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  • Published: 2 August 2022
  • ISBN: 9780143786450
  • Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $32.99

Nimblefoot

Extract

This Hot, Humming Afternoon

The Moscow Maestro is wearing a nanny goat around his neck like a scarf. Tom Day said keep an eye on him, he’s the danger. Forget the goat cravat, the Maestro’s notorious for his sudden pre-race dead-leg, the quick knee-blow speciality that numbs a competitor’s thigh for days.

Being much shorter than the Maestro and out of his dead-legging range, the boy is thinking he’s safe. Then just before the start the Maestro strolls past, whistling up at the sky as if he’s checking the wind direction. Of course all attention’s on the goat strung around him – those mad goatish eyes – and as the Maestro nonchalantly passes he treads on the boy’s feet, one after the other.

Not a heavy stomp, so no one else notices. Johnny Day is too surprised to yell at this oddness and, anyway, the Maestro is already gone, gazing off into the distance. At what? The watery heat mirage on the horizon? He can’t see the man’s eyes, only the deep shadow under his Cossack hat.

Luckily it’s soft grass underfoot so no bones broken. Not a word from the Maestro. No anger, just making a point. Out of my way, sonny, or I’ll trample you into the track.

Not a blink from the goat either, from those strange sideways eyes. It’s ignoring everything – people, grass, hills, sky, trees. You’d think it’d be wondering at the peculiar day it’s having and why it’s hanging around this human’s neck.

While the Maestro’s tightening his goat-grip (front legs in one fist, back legs in the other), Owen Hollings from the Goldfields Athletic Club fires the starting pistol.

The goat collar makes the Maestro sluggish off the mark and the boy nips around him. Immediately ahead is Victorious Vellnagel, tallest man in Ballarat, seven feet in his wellington boots, lugging a hay bale under each arm this afternoon and already puffing at the strain.

To Johnny’s knowledge, ‘Bluey’ Vellnagel, first name Alistair, a redheaded

neighbour of theirs, has never been a victorious pedestrian. Wishful thinking by the giant dairy farmer, only twentyish but skull-eyed from daily dawn risings and milkings and defending his herd’s udders and calves from dingoes after dark.

As Vellnagel clomps along Johnny edges past him too, and then darts by Magic Buffalo and the squealing piglet he’s strapped to his back like a squaw’s baby.

Despite his war paint, feathers and pig papoose, Magic Buffalo’s a long way from the prairie. Real name Dominic Bufalini, a whispery ex-boxer and victim of too many blows in the voice box. After a few evening grappas any teasing about his little-girl voice gets him swinging furious fists again.

With their baggage under control, the Maestro, Magic Buffalo and Vellnagel thunder past the boy, their bodies blocking out the sun. For a few seconds there’s clear air then he’s almost swept off his feet by the rushing tide of competitors in their wake.

He feels just like the goat and the pig and a skinny giant lugging hay bales in his armpits. A race novelty. Why not put young Day, that speedy local kid, on the program?

Only his father has even the slightest expectations of him winning. Just an unusually fast eight-year-old having his toes crushed and his ankles booted in the Ballarat Cricket Ground by professional pedestrians now puffing and grunting in several languages and all eager for the winner’s purse of twenty-five pounds. Six months’ wages.

*

In the beginning the crowd in the stands boos the bullies and cheers the hometown kid. But remembering that money’s at stake and they’ve sensibly backed an adult athlete with a winning chance, their applause for Johnny Day gradually drops away.

Even at 100/1 no punter’s risking anything on him except Tom Day. Not a straight-out wager either, but an each-way bet of five pounds, meaning he has to finish at least third.

To the serious gamblers down from Melbourne for the weekend Johnny doesn’t exist. Smoking their cigars and sitting poker-faced in their reserved seats in the shade, they’re silently signalling the bookies with a finger, a wink, and a back-handed wave of a furled Sporting Life for more whisky and curried eggs from the grog-shop runner boys.

And around they go. Past the first billboard. Pears Soap. A black kid sitting in a tin bath while a white boy in a sailor suit, all blond curls and dimples, scrubs the blackness off him.

Johnny picks up the pace and the ground quivers as he ducks around one man then another. Wiry farmers and Welsh and German miners first. Pink Englishmen fighting the sun with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads. An Irishman sheltering under a Chinese coolie hat. Their sweat spraying him as he overtakes them.

*

After three laps the heat’s boring down. It’s a cloudless February Sunday, so still the air’s vibrating. One of those windless country afternoons with cicadas buzzing and crows gagging and whiffs of dead things in the bushes.

Although the track’s been watered and rolled it’s already churned up. A cloud of gravel dust and tobacco smoke hangs over the stands. A loony border collie with one blue eye, the other brown, trails them for a while, noses their heels like they’re sheep, gets a kick in the slats and cringes away.

Nature’s curious about them this hot, humming afternoon. Cockatoos shriek in the gum trees over the creek. Crows flop beside the track, pecking at litter from the stands and any bugs they’ve stirred up. Even swamphens leave the creek to see what the fuss is.

Johnny wonders what he’s doing there. He spots two kids he knows kneeling inside the cricket-ground fence. Bored by the race, crouched and concentrating. It looks like they’re burning ants with a magnifying glass. He’s done that when he was younger. The tiny squirming fire, the little puff of smoke, the smell of varnish.

More billboards loom. American Proven Hair Restorer. Colman’s Mustard, its trademark bull’s head like the one over his father’s shop. Bush-flies are sticking to everyone’s shoulders, vests already black with flies and sweat. They’re all breathing dust and tobacco smoke and sweet roasted chestnuts overlaid with the pungent panicky stink of Magic Buffalo’s pig.

Why weigh yourself down in a race? Lumber yourself with pigs and goats and bales of itchy hay? Compete in gumboots? Already the Irishman’s coolie hat lies trampled on the track.

His father says costumes and showmanship display confidence in your ability and attract personal wagers with the competitors’ managers and bets with the bookies. Plus provide entertainment for the punters.

So extreme names and behaviour and a circus atmosphere are the rule in pedestrian contests. Before the race gets serious, anyway.

Tom Day’s reasoning is that a happy drunken crowd splashes the money around and bets heavily while an unhappy drunken crowd can turn nasty, throwing bottles, fighting coppers and reducing sporting stands to matchwood and ashes.


Nimblefoot Robert Drewe

The untold story of Johnny Day, Australia’s first international sports hero – a tale of mishap, adventure, chase, chance and luck – from one of Australia’s finest writers.

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