Our Year Without Footy
by Wayne Marshall
From the moment the sky above our town filled with what looked like a fleet of high-tech sailing ships one morning, and then, from rope ladders tossed over the sides, an army of Fish-Men in spacesuits hurried down and descended on our streets, we knew we were in trouble. It was the end, surely.
There’s no coming back from something like that. Still, we had to be brave. So a bunch of us organised to leave our houses and go confront the invaders. When eventually we found them waiting for us in the middle of Main Street, we approached them slowly, mumbling words of peace and surrender. The leader of the Fish-Men stepped forward. Behind the screen of his helmet, his slimy orange lips flapped open and closed, as if he was speaking to us. Next thing he was pressing a button on his spacesuit and a computerised voice that sounded a lot like the Stephen Hawking voice was translating his words to us: “No football. One year. Mind experiment. On this town. No football.” His beady eyes blinked rapid-fire. “Understand?”
“No footy?” we asked, bewildered. “For a year?”
“No football,” the Fish-Man answered.
He nodded. “No football. One year.”
“Or else what?” one of our men asked.
“No remorse,” said the Fish-Man, levelling a silver ray gun at us.
We should probably tell you that footy is a big thing in our town—a massive thing, a colossal thing. Whenever we’re not watching it, we’re playing it, and whenever we’re not playing it, we’re thinking about it, and whenever we’re not thinking about it, odds are it’s cricket season. Going without our favourite sport would be tough. All things considered though, it was as if we’d won the lottery. The creatures weren’t going to butcher us and hoist us up the rope ladders to be shipped off as exotic meat for the Fish-People back home; all we had to do, for some baffling reason, was go a year without footy. We could do it. Besides, at least initially, we were too swept up in the drama of our visitors to miss footy all that much. We had alien boats bobbing up and down in the sky above our houses, for god’s sake. We had men with the faces of fish wandering our streets, filming us, tearing down all footy-related memorabilia from our walls, slapping electrodes on us and showing us images of footballs and goal posts and Four’N Twenty pies intercut with stock war footage and hardcore pornography.
But wonder at the unknown and the thrill of having dodged what appeared to be certain death is one thing. Footy, as everyone in our town will tell you, is another kettle of fish altogether. So it was inevitable that sooner or later one of us would get desperate and do something dangerous.
It happened around a month into the occupation. Fifty-two-year-old Ronny Charman had invited four mates to his house on Station Road, where, in the cobwebbed back corner of his shed, he’d hooked up a portable TV to watch a Collingwood versus Carlton footy match. For the first quarter-and-a-half the men huddled around the television, feasting on the game like drug addicts after a forced withdrawal. They were enjoying it so much that for a while they didn’t notice the Fish-Men assembling in the window behind the TV. When they finally realised they had company—it wasn’t until an ad break after a goal—the Fish-Man at the front lifted his ray gun and liquidated Ronny Charman. His four friends backed slowly away from the TV, their trembling hands held high. Only, they made the grave mistake of looking back to the screen to see if the Collingwood full-forward nailed his set shot on goal from the boundary line.
The men were liquidated immediately, without remorse.
After the murders we had no choice but to banish all thought of football from our minds. But the question was: without footy, what the hell were we going to do with ourselves? We honestly had no idea. And so, like a flock of lost sheep, we drifted aimlessly through our days: eating without enthusiasm, going to bed early, sleeping late. During that period it was common to see us parked along the fence line of our footy ground, where we’d sit for hours, staring from the grass to the goal posts to the muddy centre square, pining for a return of the great love of our lives. All the while, the curved bottoms of the boats floated at the tops of our windscreens, mocking us, taunting us.
April blurred into May. May was swamped by the dark clouds of June. Giving up any hope that the Fish-Men might buckle and allow us even the smallest dose of footy, we had no option but to let go of the sport altogether. And that’s when it happened.
Honestly, you wouldn’t believe the kind of changes that came over us, pretty much overnight. Without footy using up every ounce of their mental and physical energy, our men made up for the years and decades of being half-arsed partners, sweeping wives and girlfriends off their feet. Our collective intelligence skyrocketed. We invented things. We learned foreign languages. We held symposiums in the pub to discuss the future of our post-sport society. A number of us even took up musical instruments, holding impromptu jams on front lawns and nature strips. These changes seemed to please the Fish-Men, who stood filming us on the opposite sides of streets, their gills sucking in and out excitedly, their beady eyes charged with curiosity and pride.
It wasn’t long though before footy was worming its way back into our collective psyche. Some of us have suggested that its return was inevitable, natural even. Others have argued that the Fish-Men’s experiment was growing stale, so without us knowing it they re-introduced the concept of footy to our minds. This theory is supported by a group of five wives, who all claim to have woken in the night to find Fish-Men leaning over their sleeping husbands, playing footy club songs in their ears, dabbing goanna oil beneath their noses, dragging red Sherrin footballs provocatively across their private parts. Either way, as eye-opening as it had been, we found ourselves becoming restless in our lives without footy. Yet with the threat of liquidation hanging permanently over our heads, we knew that if we were to reclaim our beloved sport, it would have to be covert.
The first meeting was held at the beginning of August, at the back of our abandoned brickworks factory, in the middle of the night. We had no actual footballs—the Fish-Men confiscated every last one of them the day they arrived—so we milled about in the knee-high grass, unsure what to do. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. We were about to give up and go back to bed when one of us bolted suddenly from the pack, ran fifty metres ahead, turned, and snapped a right foot kick back towards the group. At first no one moved. The only sound was the beep and hum of the boats. But then, compelled by a force so strong they couldn’t resist, the group leapt as one. At the back one of our smaller men rode on the shoulders of the pack and took a high-flying screamer of a mark. No sooner had he hit the ground than he shot off a handball to a woman on the move. She in turn handballed to her husband, who sprinted, imaginary ball in hand, by the ivy-thick wall of the factory, before stabbing a low pass to his mate on the far side of the paddock. He sent off a quick handball to his neighbour, who from long range slotted a goal between the branches of two gum trees.
And so The Game was born.
Night after night, in unchecked corners of our town, more and more of us gathered in secret to play games of footy that often stretched all the way to dawn. One minute we’d be way out by the strawberry fields, using bits of farming equipment as goal posts. The next we’d be bolting in waves across the green of our bowls club, chasing the player with the ball in his or her hands, trying to lay a tackle or pick up a cheap handball receive. The next we’d be dodging washing lines and yapping dogs, as our matches spilled eventually into backyards. Obviously at some level we were aware that The Game was leading us into dangerous territory, but we followed it, wherever it took us, until one night at the end of August we found ourselves suddenly in the no-go zone beneath the boats. We knew we were in danger, a whole lot of danger, but we played on, kicking and handballing and then kicking again, right into the centre of the field, until finally a handball was fired into the hands of our mayor, who, with dawn breaking through the trees and magpies warbling all around us, barrelled home a goal between two swaying rope ladders. We came from all directions to dive on him, jubilant, red-faced, spent.
When we looked up we saw the entire fish-faced army had us surrounded.
An hour later we were teetering fifty feet above the ground, on the edge of a long metal plank that extended from one of the boats, having been herded up there on a rope ladder at gunpoint. Way down below, those not involved in The Game were beginning to gather in numbers as news of our capture spread quickly through the town. At our backs, on the deck, a band of scowling Fish-Men had ray guns trained on us.
“You knew the rules,” rang out the Stephen Hawking voice from the leader. “And you broke them. Now you must take it. The long walk. Go.”
It was then, for the first real time in our lives, that we began to question our relationship with footy and where it was taking us. Were we really about to plummet fifty feet and be squashed like bugs because of our obsession with a stupid game? Really? For a second it seemed like the most futile and pathetic death imaginable. But then we came to our senses and realised that if we were going to die—which of course we all are—it may as well be for the greatest bloody game ever conceived in all human history.
“Go,” the leader waved us on. “Walk the plank. Or be liquidated.”
We joined hands and closed our eyes. We drew our final breaths.
“Liquidate them,” instructed the leader. “Liquidate them now.”
And then we jumped.
We’d barely fallen a metre before a giant trawling net swung out and caught us. Rocking side to side, we looked up to see the scaly face of the leader, looming at the edge of the plank. For a good minute his furious orange lips snapped at us. Yet when he pressed the button on his spacesuit, all the voice said was: “No football”.
“No worries,” we shouted back, falling suddenly away from him in the net.
We didn’t dare try anything after that. For one, the Fish-Men upped their surveillance, installing microscopic cameras in our walls and commandeering a police car for a 24/7 patrol. Second, with only a month of the footy season left to go, we were too close to the end to risk landing ourselves on that god-awful plank again. There was only one problem: the final month was September, and September, as any footy fanatic will tell you, is hands down the greatest month to be alive, as the finals roll into action.
You should’ve seen us. We were like kids robbed of Christmas. We could almost hear the sound of miracle goals being kicked and drunken spectators roaring in the stands, out beyond the borders of our town. By grand final day we were climbing up the walls. It was a belter of an afternoon too—twenty-nine degrees, not a cloud in the sky—but we gutted it out, hour by hour, minute by minute, until finally the sun was going down on another grand final day. Almost immediately, the Fish-Men were spotted leaving our streets and boarding their ships, preparing, we assumed, for the long journey home now the experiment was over.
As for us, with the footy season done and dusted, we wasted no time turning to the other great sporting obsession of ours.
Have we mentioned yet that cricket is a big thing in our town? No? Well you’d best believe that cricket is a big thing in our town. Whenever we’re not watching it, we’re playing it, and whenever we’re not playing it, we’re—
But you get the idea.
The morning after grand final day, with the Fish-Men still up in their boats, we raided our sheds and pulled out all our bats, pads, helmets, stumps and balls. Then, in a show of community solidarity, and to celebrate the great ordeal we’d survived, we packed our cricket gear into bags, collected our deck chairs, stocked our eskies with all the beer and Breezers we could carry, and headed en masse for the cricket ground.
Coming down the hill towards the oval, we felt as happy as we had in a long time. Some of us even wondered if being deprived footy had done us some good. Was it possible the Fish-Men had made us better people? Was it possible we’d learned something along the way? As we streamed through the gates, colouring our faces with yellow and green zinc, we even felt a twinge of sadness that the Fish-Men—who basically we’d wanted dead for nine-tenths of their stay—were about to leave.
And that’s when we saw them. They were waiting for us, in the middle of the oval, standing defiantly by the cricket pitch.
The leader bounded out to meet us as we neared the middle. We knew what his rotten flabby lips were saying, before he even hit the translate button.
But he hit the button anyway, and out came the words that were like daggers to our hearts: “No cricket. One year. Mind experiment. On this town. No cricket,” he announced, producing a ray gun and liquidating a Gray-Nicolls bat one of our men was holding. Then, turning the gun on us, he added:
Tincture is an unthemed journal, so we publish all kinds of stories. Sad, shocking, scary, funny. Realistic. Fantastical. We publish all of it—as long as it strikes us in some way—but the funny stories are the hardest ones to find. Wayne Marshall’s ‘Our Year Without Footy’ isn’t full of jokes, but it doesn’t need to be because the tone is spot on: a perfect balance, confident enough to take itself seriously (but obviously not too seriously), and never descending into outright silliness. It’s this tone that carries a fairly simple ‘what-if’ concept all the way through to its satisfying conclusion—an ending that you may or may not see coming, but that feels perfect and inevitable once it arrives.
I’m no sports fan. But one thing I love about this story is that you come away with no idea at all where the author stands. The narrator’s voice—sports fan through and through—speaks of footy, our national pastime, with such firm conviction, and yet we’re given a glimpse of a better life, one in which ‘half-arsed partners’ make up for their years of neglect. There’s something here for sports lovers and haters alike. Enjoy the ride!
Editor, Tincture Journal
Wayne Marshall is an Australian writer and musician. He lives in the town of Bacchus Marsh with his wife and two daughters.You can follow him on Twitter @wayneamarshall1.