Rugby League and the Lido Shuffle
It was early morning on Bondi Beach and a sliver of shimmering sunshine prised my tightly shut eyes open. My face contorted as I slowly cracked open encrusted eyelids to reveal tired and blood-shot eyes, on a face that was expressing utter bewilderment. After a few seconds of slowly dissipating confusion, I woke to find myself lying on my back, in the sand, and with my head resting in my girlfriend’s lap.
“Good morning, football hero.”
“Whaaat? Oh… hi.”
It was the morning after the night before, several hours after the twenty-four hours of free beer to players and their guests that was provided in the beer garden of the Bondi Rex Hotel. The Bondi “A” Grade Rugby League team had only days earlier defeated the hot favourites, Paddington Colts, in the grand final at Waverley Oval and the Rex Hotel, who was the…
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The day had arrived for me to return to Australia. I had been in Malta only four months instead of the usual six but had to leave early to attend a family wedding in Sydney. I was not happy about leaving Malta, early. I cleaned the house from top to bottom, leaving it fresh and clean. I had organised for a couple to stay in my Valletta maisonette while I was away and I had made an effort to leave it pristine in the optimistic hope that they would reciprocate for me on my return.
All my bags are packed and I’m ready to go…I’m leaving…on a jet plane.
After struggling up the steps of my street (it’s an ancient street with flagstone steps and no cars) I wheeled my luggage the eight minutes or so to the bus station and then to Stage 16 where the bus to the airport departs from. It was hot and I was sweaty. I congratulated myself for my insightful planning as I had left the house wearing shorts, singlet and flip-flops, with my jeans, long-sleeved shirt, shoes and socks in my backpack, in anticipation of a quick wash and change at the airport before my flight.
I noticed that the large electronic message display board that usually showed the time of arrival of the next bus along with the bus route and timetable at Stage 16 was missing. Hmm… must have been another accident where an overly enthusiastic driver had pushed his bus just a little too quickly and a little too far down the bus parking bay and knocked out the sign.
There were other people waiting and after about fifteen minutes I asked them if they had been waiting long. They had. Hmm…again. This didn’t look quite right. So, I asked some men who were in bus driver uniforms, standing a short distance behind us. They replied to my enquiry.
“Go around the corner. Stage 21”.
“You mean that the airport bus will leave from there?”
“Yes. Stage 21”.
The off-duty drivers had been standing behind us and our luggage, all of us obviously headed for the airport, the whole time, so it would have been extremely helpful if they had spoken up before.
So, my new friends and I hurriedly took up our bags and rushed around the corner into the adjacent street to Stage 21. One of the group checked the timetable.
“We are in luck. The bus to the airport is due any minute now”.
I sighed with relief.
Time was ticking, ticking, ticking… into the future.
Fifteen minutes later we had realised that the bus we were waiting for must have left early.
“Yes, sometimes they do that. We will have to wait for the next one.”
The next one arrived after another ten minutes. Phew! It was now one and three-quarter hours before my flight departure time.
I was lucky. The bus stopped directly in front of me and I managed to be one of the first passengers on the bus. That meant I got a bench seat behind the driver, facing the isle with room to have my luggage beside me rather than being in a normal seat inline with the driver and other passengers. Because the bus was late, or because the other bus had left early or did not turn up at all, this bus was very crowded, with passengers standing in the isle in front of me and packed in like sardines. Two young women who seemed to be together ended up in a position directly in front of me. One was an attractive, slim woman who seemed to be in her mid-twenties. The other was a very large woman of around ninety kilograms and of about the same age as her companion.
The bus rounded a bend a little too quickly and the standing passengers swayed to one side; the side I was sitting on. Guess which one of the two women standing in front of me lost her grip of the overhanging strap-type handle and fell, full force, on top of me?
Ninety kilos for her as opposed to around sixty kilos for me- it wasn’t a fair contest.
It all happened as if in slow motion and I can only imagine the look of shock and awe expressed on my face as the looming hulk slowly leaned further and further towards me and as I realised there was no escape from an eminent, severe crushing. Over the few seconds that it took for her to fall forward with all of her weight behind her, pressure on my upper torso increased enormously as the obese woman’s breasts pressed me up against the inside wall of the bus. In my mind’s eye I could imagine the shape of the back of my body bulging out from the outside view of the bus, as if in some children’s cartoon. The unfortunate woman and I were left for a few seconds face to face, gazing into each other’s wild and terrified eyes.
“Oh sorry, sorry, sorry. Sorry. I’m really sorry. Sorry”.
“Never mind. It’s OK. Just a little adventure on the journey.”
I realised she was even more embarrassed than I was.
Some other women sitting along side of me began to chuckle and to titter among themselves in another language. The sight of skinny, little me sitting there in my singlet and baggy shorts, minding my own business, being slowly eclipsed by this huge, round woman must have looked hilarious, even though it almost gave me a heart attack.
Total eclipse of the heart.
Of course, the traffic on the way to the airport was horrendous. It took about forty minutes to travel the ten kilometres or so to the airport which meant I arrived only fifty-five minutes before my flight was due to takeoff. I asked at check-in if I had time for a quick wash and change of clothes.
“Well, boarding should have already commenced. You better get to the boarding gate”.
I hurried to the departure section only to find a long queue at the hand-luggage check. I finally got through the checks and made it to my departure gate.
I had to stand in another queue for thirty minutes before they let us on the bus that took us across the tarmac to the plane.
I could not help thinking to myself that half an hour would have been more than enough time for a nice wash and change of clothes.
Standing in my flip-flops on the transfer bus, it jerked violently as it moved off causing a man directly in front of me to jump onto my foot. He was wearing leather dress-shoes with hard, heavy heels. He did not simply step back onto me, mind you, he staggered for a second or two and then jumped backwards, heavily onto my foot. Luckily, his sharp edged heel landed on the wide leather strap of my new flip-flops. If it had landed with such force on my bare foot it would have surely broken skin and if onto my toes I would have probably had to complete the rest of my journey with a broken toe or two.
Proceedings up to now had not been a pleasant start to my journey.
The flight itself wasn’t too bad. I had a man seated next to me who found the movie he was watching very funny and laughed loudly, and regularly, for about an hour and a half, but apart from that the trip was relatively painless. A few movies, some sleep, a few meals and twenty-two hours later we arrived at Sydney. I had even managed to squeeze in a quick shower and change of clothes at Dubai, in between a connecting flight.
We landed at Sydney right on time at 10:05pm. I was grateful that we had arrived on time but was still a little nervous as I did not have much time to get to Central Station in order to catch the 11:18pm train to Blacktown, where my mother lives and where I was staying the night. I was staying at my mother’s house before the family wedding the next day and then continuing my journey to the Blue Mountains after that. If I missed the 11:18pm train I would have to wait another hour for the last train before the service ended for that twenty-four hour period and started again much later in the morning. My luggage arrived on the carousel at the baggage collection section within fifteen minutes. A record! I checked my watch. I had forty-five minutes to get to Central and the train only takes ten. Plenty of time. I was pleased. I wheeled my luggage past the throngs of happy people waiting for loved ones to appear through the arrival gates. Arrivals are such happier places than departures. Departure lounges often feature tears and regretful faces whereas at arrivals, faces are bursting with optimistic anticipation. The happy people in the arrival lounge made me smile. I had made it. I didn’t have to rush and I was in a good mood.
I travelled the length of the airport building to the escalators that led to the airport railway station with a big grin on my face only to be greeted by a large sign over the railway station entrance:
“STATION CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE. BUSES REPLACE TRAINS”
And I wonder, still I wonder…who’ll stop the (t)rain.
I found the place where the buses left from in time for an attendant to tell me that I had just missed one. I waited ten minutes for the next bus which took me to Central Station. The road trip took forty minutes. So I missed the 11:18pm bus by five minutes.
I reminded myself that I was almost “home” and that it was almost all over, in the desperate but futile attempt to cheer up my tired-to-the-point-of-exhaustion, cranky and dishevelled self.
I navigated the station and lifts with my luggage and arrived at the correct platform, waited and caught my train.
Yes! Not long now.
At Strathfield station, about halfway between Central and Blacktown, a voice came over the train intercom:
“Due to technical difficulties, this train will now terminate. Please wait on the platform for a replacement train.”
You are kidding. You… “please wait on the platform” yourself, you *#$&%*!
I asked an attendant when the next train to Blacktown would arrive.
“Oh, only four minutes.”
Well, that wasn’t too bad, I thought. That was lucky.
After ten minutes, another voice came over the station intercom:
“The train to Blacktown has been delayed a further ten minutes and is now leaving on platform 8. Please make your way to platform 8.”
Oh, for God’s sake!
Come on, come on…and do the locomotion with me.
So, I struggled once more with my luggage and moved over to platform 8 just in time to catch the train.
I finally arrived at Blacktown station, caught the lift from the platform to the concourse, exited the station and caught a taxi to my mother’s house.
My mother was waiting up for me and feeling a little worried as I was so much later than my estimated time of arrival.
She got in just before I had time to stop her.
“How was your trip?”
I just had a msg from a very well known Maltese celebrity to say how much she enjoyed my first book (storiesmyparentstoldme.com). I sent her three new short stories and told her that I was considering putting out a second edition. She read them within a day or two and got back to me to tell me that she had enjoyed the stories very much. I asked her if she would mind if I quoted her and she offered to write “something elequent” for the back cover if ever I do put out a second edition. Much kindness from a very busy and extremely talented woman.
Dionisio Bugeja’s oldest boy, Guido, was both excited and proud to be given the opportunity and responsibility of the task his father had offered him. The eldest son would be entrusted to take his father’s place on this occasion and sit with the dead man overnight, watching over the corpse for the grieving family.
The old man had died in a house on a nearby street and his family had asked Dionisio to carry out the usual funeral arrangements. Apart from organising all the practical funeral logistics, one of the traditional responsibilities of il-keffien was to sit with the dead body overnight so that members of the family could try to sleep and be better prepared for the funeral the next day. It was traditional practice and also comforting for the relatives of the deceased to have their loved one watched over and not alone during the night before their burial.
The kudos of helping out his family was not the only reward the unemployed Guido was promised. Dionisio had generously offered the boy one pound in payment for the job. Dionisio realised that Guido was getting older and starting to think about girls and dances. The money would come in very handy as it was traditional that males were expected to pay all expenses on dates and things like ice-creams, soft drinks and pastis added up in costs; not to mention entrance fees for movies and dances.
Although the money sounded very attractive to the teenaged Guido, the thought of staying awake all night in someone’s living room with a dead body did not exactly appeal to his youthful sense of exuberance. He decide to share his good fortune with his best friend, Woogie. They would spend the night with the cadaver together and share the one pound payment between them. That way, both youths would be able to go out on the town together. The proposition was greeted with enthusiastic glee from Guido’s funny and entertaining friend:
“Wow, that’s great! We get to stay up all night and get paid for it!”
Woogie was about the same age as Guido but much more extroverted. The nickname, “Woogie”, came from his love of Boogie Woogie music and his penchant for jitterbug dancing. He was considered a handsome boy who liked to wear his hair in the latest slick back style. Woogie was the life of any party and livened things up wherever he went but was gaining something of a reputation for being a little silly and immature, albeit in an endearing, humorous way. However, there were times when adults would question his intellect. Some people even thought him a little “slow”. The very mention of the name “Woogie” would never fail to bring a smile to people’s faces or produce a little chuckle. Guido thought that Woogie would be the perfect all-night companion for such a gloomy chore as his father had promised him. Dionisio was not so sure.
The son of a family friend, Woogie had been of some assistance to Dionisio once before. Dionisio was lining up for the movie matinee at the Odeon Cinema in Hamrun, just around the corner from the piazza, one Sunday afternoon, when Woogie who was also attending the cinema decided to join him. They sat together in the theatre and watched a movie that included a scene featuring some rather energetic teenaged dancers. Dionisio was scandalised:
“Look at those girls! No modesty whatsoever. They dance like animals. How disgraceful. Their parents would be ashamed if they could see them.”
Woogie, being a devotee of such dancing (and girls) was a little offended:
“Oh yeah? You should see your own daughters on a Saturday night.”
Oops. Woogie had inadvertently incriminated two of Dionisio’s daughters, Joy and Gertrude, who had a habit of sneaking out of home on a Saturday night with a change of clothes to attend the regular dance at The Phoenicia Hotel in Floriana. The girls were in big trouble when Dionisio got home that afternoon and were not allowed out of the house for any reason for an entire month.
Guido arranged for Woogie to meet him at the Bugeja family home in Maitland Street on the evening before the dead man’s funeral. They were to walk over to the dead man’s house after last instructions from Dionisio. Dionisio trusted his son to be responsible but wanted to speak to Woogie before the job:
“I have told the son of the deceased that both of you will look after his father tonight. You are to stay awake. I don’t want any member of the family to come in and find you asleep and not watching over their dead relative. At all times, you must be highly respectful, sensitive to the feelings of others and on your best behaviour. No laughing or joking or even smiling. Remember, the old man was loved by his family and they are in mourning, they don’t expect to see happy teenagers looking like they are having a good time in their house. Remember also that I have a good reputation to uphold.”
Woogie spoke up:
“Don’t worry, Dionisio. I will be very sad, very sad… and have a terrible time. That’s for dead certain. Oh. Sorry. I mean…yes…um…very, very sad. They will think my mother just died or something. Oh. No. You know…”
Dionisio rolled his eyes. Guido placed his hand gently on the arm of his blabbering friend:
“Woogie. Just shut up, will you. Don’t worry papa, I’ll look after him.”
Dionisio was nervous.
The pair walked over to the house at around 9 pm and used the brass door knocker to announce their arrival. They were greeted by the man of the house and ushered into the living room where the deceased was laying on a rickety old wooden divan. Woogie’s exaggerated but solemn expression changed immediately to one of utter shock, his mouth fell open and his face drained of all colour on seeing the corpse of the old man. Guido gave Woogie a long stern, look as if to pull him back into line. Guido had been relatively desensitised to seeing the dead from accompanying his father to funerals but Woogie had never seen a dead body before. The dead man’s father looked at Woogie, then at Guido:
“Is your friend alright?”
“Yes. He will be okay. It’s his first time. I’ll be in charge. Everything will be fine”, offered Guido in a soothing tone.
“Well, then, I’ll be going to bed now. My wife has prepared some sandwiches and a thermos of tea for you. They are on the table. Thank you for watching over my father tonight.”
“You are welcome”, replied Guido very piously. “We will pray for him”.
The man turned on a small lamp in the corner of the room for the boys, turned off the main light, and walked up the stairs to bed. The boys sat down on a divan that was directly opposite the matching one that held the dead body. A small wooden table sat between the two boys and the object of their mission, with a thermos, two cups and a small plate with two sandwiches sitting on top of it. The only other furniture in the room was a sideboard against the end wall with an old wooden chiming clock on it.
Woogie looked around in the darkened room and tried to avoid looking directly at the corpse:
“This is a bit spooky, isn’t it, Guido?”
“Don’t be silly, my friend. Have a cup of tea and a sandwich.”
Woogie slowly poured himself out a cup of tea. Guido noticed that his hand was slightly trembling. Guido took out some playing cards from his pocket that he had the foresight to bring with him.
“Here, Woogie.” Said Guido. “I’ve brought some cards to pass the time. It will help take your mind off things and occupy your thoughts.”
“But, would your father approve of that? Isn’t that disrespecting the dead? Wouldn’t the dead man lying there be offended?”
“Offended? He’s dead, you idiot. How can he be offended?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard about spirits being offended and haunting people….Ok, I suppose you’re right”.
Guido moved the lamp onto the small table so that they could read the cards easier in the soft yellow light and they set themselves for a few hands of gin rummy. Gradually, Woogie began to feel less anxious. Then he noticed that the light from the lamp was now shinning on the old man’s face from below. He turned his back to the corpse and concentrated on his hand of cards.
After a few of hours of playing cards both boys began to feel drowsy. They remembered Dionisio’s instructions to keep a watchful eye and not fall asleep but their eyelids were getting heavier and heavier. Finally, Guido could stand the sleep deprivation no more:
“Woogie, I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. I have to have a quick sleep. You stay awake and in twenty minutes, wake me up. Then, I’ll stay awake and be on watch while you have a little sleep. No one will know. Just check the time by the clock on the sideboard.”
“But what about what your father said? Wouldn’t that be disrespectful? We would offend the dead.”
“Offending the dead again! What is wrong with you, Woogie? Look it’s just for a few minutes each. Stop worrying so much. I’ll go first.”
Much to Woogie’s chagrin, Guido seemed determine not to take “no” as an answer. Guido lay down on the floor and closed his eyes before Woogie had time to argue. It only took a few short minutes before Guido was sound asleep and faintly snoring. Woogie felt alone and became more anxious as time elapsed.
The minutes seemed to pass very slowly to Woogie. He tried not to look at the corpse in the dim light of the lamp so he found himself staring into the pitch dark of the rest of the room. All he could hear was the tick, tick, tick of the old clock. His mind started to wander and he could not help remembering ghost stories he had been told when he was younger. He thought he heard faint sounds from within the dark but he dare not wake Guido whom he knew would be angry at him. Guido started praying to the Virgin Mary to make the night pass quickly as he became more and more stressed.
The body of the dead man had lay still on the old divan for several hours after his death and natural processes were taking effect. All of a sudden, a long puff of air escaped from the dead body, making a wheezing sound and the corpse shifted weight on the creaking divan. Woogie spun around in terror to face the old man’s corpse. Just then the old clock on the sideboard behind him chimed the hour. That was more than enough for Woogie. He jumped up out of the divan, yelling:
“He’s woken up! He has come back from the dead!”
He straddled a startled Guido on the floor, flung open the front door of the house and sprinted down the road shouting, He’s woken up. He’s risen from the dead.
Woogie ran down the streets of Hamrun to Dionisio’s house shrieking at the top of his lungs, announcing to the world how the old man had woken from the dead. He banged loudly on the front door to Dionisio’s building and woke the whole Bugeja household along with the residents of the other flats in the building. A shocked and disheveled Dionisio stepped out onto the front balcony of his flat that overlooked the street just in time to see the traumatise Woogie yell out, “He’s up. He woke up. The old man has risen from the dead!”, then immediately run away, presumably to the safety of his own home.
Dionisio quickly dressed and walked over to the house where Guido was now trying to calm an entire household of six or seven agitated men, women and children, some of whom were crying, some of whom looked angry, some of whom were comforting each other. Lights were on within the houses all along the street and people were peering through their windows.
Poor Guido. He took the blame for the disaster and was chastised by his father for taking on such an unreliable partner as Woogie. Dionisio managed to placate the distressed family and the funeral proceeded the next day without any problems. Dionisio was too embarrassed to ask for any fee from the family.
Woogie never lived down the “dizastru totali”. People who lived in neighbouring streets quickly learned what had happened and why they were so rudely awakened that infamous night. The incident did very little for Woogie’s gravitas but at the same time seemed to make locals consider him even more lovable and funny. He accepted the subsequent ribbing with good grace and humour. For weeks afterwards, Woogie would be teased on the street by people who would see him approaching and call out: Look out Woogie. He has risen. Praise be to God! Run for your life!