Tim Dowling: I’ve got a degree in volleyball, of course I have to triumph

Tim Dowling
Photograph: Astrakan Images/Getty Images/Cultura RF

I’m on a beach in Cornwall with a large group of friends, people in their 50s with children in their 20s. I am without my children or my dog, which is very relaxing, and I have already been in the sea. No other accomplishments are required of me.

My friend Jake produces a large shopping bag holding what looks like a rolled-up fishing net.

“Volleyball?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Volleyball.”

I attended a small New England college that would not let you graduate unless you could swim. At the time this seemed perfectly reasonable, because I could swim.

Undergraduates were also obliged to earn a small number of physical education credits over four years. In practice everyone left it until the last term of their final year, and spent a month running from tennis courts to fencing lessons when they should have been revising for exams.

I fulfilled the requirement by taking the volleyball class three times, the maximum allowed. While I would never describe myself as good at volleyball, I got better marks in it than I did in political science.

I help set up Jake’s net on the beach, untangling guy ropes and marking out the court by dragging a heel across the wet sand. I walk back to where all the towels are laid out, in search of water.

“Are you actually playing?” my wife says, looking up from her book.

“I think I have to now,” I say.

“Let’s go!” shouts one of the other men, clapping his hands.

“He’s got a degree in volleyball,” my wife says. “Haven’t you, sweetie?”

“Has he?” someone says.

“Yes,” I say. “English and volleyball.”

It’s an informal match – a broad mix of ages, lopsided teams, a certain laxity regarding the rules. When it’s my turn to serve, I throw the ball high and punch it confidently. A sickening shockwave runs up my arm. The ball goes sideways, bouncing off toward the breaking surf.

“Huh,” I say.

“Go again!” shouts my friend Martin, who is on the other team. My second serve also goes sideways, in the opposite direction. The third is straight, but lands on my side of the net.

“That ball,” I say. “Is not a volleyball.”

“Blaming his tools,” Jake says.

“It’s a football,” I say. “Or possibly a medicine ball.”

Martin serves high over the net. I leap in the air to return it, but the ball catches my ring finger and drives it backwards. The pain is excruciating. The noise I make is high-pitched and embarrassing.

My team – me and two twentysomethings – suffer a quick and humiliating defeat. Martin approaches the net and speaks to me through the webbing.

“The ball is very heavy,” he says.

“Tell me about it,” I say, cradling my elbow.

“One more?” he says.

“I can’t,” I say. “I literally can’t.” Martin stares at me.

“One more?” he says.

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Two other people join the game, and the teams are reconfigured. I get my serve under control. My teammates, unfamiliar with volleyball, begin to pick up on basic strategies. As soon as a match ends, another starts. By the time we finish our best-of-seven series, the lifeguards have taken up the red flags and my wife has left the beach.

“Did you win?” she says later.

“Yeah,” I say, wincing. “I’m broken, but I won.”

The next morning I can’t figure out how to get out of bed. My back aches, and my neck is set. My left hand, too swollen to curl into a fist, hangs limply at the end of my arm.

That afternoon we head to the beach again. I try not to make a show of how long it takes me to get my shirt off. Jakes walks over with his bag.

“Look,” he says, removing the net.

“I really don’t think I can even…”

“How about this?” he says, holding out a brand new, regulation volleyball. I take it in my good hand, feeling its heft with boundless regret.

“Yeah, OK,” I say. “Let’s go.”

Two days later I’m still learning to type with one hand, but that is not important. What’s important is this: I won, again.