F and The Husband have been in training for the new football season for some weeks. Most afternoons after school, they retreat to the backyard or a local park to practise their kicking and marking.
'I'm so proud of you,' said The Husband after this Monday's session. 'You were hungry for the ball. You were in there, all the time, and that's why you did so well. Good on you.'
F beamed back at him over the dining room table, his forkful of chicken parma (perfect food for footballers) momentarily forgotten.
'If you can do that on Saturday, you'll be set.'
Last night, F was curled up over my feet on the couch, his head resting on The Husband's shoulder as they followed the progress of the Bulldogs/Essendon game on the screen. His Japanese manga novel lay forgotten on his lap.
Before The Husband arrived home 40 minutes earlier, we had been reading together: me with a manuscript balanced on my knees over a fleecy red blanket, him furled under the same blanket at the opposite end of the couch, his eyes fixed on his graphic novel. The kitchen was dark behind us; so was the sky behind the cheerful striped curtains at the lounge room window. The evening was quiet, broken only by the drone of the dogs' snoring and F's occasional giggle as he read. 'Mum! Listen! He says absolutely after everything, this guy. Listen, it's hilarious!'
'Ha!' I forced a distracted laugh (hey, I'm being truthful, here), and we returned to our mutual silence.
A symphony of barks broke the mood, followed by footsteps on the boards of the verandah and a fumbling in the lock. The Husband stood in the doorway, dogs leaping at his knees, F exclaiming his greetings, the aroma of grilled meat filling the room. He sat down, unwrapped his burger, kissed us hello, and turned on the TV.
'I'm going for the Dogs!' said F.
'Because I want to win my footy tipping and they're number two.'
'Oh. You're betraying Essendon for that?' He shook his head. Essendon is number three in F's hierachy of teams. (After West Coast and the Demons.)
Later, F's head was on my knee, his hair soft under my touch. I stroked him like a beloved pet. He didn't object.
'Can I have something to eat?'
'You can have an apple.'
I stood to get it.
'But do you want to go to bed? You've got Auskick in the morning, maybe you should be fresh for that.'
He stood and trotted obediently across the lounge and dining room and disappeared into the hallway. The Husband and I exchanged looks, impressed. In the bedroom, I sat beside him, kissed his forehead and hugged him tight. His arms closed around me, then dropped away as he rolled to face the wall and closed his eyes. There was none of the usual attempt to string out a conversation as long as possible.
'Good night, darling.'
'Good night mum.'
'Wow, that was very mature,' observed The Husband as I resumed my spot on the couch.
This morning, he was up early for Auskick. I could feel his presence beside the bed early. I looked at the bedside clock. 6am. Reached out and pulled him into bed for a morning cuddle.
Up at 8am. He'd served himself a bowl of Orangutangos, the sugary organic cereal that donates money to saving orangutans with every box. He'd convinced me to buy it after much pleading at the organic store yesterday, on the proviso that it was for weekends only.
I don't know if it was the cereal, adrenaline or both, but he was bouncing off the walls with excitement. I set him up to practice singing Green Day at the computer (music homework), lyric sheet in hand, as I showered and dressed.
The Husband and F went ahead while I found my shoes. At the gate, I encountered them coming back towards the house. The football had moved - from about six houses down the street to Yarraville Gardens, a 15 minute walk away. Now late instead of a bit early, we piled into the car.
At the oval at last, dosed up with a latte from the travelling coffee van in the carpark, I was relieved to see other parents dribbling in late, all of them coming via the usual venue.
F bounced and yowled in the line for the drills. He pulled faces, chanted, tackled his friends around the waist, and exchanged menacing shoves with a kid he was briefly friends with in Prep, but has been enemies with ever since. I play tennis (or used to) with the kid's mum, who I like. The kid is tall and blandly handsome - but, more importantly, confident and matter-of-factly competent at everything. And a dynamo at sport. He effortlessly attracts friends and pigtailed admirers in swarms, and has the strut that accompanies his exalted playground position. From the sidelines, I caught taunts every time F flubbed the ball (which was often, he was more caught up in clowning than the drills). The shoves and scowls escalated in intensity, but their lightning spats appeared to burn out quickly enough, even as I smouldered at the sidelines, hands clenched.
Nearer the kids, the Father who doesn't like F has taken up position, arms folded and gaze focused. His kids have told us that he doesn't want them playing with F because their dad doesn't like his attitude. Their mother (yes, The Mother) told me the other day that her throat was hoarse with all the shouting she'd done over the holidays because her kids DON'T LISTEN. ('Really?' I'd said. 'Oh. Well, I don't shout at them. I just have to tell them, you know, loudly, all the time, to do what they're told,' she'd croaked. 'Has it happened before?' I'd asked. 'Oh, yeah. Every holidays.')
'Shall we go closer and stand near The Father?' asked The Husband.
'No! I might say something I'd regret.'
'Yeah, me too.'
I hugged him. It's so great to have someone on your team.
'Those two are the kind of parents who think they're perfect and everyone else is wrong,' he continued.
'Yes. Yes they are.'
L's mum joined us, her coffee in hand now. ('It's crap,' she grimaced.) She caught the end of our conversation and snorted in agreement.
'There's a word for that,' she said darkly.
'What is it?'
'Oh, it'll come to me.'
We watched the boys and commented on what they were doing, on F's shoving, on the hugging and tackling that seems impossible to tell from actual fighting.
'I've got it!'
'What is it?'
'WHOLESOME. You know, those parents who think they have it all worked out. I know someone like that. We're friends, but we have opposite values.'
'Like ... like, she didn't want to send her kids to [our school] because she didn't want them mixing with all the African children.'
'WHAT? Are you JOKING?'
'No. And I went over there the other day and she had all these private school catalogues on the kitchen table and she was writing down the pros and cons of them all. Private PRIMARY schools. She told me one day: You know, I always thought I'd be a Toorak mum.'
'REALLY?' This was hilarious. It distracted me from the boys. A welcome distraction, really.
'Yup. I didn't tell her that that's how we all think of her anyway. A Toorak mum stuck in little old Yarraville.'
Before the game was played, there was time for questions and a pep talk with a couple of Bulldogs players. F, typically, asked two questions. ('What's Akka like?' and 'Who is your Brownlow pick?') Then there were free team photos handed out and autographs for the kids. Lots of them were wearing Bulldogs team caps and jerseys, so they crowded around to get their clothes signed.
'I'm going to cut this autograph out and stick it on his football card!' F declared triumphantly, waving his team photo at us.
'Mmm, that sounds a bit tricky.'
The Husband said his goodbyes. He had to get to work. F's dad arrived to pick him up. (This was all running well over time by now.) Instead, he was just in time for the show.
What can I say?
F was, indeed, hungry for the ball. He chased it all over the field. He managed to get it quite a few times.
He also wrestled players to the ground in too-rough tackles and screamed in frustration when those players were awarded free kicks as a result. He yelled and cried when L, one of his best friends, kicked a goal f(he was on the opposing team). In fact, he ran off the field and shouted and cried on the far end of the oval. The Father led him back to the game. (The shame of it.)
And he shoved the kid who'd been needling him all morning to the ground with a flash of intensity and viciously kicked him as he lay on the grass, leaving the kid bawling, moaning and clutching his knee.
Which is where I intervened to tell him off, along with the coach.
At the end of the game, the coach approached me to ask what F's deal was. I explained that he has Asperger's and has trouble controlling his emotions and also knowing the line when it comes to tackling. I explained that he has trouble coping with losing or not doing things perfectly. That he and The Kid had been having issues all moring and that there was a story to why he lost it like that, though it was of course totally unacceptable. That I would talk to him about his attitude.
The coach had a talk to F, and I think he handled it well. We both told him he needs to tell the coaches if there is a problem, not resort to violence.
'Right. So I should be a dobber?' F sobbed.
'If someone was bothering you in the classroom, would you push them to the ground and kick them or tell the teacher?'
'Tell the teacher.'
'Okay, then. The coach is your teacher.'
There were more chats in the car ... about attitude and positivity and teams and sportsmanship. About me being embarassed and ashamed about the day's behaviour, though I am generally very proud of him and he is the best thing in my life.
'F, I'll tell you one thing,' I said, twisting around to face him in the back seat. 'Aren't you glad your coach [The Husband] wasn't there and had to go to work? That he didn't have to see that.'
His face was stricken, the defiance slipping from his eyes, replaced by shame.
'Don't tell him! Please!'
'I'll see. But you have a chance to make a fresh start next week. It's the first game he'll see. Yeah? Does he need to coach you on attitude instead of footy skills this week?'
'Maybe I need both.'
God I hate Auskick. And I doubt that football is really a good thing for an Asperger's child. BUT football gives him a much-needed social glue and he seems to enjoy playing it at school. And he and The Husband have so much fun playing it and watching it together. Sigh. I guess anything worth having needs to be worked for. Maybe that includes this.