A funny, kind- of -Christmas story. Australian Literary Award winner.
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It was just like a rugby scrum, dangly bits pushing up against his face, smelling bad.
“Jesus they’re big buggers!”
The shout from the other end of the great corrugated shed echoed Ryan’s own first thoughts and revealed that his mate Pete wasn’t too happy about things.
“Fast too, for fat, lazy bastards, so be grateful they don’t have much room to run. That’s why we herded em into the shed”
Ryan couldn’t see a thing through the cloud cover of feathers and dust in the noisy, crowded hut but he recognised the voice of the bloke who was paying them twenty five bucks an hour for two day’s work.
“Physical stuff, just the kind of thing for a hefty rugger bugger like you. Bring the whole team along, plenty of work for everyone. No questions asked. Got a deadline to meet”.
Ryan Thompson had been in the pub, courtesy of his turn to wave the phoney proof-of-age and buy the beer supply. The tough Catholics from the inner city had soundly dumped on the Westmore College team, elitist of the elite, and they intended to get shit-faced to celebrate. The bus wouldn’t collect them until after the two junior games, and they could sleep it off on the long ride back to the city. Father Doyle would be too pissed by then to notice that he wasn’t the only one who kept stopping the bus to pee.
“Two twelve- hour days at twenty five an hour. Shit that’s big money!”
Swigging their beers under cover of the ancient trees that graced the vast playing fields of the privileged school, the Rugby Firsts from St Patrick’s, who trained on the bumpy ground underneath the city’s busiest road bridge, sniffed at the money in the air.
“That’s six hundred bucks each, six hundred bucks!” Pete, Ryan’s best mate and the fastest full-back ever packed into such a light frame was already buying the seat. A Reserve, Shell Park Centre, December 22nd , Sugar Sullivan. At five hundred a bum rest from the scalpers he’d have to go alone of course… unless… he looked up at Ryan. Nuh, no way, even if she appeared bare-arsed.
For a minute, each of the fifteen players savoured his own six-hundred dollar fantasy. Ben, the fly-half, was knocking boldly on the door of apartment nine in his building. This time, when she tightened her satin dressing gown and sighed
“ I told you kid, I don’t take charity cases”
He held up the handful of money and her almond eyes invited him in.
Brendan, the inside-centre was reverently lifting the vintage Gibson out of its case. He only needed five hundred for the final payment to Sonny, who was on his back every day about the time it was taking to pay off the dream guitar.And I’ll still have a hundred bucks! The music he was writing in his head drowned out the basso profundo of Big Billy, jersey number one, giant front -row forward and the undisputed maths brains of the outfit.
“But that’s chicken feed. Do the big sum guys. If we’re all up for it, the total for two days work is nine and a half thousand. Now that’s serious bread”.The deep, macho voice that reeled the girls in repeated itself,
“really serious bread”.
Angelo, aka Angel because he was the winger the team swore really could fly, looked unconvinced. “Yeah, but who do we have to kill for it?”
“We don’t do the killing, just the catching. We just catch em and load ‘em into the trucks. Seems they kill ‘em somewhere miles away.” Ryan’s answer had a freeze-frame effect on his team mates. Even Mac, the prop who could double for King Kong, paused the beer bottle midway to his mouth and seemed to suddenly shrink into his number three jersey. Ryan burst out laughing. “Turkeys, you stupid bastards, I’m just talking about turkeys”.
Back in the pub Ryan did the deal. Two weeks from now, when the football season was over, St Pat’s Rugby Firsts would come to catch nine hundred free-range turkeys and load them on trucks, in plenty of time to grace the better Christmas tables.
“I’m paying you top dollar because these are organically –reared, heritage breed birds…premium priced and never been caged or shackled. Me and my two boys will herd ‘em into the shed, but you’ll have to put them into the transport cages, six in each. It takes teamwork”. The farmer’s sun-cracked face smiled at the big city boy, “that’s why I want a winning team for the job”. The barman snorted loudly and rolled his eyes. But the city boy had already twigged that this was a job no locals wanted. The big bucks said it all. This bloke must be getting desperate. So Ryan took the plunge.
“You’ll have to cover the hire of the bus as well. Feed us too. And we’ll need somewhere to kip.”
“You can sleep in the bloody bus, or bring sleeping bags and camp out. That’s as far as I go.” Ryan shrugged and started for the door. The bluff paid off.
“Ok, steaks, snags, damper and tea. I’ll set up the camp, but you’ll have to cook for yourselves”.
“Fine with us.” answered the smiling seventeen-year- old.
So here they were, fifteen city boys who equated turkeys with mayo on rye or cranberry sauce and couldn’t believe they’d lucked onto a goldmine, just because they whipped the arse off the pussies from Westmore College.
“It smells like a dunny in here.”
Jack, the lock who was trying to decide if he was AC or DC wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“It’s the shit. I just stood in shit!”
Angel looked at the hundred dollar trainers his mother had done overtime shifts for and instantly went for the nearest bird’s neck. Deftly, the turkey sidestepped the high tackle and Angel landed face down in the same substance that covered his shoes.
“Stop mucking about. We’re not playing games.” Big Billy was all business, he was in charge of the quota. “Nine hundred birds divided by fifteen men means we have to catch and load sixty each. Divide that by two days, twelve hours each, means two and a half turkeys an hour. It’s a cake walk, but let’s get it over with quick. If we make the quota early enough some of us might get to drive down to the pub before it closes.” Big Billy had reached the legal drinking age two days earlier and he was making the most of it.
“We’re being paid by the hour Billy”.
“So? If I get my thirty Christmas dinners onto the truck who’s gonna tell the farmer I went AWOl for a few beers? I’ll be back before he misses me.” Big Billy flashed his friendly grin at his mates.
“Might miss the bus though Bill”.
Disappointment suffused the large face and, as always, Ryan wondered about the kind of brain that could instantly solve logarithms but had such trouble with the basics.
“Don’t worry, we brought plenty of VB.”
“Not the same though is it, sitting in a bus boozing with you lot, not the same as eyeing a good pair of tits across the bar.”
Pete gave him the horse laugh. “In your dreams! There’s a bloke behind the bar in this town’s excuse for a pub, and his neck looks just like one of these.” Pete reached towards the nearest fleshy, red wattle. “Fuck! It got me!” He shook his hand, grimacing wildly. “Blood, the thing drew blood.” But no one paid any attention to Pete’s problem because, suddenly, they all had their own. The turkeys were taking off.
Flapping up a hurricane, dozens of unforseen wings lifted weighty bodies off the ground. Most only made it high enough to land heavily on the backs of their neighbours, wings akimbo. But the more daring struggled towards the hangar-like roof, only to then descend like blimps slowly deflating. The sound was hideous. Gobbling, gurgling noises suggested a mass of stranglers indulging their wildest fantasies.
“Turkeys can’t fly! How come these fuckers can fly?”
Mac was flaying his arms about, trying to keep his face free from an attack of feathers.
“Turkeys can fly, I looked it up on Wikipedia, and these things had space to have a go remember. free range … heritage breed, remember . Shit, these aren’t your average turkey.” Brendan stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his tracky daks. A guitarist can’t afford to risk his fingers fightin off fuckin flyin turkeys!
Ryan held out his arms like a mother welcoming the prodigal, and Christmas dinner, with a month’s leftovers, fell right into them the weight winding him and pinning him against the rough tin wall.
“Got one, hey I got one!” But the turkey’s talons sought a foothold, found his crotch and clung on.
“Christ!” He roared in pain and dropped the bird, who took an embarrassing piece of Ryan’s trouser front with it.
Jack had taken off his red shirt and was waving it about like a demented matador, trying to cover his targets’ heads.
“I don’t like the way they look at me.”
Ben lay flat out on the ground, felled by the forced landing of what felt like an airbus on his chest and Kevin, the scrum-half who hadn’t wanted to come in the first place, was trying to scramble across the mattress of feathered backs to the giant roller doors.
An hour later peace ensued. But only because all fifteen members of the team were outside, sprawled on the hard, dry ground and eight hundred and ninety eight turkeys were still free inside the shed.
“ Two, two god-dammed turkeys in the cages in an hour.” Big Billy couldn’t believe what he was saying.
“And one of those walked in by itself”.
“We’re fucked. We can’t handle this”.
If they were upright, fourteen heads would have nodded in agreement with Pete’s assessment.
For the next few minutes the buzzing of blowflys was the only sound travelling through the air, then Ryan sat up and posed a question. “What’s the sum again Bill?”
“Twenty four hours, two and a half turkeys each per hour. Well that’s what it was. Now it’s twenty three hours, eight hundred and ninety eight professional heavyweights divided by fifteen amateurs, equals we’re fucked, like Pete said.”
“Just do the new bloody sum Bill.”
“Two point six each per hour”.
“So we’re only about point five of a turkey under our hourly target?”.
“That’s each mate. That means we’re already behind by over thirty five of Big Bird’s cousins.”.
“Yeah, well I get that, but we still only have to do a bit better than we originally planned for. ”
St Pat’s 1st XV looked at their captain as if he’d lost his mind.
“We just need a strategy, is all, a game plan. We need to approach this like any big game, like the one against Westmore. We pick our marks, tackle ‘em , take possession and score.”
“Oh Yeah just eight hundred and ninety eight tries. Unless you plan to drop kick the buggers all the way into those cages.”
Pete smiled at the crazy though of such sweet revenge and sucked at the loose flap of skin on his hand.
Ryan was on his feet now urging them on to success, the way he did so passionately in the locker room before their matches.
" They’ve taken command of that shed, it’s become their home ground, now we’re disadvantaged, we’re in an away game. We just have to make the most of our strengths, size, speed, brains and motivation.”
Their leader closed his eyes and inhaled dramatically. “Smell it, the heady pheromones given off by crisp, new money..Just think of that six hundred bucks, feel it between your fingers”.
Ben didn’t have a clue what "pheromones meant but he could feel the hard- on happening just thinking about her opening that door to apartment nine… He was in.
Brendan’s arm started to throb to the unique vibration of the Gibson under his fingers… He was in.
Angel could see his mother’s face smiling as his little sister pulled aside the layers of tissue from the organdie communion dress and veil that had taken her breath away, in Pelegrino’s showcase window. ..He was in.
Big Billy…well he was always a sucker for Ryan’s Mark Anthony ploy, no matter what the game-plan. “Yeah, we can, we can do this. Shit, they’re only turkeys mate, we’re men, men!”
Kevin elbowed Jack in the shoulder, tousled his hair and fluttered his baby blues at him. “Well some of us are.”
The laughing scrum that followed saw Jack left shoeless and sitting in his jockey shorts. He didn’t mind. He knew he had great legs. When the laughter settled and Jack got his pants back, Ryan proposed his line of attack.
“We let ‘em out of the shed, out here where we’ve got room to manoeuvre, just a few at a time. It obviously takes two blokes to handle one of these big buggers. Those talons are dangerous” he looked down at his crotch and winced at the memory.
“And they bite” Pete waved his injury under their noses.
“He said they were fast, that farmer “fast for fat, lazy bastards” that’s what he said.” Ben, the scrum-half looked worried.
He was the smallest bloke in the team. When he stood next to Big Billy he looked like one of the juniors . Ben knew he was the fastest, next to Angel who was just a natural born flyer, but what if he was outrun by a turkey? He’d never live it down.
“Don’t worry Ben. We won’t leave all the chasing to you and Angel. Pete’s pretty speedy and …” Ryan caught the blast about to burst from number fourteen, the other winger, “Jim’s no walker either. Hell, none of us are exactly tortoises.”
But all eyes did turn on Billy.
“Yeah, well I’ll tackle the buggers. But it’ll be up to you lot to get ‘em close enough. I never claimed I was Carl Lewis. We’d better move our arses though”. Bill consulted his watch, paused a moment then gave them the newsflash.
“By my calculation if we get two of those fat freaks into the cages, every paid minute we have left, we’ll still have eight strays left over.”
You could have driven a truck through the tunnel of silence.
“Like I said, we’re fucked”.
It was Pete who voiced what they were all thinking. Then Ryan turned on them.
“By turkeys! We’re gonna be beaten by turkeys? Those hulking great goons from St Bede’s couldn’t do it. The rich pretty boys here at Westmore couldn’t do it, even with the best coach in the State and their four-hundred dollar Nike boots. And you’re gonna let turkeys do it, beat us, beat the best school Rugby team in the whole country? Well fuck you! Fuck the lot of you!”
With that, Ryan Thompson strode to the big roller door, kicked it savagely, then hoisted it with his foot. Turkeys tumbled over each other, pushed from behind, like commuters in Tokyo’s peak hour. Before they could get to him and help him force the door back down, Ryan had given countless birds the run of the yard. There was no time for remonstrating.
Big Billy made the first flying tackle, finding two sets of legs and holding on for dear life, face in the dust. Angel and Ben hoisted one off him and Pete and Kevin grabbed the other one, freeing Billy to go on the attack again.
Mac joined him and the more sluggish birds stood no chance against the big front-row forwards.
The runners found Angel and Ben on their heels, mauling them and screaming for forwards’ support.
Catching a flyer, Jim passed it backwards to Kevin, although the cages were in the other direction, because instinct simply took over. Kevin promptly dropped the heavy burden and it sauntered, unconcerned, towards the sideline and watched the action.
Figuring safety in numbers, several of the biggest stag turkeys formed a gang and attempted a mini stampede. But the game little scrum-half stood his ground, while four of the backs man-handled them into the cages.
“Sixty nine, twenty two, kangaroo, thirty, wombat, gecko.” Eric, the stocky hooker, stopped panicking and just shoved the burly ball of feathers as Ryan’s call directed. Kevin grabbed it and swung it on to Ryan, confident he’d be in the promised position.
It felt like a lifetime later when the outside - centre at last dropped the cage door on the single remaining miscreant, then turned and cased the field. His team was scattered haphazardly.
Some were spread- eagled on the ground, some were closely examining a variety of wounds, all were sweating through the red dust that covered their clothes, coloured their hair, itched in their nostrils and war-painted their faces.
Ryan looked down at his own shredded pants and took in the deep scratches all over his arms and hands. He grinned. “Time guys. Billy if you tote the score, we’ll buy you a beer.”
The only way to get the red dust out of their hair, off their skin and from under their fingernails was to jump in the river. Their clothes were left on the bank, no good washing them yet. Anyway they hadn’t brought extra.
Big Billy drank the only cold beer left from the cache they’d stacked in the water. The rest had to settle for luke warm. He strung the suspense out, sipping slowly from the bottle and making appreciative sounds.
“So Bill, let’s have it. How many in the cages.?”
Ryan was trying hard, but when the master mathematician just smiled and took another swig, he wanted to throw the big joker back in the river.
“Two hundred and ninety.”
“Wow!” Ben just had to say it again “Wow”
Ryan knew Billy would have noted the start time, he had that kind of mind.
“You won’t like it”.
“Nearly five hours”.
“Angel groaned and lay back against a rock. “No wonder I’m so knackered. Five hours, it a miracle we’re still alive.”
“That means we can do it though. We did two hundred and ninety in five hours. That leaves …” suddenly Ryan felt like his tired brain was full of porridge. But Bill had it covered.
“Six hundred and eight. If we do two sessions, and better today’s figures a bit, we should make it”.
“Two sessions, what in one day? Two of those brawls tomorrow. How are we getting home, by ambulance?” Pete’s hand was so painful he could just manage to lift the beer bottle to his mouth.
“Unless you want to put in a couple hours more today”. Ryan had always been a bit of an optimist.
“I’d rather find Red Backs in my sleeping bag." Mac seemed to be suffering the most. He hadn’t run so hard in his entire rugby career. His hammies felt like hot steel rods were poking through them.
“Ok, Ok, it’s just recovery time, maybe another swim, a couple of beers when they get colder, and a big cook up. We’ll tackle the first session real early in the morning, so we can also have some decent recovery time between ‘em.”
Their captain didn’t add or keep going if we’re not making the numbers. “It’s an early night then. Let’s sleep out, under the stars”.
So that’s what they did. No one tucked them in and said goodnight, not so much as “You Ok out there lads?” and they knew why .The paymaster was shit-scared they’d tell him where to shove his turkeys if he showed his face, maybe they’d even give him a demonstration.
In the pub, the twelve -hour days had seemed like a gift, so had the hourly rate. But he knew, the bastard knew this was the job from hell.
Passing what looked like fourteen body bags full of dead men, Ryan Thompson sat by the dark river and searched for the Southern Cross among the cascade of stars... I’ll say one thing for that farmer though, he was right about winners.
St Patrick’s 1st XV Rugby Team had gone to sleep at dusk and they got up at dawn, just like every other creature on the farm. And that day, when the red dust had settled, they’d scored six hundred and eight tries.
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