It’s belting down rain on the highway. On the everything. I have two days to get 1,600kms, which is going to take every cent I have. I’m over music, it’s all starting to sound the same.
I love driving. Even when I’m hating it, or fighting it and sleep. An open road, a purpose. The rhythm of gravel and bichumen. Of wipers and trucks that punch at you as they head the other way.
Somehow, through all the old ute noises, crackling radio and wet of the road, I just manage to hear my phone.
“Is that Matty Zurbo?” the voice asks. “It’s Brenton.”
“Haha. Yeah, that’s me,” the voice says. “I haven’t been called that in years!”
Jesus. I haven’t seen him in years. About 12 or more. The talented little forward pocket/on-baller from back on the Victorian west coast who was nicknamed after a monstrous full forward from Ballarat. A shy, likeable, happy bloke. A kid, really, just out of the Juniors., not eighteen when I met him.
“What’s going on, mate?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says.
I laugh to myself. Same old Plugger. He tracks down my number, and calls after the longest time to tell me that.
The trucks are washing out every second word, so I take the dog, and walk with the rain into the bush. We catch up. It’s perfect. The road, tonight, until now had been the loneliest thing.
Plugger’s family ran the post office when I knew him. They’ve all moved to Bendigo now, where they do the same. He has a cutie. They’ll be married soon. His Dad is still friendly, his Mum still a corker woman.
He’s never really gotten over the way he was shafted at selection down on the coast, he says. He doesn’t miss it.
I ask if any good of it lingered.
Plugger tells me he still stays in contact with the proudest player that team produced in my time there. Perma. Other than that, though, Plugger’s moved on.
I’ve walking into some sort of pond without realising. The rain is chopping it up, I’m not sure if this is croc country or not, so I step back and shelter under a tree with the fattest arse I’ve seen while talking to the best little bloke another world away.
I don’t understand technology other than it’s an amazing thing.
I ask him, then, why he contacted me after all these years?
“I dunno,” he says, before adding, as though it’s a separate topic: “Remember those times, just you and me kicking the ball, sometimes Straws, too, but mostly me and you?”
I haven’t but don’t tell him that.
“They were my best times there. I’ll never forget it,” he says.
He makes me feel bad.
“Those Mondays and Sundays, mostly,” he says, and it floods back to me.
Plugger was getting too much bench time, his confidence was shot. I’d take him, after work, down to the oval with a ball for a simple boot, that had a half-hidden plan
We would just lead and mark and kick to each other, getting a rhythm up, then again, and again. Nobody watching, no pressure, no advice, for hours. The only rule: no apologies.
Mark and lead and kick.
Touch the pig-skin.
Eventually, the simple stuff became such a reflex action, so boring, he’d be back to attacking the bloody pill again.
It worked every time.
For most of us, the club ran on pressure, yet that little extra was never acknowledged. We did extra, and got something more out of it. Something I never planed on. A midnight phone call from the best of blokes, all grown up, too far away.
Life is brilliant and bizarre. What glances you on your way through hits others fair in the heart.
But that’s football.
I’m soaked, standing in mud, but don’t give a damn. I offer my best to his family and we eventually say good-bye, gutted we’re not talking over a beer. I always thought the world of Brenton, and am stoked he called.
I come out of the bush about half-a-kilometre from the ute and walk up the highway, trucks trying to pull me into their wake. Everything sweet dark and rain, then thunder blinding lights and noise, then dark again.