By the time we reach the boardwalk beside the cafes on our way home, having walked, Rocky and I, out to the edge of the water along the sandbank that separates St Kilda beach from the beach at Albert Park, the sandbank, at low tide stretching almost to the small sail boats moored along the old wooden pier, the sunrise has started. The clouds are pink-coloured and the grassy area where we once sat, my family, my mother and father and I, on warm summer days, watching the Italian boys, olive-skinned and black hair glistening with Brylcream, playing soccer, is alive, dark-green coloured and dew-fed I assume, for there has been little rain.
Spring is coming. The dark mornings of winter are almost over and I sense in Rocky, despite the cold this morning, a spring awakening, his search for a ball along the shoreline more urgent and exuberant than in the darkness of those winter mornings when we were often alone on the beach but for the birds- the black swans and the pelicans and on some mornings, the white cockatoos that sat in defiance, arrogant- looking, alert but not alarmed, on the grass that sloped down to the small white forlorn- looking lighthouse.
The birds have gone. There are no swans sitting along the shoreline or gliding through the becalmed bay water this morning with spring approaching. The weather worn wooden posts on which the pelicans had sat in a sort of prehistoric-looking reverie, are bird free. Even the seagulls, in winter mad with loud and frantic activity, are there in much smaller numbers, subdued, as if tranquilised by the early sunrise.
We will now see out the winter, Rocky and I, without my having succumbed to the temptation to buy him a coat, though in the middle of winter, that temptation was almost irresistible when I saw at the South Melbourne Market a knitted red and black coat which quite frankly, had my wife not been there to control me, I would have bought for Rocky and dressed him in and walked with him wearing it and I would have worn my Essendon Football Club t-shirt and cap despite a threat from a friend that he would cross the road away from Rocky and me if he came upon us, were I to do this.
At the time, in the middle of winter, had I bought that coat for Rocky and dressed him in it for our morning together, it would have been, as far as the performance of the Bombers was concerned, an act of defiance, for despite showing early promise that suggested the lack of hope with which I approached the football season was premature, they have succumbed to the low expectations of both the wider football public and their followers. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that all hope had gone, that grim reality had set in, that my fantasies had turned to dust. For the fifth year in a row, the Bombers would not play finals and September– spring– would be a time not of renewal but a time for lamentations.
In the depths of no-hope, I thought the black and red coat at South Melbourne Market, the coat for Rocky, black with red stripes, would offer me the chance of consolation. I thought of my mother, a half century ago or more, having finished work at the sock factory in Preston, unable to speak more than a word or two of English, taking the tram to the Victoria Market and walking along the stalls, most of them run by Jewish refugees like her, the sound of Yiddish rolling down the market’s aisles, conversation and greetings and curses and pleas to buy, mostly material as I recall, stall after stall of cloth, the `marketnicks’ as they were known, measuring and cutting and fingering the cloth, pleading with every passer-by to come over, come over and feel and smell and see the quality.
My mother, already sickly, heart-sick, able to walk only short distances without putting a pill under her tongue to ease the pain in her heart, her long grey hair pinned in a bun–I never saw my mother with her hair down and I never saw her comb it–only in her mid-40s, but old, ancient in my eyes, older than anyone I knew, too old to be my mother, walking down the aisles and looking for football jumpers for me and for my nephew, my eldest sister’s son.
That Friday night, my mother brought home two Essendon Football Club jumpers. I do not actually remember that night, but I imagine that it went much like other Friday nights in that house in Caulfield. I assume that Mr Lowenstein, the shoychet–the ritual slaughterer–who lived up the road and who later taught me the Torah reading for my Bar Mitzvah, had been to slaughter one of the chickens that were kept in a wire enclosure in the backyard. I assume that my eldest sister had plucked the feathers of the bird and had prepared the vegetables–carrots and parsnips and celery–that would go into the large pot with the chicken and a slab of beef top-rib to make the Sabbath yoich–chicken soup. I assume the gefilte fish was simmering on the stove and the rhubarb compote, which my brother- in- law loved, had been cooked and placed in the ice-box to cool.
My brother- in- law, having returned from his assembly line job at GMH, would be out in the shed in the backyard where he kept his pigeons, soothing them and locking them in, for when a chicken was slaughtered, the hawks would smell blood and come after the pigeons and I remember times when a hawk would swoop from the sky– my brother- in- law having failed to lock up all his birds– and take off with a pigeon, the other pigeons frantic with fear, mad with it, squawking and screaming, in the locked up shed. At these times, my brother-in-law was always silent, his grief inwardly held. His grief was always inwardly held. He would talk about his time in the concentration camps and about the fact that all his family, his mother and brothers and sisters had all been killed, only rarely and then in the most matter of fact way. He loved his pigeons and his canaries which he kept in large cages in the pigeon shed and he loved my mother and father and me in the most open and demonstrable way.
Every Friday afternoon, my nephew and I would wait for my mother at the tramstop, wait for her to cross the road to us, laden with market bags, old sacks I think, and we would take them from her, my nephew little more than a toddler and my mother would hug and kiss him and me too I suppose, though that part I do not remember very well. I remember–though I wonder whether this is mainly in retrospect– how tired she was and how sad she looked sometimes getting off the tram, sad and silent, as if she felt nothing but weariness.
It is strange perhaps, that I do not recall that Friday night when my mother brought home the Essendon Football Club jumpers. Nor will I ever know now whether the story as to why she chose those jumpers is true, for it is a story I heard only from my sisters, long ago and which, when I think about it now, sounds too neat an illustration of some of the characteristics of yiddish mamas. According to this story, my mother that Friday at the Victoria Market, examined every football jumper on offer. She quickly rejected those that had even a bit of white in them, which meant that we, my nephew and I, were destined never be supporters of Collingwood, South Melbourne, Geelong or St Kilda. In the end, she left with the choice, on practical grounds- for in those days, we did not have a washing machine and at least one night a week, my eldest sister and mother would spend the evening in the laundry scrubbing clothes on a washboard– between the Essendon jumper, which was black wth a red stripe, and the Richmond jumper which was black with a yellow stripe. My sisters were convinced that my mother chose the Essendon jumpers because she saw in the Richmond jumpers the yellow patches with the Star of David on them that the Jews had been forced to wear in the ghettoes during the war.
I do not remember that Sabbath night, nor the first time we wore those jumpers, though I remember that they were made of wool and, as it turned out, I was allergic to wool so I hardly ever wore the jumper. There are photographs of my nephew and me in those Essendon jumpers and he looks full of joy, my nephew, and I look like I can’t wait for the photographer–in those days, a professional photographer was needed to take good family photographs– to let us go so that I could take the jumper off before the itching drove me to self-harm.
For the last half century, my nephew and I have been going to the football together. We never did wear our Essendon jumpers to games, not from the time we started, each Saturday aftenoon, me seven or eight years old, him five or six, taking those two trams to Essendon, a journey of more than an hour, coming home in the darkness, to see the Bombers play. Perhaps he didn’t wear his jumper as a mark of respect for his allergy-ridden uncle.
I did not succumb to tempation and buy Rocky that gorgeous little black and red coat, but I did succumb to hopelessness as far as the Bombers were concerned. It was the only rational response to a month of disappointing performances, so disappointing that I came home from games empty and devastated, as if life had lost all meaning and that all that stretched before me was weeks of football agony. I was without hope but this did not mean that I was without pain.
But hope of course, hope is not rational and considering oneself without it is not necessarily the end of the story. There was nothing rational about what happened a little less than a week ago. Essendon beat St Kilda and so unexpected was this, so improbable, given that the Saints had won 19 games in a row and were undefeated and seemingly invincible this season, that I had decided not to go to the game. How the Bombers won remains a mystery. That I wasn’t there to see it is deeply regrettable. Perhaps that’s why the next morning I fed Rocky so many liver treats on our walk that he eventually looked up at me, puzzled, head cocked to the side, ears pricked, as if to ask whether I had lost my mind.
This morning, when the sunrise came as we headed home, the Bombers having lost a game–okay, having been thrashed actually– the day before which, had they won, would have secured them a place in the finals, hope has not entirely evaporated, for were they to win next week, the last game of the season before the finals, they could still play in spring, in September. This was foremost in my thoughts as I watched Rocky race backwards and forwards along the shoreline looking for that elusive tennis ball, but there too, were those memories of my mother and of long ago Sabbaths and of Mr Lowenstein, the chicken slaughterer and of my brother -in- law who loved his pigeons and who I loved as if he were my father and of those football jumpers my mother bought us. I thought about how the choice she made of jumpers, based on both practical considerations and her history– the fact that yellow had been the color used to mark out the Jews of the ghettoes of Poland– changed my life.
I also thought that perhaps this story of the way my mother chose those football jumpers was entirely apocryphal. Perhaps all that had happened was that along those aisles at the Victoria market, there was a salesman of great skill and empathy–perhaps he was an Essendon supporter!– who convinced my mother that the Bombers were the team her son and her nephew should follow, that for young boys who will inevitably one day play football, there is no better color combination for a football jumper than black and red.