I met Christiano at his home after work. He was covered in dust and stank of sweat. Another day like every other in twenty years on the demolition crew. He hit Billy and hit it and hit it and hit it and hit it and okay, he was ready to leave the house for a while.
We took the footy to the servo, but the valve was tricky and the tire pump wouldn’t fill the ball up. Still, it had just enough air in it for a kick.
We warmed up, just kicking and leading, like the sweetest thing. No pressure, not care. No need to stretch. My season was over, we’d finished 3rd, we could tear anything we wanted. All it would fuck up was work.
Eventually, we hovered about 35 to 40 meters from each other. and I let the first one go. I cocked my heal to my ear and let rip the highest, tumbling punt ever seen. At least as high as every other one when we play.
Christiano marked it, running back. It was important to get him running. When you kicked it high but right to a person, they had a chance to brace, and mark it through their full balance and weight. He rocked his heal back and drilled a dropping, forward spiraling, thug of a ball at my face, which I managed to stop and make stick. I fired a torp at his head, he roosted one a good 50 meters up and spinning sideways. Finally, five minutes in, he dropped one. Just got his fingers to it, which was enough. A touch was a drop.
Three points and you lose.
We’ve been playing the game for twenty-five years.
At two-all I sent a mongrel punt 40 meters high and bending away from him. It slipped out of his fingers an inch from the ground.
3:2. One game to me.
We changed ends like tennis players and started again.
I dropped the first one. A sitter. Just wasn’t concentrating. Christiano laughed like tradition and gave me shit.
Before long, as always, we developed a rhythm. Kicking, marking, clapping each other, shit stirring, giving little cheers and jeers when a mark was dropped. A rhythm of small human noises, but, mostly, just the running into and around the wind as the day turned to night, in silence broken only by the thud of ball on boot.
Soon it was dark, six games to four, my favour. Marking always was my thing. I’ve had fourteen concussions from playing footy across the country, most of them running back into packs, Often still holding the mark. Games like this always help.
Christiano was determined to beat me, so kept wanting another game.
” Sure, ” I’d say, and not give a shit. I wasn’t pulling any pins. We’re both 40, yet pride is still, and always has been, the tastiest, easiest, meanest thing.
Mugs away, he roosted one up. I couldn’t see him now, so I listened for where he was, and watched the skyline for when the ball broke into it, then ran under the falling, wobbling ball, using the city’s reflection on the clouds as a backdrop. You’d be surprised how much of marking is fingers and feel. Reading the line of the ball. Instinct. It dropped into the dark beneath the skyline again. I held it. Christiano did his. I held mine. Christiano did his. I spiraled one in at him, as hard as I could. A screaming torpedo stab pass, that never rose above the into the clouds and their semi-light, so he wouldn’t see coming.
I heard the slap of it hitting his hands, then his voice call out from the dark.
” Yeah, ” he said. ” I dropped it. ”
It was, and always is, a thing of honesty. Our friendship is a thing of honesty. We always stretch as hard as we can for every mark, even if we know it means we will only get a finger to it, and in that lose a point. We run hard, we reach will all we’ve got. We’re competitive and best mates. If either of us jogged for fitness, we would run into a post out of boredom and break a nose. If either of us swam laps, we’d drown.
Surfing’s okay. Surfing gets you scared. But the coast is miles away, and we have to push at still air. Work is still air. Home is still air. Squash is still air, bowls is still air. Cricket takes place in nets.
White collar people did their thing around us, as they always do. They jogged and walked their dogs and pushed their prams and shook off their indoor jobs. It felt wrong kicking the ball on the old Fitzroy oval, once home of mud and Gorillas. It always does. But it’s the suburb that’s changed, not us.
As we finally called it a day, a woman walking her sausage dog asked if we were training for finals.
” No, ” we said.
” Oh. Are you on of those AFL players? ” she asked me.
We laughed. I was a nobody country footballer, back in my old stomping ground, catching up with a mate. Christiano had been retired for 22 years and had to get back to his billy. I had maybe one more year in me, at best, but I’d been thinking that for a lot of years. We just love kicking the pigskin. Love it!
It’s how we talk.
” No, I play real footy, ” I said.