By Rail

The stationmaster closed his watch when the sound of the locomotive reached the platform. Spot on time. He alerted the porter to the train’s imminent arrival with a pip on his whistle.

London had given way to arable farmland and then open moorland but now, with every passing mile, the young man’s view of the journey west became a constancy of seemingly uninhabited chalk downs on the right and glimpses of white cliffs and gleaming sea on the left. Motion and noise were in concert and somehow he found it comforting. At Waterloo he’d been disappointed that the journey to Hampshire would be by steam but now, especially in the solitude of the compartment, an advantage that would have been unavailable in a modern diesel, he felt at ease and was enjoying the trip.

His letter of introduction was tucked in the inside pocket of his sports jacket. It was sealed and so he hadn’t read it but that hardly mattered because he’d been party to its composition. It gave an outline of his academic and sporting achievements, particularly regarding his cricketing prowess and then it went on to support his suitability for a scholastic career.

The open countryside that had prevailed for the past two hours eventually gave way to woodland that hemmed the train in on both sides. Occasionally there were clearings splashed in sunlight and once the train’s whistle disturbed a herd of deer, the animals leaned off, disappearing into the forest. It made him smile. A short while afterwards he heard the guard announce Brockenhurst as the next stop. He disembarked with his case and umbrella and his woollen coat folded over his arm. The train doors thudded shut, the stationmaster checked his watch again and signaled for the locomotive’s departure.

The man made a call from the public box outside the station. He introduced himself, said where he was and received an assurance that a car would be sent to collect him. He waited on a wooden bench dappled by the shade of a huge oak and became aware of a constant hum. It took him a while to work out that it was coming from a bee’s nest somewhere high in the tree. It made him think of the relentless freneticism of London and how the tranquillity of this New Forest village enhanced its Home Counties charm. After a short time a newly registered Solent blue Austin A40 pulled up. The driver, who was dressed in groundkeeper’s livery collected the man’s belongings, put them in the boot and then opened a rear door.

Apart from their initial greeting the driver didn’t speak again until they got into the school grounds where he asked if his passenger would like to be shown to the headmaster’s house. The man declined saying that he thought he could remember the way well enough.

‘Christian dear boy, come in, come in. How pleasant to see you. Come in.’

‘Thank you sir,’ Christian handed his coat and case over to the headmaster.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘That would be very nice. Thank you, sir.’

‘Please, Christian, I know old habits die hard and all that but I insist that you call me Aubrey. You’re a grown man now,’ said the headmaster.

‘Oh. Very well,’ said Christian and they both laughed at the awkwardness.

‘What year did you go up?’ asked the headmaster.

‘Just after victory over Japan was declared.’

‘1945 eh? So that makes you what, 25 now?’ said the headmaster.

‘24, I’ll make my quarter century this year,’ Christian held his hands up and stepped his left foot as if playing the forward defensive shot. They both laughed.

‘You were one of the best cricketers the school has ever had, Christian. Were you captain all the way through?’

‘Yes, I was made captain after the first trial and was lucky enough to remain so.’

‘Luck had nothing to do with it, dear boy. You got it on merit; that was down to sheer talent,’ said Aubrey, ‘we host Hambledown today, so you’ll have a chance to see what the third years’ captain is made of. The head of PE says he thinks he might be as good as you were. I find it hard to believe myself.’

‘Oh please. Without the school’s support I would never have developed as I did.’

But that’s what St Barnabus is all about, spotting a boy’s talent whatever it might be and nurturing it. But it was delightful to see a boy such as you excel academically as well as on the field. What with a first, and now your doctorate in theology from Cambridge you’re able to take yourself in the direction of your own choosing. What’s it to be?’

‘Well I think I’ll have a better idea at the end of this half sir, sorry, Aubrey. If teaching is for me I should know it by then.’

‘And if not, is it still to be The Church?’ Christian nodded, ‘I see. Well whichever path you choose I know that you will excel. Now let me pour the tea.’

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Not Out

It was an outswinger. The batsman attempted to play at it but misjudged the movement and caught an edge. The ball flew on to second slip who dived to the right, arm outstretched, before skidding to a halt ball in hand.

       ‘Howzat?’

The umpire signaled out and the batsman walked to a ripple of applause from his teammates who were lounging in striped deckchairs or lying propped on elbows on the grass near the white-painted pavilion. The next batsman got up on to one knee and retied his laces. Then he rummaged in the kitbag before turning his back in order to arrange the protective aluminium cup. When he was satisfied that it was in place he turned round and tapped it theatrically, the hollow knock made everyone laugh. Someone joked about it sounding much too big and there was a ribald consensus that it was undoubtedly true. The dismissed player swapped pads with the incomer, handed over the bat and said good luck.

‘Only 4 balls left before lunch, try to make sure you’re still batting after the sandwiches, Dickon.’

Dickon raised the bat in acknowledgement and someone shouted that he should watch for the outswinger. The returned batsman flopped down on the grass and then lay stiff-legged to ease his own protective cup out of his trousers. He tossed it towards those seated on the deckchairs where its arrival caused a good-natured over reaction that gradually subsided.

The reclining player next to him nodded after Dickon and said he was a good player and then continued, ‘Dickon was captain of the 1st 11 at prep too, we were in the same class together.’

‘Where were you?’

‘Dovecot, Wiltshire. You?’

‘Lark Hill. Bloody awful place. Cost a fortune apparently.’

Everyone looked up at the sound of a bat’s heavy contact. They saw Dickon and his partner passing each other in the middle of the wicket and then slow down to a walk as it became obvious the ball would make the boundary. The seated players clapped their appreciation and sledged the chasing fielder as he puffed towards the ball. It had come to a halt quite near. After the final delivery of the over the laden umpire redistributed the players’ previously discarded jumpers and everyone made their way off.

During lunch the two teams mingled, chatting over plates of sandwiches and cups of tea. A member of the visiting contingent dropped a vol-au-vent and was mercilessly teased about having dropped a sitter during the first innings. A man dressed in a charcoal grey suit with a matching waistcoat and a winged-collar shirt clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep it brief,’ he said, pausing to let the sarcastic expressions of disappointment end, ‘thank you gentlemen,’ he said to laughter. ‘The fixture between Hambledown College and ourselves has been played every year since 1904. That unbroken run was nearly scotched by the Luftwaffe-’ he waited for the hissing to end, ‘when a spitfire was shot down and everyone had to run for cover. Luckily the supermarine crashed into the Solent and mercifully the pilot managed to bail out. I’m sure that you are all aware that the two 1st 11’s playing that day were the first to find him dangling from the oak tree by his canopy. St Barnabus’ captain remonstrated with the unfortunate fellow that attendance was by invitation only and would he mind leaving at once, a remark that earned him a drubbing but forever a place in Barnabus’ folklore.’ The home 11 broke into song;

‘The Bosch were all over

The white cliffs of Dover

Barnabus

Knocked the ball for six

*

We made fine silk knickers

Gave them all to Vickers

He wore them

During assembly.’

The man raised his hands eventually bringing the cheering and laughter to a halt.

‘Thank you for that St Barnabus, would that you would only sing the official school song with such gusto. Yes the parachute silk was indeed presented to the school by squadron leader Hawkesmore where I am happy to report it remains unmolested to this day.

‘There is absolutely no truth whatsoever in the rumour that undergarments of any sort were manufactured from it or that the then Master, the venerable Dr Vickers, disported himself in any such way.’

Everyone booed.

‘So let me just finish by saying how delighted we are to host Hambledown once again for the first of the two fixtures of the 1952 summer term. Welcome Hambledown. Hip hip!’

*

Dickon emptied the creased and age-softened brown leather holdall onto the floor. Bats, balls and stumps lay in a jumbled pile amongst the grass stained canvas covered pads and keepers’ gloves. As first-team captain he didn’t have to organise the kit, he could have made someone else do it but he’d decided to deal with it himself. It was a choice which he put down partly to the room itself. Its oblong windows were set high up along one wall. On sunny July days their position allowed the light to angle down in streaked golden bars that Dickon imagined seemed solid enough to grasp.

Today was just such a day.

The windows’ shapes, 3 warmed amber parallelograms of precise angularity, were cast on the parquet floor. To preserve the floor it was accepted that cricket spikes weren’t worn so Dickon was in stocking feet. He shuffled flat-footed into one of the patches of light and smiled at the warmth. He would have remained for longer but he’d decided to sand and oil the bats before putting everything away. He opened the cupboard where the tins of linseed and emery papers were kept. Taking a cheesecloth he wiped the edges of one of the bats and then used a paper on its face and toe. The patina was gradually transformed from a deep smudged straw colour to a much paler almost bleached appearance. As he rubbed the dust mushroomed and eddied, sparking through the columns of light. Dickon sanded both bats and then killed the dust with the cloth before applying the oil in the way the master in charge of cricket had shown him at his prep school, bare fingers rather than a cloth, so that the oil would find its way into any nicks that the emery paper hadn’t removed.

He had just finished repacking the cricket equipment into the leather bag when he heard noise coming from the adjoining changing room.