It was Katie who had dragged her along to the match; her Dad's firm had a bank of tickets to all of the big matches and handed out half a dozen to his daughter's friends. It was top level stuff, Ambassador League, and the teams had a real grudge match going judging by the slogans being chanted and the banners waved. Of the six of them, Jo was the only one who didn't follow the sport particularly. Sure, she had had the sticker albums and the gym sets when she was little, but as she sat with the rest of the gang, fingers itching towards the book in her bag, she couldn't help feeling as if she was there under false pretences. Her friends were busy spotting favourite team members, buying programmes and Esther had even plucked up the courage to inch her way forward to the benches to grab autographs from three reserves. Then, with a deafening roar, the competitors entered. Jo sat up a little straighter, her interest caught by the two neat rows who waved at the crowd before the draw for the first rotation was announced. One gymnast in particular was being cheered by the crowd of Bush supporters across the other side of the stadium. Eventually Jo managed to make out the words “Welcome Back, Welcome Back” and Tim leaned forward to whisper an explanation.
Katie muttered busily, trying to explain the scoring system and eventually falling back on her friend's love of physics to describe the mechanism of vaults. The atmosphere was electric. Without meaning to, Jo felt herself get sucked into the rhythms and the energy, the power and the fluidity, picked a favourite and cheered with the rest. Esther was examining her booklet and muttering about statistics, while Tim tried to interest her in Kawasiko dismounts and Owen Vaults. Jo let their voices trickle past her and just watched. She felt her hands grip the air as a black gymnast sprung onto the bars, flexed her ankles as a blond pixie of a girl flipped and flew across the floor, winced as a bullet-headed girl lost marks for stumbling as she came out of her vault, and pointed her toes along with the red-head on the beam.
Then, during a dismount from the asymmetric bars, it happened. Since the match started she had been tensing herself for a failure as she watched the near impossible feats, and now the girl who had commanded the massive reaction from the fans stumbled and lay sprawled across the floor. The team medic ran up, neat and competent in her tracksuit, but her anxious expression was clearly visible to at least one of the stands. She knelt next to the girl, questioning and pressing, before she turned to wave to the sidelines. Two similarly glad figures ran on with a stretcher and carried the gymnast away. The crowd murmured and as the team members finished their routines they joined the anxious huddle near the benches. Jo, eyes firmly on the judges who seemed to be consulting with an official asked “What now?”. They waited. A few people stood up to leave, but most stayed as if riveted to their seats, waiting to hear the verdict. Then, miraculously, she was back. The stadium was still apart from the small figure lifting herself onto the beam.
Jo Bell never forgot the crunch of bone hitting the wooden beam, and she could never catch another glimpse of a match without feeling sick. This time there was no reassuring movements from the figure on the floor. The paramedics worked briskly and she was hurried away. Eventually the teams were hustled off to the changing rooms, and the final scores were announced. Stewards appeared to urge the spectators to return to their cars, and the party atmosphere had completely vanished. Travelling home on the train they listened to the car radio's match analysis, and the first breaking news report which confirmed the worst.
At home she sat hunched in the battered armchair, silent, distant. Her mother put two mugs of hot chocolate on the coffee table and patted the empty space on the sofa. Jo curled into her. “You were nearly a gymnast you know.” It was the last thing Jo expected her mother to say and the surprise snapped her out of her shock for a moment. “You went to after school classes when you were in the infants, and you were really very good. A scout from one of the big clubs was asking lots of questions, but then you caught mumps from your brother and missed the trials, and somehow you lost interest.”
Jo remembered having mumps, the misery of aching absolutely everywhere, and the books her parents brought her as a distraction. She remembered losing herself in the Famous Five and Narnia, and after that wanting to spend all her time reading, exploring the exciting new worlds. She was good at PE at school, but never had the urge to take it seriously. Still, it was something to ponder. “I wonder what would have happened if I'd had the trial?”
Mrs Bell laughed. “Probably the same thing that happens to hundreds of little girls. Lots of classes, not a weekend to call your own, some badges in competitions, and all over by the time you were ten. Jo nodded and snuggled in closer for a moment. She had bigger things to think about. O-levels, and whether they would let her babysit her nephew next week (and how much she would be paid if she did), and what film to see with Katie and Tim at the weekend. Still, herself as a gymnast, firmly fixed in that glittering splendid world of fame and travel...but her thoughts kept drifting back to the small, blanket covered figure on the stretcher. She shuddered, dropped a kiss on her mother's head, and headed upstairs to begin her maths homework.
“Jodie? Jodie Bell, is that you?” The smartly dressed women in the business suit turned to look at the tired woman with mousey hair scraped back into a knot. Only someone who had known her well would have recognised the former England team member beyond the distracted expression and the pile of files. “It's Gemma, Gemma Liddington. Do you have time for coffee?”.
Jodie was still in shock as she glanced at her watch – yes, after six, and she could take the files back to the office in the morning - nodded and followed her former team mate along and alleyway to an anonymous blue door. To her surprise she realised that she was in the back corridors of the big stadium, tracing a path she had known so well as a child. As they passed one of the side entrances she could see people busily sweeping up after the days match, replacing crash mats and picking discarded litter from the stands. Liddy led the way past the deserted press gallery to the BBC office at the back.
“You don't mind being in here, do you? The main canteen is closed but I was coming back to prep for the 9pm broadcast.” She disappeared through a door at the side and Jodie could hear a tap running. “The Spartans seem to be improving their lot, don't they? The first round of the junior championships had some great potential. We have a sweepstake in the office over the new faces to watch.” Liddy popped her head round the door and saw Jodie had moved to the great glass wall which formed the background to the reports. She smiled to herself as she watched her former team mate looking down at the scene of former triumphs. She put the mugs on the coffee table with an audible clink, and waited for the other woman to pull herself back to the present and seat herself in a chair.
“So Jodie, how long has it been?”
They both knew exactly how long it had been. Newspaper articles had recently brought up the fifteenth anniversary of Beth's tragic death, and the mutiny of her team mates. The revolt had revolutionised the way in which gymnasts were treated, and the Lawrence Regulations ('Beth's Law' in the tabloids) were still on the statute books. The negative publicity had sent Bushwhackers shares plummeting, and Jodie, their sole remaining star, had found herself bound to a team who were fast vanishing into the depths of the lower divisions. Parents withdrew their children from the academy citing dangerous practices; members of the junior side began to request transfers. The legal fees were phenomenal and the tabloids took great relish in reporting each loss. Then came bankruptcy, and every team Jodie approached, no longer caring about transfer fees, turned away from her with a smirk. There had been so much negative publicity that the favourite of the public became the person most booed at matches. Rival clubs chanted obscene rhymes, and the sparkle of the girl who thrived on being the darling of the stadium dulled and vanished. From gold medallist to hated has-been in fifteen short months.
Trying to hold her head up high, Jodie packed away her leotard and spent the next few years trying to concentrate on her exams. Her A-level results would have taken her anywhere as a successful gymnast retiring in a blaze of glory, but as a tabloid joke it was more of a struggle.
She had never had friends beyond the world of gymnastics, and it took a long while to get used to the fact that it no longer dominated her life. Choosing a private tutor rather than school had seemed like a good idea at the time, but it left her entirely unprepared for college life and the sheer number of unfiltered people. The clubs had provided a barrier from the public, and although she loved ad campaigns and public appearances she was beginning to see how they had all been on her terms. She had believed she was so worldly wise, when she was sheltered and cosseted and protected from life outside of her bubble.
Economics wasn't quite what she expected, but she enjoyed it very much, and after graduation she found herself working in advertising. She was using 'Jo' by this time, Jodie Bell still being a name to turn heads and make people pause. Jo Bell was almost anonymous by comparison, especially since the spiky hair was ancient history. She had filled out since stopping her intensive training, watching in horrified fascination as she grew breasts, and discovered quite why some of the older gymnasts had complained about periods.
Her former team mates had long since retired and more than one generation had been and gone since. She thought of them occasionally, and had felt her insides flip the first time she saw Liddy commentating on a match. She thought she was past all that now, but had never expected the rush of emotion that hit her as she smelt the unmistakable aroma of the stadium once more.
Idle chit chat followed, Liddy was still in touch with some former team mates and filled Jodie in on their careers. “We've been considering a retrospective actually, a glimpse back at the 'golden days' when we have the Christmas match break in a fortnight. You know the sort of thing, old match footage, bring back a few old faces to talk about the highlights...” she tilted her head “Jodie! I don't suppose you would be interested? There are some great films out there, and we may even bring out that cereal ad and talk about how it sparked your interest in your current career.”
Liddy's face was so open and interested that Jodie was tempted. Back here. Back in front of the camera, discussing saltos and dismounts and reliving the glory days. She hesitated before saying yes. It could all go so horribly wrong, but Liddy... and being back here... Liddy was still looking at her keenly and Jodie felt her worries leave her. They had been friends once, years ago, and Jodie had been one of the elite. This was a chance to get past the bad taste her departure had left, “All right, I'm in.” Liddy's face lit up and she pulled out her diary to talk dates and run time, and Jodie felt her excitement grow. A chance to be back here, back among everyone...a chance to be Jodie Bell again.
She had her hair smartly cut and styled, and after some consideration bought herself a new suit. There was a meeting when she was shown some old footage and a rough format was discussed, but with much being murmured about flexibility and free flowing conversation on the day. When she arrived at the studio, earlier than her appointed time, she was ushered into a green room and left with a glass of water and a pile of gym magazines. There was an article in one about Maggie Carey and her election to the National Council of Gymnastics, her campaigning work for young gymnasts rights, and the expectation that she would run for parliament in the next election. Memories of Maggie and the other Bushwhackers flooded back, and Jodie could almost imagine she heard their voices. But then - yes, that was Maggie - out in the corridor, Maggie's voice! Jodie jumped up from her chair and walked across to the door, seeing her former Captain disappearing around a corner. Following, she was about to knock and go in when she heard Maggie and Liddy talking.
“Is she here?”
“Lou's supposed to let me know when she arrives.” There was a pause and the sound of papers being shuffled.
“Should we really be ambushing her on air?” Jodie felt her blood turn to ice. Her hand, raised to tap, drifted back to her side.
“We can't talk about her career without mentioning it; surely you wouldn't expect to? She was never asked about it in interviews, Gurney and his lot were very careful about that. We'll give her a chance to speak up now. We'll be talking about other things too, but with all the press coverage recently it would be a scandal if we didn't.”
Maggie sighed and there was the sound of a chair being pushed back. Jodie's mouth was dry as she heard the voices move further away. “I suppose she was as much of a victim of it all as everyone else. She was only fourteen...”
“We were kids too, and so was Beth. The others stood with us and we broke the Bush. She needs to be asked whether she still thinks she made the right decision...” a door shut somewhere and they were gone. Jodie groped her way back to the waiting room.
So that was why she was here. Not as a returning champion revisiting the scenes of her victories, but as a grubby little mystery in the world of gymnastics. They wanted her to admit on air how wrong she had been. Their voices spun round and round in Jodie's head and she wished with all her heart that she had said no to this. There was still time – she could leave by the side door and no one would make her talk about this. But maybe it was time to face some unpleasant truths. Standing against the others, choosing money over comradeship had cost her dear, cost her a lot of money and a fitting end to her career. It had been more than that. She had known that they were wrong, she and Miss Amey and Gurney, all those years ago, but it was far easier to think of her portfolio and her savings book rather than making a difficult decision. She had regretted it since, oh so very much, but regretted it for the wrong reasons.
She could go out there and say that she was scared of the management, scared of their wrath. Maggie should appreciate that, with all her child advocacy work. She could say that she genuinely believed that it was right to stay, that her mind was in a mess through grief for a friend. But maybe now she should stand up there and talk about herself as a fourteen year old who thought she could manage the system, how she had let financial gain mean more than friendship, and how very wrong she had been. Maybe she could face the music after all these years and when they threw the questions at her, instead of looking shocked and trying to defend herself, maybe she could look into the faces of her former friends and say very simply “Yes, I was wrong.” Jodie Bell nodded grimly to herself. Time to hit the headlines one last time.
After the Great Walkout, Jodie was well and truly shunned by her former team mates. The PR machine went into overdrive, holding up brave little Jodie who carried on and who hadn't lost her nerve after the tragic accident. The lawyers engaged by the Bushwhackers were ferocious, and Paula, Liz and the reserves had quickly crumbled when faced with being sued for breach of contract and bills guaranteed to wipe out their savings overnight. Maggie and Liddy stood alone for a while, but eventually made a settlement, Liddy went to the Herne Bay team, while Maggie retired in a blaze of press conferences before settling down to take A-levels.
Jodie remained. Paula and Liz didn't speak to her, and the new recruits, drafted up from the second squad and terrified of not being good enough, treated her with caution. Jodie quickly discovered that being rich could also be very lonely. She missed Beth, missed her laughter and sunshine in the sitting room, missed her jokes and her concentration, just missed her. But it wasn't just Beth. When Jodie sat down and thought about it, late in the night in her private room, she missed feeling part of a team. And, during a long night of contemplation, she realised that it wasn't just Beth who she missed. Liddy and Maggie and the others, they had been friends as well as team mates.
Five days before Christmas Jodie skidded on the ice outside the central office of the Gymnastics Association and felt something snap. Thirty eight cameras captured the moment when the career of one of the most successful and controversial gymnasts ended in a slide and a crash, and for a good twenty seconds she lay there alone, sprawled awkwardly in two inches of freezing slush. She knew that the sudden silence, broken by the chatter of three dozen mobile phones did not indicate that an ambulance was being called, but that editors around the nation would be franticly trying to break the story. In a moment of clarity she realised that had it been Beth or even Maggie or Liz, at least one of the calls would have been 999.
It was the receptionist, pale faced and horrified, who phoned for help before hurrying out with a blanket and a waterproof. It was a bitter irony that the silvery wrapper was left over from the recent British Championship, and the contrast between the whey faced figure with her eyes screwed shut, one hand convulsively clutching at the handrail which had failed to save her, and the glowing figure wrapped in the same, waving victoriously as she received her 9.9 on the parallel bars, was beamed round the world.
Jodie was released from hospital on Christmas Eve, an enormous plastic boot encasing her damaged foot. The Bushwhackers put out a press release stating that their top physios were working with her to facilitate her recovery. Jodie spent Christmas with her family, silent and strained. How could they possibly understand? She had counted on another eighteen months, time to build up her portfolio, make more connections, pass her exams, before A-levels and heading off to university in a blaze of glory. Losing all this training time, even if she healed fast, it would be six months before she would be ready to compete, and her spot in the England squad would have long since gone.
When, six weeks later, ultrasounds showed the tendon was failing to heal, Jodie returned to the ward for an operation. Newspapers carried daily updates. Floored! published photos claiming that her leg had been amputated (and then another claiming that the fall had been a carefully choreographed hoax to allow Jodie to escape from the Bushwhacker regime to pursue her dream of opening a market garden). This was no help to Jodie, who despite the intensive physio, could feel her body growing stiffer and heavier by the day.
The company who had failed to grit the stairs paid out a record breaking sum in compensation. Photos of Jodie struggling bravely along on crutches touched the hearts of a nation who had turned against her after the Beth Affair. The money built up in her savings account, and her ankle became more flexible. The new teams were unveiled and thirteen year old Lauren Summers became the newest Bushwhacker, transferred for a record sum from the Bolton Bloomers. Jodie merchandise was missing from the shelves in the club shop, and one day she opened the paper to see herself described as an ex-gymnast.
Retirement at fifteen and a half. Her parents suggested she should enrol in the local school, the one she would have attended had she not been signed to a club when she was small. The idea of a comprehensive attended by over a thousand other students filled her with horror and after taking advice from her agent (former agent?) she enrolled herself in a small private school. There was a former child star who tried to be friends, but how could Abbie understand? She had outgrown her talents, while Jodie had hers ripped away.
She had always known that her career would end in her mid teens, but she hadn't anticipated the feeling of loss. Her leg was well enough to tumble and spin, but how do you cope with being a has-been at seventeen? University was how you coped. An economics degree, an MBA, and a part time job coaching the Spartons "We see you as an inspiration, Jodie dear, a mentor" saw her through. After she managed to get three of the squad up to first division level, headhunters started to appear, one from the actual Headhunters. It was to the Bush she returned; as ever they made the best offer.
It was an incongruous scene thought Jodie as she looked down on the hall. Good King Wenceslas playing over the speakers (it was a perfect rhythm for the Kyrgenislav vaults), and three eight year olds lay on crash mats fighting back tears as the trainers bent their legs so that their ankles touched their faces. In the back four ten year olds worked on vaults, none quite able to get the timing. The thumps and springs of the equipment were as familiar as breathing and Jodie leaned over the railings and took a deep sniff of the air - rubber and matting and chalk and exertion. She had forgotten what it felt like to belong.
Magda Griffiths, Suzy Lode, Ashanti Mobake were the ones to watch, and she did need to move her focus away from the one individual now that career was reaching its end. One of the three would make the England squad, probably Ashanti, although if Pippa Scott of the Headhunters was dropped (rumours of a betting scandal were beginning to emerge), they needed someone strong on the bars, giving Magda a chance to shine. Jodie frowned at the sheet of paper in front of her. Ashanti and Suzy had been due to go home for a fortnight over Christmas, but if National trials were to be held in January... Fortunately Magda had become emancipated after her parents tried to make her move with them to Australia, and her home was with the club. She made a series of notes on her pad and glanced up as the crowd volume increased. The first rotation was up on the board and Ashanti and Emma stood back while the others made their way to beam (Suzy), bars (Cathy, newly advanced from the juniors), vault (Magda) and floor. Jodie picked up her pen and prepared to take notes. She must concentrate on Magda and Suzy this rotation, as much as her eyes started drifting.
Samantha Lawrence moved to the middle of the floor to begin her exercise. A hushed silence fell as the strains of A Love for Three Oranges filled the auditorium. Built like her sister, Samantha was light and airy, floating through her moves to finish with a triple Toshiko and a three-pike Bell-curve. At sixteen she was the longest serving team member, and Jodie had worked with her a lot the years. Very strong on beam and floor, her vault and bars were never solid enough to guarantee her a place on the England squad, although at thirteen she had been second reserve for a season. Her mother never came to her matches, but Jodie was there. Jodie was always there.
The crowd went wild as Samantha ended with a back to back tumbling run in perfect time, and cheers of LAW-REN-TEENY echoed the stadium. She waved and glowed and ran back to the team benches to be congratulated by the other Bushwhackers. She glanced across at the team officials, seeing Dr Mulligan nodding and smiling, while Jodie scribbled away in her inevitable notebook, not stopping even when a 9.8 flashed up on the screen to rapturous applause. Her bar routine was less successful; she almost most didn't make her release manoeuvre, and only narrowly avoided being out of bounds on her vault. There would be lots to work on. There always was.
Samantha couldn't remember when she first realised she was special. Not as an all round gymnast – her vaults were wide half the time, and her bar dismounts were unpredictable – but special enough to get extra attention. She had grown up aware that her sister was in The Team, but it was hard to associate the dancing figure in a leotard with the sister who appeared briefly at Easter and Christmas wearing jeans and jumpers and a huge smile. Suddenly she wasn't there any more, and Mummy was sad and angry and there were rows and people phoning all the time, but the people from the gym classes suggested that Samantha might like to go and stay with them for a while until Mummy felt better. At six and a half she had been the youngest boarder at the Academy, and older girls would pull her onto their knees and ask if she was sad. But she wasn't. Beth wasn't part of her life like Mummy was, and although Samantha was sad Mummy wasn't well, she was finding all the work in the gym exciting. The biggest girl wasn't soppy like the others. Jodie had been Beth's friend, but she was sensible with Samantha, showing her how to tuck her knees so that her centre of gravity stayed solid, how to count points during matches, and the best way to powder her hands before mounting the bars. Even after Jodie retired in a blaze of glory at sixteen, she was often at the Bush, and Samantha always felt it was especially for her.
Now Jodie was back, and back properly this time. Fresh from a year working in the States, she had returned to her old club eight months ago to refresh the marketing strategy and assist with senior coaching. It was Jodie who had just come up with the biggest publicity stunt UK gymnastics had ever seen: the charity single. Sure, the England team had appeared in the background of the Children in Need music video a few years back, but no club had ever launched their own before. Beat about the Bush was born when the tape recorder cut out during training and the team spontaneously picked up the melody so that Amber could finish her routine. The song was a mash-up of the main squad's floor music, and Jodie was currently in talks over which would be the best charity to support. This would reinvent the Bushwhackers as the team with the social conscience – Jodie was thinking big. Maybe, and timing was everything here, maybe a Christmas no1.
As Captain, Samantha would have a prominent position in the video, but she had served as fine publicity material since she first came to the club. During the terrible time after Beth died, Gurney was able to stand up and say with a straight face that although her death had been a tragedy, Mrs Lawrence still entrusted the club with little Samantha. This had been Jodie's idea. Jodie wondered how much Samantha remembered of the press conferences at which she was brought on to wave briefly, the photo shoots, and the attention surrounding her early matches. The younger girl saw her as a mentor, but would she ever discover how much of her career had been orchestrated by the older? Jodie had grown very fond of Samantha over the years, but she had to admit that Samantha's successes reflected so beautifully on the club. There was a slight twinge of guilt when she remembered the suggestions she had made to Mr Gurney and that dreadfully wet PR man, but look how well it had worked out all round. Fleetingly she wondered whether Beth would have been proud.
Alone in the room Jodie looked down at the contract she had signed. It was so much money. She heard a door bang in the distance, heard the muffled roar of angry voices, heard someone (Maggie?) start a chant of “Scab, Scab, Scab”. She looked back down at the piece of paper in her hands.
She had scribbled carelessly on thousands of programmes, innumerable autograph books, and countless scraps of paper. She had been signing her name on official documents since she was nine years old, learning that skills meant money, and she was valuable. The piece of paper in her hands proved how much she was worth, how important she was. With the money it represented she could do anything.
Out of the window she could see cars arriving. The first press people were on the scene and she was out of the limelight. The implications began to sink in. Beth was gone and no one knew what had happened inside the room, but the unfamiliar worm in Jodie’s chest started to wriggle once more. Along the corridor she heard the voices of two dozen six year olds from the junior classes, chattering with excitement at the strange events as they were herded away from the small gymnasium, away from the risk of the spotlight. Lucky things, their careers and all the excitements were in front of them. At that age the decisions were made for them and all they had to do was work. She opened the door and looked along the corridor. A small girl towards the back of the line turned round to look at her. A small fair girl with a familiar face: Beth’s little sister. She had only just begun training, and Jodie remembered Beth’s start of surprise when she saw the younger girl leaving the gym. Beth. Jodie shut her eyes momentarily against the crunch of bone meeting wood.
Jodie looked at the contract in her hand. She had been clutching it tightly and there was a small rip at one side. She squeezed again, watching the paper slowly fray and part. How easy would it be to join the others now? Could she break her contract, give up all that lovely money (and some more besides no doubt?), and become just one of the crowd of protesters? If she stayed she would be team captain. It would be her face on the news as the person rebuilding the squad. She would be the girl who wasn’t spooked by rumour. She could explain to the press that nothing was really known, that she trusted the club, but part of her could hear Miss Amey screaming at Beth for being a coward and forcing her to train through the pain.
Jodie looked at the contract. She looked out of the windows and heard the voices raised in a protest song. If she walked out there, would they welcome her with open arms? If there were so many of them standing together, could the company afford to sue a united group of the most powerful and popular gymnasts in the country? If she backed down, joined them, would Derek stop looking at her in disgust? Would they find other teams? Would she still be a gymnast?
She looked at the contract. She looked out of the window. She looked at the contract. She made up her mind.