Shootout 4

Shoot-out at Lowerthong.

Two middle-aged men, dressed in check shirts, ten gallon hats and rough leather trousers, stood facing each other, twenty two yards apart.  One was tall and bald, the other squat and silver haired.  Neither was smiling.  Their right hands hovered over their six guns.

‘I’m going first.’

‘No, you’re not, you’re the bad guy.’

‘Who said?  The bad guy always goes first.’

‘You always get to go first, and you’re downwind.  Do you know we haven’t got the right kit?  These are Winchester sharp-shooters.  Strictly speaking, we should have Colt 45’s.  Its shocking.  Yesterday, I was nearly fobbed off with an eight gallon hat.  The standard of gun fighting is dropping every year.’

‘Aye, I know.  I’ve kept up my times though.  Still got the quickest  draw since Billy was a kid.  You remember Billy Iredale from the old days?  Fastest gun in the valley, ‘till I came along.’

‘Er, Dick, are you playing today?  Or shall we get one of them to keep wicket?’

‘Oh, sorry skip, miles away.’  Dick’s reverie of two aging gunslingers, slugging it out on a B cowboy movie set, too old and too proud to back down, gradually faded.

He turned his attention to Phil Cross, the opening bowler.  Even though he was in his fifties, Phil still used a long run up to the wicket.  The first ball zipped down the leg side for four before Dick could get a glove on it.

‘I’ll send you an appointment for the optician, Dick.’

‘Sorry, Phil.’

Bert Hammond bowled the second over off seven strides, several short of his prime.  Dick had to stand closer to the stumps, but he didn’t fare much better as the third ball kept low.

‘Have you got a bad back lad?’

‘Sorry, Bert.’

‘We don’t want extras to be their top score do we Dick?’

‘No Bert.’

Phil and Bert were proud men with above average careers behind them in the local leagues.  Their breath was short and their muscles ached and yet they still ran in as if every ball could take a wicket.

Umpires knew to pop a cotton wool bud in their left ear when Bert was on, just in case the ball hit the pad.  Phil’s manners were more muted, more a supplication to a higher being as the ball passed the outside edge yet again.

Phil and Bert saved their worst for each other.  Everyone misses difficult catches, but Phil had made it an art form.  Sure enough, the third ball of Bert’s second over was hoisted to long off and put down by Phil.  The Hammond roar was not far away,

‘Whatever are you doing Cross?  You dozy slaphead, you should’ve swallowed that.’

‘I’ve caught more catches than you’ve bowled straight balls.’

Phil only had to bide his time.  Next over and Bert let one through his legs.

‘Bend your back you idle sod, Hammond.  Spend less time admiring your Grecian 2000.’

‘Stop pitching half volleys outside off stump then.’

Dick’s eyes glazed over.  The insistent rhythm of The Magnificent Seven’s opening bars surged through his head.  They’re losing it he thought, but they can’t give in.

It was supposed to be a friendly game of Sunday cricket.  It had all the important ingredients:  a dry sunny day, a decent forecast, a picturesque cricket ground and an opposing side bristling with slow cowards.  The Wanderers had come over from Barnston, cricket’s bottomless pit.  Their skipper had won the toss and elected to bat.  Our skip would’ve fielded first anyway; neither Phil nor Bert could raise a gallop just after tea.

They could still take wickets.  Towards the end of his spell, Phil got a long hop to lift a touch.  The batsman dollied it to point off a top edge.

‘Well I never, did you see that?  If it’d been any shorter it’d’ve bounced behind him,’ sniped Bert, looking heavenwards in disbelief.

Not to be outdone, Bert bowled their star man soon after.

‘Someone had to get him.  He was blind,’ sighed Phil, hands on hips at short third man.

There are moments when, in a what can otherwise be a lonely game, the players meet for a chat.  Dick had noticed that these occasions mostly occurred at the tea interval and in the bar after the game.  However, the taking of a wicket was also a major bonding event and Phil and Bert thrived on them. Their team mates, those that weren’t deaf, were more than happy to idolise the pair.  Hopefully, a bit of praise mollified their outrage and diminished their insults.

At all other times, the only people to share the intimacy of Phil and Bert’s exchanges were Dick and the umpires.  The batsmen had their own problems, like seeing the ball.  As the umpires had heard it all before, Phil and Bert relied on Dick for support.

Phil’s last ball of his six overs was pulled toward the square leg boundary, sending Bert on a sixty yard dash.  Having returned the ball, Bert doubled over, coughing and wheezing like Doc Holiday.  Phil was the first to comment,

‘Get the twelfth man on, skip, he’s knackered.’

Bert slowly walked back to first slip.

‘I’m getting too old for this Dick.  I get palpitations.’

Only minutes earlier, Phil had held his back and Bert had been quick to console him,

‘Come in off your shorter run, in fact just come in, your time is up.’

Dick had tried to be more diplomatic,

‘OK, Phil?’

‘Aye, well no not really.  My back’s being playing up for a while.’

At the tea interval, sat round a table of sandwiches, buns and mugs of sweet hot grey fluid, Phil recalled the previous season’s game,

‘I got 5 for 32 against these last year.  We buried ‘em.  I took my two thousanth wicket that day.’

Some of the newer team members, like Dick, looked askance.

‘Well, I have been playing for forty seasons.’

‘And you’ve kept all your figures?’  Dick asked.

Bert intervened, ‘He always did, even when we were kids.  Bit of a statistics nerd.  You did bowl well though, I remember it now.  I missed out and I batted badly.  It was the pitch, suited your leg cutter.  Too soft on top for me, and the ball was out of shape.  In my day the balls were always hard and true.  Its shocking.  Standards are dropping everywhere you look . . . ’

The skipper clutched Dick’s shoulder, ‘Dick, get your pads on.  Nobody’s volunteered to open, so your’e coming in with me.’

‘Yes, skip.’

‘Phil six, Bert come in at five.’

‘Righto, skip.  Stroll round the boundary, Bert?  Don’t get out too soon will you Dick?  My back’s on fire.’

‘Quite a pair,’ said Dick as he walked to the dressing room with the skipper.

‘Who, Phil and Bert?  Terrors when they were younger.  Its great they still want to play.  The rest of the guys love them.’

‘They’re getting a bit past it.  How come they keep going?’

‘Why have you started playing again?’

Well it was a good question, since he wasn’t much of a cricketer.  He didn’t really know.  It had always been part of his life, wherever he was.



He didn’t play in the two following games, what with family commitments.  Why Amy’s sister had to arrange a family BBQ on a Sunday afternoon was a mystery to Dick.  There were compensations though – he caught a re-run of ‘High Noon’ while everyone was getting ready.  For once he forgave the hour his daughter spent in the bathroom, and the delays that followed Amy’s insistence on doing fifteen jobs simultaneously – another of life’s mysteries.  Gary Cooper, aging and frail, but such courage.

The weekend following, whilst Dick and Amy were sat at the breakfast table,  a letter from Inverness arrived.   It was from his first wife.  In the early seventies,

their marriage had gone wrong in every way and they hadn’t been in touch since.

Dick went pale and handed the letter to Amy, which she read aloud.

“Dear Cain,

I have tried to get in touch for the last couple of years, but since our Glasgow days, you’ve moved around so much, I’ve only recently managed to trace you.  Its a long time ago now, and I should have told you sooner, but I was

pregnant when we split.  A boy, Frank.  I remarried and all was well.  I told Frank all about us and he never took it any further.  He died two years ago, leukaemia.  It was terrible.  Thing is, he had a son, Ben.  He’s a lovely lad, but a wanderer, a dreamer, not practical like his dad.  Frank told him everything and since he died, Ben’s wanted to meet his real grandad.  This will be a shock, but what do you think?  Frank’s wife was against it, but he’s a persistent kid, so she said it was OK to write.  Enclosed is a photo of Ben.  He’s just had his thirteenth birthday.

Regards

Jane”

‘Phew, this’s a stunner.’  Said Amy.  ‘Cain.  I haven’t heard that name in years.’

Cain was Dick’s first name, out of use and forgotten by almost everyone.



Strange, the next time he turned out for cricket, the players were sat together in the dressing room.  Usually, they each arrived late or at the last minute, and changed alone.

‘What’s up lads?  Ambrose and Walsh playing for them then?’

‘We haven’t a full team, Dick.  You won’t’ve heard.  Phil and Bert aren’t so good.  They’re not playing.’

The skipper broke up the party.

’Come on lads, we’re fielding.  Dick, would you care to put the pads on? Nobody else wants to.’

‘Yes, skip.’

Dick took the field with Reg, a portly former officer and gentleman.

‘Are Phil and Bert alright, Reg?’

‘Well, we’re not sure.  Bert broke down with chest pain, running round the boundary.  Said he had a bit of angina and not to worry.  I ran him straight home, but he wouldn’t call out the emergency doctor, stubborn I suppose.  I phoned him in the week and he was still waiting to see his own doctor.’

‘What about Phil?’

‘His back’s gone.  Still in bed apparently, can’t move, and we’ve the Melbridge Cup in a couple of weeks.’

Play started and Dick didn’t speak to Reg again until the tea interval.

‘What’s the Melbridge Cup?’

‘Its the annual fixture between Melthwaite and Townbridge.’  Dick recognised the names of neighbouring villages at the head of the valley.

‘We’re hosting it as part of our fiftieth anniversary celebrations.’

‘Didn’t Phil and Bert play for them?’

‘Aye, and they’ll be dead set on playing this year, seeing as its here.’

Later,  in the bar after the match, Reg smiled over his pint.

‘Another good win.  Not at your best though Dick.’



Early in the afternoon of Cup day, Dick tried to organise Amy and her sister.  What do we want to go to cricket for?  Its a special match, Dick’d explained.  The rest of the team will be there, with their families.  Bar’ll be open.

While they change, Dick thought he’d watch that Kurusawa retrospective rather than record it.  Oh, I’ll record it anyway, what time does it finish, 3:45.

When they finally arrived Melthwaite were batting, 4 down for 150 off 25 overs.  Dick spotted Reg nursing a glass half full of ale.

‘How’s it going?’

‘Nicely.  Phil’s had a spell off a shortened run.  Only went for two an over.

No wickets though.’

‘Bit risky with his back.’

‘Both sides have players in the town team over in York, so they’re a bit short.  Phil said he was fine.  Bert’s on for Melthwaite as well.  Coming in at nine.’ Lowerthong is the prettiest ground in the West Riding cricket league: a horizon of Pennine hills, shady riverside trees, drystone walls and a large bank of green comfortable grass.  Smoke from a BBQ rose vertically like the mast of a becalmed dinghy.  Drinkers, murmuring and clinking glasses, ebbed and flowed in front of the bar, occasionally breaking into laughter.  Picnicking families babbled on the grassy bank.  The cricket square, however, was dark and turbulent.  Still moored, Melthwaite were struggling to break free, confined by the buffeting of the Townbridge swell.  A storm was brewing.

Dick said he’d see Reg later and went back Amy and her sister, sat on the grass.  The sandwiches were out.

‘Who’s winning?’

‘Melthwaite have got two hundred and thirty, but Townbridge have to bat

yet.’

‘You mean there’s more.  They’ve just come off.  Haven’t they finished?’

‘Its the tea interval, that’s all.’

‘What’s the time?’

‘There’s a clock on the scoreboard.  4:30.  Why?’

‘No reason.’

Dick sighed.  She never has understood cricket, where did I go wrong?  He began to hum ‘Do not forsake me, oh my darling, on this our wedding day’ and picked up a sandwich.  Several pieces of pie and a bun later, he turned his eyes toward Lowerthong church tower, standing proud of the foliage behind the pavilion.  The clock showed five past five as Townbridge started their innings.

No surprises during the opening overs.

The family next to them turned on the radio.

‘Here is the news and weather at five thirty.’   Townbridge were 40 for 1.

‘Mm, poor forecast.  Dick we haven’t brought anything in case it rains.’

‘I’m off to the loo, where is it Dick?’

Dick pointed Amy’s sister in the general direction of the pavilion.

‘Dick, you’ve been really moody since the letter.’

‘It takes some getting used to.  First I’d a son and then I hadn’t, and now I’ve a grandson.’

‘A lot would be pleased.’

‘Aye.’

‘Its something you’ll have to face.  Either you see him or you don’t.  You can’t not make a decision.’

Amy’s sister returned and sat down.

‘Sorry, did I interrupt something?’

‘No.  Dick’s still struggling whether to see his grandson or not.’

‘Ah Dick, ever the dreamer.  All those years not knowing you were a dad.  What a waste.’

‘Oh thanks, that makes me feel better.’

‘Here is the six o’clock news.’  Dick checked the scoreboard; 101 for 4.

Mm  . . .  they’re cracking on a bit.

‘Well, I mean, its quite a responsibility, being a grandad.  Taking him to the cricket, explaining the Japanese influence on cowboy films.  That sort of thing.’

‘You’re having me on.’

‘Am I?’

She was right, thought Dick.  You drift along, accept what life gives you.  Then something happens that surprises you.  I could do the cricket and the Japanese lesson, but what else would he want from me?  Am I enough?  Gary Cooper’s gaunt ill face appeared in front of him.  Marshal Kane had an hour and ten minutes until the train came, carrying his destiny on it,

‘I sent a man up five years ago for murder.  He was supposed to hang, but

up North, they commuted it to life and now he’s free.  I don’t know how.  Anyway, it looks like he’s coming back.’

Dick shivered; brilliant.  What a film.  Gary never backed down from anything.  He remembered the blurb on the film poster.

“The deserted, lone marshal who stubbornly insisted on delaying his newly-married life with a pacifist Quaker wife in order to stay and confront his former nemesis – Frank Miller.  The story of a man who was too proud to run.”

‘News and sport now at six thirty.’  Dick shook his head and returned to the present.  How they doing now.  153 for 5.  They might just do it.  Bert hasn’t had

a bowl yet.

‘Its quarter to seven, Dick.  Sky’s looking grim, we’re off.  Try not to be too long.’

Many others had had the same idea and were leaving or had left, and for a brief moment, Dick was alone.  Anyone on Lowerthong church tower, glancing over at the cricket, would have seen a solitary seated figure, dwarfed by the emptiness of the deserted banked field.

Tree branches began to billow and rustle as the wind got up. Clouds were gathering, still high over Lowerthong, but darker and lower on the horizon.  Those Melthwaite and Townbridge stalwarts that were left, gathered in front of the pavilion, no longer in shirt sleeves.  The coals on the bare BBQ glowed and grey ash flew untidily.  Dick joined Reg on the edge of the small crowd.

Townbridge needed thirty off the last four overs with three batsmen left.  On the other side Melthwaite were running out of bowlers.

‘Bert’ll have come on, Reg.’

‘Aye, Dick.  Come to think of it, Phil might have to bat.  What a finish.’

6:50 on the scoreboard clock.  Another over, another wicket, six nearer the total.

Eight runs off the next over; unlucky Bert.

6:55.  A wicket in the thirty-ninth but another eight runs.

Seven to win, the last man in, Phil, facing the final over from Bert.  The first drops of rain splashed onto the flags in front of the whispering anxious pavilion.

Bert paused at the start of his run and adjusted his left sock.  Seven strides and the ball shaved Phil’s pads.  Groans of encouragement from Townbridge.  The next was a yorker which Phil blocked.  More groans.  The keeper picked up and threw the ball back to Bert.  He turned and walked back to his mark.  Lowerthong church bells began their seven o’clock ritual . . . dong.

One two three strides . . . dong.

Four five six strides. . . dong.

Bert’s arm aloft  . . . dong.

Phil stood waiting . . . dong.

Pitched half way . . . dong.

Pulled and missed . . . dong.

Melthwaite shouted for joy. Townbridge cringed.  And then, deathly quiet apart from the pitter patter of rain falling steadily.  The crowd gradually fathomed what had actually happened.  Bert lay face down across the crease at the bowler’s end and Phil, on his knees, keeled over and came to rest on his arched back, pale and agonised.

They’ve killed each other, thought Dick.

Then it was all activity, and sirens and ambulances.  Lightening arced across the low black clouds, followed almost immediately by a crash of thunder and the rain lashed down.



Dick had to work away a lot after that and lost touch with Sunday cricket.  It must’ve been two years before he revisited the shoot-out scene.  He wandered over to Gabrielle, faithful scorer, and peeped at the scorebook over her shoulder.

‘Fancy that, Cross and Hammond are playing.’

‘Dick!  Long time.  Take a good look.’

Well is that Bert, red-faced, huffing and puffing up to the crease, and is that batsman scratching around, Phil?  Hang on they can’t be, they’re only lads.  The penny dropped.

‘Grandsons.’

‘Correct.  Now look again.’

Dick couldn’t see anything.  Then the tallish umpire behind the stumps took off his cap and scratched his bald head.  Dick quickly checked the man standing at square leg – silver hair and rather squat.

He waited with Gabrielle for the tea interval.

‘Its a thing dreams are made of, Bert.’

‘Aye.  The lad’s got promise.  They don’t have the same commitment we had though.  Moping on street corners, drinking in pubs.  Standards are not what they were.  Still that’s how it is these days, Dick.  I’ve had to adjust, can’t stay in the past you know.  Who’s this you’ve got with you?  Is he a cricketer?’

The willowy youth introduced himself in a thick scots accent,

‘Hi, I’m Ben.’

‘My grandson.  No, he mopes around like the rest of them.  Spends most of his time at the movies.’

Dick turned to Phil, ‘Did you get any more wickets, Phil?’

‘Nay lad,’ his hairless head cracked in two, ‘but I dropped my five hundredth catch.’

3288

Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.