Thomas Healy

 

Overseas continued

 

     Not surprisingly, that turned out to be the only run the Lancers scored in the practice game that Simmons had arranged with some of the staff of the American embassy in London.  Except for a couple of athletic young Foreign Service officers, most of the American players were Marines who served as guards at the embassy.  The Lancers, however, furnished the pitchers for the American team and they exceeded even their own expectations, shutting out their English teammates for six and a half innings.  All in all, Simmons was pleased with the effort of the team, particularly Jibrail who got three hits, two of which were for extra bases. 

     “You keep hitting like you did today you might never want to pick up a cricket bat again,” Simmons chided him afterward at the Bow and Arrow, a noisy little pub down the street from the park where they played the game on a makeshift diamond.

     “Oh, I could never do that, Barney,” he gasped, after taking a sip of beer.  “I grew up playing cricket.  It’s something I could never give up even if I turn out to be a much better baseball player.”

     “Hell, if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t baseball derive from cricket?” Rader inquired, snapping a pretzel in half.

     “That’s what I’ve heard.”

     “I was under the impression baseball originated in the States,” Simmons remarked.  “Invented by that soldier Abner Doubleday.”

     “I heard that, too, but I learned later at the sporting goods store where I worked before I came over here that it was actually something the founder of the Spalding Company conjured up without any real evidence.”

     Simmons frowned.  “You’re telling me that America’s pastime isn’t even American?”

     He nodded.

     “I’ll be damned.”

     “People in this country have been playing games with round objects and wooden sticks since the Middle Ages,” a bearded patron seated across from them remarked after listening to their discussion.  “Cricket is no more original than your game of baseball.  Both of them are based on much more primitive games.”

     “I’ll be damned,” Simmons muttered again.  “I guess you really can learn something new every day, after all.”

     Jibrail smiled.  “I learn something new about baseball every time I play it.”

     “Well, regardless of where it got started, I’m damn glad someone came up with the idea because, in my humble opinion, it’s the best game ever invented.”

     Rader raised his pint glass.  “I’ll drink to that, Barney.”

     “Hell’s fire, Cliff, you’ll drink to anything so long as someone else is picking up the bill.”

     Grinning, he took a long swallow of the warm beer, realizing at that moment that he had definitely made the right decision to come over to England to help his old friend shape this motley collection of ball players into a viable team.  The Lancers might not beat too many high school teams in the States but they were gradually beginning to develop the determination and cohesiveness that any team must have to succeed.  And if he was confident of anything, he was confident of that, he thought to himself, as he glanced around the crowded pub at some of the players.

 

*

     One afternoon, after batting practice, Jibrail invited Rader to visit Lord’s Cricket Ground in St. John’s Wood, which he informed him was regarded as the home of the sport.  The American was a little reluctant, though, not really knowing anything about the game, but Jibrail was adamant it was a place he should see while he was in England.

     “I won’t have any idea what’s going on, Jibrail.”

     “Don’t worry,” he assured him.  “There won’t be a match going on there today.”

     “Oh.”

     “That way you can walk around and get a good look at the old place and, maybe, soak up some of its tradition.”

     He was not too enthused about going there but didn’t want to appear rude to Jibrail who was one of the more consistent hitters on the Lancers.  So far, in the three regular season games they had played, he led the team in runs batted in and had the third best batting average among those in the starting lineup.

     “What do you say?  Do you want to go?”

     Forcing a smile, he replied, “Sure, why not?”

     Jibrail drove a rusted old English Rover, which crept through traffic on four nearly bald tires, and made so much racket Rader would not have been surprised if they were pulled over and cited for violating some ordinance against excessive noise.  Everywhere, it seemed, people turned to look at the relic of a car as if it were full of clowns at the head of a parade.  Soon after passing the St. John’s Wood tube station they arrived at Lord’s and Jibrail found a place to park across the street from the main entrance.

     Eagerly he led Rader onto the hollow ground, pointing out first the Pavilion, which was constructed during the Victorian Era, then Old Father Time, a weathervane atop a stand on the southeast side of the field.  He scarcely took a breath he was so busy describing one feature of the place after another.  He was excited as a kid at the seaside, Rader thought, as he followed him through what he claimed was the oldest sports museum in the world.  He provided so much information about the cricket ground that Rader had trouble processing much of what he said except when he noted that the playing field was sloped so that the northwest side was more than eight feet higher than the southeast side.

     “That must be pretty hairy.”

     Jibrail squinted in confusion.  “What do you mean by hairy?”

     “Sorry,” he said, smiling.  “I mean, it must make it difficult for players to field the ball cleanly.”

     “Oh, yes, it can be very hairy, as you say.”

     “Have you had much trouble fielding balls here?”

     He shook his head.  “I’ve never played at Lord’s.”

     “You haven’t?” he said, surprised.

     “Oh, no, only the best cricketers get to play here and I’m definitely not of that caliber.”

     “You’re not?”

     “Not at all.”

     “I’d just assumed you had since you know so much about this place.”

     “Anyone who loves cricket knows about Lord’s.  As I said, it’s the home of the sport … the holy shrine, if that’s not too profane to say.”

     Rader, swatting away a fly, grinned.

     “We should go to a match together, Cliff, and then I can help you better understand the game.”

     “Yeah, I’d certainly need some help, squire, because for the life of me I can’t really make much sense of it I’m afraid.”

     “You will if you take the time.”

     “I don’t know.  It seems like a real jigsaw to me.”

     Jibrail, chuckling, then offered to buy him a pint and led him next door to the Lord’s Tavern Bar and Brasserie where they sat at a small round table against the wall.  Almost at once, a comely waitress with almond-shaped eyes appeared to take their order.  She nodded at Rader then, narrowing her eyes, glared at Jibrail.

     “Not you again.”

     Jibrail, grinning, winked at Rader.

     “You’re here so often I’m surprised you don’t just pitch a tent outside the door.”

     “I haven’t been here for a couple of weeks.”

     “It seems more like a couple of days.”

     “Well, maybe it has been but who’s counting other than you?”

     She looked at Rader who was taken back a little by the curious exchange.  “I suppose you’re as crazy about cricket as Jibrail?”

     Before he could reply, Jibrail interjected, saying, “Raghda, this is Cliff Rader---an American who is one of the coaches on the baseball team I’ve been playing on this summer.”

     Smiling, she extended her small hand and Rader shook it.

     “Raghda, until now, has always been my favorite cousin but I’m not so sure anymore.”

     “I just can’t understand how grown men can care so much about hitting a ball with a stick whether it’s cricket or baseball.”

     “That’s because you don’t appreciate some of the finer things in life, cousin.”

     Playfully she stuck out her tongue then left to place their order at the bar.

     “I love my cousin probably more than anyone but she can be very exasperating at times,” he laughed, leaning back in his chair and looking up at the ceiling.  “She’s not one who ever keeps her opinion to herself.”

     “She’s very pretty.”

     “She is and, believe me, she knows it.”

     Of course, he thought, as he watched her at the bar, one long leg cocked behind the other, talking with another waitress.

     “She’s absolutely right, you know,” he admitted.  “I do come here quite a lot.  It’s one of the places I bring people like yourself who are new to London.  But I also come because I like to keep an eye on my cousin who is sometimes too generous for her own damn good.”

     “You’re kind of her big brother, are you?”

     He nodded, twisting a lock of his thick black hair.  “You could say that, sure.  We grew up together near Marble Arch, lived practically around the corner from one another, and I’ve always been very fond of her.  But now about the only time I see her is when I come here because she has her own set of friends.  I’ve tried to get her to come and see one of our games but, so far, without success.  She always seems to have something else planned when I ask her.”

     “That’s too bad.”

     “Maybe, if you asked her, she’d come,” he suggested.

     “I suspect the game of baseball would be as foreign to her as cricket is to me.”

     “I know but she’s more likely to accept an invitation from a stranger, especially an American, than she is from me, her own flesh and blood.  She likes to make a good impression on people she doesn’t know, which is why she earns so much money in tips working in a pub.”

     “All right.  I’ll ask her.”

     “You watch, Cliff, she’ll say yes to you.”

     And so she did, agreeing to attend their next game, even though she didn’t seem anymore enthused about the prospect than Rader would have been to be going to a cricket match.

 

iii

 

     Back and forth, back and forth, Rader paced inside the third base coaching box, urgently clapping his hands to keep the rally going.  “Bear down, squire!” he shouted at Simon Cummings after he took a called strike on the inside part of the plate.

     It was the bottom of the ninth inning.  The Lancers were one run behind the Liverpool Pilots with Graham Eaton in scoring position on second base.  So far, they had played the Pilots twice and lost both times by a single run.

     Quickly he looked over at Eaton and held up two fingers, reminding him there were two outs, then looked back at Cummings who had just stepped back into the batter’s box.

     “Bear down now … bear down.”

     The next pitch was outside but, for whatever reason, Cummings swung at it and dribbled the ball back to the pitcher who easily fielded it and threw him out at first base.

     “Not again,” Rader muttered under his breath as he walked back to the dugout.  “Goddamn it, not again.”

     “That hurt,” Simmons snorted when Rader got back to the dugout.  “That was a game we should’ve won.  We out hit them, we out pitched them, we---“

     “But we didn’t out score them.”

     “Obviously,” he fumed, “but otherwise we damn well out played the bastards.”

     “Eaton probably would have scored if Jibrail was at bat instead of Cummings.  He’s definitely our best clutch hitter.”

     Simmons nodded in agreement.  “He’s missed two games now, correct?”

     “That’s right.”

     “And at least four practices.”

     “About that, yeah.”

     Angrily he crushed a paper cup in his left hand and threw it across the bench.  “He should’ve got over what’s ever got him under the weather by now.”

     “I’d have thought so but the other night when I spoke with him on the phone he said he still wasn’t feeling any better.”

     “Has he seen a doctor about whatever it is that’s bothering him?”

     “I suppose but I don’t really know.”

     “Well, damn it all, he should see a doctor and get well because we need his bat in the lineup or we might never win another game.”

 

*

 

     Rader spoke with Jibrail three times since he missed the last two games and each time he was very evasive when Rader asked when he thought he would be able to rejoin the team.  He almost seemed to cut him off when he pressed him for a specific time.  Rader wasn’t sure if he didn’t have any idea, or if he had no intention of coming back, but didn’t want to tell him and hurt his feelings.  Maybe his job as a meter reader was taking too much of a physical toll on him or maybe he had been invited to play on some cricket team.  So one afternoon, rather than call him again, he decided to pay him a visit at his flat near Edgware Road so he could see for himself how he was getting along.

     “My, this is a surprise,” Jibrail said when he opened the door and saw Rader in the hallway.

     “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by and see if there was anything you needed.”

     “No, not really, Cliff.”

     “So how are you making out?”

     “Not so well, I’m afraid.”

     “You look all right.  A little tired, maybe, but otherwise you look fine.”

     Shrugging a shoulder, he stepped back and invited him inside the flat which reeked of the strong cigarettes that he often saw Jibrail roll by hand in the clubhouse before games.  “All I’ve got is some tea.  Would you like a cup?”

     “Sure, that’d be fine.”

     “All right,” he mumbled as he turned to go to the kitchen.  “I’ll be back in a minute.”

     Rader nodded and, after removing some magazines, sat down in a canvas slingback chair by the window.  It was clear, as he looked around the cluttered living room, that it also had become Jibrail’s bedroom because of the pillow and blankets that were on the couch.  He noticed some waded up sweat socks on the floor along with a pair of shorts and an “Arsenal Rules” jersey.  Also on the floor was a sweat-stained Gunn & Moore Maestro cricket bat.

     “I hope this isn’t too strong,” he said as he handed him a mug of Twinings Earl Grey tea.  “I know how you Yanks think people over here drink tea as strong as motor oil.”

     Quickly he breathed over the tea then took a tiny sip.  “No, it’s fine.”

     He smiled thinly, moved aside the pillow, and sat down on the couch.  “I don’t suppose I have to ask why you’re here.  As a matter of fact, I’ve sort of been expecting you or Barney to come by one of these days.”

     “Can you blame us?  We’re concerned about you.”

     He nodded, stirring a finger in his tea.

     “Well, son, everyone on the team is concerned about how you’re doing.  You’re one of our best hitters, and if we’re going to win any games, we need you back playing for us.  So we’re all eager for you to start feeling better.”

     “There’s nothing wrong with me physically, Cliff.”

     “There isn’t?” he said, surprised.

     “No, nothing more than the usual aches and pains any ball player gets during a season.”

     “So what’s the problem then?” he demanded, leaning forward on the edge of his chair.  “Why have you stopped coming to games?”

     “I guess I’ve lost the desire to play.”

     “Bullshit!  No one else on the team cares as much about playing baseball as you did, Jibrail.  No one!  It was more than a game to you, I could tell, it was something you were as passionate about as you are about cricket.”

     He stared into his mug for a long moment in silence.  “My cousin, Raghda, is missing.”

     Again, the American was startled.  “What do you mean she’s missing?”

     “She’s not at work, she’s not at her flat.  She’s gone.”

     “Have you looked for her?”

     He shook his head, without looking at him.

     “Why the hell not?”

     “I suppose because I don’t want to find her.”

     “You’re not making any sense, son.  What do you mean you don’t want to find her?  You told me yourself you are as close to her as a brother.”

     “I don’t believe I ever mentioned it to you but for the past couple of months now she’s been going out with this Australian guy she worked with at Lord’s.”

     “Has he also disappeared?”

     “No, he’s still working there.”

     “But you think he might have something to do with her disappearance?”

     “Not directly.”

     “What does that mean, for God’s sake?” he snapped, clearly frustrated by Jibrail’s vague responses to his questions.

     After swallowing some more tea, Jibrail said, “A few weeks ago, just after she disappeared, I learned from someone else she works with that she’s pregnant.”

     “So you think she went somewhere to have an abortion?”

     “No, not at all.  She’d never dream of doing something as terrible as that.”

     “So what does that have to do with her going away?”

     “There are some people in our family who didn’t always approve of the way she conducted herself at times,” he continued, stirring a finger again in his tea.  “They certainly didn’t think it was proper for a young single woman to be working in a pub and they would’ve been quite upset if they knew she was involved with someone who was not one of our people.  And, without question, they would have been outraged if they found out she was going to have a child by this person.”

     “So you figure she’s hiding out from these relatives until she has the child?”

     His eyes suddenly narrowed and welled with tears.

     “What is it, Jibrail?”

     “I’m afraid she’s dead.”

     “What?”

     “I’m afraid they killed her.”

     “Now what, in God’s name, makes you say that?” he asked, stunned by the remark.

     “Honor is something that is very important in my family,” he stammered.  “So important that some might even feel obliged to take the life of those who have blackened the reputation of our family.”

     “You’re really telling me your cousin might have been killed because she’s going to have a child with someone who’s not of her faith?”

     He nodded.  “A woman’s reputation is like a crystal bowl, an uncle of mine told me when I was a young boy, and once it’s broken it cannot be repaired.”

     “Pardon me, son, but that’s ridiculous.  That sounds like something that might’ve happened back in the Middle Ages, not here in modern day London.”

     “Maybe so, Cliff, but it’s happened before in my family.”

     “I can’t believe it.”

     “If a person loses her honor, she brings shame not only on herself but on her whole family and must be put to death otherwise her family will be forever tainted by what she did.”

     “I don’t know what to say, Jibrail.  I’ve just never heard of such a thing happening in this day and age.”

     Jibrail clamped his massive hands on the edge of the couch as if to spring up but he didn’t budge a muscle.

     “I don’t know why but I think you’re mistaken,” Rader said haltingly.  “I think your cousin has only gone away for a while, perhaps out of embarrassment because of her pregnancy, but she’ll be back.  I just have a hunch and, as you know, in baseball my hunches are more often right than wrong.”

     “Oh, God, I hope you’re right, Cliff.”

     “So do I, son.”

 

*

 

     Another rancid pigeon swooped past Rader as he made his way to Trafalgar Square where, he expected, it would be as crowded as ever with people eager to feed the birds there with bread crumbs.  He smiled, remembering the first time he visited the Square when some woman from Copenhagen offered him a handful of birdseed and in a matter of seconds he was surrounded by pigeons.  Jibrail was with him then and, laughing, said, “You look like a Christmas tree covered in ornaments.”

     Only a few weeks after that he went to see him at his flat and that turned out to be the last time he saw the young man.  Still, game after game, he half expected him to show up, with his bat and glove, but he never did, and though he was tempted to pay him another visit he didn’t want to disturb him because he knew how much he must be grieving since the discovery of his cousin’s body behind the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park.  So a couple of times a week he made it down to Trafalgar Square in the hope he might come across him since he knew that along with Lord’s it was a place he often took people who were visiting London for the first time.  He wouldn’t say anything to him about Raghda, having said all he could think of saying in the brief condolence card he sent as soon as he heard she was dead, but would just talk some baseball and let him know how much he was missed from the team.

     The season was more than half over but still he came down to the Square.  So far, he had not seen him but one afternoon he did spot a young woman who looked enough like Raghda to have been her twin.  He was so startled by the likeness that he stared at her for several minutes until he was sure she was not Raghda’s sister.  Still, the sight of this woman brought to mind the one time Raghda came to watch her cousin play for the Lancers.  She really had no idea what was going on but she was as excited as anyone in the stands when jibrail successfully stole home for the winning run.  The smile on her face was as bright as the baseball diamond, he remembered thinking to himself as he watched her jump up and down like a schoolgirl.

     “Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me how to get to Piccadilly Circus?” a slight woman in a straw hat asked Rader who, as usual, was resting against one of the enormous lions in the center of the Square.

     “Sure thing,” he said and quickly pointed her in the correct direction.

     “You’re an American?”

     “I am.”

     “Oh, I thought you were from here.”

     He shook his head then, as if suddenly realizing he didn’t really belong here, said, “And I can’t wait to get back home.”

  

 

THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS

© 2015 by William Ray