It’s early September and the plane touches down in Colombian heat. Humidity is high as Xavier walks down the small flight of steps, trying to cope with the midday sun as it blazes hard in the sky. The ground shimmers beneath.
His agent has telephoned ahead to let the media know that he is coming. Xavier thinks of his wife and daughter back home, wondering if he has done the right thing, spending this time away from them. He continues to sweat in the blissful AC coolness of the airport terminal building. His friend Miguel smiles. Miguel has travelled back with him, as support for this one last visit to Colombia before he retires. They peer into the brilliant light of the afternoon before heading out.
Two reporters show, one young, the other an old hack, his suit crumpled in the heat. Xavier attempts to walk past them. He does not want this scrutiny, but the young reporter coughs for attention.
“Xavier Mendez, welcome home, sir.” The young man addresses Miguel in error. The old reporter groans beside him.
“Thank you,” Xavier answers and the reporter directs his eyes back, embarrassed, as he raises his suit sleeve to wipe perspiration from his face. Xavier’s track career is long since over, but he is disappointed at the mistake.
“Are you looking forward to tomorrow, sir?” the young reporter continues, trying to smile.
“Yes, yes, I’ll be glad to run after such a long time.” He looks benignly at the young man, but panic transcends his thin handsome features as his legs buckle beneath him in the heat. He walks over to a bench by the terminal wall to sit in the shade out of the oppressive sun.
“Why are you choosing to run tomorrow after so long away?” the crumpled reporter asks, staring suspiciously at the two friends.
Xavier tries to form the correct answer in his head. Does it really matter? The sun flashes a metal reflection from the corners of the building and he is distracted. The young reporter coughs and Xavier looks the older one straight in the eye.
“To raise awareness for the gamines, the street children, to give something back to them, to where I came from.”
The reporters are silenced, and Xavier feels sanctimonious and guilty at the same time. He moves towards the sanctuary of the air conditioned building, but the old reporter blocks his way as he finishes jotting down the line, satisfaction on his lined face. Xavier feels a twinge of regret but it passes in an instant. He has nothing to be ashamed of. He has never looked back before and he will run for the charity tomorrow.
The interview finishes. The reporters are not interested now and don’t take his photograph. They move onto other athletes on a flight from the US that has just arrived. Xavier realises his story will be relegated to the back pages of the local paper tomorrow and the realisation that his star has faded hits him hard.
They stay at the International. Miguel gives Xavier his shot and advises him to sleep. He dreams of Eva and Ellie back home and wakes at dawn the following day. Xavier sees his friend sleeping in the twin bed beside him. He leaves Miguel asleep to have breakfast alone in the restaurant downstairs. In cool surroundings, he marvels that he is here. As a child, he could only dream of standing on this marbled foyer. Anger burns in his heart but quickly leaves him. This trip seems somehow pointless now.
On impulse, he leaves the hotel and takes the metro out of town. He needs to see the old places again, where his life began. His heart beats faster as the train approaches the last stop and almost bursts when wheels screech to a halt against metal tracks. He descends slowly onto the poorest streets in the city and starts to walk in the mid-morning heat. His shirt sticks to his back.
After an hour, Xavier finds himself back where he started, by the row of shanty houses where his mother saw her last days. The houses seem larger now, but are still packed in on top of themselves leaning on the small hill, crumbling in the sunlight. Some hide in the shade, the hill of dwellings above shielding them for another hour or so. As he approaches the last house in the street, he hears a radio playing music and his memories of childhood return. His stomach turns and he finds he cannot walk any further. He is rooted to the spot as children play football in the orange dust of the side streets, but they are the lucky ones. A mother shouts at him to move away from the children and he turns to make his way back to the hotel, holding his stomach to subdue nausea.
His mother has been dead a long time, before he and his sister were forced to live on the streets. He does not want to remember his sister anymore and tries to blot out the searing pain of her face, dead before she was nine years old. His wife doesn’t know she existed. It is the reason he has not returned for so long. He turned away from this place, became selfish so that he could survive. Now his emotions flow despite his efforts to control them. The tears dry in the dust on his face as he heads back to the station and back to the hotel. He will need to clean up and eat before the event at six o’clock. The sun will be dying then and he can rest in the oblivion of the race.
Miguel is pacing when he gets back. Xavier dismisses his fears, saying that he is alright. He seeks refuge in the bathroom to take another shower. After lunch, Miguel checks Xavier’s pressure and heart rate and gives him a booster injection. Miguel is anxious, but Xavier ignores him as he swallows the pills though they stick in his throat. He lies down to take a final nap before the race. Miguel leaves him to go downstairs. Outside the sky is clearest blue and the sun reflects against the blue rivers that course through the city, shining darkly in the midday sun.
This is Xavier’s last race. He will run it to celebrate how far he has come, how he has achieved more than just survival. He only wishes Eva and Ellie had come too, to validate him, his achievements, but they are not here. He accepts now he cannot take the daily punishment anymore, trailing the marathon cities trying to recapture the glory of his early days. He will go home to London to spend his days beside his wife and daughter if God is willing to let him. Peace settles within him again.
Miguel prepares his small back pack as Xavier puts on his trainers to run through the city. They leave the hotel and go to the starting lines. He is not in the front row behind the tape anymore and no-one is chanting his name. It has been fifteen years since he was here. His face is unrecognizable now, but there is regret mixed with relief in his heart as he pins the number to his chest and waits for the starting gun to sound.
The humidity is tortuous and eventually Xavier’s pace slows to a jog. Miguel meets him half way to check his stats. The lead runners are long gone and women smile as they pass him by.
A small TV crew covering the event interview him. They do not know who he is. He talks about helping the homeless children of Colombia, the gamines, and the crew smile and offer platitudes but move onto the next runner who is dressed as a nun. He doesn’t see the children anywhere, they are gone, hidden away, or cheering in charity tee-shirts for official photographs. He was one of them once, he can say that out loud now and he is able to look back and give thanks for his opportunity to escape because of the talent God had given him.
Thoughts of past achievements propel him forward, but as he starts the last gruelling leg of the race he is amongst joggers. Miguel disappears to go meet him at the finishing line.
Xavier has only four miles left to run but his body is so tired. He stops, walking to the edge of the crowd and his legs start to give out. As he reaches the curb he needs to sit down. His breathing has become difficult. He thinks he hears Eva cry and his eyes dart around to look for her, but he knows she is in London with her mother.
He is disorientated sitting there and other runners pass him by. The TV crew have gone and he realises he knows no-one here. He gets up after five minutes and walks down a narrow side street shaded from the sun. It is quiet and no cars are parked here. He walks away from the crowd. A large wall cuts the street short but he notices a narrow broken fence between a gap in the stone work at the end. He walks through it to see the other side.
This is where they are, the children, some playing, some strung out, all desperate eyes waiting for an opportunity to live. Like him.
Xavier looks in the direction of the boy.
“Hey Mister, what do you want?”
The boy leers at him, and Xavier knows what he is offering. His heart is heavy, remembering his time as a gamine. His stomach churns for the second time that day and he vomits on the ground. The pack moves in and in less than a minute he is on the ground, his bag stripped away, his running shoes stolen. The children leave quickly, shouting abuse as they run, but he cannot move, cannot get up from the wasteland behind the wall. His cancer is advanced and he knows that he will die in this place where he started. But his daughter is safe. He looks at the sun fading behind the horizon and spends his last night at home.