by John Morrison
1: Springtime in Milltown
Spring has finally arrived in this little old milltown: a great relief for locals driven half crazy by another long Pennine winter. Due to the town's unusual topography, hemmed in on all sides by steep hills, the winter sun seems to set shortly after breakfast. But now the daffodils are out, the trees around the old packhorse bridge are bursting with blossom, and the Town Drunk has come out of hibernation.
Unsteady of gait (buoyed up by a pint of Hammerite and a whisky chaser) and florid of face (sporting the 'corned beef' complexion that drives the women wild) he lurches erratically across the square. He started drinking in order to forget, and has succeeded spectacularly.
It could all have been so very different. As a man of few talents, but almost limitless antagonism towards his fellow man, he could no doubt have been trained to run, say, an angler's bait shop or key-cutting franchise.
Milltown is lucky to have such a dedicated career drinker, rather than some of the dilettantes that are coming into the business these days. His gleaned his inspiration from those cowboy films in which the town drunk's undemanding role is to hold the hero's horse, get thrown through the sugar-glass of the saloon's windows at regular intervals, and have his precious whisky bottle shattered by a ricochet during the gun-fight finale.
If it's true that we get the shops we deserve, then you have to assume that the shopping lists of most people in Milltown feature badly made handicrafts, incense sticks and shapeless sweaters knitted in rainbow colours. "Christ", says Willow Woman, "I'm right out of corn-dollies and hand-dipped candles. Sky, could you nip down to the shops for me?" Her daughter Sky, only recently diagnosed as suffering from 'Hippy Parent Crap Name Syndrome', is still smarting from the humiliation. She grinds a dog-end beneath the heel of her Doc Martens and heads reluctantly down to the shops.
It is one of life's minor mysteries how, in these difficult times, so many shops in Milltown can survive by selling nothing but worthless tat. God only knows what Gerald Ratner would have had to say about the Twig Shop, for example: stocked from floor to ceiling with unremarkable items that can be gathered for free from the nearest wood or hedgerow. Apparently sane people are parting with folding money to buy dried flowers, bent sticks and fir-cones, without having a gun pointed at their heads. Is it really any wonder that the Tories have been in power for 18 years?
The bookshop, a few doors away, specialises in those arcane titles which have failed, on publication, to set the literary world alight. Their progress from printing press to rubbish skip is interrupted only by a brief sojourn on the 'remaindered' shelves - each volume representing a bizarre aberration of taste or foresight by some overwrought commissioning editor. The window display is full of titles such as Eat More & Get Slim, The Collectors' Guide to Broken Biscuits and The Time-Life Book of Celebrity Breakfasts.
An attempt by the bookshop to go upmarket was doomed when the local author
who came in for a book-signing session resisted the well-meaning advise
that he should sign only his own books.
It's a mere five-minute walk down to Milltown's cricket pitch, where the team has assembled after their winter sabbatical. The air is filled with the sounds of the summer game - mostly a hard leather ball colliding with tender, unprotected flesh. The air is full of expectations too: that this year we are finally going to fulfil our obvious cricketing potential, and not continue to be the talent-free embarrassment that we've been as long as anyone can remember.
It is this same kind of unqualified optimism, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that makes a pavilion full of sodden cricketers gaze at storm-tossed clouds across a flooded pitch, where the two sets of stumps are rapidly disappearing beneath the water, and remark, without the slightest hint of irony: "You know, I think it's brightening up".
The smell of new-mown grass is a potent reminder that summer isn't far away, as is the industrial-strength horse liniment that our number five batsman rubs liberally all over himself. As he straps neoprene supports around elbows and knees, he appears to be built out of spare parts from a breaker's yard. He admits to being 55 and there are rumours that this figure is merely a starting-point for negotiations.
He is the only member of the team who loosens up before a game, because he is the only member of the team with muscles. He performs inelegant and painful-looking callisthenics while the rest of the team sit around drinking beer and cadging roll-ups. Consequently, he is the only one who ever gets injured: a regular litany of sprains and pulls, requiring yet more liniment and support garments. It's a downward spiral of exercise, injury and visits to the surgical-supplies shop that will end - to one-one's great surprise - with him falling to bits altogether.