By Jock SerongFiction Text Publishing
The Rules of Backyard Cricket
It starts in a suburban backyard with Darren Keefe and his older brother, sons of a fierce and gutsy single mother. The endless glow of summer, the bottomless fury of contest. All the love and hatred in two small bodies poured into the rules of a made-up game.
Darren has two big talents: cricket and trouble. No surprise that he becomes an Australian sporting star of the bad-boy variety – one of those men who’s always got away with things and just keeps getting.
Until the day we meet him, middle aged, in the boot of a car. Gagged, cable-tied, a bullet in his knee. Everything pointing towards a shallow grave.
The Rules of Backyard Cricket is a novel of suspense in the tradition of Peter Temple’s Truth. With glorious writing harnessed to a gripping narrative, it observes celebrity, masculinity – humanity – with clear-eyed lyricism and exhilarating narrative drive.
Don’t be fooled by the title: this incisive, intricately realised page-turner of a novel has plenty of cricket in it, but it’s not really about the sport. Serong uses elements of it – high-stakes competition, potential for corruption, the precarious rewards (and fall-outs) of celebrity – to create an alternately dark and profoundly touching story of two international-level cricketer brothers, alike in ambition, but each other’s opposite in personality.
The Rules of Backyard Cricket is packed with surprise revelations. What’s extraordinary about this novel is that they don’t just drive an exciting plot (which they do), or shed light on the underbelly of hypermasculine elite sport (which they do), but reveal something about what makes us human – and the eternal question of ‘how to be good?’.
I no longer remember where this ritual came from: the bat, the tennis ball, the twelve metres of shorn grass. There’s a line somewhere in any childhood. Before the line, all knowledge and habit is contributed by adults. How to eat with a fork, wash your face, wipe your bum. On the other side of the line, the magpie child starts to gather and collect from everywhere. How to swear. How to kiss a girl. Where you go when you die.
Backyard cricket must have been absorbed on the parental side of that line. We’ve been doing it ever since I can remember, and I can remember back to about three. But who taught us the rules? Who showed us how to mow the strip, to play a cover drive, to bowl a yorker? Who explained the dozens of tactical options, the physical vocabulary? It must have been Dad, but I don’t have the memory. It saddens me that I don’t.
Ground Zero is the stumps, represented by the severed foot of an apricot tree. In life it had sprawled out to about twenty feet of blossoms, leaves and fruit, open enough at its centre that we’d made a platform in there. Too basic and rickety to call it a treehouse, but serviceable enough for various kinds of warfare and for hiding when any shit had gone down.
The tree bore so much fruit that a large proportion of it – even beyond the harvest taken by us and the birds – just disintegrated on the lawn. For years after the tree was gone it would deliver painful reminders of its existence in the hard stones left by the rotted-down fruit under our bare feet. Its fate was a common one for a stonefruit tree: it started to rot and split down the middle, oozing shiny globes of sap. The plywood platform that had sheltered pirates and cowboys and bank robbers began to lean on a crazy angle, and with every gale we’d find new branches fallen on the grass.
But the fruit kept coming in staggering quantities, so it seems no one had the heart to deal with the problem—and of course, that no one can only have been Mum. It wasn’t as though Wally and I were ever going to take to the thing with pruning saws. I’m pretty confident we never affected any kind of chivalry for Mum. Anyway, we liked the old tree, especially when it thrashed drunkenly in the wind and we could hear its tortured wooden squeals from our beds.
But eventually the platform became too dangerous, and Mum appeared one day with the chainsaw. We’d been kicking the football, and suddenly she was there at the side gate with this forestry-grade monster she’d borrowed from a neighbour. A huge, ravenous-looking thing: teeth on a chain bolted to a motor.
I can still see her, paused at the gate with one hip slightly a-kilter, projecting an inner awareness of how cool she suddenly appeared. She had her massive imitation Dior sunglasses on, probably in lieu of protective goggles, and her hair pushed back behind a paisley bandana. Wally dropped the footy. There could be only one purpose for her appearance and, although it was going to cost us our lair, it was going to be good.
It took her a couple of goes to get the saw started. Then it coughed and caught, there was a squirt of blue smoke and she held it up with a satisfied look round her mouth. She gave it a rev, then another as she eased it into the bark. Sawdust swirled around her and settled in her hair. She worked the blade horizontally into the trunk, weaving the saw in and out, squinting behind the Diors, the veins running down her biceps. There were two loud cracks as the timber gave way, and the entire weight of the tree settled onto the bar of the chainsaw, choking the chain and killing the motor. She stood back for a moment, indecisive, with a hand on her hip.
Then she did the best thing I ever saw her do.
She jumped up from where she stood, hooked her hands on a low-hanging limb and hung there like a gibbon, yanking at it. She swung through the air a couple of times, kicking freely with her bare feet – the girl we’d never known her to be – and the tree reacted with a few more fibrous pops. Then down it came, apricots thudding and rolling all over the place, Mum lost completely under the canopy of leaves. We could hear her under there, shrieking with laughter, cracking twigs in her efforts to climb out.
The foot of the tree was cut off square except for a jagged horn of timber on one edge, where it had stretched and snapped. The chainsaw had fallen out by this stage and Mum took it up again, working the cord and the choke until it spluttered into life once more. With a sweep of the snarling arm the splinter was gone. We raked and scooped and brushed for an hour or more, the brittle afternoon sun of autumn picking up the gold among the leaf litter.
By the time we cleared the whole mess away, a squared-off stump stood in the middle of the lawn, roughly equidistant from the three paling fences. Wally disappeared into the garden shed and emerged with a tape measure. She’d cut exactly at bail height, twenty-eight inches by nine. We watched her saunter off, twigs in her hair, the chainsaw resting on that same cocked hip. Accident or design? As with most things Mum did, the line was blurred and she wasn’t saying. But forever after the stump was our stumps.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist