Geoff Sinclair’s Home and Away Games- Rd 9

ROUND NINE

Essendon versus Richmond

Saturday, May 22nd, M.C.G.

Dreamtime at the ‘G’

It’s not exactly euphoria, but me and Tommy are as happy as clams after our victory over the Sainters.  Phew!  We did a similar thing last year, knocked them over when we were least expected to.  It’s becoming an annual event, like Moomba.  We sift through the game every time we take a break from our work at Huntleigh Mews – which is at least six times a day – looking for a new angle, and to make sure we’ve dealt with every player, and every one of the turning points of the game.

For me, the turning point was Patrick Ryder’s snap goal from the pocket two minutes before the end.  The next turning point was the final siren.

When news comes through that the Bomber’s ruckman David Hille’s report for rough play has been thrown out of court, I can’t help but have a bit of a dig.  “You and Jonesy reckoned he’d get four weeks,” I say to the old bloke, hoping there’s a mischievous twinkle in my eye.

Tommy just grunts, selects another beetroot-‘n’-cheese sandwich, and says the boy had better watch himself in future.  He’s got white-line fever.

. . . / / / . . .

After the cycling fiasco, I revert to walking, including a Big One out to    Bundoora to pay my respects to sister-in-law Kylie, seeing it’s her birthday.  It takes me just under two hours, and I feel in good shape as I swing into Lilac Street, which is just as well because I have painful memories of the fold-down bed in the guest room.

It’s like old times at No. 32: there’s Kylie and me, her live-in boyfriend Norm the Nazi and the daughters Rosa and Deidre, the Goth Girls.  We sit around the kitchen table and shovel in Thai takeaway, washing it down with Heineken beer.

The atmosphere is not convivial, and I believe it should be.  After all, a forty-first birthday may not be a major milestone, but it’s another year survived for the person concerned.  (Kylie’s survival amongst this lot is to be hugely admired.)  So I talk rapidly about my totally hilarious experiences at Huntleigh Mews and my association with The Mob, like a regular life-of-the-party.  I work hard, in and under, yapping away like a brain-damaged fox terrier.  I can’t believe they don’t find my description of me washing the rubbish bins at the Mews with the pressure hose drop-dead funny, seeing as how I make it sound like I am rounding up a mob of sheep and drenching them.  (Do they understand “drenching” as a concept?)  I can’t believe they’re not falling off their chairs when I tell them about how in my first week I chased a burglar who ended up kicking me in the snoz.  (Hell, I do actions with this one.)  I find my own description of Tommy nearly busting a foofer valve at the footy when David Hille was reported so terrific I’m giggling as I tell it, puffing my cheeks out and sliding down in my chair like I’m short like Tommy.

Getting desperate, I stretch out the story about the young bloke who accidentally locked himself in the toilet cubicle in the swimming pool when the door-knob fell off.  Hey, guess what?  It took him 4 hours to get the door open, using a piece of the cistern as a screw-driver.  Guess what again?  He ripped the top of the cistern off with his bare hands.  I stretch my descriptive powers to their limit and beyond, giving the 4 hours in solitary confinement and no-one coming in for a swim or a crap the full treatment, rhetoric-wise.

Rosa, the younger Goth with the nose stud, is not only unamused, she is morally outraged.  “It snot funny.  It could’ve pushed him over the edge.  ‘e could’ve taken his own life with the cistern bit, being locked up.”

Deidre agrees.  “Yeah,” she says, expansively.

“Where were you?” asks Rosa, accusingly.

“Upstairs, asleep on my Cleopatra-comfortable bed.”

“Your what?  Mum, what’s ‘e talkin’ about?””

Time to move on.  I get personal and tell my story about falling asleep and not recording the football game for Labrini on Friday night, with heavy emphasis on the final moments when she reveals her skimpy dancing costume.  I pitch this heavily towards the Goths, thinking they’ll be interested in the costume.  (Norm appears comatose.)  But no.  Something about the story lights Deidre’s wick, and she’s away: “How pathetic that a female should be so interested in football” – she nearly spits it out, so it sounds like foot-PALL – “that she should want to rush home from work and watch it.  God.  I am sooooo not into football.  Hey.”

“Me neither,” intones Rosa.  (They’re a team, the Goths.)

So I give it one last go, like a bad stand-up comedian rolling the dice one last, desperate time.  I tell the joke about the two drunk Irishmen who, after a long session in a pub, argue about whether it’s the moon or the sun they can see up there in the sky, so on the way home they ask a passer-by to sort it out for them, and he says, “Sorry, lads can’t help you.  I’m not from around these parts.”  There’s a momentary explosion of silence, into which Kylie – bless her – drops a tiny chuckle.  Otherwise, there’s nothing other than the slurp, slurp, slurp of Thai takeaway hitting the tonsils.

And I did the Irish accents soooo well.

I draw the obvious conclusions.  One: the Goth Girls haven’t changed, and only lack of opportunity has prevented them doing their rabbit impersonations.  Two: given that when I was staying here I couldn’t utter more than two sentences before Norm the Nazi interjected to tell me I was wrong or an idiot, I assume he’s either gone deaf or has had a lobotomy.  Three: Norm and Kylie’s relationship is on its last legs, and I’ve been invited to witness the Famous Final Scene, because Kylie looks a bit glum around the gills, too.

Relief comes when the takeaway is demolished.  The girls are refused another stubby and sent off to do their homework.  Kylie is banging the dishes into the dishwasher with more vigour than is strictly necessary, while Norm stays welded to his chair.

Norm excuses himself when the dishwasher is half-way through its cycle – thus avoiding any chance of unloading it – and Kylie and I polish off another beer each and she sees me out.  We stand on the porch, surrounded by thousands of houses, and Lilac Street as silent as a tomb.  She grips me by the arm, rests her face against my chest and has a quiet, convulsing cry.

“What’s wrong, sis?”

“I miss Linda.  Don’t you?”

“Of course.”

Kylie gives a kind of half-laugh, half-sob.  “Remember the ducks on the doorstep?”

This is one of our favourite memories of dear Linda, who was into poultry, big-time.  She had a team of ducks who refused to camp on or near the dam, preferring instead to spend the hours of darkness sleeping and shitting on the back steps of our place at Tallerack.  One morning I stepped outside to begin the day’s labour, and skidded on the shit-slippery steps – it was like a ski-slope – and landed on my buttocks, sustaining severe bruising.

She straightens up, produces a tissue from somewhere, and sniffs into it.  “Oh god.  No good howling.  That won’t bring her back.  You’re going out with a Greek woman, yeah?”

“Yeah, kind of.  Born in Flemington, not Athens.  Guess what, she’s a Collingwood supporter.”

“Oh god, what would your old man say?”

We laugh.  Then she asks me about The Mob, and I tell her I’m enjoying their company.  She bristles a bit, so I put my arm across her shoulders.  “Linda and I both worked in Jonesy’s pub in Beaumont,” she says.

“Yeah, you did.”

“He was a sly type.  His skin as smooth as a baby’s bum, snake eyes, and a creepy grin like it was only a matter of time before he had his reptile hand up your jumper.  Yuck!”

“He hasn’t changed much I don’t reckon.  But he’s got a lovely wife.”

“Blind and deaf, is she?”

“No, she’s Vietnamese.”  I give Kylie another squeeze because I reckon she’s feeling the effects of life.  “The other two are okay.  Brian Nankervis, the teacher.  You’d left school before he arrived, and Tommy Hubble who coached us.”

“Is that all?”

“Yep.  Tommy’s been in touch with some of the others.  Bubba Porter is coming down for a weekend, Cocky Lonergan might, and I think he said Horse Mildenhall . . . “

“Well, that lot should be stimulating company.”

“Don’t be like that.  Anyway, I gotta go.”

“Thanks for your effort tonight, and thanks for the present.  I’ve seen Jersey Boys, but Norm hasn’t.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“He’s been retrenched, by the way.”

“Oh dear.  Why didn’t you say?”

“It’s okay.  He’ll be right.  Why don’t you get a cab, or catch the tram?”

“Nah.”  I give her a peck on the cheek.  “These boots were made for walkin’ . . . ”

“Idiot.  It’s Go Pies now is it, with this new bird?”

“No way.”

“We’ll see.”

. . . / / / . . .

On Wednesday, Tommy would like go out to Windy Hill to watch training, “just out of interest and to show a bit of solidarity with the boys.”  I know the real reason: he’s worried about complacency setting in.  We’re up against Richmond this week, and they’re resting stone motherless last with zero premiership points, and we’ve come off a huge win.  I suppose he, as a former coach of an unsuccessful up-country team, would be able to detect complacency from the wind-swept boundary of Windy Hill.  Just what he intends to do about it if he does detect it, I’m not sure.

We catch the tram which rollicks along Mt. Alexander Road, and I become aware that there is another item on Tommy’s unwritten agenda: nostalgia.  It rears its head just before we reach the Moonee Ponds Junction.

“That street . . . on the left,” – Tommy is pointing through the scratched window of our Yarra tram – “that was where I went to primary school.”  We go another couple of stops.  “See that, over there on the right . . . there she blows.  Wordsworth Street.  That’s where we lived until the end of 1951.  Number 39.”

“Really?  Master Thomas Hubble.  39 Wordsworth Street, Moonee Ponds, Victoria, Australia, The World, The Universe.  Did you have that on your pencil case?”

“Probably.  No, on my atlas.”  He strokes his smooth chin.  “Me and Dad used to either walk to the ground from here, or catch the tram.  ‘One-and-a-half to the ground,’ he’d say to the conductor.  The conductor didn’t have to ask ‘what ground’?  Dad had made me a stool to stand on so I could see over the crowd.”

“You could still do with one, mate.  When was the first game you saw?”

“1949.  I was 9 years old.  I saw a few games up at Windy Hill.  It was John Coleman’s first year, you know.  He kicked 12 in his first game against Hawthorn, but we weren’t there for that.  From memory we had to win the last 10 or 11 games to get in the finals.  We did.  I absolutely remember two games from that season.  We beat Melbourne at Windy Hill in the last home-and-away game by a couple of goals, and Dad and I went to the first semi-final when we beat Collingwood easily.  Flogged them.”

“How awful.  What happened after that?”

“There was a tough game against North Melbourne where we scraped home, and we beat Carlton in the grand final.  Dad and I went to the M.C.G. for that game, but we couldn’t get in.  There were more than 90,000 people there, and thousands outside the ground.”

“Fair dinkum.”

“It was a great team.  The captain-coach was Dick Reynolds, of course.”

Today’s a magnificent day, especially at Windy Hill, and we sit on the boundary line, knees next to the rusty fence, shading our eyes from the sun when we look across the ground or up at the stand.  There are a few other tragics drifting around, kids, autograph hunters, older people out to watch their team and enjoy the weather, and probably a few out-of-workers.

We just sit, and I leave Tommy be, because he’s away with the fairies I reckon.  He’s staring directly down the ground, and he stays like that for five minutes.  Eventually, when I notice the players threading their way up the race and onto the ground, I nudge the old bloke just in case he’d actually seized up.  “Where you been?”

“I just slipped back through 60 years, Peter.  I was looking at myself, chubby little bloke who kicked around a rolled-up newspaper footy in Wordsworth Street with my mates.  I am perched on my stool down at the other end of the ground, the high school end – that’s where we usually stood – clutching the shoulder of my Dad’s gabardine overcoat to balance myself, because the players are taking up their positions at the start of a game.  Don’t know who we’re playing.  I only have eyes for the red-and-blacks.  It is a great team, but I have my favourites.  I pick out Norm McDonald first, his dark body glistening with oil, on the half-back line over on the bowling green wing, over there. (He points.)  As usual, he’s pushed his socks down around his ankles, and is running a few yards to warm up.  Hutchy – No. 7 – is there in the centre – pointing again – so is big Bob McClure, then I’m up on my toes to check the two rugged backmen I idolise, Bill Brittingham and Wally May, down the grand-stand end.  This end, just over there is where they’d be.  Now the forwards spread, and here they come . . . jogging towards me.  Dick Reynolds, No. 3, compact, immaculate in his long-sleeved jumper, white laces vivid against black boots, hair slicked back.  And finally, causing my heart to race, the man himself.  I can’t tell you the excitement I feel watching this bloke play footy, jogging towards the goal-square, the familiar figure of the full-forward.  I can see him now, Peter, pale-skinned, boyish-faced, lean, a fringe of hair bobbing, still rubbing the resin into his hands.  He’s shaken hands with his opponent and  he’s turned to face the centre where the umpire is holding the ball above his head . . . No. 10.  Jesus wept, No. 10, it’s always going to be a special number.  I wobble on my stool, grip my father’s coat.  “Careful, son,” he says, steadying me.  Then Dad looks at me and asks, “How’s No. 10 going to go today, eh?”

I can hardly speak.  It’s a side of Tommy I’ve never come across.  “That’s really something, mate.”

“It’s a precious memory, Peter.  I am privileged.”

We watch the 2010 team go through their paces, although after Tommy’s reminisce, I have trouble getting the picture he’s painted out of my mind.  The current crop look sleek, smooth in their up-market training gear, and go through a series of drills efficiently, calmly.  Once, when they move the ball through groups up and down the ground, a drill which ends with a forward snapping for goal, they do get animated.  It’s lightning fast, flashy and . . . pulsating.

If there’s any complacency out there, I’m damned if I can see it.

On the tram on the way back, Tommy is subdued.  He agrees that the boys looked sharp this afternoon.  Then, all of a sudden as we go past Wordsworth Street again, he blurts out, “I saw my Dad cry once in my life.  In 1951, John Coleman was rubbed out for 4 weeks for hitting Carlton’s Harry Caspar in the last game of the season.  Dad went over to Jolimont and waited outside Harrison House for the tribunal verdict to be announced.  When he got home, he leant against the dresser in the kitchen and sobbed his heart out.”

. . . / / / . . .

“One . . . TWO, THREE, one . . . TWO, THREE.  Slow down.  Peter, listen to the music and stop dragging me.”

“Oh, that’s what the music’s for.”

“Relax your shoulders, and lead through your legs . . . one . . .TWO, THREE . . . bend your knees . . . ouch!”

“Sorry.  I can’t talk and dance yet.”

“Okay stop now, let’s have a drink of water.”

Labrini and I cruise across the parquetry, past the main office and into the narrow kitchen/bar of The Dance Palace.  PLEASE WASH YOUR OWN DISHES, says the sign and the padlock on the drinks fridge is massive.  She fills a couple of glasses from the tap, and hands me one.  “You’re doing very well,” she says.

“Am I?”

“Well, you know the steps, now I’ve got to teach you to dance them.”

“I thought I was dancing them.”

“Not really.  Your body’s like a battering ram and it should be fluent, light, supple . . . a finely-tuned instrument.”

“Go on.”

We drink our water.  I refill my glass.  (Dancing like a battering ram is thirsty work.)  We exchange glances, meaningful ones, glances that refer to an earlier conversation.  “I’ve got them here,” Labrini mutters, plunging a hand into the pocket of her black dress.  (God, it’s like a drug deal.  I look around to make sure we’re not going to be disturbed.)  She pulls out two tickets, tears one off and hands it to me.

“On one condition,” I say.  “No, two.”

Labrini gives me a hard look, shoving the other ticket back where it came from.  “I don’t do conditions.”

I ignore that.  “First, now I’m going, I’m going to barrack my tits off for Geelong against Collingwood.  After Essendon – Go Dons! – they’re my favourite team.  Second, you’ll accompany me to what is arguably the game of the decade on Saturday night, the Dreamtime encounter between twelfth-placed Essendon and sixteenth-placed Richmond.”

She tries to be annoyed, but can’t.  In fact, she grins.  “Okay, but I’ve got two conditions, too.  First I won’t be able to get to either game before half-time, because I’m stuck here.  And second, I don’t want to have to sit with those mates of yours on Saturday.  Four Essendon supporters is beyond anything a Magpie girl should put up with.”

“Good.  It’s a done deal.”

“Come on.”  She slips her arm through mine, and pulls me out the door.  “Let’s turn you into a fluent, supple instrument of dance.”

“Don’t drag me, Cabrini.”

. . . / / / . . .

On Saturday night I’m at the M.C.G. on my own, having taken leave-of-absence from The Mob, on the principle that four blokes going to the football together every week can get claustrophobic.  Then there is the small matter of my Greek companion – I am not ready to “come out” officially yet.  So I am on my Pat Malone, back at the “G” for the second night in succession, empty seats to the right of me, empty seats to the left.

Somewhere out there, amongst the, oh, I’d say 50 to 60 thousand crowd, Tommy Hubble, Geoffrey Jones and Brian Nankervis are sitting, sucking on their beers, and probably discussing me, about what a fine fellow I’ve turned out to be, after a rather slow start.

I wonder.

But I’m happy to be on my own at the footy, especially as this is the Dreamtime at the ‘G’ round, acknowledging indigenous players and the reconciliation process.  I’m thinking about Michael Long as I watch him do his thing in the pre-match ceremony, what he must have put up with before he decided to take a stand in 1995, and do something about being vilified because of his race while playing footy.  I remember he got reported a few times before that, and I believe he was reacting to the crap his opponents were dishing out to him.  That’s my theory, anyway.  I’m proud – and relieved – that the club got behind him when he took his stand.

It’s chilly.  I hug myself, and slot my mitts deep into pockets.  There’s still empty seats near me, and it’s nearly game-time.  I glance around, worried that people are eyeing me off and whispering about the loner who needs, but refuses, relationship counselling.  What’s the problem do you think: the middle child of six siblings perhaps?  Boarding school?  Halitosis?  Premature ejaculation?  Hang on – help is on its way.  As the teams line up for the Manna Gum Ceremony, a couple are looking my way, and checking their tickets before sidling along the aisle.  They’re balancing plastic beer cups, they’ve got friendly, open faces, and they’re smiling like butchers’ dogs.  I return the compliment.  The lady lowers herself onto the seat next to me, but miscues and slops a few drops of beer on my denims.

She apologises profusely, then explains to her partner in a language that sounds like an angle-grinder, what has happened.  He leans forward, points at his companion and says, “Sorry for her.”

He’s a dag, with a smudge of goatee on his chin.

I wave the whole thing off, rubbing my leg then pretending to lick beer off my fingers, which we all think is totally hilarious.  She then tells me that she and Harold – he leans forward and nods at the sound of his name – are from Switzerland and they are celebrating their first year of being married.  I return his nod and welcome them both to the Melbourne Cricket Ground like I’m chairman of the board.

Hell, I’m happy for company until my goddess arrives, and they don’t look as though they are going to barrack their lungs out for the Tigers.

Inge – we’re on first name terms before she takes more than two sips of her half-strength beer – wants to know all about the ceremony we’re watching.  I explain as best I can the welcome by the Wurundjeri elder, and when the kids hold out the gum leaves to the players of both teams, it’s a symbol of unity as well as a welcome.  It’s impressive, and moving, and Inge and Harold have a long talk about it.

We’re ready to go.  Go Dons!!

Inge smiles.  “Dons?  What is Dons?”

What!  What is Dons!!  One of the green insects has paid a free kick to the Tiger full-forward before the ball is bounced to start the game.  The Essendon crowd howls its outrage and disbelief, then its joy when Riewoldt’s kick hits the post.  Inge wants to know what it’s all about.  I start to explain – having examined the replay on the Big Screen, otherwise I wouldn’t have a clue – that Tate Pears, Essendon’s full-back has just returned to the side after breaking his arm, and his opponent has hit the arm as a way of intimidating Pears, and then Pears . . . I tire, and Inge is obviously lost, so I take a short-cut.  “It was an infringement against the Essendon player.”

Inge looks blank.  “Infringement?”

Not knowing the Swiss for infringement, in fact not knowing the Swiss for anything, I have an inspiration.  “Penalty.”

“Oh.”  The light comes on for Inge, then Harold gets the subtitled replay.

Meanwhile, back at the game, we’ve kicked a goal through McVeigh, then Patrick Ryder slots another and when Howlett steers through an acute check-side goal, I’m jigging around like a happy camper.  I’m thinking, this could be a massacre, and when did Essendon last massacre anyone?

“GREAT BANANA GOAL HOWIE” bellows the boofhead behind me.  (God, he’s got a voice like a foghorn.)

Inge wants to know what a banana goal is.  This is a perfectly reasonable question, and by the time I’ve demonstrated the check-side kick with the assistance of an near-empty beer mug – more drips on my denim, more laughter from Inge – we have three more goals, and I’m feeling that life isn’t such a bad gig after all.

Richmond are looking decidedly lead-footed, which is not a good sign for a team of their calibre, although they do get two late goals.

At quarter time, I’ve relaxed my principle of never drinking at the footy – these lovely people are from overseas, after all, and I’m doing my bit for Swiss-Australian relations – and Harold goes for three beers.  Inge and I share some personal data while he’s away: I mention that I am expecting a friend to arrive at half-time, and Inge tells me she and Harold work for a cheese company back home – no kidding – in the marketing division.  That’s where they met, and they’ve been together for a year, and when they saw an advertisement for a holiday on Kangaroo Island, they snapped it up.  That’s where they’re going tomorrow.

Kangaroo Island in May.  I guess coming from Switzerland, they’d be acclimatised.

During the second quarter, I keep my explanations for Inge simple and short, because the Tigers hit back with a couple of goals to Riewoldt, so it’s game on.  Me and the noisy bloke behind concentrate on venting our spleen at Essendon’s mistakes.  (He’s got it in for Brent Prismall.  YOU ARE A WASTE OF SPACE MATE!)  We move Fletcher onto the Tigers’ full-forward which quietens him.  It’s an even game in the contested ball area, but we’re just more polished.  Once we get the ball, we control it better, and we win the quarter narrowly, by two points.

So far, Inge and I have dealt with the basics, usually when the ball’s out of bounds, or when a goal’s been scored: kicking, handball, marking and the fact that there are six points to every goal.  I skilfully avoid confronting the more complex questions she throws at me, like why do players kick the ball around in the defensive zone and not towards the goal, and why they pass by hand to someone standing still, and why they kick so many points and not goals?

These are deep and enduring questions I feel unable to confront at this time, especially as I’m edgy that there’s no sign of Labrini.  We could be looking at a broken contract situation here.

The third quarter is ours, but I spend a lot of it craning my neck towards where “my friend” might appear.  She doesn’t, consistently.  Meanwhile, David Hille takes the game by the scruff of the neck, and Leroy Jetta and Alwyn Davey are playing beautifully.  We’re almost seven goals ahead, in no danger of defeat.  Inge is still confused about a lot of things, particularly free-kicks for off-the-ball incidents.  I can’t help her, because I’m as confused as the 60,000 other people watching the game.

“Is that why there are so many green referees?” she asks.

“Guess so.”

The loud bloke behind us remains unforgiving of most of our players, and of his own daughter, who eats her pie the wrong way.  “You don’t eat it from around the edges, Sophie, you eat it straight through.”

The Tigers get a couple of late goals, and we finish the quarter 41 points up.  Obviously Labrini is still doing the cheeky cha-cha on the dance floor, or she’s just being plain cheeky.

I’m getting annoyed.

The last quarter is a trial.  Riewoldt kicks three after Fletcher leaves the ground, Inge’s questions dry up, and the loud bloke behind me orders Jason Winderlich, Sam Lonergan and David Myers – in fact most of the team – off the ground and onto the interchange bench for their weak efforts.  Somehow we win by 35 points.

Inge says goodbye with a handshake, thanks me for my explanations, and is sorry not to have met my friend.  Harold nods in agreement with everything she just said.

Before leaving the ground, I take the longest leak in the history of humankind.   On the cold, lonely walk back to Huntleigh Mews I don’t think of the game much.  Instead, I rehearse the tongue-lashing I’m going to deliver to “my friend”.

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