Portrait of a Club in Hard Times

There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet. You might walk for twenty miles along this track without being able to fix a point in your mind, unless you are a bushman. This is because of the everlasting, maddening sameness of the stunted trees – that monotony which makes a man long to break away and travel as far as trains can go, and sail as far as ship can sail – and farther.
“The Drover’s Wife,” Henry Lawson, 1892.

==

 

 

It’s early. A full moon hangs in the western sky. Skull Callaghan wakes to the sound of rustling. His heeler, Bluey, shifts on his mat. The dog searches for warmth. In the fireplace of last night only the ghosts of embers remain. Ghosts of logs, ghosts of warmth mock Bluey, lying curled into himself; into his mat. The dog pulls himself tighter. Outside, the weakest of dawn’s first light spills over the ridge and into the valley.

 

“Hmm. No overnight rain, Blue.”

 

Skull Callaghan awakes on the couch; stiff and cold. It would seem that last night was another in a growing line of nights on which he fell asleep in front of the fire. Skull looks at the blanket across his legs. Wonders from where it came. Through uncurtained windows, dawn light softly advances into Skull Callaghan’s simple house. It is a house without fanfare. A house without extravagance.

 

“Again, Bluey. Again.”

 

The whole district has become increasingly desperate for rain. Tanks were starting to run dry. But at least the winter was ahead of them. Maybe this would be their year.

 

“Ahh. Maybe this will be our year, Bluey.”

 

A magpie suddenly erupts with outrageous song from her nearby gum tree home. Bluey is roused. He stands rapidly to attention, as if a military figure hearing the national anthem. His tail points straight back behind him. Bluey’s nose twitches in the dawn light; his eyes sparkle with awareness. A second magpie drifts on the merest morning thermal and lands quietly on Skull’s veranda. Bluey sees this, hears it; the hairs on Bluey’s back stand up. He steps slowly, deftly, silently, towards the door, closed as it is; and maintains a line of sight with the trespassing magpie through the window. Bluey’s movements controlled unconsciously by generations of hunting instinct.

 

Skull notes Bluey’s attention on something outside. It’s enough to stop his wondering about the blanket (“Ahh, life is a mystery.”)

 

“What’s going on, Blue? Do we have visitors?”

 

Silence from the dog.

 

“Ask them in; but only if they’re good-looking,” says Skull.

 

Silence stretches out before them, as familiar as hope.

 

Blue stands as a statue.

 

This customary morning silence is welcome.

Skull slowly stands, stretches his arms to the roof.

 

“Carn Bluey,” he says. “Let’s see this sunrise.”

 

 

==

 

 

Woodsmoke trails from chimneys. A low sky hangs close over ramshackle buildings, over the trees. The very hills themselves seem lost in cloud. Down in the valley the general store is open; Sally is on duty. The town, the General Store, as silent as a prayer.

 

Leaves of the introduced trees turn with the season; trees that line the main street. Road and footpath are both already under a patchy, thin blanket of the fallen. This day, Skull feels moisture in the air. His hair is damp as he stumps up the step of the General Store.

 

“G’day Skull,” says Sally, as he pushes through the doorway.

 

“Sally, how are yeh?”

 

“Not bad, not bad, Skull. Here for the club order? Mick placed it out the back last night. Do you want to grab it yourself?”

 

Sal gestures through a doorway behind her. The doorway leads to a storeroom and, further on, to another separate building; to living quarters for Sally and Mick; long-time proprietors of the General Store and post office.

 

“Righto. Can I come through? That’s a terrific fire.”

 

Sally has a roaring fire dancing in the corner. She set it last night.

 

“Thanks, I set it last night. You know I like to be prepared for emergencies,” she says.

 

“You and me both,” says Skull, following Sally out to the bitterly cold storeroom.

 

As they stand lost amongst packaging, containers and labels, Skull marvels at the possibility of it all. From this very room, from this very spot, he could send any item of his possession to another human, anywhere on the Earth. The sense of it hits him. The size of it.

 

“What’s the furthest distance you’ve ever sent something by post, Sally?” he asks.

 

“What’s that? Oh, here it is. Here’s your order, Skull. For the footy club.”

 

“I said: What’s the furthest you’ve ever sent a package by post?”

 

“Ahh. Oooh. Let’s see… Probably to Dublin, Ireland,” she says. “Why?”

 

Leaves and thin branches of the gum tree outside scrape slowly, repeatedly, against the corrugated iron roof. A gum nut falls.

 

“Did it arrive safely?” Skull asks.

 

“Well, yes. Why would it not?” says Sally.

 

“Oh… no reason,” says Skull. He collects the dozens of sausages, the bread, sauce. He collects medical tape; provisions for the footy club. “It’s a kind of magic.”

 

 

 

==

 

 

The home team has won the Reserves match. Skull pats some of these old blokes on the back. So many old blokes. Many of them will play again now in the Seniors. There are not enough players; not enough young ones. It’s as if a generation has been lost. Skull himself has had to act as timekeeper, interchange steward and canteen operator this morning. For starters. It’s a full plate for the President of a club in hard times.

 

Before the Seniors begins there is a brief respite. No, not really. An ongoing and ever-present job is to find people to take responsibility for the many ongoing ever-present jobs of a footy club. There is no rest.

 

This year at least, there is no President’s lunch to worry about. In previous years, clubs in this region had hosted a President’s lunch at all home games, inviting office bearers and others from the opposition club to take part. It had been a wonderful, community-building ritual; the breaking of bread, finding similarity rather than difference. But in these tough times, something had to go.  Clubs reluctantly voted to suspend President’s lunches at the last Regional meeting.

 

“Hey Thommo,” says Skull.

 

“Hey Skull-man.”

 

“How’s your arm, old mate?”

 

Thommo stands with his arm in a sling.

 

“Should be right. Couple of weeks, I reckon,” says Thommo.

 

“Good man. Could you manage the scoreboard today?”

 

“Ahh, Skull… I was hoping to get away at half time…”

 

“No worries, Thommo. Score the first half, great. Find someone to replace you, thanks mate.”

 

 

 

==

 

 

The sun falls slowly from the sky. Individual eucalypts stand as silhouettes against the flaming western sky. Individuals among thousands of eucalypts on these slopes; these slopes of living history.

 

The full moon rises in the east, crests a ridge.

 

So young. These opposition guys filing past; so young.

 

“Good work, Skull. Thanks mate.”

 

Above, the undersides of clouds are sprayed with a spectrum of orange, somehow deepening to purple. Skull shuffles out from under the pavilion roof. Looks up. Drinks it in.

 

A mob of opposition players and officials knock past him, making for their cars.

 

“Can’t stay, Skull. Catch you next time.”

 

The sky will only appear aflame like this for this minute. Maybe two. And with the conviction of the dammed, Skull casts his eyes hungrily skywards. A sudden awareness is upon him that this could be his last sunset.

 

“You blokes were pretty sharp today, Skull. Better luck next week. Good luck with your season.”

 

A searing ray of yellow light pierces the cloud.

 

An echo of laughter erupts from deep inside the changing rooms.

 

 

 

==

 

 

It’s late. The tyres on Dimma’s car crunch gravel as he slips from reverse into first. Back at the clubroom door Skull hears the flick of stones on car undercarriage and he smiles. Today Dimma played a beauty in a losing side. Everyone loves Dimma.

 

A break in the cloud now reveals the mighty full moon, high in her trajectory across the night sky; her light illuminating the entire valley. From the clubroom doorway, Skull has a clear view across the oval, across the other side of the river, across the small floodplain. There are no electric lights to be seen.

 

“Look at that, Bluey,” he says, and sits on the concrete step.

 

Skull’s dog Bluey sits on the step alongside. There is much to take in. Much to be.

 

Man and dog sit alone at the clubrooms; clubrooms which presently require a deal of heavy and sustained effort to be cleaned and packed up; locked up.

 

They each gaze into the wilderness, mute.

 

Stars turn overhead.

 

Eventually, Skull clears his throat. “I don’t know, mate. I don’t know how much longer we can keep doing this,” he says.

 

Across the valley, ancient trees stand mute; stand firm.

 

“Where are the kids? Where is the money? I dunno.”

 

Skull picks up a stone; flicks it across the concrete apron of the clubrooms.

 

“Jeez, Blue. This place doesn’t run itself,” he says.

 

Bluey senses the mood. He breaks his attention from the far off river, stands and stretches his body. Bluey steps lightly in a small circle and swishes his tail before sitting back on a hessian sack. He looks at Skull.

 

“What are we gonna do, Bluey?”

 

Across the river, the ancient trees lean in, lean out.

 

Skull and Bluey sit quietly.

 

The moon shines on.

 

==

 

See “Portrait of the Supporter as a Young Woman

About David Wilson

Living is easy with eyes closed. Noodling away at The Footy Almanac since 2013. Twitter: @e_regnans

Comments

  1. ER, a beautiful piece of writing! Having observed a bit of bush footy in NSW, you capture the essence of the struggle to survive so well. The reader is left wondering if the President will, in fact, see the new dawn (a concept with several possibilities within itself). Perhaps it’s not drawing too long a bow to compare what you’ve presented here with some of the local legends we find in KB Hill’s portraits.

    More, please!

  2. Superb OBP and unfortunately just so so true ( lack of support from the afl to true grass roots footy is a disgrace)

  3. Many thanks to you Ian and OBP.
    Go well.

  4. Dave Brown says

    Here is to Skull and all of the keepers of the fire! Can’t wait for the national body to use its media arm to give us another story about AFL clubs’ record memberships.

  5. ER – what they should do in these country towns is introduce half time entertainment, fire works as the players run onto the ground, have a roaming microphone before the game where a local asks other locals really dumb questions, thumping music playing over the PA, no access to the ground at quarter time and three quarter time, clash jumpers, and a “Help out the city” round where the locals can all raise money for people living in Melbourne.

    Lovely writing. Very #coolimages. (whatever that means).

  6. Roger Lowrey says

    This is so bloody good I think I’ll give up trying to write. Marvellous evocative piece.

  7. E.regnans says

    Thanks Dave.
    Dips – you’re an ideas man.
    Roger – that’s very kind. Looking forward to reading your ideas.

  8. Colin Ritchie says

    Fab read ER, you certainly convey life of small town footy clubs and their struggle for survival.

  9. Brilliant Er.

    Great story, but like all worthy fiction it speaks to us about real issues. The local rag ran an article a while back about community and suggested that my old stomping ground of Kimba had the state’s best rate of volunteering which made me pleased as it’s a fine town of wonderful people, however an equal truth is that if people didn’t pitch in then everything would grind to a pretty quick hault. It’s really compulsory volunteerism. I’m sure this applies in many regional places.

    As others have noted your narrative has beautiful imagery of which Mr Lawson would be proud.

  10. Matt Zurbo says

    You are a very beautiful writer, mate. I often read and get jealous.

  11. Daryl Schramm says

    All of the above.

  12. Beautiful, poignant stuff E.r

    Talks to me and I’m sure many others who grew up in and around country footy – I’m glad you’ve used your words to add more to the evocative call, to counter the erosion of these institutions and erasure from the narrative for the (very much tongue-in-cheek) “greater good”.

  13. E.regnans says

    G’day Col, Mickey, Old Dog, D Schramm and Jarrod_L,
    Thanks a lot for leaving comments. And for your encouragement.

    I’ve got Billy Bragg in my head now. He sings: “must I paint you a picture..? of the way that I feel..?”

  14. DBalassone says

    Great work ER.

    I can see it.

  15. Well played, old mate.
    Plenty going on here in this piece.
    This is the story of all country and suburban footy (and sports) teams:
    where is the next dollar? where is the next volunteer?
    As someone who has been there and done it, this piece just rings so true.
    Thanks again, er.

  16. Luke Reynolds says

    Brilliant ER.
    As with Smokie, this resonates loud and clear, from my sadly now defunct football club to my cricket club, which is currently going very well but could always do better in the volunteer department.
    Every club needs more Skulls.

  17. E.regnans says

    Thanks DBalassone, Smokie & Luke.
    A juxtaposition piece about some other footy types might be interesting.
    Thank you.

  18. You had me back in Yorketown in 1970 ER. “Blow ins” like us – bank managers and school teachers – were the lifeblood of the club. Dad was Treasurer of the footy club and Secretary of the cricket club before we had unpacked a box. In the city I could only dream of putting up the numbers on the scoreboard. Now I could do it straight after running the boundary in the Magoos. Great days. The mysteries of men to a 14yo.
    Loved the imagery. I could smell the pies, the linament and the dust.

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