Almanac Life: Love in the time of Collingwood (and other pestilence).

 

Mel, young Archie and Jamie.

 

I miss footy. Of course I do. How dare you suggest otherwise. I miss footy but I’m fine. Even before the AFL announced the June 11 return date I was fine.

 

I have perspective and was fortunate enough to have it thrust in front of me, or more accurately, dragged pale and screaming onto my wife’s chest before me, several weeks ago. Being heavily pregnant and given the worsening global health assessments we announced that our departure from mainstream society would start early.

 

In the lead-up to hospital internment, I found it came naturally to exercise sound social distancing protocol. My personality alone has ensured that most people upon meeting me are quite eager to put at least 1.5 metres between us, though usually more. I’ve had offers of up to 1.5 Light Years, which seems excessive.

 

As a delivery driver I remained diligent in my efforts to avoid any direct contact with clients. It’s quite remarkable really, how few people are able to catch parcels thrown at them from a moving van.

 

Humanity has since descended further into hysteria and ritualistic bouts of insanity. Or so I’m led to believe by social media. All seems calm from our hospital window.

 

My wife and my son are sleeping soundly so a muted television is my only portal into the wider world. I see panic buying, swarms of people wrestling in shopping aisles over consumer staples.

 

As yet no-one can tell me if Ice Magic will still be available on the other side of this madness. Have you tried vanilla ice cream by itself? This is not a future I would care to embrace.

 

Eddie McGuire’s head now fills the screen like The Great and Powerful Oz. He blusters back at Tony Jones about something inaudible. What I glean from the titles and my rudimentary lip reading skills is that the common folk, faced with the possibility of a season of lock outs, are demanding bread. Eddie, his collar lined with cake crumbs, is refusing to hand over the keys to the bakery just yet.

 

Unsurprisingly there is saturation analysis of the season’s solitary round. Round 1 will have seemed positively ghostly to most but there was something welcomingly familiar about games accompanied by the eerie echo of empty stadia.

 

 

***************************************

 

 

(Suburban Hobart. The late 1980s.)

 

Loping along on any number of dreary, wet weekends to watch my beloved Sandy Bay Seagulls play in the TFL conditioned me early to the phenomenon of isolation and social distancing. I just didn’t know it yet. Games in front of virtually nobody were not uncommon. For ‘blockbuster’ games (Glenorchy or Clarence), the numbers might push 7 or 800 but if Burnie or South Launceston were in town, you’d swear the crowd arrived in the same car. But it was there and only there that you could turn your ear to the sweet symphony of football. The dull, leathery ‘thud!’ of ball on boot . The ‘Ooof!’ that follows the perfect tackle. The expletive laden soliloquys of the trench coated diehards. You heard it all. You loved it all. The players might not have shared that enthusiasm.

 

I’d always get there to watch the second half of the fourths play, providing the opportunity to eye potential up and comers alongside cult figures. Cult figures like Phil ‘Kingo’ Kingston. ‘Kingo’ was selected more for his ability to cast a shadow than for the promise of any deft tap work. The bar was set low to play fourths. Low enough for athletes like Kingo to step over without fear of exhaustion or injury. It was in the days before skinfolds, which is just as well. Kingo could have wrapped Christmas presents with his skin folds. I remember the dying seconds of a see-sawing encounter with New Norfolk one season. The boundary umpire heaves the ball skyward. An overly exuberant Kingo, eyes firmly fixed on the ball, collapses into the back of his opposing ruckman. Free kick! Metres from goal. Directly in front. Ouch! Even the trench coats can’t refute that one (though some inevitably do). Goal to New Norfolk! That’ll be the game I expect. The collective sigh of the 100 or so Sandy Bay faithful is soon quashed by the violent rumbling of an incensed Sandy Bay coach, wrestling with the Perspex window of the coach’s box.

 

If you’ve ever seen a free-standing coach’s box at any suburban ground you know what marvels of engineering ingenuity they are. Six screws, a few cable ties and prayer are all that hold them together. Extending horizontally through the window and held aloft by his belt by a fearful assistant, the coach’s directive came loud and direct: “Tell Kingston…he’s a cunt!”

 

An astonished runner, clearly confused by the objective, peers back multiple times hoping for a follow up instruction but none is forthcoming. A lumbering, forlorn Kingo lurches back towards the centre square, an embarrassed runner and a conversation that I imagine unfolds as follows:
Runner: “Ummm…so,…anyway…Coach says…ummm.”
Kingo: “Yeah, yeah…I know. I heard.”

 

We all heard.

God I miss suburban footy.

 

 

************************************

 

 

Flash forward a few decades, past a handful of unremarkable relationships and one failed marriage. With forty firmly in my rear view I had concluded that, via circumstance more than design, fatherhood would never find me.Eventually you become comfortable with the conclusion that it simply wasn’t meant to be. You feign contentment at delighting in the children of friends and family but you can really only stare adoringly at other people’s children for so long before:

 

a) You realise the depths of your own self-deceit and
b) Somebody reaches for a whistle and pepper spray.

 

So, you fill the void with any number of creative pursuits and allow yourself to believe it will be enough: Pets, elaborate gardens, the manufacture of cardigans made from human skin. Whatever helps essentially.

 

(March 25 2020 4pm.)

 

The hour is at hand.

 

Mel is desperate to forgo an epidural. She chooses control of her body over comfort. The machine that dispenses electrical impulses to the lower back has placated for a time but no longer. The pain intensifies. I enquire after other drug free options.

 

Some impressively large gas tanks, the sort that tamed the mighty shark in Jaws, are welcomed to the room. She draws deeply from the canisters. She drifts in and out of coherence, calling for a fez and some Bob Marley records.

 

It impinges little on the pain though. “One!” she rages, crushing the fingers in my left hand like stale wafers. “We’re having ONE!”
“One will be sufficient,” I sob back at her supportively.

 

After nearly eight hours, he is dragged moist and squirming onto his mother’s chest sharing the same look of bewilderment worn by his father for the past 48 years.

 

“Cut the chord?” inquires the doctor cheerfully. No sir. No thank you. I have the constitution for it I assure you. I once watched Matt Preston eat an ice cream sandwich on Masterchef, so I’m definitely not squeamish. I’d just rather leave the honours to somebody that has set foot inside a university. Otherwise we just end up with a confused infant still tethered to his mother and a distraught father with nine fingers.

 

He is here. Archie Henry Simmons is here. I loved him instantly.

 

His blood sugar is far too low and with no facility to keep him with us he is wheeled across to the hospital next door. Our hospital has yet to acquire a nursery which is an intriguing oversight for a maternity ward. He is less than an hour old and that’s hard on a mum keen to start her new role.

 

We will shuffle across traffic every few hours for the next three days to be with and feed him. Mel is a natural, taking to breast feeding with aplomb however new lockdown rules mean we cannot be with him at the same time.

 

Subsequently, my formative days as a father are largely spent working my way through the vending machine outside, numerically at first, then alphabetically, then by saturated fat content.

 

Archie was named after his great grandfather. My grandfather.

 

The last time such madness reigned on a global scale, the world was at war with more tangible enemies. Something his great grandfather knew a thing or two about.

 

 

******************

 

 

Unburdened by a middle name, Archibald Breakspear was the youngest of eleven and an only son. He enlisted at nineteen. He cared little for the politics and was equally uninspired by talk of King and country but with the war already on England’s doorstep, it seemed the honourable thing to do.

 

Private Breakspear spent much of his early enlistment in France, dodging projectiles and climbing over recently departed friends. At the war’s conclusion he was stationed in Wupertahl, Germany, twenty or so kilometres outside of Dusseldorf.

 

One of his first jobs there was dragging the lifeless bodies of German infantrymen into organized piles for identification and collecting their belongings to aid in this process.

 

He couldn’t help but notice their belt buckles emblazoned with ‘Gott mit uns’ (God wth us), the many crucifixes and other religious iconography. Young Breakspear was not a religious man himself but the significance was not wasted on him. He couldn’t help but reflect on his early training and how it had been drilled into him that the Germans were a faithless horde, devoid of ethics and morals. And yet, with every photograph and letters from loved ones it became more patently obvious that they were, in their fundamental humanity, no different to him.

 

It instilled a lifelong distrust of authority in Private Breakspear.

 

He had medals of course. I have them. I don’t display them. He never did. To do anything other than keep them in the same cigar box he kept them in seems disrespectful somehow.

 

He never wasted a word and rarely gave advice but when he did, I listened. “You will learn everything you need to know about a person by the way they treat those that can do nothing for them.” He once said. It is still among the most valuable advice I’ve ever received. I think the name will serve young Archie well.

 

 

*****************************************

 

 

Ulvina Wilhemina Gertrude Blume was born into liberal, middle class lodgings on the outskirts of Wupertahl.

 

Trudie, as she preferred, had been briefed early on Hitler’s dangerous ideologies even before he won the Chancellery in 1933. In fact, most Germans found him a laughable figure in those formative years. A fad. A Pauline Hanson-esque type figure only with slightly more amusing facial hair. Nevertheless, once he took control, her father cautioned her against sharing such views outside the homestead.

 

I remember her telling me a story about her favourite teacher, who had dared remove an image of The Fuhrer along with a flag suggesting that ‘Politics had no place in his classroom.’ Turns out that it was in fact the teacher that would have no ongoing place in the classroom. Hitler’s image returned the following day. The teacher did not.

 

Sometime in 1946 Trudie, peddling through town in her favourite blue cotton dress, would happen upon Private Breakspear.

 

He was entranced. They courted for many months, neither speaking the other’s language. Some things transcend language.

 

Jamie Simmons’ grandparents, Archie and Trudy Breakspear

 

The British Army refused to marry them. Private Breakspear had expected nothing less, so they stole away one day and married, with her father’s consent, in a small country church.

 

The army begrudgingly conceded access to their barracks, so their first born (my mother) could be born, automatically granting the child British citizenship.

 

Some years later, his military service complete, he left without consideration of re-enlisting and headed home to Mother England with an infant daughter and a German bride who spoke very little English.

 

When we talk of discrimination it’s easy for us to think only in terms of colour or gender. Ponder a moment what level of acceptance a German woman was likely to receive in post-war Britain. I’m not certain I can. Sadly, this would be an attitude supported by his own family. Convinced she had goose stepped her way into his heart his father greeted them with an ultimatum. The terms of which did not allow refuge to a German wife and daughter. His answer was succinct and likely ineloquent. He would not see his parents again.

 

***********************************************

 

Their family complete on three children he would make do with factory and warehouse work throughout much of Southern England but salvation and, ultimately, peace of mind would call to them from much further south. A newspaper advertisement with the promise of a better life for British citizens willing to emigrate to Australia, resonated with him.

 

Their options were limited to Perth or Melbourne. The oppressive heat of Perth on arrival made the choice easy. They lived out their twilight years in Tasmania.

 

When I moved from Tassie to Queensland they were ailing, which always made it difficult to leave. Each goodbye on a trip home for me was potentially a final one until, of course, one day it was.

 

From their first day of matrimony they never spent a single day apart.

 

I love their story.

 

I miss them both of course.

 

***********************************************

 

It’s our last day in hospital isolation. Doctors and midwives have argued openly about what is best for our brand new family with an influential majority ruling we are less likely to be exposed to the virus in the sanctity of our own home. Nervous, we concur with just enough time for one last hospital meal.

 

At this point, I would just like to say that when it comes to food, airlines get a bad rap. It’s fair to say that none of the meals have been particularly satisfying but they have saved their best effort for last. For lunch, I ordered the fish but not just any old fish. I suspect this one is a distant relative of us all, crawling out of the ocean and onto land around 400 million years ago.

 

Hastily we pack and head home along eerily quiet streets.

 

In the weeks since we are learning much about time management. We subsist on trays of pre-packaged snacks and snap frozen dinners. Shuffling around solemnly in the loose fitting, draw string ceremonial robes of our new order, we stack the dishes ever higher as offerings to the pagan Gods of Broken Sleep, Diminished Hygiene and Unwanted Celibacy that we now pay homage to.

 

Work has offered me an extra week off, no doubt having found a suitable replacement for me. One that only requires watering twice a week.

 

I know Archie and I are supposed to take this time to bond but to date the relationship is uneasy. He eyes me triumphantly from his mother’s breast. I’ve been evicted with little to no chance of visiting rights any time soon. Usurped by a feisty midget with a casual indifference to bowel control.

 

There are periodic eruptions from both ends. In the hours beyond midnight all I find myself doing is look on helplessly while mum wrestles him to her shoulder like a flatulent set of bagpipes. They never mentioned any of this in the classes.

 

I miss sleep.

 

 

**************************************************

 

 

Yes, I miss footy.

 

I can’t wait to take him to games, enthrall him with deeds of champions past and send him off to sleep with tales of my own career.

 

But none of the events of the past few months is lost on me. For one thing, I still have a job. Seriously, who’d hire me if I didn’t? If Ashley and Martin were looking for someone to model their ‘Before’ photos maybe, but otherwise?

 

We will emerge, blinking into the dawn of a slightly different reality but we will emerge nonetheless. I am so happy to be where I am right now.

 

Long nights in isolation have allowed me to consider the series of events that resulted in the biological wonder that is me (something that none involved have ever been made to publicly apologise for).

 

Long hours in sterile confinement have had me reflect on the ‘what ifs’. What if the Germans could shoot straight? If the Fremantle Doctor had sufficiently cooled the docks in Perth that day? If my Grandmother hadn’t looked so damn fine in that blue cotton dress?

 

None of it matters now of course.

 

I’m here. He’s here. Footy will be soon enough. We’re Ok. Everything’s Ok.

 

 

 

 

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About Jamie Simmons

Born in Melbourne, a third generation Fitzroy supporter, in 1972 before emigrating to Tasmania during The Great Broccoli Famine of 86. Leaving my island lodgings, largely at the request of locals, to settle once more on the mainland in 1997. These days living out a peaceful existance on the outskirts of Brisbane, where I spend most of my time serving as a fashion warning to others.

Comments

  1. Congratulations Jamie, Mel and welcome Archie.

    Fine writing from your Dad, Archie.

    Many things to consider in this piece, the idea of chance being a big one.

    Great photos too.

  2. Great story Jamie.

    We’re all a miracle. That’s why life is so important. My great great grandmother was married to a bloke who got pissed, rode his horse too hard, fell off and broke his neck. Then she married my great, great grandfather. So I’m forever grateful that the other idiot fell off his horse or I wouldn’t be here.

    Incredible.

  3. Jamie, I loved everything about this story. Thank you!

  4. Jamie- Congratulations on the arrival of Archie and thanks for this extraordinary story. It features many of the elements that I think this website champions such as relationships, birth, footy, family history and how these intersect. And like the great pieces I’ve read on here it made me laugh, cry (almost) and reflect upon the meaning of these things for me.

    Of extra interest for me is that you’ve a Breakspear in your family tree. Of course Nicholas Breakspear was and is England’s first pope- Adrian IV and was born in the market town I lived in- St Albans. I taught at a Catholic school in Hertfordshire named after him, and at the pub after a commemorative mass for the school’s fiftieth anniversary one of the priests told me that Breakspear’s most notable act was handing Ireland to the English through Henry II. I reckon the MRP would want to have a look at that one. I understand that other than this his pontificate was unremarkable.

    Excellent to have you back here, Jamie. Go well.

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Congrats to you all Mel, Jamie and Archie.

    It was worth the wait since Round 22 2019, to read the line ‘a flatulent set of bagpipes’ let alone the rest of this wonderful piece.

  6. Sensational story Jamie
    Love to hear some more stories from a man whose flashing willow was a joy to watch !!!

    Welcome to fatherhood you’ll never be the same

  7. E.regnans says

    Welcome Archie.
    Congratulations Mel and Jamie.

    Thanks Jamie.
    I found this story to be magnificent.
    Much like life, in its quirks, moments and coincidences.
    (Writing that, I now I hear a voice saying: “there’s no such thing as coincidence.”)
    (Which I have to agree with).

    It all brings to mind Tim Minchin’s song “When I grow up” from the stage show “Matilda.”

  8. Luke Reynolds says

    That’s a fantastic read Jamie, congratulations to you and Mel.

  9. An epic tale. Thanks, Jamie.
    Heartfelt congrats.
    Cherish every moment because, take it from me, the time passes by so quickly.

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