One sunny afternoon on the school playing fields in 1982, the nine-year-old me came face-to-face with my Dad. In a father-son relationship founded in the old rules of stiff upper lips and unspoken affection, cricket was the medium through which we communicated, a way into a conversation where we could interact warmly, passionately even, without awkwardness. This was how we expressed our affection – and we accepted it. He knew no different, I knew no better.
As school drifted into the joyous last few days of the academic year, nine-year-old me walked to the wicket, heart thumping, ears alive to the cheers of encouragement from the boundary. Suddenly I became so self-conscious that even walking felt complex and mechanical, but I made it to the wicket and took guard in the annual Fathers v Sons match. The umpire confirmed my Viv Richards-inspired leg stump guard, I tapped my bat – my first, a size four Gunn & Moore – and looked up to see my Dad at the end of his run.
It was rare for him to go to a school event. But this was a special occasion. Mum had bought a picnic and a summer dress. While other dads who were playing wore jeans, tracksuits and trainers, my Dad was in his whites.
Dad bowled off-spin. I watched him begin his familiar, curved trot to the wicket, left shoulder dipping, before a short delivery stride and a surprisingly delicate pivot on his left foot. The ball hung in the air. So slow, so hittable. I swung as hard as I ever had, the shouts of ‘Go on, Nick, show your Dad!’ and ‘Six! Six! Six!’ spiking a surge of adrenaline.
As I swung my bat, I became aware that the expected moment of impact had come and gone. There was that instant between missing the ball and hearing it hit the stumps when you manage to generate a nanosecond of optimism before the sound of leather on ash crashes through your hopes.
My devastation was immediate and, I learned later, so was my Dad’s. He had thrown up a ball of innocuous gentleness, an offering from father to son, a delivery designed to ensure the moment belonged to me, not to him.
The tears prickling my eyes would not be swallowed away. The jeers and boos directed at my Dad made me feel better – and worse. My Dad prepared to bowl his next ball, utterly crestfallen.
In the weeks before he died, when his world had shrunk to reach only the edges of his hospice bed, his digital radio became the fire around which we gathered while his heart counted down its remaining beats.
We listened and agreed on enough to feel the warmth of our shared understanding, and disagreed on enough to maintain the fragile paternal carapace on which his dignity could rest. As consciousness became more fleeting, the mumbling of the radio alone, no matter what the words, was the blanket we wrapped ourselves in and huddled under while the cricket continued to wash over us with reassuring timelessness.