I open the heavy wooden door, and the sunlight hurts my eyes. In the doorway I stand, holding the empty carton of cheap Billiger washing powder. My eyes blinking in the painful light of Belgium, the harsh, white concrete, and the red-brick of the square, ugly house. I toss the carton into the trash.
The back door squeals and a string of Irish male cyclists clatter into the courtyard, waddling in cleated feet to the garage, and disappearing within to collect their bikes. Assembled in the courtyard, helmets hardly shading their solemn faces, they wait. The Belgium team overseer eventually swaggers out from the kitchen, eating a piece of toast. He stands, red hair gleaming, lycra-clad pelvis thrust forward, and shouts the day’s training session to them in thick, bullying English. ‘And I’m coming with ye, so don’t ye be slacking off!’ He gives a wide, orangatang grin, perhaps in anticipation of what he will do to the ‘slackers’, strides to the garage on bandy legs, retrieves his bike thrusts it into the midst of the group. ‘Allay!’ The miserable Irish roll out into the streets of Merchtem, land of ‘Fitzpads’ and self-righteous motorcar drivers.
I trudge into the house, through the cafeteria-style dining hall with its plastic red seats, past the kitchen, through the living room where snooker championships play on the never-ending television set, and I climb up-stairs on silent feet. I pause outside our door, my hand on the door-handle. I can hear water running; Medea must be showering in the ensuite. Exhaling, I open the door. I step over piles of Medea’s junk to my camp bed and retrieve my towel from the nest of piled on top of the doona. In my suitcase I find a tracksuit. The sound of the ensuite shower suddenly stops and I scuttle back over the piles of junk and out of the room. I make my way down to one of the bathrooms down the hall, and close the door behind me. I peel my clothes off and step into the steam.
I put bread in the toaster, I switch the kettle on, and I make an omelette from the cheap Billiger ingredients. I make breakfast for two, but I leave hers in the pan, and her toast unbuttered. I take my breakfast and my instant coffee into the living room. I turn the television off, and I imagine that it thanks me silently: it must get tired producing all of that noise and bullshit all day and all night long.
‘You were up early!’ says Medea loudly, drying her hair on a white towel.
‘There’s breakfast for you. It’s in the kitchen.’
Medea eyes narrow. She rubs her hair with the white towel. ‘Where were you?’
‘I went for a walk.’
‘You went for a walk. Where did you go?’
‘Not far, I had a phone call,’ I lie.
‘Did you call Paul?’
‘Yeah, Paul, the American expat.’
Medea shakes her hair dry and perches on the side of the couch. ‘So how is Paul?’
She looks at me, so I make up a story about Paul renovating his hotel in Paris. It’s sufficiently boring and she walks away to get her breakfast. She returns, just as I’m finishing mine. I get up to go.
‘Wait for me: we’ll go training together,’ she commands.
She stares me down.
‘No, stay here and talk to me’ she says as I get up to leave.
I sit back down and she switches the television on.
‘Jason’s coming tonight. You’ll have to move into one of the rooms with the bunk beds.’
By the time Medea’s ready to go training, it is past two o’clock.
‘What do you think Hamlet means by sending me the lyrics of that song?’ she asks for the fifth time.
‘Don’t know’ I gasp. Damn talent. I can barely breathe and she is still talking about the one guy who’s not interested in her.
‘But you know how he thinks; you think like him, what does it mean?’
My watch beeps, and I sit up and stop pushing. 34, 31, 27, 23 says the speedo on my handlebars.
Medea adjusts her speed to match mine. ‘Why did he send me those lyrics?’ she persists.
‘He’s got an avoidant attachment style.’ I reply breathlessly, resetting my watch. ‘He keeps communicating with you, but he sends you hateful messages.’
‘Avoidant style? What does that mean?’
‘That he keeps communicating with you, but he sends you hateful messages.’ My watch counts down the rest-period, and when it beeps, I lunge into the next interval.
She finally leaves me alone when we get back. She has text messages to send. She has three phones because she has three men on the go – or two, since one of them apparently says he hates her and sends her hateful song lyrics. I shower and eat – a large but unsatisfying bowl of Billiger pasta with not enough olive oil – and I pick up my German novel and my English-German lexicon, but the house is full of moping Irish lads and the television plays snooker championships. Instead, I ride my bike to the gym. The gym is dimly lit and mostly empty, like me. I set up the bar. I do squats, power-cleans, bench-press until I can’t lift any more.
I cycle along the Fitzpad in the dark, back to the house. The same sheepdog that rushes at me every time comes out to attack me, but I have my water-bottle ready. You can defeat a Belgian shepherd with a small squirt of water; a handy thing to know if you are cycling in Belgium. Back in the cycling house, I pour myself a huge bowl of Billiger muesli and sit down in the dining hall next to somebody Irish to eat it. Medea asks how my weights session was.
‘She goes to the gym every day,’ she tells Jason. He hovers over his finished meal and doesn’t look at her. She turns to a nearby Irishman. ‘Every day, she goes to the gym.’
‘Everyday, that’s a lot’, the Irishman agrees uncomfortably.
‘It’s too much! she’s crazy!’ says Medea.
‘How was your flight, Jason?’ I ask.
‘Fine’ he says, ‘Pity about the destination.’
‘Oh, you don’t like Belgium?’
‘Fucking arse end of the world.’
Medea’s eyes narrow in triumph.
The conversation goes on around me like a lawn-mower. I hear Medea’s laughter. I spoon Billiger muesli swimming in Billiger milk into my mouth. Some cyclist in some pro team is going out with her cycling coach.
‘That’s like Pip! Pip’s going out with her coach. Pip, tell them how old your boyfriend is!’
I get up to take my empty bowl out to the kitchen.
‘Her boyfriend is fifty-four years old!’ I hear her announce.
I wash my bowl slowly, and wonder where I will sleep tonight. The only spare bed is in the boiler room: it’s hot, and rodents live there.
The team manager arrives. Obediently, I go back into the dining hall. I nod my head at him, and he nods his head at me, and Medea plies him with demands and questions. He bows his head and answers with civility. Jason sits back in his chair, arms folded across his chest and surveys the room. The uncomfortable Irishman melts away into the kitchen.
‘What about Pip?’
The manager winces and scratches his head, ‘Pip, I’m sorry…’ His voice wavers beneath his Belgian accent, and he runs a hand across his balding head. ‘I just can’t please everybody!’ He throws his hands up in despair. ‘I have this girl and that girl, sending me messages, calling me…I can only put in a team of six.’
‘Everybody wants to ride it: it’s easy UCI points’, says Medea unnecessarily.
I shrug. ‘Okay’, I say to the manager.
‘UCI points’ Medea repeats aggressively. ‘It’s how you get to represent your country. In the world championships.’
‘Yeah, thanks, I know what UCI points are!’ I snap.
Around us the dining hall empties, and Medea raises her coffee mug, regarding me over the top of the rim with victorious eyes.
The manager makes to leave. Medea steps in front of him and requests that he check something on her bike. With a sigh, he agrees. His shoulders slump.
‘Coming, Jason?’ Medea orders.
‘In a minute,’ says Jason, arms crossed, and he leans back on his red, plastic chair.
Medea stares at him, but turns and scurries after the manager lest he escape. I start collecting dishes and carrying them to the kitchen.
‘Thanks, Pip,’ says Jason, and raises his chin.
I wipe down the table, and Jason addresses me. ‘The race you won last week: It was a regional championship?’
I look up in surprise and nod.
‘So, you got the cash, but not the trophy,’ he states.
‘Yeah,’ I confirm.
‘How many riders?’
‘Um… about eighty’ I guess.
He cocks an eyebrow. ‘Nice’ he says, his eyes devour me.
I give him a little smile. He meets my eyes and raises his chin again. Slowly and deliberately he runs his eyes down over my body and up to my face again. Our eyes connect, and I look away. I quickly finish wiping the table and get the hell out of there, leaving Jason to sit with his folded arms and his tilted chin and flirt with the empty dining hall.
I sit amongst the moping Irish and watch the never-ending snooker championships. The Irish retire to bed, leaving me to let the television sleep. I read the novel I find lying on the television cabinet. I wake a few hours later when the unpleasant Belgian sunlight streams through the windows from a place beyond that silent, exhausted television set.