Author: Ben Davies
Ben Davies is a writer based in San Anselmo, California. Originally from the UK, Ben has had articles published in magazines including Huck, Lost and The International Times. He is currently finishing his debut novel, A Question of England.
An Eye for an Eye is part of an interlinked short story collection detailing murder, class feuds, parenthood, arson, forgiveness and love. They explore what happens when justice is taken into your own hands, and ultimately, what it means to be human.
content warning: brief mention of SA
In Mayan culture they believe in the ancient saying “an eye for eye” and after a blue-eyed tourist was raped at a place called “the lake” in Guatemala, they hung the guy who did it in the street for all to see.
I’d never heard of Mayan’s or Guatemala even, but that’s what Matty Lawrence told me as we stacked shelves at the Co-op one Saturday morning for £6.26 an hour.
As he whispered his whole body bristled in a surge of excitement I found strange. For me it was one of the saddest stories I think I’d ever heard, causing my right ear to twitch which was something that only happened when I was uncomfortable. Matty (who we called “Yorkie” because he always seemed to have a bar of Raisin & Biscuit Yorkie on the go) went on to tell me, brushing his greasy highlighted hair back as he spoke, that his brother had just been to this lake on his “gap year” and he had heard the story right from the source. A women called Ixchel who lived at the beach. That was who told him though I’m not sure he pronounced her name right. This gap year was something he told me about each and every time we stacked shelves, as if it was him doing all the travelling and not the older brother who I always thought was a bit of a show off.
Now the way Yorkie explained the whole “eye for an eye” thing was as if it was the most foreign thing ever, a faraway planet compared to the little English village where we lived. I didn’t agree though. He also added that pirates did the same thing and considering one of the people we learned about at school, the one who defeated the armada and was a queen’s best friend, was also a pirate, right out proved my point. As a side note I also wondered whether that’s why pirates had so many eye patches, though I couldn’t find any confirmation of that theory.
In England we obviously don’t openly practice an eye for an eye like they do at this lake. Even if our pirates did it and it was in the Bible (which was something I later found out for myself as it turned out Yorkie didn’t know all that much about “an eye for an eye”) it wasn’t something you’d see on these shores. Especially round where I live where it’s all strawberries and cream, scones and Pimm’s on the village green and carols at Christmas. That kind of idea would shock the milk from the Earl Grey with the lot round here. Too vulgar for such well-mannered people. But that’s only what they’d say. That’s only what they want you to think.
We might not hang the rope round the old oak in the middle of green yet the way I see it, that same eye for an eye mentality bleeds through into every nook and cranny. I just didn’t realise it until Yorkie shared his story. See in England, maybe even more than on the pirate ships or with the Mayans by the lake, we have this strict, rigid idea of fairness that dominates every little part of life. Just look at the way we queue. Everything has to be exactly and precisely fair, fairer than fair, or the whole society crumbles. And crumble it did that long summer afternoon during tea at the local cricket match.
Mrs Thomas was on the teas that Sunday. I never liked Mrs Thomas, right from the first time I went to the cricket. It was if she was born into the roots of the little village where we all lived. That one day a tree was planted and out grew Mrs Thomas. Not a nice tree like the pines or willows that I used to see on my walk to the supermarket where I worked part time with Yorkie. No she was a different type of tree. Very much alive, but twiggy and sharp. Little elbows on the branches jutting out uncomfortably in all directions. It wasn’t because of that that I didn’t like her though. She wasn’t an old cranky type. In fact, she was the opposite. One of those who was so utterly friendly, smiling all the time, but I never believed any of her smiles. If she wasn’t so dedicated to the cricket teas I always thought she’d have been good in the village panto. What with her fake smiles and her “oh darlings” and her “dears”, always putting on a show. As it was, she wouldn’t be seen dead in a pantomime because the women dressed as men and the men as a women and that didn’t sit right. At least that’s what I heard her say to Mr Booth, left arm bowler and last Christmas’s Widow Twankey, one afternoon at the cricket.
The teas were on a rota and every month and she did one and so did Mrs Dorris and so did Mrs Knowles and so did Ms Hall, who also happened to be my mum. Unlike the other three ladies who seemed to live for doing the cricket teas, the triangle-cut egg and cress sandwiches, the orange squash, the cucumber slices, the scotch eggs and the pork pies and the great Victoria sponge, my mum hated doing the teas. She proper hated it. Hated the pressure of it all, the mini little details of what was required, the pleasantries and the sucking up to the sweat clad men who swung their bats. She did it for my dad and because she loved being at the cricket, but as to the actual teas, she couldn’t stand it. Which is why she used to always bring me along too.
H, she’d say. Please love. I can’t stand seeing those women alone again. They’ll be sniffing my sandwiches. Especially that Mrs Thomas. Why can’t they all just buzz off and go watch the cricket?
See that’s also how my mum was different to the other three. She actually loved the cricket. Loved it more than dad even though he spent every Sunday morning preparing for the match (oiling his bat, knocking it in with an old red leather cricket ball, brushing dirt off his pads) then every Sunday afternoon actually playing the game (which often ended with a scratchy score of less than twenty and maybe a catch), and then every Sunday evening moaning or grumbling about the game he just played (or telling us on an endless loop about the catch or runs or whatever slightly noteworthy thing he did was). Of course he liked cricket, but not like mum. Mum could watch every ball. Not just when dad was in but every single ball. She was entranced by it, loved the whole song and dance of it all. Poetry she called it, though I never really understood why.
This was even more surprising because dad had been the one who had grown up playing it whilst mum had never taken any notice of the sport until she started with dad. I don’t think she knew a jot about it until one afternoon he asked her along to watch. From the second she saw all those clean white kits peppered across the green turf, the cute pavilion with the outdoor loo, the little boys in oversized knitted sweaters nervously waiting to bat, the balls lost to the neighbour’s thorny hedge and the beefy old drinker from the pub swinging and swishing his willow around, she was in love. It wasn’t normal for someone of her background, someone of her pronunciations. That’s maybe why she was so smitten. The gentlemanly nature of it all was so far removed from the old place that it put a mirror up to her new life and a reflection she liked. It took me a good while to realise that’s exactly why they sniffed her sandwiches so hard. See if Mrs Thomas was one kind of tree, my mum was most definitely another and the most beautiful of all. She had these tiny, sculptured hands that could have won awards, fierce peroxide blonde hair, cropped and angular yet striking, great wide green eyes and a smile that could fire up any pub in the county. As you can imagine this was in complete contrast to all the bookish, large gummed ladies who frequented the cricket, especially the three making the teas, and they didn’t like that. Not one bit.
Now as I said at the beginning, the English love fairness and even if my mum was so crazily different to all the others, she was exactly the same when it came to fairness. I think that can be the only reason why she did what she did. Even if she would never admit it, eventually it got to her. She was only human. How long can any person take a room going silent when you walk in, a snigger at your outfit, a titter at the way you speak, a turned nose at your egg cress and a pointed suggestion when you chat to any man? To her it was unfair and she, like every other person in town, liked fair. She knew exactly why they were doing it of course, even if I didn’t at the time. Mrs Thomas, Mrs Dorris, Mrs Knowles to name just a few. Hungry mouths always twitching. Prodding and probing, niggling down into her earlobes like some irritating old pop song that never left the Roberts. All of that in mum’s eyes was unfair. Horribly, wickedly unfair. And I felt that unfairness with her each and every time, even though I didn’t understand. When my mum felt slighted, I felt it too. I just took it different. They always said I popped out more like dad which makes sense. Mum though, she was a wild thing and I loved to watch it in full flow, even if sometimes it was tensed up and through my fingers. And that was what I did when it all happened. Through my fingers, jaw tight and my right ear twitching. It started the last Sunday of June, the crescendo that is, though it had been building for such a long while. It was just that last Sunday when Mrs Thomas finally went for mum’s eye, so to speak.
Mum was doing teas that day and Mrs Dorris was busying herself this way and that, pouring out the blackcurrant squash as if she’d paid the £1.25 a bottle and not my mum. One of the fast bowlers took a glass, another individual I didn’t really like. He was tall and skinny with these beady little glasses and a thick moustache perched atop his freckled upper lip. Well he lifted the plastic glass for a sip and then promptly spat it all out, sprayed right across the cream coloured floor. Mrs Dorris was on him in a flash. She bolted to his side, hand clasped round his shoulder, and said, oh I’m so sorry Ralph, she always makes it too weak. Then out of nowhere Mrs Thomas arrived and added, her words curling, can you blame her? Must be second nature considering. Lasts longer that way. And I didn’t really know what that meant, but mum went bright crimson and shot for the exit, which was her way of saying it wasn’t fair. I could tell it really hurt her, deeper than I could understand, but she never said a word about it. In fact I’d almost forgotten until two weeks later when Mrs Thomas was on teas. That’s when I learned what an English eye for an eye was.
Our team was 164-8 when it all kicked off. Dad had even scored a happy amount of runs, which had set the day off nice. This meant that the opposition team only needed two more wickets before everyone could run off for Mrs Thomas’s tea. In hindsight I can see why mum waited till then to do what she did. At the start of the innings all the older batters are in, whilst the younger ones, often the sons of the older batters or the kids with bright dreams, were left to do the scoring of the match. Studiously writing into the scorebook like it was an end of year exam, terrified to make a mistake and stir the anger of the older men. By later in the innings though this has completely changed. All those kids now have to go out to bat and the dads who are now out are meant to take over the scoring. The only problem is they’re often too riled at being out, throwing bats and gloves and pads all around the changing room, to want to do it. That’s where mum would step in. Mum loved to score, in fact she was brilliant at it. The second she went to that old table, thin plywood pealing at its edges, and perched on the end of her rusted legged chair, she would transform into a cricket scoring master. This meant she would not only jot down her own teams score but would offer and was trusted to do the other teams too. Admired even, apart from by the Thomas’s and the Dorris’s and the Knowles’s of this world, who could only share passive aggressive smiles that mum knew all too well.
Now if anyone knows cricket scoring they’d be sure to tell you it’s incredibly complicated. I knew how to do it of course, mum made it that way, but it was tricky. With every ball bowled the scorer has to mark down whatever happened in the batsman’s column, then the bowlers, whilst also updating the overall score and then transferring that to the weathered, black scoreboard behind, so all the players could see. If it was no run you just marked down a dot which was relatively simple but if it was a run (1), or runs (2, 3, 4, 5, 6), or a no-ball (a circle) or a wide (a cross with dots added for any extra runs), or leg byes (upside down triangle with dots for runs) or the end of the over (chalking up everything and writing the new bowler down) or a worst of all a wicket (W followed by the name of the new batter and updating the bowlers figures), things got complicated quick. Everyone says cricket is so slow but when you’re scoring it’s the fastest thing in the world. You can’t get distracted for even a second or you loose track dangerously quickly and then all hell breaks loose. Something my mum was very aware of.
So it was when the eight wicket fell that the chaos began. This is often when cricket matches at this amateur level lose their militaristic sense of structure. By now the bowling team is tired, a little bit disgruntled and ready for tea. This only gets worse when someone’s son walks out to bat. Everyone knows they can’t bowl really fast at him because he’s a kid and his dad is on the sidelines watching eagle eyed at every single ball bowled, and they all know that any fast one coming at this little boy is coming straight back at their young lad when the teams switch over. So a little game endures when not many runs are scored, a part time spinner bowls what dad calls “twiddlers” and lots of dots are put on the scorecard. Everyone basically goes through the motions until the wickets eventually fall and they can all saunter off to some glasses of orange squash and Mrs Thomas’s meticulous prepared tea. And when I say meticulous, I mean meticulous. She had already spent the first part of the game talking to Mrs Walters (wife of batsman number three and part time slip fielder Mr Walters) about how she’d prepared a few special marmite sandwiches for him as she knew they were his favourite, to Mrs Walter’s gritted teeth’s pleasantries in response.
So by the time of the eighth wicket when everyone was downright ready to go off, out strolled little Freddie Wallace from the estate. All through my childhood I’d seen Freddie round a bit, though we’d never been friends. Just nods in the park, that kind of thing. Last I heard he’d dropped out before GCSE’s. Freddie was a bit like mum though. They’d clawed in the same childhood air and she loved him for it. Proper adored him. I even got a bit jealous at times. He was new to cricket all cause mum had seen him hitting a tennis ball with a slab of wood against a wall out the back of the butchers a few times and she thought he had something. With dad’s help they’d gone down the nets twice a week for about four months and now here he was, strolling out to bat. To any classically trained cricket fan, Freddie was not your normal player. He had none of the required grace, as dad explained. There’d be no late cuts, no cover drives, no sweeps with him (these are all cricket shots). All he had was something he called “the eye”. A natural, unteachable skill to basically whack anything in the eye line. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen mum or dad more excited at a cricket match than when he strutted out to bat. Even I was roped into the excitement of it all, despite the fact I didn’t really like cricket and I was still a little jealous of Freddie.
When the first ball was delivered a stunned silence promptly took over the entire ground. From the pavilion to the players to wives clustered on the boundaries edge. The bowler, who in true English fairness was being nice to the young lad who had walked out, saw the ball fly straight back over his head. One bounce and to the boundary rope. The next bowl exactly the same thing happened. Two balls later, again. Always straight back over the head. I think it was the only shot they taught him. When the bowler bowled down the leg side to try and stop the attack, Freddie just took a step over and did it again. Now sweat was breaking out on all the fielders faces as they realised tea was sailing off into the distance with every crunch of leather. And that was exactly the moment mum asked Mrs Thomas to take over.
As explained, scoring is hard at the best of times but when the batters are scoring fast, it’s even harder. Suddenly you’re racking up the numbers, adding the batsman’s score continually and updating the scoreboard behind you with every stroke. Mum was so skilled at it that for her it was effortless, but for anyone else it was a tall order. So when mum asked Mrs Thomas to take over, she knew exactly what was going to happen. By now everyone had gravitated to the boundaries edge to watch Freddie’s relentless attack, meaning Mrs Thomas, basically caressing her neatly cut sandwiches protected under cling film, was the only one around. Exactly, I think, as mum had guessed.
I need your help desperately, mum had pleaded, a fake innocence to her tone. See Freddie’s mum asked if I could take some videos of him batting and I forgot when I started scoring and he could be out any ball. I just need to get one. Can you please take over the scoring? You’ll be brilliant at it. I now how in tune you are with everything that goes on here. With every but, what, stammer and question, mum just kept assuring Mrs Thomas it would be alright, whilst giving a whistle stop tour of how to score. The buts continued and so then mum turned to me. H, love, can you do the other teams score, just to help Mrs Thomas out. I didn’t know what to say but yes, unsure what exactly was going on, other than it was something. And that was that and before Mrs Thomas could offer any more rebuttals, mum was off, camera in hand, prancing down to the pitch with a cackle in her eye. Mrs Thomas was left at the table with me plonked by her side, a mortified, stunned expression across her face.
Twenty-five minutes later the two teams walked their way to the pavilion for tea. Freddie strutted off, bat under his arm, helmet off, with fifty-three runs to his name. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a wider grin. Not on his face mind you where it just looked like another days work, but on mum and dad’s, sprouting what could only be described as more jealousy inside of me. Then, as the players and their families moved in for tea, I noticed mum make her way to the scoring table and start innocently browsing the scorecard. A minute later, everything began.
James, she called at my dad. James, come and look at this. Dad quickly walked over, though I doubt he was party to anything mum was doing. As he moved towards her a large set of curious eyes quickly followed. As I said, the English love fairness more than anything else, even the queues to the tea before us could tell you that. Any hint otherwise was a stain, a blot on this holier than thou event. And right now a stain was bleeding through the covers.
See it says here Freddie scored eighteen that over but this scorecard, she said, lifting up one of the leather-bound books. Books that have detailed every game for the last god knows how long. Books of honesty, decency and fair play. This scorecard, she continued, well it says different. Here he only scored fifteen. Mum then slowly but very dramatically looked over to the black scoreboard on the pavilion wall and the chalk written numbers hanging from hooks upon it. See it says the total there is two hundred and twenty-one, but in this book it’s two hundred and twelve. Now her voice began to change, morphing into the well-mannered polite English women she so detested. I’m in all sort of bother.
What happened next were not scenes the English expected when they brought cricket to all corners of the globe. Maybe through their narrow-minded eyes it could be expected amongst the convicts of Australia, or amidst the mayhem of Asia, but not in “Good Old Blighty” as I often heard the wicketkeeper call it.
Deb, what have you uncovered? That was the captain of the team now sauntering his way to the table. He was one person at the cricket club I did like with his swollen hanging belly, his blotched cheeks and his big swinging cricket shots. He and dad often went to The Bull late on a Sunday when I was all wrapped up in bed. Normally those pub nights were enough to put mum in a spin but when it was with him she never got angry cause she liked the captain too. In fact he was the only person she let call her Deb, other than dad.
So now he was involved and as mum started to explain, more and more people began to circle round the table, including an anxious looking Mrs Thomas. I saw mum flash her the briefest, tiniest little smile, one that said a million unsaid things, before she took out a knife and went for her eye.
So the scoreboard says our team have nine runs more than we got in this book and it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be fair, it wouldn’t be proper, if I didn’t point it out. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love those nine runs more than anyone. Heck that might lose Freddie his fifty. She fake laughed now but only me and dad knew it was fake. But that’s not right. One of these books is wrong and I don’t ever want us stealing runs that ain’t ours. That’s just not cricket.
Stealing runs? The opposition captain now waltzed over, as every bit as smug in his delivery as you could imagine. This was an anecdote he could retell for years down the pub with every other cricket captain and he couldn’t believe his luck. Not that the nine runs meant anything, but the insult to good old English fairness. Now that was a story worth telling.
I couldn’t say for sure, mum continued. Janet. She used Mrs Thomas’s first name now, a brutal attack only a few of us could understand. Janet what happened?
As Mrs Thomas began to stammer under the weight of the allegations, a chorus of raised accusatory voices entered the scene. Why would I cheat, she crowed defensively when the chorus grew louder. She turned to mum and pointed. Your daughter must have made the mistake.
The brazen opposition captain laughed loudly, a hand to each hip. Bit convenient that it’s the one who scored a lower total who made a mistake. He then turned to me. Have you ever done the scoring before dear? Yes, I stammered back, my right ear twitching. I help mum lots of times. The captain said nothing back, just opened his arms and shrugged, the same smug expression on his face.
Mrs Thomas now let out a small, restrained howl and looked to her husband for help. It makes no sense for me to cheat. Maybe I made a mistake. I don’t know. Why would I bulk the scores? It’s not like I want that little lout to score a fifty anyway. All eyes turned to look at Freddie whilst Mrs Thomas continued under her breadth. Means he’ll be coming back, when he shouldn’t even be here. It’s not his sport.
That part took mum by surprise. You could see it in an instant. This wasn’t part of the plan and it dared hurt someone other than herself. Someone innocent. Someone she’d put it in the firing line. Not that I think Freddie understood, or if he did, cared, but mum was protective. Also I think more than that, the comment felt directed to her too. It was about Freddie but they were peas from the same pod and Mrs Thomas knew that. She could direct her words at Freddie but she was saying what she’d wanted to say to mum for god knows how long and this was her way of doing it. She knew full well where to throw her darts and this had hit a bullseye. An eye for an eye for an eye. Mrs Thomas grinned viciously when she saw the expression morph on my mum’s face. What she did not account for however was that anyone hitting a fifty had a rare clout behind them that not even the maker of teas could usurp.
Now, now Janet.
The shouts came thick and fast. Adult voices punctuated by Freddie’s youthful cries. Then it escalated. I’ll never know if it was mum who threw the first sandwich, but I do know who it hit. Mrs Thomas took an egg and cress right to the face. At times I like to imagine it hit her right in the eye, but that would be pushing the truth of the story too far. Wherever it hit, right after all hell broke loose. The smug opposition captain took Mr Walter’s marmite to the chin, smearing his white bristled goatee in a brown smear. Coronation chicken at Mr Dorris shortly followed, before cucumber slices plastered their Wicketkeeper’s right cheek. Squash over Second Slip, scotch egg right into Long Leg’s ear, Victoria sponge slap into the chest of Mid Off. Little Freddie, unsure if this was normal or not, was loving every second and was soon throwing little carrots up in the air and whacking them with his bat right into the melee.
The opposition team never made it out for their innings. In fact I think it was the only game of cricket ever recorded in those red leather bound books to be cancelled because of a bad cricket tea. The only players who seemed not to care were dad and the captain who spent the night in the pub together. Only this time mum and me joined and laughed and laughed until that moment laughter dies and the captain turned to mum and cheekily asked. So come on then Debs, let’s have it out. You planned this all right from the start? To that mum just glinted her smile, took a sip of her lukewarm house white and did a cheers to Mrs Thomas’s cricket teas. I’m just glad she never found out how the Mayan’s dealt with things.