23rd August, 2078
It’s nearly five a.m. I can’t stop pacing. I’m not nervous. Not exactly. Not flutter-tummy throwing-up nervous. It’s energy. Overflowing, unstoppable energy. It makes my skin tight and my scalp itch and I can’t stop moving.
In four hours, I leave for the arena. I know I will win.
The walls in the Croydon kids’ care home were pale yellow, like watery egg yolks, the ones that are a disappointment because you always hope for a thick, orangey one. I didn’t hate the colour. It just was. I didn’t know any different. My first memory is of playing in the yard with the other kids, the squeals and shrieks and the nobbly prickle of gravel under my knees. That’s it, just a flash; I couldn’t tell you what we played or who I was with. After that it’s a jumble of days: classrooms, dormitories, running. There’s always been running.
I believed with my fierce little five-year-old heart that if I ran fast enough, I could fly. I could push myself through the air so hard my feet didn’t need to touch the ground; I’d take off and soar up, up, over the playground wall, over the fence. I’d circle with hawks and eagles; I’d glide over mountaintops and oceans. If only I could be light enough, fast enough. Run like the wind. Every day, I’d try but the playground was small and it always ran out before I could get fast enough. I would end up slamming into the cold woven metal of the fence, so hard sometimes that I’d bear the tiny diamond pattern of it as indents on my skin. I didn’t mind.
We slept in dormitories stacked three high in four rows, twelve to a room. I liked the top bunk because getting down to the ground gave me another way to experiment with flying. The ladders were flimsy but had smooth plastic rails on either side. I’d put socks on my hands and slide down those rails, my feet well clear of the steps. Eyes closed, flying. My arms got strong. My legs got strong. People would say I was sturdy: ‘She’s such a sturdy little thing, bet she’s a scrapper.’ But when I grew up I didn’t fill out like some of the other kids, I stretched instead: long legs and arms, slender and willowy. Light. ‘Lanky little thing. Like a runner.’
There was a red blanket on my bunk. Each of the twelve of us had a different colour. I was glad to have red: it was my favourite after gold, and no-one had a gold blanket. It was warm and soft, and I would often ignore the stiff white sheets and wrap myself in its wool, let it rub against my skin. On rainy afternoons, or when we were locked in our room for being naughty, I’d sit in my blanket, sucking earnestly on my thumb, and stare at the picture on my wall. I only had one picture, but I was lucky to have it, because it was a photo of my mother. A lot of the kids didn’t know anything about their parents. One girl liked to pretend that she was my sister, and the woman in my photo was her mother, too. I didn’t mind. I knew I was a happy child – people were always telling me so – but I would look at that photo and sometimes big fat tears rolled down, unwelcome tears, tears I did not understand. It’s an ordinary sort of photo. This woman in it (my mother) is holding a baby (me) and the baby’s screaming its head off. The woman’s smiling for the camera but it’s not a pretty smile; her face is all pinched up like the knot in a balloon, like she’s holding it all in, this stuff you can’t show in public, can’t show in photos. There’s a blobby, pink blanket between her and me and she’s not looking at my red, bawling face, she’s looking out into the world. A world a million miles away from my bunk in the dormitory in the care home with the yellow walls and the red blanket. A world I do not know.
No-one would tell me how I’d got from that world to this, except that my father couldn’t afford to keep me any more, which was what a lot of us were told. I didn’t know whether to believe it or not, so I decided that I’d arrived on the back of a golden dragon, sent because my mother was an exiled princess on a distant planet. When you get to fourteen they let you see your records, if you want. Mine went missing. It wasn’t a conspiracy or anything, just a glitch in the databank. I was relieved. There was this girl called Elviva, who was my best friend for a year before she got caught with hard crystal and ended up in the druggies’ block. She came and flopped on my bunk one afternoon and lay there, messing with this bracelet she always wore, tiny plastic beads that spelled out her name three times around. It’s a wonder the elastic didn’t break, she fiddled with it so much. She wanted to find out where she came from, to read her genes. She was afraid there might be some sickness, an inherited disease like cancer or madness, something she could pass on to her kids. It could be lurking inside her: a dormant catastrophe, hiding in those secrets they wrap you up in when they put you in care.
So she looked. Turned out her mother was an addict. She had six kids, all of them taken away. There were no fathers on record. She died when she was twenty five. Threw herself under a train. Elviva had been taking drugs since she was twelve, anything she could get her hands on. Now she figured she knew why. She knew who she was. She saw her destiny in whorls of smoke and tiny pills and she embraced it in the name of her mother.
Time travel has its dangers. Why go looking for trouble in the future or the past, when there’s plenty in the present? Diana told me that.
Diana told me I was a force of nature, and that was good enough for me.
When we reached the age of ten, we were allowed out to the big field at the back of the home. We shared the field with the public school, where kids with parents went. You could see it from the window in the top floor stairwell. I’d go up there sometimes when I was avoiding lessons, or if there were the sausages for dinner that had bits of gristle in, like chewing bits of elastic band. I’d hide behind the cupboard where they kept the cleaning stuff, and watch the kids at the school running around the field, or playing games. I’d time their laps by counting, so that when it was our turn to run there, I could see if I could beat them. And I could. I always could. Even the big girls, even the big boys. All of them.
My parents grew me a body that could run. Some of it’s in the genes. The care home helped me build muscles on my frame, made me strong. But muscles don’t make a runner, any more than light bones or good feet do. It’s your mind.
Diana told me I had a mind like a tsunami. ‘You’re the ocean, Atalanta, not a single wave but a whole, surging tide. You don’t stop. You run and you run and the world will fall at your feet or get drowned in your wake but you will never stop.’
Just. Keep. Running.
When you’re sixteen, you have to leave.
I wasn’t ready, but there’s no choice. The care homes take you in as unwanted raw material, make you into something, and then you leave. Whether they make you into something good or something bad is up to you, they say. (I remember Elviva. I know they lie.) For the clever kids, there might be work, providing they’re not screwed up. Screwed up doesn’t cut it; we’ll always have to work harder, be better, prove ourselves, because of where we came from. Most of us take other choices, sooner or later.
One Monday morning I sat in a room with a small, low table and several small, low chairs, hugging my hands between my knees to keep them out of trouble. Diana was there, my case worker, and Dr Pearson, Head of Leaving. There wasn’t a decision to be made, as such. I was a no-brainer, Dr Pearson said. I’d passed the audition for Reality Channel 12, and they had a hostel I could live in until I found my feet.
It was my sixteenth birthday (so they said) and I had twenty four hours to pack my things and say goodbye.
There’s three ways out of a care home: a proper job, a Reality job, or a police van.
Reality it was.
Six months later I won ‘After Care’.
‘After Care’ is a testing ground, a starfinder. They put you in a studio with twelve other kids who’ve just left care, and film you. The studio holds some pretence of being a ‘House’ like in the early days of Reality, but nobody’s fooled any more. The walls rattle and your bare feet slap on the concrete floor and the fur blankets are so fake they create a cloud of lurid, pink fibres wherever they go. Your job is to make storylines. Sex and violence. Diana made me promise: no sex. She told me I was worth more than that, and I believed her. Fighting frightened me. So I figured my chances of getting noticed were slim to none. I stepped up for the physical challenges because I was good at them, and winning them meant more food for everyone. More food meant less fights. Except, as I discovered, when jealousy is involved. One afternoon, the challenge was to run an obstacle course, littered with fences to climb and tunnels to crawl through, the whole thing a mess of slime and mud. Two of us were to run, myself and a boy called Iain. He was fast and agile, but I outran him easily. It didn’t matter: only one of us had to beat the clock. But it mattered to Iain. Beating me meant more to Iain than winning rations, and when he failed, he turned on me. I remember vividly the stink of his breath, the scorch of his hand, how suffocatingly close he was, all up in my space and angry. I was stunned.
Next thing I knew, the others charged up to us and pulled him away. I watched them drag him to the Den, the tiny room where the group delivered justice, and I stood alone, still holding the ribbon that earned us dinner that night, limp in my hand.
For a good career in Reality you need to be a hero, or a villain. Nobody remembers anyone else. That day, in the eyes of the Reality voters, I became a hero. And that was all I needed.
When I left the house a winner, there was a man waiting for me with Diana. He said he thought I was amazing. He wanted to be my manager.
I had no idea who he was. But I said yes anyway. I didn’t mind.
I went from a stupid fight over a red ribbon to starring in my own show in the space of a few short months. Race For Love beat any other show that year for ratings on its launch night alone. The format was simple: each week the show would put me up against a potential suitor – girls and boys, bi sells, and as I wasn’t intending to have sex with anybody, I didn’t care – who went through a gruelling training regime in order to beat me in a race. The prize if they did was to get a date with me. But of course, they never did. That was the hook for the second season: that I wasn’t just a pretty girl who could run. I was the ice queen, the virgin, the unobtainable. The more I won, the more people wanted to beat me.
I was making money. I was famous. And all I had to do was run.
The race starts in an hour. I’m tired. I’m wired. I hate my manager.
I’m watching the rushes of the contestant’s final training session, and something flashes through me. He’s sweet. I remember him from an audition, years ago. He went in before me, and when he got out he paused to whisper, ‘Watch out for the guy with the beard. He’s got a secret camera, jacket pocket, disguised as a Reality Gives badge. Good luck.’ His voice was earnest and he gave me a cute little wink. He’d been right, too, the beardy man was a spy from the Undercover Reality channel, doing a hidden camera show about auditions. Thanks to the sweet boy, I got a segment as ‘most genuine contestant in a Reality audition’. Positive exposure is everything.
In the interview the contestant says he’s doing this for his sick mother. I don’t know whether to believe that or not, because I’ve been to the same backstory training as him, I know the tricks. But he also says he really likes me, looking straight at the camera with that same cute little wink, and for some reason, I think that might be true. I realise in a shocked rush that I want him. I do not want him to drown in my wake. I want to sweep him up in my tide, and keep him with me.
I look out across the gold-tipped glass towers of London spread before me, and smile.
©Helen Kenwright, 2016
Previously published in Welsch, JT (ed) 'Beyond the Walls' York St John University 2016. Reproduced with permission.