First published December 2010
Amy gave Dick a peck on the cheek and wished him luck. He looked ill prepared. Shirt hanging loosely out the waist band of his trousers, cricket bag bursting and his bat at an untidy angle against the car boot. In a rush and late again. Most of them were. He wouldn’t be the last to arrive. Sunday afternoon cricket. He couldn’t not do it, but . . . .
Two middle-aged men, dressed in check shirts, ten gallon hats and rough leather trousers, stood facing each other, twenty two yards apart. One was tall and bald, the other squat and silver haired. Neither was smiling as right hands hovered over six guns.
‘I’m going first,’ said Phil.
‘No, you’re not, you’re the bad guy.’
‘Who said? Anyway the bad guy goes first.’
‘You always get to go first, and you’re downwind.’ Bert pointed at his gun, ‘Do you know we haven’t got the right kit? These aren’t Colt 45’s. Strictly speaking, we should have Colt 45’s. Its shocking. Yesterday, I was nearly fobbed off with an eight gallon hat. The standard of gun fighting is dropping every year.’
Phil nodded, ‘Aye, I know. I’ve kept up my times though. Still got the quickest draw since Billy was a kid. You remember Billy Iredale from the old days? Fastest gun in the valley, ‘till I came along.’
‘Dick . . . Dick, are you playing today?’ shouted the captain from mid off, ‘or shall we get one of theirs to keep wicket?’
Dick shook his head and his recurring daydream faded, ‘Sorry skip, miles away.’ Two aging gunslingers, slugging it out on a B movie cowboy set, too old and too proud to back down.
Crouching ten feet behind the wicket, Dick turned his attention instead to Phil Cross, the opening bowler. Even in his fifties, Phil used a long run. The first ball zipped down the leg side for four before Dick could get a glove on it.
‘I’ll send you an appointment for the optician, Dick.’
Bert Hammond bowled the second over off seven strides, several short of his prime. Dick didn’t fare any better when the third ball kept low.
‘Have you got a bad back lad?’
‘We don’t want extras to be their top score do we Dick?’
Phil and Bert were proud men with respectable careers behind them in the West Yorkshire leagues. Their breath was short and their muscles ached and they still ran in as if every ball could take a wicket. When Bert was on, a wise umpire had cotton wool in his left ear. Phil’s manners were more muted, more a supplication to a higher being as the ball passed the outside edge yet again.
Fielders were bottom of the pile in Phil and Bert’s scheme of things, to be tolerated as long as they took catches and picked the ball up cleanly. So it wasn’t long before the Hammond roar when Tom put down a skier off the third ball of Bert’s second over, ‘Whatever are you doing Miller? You dozy wassock, you should’ve swallowed that.’
Tom, a recent recruit to the local evening paper, and a Brummie with an accent to match, had yet to appreciate West Yorkshire’s small talk. If he’d a tail it would have been between his legs as he walked back to extra cover.
Next over, Reg Harvey let one through his legs.
‘Bend your back you idle sod. You are close enough to the ground,’ shouted Phil, ‘and spend less time admiring your Grecian 2000.’
Reg retrieved the ball from the boundary, tweaked his moustache and, winking at Tom, yelled toward Phil, ‘Stop pitching half volleys outside off stump then.’
Supposedly a friendly game of Sunday cricket down at Lowerthong, it had all the important ingredients: a dry sunny day, a decent forecast, a picturesque cricket ground and an opposing side bristling with slow cowards. The Wanderers were over from Barnston, cricket’s bottomless pit. Their captain had won the toss and elected to bat. Lowerthong’s skipper would’ve fielded first anyway as neither Phil nor Bert could raise a gallop just after tea.
Towards the end of his spell, Phil got a long hop to lift a touch. The batsman dollied it to point off a top edge. Bert looked heavenwards in disbelief, ‘Well I never, did you see that? If it’d been any shorter it’d’ve hit ‘is big toe.’
Bert then bowled their star man. Phil was stood at short third man, hands on hips, ‘He was blind. Someone had to get him.’
There are occasions when, in a what can otherwise be a lonely game, the players meet for a chat. The taking of a wicket is one of these moments and Phil and Bert thrived on them. The rest of the side were more than happy to collaborate in the hope that a spot of mid-wicket bonding might mollify Phil and Bert’s outrage. Otherwise, since the batsmen had their own problems, like seeing the ball, the only people to share in Phil and Bert’s intimacies were Dick and the umpires. As the umpires had heard it all before, it was left to Dick to listen.
Phil’s first ball of his sixth over was pulled toward the square leg boundary, sending Bert on a seventy yard dash. Having returned the ball, Bert doubled over, coughing and wheezing like Doc Holiday. Phil was the first to comment, ‘Get the twelfth man on, skip, he’s knackered.’
Bert slowly walked back to first slip and propped his arms on his knees. ‘I’m getting too old for this Dick. Palpitations.’
Minutes later, Phil stopped suddenly as he ran in to complete the over and clutched his lumbar region. Bert was quick to console him, ‘Come in off your shorter run, in fact just come in, your time is up.’
Dick tried to be more diplomatic, ‘OK, Phil?’
‘No Dick, I’m lying on the floor for a rest,’ replied Phil.
At the tea interval, surrounded by sandwiches, buns and mugs of sweet hot grey fluid, Phil improved enough to open the scorebook at the previous season’s game, ‘I got 5 for 32 against these last year. We buried ‘em. I took my two thousandth wicket that day.’
When Tom Miller’s eyes widened, Bert took over, ‘He’s always kept his stats, even when we were kids. Bit of a nerd. You did bowl well though, I remember it now. I missed out. It was the pitch, suited your leg cutter. Too soft on top for me, and the ball was out of shape. In my day the balls were always hard and true. Its shocking. Standards are dropping everywhere you look . . . ’
The skipper clutched Dick’s shoulder, ‘Dick, get your pads on. Nobody’s volunteered to open, so you’re coming in with me.
‘Phil six, Bert come in at five.’
‘Righto, skip,’ said Phil, ‘stroll round the boundary, Bert? Don’t get out too soon Dick.’
‘No Phil,’ Dick strode toward the changing rooms. Too bad if I said no for once, he thought. Never opened at school or since really, until now. Taking advantage of his good nature. There’s plenty of other things he could be doing.
Dick did his ten overs, saw off their quicks and dutifully became Barnston’s first wicket. A small contribution to half decent stand. His school sports master had described him as a steady bat. Lowerthong’s Sunday cricketers were less complimentary.
‘Batted Dick,’ said Reg lounging outside the clubhouse. It was the polite thing to say in friendly cricket, or hard luck if you’d played like a lemon. Dick wasn’t inclined to take such comments seriously.
‘Come on Dick, no need to be grumpy.’
‘You sound just like my wife, Reg.’
Family commitments prevented Dick from playing the week after. Why Amy’s sister had to arrange a BBQ on a Sunday afternoon was a mystery to him. There were compensations though – he caught a re-run of “High Noon” while everyone was changing. For once he forgave the hour his daughter spent in the bathroom, and the delays that followed Amy’s insistence on doing fifteen jobs simultaneously – another of life’s mysteries. Gary Cooper, aging and frail, but such courage. I couldn’t do it thought Dick. The brave pointless act. Make a stand. Maybe once upon a time. It was only a film. Could be real though. A vague disquiet grew somewhere below his chest. Might he have been different?
Amy swept in, ‘Come on Dick, snap out of it, we’re all ready. Get the car.’
Strange, thought Dick as he arrived at the ground the following Sunday. Usually players arrived late or at least the last minute, and changed alone. Yet here they all were, sat together in the dressing room. The mood was as grey and flaky as a sightscreen in need of a new coat of whitewash.
‘What’s up lads? Ambrose and Walsh playing for them then?’
‘We haven’t a full team, Dick,’ said Tom, ‘you won’t’ve heard. Phil and Bert aren’t so good.’ He raised his left arm, showing a substantial bulge at the elbow, ‘and I can’t do much. Trapped it in a door.’
The skipper broke up the party, ’Right lads, we’re fielding. Dick, would you care to put the gloves on? Nobody else wants to.’
Dick tucked his trousers into his socks and found the keeper’s pads. Just a doormat, he thought, and we’ve no chance, eight men at best.
Portly Reg, former officer and gentleman, followed Dick onto the field, ‘Do I detect a smidgeon of mutiny?’
Dick drew in a big breath and took a long look at the pitch, ‘What’s the score then, Reg?’
Reg shied a practice ball for Dick to catch, ‘Rain stopped play at Headingley . . . ,’ He received a withering glance, ‘Oh, you mean Bert and Phil. Not sure. Last game, Bert broke down with chest pain, running round the boundary. Said he had a bit of angina and not to worry. I ran him straight home, but he wouldn’t call out the emergency doctor, stubborn I suppose. I phoned him in the week and he was still waiting to see his own doctor.’
‘What about Phil?’
‘His back’s gone. Still in bed apparently, can’t move,’ Reg paused, about to stroll to midwicket. He half turned, ‘we’ve the Melbridge Cup in a couple of weeks.’
‘So we have,’ said Dick, adopting the position behind the stumps.
Forty overs and two hundred runs later, a despondent understrength Lowerthong Sunday side queued for tea in the small clubhouse.
‘What’s the Melbridge Cup?’ asked Tom.
‘Its the annual fixture between Melthwaite and Townbridge,’ said Reg, ‘we’re hosting it this year as part of our hundredth anniversary celebrations.’ As he was reputed to consider it bad form to be interrupted when in full flow, he was allowed to carry on at some length, ‘ a long-standing ritual . . . going back hundreds of years . . . part of the late summer fertility festival . . . chance for local boys to prove themselves . . . rite of passage . . . being selected was highest honour . . . ‘
Dick and the regulars had listened to this many times. For years, the fixture had been the site of legendary battles between Phil and Bert and, played on a local feast day it had traditionally drawn large crowds.
Then Reg suddenly recaptured the team’s attention, ‘Aye, and Chris Cain is in town.’
Dick felt as though he’d walked into a door. Just the sound of the name was sufficient to bring up images of, how long ago? Must have been fifteen years. And now he was coming back. Under a bit of a cloud. The tabloids were at it again.
‘Sorry. Chris Cain?’ Tom’s question brought Dick back to the present.
‘He used to play for us occasionally,’ Reg gave a short account of Cain’s rise from relative local obscurity to a big London achiever, still in touch with his roots, particularly Melthwaite cricket, ‘he was a protégé of Bert’s. I’m surprised you’ve not heard of him.’
‘Heard of him sure,’ Tom sat forward and folded his arms, ‘I can’t see what it has to do with us.’
Reg sighed and shrugged his shoulders, ‘I invited him to the game and he said yes. Committee OK’d it.’
Everyone went quiet and looked at Reg as he studied the table cloth. Then they all had something to say. Personalities like Cain tended to produce divided opinions. Many said Reg had done well; it would be great for the centenary to have some sort of a celebrity. Others simply resented tainted success. A mild fuss but they were all curious.
Reg sat up and buttoned up his shirt, ‘It’ll be low key, no advertising. Maybe one reporter from the local paper. Maybe a scoop for you, Tom.’
‘I was just thinking that. I’ll talk to my editor,’ said Tom, his chair scraping along the floor as he stood. Then they were all returning plates and mugs to the tea ladies and heading for the changing rooms.
The start to Lowerthong’s innings did little to raise morale. Dick, Reg and the skipper were all out for single figures. The middle order then began to resist and grind out some sort of a total. The skipper sat and watched with the scorer. Dick and Reg toured the boundary.
‘Bit of a stunner, that,’ said Dick.
‘Apparently . . . ‘
‘I was at college with Cain’s brother,’ said Dick, ‘Visited him a couple of times, so I knew him a bit before I came here. Part of the reason for moving. The area.’
Reg stopped to catch up with play, ‘Good shot . . . innocent until proved guilty you know.’
‘What? . . . oh Cain . . . yes, absolutely.’
Another wicket fell. ‘I’ll get padded up,’ said Reg.
Dick was left alone to ponder the news. He and Cain had been acquainted, no more, except for the one incident when they became brief intimates. Cain left on an upward trajectory. Dick remained, shattered. A long time to rebuild. Naive and trusting some said. Working too hard and not seen it coming. Those who had not known true misery were fortunate. The dogged guilt, the cheerlessness, others’ embarrassment. A little of the joy returns. Not the enthusiasm or the confidence. Amy said it could have been worse. It was the worst Dick had ever been.
When he called in the toilet, Tom was changing his elbow dressing. ‘Here let me help,’ said Dick.
‘Its OK,’ Tom swivelled away and roughly tied the bandage.
Back in the changing room, Dick sat on one of the rough wooden benches and watched the game through the long window. There’d been another wicket and Reg was at the crease. Odd for an injury he thought. On the inside of the elbow, and very red like it was inflamed.
Lowerthong were never going to get the required runs. As it turned out it wasn’t a total disgrace and everyone had a bat. After a drink or two, the players drifted in ones and twos from the clubhouse. Tom caught up with Dick in the car park, ‘Can I have a word?’
‘Sure, what’s on your mind?’ asked Dick.
‘Thing is, I’m already doing a piece for “The Courier” on Cain. Done some digging. Weren’t you connected with him?
‘Mm . . . slightly. Nothing that can be helpful.’
‘My sources say he’s worried. Something from the past that could effect his current situation.’
Dick unlocked his car door, ‘Not me,’ Dick dumped his kit on the back seat, got in and switched on the engine, ‘Sorry Tom.’ He closed the door and drove off. I am not going to get involved, he thought. This won’t change anything. What happened, happened.
On the day of the game Dick tried to get Amy and her sister organised. ‘What do we want to go to cricket for?’
Dick explained, ‘Its a special match. The rest of the team will be there, with their families. Bar’ll be open.’
Lowerthong is one of the prettiest grounds in the West Riding cricket league: a horizon of Pennine hills, shady riverside trees, drystone walls and a large bank of green comfortable grass. When they arrived Melthwaite were batting, 4 down for 150 with 15 overs to go before tea. Dick, Amy and her sister sat on the bank.
‘Anyone fancy a burger?’ Dick wandered over to the BBQ where he’d spotted Reg nursing a glass half full of ale.
‘How’s it going?’
‘Nicely. Phil’s had a spell off a shortened run. Only went for two an over. No wickets though.’
Dick put his hands in his pockets, ‘Bit risky with his back.’
‘Both sides have players in the town team over at York, so they’re a bit short,’ he took a sip of his beer, ‘Phil said he was fine. Bert’s on for Melthwaite as well. Coming in at nine.’
Dick said he’d see Reg later and went back to Amy and her sister.
‘Melthwaite have got two hundred and thirty, but Townbridge have to bat yet.’
‘You mean there’s more. They’ve just come off. Haven’t they finished?’
‘Its the tea interval, that’s all.’
Dick sighed. Amy never has understood cricket. Where had he gone wrong? He began to hum “Do not forsake me, oh my darling, on this our wedding day”. Strange sitting here, not being able to hear what the players are saying. He turned his eyes toward Lowerthong church tower, standing proud of the foliage behind the clubhouse. The clock showed five past five as Townbridge started their innings.
The family next to them turned on the radio.
‘Here is the news and weather.’
Amy overheard the poor forecast, ‘Dick we haven’t brought anything in case it rains.’
‘Chris Cain is supposed to be coming,’ said Dick.
‘Really. The hot shot who’s been in the headlines, that Cain?’
‘Will you see him?’
‘Here is the six o’clock news.’ Dick checked the scoreboard; 101 for 4.
Mm . . . they’re cracking on a bit he thought. He overheard Amy and her sister talking about Cain. Made quite a name for himself. Pity about the recent business. Dick recognised the contrast in himself. He’d drifted along, accepted what life had given him. Now, after fifteen years, was something coming back to bite him on the bum? Gary Cooper’s ill face appeared in front of him. Marshal Kane had an hour and ten minutes until the shoot-out. Dick shivered; brilliant. What a film. Gary never backed down from anything. The billboards said it all, “The story of a man who was too proud to run.”
‘News and sport now at six thirty.’ Dick shook his head and returned to the present. How they doing now. 153 for 5. They might just get them. Bert hasn’t had a bowl yet.
Amy stood up, ‘Its quarter to seven, Dick. Sky’s looking grim, we’re off. Try not to be too long.’
Many others had had the same idea and the grass bank was emptying. Tree branches began to billow and rustle as the wind got up. Clouds gathered, high over Lowerthong, but darker and lower on the horizon. Then only the Melthwaite and Townbridge stalwarts were left, gathered in front of the clubhouse, no longer in shirt sleeves. The coals on the bare BBQ glowed and grey ash flew untidily. Dick joined Reg, who was talking with Tom and the skipper on the edge of the small crowd.
‘Hi skip, Tom. Close game.’
Townbridge needed thirty off the last four overs with three batsmen left. On the other side Melthwaite were running out of bowlers.
‘Bert’ll have come on, Reg. Has Cain arrived?’
‘Aye. Come to think of it, Phil might have to bat. What a finish. He’s been delayed.’
Six-fifty on the scoreboard clock. Another over, another wicket, six nearer the total.
Bert had two overs to bowl. Eight runs off the first.
Six-fifty five. A wicket in the thirty-ninth over and another eight runs.
Seven to win, the last man in, Phil, facing the final over from Bert. The first drops of rain splashed onto the flags in front of the anxious clubhouse.
Bert paused at the start of his run and adjusted his left sock. Seven strides and the ball shaved Phil’s pads. Groans of encouragement from Townbridge. The next was a yorker that Phil blocked. More groans. The keeper picked up and threw the ball back to Bert. He turned and walked back to his mark as Lowerthong church bells began their seven o’clock ritual. Phil waited. Seven strides, right arm aloft, a small grunt of effort and the ball’d gone. Phil stepped outside off stump and watched the ball carefully, first pitching half way and then rising toward his bat, up and ready. As the clock fell silent, he pulled mightily to leg and the ball smacked into the keeper’s gloves.
Melthwaite shouted for joy. Townbridge cringed. And then, deathly quiet apart from the pitter patter of steadily falling rain. Bert lay face down across the crease at the bowler’s end and Phil, on his knees, keeled over and came to rest on his arched back, pale and agonised.
They’ve killed each other, thought Dick.
Then it was all activity, and sirens and ambulances. Lightening arced across the low black clouds, followed almost immediately by a crash of thunder. The wind whipped into the trees and the rain poured.
Further thunderclaps and there was Cain. Rather, it was someone who looked like Cain. Well tailored, manicured and coiffured, but a gaunt shadow.
They shook hands and Cain nodded, ‘Dick. Hoped I see you.’
Dick had expected to be tight lipped and closed off, to protect his uselessness from being exposed, to dim the sense of failure that was illuminated in Cain’s success. But he simply felt uneasy and confused as he gazed at Gary Cooper’s wasted face and dark eyes. Reg, Tom and the others introduced themselves.
Dick turned to the dark and deserted rain soaked pitch. The umpires had forgotten two stumps, oddly picked out in a long shaft of clubhouse light.
Cain stood next to him, ‘Yes, its been tough. Now I know what you must have been through.’
This was certainly not going according to plan. Did he know something from Cain’s past? In that instant, Dick saw the compromised addict, sent on a nonsense job,
Dick lost touch with Sunday cricket after that and it was two years before he revisited the shoot-out scene. He wandered over to Gabrielle, faithful scorer, and peeped at the scorebook over her shoulder.
‘Fancy that, Cross and Hammond are playing.’
‘Dick! Hello. Long time. Take a good look.’
Well is that Bert? Red-faced, huffing and puffing up to the crease, and Phil, scratching around, trying to bat? Hang on they can’t be, they’re only lads. The penny dropped.
‘Correct. Now look again.’
Dick couldn’t see anything. Then the tallish umpire behind the stumps took off his cap and scratched his bald head. Dick quickly checked the man standing at square leg – silver hair and rather squat.
He waited with Gabrielle for the tea interval.
‘Its a thing dreams are made of, Bert.’
‘Aye. The lad’s got promise. They don’t have the same commitment we had though. Moping on street corners, drinking in pubs. Standards are not what they were. Still that’s how it is these days, Dick. I’ve had to adjust, can’t stay in the past you know. How’ve you been? We’ve missed your steady opening knocks.’
Did you get any more wickets, Phil?’
‘Nay lad,’ his hairless head cracked into two, ‘but I dropped my five hundredth catch.’
How much do you know about your fellow players? Sunday teams emerge from a clutch of the interested once they are over the hill, once they can no longer make the second team. Perhaps where cricket hasn’t been played before, perhaps partly as a nursery for younger players. Lowerthong were a bit of all those, but mostly they came from a generation of good school players who wanted to carry on. People who were comfortable together, had children at the same time and reproduced a cycle of wealthy accidents of birth. The skipper, Reg and Cain were in that cycle. Dick was not.