Luke and Patrick stood on a patch of grass facing away from the row of white painted cottages. A family walked down to the beach, carrying a picnic basket and towels for the children. Fresh beads of sweat crept down Luke’s face. He brushed a hand over his crew cut and regretted not packing a cap. Patrick stared at his phone, replying to a message from the city.   Luke glanced at the borrowed racket, turning the rough, faded red-tape grip in his palm. Patrick was going to make him chase his superior strokes around the baking court all afternoon.

Yet he was grateful for the invitation down to the beach house. He took the morning bus from Stillorgan and sat by the window to get a clear view of the sea. It offered a welcome change from rotting in the leaden atmosphere of Dublin where he’d lost count of the days as August approached, inducing recurring thoughts of school and dreary weather. He asked for another cigarette out of the pack while Patrick continued to type on his phone.

“You’re going through them too fast, don’t come asking for more later,” Patrick said. 

“I was the one who bought the pack.”

“You were reimbursed.”

Luke didn’t respond, wondering why Patrick was taking so long over a message. Maybe time just passed slower in the country, he thought. Luke turned sixteen during June, Patrick threw a party for him in his house and asked a few girls to kiss him.  Patrick was almost a year younger so they played in a different age group for all sports.

“Don’t worry, there’ll be others I can scrounge off,” he said, casting a glance over the wheat fields which ran all the way down to the shimmering sea.

Luke lifted the cigarette to his lips and dug the lighter from his pocket before twisting the flint a few times in vain.

They strolled down the long stretch of road, battling every step through the heavy afternoon air. The beer bottles clinked against each other in his rucksack. He saw ash burning at the tip and inhaled a few times, offering a drag to Patrick.

“I never smoke before a match,” Patrick said.

“You’re going to win anyway,” he muttered.

The court was nestled in the shadow of beech trees, the leaves rustling in the breeze. They placed their bags in the spots of shade under the branches. Heat rose from the hard, green surface of the court onto the worn soles of his bleached runners. They warmed up with a few rallies and Luke managed to stay in touch with some solid ground strokes. Patrick returned with slices and lobs, concealing his true shots.

Luke’s sole advantage over Patrick in tennis was his greater stature and strength. But Patrick made the most of his slim physique, generating power through an effortless touch and summer after summer of being taught by bored, if once gifted, coaches. This education was overseen by parents who spent the long, balmy days playing golf and afterwards sipped white wine on their patios.  

When some girls walked by the court in bikinis and denim shorts, Luke forgot about the match and Patrick’s childish taunts. Their wet hair glistened in the sun, hung against the scraps of sand on their backs. The balls were dispersed in the trappings of a chain-link fence. He kept his head down, stealing glimpses at their slight figures through the wiry coils. Luke lifted a stray ball and felt it soften in his palm as if the summer would never end so long as he didn’t let go. The girls continued their conversation, glancing towards the fence. Luke lifted his head and tried to hold their stares. 

There were knots in his stomach. He waited for a smile from them, unable to look away from their beautiful bare skin. They gazed past him towards the far end of the court where Patrick stood in his pressed white polo-shirt.

“Hurry-up,” Patrick shouted, eager to begin the match.

“Alright, I’m coming,” he said, ripping the last ball from the fence.

Luke turned to the glossy baseline and waited for a strong serve. Patrick swung back his racket while tossing up the ball in a seamless motion. It hung in the wavy air with a terrifying pause before Patrick unleashed a powerful serve to the outside. The ball flew past his pitiful reach. 

They didn’t stare at each other during the match, brushing shoulders when changing sides. Luke admired the way Patrick dismantled his own meek effort with another crushing forehand. The girls were sunbathing on the clubhouse deck, giggling at something that eluded his hearing. He found the strength for a winner with a crosscourt backhand, raising a smile at his efforts to keep the match alive.

Luke wanted to take his t-shirt off but the girls were watching their match with apparent interest. He suffered as sweat seeped through the white cotton and stuck to his skin. Patrick hadn’t shed a droplet, pulling back dark strands of hair from his tanned brow and waited for the serve, appearing bored. They disputed a point in the final set, a lob from Luke that landed on the edge of Patrick’s backcourt.

“That was in,” he shouted, walking towards Patrick who was standing over the net.

“Your view was blocked.”

“I could still see.”

“Fine, if it means that much to you,” Patrick answered, slapping the strings against his palm as he returned to the baseline.  

A moment of chance flirted with him in the net’s slim shadow but Patrick eradicated his hopes of a comeback. Luke reminded himself to accept the defeat in good humor, grumbling under his breath of how he loathed tennis.  They shook hands at the net.

“Don’t be hard on yourself, I never lose here,” Patrick said, his palm moist. Luke let go and gathered his belongings by the fence. The girls ceased their chatter as they walked by, tilting their heads back.

“See you at the beach Patrick,” the blond one said, flicking her lashes at him.

“Yes, there’ll be a good crowd tonight.” 

Patrick never introduced him, he just stood there saying nothing. Luke lit another cigarette, tempted to run for the beach where he could vanish under the waves.

“See you later,” Patrick said, walking away from them. 

The beach was hidden down a narrow road flanked by sand dunes. The two of them bathed in the sea to soothe their muscles. Warm salt water clung to their skin, the sunlight reflecting off the cliffs and they laughed about the girls bothering to watch them play.

“She’s been interested since we were kids. I kissed her last summer and now she won’t leave me alone,” Patrick said, shaking his head.

“You better watch out tonight,” he said, keeping only his head above the surface.

“Just make sure we leave together, she’ll ask me to walk her home.”

Afterwards, they stood in the wet sand sipping beer. The waves lapped at their feet. They discussed the English league, making bold predictions for the upcoming season before Patrick mentioned some girl who might come later and was loose. 

“She’s your best chance,” Patrick said.  

“You’re too generous.”  

It felt like the beginning – when they sat on park benches smoking cigarettes and waited for the night to come. Together, they drank in large empty houses with black painted iron gates that ran along the leafy roads. They stayed up all night until shafts of light struck the curtains and the birds’ singing sent them to sleep.

“What time are they coming?”

“Soon enough, I suppose,” replied Patrick.

Luke wished they were never found, he hated to see Patrick change for them. One day, he would lose Patrick to church bells and voyages. They were kings now but too young to realize it. The wind blew in from the swell and his skin crawled with nerves. This night was a departure for him, a flickering ember cast into darkness, the sun setting in a pink sky as a chorus of voices echoed around the dunes.