Boggart paced deliberately back and forth in front of ginger bigfoot, birthmark Joe and trembling Theresa, peering coldly into their eyes at each pass. Perspiration oozed from the collar of his scabious headdress as he ambled from contender to contender, silently scrutinising their every twitch and flinch.
Their eyes darted from this bull-necked monstrosity to the other Lords and Ladies. They were wallowing contentedly in tatty wicker chairs, their light linen kilts and dresses clinging to them in the heat. They were sipping cocktails and wittering inanely amongst themselves as downstairsers in grey boiler suits fussed around them with umbrellas and fans.
Their eyes then fell upon the red painted faces of the drummers, their trance-like gaze fixed upon the horizon as they beat out a sombre rhythm at the edge of the cricket pitch. Then there was Thresher, the butler, hovering solemnly in the background, his white hooded boiler suit streaked with dried blood. There were no friendly faces here. They began looking to each other, but found only their own bewilderment and terror reflected back at them.
‘Cricket,’ rumbled Boggart, clutching a warm pint of bitter in his fist. ‘A gentleman’s game. An English game…W.G Grace’s game.’
He stopped pacing and took an almighty swig of ale.
‘You three are here because you have been selected by the Knights of Leontopolis to honour Sekhmet, the Eye of Ra, by participating in a game of cricket,’ he said, gesturing at them casually with his glass.
He gulped down the remainder of his bitter and casually tossed the glass aside.
‘Now, do any of you wooden spoons need me to explain the concept of hitting a ball with a bat?’
The contenders glanced at one another and shook their heads cautiously. The skin on their foreheads had already begun to redden and burn in the midday sun. Their filthy sweatshirts and jogging bottoms were claggy with perspiration.
Boggart let out a thunderous cackle.
‘Splendid,’ he crowed. ‘In that case you’re going to love this game.’
A downstairser appeared at his shoulder with a fresh pint of ale on a silver platter. Boggart snatched it up immediately and took a sloppy gulp.
‘The rules are simple,’ he continued, his double chin sodden and dripping. ‘You will step up to the crease when instructed. You will then face the bowler using the bat provided. If you score ten or more runs in a single over, you will be declared a winner. Any questions?’
Ginger bigfoot tentatively raised his hand.
‘’oo’s gonna be bowlin’?’
‘I’m the bowler,’ snapped Boggart. ‘Lady Flight will keep wicket, Lords Birdwhistle and Flight will field and Lady Birdwhistle will be the umpire. Any more questions?’
The contenders peered uneasily at one other once again and nodded silently.
‘Right then,’ said Boggart, grinning malevolently. ‘You’re first in the batting order, ginger bigfoot. Step up to the crease, contender, let us go forth together and honour the mistress of dread.’
‘Oh what fun,’ squalled Lady Birdwhistle, leaping up from her chair and clapping her hands daintily. ‘Finish your mimosas chaps and chapesses, we’re playing cricket!’
* * *
Ginger bigfoot, a thick set middle-aged man with greasy red hair, mottled skin and a straggly, knotted beard, stood at the crease. He may well have stood six feet tall but not for a slovenly, defeated posture. The contender dumbly surveyed the wicket through glassy, lifeless eyes and furrowed his brow.
‘Izzen the other stumps supposed to be furver away?’ he mewled, turning to Lord Flight at silly mid on.
‘No, everything has been measured out correctly, old chap,’ breezed Flight. ‘Ten yards is the standard wicket length, it has been for centuries.’
‘The cameras make the wicket look longer on television,’ chimed in Lady Flight, winking at her husband from behind the stumps.
A downstairser approached ginger bigfoot and handed him a thin length of plywood. It had been crudely fashioned into the shape of a cricket bat.
‘Wot the hell’s this?’ sputtered the contender.
‘That,’ said Lord Birdwhistle, from silly point, ‘is your bat, contender.’
‘No it ain’t. This ain’t no cricket bat, man.’
‘Nonsense, that is the best cricket bat money can buy,’ snapped Flight. ‘Don Bradman used one just like it in the 1948 Ashes series.’
‘No, mate, you’re ‘avvin laugh right? This is just a bit of crappy old wood. It’s gonna break in ‘arf if I ‘it the ball.’
‘Well, I happen to think it’s a delightful bat,’ said Lady Birdwhistle. ‘I think you’ll score oodles of runs with it and have a simply wonderful time playing with it.’
She pursed her lips and frowned at ginger bigfoot.
‘I’m the umpire. Do you really think I’d let the batsmen use anything but the very best?’
‘Yes, stop being such a bloody ingrate, contender’ said his Lordship, ‘We’ve spent two days feeding and clothing you and now you’re quibbling over the quality of the cricket bat you’ve been gifted. Unbelievable.’
Ginger bigfoot continued to remonstrate, swishing the short, flimsy length of wood around and cursing the Lords and Ladies. However, the debate was cut short by a mighty roar from far beyond the wicket.
Boggart had wandered eighty yards or so into the outfield amid the commotion at the crease. He was holding his amulet up to the sun and bawling incantations at the top of his lungs.
‘Pro ludo et lusus solus,’ he screamed, arms aloft. ‘Let the cricket commence.’
He began to slowly lumber towards the wicket, dragging his immense girth over the parched grass. The drummers began pounding out a slow, ponderous march. The fielders crouched and steeled themselves. Gradually, his sluggish plodding graduated into a steady jog. His steady jog soon became a thunderous, barrelling charge, a great malignant boulder rolling down a slope.
Ginger bigfoot nervously brandished his bat as Boggart’s gelatinous bulk and gruesome lion headdress rattled ominously towards him, growing wider and louder with every split second.
The drummers began to beat in time with Boggart’s leaden strides as he loomed ever closer, the ball clasped tight in his bulging gammon fist.
‘What ho, Boggers,’ cackled Flight. ‘Give the bastard a Yorker to welcome him to the game.’
Boggart steamed up to the wicket and overstepped the bowling crease by several steps. He wheeled his flabby, trebuchet arm around and let fly at the batsman from all of eight yards.
The contender swung his bat wildly but caught the ball at full force in the chest. He let out an agonised scream and staggered back.
Lord Flight was on him in a flash, charging into him and untidily rugby tackling him into the stumps.
‘Howzzzaaaaaaaaat!’ screamed Lord Birdwhistle, waving his arms around excitedly and turning to his wife.
She shook her head and bit her lip.
‘No, I don’t think so dear,’ she said, smiling sweetly. ‘He’s not out. I’m pretty sure he’s still alive so he can’t be out can he, you silly billy.’
Boggart and Flight hauled the beleaguered batsman to his feet. He was howling pitifully and clutching his chest.
‘No,’ he cried, struggling for breath and exhaling a mist of blood and saliva. ‘I’m out. Please sir, I’m out. An’ I’m injured… real badly injured…Lemme be out, oh God, not again.’
‘Fine bit of fielding that, Flight,’ said Boggart, idly polishing the ball on his blouse.
‘And a damn fine delivery too,’ chuckled Flight. ‘Would have taken his stumps clean off if his sternum hadn’t been in the way.’
‘Hmm, quite. There’s perhaps an argument to be made for LBW there but I’m not here to quibble.’
Meanwhile, the batsman was staggering away from the wicket in an attempt to escape.
Lord Flight strolled after him, rolling up his sleeves.
He caught hold of the contender’s arm and twisted it agonisingly behind his back.
Ginger bigfoot felt the cold sting of a blade prodding his spine.
‘You, old boy, will return to the crease and participate,’ Flight hissed in the contender’s ear. ‘Sekhmet, the eye of Ra, demands it.’
‘B…but iss not fair, sir,’ whimpered the contender. ‘I’ve not even got a proper bat or any pads or nuffin.’
Lady Flight’s voice rang out behind them.
‘Oh how super. The downstairsers have brought out more mimosas. Will I grab one for you, darling?’
He turned for a moment and grinned at his wife, keeping a firm grip on the contender’s arm.
‘Top notch, Lucia. Just set it down over there please, darling. And could you be an angel and cover it with a handkerchief so wasps don’t crawl in?’
He turned his attention back to ginger bigfoot and violently wrenched his arm to breaking point.
‘Get that white-livered poltroon back to the crease at once, Flight,’ came Boggart’s impatient, ranting snarl.
It was perhaps the umpire’s job to sort this out, he thought, but Lady Birdwhistle was now stretched out on the grass with her cocktail and was making a daisy chain to pass the time during the pause in play.
‘You will go back to that crease one way or another,’ spat Flight. ‘Two working arms, one working arm, spinal cord carved out with a razor, it’s all the same to me, chummy.’
Ginger bigfoot looked desperately around for a friendly face but found only blank indifference in the eyes of Lord Birdwhistle and Lady Flight.
Lady Birdwhistle was too engrossed in her daisy chain to even look up.
The contender relented, nodding resignedly. Lord Flight casually shoved and jostled him back to the crease and strode back to his fielding position at silly mid off, dusting off his hands as he went.
Boggart paced slowly away, tossing the ball from paw to paw.
He turned and began walking backwards, peering at his quarry and bearing his yellow teeth.
Lady Flight began gesticulating wildly from behind the stumps. She was pointing at herself with both thumbs and mouthing something at him. His eyes lit up. The Lady was proposing a bit of gamesmanship. And a bit of gamesmanship the lady would get.
The drums began to beat out another funereal march as Boggart limbered up.
‘Ready when you are,’ he hollered, gazing upon the quivering, whimpering wreck before him.
This time he took a shorter run up, ambling casually to the bowling crease.
The contender spat out a mouthful of blood and braced himself, the makeshift bat shaking in his hands.
Boggart’s fleshy arm swung pendulously around once more.
The batsman flinched, clamped his eyes shut and ducked, yelping in fear.
But this time Boggart paused and gently tossed the ball over the contender’s head to Lady Flight.
Ginger bigfoot slowly uncurled himself, looked up and found Boggart gazing serenely back at him from the lion’s mouth.
‘Drat, that’s my fault,’ tutted Boggart. ‘Wide ball. Must be this dead pitch. Nightmare for bowlers, you s…’
He was interrupted by a gut wrenching crunch. The batsman collapsed, his face thumping the dry wicket inches from Boggart’s feet. He noted that there was now a cavernous red hole in the back of ginger bigfoot’s skull.
Lady Flight was standing in his place. She examined the ball, frowned slightly and blew on it to remove a fragment of skull.
‘Howzat,’ she chortled, cocking her head flirtatiously. ‘Caught behind.’
‘Bravo!’ roared Lord Birdwhistle, applauding enthusiastically.
‘Jolly good show, beloved’ brayed Flight, striding up and planting a hearty kiss on his wife’s cheek. ‘Bloody sexy bit of wicket keeping, that.’
Ginger bigfoot’s body began thrashing and convulsing at their feet. The Lords and Ladies gathered around and patiently watched him twitch and spasm before he finally fell still.
Lady Birdwhistle raised her right index finger above her head.
‘He’s definitely out this time,’ she chirped.
The others nodded and murmured.
‘Do you like my daisy crown, by the way, Lucia? I can make one for you if you like.’
‘Gosh, yes, delightful. Absolutely Bel, darling, I’d love one.’
‘Right, let’s get another batsman up,’ yelled Boggart, clapping his huge hands together.
‘Thresher,’ he bawled. ‘trembling Theresa next. And clean this up, you useless old penis.’
A pair of downstairsers began dragging a thin, pale woman in her fifties across the grass. She was kicking, screeching, pleading and clawing at the dry turf as they hauled her towards the wicket.
Lady Flight tutted and rolled her eyes.
‘We really ought to start keeping the other contenders out of the way while the opening batsman is playing. It ruins the surprise for them,’ she sighed.
‘Nonsense,’ scoffed Boggart. ‘She’ll be tearing about all over the place. It’ll be good sport for the fielders, that.’
Another tray of mimosas appeared at the crease, along with several large parasols and some flannels in a bucket of ice water. Thresher sidled over and grabbed ginger bigfoot’s corpse by the ankles. He began dragging it away from the pitch, leaving a faint red streak in his wake.
‘Well this one ought to be interesting,’ said Lord Birdwhistle, as trembling Theresa kicked, clawed and cursed at the downstairsers as they hauled her inch by inch towards the crease.
‘Yes, quite,’ said Flight, sucking on a cigarette. ‘She’s left handed, I believe. That’s an altogether different prospect for the bowler.’
* * *
‘Well, what a jolly picnic lunch that turned out to be,’ sighed Lord Flight, patting his belly. ‘Spaghetti hoops on toast. How would you say that in French, Boggers?’
A large picnic blanket had been spread out beside the cricket pitch. The Lords and Ladies were sprawled across it in a drowsy tangle, surrounded by broken plates and glasses.
‘The French didn’t invent pasta, Flight,’ murmured Boggart, his flabby face shrouded by a cold flannel. ‘If those feculent lobcocks had invented pasta it would probably be made out of inedible blue mould and frogs’ eyeballs.’
‘Did you enjoy the cricket, Lord Boggart?’ yawned Lady Birdwhistle, who was using the abdominous Lord’s belly as a pillow and her husband’s chest as a foot rest.
‘Yes madam, I did,’ he grunted back. ‘I believe we suitably honoured the lady of slaughter with our performance.’
‘Excellent fielding to take trembling Theresa’s wicket, by the way, Birdy. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to rip up the stumps and throw them like a savage would a spear,’ said Lord Flight.
‘It just came to me. Spur of the moment thing. Worked out rather well though.’
‘He is a very spontaneous man,’ cut in Lady Birdwhistle, eagerly. ‘Always coming home with flowers and whisking me off to the theatre and lovely things like that. I’m not in the least surprised he thought of using the stumps like that. He is very thoughtful like that.’
‘It’s a pity birthmark Joe wasn’t much sport,’ said Lady Flight, stretched out face down half and half across Lord Birdwhistle and her husband. ‘He just stood there like a lemon and let it hit him right between the eyes. Didn’t even try to swing his bat.’
‘Utter poppycock. He just didn’t see it coming. I’ve got an arm like a Howitzer, if you hadn’t noticed.’ said Boggart. ‘It was a matter of good pace bowling, you disingenuous hedge whore.’
The Lords and Ladies drowsed silently for a while under umbrellas and parasols.
Around them, downstairsers hosed down the wicket and packed up the stumps. At the far end of the pitch, Thresher slowly and methodically hauled the bodies of the contenders into a wheelbarrow. He mopped his brow before pushing it towards the house, his legs almost buckling under the weight.
‘There’s some Battenberg left if anyone wants any,’ said his Lordship, sleepily.
His offer was met with only lethargic stretches, apathetic sighs and noncommittal grunts.
‘Let’s just have half an hour shall we?’ moaned Boggart, from under his flannel.
‘Yes, let’s,’ said Lady Birdwhistle drowsily. ‘Then it’ll be time for another cocktail. And then after that it’ll be time for tennis. What a delightful day this is turning out to be.’
© DH 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file