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LAUGHING FISH (6)


            Sitting on the terrace of a bar in Sanlúcar de Barrameda overlooking the beach as the sun goes down and four JCB’s lurch over the sand, yellow lights flashing on the cabs. You drink ice cold manzanilla because this is where it’s made. And pick at a plate of fried, white prawns, the salt sticking to your fingers. You’ve been told that the four JCB’s are preparing the beach for the horse racing next week, but they just seem to be churning up the sand. A fishing boat, mast full of lights, slides slowly down the estuary towards Costa Ballena, where you are staying. Loosely translated, this is Whale Coast, which sounds like it should be some place in Newfoundland, rather than the south of Spain. But it is a wild Atlantic coast, with rolling, white-capped waves, strong undercurrents tugging at your legs, lifting you off your feet, sand dunes and spiky grass bordering the beach. Somewhere out at sea, whales calling out sadly, blasting fountains into the air. In the bar, there are old sepia coloured photographs on the wall. Photographs of large beached whales surrounded by men in oil skins and surprised faces staring into the camera. There are also photographs of the horses cantering over the sands and over the years. The first race held in 1845. At the beginning of the last century, only a handful of people watching. Last year, thousands. Things to do on the beach: whale hunting, horse racing, sunbathing, building sandcastles, and cricket. Not at West Bay, because the beach is full of pebbles, but on the flat, sandy, North Sea coast, at Scarborough, where the sea’s so cold it makes your head ache. Playing on the damp, tide-flattened strip of sand at the edge of the sea, fielding in the fluffy dry sand that tumbled over your feet as you ran, if you were lucky, and in the icy water if not. Bowling with a bald, yellow tennis-ball. Hit-and-run, to make it more exciting. Spectacular, diving catches in the sea, because looking cool was more important than feeling warm. Especially if there were girls watching. Except sometimes they wanted to play too and then you had to play ‘French cricket’. Standing there, the bat stupidly in front of your legs so you couldn’t swing properly. And what was the point of the game, anyway? You couldn’t get any runs, just count how many balls you could stay in for. No doubt Geoff Boycott was an expert French cricketer. Stay in all day. And why is it called that? Is it because it is an effeminate version of the real thing? French toast, French letter, French windows, French horn, French kiss, French cricket. You try to find a connection, in vain. In Spanish, a French valediction is to leave without saying good-bye. No connection there either. So you get up and go back into the bar where you buy a post-card with a photograph of a stranded whale on the beach of Costa Ballena and you scribble a hasty note to James. Having a whale of a time, you say. And you leave it at that. Without saying good-bye.


11 August 2010
Keywords: French toast, French letter, French windows, French horn, French kiss, French cricket.
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LAUGHING FISH (5)


     Years ago you went on holiday to France with your father. It was, according to your mother, so that you could get to know each other better. You were learning to drive at the time, and thought you were going to be able to practice. Your father had different ideas. “You can’t drive on the Continent,” he said as you pulled off the ferry, out of Calais and onto the motorway, trees lining the road like an impressionist painting. We were travelling in a metallic sky blue Ford Capri. In silence. With the rain sheeting across the windscreen. After about forty miles, with the rain still gusting at right angles across the road, your father said, “If it’s like this in Trent Bridge the Test Match’ll be buggered.” He thought for a moment and then added, “Probably not a bad thing at that.” You felt that maybe he resented having to take you on holiday instead of being allowed to sit at home in his armchair watching the cricket.

            It was still raining when you stopped for lunch. Despite the rain he insisted on getting the picnic table and chairs from the boot and spreading a paper tablecloth out beneath the bread and cheese you’d bought that morning in Calais. “Your mother wouldn’t like to think of us eating like animals,” he explained. And then he placed a small transistor radio on the roof of the Capri and said, “Short Wave.” At the time it meant nothing to you. Until, as if by magic, through the crackling interference and whistling of the radio you heard, “And that’s the first ball I’ve seen move all morning.”  (Although it was more like – That’s the wheegrrrwooo I’ve eeeeeooogrrrr all morning.) Your father fiddled with the luminous dial and managed to coax a second sentence from the radio before it turned into a continuous crackling blur. “That’s that then,” he said, snapping it bad-temperedly into silence and tossing it onto the back seat of the car. You felt he somehow blamed France.

            You stayed in a small hotel in Tours that first night and when you came down from taking the cases to the room you found your father being talked at by a ruddy-cheeked German, who only needed the lederhosen and the pork-pie hat to be a cartoon German. “They think we’re German,” he told you, not able to hide the distaste this caused him. “Why?” you asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “What did you say to them?” you asked. “Nothing,” he said, “just: Le voiture is in die strasse.” “Oh,” you said, tugging him away by the shoulder, and to the German, “Achtung! Englander!” The German made a machine gun with his arms and shot you both with a rosy grin and a rat-a-tat-tat bunched in a bubble of air in his cheek. “All Europeans now,” he said, turning away and shrugging his shoulders at the French hotel owner. You got the impression that the Frenchman might have put it a different way. Your father certainly would. And to prove it, that evening, when everyone else was watching the television, he brought out the crackling radio and tried to find the sports news on the World Service. “Cricket,” he explained to the bemused German, nodding at the offensive burping of the little radio. “Are you vinning?” the German asked, trying to be polite at least. “You don’t win in cricket,” said your father. “Not on the first day.” “Sometimes not at all,” you added, wishing to confuse him still more. “Ah! You English!” the German said, waving a big paw of a hand with downy blond hairs covering the freckles. And that was sufficient explanation, it seemed. Even for the French, who nodded and scowled at the intrusive, crackling radio.

            That night, when you were in bed and when he had turned the light off, your father said, “When we get to Paris, I’ll take you to the Café de Paris. Went myself a couple of times after the War.” And then almost immediately started snoring through the lush petticoats of can-cans and bright, red, painted lips. And still it rained on outside, water bursting against the closed window and blowing threateningly towards England.

                And by the time you reached the Loire Valley, France was bathed in bright sunshine, the reception on the radio was perfect, but it was Brahms. Rain had stopped play at Trent Bridge and didn’t look like it was going to clear up. Your father was not pleased and you often wondered whether that was why he never took you to Paris to see the can-can. Or why he left the short wave radio on the roof of the car just outside Abbeville.


6 July 2010
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LAUGHING FISH (4)


(This was written during the 2002 World Cup)

 

The World Cup final today saw Brazil beat Germany 2-0. And even after more than a week, the Spanish press is still belly-aching over the fact that Spain were robbed against South Korea. Only this morning in the newspaper it referred to the forthcoming final as “Spain’s final”. Commenting on Collina as the referee, it was “finally FIFA sees the error of its ways”. There was an article affirming that a “close friend” of the Egyptian referee – the only cause for Spain not being in the final – had told a friend of the reporter’s that he had been told that it was “better if South Korea beat Spain.” Thus proving, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there was a conspiracy. The Spaniard is, though, notorious for having to find someone else to blame for his own shortcomings. Even for something as apparently insignificant as the Eurovision Song Contest becomes a test of national identity and pride. When Spain doesn’t win it is a combination of the conspiracy between the Nordic countries and the fact that the rest of Europe “doesn’t appreciate our culture.” It is never because the song is crap. And so the idea of “walking” in cricket is totally alien. A phrase like, “That’s just not cricket” means nothing. Whereas, in the Saxon world, rules are generally made to be kept, in Spain they are made to be broken. If you can get away with it. Except, of course, if you’re Korean and you’re playing against Spain. There is no equivalent in the Spanish language for “fair play”. If they have to talk about it, they use the English and then they think it refers to how many fouls are committed by each team. Diving in the penalty area has recently crept in, but sluggishly. And how many times have we heard, “Foul by Hierro – but he had to do it.” Speaking of Hierro, the comment on his ignominious penalty in the last minute against Ireland was also a classic in its way. Camacho, the Spanish coach, said, “You can’t blow a penalty like that in the 90th minute!” There was no question here of whether or not it was a penalty, just that at that stage of the game you shouldn’t notice. I spoke recently to some of my chums of the cheat Maradona and his hand of God in Mexico. “If you can get away with it...” they suggested, and went on to lament, “This was Spain’s World Cup.” “But you couldn’t even beat Ireland,” you reply churlishly. Ignoring you, they continue, “Spain-Brazil, that was the final.” You decide not to mention that had they beaten South Korea, they would still have had to play Germany. And having done that, beat Brazil. How far away from the old spirit of cricket. You can see it now, the cheat Maradona shaking his head. “No, ref. Sorry. Not a goal at all. Handball. I’ll just send myself off.” Or Rivaldo. “No, ref, it didn’t hit my face. It was my left testicle. And the Turk didn’t really kick the ball at me at all.” Still, I believe “walking” is now a thing of the past in the modern game and I heard on the BBC World Service last summer that the Indians had been picking the seam off the ball. Not to mention the late South African captain, banned for life. Still, at least he was banned. If they had knighthoods in Argentina, the cheat Maradona would doubtless now be Sir Cheat Maradona. Still, I take some pleasure in the fact that he has turned into a fat git.


12 June 2010
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LAUGHING FISH (3)


            Many years ago, in a dingy suburb in the north of Madrid, you and James spent the long, winter week-ends playing pencil cricket. And it was more than a game. It was a ritual. From the preparing of the pencils and the picking of the teams, to the playing out of the match and the filling in of the scorecard. Whilst your wives sat with a couple of glasses of wine and failed to understand the intricacies of what was going on, you pored over crumpled sheets of paper and the thin flakes of pencil shavings. Literary Elevens, they were. You had Thomas Hardy and John Dos Passos to open. Malcolm Lowry at number three. You always tried to cheat for Lowry, help him to get into double figures, but he never did. Hemingway at four. William Faulkner a solid and dependable five. Dylan Thomas, erratic but flamboyant at six. D.H. Lawrence, for some obscure reason, keeping wicket, when not concentrating on the dark powers of his bowels, or the bowels of the opposing batsman. And then the bowlers. Ralph Emerson and Baldwin steaming in to open. Somerset Maugham a medium pace swinger of the ball. And, finally, Shelley, the spinner, who was only used in emergencies and if he could take time off from legislating the world. Lowry and Dylan Thomas sometimes bowled, but not altogether successfully. Dylan Thomas was once accused of chucking and made an unpleasant and rather childish scene. James’ team was filled with “big book” writers. Melville, Fielding, his captain – Cervantes, Walt Whitman, – maybe Balzac, except, being French, maybe not. Raymond Chandler was a cunning leg-spinner who gave Lowry, never one to have his mind totally on the game, all kinds of trouble. (The hip-flask of gin didn’t help matters.) And there was one memorable stand between Dos Passos and William Faulkner. Faulkner had got his fifty and Dos Passos was nearing his hundred when Wives stopped play.

            “That’s enough of that nonsense!” they said. “We’re bored.”

            Bored?

            “We want to do something.”

            “Do you want to play?” asked James foolishly and was rewarded with a clout.

            So it was out into the streets of Tetuán and having skilfully avoided passing any establishments where shopping might have been a possibility, if we except the underwear shop with its window display of big pants pinned brazenly to a cardboard screen, you found yourself in a small, dusty bar near the market, which meant that the Wives could look at bric-a-brac whilst you did some serious drinking and James complained that his stomach hurt. You knew it was partly sour grapes for having been soundly thrashed in the afternoon session and partly an incipient ulcer. Four whiskies later and talk returned to cricket – inevitably, because James was writing a long, lounging lizard of a book which somehow combined the history of the Labour Party with cricket and numerous, wordy footnotes and, perhaps, the occasional errant seagull, and if you weren’t laughing at Van Morrison’s lyrics you’d be talking about books.

            “Probably got myself run out in this Chapter,” he said.

            You knew the feeling. “Stumped?”

            “Just trying to sneak a quick single.”

            “The best run out I’ve ever seen,” you said, to nudge the subject a little further forwards in the ominous presence of a heavy silence, “was on Blue Peter.”

            James looked doubtful. “John Noakes? Chris Trace? Or that awful Val Singleton woman?” he asked.

            “Colin Bland,” you said. “He was being interviewed and they were asking him how he trained. He said he’d stand on the square leg boundary and have the ball knocked out to him, then he’d run in, pick the ball up with one hand, toss it into the other and throw it at the stumps, only one stump visible. And he’d hit it nine times out ten. He did it twice on Blue Peter.”

            “Is that where stumped comes from, do you suppose? You know, I’m stumped.”

            “Don’t be ridiculous! What’s being stumped got to do with not knowing what to do?”

            It was the Wives stopping play again.

            “I think it’s the expression on your face,” you suggested. “When you’re stumped, you’re left looking like a right pillock. As though you don’t know where to put yourself, which is often confused with the expression of someone who doesn’t know what to do.”

            “You don’t say,” said one of the Wives.

           “And it’s easier to say than I’m el-bee-doubleyou-ed,” said James.


1 June 2010
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LAUGHING FISH (2)


Machote leans his elbows onto the bar and nudges his small glass of brandy a little further towards the red, plastic box of serviettes. He looks at the serviettes with rheumy eyes as though trying to decide whether or not to take one.

“I thought cricket was knocking wooden balls through hoops,” he says.

“No,” you reply patiently. “That’s croquet.” It is surprising how many Spaniards think the same.

“Then it’s that game that’s like baseball,” he nods slowly, tentatively. He shifts his weight a little on the barstool and turns his unshaven face towards the sunlight streaming in through the finger-smudged glass doors. The air-conditioning unit groans and rattles above the window, dripping water into the street.

“Not as such,” you say. “Not really like baseball at all.”

Machote frowns at his glass, brandy yielding little pleasure these days. He sniffs and takes one of your cigarettes without asking. “I’m stopping smoking,” he says. He rubs a grimy hand over his chin. It is an unforgiving, red rash of raw skin.

“You’ve shaved off your beard,” you say.

He shakes his head and turns away now from the sunlight. “I lost it,” he says, “in a bet. I bet it against a glass of brandy and lost.” He tries to smile but his face is unable to produce the gesture. Maybe it’s not his face but something unrelenting, deeper inside. “I bet my beard that Spain would lose this morning,” he said. “And, of course, they didn’t.”

“You see, the difference between cricket and baseball…,” you begin, but Machote interrupts sadly.

“I don’t know how you play baseball either,” he says.

So, where to start? What to tell him?

“The game starts in the morning and goes on till half past six in the evening. They stop for lunch and tea. If it’s an International it lasts for five days.”

“That’s bollocks!” he says, reaching for another of your cigarettes, which he slips behind his ear for later. He looks up at the television. Japanese cartoons and a news flash flickering across the bottom of the screen. Artillery fire across the Cashmere border between India and Pakistan.

“They’re dangerous bastards,” grunts Beef Tea from further down the bar, flicking his newspaper, annoyed at being taken half way across the world and into a situation he doesn’t understand. And then, “Give me a beef tea.” Suddenly he stops, glances at the clock and rectifies quickly, “No time…., better make it a Nesquik.” A boiled sweet is placed strategically into the corner of one of his hollow cheeks.

And you wonder what he could possibly have to do that was so pressing.

 “Imagine football lasting for five days,” Machote grins into the brandy you are going to have to buy for him, “You’d die of boredom.”

“You sometimes do in cricket,” you admit.

“That game with hoops?” Beef Tea pipes up, uninvited, from behind you, top lip curled away from the scalding surface of his hot chocolate. He’d have been quicker having a luke-warm beef tea.

“That’s croquet,” Machote informs him knowledgably.

Beef Tea stands, or rather sits, corrected.

“Is it?” he says, more interested now in savouring his sweet, milky drink than entering into a discussion with the likes of Machote. Or, you fear, you. He begins to stir the hot chocolate rhythmically, his bony hand stiff, the movement made by the flexing of his wrist alone.

“Look,” you say to Machote, “Do you want me to tell you about cricket or not?”

Machote looks up at you as though seeing you for the first time. “Not really, no,” he says. “Fuck that!”

So you are left alone with your memories of Sobers, Kanhai, Gibbs, Hall, Hunte, Butcher and you think what wonderful names they had: Garfield, Rohan, Wesley, Lance, Conrad, Basil Fitzpatrick… No wonder that with a simple name like Paul you had been such a useless opening bat. Mind you, at that time, the English team had been made up of pretty common names, all things considered: Geoff Boycott, Kens Barrington and Higgs, Ted Dexter, Jim Parks, Fred Titmus. Maybe Paul was too posh for the times. Strange. It’s like the Colombians in bullfighting. They always have weird names too, names like Washington Rodríguez, Wellington López, Emerson Gutierrez, whereas the Spaniards are called José, Miguel or Julián. You think of sharing this with Machote, but only for a moment. He is smoking seriously, like someone who is not sure when they will get the chance to smoke again. Then suddenly he looks back towards you, takes the cigarette from his mouth and holds it between his thumb and his forefinger, the end cupped in his hand. He looks at you, his face sad and apologetic.

“So what do they use the hoops for?” he says. 


16 May 2010
Keywords: Laughing Fish (2)
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