It is the end of the long long weekend and we are determined, despite the lethargy, to squeeze in one last adventure before returning to our dull desks and the endless quotidian. E awaits us in the lee of the Tea Building, sheltering from the British summer. It is raining still as it has for days, but as we turn onto Bethnal Green Road, the wind and water rakes the pavement and us, drenching our shoes and jeans below the knees. The rain provokes skittishness instead of the usual damp depression, but yet we will the doorway of Rich Mix westward.
Eventually. Eventually inside and dry, to drip and steam with the rest. The main space of the Rich Mix arts centre has been transformed and is filled with table tennis tables. This is Pongathon. I don’t know why it isn’t pingathon, but either would work, for this is ping pong in overdrive. P and B are already at the table they have booked for the next couple of hours. This is to be the site of our contest.
Conversation is difficult on account of the DJ. But at least he plays songs I want to hear: Joy Division to Human League, via The Long Blondes. Around us, assorted hipsters bat orange and white balls across the little nets on the surrounding tables. Many of these go astray, over-hit and misdirected, and the air is full of wayward plastic bubbles. They skitter across the floor or ricochet from hard surfaces and heads. A woman in a gym skirt and sweat band sweeps through the room with a fishing net, collecting the surplus projectiles. On the stage above us, the players run around what is surely the prestige table, striking the ball on the hoof.
We remain at our stations, playing serious games for serious points. We argue about the rules. We are focused. And yet often we are less accurate than the players of the circuit games above us. B and M and P (and E and J; everyone in fact except K and I) display a degree of competence, but rallies do not last long despite our exertions.
And it is hot: before my socks have dried, my head is glistening with sweat. Competition is fierce; laughter is frequent. The last game goes to 23-21; the penultimate rally seems to go on forever; then, bang on 9pm, as our table booking ends, I find myself once more on the losing side. But only just.
The room is suddenly emptying. We gather our damp coats to head off into the dying evening light, to Dalston for tapas and wine at the really rather nice Viva. As we leave, J says ‘Good bit of wiff waff, that!’ and I dredge my memory to see if I have ever heard table tennis described in that way before. I do not want to concur with something inappropriate. Deciding it is probably a northern thing, I nod.