Green friends

Every morning I’d pull the bungalow door closed and set out on my way to the station, about half a mile away, up a leafy lane and through the village. To get to the lane I would have to walk around the cricket oval, at the back of which we lived. The bungalow was plain and furnished with all sorts of hand-me-downs, but it wasn’t the worst place to dwell. The rent was cheap, and we had no neighbours apart from the gang of swans who liked to hang out on the pitch covers on damp day. Every morning, as I walked around the oval, the club greenkeeper, a mild cheery man in his 60s, would already be at work, come rain or shine, and wave his customary good morning greeting at me, accompanied with ‘light of my life! There she is!’

Chris was recently retired, an elder at the cricket club, with a love of all things cricket and gardening. He drove a shiny BMW and had worked at Coutts as a banker to the extraordinarily rich and famous, but you wouldn’t have known this to talk to him. He had big bushy eyebrows, crinkly happy brown eyes and a shock of thick white hair. There was nothing pretentious about Chris; if I hadn’t known any better I would have thought green-keeping was his career. But I did know better, even in my 22 year old naiveté, and I knew that anyone who had even a passing association with one of the more prestigious cricket clubs in Surrey would not be gardening for an income. The people the cricket club were a mix of people from the village – stockbrokers, bankers and lawyers living in the dormitory shire while working in the City during the week. Their lives were private schools and wearing fascinators to church weddings on Saturdays, and holidays in Majorca or Marbella. And this is where I lived.

It was an odd friendship between a chubby gauche young woman and a retiree – but it was a close friendship. I didn’t see him as a kindly old uncle or a substitute for a father. He was just a friend. I’d take strong cups of tea out to Chris as he was working on the green; and at the end of the day I’d pull him a pint of London pride and he would tell me everything he had done that day and how the pitch was looking for that weekend. We both enjoyed those chats.

On pleasant evenings we would sit in the hazy English twilight; I’d smoke my silk cut and he’d tell me stories about Coutts and banking with the royals; and the London fog of 1952. Sometimes we just sat in companionable silence as the midges came down to feed. And sometimes he’d tell jokes regarding her indoors and I’d tell him about how I missed New Zealand and the hopes I had once we went back. I thought of marriage and of children. My partner was thinking the same thing – but he wasn’t planning any of those things with me. He was the reason I was living at the cricket club. Once he ended things, I couldn’t remain there in the UK; and the day I left I went and said goodbye to Chris, who was watering the middle pitch, as usual.

‘I’m sorry darling’, he said. ‘I’m not very good at saying goodbyes’. We hugged and I pretended not to see the tears in his warm brown eyes. I think he murmured something about keeping in touch but we both knew quite well that was probably not realistic. My ex would soon move my successor into the place I had occupied with breathtaking speed and I knew that I would never see that place again. In most ways that suited me, but I missed one friend.

And every time I have been back to England since (a few) I have thought about looking him up, but I haven’t.

Sometimes friends really are for only a season, literally; or a reason. But I’ll remember this one for a lifetime.

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