The boys of summer

My friend and I dressed and ran out on to the glittering court

I got a call from an old friend last week. The duties of the telephone are among those we both tend to shirk, but we hadn't seen each other in longer than a year. In the course of the conversation it became clear why: we'd fallen out of the habit of going "home" over the summer. By home, naturally, I mean not where we live, but where we grew up; and by summers, I mean the long holidays between school years.

Some friendships are founded on games. I have written here before of what was after all a rather brief period in my life: the season I spent, shortly after college, playing basketball in Germany. I didn't make it through the year, and the team folded shortly after I left it. The experience offered me my first and richest taste of failure (I am still dining off the crumbs of it); but there was a spell, towards the beginning, after the loneliness and exhaustion of training camp, when I could see my way to making something more than misery out of the adventure.

This friend of mine came for a visit. He had been drifting through the first aftermath of his own college years, working in Paris and then at a camp in the mountains. Grad school in California promised to bend his life back into some kind of shape; but in the last weeks of August, as he slept on the sofa bed in my little apartment (paid for by the club), we imagined for ourselves a different future. We would spend it, as we had spent our childhood, playing basketball.

The club was short of depth and needed a few players to give bite to the practice squad. I mentioned my friend's interest to the coach, who told him to join us in training. Basketball was becoming a job to me, a professional task - a sort of bureaucratic performance in which, by dint of great physical exertion, I filled out forms - but that week it reverted to what it had always been: a game and the stage for friendship. We woke early and played ball and picked over lunch together; biked in the afternoons, among the Bavarian hills, brown with summer; napped and woke to play ball again; cooked dinner and ate it in front of the television.

This, more or less, is how we had always spent our summers; and I remembered, speaking to him on the telephone, one of the things I used to say about sports. Boys spend their childhoods practising something they will only get worse at with age; that doesn't matter. What matters more is the language of friendship lost. It isn't only boys, of course. For every kid, the pleasure taken in books, in the arts, in films, in relationships, in music, ages better than the pleasures that depend on being able to run around till sundown without getting tired or hurt. Which suggests this definition of the professional sportsman: someone who doesn't get worse at games when he grows up.

For what it's worth, my friend and I have both declined since that summer. For a week before he flew home to California, we talked about how long we might play ball and put off adult life: a year, ten years? Making a little money, with a club flat and a free car - "working", such as it was, only half the year. One night, at a friendly against a third-division team from Munich, our manager let him suit up for us local boys. We dressed together and ran on to the glittering court; a few press people showed up, taking snaps. And I'm sure, if I looked, I could find the evidence of that game buried away in some archive at the local paper. It seems to me the kind of memory that demands proof. I don't quite believe it: we couldn't really (could we?) have spent our lives playing games.

Hunter Davies is away