Phlebitis sat on an uncomfortable wicker chair. There was supposed to be a blanket; green and white striped, thick and woollen; draped over the chair, and he supposed that would make it easier to sit on, but his blanket appeared to have been taken by the matron sat behind him. He had turned, intending to ask her for the return of the blanket, but seeing her in profile he had recognised immediately that she was an avatar of Belladonna, Our Lady of the Rocks, and had turned back around again. He had no wish to attract her attention. He now planned to take the blanket from the chair to the left of him, which was ostensibly occupied by a young boy who kept standing up and running off to play with other small children behind the score board. The boy’s parent, a woman with a lined face and scabs all over her hands, looked exhausted and was clearly about to fall asleep, and Phlebitis was waiting for it to happen.
In the near distance there was a thwock of leather striking ash and a low cheer raised from the front row of seats. The elderly men gathered there were, to Pheblitis’s uncertain knowledge, either retired cricketers who were watching the game with a professional interest, or City Directors who were busy being seen at a City event and ensuring the safety of their Thrones. He was aware that many of them had been to visit Madame Sosotris recently, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to talk to her yet. Her constant attempts at flirting, which were growing ever more unsubtle, were disturbing and mildly unpleasant. He had half a plan there too, to try and foist her on some other member of his crew, but none of them had yet done anything bad enough to warrant it. The young boy’s mother’s head drooped, and her eyes finally closed.
“Six!” shouted an elderly gentleman in the front row, and Phlebitis’s arm snaked out and tugged the blanket over to his own chair. The front row mostly stood up, applauding with trembling, age-spotted hands, blocking the view of the cricket game for the rest of the audience unless they too stood. One or two men at the back did, but the remainder stayed seated, some not even aware of what had happened. Phlebitis stood as well, suddenly realising that this was a perfect excuse, and when they all sat again he rearranged the blanket on his chair as though it had always been there, but badly laid out.
There was another thwock and the cricket ball flew off again and then, perhaps a second later, there was a soft thunk. A gasp of horror arose from the front row and Phlebitis looked up in curiosity. The cricket ball appeared to have struck a dead tree, which was awkwardly located at the corner of the in-field. Its trunk was broad but hollow, and though several handfuls of branches still arose from it, then were blunted and stunted and no leaves or other greenery grew on them.
“The dead tree gives no shade,” muttered a man in the front row, and the rest of the row tried very hard to appear not to have heard him. There was a garbled cry from the pitch, and the umpire, an obese, sweating man dressed in flannel whites and looking very miserable, raised a finger on each hand, giving both batsmen out. Their heads sank and they slunk from the pitch, but the opposing team made no sound; raised no cheer, offered no mockery. It was, Phlebitis thought, as though what had happened was too dreadful to be just the fault of the batters. Though all they’d done was strike a dead tree, so he couldn’t really see what the problem could be. He shifted in his seat, which was much more comfortable with the blanket on it, and slouched back a little. The matron behind leaned forward, and whispered in his ear, “The dead tree offers no shade.”
An electric current seemed to run through his body, and his left leg twitched, a little spasm that made him kick the ground.
“I heard the man at the front, thank-you,” said Phlebitis in a low voice, hoping that this would bring the conversation to a close.
“Not well enough,” said the Matron. “It hides a heap of broken images. I would expect you to want to confirm that.”
He turned his head now, about to complain to her that she couldn’t just tell him what to do, but she had sat back again, and was now gazing at the game looking exactly like Belladonna once more.
The game ended with one side winning by several runs and wickets and Phlebitis wasn’t honestly sure which side had won, or if either side even cared. The backslapping and camaraderie didn’t fit with his ideal for the sport, and they seemed to be walking off the pavilion both together and with the audience. The most elderly gentlemen were supported and assisted by the others, while the rest of the audience wiped away crumbs from the cucumber sandwiches and pretended that they’d wanted to take small children with them to the match. The young boy’s mother was still asleep on her chair, and her son was now patting her knee, trying to wake her. Phlebitis sighed softly, stood up, and threw his blanket over the boy in a quick movement. The heavy fabric bore him to the ground and muffled his cry of surprise so that no-one turned their heads or noticed what was happening. The he gave the mother a gentle push, tipping her far enough forward that she slowly toppled off her chair and onto the ground, and set off at a quick jog onto the cricket pitch, towards the in-field. Her cry of surprise as she woke on the hard ground distracted the milling crowd that had been watching the game but wasn’t going to the pavilion, and then the discovery that her child was under the blanket had them hunting about for any further misfortunes that may have befallen, and no-one noticed Phlebitis reach the dead tree and hoist himself up amongst the dead branches. He only had to climb about ten feet to get high enough up to see down in the hollow trunk of the tree itself and see that it was partly filled with water. As he looked at the water though he felt an invisible pair of hands pass across his eyes, and the world seemed somehow brighter, more sharply defined at the edges, and the water in the tree trunk became a pile of broken images.
He saw a woman dressed in white standing on the beach, crying. A man crawled ashore from the water, the waves struggling to pull him back, but he clawed his way beyond them and lay there, gasping for breath. The crying woman couldn’t see him, and she turned away, heading off the beach to a narrow, sandy track. Clouds overhead merged together and became a lighthouse; a beam of intense light shot out from it. Following it along, it illuminated a wicker chair on the edge of a cricket pitch, and Belladonna turned to look at him, her eyes aflame. He shuddered, and a man on horseback rode past, wearing a leather jacket with metal studs all down the arms and a skull with flaming eye-sockets on the back. The horse’s hooves boomed as it cantered and the beach suddenly returned, with waves taller than a man crashing on the shore and throwing white spume high into the air. A boat tossed on the waves, some distance out, and Phlebitis could smell the unforgettable aroma of boiling frogs. The boat seemed to come in closer to shore and then the waves calmed and he saw that the name of the boat was the Odysseus.
Phlebitis sighed and let himself slide down the branches and fall from the tree. The grass below the tree was soft, but the tree roots that snaked through it were hard and ligneous. It seemed somehow fitting.