Off Season Odyssey Pt.41.
I get off the ferry, about forty minutes north of Australia, around 2pm and head straight to the oldest of three pubs on the island. It’s a ripper, all worn weatherboard with a cave-like inside and mighty porch that seems to fall into the bay’s warm drizzle and nearer islands. Nothing about it is fancy. It’s as if it was built by thirsty fishermen.
I’m the only one in here.
The woman behind the bar is a beaut. All tried eyes and earned smiles. I look at the chalk sign on the wall. There are twenty meat raffles each Friday! It’s Friday, 20? I have to see this!
“There’s a room upstairs for $150,” she says.
“Don’t have it,” I tell her.
“There’s a hostel down by the jetty,” she points. “It’s basic but…”
I ask for another beer, and suddenly it’s 7pm and I’m going nowhere.
The meat trays go off one-by-one-by-one. Some people win three, four. Everybody is Aboriginal or Islander.
A dark, toothless bloke comes to the bar in the beautest Rugby jumper.
‘It’s a corker, mate,” I say.
His name’s Ed. He gins a great grin, gums and all.
“My Cuz won a Premiership in this!” he brags.
Soon, the bargirl is putting my bags in the cool-room. Ed offers me a bed for the night. I thank him heaps, but don’t commit. More and more locals come into the pub. The night, my night, is beginning to lift, gather its own drunken swirl.
The karaoke and Rugby start at the same time. It’s beautiful. One of the best things I’ve lived in my life. The locals just don’t give a shit. They make their own entertainment, are unafraid.
They holler Country Road, Take Me Hoooooommmme, and “GO BRONCOS! GO! YA-HOO! and Toooo the placaaace, I beloooong…. all at the same time. By dance or cheer there’s always hands in the air, there’s always noise.
The bloke with the raffle mike keeps cracking Bronco jokes, just to shit everyone in fun ways. He snobs me because I’m white, but I don’t care.
Next to me is a man about late fifties. He tells me his name is Lou. He’s small and super fit, from an island north of here, and stands rather than sits, radiating some sort of pride.
I ask him a question about Rugby scrums, and we’re talking sport and the world.
“I played a lot of Rugby here,” he says. “I was quick. A winger. I could have played AFL. You run to HURT in that game!”
He did Boxing, too, Martial Arts, anything involving discipline, but it always came back to Rugby.
“We would play the other islands. Use boats, dinghies, whatever it took to get to the game. Most were big boys. Big! A lot of them were pearl divers. Work hard all day, like you. Big shoulders, big lungs.”
Lou isn’t big. I ask if he ever got knocked out?
“Never!” he gets insulted. “You knock me out, you better watch out! I come back to get you that night!”
We talk more about the game on the telly. The Rabbitohs have an inferior team, but are winning.
‘They’re just playing tougher,” I say.
My mate gives me a sharp, sliding stare through the corner of his eye. One that says: Yes.
“Look,” he points. “The Broncos are trying to do it all on their own.”
I look. He’s right.
When they get anywhere within ten meters of the try-line they stop passing the ball. The more we watch, for the first time in a lifetime of catching Rugby games, the more I see.
Lou buys me a drink, then another, and we take in the telly next to the Karaoke screen, which is playing Beyonce.
When the language of a sport breaks down, and strategy emerges, sometimes it takes on a whole new weight. When a crowd is cheering, then in sorrow, then berserk, then back again, it all makes sense.
Rugby is tough, relentless. Teams run to patterns and plans. Weaknesses are exposed. It’s hard man’s chess, where players like the Storms’ Billy Slater are knights, able to cut at angles, and jump over you to find space. Where pain is to be charged and skill runs with pace and pushes with muscle.
Where mud and blood splattered donks like Blocker Roach become folklore.
Never trout-mouth a game until you watch it with its fans. In its boneyard.
Rugby League’s a brilliant game.
Slater is a God up here. For about three months now, across half the continent and beyond, people who hate Melbourne have been whispering me his name. Broncos fans, Cowboys, miners, karaoke kings, mechanics.
“Billy…” they say.
I don’t think the AFL has a player like him. There’s love involved.
I shout Lou a drink back. He flinches, but fuck it. I’d be stoked to be mates with him, but not owned.
He has five kids. They’ve all branched out, are working in four points of the compass, taking on the world. None of them play sport.
“Using their brains,” he tells me, with pride.
I ask him what he was like as a player?
“You wouldn’t want to get tackled by me,” Louie says. “I don’t care how big you are, I leapt like a spear!”
The island has it’s own league now. About five clubs. Most players still come from other islands, other communities, by boat and ship and dingy and plane to play.
“It is and isn’t too serious,” he tells me. “One time this copper was playing. We left a hole in our defence so he could run through, and the next blokes, waiting back, could kill him at top speed… but he jumped over them! Scored a try!”
Louie and I keep up out shout. I’m proper drunk and talking to a large, dark woman with blond hair and a great, easy way, who’s been ruling the microphone. Damn, she can sing!
She tells me it’s hard being a teacher on the islands. All the rules, all the tests come from Canberra.
“They want our kids to know all about water recycle. Up here in the Wet? Ask them how to hunt a dugong. How to fix wounds, or a generator? To fish using bamboo spears.”
Louie gives me that hard look, saying, painfully slow and mean:
“Europeans know… fucking… nothing.”
“Respectfully, yes,” I tell him.
“In a few years I’ll unite my people. All the islands,” he says.
I look down and notice everybody’s been shouting him. That the room knows who he is, and gives birth to his pride.
The Broncos hit top gear, share more, and run over the Rabbitohs, as if grit can only knock a pro off his game for so long. That’s what it looks like to me, anyway. Other people would have a better idea. Soon, the Rugby’s done. The volume grows, the music, the talk, everybody’s dancing. More and more people arrive.
The place is a sea of movement and noise.
When the pub shuts the music stops. About 40 Islanders, lounging on the porch, break into traditional song. Some do its dance, some sway, others kick back, others burn with fire.
It is the best sound I’ve heard in the longest while.
As I stagger off I can here the bloke on the Karaoke mike, asking everybody to leave.
“The bloody Broncos won! What more do you want? Go home!”
One song leads into another. My back wears them all, as some young drunken louts give me lip from a passing car, making the sort of noises you will hear on most midnights in the world, and I’m gone.
These are the places WWII was fought. That kept us safe on our soil. Where people were bombed, pilots crash-landed, ships were stocked, to where the wounded and dying returned. Where men and women, Islander, Indigenous and European served.
At the top of the hill above town, there are, I’m told, old anti-aircraft turnstiles that might offer shelter from the hard, tropical rain. A place to rest my drunken head, sleep safe, and wake to a hungover view of other islands. Islands everywhere, to the horizon. In the Torres Straight, off the mainland.
Where I discovered Rugby and met a man with pride.
Tonight, down south, they played the AFL Pre-Season Grand Final, someone versus someone else, but who cares? I would trade ten ticket to that for one game of Rugby up here. Why would I want to go home?