She didn't have to wait long for the fun to start. Lian Reilley was the first broadcast-worthy skater up. As the barely five foot tall although sixteen year old, Chinese-American skater in the golden yellow dress with matching pony-tail holders and gloves entered the arena, every available 24/7 camera whipped around to capture her awkward, plastic skate-guards over blades trudge towards the ice. While Lian looked straight into the lens nearest her, grinned, waved, and shouted, "Hi, everyone back home, I love you!" Bex opened her research manual to the Lian Reilley page, and looking from right to left, made sure that both Howarths had done the same. On the right-hand side of the document was Lian's name, her age, her hometown, her coach, her choreographer, her parents' names, her competitive record to date, her height and weight (at least the height and weight she was willing to commit to), the name of her music and all of her elements listed in order of performance. On the left hand side of the document was her name again (Bex had learned she could never write the skaters' name often enough as, at her first competition, Francis accidentally turned to the wrong page and was busy waxing poetic about Erin Simpson as Jordan Ares was skating), the correct pronunciation of her name (another thing she couldn't count on Francis to remember), her record to date written in full sentences instead of numbers this time, and such fun biographical data as the fact that Lian had been adopted as an infant from China, that her favorite color was gold, and that "ten years from now I'd like to be a two-time Olympic gold medallist, Harvard graduate, and touring with my own ice-show as I finish medical school."
The future Dr. Skating Star stepped onto the ice and assumed her opening position, arms raised, looking heavenward, her face a mask of deep meditation.
Francis turned off his mike and mumbled, "She looks like she's surrendering."
On air, Diana chimed, "Her costume is quite one-of-a-kind and lovely. It took fourteen man-hours to bead it all! Lian told us earlier that she always wears gold at competition because it inspires her and makes her work harder!"
Lian set up for her alleged triple-triple. She did a triple-double, instead.
Neither Francis nor Diana said a word. Mr. Howarth was too busy raising his thumbs to his ears and wagging the remaining fingers at Mrs. Howarth.
Lian set up for her next tripe-triple. Another triple-double.
Dead silence from the announcers.
"Damn it, guys," Gil thundered over the headset. "Let's get some chatter going. I want to hear commentary. Come on, the people at home are dying to hear what you think of this kid, it's what they tune in for. Talk! Talk! Talk!"
Diana winced at the decibels of Gil's encouragement. She looked at Francis. He looked at her. They played a round of "I can stare without blinking longer than you can." Nobody said anything. Whatsmore, nobody looked like they were planning to say anything until the other person said something.
"Bex!" Like the band-mates of "This is Spinal Tap," Gil seemed to have found the eleven on his amp switch. "Make them talk!"
Bex flipped a mental coin. And kicked Diana in the shins. America's Sweetheart glared at America's Overworked Researcher. But she got the message and flicked on her mike. In a burst on inspiration, she said, "Lian Reilley's jumps are still awfully low and close to the ground. I don't know if she'll get full credit for completing them. What do you think, Francis? Will the judges reward Lian's jumps just because they were landed, despite the quality?"
She thought she'd been clever. She thought that by asking a question instead of simply making a statement, Diana had manipulated Francis into not only talking but answering her on the air, and thus somehow proving proving proving Something apparently very important in the Howarth household.
"Diana," Francis began, the "you ignorant slut" part unspoken but nevertheless rather forcefully implied. "What a ridiculous thing to say. If you truly understood skating you would realize that the most important parts of a jump are the number of revolutions and the landing of them on one foot. Clearly, Lian has completed both of those requirements. Everything else is merely lip service. Unlike you, I wholeheartedly support this spunky up-and-comer, and fully expect our wonderful national bronze medallist to get total credit for all of her jumps."
If Diana's ears weren't trapped beneath the headset, Bex fully would have expected to see steam emerging from both orifices. Instead, the trapped steam seemed to transform Diana Howarth's body into a pressure cooker as, instead of her ears, all that anger appeared to coagulate in her foot. In response to Francis verbal smackdown, Diana raised her leg and kicked Bex in the shin. A combination payback for Bex's earlier action and, presumably, a "pass-it-on" to Francis.
Bex declined to pass it on.
She wasn't intending to do anything to disturb the relative peace that had descended upon them as, for the rest of Lian's program, the Howarths made it a point to speak around, rather than to each other. A fact that Gil didn't seem to notice. At the end of the routine, he absentmindedly told them, "Good chatter, guys. Keep it up."
Why, oh, why, Bex cried internally, did he have to encourage them like that?
Xenia Trubin was next on the ice. Bex checked her notes. The twenty-six year old Russian and European champion was skating to a selection by Shostakovitch and, contrary to Diana's earlier sarcasm, she wasn't portraying Russia's grief about Stalin's five-year plan. She was portraying man's inhumanity to man in an age of commerce and globalization.
By doing a Triple Lutz-Double Loop combination.
Bex presumed her lack of understanding what one had to do with the other was probably a cultural difference.
This time, Diana didn't wait for Gil to scream and Bex to kick her before picking up the slack. When Xenia's music entered the slow, lyrical section, the one wherein she ran backwards on her toe-picks with a look of abject terror on her face, symbolizing her fear that commerce and globalization would crush her with its mighty weight right there in the middle of the rink, Diana announced, "Despite her numerous titles - though, I must point out, those are mostly European -- Xenia Trubin is nowhere near the jumper her main competitor tonight and for most of this season, America's Erin Simpson, is. In fact, even if she lands everything here tonight, Xenia only has six triples planned in this Long Program, whereas Erin Simpson will be doing seven, including two in combination. Erin's program has a great deal more difficulty in it, and, as a result, I'd say that this World Championship is Erin Simpson's to lose. Don't you agree, Francis?"
Once again, Bex guessed that Diana thought she had Francis figured out. Since, with Lian's program, Diana had parroted an opinion Francis expressed earlier only to see him turn on a dime, disagree completely and embarrass her on-air, she must have thought that by expressing an opinion she knew he didn't agree with, she would at least be prepared for his inevitable attack on her. Bex was rather proud of herself for figuring it all out. With this being the last event of the season, she felt like she was finally getting somewhere in her decoding of the Howarths.
For both Bex and Diana.
After a half-century partnership, Francis was inevitably one step ahead of his wife. Instead of giving her the vehement denial she expected, he, once again, pulled the rug out from under her by - go figure; Bex figured she might as well give it up -- agreeing wholeheartedly.
"Absolutely, my dear. Absolutely. Xenia Trubin may be the best Russia has to offer, but she is no match for America's one-two-three punch of Simpson, Ares, and Reilley. Her technical skills are weak, and no amount of arm waving, rushing from place to place or rather unseemly -- if I do say so myself -- spinning positions will be able to cover that up."
Even as Francis was speaking, Xenia finished up another of her so called unseemly spins, nose pressed to her knee, bottom in the air, arms - well, Francis was right about that - flapping by her sides, and collapsed on the ice, breathing heavily. After a dramatic respite on the ground of either recuperating-rest or on-going fear of capitalism, she slowly stood up and, after bowing to the judges, waved to the crowd, her face an unreadable mask of not happiness, not sadness, not relief, but determination. Xenia knew that her biggest battle was still ahead. She didn't appear to give a damn that the crowd's applause was perfunctory and lukewarm while they strained their necks to get a glimpse of Erin Simpson, warming up, rink side. When Xenia skated she gave the impression of not even noticing that the audience was there. All she cared about were the judge's marks.
Her numbers came up rather quickly. She'd barely sat down in the kiss-and-cry area and taken a parched sip of bottled water and kissed the indifferent flower girl who dumped an arm-load of limp roses at her feet, before they popped up on the scoreboard, indicating uniform votes. And, indeed, every judge on the panel but one gave her a 5.8 for Technical Merit, and a 5.9 for Presentation. Russian gave her two 5.9s.
"Those are a little high," Francis mused, stating the obvious for the service, Bex guessed, of the blind in the audience.
"But, there's still plenty of room on top for Erin," Diana bolstered.
"Oh, absolutely, no doubt about it. Erin Simpson is certainly capable of earning straight 5.9s and maybe even some 6.0s for her technique, her jumps are that solid. And, to be honest, her presentation is equal, if not superior to Xenia's."
And, Bex mumbled to herself, don't forget the "perky" mark. Erin Simpson could easily outscore anyone, anyone at all, on that all-important, "perky" mark.
Bex guessed that "perky" kind of came naturally when you were nineteen years old, but barely an inch over five feet tall. No hips, no breasts, no body fat. With those dimensions, Erin was hardly a candidate for a "sultry" performance, or even "non-pedophilia-inspiring". Perky was all she had. A huge, huge, huge smile, cosmetically twinkling lids beneath blue eye-shadow, a sprinkling of freckles across her pert, little nose, and a blonde, bouncy pony-tail. Adorable.
If you were twelve.
To Bex, this umpteenth case of arrested development actually looked kind of creepy. Sure, Erin Simpson may have been a four time U.S. Champion with over a million dollars worth of endorsement deals, her own television special, and an official website, "Erin Excitement!" but would a college guy want to date a Girl Scout?
Granted, at the World Championship, dating wasn't really an issue. It wasn't even about looking attractive, although Bex had heard enough people over the course of the season whisper that, "So-and-So should really get her teeth fixed if she expects that artistic mark to go up," and "So-and-so is going to get his nose fixed so it matches his partner in profile," to think that looks had nothing to do with final results.
But, the fact was, Erin Simpson looked the way skating liked its champions to look. Cute. Innocent. Wholesome. Erin at nineteen-going-on-twelve was much more the World Champion ideal than Xenia, who'd dyed her usually mousy brown hair an orange red that, to paraphrase Francis, truly never, ever grew out of a human head that color, and, for her costume, wore shredded black rags dripping from her arms like sludge.
In comparison, Erin's dress, a sparkly robin's egg blue with sequins across the bodice, lace trim around the skirt and puffy party-dress sleeves, was a blast of good taste and restraint.
Erin wasn't taking any chances with her look this year by trying something cutting edge or new. She knew the stars might never align so fortuitously again. Thanks to the serendipitous retirement of the defending gold medallist, this year was her first real, odds-on-favorite chance at a World Championship. Erin had finished third for the past two years in a row, both times behind Silver Medallist Xenia Trubin. For her part, Xenia had finished second for five years in a row.
These were two women, Bex knew, who both wanted the title very, very badly.
Prologue Chapter 1 - Part 1 Chapter 1 - Part 2