Six Stones

OK, so here’s the opening 1,500 words of The Great Weight of Ordeals. The story is set in 2005, at the end of an emotional summer for London. I hope you like it and it whets your appetite 🙂

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In his pocket are six stones. Six small, round stones, never more than a few feet from him at any time. They sit like a coded biography, a timeline of his 60 years on the planet, so that if you looked hard enough and for long enough, they might tell you the story of his life. Yet the stones are only half the story. They are only there, in his pocket, because they serve as a reminder of a life once lived, before everything changed.

Each stone is different. One is sleek, narrow, shiny, perfect for skimming across a lake. Two is as black as night with tiny jagged edges along one side that he likes to run his thumb across. Three feels like a fossil with its rough, veiny surface. Four is almost perfectly round, like a large marble. Five has raised ridges around its circumference, making it look like a cross-section of an old oak tree. Only Six remains relatively featureless. Pebble-sized, pebble-shaped, pebble-grey. No flash of the Jurassic across its surface. Six is William’s favourite.

There is a device made in China designed to help him count the balls of each over, but he refuses to use it. What must the enslaved workers of the Far East think of those in the West that they must produce small plastic counters to aid apparent adults count to six? He is aware of his role in the folly, that his life essentially boils down to the ability to count to six, sometimes seven, occasionally eight and even nine. Rarely ten. Were his father here he would make it clear that counting to six ad infinitum (and he would use the Latin) is hardly a satisfactory way for a grown man to spend his life, and he’d be right, of course. William does occasionally convince himself that the sum total of his years equals more than the ability to count past five, but in reality that is all it is. He is fooling nobody. William van Poortvleit, three-time winner of the Tilbury Hall prize for mathematics. He doesn’t pretend to have a complete grasp of irony, but that reeks of the stuff.

Either way, he does not use the counter because he prefers the tactile nature of the stones in his pocket, enjoys rolling them around in his hand as the minutes and hours tick by in the field. Yes, the stones, in their different shades of mottled grey, their lines and patterns revealing millions of years of geological upheaval, have become comfort blankets. Six cold, hard comfort blankets.

William picks them up and drops them into the pocket of his white jacket. There is the sponsor of an Arab airline on the breast pocket. It feels tighter than usual as he fastens the middle button. Nothing much, just a little around the tummy. Sunspots below the eyes betray a life spent outside, much of it in glorious ignorance of the malignancy of the sun’s unprotected rays. His skin looks blotchy. He is tired, although his signature floppy hat hides the much of the evidence. It has the insignia of a wild cat on the front, which he believes represents a puma.

  His fingers linger on Six’s smooth, rounded surface. Darkness descends, taunting visions of an alternative life, but his thoughts are interrupted by the pavilion bell.

It is time.

Warm applause greets him as he walks down the steps of the old building and onto the field of play. The standard procedure – in England at least – is for the ground to slowly fill as the crowd ambles in after a gentle breakfast and broadsheet of choice. Not this summer. For two decades, England has known only defeat to Australia, but secure at least a draw in this match and the Ashes will be won for the first time in over 20 years. Here, over these next five days, is England’s chance of joyous redemption, the chance for 11 players to provide a thrilling finale to a memorable series and tumultuous summer for England, for London. Awarded the Olympics one day, torn apart by suicide bombers the very next.

 Since those two early July days, England has become festooned in the flag of St George, standing tall in scruffy back gardens among the trampolines and paddling pools, thrashing violently in the wind on the aerials of speeding white vans and draping lazily across the windows of now-darkened pubs. Cricket has stumbled upon its moment. Bombed by its own, the country searching for meaning and reassurance, what, after all, could be more reassuringly English than Test cricket?

 And so, there is not a seat to be had in south London. The Oval is awash with excited hubbub. William loves that sound; the gentle murmuring of people chatting as they watch, only breaking to applaud a boundary or a fine stop in the field. Every now and then there might be a collective gasp as the ball beats the bat. As the day wears on and the alcohol takes hold, the crowd will become more boisterous, will start to sing and cheer and leer. He doesn’t like that so much.

Today also marks his 30th anniversary as an umpire. He would be happy to shoulder arms to this fact, watch it sail past harmlessly and without note, but it is not to be. The players and his fellow match officials are already waiting as he steps over the boundary edge and they form a guard of honour for William to walk through as a huge cheer sounds around the ground. He removes his hat and bows in deference – to the game more than anything – and puts his hand up in thanks, his smile embarrassed, but genuine. His heart thumps and he looks to the sky. Outside the ground, a police siren wails, neither getting louder nor fading away, but parked the amid the bustle of Kennington and Lambeth, The Oval basks in warm, autumnal glow; the early September sun drained of its mid-summer ferocity. Yellow, not white-hot. Fuzzy, not razor-sharp. A soft-focus oasis of civilisation in a frenzied, startled city.

William always takes the first over. Seniority may buy him nothing but disdain and condescension off the pitch, but out here, it still counts for something, allows him to pull rank. England’s opening batsmen punch gloves and wish each other luck as they part from their conference at the centre of the wicket. Both are left-handed. One is a tall, stand-and-deliver buffer who flays the ball to all parts with a flash of his heavy bat and minimal foot movement, relying on supreme hand-eye co-ordination to play the game his own way. See ball, hit ball. It’s a simple game when you are that good. His partner is the perfect foil, a nudger and nurdler, who pokes the ball into gaps. He doesn’t hit the ball, he manoeuvres it, steers it off his bat.

 Biffer asks William for his guard.

 ‘Towards you. Bit more. Smidge more. That’s it. You have middle-and-leg.’

 The batsman nods his thanks and scrapes his foot into the dirt to mark out his crease, scratching and prodding at the ground like a dog preparing its bed. It makes William smile. Sometimes they spend more time marking out their crease than they do batting and they resemble tortured grave-diggers, preparing their own place of rest. As he does so, Australia’s fielders take their positions around him, their place in the field fine-tuned by their flinty-eyed captain. He waves at whoever is at fine-leg to move wider as William toys with the brand new cricket ball. The seam is sharp and defined, stitched perfectly and he lobs it from one hand to the other and then back again – a habit of such repetitive simplicity it has become a reflex, as natural as breathing – before handing it to Australia’s opening bowler as he marches past to mark out his run-up.

This period before the start of play, when all is unspoilt, is always special. The pristine whites of the players, the sheen of the cherry-red ball, the perfect green and earthy smell of the freshly-cut outfield, the satisfying symmetry of the scoreboard. 0-0. This is where he belongs; out in the middle, surrounded, immersed, enveloped by cricket, safe from the rest of the world. Once the match begins, so the euphoria is eaten away, with every passing minute dragging him closer to the end. He must savour every moment. He closes his eyes once again and takes one long, deep breath.