The Reluctant Wag
Author:Mary Costello

Chapter 10

Merise had settled well into the first semester at uni. She had been working even harder than usual, not just because the work was more difficult this year, but because she was determined to keep herself very, very busy, to stop herself brooding over Cal McCoy. She’d accepted that she couldn’t avoid hearing mention of his name, or the sight of his face. His image was everywhere. The footy season was now in full swing, the Wolves were going well and the media was filled with stories about them – stories which Merise studiously avoided.

She and Erica met for coffee most mornings at Ti Amo’s café in Lygon Street. They would sit for about forty-five minutes, companionably reading the papers and chatting about the news of the day. Erica was already at their favourite table by the time Merise bustled in, dropped her leather portfolio under the table, threw herself into a chair and exclaimed, ‘Ugh! I don’t like Mondays. I have to cart about ten kilos of books around with me all day. What’s up?’

Erica was just sitting there, staring up at her, an odd, frozen expression on her face.

‘What?’ Merise repeated, alarmed now. ‘What’s wrong? Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine. It’s not me. It’s just, look . . .’ and she pushed the Tribune across the table to Merise, pointing at the picture on the front page. It was an unsettling image of two men tussling as they rolled down the steps of a gaudy building. One of the men was the red-headed Wolves player she recognised as Josh Murray, and the other was Cal McCoy. The headline over the image screamed:

Wild Night for the Wolves!

Merise looked up, reluctant to comprehend, unable to believe. ‘What’s this?’ she asked faintly.

‘The Yarraside Wolves. Apparently some of the players are in big trouble,’ Erica said quietly across the table, as the café was growing busy now. ‘They played in Brisbane yesterday, and it says here that last night some of them were drinking and misbehaving at their hotel, and . . . well, there were some women involved.’ She pointed to the photo, directed Merise to the four skimpily clad female figures at the top of the hotel steps.

Merise just looked, feeling strangely numb as Erica placed a second newspaper before her. The Times headline read:

Wolves on the Prowl! – Yarraside Captain in Gold Coast Ruckus

She mechanically read the article.

‘Yarraside Wolves captain, Cal McCoy, was last night embroiled in a fight with a teammate following a night of drunken revelry at the Windrush Hotel on the Gold Coast.

Guest Tina Lowry complained to management when the noise from the players’ room continued well past midnight. ‘I rang the reception desk just after one in the morning, and again at half-past three. But they just didn’t stop all night. They were filthy drunk and they had women in the room. It was disgusting.’

Hotel staff say players spent the evening in the hotel bar with a number of young women. They refused to leave when the bar closed and had to be forcibly ejected by security staff. The party then continued in a room shared by two of the players believed to be in their second year at Yarraside. Surprisingly, captain Cal McCoy appears to have participated in the hijinks, besmirching his formerly pristine reputation. The juvenile behaviour is out of character for a player until now considered the ideal role model for younger players and a shining light of the game.’

Merise continued to read, but the words didn’t make sense. Surely it couldn’t be true. She couldn’t imagine the man she knew behaving like that. It was impossible. Sure, he was no angel – in fact, he could be rude, selfish and arrogant – but this was something different. Perhaps she’d been wrong about him – believing that despite everything, he was basically sensible, strong and steady. Yarraside had entrusted him with the captaincy, and he clearly had the respect of his teammates, but could he really be a drunken lout? The words swam back into focus:

McCoy, who has since returned to Melbourne, was unavailable for comment. Club media spokesperson Paige Gorton said the club was treating the matter very seriously, but would conduct an internal investigation as a matter of priority before commenting on the allegations.

‘Looks pretty damning, doesn’t it?’ said Erica. ‘And it’s a terrible distraction for the players.’

‘Yeah,’ Merise responded woodenly, ‘but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. This sort of thing happens all the time, doesn’t it? Just another bunch of rabid footballers out on the town and out of control.’

‘Yeah, but it’s not good for you either, Merise, to be associated with a team full of ferals, is it? That’s hardly the image you want to project.’

‘No,’ said Merise. ‘It’s definitely not good, but I’m well out of all that now.’

After breakfast they walked over to the uni, but once Erica had gone to class, Merise decided to miss her first lecture, and went straight home instead. She couldn’t concentrate anyway. She tried to keep occupied by sorting and backing up her computer files, but before long she found herself clicking onto her home page where she saw the headline, ‘Wolves’ Wild Romp – Pics Go Viral’. She quickly disconnected and rushed off to her ten o’clock tutorial.

She needn’t have bothered; she was unable to contribute anything to the discussion or even to keep her mind on the topic. At eleven she decided there was no point hanging around for the rest of the day; she just couldn’t work up any interest for anything. Instead she went home and decided to lose herself in activity by cleaning her apartment from top to bottom.

She often cleaned when she was agitated; her attempt, she realised, to impose order on the chaos of life. She banged about the kitchen, emptying and reorganising cupboards, feeling angry at herself. This was so stupid. What did it matter to her what went on at Yarraside? Why should she care what Cal McCoy did with his spare time? But she did care, she had to admit it, and somehow she couldn’t bear to think of him drunk, out of control, picking up some random girl. How could he have so little respect for himself? It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t like him. But when she glanced again at the newspaper lying on the table, she felt a weight pressing on her chest – the photo didn’t lie. She’d been wrong about Cal after all. She’d built up a picture of him as some sort of hero – hateful in some ways – but a hero nonetheless. And now it turned out that he was just like all the other sports celebrities who behaved like adolescents. It was time for her to move on.

She switched on the radio as she gathered a pile of laundry and loaded the washing machine. Naturally, the Yarraside scandal was the hot issue on talk-back radio. She wanted to ignore the furore; but couldn’t help listening with horrified fascination to the speculation, the gloating and insults of opposition supporters and the staunch defence of Cal by the Yarraside barrackers. They weren’t going to hear their captain pilloried without fighting back, and somehow that comforted her.

The story was also the first item on the news.

‘Significantly, Wolves Captain, Cal McCoy, has been unavailable for comment this morning. It seems the Yarraside star and last year’s Best and Fairest winner has compromised his reputation. The incident threatens to be very damaging to McCoy, and there’s now talk of his being stood down as captain as early as today.’

Merise switched off, shocked. It hadn’t occurred to her that they might strip him of the captaincy. It would kill him – she knew him well enough to realise that. He’d be shattered. But it wasn’t her business, she told herself, digging out the vacuum cleaner, dusters, furniture polish and window cleaner.

When physical activity didn’t work, she tried studying. She was doing a very poor job of trying to make notes for her next Public Relations seminar when her mobile rang.

‘Merise? Greg Bedford here. How are you?’


‘Greg Bedford, from Celebrity Media. We met at Southbank . . .’ It was that vulture from that tacky rag. He hadn’t lost any time and in that moment it struck her that she too might be implicated in this seedy story.

‘Listen, Merise, I was just wondering, what do you, as the face of the Yarraside Wolves, make of the incident at the Windrush Hotel in Brisbane?’

She instantly cut him off. But how had he even got hold of her mobile number? She sat there, horrified, angry and nonplussed until the phone went again. She checked before answering. This time it was Bev.

‘Hello? Bev?’

The older woman could sense the apprehension in Merise’s voice and immediately understood it. She got straight down to business. ‘Merise, have you been contacted by the media yet?’

‘Yes, just a minute ago – Greg Bedford. I didn’t say anything. I cut him off.’

‘Good. You’ve seen the papers?’

‘Yes, but it’s nothing to do with me, Bev. I mean . . .’

‘They’ll be after your comment, trust me, just as soon as they hunt down your address.’

‘But, Bev, I have no time for this. What can I do? I don’t want to be involved.’

‘I’m afraid you are involved, whether you like it or not. Now let’s see . . . can you get down to SMO’s offices asap? We can help you with a strategy. We all need to be on the same page in dealing with this.’

Merise didn’t want to go near SMO, but she knew Bev was right. ‘Okay then,’ she agreed with sinking spirits, ‘I’ll come as soon as I can.’

Reporters were waiting for her the minute she opened the door of her apartment. She looked neither left nor right, although she couldn’t help but recognise the Channel Seven news reporter in a tight orange suit who stuck the microphone under her chin.

‘Merise, please – just a moment. Please . . . what do you think of the Windrush Hotel affair, Merise?’

Merise kept walking, kept looking ahead, wondering if she should say nothing, or ‘No comment’. Would they follow her all the way to the tram stop, the way court reporters pursued defendants in criminal cases? That thought spurred her on. She was walking so quickly that the reporter in her too-high heels had to trot to keep up with her.

‘Has Cal McCoy been in contact with you since the incident? Are you and Cal McCoy dating?’

She just kept walking, trying to keep her face as expressionless as possible.

‘Merise, as the face of Yarraside’s women supporters, would you care to comment on these latest developments? Are you prepared to stand by the club even after this outrageous behaviour?’

She closed her ears as best she could, kept her eyes straight ahead, and when she rounded the corner and saw a tram just pulling up, she ran, jumped on and escaped.

As the crowded tram jolted its way into the city centre her mobile buzzed. When she picked up she heard that hated name, ‘Greg Bedford’ again, immediately stabbed the End Call button and put the phone on silent. Her head was beginning to throb, and she was growing steadily angrier at Cal. It was his fault that she was in this position. How could he be so stupid, so careless of his position? She admitted to herself now that she had begun to think that he liked her, but she must have been kidding herself. Maybe that was just what she wanted to believe because of the way she felt for him. She sighed and hopped off the tram in bustling Collins Street.

SMO had offices on the seventh floor of one of Melbourne’s most impressive new buildings. It was cool and silent in the vast lobby, and in the broad corridor where she found herself when she stepped out of the lift. And it was empty, except for Cal McCoy, who stood there looking like thunder.

‘Oh,’ she gasped involuntarily, almost stepping into his arms as she hurried out of the lift. ‘You!’

‘Merise!’ He was as surprised and discomfited as she was.

‘Um, excuse me,’ she stammered, but he cut her off.

‘Why are you here?’

She felt a stabbing pain above her right eye, and her own voice sounded oddly distant when she said, ‘Because SMO sent for me. Apparently I’m embroiled in your mess – just like everyone who has anything to do with the Yarraside Wolves.’

‘My mess?’ he echoed. She glanced up at him, then immediately looked away; she couldn’t trust herself when he was looking at her like that. She’d never before seen him look so raw and vulnerable. And no wonder; his whole career might be on the line here – that’s what would matter to him. She tried to harden her heart against him.

‘Well I wasn’t snapped rolling down the steps of the Windrush Hotel,’ she flung at him.

He looked utterly exasperated. ‘Merise, I’d like you to know what happened up there. I—’No thanks,’ she snapped, ‘save it for the media.’

He looked at her for a moment, his expression difficult to read, then turned abruptly and strode into a room just along the corridor.

Merise was still standing in the empty corridor, feeling rather sick and unsure what to do, when the lift door opened and Bev stepped out. ‘There you are! Glad you made it in one piece. Let’s get in and see what’s happening. What’s up? You look pale.’

‘I . . . I feel terrible. I’ve got a bad headache.’

‘No wonder; this is all pretty stressful if you’re not used to it. But I think the meeting should be a quick one,’ Bev said as she steered a reluctant Merise into SMO’s lavish board room.

As Merise took her place near the far end of the massive oval table, she was painfully aware of Cal sitting right in the middle, with Paige at his right hand. She recognised some of the faces from SMO and a group of dour-faced men she assumed were Yarraside officials. She wished she were anywhere else at that moment other than in that room, where the atmosphere was thick with tension.

The director of SMO opened proceedings, cautioning everyone of the importance of presenting a united front on the incident.

‘We recommend that the club hold a press conference later today, to make a brief statement so we can put this to bed asap.’ He then solemnly turned to the club representatives. ‘What we need to know is, what do you want us to tell the media?’

Paige immediately leant forward, but before she had a chance to open her mouth, Cal spoke out. ‘Tell them the truth,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ Paige ventured, ‘Cal wasn’t there when all the nonsense was going on.’

‘But the photo? How do we explain that to the media?’

‘I don’t care what the media or the public are saying about me,’ Cal interrupted. ‘They can twist things any way they want. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. I was on my way to the airport, I heard there was trouble and I went back to the hotel. Some of the younger boys had been drinking and things got out of hand. I was trying to sort it out.’

There was silence around the table for a moment. Merise sat very still, feeling weak and miserable. She had no idea whether he was telling the truth or not. Was it just a well-crafted story created by Paige Gorton – a plausible alternative to a truth that would require Yarraside to sack its captain? She knew he’d do anything to safeguard his career. She felt her head tighten and a sudden wave of nausea came over her. She stood up and made for the door, her head reeling.

‘Merise!’ Bev jumped up and followed her. ‘She’s not feeling the best,’ Bev announced in a loud whisper as she closed the door of the meeting room and put a comforting arm around Merise’s shoulders, led her to the lift and sent her straight home in a taxi.

It was outside the Windrush Hotel, at that fateful moment when the cameraman snapped that infamous photo that Cal realised how much he cared for Merise. His first thought was – what the hell would she think of it? He knew at once that the damage would be done, and it was. Taken completely out of context, it looked so damned bad. It was a disaster – for Yarraside and for him personally, even if it was all a mistake.

Because they’d played a late game on Sunday, the club had planned to spend the night on the Gold Coast and return to Melbourne the following morning. Cal and Tom Rivers had decided to have dinner at a new Greek restaurant in Brisbane, while some of the coaches and older players went to the cinema, and the younger players stayed on the Gold Coast. Just after eleven, Cal had received a call from his mother, telling him that his father had been taken to hospital. It was the call he’d been dreading for weeks.

Some months before, his father had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing a tough struggle for survival. Big Dan McCoy was a strong-minded man full of self-belief. He had always been a winner – an athletic giant of a man who’d led Yarraside to its last premiership. When his mother rang he immediately headed for the airport. He’d been about to board a late plane for Melbourne when he’d got a call from teammate Ryan James.

‘Cal? I think you’d better get back here. Some of the boys are acting up and it’s got out of hand. They won’t take any notice of me. It looks really bad, mate.’

He’d had no choice but to go back. He was the captain. Ryan had been unable to contact the coaches, so he was responsible. At least the hotel was close to the airport. He could be there in ten minutes. He quickly rang his mother and told her he would get back to Victoria as soon as he’d sorted things out. She’d reassured him that his father was out of immediate danger.

‘Don’t worry. He’s much better now. No need for you to come down tonight, son,’ she said, ‘tomorrow will be fine.’

That eased his mind a little. ‘Good, but I’m coming anyway. I’ll be there ASAP.’

At five o’clock on the Monday morning he got the call he’d been dreading, from club president Roy Mears. ‘Cal, I’ve just had a call from Noel Barlow from the Tribune. What the hell’s going on? And where are you?’

‘I’m at the hospital; my father was admitted last night or I’d have called you before this.’ Cal told him the story.

‘When I got back to the hotel, Troy, Will and Jason were just outside the main entrance with a bunch of girls they’d met in the bar. They were all drunk, mouthing off – involved in a slanging match with hotel security. I thought I’d better settle them down. I didn’t notice the reporters. I was too focused on getting the boys inside.

‘So I go up the steps, grab Troy and Will, pull them away from the door and I tell the security guys I’ll look after them. Troy can barely stand. He just swings around, realises it’s me, starts flinging his arms around me, yelling, “Cal baby!” loses his balance and pitches the two of us down the steps.’

‘And that’s when the damned photographer steps up and gets his shot,’ Roy snarled. ‘Seems like he’d been tipped off by the hotel barman. Now that shot will be on every front page in Australia this morning.’

‘Yeah. I’m sorry. I should have handled it better. I should —’

‘Not your fault. What else could you have done? But the media will have a field day.’

‘Listen, I want to call a press conference, Roy. I want to front the press and set the record straight, and I want to do it today.’

‘Good. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear from you, mate. That’s what I expect from the Yarraside captain. Do it. I’ll set it up. But we’d better talk to the media people first. Paige will be in touch later.’

Cal had tried to work off his frustration in his private gym. He’d tried to do the right thing; he could never have guessed it would go so badly wrong. Now his reputation was compromised and his leadership was being questioned. He felt a mix of rage and despair rise inside, but he took slow, deep breaths in a deliberate effort to steady himself. He’d fix it if it killed him.

The Yarraside press conference was set for three o’clock that afternoon and by two-thirty representatives of every media outlet in Victoria had crowded into the Hartley Centre. Merise was watching the live broadcast at home. Bev had sent her home with strict orders to talk to no one about the incident. Merise’s face burned when she thought of her ungainly exit from SMO’s lavish board room. She was too busy mentally replaying the encounter with Cal. She kept remembering the hurt look in his eyes. Now he would have to face the world, because as the media conference began, it was Cal who led out the contingent of Yarraside officials who took their places at a long table facing the press.

A hush fell over the room as the cameras tracked along the line of grim-faced men – players, coaches, CEO and Club president. It was Roy Mears who spoke first.

‘Thanks for coming. We’ve called this conference to set the record straight on the events that took place at the Windrush Hotel last night. First and foremost, I’d like to make it very clear that our captain, Cal McCoy’s only involvement in the incident was to try to defuse the situation. In fact, he was not actually present at the hotel at the time of the first disturbance. He returned to the hotel when contacted by another team member who sought his advice and assistance. He is completely innocent of any wrong-doing.’

At that, Merise moved across the room and knelt in front of her little television. She listened with rapt attention as Mears told the story, completely exonerating Cal in the process.

‘The leadership group has now decided that these players actually don’t deserve to wear the Yarraside Football Club jumper at the moment, so they’ve been suspended and they won’t be playing for the next three weeks. Finally, I’d just like to reiterate that our captain has been wrongly implicated in this incident, and that Cal McCoy’s actions throughout have, as always, been the actions of an exemplary leader.’

It all had the ring of truth, and the club cited the eyewitness accounts of several hotel staff and guests who supported Cal’s version of events. Merise cringed where she knelt; to think that she’d doubted him, that she’d been among his accusers. She’d been too ready to write him off as just another egotistical sportsman, drunk on his own legend.

As the cameras switched back to Cal and his face filled the screen, she knew she’d been wrong. He’d been going to tell her what happened, and she’d refused to listen. Now she didn’t see the overly driven, self-absorbed man she’d seen before, but a man who, even when he was suffering, had an openness and decency in his face that anyone could see.

Then the questions started.

‘Cal, why didn’t you just come out right away and explain the situation?’

‘Because it was a private family matter and I didn’t think it was anyone’s business. But with the way the story has been blown up and distorted, we’ve had no choice but to set the record straight,’ he said coolly.

‘Cal, how do you feel about the players responsible? Do they deserve to play for the club?’

Cal paused before answering. ‘Their actions were immature and unacceptable, no doubt about that. That kind of undisciplined behaviour can destroy the essence of a club. The players realise that, and they’ll take their punishment and hopefully knuckle down and work to get back into the team. They’re still very young men and it’s a big lesson for them, but this club has a strong culture and we’ll make sure they benefit from this experience.’

That surprised her. She’d expected him to be angry, disgusted, and he was, but he was also reasonable, and he wasn’t getting carried away by his own feelings, despite having been compromised by the antics of his teammates. She had to admit it – he’d handled the whole thing brilliantly.

Bev called that evening to see how Merise was feeling.

‘I’m fine, thanks; much better. And very relieved this has all been cleared up.’

‘Yes, thank heavens,’ Bev agreed. ‘You know, I think McCoy has come out of this pretty well. No one even knew his father was ill. They say Dan McCoy’s just living for his son to lead the Wolves to a premiership. Did McCoy ever say anything to you about all this?’

‘No, never.’

Cal had spoken of his father over dinner at the Cocina del Diablo, but he’d said nothing of his illness. He probably preferred to carry his burdens privately, Merise realised.

‘It must be awful for McCoy,’ Bev rattled on. ‘Oh! And you know that time he didn’t turn up for the photo shoot and they said it a calf strain or some such? Well, it was because his father was admitted to the hospital. Apparently he’s missed a couple of public appearances because of the family situation.’

Merise immediately thought of the book launch where Cal had failed to show up. His father must have been very sick that time, too. And she’d written him off as an arrogant tosser!

‘Anyway, you watch, Merise – McCoy will come out of this smelling like roses.’

Bev’s view was confirmed in the Times the following morning in Nina Smally’s opinion piece on the affair.

It could have been a disaster for Yarraside, but the way the club has handled the situation and the strong leadership displayed by Cal McCoy will silence critics. If anything, McCoy’s status has been enhanced by his cool conduct under fire.

Merise had to agree. He was a truly unselfish leader – an unselfish man – she knew that now. But it was too late. When he’d needed her, when he’d come to her to tell her the truth – and before he’d told the rest of the world – she’d spurned him. Her heart was scalded at the memory of his face – the hurt expression. And to think his father had been so ill. She closed her eyes, shuddered. He’d probably despise her now, and who could blame him? Well, she need never see him again. She was finished with the modelling, and definitely finished with Yarraside. Her encounters with Cal McCoy were at an end.