The Old Blog And The Sea

You might have noticed (oh God, I do hope you noticed), that there was no blog entry last week, and that’s because it was half-term, so we spent the week visiting my in-laws in Norwich.

Then, last Friday (or ‘Blog Day’ as I now like to call it – and feel free to join me), I conquered two of my biggest fears: the ocean, and playing badminton with pensioners.

The ocean is quite a common phobia to have – it’s right up there with spiders, heights, and the Dark Lord of the Sith herself, Theresa May – and even has its own medical term: Thalassophobia (which, strangely, is also a fear of women from Yorkshire).  However, whilst Thalassophobia covers everything from a fear of drowning (entirely rational) to travelling by sea (less rational, but still perfectly understandable – and probably related to the fear of drowning), my ocean-based phobia is completely irrational: I hate ‘paddling’ my feet in the sea.

Admittedly, it’s not so much a fear, more an inherent dislike, and its actually the sand sticking to my feet afterwards that I detest the most, but, whatever the reason, I try to avoid dipping my tootsies into the surf at all costs.  The problem is, unlike drowning and travelling by sea (which are easily avoidable), when you take two young children to the seaside, as we did last week, getting your feet encrusted with wet sand – and, even worse, beach flotsam – is virtually inevitable.

As for my other phobia, the fear of playing badminton with pensioners is unquestionably more obscure, and doesn’t have its own medical terminology. This is partly because there should be very little to fear in the first place, but also because the only people who tend to play badminton with pensioners, are other pensioners, and the elderly are frightened of nothing (except, perhaps, going into a home, or losing their winter fuel payment).

Anyway, last Friday I met both fears (together with an additional fear I never knew I had) head on, and survived to tell the tale. Here is that tale:

I got up early and, despite the fact I was on holiday, went for a run in the large park opposite my in-law’s house. Running is still not a pastime I particularly relish, but since I have spent a sizeable sum on my new trainers, and since there aren’t many other ways I can see to halt (and perhaps shrink) my ever-increasing belly, I must persevere.

The good news, is that I not only managed to successfully complete a distance I haven’t run since my late teens (and by ‘successfully’, my benchmark these days is to finish running without vomiting or requiring medical attention), but I could have continued, if it weren’t for the fact I needed to get to badminton, and because I was distracted by a semi-naked man having a wash in the boating pond. Well, I say ‘semi-naked’, but it was more like 90% naked, as he was only wearing boxer shorts (although he may have had socks on too, as I could only see him from the shins up).

The first time I passed the pond, I spotted him stood there, soaking wet, as if he had just been for a wash or swim. I assumed it was the former, because this particular pond is only about two feet deep, and is primarily used for sailing model yachts and remote-controlled boats:

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Boating Pond, Eaton Park, Norwich

Not most people’s idea of a pleasant morning dip, I’m sure you’ll agree – although I’d still choose this over the ocean. The really confusing part, however, was that he was staring at me, like I was the weird one, and he was thinking: Don’t know what you’re looking at. I’m just washing my bits in this ‘ere pond; you’re the one running around, in bright yellow shoes, in broad daylight.

The second time I passed him (I’d contemplated changing my route to avoid doing so, but didn’t want to get lost), he was surrounded by three police officers, and my opinion of him suddenly changed. I had initially assumed he was some lunatic going for an early morning dip, in what is essentially a large (public) puddle, but now I had to accept that he might be homeless, and in need of help. He had stared at me, like I was the odd one, but maybe this had been his way of silently pleading for assistance, and I had simply run on. What if he was vulnerable, and mute with confusion or fear?

But then I thought: what if I was right the first time? What if, when I initially passed him, I’d assumed he needed my help, but it turned out he was just a semi-naked nutter after all? It might not have ended very well for me, with no one else around. After all, even though he was only wearing boxers, he could still have been concealing a sizeable weapon down there, with an intention to thrust it into me.

Wait, that came out wrong.

Anyway, I ran back to the house, to avoid further involvement with either the nutter or the police, showered, quickly grabbed some breakfast, and jumped in the car to get to badminton.

Until last year, I can safely say that playing badminton against a group of pensioners would not have featured very highly on my list of fears. In fact, it wouldn’t have made the list at all, as it wasn’t an activity I had ever previously contemplated, let alone lost sleep over.

Then, whilst in Norwich last summer, I was invited to join my wife’s parents at their weekly badminton group and, whilst I’m relatively shit at the sport anyway, I was secretly confident that at least I wouldn’t embarrass myself. After all, even if some of the old-timers were former professionals, they couldn’t all be that good, and even with my comparatively poor fitness levels, I felt sure they would tire before me, as I had a good thirty years on most of them.

As it turned out, I was 50% right, since none of them were former professionals – although they were all playing at a relatively high standard – but they were bloody fit for people in their 60’s and 70’s. Well, they were fitter than me, and that’s all I really cared about, because if I couldn’t beat them in terms of skill (and I couldn’t), then my only weapon was youth. Sadly, whilst I often joke that I am a grumpy old man, trapped in the body of a middle-aged one, I always thought that referred to my outlook on life, rather than my physical fitness.

In any event, whether it was my general decrepitude, or the fact these people were in remarkably good shape for their age (honestly, it was like Cocoon), didn’t really matter to me. What mattered, was that after ninety minutes of being distinctly average, at a sport I’ve now been playing for a few years, against a group of people who have bus passes, replaced body parts, and – in some cases – birth certificates predating the demise of Hitler, I was breathing out of my arse.

It came as quite the shock. Maybe I had underestimated the older generation, or maybe I had misjudged just how physically unfit I was, but either way it taught me a lesson. And that lesson was: don’t play badminton with pensioners ever again.

Clearly, I didn’t learn the lesson for long, as last Friday I once again found myself at Wensum Sports Centre in Norwich, greeting people with names like Hilda and Doris (not their actual names, but you get the idea), and praying they wouldn’t once again destroy me, at one of the few sports I still enjoy.

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In truth, I knew what to expect this time, and probably performed better as a result, but they were still all in remarkably good shape for their respective ages, and aside from a few extra wrinkles here and there, no one would have been able to tell us apart.

In fact, the only time I was reminded of the age difference, was when a particularly low shot came towards me just over the net, and I dived to my left to try and reach it. When our normal group of middle-aged men play on a Friday evening, it is quite common for us to dive around to try and execute spectacular shots (my success rate is in the region of 7%), but as I landed on the floor, I suddenly realised that all three courts had stopped playing, and everyone was looking at me.

Apparently, if a player ends up on the floor during their weekly badminton sessions, it usually means someone has suffered ‘a bit of a fall’, and the consequences can be as severe as a dislocated knee or broken hip. They simply couldn’t understand why I might fall to the ground voluntarily.

Despite this minor embarrassment, I survived the session, and wasn’t entirely outplayed by people approximately twice my age, as I had been previously. As a result, I hopefully won’t be so anxious, if I am invited back next time we visit.

Unfortunately, the relative success of my badminton trip made me somewhat over-confident, so that when we went to the seaside later that same day, I decided to conquer another irrational fear, by joining my wife and boys for a paddle in the sea.

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Damn, my legs look good in this picture

However, while my trepidation of once again playing badminton against a group of pensioners had been largely unwarranted, my recollection of paddling in the ocean (something I haven’t done for several years) was pretty much spot on. The water was cold, murky, salty, and provided the perfect adhesive for half of the fucking beach to cling to, from my toes right up to my knees.

At least I was half right.

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Blogminton

When our eldest son, Ollie, was a baby, my wife started attending various groups and classes in and around Sandbach, to mingle with other new mums, share any tips or concerns, and generally get out of the house to prevent that post-baby ‘cabin fever’ kicking in.

She made some very good friends via those classes, and a small group eventually broke off to form their own little gang of mothers, who would meet once a week for coffee and cake.

After a while, the topic of their respective partners apparently cropped up, and one lady mentioned how her husband didn’t really know anyone locally, and didn’t socialise outside of his school and work friendship groups. From what I can gather, my darling wife took this as an invitation to emphasise my own unbearable loneliness and social anonymity within Sandbach (which I hadn’t noticed until then), whereupon a few other ladies all concurred about their own other halves.

This then developed into said harem taking it upon themselves to become social secretaries for us, and arranging that we should all get together, post-haste, to bond and make new friends. Lovely. The fact that the only two things we all had in common, were the town in which we lived, and the fact that our wives were meddling gossips, didn’t seem to deter them one iota.

Upon learning of this plan, I tried to protest that I could make friends myself, thank you very much (at which point, my wife highlighted that we had been in Sandbach for three years, and I was yet to make one), and I found the whole thing very embarrassing and awkward. Annoyingly, however, the wives were right (as, I am informed, is standard practice) and we ‘Dads’ are all now good pals. Well, I consider them to be good friends, but they probably think I’m a dick.

Anyway, one of the husbands – who I now know very well – is a keen badminton player, and has competed semi-professionally in the past. Consequently, since he was eager to get back to playing locally, his good lady wife suggested that this would be an ideal way for us to mix, enjoy some sport and exercise, and perhaps go for a beer or two later. After all, we men often find forced-social outings somewhat awkward, and sport + beer is usually a good ice-breaker.

The first I knew about this arrangement, however, was when I returned home from work one evening, to be informed that I would be playing badminton – a sport I had last participated in (only twice), nearly twenty years earlier at school – that coming Friday. No amount of ‘I haven’t played since 1994, and I was shit then’, ‘but I’m fat and out of shape’ and ‘I haven’t even got a fucking racket’, was going to persuade her otherwise. It was happening.

Of course, she quickly responded to each of my protests with ‘it’s ok, none of them have played in years’ (conveniently omitting the aforementioned semi-professional), ‘anyway, you’re not that fat’ (back-handed compliment) and ‘don’t worry, someone is bringing a spare racket for you’ (oh, so they haven’t played in years, but they have more than one racket?). As usual, she had a response for every excuse I could muster.

I was then told that ‘Mr Semi-pro’ – I shall refer to him as that for now, since it would be unfair to use Doug’s real name without his permission – would pick me up at the end of our road at 7.45pm on the Friday evening, and he would indeed bring a spare racket for me. Ok, I thought, what’s the worst that can happen?

So, having asked my wife what car he drove, and having received the very unhelpful response of ‘a red one’, I stood at the end of our road that Friday evening, and waited for Doug to arrive (fuck it, might as well call him Doug now). Sure enough, shortly before 7.45pm, a red hatchback pulled up next to me, and in I got. The conversation which ensued, went very much like this:

“Hi! You must be Doug?”

“No, I’m not. Get the fuck out of my car.”

My initial reaction to this, wavered from ‘is he joking? Because if he is, it’s not very funny’, to ‘oh no, have I got his name wrong, and he’s massively overreacted to being called Doug?’, before it eventually dawned on me that no, this chap was very much not Doug, and it was far more likely that the red Honda Civic, which had just pulled up directly behind us, was in fact the vehicle I was looking for.

Having apologised profusely to ‘Not Doug’, and having tentatively got into the car of ‘Actual Doug’ (‘please, God, let THIS be the right car’), I then had to introduce myself, again, while explaining that I am not normally the sort of gent who car-hops on street corners of a Friday evening. Fortunately, Actual Doug saw the funny side.

Since that fateful evening, when I first demonstrated how pathetically woeful my badminton was (no surprise there), I’ll admit that I have improved a great deal, but then again so has the rest of the group, so I am still one of the worst players (if not the worst). It’s just that now, as a group, we occasionally look quite good, rather than cripplingly shite – or so Doug kindly tells us.

Even though I’m certain he will be embarrassed by the moniker of ‘Mr Semi-Pro’ which I have thrust upon him, the truth is, Doug’s miles better than the rest of us, and clearly has the ability to win a game in a matter of minutes, if he so chooses.

But, to his credit, he rarely does. He is incredibly patient, especially with me, and will often smile politely, while I make countless childish references to the ‘cock’ (to the uninitiated, that’s the thing with feathers you’re supposed to hit), in order to try and disguise my inadequacy at his chosen sport.

I have no doubt that, while I’m larking around, a small part of him is dying inside, but he’d never let on. Every so often, you can see the precise moment when his brain thinks ‘right, fuck this’, shortly before he destroys the opposition, but it’s then out of his system, and he’s back to playing more at our level.

There have been times, when I have naively convinced myself I have him beaten, with a particularly clever shot (these are, of course, rarer than unicorn shit), only for him to somehow contort his body and win the point. I barely have time to think ‘he’ll never get to that’, before the cock is whizzing back past me. *sniggers*

This sort of Jedi shit

As for the rest of the core group (as there have been a few others who have played a handful of times over the past few years), there is a good range of ability.

I don’t think anyone would mind me saying that Richard and Chris (whose names have been swapped around, to preserve their anonymity) are two of the better players, and Richard’s (well, Chris’) determination to throw himself at every shot is commendable.

Honestly, he dives more than Tom Daley and Cristiano Ronaldo put together, and spends a good half of each session leaping through the air like a salmon. I tried this once, when a particularly low shot was creeping away from my (admittedly considerable) wingspan, and I completely knackered my knee. I now leave the diving to Richard (Chris).

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Not actually Chris. Chris isn’t even remotely Chinese

We have another Richard too (I know what you’re thinking, two dicks!) and, again, I don’t think he would mind me saying he’s more at my level. In his defence, he only joined us a few months ago, so to think he’s already caught up with (and probably surpassed) my abilities, says a great deal about either my slow progress, or his quick advancement.

Rich is also, like me, partial to a bit of double entendre (which is French for ‘two entendres’), and in a sport where there is a very real chance of getting ‘a cock in the face’, this is often too good for us to resist.

Finally, Rich has one secret weapon, which none of us can possibly match. He is, without doubt, the owner of the most disturbed digestive system of any man I have ever known. I’m not sure what he generally eats (decomposing road-kill, presumably), but there is not a week goes by, when he doesn’t clear the court with an air biscuit of catastrophic proportions.

Naturally (although there is nothing natural about it), he can be a useful ally with this weapon up his sleeve – or shorts – but such is the potency of his rectal turbulence, even his own teammate at the time (and, indeed, anyone within a half-mile radius) is exposed to the chemical warfare, and usually ends up with their eyes stinging to the point they cannot focus.

All in all, we now have a weekly excuse to get out of the house, enjoy some good-humoured sport, and then put back on whatever calories we may have burned, by going to the pub afterwards.

And, rather annoyingly, it’s all thanks to our interfering wives.

Damn. I hate it when she’s right.

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