It’s never easy to get up on a Saturday morning, but it’s harder still when it’s early morning, six degrees outside and you’ve got a new girlfriend snuggled up in bed. She looks like a little bird, he thinks; thin and brown and mouth pursed like she’s about to speak.
He lies for a moment hands behind head, staring at the window, trying to make out the first feeble rays of light. They’re not there yet. Not at this time of year. He closes his eyes for a second, feels sleep race towards him. It would be so easy to stay, easy to turn on his side, curl up beside Jess and put his hand up her top; feel her warm skin and quiet breathing. Nothing more than a phone call would do it. Gastro—food poisoning, the usual code for ‘can’t be stuffed’.
He fumbles about the room trying not to wake her and when he farts, it’s in the bathroom. Early days yet. He’s quietly cursing whatever it is he’s doing, even as he pulls on his jeans and T-shirt. It’s cold here—but where he’s going it’s colder still and he locates his beanie. Last week he forgot it and the wind nearly blew his brains out.
The house is asleep and the blokes he shares with won’t be up till almost midday. They got home with Jess late last night from band practice and they drank and sang till early in the morning. Not so long ago in fact. They thought he was mad for not joining them. But while he likes a drink, he’s not musical and besides, there’s always the morning to think of.
The kitchen is a pigsty, but he doesn’t mind. Not really. He finds a bowl in the sink and gives it a rinse, finds a clean teaspoon. There’s not much in the way of food in the cupboard, but he fits six Weet-Bix in the bowl and piles on the sugar. If this were his family home there would be the smell of his father’s bread baking and a warm afterglow from the wood fire. Not here. He jumps up and down a bit, gives the milk a cursory sniff and eats as quietly and quickly as he can.
He looks around. It’s all right for a share house, he’s been in worse. Next year, once he finishes engineering, he’ll be off overseas backpacking. Maybe with Jess if the two of them are still together. London, Europe, Asia, however long the money lasts. He knows it’s kind of boring, but mostly he’d like to go to Ireland; see the cliffs there, drive down those little roads. Jess would like to go to Shanghai, but he’s not so sure.
He brushes his teeth and takes a jug of hot water outside, pours it over the windscreen. The ice crackles and melts. In the distance, he hears a siren—the rise and fall of it a desolate wail. The city in the early morning is dense and dark, it’s still a time for headlights and lonely skyscrapers, for taxi drivers bringing home the dejected, the rejected and the newly arrived.
He chucks his bag in the back of the old Holden and revs the engine. It’s noisy and right outside the bedroom window. The blind whips open and Jess’s face appears, as he half hoped it would. Her little-bird features are ruffled, and her brown hair sticks to the side of her flushed face. She looks bleary with warmth and sleep and wine. She puts on a sad face and waves to him. He puts on a sad face and waves back. In response she shrugs and pulls the blind down fast. He backs out of the driveway and turns into the street.
He’s been with her for three months but he doesn’t fully get her. She’s his first real girlfriend and he thinks he might love her but he’s not sure. He feels proud of her sharp intelligence and the way people are drawn to her, but the endless talking exhausts him. Jess likes causes and heavy discussions deep into the night. She claims that he is her rock and that she needs him, but sometimes when she says that, when her teeth are stained from red wine like she’s just bitten the head off a possum, he feels slightly afraid.
For the most part they are good together, they don’t fight and he finds the sex deeply satisfying. He probably does love her.
But she can’t understand this, this need of his to leave early on Saturday morning every week from May to September. It wrecks their Friday nights, she says, hinders their weekend plans and prevents him from attending events important to her and their friends. Take today, for instance. His housemates, friends since O Week in first year, have been invited to play a gig at a pub in Fitzroy. That’s a paid gig. Offers like that don’t come around very often. Not for bands like Werribee don’t stink no more.
A crowd is important at events like this. They would need to invite all their friends. Someone drew up a list. Someone else poured drinks. Would they invite their parents? No, because they’ll bring the mood down. Yes—because they’ll be the most likely to shout drinks and then the management will be pleased. Parents, tick. More discussion. And more.
There was a slight change in the kitchen air when he said he couldn’t come. A not altogether pleasant one. He protested; it wouldn’t mean much if he wasn’t there—besides helping with the moving of equip-ment and driving the truck, he wasn’t at all integral to their success, and the band members all came from Melbourne. They’d have school friends, family members, neighbours and everyone turn up. Still, it stung—the change in the kitchen air, the way they’d all looked at each other as if they had already discussed his absence.
‘Dan can drive the truck,’ he said. There may have been a hint of derision in his voice—why, after all, did only one of them have a licence? He’d been driving for as long as he could remember: four wheelers, utes, tractors. Driving manual along dirt roads, along fence lines and around empty dams.
‘Yeah, but Dan’s at his sister’s wedding and he’s the usher.’ The accusation lay thick in the air. Being an usher was a real excuse for not turning up to a mate’s first gig. Travelling three hours to play a game of footy was not.
He changes gear, listens to the engine make the necessary adjustments, settles into his seat and wonders if they have got that one right. It’s a drive he makes every Saturday during the season and each time he wonders why the hell he does it.
He’s on the highway now, just out of the city. The sky is orange pink, a poorly concealed promise and the kilometres ticking over—just over two and a half hours to go. Like every week his parents will be at the game today, watching him from behind the goals and afterwards he’ll go over to them to hear a quiet and fair assessment. Last year he still brought his washing home for his mother to do but he’s stopped that now. Any noble intentions of not taking advantage of her subsides, however, when her cooking is involved and he doesn’t say no when she piles up his car with sausage rolls and relish for him and his housemates. He loves those sausage rolls, could do with one right now.
Why does he do it? He slows down to drive through a sleepy town while he thinks. There’s the old coach of course; tight footy shorts no matter what the weather and a whiteboard with movements so calculated on it they’d rival the Desert Fox. He demands loyalty. And every quarter-time speech without fail it’s the same drill, an old man’s plea: ‘This game could be it, boys! A new golden age for the club, for the town even! Three quarters to go, boys—believe in yourselves, we can do this.’
No-one believes the coach about the game or the town. Just look at the place dying and all the closures. Just look at the state of the town hall, the numbers in the primary school. Fact is, his home town is an old dog waiting to be shot and the team won’t last another two seasons. There’s only so many times you can hyphenate the name of a football club and merge with old rivals.
But no-one ever takes the coach to task. It’s Super Boot Dowsley for Christ sake, saviour of the 1973 grand final, father of two draft nominees and one boy whose white cross he’ll drive past just before Derrinallum. The coach is a legend of the town and has been a member of the club for 45 years. You can’t knock him.
He changes gears and slows down, pulling onto the side of the road for a piss. He says hello to the sheep, making out their soft shapes in the dark and they bleat softly, half awake. He gets in the car again. Starts up. Passes two towns just waking up and one that never will. But it’s not just Super Boot that brings him back to play each week, he thinks as the world rolls on by. It’s more than that, though it’s hard to pinpoint it, what with the blue Commodore tailgating him and the signs up ahead telling him to slow down, have a rest, take a break.
Kate Brant will be at the game today, playing netball in division one. It’s soothing to think of her brown arms and strong thighs as she darts along the court. He finds himself doing that in lectures sometimes. Thinking about her and the way she moves. She’s goalkeeper. In grade five he scratched their initials on the back of the scoreboard and they’re still there for everyone to see.
He thinks of his teammates, blokes he went to primary school with, for whom he’s been in fights on account of, for and with. They’ve got names such as Carbo and Stitcher and Disco and they go out with girls in the netball team. He sometimes tells his housemates about these blokes and feels a sting of regret as he does. In telling his stories, he’s feeding into their assumptions about people who choose to live in country towns. He’s giving them what they want, making them feel superior about their commerce degrees and gluten-free lifestyles. But despite what his housemates think, the boys on his team are not stupid. Half of them have been to uni and returned, smart as anyone he sits in tutorials with, but it doesn’t stop them from yelling ‘Dazzle ’em with Shakespeare’ every time he marks the ball.
The highway must be clogged with young blokes like him. Driving home on Saturday mornings to play for teams with names such as Jeparit-Rainbow, Manangatang-Tooleybuc and Goornong. Young blokes on the highway just like him, leaving the city behind. They’re all driving hundreds and hundreds of kilometres, full of regret and wonderment at the pull that keeps them returning week after week. At the push that takes them back.
He’ll never be a star player, never win the B and F. But he’s steady, he knows that. He’s a strong kick and while he can’t turn up to training, he’ll be one of the first ones on the ground today warming up. He’s barely missed a game in three years.
His team, the Seagulls, gets flogged by 10 goals every game and not a victory in sight. It’s making its last squawk, his team, and he’ll be there each week to usher in every dying loss in the mud, every slipped mark, every kick out of bounds on the full.
His elbow is out the window now, and there’s a good song on the radio and he’s hit the shire boundaries. And there it comes, that big ball of a sun, that big ball of orange rising up over the horizon. It jolts him every time. Rays light up the stone fences, hit the trees and illuminate the paddocks. The old gums shimmer green and grey in the early morning light and the world appears golden quiet. It’s like it is every Saturday, a new chance, a new era.
They might have a chance today.