A box from the loft contained mementoes of the girls’ school careers: certificates, artwork, end-of-year reports. There was nothing random about the artefacts preserved because Kristie had selected them, filed them, kept the best. Roy browsed: gap-toothed primary school photographs; congratulations Leila, excellent progress in maths; well done Lucy, you’ve raised £50 for charity.
On to secondary, an independent, picked for Leila after sustained parental agony. Would she cope with the journey there? Would she miss her friends? Would the other children be too posh? Only Leila had seemed untroubled and, actually, one of her pony-riding friends was going there too. Roy had attended her first parents’ evening with trepidation, but found the mix of foreign and different British accents familiar. It was like being at work.
At the Games, two British women had gone out fast in a rowing final. They were miles ahead, it wasn’t real, it couldn’t last. Roy, on the sofa, unconsciously air-rowed in sympathy. And it did last: dark glasses, muscle power, across the line, shattered and instantly in tears, Stanning and Glover, Heather and Helen, had won Britain’s first gold. Stanning lay back, her head resting on Glover’s knees, patting Glover’s forearm, which was crooked round her throat. Stanning reached back, pulled Glover’s face close. They were talking. A private moment witnessed by millions across the globe. Would anyone else ever know what was said?
Already, a scaffolding of media intimacy was in place. Stanning was an army captain, on special leave from Afghanistan. Glover had only been rowing for a few years. John Inverdale moved in with his smart voice and microphone. “Tell us what’s happening in that body of yours at the moment,” he asked Stanning. A rather personal question if misconstrued a certain way, although Roy didn’t notice and neither, it seemed, did the glowing girls.
Stanning, the soldier, became girlish: “I want to collapse and I’m so overjoyed!” She had an arm round Glover. “I’m probably talking rubbish now.” Inverdale handed her a set of headphones. The picture switched to a film clip of her military colleagues lined up before a desert bivouac. A female voiceover announced, “Good luck to Captain Heather Stanning and her partner Helen Glover from 32 regiment, Royal Artillery.” Stanning said, “Thanks guys, keep doing what you’re doing,” and it was only later that it occurred to Roy that the message had been pre-recorded – you wish someone “good luck” before they’ve won, not after.
Glover’s arm was around Stanning now. “I think if I can do it, just take the chance at rowing, anything, anything, if you work hard, if you try your best, absolutely anyone can do anything,” she said, and Roy liked the way her forehead furrowed with conviction and empathy. It reminded him of Lucy, though her attitude made him think of Leila, poor Leila, the girl who’d always tried her best.
Roy put the lid back on the box. He put his feet up and watched Wiggins win the time trial gold not far away at Hampton Court. On the podium, the scrawny British victor conducted a crowd chorus of “Wiggo, Wiggo, Wiggo” as the sun beat down. The world felt a little better, and for an hour Roy almost stopped wishing it would go away.
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