Thank you to The Big Issue for running this story in its recent summer edition (#577. 26 December 2018 to 10 January 2019).
Chang was no cricketer. For starters, he was a dog. And not one of those dogs that can chase and even catch cricket balls. No, Chang was a Pomeranian-cross. Small, orange, fluffy. Dainty.
Chang did not know anything about cricket, not even that the backyard – his as much as anybody’s in the family, I must concede – was also a cricket field, our very own MCG. So he did not realise on that fateful afternoon that he was in danger. Grave danger. Nor did I, so focussed was I on my brilliant cricket career.
Now, a backyard cricket ground is not a pristine oval. That is its charm. There are various immovable objects that serve as decoy fielders: trees, bushes, clothesline, shed. Windows.
At our place the bowler ran in (well, took a few steps) from just near the apricot tree. The batter, about 15 metres away, knew that any edge into the pigeon coop, the vege patch or the shed was out, caught. A six back over the head of the bowler and into the neighbours’ yard was out.
The neighbours’ yard was all concrete and cages. Not a blade of grass. Not a tree. The cages seemed to be home to a squawking, barking menagerie. Galahs and cockatoos, I think. Maybe bigger birds. Dogs. Dingoes, lizards, snakes? Perhaps. (Just as I imagined I was a better cricketer than I actually was, I probably exaggerated the menagerie’s dangers.) Tip-toeing across the top of the cages looking for a lost ball was the price the batter paid for hitting a six.
Chang paid much a tougher price when one day he wandered onto our ground during a Test match. He was somewhere between the clothesline and the agapanthus bushes when I hit the hard cricket ball. The ball was heading for a certain four, about to reach the boundary (the tin and plastic Clark Rubber swimming pool) when it hit Chang right on the base of the spine.
There was a tiny yelp and then Chang dropped to the ground. Orange fluff on green grass. Hot summer sun above. Not a sound now. Not from Chang. Not from the menagerie next door. And not from me.
Chang’s brown eyes were open. Not moving. Not blinking. Was he breathing? His legs were still.
I found a shoe box. A rag that could be a blanket. I put Chang in the laundry. Waited for Mum and Dad to come home.
In the shed I felt the weight of a shovel. Then I checked the softness of the soil in the vege patch. In the garage I found pieces of wood that could be made into a cross.
Mum would be upset, but not angry. Dad? His silences could be damning.
I broke the news to Mum first. She liked Chang but she also knew how much I liked playing cricket.
“Ron,” she said, calling Dad, who was in the lounge-room pouring a pre-dinner whiskey. “Vincent has something to show you, to tell you…” (Mum only called me by my full name when I was in trouble.)
I brought the shoe-box into the lounge-room. Chang’s eyes were closed but there might have been a flutter behind the eyelids. His little chest was moving, just.
Dad asked Mum for a medicinal dropper from the bathroom. Sitting in his brown vinyl recliner, Dad placed Chang on his lap and fed him drops of whiskey. I wanted to disappear, of course, but stayed until Dad nodded in the direction of the hallway, meaning I was excused.
My father nursed Chang that evening. Brought him back to life. If my father was upset he didn’t let on. Perhaps as a parent he instinctively knew that the care and recovery of the patient was more important than chastising the child, than venting and verbalising anger.
The next day – and forever after in those teenage summers – backyard cricket began with a ritual. Find Chang and carry him, ceremoniously, into the safety of the laundry.
Recently I stopped outside my childhood home. The house is still there but there is no backyard. The apricot tree, the shed, the vege patch, the pigeon coop, the Clarke pool, the garage: all gone. Apartments in their place.
The house next door, home of the menagerie, is now a vacant block, presumably earmarked for development. I hope some of the local kids are making use of that empty space this summer, turning it into their own ovals, their own playing fields, where they can bat and bowl and field and dream with the freedom of childhood, with the joy of playing under the summer sun.