Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee, is back, this time with a thrilling and emotional novel set in the world of professional cycling that pits friends Zoe and Kate in a battle for the right to race in the Olympics. Read the book's opening below.
August 24, 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 visualized 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 liquidizing 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 pretense 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. “Alright 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.”
“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 realized 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 the 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. “Alright.”
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 favor, 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 stenciled 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.
From Gold by Chris Cleave. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Cleave. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.