An hour into the game, which was both impenetrable and fascinating, Alison finally managed to recall the old joke in its entirety. She slapped John Tyler on the arm, a little too hard — the beer had been flowing by this stage — and said, “Listen. I remember. An American definition of cricket. It goes…”
Tyler blinked, put down his tomato juice, and said, “Don’t tell me. ‘You have two sides, one out on the field and the other in. Each man in the side that’s in goes out. When he’s out he comes in and the next man goes out till he’s out. When the side that’s in is all out, the side that’s been out comes in. Then the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get out the one that’s coming in. Sometimes you get men still in and not out when the side that is in is finally out. When both sides have been in and out, including those who are in and not out, that’s the end of the game.’” He paused. “Was I close?”
“Swine,” she complained. “It took me ages to remember all that.
“Oh.” He looked genuinely sorry. “I have a habit of doing that, don’t I?”
Sara had disappeared, waddling off to the loo complaining of an overstocked bladder then offering to refill her glass of Spit. Alison had come to the view, somewhat against her wishes, that there was no animosity between her and Tyler. As the distance grew between the strange events that occurred on the absent Miles’ birthday, so did her grasp of them. Were Marjorie Tyler and the now revealed Harry Blamire really responsible? Was it possible she had, as most everyone else believed, simply gone crazy while locked tight inside a nightmare? With a couple of pints of best Spit inside her, nothing seemed certain any more. Beulah, she felt, did that to its inhabitants, one of many favours. Nestled in its oddly warm bosom, they became apt to forget the harsher turns of life. Or, as John Tyler would doubtless put it, saw them in their proper perspective.
“I apologise,” Tyler said, very sincerely. “Will you and Marjorie ever be friends, do you think?”
This was another village trick. Reading your thoughts, sometimes before they had crystallised properly in your own head. “I don’t think so. We’re not… simpatico.”
“No. Shame really. But I understand. Still, everyone does want you to feel at home here.”
“I am at home. I do belong. Believe me.”
He gave her a frank glance. “I do, actually. Marjorie really must call off the recruitment troops.”
“Why? Because you think I’m in the team already?” Inducted twice over according to Beulah terms, she thought, once with Harry, again with Bella, who had, perhaps, passed on the news to Marjorie. Yet Bella had no need to make the effort, which, in itself, gave pause for thought. Marjorie may not have been party to the trick on Burning Man.
John Tyler gazed at her queerly, with an expression that was preciously close to sympathy. “I never make assumptions. Not on important matters anyway.”
“Tempt me,” she blurted, conscious of a slur in her voice. “When do I get to hear secrets?”
“When do you care to ask?”
“Right now. What happens at Burning Man?”
He puzzled over that. “One step at a time, I think. Or rather one feast at a time. Ask me what you like about Beltane.”
“But…” It seemed desperately unfair.
“No,” Tyler said firmly. “I am breaking any number of unwritten rules already.”
Sara returned from the pub, bearing a tray laden with glasses and packets of crisps. Alison leapt up to take it off her. She seemed to be getting heavier by the moment.
“Did I miss anything?” she asked. “Anyone out?”
“We haven’t been talking cricket,” Alison replied. “I’m about to filled in on Beltane. So what happens next? After the match? Some games in the wood? Will Marjorie be doing the dance of the seven veils?”
“Not at all,” he said, half disappointed with her. “Don’t you get it? The match is the thing. The music. The dancing… They’re just side shows.”
He waved over towards the maypole, where a group of women, Marjorie looming large among them, continued to prance around the upright shaft, entwining ribbons, laughing, looking, to Alison, like a page from an ancient children’s book. Beulah were batting. The scorecard next to the little pavilion read 143 for 8. The Wye side stood stock still, scattered around the pitch, as an unidentifiable figure almost strolled down the wicket to deliver a ball that wound its way lazily through the air, bounced once in front of Dickie Cartwright, then, with a puff of dust, lurched mysteriously to the right of his bat and removed the off stump.
“Oh bugger,” John Tyler groaned. “Not so good now. Hope your husband can put up a bit of a stand.” Miles walked slowly out from the pavilion, bat tucked under his arm, cricket togs a distinctly off-white colour.
“Miles is no batsman,” she objected. “He never said he was.” The game seemed so slow. “You mean this is it?”
“Yes,” Tyler replied impatiently, eyes fixed on the wicket.
“Sometimes,” Sara offered, “cricket is more than a game. Your American roots are showing I’m afraid.”
“Best bleach them out,” Tyler added quietly.
“But…” Her head was full of questions, none of which formed quite correctly. Then she fell quiet. Something was happening on the pitch. Justin was coming in from the far boundary, close to the maypole, and talking to someone she assumed was the Wye captain. A red-haired player near the pavilion threw him the ball. Justin bobbed it up and down in his hand then started to amble towards the wicket.
“Yes,” Tyler announced. “Change of bowler. Change of tactic. They obviously think your husband is the weak point. Can’t blame them. We’ve still got Barnes in at the other end. So…?” He turned to stare at her. “Do tell. What are our friendly plod’s predilections? On the field that is?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Spin, swing or pace? Googly, yorker, flipper…”
She waved a hand at him. “Whoa! I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”
“Hmm,” Tyler grunted. “Well, I guess we’ll find out. Looks like a long run-up to me.”
Justin had walked well past the southern wicket, halfway back to the boundary, and was polishing the ball on his groin in what looked, to Alison, a very professional manner. To her surprise, the dancers had now stopped. They stood with the musicians on the far side of the pitch watching Justin’s run-up, yelling at him, words she could only half hear. Mitch Blamire was there too, making unmistakable obscene gestures with his right arm.
“That’s not goddamn cricket,” Alison protested, feeling suddenly offended by the way Justin was being taunted. “They’re supposed to stay quiet. Not yell at players like that.”
Sara glanced at her sympathetically. “As the good doctor said, dear. Today the game’s the thing.”
“Wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king,” John Tyler mumbled into his beer.
“Right…” Alison took a mouthful of Spit. This was quite exciting. She couldn’t help but feel it.
Justin began to lope slowly down the pitch. Miles, his back to the pub, stamped his bat on the ground in an obvious gesture of nervousness. Then Justin’s big frame picked up speed. He was thundering down the grass, arm crooked and at the ready. In a flash, faster than the eye could follow, the upper half of his body went into a sudden spastic rictus, his arm span round in an arc and the ball rocketed down the pitch, bounced a good six feet in front of Miles, then flew high into the air, missing his head by no more than an inch.
The small crowd went wild, shouting, jeering, screaming obscenities. Mitch Blamire was marching up and down the boundary making quacking noises, arms akimbo, flapping like wings. These jibes were, she realised, aimed as much at Miles as at Justin.
“Whose side are they on?” she asked.
“Oh ours, ultimately,” Tyler replied, looking red-faced, almost excited. “That doesn’t stop you appreciating an opponent’s skills now, does it? And your plod has a fair turn of pace on him, I’ll say that. Damn near took Miles’ head off with that one.”
“He’s not my plod,” she said, and realised no-one was listening. The entire population of the Minnis was fixed on this encounter between Justin and Miles, as if it were some kind of a jousting match. And almost as dangerous too. She had seen the way the ball had torn down the pitch. Miles should have worn some kind of protection, she thought. On the TV cricketers did just that. But this was Beulah. Helmets and face guards were probably thought of as wussy.
Justin was back near the boundary, polishing the red leather urgently again, feeding it with spit so that the stain of the ball created a long, dark mark on his perfect white trousers. He seemed oblivious to the catcalls from the tiny crowd. She couldn’t work out whether they were trying to distract him or urge him on. Justin turned even closer to the boundary this time, to give himself a run-up longer than the wicket itself, then came racing down the grass towards them. The ball left his hand so quickly she failed to follow it. Then a red flash soared down the wicket, bounced once, closer to Miles this time, leapt up from the ground as if it had received an electric shock, found some impossible gap between pad and bat and removed the middle stump. She watched in awe as the long stick of wood, torn from the ground by the force of Justin’s delivery, performed somersaults back towards the wicket keeper before burying itself back in the earth.
“Well done!” John Tyler yelled. On the boundary now, Mitch’s impersonation had reached new heights. Squatting, quacking, making gestures which looked suspiciously defecatory, he wove a path through the jubilant dancers, only breaking off to point an accusing hand at the wicket, a gesture accompanied by a raucous, avian squawk. Miles had his bat under his arm and was walking, deeply disconsolate, back towards the pavilion. What had occurred was some kind of ritual public humiliation and one visited, as everyone here appeared to know, by a significant party. Miles had been both cuckolded and bowled out for a duck. She could take the blame for one, but not both.
“I need to go to him,” Alison said, and started to get up from the table.
“Sit!” To her astonishment it was Sara who took hold of her arm. “Alison. This is a game. Miles hasn’t lost it.”
“Yet,” Tyler interjected, with what appeared to her to be glee. “And even if he does, remember: every dog must have his day.”
“Wye go in now,” Sara continued. “Justin will have to bat, in all probability. And Miles can bowl. It’s not over.”
“Not at all,” Tyler agreed. “I’ve watched your man. Miles, that is. The plod there has a lot of strength but he was lucky, in my opinion. Miles can outbowl him, on a good day. You’ll see.”
She watched the hilarity at the boundary, where Mitch was still clucking his way through the crowd. “Why are they doing that to him?”
“Perhaps,” Tyler suggested, “they recognise pride and are waiting for a fall? Miles is a nice chap, but he’s very full of himself you know.”
“I think,” she said icily, “I know my husband better than any of you.”
“Quite. Then perhaps they see two men fighting over a prize they both wish to possess. It’s a possibility.”
“Oh do be quiet, John,” Sara spat at him.
Tyler tried to look conciliatory. “This is cricket as it used to be. Raw. Uninhibited. Forget about Lords and WG Grace. That was a Victorian invention. Cricket, true cricket, is about primitive combat. It’s like all true sport. War wearing the flimsy threads of civilisation.”
White threads, she thought. In Justin’s case so very white. “Well,” Alison observed, “I hope Beulah come out in the second half, or whatever you call it, and knock the living shit out of them. Even if it does cost me a tenner.”
“That’s the spirit,” Tyler said, giving her a playful tap on the shoulder.
And Alison was very nearly right. After tea, with the sun losing some of its pre-summer power, Wye came in to bat. The two men in her life were on the margins of this early game. Miles fielded at the very edge of the boundary, behind Dickie Cartwright as wicket-keeper, trying to sweep up any errant balls that escaped Cartwright’s gigantic gloves. Justin sat in front of the pavilion, watching the play. She felt like wandering over and talking to him, but it was somehow inappropriate. There were sides here and she was determined to stay absolutely in the centre.
Wye opened badly, losing three wickets for twenty five runs, and still Miles didn’t bowl, still Justin sat on the sidelines. Then the visitors found their pace, settled into a steady rhythm, not spectacular, but effective, taking runs when they had the chance, keeping a weather eye on the overs and the run rate. She understood, from what Tyler said, that there had to be a resolution to the game. This was not like one of those big events at Lords, where men played for three or five days and still walked away with a draw. Wye and Beulah were playing a fixed period match. In the space of forty overs, one or the other would score the greater runs or be bowled out. And slowly, Wye was getting there, edging over the century, seeing victory in their grasp.
In the 35th over, Beulah rediscovered some of their spunk. Jim Barnes bowled two vicious yorkers that dismissed both of the batsmen who had done so much damage. Wye had started the over looking certain winners. At its close, they had just twenty four balls left to make the twenty one runs needed to win. The small crowd was silent but expectant, as much a part of the game as the players on the pitch. One of the Cartwright boys came up to bowl and had his man caught out with his first delivery. The next five balls saw the visitors down a further wicket, for only three more runs. Alison followed the arithmetic. Beulah was on course for a win.
She looked at the fielding side. To her horror, Miles was stepping up to accept the ball. “What’s happening?” she asked. “Why are they choosing Miles? Hasn’t he had enough rotten luck already?”
“Limited overs,” Tyler replied with a grimace. “You can’t just leave your best bowlers on all the time. You have to share it out among the team. It’s the rules. I imagine Barnes thinks it’s time for Miles to pull some weight.”
Sara let out a moan. “Oh wonderful, John! And if he makes a pig’s ear of it?”
“If he fights the good fight…” Tyler said. “This is a contest, you know.”
Miles tore down the grass and delivered a scorching ball that caught the Wye player full in the chest. She winced. It must have hurt like hell. The crowd was howling again, mocking the pain.
“Damned barbaric,” Alison complained.
“Cricket,” Tyler observed and they watched Miles thunder towards them again, launch a curving delivery down the wicket, one that swung tremendously, in ways that defied the law of physics, then deftly removed both bails and downed the outside leg stump.
“Whoa!” Tyler yelled and punched the air. The dejected batsman hobbled back to the pavilion. He seemed to be in real physical pain.
Miles fluffed the next two balls. The fifth delivery went wide. The sixth got well and truly clobbered for a four that clattered straight up the wooden steps of the pavilion. Tyler harrumphed. Alison remembered what Miles and said, and she had duly passed on to Justin. The first three balls were good ones; the rest just went to pieces. She prayed the two of them would never face each other across the pitch.
The Cartwright boy took the next over and got knocked all over the Minnis. Wye needed sixteen runs to win at the start. The doughty Ashford fireman who faced Cartwright for most of the over duly reduced that to just six with a couple of fours and two singles. The last left him facing Miles for the final over. A slower, surer delivery tempted the batsman out of his crease, he swept wildly at the veering ball and was caught trying to hook it behind.
Alison closed her eyes, knowing what would happen next. When she opened them, Justin was walking to the crease, looking nervous. Miles stood, a distant figure in off-white, tossing the ball up and down in his hand.
“Is he good?” Tyler asked. “As a batsman, that is?”
“I don’t know,” Alison replied and watched Justin try to settle in at the crease, In the distance, Miles began to run. He looked wild-eyed, like a charging bull.
The ball came out of his hand like a missile, streaked down the pitch and hit Justin full in the stomach without bouncing. He doubled over in agony. Alison screamed in anger. The tiny crowd was roaring again.
“I say,” Tyler objected. “That’s really not on. I wouldn’t have expected that of Miles.”
“Dammit,” Alison yelled. “He might be hurt. You’re a doctor. Go take a look.”
He put up his hand defensively. “If I’m asked. Only if I’m asked. No pain, no gain, as they say. Plod is the last man, you know. If he retires, Wye have lost it.”
They watched Justin drag himself to his feet, wipe his face with the arm of his cardigan, and face Miles once more. Alison whispered to herself: don’t touch it, don’t touch it. The ball whizzed down the pitch, so close to the off stump that the bail appeared to move. The crowd whistled in disappointment, John Tyler with them. Mitch was back doing his duck act again, quacking up and down the boundary. Beulah scented victory.
Miles’ fourth ball thundered into the earth in front of Justin then rocketed up from the grass. He ducked swiftly, avoiding being rendered unconscious by no more than a couple of inches, Alison judged.
“This,” she said, “is ridiculous. He’s not trying to bowl him out. He’s trying to cripple him.”
“Nothing outside the rules, you know,” Tyler said. “Although it’s not exactly sporting, I’ll agree. Still, two balls, six runs to go. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion isn’t it?”
The penultimate delivery followed the same path as its predecessor, but connected this time. Justin was caught on the side of the head and went down with an audible yell that rang across the common. The crowd clucked with glee.
“John…” Alison said firmly. “This has got to stop.”
“Why are you telling me? All he has to do is walk you know.”
Justin lay curled on the ground. One of the umpires, a sheep farmer in Stowting, walked over and spoke to him. Slowly, he rose to his feet. A chorus of catcalls came from the crowd, Bella’s drunken, high-pitched tones leading the voices. A fiddle played a short snatch of jig and was then silenced. One ball, six runs short, Justin Liddle faced Miles Fenway on the bright green sward of the Minnis.
It was, Mitch Blamire averred later, a perfect ball. The final delivery, launched after a long, deliberate run-up, swung through the early evening air to bounce six inches in front of the wicket, its eye already set firm on the centre stump. By this stage the stricken, aching Justin was moving. Something in his memory stirred, something that recalled the laws of physics and how they applied to the racing, force-filled mass that is the cricket ball. There was no energy left in his body to take that surging missile and turn its momentum around with a sudden, powerful stroke of the bat. Justin had decided, before the ball was even out of Miles’ hand, to take the altogether riskier route.
As it flew towards him, he moved forward and to one side, arcing the bat to his shoulder, trying to synchronise its motion with that of the ball. When the speeding missile shot past on its path to the stump, Justin’s arm was already falling, the bat before it like a scythe cropping ripe corn. The willow swept backwards, picked up leather before the wicket, hove it into the air, conjoining the power of both fast-moving objects.
The ball rose over the stumps into the air, flew out over the Minnis, out towards the pub. The crowd was silent. Every figure on the pitch was still. Nothing seemed to move in this frozen world except the racing red orb that Justin had lifted from the earth, ripped free of gravity and sent spinning through the air.
John Tyler stared at the pitch, with its still figures, and assessed the object growing before them.
“Fucking hell,” he gasped, wide-eyed. “Duck!”
All three of them dived beneath the cover of the bench table. Something span over their heads, whistling as it cut through the air, then broke noisily through one of the arched windows of the pub and shattered into tiny pieces Norman’s favourite bottle of Laphroig before dropping, spent and fatally scratched by broken glass, into a newly-opened carton of cheese and onion crisps on the floor behind the bar.
On the pitch, the umpire gave the sign: six. Wye’s tiny team of supporters jumped up and down from their position by the coach.
“Behold,” Tyler said, astonished. “The sun king in his ascendancy.”
No-one heard him. Sara was holding her stomach, wondering what was happening there. Alison was racing across the grass, heart pumping, seeing the way the crowd her erupted, set its eyes on Justin, and dashed across the pitch towards him. She remembered Burning Man. She recognised this look in their eyes, and her voice was fighting to form the words, to scream, “No, no, no…”
They got there first, Mitch Blamire at their head, Bella and the dancers not far behind. Even Granny Jukes was following, her electric wheelchair running gently across the Minnis grass.
The Beulah team was leaving the pitch. Miles was a distant, miserable looking figure, almost on the pavilion steps. Wye seemed baffled by their reception. Chaos was loose in the world.
Feeling faint and short of breath, she watched Mitch race up to Justin, leaning now on his bat, pull back his great, thick arms, like tree trunks, and throw them round Justin’s pained, exhausted frame. Then heave him into the air, with others coming to the fray.
Justin’s long, white body rose above them all, onto their shoulders. He smiled and made a drinking gesture. She slowed, trying to work this out. A cheer went up, and it was from the Beulah mob and the Wye crowd. Both were saluting him. Justin was the hero and looked the part. They paraded him along the wicket, a raucous, happy rabble.
Alison drew to a halt next to them, too shocked, too lost for words to try to take part. There was a mechanical sound next to her and Granny Jukes hove to her side, a bottle of brown ale lodged in the lap of her ancient dress.
The old woman looked at Justin, gave a great grin, then stared at Alison, something like pride in her eyes. “There,” she said over the row. “Didn’t I say he’d won yer? And you thinking I was off me head. There’ll be mischief tonight, me girl.”
“No-one wins me,” Alison said, as much to herself as the old woman. Justin was loving it. But there was blood on his face, where Miles had struck him with one of those vicious deliveries. In a sense, she thought, there was more than a tournament here. There was a sacrifice too.
“Well aren’t you the clever dick?” Granny observed, in a light, pleasant way. “You should come see my windmill some time, young ’un. Might learn something.”
Everything was fine. Everything would work out, she felt sure of that. Alison tried to straighten her wayward hair, tried to feel respectable. “I’d like that Granny. Some time soon.”
“Mebbe,” the old woman said. “But not so soon I reckon. You ought to be looking after yer pal.”
The two of them looked back at the pub. Sara was flat on her back close to the front door, legs open, mouth moving, Tyler by her side.
A long howl of pain drifted across the Minnis, rending the soft, early evening air.
(c) David Hewson 2012