Batting a tennis ball up against a weatherboard house was not a sport included in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Putting aside modesty, I have to tell you that if it were an Olympic sport, I'd have faded photos now, possibly even in colour, of me waving gold on the winner's block in the centre of the packed arena in front of a delirious Australian crowd, a tear of pride and joy on my mother's face.
But it wasn't, so you'll have to take my word for it that from a very early age I had near perfect hand-eye coordination; at least in the art of hitting a ball with an old banister. Roughly forty million times I had batted a ball pretty near continuously against the southern side of the house under the mango trees next to the downstairs water-tank.
I was, in short, the Bradman of this art. Hour after hour I played tournaments with complicated local rules derived from cricket and tennis against opponents like Ritchie Benaud or Rod Laver. Both of them had a very keen interest in the sport and were up for a game any time. On the rare occasions I lost, I was granted an instant rematch, and my rightful place as world champion was restored within minutes.
So it was with interest that one day I perceived an opportunity for a variation of the sport, but I have to take another slight explanatory detour first. Stick with me now because the climax of the orange story is near at hand.
For reasons I don't know for sure, but can speculate on, what we called "bush oranges" grew amongst the bottlebrushes overhanging the creek. They might even have been a native fruit, or maybe the panners for gold in the 1860s spat out a pip or two of some old orange variety, and they took root where they were close to water. At any rate, they produced a tangy but edible orange with thickish pith. (Thay "thickish pith" thpeedily theven timeth).
|Original image source: Robyn Oyeniyi|
Now at last we're here, at the business end of my story.
It was the day the bung had nearly decapitated my father. It was hot and he was tired, and went off to sleep in the bedroom.
Usually he would have taken a rest on the shearer's stretcher, a comfortable but spartan bed on the front verandah, but on that day the air was very still out there. The breeze was blowing from the north and he was getting a ripple of it in the bedroom through the one small window in that entire north wall.
I meanwhile had won my ten-thousandth championship at banister-ball on the southern side of the house. Before lying down, Dad had requested that the "bink-plop bink-plop bink-plop bink-plop" ad infinitum of my sportscraft come to an immediate halt, and his requests were invariably ones to be accommodated, not even one "bink" or "plop" after being issued. It also meant that I couldn't tease any available sister with my usual lack of mercy; my customary way of filling in time when options were limited. I'd have copped it for sure.
I'd read all my books, including the fiftieth reading of At the Eleventh Hour starting at the point where Ferrand was levelling a gun at the head of Patricia Richmond as she drove a Bugatti towards Paris to save the father of her companion Suzanne de Brissac from being unjustly shot as a spy.... I told you I'd read it fifty times. Post World War 2 stuff.
So, at a loose end, I took my banister and sauntered round to the northern side of the house.
I've said already that it was a period of drought. There had been a fair crop of oranges on the trees but just at the point they needed rain the most it hadn't come, and the house tanks were almost empty. As a result, the parched little fruit had given up the ghost and all dropped off the trees.
They were all about the size of a golf ball and just as hard.
I repeated the exercise with great pleasure, and then turned to the house. I reckoned I'd have no trouble clearing the roof with my next shot. So I tossed up, timed it gloriously, and it flew over the house, coming within a whisker of clearing the mango tree on the far side as well.
A challenge! I reckoned I could send an orange over both house and mango tree.
A banister has a round hitting surface, like a baseball bat. It's vital for the trajectory, and therefore the distance, to get what's hit smack in the centre of the curve.
Sadly, with the extra effort I put in to clear the mango tree, this was the one occasion when I was a fraction low on the hitting surface. Instead of flying over the house, and the mango tree, the orange flew like a tiny cruise missile squarely through the bedroom window.
Where my Dad was.
On the bed.
There came a sound through the window similar to what Goliath would have made if he'd regained consciousness and saw what he was in for just before David cut his head off.
Dad appeared at the window, orange in hand, fury akin to what looked from where I was standing, banister in hand, like the imminent murder of his only son. Kidicide.
Look, I think he knew that I had no intention of hitting him squarely between the eyes with a golf-ball sized orange as hard as the hobs of hell as he lay in a troubled sleep, probably dreaming of being split open by the bung from the 44 gallon drum not an hour earlier.
But he was a bit disorientated.
"What the bloody hell did you do that for?" he roared, hurling the orange back at me, which I had the good sense to allow to find its mark just a fraction above the cojones.
"Ahhh!" I gasped, as if mortally wounded.
I wasn't. It was purely strategic, but it didn't fool him. Maybe at least it saved me from the dreaded words, "Come up here...." Instead:
"Go and get a load of morning-wood!"
This was the penalty for a multitude of sins, but it seemed a reasonable one to me. It got me well away at lightning speed. However much I hated getting morning-wood, the further out of his sight I was right then the better.
Later, when it was obvious neither of us had sustained any serious injury from the encounter, he saw the funny side of it.
"My legs flew in the air," he said, "And then I sat bolt upright. I thought the flamin' roof had fallen in."
Only he didn't say "flamin'".