Juggling the Pieces

by Pink Panther

Chapter 31

February 2012

Before leaving the house on Thursday morning, I call Dean.

"Hi! " he greets. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Are you coming to run with us tomorrow?"

"Yeah. Six miles or so, and fairly relaxed; it that right?"

"Yeah! Do you think Rakesh would be up to doing that?"

"Oh, definitely!"

"If you're in touch with him, would you ask him if he'd like to come along? Jake will be there, so he won't be on his own. I should have asked him after the race last Saturday, but I forgot about it."

"Not a problem!" Dean responds. " I'll ask him."

After spending a large chunk of Thursday working on it, the drawing is almost finished. The following morning, the next training session with the cross-country squad is due to take place.

Jake is the first to arrive. A few minutes later, Dean and Rakesh show up, alleviating my concern about Jake getting lost. In the event, the two newbies cope with our steady six and half mile route with no problem. I'm delighted for them. Come September, they'll be ready to contribute to the team.

I could spend the afternoon finishing my drawing, but with the weather set fair for the weekend, I decide to leave it until the next morning. Instead, after a light lunch, I head over to Scott's place, arriving almost as soon as he's back from training.

Over the next couple of hours, we make wonderful, passionate love. Afterwards, I feel totally at peace, quietly confident that I'm ready to face the challenges ahead.

On Saturday morning, I'm out of the house before nine. All the drawing requires are the finishing touches, but I need to make sure that I do them properly. Over a period of more than two hours, I look repeatedly from my drawing to the cathedral and back again, to ensure that I've really captured what I'm seeing. As the cathedral clock strikes midday, I call a halt, happy that the drawing is as good as I can make it.

Arriving home, I find Dad sitting in the lounge. Taking the drawing from my folder, I show it to him.

"Oh, this is excellent," he enthuses. "I think it's the best you've ever done."

"Thanks, Dad," I say, feeling somewhat embarrassed.

"Do you have a few minutes?" he asks. " I'd like to have a little chat with you if that' s okay. "

"Sure. "

"I've decided that it's time for a career change," he says quietly as I settle myself on the sofa. " I'm going to continue with the model-making until the end of August, or thereabouts. After that, I'll be doing something else."

"Why?" I ask, taken completely by surprise. "I thought you loved what you do."

"I do. The problem is that it requires me to be away from home most of the time. Now as you know, over the past twenty years, your mum has dedicated her life to being here for you and Claire. It's not been ideal, but you and Claire have been well looked after, and we've all been able to catch up at weekends and during the holidays. Would you agree?"


"But with Claire already living up in Leeds, and you on the verge of moving to London, we needed to rethink. What sort of life d'you think your mum would have with neither of you here?"

"Pretty empty, I guess. I know she misses not having Claire around."

"Precisely. That's why we need to make a change. While you and Claire were at school, we were stuck. As you know, because it's so specialised, my present job pays very well. It's how we were able to afford your school fees. Now, not only is that about to come to an end, we've just finished paying off the mortgage on the house."

"Oh, right! Is that why you and Mum decided not to go on holiday last summer?"

"Correct! Now having got that sorted, we're in a position where I can look for something else to do that will enable me to live here full-time."

"Wow! Any idea yet what you're going to do?"

"Not really. I've been model-making since I finished my apprenticeship, which is more than twenty years ago. I'm going to need to spend some time looking around to see what's out there. I'll probably need to do some retraining. It's hard to say at this stage."

"Well thanks for telling me," I say, still feeling a bit shell-shocked.

A few minutes later, we sit down for lunch.

"I believe Dad's had a chat with you," Mum says brightly.

"Yes," I acknowledge.

"There's nothing for you to worry about," she continues. " We'll still be here if you need us."

"This isn't a last-minute thing," Dad explains. "Your mum and I started talking about it the summer before last, when we were in Italy. We could see that we were coming to a crossroads."

"As you and Claire move on with your lives, your dad and I will be moving on with ours," Mum concludes.

Despite Mum and Dad's assurances, it's still a shock. And while I have total confidence in Dad's abilities, I know enough to realise that finding a new way to earn a living won't be straightforward. On the other hand, I know he's doing it for Mum, and that has to be right. It's so confusing!

In their match that afternoon, Reavington get a two-all draw at home to one of the Championship's better teams. It's becoming a familiar story. They're still doing well going forward, but following Graeme McCall's departure, the defence just isn't solid enough. As a result, they've gone from play-off contenders to mid-table mediocrity .

I arrive at Scott's place at quarter to eight.

"How did it go this afternoon?" I ask as we head into the lounge.

"Much like it has been doing," he says, flopping down on the sofa. "Lee Baxter and I have built a great understanding. As a result, we scored two really good goals. Unfortunately, we gave away a couple of soft ones. It's frustrating. "

He looks at me intently.

"What's wrong, babe?" he asks, looking concerned.

"Oh, there's nothing wrong," I respond.

"Bollocks! " he contradicts. "Yesterday afternoon, you were as happy as I've ever seen you. Now you're not. Something's happened."

"When I got home after finishing my drawing, Dad wanted to have a chat with me. He told me that at the end of the summer, he's going to give up the model-making."

"Really? Why's that?"

"So that he can live at home full-time. Otherwise, once you and I start living together, Mum will be on her own most of the time. She'd hate it. She misses having Claire around as it is."

"Oh, right! Does your dad know what he's going to do yet?"

"No, that's the point. He's been a model-maker for over twenty years. He reckons he'll probably have to retrain, but I don't know what as."

"Is he coming over this evening?"

"Yeah, of course." I confirm.

"Good!" Scott says, smiling, and promptly changes the subject.

Dad arrives at quarter past ten. As usual, we sit watching Match of the Day and talking about football. The programme ends at half past eleven.

"Okay! " Dad says brightly. "It's time I got this young man home. He'll be out running again in the morning."

"Just before you go," Scott says. "Ian tells me that you're looking at a change of career."

"Sort of," Dad says guardedly.

"Ian didn't volunteer that information," Scott explains, "But when he arrived this evening, I could see he was a bit worried, so I asked him what it was about."

"Fair enough," Dad says.

"I've got some ideas that I'd like to discuss with you," Scott continues. "I can't make tomorrow. I've got to join up with the England Under-21 squad. We're playing Belgium at The Riverside on Wednesday. Would you be able to come over next Sunday, while Ian and his friends are out running? We can have an exploratory discussion."

"Sure! I can't see any harm in that," Dad agrees.

"Great!" Scott says. " We'll firm up the arrangements next week."

It's Monday and we're back at school. To be honest, it suits me. I guess it's like my comfort zone. At morning break, I head to the art rooms to find Mr Gault. I show him the drawing.

"Oh, that's more than good enough," he says approvingly. "It's one of the best drawings of the cathedral that I've seen. You've captured it beautifully."

"Thanks, sir!" I respond.

Opening my folder, I take out the envelope and slot the drawing inside, along with the return slip, before making sure that it's securely sealed.

After cross-country training, I make my way to the post office. I send the drawing by first-class post, recorded delivery. All I can do now is wait.

On Wednesday evening, the England under-21s thrash Belgium 4 – 0, with Scott getting two assists. I'm delighted for him. With Reavington no longer doing so well, being part of a performance like that will be a major confidence boost.

Apart from that, the week passes uneventfully. That's good. With several major challenges on the horizon, I want to keep everything else as low-key as possible.

Right now, I'm up in my room, getting changed after our Sunday morning training run. While we were out, Dad went over to Scott's place for their 'exploratory discussion'. I did ask Scott what it was about, but he said that he wanted to talk to Dad first, so I left it at that. I know that they'll tell us what's going on before finalising anything.

Showered and dressed, I head back downstairs, wandering into the kitchen to see if Mum needs any help.

"Just set the table, please," she says. "Your dad's on his way back, so we'll be eating in ten minutes."


I've just finished when Dad appears.

"How did it go?" I ask.

"I'll tell you over lunch," he says, smiling.

A few minutes later, we sit down to eat.

"Right!" Dad says. "Let me tell you what this morning's discussion was about. As you know," he continues, nodding at me, "Scott is now earning a great deal of money. Clearly, his top spending priority is to acquire a place in London for the two of you to live. Once he's dealt with that, he wants to start investing a proportion of his income by setting up a property development company, to buy residential properties that need refurbishment, do the work on them, and either sell them on or rent them out."

"You mean like on Homes Under the Hammer? " I ask.

"Exactly that," Dad responds. "Apparently, Scott approached Bill Gardner, but although Bill will be quite happy to work as a contractor, he doesn't want to be part of the company. So this morning, Scott asked me if I'd be interested. Basically, he'd look after the financial side; I'd be responsible for acquiring the properties and project-managing the refurbishments. In practice, I'd probably do quite a lot of the work myself, and bring in the specialised trades when we needed them."

"Wow!" I say, trying to stay reasonably calm. "So what d'you think?"

"I think it has a lot going for it," Dad says. "For a start, it would involve me doing the sort of things I enjoy, and consider myself to be fairly good at. Yes, I would need to broaden my skills so that I could do things like plastering and plumbing. I'd also need to make sure I understood building regulations and all of that. But I think it could be a great opportunity."

"So what's the downside?"

"Scott doesn't expect to have any money to invest until around this time next year. That means I'd have to live for six months without a regular income. But by the time I finish the model-making, we'll have a bit of money tucked away, and we'll still have your mum's salary, of course, so it is doable. To be honest, I'd probably have to go through that whatever I chose to do. And in between whatever training I'm doing, I'll probably be able to pick up some casual work doing this and that. And you don't need to worry. We'll give you the same allowance that Claire gets."

"You give Claire an allowance?" I query.

"Yes, of course," Mum says firmly. "Even though she's living rent-free, she needs money for clothes and books and general living expenses; and so will you. Even though you'll also be living rent-free, and Scott's offered to pay your tuition fees so that you won't have to take out a student loan, we won't leave you in a position where you have no money of your own."

I'm stunned into silence, feeling like a complete idiot. I had no idea how any of this worked.

"We give Claire £250 per month," Dad says quietly, "and you'll get the same. It'll just give you a bit of independence."

"Thanks!" I mumble. "What do you think, Mum?"

"Well, they say you shouldn't work with friends or family because it strains the relationship, but I think we're sufficiently aware of the pitfalls to avoid them."

"For a twenty-year old, Scott has his head very well screwed-on," Dad says quietly. "He could have invested via a company that will do everything for him, but he wants to be more hands-on than that. He also knows that in the long term, if we do it ourselves, the returns will be much better. For sure, there are still lots of details to be worked out, but it's certainly an opportunity I'd like to pursue."

"Go for it!" I say, grinning.

When I get home on Wednesday afternoon, there's a letter waiting for me. On Thursday of next week, I've got an interview at UCL. I'm so excited, I'm straight on the phone to Scott to tell him about it.

"Well done, babe!" he says warmly. "Just stay relaxed and be yourself. You'll be fine!"

The next day, I receive another letter, telling me that I've been selected to run at the English Schools' Cross-Country Championships. As the races are being held in Somerset, which is not that far from here, we'll be travelling there and back on the day. We'll be issued with our county kit, and given all the other information we need, at a team meeting to be held at Monkswood Athletics Stadium on the evening of Monday March 12th, five days before the event.

March 2012

Although I've kept myself focused on all the usual routine stuff, the past week seems to have gone past in something of a blur. But today's the day. A few weeks ago, Scott had his decision day. Now I've got mine. It's ten past ten, and rather than being at school, I've just boarded the train to London.

I'm not wearing school uniform, of course. Nobody does that! Instead, I'm dressed in my best jeans, CAT boots, Adidas hoodie and Berghaus cagoul. The important thing is that I'm comfortable, which will help me relax. Despite Scott and Anthony's reassuring words, I am nervous. What happens today could have a major bearing on my future.

I take out the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that I borrowed from the school library. Anthony told me it was a book I had to read. He was right. Everybody ought to read it.

The journey takes well over two hours, mainly because the train stops at almost every station until it reaches Oxford. After that, it speeds up a little. As soon as we leave Slough, I set about eating the packed lunch that I've brought, finishing it just as we pull into Paddington Station.

Leaving the train, I take the tube (metro) to Euston Square before embarking on the short walk to Gordon Street, where the school of architecture is located. This is Bloomsbury, where the Bloomsbury Group, the famous group of artists, writers and academics, used to meet in the nineteen twenties and thirties. The area has a calm, almost tranquil atmosphere, very different from most of central London.

I arrive at the school and report to reception. Three boys and two girls are already waiting, clearly here for the same reason that I am. Over the next twenty minutes, we're joined by several more. I eye them suspiciously. They're not friends; they're competitors. For an institution as prestigious as this, there are far more applicants than places. I don't want to get too close. There's some uneasy conversation, mainly about where we've come from, nothing more. I can sense that they're as nervous as I am.

As the time ticks towards half past one, two students appear, second year undergraduates, they tell us. They take us on a tour around the school. To call it impressive doesn't do it justice. It's exciting and inspiring, like modern architecture heaven. I absolutely have to come here.

By quarter past two, we're back in reception. We're divided into three groups of four. The first group are taken away to be interviewed. I'm in the second group. Sitting here doing nothing is not an option. I'll get too nervous. I open To Kill a Mockingbird at the bookmark and resume reading.

"They're ready for you now," one the students says, a short while later.

I put my book away and follow him along the corridor.

"You're highly honoured," he says. "You're with Professor Jowett."

He ushers me into an office. A tall man of around forty is sitting behind a desk, a younger man sitting to the side of it.

"Good afternoon Ian," the tall man says, getting to his feet. " I'm Professor Jowett and this is Doctor Groves."

"Pleased to meet you," I say, shaking hands with both of them.

"Make yourself comfortable," the professor says, indicating a chair in front of the desk. "Can you tell us why you chose to draw your local Cathedral?"

"I just think it's a magnificent building," I say. "There are some modern buildings in the city, but they're all pretty ordinary. There's nothing that compares with the cathedral."

"That makes sense," Doctor Groves, says, nodding. "You certainly seem to have a great affinity with it. But you are interested in modern architecture too?"

"Oh yes!" I assure him.

We talk about when I first got interested in building and architecture, the design work that I've done, architects who inspire me, the buildings I've visited and why I want to come to UCL. They seem genuinely interested in what I have to say. I can't believe how relaxed it is. I was expecting to face some awkward, searching questions, but up to now, there haven't been any.

"So tell me about being in the cross-country team," Professor Jowett asks, changing the subject.

I briefly explain the background.

"So initially, it was your route out of having to play football and rugby?" he queries.

"Yes," I confirm. "I started running as a way to get fitter and stronger. I really didn't want to race. But Mr Lenham, the Head of boy's physical education, told me that if I wanted to run during games classes, rather than playing football or rugby, I'd have to agree that when I reached Year Eleven, I'd join the school cross-country team. It was a no-brainer really."

"From what your school has told us," he goes on, "in your first year running for the team, you showed yourself to be a competent runner, but no more than that. Can you explain how came to be appointed as team captain?"

Fuck! Just when I thought I'd got away without having to face any difficult questions, they throw me a real curved ball. As diplomatically as I can, I explain the situation we faced as I looked forward to my second season, while trying to play down my part in it.

"Just leaving things as they were would have been horrible," I tell them. "Running would have become a chore. I wanted us to be a proper team, like we'd been the year before, training hard and taking a pride in being the best we could be. We still didn't win very much."

"I see," he says thoughtfully. "But it laid the foundations for the success you've enjoyed this year."

"Yes, I'm sure that's right. But it isn't all down to me. The lads have been superb."

A few minutes later, they send me on my way. I think it went well. They certainly seemed to like me, but it was so far from what I'd expected, it's difficult to judge.

The following Monday, when I get home from school, there's another letter waiting for me. UCL have offered me a place, on condition that I get a double A-grade for Art & Design, an A for Maths and a B for History.

Wow! After the interview, I was pretty hopeful that I'd be offered a place. Being made an offer with lower grade requirements than I'd expected is a real bonus. Mr Carter must have given me an amazing reference.

Having said that, only needing a double A-grade for Art and Design and a B for history won't make that much difference. I've been aiming all along to get higher grades than that, and I'm not about to slacken off now. But it does focus my attention on making sure I get an A-grade for maths. I am not going to mess it up!

After dinner, Mum drives me to the track at Monkswood, near where Patrick lives, for the team meeting to prepare for the English Schools' Cross-Country Championships this coming Saturday.

Patrick is an old hand at this, and Niall and Nathan went last year, so they know the drill too. Along with Jon and Gary, it's my first time. The team managers talk to us for around twenty minutes.

Most of the information they give us is all pretty straightforward. The order of the races will be the same as it was at our county championships; intermediates, followed by juniors, followed by seniors; girls before boys in each case. We're reminded about the importance of good manners, especially towards our two coach drivers. We're warned not to make a mess on the coach, and not to put on spikes until we've got off the coach, and to take them off before we get back on. To be honest, it's all stuff I'd have done anyway.

For the benefit of newbies like me, they explain the system of starting pens. For each race, every team is allocated a starting pen, which are drawn at random. Within that starting pen, the team has to line up one behind the other. I guess with more than 300 runners in every race, it's the only fair way to do it.

The overall team manager tells us that our teams will line up in the order in which we finished in the county championships, which also seems fair. He also emphasises that it's important that the lead runner gets out quickly. Actually, it shouldn't affect me too much. I'll be lined up right behind Patrick, who always starts fast. It will affect Jon and Gary though, as they'll both be going out sixth.

We 're then given the coach schedule. Because this is a largely rural county, it covers a large area, and so the two coaches will take different routes. The six of us from The Grammar School, plus a few other kids, will be picked up from outside the bus station at half past eight. That's going to require a very early start!

"Right!" the senior team manager says. "Are there any questions?"

"Do we know what the course is like?" Patrick asks.

"It's on open, uncultivated land."

"Do we know how hilly it is?" someone else asks.

"Sorry; we don't have any information about that."

So that's it. It seems like we'll need to be ready for just about anything.

Finally, we're issued with our county kit: running vest, shorts and tracksuit. We head to the changing rooms to make sure they fit okay. I check myself out. The vest's fine. The shorts don't have sewn-in briefs, so on the day, I'll have to wear underpants. I guess the tracksuits are okay for an event like this where we need to establish our team identity, but stylish they're not. On other occasions, I wouldn't be seen dead in one.

The following morning, my form tutor Mr Lewis asks me to report to Mr Carter's office at morning break.

"Thanks for coming," Mr Carter says, welcoming me into his office. "Have you received your formal offer from UCL?"

"Yes sir," I confirm. "It arrived yesterday. I need a double A-grade in Art and Design, an A for Maths and a B for History."

"Yes; they've written to us too. You made a very favourable impression. They're very keen for you to go there, which is why the grades they have asked for are a little lower than normal. Your work with the cross-country team made a big difference. It's about teamwork and leadership skills. Universities are always keen to recruit students who have demonstrated those qualities."

"Thanks sir," I respond quietly, feeling somewhat embarrassed.

"As UCL was your first choice, I take it you will be accepting their offer."

"Yes sir, definitely."

"Based on your mock exam results, you should be well capable of achieving the grades they're asking for. Are you confident that you can?"

"Yes sir. "

"You should be," he says looking at me intently. "Just keep focused on your goal. It's there for you. Right! Off you go, and well done!"

With six of us due to race on Saturday, Mr Bentley has withdrawn us from Wednesday afternoon's race. We could still have put out a team, but it would have been a very poor one.

Instead, we do an easy six-mile run followed by a few strides. Back in the changing rooms, we get ready to go home early, or in my case, to head over to Scott's place. Quite by chance, I'm changing next to Brian Armstrong.

"I'm sorry to tell you that you're going to have to put up with me next term as well," he says, giving me a wry smile.

"Really? I thought you went swimming."

"I did, but right at the end of last summer term, three of us got caught skiving off. Lenny says that this year, we won't be allowed out of school."

This is not what I want to hear. I don't want Brian taking part in our track sessions. He'll just trot round at his own pace, which will make it far too easy for the likes of Jake and Gary not to be last.

"I'm surprised you do this," I say candidly. "I thought you'd have picked something easy, like badminton or table tennis."

"You've obviously never seen me trying to hit a shuttlecock or a table-tennis ball," he responds acidly.

"Oh, right! It sounds like you're as bad as me."

"Worse, probably."

I need to find something to do with him. Then an idea occurs to me.

"Do you know how to use a stopwatch?" I ask.

"Sort of. Why?"

"We could do with a second timekeeper. Up to now, we've all trained together so that Olly can time us. If we had a second timekeeper, the eight-hundred metre runners like Tim and Shaun could train separately, which would be much better. If you're interested, I'm sure Olly would show you what to do."

"Oh, I'm interested. I can't see Lenny agreeing to let me do it though. He likes to make guys like me suffer 'in the name of physical fitness' . "

I eye him up, but don't respond. If he asks, there's no chance that Lenny will allow him to do it. On the other hand, if I ask, and explain how useful he could be, I might be able to swing it.

It's Saturday morning. At twenty past eight, Dad drops me outside the bus station. Niall and Jon are already there. Over the next few minutes, everyone else arrives, all of us, as instructed, dressed in our team kit. Apart from the six of us from the Grammar School, there are three girls and another boy.

Just before half past eight, the team coach shows up. As we board, one of the female team managers checks us off. I find a window seat on my own, take out my copy of Brighton Rock, and settle down to read. After a couple more pick-ups, we hit the M5 and we're properly on our way.

Following a quick comfort break, where we rendezvous with our other coach, we leave the motorway near Taunton and head towards Ilminster. At quarter to eleven, we arrive at the venue.

Getting off the coach, we stretch our legs and look around. The coach park is adjacent to a large sports centre that's been built right on the edge of the town. Beyond it, fields stretch away into the distance. It's a pretty decent day, with light cloud and a gentle breeze. Now all we have to do is perform.

As the senior boys' race is not due to start until 3.00 pm, we decide to walk the course straightaway. Our team manager will give us our competitors' numbers later. As we start our recce, I note a number of things. First, although there are some stretches where the ground is quite firm, most of it is fairly soft. It's okay now, but by the time we're due to race, it will be seriously cut up.

The second thing I notice as that although it's nowhere near as hilly as the Hampton Cup course, it's definitely not flat. It's unusual too, in that the finish is right at the top of the course. After a slightly uphill start, we have to run past the finish and over a gently undulating plateau. The ground then slopes away, the course taking us in a sweeping arc to its lowest point. After a sharp left turn, we climb back up again.

The bottom line is that the last mile of every race will be almost entirely uphill. Although it's not especially steep, with the ground being quite testing, it's going to be brutal. Guys who are still going well will be able to pick up lots of places. Grabbing Jon's attention, I quietly explain it to him.

"This is going to be tough," Nathan says, joining us.

"You can't afford to dawdle, but you have to have enough left to run that last mile," I advise. "There are going to be guys who hit that bottom corner with a mile to go and have nothing left in their legs. Make sure you're not one of them."

"What spikes are you going to use?" Patrick asks.

"Fifteens," I respond, (meaning 15mm spikes). "If we were racing now, I'd use twelves, but by the time we run, the course will have had more than a thousand pairs of feet over it. It's going to be a mess."

With the other lads nodding their agreement, we stroll back to the coach park. Mr Black, who's in charge of our senior boys' team, gives us our competitors' numbers and an envelope full of safety pins. Getting back onto the coach, we help each other to put them on, making sure that they're properly secure.

Stepping off the coach again, I see Niall and Gary with the Intermediate Boys' squad. I stroll across to them.

"Have you seen the course?" I ask.

They nod. " I'm looking forward to it," Gary says, a gleam in his eye. "This is proper cross-country! If I run like I did at the Hampton Trophy, I should do okay!"

"That last mile's tough," I say quietly, looking at Niall. "You have to hold a bit in reserve. Otherwise, you could grind to a halt."

"I'm going to try to stay as relaxed as I can while keeping in touch with the leaders," he explains.

"That sounds like a plan!" I agree.

At half past twelve, the races start. I wouldn't watch the intermediate girls, even if I wasn't racing myself. Instead, two and a half hours before we're due to run, I and my three schoolmates return to the coach and collect the packed lunches we've brought, spending the next twenty minutes munching our way through them. That's it now. We won't have anything more to eat until after we' ve run.

With that out of the way, we take up a position about half a mile from the start. At one o'clock, the intermediate boys get underway. By the time they reach us, they're already well spread out. With more than 300 starters, I guess that' s inevitable.

Close to the front, I spot Niall, who looks relaxed and controlled. That's good. Although he's not run in many big races, he's a class act, and he's used to running against boys up to two years older than he is. I'm sure he'll be fine. With so many runners coming through, it's impossible to pick out anyone else.

We stroll across to the far side of the course so that we can see them again when they're around halfway up the long climb. A few minutes later, they come into view. Niall's running just outside the top ten, but looking very comfortable. With another lap to run, he has plenty of time to pick off some of the boys in front of him.

Looking back through the field, Gary's not even in the top hundred, but having been sixth in the pen, I guess that's to be expected. He'll come into his own on the second lap, as boys ahead of him begin to tire.

Conscious of the need not to waste energy, we decide to stay where we are. After waiting for several minutes, we see the leaders heading towards us. A tall lad, who looks more like eighteen than sixteen, has broken clear. With a twenty-yard gap already, he's running superbly, moving further away with every stride.

A little further back, Niall has moved up to eighth place, with three other boys not far in front of him.

"Come on, Niall!" we shout enthusiastically. "You're doing fantastic!"

Almost before we know it, we spot Gary, who's just outside the top fifty, and gaining places all the time. I know that on a course like this, I'd expected him to do well, but this is amazing! And the way he's going, he'll pick up a good few more places before the finish.

By the time that we've wandered back there, guys are starting to emerge from the finish area. We spot Niall, who's with his parents, putting his tracksuit back on.

"Where did you finish?" I ask.

"Sixth," he says, grinning.

"That's great!" I respond. "When you passed us, you were eighth, with three guys not far in front of you."

"Yeah, well I managed to pass two of them," he says. "I just couldn't get to the other one."

"Well, you had a great run. D'you know where Gary finished?"

"37th; he was our third scorer."

"That's fantastic!" I enthuse.

"Yeah, totally," Niall agrees. "I know the course suited him, but you've still got to do it."

He's right, of course. When it mattered most, Gary delivered, finishing ahead of three of the boys who beat him in the county championships. That's just the way he is. I find it inspiring. If he can do it, so can I.

It's quarter past two, time for Patrick and I to go into our pre-race bubble. After collecting our shoe-bags from the coach, we jog and we stretch; working together like we usually do. At twenty to three, we report to Mr Black, giving him our tracksuit bottoms. After changing into our spikes, we hand him our shoe-bags too, before moving away to do a few strides.

With ten minutes to go, we make our way to our starting pen. We're in Pen 18, which is near the middle. Lining up in order, we go through a practice start, just to give us the idea of getting out quickly. As 3.00 pm approaches, we take off our tracksuit tops, handing them to Mr Black and one of the female team managers.

Finally, we're under orders, the hooter sounds and we're on our way. The sheer number of people involved makes it unlike any other start I've ever experienced. Not only do I need to get out fast, I have to make sure that I don't trip over anyone, and that nobody obstructs me or pushes me out of the way. Somehow, I make it unscathed.

After a quarter of a mile, we reach the top of the rise. Turning to our left, we run a hundred yards, past where we'll turn into the finish, before heading out across the plateau. Almost immediately, the two guys who were behind me in the pen come past me.

That suits me fine. They've got far more experience than I have, so at this stage, I'm quite happy to have them in front of me. As long as I keep them in sight, I'm sure I'll be able to deal with them towards the end of the race.

We have to run two and half laps, which will be just short of five miles. We're doing the half-lap first, so on reaching the edge of the plateau, instead of swinging right-handed to follow the main lap, we turn left, running slightly downhill to rejoin the main lap almost halfway up the slope.

Largely following the perimeter of the field, we climb steadily around an anti-clockwise arc until we pass the run-out from the start, and begin our first full lap. I'm well into my running now and feeling comfortable. I'm not sure what position I'm in. The two team-mates who passed me early on are still a short distance ahead, so I'm guessing I must be somewhere between 40th and 50th.

This lap is all about holding my position while conserving energy. Basically, I need to switch off and just run. Reaching the edge of the plateau, we head onto the main lap, dropping down a little more sharply than we did before. This is what I do best. Allowing myself to relax, I pick up a few places without even trying.

Reaching the bottom, I turn onto the long steady climb. With almost three miles to go, I need to keep it steady, maintaining my position without wasting energy. Finally, we reach the top and head out onto our final lap. One of our team managers barks at me that I'm in 43rd place. As I'm still feeling good, that's okay for now.

Arriving at the edge of the plateau, we begin our descent. Once again, I relax, allowing my stride to lengthen, but this time I overtake several runners, including one of my team-mates.

We turn onto the final climb. As I expected, several of the guys ahead of me are beginning to struggle. This is where I have to take advantage of being one of the smallest, lightest guys in the race. I attack it steadily, picking up one place after another, just like Gary did. Halfway up, I overtake my other team-mate.

A few yards further on, Niall and Gary are screaming at me that I'm in the top thirty. That's not bad, but for me the important thing is that I've still got plenty more targets to aim at. I press on, continuing to pick them off. As I reach the top, my legs are still working, and I'm still going past people.

We pass the run-out from the start. Then, after another hundred yards, we turn left for the run to the finish line. Although I'm maintaining my rhythm, two guys that I've just overtaken sprint past me. I can't respond. I've got nothing left.

Once across the line, we're shepherded into the finishing funnel. At the far end, we're given our finishing discs. Mine bears the number 16. Wow! I had no real idea where I'd finish, but in the biggest, toughest race I've ever taken part in, I'll settle for that.

As I emerge, one of the lads who ran for us in the junior boys' race grabs me and takes me over to Mr Black. I hand him my disc.

"Well done, Ian!" he says warmly. "That's a great result!"

"Where did Patrick finish?" I ask.

"He was third."

I'm elated. After all the work we've put in, we've got our reward. The lad who brought me to Mr Black hands me my tracksuit top and bottoms, identified by the numbers that have been put onto the inside.

"Sorry," he says, giving me a starry-eyed look. "I didn't know which your shoe-bag was."

"No problem, " I say, smiling. " I'll find it."

He is actually very cute. I know at least one guy who wouldn't mind a roll in the hay with him.

By the time I've put my tracksuit on and changed into my trainers, our other scorers have finished. The two guys who passed me early on finished 30th and 34th, Nathan was 48th and Jon 51st. Wow! I knew Nathan and Jon were running well, but I hadn't expected them to finish as high as that.

"I tried to keep you in sight," Nathan explained, "which I did till you went down the bank on the last lap. You just fled!"

"I just did what you said," Jon adds. "I picked up lots of places on the last lap. I almost got to Nathan, but I just couldn't make it."

"Just as well," Nathan quips. "After the Hampton Trophy, I couldn't have let you beat me here!"

Mr Black 's pretty excited too.

"For a smallish county like ours, 182 points is an amazing score," he tells us. "We have to be among the top teams. We might even have won it."

After the other lads have put on their tracksuits and trainers, we make our way out of the restricted area around the finish. My eyes almost fall out! A few yards away, Patrick's with Mr Bentley, who's chatting to Mum and Dad! I go over to them.

"I didn't know you were coming," I protest.

"We didn't want you to," Dad says. "You might have felt under pressure, and we didn't want that. But having never seen you race, and we really thought we should, today especially. We came with Mr and Mrs Taylor. It's been a great event; very well organised, and you guys have been tremendous!"

"I don't usually come to the English Schools' , " Mr Bentley adds, "but we've never had so many representatives. You boys have really done us proud!"

"Thanks, sir!" I say, grinning. I turn to Patrick. " D 'you know where Gavin Shaughnessy finished?" I ask, thinking that he might have won it.

"Fifth," Patrick says casually. "The guys who beat me were both from the south; the winner's from Suffolk, the guy who was second's from Hampshire."

"Okay, " Dad says. " We 'd better let you go. I'll pick you up from the bus station at eight. Text me if your timings change by more than a few minutes."

"Cool! I'll see you then!"

After collecting our bags, we head into the leisure centre to get showered and changed. Dressed in our own clothes, we make our way into the sports hall where the presentations are about to take place. In the event, we finished third in the senior boys' race, the winners having scored 149 and the second team 160.

In the course of the presentations, Patrick receives a bronze medal for his third-place finish. In addition, for finishing in the top eight of the intermediate boys' race, Niall has been selected to run at the Schools' International next Saturday, where they'll compete against teams from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All eight of them are presented with team colours.

Finally, the presentations are at an end. Returning to the coaches, we hand in our kit and have it checked off. By the time we're ready to roll, it's almost half past five. I sit next to Patrick, who looks as tired as I do. Taking out my phone, I send a text to Scott.

Hi! We've had a good day. I finished 16th. Patrick was 3rd. We were 3rd team, out of 39. Niall Taylor finished 6th in the intermediates race. See you tomorrow afternoon! Hugs! I.

"Was that to Scott?" Patrick asks quietly.


"Cool!" he says, grinning.

A few minutes later, I receive a reply.

Well done! I'm really pleased for you. You deserve it after all the work you've put in. We won 3 – 1, one of our better results! See you tomorrow! Hugs! S.

Fortunately, the traffic's light and we make good time. At five to eight, we reach the bus station. I'm pleased to see that Dad's already arrived. As soon as I've collected my bag, he takes it from me. After taking a moment to say goodbye to the rest of the crew, I follow him to the car.

"By the time we get home, you'll have been out for twelve hours," Dad observes, "which includes running in the hardest race you've ever taken part in. That is one hell of a day! You must be knackered!"

"Yeah!" I admit, smiling. "But it's been worth it."

"You weren't planning on going to Scott's this evening, were you?"

"No; we were always going to be too late getting back. I'll see him tomorrow afternoon."

Arriving home, we make our way inside.

"Just leave your bag there," Mum says. "Take your coat off and come and sit down."

Having directed me to the table, she puts a plate or steak and chips in front of me, like I'm being waited on. It looks delicious.

"Aren 't you eating?" I ask.

"We stopped for a meal on the way home," Mum responds.

"We really enjoyed today," Dad says, sitting down at the table. "There were around 2000 runners taking part, and it was so well-organised. That's a huge undertaking." He pauses for a moment, "Tell me," he goes on. "Did you plan to come through on the last lap like that? I noticed earlier in the day that Gary did much the same thing."

"Yeah," I explain. "Actually, Jon did too. When we looked at the course, we could see that the last mile was going to be hard. That suits us. As long as we were still going well, we'd be able to pick up lots of places."

"Oh, I see," he says, smiling. "It definitely worked!"

I finish eating, the meal having been as good as it looked.

"Thanks, Mum!" I say, smiling. "I could get used to this kind of service!"

"You've got no chance!" she shoots back. "Today, you've earned it."

Well, I'm not going to disagree!

As soon as Match of the Day has finished, I make my way to bed. Even though I'm very tired, sleep does not come easily, today's race running over and over through my brain. I keep wondering what would have happened if I'd gone a bit faster early in the race. Might I have done even better?

That's stupid, I tell myself. I had my race strategy which I implemented as well as I could. By the end of the race, I was completely spent. Going off faster would probably have resulted in me struggling on the final climb, the very thing I'd been determined to avoid.

In any case, I need to be realistic. In the County Championships, with just under a mile to go, Patrick pulled away from me with no effort at all, which made it clear that he's in far better shape than I am. If I'd been offered a top-20 finish before yesterday's race, I'd have taken it. Finishing 16th was a bonus.

I'm not sure what time it is when I get to sleep, but it's late. When I wake up it's almost quarter to eight. I'm still feeling the effects of yesterday, not just the race, but all the time we spent travelling.

At half past ten, we gather for our usual Sunday morning run. With the track season due to start at the end of next month, Dean's training at the club, but all the rest of the Sunday crew are here.

I tell them the route that I've planned to do, an easy six miles.

"Okay, Rhys!" I say, turning to him. "You're leading! Let's go!"

It seems a bit strange to have Rhys, Jake and Rakesh at the front, while the rest of us trot along behind, but it works. By the time we get back to the house, I'm feeling much better.

Once the other guys have gone home, I have a soak in the bath. I'm on the way, but I still haven't fully recovered. After lunch, I head to Scott's place.

"How are you feeling?" he asks, welcoming me inside.

"Not bad," I say. "Still a bit fragile."

"It sounds like you could use another massage," he suggests.

"Another massage would be wonderful!" I enthuse.

"Come on then, babe!" he says gently, shepherding me into the bedroom.

The massage is heaven! I hadn't realised just how much I needed it. Afterwards, we spend almost two hours making passionate love. I needed that too. I'll never feel as close to anyone as I do to Scott. It just isn't possible.

The next few days are as low-key as I can make them. However, I do manage to chat to Olly Stephens, to ask if he'd be willing to teach Brian Armstrong how to be a time-keeper.

"No problem at all, if he's willing to learn," Olly says brightly. "He can borrow my old stopwatch. I've got a new one that enables me to record multiple times."


"I take it he'll be willing to time-keep at the athletics meetings we take part in? If he's going to be a time-keeper, Lenny will definitely expect him to do that. It's not a major commitment. Before the spring half-term, there are two friendly matches and the City Championships. There's another match after half-term, but we'll have done our A-levels by then."

"I'll ask him," I respond. "I can't imagine it being a problem."

At Wednesday afternoon's race, we're without Niall, who's running in the Schools' International in three days' time. We just do enough to win. In Niall's absence, Rhys and Gary fight it out for the honour of being our sixth scorer, Rhys prevailing by the smallest of margins.

Afterwards, I have a chat to Brian. I tell him what Olly said.

"Oh, that' s fine! " Brian responds, smiling. " I'll be more than happy to do that."

"Okay, I'll try to ask Lenny about it before the end of term. We've got the Sharnford Relay next week. I want to get that out of the way first."

"Oh, I remember that from last year! It was very exciting! D'you think we're going to win?"

"I think we've got a very good chance," I tell him.

The following morning, at break I go to see Mr Bentley.

"Sir, " I begin. " I'd like to discuss the running order for next Wednesday."

"Yes, we need to sort that out. Do you have something in mind?"

"Yes, sir. I'd start off the same way that we did last year, with Nathan on first and Simon on second. Then I'd put Jon on third leg, me on fourth, Patrick on fifth and Niall on anchor. If anyone drops out, the first reserve will be Shaun. He'll do okay around there."

"You've put our two weakest runners one after the other," he points out. "Are you sure that's a good idea? I'd have put you on third and Jon on fourth."

"I thought that to start with," I argue. "The problem with doing that is that I'd expect to be well in front by the end of my leg. Jon's not used to running on his own. He'll do better if he's got guys around him."

"Okay! And you're not going to put Patrick on anchor?"

"If it comes to a sprint finish, Patrick' s vulnerable. Niall 's the one runner we've got who's got a real turn of speed. I'd expect us to have a substantial lead by the end of Patrick' s leg. We'll send Niall out with instructions to run hard, but comfortably within himself, so that if anyone does catch him, he can latch onto them, and hopefully outkick them at the end."

"Fine! " he says. "You've thought it through. We'll go with that. D'you think we're going to win?"

"Last year, we were 84 seconds behind the winners," I say quietly. "Replacing Alan with Niall will save us at least 20 seconds. Jon will run at least 20 seconds faster than he did last year. If the rest of us are just ten seconds quicker than last year, overall, we'll be at least 80 seconds better off. So we must have a chance!"

It's Sunday morning. Over the past week, the weather has improved considerably. Today is pleasantly warm, with hazy sunshine and a light breeze, and the forecast for the next few days is more of the same. With the Sharnford Relay coming up, I hope it's right!

Shortly after ten, the guys start arriving for our Sunday morning run. When Niall shows up, he's wearing his English Schools' tracksuit.

"How did it go yesterday?" I ask.

"Great, thanks!" he says, smiling. "I finished second. I was pleased with that. We were running against teams from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With England being so much bigger, we dominated the team race."

"Did that big lad win again?" Jon asks.

"Cornford? Yeah. He looks so much older than everyone else, it wasn't much of a surprise. Actually, with only 32 runners, the race was pretty low-key. Cornford got away early on. I managed to hang in there with the others and outsprint them at the end."

"Where were you running?" I enquire.

"Singleton Park, in Swansea. It's undulating parkland; firm and smooth with nothing you could really call a hill. It couldn't have been more different from the English Schools. It suited me perfectly!"

"I'd have hated it!" Gary chips in.

"We 're doing another easy one this morning," I announce. " We 've got the Sharnford Relay on Wednesday, so we need to keep people fresh."

"Have you decided on the team yet?" Nathan asks.

"Yes," I respond, before going through the line-up that I agreed with Mr Bentley.

"So I get the glory leg?" Niall queries.

"Yeah. We're hoping to have have a substantial lead by the end of Patrick's leg. What we'll want you to do is to run hard, but not eyeballs-out, so that if anyone does catch you, you can get onto their shoulder and outkick them at the end."

"Cool!" he says, smiling. " I'm up for that!"

"Of course," I warn, "if we've gone really well, you could run your leg and not see anybody." I turn to the rest of the squad. " Okay, lads! " I announce. " Let 's go!"

"Am I leading again?" Rhys asks.

"Yeah, why not?" I respond, grinning.

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