Platforms six and seven at Central station were a sea of sky blue dotted with maroon when Taylor and I disembarked from our train just before ten past five in the evening of June fifth. Almost as soon as we’d stepped onto the platform, a tiny sky blue blur slammed into Taylor’s knees. “Uncle Tay!”
“Hey Jamie,” Taylor said as he picked up his nephew. “Where’s your mum and dad?”
“Over there,” Jamie said, pointing back over his shoulder. Sure enough, standing near one of the columns in the middle of the platform were Isaac and Nikki. Taylor waved to them with his free hand and headed over. I trailed behind, Jamie studying me the whole way. “Are you Uncle Tay’s girlfriend?” he asked me.
“Yep,” I replied with a smile.
“Why are you wearing blue?”
“Same reason you are, Jamie,” Taylor replied. We had reached Isaac and Nikki by now, and Taylor deposited Jamie onto a nearby bench seat next to Rhett. “I see my brother still hasn’t dragged you away from the dark side,” Taylor teased Nikki, who unlike Isaac and Taylor was wearing a Maroons jersey.
“Bite me, Hanson,” Nikki retorted, and threw the forks at Taylor.
“Nah, no thanks. Isaac would deck me if I did that,” Taylor replied. “Zac not here yet?”
“They’ll be here soon,” Isaac replied, before giving me a smile. “Hey Ruby.”
I returned his smile, before eyeing Nikki. “This is probably a stupid question Nikki, but why do you go for Queensland when you live in New South Wales?” I asked her.
“Same reason Zac does,” she replied. “I’m from Queensland. Born and raised in Brisbane.” She shrugged. “I like it better here in New South Wales though. Too bloody hot up there.”
“Fair enough,” I said, giving Nikki a smile that she quickly returned. “What train were we going to catch again?” I asked as I gave my watch a quick glance. Its display read 17:13 – almost a quarter past five.
“If Zac manages to get here sometime within the next decade, the twenty to six,” Isaac replied.
“I might duck out to the little girls’ room then,” I said. I took my wallet out of my shoulder bag and shoved it into one of my pockets once I’d checked that my ticket to the game was still safely inside, and handed my bag over to Taylor. “See you in a bit – and don’t you dare leave without me!”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Taylor said with a smile, one that I returned before heading down the platform toward the Grand Concourse.
I was just walking out of the ladies’ when I saw Zac, Kate and their two kids walking into the station from the Railway Square entrance. Like with Isaac and Nikki, Zac and Kate wore opposing jerseys – Zac wore a Maroons jersey, while Kate was dressed in the sky blue of New South Wales. “Oi you two!” I called out, waving at them. They promptly veered off in my direction, Kate greeting me with a hug as soon as they were close enough.
“It’s so good to see you again Ruby,” she said. “Looking forward to the game?”
“Oh yeah,” I replied as the five of us started heading down the Concourse toward the ticket barriers. “It’s my first live game so I’m really excited.”
“You’ve never been to a game before?” Zac asked. He sounded a little surprised.
“Nope, never,” I replied. I took my ticket back out of my wallet and showed the barrier attendant, leading the way through the wide gate once it was open. “And yes, I know how pathetic that is. What team do you go for?”
“North Queensland,” Zac replied. “And the Maroons in Origin.”
“Yeah, I can see that you traitor,” I teased.
“Bite me,” Zac snarked back.
“And get in trouble with your better half? Yeah, nah. Think I’ll pass.” I stuck my tongue out at Zac and headed off to rejoin Taylor, Isaac and Nikki. “Here comes trouble!” I called out as I got within their collective earshot.
“You took your sweet time,” Isaac said, holding his hand up for a high-five.
“There was a traffic jam on George Street,” Zac said as he returned the high-five. “Backed up traffic for ages. Would have got out and walked but these two would have got worn out before the game even started.” He reached down and ruffled Jack’s hair.
“Yeah, fair enough. Just text me next time, okay?”
It wasn’t long afterward that our train to Olympic Park rolled up alongside the platform, and I grabbed Taylor’s hand so that we didn’t lose each other in the rush to find somewhere to sit. “Good afternoon, this is the five-thirty-nine special event train to Olympic Park via Strathfield,” the guard was saying as Taylor and I finally made it onto the train. The carriage we were in was absolutely packed, so we had to stand in the vestibule against the trackside doors. “This train will stop at Redfern, Strathfield and Olympic Park. We will be departing in approximately fifteen minutes. Thank you.”
“I’m starting to wish I’d brought my wheelchair with me now,” I said in an undertone to Taylor, resisting the temptation to slide down the doors so that I could sit on the floor. I knew there was absolutely no way I’d be able to get up again once we got to Olympic Park if I did.
Almost as if he could tell what I was thinking, Taylor’s response to this was to sit down on the floor. He shoved his messenger bag between the doors and his back and leaned against it. “What?” he asked when I raised an eyebrow at him. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
“I’m not worried about you telling anyone,” I said. “I’m more worried that I won’t be able to get up again when we get to Olympic Park.”
Taylor held his hands up and waved them at me. “Hello, that’s what I’m here for,” he said with a grin. I rolled my eyes and slid down next to him, shifting myself close to his side.
“So which Roosters are playing tonight?” I asked. Taylor pulled his phone out of his pocket, unlocked it and opened Chrome.
“Um…Michael Jennings, James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce for the Blues,” he said, scrolling through what I guessed were tonight’s team lists. “No Roosters playing for Queensland.”
“Good. Reckon we’ll win tonight?”
“‘Course we’ll win. Blues’ll give Queensland a shellacking.”
I put my head down on Taylor’s shoulder, and he wrapped an arm around me. “Hope you’re right.”
The time between leaving Central and arriving at ANZ Stadium almost seemed to fly past, as did the time before kickoff. The atmosphere tonight was absolutely electric, almost on par with a Hanson concert, and I found myself wondering why I’d never gone to a live game before.
Ten past eight saw the players taking the field, both teams lining up in the middle of the field in readiness for the national anthem. I joined my fellow supporters in standing to sing the anthem, the sound of eighty thousand people in full voice making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Shortly after the anthem the players moved into formation, the whistle was blown, and the game was underway with Queensland taking first possession. “Tackle him!” Taylor yelled out beside me, and I very nearly burst out laughing.
It took just four and a half minutes for the first points to be scored, with Jarryd Hayne barging through Queensland’s defensive line to score a try for New South Wales. A thunderous cheer went up from the Blues supporters, with a conversion from James Maloney in his first Origin game bringing the scoreline to six points to nothing. “Atta boy Jimmy!” I cheered, waving the flag I’d bought from one of the stadium’s merchandise stands above my head.
Fifteen minutes later, the ball having changed possession through tackles and dropped balls so often I ended up losing count, James Maloney kicked a penalty goal to bring the scoreline to eight points to nothing, sending another cheer up from the Blues supporters. A second attempt at a penalty goal in the twenty-second minute went just slightly wide of the goalposts, but a try from Michael Jennings right under the goalposts and another conversion just minutes from half time saw the score rising to fourteen points to nothing. The first half of the game was rounded out when Paul Gallen went and punched Nate Myles in the face seconds before the half time siren, the on-field action devolving into one hell of a dust-up between the two teams. All around me I could hear my fellow Blues supporters cheering on the home team in the ensuing fight, and I just sat there and grinned. This was what football was meant to be, and I was loving every second of it.
“So what do you think so far?” Taylor asked after the half time siren had sounded and the players had left the field.
“Incredible,” I replied. “I can’t believe I’ve never gone to a game before.” I gave Taylor a smile that he immediately returned.
“Not a bad early birthday pressie, yeah?”
“Not bad at all.” I clapped Taylor on the shoulder and got to my feet once I’d dug my wallet out of my bag. “I’m going to get something to eat. You want anything?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
Before I found something to eat, though, I took a quick detour into the ladies’. A conversation between a couple of the game’s other attendees as they followed me in made me freeze momentarily, and I ducked into an empty cubicle so I could listen without being yelled at for overhearing.
“I swear I saw Taylor Hanson sitting in row ten just now,” one of them was saying.
“Oh come off it, you did not!”
“I did! And he had some girl sitting next to him.”
“Think they’re going out?”
“Maybe? I was on the same train as them coming here, saw them sitting together on the floor because there was nowhere else to sit. Don’t blame them, I wouldn’t want to stand for nearly half an hour either.”
“Oh shut up. Anyway, they were sitting really close together – she was practically in his lap the whole way here.” There was a pause. “If they are going out, I hope she realises how lucky she is. I wouldn’t mind sitting in his lap myself.”
“Pervert. Come on, we’d better go back. They’ve probably sent a search party out already.”
As soon as I heard the outer door open and close again, I cracked the door to my cubicle open a little and peered out, letting out a sigh of relief when I saw that I was alone again. That relief was soon replaced with a little bit of worry, and I bit down hard on my bottom lip. Tonight was my first time out at a major event as Taylor’s girlfriend, and people were starting to wonder who I was. I’d known it would happen eventually, but all the same it would have been nice to stay anonymous for longer than two and a half months.
Half time was nearly over when I finally returned to my seat, a cardboard box of hot chips in one hand and a carton of chocolate milk in the other. “Did I miss anything?” I asked as I sat down again, sticking my carton of milk between my knees as I put my wallet away in my bag.
“Nope, not yet. What’d you get?” Taylor asked, and I batted his hand away from trying to open my box of chips.
“You said you didn’t want anything,” I reminded him, before letting out a mock-resigned sigh. “But I suppose I should be nice and share my chips. I can’t eat all of them on my own.”
“I knew you’d share with me,” Taylor said with a smirk. The smirk faded almost as soon as it appeared. “You okay?”
I didn’t answer at first, choosing to eat some of my chips while I thought of how to tell Taylor about the little incident in the ladies’. “They know who I am,” I said at last. “Well, sort of.”
“Who knows who you are?”
“The fans. Couple of them saw us in the stands before half time – I eavesdropped on them in the ladies’.” I shrugged. “At least they were nice about it. Wish I could have stayed anonymous for a little while longer, though.”
The game soon resumed, with the Blues kicking off for the second half. Five successive changes in possession resulted in Queensland’s Cameron Smith crossing the line in the forty-eighth minute for what looked like a try. “That was not a try!” Taylor yelled, the other Blues supporters echoing his protests – protests that soon turned to cheers when the video referee concurred with the touch judges and ruled a no try.
“Suck on that Queensland!” I taunted the Maroons supporters, Taylor’s laughter as he heard what I yelled music to my ears. “Isn’t the whole point of Origin supposed to be scoring points?”
“Don’t jinx it!” Taylor said, elbowing me in the side.
“I’m not jinxing it,” I said, only to eat my words fifteen minutes later as Darius Boyd crossed the line to score Queensland’s first try of the game – a try that was quickly followed by a conversion from Cameron Smith. “Aw shit,” I groaned as the touch judges’ flags went up.
“Yeah, thanks so much,” Taylor teased me, and I stuck my tongue out at him before returning my attention to the game.
Queensland’s first try and conversion of the game ended up being the only points they would score that evening. The ninety-seventh State of Origin game, the first of the 2013 series, ended up being won by New South Wales fourteen points to six – their first opening game win since 2008. If the stadium had had a roof, I was willing to bet that the resulting cheer from the Blues supporters would have lifted it right off.
“Holy fuck,” I said as the other Blues supporters celebrated around me. “That was amazing. I am so going to more games after this.” I gave Taylor a smile. “Thanks, Tay. Best early birthday present ever.”
He returned my smile before leaning in and kissing me, a kiss I returned in earnest. We were both so caught up in the euphoria of our team winning that I don’t think either of us really cared what everyone else thought of what we were doing. Not that I thought anyone else would have cared all that much.
We met up with Isaac, Nikki, Zac and Kate along with their kids outside the stadium after the game, all of us having sat in different parts of the stands. Rhett, Jamie and Jack all looked worn out but happy, while little Rosie had fallen asleep in Zac’s arms. “Chin up Zac, it’s only the first game,” I said to try and cheer Zac up a little, seeing that he looked disappointed. “Still two more to go. We might actually let you win the next one.”
Zac scowled at me for a few moments before giving me a smile. “You guys deserved that win,” he said. “Congrats.”
“Thanks, mate,” Taylor said. “You guys heading back to Newy?”
“Yep,” Isaac replied. “There’s a train from Strathfield at about five to eleven, we should be able to catch that one if we leave now. What about you two?”
“We’re heading back to Wollongong,” I replied. “Going to catch the train home from Redfern. We both have TAFE tomorrow but I’m seriously considering taking the day off. I’m knackered.”
“After that kiss, I’m not entirely surprised,” Kate teased me, and I felt myself go bright red.
“You saw that?” I asked, my voice a bit pained.
“The whole stadium saw that kiss,” Nikki said with a grin. “Nice one Tay.”
Taylor’s response to this was to sketch a bow before leading the way out of the stadium precinct and over to Olympic Park station. “I’m glad you had a good time tonight,” he said to me as we walked.
“I really did.” An idea jumped into my head just then. “Hey, idea – if the Chooks make it to the Grand Final, we should go and watch them play.”
“Definitely. Even if they don’t win, it’d still be a cracker of a game.”
Taylor seemed to be considering this for the remainder of our walk to the station. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed. “Sounds good to me.”
“Awesome.” We stopped walking just before the side entrance that opened onto the stairs leading down to platform one, and I raised myself up on tiptoes so I could kiss Taylor again. “I know I said this already, but thank you. This really was the best early birthday present ever.”
Taylor smiled and pulled me into a hug. “You’re very welcome, Ruby.”
The sound of the city waking up was what roused me on the morning of June twenty-second. It was so early that the sunrise was still hours away, with the only light that managed to penetrate the heavy curtains at the windows coming from the streetlights outside. Beside me Taylor was still asleep, buried under the quilt all the way up to the bridge of his nose.
It took one glance at the screen of my phone for me to realise why I’d woken up so early. Right there in the notifications panel was SIO Queensland Tour – VA505 7:10am.
“Bloody hell,” I mumbled as I rubbed my eyes. “It is way too early for this…”
“Ruby?” Taylor asked, sounding a bit hazy, and he opened one eye at me. “S’too early, what’re you doing up?”
“Flight’s in three hours,” I said as I sat up and pushed the covers back. “C’mon, we’d better get ready.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Taylor groaned. “I’m going to kill whoever it was that booked this early…”
“Join the queue,” I said through a yawn, and turned on the lamp that sat on my night table. “I’m taking first shower.”
I felt almost human after my shower, the warmth of the spray soothing my aching muscles and joints. Feeling completely human would have to wait until I got my medication into me, which wouldn’t be for a few more hours, along with a cup of tea or two. Taylor slipped into the bathroom behind me as I was combing my hair. “Hey,” I said, giving him a smile. He smiled back after a couple of seconds and took the comb from me, running it through my hair a couple more times before starting to plait it. “I didn’t know you could plait hair,” I commented.
“Happens when you have sisters,” he said with a small shrug. “Made it a whole lot easier for Mum on school mornings if someone other than her could do it.” I handed him an elastic out of my toiletry kit, and watched in the mirror as he wound it around the end of my plait. “I’m a bit out of practice, though.”
“Oh I don’t know, it looks good to me,” I said with a smile. “Thank you.”
He leaned down a little and pressed a kiss just below my right ear. “You’re welcome.”
I cleared out of the bathroom shortly after Taylor had finished plaiting my hair so that he could have a shower, taking my pyjamas and my toiletry kit with me. It was almost four-thirty by my watch, and I silently cursed out whoever it was that had booked a flight before nine o’clock as I started packing away everything I’d unpacked the previous afternoon and evening. My toiletry kit, pyjamas and yesterday’s clothes went into my suitcase, the latter folded and bundled into my laundry bag, and I took out a pair of socks and one of my cardigans before zipping and locking my suitcase closed. My backpack was next on the list – into it went my laptop, the zippered case that held the cord and surge protector for my laptop and all of my chargers (all except for my phone’s charger, which was still charging my phone) and the cardigan I’d taken out of my suitcase.
Taylor left the bathroom just as I picked up the ziplock bag that held my medication from its temporary home on the writing desk. “Nearly ready,” I said as I checked that all three pill packets and their prescriptions were safely inside, and slipped it into the middle pocket of my backpack. “And I think I heard your phone go off about ten minutes ago.”
“Oh, thanks.” Taylor gave me another smile and went to grab his phone from where it had been charging since the evening before. “Shit, we’re running late. Everyone else is downstairs already.”
“Jesus Christ, how early did that lot get up?” I started moving a bit faster, tossing Taylor’s own ziplock bag of medication over to him as I went over to the bed. He caught it one-handed and slipped it into his backpack. “Okay, I’m ready to go,” I said as I zipped up my shoulder bag after checking everything was inside where it belonged.
“Do you want me to call Zac up here to give us a hand?” Taylor asked as I unfolded my wheelchair.
“Yeah, probably a good idea,” I replied. “I can’t handle my suitcase and my wheelchair, and you’ve got your hands full enough with all your gear.”
“Okay, hang on – fuck!” he swore loudly, and dropped his phone on the floor.
“N-no, I’m not. Fucking n-nerve pain just f-flared up on me. Both hands this time.” He sat down hard on the bed and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and started taking one deep breath after another.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
In response, he kicked his phone over to me. “Ring Zac and a-ask him to come up here. I need to take my p-painkillers too, they’re in my backpack.”
“What’s your password?”
“T-two nine eight t-three,” Taylor replied, his voice catching a bit, and I bit down on my bottom lip. He was clearly in a lot of pain. I quickly got his phone unlocked and found Zac’s number in his phone directory.
“Taylor, where the fuck are you?” Zac asked as soon as he picked up, sounding royally pissed off.
“It’s Ruby,” I said. “Taylor just had a flare-up, we need you to come up to our room. I’ll let you in.”
“Shit,” Zac swore softly. “Okay, I’m on my way. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
“Thank you.” I hung up and locked Taylor’s phone again. “Zac’s on his way. What do your painkillers look like?”
“White p-packet with a green stripe and Panadeine Forte on it. It’s in with my other meds.”
There was a knock at the door just as I was filling a glass with water out of the tap in the bathroom. I turned the tap off, leaving the half-filled glass on the vanity, and went to answer the door, finding Zac standing in the corridor with all of his gear in tow. “Sorry I yelled at you,” he apologised as I let him in.
“It’s all good. We’re running late, I don’t blame you for being pissed off.”
“Yeah, but…” Zac sighed. “I’m still sorry. Where’s Tay?”
“Just through there.” I nodded toward the main room, and ducked back into the bathroom to finish getting Taylor a glass of water.
“I told everyone else to go on to the airport without us,” Zac was saying as I left the bathroom. “We’ll catch up later.”
“Are t-they pissed off at me?” Taylor asked, his voice still catching a little.
“Yeah, they’re fucking ropeable because of something you can’t control,” Zac snarked. “Of course they’re not pissed off. They’re worried about you though.” He looked up at me from where he was knelt on the floor at Taylor’s feet. “You don’t have to hang around if you don’t want to, Ruby,” he said, taking the glass from me. “This is going to take a while.”
“I’m not leaving until he’s feeling better,” I said, my tone unintentionally stubborn. “If it means I have to catch a later flight, then so be it.” I sat down next to Taylor and put my right arm around his shoulders, stroking a circle with my thumb around the spot where I knew his central line scar was. “Is that okay?” I asked, and he nodded.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
“You’re lucky I like you so much,” I teased him, and he smirked at me.
Taylor had soon taken his painkillers, and while he finished off the rest of his glass of water Zac set a timer on his phone. “So what happens now?” I asked.
“You get to distract Taylor for the next half an hour while his meds kick in,” Zac replied as he stood up. He held up his phone. “I’m going to call Joel and let him know how things are going.”
“Ask him whose stupid idea booking our flight this early was,” Taylor said, sounding tired. “I’m gonna kick their arse when I find out who it was.”
Neither Taylor nor I said anything for a little while. By the time either of us spoke, my watch read 05:07 – seven minutes past five in the morning.
“Feeling any better?” I asked.
“A bit,” Taylor replied. “Doesn’t feel like I’ve been shocked anymore at least. It just feels like it’s burning now.”
“Does it always feel like that?”
He shook his head. “Not always. It’s pretty bad, yeah, but I can usually deal with it. This is the worst it’s been in ages.” He let out a quiet, almost defeated sigh. “I think I need to go and see my doctor when we get back from New Zealand. I can’t rely on my painkillers the whole time. I’ll get myself addicted if I’m not careful.”
“You could go and see him today,” Zac said as he came back into the main room, still on the phone. “Joel said he can book us onto another flight if that’s what needs to happen.”
“I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” Taylor said, sounding uncertain.
“You won’t. Your health is way more important, Tay, and the fans will more than understand if we need to delay the start of tour a day or so. Sometimes you need to look out for number one, and this just happens to be one of those sometimes.”
Taylor seemed to be considering this for a little while. “Okay. Tell Joel to rebook us. Ruby too.”
“On it,” Zac said with a smile. “Joel? Yeah, can you book Tay, Ruby and I onto a flight for tomorrow? Preferably one after nine o’clock?”
My watch had just ticked over to twenty past five when I heard Taylor let out a sigh of what was unmistakably relief. “That’s better,” he said. “Just a dull ache now. I might actually get some sleep on the way home.”
“How did you two get up here anyway?” Zac asked as I got to my feet and stretched.
“Same way we did it for the last tour,” Taylor replied. He was working at the fingers on his right hand as he spoke. “We caught the train from Wollongong and then a taxi here.”
“Ever heard of driving?” Zac asked, and Taylor gave him the finger. “Lovely attitude, Taylor.”
“Bite me,” Taylor retorted, and went back to working at his fingers.
“You gonna be okay?” I asked him just before we headed downstairs. He didn’t answer me straight away, and nor did I expect him to.
“I think so,” he replied. He gave me a smile. “Thanks for staying with me, Ruby. I really appreciate it.”
I got up out of my wheelchair and drew him into a hug. “Anytime, Tay,” I said, and kissed him on the cheek. “Come on, let’s get you home.”