Off Season Odyssey Pt.44.
The Final and Opening Siren.
I’m the second last vehicle on the boat. It’s taking a while to sort out the truck behind me, so I squeeze in a kick with the loading crew. The boss isn’t too impressed, but forces out a smile as we lob a few punts about Level 5.
“This feels like Docklands,” somebody says.
“But better. Rocca couldn’t hit the roof of that thing,’ says his mate, kicking one straight up.
We all duck, laughing as it ricochets off Level 4, slamming back down at us. Then they walk out into the setting sun like cowboys.
I tuck the dog into the cabin and head upstairs thinking about footy. The game tomorrow. The pull of it has grown. In the desert it was an echo, something that lapped at my ankles. Now, for better or worse it’s a river.
I kill time for a few hours on Level 7. There’s a bloke propping up the ship’s bar as if he’s in Casablanca. Nobody’s told him the crowd’s mostly old duffs and the working class on holiday. That none of us care.
It’s well dark by the time I walk my drink out on deck, into the coldest air I’ve felt for the longest while. It bites, cutting through the few people out here. It says:
It tries to hurt you.
There’s half an ocean up. The ship pushes through each wave with the smallest hiss that frustrates all hell out of me. I want big seas! To feel us rise and fall over mountains. For all its levels to stink of vomit. To come home in fear and nasty winds! To visit wild places.
Casablanca’s wife is out here having a fag. She’s nice, we talk.
“He doesn’t smoke,” she says. “Like’s to drink, though. Get drunk.”
State of the nation.
I notice she’s looking at the footy in my hand, that I’m still wearing my jumper like a fucking idiot, so give her a brief explanation.
“You want a kick?” I add. “Woman’s Footy is huge these days.”
She gives a scoffing little laugh, carried by smoke. Somehow, that’s nice too.
“I don’t think so,” she smiles.
“You’d be amazed at how big it is in the Far North. The indigenous girls love it.”
“We’re on deck, seven stories up!” she laughs, then looks at me while inhaling. “So, you think Australia’s all about sport?” she says, before heading inside.
“Not at all,” I tell her.
She’s got it backwards. I wanted to discover a nation through Aussie Rules. It was about motion.
I watch the sea, the way it rolls, in the dark, and rolls us with it. Normally, they put a tacky cover man on in the lounge, who sings Billy Joel and Bolton and I Will Always Love You, anything cheesy. A person who’s long since stopped dreaming. Tonight, though, the footy’s on. The place is packed. Comfortable people on comfortable chairs, in an overpriced boat floating across an ocean, watching obsessively fit men run in rolling zones around a stadium built for Friday nights, with a fake grass surface.
There’s such a difference between the game I play and the AFL. It’s hard to believe it’s the same code. That both are brilliant, that both are football.
Eventually, the footy finishes. The crowd filters away as if leaving a cinema. Later, my great mate Rory rings as we’re passing an island with a telecommunications tower. He must have been trying for hours.
“You want a game tomorrow?” he asks, from back in the Otways.
He tells me he saw Jesse about, so figured I was, too, but I only slowed down to 20, pushed him out, with train fair, and kept on driving.
“Errh. So you’re heading home. What did you learn, Zurbo?” he drawls.
It’s a great drawl, always, the sort that makes you insanely loyal to a person. But the phone cuts out again before I can answer.
Nothing, everything. That this is a wealthy nation. You can see it in the people who aren’t. How far behind they are. That, out on the road, through footy, a hell of a lot is possible. That apart from Aussie Rules and Rugby, and their glue, there is no one Australia. That you can get lost, be lost. But never too lost. There’s always an oval.
That you can find anything, except things that have to find you, like romance.
I can’t believe how much Rory’s grown in parenthood, in everything. That I once coached his as a floppy kid in Juniors.
“What have you learned?”
A father’s question.
Right now his dairy farm would be swamped by mountain mist. Not a sound, other than the distant break of waves travelling up the valley, and maybe his kids snoring. Word is, while I was on my Odyssey, he finally married his girlfriend.
It’s almost 8am by the time I’m driving clear of the boat. I wave the footy through the Tassie drizzle, honking the horn at the ground crew and customs.
“Go, you good thing!” one of them yells.
The others probably think I’m an idiot.
It takes a few roadside naps, a lot of scenery, and roads that slowly shrink into thin rough things, to get to the oval.
“What a pack of degenerates…!” I leer, in the doorway of the old weatherboard change rooms.
The boys let out a Bronx cheer.
Stocky little Braz is putting his socks on, Scrote’s fitting his new mouthguard, one month too late, over his new false teeth. A few of the blokes are having a kick. Old Keith is rubbing down Murf and all his tatts.
The sounds are brilliant, the smells are brilliant.
Then I’m out in the middle, standing at the edge of a circle facing a big donk. He looks angry, or, as if he’s trying to convince us both he’s angry. Either way, I’m too old to be bluffed.
The opening siren goes.
The umpire throws the ball up as the first of the senior blokes pulls into the oval, heading straight for the canteen. He has two more hours. The crowd will get here in time to see him.
On-ballers start calling. The pill comes down. I should retire. I should. Find a career before it’s too late, let my body heal. But there’s still wood to be cut, stories to live.
My opponent and I run towards each other as hard as we can…
I’m in love with life.
I’m in love with football.