I doubt whether I had ever seen a lonelier spot for a cricket ground. Not a single house or dwelling offered company in this isolated location. In fact the only building in sight if it could be called a building, was an old wooden pavilion I was surprised that, half way through September, cricket was still being played in this part of England. There was already a sharpness in the air and a concern in the antics of the curlews and sandpipers that suggested they knew winter was not far behind them
I was also puzzled. I had passed this way several times since I had given up playing the game and, at my wife’s insistence, taken up walking as a means of protecting my health. On these few occasions I would have sworn on oath that no cricket ground existed here
From my elevated position on the moor I could see that the ground was small. At first all seemed normal enough but, as I continued to watch, I had an undefined sense that something was not quite as it should be. I struggled in my rucksack for the small pair of binoculars I always carried. I scanned the field. There were thirteen players including two batsmen. But the game had no umpires. Whilst it was quite common for friendly games not to have ‘proper umpires it was most unusual not to have any umpires at all. Equally strangely I could see no sign of any opposing team other than the two batsmen on the field. Certainly they were not lounging on the veranda of the pavilion. I assumed that they must be sitting in a part of the field I could not see.
I scrambled down the hill through the dying bracken. The day was slipping away but I had time I told myself. At the bottom of the hill I came across a track. At this point I could not see anything of the ground itself as it was hidden by a substantial copse of oak and ash trees. A sense of unease I had ignored in my enthusiasm to get to the ground suddenly grabbed me. The hairs on my neck stood on end. I realised what else had bothered me from the moment I had seen the game. Not a sound came from those playing. At first I suppose I had assumed that the wind had carried away all those sounds I associated so easily with the game. Now I was no more than fifty yards from the game and I could hear nothing other than the sound of the wind sighing in the trees.
I pushed my way through the last few yards of that silent wood onto the edge of the field. What I saw caused a kind of cold sweat I had never experienced before. Not a single player ran across its ill-kept surface. Before me was complete silence and emptiness.
Something made me turn my uncomprehending stare towards the old wooden pavilion. From this position it looked much like many other cricket pavilions – a basic construction and a simplistic functionality. The two shuttered windows, either side of the closed door, gave it the look of a face. From its elevated position it seemed to survey the field with a protective malevolence that made me shudder.
Yet I was drawn to it. As I neared the pavilion I paused for a moment. I swore I heard the sound of voices drifting across the field coming from that creaking edifice. I shook my head but the sounds continued. By now I was no more than ten yards from the veranda that formed the front of the building. Benches and a few sad metal and plywood chairs filled the space. A home-made scoreboard leaned crazily against one wall.
I climbed onto the veranda and walked towards the closed door like a man pulled by a rope towards the edge of a cliff.
“Hello. anybody there?” My voice sounded muffled and distant. Afterwards I asked myself had I really heard the other voice. I believe I did and, above the murmuring, I believe it said just four words – “Welcome on board, sir.”
I pushed against the resistant door. It did not move. I felt a huge relief that I would not have to confront whatever lay beyond this barrier, then the door swung open. It was smooth and silent. The chattering voices ceased as if turned off by some unseen hand.
I stepped into the empty gloom. The dust hung heavy in the air illuminated, in parts, by a little light penetrating through the battered shutters. My footsteps echoed on the boarded floor. Two, once white, umpire’s coats hung on a rusty peg. Battered batting pads and two unmatched batting gloves lay on an old table in the centre of the room. Various items of clothing hung on pegs around the walls. A pair of flared trousers and an acrylic tank top lay on the bench.
As I surveyed the room another object lying on the table caught my eye. An old scorebook twisted and rotted in the damp. The book was half full with records of games all in the nineteen-seventies. I turned the pages until I reached the final entry. The game had taken place on the 15th of September, 1979 and it appeared to be the last game of that season. It told me that this had been the home of Middlesmoor cricket club. Outside I felt, rather than saw, the gathering dusk.
I was about to put the book down when an entry I had not noticed before attracted my attention. On the following page to what I thought was the final entry was one more list of names. There were eleven names on the list and two more names at the side. Once again I made to close the book and once again I paused. There was one more name on the list. In the increasing gloom I stared hard at that name. Finally, I could read it. It was my own name. I dropped the book. I believe it made no sound.
As I turned to leave I sensed him before I saw him. He stood in the doorway blocking my flight. A black silhouette with the light behind him. I could not distinguish his features but my fear, my leg-shaking fear, came from the scythe he carried hanging loosely at his side. For a second I believed the Grim Reaper had called to collect me.
As we sat side by side on the veranda Walter Southall and I talked. Walter had been the groundsman here and still returned occasionally to scythe the worst of the nettles which grew around the field and which the sheep would not eat. He told me the team had been flying to Majorca for an end of season tour in 1979. Eleven players from Middiesmoor and two players from Dirkwood. All had been killed when two Jumbo jets collided in mid air. I remembered the dreadful crash now. The greatest loss of life ever in a plane crash. The date was the 22nd of September, a week after the final entry and, exactly, to the day, twenty-one years ago.
“You’re not the first to see them,” said Walter. “But not everybody comes down to look, so they’re no wiser. And those that do don’t explore, like you did.”
I tried to defend my actions. “Well, it will sounds daft but I thought I heard voices coming from inside.” Despite his age, he turned sharply to me.
“What did you hear?”
“Well, this will sound even dafter but I thought I heard somebody say – Welcome on board, sir’
He turned away and stared out across the empty field. I sensed he was trying to ask me a difficult question.
“Go on,” I encouraged.
He hesitated, then spoke slowly. ‘When you were in there, did you,” he paused, “see anything?”
“Well it was pretty gloomy but there were the kind of things you’d expect to see in a cricket changing room.”
Again he hesitated.
“Did you pick anything up?”
“Not really,” I replied.
His response was immediate.
“I had a look through that old scorebook in there.”
I felt him stiffen at the side of me. He did not speak.
“Funny thing was,” I continued. “I could have sworn that my name was written in there. But it must just have been a trick of the light.” Walter continued to stare across the field. Finally, he spoke.
“That’s not always there,” he said quietly.
“Shall I go and get it?” I asked. Again he remained silent for a long time.
“No,” he said. “It won’t be there and besides, the damage is done.
Walter wouldn’t say anymore. He said he had to get on with his scything. I looked back as I approached the edge of the wood. He was already scything the nettles around the fence even as the dusk thickened. That was the last sight I had of him and that haunted field.
His cryptic words came back to me a few months later as I sat down and buckled my seat belt. The air hostess smiled at me and said, “Welcome on board, sir.”