The Mallet's Clonk Heralds Sweet Victory
THE goldfish knew it was summer. Not because water temperature rose and honey-gold sunlight invited them to bask near the surface. Not because the waterlilies spread their flat umbrellas above them. Not because the young hatched.Skip to next paragraph
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No. They knew that balmy days were here again when the bombing began. Suddenly a large round object would break their murky tranquillity by a violent descent to the bottom of the pool, then bounce, bob around excitedly, and finally float. It would not be there for long. A wooden thing like a large hammer would guide the bomb to the pond's edge, and pink fingers would lift it drippingly out.
The goldfish knew. They knew that once this first cataclysmic intervention occurred, it would recur for months. Now they had to be on their guard. Plan for spontaneous retreat.
There were other warning signs, fortunately: a great increase of laughter east of the pond; an irregular but persistent "clonk" sound. Groans, too, as of humans in torment. It was the time when, after a good mowing, our rectangular front lawn was converted into a field of cunning battle and desperate designs.
Croquet is a dangerous game - and not just for goldfish. Dad's begonias, glorious in the borders surrounding the lawn, were only too brittle when caught in the relentless onrush of an over-enthusiastically walloped ball. In really wild moments, even the greenhouse, though behind a wall, was not secure. On the two sides of the lawn where the ground fell away, balls were forever flying into orbit. Sometimes they disappeared deep into the heather, and all four players would become a search party. Croquet ba lls - red, yellow, black, and blue - are much larger of course than tennis or golf balls, so they are comparatively easy to find.
But I suspect the chief danger of croquet at our home in Surrey, England, was to the morale of visitors. Unwittingly, they would be only too happy to agree to a game. But would we just remind them of the rules? They'd be surprised that there was only one finishing post, in the middle, not two, at the ends. They would be slightly upset to know that players aren't allowed to place a foot on a ball to stop it from moving when it is mallet-thwacked to send another ball touching it as far away as possible. Th ey would be dismayed to see how narrow the hoops were - scarcely wider than the balls themselves.
But their real bemusement would set in when the game began. They would have no idea how many extra turns a practiced player could earn as he instantly took charge of the game and proceeded through hoop after hoop with suave and relentless aplomb, pausing only for an occasional, insincere apology. They could only lean and watch.
A friend recently sent me an article about croquet from the Smithsonian magazine. The author, Richard Wolkomir, summed up perfectly his defeated bafflement as the archetypal loser, never even allowed a turn. "Too soon," he writes, "the game was over. It wasn't that I had played badly. I hadn't played at all."
Too often, I fear, we subjected poor visitors at our home to similar treatment. If this left them with the feeling that we had merely used them as witnesses to our prowess ... they were right. They weren't expected to win or even to compete seriously. They were there to lose - and admire.
Although such a philosophy of gamesmanship now - some years later - makes me wince a smidgen, and although my affection for croquet runs contrary to my approach to games in general, the fact is that I can still feel the piquant relish of those triumphs over all comers on the front lawn.
So why do I love croquet but despise cricket? Both seem so quintessentially English and summery.