Anyone for Cricket?

Gilly playing cricketDust hangs in a mist beyond the ragged ring of desperate trees that form a boma or kraal encircling the grounds of the Khartoum Cricket Club. From beyond the boma boundary, donkeys bray calling to each other, avoiding roaming packs of wild and sometimes rabid dogs.

The ubiquitous smell of wood smoke, recently mowed grass and bone-dry black cotton soil goes unnoticed as I tot up the score. I am getting better at scoring although it’s been a chore to keep up my concentration. I am not a fan of watching or understanding the rules of the game.

The cricket club is our weekend retreat from the Khartoum Club, which we frequent during the week. The same people attend both, and these expatriate Britains are our friends. My husband and I are Zimbabwean expats or Rhodesian refugees I am not sure which. We are British by passport status, his obtained by birth, mine a temporary arrangement. All that counts in these circles is to be British even if only a colonial Britain, as I am.

The game is over and the men return to the pavilion, desperate for an ice-cold beer after an afternoon’s exertion under the desert sun. Its forty seven degrees in the shade where I sit keeping score, my back to the cool veranda. The heat is so dry it sucks sweat from your pores before reaching the skin’s surface, creating an odd prickling sensation.

Inside the mud brick pavilion, evaporative air conditioners cool the dim bar. Water flows over straw, and air blown through it, flows into the pavilion bar spilling out to the veranda where it clashes with the scorched outside air. A bar-counter runs the length of the room, the longest bar I have seen in my short life.

Behind the bar, committee members take turns serving. My husband is on the committee and I do much of the bar work when the men come off the field. On this occasion as is my practice, I hand the score sheet to the Captain and head behind the bar to line up the beers, for thirsty men.

During the scorching desert summer, I am one of the few British wives who remain in the country. The others go home in the tradition of British expats, but my home has changed too much and my family dispersed so I prefer to stay with my husband. I’m useful because I organise supplies and catering and work behind the bar and keep score and countless other things for the members, none of it paid.

Of course I am not a member because I am a woman. From the early nineteen hundreds, British colonial tradition in the Khartoum Cricket Club’s constitution dictates membership is a men’s only privilege, one against which I rail, to no avail. It is only when we leave Khartoum forever that I am given honorary membership for life; the first ever woman and perhaps the last. It’s something I treasure to this day, despite never having been back.

I won a few concessions during my time as a member’s wife, including the right for women to play cricket along with becoming the first women’s cricket captain, although that is another story. The men at the club tolerate my constant demands for equal rights in the way of the British, amused by my insistence but doggedly determined never to surrender.

They even decide for me, where my child shall be born. My maiden name is the same as that of a great Yorkshire cricketer, and the child I am carrying, a boy naturally – they couldn’t image differently, should be born in Yorkshire so he can play for the County. I wanted my child to be born in England so she wouldn’t have the trouble I was experiencing with renewal of my passport.

Once the players are showered and dressed in their usual attire of slacks and sports jackets and are comfortably ensconced at the bar for the evening, beers in hand, I come around and sit on the vacant stool next to my husband, who looks through the scores with the Captain.

Rhodesia cricketMy husband is the odd man out, wearing shorts and long socks rather than long pants and a jacket. His tee shirt has a green and white flag and says simply Rhodesia. The British make an exception for the eccentricities of colonial quaintness.

The Captain lights his pipe and looks at me, smiling his unruffled smile. ‘You really have the hang of scoring now. Well done.’

He works at the British Embassy, first or second secretary or some equally high ranking position. I am convinced he is MI6, and tease him about being the resident spy because he is so calm, unassuming and observant. He is also one of the most gentlemanly men I have met, and I like him enormously.

‘How’s my application coming on,’ I ask.

He sucks his pipe looking grave, the humour gone from his eyes, and then busies himself tamping down the tobacco and relighting his pipe. My heart sinks. I am never going to get a permanent British passport and the temporary one I have is due to run out in a month. I don’t know what I will do.

My husband was born in England so his passport is safe. I don’t understand why I can’t get one by virtue of being married to him. My mother was born in Britain but at that time, a British passport was only given to offspring of children whose fathers were born there. My father was born of British parents but in Tavoy, Burma.

We are distracted by another friend joining us. He is also an Embassy type with the most peculiar history of having, as his father in law, a notorious IRA soldier who was killed by the British. I often wonder at his role in the Embassy.

‘Communications Engineer,’ he once told me noncommittally, so perhaps he is the spy. It’s what the Captain would like me to believe, but the guessing game is social sport for us only. Who cares what they do. They are good company.

I turn back to pursue my cause. ‘So why not this time,’ I ask.

‘Well,’ he pauses sucking at his pipe. ‘The trouble is, as a colonial subject of Great Britain you should have a Southern Rhodesian passport which is valid in England, but because your country is in rebellion against Britain there are sanctions in place. The Republic of Rhodesia is not recognised so your Rhodesian passport is not acceptable.

‘But that’s in the past. It’s Zimbabwe-Rhodesia now, not Rhodesia so that old argument doesn’t wash.’

‘Yes,’ he says, un-phased by my vehement interjection. ‘However the ambassador thinks…’

But he doesn’t get to finish saying what the ambassador thinks because my frustration erupts into anger. I stand up, belly protruding and say ‘my child will be born on British soil one way or another, and you just tell that stupid man that if I can’t go to England for the birth I will be having it in his office on his desk, that being the only British soil I know of in these parts.’

Embarrassed by my emotional outburst, I wriggled back onto my bar stool and take a long drink of my tonic water trying to contain my frustration. I glance at him but he smokes calmly, gazing at me with the usual amused twinkle back in his eyes.

‘Sorry,’ I say.

He says, ‘I’ll pass on your message.’

A week later we are again at the bar and this time I don’t ask him about my passport but he raises it. ‘You might like to know, I spoke to the ambassador and told him what you said,’ he says.

‘Really! What did he say,’ I ask my breath shallow with trepidation and distant hope?

‘He asked if I thought you would seriously try to have your baby in his office.’

‘Oh,’ I say deflated. Of course, it was a silly threat as if I could gain access though all that security.

He puffs on his pipe, his amusement threatening to spill from his eyes and reach his mouth. Then he says ‘I told him that I thought you were resourceful enough to achieve it.’

He’s mocking me but I smile, acknowledging his dig at my colonial brashness. ‘I’m never going to get one, am I?’

‘On the contrary.’ He stands up and reaches inside his jacket pocket, pulling out two black booklets, one thin the other twice as thick. ‘The thin one is what we like to call the dirty passport,’ he says. It is the one you use when you travel home to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia via South Africa. If you have a South African stamp or for that matter a Zimbabwe-Rhodesia stamp in your passport the Sudanese will not let you back into the country. The other is the normal passport you use when you are travelling anywhere else. It’s valid for ten years and gives you permanent British citizenship. The dirty passport is annual renewal and only for use while you live in the Sudan.’

I throw myself at him, hugging him tight, disrupting his usual composure so his compassion becomes alarm.

‘Thank you, thank you,’ I say stepping back and taking the passports.

His face becomes stern. ‘Of course we don’t admit to issuing dirty passports so we will deny it, and you must hand it back once you cease to reside in the Sudan, or the politics change.’

‘Naturally! I’ll get you another beer,’ I say grinning at his gravity.

My baby is born in Leeds but to the dismay of the Cricket Club she is a girl.

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