Athough to a casual observer we were engaged in a game—just two men, partially blind, partially crippled, knocking a small white ball about in a singularly unsportsmanlike manner—to us these matches were infinitely more significant. These contests were a kind of ritual. We were not so much engaged in a game of table tennis as bent upon the destruction of a rival. The game was only the channel through which we expressed the contest of wills that went on perpetually between us.
For from the first, in spite of the affection that existed between us, we were natural and instinctive enemies. We each tried to beat the other all day in everything we did. We were perpetually at war, perpetually at each 0ther’s throats. The essence of our odd relationship was discord. We were never happy out of each 0ther’s company, but we only stayed together because each hoped to down the other permanently.
And this permanent stream of competition had to find an outlet somehow. A couple of hundred years earlier and we would undoubtedly have set to with swords. If we had not been bound by hospital discipline we would have punched each other’s nose. But as it was, we played table tennis, using the game as an expression of the rivalry that held us together, so that our daily matches became epic battles, the results of which could depress me utterly or lift one to victorious pinnacles of joy.
We generally began by playing a couple of ragged sets as a kind of preparation. The score was always kept, but we would both realize that the real trial was to come. I would drive as hard and as fast as I could, and Brian would chop and spin the ball so that it leaped and spun like a dancing dervish.
Considering our ruined sight that made reading and writing so difficult as to be almost impossible, it was amazing how well we could follow the flight of the ball against its dark background. I think the secret lay in the brilliant overhead lighting that lent the ball a shining iridescence.
When the practice games were over, we took a deep breath and began the real contest. We were amazingly evenly matched, and die games generally followed a definite pattern.
We always played the best out of five sets. He would usually win the first and I the second. He would draw away with the third, and at the fourth I would pull level, so that the score would stand at two all, and the next set decide the game.
At this stage the tension would be terrific. Now that the pressure was on We would both pull out everything we had, and I, though I had lost a great deal of my speed and accuracy, was still capable of executing one shot that, when I was allowed to get it in, was both dramatic and effective. I could smash a ball with a forehand drive so that it was almost impossible for my opponent to return it, leaping into the air and following it through so that I spun round and round like a top. This gave me intense pleasure and, I believed, never failed to fill Brian with envy and dislike.
But, and I make the admission with extreme sadness, for every one of my tricks Brian had at least two. He could cut and feint and volley, and the ball under his direction seemed to possess a satanic life and energy of its own, so that I, with a sensation of black despair nagging at my vitals, would be forced to watch him piling up the points that seven times out of ten would bring him to victory by a narrow margin.
It was not that I was completely outclassed. I could always extend him thoroughly. But the fact remained that I was up against a superior player, one whose natural flair for the game was better than my own.
I found this extremely galling. It destroyed an integral conviction about myself. I felt that I should beat him, that I could do so if only I could put an ounce or two more effort and determination into the game; and so I would grit my teeth, roll the stuff of my will into a hard, compact ball and play with demonic concentration, launching an attack with every atom of energy I possessed. But even so, though I beat him at times—occasionally I would win three or four times in succession——more often than not he would feint and maneuver his way to ultimate victory. I am sure that I put more of myself into these absurd matches than I have ever brought to any other purpose in my whole life, and that if God had wanted to hurry up our cure He could hardly have found a better method than by putting the two of us together at this stage of our development.
We were so nearly matched, the rivalry between us so violent, that it was impossible for us to sink into a slough of inertia and self pity. We were obsessed by a resolve, an unflinching intent, and this acted as a continual spur and challenge and was of inestimable value to our health, even though the resolve was nothing more admirable than the determination to beat a brother, to humble him and tear him down.