The Inside Lane

“Get the inside lane.”

That’s all he could think of.

“Make sure you get the inside lane.”

The cut grass between his toes was damp; spring on a Montmorency morning. The sun shone crisply through the eucalypts’ leaves. He was standing at the centre of his universe.

Behind him, up over the other side of the railway line, round green missiles floated almost silently across the sky from within the fences of the tennis courts. Trees and grass and undulations hid the tennis players but not the object of their concentration. Pock…… pock…… pock. Lovely, peaceful Montmorency.

Just across the football oval sat a grey besser brick building; the Pigeon Club. It was unobtrusive; almost sad. But at the end of each footy season the weathered timber double doors were flung open so as to host the pie night. This was a night when champions were crowned and legends made. Marvellous trophies carved from Cann River hardwood and adorned with golden mini Gods were bestowed upon the best team player, the coach’s encouragement player, and the Best and Fairest. He who exited the Pigeon Club holding aloft the Best and Fairest trophy was exalted. The whole world lay at his feet like a pet tiger in an Elizabeth Taylor movie.

He’d never had the world at his feet. Bigger kids always won it. Glamorous centre half forwards and ruckmen and full forwards. Not him.

“If you don’t get the inside lane the bigger kids will buffet you off the track.”

Up a steep grassy embankment to the left of the Pigeon Club was the Bowling Club. This place was a mystery. It hid behind a high wire fence which was covered in green shade cloth. The local kids saw old people dressed in white and wearing comfortable shoes enter and exit. They knew neither what they did nor why they did it. It was a place of rules. Lists about parking arrangements hung from the fence, rules about attire and etiquette and rubbish removal. It had rosters for the cleaning of the club rooms and the cooking of the barbeque. If a kid was good enough to lob a big Tommy onto the bowling green from the centre of Petrie Park the ball was returned – 24 hours later. But this was never witnessed. The ball would be waiting on the oval the next morning like a small treasure left by the Easter Bunny. The chairman of the cleaning committee had been busy in the night. This was an old world place; a place foreign to dreamy kids.

The RSL Club and Scout Hall were also perched on an embankment immediately opposite the Bowling Club. These brown brick nondescript buildings faced away from the oval, as if they had been erected back to front, like someone had mistakenly laid the plans upside down on the lunch table on the first morning. They were functional buildings; like a dentist’s drill is functional. Kids used the veranda that ran across the back of them as shelter on rainy days, but otherwise they took no notice of them. Functionality alone has no appeal to children.

He awoke to some shocking news. There was some conjecture as to whether or not the school sports would even be held. Rain had turned the park to mud just a few days earlier. Discussions were held; earnest discussions. A committee of parents would make the decision. He hoped they realized what was at stake. The sports must go on. This was his chance. Fourth in the times tables race, mid field in the marching competition, a disappointing 15th in the spell-a-thon, and third last in the colouring competition (drawing Father Christmas with a black beard did not win the hearts of the judges) had all contributed to his lowly station. He longed for redemption; the treasure just out of reach.

Listen to 3AW later in the morning, he was told. There will be a community announcement about the sports. So he sat in front of the radio, hunched over like an anxious parent straining for news of the war in 1915; ear to the speaker. Waiting.

Community announcement time: “The St Francis Xavier sports will go ahead today”, said the man on the wireless. Joy. Great joy. He got the white shoe paint out and gave his runners a preparatory spruce up.

So there he stood at the teacher’s elbow. She was marshalling the kids for the race. She was standing on the inside lane.

“Boys’ Open 100 metres” she was bellowing. “Boys Open 100 metres.”

He was surrounded by familiarity, surrounded by Montmorency, on a stage of his own making; a stage which possessed greatness that he had manufactured in his imagination. He stood on the inside lane and scanned the crowd for his parents. They weren’t at their chairs. He wanted them to watch him take home the gold mini God standing aloft the wooden trophy. He wanted the blue victor’s ribbon pinned to his chest as he walked up Ripper Street to his home.

“Line up along that white line” said the man starting the race. “You need to have your feet behind the white line.”

The white line curved gently away from the inside lane to the outer lanes to give a staggered start effect. He questioned the tactics momentarily. The kids on the outside looked like they were getting a head start! But his Dad was adamant; get the inside lane. So there he stood.

On your marks, get set……………bang!

He ran. He ran like he’d been dreaming he would one day run on another football ground in another small town at another time hence. His spikes would be hand crafted from leather by Hope Sweeney labouring in his little shop on Johnson Street, Collingwood. He would be wearing a coloured silk vest. People would be standing under the old grandstand on their toes.

Running fast is sublime. Running faster than those around you is even more sublime. It’s not happiness it’s something deeper. Like the first time you swing out across a river on a Tarzan swing and let go. Like waking up on Christmas morning as a kid and seeing the bright silver handle bars of your new bike glistening in the moonlight. Like the first observation of the forbidden curves.

The water came up between his toes as he ran and mud flicked up his legs and onto his white shorts. He scooted around the top of the oval past the RSL and Scout Halls, past the Bowling Club and down the gentle slope towards the Pigeon Club. He was running past his childhood, leaving it behind.

He knew he had it won at the Pigeon Club. The squelching noises of the kids behind him were receding. If the big kids were going to swamp him it would be happening now. Was that his Dad standing alone off to the side? He negotiated the last bend and as he hit the finish tape he saw tennis balls flying high above the wire fences across the train tracks.

The tape gave way gracefully to the pressure of his chest and clung momentarily to his body. He fell into the arms of the volunteer fathers catching kids as they finished the dash.

“Good run” said the Dad. “You lead all the way.”

In that instant he was Lance Mann or Bill Howard or Trevor McGregor. He was every winner of the Stawell Gift.

About Damian O'Donnell

OK - which is the odd one out: Love the Cats and flannelette shirts, especially in winter. I get on extremely well with red wine. We just seem to hit it off. Love horse racing in Spring. Used to love cricket. Go to Stawell every Easter and contemplate life around the fire. Love water skiing, especially in summer. Get meaning from catching a beautiful curling wave. Love a great oil painting. Will read most things put in front of me. Thought 'The Sopranos' was the best TV show ever made - by miles. Run an accounting practice in Melbourne's suburbs.

Comments

  1. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Dips, your memories of the small things real bring this story to life. Its funny how as you get older the subtle things like scents, places, faces, voices and feelings we’ve forgotten revisit .

    I reckon all of us have a child in our soul that never dies and for me this story captures that beautifully. And you are right when you say it goes deeper than happiness. It’s a moment in time that contains a glimpse of timelessness. Thanks for helping my day get off to a bright start :)

  2. Thanks Phil. We’re lucky we have a good childhood to look back on.

  3. Peter Baulderstone says:

    Lovely piece, Dips. About this time last year, yours and John’s pieces on the Stawell Gift were the first two I read on the FA website. The quality of the writing, and the lyrical memories of emotions and times past were what made me want to become an Almanacker. Sport provides the framework for a lot of great writing on the site about personal and social issues. And the deprecating Australian wit is kept alive on the site (where are you Mr Wrap, sharpening your HB I hope). For me the sporting insights are a handy by-product more than the main course.
    I have just finished reading Tim Winton’s ‘The Turning’ and it is a beautifully crafted drama about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s when society was just losing its innocence. ‘Cloudstreet’ is wonderful, but its more a mythological past of the last vestiges of traditional Australia in the 50’s – just before the loss of innocence.
    The other passage your writing took me back too is the last lines of the ‘Great Gatsby’:
    “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
    I read it at 16, and thought it was beautiful, true and important. I had no idea why. Now I do.

  4. Cheers PB. Its a great topic; books that changed your life (or at least impacted it!).

    For me it was probably “My Brother Jack.” Obviously “To Kill A Mockingbird” has a huge impact on a young teenager too.

  5. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Stunning Dips. That piece you wrote about running in the Stawell Gift sticks in my mind and I often reflect on it.

  6. John Harms says:

    You got any Selleck blood in you Dips?

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