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Unburdening the onions



I was woken on Saturday by the cat poking my cheek for food and the sound of some kind of blower in the street. To the cries of the baby twins over the road who hate to wait behind the gate while their mother packs the car. To the looming responsibilities of the weekend— feeding teenage boys, sport sessions, the school fête, feeding teenage boys. I wandered out to the living room where the Cygnet and his sleepover buddy were melted into the couch chatting in dull tones, innocent in their sleepiness. I cut bread. Opened the back door for the cat. Closed it against the cold. Bargained with the boys to eat before computers. Heated the milk too hot for the coffee. But under it all, the win from the night before lay like a soft carpet cushioning the day’s first steps.


I’m in no way out of love with the game, but I haven’t loved stadium footy this year. We have an overabundance of night games in Sydney these days: late Fridays, odd Thursdays, Saturdays that are difficult to get to with evening trapeze training. My single parenthood weeks are filled with places to be, lists to check, things to pre-empt and footy can feel like an addition to all categories. Plus winter is suddenly bitter.


But Friday night, I actually felt like the swell of crowd and contest. So I drove the Cygnet and his buddy east with vigour and together we worked up into the ribs of the SCG just as the ball was bounced. O’Reilly Max is in Italy (I like to say he’s ‘swanning around’) and had loaned his tickets to one of his PhD students and his wife, both Perth originals, both bedecked in the navy and gold, firmly planted in the middle of our row. I’d met Lawrence before at a Henson Park pre-season dabble, the year of the Sinclair/Jetta trade. I did my best to perform an ample welcome, introduced them to O’Reilly James and family on the other side, secured a permissive nod from Gwen.


Up there in members’ paradise, we don’t often sit with opposition supporters. We get the odd spattering, usually in chorus from above, where a group of (usually) men in a row behind work extra hard to give aggressive voice to the masses that are not accompanying them. But sitting shoulder to shoulder with Lawrence was different. The taut first quarter kept us sympathetic. ‘Next goal will break hearts,’ he said after 18 minutes. ‘First goal,’ I thought. It ended up going to their Josh Kennedy but there was nothing too heartbreaking about it.


In fact, the whole match was like a long sentence of multiple clauses with the scores coming as often as the commas that keep you reading through. It never got too tight or unfathomable. Lawrence reminded himself that they are ‘shit after the bye’ and nagged the players to play as if they were home from Bali. I was loving our defence. They looked first-rate together again, Rampe stuck to Kennedy like icing, Zak running like a toy with an oversized battery, Reg taking marks his 250 games might have grounded. Lawrence was agitated with the overuse of handball and the long bomb entries. ‘We have good forwards,’ he yelled, crouching over as if his gut ached.


Lawrence’s area is ‘Performance Studies’ and he turned to me deep into the action and said, ‘I feel stuff here I don’t feel in the theatre. I can’t remember the last time I felt this kind of thing in the theatre.’ I wanted to ask him what it is he feels, but the Eagles were charging forward again and he was away. The wind whipped from the coast. The Cygnet was mummifying his buddy, who had insisted he’d be fine without a coat and wasn’t. The Cygnet was wrapping him with the warmth of blankets and a spare scarf. The back row Eagles unleashed in the fourth with a barrage of angry obscenities. ‘Anyone got a soother?’ muttered an old chap behind me.


There was something wonderful about watching the match with Lawrence and Zoe. Easy to say with the win, I know. But there was something vivifying about Row U not being a strip of sameness, all cheering and moaning the rise and falls. There was something real about having our own beat disturbed by the syncopated additions of the opposition’s sad melody, to have our own thrill accompanied by the see-saw thud of their disappointment. We are, after all,  joined together by the same fulcrum. I ended up realising that what I wanted from the game was not so much close combat, but closeness.


By mid-morning on Saturday, a third teenager appeared at our door. I welcomed him in. He’s an interesting kid, the only child from a split marriage. Left alone a lot, I think. Bright, witty, probably overburdened for his age, but he wears it with a wise humour. The boys play a handful of online team shooter games which I question but endure. They thrive on the adrenaline, the strategy, the team play, the wins. I arranged them like a flight deck in the study and went about cooking warm lunch.


It was sunny but shrill with cold. I was thinking about the young comedian who lost her life so senselessly in the park. I was thinking about boys becoming men. I’m always sifting, these days, for my guiding principles in raising a son. I was thinking about sporting teams and fields and cultures. How they provide healthy theatres for aggression. But wondering too about what they authorise for all who partake, how permeable those boundaries are to entitlement and strength, status and victory. I wasn’t looking for answers in onions. Just letting the motions of cooking and homing provide a fold for thoughts. I listened to the banter of the boys. It had vividness and edges and all the bravado of being together. ‘Hang on a sec,’ said one of them to another, ‘I’ll help you when I’m dead.’


And then as night fell I took my Cygnet to trapeze. They’re preparing an end-of-term show; he’s doing a solo static trapeze routine. It’s built on line and relationship and exposed physicality. He lengthened into his practice, just him and his piano score. There’s so much tenderness and humanity in the way he wraps his body into and away from the bar. He is thirteen but aware of the buds of passion and unafraid to let them be seen. I was aware of watching him happily, maybe even unknowingly, straddling his different selves, blissfully whole.


It’s something I’ve thought about and worked to preserve my whole life, that interstitial way of being.


I don’t follow round football. But the collision of France and Australia in their first Group match compelled us to watch on Saturday night. I called home before kick off. Mum answered. I asked her if the Frenchman was set and ready. ‘He’s not talking to anyone now,’ she said. (She bought him super dooper headphones for their recent 50thwedding anniversary so she doesn’t have to listen to all the impending sport!) ‘But I’m sure he’ll take your call.’


‘So who are you going for?’ I asked, even though I knew the answer.


‘My ‘art is wiz ze Soccairoos,’ he said, ‘bert I sink France will win.’


I thought so.


‘And you?’ he asked.


‘I think I’m going for les Bleus …’


There were Dad and I in that predictable crisscross. The immigrant’s desire to belong completely, squared with the second generation’s striving for the thing that preceded them, the thing they know and feel inherent in themselves, but can’t fully inhabit.


‘I don’t know,’ I added. ‘I’m conflicted.


‘Zey are a very urndisceeplined team, ze French,’ said Dad.


We agreed that however fate fell, it was a win win for us. Or a lose lose.


I bemoaned the VAR and cheered Jedinak’s quick answer. I loved the way the French danced on the ball, the speed with which they moved it. The Cygnet decided that Paul Pogba is the best name in football as his kick hit the back of the net and I cried, ‘But!’ (The French one.)


And under all the playful impartiality lay the certainty of Friday night’s cosy cushion. There is no doubt that a feeling of belonging to something and winning feels good. But the weekend reminded me of the ways in which sport can also be a space free from certainty and righteousness and fulfilled expectations. It can be a place of mystery and complexity and questions and attempts. Of play. Of straddle. And crowds can grow finer in their capacity to straddle respectfully alongside.


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About Mathilde de Hauteclocque

Swans member since 2000, Mathilde likes to wile away her winters in the O'Reilly stand with 'the boys', flicking through the Record and waiting to see the half backs drive an explosive forward movement. She lives in Sydney and raises a thirteen year old Cygnet.


  1. Superb Mathilde. I like the idea that when watching the footy you were looking for closeness. I think that’s spot on.

    I grew up in a house of men; 5 brothers. Yes, poor Mum. But she is the tough one!! I think I understand boys. I feel sorry for boys today. They are no longer sure how to behave and act. What’s a man now?They are required to constantly beat themselves up every time a lunatic commits an atrocious act. I won’t call this advice (far be it for me to be dishing out advice), but I would say that you should try and help the cygnet to avoid this notion that he be in a constant state of apology. Boys have their own tough road to walk without the baggage of unfair guilt. I’ve watched (and still watch) my own lad navigating the path to modern manhood. Its treacherous.

  2. M de H

    It’s such a pleasant, instructive drift along with you in these pieces.

    This looks at a few more topics and layers. As you have probably wrked out I’ve struggles with title and excerpt on this one! A few changes.

    Like many Almanac match reports, the game is the vehicle – although it matters too.


    And Dips, you’re asking a big question which all of us are considering. I think the developed and developing conscience is key. I try to take my lead from some of the great works – unfashionable I know. And from the great people who are respected for a reason..

  3. Stainless says

    Wonderful Mathilde. Watching Les Bleus and Australia with our French daughter-in-law and taking her to the footy the following day (she has nominated Les Chats as her AFL team of choice so our weekend ended 1-1!), had me pondering a similarly-themed piece, particularly having recently become an empty-nester and watching our own boys (now young men) navigating their way in this difficult world. But it would be a pale imitation of what you’ve said so eloquently.

    On a more prosaic note, your comment about the Swans schedule is particularly relevant next week. Thursday night at Etihad?? Spare me!

  4. Covered more ground than the early settlers in that one Mathilde. “Straddling his different selves, blissfully whole” is a wonderful piece of imagery. I’ve been thinking a lot lately of the TS Eliot line “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
    You have beautifully captured that sense I’m only starting to feel now in my 60’s of the bits coming together to make something worthwhile and comfortable.
    As for the footy, I reckon Allir Allir adds a lot to your Swans. There is so much grind in your backline (particularly without Callum Mills) and Allir is your Jeremy McGovern of flair and creativity. Ugly high pressure footy from both sides, but I came away content that we could give it and take it. Whoever gets the rub of the injuries and captures the momentum in September will divide a half dozen sides.
    “And the end of all our exploring will be……………around 5pm on the 29th of September”.
    Merci Mathilde.

  5. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Thanks for your thoughts all.

    Dips I agree that neither men nor women, boys nor girls, should grow up in a state of apology or with guilt. And I guess that neither girls nor boys will always have a perfect path, nor clear and constant certainty about their roles. We have to be supple with this stuff. And we have to do it in relationship, men and women, boys and girls. ( I think that’s why we all – me, my Cob and the Cygnet – may have decided that co-ed school was a given for us. And we are very lucky that he has an excellent one at his disposal.) I love that we can discuss such things in meaningful ways in this forum.

    JTH – I think your leads are very fine ones. Am absolutely simpatico. And forever grateful for any title I don’t have to find.

    Stainless – Merci. Please write your own version! I would love to read it. It’s always very comforting and often extremely humorous to connect with others who understand the lived particularities of the Aussie-Franco nexus. Thank goodness I have no blood affiliation to Denmark. On the schedule – Thursday at Etihad followed by Thursday at the SCG! The night before school breaks up!!

  6. Hey Mathilde,
    I like your terms ‘stadium footy’ and ’round football’: I guess I’m partial to non-stadium football and non-stadium round football :) but also stadium footy – regularly but not exclusively.
    I also like your last sentence about the virtues of the crowd. Being at the footy can teach an ethics of how to behave in public. Perhaps this is part of what I don’t like about the increasing application of closed-off or reserved seating. Admittedly, it is not so bad at footy stadia in Oz, as compared to baseball stadia in the States. (Do you read Richard Sennett’s work?)
    On Sunday afternoon’s beautiful game, I was on the brink of reporting a fan for his constant abuse of the umpire and certain Yellow and Black bedecked players. He was insulting, a loud mouth, a yobbo and lacked wit. I was not the only one in the vicinity barely putting up with his boorish behaviour. But, I felt sending an sms to the ‘report abuse’ number was too lame: I should either confront him directly or ignore him in silence. Fortunately he soon yelled himself out of breath, and I went to the City End for the second half.

  7. Earl O'Neill says

    Days of general admission and a seat on the hill among the oppo’s fans. Sometimes a mate would have a spare and I’d sit in the reserved zone but it was never as good. Banter, anger, you knew you were watching a contest.
    Essendon are thumping the Wiggles as I write, what did the Swans do to their psyche?

  8. Read and re-read to let the words settle.

    I’m enjoying the flow of word melodies here Mathilde, and the gentle rhythm of varying thoughts woven together.

    Several layers of the onion peeling away,…Interesting imagery relating to the physicality of various sports.

    Well done.

  9. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Another meandering masterclass, Mathilde !
    Lawrence is a beauty. Seems he enjoyed his night out at the people’s theater.
    Great stuff.

  10. John Butler says

    Ruminating the remnants of the weekend past.

    I think life can be difficult for some. Full stop.

    Let the rest of us appreciate our good fortune. And help if we can.

    Keep the words flowing, Mathilde.

  11. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Merci encore to all.

    PB, I love that Eliot quote! We should all tape that on our foreheads for each other in a promotion of the healthy, generative, creative, generous side of uncertainty, journeys rather than arrivals. You’re spot on about Aliir. Gee he played a good one. More of that please. And after last night … as noted by Earl … sorry we broke your Eagles.

    Andy, I love Richard Sennett. ‘The Fall of Public Man’ is one of my dog eared favourites. And I always always think of Elias Canetti’s ‘Crowds and Power’ when I’m in the cauldrons … ‘crowd as a ring’ etc.

    Kate, I didn’t even see the underlying significance of layers and peeling onion skins. Trust the painter! Nice. I wonder if Harmsy did when he named it …

    ‘Meander on’ to us all.

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