July 3, 2011 by markstani
This is the latest in my series of (loosely) Olympic-themed pieces. I hope they’ll make a collection sometime.
I was perfectly normal until the day I turned fifteen. I was pretty average at everything. I was okay at sports, but not great. I had a girlfriend, but not from the hockey team. My grades suggested if I continued to apply myself I might make it to university. I had no tragedies in my life. I still had both my parents. I had a little brother, who showed signs of being a little better at sport than me. I had friends. I played kick-around at the park on weekends. I was average height, average weight, average looks. I was average all right, and I was happy that way.
The day I turned fifteen, things started to change. I dropped the Playstation I’d been yearning for all year. It broke in half when it was barely out of the wrapper. Later that day, cycling to the park, I lost my grip and toppled into a verge of stinging nettles. My mum asked what on earth had got into me. My dad smelled my breath for signs of illicit birthday booze.
Over the next month or so, I suffered periods of complete numbness in my hands. Sometimes they lasted minutes, sometimes hours. I was unable to hold even a pen. Among my friends, sticking drawing pins in my hands became a kind of attraction. I was no longer an entirely average kid. I was a kid they could stick drawing pins into, without causing pain.
The numbness extended into prolonged bouts of pins and needles, or times when a not entirely unpleasant tingling sensation would extend right the way up to my elbows. Eventually, mum lugged me down to the doctor. Although none of our immediate family had suffered any serious illnesses in our lives, mum assumed every occasional ache or bruise was the first sign of descent into a long, painful death. This time she read up and marked me down for multiple sclerosis. Failing that, motor neurone. Then there was some kind of cancer to fall back on. The doctor squeezed my hands and peered in my eyes and asked if it hurt when he did this and that. He booked me in at the hospital and requested blood and urine samples. He said it was just procedure. He said it was likely just stress, and it was nothing to worry about.
The hospital tests concluded nothing except what I wasn’t suffering from. This did little to placate my mum, who just assumed I’d got a fatal illness no-one else had ever before. She pored medical textbooks. Meanwhile, my spells of numbness got longer. Sometimes they’d last hours, or whole days. Other times, I’d have jolts of electric-like shock shoot up my arms, so strong it would feel like they’d dislocated my elbows. I fell behind at school. My friends stopped sticking in drawing pins. My girlfriend let me go way further than I’d dared try before. Even hockey team girls began to offer support and friendship. It was a definite sign they reckoned things were bad.
Then one day, just as suddenly as it had started, the pain and numbness suddenly subsided. All that remained was a faint and not entirely unpleasant tingling sensation. Also, my hands felt huge. They felt like those giant inflatable hands you can sometimes win off those stalls at fairgrounds. I took to digging them deep in my pockets to hide the perceived embarrassment.
Things began to get back to normal. I returned to being average. My girlfriend dumped me, not doubt because she thought she’d let me feel her up under false pretences. The hockey girls got back to acting like I didn’t exist. It was coming up to a month later when I realised things had changed. I’d been picked for the school cricket team. Like almost everything else, I was average at cricket, but it was enough to edge me into the team. I fielded out on the boundary, fiddling with daisies and spying on the hockey girls’ unfurling legs on the field next door.
At some point, I recall the ball hurtling in my vague direction out of the sky. The rival team’s batters had paused, waiting to see if they had scored a boundary. When the ball fell short, bouncing awkwardly towards me, they set off running. They assumed it would take at least two strong throws before their wicket came under threat.
I scrambled awkwardly for the ball, turned, and swung a clumsy overarm throw back in the vague direction of the action. For a split second, I thought I must have dropped it out of the back of my fingers. I braced for the cat-calls. Then I saw the batsmen stopped mid-wicket, stunned, and the rest of my team staring bewildered at the stumps. I jogged over as casual as I could. The stumps were snapped clean in two, their broken edges slightly charred. The ball was red hot. They looked at me and my hands. My hands looked as normal as ever, but I couldn’t help feeling things were going to play out a little bit differently from this point on.
Sure enough, things started getting a little crazy. In lunchtime athletics practice, I threw a javelin which cleared the entire school field and its buildings, and landed in a bunker of the neighborhood golf course a good half mile away. It was the last javelin I ever threw. An army of folk came to do tests. They would drive me out to abandoned airfields and collect data while I cleared runways with shot-putts with the flick of a wrist.They took away X-rays but none of them could find anything unusual. Someone from the Guinness Book of Records turned up, hoping to re-write the entire throwing section. Newspapers began sniffing around, offering envelopes and hassling my parents. A couple of big American universities got wind, and scouts rolled up trying to sign me up for lucrative sports scholarships. They offered me anything I wanted, and winked when they said it.
The one thing they couldn’t give me was what I wanted most. I wanted a girlfriend from the hockey team. I didn’t feel quite so average any more, and I wanted to prove that I was something special. I took to showing off a little. I’d pick off distant objects like road signs or advertising billboards. I’d toss handfuls of jellybeans at thirty-sixth storey office block windows, bring the confused occupants scuttling into view. I’d take footballs in the part and hurl them up to the highest branches. I’d embarrass those so-called friends of mine who’d stuck me with drawing pins, by slapping screwed-up fast food packs at the backs of their heads from the end of the street. The hockey team would crowd round and stroke me fingers as if doing so might teach them the secret which was eluding all the doctors and scientists. I got a hockey girlfriend, all right. In fact, I got a queue of them. I buttered each one of them up with new, extraordinary feats, and played them off against each other like a master tactician. They curled up close and cooed in my ear about how much they loved me and my rocket-launch hands.
Then London got the Olympics, and I got a call to try out for the Great Britain handball team. It stuck out more than the other invitations, mainly because I liked the idea of hanging a gold medal around my neck, and I guessed the hockey girls would too. Goodbye Mr Average, that’s how I saw it. I’d never heard of handball, but I soon got the gist of why the Olympic people had sought me out. Supposedly, it’s the fastest ball sport in the world. The best players hurl the ball goalwards at over one hundred miles per hour. I couldn’t help thinking, big deal. Great Britain had no history of competitive handball teams. As hosts, they needed a kick-start, a headline act. I guess that’s where I came in.
I more or less took to the sport right away. I mean, I was terrible at dribbling, and it took me a long time to get used to the rule whereby I could only make three strides without either dribbling or releasing the ball. In early practice games, I was pulled up repeatedly for indiscretions. Also, I got exhausted early. I took to standing in midfield with my hands on my hips, waiting for a pass. When I got the ball I scored. Every time. I flung the ball so hard it burst the net and cracked the backboard. I left a bunch of goalkeepers with broken fingers. I learned to tone down my power a little, but the effect remained largely the same.
The handball coaches put everything into raising my fitness levels, figuring a mobile me would just about win them the gold medal single-handed. The orders to my team-mates were clear: feed me the ball and stand well back. Great Britain went from a novice squad to a global force. Where ever we played, the crowds came out to see me. They jostled for autographs. I don’t mind admitting, I took full advantage. I felt the need to make up for the average times.
Despite the caution of the folks who were still subjecting me to a battery of tests, I didn’t see any reason to keep my story under wraps. I sold it – the story, pretty much, that you’re reading now – to a tabloid newspaper. I did a round of the breakfast TV sofas. I let a whole bunch of disbelieving American physicians and bone-structure specialists fly in and examine me, often live on air. They’d squeeze and prod and X-ray and pronounce nothing out of the ordinary. Then I’d take them up to the airfield and toss those shot-putts at supersonic speeds. I was invited for tests at NASA. I don’t know if I should say this, but I spoke with MI6 about how they might best use my speed and accuracy in counter-terrorist operations. On quiet days, I polished off a few of those Guinness world records.
The publicity didn’t go down well. Our rival nations wanted me thrown out of the sport. They submitted complaints to the authorities. I was repeatedly drug-tested by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Although I consistently tested negative, each test seemed to raise more questions about where my talent came from. There was a widespread assumption I was using some kind of masking agent. I started being booed at big events. Even my team-mates became agitated at the way I hogged the headlines, the way the media reported on our handball revolution being a one-man job.
One day, it dawned on me that just as my rocket-launch hands had arrived out of nothing, I could wake up one morning and find they’d disappeared. The thought of having to go back to being average terrified me. Each morning I’d head out and hurl a ball, count my blessings when it disappeared over the horizon. It became an obsession of mine. Every twitch or tingle became a portent of imminent doom. I stopped sleeping and my moods swung. I hounded out my last few hockey player girlfriends with angry outbursts and accusations. I stopped physical training – I hardly saw the point when my hands did all my work for me. I piled on weight and plonked back in midfield where I took out my frustrations on the goal nets and back-boards. I started drinking and, probably not entirely coincidentally, I also started missing. My wayward shots would rocket – literally – into the fifteenth row where they would shatter a seat, or ricochet up to smash a hole in the roof. Finally, the authorities had their excuse. They marked me down as a health and safety risk, and retired me from the team.
I went home with my rocket-launch hands. The scientists exhausted all avenues and marked me down as a freak of nature. I made a little money hiring myself out to show off my super-human feats. I’d star at carnivals and fetes, tossing tennis balls into orbit or blasting holes in brick walls with pen lids. I went to the States and signed up for a minor league baseball team with big ambitions. I doubled their gate on my debut but my skills had become too wayward to make an impression. I signed up for college to complete the studies I’d missed. The hockey girls had long gone. I tracked a few down to local squads and went down to see them, but they blanked me just like the old days.
I’ve still got my rocket-launch hands. I still head up to the airfield every morning, just to make sure. By now I’m assuming I’ve got them for keeps, but to be honest, I’m long past caring. I met a nice girl and we got engaged. We went to the beach and I skimmed a stone all the way to the sky-line, and she gave me a look that said ‘so what?’ I’m back to being Mr Average, all right, and I have to admit I kind of like it that way.