February 17, 2008

“Ladies and gentlemen, here and all over Australia, welcome to the 118th running of the Australia Post Stawell Gift.”


As her name rang out from the PA system and the mouths of thousands, Layla emerged from her protective circle. With oppressive acceleration, she dashed and darted up to and through the start line, stopping abruptly 20 metres up her lane. She turned and turned, two hands waving to the adoring crowd.


Televisual gold, but very, very aggressive and self-centred showmanship. Surely, the other competitors were due their fair share of respect and adulation? Over the weekend, all the applause, praise and accolades had been sucked into the Layla vortex and it had pissed people off.


In frustration, one of the finalists walked 5 metres up Layla’s lane and stood his ground solidly, waiting. Perhaps he felt he could delay her return to the start and embarrass her, in some way stamping his authority on her.


The blocking man watched as an apple arced towards Layla’s back. Judging by its flight, a member of that rowdy cluster had imparted some leg spin to it. It was a slow motion, warm day; just a smattering of cotton clouds grazing under the blue.


From out of this blue nowhere, he registered the flash. The flash of the big, brown meteor as it dove to earth, snatched the apple in its talons and flew low around the stadium before climbing and coming to rest on top of the old grandstand. Like everyone else he had ducked and crouched into a ball amid the wild surprise.


[Stewart Appens, Channel Ten commentator]:

“Jeez, that’s a big bird.”


[Bryce Cannor, Channel Seven partner commentator]:

“I think it’s a raptor mate. A hawk, possibly a Peregrine. If you’re at the MCG, I can tell you Collingwood won’t be one short. That was no magpie.”


[Stewart Appens]:

“I’m not sure what else can happen, Bryce. We’ve had the lot this year. Man, that was incredible. That bird nearly took her head clean off. Stawell is not for the faint-hearted.”


[Bryce Cannor, watching a replay]:

“It’s not Stewy. And she didn’t see it either; she was facing the other way. Oh, that’s… that could have been tragic.


Well, the athletes seem a bit… they seem okay… a bit shaken maybe like the rest of us. I see Stevey Blackton is showing some concern for young Layla Parkin. She’s nodding, she’s fine. That’s a relief. He’s pointing her to the replay on the big screen. Yes, there goes her hand to her mouth. Yes, Layla, that’s what happened, strange eh? Well, it looks like she’s able to smile about it and share a laugh with the other guys out there. Seems to have worked wonders for their camaraderie, they’re a lot closer now, less combative.”


[Stewart Appens]:

“It’s a fine line Bry, a fine line. It’s hard to find the right words. I think that bird of prey has stolen the occasion from our newly crowned queen of the track.”


[Bryce Cannor]:

“Yeah, good point, Stewy. At least we have something we haven’t had for any of Layla’s runs so far… some respectful stillness from the spectators. It’s muted chaos out there. I’m not sure how the athletes are going to be able to get back in the zone.”


[Stewart Appens]:

“Well, they are going to have to try. They’ve been called to their starting blocks. Soon, we’ll be off in the Gift. And that bird there, he has the best seat in the house. Very dignified look about him. Wonder who he’s got his money on? How strange.”


Above Central Park, a helicopter filmed the competitors leant low in their staggered starting positions. Layla off scratch, everybody else 5 to 10 metres out front.


[Bryce Cannor]:

“What a great overhead shot. That says it all folks. Have you ever seen a sight like that? It just screams ‘wrong’. But that’s the way it’s been all weekend. She’s definitely got plenty of ground to make up. Now, can she do it? I think we’re more nervous and concerned than she is.”


At the MCG, the crowd stood and applauded in amazement as Stewy Appens circled her with a yellow highlighter and drew an arrow through the gulf to the other racers.


The starter got them on their marks, SET and fired his pistol. They were off with flurry and fury. It was no longer unexpected to see Layla burst firmly from the blocks to an upright position but the sight of the raptor swooping from the grandstand to glide above Layla’s head was sickening.


But the raptor didn’t strike. The onlookers were astonished and awestruck as the pair traveled up the track together, coming over the top of each athlete without difficulty.


The bird looked down and, touching her ears with the tips of his wings said:



I am the royal Falcon
On the arm of the Almighty.
I unfold the drooping wings
Of every broken bird
And start it on its flight.

Well, then

I am the bay Mare rearing
In the deadest part of night.
I crack the concrete surfaces
Of each bewildered heart
And reach scared souls to life.

Indeed! You have energy. Listen.

You are my fearless Fledgling
From the egg of Eternity.
Approached by the Creator
You fell pirouette from Heaven
So happy and chirping.

I am a tearful Falcon
Returning to Immensity.
I give fair warning to you all
That this is our beauty
that I leave to your care.



The falcon launched upward and soared away as Layla triumphantly broke through her finish gate. She had more than 10 metres to spare.


[Stewart Appens, shaken]:

“On behalf of Bryce and myself, apologies for our interrupted and… unprofessional call. I’d just plead that we’re not used to birds of prey availing themselves of late entrance into elite sprinting events. It threw us. Bry?”


[Bryce Cannor]:

“I’ll second that Stewy. I’m still dumbfounded. Let me see. Layla Parkin wins the 1999 Gift in, get this, listen to this everyone, eleven seconds zero. That’s impossible. That’s right, isn’t it, eleven seconds? There’s no malfunction? No wind? Yep, thought so, eleven seconds. And the bird was a close second before bailing out at the end. Everyone else? They’re still running.”


[Stewart Appens]:

“There we go Bryce, the crowd is coming back to life now, getting some feeling back. Yeah, and that’s a very generous and well-earned ovation. I think the magnitude of what’s just unfolded before us is beginning to register.”


[Bryce Cannor]:

“Oh, that was phenomenal. Let me shake your hand mate. Congratulations, we were here. We were here when the world of athletics was turned upside down, completely disorientated. And all you folks out there, you were there, you were there. What a ripper of a sprint. What does it all mean? And what on earth was with that bird?”


[Stewart Appens]:

“Oh, forget the bird. Forget it. I’ll take your hand mate. Look, I’ll say it; I’m in a state of shock right now. I don’t think any of us could have been prepared for a young girl to bury the achievements of so many fabulous athletes. Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, Jim Hines and, of course, Donovan Bailey. Even Ben Johnson. She’s made them all look like work horses today. By my reckoning she went through 100 metres in the region of 9.4 and that’s over 0.4 of a second quicker than the world record. We thought someone, some man, would do this kind of time and that it would happen in 60 or 70 years. We’ve just been catapulted into the future here and, well, it’s great and, well a bit troubling also.


I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little niggle in the back of my mind. I think they’ll have to check her DNA. Seriously. That’s just not human.”


[Bryce Cannor]:

“Disconcerting, Stewy. That’s how I’d categorize the feeling. It’s just too good to be true. And try as I might Stewy, I can’t forget the bird.”


Maddy and Geoff were kneeling with their elbows on the grass, their palms behind their heads. They toppled over, out cold, as the rest of the Horsham crew waded past them towards Layla. She was already being deferentially congratulated by her fellow competitors. Amongst the confusion, the hysteria and the incredulity, some uneasiness and suspicion sought their way to the bar asserting their need for a drink.



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