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Dead men

by Gerald Roberts


“Take about two hours,” she said.

We were having our usual fish Friday supper in the kitchen - that was one of the few things we agreed about, no fish and chips in the dining-room.

“What will?” I asked. We enjoy our abrupt conversations: I know  my wife is called Belinda and I’m Gordon, we’ve both known it for years, so why repeat it, think of the amount of breath we save. Death put off a bit longer.

“Getting to St Albans of course, Nestor’s funeral.”

It was another of Her surprises, which She keeps launching, and blames me for not knowing.

“Nestor, Pauline’s husband, the one who had a heart attack standing at square leg, and never made it to the boundary.”

Something stirred at the remote back of my mind.

“Oh, was he the one who was too fat to do his flies up. Well, he obviously had it coming. Square leg can be very dangerous. No time to duck.”

She pronged her last chip, snorted, and added: “It’s tomorrow at midday on the cricket field”.

“A funeral on a cricket field?”

“There’s a card somewhere…We all have to wear white.”

“Good God...Do we all have to wear black at a cricket match afterwards?”

“Well, of course, if you’re not going to be serious…You know how much Pauline used to take him to cricket matches.”

“No, I don’t.”

She sighed. “Then he left most of his money to the cricket club. Pauline got just about enough to cover all the money she’d spent on petrol over the years taking him to county matches.”

Well, like most in my declining days, I had no plans for the 24 hours that followed.

“She said there were some special arrangements for the funeral, but she wouldn’t know until she opened the envelope on the day. The solicitor gave it to her. In the will.”

I pondered the possible theological and liturgical implications of the following day while we were doing the washing-up (was there going to be a liturgy based on cricket, and was Our Lord going to say that Nestor had “kept a straight bat” but no appeal was possible, and he’d hit his last six (if Nestor had ever hit one)?) We scrubbed the final plates, but I was still thinking about the morrow:

“Are we going to carry his coffin around the field and ceremonially burn it.”

She snorted – again: “It’s his field – he just let the cricket club use it – so | suppose he can still do what he likes with it.”

I admired the present tense, and Wifey pointed out it was  his property “unless one of his roving daughters objected”: “And anyway, what would Pauline do with it. He’s probably left it to the club.”

“And where the cricket balls flew  across the green,

Now umpires sleep in coats serene.”

This time she grunted: “That’s NOT a quotation”.

“It’s a prospective one,” I said. “You wait and see”.

            We were off around 9 the next morning. She still had the envelope Pauline had sent her, and allowed me to open it.

It was in Pauline’s handwriting, I deduced, with a message tell us to be at St John’s cricket field at 12 o’clock, dressed in white outfits  (“to celebrate Nestor’s love of cricket”) and to collect our cricket ball before we got there.

I felt something very dreadful was planned, so extraordinary and in such bad taste, that any true lover of the game would have cursed in his grave.

“Who…” I began, as we sped at an alarming speed down somebody’s busy  High Street--full of mothers with babies--... I paused as we confidently dealt with an intrusive zebra crossing…

“Yes, yes…you’ve stopped in the middle of a sentence again, you’re making a habit of it, must be old age.”

I took no notice.

“The end of the sentence is immaterial. My question is who else is going to be there.”

She grunted as we swung round a tight corner. “Cricketers, probably, or relatives...of cricketers. You can talk about old times. All those Wisdens you have.”

“An almost perfect set from 1875 to 1900. There won’t be many who can swop gossip with me about George Hirst and Lord Hawke.”

“Good.” That was it. We swept on.

I must have dozed, unmoved by the prospect of any excitement at Uncle Nestor’s funeral, until woken by a jerk in front of the gate of a field. It was not an interesting field, and there were no signs of cricket ceremonial, but a large ink inscribed sheet of paper, already running from the drizzle falling, that declared Nest.. fun ..ere.

It seemed Pluvius had got the joke.

 A desultory man with a country cap, in green rain skins, emerged from a hedge and suggested we drove “Over there”, pointing to a distant corner marked by one of those tin sheds that may hold cattle—or indigent cricketers.

“But where is everyone else?”

“Over there,” he grunted again, pointed in the distance, and retired to a hole in  the hedge.

“I  expect he lives there, “ I said. “Can we find a hostelry and come back later. I suppose going in dressed as a cricketer in February won’t draw any attention down here.”

Pauline looked down at herself in faux flowing white garments, hesitated, and shouted at the vanished man: “Where’s the pub?”

----------------------------

No, she didn’t stand out. Everybody was there in white, or attempts at it. The men of course were mostly disguised as cricketers, but the women varied from chiffon flowing maidens to portly heavily covered matrons.

Near the piano was a harlequin like figure distributing cricket balls from a basket as if it was ripe fruit. “Pauline”, Belinda shouted and struck out towards her.

 I called after her: “Get me one, too”, and turned to the teenager who was carrying a tray with what looked like glasses of champagne. She was wearing black perhaps as the special distinction of a drinks carrier and thrust the glasses towards me. “What’s going on?” I said.

She winked. “I know, I’ve seen the instructions; you’ll have fun. He was my grandfather. He always fancied a bit of chaos. Just watch your head that’s all.”

She moved into the melee, leaving me with a glass of champagne, unsatisfied curiosity, and worrying about my head. Belinda had now vanished, presumably catching up with Paula on what it had been like to be a cricketing widow. Probably something like being permanently in stumper’s pads and gloves from which you could never escape.

There was a shout – Paula’s voice? – “On the field, wickets pitched in 5 minutes. Get your cricket balls here.”

There was more shouting and jostling, and suddenly from a door behind the bar, a becapped procession of pseudo cricketers carrying at the double a coffin draped with an umpire’s coat which they transported through the pub door. On the road we proceeded at a lively trot in the direction of the field where the desultory man had greeted us from the hedge.

As the black clad waitress, her skirts flying, rushed by, she shouted “Told you”, and beat on the tray which had carried the glasses. That was the moment when I felt our car was likely to be safer in the pub car park where Belinda had stuck it – with trays, glasses (probably), and cricket balls flying around, safety was going to be at a premium.

Still, I wanted a cricket ball. Belinda had vanished well up-front. Paula could just be seen still carrying her basket, regularly being plundered by her guests. The gate to the field was open and over in the middle two men, in umpires’ coats and peaked caps were standing in formal order at the wicket and square leg. In the rain which had started again, people slipped and slid to positions around the hole in the ground while four bearers made a more steady progress to the centre.

A small platform had been erected at first slip and Paula was unceremoniously placed on the boards, her basket now apparently empty dropped to one side. One of the umpires marched over and in a chorus of huzzas, hymn-singing, and the national anthem, handed over a document as the coffin was equally unceremoniously laid to a slippery rest.

“Nestor,”she began, to a chorus of “Get ‘em off…We want Nestor,” and even, I thought, fragments of the Eton Boating Song with modern lyrics,” has a few words that he’s wanted to say all his life to his friends and enemies: to Beynon, who ran him out when he was on 99 at Moddlescombe in 1976…” What he wanted to say to Beynon was fortunately drowned out by a chorus of confused cries which seemed to be casting doubt on Nestor’s claims to have ever reached the magic figure of 99.

Through all this Paula read on and only shreds of remarks reached me about women only being acceptable at the club on one condition, criticism of Paula’s sandwich-making (“pea-nut butter OUT”), and at the same time his thanks to her for realising his importance to the club. It was difficult to follow what came next in the hysterical gin-champagne-beer fuelled crowd, but I did see and hear her lift her arms, cricket-ball aloft, and cry out “BALLS NOW”, flinging hers down on to her husband’s coffin, from which whereat it bounced high in the air, colliding with hundreds(?) of other balls that the rest of the mourners aimed with  little judgement into the same space, sending a storm of glancing balls all over the alcohol fuelled mob.

As I ducked at the back, almost thankful that Belinda hadn’t manged to slip one to me, I had a quick glimpse of the leggy waitress, crawling through the crowd, towards the grave, presumably determined to get HER ball on to Uncle Nestor’s last resting-place, protectively straddled by a young man whose interests did NOT seem on Uncle’s balls.

While I was thinking that home and a nice quiet cup of tea had its place, a mud-streaked Belinda came limping round the back of the mob, holding up a cricket ball in front of her, and seeing me called out “For you, Gordon”, and with a great big fling sent it high in the air in an indeterminate direction (I’ve always thought women couldn’t throw properly).

It was time to leave. “Uncle Nestor would have liked that,” squawked Belinda as I guided her to the gate, still open and with a grave man in cap still guarding the exit.

“It was different,” I agreed


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