This was a ground-floor flat next door to a church in a street that wasn't on a hill. Had to be the place. Sandy tried to peer in the windows, but the curtains were drawn. He could see that a light was on inside, though, and he rapped twice and then tried the door handle, which was open. "Eric?" he called.
"Who's that?" Eric's voice. From the back of the flat. Frightened, Sandy thought, and he closed his eyes and took a deep breath before stepping through the small sitting room.
"Eric, it's me." He reached the kitchen, where Eric was by the stove, one hand on the worktop, a bread knife in the other. Sandy didn't move any closer. "It's only me."
Eric looked up at him through narrowed eyes. "How did you find me." But he reached up to the worktop and carried on slicing his bread, and Sandy felt himself relax, anxiety giving way to a bit of temper.
"It took a wee while, I don't mind telling you." There was only one chair at the small table. He went over and sat in it. "The church."
Eric gave a single bitter laugh. "Aye. Well." He set the knife aside. Sandy wondered how he would reach to put the bread under the grill, but he pushed back and opened the oven and set it to toast in there instead, then worked his chair round so he was facing where Sandy sat at the table, but looked at his own hands instead of at his friend. "You'll be telling Jennie, then."
"Are you asking me not to?" Eric lifted his head, and Sandy had never seen him more miserable. "She's asked me to say if I find you, but not where," Sandy said. "Rob the same. I don't need to tell them." He cocked his head and looked at Eric. "But you know she wants badly to look after you," he said gently.
Eric closed his eyes and shook his head. "I can't ... face them," he finally said.
"Why not? What have you got to be ashamed of?" Eric spread his hands, taking in the tiny flat, the wheeled chair, his wasted legs. Sandy left his chair and crouched in front of him. "It was an accident. Could have happened to anyone."
"Playing rugby. Not --" He coughed twice. "Not working, or even running. Rugby, of all the useless --"
"Oi. You scored the try, didn't you?" It was exactly the wrong thing to have said, and Sandy knew it as soon as he'd said it. He hung his head. "Sorry. But Jennie does want you to come home."
"I won't have them neglecting their work to take care of me," Eric said. "Not when it's work I should be doing as well."
"Isn't their work taking care of folk who need it?"
"It is." Sandy raised his eyebrows and stood. "It isn't the same," Eric insisted.
"If you say so."
Eric set his jaw. "My toast will burn." He started to pull himself back round toward the oven.
Sandy watched him pluck the toast out of the oven with a fork. He laid it on a plate he had waiting, and managed to get beans on it from a pan on the stove. Sandy knew Eric would never forgive him if he offered to help. "I'll see myself out, then," he said after a moment.
Eric sighed quietly. "Thanks for coming, Sandy."
"All right if I tell Rob and Jennie --" He paused; he didn't know what to ask to tell them.
"Tell them what you like," Eric said. He looked up at him. "I'll see you again, all right?"
Sandy laid a hand on Eric's shoulder. After a moment Eric reached up and covered his hand with his own. Sandy squeezed Eric's hand and patted his shoulder; then he went back through the sitting room to the front of the flat and out into the street, closing the door quietly behind him.
Jennie smiled stoically and had her hand pressed hundreds of times and accepted everyone's condolences, and finally she was alone. Rob and Ernest had gone somewhere with the minister, but they'd left her be, and she was grateful for it. For the first time since they'd buried their mother, she was glad that their parents were gone, if only because they'd been spared the death of their son. She closed her eyes and thought a prayer of thanks for that; then she sighed and got to work putting the sanctuary to rights.
Jennie looked up from the stack of hymnals she'd been fussing with. A couple she didn't know had stopped a polite distance from her. They were soberly dressed; had they been in the church? "Yes?" The man was worrying the brim of his hat, clutching it with one hand and then the other -- why would he be nervous to speak to me, Jennie thought. "Yes," she said again.
He cleared his throat. "I'm Harold Abrahams," he said.
Abrahams, Abrahams ... "Oh yes," Jennie said. "Of course you are." She offered him her hand.
He grasped her fingers, gesturing with his hat toward the woman at his side. "My wife, Sybil Gordon."
Sybil Gordon pressed her hand. "We are so very sorry for your loss."
Jennie smiled and hoped she didn't look too tired. "Thank you. Had you been in touch with Eric?"
Mr Abrahams shook his head. "Not since after Paris. We saw the announcement in the Times."
They'd come all the way from London for the funeral of a man they'd barely known, whom they hadn't seen nor spoken to in twenty years, and who wasn't even there. "It's good of you to come so far." Jennie folded her hands together. Eric would have been gratified, if he'd ever wanted to be famous; perhaps, as it was Harold Abrahams, he'd have been gratified just the same. She decided it was not a lie to say he'd have been pleased to be remembered.
"I didn't want to write," Mr Abrahams said. "I wanted to come tell you personally: your brother was the best opponent I ever faced." He had placed a hand on her arm, near her shoulder, and had fixed her with an insistent gaze. "Without doubt, the best runner I knew."
Jennie had no idea what to say. "Well -- thank you, Mr Abrahams," she began --
"Before I met him," Mr Abrahams went on, interrupting her, "I ran fast and won races and that was that." Miss Gordon stood behind his shoulder; Jennie couldn't have seen her face even if she'd been able to look away from his. He was almost mesmerizing in his urgency, the way her father had sometimes been when he preached. "He beat me," Mr Abrahams said, "he beat me at the Trials, and if he hadn't, I'd never have won at the Olympic Games. Do you see?" His hand on her shoulder tightened, but it didn't hurt. "Do you?"
Eric had once reminded her that it was God Who had made him fast. "When I run, I feel His pleasure," he'd said. "To win is to honour Him." She supposed she hadn't seen then that it was more than races and ribbons he was winning.
Jennie blinked away a couple of new tears. "I do see, Mr Abrahams."
His grip relaxed. "I was a better runner for having run against him," he repeated. "That was what I wanted to come here to say." He let go of her, making a motion as if he thought he'd rumpled her sleeve. She still felt as if she couldn't move. "Please give our regards to your family."
He turned and offered his arm to his wife. Jennie recovered her wits just before they reached the door. "Thank you, Mr Abrahams," she called. They paused, and Sybil Gordon gave his arm a squeeze; and Harold Abrahams nodded but did not look back; and they were gone.
Harold had never been a four-hundred-metre man. They called it a sprint, but what use was a sprint where one had to pace oneself? Even the bend in the track at two hundred metres annoyed him. But give him a straight stretch and a gunshot and ten and a half seconds, and he'd slice through the air -- and then the tape -- like a knife blade.
The present generation of athletes were almost through marching into the stadium. Soon he would hear Lord Lindsay's voice over the tannoy -- Andy, his old friend, who had asked him to take the penultimate leg of the relay. Harold closed his eyes.
Granted, this wasn't a race. It was a performance, he reminded himself (nevertheless swinging his arms and shaking out his legs as he waited in what Sybil would call the wings, even here), and performance was a different matter. He'd had success onstage at university as well as on the track. This event was simply a conflation of the two pursuits. He could think of this quarter-mile like a song. There was no need to be the fastest, just to do it and let them see.
Parade finished, speeches given, the King declared the 1948 Games open. Harold took the handoff from the antepenultimate runner, waited for the cannon salute and the release of the doves, and began his interminable full lap.
It was surprisingly heavy, the Olympic torch. Harold kept it raised high as he circled the track, trying to favor his bad leg as little as possible, and concentrated on jogging when every shred of muscle memory impelled him to run. He counted his strides, timing them, guessing that at his top form he'd have taken three steps for every one he was taking now. He'd been the fastest man in the world, once.
Around the last corner, into the home straightaway, and Harold heard the people cheering even louder than they'd been before. They'd seen who was waiting for him, then. He'd known that would be a crowd pleaser, but it still stung a bit that they loved him more. He realised this wasn't a complete performance as much as it was a curtain call, and what had just happened was that he'd taken his bow -- and then heard the applause swell for the man behind him. (On the other hand, he reflected, it could have been worse: the swell of applause could have been for the man before him.)
But this was a stage he was honoured to share. He didn't alter his pace at all, jogging the last six metres or so as sedately as he'd done the first three hundred and ninety-four, and meeting the final runner at last. With the torch still held high in his left hand, he extended his right.
Eric Liddell shook it. The crowd were on their feet, cheering loudest of all, Harold understood, for both of them. He grinned, and Liddell was beaming as well, and clapped his shoulder before placing his hand above Harold's and raising the torch together. And then Harold nodded and let go, and joined the tens of thousands cheering as Eric Liddell ran, torch aloft, up to light the Olympic flame.