A Friend in Need

Malmo, Sweden, January 2003

After a series of exhausting but successful national events, the 2003 European Championships had started out feeling a bit… anticlimactic. At least that was how Malcolm Redgrave felt at noon on his first full day in Sweden, as he left a long morning of practice sessions to go in search of a decent cup of tea.

He was pleased with his students; Kay looked as sharp as ever, and Simon was… well… Simon. And then there was Evgeny—his surprising new charge was skating better than he had in a very long time. Even if it was only psychological, his change of coaches appeared to be having quite an effect on him.

Near the front entrance of the venue, a short, trim middle-aged man in a grey coat was consulting a sheet of practice schedules. Malcolm did a double take on his way to the doors, and stopped in his tracks.

"Alex!"

Alexander Chevalier, former British men’s skater, looked up from his handful of papers with an expression of amazed pleasure. "Why, Master Redgrave!"

Striding forward eagerly, Malcolm shook Alex’s hand in both of his. "Well, well… Alexander the Great. It’s been years. What are you doing here?"

"Oh, a job for EuroSport as an ‘analyst’—dreadful word, that. Sounds like some dotty professor in a lab full of beakers and phials." Alex chuckled. "And I suppose you’re here with your students. I’ve been following your career with a great deal of interest."

"I have three students here," Malcolm affirmed. "I was just going off to see if I couldn’t find a cup of tea. You’ll join me, won’t you?"

"Of course."

"Good." Malcolm turned, beginning to walk at his usual brisk pace, but he was stopped by Alex’s slightly pained voice. "Lord, but you do rush about! Wait a moment…"

Malcolm looked back, and watched with a sinking heart as Alex slowly came after him. His junior by a few years, the one-time European medalist walked with a stiff right leg and a noticeable limp, and had produced a cane from somewhere within the folds of his coat.

An auto accident had made a ruin of the man’s right knee many years before. Malcolm hadn’t forgotten that fact—he’d even visited with Alex in the hospital shortly afterward—but he had never realized, or been told, the permanence of the damage.

"I’m sorry," Malcolm said contritely. "I didn’t think…"

"Oh, don’t be sentimental, Mal. That’s one thing I can’t abide." Alex smiled and waved a dismissive hand. "I get along perfectly well without this thing—" with that he gave the cane a slight upward toss and caught it again—"which really isn’t much more than ornamental. Anyway, I never had the chance to thank you properly for visiting after my little smash-up. It was quite a lot to do, coming all the way from America, and just when you’d made your big break in the coaching business."

Malcolm smiled and started to walk slowly, remembering the days Alex had spent at his side after the death of his beloved Margaret. "I was just doing what was done for me once."

"It still meant a great deal." Alex walked beside him, and though the limp was distinct, he did not seem to be uncomfortable. "I can’t tell you how much I admire what you’ve made of your career."

"I’ve been fortunate," Malcolm replied humbly, and cast a glance at Alex. "I tried to follow your career after the accident, but it seemed you’d dropped off the face of the earth."

"Might as well have. For six years before I took to small-time coaching, the British federation had me filed away in the heart of their inner workings." Alex made a wry face. "Oh, make no mistake. It was remarkably good of them to give me the work, and I was very well taken care of. Much better than an also-ran like me deserved, I’m sure."

Malcolm shook his head. "You were never that, Alex. Your skating was excellent. In fact, I happen to think you were underappreciated."

Alex flushed slightly. "Don’t flatter me, Mal, or I’ll get a swollen head. My wife thinks it’s big enough as it is."

"How is Tess?"

Another wry grin greeted the question. "Ask me how Roberta is—that I can answer."

"Oh, dear. You’ve remarried again?"

"Yes, and collected two more daughters into the bargain—Roberta’s, from her own prior marriage. Sandra and Denise are angels, even if they are teenagers. At any rate, they say the third time’s the charm, and just now I think it might be true." Alex shrugged and smiled. "But I do hope my matrimonial turbulence wasn’t contagious. I understand Tom’s marriage went south, as well."

"At least Tom hasn’t worn out the carpet in trips down the aisle," Malcolm smiled teasingly. "He coaches at my rink now, you know."

"Yes, every skater in the Isles seems to have migrated to Minnesota. And perhaps it’s not such a bad idea. The real talent simply doesn’t stay in England these days… and I suppose I ought to follow, if I ever want to work with anything above the novice level."

Malcolm arched an eyebrow. "Are you interested?"

"I’ll let you know," Alex replied with a smile.

 

Eventually, the two former competitors settled down on a bench near a concessions area, sipping the weak tea they had managed to roust up. His right leg carefully stretched out and his allegedly non-essential cane propped beside him, Alex breathed a sigh of thoughtful amusement.

"It’s funny, a pair of old war-horses like us, meeting like this. It’s been too long. There’s not a day when I don’t think of how it was all those years ago."

"Mmm." Malcolm smiled. "You remember Nationals in 1975? That was the best of times—you and Tom and I, there on the podium together."

Alex nodded slowly. "I enjoyed that night even more than my bronze medal at Europeans. The two of you were such a pleasure to be around. I was out of my league, but you were both very generous to me."

"You were not, Alex. You were where you belonged… at least when it came to skating." Malcolm paused, feeling rueful. "Tom and I should have kept you closer."

After a long moment of silence, Alex merely shrugged and changed the subject. "Do you still skate often?"

"Well, I’m on the ice as much as any coach."

"No, Mal. That’s not it. What I meant was, do you still… skate. Just for the joy of it—just to feel the ice beneath you, and be in your element again."

Malcolm smiled ruefully. "Not as often as I should."

"I do still skate, you know. Oh, there’s very little I can do, but…" Alex’s gaze shifted thoughtfully toward the distance, the fingers of his right hand drumming carelessly against his disabled knee. "But when I’m on the ice… I’m not crippled then. Not graceless and self-conscious."

He flushed suddenly and turned away, taking a sip of his tea. "Now I’m just talking silly."

"No. I remember." Malcolm shook his head quietly. "The ice just… doesn’t feel the way it should, without Margaret in my life."

"I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk so much." Alex heaved a sigh and folded his arms, pushing the conversation in another new direction. "How is life at Ambrose? I can’t imagine what it takes to manage such a prestigious rink."

"I can’t deny I’ve been busy. Especially in the past few weeks—with my students having such a good run of national championships, I’m in more demand now than I even was after the Olympics." Malcolm sighed. "The ruddy paperwork is the only trouble. It’s getting harder to spend all evening at a desk after a long day on the ice."

"It sounds to me like what you need is an assistant."

"I must admit, I’ve given it some thought."

Alex grinned, an expression just short of a smirk. "You need someone who has experience in both coaching and administration."

"I would imagine so."

"Someone dedicated, but with a sense of humor. Someone who admires your leadership."

"Hmmm…"

"Someone you’ve known for years, and can rely on."

"Yes. That does sound like just the sort of fellow." Malcolm turned slowly to Alex, the corners of his mouth turning up in a wry smile. "But until Eric Lansing ends his skating career, I suppose you’d do."

It was a well-calculated answer. There sat Alex, the picture of innocence, prepared to put on a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek "little old me?" act—but instead, he was left speechless. He blinked in bemusement, then uttered an abrupt laugh.

"If you can provide your own comedy as well as that, I’m not so sure you need me. After all, I’m really not much good for anything else!"

"Oh, Alex, you can’t seriously want to play second fiddle to me." Malcolm sobered. "You should be coaching good skaters—not stranded behind a desk."

"If you can do both, then so can I," Alex retorted. "At least it’d be a start. Besides, how do you know I’m not bucking for your job?"

"You never were the ambitious type."

The younger coach pulled a face and made a dagger-to-the-heart gesture that set them both to chuckling. As they quieted, Alex gazed at Malcolm with warmth and sincerity.

"Really, Mal. My career has gone nowhere. I’d much rather make myself useful in someplace that’ll interest me, instead of doing absolutely nothing worthwhile, as I am now."

Lost for words, Malcolm could only shrug and smile idiotically. "Whatever will your wife say?"

"Are you kidding? Roberta and the girls could be packed up and waiting at the door by the time I get back to London—they’re American, you know. Not that they haven’t found our country charming, but they’ve certainly missed their haphazard American culture." Alex smiled, then sobered. "Of course, it would mean being away from Jeanette, but she’s a grown lady now."

"I don’t own the rink, Alex. I think they would, but you know I can’t guarantee the board of directors would accept my taking you on."

"Nothing in life is guaranteed," Alex replied philosophically, oddly reminding Malcolm of himself for a brief moment. "I’ve said my piece, Mal."

For a long moment Malcolm sat in thought. At last he smiled, turning to Alex and extending his hand. "I have a feeling I’m making a deal with the devil."

Returning the smile, Alex accepted the handshake. "More like a somewhat naughty angel whose wings got clipped."

 It was a remark that gave Malcolm pause, and he looked at his friend closely. Alex was surely unaware of how fitting a self-description it was.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Oh… It’s nothing." Malcolm shook his head and grinned. "I was only thinking how lucky I am, to always fall in with just the right person at the right time."

"Piffle. I’ve been scheming this for months. I only had to wait two hours by the entrance to accidentally run into you." Alex’s tone was perfectly facetious, yet as always with him, there was something that made one wonder whether he was joking or not. After levering himself to his feet with his cane, he put a hand on Malcolm’s shoulder. "I’m going to call Roberta. We can work out all the details over supper."

Inclining his head as Alex limped away, Malcolm wondered which of them would get the better part of their bargain—and whether that really mattered at all.

© 2003 Jordanna Morgan