Book feature: Gold
In the end, what’s more important — winning or friendship?
British speed cyclists, Kate and Zoe, have been friends, competitors and training partners since age 19. Now at thirty-two, these remarkable athletes are facing their last and biggest race: the 2012 Olympics. Fiercely competitive, each wants desperately to bring home the gold — and the stakes couldn’t be higher, either professionally or personally.
Read an excerpt of Gold, by Chris Cleave:
August 24, 2004
Changing room, Olympic Velodrome, Athens, women’s sprint cycling Olympic gold medal race
Just on the other side of an unpainted metal door, five thousand men, women, and children were chanting her name. Zoe Castle didn’t like it as much as she’d thought she would. She was twenty-four years old and she sat where her coach told her to sit, beside him, on a thin white bench with the blue protective film still on it.
“Don’t touch the door,” he said. “It’s alarmed.”
It was just the two of them in the tiny subterranean changing room. The walls were freshly plastered, and little hardened curds of the stuff lay on the cement floor where they’d fallen from the trowel. Zoe kicked at one. It came detached, skittered away, and dinged against the metal door.
“What?” said her coach.
Zoe shrugged. “Nothing.”
When she’d visualized success — when she’d dared to imagine making it this far — the floors and the walls of every building in Athens had been Platonic surfaces, hewn from an Olympian material that glowed with inner light. The air had not smelled of drying cement. There hadn’t been this white plastic document wallet on the floor, containing the manufacturer’s installation guide for the air-conditioning unit that stood, partially connected, in the corner of the room.
Her coach saw her expression and grinned. “You’re ready. That’s the main thing.”
She tried to smile back. The smile came out like a newborn foal: its legs buckled immediately.
Overhead, the public stamped its feet in time. The start was overdue. Air horns blared. The room shook; it was so loud that her back teeth buzzed in her jaw. The noise of the crowd was liquidizing her guts. She thought about leaving the velodrome by the back door, taking a taxi to the airport, and flying home on the first available jet. She wondered if she would be the first Olympian ever to do that simple, understandable thing: to quietly slope off from Olympus. There must be something she could do with herself, in civilian life. Magazines loved her. She looked good in clothes. She was beautiful, with her glossy black hair cropped short and her wide green eyes set in the pale, haunted face of an early European saint. There was the slightest touch of cruelty in the line of her lips, a hint of steel in the set of her face that caused the eye to linger. Maybe she should do something with that. She could give interviews, laughing backstage after the show when the journalist asked did she know she looked quite a lot like that British girl who ran off from the Olympics — what was her name again? Ha! she would say. I get that question all the time! And by the way, whatever did become of that girl?
Her coach’s breathing was slow and even.
“Well you seem okay,” said Zoe.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Just another day at the office, right?”
“Correct,” said Tom. “We’re just clocking in to do our job. I mean, what do you want — a medal?”
When he saw how she looked at him, he raised his hands in supplication. “Sorry. Old coaching joke.”
Zoe scowled. She was pissed off with Tom. It wasn’t helping her at all, his insouciance — his pretense that this wasn’t a huge deal. He was usually a much better coach than this, but the nerves were getting to him just when she most needed him to be strong. Maybe she should change coaches, as soon as she got back to England. She thought about telling him now, just to wipe that faux-wise smile off his face.
The worst part was that she was shivering uncontrollably, despite the unconditioned heat. It was humiliating, and she couldn’t make it stop. She was already suited and warmed up. She’d given a urine sample and eight cc’s of blood that must have been mostly adrenaline. She’d recorded a short, nervy piece to camera for her sponsors, signed the official race entry forms, and pinned her race number to the back of her skinsuit. Then she’d removed it and pinned it back on again, the right way up. There was nothing left to occupy these terrible minutes of waiting. The crowd went up another frenzied gear.
She slammed the flats of her hands down on the bench. “I want to go up there! Why are they keeping the door locked?”
Tom yawned and waved the question away. “It’s for our own safety. They’ll let us up once security have checked the corridors.”
Zoe held her head in her hands and rocked back and forth on the bench. It was torture, being locked in this tiny room, waiting for the race officials to release them. She couldn’t stop her body shaking and she couldn’t take her eyes off the metal door. It trembled on its hinges from the crowd noise. It was a strong door, designed to resist autograph seekers indefinitely or fire for thirty minutes, but fear came straight through it.
“God…” she whispered.
“Shitting myself. Honestly, Tom, aren’t you?” She looked up at him.
He shook his head and leaned back. “At my age the big event isn’t what scares you.”
“So what is?”
He shrugged. “Oh, you know. The lingering sensation that in pursuit of my own exacting goals and objectives I might not have been as generous in spirit as I could have been with regard to the needs and dreams of the people I cared most about or for whom I was emotionally responsible.”
He popped the gum he was chewing and inspected his nails. Zoe seethed.
From the stands above them, a fresh cheer shook the building. The announcer was whipping up the crowd. They roared Zoe’s name. They stamped harder. In the changing room the temporary strip light went off and flickered back to life by stuttering increments. A sudden rill of dust fell from an unfinished break in the plasterboard ceiling.
Tom said, “You think this building will hold?”
Zoe exploded. “Shut up, will you? Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
Tom grinned. “Oh come on, this is just another bike race. It’s gravy.”
“Five thousand people aren’t screaming for you.”
He leaned close and took her arm. “You know what you should be scared of? The day they aren’t shouting your name. Then you’ll be like me. You’ll be the dust collecting in the cracks between the boards of the track. You’ll be the spit drying on the chewing gum stuck underneath the seats. You’ll be the sound of the brooms sweeping up after the crowd has pissed off. You’d rather be all of that? Would you?”
She shook her head, sulkily.
He cupped a hand around one ear. “What? I can’t hear you over the noise of all this love! Would you rather be the girl no one remembers?”
“No, for fuck’s sake!”
He smiled. “Alright then. So now get your arse out there and win!”
The two of them looked at the closed metal door, then down at the floor, then back at each other. A moment passed.
Tom sighed. “Nice pep talk though, wasn’t it? I maybe peaked too soon.”
Zoe glared at him. She was ready to spit.
Overhead, the crowd’s stamping was incessant. Plaster dust fell continually now.
She fixed her eyes on the door. “Why don’t they come? We’ve been down here forever.”
“Maybe this is our personal hell. Maybe they never come, and the crowd just gets louder and louder, and we’re left alone for eternity with our thoughts.”
“Don’t even joke, okay? I feel guilty enough.”
Tom looked at her carefully. “Because of Kate?”
Zoe was surprised at the relief she felt when Tom said Kate’s name. Underneath all the last-minute details of her preparation — the tightening of shoe cleats, the polishing of visors — she hadn’t realized how much it had been eating her.
“She should be here,” she said. “It should be me and her in this final.”
Her coach squeezed her knee. “Good girl. But you didn’t force Kate to stay at home. She made her own choices.”
“I want you to say it, Zoe. I want to hear you say Kate made her own choices.“
Zoe stared at the floor for a long time. The roar of the crowd accelerated every torpid molecule of the air in the little unfinished room. The vibration of their stamping feet rose through the steel frame of the bench and shimmied the white plastic seat beneath her.
Slowly, she raised her eyes to her coach’s.
“Kate made her choices,” she said softly. “And so did I.”
Tom held her gaze.
“Good,” he said finally. “And now put it out of your mind. Okay? That there is life; this here is sport. You only need to think about the next ten minutes.”
She swallowed. “Alright.”
He laughed. “Well then, don’t look so terrified.”
“Listen to that noise. I am terrified.”
“Look, Zoe. You’ve done all the hard work. You’ve made it to the final. Your worst-case scenario here is to be the second-fastest rider on the entire planet. The very worst thing that could happen in the next ten minutes is that you win an Olympic silver medal.”
“You’re scared of getting silver?”
She thought about it, then nodded. “I’d rather fucking die.”
She took a long, deep breath, and the trembling in her body subsided.
When she looked back at Tom, he was smiling.
“What?” said Zoe.
“Young lady, I believe you’re finally ready for your first Olympic final. Now do us both a favor, and go up there and win it.”
“But the door…”
Tom grinned. “Was only ever in your mind.”
She stood up and pushed on the metal door with two fingers, tentatively. It swung open easily, on oiled hinges, and the roar of the crowd swelled louder. The door banged against its stop and rang with the deep note of a bell.
She stared at him, wide-eyed.
“What?” said Tom, shooing her away. “Go on. You’re really bloody late, as it happens.”
Zoe looked back at the open door and then at him.
“You’re actually pretty good,” she said.
“Get to my age, you’d better be.”
The tall, whitewashed stairwell leading up to the track was silvered with sunshine falling from the high skylights in the velodrome roof. On the wide white riser of the very last step, in blue stenciled letters that were nearly straight, the Olympic motto read Citius, Altius, Fortius.
Zoe breathed a deep, slow lungful of the hot, roaring air. The hairs rose on the back of her neck. Everything that had passed was excused, gone, and forgotten. The crowd was screaming her name. She smiled, and breathed, and took the first step up into the light.
203 Barrington Street, Clayton, East Manchester
On a tiny TV in the cluttered living room of a two-bedroom terraced house, Kate Meadows watched her best friend emerge from the tunnel into the central arena of the velodrome. The crowd noise doubled, maxing out the TV’s speakers. Her heart surged. The baby’s bottle was balanced on the TV, and the howl of the crowd raised concentric waves in the milk. When Zoe lifted her arms to acknowledge the crowd’s support, the answering roar sent the bottle traveling across the top of the TV. It teetered on the edge, fell to the floor, and lay on its side, surrendering white formula from its translucent teat to the thirsty brown hessian of the carpet. Kate ignored it. She was transfixed by the image of Zoe.
Kate was twenty-four years old, and since the age of six, her dream had been to win gold in an Olympics. Her eighteen years of preparation had been perfect. She had reached the highest level in the sport. She had shared a coach with Zoe and trained with her and beaten her in the Nationals and the Worlds. And then, in the final year of preparation for Athens, baby Sophie had arrived.
This was an old TV and the picture quality was terrible, but it was quite clear to Kate that Zoe was now sitting on a twelve-thousand-dollar American prototype race bike with a matte black monocoque frame made from high-modulus unidirectional carbon fiber, while she herself was sitting on a Klippan sofa from Ikea, with pigmented epoxy/polyester powder-coated steel legs and a removable, machine-washable cover in Almås red. Kate was well aware that there were victories to which such a seat could be ridden, but they were small and domesticated triumphs, measured in infants weaned and potty-training campaigns prosecuted to dryness. She ground her knuckles into her temples, making herself remember how in love she was with Sophie and with Jack, who was in Athens preparing for his own race the next day. She tried to exorcise all jealous thoughts from her head — kneading her temples till they hurt — but God forgive her, her heart still ached to win gold.
Under the coffee table Sophie picked over the fallen mess of breakfast and lunch, cooing happily as she brought cornflakes and nonspecific mush to her mouth. The doctor had said she was too poorly to travel to Athens, but now the child seemed effervescent with health. You had to remind yourself that babies didn’t do these things deliberately. They didn’t use the kitchen calendar to trace out the precise schedule of your dreams with their chubby little fingers and then plan their asthma and their allergies to clash with it.
It was sweltering in the living room. The open window admitted no cooling breeze, only the oppressive August heat reflecting off the pale concrete of their yard. Kate felt sweat running down the small of her back. From next door, through the shared wall, she heard the neighbor vacuuming. The Hoover groaned and thumped its bald plastic head against the skirting board, again and again, a lifer despairing of parole. Crackling bands of electrical interference scrolled down the TV picture, masking Zoe’s face as she lined up to start the race.
The two riders were under starter’s orders now. A neutral voice counted down from ten. Up at the start line, behind the barrier, Kate caught a glimpse of Tom Voss in the group of IOC officials and VIPs. At the sight of her coach, her pulse quickened to prepare her system for the intense activity that his arrival always signaled. Adrenaline flooded her. When the countdown in the velodrome reached five, she watched Zoe’s hands tense on the handlebars. Her own hands tensed too, involuntarily, grabbing phantom bars in the stifling air of the living room. Her leg muscles twitched and her awareness sharpened, dilating every second. Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race like this, hopelessly, the way a widow’s exhausted heart must still leap at a photo of her dead lover.
There was a commotion by her feet, and an excited squeal. She reached down to lift a small electric fan from the floor to the coffee table, out of the way of Sophie’s exploring fingers. Its breeze was a relief. On the TV, the starter’s countdown reached three. Kate watched Zoe lick her lips nervously. Two, said the starter. One. Sweat was beading on Kate’s forehead. She reached out and turned up the speed on the fan.
The picture contracted to a bright white dot in the center of the TV screen, then sparked out entirely. From next door the whine of the neighbor’s Hoover descended in pitch and faded through a long, diminishing sigh into silence. Through the wall she heard the neighbor say, “Shit.” Kate watched the blades of the fan relinquish their invisibility as they slowed to a stop. She looked at the fan dumbly, feeling the breeze on her face fade into stillness, wondering why a breeze would do such a thing at the exact same second the TV went on the blink. After a moment she understood that something had blown in the fuse box. As usual, it had taken half the street’s electricity down with it.
She felt a rare pulse of self-pity. Only these little things set her off. Missing the Olympics was too big and blunt to wound in anything but a dull and heavy sense. It was like being etherized and then smothered. But Jack’s plane tickets when they arrived had been sharp enough to cut. The packing of his send-ahead bag had left an ache, and a specific emptiness in the wardrobe that they shared. Now the electricity burning out had left her burned out too.
A second later she laughed at herself. After all, everything could be fixed. She looked in the kitchen drawer until she found fuse wire, then took a torch into the understairs toilet, where the fuse box was. Sophie screamed when she left the room, so she picked her up and held her under one arm while she juggled the torch and the fuse wire in her other hand, standing on the toilet seat to reach the fuse box. Sophie wriggled and squawked and kept trying to grab the wires. After a minute of trying, Kate decided she cared about not electrocuting her daughter more than she cared about watching Zoe race.
She put Sophie back down on the living room floor. Immediately the baby brightened up and resumed her endless quest for dangerous objects to put in her mouth. Fifteen hundred miles away the first of the best-of-three sprint rounds was over by now, and Zoe had either won or lost. It felt weird not to know. Kate clicked the TV on and off, as if some restorative element in the wiring of the house — some electronic white blood cell — might have healed the damage. No picture came. Instead she watched herself, ten pounds heavier than her racing weight, still in her nightie at three in the afternoon, leaning out of the reflection in the blank black TV screen.
She sighed. She could fix the problems with her reflection. Some hard miles of training would put the leanness back into her face, and her blond hair wouldn’t always be scraped back into a tight bunch to keep it clear of Sophie’s sticky grip, and her blue eyes were only hidden behind her ugly glasses because she just hadn’t found the strength to get dressed and go to the shops for the cleaning fluid for her contacts. All this could be sorted.
Even so, as she watched herself on TV, she panicked that Jack couldn’t possibly still find her attractive. It didn’t do to dwell on thoughts like that, so she slumped back down on the sofa and phoned him. Behind his voice when he picked up was the roar of five thousand people.
“Did you see that?” he shouted. “She killed it! She won like she wasn’t even trying!”
“Yeah! This place is unbelievable. Don’t tell me you weren’t watching?”
She heard him hesitate. “Come on, Kate, don’t be bitter. It’ll be you racing next time, in Beijing.”
“No, I mean I actually couldn’t watch. The power’s gone out.”
“Did you check the fuses?”
“Gosh, Ken, my Barbie brain did not entertain that option.”
Kate sighed. “No, it’s okay. I tried to fix the fuse but Sophie wouldn’t let me.” Straightaway, she realized how sulky that sounded.
“Our daughter is pretty strong for her age,” said Jack, “but I still reckon you should be able to kick her arse in a straight fight.”
She laughed. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m just having a shitty time here.”
“I know. Thank you for looking after her. I miss you.”
Tears formed in her eyes. “Do you?”
“Oh my God,” he said, “are you kidding? If I had to choose between flying home to you and racing for gold here tomorrow, you know I’d be right back on that plane, don’t you?”
She sniffed, and wiped her eyes. “I’m not asking you to choose, idiot. I’m asking you to win.”
She heard his smile down the phone. “If I win, it’s only because I’m scared of what you’ll do to me if I don’t.”
“Come back home to me when you win gold, okay? Promise me you won’t stay out there with her.”
“Oh Christ,” he said. “You know you don’t even have to ask me that.”
“I know,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
Through the phone connection, the noise of the crowd peaked again.
“The second race is starting,” Jack shouted over the roar. “I’ll call you back, okay?”
“You think she’ll win it?”
“Yeah, absolutely. She made round one look like a Sunday ride.”
“I love you,” she said. “More than ice cream after training.”
“I love you too,” he said. “More than winning.”
She smiled. It was a perfect moment, and then she heard herself ruin it by saying, “Call me when the race is over, okay?”
She cringed at herself for being so needy, for putting this extra demand on him. Love wasn’t supposed to require the constant reassurance. But then again, love wasn’t supposed to sit watching its own reflection in a dead TV while temptation rode a blazing path to glory.
Whatever Jack said back to her, the crowd drowned it out by chanting Zoe’s name.
She clicked the call off and let the phone fall softly to the washable, hard-wearing cushion covers. It wasn’t just that she’d stopped believing she would ever get to the Olympics. Now, if she was really honest with herself, she wasn’t even sure if she could win the kind of races you rode on kitchen chairs and sofas.
She stared with glazed eyes through the window. In the shimmering heat of their little back yard, a squirrel had found something in the bottom of a crisp packet.
She thought, Is this my life now?
She held her hands to her temples, more gently now, and timed the pulse in them against the second hand of the living room clock. It had been months since she’d trained hard but even now — even with this stress — her heart rate was subsixty. The second hand was back where it started, and she’d only counted fifty-two. Sometimes this was the only small victory in her days: this knowledge that she was fitter than time.
She looked up and saw that Sophie was mimicking her, trying to press her own tiny hands against the sides of her head. Kate laughed, and for the very first time Sophie laughed back.
Kate brimmed with euphoria.
“Oh my God, darling, you laughed!”
She dropped to her knees, picked Sophie up, and hugged her. Sophie grinned — a gummy, prototype grin that faltered and twitched lopsidedly and then shone again. She gurgled noisily, delighted with herself.
“Oh, you clever little thing!”
Wait till I tell Jack, she thought, and the thought was so light and so simple that she suddenly knew everything would be okay. What did it matter if Zoe won gold today or if Jack won gold tomorrow? Kneeling here in the untidy living room, holding her baby close and breathing the warm curdled scent of her, it was impossible to believe that anything mattered more than this. Who even cared that she had until recently been able to bring a bicycle up to forty miles per hour in the velodrome? It seemed absurd, now that real life had begun for her — with its real progression through these lovely milestones of motherhood — that anyone even bothered to ride bicycles around endless oval tracks, or that anyone had had the odd idea of giving out gold to the one who could do it quickest. What good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin?
God, she thought. I mean, where does that even get you?
After a minute, during which her heart beat forty-nine times, she smiled wearily.
“Oh, who am I kidding?” she said out loud, and Sophie looked up at the sound of her voice and produced an experimental expression, unique to her and perfectly equidistant between a laugh and a lament.
Excerpted from Gold by Chris Cleave. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Cleave. Excerpted by permission of Bond Street Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
20 writerly questions for Chris Cleave