Almanac Fiction: Thunderballers

Rob Bath has dusted off a short story that was already dated when first published in the 1980s, being set some 20 years earlier. Anybody remember the extreme sport known as Pigeon Toe?


Take a walk in 1965.

The Boys are at the gate, making people sign their names on a roll of lavender toilet paper as Martin arrives wheeling his bike. For some reason it’s uncool to ride that last hundred yards to school and strictly forbidden to ride in the grounds. Only a spaz or a girl rides up to the gate; Martin does the right thing. If you time it right you can appear to arrive with a whole gang. Martin’s alone this morning.

Names on a toilet roll – it just has to be something to do with Ian Sells and The Loco Show. Martin fell asleep listening to the show last night and flattened his tranny battery – again.

Now if we can be SERIOUS for a moment – it’s come to my attention that a lotta you kids are dozing off and your batteries are going flat! You better cut it out, you hear? Nobody’s gonna say the old Sellso’s taking bribes from the Eveready company –  Huh? Whassat? Oh, the  ah – look not now, I’m doing a show, in fact I just told them – OK, OK, just leave it under the mat. Mmmm! Very nice! Leave by the alley door… Oops! As I was SAYING

The Boys are in a bit of strife at the moment thanks to the famous razz at the theatre when they threw Jaffas at Caesar and made obscene suggestions to Calpurniah. Pete de Sade played his mouth organ during Marc Anthony’s oration, and when the usherette demanded he hand over his trumpet he said he didn’t have a trumpet but he could give her his organ. Always The Boys!


“Sign it and piss off, Jaworskyj.”

“Thousand names and we get the Platinum Zucchini award!”

Right! The Loco Show!


“The cucumbers are coming! The cucumbers are invading!”

Bob Hennessey wheels up, smallish gang in tow. Hennessey may be fat, but he’s a leader – who cares if his shirt never tucks in properly – he has fat charisma.

“Hey, Bob!”

“Big Bob!”


Hennessey is always ‘Bob’ or ‘Big Bob’; Martin is usually ‘Jaworskyj’, occasionally ‘Martin’, never ‘Marty’.

“Whatsa dis Bob? Oi’m-a Mario da Milko!”

Hennessey is about to reproduce word-perfect last night’s Mario segment from the Ian Sells show. Pete de Sade turns away with a nasty smile. Hennessey may have fat charisma, but he isn’t one of The Boys.

So  – Oi’m driving in-a my turquoise and pink Ford Zephyr when oi see da paperman throwing da papers on-a da front lawns kerplok, kerplok – an’ oi thinka to myself: ‘Eh! Mario – e’s-a not so dumb. Maybe you speed up you milk round da same way, eh?’ So now I chuck da bottles from da car. Its-a pretty quick, alright, I get home to da wife and bambinos real early. Only troub’ is, sometimes the bottles they break a bit on-a da doorsteps and the customers they complain. Futcha-da-guts! That’sa loife for youse, eh Mr. Sells?

“Masked Grandma! Did he do Masked Grandma last night?”

“Jeez, Jaworskyj…! ‘Course he did. Were you asleep or something?”

Admit nothing. Martin signs the toilet roll with a fine-point biro that pokes holes in the paper. Roll up! Roll up! Sign on for Ian Sells, the Loco Show and the Platinum Zucchini!

Martin wheels his bike alongside Hennessey to the bike racks. For some reason the boys’ and girls’ racks are segregated. For some reason, Martin rides a girl’s bike with the skirt-friendly frame. He is painfully aware that he will be subjected to the usual spaz razz about which rack he should use.


Hennessey is a walking library of James Bond books. Recess time is clandestine book-swapping time. Thunderball with the real bullet holes in the cover; Goldfinger with the gold-painted lady.

Now a song by one h… Whoops! Nearly said a naughty word! –  by one heck of a lady, Miss Burley Chassis – I mean Shirley Bassey, the theme from Goldfinger, the man with the Midas touch, a spider’s touch – say, did I ever tell you about my pet spider named George…?

Hennessey is into Mario Part Two. Mario appears at about 10.15 and again just before midnight. Hennessey memorises both: “Moi cow Daisy, she’s-a no give milk no more. She’s an udder failure”.

Hennessey gives Martin the shits.

The big news is the new Beatles single. Everybody knows it’s called Ticket to Ride, but the radio can’t play it until next week due to marketing restrictions. Rumour has it that the Old Sellso will defy the regulations and play it tonight. It’s been a long time since She’s a Woman. Months, years, measured out in Beatles releases. Hennessey claims to have heard Ticket to Ride on import, says it’s a fast rocker with a saxophone solo. History will judge Hennessey.


The game is Pigeon Toe.

The boys stand in a tight circle on the school oval while The Boys smoke Escort filters behind the tree next to the goal posts.

The tennis ball is dropped into the centre of the circle to bounce, bounce, roll and dribble on to one black leather shoe and signify the hunter from the hunted. Martin hopes it will be him. When the entire mob is your target you can easily run down one victim, lob the ball gently into his body, then combine to corner the rest.

It’s not that Martin isn’t competitive. It’s just… that tennis ball can hurt when a powerful arm like Bob Hennessey’s plants it right between your shoulder blades, or on the fleshy part of the thigh.

The ball is dribbling towards Martin’s Bata gristle soles. Let it be me, please ball. At the last moment, it strikes a pebble and deflects into Pete de Sade’s winkle pickers – which is odd, because de Sade is usually too cool to play Pigeon Toe. A murmur of relief, because last time Jaworskyj was tagged it took him half a lunchbreak to pin down his first victim and the game was a bit dull.

Pete de Sade picks up the ball and does a few arm-loosening baseball exercises. The others jog off, wrapping handkerchiefs around their knuckles for protection: below the elbow doesn’t count, and the last-ditch fend-off is a handy defence.

The game’s on!

It’s just a question of selecting your first victim and running him down. Martin knows he won’t be chosen; once cornered and branded, he wouldn’t be much use on the attacking team. Hennessey, likewise, is safe for the time being: his powerful chuck will be useful later on when there are more hunters to pass the ball around, but you need speed early, and Big Bob’s too fat to run.

And Pete de Sade is going for… Bob Hennessey! Oh yes, the game’s on.

Now Hennessey is panting, coughing, red-faced, hopping comically as de Sade fakes dummy throws. De Sade, inter-school hurdler, eases after him, hanging on to the ball, not wasting a throw. No need. And now Hennessey’s had it – lungs heaving, legs like jelly, fat charisma dissipated, cornered, he’s given up running, only hoping de Sade will miss with his throw and give him breathing space. A firm, painless shot would suffice at this distance, but with a nasty leer Pete winds up a vicious throw at Big Bob’s rump… his victim twitches and actually gives a little squeal, like a wounded animal…

Sucked in! It’s another dummy. De Sade is still holding the ball, satisfied with Hennessey’s degradation. A little lob on to the chest and it’s all over. Without a word, Hennessey joins de Sade on the attacking team.

Things move fast now, and Martin slips away from the action. If there’s such a thing as the winner at Pigeon Toe, it’s the last person to be hit. There are two ways of achieving this: to duck and weave athletically through the thick of things, or keep your distance, remain unobtrusive. Martin opts as usual for the more discreet method, watching from a distance as boys drop like flies, then take up the weapon in a highly skilled display.

Mike Jenks falls to a lethal skimmer, aimed at the ground two feet in front of him and rising to take the ankle. A sensational double play! – Iron Knob cops one in the ribs and immediately blasts Sam Samuels backing away.

And all the time it’s getting closer to Martin’s turn.

Three to go, and Hennessey decides to go for Martin! A flurry of short passes and a shot – miss.

“Ya little spaz, Jaworskyj!”

It’s the first time anybody’s actually called him that and it does something to Martin, makes him feel hot and injured inside and he feels words rising to his lips. Loud words.

There’s only one way to get under Hennessey’s skin, and that’s through his fat. It’s a weapon not often used, and never by Martin. He doesn’t really mean to say it, but it’s this… hot feeling.


Mistake. Instant reaction – Big Bob slams in a wild one, misses, and Martin’s safe. For now.

Three to go, two to go. Now for Jaworskyj – alone. Why you run, why you evade, God knows. The game goes on until you cop one, why prolong it? Don’t think about that – run, rabbit.

A neat pass to Jenks cuts him off, Martin twists and feels a sharp pain in his ankle. Jenks lines up the shot, Martin closes his eyes and thrusts out a fist. To his amazement, he feels the ball thud into the hanky around his knuckles and looks up to see the thing sailing high in the air, somebody poised for a catch. Yes…! A catch on the full from a fist-off is out – painless, anticlimactic, honourable. The perfect compromise… except the person under it is Hennessey, and Martin just knows what’s about to happen. Big Bob, catcher for the baseball team, ridiculously allows the ball to drop from his fingers, smiles at Martin as if to say Dear me, how clumsy. Big Bob, shirt out, red-faced, sweating and so very… fleshy. Run, rabbit.

And soon it’s over. Lungs screaming, ankle throbbing, Martin slips in the mud and watches as fifteen boys advance, casually tossing the ball amongst themselves.

Where will it hit? Close the eyes, protect the groin. Where will it hit? A circle is formed around the whimpering animal. Three minutes left before lunchbreak ends. No hurry. Spin it out. Where will it hit? The ball, from hand-to-hand to Hennessey… Where will it hit? Back, thigh, ribs, leg, shoulder? Muscles tensing in anticipation, he can feel it already, but where? Let this moment last forever –


You’re dead.


Click! and the lights are out. The sheets are cold, Martin shuffles about, warming them up. That’s better. He hauls the tranny down on to the pillow.

Click! and it the play-in music for the Loco Show, dissolving into a babble of canned laughter. Then the voice of Uncle Ian the Old Sellso, and soon Mario, Charlie the cuppa-tea guy, Masked Grandma and – maybe – Ticket to Ride. Somewhere Bob Hennessey is cradling his tranny, and Pete de Sade, and The Boys; ‘Boys’ no more, just boys, tucked in, warm, safe, all literally on the same wavelength.


When you’re alone and all your worries surround you
You can always go DOWNTOWN

The lights are much brighter there…

Still holding number one! Luvverly song by a beeeeyoootiful lady Miss Petoooola Clark! And that trumpet solo! Say, did I ever tell you I can play the trumpet? TA-DA-DAAA! BLAAAAT! FWERP! Now you know I can’t! Remember, Sellso’s gonna be spinning you a few tracks from the Beatles for Sale album later in the show! Tracks like I’m A Loco – Ooops, haha, I mean I’m a Loser, and Eight Days a Week… and how’s THAT for a loco title, eh? And your mum thought they were such nice lads too, eh? Which reminds me – MUM! DAD!! WAKE UP!!! HE’S LISTENING TO THE LOCO SHOW IN BED AGAIN! CONFISCATE HIS TRANNY! There – that’ll teach you not to send in your peanut shells to the Sink Tasmania fund! Where’s that Charlie? I want my cuppa tea… BEEDEEP DEBEEP BEEDEEP BEEP Newsflash! A masked grandma has just held up Charlie’s Deli and escaped with fifty packets of Alka-Seltzer! Last seen driving a Hammond organ along the counter of the Norwood Pie Cart! And a report just in from the Pentagon says the cucumbers are still invading. Where will it all end??? When will it all end? Well I’ll tell you it’s gonna end when the Old Sellso goes home at midnight in his 1948 Vauxhall and has his cup of cocoa… What am I saying??? I traded in my 1948 Vauxhall on a new VW from Sierp Brothers. Say, did I ever tell you about the tall wall? You’d never get over it… Hahahahaha Don’t worry, it’s one of those telegram jokes, you laugh when you get it… Haw, haw, ah, there’s life in me yet. I could go on all night, in fact I think I will…

…not that YOU’D know. You’ll probably fall asleep as usual – and why not? Sure, doze off – I’ll mind the store, I’ll prattle on, fill your head with inanities for as long as you like. There’s a big old world out there? Who cares? Let’s have a cuppa tea with Charlie, Mario’s got the milk. You take it black? You should see Mario’s milk! All your mates’ll be along. Sleep? Why not. Masked Grannie’s the nastiest thing in this world, and she’s pretty harmless… Don’t go DOWNTOWN, stay here. We’re all you need. For the time being… sure, sleep. Sleep and believe I’m not really a middle-aged family man with horn-rimmed specs, Mario and Charlie are really here with us, not just voices on tape. Sleep and you won’t hear all the things you don’t need to know, the 11.55pm news and weather, and at midnight the long electronic beep stretching relentlessly into the future. Sleep and never have to do exams, your team won’t lose the Grand Final by three points, and you’ll never need the L-plates in the garage, that packet of Wet-Chex you stole from your brother’s car…

I’m here, the Old Sellso, the Head Loco, Uncle Ian. I’m Lear’s Fool, Dostoevsky’s Idiot and a whole lotta other things you don’t need to know about. But most of all I’m your friend and I’m here beside you. I’m the radio. It’ll be alright. Don’t cry.


  1. barry nicholls says

    Best piece of writing on this site for a while

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