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  • It was a summer between times. A summer before so many things happened. In the picture there are four of us. The final four in the Gotts Island Croquet Tournament. The old log house is still there in the background. I paid Rafe $1000 to take it down. He burnt it in a party that is still legend at College of the Atlantic. The little house, all bright with fresh pine boards is just showing to the right. A small and manageable dream. Scott and I still worked together. Projects, jobs, clearing the tough spruce forest between our properties. Our island was bright with promise. His wife, Anne, still came out to the island, still knit under the cherry tree with Claire and talked about mainland friends with trust funds. All before discontent ripened to bitterness. Carl still delighted in dinner parties and working with Scott to finish his house. We were still the Young Men’s Gardening Club, competing for garden honors. I hadn’t turned fifty, Carl hadn’t turned sixty, and Scott was still youngest. It is before Mary’s son, another Ben, drowned in the chill water of Lake Winnipesaukee. It is before work turned to a chore, before I turned away, before Claire and I ran out of things to share and say. It is before life took us all in its jaws and shook us. Or maybe it just feels that way now.

    We had been in South Africa for a couple of years. In June, when school was out, we left the chill nights and dust and smoke from the veld fires raging through the tall brown grasses. Left the touch of early winter on the highveld and landed back in that first golden green of late spring in Maine. The last of the lilacs perfuming the air, a few apple blossoms still holding on, even a daffodil in the deep shade by the road.

    That summer, Claire decided, we would have a croquet tournament. She shopped for prizes while we were still back in Jo’burg. She put the announcement up in the little mail building down at the shore. She got me to make up a board to track the finer details of the game.

    Croquet is a genteel game. Depending who you ask it goes back a ways. 300-400 years. It was a big hit in England in the 1860s. Made a comeback around the turn of the century. Like I said, genteel. If you are picturing lush and verdant lawns, fine and even turf, something out of Winslow Homer. If you are imagining carefully calibrated shots ruled by physics and vectors. Don’t. That’s not island croquet.

    Our pitch was green, when it rained. And Newtonian Physics still holds sway. But in our game, balls take sudden turns, hop clean over each other, stop dead. And in a game which entices you to think ahead. To play through a strategic series of shots mentally. In a game which invites competition. In a game where you use other players and leave them scattered on the field. Such a game and such a setting combine to make island croquet a lethal and heady mix.

    The names came in. On the inaugural day we held a draw to determine teams. Round robin play and then a knock-out round. Random couples drawn out of a hat.

    Almost all the islanders joined in. For a week, projects stopped. Mowers sat idle. Chainsaws were quiet. People arrived in the morning and stayed through the afternoon. We served drinks and lunch. Post-game analysis and commentary replaced gossip. In the evening we built fires and had pot luck cook-outs.

    Some moments live on even now. The minister was paired up with Sue. Sue in cut-off jeans and long legs tanned to a glow took twenty years off him. Fortified, he strutted out to coach his wife unmercifully until she glared him down. But when he missed a crucial shot in his big match he hurled his mallet to the heavens and cursed a lot more like a fisherman than a fisher of men.

    In the end it was Scott and me, Carl and Mary. The final four.

    Scott played in his construction boots. Mary in tie-dyed elegance. I was barefoot. Carl paced beneath a safari helmet, his experimental grizzled look giving him a dangerous air.

    That summer we were reading Homer Price and the favourite line was “jest as regular as a clock can tick”. Scott and I said it each time we came out to take our shot. Every round, we’d clicked and clocked. We had the game, we had the tournament.

    Games and lives turn on a stroke, a sticky wicket. That day, Scott and I, Mary and Carl, we played out the ebbs and flows of fortune on a green rectangle under the pure summer sun. There on the glorious field.

    There on that field where balls jumped and curved and came to rest unexpectedly. Where the difference between joy and a jumping-up-and-down-oh-shit stomp was as thin as a blade of grass between two balls. That day, before so many things happened, that day between then and now.
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