You know, it’s not until I actually get up here to the starting line that I realize how far it is we have to run.
For over an hour, I’ve been perched at the side of track, cheering on the kids as they dash up and down in races and relays, stumbling in sacks or dropping eggs off spoons. From that angle, it really didn’t look like that much of a haul. But now, standing in the blocks with the lanes stretching out and away from me, well, you kind of begin to appreciate all the hard work that the little guys have been putting in. And it’s hot, too. In fact, it’s absolutely baking. Someone around here needs a shot of common sense, that’s for sure.
Why do they have to go and do these things in the afternoon? It’s not so much for me – I can take it – but what about the children? Sitting under this sun for hours on end with no shade or shelter and then having to sprint around. I mean, is that right? Is that fair? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it to me. Perry was sweating like roast beef when he’d finished his three races. Even from across the field where I sat with the other moms and dads I could see it dripping off him. My little man was exhausted.
And his races? Well, last in both the individual runs and, during the relay, he dropped the baton on the handover. Still, that doesn’t matter, does it? It’s the taking part that’s important. That’s what I told him this morning. That’s what I always tell him. He was kind of moaning that his trainers weren’t good enough to run in, but I said not to bother fretting about what he had on his feet. Just try to take part. Get out there and have yourself a good time. And – to prove that I’m a guy who’ll follow his own advice – I stand straight up as Mr Bartlett comes round with his little clipboard, weaving amongst the assembly of parents, asking in his soft, Welsh purr who wants to enter the Dad’s one hundred metres.
Well, you can spot any number of my peers suddenly looking away, fascinated by a speck on the floor or what their kids are doing. A couple of their wives dig them with sly elbow nudges or roll their eyes – a little embarrassed (or perhaps even a little relieved?) that their husbands aren’t willing to take part. But in the end there are five of us who are prepared to follow Mr Bartlett up to the starting line. I got to admit that there are more than a few people looking up at me as I make this walk. I can tell. And, like I say, now I’m up here, I absolutely understand why.
One hundred metres doesn’t sound like that great a distance. Not when you say it. Not even when you think about it. But now, facing down the field, seeing how the white tramlines painted into the grass narrow towards the finishing line, I got to admit that one hundred metres certainly seems like a decent old stretch.
I take the far left-hand lane. I know two of the other four that I’m up here with. One’s got a kid in the year above Perry; one with a kid actually in Perry’s class. We’ve met each other at birthday parties, parents’ evenings, that sort of thing. The others I’ve sort of seen at the school gates or whatever. I stand at the starting line as they all climb out of their tracksuits to reveal Lycra shorts and running vests. Shuffling a little, I take off my tie and unpin my plastic name badge, placing them down on the ground behind me. I can’t help but think that my pile looks a little pitiful next to the ergonomic water bottles and breathable fabrics. My loafers are starting to pinch. I rock back forth, trying to loosen myself up.
“Hey, Pete.” It’s Chris, the guy with the son in Perry’s class. He’s stretching out at my side – legs apart, arms behind his back, leaning forward with an impressive balance. “You got any trainers, man?”
I shake my head and tell him no, that this was just a last minute, in-the-moment kind of call.
“You can borrow a pair of mine, if you like. I got spares. What size are you?”
I thank him but wave my hands to decline. It’s just a bit of fun, I say. I’ll be ok like this. He drops to the floor with one leg fully outstretched before bouncing up and switching to the other. I can’t imagine what the burn must be like on his calves. I’m starting to sweat. Have I mentioned the heat? Christ, it’s near enough unbearable. I wrestle the top button of my white shirt free. I’m drenched beneath my arms; there is a cascade down my back.
I’ll have to nip home and change before I go back to the store. Mr Cassidy isn’t going to be too happy with me being any longer than I promised – I had to practically beg just to get these couple of hours – but he’ll blow his top if I go out onto the shopfloor like this.
Either way, I’m going to end up with my pay packet docked again. The only question is by how much. “We need sales staff who are dedicated,” he was telling me just this morning. “Are you dedicated, Peter? To your profession and to this store? That’s the question I want you to think about. Are you dedicated?” I promised him that I was. More than ever. More than anything. He didn’t exactly look convinced.
The kids are lined up in their classes at the side of the track. Perry’s is the third one along. I can see him clearly, sandwiched between his friends. God, does he look worried? Probably. Although it’s hard to tell these days. He always seems to look worried. Maybe that’s just the way he is. People sometimes say the same thing about me. I tug at the belt of my trousers, wondering how much slack is in these slacks. You know, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I suppose that at least his mother’s not here to see this. Not that she’s passed on or anything. Jesus, no. That’s something I’d never wish upon anyone. No matter what they did. His mother isn’t here because she left us two years ago for a guy who owns a printer repair company. They have a villa in the Algarve and a house on the good side of town. Me and Perry, well, we don’t get to see her all that much anymore.
“Gentleman,” Mr Bartlett says. The five of us turn to face him. The teacher is smiling. I like this guy. He taught Perry last year and I always thought that he knew his stuff. “Good clean race, please, fellows. First across the line takes the honours. No biting, pushing, name calling or lewd gestures.”
We all laugh at his little quip. He waves us back to the line, asking us to take our positions. I look across at Chris to my side. He drops into a squat with one knee practically tucked up beneath his chin. I figure I better do the same. I place my palms down on the grass and stretch my left leg behind me. I try to move my right knee up but my gut blocks it. It really seems to be hanging down from this angle. It can’t normally be like this, can it? Surely I’d have noticed by now. My back starts to throb; I’m aching in places that I thought it was impossible to ache. I just about manage to raise my head. I can still see Perry. It’s weird, but the other kids’ faces seem to blur and swirl but my little man’s remains crystal clear. I smile across to him. I want him to know that this is going to be fine, that everything is going to be fine. I’m enjoying myself. This is fun. I don’t want him to worry about a thing.
There’s sweat dripping down my forehead, blocked by the dam of my eyebrows. I feel a little sick and short of breath. It’s the angle of my body. It’s the nerves kicking in. It’s the burger that I had for lunch. Well, I knew it wasn’t right at the time. There’s no way that van’s kept as clean as it ought to be. Someone should call in the Council. I really should start eating better. Every single day it’s like I’m bloated with indigestion. More salads and fruit, that’s what I need. In fact, that’s what we’ll do. Me and Perry. We’ll get healthy. We’ll get fit and strong. We’ll look after ourselves and each other.
“Gentleman, on your marks,” Mr Bartlett suddenly shouts. “Get set. Go!”
A starting pistol cracks and Chris has taken off before I’ve even moved. I can hear the thunder of feet on the track. I push myself up from the ground, stumbling on the right leg, off balance but forging on. I’m swinging my arms, running as hard as I can, the thin soles of my loafers slapping against the grass. Ten metres. Then twenty. Picking up speed and carried by velocity, I am an unstoppable force. My throat stings as my chest burns. The others are ahead of me, but it’s the taking part that counts. I run past where Perry sits and try to broadcast this thought: it’s only ever about the taking part.
At fifty metres, the right half of my body goes numb. I drop to the floor like a sack of stones, tumbling over myself and thinking that there’s no way my son is ever going to forgive me for this. Something strange has happened and I’m not sure what I can feel anymore. I can smell burning but at least it seems to have gotten cooler. And, as I’m laying here sprawled on the grass, scissor kicked legs and spastic arms, people start running across to me. They’re waving their hands and shouting. Now, I don’t want them to fuss. I don’t want to cause a panic. I don’t want my boy to be embarrassed. So I try to smile and speak. I am having a good time, I make every effort to tell them. I am having a good time.