One conversation. Two writers.
On the boundary
Paul Bateman and Vin Maskell
Bat and ball
He told the story while watching the game. He had written a piece for a magazine about a neighbour of his: a bloke named George, who had lived nearby for 30 years or so; a bloke my mate had known a little in his 15 years on the street.
George loved the music of Elvis Presley and he owned a pool table. My mate would visit, George would play his Elvis records and they’d share a game of pool.
The story in the magazine began like this: “I went away for a fortnight and came back to find that George’s home was up for sale.”
George was gone. Just like that. He had suffered a stroke and soon after was admitted by his family to a nursing home. So my mate found out where and went to visit. The visit went well enough and my mate promised George that he’d visit again. Which he did, eventually.
“But you can probably guess the rest,” said my mate. George was gone; this time, for good.
You have to understand that my mate and I were seated on a park bench in brilliant sunshine, watching a game of cricket between two suburban teams on a Saturday afternoon, at the foot of Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge.
An artist – a painter – would place the wide green oval at the centre of any portrait; the elevated freeway would dominate the skyline; and light and shade would hold the scene together. My mate and I would be the barely discernible figures at the painting’s edge.
Yet there we were, in that ordinary setting, on that ordinary day, as the bowler ran in to a waiting batsman, talking of death and the strange effect it has on the culture to which we belong: how we’re not accustomed to grieving in public for any great length of time; how depressingly neat and swift and comfortless the funeral process seems to be; how after the service we all go home and the world moves right along.
Or not. At the nursing home, on the day he discovered that George had died, my mate was directed by staff to a hand-written ledger, wherein he found the home address of George’s brother-in-law, Wally.
He’d met Wally before at George’s house. So my mate went to visit. He knocked on Wally’s door, re-introduced himself and was invited inside. Wally’s wife, George’s sister, was there, too.
They shared a soft drink and swapped a few stories. They passed around some family photos and before my mate departed, Wally showed him the cricket ball with which George had taken a hat-trick in a match played decades earlier. George’s cricket bat had been placed in the casket and buried with him, such was his love of the game.
My mate returned to Wally’s on one other occasion. This time, he took the article about George that he had written for the magazine. He was invited inside but declined. He stood for a bit at the front door, offered his article and then said farewell.
As my mate told this story, I pictured Wally standing in the doorway, one hand clutching a magazine, the other waving farewell to a bloke who had come twice now to the house with stories of George.
Out on the oval, the players had stopped for drinks. The fielding team were in the ascendancy, but the game was up for grabs. The sun was high in its cloudless sky.
My mate fell silent. We sat for a while saying nothing. And then, as if bringing to an uncertain close the circle of his inner thoughts and the story of George and Wally, my mate said, tentatively, “I don’t know why I did all that.”
But I know why. My mate’s a good bloke.
Paul Bateman is a Melbourne writer.
He told the story while watching the game. Sitting on a park bench at the local oval. Cricketers out on the grass, wearing whites. Turf wicket. A red-headed medium pace bowler at one end. A spinner bowling into the wind at the other. No crowd. No TV replays. No sightscreens. I mention the recent death of a neighbour, buried with his cricket bat.
“My grandmother died 18 months ago. Ninety eight years old,” said my mate. The spin bowler has the visiting batsmen flummoxed. They want to hit with the wind but the ball’s deceptive flight checks their aggression.
“The funeral was really disappointing. Not a so-called celebration of her long life. We had to stick to the funeral directors’ and the crematorium’s timetable. In by one o’clock, out the door by three.” A batsman loses patience with the spinner. Hits the ball straight to the fielder at square leg. Slaps his pads with his bat as he trudges off. Three for sixty.
“The staff seemed a bit too keen to get the next grieving family in. My brother and I were standing in a garden at the crematorium after the guests had left at three o’clock.” The new batsman faces the spinner for three balls. Tries to hit him out of the ground. Misses by a mile. Stumped. Four for sixty.
“A member of the crematorium staff came up to my brother and I and said ‘You have to leave.’ My brother said ‘Why?’ The bloke said ‘This garden area is not for the public.’ My brother said ‘We’ve just buried our grandmother. F— off.’”
The medium pace bowler has the wind behind him. Well, a breeze. Still, enough to get the batsmen thinking.
“It wasn’t much of a funeral for such a feisty woman. So I’ve organised a family get-together for when Grandma would have turned a hundred. A proper wake. An Irish wake.”
The batsman facing the red-head is distracted. There is a young family of four playing in the park, behind the bowler’s arm. The batsman, through the umpire, asks them to move. “That’s a bit precious. It’s not Test cricket. If my brother was here I know what he’d say.”
The fielding team, the home team, is well in control. Bowling tightly, fielding neatly.
“There’ll be singing. There’ll be dancing. There’ll be drinking. And no-one telling us we can’t be there.”
The umpires and players head for the pavilion. Tea break. Still four for sixty.
We get up from our park bench, walk past the young family. “I’ll say a few words at the start of the wake and then we’ll let rip with The Pogues. I reckon Grandma would like that.”
Vin Maskell is a Melbourne writer