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Silly Mid Off

by

Dave Ainsworth

ISBN 0-9533512-1-1

Explore Pembrokeshire's Humour

 

"O, gwae fi, wedi gweld yr hyn a welais, gweler beth a welaf!"
"O, woe is me, to have seen what I have seen, see what I see!"
Shakespeare, Hamlet

 

SILLY MID OFF

BY

DAVE AINSWORTH

 

Dedicated to Maggie, William and Tom

 

Contents (this novel contains hyperlinks to and from the below List of Chapters - click on the *** icon to navigate your way around):

LAST INNINGS ***

OPENING SHOTS ***

FIELDING POSITIONS ***

BATTING ***

BOWLING ***

DIFFICULT DELIVERIES ***

NET PRACTICE ***

CLOSE OF PLAY ***

 

 

SILLY MID OFF

BY

DAVE AINSWORTH

LAST INNINGS

I

T. Middleton (Captain) .... b. D. Evans .... 0

A yorker! A bloody yorker! Of all the balls to receive first up - a bloody yorker.

A bouncer, yes. He had been set for a bouncer. That was the logical ball. Dai Evans usually opened his vast repertoire of fast bowling with a bouncer. Everyone knew that. Everyone. No-one more so than Tim Middleton who had spent seven seasons mentally digesting facts about the bowling actions, ploys and dangers of the Pwllgwaelod attack. It was a fluke ball. Yes, Tim consoled himself once more, it had been a fluke ball and the embarrassment of being out first ball was put down to the fact that the bowler had not consciously planned such a delivery. Tim had been unlucky.

He had to bury that image. He had to forget it. That awful moment when he had lost sight of the ball as it flew under his bat and then the awful sight of the middle stump landing behind the keeper's head. Blown away like a matchstick in the wind. He was frozen to the spot. Lawler had smirked from the other side. Cocky bastard. He was probably over the moon. But how would he have coped with such a ball?

Thinking of Lawler's supercilious grin had reminded Tim about the phone. Why hadn't Lawler returned his call? He looked anxiously at the clock. 4:57. How he hated digital clocks. He had phoned the message through nearly an hour ago and he knew that Lawler always returned home early on a Friday. But, then again, being an architect, Lawler could do what the hell he liked. Tim jealously contemplated the actual usefulness of architects and immediately drew the conclusion that they were all bastards. What do they actually do anyway? Ponce about drawing plans and dreaming up grandiose schemes involving the spending of other people's money. 'Bunch of crooks', that's how his cousin Alan put it. Poor old sod. Cousin Alan had tried for years, without success, to sue an architect who had been used in the redesign of his kitchen and dining room. The architect, who had a particularly stupid name that Tim failed to recollect at this moment, had been blamed by Alan for contracting a local building firm to do the work. The building firm went into voluntary liquidation soon after, leaving cousin Alan with an overdraft, two holes in his ceiling and a pile of drying cement outside his back door.

Tim glanced, once again, at the phone, willing it to ring. It did not. Where the hell was he?

If only Lawler would phone, Tim would be free to go. Perhaps he'll phone Bill Nicholson later and see if he's heard. Yes. With the Festival Match tomorrow, it would be prudent to ring the vice-captain in any case.

Tim put his jacket on and had a final stare at the phone. His eyes shifted furtively to the clock. 5:11. He sighed. Resigned to the fact that Lawler was not going to call. He saw that smug, greedy grin in his mind once more just after his middle stump had landed.

A yorker ... of all the balls to receive first up ... A bloody yorker!

II

C.M. Lawler ... c. E. Jones b. Morris ... 13

The water fell down his shoulders like a warm cloak. His body ached and his temples throbbed. The warmth of the shower began to calm him slowly. He reached out for the soap and began to rub it vigorously across his chest.

He suddenly felt a sharp sense of anger filling his mind. Discovering that statement under the car's front seat had come as quite a shock. How on earth could any woman spend so much in one day! Bitch. Julia not only held a second class degree in history, she also held a first class one in shopping. He would have to tell her. He would have to make it plain that, even on two salaries, Julia's ambition to buy every single outfit in 'Marks & Spencer' before Christmas could be neither tolerated nor afforded. This time she would have to listen.

Although Julia showed little in the way of self-restraint when it came to controlling a bank balance, she was still, he considered, a remarkably capable woman. A perfect partner in many ways - for him at least.

As he turned the shower off and stepped slowly out of the cubicle, he heard his wife shout something from downstairs. He reached for the towel and held it against his dripping skin. He listened again.

"Are you out yet?"

What a ridiculous question. What a pointless question. "Yes" he answered, annoyed by his own meekness.

"Don't forget to ring your cricket man up" she barked as he opened the door of the bathroom, "Angus and Jane will be here soon."

Christopher Lawler padded across the landing floor and into the bedroom. He heard his wife step lightly up the staircase. He draped a shirt across his shoulders and started the dreaded procedure of dressing for dinner.

"Are you going to ring him?" Julia inquired, facing her husband for the first time that day, "he's rather insistent, isn't he?"

"Who?"

"Your cricket pal."

Lawler hated that phrase. Why didn't she shut up? "Oh he can wait," he said as he selected a tie, "it'll be about the Festival Match."

"Oh God, I suppose that means another day away. Why don't you play golf, I'd see more of you."

"Because I don't like golf."

"Angus plays golf. He enjoys it."

"Angus also enjoys amateur dramatics, but I don't intend joining him and dressing up as Widow Twanky every Christmas just to suit you."

Julia sniffed and thought it politic to ignore the comment. As she considered her appearance once more in the full-length mirror, her eyes fell upon Christopher's cricket bat, which was propped up neatly against the terracotta wall like some holy relic.

"Chris, don't leave that thing there."

"It's not a thing - it's a bat. A wooden bat."

"Put it in the shed then. We don't want it here."

Chris, who was now fully dressed, picked up the bat and without a word, he sauntered downstairs. He wondered for a moment if David Gower had ever experienced such problems. Whether he had had to put up with women telling him where to put his bat or suggesting where he should shove his jockstrap. He doubted it. He could've probably put them where he liked. A pad on the fridge perhaps, a sun- hat on the stair, even a box on the mantelpiece, if it suited him.

While considering such weighty matters at the foot of his staircase, Chris practised an imaginary cut shot through the covers and imagined that he too could cut like the England ex-captain. He tried another one. This time, however, the fantasy was spoiled as the reproduction Van Gogh on the wall received a thick edge and fell to the floor.

"Chris! What the hell was that?"

"Don't worry - no damage."

He had a half century in his mind for tomorrow. He was certainly in form this season: 25, 55, 27, 40 and a decent 33 on that dreadful wicket last week.

As he picked up and put back the painting he had always hated and begged Julia not to buy in the first place, he suddenly remembered the statement. He would have to tell her. She must be told. This time she would have to listen.

III

B. Nicholson .... b. D. Evans .... 4

"Apparently it's the same team as last week. Old Giffo wants one last game and there's no-one to replace him yet anyway ... From what Middleton said Bracewell seems to be the twelfth man ... Yes I know ... yes ... Alright then, David ... Yes. Bye."

Bill Nicholson replaced the receiver firmly and pushed away the leather bound account book that was lying open in front of him. How was he expected to do his weekly accounts with David Watson et al phoning him every minute asking daft, unimportant questions about tomorrow's match? Why couldn't they leave him be? After all, he was just the vice-captain and it was Middleton's job to advise, dictate and inform.

As he pulled out a cigarette from the packet that had somehow fallen between the chair and its cushion, Bill suddenly realised that he had always hated the Festival Match. It had become a somewhat predictable grudge match between north and south and, because this was Pembrokeshire, between Welsh speaker and non-Welsh speaker. That in itself wouldn't be so bad, if only Middleton wouldn't see the annual match as some kind of holy war against the infidel. Given the choice he would quite happily withdraw his services, but the plain fact of the matter was that there was no-one to take his place. Besides, as vice-captain, he had to be there, if only to counteract the Churchillian tones of Tim Middleton.

He enjoyed most games as a rule. Initially, he had only joined Hodgeston Cricket Club because Mike Turner had persuaded him to on account that Bill had represented his College for two years. College - that seemed a lifetime ago.

After College, Bill had become a buyer for 'Liberty Bell' books for twelve years, before he set up on his own, establishing a book shop in Tenby. He had joined Hodgeston Cricket Club in his early thirties, some fifteen years ago. Then, he reflected, the team boasted a very good side. With Masterton and young Thomas bursting in like imitations of Snow and Willis, and with Jack Levit knocking the ball all over the field. Bill had relished the game every week. Things were certainly different now. While his shop had grown in stature, the team had declined rapidly. This year they had only twice experienced the sweet taste of victory.

The team needed younger players like Bracewell, Wallace and Tucker, who all too often were sidelined by a captain who put his faith in an unchanged side week after week. One day, Bill considered, Middleton would have to accept change or offer his resignation. As he leaned back in his chair, he knew that Middleton was unlikely to do either.

IV

D. Watson .... b. D. Evans .... 0

All in all, it had been a dreadful season for David Watson. It was a fact, which was being brought home to him as he took a cursory look at the recent bookings listed in the guests' register of the Harry Tudor Hotel. There had been no-one since that German couple had stayed a couple of nights last week. He didn't feel he could include the guest who didn't pay for either the bed or the breakfast this Thursday. He had, he remembered with some shame, been rather hard on poor Lucy, who he knew was at fault. Imagine not suspecting such an obviously made-up name! He blamed the girl's lack of education for failing to recognise that Barnaby Rudge was a novel by Charles Dickens and not the likely name for a Liverpool salesman on his way to a conference in Cork.

Still, at least there was Hugh Jones' stag party next Friday and that should keep the 'good ship' Harry Tudor afloat for a while yet. He would have to give him a ring later to confirm numbers and final details.

It had all been different this time last year. Then he was Councillor David Watson and his hotel was doing a roaring trade. He was a man of standing and a man of influence. He was giving advice on building projects, investment schemes and on how to influence other local politicians. Nowadays, no-one would ask his advice on which television programme they should watch. All the respect had gone and all the friends had evaporated like a puddle in the sunshine. If only Donald hadn't booked those strippers. If only Donald hadn't felt a need to express his rampant libido. If only he hadn't been so stupid, so carefree. If only ...

He took a momentary look at the photograph of himself as a younger man shaking hands with Geoff Boycott. The picture, taken at a charity match in 1978, had always been treated by Watson with deserved reverence and there it hung, pride of place, in the main lobby. The photograph reminded him that at least there was the Festival Match tomorrow. Life had some meaning, after all. He was determined to make an impression there by scoring some well-needed runs. His scores this season had been dire, with only one half century. He would have to do better tomorrow.

"Goodbye, Mr Watson." The voice belonged to June, the part-time receptionist.

"Oh, bye, June."

"I forgot to say that a Mr Jones phoned earlier."

"Yes?"

"The stag do's off. Bride had cold feet, or something."

Watson could only just contain his anger. "Bloody marvellous. Thanks, June," he said, in a voice that expressed no sign of gratitude.

She waltzed out through the lobby door and a look of hatred followed her out. If things didn't change soon, he would be forced to make one or two of his staff redundant and that dozy cow would be the first to go, he thought. Sighing heavily, he closed the book in front of him.

All in all, it had not been a good season for David Watson.

V

A. Gates .... c. Dixon b. D. Evans .... 4

Tony Gates licked his lips as he opened the bottle of cheap white wine. He had bought the bottle, which had an appealing picture of an idyllic French farm slapped across its label, at the local supermarket in readiness for tonight. He was quite certain that the dry French wine would perfectly compliment the hake and chips that they had just devoured. After offering little resistance, the cork was prised out and he poured the urine-like liquid into two rather dusty wine glasses. He hoped too, that Julie would offer a similar lack of resistance later on. One of the glasses had a chip on the side but they represented the sum total of Tony's glassware collection.

Grabbing both glasses firmly, Tony left the tatty kitchen and entered the even tattier lounge. Julie sat there, perched on the sofa like a crow with haemorrhoids. She had been thinking about the colour of the carpet - was it really meant to be off-white or was it was just plain dirty? Tony stood in front of her and held out the drinks in a triumphant manner: "It's only plonk I'm afraid. Nothing special."

"Oh, it looks good," she uttered, with a little more enthusiasm than she actually felt.

With a sudden move towards chivalry, Tony offered his companion the glass without the chipped lip.

"Get your laughing gear round that," he said, moving the greasy chip-paper wrappers from table to floor, to allow him sufficient room for his glass.

"Thanks." She gently tugged at the hem of her skirt nervously as she leaned back slightly into the uncomfortable sofa. He sat next to her and smiled.

"Did you enjoy the food?"

"Oh, yes," she gurgled.

"Fair play, you always get a good meal from 'The Hippy Chippy'. He's quite cheap too."

He's right there, she thought. A right cheapskate, I've ended up with here. He wasn't exactly flash with the cash. They didn't even get a cab. Still, she quite liked his bouncy manner and polite charm. She might even want to see him again.

Tony put his long fingers on her rather chubby right thigh and began to caress it. Although Tony imagined that he was making a move Valentino would have been proud of, it had, in fact, all the sexual appeal of a baker kneading his dough. He sensed her frigidity and quickly put it down to a lack of alcohol. "Drink up, I've got a whole bottle," he said, in the manner of a man who had a cellar full.

She sipped from her glass and was suddenly aware of the stench of vinegar that pervaded the room. His head came closer to hers as he attempted a kiss to her cheek. She, in turn, quickly spied an awful landscape picture that was hanging lopsided on the wall. She used this to alter the direction of the proceedings.

"That's a nice painting," she said with all the enthusiasm she could muster.

Tony glanced at the dreadful picture and said flatly, "Yeah, I painted that."

"You didn't. You're joking."

"Yes, I am joking actually. It came with the flat. I hate it!"

"Yes. I suppose it is horrible."

Tony made another move as she uttered the last syllable. He brushed against her lips and as he did so, put his right arm across her left shoulder. With his left arm tucked neatly around her back, he pressed against her. Unfortunately, his ardour was not reciprocated and this was clearly demonstrated when Julie pushed against his shoulders. She did it gently at first and then when this failed, made her effort more forceful. She won the struggle when, using a push equivalent to that of a Russian shot-putter, she forced him off the sofa in one fluent action. He fell awkwardly onto the table, his arm crashing against the top. There was a sickening crack, followed by a heart-wrenching groan from Tony and a repressed yelp from Julie.

Tony writhed in pain, as he tried to nurse his right arm with his left. Tears filled his eyes as the pain shot through his whole body.

"Tony, are you alright?" She asked, idiotically.

His teeth ground together as he struggled to speak. He was close to passing out. "I think," he said at last, "I think I've broken my arm."

VI

A. Milns ...... not out ...... 38

The Festival Match tomorrow would be the fortieth such match in fifty-two years. It was something of a minor miracle that only twelve had ever been cancelled and this was largely due to the mild maritime Pembrokeshire weather. The only exception had been the 1955 match which was promptly abandoned after a pitch invasion by a herd of cows destroyed the square and deposited enough manure to re-fertilise a small African nation.

The annual fixture between Hodgeston and Pwllgwaelod Cricket Clubs had been started by Sir John Williams (a passionate cricket supporter who owned great chunks of Pembrokeshire, which included the diverse parishes of Pwllgwaelod and Hodgeston) as part of the local Festival of Britain celebrations following the Second World War. Sir John acted as chief benefactor, sponsor and on occasions, match umpire.

The great traditions of the Festival Match fascinated Arthur Milns, who was re-reading its history through the scorecard books of past games in his study. He felt strongly that Sir John's vision was being kept alive by his own personal interest in the chronicle of the match. He diligently noted the fluctuating fortunes of both teams: highest and lowest scores, batting and bowling averages and the names of all the personnel involved throughout the last fifty-two years. He even had pie-charts and graphs drawn up and displayed in his study to show the changing fortunes of the event. He considered himself the model of a local historian, whereas others merely perceived him to be the most boring man west of Carmarthen.

He also enjoyed the unique moments that the match had thrown up from time to time. He giggled to himself as he remembered that wonderful incident ten years ago when the angry and frustrated wife of Pwllgwaelod's opening batsman had driven her car onto the pitch in a fit of rage. She parked it just short of where the unfortunate man was standing, waiting to receive the first ball. She flew out of the car and demanded that he choose between cricket and her. Thankfully, he chose cricket and the game continued.

Unfortunately, Arthur Milns' great tome on the history of the Festival Match, which had the uninspiring title of 'The Festival Match', did not mention such trivia. Instead it pointed out its background and its singular set of rules.

He shivered slightly as he thought about the importance of tomorrow's game. If Hodgeston should lose, it would be the third time on the trot. Therefore, as specified in Sir John's rule book, the Landsker Cup would be retained by Pwllgwaelod, where it would be permanently housed in their clubhouse. Never before had this happened and, what was worse, the cost of purchasing a new silver cup would have to be met from Hodgeston's funds.

More importantly, perhaps, Hodgeston's pride would sink to an all-time low. Lower in fact, than after last year's debacle. That had indeed been a disaster from start to finish. Scoring only 84 runs had been unforgivable and, modesty aside, if it wasn't for the fact that Milns himself had not struck a decent score, the total would have been a damned sight lower still. Losing by nine wickets had been one of the worst moments Hodgeston Cricket Club had suffered in recent years.

He closed his books quietly and placed them back on the shelf. The thought of tomorrow had depressed him slightly and he was no longer in the mood to review better days. Arthur Milns knew that losing tomorrow would be a catastrophe and, perhaps, the final nail in the coffin of the club he had loved for so long.

Suddenly, the door swung open behind him. "Arthur! It's mother!" His wife cried out. "Mother's gone again!"

VII

G. Griffiths .... c. Dixon b. D. Evans .... 0

Old Giffo walked into his garden and promptly broke wind. He grimaced as he plodded down the back path in the direction of his beloved raspberry patch. The bushes that backed onto the garden were heavily netted and the few remaining berries stood out like red stars against a sea of green and brown.

He slowly opened the gate, bending slightly to reach the low rope latch. He grimaced again. His back, which had always been his Achilles' heel, seized slightly and the pain quivered sharply down his spine. Bending down behind the stumps all season had taken its toll, and in many ways he was relieved that tomorrow's match would be his last.

Giffo, or Edward Griffiths (to give him his correct but rarely used title) had been the guardian of the stumps since 1970 when he took over from 'Lucky' Larry Parsons. Parsons was given his ironic nickname after several incidents, which helped speed an end to an otherwise distinguished cricket career. In 1965, for example, he lost six teeth after being hit by a bat and the very next match his nose was broken by an erratically thrown ball in a run out situation. Two years later, he was hospitalised after a particularly vicious Doberman Pincher ran onto the field and attacked the unfortunate man. Being too slow to follow the example of the rest of the team, who had darted to the pavilion for safety, Parsons ended up requiring fifteen stitches in his right buttock and three tetanus injections in his left.

Giffo smiled at these recollections as he bent down to pick a purple berry that had been hiding behind a dying leaf. He farted again and quickly put it down to the Hungarian Ragout that his wife had cooked for his lunch. Irene's greatest mistake was to have discovered the joys of continental cooking so late in life. The cookery classes she attended, under the watchful eye of Elma Spragg (Mrs) had transformed the mild-mannered wicket-keeper's wife. Gone were the days of pie and mash and apple tart. Now it was Italian starters, Moroccan main dishes and East European desserts. The daily assaults on his digestive system were beginning to get him down. How he hated this change. How he hated foreign food. How he hated Elma Spragg (Mrs).

Much as he liked to blame the domineering cookery teacher, he was convinced that it was his wife who was at fault. She had always been a great believer in the adage - 'more is always best'. This doctrine led her to increase the amounts of certain ingredients that were specified in each recipe. Therefore, she would use a teaspoon more ginger, a little more tabasco and double the amount of curry powder. Giffo's only line of defence against the spicy concoctions was to belch, burp or purge.

Why couldn't she have taken up some other interest, like embroidery, or pottery, or line-dancing ...

He shivered slightly as a protest against a cold breeze, which blew across the raspberries, causing the bushes to rustle. His last game ... It seemed sad for a moment; sad and poignant. Sad in the sense that he had not performed well of late. He was certainly not going out on the high he would have wished for. His tired back had not given him the agility required for the job and it was clear for all to see that he was no Jack Russell. His batting, too, had been nothing short of abysmal this season. Arthur Milns, rather irritatingly, had pointed out that his average with the bat this season was the team's worst at 3.50. Perhaps he could show them a thing or two tomorrow ...

"Giffo! Tea's ready!"

His wife's screech which bit through the air made Giffo wince. He began the slow walk back to the house, with all the joy of a condemned man mounting the gallows.

"Don't let it get cold! It's Lamb Madras!"

"Oh, God!" Moaned Giffo, as he let rip yet another fart.

VIII

M. Brandon .... c. Finney b. Morris .... 12

"It's the next turning on the left."

"Righto, boy!"

The taxi slowed appreciably as it prepared itself to take the turning off the main road. In the dusk they had just passed Jameston. Mike Brandon had spent the whole journey using the scenery to prompt recollections of his young life.

Lamphey Church had reminded him of a Harvest service he had witnessed when he was a toddler. His great-aunt Joan had been keen to show off her infant relative to the members of the congregation. He did not recall much about the service, but he did remember that great-uncle Jack had been to the pub earlier and his breath smelled of stale beer. When they passed the turning for Manorbier, he remembered the first visit to the castle and throwing stones into the sea, imagining that they were boulders being propelled from a giant catapult. Happy, innocent days when Mike's family was complete and protected from the rest of the world.

But, whilst he would miss the physical beauty of Pembrokeshire, he wouldn't miss the realities of high unemployment. It was time to move on. Soon he would be at Bristol University and he doubted he would ever return here, save the odd visit to the family farm.

After completing his 'A' levels two years ago, he had taken time-out in order to resit one exam and get some much needed money behind him. In the winter, the only employment opportunity was to help his dad on the farm, but in the summer he worked at Elmtree Leisure Park. This year at Elmtree, he had been promoted from being a mere rides' assistant to being a performer in the Elmtree Pixie Show. True, dressing up as Eric the Elf had its drawbacks, but he enjoyed the company and he needed all the money he could earn to help him through university. Although, Mr Dymcock, the Entertainment's Manager, had offered him the tempting role of Percy the Pixie King in next year's production, Mike hoped that alternative employment might be obtained in Bristol during the summer holidays.

The Elmtree employees and his father aside, Mike would only really miss his cricket pals. But, then again, he had to qualify that by saying that he would only miss Thommo from that particular group. He had just spent the evening in a Pembroke pub watching that wayward friend getting progressively drunker. Poor old Thommo. He hadn't been the same since his wife left him at the start of the season.

"Just tell me where," warned the driver, conscious that his fare was not paying any attention to where they were going.

Mike quickly pulled himself together. "Oh, another 500 yards or so. We're nearly there."

The driver negotiated a sharp double bend with some timidity and then spotted the sign for Upperbrook Farm.

"This it?"

"Yes, just drop me here, thanks."

He cranked up the handbrake and Mike gave him a ten pound note, which represented the nine pounds required and a one pound tip. After a thank you and a cry of "Goodnight!" the taxi sped away back to Pembroke.

Mike began the long walk down the farm track to the house, pausing only momentarily when in the darkness his trouser leg snared on a blackberry bush; reflecting that the berries were beginning to ripen. He wondered whether his father would still be up. The question was soon answered in the affirmative when he spied light from the kitchen spilling out into the yard. Although an early riser on account of his profession, it had long been his father's habit to stay up late with a warm drink or the occasional whiskey. He would sit in the kitchen quietly thinking about nothing in particular, missing the woman who had been the family's heart and soul. It seemed appropriate that he should spend so many long hours of peaceful contemplation in the room most closely associated with her.

Mike opened the door and smiled gently at his father. The farmer's rugged brow relaxed as he returned the greeting. "You're back early. I was just about to go up."

"I was tired. I didn't fancy a late night, not tonight anyway."

"I was thinking about that fence in the lower field. It needs fixing. Fancy giving me a hand with it tomorrow? It's a two-man job, really."

"Dad, I can't tomorrow. It's the Festival Match."

"Oh, yes. Sorry, I'd forgotten."

"I could help Sunday."

"No, don't worry. Bob'll give me a hand."

"Sorry, dad."

"Don't be daft. It's my fault, I'd clean forgotten about the match."

Mike paused at the door, wondering whether to apologise yet again or to make a move upstairs. "I'll go up, then. See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, 'night son."

"'night, dad."

Mike climbed the stairs, conjecturing as to why his father always made him feel guilty and selfish. He didn't mean to of course, it was just ...

In bed, Mike could not settle. For some inexplicable reason, he could not stop thinking about his mother. He missed her.

IX

G. Thomas .... b. D. Evans .... 4

If Annie were still here the pile of washing-up that Graham Thomas was staring at would not be there. The scene that met his eyes was made up of various sauce stained plates, two saucepans (one containing the remnants of over-cooked potatoes) a grease-ridden frying pan and a profusion of soiled cutlery. Although the sight did not appeal in any sense to Graham, he knew that Annie would be horrified.

He averted his eyes from the abhorrent sight of the sink and panned round to the work units that were littered with take-away boxes, tabloid newspapers and a collection of used tea bags that were mounted like a small hillock on a cracked saucer. Sugar had been spilt next to the sauce smeared electric kettle and two chicken bones, the only remains from a 'Mister Chicken' bargain meal, lay abandoned by the microwave. If Annie were here, all the surfaces would have been clean and all the litter thrown out. This sight would never be tolerated. It had been her routine to wipe the surfaces after each and every tea making operation and a cloth would hardly ever leave her yellow-gloved hands. As it was, Graham had not wiped those once-pristine work surfaces since last week and, as for the washing-up ... No, he didn't want to think about it. He wanted a beer. He wanted another beer.

He walked to the fridge and opened its door with a drunken flourish. A solitary can of lager stood alongside a small block of cheddar cheese, the only other item residing there. Was it really only last week that Graham had been pleasantly surprised by the quantity of goodies that were within? Now the fridge looked barren. He noted the cheese, with its rock-like and bright yellow shell, wasn't looking too fresh. Even he would shy away from using it. Perhaps it would be kinder to give it its last rites tomorrow.

If Annie were here, that salad drawer would be awash with crisp lettuce, rosy tomatoes and a cucumber or two. The remaining shelves would be straining under the great weight of yoghurts (both fruit and natural) milk (both semi-skimmed and full cream) white wine, cheeses (always a wide selection) clotted cream, salad dips, houmous, margarine and mayonnaise. Sadly none of these items were on display.

At least there was the lager. He reached forward and greedily snapped the ring-pull, opening the can with a satisfying crack. He took a sip and then placed the can on the overcrowded work units. His bladder, full with the six pints he sank at 'The Sailor's Rest', told him that a visit to the toilet was imperative. His consumption of alcohol, which had never been modest, had increased since his wife walked out on him after Easter. She had been fed up with his drinking, his moods and his desire to seek out drinking mates, cricket pals or anyone, in fact, in preference to her. He didn't blame her. He couldn't. There was no defence.

As he pushed open the toilet door and tugged aggressively at his flies, Graham noticed, for the first time, that a stench of urine hung menacingly in the air. If Annie were here, that toilet seat would have been so clean, so immaculately hygienic that you could have eaten a sandwich of your choice off it. In addition, there would have been the sweet, sickly smell of an inexpensive air-freshener and blocks of blue loo- freshener metamorphosing the water into a kind of Caribbean lagoon.

His urine poured into the water like an enraged and wayward waterfall, splashing the sides of the bowl and, on occasion, the wall behind the bowl. Upon completion of his task, he pushed down the flush and pulled up his flies. In doing so, he momentarily caught his foreskin between the malicious teeth of the zip. Although the liberal amounts of alcohol in his body anaesthetised the pain to some extent, he still cursed himself for his own incompetence. He gave a short, deep cough and meandered back into the kitchen.

Hodgeston's premier fast bowler was distraught. He felt quite alone. Surveying the mess around him, he felt a deep sense of self-pity burn through his body. Not for the first time today, tears began to well up in his tired, red-rimmed eyes.

If only Annie were here. If only Annie were here now.

X

J. Marsden .... b. D. Evans .... 0

John Marsden lay back on his soft pillows and thought of Joyce. Only two hours ago she had lain here with him; wonderful, voluptuous, sexy Joyce. As refined as a high-born lady and as randy as a butcher's dog on heat. She gave him a real sense of being wanted, of being needed. She desired him and he desired her. It was a deep feeling of self-satisfaction.

For no particular reason, John cast his mind back to recall the first time. He had only gone round to collect a book and, with her husband being out, she spent a long time trying in vain to locate the item for him. John had said that it really didn't matter and then she insisted on giving him a drink and a tour of their Lydstep home. After looking at the new patio, the herb garden and the interesting pine shelving in the lounge, she showed him upstairs. It was there that she had pounced. It was there that she had said she was feeling hot and wanted a glass of water. The water was duly brought by an unsuspecting John, who discovered her lying half-naked in the guest bedroom. For a moment he froze but, after gentle encouragement and assurances that her husband was in Haverfordwest and not expected back until early evening, he was soon in an equal state of undress. They made love rather quickly, as John recalled, and he was home in time to see the news.

From there it went on with meetings arranged regularly at John's flat in Freshwater East. Joyce used various excuses to explain her whereabouts to her unsuspecting spouse - bridge evenings, hen nights and, more often than not, the Young Wives Group.

In truth, their meetings had become less exciting and rather mundane of late. That wasn't to say that he didn't enjoy tonight. It was certainly better than a round of golf or a game of scrabble. He smiled broadly and then let his face drop as he considered the situation in greater depth.

Instinctively, he knew that he would have to end things at some time. Soon, the relationship had to end. He would have to explain that, as a teacher, he could not afford to be linked with any scandal. Yes, he would have to finish it and it was imperative to tell her as soon as possible. But when? Usually, John was a great believer in procrastination, but not in this instance. Things were getting out of control. But, when could he tell her? Tomorrow? Yes, tomorrow. No time like the present. Strike while the iron's hot. But, should he tell her before the game or after? It was all a terrible worry.

John slumped further into the warmth of his pillows and pondered his immediate future. What if Peter found out? Would Joyce tell him in a heated moment? She might, it was possible ... After all, who could tell what she might do in an unguarded moment? John didn't know; that much was sure. They met in secret and made love - that was it. They certainly didn't discuss their relationship or the relationships of others. It was just sex.

At length, John decided to think about it again in the morning. Perhaps then, with his head a little clearer, he could consider the whole predicament a little more logically and a little more dispassionately.

He turned over and, with a mental picture of Joyce in his head, he quickly fell asleep.

XI

P. Stillman .... b. D. Evans .... 1

The cricket ball spun out of his fingers, bounced once and then hit the cat who had been curled up snugly on the bright red duvet.

"Sorry, puss," said Peter Stillman, as the cat fled the bedroom leaving him alone once more.

Where was Joyce? She had been much later than he had expected. She should be home soon. He couldn't understand why exactly, but he found that he often missed his wife when she was out.

Not that he needed Joyce to be his constant companion. He naturally, had his own interests, his own desires that kept him occupied. There was his cricket for a start and then there was his reading. It seemed quite irrelevant that most of that reading seemed to revolve around cricket; its history and its players. But at least he did not sink to the levels of reading the kind of trashy literature that his wife favoured. He turned to check the title of Joyce's latest bedtime read. Its title, 'The Cocktail Waiter', spoke volumes. The first syllable of the word, cocktail, had been written in bold capitals so that anyone particularly short-sighted might presume that the book was a little more racier than it probably was. In any case, its very presence appalled the school teacher.

Cricket aside, Stillman was always very busy with his marking, his assessments and his planning. Teaching, he had decided some time ago, had changed dramatically since he entered the profession in 1977. It was not the Brave New World much promised by vote-hungry politicians, but a territory populated by overworked, stressed-out and highly sceptical people. Many of his old friends, who had anticipated that major changes would not necessarily solve old problems, had left the profession to seek out other opportunities elsewhere. Others clung onto the hope that they might spot the oasis of early retirement appearing on the horizon. The vacuum that remained was filled by a new breed of teacher that was seeping into the profession like a subtle irreversible metamorphosis.

His own headteacher, a man driven by market forces, setting targets and conjuring up grandiose ideas, represented this new breed. Whilst Stillman admired some of the drive and the openness to change, he detested the pressure, the paperwork and the pigeon-holing of children. The philosophy of pushing the many and ignoring the few just to satisfy government statistics, had never really been his cup of tea.

A key turned in the front door lock signalled the return of his wife. Stillman sat bolt upright in bed. He carefully put down the leather cricket ball that he had been spinning from hand to hand, on the bedside table and picked up a biography on Sir Garfield Sobers called 'Go, Gary, Go!'

"Hello!" He called, suddenly remembering that he had finished reading 'Go, Gary, Go!' some two weeks ago. He put it down with a sigh and, glancing across to the bedroom bookcase, his eyes fixed on the car keys he had left there earlier.

He heard the relatively heavy footsteps of his wife mounting the staircase. He could hear her sigh as she clumped across the landing. His heart skipped a beat, knowing, as he did, that she didn't know what he knew. He felt a tingle of excitement like a child who had discovered a wonderful Christmas present in November. He could barely contain himself.

"Oh, what a terrible journey home. The Ridgeway was full of tractors. Terrible," she muttered as she entered the room.

"Oh, dear," he simpered, offering a fragment of undeserved sympathy.

"Terrible," she said once again, as she pulled off her shoes with yet another sigh.

"Did you see Mrs Minton?"

"Who?"

Good. He had her now. "Mrs Minton. I heard she's this year's treasurer."

"Oh ... Mrs Minton!" She said, unable to demonstrate the much needed acting talents that were demanded for such a situation. "No, I'm not really in with that crowd," she sniffed, with an air of faint disgust, "they're all so obvious."

"I heard that she's very nice," he said, without the flicker of a pause.

"Oh?" Inwardly, she was astonished. Did he know something? Had someone said something to him? Was he testing her in some way? All these questions remained unanswered as she decided to bluff it out by changing the conversation. "Have you eaten?" She offered.

"Yes, there were two cold sausages in the fridge. I had those."

"Anyone phone?"

"No, only Middleton."

"Oh, of course, you're playing bat and ball tomorrow."

"Cricket, yes. I'm playing cricket."

"Is it the last match?"

"Yes."

She pulled off her thick tights and stood up slowly. "I might see you play tomorrow. I'd like to."

"Would you?" He answered incredulously, "You haven't been all year!"

"All the more reason to go, then. I might come, I just might," she expressed softly, as the blouse fell away from her shoulders.

Stillman said nothing. He sniffed the air, which had become somewhat polluted by Joyce's obtrusive perfume. As Joyce removed her bra, she noticed the abandoned car keys for the first time.

"Did you go out tonight?"

"No," he lied as he sunk his body back into the bed.

"You left your car keys here on the bookcase."

"Did I?" He said without an element of surprise.

"Yes," she replied simply, as her nightie was pulled over her head. She turned the lights off.

He knew. He definitely knew and, what was more, he knew that she knew as well.

OPENING SHOTS

LATE CUT

It had just turned midnight as Arthur Milns rolled his car down towards the beach at Manorbier. His headlights bounced off the castle, illuminating its grey stone like a spotlight striking an impressive backdrop.

As the car weaved its way to the beach, specks of light reflected from the sea glinted and winked an understated welcome. The road, like the car park to his left, was deserted and Arthur wondered whether his hunch was wrong after all.

Milns parked his car on the side of the road and glanced at Audrey who sat motionless in the passenger seat. He nodded slightly, removed the seat belt and sprang out of the vehicle. His wife followed in silence. Milns pulled out a pocket torch from his wax jacket and marched over the sand and pebbles, panning a beam of light across the beach.

"There!" Hissed his wife as she pointed to a silhouetted figure in the distance. Milns sprinted at once towards the dark statue. He was right! His hunch was right!

His mother stood looking out across the expanse of sea. Waves of water were gushing over and between her slippered feet. Her brown stockings were soaked below her bulbous calf muscles and her lower lip was trembling.

"Mum! Mum, we've been looking for you," said Arthur placing a gentle hand around her elbow. "You're getting wet. Come on, love."

"I'm waiting for Nancy. She should be back by now," mumbled the old lady, her eyes fixed on the water.

"Nancy?"

"She should be back by now. I said I'd wait."

"Come on, mum. Nancy's not out there. Come on," coaxed Arthur as he carefully tugged his mother's arm, causing her body to shuffle back out of the water.

"I said I'd wait," she protested, looking at her son for the first time. Her tired eyes, moistened by the cold sea air, shone out like pale oysters against her red and aged face.

"Nancy's not here, mum. She's not here," soothed Arthur turning her so that her crooked back was now against the sea and she was now facing the castle walls.

Arthur's mother blinked and pulled a surprised expression. It was as if she had been startled out of a deep, hypnotic sleep. "Where are we? ... Where are we, Arthur?" She asked pathetically as her limp, gnarled hands clutched at her son's jacket.

"We're at the beach, mum. Manorbier."

Audrey, who until now had remained silent, suddenly spoke. "It's alright, mum," she cooed, "we're taking you home now."

"Come on, mum," murmured Arthur, slowly guiding his mother across the beach. The absurd sound from her sodden feet was heard above the chuckling of the freshwater stream and the lapping of the waves as they smoothly rolled pebbles in their wake.

"You were right then, Manorbier beach," noted a much relieved Audrey.

"I should have come here straight away. Her favourite beach. Always has been. That's where she and Auntie Nancy used to play as kids."

"Thank God, she's safe - that's the main thing."

"Yes."

"Her feet are soaking, Arthur."

"I know. Let's get her back to the car."

"I'll open the door," volunteered Audrey as she hurried ahead of the couple.

After his mother was carefully placed in the front seat, Arthur started the engine. Audrey opted to sit in the back, even though her husband had provisionally offered to. When the car pulled its way out of Manorbier back onto the A4139, the elderly mother closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

"I wonder how she got there?" Pondered Arthur. "She couldn't have walked there, surely? It's three miles."

"She might have done. She's tougher than she looks ... maybe a car picked her up?" Offered Audrey.

"Maybe. Perhaps we ought to think again about some sort of home. Perhaps that would be best," muttered Arthur without any great conviction.

"No. I wouldn't allow it, Arthur. I couldn't," protested Audrey. She was horrified that her husband could once again raise the issue that had dominated their lives over the past year.

Gratified that his wife's feelings in the matter perfectly matched his own, Arthur smiled. "Good. Neither would I."

"I'll change her and put her down tonight, if you like."

"There's no need, I can ..."

"No, I'll do it. You've got your match tomorrow. I'd better give her a hot water bottle as well."

"Well, if you're sure, thanks." At moments like these, Arthur realised the importance and value of having a true partner. The situation of having a mother, gripped by the curse of senile dementia, was made only bearable by the love and support Audrey willingly gave. He knew that, without her, his mother may well have ended up in a nursing home and, in consequence, the rate of her mental decline could well have been accelerated. His single achievement in his relatively dull and uneventful life had been Audrey. She had always been marvellous.

As he parked the car on the driveway of their Hodgeston home, Arthur Milns suddenly turned his mind to the Landsker Cup. He had been so wrapped up in admiration for his beloved wife that he had forgotten all about it. Tonight's events had put things in perspective somewhat. Maybe a cricket match wasn't so important after all ...

THE PULL

In the opinion of Bill Nicholson, the violent drone that pervaded from an overworked vacuum cleaner was without doubt the most obscene sound on God's planet. Why didn't she stop? Surely that kitchen's clean enough now! Why was he paying 20 a week for this! Noise, noise, noise!

When at last the noise abated, Bill, who had long since barricaded himself in the toilet, pulled the flush and opened the door.

"You got a funny tummy, Mr Nicholson?"

"No."

"There's a lot of it about, y'know," said Mrs Fielding knowledgeably.

"I was merely performing my usual morning function, Mrs Fielding. Nothing more. My stomach, like the rest of my anatomy, is in perfect working order thank you."

His exit to the bathroom would have been a great deal more comfortable if Mrs Fielding hadn't marched into the toilet after him and proceeded to pour a liberal dose of bleach into the pan. No decorum that one, thought Bill as he closed the bathroom door behind him.

After washing his hands with care, he grabbed a copy of Friday's Guardian and set about solving that devil of a clue. He sat in his favourite chair in the lounge and began to apply his mind to the matter in hand. All he needed to do was to concentrate. 'Four across - Henry's gain that he wanted to lose (6)'. Blank - R - Blank, Blank - O - Blank.

"Reading again, are you? Always reading, aren't you?" Boomed Mrs Fielding as she barged into the lounge clutching a toilet brush. "We need a new one of these," she continued as she waved the implement from side to side.

"Well get one. Take the money out of the tin."

"I'll get it this afternoon. I'm going to that cheap shop in the Dock anyway." Rooted to the spot, Mrs Fielding could not resist the excuse for furthering the conversation. "Doing a quiz, are you? Perhaps I could help."

"It's a crossword, Mrs Fielding."

She turned her nose up immediately. "Ooh, waste of time them. You wouldn't catch me doing one." No - no hope of that, thought Bill. "What's the point that's what I say!"

She moved to leave, then stopped abruptly. "Oh, did you get the telephone message? I scribbled it down for you yesterday."

"Yes. Thank you. Although I must say, it took me half an hour to decipher it. Oh, and for future reference, Lamphey isn't spelt with a F!"

"I had to write it down in a hurry," she protested weakly. There was a slight pause as Mrs Fielding struggled to control her unnatural curiosity. "She a lady friend, is she?"

"Who?"

"That Patricia ... what's-her-face .... the woman from Lamphey."

"She writes poetry and I've never seen her before. She wants me to sell her book, that's all."

The disappointment in the cleaner's face was obvious: "Oh, I thought you might be courting again."

"No." The reply was firm and clear.

"I thought that Diane was nice. What happened to her?"

What indeed? Bill frowned as he remembered their final argument about commitment, about being honest, about the future ... Diane!

"I really couldn't say," he replied quietly.

"I thought she was the right one for you. Even Mr Fielding thought ..."

Oh, this was hopeless! He suddenly put down his newspaper and stood beside his well-meaning but irritating employee. "I've given all that up. It finished months ago. Finished. When a man's been married twice, he doesn't want to go for a third!"

"Could be third time lucky."

"Look, Mrs Fielding, I know you mean well but ... I've been burnt twice and I don't intend putting my hand into the fire again."

"Who said anything about fires? I didn't say anything about fires!"

"Look, Mrs Fielding ..."

The cleaner gently laid a hand on Bill's cuff and looked at him directly. "But she was nice, wasn't she?"

"Yes. She was nice." There was no denying that particular point. Diane was essentially nice. If only he had met her earlier. A woman more intelligent than Fran, more attractive than Jill and she wiped the floor with them both in the honesty department.

"Why don't you finish up now," said Bill as sweetly as he could. "I've got to go soon, anyway. Take the money out of the tin as you go."

"Well, if you're sure ..."

"I'm sure."

"I haven't dusted that spare bedroom yet."

"That can wait. Do it next Friday."

"Well, if you're sure ..."

"I'm sure."

"See you Friday, then."

"Yes."

She handed him the redundant toilet brush and hurriedly grabbed her coat from the hat stand. Bill Nicholson nearly let out a cheer as he heard the back door slam. Another wife! God! That's all he needed! He stared in disbelief at the toilet brush he was holding in his hand. It was dripping slightly and its bent, off-white plastic spikes filled him with repulsion. He headed for the flip-top bin in the kitchen and readily inserted the revolting object into its cavity.

Wife! That's it! It's a wife! He rushed back to the crossword and filled in the remaining letters. A, R, A, G, O, N. Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. That marriage and its breakup had done more to change the course of the state established Church than any other.

A shiver went down his spine as he lit his first cigarette of the day. No, he was adamant now. A third marriage was out of the question.

 

THE FORWARD DEFENSIVE

"So she threw the script on the floor and started shouting, 'I can't do this! I can't do this!' It was extraordinary! All the actors turned to look at her. Her mascara was running down her face and then she just fell to the ground in a heap. We all thought that she was having some kind of breakdown. It was so embarrassing! And after that, all hell broke loose. Well, you can imagine, can't you? And then ... And then ... then, something marvellous happened. Roger MacPherson walked across to her, dried her tears with his handkerchief (silk, I think) and said: 'My darling, you were made for this role.'

"Oh, he's wonderful! So refreshing to have a real professional director for a change. With one simple phrase, the whole situation was straightened out. After that, Emily played the part better than she had ever done. A wonderful confidence he seemed to have bestowed on her. We really are lucky that he agreed to do it. Well, of course, that's all down to Angus. Who would have thought that he could have organised 'A Midsummer's Night Dream' at Carew Castle and then get Roger MacPherson to direct it. It's a real coup. It'll be a great day for the Penally Players! A real red letter day! Roger's done all the biggies, you know - the RSC, the National ... Oh, and he's so caring, so enigmatic ..."

Chris Lawler could bear no more. "Well, if he's that good, why don't you sleep with him. Roger, Roger, Roger - I'm sick of it!"

"I'm not his type," Julia replied neatly.

"What is his type, I wonder? A blond chorus-boy, perhaps?"

"How typically stereotypical! Don't for one minute suggest that all theatrical men are homosexual. No, I can assure you that Roger is certainly all man!"

"Oh, good!" Replied Lawler dryly. Why couldn't he be left alone! Why couldn't he finish his toast in peace! And if she has to stay, why couldn't she talk about something else?

"Oh, it's so exciting! First rehearsal in the castle today. Although we are having particular problems with Puck at the moment. Fancy giving that part to Sally Freeman in the first place! She can't act and she's certainly got no presence on stage. We're all agreed that she's an illiterate slut anyway. She goes on and on about her wonderful drama background and Sheila tells me that she went to an obscure private school in Cardiff and left after failing her 'O' levels." She glanced at the kitchen clock. "Hell! It's past nine. I've got to get changed. I have to be at the castle at ten."

"Well, I'm not stopping you," her husband snapped.

"So, I can take the BMW, can I?" This particular question was offered rhetorically.

"Yes." He slurped his coffee greedily, trying his best to avoid any eye contact. Just go, he thought. Go and get dressed woman, before one of my ear-drums explodes in protest!

"Good of what's-his-name to offer to pick you up."

"Thommo."

"Thommo ... oh, yes, that's the beery lout isn't it? The one who likes being thrown out of pubs. You really do have some wonderfully sophisticated friends, Christopher, don't you. Prince Charles is probably green with envy."

Lawler chose to ignore the comment and have a dig of his own. "So when is this great event supposed to take place?"

"Next Saturday. You know perfectly well that it's next Saturday. You've known for weeks."

"And I have to come, do I?"

"Well, if you enjoy having two testicles, yes."

"So, that's a yes, is it?"

THE BACKWARD DEFENSIVE

"You've recorded over my video tape!"

"Sorry?"

"You've recorded over my tape! I wanted that!"

Joyce Stillman wearing her blush pink silk dressing gown marched into the lounge. "I can hear you shouting, but I can't understand a word you are saying." She was looking tired and her hair was positively Gorgon-like.

"I said - you've recorded over my programme."

"Did I? You didn't tell me it was important."

"Well it was."

"When I pressed 'play' it just showed a man with a moustache droning on and on."

"That was Graham Gooch! He was talking to Parkinson. I wanted to see that."

"You didn't tell me, Peter, I'm not psychic."

Throughout the discussion Stillman, remote control in hand had tried to ascertain what had been recorded in its place. To his mind it looked terribly sordid. "What is this anyway?"

"It's a French film. Very artistic," Joyce murmured, lazily pulling her hands through her unwashed hair.

Her husband pressed 'play' again and another brief excerpt of film filled the screen. "Oh, yes, I can see it's art," spat Stillman trying to control his anger, "that's the third pair of breasts I've seen so far!"

"It's about doomed relationships. You should see it, you might learn something," she said turning her back on him.

Resigning himself to the fact that Graham Gooch would not suddenly appear half-way through the continental soft porn movie, Peter Stillman put down the remote control and ejected the tape. "Shouldn't you be getting dressed?"

"I was about to, when ..."

"Are you coming, then?"

"Where?"

"To The Festival Match. I thought that last night ..."

"Oh, I haven't made my mind up."

"Well, I'm going in half an hour. I've got to pick John up."

"Who?"

"John Marsden."

"Oh, I don't think I know him," she said as she continued to play with her unkempt hair. "If I do go, I'll go in the Renault."

"Well, have it your own way. I'm going to have a shave."

THE HOOK

Momentarily, amid the background screams of tiny children, Bill Nicholson wondered if he had arrived at the right house. He rang the door bell again and through the frosted glass he made out the burly figure of Giffo shuffling towards him.

The door was opened and Giffo stepped back in genuine surprise: "Bill! I wasn't expecting you!"

"Hello, Giffo. I just thought I'd deliver this book your wife ordered. She forgot to pick it up yesterday."

"Come in, come in," gurgled the wicket-keeper leading Bill across the threshold and into the hall. A toddler's piercing scream followed by the sound of a china plate crashing onto a stone floor echoed around the house. In response to this, a baby cried out lustily. If there was a hell, Bill pondered, then this could well be it.

"Excuse the noise. We've got the grandchildren with us until lunch. Barbara and Joe are shopping in Carmarthen."

Giffo led his vice-captain into the kitchen where the children in question were being supervised by the wicket-keeper's cheery wife. Bill was surprised to see that there were only three of them, as the noise generated had suggested a great deal more.

The eldest was about four. He was using a tray of picture dominoes as missiles and seemed intent on throwing each one in turn at the family dog who was trying to remain anonymous in his basket. The middle child was strapped into a high chair and by the thick crust of Weetabix that surrounded his mouth had just completed an early lunch or a very late breakfast, Bill guessed that this one was about eighteen months. The youngest child was crawling around the floor like an inexperienced drunk. He was busy depositing a trail of dribble between the Aga cooker and the pine kitchen table. It was, to Bill's eyes at least, a scene of bedlam.

"Hello, Bill," beamed Irene taking her well-trained eyes away from the crawling child.

"Hello. Just delivering your book. Save you popping in," he chirped noticing the crawling child reaching up to grab the book. Thankfully Irene had noticed it too and scooped the baby up with her expert arms. Bill put the book down on the Welsh dresser that occupied one side of the spacious kitchen. "Oh, you shouldn't have bothered, Bill. Thanks."

Giffo turned to move out through the door. "I better get ready. Tim Middleton'll be here soon."

"You don't need a lift then?" Asked Bill.

"No thanks, Bill ... Oh! Is that why you're here?"

"No, no. Like I said, I was passing and I thought I'd pop the book in for Irene." He turned to face Giffo's wife and nodded towards the book. "Thai cooking? That's a bit exotic, isn't it?"

"We're doing Thai cooking next week in class. We're going to make Thai cabbage curry."

"Oh God," mumbled Giffo as he slowly hobbled out of the room.

"Edward's not one for foreign food. He says the curry I gave him last night has given him awful wind."

"Oh dear." Bill pointed to the child in Irene's arms. "Shouldn't that one be walking by now?" He asked, immediately displaying his distinct ignorance of paediatric matters.

"Shame you didn't have children, Bill," she purred as she cuddled the infant against her sagging bosom, "they would have made you less cynical."

"Less independent, you mean."

"Full independence isn't all it's cracked up to be though, is it? Life can be terribly boring without responsibility."

"I've got all the responsibility I need thank you, Irene. Why, the shop alone ..."

"I'm not talking about the shop, Bill! I'm talking about people."

"Oh, them," mumbled Bill as he noticed another picture domino fly off the edge of the dog's basket.

Irene worked a wet dishcloth around the seated child's mouth so that the cheeks were pink once more and gently placed the child she was holding back onto the floor.

"Where's your cat?" Asked Bill scanning the kitchen. "The dog's not eaten it, has he?"

"The cat's dead. Didn't Edward tell you?" Bill shook his head. "We had to take him to the vets on Monday because she started doing her business indoors. Well, she was getting on ... I had to clean that study carpet four times."

"So the vet put her down, did he?"

"No. He said the cat was suffering from stress."

"Stress! That cat of yours spent all day sleeping, over there!" Exclaimed Bill pointing to a red cushion on the rocking chair.

"That's what we said. Well, anyway we paid our twenty pounds and left. Twenty pounds, if you please! Just to be told that your cat is doolally and needs more quality time! No tablets. Nothing!"

"You're joking!"

"I wish I was. Well, then we left the surgery with the cat under Edward's arm. As Edward closed the door behind him, the cat sprang away and jumped into the path of a Mini Metro. She was killed instantly."

"Good Lord!"

"At least it was quick. We took her home and buried her by the raspberry patch."

Bill Nicholson nodded sagely and, as he watched another picture domino bounce off the dog's nose, he suddenly realised the likely source of the late cat's psychological disorder. "I'd better be off. I've got a writer to see before I drive to the match."

"Not Diane, by any chance?"

"No. Besides, I don't think she's doing much writing now. Too busy selling computers."

"Shame. I like Diane. So different from Jill and Fran."

"Well, that's one point in her favour, I suppose."

"I saw Jill in town last week. She asked after you. She likes Diane as well."

"That definitely doesn't work in her favour!"

"Bill! I'm only saying that everyone thinks that you and Diane are well suited."

"Oh, don't you start! I've just had all this with Mrs Fielding."

"She's a lovely girl, Bill."

"Who? Mrs Fielding!"

"Fool! You know what I mean."

"I know what you mean, all right. Marriage. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Irene, just as I was sorry to disappoint dear old Mrs Fielding, but I am not getting hooked again. Not now. Not ever!"

"We'll see ..." said Irene. Bill leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Bye," he whispered as he left the make-shift kindergarten. He paused at the door and shouted upstairs. "Bye Giffo! See you at the pub!"

"Bye Bill!" Shouted Giffo in return.

As Bill closed the door behind him, he took a look at his watch. Ten past ten. Plenty of time. See Trevor Donovan at Milton, pick the books up and drive on to the pub.

He tutted as he wiped a speck of Weetabix off his cuff. Kids! He was eternally grateful that both Jill and Fran had opposed any move to procreate. No children and now no wife. Bliss! The single life suited him, even though it may have helped him develop his selfish tendencies. He was, he admitted, a selfish man, but at least he was a happy selfish man.

THE ON DRIVE

"You're joking! What, both of them? I can't believe it ... No, I had no idea ... Sorry? ... Oh, today? Well, Bracewell will be twelfth man ... yes ... Yes, I know his father's anxious, but that really can't be helped, Colonel. Well, after his performance against the Stackpole Thirds, I thought we'd be better off with Brandon ... Yes, and a better batsman ... Fine. Well, thank you for letting me know ... yes ... Bye, now!"

Tim Middleton replaced the receiver slowly. "Interfering old goat!" He fumed as he tried to assess the full implications of the facts that Colonel Packman, the club chairman, had just relayed to him. So, Pete Tucker and Dave Wallace had left the team for St Petrox. In truth, he wasn't altogether surprised. He had always felt that both men would follow where Julian Scott led and, now that Scotty was St Petrox's new captain, it was easy to see why. Both had no doubt been offered the chance to play every Saturday and not just on the occasions when Giffo's back had played up or when Thommo had failed to show.

Middleton pondered the matter as he picked up his cricket bag and sauntered through the lounge into the corridor. Was the loss really so great? True, Tucker had played one or two innings of worth and it hadn't gone unnoticed that Wallace could swing the ball at a lively pace. But they were expendable. We are not, Middleton considered, discussing the likes of Allan Lamb and Dominic Cork but just a couple of useful club players - nothing more, nothing less.

The more immediate problem was that the whole squad now consisted of only twelve players and, with Giffo going, something would have to be done before next season.

As Middleton closed the door on his Llanreath home, his mind turned again to his club chairman. How dare he interfere with team selection! What a cheek! Stupid, over-weight prat! It was just Middleton's luck to have the chairman's great-nephew up for possible selection. That, in itself, did not make Bracewell a natural candidate for the team every week. Quite the reverse in fact. His decidedly crappy bowling against Stackpole last week had confirmed the serious doubts Middleton had about him ever making the eleven again.

He climbed into his car and started to make his way to Tenby. He forgot about cricket and turned his mind to Megan instead. Sweet Megan. Where were they going today? Was it to fit her dress or the bridesmaids' dresses? He couldn't remember although he knew his wife had told him before they left. It was a shame that the young man she was going to marry didn't play cricket. Doesn't even watch it. Apparently, rugby was his game. He shuddered as he traversed the mini-roundabout and headed into Tenby town centre. He couldn't abide rugby.

xxxxx

David Watson's face filled with horror as he repeated his question: "Left?"

"Yes, buggered off to St Petrox to join Scotty. The Colonel told me this morning."

"God! It's like a mass exodus!"

"Not quite that bad," assured Middleton. "Have you heard from Nicholson yet?"

"I phoned him yesterday."

"He didn't phone me."

David Watson masked his true reaction to this by pulling a face of mock surprise. "Really? That's odd."

"Odd, yes. That's Bill alright. Bloody odd. Why I gave him the vice-captaincy, God only knows."

"So we're not playing Bracewell, then?"

"No. Twelfth man. Not that he'll be too happy about it, but ..."

"No choice," Watson nodded.

"Actually, we've tried out a few new ones in the nets this season. One or two of them might do for next year."

"Anyone I know?"

Middleton wanted to tell him, but he found that he couldn't. How could he? "No, I don't think so." His lie felt convincing. "Mainly kids."

Unaware of the act of deception, Watson uttered a simple, "oh."

The two friends strolled leisurely out of the Harry Tudor Hotel and headed for Middleton's car. "Are we picking up Giffo and Bill?" Asked Watson.

"Giffo, yes. Nicholson's making his own arrangements, as usual," answered Middleton tartly.

THE OFF DRIVE

"Hell!" Boomed Thommo as he tried the ignition once again. With no immediate hope of the engine starting, Thommo leapt out of the car and proceeded to exercise a cursory look under the Ford Fiesta's rusty bonnet. He pulled out a lead or two and rubbed a hanky over the points. It was an operation he was well used to.

As he closed the bonnet, he let out an enormous cough and returned to his seat. Once again he turned the key and the engine spluttered to reach its normal state. With the engine now running, Thommo wasted no time in releasing the handbrake and driving the car into the road.

"You're a bloody genius, Thommo," he said out loud to himself. He stifled a yawn. It was all a bit early for Thommo. He might have been awake at seven, but it had taken a long bath, two aspirins and numerous cups of coffee to complete the waking up process. He glanced at his watch as he approached the main roundabout in Pembroke Dock. Nine-thirty. Fine. For once in his life he was going to be early. He turned the car onto the A477 and headed east.

That letter had been a surprise. Not an unpleasant surprise either. No, a letter from Annie in amongst the bills and the junk-mail had been a welcome sight. He tried, unsuccessfully at first, to recall certain phrases that she had used within the missive. "A new start for us both" - "I'm not promising anything" - "You'll have to change" ... Thereafter, there was a brief report on her father's allotment and some mention of her mother's struggles with her bunions. Apart from that, that was all he could remember and, although the letter contained nothing earth-shattering, Thommo had realised its importance. There was light at the end of the tunnel. There was hope.

A woman driving a white Porsche just in front of Thommo indicated left to turn into Cosheston. As she turned the wheel to negotiate the turn, he flashed a glance at her. Very nice. Wouldn't kick that out of bed, he thought lustily as he slowed the car in order to gain a better look. A blast from a horn quickly woke him out of his fantasy and Thommo noticed an angry van driver behind him. He pulled away and assumed a more appropriate level of speed.

The mystery woman had reminded Thommo of Scotty's wife. Very tasty, she was. Lucky old Scotty! He always was, though. Shame he left the club last year. A right laugh and no mistake.

The Ford Fiesta rumbled on past Milton Manor and the Milton Brewery pub. Milton Brewery! Images of a famous drunken session filled his head. That was the night when Scotty drank lager out of his jockstrap and then proceeded to urinate into the pockets of the pool table. Or was that another night, in another pub? Yes, that was in that Fishguard pub. He couldn't remember its name. The locals had complained bitterly to the landlord that the pool balls got wet every time one was sunk and all the chalk for the cue tips went soggy. A right laugh, Scotty was. There was no-one to match him.

Thommo turned right at Sageston and then right again in order to get onto the St Florence road. Although he knew that it would have been much quicker to turn right at Milton, he preferred this way. He had often thought that St Florence was one of Pembrokeshire's prettiest villages and he was always loath to pass it by.

He had to concentrate now. He didn't want to miss that concealed turning for the Brandon farm. Ah! There she is! The lack of suspension in Thommo's car had some difficulty here on the uneven surface. But by slowing the vehicle down and keeping a sharp look out for pot-holes, the driver made the journey as comfortable as he could.

Within minutes, he was at the farm entrance. Thommo gave a huge welcoming grin when he caught sight of Mike Brandon clutching a rather battered looking cricket bag.

"Taxi!"

"Bloody hell, Thommo! You're early!"

"Aren't I always?"

"I had to wait an hour the other week ... The game against Penally Seconds?"

"Rubbish, I was only fifty-five minutes late."

Mike pushed his bag into the boot and jumped into the passenger seat. Thommo lit up his tenth cigarette of the morning, let out another earnest cough and then performed the most irregular three-point turn that Mike had ever witnessed.

"Onward! Onward!" Shouted Thommo as he crunched into second gear. "Let's pick up the third musketeer, shall we?"

xxxxx

"You're early!"

"Don't you start."

Chris Lawler threw his cricket bag into the boot and Mike got out to adopt a new position in the back. Both he and Thommo were well versed in Lawler's objections to sitting in the back of cars.

"Your car doesn't get any cleaner, does it Thommo?" Observed Lawler, rubbing off dollops of oil from his hand with a piece of tissue paper. "Come on," he said as he lowered himself into the leopard skin covered seat. "Let's get out of here, before someone sees me."

Thommo, amused by Lawler's snobbery, deliberately took his time and when the engine woke into life once more, he purposely revved it in neutral so that the noise might irritate him further. Mike, mindful of his friend's antics, suppressed a giggle and looked over his shoulder. Through the back window he noticed the cloud of thick, black exhaust fumes that threatened to pollute the whole of Penally village. This particular sight was also noticed by a horrified Lawler. "For God's sake, Thommo! Would you please drive away. I can't afford to be sued for the effects of lead pollution in the neighbourhood."

A smiling Thommo slowly pulled the car out of Penally village, pausing only to flick the remnants of his cigarette out of the window.

FIELDING POSITIONS

FIRST SLIP

Tim Middleton sat at the largest wooden table in 'The Sir John Perrot Arms' like a chairman of a very important company addressing his management board. He needed a solution to his problem and he needed it now.

"So, what exactly did his mother say?" Piped up Arthur Milns at last. He, for one, had failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

"She said it was probably shingles and that the doctor was calling later," confirmed Bill Nicholson yet again.

Middleton now looked across at the faces of his senior players in the hope of receiving any useful suggestions concerning possible replacements.

"Shingles, eh?" Said David Watson, his mind clearly on other things.

"My brother had shingles. Very painful, apparently," voiced Milns, realising that no-one was in the least bit interested in the ailments of his immediate family.

Bill Nicholson chose this moment to rub his chin and pick up and start reading his copy of 'The Guardian', as an act of protest against boredom.

"The point is," said Tim, desperately trying to drag his colleagues back to the central issue, "we have no twelfth man. Now that Wallace and Tucker have run off to play for St Petrox, there's no-one left."

"Of course, it was different in the old days, when we used to have a second eleven. Plenty of talent to choose from then. But that doesn't really help us ... does it?" Mumbled Arthur Milns, who immediately regretted making this point that offered no solution. He could have kicked himself.

Bill Nicholson nearly obliged, but offered a simple, "no, it doesn't" instead.

"Any ideas?" Pleaded the captain.

"No," said Dave Watson.

"No," repeated Arthur.

Bill Nicholson calmly peeled down a corner of his newspaper and said, "What about Phil Manning?"

"Who?"

"Phil Manning."

David Watson suddenly sprang into life. "What! That bloody journo! You must be joking! He's not even in the team."

"He is. Tim signed him up in June."

"What?"

"It's true, I'm afraid," admitted Tim. He had dreaded this moment. "He's a very good batsman in the nets and he hits the ball really hard," he gushed, in an attempt to justify his appointment.

"I can't believe this."

"Neither could Thommo, when he bowled to him first time. Six balls flew out of the nets behind his head," Milns said with a smile, not appreciating that any element of humour was redundant just now.

"Why didn't I know? Why didn't someone tell me?"

"Well, because we knew you wouldn't like it," began the captain, unsure of what to say exactly. "I suppose we could throw in one of the youngsters. One or two of them might be up to it. Denning's quite good."

Milns shook his head. "Denning works in his father's shop on Saturdays."

"Fraser Byrne, then. Useful fielder."

"No, he works at Elmtree Leisure Park."

"Well, it'll have to be Manning then," said Bill Nicholson continuing to plead the case for the defence. "Well, to my mind at least, there are only four possible candidates and, as both Wallace and Tucker have decided to peddle their wares elsewhere and Bracewell is in the tender arms of his loving mother, that only leaves Manning."

Watson had no alternative but to play a wild card. "What about old Geppo?" He suggested.

"Geppo!" The others shouted back at Watson, united in their disbelief and horror.

"Geppo is sixty-nine," stated Milns, forever the statistician.

"Well, of course, old Geppo would be fine," waded in Nicholson sarcastically, "if it wasn't for the fact that he can no longer bat, bowl or field. Who are you going to suggest next? My old mother? Or perhaps we could line up a couple of corpses from the county morgue."

David Watson, clutching at straws, decided to ignore Nicholson and employ a change of tact instead. "Do we actually need a twelfth man? Is there anything in the rule book that states that we have to have one?"

This was Arthur Milns department and all eyes fell on him.

"Well, no, not technically at least," spoke the great oracle of the rule book, "it is certainly not compulsory to have a substitute fielder in the Festival Match. However, I should point out that it is not advisable ..."

"Of course, it's not advisable," chipped in Bill, "we can't possibly take the risk. Old Giffo's back might give up again and Thommo's certainly not as nimble as he used to be. Besides, with Dai Evans charging in like an angry bull, anyone of us might break a finger .. or worse! No, it would be madness to play without a sub."

Tim Middleton, mindful of his position as captain and knowing that the ultimate decision lay in his hands alone, quickly considered all the facts that lay before him. The senior players waited with baited breath. "Bill's right," he said at last, "it would be madness. We have to play Manning."

Watson exploded. "But that man practically ruined my life! I insist. I urge you not to play that man, Tim."

"I'm sorry, David, there's no ..."

"Well, I can't play with him. I couldn't," Watson went on, frustration rising with every word. "He's an absolute bastard. I'm sorry, but there's just no polite word for him. I'd sooner kill him, than play with him. Have you lot no principles?"

Bill Nicholson, for one, could take no more of this hypocrisy. "With respect," he said calmly, "it was hardly his fault that you were caught with your trousers down in a hotel bedroom. As I remember the story, and you'll correct me if I'm wrong, the door was wide open."

"You utter shit! Raking up my past so ... so, publicly. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Bill Nicholson. One indiscretion. One tiny indiscretion, and I'm to be made a permanent laughing-stock of the team, am I?"

David Watson flew up out of his seat and, as he stood, the team members noticed that he was shaking slightly.

"No-one's laughing, David," said his captain, trying to pacify his old friend, "come on, sit down."

There was a long, agonising pause as they waited to see what action, if any, Watson would take. There was complete silence. Bill slowly picked up his paper once more and considered four-across of the crossword, while Arthur Milns took a sudden interest in a painting of Saundersfoot Harbour that was hanging to the side of him.

The stillness was finally broken by Watson himself, as he hissed, "I'm going to get a drink."

Middleton rolled his eyes skyward and, reluctantly, followed him to the bar. Bill and Arthur faced each other once more and Bill allowed a cruel smile to flash across his face. His companion, however, seemed sheepishly ashamed by the whole incident. "We should have told him before," he mused.

"Don't be absurd."

"Well, it's not really fair, is it? Having your private life exposed like that. He'll never forgive us. Quite frankly, I don't blame him."

This was too much for Nicholson. He pulled his paper down with a flourish and thrust his upper body across the table so that his face was only millimetres away from Milns' own.

"Private! My dear man, since the whole sordid story splashed itself onto the front page of the Pembroke Examiner and since that story concerned a county councillor, who had repeatedly attacked loose morals in today's society, I consider that the whole business was outside the perimeters of privacy. Oh, no, Milnsey, don't make the mistake of feeling too sorry for old Watson. He just cocked-up. Literally, in fact."

Milns suddenly felt the need to discuss the scandal more candidly. "Was it true that there were four of them in the same bed?"

"No. But they were in the same room - a couple on each bed. Watson was found panting on top of one stripper, while that ridiculous political agent of his, Donald Hemmings, was found riding another."

"Strippers!"

"Yes, strippers. It was all part of the entertainment Watson had laid on for his party faithful. Trouble was, the randy little devil wanted the entertainment to be extended somewhat upstairs. It was just a pity that in his excitement, he forgot to lock the door. Manning had gone down to the hotel to interview Watson that night. It had been arranged by them both, beforehand. The Pembroke Examiner had wanted the great man's comments on the latest local unemployment figures. However, Watson, the silly sod, had forgotten all about the appointment. He had other things on his mind and the local dole queue was not one of them. Some daft barman, who has since been sacked, told the journalist the room in which Watson had recently ordered smoked salmon and enough champagne to sink an ocean liner. And that was that - a local paper gets the scoop of the year, Watson resigns and the unemployed of Milford Haven are neglected once more."

"Oh," was all Milns could summon up.

"Still, I suppose we all do something unwise at some time. We all, I'm sure, go that little bit further than perhaps we should. How about you, Milnsey? What have you done, that may be considered to be reckless?"

Milns considered the point at some length, before saying: "Nothing."

Bill, not altogether that surprised by the response, picked up his paper again and broke into a broad, yet, thanks to the paper, very private smile.

Tim Middleton had caught up with his prey at the bar and offered him a drink. Hoping to notice a change in Watson's demeanour so soon after the admission that Manning was in the team was rather too optimistic and Tim realised at once that he had a job on his hands. Watson grudgingly accepted the offer of a drink.

"Come on. We'll have a drink and forget about it," reasoned Tim.

"You should have told me."

"How could I? Be honest now, David; how could I? Besides, you seem to be forgetting - he won't be playing. He's only the twelfth man, for God's sake. You won't even have to talk to him. You won't even see him."

"He ruined me."

"Nonsense. You still have the hotel. You still have your friends."

"Oh, yes; fine friends!"

"Oh, come on, now ... (he caught the barman's eye at last) Two pints, please. A twelfth man is a twelfth man; nothing more, nothing less. He'll simply watch the game, field if absolutely necessary and then be gone. And what is more; if you really don't want him in the team in the future, I won't play him. Now, I can't be fairer than that, can I? Can I?"

Watson relented and muttered some words of gratitude as the door of the bar was gently pushed open. Watson and Middleton, feeling the draught that had followed the action, spun round together to face the culprit. There, all sloppy grin and a right arm in plaster, stood Tony Gates.

"Sorry, chaps. I won't be able to play today. I've broken my arm."

SECOND SLIP

The Preseli Mountains lay before them as Peter Stillman and John Marsden made their way along the A40 to Fishguard. Neither had spoken since Haverfordwest when John had noted the rise in petrol prices advertised outside one of the new supermarkets. The sun broke through the mushroom clouds as the car weaved its way through Wolf's Castle.

Although John had been glad to miss the traditional pre-match pint at 'The Sir John Perrot Arms', he felt most awkward, sitting next to the man whose wife he was making love to on a regular basis. Ordinarily, he would have gone with Thommo, but he could not bring himself to hurt the feelings of Stillman, who had offered him a lift well in advance of the game. Without his own presence now, Marsden knew that Stillman would have travelled alone, as he usually did. Only Arthur Milns scored higher on the Boredom Scale.

At last, just prior to reaching Letterston, Stillman broke the silence. "Your left-arm seam bowling should come in handy today."

"Let's hope so."

"I must say, I'm looking forward to today's match."

"Good."

"I've got a strange feeling that I'm going to take a few wickets today."

"Good."

"My spinning finger's ready for a bit of action."

Although Marsden was tempted to say 'good' again, he thought better of it. He offered the driver a weak smile instead. If only Stillman wasn't so terribly dull, Marsden thought. He's so mind-numbingly dull. No wonder Joyce leaves him alone most nights. He'll mention the bloody weather next.

"Oh, look, the sun's shining."

He knew it, he was right. Why didn't the daft sod shut up?

"Joyce was very odd last night."

Now this was surprising. In all the time he had known Stillman, he had hardly ever heard him mention his wife. But what did he mean by odd? "Was she?"

"Yes. She said she was coming up to see the game today."

"But she never comes. I mean ... I thought, you told me that she never comes to see you play." Marsden was fumbling now. He was surprised and he was worried.

"Well that's what I thought. But it's interesting actually, because she did see me play once in the Festival Match in 1990."

"Oh."

"I didn't recall it at first, but when I remembered, I laughed. She got a little bit tiddly actually and started touching up the umpire during the interval."

"Really?" Marsden was astonished, not by the incident itself, which he could well believe, but by Stillman's admission of the fact. Why was he offering this insight into a woman that he was supposed to hardly know?

"Yes. Although it was only a flirtation. There was no harm intended. I don't want you getting the idea that my wife is some kind of loose woman."

Marsden had wanted to say that she wasn't exactly a virgin either. He didn't however. "So do you think she'll really show up?" He hoped with all his heart that she wouldn't. How he prayed that she wouldn't.

"I don't know. But one thing's for sure," Stillman said as they pulled into the picturesque harbour of Lower Fishguard, "I'll have to warn the umpires."

Marsden wanted to add, "and the left-arm seam bowler," but he obviously kept that thought to himself.

THIRD SLIP

Bill Nicholson approached the worried faces of his team-mates at the bar. "It's okay," he announced, "Manning's on his way. Said he'd drive to the ground independently."

"Well, thank God for that," sighed a much relieved Middleton.

Arthur Milns, oblivious to the news that Manning was joining the fold, was taking an interest in Tony's arm. "Does it hurt," he said, "I mean, does it still hurt, even though it's wrapped in plaster?"

"No," replied Tony, finishing the last dregs of bitter that remained in his glass. "Nasty accident mind. And what a time to happen! I was in there, with that one. Nice girl. Very large thighs."

"They can be very nasty, those broken arms," continued Milns knowledgeably. "My brother broke his arm once. They had to reset it three times. He was in agony."

Tony turned to Bill Nicholson. "My sister gave me a lift here, Bill. Any chance of a lift to the ground. I was planning on driving myself, but the arm ..."

"Sure. I'll drive you home after as well, if you like."

"Thanks."

Tim Middleton looked across the bar and said, to no-one in particular: "Where the hell are David and Giffo? We should have left by now."

"They're powdering their noses," said Nicholson, nodding towards the toilet doors.

Middleton glanced at the clock on the wall. It told him what he already knew: he was running late. He hated running late. He was about to leave the comfort of his barstool when he saw Watson pushing open the toilet door.

"Where the hell have you been? Where's Giffo?"

"There's a slight problem."

"What problem? Where is he?"

"He's still in the cubicle ..."

Middleton looked worried now. "Oh, it's not his back again, is it?"

"No. He's got bad stomach pains ... you know ..." Watson lowered not only his voice, but his eye level as well. "He's got the runs," he whispered.

Middleton couldn't hear him. "He's got what?"

Watson looked suitably embarrassed as he repeated the medical complaint with a little more volume, "The runs. He's got the runs."

"Well, it would be the first time this bloody season."

"He's in agony."

"Oh, that's just marvellous. That's wonderful. I've got a twelfth man with shingles, a batsman with a broken arm and a wicket-keeper with an irritable bowel."

"My mother had an irritable bowel. Very nasty."

"Shut up, Milnsey!"

Raucous laughter suddenly flooded the pub and Middleton darted a look at the perpetrator, Bill Nicholson. "Oh, I'm so glad that you find it all terribly amusing, Bill."

"Sorry, Tim," he said, "it's just ... I've only just realised an even bigger problem for you. Old Giffo's travelling in your car!"

LONG LEG

"Try her again," shouted Graham Thomas from behind the open bonnet of his Ford Fiesta.

Chris Lawler reluctantly obeyed the instruction and slowly turned the key in the ignition barrel. If Thommo had expected to hear the gentle purr of a well-tuned engine, he was to be sorely disappointed. The car spat slightly and quickly died.

"Well, I don't think it's the plugs," said Thommo wiping his grease laden hands with an equally filthy cloth.

Lawler, bored by the fast bowler's meagre mechanical knowledge and angry at his reluctance to face reality, could stand no more. He flew out of the driver's seat, banging Mike Brandon's knees in the process. "I think the answer, my dear Thommo, lies with the car as a whole. This ... this crapmobile, that you try to pass off as a credible vehicle for the highway, is finished; it's completely knackered: it's dead."

Thommo thought that this was a bit harsh on a car that had served him so faithfully over the years. "Oh, I wouldn't say that," he moaned, "it's done me very well, this car has."

"Well, I'm relieved to hear you use the past tense, at least." Lawler turned to face the heat of the September sun. A blue van rushed past and its driver, annoyed by having to swerve slightly into the middle of the road, gave Lawler a rude gesture with his middle finger as he completed the manoeuvre. Pointing at the rusty carcass of Thommo's car, Lawler said simply, "we'll have to move this off the road a bit."

"Okay. Come on, Mike, out you get," shouted Thommo, banging heavily on the roof of the car. Mike Brandon slowly got out from the back seat and the three of them gently pushed the car onto the safe refuge of the roadside grass. When the elementary task was completed, Mike drew himself next to Lawler and asked him, "Where are we, exactly?"

"Just past Withybush, I think."

"There's a pub, the Corner Piece, just up the road. Perhaps we could phone a mechanic from there?" Put in Thommo, crashing down the bonnet.

"It's not a garage service this heap requires, Thommo. A funeral service would be more appropriate."

"Ha-bloody-ha."

"Perhaps we should walk to this pub, in any case. How far is it, exactly?"

"Half a mile. One at the most. The exercise might do us good and we can have a pint at the end of it."

"Well, there's not much alternative, is there? We'll walk and get a cab from there."

"A cab!"

"Well, I'm not walking all the way to Pwllgwaelod."

"It could cost twenty pounds or more. You may be rolling in it, Mr Architect, but I'm certainly not."

"Well, what do you suggest?"

"Well, luckily, I know a bloke who might be able to help. Name's Terry. Lives round here. He owes me a favour as it happens and I could phone him from the pub. I'm sure he'll give us a lift and it won't cost us a penny."

"Sounds good to me," chipped in Mike, grateful that someone had discovered a cheaper option.

"Well, okay, but if your mate can't help us, we get a taxi, right?"

"Right."

All three turned and, after taking their separate kit bags from the car's boot, they began to trek to the pub. Lawler strode ahead, conscious of the time factor. He was determined to set an appropriately urgent pace. Thommo and Mike lagged behind; their own pace being a little more casual. Both enjoyed each other's company and their differences of age and temperament had always seemed irrelevant. Mike's gentle maturity counterbalanced and complemented Thommo's exuberant immaturity.

"I got a letter this morning," piped up Thommo after they had walked fifty yards in silence, "from Annie."

"Oh."

"She said that she might come back before Christmas."

"Oh, that's good then," suggested the younger man, not actually certain whether it was or not.

"Yes. Trouble is, she said that I've got to sort myself out first y'know with all the drinking and stuff."

"Ah." There, thought Mike, was the rub.

There was a slight poignant pause while Mike allowed his friend time to decide whether to talk further on the matter or change to a completely different subject. Thommo favoured the former.

"She's right of course. Annie always is. I know I need to sort myself out ... I mean, I really do know, but ..."

"You miss her a lot, don't you?"

"Yeah, I do; I miss her more than anything."

"Well, there you are then."

"What?"

"If she is that important to you, you'll have to sort yourself out. I think ... I've always thought that your Annie was lovely. I've only had one girlfriend in my life and she left me for a trainee chef who lived in Hakin. I thought she was lovely, but she wasn't. She couldn't give a monkey's. Your Annie though, does care. Always smiling: always caring. Someone really special, in fact." Mike's heartfelt honesty in describing Annie touched his friend deeply and reminded him, yet again, of what he had lost. She was special: she is special. Therefore, why, in God's name, didn't he feel overjoyed by the promise of her return.

"Does she want you to pack up the cricket?"

"No. To be honest, cricket was never the problem. The problem came afterwards in the pubs and the bars; the celebrations and the drowning of sorrows. That's what she couldn't stand."

"Well ..." he stuttered and then looked away.

"Well, what?" Thommo gently ordered.

"Well ... Why don't you do as she wants. It'd make a change."

Thommo thought for a moment and then looked at his friend's open face. "Perhaps you're right," he said simply, "it would make a change."

"Yes. It would, that."

"I do miss her, you know."

Mike knew alright and he also knew what it was to miss someone close. At least Thommo could have that person back. He, on the other hand, did not have that luxury. Mike's loss was total and irreversible.

The conversation soon turned to other matters and, when those topics dried up, the two men continued their walk in silence, trying, as they did so, to match the increased pace of Lawler.

Each of them was deep in thought as they strolled up the road. Chris Lawler was thinking about the time, Mike was thinking about his mother and Thommo was thinking about that lovely pint of bitter that he would soon consume at the Corner Piece public house.

THIRD MAN

Phil Manning had always considered himself of being one of life's lucky bastards. Only two months after leaving Sheffield University with a poor third class honours degree in English Literature, he had landed the job of trainee reporter on the Pembroke Examiner. From there, helped by one early retirement and poor Charlie Burrow's mental breakdown, he had chiselled his way to being a fully fledged reporter within six months. Although he then had to endure years of covering summer ftes, barn dances, dog shows and the occasional angry-mother-who-wants-a-road-closed-down, the waiting had been well worth it. Last year another dose of luck found its way into Manning's life, when his editor had put him in charge of covering the county council elections. His editor had wanted a day-to-day look at the campaign issues, but instead, Manning had supplied him with Pembrokeshire's belated version of the Profumo Scandal.

How fortunate he had been that day! Catching that ridiculous Watson probing the area of uncertainty outside some tart's off stump. The randy little sod deserved all he got after that. He deserved to be publicly shamed, no matter what some had thought subsequently. Even his editor had been less than keen to publish the sordid scoop - not through reasons of ethics, but because Watson was a member of the same golf club. However, in the end, Manning's story was given deserved exposure. The story itself, which had subsequently been sold to two major tabloids, had set him up to be the chief journalist, and, in effect, the local paper's deputy editor. Yes, he had been lucky alright.

As he turned his car into the single track road leading to Pwllgwaelod, Manning thought back to his phone conversation with Bill Nicholson. Manning had always loved cricket and now, with the chance to play in his first game for six years, he felt strangely excited. Two minutes after he put down the receiver, Manning had quickly contacted his editor and the paper's photographer, Eddie Jones. The motto 'a journalist never sleeps' prayed heavily on his mind. If he was playing in the Pembrokeshire Festival Match, he may as well write about playing. Besides, he knew that the lean look of the sports' pages could do with a bit of padding out.

He glanced at his watch, while his tyres negotiated yet another pot-hole. Twelve o'clock. Good, he was early. Ample time to chat informally with the players before getting changed. Not that he wanted to talk to Dave Watson. It was unfortunate enough that they had to play together, but that was unavoidable. When Bill had invited him into nets that day in June, he had no idea that Watson was connected in any way to Hodgeston Cricket Club. Still, that was Watson's problem; it certainly wasn't his.

For some reason, he thought about Charlie Burrows. He couldn't think why, but a picture of the chubby ex-journo suddenly filled his mind. He remembered the breakdown well. The poor sod had suffered much. Malicious gossip is always painful, but in this case ... well, it certainly broke him. Seeing him take off his shirt in the office was bad enough, but the real madness began when he bawled his eyes out, whilst sitting on the editor's table. The sight of this semi-naked middle-aged man sobbing like a baby and then being calmly bundled out was witnessed by many. He never came back ...

Manning suddenly swerved to avoid two magpies who were standing in the middle of the road. They flew away in a panic and the car missed them by a whisker. 'Two for joy', thought Manning, as yet more good fortune was heaped before him. His car turned into a field, where a handmade sign had been erected to point out the site of the Pwllgwaelod ground. It all looked lovely; the pavilion, the boundary ropes and the sweep of green. This was the life! All he wanted now was a good game and a well deserved pint afterwards.

Yes, thought Manning, as he parked his car next to a mustard yellow VW Golf, he was a very lucky bastard.

SILLY MID OFF

Tim Middleton and David Watson sat in the front seats of the captain's Rover car that was parked opposite the public conveniences in Dinas Cross. Without the distraction of Giffo's wailing and moaning, they were, at last, able to discuss game tactics.

"I've decided that, because we can't afford to lose," Tim began, "we'll have to bat first."

"But, what if we lose the toss?"

"They'll put us in first, anyway. Ernie Edwards may be a wily old bugger, but he's also terribly predictable. He knows that his main chance lies in Evans, and, by playing him early, means that he'll be really fired up and ready for action. A fresh Dai Evans is always going to be his best option."

"So, you're relying on us to pile on the runs."

"Not necessarily, no. If we can score freely, then great. But remember, we don't have to win. We only have to make sure that we don't lose. We can bat for as long as we like, making it virtually impossible for them to press home for a win later on."

"But what if we collapse? It has happened before, you know."

"Well, there's always that risk, of course," Tim conceded, "but with a certain amount of determination and an awful lot of blocking, we should see it through until tea, at least. And you never know, with Manning now strengthening the middle order, we might be able to declare after six o'clock."

"So, we're counting on Manning to bail us out, are we?"

"No, but he will help. You haven't seen him play, David. He's really very good."

"You'll be taking him out for dinner next."

Middleton laughed, then mumbled, "No chance of that. He's an arrogant little prig."

"Well, why are we playing him, then?"

"We have no choice, it's as simple as that." He paused. He didn't want to talk about Manning and he was acutely aware that the subject intensely annoyed his companion. He took out a notebook and pencil and began to scratch down a couple of notes. "Now, what about fielding positions?" This was a purely rhetorical question driven home by the fact that Middleton was so deep in thought that he completely ignored Watson.

But Watson was considering the fielding positions and, as he brought a mental picture of possible placements in his head, a sudden release of euphoria brought out a glow in his cheeks. This elation had not been noticed by Middleton, who continued to write down names against a list of fielding positions.

Watson could barely contain the excitement in his voice as he uttered, almost inaudibly, "why don't we put Manning at silly-mid-off?"

Middleton raised his head. "What, for the spinners?"

"No. First couple of overs. See what happens." Watson had modified his voice somewhat in an effort to suppress any suspicion of devilment. He sounded remarkably calm in the circumstances.

"What? Against Stapleford? That would be madness."

"It would apply a certain amount of pressure," Watson reasoned, "and that will be important when it's their turn to bat."

"Yes, but Stapleford?" Middleton was stupefied. "His favourite shot is through the covers on the off side."

"I know."

"He's an excellent timer of the ball, that one. And if it's an overpitched ball bowled outside off stump, he hits it bloody hard."

"I know."

"Well? Why in hell's name should we play Manning at silly-mid-off? It would be extremely dangerous for him, even with ..." The penny dropped at last and Middleton stared, open-mouthed at his friend. To his mind, the mild-mannered hotelier with a slight weakness for a pretty girl, had suddenly turned into Tenby's answer to Dr Crippen. "You want him to get injured, don't you?"

"Nonsense," said the unconvincing Watson, "it'll apply the right kind of pressure, that's all. Manning's the obvious candidate. He'd make a perfect close-in fielder. You keep praising his agility and his wonderful reflexes."

"I don't deny that, but I wouldn't like to test his reflexes against a cricket ball travelling at 100 mph towards his head. It's a hell of a way to test someone's reactions."

"It would apply pressure, though. You can't deny that."

"Yes, but at what cost? No, forget it David."

Watson nodded slightly to himself. It was time to use his trump card. "Yes, maybe you're right, we should forget it. Perhaps I should forget other things as well - like our arrangement."

"What arrangement?"

"Your only daughter's wedding reception - my hotel - 25% off. I think that was the arrangement, but, then again, I could forget it."

"You wouldn't." He didn't mean it surely.

"Try me." He did.

Middleton leaned back as he considered the dilemma. It was a straight choice between his pocket and one man's physical well being. Was three hundred pounds worth condemning a man to probable bruising, a serious injury or worse ...

"Well," he finally said, "perhaps Manning should play at silly-mid-off. Only for just a few overs, mind."

Watson smiled. He always suspected that there was a little of the fabled Cardigan blood in the skipper.

At that moment, the pathetic figure of Giffo finally re-emerged from the toilet. Clutching his stomach and groaning slightly, he shuffled slowly across to the waiting car. The occupants remained silent as Giffo clambered into the back. Both men noticed that he was sweating slightly, but no acknowledgement was given to the invalid. Instead, Middleton started the car up and said, just prior to releasing the handbrake, "and before you ask Giffo, there are no more toilets this side of Pwllgwaelod. You'll have to hold it in."

DEEP EXTRA COVER

Mike Brandon took a tentative sip from his pint of bitter and smiled appreciatively. "It's a good pint, this."

"Well, it's brown and it's got alcohol in it, that's all I care about," said Thommo, a little too honestly. "Mind you, they do keep a good pint here, I'll give them that. There's a fair few good pubs in the area: 'The Harp' in Letterston and then, in Haverfordwest you've got the ..."

Chris Lawler abruptly broke in across Thommo's discussion. "I'm sorry to interrupt your extract from 'The Pembrokeshire Good Pub Guide', Thommo, but can I just ask: where's your mate?"

"He won't be long now."

"Thommo, it's ten past twelve. The match starts in less than an hour." As he pointed to his watch with his index finger, he spilled some of his orange juice on the table.

"Don't panic, Chris. Trouble with you is, you want to relax more. Mellow out."

"I don't want to mellow out: I want to be in Pwllgwaelod."

"We'll get there. He's a good lad, Terry. He'll be here now, you'll see."

"Did he mind offering us a lift? I mean, it's a bit of a cheek, isn't it?" Asked Mike, taking a longer sup from his glass.

"No, I told you - he owes me a favour. Good as gold Terry is. Besides, as luck would have it, he's got to pick up three dozen cluckers from Cardigan in his van."

Lawler's attention was immediately aroused. "Cluckers?"

"What?"

"You said: cluckers!"

"Turkeys. Oh, didn't I tell you that Terry deals in turkeys?"

"No, I would have remembered that," Lawler said dryly.

"Oh ... well, he does. He's got his own turkey farm a few miles from here."

Lawler could barely contain his anger. "So, are you trying to tell me that the three of us are going to travel in a turkey truck?"

"Well ..." Thommo mumbled, as he carefully placed his pint glass on the table in an effort to buy a little more time. "Listen, it'll be alright and besides, we won't have to pay a bean."

"Perhaps we should drink up and meet your friend in the car park," suggested Mike, anticipating the argument that would ensue. Whilst he was good in the role of arbitrator between these two, he was growing tired of their constant niggling.

"Good idea," agreed Thommo, downing the remains of his drink, "come on, he might be out there now."

When the three men emerged from the pub into the car park, it was immediately apparent that Thommo was wrong: there was no turkey van to be seen. They stared out along the A40, realising that unless it turned up soon they would miss the match. Middleton would be justifiably livid.

Just as Lawler was considering possible actions the captain might take in such a crisis, the throaty sound of a diesel engine filled the air. An off-white van could be seen, first approaching and then, indicating right, towards the waiting cricketers.

"He's here," shouted Thommo, picking up his bag.

Lawler studied the mud-splattered vehicle in some depth. The van, which had the legend 'Terry's Turkeys' blazoned across both sides, had all the hallmarks of belonging to a 'mate of Thommo'. Its tyres were dirty and under-inflated, the rotting roof-rack looked in danger of falling off and the exhaust pipe was kept at a 45 degree angle from the ground thanks to a piece of wire that had been looped around it and the bumper.

Terry got out. He had a slightly weather-beaten face and the kind of cheeky grin that Lawler hated. "Morning lads. Climb aboard. Lucky Thommo phoned me when he did. Lovely day. Gorgeous." His pleasant, cheery manner, Lawler could well have done without. He, like Mike, picked up his bag in a slow, tired manner. Thommo leapt like a cat into the front seat, while Terry opened up the back doors.

"So, it's you in the front seat, is it, Thommo?" Said a less-than-pleased Lawler.

"Too right it is. He's my mate."

Mike and Lawler wandered around to the back and stared into the space that was to be theirs for the next half an hour. There was one heavy blanket, enough turkey feathers to fill several pillows and two upturned milk crates, which appeared to be the only form of seating. Lawler couldn't speak.

Terry gave another one of his cheeky grins. "Come on, lads. Up you get."

"I can't possibly travel in this," Lawler whispered.

"Oh, come on," encouraged Mike, as he clambered into the van, "it's not for long." He gently dragged Lawler in with him, the latter being too stunned to resist.

The cold air seemed even colder when Terry the Turkey Man crashed the doors shut and both occupants sat down awkwardly on the crates.

"I can't travel like this."

"Course you can, it's not far."

As the engine was brought to life, both were suddenly aware of a sickly stench that pervaded the fridge-like space. Lawler felt a little sick and quickly covered his face with a handkerchief.

As the van pulled back onto the main road, Terry yelled back, "there's a thick cover in the back if you get too cold, lads! You might need it!"

Although both were suffering in the arctic conditions, neither thought it wise to wrap themselves in a blanket that was peppered in old turkey blood stains.

xxxxx

Tim Middleton stood by his car and waited for Milns and Nicholson, who were walking up to meet him. Giffo bolted out of the car and ran as fast as he could across the field towards the pavilion.

"Everyone here?" Asked Middleton.

"Well ... We're still waiting for Thommo. Stillman and the rest are getting changed."

"Who's with Thommo?"

"Mike and Chris. They'll be here now, I'm sure," said Milns, who wasn't in the least bit sure.

"Giffo still bad, is he?" Said Bill.

"Yes ..." Middleton stopped as he noticed the burly figure of Ernie Edwards, the Pwllgwaelod captain, approaching the group.

"Afternoon, Tim. I thought you weren't turning up for a minute."

"No. We wouldn't miss this."

"The umpires are eager to do the toss. Do you want to do it now, or do you want to get changed first?"

"No, we'll do it now." Middleton waited until Edwards was out of ear-shot and then turned to Watson, "stay here and keep a look out for Thommo."

"Will do."

Middleton followed Edwards to the middle of the pitch where the toss was to be made. David Watson made a move in the direction of the pavilion. "We ought to get changed," he murmured.

The others were about to follow when a white van rattled onto the field. Milns, being more observant than the others, recognised the beaming face of Thommo perched in the front seat.

"It's Thommo," he shouted.

The van stopped and Thommo bounced out.

"Better late, than never, Thommo," boomed Watson, "where's Chris and Mike, aren't they with you?"

With a style reminiscent of a magician opening a box, Thommo opened the back door of the van to reveal the identity of the occupants within. Mike, feeling like a POW emerging from a darkened cell, limped out, blinking excessively at the milky midday sun. Chris Lawler was slower to exit. He was shivering slightly and he had the stinking blood-stained blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Half a dozen turkey feathers clung to the blanket, like limpets to a rock.

"My God, what did they charge you with, Chris? Conspiracy to pervert the justice of turkeys?" It was Bill who spoke.

Lawler threw back an expression of tired humiliation: "Don't joke, please. I've suffered enough."

"Have a bad trip?" Mused Watson.

"No thanks, we've already had one," replied Mike.

Terry closed the doors behind them. "Well, I'd better be off. Have a good game, lads. Oh, and if you need a turkey for Christmas this year, you know where to come."

"I'll be having goose this year, I'm afraid," muttered Lawler as he headed unceremoniously towards the pavilion.

 

COVER POINT

"It's as predicted, lads. They've put us in. So we need to bat carefully and, above all, we need to bat slowly."

Middleton was addressing his now complete team in the visitors' dressing room. All the players were changed. Chris Lawler, after a quick but much needed shower, was feeling a little better. Whilst listening to his captain, he was drying his hair with a thick towel and Mike was at his feet, strapping on his pads.

"If we can see off Dai Evans, we can bat all day. All we need is a lot of courage and a little bit of luck. We'll have to be brave. We will have to show them from the outset that we mean business. I know we can win. We deserve to win. And if we can't win, we have to make sure that we don't lose."

Bill Nicholson yawned. What an appalling speech, he thought. What a load of old cobblers!

Milns, meanwhile, was positively agog. He imagined that he was a foot soldier listening to Henry V's sterling speech prior to Agincourt. He felt inspired. What a wonderful speech, he thought.

"As far as the team goes, Manning here is taking Tony's place at number five and Tony will take on the twelfth man duties."

Arthur Milns was about to ask how a one-armed twelfth man would be able to make the tea during the interval, but he thought better of it and remained silent.

Watson shot Manning a quick glance of hatred when his name was mentioned. He had been careful to avoid the man completely and he felt sure that Manning was doing the same thing.

"Now the chief umpire today ..."

"Is a right old bugger."

All eyes turned towards the door. There stood Freddie Fisher, the most talked about and respected umpire in Pembrokeshire. It had been him who had offered the conclusion to Middleton's sentence. Bill Nicholson, for one, was grateful to have a respite from Middleton's ramblings.

"Hello, Freddie."

"Hello, Mr Middleton. Hello, boys." The umpire turned to whisper in the captain's ear. "You don't mind if I have a little word?"

"No," muttered Middleton.

Frederick Fisher faced his audience in the same manner as a schoolteacher faces his class. "Well, lads, I'd just thought I'd pop in and go over a few things with you. I always like a word before the Festival Match, as you probably all know." They did only too well. "You're all aware, I'm sure, of the peculiarities of this match, but I'll go over them just the same." Oh God, thought Bill Nicholson. "This match is a one day affair, starting at one. The interval takes place at four o'clock and will last thirty minutes. Play will stop when the umpires declare that the light is too poor to carry on. That will be at around eight o'clock, if this weather holds out. The batting side will play until all ten wickets are down or until they choose to declare. They can do this at any time. The other side will then bat and try to better the score reached. If they fail to do this, without conceding all their ten wickets, then the match will be deemed a draw. Well, then, I think I've covered most of the points ... Well, best of luck, lads." He paused deliberately, before he added: "You'll need it against Dai Evans, I'm sure."

Another, less impressive and decidedly shorter, umpire popped his head around the door. "Ready Freddie?"

"Oh, and this," Freddie pointed out the latest entrant in the dressing room, "is John Bishton. He'll be partnering me today."

Before making his exit with Bishton, Freddie glanced around the overpopulated room. He found that he recognised nearly everyone. The only exception, in fact, was Manning, although he was convinced he had seen him somewhere. He had definitely seen him, only he felt sure that it wasn't on a cricket pitch. He didn't really know why, but this fact worried him.

When Freddie Fisher left the dressing room with Bishton, Middleton followed them out. He had wanted to question the great umpire on the state of the pitch. Instead, it was the umpire who did the questioning.

"Who's that new bloke?"

"Oh, you mean Manning. He's filling in for Tony."

"I've seen him somewhere: I'm sure of it."

"He's a journalist, writes for the Pembroke Examiner."

At once, Freddie's face lit up. Of course. He's the journalist. Memories of a dimly lit hall and people singing came hurtling back. Yes, he knew now.

Freddie's far away look bemused Middleton and its action deterred him from asking anything relevant about the pitch. He suddenly felt he would not get a lucid answer.

MID OFF

Mike, Thommo, David Watson, Bill Nicholson and John Marsden sat on the chairs of the deck facing the less than impressive Pwllgwaelod cricket pitch. The deck, a raised patio-like stage, was only built last year and its close proximity to the changing room, made it the ideal place to follow the action. All save Bill and John were watching intently; sizing up the opposition and speculating as to what sort of field they would set. Bill, pads on ready, was reading a newspaper he had found in the umpires' changing room. Despite the fact that his services as the number three bat might be called on earlier than he would like, he was a picture of serenity. Nicholson was calm alright: Nicholson was always calm. If he had been on the Titanic as it was sinking, he would have been exchanging stories with the members of the band whilst sipping a gin and tonic.

John, meanwhile, was furtively looking across to the boundary rope where several cars were parked. Was Joyce there? How he hoped that particular question would be answered in the negative. He knew that Joyce drove a blue Renault Clio and, as yet, he had failed to spot one. This point would have encouraged him, had it not been for the fact there was a large white van obstructing the view of one or two vehicles on the far side of the ground. He would have to get closer. He had to know whether she was here or not.

He walked slowly down from the deck and onto the cushion of grass. A deep sense of foreboding seized his whole body and, for a while, he was rooted to the spot. He had to go on, he told himself, he had to know. He started to walk around the boundary rope like an amateur detective from a ghastly post-war British B movie. Finally, just as Lawler and Middleton were being clapped onto the pitch, he reached the white van. With a great deal of reluctance, John peered around it and saw two cars - a red Rover and a blue Renault Clio. There, in the latter car and dressed in a pretty floral dress, sat Joyce. He instinctively drew himself back. He needed time to think: he needed time to determine the right move. What should he say to her? What could he say? Should he be angry, or cool and aloof? Oh, bugger it! He leapt round, opened the passenger door and climbed in next to her.

"Oh, hello John."

"Hello. What are you doing here?"

"I've come to see the cricket."

"You hate cricket."

"Do I?"

There was a pause as Marsden collected his thoughts. "Are you going to tell him?" He said at last

"Tell who, what?"

"Don't play sodding games, Joyce. I really couldn't be bothered with all that."

"I thought that maybe I should tell him."

"But why for God's sake?"

"Because ... Because it's the truth."

"It's over, Joyce. That, I'm afraid, is it. I don't want this to go on any longer."

"It's a bit late for that now. Besides, you don't really mean it."

"I do. It's over." He got out of the car. He needed the fresh air. He walked away, hoping that Joyce wouldn't follow. She obliged by staying rooted in the car. Marsden knew he had to get to Stillman before his wife did.

BATTING

FIRST WICKET

The fielding side were taking their time in setting their field. Tim Middleton, twiddling with his bat la Alec Stewart, was on the point of complaining to the umpire when Ernie Edwards shouted, "Ready!"

Freddie Fisher, after hunching up his shoulders and bending slightly over the stumps, nodded to Dai Evans. All was now set for his first ball.

Evans, all beard and beer belly, stood like a bull preparing his charge. He gave out a grunt as he began his ungainly, yet frighteningly brisk, run in.

Middleton gulped. His concentration was total. Watch out for the yorker. Be mindful of the bouncer. Play back. Watch the ball and play back.

The ball flew out of the bowler's hand like a grenade and sizzled off the pitch towards Middleton's legs. The batsman, with more luck than judgement, clipped it away to long leg. "Run!" He cried up the wicket. Lawler responded and the first run was on the board.

"Oedd e'n lwcus," mumbled the fielder standing at first slip as Lawler took up his position.

"What?"

"He said, your friend was lucky." It was Cardigan Chris, the perky wicket-keeper who spoke. "You'll have to be careful. Old Dai's in good form this season. Twenty-eight wickets, two broken hands and a hospital job last week."

Lawler ignored the jibe and screwed up his eyes as Evans came in again. The ball bounced hard and flew outside the off stump. Lawler swiped at it, as if it were an angry bee, and the ball, without making contact with the bat, thumped into the wicket-keeper's gloves.

"'Ti moy'n bat mawra?" The slip fielder shouted.

The batsman shot a look at Cardigan Chris, who happily translated the phrase: "He said: bad luck."

Lawler missed the next two balls in identical fashion. He felt slightly angry at himself as the slip fielders started giggling like schoolgirls behind him.

He had to concentrate: he had to ignore all around him and concentrate on the next ball. It would be the short ball next, surely. The bouncer: Dai Evans' favourite ball. Well, he'd be ready for it.

Lawler waited as, once again, the bowler lumbered in. The ball, although it was marginally slower this time, was devastatingly accurate. It was the yorker and Lawler only just spotted it in time. A cloud of dust rose up as he dug his bat down and the ball deflected just in time. He had been lucky. If the ball was a little faster, he would have said goodbye to the middle stump. He really hadn't expected the yorker. He had to concentrate. One ball to go, just one more to survive. It had to be the bouncer, now. It was sure to be.

Evans grinned savagely at the batsman as Freddie Fisher announced that the next ball was the last of the over. Middleton, standing adjacent to the umpire, leaned against his bat. He was only half-hoping that Lawler would anticipate the inevitable bouncer that Evans was certain to bowl now; he was also half-hoping that Evans would knock his stupid, arrogant head off.

As predicted, Evans delivered a searing bouncer that sprung off the ground, towards Lawler's helmet, like an Exocet missile. The batsman was on to it quickly and hooked the ball for all it was worth over the boundary ropes and onto the roof of a Vauxhall Nova.

Lawler wanted to ask Cardigan Chris whether the slip fielder had any comment to make about that particular shot, but instead he decided to pat the ground around him with his bat.

Middleton walked down the pitch to meet him, as the umpires and fielders re-positioned themselves for the next over. "Good shot. Well played. But don't get carried away with that hook shot. He'll be on to you now. He'll test you again, next over."

"He'll soon give up if I can keep hooking him out of the ground."

"That's just what he wants. He's not even warmed up yet. Be careful, for God's sake. We don't need runs, remember: we need to survive."

So saying, Middleton turned his back and took up his guard against the less impressive John Morris. Whilst Morris was, in many ways, a useful fast bowler, he was not of the same class as Evans. It was like comparing Dennis Lillie with a second-eleven county player. Middleton, very correct and Boycott-like, blocked and defended throughout the over. It may have added nothing to the score, but it used up vital time. Besides, he had no wish to score a single and face the wrath of Dai Evans; Lawler was welcome to him.

At the end of the over, he strolled down to meet his partner. Lawler, patting the ground with his bat once more, seemed intent on avoiding eye contact with his skipper.

"Now remember; he'll bowl you a couple of bouncers again this over, to test you out. Duck under them if you can."

"I know what I'm doing."

"Just be careful. No more fancy hook shots."

"Don't worry."

Lawler turned his back and prepared himself for Evans' second over. What was Middleton on about? At least he could play a hook shot, which was more than Middleton could manage. The hook shot was certainly outside his meagre repertoire. He was just a boring little man playing boring little shots. The trouble was, he failed to appreciate the predictability of Evans' bowling. He might be fast, but if you can read him well and you're prepared to take him on early, he was fallible.

Lawler knew that a new over would not signal a new approach; therefore, he was more than ready for the bouncer. He didn't need Middleton to tell him that.

The batsman prepared himself and, true to form, Evans blasted a short one in once more. Lawler, seeing and anticipating it early, got into the perfect position and was able to pull it round to the long leg boundary where a teenage spectator stopped it hitting a Mini Metro.

Yes, it was all very predictable, thought Lawler.

Idiot, thought Middleton, bloody stupid idiot. Didn't he realise that he was playing into Dai Evans' hands? Ernie Edwards was pointing to and, then, talking to the second slip. Although Middleton didn't catch the conversation that ensued, he recognised at once what was occurring. With the slip fielder adopting a new position at backward short leg, it was confirmed - it was the trap. Had Lawler spotted it, though?

Lawler took a cursory look at the fielding change and smiled openly. Now, this really was predictable. Or ... was it a little too predictable. Yes, wait a minute ... it was a bluff. It was sure to be a bluff; Evans would let the batsman believe that he was going to bowl another bouncer, whereas, in fact, he would pitch one up. This was child's play.

Evans bowled again, with a full-blooded whip to his action. The ball, travelling at a speed not witnessed this afternoon, flew up sharply to Lawler's chin. He played it too late and, as a result, the ball chipped off the outside of his bat and looped high in the air. The fielder at backward square leg barely moved as he cupped the ball comfortably into his hands.

The bowler was ecstatic, Lawler was embarrassed and Middleton didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Lawler promptly walked off with as much dignity as he could muster. He refused to skulk off like a rejected child and held his head up defiantly.

Bill Nicholson walked past him and patted him on the back. They both knew that Bill didn't mean, with any sincerity, the pat on the back that he gave to the retreating batsman or the good humoured "bad luck" that was offered. Lawler reached the dressing room, dignity only just intact, to a small ripple of polite applause and the odd chuckle of laughter. It was a reminder that this crowd was totally partisan.

xxxxx

No-one spoke as Lawler passed them on the deck. Peter Stillman muttered a "bad luck" but as only John Marsden heard that didn't seem to count. As Lawler slammed the door shut, as if to put out his disappointment, Marsden cleared his throat and whispered to Stillman, "can I have a word?"

Peter Stillman, almost too grateful for the attention, flashed him a smile. "In private, if you don't mind," John said, nodding his head towards the side of the deck.

Stillman, surprised but willing none-the-less, stood up quickly and followed him round to the side, away from the others.

"Well?"

"Joyce is here."

"Is she?" He seemed genuinely pleased and confirmed this by saying: "Good."

"Trouble is, Peter ..." God! This was difficult. "The trouble is ... I've got something to tell you ... something about Joyce, that is. Well, I mean, something about Joyce and me, in fact. I ..."

Stillman could stand it no longer. "What? Tell me!"

"I've been having ... Joyce and I ... We've been having an affair."

Stillman froze. "What?" He whispered in disbelief.

"I'm sorry, Peter, but ..."

No words were spoken then, Stillman, seething with rage, wrapped two bony hands around Marsden's neck. His eyes displayed a disturbing expression of hatred and disgust. "You bastard!" He cried as his fingers dug into the flesh of Marsden's neck. Marsden, desperately trying to breathe, pushed against Stillman's slight body. This show of inner strength surprised the younger man but he managed to release the spin bowler's grip by applying a powerful push which unbalanced Stillman. Marsden raised his fists threateningly: "I don't want to hurt you, Peter, but if you do that again I'll knock you down."

Stillman looked drained and beaten. "Where is she?" He asked.

Marsden pointed to the boundary and Stillman, without pausing, strolled briskly in that direction. Dumbstruck, Marsden wandered back to the deck where Thommo informed him that Nicholson had just scored a boundary off the bowling of Evans.

Just now, John Marsden couldn't give a monkey's!

SECOND WICKET

Bill Nicholson, who had just fended off Dai Evans competently for three balls and then blasted a boundary off the last ball, was feeling on top of the world.

Middleton, anxious as ever, strolled quickly down to meet his new partner at the end of the over. "That prat Lawler just threw his wicket away. He just threw it away. Anyone might have thought that he had been bribed by the opposition, the stupid prat!"

"Well, I plan to stay around a little longer."

"Good. That's the spirit. Evans won't last long, bowling at that kind of pace. We need to get through the next six overs or so, that's all."

After Middleton had prodded and pushed his way through the following over, it was left to Nicholson to get through another six balls from Dai Evans. Nicholson, who was certainly no-one's fool, knew that his best line of defence would be to swap the strike as soon as possible and let his captain face the danger for a change. Therefore, with this thought in mind, he strove to, and consequently managed to, glance the first ball down to the long leg boundary for a single. The shot wasn't terribly attractive, but to Nicholson's eyes, it didn't really matter. His cry of: "Run!" horrified Middleton, who was more than a little reluctant to obey an instruction that would condemn him to five deliveries from the Pwllgwaelod bowler.

Facing Evans had been an ordeal he had not had to undertake so far, save for the fluke single that he had bagged in the first ball of the match. Nicholson smiled at the other wicket, wondering how the captain would cope in the circumstances. In the past, he had heard Middleton declare, to those who were prepared to listen, that he was a weak off side player. Nicholson was wondering if Evans had knowledge of this pronouncement or whether he sided with Bill's own theory that the Hodgeston skipper was an equally poor leg side batsman.

Middleton felt quite unwell as the bowler, sensing blood no doubt, galloped in. The batsman's philosophy was now condensed to a single shred of strategy - keep your eye on the ball! Yes, he had to keep his eye on the ball; watch where it bounces, watch where it goes ...

When it was delivered however, it was clear that Middleton didn't sight it at all, from the moment it left the bowler's hand, until the time when Cardigan Chris caught, and then flicked it out to the first slip. That was quick, nodded Middleton. The next ball was equally so and, as in the previous delivery, Middleton failed to make any sort of contact.

"He'll speed up in a minute," quipped Cardigan Chris, much to the amusement of the giggling fielders.

Middleton, despite feeling frustrated by the fact that he had not seen (let alone made contact with) any of these deliveries, applied himself once more to the task in hand. It was then that Evans bowled a slower ball, forcing the batsman to play too early. Middleton watched in horror as the ball deflected off his bat, upwards, straight into the grateful hands of the fielder at mid-off. Damn! He could have kicked himself. He should have seen that one coming.

He trounced off to even less applause than Lawler had received. Suddenly, the awesome weight of the world seemed to lie heavily on his drooping shoulders.

xxxxx

"Oh look, one of your little friends is out!"

"That's Middleton."

"Oh, is it?" Joyce flashed him a smile. It was the smile she used to gain full attention. She said coyly, " are you glad to see me?"

"Of course," he said, his eyes still following the action of play.

She lowered her eyes. "Peter, I've got something to tell you and, to be brutally honest with myself, it's something I'm a little ashamed about ..."

He didn't appear to take any notice, his attention was still being held by the activity on the field. Watching Middleton's pathetic exit, he commented, "look at that poor man, he must be distraught." He quickly turned to her apologetically, "Sorry?"

"I said, I've got something to tell you."

"Can't it wait, Joyce?"

"No. It cannot wait. I'm having an affair."

"Oh, I know that."

The wind had been taken from her sails. "Do you?"

"Yes. Just as I did when you were with that builder, Eric. Just as I did when you were smitten with Bracewell. Just as I did when you were playing around with my cousin, Jerry. Do you want me to go on? Or will you shut up about it and let me play cricket. I'm hopeful of bagging a couple of wickets, you know." He walked away, leaving his bemused wife rooted to the spot.

"Well, I'll be buggered," she mumbled, as the crowd applauded David Watson onto the pitch with as little encouragement as they felt the man warranted.

THIRD WICKET

"Bit of a balls-up, there," said Bill Nicholson, greeting Watson in the middle.

"Yes, it isn't exactly going to plan, is it? Sixteen for two in the fifth over. We'll have to dig our heels in a bit and follow Tim's plan of solid defence."

"Bugger that! Middleton's theory of solid defence hasn't exactly worked up to now. Now it's every man for himself. It's death or glory time, Watson."

"Well, I ..."

"Just play Evans as best you can," he snapped, walking back to the non-striker's end.

David Watson, a man not prone to cowardice, was feeling a little nervous as Evans steamed in yet again. The batsman, sighting the ball remarkably easily, played a perfect backward defensive shot, pushing the ball back to the bowler. He began to relax a little.

Cardigan Chris behind the stumps seemed impressed. "Well played, Mr Watson. Nice bat, you've got there. Morgan Jones was telling me that he is going to re-seal his own bat tonight. It needs a fresh coat of linseed oil. Problem is, he needs to strip it down first. He needs a good stripper, see. But, of course, you know all about strippers, don't you, Mr Watson?" The first slip erupted into a fit of giggles and Watson's face reddened dramatically. He was angry now, and that anger destroyed his concentration immediately.

Evans, sensing this, wasted no time. He bowled in again, with an extra degree of pace and accuracy, and promptly removed Watson's middle stump.

Nicholson looked into the heavens as Watson stormed back to the pavilion. What a complete bloody loser! Thank God that Manning was the next one in. At least he could bat.

"Bloody hell!"

"Shall I get padded up now, skipper?" Said Thommo facetiously.

Middleton ignored the remark. "Where's Giffo, for God's sake?"

Giffo lifted his head. "Right here, Tim."

"Are you feeling better?"

"Much, thanks."

"Well, you better get padded up. There's only Arthur now, before you."

Giffo, obeying the instruction, wandered into the dressing room, as the forlorn figure of David Watson reached the deck. "Those sanctimonious bastards," he muttered as he walked into the dressing room. The eyes of the players that had followed him in, now turned in unison towards the pitch once more.

 

 

FOURTH WICKET

"Just forget what Middleton told you and play your natural game. We're really up against it now."

Phil Manning nodded his assent and walked over to the non-striking end, where he was politely greeted by John Bishton, the smaller of the two umpires. As the batsman prepared himself at the other end, Bishton, whose eyes were panning across the boundary rope, suddenly waved involuntarily to a spectator in the crowd. Manning noticed that the recipient was a slightly dishevelled man in a purple shirt and a Panama hat. Although the shirt drew a blank as far as the journalist was concerned, the hat seemed, for one reason or another, to be familiar.

Nicholson, in fine form, managed to carve a handsome couple of runs to third man and then cut two fours to the mid-wicket boundary in the next over. With him at the crease, a game of substance was still in the offing.

The umpires and fielders busied themselves for the change of the over and Manning prepared to take his guard against Dai Evans.

Pwllgwaelod's captain, Ernie Edwards, rushed in to talk with his key bowler. "How are you doing? How's the knees?"

"Fine," came the reply. Everyone in the Pwllgwaelod camp knew, that after half a dozen fast overs, Evans' knees would start to swell up and halt his impressive pace. While the ageing process had practically ignored his hair and his face, it paid a great deal of attention to the bowler's knees.

"This bloke's called Manning. A useful bat, by all accounts. But I heard, on very good authority, that he's a prime candidate for a leg before. Doesn't react quick enough to play forward or back, apparently."

Evans nodded and Freddie Fisher, over-hearing the conversation, allowed himself a smile, knowing that it was he who had supplied the valuable insight into Manning's flaw.

The bowler charged in and delivered a straightish ball at tremendous pace which crashed into the batsman's pads just after it nicked the inside edge of willow.

"Howzat!" Screamed Evans.

Manning smiled and waved his bat slightly to indicate that the ball had hit that particular object first. Everyone must have realised that. However, the batsman's smile was promptly wiped off his face when he saw the umpire's raised finger, followed by the cheering triumph of the fielding side.

"It hit the bat first," Manning protested in disbelief.

The umpire shook his head sagely, "sorry son. Plum LBW, that was."

Manning too, shook his head and slowly left the crease doubting both the umpire's sanity and his sense of hearing.

As the batsman started to leave, John Bishton wandered over to his fellow umpire. "Don't take this the wrong way, Freddie, but I must admit I thought there was a bit of bat on that."

"Yes, I know there was."

"Then, why ..."

"Because that little creep wrote a particularly nasty review on 'Oklahoma' last year."

"Oklahoma?"

"It was put on by the Pembroke Dock Players. My good lady wife is the leading lady. He called it amateurish and dull."

"Yes, but Freddie ..."

"No. No buts, John. My Sheila was in tears for weeks. I'm just doing what any other professional umpire would do: establishing my authority and making sure that sensible decisions are made in the heat of the battle. Phil Manning deserved to be out first ball and, lo and behold, he was."

"Manning? Did you say, Phil Manning?"

"Yes. Writes for the Pembroke Examiner."

John Bishton's eyes glazed over. He took a long, careful look towards the boundary rope where a family of four was enjoying a picnic. Standing just behind them was the man in the purple shirt and Panama hat.

"You alright, John?"

Freddie's quiet voice pulled him out from a sea of thoughts and dark secrets.

"Yes ... I'm fine ..."

"You're quite happy with my decision, then?"

"Oh, yes, Freddie." His voice seemed strange. It was strangled with emotion. "I thought it was a good decision. A very good decision."

FIFTH WICKET

Manning threw down his bat in a childish display of indignation. "I was never out. The ball hit the bloody bat. You could hear that in Fishguard."

"Can't disagree with the umpire's decision, old chap," chirped Thommo, "especially when it's Freddie's."

Manning, seeing no sense in reiterating his case of wrongful dismissal, stormed through the changing room door leaving Thommo, Stillman and Giffo listen to the baleful sighing of Tim Middleton.

"This is hopeless," he muttered, "absolutely hopeless. If we lose today ... If we lose today, I will have no alternative but to resign. That's the bottom line. That's where the buck stops. There's simply no alternative; I will have to go."

Simultaneously, as this pathetic proclamation reached its climax, all three listeners secretly wished that their team would lose.

xxxxx

Out on the field, Arthur Milns was showing the kind of dogged determination one had come to expect. He had batted through two overs without so much as a thick outside edge or flamboyant flap outside his off stump.

"Well, you're doing well so far, Arthur. I'm going to need you to stick about a bit," said Bill Nicholson, just prior to the next over.

"Yes, well, we need to give the innings a bit of backbone, don't we?"

"Exactly, and I reckon ..." Bill stopped abruptly, his attention being caught by fresh activity in the field. He heard Edwards call for someone - a 'Doctor Spot', it sounded like. Surely, he misheard that. "Hello, what's he up to now?" He mumbled.

Both batsmen noticed the ball being tossed to an inconspicuous young fielder, who was being patted on the back by Dai Evans.

"Bowling change; that's what it looks like," said Arthur, who had long since passed his diploma in the-patently-obvious.

Nicholson, on strike, heard more than one congratulatory reference to the decision of putting on 'Doctor Spot'. As the fair-haired and gangly novice walked up to the wicket, Bill questioned Cardigan Chris about the unusual nickname. "Is the name something to do with his accuracy? You know, always landing the ball on the right spot?"

"No. It's because he's got a face like a relief map of Snowdonia, boy."

He had too. His whole face was an awesome sight, pitted as it was with huge red lumps and yellowing pustules. He couldn't have been more than eighteen - perhaps even a year or two younger.

At any rate, his first ball was incredibly inexperienced, as it was a juicy full toss that Nicholson lifted with ease over the bowler's acne-ridden head for a six. Easy, thought Bill, smiling broadly to all around him. Arthur punched the air enthusiastically and Bill saw Middleton leap up on the deck area.

The next ball offered an easy single that brought Middleton's personal tally to a more than respectable 30. Might as well let Arthur have the chance to get off the mark, he mused as he leaned against his bat.

Arthur was a little cautious about facing the young bowler. He felt sure that he should not be underestimated. He had noticed, with particular care, how the previous ball had spun slightly from middle to outside the off stump. This, so-called, 'Doctor Spot' was just warming himself up for the perfect off-spinner, he decided. As the bowler sauntered in, Arthur told himself that he would have to watch carefully for the spin.

When it came, it was bowled straight and Arthur, anticipating the spin away, had his bat outside the line. The ball clipped the middle stump and it was clear to everyone, particularly so for the batsman, that Arthur Milns had missed the 'straight one' from the dreaded hand of 'Doctor Spot'.

SIXTH WICKET

"This, I've got to watch," said Thommo as he bounced out of his chair to lean against the white wooden fence that surrounded the deck. "Old Giffo going out to bat, not knowing what will hit him first - the leather ball or the lamb madras."

"He's wearing two pairs of pants over his jockstrap, just in case," clucked Watson mischievously.

"Go'n, Giffo! Give 'em hell! Hold this innings together!" Shouted Thommo as Giffo waddled to the crease.

"Hold the innings together! He can't even hold his bottom cheeks together," muttered Middleton, who by now was beginning to contemplate the full implications of defeat.

xxxxx

"Are you alright now?"

"Fine. Fine."

"You still look a little shaky. I thought Middleton might have changed the order. Let you bat a little later on."

"No, I'll be fine."

Old Giffo selected his guard and Nicholson, still less than satisfied with the old man's well-being, marched off to the non-striker's end. It's actually come to this, he thought, playing cricket with an old man with dysentery.

Giffo played the first ball he received with more than just a degree of competence. He watched the spin deviate slightly and patted the ball back to the bowler making his intention, of playing himself in slowly, clear.

'Doctor Spot' spat on the ball, a particularly nasty practice that Giffo had always abhorred, and rubbed the rusty orb in the palm of his hands. This time, the ball spun greatly from middle to outside off and Giffo had to stretch out with his bat in order to make contact. The ball cracked away past gully and the batsman straightened his back to set off for the run. As he did so, his back jarred. The pain reverberated down his whole body and, as he began to plod to the sanctity of the opposite wicket, his stomach started to rumble like a tube train in a tunnel. His face drained of colour as he realised the implications of what was to follow.

Ignoring the call from Bill, Giffo continued to run past the umpire and towards the pavilion. As he ran, he clutched his buttocks together in an effort to delay the inevitable.

"What the hell's going on, " said a bemused Freddie Fisher, "he'll have to be run out for that. He didn't put his bat down."

"He's not well," pleaded Bill.

"He's not in, either," said Freddie raising his finger as Ernie Edwards symbolically tapped off a bail from the wicket with the ball.

xxxxx

"I missed a good photo there. That old boy running from the pitch."

"Never mind that. Did you take one of me?"

"Wasn't much point, was there?' Said the photographer rubbing his nose, "by the time I put the film in and focused the shot, you were out."

"Good. I don't want any record of my embarrassment."

"Waste of time me being here, really," moaned Eddie Jones. "There's a Women's Guild art exhibition in Haverfordwest this afternoon. I ought to be there really."

"No. Look, I've been thinking. There'll be a good story here if Pwllgwaelod win because they get to keep the Landsker Cup. Nice photo, that'll make and it might help circulation figures in this neck of the woods. It'll be one in the eye for the Cardigan Chronicle."

"But what if they don't win."

"We'll just take a shot of David Watson and I'll write a few things about life after politics. You know, a kind of 'Where are they now?' feature."

"He won't like that."

"No, but as I said before, let's hope Pwllgwaelod will win and then everyone will be happy."

SEVENTH WICKET

"Hello. I'm sorry, but Julia and Christopher are not available just now. However, if you would like to leave a message after the tone, we will endeavour to get back to you as soon as possible ... Bleep!"

"Hello, Julia, it's me, Chris. Look I'll need a lift later on from Pwllgwaelod Cricket Club ... listen, I'll ..." Lawler suddenly snapped. "If you're still down that bloody castle with that collection of poofs, I'll go - Bleep!"

The violent tone bursting across the line told him that his intended action would have to remain unrecorded. He slammed the phone down in uncontrolled anger.

xxxxx

Back in the middle Bill Nicholson complained: "This is a bloody farce, I've had more partners than Zsa Zsa Gabor!"

"Middleton's doing his nut up there," the new batsman Mike Brandon laughed, "but at least you're still in. I'll give you the majority of the strike, shall I?"

"Well, try your best. It's not even two o'clock yet. There's not much chance of us lasting until tea, at this rate."

"Middleton said ..."

"Middleton can sod off! Let's just see what we can do."

xxxxx

"How is he?" Asked Peter Stillman, noticing the return of Watson from the changing room.

"Not well. He's locked himself in the loo again."

Tony Gates, who had spent the whole time up until now dozing in the chair, suddenly woke. "What's the score?"

Stillman answered, as no-one else felt inclined. "43 for 6 and, in addition to that, we've got one irate journalist, a captain contemplating suicide and a wicket-keeper whose backside refuses to leave a lavatory seat."

"So, no change then?"

"You never know, Gatesey," gurgled Thommo, "you might be the first ever one-armed wicket-keeper in the history of Pembrokeshire Club Cricket."

"Well, no, you'd be wrong actually." Inevitably, it was Arthur Milns who spoke. "Edward Green played for St Petrox from 1919 until 1928. He had his left arm blown off in the trenches at Passchendaele. Marvellous ability, apparently."

xxxxx

Bill Nicholson and Mike Brandon were doing rather well, picking up ones and twos off the bowling of 'Doctor Spot' and a medium-pacer by the name of Wicks. Nicholson, feeling more comfortable in the role of master-batsman and knowing that the return of Dai Evans was imminent, decided to take on 'Doctor Spot' once more.

First ball ... 4, straight over mid-on. Second ball ... 4, pulled round past mid-wicket. Third ball ... 4, pushed with some pace past mid-off. This was easy, thought Nicholson as he contemplated his next shot.

Unexpectedly, the acne-troubled bowler shouted down the pitch. "Watch out, mister batsman, I might bowl you my wrong 'un."

"Shut up, Spotty and bowl." Confidence had always tended to loosen Bill's mouth.

The bowler looked crestfallen by the comment. He took a badly creased hanky from his right hand pocket and proceeded to blow his nose. Nicholson was just wondering whether the bowler might actually start crying, when the hanky was put back in the pocket, having carried out its function.

'Doctor Spot' gripped the ball in an over-exaggerated manner and allowed it to fly out of his hand, quicker than had ever seemed possible. The ball fizzed off the pitch and Bill, who had marched down the ground in another attempt to smash the ball into the crowd, was stranded. Out of his crease and beaten by the sheer pace of the ball, Nicholson was stumped by a triumphant Cardigan Chris. John Bishton, standing at square leg, raised his finger to confirm the wicket.

As Nicholson began the long walk back, the bowler shouted out, "Don't call me Spotty! No-one calls me Spotty!"

EIGHTH WICKET

"Middleton told me to stay in and play safe: so, let's ignore that, shall we? Let's have a bit of fun."

"What? You mean, try and bash the ball around a bit?"

"Yeah, why not? Might as well enjoy ourselves. You never know, we might make a few - which is more than you can say for our front-line batsmen. They didn't exactly build the ideal platform."

"You're right there," said Mike, readjusting the box against his crutch.

Thommo patted out a mark with his weighty bat and waited for 'Doctor Spot' to finish his over.

The penultimate ball of the over spun appreciatively away from Thommo and, although he gave it an almighty swipe, it spun away from the bat to deny him a possible six and Cardigan Chris a possible catch.

"You're getting too old for this, Thommo," spat the wicket-keeper as he tossed the ball to the ever-present slip fielder.

"Am I? We'll see about that - when I'm bowling and you're batting."

"Oh, I don't expect to bat today. Stapleford and Armstrong should see us through. They're in great form."

The bowler launched himself once more and landed the ball on a reasonable length. Thommo opened his broad shoulders and threw his bat at the ball with all the strength he had. Although the shot was not out of any training manual, it produced a six. The ball flew over both long-on and a fleet of cars and landed by the practice nets that hugged the dry-stone wall that ran along the track. Thommo said nothing, knowing that the stroke had dispelled the theory that Cardigan Chris had made concerning the batsman's age.

"Nice one, Thommo," stated Mike as the two met half-way between overs.

"I just want to keep the score ticking over. What's the score now?"

"58 for 7, I think. This is a bit like Dilley and Botham in 1981, isn't it? You know, nothing to lose and everything to gain."

"Bagsey, I'm Ian Botham then. Hang on, what's going on there?" Thommo had spotted Ernie Edwards speaking earnestly with Dai Evans. Edwards appeared to be pleading with his bowler, who, in turn, was rubbing his knees and shaking his head. At length, the home captain, after whispering candid messages in the bowler's ear, laughed heartily and indicated to the umpire that his strike bowler was ready for a reappearance.

"Hell! Just when I was about to enjoy myself."

"Listen, Mike, don't panic. His knees are knackered. If we take him on and apply the pressure, he'll tire all the more. Don't worry about him - he's finished."

Mike gave his partner a weak smile as he prepared to face the return of Evans.

Before he ran in, Evans bent down and rubbed a piece of dirt from his boot. By the grimace on his face, the movement looked extremely painful. This obvious show of pain encouraged Mike as the bowler commenced his run up.

Although the overpitched ball had all the pace of the previous balls, its wayward line offered Mike the chance to belt the ball through the gully area for a quick single.

As the batsmen crossed, the bowler bent down again and caressed his sore knees. He cursed under his breath as the ball was returned to him.

The next delivery had none of the pace that all had expected and Thommo smacked it for a one-bounce boundary past mid-wicket. It seemed that Dai Evans' batteries were running down fast and, when the next ball was hit again for a four, Ernie Edwards rushed up to his prized bowler. Even after the opposition captain had rubbed the bowler's back and whispered further words of encouragement in his ears, Thommo, exploiting the opportunity for all it was worth, managed to score two more fours from the final three balls. Dai Evans, a seemingly broken man, shook his head and, after another chat with his skipper, he gingerly walked off the field.

xxxxx

"It's village cricket at its worst. Why doesn't he stick to the plan?" Moaned Middleton.

"He's just playing his natural game, that's all," said Bill who, like the others, was enjoying Thommo's spirited fight-back.

"He's going to be out in a minute, playing like that. It's completely irresponsible. Who does he think he is? Viv Richards?"

"At least he's adding a few runs and giving us something to bowl at."

Arthur Milns, who was noisily sucking a Fisherman's Friend, pointed to the retreating figure of Dai Evans. "I knew he'd break down. Bad knees. My Auntie Joan had bad knees. Very painful."

"With all the ailments your family has suffered over the years, it's a wonder there's anyone left," snapped Middleton. "But at least with him off, Thommo and Mike should be able to consolidate a little. If only he had broken down sooner; I might have made a few."

"But you didn't, did you?" Said Bill pointedly.

Middleton swung round to his vice-captain, who was in the process of filling his pipe. "What do you mean by that?"

"I'm just stating a fact, that's all. Dai Evans didn't bowl me out."

"No, that was left to a spotty kid whose voice hasn't broken."

"At least I made 31 and that's 30 more than you."

Chris Lawler, quietly enjoying the spectacle of Middleton having his nose rubbed in it, thought it time he added something to the discussion. "That's a very good point. If we played in the way you did, we'd be 20 for 7."

"You're a cocky little sod, aren't you, Lawler" Middleton sneered. "If we played this game the way I planned it, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now. I'm talking about the team now - the team. We don't all get carried away by demonstrating how not to play the hook shot. We don't all play for ourselves, we play for the team." With that, Middleton stormed off in the direction of the changing rooms. As he flung open the door he noticed the walrus-like frame of Giffo. The old man's smile was ignored by the departing captain.

"What's up with him? I heard shouting."

"Oh, he's just having a little sulk, that's all Giffo," said Bill, puffing on his pipe. "My God, Thommo's got another four!"

"Good old Thommo!"

"Are you feeling better now, Giffo?" Asked Arthur Milns.

"Much. I'll be okay behind the stumps now, don't worry."

Tony Gates looked a little put out by this announcement. He had harboured hopes of emulating the great Edward Green from St Petrox Cricket Club.

xxxxx

Thommo steered a single between first slip and gully, bringing his tally to 27.

As the bowler, John Morris, berated the slip fielder, the batsmen grinned knowing that their antics, particularly Thommo's, were ruffling the feathers of the home team.

Mike waited until the last ball of the over to score his second four and bring him into double figures. "So far, so good. I wonder if we can last until tea. They're looking a bit ragged now," mused Mike.

"Whatever, I'm having a lovely time," beamed his partner.

The Pwllgwaelod captain, Ernie Edwards, brought himself on to bowl the next over. Thommo, although unfamiliar with Edwards' action, knew that he was no more than an occasional bowler who only put himself on when all other options looked fruitless. This, therefore, was an encouraging development.

Edwards swung the first ball hideously short and the batsman was on to it immediately. As he slashed his blade of willow upwards, the ball was launched high over long-off. It fell agonisingly short of the boundary rope for a four and Thommo felt on top of the world.

Edwards barked at two young fielders to push back; one to long-on and the other to a deepish mid-off. He also took out the slip for the first time in the innings. Such a move was not lost on the batsmen - they had gained a partial victory in forcing the home side to adopt a more defensive field.

The second ball was pushed through a little quicker and this time Thommo, placing his front leg forward, was late in the drive. The ball bobbled up like a misguided firework and looped into the hands of the fielder at mid-on. Thommo, who had finally overplayed his hand, was out. The enthusiastic applause that greeted his exit was proof that the batsman's spirited innings was much appreciated. It had certainly lifted the whole game from one of mediocrity to a contest worth witnessing.

NINTH WICKET

"How are you getting back tonight? I can offer you a lift. I'm already taking Thommo and Mike. There's enough room."

Peter Stillman's generous offer was met with a slow shake of the head from Chris Lawler. "Thanks, but I've already left a message with my wife asking her to come up here and pick me up. I don't really fancy a drink afterwards, whatever the result."

"Well, I've told the rest that I'm only staying on for a quick one and, as I'm driving ... Well, if you're stuck, let me know."

"Thanks, Peter." Not such a bad old stick, thought Lawler. True, he may be as boring as yesterday's cheese, but his heart was certainly in the right place.

"Peter, can I have a word?" It was Tim Middleton who spoke.

"Sure, skipper."

"Over here," said Middleton, pointing to the back of the deck where two vacant chairs were located. Stillman loyally followed and the two men sat down. Middleton, Stillman thought, was looking decidedly surreptitious.

"What's up?"

"I'll tell you what's up - this whole innings, that's what's up. Marsden won't last long, he's no batsman, so I'm going to have to rely on you. No. I should have put that more diplomatically, shouldn't I?"

Yes, you bloody well should, shouldn't you, thought Stillman.

"The plain truth is, I need time and I know that you can give me that time, Peter."

"Sorry, Tim, you're losing me."

"When you go out there, slow it down. Now, you're no flash-blade. Everyone knows that. You're dependable and that's exactly want I need - someone who can dig in and grind the bowlers down."

"You mean, my batting's boring."

"No. Correct. Reliable. I need a batsman to play correctly and not take any risks."

So, you are suggesting that my batting is boring!

"Just grind them down and use up every ounce of time."

"Well, I'll try, Tim ..."

"Good man. I knew I could rely on you." And with that he was gone.

xxxxx

Tim Middleton was right about one thing - John Marsden was no batsman. As he took up his position against the gentle bowling of Edwards, Mike Brandon was speculating on how many balls the bowler would need to dismiss him.

The third ball of the over was bowled straight down the track. Marsden, perhaps carried away by the possibility of attaining his highest score this summer with only one shot, pulled the ball neatly into the hands of short-leg.

It was the simplest of dismissals and the perfect illustration of Middleton's judgement concerning the ability of his number ten batsman.

Mike Brandon looked up at the sky and wondered whether to have a doughnut with the tea he would soon be enjoying.

TENTH WICKET

"Bad luck, John."

"Jesus Christ! This is a men's changing room, Joyce. What the hell are you doing here?"

"I had to come and find out whether what you said earlier was true or not."

"Oh, it was true enough, Joyce. We're finished. I'm sorry if I've hurt you, but we really are finished. We have to finish."

"Well, I'm not going back to him, I can't."

"That's your choice. Now, I have to get changed. You'll have to go." He began to take off his boots and socks, hoping that she would take the hint. She didn't.

"You're frightened by confrontation, aren't you? You're frightened by commitment, as well."

"I'm frightened that someone might come in, in any minute, Joyce. Look, I just don't want Peter upset or you, for that matter. I don't want anyone upset and I believe - I really believe that we're going nowhere fast, Joyce. Why don't you go home? Talk to Peter later."

"I told you, I'm not going home. And Peter and I have done all the talking we need to, thank you."

During Joyce's speech of defiance, John quietly continued to peel off his trousers. "Well, what do you want, Joyce?"

"I want you."

"Well, I'm sorry, you can't have me. Please accept that."

Suddenly, in John's eyes, this once-desirable woman, now came across as being rather pathetic and, he hated to admit it, rather old. Tears began to break out of her eyes, causing her mascara to run away down her cheeks in tiny dark streams. Incredibly, and without warning, she went down on her knees, her head inches away from John's crutch. "I need you, I love you," she wailed as she clasped his hairy thighs and buried her head in his jockstrap.

Just then, the door was flung open by Arthur Milns, who was horrified by the scene that met his eyes. "Oh ... problems, eh?" Was all his strangled voice-box could muster.

"Joyce! For Christ's sake, get up," Marsden hissed. He then turned to Arthur in the hope that he could quickly summon up a plausible explanation to the bizarre situation. But he couldn't. "Hello, Arthur ... Have you met Mrs Stillman?"

"No ... I don't think ..."

"She's a bit upset, I'm afraid."

xxxxx

Peter Stillman had three choices. Firstly, he could follow his captain's advice of prodding and poking defensively. Secondly, he could let Mike take on the majority of the strike and hit the odd single when it was needed. Thirdly, he could be a hero.

Ordinarily, Peter would plump for one of the first two options, but today, he didn't feel ordinary - he felt inspired. He knew that, if he concentrated and applied himself, he was as good as anyone with the bat. With three balls of the over remaining, he would have the perfect opportunity of judging the pace of the pitch, the bowler and the swing, if there was any (which he doubted).

Ernie Edwards' first ball offered Stillman an easy single off his pads, but, by forcing both the pace of the ball and his running between the wickets, a tight two runs were accomplished. Stillman, tight-chested but relieved to be safe, could imagine Tim Middleton's heart thumping in anger at such a positive move. Now was the time for action. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, he mused as he pushed the next delivery past the diving hands of gully for another two runs.

What he wanted now, what any hero would have wanted now, was a boundary. However, Ernie Edwards, desperate to knock over the last man, pushed the ball in faster and at yorker length. Stillman managed to squeeze it out and dash for a quick single. If he couldn't score a boundary, he would have to settle for retaining the strike.

"You set on hogging the strike or what?" Inquired Mike with a smile.

"Sorry Mike, I just felt ..."

"Hey, don't apologise. Any move to liven up this game wins my vote. Just remember, we need all the runs we can get. No point in hanging about indefinitely. It'll be great if we can reach 100."

"That young chap's going to bowl again, I notice," Stillman said, noting the frame of 'Doctor Spot' walking from the long-on boundary towards the umpire.

"Well, you're the expert on spin. Perhaps it's just as well that you kept the strike."

Stillman frowned as he prepared his mind and his body for the over of spin. Mike was right, as a spin bowler himself, he should be wise to the stratagems and quirks that the young bowler would employ. The first two balls did not turn significantly, but Stillman, reining in his desire to strike out, played both balls back up the track with textbook precision.

The third delivery spun away a little more and the batsman resolved that this time a boundary was called for. He lofted the ball over gully's head and it ran away to the third man boundary. A polite ripple of applause congratulated both the shot and the fact that the hundred was up. Although it was not perfectly executed, the shot had enough technique behind it to be considered better than just a desperate 'slog'. One more run, thought Stillman, and I would achieve my primary target - a personal best with the bat. Now, that would give Arthur Milns something to talk about. That would give everyone something to talk about.

'Doctor Spot' pitched the next ball a little fuller and onto Stillman's pads. With the lightest of touches, he guided it past the wicket-keeper for the single he so badly sought. Mike, unaware of the landmark, patted him on the shoulder as they crossed. Stillman felt like Brian Lara as he relished his personal glory.

Mike, eager to reassert his authority on the game, had settled on his own strategy of attacking the spin bowler. He was going to hit out and hit out hard.

When the ball was tossed up towards Mike's leg stump, he quickly adopted the sweep position but, although he hit the ball with tremendous force, the spin allowed for a thick outside edge. Peter Stillman watched in frozen awe as the spinning red ball went up almost vertically and then descended into the open gloves of Cardigan Chris. The last wicket had fallen and the final tally was 103 all out.

"Sorry, Peter."

"Oh, don't mention it," Stillman uttered as they plodded back to the pavilion. Privately, he was upset, not with his partner, but with being a number eleven bat. It was, he knew, a thankless task. Either not enough time to settle or being not out having watched a partner desperately hit out knowing that a tail-ender was at the other end. Perhaps he would ask Middleton to elevate him up in the order next season. After all, his form was crying out for some kind of recognition.

"Nice to get a cup of tea now," smiled Mike as they reached the steps.

"Yes."

I think I will have that doughnut, after all, thought Mike as he quickened his pace towards the changing rooms.

xxxxx

Joyce turned right onto the main road leading to Fishguard and threw her cigarette end out of the window as though it were a dart being thrown at the bullseye. Looking in the mirror, she checked her face again and decided that she would have to stop somewhere on route in order to reapply her make-up. She looked a mess.

How embarrassing the incident had been! How utterly and totally embarrassing!

Not that Joyce was a stranger to embarrassment. Not by a long chalk! There was that time with the rector, last year, for example. She had heavily criticised the choice of flowers for the Sunday School concert, only to discover, from the rector himself, that his wife had masterminded the whole operation. Then, there was that visit to the new supermarket in Carmarthen when she found out, after purchasing a plethora of goods, that her floral skirt had been tucked into her best pair of black silk knickers. And then, there were the incidents concerning men: Alan Green ... that funny butcher from Llanelli ... cousin Henry ... Bob Williams ... That umpire ten years ago ... No, there were just too many to think about!

It was amazing, she considered, just how many embarrassing incidents one actually experiences in a life-time. Therefore, one more should not be a complete surprise. This thought cheered her slightly and, as she overtook a white van that was spewing out clouds of exhaust, she allowed a smile to break across her face.

She had certainly exposed John Marsden for what he was, anyway. Arrogant pig! Arrogant and cowardly. She didn't need him and she didn't need that sad excuse for a husband either. She was still an attractive, intelligent and vibrant woman.

True, she may be on the wrong side of 42 and, true, rolls of ample flesh were beginning to coil around her stomach and her hips, but she was still attractive. She could still attract. She could still excite.

Besides, she still had her home, her garden and her circle of friends. But, was there anything else? There must be something else. Her frown was cleared when she did think of something. Something special. Her book, of course, her special book, her 'magic' book. There, within the red leather covers, were listed all the men she had known. Most of them she had known intimately. John Marsden's name would have to be crossed off, of course, but there were others. Yes, there were many others. Nigel, for example. She liked Nigel. Hadn't seen him in years, but ... wonderful eyes ... wonderful broad shoulders ... Wonderful!

As the car raced through Scleddau, Joyce had decided that the future looked a good deal rosier.

TEA INTERVAL

"There's still a good chance of victory," boomed Tim Middleton as he demolished another sausage roll.

"103 all out is not a bad score. It is defendable," agreed David Watson, grateful for a quiet chat with his captain away from the rest of the team.

"If Thommo and John can deliver, we could have a game on our hands. Shame Manning was such a disappointment. I never knew he was suspect in the LBW department."

"I always knew he was overrated. Playing in the nets is one thing, but out there," Watson gesticulated towards the pitch as if it was Trent Bridge or the Oval, "it's a different ball game." He picked up three cocktail sticks on which lumps of cheese and pineapple were speared. He greedily forced all three into his mouth.

"Stillman's got a nerve. He just asked me if he could have a go at number eight or nine next season. I couldn't believe it."

"He didn't!" Watson exclaimed, his mouth spraying out tiny particles of cheese and pineapple.

"He bloody did."

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him to go and get stuffed. He can't even defend his own wicket through an over."

"We're still employing our little tactic of using Manning at silly-mid-off, I trust."

"Yes, I haven't forgotten. No more than four overs, mind. I don't want a corpse on my hands."

"I do," mumbled Watson under his breath as his mouth wrapped itself around three more sticks of cheese and pineapple.

"Anyone got any change?"

Bill Nicholson obliged Lawler by giving him three ten pence pieces. Lawler nodded his thanks and set off to make another phone call.

"It was certainly an interesting innings statistically," purred Arthur Milns. "Both Thommo and Peter achieved their highest scores of the season. Peter's own score was a personal best."

"Oh, goody," snapped Thommo sarcastically.

"Bill's average now stands at 36.5."

"How very uninteresting," murmured Bill, picking a loose thread from his sweater.

"Well, I'm sorry about my performance, lads," piped up Manning, feeling at liberty to speak now that Watson had left the group. "Bit of a let down. But, really, that umpire ..."

"Is probably the best in the business, so just wrap up, will you?" Cut in Thommo, annoyed by the continuation of Manning's weak excuses.

"Now, now, Thommo," warned Mike, conscious that his friend might be overstepping the mark.

"Well, it gets right up my nose, these so-called batsmen unable to deliver all the time. It's us bowlers who have to defend totals, y'know."

John Bishton suddenly loomed up in amongst the throng like the proverbial genie from a lamp. He, quite unexpectedly, tugged gently at Phil Manning's sleeve. "Mr Manning?"

"Yes."

"Can I have a quick word, in private?"

"Sure."

Although unaware of Bishton's intentions, Manning obliged the umpire by following him out of the main door and into the well-contained umpires' changing room. Bishton closed the door behind them.

"Haven't done anything wrong, have I?"

Bishton remained silent.

"I'm not going to be fined for disputing an umpire's decision, am I?" Manning chortled facetiously.

Again, the umpire remained silent. He looked at the journalist closely and then said, "Can I say two words?"

"You can say as many as you like, but ..."

"I'll say them, then - Charlie Burrows."

"What?"

"Charlie Burrows."

"Charlie Burrows. He was a journalist on my paper. What about him?"

There was a pause and during the respite in conversation, a picture flooded Manning's mind. It was a picture of a shabby looking man in a Panama hat and wearing a purple shirt. Charlie Burrows. Of course ...

There were no more words, only a neat swing of a fist Then, there was darkness.

Manning, felled by the punch, slowly open his eyes to see the compact figure of John Bishton exiting through the door.

The phone receiver was crashed down into its cradle and the money snatched back. "Damn and blast you, you cow!" Cursed Chris Lawler. He turned sharply to re-enter the main room and came to face to face with a shifty-looking Peter Stillman, who must have heard the outburst; Lawler looked quite shamefaced. "Ah, Peter ... listen, I couldn't take up that offer of a lift, could I?"

"Certainly."

"Thanks."

Lawler smiled and then set off, only to be halted by Stillman's voice. "Oh, by the way, Chris. I was talking to Tim about the possibilities of me going up the order next season. Only thing is, he's not keen. What do you think?"

"Well, I ..." Lawler, surprised by the question, was struggling to think of something diplomatic to say.

"Do me a favour, put in a word for me. I know you're pretty thick with Bill. Perhaps he'll be more accommodating."

"Sure," said Lawler, having no intention of doing such a thing. Finally getting away from Stillman's ramblings, Lawler went back into the main room to hunt out another sandwich. At this precise moment in time, he really couldn't be bothered with the wayward ambitions of a sad spin bowler whose only attribute was his ability to offer the occasional lift. What a damn cheek!

xxxxx

"I never knew."

"Oh, yeah," said Eddie Jones, checking the spare film in his pocket, "I thought everyone knew. They've been the adoring happy couple for as long as I know. Since Charlie's breakdown, anyway."

"So, Charlie Burrows really was a ..." He couldn't quite say the word. He wanted to say homosexual, but felt sure that the rather crass Eddie wouldn't comprehend a two-syllable word, let alone a five-syllable one.

"Oh, yeah, camp as Christmas, the pair of them. Looks a nasty bruise, that. Lucky, I don't need to take that photo, after all. Yeah, dear old Charlie Burrows! He was a good reporter, though. He was always good to me." He paused and then asked: "So, he blamed you then, did he?"

"Evidently."

"Well, it was you who took that message and put it on the editor's desk, wasn't it?"

"I didn't!" Manning exploded and then stopped in his tracks. It was pointless to deny it now. "How did you know?"

"Shirley told me."

Yes, of course, Shirley the ever-present secretary with eyes like an eagle and a nose like a rook. Nosy little cow! She would have known. He remembered the message well - 'Dearest Charlie, can't wait to see you at four, lots of love and kisses, John.' The problem was, as in the practice of Chinese whispers, the missive had altered somewhat in its retelling. The actual phone message Manning had received that day was simply - 'Charlie, see you at four, John.' He had changed it on a whim, just to make it more interesting, more dangerous, more effective ... He knew perfectly well that the editor couldn't stand Charlie in the first place. This just added a little more fuel to the fire.

The photographer, who had been busy threading a new film round the spools of his camera, spoke again: "It was all rather unfortunate, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Manning admitted, "it had all been rather unfortunate."

It was just as well that Eddie didn't know about the other things: the furtive phone calls and the information given to his editor. Without Manning's interference, Burrows could have become deputy editor. As it was ... No, there was no point in harking back. That was all in the past and Manning knew that he couldn't change things, even if he wanted to. Which he didn't anyway.

"Look lively, they're going out again!" Shouted Eddie, who had noticed Middleton leading his team out through the door.

ANOTHER TEA INTERVAL

"Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again - I think he's wonderful."

"Do you really think so?" Asked Diane Grey peering over her half-moon glasses. "I think he's a bit ... full of himself."

"Well, of course he's full of himself. He has to be," spluttered Julia Lawler as she lowered her script onto the table. "He's a theatrical director. They're always full of themselves. They have to exude confidence and be a bit dominating. I don't mind telling you, I wouldn't mind being dominated by him. Oh, those shoulders alone ... And that voice ... so sexy, don't you find?"

"Not particularly," mused Diane who looked over her shoulder and spied this Adonis of the British stage whispering into Sally Freeman's ear. "He seems to like Sally," she ventured, noticing that Julia had also spotted the intimate discussion that was developing between director and actress.

"He's just helping her. Let's face it, she needs all the help she can get." Both women fell silent as they witnessed Sally's face redden as she let out an excited giggle. Then they both noticed how Roger MacPherson put his hands on her shoulders and began to massage the back of her head. "Slut," muttered Julia as she turned her back on the pair. Diane also thought it prudent to look elsewhere, so she decided to bury her head in her script once more.

"Hello darlings!" Boomed Angus Langton, playfully tapping Julia's head with his copy of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

"Hello Angus," gushed Julia.

"Hello," whispered Diane, keeping her eyes on her script.

"Your old man playing bat and ball again, Julia?"

"Yes. He's playing somewhere in North Pembs."

"Oh, the wild country! Can't understand cricket myself. Pointless way of spending a summer's day, if you ask me. Will you need a lift home later? I meant to ask you earlier."

"No thanks, Angus. Sweet of you to ask but I brought the BMW."

"Ah, right. Just wondered, y'know ..." Angus stood there for a moment and then walked away in the direction of the tea urn.

"Sweet man," said Julia intent on regaining the attention of Diane. "I wish Christopher was like that. More thoughtful, more able to appreciate the needs of a woman."

Diane looked up from her script. "Oh, surely Christopher's attentive. He loves you, I know that."

"Not as much as he loves his damn cricket bat! Well, you should know what it's like, Diane. I mean, both Christopher and Bill are obsessed with the silly game."

"Oh, I wouldn't ..."

"Oh, I'd forgotten. Hell! Diane, I'm sorry," gurgled Julia, overplaying her shock at the unintended gaffe. "I shouldn't have mentioned Bill, should I? You're still probably getting over it. Me and my mouth! I should be locked up, really I should!"

"It's okay," beamed Diane, "it was a joint decision. We both agreed that it wouldn't work."

"Well, how could it?" Cooed Julia, patting her friend's hand in a show of solidarity and understanding. "I mean, it's every Saturday in the summer and then there's the net practice every Wednesday. And then there's the club meeting every other night, which basically means a booze-up in some God awful pub. And then there's the meeting to discuss tactics - ditto, another booze-up. I know what's to blame alright!"

"No. It wasn't the cricket."

Julia seemed genuinely shocked. "Wasn't it? Well, if it wasn't the cricket ..."

"Oh, we just weren't suited, I suppose. No. Not that perhaps. We just ... weren't going anywhere. I felt sorry for him really. I still do. Two marriages and then two acrimonious divorces are enough for anyone. God, I know that one was bad enough, but two! No, I think he's been hurt too much to commit himself again. He just couldn't commit."

"He's not a let down in the bed department, is he?" Asked Julia, her interest in the subject suddenly aroused.

"No, no ... I'm sure he isn't," muttered Diane, appalled by such a question.

"What was he like then - sexually, I mean."

"We never ... That is, we never actually ..."

"My God! You didn't sleep with him!"

Diane's embarrassment was now complete. She was certain that both the stage manager and Hermia had overheard the comment.

"I can't believe it!" Julia went on, "I would have thought that after six months ..."

"It wasn't like that. Besides, sex isn't the be-all and end-all of a relationship."

"Well, it is in my book dear," stated Julia firmly, "especially when there's little else. If it wasn't for the sex, I don't suppose that Christopher and I would do anything together."

"Julia! That's a horrible thing to say!"

"Well, it's the truth darling. It's the truth," she replied mournfully. Just then, she looked up and saw to her instant delight that Roger MacPherson was making a bee-line to the table she and Diane were sharing. "Oh, my God! He's coming over!"

"Who?"

"Roger, Oh, my God!"

MacPherson's wide smile revealed two rows of perfect teeth. Julia thought they were magnificent. Diane knew that they were false. "Darling girls! I've come to hunt you out. Do you feel ready to tackle the wedding scene, Julia? Say no, if you want to. You'll only break my tired and saddened heart."

"Of course, Roger." She jumped out of her seat excitedly.

Diane, feeling awkward in the presence of the overbearing director, decided that flight would be preferable to remaining still and silent. "I'm just going to the loo," she said softly.

Roger and Julia watched her leave and as Diane disappeared down the stone staircase, Julia felt a strong hand grip her right buttock. She turned and smiled seductively at her director. "You're wonderful, Julia," he whispered hoarsely into her fragile ear. He gently let his grip loosen and began to rub the lower part of her back. Open-mouthed and in awe of the great man, Julia felt unable to speak.

Suddenly, there was a cry, which pierced the still air of the banquet room. "Roger! We've got a problem with Hermia again!"

"Hell!" Roger fumed as he marched across to the nervous stage manager.

All alone and lost for words, Julia's wide eyes kept their focus on the broad shoulders of Roger MacPherson.

BOWLING

THE FIRST OVER

"What on earth happened to you?" Screamed Tim Middleton as Manning raced up to join the rest of the side in the middle.

"Oh, this" spluttered Manning pointing to his badly bruised face, "slight altercation with a locker door, that's all."

A terrible thought entered the captain's head. "It wasn't David Watson, was it?"

"No, of course it wasn't. I told you, I pulled open a locker door too lively, that's all. Now, where do you want me to go?" He asked, happy to change the conversation.

"Oh, I've got a special job for you. I want you at silly-mid-off for the first few overs. It's pointless trying to defend this total. We need an attacking field."

"Okay." Thank God he didn't argue.

David Watson walked casually up to Middleton at the bowler's end as soon as Manning adopted his position.

"Ah, David. Usual place, please - mid off."

"Who's hit Manning?"

"Don't get excited. It was only a locker door," snapped Middleton turning his back on the friend in an effort to shrug him off. He tossed the ball to Thommo. "There you are, Thommo. See what you can do with that."

As the batsmen, Stapleford and Armstrong, walked out to generous applause, Thommo noticed Manning's position for the first time. "What's he doing there?"

"We need an attacking field," stated the captain. Watson, still standing by Middleton's shoulder like a limpet, nodded and grunted his obvious approval.

"He'll be killed," warned the bowler. "Stapleford loves the off drive. I'll have to change my line now."

"No, you won't," whispered Middleton, "don't worry, it's all in hand. You just pitch it up on the off stump and force him to play, that's all."

"Well, I won't need to force him. Listen, if I pitch it up there, he'll whack it straight in Manning's direction. The boy will be ..."

"Leave me to worry about that."

"Well, I hope you know what you're doing. But to my mind, I reckon he will clobber every ball to the off side boundary and the only thing between his bat and that rope is that poor sod."

"Just bowl," muttered Middleton walking away to take up his position at first slip next to Bill Nicholson.

"I think what Tim's driving at," said Watson, unwilling to let the topic drop, "is for you to bowl a long hop or two just outside off. You're probably get hit for four, but there's a chance that Stapleford will misdrive it. If he does get a nick, then we've got four fielders, five if you count Manning, in a position to catch it."

"Well, I ..."

"Come on, bowler. Let's have you starting," ordered John Bishton politely, but firmly.

Thommo paced out his run up and gently caressed the new ball against the outside of his thigh. Jim Stapleford, the batsman patted the ground slowly, waiting for the first ball. Thommo bounded in and, as instructed, bowled a rather tame long hop just outside the off stump.

The bowler watched the flash of willow, as Stapleford crashed the ball to the cover boundary. On its brief journey, it flew only inches away from the cowering Manning. Four.

What a waste, thought Thommo, squandering the first delivery just to suit the whim of the captain. His pride was sorely dented. Still, it was possible, he conceded, it was just possible that with a little extra pace, he might force a nick from the impressive Stapleford. Therefore, for the second delivery, the bowler bent his back to deliver an identical line with a margin of additional speed. The batsman, however, was equal to the task and played a similar shot, only this time the ball was just a breath away from Manning's left cheek.

The journalist's heart skipped a beat. This was dangerous, he thought. This was madness. He had already suffered a degree of facial damage and was unwilling to experience any more. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" He inquired to Middleton.

"Yes," came the answer, "have faith."

"What's the matter, Manning? Frightened he might spoil your hair-do?" Taunted Watson spitefully.

Manning turned and crouched down again, doing his best to ignore the jibe. "Pompous little sod," he muttered to himself as Thommo raced in again. Once more, Stapleford, front foot forward, struck the ball with an alarming crack towards the solitary figure of Manning. This time, there was a corresponding crack as the ball ricocheted off the fielder's knee and flew into the air like a rocket. Manning fell over with a barely suppressed cry. The ball, now tumbling towards the ground at an alarming rate, somehow plummeted directly into the palm of the stricken fielder's right hand. The catch stuck. Good fortune and a knee, seemingly made out of steel, had brought about the wicket the Hodgeston team craved for.

Middleton, overjoyed and spellbound, rushed in from slip to congratulate the sprawling journalist who seemed unaware of his own heroics. Watson, certain of injury and grinning from ear to ear, strolled over and stood over Manning like a vulture spying out a freshly slain wildebeest.

"That was amazing!" Cried Middleton. Manning struggled in vain to get himself up into a sitting position.

"It's my knee! Christ, it hurts!"

"Looks painful," mumbled Giffo. Bill Nicholson, the only fielder with a certificate in first aid, rolled up Manning's trouser leg and tentatively probed the circle of red that covered the kneecap. The fielder screamed in agony and Nicholson, nodding to his captain, gently rolled down the trouser leg.

"It's lucky, I don't think it's broken. We'll have to get him checked out. He'll have to come off."

"Right," said Middleton, realising the implications of bringing a fielder off. "Better send for Tony. We'll have to muddle through with him." While John Marsden sprinted off to inform the wounded Gates of the situation, Middleton asked Mike and Bill to carry off the crippled Manning.

"Great catch mind," uttered Mike as he and Bill each wrapped an arm under Manning's legs and pulled him up.

"Oh, super," responded Nicholson as he strained with the weight of his cargo. The journalist, one arm draped over Bill's shoulder and the other draped over Mike's, looked quite forlorn as he was chaired off the pitch unceremoniously.

"Crazy idea, putting him at silly-mid-off. What were you thinking?" Stormed Thommo.

"It got the wicket though," pointed out Watson, whose only concern was that Manning had not suffered more.

"Yes, and crippled our best fielder. Still, at least we've got Gatesey. That's just marvellous."

Chris Lawler, turning to Middleton, thought that he had remained silent long enough. "Yes, just what exactly was your objective behind this decision. It may have got the wicket, but we're down to ten men now."

"We've got Tony. He must be worth at least half a man."

"Here comes Edwards," whispered Arthur Milns, "if we can winkle him out, we've got a chance. We've got a real chance."

"Quite right, Milnsey! At least someone's got a bit of faith," said Middleton as the players spread out back to their positions. Tony Gates was informed that first slip might be the best place for an one-armed fielder and the captain moved himself out to gully in order to accommodate him there.

Thommo's last three balls of the over offered a range of challenging deliveries. The first rose appreciatively just outside the off stump and Edwards, nearly committed to playing a shot, drew his bat away just in time. The next was at yorker length and flew under the bat, missing the leg stump by half an inch. His last delivery was a quick bouncer. Edwards awkwardly ducked under the ball and was fortunate not to be hit. The Pwllgwaelod captain seemed mightily relieved when the umpire signalled the end of the over. It was, they all agreed, a fine opening spell of bowling.

"Edwards is a phenomenally bad starter. If you and John can worry him enough, we'll be on our way," spoke the confident Middleton as he patted his champion bowler on the back. "Mark my words, I don't think that he'll last too long today, somehow."

THE SEVENTH OVER

"So, you didn't think he would last long, eh?"

"He's obviously playing to win, that much is true and at this rate ... " Middleton suddenly stopped himself. "Never mind," he began again, "I'll put Mike on at the other end and give you a couple more overs from this, Thommo."

"Okay. I'll see what I can do. You might want to try Stillman though instead."

"Maybe." Then again, maybe not.

Tim walked over to David Watson who was beckoning him over like a schoolboy who had just discovered a pornographic magazine. "Stillman thinks the pitch is turning," Watson giggled.

"It's turning alright. Turning against us, like this whole game."

"I think he wants an early bowl."

"Well, he can sodding wait," he thundered as he trotted across to his gully position.

Thommo powered in again, dropping the ball short. Too short. Edwards neatly pulled it around down to the long leg boundary for another boundary.

The Pwllgwaelod captain smiled as he saw Barney Jones change the wooden digits on the scoreboard once again. 40 for 1. Nearly half-way home. If this pace was to continue it would be victory before six o'clock and, more importantly, it would allow for extra drinking time.

Thommo, ruffled by the fact that he had been powerless to halt Edwards' progress, was uncertain what to try next. The slower ball was a possibility or another bouncer. The problem was that with every imagined delivery, Thommo could foresee every shot to all parts of the boundary rope. Surprisingly, the next ball cut away sharply from off stump and Edwards offered no shot, allowing the ball to thump into Giffo's gloves. The bowler, although grateful to beat the bat, had run out of ideas.

"I think Stillman should have a go," he announced to Watson as the hotelier personally handed him the ball.

"I don't think Tim's very keen."

"Well, I'm not going to make the breakthrough," admitted Thommo, rubbing the ball on his thigh yet again. "Playing a spinner might slow things down, at least."

Thommo, lacking fresh legs and challenging deliveries, admitted defeat after suffering two more boundaries off the last four balls. "It's no good, Tim. I'm going nowhere fast. You'll have to bring Stillman on."

"No ... not just yet. I'll try out Lawler on this end instead." This move didn't impress Thommo. Chris Lawler was an occasional medium pace bowler; useful, but not penetrating.

"Good idea," agreed Watson as he threw the ball to Mike in readiness for his first over.

The fielders milled about as the umpires crossed over to their positions and Peter Stillman walked in quickly from long leg. "Do you want me to have a go next over, Tim?"

"No, not yet, Peter. I'm going to put Lawler on next and see what happens."

"Oh."

Stillman looked to the ground as he shuffled slowly away. Everyone, with the possible exception of Middleton, could feel his embarrassment over this rejection.

The captain turned to Watson. "When I do use him, you'll know the game's really lost."

The cruel comment was overheard by Giffo and Bill who were united in their sympathy for the miserable Peter Stillman.

THE THIRTEENTH OVER

"I'm bringing Stillman on."

"Thank goodness for that. Another over from Chris and the game'll be finished. 72 for 1!" Moaned Bill Nicholson who had become progressively agitated by Middleton's inept bowling strategy.

"Alright, so playing Lawler didn't pay off. Sometimes these things happen. You don't have to keep on!"

"Two overs, no maidens, none for 18. Not exactly Bob Willis, is it?"

"We'll break up the slips and have a more defensive field."

"What happened to the idea of attacking the batsmen?"

Tim Middleton ignored the question and moved across to Peter Stillman who had been anticipating the instruction to bowl since the second over. "Okay, Peter. Keep it tight," ordered Middleton as he flung the ball across to the spinner.

Stillman, ball in hand, looked around him and, much to the annoyance of his captain, ordered two field changes. He brought long leg forward and asked for the first slip to be reinstated.

Tony Gates, who had just been informed that he was to patrol the third man boundary, was less than pleased in being pulled back across the field. "Make up your mind!" He shouted at Stillman.

Armstrong, facing, had been less productive than his captain and was eager to break out a little. He felt bogged down and had made up his mind to attack the spinner.

Stillman rolled his wrists around the ball and spun it out of his fingers. It was comprehensively wide of the off stump. Any hint of pressure that had been built up through the bowling change was now sadly diminished. The umpire signalled the extra as Middleton, head in his hands, was only grateful that he hadn't tried the wayward and untalented Stillman earlier.

Stillman, although annoyed with himself for giving away an extra, was more determined than ever as he bowled again. This time, the ball spun away on a near perfect line and length. However, Armstrong, throwing all caution to the wind, wound himself up and drove it hard out to the long off boundary ... Four.

"Nice bowling. Very reminiscent of Shane Warne," whispered Middleton sarcastically. Stillman's plodding deliveries weren't fooling anyone, least of all the batsmen. He is now, single-handedly, going to lose us the match, Middleton decided. Absolutely hopeless. Devoid of talent. Devoid of hope.

Stillman came in again, giving more loop and flight to the delivery. Once more, the batsman launched the ball into the same area, only this time, it rose and continued to rise above mid off. Mike Brandon, running in from long off had the ball in his sights. He had ample time in which to judge its descent and grab Hodgeston's second wicket. Armstrong swore loudly as Stillman jumped into the air with a sense of deep satisfaction.

Thommo and Bill Nicholson ran in to congratulate him. Middleton ran across to the catcher, who was himself running towards the batting strip holding onto the prize.

"Great catch. Well judged," said Middleton, a pronouncement that was quickly seconded by his loyal lap- dog, Watson.

"Good ball, mind," added Bill as if to contradict Middleton's belief that the bowling played no part in gaining the wicket.

Stillman glanced across to the pavilion steps. There, walking down the steps to warm applause, was the chirpy figure of Cardigan Chris.

"Come on, Peter, let's get this mouthy git out next," urged Thommo who, like the rest of the team, wanted this particular wicket to fall quickly. Cardigan Chris' penchant for gabbling like a hyperactive goose, had long been despised by the Hodgeston side. Revenge, through the early dismissal of this loquacious individual, would certainly be most sweet.

Positions were taken up again as the batsman reached his mark. "P'hawn da, boys!" Greeted Chris cheerfully as he took his guard. No-one replied and Stillman skipped in again. This ball spun away from the bat and landed neatly in Giffo's gloves. Cardigan Chris had been beaten by the spin. With the knowledge that he had won a small, yet significant psychological battle, Stillman's courage lifted further. The next three balls helped to complete a series of frustrations for the batsman as he was unable to read, let alone hit, any of them.

The last ball was the 'straight one', pitching on middle and following the same line. The ball struck Chris' pads with a satisfying thud and a sea of appealing hands were raised in unison. "Howzat!" Screamed Stillman. Bishton considered quickly, nodded his head and then lifted his finger.

"Brilliant!" Yelled Bill, storming in from cover.

"A double-wicket over! That's quite an achievement," offered Thommo as he thundered a pat across Stillman's slender shoulders.

"Your first ever, in fact," added Arthur Milns "but I think I'm right in saying that it is the first for the team since '97. I'll have to verify that, of course."

THE SIXTEENTH OVER

"John, you have a go," ordered Tim Middleton flinging the ball to an unprepared John Marsden.

"Well, I'll have a go, if you like," he replied despondently. "Trouble is, what with it being 98 for 3, it's not exactly the greatest time to bowl. They only need six. Perhaps Thommo would ..."

"Thommo's already declined. So, it's death or glory time I'm afraid. Shame old Stillman couldn't have got a couple more, but it's what I expected - a bucketful of boundaries!"

"Oh, be fair. At least he got a couple."

"Fluke. That's all, a bloody fluke. Come on, give it a go."

"It's not over until it's over," chipped in the ever-present David Watson trying to encourage the downcast bowler. "Go on, John, have a go. One more wicket wouldn't go amiss."

John Marsden paced out his run up with a certain amount of care while Middleton glanced up at the dark blue sky which was peppered with a few isolated wisps of cloud. Even the weather it seemed, was favouring the home side. If only those clouds would look more numerous and threatening. Just a drop of rain. Nothing much. A light shower, that's all. That would do it. But, in his heart, Middleton knew no amount of optimism now could save him or his team.

The batsman, watching the ball carefully as it was flung down the pitch, decided to leave it well alone. Once more, the ball hammered into the gloves of Giffo who tossed the ball away to the adjacent fielder.

"I'm going to tell him," announced Bill Nicholson to the wicket-keeper.

"Tell who, what?"

"Middleton. I'm going to inform him that, in the interests of the club as a whole, he should stand down as captain."

"You fancy it, do you?"

"Me? Good God, no. I just think it's time for a new broom."

Giffo, whose aching back was crying out for a long hot shower, merely grunted and settled himself down for the next ball. But Bill did have a point, he conceded. A very valid point, in fact.

The following ball was thumped to the boundary by Edwards and, with only two more needed, the heads of the fielding side dropped in unison. Middleton knew that there would be no let-off now. There was no remaining trick left to play, no fuel left in the tank. Clapping his hands together in an exaggerated act of encouragement to the bowler, the captain resigned himself to the plain fact that his team was defeated. This was confirmed when Edwards carved a neat little shot to third man for two. As the batsman turned to complete the second run, he raised his bat in triumph. This gesture was greeted by a hum of rapturous applause from the loyal spectators.

Middleton graciously shook Edwards' gloved hand and then patted his bowler's shoulder as if to say, 'don't worry, I don't blame you.' As the fielders began their slow retreat back to the pavilion, Bill Nicholson rushed up to Middleton's side and said, "Tim, can I have a word?"

xxxxx

Away from the Pwllgwaelod cricket ground, at Haverfordwest's Withybush Hospital, Eddie Jones joked: "How about, 'Kneesey does it!' - I can see it all, the Pembroke Examiner's chief reporter amazes the cricketing world with a spectacular catch off his right knee cap!"

"Ha, ha. Very good. You stick to photography and leave the writing to me."

"I hate hospitals, me. Always a smell of death about them. Do you fancy a cup of tea or something?"

"No, thank you. Where's that nurse? She's been gone a long time. My knee's killing me."

"She'll be along in a minute."

"Good of you to wait, Eddie. I really appreciate it." Eddie Jones made a face to indicate his doubt over the remark and Manning noticed it at once. "No, really. I mean it."

"Well, no-one else would take you, would they. You're not exactly the most popular man in Pembrokeshire, are you? You've upset Charlie Burrows, John Bishton, the wife of Freddie Fisher and, let's not forget David Watson. Now there's a man who would like to put your balls in the nearest food blender! I don't suppose anyone of them will be sending you a get well soon card. How do you manage it?"

"Charm." Manning allowed himself to smile against the obvious pain he was suffering. The photographer gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder. "Do you know, I've been sitting here," said Manning looking directly at Jones, "and thinking about poor Charlie Burrows. I don't care about the rest; Watson is just a sad randy hypocrite and that Fisher woman, an untalented housewife. But, Charlie's different. Perhaps, I could see if the Examiner would take him back or, failing that, write him a really good reference. Get him into another newspaper. I feel I should do something."

"Too late," came the simple response, "You can't turn the clock back."

Manning nodded slowly in agreement. His regret at what he had done was only ever partial. Deep down, he did not bear the blame solely. There were many other factors involved. Many other factors ...

Both men waited in silence, listening to the sounds of the hospital. They heard the relentless coughing, the hushed whispers and giggles and the tap-tap-tapping of people's feet as they wandered around the white, austere corridors.

"Well," Manning said at last, "One thing's for sure, Eddie me old fruit, I'm never going to play cricket again!"

DIFFICULT DELIVERIES

THE YORKER

"The time has come, the walrus said ..."

"What?"

"I was going to paraphrase Lewis Carroll."

"Well don't!" Stormed Tim Middleton.

Bill Nicholson paused, knowing that he was wrong to consider using any literary reference with his captain. It was deemed likely that Middleton thought that Lewis Carroll was an Australian off-spinner. He decided to abandon any use of subtlety. "Regretfully, I think the time has come when you stand down as captain."

"Oh, I thought it would come. Time for me to take sole responsibility of my failing team, is it?"

"Well, as captain ..."

"And I'm to blame for all the crap play, am I?" Middleton exploded. "Giffo having the ten-bob-bits, Lawler playing like an imbecile and Stillman bowling like a donkey. I'm to blame for all that, am I?"

"The tactics of play today ..."

"Tactics! If every player had actually followed the tactics I clearly set out, we wouldn't have lost."

"Maybe," conceded Bill, "but the fact remains that we did lose. We've lost the cup forever and that follows yet another appalling season. We're second to bottom in the sixth division of the Pembrokeshire League and we've only won two games all summer. It's time to go Tim and let someone else have a go."

"So you want it, do you? The captaincy? I know you can't wait to get your grubby little hands on it."

"Now listen. I don't want it. Never did. Don't forget I nominated you three years ago."

"Yes and you've shown me little support ever since."

"If only you had listened to me more instead of David Watson, I'm sure ..."

"Rubbish! At least Watson's loyal."

"He's insular and petty minded as well. I know why Manning was put at silly-mid-off. I couldn't figure it out at first, but it's obvious now."

"I was playing to attack, that's all."

"And not playing Stillman until it was too late was a crass mistake."

"Stillman's rubbish. He and the rest of the dross should be forced to stand down, not me!"

There was a lengthy pause in which Bill kept his eyes firmly fixed on the angry and brow beaten figure of Middleton. He had lost and both men knew it. In truth, Bill almost felt sorry for him.

"Is it the wish of the majority of the players that I stand down?" Middleton asked quietly. He seemed almost sincere now.

"Yes."

"I love this club, you know. I've always wanted to lead it. Now .... now, I don't know what to think ..." He stopped to consider what to say next. "Well, if the support's no longer there," he continued, "there's no option. I'd better stand down. I'll phone the Colonel in the morning and organise an Extraordinary General Meeting."

"Alright. I think it's best Tim," said Bill thoughtfully. "Are you coming down the pub?"

"What! So that lot can gloat! You must be joking!" With that, Middleton stormed away as quickly as he could.

THE BOUNCER

The Dinas Arms public house positively hummed with excitement and laughter as the members of the Pwllgwaelod team enjoyed the spoils of their victory. Tankard of beer in hand, their captain, Ernie Edwards was surrounded by his loyal and ecstatic team-mates. Everyone was chatting loudly and drinking copious amounts of bitter. Even the adolescent 'Doctor Spot' was leaning against the bar with a glass of lager shandy.

The forlorn faces of the five representatives of the losing team looked on from their discrete position in one corner of the lounge bar. "Just look at them," piped up John Marsden bitterly as he took another sip from his pint glass.

"Well, as long as they don't start singing 'Calon Lan', they can do what they want a far as I'm concerned," muttered Chris Lawler as a cheer rang out through the pub.

"They've won the cup forever now," said a mournful Peter Stillman, "but, I think they deserved it. They were the better team, after all."

"Aye, maybe you're right," agreed Thommo, who then proceeded to drink the remaining contents of his glass. "I'm glad I scored a few today. Makes a bit of a change. I wonder how many runs I've made this season? Where's Arthur when you actually need him?"

It was Mike Brandon, who had barely touched his pint, who answered the fast bowler's question. "He drove back home. Worried about his mum, I think."

They all nodded their heads to demonstrate their joint understanding of Arthur Milns' situation as yet another roar of laughter ripped through the smoke filled room. Thommo stood up, clutching his empty glass and announced that it was his round. "I'll give you a hand," offered Mike as he shuffled off his chair.

As they both turned and walked away towards the bar, Peter Stillman whispered to Marsden and Lawler, "We'll only have one more and then go, if that's okay?"

"Fine by me," agreed Lawler at once. "I don't fancy spending half the night in here." Marsden nodded his support and then Lawler declared that he needed to empty his bladder.

With Lawler gone, Stillman drew his chair near to Marsden. "How's the neck?" He asked with genuine concern.

"Okay."

"Look, I'm sorry about all that. Unforgivable really. Very unlike me."

"I should apologise, Peter. Not you. I feel terrible about it all. I've been thinking of little else."

"No. If it wasn't you, it would have been someone else. It was always someone else. I've ... I've had a problem, you see ..." Marsden didn't want to know. He hoped that Thommo and the others would return quickly. "For some time, in fact. I've a had problem 'downstairs', so to speak" added Stillman, nodding his head to indicate his nether regions.

My God, thought Marsden. I do not want to know this. Please don't tell me any more! Where the hell is Thommo?

"I'm ... well, I can't function as other men can," he whispered, "that's why Joyce ..."

"Please don't explain. I can fully ..."

"It's not her fault, you understand. It's me. I can't get it up, see."

"Can't get what up?"

Horrified, Marsden and Stillman spun round to see the ferret-like Cardigan Chris leering over their shoulders.

John Marsden improvised quickly. "Eh, the ball. The ball in flight! Peter's finding it hard to get the loop he used to get in his bowling."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. Lovely ball to get rid of me today, boy," noted the Pwllgwaelod wicket-keeper.

"Thanks," replied a red-faced Stillman as Lawler returned to the table.

"I'd buy you a drink ..."

"But being a Cardie, you've probably got very short arms and very long pockets," snapped Lawler as he sat down.

"Oh, that's very funny, Mr Lawler. Most droll," smirked Chris. "I'm going back to the bar. This celebrating is all rather exciting, don't you find? But, I suppose you boys wouldn't remember that feeling."

"Cocky little sod!" Commented Lawler as Thommo and Mike returned with four pints and a lonely looking bitter lemon.

"Four pints and a drink for the driver," boomed Thommo as the drinks were distributed around the table.

"Good of you to offer us all a lift, Peter," said Mike.

"Well, I've got the room. It's no problem."

"Watch out, here comes the latest news bulletin!" Shouted Thommo, pointing to the figures of Bill Nicholson and Tony Gates who had just entered the pub.

Nicholson immediately caught sight of his team-mates and sauntered over to them with Tony close in tow. "Middleton's resigning. He's agreed to go."

"Thank goodness for that," said Lawler above the excited whisperings of the others.

"Did you ask him outright if he would step down, Bill?" Asked Mike.

"I just made it plain that he would have to take most of the responsibility for our failures."

"He's a born loser," put in Thommo, "if Middleton shot an arrow in the air, he'd still miss."

"It's going to hit him hard, this is," mused Stillman.

"Ah, it's he's own fault. He's his own worst enemy," said John Marsden.

"Not if I'm around, he's not," quipped Bill with a smile.

A further outburst of laughter from the Pwllgwaelod camp caused the Hodgeston players to turn and face the bar in silent envy. It appeared that Ernie Edwards had just told his adoring audience a tremendously amusing joke.

"Do you want a drink, Bill?" Asked Tony keeping his eyes fixed on the antics at the bar.

"No. Let's go, if you don't mind," answered Bill. "Night, lads. I just thought I'd bring you the news."

"Yes. Good of you, Bill," said Lawler as the two men began their exit from the pub. "We'd better go soon as well. What do you think, Peter?"

"Fine. Ready when you are."

Thommo thumped down his empty beer glass and thundered: "We'll just have one for the road, shall we?"

"Oh, do we have to, Thommo?" Protested Lawler.

"Of course we do. Besides, it's your round."

THE GOOGLY

Arthur Milns slowly closed the front door behind him and proceeded to creep into the cosy lair of his lounge. Audrey stirred from her newspaper and crinkled her face in a warm and open smile. "Hello, love. Have you eaten?" She asked, rising slightly to plant a kiss on her husband's right cheek.

"Don't worry, I'll knock something up later. Phew! What a day!" He exclaimed as he lowered himself on the sofa next to his wife.

"How did it go? Did you win?"

"No. Lost by seven wickets."

Audrey appeared more deflated by this news than her husband. "Oh dear, so that means ..."

"Exactly. The Landsker Cup is lost forever," he declared in a manner De Gaulle might have adopted with the fall of France. "Oh, well, I suppose we gave it our best shot," he added, kicking off his shoes and placing his tired and sweaty feet into a pair of well-used plaid slippers.

"How many did you score?"

"None, I'm afraid. Out for a duck. I faced a super bowler, mind. A really good spinner."

Audrey knew that he wasn't offering excuses, but merely putting forward a simple fact. "Oh dear," she simpered, moving across the room to turn on the standard lamp.

"Mother in bed, is she?"

"Yes. Another busy day, I'm afraid. I lost her again this afternoon. I found her in John's field. She was talking to a hedge."

"Talking to a hedge!"

"Mumbling really. She was going on and on about Elvis Presley and how odd it was that Glenn Miller disappeared. John tipped me off and helped me bring her back."

"That was good of him. These little jaunts of mum's are beginning to be a regular feature, aren't they? Last night and now today. You must be tired."

Audrey hated to admit the truth but felt some comment was needed nevertheless. "Yes, I am. Arthur? I was just wondering ..."

"Yes?"

"How about getting out more?"

"What about mum?"

"Well, mum as well, of course. It's just that I saw Sophie Jones in town. You know, the manageress of that shoe shop. Well, anyway, they're selling tickets for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at Carew Castle. It's on Saturday. It'll make a nice change."

"Shakespeare?"

"Well, I thought ..."

"But Shakespeare. Don't you think that'll be a bit above mum's head?"

"Well, to be honest, I think 'Calamity Jane' might be above her head. But at least we'd be out. In the fresh air - together. We'd have a nice time and mum'll get out without leaving our sight."

Arthur considered his wife's reasoning and then nodded encouragingly. "Do you know, I think that's a wonderful idea."

"Oh, I'm so glad Arthur. I bought three tickets today. I just knew that you'd say yes."

Arthur smiled and closed his eyes.

THE FLIPPER

Thommo's light baritone voice, slightly out of key, rose once again as he tackled another drinking song.

"There was Dai the cook and Dai the milk,

There was Dai the comb with his shirt of silk.

They were on this island with Mavis Brass

And they said to her - show us your ..."

"Thommo! Shut up for Christ's sake!" Chris Lawler had had quite enough for one night. It was bad enough having to be driven home by the hopeless Stillman, without having to put up with Thommo's appalling singing. He definitely was no Bryn Terfel. And those lyrics!

"You're just annoyed Lawler because we had to stop at that off-licence," said Thommo opening a can of bitter.

"We didn't have to, Thommo - you insisted!"

"Well, it's nice to have a drink or two and a good old sing-song!"

"On the contrary. A peaceful journey is much more preferable. Besides, I've got a headache and your drunken songs have contributed to it."

"Perhaps it was all those Welsh speakers in the pub celebrating," said Mike, "they were all a bit loud."

"They've won the cup, haven't they? They were bound to be making some kind of noise," put in John.

"They'll probably put it away in their trophy cabinet next to their runner-up medals for the Cardigan Twmpath," commented Lawler.

"Bit of a blow losing though, wasn't it?" Said Mike.

"Well, it was Middleton's tactics, if you can call them that," replied Lawler. "We should have attacked more like we did against St Petrox."

"He should have used Stilly more," uttered Thommo. Stillman was delighted by this comment. Not only did it confirm his own belief that he had been under-bowled, but it was the first time anyone of his team-mates had referred to him by using a nickname. This was indeed a privilege! Milns had always been Milnsey, Tony Gates had always been Gatesey and Thommo had always been Thommo. Stillman had never been called Stilly before.

"Quite right," agreed Mike, desperately trying to avoid the drops of beer that were splashing out from the lip of Thommo's can.

"Middleton never understood his bowlers. That's why we lost today and that's why we've lost all season. He can't blame us," boomed Thommo, splashing beer over the seat and around his crotch. "And what I want to know is why he placed that pillock at silly-mid-off. I think Middleton's got a screw loose."

"Yes. I think we'd all like to know the thought behind that one," said Lawler under his breath.

"Well, he's gone now anyway," added Mike, surprised that Thommo had opened yet another can of bitter.

"The king is dead, eh? Long live the king!" Chirped Stillman as he turned the wheel to negotiate the roundabout at Merlin's Bridge.

"Yes, but who? Are you up for it, Chris?" Asked Mike.

"Oh, I haven't really thought about it ..."

"Good. Keep it that way!" Said Thommo cutting across quickly.

Lawler ignored the comment. "It's difficult. You need someone who is tactful and sensitive to the player's feelings."

"So, that rules you out, boy!" Jeered Thommo.

"Thank you, Thommo," muttered Lawler, seething with anger.

"Well, there's no-one else, I can think of," piped up John Marsden.

Thereafter there was a lengthy pause while the five collected their thoughts. The only sound came from the occasional slurp as Thommo extracted more bitter from the can and into his body.

John Marsden closed his eyes and turned his mind to Stillman. Was he really sorry for attacking him? Was he perhaps still angry? And why, oh why, did he tell him about his impotency? He hadn't wanted to know about that! Why did he tell him? John wished he had never met Joyce Stillman.

Mike Brandon was thinking about the onset of college. His mind was set on getting packed up and ready. How much would Dad miss him? Would he be okay? Would two suitcases be enough?

Peter Stillman considered the club's immediate future. It needed a captain who could nurse the team out of its depression and put it back on the map. It needed someone who could talk to the players and command respect. Chris Lawler didn't fit the bill. That left who? Arthur? No. Bill Nicholson? That's possible. John Marsden? Good Lord, No! Heaven forbid! Who, then? There was no denying it, the vacuum would be difficult to fill. Should he have told Marsden about his little problem? Well, he was sure to be discrete. Let's face it, he was discrete enough with Joyce. Too discrete, perhaps.

Chris Lawler's mind was filled with images of Julia ingratiating herself on the artistic elite of South Pembrokeshire. Why was she there, when she could be here driving her husband home. Selfish cow!

Thommo, too drunk to think of anything coherently, let out a loud belch and felt on top of the world.

"Difficult stretch of road, this," mumbled Peter Stillman, intent on striking up a conversation with his front seat passenger. Chris Lawler glanced out of the window and peered down the virtually empty road leading to the Neyland roundabout. He failed to see any sign of difficulty.

"Terrible accident here last week," Stillman added.

"Was there," replied Lawler disinterestedly.

"Yes. Very nasty."

The trouble with Stillman, Lawler decided, was that he always spoke his mind which rather limited his conversation skills.

"So, you'll put yourself forward as a candidate, will you Chris?"

"Yes, I might. If that is the wish of some of the players," said Lawler directly.

"As I told you earlier, I really do think I should go up the order next season. Playing at number eleven gives you no chance to shine, no time to build up an innings," said Stillman, determined to say his piece.

"Well, we'll have to see, won't we?" Replied Lawler, unwilling to be pressed on the matter. Why on earth should he promote Stillman in the line up? It would make better sense to promote one of the younger players to strengthen the tail. If he was to become captain, he certainly wouldn't do Stillman any favours.

"Our home pitch needs looking at as well. I've be on at Middleton all year. Old Geppo tries his best but it's not exactly the finest track in the county."

Shut up, thought Lawler. Boring little twit!

"Geppo says it might take spin one day, but I'm not too sure ..."

Oh, shut up, you boring little man! No-one is interested! He'll talk about the bloody weather next!

"That nice Sin Lloyd says it might rain tomorrow."

THE ONE THAT NIPS BACK A BIT OFF THE SEAM

Two days after the defeat at Pwllgwaelod, Bill Nicholson found himself staring out of his shop window watching the September rain come crashing down. If only this lot had come down on Saturday, he mused.

Business, he had noted, was a little on the slack side and this inclement weather was not helping the situation. Monday lunch-time and not a book sold all morning. There had been that rather tentative inquiry from that Hennessey woman, but Bill thought it unlikely to lead to an eventual sale.

Just then, the dainty bell above the door tinkled to announce a potential customer and Bill craned his head to seek out the identity of the visitor.

"Morning, Bill."

"Good lord! Phil! How's the knee?"

"Oh, not too bad. A lot of heavy bruising that's all," answered the journalist leaning against the mahogany walking stick he held in his hand. "The whole knee cap is a rainbow of colour. I only use the stick to gain sympathy."

Nicholson smiled, appreciating the note of self-deprecation. Perhaps Phil Manning was human, after all.

"What brings you here?"

"A book would you believe."

"You actually mean a proper book, with words in it?"

"Very droll. It's called, 'Neyland Days, Neyland Nights'. A crock of pure gold written by a pensioner who re-tells her childhood memories, there's even a foreword by Lord Gordon Parry."

"Oh, I know. It certainly won't be a best-seller, though."

"You do surprise me."

"I've got a couple of copies here," said Bill reaching over to extract one from a shelf. "It's nine-ninety-nine. You'll want a receipt, naturally."

"Naturally. It's bad enough having to review it for the paper, let alone pay for the privilege!" Joked Manning.

Nicholson palmed over the book, the change and the all-important receipt in quick succession. "Listen, are you going to the EGM on Saturday? There's a vote on the captaincy."

"Oh, is Middleton out then?"

"As good as."

"Who's going to replace him? You?"

"No, I don't want it. It's bad enough being vice-captain. No, I think Chris Lawler might stand, but in that event, I think some will end up wanting Middleton back. I'm hoping John Marsden might stand. He's young but that's what the club needs. Anyway, will you be there?"

"Sorry, Bill. I've handed in my badge and I don't intend to win it back."

"I'm sorry about that. I really am. Perhaps you might change your mind next season under a new captain. We could certainly use your batting."

"No, I've made my mind up. I'm finished. Look, I'd better make a move, there's a farmers' show this afternoon."

"Yes, of course," murmured Bill, deep in thought as he followed Manning to the door.

"Well, 'bye, Bill! Perhaps we'll have a drink sometime."

"Yes," replied Nicholson as he quickly closed the door after him in order to keep the wet out. Perhaps we will, but, then again, perhaps we won't.

Bill walked into the ante-room at the back of the shop and flicked on the switch of the kettle. The room, which was desperately drab and cramped, had heaps of books surrounding the mustard coloured walls. He swore as he knocked over an ash-tray causing five or six cigarette ends to fly across the floor. The bell rang again and Bill craned his head around the doorway in order to check the identity of the potential customer.

"Diane! Good Lord!"

"Hello Bill," said Diane clutching a small, rain-drenched handbill, "could you display this? I should've done it last week but I forgot. Too busy."

Drops of rain-water were trickling down and off her coat and her uncovered hair was dripping wet. She shook her head like a dog and a generous spray of water spun out across the shop floor. "Oh, this rain," she said as she gently flapped the sides of her coat allowing yet more rain to fall onto the tiled floor.

Bill considered that she was looking well. True, she was wet, but she was looking well. Bill, caught completely unaware, was lost for words. Instead, he said nothing and grabbed the damp handbill that had been offered to him. "Good Lord! A Midsummer Night's Dream. You in it, are you?"

"I'm only one of the fairy attendants."

"Good Lord!" He realised at once that he had said 'Good Lord' three times now and its repetition must have been annoying in the extreme. Surely, Bill reasoned with himself, he could use another form of exclamation?

"Oh, that handbill's no good," she said reaching for another one inside her briefcase. "Here, have a dry one. Someone's got to dish these out and I, foolishly, offered. I've only got a non-speaking role."

"Good Lord!" Hell! He had said it again! Think straight, for goodness sake! "Time for a coffee?"

"I shouldn't. I'm seeing a client at twelve," she stammered, looking at her watch. She had plenty of time. She knew that she had plenty of time. Why did she imply that she didn't? She hated lying.

"Come on, there's plenty of time."

"Okay." She smiled broadly and Bill Nicholson was glad to see that smile again as it was so open, so honest.

"Where's this client then?" Asked Bill, finding the spare cup that Mrs MacMann, his part-time assistant, used in the shop on a Saturday.

"Broadhaven. He's got a small business. Wants his whole computer system looked at."

"Oh."

"Shop busy?"

"No."

"Oh."

Talk about something interesting, she told herself. Something he's actually interested in. "How did the match go Saturday? The Landsker Cup, wasn't it?"

"We lost."

"Oh."

There was an agonisingly long pause while Bill made the coffee and Diane stood idly wondering what to say next. It had been a mistake coming in. She was convinced that it had all been a dreadful mistake.

"Mrs Fielding thinks I should try to get you back," mumbled Bill as he passed Diane Mrs MacMann's cup.

"I wouldn't have you back," she smiled sweetly.

"Giffo's wife thinks I should try to get you back as well."

"Does she? And what do you think?"

He looked at her intensively. "I don't have to answer that, do I?"

"No. It's a free country."

"Good."

There was another lengthy pause as both Bill and Diane sipped their coffee. Diane felt angry for putting herself through this. She knew it had been a mistake. Why did she have to come?

Bill wanted to make a move. A kiss or a hug would not be enough. He wanted to perform an outrageous physical move that would not only shock Diane but also the population of Tenby as well.

"When is this show then?" He asked at last.

"Saturday."

"You mean this Saturday?"

"Oh, don't! I know you should have had the handbill in your window days ago. I put one in the library weeks ago. And the chip shop. And the shoe shop. I'm not used to all this."

"You won't get people in at this rate. I blame the publicity people myself."

"It's been in the paper! Don't you read the Pembroke Examiner? Just don't tell Roger that I've been late with this one, that's all."

"Roger?"

"Roger MacPherson. He's the professional director. He's terribly smarmy and thinks he's Richard Attenborough. Keeps calling people 'darling' and 'poppet'. She stopped abruptly and then asked the all-important question, "Will you come?"

"Isn't Lawler's wife in this?"

"Yes, she's playing Titania."

"Well, with casting like that, it might be worth it."

Might. He only said might. Oh God, she thought, I've put him on the spot now. "Of course, you don't have to come."

"How much is it?"

"Five pounds."

"Five pounds! To see Julia Lawler in her regal gown and you dressed up as the Sugar Plum Fairy!"

Diane flashed a glance to the window. "Oh, hell! I ought to go."

"But ..."

"No, I've got to. I'm parked on a double yellow line. That traffic warden will nab me again. I never meant to stay this long."

He was quick to block her exit. "I'll go on one condition. You have a drink with me sometime this week."

"I can't, Bill. I'm rehearsing."

"Next week, then?"

"Oh, Bill .... " Although she had anticipated this, she was still unsure of the reply she would give.

"Please."

"I've got to go. Thanks for the coffee ... Okay, ring me." She turned and was gone in an instant. The bell was still ringing as Bill watched her scamper past the window and away into the distance.

Well, at least it was something to tell Mrs Fielding on Friday. It would certainly make her day.

NET PRACTICE

REHEARSING THE FOLLOW THROUGH

Hon. Sec. Hodgeston Cricket Club

The Village Green

Hodgeston

Pembrokeshire

Dear Martin,

It is with great regret that I have to inform you of my decision to resign as club captain.

This decision, which has not been taken lightly, follows a season of disappointing results for the club. I was particularly disappointed by our defeat against Pwllgwaelod in the Festival Match last week.

As captain, I take full responsibility for the permanent loss of the Landsker Cup and feel that the only honourable path left open to me is to resign.

I have always had the interests of the club at heart and will continue to serve it in any way the committee sees fit.

Yours,

The letter, once written, was read and then reread by its author. Then, in a blinding moment of sheer anger, he screwed it up into a tiny ball and threw it into the waste-paper basket.

No, he wasn't prepared to do it. He wasn't prepared to send such a letter; a letter which would signal the end of his tenure as the Hodgeston captain. Why should he resign? Why should he take all the flack? No, he wasn't going to let five years be simply thrown away and discarded with the sending of a letter that he never wanted to write in the first place.

So what if he gave his word to Bill Nicholson? So what? A fight. That's what he'd give them; a damn good fight. If they wanted him out, they'd have to vote him out. He wasn't going to make it easy for them: they never made it easy for him. He'd stand up to them and fight like Churchill to defend his right to continue.

Middleton straightened the knot in his tie and smiled to himself. He was mindful of the plot that was forging against him. He knew. Although such a plot may be supported by the likes of Lawler (bastard!) he still had the loyal support of Milns, Stillman and Watson, of course. He'd have to phone Stillman later and arrange to see Milns, as well. As for Watson ...

"Tim! Where the hell are you!"

His wife's cry from the foot of the stairs was bordering on the belligerent.

"Coming," he shouted back.

"Your daughter only gets married once, you know! What are you doing? The vicar's expecting us at five."

His eyes sparkled with delight as he left the bedroom. Tim marched downstairs to be met by Angela's angry expression.

"It's alright. It's only a rehearsal. Just a practise," he reasoned.

"Come on, Megan and Tom have left already. There's an awful lot to do before tomorrow."

"Ah, speaking of tomorrow," said Tim carefully. This, he knew, was going to be difficult. "I may have to pop out for a bit during the reception."

Angela's face was frozen in disbelief. "You are joking, I hope!"

"EGM. It's been called at short notice. I'll only be gone for half an hour."

"For God's sake, Tim! It's your only daughter's wedding!"

"But I'll be there for the wedding. I'll be there for the ceremony, the speeches, the photos - the lot. I'll be there for all of it. I'll just pop out when they're clearing away the tables. No-one will notice that I've gone ..."

"Well, I don't know what Megan's going to say, really I don't. It'll probably break her heart, that's all!"

"Oh, nonsense ..."

"Do you really imagine that she'll understand why a silly cricket meeting is more important than her own wedding?"

"But, I'll be there! ... I'll just need to pop out. Twenty minutes, that's all."

"You really are a selfish pig, Tim, aren't you? Utterly selfish! Oh, it's alright for me, I'm used to it. We had our wedding on a Tuesday so that it didn't clash with a game or net practice, but your only daughter! How could you!!?"

"Just don't tell her. She'll never know anyway," he pleaded. "I've got to go, I'm the team captain."

"Well, go then! I won't tell her, I can't. I wouldn't know how to break it to her anyway!" She thundered as she stormed out through the front door.

Middleton plucked the car keys out of his pocket and followed her out. Tomorrow, he'd walk Megan down the aisle, do the wedding snaps and then, he would deal with the important things in his life.

REHEARSING LINE AND LENGTH

Chris Lawler leaned back against the firm neck-rest in his beloved BMW. His clammy hands gripped the steering wheel tightly. For a moment he imaged that the wheel was his wife's neck and that his hands were wrapped around it. Where the hell was she? Why was he sitting here like a redundant taxi driver waiting for a fare.

He readjusted the driver's mirror for the third time and thought about that phone call from Bill. Middleton had been a sly one, alright! It was probably that ghastly Watson who had persuaded him to stay on, clinging to the wreckage like a half-drowned mariner. Oh well, maybe tonight's unofficial meeting will sort him out once and for all! Hell! Where was she? He had been waiting for nearly twenty minutes now and ...

Just then, the clatter of court shoes on gravel announced the arrival of his wife. He ignited the engine and opened the passenger door from the inside. "Well, my darling," he gushed with false expression, "you might just have enough time to get your frock on."

"It's called a dress, Christopher. Hence the term, dress rehearsal. It's rather a nice dress actually. Angus thinks I look very sexy in it."

"Oh good," he replied as he pulled the car out of the drive.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," she said in her sweetest voice; the one you couldn't possibly be angry at.

"Lateness has always been your forte, Julia. No wonder your twin sister is four months older than you."

"That's very droll, darling."

"How you managed to make it to the church before me on our wedding day, God only knows!"

"You're driving rather quickly. There's no rush. The rehearsal doesn't start until eight."

"Bill's coming round. If I drive at a steady eighty-five, I should make it."

"Bill?"

"We're going down the pub."

"Oh, how very different. I thought you might be visiting an art gallery or something."

"To discuss business," he continued.

"To discuss cricket," she corrected.

Two magpies, disturbed by the speeding car, flew out of a roadside bush and hovered behind them.

"What time will you be back?" He asked.

"Late. Although we're not playing all the scenes, just checking the entrances and exits. Yesterday's technical run through was an absolute bitch!"

"Oh dear."

"Your friend Bill's coming, I understand."

"Where?"

"To the show. Diane told me."

"He didn't tell me."

"He told Diane."

"But I thought they'd split up?"

"They had, but ... Well, he's coming anyway. That'll be company for you."

"Whatever. We'll have to leave pretty sharpish afterwards. There's an EGM at six."

"A what?"

"Emergency General Meeting. At the Cricket Club."

"But you'll miss the cast party!"

Oh dear, what a shame he thought, but he said: "Not necessarily" instead.

"I wanted you there. I wanted Bill there. Especially if he and Diane were to ..."

"Were to what?"

"Never mind." Men, she concluded, were hopeless. Or rather, most men were hopeless. Not all, of course. No. Not all men were hopeless.

KEEPING YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

The vacuum cleaner hummed away, fading to a halt as Thommo picked up the three seat cushions and repositioned them on the sofa. He straightened the oriental mat with his foot and moved the framed wedding photograph back onto the mantelpiece.

Yes, it was tidy. There was no denying that. No hints of dust anywhere, in fact. Fit for a visit from Howard Hughes himself!

Thommo picked up the cleaner and wrapped the cord around the body of the machine. Placing it carefully in the cupboard, he turned to admire the sum total of his labour. Each floor had been swept and all dirty clothes, which had previously littered every room, were now washed, dried, ironed and rehoused in wardrobes and drawers. The toilet pan was white again, a sight not seen since last month, and the bath had been scrubbed and disinfected. Each and every kitchen surface was sparkling and all litter had been placed into three black plastic sacks and dumped outside.

Even Annie's efforts could not match this, reasoned Thommo, as he sat on the kitchen bench.

He had been surprised by her phone call yesterday which stated her intentions of paying him and the flat a visit on the very next day.

"I expect the flat's in a right state," she had said.

"No. I think you'd be pleasantly surprised," he had replied, surveying the decay and debris that surrounded him.

Still, it was clean now and that should please Annie. That, after all was what he wanted - to please her. He wanted to state his willingness to change and confirm this good intention with overwhelming proof.

It was, he believed, a good sign that she was paying a visit. If all went well, he felt sure she would return sooner rather than later. In truth, today offered a slight problem as it was the night of the cricket meeting. But, as Annie had made it clear that she would be gone by five, even that problem was irrelevant.

Instinctively, Thommo pulled opened the door of the near-barren fridge. There, standing before him were four tins of lager. Something stopped him from taking one, something held him back. He shouldn't. He knew he shouldn't. Think of Annie. Annie ...

He slammed the door shut with such force that its whole body shook. He looked at the time. Just enough time for a quick one before seeing the boys. Just enough time ...

He opened the door again and pulled out one of the cans. He hurriedly peeled back its opening tab and guzzled the liquid down his throat, not gulping until the first wave of lager hit the base of his stomach.

She'd never know and besides, it's marvellous what a mouthful of mouthwash and a full canister of air freshener can achieve.

SORTING OUT THE BACKLIFT

"So, they then brought on this menacing bowler. A real brute of a fella. I thought to myself - 'Hello, he looks a bit mean.' And, sure enough, when he bowled the first ball, I could barely see it. It must have travelled at 90 miles per hour!" Spurted Tony Gates who was busy regaling his imagined story of heroics to a riveted Zoe Ledwood, the senior barmaid at 'The Boatman.' This, she reasoned, was the best entertainment one could expect on a Monday night. It was a case of either listening to Tony Gates and his exaggerated exploits or emptying the ashtrays for the third time.

"Second ball's a bouncer which nearly blew my head off. I just managed to duck down in time. Anyway, it was the third ball that did it. A real snorter which cracked the arm. I was in agony. You could've heard the bone crack in the back row of the stand."

"Oh, I bet you nearly fainted. I know I would," simpered Zoe; ignoring an old man who wanted serving.

"Well, it certainly jarred a bit. Doctors never saw a break like it."

"Did you know it was broken. At the time, like?" She asked, now choosing to serve the old man at last with his half-pint of bitter.

"I couldn't fail to notice, could I? There was a great shaft of bone sticking out through the skin. Loads of blood. The shirt was ruined."

"Oh, don't! It's horrible!"

"Doctors say I've got another week with this plaster."

"Oh, you poor thing. Must be awkward, that."

"It is."

"I bet you can't wait to have it off," she stated innocently.

"You're right there," Tony replied with a lecherous grin, "and I'm not talking about the plaster either!"

"Ooh, Tony. You're terrible," she cackled, smacking him playfully on the hand.

He was terrible, alright, thought Zoe as she turned her back to pick up a clean ashtray. Why don't you get a life!

The door crashed open and in bounced a ruddy-faced Thommo, followed by a more reticent Mike Brandon. "My goodness! Tony's in the chair for a change. Two pints please, oh wounded one!"

Zoe carried out the order and Thommo, never a man to hold himself back, was quick to take a first greedy sip. "How's the arm?"

"Oh, not too bad," replied Tony giving the plaster a loving pat. "Did Middleton phone you two up as well then?"

"Yes."

"No."

It was Mike Brandon who had answered in the affirmative: "He told me that he wants to stay on as captain."

"He told you what?" Thommo exclaimed. Mike then repeated the statement. "Well, he didn't phone me," the fast bowler moaned.

"He rang me as well," added Tony, now talking solely to Mike. "What do you reckon, eh? Him deciding to carry on?"

"It's a damn cheek. He even asked me to support him."

"He asked me the same. He sounded desperate. To be honest, I felt quite sorry for him."

"Well, he didn't phone me," complained Thommo again, annoyed about being excluded from the conversation.

"Perhaps he knew that you were a lost cause Thommo, and that you wouldn't vote for him under any circumstances," suggested Tony.

"He'd be dead right on that score. I hope you both told him where to get off."

Mike and Tony looked at each other knowingly and then bowed their heads sheepishly.

"You didn't, did you?"

It was Mike who spoke first: "I didn't say I would vote for him. Then again, I didn't say I wouldn't. It was very difficult being put on the spot, Thommo," he pleaded. "In any case, I'm leaving the team. Perhaps it would be better if I just abstain."

Tony nodded his head, recognising Mike's dilemma. "And remember Thommo, it's hard on Middleton just now. Poor sod sounded close to tears."

"Oh well, if you feel that bad about it, why don't you pop round and kiss him better Tony?" Mocked Thommo before taking another gluttonous gulp of bitter. "Honestly, I can't think what's got in to you two. Standing there, feeling sorry for a bloke who changes his mind more often than ... than Catherine Zeta Jones changes her co-stars! You make me sick!"

The door swung open again and another two customers entered the bar. "Hello, Chris! Bill! I'll get 'em in!" Tony shouted. "You sit over there."

Tony ordered two more pints while Thommo and Mike followed the new-comers to a corner table. There were the usual greetings between the four and then Thommo told a joke about an ostrich and a banana which, by the sound of laughter that ensued, was successfully relayed.

Tony brought the drinks to the table and then Bill, assuming a chairmanship role, brought the unofficial meeting to order. "Here we are again, gentlemen. These little chats are becoming a regular feature, aren't they?"

"So, what's our move now Bill?" Asked Tony.

"Yeah. I hope you've got a good reason for dragging us out here to a pub. I could be at home washing my smalls," commented Thommo sardonically.

"Oh, yes, we know how much you hate frequenting pubs, Thommo. Your mate Oliver Reed told us all about it," snapped Lawler.

"Ha, ha. That was almost funny."

"Now then," Bill broke in, "we've got enough problems as it is. You've all heard about Middleton's change of mind by now I expect. I assume he phoned you all ..."

"He didn't phone me," said Thommo proudly.

"Well, I take it that you two were phoned," said Bill addressing Mike and Tony. They both nodded. "Well, as you know, I want to nominate Chris here. I should mention perhaps, that I did phone John Marsden to see if he wanted to stand. As it happens, he doesn't and is willing to support Chris. Now, what about you three? Will you support him?"

There was an awkward pause as all three pondered the question carefully.

"Well, don't all rush, will you!" Bleated Lawler.

"What changes would you make to the team?" Asked Tony astutely.

Although neither Chris Lawler nor Bill had expected this kind of questioning, the would-be captain was quick to improvise a satisfactory response. "You'd open for a start, Gatesey. With me. I'd drop Middleton down to three or four, bring in a couple of the younger guys and persuade Manning to remain in the side."

"Oh, not him again!" Scoffed Thommo.

"He's a good batsman and let's face it, we need all the batsmen we can get."

"Well, we certainly didn't need his duck last Saturday," added Thommo neatly.

"What about Giffo's replacement?" Asked Mike.

"As you know, Middleton favours young Palmer. Not a bad keeper but his batting's not good enough. I would prefer nabbing Arthur Johnson from Penally Seconds. As you know, he scored thirty against us just a couple of weeks back."

"That all seems fair enough," noted Tony.

"I think it only fair to warn you Bill, that I'm planning to abstain," pointed out Mike to the vice-captain. "I don't think it's fair, me voting for something that won't affect me."

"Rubbish! Your vote's as good as anyone's. Besides, Giffo's got a vote and he's using his."

"Well, I'm sorry but I don't think I could."

Chris Lawler had had quite enough of this preliminary discussion. He wanted matters to be resolved as quickly as possible. "So, who's prepared to back me? I only need six for a majority." He stared around the table and then decided to attack the softest target first: "Tony?"

"Well, I'll back you."

"Good. Mike?"

"Well, as I said, I don't want ..."

"Come on man! It's either me or Middleton!"

"I'm sorry Chris - no." The players realised that the young man was immovable. All eyes now fell on Thommo.

"Thommo?"

"Well," said the fast bowler, enjoying a rare moment of power, "the problem is, decision making is mighty thirsty work." He stared longingly at his empty glass and then shot a glance at Lawler's incredulous face.

"Alright! Alright! I'll get a round in. But then, I want a decision," he barked as he flew out of the chair and trounced off to the bar.

"Come on lads, be reasonable," said Bill. "If you don't vote for Chris, you'll get Middleton. He's sure of five votes already. He's sure to have Watson, Bracewell, Milns, Stillman and Giffo."

"Giffo won't vote for him!" Argued Thommo.

"He will because he told me that he definitely won't vote for Lawler."

"Who can blame him?" Said Mike under his breath.

"And Stillman won't vote for him," added Thommo.

"Stillman will do as he's told," replied Bill. "Middleton says jump and Stillman says: how high?"

"What about Marsden?" Ventured Thommo, "Are you sure you can't persuade him to stand instead?"

"He's absolutely adamant."

"I vote we go for Lawler. There's no alternative," stated Tony.

"Thommo?" Bill pleaded.

"I'll think about it," he replied stubbornly. "I'll decide when I'm good and ready. Perhaps after another pint or two."

The cold, murky car park was suddenly lit up by a volley of colourful language that sprayed like a machine-gun from Lawler's thin, sarcastic lips. "Stupid drunken lout! 'Wait and see', that's what he kept saying, 'wait and see'. Beery bastard! What the hell's he up to?"

"Emptying your wallet old son, that's what. Thommo's an expert when it comes to cadging a drink or two."

"Drink or two! I bought him seven and I still haven't got his vote, waste of bloody time!"

Bill Nicholson smiled slightly and felt for his car keys. "Come on, I'll drive us back. It'll be alright. He'll vote for you and so will Mike. Tomorrow'll be here soon enough."

"Tomorrow. Don't remind me."

"Well, the meeting should be ..."

"I'm not talking about the meeting, I've got to see 'King Lear' at that draughty castle."

"A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"Whatever." Suddenly his eyes lit up. "Wait a minute. You're going, aren't you? Julia told me. Tell you what, I'll give you a lift there if you like. My turn."

"Thanks. They've got a professional director apparently. It should be good."

"It'll be two hours of horse-shit and you know it!"

Chris Lawler, annoyed by the unresolved nature of tonight's meeting, was in no mood for William-Bloody-Shakespeare!

CATCHING THE SKYER

The sizzling egg in the frying pan was one of the finest sights in the world, thought Giffo as he watched over the misshapen white and yellow circle bubble in the heat of the fat. Yes, you can keep your Sistine Chapel and your Hanging Gardens of Babylon; for him, the fried egg should be held in greater esteem. As for Thai curries ...

He had been so relieved when Irene had that argument with Elma Spragg. According to his wife, the perfectly dreadful Elma Spragg (Mrs) had the temerity to criticise her Thai curry and this, following on from her attack on Irene's creme caramel the week before, was the last straw. She was out of the college quicker than the time required to boil a soft egg and the upshot was that she had left cookery behind and was now utilising her time in the garden.

There had been no more wind attacks, stomach cramps or diarrhoea and the indigestion tablets lay idle in the medicine cupboard.

Giffo scooped up the egg with a spatula and gently lay it on two slices of cooling toast. That man's arrogance and his treatment of certain players was appalling. How dare he phone up and beg for support! He had given him a piece of his mind and reminded him that if he had used Stillman earlier or got a few runs himself, he wouldn't be in this mess now.

He'd probably scrape through though with votes of support from the sycophantic Watson and others like Arthur Milns and Tony Gates, who couldn't care less who was captain. Still, at least he had a vote and he was going to use it for the good of the club. A club which had only just informed him that he was to be given a life membership in recognition of his services as a wicket-keeper.

Giffo sat down and tucked into his supper. While he was no great chef, he could certainly fry up an egg. Now that Irene had hung up her apron, it had given him the opportunity to discover the joys of cooking for himself.

Yes, he was going to enjoy this cooking lark.

The phone rang out violently and Giffo, remembering that Irene was busy pruning, dropped his fork and walked across the room to pick up the receiver.

"Hello ... Peter! Good Heavens! I wasn't expecting you ... sorry, I didn't catch that ... You want me to do what!!?"

 

 

 

CLOSE OF PLAY

I

"Oh, these bloody green tights!" Moaned Diane as she struggled, and then failed, to pull the taut garments over her knees and around her thighs without damage. Her face reddened appreciatively when she realised that she had sworn - an occurrence which both women knew was an extremely rare one. Almost unheard of, in fact. Julia looked across at her friend and noticing the ladder which ran across the back of her thigh, said, "Oh, that'll never show. No-one will notice that." It would of course and both women knew that it would. The statement was meant to comfort rather than give any degree of accuracy.

"I'll be glad when all this is over. I hate wearing tights at the best of times," continued Diane as she examined herself disapprovingly in the full-length mirror.

Julia stood over her shoulder and began to apply her shock-red lipstick. "At least there's the cast party tonight. That'll be fun," commented Julia as she analysed her face in the glass. Diane pulled a face to express her doubt and her friend smiled understandingly. "Bill coming?"

"To the cast party?" Asked Diane incredulously, as though her friend had just inquired about the likelihood of Bill attending a National Front rally.

"Oh, I shouldn't think so. No, not for a minute. They've got a terribly important meeting at the Cricket Club tonight."

"Typical of men, isn't it? To assume that discussing a game of bat and ball is considered as being in anyway important. Anyone would think they were off discussing world peace or something!"

"They just treat it seriously, that's all," stated Diane a little too defensively.

"Too seriously!"

"Darling, you look wonderful!" Roger MacPherson, arms aloft, announced his arrival with an elegant but equally nauseating pose. "You're every inch a model Titania!" He flattered as he carefully pulled her hand to his generous, slightly bulbous lips. "Let me look at you," he ordered as he placed his hands around her waist and peered longingly at her cleavage. "My darling, you look superb!" He mouthed as Diane hurriedly picked up her handbag and left, mumbling that a visit to the loo was needed.

"Has your friend got a bladder disorder? Every time I come upon you both, she flees to the toilet."

"I think," said Julia pointedly, "she's trying to be discreet."

"Oh?"

The reply was not the one Julia had expected and feeling that she was in danger of making a fool of herself, she prised Roger's hands away. "I must get ready."

"But you are ready," he said as she turned her back on him. "My god, you're ready alright!" He wrapped his hands around her pert, but not insubstantial, breasts.

"Roger!"

"Julia, we must meet tonight."

"Tonight?"

"Yes."

"No, Roger, I can't ..."

"Tonight."

"No."

"Please."

"But, Roger, I can't. I have ..."

"Please. I want you," he pleaded. "I want you now."

She turned to face him now and held his hands tightly. "No-one must know. No-one," she whispered. What was she doing? This was madness! What was she saying? She was a married woman, for God's sake.

"No-one will, I promise."

Just then, the door of the dressing room flew open and there in the doorway stood Angus. He was in costume and had a head of an ass tucked under his arm. He could not fail but notice the intimacy he had just disturbed and both actress and director realised this at once.

It was Roger who spoke first: "I was just giving my leading lady a little more direction," he uttered as he pushed his way out through the door.

Angus playfully wagged his finger at Julia and said, "And where exactly was he directing you?"

"Oh, Angus. Don't be absurd."

"The man's a pro Julia, and I'm not talking about his theatrical experience," warned Angus. "He leaves on the Irish mail train from Whitland tomorrow morning and he's determined to get into someone's knickers before then. Be careful it isn't yours."

"Don't be ridiculous. He's just paying me some attention, that's all," said Julia pulling down her bodice a little.

"Just a gentle warning, darling. Nothing more."

"I don't need to be warned, Angus. I'm a big girl now."

"Yes. That's what worries me."

xxxxx

Due to the fact that the car park at Carew Castle was packed, Chris Lawler parked the car on the roadside opposite the Carew Arms public house. The driver was less enthusiastic than his passenger in his desire to exit from the vehicle and he gave a loud, exaggerated sigh as the afternoon breeze rustled his auburn hair.

There were people everywhere. All of them attracted like so many metal filings to the magnet of Carew Castle. Strings of colourful bunting surrounded the entrance and two bright banners were draped over the castle walls. It was a sight that filled Lawler with dread. "I'm sorry I drove now. I think I'll need a good drink after this," he whinged.

"Let's buy a programme," Bill offered, noticing a man in Elizabethan costume shouting, 'Programmes! Get ye programmes!'

"How much?" Asked Lawler in a manner befitting a tourist in an Arab market.

"Two pounds."

"We'll share," said Lawler after Bill had dropped a two pound coin into the man's box.

"Hello chaps!" Announced a familiar but unexpected voice behind them. They both turned at once and noticed Arthur Milns with his wife and aged mother in tow.

"Oh, God. That's all we need," spat Lawler just quiet enough to be heard by Bill alone.

"Hello Arthur," greeted Bill cheerfully," I didn't know you were a lover of the Bard."

"Not as a rule, no. But we thought an afternoon out might do us good. Fresh air and a bit of culture."

"Quite so."

Why come here though, thought Lawler as he smiled weakly at Arthur and his family. Why not go to a beach or the countryside? Why here? "Come on Bill, we'd better get a seat," ordered Chris who had done all the socialising he wanted to do.

"Well, we won't hold you up," said Arthur as Lawler pushed on towards the castle entrance. You won't hold me up, mused Lawler, have no worry about that.

"See you later, Arthur," shouted Bill as he tried to catch up with his fleeing companion. "Bit lively, aren't you? Can't wait to get in, I suppose," said Bill as he handed over two tickets to an attendant.

"I just didn't fancy sitting next to the Addams Family, that's all," explained Lawler.

xxxxx

By now, Arthur's party was ten or twenty places behind his team-mates in the queue that began to form by the castle gate. "I'm really looking forward to this," said Arthur's wife, keeping one arm wrapped around the arm of her mother-in-law.

"Good."

"It's a funny looking Big Top," mumbled Arthur's mother as she craned her head to study the castle walls.

"It's a castle, mother."

"A circus in a castle! I don't believe it!"

"We're not going to see a circus, mum," cooed Audrey. "We're going to see a play. Don't you remember?"

"It's a funny looking Big Top. Never seen one like this," she went on.

Arthur smiled at his wife and Audrey gave the old lady a loving hug of reassurance.

xxxxx

Bill Nicholson and Chris Lawler found two seats and looked out towards the makeshift stage. There were no curtains as such, but a large drape hid the main entrance. A gloriously painted backdrop depicting a woodland scene gave an apt focal point and even Chris Lawler was suitably impressed. It wasn't the Torch Theatre at Milford Haven but, then again, it didn't pretend to be.

Bill closed his eyes and enjoyed feeling the warmth of the late summer sun on his forehead. Chris Lawler, agitated and frustrated, looked at his watch. If only God would skip the next two hours, he thought.

xxxxx

Four rows back sat the Milns family. Audrey thought the set looked wonderful and Arthur agreed. Arthur said he had always admired the north wing of the castle on account of its large Elizabethan windows and Audrey said she had too. All was calm and congenial.

"Where's the ringmaster?"

"There isn't going to be one, mum. It's a play."

"Funny looking circus this."

 

II

"And remember, Mr Middleton specifically said that he wanted a range of music to suit all tastes ... You know, mix in a bit of Tom Jones between all that modern stuff ... No, a lot of people happen to like Tom Jones ... I happen to like Tom Jones ... Well, Shirley Bassey, then. You must have some Shirley Bassey .... Oh, good. Remember, we can arrange to have another DJ, even at this short notice. There are plenty about. You're not exactly Steve Briers, you know ... No ... I said ... Oh, it doesn't matter. Just make sure you're here by seven."

David Watson placed the receiver down and re-checked his staff rota. Wedding receptions were murder to organise as far as staffing was concerned. Either too many staff or too few. No, he thought he had it about right this time.

Tim Middleton opened the door to the hotel manager's inner sanctum and slid himself inside.

"How's it all going?" Asked Watson, standing up to greet his friend.

"Fine, fine."

"I'm sorry about the sherry. I didn't realise that your wife was something of a connoisseur."

"Oh, don't worry about Angela. She's always got to have something to moan about. She'd have found fault with Mother Teresa, that one. The thing is, tonight's meeting. I know I can rely on your support, Bracewell's and Milns', but I'm unsure about the rest. I've phoned them all, well nearly all, but most of them seem unwilling to commit themselves."

"What about Stillman?"

"Well, I don't think I'm exactly flavour of the month with him, do you?"

"Oh, I don't know. He's very forgiving and besides, I don't really think he's got the intelligence to harbour any grudges. He's a typical teacher."

"Well, I don't think ..."

The door suddenly opened and Angela Middleton stood there looking less than pleased. "Darling, the speeches," she implored, darting an aggressive stare at David Watson.

"Coming. Right, I'll see you later, David."

"Fine."

Tim and Angela Middleton trotted hurriedly down the corridor on their journey to the Margaret Beaufort dining room. "I wondered where you were," moaned Angela, "I wish we'd gone to the De Valence or the Cleddau Bridge Hotel, this place is so ... Naff!"

"Oh, it's fine. Megan and Tom, are quite happy."

"I haven't told Megan about you slipping away. I couldn't."

"Good."

"I just hope that you're going to be half an hour and nothing more. I don't know what I'm going to say!"

"No-one will notice."

"Of course they'll notice. You're the father of the bride. I can't very well say you've popped out to the shops!"

"Well, think of something ..."

"No, you think of something for a change!" Snapped Angela. "I'm sick and tired of covering for you. You think of something."

"What about ... I had to lie down because I felt a migraine coming on?"

"But you don't get migraines."

"Well, I do now!" Exploded Middleton as he reached for the speech that was in his inside pocket.

"I hope you've checked that."

"Of course, of course."

"And you've left out that joke about the rabbit and the bishop?"

"Yes, I have. Why, I don't know, but I have. David laughed out loud when I told him."

"He would. It's like him - tasteless! He makes my flesh creep!"

"Don't be silly!"

"Honestly. You're about to make the most important speech of your life and you're busy talking cricket with that man. Anyone would believe that cricket could be more important than your own daughter's wedding."

What did she mean by - 'could'? Of course, it was more important! Stupid woman!

III

"Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!"

Julia with an air of confidence befitting that of a Fairy Queen, marched onto the stage with her entourage of fairy attendants.

Bill Nicholson's eyes fell briefly on her as he searched out Diane. Just then, the actor playing Oberon shuffled forward and as he did so, revealed the familiar frame of Diane. She was, Bill thought, radiating the stage by her presence and was easily the most striking and the most authentic-looking of the group. Agile, fleet of foot, fair hair fanning out over her shoulders ... Remarkable! Although he hated to admit it, he was smitten. He wanted to be with her, he wanted to hold her.

Chris Lawler bored by his wife's presence on stage, glanced at Bill and was immediately annoyed to note the mesmeric gaze that was carved on his colleague's face. He was transfixed. Completely taken in by this ... How could anyone get carried away by this ... How could anyone feel any admiration for this ... The only thing that Lawler could feel at that precise moment, was a stiff cool breeze from the battlements which seemed determined to add to his discomfort. When would it all end? When could they all leave?

xxxxx

Arthur Milns' mother unwrapped a sticky toffee with her withered fingers. "Where are the clowns, Arthur? We haven't seen the clowns yet."

IV

"Dad, where are you going?"

"Oh, Megan." Hell! She had seen him! "I'm just going to have a little lie down. I've got a migraine coming on."

"But you don't get migraines."

"Well I do now."

"I've never known you to have them."

"I won't be long."

"Well, you better not be. Tom's mother wants the first dance."

Oh, God!

Suddenly a well-built middle-aged woman barged her way through, intent on chatting with her new family. "I'm looking forward to our dance, Tim. I bet you're a right little Fred Astaire," she chuckled.

Yes, but you're no Ginger Rogers, he thought as he smiled weakly. "I'm just going to have a lie-down. Bit of a migraine coming on."

"Oh, dear. If you need someone to rub your temples, let me know," she said huskily. "I'm very good at that sort of thing."

Yes, I bet you are ...

"Don't be long, dad," whispered Megan as she left to greet two friends who had just arrived.

"Great speech, Tim. I really enjoyed it," said Uncle Norman who was munching through a bowl of mini pickled onions. "Loved that line about marriages: Good marriages last forever, bad ones just seemed to! Very brave Tim, very brave."

"Thanks, Uncle Norman. Look, if you'll excuse me, I'm just going upstairs for a bit."

"Hello! A bit of what?"

"He's got a migraine," offered Tom's mother sympathetically.

"I didn't know you suffered from migraines, Tim."

"Yes, I do," he said as he pushed his way through to the exit. There standing by the door stood Angela who had just helped an elderly relative find a seat.

"You off now?"

"Yes. Listen, if David comes looking for me, tell him I'm waiting in the car."

"Now, don't be too long," she warned as he skulked out down the corridor.

Megan joined her mother and gave her a glass of white wine. "Poor dad."

"He'll be down in a minute."

"I never knew dad got migraines."

"Oh, didn't you?"

"Anyone seen Tim?" Asked David Watson who had just bounced into the room.

"No," muttered Angela, conscious of Megan's presence.

"He's having a lie down," said Megan who had not heard her mother's quiet denial.

"He's having a what!!?"

"Lie down. He's got a migraine."

Watson turned to Angela. "I didn't know he got migraines."

"Oh, yes," she said, giving a short nervous laugh.

"I didn't realise it either," replied Megan who started waving to one of the bridesmaids at the back of the room. With Megan's attention distracted, Angela signalled to Watson that Tim was in fact in the car. She mimed the driving of a car and pointed towards the window.

Watson was at a complete loss as to what she was doing. "You alright, Angela?"

"Yes, I'm fine," she said as Megan spun round again to face them. What could she do? Why did Tim always put her in positions like this?

She stared at the repulsive Watson and decided to employ another approach. "David, would you go to the car for me?"

"The car? Why?"

"Just look ... please." Oh, the stupid man doesn't understand. What an imbecile!

"I better have a look at him."

"Who?"

"Tim. I need to see him ..."

"No!" Angela screamed, causing Megan to spill her wine. Remembering herself, Angela added: "No, thank you, David. He's got a migraine. I don't want him disturbed."

"But I've got to see him, Angela. I must. We've got an emergency gen ... "

Angela couldn't stop herself. It was her only option. While the wine from her glass dripped down and into Watson's shirt, she forced out her apology. "I'm so sorry, David. The glass just ..."

"Are you sure you're okay, mum," asked her concerned daughter.

"Yes."

"Oh, how can I wear this down the Cricket Club. I'm drenched," moaned Watson as he pulled out the front of his sodden shirt away from his skin.

"The Cricket Club?" Asked Megan.

"Go and look in the car for me, David!"

"What's in your car that's so interesting, for goodness sake? Yes," he said, now turning to face Megan having had quite enough of Mrs Middleton: "The Cricket Club. Tim and I have an EGM there tonight. We really should ..."

"But it's my wedding day!" Cried Megan. "Oh, mum, how could he?"

Angela grabbed Watson's arm and pushed him against the wall. "Listen, you stupid prat, he's in the car. Just go!" She hissed menacingly, hoping that her heart-broken daughter wouldn't hear.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Megan asked her mother.

"I didn't know," she whispered.

"Look, if you just tell me which room he's in, I'll go," offered Watson who was still recovering from being pushed so forcefully by the petite Mrs Middleton.

"Oh, how could he though, mum?"

"Don't ask me, dear. I'm in the dark as much as you."

"Which room?" Watson pleaded.

"Stop him from going," requested Megan.

Angela had no choice but to convince herself that she had known nothing about this plan. "What's all this about a meeting?" She asked Watson with more venom than the average puff-adder.

"It was arranged on Monday. It's an EGM to discuss next year's captain."

"Oh, mum, tell him he can't go!"

"Yes," she said to her tearful daughter, "I'll do that." She grabbed Watson again and proceeded to frog-march him out of the room. "Come, David!" She cried, more for effect than anything else.

"Something funny's going on, I can smell it. Where the hell is he?"

"He's in the car, waiting for you."

"Well, why didn't you say!"

"I did, you stupid little man. Couldn't you see that it was upsetting my daughter. It's her wedding day, for God's sake!"

"Yes, but I ..."

"Go!"

"Right. I'll go then." So saying, David Watson shrugged his shoulders and slunk out of the hotel in a state of bewilderment.

Angela darted back into the lounge and gave her daughter a much needed cuddle. Uncle Norman bereft of his bowl of pickled onions, walked up to the pair. "Where's Tim off to then?"

"Sorry," asked Angela, taking no interest in Uncle Norman or his question.

"Tim. I just saw him drive away."

Megan turned sharply away from her mother's caress. "Oh mum ..." she cried as her whole face crumbled against a torrent of tears.

"Weddings, eh?" Mumbled Uncle Norman. "They always cause upset."

V

"Give me your hands if we be friends

And Robin shall restore amends"

Knowing that with these words the play had reached its conclusion, the audience clapped its appreciation. The resulting noise woke Chris Lawler from his peaceful slumber. Bill Nicholson, momentarily carried away by the crescendo of sound, sprang to his feet and shouted "Bravo! Bravo!" at the top of his voice. Lawler looked on in horror. Other members of the audience followed Bill's lead and soon the spectators were on their feet. Amongst the cheers, the wolf-whistles and the claps, Chris Lawler muttered a half-hearted, "Well done," as he too struggled to his feet. What a bore all this was!

The thunderous applause peaked in its intensity and then slowly died away as Roger MacPherson bounced onto the stage, arms aloft as an elaborate signal that the clapping should abate. His watery eyes milked the now dying applause for all it was worth as two mighty spotlights honed in on the singular director.

"Thank you, thank you. On behalf of the cast and crew ... And weren't they fantastic, ladies and gentlemen!" He began as another spate of clapping broke out on the word 'fantastic'. Lawler wanted to throw up.

"When I was asked to do this for the Penally Players 50th celebration, I accepted immediately. The challenge of putting on a professional show with an amateur troupe was just too tempting to resist and I never imagined that their skill, their talent and their fortitude could have created such a worthy piece!" Bollocks! Thought Lawler.

"I am a mere humble professional ... (Lawler mouthed: Oh, God!) ... but they ... They are the outstanding amateurs!" Roger MacPherson flung his arms towards the sky in a dramatic pose as further claps and cheers filled the castle.

"Humble!" Scoffed Lawler.

"Well he is rather full of himself," conceded Bill as the director walked off the stage in triumph, "but I have to say, I was honestly surprised by the professionalism of it all. Even the cuts to the play's text were creative and tasteful."

"I know you know more about English literature, but even so ..."

"Oh, come on, it wasn't that bad. At least now you can say that you've seen Angus Langton's Bottom."

"Oh yes," he replied scornfully, "that will go down well at cocktail parties. Shall we go now?"

"I'm just going to see Diane ... backstage."

"Oh must you?"

"Yes." He was determined to see her. He had to see her now. "Yes, I must."

Lawler watched his friend walk away and he casually glanced at the departing figures all around him. The sun temporarily hid behind a sheet of cloud and jackets were hurriedly put on. Suddenly an unseen hand planted itself on Lawler's right shoulder causing him to spin his head involuntary.

"Going to the meeting now?" It was Arthur Milns. Just my luck, thought Lawler.

"Yes."

"I think it only fair to warn you that I won't be voting for you, I'm afraid."

"So you'll be voting for Middleton, eh? How surprising!" Mocked Lawler.

"What do you mean?"

"It's just so terribly predictable, Milnsey. Don't be offended when I tell you this - But your predictability is so predictable."

"You mean I'm dull, I suppose?"

Lawler was surprised by this insight. "Well, I wouldn't exactly say ..."

"Oh, I know perfectly well what you think. Dull as ditch water, Old Milnsey. Always plays straight down the line. Never deviates, never changes. Always plays with a straight bat. Well, there are times when I want to hit out, y'know, and have a bit of a slog."

Heavens above! This was bordering on the philosophical. Who would have believed it!

"Besides," Milns added, " I didn't actually say that I'll vote for Middleton, only that I won't vote for you."

"Well, that's all very reassuring," uttered Lawler, knowing perfectly well that he didn't need Milns' vote anyway. "But you will, won't you?"

"Will, what?"

"Vote for Middleton."

Lawler's arrogance infuriated Milns. "Well, I'm certainly not voting for a swaggering little shit like you!" He snapped as he stormed off back to his wife.

Chris Lawler nonchalantly sat back in his chair and wondered if he had offended Milns in some way. Swaggering little shit, eh?

Bill caught sight of Diane as he struggled down a make-shift curtained corridor that joined the dressing rooms to the stage entrance. He had to push past two fairy nymphs, an overweight stage manager and an overtly camp dancer who he recognised as being a florist from Haverfordwest. (Good Lord! He hadn't recognised him in the actual show.)

Diane, still in costume, looked stunning. "Bill! Good Heavens!"

"Hello. I thought you were marvellous. Just marvellous."

Instinctively, she doubted Bill's sincerity. "Bill!"

"No. Honestly."

"But I did nothing. I had nothing to say."

"But you were still marvellous."

"Where's Chris?"

"I left him whinging outside. I don't think he enjoyed it somehow."

"But you did?"

"Yes. I did."

A radiant smile broke across her face. "When's the meeting?"

"Soon. I just ... Well, I just wanted to see you and say how well you had done." He was struggling now. "And ... well, how about that drink next week?" Good. He had said it.

"Okay."

"Right, I'll be ... I'll be in touch, then."

Surely he wasn't leaving it like that! She had to ask. She needed to: "Aren't you coming back for the cast party?"

"Well ..." Good Lord! He hadn't expected this. "I don't think Chris is terribly keen."

"Oh, forget him!" She snapped.

Good Lord!

"Sorry," she went on, "but surely you will?"

"Okay."

"You'll come?"

"Yes."

"Good." And with that, she was gone.

"Where's mother?" Asked Arthur Milns looking carefully at his wife's anxious face.

"I don't know, Arthur. One minute she was here and the next ... Oh, Arthur ..."

They looked out across to the exiting crowd that was trudging through the gates. Somewhere among the throng was Arthur's mother - confused and utterly helpless.

VI

"You want me to do what?"

"It's perfectly simple. I want you to nominate me for captain. Giffo's already agreed to second me."

John Marsden was astounded. "But ... why me?"

"Because you owe me a favour, and with your help I'm sure we can beat Middleton."

He was right of course, he did owe him a favour. Things could have been a great deal more unpleasant if Stillman had decided to create a scene at the match and tell everyone about his affair with Joyce.

"Well, alright ..."

"Good."

The two men walked into the wooden clubhouse where they were greeted by an enthusiastic Giffo.

"Come on," he said, "let's get a seat. There's no sign of Milns yet."

xxxxx

The chairman of Hodgeston Cricket Club, Colonel Packman, thumped his hand on the table. It was the sign for the players to take their seats in readiness for the business that lay ahead. As Tim Middleton sat nervously at the front flanked by David Watson and Bracewell, John Marsden thought it wise to sit at the back along with Stillman and Giffo. The rest of the players filled out the two rows in between. Either side of the aged Colonel sat Martin Scopes, the club secretary, and Anthony Hammer, the treasurer.

"Gentlemen, as you know, we are here to appoint the team captain for next season. I will take nominations from the floor," announced the Colonel as his hawk-like eyes panned across the twelve seated players.

Marsden, shaking slightly, sprang up. Delay, he felt, was futile. "I nominate Peter Stillman."

"Seconded!" Bellowed Giffo, a little quick in judging his cue.

There was an audible gasp and Middleton's jaw dropped appreciatively. Watson, his face reddened in anger, looked over his shoulder and glared at the heretics. He stumbled to his feet. "I nominate Tim Middleton." A painful poke in the ribs from the nominee prompted the ineffectual Bracewell to stand up and pronounce weakly, "I'll second that."

There was an outbreak of whispering, giggles and a strangled laugh from the back of the hall.

Chris Lawler, who had intended to put himself forward, had his arm seized by his would be supporter, Bill Nicholson.

"No point in standing now. You'll only split Stillman's vote."

"What? You expect me to support that idiotic Stillman?"

"It's your only way of getting rid of Middleton," Nicholson said simply as he leant over to whisper something in Thommo's ear.

The chairman raised his voice over the hubbub to outline what was to follow. "As it would appear that we have two candidates, I will ask the members to vote on the issue. To achieve a majority the candidate needs to muster seven votes. The executive will only cast their votes, if the vote proves inconclusive. All those in favour of Peter Stillman?"

Five hands flew up. They belonged to Marsden, Giffo, Gates, Brandon and Stillman himself. Three other players were rather slower in raising their arms and joining in with this particular rebellion - Thommo, Nicholson and, a very reluctant, Lawler.

"Eight votes. That's a clear majority. I therefore declare that Peter Stillman is the newly appointed captain of the Hodgeston Cricket Club."

Wild applause broke out around the rather smug figure of Peter Stillman.

xxxxx

John Marsden looked over his pint at the threatening frame of Middleton who was rapidly closing in on the unfortunate bowler.

"Hello, Judas! So much for loyalty! Don't come crying to me when you and Thommo are left waiting while that idiot hogs the bowling."

"I thought we needed a change."

"That's what Ted Dexter said prior to Gower losing four-nil to the Aussies in '89."

"Just leave it," warned Thommo.

"And what did he promise you, Thommo? A crate of brown ale and a free drink every match?"

Thommo stood up. "Is that meant to be funny?"

"Leave it, Thommo. He's not worth it," advised Mike as he gently stood between the defeated captain and the burly fast bowler.

Middleton, seeing no reason to continue the argument with the use of fists, stormed off with David Watson in quick pursuit.

"Stupid twat," commented Thommo as he re-took his seat.

"I wonder if I did the right thing," mumbled John as he took another sip of his beer.

"Course you did. Mind you," said Thommo as he leant closer to his bowling partner, "what I don't understand is why you nominated him in the first place."

He desperately wanted to justify his decision, but, after careful consideration, he found that he couldn't. "I don't really know," he replied.

He knew that in truth, Joyce Stillman had a lot to answer for.

VII

"We should have reacted sooner," bleated Chris Lawler as the car narrowly avoided a cyclist coming through Lamphey. "Stillman! What a decidedly squalid little choice that was! Why? Why did I raise my hand and support him?"

"He's better than Middleton," reasoned Bill, "that's the main thing. And he's agreed to let you open with Gatesey. That's what you wanted, remember."

"Yes, but even so - Stillman! He'll probably want to come in at number three and open the bowling."

"No, he won't."

"And where the hell was Milns?"

"Too busy driving his mother somewhere, I expect."

"Driving her round the bend, like he does to the rest of us. Still at least he isn't going to this actor's booze-up."

"It should be fun."

"Fun! With all those egos in the same room? It'll be awful and you know it."

"At least you'll have some time with Julia."

"I have all the time I want with my wife, thank you. She'll only be fawning over some ponce or telling some flighty cow how much money she's been spending all week. My money, that is. I wish she'd get a job. Get her out of my hair for a bit. She hasn't done a stroke since she left Celtic Airways. Not a bloody stroke and that was ten years ago. Why I married a redundant air hostess, I'll never know!"

"Yes you do," said Bill. "She's marvellous and you know it."

Chris went quiet then and reflected on his diatribe against his wife. Bill was right, of course. In many ways, Julia was marvellous. It wasn't as though she hadn't actively sought work and she was employed as a PA to that holiday firm that went bust. He had forgotten that. It wasn't her fault that the managing director was caught smuggling cannabis in Irish spark-plugs to stave off the mounting debts. After a series of police investigations and a court case, the daft sod swapped a mansion in Gower for a tiny cell in Swansea Prison. Julia was owed eight week's wages.

Julia was loyal, sophisticated and, when she put her mind to it, was bloody good fun underneath a continental duvet.

"Yes, maybe you're right," he admitted at last. "I was just letting off steam, that's all." Lawler took a sideways glance at his friend. "Are you planning on getting back with Diane?"

"Oh, I don't know. I'd like to, but ..."

"Diane not keen, then?"

"Oh, I don't know. I wish I understood women a bit more. I should do, with all the experience I've had. Perhaps, that's why both marriages failed - I didn't understand them."

"Diane could be third time lucky."

"Don't. You sound just like Mrs Fielding."

xxxxx

"Oh, Gussy! Come and join the sad-cow party," Julia garbled as her watery eyes scanned the empty room around her. "I'm the only member apparently."

"Hell! You've had a few," noted Angus as he sat down next to her.

She was wearing an expensive black dress and was holding onto a plastic cup of ruby red wine. "Rubbish ... I've only had a couple ... Well, five or six, actually," she whispered as she patted his left knee.

"Where's Roger? Everybody's looking for him. I thought he might be with ..."

"With me? No darling, I'm afraid not. I discovered to my cost, that Roger is a dodger. A real life 'Roger the Dodger'. He dodged me anyway. He was meant to meet me in the banquet room at eight. I waited a full ten minutes and then that obnoxious little man, that stage manager thingy, informed me that he left half an hour ago with Sally Freeman."

"You mean the girl playing Puck?"

"The very same."

"So, Roger will get his Puck after all," laughed Angus insensitively.

"Please Angus, it's no joke. I mean her. That slut! Well, at least I discovered his appalling taste in time. I offer him caviar and he chooses fish paste," she declared proudly.

"You should be pleased. A lucky escape, I reckon. Don't tell me you were actually going to ..."

"No, of course not. I was .... I was just going to live for once, Angus. Taste the poisoned fruit for a change and have a bit of fun. God knows I deserve that much. I've honestly forgotten what it's like to be wanted, to be desired."

"But surely Chris ..."

"Christopher's hopeless. The odd grope and half a dozen red roses every once in a while doesn't really amount to a marriage of continual passion. As for foreplay ... Well, he probably thinks it's some kind of cricketing term."

Angus moved a hand onto her thigh and felt the slight coarseness of stocking. It excited him. "Oh, Julia ..." he hummed as he gently massaged her flesh a little.

She moved the hand abruptly. "No, Angus," she said firmly, "no."

"But I just want to ... Why don't you come back with me. Now. I could show you my ..."

"Hello Diane!" Julia had never been so grateful for an interruption in her life. Diane stood at the doorway and was taking in the scene. She debated whether to come in or leave when Angus sprang up from his seat and fled to the door. "I'll leave you to it," he mumbled as walked past Diane.

"I hope I didn't ..." Diane said as she walked up to Julia tentatively.

"You didn't. And if he had've wanted to, I wouldn't've let him. Not that he would've, which he didn't ... Oh, I might be a little tipsy," she said as she took another sip of wine.

"Like bees round a honey pot, aren't they?" Diane noted.

"I'm glad you chose that particular metaphor and not the one I was thinking of," quipped Julia.

"First Roger, then Angus ... You ought to be ashamed of yourself," smiled Diane without a hint of malice.

"Oh, I know ... It looks awful, doesn't it. But it's all terribly innocent really."

"I thought Chris and Bill might be here by now."

"There's no hope of that deary. Not when there's something important like cricket to discuss. You're hoping he will turn up, aren't you?" She said with a twinkle in her eye.

"Bill? Yes, of course."

"I thought so."

There was half a bottle of Beaujolais at Julia's feet which she neatly picked up in order to refill her cup. "Do you want one? There are cups and things on that table," she said, nodding towards a large trestle table that was loaded with sandwiches, crisps and plastic cups.

"Thanks." Diane moved across, grabbed a cup and returned to her seat. By now various other guests, who were tired of dancing and eager to eat, started to filter into the room.

"Are you going to go back to him?"

"Bill? Well, I had hoped to ..."

"Well don't marry him, for God's sake!" Warned Julia. "You'll be scrubbing whites and cleaning out jock-straps all summer. Not worth it!"

Diane giggled and then asked, "Do you actually like Angus?"

"Oh, Angus is harmless enough. Why do you ask?" She questioned, momentarily feeling that she was being put under a microscope of some kind.

"I just wondered ... Probably because I dislike him so much and you seem to ... to like him."

"You're wondering whether I've had an affair with him, aren't you?"

"No, I ..."

"Oh, I'm not surprised. I mean, he is rather attentive and I do respond. Not physically. No, I really couldn't. Not with Angus. Not with anyone. It may surprise you my dear, but I've never dreamed of having an affair. I'm simply flattered when a man pays me some attention or is attracted to me. I've had plenty of offers too, over the years. Not so many now, of course, but ..."

"Roger was certainly attracted to you."

"Don't mention him. He's the reason why Angus' interests were rekindled in the just now."

"Did he make a play for you?"

"You make it sound so terribly quaint, don't you?" Julia laughed heartily. "Yes. I suppose he did. And I nearly - nearly, mind! - responded. That might be the last time someone ever makes a play for me, I can tell you. But something held me back. Christopher, I suppose. Absurd, isn't it?"

She went quiet then and had a faraway look in her eyes. Diane surveyed the room and smiled a few 'hellos' to other cast members. Suddenly she spotted Chris and Bill striding across the room to meet them. "They're here!" Cried Diane as Julia took another swig of wine.

"Hello darling," chimed Julia.

"God, Julia! You're drunk!"

"Nonsense."

"I'd better get you home."

"Rubbish. I'm not going anywhere. Besides, I've promised that nice Martin Rees a dance."

"Martin Rees! The postman!"

"Don't be such a snob darling. He's very sweet. He told me he'd tell me all about post-codes."

"I give up," muttered Lawler as he sat down next to his wife.

"Hello," Diane whispered as she caught onto Bill's arm.

"Hello."

Julia, noticing this moment of tenderness, picked herself up decisively and said to her husband, "Come on, darling. Let's leave these star-crossed lovers and have a snog on the dance floor."

"Julia!"

"Oh, come on."

"But I've only just sat down."

"Come on. Don't be such a bore."

"No," he said firmly.

"Either you dance or I'll take all my clothes off!" She cried, instantly grabbing the attention of the crowd of people behind her. Two sweaty stage-hands wearing flowery shirts looked on in fascination and, in shock, the young vicar, who had played Theseus dropped his cheese and pickle sandwich to the floor.

"Don't be absurd!" Chris Lawler cried, unwilling to participate in this ridiculous charade.

"I will!" She cried again. "I shall take all my clothes off."

The two lecherous stage-hands were both silently willing her to perform the task. One rubbed his hands together while the other licked his lips in anticipation.

Eventually, Lawler's acute embarrassment, coupled with the belief that she might well perform the act, made him agree to her terms. "Alright then," he huffed as he struggled to his feet.

"Spoil-sport!" Shouted one of the stage-hands, unable to control his feeling of disappointment, as Julia led her unwilling partner to the dance floor.

Bill let out a hearty laugh, Diane released a sigh of relief and the young vicar gave a silent prayer of thanks.

"She's a born actress," said Bill as he kissed Diane's cheek.

"Do you want a drink?"

"No."

"Food? There's lots of sandwiches and things."

"No."

"Do you want to come home with me?"

Good Lord!

"Now."

"Yes," he said at last: "Yes, that sounds nice."

VIII

"I'm very sorry, Mr Milns ..."

The doctor's sentiments were lost completely on the emotionally broken man who sat in the stark corridor of Withybush Hospital. He tried desperately to piece together the events that had led up to the tragedy as his wife's podgy warm hand enveloped his own.

The driver had been sober, respectable and driving at the correct speed. He had no chance, that's what the police had said. It was not the driver's fault. That was undeniable. Mother had just walked out into the middle of the road ... No-one could have done anything to prevent the inevitable.

"I blame myself, Arthur. As God is my witness, I blame myself. It was my fault ..." his wife whispered as a stream of warm tears ran down her worn face. "I should've held onto her ... I should've held on ..."

"No, no," purred Arthur, his voice cracking with emotion. "Please, don't ... please ..."

The doctor had long since walked away unnoticed, leaving the two alone and isolated.

"Very apt really," said Arthur after a period of eerie silence. "She died opposite Carew Cricket Club where I watched my first game. In fact, I always wanted to play for them. Now they're a real cricket team."

He bowed his head and cried again.

 

IX

"I'm going now," she said as she checked the contents of her handbag, "shouldn't be long. It's only aerobics."

"Fine."

"I won't be long," she repeated as she pulled on her coat.

Don't pretend. I know where you're going, he thought. Why don't you just say it - I'm going to have sexual intercourse with Nigel More. I know, you know.

Joyce was fully aware that her husband knew that the only kind of physical activity she would perform tonight would be between a silk sheet and a continental duvet. She knew he knew and, what was worse was that, she knew he knew that she knew.

The door closed behind her with a slam and Stillman's thoughts went back to the team. Perhaps persuading Middleton to drop down to No.3 and allowing Tony Gates to open might be worth considering.

This captaincy lark certainly suited him. A life devoted to cricket easily outweighed a life in which he was the centre of attraction of someone's devotion. In a contest between cricket and Joyce: cricket would always come up as the winner. He had always been a hopeless husband and this realisation helped him achieve some degree of perspective.

Forced to choose between a life without Joyce and a life with cricket, the latter would always win. But, if he could hold onto Joyce by accepting her disloyalty in an otherwise committed relationship, he could have both.

Whilst he was more than willing to compromise as far as his wife was concerned, he would not compromise his position as Hodgeston's captain. He was, he decided, going to be the best captain the team had ever seen.

CYMRU AM BYTH

 

Also available as a Star of Pembrokeshire Series Paperback (ISBN 0953351211, price 9.99, 181 pages, ~52,000 words) distributed by the Welsh Books Council. It can be purchased direct from them, or from them via your local bookshop, or from www.amazon.co.uk. Available in Tenby from the Cofion Bookshop.

 

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