'Are they safe now?' asked Helen Ewell anxiously.
Ursula Millward peered forward, shading her eyes against the sun with her hand. 'Quite safe, I should say.'
'Are you sure?'
'I don't know how far you can hit,' responded Ursula with spirit, 'but they're well out of my range already.'
'That's a relief,' said Helen. She turned to face her friend. 'Do I go first or do you?' Both women were standing beside their trolleys on the first tee of the Berebury Golf Club.
Ursula Millward put both her hands out of sight behind her back. 'Which is it in? Right or left?'
'Left,' said Helen Ewell at once.
The other player brought her hands back into view and opened them. There was a golf tee in the left one. 'All right, you go first, then.' Ursula knew she should have said 'Your honour' but it still sounded funny to her. And anyway honour wasn't a word that came easily to mind when talking to Helen.
Helen Ewell carefully selected a number-two wood club from her golf bag, pressed a brightly coloured plastic tee into the ground, and placed her ball on it. Taking a deep breath she started to address it. After taking a couple of practice swings she stopped, grounded her driver and said again, 'You're quite sure I shan't hit them, Ursula, aren't you?'
'Quite sure,' said Ursula firmly.
She was right to be sure. Helen Ewell needn't have worried at all about her drive from the first tee hitting the players ahead. Even though she managed to hit the ball at her first attempt, she did so with such a wild swing that she topped it badly. Her ball did no more than trickle off the tee and on to the fairway in front of it.
'I'll never ever get it right,' she wailed. 'Ever, ever, ever ...'
'Bad luck,' said Ursula immediately.
She herself managed a rather better shot and knocked her ball nearly a hundred yards down the fairway of the first hole.
Ursula Millward might be the better player of the two but she certainly wasn't the better dressed of the pair. From her stylish Tam O'Shanter headgear down to her elegant brown and white golf shoes, via a check shirt and shorts of exactly the right colour and length, Helen Ewell was perfectly accoutred for the game of golf. The fact that she could scarcely play the game was not nearly so important to her as looking the part.
'But,' Helen was still protesting, 'after my last lesson Jock told me I was really beginning to get a good grasp of my swing.'
'It'll come,' said Ursula Millward laconically She refrained from remarking that all she had seen from the sidelines was the Golf Club professional, Jock Selkirk, getting quite a good grasp of Helen herself while trying to teach her that very same swing.
'Jock said that it's the way you take the club back that really matters,' said Helen. Her series of golf lessons from the Club's professional had come well after she'd made her many purchases in Berebury's best fashion shops, to say nothing of those carefully colour-coded items she'd bought in the pro's own shop beside the Clubhouse. Even the numbered covers on her wooden clubs matched the muted shades of her outfit.
'I can well believe it,' said Ursula dryly. She had also noticed that it had been while the golf professional's pupil had been taking a practice backswing that her friend had appeared to be in most need of the man's assistance. 'I expect,' she added a trifle maliciously, 'he thought the back swing was where he could be most helpful.'
'Oh,' agreed Helen eagerly. 'It is.'
'What Jock told me,' said Ursula, her tongue still well inher cheek, 'was that getting your golf swing right in the first place is just like learning to ride a bicycle.'
'I'm sure he's right,' said Helen Ewell prettily, 'although it's something I could never do. Ride a bicycle, I mean.'
'That's the funny thing about golf - one day you can't hit a thing,' mused Ursula, half to herself, 'and suddenly the next day you can.' When she herself had first taken up the game she had only been able to afford a very short series of lessons from the professional at the Club, Jock Selkirk, but in any case she hadn't relished being pawed by the man.
'It's all very well for some,' said Helen petulantly. 'You seem to have picked it up all right, Ursula. Look at where your ball's got to ...'
'Nevertheless,' rejoined Ursula Millward sturdily, 'there's no getting away from the fact that we're both still Rabbits.'
'I'm not sure that I want to win the Rabbits' Cup anyway,' sniffed Helen after she'd hit her ball again but not very far, this time with a number-five iron club.
'I don't think that winning is something we need to worry about,' said Ursula, well aware that her own second shot had not gone anything like as far as her first. 'Either of us.'
'You know, Ursula, I play so well when Jock is coaching me.' Helen slung her club back into her golf bag in manifest disappointment. 'It's not fair.'
Her friend forbore to remark that Helen performed everything better when there was a man - any man - watching her.
Instead she glanced over her shoulder and said 'I think we'd better keep going. There are some more Rabbits coming along behind and we don't want to have to let them play through us, do we?'
This was something that Helen and Ursula might not have wanted but in the event they had no option. In spite of the pair of them hurrying after their balls and playing as speedily as they could, the couple playing behind them kept gaining onthem. On the second hole they were driving off the tee before Helen and Ursula had even reached the green; on the third hole they had to linger behind while Helen took four putts before she sank her ball.
'It's no good, Ursula,' Helen said in despair halfway down the fourth hole. 'I just can't play my best while they're just standing there waiting and waiting.'
'It is a bit unnerving,' admitted Ursula, 'being watched like this while we try to play.'
'I'd no idea that competitions were so nerve-racking,' moaned Helen as they panted up to the fifth tee.
Ursula grinned. 'You wait till we get to play in the Sharks versus the Minnows tournament.'
Helen made a face. 'I won't do it.' She glanced over her shoulder. 'Look, the others are holing out on the fourth already ...it's not fair.'
'We'll wave them through on the sixth, shall we?' suggested Ursula, adding by way of consolation, 'They're much better than we are, anyway'
'Good idea.' Helen readily assented to this. She shuddered. 'I couldn't bear it if they shouted "fore" at us.'
'Besides,' said Ursula looking about her appreciatively, 'it's a lovely day and the course is looking beautiful.'
This was true. The Berebury Golf Course had been carefully constructed round a mound - hardly a hill - just outside the town known as The Bield because of the wooden shelter on top of it. The name of the architect of the course was not known by the members, although the words "James Braid" were sometimes mentioned in passing - but without great conviction. It is more likely that the course hadn't had a proper architect at all, the holes having been created more by the lie of the land than by the hand of man.
Round one side of the Bield trickled a little stream. This configuration gave variety to the holes, some uphill and somedown. From the highest tee of all there was a splendid view of the market town of Berebury. Better still, not even on a clear day could the factories of the distant industrial town of Luston be seen intruding on the pleasant landscape.
It was thus no hardship to Ursula Millward to stand aside to let the other players overtake them. The pair behind them were young women, too, but slightly older and playing a much steadier game. They accepted the invitation to play through Helen and Ursula with a gesture of thanks and hit their balls down the sixth fairway ahead of them noticeably farther than the other two had done.
'If,' remarked the one called Anna scornfully, 'those two are Rabbits, Christine, then I reckon we're practically hares.'
'Speak for yourself ...blast!' The head of the other woman came up with a jerk after she'd taken her shot. 'Look! I think my ball's finished up in that awful bunker.'
'Not the big one at the back, I hope,' said Anna, peering ahead. 'You won't like that, I can tell you.'
Christine shoved her club back into her golf bag with quite unnecessary force.
'No, not that one, thank goodness. It's in the one to the right of the green. The shallow one, near the front.'
'That's not so bad then,' her companion reassured her. 'Colin says the men call the one at the back "Hell's Bells" because if you get in it, you can't get out ...'
'Like Hell itself, I suppose,' said Christine soberly.
'And it ruins your card early on,' said Anna, ignoring this. The game of golf did seem to have a theology all of its own but she was still unsure what it was. 'Mind you,' she added judiciously, having already learned a little about the game, 'you'd have to have over-hit in a big way to go over the back there and into it. It's an enormous green and the slope's all in your favour.'
'David always says the sixth is the most difficult hole on the course anyway,' said her friend. 'And that I'd find that out for myself as soon as I started playing here at Berebury ...'
Both women had announced that they were taking up the game purely in order to see more of their husbands. What they had neither admitted to aloud was that they were also doing so to make quite sure that some of the other lady players didn't see even more of those same husbands than they did.
Although Christine's ball was indeed in the shallower bunker - the one in front of the approach to the green - playing it out didn't present too many problems to her and both women holed out with quite a respectable score for a couple of tyros at the notorious sixth hole.
'I think playing the game does beat golf widowhood,' grinned Anna as she picked her ball out of the hole, 'but only just.'
'And only in good weather,' said Christine, scribbling on her card.
'Remember, we shan't be Rabbits for ever, either.' Anna had had one really good shot already. This had sent a quite unexpected frisson of delight through her lithe figure. Something quite poetic about the marriage of club, mind and body flitted through her mind and was gone, unexpressed and unformulated, but it had been there and she had registered the feeling of real pleasure in the game for the very first time.
'I'm not so sure about the pair behind us not staying as Rabbits for ever,' said Christine looking over her shoulder. 'Look, they've scarcely teed off yet and it's ages since we passed them.'
'Don't forget that fable about the hare and the tortoise,' Anna adjured her as they moved off towards the seventh tee. She wasn't at all sure she could repeat the one perfect shot she'd just had.
'Our Helen behind us may be a tortoise on the course,' retorted Christine spiritedly, 'but all I can say is that the woman's no slowcoach off it.'
Helen Ewell was one of the unspoken reasons why Christine had joined the Golf Club: her husband, David, she knew only too well would be easy prey for a woman of Helen's sort.
'I suggested to Dallas Southon that she joined the Club when we did,' she remarked with apparent inconsequence, 'but she said she'd rather stick to collecting antiques than traipse round the course after Brian.'
'Well, she has got a really lovely collection of old silver,' said Christine.
'Some of her pieces are beautiful and if that's what interests her ...'
'I daresay,' agreed Anna. 'But antique silver comes expensive.' She looked back over her shoulder. 'Come along. We mustn't forget the tortoise reached the end first because the hare got overconfident.'
'And Helen can be fast enough when it suits her, I can tell you,' said Christine ambiguously.
'Colin,' Anna quoted her husband again, 'says you can never tell who's won in golf ...'
Christine giggled. 'Not until the fat lady sings, eh?' she suggested.
'No. Not until the nineteenth closes,' said Anna.
'You wait,' promised Christine. 'One day we'll beat Colin and David, too. And before the nineteenth.' Her knowledge of the sociabilities customary after the game was still a little limited, too.
'Mmm,' murmured Anna thoughtfully. Beating her husband was not on her agenda.
'I can tell you one thing, though,' said Christine, she, too, looking over her shoulder, 'and that's that pair behind usaren't even going to get as far as the nineteenth. Not today, and not at their rate, anyway.'
'Why not ...' Anna turned too. 'Oh, I see. One of them's gone and got herself into the Hell's Bells bunker. Oh, what bad luck!'
'I wonder whose ball it is,' said Christine, watching with interest to see whether it was to be Helen or Ursula who set off for the deep bunker behind the green.
'Whose ever it is, I bet she won't get out of there first go,' said Anna, who had had to listen time and again to detailed accounts of his games from her Colin and who thus knew the course better than Christine - in theory, that is. The depth of the bunker behind the sixth green was a hardy perennial when she was being properly sympathetic in the matter of torn-up cards and lost matches.
'It's Helen Ewell's,' said Christine, shading her eyes and staring back at the sixth green.
'Tough,' said Anna, without any noticeable sound of regret. 'You do realise, Christine, don't you,' she added mischievously, 'that there's not a single man in sight to come to her aid?'
'Not even the greenkeeper, poor thing,' said Christine. It was not clear whether it was the greenkeeper or Helen for whom she was expressing her sympathy.
'Oh, the greenkeeper's out of action, anyway,' said Anna. 'I heard he's been off sick all week, which is why the fairway grass is a bit long just now'
Christine craned her neck. 'I can't even see her now she's in the bunker.'
'So she'll have to manage on her own, won't she?' grinned Anna. 'Ursula Millward isn't supposed to advise her.' She noted with approval that Ursula had taken up a perfectly correct position by the flag, which she was now raising well above her head so that her friend in the bunker might have some idea of the general direction in which she should be aiming her shot.
'Come on, Anna,' Christine urged her friend from the safety of the seventh hole. 'Now we've got a head start we might as well keep it. After all, Helen might give up and just mark Ursula's card from now on. That'd make them a lot quicker and that could be a nuisance to us.'
'Right you are,' said Anna amiably. 'Anyway, we'll hear all about it with a vengeance when we get in.'
'You bet we will. Our Helen likes an audience.'
'Helen likes a male audience,' Anna corrected her. 'I don't think we mere lady members'll do instead when she tells us about her terrible luck today.'
She was wrong.
Anyone and everyone would have done for audience when Helen Ewell eventually got back to the Clubhouse of the Berebury Golf Club. The trouble was that by then her voice had been reduced to a totally incoherent babble that no one could understand.
HOLE IN ONE. Copyright © 2005 by Catherine Aird. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.