Olympic Fever  

His was a small village in a small country so his hope of participating in the next summer Olympics was not far-fetched. He was an old-fashioned mailman, which is to say he did his route on foot. He used his work as an opportunity to train. You could barely see him as he dashed from house to house, dogs in hot pursuit, never catching him. He warmed up in the village but really hit his stride in the outlying areas. It was mountainous there and sparsely populated. He did his rounds even when there was nothing to deliver. He offered to run errands for the people, since he covered the town and outlying area.

People who at first derided his efforts at racewalking had to review their position as he grew stronger and quicker from his relentless training. They still thought he walked funny, but he was so well-conditioned that he never broke into a sweat. And there was this time when he was asked to fetch the doctor and, as he had cut through the woods at his tremendous pace, he made it before the car that had been commandeered to summon the doctor. No priest was needed for little Sally, and his folly became their salvation. After that event, the wind changed, and people started cheering him on. Pressed by Sally’s mother, the townspeople raised some money and got him proper sneakers for competitions and extra to pay for transportation.

He made it to the Olympics, after three years of dedicated effort. He was interviewed and properly named their little town of 300 inhabitants. The pride was palpable, no emotion too strong for this forgotten people. The sneakers were supple, well broken in.  He consistently placed high in the successive waves, earning a spot in the semi-finals. They had not been fazed when the power went out. Everyone was huddled in the café to watch the Olympics. The generator kicked in and they kicked back in their chairs, waiting for the semi-finals to come on. By then, Sami was a celebrity, having outraced better known athletes.

The announcers had started rooting for him, an underdog always being appreciated as his presence added a touch of drama and intensity to the proceedings.  The top athletes had never competed against the mailman. He was an unknown quantity and they had been quick – too quick! – to judge him unworthy. What he lacked in style and refinement, he more than made up in grit and resilience. He had never trained indoors. He was used to lugging around a heavy bag. On the day of the semi-finals, Sami had ingested a large breakfast, as was his custom. He had walked quickly from the athlete’s village to the stadium and back, having forgotten his lucky medal. He was all warmed up and mentally rested. He kept waving and smiling good-naturedly at the camera, blowing kisses and winking at his assembled fans.

He had become well-known in the athletes’ village for his kindness. He delivered sweet notes from the men’s dorm to the women’s and back, a role he naturally took on like a second skin. As he was always ready to do a favour, other athletes came in droves to see him in compete. He had a loyal following, with hangers-on always ready for a party. He was older than most athletes, which inspired them. They could see themselves competing in a second and maybe a third Olympics. He was the stuff dreams are made of. There were two false starts in his wave and he was slow starting the third time. He led the race from the back in the first lap. They were all bunched together, which made it tricky to pass. He could not see his way in this dense undergrowth of legs. Once this thought came to him, everything fell into place.

He imagined his competitors as trees and natural obstacles and his legs did the rest. His lungs expanded, his breathing deepened, his stride lengthened and became relaxed. He nimbly passed the athletes in the rear, steadily making his way through the jostling elbows, hitting like branches, poking him indiscriminately. He did not lose his focus though he emerged black and blue from the fray. As far as he could tell, these were young trees, easy to bend and pass. As focused as he was, he did not notice that he cut a competitor off which caused him to fall. The competing country was a large sponsor, and he was penalized for poor sportsmanship. The fallen competitor moved on to the finals where he did not win, but he stayed behind, disconsolate. That move was played and replayed, analyzed from every angle. The decision to penalize the underdog polarized the press to the extent that it overshadowed the win in the final race.

As a consolation prize, he was given to walk with his country’s flag at the closing ceremonies. He was stone-faced, not the happy-go-lucky man everybody had learned to know and love. He was not a broken man, would not allow this to be, but he was downcast and cut a poor figure. He was given a hero’s welcome at home which he accepted graciously and quietly for the sake of his friends and family. However, he would not be a mouthpiece for any association affiliated to the Games. He agreed to coach the youth of the village. He trained them like Gretzky’s dad had. At all times, they had to be aware of their surroundings, and plan and strategize. He was vindicated when Sally won silver eight years later in the Women’s. Under his stewardship, the little town became famous for churning out winners.

Would-be Olympians trained under his direction. He became a full-time coach. The next mailman never attained his fame. By then, the roads had been paved and he rode it, with an eye on qualifying in cycling events. He did not have the required strength of mind and lived on the fumes of his dream. That was the way of the village.

The Mailman

They had voted to use pressure tactics. The easiest was to distribute the mail so that a neighbour down the street got yours. He knew the neighbourhood well, and he felt bad about it. He had his idea about his clients. He didn’t like the old man, for example, because he reminded him of his dad. However, the old woman treated him well, offering him coffee or chatting him up.

There were some single people on his route. The slim shy baker, the outgoing farm girl with a taste for the bottle, the two middle-aged sisters, the retired fireman. Why each ended up alone was a mystery to him. His plan was to get them acquainted. There was no harm in playing matchmaker. Maybe something good would come out of this strike! By the looks of it, he thought the fireman and the farm girl had a chance. He was old-fashioned so he delivered Jacqueline’s mail to F Cooper. They both subscribed to Lee Valley which seemed a good starting point. As a bonus, the old dear would probably tell him how things were going. He misdelivered a few days in a row to force the issue.

The old lady stopped him on the street. She held the offending catalog and mail in one hand, the other she used to point at him. She chided him for being absent-minded. “Young man, you will lose your job if you don’t pay attention!” He tried to explain about pressure tactics but she just wouldn’t listen. She handed him back the mail. “Frank was upset. He asked for my help.” Here, she made herself taller. “Make sure they go to Jacqueline now. ” He had never felt so humiliated. What a poor matchmaker he made. He thought about the baker but he seemed too shy for this hearty girl. His plan was unravelling fast but he still thought it was a great idea. If only they didn’t get the old lady involved.

He had gone past Jacqueline’s house and had to backtrack. He was pretty sure the old lady would check up on his delivery. He decided to try pressure tactics the next street over, where he wouldn’t run into the old lady. All the while, he had been greeting people out in their gardens or washing their car. It wasn’t even a holiday. Were they on vacation? Retired? He felt suddenly exposed. He gave up on pressure tactics that day and was reprimanded by his colleagues. What an impossible situation to be in. He slept poorly, he was miserable and bleary-eyed the next day and made delivery mistakes he did not bother to correct, happy to report back early that he had botched the job. Disheartened, he went for drinks with a few colleagues.

It felt like they were playing hooky, something he had never done in his life. He felt unmoored and unhappy. He didn’t share his matchmaking idea with his mates. It was bad enough that it had backfired. The others were putting on a brave face, joking around, but he was a people watcher. He knew when people were pretending. They drank too quickly and spoke too loud to be happy about the situation. He went home, going over his route. He felt his idea slipping out his grasp, things going too quickly. It seemed to him that once you stopped following the rules, order could never be restored.

He heard the metallic clank of his mailbox. He was hardly ever at home to hear his mail being delivered. It felt odd being on the receiving end. He got up, curious to see what mail he had received. He lifted the lid. The letter was addressed to one Evelyn Wilson, three doors down.

His heart beat faster.