Observations From Isolation: Ch.29 – Mates, Football, Etc…

I’ve got these two mates.

In the grand scheme of things, they’re new mates; we’ve met within the past few years. They don’t know each other – if there’s a thread binding the two of them, it’s me – but I regard both of them as close friends, the kind of friend you make later in life and that you value more than those you made when you were younger, when people were more disposable, when life seemed to stretch out before you and so a friend lost, at that point, was no big deal – there’ll always be more.

As you get older though, even if you feel you have ‘enough’ friends, the good ones are the ones who just pop up, the ones who you connect with on a level that you didn’t realise was possible, or even a thing, when you were younger.

So I’ve got these two mates.

One is a man of fine standing, one who, quite literally, follows the letter of the Law. I admire him for his knowledge of all things, for his dedication and for his beliefs, for his generous nature and his ability to see things for more than they appear.

The other I admire for his tenacity and his keen eye, for his ability to adhere to what’s right, and execute it, and then find the fun behind it.

If there is a connection between the three of us then, aside from myself, it’s a love, a passionate love, of football.

Rugby League, that most blue collar of blue collar sports, brutal in its primal simplicity, to the untrained eye not that far removed from what would have occurred in arenas the width and breadth of the Roman Empire, back in the good ol’ turn of the BC/AD times. But with, perhaps, less lions.

Regardless, I’ve got these two mates, and it’s the two of them who, in these times of global pandemic and general disarray, I can reply on to be (at the very least), by their phones when Thursday afternoons turn to evening and so the Round begins – whether or not any of us have skin in the game, there’s football on, and so we’re all watching.

My love of rugby league began in the late 1980s, when I was seven, and Brisbane entered a team into what was, back then, the NSWRL. The Broncos were upstarts, despite being captained by the immortal Wally Lewis, the national captain, but upstarts none the less.

They began the season, and their existence, by beating the reigning premiers, Manly, 44-10. For my eighth birthday, towards the end of that maiden season (where they missed the finals by a single defeat), I received a team jersey. I still have it – it’s (far) too small for me, and too large right now for my daughter, but it’s a treasured possession, if only because if signifies such an important part of my life. The beginning, if you will, of a lifelong obsession.

Claire, my wife, has utterly no interest in the game and so abides this rabid obsession during the season quietly and with admirable fortitude (and, indeed, thinly veiled amusement), to an extent that I can only admire.

For a long time I lived in Melbourne, AFL heartland, a town that, until the advent of the Melbourne Storm, thought little, if anything, of rugby league. Moving up here, to northern NSW, the friends we initially made were from the same background and so were AFL expats and I had no one with which to share not only the ups and downs of the mighty Broncos, but rugby league in general, and so I kept it all to myself, which was fine, but one needs an outlet when one is concerned with such a pastime as rugby league, no?

Indeed.

And so I have these two mates.

One is a rabid fan of a team. The other swears no allegiance, but is a student of the game itself. Both are devotees, both are lovers of this pastime, both are men of principle and both live and die each weekend by what happens on a 100×68 metre piece of turf, eight times over four days, and we back and forth, usually via text, on same.

Occasionally, I think it’s ridiculous that people of intellect could possibly follow this with such passion – watching 26 grown men, dressed the same, chasing a ball in order to score more points than the other team.

But then I realise the bigger picture, which encompasses why the three of us share such a bond – the game itself is a reason to belong, a familiar presence in lives that twist and turn like so much leaf litter on windy, autumnal days. It’s about allegiances and bitter rivalries, it’s about a sense of belonging within a likeminded tribe.

It’s about winning and losing, surviving and hanging on by one’s teeth in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity; it’s basic in its premise but iron-strong in its ability to appeal to the common man, not because of its seeming brutality but because of the relationships it manages to forge amongst the faithful. It’s sport, and we know it so well.

And so I have these two mates…

Observations From Isolation: Ch.28 – Train In The Paddock… Open Heavens… Snacks In Caves On Beaches With Babes…

It used to run the Melbourne lines.

Dark laps of the underground City Loop before exploding – rattling like crooked death on twin steel pins – into the faded southern light and heading east to Lilydale, north to Upfield and Craigieburn, across the top of the Bay and south to Williamstown, further west to Werribee.

Now though, almost five decades after its initial commission, it sits idle in a field back off the Richmond River, a single Hitachi EMU carriage (a Martin & King stainless steel), surrounded by swaying cane crop over from the Pacific Highway on the western side of Woodburn in northern New South Wales.

We find it online and book days there. The photos, aiming to show how it’s been converted and how comfortable and ‘left-of-centre’ it is as accommodation but still showing its rustic surrounds, remind us of time spent in the Deep South – reimagined places to stay set in wide and open spaces in rural Mississippi, places like here where hard work and dirty trucks, sweat-stained caps and faded flanno shirts define how it all works, the ease of time this carriage now offers a far cry from how real life unfolds about it.

Today, it no longer smells like hot brakes (dank rubber on shining steel discs), but takes on the olfactory hue of what’s happening in its place of dotage; hot cow shit in damp straw, wet earth under pomegranate trees, the perpetual aroma of cane syrup let loose via the sharp beaks of crows and the cockatoos that constantly forage the sweeping and swaying green-thick fields mere metres from the back doors, the doors that once disgorged weary commuters but that today see only happy travellers and those who want solitude, set nowhere with little company other than the cows, the crows, the long-legged sea-birds flown inland from the sea across the river and the way, ten clicks to Evans and the pounding surf beyond.

We park out the front, having navigated through the cane fields, unload and carry inside – food and a couple of bags of clothes, a pile of Addy’s books and a few of her stuffed guys, a pile of old newspapers to start the fire, a couple of bottles of good red, a bottle of single malt. No shoes allowed inside, so we kick them off and slide about the polished wood floors in our socks.

We potter about for a couple of hours, exploring the train, wandering down the edge of the house paddock to talk to the cows that mill about over the barbed wire fence down the bottom where the young fruit trees struggle in the hard earth, cracked and rigid from months with no rain.

It’s still green though, the grass thick, if sparse. We talk to the cows until it’s time to think about dinner. The cows ignore us completely.

The clouds appear not to move and yet they’re obviously being blown to oblivion up high, stretched across the dying blue sky toward the encroaching black from the west. The breeze whips in and plays with the fire, pushing the deep orange flame high, wittering through it and snapping it to breaking point where it disappears and another forms in its place.

I feed it. Thick blocks from the yellow bag bought from the servo in Bruns for fifteen bucks the day I filled the truck with diesel in preparation for this exact moment.

It consumes greedily in the background as we do crosswords together and Addy eats cut sausage from the barbeque dipped in cheap tomato sauce and talks incessantly, bits of lettuce hanging from her young mouth, sauce staining the front of her old t-shirt.

I duck inside and come back out, a yellow tin in hand which I top off and sip from, the cold and wet beer staining the back of my throat with that happy soft burn and I smile at my little biscuit and ruffle her hair and she smiles up at me with her mouth bulging full.

Claire stretches her long legs across from chair to bench seat and picks up the Good Weekend magazine to find the quiz and Mum leans back and sips from her glass of sparkling wine, the setting sun highlighting the sheer volume of her grey and curly hair.

I stand and pace and poke the fire and look about, across the open spaces, listen to the throaty, deep burr of trucks gearing down as they come into town across the river, a sound which backs the myriad birdsong and the gentle lowing of cattle in the field adjacent.

It all feels like nothing but a quiet, gentle and strong contentment – where you’re perfectly at ease with little, in a place where there’s nothing, but in terms of now and then, you’ve brought with you everything.

Later, Addy asleep, we cook ours under the tin out the front, sausages on the barbeque, a heaping salad bowl in the middle of the table. I uncork a bottle of French pinot noir, an indulgence for the occasion.

Across the way, the cane harvest has been in full swing all day, brutal and unearthly looking machinery all whirring corkscrews and spinning blades that’d look more at home on the Fury Road than here, trucks on tank treads boiling the mud alongside catching the threshed fibres. The clanking has back-dropped the scene, along with the truck burr and the birdsong, the cattle low and the tiny chatter, for most of the evening.

And when it’s bare, when the field has been stripped, they burn the stubble.
From the dark springs a pyre. It starts low and orange but builds and blows up and out and turns an angry red, then orange again, then yellowing into the darkness of the night. It’s dry and hard and it crackles across the flat ground to where we’re standing, almost lit orange too against the glow which burns hard and fast and is gone almost before you can properly take it in.

The burning crew circle the field, keep it contained, make sure it dies along with what it’s killing then, into dust-coated trucks, they head across the river to the squat little tavern on the old highway and drink their weight in beer in celebration of a good day’s work.

We watch it all in the space of time it takes to cook our dinner.

***

Later still, as I pace around out the back by myself, doing laps of the decrepit pool table, a bent cue in one hand, an almost spent beer in the other, the heavens open. It’s gentle at first, a smattering on the tin over my head, but the low-slung cloud soon enough loosen their collective grey loins and a torrent is unleashed.

The water pools at the base of decking posts and around the wheels of the truck parked just past the steps, running thick rivulets down its off-white doors, cutting lines through the dust accumulated after only a day in the middle of nowhere.

It eases but stays all night, the next morning bringing no respite; Claire sits up in bed and pulls back the curtain and can see nothing across the wide fields but white and wet mist. We’re hemmed in and more than happy to accept it.

The day is whiled away reading newspapers and books, batting about loose balloons from the previous night’s festivities. Mum’s come down for the first night, and around lunchtime, she heads home.

I’d driven into town to buy the papers earlier, finding nothing in Woodburn and so heading into Evans, stopping at the IGA, which only stocked the Daily Telegraph, moving on to the newsagent on the main drag to find something worth spending my money on. I get soaked in only the few metres from door to door.

I run back out, heaving open the door and jumping in in a single motion, tucking the papers onto the dashboard and heading back to the train where the day is whiled away.

***

We stack raincoats in the back of the truck, along with a small bag full of water bottles and apples, a bag of chips and some loose muesli bars. Time is of no consequence. I realise, minutes out from Evans, as the sun finally bursts from behind thick and grey cloud, that I’ve forgotten my sunglasses, and so we swing right into a side road and u-turn and head back to get them.

There are kangaroos grazing off the side of the road, so we stop and pull in to look. They straighten, stopping mid-chew, regard us from behind impossibly long eyelashes. We stare at each other for ages.

A little way past the Golf Club, there’s a road called Blue Pool Drive, and so we head down there, in search of potential blue pools. There’s nothing but deep bush and heavily rutted dirt track, huge and muddy puddles which paint the white truck a filthy brown. We reach the end and find a Private Property sign. No matter, we u-turn again and head back.

Time is of no consequence.

We end up, the three of us, on Chinaman’s Beach. The world is grey and blustery, but it’s fresh and the salt smell fills us to the brim. The sand is hard packed and pockmarked with the rain just gone. Addy finds a pelican feather and carries like in her little fist like it’s the most valuable thing on earth.

The wind whips us from front on. Her golden curls catch it and fly behind her. Her jacket, the lining of it, is pink. Her hair and the pink lining are lit bright on the low-colour scene, she runs past me and looks up at me and her eye-lashes and eyebrows are vivid in contrast to the comparative dullness of everything around her. She glows naturally.

I turn to see where Claire is, and find her just behind my left shoulder. She smiles and she glows too.

As we round the rocky outcrop at the end of Chinaman’s, crossing onto New Zealand Beach, the headland rises dramatically, a small but sheer sandstone cliff writ red with white and off-yellow streaks, towering above us, bright against the grey sky.

We find a cave set into the rock, just back of the water line and dripping but with enough dry spots in which to sit. We open the bag and eat chips and an apple each, eventually tossing the spent cores into the ever-surging ocean. Low tide but eternally hungry. They wash away before we can even count to ten.

Addy runs down the sand, finds a tall rock in the middle of it all and asks me to help her climb it. Claire takes a photo and we’re in silhouette against the tempestuous sky, climbing what would seem like, for Addy, an almost insurmountable peak. I swing her off of it, around in circles, and almost drop her to the wet sand as she laughs and wants to do it again.
We get to Snapper Rock as it starts to rain again, and we huddle under a low rocky shelf and eat the strawberries. Above us, Pandanus Palms have rooted in the impossible earth and their huge and knobbly pods have dropped on the beach. I whip one into the water, it hits a rock and bounces back, neither broken in the slightest.

Walking back, we take the inland track, back off the beach, unsigned, a goat track worn into the scrubby grass to white sand, veering north and up onto the headland, a plateau of sorts that extends as far as we can see, nothing growing higher than a metre but the vegetation thick and unyielding – I say to Claire it’d be a desert scene if not for the fact it was verdant from rain and rain, we need to push through sopping boughs and prickly branches which wet our jeans and, as we crest it all, up the top with nothing to protect us, the rains come again, sliding in fast and angular, blown by unseen wind, wetting us all the more and we run, squealing, laughing, cursing the timing. My jeans are soaked through.

Addy stops in front of me, forcing me to pull up short, to pick a single purple flower, the rain and wet of no consequence to her at all.

We step, eventually, out of a thicket into the carpark. A sudden emergence. It’s full now, it was just us a couple of hours ago, and the truck is there, glistening under wet mud. We jump in, turn the heater on, head back to the train, sharing the last of the chips as we drive.

***

That night, heading home tomorrow morning, as if to finish it off properly, as the footy winds down and the whisky supply dries up, the wind whips in and drives a last bit of rain sideways under the flimsy roof, moving me closer to the weather-board walls, zipped up with arms folded against the cold but loose and happy to bed down within the old train’s steel walls, no longer rattling death but somewhere in nowhere to take stock and slow down, surrounded by the cane stubble and truck burr across the river.

The days have seemed endless, and righteously so.

The Broncos, 2020 – A Eulogy…

There are times, in life, where one must let go. Times where, despite the passion and fervour inherent in one’s worship of an ideal, an institution, an expectation perhaps, that one just has to stop; to breath deeply; to accept.

I’ve  watched, as have many others, the demise of a behemoth. And yet no one can tell me why it died.

I’ve watched the queering of a culture, and no one can explain to me the twists and turns it’s taken to get here, why something once so mighty now rests in sullen repose, any excuse benignly offered mere background drone to the cacophony that’s ringing, reverberating almost permanently, from the belltower of the Church of Here & Now.

Fuck that noise, I’ve thought to myself on myriad occasion these months past. And yet I’ve not come to truly believe even myself, because what manner of man am I, if I believe the word of someone becoming, however incrementally, a non-believer himself?

Oh, how thou hast forsaken me, I’ve thought in drunken moments of biblical bastardry, turning the word of Jeremiah to my own whim with little, if any, thought to heavenly repercussion. To what end can this come, at what sordid conclusion can we possibly arrive?

The short term endpoint is inevitable, if unsavoury. It’s at this point that one must, as aforementioned, just let go, accept the consequences of a behemoth humbled and turn one’s thoughts to what’s next, and how this will play out; the far-reaching ramifications, if you will, of what’s unfolded and what is souring the blood of even the most staunch of believers.

For blow upon blow has rained down upon the object of the faithful’s devotion, a sight almost sickening in its brutality. Akin to the latter stages of a prize fight in which the challenger, his face battered beyond recognition, is still swaying on his feet, even the most hardened of fight fans silenced by the one-sided nature of it all, just willing him to fall, to meet the mat, to put an end to it all before more serious damage can be inflicted.

Except, in this case, it’s not the challenger that’s punch drunk and bloodied.

Of course, one must be sanguine about it all, for there’s never been a power that hasn’t eventually faded, a civilisation that’s not ultimately failed. And from these ashes grow new opportunity and, in time, greatness will likely be achieved once more.

In the heartland, the hot and dreary suburbs where the faithful worship, in fibro and twisted wood abodes, draped in the colours and sipping from yellow tins, this is where it will all begin to rebuild. It’s said that the devoted are the grease to the wheel of the machine – this blue collar grime will form the essence of the New Opportunity.

Some, though, have lost hope, and this is not of the realm of surprise. Some, not accustomed to the quagmire in which the object of their worship finds itself wallowing, have literally thrown their colours at the door from swiftly passing cars, the throbbing of muscular engines barely drowning their howls of rage, of disappointment, as they hurl their symbolic love with a passion and accuracy that’s been sorely missing from the Real Thing these months gone.

As if gestures like these will affect some sort of miracle, a realisation among the Team that there’s more at stake than they realise and so a rebirth happens before the very eyes of those who have doubted, a reawakening, a reunification, a new beginning, before this horrid end has even reached its inescapable conclusion.

For in the heartland, the hot and dreary suburbs where the faithful worship, these people need. They’ve become, over the years, accustomed to a showing of pride and devotion that matches their own. And their own, it is powerful indeed.

And so, one must stop, breath deeply, and accept. The search for answers is a fucked and fruitless exercise that brings forth little other than excess agony and despair, adding to an already overwhelming supply. The faithful must be just that; faithful to a fault and they need to continue to believe, and almost as importantly, to believe that the ship will right itself and the ideal, the institution, the expectation perhaps, will once again prevail.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.27 – Untitled…

Some of the spiders are still here.

Fat and long-limbed golden orbs stringing their thick webs from wattle to decking post, laden with slung bugs and wayfaring Jacaranda stems.

Most of them are up high, hanging off the teev aerial, shooting yellow-ish strands to the palms against the fence. Some come down low and thread across the path to the clothes line, across access through the back gate. They get dissuaded quickly though, and so we’ve come to an easy impasse.

In the dark, on Thursday or Friday nights, when there’s footy on and I’m drinking beer though, it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not I’ll tangle on my way to piss in the garden. No one wants eight legs on their shoulder when their business is out. Ain’t that the truth.

The news is all the Same. And yet it’s news you can’t do without. I’ve got people down south, as do many, and I read and talk and listen and try to understand.

At the bottle shop, life goes on and then some, the constant human flow rarely abating. People need a drink, and I am not one to judge; Don’t Judge, is my watchword. It’s hard to abide. To be honest, I judge constantly. And not as you’d think, not judging people by how much they drink – I could not possibly care less.

But I do judge by character, by how people carry themselves, how they interact with other people.

I don’t like people. Not really.

People need to follow the rules. At least in this day and age.

I’d not give a shit in hell if not for the fact I work in retail. If I didn’t, if I didn’t constantly come into contact with people who do things the Wrong Way, why would I care, really? But I do, and it grates, and just because we’re not in Victoria, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at the floor and follow the arrow directions marked on same.

I’m wearing a mask. So, it’s fine right?

Some people thank me. Others don’t bat an eyelid. I don’t care. I don’t judge.

The front garden is a blank canvas, one which Claire and I have started to paint upon, at least in theory. It’s coming to fruition though, slowly, a labour of love that will pay dividends. Once we get down to Ballina and load the truck with gravel, bring it back, scrape it out, spread and compact it – plus red-clay dirt, solid turf, expert paving courtesy of yours truly, who’s never paved a square foot in his life.

But you do it, right? You pave the squares, you make it level, you lay the stone and fill the gaps. You pave it.

Tonight, my plan was to watch football and drink beer. A simple, inelegant-yet-fulfilling evening; well spent, to my mind. I executed it well.

Around halftime – during a match in which I had no skin in the game, and so was watching for pure enjoyment – a round of phone-tag matched up and so I spent the second half, and then some, speaking with an old mate from Melbourne.

Where before we used to talk about rock ‘n’ roll and smoking weed, now we talk about where our kids are at. We talk about politics and the pandemic, about our work and our wife’s works, what we’re doing and what we want to be doing.

And we talk about rock ‘n’ roll and smoking weed.

For the two go, undoubtedly, hand in hand.

A few years ago, at Bluesfest in Byron, I walked over to watch Iggy Pop with nothing in hand other than a can of beer, and emerged half an hour later high as a kite. And so I walked back to where I’d started, where Claire was, perched in the back of someone’s ute on the raised road between the two major stages, and watched the rest of Robert Plant’s set as he took time-honoured Zeppelin songs and reworked them in his own way.

Purists hated that set, but it was one of the best we’d ever seen.

At one point, before I left to see a bit of Iggy, a photographer walked past and, glancing towards us, stopped in his tracks and took a shot of Claire, sitting on a milk crate in the back of that ute. She had tears running down her face as she listened to Plant do ‘Whole Lotta Love’, in his re-worked way, a song she’d grown up with. In the foreground, elbow on the truck’s side tray, was me with my mouth open, listening to the same song I’d heard since I was maybe five, done in such a fashion as to render me gobsmacked.

Would have been a cool photo. I wish I’d seen it.

Now, Claire is asleep. Addy is asleep too. I’ve finished my phone call, but not my bourbon. The air is moving in such a way as to amplify the highway, as opposed to the surf, and so there’s B-Double noise, not crashing waves.

It’s still. The wind, blustery all afternoon, has gone. It’s just airflow now, just the way the air is moving, that moves the sound. No one else in the neighbourhood is up. Just the trucks and the odd bilby (our local guy), and the tapping of black keys onto a white screen.

Which is nice.

The air is cold. There’s a last-ditch wintery cold snap on the way. I’m wearing jeans and boots, but could do with a jumper.

But I like how crisp it is.

And just occasionally, just every now and then, there’s a gap in highway traffic.

And it’s quiet. Perfectly quiet. Like nothing is happening and everything is fine. And that’s nice too.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.25 – Behind The Mask…

Three weeks ago, spurred by the news of two Covid-positive returned travellers in southern Queensland, I started wearing a mask at work.

Down south too, things were ramping up and masks were about to become mandatory for everyone. NSW was on a knife’s edge as Victoria began to spike, quickly entering Second Wave territory, stage 4 lockdowns imminent. The southern border was closed, but there was always the possibility, and coupled with the Queensland situation, I decided it was in my best interest.

No one told me I had to. Wearing a mask was at the time “encouraged” in supermarkets and other places, particularly in the city, but no one living or working in NSW had been told to wear them (medical professionals and police aside). As well, the bottleo is the, by far, the busiest shop in the village; since restrictions were introduced back in March, we’ve been doing the same numbers we’d usually do over a normal Christmas / New Year period. And while virus cases here have remained low, people have become lax, and as a retail employee and cynical journalist, I don’t trust anyone. Time to mask up.

I didn’t have access to the blue surgical-style masks you see all about these days, and so I folded an old bandanna in half and wore it over the lower half of my face like a bushranger. As expected, people commented, almost to a man. These comments ranged from asking whether I’d been told by the company to wear the mask, or if it was my own choice; if I was sick; people thanking me for wearing it; one person who was incredulous that I was wearing it (a comment she directed to the person standing next to me, not to me personally); and numerous quips on how, given I was wearing a bandanna, I should be on the other side of the counter with a shotgun. We all laugh, and move on.

The shop has since provided the blue surgical masks, which I also wear when the bandanna is in the wash. General thinking is, while wearing a mask, you’re up to 80% more unlikely to spread, or imbibe, airborne contagions. I’ve noticed wearing one gives me a far higher sense of safety. Having said that, given in the job I touch a lot of things – money, glass and metal surfaces, bottles already handled by other people – I still wash my hands dozens of times over an eight hour shift.

So the mask is there to stay for a while, whether it becomes mandatory in NSW or not. I’ve gotten used to both types of mask over the past three weeks – how they make breathing a little harder; how the surgical masks rub behind your ears; how they make you quite hot. This is fine, you work out how to get around it.  I’ve also had numerous conversations with other blokes about the pitfalls of wearing a mask over a beard (I’ve been growing mine out, it’s intense), which makes things a little tricky. So too if you wear glasses, I’m told.

It’s still not common to see anyone masked up here, and so even after three weeks, I’m still getting comments. In the main though, people seem to have become used to it. I’ve become the Masked Man From The Bottleo. I’ve found too, given people can barely see me, I’m much more likely to be in a good mood when behind the counter. Strange. My motivations for wearing a mask are to protect myself and my young family, my mum who I see at least once a week, my small community. I feel it’s best to be safe, rather than sorry, and so I’ll keep wearing it for a while, until it’s time to stop. Whenever that may be.

The Sickness…

The players are sick. They have, to a man, been infected with something vile and insidious, something which one doesn’t catch from a mere exchange of airborne contagions, the result of wintery affliction.

No. You could see it on their faces last week, eyes downcast and heads hung low. Hands on hips and faces set in stone-faced grimace as the reality and the deep-seatedness of this sickness set in.

They stood as one, a huddled mass beneath the posts awaiting yet another conversion attempt, and yet, despite their proximity to one another, you could barely say they stood together. Not a word was being spoken, not by the hungry up-and-comers, not by the battle-hardened veterans.

The Sickness seeped from their very being, almost visible to the naked eye, the resulting fever dream a stark and saturnine reality from which there seems little hope of recovery. Indeed, the players are sick.

***

Many column inches have been devoted to this sickness, this ailment that is afflicting this particular team. Much has been made of this spectacular fall from grace too, and to be sure, no other team in the competition is subject to this level of analysis, of probing this deep, this now constant demanding of answers.

Every team, in every sport, at some point during their existence, suffers that most uncomfortable of fates, the dreaded ‘lack of form’ – the period in which nothing goes right and so the team is bad, they offer non-contests, they’re the league easy-beats. As is the case today with the Broncos, although despite all the column inches, no one has been able to pinpoint why, exactly, this has happened so quickly, and indeed, so dramatically.

Their loss against the Tigers last week was perhaps the low point, their seventh loss in eight games, their only win since the COVID restart being against the even  more lowly Bulldogs the week prior. Any mistake that could have been made out there on Leichardt Oval, was, and the majority of these weren’t mistakes players of this calibre, at this level of the game, should have been making.

Luck was against them too, as so often happens when any Team is at its lowest ebb.

Bad luck is no excuse though. Perhaps in tight contests it can come down to luck, to being in the right (or wrong) place at the most inopportune of times, or otherwise, but Brisbane are beyond that now. Now, it’s about the Sickness, one which no one seems to be able to diagnose, let alone cure.

The symptoms are easy to spot – a distinct lack of communication; a disregard for the Team, instead playing as individuals; a seeming ambivalence towards even a base level of participation; inexperience, highlighted by the fact their fill-in captain has only played 28 games; a very obvious lack of leadership. All these symptoms combine, fester, spread. As a result, the Team loses, their confidence shot, it’s often over before it even begins.

Tonight, they come up against a typically rampaging Melbourne Storm, an outfit who have barely played a bad game in the past decade, and for a team lacking spine and purpose as the Broncos seem to be, a fixture like this couldn’t come at a worse time. Indeed, a conflagration of epic proportions is quite probable, a “cricket score” as one pundit noted earlier in the week.

It’s such now, that I awoke this morning with a knot in my stomach, almost knowing for a fact that what I’d be watching in 13 hours time, would be horrible, such has the sickness become a part of life following this team. And yet, us whose hearts reside north of the border, swathed in maroon and gold, we live in hope.

***

Coach Seibold is in a bind. One would hope he’s paying attention to Tigers mentor Michael Maguire, who has showed little mercy this season in dropping high-profile players who weren’t performing. For Seibold however, this is a luxury he can ill afford – one player out on suspension, another on hardship leave, over ten players on the injured list. Yes, he could drop Anthony Milford in order to send the highly paid Broncos pivot a message, but who would he replace him with?

Having said that though, replacing a highly-regarded player with a younger, more inexperienced player would have its benefits – sure, now wearing the 6 is someone who’s not done it very often at this level, but they’ll no doubt be hungry and give it their all, not infected by the Sickness thus far. It may not be enough to overcome the Storm, but at least it’ll offer a contest and perhaps provide some sort of salve, at least a temporary cure, to the Sickness the rest of the squad are languishing with.

So is this the answer? Bench every senior player who’s too overcome with the Sickness and replace them with young, untested development players? They’ll keep losing games, but they’ll lose them on better terms, surely, better terms than they’re losing now. As a fan, I’d rather Brisbane lose a contest, than get run over while playing football, in the words of a close friend of mine, “like the ’94 Byron Under10s when Woodlawn came to town.”

To this end then, the injection of Tom Dearden into the halves could well pay dividends. His return from injury and subsequent call up pushes the lost-looking Brodie Croft to five-eighth, and the all-too-regularly-underperforming Milford to fullback, a position he inhabited for a number of games last year.

With Staggs and Farnworth returning from injury too, perhaps this is the shake-up that will at least begin the paving of a long, long road to recovery? Time will tell, and as anyone who follows sport knows, this sickness too will pass, eventually.

But now, in the cold and hard light of day, this sickness needs to be identified, diagnosed, treated, inoculated against, eliminated. But identified, that’s the key, the first step,  because until the Team knows what the Sickness is, it’s not going to go away any time soon.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.23 – Trucks On The Beach…

The Moreton ferry terminal is eerily quiet for a Monday morning. No people about, ticket office closed, a distinct dearth of big boats. I briefly wonder if we’re too early, but a quick check of the Facts reveals we are, it would seem, in the wrong place – the passenger ferry and the car barge depart from very different locations.

And so our calm, organised beginning quickly turns into a mad dash across peak-hour Brisbane; stuck at lights on Ann Street in the Valley, behind delivery trucks and buses, the minutes counting down all too quickly. By some minor miracle we make it to the Port with time to spare though, tyres squealing and hearts beating, onto the boat which pulls out minutes after we’ve come to a halt.

Claire and I regard this a success, despite the wayward start to proceedings, and the week away begins.

Booked on a whim almost a year ago, six days on Moreton is the situation, the fact the northern border opened up two days prior to our departure a glowing coincidence we take full advantage of. The truck is packed and Relaxation is on the cards, swapping one beach for another in an effort to Slow Down, to Unwind, to take minds off what’s happening the world over and Take Stock. Keep it Chilled Out.

There’s enough beer in the back to stun a horse, and between us we have at least six books. Good times ahead, no?

The house sits on the edge of the hill, across the path from the western beach, Moreton Bay spread in various shades of blue before it, Brisbane itself hazy on the horizon, slightly south. A couple of mates and their daughter, us and ours, another family of mates a few houses down, a decent arrangement. We wheel off the boat onto hard-packed sand, wing a right and find the house, parking and unpacking, sorting the details.

Truck tyres are let down to 18psi. 4WD has been engaged. Fishing rods and tackle boxes litter the tray. The sun is out and the stereo turned up, windows down, sea breeze on your face as you ride up the beach, the slight to and fro as you cross loose sand becoming part of the appeal of it all.

The interior track leading from western beach to east is a half hour jolting wander, second gear most of the way, the occasional kick down to first to navigate the heaping soft sand thrown up by trucks come before. The landscape changes dramatically multiple times, from lush rainforest to scrubby dunes and back again, sparsely vegetated to jungle-thick. The track cuts through narrow crevices you can touch out the window, heavily rutted and bouncing, Addy in her seat in the back like a pinball, loving every second of it.

On The Tuesday, we manoeuvre across the island onto the vast eastern beach, bordered by the wild Pacific, and head north to the lighthouse, up the sandy track to the park and out to walk the North Point. Marty, Claire and I lean against the railing at the top, overlooking the north-east corner. The water is innumerable colours, stretching far east where it becomes almost black. Two whales frolic on the edge of the deep, slapping the water with their tails sending plumes of white froth skyward, rolling about without a care in the world.

Far below us, in the shallows off the rock, we see a couple of what appear to be large fish. We can’t tell what sort. To the right, a piece of rock juts from the headland, capped underwater by what seems to be a seaweed forest – from this forest, this hive, come more and more of these fish. Sharks, not sure what kind, but more than a dozen appearing from the gloom. They’ve spotted a shoal of fish and, for the next few minutes we watch them corral the shoal into a tight ball before attacking – jagging into the swarm and getting their fill, dozens of them, feeding together.

Far bigger, darker shapes get wind of what’s happening and from the deep, we see them gliding in for their turn.

On Wednesday, we point the trucks south along the eastern beach. The Bay has pulled back and the tidal flats stretch toward the mainland, myriad colours painting a swirling portrait. We stop at the dunes halfway down, I climb to the top twice in an effort to get some exercise. The views are stunning, dramatic. We pull sheets of old board from the back of the truck and the kids carry them up, and sit on them to slide down.

Our true destination is the Gutter Bar, a grocery-cum-bar tucked into trees on the southernmost tip of the island, famous (or infamous, depending on yr view) for serving little else other than burgers and stubbies of VB. We sip and eat in the sun, wander about the point finding shady spots with jerry-rigged wooden seats that’d be nigh-on perfect for an evening brew, watching the sun sink over the country across the Bay.

We head back north, just beating the tide, up onto the bypass track that winds up and across the hill behind Tangalooma, an hour journey that ‘bypasses’ a single kilometre of resort. It’s heavily churned and is slow going. Claire gets out before we hit it, and walks the rest of the way.

Two days later, and the trucks stink like rotten fish, the result of dead starfish washed up on the beach popping under tyres and coating the undercarriage with their insides. There were thousands upon thousands of them littering the sand on our way to the south end, I didn’t realise what they were until I’d driven over a patch of them.

We stopped and got out for a closer look, Addy picking a few up and putting them gently back into the water. Vast armies of Soldier Crabs watched us on stalked eyes, skittering away like flat blue waves whenever we got too close.

Each evening, we’d convene on the top deck to watch the sun sink. A quiet beer, a glass of bubbles, Addy messily eating dinner, regaling anyone who’d listen about how she fed a dolphin last night (we know, we were all there), and how she’s still hungry (we all know, she always is). Dinners are pulled pork and slaw; vego lasagne; curry; a buffet of leftovers. Drinks are beer, Micheladas, sparkling wine, the odd whisky nightcap. We watch the footy on Thursday and Friday night, the former being Marty’s team who win easily, the latter mine who lose brutally.

I turn it off before fulltime and head out to the deck where Claire and Verity are drinking wine and discussing the state of the world.

I read two books and write some stuff. A few of us go fishing and catch nothing. Claire goes for walks and the three of us play tennis and basketball. Addy is enamoured by the older girls and they babysit her for an evening while the adults go to the bar and have a couple of margaritas.

On Saturday afternoon, truck packed, we wheel back onto the old barge, beached with ramp down onto the sand. We’re tucked into the back corner and Claire and Addy head upstairs to sit inside and watch the island pull away behind us (the latter chattering constantly), as I mooch around on the main deck waiting for the air compressor to become free so’s I can pump up the tyres.

4WD has been disengaged. Relaxation has been achieved. It’s time to swap this beach for our regular beach. We’ve Slowed Down, Unwound, Taken Stock, kept it Chilled Out. I head upstairs too, and watch the Island fade away.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.22 – Walking In The Woods…

Events down south make people uneasy. They thought things were pulling back, a seeming return to some sense of normalcy. A fallacy in this day and age though, it would seem, and so The Fear returns, albeit in a smaller, perhaps more manageable fashion.

We grab a couple of apples from the bowl on the table, dig around for raincoats, pull on gumboots and jump into the truck. We stop for fuel and a donut and then head out of town, across the highway and through green and rambling farm country. We slow down to pass through Mullum, coming out the other side and gearing up again, out past the golf course before turning right and booming through the low-lying flat bordered by cow paddocks to the base of the hill where we gear down and begin the climb.

Here, The Fear doesn’t exist, merely a feeling which dissipates the further up we go.

She sits in the back and chats through a mouthful of fruit, her old and frayed stuffed sheep sitting on her lap. I sip coffee from the ever-present travel mug and navigate the turns and dips with one hand on the wheel. We reach the top and begin the winding drive through the rainforest, leaving Mullum and the farmland below, and the ocean across the way, behind us. We bump over potholes and the truck rattles and hums.

Passing Malcolm’s Corner, we head down into the gully, over creeks, the sixth and seventh crossings under water which sheets out behind us as we plough through, pulling off to the right and up the steep driveway to Mum’s place. She’s lit the fire and we eat donuts and drink coffee. The sun hasn’t yet made it into the valley and it’s cold and damp outside, despite the fact it’s almost nine o’clock.

After a bit, we pull on coats and boots and drive further up the hill, pulling in beside a looping and rambling fern, jumping out onto the wet grass, stepping across puddles left from last night’s rain. Some sort of flowering native bush arcs over us, upended pink trumpet flowers hanging down, their unheard symphony directed right into the wet earth.

Birds call from unseen boughs, and the noise echoes through the dense forest as we enter. It’s loud, yet there’s barely a sound.

She adds to the sound, the every-present chatter bouncing back to the birds as we step over strewn rocks and moss-covered branches fallen from the trees arching above us. The path is faint but we’re able to navigate, down dips and across dry creek beds, further into the wood and up, the path cut into the side of muddy hillocks, jerry-rigged steps build into the steeper parts, ducking under ferns and hanging vines.

We hear the small waterfall from a ways away. We stop every now and then to listen to the silence. The sound of water gets closer as we wander up and across, the bird call echoes still and the light is gloomy, even though we can see sunlight across the tops of trees up above.

The final part is muddy culvert cut by rain, a slide with rope looped around trees to the side to hold onto as you make your way down to the edge of the creek which pools in between mossy rocks, fallen trees rotted with moisture and cut through with divuts as chunks have pulled away and fallen below in wet and woody piles.

She delights in squatting by the nearest pool and dipping a hand into the water, squealing at the chill and wiping on her shirt front, cheeks rosy and nose running in the cold air. We wander around the side of the creek, climbing across and over to the small waterfall, the deep pool at its base, sheer rock behind, plant-life falling across it all, the birds still hidden in the trees.

We wander back soon after, the promise of time by the fire an allure too good to pass up in the chill. We climb back up the muddy culvert and follow the faint trail back the way we came. I piggy-back her for a while. Off to the side, as the hill cuts way, the growth is dense and green, eternally still, a labrynthian run of cuts and dry beds, criss-crossed with thick, branch-like vines looping trees and swinging low to the ground before soaring up once more into the canopy where you can’t see them any more.

She laughs most of the way back and concocts elaborate games to be played under ferns, or balancing on top of fallen trunks.

We come out the other side, into weak sunshine which washes the hillside for the first time all day, leaving the wooded birdsong behind us to be replaced by the rosellas and whatnot that stay in the open. We walk back to the truck and head back down to Mum’s place where it’s warm and there’s no Fear. She has another apple and anything bad just doesn’t exist.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.17 – On Life As It Is Today…

Claire’s away for the weekend. Has loaded the car with all manner of contraband and hit the blacktop, a high-speed run to an undisclosed location, her co-conspirators too numerous to mention, the lot of them half drunk on mulled wine, good cheese and the righteous feeling one gets from fresh air, exercise and bucking The Trend.

I, meanwhile, having completed the parental tasks required of me – with vigour and aplomb, I might add – am now ensconced upon the couch in front of a brightly-lit teev, a game of football on the go, a can in hand, my feet up on a chair, the picture of house-bound Saturday night fever.

My team aren’t playing and so a carefree vibe is the order of the evening.

Outside, dark has well and truly fallen, blanketing in blackness a reasonably calm scene, one far removed from what’s transpiring down south and across seas about the globe. Indeed, an ill wind blows across there and the fear blusters with reckless abandon, whipping carefully preened hairdos and ruffling feathers.

In our part of the world, and indeed, the majority of the country, the pandemic seems to have halted, at least for the time being; an uneasy truce being reached and so people are going about their lives in as normal a fashion as possible.

Some are taking to it too quickly though, more than once in the past few days I’ve had to ask groups of blathering local folk to kindly move their long-time-coming reunion out of the literal doorway to the bottleshop lest I cut them off and the night, for them, remains dry.

No one argues, no one wants to spend a night without a Drink.

Down the way, across the rest of this State and over the border to the south, things have gotten out of hand and are rapidly escalating. Editorially sanctioned racism fills pages of Melbourne’s other major metro daily, columnist Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun seizing with barely disguised glee the idea that ‘those people’ are to blame for fresh outbreaks; ill-informed, windy rhetoric at best, insidious and vile race-baiting at worst.

And so the rest of the country watches from afar as things escalate and the state with easily the most hard-line restrictions of the pandemic thus far, succumbs at a rate not seen in months. Drastic measures are being talked about, and states to the north and west are eyeing their southern cousins with undisguised alarm.

Adding to this missive a few days later, I have a cold, which in the normal scheme of things – it’s winter; we have a three-year-old at daycare – is nothing of note. In the current circumstances however, I’m now viewed as a pariah, a walking disease factory most likely out to infect you all. Pull out a tissue in a public place, and the looks you’re receiving could melt lead. I take to using diversion tactics (“Oh wow, what’s that over there?”) so’s I can blow my nose without being publically castigated.

It’s now Wednesday, the winter sun warming all outside. Claire, with a morning off, and Addy have rambled their way through the badlands to the south and are eating sandwiches and strawberries by the river while I recuperate and drink coffee and trim my Lockdown Beard.

I think to myself, standing in the sun out the back, that we’re damn lucky. For it’s not carefully preened hairdos and feathers that are being ruffled, but livelihoods and lives. Here down south, all over the world. It’s something that’s never far from my mind. Indeed, this is life as it is today…

The Dawning Of A Realisation…

Most days, when you first wake in the morning, arising from a deep sleep, there’s that blissful second or two of disorientation. That short time where anything is possible and everything is within your grasp, a blank slate to be filled with whatever it is your heart desires.

Quickly, of course, your brain sets itself, and the full realisation of what was, and what’s to come, crystalises and the day begins. Sometimes, as the fog lifts, something jumps within as you realise the day ahead is one of action and excitement perhaps, a day you’ve been looking forward to. Other times, naturally, it is the opposite, and the day you’ve been dreading for some time has arrived and your only wish is for sleep to rise again and reclaim you, presenting that blissful ignorance that blocks out all else.

And so it is with football in general, Brisbane in particular.

The COVID break was the deep sleep. The return of the game after a two month hiatus was that blissful second of waking. The time since has been the crystallisation of all that’s happened and all that could be, and indeed, I am waiting for metaphorical sleep to reclaim me. For the realisation is grim, and there’s no shaking the fact that this has become a waking nightmare.

Too dramatic? Perhaps. It is just a game, after all. And yet for those of us whose hearts reside north of the border, draped most permanently in maroon and gold, these are nightmarish times to be sure.

And so it continued, on a cold night in Gosford, the dew settling thick on the field, frosty breath fogging thick from the mouths of players on both sides, a continuation of a season that has, almost inexplicably, waned and waned again, the downward spiral beginning to approach the realms of inevitability.

And how could this be? Since their inception in 1988, Brisbane have never really failed. Sure, there have been many times when they’ve lost, when they’ve been beaten, when they’ve not lived up to an extraordinarily high expectation put upon them by an entire state. But they’ve never sunk as low as this, never seemed so utterly helpless.

It appears, watching from afar, that they barely acknowledge each other’s existence, which as anyone with even a sliver of interest in organised sport will know, is hardly a recipe for victory.

Time and again, in the face of a Newcastle attack far from elite, they faltered. They failed to capitalise, to push and push, to counterattack.  Time and again, they dropped ball, slipped off tackles, went it alone instead of moving as one. It’s incoherent, it’s muddled, it’s a far cry from the pre-COVID game, an even further one from anything remotely resembling a Glory Day.

Peter Sterling, in commentary, made note of players who only showed up and made good when things were swinging their way. Players with undoubted talent – Milford and Pangai Jr in particular –  but whose demeanour on the field was commensurate with the way things were going, not with how they couldbe going. The mark of a good player is turning up at all times, pushing and straining in order to stem, and then turn, the tide. At this stage, Brisbane seem to have precious few ‘good’ players, and so the tide is surging against them.

This is a culture issue. A culture within the club. A culture which has turned and for reasons known to only those on the inside, is presenting on the field and threatens to tear down all that’s been built in the past 32 years.

As such, as we wake from the deep sleep that was the COVID break and revel, for a brief second or two, in the fact that there’s actually football, a realisation is slowly dawning. The realisation that this team, this mighty institution, is just not as strong, as brilliant, as all-conquering as we want it to be, and also, that it may be like this for some time.

There is so much promise within the forward pack in particular, and this makes it all the more stark a realisation; on paper, Brisbane are a team to be reckoned with. In the flesh, out there on the park where the game is played and heroes are forged in the deep fire that is indeed, rugby league, they’ve left us wanting. Inexplicably.

This weekend then, what are we to expect? Brisbane have a run of games now which, on paper again, seem to be tilting towards our favour – Gold Coast, Auckland, Canterbury, Wests. This is an opportunity to restore some much needed morale and confidence, presenting against teams known at this juncture to be easy-beats, or at least easier beats. But can Brisbane step up and meet what is still a challenge?

Theoretically, against teams a little slower and lacking the elite skill being exhibited by the current top outfits, Brisbane will have a chance to exercise fundamental game skills, regain their communication, begin moving as a single unit. For unless they too want to be lumped into the ‘easy-beat’ category, on a more permanent basis, this is the time to step up, and prepare for what’s still to come.

And if not? Then that realisation that’s been dawning, coming from the blissful disorientation of the season restart, will become stark reality, and us whose hearts reside north of the border, draped most permanently in maroon and gold, will indeed be living the nightmare too.