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40. BREATHE OUT

February 13, 2008

“Hi, I’m Sholeh. You Joel?”

 

[Joel]:

“Yeah, I’m Joel, why?”

 

Sholeh leaned forward and put her nostrils to his lips.

 

[Sholeh]:

“Breathe out.”

 

Joel rounded his mouth and put a puff up her nose. He was so annoyed at his reflex obedience to her command.

 

[Sholeh]:

“Alright, I’ll pay that. I’m Layla’s friend. Apparently, you are too. She told me to ask you over to the hotel room for some lunch if you weren’t drinking.”

 

[Joel]:

“Let me see. Are you a Baha’i?”

 

[Sholeh, preening]:

“Indeed I am. Can you see it in my eyes?”

 

[Joel]:

“Yeah, yeah, something like that. I’m beginning to recognize the signs.”

 

[Sholeh]:

“Yeah well, we’ll have to leave questions till another time. Where are, let me see, Catherine and Annabel? They are to come too.”

 

[Joel]:

“Yeah, yeah, they’re over there. How about my friend Bluey here?”

 

[Sholeh, grimacing and shaking her head apologetically]:

“Sorry, not on the list. And he looks a bit worse for wear too. He’s happy though. I’m sure that counts for something. Laters Bluey, good lad.”

 

Joel, Catherine, Annabel and the Layla doll followed Sholeh out of Central Park and into the hotel room. The curtains were drawn and Layla, mostly skin, was lying on a bed in the dim. She waved to her friends as they walked in.

 

[Layla]:

“Hi guys. It’s good to see you. Come on in. We’ve got lunch coming soon.”

 

Catherine and Annabel, high pitched, darted over to her and hugged various parts of her body.

 

[Catherine, kissing Layla’s belly button]:

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

 

[Annabel, holding a thigh]:

“Wow, feel the power of these babies.”

 

“Oi, Oi, leave those alone. We had a man in earlier to do all that.”

 

Maddy Quigley had entered with plates of baguettes and fruit. He had taken fright at his charge being molested.

 

[Maddy]:

“Joel Underwood. What in blazes are you doing here?”

 

Not as much as others it seemed, more’s the pity, Joel thought.

 

[Joel]:

“Oh, we’ve just come to have a bit of lunch with Layla. You know, a bit of support.”

 

[Maddy]:

“Right, well, behave yourself and no fighting. Come on out to the men’s room when you’re ready. You can keep us company.”

 

Maddy headed back to the adjoining room where Layla’s bodyguards were sitting out the hours prior to the final. Time was creeping and crawling. They lunched, they watched a turned-down TV, they worried. They were so worried it tired them and they rubbed their eyes with knuckles. Another hour or so of this, that’s all.

 

The senior Demons had been promised a substantial bonus in the event of victory but it was Maddy and Geoff who were most emotionally affected. It was just that they were so gloomy everyone near them caught it. It was their defensive response to a looming windfall; behave for the worst and things can only improve. Don’t go anywhere near that room Joel, you are fine where you are.

 

Bringing lunch to the youngsters had been a calming distraction for Maddy. Now, he held his breath as he re-opened the hatch to the depression chamber. Well, there was $7.2million riding on it. Maddy thought about that a lot and winced each time. He was in for over $5million if the strange girl in the next room could get to the tape first. He was in for a living hell if she didn’t. His stomach hadn’t been helped when he arrived chez Parkin this morning. His source of future financial freedom had turned into a slap head overnight. A slap head with a wide, crescent smile and a black haired beauty on her arm. Well, what can you do? What can you do? You can’t give them a good clip round the ear anymore and tell them to pull their head in. Young people and their life-style choices. It baffled him. Mind you, maybe she was a boy in a girl’s body and he might get her on the footy team yet.

 

It wasn’t about footy today though. His own future choices were inextricably linked to Layla’s performance. Let’s hope she wasn’t up too late last night. No, his life was no longer in his own hands. His bodyguard patrol gave him some feeling of involvement but it was meager and… oh never mind the and… he liked the girl… she’d see him right. This doom and gloom was good, it was starting to work. He was already kind of glad to have delegated his life to a third party. Yes, Layla could explain any consequences to his wife. Then he took a downturn, yes that nausea again, and even doubted this worst case, ‘doom and gloom’ strategy. He tossed it into the too-hard basket and decided to move to a pillow case strategy, a fifteen minute powernap.

 

[Layla]:

“You’ve all met Sholes of course? Good. She’s my bestest friend from Melbourne. See how fashionable she is?

 

What’s with the doll girls? It that meant to be me?”

 

[Annabel]:

“Yeah, good eh? Works too. We’ve had a heap of guys come talk to us. Hey, could you sign it or something? It’d top it off nicely for us.”

 

[Layla]:

“You two are crazy.”

 

[Joel]:

“Congratulations Layla. That was a magnificent run today. You are so inspiring. Every one in Australia will be talking about you. In the world even. Fastest person ever they reckon. Unbelievable. It’s a real rush to know you, to be in this room with you just before the final.

 

How do you think you’ll go in the final? Might be tight. A guy off 10 metres did 11.9 just shaving your 12 seconds. Can you improve that little bit more or do you reckon he might have already run his final?”

 

[Layla]:

“Aw thanks Joel. Hey, come on over and sit on the bed with us. You don’t have to stand by the door, Sholes doesn’t bite. Not intentionally anyway.

 

Yeah look, I feel confident Joel. And I can only control my own race so I’ll just have to accept wherever the mop flops. I’ve got a real surge of adrenaline going though. It pushes you that extra metre doesn’t it? [winks at Joel] I think it’ll be a memorable race. I can’t wait.”

 

[Joel]:

“I can’t believe you are so cool. I’d be a wreck. You know there’ll be millions watching on TV? And better still, you know they are showing it at the MCG before the Collingwood – Carlton game? How cool is that? Yeah, 70,000 watching you at the G. And they know you barrack for the Pies too! Now, that would be a place to be today.”

 

[Layla]:

“Wow, I get to perform in front of an MCG crowd. I suppose Nathan Buckley will be watching too. Hey, Joel, you’ve made me nervous now. Although, Nathan better keep his mind on the footy, we could do with a win. Last week’s loss to the Hawks was shit house.

 

Anyway, it’s so so good to have you all here. Group hug?”

 

“Oh no, no. No, that’s not good. Ah please.” pleaded Joel internally before he was peer pressured into it. It was actually quite good. Yeah, fresh! He’d do it again but only under duress or, preferably, anonymous in which case he might even initiate.

 

[Layla]:

“Hey, doesn’t anyone want to ask me about my hair?”

 

[Catherine, Annabel, Joel]:

“Yes!”

 

[Layla, pointing]:

“Sholes did it. She came up from Melbourne last night and I asked her to do the lot. See, no eyebrows and my lashes are snipped too. Maddy was speechless. I think it’s quite striking. What do you reckon Joel? Do you like it or do you prefer something to hang on to?”

 

[Joel, deeply embarrassed]:

“Aw that’s… that’s not fair Layla. Give it a rest.”

 

[Layla, realizing she had been too vulgar, sympathetically touched his shoulder]:

“Oh I’m sorry Joel. Really. I’m too hyped up.”

 

[Joel]:

“Yeah righto. Anyway, you are right to give me a serve. I’m sorry too Layls.”

 

[Catherine, suspiciously]:

“What’s all this then? Why is everyone sorry?”

 

[Joel]:

“It’s nothing Catherine. Just a private matter.”

 

[Annabel]:

“Oooooh, matter. A private… matter? Alright.”

 

[Joel]:

“You idiot Bel.

 

But Layla, why DID you get everything shaved off? You said to the TV guy it was to strip away a layer?”

 

[Layla]:

“Yes, I did say that didn’t I. God, I’m a good media person. But, actually, I have no idea. It just felt right. Although, I was already feeling… light-headed last night. [looks admonishingly at Joel]

 

Yeah, no, it’s a few things. What I said on TV was part of it. And I think the cancer link is kinda there. But, you know what I think it really is. It’s a rebirth. A coming of age. That’s it. This Easter Gift is my pilgrimage and then I’m born again.”

 

Each of the girls blanched and shifted their assault to an open-mouthed Joel.

 

[Annabel]:

“Joel, you must have made quite an impact. You’ve obviously improved from last year.”

 

[Layla]:

“Huh, what are you on about? Joel, did you… Bel… [holds hands up] Okay, let’s move on from this. Not born-again Christian, just born again. Revitalised. New outlook. OOoooooh, forget it.”

 

[Sholeh]:

“Yeah, her parents will kill her. Baha’is aren’t allowed to shave their head except for pilgrimage and, Layla, I don’t think Stawell qualifies. Iraq, Iran and you might have a case but you’re too young anyway.”

 

[Joel]:

“So if Baha’is can’t do it why did you do it to her?”

 

[Sholeh]:

“Doesn’t say anything about not shaving other people’s heads. Ha ha, just joking. Yeah, no, I was kind of curious to see what it would look like. Mostly though, I did it because Layla asked me. Layla’s VERY special you know.”

 

[Catherine]:

“She sure is. Right everyone, jump on big head super girl. Hold her down.”

 

So they did.

 

[Sholeh]:

“Come on Joel, get in here. Grab her legs; she’s kicking like a mule.”

 

[Maddy, entering unexpectedly]:

“Oh for the love of… get the hell off of her, off that bed all of yez.”

 

Maddy lurched forward and dragged any teenager that hadn’t moved fast enough. With forensic concern, he prodded, pushed and squeezed a mock-indignant Layla; knees, thighs, shoulders, the whole shebang.

 

[Maddy]:

“Hmmmm, no soreness there then? Everything seems to be in working order.”

 

[Layla, blowing her third wrinkly raspberry at Joel]:

“At least someone appreciates a girl’s efforts.”

 

[Maddy]:

“What’s that? [shakes head] I dunno, you’d think I’d be able for the young folk after all my training, but no. [pauses long enough for the young folk to wonder if he’s compos mentis]

 

Layla, it’s time, let’s do it.

[gives Layla a big hug as she is standing up and then heads to the door to hide his sentiment]

 

Come on, Joel, show an ounce of character. Carry her bags or something.”

 

As Maddy made a hurried exit, Joel turned to Layla who regally presented to him a bag, a water bottle and a towel for hauling.

 

[Joel, lowering his head]:

“At your service your majesty. Yeah, go on, I’ll take them.

 

So! This is it then. Our girl is off to run in the Gift final. Doesn’t anyone else in this room realize what a big deal this is? Layla, I don’t think even you appreciate the enormity of what you’ve done and are about to do.”

 

[Catherine]:

“Ssshhh. We know Joel. We really know. I’m female. I know. This is… this whole weekend has been… the most amazing… it’s made me feel stronger. Although, I have to say, I think Layla has been blessed more than any of us, male or female, ever. Isn’t it obvious to us all?”

 

They all nodded a touch sadly.

 

[Layla, a little alarmed]:

“Oh give me a break guys. You’re my friends. Don’t put me on a pedestal and throw rose petals at me.”

 

[Sholeh]:

“No, no, Layla. It’s not like that. I know what Catherine means. We’re friends not fans. Real friends you can count on. Even him probably. You can be a bit ditzy and you’re always great company but, and just look at this whole sorry saga, you do miracles. You know I’ve seen you at it before. You know I have. Seriously guys, this girl does miracles and she has the purest heart. You do miracles Layla and nobody talks about them and then we go home and have a sleepover. You can always come to me Layla, even if the miracle juice dries up.

 

[Joel, grasping the moment]:

“Hey! I think we should have one of those things now. The group things.”

 

There was spontaneous agreement. They had a long, strong, group hug. Joel felt it was really, really good… and poignant of course.

 

[Layla, still huddling]:

“Alright. Thanks guys. Let’s just enjoy this. They always say you’re only young once.”

 

[Joel, quietly]:

“Is that a tear Layla?”

 

[Layla, sniffling]:

“Don’t you mock me Joel Underwood. Or next time I’m eating chilli. And here’s another bag for you.”

 

“Wuh hoo hoooo!”, the other girls went.

 

The troupe set out from the hotel for the stadium. Along the way people clapped, gave encouragement and asked for autographs. Photographs and camcorders. TV and radio vans. A helicopter hovered. As if part of a golf major, the crowd gathered in behind Layla’s entourage and they all marched up the 18th fairway to have a look at the lie on the sloping green. And, unfortunately, someone had got the Eric Clapton CD working again.

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