricades that Grosjean Sr.s men had quickly erected along the edges of the tree-lined Rue Papillon, mere hours before the match.  In no time, the crowds had proved too much and in one big exalted sigh the barricades gave, spilling masses of exuberant fans onto the avenue itself where they brought to a halt the long line of VIP-only traffic.  Graciously lubricated by the sudden and welcome appearance of a corporate army of beverage and snack purveyors, the crowd gathered themselves as one and looked up, hypnotized by the action unfolding on the giant screen.

For Raoul Grosjean, the barricade breach was yet another setback. After appealing for calm with one of his more eager lieutenants (who was advocating water cannons on the Rue Papillon crowd), he turned back to the wall of security monitors in the interrogation cell below center court and thought long and hard how to turn the situation around.   Fuck vous, Feltier he said to himself as he stared up at the man with the dyed brown hair preening in front of Le Jumbotron on camera 7.   Et Fuck Vous aussi, Poussin. he  thought biting down hard on a Jellybelly as his eyes caught his archrival in a tete-a-tete with Carter Manson on camera 12.  Votre jour et finit.

Monseiur Johnson, Je demande Monsieur Feltier la maintenant!  As Feltier preened, waiting to go live for the gathered crowd, his dyed blonde dynamo of an assistant (and a big reason for his enduring success in the twilight of his career) Ana-Marie de Pontives, bellowed into her mobile at the Le Jumbotron  operator, Jean Jenson (pronounced Gene JENson by his Canadian friends).  I don't care if Charles de Gaulle is in the crowd, Monsieur Jenson. It is Monsieur. Feltier that has brought these people to your La fucking Jumbotron, so damn well give them Monsieur. Feltier!  Although there was a great deal of noise around her, the part-time film producer Ana-Marie bristled as the word bitch  echoed down the line just before it went dead.

At that moment, a hundred metres up the road in the direction of Porte d'Auteuil, the metro station that was producing the growing throng, a tall, curly-haired man stepped out of a Green, chauffeur-driven Jaguar XJT which, after having been brought to a halt by the crowds, was now attempting a rather difficult three-point turn amidst much honking and shouting.  After adjusting his sunglasses in the sudden glare of sunlight that greeted him on the road, Phelim O'Shea, France Representative for Corks Courts, leaned forward, two boxes clutched tightly under his arm,  and began to push his way through the crowd in the direction of the VIP entrance, a heavily guarded orange booth that sat in a side street off to the left of the main entrance.

 

Passionate about tennis from a young age and a big fan of Irish Tennis great Terry Mulligan, O'Shea, days earlier, had been disappointed at the rebuff to his request, filed through his boss, Fergus Goring, for a seat at the Men's finals.  Accepting the apologies of Ketchum's long-standing agent and close friend, Vernon Rees and settling for seats to the women's finals the day before (another yawner between the Williams sisters) , the good-natured O'Shea had nevertheless been confused by the sight of four empty seats in the Ketchum box for most of the men's finals match, a match he had watched with keen detail, from the outset, on the big screen at Cedric's Café.  

But confusion over empty seats had turned to convulsions when in the fifth set O'Shea had witnessed, along with millions of others worldwide, the sight of the sole of Ketchum's shoe becoming disengaged.  ‘Jaysus, were fooked'  he had said, his Irish eyes closed and head tilted upwards towards the cobwebbed, curiously mirrored ceiling of Cedric's.

But even the convulsions didn't last long. Minutes later, O'Shea's phone rang with none other than his boss Goring, beside himself in anxiety, and ordering O'Shea to get two new pairs of Cork Courts and to meet his driver in front of the apartment in 10 minutes. Luckily, Cedric's (N.B-at night, this café turns into the sex club where the kids got cornered) was in the same building as O'Shea's one-room bachelor pad-come-Corks Courts warehouse and minutes later the curly-haired Celt was standing nervously out front of the building, clutching two pairs of Courts Courts under the right arm of his best Irish tweed and waiting for the green Jaguar to whisk him away to the pandemonium and drama a few kilometers down the road.

The growing mass of people that lined the Jaguars route brought an adrenalin rush to the young Irishman. As he stared out at their anxious and excited faces he imagined them waving to him, the world's number two, second only to the greatest Celtic artist the tennis court had ever known (who at that exact moment was waiting for Higgins to tie his shoe)  en-route to his first Grand Slam final.  But the breached barricade brought the fantasy and the car to an abrupt halt.

Back in reality, and aware of the urgency of his mission, O'Shea thanked the driver and leapt out of the car.  After adjusting his sunglasses for glare and clutching the boxes tightly under his arm he leaned forward and pushed his way through the crowds. Passing Le Jumbotron he found himself accosted by the planet-sized image of Gerrard Feltier beaming down all shallow and sugary, Your Mans a fuhkin farce he chuckled gleefully to the crowd, and then left them for the relatively barren and heavily guarded sidestreet  where he was told his pass was waiting.

Meanwhile, on another barren bit of road, this one thousands of miles away across an ocean and bordered only by cactii and tumbleweed, Lily-Jean Talbot-King, steered her Chrysler Lebaron soft top through a pre-dawn duststorm in the direction of her daughter Tannis' house, 30 miles East of Reno.  Widowed a year earlier following the sudden death of her husband, a former West Coast Fisherman-turned-Black Jack-Dealer-turned-casino-fire-casualty , Lily-Jean  had made a ritual of the Sunday morning visit to her daughter, a single mother and part-time voice-over professional.  Today she had a freshly cooked rhubarb pie and newly knit wool sweater for her granddaughter Blaine and was calmly eyeing both in the rearview mirror when her mobile rang. It was Tannis'

Hi Mom, How's traffic?  Lily-Jean smiled as she always did at this question for there was never any traffic on this stretch of highway at that hour on a Sunday. Her daughter sounded unusually cheerful this morning.  Trish called from the station to say that she's got two commercials for me this week.' ¨'Great dear' was the reply. So, I should be able to pay back the money I owe you next week.' ‘Super Dear, Lily-Jean responded.  ‘Oh, and listen, Trish is also running a contest this morning on the radio - something related to some tennis tournament in Europe. It should be on now on 91.4. I thought you be interested since I know you used to play and all. Marvelous, Dear.   Drive safe, Mom!' ‘Will do, Dear.'

Tennis, thought Lily-Jean, My, My, How interesting. With that she adjusted the Brown Chanel sunglasses perched on her head (a gift from her daughter), turned on the old AC Delco radio and flicked the line slowly to the right listening for 91.4.  In front of the car a tumbleweed bounced across the highway while off in the distance a flash of heat lightning lit up the remains of the night sky.  How pretty, she thought. And then, as if a branch of the far-off lightning bolt had traveled underground and come up into the car through one of the many heat cracks in the road beneath, Lily-Jean's jaw locked, her face paled and the beige car swerved dangerously to the right. 

Seconds later, the car lay on its side partially hidden in a patch of dry tumbleweed. Lily-Jean, fingers still clasped to the wheel lay unhurt, the side of her face inches from the parched earth. In a tone of voice only slightly less vital than the one used minutes earlier with her daughter, she whispered two words: ‘Butch Grogan.'  It was a name she would continue to echo and a position she would continue to hold, trancelike, throughout a series of unanswered calls from Tannis, and a parade of wrong answers to Grogan's deep, throaty question, ‘From what town in what country does Hellmantle Hail?

Back at the VIP ticket window in Paris waiting for the girl to fetch his pass, Phelim O'Shea took a moment to spin around and soak in the Grand Slam atmosphere. He grinned innocently as the smells of spring and French perfume flew off a few well-heeled women who scurried past en route to center court from Biggerstaff's lounge. He held the grin as he panned to the right where under a group of transplanted trees, three young women with tennis bags slung over their shoulders, juniors he guessed, giggled amidst slugs of Evian. And the grin remained as he spotted a discarded Depends diaper lying on the ground beyond the gaggle of girls and wondered if he should pick it up as a souvenir or even ammunition to wave once he was inside.

The innocent grin then faded to concern and then knowing exasperation as his eyes picked out a single man in a strikingly similar tweed, who alternated between glances at his watch and scans of the empty street and security wall beyond. Imagine, he thought, to be kept waiting at a time like this! As he considered how frustrating that might be, he glanced up at the sun, whose time and power were fast becoming marked by a wall of menacing black cloud. Back up past the barricade on the Rue Papillion, a roar went up from the crowd leading O'Shea's eyes to the giant screen where the reverse image on the back showed a slow-motion replay of ‘The Slide', Ketchum's superhuman feat to reach a ball that was ultimately hit out, was yet again replayed for television audiences worldwide.

A woman's voice behind brought him back to the ticket counter. He took the purple bracelet and dog tag he was handed by the cute young girl behind the counter and was in the moment of adjusting them around his neck and wrist when a shallow, hollow thock! brought his attention straight back to the man in tweed.

In the split second that his eyes came into focus he watched keenly as the man's hands shot to his inside pocket while at the same time his body swung on a dime, his face pale and frantic. A split second later, the man looked up and over his back, where his eyes latched on to a bright green tennis ball that arced slowly up and over his head, before coming down to rest just outside the line marking the cue for the VIP ticket booth.

Though his immediate reaction was to yell  ‘Out' , something eerie about the man's movement forced O'Shea to bite his lip and turn away from the man's cold stare.  The suddenly concerned look on the face of the schoolgirl behind the ticket counter reflected the look in O'Shea's as he looked down, taking stock of what he had just witnessed.  As one of the security guards from beside the booth moved to pick up the ball, O'Shea glanced out of the corner of his eye, trying to understand what the man had been protecting, why he was so obviously on edge. This isn't about a woman at all, he thought as he gathered his boxes and struck out after a man that instinct told him he shouldn't let out of his sight.

And yet, no sooner was he inside the East Gate tailing the furtive figure who also headed in the direction of entrance ‘C' when his attention was diverted by a roar of applause from inside the Jacques Chartier court.  On the closed circuit t.v screens that lined the wall above the inner foyer, O'Shea watched as a smiling Ketchum leaned over a row of flower boxes and handed a large-rimmed yellow sun hat back to a regal-looking older woman in the Michelin box. She stood up and courtside, a gesture that met with the approval of the crowd and a blush from Ketchum who paused and smiled before blowing a kiss and walking back to the line to a new round of applause.  Who's the bird? wondered  O'Shea as he turned back and realized, too late, he lost sight of  the man in tweed.

Figuring the man must have cut to the court through one of the earlier entranceways on his right, O´Shea slid into the next one, ‘B' and came out just above court level on Ketchum's side. Before he could take note of the people around him, a security guard approached and asked if he was Phelim. Before he could answer, the guard continued in a whisper, I'll take the boxes, your seat is over there.  He pointed at a box off to the left. His eyes followed the indicating finger which eventually settled on Raluca, Ketchum's trainer who looked up from the bench beyond, waved at O'Shea and mouthed the words Thank you!.  The Irishman, caught in a sudden and fleeting rush of attention smiled awkwardly. Before O'Shea could put a foot forward, however, the security guard lifted his hand and indicated he should step back and wait for the next point to be played. Scanning the crowd from the shade of entrance ‘C', O'Shea found nobody fitting the description of his tweed friend.  Higgins, shoelace tied, approached the line.

 

A thousand kilometers south, from the balcony of his suite in the highly exclusive Hotel Du Cap, Taylor Fleck, new president of the USTPA, stood in a coffee-stained white hotel bathrobe, staring out in thought at the hotel grounds that swept effortlessly and majestically down to the rocky shores and sparkling Mediterranean sea below.

Cap d'Antibes , a rustic peninsula, a civilized distance away from the crowds of Cannes, had been recommended by his assistant as the perfect place for Fleck to retreat from the busy schedule enforced upon him since taking over the reigns of the organization two years prior. Reversing the decline in audience ratings and player enthusiasm had been the mantle enforced upon the former film marketing whiz and he had risen to the task expertly. Encouraging dynamic personalities like Ketchum and Sampras and condoning capricious characters like Higgins had been the cornerstone of his turnaround effort.  But now, as he felt the French doors open behind him and heard the sound of a laptop connecting to the internet, he was reminded that his seclusion from a tournament (and continent) he didn't particularly like was fast expiring.

I mean really, Taylor, shit, if you'll excuse the word, is hitting the fan here. Grace, his strong-willed assistant (and sister to 80's tennis heartthrob Tracy Austin) had suddenly materialized beside the big boned Fleck, and placing her laptop on the sculpted stone wall in front of them began to click on a series of images that showed Higgins apparently hiding beneath a chair.  Exasperated by yet another viewing of the debacle in Paris, Taylor finally asked to watch again the video clip that Grace had shown him earlier of Higgins swatting at the imaginary bee. After all I've done for him thought Taylor as he watched the clip loop.   What an Idiot.

Paris? , he asked,  looking up with a pained expression directly into Graces green eyes. I don't think you have a choice, her eyes replied. Her look was apologetic and sad.  But in order to hide her heartbreak at having a well organized, two-day break alone with Taylor ended before it had even begun, she turned and looked away, the back of her ponytail bouncing inches from Fleck's nose.

Get Carter on the phone and let him know said Taylor mesmerized by the sweet aroma that climbed off her thick hair.  Then, as he turned to join her for a last look out over the horizon, a cool breath of fresh pine and blossoms washed over them, carrying their mutual, yet exclusive disappointment down past the croquet lawn, helicopter pad, and out to sea.

Further down on the Riveriera, on her terrace overlooking the rocky cliffs of Capri, Mrs. Ketchum, a Martini in her left hand and cigarette in her right, looked over the shoulder of Jim Cranford-Patelle who himself worked a mouse (less expertly than Grace, to be sure) clicking on various images of Ketchum that their associate Erwin Van Gothenburg had snapped just moments before on the hot clay in Paris.  Apart from the sound of the mouse clicking and Mr. Ketchum's satisfied snores from behind the shuttered windows behind, there was a curious silence about the terrace and the glass sea it looked out over, hundreds of metres below.

Jim, go back the picture of the blonde.  Ketchum's bachelorhood, while great for the marketing of his personality, was beginning to grate on Mrs. K.  As she had Jim scroll through more shots of her son with various women, many looking as if they were intimate with the sideburned superstar, she couldn't help but repeat the name of one woman who continued to stand out from all the rest: Cindy Kafel.  Turning to the glassy sea below she suddenly exclaimed, her voice rising, He's a real FOOL  to let her go, Jim, a real FOOL. .  With that cue, Jim clicked on a J-Peg in the upper left-hand corner of the screen and out jumped a close-up of a beaming Ketchum, his strong arms tightly clasped around vivacious-looking Cindy Kafel. Mrs. K, glanced over at the laptop and calmed by what she saw, looked back at a view almost identical to the one in the backdrop of the picture.

Satisfied that Mrs. K. has seen what she had wanted and entered into one of her reflective moods, Jim Cranford-Pantelle, opened another J-Peg. This one featured Glenn Michibata and Daryl Montegue engaged in what looked like a discussion about  Darryl's clothing.  Good, good  mumbled Jim and closed the picture quickly.

Following the tying of the shoelace and some momentary confusion regarding the whereabouts of the ball he had just hit for a winner, Higgins, convinced he now had it,  gathered himself and walked once more to the baseline.  Across the court, Ketchum tapped his racquet lightly on the clay in front of him and looked straight back.

Higgins' unorthodox and high toss has always been something of a conversation piece at the big tournaments.  For many, the high toss meant more room for error (and certainly, Higgins' first serve percentage was nothing to write home about).  But what was clear was that the high toss was necessary to give the man in the lime-green shorts time to work his racquet around his head in the flag waving motion he employed, a motion more recognizable among  older players past their prime and conscious of fragile backs and shoulders.

After working an extra laborious-looking version of the wave, Higgins looked up and immediately found himself looking directly into a fiery and defiant ball of sun.  Squinting was no use and not wanting the embarrassment of a re-toss, he opted to follow through.  In doing so, the edge of his oversized frame sliced the edge of the ball, taking the ‘R' in ‘Roland Garros' off and sending it softly back off to his left where it landed harmlessly at the feet of a group of late arrivals in section ‘C', one entranceway down from O'Shea.

Embarrassed, Higgins turned for another ball.  As he did a gasp went up from the crowd. One of the spectators at whose feet the ball had landed was none other than Younes El Aynaoui , the Moroccan heartthrob  who had wowed the tennis world in a marathon Quarter final match earlier in the year against teen sensation Andy Roddick in Australia.  Friends with Ketchum from their training days with Nastase in Bucharest the year before (an offer from Ketchum that had literally turned the Moroccan's game around)  El Aynoui had chosen to surprise Ketchum by showing up in France with three stunning Somalian back-up singers, a gesture he was sure would curry favour with the Wimbledon champ and add spice to their jam scheduled for Club Bastille the following night.

As the crowd gasped and the camera shutters clicked, El Aynoui, in traditional Moroccan garb, grinned widely and threw the ball back onto the court.

Silence called out Hugh.

Higgins' next toss was lower and as he came down over it he let out a massive grunt that appeared to help the ball over the net and deep to Ketchum's backhand.  Embattled by the sight of his old friend, Ketchum opted for a cross-court backhand with as much topspin as he could muster and the resulting shot bounced high, just inside the baseline.

Caught off-guard, Higgins scurried back and hit a high lobbed return.  With out much pace, Ketchum was able to get into position quickly and responded with a big backswing and an even harder hit backhand with even more topspin. The sharper angle on this shot, forced Higgins to run it down. Figuring he had no other option than to hit a winner, he reached back and it a topspin backhand with as much force as he could muster.

Having controlled the point until now, Ketchum anticipated the shot and ran to meet it with a volley. As Higgins scrambled deep to the far side of the court , Ketchum, a look of extreme concentration on his face brought the face of his racquet down sharply in a slice.  The effect of this motion turned an already fast spinning ball into a faster spinning ellipse. The ball cut hard through the air and  looked, for a moment,  as if it might not make it.  But, as the crowd held their collective breath and watched, the ball skidded down, over the net chord and cut deep into the clay,  less than a foot on the other side.

Higgins, realizing that the deep winner he had expected was not coming, stumbled and then broke into a gait that although awkward, held the promise of contact.  But Ketchum's slice had left very little to chance. By the time the Merovingian had got within the serving line, and had lurched forward into the air, the ball had bit back and of its own accord rose quickly back over the tape and bounced harmlessly on the other side.  Ahh Yes thought Ketchum proudly, The Wormburner.

As Higgins came to rest, the left side of his face inches from the dry clay a resounding clamour arose from the stands.

In a similar position, across the world, Lily-Jean Talbot-King, broke from her trance. A roar, not unlike the one that erupted as Higgin's body crashed to the ground, caused her to blink and then look around.  As she watched a transport truck roar off into the distance she heard Butch Grogan's lips smack after a slug of coffee and continue.  Right then, who can answer the thousand dollar question? Takiing your calls now at 767-8011. Back after this break.  As a warm wave of realization and confession swept up from her toes and engulfed her body, Lily-Jean answered You silly old Fool. Have I got a surprise for you!  With that she reached for her phone and began to dial.

In Paris, the image of Ketchum smiling over a fallen Hellmantle had the fans and professional photographers in a shuttered panic.  Amidst it all, Higgins could only watch, a look of dismay,  as the green ball, spotted now with the first drops of rain, rolled slowly away towards the excited sixth finger of Isabelle Delacroix.

Dismay was also upon the face of Phelim O'Shea as he walked down towards the seat on his ticket only to find it now occupied by El Aynaoui and its retinue. It was the same group of seats that O'Shea had watched lie empty for most of the match. To have them snatched away at the last minute tested his patience greatly.

And, since he was not one to have his patience tested often, it took all his concentration to figure out how to deal with the situation.  Concentration he might otherwise have employed in the search for the Man in Tweed whose cover was about to be blown by a hotdog in the upper stands on the other side of the court.

 
 

 

 

 
 

 
 

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