Dunlop Volleys work as well on the dance floor as they do in the bedroom. Or so I thought.

I’ve always thought that the Dunlop Volley worked as well on the dance floor as they did in the bedroom. It didn’t matter if you were seeing out a couple of sets of grass court tennis, busting a funk at an Italian disco party or laying roofing iron over open beams 30 foot in the air the Volley was the true all round shoe.

It’s not just me who has held this view. The experts have tended to agree. Roof contractors across the country wear the Volley. These are people who understand the importance of safety and comfort in a shoe. Evonne Goolagong wore a pair of Volleys to her famous victory at Wimbledon in 1971. ‘Edo’ Edmondson did the same at the 1976 Australian Open.

Continue reading “Dunlop Volleys work as well on the dance floor as they do in the bedroom. Or so I thought.”

The A and B of Adelaide take-away

Responses to my recent move to Adelaide have varied greatly depending who I am speaking to. Variations of: “Adelaide?”, “Why would you do that to yourself?” and “How’s that working out for you?” seem to bob up on a regular basis. But if the enquirer is South Australian, aside from the disparaging remarks about Victoria it is surprising how often “Have you tried and an AB yet?” comes up. Continue reading “The A and B of Adelaide take-away”

Running Into A World Of Your Own

Drenched in sweat, I am blowing hard but steady. All I can hear is the sound of my own breathing mixed with the wind in my ears. I stare off into the middle distance with what is probably a stricken look on my face. I no longer look at people but past them. I was looking at people earlier. Looking to see what they were doing, what they were wearing, how they were traveling. But none of that matters now. All that matters now is how I am travelling. All that matters now is putting one foot in front of the other. Continue reading “Running Into A World Of Your Own”

In the hole

Saturday morning, an inner suburban booze den affectionately called a local, hidden amongst a neat row of terraced townhouses. Quaint looking from the street, any delusions of grandeur are shattered by the grubby fit out. A cancerous grey skin of decade old smoke and sweat congeal over the squat ceiling and a mish-mash of sporting memorabilia that entertain the walls. Ingrained dank is testament to the lost souls who shat, spat, spilt and spent their lives away, slumped in a bar stool.

As usual, West was the first punter in the pub. He offered a familiar wave to the bartender. Most people see themselves as recreational punters. Nothing wrong with that, Australia replies. Punting to West was more than just recreational. He loved it; loved the thrill of a big win. Loved studying the form lines, looking for something others couldn’t see. Punting defined his existence.

West had been in the hole for most of his adult life; lived with his mother and had worked the same job since school. That didn’t matter; he had been paid the day before. He had paid back the $300 he owed his mum. The remainder had gone to the neediest of his credit cards. Except for the money for the punt. Today, he had $100 in his pocket and that ‘things will come good’ look in his eye.

West carefully took the scrap of paper from his pocket. His bets for the day, the product of two days pouring over the form, were laid out in childish scrawl. The first bet didn’t jump for more than an hour so he pulled up a stool in the empty bar and listened to the day’s race preview.

A bloke about West’s age, wearing four days growth and a lopsided cap, wandered into the bar. He walked straight to the TAB betting window and put $50 on a runner in New Zealand. Grabbing his betting slip he walked back to stand within spitting distance of the TV.

Never much of a beer drinker, West ordered a glass of scotch, and that meant house scotch. At $3 a glass, 100 Pipers was the drink. He walked to the boards and sipped as he checked the form. The four jumped out at him. It wasn’t on his list but the pub was dead and he was getting restless. A $5 go in New Zealand was as good a way as any to kill time. West placed his first bet of the day.

Both men watched the screen as the horses were loaded into the barriers. As the race jumped, an old lady shuffled into the bar. Agnes dropped in around the same time each week, always dithered around for a few moments confused. Her bets were always the same: a Daily Double, numbers one and ten in both Melbourne and Sydney. She was old enough to remember when a bet was hand-written and unlicensed SP bookies ruled the city’s pubs. A collect couldn’t be made until the end of the day back then. Now it was computers, televisions and barcode scanners. Finished with her dithering, she asked the bloke at the TV for a hand. Too consumed by the race being played out on the screen, he couldn’t acknowledge her existence. It was left to West to help her put on her bets.

His horse thoroughly beaten, the bloke at the TV slammed his fist into the table, swore and stormed over to the form boards. Not West though, his runner got up and delivered a $60 collect. Happy days, it was going to be a good one. Another scotch was in order.

Lost in self-congratulation, West didn’t notice Hamish duck in off the street. Something about the stitch of his hems and the sharpness of his part meant Hamish didn’t quite fit the downbeat backdrop but West smiled when he saw his mate. He had known Hamish since the day dot. They ate dirt together at primary school, drank, smoked and chased the same girls through high school but Hamish had well and truly come good since then; had climbed the corporate ladder and made partner with some big law firm. He had married an equally ambitious woman and they had three kids.

It didn’t take long for West and Hamish to find their groove: work, life and old times. The bar was quiet and their conversation filled the room. It wasn’t his drink of choice but West and Hamish shared beers. It had always been that way when they caught up. West sipped, Hamish drank and they shot the shit. It wasn’t long before talk turned to the punt. Hamish mentioned a bloke he knew with a horse running that day. It was a sure thing, apparently. West made a mental note. They chatted for a while then Hamish said he had to head off. Had to pick up the kids. The head had barely flattened on West’s beer but Hamish was well into his third. He drained the remainder, stood, shook West’s hand then left.

West took his flat but still brimming pot to the bar. He ordered a scotch in its place. The bloke walked over from the TV and said it would be a shame to waste a beer. West was caught off-guard but you couldn’t argue with that logic so he handed over the beer. The bloke asked about Hamish. How did West know him? That was how West met Johnny D.

The topic had just got onto the punt when Will arrived. West introduced him to Johnny D. A waiter in a nearby restaurant; Will also loved the punt. He only bet on races in Adelaide and only $20 a week but he spent hours devising elaborate multiples, running different selection combinations through different races. Most weeks he didn’t win a cent but every now and then he hit a collect of $500 or $600, massive money for a lad like him.

Will didn’t bet big either but every waking moment was spent studying the form, listening to a call on the radio or just thinking about the next big collect. Will’s dream was to run some kind of subscription based tipping service, where punters paid for his insight and analysis. It was never going to happen but he and West had spent hours discussing it.

Already up from his New Zealand collect, West splashed out on his first selection at Melbourne. Put $20 on the nose. Never looked like losing and paid $6. High fives were exchanged all round.

By that time, the regulars had started to roll in. Jake was always one of the first in. He had spent his entire working life – more than fifty years – at the brewery, hardly missed a day. Now retired and with no family, he dedicated his life to the drink. Each day he would sit, drink and talk shit with a string of mates and associates. His drinking buddies would stagger out a couple of hours later, having not spent a cent. Jake would drink all day and his demeanor didn’t change. The only noticeable difference was that he spoke slightly louder and moved slightly slower.

West was back at the betting window in time for race two. He liked the look of this pony. It burst out of the gates and led from start to finish, delivering West another $100 collect.

Next in were Leo and Dave. Both were there because they had nowhere else. After he retired, Leo had spent a few weeks pottering aimlessly around the house before his wife told him to find somewhere else to be. A new Australian gentleman, Leo was unfashionable in every sense; wore muted tones, thick glasses, high cut trousers, a collared shirt with a woollen vest and well-worn shoes polished within an inch of their existence. Leo now spent is days in the pub mystified as to how he had ended up there. When he thought nobody was watching he would go grab other punters discarded betting cards then go through them desperate for some insight into what he was supposed to be doing. Dave, thirty-something and balding, had only recently made the pub his local. An accountant, he had the smooth unblemished hands of those from behind the desk. Friendly in an unsettling kind of way, it had taken a while for the boys to get where he was coming from. They never quite nailed what was going on in that head of his but he had a taste for the drink and that was common ground enough. Dave nodded in the direction of the three boys then assumed his shift drinking with Jake. Leo just wandered off amongst the form boards.

West found no joy in the third race (having swiped West’s betting card and copied the bet, Leo found no joy either) but he had solid tip in the next. West had a mate at the Caulfield stables who he would often hit up for tips. He had given a dead cert in the fourth race and West backed it. It got a dream run, one back on the fence. It found space at the 400m and burst into the lead. West, Will and Johnny D called it home the entire length of the straight.

Sweat and stale smoke mingled with the oily heat of dozens of Saturday arvo punters. A familiar stench hung heavy in the air; the sickly sweet smell of pub gravy w13afted from the kitchen calling to booze-drowned bellies. The bar was brimming with punters and the counter meal crowd by the time Ando and Billy had assumed their usual positions. Joints full of gout and arthritis, they spent their days drinking from seven-ounce glasses at the end of the bar. Ando had the drawn grey look of someone with a gut full of tumors. One front tooth was long gone and only half of the other remained. More than double the size, Billy was a cardiac condition; scabby skin, chewed ears and a puffy red face covered with a nicotine beard. West drifted over and said g’day.

Going into race five, West was nearly $400 up and had a big enough bank for a decent go at the Quaddie. Both he and Will loved the Quaddie, loved the challenge of picking four winners in a row. It cost him a touch over $300 but was worth every cent in his eyes. By then the booze was flowing freely; West shouted Will and Johnny D drinks. He also gave them both $20 to have a nibble at something. Johnny D blew his cash on a fancy that did nothing in the fifth but the favourite delivered tidy returns for West and Will. They both reinvested their winnings into the favourite in the sixth and Johnny D looked on with envy as their runner again delivered. His worries didn’t last long. You can’t be around a streak like West’s without getting in on the action.

West remembered the horse Hamish mentioned earlier in the day. It was running in the seventh. He had put it in his Quaddie but now had a closer look at its form. It was pretty solid and at $8 it was over the odds and worth a shot. West dropped $100 on it and watched it rail home like a bastard.

By this stage the good word around the pub had it that West was on a roll. Coming into the last race of the day at Melbourne, West was already more than a grand up and was still alive in the Quaddie. Had six runners. He decided to whack an extra $500 on the favourite. The rhythmic drone of the call seeped through the very essence of the pub. West, Will, Johnny D and the other boys watched and the caller weaved the clichés into a continuous call.

Every fibre of West’s being strained with anticipation. Eyes transfixed on the screen, he willed on his charge on with every inch of his soul. Two runners went head to head down the straight. Absorbed by the screen West lost track of his surrounds; he was oblivious to the nods of acknowledgement and the familiar banter between his mates and fellow punters. He was unaware of the spilt beer, blurred eyes and slurred speech.

The three boys rode West’s runner home for the last four hundred metres, shouting at the top of their lungs. The caller’s voice climaxed as the horses hit the line. A photo finish. Two agonising minutes crawled by. Then, out of the blue, the caller declared West’s horse the winner. Screaming with joy, he threw his hands in the air. The Quaddie was his and the extra $500 he had on the winner meant a seven grand collect.

There were slaps on the back and many hands to shake. A win of this size was more than enough to get him back on track. But first thing’s first. The pub was full mates, people he drank with, punted with and had borrowed money from. They needed attention. West put $500 over the bar and the good times rolled.

West had completed a dream day on the punt. He had turned a hundred bucks into a touch over seven large. His appetite had been whetted. He was on a roll and you need to milk that for all it was worth. There was plenty left to bet on; the dogs at the Meadows, the trots at the Valley. The TAB runs a race every three minutes, plenty of opportunity for a savvy punter to build his bankroll. Will, and their new mate Johhny D, were along for the ride.

Things got blurry after that. There was a counter meal, a power of drinks and a heap of laughs. Most importantly, there was plenty more punting. It didn’t seem to matter what West bet on, the money kept on rolling in. West must have been more than ten grand up by the time the trots and the dogs finished up.

Will pulled stumps and headed home but when you’re on a roll you have take any and every opportunity to keep on rolling so Johnny D convinced West to go next door to give the pokies a nudge. West was smart enough to know that a gut full of piss, a pocket full of cash and a room full of pokies isn’t a good mix. He just sat at the bar while Johnny D played the machines. West let his mind wander; with this collect, he was well and truly out of the hole. No more personal loan. No more credit card debit. Even better, there was a full Sunday card of races at Mornington in the morning.

The luckiest streak of West’s live came to end when the pub shut. Johnny D looked at West. Come with me, he said. West stumbled into the unforgiving night, pockets full of cash, with a bloke he hardly knew.

This piece was originally published in the University of Melbourne’s Creative Writing Anthology, Above Water in August 2012.

‘In the hole’ in Above Water

My short story ‘In the hole’ was selected for publication in the  2012 edition of the University of Melbourne’s Creative Writing Anthology, Above Water.

Above Water features the freshest new talent in fiction, graphic art and illustration from students at the University of Melbourne, selected from over 120 entries.

Above Water 2012 was launched on Friday 24 August as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Felt good the first time, maybe better the second time round

Athletes are motivated by all kinds of things but from my perspective, sport, particularly at the elite level, is the pursuit of satisfaction. Athletes compete to test their expectations of self. Pain, sacrifice and disappointment are often central to the journey but satisfaction comes from pushing your physical and mental boundaries and testing yourself against the best in the world. A privileged few emerge from that test having unequivocally met the expectations they set for themselves. Those rare moments when the stars align and you find yourself at the pinnacle of your chosen pursuit provide a fleeting but deeply fulfilling glimpse of soul savouring satisfaction. Continue reading “Felt good the first time, maybe better the second time round”

It’s what we leave behind that’s tough

70 McKenzie Street, Wonthaggi
70 McKenzie Street, Wonthaggi

Saying goodbye isn’t the hard part, it’s what we leave behind that’s tough.
– Unknown

The house of my childhood is being demolished. Strangers in HiVis jackets and steel capped boots have already been through with sledgehammers and crowbars to gut the interior and once the bulldozer comes only a pile of rubble will remain. While the house isn’t much to look at from the street – plain cement sheeting, veranda cast in shadow and rusty red paint clinging to the roof’s corrugated iron – I didn’t realise how much it meant to me until Mum and Dad said they were knocking it down. Continue reading “It’s what we leave behind that’s tough”

Adelaide to Melbourne on The Overland

The Overland train from the platfrom of Adelaide Parklands station
The Overland train from the platform of Adelaide Parklands station

Interstate train travel in Australia isn’t usually undertaken for convenience or because it is the cheap option. It is neither. Australia’s geography means long haul train trips are too time consuming to appeal to most and a trip on the Ghan or Indian-Pacific is ten times what it would cost to fly. Train travel in Australia is undertaken because that is the manner in which one prefers to travel.

The thought of train travel conjures thoughts of a traveling demographic confined to backpackers and the elderly with the occasional pteromerhanophobe thrown in for good measure. It is a world where men sport well-groomed moustaches and wear high cut pants or dress shorts with knee-high socks, gold rimmed glasses and comfortable shoes. Women opt for matching travel ensemble, scarfs, cardies and slacks. There isn’t a natural fibre in sight. Grumpy stooped back farmers smoke rollies, stay at The Vic Hotel and don’t drive in the big smoke. For long-term migrants – refugees from Northumberland, Newfoundland or Naples – stepping onto the platform brings back to memories of constant drizzle and warm beer.

I arrive at the Adelaide Parklands Rail Terminal in the pre-dawn gloom. It is two hours to departure but when one travels by rail ensuring it is prudent that you have time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast. A big day lies ahead of me, I am traveling from Adelaide to Melbourne on The Overland. With that thought in mind, I order a Full English breakfast and an Earl Grey from Choo Choo’s Cafe.

I sit with the morning paper and watch. Adelaide is the epicentre of Australian interstate train travel. It is mid-point of the Indian-Pacific (Sydney to Perth), the beginning of the Ghan (Adelaide to Darwin) and the end of the Great Southern (Brisbane to Adelaide via Melbourne).

The station has all the hallmarks of an airport: a sales and enquiries counter, luggage and check-in counter and copious seating but the atmosphere in the departure lounge is far more congenital. Maybe it’s the floral carpets or the elderly demographic but strangers interact, trade advice on blood pressure medication and reminisce about train journeys past.

As we inch towards the scheduled departure time people’s preparations for the journey ahead begin in earnest. A visit to the Train Shop is inevitable. A copy of the The Australian or Woman’s Day and a book of crossword puzzles is standard issue.

The Overland departs Adelaide for Melbourne every other day. The route has been operational since 1887. The original train is long gone but stepping onto the platform I am quite taken by our silver bullet with its Emu insignia, purple roof and blue racing stripe.

People find their seats and Rebecca from Great Southern Rail delivers an enthusiastic induction covering the blanket smoking ban, the drinks cart schedule, manual toilet operation (an electrical fault means you have to snib the door or risk exposure) and the bountiful fare available in the buffet car – the Matilda Café.

The PA falls silent as the train jolts to life. The slow rolling start elicits surprised excitement and collective calls of, “And we’re off”. A flurry of chatter about the joy of train travel follows, “This is all about the experience. You know…  chug-a-chug-a-chug!”

We roll out of Adelaide under a blue morning sky. The gentle shores of Glenelg recede from view during the slow climb into the bush of the Adelaide hills. Relaxing to the gentle rocking and rhythmic thud, squeak and grind it isn’t long before I have a decent snooze going.

I wake to the arrival of the morning tea trolley. White coffee was in high demand. I order a cup and glance out the window. The terrain has flattened out. Dry, rocky earth is only interrupted by the occasional tree or detention centre.

We rattle toward Murray Bridge. The town, imaginatively named after the first bridge built over the Murray River, hugs the river. Although it’s not the one we use, the original bridge still spans the river.

Mid-morning we move into a more densely wooded landscape. Gums, eucalyptus, stockyards and silos roll by. A small town comes and goes. Anywhere else Keith would be your uncle or a bloke you meet at the pub but in the South Australian bush it is a town like so many the others – pub, servo, shop, school, church and oval.

The railway, road and power lines run parallel in a trifecta of straight lines. A seemingly endless series of farms rush by as we head into the wheat belt. I take a walk to stretch my legs and I stop to stare out the window. I try to imagine what it would be like live in sheep country beholden to the whims of nature.

The passage from South Australia to Victoria at Bordertown wipes 30 minutes off our lives and brings us in line with Eastern Standard Time. My fellow travellers pass the time on a crossword, book or sleeping. Others stare wishfully at the dry fields and blue skies of southern Australia.

The rusted corrugated iron roofs and frontages of Nhill slip past before we stop at Dimboola. A two-minute pause allows a driver change. People flood off the train for half a cigarette. There isn’t too many more obvious expressions of relief than a pack-a-day smoker drawing back on their first cigarette in five hours.

Sweet clouds of stale smoke are left in behind as we head deeper into the wheat belt. Brown patterned fields of wheat, oats and barely are punctuated by a lone tree or the occasional paddock of spiky black fallow.

Lunchtime triggers a constant stream of travellers to and from the buffet car but plenty of packed lunches also emerge. Cheese and pickle sandwiches with the crusts cut off wrapped in baking paper, ripe bananas, Yo-Yos, Anzacs and thermos full of steaming black tea.

We rattle through the gold field towns of Horsham, Stawell and Ararat in a post food slumber. The stunning forested peaks of the Grampians fill the horizon before the country opens out into wide plains with undulating gum and eucalyptus bush. The vastness of it all provides a constant reminder of the magnitude of this land of ours.

The Grampians from a window of The Overland
The Grampians from a window of The Overland

The late afternoon breeze carries the first whispers of saltwater and it isn’t long before first signs of the urban sprawl begin to appear. Victoria’s second largest city is big enough to justify two stops. We pass the factories and industry on Geelong’s North Shore. Just after Newport we glimpse the Westgate and pass a Met train heading the other way. A heartbeat later we roll into the hustle and bustle of Melbourne.

After 10.5 hours and 828km the Overland arrives at Southern Cross Station. Adelaide is a distant memory but one supplemented by a truly memorable train ride.

One dollar. One spin.

Pokies screenWith Andrew Wilkie fighting the good fight on mandatory pre-commitment and the Greens bobbing up this week with a proposal for a $1 bet limit, Pokie reform is firmly on the Australian political agenda. I’m sure both these policies have merit but it’s worth remembering that neither are breaking new ground.

Having visited a pub-TAB or two in my time I know how destructive the punt can be. More than a decade ago when cash was being pretty short, a few mates and I developed a rule of thumb for betting on the pokies. It’s not really a solution to problem gambling but it does provide a pretty solid framework for good times.

Continue reading “One dollar. One spin.”