It’s an ‘almost Charles Dickens Day’ in Preston as I walk along the concrete slabs of a footpath: a small dog barks like a starter motor on a cold morning; the bristles of a hedge scrub the sleeve of my jumper and over-hanging fat green leaves touch the top of my woollen beanie. Ahead of me, walk two of my children. But they are children no longer, they are adult spirits at large in a universe of joy—at least that is what their conversation, their laughter and their songs seem to be telling the world around them.
Even the gods of the sky are infected by their enthusiasm and quickly give up on their threat of a bleak Dickensian day of rain, fog and petty criminals. Soon, there are patches of blue, streaming sunshine, the looming hulk of a looked-for railway station and the approaching roar of a train.
In minutes we are on the train and shortly after we disembark in a suburb that does in fact have the look of the type described by the English author: small colourless buildings crammed together as if they were old match boxes and staplers left to rattle around inside an office drawer. Then a surprise, right in the centre of everything, a stunning circle of green watched over by narrow towers with banks of spotlights; and leading into the arena, a corrugated iron-roofed entrance-way, the roofing freshly painted in black and white stripes.
‘Collingwood territory,’ my daughter murmurs with an ironic smile as she leads the way from the platform to the exit ramp.
While I keep up with the brisk pace of my number three girl and number two boy, I’m remembering the most enthusiastic Collingwood fan I’ve ever known. A tall, athletic and dark-haired lad who was attempting to be a servant of God but who was at the end of himself and had been sent a long way from home to get whatever help he could from me.
When he arrives, the boy (who is actually in his twenties and not really a boy) is bursting with exuberance about everything, especially Collingwood. Excitement and laughter, disappointment and rage radiate from this son of the city as if he’s in the grip of an internal war.
After weeks of this and many tears shed by myself and the boy, the lad is on his way back home: the journey happening via a long trip through the outback in my dusty old red HQ; complete with bull-bar, extractors and mag wheels.
For some reason we are in a hurry and the driving continues through the night, during which—under the surreal influence of caffeine and sleep deprivation—stories and jokes are exchanged, some of them exaggerated and incredible. Kangaroos are out and what might have been a fast trip slows to a pace dictated by the marsupial speed police. Finally, exhausted and not sure if I can trust this lad with my car, I hand over the steering wheel to the wild boy and fall into a deep sleep.
Hours later, the night is fading, the day is dawning and I wake to the wailing harmonica of Bob Dylan singing a song I’ve never heard before but which gives me goose bumps. The boy at the wheel of the thundering HQ looks across at me—in half-asleep but astonished state—and explains that it’s The Hurricane, a song about a champion boxer who’s been caught in a mess. While the boy speaks and looks at me, the words of the song are writing themselves all over the boy’s face…
‘Yes, here comes the story of the hurricane,
The man the authorities came to blame …
‘The champion of the world …’
Meanwhile I’m staring out at the glare of morning sun, red dust and scrub—and imagining a dark-haired baby being born and a tired but ecstatic mum and dad gazing in wonder at their little champion. And here I am in a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life: Dylan singing The Hurricane and the happy boy at the wheel of the HQ.
When we arrive at the family home in Melbourne I’m treated like royalty and served up a feast of lamb by a kind-faced mother and father of this son of the Hellenes. It’s as if heaven itself has wanted to rub salt into the wound, or at least to compel me to always remember and to pray for this lad and his family.
Not much more is heard from the boy. Occasionally there are phone calls and more prayers and even a few glad tidings of hope and of grace blossoming. Then one day the news comes that the boy of the bright Mediterranean sun and of Collingwood has taken his final journey from this world. I hope and pray, and still pray today, that his journey takes him to a place where his exuberance will be able to live on forever, perhaps in a place not all that different from that circle of green near the railway station.
*Original blog: JULY 7, 2012