The cricket practice ended at one thirty. Then the team and its assorted hangers-on retired to the long main bar of the Green Man. Miles Fenway knew the pub and its regulars well by now. He had a familiar space close to the coffee machine. Norman understood that he preferred his pint of Spitfire in a jug with a handle, not the plain glass favoured by regulars. No-one joked about him drinking from a flower vase any more.
Jim Barnes, everyone said, was a hopeless farmer but not half bad at running a cricket side. A big man, with huge, bristling mutton chop sideburns and slicked back hair, he carried a brutal, domineering kind of authority. As captain, he had a ready, incisive grasp of the real abilities of his players and no qualms about upsetting someone with an over-inflated ego. He knew, too, when to turn up the heat. Beulah, quite deliberately, and for reasons Miles did not fully understand, refused to play in any of the local minor leagues, restricting itself to “friendlies”. Of them, the most important — and the least friendly of all — was the local derby with Wye which opened the season, this year on Beulah’s home ground.
Just the mention of the word “Wye” was enough to start even the most faint-hearted of Beulah players ticking. There existed between the two sides a bitter, entrenched rivalry so deep-rooted that no-one could explain, or even remember, its cause. Mitch had a theory: Wye resented Beulah because the village team had proven antecedents a good thirty years older than those of the larger community down the hill, formed around the well-manicured pitch maintained at great expense by the agricultural college. It was, in Mitch’s view, ancient versus modern, hill folk versus townie (Wye, with a population fast rising past the two thousand mark, clearly counting as a metropolitan area, in his opinion).
To Miles, this seemed overly complex. The truth was that the season began, always, on May Day, with the match against Wye. To win the opening fixture of the summer was to set the tone for the games to come. Cricket was, in essence, an arcane form of tournament, conducted according to ancient ritual. The tenor of the summer would depend, to an important extent, upon a fair showing against the bigger, stronger side from Wye. And rivalry, that bordered upon hatred, was one possible route to success. Demonise your foe. There were, he thought, lessons to be learned on the bumpy, queer-shaped expanse of the Minnis pitch, lessons that could apply to life in the cut-throat world of the City too.
Barnes stared over the table, a blank expression on his ruddy face. “You think you can bowl better’n you can bat then, Miles.” He had the local rolling “a” in his voice. Bat came out as ba-at.
“With practice, Jim.”
“You can get in them nets every weekend? Wednesday nights too? That guaranteed? I know you city blokes. You promise the sky and deliver sod all when it suits you.”
“If I say I’ll do it, I’ll do it.”
John Tyler, who seemed to act as a non-playing coach at Barnes’ side, sipped a tomato juice mixed with a large fino sherry. “Got to give the man a chance, Jim. He is village, you know.”
“Lives in village,” Barnes conceded. “I’ll say that much for him. But has he got the commitment? That’s what I wonder. Or is he just one of them fellows that ups and offs the moment he gets bored?”
“Commitment is commitment,” Miles said forcefully and thought: getting the job running Mersons wasn’t half as hard as this particular interview.
“Even if that barmy wife of yours goes barmy again?” Barnes asked with a glint in his eye.
Miles said calmly, “My wife is fine, thank you Jim. I’ll make the time.”
“Maybe.” Barnes’ gaze was fixed on the empty glass.
Miles took the hint and pulled out a £20 note. “Let me buy this one. Let me buy one for everybody.”
“He’s a gent!” Mitch yelled.
Barnes didn’t move. “You shut your gob, Mitchell Blamire. I’m the captain around here. I says who’s buying.” He glowered at the twenty on the table. “Tell you what, Mr City Man. You and me gets out there this afternoon, before the light goes. I’ll test your mettle. From what I’ve seen, if you don’t let yourself go or nothing, I’ll put you in the team. You can bat at the dead end of the list where you belong. You may even get to bowl if we get short. That a deal?”
Miles beamed and held out his hand. “Done!”
Barnes stared at his fingers, and didn’t take them. Instead he picked up the note, gave it to Mitch, and said, “Make yourself useful and get them pissing beers in, Blamire. A man’s spitting feathers here.”
A ripple of cheers ran around the narrow tables where the team had congregated. Tyler leaned over, laughing and slapped Miles on the shoulder. “Congratulations. You’re in.”
“That’s nice,” he said, and finished off a good third of a pint of Spit in one go. More beer arrived on the table, and bowls of hot roast potatoes from the kitchen. Norman rang the bell for time and was greeted with a cacophony of jeers.
“I think,” Mitch observed, “we could be poised for a lock-in.”
Tyler shook his head. “More business for me. I should be a liver specialist by now, you know. I think this is one occasion I will forgo.”
He stood up and Frank Wethered, still wearing his top coat, fresh from his walk, took the seat next to Miles. “A new cricketer, eh?”
“On probation,” Miles replied. “I have to prove myself to Jim here, and he seems a tough taskmaster.”
“As I should be,” Barnes said, then prodded his neighbour with a fat forefinger and launched into a dirty story.
Frank Wethered gave Miles a wan smile. Then said, “Do you mind if we have a private word, old boy?”
(c) David Hewson 2012