JOEL hunched over, his dark brown hair plastered by sweat to his face and head and his dark hazel eyes closed as he tried to get air back into his lungs.
"Sucking in the big ones mate?" Macca chuckled coming up behind him and patting him on the back.
"Did well tonight," he drawled in an accent honed by years on the farm and still slightly jarring to Joel who'd been living in a metropolitan city for the past few years. But, it was the sound of home and where he'd come from and it made him feel somehow more whole to hear it.
"We'll make a footballer out ya yet Joey."
Joel smiled up at the older man - to the rest of the world - the one outside Ngurang he was Joel but his dad had always called him Joey, right from the moment he was born.
He'd figured he'd never hear it again now, to be honest, and yet here it was, he forgot this wasn't the rest of the universe, the outside world, this was small-town Australia, this was Ngurang population two hundred and something - existing in its own pocket universe.
He couldn't help but smile. Well, he would have if he wasn't doubled up trying to breathe.
"Always so tough?" he grunted out between heavy breaths as he tried to regain his composure. They'd finished the training session with another training run through the streets or Ngurang- from the Oval down to the old Railway line just near the pub down by the old police station, the school and the silos (Macca had promised a kicking comp over them sometime soon and to make them run up the silo stairs). Then it was round the showgrounds and pool and back to the Oval. Not a lot of street lights or guttering around Ngurang, not a lot of cars either at this time of night though so they could run down the middle of both the bitumen and dirt streets.
It probably wasn't the training run one of the big AFL clubs would do, he could imagine the public indemnity of such a run would be pretty prohibitive, but it was obviously a Ngurang special because the rest of the boys seemed to take it in their stride. Well, they were all heaving for breath now after that last sprint but until the stretch from the Showground to the Oval, they were all still laughing and joking.
"Just getting some of that Christmas cheer off you all!" Macca said clapping him on the back again.
"You did well tonight, he would have been proud of you!" he said a little more quietly. These were tough farmers out here, emotions weren't shown lightly, though there wasn't a dry eye in the house when Phil Hardy had been laid to rest just before Christmas and Macca had choked up during the eulogy.
"He would have kicked my arse for deferring my studies," Joel gasped.
Macca laughed then.
"Yeah, Joey ya probably right mate! But someone's gotta keep the property ticken over until Robbie's back on his feet!"
If either man noticed the mistake neither commented.
Robert Hardy was alive and that's what mattered, that's all that mattered.
After a month of struggling for life and numerous operations they'd amputated his leg the week before and it was so far so good. He wasn't out of the woods yet, still trussed up in a Melbourne hospital with his girl, mum and gran by his side - the family staying in an apartment owned by one of Joel's friends when they weren't at the hospital.
But finally, Rob looked to be heading in the right direction now - thank bloody god.
Losing Phil had been hard enough, to lose Robert too would have been just too much.
Hardy men were tough, took a lot to kill them and every day he was getting stronger to that point that with any luck, he'd be out of intensive care soon and able to start rehabilitation.
Well, that's what everyone was hoping!
It had been one step forward and two back for the past month. They had almost lost him a couple of times but he was young, strong and determined.
And he had a kid on the way - due in March and a farm to run -he had to pull through.
Joel hoped for it more than anyone. Not just because this was his brother but for selfish reasons - he had a girl in Melbourne to get back to - a life - a career. He wasn't born to be a farmer, he'd always known it. But he couldn't let the family down. His mum had been outwardly unhappy when he'd announced his decision to defer university for a year at Christmas but inside Trish Hardy was pleased she'd have him home. She'd lost her man and her youngest son's life was still in the balance - she needed someone there. They had always been a close-knit family and with Thea away at school and Joel in Melbourne that big old house would have been empty - too empty. Amber - Robert's girl had been living there with him for the past year, the two women got on surprisingly well (Phil had joked and ribbed Rob about them "ganging up" on him). It had been ideal but in an instant, it had almost all been ripped away.
Farm life was tough and the drought had stretched them. But it was all about family, farming is all about family and legacy and in one moment all they had struggled and worked for meant nothing.
Sure, Thea was keen to take on the farm but she was still young, still at school and Grandpa Mick Hardy had been hoping to see a bit of the world now. Well, his wife Dulcie was - truth be told Mick loved his farm though it was tough when you got just enough rain to put in a small underproductive crop and enough stubble to keep a small flock alive if you bought feed.
But Mick had had a bout of cancer - not easy on him or the family with constant trips to Wagga Wagga and beyond for treatment.
Yeah, the Hardys had been through the wringer.
But there was hope now.
Rob would come home, there would be a new baby and Joel, Trish, Thea and Mick would run the farm until Rob was ready to take it back.
They just needed decent rains.
Surely they were due that kind of break?
But until Rob was back and the rain fell they would all struggle on, just like the town and the footy team were trying to do.
And there would be a Hardy in the Numbats - even if it killed Joel in the process, something he thought was entirely possible and as he stood there trying to breathe after that training run.
But he said none of that to Macca, man-mountain and Numbat super coach.
He didn't need to.
The Ngurang bush telegraph, aided by Amber's facebook posts, ran strong and Joel knew his dad's best mate would know more than anyone.
Instead, they stood there in companionable silence until one of the other blokes - Cameron - Rob's best mate from school yelled out.
"Hey, Macca - Joel - you blokes coming to the pub for a quick one?"
Nothing ever changed in Ngurang.
"Promised Thea I'd watch some DVDs with her tonight!" Joel yelled back - what he didn't say was that his sister had been wracked by anxiety since the accident and had trouble sleeping.
"Ah come on mate just one light one and then you can get back to the farm!" Macca said slapping him on the back.
"Just one?" he asked warily.
"Yeah, Joey just one. I could imagine young Thea is a bit of a mess at the moment what with ya Dad and Robbie and with her mum being in Melbourne. Bu4t you've earned it mate - to be honest when I asked ya after Christmas if you'd do this for us, I really didn't think ya would. "You're a bit rusty with the kicking but ya fast but then ya always were!"
And that folks was as close as Ngurang men got to emotion and Joel couldn't say no to that!
YOU ARE READING
Football drought & other catastrophesRomance
Newly minted teacher Poppy Fraser is starting a new life - she just didn't expect it would be in such an alien place where football is the main religion and anything else is just not worth knowing about. Joel Hardy has been trying to escape his fam...