North Melbourne versus Essendon
Saturday, July 24th., Etihad Stadium
The final stage of Saturday night’s rescue mission to the coast is not pleasant travelling. The aftermath of The Riot’s heave-go lingers in the Audi, big-time. Even with the heater off and the windows down, it is impossible to escape the rank, fresh-vomit smell. To add to the ambience, it takes a few kilometres for Rebecca’s wailing of sorrrreeeeee to work its way out of her system. The kid is obviously appalled at what’s happened. We’re all kind to her, of course, telling her she should relax, spewing over a brand new car is no big deal. (“Just imagine if I’d rammed the back of a semi-trailer and totalled it,” is my contribution to the putting-it-in-context remarks.) As for Bulldog and me, we exchange a bit of body language – like shrugs, and stuff with eyebrows, and head tilting – which I take to mean that shit happens, and we’ll deal with the wrath of Jonesy in the fullness of time.
The moment we come to a stop in the car wash bay at Huntleigh Mews, the four of us leap out of the vehicle that smartly, we probably look like a SWAT team in action.
Bulldog insists on staying while we attempt to restore the Audi to its former glory. Impossible, in my book, but the two girls launch themselves into a cleaning frenzy as soon as I provide them with buckets and rags. They delve and dive, real in-and-under stuff, to remove every smelly fragment. After about half-an-hour, with the doors wide open like bat wings, we give it an inspection, including the dreaded sniff test.
Opinion is divided. Bulldog shrugs, the girls think it now stinks of Spray ‘n’ Wipe, which is only marginally better than when we started, and I’ve had enough for one day, so I park the car in a spare bay and suggest everyone goes home. Bulldog and Vicki decide they can share a taxi; I escort Rebecca to her apartment.
“Okay,” I say, outside the door of 102. “You’ll be okay now? How you feeling?”
“I’ll be right.” She takes her time blowing her nose, and shoving the ball of tissue back in her jacket pocket. Her face is drawn, with only a remnant of mascara surviving, smudging one side of her nose. Whatever happened at the party – I don’t know – and the humiliation of the trip home, it has left her gutted. But she’s making a big effort to take control of herself, probably feeling less like death, and there’s an assurance – not cockiness – in her voice. “We weren’t being silly, you know. It could have been food poisoning, maybe not someone spiking our drinks. I dunno, it was just a bad scene, full of the kids I knew before Taverner. Losers, whatever they’re doing now.”
“I’m really grateful to you, for coming and getting me . . . us.”
“There wasn’t anyone else I could ask, and I was frightened. Pathetic, huh?”
“Not pathetic. Not sure who I could’ve asked at the start of the footy season, if I’d been in your position.”
“Yeah, believe me. Listen, I know a bit about you after tonight. From Bulldog. You should’ve told me. Best to let it out, as they say.”
She smiles, wanly, and shrugs. “Maybe I will from now on.” Then another sniff, and, “You missed your game.”
“Doesn’t sound as though I missed much.”
“Guess not. I’m going to square this thing with your rich friend, the owner of the car. Okay?”
I shrug. “Okay. Talk to you tomorrow, yeah?”
We exchange a quick hug. She finds the right key, pushes the door open and gives a little flutter of her hand before it swings closed.
. . . / / / . . .
It’s Tuesday. The week has started to disappear like a piece of cumquat marmalade toast down Tommy’s throat. I’m having an extended lesson at the Dance Palace, and I’m about knackered after forty minutes of the waltz routine with the Gorgeous Greek, Madam Lash. I’ve been enticed into going for my Bronze in Ballroom, and the deadline is next month. (Flattery separates me from my money every time.) I’m cramming, and I have about four hundred things to think of and execute, concurrently, with every move I make.
“How about a break?” I suggest. I’m sweating like a piglet, and my right knee, the one which provides forward thrust and on which my graduation depends, is screaming at me.
“In a minute. It’s your frame we’re working on,” says Labrini, teacher-curtly. “If you keep your shoulder blades together, tighten your ribcage, pull your bottom in and hold your head back and inclined to the left . . . ”
I do all this – tweak the blades, squeeze the cage, drag in the tushy and incline the head upwards and out – and the result is, I look like a right royal idiot. “How do you expect me to dance now?” I hold the pose, rigid. (Street theatre at its best, only indoors.)
“Don’t be silly, Peter. Once more through the routine. Right?”
“Can I be Claude Avec Le Grand while we waltz?”
“You can be Tony Abbott if you like Peter, so long as your movement comes from your hips and knees and you keep your frame still. I don’t want your chest coming at me like a battering ram. Remember the battering ram phase we went through? Right, here we go, starting from the top, two basics . . . one-two-three, a-one-two-three, nice and light . . . reverse turn . . . head up, keep your right leg between mine . . . nice . . . closed change . . . is your angle right? . . . then fix it . . . wait. Stop. Stand up Peter . . . go, a-one, with right knee forward and drive. . . two-three . . . stand up Peter . . . reverse cortage . . . nice turn, that’s it, keep facing me, chest facing mine . . . outside change . . . two-three . . . and promenade . . . up straight Peter . . . and hesitation . . . oops . . . ”
“Oh shit. Sorry.”
“Shhh. Not so loud. What happened, you forgot the hesitation turn.”
“I was concentrating on keeping my elbows level, and when I do that, I forget the steps.”
“Never mind. That was good. Let’s have a coffee.”
We perch ourselves on stools in the little kitchen, surrounded by a sink of unwashed cups, fridges of grog and benches loaded with a microwave and toasting devices. We sip Caterer’s Brand instant coffee, which doesn’t taste like coffee at all. Through the servery we look out onto Ballroom 2, where several of the staff are learning something Latin and difficult by the look of it, from a bloke standing nearby holding a book.
“That’s the Hilary I told you about. The one with the book.”
Labrini gives me a withering look, which I ignore. I’m feeling mischievous. “Collingwood’s last seven games are all played at the M.C.G.,” I remark. “That looks like favouritism to me.”
Now she frowns – what a repertoire she’s got – and places her mug gently on the bench. “Peter, please don’t keep on criticising my football team. I really do think you’ve got a problem here, and we have to deal with it.” (Her eyes are brown, and very wide when she’s intense. Doe eyes.) “Look, you’re a lovely person. What you do for people, like the young drug-addict you drove home on Saturday . . . ”
“. . . she had food poisoning, she doesn’t do hard drugs . . . ”
“The biddy you took to the football on Sunday . . . ”
“. . . No, I didn’t. Mrs Biddy Sidebottom would have frozen to death, and we would have been up for manslaughter. Fortunately we didn’t go. Anyway, The Tigers got thrashed, which is one less bottle of wine I have to drink this week . . . ”
“Helping Tommy Hubble out as you are doing, fixing up my apartment after the deluge so that now I can go back there, and so on. You’re generous and kind, you really are. Yet, you have a very dark side to your personality, Peter. What is it with you and Collingwood? Why do you hate us?”
Her question propels me to the edge of hysterical laughter. I teeter, but pull back, and place a daring hand on my instructors’ meshed knee. (Strictly against company protocol, hence its prompt removal.)
“Princess,” I say, “hating Collingwood is as natural as mother’s milk. It’s like driving on the left-hand side of the road, paying taxes, honouring your parents, getting drunk, eating, sleeping, farting, drenching sheep . . . ”
“For some people it is. Look, we need to reach an understanding, a test of our relationship if you like. There are six rounds to go. Collingwood will almost certainly finish on top . . . ”
“Over-weaning, obnoxious arrogance.”
“In answer to your earlier question, why do I hate Collingwood?”
“. . . There you go, you see. As I was saying, we’ll finish on top and Essendon are a good chance for the wooden spoon. Will you, or will you not be good-humoured, and supportive and understanding as we strive for the premiership? Or just be decent, and not morose and petulant. Will you come to games with me in September, when your lot will be on holidays?”
“Definitely not. Cruelty, thy name is woman.”
“Fuck you,” she hisses, unprofessionally.
“Ssshhh. Hilary will be shocked.”
“Hundreds, no, thousands of couples don’t let football stand in the way of their beautiful relationships. You can see them at the football, one in Collingwood, the other in Essendon colours.”
I lean closer to Labrini, give her a hard stare. “Next time, take a close look at the Essendon person. Look into their eyes and tell me, are they happy? Sincerely, truly, happy?”
“Oh, really. Come on.”
“Yes, let’s get back to the torture. Can I be Jesus Maradona Alcatraz, famous Argentinian dancer, when we do the tango?”
“It’s the English tango, idiot. Try being Walter Crudd of Scunthorpe.”
. . . / / / . . .
Thursday morning is as miserable as a Melbourne morning can get. It’s freezing cold and so overcast you worry about scraping your head against the clouds. I have trouble recognising people on their way to work because they’re that rugged up I can only see small bits of their faces. I remember who they are when they’re 20 metres down the street.
I’m still cold, and I’ve got a thermal thing on under my shirt. I hope Matthew Knights has called a special training session for the Essendon boys this morning, preferably down on St. Kilda beach. Standing in the water in their jocks for half-an-hour is what they deserve. Those people on radio talk-back who have been threatening to burn their membership tickets should be made to be there with them. Idiots.
I’m up at sparrow fart to open up for the boys who are doing the 20-year test on the fire hydrants. (It’s supposed to be every five years, but Tommy’s been slack.) There’s Connor, Sean, and Patrick looking and sounding like they’ve just arrived from County Cork. I stand around and try to look interested while they hook massive hoses from their truck to the hydrant and blast water through at two thousand litres per second.
Or is it per minute? From the way the hoses bulge, it’s a lot of water.
They get serious looks on their faces, and turn the pump off. One of them tells me the check valve is letting water leak back into the mains and will have to be replaced.
“Oh dear. Leaking back, eh,” I say, shaking my head as though I’d half-expected something like this. “Damn.”
The boyos pack up and head off to their next rendezvous with sluice and check valves.
On the way in to breakfast, I read in the paper that Jason Akermanis has been sacked by the Bulldogs. Pity. He’s played great football – a Brownlow and three premierships, thank you very much – but apparently just couldn’t keep his mouth shut, media-wise.
Over toast and cumquat marmalade – four jars down and counting – Tommy announces that Roy Laughlin, aka Roy the Reptile, and his wife Daisy, will be joining us on Saturday. They’ll be staying here, in Unit 12, and are looking forward to our company at the clash of the titans, North Melbourne versus Essendon.
Of all the people associated with the Beaumont Football Club’s 1990 grand final tragedy, whose company I would seek for longer than, say, five minutes, Roy would be well down on my list. If pressed for greater accuracy, that is, position specificity, I’d suggest – last. As in, stone motherless.
I’m less than enthusiastic. “What happened to the others you were going to ask? Cocky Lonergan, Bubba and Horse Mildenhall . . . ?”
“Couldn’t come for various reasons.”
“You’re going to check Roy’s luggage before you let him in here, I hope.”
Roy derived his nickname from his reptilian features – skin colour and texture, beady eyes flicking this way and that, and a tendency to say things which startled, not to mention offended, people. Naturally, logically, Roy was – possibly still is – fascinated by snakes and lizards, seeing as how he looks like one, and he and Daisy ran a business just outside of town on the highway to Mildura. Big pits, seething with snakes, enough to make the hair stand up on your scrotum, cages full of lizards giving you the evil eye, while over in the canteen Daisy was flogging tea towels dyed with juices extracted from the native vegetation, jewellery, hand-spun wool and garments made from this fibre, and masses of home-made tucker.
Roy also operated a couple of school buses to tide him and Daisy and their tribe over the slow season, aka winter, when the snakes don’t have the energy to get out of their own way and, consequently, aren’t all that exciting to look at.
He played full-back for the Beaumont Bombers for years, did The Reptile. (Sometimes in the heat of the game, it would be ‘Rep’, or ‘Snakes’.) Always at full-back. He was strong as an ox and as slow as a wet week. Opposition mobs would often play a young, frisky kid at full-forward to give the Reptile the run-around, because when it came to one-on-one contests, he was unbeatable. Also, he was your original pack-splitter, not huge and bulky, but terribly hard and bony. He simply ran at the ball in a dead straight line, often missing it by a country mile but creating co-lateral tentativeness on the part of opponents. He was a threat, like a very large boulder dislodged at the top of a hill and you standing at the bottom. The possibility of it hitting you was always there. You just had to be on the lookout, whichever side you were on.
He was also an oaf, probably still is, but he played a ripper game in the grand final. Kept us in it in the first half, until the rest of us found a bit of the ball, and a route to goal.
. . . / / / . . .
Tommy and me go back to the male strategy of avoidance regarding the football, in particular Essendon’s perilous position, a wooden spoon finish now looming as a distinct possibility. (Saturday night’s game against North Melbourne qualifies as yet another season-defining match.) We eat out a lot – back by 7:30 so Tommy can watch Master Chef – and hit the cinema hard. On Thursday night, with Bulldog in tow, looking a bit pinched and pale I must say, we see a little French number entitled The Hedgehog. (My choice, because I reckon Tommy’s prickly on the outside and soft as marsh mellow on the inside.) We have a professional interest here, it being a film about Renee, a frumpy concierge in a building in Paris. But there wasn’t much overlap with me and Tommy, really – for starters, The Hedgehog only had the vacuum cleaner out once during the film, and even then it wasn’t a backpack job, like my Rocketvac. Unlike us extroverts, Renee is a shy and retiring type. Then there’s 12-year-old Paloma, daughter in a dysfunctional family, who’s decided to kill herself when she turns twelve – as you do – and along comes Mr Ozu, a devastatingly handsome Japanese widower with heaps of money, like a knight on a white charger, to save them from their misery.
I gave it two stars, because the ending caught me by surprise, and it didn’t go on for too long.
Afterwards, up at The Gilbert Hotel, Bulldog’s not the happiest person on the planet. “When all is said and done, it doesn’t really matter,” he says, dipping a wedge into a pot of sauce.
Tommy looks quizzical. “You think that’s what the director was telling us?”
Bulldog smirks. “No, I was thinking about the football, not the film. We know it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose, but our whole emotional health is tied up with whether we do or not. On Saturday night we’ll go to the ground and every molecule of our bodies will be willing the red-and-black team on to victory. North Melbourne is the enemy, standing between us and a huge emotional updraught. If we win, we’ll be walking tall, the world will be a better place; if we lose, we’ll get morose and indulge in a week of gallows humour until we get another chance in the next game . . . ”
I nod. “Deep thoughts, Bullfrog. Very true.”
He goes on, poking around in the bowl of wedges for a favourite. “Life is absurd, so why not give it some shape, like living and dying according to the fortunes of a football team?”
“Just as good as a lot of other ways of living, eh?”
Just then, Frances the barmaid appears at our table and gives us all the benefit of her professional smile. “We’re all very solemn tonight, boys,” she says. She gives the back of Bulldog’s neck a nice little massage. “As you would expect from a bunch of Bomber supporters.”
“We’re in philosophical mode, Frances,” replies Bulldog. “Refusing to wallow in maudlin talk of sacking coaches and poor team selection, we’re looking at the bigger picture. Encouraged by your fine beverages and charming décor, of course.”
“Shouldn’t you be taking it easy,” she says, quietly.
“I am. One more round, please wench,” and he grabs her hand and gives it a bit of a squeeze as she grins, and moves off.
“By the way, Rab, how did you get on with Jonesy when you and Rebecca took the hearse back?”
“Good. Rebecca was fine, told him the full story, apologised, said she’d pay to get the car detailed. He refused, of course, and offered her a job.”
“Well, he would, wouldn’t he.”
As Tommy and me are within a block of the Mews, he suddenly asks me whether I thought Bulldog was okay. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but the more I think about it . . . he looked pale, and a bit listless.”
“My thoughts entirely, Tommy. Probably just work. Vice principal would be a tough gig.”
We’re about to cross Huntleigh Road. Tommy steps off the gutter, and I grab him by the arm as a car swishes by a few metres in front of us. “Jesus, look out, will you.”
“Thanks,” he mumbles. “I was miles away.”
“Silly old idiot . . . hedgehog. Hasn’t the film taught you anything?”
. . . / / / . . .
The Laughlin’s arrive on Saturday afternoon. Tommy meets them out on Huntleigh Road and tells them to drive around to the carpark entrance, where I’m to meet them. I get waylaid, and I’m late on the scene, so I find myself running behind their roof-racked Mercedes van, screaming by tits off. WAIT! WAIT! SLOW DOWN! STOP!!
I get there just in time. I rest a hand on the Merc and get my breath back. “Jesus, Roy, it’s not a speedway . . . ”
“Rabbit Schofield,” he says, thrusting a leathery hand out the window. “I haven’t seen you for twenty years and already you’ve got your knickers in a knot. What’s the problem?”
There’s a prolonged squeal of laughter from Daisy in the passenger seat, which I recognise instantly, because it’s exactly like it always was, a high-revving blender, and some kiddie laughter from the back seat. “Mate,” I pant, “how are you? Good to see you,” and I point to the fire sprinkler system, beautiful red pipes laced symmetrically across the ceiling, which Roy’s roof-rack was about to take a great chunk out of when he reached the first ramp, five metres from where he’s stopped.
The Reptile looks up. “Oh yeah. That was lucky, yeah. Could have caused old Tommy some headaches if I’d bumped those, eh.”
“Back up, and I’ll find you a park on the bottom level.”
The two grand-children, Bronte and Jamie, are a surprise inclusion in the holiday package. We’re told they’re Brendan’s kids, and Brendan and his wife Stacy-Lee (no kidding) are taking the opportunity to go to Mildura to pick up a horse they’ve bought for Bronte. I know it’s not a charitable thought, but my personal opinion was always to doubt that Brendan Laughlin could raise the energy to father two children. But he must have, because I can see Brendan in them. How wrong I was . . .
I am determined to add value to the Beaumont F.C. reunion, seeing this is the first addition to the original, awesome foursome, so I behave like the perfect host. I find amusement where amusement is hard to find, as this interchange shows, soon after arriving in Unit 12:
Tommy: I hope you didn’t bring any snakes down with you, Roy.
Roy: Did we bring any snakes with us, doll?
Daisy Doll: I hope you put the trouser snake in, Reptile.
Roy: He’s here. Only comes out after dark these days, Tommy boy.
The scene erupts into delirious laughter; I make a small contribution and offer to see what Bronte and Jamie are up to.
Kicking the football in the courtyard, actually. Crunching the potted citrus trees, belting the flowers off the gardenias, smashing a pot plant into several hundred fragments, endangering light globes, window panes and lives.
I remain calm. “What about going up and getting your bathers and having a swim in the pool. It’s deliciously warm. Ask Tommy for a key.”
I busy myself with chores for a couple of hours, to keep my pre-game nerves under control. On my way up to the manager’s residence, ready for a cleansing ale, I notice someone has been using a paper shredder in the pool, or the ceiling has caved in. Or Bronte and Jamie have been playing ball games with toilet rolls.
So, it’s back into their wet togs while they scoop floating bog paper off the top of the water, press it into a balls and throw it to me. “There’s no need to throw it quite so hard, Jamie,” I remark, as a spit-ball hits me in the thigh.
“Bronte. Throw them to me, so I can put them in the bin. Otherwise they just splat all over the floor. And that’s not what we want, is it?”
Eventually, we get to Etihad Stadium, get The Mob and The Reptiles seated, get the first round of pies and chips and get the trouser snake jokes done and dusted. And North Melbourne get the first goal, within the first minute of the game. The ball is whisked out of the centre, a North crumber gobbles it up and belts it through.
I say shit, and hug the bitter feelings which engulf me.
Bulldog, on one side of me, mutters something about the misery continuing, The Reptiles go ballistic. The kids are in North jumpers and wave scarves which hit me in the face, Daisy is wearing a broad head-band with ROOS across her forehead and blue and white boa-like material over her crown. She has a long-sleeved jumper and white slacks, and a massive flag. She looks like an exotic water bird having an epileptic fit.
It’s going to be a long night. Clearly, our guests from the country have been looking forward to picking over the bones of the Bombers’ season.
But after that, blue-and-white epilepsy is kept pretty much under control. The game, scrappy and ferociously-fought, is even. Two blokes playing their first games do spectacular things. Kyle Hardingham takes a screamer and kicks a goal for us, while Ben Speight kicks a purler for North. The Bombers actually look as though they’ve brought a forward line along tonight. (Wonder where it’s been hiding?)
The Reptile looks every member of The Mob in the eye and declares that North will wait, and wait, then like one of my snakes we’ll bite you Bombers in the balls. Daisy thinks this is hilarious – maybe she finds the alliteration a real turn-on – and does her blender laugh.
We’re 10 points up at quarter time, which hasn’t happened for a few weeks. Bronte and Jamie and their father have gone off for another truckload of food. The rest of us savour the peace.
In the second quarter, I feel – as does my companion Bulldog – that we should have sealed the game. At one stage we kick out to a four-goal lead, driven along by the amazing Jobe Watson who is dominating the game, and thanks to some good forward work from Aaron Davey, Kyle Reimers and Travis Colyer. But the Northerners peg us back, bugger them: Aaron Edwards is really good, taking the mark of the year, and Warren kicks a goal after the siren which brings the margin back to 9 points in our favour and causes another frenzy of blue-and-white hysteria from our guests.
The Reptile is grinning like a cobra. “We’re closing on youse,” he says. “Youse getting ready to be disappointed.”
Fortunately, Jonesy keeps The Reptile and Daisy entertained during half-time by outlining an alternative business plan for their reptile park, the kids go fossicking for toilets and more food, and Bulldog and I discuss at length the names of some of the Bomber footballers. We come to a unanimous decision: Kyle is ridiculous, and we have two of them. We also have a Jay, a Jobe, a Leroy, a Courtenay, a Tayte and a Taite (no relation), a Cale, a Bachar (understandable), and a Heath (but no Heathcliff).
“The parents of the eighties have a lot to answer for,” says Bulldog.
It’s the same pattern in the third quarter. We stay out in front, but North just keep coming back. At one point, Brent Harvey dashes through the lines as he’s been doing for years and makes a goal for Warren – he can play – and I get Bronte’s scarf and (playfully) twist it around her neck and pretend to pull it tight. We’re only three points ahead at three-quarter time, thanks to their big bloke Hamish McIntosh marking and goaling close to the siren. (Why doesn’t someone PUNCH IT?)
The Reptile doesn’t ask us whether we feel the snake getting closer to our balls – he just grins at us, eyes flickering. It’s Daisy’s turn to do the toilet/food run, and Bulldog and I calm our nerves by trying to find funny names in the North Melbourne list. Lachlan, Liam and Levi is the weirdest combination we can come up with.
The last quarter is agony. North get ahead after two minutes. Jamie and Bronte are now goading me with their scarves. (Have they had a childhood, these two?) When North get another goal, at the 4-minute mark, the signs are ominous – we could lose and I could be in the Remand Centre, due to appear on Monday for infanticide.
Gumbleton – playing better this week – goals at 13 minutes and we’re 4 points up. At 15 minutes Hardingham bags another, and we’re 10 points up. (I’ve got the end of a scarf in my fist, and I’m not letting go.) At 21 minutes Edwards for North goals, and it’s back to four points. (“Let go,” grizzles Bronte.)
“The fangs are getting closer, Rabbit,” smirks Reptile.
If we lose this, I could lose IT.
Goal to Davey, back to 10 points up. Goldstein for North replies, back to 4 points. Goal to Monfries, back to 10 points. North hit the post twice, 27 minutes gone. (“Dad, he won’t let go,” whines Bronte. “Shut up, darling.”)
North goals. No, free kick to Dempsey for a tackle on Harvey. (“Shit, Bulldog, I thought Harvey handballed that.”)
There’s turnovers, panic and Watson gets pinged for holding the ball. Greenwood goals for North, and there’s a kick in it.
31 minutes gone. North win it out of the centre and . . . FLETCH . . . you beauty, he’s got it and he belts it away and WATSON marks and . . . SIREN.
“Well,” I say, letting Bronte’s scarf go. “Did you enjoy that?”
Bronte pouts. “It sucks.”
I can’t resist one little stab at my former team-mate. “Can’t feel any fangs on the onions, Reptile.”