The Albatross Rules – Chapter 21

21. The Professor in the Wilderness

After the dramas in the committee room the president could have been forgiven for staying in town to shore up support. He knew the street would be buzzing with half-truths. ‘The Profs trying to sack the board.’ ‘He’s gone power hungry.’ ‘Maybe he wants the merger… he’s been talking to other clubs.’

He could take it as long as the team was winning. He knew most of it would just be part of the usual local skulduggery—it oiled the social wheels. It would pass. But he didn’t want to be part of it.

“I can handle that stuff, Prof.” Edith was a good ally to have at such times. She didn’t suffer fools and she wouldn’t stand around and watch the best efforts of the Social Committee undermined by petty foolishness. “You do what you have to do. When you get back we might call an extraordinary meeting and sort this out before it gets too nasty.”

“God bless ya’, Ede.” the Prof got into his trusty Humber and pointed it towards the bush. Packed beside him were his tackle box and much loved fly rod. But it wasn’t the elusive trout that the Prof was after. He was on a mission of a different sort.

Off the end of the main forest road were a number of logging access tracks and fire breaks that snaked into the denser parts of the bush. He’d fished the little streams up there that became the headwaters of some of the state’s largest waterways and sustained whole industries in the valley. He had good knowledge of the best places to make a camp, where you’d find a clearing on level ground near reliable water.

He stopped at one place that he’d visited years before. It didn’t look like anyone had camped there in recent years. Still he decided to try his luck. To his surprise he soon landed two nice brown trout. But the catch was not enough to make him stay long. There were other spots to check out. He headed back to another side track where he knew of a good campsite. As the Humber lurched between potholes and reached a crest before the road headed down and forded a little creek the Prof noted a wisp of smoke coming from a nearby ridge. He knew the place, set above a rocky outcrop with dense scrub and Alpine Ash on three sides and an uninterrupted view across the little valley on the other. Whoever was up there would have heard the old Humber by now.

A little way on and the car was met by Eagle, Albertville’s disaffected ruckman, on his mud spattered mountain bike. “G’day Barry,” he said, “you came all the way out here in that!”

“Nothing stops the Humber mate. You can’t talk, look what you’re getting around on.”

“What are you up to?”

“Spot of fishin’ mate. Needed to get away and do some thinkin’ too.” The Prof was glad to have the two gutted brown trout to give credibility to the story.

“How’d the Nambool game go?” Football made good small talk between men from different tribes. Seeing a chance to delay the more difficult conversation The Prof gave a detailed account.

“Shame,” said Eagle, “we needed that one.”

The ‘we’, the Professor realised, offered a glimmer of hope. “There’s something else we need, son. You’ll have guessed why I’m really here. I’m not too proud to beg. And I’m proud enough to apologise too if someone at the club’s been shooting their mouth off.”

“Come and have some lunch with us, mate. You look like you could use a friend, and we’re as close as you’re going to get up here.”

So The Prof restarted the Humber and putted the last kilometre of track. Then he grabbed his fishing gear and a water bottle and followed Eagle along a winding path to the clearing, encircled by a collection of dome tents. “So this is home, eh?”

“Sometimes, mate. Sometimes. We’ve got friends all around here, plenty of places to stay. But right now there’s pressure to log some old stuff up here so we’re keeping an eye on things.”

“You are nuts you know. You can’t win.”

“I think I’ve heard that before, Prof.” If nothing else the two shared a conviction for their chosen cause that was not to be swayed by inconvenient circumstance.

After sharing lunch with Eagle’s friends –not bad for vege stuff – the Prof spent the afternoon fishing the stream below the incline without luck. “We’ll talk this evening,” suggested Eagle. “There’s a spare sleeping mat and some blankets. We can make you comfortable.”

The president returned to the eco-warriors’ campsite. Smelly Kevin, Peter Potter’s nemesis, offered to cook the two brown trout. “I’d better do it,” suggested Eagle. “You know, Prof, most of these guys don’t eat fish but to me it’s fine. Part of the bounty of a place like this. I can put together a little sauce too that’ll finish them off just nice.” Eagle had gathered some wild mushrooms he thought would do the trick.

As the cooking fire was being prepared, The Prof and Eagle sat down together. The hippy ruckman was pleased to hear that there were plans for a shake-up of the board. “Nugget O’Laughlin might be a club favourite,” he said, “but he’s also an ignorant old bastard. Those other two, Bill and Ben…”

“Bert and Bob.”

“Yeah, Bill and Ben; they’re no better. You know you’re operating in the stone age, don’t you. Mt Logan, they’ve got a nice little web-site. The bloody saw-mill sponsors them to the hilt. They’ve got their shit together. You’re just up the road but you’re in another century.”

“You’re right mate. I know. It’s chicken and egg, though. Unless we’re successful nobody thinks that stuff’s worth doing. But that’s what we need to do to be successful, I reckon. And we need a good ruckman, too. You can hold your own against the best in the comp. Against Nambool we got caned. Old Peter Strauss can’t carry the load.”

“Prof, you get those bigoted old bastards out of my hair…

“… yeah, you don’t need any more crap in there.”

“Just keep them out of my way and I’ll be back. I can take it on the field. I know what I do away from the game won’t earn me any favours but out on the ground I’ve got a comeback. I can let my footy talk.”

“Son, I’ll do everything I can.”

“Your word’s good, Prof; no worries. Who have we got this week?”

“Saints at home. We sure need to win that one.”

Barry Massey sat among his strange companions. He shared the delicious trout, on brown rice with mashed sweet potato and mushroom sauce with Eagle, Kevin and Kaz’ (Karma to Peter Potter. She hoped his inflammation had subsided). The others had lentil curry and fruit. It had been a big day and in the rapidly descending chill he began to feel decidedly heady. Eagle showed him to a vacant tent where he’d made a comfortable enough camp bed. The president crawled inside.

Coming from around the campfire he could hear the rhythmic beating of drums and from all around the familiar wild sounds of the bush. The stream below added another layer of sound. He closed his eyes, though sleep seemed far away. Before long the intermingling sounds became the voices of a choir of angels. “Strange.” he thought “I know that tune.”

It was the club song, sung by a heavenly chorus. He found himself out on the edge of the clearing looking skywards. The sky was electric blue and a large bird was circling overhead. He was youthful again. He cast his eyes once more groundwards and recognised the Albertville sportsground. “You’re on, Massey.” The coach tapped him on the shoulder. “Just make a contest of it. He’s a tough opponent so stick with him.” Baz savoured a spring in his legs that he hadn’t felt in many years as he ran out onto the parched turf that had taken a purple hue. His new opponent was waiting and greeted him with a heavy shirtfront. It brought him face to face with a devilish beast bursting from an enourmous Mt Logan guernsey.

Next moment the ball came in from the wing. Massey took front spot. His adversary came over the top. He climbed all over his back, flattening him into grass that now flickered like a million tiny flames. It had to be a free kick, at least. Surely. He couldn’t remember ever surviving such a crunching hit.

Massey looked up, dazed. Perhaps he hadn’t survived the tackle at all. He found he was now atop a filmy staircase and St Peter, or someone he imagined to be St Peter (though looking a lot like Father Anthony and dressed as a field umpire) was standing before him. “You played against the evil one and lost,” announced the saintly official.

“But I didn’t… I couldn’t… I… I… What about in the back?”

There was a crash of angry lightning nearby. A booming voice made the clouds around him shake. “You let evil win, Barry. And now you question THE UMPIRE.”

“B..b…but it was in the back. Y…you saw it. Y…y…you can’t change the rules.”

“SILENCE! Tell him Pete.”

“I’m sorry Baz,” the Saint went on in a more conciliatory tone, “The rules are the same. We’ve changed the interpretation.”

As Barry Massey spiralled down into a bubbling football hell below he let out an ear splitting “no…ooooooooooooooo.”

But before he descended into the fiery pit a large bird swooped from the heaven’s and grabbed his Albertville jumper in its talons. It deposited him back on the throbbing Albertville turf and this time, when he looked up from the ground he saw the umpire, or was it Saint Peter, arm outstretched. The siren sounded. He looked at the scoreboard. Good and Evil locked together. 19 goals 20 apiece. He went back carefully to take his kick.

“Baz, Baz!, You alright, mate.” Eagle was leaning over the president, shaking him lightly.

“Geeze, I just had the weirdest dream, mate. I was back playing for Albertville. Everything was strange”

“Did you win?”

“I dunno mate. I hope so. I really hope we did.”

“I reckon you did, mate. No worries. Off to sleep, Eh.”

The President slept deeply after that. When the birdsong finally woke him the next morning the sun was high and there was no sign of anyone around the campsite. He felt unburdened of the trifling political squabble that faced him back in Albertville. On a log next to the fire was a covered bowl of fresh blackberries. Under the bowl was a note. ‘See you on Saturday.’ The Prof smiled. Perhaps he’d try fishing that little spot he knew downstream on his way back into town.

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