An obsessed St George fan is haunted by the past in this odd tale. “Eleven” is one of ten stories from The Tightarse Tuesday Book Club ebook. Available here for $4.99 http://bit.ly/TightarseTuesdayBookClub
Graeme Hillman had just parked his Ford when ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ came on the radio. Instead of pulling out the car key, he lit up a cigarette. When the Elvis classic was replaced by the Stones’ ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,’ he stubbed out his smoke in the ashtray, got out of the car, and entered the offices of Dr Gideon Mackay, psychologist.
He sat in the waiting room, legs crossed, absently smoking another cigarette. These visits always made him nervous. Frankly, he had no real idea why he was here, yet somehow these sessions had become part of his routine. He considered himself a man with very few complaints in life. Yet he found himself back in this office time after time.
For his type, Hillman was average in every respect. He was a presentable, thirty-three year old, dark-haired Australian man, just under six feet tall. He was neatly dressed in trousers and a light-blue collared shirt. Only the occasional twitch of his left cheek hinted at any inner unrest.
With a complete lack of interest, he thumbed through some old copies of Readers Digest. He assumed Dr Mackay was busy with another patient, for he’d been waiting over ten minutes. Yet when the receptionist called him through, no one came out of the consulting room. He stood up, stubbed out his cigarette in the glass ashtray and walked through the door.
‘Ah, Mr Hillman. Come in.’
In appearance, Gideon Mackay was a classic psychologist, as if he’d set out to model Freud himself. The neat, greying beard and scholarly spectacles were straight out of the textbook, as were the tidy bookshelves and soothingly bland paintings that made up the internal decor of his room. Mackay did not stand or offer a handshake. He remained seated behind his desk, flicking through a pile of papers.
‘Sit down, Mr Hillman. How have you been?’
‘Fine. I don’t even know why I’m here. I suppose Louise has got something to do with it.’
‘No doubt your wife cares for you a great deal. Are you still having the headaches? The memory losses?’
‘Every now and then. Surely there’s a pill for that. I don’t see why I have to come here.’
Dr Mackay levelled a long, blank stare at his client, before he spoke.
‘I think we’re both aware that your problems aren’t physical. If they were, I’d have sent you to a medical doctor.’
‘You saying I’m a kook? Is that it?’
‘Mental health,’ said Mackay, ‘is everyone’s concern. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Tell me, Graeme. When your car’s not working, what do you do? Take it to a mechanic. When your mind’s out of alignment, you take it to a mind mechanic. You’re just here for a tune up.’
‘OK, Doc. If you put it like that. I suppose there have been a couple of weird incidents of late.’
Hillman sat back in the chair and closed his eyes.
‘It’s not really an incident,’ he said. ‘Just a mood. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was playing golf. Nine holes, it was meant to be, but Browny talked me into staying on for eighteen. I was in a run of form so I agreed. But the St George game was going to be on TV. St George against Manly.’
‘St George? Ah yes, your rugby obsession.’
‘It’s rugby league, not rugby. Well, I rang my wife and got her to tape the game so I could watch it when I got home.’
Hillman lapsed into silence. It went on so long the doctor offered a gentle prompt.
‘Don’t tell me she forgot to tape it?’ he said with a smile.
‘Oh no. She knows what St George means to me. She knows I’d go off my head if that happened.’
‘I see,’ said Mackay, raising his eyebrows a little. ‘But tell me. If you’re such a big fan, why didn’t you go to the game?’
‘All the way to Manly? I’m not crossing the bridge for them. And truth be told, there was a little … altercation last time. I reckon I’ll stay away for a while.’
‘But that’s not the point. Point is, I got home, had a quick steak, then put the game on – and that’s when it happened. See, I’m sitting there all tense, swearing at the TV, getting into it like I always do. Then suddenly it hit me – I was only watching a replay. I realised the game was already over. It had been won and lost hours ago. By now, the players were showered and dressed, probably having a steak and a beer like I was.’
‘I’m not sure I understand the problem.’
‘Don’t you see, Doctor? All my cheering, my swearing at the TV, my excitement and fear … it was all useless. The result was already decided, so my emotions were completely futile. ’
Dr Mackay adjusted his glasses and looked at his patient closely.
‘Don’t you think you’re taking it a bit too seriously? It’s not a matter of life and death. It’s just a game of football.’
Hillman bristled and sat up in his chair.
‘Not to me it ain’t, Doc. St George is my life. Kearney, Provan, Raper, Gasnier. I live and die by those blokes. I’d lay down my life for the Red V.’
‘The jersey. The all white with the big red V.’
Mackay said nothing for a few moments, waiting for Hillman to calm down.
‘Let’s get back to your … sense of futility. You say you felt useless, watching the playback of the game.’
‘Exactly. It was sort of artificial, you know, like there was no point cheering. As if the game had played out long ago, like it was all done and dusted and locked up in a museum somewhere. But that ain’t the worst of it, Doc. That was only the start.’
Hillman shuddered and ran his fingers through his hair.
‘The next week, St George were on TV again. The Souths game. This time I made sure I stayed home to watch it live.’
‘Live on TV?’
‘Yeah. So the game started and the same thing happened. I’m sweating, swearing, yelling at the TV. My wife even asked me to keep it down. That’s when I realised I was trying a bit too hard.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I was trying too hard to get excited, to show that I cared about the game. But the whole time I had the same feeling as the week before – that it was already over and all my cheering was useless.’
‘You said it was a live broadcast, didn’t you?’
‘That’s the point. There was something off about the whole thing. It’s like the whole game was predestined to pan out a certain way no matter what I or anyone else did.’
‘And what does that suggest to you?’
‘That our whole lives are pointless. That everything’s all mapped out and nothing we do really counts.’
Dr Mackay regarded his client sternly for a moment, then smiled.
‘That wasn’t quite the answer I expected. I never realised football fans could be so philosophical. Did you ever study it?’
‘I’ve been studying football all my life.’
‘Philosophy, I mean. There’s a fellow named Nietzsche had a theory everything’s on a permanent loop. That’s what your predestination theory reminds me of. Of course, some other philosophers say there’s no such thing as free will. We feel like we have it, but it’s an illusion.’
‘I don’t know about any of that fancy stuff, Doc. I just want to get back to where I was.’
Mackay adjusted his glasses once more, and put down his pen.
‘Mr Hillman, there’s something I don’t understand. You say that when you stayed on to play golf, your wife taped the game for you.’
‘How did she do that?’
‘Video, I suppose.’
‘Then tell me – what year is this?’
‘What sort of a ridiculous question is that?’
‘It’s a simple enough question. What year is it?’
Hillman stared into the distance.
‘I always work it out by grand finals. We beat Manly in ’59, then Easts in ’60. That was our fifth premiership in a row. Then it was three against Wests, the last one in the mud. That was our eighth – in ’63, the last one I remember. So – it must be 1964.’
‘If you don’t mind me saying, that’s an awfully roundabout way to answer my question, which, as you’ll agree, was a simple one. I asked you what the year is.’
‘You calling me a kook?’
‘I’m not calling you anything, Mr Hillman – just asking how your wife taped the game off TV in 1964.’
‘I told you – with a video.’
‘And what is that?’
‘I … don’t know. Look, who cares how it happened? It must have been a replay. Yeah, that’s it. The ABC showed a replay on TV and I watched it that night when I got home.’
‘You seemed very sure. You said you stayed on to play golf and called your wife asking her to tape the game for you. It’s right here in my notes.’
‘What does it matter? Look, Doc, I don’t know what you’re driving at but I’ve just about had enough of this.’
‘I agree. That’s enough for one session. But I do want you to speak to my secretary and make another appointment.’
Dr Mackay picked up his phone.
‘Miss Ainscough, could you come in here a moment?’
The unusual name he pronounced as aynes-co. Almost at once, the door opened and a tall blonde woman entered the room.
‘Book Mr Hillman another session,’ said Mackay.
Hillman stood up abruptly.
‘Don’t bother, Doc. I’m done with this.’
‘It’s too late, Graeme. We have to go through with it now. Miss Ainscough?’
The secretary approached Hillman and slapped him hard across the face. He immediately put his hand to his cheek.
‘What the hell did you do that for?’ he cried. ‘You’ve ruined everything!’
He turned and ran for the door, but tripped and found himself sprawled on the floor. He turned his head and saw Mackay and Ainscough looking down at him.
‘Ah, Mr Hillman. Nice to see you again. How are the headaches?’
‘They come and they go,’ said Hillman. ‘It don’t bother me.’
He was back in Dr Mackay’s office again. He looked around at the white walls, neat bookcases, and soothingly bland paintings. There was a framed certificate on the wall licensing Gideon Mackay to practice psychology.
‘You’re feeling better then?’ Mackay said.
‘Have we met before? You look familiar.’
‘Mr Hillman, you’ve been coming to my office every year since 1956.’
‘Ah ’56. The start of our golden run. The greatest sporting achievement our country’s ever seen.’
‘I must say the Melbourne Olympics brought a tear to my eye too.’
‘Not the Olympics. St George. Eleven premierships in a row and it all started in ’56 with the win over Balmain.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘It’s God’s own football team. Provan, Raper, Gasnier, Langlands. We’ve never seen their like before and we won’t again.’
‘I see you haven’t forgotten your football obsession. But eleven in a row, you say, starting in 1956. It’s ’65 now so that must be nine.’
‘I stand corrected, Doctor. Nine in a row, and long may they reign, the mighty dragons.’
Dr Mackay made a note in his notebook.
‘Last time you spoke about your sense of despondency. Your feeling that everything’s predestined and all your actions are futile. Do you still feel that way?’
‘Well, Doc, that’s probably how all the mugs who don’t follow St George feel. Just imagine what it’s like kicking off another season against the might of Gasnier, Langlands, and co! Year after year they line up for another beating – Wests, Manly, Newtown, Balmain. As for Norths and Canterbury, I don’t think they’ve got a win over us in the last ten years. Even Souths have slunk away in shame and despair – how the mighty have fallen!’
‘Why are you so obsessed with football?’
‘I’m not. I’m obsessed with St George.’
‘Because we are the best. Ryan, Kearney, Walsh – what a side! Even ‘Poppa’ Clay had a stint in reserves, that’s how good we are. And him with eight grand finals to his name. That’s why St George always wins.’
‘Do they, Mr Hillman?’
‘We might drop the odd game through the season, but we always win when it counts – the grand final. We always win that.’
‘Doesn’t it get boring to win all the time?’
‘Never. It’s only right that we win. We are St George.’
‘I must say I admire your passion, single-minded though it is. I don’t quite understand it, but I admire it.’
‘Which team do you follow, Dr Mackay? Don’t tell me you’re a Norths fan. If so, we’d better swap chairs!’
‘I don’t follow rugby, Mr Hillman, I’m from Melbourne. I support Collingwood in the VFL.’
‘Never could make head nor tail of that sport. Aerial ping pong! Collingwood, you say. Are they any good?’
‘I don’t mean to brag, but we did win four titles in a row back in the twenties.’
Hillman stifled a laugh.
‘Four in a row! Well, well. I suppose not everyone can win eleven in a row like St George. Four’s not bad, really. We achieved that back in ’59, then kept going. Four in a row. It’s something you Melbourne people can be proud of.’
‘You never know. One day Melbourne might have their own rugby team competing against your beloved St George.’
Hillman laughed loudly.
‘Melbourne playing rugby league? They’ll put a man on the moon before that happens!’
‘You seem very sure.’
‘It’s ridiculous, Doc. Laughable!’
‘Why are you getting upset over such a trivial remark?’
‘Because it’s rubbish, Doctor Mackay. You’re supposed to be curing my headaches yet you insult my intelligence with an absurdity like that. I’ve had just about enough of this. I’m out of here.’
Hillman stood up and walked towards the door. Mackay picked up his phone.
The receptionist appeared at the door.
‘Get away from me,’ said Hillman.
She slapped him hard across the face. He recoiled.
‘Ow! What the hell did you do that for? You’ve ruined everything.’
‘Ah, Mr Hillman, come in. Sit down.’
‘Thanks. Doctor … ?’
‘Mackay. Doctor Mackay. Still troubled by the memory lapses, I see.’
‘They come and go.’
‘Like the headaches, then.’
‘I don’t let it worry me, Doc.’
‘Let’s start with the basics, shall we? Just answer a few simple questions.’
Dr Mackay picked up a pen and his notebook.
‘44 Barnaby road, Hurstville.’
‘Date of birth?’
‘May twenty-second, 19 … What year is it now?’
‘You tell me, Mr Hillman.’
‘I always work it out by the grand finals. Easts in ’60. That was our fifth. Three against Wests, the last in the mud in ’63. Then there was Balmain in ’64, and last year Souths with the record crowd. Must have been ’65. Ten premierships in a row – that’s unheard of! And that means it’s 1966. So using my elementary powers of subtraction I guess I was born in 1933. Quite a coincidence eh, Doc. Born in ’33, and I’m 33.’
‘Why are you so obsessed with St George?’
‘I’m not obsessed, I just like to celebrate greatness – and we are the best. Provan, Kearney, Langlands, Clay …’
‘Gasnier, Raper, Mundine,’ finished Dr Mackay.
‘Never heard of that last one, Doc. Must be one of your Collingwood boys.’
‘Five-eighth, wasn’t he?’
‘You’re mistaken there. Raper played five-eighth in the ’62 grand final, Pollard in ’63. Apart from that, it was Brian ‘Poppa’ Clay all the way.’
‘You know that’s not true. Why don’t you stop pretending?’
Hillman stood up.
‘Look at you. A Melbourne boy trying to tell me about the mighty St George! I’ll not stand for this, Doctor.’
‘I believe you just did, Mr Hillman. Now, if you don’t sit down again, I’m going to have to call my secretary.’
Hillman made a dash for the exit but tripped and found himself sprawled on the floor inches from the door.
‘Missed it by that much,’ said Mackay. ‘Go and sit down.’
Hillman shuffled back to his chair. Mackay regarded him sternly.
‘Why is St George so important to you? It’s just a football team, not a matter of life and death.’
‘Yes it is. This ain’t football, it’s war!’
‘Mr Hillman, please. You say you were born in 1933. That means you lived through a real war. Your father probably served in it, right? A little perspective, perhaps.’
‘Don’t tell me about the war, Doc. My father never came back.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. Would you like to talk about it?’
‘It was a long time ago. I’d sooner forget it. But who needs a father when you’ve got St George? There’s thirteen fathers every time they walk onto Kogarah Oval.’
‘And your wife? What does she think of your obsession?’
‘She puts up with it. Doesn’t understand it, but she puts up with it. Sometimes if I’m watching a big game on TV, I actually make her leave the house. She goes to her sister’s for the night.’
‘Otherwise there’s no telling what I might do. I’ve been known to break things, throw stuff at the wall. I just get so involved in the game, know what I mean? My wife says I ought to show that much passion in the bedroom!’
‘But Mr Hillman, I thought you said you had a sense of futility watching the game, like the result was predestined.’
He picked up his notebook.
‘… as if the action had all played out long before. It was all done and dusted and locked up in a museum somewhere. That’s what you said.’
‘I don’t recall that, Doctor.’
‘I can’t help you if you lie, Mr Hillman. Answer me this: why does St George always have to win?’
‘Because we are the best!’ yelled Hillman. ‘We always win. Provan, Porter, Langlands …’
‘Blacklock, Barrett, McGregor,’ shouted Dr Mackay.
‘We won eleven titles in a row,’ said Hillman. ‘No one can ever take them off us.’
‘You said it was ten.’
Hillman leapt to his feet.
‘I never did.’
‘Ten! You said ten, soon as you came in.’
‘Ten, eleven, twelve, fifteen. We’ll win a hundred, because we are St George and we’ll go on forever!’
‘Sit down, Mr Hillman, or I’m going to have to sedate you.’
There was a standoff. Dr Mackay stared into Hillman’s eyes for a long moment, until Hillman at last looked away and sat down. He buried his face in his hands.
There was a long silence. At last, Mackay spoke, in calm, measured tones.
‘Mr Hillman. This has gone on long enough. Now, I put it to you that your memory losses, your headaches, leave you in a state of continual anxiety, which in turn leaves you desperate to cling to the one thing that feels certain – the supremacy of St George in rugby league. I also put it to you that the entire concept is an illusion, and that only by letting go of this false idea can you free yourself from your own enslavement. St George doesn’t always win.’
‘They do. It’s a historical fact. Look it up. Eleven in a row.’
‘They don’t. You know it. I know it. We all know it.’
‘We always win. We are St George. So it is and will always be.’
‘I put it to you further, Mr Hillman, that you were not born in 1933.’
‘I never said I was sure. I just counted back from our premierships.’
‘You never saw any of those premierships. You were born in 1966.’
‘I saw ’em all, goddamn you!’
‘You were a babe in arms when they won their last.’
‘You’re crazy. I’m not listening to this rubbish.’
‘You might not listen to me, Mr Hillman, but here’s someone else to tell it to you.’
The office door opened. Hillman looked up and saw a granite-jawed, rock-hard man. He looked like an old school cop, tough enough to put the wind up the hardest crim of 1960s Sydney.
‘Kevin Ryan?’ said Hillman in disbelief.
‘Morning, Graeme,’ said Ryan, extending his hand to shake.
Hillman felt his hand engulfed in the giant paw of the great St George forward.
‘An honour to meet you, Mr Ryan – but what are you doing here?’
‘I’ve come to give you the truth. Then I’m going to take you away.’
‘What for? I’ve done nothing wrong.’
‘Don’t make me hurt you, son.’
‘I don’t want any trouble with you, Mr Ryan. Not with the hardest forward who ever took the field for St George.’
‘Not me. That was Billy Wilson. Kearney, Provan, Rasmussen … no one soft ever played for St George.’
‘Wait. I remember now. I remember what you did.’
‘Let’s go. Your time is up.’
‘Why should I go with you? It’s your fault we lost. You went to Canterbury in ’67.’
‘All things come to an end.’
‘Eleven in a row, then you went to Canterbury and helped them knock us out in the final. You’re a traitor! We could have had twelve, thirteen, a hundred!’
‘That’s football, son. Nothing lasts forever. Now, I’m warning you. Either come quietly or I’ll take you out myself.’
‘You betrayed us. All of us who sat on the hill at Kogarah and the SCG. You let down your mates. Langlands, Walsh, and Johnny King. What about Huddart and Maddison? They only got one title thanks to you. They could have had another three or four if you hadn’t left us. What the hell did you do that for? You’ve ruined everything.’
Ryan looked sideways at Dr Mackay, then turned and punched Hillman hard on the jaw. Hillman blacked out. By the time he woke up again, the psychologist’s office had gone and he was sitting in a darkened theatre watching a scene unfold.
September 26th, 1999. Grand final day. The great St George rugby league club had merged with another team, Illawarra, to become St George-Illawarra. Graeme Hillman, like many other fans, chose to ignore this. They were the St George Dragons and always would be. Today, in the grand final, they were up against another newly formed club, the Melbourne Storm.
He’d thought about going to the game but ruled it out. Crowds, transport, long queues for a beer, and no TV commentary. Better to stay home and watch it on TV in his comfortable lounge room at 44 Barnaby road, Hurstville.
Louise had been given strict instructions. She was to be out of the house by noon and not return for twenty-four hours. It was a rule applied whenever St George had a grand final, or a big semi final. Used to this by now, she’d arranged to stay with her sister.
‘Nothing personal,’ Hillman said. ‘But you know me. As soon as the game kicks off, the atmosphere’s going to get pretty volatile round here. Better stay outside a one mile radius.’
‘You’re a pain, Graeme,’ his wife replied. She was a petite brunette of Italian descent. After seven years of marriage, she accepted her husband’s odd obsession, but went through the ritual of complaining just to hold her end up.
‘It probably won’t matter,’ said Hillman. ‘I mean, it’s only the Storm. A rugby league team from Melbourne. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous? But stay away, just in case it gets close – and don’t come back tonight. I’ll probably be that drunk after the game you wouldn’t want to come near me anyway.’
‘Just make sure you don’t break anything this time. If I find even one mark on the wall, you’ll be repainting. Got it?’
‘Come on, Lou. I ain’t broke anything since the ’96 grand final. Ridge was tackled and they let him play on to set up a try. What do you expect me to do? It was only the turning point of the game!’
‘I don’t care, Graeme. Losing a game of football’s not worth smashing up your house for.’
‘I’ll do anything for the Red V, by Christ! I’ll smash up my own house and the neighbour’s as well, if it comes to it.’
‘Calm down. It’s only ten to twelve and you’re already acting like a lunatic.’
‘Don’t say ten to twelve – it sounds like a losing score! Say twelve to ten for Christ’s sake. A bit of sensitivity please.’
‘I thought you said it was in the bag. You think St George will only get up by two points?’
‘We smashed them 34-10 a couple of weeks ago. We’ll probably win by forty this time.’
‘Then stop acting so nervous.’
‘Lou, no offence, but will you just go? You know you’re meant to be out of here by twelve.’
‘You’re a pain, Graeme.’
‘You already said that. I’m going out to buy beer. When I come back, make sure you’re gone.’
‘Maybe I won’t come back.’
‘Better bloody not – until tomorrow anyway.’
‘How about a goodbye kiss?’
‘No sex before the game. Oh alright, just a kiss.’
‘Right. I’m off. Good luck.’
Graeme Hillman got into his car holding a small bag, inside which was ten-thousand dollars cash. He’d made several withdrawals over the last couple of weeks, ready for this day. He drove to the TAB and put it all on St George. At $1.50 for the win, it would net him a neat five-thousand dollar profit. He placed the betting receipt in his wallet, then bought a carton of beer and a bottle of scotch.
He drove home and tried to kill time until 3pm. It was useless, but at least he could have a couple of beers to take the edge off. He suffered through the preliminaries, the build up, and the national anthem, until at last the game finally kicked off and the terror began.
Much as he tried, Hillman could not sit still upon the couch he’d placed at optimum viewing distance from the TV. After five minutes, he gave up and stood upright, shifting his weight from foot to foot every so often, clenching and unclenching his fists.
When Fitzgibbon scored for St George in the fourteenth minute, Hillman punched the air and ran around the living room with a cry of triumph. But that was nothing to what happened at the thirty minute mark when Nathan Blacklock gathered a kick and ran seventy metres to score under the posts. 14-0!
‘This is ours!’ Graeme Hillman shouted, opening a bottle of beer and drinking it in one swallow. At halftime, he smoked two cigarettes, basking in St George’s clear ascendancy.
Melbourne got a penalty goal just after halftime to make it 14-2. Then, at the fifty minute mark, St George were set to seal the win when Mundine chipped ahead and regathered – but he dropped the ball over the try line. That would have been the game. Hillman swore savagely and threw a plastic water bottle against the wall, where it left a clear chip in the paint. Looked like he’d be repainting.
That was the start of the Melbourne comeback. In an extraordinary eight minute period, they scored two tries to St George’s one. With ten minutes to go, Melbourne had clawed their way back to 18-14, just four points behind. Graeme Hillman swore and sweated through the terror, feeling each blow like a mortal wound. One more score and Melbourne could steal the game.
The wave of fear built to a crescendo just before fulltime when the Melbourne half, Kimmorley, put through a high kick which was caught over the try line by his team mate, Craig Smith, who was then knocked out by a tackle from St George winger, Jamie Ainscough.
‘He dropped it!’ shouted Hillman. ‘He dropped the ball. We’ve won!’
But something was very wrong and he knew it.
‘Oh no. St George could be in trouble here,’ said one of the TV commentators. ‘Ainscough’s hit him right in the head. Harrigan’s sent it straight upstairs to the video ref. This could be a penalty try.’
‘No. No,’ said Hillman, with a howl of anguish. The St George winger, Jamie Ainscough appeared on the TV screen, hands on hips.
‘What the hell did you do that for?’ Hillman screamed. ‘You’ve ruined everything!’
‘He would have scored for sure,’ the commentator said. ‘This could be a penalty try. That means they’ll kick the conversion from right in front of the posts. This is going to give Melbourne the game.’
‘No! No way!’
On the TV screen the Melbourne captain, Glenn Lazarus, could be seen walking away from the referee, Bill Harrigan, a look of disbelieving glee on his face.
‘That’s got to be a penalty try,’ the commentator said. ‘Ainscough’s slapped him right in the head and knocked him out. That’s a penalty try, no doubt.’
The head commentator, Ray Warren, chimed in. ‘I think you’ll find that Bill Harrigan is about to make one of the biggest calls ever been made in one hundred years of rugby league.’
Slowly, Graeme Hillman backed away from the TV screen. Step by agonised step, he reversed until his back was against the rear wall of the living room. Even from that distance, he could see the on-ground scoreboard about to flash up the decision. Graeme Hillman looked on in horrified refusal, a white-hot surge of fury forming inside him. Then, as he knew it would, the result flashed up on the screen. TRY.
When those three letters T-R-Y appeared on the screen, something inside him snapped. With a violent oath, he launched himself in a full pelt charge towards the TV, lowered his head like a wounded bull, and butted the screen with the full force of his rage. In so doing, he knocked himself even more senseless than the Melbourne player who’d scored the winning try.
At least he didn’t have to witness the fulltime siren and the despair of the St George players and their fans.
‘Ah, Mr Hillman. You’re back.’
Hillman looked around him at the neat consulting office. There was the framed certificate on the wall licensing Gideon Mackay to practice psychology.
‘How are you feeling today?’ Mackay said. ‘Headaches still bothering you?’
‘They come and they go. I don’t let it worry me.’
‘I believe you’ve said that before.’
‘Sure thing, Doc. I’ve got déjà vu all over again. And you won’t believe the crazy dreams these headaches are giving me.’
‘I dreamt I was in the future. St George were called St George-Illawarra, and they played Melbourne in the grand final. Can you believe that? Insane! St George were up 14-0 at halftime, then one of the players dropped the ball inches from the try line, and another one gave away a penalty try in the last minute. It’s your classic nightmare! Then I charged head-first into the TV and that woke me up, thank God.’
Dr Mackay sighed. He took off his glasses and placed them on the desk.
‘You’re still in denial. I thought surely this time we’d get through to you.’
‘What are you talking about? I reckon I’m about cured now. It’s probably time I got home to the wife. Must have missed a couple of St George games by now. We’re not far off winning our eleventh title. Eleven in a row. Can you believe that?’
‘It wasn’t a dream, Mr Hillman.’
‘It certainly was – and a most horrible nightmare, too. The sooner I forget it, the better.’
‘It wasn’t the future.’
‘I agree. I mean, St George and Melbourne playing out a grand final. When it comes to the future, I’ll cop flying cars like in The Jetsons, but I won’t cop that.’
‘You need to face up to what you did. Your mind has been in denial – of St George’s loss in the 1999 grand final, and what you did afterwards. You’ve been in Purgatory ever since – for the last eleven years.’
‘What are you talking about, Doc? I thought you were a man of science.’
‘So strong was your denial that you hallucinated an entire fantasy life for yourself, set during St George’s eleven year reign in the fifties and sixties. You returned to a lost, halcyon age when St George were invincible.’
‘They were simpler and better times. I’m glad I was born to live through that era.’
‘You never lived through it. You were born in 1966. You were thirty-three when you died during the 1999 grand final.’
‘It ain’t fair, Doc! I always heard about the golden era but I never got to taste it.’
‘Your era had its own glory.’
‘The grand final win over Parramatta in ’77 when I was eleven. What is it about that number? It’s haunting me.’
‘Was that all?’
‘Sure, we beat the Bulldogs in ’79, but I was just a kid. Two titles, Doc, and that’s all she wrote. From ’77 then eleven times two – twenty-two years later and it’s 1999. We were due. It was our destiny to win it that day. Why’d you think I put on that ten-thousand bucks? I’m not normally a betting man but we couldn’t lose.’
‘Yet you did – and you lost far more than money. Until you accept what happened, you can’t move on.’
‘We can’t have lost. It’s a lie. A horrible nightmare. Thank God I’m back in my real life and the glory of St George. Gasnier, Smith, Walsh, Lumsden …’
Dr Mackay picked up his phone.
‘Miss Ainscough. I can’t get through to this fellow. We’ll have to pull out the big gun. Send him in.’
The door opened and a giant of a man filled the doorway. Hillman looked up, then froze in shock.
‘Mr Provan. What are you doing here?’
The square-jawed colossus walked forward and shook Hillman’s hand. Hillman turned to Mackay.
‘You see, Doc. The man himself. Norm Provan, St George’s greatest ever captain. He don’t look a day over thirty. You still want to tell me it’s not 1965?’
‘That’s not Norm Provan. The ‘man himself,’ as you call him, is still alive back on Earth. One of my colleagues has agreed to take on this form in a last ditch effort to reach you.’
‘That’s gibberish. This is the great Norm Provan or I’m not here.’
‘If you believe that, it’ll help us achieve the task of waking you.’
Mackay and Provan looked at each other, as if exchanging a silent signal. Then ‘Provan’ turned back to Hillman.
‘Time to go home, Graeme.’
The psychologist’s office vanished. Hillman found himself standing at the front door of 44 Barnaby road, Hurstville.
‘Got your keys?’ said Provan.’
Hillman unlocked the door and they walked into the house. They could hear the TV blaring from the living room. When they entered, Hillman caught sight of his own body, passed out in front of the TV. He was lying on his back, his head lolling slightly to the right. A small amount of blood had congealed on the top of his head and on the cream-coloured carpet, the red and the white combining in the colours of St George.
‘What’s this, Mr Provan? We’re back in the dream.’
Hillman glanced at the wall clock, showing 12.30pm. At that moment, there was the sound of a key in the lock, then footsteps and his wife’s voice. There was a note of apprehension in it.
‘Graeme, are you there?’
His wife entered the room and caught sight of his body on the floor. She ran forward and tried to rouse him, then turned off the TV and called an ambulance.
Suddenly they were in a hospital ward. Hillman looked down at his own body, hooked up to life support. He walked around the bed, examining his body from every angle, realisation dawning.
‘So it’s true, Mr Provan.’
‘I’m sorry, Graeme. You’ve got to face up to what happened.’
‘Did we really lose the ’99 grand final to Melbourne?’
‘It’s not fair. We were up 14-0 at halftime. They only scored in the last minute to take it off us.’
‘The second half is as important as the first half, and the last minute is as important as the first. We should have beat Melbourne but we didn’t. That’s football, son. You can’t change the past. You can only move forward.’
‘I just hate losing.’
‘So do I, but in sport there’s always a winner and a loser. That’s why we play so hard. There’s no quarter asked and none given. If we win, we shake the opposition’s hand with good grace, and if we lose we do the same.’
‘Why’d Mundine have to drop that ball over the try line?’
‘Look how many tries he scored for us that year. We wouldn’t have made the grand final without him.’
‘Why did Ainscough have to knock that bloke out? If he’d just let him score out wide they might have missed the kick and we would have gone to extra time.’
‘That’s hindsight. He was trying to stop them scoring. Would you have done any better? We all make mistakes. Don’t we?’
He nodded at Hillman’s body, hooked up to the life support.
‘If you’d let your wife stay home that day, maybe she could have got you to the hospital in time. You always took it too seriously. It’s football. It’s not life and death. Except for you, it actually was.’
‘Can I go back and change it?’
‘Sorry, son. The fulltime whistle has blown.’
He saw his wife walk into the room with a doctor. She held hands with the unconscious body as the doctor turned off the life support. Hillman felt a dawning terror.
‘What have I done?’
‘You cared too much. There are worse sins.’
‘I wish I’d cared more about my wife than St George!’
‘It’s done and dusted now. You have to shake hands with your life. Own your mistakes and move on. Forgive yourself. There’s no one living or dead never made a mistake.’
The giant figure of Norm Provan turned to him with a kindly expression.
‘Let’s give this story a happy ending.’
Hillman turned to him in hope.
‘You’ll let me go back? Give me another chance?’
‘Not back. Forward. We’ll go forward in time another eleven years. October 3rd, 2010. The 2010 Grand final where St George have finally made it back to the big stage. Do you want to watch the game?’
‘Who do we play?’
‘The Roosters, eh. We beat them in 1960. Not in ’75 though. The towelled us up 38-0. Langlands’ last big game. No, I can’t stand to watch it. Just tell me the result.’
‘Are you sure you want to know?’
‘Yes, Mr Provan. Give it to me straight. Do we win?’
‘Sure, son. We win 32-8. Gasnier’s nephew Mark scores the first try.’
‘Oh, thank God. At last.’
‘If you don’t want to watch that one, why don’t we go back to ’66? We can watch our grand final win against Balmain. The last in our eleven year run. Funny coincidence. We beat ’em in 56 as well to kick it all off.’
‘Can we do that?’
They travelled back to the SCG in 1966 and saw St George beat Balmain 23-4, with tries to Huddart, Pollard, and Ryan. The end of St George’s eleven year reign, the likes of which would never be seen again.
Nearby, in a modest suburban home in southern Sydney, a three month old Graeme Hillman kicked and gurgled in his cot.
‘Last stop, Graeme,’ said Norm Provan. ‘Time to say goodbye.’
‘Where are we? When are we?’
‘Rookwood cemetery. October 4th, 2010.’
Louise Parker, formerly Louise Hillman, walked into the graveyard, eleven years after Graeme had last seen her. She carried a wreath of red and white flowers. Although remarried, she never forgot her former husband. She laid the wreath upon his grave.
Fondly loved and remembered
She stood in silence for a few minutes, dabbing at her eyes. Then, at last, she turned on her heel and walked away.
‘Louise. Wait! I’m sorry.’ Graeme called after her.
Norm Provan laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘She can’t hear you, son. Come on. There’s a time and season for all things, and this one’s done. It’s time to rest and recharge, then you’ll come back fresh and start again.’
The two men shook hands, there was a flash of light, and the graveyard was empty once more.
St George’s run of eleven successive titles has never been matched. They reigned from 1956-66. They won the title again eleven years later in 1977, then in 1979. The club went on to lose grand finals in 1985, 92, 93, 96, and most famously, 1999 with the last minute loss to Melbourne. St George fans had to wait another eleven long years to play a grand final, which they won in 2010 against Eastern Suburbs. St George have yet to win another title.
They’re due in 2021.
Further Note – With due respect, the famous St George players Norm Provan and Kevin Ryan who appear in this story are, of course, not the actual people, but simply hallucinatory forms taken by Dr Mackay’s colleagues as a way to communicate with Graeme Hillman.
At the time of writing, January 2018, both of these esteemed gentlemen are still alive in the real world.
“Eleven” is one of ten stories from The Tightarse Tuesday Book Club ebook. Available here for $4.99 http://bit.ly/TightarseTuesdayBookClub