Susan arrived at the hotel thirty minutes in advance of the interview. The man on the reception desk had been polite and pleasant to her until he read her reservation number, and then had pointed her through the door next to his desk, signed ‘réservé au personnel.’
“Do you need to give me a key?”
The corridor was beige-walled with a grey linoleum floor. Her room didn’t have a lock, just a crooked metal handle. Inside, the walls were lined with stacked chairs. A projector hung from the ceiling. In the middle of the room was an out of place futon. She set her bag next to it and brought her laptop back out into the lobby to finish writing her questions.
She saw it now, the hotel was shaped like a cellar spider, a pholcid, a grandaddy longlegs. The lobby was the spider’s skull-shaped cephalothorax, with its coxae splaying outward. Each short, fir-lined corridor lead to an inauthentic-looking log cabin, dusted with white powder. The abdomen of the spider was a bar whose shelves boasted a vast array of champagnes and oak-aged single malt whiskeys. The pedicel between, sort of, anyway, because strictly speaking you could pass from lobby to bar without passing through, but the pedicel, if you chose to treat it as such, was a small lounge overlooking both rooms.
Her PC’s volume was still on loud, and the beep echoed around the lobby. She looked around sheepishly but the only other person was the concierge, who didn’t even raise his eyes at the sound. The message was from Ton Verstraaten, titled “Re: Re: Re: Re: Globe interview request: Liam Greene: July 7.” It was flagged as Urgent, and offered an apology in broken English for canceling at such short notice.
Even non-alcoholic drinks were provocatively expensive at the hotel bar, but after this news she needed a place to stay online for a while longer to figure out what to do next.
She nursed her hot chocolate and refreshed her emails. Jonah hadn’t replied yet. He did this thing, though, where he’d bring somebody else in to help him craft an email and they’d pick apart each word individually until they’d produced what Jonah had once described as “a profuse and persuasive pile of phrases.” It was a technique that failed time and time again, and also looked ridiculous to her, knowing it took two people whose professions were by definition wordsmiths to piece together a simple reply. She felt you could achieve the same results or better with just a couple of sentences and an opened train of dialogue, rather than a block of text blatantly developed to remove any semantic exit for the recipient. So anyway, the point is his silence didn’t necessarily mean he was oblivious, but rather that he may be trying to ask something of her. For the moment, she was waiting on his email. She was out here to do a job, so she was waiting for what that job might have turned into now Liam Greene was out of the Tour and out of the country.
When she looked up from the screen, she could see the yellow blazer approaching and felt a momentary gulp of nervousness, but she was confident he didn’t know who she was. He caught her making eye contact.
“Bonsoir.” She looked back down at her laptop, embarrassed. He went to the bar, and then sat at the table behind her. His spirit smelled like a brandy. She’d never liked that particular drink, so experienced a more honest revulsion than the one she’d endured on the plane.
There was a commotion at last, with frantic talking in French and Spanish. Huge bustling groups snaked into the building, filling all of the space in the lobby.
She opened a new browser tab and looked at the stage results. It had finished on time. The winner was a Danish guy she’d never heard of. She wondered if the opportunity arrived whether it would be worth interviewing somebody, anybody to make the trip worthwhile, or if she should wait for Jonah’s verdict.
She’d heard of the hustle and bustle of the Tour, but this was something else. This small hotel was packed, filled with more people than could be staying here, more people than could possibly be safe. Susan realised there must be something up. The anxious faces and frantic talking were a giveaway.
A young police officer entered the bar. She was attractive and Susan suspected she was of Arabic descent, and then felt guilty for thinking about it like it mattered. The officer spoke authoritatively and quickly in French while everybody listened in silence. Her words made the people in the lobby pull shocked expressions at each other. Whatever she said was obviously terrible.
When she’d finished, Henri Giroud, still sat there in his stupid yellow blazer, called the officer over like he knew her. He said something in French with a wry smile on his face and she responded sternly.
Curiosity overtook Susan, who asked what was going on. The police officer turned around.
“I don’t speak English,” she said.
“Kalb!” The voice came from another man in the doorway. Officer Kalb excused herself with one final stern sentence to the room.
“Did you follow that?” Giroud said, leaning toward her. Oh God. He knew.
“No, I don’t speak French.”
“She said there’s been a bomb. I’ll wager it’s the ETA. She said we have to stay inside, here in the lobby, for our own safety. No doubt also so they can question each of us.”
“My pleasure. I could see you didn’t understand.”
“Can I ask a question?” Susan said. “What did you say to her?”
“I congratulated her on finding some more serious police work than she’s used to. Goodbye, Mlle.”
Susan thought to open her mouth and say something, but she didn’t. Giroud began to walk out of the bar, then turned around as though he’d just realised something.
“Are you here for the Tour?”
“Yes,” Susan said. “Or I was. Or something.”
He looked at her and gave her a squinted, head-tilted look. “Are you Susanne?”
“I’m Henri Giroud!” He held out his hand. “Did you hear about what happened with your young man?”
“I heard, yes.”
“A disgrace for the riders to be treated that way. But as you have seen, there are worse things. I suppose they are the lucky ones today.”
He turned around to his table and picked up his glass of brandy.
“Come, let’s sit in the smoking room. There’s a small table with some quiet seats. It’s very discreet. This room will be loud for a while longer, I think.”
“Congratulations, Kalb, your work is complete: our department is disgraced. I should’ve tied you to the desk by your pussy hair the moment I realised you were useless. I’ll lose my job because you fucked up.”
“No, you fucked up, Perreault,” Kalb said. “I called. I asked. You told me to ignore the Code Ten.”
“You went on a raid despite being recalled, and didn’t even find any drugs. Hudson Ivory is suing us. And a bomb exploded that might’ve been prevented if your team was on the ground. Your head will roll for this, you dickless bitch.”
“I have a whole squad of witnesses. It’ll be your head that rolls, if it will roll at all with that crooked nose of yours. I’ll be unpopular for a while, but everybody will know this was your failure. And in a couple of years, my involvement in this will be forgiven. I’ll sit there in your chair, and I won’t make the mistakes you made. I won’t be the same asshole you were.”
“I am your superior officer, Kalb.”
“That’s true, until the dust settles. Roll up your sleeves and get out of my way, you slackjawed fucking beanstalk, we’ve got a job to do.”
Our bodies weren’t the bodies of adults who’d grown up drinking and smoking and shooting the crap out of their central nervous systems. Up until this point we’d lived lives of abstinence, and this was the first time we’d taken drugs together.
Our innocent, undamaged constitutions felt the 40mcg of clenbuterol almost straight away. My heart started to beat faster, I could feel it. But it wasn’t just the speed it was beating, it was that it felt like there was a weakness deep in my core, like my torso was so fragile it could break.
40 micrograms is almost nothing, a minuscule amount, but it felt like we were pouring water down our throats the whole afternoon, the four of us: me, Liam, Stephen, and Clarkey.
Our hands were shaking. Not much, just the smallest amount. If we hadn’t known about the side effects, I almost think we wouldn’t have noticed some of them at all. But the heaviness in our vascular systems and weakness in our chests was hard to ignore, like our hearts would beat straight through out of the front of our bodies.
On 40mcg we felt like that. Clarkey said we should start on 20mcg, but we hadn’t heeded his advice, and then he’d joined in our bravado. Tomorrow we’d go up to 60mcg, and then 80mcg, and then 100mcg, and then 120 mcg.
None of us slept very well that night, I think. My ribs felt weak, almost like they ached from inside the bone, and I couldn’t lie on my front because of it. It felt like my heartbeat was moving the bed, rocking the mattress, and I was scared somebody from the hotel would hear the sounds and walk through the door concerned for my health and see me face down on a bed that was jumping around the room from the stress on my circulatory system. Or, worse, listen from outside my door presuming I was laid there on my back masturbating slowly and metronomically.
I drifted awake repeatedly with anxiety and panic. Out of tiredness and my heart soaring, shaking the room, I woke convinced I was going to die. I tried to calm myself down, but the sound of my heart drumming inside my chest was hard to ignore. I sat up and listened to it, felt it slow, and then soar, and race, and get faster and it didn’t convince me I wasn’t going to die. And in the morning I rose pumped with the energy of an upper, but plain exhaustion lingering in there too at the same time, buried at the back, where you can’t notice it until after you’ve taken the next three pills, and now you’re at 60mcg and drinking coffee and you know your headaches will get worse and the sounds of the heartbeats trapped in the various folds of your body will get louder and louder until you’re convinced everybody will be able to hear them.
The trouble is, when you buy a drug and you see real feedback that the drug is working, it’s hard to let go.
Back when I saw Clarkey at the start of 2010, I didn’t understand why it was important for anybody to know about me. I think I get it now. Because we invest so much time into the things we love, we can’t objectify the action. The doer has to be more than the deed, and vise versa, because otherwise it’s just a series of events with no context, and how could we love that? Any small thing we’ll take to assign meaning to the raw emotions we feel watching the race; history, nationalism, personality, honour.
And I was wrong before. The people with the leaking taps, they do get a better experience knowing their plumber is a nice chap with values similar to their own. When Clarkey shows up with his shaved legs and glazed over eyes and bike brand logo tattooed on his forearm, of course it’s less pleasant for them. But in that case the action isn’t free of context, because there’s already a meaning: they can have a bath again, or their kitchen won’t flood, or whatever else.
For the rest of us, we need a narrative to make sense of why watching a man ride a bicycle up a hill is enjoyable. Race-long, season-long, career-long, life-long. All wider contexts. When we watch a man defeat all the other men on the slopes of a dormant volcano, it has to mean more and we have to decide whether he’s the hero or villain. Maybe we want to feel bad for the great loser, or maybe we want to celebrate his failure. I get it now.
Every action needs a back story. Consequences for the future as well as a history, because otherwise there’s nothing to make the present worthwhile. On the 7th June 2011, I thought my failure was just the deed and I was just the doer. Now I understand.
The petrichor from dust meeting the humid summer air above, a smell lost on the people on the streets in their panic. Particles once trapped within clay bricks now freed, rising and swirling, airborne and ready to commit one final vandalism in the form of very minor erosion somewhere distant. Susan felt a fool now for missing it.
The smoking room was otherwise curiously peaceful. Now and then somebody, a group of two or three or four, would walk through and look out of the window, and then they’d retreat to the lobby or bar.
Susan and Giroud sat in two fabric armchairs around a small round table. Susan’s hot chocolate had a leather coaster beneath it. So too did Giroud’s frosted glass of brandy. He’d paid for its initial contents, but had been refilling the glass from a steel hip flask since before Susan’s mug was cool enough to hold.
She hoped it wasn’t too obvious she couldn’t look directly at him while he did this. The bookshelf behind his shoulders was vast, packed with antique tomes bought from second hand bookshops or left by guests. There was only one English title, with a raggedy black and white leaf protruding like it had been recently squeezed onto the shelves where it didn’t belong.
“I’m sorry if this is awkward to you,” he said. “I am an old man. I have comforts to which I’m too accustomed to let go.”
“It’s okay,” she said.
“And how are you doing these days?” He said. Please not this conversation.
“I can’t believe I came all this way and didn’t get to see them.” She put her hands around her mug. Dopplering sirens grew more distant outside.
“People will understand. Some things can’t be prevented.” He opened his yellow blazer to adjust himself and she briefly caught a glimpse of his sodden shirt sleeves, way up in the armpits.
“When do you think planes will be allowed to take off again?”
“I don’t expect it will take very long,” he said. He took another drink. “I’m surprised your editor doesn’t have you out there right now writing a report.”
“I am too. There’s still time.”
“Susan, I’m pleased we had this opportunity to meet.” His hands shook as he lifted his glass. “I only wish it had been in better circumstances. And I’m very sorry about your article.”
“Will everything be okay?” The television above reception was on a rolling news channel, the audio muted. Outside the smoke had stopped, but on the screen it lingered, repeated endlessly, as though the event was still happening.
Giroud was silent for a while. “I think it won’t get any worse.”
They sat there for some time in this fashion. Glancing at the screen, watching strangers mill about, too shocked to admit to boredom.