Ten in the Bin


by N.R. Walker

I sat on the bench seat in the dressing room, and oblivious to the noise around me, caught sight of myself in the mirror. My short black hair was a spiky mess, and my dark brown eyes seemed a little dull. I was pretty fit for a big guy and my protective gear, strapped tight to my chest and shoulders, flaunted the fact I’d had nothing but time to work out since I left Sydney.

I’d moved back to Newcastle six months ago. I’d grown up in the coastal town on the New South Wales mid-coast, went to school there, but moved to Sydney for uni and stayed there for work.

Three years out of university, I found myself alone and heartbroken, so I applied for a transfer and came home. My mum was happy about it, even though she knew I wasn’t, and she suggested I play football again to meet some new friends. I hadn’t played rugby league in years, but I needed to get out there, she’d said.

Which is why, on a wintery Saturday afternoon, I was pulling on a football jersey for Central Newcastle. It was only second division reserve grade, so it was more about having fun with the boys than it was about serious football. Don’t get me wrong. We played to win, but we had some fun too.

“Hey, Deano?”

I looked up at the sound of my name being called to find Moose, the team captain smiling at me. At his side was Macca, a front-rower like me, and he grinned. “You ready?”

“Sorry. I was a million miles away,” I told them. I stood up, put my mouthguard in and gave them both a plastic smile. “Let’s do this.”

Macca laughed and gave me a friendly tap to the side of my face. “Come on. Let’s go smash some heads.”

I liked Macca. I didn’t even know what his real name was—like most of the team, we went by nicknames alone. But he was a big, friendly guy. He had unruly sandy-reddish hair, brown eyes and a killer lopsided smile.

And a dimple. He had a f**king dimple in his left cheek that just about did my head in every time I saw it.

He was also the biggest guy on our team. Bigger than me, even. I was six feet tall and weighed in at one hundred kilos. I was, and always had been, a big guy, which is why I was in the front row. I was fairly fit: I certainly wasn’t the fastest, but I hit pretty hard.

Macca was a good two inches taller, and maybe another ten kilos heavier than me. He was broad and thickset.

He was cute.

But I’d told myself I wasn’t looking for anyone. I just wanted some guys to hang out with, some friends. Which brought me back to football.

The game started out like any other. Being in the front row meant I tackled and got tackled. I made some good plays and covered fair ground, and we were winning 12-10 when their winger made a run up the sideline to score. I came at him from the side and threw myself at him, grabbing him around the thighs and driving him into the ground.

It was a hard hit, but it was a fair hit.

The buzzer went for halftime and I walked into the dressing room to claps on the back and fist bumps.

“Good hit, man.”

“Did you f**king see that? Holy shit, Deano!”

“Yeah, remind me not to piss you off.”

“Jesus, you smashed him,” Macca said. He threw himself on the bench next to me.

I pulled out my mouthguard. “It was a fair hit.”

“Fair?” Macca said. “It was the hit of the season!”

Coach called for our attention, and we started talking strategy. Moose told us what we’d done wrong and right, and before too long, we were running back onto the field.

Five minutes into the second half, we had the ball and were making good ground until Macca came in late on a tackle and gave the other team a penalty.

We took formation in a scrum, and being front-rowers, Macca, Thomo and me were in the front line of the pack. We put our arms around each other’s shoulders and we locked down into the scrum with the other team’s front row.

That was when their number eight, a prop they called Davo, gave me a bit of attitude. “What goes around comes around,” he said, but before I could work out what he meant, he head-butted me as the two packs came together. It wasn’t exactly a hard knock, but it was payback for taking out their best player in the first half.

“Fuck off,” I grunted back at him, and he answered with yet another head-butt.

Macca grabbed him by the collar and stood up, breaking the formation of the scrum. “You wanna go, Princess?” Macca said with his fist pulled back. They stood toe-to-toe, but I pulled Macca away from him.

The ref intervened. “Boys! Back in the scrum. Keep it clean!”

Thomo took his place between us, but I kept my hand fisted in Macca’s jersey at his shoulder and pulled him back into the scrum. This time the scrum went off without incident, but in the next set of six, I got the ball and seeing an opening, made a solid run for the line. I palmed off one guy, basically running over him, and then Davo, their prop-forward, came at me with a swinging forearm aimed right at my chin.

I felt my brain rattle and fell backwards. I swear I saw f**king stars.

I could feel grass at my back, so I knew I was lying down. When I opened my eyes, Macca was standing over me with concern on his face.

“Fuck,” I mumbled, my head still spinning.

“Can you tell me your name?” Macca asked.

“Dean. Dean Cartwright.”

“Do you know where you are?” he asked, obviously still concerned about the hit I took to the head.

“Where am I? I’m on the f**king ground.”

Macca grinned. His eyes sparkled and that one damned dimple pressed into his dirt-smeared cheek again. With two hands on my jersey, he pulled me to my feet.

But then he let me go.

The world tilted left, my head spun to the right and I fell forward. Before I could hit the ground, strong arms had me around the shoulders and I was being half carried off the field.

Macca wasn’t that much bigger than me, but he carried me like I weighed nothing. He sat me in a chair on the sideline, and then Coach was in my face. “Deano? You okay?”

“Yeah,” I told him. “I’m alright. He just rattled me.”

The ref blew the whistle calling for play to resume. I hadn’t even realised they’d stopped the game to get me off the field. Moose yelled out for Macca to get his arse back on the paddock and before he ran back out, he looked at me and patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said, putting his mouthguard back in. “I’ll get him for ya.”

Then the strapper was in front of me, looking in my eyes and asking me questions, distracting me from watching the game. “I’m fine,” I told him, trying not to sound annoyed. And I was fine, just a bit woozy. I’d had worse concussions from playing footy before.

Before he could argue, Coach swore beside us. “Aw, f**king hell, Macca.”

I looked over to the players on the field to see Macca in the middle of a lot of pushing and shoving and Davo, the guy who’d hit me, lying on his back in the middle of the field.

He wasn’t joking when he said he’d get him.

He’d got him all right. Davo was out cold.

The strapper groaned. “Did he hit him?”

Coach nodded. “Punched him right in the pie-hole.”

The ref blew his whistle again, but this time he pointed to Macca and held up both hands to the sideline, giving him ten minutes in the sin-bin.

Macca jogged over to where we were and sat himself down beside me. He held out his fist, which I bumped with mine. “Told ya I’d get him,” he said with a half smile.

But then Coach was in front of us. “What the f**k was that, Macca?”

“That was some as**ole getting as good as he gave,” he said, leaning back in his chair. He almost seemed proud to have done it. “Someone punches one of us, he gets punched back.”

Coach groaned and rolled his eyes. “Well, you’re off for the rest of the game.”

Macca smiled. “Fair enough.”

“Oh man,” I said. “I didn’t want you to get sent off.”

Macca grinned as Davo was led off the field. “Fair trade.”

I shook my head at him, and we watched the rest of the game in silence. Well, he yelled at the guys a bit and swore when something didn’t go right, but mostly silence.

We won the game, and by the time the full-time buzzer went, I had a fairly decent headache. Both Macca and I went into the dressing room with the rest of the guys, and it was hard not to be caught up in the excitement of the win. It was ridiculous how badly a group of guys could sing their club song and still enjoy it.

Our major sponsor was the local club and it was customary for us to go to the bar for a few schooners after every home game. After such a spectacular win though, it was bound to be a big night.

“Not you, Deano,” Coach warned me. “You shouldn’t be drinking, son. Not after a knock to the head like that. And no driving!”

Before I could answer, Macca said, “S’alright, Coach, I’ll take him home. I gotta early start in the morning. I wasn’t going out tonight anyway.”

I looked at the big guy. “You sure? I mean, thanks, but I’m sure I can get home.”

“Nah, s’cool. I don’t mind.”

“What about your car?”

“I got a lift to the game with Moose and Brock,” he said. “How’s your head?”

“Sore.”

Macca grinned. “Not surprised.”

I rubbed my temple. “Yeah. I’ve taken a few hard hits in my time, but I’ve never been this old before.”

He laughed and said, “If it’s any consolation, I’m sure that Davo dickhead has a bit of headache too.”

I found myself smiling at him. “I’m sure he does.”

As we left and the other guys all headed out to the bar, I nodded toward my car in the carpark. I threw my keys to Macca. “Nice car, man,” he said.

“Company car,” I said by way of explanation.

We threw our bags into the backseat of the standard-issue, albeit new, Holden Commodore, and I slid into the passenger seat. Macca got in behind the wheel. “Directions, please, sir,” he said, impersonating a chauffeur.

I gave him directions to my place. It was a new apartment on Honeysuckle, and he seemed a little impressed. “What do you do?” he asked as he drove. “For work, I mean.”

“I’m a business manager for Caltex.”

His eyes widened. “Shit. That sounds pretty cool.”

I chuckled at him. “Just a number cruncher. It’s nothing special.”

“You must have been pretty good at school, yeah?” he asked. “I was never too good at school.”

I liked his candid nature. “I did okay.” I did better than okay at school, but most people presumed otherwise because of my size and the fact I played footy. I pointed to the driveway up ahead. “Turn right here. You’ll need to enter my security code.”

“Oh.”

Macca pulled the car up and after pressing in the code I gave him, he seemed a little uneasy. Or nervous. “It’s okay, Macca. I trust you.”

His eyes darted to mine quickly, and he nodded in acceptance as the gates rolled open. He eased the car into the darkness of the undercover parking, not sure where to go.

“Number fourteen,” I said, pointing to my allocated space.

He pulled up and quickly got out of the car. “I better get you inside, hey?”

I got out of the car to tell him he didn’t have to worry, but my head protested, and I groaned instead.

“You okay?” Macca said, now standing next to me.

“Yeah, just seizing up a bit,” I told him, feeling a bit silly for needing a babysitter.

“Come on, it’s cold out here. You need to get inside.” Macca grabbed the two bags from the backseat, and we walked over to the elevator. He handed me my keys and he seemed a little anxious, which was odd, but he smiled. “The boys will be out for a late one tonight. Kinda glad not to be with ’em, to be honest.”