Nanowrimo is a compelling challenge to write 50,000 words during November: that’s an average of 1667 words per day. My plan is to write a set of 30 short stories each 1667 words long instead. Each story comes from a prompt, a lot from fellow bloggers.
This prompt comes from Dylan Hearn at Suffolk Scribblings, a fellow sports lover. The picture is of England Cricketer Stuart Broad during his divine spell of bowling that won England the Ashes last summer. But it could be any sportsperson…
Gods or Flannelled Fools?
It was a picture that went around the world. A man, a sportsman at the top of his game. This man had spent 27 of his 30 years planning for this. His expression said it all – complete surprise, maybe shock, or perhaps a little sense that yes this was the moment. His moment.
Journalists and pundits collected together and defined that look as joy: full on, undiluted, right from the depths of one’s being joy.
But you see him looking, you don’t see what he’s looking at. Who he’s looking at. Everyone, in the ground, on the TV, later reading the papers and the websites – all of them imagine his focus is on his teammates, about to engulf him for his extraordinary achievement.
But is that right? Is it that simple?
What if we go back to the beginning, back to the start of that 27 year-long dream? Would we see a seamless progression to this point, a smooth upwards curve, with success growing exponentially, until this pinnacle is reached? Well, would we?
It starts small. Countless hours in back gardens, in playgrounds and student kitchens. Honing his natural ability. Wondering about that skill: where did it come from; was it enough; could his constant repetition of the drills he saw on TV, read about and was shown by coaches and other players add sufficient a veneer to his physique and hand-eye coordination to take him to the top? He mimicked the best players, cherry picked the mannerisms, absorbed the writings and tried different approaches.
As he grew he focused on the mental side, realising that you needed more than physical skill and supreme athleticism to real the giddy heights of sporting stardom.
Like all talented youngsters he shot like a bright star from the amateur to professional ranks. A hack freelancer, forced to attend a second rate game full of callowed youth and the not quite good enough old stagers spotted something in his fifteen minute cameo to add a line to his piece. A slow day and a bored sub had the article syndicated, the line retained by luck rather than a conscious act.
That line propelled our hero in ways hours on the practice pitch could not. He was picked at 16 for an under 20 team, clipped the wings of a recently much hyped lad two years older and he was off.
But there will always be a setback. It is that which determines both where you end up and how you are perceived by those who make the selections. And when form deserted him and the ease with which he had climbed the greasy pole turned into an even more rapid decline, he sunk, as many do, into a febrile rewriting of every lesson he had hard-learned. And the spiral grew stepper and tighter and the same writers wrote sad smug pieces about over promotion and blinkered selectors, and ordered another bottle of merlot.
19 and a failure. A life’s plans so much crumpled paper. Eyes elsewhere, conversations ending as you enter the room, a need for alternatives, a narrowing of friendships. He moved around believing the change of scene hypothesis which in truth is really just hype. He signed shorter and shorter contracts, looked to fancy remedial potions and contemplated a future that no longer seemed either rosy or realistic.
They talk about dark days but the darkest for ones such as this young man are the sunniest, the warmest and the freshest. Because those are the days when your previously cited rivals are picked to perform and you are sent back to yet another session in yet another gym.
‘What’s up kid?’
Clichéd words which, in Hollywood link the Maverick but discarded genius with the troubled talent and over two hours of schmaltz and saccharine comes love and redemption. People find themselves in movies but not in life. In life people merely find what’s been there all along and it doesn’t make for a comfortable discovery.
‘You want help?’
Consider this. You are effectively alone. Team mates out playing, coaches considering prospects not rejects and family and friends aware that you need clichéd space. But you are young, a mere stripling with no experience to fall back on. No context, no framework.
And today, in sport the shadow of the narcotic enhancement looms large. There could be a miracle step-change through clever chemistry which luck, talent, sweat and fortitude cannot hope to match.
‘No thanks mate. I don’t do drugs.’
He’s young but he’s well trained. He’s absorbed the lessons. He’s been asked, in what seem like countless sessions to image being caught. The embarrassment, the hope of a career washed away in a cup full of corrupted cordial. How do you look at your colleagues? Your family? Can you dash their dreams? Some give in to temptation but not this young man. He banishes this figure to the shadows. He is too strong for it. He will use it to turn around his game.
He sits on a bench, sweat staining the mat at his feet and he makes a pact with himself. He will do everything it takes to get to the top, but only within the rules. He knows he has the necessary combination of gifts and grit. This is a wake-up call.
Wind the clock on and little steps have seen a progression. The summit is clearer for the time spent grafting but is, for all that further away than ever. It’s just that the path is clearer.
What is left? What else can he do to unlock the glass door and run through to the other side?
For, by now, it’s recognised that he is skillful but with early promotion and retrenchment comes baggage. It’s not only this young fella who has been scarred by the process but those who trusted their opinions, stuck their necks out and whose judgement rather than skill was found wanting.
Giving youth a chance is the stuff of dreams. Giving tarnished youth a second chance smacks of what? A failure of imagination. Certainly an admission that you were wrong first time around. And if your redemptive choice lets you down a second time? Well, you look not only foolish but blinkered, perhaps even biased. Because for every one you pick there are dozens of wannabes who you leave out. The favouritism word is whispered, maybe first in an unforgiving press but soon enough amongst the guardians of the game, those who determine your future as coach.
And another shadowy figure appears, unformed and distant but there none the less. In sport more than in life generally superstition holds sway. The way you enter the dressing room. The pre match rituals. Which sock you put on first. What food you eat. The music you listen too. Everyone is consumed by routine, by imposing a sense of control on the randomness of performance when someone else, the opposition, will try and deny you your moment.
It is that very uncertainty, that essential cruelty that means you may do the very best you have ever done before but it will be stymied and go unnoticed. Those known-unknowns are huge in sport and are both its draw and its deceit.
Coach and player are at one, both having invested in something that might turn sour despite their best efforts. A doctor may try and save a life, fail but is thanked for his efforts. A builder might try and solve a problem yet shrug, defeated and still be paid and asked back. Doing your best gets you another chance save on the sporting field where the only currency is success.
So what other stone can you turn to give you That Chance?
Prayer. Faith. Divine intervention. Some sportspeople are naturally God-fearing, habits ingrained from long before. Others find a form of words to add support to the most essential emotion a sporting star needs. Hope.
Yet even that might not suffice. They can be fickle, those sporting gods, treating you as plaything to be teased and sorely tested.
The final horizon might be in sight. He might have had that combination of luck and skill that gets him another shot, a last chance saloon moment. But what can be done to seal the deal? What final piece of the intricate jigsaw that sees someone become immortalised on a green sward is it that this man seeks? For he is a man now, whatever happens. He has seen off enemies aplenty, he has dug deeper that in all conscience you should be asked to dig and has clawed his way out of that hole.
In the depths of the night, in the darkest part of his dreams before the dawning realisation that, yes, today is that day, today is his moment. As conscious thought begins to press on the dream-like wraiths of the early hours and, in that grey interim, fears and hopes coalesce to form something so tangible yet so soon lost when the eyes open, it is here that another’s hand is sought. A Pact is made. A promise to do all the things you’ll never do, to be all the things you’ll never be. Promises are made that once made are like bonds. They can only be unmade if the other side of this bargain is proved illusory.
This is his Faustian moment when he hands to the devil’s representative all he holds dear. He will happily bargain his soul for that one shot at glory and tomorrow he can reap the consequences. Because what is today, what is this life?
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d in one self place; but where we are is hell, and where hell is, there must we ever be (Christopher Marlowe: Doctor Faustus)
So he takes the field and his moment comes. It has happened but at what a cost? That look is not joy. It is no longer hope. It is understanding.