Short Story: Harder to Whisper

By Richard Holt
I wasn’t the only one. Chook hit the bottle … bad. He hadn’t worked for five years and he only saw his kids at Christmas. Johnno had lost everything on some property deal in Queensland. He was living in a caravan up on the river. At least he’d stayed out of prison. The Prince was doing time—fraud and receiving stolen goods. Life after footy had done us few favours.

Maybe I was the lucky one. Sure, I was jobless. Sure, I spent my days listlessly and my nights mostly sozzled. But at least Fiona had stuck around. We shared the roof over our heads and a chequered history that was hard to shake. We were mates who knew enough about each other not to ask for more than that.

I whiled away my daytime hours reliving the Eighties. Yeah, great days—runners up in ’86, finalists four years in a row. In the cafés and bars around about there were still enough strangers who remembered to fill up idle hours. At night I’d hit the boozer. Once in a while when I wasn’t too pissed, I’d get a whore down at Christina’s. The girls there were young and mostly Asian and they didn’t know an aging footballer from any other desperate bastard.

God, the sheilas used to fall at our feet.

*

Prati made the best coffee. Her place was cosy and it filled early—mothers with kids, businessmen, school-kids and malingerers like me. I liked it better than the fancy place across the road, where former opponents—blokes who once feared me—strutted round with bloody laptops and handbags.

“Same as usual.” She smiled her business-like smile.

“Thanks, Pra’. Paper in?”

I found a booth and flicked through to the club news. The season was just weeks away.

“They’ve picked that weak tosser, Morrison as captain.” A familiar face peered malevolently over my shoulder. Benny Gold—twenty games in two seasons—footy scribe of the bottom feeding variety.

“Bloody hell, Benny. You never got that close to anyone on the ground.”

“Gotta play to your strengths, Mal. Mine was self-preservation. How ya been? What’s been happening?”

“How would I know? It’s a new world down there, mate. It’s not for blokes like me. We’re the old-guard. We’re the past they wanna forget. Best team they had for three decades…but what does that matter. We’re not role models. We’re just footballers. Fuck ‘em all. They don’t want me: I don’t want them.”

“Bad blood. What’s the story?”

“There’s no story Benny. I just haven’t been back since the Sydney game. It doesn’t feel right any more. The rooms are full o’ corporate types. They’ve got an ethicist on the payroll. I mean…fuck’n hell.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. Carter won’t talk to me any more. Says I ‘distort the truth’. What does he reckon my job is? A man’s gotta make a livin’.”

Prati bustled out from behind the counter. “Cappuccino and raisin toast.” She deposited my breakfast on the table. “So, you know this one, Mister Porter? He’s no good, this one.”

“You should be an editor, Prati. Or a coach. You know how to make a bloke feel welcome.”

Prati pinched the journalist’s shoulder. “You a skinny chicken, Benny. Too much sneak’n around, you.”

*

The little prick did it. ‘Former Great Sidelined’. A picture of me in my playing days. Another from a function a couple of years ago. I looked like shit. I slammed the sport section down on top of the pile of papers so hard that Prati looked up disapprovingly.

*

Marco was Prati’s boy. He was a spastic—whatever you call it. I guess he’d been born that way. I’d seen him a couple of times being wheeled through to the back of the kitchen to see his mum. He looked like he hardly recognised her—poor fucking bastard.

This day the young bloke who looked after him came in by himself. He was a student type with dreadlocked hair. Could have done with a decent feed.

I heard him mutter something and he and Prati went into to the kitchen. The morning rush was over and it was quiet. I could sense the urgency of their conversation in the tones of the voices drifting through. After a while things went quiet. The young fella came out, red-faced. Prati followed. She banged open the till and pushed some money into the lad’s hands. She hugged him jerkily, then turned back inside.

Customers floated in. No-one came to serve them. I don’t know why but I went to check if things were OK. It felt like the right thing to do. It made me nervous.

“Prati. You’ve got customers, love.”

She flung herself across my shoulders. “Oh Mister Mal.”

*

“You’re kidding me aren’t you?” Fiona looked at me in disbelief.

“I’ll give it a go.”

“You can’t just ‘give it a go’, Mal. It’s not like getting a paper round. It’s not the job for you.”

“Am I that much of a bum?”

She didn’t answer.

That night I tried staying home. I didn’t know what to do with myself. We sat across from each other, the television providing the soundtrack. I lasted ‘til ten thirty before reaching for the keys.

“No, Mal.” Her voice betrayed only resignation. I closed the door softly behind me and stepped into the night.

Outside the Golden Harvest I turned off the motor but stayed in the driver’s seat. For half an hour I sat listening to the shouts from the bar, watching the familiar faces of  strangers as they staggered out onto the street. I began to sweat. I felt shaky, maybe a bit feint. When Benny Gold toppled out with a couple of rookies and two pissed girls—just teenagers—I knew it was time to leave. In the shape I was in Benny was the last person I’d want to run into. I turned the key and swung the rusty Commodore into a tight U-turn.

I didn’t want to go home. I stopped in at Christina’s. ‘Cathy,’ the new red-head called herself. She had blotchy skin and eyes as green as mint leaves. As I watched the rise and fall of her ginger hair, spread out over my bloated stomach, and listened to the splutter of sucking and saliva my mind wandered until, impatient with my distraction, she grabbed my balls, squeezed hard and gave a mighty plunge that finished me off in a moment.

I arrived home sober for the first time in maybe a year.

*

His flat smelled like one of those shops where they sell crystals and threadbare clothes.

I paused at the door. “Maybe this isn’t right.” I could see Marco lying on a rug-covered couch dribbling.

“You’ll be OK. Did you get the papers?” Michael ushered me through. “You want a cuppa?”

I wanted something stronger. “Coffee…white and two.”

As the hippy lad headed towards the kitchen he nudged me. “Introduce yourself.” He disappeared around a doorway and I felt alone and under scrutiny. What was I doing?

Marco groaned.

I tried not to notice.

He groaned again.

“G’day mate. Marco isn’t it?” A grin spread across his face and he made another noise like a word that had been through a mincer. “Mal’s the name. Mal Porter.”

“glsch bttl…g…gg” Marco’s eyes shifted. I followed them to a shelf of football videos near the TV set. Michael returned with coffee for me, something that smelt like crushed daisies for himself and a vitamised concoction for the boy.

“Gettin’ to know each other, eh? Good. You love ya footy, don’tcha Marco?” Marco smiled a dribbly smile. “Prati said you used to play a bit.” Marco started rolling with laughter. He pointed a crooked, wavering hand at the old clipboard I’d brought along and started waving around and around.

“What’s he want?” I muttered. Michael looked disapprovingly and nodded towards the couch.

“Sorry. Waddya want, mate?”

More flamboyant waving. “clshk…burr…brurr…”

“You want me to write?

A big smile broke the struggle of his face. His hand whipped round and round.

“An autograph?” I pointed at myself and signed the air.

Marco sort of clapped and started laughing again. I started to scrawl Mal Porter with a circled ‘4’ the way I’d done a thousand times. It seemed a bit hollow just like that so I wrote ‘to my mate Marco’ after it. Michael read it to the boy. “You’re gonna be just fine,” he whispered as Marco dissolved in giggles.

*

Michael had got into some university course overseas and would be going in a couple of months. I met him down at Prati’s one morning when I was a little worse for wear. I’d blown it the night before—hit the turps after a blue with Fi’. She still reckoned this game wasn’t for me.

“Good carers are hard to find, Mal.” The big round sounds of the word wrapped around me like a boa constrictor. ‘Carer’…it seemed like something I’d have to learn to control—but also like something I could be proud of like I was proud when I played. “A bit under the weather, mate?”

I nodded sombrely.

“It’s OK. You’re not his guardian angel. But I’ll warn you. He’ll know. He’ll make you pay. I used to pick him up stoned sometimes but I realised it just wasn’t worth it.

“But it’s hard for me,” I muttered. “I’ve been a drunk for a long time.” Michael just smiled and waved at Prati for a second strong cappuccino.

“Hangin’ out with hippy shitkickers now, Porter.” Benny Gold materialised from some slimey place. “Next you’ll be chainin’ yourself to trees.” He pretended to draw on some giant joint then rolled his eyes.

I was contemplating the best way to dispatch him when young Michael got in first. “Fuck off you old dickhead.”

Yeah, I thought, that’s how to do it.

*

I was sober now more nights than I was drunk. They always reckoned I was the lucky one. It turned out alcohol hadn’t got its claws in me the way it might have. Not physically. Not like Chook. I got the shakes a bit at first but not bad.

Over the weeks before he left Michael showed me what Marco ate and how to make it. I learned how to keep him hydrated. Michael explained how to give him a bath and change him without gagging and without feeling sorry for him or me. I learned how to guess a little of what he was thinking. “Enjoy y’self, Mal…that’s the secret. Marco’s always good for a laugh.”

Sometimes I’d just sit with him and tell him stories about my old playing days. Or we’d stick on a tape and I’d tell him what the teams and the players were doing right and doing wrong. Marco loved the sound of footy talk—the passion and the familiarity of the phrases.

The only word I thought I could really discern from him was ‘ball’. He squeezed it through his contorted tongue whenever someone got caught in a tackle. “BLOAR” he’d bellow then roll with laughter.

“Yeah, ball umpire…Oh you’re kidding; You weak fuck’n bastard.” Marco loved it when I swore. He loved it best when I swore at the umpires. Prati said I was teaching him bad habits. She grinned and pinched me.

Sometimes after I’d given an umpire heaps he’d hold up a weak, crumpled, wavering hand and we’d do high fives.

*

The lights of the suburbs were flashing past us.

“I’m so sorry, Mal. I really didn’t think you could do it—didn’t want you to let yourself down.” Fiona watched the flickering picket fences through the taxi window. “But I’m proud of you—you know that?”

Michael sat opposite us with Prati, talking about his trip and his course. He’d be flying out in twenty hours. Marco was between us, on a trolley with the head end raised, bedecked in the old team’s colours.

I cleared my throat—it’s funny how sometimes it’s harder to whisper than it is to shout. “Heh, I’ve got a surprise for you, love.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“I rang the club.”

“No? Mal, really…and?”

“…open arms. Carter’s got a signed ball for the boy. And Morrison, he said I’d always be welcome…said a club is nothing without its tradition. He wants me to take Marco down to the rooms after the game.”

“That’s great Mal…you alright?” She leant over and kissed me lightly, like when she really loved me. Though the hardness of our years together showed on her face I remembered how I’d first picked her out as special from the scrum of adoring girls who followed us around.

“It’s a secret,” I whispered. “Don’t go blurting it out.” Marco lolled his heavy head towards us, his eyes suspiciously sharp. “He doesn’t miss much y’know.”

Fi looked down and caught his eye. “Who d’ya reckon’s gonna win tonight, mate?”

Marco smiled cheekily and flapped a hand towards us, waving a length of his striped scarf. “C…c…cahna…”

Comments

  1. Stephen Cooke says:

    Great read, Richard. Nice touch of redemption too. I’ve become increasingly interested about past greats ever since a Millionaire episode where the contestant was the wife of a former champion Collingwood wingman of the 70s. Eddie McGuire’s face lit up and he resembled a kid when he asked what’s it like to live with him? His bemused wife responded with: Alright. The player is now a shearer around outback NSW and probably retired without a cent so I can’t imagine life with him would be too glamorous. Yet the image remains.

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