Macedonia

Clovis sat in his armchair reading Bradley Wiggins’ book, Icons. There was a newspaper cutting printed in the book, a race that Wiggins won, and there, in fourth place was the name – S Griskowitz, North Downs Wheelers Cycling Club. His club, Clovis’ club. Once a big name in the cycling firmament, now smaller, less well-known, but still chugging along, still with a proud tradition, still the occasional member who could make a splash on a bigger stage. Who was this S Griskowitz? Where had he come from? What had happened to him? What trajectory did his life take compared to Wiggins? Clovis texted his club-mates. Did anyone know who this man was? He was in the club, years ago, some older members remembered him. Clovis arranged to meet up with them and discuss club history. ‘Bring any old newsletters,’ said Clovis. ‘And any pictures, stories you have.’ They met in their usual café. Cold outside, warm inside, fog on the windows, not many tables occupied, Nina Simone on the shuffle, singing That’s All I Want From You. Norman had a doughnut, frosted with thick icing. Clovis had soup. Thick and green, like snot, bits floating in it. What’s the soup?’ said Norman. A little love that slowly grows and grows… ‘Not sure. Lots of garlic. Bit of potato, carrot.’ ‘What’s the green?’ ‘Not sure. It’s green soup. That’s what they call it. It’s the special. Green soup.’ ‘Green soup? Weird,’ said Norman. ‘What’s it taste of?’ ‘Green,’ said Clovis. I have no time to waste… ‘Left-overs,’ said Norman. ‘It’s left-overs, what it is.’ Clancy was one of the oldest members and had been in the club for more than 30 years, through the good times and the bad, the schisms and splits, the disagreements; he remembered all those who had threatened to leave over the years, and still kept in touch with some who had. He had grey hair, thinning, big eye-brows, fierce eyes. Slim, as they all were. Strong but the muscles not quite so strong and recovery took longer. But he still rode every other day and still did 150 miles in an average week. He drank tea: Earl Grey, splash of milk, a spoonful of sugar. ‘How can you put sugar in Earl Grey?’ said Clovis. ‘I always do. Did. Love it. It’s an acquired taste.’ Tomorrow might not come… ‘Not by me,’ said Clovis. Norman took a bite of his doughnut. The hard, white sugar cracked and fell down his chin. He rubbed the back of his hand across his lips. ‘Yeah,’ said Norman. ‘I remember him. Solomon, that was him. Back in the day, back in the day. Big guy, young, strong as an ox. Good rider. Albanian, I think. Or not. Macedonian, maybe. Croatia? Balkans, anyway. One of those rogue states.’ ‘Rogue?’ said Clovis. ‘You know what I mean,’ said Norman. ‘Civil war, Tito.’ Jam spurted out the side of the doughnut and splashed on his jersey. It looked like a blood stain. Clovis sipped his coffee. Americano with hot milk. Strong and thick, dense with a sharp taste that attacked the palate. He glanced at Marina behind the counter; dark wavy hair casually pushed behind her ears, tall, slim, pretty, long fingers, soft lips, foreign, strong accent, hard-working. She ignored him. ‘And?’ ‘I dunno,’ said Norman. ‘Disappeared after a few years.’ ‘We could find him,’ said Andrew. ‘It could be a Channel 4 documentary.’ A sunny day, with hopes up to the skies… ‘Good idea,’ said Clovis. ‘Where do we start?’ ‘Google it, always works.’ They sat there, iPhones in hand, the foursome, all Googling. ‘Anything?’ said Clovis. ‘He’s not on Facebook,’ said Andrew. ‘Smart boy.’ ‘Or Strava.’ ‘Not on Strava?’ said Clovis. ‘You sure? Can’t be a cyclist any more, then, if he’s not on Strava.’ ‘Or Twitter.’ ‘Not on Twitter? He’s really off-grid, isn’t he?’ ‘Off-grid?’ said Andrew. ‘Off-grid? What’s that, then?’ ‘No foot-print. No social media profile,’ said Clovis. ‘Perhaps he disappeared, like Lord Lucan.’ ‘Lucan’s dead,’ said Andrew. ‘Yeah? Who says?’ ‘I saw a documentary. He was shot and thrown overboard. In the Channel, by his friends. You know, Aspinall. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, he’s dead.’ ‘Maybe,’ said Clovis, mysteriously. I have no time to waste… Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ said Norman. ‘Forget Lucan.’ ‘There’s something here, on 192,’ said Andrew. ‘Same initial, same surname, right age profile. Lives in Streatham.’ ‘Is there an address? Phone number?’ ‘No, that costs, you need a subscription.’ ‘What would we do?’ said Andrew. ‘If we find him. Then what?’ ‘Ask him if he still cycles,’ said Norman. ‘He could re-join the club. See if he knows he’s in Wiggins’ book. How should I know? It’s a quest, innit? What do you do when you finish the quest?’ ‘Like Lord of the Rings,’ said Clovis. ‘We find the ring, and then…hang on. What happened to the ring?’ ‘They threw it in the crack of doom.’ ‘Painful,’ said Clovis. ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. When we find the ring. I mean, when we find him.’ They finished their coffees, stood up. ‘I’ll pay,’ said Norman. ‘No,’ said Clovis. ‘It’s my turn.’ He wanted to see Marina close-up. ‘And I’ve got my coffee token, I’m due a free one.’ ‘You’ll be lucky,’ said Clancy. He went to the counter and gazed longingly at Marina. She punched the buttons on the till, hardly noticed him. She was still thinking of sourdough and doughnuts, porridge recipes and cake fillings. Clovis used his contactless card – he loved contactless, it made him feel like a millionaire; he hardly carried cash any more, like the Queen. A little love, that’s all I want from you… ‘Bye Marina,’ he said. ‘Bye,’ she said. She couldn’t remember his name. They swaddled up; buffs, head scarves, gloves, helmets. Clancy unlocked the bikes. ‘You out Wednesday?’ said Clovis. ‘I ‘spect so,’ said Norman. ‘Me too,’ said Andrew. ‘Probably,’ said Clancy. Clovis drove to Streatham – he didn’t feel like cycling. The forecast said sleet and 2 degrees and the roads would be busy; he was worried about black ice. Streatham was suburbia, close packed little streets, big Edwardian houses. But that wasn’t where he was heading. He parked near a tower block; it was dark and foreboding and there was broken glass at the bottom of the stairs. The lift was out of order. He climbed the stairs to the sixth floor, knocked on a door. A small boy answered the door; maybe six years old, a shock of blonde hair, wide-eyed, dirty face, wearing shorts and a t-shirt with a picture of Zinedine Zidane on the front, barefooted; not Zidane, the boy. There was a large dog behind him, long-haired with a drooling mouth and dirty paws, peering round, anxious to see the stranger at the door. Clovis looked down at the boy who stared up at him, not saying anything. ‘Hello,’ said Clovis. ‘What’s your name?’ The boy said nothing. The dog barked. Clovis didn’t know what to do. ‘Nice doggie,’ he said. ‘What do you want?’ shouted a woman’s voice from deep inside the flat. ‘Who is it? Go away.’ ‘Er, my name is Clovis,’ Clovis shouted into the emptiness. The boy continued to look at him. The dog sat back on its haunches and began to lick its private parts. Clovis didn’t know what to do. An elderly woman appeared at the end of the corridor, wheeling herself along in a wheel-chair. She dragged herself with her stockinged feet, her arms resting on the arm-rests. Progress was very slow as the chair creaked and squeaked on the wooden floor. She stopped behind the dog. The boy turned and ran away. ‘Who are you?’ the woman said at last. ‘What do you want?’ She had grey hair, skinny arms, a shawl over her shoulders, a pair of glasses perched on the top of her head; one lens was cracked. ‘I was looking for Solomon,’ said Clovis. ‘Does he live here?’ ‘Why?’ ‘I’m from a cycling club – North Downs Wheelers,’ said Clovis. ‘Solomon was a member many years ago. I saw his name in a book. This book.’ He held out a photocopy of the page from Wiggins’ book. ‘I can’t see,’ said the woman. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Clovis. ‘I’m not blind. I mean, I haven’t got my glasses.’ ‘Oh,’ said Clovis. He didn’t feel he should tell her they were on her head. ‘Anyway, I found his name in this book and I wanted to find him. To see if he wanted to start cycling again. And see if he still cycled. Maybe join our club again.’ ‘He doesn’t cycle,’ said the woman. ‘Not any more. You’d better come in.’ She pushed herself backwards and then turned and headed off back down the corridor. ‘Not any more,’ she said again. Clovis entered through the door and shut it behind him. The dog brushed against his legs. ‘Nice doggie,’ he said. She entered a dark living room. The curtains were closed, the television on but the sound turned down. A two-bar heater blasted out heat. There was a man sleeping on a big dark brown leather sofa. He wore dark trousers and a T-shirt with a picture of Maradona on the front. He was swarthy and unshaven and was snoring steadily. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Clovis to the woman who had wheeled herself in front of the television. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb you.’ ‘Don’t mind him’ she said. ‘That’s Simon. He works nights. Make us some tea,’ she said then. ‘The kitchen’s there. You’d be quicker than me. You’ll find everything you need on the counter. Milk’s in the fridge. I take two sugars.’ A week later. The ride finished, back in the café. Marina still behind the counter, beautiful as ever. This time, Clovis had a latte. When it came there was the shape of a heart in the creamy froth on the surface. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘She fancies me.’ ‘They always do that,’ said Norman. ‘It’s not special for you. ‘So you say,’ said Clovis. ‘So you say.’ ‘You’re obsessed,’ said Andrew. ‘Why not?’ said Clovis. ‘Might as well be obsessed about something.’ ‘Any joy?’ said Norman. ‘With Marina?’ said Clovis. ‘No chance.’ ‘Not Marina. You’ve got no hope there. You’d have more luck with Lord Lucan. Any joy with the mysterious Solomon?’ ‘Lucan’s dead,’ said Andrew. ‘Forget Lucan! Jesus. Any joy with Solomon?’ ‘Yeah,’ said Clovis. ‘And?’ ‘I found him.’ ‘And? Christ, this is like pulling teeth.’ ‘Sorry’, said Clovis. He ordered toast. The girl brought it over; not Marina – she cooked, she didn’t serve. It came on a square plate, two slices of sourdough bread, lightly toasted, a pat of butter, a little glass dish of jam. He spread the butter on one of the slices. He had to scrape, the butter was hard. ‘You never get enough butter,’ he said. ‘Ask for more,’ said Norman. ‘You can always ask for more.’ ‘You never do that,’ said Clovis. ‘You never ask for more butter. That’s one of the rules.’ He took a bite of toast and chewed it carefully. ‘Mmmmmm,’ he said. ‘I found him. I got a subscription to 192 and got the address; it’s in Streatham, like I said. No phone number, just the address.’ ‘So, what are you gonna do?’ said Andrew. ‘I’ve done it. I went round there, knocked on the door.’ ‘And?’ ‘It wasn’t him.’ ‘What? It’s gotta be him,’ said Andrew. ‘It’s such an unusual name; same age, local, everything.’ ‘It doesn’t gotta be him, and I’m telling you, it wasn’t him. It was his brother. Twin brother.’ ‘Twin brother?’ said Norman. ‘I didn’t know he had a brother. Is he a cyclist?’ ‘Funnily enough,’ said Clovis. ‘No. He’s done a bit but mostly he’s a runner.’ ‘So, where’s Solomon? Did you find that out?’ ‘Yeah, I had a long chat with Simon, he’s the brother. And his grandmother, she lives there, she’s disabled, has disabilities, I mean. Simon remembered the club, said Solomon used to talk about it a lot. And about Wiggins. Crits at the Palace, club rides, races on the rollers, in the clubhouse, the Brighton run, evening 10s, everything, open 25, everything. He said Solomon went back to Macedonia in 1999; their parents were ill. He carried on cycling. Won a few races, just amateur stuff, road races, mostly. He was in the army. He coulda been a contender, said Simon. And then he got killed, in 2001.’ ‘Oh,’ said Norman. ‘Oh’, said Andrew. ‘How,’ said Clancy, speaking for the first time. ‘Land mine,’ said Clovis. ‘He was mine clearing in Serbia. Missed one, obviously. Killed instantly.’ ‘Oh,’ said Clancy. ‘He was a good cyclist.’ ‘But his brother wants to get back into cycling,’ said Clovis. ‘Simon. He wants to join the club. He’s going to come out on Saturday. He’s still got one of Solomon’s bikes. Steel.’ ‘That’s good,’ said Clancy. ‘He’d be good, it’s in the genes. How old is he now?’ ‘Same age as Solomon would have been,’ said Clovis. ’They were twins, don’t forget. 38.’ ‘Good,’ said Norman. Marina was at the sink, washing cups. Clovis looked at her; she looked nice from the back. Looked nice from the front too. An elderly couple came into the café and sat down. The man took a kindle out of his pocket and started reading. The woman started knitting. They didn’t talk. The man signalled to Marina, obviously regulars; she started the coffee machine. ‘Who wants more tea?’ said Andrew. ‘Go on then,’ said Clovis. ‘And shortbread. Get me shortbread.’  

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