Vincent Love had been running all his life.
Mostly, he’d been running from things. Nowadays he aimed for finish-lines instead.
Sitting by the side of the warm-up track, he massaged his feet, pretending to listen to his coach.
“Visualise the race,” Ronnie said. “Visualise, visualise, visualise.” Since going on a sports psychology course, he’d been spouting shit almost non-stop, mostly in triplicates.
Vincent nodded and picked up his trainers, bright pink with gold laces and the logo spread across the toe. The Love Boot they’d called it. He was paid pretty penny to wear the things.
Of course, he’d have been earning a fortune if he’d been sponsored by one of the big firms, but without McAfferty and his gang, he’d have been back in prison within a week of getting out.
McAfferty had heard of his potential from a prison officer down at the Barlinnie gym.
It all started the morning after Vincent’s first night in the cells.
A Mr. Tweed, from the ‘Life Not Life’ initiative, gave him a face to face. Vincent could still remember the hair gelled into spikes and the power of the aftershave. Tweed asked him what he was good at.
“Everyone has a talent,” Tweed said.
As it happened, he was pretty damned good at taking the faces of cunts, like the man on the other side of the table, and turning them into modern art.
Vincent shook his head and pursed his lips.
“Move on to the D’s.”
“Hear the one about the dead copper?” The guy shook his head.
Vincent was pleased with the way he was handling things. When the others got wind of his performance, they’d give him the respect he deserved and leave him alone for a while.
“Says in your file that it took a helicopter and four cars to catch up with you.”
“That’s right.” Vince was proud of that. He might have gone down, but nobody could say he caved in.
“You can run.”
Tweed sank into his chair and relaxed.
In the end, he had to acknowledge that he owed Tweed everything.
Five times a week they had him training.
He soon broke the Scottish prisons’ record for all events up to 5000m and it wasn’t long until he was smashing British prison records, too.
This earned him a special diet and extra time out of the cell.
And that’s when McAfferty made his interest known.
Two years until the London Olympics and Great Britain needed a golden boy. Better still, a “rags to riches” tale. It would give the home crowd something to cheer about, might even help the country out of the doldrums.
“100m suits you best. Put all your eggs in that basket, you might just hatch yourself a gold medal.”
It wasn’t as if he had any choice in signing the contract for the running shoes. If he didn’t, Wallis and Gromit would have made sure that the only events he’d be in would be wheelchair races.
The money from the deal was enough to keep him clean when he got out. He even managed to keep up with his training.
Soon, he was running for the Harriers. He bagged the national record and the Olympic qualifying time at his first event.
After that, there was no stopping his bandwagon.
Inside the stadium, the atmosphere crackled.
Vincent listened in for a moment, took something of it for savouring later and then blocked the whole lot out.
It was time to focus.
A jog and a couple of sharp bursts freed his body and mind.
His legs had never felt better.
The heats had been a stroll. Nobody got close. He was fresh.
Ronnie came over and rubbed his shoulders, pressing in his thumbs like he was trying to pop his eyes out.
“Focus, focus, focus,” Vincent heard, then jammed in his earphones and pressed play on the MP3.
The 1812 overture wasn’t everyone’s fix, but nobody needed to know what he listened to.
This reminded him of Father Anthony who took mass at the boys’ home, the only adult there who even pretended to give a fuck about him and Billy.
Anthony ran the football.
They had the worst team in the whole of Glasgow, but the best fighters.
The father played them Beethoven before every match. “Fill your hearts with this, boys,” he’d say, “a message from the Good Lord himself.” Made bugger all difference to the scores, though they always believed they would win.
Behind the starting line, Vincent stripped down to his red, white and blue and looked around.
The crowd looked like the drawings he did as a kid, thousands of round circles filling the spaces in the stands.
A javelin thrower ran up to throw.
Vincent watched the spear fly through the air, its tail wagging like a dog’s. There was a collective intake of breath as it fell beyond the white line in the distance. Awesome.
Cheers erupted over the track. The thrower waved and jumped, wrapped himself up in a flag, one of the Eastern European ones that Vincent couldn’t identify. He ran to someone in the front row. It must have been one hell of a throw.
When things died down, the starter called them to their marks.
“Run at the B of the Bang,” people used to say.
Billy and Vincent practised that all the time. They never knew when a quick take-off was going to get them out of trouble. It got them noticed by a couple of the bigger lads - they put them in touch with some mates of theirs and ended up giving them jobs down at the Red Road Estate.
There wasn’t much to it, really.
As look-outs, they spent most of the days bored out of their skulls, watching the entrances for coppers and rivals or anyone who looked like they were up to no good.
Soon as they got wind that something wasn’t right, they bombed across to the dealers and everything shut down in seconds.
Watching them covering their tracks always impressed the boys. It was the sort of thing that needed teaching in school, like it should lead to a qualification in leadership or something.
Getting a good start meant everything then, just like it meant all in the Olympic final.
“Visualise,” he imagined his coach saying, as they rocked forward on the line. He didn’t need to tell anyone he imagined the arrival of the flashing lights at the entrance to a slum.
He was out of the blocks before anyone else and took a metre out of the field right there and then. His legs felt good. His lungs were full. Now all he needed was to pick things up and get into the perfect groove.
Picking up speed was essential in their next career.
The drugs game paid, but not enough to buy the gear the boys in the home were wearing.
By working as a two-man operation, they could work the hours that suited and share all the profits.
First time he did it, Vincent’s heart pumped like a hammer. He leant against a wall on Buchanan Street, waited till he was happy with the target, and set off.
The most important thing was timing.
He didn’t want to pick up too early or he might have missed. Too late and he was fucked.
Billy had identified the woman.
Mid-thirties, Vincent guessed. Kind of pretty and enough flash around her wrists and neck to blind a bat.
Off he went.
The bag, hung loosely at her shoulder, was soon in his grasp. His fingers clutched the leather and pulled. The momentum carried him into a sprint like a race car sliding smoothly through the gears.
The shouts behind him faded quickly as he put distance between him and them.
Focussing on avoiding benches and flower boxes, he soon disappeared from the main drag and off through the warren of backstreets that was home.
That’s what Vincent pictured as his legs and arms found their rhythm, a lady, a bag and a purse full of cash.
After winning only a silver medal in the European championships, McAfferty and Ronnie decided they needed the help of a sports psychologist. Made the journey to England to find the best they could get hold of.
Professor Dave Bell had seen his beloved Manchester United through thick and thin and hit the dizzy heights of World Club Champions with them. One couldn’t get better advice anywhere.
Vincent didn’t see the need.
The university guy might be able to spell “ball,” but he was sure he hadn’t a clue about how to kick one.
They shook hands across the table, reminded Vincent of Mr Tweed.
Professor Bell had a beard and stroked it a few times before speaking, then cleared his throat.
“If you were a fruit, Vincent,” he began, “would you see yourself as an orange, an apple or a banana?”
“Who the fuck you calling a fruit?”
The table wasn’t broad enough to stop the fists making contact. Three good swings and Professor Bell was on the floor.
If it hadn’t been for Wallis and Gromit stepping in like they did, who knows what mess he’d have made.
The splatters of blood looked to Vincent like the blots the prison therapists made him look at. He wondered what the psychologist would see in them when he came around.
As it turned out, there was no damage done. The professor never spoke to the press about the incident and never put in a charge.
Vincent figured that McAfferty had a way of persuading people that seemed to win over even the most stubborn characters. He wondered if it had been those same powers that he had seen his main rivals pull out from the games one after another.
All he could see was the lane he was running in, stretching before him like a tunnel through a mountain.
His arms and legs pumped for all they were worth.
It was the time he felt free, free of it all. The past behind, the world a dream, the wind whistling in his ears as if he had them pressed up to a pair of conches.
Like the last time he and Billy ran from the home, bags over their shoulders and life opening out before them like a river emptying into the sea.
Shame it hadn’t worked out the way they expected.
It was Father Anthony who made their mind up for them.
Vincent was taking a shower after being sent off during a match. He wore his swimming trunks in the shower-room as if everyone else was there.
The last thing he expected to see was the good father paddling in with his feet bare.
“The referee was a fool, son,” he said. “Don’t let a little sending off get to you, now”.
Vincent couldn’t have cared less about the referee or the fight. It wasn’t as if it was the first time.
He stood and put his face in the water, let it run into his mouth and trickle out again.
“Let me put the hand of God upon you, son. Let me…”
“What the fuck?”
It wasn’t the hand of God that was in his trunks, Vincent was pretty sure of that.
Slamming his forearm into the priest’s jaw, he sent him flying onto his backside, pressed the button on all the showers and got the fuck out of there.
Telling Billy might have been a mistake. His brother had a temper as short as a match.
But Billy kept his head together and decided they should leave.
They were making enough money on snatches to look after themselves. Nobody was going to feel up his little brother ever again.
“Everything you’ve got,” Ronnie would shout at him at training, “one hundred and ten percent.”
Though he couldn’t read to save his life, Vincent knew his numbers all right. He knew you couldn’t give more than you had, that 110% was just more bollocks.
“And run through that line like it isn’t even there.”
The line was coming close. Vincent could sense it, but not see it. His thoughts were in a different place.
Billy should never have gone after a man of the cloth. The green half of Glasgow was never going to let a thing like that pass, even if it was done by one of their own.
Maybe if he hadn’t chopped off his cock and left it on the altar, they might have let it go. Dropping his balls in the font probably didn’t help.
Neither of them knew the men that came after them.
Mid thirties, big and stupid looking. Not the sort to be messed with.
“Billy fucking Gallagher, you’re dead.”
It was like the B of the bang all over again.
They ran their lungs out and headed for the river hoping they could lose them.
Vincent could tell Billy was falling behind, but kept going full pelt.
They saw a boat pulling away from its dock, an easy jump and they were clear Vincent threw himself on deck and rolled over to take a look.
Billy, almost there, reached out, but no way Vincent could stretch that far.
The gun went off, sent Billy sprawling, and collapsed face down. Didn’t so much as say goodbye.
Vincent, dashing for the line, thought of Billy throwing himself towards the boat, flying through the air and taking his hands, safe and sound and bound for glory.