IN THE wake of the Hawthorn's defeat in the AFL grand final, I found myself wandering the still partly festooned Hawthorn streets. A friend and I had just been discussing football fanaticism, and what it means to be a sports fanatic in general. Why do grown men, for instance, wear the player's numbers on their backs to the MCG? ''I'd never do it,'' he said, ''It seems ridiculous to me. The game's just not that serious.''
During the walk I turned onto Glenferrie Road and ran into a Hawthorn fanatic I've known for a decade. She was standing at a tram stop, touching the tail of a great plastic horse painted in the Hawthorn colours. She must have been at every training session I'd attended at Glenferrie Oval. And she was there, 10 years ago, on my first day as a Hawthorn recruit.
She looked much the same as when we'd first met, dressed in an oversized blue woollen zip-up, although now with a few grey hairs sprouting from the crown of her head. She looked up at me from beneath her brow and smiled. ''Hello,'' she said. Thinking it better to avoid the sporting talk so close to the grand final, I asked her how she'd been. ''I've been in Cairns. It was warm. Not like here.'' I wondered how she got there, and who with, but I didn't ask.
She'd told me once, outside a club function, ''I've been good lately. I didn't go to training yesterday. People have been trying to help me,'' she explained, ''and I stayed away. Yep. I stayed away.'' At that point she was one of a small group of regulars at Glenferrie who made the oval some sort of retreat, or distraction from the world. She and her friends spent as much time as possible at club training sessions and functions. They were almost as familiar to the players as the club staff, to the point they scarcely required any acknowledgement more than a nod.
But that was years ago, and it seemed she was doing OK now. ''I've started arts and crafts,'' she told me, ''and I've got a job on Tuesday mornings.'' I nodded, but noticed her drifting off as the traffic roared by. I was preparing to wish her all the best when she looked up again. ''How have you been?'' she asked suddenly. I told her that I'd been overseas, feeling foolish as the words came out. ''Oh yes, overseas. Overseas,'' she repeated.
Finally, lost for words, I cracked and let football into the conversation. You must be upset about the grand final, I said. Sorry they couldn't win it for you - maybe next year? ''Yeah that's right. Next year. Next year.'' She never broke eye contact with me when she spoke. ''There's some new ones coming next year, so …''
I'd somehow forgotten that we were standing at a tram stop, and despite the groan of the approaching tram, I continued and asked where she was going. ''I go to Box Hill to see Charlie. He's the only person I know.''
The bell of the tram clanged in my ear, and I looked up as the doors opened behind her. She was facing me and couldn't see them open. I pointed to the doors, not wanting her to miss the tram. ''I can get another one,'' she said turning slowly around to face it. I told her it was cold, and that I shouldn't keep her. Just knock on the window there, I said, and the driver will open it for you. ''Oh yeah,'' she nodded. ''OK. Goodbye.''
As I stepped off and down the footpath away from the tram, I kept an eye on the driver, hoping that he could see her and would open the door. He was watching the traffic lights and hadn't noticed her. Why wasn't she knocking?
When I turned to look, she was standing close-up against the glass, tapping at it softly with an open palm as if she was testing it for heat. She was still looking over at me, not fussed by the tram business at all. The traffic light was about to change and I began to motion to the tram driver but, as I did, he saw her in the mirror and opened the doors.
I looked back again, maybe to wave. She was still standing in the same position, the doors wide open now and waiting for her for the second time. Lifting her lowered face once more, she said with a grin, ''Go Hawks.''