FORTY-SIX IS A BIT old to be wearing a tracksuit for work.
Mr Hartshorne wiped the rear-view mirror and licked a finger, flattening the hairs behind his ears. Last night he’d tried speed dating at The Antelope and thought he’d hit it off with a lady called Sadie. He’d said that to her as well – you’re a lady called Sadie – and cringed as she fiddled with the sleeve of her cardigan, not knowing where to look. He’d bought her four glasses of dry white. He stuck to diet Coke with ice and a slice. She’d asked him how old he was and Mr Hartshorne raised his hands in mock surrender, but he told her anyway. She frowned and asked him to tell her about his job. He sipped his drink, considering. Games teacher provoked a reaction in the same way as confessing to being a policeman, an estate agent or a traffic warden. Out with it, Mr Hartshorne thought and he told her. Sadie, if that really was her name, snorted and said: “Forty-six is a bit old to be wearing a tracksuit for work.” When she went to the ladies Mr Hartshorne paid up and left.
He drove past the old common where the fairground set up. Horses chewed thistles, tight against the fence posts, steam rising from their backs. The wind brought shards of hale. Mr Hartshorne shivered and gunned the heater, so the windscreen would clear. He fiddled with the car stereo and ‘Yellow River’ by Christie came on. Mr Hartshorne found himself humming the tune, remembering when he’d run in the summer sprint trials. The scent of new-mown grass, the washing powder in his laundered vest, the drift of petrol from the mower’s engines found him. He saw the white lines converge, crowded out by ochre track in the distance and fuzzed with shimmering heat. He heard the murmur of the crowd and saw children – third years from St Agatha’s rooting for one of their own - waving the placards they’d painted in gaudy primary colours. His feet were clammy, his armpits greasy with onion sweat. The starter held his arm aloft, the sleeve of his blazer taut in the breeze. Brian adjusted his shorts, swallowed. The stillness overpowered him. He stared up at a bleached white sky. The gun cracked.
A truck loaded with aggregate rumbled past, rocking Mr Hartshorne’s Ford Escort, startling him. He gripped the wheel, steadied his breathing and pulled out into the traffic, soon indicating left for St Agatha’s. He got his usual space, facing the tennis courts and weeping willows.
Mr Spooner was sick, claiming depression, so Mr Hartshorne got to take his double geography. The class was silent, eerily so when Mr Hartshorne opened the door. A giant wall map of the world was stuck to the plaster with brittle, aging sticky tape and painted strips of card had been mounted on black sugar paper to demonstrate crop rotation. Mr Hartshorne took a seat, made a steeple of his fingers and waited. A film of white chalk lay on Mr Spooner’s desk. Broken pencils, dried-up felt-tips and shavings were crammed into a tumbler. There was a time when he’d have changed into his cord jacket and slacks, but these days he didn’t bother. Forty six is a bit old….he blinked away the words.
He wrote ‘corries’ ‘cwms’ and ‘cirques’ on the blackboard and attempted to draw one in crumbling purple chalk. He took a dusty cloth from the window ledge and ran it under the tap. He wiped the board clean leaving a shiny S. His second attempt at a corrie looked like a bomb crater, but that was good enough.
‘Now you try,’ he said.
He picked up a book, left 4C to it, and crept along the corridor to the staff kitchen. He watched, wary all the time, for the silent approach of Mr Slade. The headmaster had a habit of clasping coffee mugs, guessing how long ago the drink had been made. He shuffled into the kitchen, made a strong cup of instant, heaping three spoons into his mug and a dash of UHT. White globs like gloss paint refused to dissolve, spinning on the surface. He slurped the coffee, grateful for the bitter hit of caffeine, and headed back to class as fast as he dared. 4C was starting to mutter. Steven Timmins whispered something. Mr Hartshorne knew they were talking about his tracksuit. His toenails dug into his soles.
‘L-O-S-E-R,’ Steven Timmins whispered, to the tune of D-I-S-C-O and there were giggles.
Mr Hartshorne got up. His tracksuit bottoms rode up exposing his white cotton sports socks. A purple vein pulsed in his throat and the buzz of static filled his ears. His lobes burned the way they did when he ran in the ice and the sleet. He crossed the classroom and stared out of the window, watching the trucks on the distant M6. He spread his palms on the cool, damp windowsill waiting for the cold to draw his anger. They were still muttering, having their fun at his expense but he shut them out, told them to do some ‘bloody work.’ When the bell rang Mr Hartshorne thanked God he wasn’t on dinner roster.
‘Dining alone again?’ Allan Moffatt said.
The staff room was a fug of cigarette smoke. No one was prepared to open a window and let in the cold. Moffatt was stirring a cup-a-soup with a fork, trying to dislodge the stubborn sludge from the side of his mug.
‘We don’t bite, Brian,’ he said.
Looks were exchanged. Mr Hartshorne took his lunchbox from the fridge and left them to talk about him. Moffatt’s shadow watched him cross the car park. Mr Hartshorne got into his car and bit into his cheese and pickle sarnie. The wind got up scattering brittle leaves across the tennis courts.
The sports field was wedged between the science block and a steep ridge of land that bordered the common. Gnarled hawthorns ran along the crest of the ridge acting like a giant rubbish spike, snagging crisp packets, pizza leaflets and burger cartons. Mr Hartshorne snatched at a chocolate wrapper as it sailed past. He’d changed into his football boots and was already regretting it. St Agatha’s pitch had frosted hard. His plastic studs skidded and slid, so Mr Hartshorne was using the corner flags like a skier.
‘We can’t play on this,’ he said.
The fourth years groaned. Hartshorne had a reputation. He took any excuse to skip playing football and make them do sodding athletics instead.
‘There’ll be no football today.’
Gary Mallet ignored him, laying out orange and yellow cones for the other boys to dribble around. Mr Hartshorne’s cheeks were pinked with frost and his nose dripped. He zipped his tracksuit up to his neck and told Gary to gather up the cones and bibs. Gary groaned.
‘We’re meant to be playing a game.’
‘No chance,’ Mr Hartshorne said. ‘Someone will break a leg.’
Scott Miller stood shivering, his arms wrapped tight around his chest. It would serve him right for forgetting his kit. For the third time in a month Mr Hartshorne had to unlock the kit cupboard and tell Scott to take his chances with what was in the box.
‘I’m not wearing this,’ Scott had said. His fingertips shied away from a pair of grubby emerald green football socks. So much mud was spattered on the ankles and shins it could’ve been scraped off with a bread knife.
‘So bring your own kit.’
‘And I’m not wearing these.’ Scott sniffed at a pair of satin shorts at arm’s length. ‘They’re disgusting.’
Mr Hartshorne stood with his hands on his hips. Scott dropped the shorts back in the box.
‘I’m not wearing them.’
‘Well then you’ll have to run about naked, won’t you Scott?’
Mr Hartshorne tapped the box. Scott grudgingly took shorts and a vest, scowling. He’d emerged from the changing rooms last, tucking his hands beneath his armpits, teeth chattering. He was grumbling, kicking out at frozen clumps of turf. His spindly legs were white as milk bottles.
‘I want to see you running on the spot, thirty seconds.’
Mr Hartshorne sprinted on the spot, pumping his knees to his chest. He held his palms out, counting each time his knees slapped against them. After a minute or so, Mr Hartshorne took a clipboard from his holdall. There were groans from the group. A ballpoint pen was tied to the clipboard with parcel string. He folded back the top sheet. The names of the boys were written with a box alongside to record their time. He clapped his hands.
‘I want to see some real effort. I’ll be posting your times. Let’s have you lined up.’ He took the whistle, raised an arm and blew. Tom Kearney led them out across the Common, splashing through the bog and following the old trail up to the ridge. Mr Hartshorne knew Scott and Darren would slip away. He took his binoculars from his holdall.
Mr Hartshorne swilled his mug, upending it on the draining board. He rifled through the notes in his pigeonhole, tucking his payslip into his pocket and binning the rest. Miss Tattersall coughed.
‘Mr Slade would like a word.’
‘I’ve got to take Mr Spooner’s geography lesson.’
The smile was apologetic. ‘He wants to see you now.’
He followed her into the corridor. He licked his finger and tucked a stray hair behind his ear, knocked and entered. Mr Slade was writing a note in a scratchy hand.
‘Yes?’ he said, glancing up.
‘You wanted to see me, Mr Slade.’
Mr Slade sat back in his chair. He wore a shiny suit, like aluminium, and the type of fish-tank glasses young professionals chose when they wanted to be taken seriously. He held an envelope in his hand,
‘Do you have any idea what this is?’
Mr Hartshorne shook his head. Slade frowned. ‘An allegation has been made. You’d better sit down.’ He opened the envelope and laid the letter face down on his desk. Mr Hartshorne sat down. ‘How many years have you got, Brian?’
Slade pushed the letter with a fingertip. His desk smelt of Pledge.
‘I asked how long you’ve been in the profession.’
Mr Hartshorne had to count. He didn’t mark the anniversaries these days. Slade shook his head. He took off his glasses, blew a speck of dust from them and examined the light through the lenses.
‘You’ve done twenty-odd years and then one day you decide to order a pupil to strip naked.’ A pinkish sun fell beyond the horizon, reflected on the frosted fields. ‘What the hell were you thinking of?’
Flocks of starlings flew in spirals. Mr Hartshorne couldn’t help but stare at them in wonder. His feet tapped against the chair legs. ‘It’s not true,’ he said.
‘It’s not the only report I’ve had. You’ve been watching the boys with binoculars.’
‘I use binoculars when they’re doing cross country.’
Mr Slade pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Do you think that’s appropriate behaviour?’
Tiny shards of light danced at the edge of Mr Hartshorne’s vision.
‘And there’s been swearing in class. I could do without this right now, Brian.’
The shot rang out and Brian’s body didn’t respond. His guts clenched and cold beads of sweat rolled from his brow. One of the coaches shouted at him to run. His brain didn’t process the information, didn’t make his legs work.
‘Are you injured, kid?’
Brian frowned, shook his head.
‘Jog round then lad. People will understand. We’ll say that it’s hamstring bother.’
Brian’s fingers and toes were cold. He flexed his calves, but didn’t move from the line until his father came for him. Brian Senior stomped across the warm-up area, head bowed. He put a mechanical arm around Brian’s shoulders. He couldn’t lead them away fast enough. No one in the crowd cheered for the winner, they watched Brian instead, sensing a bigger story. In the changing rooms Brian Senior handed him a Styrofoam cup of scalding tea. ‘Get it down your neck,’ he said.
Brian pulled a face. ‘It’s not medicine.’
‘Oh, he speaks.’
Brian sipped the tea. It was weak, milky. ‘I don’t want it.’ Brian looked up for the first time. ‘And I didn’t want any of this.’
Brian Senior gripped his arm, pinching the skin at his elbow and making him scream. ‘I wish your legs worked as well as your mouth.’
Three letters lay unopened on the hall table beneath the spider plant. He knew the postmarks, recognised the stamp of the education authority. The phone rang. He counted 14 rings. He went into the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face and stared into the mirror for what seemed like forever. The starter’s pistol cracked and the lost boy blinked. Mr Hartshorne stared back, determined. He took his pressed and folded tracksuit from the airing cupboard and slipped into it. He laced up his running shoes and rubbed wintergreen into his knees. Outside, he zeroed his stopwatch, drew in the smell of washing powder and camphor, and went through his stretches.
Forty six is a bit old to be wearing a tracksuit for work….
Richard writes short stories, but also enjoys travel writing and is writing a novel. His work has been published by the Guardian & Daily Telegraph and has won several prizes. His work has also been published by Oxford University’s Oxonian Review, the University of Dundee, Londonist, Notes from the Underground, University of Chester, Writers’ Abroad and several crime-writing anthologies. He resides in the UK.