Intrepid explorers set off on missions of enormous magnitude with no guarantee of success. Three years ago in London, I set off on just such an adventure: to spend the afternoon at the Wimbledon tennis championships before catching my flight home that night. I had no idea if I could get tickets by just landing up at the gate. But Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay probably had no idea of how they would navigate each slippery slope on their climb to Mount Everest. If they didn’t let uncertainty dilute their desire, I wouldn’t either. Squaring my shoulders, I approached the hotel concierge.
“You know Wimbledon?” He stared back stonily, so I elaborated: “The place they play tennis… “ I swung my hand back and played an imaginary forehand stroke, which came out so gracefully that I started demonstrating a one-handed backhand slice, but he stopped me by raising his hand.
“Everyone knows Wimbledon,” he said coldly. As a seasoned concierge — used to directing strange tourists to stranger places — he was obviously affronted at my insinuation that he lacked such basic knowledge. I apologised and asked him the best way to get to Wimbledon.
“Tube,” he barked and gave me the tube map, invariably at arm’s reach anywhere in London. “But you’ll have to lug your suitcase along. There are no storage facilities at tube stations.”
I felt a sharp pang of regret. If I’d brought my tennis bag, I could have carried it around Wimbledon like a professional. Who knows? I might have been mistaken for a player. Perhaps I’d have been asked for an autograph. How would I respond? “Sorry, I’m a spectator like you?” Or would it be more polite to comply modestly? Should I sign it simply ‘Paddy’ or ‘Hi Angela, wishing you every success in life’? Would they expect memorabilia, like a wrist band? I wasn’t carrying one — should I keep a pair of socks handy?
“Will you take the tube?” the concierge interrupted my happy thoughts.
I told him I wasn’t keen on lugging a suitcase all over Wimbledon. He suggested I rent a car, which I could return at the airport as Wimbledon was on the way.
“Brilliant, you’re a genius!” I cried.
His good humour restored, he helped me find a taxi. I asked him how far the Avis office was.
“Just three miles away, Sir.”
“How long will it take?” I asked, but he had closed the door and stepped back. After crawling forward a few metres, the taxi stopped at a signal and waited there so long I could have gone back and asked him the question again — and at the same time, chatted with him about his family, the weather and the shocking price of onions — and still come back before it moved.
I reached Avis 90 minutes later. The paperwork took 15 minutes and the car’s GPS took another 15 to locate itself. I started my drive at 4.15pm at a glacial pace, with bicycles and brisk walkers overtaking me. When I stopped at the first signal, six cars were ahead. But the signal turned green so briefly, only two got through. I had to wait for four signal changes, only to get stuck again a few metres ahead. At 4.45pm I could still see the Avis office in my rearview mirror.
I inched along, the GPS system directing me with infinite patience. Suddenly at 6.30 pm, the surroundings looked familiar. I was excited. Perhaps I was nearing Wimbledon and was recognising the area from what I’d seen over the years on television? Then the cruel truth hit me. I was near the hotel I had just vacated!
If, after three weeks of arduous climbing, Hillary and Norgay had found themselves back in base camp, they may have simply shrugged and set off again. But I was made of less spunky steel. Parking the car at the hotel, I requested the concierge to have it returned to Avis on my behalf (£20 extra): I’d take the Heathrow Express to the airport from nearby Paddington station (another £15).
“But you wanted to watch Wimbledon, Sir!” the good man said.
“I’ll catch it on television at the hotel bar,” I said.
— Paddy Rangappa is a freelance writer based in Singapore. Read more on his blog: http://theflip-side.blogspot.com