The RSL hall stinks of boiled meat, and Reece and Dooley are running late.
I’ve got some footage on the mobile from the game this afternoon. At least it’s a distraction, something to help me avoid the small-town desperation milling around. All those slavering mums and dads waiting for their chance to corner me and dump a load of shit about their shitty adolescents. Wanting a piece of what Reece and Dooley have. A chance. It’s not that I blame them, but the old monkey suit doesn’t fit like it used to, and I’ve got the wife’s face in mind, the blank look when I told her I was leaving for the night. And where the fuck are Reece and Dooley? They can hardly not turn up for B&F when they know the only question is which one of them will win it. When they know I’m here.
I wriggle some breathing space into the squeeze-grip of my pants and try to concentrate on the tiny screen. Got a good shot of that hanging mark Reece took inside the fifty. I missed Dooley’s delivery and the phone lost focus for the conversion goal, but no matter. I can see the whole run of play behind my eyes. Always had a kind of photographic memory for the game, or the bits of it that count. Not that this game told me anything I didn’t already know: just a crappy inter-school match-up, against Saint Something. Reece kicked five straight and Dooley four but that hardly means shit given that my granny could have penetrated Saint Something’s defensive line, and she’s been dead ten years.
And anyway I’ve known for months what these kids can do. I know their accuracy, their ball skills and engines. I know they both have it, they’re both special in that way you only read about once or twice a footy generation – that way that could almost make you feel a long-dead religious tingling in your gut to see Reece take a flying mark and shimmy round one defender then another, to see the silkiness of Dooley’s hands, his speed down the boundary. I know all this, so what else do I need to know? The bleeding obvious, is what. I need to know which one? Maybe the most important decision of my career (which once upon a time would have buttered a lot of bread on the home front, but when I said decision and career to Vicki, in the grey light of the downstairs spare room, she barely looked up from her sudoku puzzle).
The battery on my phone’s about to go and I’m on my third beer when Reece and Dooley finally arrive. I know as soon as they’re in the building from a change in the buzz of conversation, a shudder of excitement and disappointment all round me – poor schmucks breathing in the knowledge that their kids are destined for the local canning factory after school.
They’re near the main entrance, being greeted like rock stars. Both brought their mums and dads, and Dooley’s got a couple of kid brothers in the mix – worth keeping an eye on, even though they won’t be playing state level for a few years yet. Parents gussied up to the nines. And the boys too, looking awkward as fuck, as if they’d give anything to be back in shorts and trainers. Although Reece carries it better than Dooley, as you’d expect. Reece deals with the society stuff better too, making eye contact when people come up to him, hand hovering near his pelvis ready to shoot out for shaking. It’s a performance, and one he’s only just figured he has to learn by the looks of it, but still it could be useful at club level. The ones who can’t handle that stuff, the real shy ones, they sometimes come apart in their first season.
Dooley hangs back, watches the ground around his feet, has a word in one of his little brothers’ ears. Only makes eye contact with Reece – regular eye contact, some significance between the two of them but I can’t tell what, which shits me. Is it ridicule? Laughing at the phoniness of Reece’s performance, or of the society act everyone else is putting on – factory workers in stiffly ironed shirts and the women, breasts slung up to a chin-hugging wobble? Reece seems to shoot Dooley a look every time someone comes up to shake his hand, and I see now that the expression on Dooley’s face is not just about shyness. It also looks like he’s about to crack up. I catch myself wishing I was in on the joke, and I shake the weakness off. Contrary to the sentimental bollocks the press serves up, footy’s not about mateship. It’s not about loyalty and team spirit and back-slapping. It’s about war. Same as war, I guess. Catching that sly little yearning to be part of some adolescent boys’ club, I know I need to re-assert the rules. I need to make sure Reece and Dooley understand them, and the one that learns the rules quickest, most convincingly, wins. Rule number one: you gotta want it more than anything. More than your best mate. More than your family.
Just then the balding canteen dad who coaches the team gets up to the mike, tells everyone to take their seats. The awards are about to begin. Damn and buggery, I guess I’m here for the long haul. A flicker of panic – maybe I should have been on the road hours ago, back to the city for the Wesley game tomorrow morning. But I tell myself that this here is why I’m so good at the job – ’cos I’m here, instead of where the rest of the vultures are circling. ’Cos tempting as it might have been to skip the gut-strangling monkey suit and go watch the Wesley wonderboy in action (seven-foot tall and hands to match), we don’t need a tall forward. We need an all-rounder, a carrier, a game-breaker. And everyone agrees Reece and Dooley each have the potential to be another Juddy, another Ablett even. It’s my job to weed out the one who won’t capitalise on that and pluck the other for myself. Law of averages says two Judds in one year is half as likely, meaning twice as impossible.
So I squeeze myself through the crowd of hangers-on around the kids, and as the third beer sloshes round my strangulated gut and a trickle of sweat runs down my back (they always overheat in these country places) I reel up to the person most likely to get me where I need to be for the rest of the night: Reece’s mum, who gives off a slight whiff of worldly ambition. She’s walking next to the husband towards their table; I squeeze into a small space on her other side and dazzle her with the smile I reserve for parents of the talent (a bit flirtatious, and sly – a smile that says she and I are in the know about something big).
‘Won’t mind if I’m part of the family circle tonight?’ I say – casually touching her on the arm, then turning to encompass them all in my big city smoothes, the confidence that comes from working for the club everyone wants to be part of (no matter if they tell you otherwise – they’re lying). Willing my face to find some of the magic it used to perform, the magic that got me under Vicki’s bra in the back of my dad’s Commodore, back in the days when I felt sorry for guys who looked like Reece or Dooley (Reece has the funny look of Irish Catholic kids who’ve caught more sun than every ancestor put together – you can’t tell where the tan stops and the freckles start – and Dooley: there’s not much needs said about Dooley’s ropey body and broad features).
So I sidle up to the Reece Mama and flash her my best one and give them all my ‘family circle’ line. And the luck is with me tonight, there’s a chair free at Reece’s table. Not next to Reece but only one seat away, easy access, and Dooley’s family at the table directly behind. One of the Dooley kid brothers has the back of his chair pressed up against the back of mine and I can already feel his red cordial jitters, which’ll get worse through the long hours of speeches ahead. This isn’t the first country B&F I’ve sat through for the sake of some talent, I know what I’m in for. Best to start prepared, so while canteen baldy is making his opening remarks – proud of the whole team (bullshit), whoever wins tonight you’re all winners (bullshit) – I get up and make my way to the bar. Double scotch with a pint chaser, downing the scotch where I stand.
When I turn with my innocent pint of lager, Reece is standing right behind me.
I pull my face into professional order. ‘G’day, fella.’
He sidesteps me and stands at the bar pretending to consider the soft drink dispenser, pretending he didn’t come over to talk to me. This is interesting. I haven’t caught a whiff of desperation from either boy before – no undignified serenading after games or flashy plays in front of me and my notebook. He must have something to say, something he thinks will help his chances with the club. It makes me relax. It makes me remember who I am, and who I work for. It makes me friendly.
‘Not hitting the hard stuff, mate? Although,’ giving him a nudge in the side, ‘I’ll not tell the club if you have just the one. No sense being fanatical about these things is what I say.’
Reece smiles and asks the bartender for a lemonade.
Little tight-arse, I think.
‘So, Reece,’ moving onto the issues, no doubt the kid knows I know why he’s here. ‘I’m afraid I can’t give anything away.’
He looks at me blankly.
‘Well, I s’pose you know both you and your mate are under serious consideration. But I can’t give anything away about which way the club will go.’
Reece smiles, but just with the corners of his mouth.
Weird little fucker. I hope he doesn’t turn out to be one of the lurking types.
‘Maybe tonight’s vote’ll be the deciding factor, eh?’ I punch him lightly in the ribs, knowing I shouldn’t have said that – he’s got me beyond professionalism trying to get a bloody response.
‘Yeah, the vote,’ he says, as if he’s considering what I said seriously.
‘Just jokes there, Reece. No need to worry about the club making its decision based on a small-town B&F.’
The kid looks up from his lemonade and does something you don’t see often in my job. Beneath the veneer of freckles and tan, he blushes ear to ear. And something darts in his eyes, like the flash you see in a committed player before a game. Ready to fight like a dog. He says, ‘It’s not just a small-town B&F to everyone.’
‘Simmer down mate.’ Jesus, I’ve got the kid riled. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it.’
He looks back down at his drink, struggling with something that wants to come out his mouth. He says, ‘Just that …’ And then, ‘I don’t wanna be rude or anything.’
‘What’ve you got to say, Reece? You can talk to me.’
‘Just, please, you know,’ he takes a deep breath. ‘Don’t make tonight about the club and the draft and all that. Me and Jake, we’ve been playing together since Primary, and this is the last B&F, and his family, it’s real important to them.’
By which he means, it’s important to Dooley.
He didn’t come over to sweet-talk me. He came to tell me to bog off. I must have downed that scotch too quick because for a moment the ground tips to one side, and when I close my eyes there’s Vicki’s face, cheeks all pale and loose, and the nothing eyes when I told her I was off for the night. Not even hatred.
‘Steady on mate,’ I say. ‘I’m not here to ruin anyone’s night.’
He turns and walks back towards the table and I follow like some kind of rejected date. Maybe it’s hard for the average Joe to imagine a job where you don’t get told to bog off at least once in a while, but in my job that’s not how it works. Whenever I’m around, whatever was going on before, you can pretty much guarantee that suddenly it’s all about me. All about the club I mean. The canteen dad’s announcing some also-ran award (‘most improved’) when I sit back down next to Mrs Reece. I see Reece catch Dooley’s eye over the top of their families’ heads and he rolls his eyes and Dooley grins. At me? Am I some kind of joke for these greasy little upstart fuckers now? Dooley catches my eye and gives me a nod, smile staying in place and I don’t think that kid has it in him to be artful – he doesn’t know about Reece’s little mission at the bar. Let’s see then, I think. Let’s see if Dooley’s got more of a clue about how to become a professional footballer. I stand up and give Dooley a flick of the head to follow me. Reece looks from me to him – is that concern? You should be concerned, little cocksucker, let’s see if your black dog mate knows how to catch a bone any better than you. Dooley follows me back towards the bar. The relief to my damaged gut from standing up is part of a bigger relief that goes through me, because I feel now that this is it, this is where the decision will be made and Dooley, God willing, is gonna make it for me.
When we get to the bar I turn round to the kid. ‘You enjoying the night, Jake?’
He’s real shy. I don’t think I realised how shy before – this is the first time I’ve spoken to him one-on-one, no Reece and no family to hide behind. He stares at my feet and shrugs with half his body, grins with half his mouth.
‘Come on, lad, nothing to be scared of. I just thought I’d get to know you a bit. And,’ lowering my voice, ‘if I want to get to know you then the whole club’s behind that position, you know-what-I-mean?’
He glances up from the floor, towards the table where his family sits, then up at the canteen dad on the mike, then quickly, slyly, at me.
‘Okay, mate, you don’t have to talk. There’s lots like you playing club level. You save your best for on ground, eh? I respect that, Dooley, not a lot of noise and carry-on.’
He still won’t look at me – keeps glancing up at the coach, who’s hammering on about team spirit. That half smile on his face, almost a grimace of pain. I pride myself on the way I handle these kids – the weird other-worldly silences, never knowing if they’re miserable or just lacking in the grey matter department, or whether maybe (and this is the one that’ll eat away at you if you let it in), maybe they know more than you, in some primal intelligent way that makes your blood rise. Think about the impossibility of ever getting in there, knowing what they know. The trick is to stay on top. Don’t lose sight of what you’ve got to offer.
‘You want it, don’t you, Dooley?’
His glance at me is like a tremor.
‘The club. The chance. I brought you over here to try and figure out how much you want it. And I reckon you want it like a motherfuck.’
He stares at the ground and looks miserable.
‘It’s okay, Jake. Wanting it is good. I need to believe you want it and I do believe that. You’re not like the kids who’ll spin a lot of bullshit and shake my hand like a politician. You’re a better footballer than them.’ I think we both know who I’m talking about. ‘All I need is for you to tell me I’ve got you right, Jake. You don’t even need to say anything, just nod if I’m right about you.’
The kid looks up but not at me. I haven’t even noticed what the canteen dad was droning on about. Now I follow Dooley’s eyes and see that he’s gripping the mike stand with one hand, and in the other he’s hoisting the big one, the Best & Fairest trophy. He holds it high above his head and he’s saying proud to announce and the whole team’s behind him and let’s hear a roar of congratulations. He’s saying the Under-Eighteens Best & Fairest for 2008 is Jake Dooley.
Beside me Dooley gives one of his big shrugs and people begin to clap. The sound of a divided hall, some of them wolf-whistling and stamping feet, others clapping hands together, polite and unenthusiastic.
‘Could Jake Dooley please …?’ The canteen dad holds the trophy up high and scans the room, and other people start looking too. Reece knows exactly where we are, he’s craning round to see us. Dooley hasn’t moved.
‘Go on, kid.’ I give him a nudge towards the front of the room. ‘Go get your trophy, you’d better get used to the attention.’
But he’s gone rigid. For a moment I think he might be shy enough to do a runner. He gulps down air and looks at me like he wants me to save him.
‘It’s okay, Dools. It’s better than okay; it’s great. You’ve done it.’ I’m trying to convey the full sense of it, that I’m congratulating him for more than some two-bit B&F.
‘It should be Reece.’
He’s barely opened his mouth to say it; for a moment I think I imagined the words. But then he keeps going, in a desperate mumble towards the floor. ‘Don’t pick me ’cos of this, they just think I need it more than him is why. I never played a better game than Mick in my life and he’s still got more to grow, more than me.’
I stare at the kid who’s staring at the floor and by now half the hall is twisting round to stare at us. The sourness pushing up from my stomach might be that scotch I drank too quickly, the contents of my guts resisting the grip of my pants. The echoey feeling in my head might be tiredness, from last night in the too-soft hotel bed I couldn’t get comfy in, with other people’s toilets gurgling close to my ear. (And not just that hotel but all of them, and all the long procession of tight-smiling dirt-coloured towns I’ve chased this chance through, the chance standing in front of me – he seems a long way in front of me, this boy shifting from foot to foot and grinning stupidly down at his clenched fists as the noise in the room picks up and more and more people turn to stare at us). It might just be this, the rotting physical tiredness of it all, that makes me goggle-eyed, reaching for the bar to support myself as Vicki’s face swims up from far away, sunken eyes deep into the months of not moving, willing the sack of cells to hold on inside. Down the long tunnel I see Reece coming towards us and hear a steady rhythm of clapping and then the hall’s on its feet as Reece drags and prods Dooley away from me.
My body comes back under control as the eyes in the room move away, following Reece and Dooley up to the stage. The anger moves back in where the strange shakiness was. Dooley’s laughing now, although he still looks mortified, and I could almost spit; I could stand at the back of this hokey country hall and spit and shout at all the people in it, and most of all the two clueless little fuckers getting up on stage: Reece prodding Dooley towards the mike and presenting him to the room, everyone cheering now and feet thumping, wolf-whistles. At that moment I decide that neither of them will ever make it, not in the League. They’ll always play in the dust. My old man would have said the two of them, the way they are together, was weird and unnatural. A dove and a crow. Reece is holding Dooley’s hand above his head and spurring the crowd on with his other hand, whipping up more and more applause so that probably no-one notices when I shove my way through the heavy metal door of the club, into the clean smokiness of night.
Walking back to the empty hotel. Nothing’s in focus but I don’t care, I’m good to drive tonight. The Wesley game starts at ten tomorrow and although the club doesn’t realise it yet, what we need more than anything this coming season, what we need to be competitive in the modern game, is another tall forward. I pass the footy field on my way to the hotel but I keep walking and don’t turn to look at it.