New Writing

The Ball Beneath the Willow

Marina Stanisavljevic

If only they had been alone.

She would have said something. She would not have sat there, in the booth with Connor, sipping on her third chardonnay.

“I know that guy.” she said.
Connor turned to look at the bar.
“The big one.” she said. “The one that just joined them. Baggy clothes.”
“Oh,” Connor smiled. “Travis.”
She didn’t like the ease with which he said his name.
“Yeah,” she said. “We went to primary together.”

We played basketball on a court beneath a willow tree.

“I forgot you were from this area.” Connor said, admiringly. “Once upon a time.”
She swirled her glass as if it were a toy, watching the wine spin and then quickly settle.
“Do you hang out with him?” she asked.
Connor sighed, and she wondered if it had to do with her, or with Travis.
“A bit.” he said. “He’s friends with Dylan and Jarrod, so I guess he’s a friend of mine too.”
That’s not the threshold, Connor, she wanted to say.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.

That one day in spring, when we played beneath the tree. When the breeze was soft and the gravel was hard.

Connor had been oddly protective of her lately, and she couldn’t quite place his intentions.
“Oh my god!” he yelled. “You had a crush on him!”
“Jesus Christ, Connor.” she sunk low into the booth, almost eye-level with the table. “It wasn’t that.”
He tried to poke her face with his finger, and she smacked his hand away.
“Do you still want him?” Connor asked, amused. “Should I put in a good word?”
“No, you idiot.” she rolled her eyes. Connor’s grin was so big you could see his gums.
“We were friends.” she said.

He would come by the house on his scooter, and I’d go out on the balcony to talk to him.

Connor looked at her, his arms folded across his chest. “Friends, Connor.” she insisted.
“Ok, ok, so you were friends. And then...” he still had the devil’s grin.
She looked at Travis. He was standing at the bar with Connor’s friends, holding a pint of beer in his oversized hand. As if he were about to break it.
“And then we weren’t.”


She was at the three point line, admiring the friendship bracelet on her wrist. It was a warm November day. A soft breeze carried the eucalyptus through the air, a scent she was still not used to. The willow tree hung beside the court like a watchdog.

It had been a year of change. Another big move, another new school. Luckily, the kids here had quickly taken to her. They had forgiven her dwindling Kiwi accent, her unpronounceable surname. They were amused by her. She was different enough to tease, but nice enough to never complain about it.

Already in her second week, the girls began inviting her to sleepovers and trips to the movies. They made her goal-shooter of their netball team. The boys taught her to play basketball, they talked to her on MSN. They were jokesters, they were awkward, but they were fine.

Travis was one of them. Like a giant inflatable bear, with his dark ill-fitting clothes and grizzly hair, he was the one who introduced her to basketball in those first few fragile weeks. He teased her while he taught her, and he always made her play. She’d be sitting on a bench, halfway through her sandwich, when he’d call out, “We’re shooting for teams. Hurry up slowpoke!”. Once, she had intercepted the ball too early. It hit her square in the thumb, splitting her nail down the middle. While the girls squealed at the blood, Travis stopped the game. He checked her hand as she blubbered, and gave directions for first aid. Any disagreement they ever had, Travis would say, “Ok I’ll see you on the court, slowpoke.” She loved to challenge him, knowing deep down that they were friends. That deep down all between them was understood.

Everyone she had befriended that year was good at basketball, but Travis was exceptional. He was quick and smooth, which was surprising given his wide build. Even on his bad days, you could barely squeeze in a win. If you did, it felt like a pretend victory. On his good days, he wouldn’t let you breathe. He’d corner you while you were dribbling, and you felt like you were hanging off the edge of a cliff. He’d leave the court at the end of lunchtime, t-shirt drenched, hair sticking to his brow. Ball on his hip.

“Just do rebounds today!” Paige cried, as the ball rolled off the court and Travis ran to fetch it.
It was just her, Paige and Travis. The others were at drama rehearsal.
“Paige,” she said, extending her wrist. “The bracelet turned out pretty, don’t you think?”
“You better be making me one.” Paige replied, keeping an eye on Travis’ shot. He took it from outside the court, half heartedly, and Paige pounced on the rebound.
“Of course I’ll make you one.” she said.
Paige took her shot. Travis caught the rebound before it hit the ground. He aimed hastily, missed, caught the rebound.
“Travis do you want a friendship bracelet?” she teased.
He took the shot, caught the rebound. He took another, caught the rebound. He had been quiet all lunchtime.
“Walkerdine is taking us for Italian today.” Paige said.
Travis took the rebound.
“Travis, come on!” she cried, her arms up in protest. “Can I get one shot?!”
He aimed again. She finally caught the rebound.

As she bounced the ball back to the three point line, she noticed him walking towards her. At first it seemed like he was changing positions.
“Give me the ball.” he said.
“Yeah, dream on!” she laughed.
“Give me the ball.” he repeated, still walking towards her.
“Travis, I caught the rebound. What are you talking about?”
“Give me the ball.”
She frowned, and began to retreat. Past the three point line. She wasn’t sure if he was joking.
“Give me the ball!” he said, louder this time.
“No.” she cried, her grip tightening.
Every step she took backwards, he took one forward. His face like stone. His eyes; she had never seen them like that.
“Give me the FUCKING ball!”
The word hit her in the sternum, right in the centre, just above the stomach. Her cheeks flushed and she looked around. The schoolyard was full of noise, full of kids, everyone playing their own game, minding their own business. She felt safe and unsafe all at once.

She wanted to run. Instead she kept retreating, the ball firmly at her chest. If she ran, he’d catch her. If she gave him the ball, he’d still come for her. She had a feeling that this had nothing to do with the ball.
“I’m not giving it to you!” she yelled. Her voice was loud but unconvincing.
He repeated the same words, over and over. He was so close now that she couldn’t see the court behind him, the tree above him. She could only see the black in his eyes. She could only feel the heat in his breath as he spat out the words. The fucking ball. Give me it.

Realising that no one was coming for her, that he was double her size and had lost all sanity, she made a decision. Perhaps out of bewilderment, perhaps out of fury. With both hands, as quickly as she could, she brought the ball above her head, and hurled it straight at him. It hit the top of his crown, and bounced away. Her split second satisfaction was immediately followed by dread. She had hurt nothing but his ego.

She had made a mistake.

He grabbed her scrawny body from both sides and lifted her off the ground. She tried to kick, but she couldn't free her limbs from his grip. She screamed for him to let her go. Instead, he tipped her on her side, and without a moment’s thought, without any hesitation, dumped her like a heap of clothes onto the ground.

A few moments passed before she opened her eyes to see tiny grey and white stones sparkling around her. It was like viewing them under a microscope. The crevices in the gravel came to her like roads and mountains. She wanted to stay like this, but her chin was aching and there was a deep sting in her left knee. She coughed out bits of dirt and saliva. Then, folding her arms in front of her face, she put her head down and wailed into the concrete.

It felt like days before someone touched her.
“Come on,” Paige said, in a calm voice. “Up you get.”
She managed to get herself onto one leg, and looked down at her knee. It was covered in dirt and glowing with blood. Little streams oozed down her shin, staining her white sock. She cried, louder this time.
“Ssshh,” Paige hushed.
“But I didn’t do anything.” she sobbed.
Paige said nothing.
They made their way across the yard to sick bay.

She sat on a tightly fitted bed. Paige was beside her, holding her hand, the friendship bracelet still on her wrist. The sheet beneath them was sterile and new, and that made her feel dirty and like she was making a mess. The nurse asked what happened. She explained through a series of sobs. The swearing. The ball. The way he picked her up.
“Paige, is this what happened?” the nurse asked.
“I don’t know,” Paige said. “I didn’t see.”

The nurse cleaned her knee.
“Do you have a spare sock I could borrow?” she asked, but the nurse said she didn’t. When the bandaging was done, the nurse asked if she wanted to call her parents.
“Yes,” she said, staring into the linoleum floor. “I would like to go home now.”

The following day, they lined up for class. She wore tracksuit pants, while Travis looked like he hadn’t changed his clothes. He stood in line some metres away, with another boy called Stephen. They looked at her, looked at her leg. Stephen whispered something to Travis, and then they didn’t look at her again.

She didn’t play anymore, and she didn’t speak to Travis. No one asked about it. The friends that were at drama rehearsal didn’t see it, and apparently neither had Paige. The story was just hers. And it quickly became just a story. Once her knee had healed, leaving a faint patchy scar, it was almost like it never happened.

A month later they graduated. No more Paige, no more Travis, no more anyone. It was a year of belonging and not belonging. All on one basketball court, in one schoolyard, under the shade of a weeping willow. Whatever happened with Travis that day, whatever was pulsing through his veins, she left it on that small bed of gravel. And forgot to remember him.


Until now. In a smelly pub, almost ten years later.
“So you guys had a disagreement?” Connor said, trying to grab the waiter’s attention.
“Seriously Connor, sometimes you are so…”
He laughed as the waiter approached.
“I’m distracted?” Connor said. “You’re the one looking at Travis. I’m just multitasking.”

Unable to bear it, she glanced one more time in Travis’ direction. As though he felt it, he looked up to meet her. It was brief. Like when you make eye contact with someone on a train. You don’t mean to, and you hope they won’t think too much of it. He downed his pint in one chug, and returned to the conversation.