by Patrick O’Brien
When I was in high school I signed up for the rugby league team. Not the proper one, of course. Not the team on whose shoulders rested the good name of the school, the proud brown and gold of our colours, the forever unfulfilled potential to achieve immortality. No, I chomped my Colgate-infused mouth guard among the less celebrated – but effortlessly more united – second (of two) XIII. Or, on the frequent occasions our ‘passionate’ second rower Matthew ‘Psycho’ Pierce got sent off, the second XII.
I know now, and really should have known then, that my decision to spend Wednesday afternoons engaged in self-harm masquerading as character-building recreation was going to end in a world of pain. As a boy, it had been plain sailing. I was, well, chubby, I guess, and it was easy to withstand the blows of other 25 kg warriors. Besides, boys bounce. If you don’t believe me, drop one – or a whole bunch if you want – off the observation deck of the Rialto every day for a year. All you’ll hear will be a piercing squeal of ‘Do it again! Do it again!’ in that peculiar scratchy falsetto that afflicts every male at some point.
At some stage in the mid-80s, though – round about the time my attention wandered from studded to pointy boots, paisley-shirted bands from Perth and a preposterously precocious ream of heavy late night ontological questions – the rest of the nursery class of ’71 grew to resemble human battleships. Great battalions of brawn and not much brain, blocking out the sun, playing big bad Scott Morrison to my poor leaky fishing vessel and making my sailing anything but plain. Because where others had grown, I had simply paused.
‘Oh no!’ I hear you cry in concern. ‘But surely your intellect and wit grew at such a pace as to be able to slay your enemy with mere words!’
Yeah … but nah. Surprisingly, my juvenile wit, over-reliant as it was on snippets of (as Stephen Fry is fond of referring to in his daily social media self-exiling) My Dear Oscar, proved of no use to me on the blood-soaked fields of Elysium – or as you may know it, Brisbane. Here my unslain enemy tucked peeling brown footballs under oversized arms and marauded through our brave team, usually via me. I was brown and gold and red all over. I was bruised, battered and frequently beaten. I was bowed.
You see, there were a few benefits to this misguided foray into the lowest of leagues, best of which was the referees we would ensnare. Actually, thinking about it now, the best of which were the cute punk chicks who, for reasons still unknown to me, spent their Wednesday afternoons twisting the torn threads of their XXL Robert Smith jumpers over the ends of their fingers and, kinda like, watching us. Laughing as well, sure, but also watching. For a teenage boy this counts as a win.
While that precious memory remains tantalising, it’s the nature of our referees that fascinates me today. The proper teams had proper referees – oh, the prestige that flows when one’s plaintive cry of ‘Sir! Foot across!’ is ignored by a man once seen on television being abused by Wally Lewis. Our shower of buffoons got what we deserved; namely whichever teacher or, worse still, parent was careless enough to be gambolling near one of our shoddy games in the minutes preceding kick-off. (Innocent gazelle! Why aren’t your senses alerting you to the danger of the gathered lions?) ‘No whistle, nae bother’ was a motto we never quite got around to translating into Latin.
British writer Howard Jacobson once claimed that the key to a better world is for all of us to dream of glory where there is none. Con O’Sullivan, a teacher at our school, proved the truth of this maxim several decades before Jacobson prescribed his panacea. So it was that one bright, blue and, in that wonderful way that only Brisbane winters can be, warm August afternoon, he looked down upon 26 spotty, wrongly nourished, sportingly inept, referee-less non-footballers and knew instinctively what had to be done.
Picture our newly self-appointed referee: white shoes; white socks restrained at regulation height by (presumably) white garters; white shorts of an ineffable style; a white long-sleeved cotton shirt with – and how many men can honestly claim this? – just the two done-up buttons; and the father of all comb overs. Oh, and glory be, a whistle. (Admittedly silver. The man wasn’t perfect.)
It didn’t matter that Mr O’Sullivan was a long misplaced and sadly fading memory of a foregone Australian manhood. It didn’t matter that his ‘black’ hair fooled no-one (we knew boot polish when we saw it – usually some distance from our boots). It didn’t matter that he came complete with a baffling set of arcane rules – penalty against their half-back for letting a sock fall less than 17 minutes after the first scrum won by a team wearing red; our winger sent off for long hair – ancient mysteries understood by none but obeyed by all. And it didn’t matter that we laughed at him. At half-time. When he went to the taps to get a drink of water.
What mattered was that Mr O’Sullivan dreamt of glory where there was none. He saw what had to be done and he did it. He was the man in white; a Johnny Cash for the warmer climes. He saw injustice and railed against its very existence.
In some other part of our city and in some other segment of time, where the air tasted like sweet honey dripping from a fecund jacaranda tree and the minutes were measured by the loud roars of a proud crowd, the stars of the first XIII battled for official glory (and snobby young ladies, old before their time, caked in bad make-up and depressing futures). We battled to run in the right direction (towards those cute punk chicks). We battled to score more points than the opposition, any points in fact. We battled for a chance to do things our own way. We, more than often, lost. Thanks to men like Mr O’Sullivan, though, who I now think recognised a little bit of himself in us and a fair bit of us in him, we were at least allowed to fight our battle.
Any memory of ephemeral nonsense like scores or tables is long gone. But I remember Mr O’Sullivan, I remember my team mates and I remember those cute punk chicks. And that, surely, is the point.