“Is it flatline, matey?”
I look to the adjacent seat. The glum enquirer, face painted green and gold, wears a shirt that reads ‘Olympic Pub Crawl 2000 – Citius Altius Boozius’ and a sombrero with a dubious ‘Bradman’ signature across the brim.
“The greatest streak ever, man. Ten undefeated series against the Poms. Twenty years. Longest in the whole bitchin’ history of the Ashes. The streak, man! Is it flatline?”
The clones of Senor Glum quiet their attacks on the English fine leg’s hygiene and tilt their sombreros higher. In each man’s beer hand: an already impressive stack of plastic empties under the all-important top cup.
“You know – grave trade,” clarifies one.
“Boxed and buried,” adds another.
“Davey Jones’ locker?” I suggest, and they nod without a semblance of understanding.
I lift my eye-patch and scan the arena. With the fifth day, fifth test scoreboard reading Australia seven wickets down and 227 runs in arrears, much of the stadium is pondering a similar, perhaps less cryptic question. The choral singing, Union-Jack waving ‘Barmy Army’ has the answer. It is barely coherent but it has something to do with shagging kangaroos.
“Good question, me boyos,” I say, replacing the patch.
The ‘Don’ amigos lean forward, plastic stacks poised, waiting for solace, ignorant of the moment’s true gravity. They observe as I swig the last mouthful of spring water, retrieve the Target shopping bag from under my seat, rise to standing.
“We’ll find out soon enough.”
Sergeant Brett Dunwich opened the cell – the ‘drunk tank’ as he and the team termed it – and strode inside. Near the centre of the tank, he pivoted the chair held in his right hand then sat. The Target shopping bag in his left hand became a footrest. Beyond the cell, a radio fought through periodic coughing fits of static to present the cricket broadcast. The second session was underway.
“No grog all morning, eh?”
The prisoner turned and faced the cop. Moth-holes pocked the blanket covering his naked body. “Do you want me to blow in the bag again?”
“I ask the questions, Errol. Alright? That way I don’t need a second page for the report. Got it?”
The prisoner nodded once and tweaked his pencil-thin moustache.
Dunwich scrutinised the Target bag. “One tracksuit top, one tracksuit bottom, one empty water bottle. The bare essentials.” He tossed it at the prisoner’s feet. “Makes me think you might have planned this.”
The prisoner let the blanket fall, then gathered up his pants.
Seventeen minutes of the first session remains as I farewell the amigos and make my way down the aisle toward the boundary. I retie the laces of my Reeboks, then retrieve the mobile phone from the bag. Punching out the number is pure reflex – the sequence hasn’t changed in seven years. The standard five rings ensues before an answer.
“You have been in the nets?”
“The pitch is in good condition?”
“And you’re using the heavy roller?”
“Excellent. Procedure following your innings is the same as always. Good luck. Baggy green forever.”
“Baggy green forever.”
I hang up and place the phone inside a discarded potato chip wrapper at my feet.
A quick scan reveals the enemy’s position. Two ground security marshals assigned to my section are forty metres away, chatting up a brace of girls in bikini tops. Several policemen keep close watch on The Hill and its own loose-ruled test match involving several dozen incompetents and several hundred inebriates. Out on the ground, ‘over’ has been called. The target hands the ball to his captain and moves toward square leg. I touch my eye-patch for luck, drop the bag onto the playing field side of the boundary, then anchor a hand to the rail. The free hand grips the studded, basketball-style jacket and whips it away from my body. I then take hold of my pants.
A heartbeat later, I am leaping, running, feeling the breeze on my sweat-soaked skin, riding Destiny’s cannon fire through my veins, barely cognizant of the familiar cheers and whistles sweeping across the stadium.
“You do realise that you didn’t get your…head on TV,” said Dunwich. “The networks don’t show your lot any more. And you won’t make the news either.”
The prisoner buttoned the last stud on his jacket. He picked up the fallen blanket, neatly folded it, laid it at the policeman’s feet. “You assume I did it for the fifteen seconds?”
“No grog, no drunken mates egging you on…that leaves notoriety. Timing’s off though, Errol. You’re fifteen years too late for the box.”
“That woman at the football game earlier this year, she was in the media for several days.”
Dunwich cupped two imaginary breasts protruding from the two man-breasts within his immaculately ironed, undersized uniform shirt and bounced them up and down.
“Her, pal. Her. If anybody’s going to get a bit of air time, it’s a woman. And she was a mother to boot. Four kids or something. Said she’d wanted to do it for years. It’s easy to understand the journos being all over that. ‘Wife, Mother, Homemaker, Streaker’. You can’t compete with that. No matter how many fuckin’ eye-patches you wear.”
The prisoner moved toward the cell door and paused, listening to the radio. Three overs remained before tea. The laconic lead commentator suggested England would enjoy their cuppa a lot more than the Aussies. His hyperactive sidekick added that tea might not be taken at all, given two of the overs would be bowled by England’s chief destroyer and man of the hour: the Knight of Flight, the Kingpin of Spin – Warren Fairclough. The prisoner smiled.
“Maybe I’m aiming to become another serial pest?” he said.
Dunwich relinquished his breasts and took hold of the captive’s sleeve. He tugged once. Several studs loosened. One side of the jacket split open. The prisoner withdrew from the cell door and back into the policeman’s field of vision.
“That’s it, eh? You’re a lunatic with a message. Protesting globalization and the whales and work for the dole and the trains not bloody running on time.” Dunwich scoffed. “I don’t think so. The surveillance boys made that mad serial pest bastard what he is and they won’t make the same mistake again. And anyway, you’re the Sunday matinee, not the Looney Tune cartoon.”
The prisoner sat down on the floor. After a moment’s manoeuvring, he began some stretches, hands on the extended leg’s toes, head on the knee. “So you’re still favouring the notoriety theory then?”
“You want to tell me something different?”
“I could tell you the truth.”
“I’m all ears.”
The prisoner lifted his head and attended to some building excitement in the radio broadcast, then directed Dunwich to listen. The gallant Australians were not prepared to go down without a fight. One of the swashbuckling tailenders had just slogged three consecutive boundaries off the King, the Knight, the destroyer Fairclough, who, for the first time today, for the first time in the series, was tossing down gratuities instead of grenades.
The prisoner closed his fist and kissed it.
“I did it to guarantee Australia’s victory.”
Forty metres from the target. An individual voice is discernible now:
“This geezer sure ‘asn’t come from ‘Long Leg’!” It’s Bulger, the left arm opening quick. He calls out again:
“Not time for the new ball, is it Skip?”
I caught security on the hop. Only now are the scrambling and surging bodies entering the fringes of my tunnel vision. There are fifteen, maybe twenty. More than I’ve encountered in any previous thrust.
Fairclough stands waiting, grinning, floppy sun hat held in front of his groin. He is a diminutive man, in deference to his colossal reputation. He has no clue. How could he? Streakers are predictable, easily understood. They are harmless fools. Sad individuals who choose complete vulnerability, accept public humiliation, and invite a criminal record, all for the purposes of a cheap thrill and a party ice-breaker.
They are not cutthroats of planning and efficiency, nor pillagers of players’ private and often secret lives, nor shipmates of an organization exerting influence in every corner of the cricketing globe.
Fairclough lifts his sponsored sunglasses above his forehead and holds the floppy hat out at arm’s length as I arrive.
“Ahoy!” he says.
The crowd roars its approval. Seconds remain. I must be loud and clear. No mumbles. No stumbles. As swift and clean as the cutlass. I lean forward and hand Warren Charles Barlow Fairclough – beguiler, mesmeriser, the game’s most bewitching bowler – his one truly unplayable delivery.
And not a moment too soon – the last syllable hangs in the air as I am taken down.
“Stripping off, running onto the field and waving your other one-eye at the opposition’s star player has guaranteed Australia’s victory?” Dunwich cackled. “That’s all it takes?”
“There’s more to it than that.”
“Buggered if I know where,” surmised the cop. “Righto. Let’s think. Maybe, it could be…” He struck his ample forehead with a slow, exaggerated, condescending slap. “Of course! You sledged him! Yes! That’s gonna keep the Ashes in Oz! So what did you say, Errol? Did you tell him you’d slept with his cabin boy?”
The prisoner eased out of the stretch and stood to attention. “I said: ‘Showtime at the Brighton Heath Hotel’.”
“What else did you say?”
“Showtime at some Pommie pub…that’s all you said.”
“That’s supposed to do the trick?”
“The English ship is sinking as we speak.”
The radio indicated the first over after tea was complete. The Australian tailenders continued to provide heroics in the face of futility. Warren Fairclough had conceded twenty-six runs in his last twelve balls. His figures now stood: 29 overs, 10 maidens, 7 for 118.
Sergeant Brett Dunwich shook his head. “They need two wickets. We need a hundred and fifteen runs.” He raised an umpire-esque index finger. “Maybe you’re the cartoon after all.”
The policeman stood, gathered up the chair and exited the cell. Before departing the block, he turned the radio off.
The prisoner raised a different finger – a distinctly unumpire-esque finger – and engaged in some mock swordplay.
An unidentified hand reaches for the sunhat, dislodged in the takedown and now lying in my eyeline. It could belong to the weighty, waffly security scoundrel pinning me to the ground – the push push push against the side of my skull indicates otherwise. The hand takes a tenuous hold of the hat, drops it. Voices, most of them urgent and strained, rebound off the grass, but their messages fail to register. A second retrieval is initiated – this one successful. As the hand withdraws, it turns. Recognition arrives at ninety degrees. Previously obscured treasure may now be observed.
A gold ring.
The engraving ‘K.C’.
K.C. are the initials of one Kathleen Costigan, the ring is a wedding band. Both are shining ornaments of love, honour, fidelity. Both could be irreparably tarnished by the debauchery videotaped at the Brighton Heath Hotel.
I am witness to Warren Fairclough’s own hand.
And it tremors like the deck beneath his feet.
“Your fine’s been paid. You’re free to go.”
The supine captive awoke to find the prison bars parted and Dunwich leaning against a formica desk outside the cell. He got to his feet, breathed deeply, took a moment to massage the concrete-induced kinks from his neck. He affixed his eye-patch and walked the five paces to freedom.
“More to it than that, eh?”
The prisoner halted barely a metre past the desk, his jacket again snared in the cop’s steel trap of a hand.
“That’s what you said, wasn’t it, Errol?”
‘Piss off, dickhead. I’m out now, so what you’re doing is assault.’ The prisoner had seen fit to use these words before, in other situations, in other police stations. Today they shied from his tongue. He turned, listening, wondering.
“Both my eyes are twenty-twenty and the reason you did it is crystal bloody clear.”
Dunwich raised himself to full height.
“A lack of respect. No sledges. No psychological advantages. No ‘guaranteeing Australia’s victory’ or some other bullshit like that. A lack of respect: simple as that. For the game. For yourself. For the law – Christ knows you’re not alone there. And, most of all, for your fellow man.”
The cop drew his man close. The jacket grip graduated from the sleeve to the lapels. The prisoner stared at his feet, refusing eye contact.
“If you plan a little stunt like this again, have a think about that last one. Have a think about the crowd and the players. Do they deserve your sideshow? And have a think about Warren Fairclough. Put yourself in his shoes for a second. Can’t he go about his business without being harassed and abused by the likes of you? Doesn’t he deserve a little respect?”
Dunwich gave the prisoner a small shove, releasing his grip in the process.
“Give my regards to Daffy Duck.”
The prisoner turned on his heel and departed the watch-house. He needed to find a public phone.
I am hauled onto my feet and compelled to move before my body weight is fully supported. Several Englishmen applaud my escort’s strongarm efforts. Bulger declares ‘We are not amused!’ and exercises a royal wave. Even the umpire makes a show of clicking his ball counter twice.
Fairclough is nowhere to be seen.
It doesn’t matter. My next observation of him – the day after, walking the plank on TV and in the newspaper, acting stoic, lamenting an incomprehensible loss – will be more than adequate compensation.
The usual hostility surrounds my return to the boundary. I am still adrenaline-charged, but seven years on the high seas has taught me that no response is the only response. Appear remorseful. Stare at the feet. Refuse eye contact. Fend off each sledge with an unspoken rebuttal:
“You are a disgrace!”
I am a hero.
“You are the lowest form of scum!”
I am the highest form of fan.
“The game doesn’t need you!”
The game demands me.
“The players don’t want you!”
The players necessitate me.
“Give the Aussies a chance!”
I just did.
“Don’t mess with Fairclough again!”
I won’t have to.
“Hey, Pirate! Look at me, like I had to look at you!”
I lift my head. The assailant is a man of similar age and similar build to myself, covered from head to toe in Australian supporter wear. He is upset and angry. Come six o’clock, he’ll feel a whole lot better.
“What about some respect?” he says.
I give him a wink before being bundled into the back of the paddywagon.
“Applause will do just fine.”
This short was published in Syntax (Issue 4), October 2002.