On Thursday, November 30, after months of careful planning and procrastination, the Wobblegong Sports and Social Club held its inaugural event, one whose turnout was commensurate with the low levels of skill on display.
Two middle-aged men, desperate to show that their leisure hours could be spent in a way even loosely described as “productive” – or “fulfilling” – gathered at Abu Dhabi’s Marina Mall bowling alley to launch an organisation that, given time, would surely attract thousands of members.
The two – let’s just call them the “President” and the “Treasurer” – envisaged a lively mob, wearing similar T-shirts, as an alternative to any proper recreational groups.
But it had to start somewhere, and start it did.
The arrival of the athletes did not set the stands ablaze with anticipation, it must be said. But eventually the crowd, or “Wesley”, warmed to the good-natured banter between the competitors, when he was not busy fixing problems in other customers’ lanes.
A change of shoes, a quick haka, and the game was on.
The first match was highly competitive, with much creative use of the gutters. Attacking play wins fans, defence wins finals.
The outcome was close, as is every result under 50 in this game. The President took the final honours in a victory very much akin to dancing with one’s sister.
But tension began to show at the start of the second game in an unfortunate display of unsportsman-like behaviour. The Treasurer grinned viciously as he leaned his face into that of the President, with the top bits of his smile all ticcy.
“I slept with your blankie,” he hissed, as the President looked around to ensure that the crowd was still fixing the Coke machine.
This sledging had little effect on the seasoned sportsman, for two reasons. First, and most obvious, his opponent and fellow club foundation member had little grasp of the concept of this less-than-acceptable tactic. And second, one does not rise to the rank of President without knowing where one’s blankie is at all times.
Driven by the slight to his fluffy blue bedmate, the President broke the magic 60 mark to score a second win, and the best-of-three series.
His celebrations were short. The months of planning were Gregorian, and did not allow for the Prophet’s birthday in the Muslim Hijri calendar, for which bars and nightclubs are closed. The social side would have to wait.
It won’t be waiting long, however. The Wobblegong Sports and Social Club will be holding its Carols by Candlelight dinner dance on Thursday, December 21.
And we believe there’s still room on the bus.
My pride is not a safe currency in Abu Dhabi. It dips a lot.
And yet, the places where I feel most comfortable are those venues where people know my dignity for it’s worth. You can try to work it out in Bitcoin but it still comes out in rouble. Nada.
Take Al Hajaz Coffee, a shisha cafe with very few pretensions and a friendly, if occasionally piss-taking staff and clientele.
One staff member there was a youngish Syrian fellow named Ahmed, who would not speak to the only “European” regular in any English through his distaste for the lack of effort to learn Arabic. Fair enough.
But this led to difficulty. How would said “European” know that the words being taught by Ahmed had nothing to do with a camel’s orifice and a close relative?
A couple of queries with an Emirati in the office showed that Ahmed was, in solid fact, sharing knowledge. Even if he was laughing hard enough at the pronunciation to become the proud mother of several puppies – after a day or two of lying down, of course.
At one stage during the afternoon, Ahmed’s tortured tones would join that of whatever voluptuous, exotic Lebanese diva was on the telly with the lyric “Habeeeeeeebeeee”.
A couple of the men in the cafe would look on in distaste. One Emirati, whose name I was never to know, only connected with me once – when a dill who came into the club became extremely abrasive.
Shared, raised eyebrows. That was all.
The rest of the gentlemen there – Abdul, the owner; Lukman, the man behind the jump who deliberately sounds like an Arabic Manuel whenever he feels like talking English; and later Mustafa, the man who replaces every medium-sweet Turkish coffee as soon as it is spent – are perfectly welcoming.
But I miss Ahmed. He reminded me of my first visit to Shannon Airport in Ireland, which considers itself home of the Irish coffee, after a 72-hour flight on a Philippine Airlines jet that broke down three times on the way to Heathrow. (It was only chosen because it was the last carrier that allowed smoking when you left Australian airspace).
We, a party of five including two young children, left the plane with very sticky suntans and the smell of a planeful of passengers with only one bog in operation.
When we landed to be greeted by old friends and relatives, we of course stopped at the airport bar.
“I suppose you’ll have a Fosters,” the barman said with what I hoped was a good-natured snigger. “Didn’t fly halfway around the world to have what I can get at home. Give me six pints of Guinness and two raspberry lemonades.”
He did. It was only on the way back to the table that I realised one of us wanted a cafe latte. Bugger.
There was only one answer: “You didn’t fly halfway around the world to have our fecking coffee.”
The unevenly buttoned goal umpire’s coat should have given him away; that and the uneasy relationship between his hands and the scissors.
These were not the hands of a professional. They were extremely whatever is the opposite of deft. And so, the result was largely my fault.
Dinny sat with his usual earnest interest, swinging his small, four-year-old legs as he perched on the small plank that had been slid over the arms of the barber’s chair to bring him up to height.
Then I did it. I took my eyes off him. Sitting two seats down in the Abu Dhabi Gentlemen’s Saloon with a barber who seemed much more at ease with his choice of profession, I watched as he neatened the few strands that form the sparse desert peninsula at the front of my scone.
Then I looked over. Rubbed my eyes. Looked again. The klutz was massaging my little boy’s skull, as if desperately trying to make it fit his abominable new “haircut”. Descriptions of Din’s new look flooded in to the mind: ragged; tattered; dog’s breakfast; Mad. Woman’s. Poop.
I knew, at that point, that my marriage was on the brink. I knew that the expression to greet me when I presented our little poster boy for post-toddler self-harm to his mother would be one far from delight and shared parental love.
Four words loomed large: Lawyers. Dawn. Ten Paces. The “do” would never do.
I moved threateningly towards our Bangladeshi Sweeney Todd and he backed away. I asked the man at the till what the damage was. He knew damage when he saw it. He charged for my cut only.
I grabbed the little fellow’s hand and marched him straight towards the shop to which we should have gone in the first place. Evening Aromatic Saloon.
The three Keralites nodded in acknowledgement as we walked in, dripping with sweat. Then the double-take as they clapped eyes on Dinny.
“Can anything be done to save him?” I pleaded, when I really meant me. They scrubbed up. Up went the plank. Out came the clippers.
The result was a much shorter, much more even head of hair, one that should return to its normal shape in time for puberty.
The trip home was long. On arrival, the carefully rehearsed explanation was accepted with at least some grace. Pioneer stock, that woman.
It was also accepted with one proviso: from here on in, the boy would go to a hairdresser (estimated cost Dh120) rather than any of the homely barber shops dotting the city (Dh20). We spat on our hands and shook.
For my part, given the events of the day, I owe my allegiance to the men of Evening Aromatic, and still bestow on them my custom.
Kudos, boys. Kudos.
The endearing black chap with the smart chain, pictured, is Happiness. Say hello.
Happiness says hello back.
That surly-looking white thing in the background is Not Happiness.
Happiness was found after a months-long search across Abu Dhabi when it was discovered that the former tenants of this flat had taken whatever happiness they had with them. And three months without a hot bath cannot be considered a happy time.
After a long, fruitless search, I finally found him in a small shop on Fatima bint Mubarak Street. (Yes, him. Bath plugs are harder to sex than newborn chicks, but I would hardly subject a she-plug to such unfortunate views. Happiness seems quite comfortable).
The salesmen at the “sanitary products shop”, as they call bathroom equipment stores in this neck of the woods, did not appreciate the Happiness they had in their possession. And I counted five of them through the glass-topped counter. There were probably a few more out the back.
I had no intention of placing a dollar, sorry dirham, value on him, but the Dh10 asked seemed a bit steep, as I told the salesman, especially as the accompanying sink filter was not required. True Happiness can never be strained.
With that, he painstakingly attached a small chain in a fairly pathetic, over-prolonged attempt at adding value. Then, for reasons known only to him, he attached a bolt to the other end.
I took Happiness home. He sat perfectly in his hole, holding back the tides, and continued to do so for four chapters of a John Grisham novel and a glass of cheap Chilean red.
Happiness found a home; a home found Happiness. Despite the bolt and chain having rusted after their first immersion.
He will continue to ply his trade until he starts to show signs of aspirational disappointment. Then I’ll find him a new job, with more responsibilities. I owe him that much.
Not Happiness, an earlier purchase that appropriately did come with a strainer but was too fat-headed to do the job, now petulantly sits in the bathroom watching the successful applicant at work. Sadly, I believe he will never fit in.
I explained this predicament to a colleague when I still held hope that Not Happiness could find a hole of his own in life.
My colleague took on a haughty air and dismissively bellowed that this tendency to “apply human emotions to the inanimate” was an extreme sign of separation anxiety after my family had moved back to Australia. Anxiety, huh? So little he knows.
I sleep perfectly well. Especially now that my flip-flops have forged an uneasy peace with the Hush Puppies.
Sock envy is a terrible thing.
We were married when I was 40, and I settled in to the role of husband, then father, with a pace and grace similar to that of something you’d find under a garden brick. Butchie boys excepted.
This late maturation made active involvement in the kids’ rites of passage even more important and even more special. This year I missed another – and for an Australian father it was a whopper.
The kids, along with most of the football-adoring public, fell in love with the Western Bulldogs during their against-all-odds climb to the top last year. So to a certain degree did Jane, which in itself was no small wonder given her introduction to the team before we were married.
Details of that game are murky, having taken second place to new love, delicately wrapped in its velvety glow, and the odd beer, indelicately wrapped in plastic.
As Cam Faulkner, an Aboriginal midfielder and forward for the Bulldogs, raced to compete in a marking contest, the crowd screamed “Coon”. Those who know little about Aussie Rules, or about Australia, would be unaware of the centuries-long ravages of racism in our society, and the devastating effect it has had on indigenous players in this most beautiful of games.
But this particular case, as I feverishly explained into the horrified face of my girlfriend, was not such an example. Streaking in and soaring to snatch the ball from above Faulkner and opposition players was crowd favourite Adam Cooney.
Eventually, and thankfully, the explanation was accepted.
But back to the night on which our beloved Bulldogs began their campaign to defend their 2016 premiership, against Collingwood. In the crowd to witness their first match were my little bloke wearing a Bulldogs guernsey with Caleb Daniel’s No.35, and my girl sporting Bob Murphy’s 2.
Again, Jane had stepped in to fill the yawning gap left by the kids’ father, who was at that point in a sports bar halfway around the world watching the game live, scrutinising crowd shots for a glimpse of his loved ones and trying with at least some little success to explain the rules of the code to two mates – a Cockney West Ham supporter and a Glaswegian Celtics fan.
Later, in my one-bedroom flat behind Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, the questions of my worthiness and place as a parent returned. Sores are there for the gnawing.
What I was missing as a bachelor (the Middle East term for remittance workers whose families are not with them) hit home with a resounding thud – no oxymoron; it was a lonely, dull sound and it echoed.
Figuring that I might as well eat, I decided on a quick walk to the Lebanese Flower for shwarma, a regular Friday night treat when the family was still here.
“Where is your baby?” asked the amiable Syrian at the servery.
For a few months it had been Dinny’s job to order the shwarmas, and he attacked it in all the seriousness with which he handled anything in his slowly evolving list of responsibilities.
It made me realise on the slow walk back to the flat that I would sleep that night without Din’s lean body, abnormally warm, squeezing its way between Jane and I at 5am on weekends and threshing about until he was allowed to switch on the computer at 7am.
There would be no Jane and I.
There would be no Bella, with her lovely, sassy attitude tempered by the occasionally sad vulnerability of young girls looking for their place in life. You can’t hug Skype.
I often think about the other bachelors here in the UAE – those from India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh – who work much longer hours for much smaller returns, and have fewer trips home to their families.
The most common answer as to why we do it is more pointless than the question: it is what it is.
There is nothing more fulfilling than walking into the maws of a city you’ve not yet met and spending hours wandering through its gut.
Becoming completely lost on alien concrete is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In Beirut, that pleasure was realised with remarkable immediacy. Probably only 20 minutes after checking in to the “four-star” hotel.
I won’t tell you the name of the hotel for fear of ruining your wonderment should you choose it for its online charade. But I will say that whoever hands out those stars in Lebanon – if anyone – must be applauded for their unflagging generosity of spirit.
When I arrived, I inadvertently interrupted the concierge mid-gaga. “SABAH, SABAH, SABAH,” he yelled in capitals at an old fellow who seemed not to notice the raging beast he had awoken, as he shuffled off to a table with a crusty cup of Turkish and some uncommonly cheap-smelling cigarettes.
“He will kill me,” said Desk Daneesh. “He’s been asking me that question for three hours.” Either repetition was fatal to this gentleman, or he had a personal disagreement with the Arabic word for the number 7. Or old people.
When his attention finally returned to his reason for being behind a desk, and the focus slowly returned to his eyes, Daneesh pfaffed about for half an hour before producing a keycard to the sumptuous room I had seen on the online booking site. He also repeatedly told me of the spa and massages they provided “in the basement”. I’m sure it was all perfectly legit, but I kept looking for a wink and wanting a shower.
Deciding that discretion was the better part of survival, I went to my room. On opening the door, the first sight was the bathroom, which was generous. So generous was it that it gave its sink to the living room. Lovely to see how well the two areas got on.
The space provided for the khazi left me thankful that I had no penchant for razor-sharp earrings. My knees would have been in tatters. (But as luck would have it, it soon became obvious that sitting that way only made the task at hand easier).
The shower had no fungus.
The bed was comfortable and there were plenty of blankets to ward off the cold Levant nights.
It was 8.30pm, and I was hungry and still buzzing from my ill-planned travel itinerary that turned four hours of journey into 10. Off to the famed Al Hamra stretch for some welcoming bars and restaurants.
It was then I discovered why the taxi delivers you to what seemed to be the back of the hotel. The front road, on a steepish hill, could only have been 100 metres long. That was still enough for three security booms, manned by young blades with large guns and much, much smaller senses of humour.
After wandering around lost for more than two hours I finally found myself again within 20 minutes’ walk of my digs, at a place called TootBeirut, with a few local beers and a chicken shawarma plate that could have made 10 guards break into smile substitutes.
And after a contented belch and a cigarette, all seemed right with the world.
I even considered taking a doggy bag for the poor old bloke at the hotel. After all, sabah was a long time to wait for breakfast.
“She does A LOT for this family,” was the horrified response when the question burst its way through incautious lips.
“She” is Foxie, a saluki-cross dog. The question, as far as memory serves, was something along the lines of, “What does she do for this family?”
To be fair, she does contribute. She contributes to the dog-loving wife’s need to nurture. She contributes to the children’s delight. But the galling point for at least one of us (and one suspects, at most one of us), is her unashamed disinterest in contributing to the $7,500 it’s going to cost to fly her home from Abu Dhabi. That’s Seven Thousand And Five Hundred Dollars. Australian.
Salukis are desert dogs, traditionally beloved companions of the Bedouin. Ergo, it was explained to the loved ones, it would be inhuman to pay $7,500 to take her to a completely alien environment – to the cold winters of southern Australia.
The argument was every bit as successful as the credible and, I believe,
compassionate theory that it would be cruel to bring a desert creature, with the love of wide open spaces in its genes, into a two-bedroom flat shared by four people. And the floors are tiled. She won’t like that. Too far a shout from the yielding warmth of the Rub Al Khali’s dune sands.
“We’ll buy her a rug,” they said. They bought her a rug. She prefers to sleep on the tiles. For hours. Hours and hours and hours.
It’s like she’s gone into hibernation, and I sometimes imagine a nuggety cocoon slowly engulfing her until she emerges the next day as a huge, sandy-coloured, crotch-nudging cabbage moth.
But that was remiss, wasn’t it? Not to mention that Foxie is a groin-sniffer? Allow that negligence to be corrected. And how does one train a dog not to poke her snout where it’s not wanted? To rub tobasco into the undergarment is not advisable. Not that I’ve tried it. It hurts. A lot.
To make matters worse – if anything can be worse than paying $7,500 to send a bone-idle, socially unacceptable member of another species on a joy flight – we’ve discovered that Foxie’s short stay in quarantine back in the mother country may have to be put back a month.
This means that when I return from Australia in January to a lonely, one-bedroom flat in Abu Dhabi after leaving my family to the comforts of our Melbourne home, I may have to enjoy her company a little longer.
And Foxie doesn’t do rent.
Christmas 2010. Belle and Din ran through the house straight to Grandad and Grandma, sitting out the back, just as I hoped they would.
Big Nev and Din hadn’t had much time together, given that my son was only a year old when we left for the UAE. And although Nev had, I think, 763 of them, granddaughters were rolled gold.
I was warned. He’d suddenly become confused. The biggest difference I noticed was the absence of the beatific, sentimental Christmas scan around the yard at his kids, grandkids, and the start of a fourth generation. It had blurred. The loving patriarch of a good-sized tribe was struggling.
I’d given my dad more than his fair share of worry over the years, taking a longer road than most to get to where your nature intends you to be. But while we were sitting together after lunch he brought up the better of those days, when we’d meet under the standalone scoreboard on top of the bitumen slope at Princes Park to watch the Royboys.
“Those people used to come from the far side of the ground to shake your hand,” he said, in a voice that later had me howling behind the shed. “Why was that?”
Couldn’t answer him, and I remembered a lot of things from those days – the pride in introducing those I did know at the ground to the big feller in the camel or grey parka, the big wins, his company along with that of my brothers and friends, the day we saw out a piercing hailstorm in that same uncovered spot.
The old FFC logo was like a bugle. It also gave me a bridge between Geelong, where I lived at the time, and Nev’s eastern suburbs home when we were playing at the Western Oval, now my heartland. Sweet days.
Eventually that particular time together died along with Fitzroy, whose colours, mascot, history and eight players were sold to the Brisbane Football Club in 1997 after a long, slow demise. To me they looked like the Lions, their song sounded like the Lions’ – but they weren’t a duck.
Nev had too much history – in his early years and with his sons – to change colours. I was too unwilling to adapt to the corporate age of football and move allegiances 1,660km up the track, despite his occasional urging and reminiscences of the recalcitrant Martin Pike, a mutual favourite.
Thankfully Big Nev had his reward, in trumps, for his loyalty to the Lions before he left us. Three flags on the trot from 2001.
I was sorry we couldn’t share them. We wore different colours.
He was on my mind a lot as we yelled the Dogs home to take the flag this year. There was no outer at Princes Park, or Western Oval, or the Junction. No ‘G. But Bella and Dinny were by my side for the whole match in the Abu Dhabi flat we’ve made our home. My crowd.
I can only hope they were enjoying the time with me a fraction as much as I loved watching football and just about everything else with that beautiful old bloke.
Sitting in the cold Melbourne cafe eating its dry, niggardly breakfast in the early afternoon with the rain thwacking down outside, the thought occurred that you really could not get things any incorrecter.
It was September 25, 2009. Dinny, just short of his second birthday, was asleep in his pusher as he had been ever since we left Flinders St Station 30 minutes earlier, completely oblivious to the life-defining event he was passing up – one on which a great deal had been written.
A month earlier, the sports desk at The National in Abu Dhabi had commissioned 1,500 to 2,000 words on the AFL Grand Final for its Saturday essay, to take up pages 2 and 3. But there were two particularly niggly snags to the deal.
First, it was to be published on the Saturday before world sport’s biggest day; and second, the Friday deadline for the piece coincided with the kick-off for the preliminary final, when the Bulldogs and Saints were to meet on the MCG’s honoured blades. There, they would kick things until time ran out. The loser would watch the Grand Final from the social club, with ticcy smiles for the fans. The winner would have a much more intimate view.
So, by the time copy needed to be filed no one could say for certain who would be playing in the bloody thing.
Therefore it was to be a tale of passion, and of passing love of the game from one generation to another. Dinny’s first Grand Final Parade, the start to a lifelong tradition, a bond between father and son.
And while writing the essay, a most appealing image appeared. That of standing with my boy on my shoulders in the broad, yet crisp Melbourne sunlight, as he kicked his little legs in delight and said “Daddy!” a lot while watching dozens of the country’s finest athletes being triumphantly paraded through the heart of a great, beautiful city.
A week later it was rattling down. People in the front had their umbrellas up, blocking any view. Dinny was cutting logs. I didn’t give a stuff who was in the cars. I’d watched the Dogs lose on the Friday night before. I wanted to go home. The bubble had burst.
After seven years of licking wounds, the demon was finally exorcised two weeks ago. Din and his sister Belle sat next to me as the Dogs finally broke a 54-year-old loser’s drought. Before the game started, Din said he wanted a Dogs jumper for Christmas, with the No.35 on the back. How sweet can life get?
Even sweeter when I finally got them to stop making fun of Marcus Bontempelli’s name and watch the game. Woof.
- For anyone even remotely interested, here is the article. You must remember it was subbed by foreigners who prefer games where you’re not allowed to use your hands, God bless them. There was a little misunderstanding with drawn Grand Finals, and Terry Brown says I got his stuff all wrong. Bloody subs.
I like to think Mr Phen and I are friends. All right, I probably choose to think Mr Phen and I are friends.
Phen’s story is like thousands you hear in Phnom Penh. His parents fell victim to the systematic butchery that defined the Khmer Rouge regime. He was forced into the city by the fear of starvation to scratch out a meagre living by driving and sleeping in his tuk-tuk.
He’s an earnest, endearing fellow, and although the cynicism bred through more privileged circumstances had me thinking, “I bet you say that to all the boys”, I much prefer to think that the offer he made was as genuine and firm as his hug after five days together. A hug’s a hard thing to fake.
Pointing towards the Tonle Sap River, he said he lived five hours’ drive away and that, if I returned one June, I should make the trip with him to his village where “we drink, we eat chickens and dance”. Brilliant, I thought, and promised I would.
I grudgingly presume I’m not the first to receive the invitation but it sounds a glorious way to spend a few nights – Indochina with all the hedonistic generosity of Cannery Row – but with one exception.
In Sihanoukville, on the same trip, another tuk-tuk driver offered a back-seat tasting of the local wine. Lovingly decanted into a plastic bag.
It had an attractive rose hue; sturdy, confident aroma; and given the right machine could probably mow two hectares of the most stubborn grass. But maybe I was being unfair. Maybe it needed a few more minutes to breathe. (Lord knows, after the first sip I did.)
It also showed the resilience of plastic bags and why it takes the bloody things so long to break down into the environment.
I’ve since been back to Phnom Penh, but not in June, and it was only on the eve of my departure that I finally caught up with Mr Phen, who had been missing from his normal station.
I recalled his offer and fully intend to take him up on it, although it will be many years down the track given commitments that have since been made.
Yes, Mr Phen, we will eat those scrawny chickens – 57 of them, if it makes you happy. And yes, we will dance like the silly old buggers we will be, until our hips give out or one of us treads on a landmine.
But – and I must insist – it will have to be BYOG.