AT HOME IN Melbourne, they play kick-to-kick wherever they can: in the backyard, the hallway, at the park, on the MCG at full-time, walking down the street, in the aisles of the supermarket, in the rain, the wind, the dark. He tackles her to the ground and knocks the wind out of her and she’s left gasping for air, but she smiles the whole time. For goalposts they use trees, bins, milk cartons, other footballs, rocks, dogs, points on the horizon, people, actual goalposts. She loves the feeling of the grass under her feet, the wind on her face, of running till her lungs almost fall out. She loves breathing against the cold air, bumping into her dad, sprinting after that red misshapen ball as if you’ll die if you don’t. Her dad commentates and she is always the star, always running down the ground, kicking on her left, three seconds to go, kicking from sixty out, the entire defence closing in on her, and even if she misses he always puts her on his shoulders and sings, ‘We’re the Eagles, the West Coast Eagles…’ and the crowd is always chanting her name, ‘Perthie, Perthie, Perthie’, and she is always tipped to win the Brownlow, a firm favourite for the Norm Smith, about to kick her hundredth for the season.
Up till now, she has learned to guide the ball down to her foot with her right hand, to kick it so it flips over and over itself, to bounce it so it returns to her hands. She has learned what it means to play on the wing, to be tagged, to hold the ball, to be pushed in the back, to go to ground. These are all words she knows but they suddenly take on an elevated air, they are grouped together to form a new dialect, a kind of code they use in front of her mum, who doesn’t get it at all, who doesn’t get anything most times, who says phrases like: ‘How did your footy game go?’ and ‘Has the horn sounded?’ Words that are slightly off, just to the left of their meaning, words that mean Perth can share a secret moment with her dad.
He takes her to the MCG and Kardinia Park and Waverley. She loves walking to the ground before the game, that you talk to strangers who know the same people you know and they speak to you as if you’re in the middle of a conversation, yet you’ve never met them before in your life. The complete strangers say: ‘Let’s hope Sumich has got the guts today,’ or ‘Shame about Heady,’ or ‘D’ya think Woosha can do it again?’ The complete strangers smile at you, they look you directly in the eye and yell ‘Go Eagles!’ like it’s a password, or some kind of test, but it’s for no real reason other than the joy of agreement. During the game they all yell and yell and yet they never yell ever in their lives. A man in a suit or a child clasping a toy footy or an elderly woman dressed head to toe in club colours, they all yell the same thing at the umps: ‘You bloody white maggot!’ People say all kinds of rude words and applaud and whoop, and this never happens anywhere else she knows of.
And it is dirty, rough, bloody, this game, but it is graceful and strong and hopeful, and it is the best and worst of the way humans are.
IT’S THE LAST day of the summer holidays, and tomorrow she starts high school. Things are going to be different from now on, everybody keeps telling her that, always emphasising from now on as if a line has been drawn through the middle of the timeline of her life. She doesn’t know how or why things will change. Her mum, her dad, her teachers, her friends, her neighbours, the woman at the milk bar, the postie, the librarian, they’ve always been the same. The curtains in her bedroom and the carpet in the lounge room have never changed, neither has their concrete driveway, or the gum tree on their front lawn, or their brick letterbox. All year long, every year, she watches sport on telly with her dad – cricket and tennis during the summer, footy during the winter. The weather is hot and cold when it’s supposed to be. Meatloaf is on Wednesdays, tennis is on Saturday mornings, Get Smart is on Sunday afternoons. The possibility that any of these things might change, any of them at all, makes her feel small, quiet, shaky-limbed.
She’s been playing cricket and tennis with her dad all summer, like they’ve done every summer she can remember, but perhaps because from now on starts tomorrow, her dad has grabbed the footy from the cupboard in the back room. She feels self-conscious with a footy in January, it’s clumsy and imprecise in her hands, but her dad had said, ‘Let’s have a kick, Perthie,’ and all she wants to do is be with her dad, always, so she says yes.
‘Let’s have some toast, Perthie,’ or
‘Let’s do some star jumps, Perthie,’ or
‘Let’s go to the moon, Perthie,’
and the answer is always, ‘Yes, Dad, whatever you’re doing is what I want to do, too.’
They walk down their suburban street towards the high school oval, past the houses made of red brick, past the tiny barking dogs, past the big quiet dogs, through the sticky, summer air. She tries not to step on cracks in the footpath. She knows it won’t break her mother’s back but she still can’t bring herself to do it. They handpass the ball back and forth. Her dad runs a few steps ahead and claps his hands together and says, ‘Perthie, Perthie, Perthie,’ and she handpasses it to him and then runs a few steps ahead, clapping her hands together, too, ‘Dad, Dad, Dad.’ For some reason you always have to say their name more than once, even when you know they can definitely hear you. They zigzag the ball up the footpath, past the hedges and fences and men watering lawns, dodging trees and bike riders, sneaking into front yards to retrieve the ball from flower beds. Her dad says things to her that he says to the real players on telly:
‘You got time, Perthie,’ or
‘Get rid of it, Perthie,’ or
‘Good hands, Perthie,’
and he always says her name, as if he’s making sure she knows she’s still there.
When they reach the oval – her school oval from now on – they stand in the goal square, a few metres apart, and kick the ball to each other. She concentrates on pointing her toe when she kicks it.
‘You know your mum and I met at a footy game?’ her dad says.
Perth shakes her head. ‘Nope.’
The red ball passes in the air between them, from her foot to his hands, from his foot to her hands, and back again, over and over, tracing an invisible arc between them. Perth marks the ball on her chest and her dad says, ‘Out in front, Perthie,’ and she kicks the ball back to him, and it travels up and then down, like the sun rising and setting on a horizon.
‘I was playing for North Beach Warriors in WA,’ he says. ‘Your mum was there on a date with another bloke.’ Perth can’t imagine her mum on a date with anybody. He kicks the ball back to her and she holds her hands in front and marks it. ‘That’s it, Perthie,’ he says.
‘We were just out of the six,’ he continues, ‘and had to win to make the finals. We were down by five points when the ball fell into my hands in the forward pocket.’ He holds the ball above his head. ‘A snap kick on my left,’ he turns towards the goals and kicks around his body. ‘Sloane’s done it! The Warriors are in the finals! You little beauty!’
He runs towards her, crouching down to the ground as if readying to pick her up, but Perth dodges him and sprints past him, running through the goalposts and after the ball. It bounces towards the outer fence and she tries to scoop it up as it bounces one way, then the other. She can never guess which way it’s going to go. Suddenly her dad is behind her and he tackles her to the ground and hugs her to him and they lie there catching their breath.
‘I saw your mum behind the goalposts,’ he says. ‘She was an image, I’ll tell ya. I didn’t even hear the siren go.’
ALL SHE REALLY knows of Perth, the city, comes from watching the West Coast Eagles play on the telly. Her dad works for them, and he travels over there from Melbourne some weekends during the winter. He sits in the box behind Mick Malthouse and she sees him sometimes, his hand, or the tip of his nose, or the top of his head, or sometimes his whole face, his whole entire face, there, on the telly. The Eagles glow with tanned skin and white smiles, the skies in Perth are blue and open, the shadows move across the ground in defined shapes with hard lines. The commentators refer to the visiting team’s flight over as if they’ve come across on the boat with Captain Cook, as if they’re lucky to be alive. The visitors always seem a bit ridiculous, sweating more, cursing more, tiring more, always raising one arm to shield their eyes. The Eagles move effortlessly throughout all four quarters, unfazed by the heat, not even squinting in the blinding light.
‘The light’s different in Perth,’ her dad always says. He always says it as if he’s never said it before and she never points that out. When he says it she looks through the window of their Melbourne lounge room and sees it: the heavy, shadowless light, the feeling as if she’s sinking into it, as if she’s drowning. Everything has that soft sway to it that underwater plants have. The colour in that Eagles Television World suddenly appears so over-pronounced. Even the brightness of their blue and yellow uniforms seems childish and overdone against the dark, composed colours of the Victorian clubs.
Footy under that kind of sun isn’t the footy she knows, the footy she understands. It feels too clear, too perfect, too easily scrutinised. There is so much about footy that is about the cold, grey blur of it, the blaring white winter skin of it, the imperfection of it. The umps get things wrong and they get things right depending on what side you’re on, and the lack of clarity is part of it – it’s a part of the game of which to be proud. Was it touched? Did he hold the ball? Was it ten metres? It is part of the game to question everything, every single thing, as if you know, as if you can do it better, always, and that was dependent on its imperfections. How did such a thing work in light like that? It didn’t seem right. It was a kind of light that suggested there might be answers to everything.
THEY SIT SIDE by side in the goal square, looking out across the oval. The four goalposts rise up at the other end with the grand and straight-backed formality of a line of guards. The grey-bricked buildings of her high school are scattered behind them.
Her dad leans back on the palms of his hands, his long legs stretched out in front of him, the ball resting on the grass beside him. ‘The sun sets over the ocean every night in Perth,’ he says. Perth has never seen a sun set on an ocean and she loves that thought: that a sun might set, and stay set, as if it were concrete.
‘I fell in love with your mum in front of one of ’em,’ he adds. He’s never said that before, and he doesn’t look at her when he says it. He leans forward and picks up the ball, flipping it over and over, expertly, unthinking, as if the ball in his hands is an inevitability. ‘By the time the tip of that sun disappeared into the ocean, I knew. I couldn’t ever watch anything beautiful without her.’ He’s silent then, for the smallest of moments, and it is this tiny silence that is alarming, that makes her gut drop.
‘That’s pretty gross, Dad,’ she says, though she doesn’t think it gross at all.
Her dad nudges her shoulder. ‘You start high school tomorrow.’ He says it as if she doesn’t realise, as if it has just occurred to him, as if it will be a surprise for her. ‘You’ll be too cool for me soon.’
‘I’m already pretty cool.’
‘You’ll get into headbanging or hip-hopping. Or boys.’
‘As if, Dad.’
‘Won’t have time for your old dad.’
She looks down at her hands. From now on. She wants to tell him that this morning, as she lay out her new school uniform and new school bag and new school shoes and new school books, she felt a ball of fear growing inside her stomach and it wouldn’t go away. He thinks her fearless, flawless, she sees that in every movement he makes around her. She wants so very badly to be the person her dad thinks she is.
Perth leans her head into him and he puts an arm around her. ‘What’s it like?’ she asks.
‘What? Being this handsome?’
She looks up at him. ‘Dad.’ She can see the bristles of hair on his cheeks. ‘Being, you know. A grown-up.’
He takes a moment. ‘It’s the same, really,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel much older than you, Perthie. Honest.’
She doesn’t believe him. She looks again at the high school buildings. They seem so small from here. She squints one eye and pushes down a goalpost with the palm of her hand. She crushes a portable with her fist. She flicks a tree over with her fingers.
From now on, there will be more things to learn: that boys play kick-to-kick on the oval, that girls sit around in a circle on the nearby asphalt talking about boys, that people fall out of love, that parents get old, that feelings change, that they change all the time.
But now, in about six seconds actually, she’s going to grab the ball from her dad’s lap and make a run for it, she’s going to run as fast as she can to the other end of the ground, towards those goalpost guards, towards those grey buildings that will become bigger as she moves closer. She’ll imagine a roaring crowd, a clear and perfect day, the pronounced lines of her own shadow gliding next to her.