Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cricket Noir

Cricket Noir
A Short Fiction
By Terry Coffey

In the fading twilight, nobody hears you scream. Correction: They hear you. They just don’t pay any attention. Not even the umpires.

That thought was etching itself slowly on my brain like a cheap tattoo from a dirty needle as I sat on the ground pondering my next move. I was trying to decide whether or not to stand back up after a nasty bouncer had come at my head out of the darkness like a demonic express train pouring out of a railway tunnel.

It actually wasn’t much of a choice. In this business you don’t last long or get many calls to play if you can’t handle a little dirt and danger. I was here to do a job, plain and simple. Do the job in as honest a way as possible. Any other way could only lead to being dropped. Or being branded a coward and having every head hunter in the league spoiling for a shot.

So I stood up. The stars were coming out over my head, making me think that, on this occasion, my assigned task was appropriately named. I was the night watchman, sent in to survive the final over of the day and protect our marquee batsmen so they might live to bat another day. Not a pretty business, but, in fast-fading light on a dark and dangerous cricket pitch not much is pretty. At least not close up.

This happens all the time in my business. From a distance I’m sure it all looks very calm and serene. Perhaps a late evening picnic with a fine wine or local craft beer would be in order. But there in the middle, with the darkness gathering on your eyes and shoulders like moss and trailing vines, it’s anything but serene. It’s mean and deadly and those who want to survive need to keep their wits about them. So I ignored the frigid beauty of the stars beginning to twinkle knowingly above, took my guard and hoped like hell that earning my daily crust of bread wasn’t going to involve having to pay for any costly dental work to allow me to eat that crust.

The next ball that rifled out of the darkness of the bowler’s hand wasn’t quite as short as the first, but was almost as dangerous. It thudded short of a length with the sound of a blackjack fracturing a skull, then fizzed up at my throat like a guided missile. Just in time my bat was there to intercept the blow. This time the sound was more like that of a small caliber pistol dispensing a soft-nosed bullet into the back of a corrupt gambler’s head, and thanks to my soft hands the ball dropped to the ground at my feet with just as much life and future.

Cases like this are always the toughest ones to crack. So it is always a point of pride with me that I’m the guy who gets called on to handle it. Don’t get me wrong: The flamboyant all-in-white gents who populate the rarified air at the top of the order are necessary in this business. They attract the money, the fans, the accolades and they do the big, important, match-winning jobs like scoring fifties or hundreds. Down here in the low rent district, though, you’ve got to have guys like me. Guys who bowl or keep wicket, guys with rock in their jaw and steel in their eye. Guys who can take it and dish it out. Guys who crack the case and get the job done through a combination of luck, skill, street smarts and determination. Guys who survive.

Ball number three reminded me of a featherweight dancer I once knew. Mona was tiny and beautiful and she would dance seductively and lightly toward you, all welcoming and promise until she laid you out with the help of a roll of nickels in her small fist. It looked and felt like a slower ball as it emerged from the grey. I skipped eagerly toward it like a mark going for a grifter’s best line. But it spat off the pitch as though propelled by a chemical reaction and caressed my jaw like Mona’s roll of nickels. I fell to earth I knew not where for the space of several seconds.

When I stood up again I wasn’t sure if the brightening stars were in the sky or in my head, which was now more or less the consistency and usefulness of mush. There were cuts on my lip and chin and the metallic taste of blood was forming on my tongue, but other than that I appeared to be in one piece. I couldn’t say the same for one of the fielders. In this business there are always innocent victims, and the death’s head ball that rose inconveniently out of a pock in the pitch and bounced off of my face had found a much more devastating target to end it’s painful trip in the cupless lap of the unfortunate first slip. As he writhed in pain I knew there was nothing I could do. And their physio wasn’t going to chance a trip out onto the pitch. Any delay would force the umpires’ hand and the day’s play would end. So they left the poor sap there, rolling on the ground, his face a mask of pain that burned out even through the gathering darkness and seared an image into the eyes of every man standing on the field.

As I wobbled to the crease to take guard once again, one of the other fielders decided to help out the bowler. There’s always at least one of these wise guys on every team. This one was an Aussie and, like most Aussies I’ve known he came complete shark tooth grin, a chin that jutted forward dagger-like, eyes like razors and the gaudy patter that comes with insecurity. His patter was no gaudier than most, and in fact less effective. But I was done taking a beating. Finished with being the patsy. Sick of being knocked around like the new kid on the playground.

As the bowler appeared with menacing intent and hurled the ball toward me, I knew exactly where it was going and what I was going to do with it. It was another throat-high delivery, dangerous as a gunshot. But the previous delivery’s knockdown of me and injuring of the slip fielder had apparently caused the bowler to take a couple of miles per hour off the velocity. I rose with venom, bringing the bat up and then downward with the grunt of a drunk expending all of his energy on one last attempt to climb into bed. The bat connected with the ball with such ferocity that my joints ached with the vibration.

The Aussie never had a chance. I watched in slow motion as the ball homed in on his middle and knew that, cup or not, he would be unable to speak for several minutes when the missile hit its target. He collapsed straight down in a pile, imploding like a derelict building being demolished by explosive charges. I felt a little sick myself as he lay there, retching onto the pitch and crying for his mother.

I was banking on ball number five being a yorker. After the previous two deliveries I figured the bowler would want to try something to just get rid of me, before anyone else got hurt. Sometimes that what you have to do in my job. Rattle enough cages and make people mad or disgusted or exhausted enough to just want the whole thing over with.

It was in fact the yorker that came my way, and it went back in the opposite direction twice as fast. The ball flew away on a curve like the small of a woman’s back, hovered magically above the line separating the darkening ground and the still-faintly-lit sky then fell over the rope for a straight six.

That left me with just one more ball to face. One more bullet to dodge, then I’d head back to my rooms to sit by the open window with a bottle of rye. I’d watch through lightly breezed curtains as the night city played and crawled and coughed in the neon moonlight and I might even think about Mona and her roll of nickels.

The bowler ran in as though he’d been saving his energy for this one final sprint toward immortality. He emerged from the outfield and gathered speed like a 1957 Buick, hard and shiny and deadly with the high beams completely focused on one point, one destination: my head. My eyes and mouth were open wide as he leapt into the air and began his delivery.

I wanted to scream and duck, but as I said at the very beginning, in the fading twilight, nobody hears you scream. Correction: They hear you. They just don’t pay any attention. Not even the umpires.

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