ISBN 978 0 85704 248 4
Towards the close of the 1970s Somerset cricket has nothing in the trophy cabinet. But stars Beefy, Big Bird and Smokey might help change this. Supporters are hopeful. None more so than those of Snickworthy, a rural backwater, with the Belters, the village cricket team of hapless eccentrics, undeterred despite tribulations.
Like the pungent hearth fire smoke that had once wisped and twisted through a hole in the roof thatch, the ancestors of Peregrine Wimble-Clatt aspired to be as upwardly mobile as the Snooks. They were two arms, really, of the same family - wanton ne’er-do-wells since beasts of burden shared the living space, a dung heap snuggled on nature’s side of the door, thieves had stumps, and big fish swam in too small a pond.
Then, at the height of summer 1685, came a kiss, a cuddle, and a change of fortune in the splodgy, water slain level lands of willow bed and bulrush.
Yokels called the ditches hereabouts “reens”. Many were wadeable. Others, like the Bussex, were not and had to be crossed by “plugeon”, no more than a rude plank bridge.
Attired in red, his dashing headgear fur-trimmed and worn at a rakish angle, Peregrine of King James the Second ‘s dragoons was captivated by the strange words as he craved conquest in a lonely place. Peaty water seeped from the scuppers, the small hole in the heel of each of his stiff jacked leather boots.
“Plugeon,” the basket-weaver’s daughter enunciated, repeating herself, puckering her pretty lips, a moonlit twinkle in her dark, almond-shaped eyes. Loveliness, Peregrine thought, putting an arm around her wasp waist before allowing his eyes to drop to the swell of her thin bodice.
Whispers wrenched away his eyes. Instinctively, he assumed his chums had tracked him down. He was very wrong. Approaching the bridge was a sea of scythes – mostly carried by Taunton chaps.
Slamming a precautionary hand over the girl’s mouth Peregrine’s free flipper grabbed for the primed flintlock leant against a willow trunk. It caught a branch. He tugged. The bang was instant. A shower of sparks leapt from the muzzle, more sprayed sideways out of the flash-hole. The bullet quite possibly endangered an owl.
Pegging it to his horse he pulled his bosom heaving conquest up behind him and kicked his spurs, raising the alarm as he galloped. "Beat your drums, the enemy is come! For the Lord’s sake, beat your drums!" The Duke of Monmouth’s rebels, it seemed, had been fannying about getting the odd bloody Somerset nose forever. Mildly inconvenienced, Peregrine had got wind the rascals had finally decided to pick a proper fight.
* * *
Under the perched weight of an iridescent kingfisher the green, narrow leaves of a willow branch trembled slightly. Instead of gun smoke, midges clouded. Mayflies hovered over reeds. Sentinel, its long neck erect, a hungry heron stabbed for frogs, ignoring the numerous water-skaters in the river shallows. The pastoral serenity was shattered by a skedaddling blackbird’s “chack-chack-chack” as rowdy human voices approached.
“Egad, did it land in the river?”
“No, found it! A most fortuitous hit, Peregrine. But not good enough!”
Rosy-cheeked Sir Peregrine Wimble-Clatt was celebrating his good luck with a game of meadow stob-ball and a hamper of bottled ale in the company of a few roistering drinking muckers.
“Have another go! Wager a round in the ‘Three Ferrets’ you’ll not wet it.”
The stone hard, quill stuffed leather ball, about the size of the bowler’s palm, was launched at Peregrine’s midriff. Happy as an apple orchard pig he swished the length of whippy willow and smote the missile about six feet. Falling to his knees, squashing poppies and burdock, he scattered pollens into the breeze and began to sneeze and giggle. He was properly pickled. Being in debt to several rounds of ale was little bother having been gifted a baronetcy for saving England’s crown.
Suitable for politic eels, this lowest form of hereditary honour came, in Peregrine’s case, with a forgettable rider and a generous parcel of remote Somerset - somewhere high he could rot some critics suggested. A place to watch a kite fly, said others, meaning the bird rather than the plaything likely to snag and shred on hawthorn and gorse.
William Snook, Bart. had lost more than just his greying noggin when a royal cannonball fragmented life at the Battle of Sedgemoor and matters had become muddled.
Crows tugged at the lips and cleaned the eye sockets of tree-dangling corpses. And George Jeffries, Baron of Wem, the hanging judge, journeyed by personal invitation to Snick-something-or-other straggling somewhere unimaginable in the Quantocks.
Finally to be clapped on the back by the grateful Peregrine, the judge passed sentence upon one particular, lairy, malcontent dragged protesting from the stone-dark, cramped, round lock-up – “a mere local rebel loyal to the usurper Duke,” the new knight insisted.
Snook’s hapless heir, a rope around is neck, his hands tied behind his back, prayed malediction. Beneath an oak tree at the village edge the horse was led away from beneath his rump and he kicked the air. Sniffling distress, and hidden by bushes, his lover hugged a babe to her bosom.
Sir Arthur’s Letter
At breakfast in the long dining room of Nettlegot Manor, the double-fronted, extravagance he had had built with his inheritance, Sir Arthur Wimble-Clatt dallied over his ham, kidneys and eggs. He had quite lost his appetite since opening that morning’s letter. Imagining a square cut to the Taunton cover boundary he flicked his knife and clicked his tongue, imitating willow hitting leather.
His mood was tetchy. Perhaps, a rare gallop across the estate would improve his humour. He doubted it. All the same, he decided to give it a go. Nevertheless, the groom would probably collapse in a state of shock if told a horse needed to be readied. Sir Arthur reached over the teapot for the small silver bell to summon a maid. She could relay his order, breaking it to the groom gently. Then he changed his mind, deciding he had better instruct the groom in person and, maybe, fortify them both with sloe gin. But that could wait.
Perusing the back page of the pristine newspaper he learned the lofty sandstone tower of St. James church had been completed. The County Cricket Ground had an extra feature. He tut-tutted. “Now they’ll damn well believe they’ve got the Lord’s support,” he muttered, accustomed to talking to himself.
His utterance was understandable. Mary Magdalene, who somebody described as the “the noblest parish tower in England”, soared towards heaven only a couple of streets away from the new edifice.
“Blazes, if Mary Maggers wasn’t enough,” he cursed, and turned to the front headline only to slam down his fist a second later. “Queen Rebuffs Taunton”. Bone china clinked. Tea slopped on the letter. And a kidney skipped off his plate, over the edge of polished oak table, and into the mouth of a portly Labrador.
The dog gulped.
“Good, old girl!” Sir Arthur exclaimed. The dog looked bemused. “Let that be a lesson to the Gentlemen of Somerset.” The dog, unsure, resolved to wag its tail. The gesture seemed to go unnoticed by its master who, instead, devoured the newspaper article.
The drift was that Queen Victoria retained a family grudge over the Monmouth Rebellion. Hence she had demanded the blinds be lowered as her royal train chuffed through a Taunton station prettified by ragwort between the tracks and cooing pigeons among the rafters. Her Majesty’s snub had Sir Arthur’s full backing.
His reason was a tad selfish. Even as he slit open the expected envelope with a new ivory handled letter knife his hopes had been minimal. They dropped further when he read the single, now soggily tea-stained, sheet inside:
The Honorable Sir Arthur Wimble-Clatt,
County of Somerset.
April 5th, 1878.
Dear Sir Arthur,
We acknowledge your correspondence of April 1st renewing your interest in playing cricket for the Gentlemen of Somerset. However, to reiterate our thoughts noted in our letter of reply of April last, although we appreciate your keenness we still feel that you may lack the requisite prowess. In our humble opinion the reasons you cite of ‘having barely anything to do during the close stag hunting season‘, ‘playing with an improvised bat on balmy school evenings before dorm’ and ‘an entry in Burke’s Peerage’ fall short of what we as a team presently might seek.
Again, we regret any disappointment this may cause you.
c.c. Stephen Cox Newton (Captain).
“Preposterous. Damned, blasted arrogance.” Exasperation reddening his ears, Sir Arthur scrunched up the now soggy offending letter into a ball and chucked it at the wicker wastepaper basket next to his new armchair hand stitched from the finest red-dyed, Moroccan leather. He missed. “Botheration.” The maid could jolly well pick it up.
Rising from the table Sir Arthur stroked the black fur on Labrador’s head. “Bad dog, Suzy.” Suzy wagged nineteen to the dozen. He strode a couple of strides to the hearth. Lit an hour beforehand the log fire’s generous flames warmed the seat of his lavender three-piece mourning suit. He had had a difficult couple of years.
Reaching up he patted the nose of a mounted stag’s head that boasted a magnificent set of antlers. “You know, the villagers have started calling that wretched place you went to bay ‘Dead Woman’s Ditch,’” he murmured. His eyes drifted across to a portrait of an attractive woman in her thirties sitting side-saddle upon a chestnut mare. “I’m so sorry, my dearest.” He spoke with candour.
It had been a stupid accident after the “Tally Ho!” when he and and his wife had followed Bunt. Lady Maud had simply snapped her neck. Sir Arthur shook his head unable to understand the unfairness. His horse had been a boggler – prone to stumbling. Last second, on the first scrapings of a badger’s sett, it had. He should have jumped the ditch ahead of Maud. Instead, it was she that had gone base over apex, her usually sure-footed mare tripping into a honeycomb of holes. “Rabbits,” Bunt had said.
Incapable of copings with the snivelling of an only child, Sir Arthur did what paters did. He packed son and heir Freddie off to boarding school, fingers crossed that he would stay safe and ‘man up’.
Sir Arthur, meanwhile, had inertia. Going riding was definitely not the norm. Summer billiards bored him. And August’s pouring of the new hunting season’s stirrup cup had lost its allure.
The blasted letter, however, had put his gander up. But what to do?
Aiming a kick at the ball of paper he had a brainwave. The answer lay under his nose. Well, almost. Gazing out across the front lawn his eyes fell on the meadow. Bordered on one side by the lane leading to the stumpy towered church, and on the opposite it sloped gently to the stream. The far end lay at the churchyard wall. Behind that was the little copper beech sapling he had planted in his wife’s memory.
In a month the meadow would flower into a vision of loveliness – teetsy-totsies and daisies, ragged robin and Lady’s bedstraw. Harsh on the bees and beasties but, regrettably, sacrifice was needed. Scattered seeds of choking ryegrass would act as grim meadow reaper. Grass to knit and mow to become a green, paradisiacal sward. Oh, yes! And a wicket cut to run ‘Lane End’ to ‘Stream End’.
“Darling Maud,” he said, looking back once more to the portrait, “the confounded Gentlemen of Somerset can’t stop me playing cricket. So the decision is made. I shall form Snickworthy Cricket Club and jolly well pick myself as captain. Given half a chance I’m sure I can give it a decent crack of the whip.”
He paused to absorb the true enormity of his words. He was lord of his domain, he had Albert and, optimistically, there would be quiverfuls in due course of the young sap’s progeny.
“Cricket shall be played on the family meadow forever more,” he said cheerily.
“We’ll need a nickname of course. The Wallopers? The Bangers? Hmm. The Belters? The Belters! What do you think of the Belters, my dear?”
Twigging the question was aimed at her, Suzy desisted tail wagging and plonked down on her backside - hopeful it would do as an answer. Spying the flat of her master’s hand, she cringed, wrong again.
Sir Arthur merely slapped his own temple. An afterthought had occurred - the need for a badge. “A cannon ball over crossed cricket bats. How’s about that?” He thought it champion.
What to do with the dusty billiard room was obvious, having already laughed at the original architect plan of it being a library. Fashionable French windows offered an admirable view of the proposed pitch. Ideal then to employ the space as the changing room for teams, and it was the perfect place to guzzle lavish cricket teas.
He thought of the maid’s crisp white bed linen, too. That could be used as sightscreens and billow like the sails of the Cutty Sark behind the bowlers arm. What a thing to imagine!
Opening a trunk he grabbed a cricket bat that had been resting on a pair of cotton coated, cane rod, batting pads. Once more his interest fell on the scrunched letter. Swiftly he bent down, scooped it up with his left hand, pat-a-caked it, and, as if serving in a tennis game, threw the paper ball up towards a chandelier. The blade swished and disturbed the air, causing crystal to tinkle. His target though was missed.
Sir Arthur remained undeterred. “By gad, summers are going to be fun from now on. C’mon, Suzy. Stables! Exercise!”
The beleaguered pooch felt true dismay.
It was late summer 1978 and the Bumpkin Crew was stranded. For them there would be no game. Something major in the guts of the ancient green Mercedes cabriolet had rattled loose whilst crossing the penultimate cattle grid leaving the Quantocks.
Down in Taunton native chattering was liberally sprinkled with Cornish, Devonian and a smattering of travelled Essex. Out of public sight, in the rickety pavilion, groomed and manicured Gillette company representatives gave the teams free razors as corporate gifts. A gesture of shave if you win, cut your throat if you lose.
Oblivious of it being a match day of some importance gulls as big as dogs, bound for the local garbage dump, cried as they circled on mid August thermals. ‘Tom’, the weathercock atop St. James church tower, glinted in the sunlight. The gilded copper vane had the best possible view of the cricket pitch. And, perhaps, it was no accident that all the windows on the tower’s stairway faced that way, too.
Any gust of breeze that turned Tom on his pivot also agitated sparse litter on concrete the other side of the Priory Bridge Road. Apart from the small rustles of discarded auction numbers for cattle, sheep and pigs the steel pens of the Taunton livestock market stood quiet. However, the conspicuous legion of parked, battered Land Rovers, made grubby by the local red soil, was explicable. Somerset’s untidy band of cricketers, led by the schoolmasterly Brian Rose in his first season as county captain, played natty Essex in the semi-final of the cup. And ruddy-cheeked farming types, formed a generous part of the fervently partisan County Ground crowd.
Among their number, and now overly self-conscious, was a brawny, well-spoken, tousle-haired, twenty-something with rolled up shirtsleeves, wearing a pair of neatly pressed jeans. George Wimble-Clatt was sweating and missed the company of his two best friends. Both were currently amorously entangled - Jerzy with a scary young woman, Rupert with French wine and something new that looked like custard on wheels. He himself had postponed putting Nettlegot Ned, the prize ram, to the ewes by twenty-four hours.
Crammed behind a bench of ‘see all, say a smidgen’ sages in the intimacy of the narrowest stand, little more than a few feet wide, the pongy dampness in his armpits was palpable. He felt as if eyes were upon him. A sage made an exaggerated cough.
This was nothing new to George. He had put up with worse. At home his cherished ammonite fossil - a childhood discovery he and his mother, Lady Rosemary, had chipped from the sea cliff - gave comfort despite him having wanted an ichthyosaur. At the cricket, when it came to comforts, he had none.
Having had little nurture he had simply learned to cope. A free spirit returning from Kind Hearts and Coronets at the local fleapit his mother had zoomed Sir Robert’s ‘Yellow Peril’ sports car into a suicidal stag on Snickworthy Steep - and no seat belt. The Belters ferret-keeping wicketkeeper found the bodies. It was just one of those things.
A rummage at the scene, however, found an almost empty bottle of sloe gin in her Ladyship’s handbag. Sir Robert, George’s pater, swore blind she never touched the stuff. Locals, however, tittered at the irony and tucked into the pub ‘special’ - venison hotpot. They also muckraked. Had not Sir Fred’s wife, a demure beauty, come to a ghastly end due to a hornet’s nest falling down the bedroom chimney? A curse upon the Wimble-Clatts surely existed and remained potent.
At the inquest Sir Robert had tried to be logical. The urbane, sourly handsome actor Dennis Price had made his wife weak at the knees. For all he knew, indulging in her screen idol for over a hundred minutes meant her strength hadn’t returned for braking.
Paranoid, George determined to avoid marriage. It was definitely for the best.
“Sminky,” he mumbled self-deprecatingly, swearing something was the matter with his DNA and cheesed off that the trauma of his boarding school nickname still niggled, even after ten years. Better not have children at all than have them suffer such a misery, he thought; and wondered if he sounded like a socialist.
Shaking the very idea from his head he hauled himself back to the love of cricket. The setting was perfect. Beyond the bowlers arm, the Quantock Hills shimmered and ducks now and again quacked with alarm on the River Tone. The scruffbags seemed to have the upper hand and liberal quantities of swigged cider freed inhibition, though not George’s. It was far too early in the day. Others were not so particular. Raucous West Country choruses of “Somerset la-la-la! Somerset la-la-la!” swopped now again to “Rosey’s army! Rosey’s army!”
The intimate ground shook. In fine fettle, the sages grudgingly acknowledged the seasonal licks of white paint were little more than a disguise. They thought it not overly dramatic to suggest that woodworm held the rickety pavilion and the stands together by monkey grip. Indeed, the ‘Cowshed’ and the ‘Ridley’ stands were positively endangered. Yet what the hell did that matter on a day such as this?
George squeezed passed the bench of sages and out into the fresh air. He could relax. He navigated his way through the affable overflow of the Stragglers bar and from in front of the churchyard wall he roared his approval and clapped rough hands as the red leather ball got walloped over the extra cover boundary and into the silence of the old organ works. West Indian batsman and local lord of the willow Viv Richards was making hay, and talisman Beefy Botham yet to bat was fresh from 108 and 8 for34 against Pakistan at Lord’s.
Behind George on the other side of the wall, with the world’s attention elsewhere, spike-haired Polly Bowmer played tonsil hockey, celebrating her seventeenth birthday romantically somewhere of her own choice.
* * *
On the wrong side of the river was Polly’s best friend, Bridey - already a non-coping single mum wringing red-raw, detergent spoiled hands. Cursing the social. Anguishing where to get a loan against next month’s benefit. Filling in rehousing forms. Never leaving the battered door on the latch for fear of further bruises from her ex.
Her snot-nosed toddler, left to play in the small space between the scratched council flat front door and pavement, sucked the ear of a large, soft toy and bashed both a dead washing machine and a knackered Datsun car engine with a plastic sword. Potted primulas, gifts from Polly, had been beheaded and mashed.
No bucolic Avalon, here it was just catfight, dog mess rough - unsuitable for delicate flowers. Honey monsters scolded screaming prams of tears. Goaded dogs ate postmen except on dole cheque day. And cars on bricks had lost wheels to shady deals.
A buddleia obscured a rusty oil drum, a wicket splodged in flaking white paint. But that was from long ago cricket games. Now plastic bags snagged. Scrunched lager cans littered. And deft genders dallied sprinkling baccy to fashion roll-up ciggies or, with the inclusion of crumbled dope, the outstanding accomplishment of three-skin spliffs. That is just how things were on the large estate of booze, fags, and worse.
It had also been Polly’s home before the flying vodka bottle her mum hurled at her dad, the police already tut-tutting in the sitting room. Polly had cowered. A set of brass balancing scales and oodles of small lumps wrapped in cling film were harvested and put in plastic bags as was the fascinating leafy growth vibrant under lamp heat in her bedroom cupboard.
Gareth and Chrissie, Polly’s foster parents, kept reminding her life had much more to offer and that she was different. But, of course, they would say that as their cramped safe semi, behind a clipped privet hedge, was at the posher end of a long, grey road. Space was needed if she was ever to follow any inkling of a leaning. Given certain boundaries, and because she could name most of the flowering plants in the park - the common names mind, not their poncey Latin ones - they had the good sense to grant it her.
* * *
Today, she should have been at work but had bunked off. Shifting spider plants and bags of peat at the garden centre seemed less attractive than Ollie. Acne afflicted and aroused by the metal bead of Polly’s illicit tongue piercing, he squeezed the ripe plums beneath her Stranglers T-shirt, leaving off to fumble with the top button of her fashionable army pants.
Her response was immediate. “No way!” she squeaked.
Shoved unexpectedly backwards Ollie fell on his butt, narrowly missing a rusty cast iron grave marker. Breathing hard, he rubbed a tattooed hand through his mohican. “What d’ya do that for, Pol?”
“Dickhead. It’s bloody daylight. Someone will see us.”
She stuck out her well-exercised tongue. “Meeeeeh!”
Thunk! The leather sphere cannoned into the trunk of a churchyard yew tree and rolled to rest between the teenage lovers.
A face peered over the top of the wall. Seeing the sprawled figure, the facial expression became etched with well-mannered concern. “Oh gosh, it clobbered you. You okay, old chap? Viv rather middled it.”
“‘Wha’?” said Ollie.
Hiding a grin Polly picked up the cricket ball and looked up at the wall-chinning observer. She clocked the hunky features and made a spontaneous decision. She fluttered black lashes resembling a pair of paintbrushes before giving a sideways glance at Ollie. “This creep wants my virtue,” she said.
“We really do need the ball back,” said George now straddling the wall’s coping tiles. Polly gave her paintbrushes further flutters while handing him up the object of his desire. Taking hold of it he offered Ollie advice. “I’d try and move if I were you. You’re lying on an old plague pit.”
“Jesus!” remarked Ollie, quickly becoming agile.
Polly tried harder. She gave George her best attempt at puppy eyes. “Rescue me,” she cooed.
George sighed. She wasn’t exactly a vision from ‘Country Life’. Instinct, though, kicked in. “Right you are. Give me your hand, young miss.”
Solemnly, she did, closing her ears to Ollie’s shouts of “Pol! Pol!”
Finding herself being pulled up and over, Polly eavesdropped an exchange of words. ‘‘Ere, what you caught there, chapper?” asked a gruff voice.
“A damsel in need. I’m being very chivalrous. Please, don’t tell the stewards.”
“Okay, Lancelot. A damsel? Bugger, looks more like you’ve poached a squab to me.”
There were bawdy taunts as Polly was lowered gently to the ground. She had made her first entrance to a cricket match. On cue, the crowd erupted and she was forgotten. Richard had reached his hundred and was waggling his bat in the air. “Well played!” shouted George removing his hands from Polly’s waist to join in the applause. As the kerfuffle died down Polly simpered, stood on tiptoe, and breathed warmly in George’s ear. “I’m Polly,” she said softly.
“I’m George,” said George flushing crimson. He couldn’t fathom it. She smelled earthy and oddly enticing. A memory from early childhood flickered. Was this what Granpapa Fred had meant by “try tumbling peasant gals”? Certainly, the retort from George’s papa over the sherry trifle had been snippy: “Father, that’s quite enough!”
George had an immediate feeling of guilt craving Polly’s warmth in his ear again. The only girl to get close to him was Margie Mudworth. And flashbacks of that Easter holiday made him nauseous.
While stabling her horse at Nettlegot she had appeared from nowhere in jodhpurs and riding boots, shirt half unbuttoned. Smiling. “Come with me,” she had said, yanking him by the arm towards the tack room the very moment Rupert’s squeaky wine delivery van swung protesting round the corner and into cobbled yard. “Quick, before we’re seen.”
What followed remained hazy. Heat caused his inhibition to vanish as mysteriously as sea fret. He remembered a sweet smell of flowers and clammy skin. The fumbling. Her wet mouth on his. The touching of tongues. The panting. His caveman urge. Ignoring the toppling tin of whitewash as her jodhpurs fell below her knees. Before he could bare his own backside the tack room door had flown open to reveal his papa holding a riding crop. Peering over his shoulder Rupert looked scared.
Words of wrath seared from Sir Robert. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy? That’s the daughter of a radical. If stabling her nag isn’t enough.” There was a momentary pause to gulp air. “In fact, both she and the nag can just bugger off. Sod the damned rent.”
In mid act of covering her decency, Margie let out a wail.
“Move young lady!”
Pouting, opening and closing her mouth struggling for something to say Margie resembled a guppy.
“Miss Mudworth? Move!”
“As for you, George, if this affects your A-levels you’re for the high jump. GOT IT? The sooner you’re back at that public school of yours the better.
“Now both of you get out of my sight.”
George had also wished she would vanish over the horizon. Pity was Jerzy had made Margie Mrs Bobowski. Which in George’s mind was mystifying.
“You okay?” Polly’s warm breath tickled his ear. Strange giddiness overcame him. George desperately struggled for something to say. “I’m … a … a Belter,” he blurted.
“You sure are.”
“I don’t mean … I mean I play for Snickw…”
Polly flashed her eyes and gave him her full appraisal. “And you’re bloody posh, too.”
His awkwardness abruptly returned. He wanted to tell her about Nettlegot, of him being captain of Snickworthy, and of the delightful cricket pitch with its dandelions, buttercups, clover and exasperating molehills. And about his childhood bamboo-poled fishing net used to recover balls from the stream. He thought better of it. Instead, he began wrestling with his emotions and worries, becoming aware of Polly’s head tilted one way then the other as she tried to gauge him.
Sod it, he thought. As though leaping from a high branch of the copper beech tree at home, he took the plunge. “Er, fancy watching the match with me for a bit?”
“Wha’? Watch CRICKET? Don’t be so fff…” A furrow appeared on George’s forehead. His mouth fell open. He closed it biting his bottom lip. He shut his eyes, pained. Polly made a rapid recalculation. “Ummm, okay.”
“Really? That’s so … Oh, bloody Haggis!”
Richards was out - a full-bloodied drive brilliantly caught by the Scottish born, and recent England skipper, Mike Denness. Fending off a mobbing from his teammates he began to fuss over a grass stain on his immaculate whites. Richard dragged himself slowly back to the hutch, 116 runs to his name.
“Oooo, that was good, wunnit?”
“No, it wasn’t, Polly. It was very, very bad. I only hope it doesn’t cost us when Essex take on the run chase.”
The words proved prophetic. If two batsmen are set, Taunton, almost impossible to defend with its fast outfield and short straight boundaries, can produce nail-biters. Things went true to form. 288 looked gettable. After losing Haggis to a snaffle by Skid Marks the Middle Chinnock farmer’s son in the first over bowled by Dredge, the Demon of Frome, Essex advanced steadily. Gooch flexed his blacksmith’s forearms. The grafting gnome, the Essex skipper Keith Fletcher, with shuffling feet and tangled pads, improvised delicately. South African McEwan drove imperiously. At 246-4 the scruffbags were becoming desperate when relief flooded the muttering, anxious crowd.
“‘Wow!” exclaimed George.
“Was that good?” asked Polly.
“Yes, absolutely marvellous.” George beamed at her. Botham had entered the fray, achieving a brilliant run out. And before the crowd could settle he had caught and bowled the Gnome. Another run out followed. 246 for 7. By now Polly was engrossed.
“Are Somerset going to lose?” she asked after an Essex bat had thumped Botham for a brace of consecutive boundaries. Voicing his fear, George got drowned out by an almighty roar. Beefy had reaped revenge, shattering the stumps. Two overs remained of the match. Essex, two wickets in hand, remained slight favourites. The tension was palpable. “I feel all sweaty,” said Polly. “It’s so great.”
“It really isn’t,” George replied. He got a friendly nudge and blushed. He gave a slight cough. “Let’s hope Joel delivers the goods.”
After completing his final over the West Indian bowling ace Joel Garner twisted a tourniquet, going for not a lot. ‘Six feet eight inches and the best toothy grin in the game,’ said George nodding in the direction of the giant bowler. “We call him ’Big Bird’. He’s a legend.”
Polly squeezed George’s arm. “He looks a lovely bird but I didn’t see him get a wicket.” George laid a fist on his forehead. Tension.
Six balls left, 12 runs wanted, and Captain Rose handed the cherry to the Demon of Frome, Bert to his scruffbag teammates.
“Look over there, Polly,” said George pointing. “You see those people chewing their nails. That’s Colin Dredge’s enormous family.”
“They all seem very nervous.”
George nodded agreement and put a hand over his eyes. Off a short run the Demon slung the first ball down in his ungainly catapult action, the process neither fluid nor rhythmic. The delivery was nurdled for a single. George rubbed both his hands down the sides of his jeans. His palms had become clammy. “Could be worse,” he commented, relieved. Polly gave him sideways glance.
The ball second got wellied. “Christ, four!” The restlessness in the crowd was palpable.
The third ball knocked back the middle stump of Essex number nine, the affable Ray East who earlier in the day had disturbed Botham’s furniture with a slow, straight one. “Dredge you beauty!” George celebrated by giving Polly a thump on the arm.
He apologised, then realised she was beaming up at him. He grinned back. “You know, I think we might win after all.”
Essex’s ten and jack – keeper Smith and blonde England bowler ‘JK’ Lever – met mid wicket for a quick conflab and were then handed a present of abundance. For the Somerset supporters the over’s fourth ball was the stuff of nightmare. The umpire stuck out his right arm.
“No-ball! Hellfire! Oh you bloody idiot! … Oh, Christ almighty, no!” The screeches of George met those of the multitude as a scruffbag fielder hurled overthrows to compound matters. The sages on benches chuntered something about death wishes. Polly held an expression of pure bewilderment.
With only four runs needed off three balls Essex were now very much the favourites. Next ball brought a swing and a miss. The scales tilted again. Off the sixth ball, produced another scampered single. Courtesy of the no-ball one delivery remained. Three runs were needed. The whole ground went into a state of prayer. Captain Rose, with the obvious exception of The Demon, deposited each and every scruffbag player, including keeper Derek Somerset Taylor, on the boundary. And it was transparent each willed the ball not to come their way.
George, his gaze fixed on The Demon, mused aloud. “If he bowls another no-ball his family will hang him here. If not, I will.”
“Shut up, you know what I mean.”
“Meeeeh! Is that old bloke in front of us having a heart attack?”
“Please, shut up. God, here we go.” In the descended hush The Demon lumbered in from the end of his run - an albatross trying to take wing.
Contact. The ball got bludgeoned out towards Rose. He dithered. Perhaps he had not seen it. An eternity passed. Fans bayed. Players Roebuck, Slocombe, Burgess and Breakwell panicked and froze. Richards tried to command but his shouts of “Run, man, run!” where lost to the howling of the River Stand. Rose, though, started to move, gaining momentum from slow motion and legs of rubber. The batsmen had already taken a single and had crossed for another.
Scores now level, Rose swooped the ball up at the first attempt and hooned it in the general direction of the wicket. The orb flew well over a yard off its true target as Smith pelted blade outstretched towards his ground. Grabbing ball in glove Taylor, belying his years, twisted and dived with the elegance of a Red Ruby bullock at the stumps, shattering them akimbo. Umpire Evans had a quick shufti at umpire Jepson and raised a rapid finger.
The scruffbags had won, albeit just, having lost fewer wickets in their innings.
In a mass frenzy of jubilation George made a spluttering sound resembling ‘Good old Somerset’, and started to cry. Shouting “Yay!” with each handclap above her spikes, Polly bounced up and down like a Tigger. Every yay revealed her tongue stud. Spying it, George was aghast. “Yay! Yay! Yay!”
As the dust finally settled distant Land Rover engines roared. And while slow sages packed away their gubbins Polly asked: “Are all cricket games as good as that?”
“Not really,” said George. And although conscious of some new uncertainty, he popped Polly a question that had been brewing for a few hours. “Fancy sharing a celebratory cider?”
“Nah. Thanks anyway. Gotta go into town and find Ollie.”
Jealousy raised its horns. George was flummoxed. “That oik?”
Above them on his rod Tom turned away and the air became chilly.
“Piss off, posh boy. Go get a cold shower.”
Without the foggiest idea, let alone care, that the ‘Golden Era’ of Somerset cricket had just begun, George, alone and hurting, consoled himself. “Doesn’t matter. She was just a squab.”
He set off toward the cattle market. Around the side of the pavilion Polly watched him leave. She was smitten on two counts. “Mind out, love.” A kitchen lady, puce from exertion from carrying a vast cooking pot of peeled potatoes, nudged her way passed.
“Where’s the nearest way out?” Polly asked, disorientated.
“Farmer White gates behind you. You alright?”
“Who’s Farmer White?”
“Lord love us. I haven’t got time to prattle. Ask our Nobby.” She nodded towards an aged steward idly inhaling a roll up.
Polly asked him the question. He coughed, looked her up and down and frowned. “You taking the mick?”
“Nah, straight up. Who is he?”
“Was. Tough nut from the Quantocks. Cantankerous. Colder than a river tout. Poker addict. Picked the seam of the ball so much that his hands bled. Captained England and Somerset a long time ago. Somewhere, there’s a picture of him riding a white donkey.”
“No, love. Egypt, if I remember. Khartoum. Or maybe it was Sammy Woods on the donkey. Now, Sammy Woods …”
Polly had stopped listening. Rather, as the Tone melded into the Nile, she imagined a pitchfork waggling farmer in a smock telling a pharaoh to get off his land. Seagulls became egrets. Alder trees, date palms. The two church towers, pyramids. The wondrous cricket square, desert. Viv Richards hit a six with a tea towel on his head. She and Posh Boy rode a camel, lolloping to recover the ball. She tried and tried to hold the vision but just could not. Screwing up her face she gritted her teeth, resigned that on far side of the river was another world, one less romantic and to which she must return.
“Penny for your thoughts,” said Nobby.
“Nothing. Gotta go. Thanks.”
Overhead, a gull cried.
A Pep Talk
According to George one needed “a periscope or a talking alpaca” to find Snickworthy and its cricket pitch. High hedges of beech funnelled numerous lanes diverted every which by mossy-banked streams and wooded slopes, some not seeing the sun for half the year.
Get lucky and one encountered a deepening gash in the red sandstone where a sunken lane tagged the ‘Back Passage’ began. Here, a lightning-struck oak, its truck split into a pair of pollarded limbs, stuck two fingers up at the world. Somewhat surprisingly, then, change when it happened, was subtle and complicated.
Although full of charm to some, ‘Snicky’ as it was known to the disaffected was like other places in England – unremarkable, gossipy, and haunted by the trivial. Muddled around an ancient narrow stone bridge, the bane of tractors, the village endured as a maze of leafy ways accessing assorted cottages, an unremarkable bungalow, a row of tidy council houses, oddly named ‘The Loop’, a garage business, and a scattering of farmsteads, the smartest of which cashed-in on pheasant blasting.
In addition, the primary school functioned on a principal of “catch and civilize early”. Great things were offered by the village hall – even a doctor’s surgery on a Wednesday morning and the WI ‘bring and buy’ on a Friday. The pub, the ‘Burning Stump’ offered oblivion. The church had long given up on salvation - goings on in the rectory the stuff of hearsay. By comparison the forge merely held surprise. The ‘Prattle Wagon’ from Brockcombe delivered the dailies that were plonked beside an honesty box within the old lock-up. While visits from the ‘Quantock Camel’, a rattling motorised emporium peddling dear basics, intermittently staved-off starvation.
And, of course, there was Nettlegot where Sir Robert’s young cook and housekeeper, Joy Budd, was proud of her cricket tea. The smell of baking scones and Victoria sponge, not to mention flapjacks and gingernuts, made Lobb the Duckdog, a Border collie, drool, and signalled advanced forward planning.
Her flour dusty apron hid a frumpy white blouse and navy skirt bought from a home catalogue. She was a sensible soul with never enough time for dressing up, especially as she also kept the church prettified with botany and the pews polished. The discrete silver cross hanging from a thin neck chain, however, was an adornment of fancy rather than faith.
She observed George wrestling with a wellington boot and patted the back of her practical bob. It wasn’t really her place to say, but if only he stopped his habit of dropping his brown work trousers like a cowpat on the floor and found a new fragrance he would be quite a catch - which was also how, she admitted, she felt about Nettlegot’s odd-jobber-cum-gardener.
“Mine!” Barri shouted. The heat was stifling. Sweat drenched him. It dripped from beneath his helmet, blurring his vision. Yet, he’d made the decision. Had to take responsibility.
The Lord’s crowd held its breath. Many ducked for cover. Others hid behind newspapers. Pints upon trays were spilt. Terrified parents hugged kids. Teammates in camouflage uniform ran around like panicked rabbits. Gauntleted, he circled the stumps his eyes fixed on the plummeting sphere.
“Concentrate, concentrate,” he was telling himself. A drop was unthinkable. Catastrophic. People could be maimed. Killed, even. “Catch it!” And then he was stumbling.
Barri blinked awake with a start. Discombobulated and panting, his T-shirt and blanket sodden. His hands were shaking. With fingertips he scratched his scalp through a mat of dishevelled sandy coloured hair and groaned. Everything was normal in the airless tack room of the Wimble-Clatt’s defunct stable block.
Now Barri’s clothes draped over the wooden saddle horse. A copy of 1978’s Wisden lay beside the little alarm clock, battered radio and reading lamp on the spindle-backed chair. On the pine table were a bag of grass seed and a kettle sat upon a primus stove. Keeping them company were the dregs of last night’s Pot Noodle, gloopy upon a page of biro circled racing odds in yesterday’s Guardian.
Sunshine shone on a trio of toppled glass cider bottle empties and pooled on the stone-flagged floor faintly stained by whitewash. Two faded sets of footprints, one large one small, headed for the door. Shadows cast by the window’s clinging cobwebs patterned the rough, white painted wall. They played upon the blade of his weathered cricket bat and a battalion photograph taken at Bessbrook, the sprawling, massive century old linen mill, tall chimneys and all, converted into barracks in County Armagh.
“Cach, I need air.” Husky, Barri felt as if a badger had crawled down the back of his throat. He reminded himself yet again to prise the window open, stuck fast. Someone at sometime had given the frame an over-enthusiastic slap of paint.
Boom. A wellington boot kicked the door a second time. ‘‘Barri! Get up, you lazy Welsh squaddie! It’s Friday. Get your skids on. If you don’t move your arse you’ll miss the WI! Big Doug, Mel and Griffin are already getting the pick of the pickles.
“And I hope you haven’t forgotten we’ve got Rookton coming up.”
“I flattened the pitch’s molehills yesterday evening, if you hadn’t noticed!”
“I didn’t mean …” George stopped mid sentence refusing to buy into Barri’s tetchiness. “Team meeting’s in the pub this evening. It’s Old Willy’s farewell. Remember?”
“Bog off, George!”
“Open the door. Come and be civilized.” George chuckled to himself knowing full well to be patient when it came to the Belters opening bat and wicketkeeper, who, in return for paying Sir Robert a peppercorn rent of a pound a year for the tack room, was also groundsman to the cricket pitch in addition to his work-a-day commitments.
‘You look like shit,’ observed George as Barri emerged scratching stubble.
“And ‘bore da’ to you,” said Barri. Modesty preserved by a pair of Y-fronts, a threadbare towel over his arm, he headed for the outside tap in the cobbled yard.
George followed. “You being having those dreams again?”
Barri nodded glumly. “It was the Cup Final. Horrible, it was. A total disaster.” He sluiced himself down with the cold water. “I think I’ll give the WI a miss this week and amble up to the barrow and standing stones, instead. I’m sure the Bumpkin Crew can survive without me.”
“Want some company.”
“I don’t need a bloody nanny. Sorry. It’s okay. Ta, anyway. I’ll be fine … honest.”
But he wasn’t fine. The doctor said it was ‘PTSD’. There had been a bomb explosion and that was that – butcher’s business. He was grateful to Reverend Clewes and Sir Robert in helping him get back on his feet. Mates hadn’t got feet to get back onto. Many called it the ‘Troubles’. Others called it ‘Operation Banner’. What a fiasco. Some soldiers had been flown into Belfast at such short notice they had arrived with bayonets fixed. And signs they carried warned rioters to disperse - in Arabic.
Landmine risk caused the little village of Irish granite to reportedly be the busiest helicopter airport in Europe. And that after the village had once had a philosophy of "Three P's": no pubs, no pawnshops, and therefore no need for police. Well, that became bollocks.
The young beggar woman in a shawl hugging a babe wrapped in a blanket to her chest was burnt into his retinas. “Can you spare some change. I want my child to grow up happy,” were the last words she said. Two more innocents Reverend Clewes had consoled in the bomb’s aftermath - a harrowing time for the barrack’s army chaplain that was never spoken about.
Glad that had both kept in contact, Barri, though, was unsure whether the reverend, having retreated deep into the Somerset sticks for his own reasons, had also kept faith in God.
“See you later then, George.”
“Don’t go frightening the wildlife.”
Instinctively, Barri’s hand shot up to the long scar on his face. “I meant have a shave, you oversensitive twit.”
Of course, Barri was going to have a shave and well as make his bed immaculately with hospital corners. The habits of a serviceman, even a veteran, never die.
* * *
First to speak at the weekly team meeting was Timmy Dapling. “Like your trendy tank top, vicar.”
“It’s not a tank top, it’s a cardigan.”
“You’ll only play tomorrow if your mum let’s you. You don’t want me to dissuade her do you? No? So, no more cheek.”
“I wasn’t …”
“Button it.” The Reverend Delvin Clewes could play it firm when necessary and was probably better at doing that than hitting the stumps with his off breaks. He placed his black beret on the pub bench and stroked thoughtfully at his neat, grey beard. “Rookton are quite strong at the moment, I’ve heard.”
“We’ll certainly need eleven players,” said George glancing calculatingly at Timmy, now quiet with a glass of ginger beer. “Are we all here?”
There were grunts and monosyllabic replies. George decided on a head count.
“Barri you open with Jerzy … where is Jerzy.”
“He’ll be here. I passed him mucking out Margie’s stable. He looked proper pissed off.”
Timmy giggled. “Didn’t know Margie lived in a crappy stable.”
“That’s enough, Timmy,” said George, retraining a chortle only for it to pop out as a hiccup.
“If Margie wanted a spaniel she should have bought one, not married one,” quipped Barri.
George hiccupped again. “Rupert, I’m putting you in at three. Big Doug, you’re at four. You have licence to wallop.” A huge man ‘Big Doug’ Birchtree, a classical singer, was the trundler of the Belters attack and, when needs must, a lusty swinger of the willow. What let him down was actually connecting with stumps or leather. Owner of ‘The Bumpkin’, his eccentricity and navigation were, to the rest of the Bumpkin Crew, also nominal failings. Along with Sir Robert he was Rupert’s best customer.
“Then it’s me, Mel and Griffin. Muscly and freckled, Mel, the feisty village blacksmith, appeared content. “Woo, the lady’s going up the order!” she shrilled, and punched the air. “Wait till I tell Wellard.” She meant her ginormous pet saddleback pig named after the Somerset indefatigable trier Arthur Wellard- the England player and the blacksmith village cricketer at the same time.
Griffin, carpenter, local history buff and skipper of the ‘Pertelote’ – a problematic skiff - seemed happy enough, too, summer hayfever now behind him. His pouch of Golden Virginia resealed, he tore a small rectangle of card from his Rizlas packet and rolled a roach, a fitting end to his methodically made roll-up. “I’ll be glued to the crease,” he said, making Mel light up with a guffaw.
“Ah, that will explain your total lack of foot movement, you gawky beanpole.” She gave Griffin a friendly shove that almost spilled him off his seat. Flakes of sawdust fell out of his short-cropped ginger curls.
“Delvin, I want you at eight to protect the tail,” continued George before looking over to the bar. “Willy, are you okay with nine?”
“Yer, I’m no spring rabbit.”
“But you are a rabbit, mate,” said Barri.
Everyone laughed except ‘Keen Kev’ Furet. “That’s outrageous!” he exclaimed. “I’m way better than Willy. How come he’s in before me? I’ve just gone and bought myself a load of new kit.”
“Think that will help? You’ve had so many noughts you could win an Audi badge.” The sarcasm came from Jerzy, at last making his appearance. Keen Kev, proprietor of Number One Windows and church sidesman, glared daggers.
Delvin reached out to touch Keen Kev’s arm. “Don’t forget we’re a team. And you’re part of it. Didn’t I ramble about team spirit last Sunday?”
Prising the lid off a sweet tin Keen Kev popped an old-fashioned humbug in his mouth. “Thinking about your sermon, Reverend, you lost me with the chopsticks.”
“Or were you actually listening? You seemed engrossed in flicking Mrs Dapling with that grubby squirrel tail of yours.”
“It’s not, it’s been in the wash. And Mrs Dapling kept nodding off.”
“Hardly surprising. Four bickering children, a new baby, and an abandoning husband now obsessed in pheasant breeding.
“I do exist, you know,” said Timmy indignantly.
Delvin raised a digit of apology. “Sunday service is probably a rare occasion your mum has a moment to herself.” He turned back, smiling benignly at his zealous church assistant. “Leave Mrs Dapliing alone in future, unless, of course, she starts snoring. But then only one or two flicks.”
“You still lost me with the chopsticks,” said paunchy Keen Kev, a stubborn glaze crossing his vision.
“Fine!” Delvin slapped the table. It was wobbly. Fuller pints splashed soaking beer mats.
“Go easy, vicar,” Willy called across, “I’m not in the mood for skivvying tonight.”
“Apologies Willy. With your permission George, can I say a word or two about teamwork for our Kevin, here? As none other of you lot were there, maybe what entered my head will fall on fertile ground at the end of the day.”
Rupert looked at his watch. “Better get on with it then, Delvin.” There was cause for more laughter.
“There was eleven people sat either side of a table and they were each given pair of long chopsticks to eat with. They were so long that it was impossible for anyone to get the food from their plate to their mouth.” Delvin held his hands wide apart as if indicating the wingspan of a herring gull. “How do you think those people managed to feed?”
“Chucked away the chopsticks and used their hands,” guessed Timmy.
“No, they each had to use a pair chopsticks.”
“That’s silly,” Timmy said, slumping. Others shook theirs heads experimenting with imaginary chopsticks.
A bulb of inspiration switched on in Mel. “It’s obvious. They must have each fed the guys opposite.”
“Exactly!” said Delvin, striking the table again. “Teamwork, you see. Let’s have some tomorrow afternoon.”
“So, I’m batting ten?” said Keen Kev wanting clarification.
“Well, that depends.” George sounded hesitant. “If Timmy’s mum says he can bat … ”
“Oh, no way! Absolutely, no way!” Keen Kev’s outburst bordered on the apoplectic.
Mel muffled her mouth with a hand. “Drop this man now,” she said in a deep growl.
“Reverend, this ain’t fair,” whinged Keen Kev hurt by the titters. “The boy should bat at eleven if it’s his first game.”
Delvin focused on his almost empty glass for a few seconds. “I think what we need to do at this point is give three cheers to Old Willy for his years at the Stump. Just glad he can carry on batting. But behind the bar things will never be the same.”
“Totally right,” said the Belters number three.
“Hip, hip,” said George. “Hooray!” shouted everyone with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “Hip, hip!” “Hooray!” “Hip, hip!” “Hooray!”
Willy’s jaw quivered.
Standing up, Big Doug cleared his throat and in his deep bass sang ‘The Blackbird’.
“Where be that Blackbird to? I know where he be,
He be up yon Wurzel tree, And I be after he!
Now I sees he, And he sees I,
Buggered if I don’t get ‘en
With a gurt big stick I’ll knock ‘im down
Blackbird I’ll ‘ave he!
At its end, Old Willy swallowed. Maybe, a tiny tear trickled down one cheek. “Now bugger off the load of yer. Thems me last orders.”
His was a vanishing Somerset, organic, one in which a bumblebee was called a dumbledore; bim-boms, church bells; and a mole was a muddywant that tunnelled want-wriggles. For this man who had grown from the red soil folk came as two sorts – the ‘bibbler’ who enjoyed a drink and the ‘guddler’ who knocked it back until paralytic. Neither of them were his problem any longer.
Later, the pub locked and bolted, and the drip trays emptied, Old Willy admired his profile in the wardrobe mirror. The spotless white coat and cap gave him the resemblance of cricket’s beloved umpire ‘Dickie’ Bird, although Old Willy wasn’t quite as hunched as the eccentric Yorkshireman. However, the dress code wasn’t for umpiring. It was for the job of steward at the County Ground come next season. Nobby was retiring.
Sometime in the forthcoming days ‘Rupert Shovelton, licensee’ would be painted above the Burning Stump’s threshold.
Bats and Belters was by published by Halsgrove in Autumn 2014.
ISBN 978 0 85704 248 4
Bats and Belters - A light-hearted novel about village cricket was published by Halsgrove, Autumn 2014.
Another Somerset Century The book that's found its way into the Lord's library earns three 5-star Amazon reviews: 'A very good read, by a brilliant author. The best of the SCCC books that have come out for a while.' 18/11/13. 'Tackles all the the recent stories from numerous runner's up finishes to major ground and personnel changes.' 12/12/13. An enjoyable read for a Somerset supporter or fan of cricket. The sort of book one can pick up, read a bit, and return to with ease.' 20/12/13.
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