February 8, 2008

Monday was to be a fun day. Our adult supervision team loitered at St Brigid’s, anxious and curious. “Where are they all? It’s nearly 9.00 and we have to make tracks.” Disappointingly empty, four downbeat buses shuffled off to mass.


Would you believe it, we were already in our pews. What a great surprise for them! We cheered as they came in and, though stunned, they graciously acknowledged our successful ruse. They were so happy with themselves. Phew. Kids voluntarily at mass? Breakthrough.


Festive? Yes it was. We had balloons and horns, even a drum. Catherine and Annabel sat a large Layla doll between them. It had a big sign around its neck “me no spake anglish – boys talk my cewt frends – merci”. There were attempts at Mexican waves and further attempts at ‘We are the Champions’.


The boisterous air of expectancy bounced around the church transferring enormous pressure onto the lone priest. These mass-goers needed to be entertained or there could be trouble. I could see the priest peer from the sacristy door. He was loosening up, fidgeting and visualizing a perfect performance. Making ready to lead the alter team onto his pitch. A lot at stake.


He was faultless, didn’t put a foot wrong. And we were most impressed with his audience awareness. As a precursor to a sermon on the power of the Holy Spirit, he showed a recording of Layla’s Saturday victory on a big TV screen. Our mob went to town as soon as it started. There was singing and chanting of anthems with a big roar as she crossed the line. An even bigger clamour erupted as the melee began and there was lots of laughing and pointing as I made my TV debut as a piñata. I hadn’t realized Catholic masses were so interactive. Just the right pick-me-up for the nervous journey to Stawell.


Central Park was packed and humming with intrigue and anticipation. Special. The promise of the spectacle pained our muscles and kept us moving nervously. Time was passed watching the secondary racing events but it all kicked off again when the Gift semi-finals were introduced. Layla was in Heat 2.


Her Heat was called and the participants named. “In lane three, Layla Parkin”. No classic music from the PA system this time but the crowd had been well conditioned. Coinciding with her protective vanguard trotting onto the track, the stadium burst into ‘LAAAAAAYYYYLAA’, fingers strumming, muscles contorting around lead guitars.


Whoa. Whoa. Back up. Stop right there everyone. Stop. We were all dumbstruck and… mesmerized.


The trot, trot, trotting continued. Yes, there was Layla… I think. In the middle of the minding men. Completely bald. Yep, as smooth as a talced up bowling ball. Nary a hairy. Who turned normal off? Darn, she had fertile hair. Maybe she kept some in a jar.


Not every femme can pull bald off but Layla struck beautifully. There was no option but to let go of her lovely hair and find comfort in her young cool-tan complexion and fine form. Yeah, we wouldn’t have voted for it but now that the bridge had been burned we adjusted to it. Austere but fresh. Sensuous but risqué. Now that we tried it, we liked it, we liked it. No need to look back just at.


There had been difficulties with other competitors last time. No doubt to keep her distance, Layla went through her pre-race stretching routine near the boundary fencing. Not two metres from me. We were close but not really on the same plane. It was like looking at an actor from the front row of a cinema. I took her all in, her sights and sounds magnified, but she was completely oblivious. I shouted ‘Hi Layla, good luck’ but the words smacked into the impenetrable fence and fell.


She was balder than bald. Completely hairless. Her eye brows, those majestic falcon-in-flight wings, were shaved. Eye lashes trimmed to the lid and without individuality.


Layla looked tense but incredibly powerful with a profound self-confidence. She was a bay mare rearing. Nostrils open, eyes maniacal, coat glistening as she reined in twitching muscles. There was no breaking in of this mare. Snatched pash or not. They were called to the start. Layla jumped and clapped, the sound reverberating around a quietened crowd like a gun shot in a canyon. Tremendous showmanship. Let’s go.


And the athletes got down to it. Layla was alone on the start line, the only one off scratch. The next nearest was a guy off 4 metres, then a few off 7 or 8 and then, one off ten. Not a breath. In those holding moments the minority hostility was more evident. Some other uninvolved athletes – men and women – placed the upstart under contemptuous surveillance. Other hard characters – spectators, hangers-on and gamblers – pursed their lips. It wasn’t ‘all good’.


Go! And there it was, Layla’s familiar slinging start and the quick transition to efficiency. Our mob was at about the 80 metre mark. This seemed even faster than Saturday. As she aggressively whooshed by us, she was already in amongst them and slicing through with awesome power and complete control. Each athlete passed would wilt as if thrown off balance in her turbulence. From our location it was more reliable to listen to the finish than judge by sight. I thought she was leading but when the throng leapt as one to scream an unbridled ‘Yeeesss’ I had no doubt. She won. We were in the Gift final. Bluey and me wrestled gleefully. Yippee, yippee, stopping only when Layla tones came over the PA system.


[Stewart Appens, Channel Ten interviewer]:

“Layla, we meet again. What can I add to that? Incredible.”



“Oh thank you. Thank you so much. It was a good run for me. Felt good. I’m in the final and, well, it’s the big one.”


[Stewart Appens]:

“Have to ask you, Layla. What’s with the hair… where is the hair?”



“Yes, the hair. You noticed [smiles]. Well, I wanted to dedicate my participation in The Gift to a number of very dear people. To Billy Vandenhoff who, as you know, died unexpectedly last week. And his family, especially his wife Yvonne. To my own family, to my friends, to my mates at Horsham Demons. But also to Tahirih Johnson. Tahirih was like an older sister, she died of cancer just recently. Look, I’ve said before that I’ll share any winnings between her family and the Leukaemia Foundation but I just felt, I felt the need to strip away a layer. And besides, it was a close race; it may have been the difference.”


[Stewart Appens]:

“Well, hair or no hair, I believe your time has been put at 12 seconds dead. That is extraordinary. If our statisticians are correct, no one has ever run the full 120 metres faster than that. You’ve got to be happy with that.”



“Yes, very happy. I’ll be happier if I can win this afternoon though.”


[Stewart Appens]:

“Ladies and gentlemen, our winner of Heat 2 is Layla Parkin, the world’s fastest ever woman sprinter and now, right up there with the best men of all time. Anyone leaving? Anyone believe it? It’ll be on for young and old at 2:45. Is this the greatest sporting privilege or what?”


Layla and her Demons entourage, accompanied by dignified and appreciative applause, began their jog out of the stadium to a hotel room. Geoff had hired a physio to make sure she was tip-top for the final. She was waving to the crowd and spotted me in passing. The bare-faced manikin blew me another wrinkly raspberry. Aphrodisiac. Welcome back.


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