Editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Autumn 2016 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has opted for Richard Smyth’s short story.
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Cricket fiction is troublesome. There’s been plenty written, but very little of it quickens the pulse or sticks in the memory. So when we get fiction sent in by would-be Nightwatchmen and women, there’s an intake of breath from the editorial team. Same goes for poetry of course, but that’s for another day… Fiction is really hard to judge, it’s all so subjective, and in our discussions it’s the non-factual stuff that leads to the biggest debates and the deepest divides. But this piece, well, it got a unanimous double thumbs up, and that’s a real rarity.
Matt Thacker, September 2016
Richard Smyth remembering how it feels
Wet, cropped grass. A yellow wagtail: dapper little thing. The sunlight is milky and intermittent. They told me to go deep; I’m deep. Deep fine leg, I think, although I can never remember which of these damn field placings is which.
Out of harm’s way: that’s the main thing, I suppose. I can hardly see the stumps from here. I might be deep but you couldn’t say I’m meaningful.
The wagtail patrols the boundary rope.
Of course, I wonder, sometimes, why I bother with this nonsense at all. Wait – before angry cricket bats fall upon me, I should define my terms: by nonsense, I don’t mean the game, I don’t mean cricket. I mean – well, I mean me. Does it matter whether I am on this side of that boundary rope, in whites, or on that, in slacks, shirtsleeves and a casually-knotted tie? Answer: to the team, to the Emily Second XI, no, not one jot – but to me – me, here, ninth man in, plier of right-arm military medium two or three times a season – the man at deep fine leg – to me, yes, it bloody does.
A lot of them play because they’re good at it. Which you can’t say is unreasonable. Red-headed Cowper there, say, hunkered keenly at point – or Dipesh, the skip, the bearded sage at second slip – these boys play for the seconds because they want to play for the firsts, and then they’ll play for the firsts because they want a county call-up, or a first-class cap, or just a move up a division or two, to Cankerbridge, maybe, or to Oughtbury.
The older players, meanwhile, come for the beer and the banter (and they don’t like it, I’ll tell you, when I’m back on my bicycle and away home even before the first round in the clubhouse has been got in, or stood up, or however it is it works).
Frankly, I think some of the others – well, I shouldn’t say so, but I think some of the others are only here to try and impress girls. There are some – three, to be exact, in blowy skirts, ponytails, light knitted springtime scarves – over by the third-man boundary. Young Gulliver’s out there.
And what if I were over there, too, in my shirtsleeves, in my casually-knotted tie?
No daydreaming. Dipesh said that when he sent me out here: no daydreaming, he said, and winked, and patted me on the backside with his sunhat. I know what you’re like, he said. Well, I’m really rather sure he knows no such thing.
I believe, back in those days, I batted at seven – that is, back when I was, what, twenty-odd, and she – well, I don’t know how old she was, and it isn’t – wasn’t – the done thing to ask.
“Was that good bowling or bad batting?”
I was unbuckling my pads on the grass in front of the pavilion.
“What? I – ”
“Or it could’ve been bad umpiring, I suppose.”
Automatically I said: “The umpire is always right.” It’s the sort of thing you’d expect an idiot to say, a prig, a buffoon – but she laughed.
I remember that she had her back to the sun and, from where I sat on the grass, looking up at her, she was just a shadow. A deep shadow but a shadow with its own corona – and I remember that she had in her hand a glass of something through which the sunlight refracted.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she said. I must’ve been squinting something rotten – because of the sun, you see.
“Sorry.” I got up, one pad on and one pad off, and blinked, and remembered to smile, and said: “How do you do? I’m James. It was rank bad batting, I’m afraid.”
“Teresa. Tess,” she said.
I would like to describe her – but if I did I would feel like a scorekeeper. If I were to list, say, the colour of her eyes, the way in which she pinned up her hair, her accent (which at first I couldn’t place), the cut of her dress – well, it would make me feel like a statistician.
And besides, it isn’t as though, if I don’t enumerate these things, if they aren’t listed, it isn’t as though they weren’t there, it’s not as though they didn’t happen.
There’s a clunk from the square and there goes Cowper, haring after the ball – swoops, turns, coils and uncoils and slap it goes into the keeper’s gloves. A single.
“How many are there still to go?”
“Three,” I said (as I mentioned, I batted at seven in those days). “That is, three wickets. Four batsmen. Or, well, the two batting now, that is, and two more.”
“I expect that makes some sort of sense.”
“You aren’t bored with it?”
“Oh.” She looked over her shoulder. Lowell, the No.5, prodded away a full one from their big quick. Then she looked back at me. “Bored would be a strong term.”
“Disenchanted, possibly?” I ventured, and she laughed again.
At that time, I didn’t know anything about disenchantment.
Tess told me that she was there because her brother, Christopher, was a batsman for the opposing team. Their third man in – their best player.
“You bowled him out,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said, though I wasn’t. I remembered the ball. It had been a devilish off-cutter that pegged back his middle stump with the scoreboard showing 22 for 2.
“I don’t care,” she said. “Besides, he’s insufferable when he makes a big score.”
Christopher’s still alive. I don’t know if he still plays; we aren’t really in touch any more. I watch the man at the crease stride forward to meet the ball and, in a gesture of fluid, flannelled equipoise, sweep it to the boundary. Dipesh shouts a word of encouragement to our pink-faced bowler.
There is a sort of enchantment to it, to what we do here (or at least to what we try to do here). When it works, I mean. A sort of magic. When you have the feeling that time and motion, after spending so long obstructing you, fighting you, are all of a sudden with you, and fighting on your side – when the bat swings or the ball leaves your right hand and it is as though you are watching something you have seen before, a replay or repeat, and you are able to say to yourself, quite calmly, yes, I knew that that’s how it would go – I knew that it would turn out that way.
As one gets older one gets less good at cricket and so one learns a little about disenchantment.
“Perhaps you’d like another drink?” I said.
She replied, with a smile: “Perhaps I would.”
And of course I could go on – every word, every laugh, and then, later, every touch and every kiss – all of it carefully noted, inked in, and then, why not, totalled up, too: yes, let’s see what the two of us made, in the end.
Why do I bother with this nonsense? There are shouts and commotion as the batsmen scramble two.
We were married, me and Tess, at the end of that summer, in the Methodist chapel on the other side of the road from the cricket field. My father’s father had been a lay preacher in that dissenting faith; it was still, more or less, my father’s religion. It rained on the day but no one gave a damn (save for the minister, who had bicycled from Cankerbridge).
Tess wore wildflowers. The second XI formed a laughing guard of honour outside the chapel, cricket bats held high in the rain – and then, with a cold spread and seltzer toasts waiting for us at Emily Hall, not to mention my father and mother and the sodden minister, Christopher (fashioning an umbrella from his sweater and elbows) led Tess and me and the cricketers across the road, to the Shepherd’s Arms. We drank glowing brown bitter. In fact I drank three pints of glowing brown bitter. Tess drank a glass of inexpensive white wine and when we left she left her wildflowers behind.
“You’ll just have to pick me some more,” she said.
“I don’t think you’re allowed to, you know,” I said, idiotically. “I think they have laws about it, or by-laws, or something. You aren’t supposed to pick them, or else they’ll all die out. If everyone went around picking daisies, there wouldn’t be any daisies left.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want that,” Tess said, and took my hand, and folded her fingers between mine.
Here in the outfield there are daisies beneath my feet. If Dipesh were out here he’d dash them with his boots and curse the groundskeeper. I just leave them be.
A chaffinch is singing in an elder just beyond the square-leg boundary. The song of the chaffinch has been likened to the approach and delivery of a fast bowler: the galloping run-up (pa-pa-pa-pa-pa), the rhythmic convulsion at the wicket (papapa) and then wheee (the hurtle of the ball down the pitch).
It all seems terribly easy for the chaffinch. The chaffinch, I suppose, doesn’t know that there are times when singing isn’t easy, when you simply can’t sing – when there simply isn’t a song to be sung. I don’t suppose that the chaffinch will ever find out otherwise. When I was young, and when Tess was young, I barely knew more than that chaffinch does. I, however, did find out otherwise.
“I’m sorry, old man,” Christopher said, resting his hand on my elbow, at the funeral.
I remember thinking: you shouldn’t say that. You shouldn’t say “old man” when you are an old man – and the person you’re talking to is an old man, too.
I said: “It’s just unfair. That’s all. It’s like when you play and miss and the wicket-keeper and the slip fielders all appeal and the umpire says you’ve edged it and you know damn well you haven’t edged it, but there’s nothing you can do about it, you’re not even supposed to say anything, when you want to say, no, I didn’t edge it, you’re wrong, it’s not fair, it’s not fair – and you can’t. All you’re supposed to do is walk off the field. As if you don’t even mind.”
Christopher squeezed my arm. I knew that other people in the room were looking at me, because I suppose I must have raised my voice. I knew, too, that Christopher didn’t give a damn about that, tall Christopher with his classical off-drive and reckless blond hair. White hair now – like mine.
“But you didn’t play and miss, Jim,” he said.
It was silly and childish, I realise, that we could express our feelings only through the terminology of a bat-and-ball game. Tess would have laughed at us. But still: I understood, this way, that Christopher understood – that he knew what enchantment feels like.
“You absolutely middled it,” Christopher said with a smile.
In the wintertime, the off-season, I can still feel the weight of the cricket ball in the palm of my hand – through the winter my hand holds the ache from the caught ball, and my fingertips the feel of the seam, just as my left arm, my left leg, somehow keep in them the gather-and-step of delivery – after-images, you could call them – like the sun you see when you close your eyes on a summer’s day.
You couldn’t call them feelings. Memories of feelings, perhaps. But, if you remember how it felt, doesn’t it mean that somehow you still feel it?
I’m watching the wagtail browse for gnats when there’s a sharp noise at the wicket and I look to see the batsmen swivelling on his back foot, his bat slewing high in the wake of a botched cut-shot.
Well, I am, of course. Here in the deep. I lift my face to the sun and frame my fingers against the sky. The sky, looked at that way, seems very small.
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