This story is an orphan. It has never had a proper home, so, bearing in mind this is the 100th anniversary of the Great War, I’ve decided to put it up here.
It is one of a dozen streams which flow from the top of Crow Fell – run-off water which soaks into the layers of spongy peat, then deeper, insinuating itself into the cracked granites and basalts which make up the vertebrae of the Pennines. At first it is nothing more than a sheen of wetness, reaching under tumbled dry stone walls. But then it finds a crack in the land, a favourable slope. and it becomes a stream. At first it is no wider than a man’s stride and a few inches deep, but by the time it reaches the village it has become an apprentice river, with swirls and back-currents- a place of luminous shadows and splinters of reflected sunlight- and small brown trout.
Ken was behind the bar, polishing glasses.
“You’ll catch nothing this afternoon,” he said, “Why not try later ?”
“I’ll bring you a nice couple of brownies back, “ I said, “You can cook them for my supper.”
I turned right outside the Cricketers’ Arms and headed over the stone bridge. There was a promising patch of shadow under the willows on the right hand side. I would start there. Ken always belittled my chances of success when I set out , and feigned amazement when I brought a couple of trout back. It was the friendly, bantering relationship that only relative strangers can maintain .
There are times when everyone needs to stand on a riverbank and stare into running water. As I pushed my way through the willowherb on the bank, I thought smugly that Ken was wrong. A hot August afternoon is not a bad time to fish a small trout stream. Sunlight on the water masks incautious movement on the bank and the trout become lazy and careless.
I thrashed the water for half an hour, working the fly close under an overhanging bank. If there was a trout there, he was asleep. I decided to try further downstream.
Past the bridge, the river broadened out into a smooth procession of amber coloured water, thirty feet or so from bank to bank. My side of the river was pasture, with half a dozen black and white cows fifty yards behind me . Across the river was the village cricket field- a green oval with a wooden pavilion . I tried a couple of experimental casts, letting the fly float downstream past a couple of likely spots. I felt the tiniest pluck on the line, but struck too late. There was a fish there, though.
After a while there is only the river. It becomes the focus of every sense. Below the surface glitter you can see fronds of grey weed, streaming in the current, the angular shadows of jutting rocks, and tiny bubbles, rolling and tumbling, like faults in old glass. And all the time you feel the stretch of your shoulders as you cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve.
I do not know when I first became aware of the cricketers- some time in the late afternoon, I suppose, when the sun lay across my back like a weight. I remember looking up and seeing the two batsmen cross in the middle of the wicket, stealing a quick single. The patter of applause which followed sounded like rain on dry leaves.
I had no more bites that afternoon, though something made me carry on fishing for a while longer . But it became an automatic, mindless thing and I found my attention drawn more and more to the cricket match on the opposite bank.
There is something soothing about the ritual of cricket. I watched the bowler lumber into his run-up and the fielders close around the batsman like a fist. I saw the swing of his shoulders and heard the ‘plock’ of bat on ball a moment later. A leisurely single. More applause. Someone came out of the pavilion. I think he was wearing a striped blazer and carrying a tray of drinks, but I was too far away to be sure. A girl in a long dress was standing by herself on the far boundary. She waved and he walked towards her.
End of the over. The two batsmen met in the middle for a quick conference while the fielders changed over. One of them came walking across the field towards me. There was a grass stain on one leg of his cricket whites and an old school tie round his waist instead of a belt. He could not have been more than eighteen, though his close cropped fair hair made him look older.
“Hi there !”
I called across the stream and waved, but he turned away to watch the bowler as he started his run.
As the light thickened and the afternoon flowed into evening, I gave up all pretence of fishing and packed my rod away. I sat on the bank and watched the match.
It was a hard fought contest, full of slashing stroke play and dramatic catches. The fielders moved in and out with every ball, like a slow pulse, and the batsmen loped awkwardly between the wickets. Every alternate over the boy came back and took up his position on the opposite bank. There was something distant and preoccupied in his expression and I did not call to him again.
And then it happened. I heard a ‘thwack’ as the batsman hoisted an easy delivery high over the slips. I could see the ball, a black dot against the purple tinted sky, and the boy running backwards, arms outstretched for the catch. But it was too long. The ball flew across the river and landed with a thud in the grass beside me. Stooping I picked it up. Ten yards away the boy was facing me on the opposite bank. There was a look of puzzlement on his face, as though he was seeing me for the first time. I could hear clapping and a distant cheer in the dusk behind him. He raised one hand to his eyes, as though looking into a bright light.
I drew back my arm , threw the ball back across the dark water and heard it slap into his cupped hands. Another ragged cheer went up; the other players were running back to the pavilion, their white shirts flickering like moths in the twilight. The match was over.
The boy paused for a moment and lifted his hand in a kind of wave, then turned away into the gathering shadows.
“It was quite a match,” I said, “The last man in hit a marvellous six- it came right across the river. I had to throw it back to the lad who was fielding on the boundary.”
Ken looked up from the pint he was pulling.
There was no match today,” he said quietly, “Our next fixture is a fortnight away..”
I thought for a moment that he was joking, but then I saw a strange, almost guilty look on his face.
“But I watched it ! I sat on the bank and watched it right through to the end !”
Ken placed my pint carefully on the bar.
“It doesn’t happen often,” he said, in and odd, apologetic tone, “I’ve only know three other times in the twenty years I’ve been here. You have to be here on the right day, you see…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about..”
“The anniversary,” said Ken, “Wait here.”
He went through into the back bar and returned a moment later with a framed picture under his arm.
“Look at this.”
It was one of those group photographs which hang on pub walls, ignored for years once the people in it have died. The glass was misted with tobacco smoke and the two figures on the far right had been bleached into pale shadows by the sunlight.
“Two cricket teams,” said Ken, with a hint of pride in his voice, “ This village and Lowton. There’s always a lot of rivalry between us. We often end up playing against each other in the Shield Final. This photograph was taken at the beginning of the last century…August 3rd 1914…”
He looked at me.
“The day before the First World War broke out…”
“it was a real cliffhanger by all accounts. They were five runs behind and the umpires were getting ready to draw stumps at the end of the over. We thought we’d got it made. Then on on the last ball, their lad hit a six across the stream….just like you saw. The following day both teams met up at the station and went into Leeds to enlist. They were all dead within a year…all of them.”
I stared at the photograph, trying to see in their bright, open faces some hint , some shadow of the horror which lay in wait for each one of them. Then I found him, standing at the back with arms folded, looking directly into the camera. His face had that same expression of puzzlement and uncertainty I had seen earlier.
“That one there,” I said, “He was fielding on the boundary. Who was he, I wonder ?”
“My great-uncle Bob,” said Ken, “My Grandad’s eldest brother.”
I left Crowfield the following morning. The weather had broken and thick grey cloud hunched over the hills. As I drove over the bridge the river was nothing more than a ribbon of blank space between two fields, without depth or life. By the time I had reached the top of the hill it had started to rain.