Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Mr Poulter’s Last Match – Part 1

Mr Poulter’s cricket bag was made of blue canvas and had leather handles. Written on it in flaking white paint were the words “St Ursula’s Convent”, he had bought it at a car boot sale some years before. In it were his bat, his batting gloves, his box, his boots (which were the traditional leather type with proper studs, not the glorified trainers that the younger members of the team wore), one stump, two bails, his sweater, an old pair of socks, one of those key thingummies used for screwing in studs, and last week’s Sunday Times Review and Sports sections (unread). He removed the Sunday supplements and replaced them with the ones that had come with the paper that he had bought from the newsagents that morning, he put in a clean shirt, flannels and pair of socks. As he did so his wife, on her way from the kitchen to the living room asked “Will you be late?”
He sighed as he zipped up the bag, Nancy asked this question every Sunday before he went out to play cricket.
“No I don’t think so” he replied, “I’ll only have one drink”.
“Oh OK but don’t worry about me, I went to the library yesterday and I have plenty of books to keep me company”.
Nancy didn’t like cricket. Early in their marriage he had taken her to the Saturday of a Lords Test against the Australians and she had been restless all day. She complained about her seat, the sun in her eyes, the rowdy drunks around her, the smelly toilets and the fact that she couldn’t sit in the pavilion.
Mr Poulter picked up his cricket bag, went out of the front door and put it in the boot of the Peugeot, he came back in and said “I’m off now”.
Nancy gave him a quick peck on the cheek “Have a good time. Love you!”
“Love you too” he replied automatically.
For a few moments he sat in the car and didn’t put the key in the ignition. He suddenly realised that he hadn’t mentioned to Nancy that not only was this was the last match of the season but it was also his last match for the New Malden Paragons. He was 52 and after running a couple of sharp singles needed a lie down, in the field he realised that the skipper expended a great deal of ingenuity in not exposing him to long chases to the boundary but most of all his knees hurt, his knees hurt most of the time. As a founder member of the team he knew that he could probably play until he needed a wheelchair and that no one would say a word, but he felt the time had come to hang up his boots. Why hadn’t he told Nancy? Was he worried that she would be irritatingly solicitous, that she would miss her quiet summer Sunday, that she would encourage him to take up bowls, or most likely, that she wouldn’t care.

He started the engine and drove off, the prospect of the day’s game against Allied Breweries (Western Division) 3rd XI banishing any such anxieties. This was a regular fixture for the Paragons and was usually a closely fought encounter. The link between the AB(WD) 3rds and the brewing giant had become increasingly tenuous over the years and now the team mostly consisted of blokes who drank in a pub called the Roebuck in Putney. The Paragons had been founded by Mr Poulter and his best friend Jack Lascelles nearly twenty years before at a time when they both worked for USBB (the United Singapore & Bankok Bank which Mr Poulter thought of as Usurers Shits & Bastards Bank in his darker moments). Jack had moved on and had done pretty well, Mr Poulter was still with the USBB which had changed hands several times and was currently called Winnipeg & North Klondike Securities. He was No 2 in the Foreign Offsets & Denials Department and he was a good No 2, serving at least a dozen bosses over the years with neutral efficiency. He had adroitly seen off attempts by several uppity 26 year olds to oust him, he was living proof that age and guile will always defeat youthful talent.

The West Nutley Recreation Ground was only 15 minutes drive from Mr Poulter’s home and as the car bumped along the pot-holed lane to the car park he gazed across the four pitches that surrounded the pavilion. It was a perfect day for cricket and despite being flanked on two sides by semi derelict industrial sites, and by the main Waterloo-Portsmouth mainline and the Kingston By-pass on the others Nutley Rec was a beautiful place. Mr Poulter was well aware that to any cricketer a cricket ground was a beautiful place but even so the arrangement of the pitches separated by rows of tall beeches and the rampart of brambles on the railway embankment gave the Rec a charming rural feel. By contrast the pavilion was now so vandalised and so graffitied that it could have been lifted bodily and dumped into the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern without an eyebrow being raised. In the car park he saw the familiar Fiat Uno of his mistress Dorothy who had the back open and was lifting out rugs & a picnic. He parked and walked over and she kissed him warmly on the lips.
“It’s a great day for the match John” she said
“Absolutely” he said and they kissed again and as they did so a bright yellow Audi Quattro parked alongside them.
“Steady you two, you’ll frighten the horses”. This was Jack Lascelles, who got out, gave Dorothy a hug, punched Mr Poulter on the shoulder, picked up his bag and set off for the Pavilion. Mr Poulter and Dorothy dumped the picnic under one of the beeches and started to stroll arm in arm around the boundary.

Dorothy had been working at USBB when they had first met twelve years before, not in his department but in the neighbouring Domestic Breakovers & Futilities. He first noticed her one morning in the lift and, having discovered where her office was, contrived most days to walk down her corridor and gaze through the glass partition into her office. He discovered that she had an interest in cricket when he came across her studying the Daily Mail cricket page in the canteen, they started to chat occasionally at the coffee machine or on the homeward walk to the Tube station. Mr Poulter had never been unfaithful to Nancy, he had never been tempted by any of the endless stream of underclad banking vamps who passed through his department but now he was disturbed by Dorothy. She loomed large in his thoughts, whatever he did he found himself wondering what Dorothy would think about it, what Dorothy would do if she was there. He was in his professional life a decisive man, he was never afraid to make a decision and stand by its consequences whether right or wrong, but in his personal life he had always taken the line of least resistance. Nancy had been a pretty and vivacious 24 year old when they got married and there had rarely been a cross word between them, except of course for that unsatisfactory trip to Lords when Mr Poulter had got rather testy on the train journey home. Their married life together had gone as smoothly as a Mediterranean cruise, temperate in climate and mood with the occasional dramatic landfall. But now he realised he was on the brink of danger, possibly disaster, but he would not pull back and so one day he tapped on the glass door of Dorothy’s office, poked his head in and said without any preamble “Er look I’m going to Arundel this weekend. For the cricket. Would you like to come?”
There was a moment of silence. Neither of them had any illusions about what this invitation meant or its consequences. Dorothy knew he was married indeed she had met Nancy at the bank’s Christmas do.
She smiled “Yes I’d like that very much”
“Oh right! Good! We should start fairly early. Can I pick you up at 9.00?”
“Make it 8.30, the traffic might be bad”. She was still smiling.
“Right. Excellent, 8.30 it is”. He turned to go back to his office but she followed him out into the corridor.
“Wait!” He turned and she put a scrap of paper into his hand with her address written on it.

Mr Poulter was very nervous the following Saturday morning, he had put Nancy on to a train to Manchester the previous evening, she was going to her mother’s for the weekend, and he had been pacing around the house ever since. He had set off far too early to pick up Dorothy and had been driving in circles round the Tooting area for three quarters of an hour before he pulled up outside the address she had given him. He was in an agony of doubt and guilt, it was only good manners that stopped him driving away, but when she appeared at the front door in a summer dress with her dark hair falling over her bare shoulders he was sure it was going to be alright. He took the small red suitcase and hamper that she was carrying and put them in the boot. They set off for Arundel on a glorious morning and it’s hard to say whether they fell in love before they crossed the M25, but they had certainly fallen in love by the time that the Duke of Norfolk’s XI declared at tea at 280-6 and put the Indians in. Mr Poulter had booked a room at an ivy clad hotel a few miles from the town, in fact he had booked two rooms just in case things hadn’t gone well, something that Dorothy guessed and as she sat up in bed the next morning, her breasts silhouetted against the early morning sunshine, she said “I bet you bloody well booked two rooms. You did, didn’t you?” Mr Poulter confessed and Dorothy hooted with laughter.

Hugh Fennimore the Paragons wicket keeper appeared in his whites wearing a blue rubber glove on one hand and carrying a plastic bag in the other. He started his habitual and obsessive search for dog turds on the square and outfield. When teased by his team mates, who incidentally were delighted that someone cleared up any hazards to diving stops in the deep, he would launch into an earnest lecture on the wide variety of parasites, bacteria and other toxins contained in dog shit. Mr Poulter realised that he was late and that he should go and change, he and Dorothy curtailed their walk and she went to read the papers under a tree. In the pavilion he changed in his customary place under the words ‘Blue Moon Girls’ written in broad silver marker above the changing room coat hooks. He had once asked the girls in his office whether the ‘The Blue Moon Girls’ were a pop group but they had denied all knowledge. He looked around to see who was playing that week, Jack, next to him was captain, he could see the two openers Fat Barry and Harry Shah. Maltese Joe, their lone spinner, Doug Billings, who normally opened the bowling with Sam Fletcher, were down by the washbasins. Ron Haslam and Mark Philpotts arrived together arguing about whether Samuel Beckett was dead or not. At the far end of the room sat a tall skinny young man with a mop of blonde hair and terrible acne.
“Who’s the kid at the end?” Mr Poulter asked his skipper.
“ Ah”, said Jack “he’s a new signing. His name is Yacek and he’s from Krakow”.
“Has he played before?”
“Oh yes I think so” said Jack airily.
“Where did you find him?” asked Mr Poulter.
“He came with the bloke who services my pool. He noticed my bat in the hall and said he liked cricket”.
“Does he bat or bowl?”
“Er not sure.” said Jack “Oh come on John you know how hard it is to get eleven to turn out at this time of the season, anyway he looks pretty fit”.
“What’s his surname?”
“Unpronounceable” said Jack. “Come on we should get out there”.
Mr Poulter sat while the rest of the team filed out. He had never thought about it before but he was fond of this room that smelled of socks and drains, he liked the clatter and scrape of studs, he liked the racket from the Surbiton Tamils in the room next door (whose games against the Surbiton Lankans were evidence that cricket can be genocide by other means) and the Paragons’ other neighbours the Weejans, who were all Jamaican, and normally played with a ghetto blaster at square leg.
He picked up his bag and joined the rest of the team on the boundary . Jack returned from the middle to announce that he had lost the toss and that the AB(WD) 3rds were going to bat.
“OK let’s get out there and throw some catches around” said Jack keenly. As always he was ignored by his team who mooched about under the beeches gossiping and discussing all the other and better ways that there are of spending a Sunday afternoon. Yacek stood by himself staring out across the field. Mr Poulter and Hugh Fennimore picked up stumps and bails and set off toward the wicket.

To be Continued

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