Olympus Circa 2016
There were stories that her nerves had got the better of her, but rumours of kidnap too. Gangsters were interviewed, Favelas were searched, but there were no clues. The favourite doesn’t disappear before a competition. She had been training for four years; if she was going to get nerves surely she would have had them by now. Others suggested that she must be a drug cheat; that she’d decided to quit before she was found out.
The simple fact was that no one knew, and then she re-appeared. By a bizarre chance of when the samples were required, or possibly because of some kind of screw up or scandal yet to emerge, she hadn’t actually missed a drug test. She had disappeared immediately after the last test and she appeared just in time for the next.
The place was agog when she came onto the stadium and everyone held their breath for the first round of jumps. She declined. Ah yes, they thought, saving her energy. She skipped the next round while two competitors were eliminated. She skipped the next round, bouncing around, keeping warm and smiling at the world.
That was when the suspicions began. No one remembers where the idea came from.
'She’s taller,' someone said.
The press fever became more intense. Binoculars were trained from all angles as she skipped yet another round. These were still heights that she had jumped hundreds of times, heights she’d cleared in the qualifying, so her action was seen as simply putting pressure on the others.
Cameramen were carefully positioning themselves to get pictures with the height markers in the background A consensus soon emerged that her legs were six centimetres longer.
That rumour spread even faster; appearing on Twitter before the next round was done, and still she didn’t jump.
‘It must be someone else.’
‘She’ll need a DNA test as well as a dope test.’
‘If she jumps at all.’
And then she did jump. When there were six left she jumped and cleared the height in one go. She jogged, she stretched and Twitter continued to explode. When there were three left she jumped again, and cleared in one.
‘Longer legs is a big advantage,’ said one commentator, ‘but how is it possible?’
Frantic research confirmed that growth hormone, banned anyway and easily detected, never works in three days. TV channels were searching their databases to find the right expert.
Three rounds later she was the only one left and she cleared again and then she set a new world record; jumping as though she could have done another ten centimetres.
Her crew shielded her until the medals were presented. By then there was no doubt when she stood on the podium; high jumpers tend to be tall, but she towered over them all and the press frenzy continued.
She refused to go to the press conference.
‘No one will believe me,’ she said.
One favoured correspondent who had known her father eventually blagged his was to a TV interview. By then the DNA and the drug tests were all normal and the gold medal was around her neck.
‘Aliens made my legs grow,’ she said. ‘I was kidnapped by aliens.’
No one believed her.
Fran turns away before she snaps back at him, keeps her sigh internal as she spots the trail of crisps that didn’t quite make his mouth. Her mood lurches downwards as she tries to ignore the wriggling worm within her heart that’s eating her love for him away.
It was once so different. Her first glimpse of Grant down the gym, gleaming with endeavour, his lopsided grin snagging her, drawing her closer. She ignored him to begin with because that’s what you did but there was a gravitational force that radiated out from Grant, a sense of wholeness. He was the first at their gym to compete at county level, the first to make the national team, the one all the other boys wanted to be but none of those achievements impressed her.
What struck her most was the way he picked his opponent up after he’d knocked them all down. How he always walked to the other side of the boxing ring and told them he’d been lucky, what a worthy opponent they’d been. Even as they spat out blood Grant's kindness dusted off their self-belief and handed it back to them. When Teddy Ryan won the heavyweight belt he told the world he would have given up if it hadn’t been for Grant. Even after Teddy surpassed Grant in form he knew he couldn’t in generosity.
That was about the only happy memory from those later days when Grant's ability to dodge punches went missing, when his sure connection fitted and sparked like faulty wiring. At least they were together, solid and safe in each other by then. The kids helped too – Grant never misfired with them because he’d always let them win.
But Fran stopped going to support Grant's fights, she couldn’t bear the beatings he took. Even worse was Grant's realisation that his opponents weren't trying that hard but they were still winning. Fran thought the few that knew Grant from the old days would have thrown the fights but there were too many others queuing up behind them.
Boxing was all Grant had ever known, as much a part of him as his skeleton and now it was broken and fragile. Retired at thirty-two Grant was stranded on the top of a mountain staring into the unknown.
‘Did I get it all wrong? I thought life was doing your best, stretching every sinew to be extraordinary. Now I’ve sagged like old knicker elastic. Now I’m a nothing at all.’
Fran couldn't convince Grant that wasn’t true. She spent hours telling him what originally attracted her, how his success had been quite off-putting but his kindness convinced her. She even lied a little – said she never liked the high life, the taste of champagne, the expensive holidays. She said they made her feel dowdy and cheapened somehow. They were better off sipping tea from a thermos on the allotment.
Grant shifts his weight from buttock to buttock, making the chair beneath him give an inhuman cry. Fran can’t remember the last night he managed to come upstairs to sleep. Ever since his diagnosis he's become a human slug, one long slime trail from the kitchen to that godforsaken chair. The faintly cheesy smell makes her feel sick even before she realises what a state the room is in.
Fran yanks the curtains open, forces a creaking window wide. Grant flaps at the sunlight as if he's a vampire overtaken by the day. ‘Get up!’ She shouts at him.
Grant blinks and stands, rocking slightly the way he used to weave to avoid his opponents. ‘What’s the matter?’ He holds a fleshy white hand out to her.
Fran swallows and takes his hand. ‘See them?’ She gestures at the runners' tiny figures on the TV. ‘Do you see them busting guts? Do you remember how it felt to be chasing that kind of target?’
He squirms, squinting at the screen. ‘Sure I do. It was my life but I can’t bear thinking about it now I just can’t do it anymore. You know that.'
‘Who’s to say they’ve got it right?’ She nods again at men hurtling round the track. ‘Looking for one moment of glory out of four years of hard graft. But you could aim lower. You could try for lots of little golden moments in each day?’
Grant looks down at his protruding stomach and snorts. ‘What’s the point of little things? You want the blinging trophy not a feeble pat on the back.’
‘Do you remember when you used to tell your opponents how worthy they’d been?,' she says and he nods in reply. 'Why did you do that, Grant?’
‘Make them feel better about losing. Make them think they could win the next time.’
‘Give them a reason to carry on even though they didn’t win this time.That’s what it’s really all about – not giving up.’
Just for a split second the sixteen-year-old fighter looks out at her from Grant's overjowled middle-aged face and gives her that lopsided grin. Just for a moment she thinks he's still a winner.
Whatever guise I've taken, the laughing surf fan,
the music festival drug taker, the good sport drinker in the pub, the politician..
'Are you loving any body? No no don't answer that.'
'You're not frightened of ghosts are you? It'd be awful if you were'.
'I'm not frightened!'
Why am I always too tired to write my thoughts? Falling back instead on shallow brain blame, and anger, and frustration, and gossip.
Whatever guise I've ever taken, whatever anyone has believed me to be, I'm the girl who can't stop crying at songs, when the mood takes her thus. That's the main thing. It's the only thing she can't help. Everything else is constructed somehow.
I need to tell them that when I see them again. Those shadows, those ghosts from the past. So there are no lies, no half-truths.
Did I make you watch Bringing Up Baby with me? And what did you think? Did you laugh, as I did, up in the air high on wine, and tears at the corny films? Or did you sit through it stoically for my benefit?
The 'Mr Bone' bit was the best.
It's late, it's Friday night, the husband is away again, the baby is in bed, I'm at the kitchen table diluting work with music and comedy and housework and searching for life-enhancing services such as people to prepare a series of salads on a Monday (not found any), and now I should be wondering what the Olympics means. I think it does mean quite a lot. I made sausages and mash for tea because it has rained all day, hard, after a week of Spanish sun in northern England, and as a treat Bisto gravy. I had forgotten how nice it is. I hope that in this brave new world they don't take that away from me. It connects things up, that taste, that image, different times of a life, different periods of history, bewildering the subconscious ephemerally. The Olympics does the same. I don't think it's gone downhill, not really, but then we have to say everything has now. When we watched it back in the 80s my mum said all the Eastern bloc athletes were on drugs (they were, I think), and that the female shot-putters were all actually men. Well, some of them (maybe one). Bad things happened then too. In 1984 the IRA tried to kill the prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a Brighton hotel, and instead killed 5 people, one of them an MP. Then, it was just news - I mean, I guess that was pretty big news. But it was news you read at breakfast with your coffee, and then saw again with your dinner at 6pm, maybe the headlines at 10pm, and that was it. News was often boring, especially when it was the same thing day after day.
But the Olympics, they were exciting. They've always worked as a 'thing', albeit a mismatch of singular and plural, something to look up to, a definite and broad enough to be worth aspiring to. They still are exciting - they bring the world's attention together, to one place, give one topic of conversation. I mean, they connect up now with our childhood, and it's history that's quite hard to mess with - it is what it is.
Is that crying I hear, or the fridge? Is that the cat or the clock? Have the Olympics finished yet? Have I used this hour well? I don't think so, really, and I apologise for that. The spirit didn't speak. My emotions are, somewhere low low beneath the surface, messed up; I cried at that Bicycles in Beijing song this morning. In fact, a Parthian shot, I stayed in Beijing opposite the Olympic stadium while it was being built. But it was just being built; it didn't do anything. I have a lot of stories from that trip, some great, hilarious ones which really should be told - god, they are good actually, the camera, the spring rolls, the morning after pill (sorry) - but none of them involve that stadium. Perhaps that's the thing: none of our stories none of our stories none of our stories are about the Olympic Games. I'm sorry again. Bye for now.