Leopards Leap – Chapter 23

Monday, 24th November, 2014

3 days to the AFL National Draft

Clarissa glanced around the Sydney apartment. “No.”

Liam blinked. “We’ve only just stepped inside the door. How can you reject a place that fast? Anyway, I’m the one who’ll have to live here, not you.”

Clarissa crossed her arms. “Firstly, look around. There are stains everywhere, which means it’ll be a massive job to clean the place up. That’s assuming some of those stains will come out. Secondly, to afford any of the places you’re looking at, you’re going to have to share with someone. My job is to protect the interests of that second person, because otherwise the only people you’ll find willing to live with you will be slobs with no taste. If the apartment doesn’t meet certain minimum standards, neither will any prospective flatmates. Lastly, can’t you smell? You might be able to put up with that odour for a short while, but sooner or later it’ll drive you mental.”

“I’m sure the owner will be willing to do a complete clean before you move in,” Antony, the real-estate agent, said. “Think of the location. Close to shops and the train station; you won’t need a car while you live here.” He smiled. “Location is everything, and this unit is perfectly located.”

“Just as well,” Clarissa said, “since it doesn’t come with a carpark.” She glanced at Neil and Marcus. “What do you two think?” She narrowed her eyes but didn’t say anything more.

“There’s plenty of on-street parking,” Antony interjected. “Your car will be perfectly safe.”

Marcus smiled. “The neighbourhood around here is good, but I agree that this place needs a big clean before you should consider it. This is only the first place. You’ve four more to check out before you need to make a decision.” He frowned as he looked around at the mess. “The current tenants aren’t doing a great job of keeping the place clean.”

“True, though to be fair, they’ve recently had twins.” Antony waved a hand towards a makeshift play area in the corner of the room. “That’s why they’re moving; they need a larger place.”

Clarissa wrinkled her nose. “That’s what that smell is. I thought it was familiar.” When Neil gave her a quizzical look, she chuckled. “Babies poop, wee, and vomit, and they all stink. It’s very distinctive. I’ve babysat for my aunt enough times to know.”

“But it can be cleaned up, right?” Liam asked. “Should we look around, anyway?”

Clarissa crossed her arms. “You can, but I’m not. There’s no point until we can see what the place is after the current family moves out.”

Neil chuckled. “She’s right, Liam. If the owner cleans up the place, we can come back and have another look, but I don’t think you should put down a deposit until that clean-up has been done and you’ve checked it.” He looked around and wrinkled his nose. “I’m not sure I’d be happy spending too much time here if this is where you end up.”

Liam shrugged. “Well that settles it.” He turned to the real-estate agent. “Can we go to the next place, please? If we don’t find anywhere else, we can come back here, but only after it’s been cleaned and that smell is gone.”

Antony glanced at Marcus as they left the apartment. “You told me you wanted to check out two more places, not four.”

“There are two places in a different suburb outside of your area that we want to look at.” Marcus shrugged. “If none of them are suitable, we might have to look further afield, but five was a decent start.”

“I see.” Antony smiled while checking to make sure the door was locked. “I have a number of other places suitable for student accommodation, if you’re interested. I can show them to you after we finish.”

Marcus looked at Liam, asking a silent question. Liam made a face before responding. “We’ll think about it, but the three we’re looking at this morning are the only ones on your website that appealed.” He glanced back at the apartment they’d just left. “Though if they’re all like this one…”

“There’s a new listing that only went up this morning. It’s not too far away, so why don’t we check that out now and then look at the other two units you wanted to see?”

“Sounds fine to me.” Liam shrugged. “Checking places is our plan for the day, after all.”

They headed back to where the real-estate agent’s SUV was parked. “Where do you intend to go to school, Liam?” Antony asked.

“We’re hoping for the University of Sydney, though we’ve also applied to a number of other places.” Liam grinned at Neil. “They’re all accessible from this train line, which is one of the reasons we’re looking in this area.”

Antony frowned. “We? I thought you were looking for a place for yourself and you’ll be subletting the second bedroom to someone else.”

“Neil’s going to be living with me,” Marcus said, “which is another reason for looking around here. Liam will need his own place, but making sure the boys aren’t too far from each other is a priority.”

Neil reached out and took Liam’s hand. He didn’t say anything, but his look challenged Antony to make an issue of it.

Antony smiled. “Okay, now I understand things a little better.” He chuckled. “To be honest, I was a little confused as to who you all were. Normally, I get a family group or obvious couples. I take it Neil is your nephew?” he asked Marcus.

“It’s a lot more complicated than that, but my partner and I will be looking after him while he goes to uni. Liam’s moving here to be with him. Clarissa’s a school friend of both of them.”

“In that case, I would suggest not looking at one of the places you asked about. There’s recently been some homophobic graffiti nearby, and it might not be safe for Liam to live there.” Antony shrugged. “I’ll leave it up to you, but I thought you should know.”

Liam exchanged a glance with Neil. “Thanks. We’ll see how we go, but if it’s not a safe neighbourhood, it’s not going to be suitable.”

They reached Antony’s vehicle, and he unlocked the doors. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s a safe neighbourhood in most respects, but it’s probable that there are some blokes living there who may not like having a gay guy nearby.”

“I understand.” Liam didn’t need to see Neil’s concerned look. “We’ll cross it off the list unless we don’t find anywhere else.” He grinned at Clarissa. “The place we just looked at would probably be better.”

Clarissa rolled her eyes as she climbed into the backseat and fastened her seatbelt. “That’s not saying a lot. I wouldn’t live there, so I don’t know why anyone else would.”

“I think you’ll like this new place.” Antony smiled up at the rear-view mirror. “It’s just come on the market, and I don’t think it’ll take long for it to be snatched up.”

Marcus frowned. “If that’s normal, what does that say about the place’s we’re going to see? They’ve all been listed for a couple of weeks at least.”

Antony didn’t answer immediately as he pulled away from the kerb and headed down the Sydney suburban street. “It’s a case of matching the property to the need. Everyone has their own set of requirements, and while some people aren’t fussy, others are looking for something that ticks all the boxes.” He shrugged. “We don’t get a lot of students looking for places in our area—they’re usually after somewhere closer to the university they’re attending—so what you’re seeking is different from what most people try to rent around here. That’s why you might find exactly what you want, even though others have passed it up.”

A few minutes later, he pulled up outside a set of units. “Here we are. As you can see, it’s still close to the shops and station, but it’s located on a quiet street. No undercover parking, but you shouldn’t need it if you live here.” He undid his seatbelt and smiled at the three in the back seat. “I think you’ll like this one.”

Liam raised an eyebrow at Marcus, who grinned before answering the unspoken question. “I’d say we’re about a thirty-minute walk from our place. A bit further than you wanted, but we’re only one station up the line if you wanted to take public transport instead.”

Liam pinched his lips. “That’s doable.” He grinned at Neil. “I suspect it’ll only take me twenty on the way to see you.”

It took them twenty minutes to go through the unit in question with a fine-toothed comb, but in the end they agreed. Liam winced when he was told the weekly rent, as it was just over the top end of his intended price range, but if he was going to be living there for the next few years, he would be comfortable.

“What do you think?” Antony asked as they left the building.

“It’s expensive, but nice.” Liam didn’t want to commit himself. “Let’s check out the other places. One of them may be better.”

* * *

“Isn’t this better than going house hunting?” Kevin asked as he showed Deon the Sydney Swans gym.

“Definitely. I’m glad Clarissa didn’t make me go with the guys. She told me that she’d look after them and make sure any place is habitable.” Deon grinned. “She seemed to think that they’d pick a pigsty if she wasn’t there to point out the problems.”

Kevin chuckled. “She’s a strong-willed girl. Not my sort, but I certainly enjoy her company. Any bets that she’s going to be the one making the decision on where Liam lives?”

Deon held up both hands. “I’m not touching that one! That’s between her and Liam.” When Kevin laughed, he smiled. “She did say privately that she’d let me know if she thought a place would suit you. I told her that you wouldn’t mind moving from your host family’s house.”

“Let’s wait and see what they find.” Kevin waved a hand around at the equipment that surrounded them. “In the meantime, what do you think?”

Deon grinned. “Okay, I’m impressed. It’s similar to what I saw when I visited Carlton, but it’s way better than what we have at the Leopards.”

“We’ve got a bit more money to splash around than a VFL team.” Kevin cocked his head. “Have you spoken to John Longmire?”

“Only in passing. He was at the combine, but I didn’t have an interview with him.”

“Why don’t I see if he’s available?” Kevin shrugged. “He might be too busy, but it wouldn’t hurt to say hello if you can.”

Deon hesitated. Interrupting Sydney’s head coach a few days before the draft and while he was in the midst of organising the preseason training didn’t seem like a smart idea. “Only if he’s free. I’m sure he’s got a lot of more important things to do.”

“Let’s go see.” Kevin glanced up at the clock at one end of the gym. “I’ve got an hour before I need to be out on the oval and you’ll need to look after yourself. Let’s see what we can do about trying to convince them that you’re worth drafting.”

Deon chuckled. “Kevin, you’re an optimist. I just don’t see myself being picked by Sydney.”

Kevin shrugged. “You never know. We picked up a late-second-round pick when Shane Biggs wanted to be traded, and our third-round pick is unallocated. I think you’ll be gone by then, but there’s a chance we might get you with our spare second-round selection.” He dropped an arm across Deon’s shoulders. “You know it’ll be a dream come true if we end up on the same team again.” Kevin grinned. “I had one dream come true this time last year when I was drafted. I think that means I’m due for another one.”

Deon laughed. “Yeah, but didn’t you use that up when you met Daphne?” He smirked. “I had the impression you’re falling for her big time.”

Kevin grinned sheepishly. “I am, and you might be right, but I’m greedy. I want you here with me, too.”

Deon smiled. “I’d like that, but I’m not holding my breath.” He looked away. “I missed out last year. I know a lot of people think I’ll be drafted this time, but a lot of people thought Ty would go last year, and he wasn’t picked. I’m not going to get my hopes up too high.”

Kevin grinned. “You can’t stop me from getting my hopes up, though.” He tilted his head towards the exit. “Let’s go and see if John is free to see you. Even if it’s just to say hi.”

Deon let himself be led away. It wouldn’t hurt to see Sydney’s head coach if it wasn’t inconvenient; it just might make enough of a difference to allow him to be drafted.

* * *

Alastair McCrae smiled as he shook Ross’s hand. “Thanks for seeing me,” he said as he entered Ross’s home.

Ross chuckled. “I think the thanks should be going in the other direction. If you sign me up and I get drafted, you’re going to have your hands full.”

“Let’s get one thing straight,” Alastair said as they entered the kitchen. “The decision as to whether to sign is up to you. I’m here with all the paperwork required to add you to the list of players I manage. I’ve already spoken to a couple of people, and I’m happy with what I’ve been told. The offer’s on the table. I’m here to ask you to sign.”

Ross waved a hand towards the kitchen table. “Take a seat. What would you like? Tea or coffee?”

“A black tea would be wonderful. Two sugars, please.” Alastair watched as Ross pulled two mugs out of a cupboard and put a teabag in one and instant coffee in the other.

“Who have you spoken to?” Ross asked as he turned on the kettle.

“Your coach from Eastern Ranges and Julie Crowman from the Leopards.”

Ross’s head snapped around. “Julie? Why did you speak to her?”

“Because you’ve been spending a lot of time there recently.” Alastair grinned. “Believe me, it’s been noticed. I asked for her opinion of you.”

Ross grimaced as he sat down opposite Alastair. “She’s not even sure I’m ready to play VFL football, let alone AFL.”

Alastair chuckled. “That may be what she’s told you, but I heard enough to know that she thinks you’ve got potential. She wouldn’t’ve had the details she had at hand if she’s not interested.”

“What do you think?”

Alastair settled back in his chair. “I don’t think anyone doubts you have potential, Ross. What wasn’t seen during the season this year were signs that you would live up to that potential.”

Ross sighed and dropped his head. “I know. I let the stress get to me.”

“The stress of trying to look good for the draft or the stress of hiding the fact you’re gay?”

Ross gave a single snort of laughter as he looked up and gave Alastair a wry smile. “Up until recently, I haven’t been stressed about being gay. It was actually more school that stressed me out. There was so much pressure this year to get good marks so I could go to university next year. I had the added pressure of the TAC Cup, but I kept being worried that football was going to mess up my schooling. In the end, I think it was the other way around; school messed up my football. Being gay was nothing compared to those two.” He made a face. “That was, up until a couple of months ago.”

“What happened?”

Ross hesitated. “This is strictly between the two of us? No one else will know?”

“Absolutely, but in case you’re worried…” Alastair reached into his bag and pulled out a couple of pieces of paper. “This is a confidentiality agreement. It’s a legally binding document that means that anything you share with me will not be passed onto anyone else without your explicit permission. Even if you don’t sign with me, I still won’t be able to tell anyone.” He quickly dated two copies below both their names and finished with his signature. He pushed the papers across the table to Ross. “Here. Read it and then sign. One’s for you and one’s for me.”

Ross scanned the papers and then signed his name. He handed one back to Alastair and put the other to the side. While he made their drinks and returned to the table, Ross proceeded to tell Alastair about Stuart, including the role the Leopards had played in making him back off.

When Ross was finished, Alastair screwed up his face. “Kevin told me you’d been blackmailed, but I thought it was for money. This…” He shook his head. “This is beyond the pale. I wouldn’t put it past him to take some sort of revenge, especially if you’re drafted. Does he have access to your Facebook page?”

Ross blinked. “I…I don’t know.”

“If he does, cut him off. In fact, I would suggest you have a good look at all your social-media channels. Make sure that only people you trust can post to them. You should do that anyway if you’re drafted, but in your case I suggest doing it beforehand. Don’t make it easy for him to out you.”

“I’m planning on coming out soon, anyway. Does it really matter?”

Alastair frowned. “Of course it does! You need to manage when, where, and how you do it. Don’t let some arsehole do it for you.”

“I thought you’d be managing it.”

Alastair smiled while holding in a sigh of frustration. “I will, but you need to be part of the process. You need to know what is going to happen and when. I’ll do what I can, but you need to play your part, too.”

Ross sat there in thought while they sipped their drinks. He eventually frowned. “What happens if I don’t get drafted?”

“Then, as I said in our phone conversation on Saturday, we’ll work to increase your chances of being drafted next year. You’ll still be one of my players, and I’ll be using my contacts to try to increase your profile. Your job will be to show you’re capable of living up to your potential.” Alastair cocked his head. “From what you’ve said earlier, you may need some help with that. Have you considered stress-management classes?”

Ross’s jaw dropped. “Huh?”

Alastair smiled. “You indicated you had trouble dealing with the stress of school and football. The AFL is an even more stressful environment, so let’s be proactive and look at learning how to manage that stress. What do you think?”

Ross smiled back. “Thanks, Alastair.” He glanced at the bag by Alastair’s side. “You said you had the paperwork for me to sign with you. Can you get it out? I’d like to go through it.”

* * *

“Did you find anything?” Daphne asked that afternoon. She had caught up with the house hunters and Deon for coffee in the city.

“We did.” Liam grinned. “The second place we looked at was great. A bit pricey, but otherwise it was perfect.”

Clarissa snorted. “The kitchen’s on the small side, there’s not really enough room in the closets, and the main bedroom needs a repaint, because there’s no way anyone sensible would want a room that particular shade of blue.” She slapped her forehead. “Oh, wait. That’ll be Liam’s room, so I suppose it’ll be okay.” She grinned. “But, yes, it’s a good place and easily the best one we saw.”

“Are you going to keep looking?” Deon asked.

Liam held a short, silent communication with Neil. He shrugged. “I don’t think so. I’m looking for somewhere I’ll be comfortable living in for a few years. That was the only place we saw where that was true. I’ll check with my parents to make sure they don’t have any concerns, but if they don’t, I think that’s the place.”

“Why don’t you give them a call now?” Marcus smiled. “It may’ve been some subtle sales pressure to encourage a quick decision, but Antony gave us the impression that it’s likely to be rented quickly, so if we take too much time, it may be gone.”

“Given the quality of the other places we saw, I think we should move fast.” Liam stood up and pulled out his phone. “I’ll be back soon.”

As he walked away with his phone held to his ear, Deon turned to Clarissa. “Did the second bedroom look okay for Kevin?”

“If he likes pink.” Clarissa shrugged. “If the landlord is happy to have the room painted, that would be an option. Otherwise, it’s more likely Liam will be looking for a girl to share with.” She grinned at Neil. “Somehow, I don’t see that as being a problem.”

Neil grinned back. “Neither do I.” He shrugged. “Not that I would have a problem with him sharing with another guy, but I’d be worried if the flatmate turned out to be homophobic.” He gave Deon a quizzical look. “Is Kevin looking for a new place to live?”

“He’s looking, though he’s fine where he is. He just wants a place of his own if he can afford it. We thought sharing with Liam might be an option, assuming Liam’s also happy with the idea.”

Daphne frowned. “Wait a minute. One bedroom is blue and the other is pink? I would’ve thought a rental property would have neutral colours.”

“It wasn’t intended to be rented,” Marcus said. “The real-estate agent explained it. The owners originally bought it for their son and daughter, but the kids have decided to spend a few years overseas. Rather than selling it, the owners are renting it out so it’ll be available for their children when they return. If they don’t have to repaint it, they won’t.”

“Makes sense.” Deon grinned at Daphne. “What’s your opinion? Will Kevin like a pink bedroom?”

She chuckled. “I wouldn’t rule it out. He’s quite adventurous in some ways and doesn’t care what others think. He’s secure enough in his masculinity that living in a pink room may not bother him.”

Liam returned, his phone still at his ear. “I’ll put him on.” He handed his phone to Marcus. “Dad wants your opinion of the unit.”

Marcus rolled his eyes as he spoke to Liam’s father. “G’day, Bruce.” There was a short pause. “I saw nothing wrong with the place, and it’s easily the best one we saw. If Liam’s happy living there, I’d say go for it. It’s his call, not ours.” Marcus nodded slowly as he listened. “Okay, here he is.”

Liam took the phone back. After a few seconds he grinned. “Thanks, Dad! I’ll ring home tonight, and I’ll fill you in on how it all goes. Bye!” He put his phone away and then pumped his fist. “Yes!”

Marcus chuckled as Neil stood up and hugged his boyfriend. “Okay, once we’ve finished here, we’ll head back and fill in the paperwork. Congratulations, Liam!” He rang Antony and told him Liam would like to rent the unit. They set a time for later that day to drop in to sign the papers.

While they finished their coffees, the house hunters filled in Deon and Daphne on the details of the unit. As Clarissa was drinking the last of her latte, Marcus glanced around the table. “Since we’ve ended the search so early, what are the plans for the rest of the week?”

Deon glanced at Clarissa. “We’re heading back on Wednesday, but we’re free tomorrow if you want to do something. What about you, Daphne?”

“I’m working at my parents’ shop in the mornings, but I’m free from about eleven onwards.” She smiled at Neil and Liam. “I can show you around the university, if you like. It’s quiet at the moment because most of the students have finished for the year, but it’ll give you a chance to see what it’s like and where everything is.”

“Why don’t they have a look around while you’re working, and then we all do something when you’re free?” Marcus grinned. “There’s a cricket match at the SCG tomorrow: New South Wales versus South Australia. I can get everyone into the Members stand as long as the guys wear a shirt with a collar.”

Daphne grinned. “That sounds great! I’d love to come.”

Deon raised an eyebrow at Clarissa who shrugged and waved a hand to indicate she’d leave it up to him. He grinned. “Sounds good to me, too, unless someone has a better idea.”

Neil grimaced as he looked at Liam. “I don’t know…. I was thinking of doing something that didn’t cost too much money.”

“My treat. You won’t have to pay for entry.” Marcus smiled at the others at the table. “That goes for all of you.”

After a short discussion, it was decided that they would have a look at the University of Sydney in the morning and then walk across to the SCG to watch the cricket match. They also made a tentative plan to go out for dinner with Kevin afterwards since he would be training next door to the SCG and would be finishing around the same time as the day’s play would end.

* * *

Ty was panting at the end of his run, but he was also smiling. Over half the Leopards had managed to complete the challenge that Julie had set, which indicated a good overall level of fitness. He was even more pleased that, even though the training session was optional, only two Leopards were not there. Ty knew Deon was in Sydney with Julie’s blessing, and the other Leopard was missing due to his wife being in hospital.

“Not a bad start.” Julie’s voice was raised so everyone could hear her. “I’m glad to see that most of you have worked to maintain your fitness over the break.” Her expression hardened. “However, there’s still a long way to go. Last season we started to develop our speed game. This season, we’re going to continue that progression, which means everyone needs to step up a notch as far as their endurance is concerned. Our goal will be to never stand still, to play a high-tempo game, and to make our opponents chase us. If we do our job correctly, they’ll spend all game playing catch-up.”

She paused and scanned the group. “Okay, defenders with Henry, forwards with Will, and midfielders with me. Brat, you’re with Henry tonight.”

Ty opened his mouth to ask why, but shut it again without speaking. He knew if Julie wanted him to know, she’d tell him. Instead, he jogged over to where Henry had gathered his group.

“Brat, over here by me.” Henry turned to the other defenders and directed them to start one of their standard drills. Once that was done, he smiled at Ty. “Julie told me I needed to get to know and understand you, though she warned me I’m likely to go insane in the process.”

“Sanity is overrated.” Ty’s momentary grin faded. “But we can do that after training.”

“And we will, but since you’re more than just a defender, I’ve suggested some specific training exercises for you. This will be a program we used when I was with Fremantle, designed specifically for someone with a similar skill set as you. We may need to vary it a little, since he’s predominantly a midfielder rather than a defender, but there’s a lot that’s still applicable.” Henry cocked his head. “What do you think?”

“Sounds good to me! I’ll do whatever the Leopards want, and if that’s an AFL training program, I’m not going to object.” Ty hesitated. “Who was the program designed for?”

Henry smiled. “Let’s just say that he should’ve won the Brownlow this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins it next year.”

Ty knew of only one AFL footballer from Fremantle who had been in line to win the AFL’s best-and-fairest award, but, like Ty for the VFL’s equivalent, he had been disqualified due to receiving a suspension during the year. “Nat Fyfe?”

Henry grinned. “I’m not confirming anything. All I’m doing is offering you an exercise program.” He nodded towards the other defenders. “For now, get to work. From time to time, I’ll give you different instructions from the others. Concentrate and do your best. You’ve already got a lot of talent, but I’m confident this program will help you refine and develop your skills even further.”

* * *

After Clarissa whispered to him, Deon used the cloth napkin to wipe the gravy from his chin. He smiled at the lady at the end of the table. “This is wonderful, Mrs. Silverton. You certainly didn’t need to go to this much effort for us.”

Daphne’s mother chuckled. “Thank you, but this is our normal Monday-night dinner. It’s nothing special.”

“Though we don’t usually use the good dishes or proper napkins.” Daphne grinned. “Mum and Dad are obviously trying to impress someone.”

“It’s more using our guests as an excuse.” Her father waved a hand at the table settings. “After all, what’s the point in having good stuff if we don’t use it?”

“My mum’s the same,” Kevin said. “Any excuse to bring out the Royal Doulton and Stuart crystal.”

“I’d be afraid of breaking any of it.” Clarissa shuddered. “That stuff’s expensive.”

“Normally, yes, but my parents spent a couple of years in the UK before I was born, and they bought it all as factory seconds. It’s not worth as much as the stuff you get in the shops. It’s still nice, though. You have to go looking to find the flaws in most of the pieces.”

“What do your parents do for a living, Kevin?” Mr. Silverton asked.

Daphne glared. “Dad, we’re not turning this into a twenty-questions interrogation. You can use the thumb screws another time. I want tonight to be a relaxing time. Kevin had a hard training session this afternoon, and he’s got another one tomorrow. He doesn’t need you stressing him out.”

Kevin chuckled as he reached out to put a hand on Daphne’s arm. “It’s okay.” He turned to her father. “My dad’s a sales executive for a software company, and Mum’s a clerk at the local council. They met at university, and Dad landed a job near London soon afterwards. They were there for two and a half years until Mum fell pregnant with me. That’s when they returned home. They haven’t done a lot of travel since then, but they’re planning to visit the UK again when they retire.”

Daphne’s father smirked. “And not a thumb screw in sight.”

“How was the training today?” Mrs. Silverton asked Kevin.

“Tough.” Kevin made a face. “The coaches are trying to get us back up to speed as quick as possible, which is painful.”

Mr. Silverton frowned. “I thought your season doesn’t start until around April. That’s five months away.”

“It doesn’t, but the pre-season competition starts at the end of February, and we’ll have a two-week break over Christmas and New Year, so there’s not a lot of time. It’s not just fitness we need to work on but also practising any changes to the game plan. By the end of the pre-season we have to be at the stage where everything is automatic, that we know what everyone else on the team is going to do in any given situation.” Kevin shrugged. “They’re working us hard on the fitness side, but there are also a lot of meetings and individual work required. We don’t just show up once a week to play football.”

“I never thought you did.” Daphne’s father smiled. “I’m assuming that the effort you put in will be comparable to what the rugby teams around here do, which is a lot.”

Kevin grinned at Deon. “And with a bit of luck, next week Deon will find out exactly how tough it is, too.” He smiled at Clarissa. “Did he tell you that we spent almost twenty minutes with my head coach? He asked Deon a lot of questions, which is a good sign, and overall was very positive about Deon’s abilities.”

Clarissa narrowed her eyes at her boyfriend. “No, he didn’t say a word. He’s been remarkably quiet about what he did today.”

Deon grinned sheepishly. “That’s because, for you, today was about helping Liam find a place to stay.” He stared down at his food to avoid eye contact. “It’s unlikely to make a difference. The Swans haven’t made any serious contact with me.”

“You never know,” Kevin said in a softer tone. “Maybe they’ve got all the information they need and don’t want to tip off the other clubs as to their plans.”

Deon snorted. “Yeah, right.” He sighed. “Three more days, and I find out if anyone wants me.”

He looked to the side when Clarissa took his hand. He found her smiling at him. “Whatever happens, happens. You’re happy with the Leopards if no one takes you, but if someone does, follow your dream. Kevin’s following his, and Neil and Liam are following theirs. Thursday night is hopefully when you get to follow yours.”

“What about you?” Deon asked. “What about your dreams?”

Clarissa shrugged as she returned her attention to her dinner. “I intend to follow mine, too. Dreams are what make us happy.” She glanced across at her boyfriend and raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that what we all want?”

* * *

Tuesday afternoon, Liam, Neil, Clarissa, Deon, Marcus, and Daphne were sitting in the members stand at the SCG watching the cricket match. South Australia had won the toss and elected to bat first.

“Phil Hughes is in fine form.” Liam glanced up at the scoreboard. “Over half his score has been from boundaries.”

“You can see why he’s considered a favourite to replace Michael Clarke in the Australian team for the first Test against India.” Deon grinned at some of the sour expressions on nearby spectators. “I don’t think he’s making the locals happy, though. As long as he’s out there, South Australia will have a good first innings.”

“He used to be a local,” Daphne said. “Some people wish he still played for us. This is the state where he was born, after all.”

“Unfortunately, the reality of professional sport today is that you go where you are drafted or get an offer.” Deon shrugged. “That’s why Kevin’s here in Sydney and Roscoe may end up in Brisbane.”

“Some also go wherever the most money can be found.” Daphne smiled. “That’s why so many cricketers end up playing in India. There’s a lot of money there.”

“What would you do?” Clarissa asked Deon. “I know with the draft that you have to go with whoever picks you, but what about after that? Would you be chasing the money?”

Deon chuckled. “That sounds like one of the questions the recruiters might ask.” His expression went serious. “To be honest, I don’t know. One of the things that the Leopards have instilled in me is a sense of club loyalty. I’d be inclined to stick with one club rather than chase the dollars—unless those dollars were pretty big.”

“Tom Boyd-level big?” Liam asked.

“Okay…if someone’s offering me a million a year to play for a different club, I’d go. I’d be stupid to turn down that sort of money.” Deon screwed up his face. “But even there, what do I really need that much money for? I’d be happy with a lot less than that.”

Marcus shook his head. “You’re wrong, Deon. Don’t forget that football players have a limited professional lifespan. One injury, and your career could be over. That’s why you should get what you can, because you don’t know how long it will be for. It could be that you lose your job and can’t find another. You may need that money to live on for some time.” He smiled. “Think of it as making the equivalent of twenty years of wages in six. Even then, unless you’ve invested the money wisely, you could still end up broke afterwards.”

“He’s right,” Daphne said. “That’s why I don’t resent the amount professional sportspeople get paid.” She smiled at Clarissa. “My complaint is on the discrepancy between men’s and women’s wages. Women athletes don’t get paid enough.”

“Very true, though it’s not just athletes. Women don’t get paid the same as men in a lot of jobs.” Clarissa jabbed Deon in the ribs. “Nod your head and say I’m right.”

Deon chuckled as he rubbed his side. “You’re right. However, there’s no women’s AFL league at the moment so it doesn’t apply to football. Until we have a women’s league, there’s no discrepancy to complain about.”

Clarissa put a hand behind Deon’s neck and pulled his head down for a kiss. “We’ll continue this discussion when that happens.” She looked past him and Liam to Neil. “You’re not saying a lot.”

Neil shrugged. “I’m here to watch the cricket.”

Liam pulled him in for a hug. “And that means talking, because let’s be honest, cricket isn’t exactly an action-packed, edge-of-the-seat type game.”

“It can be,” Daphne said. “But not usually at quarter past two on day one.”

It was about ten minutes later when the New South Wales bowler sent a high bouncing ball towards the South Australian batsman. Phil Hughes swung, trying to hook the ball away for another boundary but missing, the ball striking him on the side of the head. “Ouch, that’s got to have hurt,” Liam said. “I hope his helmet took most of the blow.”

Deon stiffened and leapt up. “What the hell?” Phil Hughes had stood there with his head bowed for a couple of seconds and then swayed and fell face first onto the pitch. The players and umpires rushed forward. Moments later, one of the players raced towards the grandstand, calling for an ambulance.

“Oh, shit!” Liam grabbed his hair as he joined Deon on his feet. He stared in horror at the commotion on the field. “Why did I have to say such a stupid thing?”

“What’s going on?” Clarissa asked. She hit Deon on the back. “I can’t see over the top of you!”

An unsettling murmur was rising around them.

“Phil Hughes is hurt. It looks pretty serious.” Deon couldn’t look away, but he moved to the side to let Clarissa see. “I don’t think they’re game to move him.”

A medicab was driven out into the middle of the ground, but there was no immediate move to relocate the injured player to the transport. “It looks like they’re performing CPR.” Marcus’s tone was sombre as his eyes never left the scene below them.

There was an almost hush around the ground as the spectators waited. The sight of two ambulances driving onto the oval simply reinforced the dread that everyone was feeling.

By the time the injured cricketer had been moved to the medicab and was heading towards the ambulances, an announcement had been made that play had been suspended for the day. In a state of shock, Marcus, Deon, Clarissa, Daphne, Neil, and Liam shuffled their way out of the stadium. As they trudged their way towards the train station, the whirring of blades stopped them in their tracks. An ambulance helicopter was approaching, clearly about to land inside the stadium.

“Oh, fuck.” Deon’s face was white. “That’s not good.”

Liam shuddered. “That’s not good at all.”

Neil swallowed and buried his head into Liam’s neck. Clarissa slipped an arm around Deon’s waist and held on tight. Marcus just stood there, frozen to the spot, as they all watched the helicopter descend. Once it was out of sight, the sombre group started moving again. Little was said as they headed home. Daphne sent Kevin a text to tell him what had happened and asked that he come to her parents’ home when training was finished. She didn’t feel like going out to dinner.

* * *

“The captain has turned off the fasten seatbelts sign and you’re now free to move about the cabin. However, for your own safety, we request that you keep your seatbelt fastened when seated.”

Clarissa stared at Deon, taking in the way he was staring blankly at the aircraft seat in front of them and the subtle signs of tension in his body. Ever since the incident at the cricket the day before, he had been slowly shutting her out. Nothing was blatant, and she suspected none of it was deliberate, but she didn’t like the wall that was coming between them.

She took his hand and squeezed to attract his attention. He blinked and then gave her a distant smile. “Sorry, I was just thinking about a few things.”

“You need to do less thinking and more talking. What’s wrong?”

Deon didn’t say anything for several seconds, and then his whole body slumped. “I can’t stop thinking about Phil Hughes.”

“It was a freak accident.” Clarissa shuddered. “I don’t like thinking about it, but there’s nothing we can do. He’s in hospital, and they’ll look after him. That’s their job.”

“He’s in an induced coma and they’ve operated, but they’re not sure if he’ll make it.” Deon raised a hand and wiped the inside corners of his eyes. “He was playing the sport he loves and all of a sudden…” He shook his head, clearly unable to continue.

Clarissa wrapped her arm around his. “Are you thinking that could be you?”

“No!” There was a distinct pause. “Maybe.” Deon shivered. “I don’t know.” He rested his head on her shoulder. “Career-ending injuries can occur at any time, but life-threatening ones…”

“He was playing cricket, not football. There’s a big difference.”

“I don’t think you understand. The sport doesn’t matter. He’s a professional sportsman—like Kevin, like I’m hoping I’ll be. What happened to him is a reminder to all of us. There’s a risk in any sport, more so in some than others, but what happened to him…it brings home how short our careers can be. He was expected to be recalled to the Australian test team to play for his country against India next week…and instead he’s lying in a hospital bed with no one knowing if he’ll even live, let alone play cricket again.”

Clarissa used her free hand to brush Deon’s hair out of his eyes. “I understand.” She smiled as she stroked the side of his face. “While sport isn’t in the blood of every Australian, it’s there in most of us. We may not fully appreciate what it’s like to be out there representing your team, state, or country, but we all feel that connection. That’s why we’re all so parochial when it comes to sports.”

Deon sighed. “And that’s why when we’re reminded that, as fellow sportsmen, we’re not all invulnerable; it hits us hard.” He turned and gave her a weak smile. “It puts things into perspective. The draft isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of my life. It’s only a game. Life is more important. You’re more important. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow night, but if I get drafted interstate, I’m going to have to make a decision as to whether to accept. I don’t want to lose you.”

Clarissa was shocked, but she tried her best not to show it. She knew that if Deon refused to move, any chance of him playing in the AFL in the future would go out the window.

Not sure how to react, she scowled and hit him in the chest—with no apparent effect. “Don’t you dare! The guy I’m dating doesn’t give up. The AFL is what you want, and if you turn your back on it, you won’t be that guy anymore.”

She knew refusing the draft would destroy him. The incident the previous day had shaken Deon; it had shaken her, too, but now was not the time to make a career-ending decision. She needed to make sure he didn’t do so.

* * *

Training at the Leopards stadium in Lilydale was a lacklustre event that night. A few of the players tried to urge the others on, but with little effect. Julie ended the session early, telling everyone to go home and spend some time with family and friends. It wasn’t stated, but everyone knew they needed to be in a better frame of mind for the following night, when they would be together to watch the AFL national draft.

* * *

On Thursday morning, Cricket Australia released a media statement saying that Phil Hughes had passed away. He never regained consciousness. It was three days before his 26th birthday.



AUTHOR’S NOTE: One of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make with this story is whether to include the incident with Phil Hughes. It has nothing to do with football, there was no foreshadowing, but it happened. Phil Hughes’s death had a massive impact on the Australian sporting community. After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to include it in the story. Please be warned that this video of Phil Hughes being struck by the cricket ball may distress some people

Copyright Notice - Copyright © September 2016 by Graeme.

The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.

Disclaimer: Some public figures have been included in this story for effect. This is fiction, and the words and actions of those characters are mine and not those of the real person. All other individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.

I would like to thank C James and MikeL for the advice they gave on early versions, rec and ken84050 for editing this story for me, and a special thank you to ricky for that crucial final review before publication.