John Vane: Roy’s Summer of Sport (Sunday 5 August 2012) Walking to the Games

John Vane: Roy’s Summer of Sport (Sunday 5 August 2012) Walking to the Games

Roy woke up, got up, didn’t switch on the radio, didn’t look at his phone, went to the bathroom, weighed himself nude: 13 stone nine. He took a bath in Kristie’s bubbles, sank his ears below the surface and listened to the sound of his own thoughts. Once dressed, he went quietly into the kitchen, the living room, his and Kristie’s bedroom, the room that had been Lucy’s, the spare room, the room that had been Leila’s and Gwen’s. He looked into the garage too. Then he left the house and walked to Croydon.

The day was warm but close. Cars coursed by, moving through a parallel world. Roy wore trainers, summer khakis and a T-shirt. A shower-proof jacket, his wallet and an old A-to-Z were in a little rucksack on his back. He’d never walked to Croydon before, he just walked until he was there and had no idea how long it had taken.

He bought a croissant, a tea, a bottle of water and a tube of sun cream and caught a train to London Bridge station.

He’d never made this journey on a Sunday before. Some of his fellow passengers were dressed much like him, several of them were children. Their eagerness interrupted the serviced sterility of the carriage’s interior. Roy felt knowing, invisible, sage.

The Shard climbed into view on the left and a torrential downpour fell out of the sky. Thunder and lightening joined hammering rain. The train arrived at the station, Roy stepped out on to the platform and there were mauve Olympics signposts everywhere, mauve-dressed people too, smiling, saying hello.

Roy acted like a tourist and was told by a genial man of an age similar to his own that he could get to Stratford quickest on the Jubilee Line, which was providing a good service today. Roy thanked him and decided to walk.

The rain kept pouring. Roy ignored it. Avoiding London Bridge, he went down Tooley Street before turning left into a diagonal walkway with a stream running down the middle and glassy buildings on each side. He emerged on to a sort of piazza, which dropped away to the river and City Hall. Roy walked on towards Tower Bridge, from which hung a huge set of Olympic rings.

Across the river the women’s marathon was in progress, its route hairpinning back on itself on the far side of the Tower. Roy, soaked to the skin, trudged across the bridge, passing meditatively below its two squat towers, emblems of the London of his imagination as a child. The Gherkin, landmark of his later life, lay ahead, distinctive amid clustered edifices. To his right, the Thames prepared to execute its showy loop around the Isle of Dogs.

At the end of the bridge, Roy headed east down Cable Street, which he recalled was famous for a battle of some kind, then stopped, sheltered against a wall and took out his collapsing A-to-Z. He was near Whitechapel, a name that, to Roy, meant Monopoly and cockneys and TV adaptations of “the classics” with gaslights glowing in the fog, and so he followed the open page of his tattered street map, no longer pretending to be a tourist but becoming one instead.

He reached Whitechapel Road. It was wide and thick with cars, never mind that it was Sunday. The rain was slowing. Faces of every human shade walked by. Roy looked left and saw the Gherkin again, standing like a sentinel. He looked right and followed his nose past a big old hospital, the Royal London, then saw an English-type pub across the road. The Blind Beggar. It rang a bell. Roy made his way across to it, studied its outside – Watney Coombe Reid, traditional.

Roy ventured in. Varnished pew seats, a stone fireplace, pool table, chandeliers, quiet. He bought a beer and ordered a Sunday roast, trying not to notice the friendly barman noticing how damp he was. He chose a spot to sit, his eyes pulled instantly towards the a television screen. The women’s marathon was in its final stages and by the time his roast arrived, four runners were fighting for the three medals. An Ethiopian won, cantering free down the shiny-wet Mall to victory. Roy stacked away his meat and veg. The Ethiopian wrapped herself in her flag.

Outside, the sun broke through. Roy sat drying and unnoticed as other customers came in. At Wimbledon Andy Murray and Roger Federer finished warming up for their gold medal showdown. In Weymouth Ben Ainslie won his fourth sailing gold. Murray broke Federer’s serve then took a storming first set six games to two. Roy ordered a pudding and ate. Murray won the second set six-one, but Federer won the first game of the third set to love. Roy closed off. He used the gents, left the pub and resumed his long walk east.

Mile End Road. Stepney Green. Mile End Underground. Bow Road. Roy walked on, zoned out, introspected, thinking of Leila, thinking of Lucy, thinking of his empty office, of Kristie, of Kristie’s parents, of the economic soothsayers declaring that London’s wealth was heading the same way as him, of how no one in the world knew where he was. Bow Road Underground. Bow Church Docklands Light Railway station. Still Roy walked and then a brute of an interchange loomed. He stopped, consulted his iPhone. Incredibly, Murray had won.

The news broke a kind of spell, but also shored up a low-lying resolve. Roy went back to the DLR station, the platform spare and pale amid the tart stench of urban evaporation. The train came, part space age, part clockwork, and Roy got on. Awaiting him, a merry throng: visitors, all shorts, T-shirts and collapsible umbrellas poking from bags.

First stop, Pudding Lane and, looking out, Roy saw a vista he didn’t want to pass straight by. He jumped out. The Olympic stadium stood before him as if broadcast in gargantuan widescreen. Roy took a photograph. He thought of texting it to Kristie, then thought not.

The next train came and Roy rode on to Stratford, a teeming transport hub. The Games had colonised it. Happy mauve-clad people wearing big foam hands were funnelling the human traffic towards the stadium by way of the giant Westfield shopping mall. Across the way, a frieze of glinting yellow leaves – or were they fish, or lips? – formed a wide, building-high arc before a more modest retail arcade.

Roy headed for it, crossing the road as a single tile in a moving mosaic of tastes and shades. He browsed the indoor market, bought a doughnut and a tea, meandered through the retail corridors, emerged into daylight and fumes on the other side. Exhausted, he searched for somewhere to sit down. There were cafés but he lacked the energy to interact. Across the road stood a large church with a fine spire, a surprising island in an asphalt river.

Some kind of event was taking place in the grounds. Roy headed for it, an automatic instinct learned far back in childhood telling him that here was sanctuary. A man, 30-odd, was addressing a small crowd about Jesus saving him from a hooligan life and all the pain and ruination it had entailed.

Roy watched, though standing back – he didn’t want to be evangelised.

A woman’s voice close to his ear said, “Everyone’s doing well out of the Olympics.”

Roy turned. She was fairly tall, slim, braided hair tied back. She looked at him, casually.

“I know what you mean,” he said.

The girl looked on. She didn’t seem to be expecting Roy to speak again, but Roy required it of himself.

“Do you live near here then?”

“Yes. I’m a student. From Kenya.”

“Oh. Have you been watching the Games?”

Animation stirred her mellow manner for the first time. “Yes. Well. Did you see the 10,000 metres?”

“Yes, I did.”

“As a Kenyan, what can I say?”

Roy considered this, picked his words. “I suppose Kenya would have expected a medal, with its history in long distance events.”

“I am almost embarrassed,” she said. “Farah winning, yes. But Rupp? How did we finish behind Rupp?”

“It was surprising, yes.”

“Surprising? I would agree that it was surprising.”

She let out a lightly bitter little laugh. Roy fashioned a laugh too.

“Perhaps you’ll have more luck in the marathon,” he said, before remembering that the Kenyans had failed to take gold in the women’s race that morning. But the girl had either forgotten, or didn’t know, or let it go.

“You’ll be watching Bolt tonight, I expect?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” said Roy, who had completely forgotten that the 100 metres final was due in a few hours.

“Well, enjoy yourself,” the Kenyan girl said, and drifted off into the evening and its re-gathering humidity.

Roy looked at his watch. It was already close to eight o’clock. He waited for five minutes – long enough to avoid bumping into the girl again and not knowing quite what to say, or her thinking him a stalker, but not long enough to be mistaken for embracing the Lord. Then he slipped away, noticing the lengthening shadows.

He walked down a quieter road, indecisive, and came upon a public park. Inside, a huge screen had been erected. At the entrance a little group of smartly-dressed security guards stood around a trestle table, bantering and bored. Roy approached.

“Quick look in your bag, sir?”

Roy, keen to oblige, slipped off his rucksack, opened it and set it down. One of the guards, pleased to have something to do, poked a hand-held detector device inside, said thank you and handed back the bag. Roy passed through. There was a food tent, people dotted around, white, black, brown, some on blankets on the ground. Roy spotted a vacant bench, claimed it, let his chin drop to his chest, relaxed and snoozed. When he stirred and looked at the screen, Bolt was warming up.

The night had come. The eight sprinters paced, shook their muscles out, readied their heads inside their mental fortresses. Introduced to the crowd, each emerged to strike a trademark pose. They sank to their starting blocks, human greyhounds in open traps. The pistol cracked. Six of the eight raced in a line until, just past halfway, Bolt seemed to accelerate, to bodily assert himself, and when he won there was clear space between him and those in the crush for second and third.

Bolt bounded on, past the flame, close to the crowd. He slowed, flourished his Jamaica vest, dropped to his knees to kiss the track as photographers dropped to their own knees before him. Pointing a long arm at the sky, Bolt formed his famous lightening shape. Every doubt confounded, every expectation gratified, eighty thousand there in person, billions watching around the world.

For Roy, the fact that it had happened just a few hundred yards away seemed to add to its wonder yet also to his own marginality. It was thrilling to have been so close and so indulgently alone, yet now there was nothing for him to do except go home. He left the park and, once back on the darkened street, realised how out of place he was in this hinterland town where the East End began its slow meld into the blue collar suburbs that are the gateway to sketch show Essex.

Roy had no clear idea of how to get home by public transport this late on a Sunday night. Slack planning had been part of the quiet recklessness of his day. He guessed that all types of train leaving Stratford station would be jammed, as the multitudes left the stadium. For the first time in a day comfortingly cloaked by the anonymity only a giant city can provide, Roy felt a bit exposed.

But then, as if in answer to a prayer, a London taxi came by with its yellow light on. Roy hailed it, holding his breath: for a cabbie working this territory this late, his destination might seem like a distant land. But the driver just nodded, headed off.  And until the point was reached near the end of the long ride when Roy had to provide directions through Purley, neither man felt the need to speak.

All previous instalments of Roy’s Summer of Sport are HERE. Image from here. Follow John Vane on Twitter.

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Categories: Culture, Roy's Summer of Sport

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