'My mother is so envious of me having dinner with Jean Danté! Mam's the biggest tennis fan and knows all about you! Could you be please autograph this tennis ball for her?'
Tory Sanford and her husband Doc were frequent dinner party guests of their friends and next door neighbours the Dantés and vice versa. Tonight Tory was acting like a hysterically excited teenager who was meeting her dream idol when she invited all the Dantés to a dinner party.
'I'd love to!'
Jean smiled and looked at her brother Phil, then signed the ball with a felt tip pen.
'HAVE A BALL, MRS. DAVIS! YOUR DAUGHTER IS WONDERFUL AND A GREAT COOK AS WELL! JEAN DANTÉ.'
'Thanks, Jean! She'll love it and so do I! I'm sure she'd love to know what was your most memorable match.'
Jean again smiled at her brother.
'Hobart...nineteen sixty....what year was it Phil?'
Phil's face beamed into pure bliss.
'I've never ever seen you smile like that, Phil! Jean, what happened?'
Jean launched into a story with her brother adding details here and there in front of the enraptured Tory, Doc, Phil's wife Fran and their white miniature poodles Franco, wearing his bow tie and Ciccia, wearing her faux black pearl choker and hair bow...
* * *
Jean Danté had won the right to represent New South Wales in her father's British Ex-Serviceman's Club young adult tennis finals that would be played in Hobart, Tasmania. Her proud family would accompany her; not only her parents and little brother, but her Aunt, Tatie Micheline.
None of them had been to Tasmania before; their usual 'overseas' holiday was by flying boat to New Caledonia. In those days the cheapest way to travel to Tasmania from Sydney was by sea, ergo the Dantés sailed aboard The Empress of Australia. Jean and Tatie would share a cabin, Phil had a folding cot in his parent's cabin; these arrangements would also be in place in their Hobart hotel.
Jean looked forward to, but Phil dreaded their first trip by an ocean liner, or a large ferry masquerading as a liner. The food on board was great, but the rough seas hit them well before the Bass Strait.
Phil had never been seasick before, but just to be on the safe side he grabbed one of the large paper bags the ship's crew, trying to keep straight faces, passed out. As his parents were being sick in the cabin he was sharing with them, Phil thought he'd keep his mind off things by sitting in one of the ornate lounges with his Phantom comic book.
Tatie and Jean didn't seem to be bothered by the rolling waves. The former's jaunty appearance and sheer delight seemed to literally nauseate the passengers even more.
'Would you like to join us on a promenade around the deck?', Jean superiorly sneered.
'No, thanks, I'll stay here with The Phantom.'
Tatie soon brought Jean back, her white sweater and her white face adorned with her own vomit.
Phil believed that sea sickness was mind over matter. If you didn't think about being sick, you wouldn't...but it would take much more than the exciting adventures of The Ghost Who Walks laying down the law to get his undivided attention.
He thought the challenge of chatting up an attractive woman would do the trick of occupying his thoughts. Though he was shy, no, he was actually frightened of women his age, as he had once been of clowns when he was a child, he decided to conquer his fear regardless. Mustering up his self-confidence, he looked for the most attractive woman nearest his age aboard.
His target was long, tall, blonde and beautiful, she could well have been a tennis player herself. Her dress showed off her legs perfectly, and her top accentuated her bust. The hell with shyness, Phil!
The nearly 16-year old teenager dressed in his blue blazer, tie and dress slacks masquerading as The Playboy of the Western World swaggered towards her carrying The Phantom in one hand and his sick bag in the other. He decided to imitate one of his movie heroes and role models, Charles Vine, The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World.
She looked at him with an interested expression and raised her eyebrow.
'My name is Danté, Phil Danté...tell me, do you make a habit of being the most beautiful girl on board?'
She snatched his sick bag out of his hand, expertly opened it with a downward thrust and filled it up with her spew. She gave a weak smile and offered it back to him.
'No thanks, keep it. I'll get another one.'
This never happened to Charles Vine...
He eventually returned to his cabin with his foul smelling parents looking like British vampires who had just risen from their coffins, but with wooden stakes through their hearts trying to keep the stiff upper lip.
As he fought his fears to talk to an attractive woman, so he did to speak to his parents.
'I've got an idea! Could I swap places with Jean and sleep in Auntie's cabin?'
Phil's query was a tonic that restored his parents to their natural selves.
'Don't be a berk, Phil!'
'What would people think, and most importantly what would your Auntie say to that?'
'That it was a good idea because I don't smell like chunder like Jean does.'
'Suck it up, Phil!'
'You promised you wouldn't embarrass us on this trip, Phillip!'
He refrained from telling his parents, You two are covered in spew and I'm the one who's embarrassing you?
'Why do you always give your sister a hard time? Are you pis-'
'Cheesed off that she's a success and the pride of the family and you're the dud? You'd probably have some friends if you were any good at sport instead of going to the pictures all the time!'
Dad was on his favourite tirade, Mum was wearing her usual I am so embarrassed, why don't you think of ME for a change expression. A vision of the Who's Kitten Who? cartoon of Sylvester the Cat's son wearing a paper bag over his head out of embarrassment from his father's antics with a kangaroo he believed was a giant mouse flashed in his mind.
Phil's mind had been affected by a lifetime of watching old Warner Bros. cartoons and comedies by having hilarious visions pop in his mind at the least appropriate time. He visualised his Mum wearing a paper bag over her head bemoaning her embarrassment as a huge red bull kangaroo was gleefully beating up his frightened Dad who was begging for mercy as Tatie and Jean, who were dressed like American school cheerleaders, waved pom poms and cheered the roo on,
'Kick 'em back! Kick 'em back! Wayyyyy back!'
Phil began to laugh uncontrollably.
His Dad bashed him.
'Wait'll you get in the Army! They've got a place for smart bast-people like you!'
Phil gave his mother a proud expression,
'Officer's training, Mum.'
'The glasshouse you stupid drongo! They'll have your guts for garters the first day you pull your Norman Wisdom!'
Dad hit him again.
Mum wore her forgive them, for they know not what they do expression; his father had once confided to him that 'Saints are fine in Heaven, but they're Hell on Earth'.
'It hurts me to see your father having to discipline you...'
'It hurts you???'
Dad gave him another smack in the head.
Three times lucky in the Smack-O-Rama; his parents had made a hundred per cent recovery.
Phil believed his family life was like 1940s American slapstick films. He was Costello to his father's Abbott, Huntz Hall to his Leo Gorcey, and The Three Stooges' Shemp to his Moe. He imagined his Mother having her hair like Larry's and speaking in her voice that sounded like the Queen's,
'My hair has gone strangely a-gain, and we are so disappointed...'
Phil laughed again, his Dad shouted,
'Get the bloody hell out of here you son of a...SON!'
Phil didn't vomit on the journey, but he was truly miserable. He vowed he would rather pay extra to fly on his future travels. There would be no way he'd ever join the Royal Australian Navy.
* * *
Hobart was a lovely city of Georgian buildings that the family soon explored on a sightseeing tour as Jean and the other girls were practicing.
She joined them back at their hotel.
'Mumsy! Father! Tatie! We've been invited to the Royal Real Tennis Club this evening! Isn't it exciting?'
* * *
The Hobart Real Tennis Club, founded in 1875, was one of the oldest surviving sporting clubs in the southern hemisphere. Real or Royal Tennis was the original game from which the modern version of tennis and every other racquet sport was derived from since its creation in the 13th century. Phil was bored by sports, but he marvelled at the beauty of the court with its blue walls decorated with golden Royal symbols; Henry the VIII I am, I am played the game himself. They were shown the smaller racquets and the hand sewn balls that were much harder than the usual tennis balls.
Tatie excitedly exclaimed,
'It is exactly like the tennis I played in France!'
Jean introduced her competition from each of the states, they also met several girls who were members of the Hobart club; all wore white tennis outfits. Phil had a bad feeling about the stuck up piece of work from Toorak who called herself and played under the title of The Princess of Victoria, with her tennis outfit having regal purple and gold trim. Phil fought the desire to introduce himself as The Duke of Earl and to sing and do the hand jive to the Gene Chandler song of that name that he loved. He noticed that the Princess seemed to know a few girls in the Hobart club. When he mentioned it to Jean, she replied that she wasn't surprised as the Princess was a member of the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club. He was a diehard monarchist but the Princess acted like Queen Bitch.
The girls were paired off and played to the appreciative crowd of members and guests. Jean was to play against the Princess. He noticed the latter speaking to one of the local girls dressed in tennis costume and he didn't like the looks on their faces.
When the pair were playing, a shout came from one of the girls.
'Jean! Jean Danté!'
Jean turned instinctively and the Princess sent one of the balls into Jean's face.
She held her hand over her eye and a crowd of girls and one of the club officers came onto the court, her mother joined them. The Princess looked too concerned and much too innocent. Daddy Danté glared at her.
Phil's mother returned to her husband and son.
'She's all right, but she's a frightful bruise.'
Tatie and the girl who called Jean's name were nowhere to be seen...
The games continued as Jean came out holding a bag of ice to her eye, tears were coming down her face.
'I'm all right, but I can't be seen like this.'
She raised the bag of ice and both the male Dantés well knew she'd have a hell of a black eye.
Suddenly there was Tatie on the court dressed in a tennis outfit with her hair tied up in a pony tail. She had a wide eyed, toothy and stupid look on her face. The girl who had called Jean's name remained missing, but Phil recalled that she was about Tatie's size...
They heard Tatie loudly speak to the Princess,
'I say! Vanessa's found herself a bit tied up at the moment but she promised me that you could give me a good game!'
Tatie spoke in an English accent that seemed familiar, that and the toothy grin made him realise that she was impersonating Joyce Grenfell who all the Dantés loved to watch.
His father whispered in Phil's ear.
'When she speaks like that, Hell is about to break loose...'
'Oh, you're not upset about that poor gel getting injured are you? Vanessa says you're very good and she promised me you'd give me a go...Pleeeease?'
The Princess put on an air of smugger authority than she had before,
'Tennis can be a dangerous game, especially if you don't pay attention.'
Tatie's toothy grin grew wider,
'Oooh, I love a bit of danger, don't you?'
On the Princess's first serve, Tatie gave a gawky run and missed the ball. Tatie shouted in her Joyce Grenfell voice,
The Princess's confidence grew. She made her second serve, Tatie smashed the serve and expertly sent the ball into the Princess's face, knocking her backwards
The Princess remained Lying in State on the Royal Court until the club girls carried her off, her Drama Queen parents who must've been professional mourners at funerals or stars of the Wailing Wall followed; a male came out to clean her blood off the court.
His father whispered again in his ear,
'Variety is the spice of life, but revenge is the sugar.'
Tatie had vanished again.
* * *
Jean's black eye had come up brilliantly.
She was too upset to train, despite everyone but Phil pestering her that her lack of practice would cause her defeat. Instead, she accompanied them on the family's scenic train trip to Ross, located in the centre of the island, where they would meet an old friend of their father's. Phil loved their red and yellow painted railcar train and its wooden interior that looked as if it came out of a children's picture book as well as the beautiful green Tasmanian landscape.
Jean, wearing sunglasses. was crying throughout the trip. Her mother sat beside and held her, speaking to Jean in a quiet soothing voice. Her mother wore sunglasses as well, both wore their hair the same way, their strong family resemblance was never stronger. Consoling Jean had no effect, at last she gave up and went back to her husband.
Father Danté went to sit next to his daughter who pointed away with you! He sheepishly fled back to his wife...
After the hell of the sea cruise, the train loving Phil was in heaven! He was enjoying the scenery as well as reading his newest Phantom comic book whilst eating a Cadbury block of chocolate that was made on the island. Phil's father refused to go on the Cadbury factory tour, telling Phil that if he wanted to see a factory so badly he could go out and get a job in one of them instead of wasting the family's money by freeloading at home.
Phil stopped his enjoyments because he felt something; he didn't know what...
He looked up and there was Tatie looming over him...
She wasn't saying a word, but she was giving him the look. He'd later realise that the train to Ross was the first time he ever received the look, but it wouldn't be the last. He'd be given the look repeatedly in South Vietnam, Guatemala, Rhodesia, South West Africa and the other places he soldiered in. The look was the mental telepathy of-
Get off your arse and start doing the impossible quick smart! We need you to get us out of this 'shituation' right bloody now, and only you can do it. Someone's life depends on it. Get cracking, Danté!
He found himself getting up to sit next to his sobbing sister. His parents gave surprised expressions.
'Have you come to laugh at me with your stupid little jokes?'
'Tatie said she'd give me an eye to match yours if I did'.
She laughed like a child.
'At least you're not wearing sunglasses like Mumsy.'
'I never wear dark glasses without a fez.'
'My brother, Morocco Mole! Of all the silly little brothers in the world, you're the best. Why do we fight like cats and dogs?'
'Or like Tom and Jerry.'
She laughed again and she put her arm around him. She had never done that to him before, that he could remember anyway; strangling him and putting her hand over his mouth didn't count.
'I guess because I'm so proud of you and I'm too afraid to tell you.'
'I've always imagined you to be a lot of things, but never afraid.'
He gave her an expression of surprise,
'That's exactly what I think about you!
She sniffed, and blew her nose.
'I'm not going to play looking like this, Phil.'
'No, there's only one failure in this family and that's me. The job's taken. You've got the be the success you were meant to be.'
'You're not a failure, Phil...you just don't try anything...you're an accident going somewhere to happen...South Vietnam...', her voice began to break, 'You won't believe this, but I don't want to lose you.'
She began to cry again.
'The good die young, so I'll be right. How could I ever compete with the World's Greatest Sister?'
She suddenly ceased her tears.
'Does it bother you?'
'No, everyone thinks that, but...', he quoted Richard Widmark's Jim Bowie in The Alamo, '"you can't help being you, and I can't help being me"...Don't worry, I'll behave better soon. I saw Mum and Dad looking through the telephone directory under "Mad Scientists" to have my brain replaced with a barnyard animal's brain.'
She giggled again.
Their parents looked at their siblings proudly, Peter whispered into his wife's ear,
'He'll do, Marie, he'll do...'
Tatie stood over her niece and nephew,
'Phillipe, where are your comic books!'
'Inside the bag on my seat.'
Phil and his sister held each other in silence, she had stopped her tears. He took her hand and looked at her palm,
'Look at that line becoming stronger! That means you're going from strength to strength!'
'Who taught you how to read palms?'
'Mandrake the Magician! You just have to get back to your practice, because practice makes perfecter.'
She laughed again,
'Tatie said it will take my mind off things.'
'She's always right...I guess that when God blesses a family with an angel like you, He has to curse them with a devil like me to make up for it.'
'You're not a devil. You're just an imp who makes everyone laugh. Tatie's right about you too. She says that you'll succeed in spite of yourself. You just haven't found what you're good at yet.'
He felt his other arm being gently squeezed. He turned to see his father smiling and looking with pride at him, as did his Mum beneath her sunglasses. He couldn't recall that ever happening before either.
He looked over them at Tatie wearing her reading spectacles, not only avidly reading The Phantom, but she was polishing off his block of chocolate...
* * *
Ross was splendid, with its beautiful 19th Century stone bridge on the river. Their Father's friend and his family lunched together with them, then proudly showed them around explaining the town's Georgian buildings as Temptation, Recreation, Damnation and Salvation, before they returned to Hobart.
* * *
On the morning of the tennis, Jean was in another sad mood.
'Mumsy, Father, Tatie...I'm not going to play. I can't.'
Her parents and brother were stunned, Jean ran to her mother's arms.
Tatie shoved Marie out of the way...
Jean looked up at her Auntie with tears in her eyes...Tatie began softly,
'Why won't you play and make our family proud of you, mon chéri Jeanne?'
'I can't play looking like this! Everyone will laugh at me!'
The sound was like a rifle shot when Tatie slapped her,
'Are you a fashion model or a tennis player?'
Tatie slapped her again and had her hand cocked, ready to do another.
Though his father was rough with Phil, Jean could do no wrong, her mother was the same way, and his Dad had always kowtowed to Jean...until today. Peter held Marie as they watched in silence...
'Just who do you think you are? You've forgotten that your name is Jeanne! Your parents named you after Jeanne d'Arc! You are French! We French are often beaten but we are never defeated and we never, ever give up! Never, never never!!!'
Tatie gave her a thrilling account of France's defeats throughout the ages and how they always got up and came back stronger. Phil was never more proud of Tatie than she was today.
She kept on a now tearless Jean. Was she going to disgrace her family by being a defeatist and a collaborator to her own fear? If so, she'd shave her niece's head right then and there in the bathroom, then would she wish to could go outside and lie in the mud like a pig and cry where everyone could really laugh at her?
'Where's my tennis outfit????'
'I'm having some last minute alterations done to it; come with me and we'll pick it up.'
* * *
Word of Jean's slight injury at the Real Tennis Club by the Princess had travelled throughout the island; the two were matched again to play.
The Princess of Victoria revelled in the controversy she had created. The traditionalists thought her conduct disgraceful, bringing the sport to the level of American television wrestling. Others applauded her for bringing a newer and larger paying audience of bums on seats to the game...even if they were mentally retarded...
Tatie had not been seen since leaving with Jean to the arena. Phil wondered if she would wreak havoc dressed like a Viet Cong guerrilla as she had in Indochina, for he had seen a photo of her in that guise...
A small cheesy band played bits of music between the matches and during the introductions; the crowd was the usual well behaved tennis fans and their bored spouses who were dragged along.
However, there was electricity in the air when Jean and the Princess faced off...
In the introduction for the Princess they played Little Peggy March's I Wish I Were a Princess rather than God Save the Queen as the Princess wanted. The crowd gave polite applause following her introduction. The reason that there weren't any of her usual press conferences on telly and the wireless was immediately apparent; Tatie's smash had rewarded her with an enormous fat lap...
Tatie rejoined her family with a proud expression on her face...
There was a long silence in the arena; had Jean changed her mind again and refused to come out and be seen?
Mum made a sad face, but Tatie squeezed her hand and give her a reassuring smile.
'Jean's turned on her bloody waterworks again!', Dad complained.
'Not my big sister!'
Papa Danté raised his hand as if to backhand his son who wore a do your worst expression. He put his arm around his son instead and lovingly squeezed his opposite shoulder, pulling his son towards him. Phil did the same for his father and the two held each other tightly. Tatie nodded in triumph, Maman had the facial expression of a kangaroo caught in the headlamps of a car.
Instead of the usual corny tunes there was a loud ominous hypnotic beat of a jungle drum...
The excitement in the arena grew more and more...The announcer lowered the pitch of his voice,
'Ladies and gentleman, from Tasmania's North Offshore Big Island...', the native Tasmanians laughed in triumph, 'The Ghost Who Serves! The Tennis Player Who Can Not Die...the Phantom of New South Wales...Jean Danté!'
Lit up in the spotlight was Jean in a dyed grey tennis outfit wearing a black Phantom mask that hid her black eye. The applause was wild, the Princess had been usurped in popularity. Jean looked up at her family, Tatie and Phil crossed their arms across their chests and slowly raised their heads, Jean did the same and the crowd went wilder!
The Princess served, the Phantom smashed it back with the Princess ducking in fright; the audience roared with laughter, cheering and whistling.
'Run for your life, Princess!', sneered a loud voice from the crowd.
'You can run but you can't hide!', added a woman.
The laughter filled the arena, the Princess's red face was highly noticeable.
The Princess was slaughtered as the crowd chanted,
'Phan-tom! Phan-tom! Phan-tom!'
How ironic that they called it 'love' merely because the Princess scored zero, because if hate was electricity then the Princess was a human powerhouse that could light up all of Hobart. She lost every game, throwing her racquet to the court in anger and stalked off to the dressing room.
Someone in the audience cracked,
'"Phantom rough on roughnecks!"'
The dethroned Princess mumbled an inaudible loud mumble and gave an obscene gesture.
The audience roared with laughter with the announcer carrying on the theme with,
'Phantom rough on bad sports and sore losers as well!'
* * *
'It certainly wasn't a professional match, and I've had more difficult games, but it's the one I'll most remember because I never had a harder opponent then myself and my negative thoughts. Then I saw my family at their finest; I finally started to like Phil a bit.'
'All of Tasmania was behind you on that night! Later on all of Australia would be and the best thing was that Mum, Dad and Tatie were able to see it!'
Jean's eyes grew bigger, she held her brother's hand and looked like she was about to cry.
'I'm glad I was able to know your Auntie. She was really something.', Tory responded.
'Every family should have its own coach like she was, she was also the governess who turned a special someone into a gentleman', Jean smiled and squeezed her brother's hand.
'Mum made you a gracious lady but Tatie was our referee', Phil added.
'And she was Rough on Roughnecks for real!', laughed Fran.
'Old Jungle Saying, The Phantom will never refuse a challenge"',
Franco and Ciccia barked in approval,
'We're Dantés too!'
Author Notes: “Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”
― Edith Sitwell