Short story first published here
1957: The Day It Rained Tennis Balls
As the light dimmed I thought that it was the beginning of a rain shower, a very sudden and unusual summer rain shower. The raindrops were the noisiest that I had ever heard and they all seemed to be falling only into our back yard.
Miss Green lived at the back of our street. She was older than anybody I knew and she frightened the life out of all the kids in the village. Her rundown cottage was on the corner and on dark nights we would sprint past it for fear that she would spring out from behind the broken chestnut-paling fence and drag us into its overgrown garden. She never did, of course, but the fear was there nonetheless.
There was no logical reason to fear her. No-one could recall that she had ever done anything to justify this fearful reputation. However, at that time, in our imaginations, it was easy to draw obvious conclusions from her wild appearance. Her hair was piled up behind her head in a grey bun from which loose strands straggled around her wrinkled face. Close up you could see the black spores of mould forming in those wrinkles. Apart from the full-length dark wool skirt that was a permanent fixture on her rangy frame, she wore men’s clothes – checked work shirts, socks and scuffed army boots. When set against the backdrop of that cottage with its faded curtains permanently closed at the windows, we knew instinctively not to cross her path.
Millhead was not a typical rural village, being formed from small functional terraces built at the turn of the century for the coming of the Ironworks and the Railways, and so not as pretty to look at as the older limestone villages of the surrounding area. Those terraces now surrounded what must have been the original farmstead where Miss Green lived. Our house was in the middle of the most northerly terrace, facing out across open fields towards Warton Crag. The front room and front entrance were reserved for special occasions and so the daily comings-and-goings were through the back door. This back door opened onto a small paved yard which sloped up to three stone steps giving access onto the unsurfaced back street which led out and along to Miss Green’s cottage.
That back street was our playground. Particularly in summer, it served as our cricket pitch. It was about five yards wide, flanked on one side by a continuous line of high yard walls at the backs of the houses, and on its opposite side by a parallel solid limestone retaining wall of even greater height which held back the raised ground of Miss Green’s farmyard on its far side. Her land stretched half the length of the street down to her cottage on the corner.
It was just short of Miss Green’s cottage that Tosh would begin his West Indian run-up. He would pace out the distance, turn, scratch his mark on the earth floor with his foot and then thunder down the long narrow corridor of that back street towards the bowler’s wicket, marked by a broken capstone removed from Miss Green’s wall and placed on the floor. There, in a flurry of flailing arms and legs, he would fling down a rocket delivery aimed to pitch and angle in at the batsman from the potholes around the batting crease. Behind that batting crease I would stand facing him, shaking inside with nervous apprehension, but determined not to show it, armed only with a flat solid bat shaped by a saw from a nine inch skirting board by my Dad. Behind the batsman’s wicket, a box-wood crate which had long since lost its original lime colour to the dust of the street, my brother would adopt the stumper’s crouch whilst Sammy and his sister would be flattened against the walls, one on each side of the street at mid-wicket, ready to take a catch – one handed if off the wall was the rule – or to duck in the event of a powerful off-drive.
Over the summers, as we grew up, we had learnt to cope with the variable bounce of the ball as it pitched on the earth floor. Even Sammy’s sister could put together a useful innings. However, there was no doubt that Tosh, being taller than the rest of us, was the star player. Not only was he the fastest bowler but, with his long reach and lightning reactions, he could stretch for catches that we could never reach. Most annoyingly, he could bat well. Whilst we scratched together quick singles by blocking the ball and running as the fielders scrambled to collect it, he had mastered the straight drive back over the bowler’s head which gave him all the time in the world to stroll down the pitch for his runs. If we placed a fielder behind the bowler to counteract this he would then stroke the ball short into the gap from where the fielder had moved. It was frustrating to bowl against him and in frustration it was inevitable that we would adopt the measure of last resort. This consisted of offering up a slow ‘dolly’ of a delivery in the hope that he would miscue his shot and slog the ball over Miss Green’s wall, which counted as six and out. This was a fine tactic if we had more than one ball, but as often as not it meant the end of the game.
Of course, there was always the option of going over the wall to look for it. The wall was high but easy enough to climb. There were plenty of holds where the mortar had perished and crumbled away leaving the joints open between the stones. The capstones on top were loose, but with care we could ease our way up and peer over into the farmyard and look down and along the wall towards the back of Miss Green’s cottage. The back looked even worse than the front. It had no bushes to hide it and the window frames pitted with rot and flaking paint were clearly visible, again with the drawn curtains. Slates hung over the eaves where moss and grass grew in the slime of the cracked gutters. Like Miss Green, it presented a picture of neglect and decay.
Behind the house, near to the back door, stood an old water pump, with its long cast-iron cranking handle, red with rust. In the furthest corner against the house were the remains of a crumbling brick pigsty, empty and unused. These were the only features in the yard, the remainder of the land being a mixture of overgrown grass, weeds and nettle beds, relieved only by patches of bare earth where Billy the goat grazed the vegetation down to an acceptable level for the hens to pluck those areas bald. Billy was a bad-tempered beast and Miss Green kept him tethered. When he had grazed an area clear she would move him to a new patch. She often had trouble with him because he would strain against the tether and pull out his post. Then she would appear behind her wall at the rear of our house, and, looking down across the back street into our yard, she would screech “Teddy! Teddy! Billy’s out.” My father would go out and around to her gate and into the farmyard to help her to drive in a new post and pull the goat to it. He was wary of the goat because it would butt and bite and Miss Green had to hold its head whilst he secured the tether. We would climb up her wall and watch this activity, which could be good for a laugh if my father had problems with the goat. Then he would swear and whack Billy with a stick, which often resulted in the goat trying to bite him even more.
However, it was neither Miss Green, who we could usually hear coming because of the creak of her back door, nor Billy, who was usually tethered, that stopped us going over the wall to search for the lost ball. The real reason for staying out was the pack of half-wild Highland terriers that roamed freely about the farmyard and hid in the undergrowth. Although small, these dogs were ferocious. As soon as they spotted a head above the wall, one of them would bark out the alarm, and they would chase across the farmyard as a mob, snapping and yapping, to gather under the wall in the hope of catching an intruder. Even my father, when helping with the goat, insisted that Miss Green called the dogs into the house before he entered through the gate. Those dogs seemed to be frightened of nothing except Miss Green.
Therefore, whenever a six and out went over the wall, the game ended with a lost ball. Unless, that is, Tosh, being the bravest or the stupidest depending on whether we wanted to encourage or insult him, was prepared to risk it. Being the star player, Tosh always had that extra incentive to carry on playing. Generally he was the cause of the ball going over the wall in the first place. We would all climb the wall with him to scout the area for the right set of conditions. Firstly, Miss Green had to be out of sight, preferably inside her house. If she saw us, she would hobble, shouting, across the yard, her knobbly walking stick raised and pointing directly at us. Her army boots would crush a path of weeds and nettles towards us and we would bolt home to hide in our backyards. Secondly, Billy had to be tethered at a point where he could not stretch to reach us at the full extent of his tether. Thirdly, and most importantly, the pack of dogs had to be at the furthest extremity of the farmyard to allow the maximum time for Tosh to get over and back before they could spot him and give chase. Even then, when all the conditions were met, it was a matter of trying to spot a ball, any ball, near to the foot of the wall so that he could drop over quickly, scoop up the prize and leap back to safety ahead of the snarling pack.
Not surprisingly, over many summers, a cartload of tennis balls went over that wall, never to be recovered. It became expensive to keep replacing them and, when we had exhausted the last option of going completely around the extremity of Miss Green’s land to the old stable yard on the far side to search for an optimistically long hit, we would return to sit on the earth floor of the back street, to lean against the yard walls in the afternoon sunshine, to curse the feared Miss Green and to lob pebbles over her wall to annoy the dogs.
One sunny afternoon in late summer, my brother and I were sat in the back room dressed in our Sunday best. We had listened to the lunchtime BBC programmes on the wireless – from ‘Family Favourites’ through to ‘Round the Horn’ – and were in that boring gap until ‘Journey into Space’ was broadcast in the early evening. Tosh had been to call for us to see if we were coming out, but had been sent away by my mother. She had informed him that we had to stay in as relatives were coming up to visit. She and my father were in the kitchen preparing the inevitable ham salad and Battenberg cake for Sunday tea for the expected arrivals. The window of the back room looked out into our back yard and the sunlight streamed through the net curtains and made patterns on the carpet.
Slowly the light dimmed as if a cloud had passed across the sun. It was then that I heard the rain – giant, plopping sounds bouncing off the windows and drumming on the yard surface. I glanced up from the chair to see Miss Green’s angular silhouette filling the window and blocking out the sunlight. She was standing in her usual position on her land looking down into our back yard and I expected to hear the familiar call “Teddy! Teddy! Billy’s out!” She was the only person who ever called him Teddy, much to the annoyance of my mother. Instead she made no sound at all.
She had leant her walking stick against the top of her wall and was reaching down below herself into a gigantic cardboard soap powder box. It was the sort we used to pack up the groceries when we collected the weekly order from the Co-op on Friday afternoons after school. She had perched the box under the top of the wall and was reaching inside it with both hands. Then with a sharp jerk she pulled out a coal-scoop holding another load of tennis balls and launched them into the air. As she let them go she reached down again to repeat the action, and again and again as each salvo was released. The first volley had bounced into our back yard and pinged in all directions, to be followed by more and more. The air was full of tennis balls, like a shower of giant raindrops, bouncing against the walls, the windows and each other. Some bounced over into next door’s yard and some bounced back again. They ran into the open drain gully and rolled down the slope of the yard to lodge against the weather bar of the back door, filling the yard floor as they settled. And still they came, flying over the wall, dozens and dozens of tennis balls. My brother and I watched open-mouthed in silence.
At last she finished, and reaching down to collect her stick, she lurched around to face away from us and disappeared from view, dragging the empty cardboard box behind her. As she moved, the light brightened and all was quiet as before. My father opened the door and the top layer of tennis balls dribbled into the house. The three of us collected them in the old dolly tub which was stored in the washhouse within the yard. When we had finished I slipped outside and climbed Miss Green’s wall to look over. The whole of the undergrowth in the farmyard had been scythed level.
In the excitement of collecting the balls I never thought to consider the significance of Miss Green’s action. It wasn’t until later that I began to wonder why the feared Miss Green would do such a wonderful thing, and so I asked my father the question
“Dad? Miss Green hates us playing cricket and knocking balls over her wall. Why has she thrown them all back?”
“Nay, lad,” he said. “You’ve got it all wrong. She’s not against you playing cricket. She likes to see you enjoying yourselves. It’s the wall. Her wall. It’s in a bad way and she can’t afford to repair it. It’ll cost a fortune. She’s frightened that if you climb on it, it’ll collapse on you. It’s you kids she’s worried about … so keep off it!”