“Another pint, Gilbert?”
Mr Chandrasekhar’s ebullient tones cut through the hubbub of the public bar like the north wind through the stench of a cow barn, drowning the cheers from the 50 inch Sky screen as Wilkinson converted yet another try. I checked my watch; no, seven thirty and no meetings or functions in the Club House this evening, I was in the clear, surely? We don’t often see the Chairman in the public, and more than likely trouble’s the reason when we do.
I raised my hand in acceptance, mustering a weak but servile smile of recognition, “Ar, thank ee, squire, that be right ‘andsome of you.”
“Knock it off, Gilly,” he said, depositing an almost full pint on the table in front of me, “none of that pseudo folk dialect tonight, I need your best foot forward, not your impersonation of a yokel.”
I shifted gears while downing a third of the pint, then asked him, in careful standard southern, how I might assist. I still find it hard, even after five years, to rationalise a perfect Oxford accent, an imperious air of command and impeccable tweeds with a guy who looks exactly like Sanjeev Kumar at number 42. Mr Chandrasekhar is smart enough to know that, and the frosty glint in his eyes warned me to play a straight bat this evening. He lowered his voice to what he obviously believed to be a conspiratorial whisper, though you could have heard him in the car park, and began his briefing.
It seemed he had an old friend arriving at Gatwick in the next few days, someone he’d known well as a child in Calcutta, before his rich uncle had wafted him off to Winchester and set him firmly on the road to success in the UK. Apparently they’d roamed the streets together, getting up to all sorts of mischief, the details of which he dismissed with a surprisingly Gallic shrug. He’d arranged one of his splendid weekend house parties with his usual top-notch caterers from Brighton, invited a bunch of his City colleagues and their wives but still wanted to surprise his old friend with something extra special.
The light began to dawn and I shuffled uncomfortably on my chair. “You’d like the lads to be there on Saturday afternoon, after team practice, so that your friend can have a bit of a bat against your bowling on a real, genuine, English village green – is that it?” I enquired mournfully, “they won’t be pleased, you know.”
“Well guessed, Gilbert,” he appeared surprised at my perspicacity, but more than a little relieved, “that’s a hole in one, and you know you can persuade them, you’re just the chap; it’ll only be for twenty minutes or so. Just tell them to look on it as a little extra fielding practice. I’ll send a couple of cases of bubbly down for afterwards … “ He stopped and gazed thoughtfully at me for a moment. “All right, a couple of crates of beer, then?” I remained mute. “ …and a few bottles of Red Label?” I continued to stare, unblinking, at him. “… Black Label, that is?”
I still didn’t respond, but pushed my empty glass in his direction, more in hope than expectation, but you have to keep your nerve with the gentry. You could have knocked me over with a feather when Mr Chandrasekhar dutifully picked it up and strode over to the bar for a refill. He really did want to please his friend. “OK,” I sighed when he came back with a newly drawn pint, “I’ll see what I can do, but no more than twenty minutes and please make sure you arrive on time; they won’t hang around if you’re late, and my life won’t be worth living. Three crates, and half a dozen bottles of Black label.” Mr Chandrasekhar jumped to his feet with a grin and patted me on the shoulder. “Good man. See you Saturday, on the dot of 3 o’clock.” He strode out of the pub, dropping a tenner on the bar as he passed. “Have one for yourself, Stan!”
It took me most of the week to coerce ten of the players into providing a field, although most of them were, at heart, quite supportive of our rich squire; he’d done a lot for the village and the Cricket Club since he arrived and he was popular with their wives. Old fashioned manners and an athletic frame had seen to that.
True, there had been some initial jealousy of Mr Chandrasekhar’s great wealth and easy manner, mainly from the Major, who had been chairman of every village committee before he came, and from Janice Paternoster, ex-bluestocking and ex-Bluebell girl and the driving force behind the district WI and the St John’s volunteers, but a few tactful rounds of golf with the Major and a helicopter trip to Paris for lunch in La Closerie des Lilas with Janice had soon restored our rustic harmony.
So we were dutifully assembled at the prescribed time, the keeper padded, Bertrand (our bank manager) and I in our white umpire’s coats, idly tossing the ball around when the Club House phone rang. I hit the answer key on my portable, an innovation Mr Chandrasekhar had cheerfully funded last season.
“It’s off, I’m afraid, Gilly.” Mr Chandrasekhar’s voice could be heard all over the pitch; I’d left the handset on loudspeaking. “Apologies to everyone, but Imran’s just heard that his mother has died in a car accident, so he’s off to Heathrow to get the first flight home. I’m going to the airport with him, of course. Please let them all know how sorry we both are to have wasted their time. Imran was really looking forward to meeting them all and batting on the Oakswood village green.” He rang off abruptly. There was a muttering of “bollocks” and a few less choice words as the team slouched off the ground, but all of them made a point of asking me to pass their condolences to Mr Chandrasekhar, and onwards to Imran.
It was early on Monday morning when I heard the familiar swish of the Ferrari’s tyres on the gravel, followed by the inevitable sound of scattered stones splattering against the roller shed at the side of the car park. Mr Chandrasekhar walked slowly over to me where I was repairing the second pitch. We’re lucky to have two, we’re one of the very few village clubs that can afford that luxury. He appeared thoughtful and depressed, which is not like him at all. I assumed he must be mourning the death of his friend’s mother, who presumably he had known as a child. “Sad business, his Mum dying like that,” I said as sympathetically as I could.
He looked up as though he’d only just noticed me. “Oh no,“ he said, “Imran’s mother was” – he mumbled in what I assume was Hindi – “sorry,” he continued, “she was what you’d call an evil old witch. Imran had to go home because he’s the only one in the family who has a key to the bank vault where she kept the money.”
“So why so dejected then, squire?” I asked.
“Bloody Molly Floppy Ears, or whatever her pedigree name is, that spaniel breeding bitch I bought last month for ten grand. While I was off at Heathrow, she escaped her run and had it off with Gerard Ponsonby’s mongrel on the front lawn. They had to throw a bucket of water over them to get them apart. Totally useless now. Ten grand down the drain because of a faithless randy bitch. What a weekend!” He turned on his heel and marched back to the Ferrari, slammed the door and departed in another shower of gravel.