Hard But Fair

"Chook scull, chook scull, chook scull!!!"

The clamour builds to a crescendo. It is the Footy Ball. Nice pun - unintentional unfortunately - it is the annual football club dinner dance. A crazed footballer stands proudly on a table amid the remains of what has been a quite respectable dinner. He is red in the face. He is drunk. He has a small beer gut that has no business being anywhere near (let alone attached to) a twenty three year old. He is my boyfriend.

He wrestles from the pocket of the totally wrecked, hired tuxedo jacket a rubber chicken, ceremoniously fills it with beer, and sculls the contents from the chicken's latex, somehow obscene, beak. Seventy nine grown men scream. A stunning achievement has been witnessed. For the third consecutive year the chook scull has been performed at the Footy Ball and that means that a football club tradition has been born.

I think back to how I came to be at this dinner.

Hermione said "They've gone too far this time." We all looked up. When Hermione spoke, everyone listened. We believed that she was the best editor of a student newspaper in Australia. She had been editor of Up Yours for six years now. Some people unkindly suggested that no one else wanted to be editor of such a low grade rag, but we, the enlightened, knew that our work was important. Hermione never ceased to remind us of the significant role we played in campus affairs. The entire staff of the paper numbered five and what with having to write the articles, conduct the interviews, sell advertising space, do the typesetting and the design it was no wonder we all reverted to part time students within weeks of becoming an "Upper". Hermione was so flat out that she didn't have time to study at all.

On this occasion Hermione was talking about the football club. "You remember that perfectly puerile sculling competition they organised last week? Well they had a door charge to get in - you know the sort of thing - all the piss you can drink in four hours for $25. Well anyway they only charged $15 for women to go. Can you believe it? As if it isn't bad enough that they organise a show that has the express purpose of getting everyone trashed out their minds, they have to resort to bullshit, sexist tactics like charging a lower price to get the 'girlies' along." Hermione possessed a wondrous ability to sneer and speak at the same time. She sneered so fiercely on her delivery of the word girlies that we knew that this was a term she would never use herself but that she was quoting from some unsavoury source.

We registered the appropriate amount of outrage without allowing ourselves to slip into hysteria - something Hermione abhorred. "Nothing worse than journos who can't maintain their objectivity."

"Sally," she said fixing me with her most earnest gaze, "You're going undercover. Deep, deep undercover. I don't want to see you back in this office until you've got the dirt on the inner workings of that rabble who call themselves a football club. I want a full exposé. Take as long as you need. We'll run a special edition as soon as the story's done. OK?"

As if I could disagree. This was my first real break. Up till now I had been trusted only with record reviews. "The people who listen to this crap are barely literate anyway." was Hermione's reason for giving us rookies the record reviewing assignment.

If I at first wondered why I had been trusted with such a meaty bit of reporting (after all I was the most recent addition to Up Yours), as Hermione held my gaze for one beat longer than was absolutely necessary, I realised. I was the only other woman on the paper. And if Hermione didn't want one of the men to infiltrate the club - a relatively soft option really, simply a matter of turning up to training - then she really meant it when she talked about going deep undercover. I knew what I had to do.

The next Saturday I made sure I was at the front bar of the Four Leaf Clover, the pub at which post-footy match celebratory or commiseratory drinks were always imbibed. Over the next few weeks I realised that there was very little difference in the atmosphere on these Saturday afternoons, it was just that if there had been a loss by the club a couple more kegs than usual would be consumed.

I'd been a bit unsure what I should wear on this first Saturday and had finally settled for a pair of jeans and a blue and yellow T-shirt (the club colors). Good choice it turned out. At 5.30, in through the door, on an almost visible wave of Dencorub, rolled the chanting footballers. I didn't learn the words of the club song for some weeks, but its melody (of sorts) will forever swim in my brain, resurfacing at random, because of the events that accompanied the raucous yell-singing. No sooner had the burly party burst through the pub's doors than a single voice was heard above the masses "Yeeehar!!! The gold and blue, the gold and blue, the gold and blue, the gold and blue...." The litany continued until all voices were chanting and all eyes were on me - or more specifically my T-shirt. In seconds I was literally lifted by at least a dozen pairs of hands, high above the heads of this fervent crowd and paraded around the front bar until the apparent thirst of the revellers became too much to bear. I was placed down in a regal position on the bar itself while a yell of "Pints all round." went up. Amid the frenzy that then took place at the bar the owner of the voice that had started the "gold and blue" mantra leaned casually against the bar and handed me a pint. Then almost immediately and with a recognisably sweet look of contrition said "Jesus, sorry. D'you like beer? Didn't even think to ask." He was actually blushing by now. "You name it - whatever you want from the bar - my shout."

I said that beer would be fine even though I'd never drunk a pint in my life. Usually at Up Yours we would drink cask red. And on Wednesday nights when we'd handed all the proofs back to the printer, we'd usually get bent at the office on some of Hermione's home-grown.

I was feeling surprisingly un-nervous. Decidedly not tense. Normally, if a man I didn't know so much as touched me he'd know about it, and yet I'd just been manhandled by a veritable bevy of men I didn't know, in an alien environment, I had a pint of beer in my hand and I was actually feeling pretty good. There was no sense of menace in the air. Rather there was a palpable feeling of bonhomie.

"My name's Simmo." said my beverage benefactor.

"Sally." I managed to reply. I was thinking Hermione will love this. First day on the job and I'm drinking a pint with Simmo - captain of the A1s. Even those of us who devotedly ignored the footy knew of the legendary Simmo. He'd been at Uni for four years, had never passed a subject, had won the campus Iron Stomach competition three times in a row and was the undefeated intervarsity beer sculling champ. He could down a schooner in 1.7 seconds.

Time passed. Many pints were drunk. Dreamlike, before I knew it but actually some hours later, I was in the footy club changerooms with Simmo. I was on the floor of the shower cubicle, lying on a pile of used towels, my jeans around my ankles, Simmo was lying on me, his jeans around his ankles; we were engaged in a passionless but frenzied coupling.

I didn't report back to the Up Yours office that week or the next. On the third week I did call Hermione - at home so as to divert any suspicion. Well, I was undercover. The last thing Hermione needed was for me to be indiscreetly blabbing all my startling news on an open telephone line. By now I was brimming with news. I'd managed to be at every official (and quite a few unofficial) footy functions for over a fortnight. I was dying to tell Hermione about the rodeo.

"Hermie, you'll never believe what I witnessed last night!"

"Less gush, cherish." Hermione was trying to start a trend where one used verbs for pet names.

Well I know I was excited but did Hermione have to sound so seriously bored? I hadn't even started the story. "Sorry Herm." I couldn't help myself, Hermione hated being called Herm. Small revenge for how peeved I had suddenly felt. Every other diminutive she delighted in. She said she liked to think she was a "real" person; thought people often treated her as if she were in some "ivory tower". Funny, when you think about it, that an editor of Hermione's obvious talent should so often resort to such well worn clichés.

Contrite at my unattractive behaviour and somewhat impressed that Hermione hadn't immediately hung up, I forged on.

"Big party at Simmo's last night." Then I casually dropped in "Oh yeah, I'm his girlfriend..."

"Mmmmm hmm." said the dispassionate Hermione.

"Anyway, huge party, plenty of piss of course and plenty of boys’ behavior. I'm gathering enough for a novel I reckon. Ha Ha."

"Great adore. Look I've got to rush - meeting Tony like half an hour ago. Write it all up for me - it'll be great."

I couldn't believe she didn't want to hear about the rodeo. Astounded.

I'd been at this party at Simmo's. The “fellas” thought it was about time to "wreck the place". There was much concern that the neighbors were becoming complacent. "Got to keep 'em on their toes!" exhorted Simmo. Four kegs were bought from the Four Leaf Clover and rolled round the corner to Simmo's place. Simmo had moved house five times in four years and each place had been within walking distance of the Four Leaf Clover. Admirable foresight in these days of "Don't Drink and Drive." Simmo also adhered to "Friends don't let Friends Drink and Drive." and on any Friday and Saturday night his house could have up to ten drunken footballers sleeping in it.

The kegs were set up under a tarp strung between two trees - it might rain - and testing of the amber fluid began at about 4pm. I'd developed quite a taste for the stuff and was well into my fourth pint and the third verse of the club song (it really is fun, all that singing along) when most of the team started to arrive. Bitser, Bongo and Meat arrived to such cries from the gallery as "Where's the school bus?" , "Recess time already?" and a rather forced singing of Are You Old Enough?. One can only assume that this related to the age of the girls they had brought with them. The boys seemed not at all put out by this welcome but nevertheless the amassed partiers felt it important to at least offer solace for the ribbing they had doled out by yelling the club catchcry. “Hard but fair!”. I didn't have time to really ponder this behavior because the next group was arriving: assistant coach Big Ben - don't even ask - and Vice Captain Roger.

Up until the week before, I had believed that Roger was the sole member of the club who was called by the name he had been christened. I was soon disabused of that notion. There were in fact no players known by their real names. It transpired that on one of the club's overnight country trips the Vice Captain had actually been arrested for copulating with a girl in the middle of an intersection. Apparently he had tried to explain to the constabulary that they had been in no danger because they had been standing up and so cars could easily see them, but the police were having none of it. When they booked him, he gave his name and address as Roger Shagman of Rooty Hill. This had gone down a veritable treat with the lads on the team and since this was the sort of stuff of which legends were made he had been called Roger ever since.

The party proceeded along the lines I had come to expect. Rough style but actually quite a bit of a laugh. There were usually drinking games. Also, usually one or two of the boys would have their clothes literally torn off them and be made to run to the end of the street and back under threat of no more beer if they failed to comply. There were many idle bets along the line of, "I bet you can't eat three dry weetbix in less than three minutes."

Simmo and I had also developed a bit of a party trick. At every gathering we would locate the laundry, lock ourselves in, and fuck. On one hand I was horrified by my behavior - I kept telling myself that it was all part of the job, that it would all be over soon - on the other I found myself sometimes swept away by the whole moment. Ever since our first interlude in the clubrooms, Simmo had taken to looking deep into my eyes and nodding almost imperceptibly when he came.

It was disconcerting, powerful and very moving. I found I sometimes had tears in my eyes. This made me almost as horrified as the way I had been acting. I couldn't help thinking of those schlocky Hollywood tearjerkers with the saccharine happy endings. What perhaps made these moments so strong was that Simmo never showed any emotion to me at other times. Not that he showed his emotions to anyone else either. He was the epitome of blokiness.

But on that night, as we emerged furtively from the laundry into the hall we were met with the vision of two near naked bodies in full coitus. One of them was Bitser and the other was one of the young girls he had arrived with. She had been giggling simperingly upon her arrival at the party but she was not now. Instead we were treated to a series of gasps and little screams and squeals. I don't know how long we stood there - maybe a minute. Neither of us thought to move on. Neither of us felt the urge to make our presence felt. We simply stood there holding hands and watching.

Finally, with much thrashing about and an explosive cry of "Jesus Christ!' Bitser came. The door from the main room burst open and a crowd of drunken footballers, led by Roger holding a stopwatch aloft, rushed in hooting the likes of "Ride 'em cowboy!", "World record - three minutes and 14 seconds." "Tie 'im down!".

Simmo burst into laughter and when he had sufficiently calmed himself he turned to me and explained, "Rodeo." I couldn't laugh. I had glimpsed the girl's face briefly as she ran from the room to the cries of “Hard but fair!”. It didn't seem so much fun to her any more. I wasn't having that much fun now either.

My God what was I doing? What was I doing here? When did I become the sort of person who would attend a party where such a "party trick" was actually considered a party trick? Did I think I was actually going to write something worthwhile for Up Yours by being here, by participating? And anyway who in the world except Hermione gave a shit about anything Up Yours had to say? In fact did Hermione even care? I had become a spy. A voyeur. An imposter. And yet, I had never enjoyed myself so much in my life. And ah, there was Simmo.

I left the party without another word to anyone.

A week later and I found myself unable to not turn up to the Footy Ball. I could tell Simmo was glad I was there but he could sense I was a bit distant I think and accordingly drank himself towards oblivion more rapidly than usual. And there we were, the chook scull had been performed for the third time. As I looked around the room I felt myself starting to smile, the feeling was joyous, infectious. Music was blaring, ruined taffeta and hired tuxedos abounded, pants-down dancing was the go and everyone, but everyone was yelling as loud as they could "Chook scull! Chook scull! Chook scull!"

In seconds I was standing on the table screaming with the rest of them. Simmo grinned at me. I grinned back. Don't ask questions I warned myself. Just don't ask questions. Suddenly I was insanely glad that I'd dropped my note of resignation at the office of Up Yours on my way here. I had no reservations about the uncompromising terms in which I had described to Hermione her stinking project. Until now I had worried about my motivation for quitting. Had I just been so pissed off with Hermione's indifference that I decided to quit? Had I been unwilling to reveal my complicity in actions I condemned? But I would deal with this later. I would deal with all of this later. Simmo. The footy club. What I wanted to do. Right now I truly believed that I had acted honorably. That I could never write a story to betray the trust of these people who had accepted me as one of them.

A marvellous feeling of righteousness is washing over me, but I notice that someone is pushing his way through the crowd. It is Roger. He looks fit to bust a gut as Simmo would say. And who's that? Hermione - God no. Roger's waving something at Simmo. As he gets to Simmo he hands him what I now see is a piece of paper, the room goes quiet. Simmo reads the paper. And now he is looking at me. With loathing. With loathing. Oh my God - it's my letter. It must be my letter. I know it’s my letter. My letter to Hermione.

He doesn't say anything. I don't say anything. I am down from the table, I am walking to the door, I am going home. Useless to try to explain that I'm not going to write the story. Useless to point out that that's what's in the letter. It makes no difference. I know that myself. The idea was conceived with betrayal in mind. That's all that matters. I know I will not be forgiven. Not forgiven for thinking I could write the story. Not forgiven for deciding not to write the story.

Hard but fair.

Music was blaring, ruined taffeta and hired tuxedos abounded, pants-down dancing was the go and everyone, but everyone was yelling as loud as they could...