Spectators, sporting dumbfounded expressions, straddled the course as he approached his destination. He gestured wildly and screamed at them to get out of his path, as he weaved this way and that, amazed that he was still upright and not at all sure how much longer he could maintain his vertical status. The speed, coupled with the high altitude and thin air, had a giddying effect.
'Where the hell are the brakes on these things?' he wondered desperately, as he rapidly ran out of road – and options.
In the absence of any experience or training in the skills of skiing to call upon, he resorted to what he did know – applying his knowledge of physical laws such as gravity and momentum and cause and effect. He shifted his body weight to counter the downward thrust, and so decelerate. Then he twisted sideways, trying to make his skis bite into the snow, to grip the mountain, at the same time digging in with his poles.
It almost worked.
But his timing was just a little off. He struck the last marker with the tip of his left ski and it flipped him off balance, sending him reeling, rolling over and over until he finally came to rest sprawled face down in a jumble of limbs and skis.
For a long moment he lay still.
Trying to work out which way was up.
Digging his fingers in and grabbing fistfuls of snow as if to confirm that he was really grounded at last. The roller-coaster ride was over, and all he had to do now was wait for his stomach to catch up with the rest of him. As far as he could tell, he'd left it somewhere halfway up the mountain.
He felt like the Pope, kissing the tarmac of some foreign airport runway.
He heard the race commentator announce loudly to all:
"Skier 25 is down. Skier 25 is down. Clear the course, please."
Then Sam began checking himself over bit-by-bit, moving each joint tentatively a fraction at a time, to see if he had sustained any injury. He felt certain that he ought to have done. He found himself parodying a famous ditty under his breath as each part of his frame checked out okay:
"The toe bone's still connected to the foot bone, the foot bone's still connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone's still connected to the …"
While he was thus engaged, a crowd was gathering around him, also wondering if he was hurt, and if so, how badly. Two young men in similar garb to his own bent down and cautiously detached his skis from his boots, then divested him of his gloves and slipped the loops of his pole straps gently over his wrists, removing the encumbrances. A third relieved him of his hat and goggles.
Several voices bombarded him with questions:
- "Are you all right, pal?"
- "Where does it hurt?"
- "Can you feel your feet?"
- "Do you need any help?"
His bemused expression must have been further cause for concern.
Sam allowed them to help him turn over and sit up, dusting the powdery snow off his clothes. He nodded to one; a thumbs up to a second; "no bones broken, thanks." to another.
His detailed self-examination revealed that he had nothing more to show for his tumble than a couple of superficial bruises and a twisted wrist that was unlikely to trouble him for long. The gravest wound had been to his dignity. His guardian angel was evidently working overtime again.
At this point an older man, around mid-thirties Sam judged, joined the group, bending over him. Unlike the others, his face was not registering concern. He was glowering. He too was dressed in ski pants, but he had on a black parka instead of the sweater and white bib which constituted the standard uniform.
Hank Montgomery was tall and imposing. Not exactly a giant as such, but he had a presence about him. His bearing commanded respect. You didn't argue with this guy unless you were very sure of your facts. Sam wasn't sure of anything at all as yet. As the fair, bearded head leant forward over him – invading his personal space – Sam found himself retreating, and ended up lying back again, propped up on his elbows.
'What now?' he wondered. 'What have I got into this time?'
The intimidating man launched into a tirade:
"Who in the hell do you think you are, pulling a crazy stunt like that? What did you think you were playing at? Your name's not Mad Dog Buek, you know!"
'Isn't it?' thought Sam. 'That's a lot of help. Now try telling me something else I don't know, like what on earth my name is.'
Montgomery was still railing at him:
"Haven't you learnt anything at all? Don't you ever listen? You don't ever take unnecessary risks like that, you hear me?"
Sam nodded, head bowed meekly, looking contrite. Although from where he was sitting, any risks he may or may not have taken had been extremely necessary ones.
"Have I just been wasting my time on you these past couple of years, B-J?" Hank snorted, "Lan' sakes, you came down that hill like you'd never set foot on a pair of skis in your life before. No style, no form, no control. A complete novice." He made a dismissive gesture with his arms, completely exasperated.
'You noticed?' thought Sam, 'How very perceptive of you.'
"I s'pose you realise you've blown any chance you may have had of making the team?" the guru berated him.
'Thank God for that!' thought Sam, still amazed that he'd survived his recent adventure more or less unscathed. Aloud, he muttered a humble "Sorry, Coach." hazarding an inspired guess as to who it was giving him a hard time. "I completely lost it back there. My mind went totally blank. I don't know what came over me. I must have looked a real klutz, but I wasn't goofing around, honest." As usual, this Leap hadn't gotten off to a very good start.
His sincerity must have sounded convincing. The tall man backed off a little, both verbally and physically.
"You ain't sick, are ya, B-J?" Coach Montgomery's tone mellowed considerably. Now, he looked concerned. "I guess I have been pushing you kinda hard lately." He paused, and then looked at Sam as if for the first time. "Did ya hurt yourself?"
Sam looked at all the proficient skiers around him, and the peak of the mountain towering up to the sky and looming menacingly over him. He was in no hurry to go for an encore, so he decided it would be prudent to be economical with the truth.
"Nothing serious, but I think I might have sprained my wrist." He held it supportively in the palm of his other hand and gave an exaggerated wince for effect as the Coach took a look at his 'injury'. That should be enough to keep his options open 'til he found out what he had to do. Maybe it would at least buy him some time.
Suddenly, a young girl pushed her way through the crowd which still hemmed him in, and threw herself on top of him, sobbing. She looked to be about 16 years old, and was slight of frame, but she still managed to knock the wind out of him, crushing him in a bear hug as she smothered him in kisses.
She had a round baby-face, pale complexion, contrasting with her thick ginger hair – tied in bunches high on each side of her head – and mass of freckles. Her eyes were the clearest, brightest green. She had delicate features; a button nose, small mouth, dimpled cheeks, a very pert expression.
'Cute kid, but a bit intense' thought Sam, as he tried to catch his breath between her frantic kisses. He was piecing together clues about 'himself' too. He now guessed that this skier he'd become – what had the Coach called him? Beejay? What sort of a name was that? – was also a teenager, and almost certainly this ebullient girl's boyfriend. Definitely not her brother, that was for sure, not judging by the passion of her embrace. Hopefully, her adoration meant that he was not some geeky kid with terminal acne.
She was professing her love for him now, gushingly, repeatedly, between hugs and yet more kisses.
"Oh, Bobby-Joe, I love you, I love you, I love you …."
Sam was both embarrassed and uncomfortable, unable to disengage himself and get up, barely able to breathe.
"You can't die, Bobby-Joe, you just can't. I love you. Please tell me he's not gonna die, Hank. I can't bear it." She looked petrified. She sounded very melodramatic. Why would he be dying? It hadn't been that spectacular a fall had it?
Hank pulled her off at last, firm hands taking her by the elbows and bringing her to her feet.
"He's not gonna die, Becky-Lou," he assured her firmly, "He's okay."
"Honest? You're sure? Bobby-Joe? Please tell me you're alright?" She turned her attention back to Sam, who was still trying to get his breath back from her onslaught of affection.
He smiled reassuringly and rose shakily to his feet – being careful not to put any weight on his 'sprained' wrist – Leaping had, by virtue of necessity, turned him into quite an accomplished actor. To prove he wasn't in imminent danger of expiring, he moved forward and tried to put a soothing arm around her shoulder.
"Still in one piece, see? You don't get rid of me that easy, Becky-Lou." He joked, trying to laugh her out of her fears.
It didn't exactly have the desired effect.
She pushed his arm away and spun round to face him full on, slapping him hard on the cheek.
Sam gasped and recoiled, his eyes wide, as much in shocked surprise as in response to the stinging pain. He felt the blood rush to the surface, sending him crimson, and when he put his hand up to rub his face; it felt hot to the touch.
"Hey, what was that for?" he asked in all innocence.
She hadn't finished with him yet. As he backed off, she stepped closer, raising both hands this time. He thought she intended to hug him again, and was about to reciprocate when she began pummelling his chest, stamping her feet petulantly and shaking her head. She shrieked at him:
"I hate you, Bobby-Joe Parnell, do you hear me? I hate you. I hate you. I hate you." Each word was punctuated with a hammering of her fists. He raised his 'good' hand and caught her clenched fist mid-blow, restraining her gently but firmly. For such a petite young woman, she packed quite a wallop.
"Honey, what's wrong? What'd I do?" his bewilderment was genuine. Becky-Lou's emotions certainly ran high; her attitude to him was ambivalent in the extreme. She was snivelling now, but still angry.
"How could you? You insensitive brute! I hate you. How dare you worry me like that? It was a beastly thing to do, letting me think that you'd been badly hurt, too."
'Too?' thought Sam, looking around, 'who else is hurt?' Aloud he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean …" he tried to put a comforting arm round her again.
She interrupted him, twisting out of his reach.
"Don't you touch me, you hear? Leave me alone, Bobby-Joe. I don't ever want to see you again." She was wearing an eternity ring and a St Christopher medallion together on a dainty gold chain around her neck. As she spoke she grabbed them both in her hand and yanked hard on the chain so that it broke. Then she flung them in Sam's face, turned on her heels and stormed off, sobbing her heart out.
Sam moved to follow her, distressed by her distress, but Coach Montgomery put out a hand to stop him. Then, confusingly, he heard two voices telling him:
"Let her go, B-J."
"Let her go, Sam."
Al had arrived.