Authors: Rebecca Barber
James was in the pool early. He dived in and started lapping at five that morning. He was confident that he could win his races but it was the sitting in his room, not doing anything that was driving him crazy. Sitting alone in silence, revisiting that stupid fight with Anna, James had to do something physical to distract himself. Now as he lapped up and down, he realised it wasn’t working. Anna invaded his thoughts no matter where he went or what he was doing.
Ian wandered down a little after six. With a combination of awe and envy in his eyes, Ian watched as James pushed harder and faster than ever. With a little over five hours before he went head to head with the world’s best, he looked like he was doing his best to tire himself out now. As James approached the end of the lane, Ian tapped him on the shoulder. “Mate, what are you doing? Take it easy. The races aren’t until later.” Ian laughed, trying to make James smile. It was obvious to anyone that something was wrong. Really wrong.
“I’m good. I just thought I could do with the extra training.” James’s attempt to lie was a pathetic one and he knew it.
“Are you fucking serious? In all your races you are at least one second ahead of everyone and in one race you are five seconds clear. You don’t need the extra training. What you do need to do is apologise to that fiancée of yours before it’s too late.” Ian smirked cheekily.
“You know?” James asked. Ian just nodded and handed James a towel. James was already running across the pool deck when he turned and called out his thanks.
When he reached his hotel room, Joel was already sitting on his bed waiting. With a smile bigger than the cat that ate the canary, Joel couldn’t stifle a laugh as James ran straight past him and dived head first into the shower. Joel continued to chuckle as James broke yet another world record for the fastest man ever to shower and dress. When he emerged barely moments later he had only four hours before his races started, yet for some reason this didn’t seem important anymore. Nothing was as important as finding Anna. Within minutes he had jumped in a taxi and raced across town towards Anna.
James sprang from the car and took the stairs two at a time. He met his mother on the landing about halfway up. James nearly knocked her off her feet as he came rushing around the corner.
“James! What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Diana asked, attempting to avert her son’s attention.
“Mum, where is she?” James pleaded.
“James, come sit down and I’ll order you a coffee,” Diana begged.
“Mum!” James shouted. “Which one is Anna’s room? Please,” he begged, dragging his hands through his hair.
“It was room twenty-six.”
“What the hell do you mean it ‘was’? Where is she? What the fuck is going on?” James boomed, his voice a mixture of rage and fear. He was running out of time and now his own mother was playing tricks on him.
“James, sweetheart. Anna left early this morning. She has checked out. Without a word, she’s gone. Your father has been out looking for her all morning but we have no idea even where to start.” Diana watched her son closely. His eyes filled with tears as the realisation set in. James’s heart broke as he sunk to his knees.
It took him a few minutes to pull himself together before he ran back down the stairs and out the door. James didn’t know where to start looking for her, but he knew that she would head for home. And James knew he had to stop her before she got that far. He caught a taxi back to the restaurant where they had dined last night. From there he planned to retrace the exact steps that she had led him down last night. Maybe she had gone there? But what if she wasn’t? Where else could she be? He reached the restaurant and there was no sign of her. James recognised the face of the waitress who had been flirting with him and with a fake smile he turned and walked inside. He begged her for help. She finally gave in and told him that Anna had walked past only half an hour ago. Finally, he had something he could work with. It mightn’t be much but right now he was clinging to straws and that would have to be enough.
Running down the street, across the snow-covered grass in the park, James’s runners crackled on the frozen grass. The air was crisp and clean, the breeze stinging James’s eyes as he willed himself to run faster and further. He searched for any sign of her. His lungs began to ache from the gasps of frigid air he was sucking in. He knew this was a less than ideal preparation for tonight’s final but Anna was too important to care about anything else. He stopped to catch his breath and slumped over, hands on his knees. It was then that he had found it. The sign that he had been praying for. It was the crucifix off Anna’s chain that hung around her neck. James picked up the tiny silver cross and looked around, his eyes searching. His heart told him that she couldn’t be too far away. With renewed energy, James began to run again.
Anna stood motionless outside a toy store, completely captivated by the window display. The gasp caught in Anna’s throat as she took it all in. Wooden train sets, porcelain dolls, the softest teddy bears, bats, and balls, and Barbies all lined the shelves in perfect harmony. Inside she saw a little girl hugging her father’s leg, begging for all the toys she could get her hands on. It reminded Anna of her own father. When Anna was little her dad would take her shopping and buy her toys and clothes and chocolates. Now even in her adult years she still remained as close as ever to her father. Anna had this hidden ability to get anything she wanted from him.
Anna shuffled down the pavement slowly. The soft, fluffy snowflakes were filling her hair while her eyes sparkled with all the hope and joy that she had just seen in that little girl’s eye.
Maybe I’ll go home and spend some time with Mum and Dad
, Anna thought miserably. She had nothing else to do. The only thing she had planned for when she returned was a wedding. A wedding that she now needed to cancel. Anna’s fingertips were beginning to freeze and she decided that a cup of coffee would warm her before she headed for the airport.
Anna strolled into a small, cosy café dragging her heavy suitcase along behind her. After ordering her coffee and a cinnamon scroll, she sat down in a booth looking out the window. The snow was falling harder now and had begun to pile up on the windowsill. The busy streets were filling with shoppers; the roads were becoming congested with the early morning traffic. Anna sat in silence, watching the people in the outside world continue with their busy lives without a care in the world.
“You all right, Miss?” a young man asked, refilling her cup.
“Sorry. I beg your pardon?” Anna had been brought back from wherever it was that her imagination had taken her.
“You sure that you’re okay?” He smiled at her. He was a handsome young man, even in his black shirt, matching pants and red apron that hung low on his hips. Anna guessed he would have been in his late thirties or early forties.
“Yes, thank you.” Anna forced a smile.
“Let me guess,” he said, as he slid into the other side of the booth. “You’ve just had your heartbroken or you’ve just broken someone’s heart.” His eyes glowed with truth and genuine concern.
“Something like that,” Anna spluttered. “I don’t think he’s even realised that I’m gone.” A single tear escaped and trickled over Anna’s cheek.
“I’m sure he does. My guess is he’s out there somewhere searching for you this very moment.” He smiled at her. “You’re Australian, aren’t you?”
“Yes. How did you guess?” Anna’s mood began to lighten.
“Your accent. I like it. I’m William. How do you do, Miss…”
“It’s very nice to meet you, William. I’m Anna. Anna White.” She smiled warmly, placing her hand in his. Anna was quickly flustered as he dropped a quick kiss on her knuckles instead of the expected hand shake. This man was old enough to be her father yet he was giving her butterflies in her stomach.
“So tell me, what’s Australia like?” he asked. For the next forty-five minutes they sat chatting like they were the oldest and dearest friends. He asked about the wildlife and the geography, history and food all while carefully avoiding anything personal. In turn, Anna asked him all about England and congratulated him on everything she had already experienced.
“So, Anna. You speak about Australia with such passion; it’s as if part of your country and culture in somehow embedded into who you are. So, tell me then why are you in England? You make Australia sound so incredible, I can’t understand why anyone would ever want to leave.” His honesty was a trait which Anna admired.
“I’m here with my fiancé. But me being here, turns out it was a mistake. So I’m on my way home.” Anna’s upbeat and cheery mood quickly dissipated, as she unconsciously started fidgeting with her engagement ring.
“Why is he in England? That is, if you don’t mind me asking.” This guy was good. He had cheered Anna up and was now trying to make her see sense. Running away was not the answer.
“He came to swim,” Anna answered flatly.
“Oh, a swimmer?” Anna just nodded. “Which one is he? I take it he swims for Australia?” William asked politely.
“James Thompson,” she answered nervously. Her heart broke again as his name fell from her lips.
“You mean that gorgeous young man standing out there in the cold and snow? The one whose eyes haven’t left you?” William asked, pointing to where James was standing.
Anna looked up and saw him. He looked as incredible as he always did. James gave her a small tight smile before heading for the door. Anna turned around to thank William for making her see sense, but he was gone. Anna smiled to herself as she stood up and watched James waltz through the door. People in the café instantly recognised him. James grinned at them as if he didn’t have a care in the world as he approached Anna’s table. Without exchanging a word, they fell into each other’s arms. The customers in the café cheered and clapped as Anna blushed from head to toe. She could see everyone’s gaze following their every move.
As much as she didn’t want to let go, reluctantly, she did. James looked at his watch, he had just less than an hour before his first race. Anna knew what he was thinking and nodded her agreement. James grabbed her suitcase in one hand and took Anna’s in the other and stepped out onto the street. Hesitating, Anna raced back inside, straight to the counter where William appeared. Anna leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you said.”
“Anytime, Aussie. Anytime.” William smirked and with that Anna rushed back to James’s side.
The taxi ride was silent. James sat with an arm tightly around Anna’s shoulders, his eyes closed, breathing steadily. Anna was so relieved to be back in the comfort and safety of James’s strong arms. They both knew everything had changed but neither wanted to acknowledge it. James and Anna both hoped that if they ignored it long enough, then it would simply go away and everything would go back to the way it was. It was every child’s false hope, and one Anna shared.
James and Anna ran up the stairs to his hotel room. He was running out of time. Joel would kill him if he failed to show up. He threw Anna’s suitcase onto his bed. By the time Anna caught up with him, he was already stuffing his swimming gear into his bag. “We really need to talk, but I have to be at the pool in ten minutes. Can we do it after the finals tonight? I’m really sorry but there’s just no time,” James apologised, dropping everything and wrapping his arms firmly around her waist.
“Tonight will be good,” Anna reassured him.
“Promise you’ll be at my races. I can’t do this without you.” He looked deep into her eyes, pinning her.
“Promise.” Anna kissed the end of his nose lightly. “Now go, you’ll be late.”
Diana and Michael had been at the pool for over an hour and were becoming increasingly concerned. Where was James? Why wasn’t he here yet? What could he be doing? Joel had worked himself into a frenzy. Michael had spent the early part of the morning searching for Anna but had come up empty-handed. He had his suspicions that James was still out doing the same but he had no proof. Michael held a not so secret desire for his son to find Anna rather than turn up to swim without her.
James ran through the doors and crashed straight into Joel almost knocking him on his arse. After helping him up, James scurried into the change rooms. Joel looked up into the stands to where Diana and Michael were sitting and nodded silently. They all knew what that meant. James had arrived and everything was going to be okay.
A few moments later, after having received her official accreditation pass, Anna clambered into the stands and sat down next to Michael. “Hi,” she cooed sweetly. She didn’t know how they would react to seeing her after everything she had put them through in the last twenty-four hours.
“Thank God he found you,” Michael said, letting out a sigh of relief. He stood up and gave Anna a huge hug. Just then James appeared on pool deck and shot his father a disapproving look.
“Hey! Hands off,” James called to his father. Both men’s face broke out in wide smile. Diana stood and gave Anna a hug before they all took their seats waiting for the first race to start.
“Would you please welcome the competitors in the first race in the Manchester 2001 World Championships? The men’s four hundred metre freestyle. In lane one, representing America, Bronson Smith. In lane two, Charles Clancy, representing Britain. In lane three, Kenneth Brennan, representing South Africa. In lane four, representing Australia, James Thompson. In lane five, Jiro Takashi, representing Japan. In lane six, Ian Gray, representing Australia. In lane seven, Giovanni Van Bronkhurst, representing the Netherlands. And in lane eight, Pedro Sosa, representing Brazil,” a sultry voice boomed over the microphone system.