A couple of days ago I was practicing bowling in the park. We’ve just moved out to a perfect village, complete with proper village pubs, an incredible village hall and – best of all – a carefully tended village league cricket pitch. All of which has resulted in me retiring from football.
The combination of my post-football knees and having our own stairs again after years of flat living and house sharing hasn’t helped convince me my next perfect match was ever ahead of me. But I’ve fallen in love with cricket over the last few years, and once I’d decided to really learn the art of leg-spin I’ve been hopelessly obsessed.
I am not great, or even good. I’m having to tweak my delivery right now as a (potentially happy) accident of my self-taught bowling is my hand releases the ball 90 degrees around from where stock-ball leggies ought to. Right now I’m just clocking up the practice overs to get line and length up to scratch, and if there’s any real spin then all the better.
So I was in the park gearing up for 20mins of chucking, when four small boys rattle into the multi-use cage with their football. Because a) I’m severely aware my delivery is off form and b) My psyche is set to ‘defer’ right now, I picked up my ball and told them they could use the space, I could practice anywhere.
Except they were fascinated by what I was doing – they wanted to know what country I was from, to take the ball and bowl themselves, for me to be their referee or play football with them, they wanted to know my name. I am not in Oxford anymore, and this was as good a clanging reminder of that fact as any – this village doesn’t just feel friendly and welcoming, it imbues everyone who lives here with that attitude.
But here’s my confession – these kids scared me. I immediately offered to step aside because I didn’t want to be the focus of their attention, I wanted to get my wayward wristspins out of their eyesight, I wanted to be alone to practice without any pressure, not feeling ever more aware of my current poor standard.
Their enthusiasm scared me – I didn’t want to referee, I didn’t know these kids, that’s too much responsibility thrust suddenly into my day. And play with them? I’d be either acutely aware of their size and vulnerability (if I knock one of these stranger’s children over, what then?) or humiliated by their precocious talents running all over my basic ball control.
Then I told them my name – “That’s his name too!” one of the smiling kids yelped, and in a matter of moments my namesake had introduced himself properly, beamed a hello and then clutched me in a surprisingly innocent and un-selfconcious hug. A hug! I could feel my solar-plexus attempt to turn itself inside out as I mentally monitored whether or not I looked inappropriate. Who might see the new village arrival embracing children in the park?
These kids were interested, bright, they wanted to talk to me, ask me questions, but they didn’t stop to do so – they were running off, kicking the ball, snatching a glance at me to acknowledge I was watching and then sprinting off towards the ball again. The solemnest of the gang patiently explained to me that they were part of the school football team. It was obvious.
I stepped aside, agreeing to referee with a sense of ‘owing’ it to them. Walking off when they’d asked so openly, so warmly, would have left me feeling that I was shunning them, passively lashing out to ward off their utterly uncynical welcome. Still I couldn’t play, and not just because they really would have run rings around me, but because I couldn’t break down the barrier I’d put up between me and them. These were strange children, unknown. I couldn’t appreciate what the boundaries were here.
As it was I stood at the edge throwing in approving comments, and then remonitoring them to make sure I wasn’t encouraging idiot play or unskilled strategy (the hoof its or clear its of Sunday League). I made a big point of telling them how much better they were than me. Christ but I felt uneasy, unable to relax but not able to appreciate exactly why.
Two guys walked by from the tennis courts. I attempted to swiftly calculate what their eyes (which of course I didn’t seek, in case that action might suggest something, anything, whatever) might be seeing, what their suspicions might be whispering. I didn’t know how to act with these kids, I couldn’t even find a manner of speaking I was comfortable with. Did my discomfort come across? And what might that infer to someone?
The kids, clearly, had no cynicism. As I made my excuses to leave they continued hammering around the small pitch while appealing for me to come back after dinner, asking me if I’d see them again, that it was nice to meet me. Because they were children, as magic and as wonderful as kids should be. And, essentially, they weren’t different in any way to the sort of kids I’d have had some grounds for avoiding while in Oxford.
Except, of course, that they didn’t live in Oxford. They weren’t born in Oxford. They weren’t growing up in Oxford. They looked exactly the same as kids their age in Oxford but they were different, in some fundamental way. They were proper kids, and I’m sure that as much as their parents might have looked just like Oxford parents, it was obvious from their children that being village parents made a difference.
Or did it? It’s easy to generalise, to meet four kids and decide that Oxfordlife would damn them, stain them, change them, just because even going into the town centre over lunch leaves me stressed and anxious. I didn’t intend to lead myself into that when I started this. I was the one who pre-judged them, who pre-judged the whole situation and everyone in it or peripheral to it. I’m the one still writing this.
I’ve so much fear at the moment it’s leaving me zombified. It’s idiotic, mindless, untrusting, self-doubting. I’m nervous about the fact I’ll be turning up to a practice session with the local cricket club tomorrow in pristine whites, only to hurl a few pies around as between friendly kids and drudging rain I’ve had no chance to practice alone, nestled in my comfort zone. I’m dreading a repeat of the “Do we have to put up with this” scowls I got for my attempt to turn up and enjoy cricket at a University practice session.
I have yet to fully process the fact that I now live in a village, a place where kids don’t fear or goad adults, where pride is palpable and the sense of community clear in every walk down the high street, where I can saunter two minutes across the road to a glorious park with my wife for a picnic in front of the day’s local cricket match, where everyone says hello and smiles to everyone else.
I’m a country boy at heart, and I’ve been looking forward to this life for a long time, without really accepting or even understanding that what I craved was a sense of belonging, of place, of community. If I turn up tomorrow and am treated with disdain, regardless of how many awful balls I produce, it will be as unbelievable as if those happy kids had asked me to buy them cigarettes from the local shop. Shouldn’t I have got that by now?