After the incident with the primary school creeps, David and I became good friends. At first he wanted to be my protector, in case the creeps tried it on again, and I think Loraine pitied me, but we soon discovered we had a lot in common and started hanging out together after school. As thick as thieves, Mrs Collins kept saying when she saw us, although I didn’t want to have to start robbing people to prove our friendship.
Winter arrived, and with it came the rugby league State of Origin decider. Queensland had its best chance in years of wrestling the trophy off New South Wales and the three of us were going down to Brisbane to watch our state’s glorious victory. Dad had offered to paint Queensland jerseys on our chests and Loraine had even found a matching maroon bikini top to wear.
“What do you reckon?” he asked as he put down his brush.
“Perfect!” I said.
“Now who gets which letters?”
“I should be ‘L’,” Loraine said.
“I suppose I’ll have to be ‘D’,” David said.
“I guess that means I’m ‘Q’,” I said, “but how do you get a ‘Q’ out of Joel?”
“It’s about time you got a nickname, Quibbley,” David said.
Dad dipped his brush in the white body paint and added the calligraphy to our skin.
“What’s ‘LDQ’?” Mum asked.
“Shuffle yourselves, kids,” Dad said. We bumped and pushed each other before eventually spelling ‘QLD’.
“That’s so cute.”
“Do you want me to paint socks and boots on your feet as well?”
“Um,” I said, feeling suddenly nauseous at the thought of wearing even pretend shoes.
“Just socks down to our ankles,” David said. “It’ll make it all the more obvious that we’re proudly barefoot Queenslanders.”
Mum shook her head, sighing. “Are you sure you don’t want something warm to put on after the game? It’s going to be a cold night, they reckon.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dad said before any of us could answer. “When I was a kid we always painted our chests for the State of Origin games and taking a shirt or jumper would have been sacrilege.”
“He’s right,” David said, puffing out his chest. “Queenslanders have to be tough!”
Mum sighed again.
“David,” Dad said. “Take Joel to the barber and get him a crew cut. It’s the only way he’ll ever look tough.”
“No way,” I said, wrapping my arms over my hair to protect it. It had taken long enough for it to grow back after my ordeal at the beginning of the year and I was far from ready to go anywhere near a barber shop yet.
“We’d better get going or we’ll miss our train,” Loraine said, saving me.
* * *
“Queenslander! Queenslander!” we shouted, jumping in the air as our team ran onto the field.
New South Wales kicked off as the referee blew time on. Our fullback promptly fumbled the ball forward, and from the resulting scrum, New South Wales were over for a try. Within minutes they crossed again and, with both conversions successful, raced to a twelve-nil lead. The remainder of the half was a dour struggle back and forth across the field, until our five-eighth popped over a field goal right on the siren, making it twelve-one at the break.
The second half opened much better for us with a converted try in the first five minutes. New South Wales immediately struck back, though, crossing in the corner to make it sixteen-seven. We scored again with fifteen minutes to go, the successful conversion narrowing the gap to three. Two minutes out from full time, our winger grabbed a cross-field kick to score again, putting us one point in front. With the kick unsuccessful, we clung onto our lead like grim death as the clock ticked ever so slowly down.
With five seconds to go, our stupid hooker threw a punch in the scrum, giving New South Wales a shot at a penalty goal from right in front.
“Lolly legs!” we shouted as their kicker struck the ball, hardly daring to watch as it flew towards the yawing goal. It struck the right-hand upright, dropped onto the crossbar, bounced and struck it a second time before toppling back into the field of play. In the resulting confusion, their half-back grabbed the loose ball and dived for the line, with three of our defenders making a last-ditch effort to stop him. The referee called for the video, leaving us biting our nails for what seemed an
“He dropped it, surely,” David cried as we watched the replay on the big screen for the fifth time.
“But he’s still got a fingertip on it, I think,” Loraine said. “It’ll be benefit of the doubt for sure.”
I closed my eyes as the ruling went up, now convinced we’d been beaten, but the roar of the crowd caused me to wonder. Surely there weren’t that many New South Wales supporters here.
“I told you!” David shouted. “No try! We won!”
Loraine grabbed me with one hand and David the other, leaping in the air as the QLD on our chests flashed across the big screen for everyone to see.
“Queenslander!” I shouted until I was hoarse. “Queenslander! Queenslander! Queenslander!”
* * *
“What’s going on up there?” David asked as we entered the railway station. At the far end of the platform, a boy in a New South Wales shirt was being kicked and pushed by two older Queensland supporters.
“Oh no,” Loraine said. “That’s not good.”
“Oi, what do you think you’re doing?” I shouted, running towards them.
“No, Joel!” David called out from behind me. “They’ll murder you as soon as look at you!” But tonight we were invincible and I paid him no heed.
“Who the hell are you?” one of the older boys said as I placed myself between him and the New South Wales supporter.
“I’m Quibbley the Great!” I took a deep breath, putting my hands on my hips and puffing out my chest as I recited David’s magic words. “This git is now my property, to, um, to mangle and mutilate as I, and only I, see fit!”
The two boys stared at me, puzzled looks crossing their faces for a moment before breaking into fits of laughter. One of them lashed out, pushing me in the chest and down onto the New South Wales supporter. He groaned as I pulled myself back onto my feet.
“Beat it, kid,” the one who pushed me said. “Scram before you get hurt and go crying home to mummy.”
“NO!” I yelled as loud as I could. Everyone on the platform turned to see what was going on.
“Come on,” the other one said. “This whacko’s drawing too much attention.”
They both casually sauntered off as if nothing had happened, while I glared at them, my hands back on my hips.
“Joel, are you crazy?” Loraine said as she and David caught up with me. “They could’ve had knives or anything!”
The ground under my feet started to wobble. “Knives?”
“Or even guns. What would your mother say if you came home dead?”
“Good riddance, probably,” David said, a huge grin spreading across his face. “You were awesome, Quibbley! Stupid, but awesome.”
Suddenly remembering why I’d been awesome, I turned to the New South Wales supporter still sprawled on the ground, offering to help him up.
“You, you’re not going to hurt me, are you?”
I gave him a puzzled look.
“You said you were going to mangle and mutilate me.”
“That was just to scare those other two away.”
“But you’re Queensland supporters, aren’t you?”
“We’re not all evil,” David said. “I’d take that shirt off if I were you, though, as there’s bound to be others like them about tonight.”
He pulled it off and threw it in the nearest rubbish bin. “Useless bunch of losers anyway.”
“I thought they played pretty well,” I said. “It was only sheer luck at the end that gave us the match.”
He shrugged. “Hey, you’ve lost your shoes,” he said, pointing to the painted-on socks that ended at my ankles.
“Nah, true Queenslanders don’t wear shoes.”
“Of course, I should’ve known.” He pulled his off and threw them in after his shirt. “Well thanks for helping me; here, let me give you something.”
I shook my head as he reached for his wallet. “A favour without reward is the most precious gift of all. My grandfather always said that.”
“He sounds like a very wise man,” Loraine said.
“But poor,” David said, earning himself a dirty look from his sister.
“Granddad died at the beginning of last year.”
“I’m so sorry, Joel,” Loraine said.
“It’s why we moved to Coolum Beach, so Mum could be close to Grandma.”
She gave me half a hug before thinking better of it and stepping back beside David.
“This is my train,” the New South Wales supporter said, waving as he jumped on board. “Thanks again!”