I don’t have enough hand-eye coordination to catch a ball. I have just enough hand-eye coordination be able to type effectively. I’ll admit that the fact that most gymnasts are taller than me doesn’t help matters at all.
My younger sister had fabric patches sewn onto the bottom corner of her heinously-pleated yellow netball skirt, one patch for every minor premiership, finals round, undefeated season, one smaller patch for three years’ service, five years’ service, and so on. She’d been playing since ‘Mods’, a shorter-quartered, grass-court version of the game for children barely old enough to understand that there were rules, although their parents still ran themselves red-faced and sweaty, screaming advice and admonishments up and down the sidelines. My sister played Goal Defence, and she looked like a warrior, as much as is possible in black scungies and bright yellow cotton, at eight in the morning in mid-winter. She sucked on orange quarters in the breaks and we’d buy killer pythons or Wizz Fizz from the canteen staffed by reluctant parents after each game. I loved the name of the courts, Bellingara, the way fully-grown, leather-faced women would walk around in those concertina skirts and polo shirts too tight across the breasts, their blonde hair pulled back into fizzy ponytails, their silver whistles worn like rings across their fingers.
I played competitive netball for one year, sick, I think, of watching that secret world from the sidelines, from underneath a padded parka and a beanie borrowed from my father. I played in the Under-14s, in that one marvellous year when teenage girls stop being human for a time and are engorged by their own hormones and hormone-fuelled nastiness. I played Centre, the position always reserved for the team midget. The coach’s daughter, a tall and strong-thighed girl with a magnificent head of dark and horsey hair, would deliberately push me offside so that I’d be pulled up and penalised by the umpire. We scratched each other a lot, as surreptitiously as possible.
Our club was the Menai Hawks. The other teams in the association always called us the Menai Dorks. You’d think I’d have been used to that particular insult, but I always felt embarrassed, from the tips of my clipped fingernails to the saggy black elastic of my hand-me-up scungies.
I go to Newtown Gym and listen to short stories on my iPod as I push my weights around. I go to Newtown Gym because it’s the gayest gym in Sydney, and the only place I’ve ever been approached by a man in mascara, who said ‘Darling, I wish I could get pecs like yours.’ This is the one and only non-creepy way that any man can compliment a woman on her breasts. Ever.
The first gym I ever went to was owned and established by a man who still called himself Vulcan, years after his brief stint of fame as the snarling, dreadlocked, silver-onesied Gladiator on the TV game show of the same name. Having retired his metallic lycra, but not his dreads, having moved to the suburbs with his family, Vulcan opened Muscle Mania just around the corner from my parents’ house, directly across the road from Dan Murphy’s. On my first visit, Vulcan took my measurements, so we’d have something to measure any progress against, and laughed out loud: ‘Your waist is smaller than my thigh.’ This is possibly the single creepiest way that any man can compliment a woman – if indeed it was supposed to be a compliment – on her body. Ever.
My brother played Teeball for the Illawong Comets in the Sunshine League, and their homeground was tucked into a corner of the Woronora River, reached by a coiling narrow road, overhung with casurinas and smelling vaguely of mangroves, fetid, sweaty and somehow cloying.
I loved those grounds. While the players did whatever they did with their metal bats and rubber balls, I’d wander through the edges of the bushland, daydreaming and stockpiling seedpods to throw at my siblings, even though I almost always missed.
But it’s another ground that I remember best. I want to say that it’s Kareela Oval, but suspect that’s just because it’s another of those beautiful names I’ve collected along the way. Kareela Oval, or the oval that I call Kareela, stood in a small valley and was always grey and damp those early mornings. There were horses stabled right next door, and I’d feed them stolen orange quarters, although they very often bit my fingers in their excitement and I was mildly repelled by the crinkled yellow columns of their teeth. At Kareela Oval I once borrowed an aluminium bat from an open kitbag and stood behind the fielding diamond with my sister to imitate the players’ swings. I directed her to stand behind me, as the catcher, and swung my bat at an imaginary ball, and hit my sister square in the eye, which bruised almost instantly. It was her birthday, and there are wonderful photos of her that year, bob-haired and black-eyed, scowling over a pink-and-yellow birthday cake shaped like a butterfly.
I’m not sure that she’s ever forgiven me.
The only bone I’ve ever broken was a finger, during compulsory high school sport. I was running off the field after a game of touch football, where I’d figured out that if I ran at my opponents, waving my arms and screaming, I could very often make them drop the ball out of confusion. I was running off the field behind another girl, whose kicked-back heel hit the tip of my finger at just the right angle to jar and break the bone. I was running off the field, certainly, but I still consider it a sporting injury because it’s the closest I’m ever likely to come.
I was three months too young to be a volunteer for the Olympic Games in Sydney. I was very irritated at the time (though less irritated than I was one year later, when the election that returned John Howard to power was held on the day before my 18th birthday). My mother ended up driving white minibuses around the city, the kind that always make me think of special schools, though these were filled with sporting teams, and I’ll leave that analogy well alone. My father spent his 16-days-that-stop-a-nation inside the Bankstown Velodrome, coming home with stories about the size of cyclists’ thighs.
I like watching cycling, in the same way that I like watching aerial skiing, and that strange forward-facing luge that’s very appropriately named skeleton. The accidents are spectacular, and the injuries see body parts rearranged into configurations that are difficult to reconcile. I wish javelin involved a bit more violence.
My friends and I went to see a few mid-morning handball matches, mostly so we could experiment with our high-school German and French, heckling the players in badly-pronounced versions of their native tongues. We tried to steal a mascot echidna by shoving it into a backpack, but had underestimated how heavy the inanely-grinning statues were and had to abandon it before we reached the bus stop, before we lumbered through the hotlit streets of Wiley Park, Roselands, Bankstown, Padstow, without air conditioning, ever so slowly home.
My parents still have their uniforms folded neatly in the bottom of a linen cupboard in the room that’s now become the study. They’ll be worth something someday, they used to say.
I don’t like money. At least, I think I don’t like money. I’ve heard it’s covered with germs and spoils the fit of your pants.
I think people who say that yoga saved their life are wankers. I love yoga. I started doing yoga around the time that my BMI dropped below 15 for the first time and the administrators at my gym put a suspension on my membership; it’s a wonderful sport for ridiculously skinny people because it’s so easy to bend your chest and wrap your arm around your thigh then hold onto your opposite toes when you’ve got hardly any body getting in the way. In a body that was anything but, I felt strong and I felt powerful, and all the while, my teachers were preaching veganism and saying that there are only excuses, but no real reasons, to eat anything not derived from vegetables. Namaste, motherfuckers.
My yoga studio has a sister branch in Berlin, fairly close to the billeted house I was staying in when I visited that city last year. German-language yoga is an experience that I heartily recommend to anyone. There’s nothing like being told to relax and breathe in a language where even endearments sound like invective. But I learnt some wonderful compound words: Brustkorb or breast-basket for ribcage, Obershank or upper shank for thigh, Brustwurze, or breast-wart for nipples, Schambein or bone-of-shame for pubic bone. It’s hard not to dissolve into giggles when someone tells you to align your hand-ankles with your breast-warts and press your bone-of-shame into the mat: cobra pose.
I was sitting in the front seat of the car with the doors open, watching my brother’s endless representative cricket match, keeping out of the sun – my mother’s genes are responsible for my red hair, and we share every ginger’s paranoia of natural sunlight – when my mother told me that Santa Claus wasn’t real. I’d like to say that I felt like I’d been hit in the chest with a red leather ball, but the truth is, I’d figured it out years earlier, and had been playing along each Christmas morning so as not to hurt their feelings. That same weekend, my brother introduced me to the term Hector Protector. That traumatised me far more.
My father used to play for the Canterbury Bulldogs and as a consequence has a pinkie finger that he never can straighten right out. My sister is dating an NRL referee. I’m still winning the obligatory family footy-tipping competition this year, even though my strategy is simply to turn off my brain and jab blindly at something. I believe that this is how football operates as a whole, in any case.
I did go to a live match, however, with a friend at Leichhardt Oval, after I moved into the Inner West and considered changing what small local allegiance I had. I took a litre bottle of Pepsi Max, half-emptied out and refilled with vodka, and every jumper I owned. Leichhardt Oval has wooden benches for seating; the front row is barely metres from the playing field. I learnt that evening that there’s a sound the players make when they thump up against each other that you just can’t capture on TV, thick and meaty, as if someone is slapping two oversized steaks together, or playing beef cymbals for some ungodly reason.
This is ultimately why I’m a writer, not an athlete, I think: the concept of beef cymbals makes much more sense to me than organised sport.