I’d forgotten my kit. Prickles ran along my spine and neck. A clammy dampness broke out on my forehead – the kind you got with a cold. I took a breath, emptied my holdall onto the bench and scattered the contents. There was a pencil case, a rough book spotted with crisp grease, a shatter-proof ruler, an empty Wagon Wheels wrapper and an over-ripe, spotted banana. I was certain I’d packed my kit first thing. I sat down on the bench, light-headed. The other boys were already in their kit, clattering their boots against the tiled floor in excitement. St Giles’s made one team wear bottle green bibs to play football so all manner of team kits were tolerated. But, I had no kit at all. I started to undress, knowing what was in store for me.
“Forgotten your kit again, Matty?” Wayne Burton slapped me on the shoulders.
Mr Hazard strode through the double doors, clapping his hands together.
“It’s a glorious day for track and field,” he said.
It was mid-January. There was a hard frost that had lasted for two weeks. The sports field and track were brittle and spiky like the surface of a wedding cake. I paused in unbuttoning my shirt. I still had my socks and pants on. In the January sales I’d persuaded mum to buy me plain blue or navy blue pants. Last year she’d bought days-of-the-week pants. Mum couldn’t coordinate her wash-days and I’d be wearing Sunday’s pants on Thursday. They said I never changed my pants and in assembly the third year would demand to know what day it was in my trousers.
“Forgotten your kit again, Mr Cartwright?”
“I can’t seem to find it,” I said.
He peered into my bag.
“Well I don’t suppose it’s run off, has it? Maybe you’ve started doing magic tricks. I wish you’d disappear, Mr Cartwright,” he said.
Mr Hazard clicked his fingers and pointed the way to the store cupboard. He was a lanky, pencil-thin man with a thinning wisp of silver hair and pinkish, rumpled skin. He always wore the same shiny, nylon tracksuit and plastic orange whistle.
The store room was small and over-heated. There was no light. A triangular table with a wonky leg was propped against the back wall. On it was a large, torn cardboard box and a giant pair of wash-tub tweezers.
“You’ve got ten seconds,” Mr Hazard said.
I took the tweezers and poked around. Sweat and mildew rose from the tangle of clothes bringing to mind the damp ground sheets and fusty canvas of camping trips.
“Five,” he shouted.
I stepped into the changing rooms with a pair of skimpy shorts in red satin and a mustard rugby jersey. There were whistles from across the room. At one time or another we’d all poked around in the kit-box, but there was no collective loyalty here. It was all about survival.
“Shall we call you Zola Budd?”
“Are you planning to run barefoot?”
He went back into the store cupboard and emerged holding two black crepe plimsolls.
“Now get a wiggle on,” he said, dropping the plimsolls to the tiles with a slap.
I tugged on the rugby shirt. It was scratchy and stiff and smelt of cooking fat. The shorts were a size too small and the liner had perished. I’d always had big legs so had to pull them up. I looked like a joke Superman who’d failed to order his fancy dress costume in time. I jammed on my plimsolls and trotted out onto the field.
It was mid-afternoon. There was maybe an hour of light left. The winter sun was a fading ball of orange beyond the hawthorns. The easterly wind whipped across the Common and there was nowhere to escape it. Old folk said there was no higher ground between here and Russia.
“It comes all the way from the Russian Steppes,” Granddad always said.
“Hospital steps, more likely,” Dad replied.
I slid, stumbled and crunched my way across the icy turf. The cold numbed my bones and hurt my throat. Darren Muir and Andrew Weston were hanging off their flag trying to spike the point into the frosted turf. The javelin and shot putt promised to be fun. Steven Hatch was limbering up in cycling shorts and a mesh vest. He wore spikes and was scratching up the amber grit. A group of girls had broken away from the netball court to watch him.
“Get warmed up, Cartwright,” Mr Hazard said.
I’d picked up a javelin. He shook his head.
“There’ll be no throwing on this surface. You can sprint instead.”
I glanced across at the line-up. There were six of us. Steve Hatch stared down the track, jogging on the spot and shaking out his limbs. Wayne Darcy and Scott Bell grinned at me. Paul Preston was bending, touching his toes. Carl Cramp, better known as ‘Jelly Belly’ made up the field. Carl was my only realistic chance of not finishing last. Trouble was, even a tub like Carl could show a clean pair of heels, especially when the newsagents was about to run out of cinder toffee.
“I want to see effort, Cartwright. I want effort and commitment,” Mr Hazard said.
I lined up next to Carl. He was staring ahead, focused. His new-found commitment worried me. I guessed he was visualizing sticky toffee pudding and custard; a huge, steaming bowl at the end of the track.
“Not there,” Mr Hazard said.
He made confusing circle gestures with his pen until I stood alongside Steve. Steve had beaten all-comers in his age group. Frankly, I wasn’t much of a feather in his baseball cap.
I gulped and swallowed. My heart pounded. The damp, bitter air was like breathing shards of glass. Mr Hazard blew his whistle. Steve shot off. Paul and Wayne were in his slipstream, then Scott. Carl was bounding along, his meaty calves pounding the hard surface. I took three strides at a gallop, stopped and then walked.
Mr Hazard was blew his whistle. Steve came in arms raised. The others followed him home. Even Carl got a cheer. I carried on walking. Everyone stared. Mr Hazard blew his whistle.
“Get off the bloody track. You’re disqualified Cartwright.”
“You’re in it now,” Scott said.
“Get off Cartwright. Get off my field and get changed. We’ll talk about this after.”
I trudged off past Steve, who was warming down.
“You should have pretended,” he said, without looking up at me.
I didn’t bother to answer. I’d made my point. I went into the dressing room and tugged off the plimsolls, throwing them at the wall. I hated games lessons. I slumped onto the bench. There, beside me, was my games kit folded neatly in a pile, with my boots and trainers alongside.
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