The Albatross Rules: Chapter 19- Redemption

19. Redemption

Their recent disgraceful behaviour only confirmed for Edith what she already suspected; the past players were, on the whole, a completely useless bunch. Most years their only real contribution to the running of the club was to organise a pie night. It was not a difficult event to put together. But in the end it was usually Edith, and the Ladies Auxiliary who did most of the work. But not this year.

“After the way you all behaved! I should think not. You can get your own bloody pies, Gary Murnane, because WE’RE NOT HELPING.”

“Aw, geeze, Edie…”

“Don’t you ‘aw geeze’ me. What a performance. And in front of visitors too. A great weekend and you boofheads had to go and spoil things.” Edith was holding all the cards. Gaz’ slunk off.

On the afternoon of the annual pie night, as Con drove down to pick up former team-mate Perce ‘The Nurse’ Nightingale, three stalwarts from the ’74 premiership team, Pete Inglis, Gary Murnane and Colin Baker pondered the pie warmer.

“Can’t be too hard, Gaz. Cook’em on the bottom tray and keep ’em warm up the top, innit? Or cook on top and warm on the bottom? I know Edie’s got some system.”

“Just fill it up and turn it on I reckon.” Col looked unconvinced. “Hang on, there’s somethin’ stuck to the fryer.”

Pete grabbed the yellowing hand-written card. “No good—just Edie givin’ everyone a hard time.” He tried to imitate Edith’s voice; “This pie stall must be left spotless:- no dishes to be left in the sink: take dirty T-towels home to wash: check the sauce before locking up.”

“Check the sauce! Check it for what?”

Three pairs of shoulders shrugged.

“How many pies d’ we need?”

“Dunno. What about beer? We got enough beer?” Suddenly the beer question became all-consuming. The three mates forgot about pies. Just like they’d forgotten about chairs and plates and someone on the door to collect the money. Just like making sure the dunnies were clean, there was gas for the heater, plenty of ice and the gate was left open. “Geeze,” said Inglis, urgently, “I hope we’ve got enough beer.”

A lot of women reckon men can’t do more than one thing at once without getting confused and buggering them up. ‘Multi-tasking’ they call it. For these three amigos it seemed that age and gender and a laissez-fair attitude to some of the more basic human competencies were all working against them. “Maybe we should call, Boof and get him to bring up a couple more slabs.”

The boys nodded in unison. They felt good. They’d shown initiative. “Yeah, give ‘im a call Gaz.”

Time was getting on when Con pulled into The Nurse’s yard. The former back pocket, twice best and fairest for the mighty Panthers, stumbled into the daylight in his dressing gown and tartan slippers. He looked like crap. He was at least twice his playing weight, ruddy faced and unshaven.

“Bloody hell, Perce. What happened to you?” Con didn’t mean to be impertinent but it was only eighteen months since he’d last seen him and he’d been in fine shape back then. It was a question that had to be asked.

“Maria left me mate. That’s what happened. After that I dunno. I’m not in great nick I guess. Maybe I should just give this thing tonight a miss.”

“Bulldust, Perce. Clean yourself up. You’re comin’ up to Albertville.” Con respected Perce Nightingale. He’d always remembered the big hit he’d taken laying the shepherd that allowed Con to kick the goal that won the night flag in ’92. It was arguably the highlight of the Albertville coach’s career. And it was typical Perce. He’d put his body on the line. He was prepared to suffer the consequences. He was a proud footballer.

“I haven’t got anything to say, mate. I’m not the same as I used to be. I haven’t even got anything to wear. I’m afraid I’ve stuffed up, mate.”

“You got a razor?” Perce nodded. “OK, shower and shave. I’ll sort the rest out.”

Con shoved Perce bodily into the bathroom and, while he cleaned himself up, rang Maureen. “Maur’ I’m down here with Perce. I need a hand.”

“Sure, love. How is ‘e?” Maur’ had a soft spot for Perce, too. He’d even helped them put in some paving once. She used to hang out a bit with Maria.

“He’s not too good, Maur’. I know it’s a bit to ask but see if you can borrow a decent shirt and jacket from Rory Schindler.” Rory was a smart dressing, wine swigging ‘artiste’ who had a shack just out of town where he painted gaudy landscapes for the tourists down in the valley. He was a jovial chap and a good friend of the club. And he was, by Con’s reckoning, about Perce’s new size.

“But Rory’s huge, love.”

“Like I said, Perce is not too good.” Con could hear, in a loud expulsion of breath, the extent of Maureen’s dismay. “And see if you can find that tape from the ’93 prelim’—the one the club put together.”

“OK, love, see you soon. I’ll call Boof at the pub, too. They’ll have booked a room for him, but Perce can stay with us.”

An hour and a quarter later Con took the Albertville turn-off. “Nearly there, mate. How’re ya travelling?”

“A bit shaky but she’ll be right.”

As Con pulled up Maur’ came out to greet them. “Good to see you again, Perce.” She gave him a welcoming peck on his newly shaven cheek and led him inside. “Got some fancy clobber for ya tonight. Oh and hon’,” she glanced back towards Con, “I found the tape you were after. And I’ve sent Edie down to the ground to sort the old boys out. She’s not happy so we owe her a big favour.”

Actually Edie was in her element. She’d arrived in the nick of time with the boys in a terrible state and very little to show for their afternoon’s efforts. Now she had, on top of ample evidence of their foolishness, proof of their incompetence. It was true. Between them they would struggle to run a chook raffle. The old buggers were now beholden to her for rescuing the pie-night. Their recent misdemeanours still hung over them. For the moment Edie held absolute power.

It seemed that ordering other folk around brought out the best in old Edie. And from up here on the high moral ground the orders came thick and fast. By the time Con arrived with Perce and Maureen everything was ship-shape. The rooms were decorated with black and white balloons and streamers. There was plenty of beer on ice and soft drink too—there were at least three past players who were under strict orders to stick to the lolly water. The pies were warm and the sauce bottles had been topped up.

Perce asked his old team-mate what to expect from the night. Con told him that, though the Past Players Pie Night had started as a boozy boys affair it had become, in recent years, something for the whole town (that being the only way that the club could really raise any money from it). The more sedate model suited The Prof who’d read all about ‘cultural change’. “We don’t have to all live like monks,” he said, “but some of the ways we used to carry on … well we were just askin’ for trouble.”

The night featured a raffle for a meat tray from Pederson’s, including some of their fabulous snags. Nugget ran a ‘Lucky Wheel’. Among the prizes were free counter meals, more snags, a couple of signed canvases by Rory featuring views across the Albertville ground, a pav’ made to order and a number of Panthers jumpers and footies signed by Perce and Con. Con had to say a few words then introduce Perce at around eight thirty. “I’ve got the tape cued ready, mate,” he told Perce, “just give ’em a bit of a potted history. Everyone’s knows about your career so just colour it up a bit. Then, when you’re ready just let me know and we can run the tape. I’ll be on the remote so you can get me to replay it, slow it down, or whatever you want.”

“Nice one, Duck.” (Con ha’d mentioned the new nickname and Perce had taken to it instantly). “It’s about time this tape saw the light of day.”

The tape in question was from the finals campaign in ’93, the year Con watched the Panthers win the flag from the sidelines. By the time the coach rose to introduce Perce the room was full to overflowing. All the chairs were taken. There were blokes milling around at the back while the local kids packed onto the floor at the front. Perce’s reputation ensured an impressive turn-out. Con looked across at him as he rose to take the battered old microphone from The Professor. The self-deprecatory nervousness of a few hours before had dissolved. In its place Con could see, in a sharpening of his eyes and a cocky tilt of his head, the determination that he had taken into all of his 253 games. His adversary now was an internal one, a demon not unfamiliar to men who have spent their best years on the football field. What was apparent was that at some point between his dressing-gowned appearance earlier in the afternoon and now, Perce had made a resolution to face this most elusive of opponents.

Con could think of no more appropriate way to introduce Perce than to describe his shepherd in the night grand final in the year before the Panthers broke through for the flag. It was hard and it was fearless. Perce had other options. He could have run off the contest in the hope of receiving a handball. He might have given himself a chance to take the glory. But he knew if he could get himself between the fast closing Edwards and Con then his mate would have a clear shot. Ever the coach Con reiterated the two critical factors that shepherd had illustrated, selflessness and trust—ingredients that Albertville players needed to display if their quest for a flag were to be successful. The Nurse never saw the result of his hard work. When he collected the medal for B.O.G. after the game he had no idea what it was for. The roar of the crowd as he bowed his dazed head in confused submission was something Con would never forget.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Perce ‘The Nurse’ Nightingale.”

Perce fairly leapt from his seat. He shook Con’s hand with an almost exaggerated conviction and took the microphone.

“Thanks Duck. Y’know, when I played footy I weighed not much more than 80 kilos. The idea that I’d ever be fronting a footy crowd looking like this never occurred to me. No offence to Rory, who I’m told owns this fancy jacket. But I’m telling you this because football’s just football and life is sometimes a tougher game. You kids down there may not know that yet. I hope you never find it out. I hope life is just a kick in the park for you. Always exciting. Always fun. Always full of challenges that you meet and overcome.

“Which is not to say that footy’s not important. Footy is bloody important! It’s all I ever knew. When I found myself with no team and no marriage I let things go. Maybe footy can help me find a way back because Duck’s right—when I played footy I was proud. I had a sense of who I was.”

It was heady stuff, not at all what the crowd had expected. But as an opening gambit it was flawless. The large audience was hanging on the big man’s words.

“Now Duck reckons that that one shepherd in ’92 sums up who I was as a footballer. To tell the truth I’d have run into space if I thought there was half a chance that he’d pass it off. Anyway I know I’m supposed to tell you a few gags and a few stories but I’m gonna save that up. First I’m gonna show you a bit of a tape that features your coach. Duck, get set with the tape mate.

“In 1993 the Panthers lost just three games. But we got a bit shaky at the end of the season and found ourselves in a preliminary final with a battle on our hands. The Reds were an inferior team but never an outfit you could write off. That day we were making a few mistakes and they were firing. Then there was an incident at centre half back, while the ball was up the other end, that turned the game. And they reckon nobody saw it. All the papers, or the TV said was that Conny Filipou had gone down behind play.

“After that incident the whole side refocused. In the final quarter we kicked eight goals, turning around a thirty point deficit. It gave us the momentum that took us through to our first flag in thirty three years. Tonight you’re going to find out what really happened that day. Roll the tape, Con.”

The grainy footage had been taken by the club to help analyse our movement around the backline. It wasn’t focussed on the play up-field. It had never been shown before. Con had always hoped that it would only be known to a handful of insiders. But tonight it seemed the time had come. The truth always finds its moment, and the truth that day was that Con wasn’t taken out by big Jim Anderson, as many, including Con himself, had thought. It wasn’t anything like that. The video itself appeared to show Filipou, in the background, running, full tilt then dropping, without warning, like a stone, just a pace short of where Anderson was preparing to lay a shepherd with the ball nowhere in sight.

“Never saw anyone hit the dirt so quick,” Perce was saying, “not even Vince Santori.” Vince had started life playing soccer and developed a reputation as a master of the dive. “Now Duck was always a strategist—natural coach really—and as a tactic it certainly worked. But if he ever accuses any of you of lying down on the job you’ll know that he’s the pot and your the kettle. He did it first. Brilliant timing though. Won us the game. Let’s watch it again.”

Con rewound. Now the crowd in the room was focussed on the top right corner of the screen anticipating Con’s sudden dive turfwards. There it was again. It was reminiscent of the stories of racehorses being knobbled from the stands. One moment Con was screaming out of the backline, the next he was grounded. Then Peter Potter spotted something. “Eh! Hang on. What was that?”

“Ah,” said Perce, “someone’s on the ball. Let’s slow it down, Con.” Frame by frame the vision appeared to reveal little of additional interest. Then, just for a moment, a dark spot appears at the top of the screen. Next frame Con’s knees had buckled and he was going down.

“That’s about all there is of the incident. We’re talking right out in the middle of the biggest ground in the country. It was like some UFO; no-one could throw something that far from the stands. Besides we never found anything on the ground that night. It seemed like the day Con Filipou got whacked by aliens.

“Anyway, like the dill that he is Con get’s on his high horse after the game and starts implying all sorts of things. He’s a bit concussed so he’s not thinking too straight. But he’s pretty convincing because he’s got an eye that looks like an eight-ball. It made great vision on the news that night. Pretty soon it’s world war three between the Panthers and the Reds.

“At some point a crazy theory starts to emerge in the press. Seems that during half time some whackers in the outer have decided to conduct an experiment.  They’ve got a hold of a whole lot of helium balloons that are left over from the pre-match entertainment, and they’ve tied them together, then tied them to a length of string they’ve got from someone in the cheer-squad. They’ve launched the balloons and at the end of the string they’ve hung a can of mixed drink so that it appears to be hovering above the ground. Apparently it created a bit of a diversion in a pocket of the ground but didn’t work too well as the bourbon and coke was last seen sailing out over one of the light towers.

“So this theory emerges that somehow it’s drifted back over the stadium. The can’s got loose and poor Conny’s been bombed. The only problem is nobody can find the missile in question so the focus shifts back to Anderson.

“Then, four weeks after the grand final I get a package from the goal umpire that day, Dave Shorter. Old style bloke, Dave. We got to be mates. Dave battled with the bottle for years. Anyway, Dave sends me this package. Inside is an empty drink can on the end of a short length of frayed string that’s tied around the rim and a note… ‘tell Con Filipou not to mix with hard liquor,- Dave.’

“Seems that Dave has run out onto the ground to help control the melee building around your prostrate coach. Half way out he’s come across a near-full can of bourbon and coke in the middle of the ground, which is, quite literally, manna from heaven and before he knows it he’s slipped it into his coat pocket. And as soon as he does he starts regretting it… but it’s too late. How was poor Dave to know? He never umpired again at the top level, poor bugger. Said he couldn’t trust himself.

“So, it was true. Con had been cleaned up by a can of drink. It had bounced so far off his rock hard scone that nobody but Dave Shorter had seen it. I took the evidence around to Con. ‘Bloody Hell,’ he said, ‘what about Anderson.’

“Jim Anderson had suffered a week of allegations in the press. His reputation for being tough but fair was always a little too complimentary. It wasn’t so much that his reputation was in tatters that irked him but that it was in tatters for something he hadn’t done.  They were calling him the enforcer now. A name like that sticks with you. Jim Anderson was not happy.

” ‘Mate,’ I said, ‘if Jim Anderson ever finds this can I don’t want to be around when he does.’ So that’s how Con Filipou came face to face with what you might call the spirit of the game. When he saw that can, still with the big dent his head had made in it, it was the only time I ever saw him speechless.

“The punch line, if you need one is that they had a slogan for that brand of drink. ‘Are you tough enough?’ I’ve never let Con forget it.

“Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed the story. You’re the first to ever hear it. Don’t hold it against him. He’s a great coach. So good luck to you this season. If there’s any way I can help you out let me know.”

Perhaps it was an unnecessarily prompt conclusion and a modest note for a champion like Perce to finish on but, with no more fuss than that he retook his seat. He smiled broadly in response to the warm applause, the whistles of some of the youngsters and a loud voice from the back of the room. “Good on ya, Nurse—you’re a bloody beaut.” Those in the room had felt themselves well privileged that he had shared a few thoughts with them. Probably only Maur’ and Con could know quite how privileged Perce felt in return. Perce the Nurse had come to Albertville a broken man but he had regained a piece of dignity that night. Con offered his hand and his former comrade shook it warmly.

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