Geoff Sinclair’s Home and Away Games- Rd 20

Round 20

Essendon versus Collingwood

M.C.G.  Friday, August 13th.

So far, we’re only half-way through our platter of dips ‘n’ bread at Dinos’ Cafe, and Labrini hasn’t stopped to draw breath.  We’ve had a roll-call of the Magpies’ strengths as featured in their Saturday night victory over the Cats.  We’ve done hardness at the contest/numbers around the contest (take your pick); pressure on the ball-carrier/tackling (variations on a theme); defensive heat/stinging on the rebound (shades of Mohammed Ali in that one); scoreboard pressure (which used to be called ‘kicking goals’); inside 50s; hard-ball gets; contested marks . . . There may have been more, but I think I drifted off, my attention fastening leech-like onto a passing tram.

Fascinating things, passing trams, when the alternative is . . .

“We kicked six of the last seven goals,” she says, patting her perfect lips with one of Dino’s wafer-thin serviettes.

“There’s still nine weeks to the grand final, Princess.  Nine weeks is a long time in football.  A lot can happen, and I hope it does, in a totally haphazard and destructive way.”


“I don’t know.  I just thought I’d say something irrelevant yet thought-provoking, to see if I could undermine your confidence.”

We sweep, swipe and scoop in silence until Dino’s finest platter is as clean as a new pin.  Labrini’s skinny flat white arrives, our denuded platter leaves and our eyes lock.  I seize the moment, and shape what I hope is a highly serious facial expression.  “Our teams confront each other on Friday night, Miss Labrini,” I say.  “It is a farewell match for us, a final footy fling.  The next day our lives begin to disentangle and, two rounds of AFL football later, I will flee to my mountain fastness . . . ”

“Fastness?  What are you talking about, Rabbit?”

“An old-fashioned word meaning fortress or castle.”

“You’re referring to Tallerack, where we went last week.  Two hours away, tops . . .”  Labrini lets out a hoot of laughter, and sweeps a hand through her Collingwood-inspired skunk-slash of hair.  A couple of Dino’s taller, platter-preparing staff glance quizzically towards us over the counter-top.

“Well, the way you drive . . . ”

“Peter, let me give me my opinion . . . ”

“Why not give me your opinion instead?”

She gives another hoot of laughter; the same staff glance our way.  (And I thought this was going to be a serious scene.  My future is at stake here, and Labrini has turned into a comic.)

“Slip of the tongue, sorry.  Here goes.  The idea of you going back to that lovely little farm and shearing and crunching sheep . . . ”

“Crutching.  The word is crutching.  It’s when . . . ”

“Shut up, I’m not interested.  It’s ridiculous.  It’s a lovely place, and I loved it, in fact I adore it Peter, and I adore you, you are a fabulous man.  Different in many ways, strange in others, totally weird when it comes to . . . ”

“Get on with it.”

“But I couldn’t live there.  I’d gooo . . . ” and she leans over the table, gives my hand a tug and whispers “. . . stark raving fucking bonkers.”  Another hoot, more craned necks from Dino’s staff.  “Free-range holidays for city folk, god, I’d have to look after a donkey for the kids to ride, wouldn’t I, and goats and llamas . . . make sure the chooks were laying, check there was milk in the fridge, maybe milk the frigging cow.  No way!”  And then she sits back in her chair, haughty-looking, throwing her head back and says, “Anyway, Peter, you couldn’t go back there after what you’ve been through.  You’d go bonkers, too.  Every week you’ve been down here, you’ve had an adventure, like the man with a pistol under his bed living with the gay guys, the flood in my flat, an old lady scalding herself nearly to death in the pool, and the one you just told me about.  You know, where the drunk Czech woman grabbed you in a fireman’s lift and carried you.  On the way to her room she banged your head on one side of the door and your feet on the other, like in the silent movies . . . ”

Another hoot, more counter-top noggins.  It’s like the fucking Beaumont Agricultural Show, the knock-’em-sock-’em tent.

“No.  She just dropped me, on the couch fortunately, when I said I didn’t want a lift.  I’m sure she said, lift, or it might have been . . .”

“Well, whatever.  Keep working down here.  I’ll keep teaching the cha cha,  you keep cleaning bird-shit off the seats, sucking up the dust in the stairwells, scalding women in the pool, whatever you do all day, and soon enough when the biological clock reaches the bewitching hour, I’ll put my embroidered lingerie on and we’ll make a baby and call him Peter Prestigiacomo Houdalakis Rabbit.”

“Huh-huh.  Wear that stuff and we’ll have to go on the AI programme.”

A huge hoot, same heads over the counter, but making comments this time.  (“Should we ring for Dino to come?”)

“Meanwhile, let’s go and waltz.”  She pushes Dino’s chair back.  “What are we going to concentrate on today, Mr Fred Astaire Rabbit?”

“Heel lead, thrust right knee forward.”

“Good.  By the way, I’ve put your bronze medallion assault back to  February.  I think this month is a bit premature.”

“February?  2012?”

. . . / / / . . .

It’s Wednesday, and the week is disappearing like a fresh bag of alkalinity increaser into the pool.  (It now laps the tiles at a consistent 34 degrees of Celsius.  Voluptuous warmth, created by myself to caress the skin-folds of Huntleigh Mews’ finest.)  Wednesday is marginally better than yesterday, insofar as the sun comes out for five minutes in the forenoon, before giving way to the dreaded drizzle.

I mount the stairs to Unit 12, and recoil in horror at the scene before me.  Tommy Hubble is lolling back, arms stretched along the button-leather couch, eyes rolling ceiling-wood and slow moaning coming from his lips.  Claudia Averling is on her knees in front of him.  I hastily turn my attention to the book shelves, until a furtive glance towards the couch calms my racing pulse.

“That should help, you poor old man,” I hear Claudia purr, pushing herself upright courtesy of Tommy’s thighs.

“Look, Peter.  Claudia says they’ll work wonders,” Tommy says, caressing his elasticised knee supports.  He’s in the tartan, tasselled dressing-gown, so I’d say it’s been the full aromatherapy experience, to ecstasy and back.  (While I’ve been re-painting lines in the carpark, paving paint still crusting the webbing of my fingers.)

Claudia exits, giving me a narrow-eyed, shifty grin in passing.  “He needs a lot of medical assistance these days,” she mutters, and her immaculate eyebrows ricochet off her forehead.

I plate the potato and feta patties I’ve bought from my Turkish casbah, zap them in the microwave and join Tommy on the couch.  (He reminds me of Toad of Toad Hall).  “It could be worse, mate,” I suggest.  “We could have Jeff Kennett as president, Jason Akermanis doing a spot on radio and a column in the small paper, and have Carlton kick ten goals against us in the last quarter.”

Tommy, of course, springs to the Hawthorn coach’s defence, bemoaning the fact that the Hawthorn Football Club’s president wrote on the Club website that the team had been “outcoached” up in Sydney on the weekend.  In today’s paper, Kennett is saying that the Club can take that kind of tough talking.  “But what’s the point?” asks Tommy, around and through potato and feta, “what is the point of criticising your coach in front of the world?  Or specifically, 50-something thousand of your members.  You think the Hawthorn coach went to Sydney under-prepared, Peter?”

“No way.”

“Do you think he made some strategic mistakes during the game?”

“No idea.”

“Well, if he did, so what?  Who doesn’t?  It’s a pressurised business this coaching.  Clarrie Pay who coached Beaumont before me, you know Clarrie, he’d come to training straight out of the shearing shed, his trousers so thick with . . . with . . . what’s that stuff you get from sheep or wool?


“. . . so thick with lanolin they’d stand up on their own, well, Clarrie was a magnificent coach, yet down at the pub they were always criticising him.  He got a very ordinary team in the finals a couple of times by the possession game.  It wasn’t invented by Kevin Sheedy, Peter, it was invented by Clarrie Pay.  He used to say, ‘boys, if we’ve got the pill, and the other mob haven’t, who’s more likely to score a goal?’  It didn’t matter whether we had the pill two centimetres out from the other mob’s goal, we had it, and you can’t score without the pill.  The aim of our game was to keep it until such time as we could kick a goal.”

“’87 and ’88.  Broadhurst.  We copped them both times in the preliminary.  They out-muscled us, intimidated us.  Big bastards, small, boggy ground.  Is Beaumont the unluckiest club on the planet?”

Tommy shrugs.  “What happened to Clarrie?”

“Dunno.  Strangled by his trousers?  You know what Effie from the Turkish shop told me yesterday?  Our coach has told Bachar Houli he’d only get a certain number of games in the next two years – it might have been six a year – and if he wanted to go to Fremantle . . . ”

Tommy’s jaw drops, and a piece of feta – or is it spud, hard to tell – hangs from his astonished upper lip.  His oiled complexion slowly turns pink, from pink to red.  He stretches his elasticised legs . . .

“Hey.  Take it easy Tommy.  I’ve seen nothing in the paper, nothing on the website, heard nothing.  She’s probably winding me up . . . Tommy, close your mouth.”

. . . / / / . . .

“How you travelling, Bulldog?”

“So, so.”  He takes a deep breath, squirms on his chair.  “So, so Rabbit.  I’ve got to have more blood tests tomorrow.  Some days I’m feeling okay, others I can hardly lift one foot after another.”

“You don’t look real flash, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“No that’s all right.  Nose bleeds, which I’ve never had, not since I stopped playing footy.  I fell over the other day, sober as a judge, tripped over a bit of carpet.  Hit a chair on the way down, buggered my shoulder.”

“Really.  The Bombers’ effort wouldn’t have helped your morale.”

“They served us up a shit sandwich in that last quarter, didn’t they.  It was bad enough on the television.  Did you and little Thomas sit it out.”

“Till the bitter end.  Ten goals, it was raining goals, I thought it would never end.  Beaumont’s 1990 team would have provided better opposition.”

“We would have started a fight, at the very least.”

“You can’t do that so much these days.  The game keeps going, even if you keep fighting.”

It’s a quiet night at Bulldog’s pub, despite the dim-lit, homely atmosphere and the warmth of the log fire.  Frances and another young bloke are doing it easy behind the bar, propped, chatting, wiping.  Sydney Road has a million restaurants, as well as several big music venues, and the Gilbert Hotel has chosen the “uncomplicated haven” route.  Grotty, but clean, chrome and fake teak refits just not on the agenda.  There’s good food – it boasts a separate, up-market dining-room three nights a week which I’ve never been in- no pokies, a couple of pool tables, acoustic music at the weekends, and the two top floors have been turned into apartments.

I could live here, maybe exchange Tallerack for one of the apartments.  I could write a really big and unreadable novel during the day, and from the late afternoon collect glasses, play pool, clean the toilets, be an enigmatic bar-fly with his own nook.  Write poems about Labrini on coasters.  Die of cirrhosis in ten years.

“I’ve never asked you about your school, Bulldog.”

“My school.  Taverner Secondary College.”  He strokes his face, the two main lateral craters running in tandem with his uneventful nose.  A mannerism, deep-seated – he was doing it the first day he walked into the portable classroom for my Year 8 English class at Beaumont High School, and he’s still doing it.  His skin hasn’t changed either, still brown, leathery, his eyes pools of brown.  It’s an interesting face, not instantly attractive I wouldn’t have thought, although Frances keeps glancing our way through the up-ended bottles and glittering glasses.  “Well, it’s big, nearly fifteen hundred kids.  The principal has a christian smile, a deep voice and flexible ethical standards.”

“Okay.  What’s his name?”

“Eloise Priest.  The Priestess.”

“Oh.  A woman.”

“Well, you could say that.  Barracks for Geelong.  She’s got a huge, framed photograph of Gary Ablett senior on the wall of her office.”

“An inspiration to us all.”

Bulldog smiles.  “The school itself.  A description in no more than two hundred words.  We’re in a safe Labor seat.  Over the years the authorities have done their best to suffocate it, flood it or electrocute it.  On one side there’s a long black scar belching carbon monoxide all over us, called Moonya Road.  It’s a major arterial that gets mentioned in traffic reports.  Another boundary is the main northern railway line; yet another is a great storm water drain which was probably a creek when the early settlers arrived.  Beyond that is a scrubby nine-hole public golf course, followed by the Tullamarine Freeway.  On a clear day you can read the graffiti on the pylons.  Adjacent to the main entrance, across the staff carpark, is an electrical sub-station.  All we’re missing is a chemical factory and a rifle range where the kids can play hide and seek.”

“It sounds like a bit of a dump.”

Bulldog wipes froth off his lips with a tired-looking handkerchief.  “Well, it’s not exactly a tourist attraction.  I mean, we don’t have private endowments from ex-students, fortress entrance columns with the school crest emblazoned thereon, and no rowing coach to speak of, but it’s a pretty effective school.  It does its job.  We have an excellent staff, good support from a lot of parents and first-rate facilities, even if we do it all squeezed on to a piece of flood plain.”

“You enjoy it, yeah?”

“I love it.  Doing my bit for social justice.”

Bulldog turns his head a fraction, and Frances immediately pulls fresh beers and comes out from behind the bar.  She gives me a warm smile as she places the drinks, and Bulldog gets a brief neck massage.  It’s an easy, familiar gesture, one that affirms an intimacy stronger and more certainly than a thousand public declarations.  And I’ve been missing it, for the five months I’ve been coming here.  Idiot.

There’s a section of the school grounds at Taverner, Bulldog is telling me after Frances has slowly made her way back to the bar, which I’d enjoy looking at.  It’s a rectangle of ground wedged between the Moonya Road boundary and the school’s Assembly Hall where kids congregate at lunchtimes. “There’s a regulation game of Aussie Rules involving mostly seniors.  That takes up the whole space.  There’s two sets of goal posts, and occasionally there’s an umpire, because several kids, including girls, are in the umpiring development scheme.  Their decisions are respected, even if it’s a Year 8 girl giving the dreaded ‘holding-the-ball’ signal to some teenage monster trapped on the bottom of a pack.  Then there’s a game of soccer going diagonally across from this game.  It’s mainly middle-school and seniors, and they use discarded jumpers for goals.  If the soccer game isn’t going on, you know the sports teacher has cracked the shits and refused to give them a ball.  He’s enthusiastically contemptuous of the world game, and will refuse them a ball on the most technical of grounds.  I’m the court of appeal here – it can be very difficult.  Then there’s a huge pack of junior kids playing something like keepings-off, a no-rules, free-form game of scragging, tackling and scrums which provides a steady stream of minor casualties for the Nurse.  This game uses any sort of ball, even a tennis ball.  It would probably go ahead with a dead cat if there was nothing else available.  Then there’s a group of senior boys, as cool as, somewhere on the sidelines, throwing an American grid-iron football to each other, over the heads of the swarming rat-pack.  And, finally, sometimes, there’s an old-fashioned end-to-end going on, usually with girls involved.  The usual stuff – waxing, trying to take hangers, first possession means you’ve got control of the ball . . . ”

“My god, what a sight.  Aren’t there fights?”

“Occasionally.  Rarely.  I actually saw one.  One of the soccer boys, an African bloke, kicked the Aussie rules ball to the shithouse, simply because it landed at his feet.  He picked it up and belted it away, and I was standing on the mound talking to one of the grid-iron lot, which was handy when it came time to sort things out.  He was set upon, of course.  Momentarily.”

We chuckle.  “I’ve got the best job in the world.  The kids I see are either the really good ones, or the troublesome ones.  Never a dull moment.”

“Yeah.  What did the African kid say?”

“What a lot of kids would say.  ‘Oh, come on, mon, I was just kicking it back to them.  It went off the side of my boot, mon.’”

“What did you say?”

“Well, the kid’s from Somalia.  God knows what he’s been through, possibly seen his family murdered in front of his eyes.  But you’re at Taverner Secondary College now mon, and you must respect the other kids’ game.  And what you just told me about the ball going off the side of your boot is bull-sheeeet.”

“Fair enough.”

A bit later, we wind up, because I can see Bulldog’s fading.  He heads for the Men’s, and in a flash Frances has slid into his chair.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hi.  He’s not well.”

“No.  What do you think’s the matter?”

“Got my theories.  Make sure he goes to the game tomorrow night, will you.”

“Well, it’s likely to be as cold as, and it’s at the ‘G’ . . . think it’s a good idea?”

“No, probably not medically speaking, but he needs to be with his mates.  He’s worrying about himself.”

“Okay.  You and Bulldog, er, Brian . . . ”

“About ten years.”  She gets up.  “I’d die without him.”  And she’s gone, making a bee-line for the bar.

I push our chairs under the table, arrange the coasters.  I’m dawdling by the door when Bulldog emerges.  “You right?” I say.

“Yeah.  Couldn’t find it, so bloody cold in there.”

. . . / / / . . .

Friday, game day.  The Mob meets at Jonesy’s latest tax-dodge, a two million dollar apartment off St. Kilda Road, for pre-match soggy pizza and exquisite wine.  We’re talking smart contemporary interior here, a huge space with clean lines, predominately beige but with a deep olive on a couple of walls.  There’s a black couch with three white cushions, roughly the size of a low-loader; a lamp dangling from a huge chrome arcing stem; potted plants – reedy things, a bit like kumbungi – along a platform; a coffee table at least 10cm high on which there’s a pot of twisted and tortured stems.  (The pain of our existence, the agony of frustrated ambition?)

Oh, and a sweeping view over most of the southern hemisphere.  Well, the view to the west, at least, the West Gate Bridge, the Bolte Bridge and their freeways, and suburbs where ordinary people live and drink Jonesy’s booze, laid out like a grid from here to the Bay.

I have Labrini in tow, and she’s dazzling.  I’ve asked her to tone down the Collingwood merchandising look, and she’s opted for a little pleated shimmy skirt over back tights, a shirt of black-and-white swirls and an elegant black coat.  And heels – she’s got heels.  Click, click, they go, on the parquetry floor.

“Plenty of room for doing the quick-step here, Rabbit-o,” she whispers, as I gently raise a Chinese blind so we can enjoy the view.  “But where would you keep your chooks?”

“Yes.  That’s what made me decide against it.”

Once Jonesy has completed the tour of the apartment – the kitchen, bathroom and laundry are all recessed, but they do exist – we gather around the 10cm high table with its tortured centrepiece.  (How precisely has the interior designer predicted our mood!)  The full complement of furniture hasn’t arrived, so Bulldog, who looks like a cadaver, is ushered onto the couch next to Labrini, who perches rather than sits.  (I’m worried she’s overdoing the lady role.  She’s Collingwood cheer-squad chic to the core.)  Rebecca, who’s been promoted from temp to the CEO’s PA by the look of it, has completed her task of zapping supermarket pizza pieces in the microwave and pouring drinks, sits next to The Boss on the couch.  (It occurs to me that the couch has ominous connotations here.)  Me and Tommy ease ourselves onto the parquetry floor and pretend to be comfortable.  (Tommy’s confident his elasticised knee supports will give him the leverage to get upright without humiliating assistance.)

In essence, the conversation is as gloomy as the weather, and defers politely to the perched The Goddess, this being her maiden voyage with The Mob.  The Bombers have come off a ten-goal last quarter thrashing by Carlton.  Alwyn Davey, our leading goal-kicker with 22 – hello! not a huge number – is out with a broken hand.  Scott Gumbleton, the only other likely-looking forward is still nursing broken ribs, and Dustin Fletcher has a torn hammy.  David Hille, key ruckman and vice-captain, escaped suspension after being on report yet again.  White-line fever – take something for it, Hille-y.

Plus two of our coaching staff, Scott Camporeale and Ashley Prescott, have announced that they’re resigning.  Terrific.  Oh, and one more thing – Collingwood have strong bodies all over the paddock, they’re in white-hot form having disposed of their main rival, Geelong, last weekend.

Oh, and one more thing.  Labrini is perched with a smug look on her face, trying to look contrite and modest and sympathetic AND FAILING.  It’s pissing me off.

“Who are the main dangers in the Collingwood line-up?” asks Jonesy, turning his snake-eyes and suggestive, thin-lipped smile towards Labrini.  (What a stupid question.  Give her an inch . . .)

“Well,” she says, flicking me a sultry look.  “Our back-line is as mean as.  Maxwell, the captain, is tough, Presti at full-back, Johnson, O’Brien” – and here she raises her eyes to the down-lights recessed in the beige ceiling – “O’Brien, my god what a year he’s having . . . ”

“Cream your jeans,” I mutter.

“. . . Shaw is consistent.  Our mid-field is awesome, like, look at Wellingham, Pendlebury, Thomas is in there, Macaffer, Swanny . . . ”

“Swanneeeee, how I love ya, how I love ya . . . ”

“Peter, I’ve been asked a question, please.  Didak, Cloke, and Lockyer’s back in the side.  There’s Beams, Leigh Brown, and Sidebottom up forward.  Our rucks, well, how well has Jolly fitted in?”

“Jolly well, eh?  What about the boot-studder,” I ask, “how’s he going?”

Everyone thanks Labrini for her insightful comments, politely.  (She gives me a withering look.  I pretend to wither.)  Jonesy checks the view to make sure that none of the western suburbs have disappeared in his absence,  Tommy gets himself to his feet after assuming the cane-toad squat position, Bulldog assures us he doesn’t need an ambulance to get to the ground, and Rebecca says, don’t worry about me, I’ll stay and clean up.  (And wait till The Boss gets back, I’m thinking, but I have a corrupted mind.)

I am very attentive towards Labrini, because I fear I’ve over-stepped the mark.  Initially she repels my advances, then I tell her I’ve put $100 on Essendon to win.  She laughs like she did in Dino’s the other day, kisses me sloppily on the cheek, and tells me I’m an idiot.

We take our seats in the northern stand, and watch the Bomber boys do their final warm-up.  They look good – sharp, spearing passes, deadly accurate shots on goal.  A bit like myself in the old Beaumont days, when there’s no opposition at training.

We four blokes sit like we’ve been hit by a stun-gun.  We are expecting a horrible night, and are bracing ourselves for it.  (I’m already regretting my $100 punt.  In the cold light of the M.C.G. At night, it seems ludicrous.  Plus, I could buy a lot of chooks for that sort of money.)  Labrini is on my left, as far away from Jonesy as possible, because I’m worried about him making a take-over bid on the Dance Palace.  She’s retrieved her Collingwood scarf from a pocket, and is jaunty, anticipating a Pie night, but being civilised about it.

The game is over after 15 minutes.  I have documented it, because I found a tiny note-book in the inside pocket of my Kathmandu jacket, borrowed a pencil from Tommy, and scratched a few notes for “clarity of thought” reasons.  Here they are:

Clinical start by Essendon – goal to Neagle. Twinge of excitement.

Clinical turnover by Essendon = goal to T.Cloke.

Clinical mark to Hille = goal  More twinge of excite.

Clinical t’over by B.Stanton = C. (Brown) goal.

Free to Brown for falling over – C. point.

Clinical kick by Stanton to C. player = Thomas goal

Clinical Beams out-muscles Stanton = C. goal

Clinical mark to Blair (who?) in front of Stanton = C goal

Clinical goal to L.Brown

Clinical walk thru pack by Swan = C goal

Clinical snap goal to Monfries

Clinical leg injury to Zaharakis, E’s best player

Q.t. Score: 8.2 to 3.0

We sit it out for the whole game.  The boys kick a couple in the last few minutes to keep the margin under 100 points.

We’re a team in development, and I hate it when people like Jonesy trivialise our best efforts.  Like suggesting one of our players was a model of consistency because every time he got the ball, Collingwood got a goal.  Or suggesting Mark Latham should be invited to join the coaching staff.

Stuff like that just doesn’t help.

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