THIS ( CRICKET- LOV­ING) LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - GE­OFF THOMPSON

HE gazes at me from the side­board, my dad. He stands self- con­sciously in front of a rus­tic score­board. The tops of his grey can­vas pads sag limply over their bulging knee rolls. His baggy cricket creams look dull against the bright white of his thick flan­nelette shirt. His club cap perches awk­wardly on his head, shad­ow­ing one eye. The rusty hang­ing num­ber plates broad­cast his team have scored 170- 9, with the last man — pre­sum­ably my dad, by the awk­ward way he leans on his bat — scor­ing 110. He must have been so very proud.

I found the pho­to­graph af­ter his death, among the flot­sam and jet­sam of his 80 years. Long- lost mem­o­ries flooded back: mem­o­ries of nev­erend­ing child­hood sum­mer days af­ter his re­turn from the war, as he played on vil­lage greens across the Weald of Kent and Sus­sex. Mem­o­ries of laugh­ter- filled team chara­banc rides each week­end with Mum and him to cricket matches on vil­lage greens.

Of cre­osoted, weather- boarded pav­il­ions smelling of the tar of cricket nets stored dur­ing long win­ter months. Of af­ter­noon teas cel­e­brated on long tres­tle ta­bles, sway­ing un­der the weight of cu­cum­ber and cress sand­wiches and fat enamel teapots. Of twit­ter­ing young women in bright flo­ral dresses, fuss­ing and wait­ing on their men as they an­i­mat­edly re­newed long- stand­ing friend­ships with the op­pos­ing play­ers, cradling their steam­ing mugs of tea.

My fin­ger traces the edge of the sil­ver frame and I re­live my child­hood joy in those mag­i­cal times, haunt­ingly re­flected in Dad’s eyes.

In the wake of his death from bowel can­cer I had trawled the yel­lowed pa­pers in his old brown suit­case and found his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, ded­i­cated to my mother on her 77th birth­day. It re­counted a grim child­hood of poverty and lost op­por­tu­nity. The plas­tic folder of painstak­ingly typed foolscap pa­per told how he sur­vived the Span­ish in­fluenza pan­demic af­ter World War I, thanks to the ded­i­ca­tion of my long- forgotten maiden great aunt. It told of his in­spi­ra­tional school­teach­ers — many shell- shocked, de­formed and trau­ma­tised by the fields of Flan­ders — who recog­nised and en­cour­aged his aca­demic po­ten­tial. Th­ese men in­spired him to win two valu­able lo­cal gram­mar school schol­ar­ships, both of which were spurned by my grand­par­ents, who would not make the ef­fort to fund the nec­es­sary school uni­forms.

Dad’s mother was a laun­dry maid at an or­phan­age and my grand­fa­ther drove a horse­drawn brewer’s dray, de­liv­er­ing kegs to pub­lic houses. He supped freely at ev­ery stop and was a hope­less drunk. In their poverty they had fos­tered out my fa­ther’s elder brother and it was no sur­prise to dis­cover that Dad was taken away from school at 14. He was ap­pren­ticed in the print­ing trade to earn his fam­ily’s keep.

De­spite feel­ing un­wanted and unloved by his par­ents, Dad’s early life was soft­ened by his love of all things cricket. At eight he was over­joyed to be al­lowed to keep the score­book for a vil­lage sec­ond team and glad to whiten the cricket boots of the firsts. Away from the mis­ery of home, he de­lighted in his role of club mas­cot, help­ing pre­pare cricket pitches un­til he was old enough to play in a team.

It is 40 years since I left the Weald for th­ese shores. Dad’s re­peated wish from afar was to see his young Aus­tralian crick­et­ing grand­son one day mark­ing out his run- up at Lord’s and putting it to the Poms. Sadly for him, it didn’t hap­pen. Cricket is like that.

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