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Chapter 1

the ferret and the hooker

Dad just landed the job as assistant rugby league coach at St Philip's College. We've never had a real coach before. We've always relied on the phys. ed. teacher, Frank Maloney, but a team coached by him runs like the South Sydney Rabbitohs without Russell Crowe. Dreadful. The boys say it's a historic day, but I'm not so sure.

A group of boys gathers at the sports shed. On the notice board is a sign-up sheet with names scribbled in pen and pencil. I can't read half of them. They were probably written with too much excitement.

‘You gonna join, Sticks?’ asks Gerald Fraser, my best mate. We all call him Gez. He's itching for the season to start.

When I shrug, he says, ‘Aw, come on, man, you've got to. We all are.’

It's a disturbing trend. For the sixty or so boys in Year 12, there are already fifteen signed up and at least another twenty talking about it. Even Cuppas, who eats on his own at lunchtimes, put his name down.

We all turn to see him standing against the wall of the drama block, devouring a sausage roll, staring back at us.

‘Cuppas will be in the forwards,’ Gez says, ‘because that's where the big blokes play.’

‘Nah, he's not fit enough,’ says Dale Peterson, who we all call The P. ‘He'll run off the bench at best—an impact player.’

‘A big impact,’ I say and the boys all laugh because Cuppas is a total dick.

He bullies kids in Year 8, talks trash to the girls, tells stories about doing things he's never done. Like that time he said he did it with Amanda Lillicap after the Year 10 semiformal.

‘We were going for it hammer and tongs,’ he said the next day. ‘Out behind the hall.’ The Year 10 semiformal was held in an old community hall, but the garden out the back was the place to be. St Phil's thirty-centimetre separation rule didn't exist out the back of the hall; no room for the Holy Spirit there. ‘She wanted me badly,’ Cuppas said. Of course he said that about Amanda. Only problem was, she got picked up early.

The P said to Cuppas, ‘You wouldn't find your own knob under all your fat.’ For once, The P was probably right.

Cuppas grabbed his man-boobs and squeezed them at The P. That's Cuppas’ comeback when he doesn't have a comeback. We don't call him D Cup for nothing.

The P writes his own name on the sign-up sheet then writes Samantha Dean, as a joke. She's one of the more nuggety girls in our year. Then he asks me, ‘What about you, Sticks? Has your old man decided where he wants to put you?’

The P's good looking and styles his hair in a fashionably messy way. He wears shirts a size too small because he's got muscles a size too big. He's into fitness big time and when we have phys. ed., he goes out of his way to help the girls. Shows them how to pass a ball this way, or kick it that way. But the best thing The P's ever done was to show the girls how to do a Fosbury flop instead of a scissor kick over the high jump bar. All us boys hung around because when the girls landed on the mat, their skirts flicked up and we saw their undies. Then Samantha Dean had a shot. We saw her cellulite and left.

The P plays club rugby league, gets into rep teams and makes sure everyone knows about it. That's why we call him The P. He's that good you don't have to say his full name. I told him once that his nickname sounds like royalty. What I didn't tell him is that I call him His P-ness behind his back.

If—as the saying goes—opposites attract, then The P and I would be the best of buddies. Blood brothers. But that saying's rubbish. The P hates me. I'm too ordinary. I'm tall and skinny, my neck and shoulders ache because I stoop too much. I wear big shirts to hide my deformed chest, which has a depression in the middle of it. In fact, I've never taken my shirt off in front of anyone at school, except for Gez. I always fake a sickie when the swimming carnival comes around.

When it comes to me and The P, this is how I see it: in five years’ time, The P will have a job and a degree and will be getting laid. If anyone asks him whether he remembers Jack McDermott, he'll say, ‘Who?’ They might say, ‘We called him Sticks, remember?’ A nostalgic look will come over The P's face and he'll say, ‘Oh yeah,’ but then say nothing because there's nothing else to say.

‘I probably won't make the team,’ I say.

The P nods in agreement.

Gez says, ‘Give it a go, Sticks, your old man would love it.’

Gez is right. If I joined, Dad would cream his pants. He loves the idea of me having a go, trying to be a man. So for a moment I think I should, but with Dad there, I'm just not keen.

Since landing the footy job, Dad swaggers around the house like it's 1992 and the Brisbane Broncos have just won their first premiership. Over dinner he starts reminiscing about his glory days in the Kingaroy club scene. Kingaroy's a farming town two hundred Ks northwest of Brisbane. Its claim to fame is peanuts. The town has a few traffic lights, some silos and an abattoir. Nothing to get excited about.

‘I played in the Kingaroy A Grade,’ he says.

‘You've told me a million times.’

‘Scored a heap of tries,’ he says.

‘Yeah, Dad, I know. And they called you Ferret.’ I laugh at him.

‘What's so funny about that?’

‘C'mon, Dad, Ferret? How's that not funny?’

‘They called me that 'cause I had energy,’ he says, his voice firm, defensive. ‘I ferreted the ball from the back of the scrum, or off the ground. No one could beat me to it.’ He points his fork at me, half smiling. ‘There was a talent scout there once. He said I deserved to play for a Brisbane club.’

I roll my eyes. ‘Yeah, but you weren't good enough.’

‘Hey!’ he says. ‘I was good enough. I could play, let me tell you. Only thing is, I chose the army instead.’

I stare at him.

‘Best thing I ever did,’ he says.

‘Dad, I've heard all this before.’

‘Won't hurt you to hear it again,’ he says.

The army is everything to Dad. There's a photo of him on the wall. He's on one knee in long grass with an assault rifle at the ready. He was twenty at the time, training at Canungra near the Gold Coast. He loves that photo. If there is one thing of Dad's that has been dusted in the seventeen years since I was born, it's that photo. And it gets done at least once a week.

We live on Dad's allowance—a disability pension for an accident he had at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville—and scraps of insurance work for his old army mate, Roger Pask. Every now and then Dad processes insurance claims at home on the internet or over the phone.

Dad doesn't talk about his accident much. But there really isn't much to say. He was on the back of a personnel carrier, coming into base after doing manoeuvres. It was raining and he slipped on the metal tray as he was getting out. He broke a vertebra in his neck and damaged a disc. He's had migraines ever since. He stayed in the army for two more years, trying to work despite his injury. The army shifted him around, took him out of his unit, gave him a cushy desk job. Then he had an operation to sort out the dodgy disc, but it didn't work. Eventually he was discharged.

Dad either doesn't have a migraine tonight, or it isn't bad yet. He's too chatty. When he's feeling all right he'll rave on for hours, but when the migraines come I give him a wide berth.

These days, his stomach bulges over his pants, his nose has a bump from a break in his playing days and his broad shoulders suggest he once bench pressed twice his bodyweight. When he's not chatty, he's moping around like the world's against him. With Dad, it's all or nothing.

I watch as he cuts his food into bite-size pieces as he always does. He doesn't take a mouthful until everything on his plate is carved up. He starts on his potatoes. ‘You should give it a go, Jack.’ Then he cuts up his broccoli. ‘You're big and strong enough.’ And finally his steak.

‘Dad, I'm tall and skinny.’

‘So was Paul Hauff.’

He reads my blank expression. ‘Hauffy played full-back for the Broncos a few years back. Built like you, kinda stringy, but I'd slip you into the centres, I reckon.’ He runs his tongue between his lip and teeth and pulls out a piece of gristle. ‘Or maybe the wing.’ He pushes a piece of potato into the gravy. ‘Then again, would you give full-back a go? Like Hauffy?’

‘What if I don't want to play?’ I ask.

Dad laughs my comment off, shoves some potato into his smiling gob and shoots me a wink.

My tragic footballing abilities are common knowledge at school. Some lunchtimes, I join the guys on the oval in the hope I'll pull off a magical try or drill The P into the turf with a hammering tackle. It never happens of course. For the most part the boys play me on the wing to keep me out of the action. If The P has his way—and he always does—I'm on the opposite team to him, but that suits me fine.

I lope about. I'm all limbs, no coordination. Whenever the ball comes my way I kick or pass then curse myself for being too gutless to have a go. When the boys ask me, ‘What did you do that for?’ I just lie by saying I don't know the rules.

But Dad made sure I learnt the rules early on. He'd scream the rules in front of the TV all weekend. When I was a kid, he put me in loads of teams: under sevens in Townsville, under nines in Brisbane, under tens in Sydney, under twelves in Brisbane again. The army made our life a revolving door. Just as well, two years in any one team was more than enough.

But now that Dad's landed the job at school and all the boys want to play footy at lunchtime, maybe I've got to revisit my football past, no matter how un-glorious it was. Either that or end up hanging out with Cuppas at the drama block, listening to his stories about the sex he's never had and trying to ignore the fat and skinny jokes wafting over from the oval.

So the next day at school I have a go. At the oval, in the wing position, I whisper to myself over and over, ‘Tackle him low!’ which is Dad's mantra when he's watching games on the telly.

Then The P comes running at me, tall, upright, like he has a pole up his arse. His legs and arms pump in line with his rigid body. I try to anticipate his next move as he stares me down. Will he step? Will he try to go through me? As he approaches, every rule from Dad's Friday Night Football coaching manual comes to mind: ‘Stay on your toes! Approach the ball runner! For Chrissakes, drive your shoulder in below his ribs!’ I try to do just that. I lunge with my shoulder leading, my arms spread so I can wrap them around his waist, but he stutters and I end up driving my face into his rising knee.

The P bolts past like nothing's happened. I watch, clutching my cheek, as he scores a try and rubs the ball against his crotch in celebration.

His team celebrates, while mine gathers around me.

Steve says, ‘Jeez, Sticks, what was that?’

Gez slaps my back, takes my hand away from my face and grins. ‘Owww, man, that's gotta hurt.’

I force a smile. My jaw throbs. I look at my hand for blood, but I can't believe it—absolutely nothing to show for my effort. I go back to my wing and hope for the bell.

That night I watch TV with Dad. ‘I played hooker,’ he says, still going on about the team.

‘In fishnets or stockings?’ I ask.

But he ignores my joke. ‘Back in my day, the hooker was an important position on any team. The rules used to be different back then. Jack, are you listening to me?’ He picks up the remote and turns the volume down. ‘But the game's faster today. Better, I reckon. How fast can you run a hundred?’

I don't have a clue. I've never asked for the time sheet in phys. ed. I imagine Dad running a hundred in slow motion: pasty legs pumping beneath a round gut bouncing over the elastic of his shorts. He blames his medication for his weight. Says it makes him hungry. He blames his migraines for lots of things.

‘I used to do it in thirteen,’ he says. ‘Maybe fourteen. I wasn't that fast, but I was good on my feet. Had a good step. I had the instinct.’ He goes on and on as I watch Homer chase Bart around the kitchen table in silence. ‘I scored a try in a grand final. But the point is, I trained hard and made a go of it.’ He emphasises ‘made a go of it’ and looks at me. ‘You should have a go as well.’

‘Dad, would you shut up?’ I reach for the remote, but he holds it up in the air.

‘Have you signed up yet?’ he asks.

I look back at the TV. Homer is wringing Bart's neck.

‘Jack, did you hear me?’

Tired of him, I stand up.

‘Where are you going?’

‘My room.’

‘No you're not. We haven't finished talking.’

I head off, but he follows close behind. He stops at the door as I slip into my room.

‘There's only a few days left,’ he says.

‘Like I don't know already,’ I say and shut the door.

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