Cannonball by Rohini Manyam Seshasayee
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You are at a tennis match at Wimbledon. Your eyes follow the ball. When one racket comes in contact with the ball, you admire the tennis player who delivered the shot. When his opponent hits the ball, you wish you could play half as well.

 

You are probably at the edge of your seat, your neck an intent pendulum. You probably struggled to convince your manager you are the best in your team. You look around you at the sea of people, but you know you are one of the chosen few. You know the sequence of unlikely events that brought you here. You do not realise that every single person in the tennis court has their own series of unlikely events to thank. Even that Mediterranean looking girl you ogled a moment ago. You were distracted for a nanosecond but are drawn back to the game as the tennis racket makes contact with the ball. There is no other sound. If you listen very carefully, you might hear the sound of the ball on cloth as the player on your right takes it out of his pocket to serve.

 

Sheila is the girl next to you. You probably did not notice her. She isn’t immediately attractive and in profile, she seems plain to anyone. That is because you can’t fully appreciate the size of her eyes or the shape that her lips make when she smiles from where you are seated. Unknown to you, or to your neighbours at the court, Sheila has become the ball.

 

It first happened by accident many years ago. She had been playing squash in her community club in India. Tired of hitting a wall with a ball, she went up to the gallery to watch people play. A small boy walked in wearing expensive looking shoes. Sheila subconsciously put the toes of her feet together in an attempt at hiding what looked like rat bites on her trainers. The ball hit the wall and came back. Sheila slowly and incredulously, began to watch the ball, hypnotised. She felt for a moment as if she had been hit against the wall and when she left the club she had a dull ache in her temples. That night, she stayed up wondering what had come over her. The headache receded as she finally fell asleep towards dawn. When she awoke at noon, she placed her palms on her temples and wondered where the pain had gone. She had to get it back. She went back to the squash court that evening and waited for the boy to return. Would the phenomenon repeat itself with other players, she wondered. Would the ache come back? Or had she simply imagined it? She waited all night, unable to move, but nothing happened and she went home feeling melancholy.  She came back the next day and seated herself in the gallery. Time had created some distance between her mind and the idea. She no longer felt that acutely glum. She was there only to satiate her curiosity. Her friends had invited her to a movie and she planned to go with them, after watching someone play.

 

But then a woman entered the court. Sheila sat up in her seat. The ball hit the wall high and hard. It bounded back straight and shattered the glass behind which Sheila sat. Sheila screamed as she fell. She could feel her vocal folds almost rip apart. She imagined her larynx struggling to support the exertion. Then she hit the wall. Her pony tail flattened against it for what could not have been more than half a second and her hands involuntarily positioned themselves at her chest as the wooden flooring came crashing towards her. Her knees took the maximum shock as she rolled off towards a corner. It felt strange to be picked up. The plastic net woven across the squash racket swung her at the wall again, and again. Somewhere along the way, Sheila had stopped screaming. Whether it was from inability, she couldn’t tell. She had begun to try to hold herself in a ball. She held her knees close to her chest, letting the impact be distributed as she rolled more efficiently on the slippery wooden floor, although, that she was sweating profusely was not helping. She could only hope that her buttocks absorbed the shock of hitting the unkind wall. But how could she ensure that? It depended entirely on how the woman picked her up, on where the racket hit Sheila, and if there would be any swing.

 

Sheila left the club disoriented. The woman had played for two full hours. Sheila sat on a park bench, unable to comprehend what she had just experienced. Her phone rang in her pocket. Sheila took it out and held it in her reddened palm in confusion; it was unharmed. She did not know for many moments what she was supposed to do with it. It finally came back to her as if information had been uploaded to her brain. She answered the phone and listened without hearing. She remained on the park bench watching the sky blankly. She had always wondered what it would feel like to be devoid of thought. Every day the following week, she kept her appointment with the wooden floor and wall. It had become ritual. She started to practise falling better. She prayed to hit the wall more correctly. She braced herself physically to watch the glass break beneath her every night. She braced herself psychologically to be whole when the session finished. At the end of that week, Sheila felt restless. The routine of the squash court had begun to feel mundane. The pain in her joints was not egging her back to the court either. She went to the badminton court and waited. No one came to play. No sooner had she entered the vicinity of the open-air soccer field, she found herself in the air, twenty pairs of eyes beneath her. She left feeling suffocated and drained all at once. Her hair was dishevelled and the bruises and cuts took longer to heal. Her elbow, in particular, was in pain, having met the underside of a spiky football shoe rather hard. She decided that large team sports were not for her and she spent the next week recuperating, nursing her nose that bled rather often. She did not entertain any further thoughts of her alter life for the next month, diligently focusing on her work and life.

 

But look at her. Yes, you. She is on your left, isn’t she? Try to be discreet, although if you observe, it would not matter if you stepped on her foot right now. You can see the bruises forming. It takes so long for them to form that it does not seem immediately bizarre to the people around her. Sheila worked this out a long time ago, at the Chennai open tennis match her friends had flown her to. It had been the most calming experience of her life. She had not felt the sweat and the unkindness of the squash court. The tennis court floor was almost bouncy and the colours of blue and green that swirled around her had kept her mesmerised. She laughed uncontrollably as she was slipped in and out of pockets. The rackets kept her buoyant and as she hit the net at the centre of the court, she realised that she had found her sport. She studied her bruises as she left the court on the first day, she had had far worse. For the first time, she had enjoyed herself without worrying about her falling stance. The flirting of the shorts and the catapulting by the rackets had helped her immensely in losing herself in the experience. It was her secret. She carried a small furtive smile on her lips at all the matches she began to attend. She began to save all the money she made. She asked her uncle for tips on investing in the stock market. She began to be more social and spoke to everyone, especially about tennis and any sport at all. She went out of her way to share her joy with her family and friends, purchasing thoughtful gifts and unnerving them completely.

 

You asked your boss for this trip to London did you not? Sheila invested in stock futures and worked two jobs. She toured India for two years pursuing what she began to think of as an expensive hobby. She attended even the school matches of her cousins when she got the chance.

 

Then, she began to feel let down. She realised that none of the other courts were as bountiful as the first. She came away feeling grimmer and grimier. In most places, she was irritated by the amount of time she spent on the court floor and not in the air. Wimbledon. She watched it on tv first. She could feel the surreal silence through the small screen. Her belly tightened as she listened to the strength and restraint of the shots delivered. Her mouth watered as she realised the court was grass. She had to be there. But the strain of her last local match in India delayed her trip. She sustained a fracture on her left elbow where a football shoe had once lodged itself. She spent six months moping. Her family and friends worried for her. They did not understand how she had injured herself. They had not known her to be very athletic, she never had been.

 

Sheila worked harder and watched the stock market more attentively. Her resolve had been given a new, angry lease of life. She became restless, not having felt the rush of being cannonballed away in months. Her new-found exuberance began to sour. She snapped at anyone who wanted to have a conversation about any sport. She stopped watching tv almost entirely. Her elbow became her enemy. She slept facing away from her injured liability. In her darkest hours, she contemplated amputating it. Who needs an elbow when without it you could fly? She wept all the waking hours that she spent alone. Her colleagues hesitated to speak to her at work. Those who dared faced the brunt of her cold unfeeling stares. Her reservoir of tears slowly dried up, leaving her with no more mechanisms to cope with what she could only term a tragedy. As the end of the six months neared, her heart fluttered with small jumps of hope. If she planned it correctly, she would make it to Wimbledon this year. Yes this year, the same year you are sitting next to her. You can probably not look at her the same way, can you? Have you moved away ever so slightly? Is your neighbour to your right cringing from the diminishing personal space?

 

Sheila knew the perils of confiding her weakness to anyone, yet she told her sister. Her sister looked at her, worried, and advised against any such further tomfoolery. It is not the way an adult leads a happy healthy life, she pleaded. She called Sheila every day, reminding her of the purpose of life, the paths that lead to happiness. Sheila listened sadly. She had to, she tried to explain, the rackets and the courts needed her. What about the players, the other balls did not do justice to their serves and hits the way she had perfected. When her sister found her sneaking off to a local tennis club to participate in practice, she dragged her back home and confronted her with the strength of her family. They looked at her as if she were seriously losing her mind. They seemed afraid of her. Sheila relented, knowing well that she couldn’t continue because of the sadness in all their eyes. She berated herself for the stupidity she had embraced. She watched the airfare to London rise steadily as the game drew nearer. Her spending habits were now being monitored. She felt trapped. Her investments that came to fruition were taken away. With less than two months to rediscovering the meaning of life, Sheila could not contain her misery any longer. She diverted her salary to a new account and obtained a loan at short notice. She told her family it was an office trip. She told her office it was a family trip. This is exactly why you should have introduced yourself to your neighbours and come to know them a little. You see, Sheila knows who is going to win. She has placed all her bets. What was your wager?

 

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Rohini lives in the clouds much of the time and comes down to earth grudgingly. She takes life lessons from her pious and wise dog, who spends much of his time gazing meditatively at the sky. She reads and writes because she cannot not. She is a member of the Bangalore Writer's workshop community. She was recently published in Bombay Literary Magazine and Spark and is slated to be published in The Affair.