Ellen van Neerven
Her first house backed onto the North Star fields. She was a few months old when her dad started coaching there. He brought her a ball from the club. That was the start of football for her. He got home late with wet grass stuck to his legs, bringing the grounds inside. She grew and took her first steps on that ground.
There was a camp between the trees, between where the railway was now and the old waterholes. She was scared of the creek. There was something that happened down there.
Much older, she thought about it and cried, how every club grounds and stadium she’d ever known had history and all that time in those places feeling things, and what had happened, what had happened…
Fourteen at a club all about performance. She had Dad’s pressure, and pressure from the club and the coach. Her role was to be the team’s big centre striker – like Viduka. She ate to be stronger, gulping down extra serves of Mum’s pasta before training. Determined to fit into Dad’s boots but she stopped growing.
Deep royal purple strip – colours are colours but somehow this made it feel even more like a female club – it was an elite women’s club and they were treated with respect.
Straight team. Kept it about the football. No parties after. Desire on the pitch and training ground. Head down in the changing room.
Dad hurrying her to training on Tuesdays and Thursdays because if you were late you didn’t play on the weekend. Sprinting out of the car and sprinting around the oval. Trying to be as fast as the other girls. Their legs were flogged in preseason – long expediting runs beyond the field’s boundaries into the bush.
One year, deep into winter, reports came in of a prowler stalking the area. Everyone on high alert, her team stopped going out of the club’s grounds. The creek and bush around the fields were out-of-bounds. She missed the water, missed standing at what was a meeting place at the junction of the creeks. All of the fields had a source of water. And she felt that source, needed it before she could understand it. No longer did she chase the balls down the creek and feel that power. Shadows fell and the field seemed darker when there was a don’t leave anyone behind rule. Bike-path-rape and land-rape just beyond the gate.
At twenty she was living with another student in her class on the corner of Wel Rd and Vulture – two streets that make up the boundary blacks couldn’t cross only forty or so years ago. She got closer to them than she had with anyone else but there’s things she couldn’t say as a black woman living on the boundary. Sorry, honey, there’s things I can’t talk to you about.
She and her lover skateboarded to the deli but were too broke to buy anything, just looked. Watched Jolie films between assignments (Hackers a fav) and fucked in the single bed they shared.
Her genderqueer partner got scared walking past the Gabba stadium at night. Not easy looking like them with the cricket crowd. Gabba a bora ring but no one talked about that. No one mentioned stadia have always been places of ceremony. Always was, always has been, they marched on Invasion Day and she was wearing her Easts jersey.
Ground at the mouth of Norman Creek. Once a fishing camp where nets and weirs caught hundreds of fish in tow-rows within minutes. Mob would have crossed river regularly to come fish here. Now the place was a big sports complex. Tennis on one side, rugby the other. Big private college behind. Still water snaked through the fields. After a night of heavy rain, the club would close. And the grounds would reference some of its once rainforest and she could imagine the once dense forest. Food and fibre grew here.
That summer, during pre-season, it started raining and it didn’t stop. Training was suspended indefinitely.
Her and her lover watched as the bread disappeared on the supermarket shelves. They left her when the flood warning came – pissed off to higher ground.
She was there in the house alone, as the water came closer, and the coppas all out and about evacuating people. She managed to stay.
Water would not be tamed, filling the old ways. She didn’t stay home and listen to the radio. She moved through the empty suburb.
When the ground dried up, she joined the clean up. The field was soggy in memory and touch. Salty. Sticks from the other side of the river had drifted over.Bream dotted the edges of the bank.
When training resumed she didn’t go back.
Got that Stones song in her head every time she rode there. Used to cycle from Chermside for training and games. Link up to the bikeway, go through three k of park, park that followed the water, she’d always want to stop and watch the ducks at that one bend in the creek. Weave a basket for her bike. Past the rugby fields, headphones in ear, moved through much life, through where villages once were. Now the bike path had been made to go under the major road and airport tunnel and past the Toombul shopping centre, these big invasions on the land. The days grew shorter, it got darker quickly – she had three lights on her bike and two on her helmet.
The football grounds were on a rise near the swamp. From where the swamp started mosquitoes bit holes through clothing. The old German camp was just at the back where the hoop pine was – the first Christian mission in Queensland. Nudgee Road at the edge of the grounds.
Water was everywhere. Sugary water. The fields slippery when raining, her ankles sinking, water lifting up through her legs. Scratches on her back from the mozzies. Shoulders sore from riding. Shaking going down the hills on the way home. Squeezing her eyes shut, thinking, if she falls, if she falls. Somehow the most peaceful moment of the day.
Queer club. Made friends with the couple that were into cycling. Starrs, the sweeper, Lily, the left back. Two other couples in the team. Goalkeeper and right wing. Centre back and centre forward. Felt comfortable with those girls, talking about girls.
Goalkeeper dropped her home some nights, sometimes singing assertively to the same pop song, confessing she was in love with someone else.
Two couples split up and two girls walked out on the club – the right wing and the centre forward. Starrs and Lily saying about one pairing, ‘They used to be so happy. They made all of their weekly dinners on Sundays…’ Not enough players for Saturday. No dinner in the freezer She shook her head, offering a solution – the team should introduce prenups on sign-on. You will stay. You will not walk out.
She watched as the goalkeeper bought cheeses for a next day picnic with her new love at the open-all-night-by-the-airport grocery store. She hadn’t guessed the new love was on the team – the centre back. She started working it out. Seeing the tension. Stakes grew in fights over positioning and training schedules. The group broken – players stopped showing up.
She couldn’t score that year. Couldn’t put it in. Had a lot of sex, might have been the reason. Pushed up the collar of the baggy red strip to hide the bites, Lily noticed.
Toads crept onto the field under the floodlights. One game they played with half a team. In that game she spun in circles to forget the score. She was prescribed orthotics. Her calves got so tight she couldn’t run. She started to drag her bike up the hills on the way home.
She quit before the season was out and didn’t think she would play again with the pain. No longer did she pass corroboree trees. She remained haunted by the place of ducks and water. The end of the chain of waterholes that started at North Star, her first club.
She spent weeks in bed. Her neighbour cared for her and got her out of the house and into the car. They drove past the field on Nudgee Road and she saw the journey she used to make – saw her path as one of many – the place a crossroads of major treks. Her neighbour took her all the way to Nudgee, where they met the sea. Aus flags displayed on every corner of the ocean front. The violence was so close.
Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali writer living in Brisbane. She is the author of the forthcoming June release Comfort Food (UQP, 2016), and the award-winning Heat and Light (UQP, 2014).