The Branwell High Year Nine Olympics
Photograph by Tim Smyth, Story by Max Sydney Smith
I didn’t like Branwell but I wasn’t going to ask Dad to move again. Not after Mum left and we had already moved from London.
People at school weren’t exactly friendly. Everyone was starting to drink and smoke on the weekend and hang out with boys at the mall and Rosie Parker had got to second base twice. I had a few friends – I wasn’t a complete loser - but I was never invited to things.
Alex was the friend I was proudest of. She was invited to everything but she still had time to hang out with me. She lived on the same road and we took the bus home together, so perhaps that was why.
The time I’m thinking about we were sitting on my bed playing the Branwell High Year Nine Olympics. This was a game I invented where one person chose a category and the other picked someone from our year to compete in it. I chose the category: holding your breath underwater.
'Stevie Jones,’ Alex said, without looking up from her phone.
'Yeah,’ I snorted. Stevie would totally have been a jock in an American high school.
The thing I liked about the game was the way I could imagine myself as a coach and the rest of Year Nine as my team. I pictured us in the changing rooms before the event, Stevie in his swim shorts and us in our branded Branwell High Year Nine Olympics leggings, holding small gym towels and energy drinks. We can hear the din of the crowd from the stadium and the click and shutter of cameras from global television networks. Stevie looks exceptionally pale. Alex is trying to encourage him but he is not listening.
I slap him in the face. ‘Stevie,’ I say, ‘I believe in you.’
I see the belief spill through his eyes. I am that kind of coach. Coach Mimi. I believe in everyone and I make them believe in themselves.
‘Stevie’s going to Rosie Parker’s party.’ Alex sighed. She ran her thumb down her phone.
‘It’s starting now.’
I stared out the window. The light was beginning to pale. It was a stupid time to have a party.
It was Alex’s turn to think of a category but she didn’t say anything.
We sat for a long time in silence. Alex scrolled through her phone and I stared out the window. Things weren’t working out as I had imagined they would. For years I had planned all the exciting stuff I would do when I was a teenager: like be on TV, or swim with dolphins, or have a boyfriend who looked like Edward Cullen. But none of these things had happened and now it was Friday night and I was fourteen and all I had was Alex who didn’t even want to be here. The sky was grey. I felt small, so small I thought I might disappear completely.
That’s when I said, ‘I think I would choose you for eating crackers.’
Alex looked up. ‘That’s not a category.’
‘It is. Like there’s a world record for who can eat the most crackers in one minute.’
She looked it up on the internet. It was true. ‘That’s gross I wouldn’t do that.’
‘You could though.’
‘Can you have water?’
We watched the video again. Twelve saltine crackers. That was the world record. She bit her lip. ‘I can do this.’
We changed into leggings and went into the kitchen. Alex untied and retied her hair so it wasn’t in her face and I set the timer on my phone and poured four pints of water in case of emergency. We laid out the crackers. Twenty of them. The world record was twelve. I checked Alex was ready and hit start.
Alex picked up two crackers, shoved them in her mouth with a spray of crumbs and pushed the last bits in with the flat of her hand. She was really going for it.
The mechanical crunch of her teeth and thick doughy chewing noises made me realise how quiet it was.
‘Come on Alex, come on!’ I shouted, as if there were long rows of contestants pushing saltine crackers into their mouths while their coaches yelled over the sound of the packed stadium.
She finished the first two and then two more and started on her fifth and sixth crackers, but they took longer. She kept glancing furtively at the emergency waters.
‘Don’t doubt yourself!’ I shouted. ‘You got this!’ And I beat my fists on the sideboard, which felt good because it was just the kind of thing Coach Mimi would do.
She was on her sixth set of two crackers when her eyes started to bulge and her head started twitching weirdly. It was a few seconds before I realised she was trying to ask me how much time was left.
‘Loadsa time!’ I cried.
This was not true. But it was the kind of lie Coach Mimi told all the time because it was a lie that enabled others to fulfil their potential and realise their dreams. And it was probably that lie which pushed Alex to snatch one more, thirteenth, world record breaking cracker off the sideboard, chew, swallow and open her mouth triumphantly just as the timer beeped.
Years later when I came back from university for holidays with Dad, I would sit on my bed staring out the window as the light thinned. The world and all the people and things in it were moving too fast and I could not keep up. I was twenty one and I still had not been on TV, or swum with dolphins, or had a boyfriend who looked anything like Edward Cullen. But then I remembered how I had coached Alex to eat thirteen crackers in less than a minute and it made me feel calmer, even though that world record was actually beaten a couple of years ago by someone called Brent from Nappanee, Indiana.
Max Sydney Smith’s short stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines including The Stockholm Review, Structo, Open Pen, Shooter and Noon. His flash fiction pamphlet, 'Without Seeming to Care at All', will be published by Rough Trade Books in 2019 as part of the Rough Trade Editions series. He is currently working on a novel. He is represented by Imogen Pelham, at Marjacq literary agency.You can find him on twitter @maxsydneysmith
Tim Smyth’s work is held in several private collections as well as British Art Collection, Yale, Joan Flasch Collection (SAIC), Lafayette, MOMA, Tate Modern. Smyth contributes to publications such as BJP, FT Magazine, Elephant Magazine and The Guardian. His debut publication Defective Carrots, (Bemojake 2013) was shortlisted for the PhotoEspaña Photo Book of the Year Award and Best Books 2014: John Gossage - Photo-Eye. Follow him on instagram @timsmythphotography