Comfort in the Familiar

Saturday morning; the family is away, the house empty, but my head’s full of noise: work, relationships, health, life. First World stuff, but still important.

I gotta get out of here.

I pack a toothbrush and change of jocks.

Bell Street is a joke, ring-road a dog fight, Geelong highway, a high speed chase. Everyone wanting to be somewhere else. I give up, sit in the left lane, let the world go by. Bulldogs and Cats on their way to Kardinia Park. You Yangs to my right, Coodabeens on the radio.

At Geelong, I turn left towards the Bellarine Peninsula. By midday, I’m in Portarlington, coastal village. On the main drag, Kathmandu brunchers finish their lattes. A bloke in dusty farm gear keeps the ute running while he darts into the newsagent.

The week’s rain has left the roads wet and lawns glistening. A hopeful sun has appeared today and the air is still and chilly.

We’ve shared some history, this town and I. I’ve been coming here for years; to escape, empty out, fill up. I like to walk the cliff track and look across the bay at Melbourne’s cityscape. It never fails to give me a clearer perspective on life.

I check into the one motel in town, pour a satchel cup of tea, open the paper and breathe in the silence. My brain is still fighting itself, used to the rush and clatter. It’s not coping yet with the nothing, the quiet.

In the old weatherboard bakery, I eat a ham and salad roll for lunch. I sit in the corner as families and netballers squeeze in the door. The smell of fresh baked bread is comforting.

I head down the hill towards the Ron Evans Oval, a squat ground with deepish wings, wedged between town, caravan park and water. An elderly woman walking her dog gives me a big smile. At the gate, I buy a Record and handful of tickets in the meat tray, and grab a stubby holder and can from the bar. Suddenly, I’ve spent the good part of $30.

The Magoos have just filed off and the Portarlington Demons are banging out Grand Old Flag. Cars ring the fence and toot when the Seniors emerge. I find a spot in front of the rooms, where the old-timers give me the once over, followed by a nod.

Port, struggling again this season, starts well, full of run and hope. A stringy wingman is everywhere, up and down the ground; a bush Peter Matera. Queenscliff, one game out of the five, has much to play for, and finds its groove. It’s a bit scrappy, but flowing, not congested and overcooked like the AFL.

At quarter-time, I head to Port’s huddle. The coach, blue cap pulled down over his eyes, sends the boys into their groups, then calls them in. He’s full of praise and encouragement. Keep it going, hey?!

Most of the second quarter is a struggle, centre half-forward to centre half-forward. Port hang in until time-on when the Coutas’ forwards suddenly emerge as if out of the turf. They’re a few goals up at half-time but the result looks predictable. The old-timers shake their heads.

Port retreats behind closed doors during the break. In the social rooms, honour boards and posters promoting tonight’s fundraiser, hang from the walls. The club president, who, with his moustache and straight back and shoulders, could be the town cop, welcomes the visitors and invites everyone to dig into the sandwiches and slice.

Out on the ground, black footballs flop through the air and spit off the grass. Floppy haired teenagers give arcing, screaming leads, while little kids play in the puddles in the players’ race. Out back, netballers leap and pass. I smile. Could be any country football ground anywhere in Australia.

The second half starts and the Coutas extend their lead. A solid, yet surprisingly quick forward with Steve Kretiuk shoulders, gathers on the flank, turns and goals. His opponent throws his head back in frustration, and a team mate jogs past and pats him on the bum.

The Demons hang in for little reward. But that’s life – your best isn’t always good enough.

The Demons’ big forward is causing most frustration. I imagine the summer he arrived he must have brought hope like the recruit from Eaglehawk in Bruce Dawe’s poem, Life Cycle. Today, he’s getting his hands on the ball, but isn’t too sure what to do with it. His captain is cursing, the old-timers, despairing.

In the three-quarter time huddle, coach pleads, but there is resignation in his eyes. Queenscliff pull further away in the final term.

After the match, I sneak inside before the door slams behind me. Players slump on the floor or against lockers and tear off boots and ankle tape. On the wall are a large club emblem, Tuesday’s physio times and a poster alerting to the perils of the drug ice.

Next door, the Coutas belt out their theme song.

Coach stands by the rubdown bench, chewing on orange snakes. He collects his thoughts, sniffs, then starts pointing the finger, naming names. Onballers cop an earful for being loose at stoppages.

He looks at the big forward with a mixture of disgust and affection.

Why didn’t you take a bloody bounce through the middle?

The big forward can’t meet his coach’s eye. He wriggles uncomfortably in his seat and pulls at his socks. Eventually, a dopey grin spreads across his face.

Can’t bounce the ball.

Everyone laughs and the tense atmosphere lifts.

Coach concedes the faint hope of Finals is gone: We were pushing shit up hill, anyway.

But, there’s always next week against Barwon Heads and an opportunity to regain lost pride for the thumping last time. It’s all about pride now.

The players head for the showers and I walk out the gate as a long line of cars slowly snakes its way home. Under the canopy of big trees and through the caravan park, I emerge on the beach. The bay is as calm as I’ve ever seen it. To my left, the sun falls quickly behind the hills, while on my right, city lights kick in against the dusk. A lone freighter serenely heads out. It’s a beautiful sight.

On the jetty, the first fishermen of the night unfold their chairs and bait up. An elderly couple, wrapped in Cats scarves are happy with the win.

We needed it, they say.

At some stage during the day, perhaps early in the third quarter, my brain quietened and slowed and let my body catch up. Things are starting to make sense again.

I head up the hill to the pub for a counter meal.


  1. Terrific piece Starkers. Helping me unwind as well.

  2. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Emptying out and filling up. And having the space to choose the filler.
    Having done a half (and a huddle!) in Fitzroy recently, I have a much better sense of the intimacy of local footy and the immensity to which it can make pathways. Your best isn’t always good enough. The chock-a-block immensity of AFL footy doesn’t necessary work in reverse and give you those moments of intimacy.
    Beautiful words and strokes, Andrew. Thank you.

  3. That’s a gift there, A Starkie.
    A breath of air.
    Love it.

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Food always tastes best when the bakery is weatherboard.

    Thanks for taking us with you Andrew.

  5. Terrific Starks. Reminded me of a trip I took with a few Almanackers to watch the Wynyard Cats play in Tassie – few years back. Nothing smells as sweet as the mud at a local footy ground.

  6. Bucolic. Beautiful. Country footy always reminds when times were simpler and less complicated. And so was I.
    Thanks Andrew.

  7. Great stuff, AS.
    My wife’s family owned a shack in Portarlington, where we had many good times.
    Unfortunately her dad passed away, and it had to be sold.
    Back then you had to go to Queenscliff to get a coffee.

  8. Mickey Randall says

    Wonderful read. Footy, beach, pub. A day by yourself rediscovering these is excellent. I’m inspired. Thanks for that.

  9. Peter Flynn says

    Good decision making well told Old Mate.

  10. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great stuff Starkers. Observation mode was highly attuned. Mental clarity shines through. “Can’t bounce the ball” Beauty. Time for a sea change?

  11. DBalassone says

    That’s gold Starks. Reading stuff like this makes me wonder why the hell I live in the Big Smoke.

    ‘But Ah! Who needs that sentimental bullshit, anyway.
    Takes more than just a memory to make me cry.’

  12. Andrew Starkie says

    Thanks for feedback, guys. And for relating to what I was trying to say.

    Sat on this one for a few weeks, allowing it to gestate in my head.

    We all need our time out, don’t we?

    Damo, ‘never say her name’. I ‘performed’ a very dodgy version at a work event last Friday night. With apologies to Ian Moss.

    Philo, always.

  13. John Butler says

    Or a tree change Starkers? I’d recommend it.

    Really nice piece.

    Smokey, I remember that holiday house. It was a tough deck for the backyard cricket, as I recall.

Leave a Comment