‘I loved this book. Jock Serong is a natural. He engages you with a vivid recreation of boyhood in 1970s Australian suburbia, while letting the darkness seep in page by page until you find yourself in the grip of an intense thriller.’ Malcolm Knox
Read an extract from Jock Serong’s beautifully written novel The Rules of Backyard Cricket—a book about cricket, family, sibling rivalry and a bloke in a whole lotta trouble.
The broken white lines recede into the blackness behind us as we hurtle forward.
Do you remember this?
I knew it in childhood; this feeling of the irretrievable past slipping away behind the car. These things, gone and unrecoverable.
Cars on the other side of the divided highway are fading embers that spear into the dark. We thurrump over the cats’ eyes, changing lanes. I look out every time I feel this cue, the markers and the slight shifting of weight, wanting to communicate with those sleepy, indifferent drivers. They have their own reveries. Night-time lives suspended between origin and destination, just like mine. I want to talk to them; I know they wouldn’t want to talk to me.
Maybe I had an inkling of this as a tired child in the back seat. Maybe I recognised that something was ebbing away into the night. Back then there were antidotes to the melancholy: the promise of a warm bed; a wide, expanding future. The sadness now is uncontained. It sweeps over me in waves. It wants to drown me.
I’ve always slept with the lights on, fending off an indefinable sorrow in the night. Even when I lit it up, with stimulants and willing companions, it watched me scornfully, knowing it had me at bay. That melancholy? it said. It’s just a taste of the vast, immeasurable silence that awaits. A speck on a pebble in a galaxy that’s dust in a supercluster.
I can’t see much. Just the narrow tunnel of vision directly behind the car. I’ve managed to get my hands up in front of my face and bring my fingers together, unruly mob that they are. I’m wedged towards the rear corner, driver’s side, so close I can smell the hot plastics of the tail-light. I’ve felt my way to the back of the bulb, squeezed and twisted until it came free. And as it fell it revealed the light, the view, the road.
I’ve had my eye up against that tiny opening for—well, for how long? I don’t know. They took my watch, along with so much else.
The hands are reluctant dance partners but they can’t move away from each other. Like it or not, they will have to waltz. The cable ties are drawn taut around both wrists, cutting into the flesh. Well out of reach of any finger. The feet, from whom I’ve heard nothing lately, must be in a similar predicament; more cable ties around the ankles, drawn so tight that the malleoluses are pressing into each other. A bizarre and exotic pain that surely wasn’t contemplated by my tormentors, a happy accident of sadism: two small hammers, banging it out. You’re wondering how I knew that word, the Greek one about the hammers? Physios. I’ve spent a lifetime listening to physios.
My breath is hissing in and out of my nose, my mouth tightly taped.
I’ve been thinking for some time about bringing Squibbly into play. I’m not, in general, given to nicknaming my own body parts but I’ve made an exception for the thumb of my left hand: the kernel of my genius and also my Achilles heel. Mangled, knobbly and dead. Squibbly won’t mind being pressed into service because it’s all the same to him. And although it seems futile, equally, it seems unsporting not to try.
So now I’m jamming him into the hole at the back of the tail-light and pulling as hard as I can. It takes a moment or two, and I have to suspend my whole weight from the bound hands to make it happen, but Squibbly finally gets enough purchase to break open the light fitting. There’s a loud snap, and I’m looking out through a bigger hole at the wide open theatre of night.
The car slows. They’ve eased back to listen.
I wait in perfect silence, and presently the pace picks up.
The other fingers register stickiness, and I know that I’ve slashed up Squibbly in the process, but neither of us minds. He is, as always, a dumb and obedient martyr to the cause.
There was a kid once, I read somewhere, abducted and stuffed in a car boot. Just like me, though probably innocent of anything. She had the good sense to bite off a crescent of fingernail then unscrew the taillight globe and drop it in, so that if ever the authorities searched the car later on—whether in pursuit of her murderers or upon her rescue—the DNA would tie the crime to the vehicle. Such a detached response to impending death. I’m not sure why I’m drawn more to the genius of the idea than the central question of whether the child was rescued.
So I’m more or less resigned to this.
It’s a moral counterweight to the things I’ve done. It seems a shame and more than a little vulgar. But there would have been undignified aspects to cancer or heart disease too. No one’s giving me sponge baths or feeding me puree through a tube.
They’ll torch the car, I suppose. These people have a strong sense of genre. It’d be inappropriate not to torch the car.
The trip from Geelong to the western suburbs of Melbourne is about fifty minutes, and half of that must have elapsed by now. I’ve assumed we’re headed east, towards Melbourne, though they didn’t say. Anyway, the road would be quieter, driving west. I’ve been lying on my left side, which is the way they threw me in. My left arm, trapped under me, is numb. My left leg is too, although there’s an unnatural buzzing coming from my right knee, like the humming of a powerful stereo before the music starts.
It’s nothing like the movies, being shot.
There’s no great explosion of agony. I didn’t hop about grimacing and going Ugh! Ergh! or swipe fretfully at the air or hiss curses through clenched teeth. There’s something more pressing about taking a round through the kneecap. A feeling of wrongness.
To my sad surprise, whether you’re crawling home from Christmas with the aunts, or waiting to be shot dead and incinerated by gangsters, the Geelong Road turns out to be just as boring.
My right knee has a hole in it. Not cavernous, but large enough to admit, say, a finger. One of them, not the one who fired the gun, actually stuck his finger in there at one point. Under that hole there’s a slurry of shattered bone floating around like the shaved ice in a halfdrunk caipirinha. There’s another, bigger hole out the back, strings of tendon and ligament hanging from it. I know because I saw them. It’s not bleeding much. I can only assume the shot missed the major plumbing.
It buzzes for some strange reason, reverberating up through my thigh and into my hip. If they pull me out of here before the coup de grâce—and it’s quite likely they won’t bother—there’s going to be a white-hot moment when that leg hangs straight again and all the smashed bits slice and grind against one another. In respect of that development, I’m electing not to get ahead of myself.
Apart from that, it doesn’t matter much whether they get me out of the car. I’m lying on a shovel. Down near my feet I know there are two large paper sacks of quicklime, and it’s more than a little confronting to be snuggled up against the means both of interring your corpse and dissolving it.
The shovel can be read either way. Or is it a spade? I’ve never been clear on the difference. Again, a fan of the genre would have them lighting black-market cigarettes and training handguns on me while I dig my own grave. But efficiency would suggest a short volley of fire, straight into the boot, and then firing up the car. I can’t dig in this state. It’d be comical. Who wants to sit around all night getting lung cancer and waiting for a cripple to entomb himself?
I’ve contemplated this once or twice. My death, I mean. And I always thought when the hour came there’d be clarity. Perception, through the limestone-filtered water of total mental acuity, of the pebbles on the bottom, the tiny invertebrates scuttling in between.
A poignant end. A sorbet after the greasy business of living.
But no. To my sad surprise, whether you’re crawling home from Christmas with the aunts, or waiting to be shot dead and incinerated by gangsters, the Geelong Road turns out to be just as boring.
The first and only choice: do I accept this as my fate or do I keep fighting it?
The air, filtered through the tape over my mouth, tastes faintly of exhaust. Slow suffocation by carbon monoxide might be as good as I can hope for. Either way, I have a feeling I’ll be in here for a while.
So while we’re waiting I’ll take you through it. The sequence of events, some predestined and some entirely of my own creation, that put me in the boot.
You’re seated on a plastic-strip beach chair in a suburban Melbourne backyard. Fernley Road, Altona. It’s 1976. February, late on a Tuesday afternoon.
Two small boys, shoulder-lit by the late sun of daylight saving, are playing cricket.
The smaller one, batting, is me.
Darren. Daz. Dags. Scrawny, short, cheeky grin and a thick clump of mustard-brown hair. I’m in school uniform, the small grey squares of a grade two. I’m red-cheeked with defiance but grinning. Standing my ground because I’m being accused of cheating. My reflex in such situations, then and now, is to deny everything then laugh it off. Dimples deep, teeth out. Lean on the bat. Point at the bowler’s crease, tell him to get back to work. Later, I’d see Viv do that and I’d swear he stole that move from me.
My accuser, casting thunderstorms my way with ball in hand, is my older brother Wally.
Grade four, older by nineteen months. About four inches taller at this stage, and undoubtedly stronger. If it comes to blows I will lose. Wally is my idol, and yet my inverse in all respects other than our shared obsession with cricket. He is a purist and a respecter of rules, a methodical, ambitious bore with an insistent need to take everything— and I mean everything—literally. You’ll get the hang of him as we proceed, so I won’t start piling up adjectives just now.
Although…wait. Insufferable—in case I forget later.
But I still worship the guy. I know it doesn’t make sense.
I no longer remember where this ritual came from: the bat, the tennis ball, the twelve metres of shorn grass. There’s a line somewhere in any childhood. Before the line, all knowledge and habit is contributed by adults. How to eat with a fork, wash your face, wipe your bum. On the other side of the line, the magpie child starts to gather and collect from everywhere. How to swear. How to kiss a girl. Where you go when you die.
Backyard cricket must have been absorbed on the parental side of that line. We’ve been doing it ever since I can remember, and I can remember back to about three. But who taught us the rules? Who showed us how to mow the strip, to play a cover drive, to bowl a yorker? Who explained the dozens of tactical options, the physical vocabulary? It must have been Dad, but I don’t have the memory. It saddens me that I don’t.
Ground Zero is the stumps, represented by the severed foot of an apricot tree. In life it had sprawled out to about twenty feet of blossoms, leaves and fruit, open enough at its centre that we’d made a platform in there. Too basic and rickety to call it a treehouse, but serviceable enough for various kinds of warfare and for hiding when any shit had gone down.
The tree bore so much fruit that a large proportion of it—even beyond the harvest taken by us and the birds—just disintegrated on the lawn. For years after the tree was gone it would deliver painful reminders of its existence in the hard stones left by the rotted-down fruit under our bare feet. Its fate was a common one for a stonefruit tree: it started to rot and split down the middle, oozing shiny globes of sap. The plywood platform that had sheltered pirates and cowboys and bank robbers began to lean on a crazy angle, and with every gale we’d find new branches fallen on the grass.
But the fruit kept coming in staggering quantities, so it seems no one had the heart to deal with the problem—and of course, that no one can only have been Mum. It wasn’t as though Wally and I were ever going to take to the thing with pruning saws. I’m pretty confident we never affected any kind of chivalry for Mum. Anyway, we liked the old tree, especially when it thrashed drunkenly in the wind and we could hear its tortured wooden squeals from our beds.
But eventually the platform became too dangerous, and Mum appeared one day with the chainsaw. We’d been kicking the football, and suddenly she was there at the side gate with this forestry-grade monster she’d borrowed from a neighbour. A huge, ravenous-looking thing: teeth on a chain bolted to a motor.
I can still see her, paused at the gate with one hip slightly a-kilter, projecting an inner awareness of how cool she suddenly appeared. She had her massive imitation Dior sunglasses on, probably in lieu of protective goggles, and her hair pushed back behind a paisley bandana. Wally dropped the footy. There could be only one purpose for her appearance and, although it was going to cost us our lair, it was going to be good.
It took her a couple of goes to get the saw started. Then it coughed and caught, there was a squirt of blue smoke and she held it up with a satisfied look round her mouth. She gave it a rev, then another as she eased it into the bark. Sawdust swirled around her and settled in her hair. She worked the blade horizontally into the trunk, weaving the saw in and out, squinting behind the Diors; I can still see the veins running down her biceps. There were two loud cracks as the timber gave way, and the entire weight of the tree settled onto the bar of the chainsaw, choking the chain and killing the motor. She stood back for a moment, indecisive, with a hand on her hip.
Then she did the best thing I ever saw her do.
She jumped up from where she stood, hooked her hands on a low-hanging limb and hung there like a gibbon, yanking at it. She swung through the air a couple of times, kicking freely with her bare feet—the girl we’d never known her to be—and the tree reacted with a few more fibrous pops. Then down it came, apricots thudding and rolling all over the place, Mum lost completely under the canopy of leaves. We could hear her under there, shrieking with laughter, cracking twigs in her efforts to climb out.
The foot of the tree was cut off square except for a jagged horn of timber on one edge, where it had stretched and snapped. The chainsaw had fallen out by this stage and Mum took it up again, working the cord and the choke until it spluttered into life once more. With a sweep of the snarling arm the splinter was gone. We raked and scooped and brushed for an hour or more, the brittle afternoon sun of autumn picking up the gold among the leaf litter.
By the time we cleared the whole mess away, a squared-off stump stood in the middle of the lawn, roughly equidistant from the three paling fences. Wally disappeared into the garden shed and emerged with a tape measure. She’d cut exactly at bail height, twenty-eight inches by nine. We watched her saunter off, twigs in her hair, the chainsaw resting on that same cocked hip. Accident or design? As with most things Mum did, the line was blurred and she wasn’t saying. But forever after the stump was our stumps.
And in the current memory, the stump is an arm’s length behind me as I stare down my brother. The bat in my hands is an SP, as used in Tests by England captain Tony Greig. He’s tall, implacable, patient. All the things I’m not. The dog at our feet is Sam, a grossly obese staffy. The lawn’s kept down by an ancient handmower that’s always been there. Razor sharp blades made to look innocuous by rust. It didn’t come from anywhere and it’ll never go anywhere.
Those deep shades of autumn are last year now, when we were smaller. Here in high summer, where my memories crowd more, sunlight is a scatter of bleaches and reflections. At backward point there’s a banksia. At extra cover, a holly bush where Sam likes to shit. At midoff, a bare patch where nothing, not even grass, grows. It’s lightning fast if you send a drive through there. Off drive I mean. I assume you’re keeping up. I’m a lefty.
Mid-on’s the vegie patch, never grows anything but tomatoes this time of year, stinging nettles along the back. Dirty bare feet in there come out red-welted. Midwicket is the shortest boundary, formed by the Apostouloses’ fence. Directly behind those palings, separated by a spindly pittosporum, is their kitchen. If you really middle a pull shot— wrap the handle around your ribs and smack that ball sweet off the end of the blade—it makes the finest sound hitting the timbers out there. I can only imagine how it sounds at the Apostas’ kitchen sink.
Fine leg is into the corner, towards the crappy asbestos outhouse that contains the second dunny and the laundry. Something about the plumbing in there; there’s a smell even when no one’s been.
Keeper and slips are automatic: the big sheet of trellis that Mum put up to grow climbing roses. Snick it onto the trellis on the full and you’re gone. Hit the dog and it makes a hollow thud.
Sam’s a random element in all this, wandering around sniffing the air. Occasionally he lies on his back and does that thing fat dogs do when they wriggle around just scratching the bejesus out of their backs. You can’t shoo him away. You have to get on with it no matter where Sam is located, and you can’t hit him. Hit him and you’re gone. If Sam decides he wants to stop and eat a bee off a clover flower right in the middle of the pitch, you play around him. In future years, under greater pressures, I sometimes wonder if Wally and I learned to stare through distraction because we had to play around a fat dog.
So you’ve got Sam acting as a sort of close-in fieldsman at large. But then you also have inanimate fieldsmen you can place yourself when you’re bowling: the metal rubbish bin, the little tripod barbecue, the two swans made out of painted tyres. When I’m on the attack I like to have all of them crowded round the bat so close that it’s actually hard to bowl through them.
In this memory there’s insect repellent in the air. Mum’s been out with the blue can. She never says anything when she’s focused like this: just presses her mouth into a firm line and does the necessary. Economy of movement. We’ve both frozen in position and scrunched our eyes shut. The can hisses; her bangles tinkle as she sprays the stinging fumes, greasy on the skin.
The ball in Wally’s hand is a Slazenger tennis ball we pinched from the proddie church tennis club, because in those days tennis balls could only be purchased new as a set of four in a vacuum-sealed can, unattainably expensive.
We figured out we could sit in the primary school playground just over the far end of the tennis court and wait for the pennant ladies to sky one. The ladies knew we were waiting there and we knew they knew, but they were never going to catch us, not with two Malvern Stars leaning against the cyclone wire and at least a twenty-second head start.
While waiting for this particular ball, I’d got us a deck of Extra Milds: the shiny gold pack, the cellophane with the little tear strip. ‘And a box of matches and a packet of Juicy Fruit, thanks. For Mum.’ Eyeballing the guy as the guy eyeballed me and we both reflected for a moment on the nature of truth. So the brother and I sat there in the shade, enveloped in a bitter blue cloud, arguing over who was doing the drawback. We were both coughing—me because I was doing the drawback, and him because it was some kind of weird habit of his.
The yellow stain in the middle of the filter is called a pig root, I explained to him. It’s not cool. People will think you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re eight, he came back. You actually don’t know what you’re doing. Throughout his adult life, Wally will say ‘actually’ when he’s getting all shrill and emphatic. Besides, he went on, pig rooting is what dogs do. Pretty sure it’s what pigs do, I said, and he punched me in the arm with one knuckle out for extra bruise. I squawked and spluttered smoke.
The ladies watched disapprovingly, but by and by their lack of interest in other women’s kids took over and they resumed their gentle lobbed exchanges.
Our vigil continued: every ball they produced from under their knicker elastic was a pending addition to the stocks at Fernley Road. Like I said, they knew it; we knew it.
Thwock. Thwock. Birds chippering somewhere up high. A lawnmower droning away. Planes in an empty sky. And if you listened closely, the crackle of the smouldering tobacco as we pulled it to a red hot glow. Thwock, thwock-thwock…Poong!…that’s a mis-hit, and over it comes. Gaffers in mouths, squinting, we reel it in and hit the road. At ten, Wally can bounce a tennis ball along the road while he rides, although he’s carefully ditched the cigarette for fear of being reported by neighbours.
Morally, to him, the theft of the balls was excused by sporting necessity: a matter of subsistence. He could rationalise it that way, and liberating the odd Slazenger from the ladies was a whole lot different than, for example, badging their cars. Which was something I did without regret.
And right there you have an essential distinction between the Keefe brothers. I would do these things for the sheer joy of it. Busting free, sending my blood roaring in the knowledge I’d flouted the rules and disappointed expectations. The problem for me is that the more times you do it and the more you get caught, the lower the expectations become. Correspondingly, the lesser the thrill.
I’m surprised at you, the teachers would say. But they weren’t.
The previous term I’d been caught watching the girls doing handstands in the area of the yard reserved exclusively for the girls to do handstands (which I think owed more to the Brothers’ voyeurism than to any desire to afford the girls privacy while they inverted themselves). For this I was caned, which in retrospect must’ve been a double payoff for the Brothers.
I’d cheated on tests (detention), burned centipedes with a magnifying glass (caning), thrown a bolt-bomb on the road near the bus stop (caning) and fed a paper clip into a powerpoint (electrocution and caning). Most recently, I’d clean-bowled a grade-four during recess and, when he refused to vacate the crease, I’d spontaneously waved my dick at him. The timing was poor: Brother Callum was standing directly behind me as I did it, confirming that if you chant the Litany of the Saints often enough, the Holy Ghost will grant you invisibility.
Brother Callum (Calumn?) was an Irishman of the ancient kind with a temper that seemed to channel centuries of rage. His chief responsibility was teaching us obscure prayers in a viscous Donegal brogue that left us guessing dangerously when we repeated the lines back to him. The metre ruler awaited any transgression. Only the Mother Church could conceive of a torment so exquisitely weird as ordering eight-year-olds to recite forgotten chants back to an armed sadist who couldn’t pronounce them in the first place.
So you can picture my horror when I saw the batsman’s eyes looking back at me—past me and my pecker—over my shoulder to Brother Callum. I was still turning and simultaneously restuffing my shorts when he pounced, crushing me in a headlock that shut off the sun and silenced all sound. The next bit I have trouble describing, such was the intensity of the pain, but those watching told me later that Callum drove two or three punches into the top of my skull, his big pewter rosary ring leaving lumps on my head that I could still find with my fingertips at fifteen.
He was grunting something, yelling something as he did this, but between the oxygen deprivation and the tortured dialect, I was never going to hear what it was. Eventually he dropped me and I slumped to the asphalt, dazed and bleeding.
The school must have rung Mum. She was down there within the hour, barely long enough for the nurse to clean up the wounds. I was made to wait for her on the steps of the school, and as her car pulled up I felt a rush of shame and anger and also tears and I can still see her coming towards me, her face a shifting landscape of fury and love and insight. She’d read the whole thing by the time she reached me, wrapped me in a hug that smelled of her, one that I never wanted to leave.
She ran gentle fingers though my hair, felt the cuts and took me by the hand. Her face was white, her lips clenched. Fury had won but it wasn’t directed at me. She flung open the glass doors and rained hell on everyone in sight.
But who taught us the rules? Who showed us how to mow the strip, to play a cover drive, to bowl a yorker?...It must have been Dad, but I don’t have the memory. It saddens me that I don’t.
Brother Callum. Jesus, he must be long gone. He clearly has haunted me till the day I die, though.
Anyway, we’re back home, sun’s still shining.
I wanted to tell you about showing the ball: a particular ritual that must be observed by the bowler before any recommencement of play.
First let me say that upon our return from the proddie tennis courts I would of course be bowling because I am the younger, and the role of the younger is to feed deliveries to the imperious elder.
But to the ritual.
First you have to declare who you are. You don’t just lob the ball down using your own action and personality, you have to be someone. Lillee, Holding, Bob Willis...Doesn’t matter who it is, but you have to nominate and then you have to impersonate their run-up and action, follow-through, the lot. The great benefit of this arrangement is that you can select a bowler who fits with the conditions and your mood: the gentle guile of Derek Underwood if it’s hot and you can’t be stuffed; the silent menace of Andy Roberts if you’re carrying a grievance. Failure to adopt a persona when bowling attracts no particular penalty, but it’s poor form.
The most formal bit is showing the ball.
We picked up somewhere, maybe on late-night coverage of Wimbledon, the moment when a tennis player taking new balls must hold them aloft briefly for their opponent to see. In tennis, it’s common sense: the new ball will look different and bounce differently, and therefore it would be unsporting to make the change unannounced. Equally in the backyard, where there’s an even greater variance between one ball and the next, to launch a fresh pill without some declaration would violate an unspoken code of decency. You’ve probably already discerned that decency, like the February grass, was thin on the ground in the Keefe backyard. But this was bipartisan. Ball etiquette was fundamental.
Balls turn grey when left for months in the sun. Tennis balls can be split by impacts, or by the dog’s exploratory jaws—and a split ball will bounce either higher or lower depending how it lands. Balls can be taped—all over to make them heavier and more painful on impact, or half-taped to simulate the swing of a real leather cricket ball. In times of high conflict the ball might not be a ball at all—it could be a piece of fruit or a small rock. So we placed a simple constraint on our own deviousness: show the ball to the batsman prior to play, or any wicket taken thereafter would be declared null and void.
Of course, this created the opportunity for even greater conflict. A cunning batsman, having noted the bowler’s failure to show the ball, would swing with cavalier disregard, aiming at windows, trying to bullseye the metal bin, the swans or even the dog, in confident assumption of immunity. Once dismissed, the batsman would lean smugly on the bat and shake his head. Voices would be raised, equipment thrown. Unless Mum intervened, it would end in a red-faced tangle with fingers in eyes and gappy milk teeth sunk into soft flesh: an itchy, grunting wrestle that never produced a clear winner.
But there was one strategy that got around the apparent full disclosure of showing the ball.
We were among the first in the neighbourhood to own a microwave oven. It was a Philips CuisinArt. To this day I don’t know what inspired the old girl to make such an esoteric purchase. We weren’t remotely affluent, and this gadget was the province of rich people.
However, that was no concern of ours. Overnight, a technology had entered our lives that could bring slabs of congealed pie back to life so we could consume them at tongue-blistering speed. You could dry wet sneakers in it, melt a brother’s GI Joe—or doctor a tennis ball.
It’s relatively simple, I suppose. The ball goes on the turntable and the air inside expands: ergo, if you overdo it, the ball explodes. If you get it just right, however, you wind up with a ball that will bounce to incredible heights, making it virtually unplayable off a good length. But like the moral payoff in a Greek tragedy, once the magical powers are spent, your ball is flat, listless and liable to be smacked all over the place. Ten minutes of preternatural spring and the ability to hit your opponent’s body repeatedly without effort. After which, if you haven’t managed to get him out, revenge will be a slow and painful business. Such is the counterweight to any exalted state of being, as I would find out much later on.
And it would be me, time after time, who would misjudge the axis between glory and humiliation, revelling in my temporary ascendancy rather than effecting the dismissal. And on more than one occasion, when I had turned my mind to the central issue, scattering his stumps or luring him into the false shot that would bring the inanimate fieldsmen into play, he’d casually lean back on his bat and laugh at me. In my impetuous rush to get from kitchen to pitch with a newly cooked ball, I’d failed to make the necessary disclosure before delivering.
The neighbours comment euphemistically to Mum that her boys are ‘very spirited’ or ‘remarkably competitive’. It’s impossible for us to see that we’re forming an obsessive antagonism, an entanglement placental in its depth.
I know Wally deeper than biology. His frame, his posture, his voice and movements. That dry, chipping cough of his, the one he issues all the time, whether he’s sick or well. The way his eyes dart and I know he’s switched mentally from derision to anger; and equally, when and why he’ll laugh uncontrollably; when his strength will give out in a fight, where he’ll try to hit first.
I know his ribs—hell, I’ve aimed at them enough. I know how the sun burns him in late spring: a glow over his shoulders, blisters bursting and flaking on his nose.
I can recruit him from a conversation with adults, from his homework or from his perch on the toilet. I can claim him from in front of the TV or when he’s half-asleep. One look, a nod towards the back door and he’s out there, because he wants to beat me as much as I want to beat him.
From the day—lost now in the Kodachrome blur—when we take up backyard cricket, we are an independent republic of rage and obsession. Our rules, our records, our very own physics. Eye-to-eye and hand-to-hand combat. By the time we emerge into the world beyond the paling fences, it surprises us to learn that anyone considers this a team sport.
Find out more about The Rules of Backyard Cricket.