Shut Out The Sun

Cricket at the quarry

It was my dad who first took me to the cricket. A festival game in Weston-super-Mare, 1964. Dad holiday smart in his double-breasted blazer and open-neck shirt. Somerset those days were the team of Langford, Alley and Fred Rumsey. I left Somerset long before they ever won anything, long before the era of Richards and Botham (“Jus’ an o’d yokel” Dad called him). And after that time I don’t think we went together again or talked much about it, or played, other than on the beach (or quarry). Like other things, birding, say, he took me to the threshold and left me there.

The last Sunday in June, 2019 and a call from my brother told me Dad had had a fall. With my wife and daughter I took the train across the south of England. Shoreham by Sea, Lancing, Worthing, Angmering, Chichester: an incantation along the crowded south coast; inland, Salisbury, where, at other times, I’d jump off to see the cathedral, Warminster and its uncanny hill, Bradford on Avon and thoughts of its Saxon church, and onward. At Weston General Hospital he seemed as he had 18 months before following another fall: bones protruding, dun skin bruised and blotched, stony, but still vital. He died later that night.

Then the cricket came back. Here in Hove a few days watching Sussex at the County Ground; Test highlights on iPlayer in the evening and Day Passes to Sky TV: work was patchy and I needed to shut out the sun.

Sunday 25th August. I took the train to Lewes, then walked out of the town, onto the Downs at Southerham, up to Mount Caburn, then down into Glynde. Walking: something else my dad had left me. I knew there was a game on that day: the local club, Glynde & Beddingham were playing an MCC XI. The tenth anniversary of their winning the National Village Cup; I’d read a long article about it while working in Istanbul, fearing I was reading about the death of an England I hardly knew.

Outsider. Incomer. I did what I’ve always done: tried to fit in without standing out. Drank the local beer, sat just off from the clubhouse, chatted when I could with the members. I won a bottle of fizzy Chardonnay, the one that comes in a seductive bottle. Not quite won. I was first in line for the raffle but the Aussie in charge hadn’t worked out how to do it, so I went back to my seat empty handed. When I came back again all the tickets had been sold. Apologetically the Aussie handed me the only thing left, the wine.

By now his English mates were huddled over their iPhones in the lee of the clubhouse. Joffra Archer had joined Ben Stokes. He couldn’t could he, steal it for us in Sussex? That reverie didn’t last. Then came Jack Leach of Somerset, the last man. I stopped chipping in with the banter. I could see my dad’s dark lonely bungalow, smell its must and aged damp in the Weston-super-Mare he’d never left. “C’mon, c’mon” he was saying to the radio, stooped, clothes stained, unkempt, more impatient to get his tea on time than for any win. Opening tinned spaghetti, bundling it into the microwave, slamming the door shut “Fiddle-arsing about”, he’d call it.

Then a roar from the lads round the phones and I was back in the Sussex sunshine.

One for later

The was entered for the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack writing competition for 2021. The Co-Editor in his acknowledgement warned me that “Probably because of the coronavirus pandemic, we have received significantly more submissions than ever before.” And added he would be in touch with the winner before the end of January 2021. As I never heard from him again I can assume I’m one of the also-rans. Well, it’s the taking part that counts.

This month my father would have been 94.

Tell Me About Yourself

From a time when interviews were face-to-face.

It was the wrong place. He knew, but then doubted that he knew. All these names look the same, a shake of the same few letters of an alphabet soup into a three letter acronym. In the reception there was nobody there. Did he want to work somewhere where the desk was left abandoned? When a young woman did appear, and asked if she could help, he already knew what the reply would be:

‘There’s no-one here of that name’.

Outside the cold rain was falling harder, whipped up by the wind which was funnelled angrily by the angle of the wide avenues. His hands were cold and his spectacles blurred; he couldn’t read the map on his phone. He set off, hoping to find his way, but equally hoping not to and to trudge, sodden and relieved, back home. There it was, though, the right acronym, if only by process of elimination, and he was less than twenty minutes late. Another reception, on the first floor, this one squeezing in three staff, though they all looked puzzled by his advent.

‘I’m Leslie, Leslie Lamb. I’m here to see Gina.’

The youngest of the the three, who seemed so eager that Leslie assumed she must be unpaid, an intern of some kind, found and read out his name and the putative time of his interview from a screen. He stood and waited. Gina, when she arrived, was unperturbed by his lateness and led Leslie further along narrow corridors into a small, dim room stacked with spare furniture. He sat cramped, still in his anorak, slouched against the wall at a side angle to the table they shared.

‘It’s zero hours’ she said as if to get it out of the way, put him in his place. ‘So, tell me about yourself, Leslie.’

He knew, because he’d trained so many others, that you should answer in a way that’s relevant to the job, but here he was listening to himself rummaging through the odds and sods that made up his life. He couldn’t even stop himself adding ‘And watching a bit of t.v.’

Mostly, to his relief, she talked about herself and the company; there were great things coming, new owners, scaffolding was already up on a newly acquired property. In his mind’s eye, a cartoon appeared, crudely sketched, either by the cynic or the optimist, of him trying to get onto the bottom of the ladder.

But she was back to herself, ’And crazy me, I started in the pig season!’

The pig season? Was this some truncated neologism that had passed him by? As in the season was a real pig. But she came to his aid, inadvertently, now it had become the pick season. Pig, pick — she was trying to say peak, he thought, reprimanding himself dolefully. But then he bucked up; at least he had heard the difference and had restrained himself from interrupting her flow, embarrassing both of them. And in any case, what did it matter — it was all communication, after all. And didn’t the I stand for International?

He’d already noted that the receptionist couldn’t quite desist from trying to add a b to the end of his name, and in so doing had made it into a p. Leslie Lamp, a lamp unto the world. At least it was better than school, he thought, where he’d been a Lamb to the Slaughter, as Meek as a Lamb. He hadn’t put anything on his CV about school. He couldn’t remember much about it. Gina pulled him out of his reverie with a question about ‘inappropriate’ relationships with colleagues. He didn’t have relationships with colleagues and was stumped before he blustered something about respect. He dreaded her asking about inappropriate relationships with students.

When she did so he confessed: ‘I’m sorry, no, I can’t really think of any examples.’

In the moment’s pause that followed, Leslie thought he heard a blue tit reedily attempt a few notes — perhaps there was a garden beyond the obscured window — but it soon gave up. Spring was still a way off. Leslie crossed his right leg on his left; he was sure that wasn’t how you were supposed to sit. There was chalky mud from yesterday’s walk on his brown leather boot; it had dried then run again in the rain. A newly-made, deep scratch scarred the toecap; grey grease, which he could never work out how to remove, was ground into the brogue patterning. Gina’s glowing perorations on the company’s prospects and her part in its success came to an end. It was Leslie’s chance to ask a question; through resignation or self-respect he could only answer:

‘No, I think that covers everything, actually.’

Maradona in Harlesden

Midsummer 1986 I went on a weekend retreat at Avebury.

A bunch of us, nine or ten, met that Friday afternoon near Notting Hill station, outside the studio of the man who was to lead it, a reiki practitioner. I’d found out about it through an ad in Time Out. We were to do a sun worship ritual and dowse for earth energy. We got in a mini-bus, the usual procedure, and a few hours later disembarked at a communal farmhouse in Wiltshire. Late that night, with the sun hardly set, the Reiki Man led us through a meditation.

Why, I don’t know, but I must have said I thought I could do better. He said, alright, you lead the meditations and handed them over to me. I’d been meditating for all of half a year at a Buddhist centre just off the Portobello Road: this was my first retreat.

On the Sunday afternoon we were dropped off back in London. On the way we’d stopped to look at at Silbury Hill. There was warm, blue sky, the same blue as over the stones at Avebury, but here in Harlesden the air was steeped with dust mites, sun-flecked above the tired Victorian streets. Coming out of Willesden Junction by myself I saw a board outside a pub advertising the football, the World Cup was on: England v Argentina. I remember thinking ‘Why not?’.

The pub was one of those — back then there were hardly any others — that sucked the light out of the street, sucked it into the matted carpets, the moulded plaster walls and the high ceiling. When my eyes adjusted I was in a large, smoke-filled room of maroons and ochres. It was crowded, but most of the men paid little heed to the screen, a kind of projection sheet hung at one end. The shadowy images and the muffled commentary were hardly advanced on the moon landing. I found a stool at the bar and took a Guinness. I was 30 years old, had short salt-and-pepper hair and wore my summer jacket of pale blue linen.

Then they scored. Everyone cheered. The men stopped playing pool, held their cues aloft, laughter and cheers all round. Black, Asian and Irish. I couldn’t say the cheers were malicious: ironic, mischievous, comradely: a common enemy had got his comeuppance, that’s all. On the screen some blanched out England players were hovering round the referee. ‘That won’t do any good’ I thought, not knowing what they were complaining about.

The game ended. On the screen Terry Venables said something about if Shilton had a weakness it was dealing with crosses. They showed Maradona’s mazy run again. Amongst the crowd of men who were beginning to disperse a woman circulated; almost middle-aged, she was dressed in a light summer coat and holding a rattling collection box: ’Have you anything for the Bhoys?’ She was asking, ‘For the Bhoys?’.

As she drew up to me she said ‘You wouldn’t be an Irishman yourself would you, sir?’ The sun had dropped and its light caught her face. I shook my head and we both smiled slightly. Days later I heard of the Hand of God.

Life Is Good

Don’t start in the carpark (again).

On 10 October 2015 in the late afternoon, I tramped along the footbridge over the A272 and into Winchester at the end of my walk along the South Downs Way. A walk that I’d done over six months and in thirteen stages. I’d walk for up to a day at a time, setting off and getting back home on foot or by bus or train; only on the last two days did I stay away overnight. I felt tired most of the time.

Life Is Good: I cross Meon Springs to Whitepool Farm. There’s a pond; it gulls you at first, then I see it’s set and ready for fishing. Fat trout, most likely. It’s good business round here; fat fees, too. I keep on walking; good, no-one bothers me.

I check the map, then up, keeping the copse to the right, it’s steeper now. Behind is Salt Hill, Butser Hill and, further off, the brief blessing at St Mary’s Buriton with its crossed bones and sarcophagus. No cyclists, no riders, no-one; the dusk or my own will is warding them off.

Then through a gate and onto the road. A car, a Volvo passes. Ahead, south west, the sun is dipping. And against the silver sky, the first sight of the Hill. Old Winchester Hill. Worked earth, grown soft into the land, as still and impassive as a god, taking worship. (But here’s a thing: battery’s dead, memory’s full).

Along the road and I see that the Volvo has stopped, about sixty yards off, and the man’s got out. Around 40, I guess, professional. Hair trim, he’s in smart slacks, a polo shirt with a tiny logo. There’s just me and him on the ridge road. The still sea of my mood changes. He turns to look at The Hill, takes out his phone, — his is charged — and, like a tourist with a relic, captures its likeness. Then strolls slowly on, content, nearing.

As we cross, I say something; I didn’t mean to, it’s from some hidden self I didn’t know, more confession than greeting: ‘Hi’ or ‘Evening.’

The man hears, absolves, smiles slightly: ‘It always takes me longer when I come this way.’

I walk on, calm now, towards the goal, yet feeling a sting like shame.

The next morning, the last morning, at the foot of Old Winchester hill, I see a gaggle of youngsters following me up the path. I hurried on. I didn’t want company. But even as I stumbled on I heard running and one of the lads calling after me, ‘Scuse me, scuse me!’ He was holding on to a map. ‘Scuse me, sir, do I know where we are?’

Back home, for three nights running I dream of Winchester and its stream, the Itchen.

© This is a rewrite of an earlier blog submitted to the Creative Future Writers’ Award 2016 run by New Writing South; it was long-listed.

A Day In Southern England

The day started with me sitting on the lid of the cat’s litter tray after I’d taken it off to clean the base out. It cracked down the middle with a splintering noise. I don’t know why I did it, maybe it just seemed like the kind of thing that wouldn’t happen, defying the logic of my weight, the angle of meeting and the flimsiness of the plastic.

Outside the pet shop, with my new litter tray, in the huge carpark that had once been the home of Brighton and Hove Albion, I got a call from my youngest brother saying that Dad had had a fall the day before. The hospital had put in place end-of-life-procedure. I’d had to call him back, the connection was bad or it might just have been my clumsiness.

One thing after another. It was a warm and sunny day, the last day of June. Now I’d have to take the train across the country. That train ride was something I looked forward to, usually, but on a Sunday, in England?

I told my wife. She started to make preparations to come too, with our daughter. Another thing. Usually I go by myself. Look out the window, read, take a beer. But in truth it was rather lovely. The three of us, a kind of rural ride by train across the south of England on a green and sunny Sunday afternoon. Shoreham by Sea, Lancing, Worthing, Angmering, Chichester, an incantation along the crowded south coast; inland, Salisbury, where I’d jumped off a few weeks before on my last home visit, to see the cathedral, Warminster and its uncanny hill, Dilton Marsh, Bradford on Avon and memories of its Saxon church, Bath. England were playing India away off in Birmingham. The girls mocked me as I checked the score, so far so good, on the mustard coloured BBC app.

We were met at the station by my brother. When we got to the hospital Dad seemed as he had 18 months earlier after another fall: stony but visceral: bones, veins, paper skin with bruises and blotches. He roused himself and straightaway recognised my wife and daughter, ‘Ah! It’s you!’ He hadn’t seen them for two years. Then me: ‘Which one are you?’ I was the last to leave, ushered away by one of the nurses; I hadn’t thought of much to say.

At my brother’s we watched the cricket highlights together, sharing a beer. My daughter explored the garden. It’s got four or five ponds and she went off looking for frogs. We watched the coverage of Glastonbury (which flags, we wondered, might be unacceptable to wave there). I was deeply asleep and had no idea where I was or the time or what was happening when my brother came into my room. He’d got a call from the hospital. It was just after midnight and the two of us walked there through a sleeping village in Somerset.

The hospital appeared like an eerily lit alien presence, we were let in via a video intercom and were led by a nurse into a visitors’ room and offered tea. You’ve got to have tea, I thought, though I didn’t fancy one. There’d been a moment’s hesitation when we’d got to the ward as one nurse whispered to the duty nurse; in the dim light I could see a screen up round my dad’s bed. A little later a doctor came to see us: a young woman, blue uniformed, blonde, calm and good-looking to tell us he had passed away ten minutes before. She asked if there was anything we wanted to know and scanned our faces for any emotion. There was nothing to ask. We thanked her.

A while later another nurse came to see us, sombre but bouncy, somehow. The three of them had held his hand and stroked his hair, she said. We saw the body, still on the bed, in the ward, with the bleeping of monitoring machines and another patient’s rasping breathing going on. ‘I always talk to them’ the nurse said, ‘listening is the last thing to go.’

My dad died on 1st July, 2019, a little after midnight.

May Day In London

A warm squall fell from the night-blue sky, holding the city in a sealed embrace, silvering all that was familiar.

MayDayDreamIMG_6819

In Trafalgar Square, tourists and Londoners milled together.

To mark the holiday they had opened the roads to cars. But most of the revellers paid no heed and thronged across the highway; drivers were forced to give up. Even the few who inched and wove their way through did so without anger.

At a coffee shop in Monmouth Street, Woody, his woollen astrakan cocked back, held court. Not, it seemed to Hurst, with his usual pinched reserve but round-faced with pleasure. The women chatted over him and around him. Woody scanned Hurst’s eyes for hidden jealousy, then called out ‘If you’re going to The Centre you’ll need this!’ And Woody held up a thick brass key, tagged with a light blue cord.

‘No!’ Hurst laughed back above the hubbub, ‘I’m just an ordinary punter now!’

‘Well watch out for the ceiling!’

On the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields, as the spears of rain fell harder, gaggles of pedestrians stilled and huddled together in the darkening night.

From the unlit portico of the National Gallery Dr Smiley, up from Stratford-on-Avon, looked on over the mass. A lone young woman in a red cotton dress hoicked up over her dark thighs paddled in the north west fountain, cockling the water, incanting: ‘Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbelow . . .’ Her blue-black hair glistened in the rain and spray. Around the rim of another fountain three lads passed a tin of Stella from hand to hand, like Norns sharing an eye. They sipped in turn, fixed on their own conversation. Nearby a few starlings, still in their winter stars, jabbed for titbits. Dr Smiley’s wife, Grace, hooked her arm through his, dropping an inch or two to his height, her white hair spangled with raindrops,

Outside the BBC in Portland Place a knot of Tibetans gathered. Their faces were drawn with weariness and resolution; their clothes a motley of faded rainbow. They held banners, scrawled with FREE, but only  knee-high, like a used up superstition. Arrayed opposite, outnumbering them, stood a cohort of riot police; uniform in height and build, faces enclosed in silver-black helmets burnished by the dark rain, safe behind perspex shields. They eyed their quarry. At their rear a policewoman shooed away any tourist or reveller, who unawares, wandered too close.

In the old stable in the mews behind Park Square, Hurst found The Centre overflowing with celebrants who swayed and jostled together. The ceiling was mildewed and crumbling, the plaster cornices returning to mineral origins and the wooden joists sodden with sap. A photograph in a frame, of an auburn-blonde woman, retrieved it seemed from an earlier occupancy, was all that was left on the wall. The floor, was folding under the many footsteps. In the midst of the throng, Angela Waddle from PR, tilted her head, as best she could, in a simulacrum of pleasure.

Gee, though sang out, unrestrained: ‘See what you can do in London on May Day!’

Don’t start in the carpark

Five years ago I set out to walk the South Downs Way. Don’t start at the carpark. Start at the railway station. Or the Church.

I got the train from Hove to Eastbourne. Then found my bearings in Georgios on the High Street, a cafe in olive browns and seaside creams. The customers, older mostly, had come dressed for the weather. All the staff were female. Perhaps I wanted to be persuaded to give up before I began.

I wanted to go to a church. Searching for a blessing or more putting off. So I walked away from the sea and up to the Old Town. At Saint Mary’s there’s a Celtic cross with a small plaque shamelessly admitting it was removed from Cornwall in MDCCCXVII. At the end of the walk, 100 miles off in Winchester is another piece of Celtica: said to be King Arthur’s Round Table.

The walk itself, in stiff winds that day, rolls along some of the most well-known cliffs in England. The world, really: you’re hardly ever alone. Beachy Head, the Seven Sisters to The Cuckmere at Exceat. They change because you’ve walked them. I found the first bus went back to Eastbourne not west towards home, so I ended the day where I’d begun.

Bitter Shrovetide

They don’t look you in the mouth, as such.

Eye-to-eye. Tall enough, broad enough, drunk enough, but no more. He calls you Joseph; today you can call him Thomas. You thee him; he says you, for form’s sake.

‘How’s thy missus?’ A smirk from your pals.

A figgy smile back: ‘You’re looking older, Joseph.’

You’d say that’s France, but you can’t; it’s too bitter and you’d rather forget: ‘And thee still in the bloom of youth, Thomas.’

Eye-to-eye over the brim of the mug. Another smirk.

‘I’ll need some men come harvest time.’

‘Thou’ll need someone afore that.’

So you stand, foot-to-foot, a chill breeze at your back. Then it’s settled: ‘Alright. Come and see me at Easter.’

But the bitter day is coming when he’ll pass you over, like the others. Then, for charity, give you a broom to sweep. But for now, sweetened, the year turns again.

St Nicholas’ Day

‘Son, Son’, he calls.

So I went.

‘I’m on the toilet.’

‘I see’, I say.

He never really got that this was our Christmas. The first weekend in December — it’s a public holiday in Spain. The Feast of St Nicholas, too.  So they come over, my brother and his wife. It’s good for us, as well; cheaper and if we all come we can stay in the Premier Inn. But he always asks, ‘Will you be coming back for Christmas?’

The door is open.

‘I’m going to be a while’, he says.

I say nothing and wait, eyes down.

‘It must have been that soup.’

We try to make a thing of it: we give him presents, he hands out cash — euros for the Spanish — and cards especially chosen: ‘To My Son And His Partner’ for me. He’s precise. One year, after his fall, I had to get them for him, from Card Factory in the High Street; when he came to sign mine he flew into a rage: how was I to know that under the flowery ‘To My Son And His Partner’ was a silhouetted drawing of two men holding hands?

‘I see’,  I say.

‘There’s more to come, I can feel it.’

‘I see’, I said, and moved away.

‘Son, Son!’

*   *   *

St Nicholas IMG_0169

From the ruin of the old church, up on the bare hill, the church dedicated to St Nicholas, you’re hidden from the hospital where he died.  At twilight you could be floating, the land and the sea hardly drawn apart; to the west, the sea falling towards the horizon; the sodden land to the south barely out of the water. Northward, beyond the town’s humming lights you can see  the wooded hill over which we used to walk to the village where he was born.