I meant to wake up early. Markus, my husband, had stayed home from work on Friday because he wasn’t feeling well. My plan had been to jump out of bed and get started on the Saturday to-do list so that Markus could rest as much as possible. Instead I kept hitting the snooze button. My extra sleep meant that when I finally did get out of bed, I was scrambling to make up the time deficit. Our daughter, Louise, had spent the night at her friend Joss’s birthday sleepover; pick-up time was scheduled for eleven, and the friend’s house was a brisk fifteen-minute walk away. At ten to eleven I was still hastily wrapping the presents for the friend, purchased the night before. I set off from our house at a record clip, but Louise’s friend lives in a maze of quiet one-way streets, and I took a wrong turn. Sweat started trickling down my back as I thought of Louise’s friend’s mum Sara, herself a friend of mine, checking her watch and wishing her daughter’s young guests would just disappear already. When I regained my bearings I texted my friend: “Wlkg fast there in 10 mins sorry BX.” Her reply came within minutes, “No prob!”
I was not reassured. “She texted almost right back! What if Louise is the last one and my poor friend is desperate to have a rest? She didn’t sign off with an ‘x’- does that mean she’s actually quite cross? How could I have taken a wrong turn? I’ve lived here for years now! Why do I have such a miserable sense of direction? I wonder if it’s too late in the game, or if I could somehow improve my sense of place…”
When I at last reached my friend’s house, the door was ajar, and my friend’s husband was in the hall. “Come on in,” he said when I peered through the gap. “Sara has just put the kettle on. They’re in the kitchen.”
I crossed the threshold, painfully aware of the perspiration shining on my face from my walking speed; when I turned the corner, I spotted two other mums sitting at ease while Sara prepared tea.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” I said, “You and William must be longing to have the house back to yourselves.”
“Oh, it’s fine, I hope you’re going to stay for a cuppa?” Sara asked. I noticed with awe that Sara didn’t look the least bit sleepy and didn’t seem the tiniest bit frazzled.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Absolutely. Go ahead, pull up a chair, we’re just about to have a little natter,” Sara insisted. The other mums nodded.
“All right then. Thank you so much! But I mustn’t stay for too long, because Louise has tennis at one.”
“Oh, we’re not staying for long either,” one of the other mums assured me.
After an admittedly lovely chat over tea, the time pressure began to return. I hadn’t anticipated a delay at Sara’s, so I hadn’t brought along Louise’s racket; that meant we had to return home before we could go to tennis. I began to make noises about how I really should be going, but in England, the polite gap between the announcement and the departure is at least ten minutes, a fact I, as an American, always forget until the moment I need to leave. My daughter, who was born in England and understands the habits of the English in a way I never will, added the delay instinctively, so by the time we had said our final thank-you’s and goodbyes it was nearly noon.
We rushed home. While Louise ate her store-bought lunch, I conferred with Markus, who wanted the car to go rock climbing.
“Here’s what has to happen before you can have the car— tennis, food shopping, and cricket with Luka,” I explained.
“Cricket with Luka?” Markus queried.
“Yes. Tina, Marnie’s mother, introduced Luka to cricket last week and he loved it. I promised Tina we would get Luka and Chris together so Tina and the girls wouldn’t have to bowl for Luka.”
“Chris is going to bowl for Luka? What is Luka now, six?” Markus asked.
“He’s still five actually. But Chris is good at bowling more slowly for younger batters. He’s been able to bowl for Louise. I’m sure both he and Luka will enjoy playing,” I said with certainty.
Markus raised his eyebrows doubtfully.
“Anyway, I set it up with Tina, and we’re going to swap kids— Louise will play with Marnie and Cilla while Chris plays with Luka. So it’s non-negotiable.”
“It sounds like climbing is out,” Markus sighed.
“Not necessarily. Why don’t you walk to the store, do the shopping, and I’ll pick you up on the way back from tennis? That way at least the shopping is done, and only the cricket will stand between you and the climbing wall.”
“If that means I can climb, then fine. What time will you be there?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” I admitted, “Because I have to meet that woman about the uniform after tennis. But that shouldn’t take too long, so I don’t know, half past two?”
“I’ll wait for you by the bus stop.”
Louise had finished her lunch. I grabbed her racket and her water bottle, and we bundled into the car, Louise carrying her new lace-up tennis shoes which she had volunteered to put on in transit to save time.
“Why do we even have to go to tennis? We could have skipped it, then I could have had lunch with Joss,” Louise moaned.
“You said you wanted to do tennis again this term, and now we’ve paid for it, so we’re going for this whole term. Plus I have to meet that woman with the second-hand uniform for Chris at 1:30,” I said.
“What woman with the uniform? What are you talking about?” Louise asked, in a tone that implied that I must have lost my mind.
“Don’t you remember, when we went into Richardson’s to buy Chris bigger polo shirts, and they were out of stock, but there was that lady in the queue who gave me her phone number and said she had lots of uniform she’d be happy to give Chris?”
“Oh yes, now I remember. But I still wish I didn’t have to go to tennis,” Louise said definitively.
We parked outside tennis two minutes after Louise’s lesson was meant to begin. “Go ahead, take your racket and water, and run in.”
“Mum…” Louise groaned. “Why can’t you walk in with me?”
“Because we’re already late, and because I have to dash to the town centre to take out cash for Marge.”
“The lady with the uniform. Now off you go,” I commanded.
With Louise sorted, I headed towards the town centre. Money safely withdrawn, I scurried back towards the tennis courts, eating the rest of my lunch— an energy bar— on the way. The weather was fine, so I made myself comfortable on the curb next to a pub outside which rugby supporters were standing, talking, and drinking.
At 1:33 my phone dinged. It was a message from Marge: “Stuck in rugby traffic.”
“No worries. Am by The Plough and Horses,” I texted back. Time ticked away. 1:40. 1:45. 1:50. Where was she?
“Not sure you’re at the right tennis court? I’m at the courts by Sycamore Road.” I texted.
My phone rang.
“Hi Beth, it’s Marge. I’ve been waiting at the wrong tennis court. Where are you?”
“Oh no, I did wonder, I’m so sorry. I’m at the tennis court by Sycamore Road? Close to the Plough and Horses pub?” I said in what I hoped was a conciliatory tone.
“But I must have driven right past you if you’re by the Plough and Horses. I’m in a blue Ford Focus. Are there tennis courts down there? I never knew. I’m at the council court. So what shall we do? How long would it take you to come here?” Marge sounded frazzled.
“Well, I have to pick up my daughter, but I could be with you in ten minutes? Marge? Marge? Oh shoot,” I exclaimed. The connection had broken. I called back. No luck. I texted: “Stay there, I will be with you as soon as I can.” Almost instantly, the dreaded red exclamation point appeared: “Message send failure.”
“Oh come on,” I said. By this time I was standing just outside the drive to the tennis courts. A dad I knew from school whose son was in Louise’s tennis class approached.
“Hi Beth,” the dad said. “Why are you standing out here?”
“Oh— it’s a long story— I was supposed to meet someone here at 1:30, but she’s at the wrong tennis court, and now I’ve lost connection,” I said, as I stared despairingly at my phone.
“I see,” the dad said. “Shall I send Louise out?”
“Yes please,” I said gratefully. I went back to my phone. Louise came out, chatting with her friend, and I thanked the friend’s dad.
A text from Markus appeared. “ETA?”
“Oh shoot,” I mumbled. The tennis court mix-up meant I would be late collecting Markus, when he was already cranky.
“Mum,” Louise moaned, “ I’m really hot and tired. Can we please go home? Why do we have to keep waiting?”
“Louise, this woman has taken time out of her day just to meet us, and she’s been in traffic, we’re not just going to give up.”
“But I’m tired,” Louise repeated, as she resorted to the timeworn “pull on Mum’s clothing or bag” tactic, a tactic sure to illicit some sort of response, although likely not the one sought.
My phone rang; I answered instantly. “Marge? I’m so sorry, I have no idea what happened to my phone. Where are you?”
“I’m outside the school now. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew you would have to drive past the school on your way home, so I thought you might see me. Where are you?”
“Thank you so much for waiting. I’m still at the tennis courts, but I can be with you in five minutes. Just stay there, I’ll be there very soon.”
“That’s fine. You’ll see me just by the school gates.”
“Come,” I said to Louise, striding purposefully towards the car.
I spotted the woman I had met briefly in the uniform shop standing next to the open boot of her car in the school drive. I pulled in, and we greeted each other with a brief hug, which seemed appropriate considering the minor trauma meeting up had induced.
“I’m glad we managed to find each other in the end,” Marge said, “Because I’ve been saving this uniform for years. I just couldn’t see getting rid of it, but I had no idea what to do with it. As you can see, my son has grown quite a lot since starting school.”
The mouths of three enormous plastic bags gaped open in the boot, revealing stacks upon stacks of uniform in shades of burgundy and gold. I thought of Markus, standing impatiently at the supermarket, and took a deep breath. “Wow,” I exclaimed, “That is far more than I was expecting. I was just hoping for some polos in my son’s size, but this will be fantastic.”
“You’re welcome to any or all of it,” Marge said. “Is it polos he especially needs? There must be six of them in here.” She began to sift through the middle bag. I sensed, from her movements, that Marge was not actually ready to part with her son’s cast-offs that quickly. “Here they are; in fact there are seven polos, all different sizes, and most of them are in very good condition.” Marge held up a couple of polo shirts to demonstrate.
“Those look great,” I agreed. “Your son has taken care of his clothes. What year is he now?”
“Oh, he’s sixth-form now. Some of them have marks, but the shirts that were very worn, I just binned them.” Marge hovered by the bags. I wondered if her son was her only child.
“Has he liked the school?” I asked.
“Yes, very much. What else were you after? Sports kit?”
“Yes, sports kit, but also the sweatshirts. We could use nearly everything really, because our son grew so much over the summer.”
“So he didn’t just start?”
I backtracked mentally, wondering if I had somehow led Marge to believe Chris was just starting, and quickly absolved myself of any false pretences. “No, he started last year. He’s going into year eight now, but he has just shot up over the summer, and none of his uniform from last year fits him anymore.”
Marge relaxed. Somehow Chris’s growth spurt had softened her, and she stepped to one side, making room for me to stand next to her. “Please, take a look, and see what you think you could use.”
We sifted through the uniform together for a few more minutes. I politely declined the old-style sports kit, knowing that Chris would insist on only current uniform, and I didn’t take extra rugby shirts, as I felt certain that Chris would never join the rugby team. But my hurry to get to Markus, and from there to Luka, meant that I enthusiastically accepted two of the three huge bags, knowing all the while that some of the surplus was destined to end up shoved under our bed with other clothes we didn’t have room to store in the children’s rooms.
Our transaction was nearly complete. I had asked Marge twice via text how much money she would like for the uniform prior to meeting, and she hadn’t responded. I wasn’t sure if that was because she wanted no payment, or if it was the English way, so I knew I needed to raise the topic again. “It’s so generous of you to give us all of this,” I said. “How much would you like for it?”
“Oh, I don’t know… Truth be told, you’re doing me a favour by taking it off my hands,” Marge answered, but not convincingly.
“Would forty be enough? I know it’s worth quite a lot more than that really, but I hadn’t realised there would be so much of it, so I didn’t take out more at the cash machine…”
Marge’s mouth twitched almost imperceptibly. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “She was hoping for more. Maybe I’ll have to slim the bags… Markus is going to be beyond irritated that I am keeping him waiting…”
“Do you know, thirty is fine,” Marge announced, to my surprise. “All I really want is enough to buy him two new sweatshirts, and thirty will be more than enough for that.”
“Are you sure?” I asked doubtfully.
“Yes. I’m sure. Thirty is fine. Thank you for giving it a good home.”
I handed Marge the bills, and picked up the two heavy bags. “I can’t thank you enough,” I said.
“No worries, it was my pleasure,” Marge said. She closed her boot, gave me another quick hug, then arranged herself in the driver’s seat and started her car. I set the bags down, and when Marge checked her rear view mirror, I waved and smiled.
“There you are, finally,” Louise said reproachfully when I retook my place in the driver’s seat. “Why did it take so long?”
“Sorry to keep you waiting, honey. Marge had far more to give us than I had reckoned with.” I fastened my seat belt, then called Markus.
“Yes?” Markus answered, conveying a world of irritation in one syllable.
“Hi. I’m really sorry. We’re leaving the school gates now.” I adopted a bright tone. “The good news is, we won’t need to buy uniform for a long time.”
“Great. Now just hang up and drive. I’m tired of standing here. I’m by the bus stop.”
I hung up as requested and drove to the supermarket. When Markus spotted our car, he pulled the ear buds out of his ears and stuck them in his pocket.
“Hi,” I said, when I pulled up alongside him.
“Hi,” Markus said gruffly; he loaded the shopping into the boot, next to the bags of uniform, then crumpled into the passenger seat.
“How long have you been waiting?”
Visions of maniacally-grinning bacteria flashed before my eyes. “I guess we’ll have to toss the lettuce.”
“I put it next to the milk. It’ll be fine,” Markus said flatly.
The lights at the level crossing began to flash. The gates came down and stopped the car ahead of us. “What good timing,” I said.
“Mum,” Louise said from the back seat, glancing up from Minecraft, “Anybody can tell that you’re being sarcastic.”
“You’re right, Louise. Now we’re going to keep Luka waiting even longer. Markus, can you call the home phone and tell Chris to change into his cricket clothes if he hasn’t already?”
“We’ll probably be home before I’ve even finished talking to him,” Markus said drily. “Is it really necessary?”
“I’m just trying to optimise our time usage so that you can get to the climbing wall as soon as possible,” I said, as I watched the first train thunder past. The lights continued to flash and the gate stayed down. Markus sighed, and dialled the home number.
Finally we pulled into our driveway. Markus exited swiftly, opened the boot, and began unloading the shopping.
Chris was on the sofa, fully dressed in cricket whites, deep in a Minecraft world on his tablet. I felt my blood pressure, which had been nearing stroke risk levels, drop substantially. “Chris, that’s fantastic that you’re ready, thank you so much for doing what Pappa asked,” I said.
“Mmm…” Chris responded, not raising his head.
“I’ll just text Tina and tell her we’re on our way. So we’ll go in about five minutes, honey,” I said.
“OK,” Chris mumbled.
“Remember, Louise, you’re coming too, so if you need the toilet, now’s the time. That goes for you too, Chris.”
“Oh, Mum, why did I even have to get out of the car?” Louise complained. “If I had known we were leaving straight away, I could have just stayed in the car, and avoided all this to-ing and fro-ing.”
I grinned despite myself at my nine-year old’s skilled use of her executive functioning area. “You’re right, Louise. That might have made more sense. But at least you’re going somewhere fun— you haven’t been to Marnie’s house in ages. The longer it takes us to get ready, though, the less time you’ll have to play with Marnie.”
That worked. “I’m ready,” Louise announced impatiently two minutes later, standing by the door, “What about you lot?”
Chris trundled off the sofa, and we were ready for departure.
“I’ll make this as quick as I can while still giving them a decent cricket session,” I said to Markus, who was still unpacking the groceries. “I know you want to get to the wall.”
“Text me when you’re on your way home,” Markus said.
Chris and Louise had made themselves comfortable in the back seat. We drove the short distance to Tina’s flat, and when I slowed down to consider my parking options, I noticed that Tina was already on the footpath with Luka and the girls. Tina, normally very relaxed, looked concerned. I rolled down my window as she approached.
“Did you get my text?” Tina asked without pleasantries.
“Um… I don’t think so? Maybe you sent it while Louise was playing Minecraft?”
“The thing is, Luka has a birthday party to go to right after this. It’s meant to start at four.”
I glanced at my watch; it was twenty past three. My face drooped as I inwardly cursed the missteps that had stolen precious time from the cricket session.
Tina registered my disappointment, and the furrows in her brow disappeared. “Don’t worry,” she said, smiling. “Luka can still come with you. The party is at the Jelly Tots club, in the park, and weren’t you going to the park anyway for the cricket? It’s fine if he gets to the party a little late.”
“I was going to take them to the club’s nets, but if that was full, yes, I would take them to the park. Are you sure it would be OK for Luka to be late to the party? He wouldn’t mind?”
“He’ll be fine,” Tina said, waving her hand. “Luka’s been looking forward to playing cricket with Chris all day. Just one thing,” Tina added, sotto voce, “Let him bat the whole time.”
“No problem. Fantastic. Louise, can you jump out? So should I drop Luka at the party and then come pick Louise?”
“No, there’s no point in that as we’ll have to get to the park to pick Luka anyway, so I’ll just bring the girls to the park. We’ll meet you outside the Jelly Tots club at, say, 4:30?”
“That gives the girls almost no time to play at yours though,” I pointed out, knowing how excited Louise was to spend time at Marnie’s. “Why don’t you make it closer to five?”
“Five it is,” Tina said, leaning over Luka to help him with the seat belt.
Chris and Luka regarded each other, then Chris said to Luka, “I like your cricket outfit.”
Tina laughed. “Chris, have you seen his trousers? They’re way too long— he has them folded over four times at the top. Show Chris, Luka.”
Luka revealed the rolls of fabric around his belly. “There didn’t seem to be any point in buying trousers that would only fit him for a few months, so I took the size that might fit him next summer. They might even fit him the summer after that,” Tina said. “But the jumper fits perfectly, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” Chris agreed. “The jumper is very smart, Luka.”
Luka’s cherubic face beamed with pride. Tina and I exchanged smiles small enough for each other to see, but not wide enough to be noticed by our boys.
“We’ll see you at five then,” I said to Tina. “Bye Louise! Have fun with Marnie!”
“Bye Mum,” Louise shouted, already halfway to Marnie’s flat.
I pulled back into the road, and caught sight of Chris and Luka eyeing each other up and down, as if assessing the opposition, when I glanced in the rear view mirror.
“That your bat?” Luka asked Chris.
“It is,” Chris confirmed. “And you’ve got yours?”
“This is my bat,” Luka confirmed, holding his own newly acquired bat up for Chris’s inspection.
Chris appraised the bat’s grip, then ran his finger along the bat face. “Nice bat. No dents yet,” Chris said. Both boys appeared satisfied.
A cloud appeared on Luka’s face, and he asked either or both of us, “Are you taking me to Freddie’s party now?”
“No,” I answered. “Right now I’m taking you and Chris to play cricket, like we agreed. But after cricket I’m taking you to Freddie’s party.”
“Are you picking me up from Freddie’s party too?”
“No,” I said again. “Your mum will pick you up from the party. I’m only dropping you off at the party.”
Luka looked perplexed. I was relieved when the entrance to the cricket club came into view, but when I pulled in, the grounds were full of men in whites, and no nets were available.
“We can’t use the club nets,” I told the boys. “We’ll have to go to the park. Hopefully we can use the nets there.”
“What are nets?” Luka asked.
Chris explained. “Cricket nets are for practice, so you don’t have to run after the ball. Nets let you bowl and bat more effectively.”
I winced at Chris’s use of “effectively” as I doubted it would mean anything to five-year old Luka, but when I checked again in the mirror, Luka seemed content. The boys were so different in appearance: Chris keeps his hair very short, and while somewhat more substantial than other boys his age, still seems spare. Luka, for the first several years of his young life, had sported a hairstyle lifted straight from Brett Anderson of Suede; he had only recently graduated to wearing his thick black hair shorter on the sides but still long at the top. Luka had the sort of solid physique that would make future rugby coaches’ eyes light up. But Chris and Luka had known each other for years, and they sat comfortably in each other’s presence.
Rather than return to the town streets, I took the A-road towards the park. After a few minutes of sitting in traffic, Luka piped up again. “This isn’t the way I go to the park. Where are you taking me?”
Luka’s forlorn tone insinuated that I may well be taking him somewhere he really didn’t want to go. I wondered briefly if Luka thought we were abducting him, and the thought of me and Christopher kidnapping Luka was so preposterous that I couldn’t suppress a fit of giggles. Chris, whose mind often works like mine, reassured Luka.
“Don’t worry Luka, this is another way to get to the park. We’re still going to play cricket, and then you’re going to Freddie’s party.”
I had forgotten that five-year olds are even more variable than English weather. My next mirror check showed me Luka and Chris smiling broadly at each other. “Are you going to let me bat all the time?” Luka asked Chris.
“Yes, if that’s what you want, that’s fine with me,” Chris said. More smiles.
I turned off the A-road and began picking my way past the delivery vans and busses on the high street of the village that stood between us and the park. It was a village Chris and I knew well, as we had lived close to it when our family first moved to the area, but it was apparently uncharted territory for Luka, who called out excitedly, “Now we’re in London!”
Chris and I both laughed. “No, Luka,” Chris corrected Luka patiently, “This isn’t London. This is St Vincent’s.”
“Well, technically I believe we’ve been in London all day, but this certainly isn’t central London,” I clarified.
Luka was undeterred. “It’s London! Where’s the park?”
“We’ll be at the park very soon,” I said. Moments later, I had chosen a spot in the park’s parking lot, and Chris had unloaded the heavy cricket bag from the boot. We headed for the nets; Chris rolled the bag, and Luka swung his bat merrily back and forth.
Everyone has days when the world seems to be against them, and although the tone of my day had improved considerably since Luka’s entry, I was still not surprised to find, when the nets came into view, that they were already occupied.
“The nets are taken,” Chris said, leading me to wonder again, albeit fleetingly, about nature versus nurture.
“Yes, they are. But that’s fine, we can just play over here anyway,” I said, walking over to the base of a respectably-sized tree that could serve as a makeshift wicket.
“Are we going to play cricket now?” Luka asked, “Or are we going to Freddie’s party? Are you going to pick me up from Freddie’s party?”
While I came to terms with the fact that I had seemingly already forgotten how five-year olds think, although my daughter was only four years past five herself, Chris patiently answered Luka’s questions yet again, one by one. “Yes, Luka, we’re going to play cricket. We’re going to take you to Freddie’s party afterwards. Your mum is coming to pick you up from the party.”
Chris and I rummaged through the cricket bag for a ball of appropriate hardness. Chris found a semi-hard ball and ran out twenty metres to bowl.
“Chris, come a little closer, remember Luka is only five years old,” I called out.
Chris bowled. Luka swung forcefully, but missed. Four more bowls; all missed. “Chris, come closer still, and slow the ball down. Remember, Luka needs to practice hitting, try to bowl so he can hit it. Think of how you used to bowl for Louise.”
Louise was the magic word. Chris nodded, stepped forward, and bowled slow and easy. Luka’s bat connected with the ball with a satisfying thud, and the ball whizzed off to mid-wicket leg-side. Chris ran gamely after it, and Luka grinned, looking as pleased as Sachin Tendulkar did after scoring a double-century. Chris had found Luka’s sweet spot, and the next several bowls repeated the pattern: a slow bowl, a solid hit to leg-side.
I relaxed. It had taken all day to reach this moment, the moment when the cacophony of suburban life with two busy children quieted, and the only sound that mattered was the deep report of leather on wood. The boys had ceased thinking; they were running on autopilot, focussed only on the ball.
My parents split up when I was four. By the time I was eight, my dad had moved— with my stepmother, stepsister, and stepbrother— to Boston, nearly two hundred miles from the very small town in Vermont where I lived with my mother, my brother, and my sister. I believe my collective parents’ goal was for my siblings and I to visit Boston once a month, but the logistics of transporting three children under ten that distance proved costly and arduous; even so, we averaged a trip every six to eight weeks.
The trips were never easy. They started and ended, almost always, with my little sister in tears as she said goodbye to whichever parent we were leaving: my mother on Friday, my father on Sunday. My blood siblings and I were country bumpkins, more accustomed to the sight of cows than skyscrapers, and Boston overwhelmed us. My father still smiles when he has occasion to remember our first visit to the big city. “Your eyes just glazed over, and your mouths hung open… you were in awe of all the people, and the buildings,” he recounts. While my dad and stepmother were amazingly good at taking the five of us on cultural enrichment trips to the city centre, most of each visit was spent at our Boston family’s home in a well-heeled suburb of Boston (rented where it was de rigueur to own). Even at their house, rather than in the city, I felt like an outsider. My dad and stepmother did what they could to make us feel welcome, but children are like horses, and I could always sense the discord just beneath the surface. My father acted the way he felt a father should act, but his sadness about being a long-distance dad combined with my discomfort in the situation to create an awkwardness that was usually impassable, except for during one activity: sports. My dad loved, and still loves, sports. During his school years, my dad had played baseball and later, American football, to a respectable standard; with five children born within five years of each other at his home, my dad had a ready-made team; how could he not make us play ball?
The rented house my Boston family lived in during most of the years that we visited them regularly was built on a hill overlooking a school; the school playground was routinely left unlocked, and we were free to use it on weekends, a state of affairs that could occur in the 1970’s but would be unthinkable today. More often than not, at some point during a weekend trip, all five of us children would end up with my dad and a baseball, a basketball, or a soccer ball at the playground.
I was not a sporty child. I sat reading books during playtimes at my primary school, never even learning to jump rope properly. I had matured early, and then I went through a few years of excessive puppy fat, with the result that I was never comfortable in my body. But Dad, though he struggled to be a natural long-distance father, was a natural coach, and refused to let me hide behind my insecurities in the outfield. Instead he put me at the batter’s plate.
“Remember, Johnny,” Dad shouted to my stepbrother from where he crouched behind me in catcher position, “Aim for the strike zone, so from her knees to her neck, but lower is better. And throw straight to my glove,”
Johnny took aim and pitched. I swung the heavy wooden bat accurately enough to nick the ball, sending it flying backwards over Dad’s head.
“Foul!” Dad called out excitedly. “Foul ball! Look out Johnny, she might try to steal first…” Dad ran in exaggerated slow motion to retrieve the ball, giving me an opportunity to act on his not-so-hidden suggestion that I studiously ignored. “Oh, no, she’s staying safe on home base, she must want another try. Great pitch Johnny! Now remember, Beth,” Dad said, coming in close and using a stage whisper so that he seemed to be speaking only to me, but was actually speaking to all five of us, “Your job is to look only at the ball. Don’t look at me, don’t look at your brother daydreaming in right field, don’t look at your sister waiting to run home from third base, just keep your eyes on the ball. If you do that, and if you swing with just a little more power, you’re guaranteed to get a hit that will send your sister home,” Dad said.
“Ready?” Johnny called out to me from the “pitcher’s mound,” in this case just a designated spot on the playground.
I sucked air, tightened my grasp on the bat handle, and nodded. “Watch the ball,” Dad intoned behind me.
I narrowed my eyes and concentrated on the ball Johnny had sent flying true. I swung the bat with such power that it threatened to fly clear out of my hands, but it didn’t; instead, it hit the ball with a vicious thwack. I stood, paralysed, as my hit arced through the air towards my brother, who had stopped daydreaming and was now paying close attention. Everything else had ceased to exist— all I felt was the aftermath of the effort, and all I saw was the white circle with the red stitching I had launched into orbit.
“Run!” Dad yelled, snapping me out of my reverie. “Go on Beth, run! Vera, you run too! Come on! Eddie, throw it back to Johnny!”
We all did as we were told. I sprinted towards first, Vera dashed towards home, and Johnny threw to my dad, but whether by chance or by design, Dad fumbled the ball for just long enough for Vera to pass home base.
“Oh, a run for the girls! Heartbreaker, boys! Good fielding though!”
“Hooray!” Vera, Lynn, and I cheered together. That run put us in the lead, three to two.
That moment of transcendence—when the hit, the catch, or the run became the entire world— fed me, but what nourished me even more was my dad’s irrepressible passion for sports and his unwavering determination to share that passion with us, regardless of our abilities. I didn’t feel completely sure, as a child, that my father loved me, but I knew for certain he believed I could hit a ball, and somewhere in the amorphous tangle of my inner circuitry, I sensed that what I did know confirmed the existence of what I couldn’t be sure of.
I thought Luka would keep batting until our time was up, but as soon as the boys’ groove was established, Luka mixed it up. “Now you bat,” he told Chris. Chris asked me with his eyes, from twenty meters away, if he should comply with Luka’s wishes, or stick with Luka’s original plan of all batting all the time.
I nodded at Chris, and he trotted towards our wicket tree, where he handed the ball over to Luka. Luka, in turn, ran a few meters towards where Chris had been standing, but then veered sharply, and threw from silly mid-on. Chris was so surprised that he burst out laughing. “Luka! You can’t bowl from there! You could have taken my head off!” he scolded.
Luka, undeterred, ran wildly in the opposite direction, then bowled from silly mid-off. Chris lay his bat down, and loped towards Luka, who was zig-zagging crazily around the imaginary pitch. “Luka,” Chris said, “Stop for a minute. Look— let’s use this water bottle to show where you should be when you bowl. If you want, you can do a little run-up, but it has to be in a straight line, like this…” Chris demonstrated a leisurely run-up, then bowled to me from the water bottle. I caught the ball and tossed it slowly back to Chris, who pressed it into Luka’s waiting hands. “Try that,” he told Luka.
Luka obeyed. Chris still had to take a few quick steps away from the wicket tree, but he was able to connect with the ball. Chris hit a slow grounder back to Luka, who immediately bowled again, this time with greater accuracy. When Chris began tossing the balls he missed back to Luka, I was made redundant. I stepped away from the action, took a few pictures, and sent the best two to Tina. Her reply, a string of happy emojis, pinged back within seconds.
Four o’clock came and went. At ten past, I told Chris and Luka it was time to wrap up; Freddie’s party awaited. The boys complied, and kit in tow, we began walking towards the party.
“That was fun,” I said cheerily. “Did you enjoy that, Luka?”
Luka nodded seriously. “We’re already far from the tree,” he said.
Chris and I arched our eyebrows at each other miles above Luka’s line of sight. We were no more than twenty meters from our wicket tree.
“Not really,” I said, unable to resist the urge to clarify what “far away” meant in the adult world. “Actually we’re still quite close to the tree.”
“No,” Luka maintained, “We’re not. Where is Freddie’s party? Are you taking me home?”
“Freddie’s party is just a few minutes’ walk from here. I’m not taking you home, your mum is coming to collect you. Which did you like better, batting or bowling?”
“Batting. I didn’t bat the whole time. I bowled too,” Luka said proudly.
“I saw that. You did very well Luka, didn’t he, Chris?”
“Yes. You have the makings of a good cricketer, Luka,” Chris responded.
We had reached the Jelly Tots centre. There were green balloons pinned to the gate. A tall woman with long blonde hair whom I guessed was Freddie’s mother came to greet us.
“Hi Luka! Freddie, come say hello to your friend!”
One of the clutch of three small boys dressed in Ninja Turtle costumes broke away from the snack table and approached Luka. They acknowledged each other silently, then Luka, dressed in his smart cricket pullover and his spacious cricket trousers, followed Freddie back towards the juice and crisps.
“So,” Freddie’s mum said, after a nearly-negligible hesitation, “You must be Luka’s mum?”
I imagined the politically-correct thought process that Freddie’s mum must have quickly engaged in before asking that question, given the very different appearances of the two boys I had with me.
“No,” I said, “I’m just a friend of the family. His mum is coming to pick him up after the party.”
“Ah,” said Freddie’s mum, and I watched bemusedly as the pieces fell into place for her.
“It looks like Luka is all set, but I’ll just say goodbye,” I said, by way of excusing myself.
“Certainly. Yes, he’s fine,” the blonde woman concurred.
Chris and I walked over to Luka, still hovering by the refreshments silently with his Ninja turtle classmates.
“You’re all set now Luka,” I said to our young friend. “Enjoy the party, and your mum will come to pick you up when it’s over. Thanks for playing cricket with Chris.” I nudged Chris pointedly.
“Thanks Luka. You’re a good batter, but you need to work on your bowling,” Chris said, in the candid manner of a twelve-year old. Luka grinned broadly at Chris, evidently both pleased by the compliment and unfazed by the criticism.
“Bye,” I said, to clarify that we were now truly leaving Luka in the hands of Freddie’s mum.
Luka didn’t answer. Freddie had taken hold of Luka’s arm and was leading him, and the other Ninja turtles, towards the party proper.
Chris and I found a comfortable patch of lawn outside the Jelly Tots enclosure and sat down to wait for Tina to arrive with Louise. “Do you mind waiting here,” I asked Chris, “Or would you rather head back over and play more cricket?”
“I’m fine here,” Chris said, lying back on the grass, shielding his closed eyes from the surprisingly bright sunshine.
I savoured the late summer air. All that had come before that moment— the rushing, the missed connections, the irritation— floated silently away, like a helium balloon accidentally released when the holder reaches for something even better. I gazed at the horizon and caught sight of our wicket tree.
“That’s good that you’re fine here,” I said to Chris, “Because you know, we’re already very far away from the tree.”