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37. HEAT

January 30, 2008

Everything was set up for an extraordinary 1999 Australia Post Stawell Gift. At noon, nearly two hundred entrants and a bumping crowd of over thirty thousand spectators were at or near Central Park stadium. There really was an air of unreality surrounding the favouritism of young Layla Parkin in the face of so many leading international and Australian athletes. Amusingly, one larrikin managed to get hold of the public address system and dodododood the Twilight Zone theme tune. It struck a chord with many. What on earth was going on? Well, something was up. The crowd could tell. Hey, even the bookies were edgy; worried they didn’t have access to an important piece of the puzzle. Ravenous and salivating, the throng awaited their entrée. Delicious excitement. The heats had just begun and Layla was up next.

 

A lot of money was being bet this afternoon. The splurge on Layla had the side-effect of giving quite generous odds to the more expert-fancied runners and people were taking advantage. No bets allowed on Layla though.

 

Joel was there.

 

We had come on a convoy of Catholic buses. No joking. 8.30AM, we filled up four of them at St Brigid’s and we drove a couple of hundred metres to St Michael and St John’s Church for Easter Saturday mass. You should have heard the groans. Anyway, I went in with the rest of them. I wanted to. There was a special vibe amongst us and it echoed all around the sandy brick amphitheatre. The priest done good though… half an hour all up… and that included a blessing for Layla! We all cheered and the priest looked quite pleased with himself. Oh yeah, the pressure had been on him. A camera crew from the ABC had filmed it.

 

We headed off down the Western Highway followed by the camera crew in their van and arrived at Central Park about eleven. We landed in the car park at the same time as a busload of brown Bahai’s. They were full of T-shirts saying Baha’i and Peace and showing sketches of buildings. One bloke’s T-shirt had ‘Me Majnun, U Laili’ written over a black and white photograph of Layla. I wondered about him and her and what tie there might be in a far different world than I knew about. Yep, I looked at him and thought he’d be a far more upright citizen than me, more virtuous, more her sort.

 

Yeah, even though there were four buses of us, we were a bit wary of that dark and foreign-looking mob. So, we left a gap and didn’t mingle as we descended. A couple of their girls approached and said “Hi, we’re Baha’i friends of Layla”. “G’day girls” said Bluey “we’re from Brigid’s in Horsham, we’re her school mates. How yez going?” And they joined us. Bluey was stoked.

 

We flowed through the ornate Memorial Gates with our banners and our banter and set about positioning ourselves in the grandstand and on the ground. Me and a few mates got a spot on the ground pretty near the finish line. We sat and stood and drunk large from two litre coke bottles that we’d laced with vodka. I was already half-cut as we’d tore into them on the bus and I’d even had a swig at mass. Woohoo! We had mislaid the Baha’i girls somehow. Bluey was disappointed. Me too, though, you know, I liked one Baha’i girl in particular.

 

Then, Jesus, we hear this massive roar of a reception. And there she was… coming onto the track surrounded by six men in Horsham Demons footy kit. I couldn’t believe it. Yep, there were four of the senior team followed by Maddy and Geoff Derwent uncomfortably bringing up the rear. They were lolloping lightly along. It was funny. I think it was a case of having to make sure Maddy and Geoff didn’t fall off the pace. And that blasted hollering and whaying and whistling kept on going. Had the people lost control of themselves or what? It was deafening. The other runners in the heat must have shat themselves.

 

Man, she looked so so beautiful with the little white she wore. What a woman. What does she do to colours? Thing was, in the midst of these thousands of people and being the object of their exclusive attention, moments from running in the race of champions she looked so comfortable and confident. She belonged. There was not even a trace of illegitimacy about her. “Have you done the English essay for Mrs Hart, Layla? She’ll go ape if it’s not done”. It is my Layla isn’t it? Oh yeah, it’s definitely Layla.

 

I couldn’t cheer. I was so so full of admiration for my Layla and I was so overcome with emotion and my throat and eyes and stomach were… well I kinda chucked up. Bluey broke off from whistling to berate me for covering the salt and vinegar chippies. Anyway, he couldn’t tell I was crying as my rainbow yawn face covered it nicely.

 

And then it got a little strange. The Stawell race volunteers each came up to her on the start line and shook her hand in a dignified and respectful manner. During which pomp Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’ screamed out of the PA system. This hadn’t happened in the earlier heats. And, personally, I think Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ a better fit. But no, ‘Layla’ did quite well for the crowd as they air-guitared and wailed along in pairs. It was like an ice hockey match I went to in the States.

 

Ovation over, the athletes prepared for the heat. I could see it was getting a bit nasty down there. A couple of the other athletes had encircled Layla and were blocking some of her walk. And you could tell that there was a bit being said as well. Layla, looking down slightly, continued her walk and moved one of the men from her immediate path with her arm. He then turned round and stood over her shouting angrily. Layla didn’t seem to react and everyone starting booing which stopped him in his tracks. I heard Maddy shout ‘fuck off and leave her alone you ignorant wankers or I’ll rip the eyes out of your heads and play marbles with them’. That was worth a nervous laugh. But, yeah, no, it was a bit heavy out there in the middle before they were called to take their mark. It was a tinder box and this was one hot match-up ready to be struck.

 

And, Jesus, it was so weird. There was Layla at the back and all those men with head starts. Two of them had a full ten metre handicap. Even from my vantage point near the finish the gap looked ridiculous. As they got into position on their blocks the stadium blew a collective ooooooh as the extent of the predicament was realized. I saw the official race starter move behind the runners and begin to raise his gun. I’m not sure I wanted the race to start. I was too tight and toey. For me, that was it right there. The whole fabric of positive endeavour and hope seemed to be held taut right there. You could bottle it if you could keep it there. With a crisp clap they were off.

 

It took a few seconds for my head to make sense of the starting. In handicapped races you have that concertina effect, someone off eight metres can come through the front runners and you think they are moving the fastest. Okay, now is she gaining or losing? Man, she was lightning fast and she was, she was gaining and overtaking strongly. C’mon Layla, c’mon. Yeah, yeah, she’s coming through. C’mon, c’mon. She’s through them. She’s won! YAAAAAAAAY. Beauty.

 

Well, there were shrieks of encouragement during the race but when she broke through the finish stalls in front, the bellow of approval was astonishing. Bluey grabbed me by my top with both fists and shook “We won, we won, we were in by at least a metre. Easy. Easy.”

 

Abruptly, the steady level of victory yelling became muffled and was replaced by a shocked surprise. Here’s what happened. As Layla slowed down after running through her stall, she raised her arms to acknowledge the crowd. The guy in the lane beside her kept running at speed and pushed her very hard and very roughly in the back so that she jerked forward, fell over and hit the ground awkwardly and rolling. Layla bounced up, turned round and shoved him in the chest forcefully. He teetered backwards and recovered stability. Then with a contorted face he went for her again. Fuck it, I’m not putting up with that.

 

Joel, followed by a number of the Brigid boys, jumped onto the track and stormed towards that guy. He had his own stable of thugs who picked up on the action and both parties converged. It was a melee. Very quickly Layla’s Horsham Demons bodyguards arrived on site to leap into the fracas. Maddy gave a running bump to one of the opponents and crumpled him before he and Geoff formed a protective ring around Layla and led her away from the fight into the crowd. The officials and other do-gooders jumped in and began separating the combatants, most of whom were out of puff and happy enough to stop and limit themselves to shouting. It was all over in less than thirty seconds and about twenty men and boys backed away to their barracks. Joel had done well. Swinging wildly, he had launched himself into the middle of three men and delayed their progress towards Layla and the approaching reinforcements. He’d been given a bit of a bashing though. An eye was cut, a cheek was bruised and his mouth was already swelling. He was the melee poster boy for the morning papers.

 

People were a bit taken-aback by this sudden spurt of violence but as those involved withdrew cautiously but peacefully, they began to applaud the incredible victory. Layla was already being guided to a post race interview when she saw Sholeh in amongst the crowd. She stopped and they hugged each other tightly. Having stopped there was no going forward until she had accepted joyful congratulations from her class-mates, her Baha’i fans and race-goers in general. She saw her mom and dad with a group of Bahai’s and waved frantically to them.

 

[Stewart Appens, Channel Ten interviewer]:

“Layla, that’s an unbelievable victory. How do you feel?”

 

[Layla]:

“Oh, I feel wonderful. It was a real rush. I’m still in it and I’m really looking forward to my semi-final on Monday. I’m down to the last thirty six or so now, so yeah, Monday will be fantastic.”

 

[Stewart Appens]:

“And Layla, what can you tell us about the incident at the end of the race? There seemed to be a bit of niggle beforehand too.”

 

[Layla]:

“Oh look, I don’t think there was that much in it. It’s a big race and everyone’s a bit toey at the start. And I think we just got in each other’s way slowing down. The people who jumped in… they shouldn’t have done that; it could have been dangerous to themselves and the other athletes. I wish they didn’t do that. You know, we got quite a build-up to the race and I suppose all that adrenaline and testosterone didn’t need much to spill over. Anyway, let’s hope that’s the last of it.”

 

[Maddy]:

“They were a bloody disgrace that mob. You are too nice to them Layla. They were definitely trying to nobble her. I can’t believe it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nobble a young girl. Why you might wonder? You might well wonder. All I’ll say is that the officials need to take notice and put in place ways to ensure the safety of the athletes. This sort of thuggery isn’t beyond some of the interested parties you know.”

 

[Stewart Appens]:

“It’s certainly something which the officials will have to keep a careful eye out for. Layla, congratulations, you had the whole park behind you today. Best of luck for Monday.”

 

Layla wanted to travel back to Horsham with her classmates. Geoff was ‘okay’ with that but wanted the escort to be in place until the bus left ‘for obvious reasons’. So the six burly men stood outside the ladies changing facilities and then accompanied Layla to her bus. The buses were just about ready to go too. They had seen Linford Christie’s heat and that had completed their interest in The Gift for this day. The big news was that Linford had lost. Layla was flabbergasted and thought it was a real pity. Everyone was in great spirits and Layla really enjoyed the trip home to Horsham.

 

[Joel, sidling into the back seat of the bus beside Layla]:

“Hoy Layla, great win today, bloody amazing. Sorry I look so battered, I had to take one for the team today.”

 

[Layla]:

“Joel, Joel, that looks sore. I think you took one from every team. I think even Maddy laid one on you. Does it hurt?”

 

[Joel]:

“Nah, I’m grouse. Doing really well.”

 

[Layla]:

“You’ll feel it tomorrow Joel. [whispering] Joel, you’re drunk. How much have you had?”

 

[Joel]:

“Layla, I’ve had two large bottles of vodka… at least. I’m as full as a goog. So, do I get a reward for my shiv… shivering… shiveringalry? Do I get a pash from yer?”

 

[Layla]:

“Ewww, I don’t think so Joel. Not in this state. Come up and see me sometime when you’re sober and you might get lucky.”

 

She blew warm breath into his ear, left her seat and parked herself beside Annabel. “Hide me Bel” she giggled “Joel’s being a randy bugger. And watch yourself; he’s looking for a cat in heat.”

 

 

There was extensive TV coverage of the day’s remarkable events.

“Layla Parkin, producing an amazing effort, wins her heat in 12.64 seconds while Linford Christie fails to progress.

 

Today, young Layla Parkin astounded onlookers and the whole world of athletics by unexpectedly winning her heat in the Stawell Gift off scratch. The subject of much speculation and argument over the last week, she was given the star treatment prior to her race. But the highlight of her day was victory in the heat in a time of 12.64 seconds. This may well be the second slowest qualifying time of the 36 man semi-final field but our Channel Ten time-keepers say that somewhere in that 120 metres she produced the fastest ever 100 metres run by a woman. What price Sydney gold for the girl from Horsham now? All done on grass, on an incline.

Everything is now poised for a memorable day of Gift athletics on Easter Monday. Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing a Layla-Linford head to head. Linford Christie was spectacularly bundled out of his heat today and failed again in the repechage. Christie was reported to have been very unhappy with the allocation of handicaps. In a bizarre turn of events, Christie fled Stawell taking his training mates with him. And that includes Darren Campbell and Jamie Baulch. Only later did Christie learn that he had made the semi-finals as fastest loser in the repechage. All too late.”

 

Maddy and Geoff, owning Stawell, had stuck around for the remainder of the heats as a form of reconnaissance. The bookies were mixed in their reaction to Layla’s win. She was a dark horse for sure but given she’d run to the limit of her sex and was still at the back of the qualifying times many felt they had the missing information they had worried about. An opportunity to cash in on public sentiment presented itself. They opened her up to betting again. Layla, forty to one. We’ll have a piece of that. Sixty five grand, thank you very much. Part A complete.

 

“We’ve done it again Geoff. What matter? Might as well be crucified for a sheep as a lamb.”

 

Not quite. If Layla didn’t win, Maddy would be fleeced.

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