Juggling the Pieces

by Pink Panther

Chapter 12

October 2010

As soon as Mum and I get home from the parents' group meeting, I check the football results. I'm disappointed to find that Reavington lost two-nil. It seems as though we've been here before. In two visits to that part of the country, they've lost two-nil on each occasion.

But even I know that it's not that simple. While the first game had been against a lower-ranked team that they'd expected to beat, this had been a league match. Not only did Burnley have home advantage, they were higher up the table. It was bound to have been difficult.

I can't immediately spot a match report, but it doesn't matter. Scott will give me the lowdown when I see him tomorrow afternoon.

With the team having to travel back from Lancashire, Wednesday's training session is scheduled to take place an hour later than usual, and so it's quarter past four when I reach Scott's flat.

"Hi! Good to see you!" I greet as he lets me in. "Things didn't go too well last night, then?"

"They had a bit too much for us," he says as we stroll into the lounge and flop down on the sofa. "They dominated possession. To be honest, I didn't see much of the ball. When our defenders did get it, they couldn't pass it to me, because one of their attacking midfielders was always there to intercept. They outplayed us; it's as simple as that. It's strange. They can be quite flaky away from home, but on their own ground, they've had six wins and a draw, which is excellent form."

He pauses for a moment. "I had a very ordinary game," he goes on. "I'm good when we've got the ball; I'm not the greatest when we haven't. My strength is making those forward runs to get in behind the defence. But when we lose the ball, I don't have the fitness to chase it down and help us win it back. It's something I will add to my game as my endurance improves, but it's not there at the moment."

I snuggle up to him. I really admire how honest he is about his own strengths and weaknesses. I think that in the longer term, his willingness to deal with those weaknesses will be the key to his success.

We wander through to the bedroom. As I expected, it's all very gentle and affectionate. I don't mind at all. After a tiring, frustrating twenty-four hours, he needs time to recharge his batteries.

At half past five, we make our way to the kitchen. By the time Scott takes me home, I've learned how to cook a really yummy pork stir-fry. It involves a few ingredients that Mum doesn't usually have in, but it's not a problem. I'll just have to make sure we've got them. That'll be another meal I'll be able to cook for us.

"You're back early," Mum comments as I appear in the lounge.

"Yesterday evening, Scott had a match up in Burnley," I explain. "He's been pretty tired today. He's going to have an early night."

"When you told us he was a professional footballer," she says, smiling, "I'm not sure what I expected, but early nights definitely weren't part of it."

The remainder of the half term break is uneventful. I divide my time between studying, drawing, running and being with Scott. With so much to keep me busy, there's no chance of me getting bored.

Over the past couple of years, I've been studying the work of some of the great architects of the last century, mainly the pioneers of the modern movement, guys like Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Without taking it too seriously, I've been finding out where they got their ideas, the important buildings they designed and the influence they've had on what followed. It's been good fun and I've learned a lot.

Among contemporary architects, up to now, my favourite has been Norman Foster. Although he doesn't do anything radically new, he's built on the ideas of the early modernists, refining and developing them to incorporate the latest building technology, which has enabled him to design some wonderful buildings that look great and work brilliantly. I also appreciate that he came from a working-class family in the north of England and began with absolutely nothing. That's inspiring; at least to me it is. I guess he's become my role-model, the guy I want to emulate.

But just recently, I'discovered' Zaha Hadid. Actually, I became aware of her a while back when she won the Stirling Prize for Architecture two years in a row. But because I was busy with my exams and stuff, and possibly because most of her buildings are abroad, I hadn't taken it any further. But over the past few days, I've begun looking at her work. I've been blown away! The woman is amazing! Her buildings are like nothing else I've ever seen. To describe them as ground-breaking doesn't even come close. Even more remarkable are the drawings and paintings she did before she started at architecture school. They're totally unique, and so exciting. I can't begin to describe them. She's fired up my enthusiasm all over again.

But it has left me with a dilemma. I'd more or less made up my mind that I wanted to go to the Bartlett School, which is part of University College London. It's pretty much the UK's top architecture school these days. Zaha, however, studied at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square, not far from the British Museum. I guess I'll have to give it some thought.

It's Saturday evening. This afternoon, Reavington recorded a two-nil home win, which keeps them within striking distance of the play-off places. They'll need to improve a little, but that's what it's all about.

The bottom line is that we're both feeling pretty good about ourselves. As a result, when we have sex, it's amazing, exhilarating and just about every other superlative you can think of. When Dad arrives to watch Match of the Day, it's like we're both floating somewhere up near the ceiling.

"You two look like you've been enjoying yourselves!" he comments, grinning.

"Oh, we have!" I assure him, smiling back.

November 2010

It's Wednesday. We've been back at school for three days. After the freshness of our first half-term, our preliminary exams are now only five weeks away. It's time for us to get our heads down.

Yesterday, Anthony brought his oil painting into school. He'd only intended to show it to Mr Gault, but Fat Man invited Dr Kingslake, the headmaster, to see it. As a result, not only is it now on display in the main foyer, where all the visitors come in, the local paper has asked Anthony for an interview.

Not wanting to look 'difficult', Anthony's going along with it, but he's not happy. He hates people making a fuss. Like he said when we were in France, he's only just starting.

This afternoon's race went pretty well. Although we finished second again, we were only four points behind the winners. Given that we've only got one guy that can get into the top six in these races, that's not bad. We need to keep working at it. As long as we do, next season we could have a really good team.

I'm in the middle of my maths homework when I get a call. It's Mike Griffiths.

"Hi, Ian," he says quietly. "I just wanted to let you know that Xavier's been charged with some additional offences. I can't go into details, but as I suspected, they found some quite disturbing material on his laptop and the other devices they seized, basically images of children being sexually abused, so he's been charged with that as well. He's currently being held at Brinsford Young Offenders' Institution, near Wolverhampton, which is newly built and runs a pretty good regime. Because of his background and the offences he's been charged with, he'll be classed as a vulnerable prisoner, which means he'll be kept away from the thugs. Even so, I'm sure he'll be finding it tough. Initially, he'd have been put on suicide watch while he settled in. He may well still be on it."

"The news report said something about him having to appear at Crown Court on December 1st," I respond,

"That's correct. It's what's called a plea and directions hearing. Xavier's barrister will have to enter a plea to each of the offences he's been charged with. If he pleads not guilty, the judge will set a date for the trial. If he pleads guilty, which is what I expect him to do, the judge will set a date for him to be sentenced, allowing time for psychological and other reports to be prepared. At a guess, that would come up some time in January."

"Right," I say quietly. "Thanks for letting me know."

We end the call. After all the grief Zav's given me, I guess I might be gloating, but I'm not. I just can't help thinking what a waste it is.

It's Monday evening, five busy days later. I'm on my way home from cross-country training. As I reach the bus station, I notice Gareth Kirby and some of his friends, waiting at one of the bus stops adjacent to mine.

I don't even acknowledge them. I sit on the bench by my bus stop, thinking about the stir-fry that I'm going to cook for dinner. Suddenly, Gareth appears. He's on his own.

"Zav's gone, then," he says, parking himself next to me.

"It seems that way," I respond, showing no interest whatever. "We've been told not to talk about it."

"Did you know Dominic used to go with him?" Gareth persists.

"As it happens, I did," I concede. "I also know that Dom managed to get away from him, but I don't know how. He didn't want to talk about it."

"I know," Gareth says, smirking. "Marcus told me."

"Marcus being?"

"Dominic's brother."

"Oh right!"

"It was during the summer holiday last year. Dominic was on his own because Marcus was staying with his mate Toby. Anyway, Zav called him, and Dom said he could come to the house, so he did. Well, he was okay to begin with, but once Dom was naked, he started being really horrible, slapping him and calling him filthy names. Well, after he'd spunked up Dom's arse, he dragged him to the bathroom and made him sit in the bath. Then he peed on him."

"Yeukk! That's disgusting!"

"He threatened Dom, telling him what'd happen if he told anybody, and ordered Dom to meet him a few days later at this bus stop by Thurlston Forest. Well, the next day, Marcus came home and brought Toby with him. Dom knew they wouldn't be scared of Zav, so he told them what had happened. A couple of days later, Dom went to meet Zav like he'd been told to. Zav showed up and took him into the forest, but Marcus and Toby were waiting for him. They're both rugby players, so he stood no chance. They got him on the ground and gave him a taste of his own medicine."

"You mean?"

"Yeah! Marcus reckoned he tried to cover his face, but they wouldn't let him. They made him lie with his hands by his sides, yeah?"

"Was he undressed then?"

"No! That was the thing. At least when Dom got peed on, he was in the bath, naked, so it wasn't too hard for him to get cleaned up afterwards. But Zav was fully dressed, so he had to go home with his clothes soaked in piss!"

"That's not nice!" I say.

"He's not nice, is he?" Gareth counters.

He strolls back to join his mates. On the bus ride home, I'm seriously conflicted. I can't say Zav didn't deserve it. He quite clearly did. And Marcus needed to do something pretty serious to make sure that Zav wouldn't go near Dominic again. I just think that we ought to be better than that.

It's Friday, the start of what's going to be a rather strange weekend. After playing a league match tomorrow afternoon, first thing on Sunday morning, Scott has to travel down to Heathrow Airport to join up with the England Under-21 squad. They're going to fly out to Frankfurt where they'll train on Monday, before playing the Germans in Wiesbaden on Tuesday night.

"You don't seem very keen," I comment.

"I'm not," Scott tells me. "It's only a friendly, and as it doesn't fall during the official international break, several of the bigger clubs have withdrawn their players, so we won't even have our proper team. It's going to be a lot of rushing around for nothing."

"So why is the match even happening?"

"FA politics," he says darkly. "Only I never said that."

So that's it; there's nothing more to be said. As I'm coming to realise, these things aren't organised for the benefit of the players. In many ways, they're just pawns in the much bigger game that calls itself 'World Football'.

It's Saturday evening. Following last week's draw away at Norwich, a home win this afternoon has edged Reavington closer to the play-off positions. It's now looking a realistic possibility.

Our usual Saturday evening activities have had to be curtailed. It's only quarter past nine, and already Scott is driving me home. With an early start tomorrow, and several busy days ahead, he needs an early night.

I'll still watch Match of the Day with Dad, but it won't be the same. It's so much better when all three of us can watch it together. But it is what it is. As Scott's explained, he's not in a position to turn down a call-up like this. He just has to get on with it.

This time, I'll be without Scott for three days. At least filling my time won't be an issue. With our school exams due to begin in just over three weeks' time, I'll have plenty to keep me busy.

It's Wednesday afternoon. I'm heading to Scott's flat with a spring in my step. A little earlier, the cross-country team won again. What makes this one special is that in the corresponding fixture last year, King Henry's beat us. Well, today we pipped them. The other two schools were nowhere.

It was my sort of course, moderately hilly and a bit muddy in places; somewhere I'd expect to run well. For the first two laps, I kept it well under control, running with Alan and Nathan, which it what I've been doing recently. But going into the last lap, I managed to get away from them. I then picked off a couple of the opposition to finish in fifth place.

Of course, it wasn't just about me. We all ran well. Patrick won again, and with Nathan and Alan finishing eighth and ninth, Jon thirteenth and Simon fifteenth, we won by six points. I was especially pleased for Simon. Because of his cricketing commitments, he doesn't train as much as the rest of us, but he's such a natural, he's improving with every race.

Predictably, Scott's football match did not go so well. Away from home and missing several of their best players, playing against a team as strong as Germany was always going to be difficult. In the event, they lost two-nil. It could have been worse.

I ring the bell. A couple of seconds later, the door opens and Scott ushers me inside.

"How are you?" I asked, smiling at him,

"Tired," he says, as we stroll into the lounge. "What a waste of time!" he adds as we park ourselves on the sofa. "I knew it would be. And it's so disruptive! I've now got to try to get myself ready for Saturday. At least I didn't pick up a knock or anything, so I guess I shouldn't complain too much. Anyway, we've done it now. For the next few months, I'll be able to focus on the club." He pauses for a moment. "So how are you?"

"Good, thanks!"

"You're looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed! How did this afternoon go?"

"We won!"

"Great! And where did you finish?"


"Isn't that your highest finish yet?"


"Well done! That's made me feel much better! I'll let David know when I speak to him. He'll be pleased."

"Thanks! Do you speak to David quite often then?"

"About once a week. We like to keep in touch."

"How's he enjoying Oxford?"

"Oh, he's loves it! It's hard work of course, but it's such a stimulating place to be, with so many really bright people around. So tell me more about this afternoon."

"Actually, we all ran well. Patrick won it, and we had four guys in the first ten. But what made it really special is that we haven't beaten King Henry's before. Well, this afternoon we did; only by six points, but that doesn't matter."

"Excellent! Over the last few months, you really seem to have got into this running business."

"Yeah. It's quite strange in a way. When I first joined the team, I thought I'd just do what I needed to, yeah? But then I discovered David was captain, and I remembered how you two helped me out when Zav was picking on me. Well, I couldn't let him down by not trying my best."

"Actually," he says gently, wrapping his arm around my shoulder. "Once you got into it, I think you'd have tried your best anyway. It's just the way you are. If you're doing something, you always want to do it as well as you can. And that's a major part of why you're the one for me."

I guess he's right, but it's so gratifying to hear him say it. I look up at him, our lips meeting in a sensuous kiss.

December 2010

It's the first Saturday in December. The past two and a half weeks have absolutely flown past. With our school exams starting on Monday, I've been the busiest I've ever been.

This week, we didn't race on Wednesday. That's because we're running today in the County AAA Cross-Country Championships. This is not the same as the county schools' championships that take place in February. For a start, the age-groups are different. Today, we'll be taking part in races for under-15s; that's Years 9 and 10, and for under-17s, which are Years 11 and 12.

The races are really for club teams, but schools are allowed to enter. From what I understand, we haven't run at this event before, but this year, Mr Bentley decided to enter us. I think Mr Saunders may have twisted his arm.

Another big difference from what we're used to is that in the races that we're taking part in, the team competitions are only three to score. With that in mind, for the under-17s' race, we've brought six runners, leaving Dean, Brian Armstrong, and Martin Birch at home. For the under-15s race, we've got five runners, all from Year 10. I immediately recognise Niall Taylor as Will's younger brother, but I don't know any of the others.

The meeting's being held at a school on the northern edge of the county, close to the Birmingham boundary. With Nathan's dad and Niall's dad helping out with transport, it takes us just over half an hour to get there.

As soon as we arrive, Mr Bentley heads to the recorders' office. He returns a few minutes later, handing out safety pins and competitors' numbers, something else that we don't usually have.

After we've pinned the numbers to the front of our running vests, it's time for us to have a look around. Although the hills aren't severe, the course is all up and down, and following the rain we've had recently, the ground is quite testing in places. This is going to be hard!

Back near the start and finish area, I spend 20 pence on a programme. I check out the under-15 boys' race. There are seven teams entered, the other six being club teams, with a total of around forty runners.

Listed alphabetically, our team consists of Jake Lewington, Shaun McNally, Ben Snowden, Gary Stroud and Niall Taylor. I guess I'll find out who's who later. I hope our lads don't get shown up, but I don't think Mr Bentley would have brought us if he thought that was likely to happen.

I move onto our race. Once again, there are seven teams. This time, I recognise a couple of the names, guys that Patrick beat in the county schools' championships back in February. It'll be interesting to see if he can beat them today. I think he will; he's starting to run well now.

At twelve o'clock, the meeting begins with the under-13 girls' race. They're followed by the under-13 boys and the under-15 girls. An hour later, the under-15 boys are sent on their way. According to the programme, they're running two laps, each of 2400 metres.

As they complete their first lap, Niall is tucked into a leading group of four. Another of our boys, whom I assume must be Shaun, is comfortably inside the top ten.

"Well done!" I call. "You're running really well. Keep it going!"

Two more of our lads are just outside the first dozen. I shout to them too. This is not bad! Our fifth runner, however, is way behind, and comes through looking quite distressed. I check the programme. It's Jake Lewington.

"Come on, Jake!" I call. "One lap to go! You can do it!"

A few minutes later, I position myself by the run-in to the finish. Niall comes through clear in third place. Shaun finishes 8th, Gary 14th, and Ben 19th, which is more than respectable. Our three scoring runners have amassed 25 points.

I can see that the race has been dominated by boys wearing red vests. Whichever club that is must have won the team prize. An outfit dressed in blue and white hoops seems to have done well too. Could we have placed third in the team competition?

After a long gap, Jake comes through in 34th place, with only three runners behind him. He looks distraught.

"Are you okay?" I ask, as he hands his finishing disc to Mr Bentley.

"Yeah," he says disconsolately, looking like he's about to burst into tears.

As he puts on his training pants, I notice that none of his teammates has said a word to him. I've no idea what that's about, but I don't like it.

Having completed my warm-up, I remove my training pants before changing into my spikes, making sure that they're on securely. I and my team mates make our way to the start, where Mr Bentley takes our training tops. We line up; the gun sounds, and we're on our way.

We're doing an opening loop of 1200 metres, followed by two laps each of 2400 metres. That's well within what we're used to. After the opening loop, Patrick is up at the front contesting the lead. Nathan and I are some distance behind, but still in the top ten, with Jon and Simon a little further back.

On the first of the long laps, Nathan and I hold our positions. So far, it's going well. We head out onto the final lap. Following a flat section around the playing fields, we begin to climb. This is where I have to make it count. While not doing anything extravagant, I gradually pull away from my younger teammate, and before the end, I reel in one of our opponents.

Having crossed the finishing line, I'm handed a metal disc bearing the number 7. I'll settle for that! With Patrick having won the race and Nathan finishing ninth, we've scored 17 points. Behind us, Simon and Jon finished 14th and 15th, with Simon outsprinting Jon on the run-in to the line, while Rhys backed up his recent form to finish 20th.

"We'll have placed second in the team race," Mr Bentley says confidently. "Wellstead's third scorer was one place in front of Ian, so they've clearly won it, but I'm sure we've beaten everyone else."

"Sir, are Wellstead the ones in the red vests?" I ask.

"Yes, that's right."

"How did the younger lads get on?"

"They were third, which is excellent considering that they really haven't raced before."

"Sir," I ask, lowering my voice. "After the under-15s' race, I noticed that none of the other lads was speaking to Jake. It was like they were ignoring him."

"Yes," he says, sounding concerned. "I saw that too. I don't know what's going on there. I need have a word with Mr Saunders."

With both our teams having won medals, we have to stay for the presentations. As it's a pleasant afternoon, I decide not to have a shower until I get home, so once I've warmed down, I spend the time watching the senior men's race.

I'm amazed by how fast the leaders are running. I mean, these guys aren't internationals or anything; they're just good club runners. Even so, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to run as quickly as they can.

With the race at an end, I make my way into the school hall. Joining my teammates, I see that Jon's looking a bit down. I'm pretty sure I know why.

"Don't worry about Simon beating you," I say quietly. "He's a year older than you, and he's a class act. Last season, I think I only beat him once."

"Really?" he says, brightening up a little.

"Yeah! He's been playing cricket all summer, so he's only just starting to get fit. Just try to stay as close to him as you can, yeah?"

"Yeah, thanks!"

As we're still waiting for the presentations, I check the results sheets for the races that we were involved in. In the under-15's race, Wellstead AC won with 13 points; Northdene Harriers were second with 18 points. Our boys scored 25 to finish third, narrowly beating Stone Park Olympic, who got 28. In our race, Wellstead AC scored 14 points to our 17, while Northdene took the bronze medals with 24.

Finally, all the medals and trophies have been presented, and it's time for us to go home. Overall, it's been a good day.

It's eight o'clock when I reach Scott's flat.

"You won again then?" I say brightly as he lets me in.

"Yeah," he acknowledges. "We played well today."

"How did you do?" I ask.

"Good! After all the rushing around I did earlier in the week, I was sharper than I thought I'd be. My pace was good, my touch was good; the crosses and cut-backs were going where I wanted them to. I guess you must have days like that when you think, 'Yeah, I'm really on it today'. Well, it was one of those. Anyway, how did you get on?"

"In the team race, we were second," I say, producing my silver medal. "But all the other teams were club teams."

"That's very good then. And where did you finish?"

"Seventh; Patrick won it and Nathan was ninth."

"Excellent! I don't think I know Nathan."

"He's in Year 11. I guess he'd be a couple of inches taller than you, nice looking, lovely physique. Nice guy too! On the faster courses, he always beats me, but it was quite hilly today, so I managed to get away from him."

"Right! Well, I'm delighted to see you getting the reward for all the work you've put in."

"You're knocking on the door of the play-off places now," I suggest.

"Yeah, apart from getting mullered up at Burnley, we've been on a pretty good run recently. We're starting to play the way we know we can. The challenge now is to keep it going. When we're away to one of the better teams in the division, we need to be able to get something out of the game. That's where we really need to improve."

"So how do you do that?" I ask, snuggling up to him.

"Since the Burnley match, we've talked about it quite a bit," he says, wrapping his arm around me. "When we went up there, we showed them a bit too much respect. We allowed them to dictate how the game was going to be played. We should have taken the game to them far more than we did."

As I snuggle even closer, Scott smiles down at me, our lips meeting in a passionate kiss.

I know it probably sounds weird, but I actually enjoy exam weeks. As long as I've put the work in, as I always have, the exams are my opportunity to show what I can do. Apart from a few butterflies beforehand, I don't get nervous. Once I'm in there, I simply get my head down and focus on doing the best I can.

During the exam period, that's all we're expected to do. We aren't set any actual homework, so things are far more relaxed than they are at other times. Having said that, these are the most demanding exams I've ever done. In all our GCSE exams back in the summer, I completed every question with time to spare. This time, I'm not able to do that.

On the first paper of our maths exam, I manage ten questions out of twelve, leaving out two questions I don't know how to do. The next day, in our history exam, we have to select three questions out of five. Even though the exam lasts two and half hours, I run out of time and can't finish answering my third question. Wednesday morning's art exam is pretty straightforward, but it needed to be, otherwise I'd have been really worried.

It's Wednesday afternoon and we're racing again. One of the schools taking part is the boys' grammar school from Sutton Coldfield. Unsurprisingly, they beat us again, but not by anywhere like as much as they did on their own course. I finish seventh, one place behind Nathan, while in the team race, we comfortably manage second place. We're definitely getting better.

The following morning, it's the second paper of our maths exam. This time, I'm able to do six and half questions out of eight, leaving out one whole question and half of another. And that's it. We've finished. With no classes scheduled until the following Monday, I spend Thursday afternoon and the whole of Friday working in the art area.

Looking back at the maths and history exams, provided that what I've done is correct, it'll be enough for me to get good grades. I'm fairly confident, but until we get our papers back, I can't be totally sure. Certainly, there are areas where I need to improve. These exams have reminded me that I've still got lots of work to do.

After a pleasant but unremarkable weekend, I head back to school. It's time for the reckoning. We begin with maths, Mr Hawkes returning our scripts for Paper One. As most of what I did was right, I've scored 74 per cent, which places me equal fifth out of the fourteen students in the class, and has been rated as a grade B. From there, an A is definitely within reach.

At this point, my top priority is to sort out the two questions that I wasn't able to do. By referring back to work we did earlier in the term, and summoning a little help from Mr Hawkes, I manage to do them both.

In addition, I note down these topics as ones that I'll need to focus on the next time we're preparing for exams, and Mr Hawkes points out exercises in the text book which I can do to become more familiar with questions like these.

By contrast, several of my classmates don't seem that bothered. It's like they've done their exams, it's nearly Christmas and they can deal with it later. Well, maybe they can, but I can't do that. I find maths hard. If I'm going to get the sort of grade I'll need to get into somewhere like The Bartlett, I'll have to stay on top of it all the way through. If I let stuff get away from me, I'm going to be in trouble.

After break, it's history. This time I've scored 78 per cent. Once again, that's not far short of an A-grade. The problem here was that I, along with most of my classmates, spent too much time thinking.

Mr Anderson talks to us about creating and memorising lists of bullet-points that are relevant to particular topics, so that when we get into the exam, we'll be able to build our answers around these bulleted lists.

To me, this sounds like good advice. For A-level, we're expected to put in so much more than we were at GCSE. Memorising a list of key points should help me to cut down the amount of time I need to spend thinking.

The following morning, Mr Hawkes returns our second maths papers. With the one and a half questions that I wasn't able to do, and a few errors that I really shouldn't have made, I've ended up with 69 percent. It's still rated as a B-grade, but I'm not happy with it. I know I should have done better.

As with the first paper, I set about understanding the things that went wrong, starting with the questions that I was unable to do. I don't care what anyone else thinks. I've finished somewhere short of where I want to be. I'm going to use this time to start making up the gap.

It's Wednesday, and we're on our way to our final race of the term, The Hampton Trophy. The race is held on a really tough course near Stoke on Trent, and attracts schools from all over the Midlands and north of England.

I'm really looking forward to it. Last season, it was my breakthrough, the first time I made the scoring six. On a course that really suited me, in the latter stages I ran past Darren, Simon and Alan to finish in 23rd place, which helped us to win the silver medals.

We arrive an hour before the start. As usual, we walk around the course, mainly for the benefit of the Year 11 boys who haven't seen it before. As a result of the rain we've had recently, the wooded sections, which are mainly uphill, are even more of a mud-bath than they were last year.

When we emerge from the woods, the second half of the lap is over open grassland and involves two steep descents. Last year, they were firm and dry, and I absolutely flew down them. This year, they're wet and slippery. Even using 15mm spikes, there won't be much grip.

There's no way that I'll be able to run down them the way I did last year; it's just too dangerous. Even though I'll still probably be quicker than most of the other boys, I won't be able to pick up the huge number of places that I did the last time we were here. Much of my competitive advantage has just disappeared.

Of course, I am much fitter and more experienced than I was twelve months ago. Even taking it carefully on the downhill sections, I run through into eighteenth place. It's an improvement, of course, but well short of what I was hoping for.

In fact, none of us runs very well. Patrick, Alan and Simon all improve a few places on last year, but Nathan and Jon really struggle, barely making the top fifty. Darren and Rhys are even further back. It's a major disappointment. I knew we'd struggle to get into the medals this time around, but I hoped we'd do better than we have.

One thing that hasn't changed from last year is that we're all filthy. Rather dejectedly, we make our way to the changing rooms. As soon as we're showered and dressed, we head for home.

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