I apologise, but writing a new article designed especially to split your sides is taking slightly longer than I expected as, unfortunately, such articles aren’t to be found growing from trees: and I should know, as I’ve been searching for ages. In the meantime, please find below another in our occasional series of Horace Wimp’s school days, and this time, rather aptly for this time of year, he’s revisiting the annual Sport’s Day; a nightmare for those slightly athletically-challenged;
‘I cut a rather splendid figure, strutting across the playing field. In tight white shorts that dazzled teachers and students alike, now covering their eyes. The funny looking kid with glasses in a small athletics vest, in a shining red that caught the sun. Are they budding man-boobs?
That morning’s air was full of the sweet smells of spring; of newly cut grass and freshly disturbed lumps of “dog shit!” Frankie Crisp warned, holding his nose and averting his eyes. The sounds of hay fever sufferers, sneezing and wheezing and running from the pollen, collapsing in some far corner and surrendering to the inevitable. Dan Kerr – or Wayne behind his back – seizing the opportunity, sneaking out from behind the mobiles. Rummaging at leisure through the pockets of these poor unfortunates. Today he had been very lucky, finding two slightly sticky gobstoppers and a melting bar of only half-chewed Curly Wurly; Bradington Comprehensive’s broad shouldered bully soon slinking back into the shadows with a twisted grin of satisfaction.
Over the homemade tannoy system, two tin cans on a long ball of frayed string, Miss Royston enquired once more over the whereabouts of her new glasses, offering a reward of “ten whole shillings”, for their prompt and safe return, but warning of brutal hourly executions, “should they not materialise within the next few minutes.” She waited, buckteeth poised and ready, eyes squinting as she checked her watch.
“Fine,” she hollered. “Don’t say that you haven’t been warned.” We’d brought it on ourselves. She snapped her fingers and Oddball Robson, the snotty-nosed First Year eating worms beside the Long Jump pit, was dragged away by the larger of his ears, his heartfelt plea for mercy falling on stony ground as the blindfold was thoughtfully administered.
“One every hour,” Royston ordered. “And may God have mercy on your souls.” And then she welcomed us all warmly, toothy smile now fixed and flabby arms flung wide, as if to embrace us all. Welcomed us to the annual “Bradington Comprehensive Sports Day,” the newly revealed banner fluttering in the breeze, the gramophone playing rousing music at 78 r.p.m.
We cheered whenever prodded, and waved flags on flimsy plastic poles that snapped within seconds, but it got us out of Latin with crazy old Collingwood, and double French with… crazy old Collingwood. Every proud House competing for the honour of a small dented cup that hung proudly from a rusting chain above the door in the heavily guarded foyer, the name of that nearby Secondary Modern crudely erased by a well-handled wood chisel. Strenuous athletics in the morning, track and field, and then, after a replenishing lunch, Swimming, where those who hadn’t drowned within the time allocated, were adjudged to have won.
I was quite good at swimming, strangely, and was due to compete in exciting duels such as the Freestyle, the Breast Stroke, the Relay – where I would swim that dreaded “Butterfly” leg – and the 50 metres Egg and Spoon race, all the while dressed as a rather macabre clown, running make-up leaving its greasy trail. But athletics?
“Good luck everybody,” Miss Royston shouted, her teeth clicking together, a straining encouraging thumb cracking with arthritis as it tried to rise. “That’s going to smart in the morning.”
To the astonishment of the whole school – puzzled pupils scratching their heads, teachers shrugging their shoulders – the loveably insane Bully Bulstrode had chosen me to compete on behalf of Wansdyke House, in the toughly competitive Hurdles, Taffy Roberts, our House leader, sobbing that it had come to this. But it was a decision rather forced on him by Kerry Noone’s sudden expulsion, for something deemed “unmentionable” with Emmanuelle, the school’s rather innocent long-haired goat, whose dark eyes now bulged and whose gait was now painfully bow-legged, the distressed “baa”, worryingly high-pitched.
“What the hell’s ‘Hurdles’?”
Frankie Crisp kindly lit my cigarette, singeing my eyebrows with a roaring flame. “You sort of run…” and he kindly demonstrated running for me, in slow motion, just in case I had forgotten with the passing of time, his bony knees raised extremely high and with elbows now flapping wildly. “And jump. The emphasis, in case you didn’t notice, on the word ‘and’.”
“Oh.” Running and jumping. Deep down, despite the outward air of confidence and arrogant invincibility, I had an unmistakeable sense of foreboding, of fast approaching unavoidable doom and dread.
“Running and jumping. Two things at once? Simultaneously?” Frankie nodding. But I didn’t do simultaneously.
“Don’t worry,” the voices in my head whispered soothingly. “You look bloody cool in your athletics vest… Despite the onset of man boobs. And those white little legs… At last visible to the whole school.” Were they mocking me?
Firstly, after the opening ceremony, a somewhat dispassionate performance of someone’s National Anthem – using spoons from the cafeteria and a tatty piece of greaseproof paper – contestants were called forward for the Long Jump, to be held over the small sandpit in a corner of our small field.
Those pupils not smoking, mugging teachers or burgling the new computer room while everyone was otherwise distracted, politely applauded as fifty points were hung over the scoreboard’s hooks, Grovelly’s “Long Legs” Lambert who looked uncanningly like a preying Crane Fly, had beaten Third Year champion “Hop-Along” McCluskey, of Mr Joseph’s Braden House, by two falls and a rather painful submission.
The 100 metres, the very next event, was won in the blink of an eye by a heavily panting policeman who had chased and dragged down stocky Simon Noone on the mere suspicion of joyriding. A harsh sentence was passed down, and carried out, well before wheelchair-bound Benny Driscoll collapsed over the line in second place. Loudly he protested. Complaining vigorously as he floundered, face down in the grass, that he would have won, that he should have won, could have won had some “heartless bastard”, not stolen his brand new wheels, leaving what remained of his chair perched on bricks in the parking lot. He may well have won his appeal if he hadn’t been struck from behind and decapitated by a wayward discus, hurled entirely the wrong way by blind Fourth Year student, Colin “What You Looking At?” Nightingale.
“Oh the humanity,” the announcer spluttered over horrified gasps.
“Good shot.” Again the splattering of polite applause, and the awarding of fifty more points to Grovelly, the prone but still twitching body of a badly missed friend, old what’s-his-face, dragged away for secret disposal behind the school’s prize-winning compost heap. His mother, the young Widow Twankie, who lived in the old shoe outside Easterton, would be told in a nicely framed letter from the school vicar, that her beloved son was missing, presumed dead. But she could be proud, the letter informed her, for her son had died like a hero, “and not the snivelling wreck one may well have expected.” She was consoled, or so it was reported, consoled by what was left of his tatty and slightly bloodied school tie that would later fetch a little money at the “Bring and Buy” sale.
“And now…” Cue that screeching fanfare, of greaseproof paper over thin plastic combs, the tone deaf orchestra surpassing themselves; Helen Hadley letting rip on her violin and poking the trumpeter’s eye out; Jane Pierce on clarinet sucking when she should have blown, and now choking on her reed; Sara’ Walker’s oboe unavailable this morning due to the wren’s nest. “The Hurdles!”
The announcer calling forward all the competitors, my heart trying to beat a hasty escape. We waved enthusiastically towards supporters, sprang up and down on the spot and pumped the blood around our systems while waiting for the whistle. And I calmly focussed on the track, on the individual lanes that stretched out unevenly before me. Tried to ignore the howls of derision directed towards my white legs, and the fake catcalls and wolf-whistles from Frankie bloody Crisp and an easily led Marty Farrell. Damn them!
“Run and jump,” I reminded myself. “Run and jump.” The emphasis most definitely on that word “and”.
“On your marks…”
I took a deep breath. Stepped forward, copying every one around me. Flicked out my legs, loosened those muscles, wherever the hell they were.
I bent down, as per the manual I had quickly flicked through, pored over…
The whistle blew… after an age. But I was away, first time, running like the wind. My breath in perfect rhythm with my swinging arms, steering me forward, towards that first hurdle now looming large and fast, waiting my arrival in lane four. I looked to my left, then to my right, at the expressions of grit and determination across the faces of my competitors; cheeks blowing and eyes bulging.
The wind blowing through my hair… My glasses bouncing on my nose… “Run and jump. Run and jump,” those voices sang in unison, apart from one, which chanted loudly, “Burn the school down. Burn the school down!”
I held my breath and adjusted my step as I prepared to take the first tentative leap, up and into the unknown.
“Run and jump. Run and jump.” The emphasis on the “and”.
I was doing it. I was actually bloody doing it. I closed my eyes… I was in the air, hanging above the hurdle with all the grace and prowess of a leaping…? Oh what the hell do you call those delicate things that prance and leap gracefully? Before being ripped to shreds by the odd hunting cheetah, or the marauding pack of ravenous lions? Anyway, whatever they are, I was now one of those things.
My left leg was stretching out and over the hurdle; I was actually clearing the bloody thing, the very focus of my recent nightmares! All that needless apprehension.
My arms hung, momentarily still, giving me both poise and stability.
My leg was over, my muscles tensing, preparing me for the touch back down on the freshly cut grass the other side, and the sprint towards the next hurdle a few metres on: my body coiled like a spring, ready to power me onwards, towards certain glorious victory.
God this was easy. What was all the fuss about?
Something was not quite right, though… I felt something, and it didn’t register, brush against my right knee, as my left leg crashed back on to the track. And buckled underneath me.
I felt my trailing foot hook itself around the wooden bar, momentum carrying me. But my right leg was trapped, momentarily. I opened my eyes, in confusion and just in time, my nose piling into the still damp grass, my body bent, wildly contorted. What was my left arm doing all the way over and up there?
I began to roll, to spin out of control, the hurdle crashing down, clattering me, spilling over me. From somewhere above me, around me, to the left and right of me, over the sound of splintering wood and creaking metal, I heard a scream of panic. I felt the pair of spiked shoes connect, scratch along the top of my head, flailing arms and legs spinning, bodies cart-wheeling all around me, the dull thuds of bodies falling to the ground. Cries of shock… Then all fell silent. Except for the ever-so-faint groans and the whimpers of the doomed.
Between the arms and legs desperately searching and calling out for their owners, I saw two runners racing away, not daring to glance back at the disaster that had occurred in a flurry and a blur, at the bodies entangled with toppled hurdles, at the wounded being prised apart by the highly trained medical staff who rushed in from every direction, armed with bent and battered stretchers.
“What happened?” the distressed asked pathetically.
“Where does it hurt?”
“Is this your leg, son?”’