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.

Anxious Times Before Kickoff… A Contest Ensues… This Cruel Mistress That Is The Game We Love…

 

The text message comes in moments before kickoff. ‘Talk to me, mate. What’s going to happen tonight?’ It’s a question I’m unable to answer as I watch the two teams stream onto the park, Manly looking fit and confident, Brisbane somewhat nervous, not sure themselves of what’s to come.

As the pandemic has eased over the past weeks, there’s actually a crowd in at the Central Coast Stadium, albeit a small one – 178 it’s later revealed, a handful of diehards allowed into the ground to cheer, to back their Team. They all seem to be old blokes, Manly supporters draped in maroon and white, waving flags, sipping beer from plastic cups, eyes bright under the brims of logo’d caps.

What is going to happen tonight, I think to myself, a cold can in one hand, the other nervously twirling the edge of my moustache, my go-to when I’m nervous, anxious, not sure of what’s going on.

After last week’s mauling at the hands of the reigning premiers, it seems a fair few changes have been made, but how effective could they possibly be? Coach Seibold has wielded the axe in the ensuing seven days, players shifted up, others moved across the park, some on the bench, yet more this week watching from home; still beset by injury and suspension, it’s a Brisbane team that projects little more than uncertainty.

Indeed, the two pre-pandemic rounds, as is pointed out by Andrew Johns in commentary, seem a world away, two games Brisbane took relatively easily, only to stumble so overwhelmingly after the break that those games have almost ceased to exist in the minds of the Faithful.

Still, Faithful we are and so I’m on the couch, myself draped in maroon and gold. I’m not too concerned on the result, I write in reply to the text message, but I do want a good game of footy. A competition, at the very least.

From the outset, it seems this might be a tall order. Brisbane receive the kickoff; their ensuing runners are easily muscled into submission; Croft, at the end of the first set of the game, kicks out on the full. Manly then, with their first set, seem to be able to run the ball with consummate ease, their forwards chewing up post-contact metres.

I shift uneasily on the sofa, take a sip from the can.

It seems, at this very early point, and indeed, over the past fortnight, that what Brisbane have needed is two-fold (three, if you count their dire need for ball, over the last two games) – one, they need someone talking, leading. Two, they need someone (either that leader, or anyone else), to provide a spark. This is Brisbane after all, they’re not a shoddy team (at least not on paper), and so one gets the impression that if someone were to just do something good, then the team would automatically lift.

As the opening ten minutes tick past, agonisingly slowly, it gradually becomes apparent that this is a vastly different Brisbane team to the one which failed to show up last week. I sit up straighter, lean forward, begin to hope that perhaps that contest I’m wanting, will actually happen.

For Brisbane are beginning to play football. Manly, no doubt expecting the same opposition the northerners provided last week, are knocked off their game – Brisbane begin to look cohesive, they begin to move with purpose, the momentum begins to shift their way, they start to get the ball, keep the ball, use the ball.

It comes down to possession – give Brisbane an equal share of said ball, and they’re dangerous; give them the majority, and they’re looking near impossible to overcome. Starve them though, and they immediately retreat to survival mode, which in this competition, as has been evidenced by teams like St. George, Canterbury and the Gold Coast, isn’t enough to stop a rout, a rot, a general collective falling apart.

And then the spark – a high kick on the fifth across field to the right and the lightning fast figure of young Xavier Coates is there, takes it mid-air, manages to offload to a rampaging Kotoni Staggs, back from a week in the sin bin, who steps, pivots, decides against a safe pass for a certain score and instead kicks, chases, grounds it.

Brisbane are playing football, and it looks like we’ve got that contest on our hands.

Coates, who only last year dominated for QLD in the Under20 State Of Origin, looks set to begin, properly, what may well be a long and successful NRL career – a Greg Inglis clone, as Johns points out, multiple times, in delight, and that he is. The intuition, speed and power, not to mention his freakish ability under the high ball in attack, that he exhibits throughout the first half, is prime and indeed, just what Brisbane need; Croft and Milford constantly kick high to him on the right, and more often than not, he answers the call, scoring once, coming close again multiple times.

It could well happen, as a result of the youngster’s solid game, that Brisbane will need to swap out an Oates for a Coates on that right edge. Shift big and tall Cory to the left, fill the gap currently being juggled between Farnworth and Arthars, both of whom seem, at a glance, too slight to play a position that these days, is as much about power and brute force, as it is speed and grace.

Just look at Manly’s Moses Suli – playing in the centres, he harks back to the likes of Gene Miles in that he’s got grace (not that Miles had much grace, lets be honest…), but is as big as most front rowers getting about these days. Up against him on the Brisbane side was Darius Boyd, who obviously, during the week, knew what was coming his way and so aimed to tackle low in order to stem the man’s rushing game, which Boyd did to decent effect throughout the course of the match.

It all proved too much for Brisbane though, their collective foot coming off the gas not long before halftime, and not really returning until the final five minutes. During this gap, they didn’t capitulate, more just lost touch, not something you can do against a team like Manly, even with a three try lead. Manly scored three times, once shortly before half time, again shortly afterwards, again soon after that. A couple of soft penalty goals and it’s gone from 18-0 to 18-20, and the lead has slipped away.

Despite the fact Brisbane were offered a couple of opportunities to snatch it from the proverbial jaws of defeat, it wasn’t quite enough to overcome an opposition they should have, after leading by three converted tries, wrapped up and disposed of easily.

But, as I think to myself as I drain the last of the can and flick off the teev, I wasn’t too concerned about the result. Yes, they should have wrapped that up. Yes, they should have maintained focus for the full 80 minutes, not put on 18 points then leaked 20.

But to have played a game like that, having played as they have for the past fortnight, is such an improvement as to bring much joy to hearts north of the border, hearts that have been in mouths (if not downright shattered and left lying, bleeding, on loungeroom floors all over Queensland), hearts that would have been questioning what the fuck is going on?

There’s a long way to go, and indeed, this could again be ‘one of those seasons’, one where the word ‘rebuild’ gets thrown about as a damp and clammy bandage attempting to cover the wound of ‘not that great right now’. But this young team have promise, and as such, if blunders like the past two weeks can be forever vanquished, they should begin to gel properly and so reap the rewards us, The Faithful, know they’re entitled to.

ADDY & I: walking the streets of jaffa at dawn…

 

It’s dark and still, for just a little while more, nothing moving out there except the cats. Rogue and freeform, they pad along stone pavements ducking under heavily-flowering bougainvillea, spiky trees written bloodshot that yawn over ancient walls and cascade down to the ground below.

I roll over behind shuttered window – glassframe beyond open to the encroaching summer heat – left side numb, not attuned to the feline wander but awakened through an odd juxtaposition of ancient and infant as the former, the salat al-fajr, begins its eerie wail and at almost the same time, the latter, Adeline, stirs at her mother’s breast and rolls, four months alive, onto her back and almost smiles.

We’re halfway across a world as we, two of three of us, awake. From cold to hot, from quiet to loud, from the antipodes to Tel Aviv; a four-month-old girl with the promise of golden curls, myself and Claire, lodging with her brother in digs as alien as they seem familiar.

We get here late in the night prior, and despite that, Adeline down, the three of us older ones sit up and drink Israeli beer and talk and the moon traces its silvery path across the desert sky and yet we still talk and drink in each others’ stories and experiences because it’s been a time between meets and each of us thirsts for knowledge of what each other has done in the ensuing time and then, eventually, we sleep.

***

And so when I awake, my left side is numb because I’ve been propping Claire upright, back to back, so’s she can accommodate the nugget who, since we’ve left home, has ceased to sleep on her own and will only drift off when she’s touching her mother and so both haven’t slept well.

I rise in the dawn light and walk to the bathroom to piss, drink some water. I quickly, noiselessly across richly-rugged marble floor, dress and pull on my battered old Blundstones, moulded to the shape of my feet, and strap on the carrier, thick loop around my waist, pick up Adeline and press her front to mine and encase her in the canvas, loops over my shoulders, a clip in the back to hold it all in place.

Her tiny, white legs hang from the side and tap against my hips as I walk out of the room, her hands gripping the front of my shirt, her head sideways, eyes drooping and she’s asleep again before I’ve made it to the kitchen.

Behind me, Claire has rolled over for the first time all night and is asleep too and will be for hours.

We walk through the kitchen and down the steps to the front door, street level, and haul it open, stepping out onto HaTsorfim, crouching to pick up copies of The Jerusalem Post and the international edition of The New York Times which have been delivered before first light and which I stuff into the back pocket of my shorts lest I have a chance to sit and drink coffee and read while she carries on sleeping (something which, as I discover as we do this over the coming days, never happens as nothing opens early in Tel Aviv, much less the city section of Jaffa, ancient or otherwise).

We walk down HaTsorfim, a small single-lane one-way street that passes under old arches and becomes too small for any traffic other than foot – follow the curve past a couple of restaurants, closed at this hour, follow onto Tayelet Mifraz Shlomo directly opposite the Ottoman Empire-era Mahmoudiya Mosque.

There’s no traffic, there are no people. The cats have gone. It’s quiet and still, warming up as the sun begins its ascent proper as we walk down Russlan to Retzif HaAliya HaShniya on the foreshore, the deep green-blue of the Mediterranean stretching as far west as I can see. We walk along the stone boardwalk above it all heading south towards the ancient port, her small legs swinging slightly, she turns her head, breathes out loudly, continues to sleep.

As we wander further along the path, watching the sun dance off the water’s surface, on the left the old city rises from the scrubby bluff sloping down from Segev Street, golden stone walls building southward until they’re all-consuming, rising from the cobbled footpath and soaring high, a buttress against the ever-surging sea and whatever and whoever has coursed across it over decades, centuries and centuries.

Now the southern-most part of Tel Aviv, the port section of Jaffa – or Yafo, in Hebrew – was established almost two thousand years BC, built on a high ridge above the water, a site associated with myriad biblical stories, a site of military importance, a bustling centre for trade over the course of the ensuing four thousand years.

Today, in the early morning light, it stands serene, like it’s made peace with whatever has happened in the past, and whatever happens next hardly matters at all.

***

(The week prior, we’d been in England, in Yorkshire, staying with an uncle, and it was here that Adeline had stopped sleeping in the manner to which Claire and I had become accustomed and so I’d been walking early with her for seven or eight days. There though, it’d been along misty country lanes, bordered on both sides by woodland, the sounds of pheasants running through ground growth and pigeons in trees, the odd hare pulsing across verdant fields.

It’d been just as solitary – the two of us, in a place far from home – but as different a setting as one could possibly imagine from the one in which we find ourselves now).

***

At random, I turn into an archway hewn into the yellowed wall and we slowly make our way up stone steps worn smooth by the footfalls of countless people both ancient and modern. We leave the Mediterranean behind us, the smells and sounds of the sea and the greasy green lower walls against which it’s pounded for aeons fading along with the sunlight as we’re encased in shadow, into the gloom, the stairway curving left and upward.

On ledges above, cats now sedentary regard us languidly from under heavily lidded eyes.

It’s a maze; the steps crest to a landing running back north, more steps head toward the east, another landing above heading three ways. Doors dot the stone leading to small artisan studios, galleries, homes in there too, tiny windows high above with small pots of coloured flowers on the outer sills, the glass behind them open slightly to let in any hint of a breeze.

(I quietly, as much to break the silence as anything else, describe the surroundings as we – two of three of us, from so far away –  pass through places where so many have been before but which to me, and so to her, are of another world and even though she will never remember this, I feel she might need to hear. She sleeps and clutches my shirt, her ear so close to my words and yet so far away.)

We follow landings, go up steps, around corners. We have the place to ourselves, not a soul about. Even though we’re in shade and the stones are cool, I’m sweating but she seems fine, legs still hanging, hands still clutching my shirt. A small flock of birds flutters overhead and land as one high up on a wooden beam jutting from the stone.

We pass the Vatican Embassy, wend our way around about and up, eventually coming to the top and into the Kdumim Square at the Zodiac Signs Fountain, back into the sunlight and the mounting heat, the white stone almost blinding as my eyes readjust. There’s no one up here either, normally a bustling mass of fleshy tourist surge, but at the moment bereft of it all, tranquil.

A breeze in off the ocean cools us for a second and brings with it the sounds of the city awakening below.

Even though we’ve been turned all about whilst climbing, I have a general idea of which direction is which and we head past St. Peter’s Church and over Segev via the Wishing Bridge, carved with more signs of the Zodiac. I stop and look down the hill now we’re in the open, the crescent moon bay below stretching north, the sea a constantly moving, rippling jewelled sheet. The modern city of Tel Aviv in the middle distance – tall glass towers, reflecting the light and seeming to shimmer – presents in stark juxtaposition to where I’m standing, to where I’ve been walking.

I look for respite from the heat across Abrasha Park, past the Ramses Gate, restored from an archaeological site dating back to the Egyptian ruler’s time in power (not long after this port was first established), and we find palms throwing skinny shade where we stop, and down the hill on the other side we can see the house we’ve come from.

I count the top floor windows from the left and find ours, know Claire is dead asleep behind it, in the cool of the tiled room, away from the sunlight, ever-present now, dancing on the water, the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat.

I fan the two of us with one of the newspapers pulled from my back pocket. She moves a little, changes the position of her head, the outward breath, keeps sleeping.

I begin to wander down towards HaTsorfim, through the Sha’ar Ra’amses Garden, out into a carpark and onto the street. To the left a little way is the house. To the right, past the end of the street and down an alley is the suspended orange tree, heavy in the morning still, not swaying at all.

We pass across, through a covered side road and wait by Yefet Street, beginning its morning bustle, sloping downward towards Yossi Carmel Square and the clock tower. I dart across and we’re in quiet again, shade by the side of more modern buildings for a block or so, apartments and bodegas, small businesses, some smart, others shabby, flyers pasted haphazard on their front doors, across the glass windows.

All locked, no one here yet, nothing to sell at this hour in this old town. No one here but mounting traffic back across the way, and the two of us, wandering odd streets at an odd time in what seems like an odd city.

I think to myself that it’s probably us who are odd.

For want of something to do with my hands, I gently tap Adeline’s butt through the canvas carrier and she breathes and doesn’t even stir.

We’re in the flea market now, a maze much like the ancient stone web we’ve already made our way through, but flat and in place of stone walls and glass-smooth footstones are endless alleys bordered on both side by cafes and restaurants, open spaces where people are erecting small canvas roofs to escape the sun and protect the wares they’re preparing to sell, odd switchbacks and deadends where nothing seems to be happening until you look closer and see, through small unwashed windows, short rows of tables, another café, somewhere to eat, part of the fabric of this tiny cut of Jaffa.

Alleyways and narrow paths are covered with swathes of coloured cloth, nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under the faded blush cover and old, distressed sun-shades stretched across alleys entwine with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights to create a glorious chaos, a melange of old and new painted ochre with desert dust and baked under a middle eastern sun.

I don’t know what the time is at this point, my watch is on the small table next to the bed and I can’t see a clock. It can’t be much earlier than eight, I think to myself, and yet the place is almost deserted.

Nothing starts early in Tel Aviv, and why would it?

***

(Later on, the three of us venture through the market, the maze of small streets, and it’s a different beast entirely, awake and going about its day, gently pulsating, slowly heaving with people both alert and not-so-much. We sit and drink weak coffee under the shade of a faded orange sheet strung across an alley outside a small café, watching the people – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes dangling from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise.

Cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower a few blocks down, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat).

***

As we slowly walk these streets and alleyways, I think to myself how interesting a prospect this is, how almost familiar and yet never quite Jaffa is, how it almost seems like a place I know, a typeof place I know, and yet it never quite makes it there and I then feel like I’m lost somewhere in the world and not a soul – not one who can do anything about it, anyway – knows where I am or what could happen to me.

Most likely nothing will happen, and yet this place is indeed as alien as it is familiar. I’ve wandered streets in much the same fashion (sans small child) in various European cities, southern American rural settings, Asian markets and English villages and yet this is New and Different and, with my tiny sleeping charge, exciting and Real and seemingly Raw.

I tell her this, dropping my neck forward so’s my words rustle through the light fuzz that adorns her skull, my eyes still upward, mapping our path ahead. She’ll not remember it, but perhaps she’ll soak it in.

I smile to myself as I gently tap against the canvas, in time with my slow footsteps and she sighs and turns her head again and I see on her cheek, a small imprint of one of the pearl snap-buttons from my shirtfront.

***

We wend our way toward where I think the house is, down new paths and alleys, across actual streets, albeit small ones within the warren – Rabi Khanina, Ami’ad, Rabbi Yohanan, in no particular order – the place gently waking up and coming back to life. I recognise this and that, eventually marking a bodega as one I know if close to Yefet and we find the winding road and wait, traffic building bigger now, and quickly cross onto the shady side, a bit further north and so down HaHalfanim, a foot alley, a trickle of grey water down its centre, out onto the restaurant curve of HaTsorfim and left a couple of small blocks to the front door, digging in my pocket for the key, unlocking and reefing the heavy wooden door open and into the stone cool, up the steps and into the kitchen where I put the kettle on and Adeline wakes up and looks up at me and her blue eyes sparkle like the Mediterranean we’ve just left behind us.

I step out onto the covered terrace, shaded and bordered by myriad plantings, overflowing tomato stems and terracotta pots in long and ungainly formation, a long table, cool tiles underfoot. I unclip the carrier and lay her down on a small blanket and she lies there and waves her legs around and clutches the small, woollen sheep an aunty had given her in the UK.

I make coffee and spread the papers on the long table and spend more time talking to her about where we’ve just been than reading the news.

She won’t remember any of this.

But, four months alive, she rolls from her side onto her back and smiles.

Wherefore Art Thou, Maroon & Gold?

 It’s late, sometime after ten, when the malaise sets in. My phone, now silent, lies on the table amidst the debris; two or three empty beer cans, a half full bottle of Makers, the overflowing ashtray.

Claire has long since gone to bed and I’m left in the semi-dark to contemplate the cruel nature of sport, of life in general. The immediate post-game analysis has petered out, a series of rapid-fire text messages with others around the country, and aside from the chill wind through the palm trees, it’s quiet.

I know it’s naught but a game, but the malaise thickens, swirls overhead, settles on the cold concrete beneath my feet. What can one really do about it, I suppose to myself. I pour another bourbon, splash some on the faded wooden table-top, try but fail to think of something else.

Conceding some ninety-three points across the space of two games while scoring only six, is another level, a level previously unheard of, at least north of the border. There are no doubt many heads being scratched as people search for answers, backs of necks being rubbed while eyes are downturned, those responsible lashed by torrent after torrent of verbal kickback, asking the question, What’s Gone Wrong?

Boys playing men it seemed in large part, one team so much more suited to the game than the other, that it became embarrassing as it dragged onward to its eventual sad and desperate conclusion.

Embarrassing for those watching at home, yes, but surely more so for those on the turf in the face of the booming hurricane, little before them but a sort of red, white and blue miasma, wave after ferocious wave pushing them closer and closer to the rock-strewn edge, where, after 80 minutes, they eventually beached, bruised and battered, on the shores of sporting oblivion.

Or so it seemed at the time.

Not much can be read from the final result other than one team was far better than the other – far, far better, essentially a non-contest, which at this level of professional sport is almost an affront to the game itself.

For two weeks now, this once proud team (and indeed, proud before the pandemic break, having won two from two), have succumbed, they’ve capitulated almost. They’ve been starved of possession, robbed of top-flight players due to injury and suspension, they’re the youngest team, on average, in the competition, they’re much maligned anywhere south of the 25thparallel, and yet these excuses, as they were, are no longer useful.

Perhaps if the contest had been closer, but two consecutive results like these, hint at something else, something deeper and more sinister than the likes of an injury or two, the odd suspension.

So what did go wrong? What has gone wrong?

A lack of communication, for sure; a lack of commitment, most likely; a lack of passion, a lack of confidence. A team Lacking. A team struggling to adapt to even the most simple of situations. A team better suited to a level well below that of ‘elite’. A team not even there. For if they were, a contest would have resulted, which while it may have still been one-sided, wouldn’t have been embarrassing. It’s one thing to lose, but to have fought. It’s another entirely to lose and to have done very little, if anything, about it.

People, many people, will be sitting with elbows on knees, chins cupped in hands, staring at a dark television screen thinking, so what next? Is this the nature of it all now? Is this what we, as supporters of this team, have been waiting for these months of lockdown gone?

Perhaps. It’s easy to pick up the draw and look ahead to what’s on the cards for next week – indeed, isn’t Forward the best direction in which to look? Yes, but moving forward is a struggle if you’re not acknowledging what’s come before, and as such, these past two weeks’ results can’t be merely swept under a rug.

No. The root cause needs to be found, and a rebuild needs to begin. Again. For otherwise, the malaise will thicken all the more, the miasma will build and swirl, the hurricane and the rocky edge, the shores of sporting oblivion, will become all the more prevalent. But where to begin such a rebuild? Sitting in the semi-dark, pouring more bourbon, flicking a butt into the ashtray, the malaise rises and boils again. I don’t even know where to begin.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.16 – The Football Is Back. Long Live The Football…

This evening, you’ll find me on the couch, a maroon and gold scarf draped around my shoulders, a cold can of beer in one hand. I’ll have rushed back from work and, via the fridge, come straight into the spare room, where the teev is. I’ll be watching football, and I’ve been looking forward to it for months.

Professional sport the world over came to a grinding halt along with everything else a few months ago, but rugby league, the ‘working man’s game’, will be the first top-flight sporting code to restart during this pandemic, and people who’d never before deigned to watch this particular code of football, will at least now be paying attention to how it all pans out.

During the game’s hiatus, I’ve been living in the past, delving into the catalogue of ‘Classic Matches’ that NRL.com have been posting online, scanning the list and picking off old games that have fallen in my team’s favour. I’ll watch these matches late at night, like it’s a guilty pleasure, with the sound turned low, revelling in victories past, when live sport was something you took for granted, and it looked like it’d never end.

Round Two of the rugby league season, the final round before it all got called off back in late March, was played in empty stadiums. Watching from afar, you could hear the hollow knock of bone on bone, the thumping and grunting, the swearing and whatnot. You could almost hear the sweat fall and smell the turf as it got churned under cleated foot. It wasn’t the same though, without the roar, without the pulsating background noise that confirms that people, a lot of people, are living and dying with every pass of the ball, with every kick and tackle.

Watching these old games has been somewhat of a tonic for that, seeing and hearing crowds barrack for their team, sledge the opposition, shout and yell and go hoarse, spill beer on the hill and queue in long lines to piss at half time. Get a pie and another beer on the way back to the seat.

It won’t be like that tonight, still vast empty stadiums, and this is, truthfully, regrettably, how it should be and how it should stay. The NRL’s call for socially distanced crowds by July 1 is a ludicrous suggestion, the absurdity of it (and, indeed, the arrogance), almost undoing all the good work they’ve managed to achieve thus far in restarting the game at all.

At this stage though, away from the backroom brawls and all that’s gone on in order to get a game back on a field, this is what it’s about – the game is back. If you think too closely on it, it’s quite a ridiculous notion, one of grown men running about after a ball in order to score more than the other team and therefor justify high salaries and a certain celebrity status among the general public.

But the notion of professional sport is an extremely important one within society and the barracking for a team is a quintessential part of humanity, no matter the perceived silliness of whichever sport you’re talking about.

For me, it’s about rushing back from work and grabbing a can, sitting on the couch and throwing my arms up in frustration, or jumping from my seat in a moment of excitement. It’s about boring my wife witless with details on how it’ll possibly play out, of texting with likeminded mates on which team is likely the most prepared after the break.

It’s about the fervour and passion that abounds when one invests time and energy, as a supporter, into a group of people, no matter what they’re like off the field, because it’s about The Team and The Game.

So you’ll find me on the couch this evening, a maroon and gold scarf draped around my shoulders, a cold can of beer in one hand. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll have a broad grin spread across my face or if my brow will be furrowed in vicarious frustration. Regardless, I’ll be watching football and I’ve been looking forward to it for months.