“Ivan, there are no warm-ups today. You must be ready from the start.”
He was lost in thought. I was not sure whether that was a totally good thing, but it was too late to change much.
We were first on and we could hear the cheers from outside. Our opponent was an Italian from the Berlin Hilton. He was good but beatable. The Swiss judge started the first semi and with the usual crash, bang, wallop, the contest was under way.
It was close: cup for cup, spoon for spoon as well as plates for coffee (I had picked up the local lingo fairly well). My mouth was dry, my heart in my socks and my eyes transfixed. As the final hurdle was drawing in, they finished together. I could not separate them.
The judge consulted the action replays, conferred with the organisers before declaring a dead-heat. Great relief all round, almost.
“What's the matter. You're not yourself today.”
“I tired.” was all he said.
“Good luck.” I stupidly said as he left for the re-match.
He turned and glared. I then realised that this stupid comment had thrown seeds of doubt, and in this part of the world can have various outcomes.
He finished miles behind. It was over. A fine journey had come to an end. I was full of remorse but as I looked up I noticed the judge staring at a rack.
There was a crack in a wine glass and, under WWU rules, the Italian had to be disqualified. We got through on a technicality but we were through.
Perhaps luck played a part but on the other hand I have 4 fingers and a thumb. The American sailed through without drawing breath; awesome efficiency. In my mind I had settled for second place but could not let it show.
During 3rd and 4th play-off, Ivan sat on his own, in a trance, not speaking, not listening, not even sweating. He stared into his cupped hand. I did not interfere. He had that look again.
The judge called the 2 finalists together for a photo shoot next to a famous washing up liquid. We could have done without the flashing lights breaking the tranquillity. The public relations monster is a hungry being, after all, this event was not about competition.
“Your boy's not going to win now, is he? There's $500 if the result goes right.”
When the pepperoni had finished Ivan walked towards me and I remembered where I had seen that look, even before he handed me his most prized possession.
“You take please, Bob.” he said as he kissed the photo.
The resemblance was not so much a likeness but a re-incarnation. I turned the photo over and noticed the dates on the back. His grandfather had died a year ago to the day. I needed to be cool for 5 minutes more. We looked at one another for the last time as non-world champions. I knew we could not lose.
The crowd was at fever pitch, screaming, shouting, stamping in complete contrast to the normally sedate Hilton. For me, the final was an anti-climax; it was a mere formality. I could not even bother to watch. I tried to place a bet at 3 to 1, but the door was closed.
I looked at the photo for the last time as Ivan had mullered his opponent and held the last plate for coffee above his head. “No!” I thought as it rolled along his arm onto the rack and a new world champion was crowned.
In a cacophony of hysteria the American held out his hand to the winner by 1 glass, 3 forks and 2 plates for coffee.
I threw my arms round him.
“You did it. You did it.”
“No, we did it.”
I was not sure if he included me in that. I handed back his sole memento, he kissed it and said, “Now we are one.”
“He would have been so proud of you.”
“And you too.” That was a fantastic compliment.
“You're not working?” was the stupidest question I have ever asked. He left by the back door and I was left to face the swarming masses.
The glory and adulation were second-hand, but the Champagne was real and free. I was determined to have my fair share.
Surprisingly, the organiser was delighted as Ivan's win had generated more publicity than anyone could have imagined. It opened doors for the sponsors, not only in Israel, but more importantly, Russia.
I accepted the medal on Ivan's behalf and David gave it pride of place next to the poster of James Dean. There were queues around the block for the next 2 weeks. This meant prices increased, but not wages, of course.
I partied to dawn and, with head still spinning, I staggered to the Terminal. Joseph was at the bar drinking beer and so was Ivan.
“Bob, we don't need you this week, maybe next.”
A relative of Joseph had arrived and was taking my job. All I had was a verbal contract which was not worth the paper it was written on.
I bid a genuine goodbye to Joseph who was, after-all, just a product of the system. I shook his hand.
I hugged Ivan. I had never met a world champ before. I pointed to the floor. “What's dis?”
“Cigarette butt.” he roared with laughter.
As I walked away I felt pleased Ivan had changed. I hoped it would last.
I never told him about the $500. It was a lot of money. It could have fed his mother for a year or bought a headstone for his grandfather. I hope I did the right thing.