Owton Manor Olympian
by Craig Campbell
Dale felt his ankles jar sometimes in the old Gazelles he'd bought the previous summer. They were yellow and faded like his Dad's nicotine fingers when he fell asleep in the big chair. As a boy he would creep past him in the small hours as some weird Japanese film was playing on Film Four. It had been a while since his Da's last job. A labourer on the power station working six weeks of ten hour shifts. A shutdown they called it, which seemed prophetic because usually afterwards the men on short contracts shut down and went back to behind closed curtains and betting shops, ready for the next glimmer of a wage to come round again.
Dale always knew when his Da had got the nod for Amec or Cape. He was as happy as those lads in the lane on cannisters. The knock on effect was immediate. As a family they'd stop doing their shop at Farmfoods on the Catcote Road and head to the town Asda, where the tins didn't have dents or Turkish writing on them and the cashier name badges said Claire and Rachel rather than Shanice and Kylie. For nearly two months their lives would be one long succession of bags for life and oven chips without mush on them. Dale didn't think there was much difference but he had to admit he preferred their ham to the stuff you could see through like a fish skin. 'Frankenstein ham' his Mam called it, although not everyone in the family shared her opinion.
'It's better than that halal meat,' Dale's brother Mikey, would say sulkily from the sofa, his whole body framed by a grey wave of cherry vape smoke.
'There's no need for racism. Especially round the dinner table,' was his Mam’s reply. In situations like that, her final words were a feminist prophecy in the family home.
Mikey wasn't a bad lad, but he had changed the summer he started drinking in the Rossmere. Everyone knew there was a bad vibe in there. A man had lost an eye once to the rim of a broken bottle and blue sirens had turned up on one than more occasion for an engagement party in the back room that had went all Peckinpah amongst the sloppy quiche and ocean sticks. It was where the Hartlepool EDL lot drank too. They were all retired football hooligans who'd grown tired of the banning orders and Stone Island and pledged their allegiance solely to the Union Jack. If you cocked an ear to the Manor wind at closing time you could sometimes hear their racist songs floating uncomfortably up into the atmosphere. As boy bands went, they were beyond redemption. After ten pints of Stella and Dark Fruits their joined melody resembled nothing more than a man being murdered with a metal pipe.
One night during the dead-eyed summer, Mikey had come home drunk and stated his new intentions. As Dale sat in his room watching a DVD, the faint crashing and chattering of his sibling meant another weekend was done in again. Mikey often came home alone. He hadn't been one for the lasses since the love of his life, Tracy, had dumped him for a fitness instructor. He'd had better abs and got tickets for Creamfield's apparently. He'd skulked around the home like something from Goya's afterworld, for a month. On occasions he'd even sometimes looked in on his younger brother, which Dale found uncomfortable, especially when there was alcohol involved. He often thought Mikey was going to cry in such moments. Sometimes his voice was strangled as if an invisible assailant was attacking him, and once he'd even hugged his brother so hard that Dale was winded for a long time afterwards. It was a show of affection that was surreal and strained to the younger sibling. As he glanced up to the sight of the bedroom door creaking open, he again braced his ribs for it.
On the television screen, the epic 800m at the Moscow Olympics between Coe and Ovett was reaching its exciting climax. It was one of Dale's favourites. While most teenagers of his age were obsessed with the Premiership and its glutinous billions, his heart lay in the less spectacular sport of athletics. There was a reason for this. Dale was already a town and county cross-country champion at the age of thirteen. He had a real talent and dedication for it. At 5am every morning he would rise from his bed and take his usual run in the battered Adidas Gazelles that were bound to give him shin splints in the long run. He would stride out on the lane that separated the ordinary folks of the Manor from the snobs of West Park, before heading upwards to the pitch-black lanes of Hart Village. As the North East wind battered his slight frame, he would gulp in air and drive himself on anyway, safe in the knowledge that he was building a foundation for himself and that most boys of his age wouldn't be as used to the build-up of lactic acid coursing through their veins.
For Mikey it was the build-up of something else: hedonism. As he staggered into his brother’s room, a sickly sensation coming over him after too many pints of Fosters and Sambucas thrown down like a witches brew, he felt a rage coming over him. Maybe it had been his visit that night to the Rossmere. There had been a guy down from Newcastle from the Defence League who had really known his stuff about the immigration issue. He'd talked about the boat crossings to Sardinia and the rise of East European agency work. His main fury however was reserved for 'those Muslims'. The room had all cheered when he'd banged his hand on the table and chanted the word 'purity...purity... purity..' Even though one of the barmaids from the Art College had shook her head sadly at the speech and called him a little Hitler to his face. One of the footy lads had swilled her over that one. Mikey had felt bad about her crying, but as one of them pointed out, there were always casualties in conflict and if nothing else the philosophy remained the same.
It was a mantra Mikey firmly believed in too. The problem was everywhere. Even on their kids’ wall, with those framed pictures of Kenyan runners the young lad never stopped talking about. What was to stop them coming to England and taking the running jobs our English lads were trained for? He stared at them with their names like a consonant round from Countdown, as his young brother looked at him quizzically. Finally, he took one from the wall and studied it intensely.
'Careful.' Dale said from across the room. 'You'll break it.'
For a second Mikey seemed confused.
'Kipkoech. Kip...' He slurred the name twice just to make sure he'd got it right. 'What was his distance then?'
Mikey let out a drunken laugh.
'That's a lot of laps our kid. I supposed they're used to it mind. Running round and round like dumb n***ers.'
It was the first time Dale had heard the word used in such a way but he understood the significance of it. It wasn't like when Kanye of Jay z used it on the radio, it was uglier than that. Something wicked and cruel passing between brothers like a dead body on a midnight tide.
'You shouldn't say that.' Dale said sadly.
'I'll say a lot more, don't you worry about that. There's interference coming.' His older brother replied, tapping his closed fist on the bedroom wall steadily but aggressively in an ominous rhythm.
A week later Mikey packed his bags and moved out of the family home. Despite both of his parents trying to get through to him, he would never return. They would later hear he'd taken up with a member of the Defence League in a house on the Central estate. It would be years before the brothers would ever see each other again. From time to time Dale would hear rumours about his older sibling, that he'd got a job on the cables or that he'd been arrested at some protest march or other. Then the rumours became darker. Mikey got himself into heavy racism and a surprisingly heavy drug addiction. The murky world of opiates and burning cottons took him to the Rift House and the blank generation. Years would pass and in between prison sentences and overdoses, he became like a gypsy’s curse. Rarely talked about but spiritually breathing condensation on their backs like a dying shay horse or a last defender before the referee’s whistle:
'His only saving grace, is that from the moment he posted his keys on the mat, our Dale never had to see him,' said Da to his wife one Christmas, when he thought the boy wasn't listening.
The woman paused.
'I've cried enough tears for that lad. That's the problem with being a Mam though. The potential is endless.' Her voice trailed off, increasingly brittle through age and the fog of Benson and Hedges smoke. It made her sound like she was whispering from the surface of the moon.
Dale did think he'd seen his older brother once, however. Shortly after Mikey moved out and he was in training for the English school championships, he had taken a different route from his normal circuit, up to the top of Hart village. It was the brutal Chekhov winter of 2009. There were Channel Four documentaries about it and everyone looked as though they had been dipped in blue tint, like they were preparing for a Smurf convention or the impending apocalypse. The high roads were a sheet of black ice descending into a vanishing point. Dale had taken to slogging through the heavy snow on the estate that winter, lapping a circuit that took him through the houses which rarely stirred in the cold other than the odd barking dog or crack in the curtains. It was as he went past one of these council estate properties one morning, that he thought he saw Mikey suddenly, sat on a back step with a girl who looked like the Muse of Winter. Her hair was jet black and the wisp of her cigarette smoke made her look supernatural somehow. She looked beautiful and sinister at the same time. Although he couldn't be certain it was his older brother, he had the unnerving feeling that whoever it was sat there, they had a terrible spell surrounding them.
Dale would tell his Mam about it when he got home excitedly. She simply looked up with an alligator’s eye and made him wait as a critical moment in EastEnders transpired, something about Phil Mitchell and a corpse in a garage pit. As the theme music kicked in with that drum roll so familiar to millions, her eyes had rolled sarcastically at the young lad's story. It reminded Dale of the teachers at High Tunstall whenever one of the lesser kids got an easy maths question wrong.
'Too many of those horror films. That's your trouble.' She said.
She pointed to the kitchen door.
'Never mind Mam. Just concentrate on helping your dad with the roasting dish. I'm sure he's having a nervous breakdown out there.'
'I bet Yifter the Shifter never had to clean the roasting dish.' Dale had said sulkily.
'When you're Olympic champion, you can be immune from the washing up. How does that sound?'
'You'll see when I win the English schools.'
'Nothing would make me prouder.'
Dale never did win the English schools at cross-country though. His legs gave out in the final mile at a mud-splattered course at Cheltenham racecourse. It was a strange moment when the leading group of runners went away from him. For a moment he felt as though he was drowning suddenly. It was a strange fear that made him want to shout out to try and make them come back to him, but his body simply wouldn't respond. He would hit what runners traditionally liked to call 'the wall', a spiritual and physical denouement that had destroyed athletes from the dawn of time. With each arch of his calf through the winter mud Dale had felt as though he were being pulled through the magnetic bowels of the earth. He grimaced and bit down on his lips endlessly. By the end of the race one of the stewards would remark that he looked as though he'd 'been ten rounds with Tyson.'
As he'd passed his dad on the final straight he had a strange look on his face too. Not disappointment or shock but what Dale recognised as something closer to relief. Dale would ask him about it in the car later as they arched up the A1 like a slug’s trail, amongst the lorry drivers and the students’ Corsas whose exhausts all seemed to be wound on by black masking tape.
'You had a strange expression when I passed you that last time.'
'Did you think so?'
'Yeah, I thought you'd be more animated.'
'It was as cold as a Restart officer’s smile on that course you know.'
'Even so,' Dale said, slightly sadly.
As he glanced over at the young boy, his father didn't really want to tell the truth of course, mainly because it made him shiver. The shameful reality was that he didn't want to lose him to his talent. That they needed him selfishly to live and die like them in Hartlepool town. As he thought about it a great darkness now rose in him. He gripped the steering wheel till his knuckles were white like the colour of shark meat. As his stomach churned, he quickly tried to change the subject.
'Hey Dale, do you wanna hear a good joke.'
'You've never had a good joke.'
'This one is a beauty. What do you call a duck in a microwave?'
All the way home Dale would ask who Bill Withers was and the scientific implications of putting a duck in a microwave. It killed the punchline but that was never the point of course. They both knew that. It was just something to pass the time on the way back to Hartlepool, in those quiet moments between the tarmac of a motorway and the liner hearts of your disappointed heart, when everything, as always, threatened in silence to tear itself apart.