Andrew James Whalan

Poet Blogger Writer

Tag: short stories

Daddy Tick Tock

3:06am. He’s crying. The father groggily wakes and looks at the digital clock on the bedside table. The shrouded corpse far across the bed doesn’t move. He hears the seconds dripping.

3:05am. He’s still crying, even if time has ticked backwards. Confused at first, he realises it was 3:05 then 3:06. But the last three hours sleep? Gone in an eye blink. He’s still crying.

And once his other eye opens, the real day will begin. Post the forced wake up, yesterday’s washing must be hung out, snack for breakfast, shower in between, shave while not being cut by an unsteady hand, the new washing hung out to dry, perhaps most of last night’s housework, then the final reluctant rush to work. She’ll sleep through. And the son too.

Maybe a deep sleep on the bus might save me, he thinks. Yeah! But that’s some hope! Then nine hours of bobbing his head up and down with the interruptions and interrogations every minute or so. Selfish people with trivial wants, urgent phone calls or exaggerated crises. Then he’ll tank ten cups too much of coffee. And on the way home, he’s as jittery as Methuselah the bus driver.

And silently, as a burglar, he enters the empty house of no welcome. A kitchen of bowls, cups, saucers, baby bottles, plastic spoons and congealed saucepans. The lounger with scattered clothes both clean and dirty to be gathered, or worse. Somewhere in the fridge, there is a covered dinner of leftovers. Usually his only friends are the freezer, the microwave and frozen pizza.

He slips hopefully unnoticed to visit to his son. As he creeps through the hallway, she’s there. The mother of their child, back to the nursery door, wordless and childless, a pillar of salt with eyes blazing.

He draws close. He takes the usual half step backwards. Then he pushes down the door handle and skips into the open space. If he’s quick, he’ll glimpse his son. Some days he doesn’t make it that far.

“Perhaps this is the day,” he says to himself. “The day when St Thomas finds out who his father really is.”

There he is, in yesterday’s dirty jumpsuit. A covered head, a small contorted face, dolls hands protruding. “My son?” he thinks. He reaches to touch the arms stretched each side of the cot. He stops his breath to listen to the whispered intake of another’s. But she steps inside, blocks his way, steps into him and shuts the door.

“I didn’t disturb him,” he soundlessly whispers. But the standard admonishment is always administered.

Then the flight back to the kitchen, the clothesline and the laundry. Undresses himself in the dark, and slips unnoticed into bed. To sleep wakefully.

3:06am. He checks. Yes they are now both awake. Dreamily, he finds a small mercy. That cry isn’t the endless one-note scream. He forages for the proper definition: a night terror?

A terror shared both by father and son. For nothing can wake her.

If it was that one-note call from hell, it would be okay. He would be at battle stations ready to repel demon boarders. He’d sprint in the dark. He’d take a nanosecond to snatch the child from cot. Forget about unlatching the cot side. Leave that for later. He’s stolen the baby. For then there’s the piercing shriek that dissolves them both. Then that hour long second to pass inconsolable baby to consoling mother. Then silence. Then the bottomless ocean of post pregnant sleep. Which only subtracts a little more from him.

It’s the mummy cry, he recognises. Not to be confused with the daddy cry. Perhaps that doesn’t exist, he thinks. It might if fathers could become pregnant. No it’s the natural order of things, he muses. But it’s still wrong.

“How can she sleep through this? It’s her cry, not mine.” Perhaps a few more moments and she will wake…

He dunks face first into the first pillow, then smothers the back of his head with the other. He turns over and in on himself. He binds himself in his blanket. And he sets a imaginary alarm. She’ll wake this time and there will be peace for all.

Eyes half open he watches and sleeps. The pile of blankets to his right doesn’t move. She’s going to sleep through.

3:07 He’s still crying. Was there a minute of sleep? He can’t remember. In the dusk, the wall of sheets and blankets opposite is unclimbable. But a small gap, might be enough. If he gently disturbs her, she’ll softly wake, yawn and stretch, hear her baby, go to him, St Thomas will be comforted.

And it will be like the old joke. Now we all can get some sleep. That’s the punchline but what was the joke? He scrabbles across and meets two pillows, one on top of another, pressed down under the blankets. He could burrow through but the danger of course is real. For once awake, there will be the usual set-to in front of the baby.

Yet again it’s come to this, he thinks. Maybe this will be the time, when he’ll be lulled to sleep by his father. And know it.

That would be a welcome addition. Then St Thomas will know he’s not a baby napping stranger. Or an absentee father practising for the future. Knowing that, we both can sleep, peaceably, however long that takes. With his mother grateful for the sleep won.

Now, he’s the reproached lover who has started the long walk back. He approaches the cot, walking on the sides of his feet, approaching unheard. But he’s caught out again, even before unlatching the cot. Same as last night. Same as yesterday. Same as the last three months. Or four?

Through the cry, he hears rustling. He looks back. Blankets, sheets and pillows have flown upwards and outwards. The mother, dishevelled, now a phantom. She strides quickly towards the nursery. He’s too tired to shrug off the blow. He never did duck or flinch before. In case you’re wondering , he rehearses, the mark is shaving rash. That is, if anyone asks.

What is she doing? She’s plucking her head. Pulling her hair out? She’s pulling at her ears. Two or three snatches then, two bright objects appear. She throws the earplugs to the floor.

She bares her white teeth and snarls. “Why didn’t you wake me?” Most of that is lost as St Thomas screams even more loudly. She gathers the child, still robed in her blanket and departs to her queendom.

He’s left standing there, too tired to rub his cheek. He thinks, it’s too late to go back to sleep. But too close to dawn to get up. Same and again.

One happy addition, as they say, but all subtractions from now, he thinks. Twelve weeks, two days out, now, isn’t it? Or is that when mother and child came home? Twelve years after that. Then the six or so teenage years. Chained in a land he will never understand.

3:11. He’s crying.

Your Breath

Watching you stumble from one breath to another, I'm trying to breathe for you. I want to Inhale the oxygen, and pass it through my lungs into yours. And from there into that heart that I love so much. And take your breath and exhale it all for you. But I cannot. All I can do and it seems of no use at all is hold your hand. And wait and hope. We always wanted you to grow to a fullness that would exceed ours. But right now I don't know if that will happen. And my fear is that you'll catch my doubt. A doubt enough for youto quietly slip out that door with perhaps barely a nod to us as you leave.

As for your mother, she doesn't know. And that's what she cannot handle. A little uncertainty perhaps which can be overlooked or postponed. But not the uncertainty that is now resident. She worries that it will take over and we will be living moment to moment. She can't say that to me as it would betoo great a worry. She won't say that to you. Or even afterwards. No matterhow things turn out.

You're not as tough as you thought you were. This illness is your companionnow and ours too. I could advise you:  if you can do something, don't worryand if you can't do something, then do nothing and don't worry.  I can't 
take my own advice. I simply don't know how it will turn out. And I can't 
tell anyone, least of all you.

So I should make myself comfortable I suppose. I try not to look at the numbers and zig zags on the machine. Me being me, automatically I try and analyse them to determine a trend. The numbers seem unchanging like a clock that keeps time but never tells it. I grab a spare pillow, wedge it against myplastic hospital grade chair and find a position of least discomfort. 
Unlike yourself.

Tubes run into you and out. For a moment, I hope that it's all unreal, thatjust for fun, they've attached them to your skin only. I'm really waiting for someone to rush in and say it's all been a joke. And you'd wake and 
laugh with me too, until we thought of how to tell your mother. But she 
might see the fun in it too.

There's no change in the numbers or the fuzzy lines on any of the machines.
The door opens. Men and women rush in. Your eyes flickers open. I'm raised to my feet and quickly shoved outside. A joke? No a sarcastic cosmic one. Ishout out in my head, that was a random thought, I was idly thinking, 
I didn't mean it. Much as a child, I fear the horrible thought made true.

I wait for news and fear the over calm manner of those who deliver it.

The Last Selfie

The last moments are the scariest, he thought. As he had been told. Apparently you first bob like a cork. Then you are swamped. Then you stretch your arms out to push yourself out of the water. And giving up, your arms and legs climb upward. Then downward. Thus overloaded you sink to the bottom faster than an anchor. So much time to contemplate, he thought.

The wave had already broken and the spray filled the sky. So much power, so much grace, how fortunate to witness. He reached for his phone. But there was no coverage. There’s no one to tell it to now. No photo, no text, could he break into the internet using his thoughts? But there, there was so much bile, cat videos, fake news that would overwhelm his story. Although it might go viral he thought, the last selfie of a drowning man. The channel between him and the point was now frothing green and white. Apparently once you sink to the bottom, it’s like falling asleep and drifting off. He really was annoyed now. He was never going to get his few seconds of fame on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram now. He looked and now the trough was full and flowing towards him. And then the water started building up again. He looked up and saw the spray over arch him again.
A second wave. He assembled the new facts of his predicament with studied detachment resolving to record and relate it for another time. The wave fell and crushed him silent.

The Glass Slipper (4) : She Met Me First

It was too dark to film in the pre-dawn twilight. And too hazardous to set up cameras and lights. Or send over their dumb drone in case it crashed and couldn’t be retrieved.

Occasionally, rarely, reality TV did have its benefits and now was one of them. Lonely at last, I thought. But, of course, only for a short moment. For I had to be back ready for the the morning feature. Me splitting wood bare chested (ugh!) for my fans.
I crept softly and slowly still hidden in the night. My torch picked out the sleeping shapes of cows not yet interested in me or milking just yet. Blades of grass reflected their sheen much like shards of green glass. And then the dark swallowed my light. For I had stopped at what looked like a fallen wall.
The last trees I had cleared.  I had left those broken remnants to season and dry. And now I was sawing them into logs and later kindling for the winter. And to boost my sagging ratings.
Behind me in the grey twilight, I could faintly see the camera crew near the house. They were trying to keep warm like ghostly puppets that were losing their strings.

But my work was in front of me, the latest pile of logs. I squatted, bent down, leant forward and drew each log into my arms. Once filled, I slowly stood up and started my trek back to the house.
Still, like the twilight, the other inhabitants paid me no attention. They’d wake soon and the routine would begin. Another day in the life
of “Down on The Farm” : the spun (and slowly unravelling) spin-off show. Featuring the recently separated husband of everyone’s favourite reality star, Ella who was doing I don’t know what.

I stopped.  I thought I saw something. But it was too dark. There is was again. Behind me, I saw a glimpse of curls, followed by a giggle.

“I’ll catch you,” I thought carelessly. I turned ponderously to follow. “Looks like she’s run around me,” I thought again. I finished my sedate circle. Nothing. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I kept on.

Surprised by my thoughts, I said to myself, “It’s nothing,just your imagination running wild in the wild.”
To keep my load steady, I stopped and crouched slightly. I raised left arm and then right and the logs in my arms settled heavily and made a pile yet again. I trailed my way back towards the house. It was still cool and grey and I was a shadow in the twilight. I saw the green roof turn olive-grey in the approaching dawn. The water tanks : squat and silver like oversize 44 gallon drums.
I trudged slowly. As far as I was concerned I had all day. But in the morning silence, I heard the whisper of a smile again, sent to me on the breeze. “A voice too young yet to laugh.”

I stopped again. I took small goose steps as I rotated trying to see the source of my audio dream. I didn’t want to drop my load yet. Still nothing. But something, it must be something. Perhaps…
There it was again. A whisper, now a laugh, curls and a glimpse of a cornflower dress.
To confound my pursuer, I stopped again and turned the other away.
“She’s quicker than me,” I thought carelessly. “Or will be.”
Ignoring the watchers, who had set up camera and microphone, I reached the woodpile and bowed down : a supplicant making his latest humble offering. I threw my arms forward and stepped back in reverential awe. A clump of logs flew forward, thudding and clunking as they hit the altar. Now for the fun part. I took off my shirt and threw it carelessly away. They’d like that, I knew. Apparently it was worth 20 points each time on the ratings.
Next to the stump was my favourite weapon of destruction. A green triangular headed wood splitter. I balanced it in my hands like I was buying a rifle. The head and handle were still smooth yet to be scarred by combat. That would be years I thought. And I had years now. I waited and felt the presence. A watcher ready to ask me a direct question. But she had years too. I heard the camera crew shuffle nervously, as they moved to keep me in view.
Even though the log pile was just the right height, I still leaned down, forward and across. I picked up log number one. I took its weight, squatted and placed it on the stump. Grey silver bark, wood core like cracked ochre. This one had finally seasoned.
I reached down to take the splitter again.
“And how long does it take to season?”
“As long as it takes,” I replied to myself (I thought). I looked up and around. The crew were motionless. They hadn’t seen or heard anything. Otherwise they would ask for another shot.
So I stilled myself, ignored the voice in my head and swung the splitter. Back above my head. I cocked my wrists and swung it just above the small of my back. I waited until it was just about to fall backwards and have no weight at all.
Like the string holding the arrow, I let go, timing turned into power. I struck wood, felt nothing except the tip tapping the stump. “No effort required,” I thought. Turning logs into kindling is the easiest part. Sure beats cutting down trees and sawing up logs. The dark held its breath and watched silently.

Except it wasn’t the dark.
Two more swings. The rest of log number one split into five pieces. I kicked the kindling away. That one done, I began again. Then I stopped. Someone was still watching me. It wasn’t the cameras. Being watched by them was like being stared at and then ignored as uninteresting.

No I was being observed. Closely and carefully. But not uncomfortably.
This time, I slipped and dropped the splitter mid swing. I turned right then left to catch whoever it was unawares. I saw nothing.
I felt her peer over my shoulder as I fell into the rhythm again. Pick up log, balance, pick up splitter, balance, pull back, let go, split log, split, split and kick kindling. Occasionally, I missed the mark, self-consciously. I would have to repeat the blow. Occasionally, too, I knocked the log over instead of straddling it. And steadfastly, I kept ignoring her.
And in the silence, her presence grew in my mind. I could see her curls, and hear her voice, even when she said nothing. I felt her read my thoughts, turn them over in her mind and read them back to me with another question. And slowly, the dawn crept through and the day began.
Much like the parent I wasn’t and had no intention of being, I more and more hoped that she would go away. Every so often, I would turn around to say it out loud. But I was deterred by the media presence.

I forced myself silent. I knew I would be thought mad muttering to myself in the middle of the bush away from my estranged wife.
And every single time I looked for her, she wasn’t there. She was enjoying this game I knew. She knew where I would move and what I would say before I did it.  I senses that this knowledge would not be used maliciously, however, rather playfully and ultimately patiently. For she knew that I would come around. Every so often I would hear a giggle and then a stifled laugh. I knew that she knew. As she knew I knew.
“Who is she? A haunting?” I had heard stories like this. Lost children haunting the place where they had died, waiting for their parents to return. But at dawn? In front of witnesses?
I stopped splitting and looked across at the crew.
“What’s happening?” I asked. No-one replied. “See anything this morning?”
No reply, neither nod nor shake of the head. Maybe they haven’t seen anything. If they had they weren’t saying, they were professional like that. Besides I knew these questions would be edited out.
I still sensed her listening to me. Much like the child I really was, I decided to scrunch the bed covers over my face, hold them close and feign sleep until she left me. I really hoped that she would slip away and find something else to take her attention, as little girls are supposed to do. Well, as far as I knew anyway.
I continued. Pick up log, set it on the stump, scythe the splitter through wood and hope for sparks,  kick the kindling away, dodge the odd shower of splinters, the rhythm continuous and all-encompassing despite the warming day and its hardening light.
In the silence between logs, I finally took my chance.

“Are you a fairy? A tree-nymph? A gumnut baby fleeing the evil banksia men?” The smile whispered into a giggle, then she laughed. At her giggle.
And while she looked over my shoulder, she beckoned the silence with more questions. “Who are you?” I asked (silently) in exasperation.

Her reply was familiar. “Why are you chopping wood here?”

“Instead of elsewhere,” was the implied thought I heard.

“Instead of where you’re supposed to be,” she thought at me finally.
I sensed that she was patient. And insistent. She knew I would answer her questions eventually. She seemed to have years to wait.
The sunrise rose above the green roof. And with it, the cold post-sunrise breeze washed over me like ice water. And then I knew where I was supposed to be and why.
I said, “Ella doesn’t want me anymore. I’m not in a fairy-tale anymore.”
But still her silence called to mine. She reached forward to take my hand.
I knew that I could send her away. But she would keep returning until I returned to her now pregnant mother.
The cameras kept rolling as I carried the kindling up to the house.

Lost Underfoot

I looLiftarn_Adult_and_child.svgked up. All I could see were legs. Masses of moving legs. I looked down. I saw shoes and thongs and skirts and legs and trousers. But were they attached to anything? I didn’t know. I felt even smaller. It was like a centipede that’s been shopping was walking over me!!

I couldn’t see faces or arms. I couldn’t see that high. I just held on and let myself be dragged through them. I held tight to my show bag too.

Then the hand holding me let go. I didn’t know which leg to grab. They all looked alike. But none of them were mine. Mine was gone. And the crowd moved me on.

The Glass Slipper (3)

Celebrities, I now realise, live in a perpetual fog. And nowhere more so than on the red carpet. This night I’m slow prancing through a warming mist of light. Camera flashes and phone selfie stick shots leave me blinking rapidly and staring dumbly. Further along, the spotlights surround me like a hot cloud. I’m suited up, white shirt, black tie, the male uniform of universal fame. But I do look good, I have to admit that. So my social feed tells me anyway.

Ella like a vision is in front of me. The classic fairy tale goddess : tall, blonde, slim, leading everyone’s eye towards her. Remember, I thought, people don’t stare at beauty like that, they just hold their gaze for longer. It’s her night, after all. That much this simple man does know.Right now, I have little idea why I’m here. It’s an opening night for a product Ella is endorsing. Something, something, folate. I start to fall behind.

“Folate? What the hell is Folate?”

I’m open-mouthed staring at the TV. My reality mega celebrity wife is yet again endorsing another product. And no-one has told me about it. She’s saying what a great health supplement it is. Which is of no use to me at all. I don’t know a thing. And that secret leaks out very quickly. For my followers have tapped into my confusion. According to the social media feedback, that is. The joke continues, smart wife, dumb husband. Not dumb I say to myself. I just do what I’m told. She’s the ball gown, I’m the plastic handbag. And so long as it stays that way, I will have ongoing success.

There’s Ella, in glorious 3D. So real I could almost reach out, tap her on the shoulder and ask, “What’s it for?”

But it’s not me doing the asking. Or the tapping of the shoulder.

Out of the misty light, the voice spoke to me, “Good evening sir, I hope you’re well tonight.”

I squint. I try to see who is talking to me. A smiling urbane gentleman of the old class I thought.

“Thank you, I am”, I replied. As my eyes adjusted, I could see who it was. He was a head taller than me. He was perfectly clean shaven. He had green eyes that were both piercing and twinkling set in a pleasant thin face. He was dressed in a thin grey woollen suit and wearing a earpiece. I couldn’t work out why he was not behind the silken barrier. Then I looked at his badge. And then he spoke again.

“You can’t go any further.” His voice hardened slightly as he emphasised all the words. The scene now starts to make sense to me. Here I am speaking to the most well mannered security guard I’d ever met. And now he is very diplomatically telling me my night was over. I looked behind him. He had firepower on his side. On his left and right were two heavy set men. Now these were the security men that I would cast in the role, I thought. Exactly alike, they were dressed in jet black suits, short, squat, standing silently and watchfully. If my new found acquaintance had asked to burrow they would. But they were more suitable for scrummaging. When I saw men like that coming for me, I always threw the ball away. Although it didn’t help. But this time I stood still.

I said nothing. I was outnumbered. I was told the reason. I was with a rival company. They had orders that it was best I be turned away. The pop and flash of cameras continue as if these were fans asking for a selfie or even an old-fashioned autograph. But not for long, as the real star is moving on.

I started to say, “I’m with Ella.” But I thought better of it.

I decided to be an anonymous celebrity for now. I stayed in the fog. I waited for rescue. Any other reaction I realised would be all over the media in seconds. I looked down at the phone. “What’s happening Jack?” was the theme of the feed. “Who are these people?” they asked. Tempted, I started to tap on my phone. Remembering the advice I had received about social media, I pulled my hand away. I chose to shut up and wait for the lifeline.

When it happens, it makes me believe in science fiction. Yet again, out of nowhere, John and Tash materialise. My producers, who had been avoiding me for reasons unknown for the last week turn up at the time of crisis.

I always thought of them as the perfect couple. Interchangeable. One could substitute for the other. As they do right now. They step right up to the security supervisor, so no-one can easily listen. Two people invading his personal space. The security gentleman doesn’t flinch. He is inscrutable. He tilts his head down to listen. All I can see is his bald head with a light sheen of sweat.

John or Tash speaks first, the other continues the sentence, without the other even stopping for breath. All I hear is the phrase, “Endorsement conflict.” My head just tick tocks as I look from one to another. I know I still look as stunned as I did during the camera, phones and spotlights on the red carpet. I look down. My feed is full of a jumble of emoticons, some funny, others puzzled, of course, some obscene.

John and Tash stop at the same time. They both look at me. They speak in unison, “Don’t do anything until we tell you.” I think to myself, yes, mostly that’s what I usually do, but not always. Especially when I have an unexpected surprise and try and fix it myself. Just like when I tried to placate Ella after she shattered the glass slipper. But we fixed that, didn’t we?

They continue to speak to the butler. I think to myself, he would make an excellent butler. But his tone is firm. Then without speaking to one another, John and Tash start calling on their mobiles. I’m stupefied by now. I think I hope the camera’s aren’t zooming in on my open flapping mouth as well. They’re speaking as one person to different people. “How did they do that?”, I thought. “How did they decide who called who and who went first?”

Meanwhile, twilight surrounds us. The lights, phones and cameras have moved on, seeking Ella’s long gaze. I’m sure she’s thinking of me. But that would be reality TV being too real?

The next thing I hear is a whisper. The two of them talking into my ear. How can they get so close? “Text her and tell her you’re not feeling well. And then go home.” I do as I’m told. It always works. My new found security detail escort me to the waiting car.

The Longest Match

I saw white. I’m supposed to see stars. Not me! Not now! White light, sound and impact merged into a wall of noise and pain. I didn’t feel myself fall. No, I feel myself float. I saw myself glide to safety. And there in the calm and silence I slept.

I then woke up and I slowly look around. I’m sitting on a bench. Behind me are lockers. Sporting equipment is scattered all around. I’m dressed in white. So are the others around me.

I slowly start to make sense of it all. My mind is foggy. The world is grey-white. I know these people. Now I understand. I’m in a dressing room. I’m in heaven with my cricket mates. What?

But none of them could be angels. I’m sure of that.

I look down. Attached to both legs are bulky cricket pads. A bat is leaning across my knees. Cricket gloves inhabit the bench next to me. Why are we expected to play cricket in heaven? Are we in hell? I must have said it aloud as I hear the reply, “That’s where opening batsmen go to.” Another adds “…that’s where they are now!” Grim laughter. We have a match to win.

And then began the interminable waiting. I wish for something to happen to break the monotony. Then I hope the monotony returns so maybe I’m not needed. One thought and then another only make me more and more nervous. In the meantime, I listen to the other conversations. I hear the radio with the commentary. Perhaps it’s my teammates talking about the game. As for me, I prefer to suffer in silence. I finally decide that it would be easier being out there batting. And just when I relax, it happened.

A moment of quiet. The game stops for a millisecond. A shout from the middle of the field. Yeah-that! I know what that means. Everyone goes quiet. The commentary stops. My teammates stop what they were doing. And look at me.

“You’re next,” the captain said to me. I check that I’m ready. I’ve got my pads on. I have my bat nearby. I reached down for my gloves. I stretch down and reach out for them. Found them. Then I put them on. I had to push one finger through at a time. Am I nervous? Not at all. I’m too worried. I’ve never been this slow before. I almost forget my helmet and tuck it under my arm.

Even more slowly. I open the door. The heat slams into me. I stop and almost step back. I duck my head as I slowly walk my way down the steps. I don’t look to my left or my right. I steal through the gate and out to the wicket. There’s no crowd or perhaps a silent one. I start to worry. If I take too long, they’ll send me back. Which would be terribly embarrassing. But they wait for me. Very patient they were. Or maybe it was time standing still in crisis. I somehow fumble and put my helmet on. My head is now in a hot plastic cell with a steel grille for a door.

I reach the crease. I look at the wicket. It’s a white grass carpet with too many flecks of green. I stand still. I lean down and tap my bat. I look up and ask the umpire for centre. He just nods at me. I scratch out my mark with my foot. Then I place my bat there. I look around me. I only see one fielder. He’s on my right halfway down the wicket. I look to my left over my shoulder. A helmeted fielder is crouched close. I turn my head further to my left. In the distance is another white suited fielder. I know where the rest are. So I wait. And wait. And wait.

I could hear the commentary in my head. “One down for eighteen. The new batsman has just arrived. He’s taken strike. He looks a little nervous to me this morning, don’t you think? Let’s see how he shapes up to the first delivery.”

Nervous? I know so. I look beyond the umpire. In the distance is the bowler. He seems to be pawing the ground like a bull ready to charge. He starts his run towards me.

I hear the scrape of his right toe on the ground. I hear the whoosh of his arm. The clump of the ball hitting the pitch. The fizz as it instantly appears near me. Lead-footed and lead-armed, I pull my bat away. I feel like I’m walking through molasses. Except I don’t see it at all.

“Swift ball first up. He steps back and across. He shoulders arms and lets it go. Lovely judgement there.”

And the next ball. I feel like I’m stumbling and falling in slow motion. And no-one knows but me. And more nervous. One false move and I’ll be gone.

I hear the ball after that. I know that it’s closer. I just see its outline in time. I move my foot towards it in slow motion. The bat even more slowly follows. I hear the hollow clunk as ball hits bat. A thud and the ball rolls forward a little. My arms jar slightly at the impact. My hands start to sweat. Whether it’s from the heat or fear I cannot tell.

“He jams down the bat. He’s just managed to get hold of that one. This boy’s a few yards quicker than last match. He’s really worked up a lot of pace. He’s really putting the batsman under pressure.”

I am a thin man in a fat suit. I’m not playing cricket. I’m waving a match stick at bullets. I think that if I don’t get through this game, it will be my last. And that really scares me. But it also comforts me somehow. I get to finally find out after all the uncertainty. And then slowly ever so slowly the game gets better.

I can see the ball now. It’s still dull. It’s vaguely shaped. But I know better where it is. I still feel that I inhabit another body. A body borrowed from another sportsman who vaguely remembers the game.

“And he’s just starting to get his eye in now. The new boy is showing some more confidence after a pretty torrid spell here.”

And then the commentary stops. There are no more balls to be bowled. I have to know what’s going on. I try to speak and ask, “Have we declared? Has the skipper called us back in and closed the innings?”

Somewhere in the distance, I hear the commentary resume. I hear another voice, “He’ll find it a comfort in his condition.” At that moment, I assume it’s my mind saying that. But why are there footsteps nearby? They fade away.

The game continues. I even smile a little in between balls. I hear a shout and my heart sinks. The fatal rattle of the stumps falling. It’s over. I look up and my batting partner is out. He looks up at me. I just look back as he turns and ashamedly leaves the ground.

The new batsman arrives. He’s sprinted onto the ground. But then he’s out. He looks like he has played and missed, but then there’s a shout. I turn and look at the umpire. He’s raising his arm and one finger is outstretched. Out. Another one. How many is that?

And then it’s a procession. One in, another out. And I’m standing there as my team falls away in front of me. Yet I still keep going. I’m still there. Until they turn their attention to me. They call back the swift fast bowler.

The game becomes a blur. He’s quicker than I remember earlier. I have to force myself to relax to keep playing. I start playing and missing. I get more and more nervous. I’m hounded by the recurring thought, if I go, we all go. I stop and catch my breath. I become more insistent on calming myself.

And then it happens. I see the ball leave his hand. I see it hit the wicket. I see it fly towards me like a whiplash. I move back and then pivot. I start to play the shot. The ball hits the bat. I’m hit by an uppercut. I see white.

I lie there on the ground. I resolve to myself that I will never ever play cricket again. It’s all too difficult. And then a voice interrupts. “We’re yet to find out if he will continue. He’s taken a pretty nasty knock there, but he’s come back before. Let’s see if he does this time.”

I decide that I would like to find out too. I lean forward and grasp my knees. I pull myself to my feet. I wander around a little. I stretch my arms and kick out my stiff legs. I feel some warmth return.

I start again. Now I have nothing to lose. Now it doesn’t matter if I get hit. If I’m hit I’m hurt. Now it doesn’t matter if I get out. That’s enough to ensure I relax. I see the ball clearly now. I even can pick out the scuffs and cuts on it. I hear the ball coming towards me. I hear the sound of the bat. I hear silence as I hit the ball. Silence now means perfect timing.

At last, after so many years of waiting, I’m having fun. I’ve discovered that this is a game that can actually be enjoyed. I wish for it to last forever.

The afternoon sun stretches into twilight. Finally, the night comes down: the umpires are asked to adjudicate on the light. They accede and I trudge off.

“Welcome back to the second day’s play. It’s a beautiful day for watching cricket.”

I slowly feel I’m not a wooden marionette anymore. I hear the ball tossed to me. I bend forward and just catch it.

“Looks like they’re giving the all-rounder a trundle.” I didn’t know I was an all-rounder! I’m just a batter who bowls or a bowler who bats a little.

I take my few steps back. I hold the ball in my hand. It’s not a cricket ball. It’s a red grapefruit ripe and ready to fall out of my hand. I grip it tightly enough so it doesn’t slip and loosely enough so it might spin. It still feels more difficult today. But I slowly spin it, toss it in the air and catch it even more slowly. Why is everything taking so long?

But now I feel the spongy grass under my feet. My feet scuff as I start my run up. I hear the slow swish of my arm. Then the slow bubbling fizz of the ball as it spins towards the batsman. Then the almost silent thud as it hits the pitch. Then the drawn out whoosh as it flies a little higher and quicker than expected. A soft click of wood against leather. The extra-long silence as the ball flies high, higher than even the fielder expects. The endless silence of fingers stretching and falling short. The softest thump as the ball hits the ground. I walk back to bowl again.

“Well, he’s got that to bounce and spin more than the batsman expected. Too bad the fielder grassed it. Remember catches win matches and a dropped one is an extra batsman.”

Ugh! I don’t need to re-read the coaching manual. In the meantime, I am slowly turning from a human scarecrow into a bowler. But the pains and aches are so real. The exhaustion starts to set in. I start to flag a little. But then I know from past experience if I push through, it will become easier. And so it does.

And then I hear the shout. All go up as one including me. Howzat! We turn and look at the umpire. Well? I say to myself. There’s an eternal pause. Up goes the arm and he raises his finger. Out!

“And he’s given him. Took a while for the umpire to make up his mind. Smart bowling that.”

And then it all stops. I open my mouth to protest and say, “Skip, I was just getting into it. I’d got my length and line right. I even got the top spinner to work (which was unusual).”

Then I hear the commentators start to wrap up their description of the game. Then from a distance I hear other voices. They grow louder. “We decided to leave the radio for you. We thought it would help you get better.”

I wake up. I’m in a room. I’m wearing white. I’m not in heaven. I’m in a bed in a hospital. I slowly recollect what happened. But all I remember is the near-fatal blow. I open my eyes and say, “Long match that was. But I got there in the end.”

Thanks for the Non-Advice

“Been a while. What’s happenin’?”
Long pause while I rummage through my thoughts and find the right answer.
“Errrm… Not real good.”
“Not real good. You mean not real bad?”
“Errrm…Nup.” Another safe answer.
“How’s Josie J?” Everyone asks after her. Not really safe now.
“She’s not.” One faltering step down the path.
“Not what?”
“With me.”
“What?”
“She left a couple of weeks ago.”
A long pause from the other side now.
“Oh…nah…not real good mate. Really bad is it?”
It’s the first time anyone has asked me. I want to talk. But I’m not sure what to say.
“Yep.”
“What happened?”
“I got home. She was gone. Cleared out. Her things. Gone. Everything. Gone.”
“That’s real bad. I’m sorry.”
“Yep. She just texted me. ‘I’m outta here.’, she said. And blocked me.”
“Facebook? Twitter? Phone? Email?”
“Yep, yep and yep. Front door. Back door.”
“What did you do?”
“Went to church. Hoped she was there. She wasn’t. But they all knew. They said,’I should’ve seen it coming. I should’ve treated her as a submissive wife. Been more of a man.’ You know. That sort of thing.”
“You’re not that kind of man.”
“Thanks. Which means I’ll never be your type.” I crack a small smile. At last I find out that I can laugh a little even in this.
“Yeah they said, ‘Josie’s just going through a change of season.’ Didn’t know what that meant. Summer? Winter? Autumn? Can’t tell!”
“Anything else?”
“Told me to pray.”
“What about your family? Do they know?”
“Yep.”
“What did they say?”
“Yep. Plenty of good advice. The usual. I’ve been given an opportunity to grow. I just need to move on. You know that things change. I have to focus on the future.”
“Everyone’s full of advice mate. Same as it was for me. Worse were those afraid of it happening to them. Now or ever. Took me a little while to see that they’re shit scared of seeing someone go the same way as them.”
“Yep.” A pause. “You’re not going to do that to me.”
“What? Do you want me to tell you to get stuffed now or later? Just because I went through the same crap as you. FFS!”
“Well?”, I ask, “Got any advice you bastard, any wise words?”
“I could tell you to get…”
“Come on,” I interrupt, goading him,”Tell me WTF I’ve done wrong.”
An exasperated sigh from the other end of the phone.
“You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“What about telling me what worked for you?” I’m winding him up now, hoping for a response, more in anger than in hope. He’s refusing to even be a little provoked. Then he says.
“Nup. It’s World Series Crap for you now. Then it’s gonna be World Series Crap playoffs for a while. How long? Don’t know. Haven’t been told. Maybe you should ask for yourself.”
“Errmm…that’s not really helpful,” I reply.
Then he pauses. He then does the best he can do.
“Nup. Not at first. Right now you probably think you’ll break. You’re just being bent out of shape. Maybe more than before. Maybe enough to break you. But you’ll know what to do. Just call it for what it is. Then you’ll get what you need to learn.
Then little by little, it will get better. Maybe it’s started. I don’t know. But you’ll get back better than before.”
He pauses and finishes.
“I’ve said my bit. Call me if you need me. Next time I might even shut up and listen. I might even learn something from you.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Thanks for the non-advice, you bastard.”

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