Steve is eager to leave; he’s just arrived at my mother-in-law’s caravan in Cleethorpes and he can’t wait to leave. The rest of us drink a cup of coffee and a cookie from the box under the bed, but Steve pulls the bat, ball, and stumps out of the trunk of the car. ‘Go on! Beach Cricket!’ he says. We think we’ll meet him on the dunes and he leaves with my grandson Thomas, pushing my granddaughter Isla in the buggy, which would be “a bit of a tow”, as we say around here, once arrived at the sands. Me and my wife and Elizabeth, who is Isla and Thomas’s mother and Steve’s wife, have another cookie and then Kate, my other daughter and her husband Mark arrive to get the kettle back on. Then it starts again when my son Andrew and his companion Ben arrive. The caravan windows fog up and there are archipelagos of crumbs on the floor.
Steve texts Elizabeth. ‘He says are we coming. He says where are we? We decide to head out for our epic game of beach cricket that we’ve been promising each other for weeks. “Are you coming, mom? said my wife. ‘Of course I am!’ she replies, grabbing her stick. It’s not very hot there so it takes us forever to put our coats back on and then we set off like pilgrims to the beach.
Steve is ready and he has Thomas playing with him. Isla sleeps. In a few years Steve and I will be at Headingley watching Ben Stokes defeat the mighty Aussies all by himself in this epic Test match, and because I get so much emotion when I watch the sport I spend most of the time with my head in my hands trying not to look; and what’s swirling around in my head as Steve yells “Look, man!” We are witnessing history here! is that beautiful game of beach cricket that seemed to be built from love, sand, sea breezes, shared jokes and strong family bonds.
Steve is ready. He chooses me. Thomas chooses Mark. Steve chooses my wife. Thomas chooses his mother. Steve chooses Kate. Mark chooses Ben. Steve chooses Andrew. Isla wakes up. Mark chooses Isla. Steve plays Mark who sends the ball far away, in the sea, which is very far because it is Cleethorpes. The bark of a distant dog seems to be constructed from a contemptuous laugh. ‘You can’t hit it that far!’ said my wife. “You’re going to lose the ball!” said my mother-in-law. So we agree that the blows will be softer, more skilful.
I spun across the vast sands just before dawn like a chess piece moved by a player who knows the game is already lost
I walk every morning and do exercises so I think I’m in good shape; the year before, at our cottage in Beadnell on the Northumberland coast, I had told my wife that I was going to go for a run every morning, although I never ran anywhere except at a bus stop to catch the X19 . It was a big mistake. Running for exercise is very different from running to the bus stop. I raced across the vastness of the sand just before dawn like a chess piece moved by a player who knows the game is already lost. I limped back to the cabin; if I had been a Beano character, the word OUCH would have hovered over my head like a drone. My wife shook her head; I would have done a smart-alec answer but I was in too much pain even though I realize that you don’t talk with your feet. It was just the pain dancing from my feet to my head.
That’s why I’m a little cautious when it comes to my turn to beat in the glorious festival of improvisation that is beach cricket. Thomas is ready to attack me; Thomas is in his early teens at this stage and a good cricketer taking plenty of wickets at Darfield where the enthusiastic sledding of the youth teams is a joy: “He’s got more leaves than a tree!” one of them will always scream like a batsman lets a ball pass. “Be nice, Thomas! cries my wife, noticing the glint in Thomas’s eyes. ‘I’m ready for owt!’ I scream, with vim and braggadocio, or the Barnsley equivalent of braggadocio which is brussenness.
Thomas takes a long run that takes him almost to the Freeman Street market in Grimsby, where my mother-in-law buys eggs and vegetables from a stall, and where, with her companion Margaret, she haunts the charity shops. (My mother-in-law’s name is also Margaret. Their shopping spree is a Margaret duet.) He rushes towards me on the sand.
It is a clear day; sometimes a tie of mist hangs around Cleethorpes and sometimes reading the distant horizon is like trying to read the bottom line of an optician’s chart, but that’s not the case this morning. The two forts, Bull Fort and Haile Fort, built to keep German shipping away from the Humber during World War I, glisten in the sun. A huge ferry seems to be walking on the surface of the water so slowly that it hardly seems to move at all.
Cricket gives you sublime moments, like that time at Headingley which I hardly dared to look at, and like those sublime moments on that beach with Thomas about to throw the ball to me. He lets go of the ball and he rushes towards me with, as they say in the sports pages, “unerring precision”. Usually the ball is a blur, a hyperblur, an uberblur, but this time the ball appears to be moving slowly through the salty air. They say it happens to elite athletes all the time; the football, the cricket ball, the rugby ball, the snooker ball seem to start traveling like snails so that the elite sportsman (in this case, me) can have plenty of time to decide not just what he wants to do but also have dig into the free basket outside one of the Freeman Street charity shops and come back with a spoonful of grapefruit.
I step forward in the shot and hit the ball as hard as I can and it flies high in the air and the whole family watches it go up; my mother-in-law, my wife, my children, my grandchildren, all the people who help define who I am and who I would like to become.
And here’s one thing; because the coast is a magical place where amazing things can happen between the turning of the tides and the clink of a cup of tea from a charity shop, the ball never drops. We wait, and we wait, and we stare at the sky and the ball doesn’t appear, so we go back to the trailer to make a list of fish and chip orders, occasionally looking upwards.
Extract of My life of sand, my life of rock: memory of a childhood and the sea by Ian McMillan. Published by Adlard Coles and available now (Hardcover: £10.99)
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