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Sport 10: Autumn 1993

♣ Kate Flannery — I am the one with my hands on the ball

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Kate Flannery

I am the one with my hands on the ball

There are times when Tommy likes to relate to his girls the story of his life. He has a tidy mind, compartmentalised even; revisiting the past helps him refine the logic of his experience, helps him organise his history into definable parts, these parts combining for an orderly, explicable whole.

In winter, the fire stoked, Tommy puts on the Pastoral and grows expansive. He pours a whisky and he muses to Reen and her sisters about his Greymouth days, his Wellington days, and now, finally, in the autumn of his life—as he likes to call it—he's with them, it's his Christchurch days.

Or, hacking at the ivy, weeding the rockery on weekends, the sun steadily deepening the olive brown of his back, Tommy recalls Brother Alfred, perhaps, a long ago bike ride or his altar-boy training or his time as a Boy Scout.

Weeding beside him, or lounging on the lawn, Reen asks the odd question, grunts, laughs at the quaintness of time past.

Driving really loosens Tommy's tongue. On the road to Greymouth he's in top gear; he likes particularly to re-live his romance with Rose, the chance meeting, the first date, the proposal.

It was her eyes that did it, he says, and the way she answered back. Never gave an inch.

Sleepy in the back seat, Reen and her sisters half-listen, dozing, the bucketing of the car on the unsealed road jerking them awake, tuning them in periodically to pieces of the romance, familiar fragments lodging in their brains like the lines of an old song.

'But there were other girl-friends, you know,' Rose says, barging her way into Tommy's narrative, puncturing the smooth and placid flow of detail. 'There was Sugar, for instance.'

Sugar. Sugar. Reen and her sisters can scarcely believe it, though they know people had strange names then: Dolly, Sukey, Buddy, Fritz.

But Sugar.

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'Sugar Stewart, the girl of Stewart,' says Rose, parodying Coast idioms.

'She wasn't a girlfriend,' Tommy says; they have been over this ground before. This is not a game Tommy enjoys, exactly, this other, unauthorised version of his life.

'You went out with her, didn't you? Vince says you took her to the pictures.

'I didn't take her to the pictures, never took her out, not once. Vince always exaggerates.'

'Well, you liked her.' Rose is relentless. She waits, eyebrow raised.

'You had a thing for her, c'mon, you know you did.' She stares and stares at Tommy.

Tommy bridles. 'All right, I liked her. She was a nice girl.'

'There you are,' says Rose.

'Sugar, the girl of Stewart.'

And there were others, Rose says, never quite able to leave this matter. Reen watches her mother holding the teapot high, far from the cups, pouring a long, cross, spitting stream.

'He censors all the tricky bits,' she tells the girls.

'There's nothing tricky,' Tommy says. 'It's just not important.'

'What about June,' says Rose. 'He took her to The Gondoliers.'

'What's tricky about that?' Tommy asks.

'It was just before we met,' Rose says.

'And after that,' Tommy says, grinning over the table, 'there was no one else but you.'

'But what about June?'Rose says, ignoring such transparent blandishment, those lips puckered across the table in invitation.

'Why did she disappear into the blue yonder?'

'She wasn't interested,' says Tommy, subsiding. 'Wasn't serious anyway.'

'Well,' says Rose, 'we've never really known what happened to June.'

Tommy drags them back to the real story. There was his education, for instance. When he was four Nana took him across the road to Montessori...

'But he ran home and hid under the house,' Rose says. 'Never went back, either.'

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In Primers, says Tommy, sunk in the cosiness of nostalgia, there was Sister Aloysius, warm and gentle, motherly.

In Standard One ...

In Standard One there was Brother Martin, Standard Two, Brother Tarsisius, Standard Three, Four, and Five, Brother Alfred.

And then there is Brother Alfred's famous maxim.

'What did he say?' Tommy asks at the table, grinning madly.

'Life is real! Life is earnest! and the grave is not its goal!' There are many Brother Alfred stories, Reen and her sisters know them by heart.

'Funny where old Brother Alfred ended up after all that,' says Teresa.

'Unnecessary, Teresa,' Tommy says, 'quite unnecessary.' His voice is cold, warning.

'Oooo!' says Teresa, but she's retreating, she pulls a face and presses her lips together.

'But where did he go? What happened to him?' Reen asks her aunt later. They stand in the hallway, whispering.

'Sunnyside,' Teresa says, looking over her shoulder for signs of Tommy.

'Loony bin.'

Reen has noticed, over the years, that Rose and Teresa and Vince like, jointly and separately, to get at Tommy, get him going, get his goat, Rose would say if she were admitting to it.

They throw trip-wires in the path of his stories, roguish facts which confuse him, upset his singular recall. Reen has watched them sitting dose on the couch, a subversive triumvirate, smirking, picking and pulling, unravelling the weave of Tommy's dreamy recollections.

'What you don't know,' Vince says, knocking back whisky, his smooth, pink, piggy face split with a grin, 'what you girls don't know is that there is always another side to these stories. I should know, I was there.'

'Bullshit!' says Teresa. The word explodes into the decorous living- room, causing Tommy to frown, but Teresa is bold, she widens her eyes at her brother, defiant. Rose, head down, counting stitches, smiles to herself.

'You weren't always there,' Teresa says. 'No one was always there, but I was there a lot, I know things.' United in skirmishes with Tommy, Vince and Teresa are also divided by their own simmering battles.

Vince is launched though, reckless, fuelled by glee at his own small secrets.

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'What about the Kumara races, eh? 1952, I was there, where were you?' he says, nudging Teresa heftily. He raises the whisky bottle at Tommy, questioning, and Tommy holds out his glass, it's one of those times, Reen thinks, when he's not going to put up a fight, he'll settle back into a sheepish silence (yes, his silence suggests, oddly enough, incredibly, that person may have been me).

'Pissed as a fart!' Vince finishes, snorting into his drink. 'Catatonic.'

'Well, twenty pounds, small fortune,' Teresa says. Reen watches Tommy, he's smiling faintly. He's not even protesting Vince's language.

'Mmmmm,' he says.

'Pissed. As. A. Fart.' says Vince, leering up at Tommy.

Rose stops knitting, stares straight ahead, still and hostile.

Reen has watched, she has listened. The story of Tommy's life is a complicated choreography, but Reen has studied the footwork, intricate, subtle, unvarying; again and again Vince and Tommy and Teresa and Rose dance the same steps. Centre-stage, Tommy is perversely bashful, he suggests a simple world, but around him the others leap and rush, gesture wildly, dealing out information in furious bursts.

Again and again they come back to their favourite tales. They take up their positions.

They begin.

kilbirnie wreck

Of course he played rugby, Tommy says, it consumed him for a time. His mother held the yard-broom across the door, but he pushed past her, he borrowed boots, he disguised his broken nose. In Wellington, motherless, he immersed himself, he peaked, open-side flanker, Marist Second Grade: the Wednesday practices, the Saturday game, the hot breath visible in the frigid air, the teamwork, the physicality, it was all good clean stuff.

'Ah, but there were dirty times!' says Vince, sensing his moment, 'dirty play, dirty places. What about the Battle of Kilbirnie Rec?'

'Oh God, here we go,' says Rose, giving her famous eyeball-roll, but it is a pallid effort, really her body is alive, she leans forward into the story, pushing it on.

'Ray Vogan and I,' Tommy says, 'we used to plot tactics on Friday night, page 75 down in the common room—'

'Hostel, you know,' Teresa says.

'—and Frank Moynihan played the piano, Hungarian Dances, and what's that Turkish one, Rose?'

'Rondo Alla Turka.'

'Rondo Alla Turka!'

'Al-la Tur-ka,' he says again, drawing it out, loving those words on his tongue.

'Nancy little gathering, wasn't it?' says Vince. 'No beer at these barn- dances. No skirt, either.'

'Oh, and Mr-Man-About-Town is still living with his mother at this stage, twenty-six. and. having. his. bed made.' Teresa jabs at Vince, a precise, angry rhythm.

'No liquor,' Tommy jumps in, 'absolutely proscribed. Night before the Big Game.'

'So it's next morning,' says Vince, 'they're down there, Kilbirnie Recreational Park, waiting for—who was it?'

'Petone,' Tommy says wistfully, 'only unbeaten team besides us, had to beat them.'

'Petone, Protestant buggers, glowering across at Marist—'

'All in good fun,' says Tommy.

'Nah, they were always dirty players.' Vince is emphatic, he's directing this story. 'No gentlemen in Petone.'

'Pathetic, isn't it?' Rose says to Teresa. 'Over a bag of wind.'

'Pathetic,' Teresa agrees. She curls her lip, tasting something sour.

It's cold as a witch's tit, Ray Vogan's pacing on the sideline, he's injured, our man Mondini's captain for the day!' Vince clouts Tommy on the back, grins at his audience.

'Get on with it,' Rose says.

'The whistle goes, first-five kicks short, forwards converge.' Vince is crouched, calling the field, racing-style, he cranks his voice up, a high sexless drone, zeroing in.

'Mondini jumps, taps it to the ground, falls on the ball, opposition forwards surge, Mondini's hanging on, clutching desperately—we're still in the first thirty seconds—he's holding, he's holding, he's turned over—'

'Watch it Vince.' Tommy is grasping Vince, laughing, yes, but his knuckles whiten on the fleshy upper arm, he's warning with his eyes.

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'Vince!'

'—he's turned over by the relentless Petone forward machine, he's clasping that ball to his bosom, but some Petone bastard—they never know who—some bastard lifts his foot and—'

'Language, Vince!'

'Oh for God's sake, Vince, we're not at Trentham,' Teresa's poking at Vince again, pushing him off his haunches.

'Petone lifts his foot high,' calls Vince, back on his hands now, singing to the ceiling, 'he's remorseless, he brings it down—'

'Language, Vince! Vincent!'

'Belt up, Tommy,' Rose snaps, 'they've heard it all before.'

'—he brings it down, kr-punch, stomps on, mashes Mondini's poor exposed-'

'Vincent!' Tommy is yelling.

'—test-tick-a-lees,' says Vince, daintily, wide-eyed and whispering, mild as a nun. Then he's forward on his hands, cat-like, shaking with laughter. 'So what if he said balls?' says Rose, treacherously, just as Tommy is sinking back in his chair, rueful, relieved.

'BALLS!' she shouts, briefly, violently, into Tommy's startled face.

'Just a word.'

'And that's not even the funny part,' says Vince, recovered now, back on his feet.

'Oooo, don't we love this bit,' says Teresa. 'Look at him, he can't wait, he's in love with his own voice.'

They all love this bit, though, Reen thinks. Tommy is amiable again, he's dropped the watch-dog, he's sitting back, amused, pleased to provide a joke. And Rose and Teresa, they're taut, eyes narrowed, knowing the punch-line but pulled in, playing their part.

'Poor old boy,' Vince continues, 'just about out with the pain. Course the game's gotta go on, but the St John's says off to Outpatients. Ray Vogan drives at breakneck speed to Wellington Public and he's sitting in the corridor clutching his privates when a nice young nurse comes along, nice little Italian girl as it turns out.

"Where were you hurt?" she asks. "Where did you get hit?"

'He's in agony, but he can't say it, can't mention his goolies.'

Vince is choked up again, he barks and splutters, spraying spittle.

'He's bent right over, scarlet, and she's shaking him by the arm—

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"Come on sir, tell me where you were hurt, sir, sir—"

'And Ray Vogan's gone, he's back to the game, so old Tommy he's got no one, he has to face it, he has to say it—

"What's your name?" she says.

"Mondini," he squeaks.

"Mr Mondini " She's bending down, staring up into his face, they're eyeball to eyeball—'

'Oh, for God's sake, Vincent!' Teresa yells. But Rose is transfixed, Reen sees, she's fastened on Vince, sucking the words out of him.

"Mr Mondini," she says, "please answer me, where were you hurt?"

'He's gotta say it, he's sitting there groaning, hands round his jewels, beside himself with pain and she's eyeballing him, and, and, and he opens his mouth-' Vince is squeaking himself, now, falling on Tommy, laughing into his neck. '—he opens his mouth, Mama's boy from Reevetown, and what does he say, what does he say?

'He says he was hurt at Kilbirnie Rec!!'

They are all laughing now, laughing and laughing and laughing, but as they laugh they retreat, the strange synchronism which has driven this story fades slowly and leaves the four of them oddly disparate, solitary at the end. Teresa is head down, a breathy, grudging snortle issuing; Vince is spent, he's sprawled in a chair, exhausted by his hilarity; Rose sniggers doubtfully, she's watching Tommy; and Tommy, he's twitching, he's laughing so hard tears fill his eyes.

Reen likes to visit Teresa; her aunt is a tricky woman, a live, sunny presence on the one hand, a crisp, darting, biscuit-barking chatelaine of her suburban domain; on the other hand, slowed down, coiled and brooding, she spews dark visions, she may lash out, acid-tongued, full of loathing. Reen enjoys her aunt's benevolence but also the shock of those other moments, the fright and surprise.

Reen sits with Teresa on her orange-buttoned couch, eating Yo-Yos, watching Days of Our Lives; they are absorbed by Julie and Doug, their misunderstandings, their bad luck, their eternal marital vicissitudes.

To cheer herself up Julie has streaked her hair.

'Nope,' Teresa says, 'don't like those streaks, she was much better black.'

'Like me.' She pats the side of her head, gives a sly smile.

In fact the silver is outpacing the black in Teresa's hair. Reen looks at her page 78 aunt; she is becoming more Latin as she ages, her features more angular, the pits beneath her dark eyes rough and black as coal. She is tatting as she watches television, her thin body poised over her work; when Vince is absent, Reen notices, Teresa's serpentine movements ease, a stillness settles on her; at these times, sitting alongside, Reen finds her restful as sleep.

Julie is dreaming about Doug, temporarily separated from her by the scheming Laura; in this tender moment from the past Doug strokes Julie's brow, soothes her with love-talk.

Do you sometimes forget, Reen asks her aunt, that Doug used to be married to Julie's mother, they had a child? Teresa rolls her eyes, remembering.

And speaking of the past, Reen has a question for her aunt.

She has calculated, she has totted up the years, she has slotted in all the stories, this ladder of events rises clearly in her head, and something is missing. There is a gap in Tommy's life, an empty stretch of time, two years Reen has figured, two years unaccounted for.

Reen is sharp, now. She is a sensory scythe, she thinks, slicing through her family, their games, their exchanges. She is so alert she vibrates, she hums. She hears loud meaning in her parents' silences, she sees unrealised expressions hovering behind their features, she smells a secret hanging between her mother and father, her uncle and aunt. So now she is sleuthing, she has read the detective stories and she knows what to do: Go to the source, pick your man (or woman), milk them slowly. Or go at them hard. Hit them with the facts. Bludgeon them into confession.

Reen looks at her aunt. She is mysterious at times, a keeper of secrets, her harsh, beautiful face closed and knowing. But at other times she will turn slowly, eyes narrowing, and pour a sticky stream of revelation into your waiting ear.

In the end it is easy enough.

In her dream Julie is kissing Doug; she tosses restlessly on her bed at the sweet agonising memory. Reen splits a Yo-Yo with a knife and scrapes off the icing, licks it from the knife. Those years, where was Tommy? Reen asks Teresa, involuntarily, the words sliding from her mouth unbidden; she doesn't look at her aunt now, disowning the question the second it is born.

Teresa is the same, she stares at Julie, up from the bed now, wandering the apartment in a daze, kimono hanging, her hair tousled. In the second before her aunt answers sudden thoughts burst loudly in Reen's head.

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He was in prison.

He was a defrocked priest.

'He was married to somebody else,' Teresa says, inserting her needle, busy with a complex knot. Reen takes a look. Teresa's eyes are slits, her lips thin and working.

'Don't ask me why they've never told you. Bloody ridiculous.' Her voice rises sharply.

'It's that stupid Tommy, and he'll kill me if he knows I've told you. Won't even let Rose talk about it. Poor Rose, all these years, she gets so mad.'

Reen stares at Julie who stares at a photo of Doug, tears brimming in her big blue eyes. Reen is shocked. Seek and ye shall find, Rose says, and you won't always like it. Her head is full and hot.

Divorce, she thinks, that's why he won't talk, divorce, the unspeakable word.

'Did they, did they, you know, divorce?' she asks Teresa.

'Nothing like that,' says Teresa. 'She died in a car accident, head-on collision. There was a baby, a little boy. He died, too.'

It is the thought of this brief, long-ago brother that disturbs Reen most. She sees him flung through the windscreen, hurtling through the air, like the baby in the TV ad, but this brother carries on through the night, disappearing into infinity, lost to the future, Reen's future.

'What was his name?' she asks, looking at her aunt finally, feeling the dumb surprise on her face.

'Marco,' says Teresa. 'It's a shock all right, isn't it? She pats Reen's knee. 'Still, it's gone now, all in the past, though Tommy he could never talk about it. Never let on that you know.' Teresa frowns down at her handiwork, taking the needle in and out, in and out.

'Poor old Tommy,' she says, 'he came home after the funeral to Mama and Poppa. Cried for days. Drank himself silly. And there was the, you know, you know...'

'That cat,' says Teresa.

Reen watches the credits roll on Days of Our Lives, listens to the wobbly fifties theme music, thinks about the cat.

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tomcat

This is another one of Vince's stories, ghoulish, savage, a bitter comedy.

It's a familiar chant, Vince's favourite bromides.

'Two sheets to the wind?' says Vince. 'Tommy's three, maybe four.'

'Hard day at the races.'

'Carlo's in the cart.'

'Joan's spitting tacks.'

'Mama's dead to the world.'

'Black as the Ace of Spades.'

'Face smack in the lettuces.'

'Hell breaks loose in the shed.'

It's the ginger tom, nameless stray, scattering Poppa's stack of lovingly saved bottles, beer, wine, ginger-ale, orangeade (thruppence each, beer-a- penny), sending the five-foot stack crashing to the floor, where the glass shatters on contact with the concrete, a sudden carpet of weirdly shaped shards and splinters.

Tommy and Vince stand at the shed door, gaping. Reen sees them always in her mind's eye, swaying gently, briefly quiet, the sea breeze cooling their sweaty backs.

Then.

'Tommy he goes crazy.'

'He screams like a banshee.'

'He grabs the tomahawk.'

'He's off his bloody head.'

'He goes after that tom.'

'Not to put too fine a point on it,' Vince always says, his eyes glazing slightly, 'he hacked that poor mangy bastard to death in less than a minute.'

'Sobered me up good and proper,' says Vince.

'He cried afterwards, standing over that cat, sobbed like a baby.'

Vince shakes his head here, inviting his audience to ponder the complexities of human behaviour, the humanity in spite of everything, the softness of a drunken Tommy.

'I saw it.'

'Saw it with m'own eyes,' says Vince.

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'It was a funny thing,' Teresa says, her hand resting on the cloth, needle slack. 'She was an Italian girl, you know, a nice girl, we all liked her.' She pokes with the needle, an idle absent beat.

'A funny thing, though, her name was Rose, too. Well, Rosina, the Italian, you know.

'It was so strange when Tommy came home, all that time later, with another Rose.'

Tommy has his old photos laid out on the table. Rose and Reen and her sisters lean over the table, going through them too. There are not many, one or two a year, maybe, for the first half of Tommy's life.

'Then I met your mother,' Tommy says. 'Mrs Snap-happy.'

'Just as well someone does it,' says Rose. It's true she's an avid chronicler, ready with her Beauty at all the important times and even when they don't expect it. There are boxes of snaps in the cupboard.

Tommy keeps his old photos separately, though, in his tallboy with his old watch, some paua-shell cuff links, the Maori meeting-house he built in Standard Six woodwork, and a small, battered 1952diary that Reen has scoured for clues but found empty except for the dates of her grandparents' birthdays.

Periodically Tommy brings out his photos, to illustrate a story, to prove a detail, sometimes just to reminisce.

Here he is with Berto and Carlo in school uniform.

Here he is with Nana, downtown Greymouth,1942.

School picnic, Punakaiki,1946.

On Lambton Quay with Ray Vogan and Dan Kennedy, 1950.

Knowing everything now, Reen watches Rose, sideways, furtive, but her mother is as ever, a slight disdain, a tart commentary issuing at intervals.

Here is Tommy at Titahi Bay, crouched on the sand, his bare torso shining, his white teeth bright.

Here he is, head poking out the window of his Morris, grinning again.

Here he is, fifth from the left, second row, a group shot, outside the Hostel, 1952.

Here he is, Marist Second Grade, runners-up, team photo, 1953, front row, seated, second from left.

('Rosina,' Teresa said, 'she was the nurse, the nurse at the hospital. The one who had to see his privates.'

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Lost the trophy but won the girl, Reen thinks, looking closely at the photo, searching for some sign of Tommy's secret, a bright eye, a betraying smile.)

There's one last photo, they all know this one, a melee of arms and legs reaching forever upwards, and a ball in the air. On the back it says in Tommy's extravagant script, I am the one with my hands on the ball.

'How do you know?' says Reen, suddenly doubtful. 'How can you possibly know it's you. How do we really know?'

'Quite,' says Rose.

'I worked it out,' says Tommy, 'has to be.'

'How?'

'Well, it's complicated,' Tommy says, 'but anyway, I remember the manoeuvre.

'After all these years?' says Rose.

'Of course,' Tommy says.

'Well, there you are,' says Rose, 'something that venal, sticking in the mind.'

'Yup, definitely,' says Tommy, looking hard at the picture, 'remember it well.'

Reen takes the picture from him, stares at the black-and-white mass.

There he is, Tommy, her father.

Possibly.

He's rising up out of the swarming circle of bodies, his hands highest, touching the ball. But she can't tell. This whirling mass of limbs has swallowed him up.

There's a hollow at the centre and Tommy may be there, maybe not.