Book Extracts
  • Someone Else by Tonino Benacquista
  • Someone Else |  Tonino Benacquista
Someone Else by Tonino Benacquista


That year, for the first time in ages, Thierry Blin

decided to play tennis again, with the sole purpose of

confronting the man he had once been: a competent

player who, without ever earning a place in any official

seeding, had given a few ambitious players a run for

their money. Since then the cogs had ground to a halt,

his shots had lost their edge, and the simple act of

running after a little yellow ball no longer seemed so

instinctive. Just to be clear in his own mind, he took

out his old medium-headed Snauweart racket, his Stan

Smiths and a few other relics, and made his entrance

cautiously at Les Feuillants, the club closest to him.

Having paid for his membership, he asked an attendant

whether he knew of anyone who was looking for an

opponent. The attendant pointed to a tall man who

was playing alone against a wall, returning the ball with

pleasing regularity.

Nicolas Gredzinski had been a member of the club

for two months now, but he still didn’t feel confident

enough to challenge a seasoned player, or sufficiently

patient to restrain his shots against a beginner.

Gredzinski was actually refusing to admit to himself that

his perennial fear of confrontation was being demonstrated

yet again, in these weekly two-hour tennis sessions;

he had a way of seeing hawkish tendencies in the

most peaceful situations. The fact that a stranger had

come and suggested knocking up for a while,

or evenplaying a set, was his one opportunity to get onto a

court for real. To gauge his opponent’s skill, he asked

a few questions to which Blin gave only guarded

replies, and both men headed for court number 4.

From the first few warm-up shots, Blin rediscovered

forgotten sensations: the felty smell of new balls, the

sprays of rust-coloured grit on his shoes from the clay

surface, the creaking sound of the strings as they

slackened with the impact of the first returns. It was

still too early to talk about the rest: the feel of the ball,

the gauging of distances, his position, the suppleness

of his leg movements. The priority was to return the

ball. To return it, come what may. He had to launch

into this dialogue and remember how to use the words,

even if his first sentences were not those of a great

speaker, let alone epigrammatic.

Gredzinski was reassured by the eloquence of his

forehand, but felt that his backhand was talking gibberish.

There had always been something forced about

it; he avoided using it as an attacking shot and preferred

taking his chances and lunging – at his own risk

– in order to end up playing a forehand. He had actually

succeeded in integrating this weakness into his

game, paradoxically creating a style. It only took a few

balls for him to make up for that slight delay in the

attack, and his backhand rediscovered that little flick

of the wrist which was far from a copybook move but

which usually proved to be successful. He surprised

himself by suggesting a match; however wary he was of

competition, he could already see himself emerging

from the trenches as a hero and striding towards the

enemy lines. “It was bound to come to this,” they both

thought, and it was actually the only way that Blin

could be absolutely sure, and that Gredzinski could

break free of his fatalism, which meant he didn’t see

tennis for what it really was: a game.

The first exchanges were courteous but unremarkable,

each of them wanting to review his argument

before the great debate. With his long straight shots

which kept Blin behind the baseline, Gredzinski was

trying to say something like: I could go on chatting like

this for hours. To which Blin replied with a succession of

precise, patient as you please s, alternating forehands and

backhands. When he lost his service, which put him

4–2 down in the first set, he decided to get to the point

by coming in unexpectedly for a volley, which clearly

meant: How about stopping this chitchat? Gredzinski was

forced to answer yes by serving an ace, taking him to

15–love. And the conversation became increasingly

heated. By systematically coming straight up to the

net after the return of serve, Blin threw all of his

opponent’s suggestions back in his face, flinging down

a Not a chance! or an Onto the next! or even a Hopeless! or

a Pathetic! with each definitive volley. It was a good tactic

and it saw him win the first set 6–3. Gredzinski never

seemed to think of things until it was too late; it was

while he was mopping his forehead as they changed

ends that he realized how he should have replied to

such peremptory attacks. He thought he might demonstrate

for the two or three onlookers who had come to

hang on to the wire mesh round the court. He now

started serving into the middle of the service box to

give his opponent as little angle as possible, then he

had fun sending his drives one way then the other,

playing Blin back and forth to the point of exhaustion

as if to say: You see . . . I too can . . . pick up the pace . . . you

madman . . . or you poor ignoramus . . . who wanted . . . to

make me look . . . like an idiot. The madman in question

fell into the trap and missed a fair few opportunities as

he ran out of breath and failed to follow his shots

through properly. Some of his net-skimming volleys

warranted a bit of attention and issued a strange

request, a sort of Let me get one in, at least. The second

set was beginning to look like a summary execution,

and the members of the Feuillants club, whether they

were players themselves or just there to watch, were

pretty sure which way it would go. There were now

almost a dozen spectators to applaud the risks

Gredzinski was taking and the rare replies from Blin,

who lost the set. Even so, Blin had a psychological

advantage that Gredzinski had always lacked, a profound

conviction of his own rights, a belief in his own

reasoning which forced him to play within the lines, as

if the principle was self-evident. Gredzinski couldn’t

help but be affected by this and it wasn’t long before

Blin was giving the questions and the answers, taking

the lead 5–2 in the third with victory in his sights. One

of the elementary laws of debating then came to poor

Gredzinski’s aid: a debater of limited skill can’t bear

having his own arguments thrown back in his face.

Accordingly he started using long shots with maximum

spin as if deciding to resume control of a conversation

with an inveterate talker. Strange though it may seem,

Blin lost a game at 5–3 and was quickly overwhelmed,

eventually letting Gredzinski re-enter the set at 5–5

with his service still to come. But Blin still had a few lines

of argument in his racket; he had a perverse way about

him, he was the sort who would never lie but just

wouldn’t tell the whole truth. Now for the first time

he played several magnificent backhands straight

down the line, and this saw him break the service of

Gredzinski, who turned to stone between the tramlines.

The latter had been prepared for anything except for

this show of bad faith from an opponent who, from the

very beginning of the match, had had the good grace

to proceed quite openly. Where had these backhands

straight down the line come from? It was dishonest! He

should have declared them at the outset, just as you

pronounce some profound truth to show exactly what

sort of man you are. The third set ended in a painful

tie-break which brought both men right back into the

match, and proved what each of them was capable of

when he felt threatened. Blin came up to the net to

volley three times in succession, and the last of these

was too much. Gredzinski replied with such a high lob

that you could clearly read the message in its parabola:

This sort of reasoning will always be way over your head.

That showed he had misjudged the other man, who

wasn’t afraid of sending drop shots from the baseline

just to see his opponent run: You have no idea how far

you are from the truth. Gredzinski ran as fast as he could,

sent the ball back onto the court and planted himself

in front of the net: I’m here and I’m staying! And he

stayed, towering, waiting for a reaction from the man

who’d just made him run flat out, the man who hated

using lobs, even in the direst straits – to him they were

a cheap trick, cowardly shots. He delved to the depths

of his racket to come up with a superb passing shot

which meant: I’m cutting you off at the knees. The beginnings

of a tear fogged over Gredzinski’s eye; not only

had he run several miles to get the drop shot in

extremis, but now he was floored by the most humiliating

rejoinder known to this demonic sport: the passing

shot down the line. The coup de grâce was dealt by a

handful of spectators who had become fascinated by

the quality of their game: they started clapping. One

of the longest standing members of Les Feuillants

climbed up onto the umpire’s chair to pronounce

coolly: “3–0, change ends.”

Gredzinski could see himself cracking his Dunlop

over the poor devil’s head; but all he did was change

ends, as he had just been reminded to do. Like any

other shy person who feels humiliated, he trawled

through his darkest feelings for some residual energy.

Blin, on the other hand, was celebrating the fact that

he had found himself again, the man he had been, the

man he might be again for some time, always agile,

mischievous and sure of himself when it really mattered.

He just managed to win the fourth point and

then lost the next with just as much effort. When one

of them said: I’ll be here to the end, the other would reply:

And I’ll be right there beside you, but neither of them had

managed to edge ahead. At five all, the two players

exchanged a last look before the final showdown. A

look which said the same thing, a feeling almost of

regret that they couldn’t find a gentleman’s agreement

or some way of pulling out, each with his honour

intact. The moment of truth had come, they were

going to have to go through with it. Gredzinski eased

the pressure and lost the next point, then the match,

delivering tired shots devoid of malice. As if to tell Blin

that victory comes to whoever hungers for it the most.


When they came out of the changing rooms they bypassed

the sodas and the club’s garden chairs to take

refuge in a bar near the Porte Brancion. They needed

somewhere worthy of their match, a reward for so

much effort.

“Thierry Blin.”

“Nicolas Gredzinski, pleased to meet you.”

They shook hands a second time, sitting on two tall

stools, facing hundreds of bottles of spirits lined up in

three rows. A barman asked what they would like to


“Vodka, ice cold,” Blin said without thinking.

“And for you, sir?”

The fact was that Gredzinski never knew what to

have in cafés, let alone in bars, where he hardly ever set

foot. Fuelled by a sort of complicity engendered by the

match, he looked at the barman with obvious delight

and said: “The same!”

Now that “the same” needs some consideration

because Gredzinski, despite distant Polish origins, had

never drunk vodka. He sometimes sipped at a glass of

wine with a meal, or a beer to freshen up when he left

work, but you could say he didn’t have a personal

relationship with alcohol. Only the enthusiasm and

the euphoria of the match could explain that “the

same” with which he surprised even himself.

Tennis was not truly a passion for either of them, but

no other sport had given them so much pleasure.

Leaning on the long wooden counter, they ran through

all the players who had made them dream. They very

quickly agreed: whether or not you were susceptible to

his game, Björn Borg had been the greatest ever.

“And his extraordinary list of wins is only the tip of

the iceberg,” said Blin. “You just had to watch him play.”

“That silence the minute he walked on the court,

do you remember? It hovered in the air, it didn’t

leave room for any doubt about the outcome of the

match. He knew it, you could see it in his face; but his

opponent would still try his luck.”

“Not one spectator ever asked themselves if he was

having a good day, if he’d recovered from the previous

match, if his shoulder was hurting or his knee. Borg

was just there, harbouring his secret, which – like any

real secret – shuts everyone else out.”

“Borg didn’t need luck. He even denied the whole

idea of chance.”

“The one unexplained mystery is his gloominess,

that little something in his features which was so

obviously sad.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say there was sadness but, quite the

contrary, serenity,” said Gredzinski. “Perfection can

only ever be serene. It shuts out emotion, drama

and, of course, humour. Or perhaps he had a sort of

humour, which involved robbing his opponents of the

last weapons they had left to defend themselves with.

When people tried to dismiss him as a machine returning

balls from the baseline, he’d retaliate by playing

extraordinarily cruel volleys.”

“Put Borg up against the biggest server in the world?

He’d start by inflicting a love game on him, all in aces!”

“Did Borg sniff out their weaknesses? Did he wear

them down? If he wanted to, he could step on the

accelerator and save more than an hour for an audience

keen to go and watch a less monotonous match.”

“As soon as he lost just one game, the journalists

started saying he was on the way down!”

“Whoever the other finalist confronting Borg was,

he could be a hell of a tournament winner. Being

number two to Borg meant being the best in the eyes

of the world.”

They stopped talking for a moment to bring the

small chilled glasses to their lips. Blin automatically

took a good swig of vodka.

Gredzinski, who was not prepared for it and had no

experience of the stuff, kept the drink in his mouth for

a long while to let it express itself completely, swirling it

round so as not to miss out a single taste bud, creating a

cataclysmic response all the way down his throat, and

closing his eyes until the burning passed.

“There’s only one shadow on the picture of Borg’s

career,” said Blin.

Gredzinski felt ready to take up a new challenge.

“Jimmy Connors?”

Blin was amazed. Gredzinski had responded with all

the confidence of someone who knows the answer.

And it wasn’t the answer but his answer, just his opinion,

a quirky idea intended simply to rock the so-called


“How did you guess? He’s exactly who I was thinking


And, as if it were still possible, the very mention of

Jimmy Connors inflamed them almost as much as the


“Are we allowed to love something and its exact


“Absolutely,” replied Gredzinski.

“Then you could say that Jimmy Connors was the

opposite of Björn Borg, don’t you think?”

“Connors was a destabilizing force, the energy of


“Borg was perfection, Connors was grace.”

“And perfection is often lacking in grace.”

“His constant willingness to pin everything on every

shot! His exuberance when he won and his eloquence

in defeat.”

“The sheer audacity of his despair, his elegance in

the face of failure!”

“How can you explain that he had every audience

in the world on his side? He was adored at Wimbledon,

adored at Roland-Garros, adored at Flushing

Meadow, adored everywhere. People didn’t like

Borg when he won, they liked Connors when he


“Do you remember the way he used to launch himself

into the air to strike a ball before it had even had

time to get there?”

“He made his return of service into a more deadly

weapon than the serve itself.”

“His game was counter-intuitive, it was even counter

to the rules of tennis. As if, ever since he was little, he’d

made a conscious effort to contradict his teachers in

every lesson.”

“We love you, Jimbo!”

They drank to Connors, and then drank again, this

time for Borg. Then they fell silent for a moment, each

lost in his own memories.

“We’re not champions, Thierry, but that doesn’t

mean we haven’t got a bit of style.”

“Sometimes even a bit of panache.”

“That backhand down the line, have you always been

able to do that?” Gredzinski asked.

“It’s not what it used to be.”

“I’d really like to have had a shot like that in me.”

“Your turns of speed are much more impressive than


“Perhaps, but there’s something arrogant about that

backhand that I’ve always liked. A thundering reply to

anyone with any pretensions, a trick which would

freeze the feet of the most insolent opponent.”

“I stole it straight from Adriano Panatta, Roland-

Garros, 1976.”

“How can you steal a shot?”

“By being pretty conceited,” replied Blin. “At fifteen,

you have a lot of nerve.”

“That’s not enough, unless you’re exceptionally


“I didn’t have that sort of luck, so I just had to sweat

blood and tears. I neglected all the other shots to

concentrate on that down-the-line backhand. I lost

most of my matches, but every time I managed to place

one of those shots I’d floor my opponent against all

expectations and, for those five seconds, I was a champion.

Now it’s disappeared from lack of use, but it’s

still quite a memory.”

“It can reappear, you know, and when your opponent

least expects, trust me!”

Gredzinski was surprised to find his glass empty just

as a strange feeling came over him, relaxing his whole

body. A sort of bright gap in the foggy sky that

hovered over him all the time. Without actually being

unhappy, Gredzinski had adopted a sort of restlessness

as his natural state. He had accepted a long time ago

now that every morning he would come across the cold

monster of his own anxiety, and nothing succeeded in

calming it except for feverish activity, which meant he

could never live in the present. All through the day

Nicolas struggled to stay one step ahead of it, right up

until those sweet few moments before he fell asleep.

This evening, though, he felt as if he was where he

wanted to be, the present was enough in itself, and the

little glass of vodka exhaling icy mist had something to

do with that. He surprised himself by ordering another,

and swore that he would make it last as long as possible.

The rest followed on from there; the words he was

uttering were certainly his own, his thoughts were freed

of any interference, and a peculiar memory came back

to him, like an echo of the one Blin had just described.

“There’s something beautiful and tragic about the

story of those five seconds; now I understand the

stealing. I had a similar experience when I was about

twenty-five. I shared an apartment with a piano teacher,

and most of the time – thank God! – she taught

while I was out. That piano was in the middle of everything,

our sitting room, our conversations, even our

timetables, given that we organized them around it.

Some evenings I actually hated it and, paradoxically,

I sometimes felt jealous of the pupils who laid their

hands on it. Even the worst of them managed to get

something out of it, but not me. I was useless.”

“What was the point in battling on with this piano if

it annoyed you so much?”

“Probably to insult it.”

“Meaning . . .?”

“Playing it myself was the worst revenge I could

find. Playing when I’d never learned how to, when I

couldn’t tell the difference between middle C and a B

flat. The perfect crime, really. I asked my flatmate to

teach me to play a piece by memorizing the keys and

the position of my fingers. It’s technically possible, it

just takes a lot of patience.”

“Which piece?”

“That’s where the trouble started! I aimed high and

my friend tried everything to stop me, but I stuck to my

guns: Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’.”

Thierry didn’t seem to know it so Nicolas hummed

the first few bars; they sang the rest together.

“In spite of everything, she was tickled by this impossible

task, and she set me to work on ‘Clair de Lune’

and, like a performing monkey, I eventually did it.

After a few months I could play Debussy’s ‘Clair de


“Like a real pianist?”

“No, obviously, she’d warned me about that. Yes, I

could create the illusion with a bit of mimicry, but

I’d always be lacking the essential ingredient: heart, a

feeling for the piano, an instinct which only comes

from a proper apprenticeship, a passion for music, an

intimacy with the instrument.”

“But, there you are, when you’re twenty you’ve got

nothing better to do than impress those around you.

And you must have done that a couple of times.”

“Only a couple, but each time it was an extraordinary

feeling. I’d play ‘Clair de Lune’ and adopt a brooding

expression. The piece was so beautiful that it kindled

its own magic, and Debussy would always turn up at

some point between two phrases. I was treated to

cheering, to smiles from a handful of young girls, and

– for a few minutes – I felt like someone else.”

Those last words hung in the air, just long enough

for their resonance to be felt. The bar was filling up,

people heading off for supper were being replaced by

new arrivals, and this melting movement brought a

new quality to the silence between Thierry and Nicolas.

“Well, at least you can say we’ve been young.”

Caught up in a surprising surge of nostalgia, Thierry

ordered a Jack Daniel’s, which reminded him of a trip

to New York. Nicolas was negotiating his vodka with

all the patience he’d promised himself but it was an

effort; several times he nearly downed it in one as he

had seen Blin doing, just to see how far this first inkling

of drunkenness might take him. Without knowing

it, he was experiencing the beginnings of a great love

story with his glass of alcohol, a story which was unfolding

in two classic movements: allowing oneself to be

overrun by the effects of that first thunderbolt, and

trying to make those effects last as long as possible.

“I’m thirty-nine,” said Thierry.

“I was forty a fortnight ago. Can we still think of

ourselves as sort of . . . young?”

“Probably, but the apprenticeship’s over. If you

think that life expectancy for a man is seventy-five,

we’ve still got the second half to go, perhaps the better

half, who knows? But it’s the first half that’s made us

into who we are.”

“What you’re saying is that most of our choices are


“We’ve always known we wouldn’t be Panatta or

Alfred Brendel. Over the years we’ve constructed ourselves,

and we may have thirty years ahead of us to

see whether we’ve got ourselves about right. But we’ll

never be someone else any more.”

It fell like a verdict, and they drank to the certainty

of it.

“Anyway, what’s the point in wanting to be someone

else, to live someone else’s life?” Gredzinski went on.

“Or to feel someone else’s joy and pain? If we’ve

become who we are, then the choices can’t have been

that bad. Who else would you have liked to be?”

Thierry turned round and swept his arm over the


“Why not that man over there, with the gorgeous girl

drinking margaritas?”

“Something tells me the guy must have a complicated


“Wouldn’t it appeal to you to be the barman?”

“I’ve always avoided work which involved contact

with the public.”

“Or the Pope himself?”

“Not the public, I’ve already said.”

“A painter whose work gets exhibited at the

Pompidou Centre?”

“That’s worth thinking about.”

“What would you say to being a hired killer?”

Nicolas raised an eyebrow in silence.

“Or just the man in the apartment next door?”

“None of the above, but why not me?” said Nicolas.

“The other me that I dream of being, the one I’ve

never had the courage to become.”

He suddenly had a sense almost of nostalgia.

For the pleasure of it and out of curiosity, they

each described this other me who was both so close and

hopelessly inaccessible. Thierry could see him wearing

particular clothes, doing a particular job; Nicolas

exposed his great principles of life and some of his

failings. Each of them had fun describing a typical day

for his other self, hour by hour, in such abundant detail

that they found it worrying. They were so thorough

that, two hours later, there really were four of them

there, leaning on the bar. The glasses had proliferated

to the damning point where the very idea of counting

them was almost indecent.

“This conversation’s becoming absurd,” said Nicolas.

“A Borg can’t become a Connors or vice versa.”

“I don’t like myself enough to want to stay as me at

all costs,” said Blin. “I’d like to spend the thirty years

I’ve got left as this other me!”

“I’m not used to this,” said Gredzinski waving his

glass, “but do you think we might be a bit drunk?”

“It’s up to us to go and find this someone else. What

is there to lose?”

Gredzinski, captivated, had buried his anxiety somewhere

in a desert and was now dancing on its grave. He

fished about for the only answer that made any sense

to him: “We might lose ourselves along the way.”

“That’s a good start.”

They clinked their glasses together under the jaded

eye of the barman who, given the time, was not going to

serve them anything else. Blin, who was far more lucid

than Gredzinski, suddenly affected a conspiratorial

expression; without even realizing it, he had steered the

conversation to arrive exactly here, as if in Gredzinski

he had found something he had spent a long time

looking for. His victory in the match now egged him on

to play another kind of match in which he would be

both his own opponent and his only partner, a competition

so far-reaching that he would have to gather

all his forces together, to reawaken his free will,

remember his dreams, believe once again and push

back the limits he was beginning to sense around him.

“I’ll need time – say two or three years to fine-tune

the tiniest details – but I’ll wager you that I will be that

someone else.”

This was a challenge Thierry was putting to himself,

as if Gredzinski was reduced to a pretext, at best a


“. . . It’s June 23rd,” he went on. “Let’s meet in three

years’ time, three years to the day, in this same bar,

at the same time.”

Far, far away, intoxicated by the momentum of what

was happening, Gredzinski let the drink guide him, a

form of autopilot which left him free to concentrate

on what mattered.

“If we meet . . . will it be the two of us or the other


“That’s what gives the challenge its spice.”

“And what’s at stake? If by some extraordinary

chance one of us manages it, he’d deserve some

incredible reward!”

For Blin, that was not the question at all. Conquering

this other him was the greatest stake in itself. He

wriggled out of it with a flourish. “On that evening,

June 23rd at 9 o’clock in exactly three years, whichever

one of us has won can ask absolutely anything of the


“. . . Absolutely anything?”

“Are there higher stakes in the world?”

From where Gredzinski was right then, nothing

seemed eccentric any more; everything and nothing

vied for attention. He was discovering his own capacity

for elation, a rare sensation pervading both his head

and his heart.

It was time for them to part, something indicated

the moment when they should leave. Neither would

have been able to say what.

“This may be the last time we ever see each other,


“That would be the best thing that could happen to

us, don’t you think?”

  • Someone ElseTonino Benacquista