Off Season Odyssey Pt.43.
Sleep. It’s not healthy at 100kms per hour. I pull down a dirt track for a while. I’m sick of granny naps in the cabin, trucks rattling my teeth. The sky’s clear, it’s between mozzie and fly seasons, I’m going to spread out.
The ute pushes past a small shack. It has two walls. A bloke steps out. I’m tired, but say g’day.
“Fuck off,” he growls.
Further down, when I sleep, I dream of pig skin shaped like an oval. Like the cup of two hands.
The shack’s still standing on the way back. I can’t tell if it’s something falling apart, or only ever half built. The man flags me down.
“Are you going into town?” he says.
Without thanks, or request, he opens the passenger door.
An hour or two later I’ve figured out his name is Larry, but nothing more. He catches coughs in tattooed knuckles that belong to a former life.
“What are you doing?” he finally asks.
“Working, driving, Footy stuff.”
“Here?” he complains.
“This is the arse end of the earth!” he demands.
“Correct,” I say, to which he doesn’t reply.
Larry breatehs hard, as if forcing air out his nose. I unwind the windows before I’m inhaling him. Play music loud. Greg Champion’s Dylan-esque Bring Tommy Back to Richmond, mostly. I’ve been repeating the song relentlessly for days, as if it were a gospel service. Filling myself with all its passion and melancholy, using it to stay on the road. Larry finds a few of my beers. I don’t mind.
“I was a gun footballer,” he tells me.
I look at him, briefly, unable to imagine a bloke less likely.
“Let’s have a kick,” I say.
I pull up next to a freshly ploughed field. We step over the useless old fence, a deterrent only to scarecrows.
“You fucking serious?” he complains, ball in hand.
“Sure, I need a break,” I lie. I want to see what Larry’s got.
He bends his knees outward to put his beer down, like old men who’s spines are shot, and kicks. Boot barely catches ball, which splinters out west.
I jog over freshly turned rows and land one on his tit. The pill bounces off as if his chest is a plank. He goes to let rip a torp, and misses it, then kicks the earth as if the planet’s to blame. Next he does a little double kick, the ball hitting his shin, then toe, before landing about fifteen feet away.
Larry swears, grumbles, and bends down to sip his beer.
He closes his eyes and kicks the ball high, all over the sky, then, realising it’s coming back down to him, not me, goes for a grab. A bit more of this, a few okay stabs, and he’s all red-faced, blowing wind. Knackered.
“The beer put me off,” he says. “Can’t bloody believe I was the go-to back when!”
The clown-around has loosened-up Larry. “I prospect out here, kill a few goats,” he tells me. “Used to have my own opal mine. For a while.”
He doesn’t offer his hard luck story and I don’t ask for it. Too often they sound the same. He doesn’t notice his beer has dirt in it as I turn the key, re-starting the motor and Bring Tommy Back to Richmond.
My front end’s just stuffed. The steering’s gone, two of the wheels down to wire. We turn off the inland highway and limp towards the small opal mining town of Lightning Ridge. The only other traffic is an overweight man with a beard riding a small, pink pushbike the other way.
I pull a violin out for the mechanic.
“Gotta pick up a kid from the central coast. Gotta catch a boat. Little money.”
I have no shame, making it sound like life and death, I guess. But do have shame. It makes me cringe, using up good will like this. If I miss the ship, all I’ll really lose is some coin I don’t have and another round of footy. But every game counts. Even at 44. A season has its own start, middle and end, its own flow, each piece giving value to the other. Nothing else seems to matter.
I am addicted.
The mechanic’s a top bloke. He ums and errs a lot before agreeing to attack the front end straight away.
“I’ll give you two second-hand tires and straighten your steering box, You can dip into your savings to do the bigger stuff when you get back to Tassie,” he tells me.
“Thanks mate. Super appreciated,” I reply. “Champion.”
I don’t mention there’s nothing waiting back there for me but wood-cutting and country football. I’ll deal with money tomorrow.
“Why’d you bring him into town, though?” the bloke grunts, nodding at Larry, who’s wandered into the pub window.
I don’t care how loose my passenger is, he looks perfect, framed by glass and the bar and wood and paint that tells you when it’s happy hour. As if he’s a part of history. A photo, as permanent as the bills, kegs and foundations. As natural as magpies.
I wonder how many Under 13 champions are still living off their former glory? How many of them end up places like here? In shit jobs, or hard times? I once had a teammate who played one VFL game and wouldn’t stop bragging about his career in the Big Time. His brother played lots of VFL footy, and never mentioned it. Larry probably was on a team of some sort, at some stage.
Junior legends. So often they forget to mention it was children’s football.
“the main forward!”
I was great until
“…I discovered girls and drinking.”
“…I got injured.”
“…they invented training.”
“…the coach wouldn’t pick me.”
If I had a drink in my hand, I’d raise it to all the former champions. To the places life takes them. To people already past their prime, which they reached as young teenagers.
I walk two or three kms out of town. Everything looks dry. The sun’s hot, as if that’s enough. There’s no-one at the natural hot springs when I get there. It looks wrong, like a pool built in the desert. But the water in it is roasting, thick, running up a pipe 1.5kms deep. The sign says it comes from an underground river network about the size of NSW, that they used to mine back in the day. That the water would burst out in a geyser, like oil, and they’d cap and tap it. That it kept the place alive, afforded drinking water, farming.
When I step in, its temperature is just this side of pain. Superb. ‘The Word’ says people, mostly old, come from all over Australia to live here, in this stinking hot nowhere, just for the water’s healing properties. That the minerals in it cure arthritis, bad knees, livers. It can have my bad back, my buggered hands, stuffed ankles, crooked elbow, re-grow my missing teeth, smooth over the scar-tissued hammies, or not. Who knows? Its heat isn’t like anything I’ve felt before. I’ve never been so damn horny!
The next hour or two are perfect. Timeless. There are two small gum trees, and a blue, cloudless sky I do absolutely nothing under.
Eventually I’m joined by an old Croatian with a big belly. He came to Australia after the war. Worked on the Snowy Mountain project, he tells me, helped build this land. When he retired, he and his wife moved to Lightning Ridge from Victoria, for the spas.
“Zurbo? Hungarian, yes?” he says. “A Hungarian saved my life in the war. I never forget it.” And tells me the story.
Gradually, more people show up. They arrive, one-by-one, in pairs. A few miners, but mostly Italians, Greeks. Europeans. Towards the end of the working day, sitting around, some submerged to their knees, some to their necks, talking, discussing the world. It’s brilliant, out here in the open, in the New South Wales desert. We look and sound like lazy walruses.
I wonder how many of them, back in their countries of birth, were Under 13s champions?
Time reclaims my walk back to town, the road re-claims my skin, but the water’s worked, somehow. I feel great! It bodes well for the up-coming season, not two days away, if I get there.
While waiting for the ute I see Larry, drunk, or on drugs, slab in arms, sitting up in the cabin of someone’s empty cattle truck, trying to sing what I think is Get Tommy Back to Richmond.
“Cockhead!” the driver is shouting at him from the street.
“Take me home!” he insists, still singing.
“Get the hell down!” the driver demands. “Idiot!” But Larry’s not listening.
In summer, Lightning Ridge hits 52 degrees. Even the cold water’s so hot you can’t touch it. Anyone who lives here is some kind of brave. They all deserve healing.