Chapter 2 - On the Rooftops of Paris (abridged)
Ursula stood on the flat roof of the Palais Omnisports indoor stadium. Four floors below was the busy Boulevard de Bercy but up on the roof all was calm. Her black pony tail reached the warm tiles on which she sat and she could feel the heat through the holes in her jeans. A thin layer of moisture stuck her white vest to her back and, as she wiped her dirty hands across its front, railway tracks of grey appeared where her ribs protruded. From her stomach came a deep rumbling. She tried to ignore it as she had more important things to think about. Gingerly she placed her dark hand into the front pocket of her grubby jeans. As her bony fingers felt the edge of the small cardboard box she let out a sigh of relief and lay back to look at the sky.
It was a beautiful day in Paris. The sky was bright blue and fluffy clouds drifted aimlessly, creating shapes for anyone who had a mind to see them. Ursula loved watching the clouds. She fixed her chocolate brown eyes upon them and before long could make out a fire-breathing dragon, a long-eared rabbit and the outline of Italy. These gradually became a horse on a cold day, a round teddy bear and a lady’s pointed boot, before merging together and blowing into the distance.
Her grandmother and neighbours had been moaning about the heat since it had risen to tropical temperatures three weeks previously. It was the subject of conversation every time they met on the graffiti covered passageways outside their flats. Anyone nearby would happily join in with their own opinions on the, ‘stifling temperatures.’ At first Ursula had been honest and told the adults how much she loved the heat and felt energized by the sun. However, after the tuts, disapproving looks and comments such as, ‘you’re only eleven, you wait until you’re our age,’ she decided it was probably best to agree and just enjoy the sun in private.
For Ursula, nowhere was more private than the rooftops of Paris. She would have liked to have been there with someone else but no one she knew could do the things she could do. Her grandparents had said that her skills were genetic and as she had no other explanations, she had to believe them.
High above the busy streets, tooting cars, grumpy commuters, lost tourists and stressed shoppers she was alone. Behind billboards, advertising products people did not need, she felt safe. There was no disapproving glances or nasty comments and she was hidden away from prying eyes. She relaxed, took the little Sudoku book and pencil from her back pocket, flicked to the only one she had not yet completed and rolled onto her front to do it. As the sun beat down on her back her brain came to life and she set about solving the puzzle in front of her. It was rated ‘very difficult’. Within two minutes it was almost complete. She wrote the last number in a small square on the page and allowed a thin smile of satisfaction to creep across her slim face. Just a bit longer then I’ll go home, she thought to herself, appreciating her solitude. However Ursula was not completely alone, she was being watched. On a tall floodlight overlooking the advertising boards was a CCTV camera and it was trained firmly on the Palais roof.
Eric walked confidently towards the other two medal winners with his head held high. He brushed his blond hair away from his high forehead and used the movement as an excuse to look briefly at the audience. He could not see his parents but it was a big crowd and he decided to look again once he was on the podium. Eric jumped up on to the step reserved for the gold medal winner. He raised his toned arm in the air and while acknowledging the clapping and cheering, slowly turned on the spot. His dark brown eyes searched the audience as he turned but his parents were nowhere to be seen. On the outside, his body remained tall and powerful but on the inside Eric deflated.
The national anthem began and flags, half the size of the adverts that ringed the area, began their slow journey towards the ceiling. Eric lowered his head respectfully and stared at his feet.
It was always better to look down than try to sing along, he thought.
He knew the words but also knew that he couldn’t sing and hated the idea of making a fool of himself in front of a large crowd, or anyone for that matter. To the spectators he looked like a model gymnast, tall and slim with muscles starting to develop on his young body. He also looked deep in thought. Most people watching felt he was enjoying this winning moment but he wasn’t.
Eric’s thoughts were hijacked by the list of broken promises that his parents had made. They had promised with hands on hearts that they would be here today, and the time before and the time before that. His mind wandered. Despite all his achievements maybe they just weren’t proud of him. He had always tried to be the best but maybe he had to try even harder to be even better. Maybe only then would they notice him and reward him with some recognition.
The anthem finished and Eric hopped down from the podium. He stumbled with tiredness as he hit the floor and hoped that no one had seen. Nobody had and he was relieved to see the spectators streaming towards the exits oblivious to his near fall. Wearily he picked up his heavy gym bag, slung it over his shoulders and walked towards his leather clad nanny.
“I would like to leave now, Andrea,” ordered Eric.
“We will leave immediately,” answered Andrea in an accent that had been formed behind the Communist Iron Curtain and added as an afterthought, “you did well today, Eric.”
“Of course I did. Everyone says I am a natural talent,” replied Eric and then paused. “Why am I so good at everything?”
He looked pensive and though he sounded arrogant he was genuinely asking a question.
“You are good at things because you have the best coaches, best teachers, best trainers, have the best facilities, best equipment, best food and attend the best school. You also do much practise.”
Andrea left and Eric followed he outside and onto the busy Boulevard de Bercy but his thoughts were elsewhere. His idea needed some direction and, as he reviewed his achievements, he set himself new goals. In gymnastics, as of today, he was the European champion so his next step had to be World Champion. That would put him on par with his parents.
In school, he was quite certain that he was top of the class in every subject but he would now get top marks in every test to be certain of it. When competing in tennis and swimming for the school he would beat all opponents and in football he would be the star player of the team. He would stand out from all the other classmates and be admired because of it. During the guitar and kick boxing lessons that his parents arranged for him in his free-time, he would also excel. Admittedly he was already at Grade 7 for guitar and a black belt in kick boxing but this did not mean he could not improve further.