Saturday, 6 June 2020

Debut Fiction: 'Ice' by Kirsten Handley

Every night before Aaliyah succumbs to sleep, she closes her eyes and imagines the weighty feel of the gold medal being hoisted around her neck. She hears the opening notes to the national anthem projecting out across a packed stadium and as she climbs up, higher than the two women beside her, she takes in the thundering raucous of people getting to their feet to acknowledge the coronation of a new queen.

Her Granny tells her that it will all be worth it.  Her body is endlessly punctuated by shades of black and blue bruises, alongside the constant aching, painful and fatigued limbs. The relentless nagging voice in the back of her head that if there is one arm or leg out of place, this treacherous and unforgiving surface will offer no redemption. It will justify the monotony of practising the same two minutes and forty second routine endlessly, until it becomes as second nature as the very act of breathing. The frosty stares from the other girls, colder than the ice that they train on, knowing that this is a sport that only allows for one ultimate ruler. Come competition day, no dress rehearsals and no second chances remind all her adversaries to show no weakness. It will also justify Aaliyah’s parents’ perception that her only reason for existing is the high judges scores that they boast about to all their acquaintances. The right numbers lead to their adoration with promises of new skates and practise skirts, whilst disappointment leads to cold silences on dark car journeys home.

There was a cruel inevitability one December that it was finally this time. One foot a few millimetres too far to the right and she falls as if one of her rivals had turned into a sniper. After numerous visits to medical professionals where she sits in cold and dark waiting rooms with peeling walls and uplifting magazines that claim she is in charge of her own destiny, the doctors tell her that she is very lucky. Fortunate that the leg injury is not too bad, and she will eventually walk again. The extreme pain that is so visceral that it makes her want to vomit, will thaw.  Aaliyah can be anyone she wants to be, but her days of challenging for the ice throne are over and her royal claim is void.

The closest Aaliyah can get to the ice now is shutting her heart and accepting the new reality. She refuses to shed a tear when the bin men take her skates away, discarded alongside other forgotten hobbies and broken dreams, straight into landfill. You can coach they tell her, develop the younger athletes, but Aaliyah does not want to support a new monarchy. Yet without skating her lunges are no longer sure that they are taking in enough oxygen and with royal blood no longer in her body, she is not sure who she is anymore.

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