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29. THE GIFT

December 30, 2007

With school out for the week-end Layla and her group exited St Brigid’s. Maddy Quigley was waiting in his car.

 

[Maddy]:

“Hoi, Layla, can I have a word with yez?”

 

[Layla, approaching]:

“What’s the go Maddy?”

 

[Maddy]:

“Layla, can you get in the other side? I have something to discuss. I’ve got the air-con on.”

 

[Layla, turning to her mates]:

“Guys, go on ahead. I’ll follow in a while.”

 

With Layla safely shut in the cooled Commodore, Maddy dug deep within his Horsham character.

 

[Maddy, contorting his heartfelt face]:

“Layla, it’s not often that Horsham has a hero like yourself. No, no, hang on, let me finish.

 

And definitely not the Demons. I’ve never seen the like of it before. Look, we’ve had the wood on most teams in the Wimmera league but we’ve hit a bit of dry spell lately. We’re all stoked that you are coming along to the juniors training. You know I’d play you if I could but I can’t. The League won’t let me [‘poncy bastards’].

 

Look, that extra skill and competitiveness you bring will help the lads no end. It’ll get them across the line when the going’s tough. And it’ll feed into the seniors over the coming years and then we’ll have a red hot crack at the grand finals.

 

Okay, here we go. Layla, there’s one thing more important to us than a grand final and that’s The Gift.”

 

Sideways and with mock concern, Layla looked at Maddy’s seriously down-turned profile.

 

[Layla]:

“Gift?”

 

[Maddy]:

“That’s right, The Gift. The Stawell Gift. You know it Layla. You’ve seen it on the box. It’s the biggest foot race in Australia, maybe the world.”

 

[Layla]:

“I know it alright. I’ve heard of it.”

 

[Maddy]:

“Of course you have. I know you are new to Horsham but did you know that Stawell is just an hour down the road? Layla, I want you to represent Horsham Demons in The Gift. Will you do it?”

 

[Layla]:

“Wow. The Gift. You’re talking about the women’s race right?”

 

[Maddy]:

“I am not. I’m talking about The Gift. There’s only one Gift. It’s an Open event. Look, you could really put the Demons on the map if you do well. There’s been a bit in it between Stawell and ourselves over the years. We’ve been pretty much nip and tuck at the footy but we can’t stop them crowing about The Gift. There’s only one way to claim the bragging rights and shut them up for good. Will you do it?”

 

[Layla]:

“Gosh, I haven’t really put much effort into athletics since last year.”

 

[Maddy]:

“The club will sort out all the details. All you have to do is turn up and run. Will you do it?”

 

[Layla]:

“When it is?”

 

[Maddy]:

“It’s run over Easter. Next week.”

 

[Layla]:

“Wow. Okay, Maddy, put me down for it. It’ll be great fun. It’ll be a good hit out for me.”

 

[Maddy, jubilant]:

“Onya Layla. You’ve given an old man life again. Of course, it might prove more than a hit-out.”

 

[Layla]:

“Oh yeah?”

 

[Maddy]:

“Hell yeah. There’s prize money. About thirty grand to the winner. And .. and any prize money won is all yours. I’m not asking for any of that.

 

Look Layla, I won’t lie to you. It’s a rough old caper, The Gift. With that kind of money involved people can be nasty pasties. You’d have to expect the worst from people. All manner of goings-on and dodgey dealings. You’d have a good team behind you though. We wouldn’t take any nonsense from them.”

 

Layla reflected and quite suddenly gave way to sadness. She collected the spill from her dark ocean eyes and let it seep safely through her skirt which was wise.

 

[Layla]:

“Maddy, I’ve had a bit of a set-back recently. Maybe Joel told you. My… my… my.”

 

Layla realized none of the words fit well – sister, friend, aunty – they didn’t tell the right story.

 

[Layla]:

“A beautiful lady who took great care with me, she was snuffed out with cancer. And I didn’t know. Until she was gone. I just feel the need Maddy. It’s like she left too quietly. Tip-toed out the door not wanting to wake me. I feel the need to get her attention. To give her attention. I’m very sad Maddy.”

 

Maddy hadn’t expected the tears and, at first, stared fixedly out his windscreen.

 

[Layla, defiantly]:

“Anyway, I’m in the mood to right a few wrongs, don’t you worry about that Maddy. I’ll stick it up them like they’ve never had it stuck up them before.”

 

It was a deeply touching moment for Maddy. He began to sniffle up himself which helped mask his natural discomfort at self-indulgent scenes. This was a pact then he felt. Layla’s emotional response and zeal bound them together in this task as if they’d shared a blood oath. Maddy wanted to empathize with her and, after searching for options, decided to offer her his hanky. Layla acknowledged his reaching out to her by looking at the hanky. The hanky had been young once too. Layla, with a barely perceptible move of her right hand, graciously declined.

 

[Layla]:

“Maddy, I need to head off. I need to run after the guys. We’re going to celebrate the week-end.”

 

[Maddy]:

“Righto, righto. I just need to jot down a few details for the rego form and I’ll be out of your hair.”

 

Layla, having gathered herself and given personals, conveyed best wishes to Maddy and left the car. She soon rejoined the group and ordered a banana milkshake.

 

[Layla]:

“Guess what guys. Maddy’s going to enter me in the Stawell Gift next week. Woohoo. I’ll be on tele.”

 

The group gave up sounds of amazement and congratulated Layla as she sat down amongst them next to her loving friend Joel.

 

[Joel]:

“You’re joking! Really? You’re joking! Well, look, I think you’ll be in with a shout. You were traveling beautifully last night. Although it’s no gimme, I hear one of the Australian Olympic team is in it this year. What’s her name again? She won a bronze at Atlanta.”

 

[Layla]:

“No, Joel. No! Not the l-a-d-i-e-s. I’m in THE Gift. I’m hanging out with the boys. Woohoo.”

 

[Joel]:

“Errr Layla. Do you have any idea how good these guys are? Seriously. Linford Christie is competing this year. Not only is he an Olympic and world champion, he’s bringing over some of his mates too. Like Darren Campbell, he’s one of the best sprinters in the world.

 

What handicap will you have? Mind you, I think the maximum is ten metres.”

 

[Layla]:

“Oh Linford’s great. It’ll be great to run against him. And Darren, yeah, he’s my tip for a medal in Sydney.

 

They do handicaps? Well, I’m glad they limit it to ten metres or I’d have no chance to catch them.”

 

[Joel]:

“Oh c’mon Layls. Now I know you’re having me on. Maddy would never lose it like this.

 

[Layla]:

“Well Joel. He has. And I won’t.

 

Everybody coming?”

 

[Joel]:

“Turn it up Layls. If you’re running against Linford Christie the whole school will be there. Now, are you REALLY serious about this?”

 

[Layla, offended]:

“Of course I am. I don’t lie!”

 

[Joel]:

“Alright, alright, I believe you. Now, if that’s the case, I’ll be taking that milkshake from you for a start.”

 

[Layla, faux fighting]:

“Back away from the milkshake Joel. I’m leaving it down just here. Nice and gently. Go on, back, back, back.”

 

Joel looked upon Layla in reverie. What was this all about? As an eight year old, Joel had stayed up out of his comfort time zone to watch Linford Christie win gold in Barcelona. Man, what traumatizing tension in the lead up to the start. He could hardly bear it and had wondered how the athlete’s came through it. Surely, all manner of potential mishaps must be playing on their minds? Any little mistake or delay and it would be all over for them. He remembered Linford’s aggressive focus on the upcoming battle. He remembered him standing in front of the rest of the athletes, dominating them and then staring down the finish line. I’m the one. It’s mine. Any objections? The uncompromising power of those men on the blocks that had to be tamed. Linford stood highest in the blocks. They ran and he beat back and beat back and beat back the others till they submitted. All the possible pitfalls had been avoided. The right man had won. The best man had won. Give a tick to whoever was managing the world that day.

 

And then I look at Layla. ‘Oh yeah, I’ll rock up and race him’. And you know, yes you do, you know she expects to win. It’s just wrong. Not wrong so much as irrational. It can’t be done Layla. Impossible. They are in a different league.

 

I have got so much admiration for you Layla. You make everything seem possible. Vulnerable Layla, I think. Do you think it’s possible? Do you think I’m possible? I love you Layla.

 

Hmmmm. Linford Christie. Layla. Hundreds of shonky professional runners and their feral entourages. It’ll be a balls-out week-end for everyone. May as well go along for the ride. Getting tense already.

 

Thankfully, Joel didn’t touch the milkshake. And although it might be expected that this build-up precedes an amazing and against-the-odds victory, it may not.

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