GOLD by Chris Cleave
Tuesday 24 August 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 visualised 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 liquidising 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 pretence 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. ‘All right 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 realised 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.’
‘Still . . .’
‘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 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. ‘All right.’
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 favour, 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 stencilled 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 travelling 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 uni-directional carbon fibre, 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 AlmaÌŠs 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 non-specific 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 back yard. Kate felt sweat running down the small of her back. From next door, through the shared wall, she heard the neighbour 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 signalled. 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 centre of the TV screen, then sparked out entirely. From next door the whine of the neighbour’s hoover descended in pitch and faded through a long, diminishing sigh into silence. Through the wall she heard the neighbour 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 etherised 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 elec- tronic 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 blonde 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 of 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.’ Straight away, she realised 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.’
‘Yeah?’ ‘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 sub-sixty. 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.
Eight years later, Monday 2 April 2012
Detention deck 9 of the Imperial Battle Station colloquially known as the Death Star
The Rebel – the kid – resisted, so they locked her in a dark metal holding cell that smelled of machine oil. It was too much for her and she grinned and wriggled with excitement. She clung to her father. He held the kid’s skinny neck in the crook of one arm and squeezed with just enough pressure to restrain her, or to convey silent affection, the way fathers will apply forces. The child squirmed to escape, giving the hug an aspect of violence: parenting didn’t seem to change much, wherever you went in the universe.
Two Imperial Stormtroopers stood guard over the pair. They exchanged a look, decided that the detainees were secure for now, and nodded. Leaving the detention block of the Death Star, they slipped discreetly out of a side door and emerged into the bright April light of the car park. They took off their helmets, shook out their hair, and bought two takeaway teas from a catering van. They were both thirty-two. They were athletes in real life. They had sponsorship deals, and privacy issues with the press, and body fat below four per cent. In the world rankings for sprint cycling on the track, they were numbers one and two.
‘The things I do for you,’ Zoe said. ‘It’s far too hot in these.’ Strands of black hair were stuck to her forehead with sweat.
‘‘I could do with a wee,’ said Kate. ‘How are you meant to go in these costumes?’
‘They weren’t designed by a woman.’
‘The Death Star wasn’t designed by a woman. There’d be curtains. There’d be a creÌ€che.’
Zoe shook her fists at imaginary higher-ups. ‘Yeah! Can’t you brass hats figure out some way of balancing motherhood with suppressing this damned Rebel Alliance?’
Kate shook her head sadly. ‘With insubordination like that, you’ll always be a Stormtrooper.’
‘You’re wrong,’ Zoe said. ‘They’ll recognise my zeal and my passion. They’ll promote me to the command of their battle station.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself. They’ll take one look at your personality profile and make you a droid. Highly specialised, but basically single.’
‘Oh, get fucked,’ said Zoe, smiling. ‘I wouldn’t swap for your life.’
A cold squall rippled the yellow-brown puddles of the film studio car park. On the far side, in a blue people carrier splashed with mud, the next group of ticket-holders for the Star Wars Experience was already looking for a parking space. Kate checked her watch. The Death Star was theirs for another twenty minutes.
‘We’d better get back in to Sophie,’ she said.
The two women rushed their teas. Zoe looked at Kate over the rim of her cup.
‘Be honest with me,’ she said. ‘Is Sophie dying?’
‘No,’ Kate said, without hesitation. ‘The chemo’s going to work. I’m one hundred per cent sure she’s going to get better.’
‘We’ve proved it before. When she first got sick, the chemo worked and she went into remission. This is just a little relapse, and now the chemo will work again.’
There must have been doubt in Zoe’s face because Kate began pursing her lips and nodding her head determinedly. Zoe watched the certainty building; going up the dial and into the red. One hundred and five per cent. One hundred and ten.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Okay. But do you really think these day trips help? They don’t just exhaust her?’
Kate smiled. ‘Let me worry about that.’
‘Let me ask, at least. As your friend.’
Kate’s smile stiffened. ‘Would I put her through all this if it wasn’t helping?’
Zoe touched her arm. ‘Of course not. But are you sure you don’t organise these trips slightly for your own peace of mind? Just so you can be doing everything in your power as a mother, I mean.’
‘What, and you’re an expert on motherhood now?’
Zoe recoiled as though she’d been slapped. Slowly, she collected herself and looked down, twisting her hands together.
Kate faltered, then stepped forward and took her hand. ‘Shit, Zo, I’m sorry.’
Zoe turned her head aside. ‘No, no, you’re right. I was out of order. I know what you go through.’
Kate moved to put herself back in Zoe’s eyeline, then held her gaze. ‘I know what you go through, too. This must make you think about Adam.’
‘It’s fine,’ said Zoe. ‘And you know what else? Your hair’s all fucked up.’
Kate laughed. ‘Oh, have I got helmet hair?’
‘You think that’s bad? I’ve got Stormtrooper’s tits. I swear to God, these costumes are so tight . . .’
Under the relief, Zoe’s heart was still snagged on the wire of the fence her friend had put up between them. She wished she hadn’t brought up the subject. She needed to learn when to keep her mouth shut, which was nearly always.
She looked down into her Styrofoam cup, where an inch of tea – the same yellow-brown as the puddles – was reaching the temperature at which the warmth no longer disguised the bitterness. You could get tired of being unattached, of having no partner to undertake patiently the task of winnowing your days from your demons and showing you which was which. You could get to hoping for a companion of your own – and yes, even a child – despite the overwhelming evidence that children too were bottomless, echoing wells of need into which exhausted women like this one, her best friend Kate, endlessly dropped brave little pebbles of certainty and anxiously listened for a splash that never came.
‘We really should get back to the Death Star,’ Kate said, pulling Zoe back from miles away.
Kate pulled her Stormtrooper helmet back on, and her voice was changed to a metallic rasp by the modulator built into the face guard. ‘The Death Star? Big round naughty spaceship? Promising acting debut, got a bit typecast, never appeared in another film after the Star Wars series?’
Zoe rolled her eyes.
‘Oooh,’ said Kate. ‘Touchy.’
Zoe flicked her hair back, suddenly irritated.
‘‘Listen,’ Kate said, ‘it’s that time of the month and I’ve got a blaster, so don’t start.’
Zoe looked carefully at her, gauging the extent to which things might now be back to normal between them. It was hard to tell. Kate might be smiling, or she might not. This was the thing with Stormtroopers: they only showed the multi-purpose expression moulded into the face plates of their helmets – a hard-wearing, wipe-clean, semi-mournful expression equally appropriate for learning that one’s souffleÌ, or one’s empire, had fallen.
Command module of the Death Star
The battle station hung in the cold black vacuum of space. Sophie Argall could feel the vast metal mass of it under her feet. It was huge. It had its own gravity, though it didn’t seem as strong as Earth gravity. Sophie realised there was extra bounce in her legs. Standing on the bridge of the Death Star was like standing at home would be, if Dr Hewitt had just told you that your leukaemia had gone into remission.
Sophie reviewed the data. She was eight. The Death Star was younger. Sophie didn’t know by how much. The Death Star was defended by 10,000 turbo-laser batteries and 768 tractor-beam projectors. A crew of 265,675 kept it running, kept it clean, and did the cooking and laundry for 52,276 gunners, 607,360 troops, 25,984 Stormtroopers, 42,782 ship support staff, and 167,216 pilots and technicians. Despite these precautions, both the Death Stars built before this one had been destroyed. Statistically, the chances of a Death Star surviving combat were zero. The chances of Sophie surviving acute lymphoblastic leukaemia were better than ninety percent. When you considered the odds, it was presumptuous of the battle station to be exerting a gravitational pull on her.
Sophie knew the stats by heart. She had drawn pictures of the Death Star a thousand times, in felt tip and in crayon, but nothing had prepared her for standing here, on the bridge, looking out through the portholes at the stars. She listened to the low electronic hum of control circuits and the soft cool hiss of the air conditioning.
They had taken the Argall family car – a silver-grey Renault SceÌnic – to the space port at the film studios: Sophie, her parents, and Zoe. The car ride had taken three hours and thirty-six minutes, which Sophie had timed using the stopwatch feature on her iPod. She’d listened to the original Star Wars soundtrack by John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra. She’d made crosshairs with her fingers and aimed them out of the windows on the motorway. The Nissans and the Fords were friendly Rebel craft. The Mercedes and the BMWs were hostile TIE fighters.
They’d used a transporter to get from the film studio car park to the Death Star. It had taken forty-nine seconds. The transporter had looked like an ordinary lift, but it hadn’t been. Dad had been captured with her, as soon as they stepped out of the transporter. As far as Sophie knew, Mum and Zoe remained at liberty somewhere within the Death Star.
Sophie was still amazed to be here. She had to keep looking down at herself, to check that all the atoms in her arms and legs had made it okay through the transporter beam.
Two Stormtroopers patrolled the bridge in their pristine white armour. They checked the settings of every switch on every control panel. They spoke to each other in terse, metallic voices. Their helmets had full visors so you couldn’t see their faces, but you could tell they were nervous. There was a rumour that Darth Vader was arriving in his personal shuttle. Sophie’s mouth was dry and her heart pounded. She held her dad’s hand and squeezed tightly.
She knew none of this was actually real, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t happening. On the rare days she was well enough to go into school now, school never felt real either. The other girls had moved on. They were into YouTube, and they thought she was weird for still being into kids’ stuff. She tried to get into the things they were into, but the truth was that she didn’t want to learn the dance moves from pop videos – she wanted to be a Jedi knight.
Leukaemia didn’t feel real either. They put tubes into you and pumped you full of chemicals that made your ears ring and your skin go so transparent that you could see right inside yourself. You could touch the tubes with your fingers, and look at your tendons with your own eyes. It was possible that you weren’t dreaming – it just didn’t seem very likely.
After a while you stopped worrying about what was real. The rare school days lasted six and a half hours, and then they were gone. Life lasted till you were very old – with odds of ninety per cent – or for another few months, with odds of ten per cent. Being here on the Death Star would last as long as it lasted. That was how you had to look at it.
Her dad knelt and put an arm around her. ‘You’re not scared are you, big girl?’
Sophie shook her head. ‘No.’
She made her voice sound as though the question had been stupid, but Vader was coming and the truth was that she was more scared than she had ever been in her life – more scared than she’d been in January when Dr Hewitt had told her the leukaemia was back. It was important not to worry Dad, though. It was harder for him.
‘You prisoners, stop talking!’ said one of the Stormtroopers. Then, in a softer voice: ‘Are you guys all right for drinks and so on? Can I get you a juice or a biscuit?’
Sophie asked: ‘Is there Ribena?’
‘Magic word?’ said the Stormtrooper.
‘Is there Ribena, please?’
‘Of course,’ said the Stormtrooper, and produced a carton from a blue isotherm bag.
‘We’ve got one of those bags at home,’ said Sophie.
‘Wow,’ said the second Stormtrooper. ‘Small universe.’
The first Stormtrooper spun around to look at the second, then quickly turned back to Sophie. ‘Prisoner!’ said the Stormtrooper. ‘Our master is expected at any moment. When he arrives, you must stand at attention. If you are invited to speak to him, you must address him as “Lord Vader”. What must you address him as?’
‘Lord Vader,’ said Sophie in a small voice.
‘What’s that? I can’t hear you,’ said the Stormtrooper, cupping a gloved hand to the place on the helmet where an ear would be.
‘Lord Vader!’ said Sophie, as loud as she could. She was tired from the long car journey. Her voice had a slow puncture and it was letting out air.
‘That’ll do,’ said the Stormtrooper, and went off to whisper to the other.
A hush fell on the bridge. The Stormtroopers stiffened to attention. Sophie’s legs trembled. The music of “The Imperial March” sounded from hidden speakers. An involuntary whimper came from
Sophie’s throat. A blast door opened. Clouds of dry ice billowed. Darth Vader emerged from his vapours, stood mightily in silhouette, and stepped onto the bridge. His respirator hissed and clicked.
He stared at Sophie and Dad, and nodded slowly.
‘So,’ he said. ‘The captured Rebel fighters.’
Sophie felt urine running down her legs, shockingly hot. It splashed on the brushed steel floor. The noise was undeniable.
She looked at the pooled urine on the floor, and felt tears coming. This was going to really freak Dad out.
She looked up at him. ‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m fine.’
There was a moment of surprised silence on the bridge. Vader’s respirator wheezed.
‘Uh . . . are you all right?’ he said.
‘I think she’s let a bit of wee go,’ Dad whispered.
‘What?’ said Vader.
‘Oh, where are my manners? I mean, I think she’s let a bit of wee go, Lord Vader.’
Vader held up his hands, black-gloved palms outwards.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Don’t make me the bad guy here.’
The nice Stormtrooper came over, knelt beside Sophie and put an arm around her.
‘It’s okay,’ the Stormtrooper whispered. ‘It happens.’
Sophie looked up at Dad’s face, which was lined with concern. She couldn’t bear that she’d done this to him. She began to cry.
Darth Vader bent down and patted Sophie on the shoulder.
‘What’s that tube going into you?’ he asked.
‘It’s . . . it’s a . . . Hi . . . Hi . . . Hickman line,’ Sophie sobbed.
Dad folded her into his arms. ‘It’s to get the chemo into her.’
‘Ha!’ Vader said. ‘You call that a line? You should see me when I
take this helmet off. I have so many wiggly lines going into me, I look like a plate of spaghetti.’ Sophie giggled between her sobs. A perfect green bubble of snot swelled from her nose, stretched to molecular thinness and shrank back again, like the membrane of a calling frog.
‘You’re a very brave young lady,’ said Vader.
After her tears, Sophie had a hammering headache and a rending in her guts and a pain in her side that made her want to curl up.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, looking up at Dad. ‘I actually feel great.’
He smiled. She smiled back. This was good. Afterwards, when they’d got Sophie cleaned up, Darth Vader lifted her to sit on his shoulders. They watched the huge monitor screens on the bridge, which showed the galaxy lying before them and shimmering.
‘Would you like to choose a world to destroy?’ Vader said.
‘Why?’ said Sophie. Vader shrugged.
‘It’s just something I offer my guests.’
‘Does it have to be a world? Could you blow up my bad blood cells?’
Air sighed from the grille of Vader’s face plate. He waved a gloved hand at the star field.
‘I can do you anything on that map,’ he said.
Sophie pointed at a bright star in Orion. ‘Let’s say those stars are my white blood cells and that one’s a bad one.’
‘Fine,’ said Vader. ‘Commence death ray initiation sequence.’
Sophie held up her hand. ‘Sorry, but it’s not actually a death ray if it’s saving my life.’
Vader pointed at the big red button labelled DEATH RAY. He said: ‘It’s the only ray we’ve got.’
Vader crouched down to let Sophie press the button. A low drone built slowly to a crescendo. The lights flickered. They all watched the monitor screens as the eight green beams of the death ray converged into one, shot out across space and heated the core of Sophie’s bad blood cell until it exploded in a shower of bright sparks across the blackness of space.
They watched the sparks crackle and fade back into perpetual darkness.