Geoff Sinclair’s Home and Away Games- Rd 8

ROUND EIGHT

St. Kilda versus Essendon

Sunday, May 16th., Etihad Stadium

The Contest Scheduled to take place during the Twilight Hours

It’s Sunday, Mother’s Day, bleak at seven o’clock in the morning.  Not cold, but not exactly motherly warm either, and overcast as only Melbourne can be overcast.  It’s a lounging-about, coffee and Sunday papers kind of morning, but I’m out the front of Huntleigh Mews, sitting on the bar of Crossfire, the hybrid bike I have plucked from cobwebbed obscurity to go riding with the Top Terrace Terror, Rebecca Ritchie.

I am not in terrific shape.  Bulldog and I drowned our disappointment at The Gilbert Hotel after the Port Adelaide game.  It took a while to not answer the question, how can you be ahead on every statistic, and still not win?

I can hardly believe I have left my Cleopatra-comfortable bed at such an ungodly hour to be resting my arse on this decidedly down-market machine.  RR is a cantankerous kid who has barely uttered a civil word to me, so only a well-qualified psychiatrist with years of experience in dealing with thirty-something widowers would know why I’m here.  The fact that Ms Ritchie is an in-your-face Carlton supporter only adds to the difficulty I am having in understanding my current behaviour patterns.

The mythical shrink I am referring to might also explain why I am finding the company of a Collingwood supporter so irresistible that my loathing for her team wanes to the extent I have been able to watch them play live – not to mention other live action situations me and the lady have enjoyed.

Not that I have ever been of the opinion that a person’s football allegiance should be a serious factor in relationships.  You’ve only to watch the crowds going to any game of AFL footy to see how comfortably people deal with conflicting barracking situations.  Whole families are split down the middle of say, Collingwood and Essendon.  Mum and one of the kids are togged up in red-and-black, while Dad and the other two are in black-and-white.  It can be the same with a bloke and a girl, arm in arm, happy as pigs in swill, eyes only for each other, planning a wonderful life together, one in the baby-poo brown and gold of the Hawks, and the other in red-and-white for the Sydney Swans.  Or two mates.  Or a gay couple.  And they’re still together after the game – although one member of the party might be a bit subdued, or even totally pissed off – as they wander off into the suburbs to resume their normal lives.

Having said that, I’m up against someone like Rebecca Ritchie who has been really unpleasant to me from the get-go, simply because I’m warm and vertical and exist within her environs.  On top of this, if she’s going to constantly push Carlton in my face, well, she’s making it hard, friendship-wise.

All of which has led me (circuitously) to my original position, why am I here propped up by Crossfire in dawn’s early light, looking and feeling like a person of no fixed address?

The Pies flogged North Melbourne last night, so Labrini will have the black-and-white doona cover back in place.  (This is pure speculation on my part – no invitation to share the spoils of victory was forthcoming.)  Geelong slaughtered Sydney, just to show they are not to be messed with, and why don’t we just hand The Hoops the cup now and get on with the soccer World Cup.  Freo beat Brisbane up in the tropics for the first time in their bizarre lives, and at 2-5 Essendon has a snowball’s hope in hell of making the finals.

As a wise man said in the Sports Section: if your team is not in the top eight by the end of Round 7, the overwhelming odds are you’re not going to be there come Round 22.  Amen to that.

The illness that prevented Tommy the Tank Engine from watching Port Adelaide steal a game which was rightfully ours has miraculously disappeared.  (Psychosomatic in my view.  He couldn’t bear to watch Port Power beat us for the twelfth successive time.  He knew it was going to happen.)  The fact that Moisturised Claudia has asked him to help her with minor repairs to her beautician’s laboratory – laboratory if you don’t mind umpire – followed by Mother’s Day lunch with her daughter, may be a contributing factor in his lightning-quick rehab.  (The repairs would want to be minor if Tommy is involved.)

I push these thoughts aside, because The Bike Bitch has arrived.  I can see her approaching through the mesh of the gate.  I must say, when I looked her name up, I was surprised to discover it was Rebecca.  I expected something sharper, like Britt, or Gina or Alex.  Maybe she prefers Beck.

As I hold the gate open for her, my dag-appearance resonates.  I have dragged out my ancient Beaumont Football Club tracksuit, the pair of scruffy sneakers I wear for my walkathons and a helmet I found in the storeroom that is several sizes too small.  It feels like a huge red boil on my head.

Rebecca, on the other hand, is an athletic vision in lycra, plus wrap-around shades.  She is still sponsored by PRESTIGE MOTORS, and she looks edible, a thought I delete the instant it appears on the monitor of my mind.

“Here she is,” I say, trying to sound like the cool banana.  “The lycra-lizard herself.”

“Are you wearing bike shorts under that fashion statement?” she asks, ignoring my jocularity and looking me up and down like I was fly-blown.

“No.”

“Then you’ll end up with a sore bum.  Have you got gloves?”

“No.”

“A jacket?”

“You said you’d bring one.”

“So I did.  Never mind, it’ll warm up when the sun comes out.”

“It won’t come out.”

“How do you know, Rabbit-o?”

“I’m a farmer.  I can predict the weather.”

“Farmer eh?”  There is a question mark in her voice, but her cleats snap into place and we are rolling.

I am impressed with my pace in the early stages.  The pimpled tyres of Crossfire buzz like an angry insect and in no time we are in the heart of the city, ignoring the insults several drunks throw at us.  I have no trouble keeping up with Rebecca – the issues I am dealing with are the tightness of my child’s helmet, my nose that dribbles like a tap with a crook washer, and my eyes watering so badly I often can’t see where I’m going.  (I nearly run into the back of a taxi in Swanston Street, which would have been an ugly start to the expedition.)  Also my brakes squeal, a harsh noise that’s a real attention-grabber in the quiet streets, and very uncool for a bike rider.

I am still travelling pretty well down St. Kilda Road, thanks to a couple of red lights which allow me to catch up with my so-called cycling partner after she gets a break.  I thought she would have throttled back a bit, cut me a bit of slack seeing as I am new to this caper.  Plus, aren’t we TEAM PRESTIGE MOTORS?  Shouldn’t we be taking it in turns at the front of the peleton?

I notice Rebecca is often free-wheeling.  When I try free-wheeling, Crossfire just dies on me, and threatens to stop.

We turn right into Kerford Road, illegally.  (Rebecca calls out to mind the tram-tracks or I’ll go arse over, which is encouraging insofar as she  acknowledges I still exist.)  Albert Park is mainly asleep at this time of morning.  By the time we reach Beaconsfield Parade and the steely grey waters of the Bay, my knuckles are bright pink and the cold is nipping at my body through the Beaumont tracksuit.  My ears are numb from the cold and the tightness of the helmet straps, but my nose and eyes must have run out of dribble.

Just before we reach Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda, Rebecca throttles back until we are level.  “Howya managing, Rabbit-o?”

“Yeah.  Okay.”

“I’m going to Frankston.  By the look of you, it might be better to stop at Black Rock.”

“Whatever.  I don’t want to slow you down.”

“I’ll look out for you on the way back.”

“Okay.”  Bitch.

I have a tail wind, and Luna Park hangs in the air on my left, and damn me if the sun doesn’t comes out, despite my farmer’s forecast.  Cyclists swish past me in pairs or large groups, often talking their tits off.  They seem to ride effortlessly.  They all have road bikes, like Rebecca’s – I haven’t seen another hybrid.  Maybe Saturday is Hybrid Day.

Somewhere around Elwood I pass an elderly lady who is riding a bike with very small wheels and panniers loaded to the hilt.  She looks like she’s shifting house.  I pass her, that’s the main thing, and my confidence is restored for about five seconds.  But then there are some low hills – well, they look low, and they seem to go on for a hell of a long time.  My bum is starting to ache and I can feel the tiredness in my legs, which are more used to walking.  By the time I estimate a thousand lycra lizards have swished by me like I’m not moving, I spot a clock-tower and roundabout.

I am knackered.  A shop sign has Black Rock in it.  Thank you Jesus.

I sit on a bench and wait.  After half-an-hour I walk my bike to a bakery full of animated lycra.  (I overhear one bloke telling his mates that Carlton are a big chance to beat St. Kilda tomorrow night.  Idiot.  Stick to cycling, mate.)  I buy a foccaccia and a carton of pink milk.  I return to my bench, and munch and sip, and watch the parade of joggers, in-line skaters, dogs, bikes, prams and walkers.  The sun disappears, and across the bay I can hardly make out where the sea ends and the sky begins.

Suddenly, I am a long way from home, and alone.  I want Linda next to me, and when I place my hand on the space beside me, a dreadful sense of loss seeps into every corpuscle of my aching body.  She should still be here, it’s totally, utterly unfair that she’s not.  Why shouldn’t I be able to rest my head on her shoulders, to feel the warmth of her neck, to hear her murmur something no-one else can hear.

Why?  Why fucking not?

My eyes flood, and this time it isn’t the wind.  The lump in my throat nearly chokes me.  I push disgusting little Crossfire over the road, look towards where I think Frankston might be – mutter bitch – and push off.

I ride slowly, taking frequent stops.  I am into a head wind, and my backside is feeling the effect of a cast iron seat made to look like leather.  When I reach the vicinity of the city centre around 5 hours later – well, that’s what it feels like – I’m in serious agony, and I am greeted by several hundred thousand happy people celebrating Mother’s Day.  They are jogging or walking or strolling, feeling no pain whatsoever.  I wheel Crossfire through the crowd, keeping my head down so as not to introduce a sour note to proceedings.

I swing my leg over when I get to Swanston Street and pedal like aching hell, and I’ve gone twenty metres before my back tyre goes flat as a tack, pimples and all.

We walk the rest of the way back to Huntleigh Mews, me and the wounded Crossfire.

. . . / / / . . .

The week disappears as rapidly as the toilet paper in the swimming pool dunnies.  Tommy and me can’t decide whether St.Kilda getting flogged by Carlton on Monday night is good or bad for us.  It’s like chewing gum: we go at it hard while it’s fresh, then plug it behind our ear for a while, and later drag it out and chew on it a bit more.  Eventually we throw it out when it gets stale and take out a fresh piece – this time, how to instil a bit more maturity into the Bombers in one week.

On Thursday, the old guy and me are all chewed out of football, so we go for a wander up Huntleigh Road, pretty much in silence, heading north with the vague idea of a coffee followed by a poke around in a second hand bookshop.  We’re not far from home when we come across a likely-looking restaurant – an Italian pizza-rama – so we take a footpath table.  Tommy’s watching the street, clearly fascinated by the traffic, or else imagining he’s carrying out a few minor repairs for Claudia.  I’m sitting facing the door, so I see The Terror first.

As soon as she recognises me, I see her chest rise and fall sharply, as though she needs an extra shot of oxygen to cope with the view.  She makes it to our table, haughty style, note-pad and pencil cocked.

I give her a hard look.  “Hi there, Rebecca.”

“Hi.  What would you like?”

“An explanation.”

“Okay.”  She pretends to use her notepad.  What a comic.  “Could I suggest a green salad with that . . . ”

“You make it to Frankston?”

“There and back.  Where did you make it to, Mr Rabbit?”

“Black Rock.  You said to wait for you and I did.”

Tommy has followed this curt little exchange like he’s watching a ping-pong game.  He says, “I’ll have a cappuccino, and Peter you’ll have . . . ”

“A long black.”

Rebecca scribbles on her pad.  “You said you didn’t want to slow me up, and I said I’ll look out for you on my way back.  Which I did.  I looked out for you.”

I feel my case crumbling, but I’m not leaving it.  “Well, the way I see it, you invited me to go riding with you, and my assumption was that we’d ride together . . . ”

“I’ll have scones, with jam and cream please,” interrupts Tommy.  (Nothing keeps him from his food, or is this his way of dealing with conflict?  To eat his way out of it.)

Rebecca scribbles some more, fair dinkum this time.  “We’re offended are we?”

“Scones Peter?”

“No thanks.  Yes, we are offended, mildly, but we’ll get over it . . ”

“Well, may I suggest that in future, to avoid misunderstandings, you should say what you mean, Mr Rabbit Farmer.  Instead of saying, I don’t want to slow you down, you go on, try saying, please stay with me, I’m scared to be on my own.”

“Make sure the coffee’s hot please Rebecca.”

“It’s always hot, Mr Hubble.”

“I had a flat tyre.”

“That’s disappointing.  They’re easy to fix.”

“If you’ve got a spare tube.”

Tommy gives me a school teacher look.  “That’s all we’re having thanks, Rebecca.”

When she goes, he delivers me a mini-lecture on the subject of why I waste my energy on someone who doesn’t deserve it.  I tell him I don’t know, which is the absolute truth.

After we’ve had our coffees, and Tommy’s consumed half his body-weight in scones and jam and cream, I insist on going inside the pay the bill.  (It’s not hard.)  Rebecca is standing behind the counter, and next to her is a man-mountain, a swarthy, South American-looking pony-tailed giant who greets me with a thin-lipped smile.  “You enjoy your coffee and scones, mate?”  His “mate” is as authentic as Made in China Chanel No. 5.

“Yes, thanks mate.”  I give my “mate” a real working over, so it sounds like a chair scraping on the floor.  Then I wave my hand around at the display of Carlton Football Club posters around the wall.  “You’re missing a few,” I say.  “No sign of the 2002 team.  And what about 2005 and 2006?”

I get two of the dirtiest looks I ever had, as I plonk a red-spot on the counter, and leave.

Outside Tommy, florid from the coffee and scones, suggests we check out the bookshop.

“Okay,” I say.  After a few paces, I add, “I don’t think we’ll come back to that place.”

“Because of the girl?”

“Yes.  Plus I asked them why they didn’t have their wooden spoon teams on the wall.”

“Oh, Peter.  Really.”

. . . / / / . . .

It’s Friday night already, time to concentrate on football, and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist.  I’m buggered.  I’ve had a couple of huge days window-cleaning and sweeping up autumn leaves.  (I wonder if I’ll get the sack when the leaves are gone.)

Tommy is determined to have a huge night in, totally committed to watching Fremantle play Collingwood, beamed live from the far West of the continent.  He hurries through his pork chops and three veg, slam dunks everything into the dishwasher while I’m still gnawing a bone, and settles himself into his Chesterfield.  He has control of the remote, and only an earthquake or Claudia Averling will shift him.  I’m not only tired, but I’m irritable and I don’t share his enthusiasm for the game.  The Collingwood juggernaut is getting on my quince, and up my nose, big time.  The papers are full of it, explaining in detail why the Pies are hot flag favourites.

I think I’m starting to see black-and-white jumpers and scarves worn around the streets on week-days, and it’s only Round 8.  That leaves a lot of the season left for saturation Collingwood coverage.  One bloke – whom I respect but will not name for security reasons – remarked to me, “I don’t care if Collingwood are May champions.  It only makes the splat louder when they fall.”  The horrible thought I keep having is that there may not be a splat.  They look to have all bases covered.

I’m dawdling, wondering how to spend the evening away from  Collingwood, when the phone rings.  “Good evening.  Peter Schofield, assistant manager Huntleigh Mews, speaking.  How may I help you?”

“It’s me.”

I haven’t heard from the Greek Goddess since I sailed effortlessly through a lesson with her on variations of the social foxtrot earlier in the week – the sway step, the closed promenade and the promenade pivot – plus a few minutes of elementary rumba.

“Hello you.”

“Would you do me a favour?”

“No.  I’m tired.”

“Good.  Go over to my apartment and record the game tonight.  I forgot to set it up, and I’ve got competition.  Maureen’s sick.”

“Okay.”

“Good.  You should be here dancing.  Oh, by the way Peter.”

“Yep.”

“Go Pies, and please be there when I get home.”

“You want me to see if you’ve turned the iron off, right?”

“Ohhhh.”  Click.

Tommy’s disappointed, but philosophical.  He mutters something about “me acting in my professional capacity” in checking the iron and immediately switches his attention to whatever crap the television serves up before the football.  I feel a tiny stab of guilt as I leave, but it’s gone before I reach the first step.

I set up camp in Apartment 77.  I turn the TV to the football channel and mute it, pour a glass of stale chardonney from Labrini’s inexhaustible supply of dud wine, place my glass on the coaster featuring Alan Didak’s head, and select one of the plush soft-leather swivel chairs.  I savour being here alone.  There’s an excitement tingling in my belly at being in someone else’s apartment.  This is a special, intimate place for Labrini, and she’s trusted me to be here, to perform a small, loving act for her.

I am to record her damn football team.  Press the red button.  I check my watch – there’s still half-an-hour before the bounce.

I sip, and think of nothing much else, except when Labrini might be home, and suddenly the team photograph above the television draws my attention.  I don’t have to get up to know what it is – it’s Collingwood’s 1990 premiership team, the one that beat us Bombers.  An annus horribilis, because it is the same year Beaumont lost the Big One by a point.  I quickly swivel out of its line of vision, only to find myself looking at Nathan Buckley smiling and holding out his Brownlow Medal for me to see.  I’m surrounded.  I swivel again, and I’m confronted by a very large photograph of what would have to be the Houdalakis clan.  They look as indomitable as the massive tree they’re standing in front of.  They’re probably not, but I make a mental note not to offend any of them.  After a while, I start reading the book I’ve flinched from Tommy’s shelves, Peter Temple’s “White Dog”.  I have to blink eyes clear after a couple of pages.  By chapter two, my eyelids are as heavy as, and I am aware that the book has tumbled out of my hands.  I just let it go, and let my eyes close, because that’s what they want to do.

I jerk awake to a scratching sound, then a clunk.  It takes a second or two for my sleep-drugged mind to register that that was the door opening and closing, and during that brief time I see on the television screen Fremantle’s coach, Mark Harvey, being interviewed by Tim Watson.  He looks glum.

“Oh shit!”

“What?”  Labrini is instantly between me and the television, eyes flicking from one to the other.  “The red light’s not on!”

“Yes it is . . . what time is it? . . . no it’s not.”  I rub my eyes, and press my palms on my forehead, as a kind of protective gesture I guess, then I stand up.  “Look, love, you’re winning . . . easily.  See.  Yahhh, you’ve slaughtered them.”  I look at her with the most miserable look I can muster.  “It’s over, isn’t it?”

“It’s over alright.  You’ve really disappointed me this time.  Really, really disappointed me.”

“I’ll buy you the DVD.”

“You’ve really disappointed me.  I know what the fucking score is, I’ve had the radio on, but I’m tired, I’ve just danced my legs to the bone for three hours with some arrogant dickbrain and I just wanted to get home and SIT DOWN WITH YOU AND WATCH IT!!”

As she shouts these last words, she rips off her overcoat, flings it into the corner of the room and stands glaring at me with her hands on her hips.  I am shocked to the core at what I see.  “God, Labrini, what do you look like!”

“What do you mean, what do I look like.  I didn’t even change my costume.  I came straight home.”

“God.  How does it stay . . . like, why doesn’t it fall off.”

“Oh shut up, and stop gawking.  Could I have a drink please.”

“A drink?  Ahhh . . . ”

“Oh, don’t tell me.”

. . . / / / . . .

We are convened at Etihad Stadium in the late afternoon, but the roof shuts out any evidence of that.  It’s indoor football, and we’re into the tenth year of it.  The Mob’s mood is pessimistic, the sense of anticipation falling somewhere between expecting an enema and in the dentist’s waiting room for root canal procedure.  In other words, we don’t expect to beat St. Kilda.  They’re on the rebound, and they’ll be stung into action.

When they run out onto the ground, they look white and menacing.  We look sharp, too, but we’re mostly red because this is our away strip.  I like our huddle.  It’s tight and inclusive.  That’s a good sign.

The players shake hands with the umpires because it’s be-kind-to-umpires week.  It’s clearly paid dividends for the Saints – they get the first six free kicks.

One of them is against David Hille, our ruckman, who belts Brendon Goddard late and hard and gets penalised 50 metres and reported.  The St. Kilda crowd scream their indignation.  Tommy gets almost hysterically angry, telling us all that it is another example of poor discipline that has plagued this club for years.  Is this is the same player who featured in a long mid-week press article saying how he was getting back into form and enjoying his football like never before? the puce little man asks.  Jonesy says he’ll get four weeks, tells Tommy to calm himself down before he has a seizure, and picks his Record up off the ground.

The result is, Koschitzke kicks a goal.

Another free kick against us is the second worse decision in the history of the game, when the yellow-clad insect closest to us at the Lloyd end of the ground reckons our boy Hooker deliberately pushed the ball over the St. Kilda goal-line.  (The player was obviously grasping at it to keep it in play.)  The free to Koschitzke is another gift-goal.

The unrepentant sinner, David Hille gets a goal for us late in the quarter, and we are 5 points down.

It could be worse.  St. Kilda look a bit more methodical.

The second quarter is under way.  The football is scintillating.  It’s sensational.  It’s stupendous.  The best value-for-money ticket in town is watching this brand of footy – Jersey Boys included – especially as Jonesy won’t let us pay for them.  The tackling, the pressure, the precision leave me speechless.  Well, almost.  I go ballistic and scream like crazy when we continue to gift the Saints goals.  Mark MacVeigh’s crook kick-in is snapped up by Stephen Milne for a goal, then McVeigh gives away a free to del Santo for another.  (That was soooooooo soft.)  The man-mountain Gardiner gets another for the Saints, and things are starting to look grim.  (Actually, it’s a waste of time screaming your tits off like I just did, because unless you say something truly awful, no-one pays a blind bit of notice.)

But wait!  Atkinson finishes off a counter-attack with a goal, Leroy Jetta soccers one out of the air like you wouldn’t believe, and David Zaharakis slots another.  Madonna!  We’re ahead, by two points.  I take it all back – the grimness, that is, not my rant.

Tommy’s heart-rate and pulse are declared moderately abnormal by Jonesy.  Everyone thinks that’s hilarious – that’s how pumped we are, because it’s only a tiny bit funny.  But grown people laugh uproariously at relatively unfunny things when they’re under stress.

Boy, are we under stress.  We’ve lost Hooker, our magnificent Cale Hooker, who went off  with what looks like a hamstring.  This upsets me greatly.

As the third quarter, gets going, Tommy announces that St. Kilda have a new game plan, but he can’t explain what it is, and I can’t see what it is.  Whatever – they kick the first two goals, and bleakness revisits me.  (Oh, I am a fickle fool.)  But wait!  Is this the Bombers kicking one, two, three and hello! four unanswered goals.  Yes, it is.

Tommy, astute as ever, announces that we’ve opened the game up.  (I would never have noticed.)  Suddenly there’s a whiff of victory in the air.  Our boys are devastating on the break, linking hand-balls and hitting targets with our kicks.  And heaven preserve us, we run the ball out of defence, where Dustin Fletcher – never retire, Fletch – and Heath Hocking are playing superbly.

We’re 13 points up at the final break.  Will they run all over us?

Yes, they will.  They change their game plan again.  (Gee, thanks Tommy for mentioning that.)  They bomb it long to their talls, where they get three through Gardiner and Koschitzke, with our unrepentant sinner Hille pulling one back.

It’s excruciating.  It’s wonderful.  39,000 people screaming their tits off – well, there are exceptions, such as the very quiet, elderly St.Kilda couple next to me.  Quiet as mice, bless them.  No eye contact with me – they probably think I’m feral.

Our ruckman, Patrick Ryder is sensational, nailing two beautiful crumbing goals in a frantic last twenty minutes.

We hang on and win by 12 points.

Oh my giddy aunt!  We beat the Saints.

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