JOHN I. CLARKE
“We’ll stay at home and take it easy. We’ll avoid the half-term crowds. Unwind a bit. You can put your feet up and relax.”
It had been agreed then – no week in the Lakes after all. But both of them knew he was more concerned with not missing a football match than missing the half term crowds. He called out as he began to delve in amongst his kit bag, “Besides, what has Ullswater got that Pugney’s reservoir hasn’t?”
There was an answering call from the front room, “Yeah, and why look up at the Langdale Pikes when you can gaze across countryside to see the Emley Moor television mast?”
He paused in his rummaging, stung by the tone of sarcasm before deciding against a reply, resuming his search where he came across his still muddy from last Saturday boots. In all his years of playing he’d never quite got into the habit of emptying his bag promptly after a match. His younger team mates would regard his muddy boots as a chink in his punctilious armour, whilst his wife had often threatened to cite the boots in the divorce court. However, it was his trainers rather than his boots for which he was searching. He pushed a couple of carrier bags to the side, opened a cupboard door and then slammed it shut again.
“What are you looking for?” Again, the call came from the front room.
“My trainers. Where are they? I only had them yesterday.”
“They’re where you left them.”
He began to grumble about things being tidied away where they couldn’t be found when he moved an old tracksuit top to one side and discovered his trainers underneath – where in fact he’d left them. His indignation assuaged, he knelt to put them on and fasten them.
His trainers were his one concession to designer jogging, otherwise his kit was strictly functional: cotton socks, an old tracksuit bottom which was either roomy or baggy depending on your point of view and an old rugby shirt. Oh and this time of year he always wore his luminous arm bands to placate the owner of the voice in the front room.
“I’ll be off then,” he called.
No immediate answer but the kitchen door slid open and his wife stood before him.
“Ready for action?”
“Yes, I shouldn’t be too long; an intermediate run tonight. Not too far. Two hill climbs, up to the old castle and back by the new road.”
“Good,” she smiled. “Don’t use up all of your energy though will you? There’s a big pile of ironing to do here.” He limbered up uncomfortably, not wanting to extend the conversation. “Because I can’t do it, can I? She was on the attack, holding all the aces, “Because I’m taking it easy, unwinding a bit and putting my feet up.” Only her smile gave the game away while he coughed nervously wanting to be gone. “Have you got everything?”
“Watch?” He checked his watch display which stood with five noughts indicated – ready for action. “And have you taken your steroids?” she asked.
“Very funny; a healthy mind and a healthy body and the dedication to succeed, that’s all you need.”
He repeated the dictum as though giving evidence. Privately, she doubted his word as the panting, heaving wreck which returned from these runs didn’t look to her like the evidence of a healthy body. She often doubted the soundness of the mind too. What a way to spend a holiday.
“Well, if you’re going,” she said, “I’ll have the oxygen tent ready for when you come back.”
“You do that, but it won’t be necessary. No, a shower and a brisk rub down after a run is my recipe for good health for years.”
Again, she listened to his words and smiled. She knew that every Saturday members of the team, and opposition too, were getting younger and younger and a good deal faster too, and she’d confronted him with the evidence of her own eyes. But, as usual, he’d played it down.
“Nonsense; speed is no match for tactical positioning and experience. Years of getting on the blind side of referees stands me in good stead.” And he’d winked. But in his more pedantic moods he referred to them as “the boys of summer.” At first she hadn’t understood and he relished the explanation: “Those boys, the pints of lager the night before a match boys, are abusing their bodies. They’re the boys of Summer; Dylan Thomas: I see the boys of Summer in their ruin.”
She began to pick up odds and ends of discarded kit. She noted the muddy boots in the corner and the sight gave emphasis to her next remark.
“You can’t fight it love. You can’t hold back time. It’s like killing wasps. You might hit one or two with a lucky swipe but before long you’ll be surrounded by an angry swarm buzzing around your head.”
At this she started buzzing, her clicking fingers were wasps pestering him; a dirty sock was the biggest wasp of all. She chased him to the kitchen door where he turned and with a sudden counter attack grabbed her and held her close.
“And I suppose you’ve got a nasty sting?”
“Wicked; just try me.”
“Don’t temp fate.” He was laughing. “You’re a distraction you are. I’m supposed to be doing five miles tonight and all of a sudden it looks very cold and damp out there. Especially when there are home comforts to hand.”
She struggled to get free. “I think you’d better get away and get some exercise; run off this excess energy.” She finally broke away and resumed her tidying, picking up a neglected teddy bear and assorted building bricks.
“Okay,” he said, “Have everything ready for when I get back: bath salts, wheelchair and a heavy blanket to fold over my legs.”
“You can laugh,” she responded, “but I’m serious:” It was her big moment, “Time’s got you in chains.” And it was his turn to look puzzled. “Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill,” she said smugly enjoying her revenge: “Time held me green and dying.”
“Touché,” he laughed. He was still laughing as he closed the kitchen door behind him.
“Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” She finished the quotation to herself as she began separating toys into a box and muddy kit into the wash bin. “Relax!” she snorted, “Unwind. Put your feet up.” A sweaty pair of shorts was emphatically deposited. “What a way to spend a holiday.”
He was well rehearsed in the run. He knew it was vital to begin at a steady speed. He’d exhort the lads at training: “Pace yourselves. No point in killing yourselves early on.” So the first mile was little more than a slow jog. He resisted the childish impulse to run faster past the houses of friends and neighbours in case they were looking out. He knew that there were two long inclines in front of him which would need a steady rhythmic plod. Only when he passed the entrance to the bus depot would he know that he could begin to stretch out and pick up the pace for a strong finish to the second half of the run. He recreated the noisy excitement of a race commentator in a shouted interior monologue. Who knows, given the stillness of the evening, he could maybe shave a few seconds off his record. A lifetime best! But still he had to ignore the impulse to build up speed. The particular section he was approaching was badly lit; the pavement was narrow and the uneven flagstones, he knew, could be deadly. His running though was deceptively free and his breath was coming easily. Keep it in store, he was telling himself, keep something back for the final push.
He picked out the faces in the car with surprising ease although the concentration on his running left him unable to react; three young lads whose faces registered adolescent pleasure in their joy-ride. The expressions changed from shouted bravado to horror in a grotesque slow motion as through a fog of alcohol the realisation dawned that the saloon car was taking the bend too fast. It mounted the pavement and ground into the stone frontage of the shop with a smash of twisting metal and glass before silence.
The scene was soon lit by the blue pulse of an ambulance. The gouging in the stonework and the car paint scraped onto the wall would remain as a timeless testimony to the incident. And as the jogger was loaded on a stretcher through the back doors, the leading paramedic pronounced with professional detachment, “He’ll be D.O.A.”
(Illustration by Franco Blandino)
For other contributions from John I. Clarke click on the tag with his name.