A brother’s jumper by VIN MASKELL

I wish I still had my brother’s football jumper. Three wide panels: red, yellow black. A red collar. Long sleeves. An old-fashioned woolly and scratchy football jumper. Number 37.

But the jumper is long gone. It’s not in the garage with the painting drop-sheets and old towels. It’s not in the laundry with the cloths and the rags. It’s not in the children’s old dress-up box with ancient aunties’ hats and dresses. And it’s not in my wardrobe. It’s not anywhere.

My brother Mark wore it while playing for his school’s under-18B team. He took me to a few of his Saturday morning games, giving me a glimpse into an older life.

In the bluestone change-rooms I would fade into the background, out of the way of the players and the coach and the parents. I would watch the team talk and joke and gee each other up for the game. Then they would put in their mouthguards and jog out to the oval, their boots clacking on the hard floor. As the room emptied I would see the bags and clothes strewn about, jeans and jumpers and shoes lying on the floor. Footballs, rolls of tape. Liniment bottles.

Between quarters I would stand at the edge of the team, looking up at the necks of the sweaty young men as they sucked their oranges and listened to their coach.

In an act that might have drawn both admiration and concern, Mark once crashed into a point post. I wasn’t at that game but I like to think the thick football jumper would have protected him in that collision, if only slightly.

Would that same jumper offer me any protection now, from the collisions of life and death? Would it be of any help if I found it after all these years? It would at least be something tangible, something close to my chest. All I can touch now are a few school annuals, some old vinyl albums and the small volume of my brother’s poetry.

My four siblings remember the football jumper, but do not know what became of it. Or his other clothes. (The only other items I remember are a brown-and-white shirt, a pair of sandals and a green tracksuit top.) I have no doubt that I myself looked after the football jumper at one stage. I prefer to think that I misplaced it, rather than threw it away.

Before his under-18 jumper Mark wore a dark-blue guernsey with a green-and-gold V. Different Catholic school, different team. He took me to some of those games as well, two train rides from home. One morning I was roped in to be goal umpire. Another time, boundary umpire. On each occasion I stood beyond the field of play but was still a part of the game, watching the ball and looking for my brother.

How much was football a part of my brother’s life? I imagine Mark might have left football behind once he’d finished school and found home to be many an isolated spot on the highway between Geelong and Cairns. I imagine football didn’t mean much to him in those three years of hitchhiking, of reading, writing and wondering. Of searching and asking and arguing. Of thinking about factories and communes and cities and work and religion. But in one of his poems, he wrote:

Still think about unsung heroes, football heroes
Undone shoelaces, collecting beer bottles
Talkin’ loud on peak-hour trains, gazing long at girls in blue uniforms,
on the bus years ago.
Those schooldays are close…

In another he wrote:
Take a football field with a ten-foot circle in the middle

There we are, huddled, inspecting our behinds with mirrors to get a metaphysical insight…

And what did the jumper mean to him? Perhaps it was just a footy jumper, nothing more. He didn’t play for a club; he played for a school – and, ultimately, he and the school betrayed each other. He was dux of the college but was not publicly presented with an award because, apparently, he turned up at the awards night not in school uniform but in jeans (and possibly bare feet). He had cut the school crest from his blazer and sewn it onto a back pocket of his jeans.

The school annual said Mark’s games on the wing in his first year with the under 18Bs were “serviceable”. The following year he was part of a backline that “showed eagerness and dedication”.

Some years ago a family friend, a man who has known a lot of suburban and junior footy, told me: “Mark was a good footballer. He knew how to play. And he had guts, too.”

Mark and I played some football together, especially in our teenage years. Not in a team; just kick-to-kick, but memorable in its own way. On warm days Mark would take off his shirt and play bare-chested, his long hair held in place by a thin headband.

I still play kick-to-kick with a few mates on Sunday mornings. I take off my T-shirt if it’s warm, though I sometimes wish it was an old scratchy jumper I am pulling over my head.

It was only after asking my siblings about it that I realised I may have been the last to have the jumper. I was probably the one who lost it, in a moment of forgetfulness or distraction.

I could buy a new jumper with the same colours. It would be light and synthetic and it wouldn’t scratch. I could sew number 37 on the back and wear it during kick-to-kick.

But it wouldn’t be the same, of course. I can’t bring back that original jumper. I can’t wear the clothes that my brother wore. I can’t go back to 1974.


This is an edited version of a story that was first published in The Big Issue in April 2008 and then in that year’s Best Australian Essays.BestEssays2008

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