Where Do I Fit In?
by Andrew Foote
Throughout this story real organisations and real people are mentioned by name. Their place in the tale is in the author's imagination. No thoughts, words or deeds attributed to those people or organisations are real, nor have they ever happened. This is a story! It's fiction. The people and organisations, even when they interact with the characters, are presented in an entirely imagined and fictitious manner, and no discourtesy is intended to them by the author nor by the web site.
Four days of training and two spent back at school seemed hardly worth the effort but then day five found us all gathered at Terminal four at Heathrow Airport.
Dad's looked frazzled, Mum's were in tears and Jo couldn't stop hugging us both as if we were about to be lead to the gallows.
Finally Liam and Peter showed up and after the usual round of hand-shakes told us they still had to check in and then they'd guide us through security.
Peter was acting rather oddly which I thought was strange for a man who must have flown the world many times over during his career as it was almost as if he too was excited about the trip.
I watched as they wheeled their cases towards the check-in desk where they paused to talk to a couple and their child then with hand-shakes the couple turned and walked way leaving the kid with them where the three of them checked in their suitcases.
I gave Paul a nudge.
"Did you see that?"
"See what exactly?"
"Can't see them now cos of the crowds but Liam and Peter have a young lad with them. They're at desk 48 I think."
"No I can't see but we're not the only ones going, there are some other's from different parts of the country, could be one of them."
"Yes well maybe but they'd be with their own coaching team wouldn't they? No, something odd is going down."
I kept my eyes on that area of the hall then eventually I spotted them and also recognised the kid. I dropped my flight bag on the floor and ran over to them.
"BENNY!!!! What the f……..hell are you doing here??"
"Ahh well you see, some poor guy from up north injured himself, tore all the ligaments in his foot apparently so I was put forward as his replacement and here I am!"
"So one unlucky guy's loss is our gain! Come on then, the others will be ecstatic!"
"Do you really think so? Won't they think I'm like muscling in or anything?"
"Are you having a laugh? The team is together Benny? What could be better than that?"
Peter was chuckling to himself.
"I almost phoned you all last night but then I thought I'd keep it as a surprise. I'm so pleased for him. He's not been with us that long but by God has he worked hard! He deserves this just as much as you all do. We ought to get ourselves through security before your Mum's make this place look like Saturday night at the Wailing Wall so let's get a shift on shall we?"
We were shuffled through security with relative ease and once we were seated in the departure lounge, Peter held up his hand to get our attention.
"We have just over an hour before our flight is called so you are free to explore the duty free areas but please remember, they're only duty free not profit free so make wise choices when buying anything however, before you go chasing off, I have here the official dress code for all UK athletes who travel abroad. Lorain? Yours is a short sleeved blouse with the red rose emblem embroidered on the left breast, a pair of light grey trousers and a dark grey blazer which also had the red rose emblem together with a pair of flat shoes which you may wear with or without socks. For you lads? Much the same. A white short sleeved shirt with emblem, light grey trousers and blazers but the difference being, you will be expected to wear a tie of Team GB colours which is also provided together with a pair of black shoes. Obviously we don't expect you to live and die in these but it would be good if you could all think about how good you would all look if during our times spent in airports, formal receptions and so on if you could all be appropriately attired, you are after all, representing your country and we like to leave a good impression. Most of your visit to Guam is for the sake of relaxing and bonding together and so during that time you may dress as you wish but for trips to training venues you will be provided with lightweight track suits and trainers which we also expect you to wear but I'll dish these out once we arrive at our hotel. Now if you could all find the toilets and get changed into your posh stuff, then you're free to wander around."
We collected our kit and got changed. Oh brother, did we look the business! Really the only difference between our kit and Lor's was that we were wearing ties and her trousers and blazer had been tailored to fit her figure. Liam had us pose for a team photo which he promised to forward to our respective parents just as soon as we arrived and with that done we toured the shops although none of us bought anything. I had always resented having to wear a school uniform believing it to be totally unnecessary but now I understood because I was proud to be seen with my peers and friends and pleased to be a part of a much bigger picture.
We met up with some other kids who were also on our flights, all of them sporting the same uniform, all in all about thirty of us and over a coffee we exchanged notes.
There were a number of gymnasts', basketball players and swimmers but we were the only ones formation diving which surprised us. There were others there representing various track and field disciplines, badminton and even skiing but what the fuck they were doing travelling to the tropics was a mystery until I remembered the purpose of it all, - bonding.
The Club Class area of the plane was divided into three sets of seats. Two on the left, three in the centre and two on the right. Lucas and I were sat side by side on the right with Paul and Lorain directly in front of us whereas Benny was seated in the centre isle with a girl either side of him. He was taking full advantage of the situation and even before the cabin doors were shut and we began our push-back he was chatting them up. I nudged Lucas.
"Condoms. We forgot the bloody things."
"What do we need them for?"
"Not for us you wazzuck, Benny. Look at him!"
Paul looked over his shoulder.
"Don't worry. I emptied my small change into the machine in the Gents toilet and stuffed a load of them into his flight bag. He must know they're there by now, the customs people most certainly do!"
"Well done. Cheers for that. I meant to do the same but I got side tracked."
Heathrow is a massive airport and it took at least half an hour before we even reached the runway but then the huge Airbus 380 catapulted us along the ground and suddenly we were airborne. I watched as London got smaller and smaller until we eventually ascended into the clouds and it disappeared from view. From here on in the flight became boring just like Lucas has predicted so I tried reading my book but I was sort of half-tired, half-excited so I found it hard to concentrate but then the Captain messaged through.
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome on board flight VA 23 bound for Narita. I am about to switch off the seatbelt signs and you are welcome to move about the aircraft if you so wish. The bar will be open shortly together with our in-flight duty free shop but while you're seated please keep your seatbelts fastened. Our flight time is approximately twelve hours and we have been instructed to take the northern route across Europe, through Russian airspace, across Siberia and then once we reach the Japanese Island of Hokkaido we will swing west and begin our decent towards Tokyo and Narita airport. For those of you who haven't taken this route before, we expect the weather over Siberia to be clear and for those who are still awake, the scenery of vast plains and mountains completely covered by the frozen tundra is truly spectacular. During the winter months it is a very harsh environment so you will see little by way of any habitation barring the odd town or mining settlement so not exactly my idea of a holiday destination! I hope you have a pleasant flight with us. Our cabin crew are here to help and advise so please feel free to ask any questions of them that you may have and I will also keep you regularly updated."
"Once again Paul looked over his shoulder. The bar is open. A couple of glasses of something will help me sleep I reckon."
Lucas perked up.
"Gets my vote. Anything to kill a few hours sounds good to me!"
We all of us unbuckled and started to make our way to the front of the aircraft and the bar. Benny caught my eye and asked where we were going.
"Get a drink at the bar. Coming?"
He said something to the two girls and they followed us forward. We found a vacant table, not difficult as the flight and especially the Club Class cabin was all but taken over by us kids. The stewardess smiled as we approached.
"Hello people. What can I get you?"
Paul was the first to speak.
"Would it be okay if I had a glass of red wine please?"
"I can think of no good reason why not. Are you flying unaccompanied?"
"No. Our coaching team is with us somewhere."
"It might be an idea if you got their approval if you could?"
We hadn't realised but Peter was stood right behind us.
"That's fine young lady. Wine is okay but no spirits!"
"Thank you sir! Okay we have one red wine, Merlot, Shiraz or Bordeaux?"
Lucas spoke up.
"We'll each have a Shiraz please."
The stewardess looked at Lorain.
"And for you young lady? Champaign perhaps?"
"You actually have Champaign?"
"Oh yes. It's rather nice actually! Would you like to try it first?"
"Thanks. Yes I'd like that."
She handed Lor a half-glass which she sipped.
"You're not wrong! That's really nice!"
"I'm pleased you like it. Here's a full measure and please don't waste the sample or I'll have to throw it away. Too much of a shame in my opinion!"
She then looked at Benny.
"A coke for me please and two lemonades for my friends all just with ice please. I don't suppose you have any nibbles do you?"
"I'll bring some over with your drinks. No need to wait around for them, this is Club Class remember and if you need refills, just give me a wave."
We settled in to conversation for a while before Peter stood up and announced he was going to get on with paperwork then hit the sack. After about an hour, we ordered more drinks and the subject turned to Benny's friends. It turned out they were older than him, closer to our age in fact although they didn't look it. They were both gymnasts from Birmingham and had been training for over a year so it seemed odd the way they almost clung to Benny but I didn't ask the reason why but my guess was that the little fellah would be growing up pretty bloody quickly over the next three weeks!
After about two hours we made our way back to our seats. The cabin lights had already been dimmed so we adjusted our seats and tried to get some sleep but it alluded me for some reason. Lucas was gently snoring as was Paul. Lor's head was on his shoulder so I guessed she was asleep as well. I looked across at Benny. The three seats were fully reclined. One girl had her head on his left shoulder, the other on his right and a blanket covered their legs. Benny looked at me and grinned giving me the 'thumbs-up'.
'Horny little fucker' I thought but then the next thing I was aware of was Lucas giving me a shake.
"Wake up Andy! This you have to see! I couldn't let you sleep on or you'd have killed me later!"
He pointed out of the window which he was sitting next to.
"Siberia Andy. Absolutely stunning! Take a look."
"Dear God! That's unbelievable! How can anyone possibly live there? It looks like hell on earth but beautiful!"
"Well they do and they work and bring up families there. I'd love to visit someday."
Benny and the two girls came over and joined us.
"Can we take a look?"
I shifted back and allowed him through then stood up to make space for the girls.
"No need Andy. We can see if we sit on your knee."
Benny was sat on Lucas' lap and the two girls took their place on my knees. I fully expect that Lucas was 'reacting' because despite my best efforts, I know I was, I just couldn't help myself and I felt guilty about it. Angela, one of the girls looked at me and smiled.
"Settle down? Benny told us you guys are gay!"
"Yes we are but……..a pretty girl sitting on anyone's knee has to have an effect doesn't it?"
"Does it? It wouldn't if Jess sat on my knee but then if I could sit on Benny's lap?"
"Don't go there sweetheart! Benny has more hormones than enough just at the moment!"
"I do hope so! Look I'm sorry if I was offensive but…….."
"It's fine. Everything is cool but please Angela, take care of our mate cos we do love him to bits. He's a great friend and we wouldn't want to see him hurt."
"If it's of any consolation, he loves you blokes back ten-fold so don't go worrying about him. He knows more than he lets on including the condoms! I'd better get back to my seat now. We'll catch you a bit later okay? He'll be fine, honestly!"
"Pop one did you?" I giggled.
"You bet but then so would've you given the circumstances!"
"I did anyway and she noticed. Oh the shame of it!"
"So? She's cute! Why not get one up?"
"That's pretty much what she said but Benny has told them about us and I felt bad about my reaction."
"She didn't seem too upset so why worry?"
"I'm not. I think she took it as a back-handed compliment as it happened. Oh and she said they'd not go too fast too soon with our Benny but my best guess is, by the time we leave Guam, he'll finally be a man!"
"Oh bring it on!! Damn pleased that Paul made the necessary purchases in that case! Must remember to settle up with him."
The next thing I remember was waking to hear the Captain announcing our decent in towards Narita although checking my watch there was still an hour's flight time to go either that or we'd made good time.
We broke through the thin cloud and leaning across the still sleeping Lucas, I peered out of the window and took in my first ever view of another continent. I'd been so busy reading up on Guam it never crossed my mind to investigate Japan so it came as something of a surprise to find it very mountainous. Away in the distance I spotted the iconic Mount Fuji with snow covering the upper two thirds of it then the lower we got the other thing that surprised me was that the grass was yellow, almost the colour of straw. Back home the grass dies back during the summer months but its mid-winter here in Japan so why did that happen? We began to circle over what I now know were the cities of Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohama, a vast metropolis without any discernable boundaries separating them from each other then finally the aircraft swung east as we descended towards Narita Airport and a very welcome opportunity to stretch our legs. As the plane touched down so Lucas woke.
"Are we in Japan already? That has to be the longest and shortest long haul I've ever done! All I remember was having a couple of drinks, Siberia and the touch down!"
"Me too but I did wake when it was announced that we were beginning the decent. Spectacular scenery!"
"I can see that on the way home. I preferred the sleep! How long is the stop-over? I can't remember."
"No nor me. I think it's around three hours but I'll check my ticket once we're inside the terminal. Time enough to get some grub inside us cos I don't know about you but I'm bloody starving!"
As minors and also being Club Class passengers we were one of the first off the aircraft. The first sense that we were in the Far East were all the advertisements with an odd mixture of English and Japanese texts and the second came once we'd got ourselves through to the transfer gates and into the departure lounge where the smell of all the different foods and restaurants assaulted us.
"Oh for God's sake Andy? MacDonald's and Burger King! Not very oriental is it?"
"Ha-ha! No but look over there. A sushi bar selling real sushi! Got to have some of that! You up for it?"
"You bet! Mind you, we ought to tell Peter or Liam where we're going just in case."
The rest of our group were all sitting together and on mentioning our proposed sortie of the food hall everyone came with us. I was in heaven! For me there's no bigger treat than sushi and OMG this was the very best I'd ever tasted! Some of the guys were sceptical at first asking me what was what.
"Andy? What on earth are those red sort of balls on that one?"
"Well it's kind of like caviar but different. They're fish eggs, tuna I think."
"Oh yuk! That's disgusting!"
"Don't be daft Lor? Well tasty actually. A bit salty but it goes well with the rice and cucumber. Try a bite of mine."
"Hey! Not bad once you've plucked up enough courage to actually put it in your mouth. So the green bits in the rice is cucumber?"
"Yep and see that one over there? That's got pineapple in with the rice and on top is raw tuna. Very delicate taste. This one here has chilli in it and is topped with……..God only knows what, could be any sort of raw fish over here but I'm going to give it a go."
My bill on its own came to five thousand Yen or about £20 but honestly, it was worth every penny!
"How come you know all about this stuff then?"
"When Jo and I were little, Mum and Dad took us to London on a day out. We went to a sushi bar in Chelsea and being young, like I was probably only six or seven, I had no idea what I was eating only that I knew couldn't get enough of it. The best way to eat it is with a glass of Saki, you know, rice wine? It complements the delicate flavour of the sushi but we're not allowed it over here most like and anyway, I wouldn't know how to ask for it!"
A young guy who worked there turned to me and spoke.
"You say 'Saki o-coo-des-eye'. Mean Saki if I may. Here, you try on house!" and with that he gave all of us a small shot but Benny refused it.
"No alcohol for me please. I don't like it."
"No probrem. I give your friend."
I ended up with two glasses which was good as I rather like the stuff!
With stomachs filled the stop-over was short and sweet and I made a promise to myself to return to Japan and maybe spend some meaningful time exploring the place. Just the International Airport was fascinating so what would the rest of the country have in store? Most of the airports I'd passed through, not that I'm a seasoned flier, seemed too 'business-like' and I don't know, - functional perhaps? Narita was different. The people were so friendly and courteous, it was like a completely different world to me. These lovely people had got customer service nailed to the floor!
Our JAL flight to Guam was no different either. We were given the option of Japanese fare or European / American so I opted for Japanese and I wasn't disappointed. All of it was chilled and comprised of sticky rice, pickles, some weird stuff that I wasn't so sure about but ate it anyway ,- fish of some kind I think. Chicken in a garlic and hoisin sauce, a 185cl bottle of Saki and a pineapple desert, the Sake I kept for another time.
At last we landed in Guam. One minute we were out over the ocean, the next we were touching down on a tropical paradise and three whole weeks of rest and relaxation……..or so we had been lead to believe.
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