The Albatross Rules, Chapter 13 – Tiger

13. Tiger

The first rumours of a cat-like animal, the size of a great dane, prowling about the hills behind Albertville had appeared during the town’s early days. Gold-miners had reported a sleek black beast patrolling the steeper slopes near the rocks now known as The Dentures. Some put the sighting down to the ready availability of opium in the Chinese camp near Mt Desperate. But others were convinced.

For a century and a half there had been continued occasional reports of panther like creatures in the area. There were plaster casts of large prints gathering dust in the local history collection. Des and Maree had a folder of clippings marked ‘Tiger’. There were fuzzy photos and hand drawn maps. Some of the believers talked about a travelling circus act that had been booked to entertain the miners at Rosey’s but been swept away by rising flood-waters. The cats, it was said were descended from two big panthers that formed part of the act. Others believed that the cat was an undescribed native creature. They even pointed to ancient rock art, found far away, in the North of the country, that seemed to show an animal with an elongated body, four stout legs and pointed ears as proof of the animal’s existence. Others still, including Des and Maree, just thought ‘The Albertville Tiger’ was a fantastic yarn. They may not have believed it but everyone in Albertville believed in it. The Tiger story was a source of considerable pride in the town.

It was not surprising then that the town’s greatest football son, Jimmy Hyde, a tenacious and elusive competitor, had been handed the great honour of the nickname ‘The Albertville Tiger’. Jimmy’s career was the stuff of legend too. As a teenager in the 60s he’d walked off the street and into one of the best sides in the land, played twelve games straight then walked back out just before the finals declaring that the big smoke was not for him.

For the next three weeks the town became a magnet for reporters from the big papers and desperate officials hoping to lure the reluctant youngster back to the city. But Jimmy, like the Tiger whose name he would later share, just disappeared into the hills. I’m goin’ fishin’ he declared to his old man, Gordon Hyde (Albertville’s Best and Fairest himself, three times in the forties) and that, as far as anyone in town knew, was the last anyone saw of him for six weeks.

Tiger only ever played for the Albatrosses after that. Each year the number of offers from city clubs diminished until he became just a footnote in the history of the big league. But in Albertville his stature grew.

There was nothing flash about training at Albertville, so the presence, on Tuesday night, of a stranger, watching from a restored Ford Customline parked on the half forward flank raised a few eyebrows. Perhaps the women’s team, practicing near the Bridge end goals, had attracted his attention. He was a young bloke, late twenties perhaps, with a smart city haircut and his dress was on the fancy side.

Being hospitable by nature, and not wanting to miss an opportunity to sell the merits of the club, The Professor took it upon himself to find out more about the unusual visitor. “Just gonna check it out, Duck. Back soon.”

When the coach glanced up some time later the president was stretching back in the big car’s passenger seat, deep in conversation.

It was Con’s habit to address the players before they went back into the change rooms at the end of the session. The Prof usually liked to say a few words too—he couldn’t help himself. So Con was surprised not to have his assistance as he gathered the balls into their hessian sack and stacked the cones while the boys ran one last lap. Then he emerged, still talking animatedly with the lanky stranger. The rapport between them was obvious, but in spite of it The Prof looked agitated.

“What’s up, Prof?”

“What’s up! Tyranny, son, of the highest order. Peter Handley, Con Filipou.” The young man’s handshake was precise and professional—Con guessed that he was in one of the ‘everyone’s mate’ lines of work.

“You with the press?”

“T.V. Current affairs. I’m with The Eye.” The Eye was big time—a national program of the trash for news variety. Con had thought the tall bloke looked familiar. “You knew my old man,” the reporter continued. “—Bob Handley.”

Bob Handley. Old school news-hound. Worked the Tribune’s sport desk for three decades. He’d given Con a hard time in his last year. Too old and too slow he said. He was right of course. The week after Con retired Handley had taken him out for a drink that lasted ’til the morning.

“Top bloke your old man; how is he?”

The reporter shrugged his shoulders. “Booze and smokes. He liked to keep things short and sweet.”

Con pulled one of his ‘sorry mate, that’s the way it goes’ faces.

“I want Pete here to talk to the players, Duck.”

“No worries, they’re about to come in.”

“Duck?” The boy had his father’s nose for a story.

“Some other time, lad—if you’re lucky.”

The players gathered near the ‘grandstand’, a section of terraced concrete in front of the old corrugated iron rooms.

“Righto, boys. Bit o’ shush willya. We’ve got a guest with us tonight—Peter Handley. I knew his old man. Anyway he’s been talking to the president and he’s got a story we all need to hear, so I’m told. I’m as much in the dark as you fellas so let’s just give ‘im a bit of a go. All yours son.”

The boy was a polished presenter who kept to the facts and told them straight. “I came up here because my old man always talked fondly of Albertville. He spent two weeks here in the ’60s trying to track down Jimmy Hyde after he did a runner from the big smoke. Now I’m told you all know who Jimmy is and I’m told you call him the Albertville Tiger up here. Well that’s an interesting thing because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the big cat they say lives up round here.”

“It’s there, alright. I saw the sneaky bugger last year, plain as day, down near the old poppet head,” Archie Pierce interjected.

“I’ve got no reason to doubt you mate. Only it wasn’t the Albertville Tiger I came to investigate. It was something called the Mt Logan Tiger that we were contacted about. It seems to me that your neighbours are planning to muscle in on your legend.”

The chorus of disbelief rose from the collected players. “Those bastards” spat Boof, who was not one to use profanity lightly.

“I’ve been doing a story on their trumped up myth. I knew Albertville was nearby so I just popped over to see what dad had been on about. He always said you were the friendliest shit-hole he ever got stuck in. Having met your president I’ve got no reason to doubt him. Anyway the Prof here has filled me in. Seems there never was and never will be a Mt Logan Tiger.”

“Just the odd rat down there,” hissed Tex to a murmur of agreement.

“It’s disrespectful of your town and it’s disrespectful of the other Tiger, the great Jimmy Hyde. You know my other reason for seeking you out is that I’ve been digging into something the old man told me about Jimmy. I’d like to meet him. And I’d like to write a piece about him because his is one of the great stories of the game. There have been other great players who have turned their backs on fame, but none so spectacularly as Tiger. But I know he’s crook and I know he doesn’t suffer nosey strangers.”

“Crankiest bastard I ever met,” mumbled the Prof. “Never mind Jimmy, what are we goin’ to do about the Tiger story.”

“Well Baz’, I’ve been thinking. We’ve taken most of the footage already, done a whole lot of interviews and stuff. But the story’s not edited yet and that’s the bit that matters. You’re playing Mt Logan this week, right? Well I’m going to try to get this to air on ‘The Eye’ this Friday. My producer’s a nasty prick. I think if I tell him what I’ve learned tonight he might just help me drop a bomb on Mt Logan. It’s a dump anyway, from what I’ve seen. They won’t know what’s hit ‘em.”

In truth Con didn’t need the team’s next opponents to have any more incentive to play well. The already strained relationship between the towns had been stretched further by the netball debacle a few weeks earlier. Still, such was the feeling amongst the players, in response to Mt Logan’s subterfuge, that such arguments were pointless. “If you’re going to do the job on them, Pete,” Con smiled, “do it properly. The Tiger’s ours.” As Con said the words he realised how much his attachment to Albertville had been cemented. He had gone, in a few short months, from a bemused outsider to a passionate defender of local folklore. There was something about the place.

Before heading back to town the next morning, Peter Handley filmed a couple of short segments for his ‘new’ story. He then sat down with Des and Maree to get the real low-down on the Tiger. He left in no doubt that Mt Logan had attempted to ambush their neighbours. They were trying to cash in on a story that didn’t belong to them.

On his way back to the city the Prof took Handley to see Tiger in hospital down in the valley. On hearing the reporter’s name, Tiger greeted him with uncharacteristic civility and took him into his confidence. Barry Massey had never seen anything like it.

It seemed that, years before, old Bob Handley, after two days with just a hip flask for company, had tracked the publicity-shy youngster down in a cattleman’s hut up on the high plains. They’d shared a quick cup of tea and some biscuits and the newspaperman had shaken the boy’s hand and departed with a promise and a blessing. “Stay away from the city, son, It’s not for you”. He hiked twenty miles back to his trusty Vauxhall, motored straight back to the Tribune’s offices and filed a story about the young star who was so much a part of the bush that no city slicker would ever catch him out there in the back-country. ‘That’s where Jimmy Hyde belongs.’ the story concluded, ‘not amongst the bustle and clamour of the city. Though we loved him while he was here he could never love us back. He was only ever passing through on a journey back home to the mountains. Good luck to you Jimmy Hyde and thanks for the great games you gave us.’

On the Friday evening before the Mt Logan game it seemed that the whole town had crowded around the big TV in the corner of the public bar. And down in Mt Logan, too, the TV sets would all be tuned to ‘The Eye’ in eager anticipation.

The program’s theme music was suitably pompous, the anchorman stiff and bronze. The show did tabloid journalism better than anyone. As the opening credit finished Craig Catrell swung his chair to camera. “Tonight on The Eye: Sew Us Back: the Desperate Plea of Separated Twins, Just Get Fat: The Guilt Free Alternative, and How Safe is Your Budgie? But first…” Craig swung back to gaze straight at the audience through another camera

“Crazy Town: We Visit the nation’s nuttiest neighbourhood.”

The bar at the Grand Hotel exploded with cheers.

The vision cut to Peter Handley leaning on the Mt Logan sign. “Welcome to Mt Logan, a sleepy mountain hamlet where the loopy locals just keep seeing things. Alien landings, giant rabbits, pink elephants and more. You name it, Mt Logan’s got it. Or perhaps someone’s been putting ‘whacky tobacky’ in the town water. We’re here to investigate.” The spooky theme music from a popular sci-fi program chimed in. As Handley turned to walk into town a strategically loosened bolt gave way. The Mt Logan nameplate swung from its remaining post, creaking, as it did, in a rusty, horror-movie, kind of way.

Handley had found no shortage, in Mt Logan, of people happy to attest to the Tiger’s presence. It was a simple enough matter to edit the footage of these adamant witnesses into a montage of stock footage and hokey graphics alongside an updated script.

“Bert Oliver, former town president, first saw the little green man from Mars on this road, outside his property.”

“Sure, I seen it,”—Bert was wearing his most serious face—”it came right up here, stopped over near the tank, looked at me and then just took off. Whoosh. Just like that.”

Next it was the turn of Post-Mistress, Indira Prakash, on the matter of giant rabbits.

“As big as a bear I tell you. Hard to believe. But true. I swear.” (The camera cut briefly back to the bemused presenter with an incredulous expression that said, ‘just plain nuts.’).

Big John Jamieson (or so it appeared) showed viewers where the little people had left scratch marks on his lawn. Marcie McKinnon got down on all fours to demonstrate how her garden’s fairies crept through the long grass to avoid being seen. “You just get a glimpse every now and then but you know there’s something there.”

The final word was left to Jerry Carew, a complete tosser and president of the Mt Logan Chamber of Commerce, the most likely perpetrators of the Tiger-filching plan. Standing next to some unrecognisable road-kill Handley spoke earnestly, to camera, measuring his words to give them added gravity. “All that’s left of Jerry’s prize Ferret, Kevin, after it was taken aboard an alien space ship.”

“That’s right, Peter. I saw it coming down from over the ridge there. It was moving so fast it was just a blur. It came right down here and I guess Kevin was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“And you saw him taken on board the ship?”

“Just gobbled up. Shocking I tell you. You can see the damage it left when it took off.” The camera zoomed in to what were obviously common or garden potholes on the gravel road.

“What do you say, Jerry, to the people who don’t believe these stories?”

“Well they used to think the earth was flat, Peter. They said Columbus was crazy too you know.”

“This is Peter Handley, glad to be going home. Mt Logan, your secrets are safe with us.” The vision of the tall presenter walking back past the wonky sign faded to a close up of some spotty red toadstools on the roadside. A psychedelic soundtrack grew louder as the screen morphed into a trippy, pulsating burst of formless colour.

Boof raised his glass in an impromptu toast and the whole bar took up the call.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, The Albertville Tiger”

“The Albertville Tiger,” the shout went up, and then the townsfolk, as one, drained their glasses to a legend rightfully retained and to their neighbours’ newfound reputation. There would be no love lost, on either side, when the Albatrosses and Cobras lined up the following afternoon.

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