I was sitting on the couch at this place I was house-sitting, flicking through channels on the television, when I saw that they were playing a replay of the 1997 NPC semi-final between Counties Manukau and Waikato. Counties had experienced some ups and downs throughout the early years of my life, a terrible but at least collective shame for a boy from a small, rural town in New Zealand, where every chance we got was spent playing barefoot rugby whether there were twenty or two of us; but that was the year that they made the National Provincial Championship final for the second year running, so life was good. It had been a long time since I’d ended my largely unsuccessful engagement with the sport, but the sight of Errol Brain sent memories flooding back. Jim Coe, Glen Marsh—his brother Tony out in the backline, the one who played all those games for France—out with Joeli Vidiri, and the one and only, Jonah, with whom I cherished the gem that we shared a birthday, the 12th of May.
Danielle and I had been together more than a year by that time. I met her a year or so after my wife had gone to Germany, though we had been over long before that. But even though I was too young to be divorced I wasn’t yet too old to have lost my optimism, regardless of the string of failures that were my twenties. Danielle was a sweet girl, a running prodigy, a Disney-princess with effervescent courage who I admired and adored in equal measure. I loved unconditionally but for the first time it was returned. For a young man who had only ever wished to be loved, who had lost count of the heartbreaks of his sensitive soul, it was the only happiness that I had ever known.
She bounced into the room as only she could, and slumped down upon my lap.
“I was thinking,” she said.
“And what was it that you were thinking?”
“What I always think.”
“And what is that?”
“Stop being a smartass.”
“I will,” I said, “if you would tell me what you have been thinking.”
“I want a baby,” she said.
Just like that.
When I was twenty I dropped out of medical school. I can’t think of a single word that he said, but I can remember the way that my father looked at me when he found out. He had one eye, the other made of glass, though I couldn’t tell you which was which. I was home for the holidays, and my mother had found my exam results, failures from accounting and economics papers that I shouldn’t have been enrolled in. He never said anything, but he looked at me, and I couldn’t tell if it was his glass eye or his good eye. So I looked away again. And at the end of summer I went back to Dunedin in pursuit of bohemia.
“I don’t want to be an old mum.”
“I see,” I said.
The game on the television was about to start.
“Hey,” I said, “I think I’m going to go and get some beers.”
“Do you want to come?”
“Are you sure?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I eventually finished a degree down in Dunedin, then fled with a girl who proposed to me eight days after we first kissed and before we’d ever even had sex, returning to Auckland but living up in the city rather than out where I was from. I was lost, and she was just the cruel bully that I needed to help guide me through what I was too scared to do, embarking on the path of life. I did a year of postgrad by distance, then went to film school. I tried to drop out and work for a trucking company, but I was too delicate for that world. Halfway through that degree we got married, until she realized I was never going to amount to anything, bailed to finish her studies in Germany, and after nearly a year of her being there, I went and saw her, and she told me in a cheap Indian restaurant down an alleyway on the left bank in Paris that she confirmed that she didn’t want to be married to me anymore. Long story short, I went home, after that, to work for my father as a mailman, though I commuted from the city where I lived to keep the dreams that I retained alive.
I drove to the liquor store in the bright red Ford Ranger that I used for work, covered in all the dents and scrapes that I was responsible for. I wasn’t very good at my job, and given how torturous the experience had been when my father taught me how to drive, having already parted ways so many years before, the idea that I would now be working for him in a role that required precisely the skills that eluded me seemed the cruelest twist of the knife. As if I needed another chance, with every dent I inflicted, to make him ashamed of me, the son who could have been nothing but a failure to him. That to maintain my bohemian dreams, the price I would pay would be to see him staring at me not knowing if it were his glass eye or not. The same look he gave me when I saw him after my mother had told him that my wife and I had split, so long after it had happened.
“And it’s what—permanent?”
“I think so, yeah.”
It was the closest we had ever got to really talking about anything and my skin burned. How could I talk about it with him? How could I talk to him anymore than I could tell Danielle that I couldn’t have a baby with her?
“Just the Lion Red?” the man at the liquor store said.
The first time I ever bought a beer was at a Counties game, during those golden years. I was there at the stadium in Pukekohe with my father, my brother Neil, JR—who my father had worked with at the steel mill out in Glenbrook—and his son Axol, who was in my class at school. JR was a giant of a man, the local junk collector, a big proud Maori man, born too late to buccaneer but just in time to charm and swindle his way through life in the most romantic of ways. In contrast, my father was a quiet man, who would listen to JR regale his tall stories and respond with little more than a smile and a disbelieving shake of the head. Though Axol and I were the same age and in the same rugby team, he had a lot more in common with Neil; as such, I was the quiet observer left on the outer. My father, having grown up in Tokoroa (but moved up to Auckland before I was born as a result of the forestry downturn) had a foot in both camps with the game, but naturally supported Waikato; Neil did whatever my father did, Axol did what Neil did, and JR was only there for the sun and the beer—which, I am sure, was the only reason that they even took me to the game, so that I could fetch the drinks.
Sitting next to us up on the embankment in the sun were a pair of Waikato supporters. They were rough guys who were taking turns outdoing each other with more and more outlandish lines to garner the attention of the girls in their proximity, more to just get a rise out of them rather than actually attempting to pursue anything. And they had Mooloo bells, old style cow bells painted red, yellow and black and clanged as loud as possible at every possible opportunity, the undisputable symbol and song of the Waikato supporter. As the game kicked off the bells beside me began to clang, over and over, until they were all I could hear.
I got back to the house with the beers. Danielle was in the shower so I headed into the living room and started watching the game. Matt Cooper was lining up for a conversion, with the bells clanging their encouragement as hard as they could, when Danielle came back into the room.
“What are you watching?” she said.
“Just an old rugby game.”
She wasn’t angry, she was upset. Silence separated us. But how could I dare to speak? When all that I had ever tried to do had ended in failure, how could I ever dare to try again?
“Do you want to watch this?”
“We can change the channel if you want.”
“No,” she said, “I’ve got some work to do anyway.”
She deserved to know. I couldn’t keep stringing her along, placating her with the hope of a tomorrow that I would ensure would never come. I loved her too much to do that.
As I had expected, when Waikato scored the first try, JR handed me a twenty and sent me off to get beers. Though I was tall for my age, I was still only ten or eleven—but this was back in the day when kids could buy beer for their fathers at a rugby game without the world ending.
Just my luck though, when I joined the line, one of the Waikato guys that was sitting beside us—the bigger, louder one with the ginger beard—was up at the front of the queue. Being served just beside him was an older man, almost elderly, half his size—and just as the old guy got his beers, Gingerbeard roared with laughter and stepped back—crashing into him, spilling most of the beers from his plastic cups. Everyone in the line, we all saw it happen, Gingerbeard shot us all a look first, then at the old man—but knew that none of us were going to say anything to him, least of all me, and he sauntered off again without another word, leaving me hot with the shame that I hadn’t said a word.
I came back with the four Lion Reds (for twenty bucks? those were the days) to find that the Waikato guys were talking to JR.
“JR, here you go,” I said. “Any change?”
“Typical, these kids and money, right?”
As JR and the Waikato guys shared the joke at my expense, I didn’t protest and gave my father his beers.
“Tah,” he said.
Our eyes met.
“Better not,” he said, smiling. “By the way, Greg, Mike—this is Shane.”
It was the first time that he had ever introduced me to anyone, and it was to the Waikato guys.
“Shane, was it?” Gingerbeard—Mike—said.
He held out his hand to shake mine, but I didn’t return the favour, so he withdrew his own. I could feel my father’s eyes—or eye—on me, but I pretended that I couldn’t.
“Don’t worry, mate,” my father said, embarrassed, “he’s a pretty staunch Counties man, this one.”
My skin burned. I hated him. How could he not understand that they were the last people in the world that I wanted to meet?
Danielle stood and stretched.
“Do you want to go for a run?” she said.
“I’ve had a few beers.”
“You’ve got your bike. Ride with me.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Actually, don’t worry about it,” she said.“You watch this.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded, and stood.
“I didn’t even think you liked rugby,” she said, and then she left.
I knew what she thought of my silence. I knew what she assumed that it meant, that it reflected my feelings for her and how I felt about the future I wanted—and I knew the price that my silence could pay. And yet, silence was all I had. I felt a lump swell in my throat. How could I explain that I couldn’t have a baby with her because my father was ashamed of me?
In the hot sun on the embankment the game wore on. The Waikato guys kept clanging their bells, and JR and my father kept chatting to their new best friends. I didn’t know where Axol and Neil had gone, so I was left to sulk in silence. Then Vidiri scored a try, and the home town roared.
“Right,” my father said, “better take a leak.”
He headed to the ablution block, so I followed him, and we ended up standing next to each other along one of those urinals that is nothing more than a concrete wall and a drain.
Though I was nearly taller than him he seemed so much bigger. We didn’t speak, until I did.
“He spilled an old man’s beer.”
“Was it an accident?”
“Did he buy him a new one?”
He shook and zipped and looked at me. Then left.
I followed him back up to the embankment, excited about what he would do. Would he punch the guy? Force him to find the old man and apologize? I didn’t know but I couldn’t wait. My chest swelled.
“You guys want another beer?” my father said. And then he went and got them both another beer.
I suppose it was after that that my father and I really parted ways. Fights that weren’t about what we were fighting about became too frequent; they sent me to boarding school, a good school so that I would go on to play some important role in the market economy that I would eventually do my best to reject, like a doctor or a lawyer, and I never really looked back until my father had a heart attack a few years ago and I went back home to help him on his mail run. It suited me, working for him in the mornings and trying to write in the afternoons—but look how well that’s turning out. Two unread short stories published on the internet and a six-figure student loan to show for it. The best I can hope for is that this might be a third.
When my father was off buying them beers, the Waikato guys got up and headed down to the side-line to cheer their side on—but they left their bells behind. I looked around, the coast was clear—I took off my jersey, stole one of the bells, and hid it. They came back, searched everywhere—but I never let on. When Dad came back with their beers, he helped them try and find it, and though he didn’t touch my jersey, he did give it a funny look.
I heard Danielle get home. How many beers had I had? I thought back to that day again, sitting on the embankment, and how my father had abandoned me. Had he abandoned me? When we left the game, we were heading out to Bombay to go and see my great-uncle down in Pokeno, and I’d hidden the bells, but when no one was talking I moved and they let out a muted ‘clink’. My father looked at me in the rear-view mirror. I could only see his eyes. I couldn’t tell which one was glass and which was real. But now that I think about it, he never said anything about the bells, though I have no doubt no that he must have heard them.
We pulled out into a passing lane, and Dad roared our big blue Ford Fairmont up alongside another car—and I swear, it was the Waikato supporter who had sat beside us. Every fibre of my being wanted nothing more than to wind down the window and clang those bells in the breeze, right before their eyes—but I didn’t.
Why did he want me working with him?
Danielle sat down beside me on the couch. She took the drink from my hand and finished it. We watched the rest of the game together silent but for intermittent inconsequential comments until, lost in her thoughts, Danielle smiled to herself and shook her head in disbelief, and there it was—clarity. I watched her, retreated into her solitude as I had done, reacting to the veil of my silence with those same assumptions that cost me twenty years with my father. Would I let her down with a muted ‘clink’, and let her go?
Was the lump in my throat made of glass, or was it not?
The replay of the semi-final was just as good as I remembered it. Losing 33-9 down in Hamilton, the ground announcer, prematurely certain that Waikato would host the final against Canterbury, began advertising ticket sales. Spurred on by this insult, in one of the greatest comebacks in NPC history, Counties won 43-40.
So then I spoke, to lean out and clang the bells.