It was one of those rare sunny Sunday afternoons in August that were inseparable from the aroma of linseed oil and Lyons tea. The one lingered on fingers that had been tending willow bats in need of lubrication while the other was brewing nicely in enamel jugs set out on trestle tables by gingham-frocked cricket team spouses.
A cocoon of warmed time hung over the cricket field, blurring the edges of your vision to all that lay beyond the boundary. It focused your mind upon the ungenteel drama that was unfolding on the pitch, like countless others taking place on village greens up and down the country. That summer, that Sunday, back in the sixties.
The very un-English heat drew moisture from the grass and deposited it in beads upon the fielders’ brows and spread damp patches under the armpits of bowlers toiling in vain.
And then a sudden flaying of arms, a crimson snick of polished leather smearing the edge of a white bat, a chorus of beer-fuelled ‘howzat!’s from the field. The shouts mingled with the buzz of honey bees and other six-leggèd sounds before drifting off on the pollen-laden wind that eased its way across the ripe fields of Essex, from Saffron Waldon in the north, eastwards down to Maldon, where flat-keeled estuary boats lay snoozing this way and that upon the mud flats, while clouds of summer midges danced itchy patterns above their gunwales.
For much of the middle stretch of the twentieth century there stood at the bottom of Hatch Rd., where it joins the Doddinghurst Road, a GPO radio receiving station, formerly operated by the Cable & Wireless Company. Brentwood Radio Station comprised a cluster of sad brick buildings of the type you see in half-tone World War II photographs. It sat single-storied and surrounded by a handful of acres of grassy fields in which had been erected an intriguing array of radio aerials. Most of these were simply upright masts; some were squat and unpretentious poles, others sky-piercing steel barracudas. A few were made in the shape of giant capital Ts which you half-expected to move like monstrous Texan nodding donkeys put out to graze in the fragrant Essex countryside.
Dwarfing all the other aerials were two pairs of mock Eiffel towers, arranged in a square. A towering six, hit by a brawny batsman from the nearest crease, would scarcely reach a quarter of the way up the closest of the magnificent four, notwithstanding any boastful claims later made by the batsman in the Black Horse.
Inside the brick huts stood lines of grey cabinets that were alive with the hum of electricity coursing through their innards. Interspersed amongst them was the occasional desk, at which radio operators in short sleeves sat chatting in Morse code and sipping tea. Bakelite headphones, attached by twisted flex cables to a pair of jack plugs, whispered messages from all over the world into the ears of the operators. The electrical cabinets radiated soporific quantities of heat, much to the satisfaction of the night shift, who took it in turns to get a few hours sleep on camp beds set up between the rows. They needed to be fresh for the needle match with Navestock on the coming Sunday.
Come that Sunday, progress was not good. A pig-hand by trade and a pig of a man by nature, the Navestock slogger was at the crease. He was, it must be said, no ordinary cricketer. To start with, and much to the annoyance of a trio of clipped moustache tut-tutters watching on from deck-chairs, he took to the field in non-regulation black trousers. These were bumpkin’s breeches, course-woven and held up by a length of hemp twine which chafed its way between the white wheals of hairy belly fat that cascaded down beneath the slogger’s shirt. Frayed turnups were prevented from flapping by a pair of rusty bicycle clips from which the shiny plastic covering had long since peeled away. Threadbare grey plimsolls and a once-white shirt with no collar completed the slogger’s garb. He never wore socks.
Sweating profusely under the dual influence of the balmy weather and of the four pints of Tolly Cobbold he’d supped while wolfing double helpings of Sunday roast, the Navestock slogger retook guard then raised his bat to shoulder height. His eyes were small and round. Cunning festered in them. Beneath his blotchy skin and chapped lips this man was as sly as a sow. A slob indeed, but his palms were dry, his grip was firm, his brain was sharp and there was no way you could hope to beat Navestock unless you got him out.
With 30 runs on the board from just two overs, the Pig was getting his eye in. Fresh red marks had been added to those already clustered about the meatiest part of his bat, a sure sign of a batsman with a true eye. He never wasted time on edges thick or thin, nor on stone-wall defence. He didn’t deal in ones or twos or even threes, unless it was to retain the strike. On his home ground in Navestock, a slog of the kind he favoured was likely to sail clear over the trim ash hedges to land in the visitors’ car park, which was a makeshift mud-and-ruts affair in a neighbouring field. The slogger’s idea of fun was to send an adversary home with a broken windscreen by which to remember him.
The Navestock slogger didn’t believe in net practice, nor indeed in anything more strenuous than lifting a tankard in the Red Lion and he had just been given ‘not out’ against the Radio Station cricket team. His malignant eyes swivelled this way and that. He was not amused. The bowler who had appealed so loudly and almost dismissed him was beefy and smiling broadly. And black. To make matters worse, the catch that had not quite carried was taken by another dusky face.
“Bastard darkies!” the slogger seethed under his breath, “I’ll make you pay for that”.
Of darkies there were two at the radio station. A cat and a bull. The one from Jamaica and the other from Trinidad.
Since the departure of American forces at the end of the war, black faces had rarely been seen in those parts. The cat from Trinidad was slight of frame, lithe and graceful, a wicket-keeper and opening batsman whose elegant stroke play was too classy for the Sunday afternoon game. The Jamaican was thick-set and powerful. He was a huge-handed man, a gentle giant, blessed with googly magic in his fingers and honey in his voice to match that of Nat King Cole.
“Unforgettable, that’s what you are…” he crooned in reply to the Navestock slogger’s jibe.
With 140 runs on the board when their innings ended, the radio station team would normally have been in a strong position to win the match. Navestock, however, were famous for their ability to knock than many runs off in next to no time when the slogger was at the crease. And today the pigman had extra motivation. He couldn’t abide black men, he reckoned they had no right to be here, he didn’t like the smell of them and if he had his way they’d be on the next banana boat back to wherever they had come from, although he had little notion of where that might be. Now the Bull was bowling at him and the Cat was keeping wicket and he didn’t like it one little bit. He would show them what was what, he of finest Essex stock, a 6-pints a day man, strong as a rock. You could smell his feet from third man.
Post-war Britain was no stardust memory place for Caribbean people but the Cat and the Bull were well-liked at the radio station, not least because of their Sunday exploits with bat and ball. They had to suffer some unfunny jokes and witless remarks but by and large they were treated as equals. The Cat provoked much hilarity the day he got sunburnt and put it down to acid rain. You got the impression he was a lot better educated than he let on. And how the Bull could sing!
“When I fall in love, it will be forever…”.
He crooned Cole couplets constantly, causing many a lady in gingham to avert her eyes and sigh.
When the Bull bowled his lazy-flighted slow deliveries you could hear the ball humming as it wobbled its way through the air. His deliveries looked innocuous enough but lesser batsmen than the slogger were often deceived by them. The latter, on the other hand, clouted them for four after four and followed up with a string of sixes. The ‘runs remaining’ total was diminishing at an alarming rate. It was time for a change.
On came the radio station’s fast left-arm bowler, long-sleeved as always in all weathers. He measured out a carefully calculated 31-step run into the crease, fifteen of which were a waste of time for invariably he faltered at the 16th step. Seen from above his run-up looked like a piece of string with a tangled knot in the middle. He was not a tall man but thanks to the speed of his arm and a whip of the wrist he was able to extract a wicked bounce from the patch of clover that grew conveniently on the pitch just shy of the batsman’s reach.
Whoosh! The first ball shot past the Pig’s snout before he had time to react. His eyes narrowed. The second delivery was so wayward that the Cat, agile as he was, was unable to catch it and it flew off towards an apologetic looking man who had been posted on the boundary because of his legendary fear of the ball. He made as if to block the wayward delivery, which was heading straight for him, but at the very last moment he snatched his hands away, eliciting a chorus of groans from around the ground.
“Call yourself a man? Get a grip on it with your hands for God’s sake!” harrumphed one of the tut-tutters.
“He washes them in Fairy liquid,” agreed another, moustache twitching furiously as if trying to dislodge a midge.
The third delivery was straight and low and it hit the slogger full in the belly. He squealed like a sow and foul smells emanated from every available orifice of his body.
“Sorry!” lied the fast bowler, concealing a smirk.
An angry-looking lump swelled up on the apex of the slogger’s paunch. Side on, it looked as though one of Sabrina’s bosoms had been stuffed up his shirt, nipple and all.
The rest of the over passed uneventfully as the slogger recovered his aplomb and the fast bowler kept bowling wide. However, wickets were soon tumbling at the other end, meaning the slogger was running out of partners.
Setting off to change ends after a rare maiden over, the Cat too began to sing.
The Cat was not blessed with the Bull’s suave baritone phrasing but his tenor voice was more than enough to get the Pig’s goat. The Pig stepped in front of the Cat to stop him passing.
“Hey Sooty, you speaka di Inglish?” he snarled.
The Cat froze, one foot in front of the other, an impeccably upturned white shirt collar framing the glistening blackness of his elegant neck, upon which stood out one vein, pulsing ominously.
“You go cleana di cars in your own fuckin’ country!” spat the Navestock slogger, in a voice so low that only he and the Cat could hear.
An instant of tension, like a fingernail scraping along a blackboard, electrified the air about the two men as they faced each other down. Then, with barely perceptible motion, the Cat stretched and angled his neck until his face was right in that of the Pig’s. He spread his lips and calmly articulated the next phrase of his song.
“… means don’t forget you are my darling…”
The Pig turned away in disgust. The next time he took strike against the left-arm quickie he produced a stroke of such venom that the ball streaked head-height back past the bowler and arrowed at the same height directly towards the apologetic man, now stationed at long on.
He never knew what hit him. One moment he was gently humming “Autumn Leaves” to himself while gazing at the gingham ladies and the next he was lying prostrate on the boundary with imaginary butterflies circling his head and an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile etched on his inert features.
“Answer me, my love,” urged his gingham wife until he came round and whimpered “I’m hurtin’…”. A former ballerina, she loved him dearly even if nobody else did, which just goes to show what a many splendoured thing love is. Once in a while these foolish things happen.
An argument ensued as to whether the Pig’s shot was a six or a four, the ball having cleared the boundary courtesy of the apologetic man’s head. ‘Retired hurt’ the scorer wrote against his name as a spotty kid came on as the extra man.
“Reckon you’re clever, don’t you, nature boy?” the Navestock slogger enquired surlily of the Bull, “but who’s sorry now?”
The Bull looked as if he might rip the limbs from the Pig’s pink body.
“Don’t blame me,” sneered the latter, “it was just one of those things.”
The Navestock slogger sniggered as he returned to the crease with as much swagger as it is possible to pack into a waddle. His next shot went for six but since it was the last ball of the over he lost the strike. He watched on sourly as three more wickets fell in quick succession at the other end, leaving him with only No. 11 as a partner and ten more runs required to win the match and put those damned darkies in their place.
The Bull was back on to bowl. Opening his shoulders, the Navestock slogger slammed two more fours to put his team within two runs of victory. Then came the last ball of the over.
“It has to be this ball,” the Pig told himself, “a six over that stupid Eiffel Tower of theirs; humiliate that slobbering darkie.”
And that, it must be reported, is precisely what he did.
He’d done it again; saved the day for his side. His team-mates cheered jubilantly from the trestle tables and the tut-tutters tutted as the gingham ladies wondered why on earth their menfolk took this silly game so seriously.
Both the Cat and the Bull were inconsolable, the rest of the radio station team were on their knees. Meanwhile, the Navestock slogger was running around his wicket in demented fashion, taunting the losers and whooping.
“What a complete and utter bastard,” thought the left arm quickie.
The Cat came and put an arm about the Bull, comforting him as best he could. Never before had the Bull’s googlies been so battered. Together they faced the music, two strangers that a hostile country had forced into being brothers. The Pig caught sight of them. Running two fingers across his lips, he made blubbering noises. Next he flung his bat to the ground and began leaping up and down, cackling like a chimpanzee.
Things degenerated quickly after that. A melee broke out in the middle of the pitch, during which some lasting friendships were made as white men scrapped alongside black. It was an unsightly spectacle for a Sunday afternoon. Eventually, the Navestock slogger emerged from the tussle sporting a bloody snout and … no trousers!
Not only had the Pig lost his non-regulation breeches but, as everyone could now plainly see, he was wearing no underpants. The black men’s eyes widened as they focused upon the Pig’s nether regions. The Cat spluttered in disbelief. This explained a lot of things.
“Lordy man, how you ever gonna have kids?”
A broad smile returned to the Bull’s face. He straightened up, raised an imaginary microphone to his crooner’s lips and, looking the Pig straight in the eye, broke into song.
“Unforgettable, in every way, that’s what you are…”
This piece contains references to song titles by Nat King Cole. No music collection should be without them! They are cited here for educational purposes only and are the property and copyright of their owners.