Hey Book Lovers! I’m happy to be part of blog tour for A Spoke in the Wheel by Kathleen Jowitt. Many thanks to Kathleen Jowitt for inviting me to participate in this tour and also for wonderful copy that I’m going to read and review very soon.
The first thing I saw was the wheelchair.
The first thing she saw was the doper.
Ben Goddard is an embarrassment – as a cyclist, as an athlete, as a human being. And he knows it.
Now that he’s been exposed by a positive drugs test, his race wins and his work with disabled children mean nothing. He quits professional cycling in a hurry, sticks a pin in a map, and sets out to build a new life in a town where nobody knows who he is or what he’s done.
But when the first person he meets turns out to be a cycling fan, he finds out that it’s not going to be quite as easy as that.
Besides, Polly’s not just a cycling fan, she’s a former medical student with a chronic illness and strong opinions. Particularly when it comes to Ben Goddard…
I knew what the beeping meant: I had to move.
I had to move or I was going to die.
This had never happened to me before, but Dr Wolfsen had warned me often enough. My blood had thickened to a hyper-oxygenated gloop, my heart was slowing, and if I didn’t get out of bed and onto a bike it would just stop.
I clutched at my chest, groping for the heart-rate monitor. I couldn’t find it. It kept beeping. I didn’t have time… I struggled out of bed, fighting the sheets, the mattress pitching and rolling beneath me. My bike would be there, ready on the rollers; I just had to get on and pedal until my blood thinned and my heart started working properly again.
The bike wasn’t there. Surely I’d set it up last night.
I didn’t know what to do. Had there been some mistake? Had Señora Garcia moved it for some obscure reason of her own? Was someone actually trying to kill me? I had to act fast.
It was then that I realised.
The beeping was my alarm.
I wasn’t doped.
My heart was, if anything, beating rather faster than usual.
No wonder the bed felt weird. No wonder there wasn’t a bike waiting for me.
Nothing was wrong. Nothing was wrong at all.
‘Did you sleep OK?’ Polly asked me when I saw her, later in the afternoon. She looked at me in a way that suggested she had a good reason for asking.
‘I woke up with… a weird dream,’ I admitted. ‘I hope I didn’t disturb you?’
She didn’t answer that one. ‘Were you running?’
‘It was a very weird dream. I hope it won’t happen again.’
That seemed to satisfy her: though who knows? Perhaps she was just glad to know that I found it difficult to sleep at night.
Even after that it took me ages to get round to actually buying a bed; I managed for the first few weeks with that airbed, and lived out of my suitcases like I had been before. I picked up the essentials bit by bit; but I really didn’t see the point of fussing about objects. It wasn’t as if I spent much time in the house.
My room at the bed and breakfast had always been too depressing for me to stay there for longer than it took me to sleep and dress, and once I found work I took on as many hours as I could. Nothing much changed when I moved in with Vicki and Polly. I didn’t like admitting it to myself, but I was nervous around them. They were a unit; they’d worked out a way of living with each other. I felt like a spare part. I won’t say that I treated the house like a hotel – I did my own cooking and cleaning, after all – but I spent very little waking time there.
My shifts were long; the work was hard – not difficult, once I’d got into the swing of it, but physically exhausting. I didn’t complain. Work was what I needed. Both jobs kept me on my feet; both required me to keep my mind on the task in hand. I didn’t want to dwell on the past; and these jobs wouldn’t let me. Between the two of them, plus the walk home, I could wear myself out sufficiently to get to sleep without having to drink too much, or think too much.
Vicki’s schedule was equally punishing. She’d told me about her commute, of course, but I hadn’t realised what long hours she worked. Even when the warehouse had me on lates, I almost always beat her home. She spent her weekends on the bike – one or the other of them. The cycling club went out for a ride every Sunday; sometimes she did her own thing and headed inland until she found a climb with some teeth to it; and on Saturdays she pootled around town on her purple bike if she wasn’t taking Polly somewhere.
Polly’s illness kept her exhausted without any extra effort from her. She probably managed six hours more sleep every day than either Vicki or me, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. She was always tired. She couldn’t work, ‘unless,’ she said, ‘you find an office without fluorescent lights that’ll take me on for eight hours a week, no heavy lifting.’
Her social life, such as it was, centred around the church. I never quite worked out whether she was an actual believer or just went to get out of the house; either way, the church people were reasonably good at picking her up and driving her to the various events.
And that was where she’d met her boyfriend, too. I’d learned from Vicki that his name was Michael and that he did something in IT. Polly had yet to introduce him to me, but I was prepared to like him just from the simple fact that he got her out of the house and saved me from a few hours of her judgemental gaze.
Particularly on my birthday, which fell in the middle of February. Not that the girls knew that. So far as anyone here knew, this was just another day, and I wanted to keep it that way.
Of course, that didn’t stop my parents calling. When I saw the landline number – I hadn’t saved it as home, but of course it was burned into my own memory – flash up on the screen I almost regretted giving them my new mobile number.
As soon as I picked it up, I heard, ‘Happy birthday, Ben!’
Well, I supposed that it was nice to hear it, really. Yes, I was glad that somebody had remembered. ‘Hi, Mum,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’
‘How are you? What are you planning to do to celebrate?’
‘Oh, nothing special,’ I said, keeping my voice down as I went to shut the door of my room. Vicki was still in the house, and I didn’t want her to hear. I didn’t see that there was much to celebrate. A quarter of a century gone, and what did I have to show for it?
‘Nothing? Oh, that’s a shame – you ought to do something to mark your twenty-fifth birthday! There were…’ her voice became slightly muffled, ‘… there were moments when we didn’t think… didn’t think you’d get this far…’
‘I know, Mum,’ I muttered, embarrassed. ‘I know.’
‘Ben?’ Dad must have taken the phone from her. ‘Happy birthday!’
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘How are you?’
‘Me? I’m fine. How are you? What’s the news? Your mum’s been worried, you know.’
‘Yeah. Sorry. I’m OK. I’ve found some work and I’m sharing a house with a couple of girls.’ Keep it vague, I thought.
‘That sounds sensible. What’s the job?’
‘Jobs, plural.’ I ran through a brief description of my duties for each of them.
‘Hm.’ He didn’t sound thrilled. ‘Well, that’ll do to tide you over, I suppose. When are you going back to cycling?’
I clenched my fist; my fingernails dug into the palm of my hand. I’d known this was coming sooner or later. ‘I’m not.’
‘Well, I know you’ve got the ban and everything, but you should keep in touch with your team. You never know.’
If I never heard from anyone at Grande Fino again, that would be too soon. ‘Dad,’ I said, ‘I’m not going to go back to cycling, ever.’
‘Oh, come on, Ben, don’t be ridiculous. You made some mistakes –’
‘– you maybe weren’t doing as well as we’d all hoped, but that’s no reason to give it up now. You still have such a long way to go.’
In some other universe, maybe. ‘A very long way to go,’ I agreed. ‘Too long.’
‘Well, if you’re going to take such a defeatist attitude then it’s hardly surprising, is it?’
I didn’t answer.
I still didn’t answer.
I think Dad likes having a phone that he can slam down.
Kathleen Jowitt was born in Winchester, UK, and grew up deep in the Welsh Marches and, subsequently, on the Isle of Wight. After completing her undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of Exeter she moved to Guildford and found herself working for a major trade union. She now lives in Cambridge, works in London, and writes on the train.
Her first novel, Speak Its Name, was the first self-published book ever to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize.
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