It was a Wednesday and I was around Matty White's house. As usual. I spent a lot of time with Matty in those days, with him being my best friend and everything and such a mass of acne that none of the girls looked twice at him, so he always had time to spare for his pals. The girls never looked twice at me, either, so we pretended it didn't matter that we were single, because we preferred knocking around together, didn't we? Just as mates, of course.
We spent most of our out-of-school hours at his house or mine, watching the sport on Sky television or playing on his X-Box. He was the first boy in our class to have one of those, probably because his mum and dad had split and his old man had given him it out of guilt. Guilt at having run off with someone not even old enough to be Matty's mum. We didn't mind--I loved trying out the games, especially the new ones which arrived every Christmas and birthday, although my favourite was always Amped. It was unlikely I'd ever get the chance to snowboard in real life and I knew I'd never be that good at it even if the opportunity came up, so I played on that for hours.
"Off to play on the B-Box?" It became a running joke with my dad, every time I said I was going down Matty's he'd come out with something like "Don't you ever get tired of that M-Box?" or whatever he was calling it that week. Once Matty's mum had a bit of a party for her birthday and we got dad onto the X-Box, playing Project Gotham Racing. He was absolute rubbish and he's never lived it down.
That particular Wednesday we weren't playing computer games; I remember it really well for a number of reasons. It was an INSET day, for one, which meant we didn't have to go down the Open Prison--sorry, Oakmount Specialist Language School. Sounds posh, doesn't it; dead Harry Potter. It wasn't. Just the local comprehensive school, one that fancied itself a bit because it made the pupils do two foreign languages. Except if you were a bit thick, then you only did one. Matty and I did German and Spanish, which meant we could swear in two languages, three if you include English. By that you'll see that neither of us was that dumb.
It was a warm day, just perfect for July, and we were in the lounge, lazing about on the settee with the French windows open and listening to the radio. We didn't often have the radio on, not being into pop music, unless it was Radio Five with the sport. Middle of a Wednesday there isn't usually any sport on, but we were glued to the set like it was the World Cup and England taking part in a penalty shoot out. Matty's mum came in from work for her lunch--she's an assistant at the local primary school--and tried to shoo us out into the garden or down the park. She thought Matty spent too much time indoors as it was and always threatened him with getting rickets if he didn't have some fresh air.
We had to beg her to be quiet, because things were just reaching a climax, but she didn't seem to twig. She was halfway through lecturing us about being rude when the announcement came and the next minute Matty and I were bouncing about and hollering, "Yes!" at the top of our voices, punching the air and doing high fives, the works. Matty gave his mum a great big hug and a kiss, so I gave her one as well.
"What are you two daft beggars doing?"
"Celebrating of course, Mum." Matty gave her another smacker. "London got the Olympics, even though old misery guts said that they were bound to give the Games to Paris."
"I never did," I protested. "I just said we weren't to count our chickens before they were hatched." Matty nutmegged me for that; I swear my scalp was sore for days, but I didn't care. We had the Olympics and I'd already done all the calculations--I'd just have graduated from Uni in summer 2012 so there wouldn't be anything stopping me watching the Games every chance I got, remote in hand to flick between the rowing and the modern pentathlon. We won the team gold in that in Montreal, 1976--my dad told me all about it, including the tale of some Russian army officer getting caught for cheating. I used to think he'd made that bit up until I found the story on Wikipedia.
"What a pair. I suppose you'll want to go, won't you?" Mrs. White rolled her eyes. "You'll have to ask your dad to pay. I can't afford it."
"I don't want just to sit in the stands, Mrs. White. I want to be taking part." I high-fived Matty. "I'll make sure he gets tickets, so he can watch me."
"Oh, Ben." She rolled her eyes again. "I'll just get you lads a sandwich, you must be starving." Mrs. White turned on her heels, looking back over her shoulder as she reached the door, to give me her "Oh, Ben. You poor lamb" look.
I like Matty's mum, I like her a lot, and she'd been a real rock to him when he was feeling a bit lost after his dad left, but she likes to put labels on things and stick them away in compartments. "Second wives are like cats, only in it for what they can get. Once they spot a better home they'll up sticks and go there." The second Mrs. White came in for a fair bit of the first Mrs. White's labelling.
"Matty's from a broken home, so he can't ever be expected to do as well as the other boys at school." That was another one of her favourites, closely followed by "Ben's got cerebral palsy, poor lamb. Of course that means he can't do what the other boys do." I gave up arguing with her. I used to hear her tell Matty something along the lines of him making sure he looked after me when we went to parties, because I had cerebral palsy--I think she thought Matty managed to wake up each day and forget that--and so I wouldn't be able to join in any fun that was going on. If she'd seen me on the dance floor giving ABBA some welly I suspect she'd have pretended not to notice as it would have shaken her preconceptions.
Matty was different. As soon as his mum had left the room that auspicious day, he'd just rolled his eyes, winked and said that if I didn't get him the best seats in the house to watch me in 2012, then he'd thump me. I punched him a couple of times and we started to laugh, because life's good when you're fourteen and you don't know your limits. Matty always believed in me.
My parents believed in me, too. When I got home later, they were almost as excited as we'd been. Mum loved the cycling and the rowing--still does--and she was already planning all the events she wanted to watch. Dad's more the water events type, so he was putting in his two pennyworth for the ten metre platform diving or something. I went along with the flow, setting out my order for athletics tickets, just on the off chance that my training schedule was going to let me get to see some of the other Olympic events. It was only over dinner, when they'd planned themselves hoarse, that I dropped the bombshell.
"I'll be there. Of course." I can remember the situation as clear as yesterday. I was halfway through one of Mum's pasta bakes, making sure I didn't slitter it down my t-shirt. I'm only an S9, although I didn't know that back then, I just knew that I had things pretty mild compared to how it could have been. I was at mainstream school and doing pretty well, even though I say so myself.
See, my parents were the direct opposite of Mrs. White. Their attitude was, "Ben, he's got cerebral palsy. Of course he can do what the other boys do. He might just need a bit of help." So I had this really neat apron to wear at mealtimes if I wanted to--butcher's blue and white stripes--and Dad had a matching one because he slitters worse than I do and he hasn't even got an excuse.
"Of course you'll be there, you daft pudding. We wouldn't get tickets for us and not you." Mum wagged her fork at me. "Only not the beach volleyball or whatever it is where the girls just wear dental floss."
"Spoilsport." Dad gave me a wink, before he swerved to avoid the whack Mum was sending his way.
"Actually, I was hoping I could get you tickets." I didn't worry that at this rate I'd soon have promised tickets to the whole street. "I'm going to be one of the competitors."
"Really?" It was an enthusiastic "really", not the sort of sarcastic reply some parents might have given. "Which event?"
Oh crap. That was the point I realised that such minor matters as which event hadn't even crossed my mind. "Um, I haven't exactly decided." I've always had the habit of blushing spectacularly; at that point I must have been as red as a beetroot.
"You daft ha'pporth." Mum tapped my knuckles with her fork. "You better make your mind up pretty sharp."
Dad seemed to have made my mind up for me. "What about swimming? You're good at that."
"I suppose I am, but I'm no Ian Thorpe." My mad Olympic dream appeared to be lying in tatters at my feet. I could imagine the orgy of "I-told-you-so-ing" Mrs. White was going to enjoy at my expense.
"You don't have to be Ian Thorpe. You want to be like that lad from Wales, what's his name. The one who won the Paralympic gold in Sydney last year." I never worked out, in years to come, whether Dad meant Dave Roberts or Sascha Kindred and I'm not sure he could have told you himself. It didn't matter, the die was cast. It was such a blooming obvious solution, although I've spent so long trying not to think of myself as disabled that, naturally, I thought of the mainstream games first. But they were just a pipedream, and I'd have had no realistic chance. The Paralympics? That was a whole different kettle of fish.