A sign for a local roller derby match was all the prompting Helen Linehan (aka Helen Wheels) needed to revisit the wonder of her beloved rainbow skates, and embrace the joy of falling over on purpose.
My older brother had been desperate to own one of the first robots of the ‘80s. ‘Big Trak’. A technological breakthrough. The opportunity to have your very own personal robotic slave.
James was two years old so he totally wasted his chances of getting something cool and expensive and fell in love with a crappy stuffed elephant.
Among the Speak & Spells and Cabbage Patch Dolls, I heard a choir of angels sing as a dazzling light shone down to reveal a pair of blue suede roller skates. Yellow wheels, rainbows on the side.
I got them. I loved them.
While my brother delivered plates of ginger nuts to Mum on his Big Trak, I would be out skating. I’d play tag in them. Dare myself to careen down hills. Run up and down the stairs in them. Sleep in them. Outpace the unleashed, frothing dogs on our council estate.
Thirty-odd years later and I notice an ad in my gym. The local Roller Derby (RD) team ‘The Norfolk Brawds’ were having a game.
Before you could say “Whip-it”, I booked tickets and went along with my friend, Nina, to check it out.
Women of all ages, shapes and sizes bashing into each other in some sort of controlled manner while whizzing around a sports track on roller skates. Skating refs peeping their whistles and doing all kinds of cool signs with their arms.
I loved it.
For the entire afternoon Nina thought the digital clock on the sports hall wall was the scoreboard. She didn’t quite get it.
I had no idea of the rules but I knew I wanted to be part of this world and mainly have my own hilarious derby name which I set about composing immediately. ‘Felon Helen’, ‘Flash’, ‘The Flasher’, ‘Battered Skate’.
I signed up. My friend didn’t.
The ‘Fresh Meat’ train at Funky Monkey’s roller rink; £5 a session. Usually this place is darkly lit with Ed Sheeran booming out of the speakers while kids and adults, of wildly varying abilities, try desperately not to bump into the huddle of paramedics in the corner. Monday nights, the lights get turned up, the music turned off and the terrified RD virgins are directed to the mountains of kit to put on before entering the rink.
Helmet, wrist guards, knee pads and gaskets, shin and elbow pads. Every item smells like the armpits of a Top Gear producer.
“The correct posture or ‘Derby Stance’ is bluntly described: tits out, legs bent as though hovering over a festival toilet, pelvis tucked in, shoulders back.”
We also get skates. Funky Monkey skates. They still feel warm from the previous occupant.
I estimate that I wasn’t born when these skates were made.
“Best skates to learn on!” says Hell Lucy Nations. One of the coaches. She burps very loudly, like a hippo.
Myself and the other five fresh meat-ers wait for the coaches to check for chewing gum and slush puppy spillage on the wooden floor. I overhear that one coach (a nurse) has broken her foot and strapped it up herself. I watch her thundering about on her skates. These women are alarmingly tough.
We get the go ahead to skate on. We shuffle about like Dad’s Army on wheels. Dry mouths. Arms flailing as we lose balance. I thought it would all come flooding back to me, but I guess 30 years ago I hadn’t plopped out two kids.
“Look up, don’t stare at your feet”, is the first excellent advice. Synchronised like a doddery dance troupe, we all look up.
The correct posture or ‘Derby Stance’ is bluntly described: tits out, legs bent as though hovering over a festival toilet, pelvis tucked in, shoulders back.
“For the entire afternoon Nina thought the digital clock on the sports hall wall was the scoreboard. She didn’t quite get it.”
We learn to fall over. I don’t really fancy voluntarily falling over. The last time I fell over, I slipped on ice and fractured my coccyx. Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids) gave me cream for it, but that’s another story.
I was hoping to focus on the ‘staying upright’ element.
The coach demonstrates falling onto her knees and sliding like a rock guitarist. Hips forward.
Before I know it, I’m purposefully falling all over the place like Eddie Van Halen.
The coaches are so unbelievably patient and encouraging.
At the end of the session I am exhausted. I have sweated through my knees.
“That was brilliant!” I say to Hell Lucy Nations. “You’ve got your helmet on backwards,” she replies and then burps like a hippo again.3500 Views
I am Helen Linehan. I am forty years old. Mother & wife. No journalistic experience whatsoever. Four more words...DONE!