Union Jack

His mother laid the table the way she had when he was a boy: extra ketchup for his eggs, an extra napkin for his messes. She had added some reading material this time: a pile of newspaper clippings in a bright yellow folder with the current year scrawled across the front.

"I haven't had time to put them in binding yet," she smiled, setting down a plate of sliced tomatoes and one of toast. "But I wanted to show you before tomorrow. That'll be a fatter book than I've made yet."

Brice smiled and ducked his head in an effort to arrest the spittle of eggs breaking away from the corner of his mouth. He felt as if he couldn't eat another bite. He always felt that way before a race. He needed to. On most days, Brice Cooper monitored his calorie intake religiously. He weighed his oatmeal as well as his mutton. He carried a spiral notebook where he recorded every carbohydrate and every gram of fat, balanced against every joule of energy expended. But the notebook wasn't at table with him on this morning — the creaky oak table of his childhood where his parents had fought and his mother had comforted him with soothing words and obscene amounts of fish and chips. The notebook was in his suitcase next to his toothbrush and centrifuge.

"I— we— are just so proud of you Brice. I expect we'll have a lot more to stuff in that folder before the summer's out."

"Thanks, Mum," he mumbled through a mouthful of toast. Then after a pause, "Has Dad seen it then?"

His mother blinked, shifted in her chair, and reached for the tomatoes. "Your father is proud of you, of course. Now eat your vegetables."


+++


The clippings were certainly impressive, not only for their praise of Britain's most promising young rider, but for the effort it must have taken to collect them. Le Monde, The Guardian, The Mail, Velonews, Huffington Post, Pro Cycling Magazine. Brice smiled at his mother's tenacity. "Guess I've not fallen far from the tree," he said under his breath.

Each news article had been carefully cut and folded, and each bore a particular pain for Brice. He remembered what it had taken to achieve each success — his howling lungs riding into Nice — the jackhammer pavé on the road to Roubaix — the botched infusion in Risoul. He sat on the bed in his room and wondered if it would be worth it. Would there be pride in his heart when he looked back on what was bound to be a legendary career? Would there be pride in his father's?

There would certainly be other rewards. There already had been. His contract with Sky was the largest ever for a Brit. His agreement with Adidas was equally edifying. He would probably never buy himself a pint again, if he ever allowed himself to start drinking pints again. And he could have his pick of women, he knew, though he never did. He used to tell himself that was because of his upbringing, or that he was too focused on training. But he knew better.

The last clipping was the most outrageous of all. The Times had all but awarded him a victory, declaring him the "odds-on favorite to wear yellow in Paris." They may as well have changed his name to Merckx, or Cavendish. Brice Cooper dropped the folder and laid back onto the little sleigh bed where he had spent so many confusing nights. So many questions and memories lost in the dark of that room — before he knew who he was, before his father knew — now coming back to trespass even when they had no claim. His path was decided now. He was to become one of Britain's great riders. And yet he was losing. Losing pieces of himself to the dark and uncertainty and shame.

His reverie couldn't last long. He was due to the team bus at ten o'clock and he had much to do. It had been a considerable courtesy for his directeur sportif to allow him to stay at home last night, but he had known he would get his way. It was only the second time in his lifetime that the Tour had come to his home country, and the Prologue route was to run two blocks from his childhood home. Plus, he was Brice Cooper. Very few people told him no.

It was easier to hide equipment here too. He unfurled a roll of canvas and selected a needle. He had to be careful now, more careful than before. He crimped the tubing, applied the tourniquet and inserted the needle. 


+++


The starting gate had been repainted, or, rather, there was a new starting gate. Someone among the hundreds of promoters, organizers, and contractors, had constructed an entirely new ramp and platform, only to be used once, emblazoned with the British Flag. Tomorrow they would be on French soil, but today, on the first day of the world's greatest race, they were in London, surrounded by the the crosses of Saints George, Andrew, and Patrick, waving in jubilant, Fuller's-fueled enthusiasm.

There was an identical flag in Brice's room. He had slept under it the night before, the red-on-white-on-blue prescreening this morning's parade. The flag had hung there for a decade and presided over a torrent of emotions and discoveries in the bed below. Brice tried not to think of that room, of the flag hanging flaccid and transfixed above him. The starter was speaking now. The countdown would come soon, but in the flag-lined lane of Birdcage Walk he could only see the scene of his misery: the night he and his father both discovered what Brice had long suspected — the night his father found him perusing a magazine titled Union Jack

 

+++


L’Alpe D’Huez is a twisted, naked spectacle of guts and athleticism; the dead reckoning of every great cyclist. It is a mountain that stares into the soul; a road that leads to whatever destiny it finds there.

Brice Cooper’s shoulders started to dip after the fourth of twenty-one switchbacks. He knew they would be talking about it on the tele. More importantly, he knew they could see it behind him. The Garmin team had already sent two men up the road. He couldn’t afford to look weak, especially not this early.

By the seventh switchback, he was redlining, his heart rate screaming past one hundred ninety beats per minute, his thighs awash in the burn of lactic acid. It was a deep pain, one inflicted by a mountain that seemed to know just where to hurt him. Though the treeline had fallen away miles ago, Brice still couldn’t glimpse the top. And the time gaps to the four-man attack were growing as quickly as his doubts.

This was the situation he dreaded, the pain that brought him nightmares. Perhaps even the drugs wouldn’t be enough this time. Perhaps the other riders had taken even more than he had. He doubted himself. He doubted the cover-up. He fought back the nightmare like he had so many times before under the banner of Union Jack.

It was there that he had first ascended L’Alpe D’Huez, in his adolescent dreams. It was there that he found his route to a summit that outstripped his shame. Surely, a victory here would overshadow disappointments elsewhere. Surely, if he could stand on a podium in the Alps, waving a stuffed lion as the King of the Mountains, smiling proudly in the padded, spandex shorts his father used to make fun of — surely then he would be a success. Surely then he could be comfortable with himself.

After the ninth switchback, the road widened, allowing for more spectators to park and party. The fans pressed in until the pathway through them disappeared. They shouted and scowled at him, screaming their angry support, drunken spectators demanding a performance they couldn’t give themselves.

Brice saw his father’s face in theirs — the devil and his dad running half-naked and berserk beside his bicycle. He pictured the ridicule in his father’s face and the anger in the snapping flags that lined the roadway. He heard the blare of the tele in the living room, the broadcaster’s voice drowned out by his father’s, saying, “Now football; there’s a sport son. Every man standing tall and none of them's wearing tights."

The Alpe was the only escape hatch from his private nightmare; the summit his last meaning. He grunted, clenched his jaw, and lifted from the saddle. No one covered his attack. 

 

+++


The gendarme wore plain clothes, so Brice didn’t realize what was happening at first. Seeing his director sportif coming through the hotel doorway, Brice closed his eyes again and grunted his disapproval loudly. “What the hell, Johan? Get them out of here.” He was angry at the intrusion on the Tour’s only rest day.

But the voices only argued louder, and then Brice felt the bed move. Someone had set down next to him. He pulled away the pillow he had used to cover his head and looked up at a plump, well-dressed Frenchman with a ring of stubble that circled his plate-like face. He spoke calmly.

“Monsieur, are you Brice Cooper?” The question rang out in its gravity. It was one of those questions whose response could change a life; one that everyone present knew the answer to but wished they hadn’t. Brice was suddenly back under the Union Jack, his father sitting next to him on the bed asking the same question.

“You need to decide who you are son. Because you’re not a Cooper if you’re going about saying things like that. No son of mine is coming out of any goddamn closet.”

But Brice hadn’t had a choice, not really. He knew there was no way out, no way to deny his identity. He repeated his answer to the gendarme.

“I am."

 

+++

 

It wasn’t until the fourteenth visit to prison that his father came without press clippings. At first, they had been about the scandal, about the Tour finishing without him, keeping Brice up with the news. As the scandal subsided the clippings got older; recaps of his domination in the Alps, season summaries from his years as an amateur. These were several years old and wearing thin. His father held them with a delicate care that surprised Brice. He even thought he was seeing pride in the old man’s eyes, though he didn’t feel confident in his ability to identify it.

And then in January he came empty-handed.

“Nothing to read then, Dad?” Brice played it off. “S’pose we’ve used it all up?”

“Nah, son. There are plenty more. You’ve given us a lifetime of reading.”

Brice drew back, unsure of the meaning but suspecting an insult.

“Son…” then silence. Brice braced for the worst. His father shifted his weight in the plastic seat, splayed his fingers on the metal table between them and looked furtively to see if any of the other visitors were close enough to hear. “Son, I had a talk with your mother. She…has a theory…about you."

“Oh yeah? So you two sit around evenings and draw up theories, do you?”

“She thinks you doped because you were trying to prove yourself to me.” His father met his gaze and Brice realized it was hard for him. His chin was dipped against his chest, his eyebrows raised. Brice didn’t see a man’s man, a domineering dad, or a homophobic, blue-collar, football-crazed ruffian. He saw a scared little boy. “Is that true?”

“Dad, it wasn’t just doping. That’s the reason I dated girls and made good grades and ate my vegetables. I have only ever wanted to be a man like you, or at least for you to see me as one."

“All that training — it wasn’t for you? You didn’t want it?”

“Sure, I wanted to win, Dad. But not just for the winning. Because I thought you would approve of a winner.”

 

+++

 

On the thirty-ninth time his father visited prison, he brought lots to read. The lawyer had done some maneuvering that could lead to a shorter sentence; news stories abounded. And there was something else. His father pinched a card from his shirt pocket with two fingers and put it on the table.

“That’s your old mate Thomas Federick from primary. Remember him?”

“Of course. Heard he’s moved off to New York, writing symphonies or movies or—“

“Books, actually. He writes books. And he’s back in London now. Lives out toward King’s Cross.”

“Yeah, so. He know a good lawyer?”

“Your lawyer is doing fine, son. I bumped into Thomas, is all. He was at the christening of our neighbor’s grandson, Willie Hummard?”

Brice shook his head under a confused brow.

“Anyway, Thomas asked after you. Knew the whole story. Said he’d been following it in America. Said he’d like to hear from you.”

“Ah, so he can write a tell-all then?”

“Could be, but I don’t think so. He seemed worried about how you’re holding up in here. Said he always knew you were meant for something special and this weren’t where you belong.”

“That’s kind, but no thanks. What would I write him about? Prison food? I haven’t seen him in decades. He’s gone to America and made famous and bragging on about his perfect wife and kids, I should think.”

“No son. He’s single. And he’s asking after you. Send him a note.”

 

+++

 

The men had just ordered drinks when the final wave of shwag-slinging paraders rounded the corner below their table. Brice knew the best places to watch and had reserved a table on this particular balcony a week before, careful to use his name. He may have been defrocked cycling royalty but that still counted for something. News of his release from prison a year before was still echoing faintly along the cycling grapevine.

The Café Oiseau was a second-floor brasserie with a balcony that reached past the curb of the Place de Unité.

“They’re going right underneath us. We’ll have to lean over the rail to see the riders,” Thomas Federick smiled.

“The best place to watch in all of this year’s Tour,” Brice said. “You’ll be able to feel the wind from the peloton."

Below, circus-style revelers rode floats, motorbikes and vintage bicycles along the Place clearing the way for one hundred fifty riders to come, throwing logo-laden freebies to onlookers. One particularly garish contraption carried an acrobat twenty feet aloft, riding a sort-of scaffold over what looked like a miniature tank. This ride was advertising a Cirque du Soleil-style troupe from London offering special performances to the locals along the Tour route. The acrobat, wearing a blue body-suit and helmet, raised his hand in salute to the diners on the balcony of Café Oiseau. He reached into the canvas musette slung across his chest and produced a blue Nerf ball printed with the name of the troupe. As he passed eye-level with Brice and Thomas, he handed the ball to Brice and saluted again.

Brice returned the salute with feigned solemnity and then looked at the gift in his hand. He smiled at the inscription.

Union Jack.

Ryan SandersComment