By R.B. Simpson
Unsurprisingly, and like all my fellow boarders, the highlight of our school year was the Christmas holidays, straight after we had written our last end-of-year exam. Six weeks of unrestricted mayhem lay before us! We would rip our ties off and would be playing a last game of touch rugby on the lawn or ‘stoep cricket’ on the walkway in front of Solomon House. It would usually be a Friday, around noon, always hot and sunny, and the frenzy would be way above average for obvious reasons.
We would all be casting constant, quick glances at the driveway that curved up though thick forests from the gate, past the front of the school and the three boarding houses, School, Solomon and Rissik.
We were awaiting the arrival of our parents in their 1960s Fords, Chevrolets, Citroens, Wolsleys, Austins, Vauxhalls, Zeniths and the like, even the occasional Mercedes sedan, and a low-slung green Jaguar.
They arrived like clockwork, whether they had driven from Johannesburg, Phalaborwa, Potchefstroom, Delmas, Brits and other far-flung farming areas, some even further afield or, like my parents, from the Witbank district.
My Dad was the Chief Surveyor on a coal mine there and it was the wondrous place where I grew up. It took them about three hours to travel to Pretoria.
The excitement that coursed through us had mainly to do with the parties – and the girls! – that we were about to take by storm.
That was a good part of my anticipation too, but secretly, deep down, was the knowledge that I would be going to watch a Test match with my Father, at the Wanderers, the day after Boxing Day.
In the last weekly letter my Mom would have written me, there’d have been a couple of paragraphs from my Dad telling me he had tickets for the first Test between South Africa and England, or Australia, depending on the year. Or New Zealand once under the redoubtable John Reid, but no one else to worry about.
These teams were captained by the Englishmen, Mike Smith and, I think, Peter May, or the Australians, Richie Benaud and Bill Lawry, respectively. Of course there were other teams during that era, captained by other great players, but these four somehow spring to mind.
I would have been reading every single report on whichever touring party it was in the Rand Daily Mail and The Star for the entire last term at school, sitting in the prep room in Solomon House. I knew what was coming.
My Father’s theory was that the second day of a Test usually provided the most satisfying all-round spectacle: the opportunity of seeing both sides bat and bowl. He was rarely proved wrong.
And there he was, stepping out of the car, stretching after the long drive! Then the graceful figure of my Mother would emerge from the passenger side. I would fly off the end of the lawn to greet them, then rush back, clattering up the wooden stairs to grab my bags, hastily packed earlier that morning.
So we’d be off. Sometimes they would have picked up my Sister, Jane, earlier, or we would now make the short trip to get her at Pretoria Girls’ High (a far more daunting institution than Boys’ High).
We would be bouncing on the back seat and bursting with news. While my Father was carefully negotiating the route out of the capital I would be talking a mile a minute, cricket, cricket, cricket. We would discuss the highs and lows of my season and begin to assess the impending clash between South Africa and the foreign pretenders.
Adcock and Heine would certainly destroy the top order. But they had either Peter May at number four or Neil Harvey at number three! Then there was the unknown factor of the English spin twins, Titmus and Allen, or Ian Meckiff and the left-arm menace of paceman, Allan Davidson. A blistering attack.
Would Trevor Goddard and Jackie McGlew, or Barry Richards and Eddie Barlow (a Pretoria High School Old Boy, no less) be able to withstand it? Anyway, Denis Maclean or Graeme Pollock would put any bowling to the sword. And wait till Peter Pollock and Mike Procter got amongst them! While Clive van Ryneveld, Peter van der Merwe or Ali Bacher outwitted the opposing skippers.
The legendary names resound in my memory. Denis Compton (we couldn’t believe a radio commentary we heard on a warm-up game against North-Eastern Transvaal when England’s glamour boy casually plundered over 200 runs off the hapless provincials in a matter of hours!) Ted Dexter’s cavalier strokeplay, Brian Statham’s vicious in- and out-duckers, Doug Walters’ all-round ability and other outstanding Aussies too numerous to mention.
How were we going to dismiss the dogged ‘Slasher’ McKay? Would Richie Benaud’s ruthlessly accurate leg-spin prove too much for our middle order; and would our own Hugh Tayfield continue to snare batsmen with his subtle off-spin?
These imponderables consumed my boyhood years.
The first couple of weeks of the holidays would pass in a blur of gung-ho golf, movie outings, swimming, and the sound of Sea Cruise, Teenager In Love, Love Me Tender and Blue Suede Shoes blasting through the clubhouse dancehall.
It was a whirl of colour, excitement, sound and sensation beyond my wildest dreams in the boarding house dormitory. A throat-clenching first-time ride on a rollercoaster with a rush of never-before-felt tensions and textures, like the bafflement at how certain girls’ hair suddenly became so fixed upon their heads, overnight, like finely wrought filaments of spun wire, when it streamed so freely behind them on the tennis court or in the swimming pool. The smell of Lux and Pears soap, Yardley, Eau de Paris and Je’taime on their skins.
Then there was the anguish of cloudy Saturday mornings with rain threatening to ruin our afternoon cricket match against Kendal or Douglas Colliery. And how could I best dispose my pocket money to buy decent – but different – Christmas presents for my Mom, Dad and Sister, while keeping some for myself?
All the while though, amidst the hectic rushing from dance to party, golf course to tennis court, my focus would be sharpening on the supreme moment: the Second Day, when – who would be coming out to bat, when was the new ball due, which team would hold the upper hand?
We had no TV analysis of the first day’s play, just newspaper reports in the week’s build-up to the Test, and a few keenly listened-to words after the news, on the short-wave radio round-up of the first day’s highlights. We were free to speculate on the possibilities in store.
In preparation for that, my Mother would have begun to make my Father’s and my favourite food of all time, two or three days before the 25th. She was ‘totally in the zone’ during the final phases of the festive season, preparing a lavish board for Christmas lunch.
At the same time she was also selecting the finest ingredients for her incomparable Cornish Pasties for the two of us to scoff at the cricket. Perfect, delicate pastry, but firm enough to wrap and hold the choice bits of steak and kidney, pieces of potato, carrot, mushrooms, onion and herbs.
After being removed from the oven, they would stand cooling on the baking tray, a good four dozen, with little holes that she pricked in them with a fork, and her finger marks baked into the folds.
There they would sit, in golden glory, for an hour or so, the smell mouthwatering, me drooling and being shooed out of the kitchen, before she wrapped them in foil and placed them in the fridge with strict orders not to nick a single one.
I think my Father and I would speak as one if asked to describe a perfect meal, off the bat as it were. It would be the Pasties followed by the Mince Pies, which Mom mass-produced at Christmas time.
The very best mince pies you can buy today just make me sad. It was impossible to choose between these two pastries. A case of the chicken and the egg, sweet or savoury, take your pick. I will say however, that the Mince Pies were available before Christmas whereas the Pasties, as far as I can remember, were the exclusive mainstay of the Cricket Lunch.
Apart from the Pies and Pasties, she was naturally also preparing the big Christmas spread. This involved the critical assessment of how long and at what temperature each year’s various-sized turkey would need to be in the oven for before lunch. Plus, timing the bastings of the bird while it was sizzling away on Christmas morning.
The Gammon Ham, with pieces of pineapple and glacé cherries skewered into it with toothpicks, was tricky. It needed to be cooked under close surveillance – cooked through while still remaining tender. The pineapple juices would enhance the flavour and the ham itself would eventually emerge with a glazed quality, another exotic centre-piece on the candle-, holly- and tinsel-strewn table. My Dad would carve the turkey and ham after sharpening the ivory-handled knife on a round steel honing rod.
A large cauliflower was always cooked, with Mom’s famous white sauce. Green beans and carrots. Courgettes and broccoli were vegetables we had never heard of then. Perhaps there was creamed spinach. Roast potatoes made their traditional appearance, crispy and bursting with flavour. Asparagus.
All that is not to mention the making of her own spectacular Christmas Pudding with cherries and other glazed fruits, chopped nuts, a cup of port or brandy and – shillings and sixpences or Rands and cents stuck in here and there. “The final blow,” as my Father used to call it, was carried in ceremoniously on a big plate with a pool of brandy around it, set aflame and burning merrily – one of the symbols of Christmas cheer seared into my brain.
Plus whipped cream, properly prepared custard, and brandy-butter that took the top of your head off. The pud was so rich, even if we had guests for lunch, that it took us about a week thereafter to finish it, slice by slice, hauled out of the fridge for afternoon tea.
Her piece de resistance, the grand Christmas cake, Mom would have made months before. It stood in a big sealed plastic cake container on top of the fridge undergoing some dark and mysterious culinary magic. The wonders within, the marzipan and scrolled white icing, we would munch, with groans of enjoyment, in the days after Christmas.
Christmas Day itself was always a joyous occasion. But my Sister and I would first have to endure an agonisingly long wait with my Father in the Survey Office, listlessly looking at the huge finely-drawn underground survey maps in black-and-grey pencil and ink, and red, pink, yellow, blue, purple and green water-colours, precisely pinned onto the vast, tilted drawing boards, while whining at him intermittently, “Come on, Dad.”
He would be placing an insanely complicated and convoluted long-distance phone-call via patient but exasperating telephonists, dialling and redialling, from exchange to exchange, along the wires from Witbank through Standerton and Newcastle, eventually resulting in his Mother, ‘Durban Granny’, picking up the phone. After speaking to her for what seemed like three hours, he’d beckon us and we’d bark “Happy Christmas Gran!” into the mouthpiece and belt back to the car, yelling like lunatics and pushing one another around.
The whole house would smell like a pine forest. There would be a huge, well-proportioned fir branch set in a bucket of sand in the corner of the dining-room which my Dad and I would have hazardously hacked off one of the big trees on the mine property.
It would be decorated with the same carefully boxed angels, silver stars, golden balls, tiny sleighs, reindeer, Santa Clauses, Josephs and Marys, Babes in the Manger, tinsel and snow, year after year.
The tree was also draped with extremely temperamental strings of small multi-coloured light bulbs. These, my Sister and I hoped and prayed wouldn’t flicker out because my Father would then begin to grope around on the floor trying to find the dud fuse, often tripping the main switch.
My Mother would give a kind of gasping, horrified shout that now we’d be lucky to eat the roast turkey tomorrow, while Jane and I squirmed in real torment: there lay our longed-for presents, inches from our greedy fingers, but we couldn’t touch them.
First our Dad had to pick each one up, after carefully calculating the order of presentation, casting mischievous and meaningful looks at us, slowly reading the attached card with a gentle, benevolent, hugely amused and somehow dumbstruck joy, before handing us the box wrapped in gleaming red, gold, silver or green paper.
The only ‘big’ present that ever disappointed me was a bewildering, sprawling electric train set (when I was younger) that required concentrated and painstaking assemblage because of its intricate network of rail lengths, looped junctions, tiny stations, little passengers that always fell over, and bridges that sprang loose from their clips in the rails, causing the whole contraption to buckle and leap up from the floor alarmingly, like a startled snake.
I quickly stopped trying to get my train and its delicately connected coaches and goods wagons to make even one successful circuit before falling off the rails. I quietly packed the kit away at the back of my cupboard. 9
Otherwise, opening presents was a simple step into Happiness City. These were the dependable winners: shining white cricket boots lying stiff in tissue paper in a Slazenger box, sharp steel studs gleaming, their thick laces awaiting my careful threading. The boots would have been the subject of serious prior discussion between my Father and I some weeks earlier. Nevertheless, there they were, a sheer physical pleasure to see and now pull on.
A bicycle out of the blue!
But then, the Holy Grail, a Grey Nicholls cricket bat with a grain so perfect it appeared to have been geometrically engineered and created. I had only to lay my hands on this death-defying, all-conquering piece of wood to know that any ball pitched near me was going to disappear for four.
Every year without fail I also got a brand-new, absolutely gorgeous, shining red Kookaburra cricket ball, the real first-class thing. And some years, a pair of batting gloves – fat, rounded and padded fine white leather with minutely sewn green, red or blue inter-stitching between the fingers. You could knock someone out with these and not feel a thing. They looked the part too, not like the old ones with their nubbly green rubber spikes that I would chew off between overs.
Pads too. They would need sweat and time in the middle if I wasn’t to hobble like a boy who had wet his pants and fall on my face taking a quick single. As the years progressed, my Father would slip me a small parcel that contained a box while my Mom and Sister fussed about folding the wrapping paper for re-use the following year.10
Mom and Jane had their odd issues and quibbles about various items of clothing and accessories, but not me. I was already out on the lawn, flexing my gloves, twirling my bat, bending my pads, strutting about in my boots and longing to smash that new red nut over the lofty bluegum trees that lay some distance beyond our fence.
Of course I couldn’t. Sometime that afternoon my Dad and I would set about the religious process of giving the bat its first light coating of linseed oil. “Please Dad, just a couple of gentle ones, I won’t hit it, I just want to feel it!”
Not a chance. We’d play with a scuffed ball and my current bat. The new one would have to wait for a few more coats of oil and restrained knocking in for ten days with a soft old ball in a sock that he suspended from the branch of a willow tree in our front garden.
Right Dad, I know, watch the ball onto the bat, keep your head down and play straight through the line. Don’t try and hit the cover off it. The runs will come.
Then it was down to business, preparing for Boxing Day. Hard-boiled eggs, the Pasties and the Mince Pies and some Christmas cake, each item separately wrapped in grease-proof paper, all in a big Tupperware container placed in the fridge. The cooler bag clean and ready. The flask set by the kettle to make our tea at the crack of dawn the next day. Our hats, seat cushions, binoculars and light windbreakers laid out in the lounge. (No sun-screen then, just make sure you smear enough lanolin on your face in the morning.) Try to sleep.
Nine hours later, my Dad would be shaking my shoulder, smelling of Gillette shaving cream. I’d leap up and look out of the window. All right, those clouds don’t look too ominous.
A bit of toast and tea and we’d either get into my Father’s car to go and pick up three of his (usually tardy) friends, or we would stand outside waiting for the amateurs to rumble up our road in their big Chevs, or whatever.
I would greet these men respectfully (one of them was the father of a girl I was painfully in love with all through high school). Bluff, hearty coal miners. They’d shove me into the middle of the backseat, huffing and puffing with the relief of having left the company of women behind them for one glorious day.
I could count on it though, when we were halfway to Johannesburg, one of this crew would always curse suddenly and violently, remembering some critical item he had left behind. The forgetful, muddled idiot would then sullenly endure the jeering that followed for a few miles, before chirping up again.
I was in awe of these happy-go-lucky men. Cheerful and rude to a fault. My ears burned as they blurted out the most shameless remarks about women in general, and some, in particular.
My Father would be serenely looking out at the passing countryside if he wasn’t driving, his much-washed white hat on his head, his smooth face shining and a beatific smile playing on his lips. He would occasionally glance at me sitting wedged between him and another man who rocked with mirth the whole way. We all wore shorts.
The outskirts of Johannesburg three hours later. Modderfontein. At this point my Dad would either brush off any directions delivered by back-seat drivers if he was at the wheel, or begin to issue instructions about the best route to Corlett Drive and the most strategically convenient place to park. We beat thousands of casual cricket followers who lived mere blocks away to the turnstiles.
It would be about ten-to-ten, play due to start at ten-thirty. Into the Men’s. A long and jovial queue. “One shake each, please gentlemen!” some joker would shout. My Father would lurch and half stagger, laughing, as he always did at some or other spontaneous and vulgar male outburst. If I exited first and was waiting for him outside, he’d emerge, still chuckling and wiping tears of amusement from his eyes.
Even at this early hour, the roar of the bullring would be rising all around us. We’d go through the usual muttering panic as we walked up and down, checking our tickets, looking for the right entrance tunnel to our designated seating block.
Always at the Corlett Drive End, under the Covered Stand, and always the best seats in the house, right behind the bowler’s arm. The Wanderers. The place of all my dreams.
We’d find our row and shuffle in. In those days the seats weren’t separate plastic chairs bolted together; the seating was more like a long curved bench; two thick planks of green-painted wood running the whole length of each block (hence the cushions) with two tilted planks as the backrest.
Once everybody was comfortably seated and I had dumped my stuff, I would rush down to the boundary board to get as close as possible, watching every move my heroes made while warming up.
Colin Bland swooping like a bird of prey, plucking the ball off the grass and hurling down one stump from twenty yards out! A white blur of brilliance, over and over again.
Johnny Waite, Lee Irvine or Denis Lindsay, wearing the keeper’s gloves, and loudly deriding the lack-lustre fielding of their team mates. Richards, Pollock and Bacher just standing there, talking.
Then I’d observe the opposition going through their routines in a separate part of the field. I’d narrow my eyes to see if I could spot a weakness in some Englishman or Australian in shorts, wearing only gloves, no pads, wielding a huge bat and swatting chucked down balls to the boundary.
The players didn’t sign many autographs in those days and the other boys and I didn’t wheedle them. We were content to worship the eleven men who carried our hopes from afar. And pray that, on this day, they would sunder, trample underfoot and utterly rout the enemy.
I dimly remembered the words written about Sir Donald Bradman by an Englishman in the year I was born. Roughly, they ran, “In his timing, deftness of touch and uncanny ability lay pure poetry, in his heart, sheer murder.” In my mind’s eye I saw Richards stroking a drive through extra cover, straight at me, the red ball scorching through the green grass. “Come on Barry,” I would grunt to myself.
Well satisfied with my analysis, I’d charge back up the broad concrete steps, eager to share my thoughts, and plonk myself down on the cushion next to my Dad. He would be peering through the binoculars, scanning the field. Then he would hand them to me.
The scoreboard reflecting the first day’s play was there, to square leg, in clear black and white. South Africa in trouble? Australia 310 for 3 with Harvey 120 not out?
It didn’t matter. We would see them bowled out before lunch and watch Barlow,
Richards, Maclean or Pollock feast on their exhausted efforts all afternoon.
Before play started we’d dig out the Christmas cake and Mince Pies and have a scalding cup of sweet black tea from the flask. The Pasties and hard-boiled eggs were saved for lunch at 12.30 p.m. If I was hungry in the meanwhile I just ate pies and cake.
At 10.30 on the dot the two umpires would emerge, my scalp would begin to crimp and the hair on the back of my neck prickle. Then the fielding side would come clattering down the steps, fresh flannels blazing, dark blue or green caps on their heads. They’d burst onto the field and begin running around all over the place, tossing the ball to one another. Moments later, the batsmen, swinging their arms and looking up to accustom their eyes to the bright light. They would also just be wearing caps. If it was the start of a South African innings and one of the openers was Trevor Goddard, he’d be punching Jackie McGlew on the shoulder and saying, “God bless.”
When the umpire called “Play” I was lost. The only person, apart from Father Time atop the pavilion, who had the remotest idea of what I was thinking, was the man in the white hat next to me.
In the blink of an eye two hours were gone, the umpires tipped the bails off the stumps and the entire stadium stood up with a vast sigh, stretched and yawned. Lunch. Quick dash to the Gent’s and back before the rush.
Our three companions would immediately jump up and shout: “Okay boys, time to jam back a jar! You coming BB?” My Dad would shake his head and say, “Don’t come blundering back in the middle of the first bloody over. Wait till it’s finished.”
Then, with an ecstatic grin spreading over his face and a wink at me, he’d bend over, pull the cooler bag from under his seat and we’d tuck in, bemoaning that straight-forward catch dropped at first slip in the third over.
Thus it came to pass that, on the Second Day, the eggs were cracked, the salt and pepper strewn from a little squidge of grease-proof paper and the Pasties brought forth. After giving thanks, the fulsome repast was bitten into, gladly eaten and gratefully consumed unto the last crumb, and my Father said “Gee whizz, these are tasty!” My jaws would open like the Whale and cleave upon the toothsome sweetmeats. And it was so, they were indeed Good.
The afternoon would pass in a daze of despair as our boys wilted beneath the blades of the merciless foe occupying the crease. The five of us, along with everyone else under the green corrugated iron roof that was pinging and clanging with the heat, would be drooping too. Our clothes would be sticking to us uncomfortably. The becalmed air reeked of sweat and beer.
My Dad would occasionally bury his head in his hands for a few worrying moments, rubbing his eyes hard. Then he’d sit upright with a ghastly groan, his face etched with woe and say, “Oh, almighty God, help these damn bowlers!”
So, as ever, the famine would end and the seas would part. Joe Partridge, Pat Trimborn or Goofy Lawrence would get a second spell and in the space of a couple of overs there would commence a mournful procession of downcast Australians or Englishmen, dragging their bats back to the dressing room.
We’d be on our feet, cheering, clapping till our hands hurt, congratulating each other, hooting and falling over our seats. Then quickly resuming them as the next pathetic tail-ender made his way out to the firing line. A sitting duck, a dead man walking.
Everything had changed. The whole crowd now crouched forward, baying for blood, quieting only as a casually cruel South African executioner loped up to deliver the last rites.
“Whoa!” My Father would erupt from his seat, cushion shooting away somewhere. He’d explode into action: “That was dominoes, that was slaughter!” He’d grab me and say, “Nip out quick boy, there’s just ten minutes for the change-over, then we’ve got to come out and face the music. If we can stay intact until the close we’ll be all right, but it’s going to be a horrible forty minutes. Go on, go.”
I would rush out, the sweat instantly freezing on my back, shaking so much I could hardly go at all when I got there, then fighting my way back through the boisterous mob, having resisted the temptation to stand in a queue to buy an ice-cold Coke for fear that I might miss the first ball. Oh God, I hoped Barlow wouldn’t flash at it!
Whatever the state of play, my Father’s hat would somehow contrive to fall off at the most critical moments. He’d be desperately clawing for it somewhere below and I’d be shouting “Leave it Dad, I’ll get it now!” while yanking at his arm and trying to see over the people standing up in front of me at the same time.
Barry Richards had just flicked Renneberg’s first bouncer into the crowd way over backward square leg and was now banging his bat on the pitch, flattening it around a good length. Now the master batsman was taking his guard again, ready for the next ball. “D-a-a-d!”
Watching Barry Richards surgically take apart any bowling attack on offer was only one of the main reasons my Father had masterminded this whole expedition in the first place.
He’d been to the same school as Richards, Durban Boys’ High; they’d only practiced in the very same nets – what was he doing! Here was the genius right now, right in front of us, in the flesh! Already the Aussies were trembling at the prospect of the destruction that would rain down on them tomorrow if they couldn’t dismiss Richards in this kind of form tonight.
While my Dad scuffled around for his hat.
There would only be about five more overs before the umpire called “That’s stumps, gentlemen.” My Dad would pop up. “Okay, got it.” He’d found his demonically-possessed hat and was grinning from ear to ear. “Crikey Dad, that six went into the top row!” I’d say. “Don’t you worry,” he’d reply, eyes twinkling. “I saw it go. Right out of the meat.”
His highly attuned psychical antennae always did pick up the important things in life. While his face shone with a striking and almost other-worldly radiance that never bore the slightest trace of self-regard. Now it turned serious. “Better not do anything rash tonight. We want him there all day tomorrow.” I would solemnly agree.
At stumps we would still be intact as my Father had hoped. Barlow hadn’t gone after anything high and wide outside off-stump and Richards had reined himself in for the morrow.
My Dad would give a weary sigh of contentment. We’d stand up, gather our belongings and begin the slow ascent to the exit tunnel behind us. He’d put his arm around my shoulder and say, “It could be Kangaroo stew tomorrow son but today wasn’t bad, was it?”
“It was fantastic Dad. Thanks a lot. That collapse was incredible and Barlow and Richards were seeing it well at the end.”
The Second Day was over and I would already be thinking about switching on the radio at ten the next morning… We could be two down at lunchtime. Graeme Pollock would join Barry Richards at the crease… they would… but words failed me.
I would be listening tomorrow, as Charles Fortune described, with impeccable clarity, the power of Pollock and the precision of Richards as they meted out the most dreadful drubbing… But that was many hours away. We now joined the slow surge of happy sunburned people moving towards the gates.
Outside on the pavement of Corlett Drive I would be starting to exhibit some distinctly girlish forms of behaviour. I would be skipping, hopping and spinning around. My cushion would sail away. I would be about to dash into the chock-a-block road to retrieve it but my Dad would scrag me and pull me back. He’d stop the slow traffic and get the cushion.
I’d fall into line with the four grown men, alternating between giving gruff, manly responses to their remarks and bursting into shrill giggles of delight at their laconically disparaging comments about the Aussies chasing leather like a flock of flummoxed sheep.
I was in a child’s world but the adults had colluded. We found the car and got in. It was dusk and already a few stars were discernible. “Right. Straight into town and don’t spare the horses Jimmy boy!” bellowed one of our company. Town? “Where’re we going Dad?” “To a restaurant son. Mr Anderson and I have been there. The Phoenix. It’s a good place.”
It was. A dingy entrance on Jeppe Street led into a low-ceilinged tavern with bare brick walls. It was run by a down-to-earth management team of old-country Germans and Italians. The place was thick with smoke. It smelled of roast meat, cigarettes and beer, and it was noisy.
We had hardly finished seating ourselves at a big wooden table and pulling in our rickety chairs when a thick-set, grey-headed and angry-looking Teutonic man wearing a huge white apron tied over his shoulders flung a red-and-white checked cloth over the banqueting board without a word. Then he just walked away.
He returned with two handfuls of cutlery and chucked them onto the middle of the table. Next, he produced a stained white pad from his back pocket, plucked a pencil from behind his ear and said: “To drink?”
“Draught all round,” someone said. “What about you, Richie Benaud?” someone else said to me. I looked at my Dad. “Bring him one too,” he said. The waiter turned and went. He did not smile once.
“They don’t muck around, these blokes,” observed another of the festive five.
“We are going to wing a brace of duck, aren’t we?” My Father made this enquiry, beginning to crack up with laughter. Then he slammed the table with both fists and roared: “Of course we are! Roast duck and sauerkraut. What a question!”
I barely knew what a duck was at that moment. Did you actually eat them or were they the ultimate disgrace of a test batsman? If they were the former, how did you catch them? With a net? On the water, or on the fly?
The beer arrived, spilling foam as the big ice-cold tankards were banged down. “Cheers! Here’s to annihilating those sheep shearers tomorrow!”
I could only have been sixteen or seventeen, but all at once I was participating in a circle of men. I was laughing and making some jokes of my own while observing and absorbing their easy ways with the world. Along with, as always, my Father’s steadfast kindness and generosity to everyone.
The exquisite flavours of this dinner, the duck roasted in orange with bits of rind in the sauce, roast potatoes and the delicious shock and surprise of the red sauerkraut, were indescribable. The enjoyment of this authentic German food advanced my gastronomic education more, in one night, than anything I had eaten before and remains in my memory as the best meal of my life. But of course, it was the occasion too.
When we’d finished eating and the others had downed a few more beers, my Dad would say: “Okay you filthy lot, time to hit the road.” They grumbled and joshed but they didn’t argue with him. They tossed their various notes onto the table, the waiter scooped them up, the bill was paid and we left with loud exhortations to the maitre’d and other staff to make sure they kept the very same table for us on the very same night the next year.
Outside, the dazzle of downtown Johannesburg made my head spin. I didn’t know up from down, left from right. Fortunately my Dad did. He’d marshal us to the car around the block. We’d pile in amidst awful jokes about where the most scandalous place would be to stop if our bladders threatened to burst.
The long drive home through the dark, unlike the morning’s non-stop banter and ribald running commentary, was quiet. A replete silence filled the car. The tyres hummed on the tar road, there was little traffic at this hour.
My brain was racing with the bright imagery and sensation of the Second Day. It was everything my Father had promised it would be.
My mind darted about the field of play as I relived the exceptional feats I had witnessed. The magnitude and glory of the game were overwhelming.
But my head was beginning to nod. My consciousness was giving way to a dream world in which I played an heroic role in clinching victory.
I snuggled down closer to my Dad who was breathing quietly. My head was on his shoulder as I drifted off to sleep.
A sublimely sweet scent of freshly mown grass and baking sun, willow and leather, blended with a purity of love and gratitude for the divine blessings bestowed upon us by Cricket, exemplified by its great, great code of sportsmanship and fair play, filled my heart and senses to overflowing.
“And when the great Scorer comes
To count against your name
He asks not if you won or lost
But how you played the game.”
– Father Time –
R.B. Simpson is a freelance journalist and writer living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa. His poems have appeared in SQ, imPrint and most recently Goat’s Milk magazines.