Alfie checked the clock. “Right love, I’m off,” he said.
“No worries dad. Don’t be late home.” Alfie’s daughter was watching television with her own teenage daughter.
He winked at the two female members of his family. “If I be late, not home by eight, you know where I’ll be lyin’!”
“Face-down in the gutter between here and the Old Red Lion!” they chorused together, his daughter and granddaughter rolling their eyes at him as though he was a naughty old nursing home escapee. Alfie grinned and doffed an imaginary cap, then stepped out of his daughter’s home into the night air and began the short walk to the pub he visited every Saturday night, without fail.
Alfie had a slight shuffle to his gait, but the short walk to the Red Lion had never been an issue. If he had still been living on his farm outside of town he wouldn’t attempt it anymore, but since he’d sold up to two women in overalls who’d wanted to take the lot on the spot, his daughter Mae had insisted he live in town with her family – her husband and her only daughter, on whom he doted.
The walk to the pub took him up the main street of the town. Time had altered Smithfield and the changes were more obvious to him now that he was living in the town itself. He had run their farm on his own after his wife Mabel had passed on. Mae had only been 15 at the time, the same age as his granddaughter was now. Alfie had hired local hands to help out but in recent times when wheat prices fell and all his neighbours were either selling up or “diversifying” their crops Alfie had cut his losses and signed the deed over. It wasn’t so bad, town life. It certainly made the weekly jaunt to the Red Lion a bit easier.
He always sat at the same bar stool in the Lion, right near the door so he could saunter in and out without getting in the young folks’ way. Barry, his old mate and the proprietor of the pub, would have a pint ready for him and they would reminisce about the old days – the glory days – of the Smithfield Footy Club.
The walls of the Lion were adorned with plenty of reminders of the SFC. Brown-spotted team photographs hung askew on every wall and spanned decades. There were very few faces in them that Alfie couldn’t name – even the teams that went before him bore the names of his father and uncles, their neighbours and the townspeople who had made the town. There were Runners-Up pennants hanging from the upper walls of the pub, claimed in the 30s, the 50s, the 70s and the 80s. The banners had all been housed at the mouldering weatherboard clubrooms until it had become an end-of-season lark for the team of the time to break in and steal the latest acquisition and heroically – drunkenly – march it up to the Lion. Thereafter the Lion became the natural repository of all things SFC – including, in pride of place behind the bar, their only Premiership Cup from 1955 – captained and coached by none-other than Alfie himself. That’s right, he was the lone premiership captain in the history of the club.
The story of the club was the story of the town in lots of ways. The population had risen and fallen over the years. Alfie had only been 13 when WWII had ended, but remembered how decimated the footy team had been then – and how important it had been to building the place up again. To help make up the numbers, Alfie had played seniors before he’d even hit puberty.
Barry the barman was a blow-in, only arriving in Smithfield in the early sixties, so hadn’t been around to see the Premiership, but had been a decent halfback for some of Alfie’s final playing years. The seventies had seen some good players come and go but the lure of the city was always there for the younger ones – the ones with any talent or drive, or just in need of respite from a drop in the wheat price.
The last two decades of life in Smithfield had seen changes Alfie never could have imagined. Wheat farmers had become wheat breeders to keep up with the volatility of the markets and had embraced canola, beef and sheep farming on rotation. Then a new bunch of blow-ins had taken to sustainable lavender and organic kale farming. Dwindling membership had seen the footy club merge with Dunnarton to the north-west. There was some talk of a new junior team but as far as Alfie knew, nothing had come of it. Besides, there was always the ‘55 Cup.
Funny, the town was practically all blow-ins these days. Smithfield was going through its biggest metamorphosis yet. Alfie trudged up the main street toward the Lion, passing several cafes, a vegan bakery, two art galleries and a bric-a-brac store, all closed at this hour. Alfie did a double-take at the bric-a-brac store window as his eye caught a cast-iron tractor seat welded onto a pedestal to form a trendy barstool. He started chuckling at the stupidity of it and then stopped short when he saw the price tag attached to it. He thought of all the junk he’d left in his old barn. The buyers who’d taken the farm off his hands – dressed like men but both with girls’ names – were sitting on a gold mine if this was any indication. He shook his head in chagrin and turned toward the pub.
At least the Lion was still the same. Barry would have his beer ready on the dot and Alfie would be able to feast his eyes on the famous silverware yet again. He swung open the door of the pub and stood dumbstruck.
Gone were the wood panelled walls filled with photos and pennants. Instead the walls were freshly painted a light grey with white trim on the cornices, potted palms were placed by the door and instead of the rickety bar furniture, booths had been installed alongside the timber-shuttered windows with fancy modern lampshades hanging over each one. The sticky carpet had been removed and underfoot was dark polished wood, smelling of fresh lacquer. The booths were filled: with young people wearing coloured plaits, dungarees, rainbow socks, and earrings in their noses; young men in black turtlenecks and slim trousers; and affluent-looking city types. It couldn’t have been that long since Alfie had looked up from his pint and seen the changed clientele of the Lion? The only thing that remained the same was that Barry was standing behind the bar.
“You bastard!” cried Alfie. “What the bloody hell have you done?” He really thought he would actually cry. This last place – this last bastion of Smithfield – what had Barry done to it?
Barry held out both hands to Alfie to pacify him as he came round the bar. “Now just hang on Alfie, it’s ok, just wait a minute.”
Alfie caught his breath. He could cope with all the new crops, and shops, the newcomers in town, the art galleries, the tarot-reading stalls on market days, the girls holding girls hands and boys holding boys hands, but he couldn’t believe Barry would do this.
“You bloody sellout Barry!”
“Now hang on Alfie, just a second. First of all, it wasn’t just me, it was in consultation with the new footy team. And secondly, you just have to see back here before you walk out in a huff.”
Alfie was feeling shaky. If Barry was moving with the times he had probably put pokies in the back room to make some extra coin, and if that was the case – well, then, Alfie was never coming back.
Barry ushered Alfie through the doorway beside the bar and into the back room. He stood aside for Alfie to get past.
The room was polished boards here too, and fresh paint, and new tables with classy looking chairs, but in this room, each wall displayed mounted memorabilia from the entire Smithfield Footy Club’s history. Not a single era was missing. Not only were the old photographs restored, re-framed and hung in neat rows, they were actually arranged in chronological order. There were hand knitted scarves in display cases with old lace-up guernseys, someone’s boots from – must have been – the twenties at least, and an Honour Roll was newly painted in gold lettering and hanging above the restored fireplace, on the mantelpiece of which stood the 1955 Premiership Cup.
Alfie stared in wonder. “By jingoes Barry… what the…?”
Barry was beaming and steered him back to the doorway. Mae and her family were standing at the door, and behind them had gathered some of the patrons of the pub, all looking slightly uncertain but decidedly hopeful.
Mae beckoned to her father. “Dad, come and look, here’s the best bit.”
She pointed to the lettering on the door he had just walked through, and Alfie had to sit down suddenly on one of the classy chairs. It read, THE ALFIE PATTERSON FUNCTION ROOM. And in smaller lettering, “Gift of the Smithfield Women’s Football Team”.
His granddaughter was 15, but not too cool to grin and throw her arms around his neck. “Guess what granddad? I’m playing footy this year!”
Alfie turned to his old mate over his granddaughter’s shoulders. “Barry, you bloody marvellous bastard.”