Through a gate from the street behind our grassy hill entered a lady walking her Jack Russell. She un-tethered the spritely energetic mutt and with one of those dog-ball-throwers launched a ball across the park. The dog went after the ball. This continued for a few throws before the dog sighted Emily, who was eating a mandarin segment. The parklife was about to heat up. The Jack Russell ran for Emily, rose to its back feet, to the same height as the little toddler, careered into her chest and knocked her backwards off her feet.

The Jack Russell had no aggressive intent, that was clear to see, but from where I sat if Emily had gotten hurt the lady wouldn’t have had a much of a leg to stand on. Emily started crying, thankfully I thought, at the shock of her predicament rather than being injured. The scene unfolded in a flash; neither Garry nor I could have reacted quick enough to intercept the dog.

What happened next rested squarely on the father’s reactions. Garry scooped up Emily to comfort her. The lady sensing the vulnerability of her situation and was extremely apologetic, almost pleadingly so.

“I’m soooo sorry” she said.

Calmly Garry replied “That’s okay” and gesturing to Emily “She’s all right”

The lady fetched up her dog, put it back on a lead, and with her tail between her legs skulked away to another section of the park. Emily stopped crying and a smile returned to her face as the trail of tears down both her cheeks ran dry. While Garry and I reflected on the scene he said wryly “Well that was pretty amusing.” We both laughed. So did Emily.

The referee’s whistle blew again to the rapturous cheer of the Balmain players who ten minutes into the second half scored a great goal. Their lanky number 9, who struck me as a very talented striker, received a magnificent through-ball down the left side of the pitch and once in possession made a weaving diagonal run across the box then turned goal-bound and facing in our direction poked her left foot through the ball sending it past an outstretched goalkeeper and into the top right-hand corner of the net.

Not long thereafter – maybe two minutes – the scores were evened in the second half by a Leichhardt goal. Neither Garry nor I saw the how it was scored because we were watching Emily run on a path alongside the picket fence. From our vantage point all we could see was her little head bobbing along, the rest of her body was concealed below the timber bench seats.

We both looked up to the scoreboard in the hope of seeing a big screen replay. But that’s not how parklife works – there was no big screen, the shutters were drawn, we had missed the moment in real time. A slight smile was drawn from the shuffling runner as he too noticed Emily while on his next lap around the oval.

The sun stretched out in the western sky and it was time to seek out another shady location. We left our spot beside the scoreboard, walked back past Thirning Villa and around the other side of the oval to row of bench seats. When I sat down I had a strong recollection of sitting in that exact same place sometime in my past. Then I remembered…

Back in ‘85, when sixteen years old, I was a spectator at a Round 16 rugby league match between the Western Suburbs Magpies and the Penrith Panthers; sitting in a crowd of probably a few thousand.

Pratten Park was the Magpies’ home ground from 1912 before they moved to Lidcombe Oval in 1966. During the 1985 season the club hosted three games at Pratten Park in an attempt to ‘get back to its roots’, to re-invigorate waning crowds. Through the ‘80s the Western Suburbs Leagues Club was near bankruptcy and on the verge of being dropped from the competition. Without funds to attract big-name players and at a time when professional sports were evolving into the mega-dollar corporate entities they are today, the Magpies’ on-field performances resulted in a plethora of wooden spoons.

So it was no surprise as I sat there back in ’85 dribbling yellow mustard from my hotdog down the front of my black and white jersey that I watched the Magpies get walloped 42-16.

Yesterday, some 24 years later, while Emily was eating the heads off pieces of broccoli and dropping the stems where she stood, I found interest in the fact that I was watching a soccer game between Balmain – the rugby league side who merged with the Magpies in 2000 to become the ‘Wests Tigers’ – and Leichhardt – the suburb where one of their home grounds are now located. History weaves in small, familiar and mysterious circles, I thought. I shut my eyes. I could sense the pulse and roar of bygone crowds.

But yesterday my senses were filled by different sensations: by birds, dogs and random laughter; by the fizz of chilled beer; by the scent of early blooming jasmine; by watching people going about their activities; and by the general nattering and the fine company of Garry and Emily. An idea popped into my head that a nice Sunday roast dinner would go down a treat following my afternoon of parklife.

Late in the second half another goal was scored by Balmain, who I thought were starting to have the edge over their opposition. The feisty Leichhardt goalkeeper, emblazoned in her pink shirt, thumped the ground in disgust. The atmosphere was electric. But only minutes later the second half took another twist as Leichhardt again equalised.

“Can’t you feel the excitement?” I asked Garry. Emily was nonplussed though – she was more interested in squeezing her arm between the planks of the timber seats.

“I don’t want to play extra time!” shouted the goalkeeper to her teammates.

But indeed there was to be some further on-field entertainment with two ten-minute halves of extra time. Regardless of whether Garry and I missed any goals in the first half before arriving at the park, we had seen four goals, two from each side; whatever the score, it was a draw and the deadlock needed to be broken.

While the players went through their motions prior to the game recommencing, a magpie swooped onto the pitch to peck an insect out of the disturbed grass. A Dalmatian trotted by which was far too aloof to be bothered by Emily who was by this stage tucking into her rice crackers. Parklife had undeniably reached fever pitch!
And back onto the oval trudged the weary warriors. A Balmain defender was clearly suffering cramps – she pressed her boot up against a goalpost in an attempt to stretch out her hamstrings. Watching her, I could feel the ache in my own legs even though my team’s nil-all draw the day before against the top-of-the-table team still left us well short of the semi-final race.

The shuffler passed by yet again. I lost count of how many times he went around! He was really ‘in the zone’. This was his parklife. By mine and Garry’s reckoning he’d completed ten laps at least – at maybe half a kilometre each, he was enjoying a good little workout. We were starting to become familiar with the rhythm of his shuffles. I wondered if he was getting dizzy – does he unwind by going back the other way? What about his hips? Good on him!

About Blair Paterson

Blair grew up and lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He first realised a love of nature and the outdoors during weekends and holidays with his family on the Hawkesbury River. From humble childhood pastimes building billycarts and tree houses to spending large chunks of time in the bush, Blair now embarks on outdoor pursuits whenever and however possible – by foot, kayak, bicycle or other. He has worked in Environmental Management and currently Outdoor Education. Some of his fondest travels to date have been around Australia and through the Indian Himalayas.
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