THE RAIN NEVER CAME
The teams started brawling as soon as they stepped onto the oval of dying grass, egged on by a crowd hungry for some rough entertainment and a diversion from the dry grind of life. The pushing and shoving quickly escalated, a beefy townsfolk player knocking one of the First Country players to the rock-hard ground. The crowd cheered louder, and I joined in with them. Punches flew back and forth; both players got in some clean strikes. The crowd cheered louder still, and so did I.
My throat burned…
I leaned against an old gum tree that was slowly dying and took a quick sip from my canteen, trying to stretch out the pitiful amount of water I had brought with me. For the umpteenth time that day, I waved away some flies. But still, it was good to be taking it easy in the shade rather than standing out in the sun.
And so I just watched as most of the players from both teams joined the fight, the mob of bodies a mess of writhing limbs, punches and kicks. Some sections of the crowd encouraged them, while some booed and hissed, and only a few players from each team tried to break it up. They did their best but were obviously overwhelmed, and so a swarm from the crowd soon joined them, both townsfolk and First Country, all keen for the game to get underway. Fighting players were separated; injured players were quickly checked over—no one was seriously hurt. Only moments later, a dozen First Country folk faced off against an equal number of townsfolk.
The crowd—fifty or sixty of us holdouts and old-timers, twenty or so folk that made up the rest of the First Country caravan—welcomed the two teams with the loudest cheer yet. I cheered with them once more, as happy as a boy.
And then our cheers died out as the umpire ran onto the oval, stopping between the two lines of men. She spoke quickly, gesturing back and forth, presumably setting out some ground rules, her words lost in the moan of the wind. A tall, solid First Country bloke stepped forward. He held out his hand, his smile flashing lightning-white against the dark of his skin. A nuggetty little someone I didn’t recognise—a ringer from the hill country, maybe—stepped forward to meet the First Country captain. They shook hands as the umpire took something from her pocket—a coin, a tiny piece of worthless currency—and tossed it into the air. It gleamed dully, catching the late afternoon sun. The First Country captain called ‘tails’ in a booming voice. The coin landed, the umpire nodded at him, and he pointed at the goalposts that still stood tall and proud.
At the other end of the oval, one of the goalposts had cracked and fallen.
The teams quickly dispersed, teeming like flies around a dead roo. The ruckmen stayed in the centre, two great towering hulks that you would swear were twins if it weren’t for the colour of their skin. They squinted at each other in the too-bright light. I recognised ours as Jack MacDonald, a burly bastard with a shaved head who fashioned coffins from scrap when it came time to bury our dead. The two big men both took a handful of steps back as the umpire picked up a possum-skin ball that had been lying at her feet. Under an enormous blue sky, we impatiently waited for her to throw the ball. She did; we cheered again and roared as one. The ruckmen ran, jumped, crashed into each other hard. One of the townsfolk—he was moving too fast for me to tell which one—got a sneaky touch in and flicked the ball to a teammate, a long streak of pelican shit whose name wouldn’t come. Before I could blink, the First Country captain had mown the long streak down and stolen the ball. He ran hard, nothing but a burnt paddock ahead of him, his teammates making sure it stayed that way. The townsfolk captain suddenly broke away from his shadow, ran to catch up, slowly started to gain some ground. His desperate effort wasn’t enough; the First Country captain glanced over his shoulder, smiled wide, looked back, sped up. Though I was technically supporting the townsfolk—being one of them and all that—I couldn’t help admire his cheek.
He caught my eye, winked, and then booted the ball straight at me.
I managed to mark it before it hit me in the face, and silently thanked someone I don’t believe in. I stood up, shaking an ache from my weary body, as the goal-umpire waved a tatty flag over his head. The First Country captain gestured at me; deciding not to embarrass myself, I threw the ball to him instead of kicking it. He smiled again, bent down, scooped the ball up and ran back to the centre. Once more, the ruckmen faced off. They ran and jumped and crashed. A little First Country bloke snatched the ball from the pack—he darted away, his townsfolk shadow only inches behind. They ran together, zigzagging, snaking back and forth, almost moving as one. None of their teammates could catch them. My mouth hanging open, I watched the townsfolk bloke—Frank Ong, a relative newcomer, his family having only been in town a few generations—finally catch his opponent and throw a desperate tackle, launching himself into the air. They both crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. Somehow, the First Country bloke got boot to ball and dribbled it forward. The crowd roared as the ball bounced unevenly before stopping just short of the goals. Frank made it back to his feet, wiped blood from his forehead, was knocked aside by another First Country bloke who seemed to come out of nowhere. The crowd felt Frank’s pain as he fell to the ground for the second time in less than a minute, letting out a long collective ‘ooh’. The First Country bloke seized the moment, ran on, kicked the motionless ball with more force than was necessary. Once again, it headed straight for me.
‘Bill, mate, looks like you got the best seat in the house.’
The unexpected voice—right behind me, almost in my ear—stole my attention. I instinctively turned my head, and the ball grazed my face and knocked my glasses to the ground.
The voice laughed. I fumbled around, found my glasses, wiped them clean, slipped them on. Sometimes luck comes my way—they hadn’t been broken or scratched more than they already were.
‘Nice one, dickhead,’ the voice said.
I looked up and couldn’t help smiling, my day that much brighter—Tobe stood there, squinting in the sun with an easy smile on his face. He was my oldest friend, my best mate, the brother I never had. Tall, wiry and a little manic, his face creased by years under the unforgiving sun, his bony ribs poking through a T-shirt that had long ago seen better days, his cut-off shorts ripped in some spots and threadbare in others—he was a classic.
‘G’day, Bill,’ he said.
I stood back up, once again shaking the lethargy from my body. The football had come to rest at my feet, and I gave it a swift kick, sending it back onto the oval.
‘Tobe, long time no see.’
He leaned his bike against the tree I had been slouched under. It was such a ridiculous thing, more a homemade rickshaw than anything else, with two mismatched wheels at the front, a metal bench seat between them, the rider’s seat at the back, and a single wheel behind that. He looked at it lovingly, and then pulled a worn metal strongbox from the bench seat. On one side of the strongbox, still visible despite the rust, were the initials CRP.
Creeps. The bastards.
‘How’s it going?’ Tobe asked, holding out his hand.
We shook hands, hugged awkwardly.
‘It’s good to see you, Tobe.’
‘You too, mate.’
Another throaty roar from the crowd broke our embrace as the First Country blokes kicked their third goal in only a handful of minutes, the ball once again heading straight at me.
‘Looks like we’ve got Buckley’s,’ Tobe said.
‘We might want to, ah, find some new seats, too.’
‘Right you are.’
‘Okay then, give me a sec.’
He turned away, cupped his hands to his mouth, yelled loud enough to be heard above the crowd. ‘Red! Blue! Come on!’
Two dogs darted onto the oval, bringing the game to a halt. It was Red and Blue, Tobe’s blue-heeler and his red-heeler. They were chasing each other, nipping at each other, stopping every now and then to wrestle. Tongues lolling and tails wagging, they were playing hard and loving it.
‘Come on, stop pissing about!’
They froze, sniffed the air, looked back and forth, ran again, mounted the fence around the oval with ease, headed straight for me. They ignored Tobe, preferring to sniff at my crotch instead.
‘Get out of it!’ Tobe yelled, his voice unexpectedly violent.
I took an involuntary step back, a little startled and trying hard not to show it. Tobe’s temper was a local legend, a contrary and rage-filled thing that still managed to shock me. Red and Blue flopped down on their bellies, staring at him pitifully.
‘So, where were we?’ Tobe asked, smiling wide, his anger dissipating like a lone cloud under the hot sun.
I shook my head. ‘Lead on, MacDuff,’ I said, waving the way forward.
We set off. Red and Blue stayed by Tobe’s side, tails between their legs, still spooked by his outburst. I offered to carry the strongbox while he wheeled his bike, but he just shrugged, telling me not to worry. Slowly, we wound through the crowd that lined the oval, nodding and smiling and saying ‘g’day’ to everyone we passed. I was chuffe ...