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Kirsten By John Cumming

In John Cumming's short story from 2006, a coach and his star athlete come to terms with some of the hard realities of life.

Fae New Shetlander No 269, 2006.

Shö wad a been aboot nine year aald da first time I saa her. Her midder brocht her tae da track, a peerie bit o ting in a track suit twa sizes ower big. ‘Shö’s wantin ta be a runner,’ her midder says. ‘Is dat right?’ says I, an shö nods her haed, luikin at da grund.

Weel aa da rest o da squad wis years aalder dan her. Shö ran at da back, an if I tried ta save her, be shortenin a session, shö guid back an feeneeshed hit onywye. Shö wis fast, bit no raelly bigget fur sprints, fur shö grew up lang an wiry, so at therteen I startet her on high jimp an shö took tae hit lik a duick ta water, nivver looket back.

Bairns nooadays, dey dunna want onything at canna be bocht. If dey hae ta wirk fur sometin, dey wad redder no hae it. Kirsten wis aye different, traan . Shö saidna muckle, bit whin shö did, du wad best listen. Whin shö wis twaal, her faider deed wi leukaemia. Da day o da funeral, her midder appeared at da track side. Kirsten wis wantin ta train, shö hed tried ta affröd her, bit shö wis adamant. Weel da pör sowel trained wi wis dat nycht, wi da taers runnin doon her face. Hit kinda glufft me. Ah’m nae psychologist, bit hit didna seem naetral ta me.


Hit’s no lik a track event, high jimp dat is. Weel wi a race, say eicht hunder metres, hit taks whit, twa meenits? An in dat time, aabody kin see da pain, da effort; bit wi high jimp, weel hit’s aboot lack o effort. Aa da pain is left i da gym, an on da day hit should seem aesy. See if du tries ower herd? Du’s gaein ta end up erse ower tit, wi da bar anunder dee.

Tree wharter o da competeeshin is in me haed. Whin I gaeng tae a meetin I kaen Ah’m wrought herder dan aabody else - liftet mair weights, done mair sprints, mair hoppin, mair boundin. Ah’m endured mair spaegy, mair creeks, mair hansper mair blue melts. Ah’m earned me medal. So I luik up ta naebody. Whin I jimp, hit needs nae towt - lik a fyshermen castin a flee or a fiddler draain a bow. Bit dan life doesna aye wirk lik dat.

Last simmer, right? Age group Championships. Grangemooth, an Ah’m up fur it. Injury free, an confeedent. Ah’m luikin doon da list o competitors, an I kaen dem aa, kis we’re been compeetin fur years. Bit der a new name dere, a Orkney lass, an Ah’m tinkin it’s wheer I nivver heard o her afore.

Weel whin I feeneeshed declarin an geddered aa me gear tagidder i da staands, I cöst an eye ower da Orkney squad, aa raed an black track suits, an saa whit I took ta be her. Lang ginger hair, six fit tall, an laegs up tae her oxters. Shite! Shö wis sittin wi da coach, noddin her haed, an him aye spaekin tae her, earnest laek. Weel some athletes seem ta live i der coach’s pockets. Lik dey canna tink or act fur demsels. Du’ll see dem waanderin aroond da warm-up area tagidder, der haeds doon, deep in conversation. Davie doesna even come ta aa me competeeshins. Ah’ll phone him efter, an tell him fu I got on, lik. He says a strong athlete can tink fur hersel, an if you’re aye needin someen dere, your coach is no done his job.

Whin I warm up, hits a show fur da idder competitors. I kaen fine weel der watchin me, sizin me up, so I gie dem der money’s wirt. ‘Du tinks du’s fast? Watch dis! High knees? Triple -ups? Watch an weep! Ah’m faster, stronger, better co-ordinated dan du could ever be. Da best du can hoop fur is second place.’ An hit wirks. Du wad be surprised hoo joost bein an arrogant bitch kin pit a vaam upo da idder competitors. Whin dey start ta tink aboot der ain waiknesses, hit aa comes asunder. So I warmed up, maybe twinty meenits or sae, an whin I cam back, dey wir still dere, an every noo an dan I could see her glancin across at me.

Weel da PA caaled da competitors tae da start, an I took me time an waandered ower. Kept mesel tae mesel. Dat’s anidder time whin du kin loss it. Folk is obviously nervees, an du kin see it. Dey’ll bounce aroond, runnin on da spot, gigglin an spaekin dirt, or dey’ll sit crooged up, der airms aboot der knees starin blank. Dey’ll come an tell dee der name, axe dee PB, tell dee aboot der maist recent injury, axe if du’s nervees, dat kinda shite’ll dö dee haed in. I joost stare dem doon. Weel, tink aboot it. I kin be der freend efter da competeeshin, bit Ah’m no come tree hunder mile ta compare injuries wi some unken body fae Cambuslang.


Laekly I shoulda telt her, I dunna kaen. Sometin lik dat knocks da wit fae you. You loss your bearins. Cancer. Weel hit’s da wird you faer maist. Whin he telt me hit wis ower late, dat da disease had spread tae idder organs, weel I kent whit I wis daelin wi. Kent me number wis up. Da herd pairt wis tellin folk, helpin dem dael wi it. Whin ill luck comes I nivver saa da sense in distressin idder folk. Ah’m aye tocht der wis anyoch grief aboot, withoot sharin hit oot. Besides, der wis dat business wi her faeder, an dat oonnerved me. Da idder coaches at da club kent, an me faimily, bit I didna mak a wark aboot hit, jöst took hit fae day ta day.


So dere we were, ready ta start, an Ginger comes ower. ‘Aye, aye,’ tinks I. ‘Here we go wi da mind games.’ Der wis nae big smile though, nae ‘Aa da best.’ Instead shö luiks aa concerned, an Ah’m aboot ta blank her, whin shö says, ‘Kirsten, Ah’m aafil sorry ta hear aboot Davie.’ Weel dat took me unawaar. Me stammik knotted. ‘Whit’s du spaekin aboot?’ says I. Shö pat her hand tae her mooth. If shö wis actin shö wis class! ‘Oh Kirsten, Ah’m sorry!’ shö says. ‘Du doesna kaen. I should nivver a said onything. ‘

Me haed wis clear, an focused. Davie wis dere, wi da rest o da squad i da minibus dat moarnin. Der wis naethin wrang wi him, he wad a said if der wis. Me haed wis clear, bit me boady wis gaein a different gaet. I could feel me hand shakkin, me kyist wis tycht, me hert wis hammerin. He wad tell me, wadna he? Tell me whit?

Yeah, I could a pulled oot. Bit ower da years I hed learned ta ignore pain, deny faer. In me haed I wis dis confident, untouchable super-bitch. Forbye dat, I didna kaen bit dis wis some damnföl scam shö wis tryin on.

We startet at wan metre forty an guid up in fives. I passed on da first twartee jimps an, een be een, da rest failed an drappet oot, till hit wis me an Ginger left. Shö wis a boanny jimper, bit aye luikin ower tae her coach. If it hed bön ony idder competitor left in, I coulda handled it - I tink. Bit noo me mind wis kirnin. Try as I mycht, I couldna had it tagidder. Davie hed bön awa ta Aberdeen, an whin I speired him aboot it, he affrödet me. He hedna come doon ta brakfast i da Hotel dat moarnin. He looket gey wabbit nooadays, bit he wisna a young man ony mair.

At wan sixty five, on autopilot, I took da bar doon wi me heels. I cleared wi da second jimp. We göd up in trees noo, an at wan sixty echt I failed again. Ginger wis still clearin wi every jimp, her run-up flowed intae a spiralin lift, her back arched an shö wad drap ontae da crash mats, bouncin back up wi a peerie wave tae da crood, acknowledgin der applause, relaxed an confeedent. I hed cleared wan seeventy in trainin, nae problem. Bit be dis time me haed wis aa ta hell. I wis gaein trow da motions, desperate fur da competeeshin ta feeneesh. Instead o tryin me third jimp at wan sixty echt, I axed fur da bar ta be raised tae wan seeventy wan.

I stöd an eyed da bar, slappet me face ta clear me haed, an startet me run-up. Be da penultimate stride, I kent hit wisna gaein ta wirk. I could still a pulled oot an taen da jimp again, bit I jöst towt, ‘Ta Hell wi it!’ I landet in a graceless weffle o laegs an airms, wi da bar anunder me ribs.


I could tell sometin wis wrang wi her. Der wis naethin o da pooster, da assurance, da grace, dat I kent. As her coach I couldna spaek tae her durin da competeeshin. No at shö wad a taen me on onywye. Da Orkney lass wis a boanny jimper, bit wan sixty echt wis her limit. Shö wan da competeeshin on da coontback rule. I göd ta whaar Kirsten wis gadderin her track suit an bag, an jöst pat me hand on her shooder. Shö glied at me. Nae expression.

We göd doon tae da cafe an got twa cups a tae. Still her face wis a blank. ‘Weel,’ says I, ‘A silver medal is no ta be sneezed at. We’ll spaek aboot whit göd wrang whin we win hame.’ ‘Bugger dat.’ shö says. ‘Is du gaein ta tell me whit’s wrang wi dee?’ Weel I telt her, as best I could. Shö jöst sat dere wi da taers straemin doon her face, an I saa dat nine year aald again. We herdly spak aa da rodd hame. Man hit’s ee thing daelin wi your ain mortality, I kin dree hit oot, bit idder folk? Hit’s ill ta bear.

We cam hame on da boat. I wis gadderin me proil i da terminal, whin someen liftet da kep fae me haed an toosled me hair. ‘Weel du aald bastard, is du gaein ta help me sort oot dis problem wi me layoot?’ I stiffened, faert ta turn aroond fur whit shö mycht see in me face. ‘Kirsten,’ says I, ‘ Ah’ll see dee at da track da moarn at seeven, bit dunna lippen an aesy session, du’s gaein ta need anidder ten centimetres afore February.’

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