Short Story: A High Country Nativity

By Richard Holt

They called it The Grand because no-one ever called a pub ‘The Dilapidated’ so it was to The Grand that Barry Massey went to drown his sorrows on Christmas Eve. As he trudged up the muddy cow-track of a main road towards the fifty metres of pitted bitumen that counted for the centre of town, Barry’s mind was on death. No amount of Yuletide cheer could change that. The club was pretty much doomed. After ten years at the helm Barry was learning to live with the inevitability. He’d soon go down in soon-to-be-forgotten history as the last president of the once mighty Albertville Albatrosses. And after the club went—well, that might just about be it for the town.

Never heard of Albertville? Not many have these days. But in years past the Albatrosses were the most feared football team in the whole of the Upper Downs. Back in the seventies, when the mine was open and a small farmer could still make a living, Albertville was thriving. It had ten times the current population—a good number of handy footballers among them. Barry remembered. Two hundred and eighty games roving to big Al Shorten. Best and fairest in ’73. Barry remembered all right. In those days the Grand had been a place of celebration.

He pushed through the door. “Fellas.” A single nod acknowledged everyone who mattered.

Boof McKenzie, behind the bar, was captain now, though his knees said he should have retired long ago. He filled a pot for the president. “Happy Christmas, mate. What’s the latest?”

“We’re done, I reckon. League won’t shift on the deadline. Show course why or merge. We’ve got ’til year’s end.”

“But that merger’s a take-over.”

“I know, Boof.”

“I say we have one last party with whatever’s left of the club and then just shut the door on it.”

“ ’Cept you can’t spend a debt. Anyway, it’s the ground they want, not us. No one from Albertville’s ever gonna get a game for Mt Logan.”

“Anyone who does won’t be welcome here,” said Boof.

“Fair go,” said Benny Cotton. “A bloke’s got a right to have a kick.”

“He can get his kicks in the valley or up at Heathvale or wherever he bloody wants, but if he wants to drink here he sure as hell’s not gonna get them with Mt Logan.”

On the telly an old Christmas movie was playing—black and white, the sound drowned out by Cold Chisel on the juke box. Jimmy Stewart climbed a bridge railing and stared down at the swirling water below. Boof glanced up. “Jump before you get pushed, mate. Jump before you get pushed.”

Suddenly the door burst open. Frank Valos, Johnny Buckhurst and Mitch Temple stood like the Three Amigos, perusing the scene. “Not much of a party,” quipped Temple.

“Bugger off back to Mt Logan, Mitch.”

Boof turned his back on the three—began wiping clean glasses.

“We’re just making sure you’re not dipping out of the grudge match. But seems to me you couldn’t field a team if you wanted to.”

Every year for as long as anyone could remember it had been the custom of the men of Albertville to gather at the Sports Ground, after lunch on December 25, for a bit of kick to kick. Cricket might have been the preferred sport in backyards and on beaches in other parts of the state but up here you’d as likely get a white Christmas as a stinker so footy had become the game of choice. Ten years ago Mt Logan had decided to crash the party and the annual Christmas grudge match had been born.

“Yeah,” said Buckhurst, who was no Rhodes scholar, “who’s gonna play for yas then?”

Barry straightened to all of his five feet one. “We’ll have a team, you bastards.”

Benny muttered, “Shush, Baz,” under his breath.

“We’ll have a team and what’s more we’ll beat you. Or…or…”

“Or what, Baz? Rumour is you’ve got nothing to wager.”

“Or the merger papers get signed——”

“Baz!” Benny and Boof swung round.

“——which they won’t, ’cause we’re gonna beat you. Fair and square.”

“You’re on.”

“And if… no, when… we win, then you can take them papers and nail them on the wall of the dunnies in that fancy new town hall of yours. ‘Cause that’s all they’ll be good for.”

“You’re on again. You just sealed your own fate, Baz. You bloody dill. You know that, don’t you?”

“He doesn’t know anything of the sort,” said Boof. “Now get outta my pub.”

“Glad to,” Temple sneered.

As the door slammed behind the three intruders, Boof turned on Baz. “Are you nuts?”

“Jump before you’re pushed. You said it. We’re stuffed anyway.”

“That bad?”

“That bad,” the president confirmed.

There was movement from a table in the shadowy corner behind the juke box. “Cripes,” said Barry, jumping. “I thought we were alone.”

“Ferals are in from the bush. Downing a few for the summer solstice or something.”

“Really? Good Luck to ’em.”

A big young bloke with long dreadlocks strolled over to the bar. Benny and Baz stepped aside. “Another jug, thanks. Sounds like you blokes have got yourselves in a bit of a tangle.”

“Nothing we can’t sort out, son,” said Baz. “I s’pose you think it’s funny—a town like this slowly going down the gurgler.”

“Not funny, nah. I came from a town like this but it’s gone now. Anyway we hate Mt Logan as much as you. They’re the ones with the mill. They’ve got Pattersons calling the shots. Let us know if we can help you out tomorrow.”

“Help us!”

“Sounds like you’re a few men short.”

“Yeah. Footballers not hippies.”

“A-grade ammos in the big smoke for three years.”

“You’re kidding.”

The kid lifted his scruffy Hessian pants. On his calf was a tattoo—Mighty Panthers, Premiers, 2005.

“Bloody hell.”

“There’s more of us too. We’ve gotta have something to do to kill time. Can’t be chained to trees our whole lives.”

“Miracle number bloody one,” mumbled Baz.

By closing, the big hippy and two of his scruffy mates were deep in conversation with the three locals.

Baz picked at his turkey as Vera fussed around him. He still hadn’t told her he’d be pulling on the boots again and he figured he’d cop a serious earful for the privilege. But after working the phones all morning Albertville was still short on the interchange bench. He’d make himself available just in case anyone didn’t make it through, which, after lunch on Christmas Day, was a fair bet.

“Might head down the ground after lunch, Love,” he said over steaming plum pudding. “For old time’s sake.”

“Yes, Baz. We always do. That’s fine.”

“Might take my boots with me.”

“What, for old time’s sake?”

“Yeah.”

“Barry?”

That was all Vera said. She went out to the kitchen and stayed a very long time banging pots around. It was worse than an earful. Finally she returned with two cups of tea, clunking one down in front of her husband and taking the other to the couch.

“You do what you need to do, Dear,” she said as she sat. “If you want to make a goose of yourself you go for it.”

The President confessed. He told her exactly how bad things were at the club and about the wager he’d made in the heat of the moment with the Mt Logan boys the previous night.

“Bastards,” said Vera. “Why didn’t you say? I’ll go and get them for you.”

“Get what?”

“Your boots. I could’ve chucked them out but I didn’t have the heart. Try not to hurt yourself. And Baz…”

“Yes, Love?”

“I hope you kill ’em.”

Any chance of that seemed slimmer when they arrived at the ground and saw the state of their team. The Pirelli boys had been on the grappa. Max Foster’s right arm was in a splint from a trail bike crash. And Dwayne McLean was… Baz had to take a second look. Dwayne McLean was dressed as Santa Clause.

“McLean… What the hell?”

“Sorry, Baz. I’ve gotta keep it on all day. Made a bet with the brother-in-law.”

“So what?”

“It’s the brother-in-law, Baz. It’s personal. Gotta stay in character, too. Ho ho ho.”

“Yeah. Ho, bloody, ho,” said Baz.

“At least I’m here, which is more than I can say for those greenies you thought were gonna save us. Such nice weather too,” he added. “Reminds me of home.”

“Eh?”

“North Pole.”

An icy wind was blowing from the south. Grey clouds scooted over the surrounding peaks.

The Mt Logan players arrived in a convoy. From what Baz could see they’d just about put a full first team together.

Baz laced his boots. Where were the hippies? Why had he trusted them?

Des Deveraux, a copper from the valley with family connections to both towns, was as neutral an umpire as could be had on Christmas Day. “You ready, Baz?”

“Still a couple short.”

“I’m gonna have to start the game.”

Baz called the team together. “All right. We’re up against it. Boof’s told you all what’s at stake. Dunno what’s happened to the recruits so it’ll be up to you guys.”

Suddenly there was what sounded like a gunshot from the direction of the bridge and a luridly painted kombi van chugged around the bend, parking in the forward pocket. The big bloke, who went by the single name, Eagle, jumped out and raced across to the huddle of Albatross players. “Sorry, Barry. We just got out.”

“Got out?”

“Been in the Mt Logan lock-up on some trumped-up public nuisance beef.”

“On Christmas Day?”

“That’s what we thought. I reckon someone didn’t want us here.”

At the back of the huddle Benny blushed.

“Sorry Baz. It was just small talk. I might have mentioned something to Maria’s sister. She was bloody going on about how bad we were gonna get beaten.”

It was Benny’s shame to have married the daughter of an old Mt Logan football family. The sister’s husband was a local constable. He should have known.

“Never mind, Benny. We’ve got a side at least.”

In the absence of a coach, Baz went through the positions and gave everyone a rev-up. “We’ve got nothing to lose except the club—but that’s stuffed anyway. So today’s about pride and about bloody Mt Logan, too, so let’s give it everything.”

Trouble was it didn’t seem that everything would be enough. By quarter time Mt Logan, who’d had the wind behind them, were up six goals to one.

Kicking to the scoring end in the second Albertville failed to reduce the gap. If not for the efforts of the three hippies, along with Boof and Benny, they’d have been even further down.

It seemed that word of the match had spread. By half-time the ground was ringed by cars—more arriving by the minute. There was no sympathy in the rest of the Upper Downs for Mt Logan and Barry, who had been propping up a behind post in the forward pocket, was pleased, at least, to hear loud cheers as Albertville wandered towards the sheds.

A group of blokes in matching track suits approached him. “You Barry?”

“Yeah, I’m Barry. What of… ” Baz looked more closely at his inquisitor.

“Bloody hell. Neil King. Wha—?

“Trying to escape Christmas,” said the four-time all-Australian. “Thought we’d get some fishing in up here.”

Baz checked out the other two. Jon Ferucci and Nick Meyer. Football blue bloods both.

“Saw your game on. Decided to check it out. We hear the club’s in a bit of strife.”

“How about we help you out,” went on Meyer. “Your set-up’s all wrong. We could have a word with the boys and then maybe direct traffic for you if you wanted?”

“If we wanted!”

Suddenly there was a spring in Barry’s step like he hadn’t felt for years. Miracle bloody two, he thought.

By the time the three ex-North superstars had had their say the rag-tag team from Albertville felt like champions.

They ran out after half-time with renewed purpose as a team and each with a specific purpose—a role to play. Against the wind it was hard to make an impact. But they were more than competitive, holding their own. At three-quarter time the margin was out to forty points but the wind was howling up the valley now. And Barry sensed the after-effects of too much pudding on some of Mt Logan’s best.

Ferucci, Meyer and King had seen it too. At three-quarter time they gathered the players for a final charge. King addressed them. “Right fellas, you’ve got the wind and you’re forty down so let’s try not to be too fancy. If you’ve got a long option go for it. Keep the ball moving. We’ve got a few positional changes. So listen close.”

The champ used pointing and generic names to get his message across. “Bluey, go to full back. You, Skinny, up to centre half. Try to run off him. He’s nearly spent. Big Hippy into the ruck—must be something good in them mung beans. Santa, time to loose the suit.”

“Bu——”

“No buts.”

“Just the suit,” McLean said peevishly. He took off the red and white coat he’d had under his guernsey.

“OK, Freckles,” said King, “you take number 5 and run with him. Fat Hippy go up forward and provide a target. The Bobbsy Twins here,” he eyed the Pirellis, “can do the crumbing. And Baz, you can sit this out. Righto. You can win this. Just don’t stop running. Don’t cough it up cheap. And don’t muck around with it. Use the wind. Let’s go.”

Something remarkable was taking place. Baz could feel it in his bones and hear it in the roar that greeted the team as they took their places for the last quarter. Loudest of all, he noted with pride, was Vera, who had been yelling herself hoarse. And as the quarter restarted he could see it too. The Albatrosses threw everything at the flagging premiers.

After four minutes McLean, still sporting the Santa beard and hat but minus the girth of padding, took the ball on the wing, dummied around a hapless opponent, bounced twice, yelled “Ho, ho, ho,” and sent a long ball into the goal-square. The fat hippy (christened Marley now) backed back with the flight. He brought down two opponents in the contest. Marco Pirelli swooped on the spilled ball and snapped truly over his shoulder.

At the centre bounce Eagle spiked the ball forward to a running Benny Cotton. Benny gathered cleanly on the run, steadied and swung a left-footer that caught the wind and sailed through. Two goals in a minute. The crowd, as large as any seen at Albertville for decades, and well oiled with Christmas cheer, erupted. The Mt Logan fans, who had arrived cocky, fell silent. They were outnumbered now by supporters from surrounding towns who had come for a bit of kick-and-giggle footy to pass a lazy afternoon but could now sense something special in the alpine wind.

Mt Logan managed to bottle things up for a while, ugly packs forcing Deveraux’s intervention. It took the third of the hippy recruits (‘Goldilocks’) to break the deadlock. A rover with a turn of speed that no doubt came in handy in his line of public dissent, he bustled through a pack, knocked the ball in front of himself, leapt a tackle, collected the bouncing pill and fired out a handpass to Peter Pirelli, who found his brother with a short pass. Marco’s kick split the posts.

The Albatrosses continued to close the margin, at first through a series of frustrating behinds, before old Boof McKenzie joined the party with an unlikely snap across his body from the pocket. Going into time-on the lead had been whittled down to just ten points. Many of the Mt Logan players appeared to have hit the wall. Only the time-clock could prevent the boys from Albertville running over the top of them.

Once again it was the beard-wearing McLean who found space where there was none, weaving through centre half-forward then straightening for goal. There could be only seconds left. Mt Logan pushed everyone back.

Eagle, who had been winning the ruck but was now out on his feet, motioned to Skinny Carter to take the centre bounce. Mt Logan ruckman, Buckhurst, lumbered into him at the restart in a crude attempt to take him out of the contest. Devereux blew his whistle. Skinny limped back, looking for a short option. There was a shout behind him and Boof loped past. Skinny shot him a handpass. Boof took the ball and looked up to see a wall of red Mt Logan jumpers. He searched for options. The clock ticked.

Boof took one last, slightly shorter, stride, and a deep breath with it. He shifted his right hand back on the ball, guided it in a flat drop so that the sideways angle of his foot would make it spin around its lengthwise axis.

His torpedo speared high above the tree line, where the wind took hold of it. The bulk of the flood of red that had spread across the Mt Logan half-back line could only watch. Those closest to the goals turned, and ran.

Boof’s kick snaked to its zenith then began its decent in the direction of the left behind post. The siren sounded. The captain’s head dropped. A swirling gust corrected the shot’s trajectory but even in the wind there was no way the ball would carry the goal-line.

It was the three late recruits, Eagle, Goldilocks and Marley, who stood across the full-back line. They charged out at the defenders running in, blocking their way. Their three shepherds meant it was just a bounce between victory and defeat.

An arcing torp like Boof’s was one of the most unpredictable things in footy. It might rebound in any direction. This one landed just to the left of the point of the square. It kicked up high, heading towards the post. A metre short of the line it bounced again, took an off-spinner’s break and cleared the post by a whisker.

That night it seemed like everyone from Albertville and from all the towns around about—well all but one—had gathered at the Grand. Boof calculated what a night like this might be worth. “How much does the club need, Baz?” he whispered as he cleared the president’s glass. “I might be able to kick some in.”

So it was that in the beer garden of the Grand on Christmas night the Albertville Albatrosses were reborn.

The players and locals and visitors stood around in wonder at the events of the day. The match ball had been propped up on a table in one of the baskets that usually held hot chips. Baz and Vera sat either side, exhausted but happy beyond words. Not only had the club won the game but King had mentioned that the Northerners were after a high altitude training base and he reckoned Albertville might be just the place to put it. Good news had been thin on the ground in Albertville for years. Maybe, just maybe, their luck had changed.

The three city champs stood on one side of Baz and Vera and drank to the historic win, glancing down occasionally at the nestled ball. Normally they’d have been the centre of attention but tonight they were just part of the crowd. Opposite them the three unlikely recruits chatted with their new team-mates, glad at last to be able to celebrate among the locals without mutterings or recrimination. Kids and dogs charged around, getting under everyone’s feet. Boof’s goat, Nanny, and a couple of sheep he’d had agisted out the back, wandered in to see what was happening.

The Pirelli boys clambered onto a bench and began to sing and the valley rang with the rousing strains of the club song, and Italian opera and Christmas carols. To the east the clouds began to thin and the first star of the night shone through.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Fabulous Richard

    The AFL could do with more Santa suits.

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