.. more from Horace Wimp, (and I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of our sponsors, to apologise for the use of foul and offensive language! I keep warning him, but will he fucking listen?):
“Cross country! Again?”
I spat a fly from my mouth, clambering from the sucking mud, now trainer-less. Climbing fences, leaving layers of pale skin on the dull barbs. Running for miles through thick woods where the branches swept back with a spiteful “swish”, slapping around heads and whipping into red faces.
“Fucking cross country!”
That hopeless huffing and puffing. The side-splitting agony as your lungs threaten to catapult themselves through your rib cage, to end up back where you started, gasping for breath in that changing room.
“Can’t we play football, Mr Bulstrode?”
Fucking cross country!
I slipped on fallen leaves and tripped over hidden roots. I tumbled down narrow tracks, legs scratched and chapped, cursing Bully Bulstrode as he blared through his squeaking megaphone, my feet now blistered. When I was older, bigger, I decided there and then, I was going to ram that megaphone right up his… Oh darn. The blister had finally burst.
Running left me desperately trying to forge a sick note from my mum.
“Please excuse me,” quickly scribbled out, “my son, from PE today, Bulstrode old bean, because he has accidentally come down with a severe case of rabies that doctors are now telling us may be fatal, not to mention bad for his health. However, I should be okay in time for football practice next Thursday. Love my mother.” That was one of the better efforts, but needless to say, they never, ever worked.
“Fucking cross country!” All we ever seemed to do was cross bloody country!
We trudged bitterly around the playing field – “Bates, go around boy!” – through the small wood and up the obstacle laden hill, sneaking past the terrifying sheep sharpening their flick knives, and viciously cursing the bloodsucking cows that tried to entice us into their lair with promises of Cough Candy Twists. There had to be another way?
“Wimp! Lift those stubby little legs and pump those chunky little arms. Faster boy,” Bully yelled. “Faster!”
“Taylor! Put that cigarette out and see me after, boy… See me after for some extra work.”
It did not take some of us too long to discover sneaky short cuts somewhere along the route, or a devilishly cunning hideaway where we could lie safely amongst thick trees, until the time was right for us to re-emerge, claiming our usual place at the back of the extremely muddy athletes, all breathing heavily from their exertion.
It was particularly cold, that Tuesday afternoon. The usual crowd making our way over the first stages of the course, Bully forever encouraging us with a high-powered stun gun, those thinly veiled death threats carrying on the biting wind, aimed at those at the very back refusing to enjoy ourselves.
Thankfully, we eventually stumbled from sight, down the steep and winding track that led us to our top secret haven: known only to the whole English speaking population of the western world. And not before bloody time either; the first drops of cold rain falling, splattering through the canopy; my poor lungs wheezing abuse at me, threatening to hold the rest of my pain-filled body hostage unless I quickly found a place amongst the trees to collapse. Somewhere quiet, where I could sleep undisturbed. They were simply not designed for all this palaver, they painfully reminded me.
As the rhythmic sound of pounding feet slowly faded, windproof matches were struck, cigarettes hastily lit behind cupped hands, to sighs of relief. Thins wisps of blue smoke floating through the trees. Delirium.
I lay back and dreamt my life away listening to the natural sounds; birds singing, Taylor coughing, retching violently beside me, his lungs already “shagged out” at the tender age of twelve. I had started to smoke, very occasionally, on the school bus, ducking behind the seats to take that crafty drag when no one was looking, waving away the smoke as I coughed sporadically, all the while forcing a sickly smile and a weak thumbs up. But Col was already smoking thirty-a-day, and expertly blowing twenty or more perfect smoke rings that linked up or formed simple sentences. But I digress.
To get away with such a cunning mission of deception, your timing has to be impeccable. Every last detail well rehearsed. Every eventuality clearly thought out, contingencies put into place. Unfortunately, for our little gang of lazy desperadoes, our timing on this particular afternoon was to be slightly out, by about twenty minutes.
I tiptoed to the clearing, listening intently in case we had been discovered or betrayed by reckless deed or careless word… Eventually, satisfied that everything was as it should be, I bolted down the narrow track that weaved its treacherous course, not for one moment daring to look back. Across the small brook I leapt, gracefully, like a springbok, the mutant goldfish leaping, gnashing their sharpened teeth. Up a steep incline, cutting left, sweeping right, and through the small wood surrounding our playing field, voices coming from the mobile classrooms. We were in the clear.
One last look, just to make sure.
Over the fence, careful not to snag our little legs. That mad dash around the hockey pitch, followed by a mad scramble along the left wing of the football pitch – the scene of my greatest goal, or biggest fluke as some had unkindly described my cross – and straight into that welcoming changing room, crashing through the double doors. Home and dry…
It was ever so quiet though.
Behind me, I could hear Col Taylor, wheezing, rasping, spitting, heading towards the showers, carefully stepping across a now prostrate Frankie, turning blue and thrashing about in semaphore. At this stage, and I put this down to the first signs of dehydration and utter exhaustion, it hadn’t dawned on me that nobody else was around, that the changing room was strangely quiet, empty of the usual naked bodies whipping other naked bodies with tightly rolled up towels. Or, come to that, that the water was still piping hot. It was not until later, much later, as Bully Bulstrode held my arm aloft triumphantly in front of my whole year, that the harsh reality of this dishonesty suddenly hit me, hard. It appeared that somehow, totally unintentionally I swear, I had managed to win the race, setting a record time in the process.
I stood there, slightly embarrassed, a towel about my waist, as Bulstrode praised me for this “supreme effort”. Tired and muddy bodies collapsing around me, faces sneering their stupefied anger, and, while Bully’s back was turned, promising to wait for me outside, pummelling their bitter fists into the palms of their still muddy hands. And me, with not a hair out of place, my still white kit now neatly folded. It was embarrassing, I can tell you.
“See what you can achieve with the utmost effort and dedication? With the right attitude?” He was laying it on a bit thick admittedly. “Look at what’s-his-face here. Absolutely bloody useless normally, a total waster even. But today, with great effort and personal discipline, a winner. Not like you lily-livered flakers. Now drop and give me ten.”
I hung my head as Bulstrode strode between them, continuing to sing my praises as he stepped on backs and trod on fingers. All I could do in return was mouth apologies and shrug embarrassed shoulders. It was a joke guys. Guys?
“Look!” Bulstrode boomed out, grabbing again for my wrist. “See how modest he is. The sign of a true champion. A true, contented champion, gentlemen. Tasting the success of his achievement. Unlike the rest of you weasels, who all want to take the easy option.” I could almost taste the contempt.
“Please stop!” He was not making this easy for me. I still had to work with these people. But he continued, unabated.
“Who would have thought that this… That this complete travesty of a human being in long gym shorts, would actually have what it takes to win something? A lesson to us all, I am sure. Now, get dressed you contentious little cretins.” And with that, he clipped me across the back of the head and pushed me back to the benches.
I was surprised and slightly hurt though, when the Headmaster omitted any mention of my fantastic feat from Assembly the next morning.
“Oh, and by the way children,” he might have said, standing before us in his only suit, worn and boringly grey. “Not only did our school win the World Cup yesterday, beating Brazil by a surprising twenty-seven goals to twenty-two, a full report to follow of course, but that funny looking kid with glasses won the First Year cross country race. He will now represent us in the Olympics, after he’s finished his latest detention for back chat.”
How they would all stand and cheer in rapturous salutation. How they would all clap and then faint with shock. And how the girls would all crowd around me, demanding my autograph and any spare clothing that I might just have upon my person.
I wasn’t asking for much, was I? And then I remembered.
Taken from, “Reluctant Country Boy”.