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Short Story Competition: Sixteen Hundred

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“Go!” shouts Mr Rigby. His breath dissipates in the cold air like smoke from a starter pistol, which couldn’t be more appropriate, thinks Nick, as the teacher stares at him. “Go on, Cromwell!”

Nick runs, feet slipping on the gravel track. The best athletes in Year 10 have opened a commanding lead, though it hardly matters. For Nick, this is not a race. It is a feat of endurance. Sixteen-hundred metres.

He studies his surroundings: the lopsided wooden gate behind Mr Rigby; clouds moving across a blue sky; and an open window to the cafeteria, the smell of frying onions carried out by the breeze.

Settling into a rhythm, Nick lengthens his stride to move alongside Kevin Deane. “Alright, Crommy,” his classmate grins, dark teeth fringed by wispy facial hair.

“Kev,” Nick replies, conserving energy.

“Cannot be arsed with this today,” says Kevin. The track kicks up dust and triggers a long, hacking cough. “All-weather pitch,” he mutters ironically. As the dust clears, it reveals a chromed tower block. The circular track leads them by the ground floor windows. Inside, a Year 7 class sits down to a Maths lesson.

“Remember how big everything was back then?” says Kev.

“Things are the same size,” Nick replies.

Kevin laughs loud at the pedantry, or else he is stoned, which would make sense of the charred holes in his t-shirt and the safety pin fastening his shorts. “It’s mad though, time passing and stuff!” Kev shouts. “I loved first year, me.”

“I found it a bit intimidating,” Nick confesses. “Yeah?” Kev ponders. “I reckon it was the best. Nobody expected nothing of you.”

He has a point. Those children in the classroom are like blank pages in a new book, the experience and wonder of life still to be written. A shaven-headed boy appears at the window and sticks two fingers up at Nick.

He looks back to Kevin, who has turned 180 degrees and runs in reverse. Contained within the circuit is a hockey pitch. The curving track offers them a panorama of the girls’ class, stretching and jogging ahead of a game.

“Who are you staring at?” Nick asks. “Natasha?”

“Mrs Darlington,” Kev winks. The stocky, short-haired PE teacher blows a whistle to start the hockey match, an action which reddens her cheeks. “She wears the lost property kits, you know. Fit as.”

“Oi! Kevin!” Mr Rigby kicks away from the wooden gate and halts beside the track. “Stop that clowning.” They pass him, completing the first lap. Three more to go. The tower block glitters in the distance, further than it seemed before.

“See you later, Crommy,” says Kev, accelerating to his top speed. “Oh, and watch out!” he calls back. “You know what Rigby does to the lads who come last!”

Nick glances behind him, dreading the look on his teacher’s face. But Mr Rigby is absorbed in a task: preparing a stopwatch to time the leading competitors. Deaf to the latest innuendo.

“He stares at lads in the shower,” Declan had explained during one of their many sleepover gaming nights.

“But they stopped school showers years ago,” Nick argued.

“That’s why!” Declan laughed, wheezy and loud, until his step-mother banged on the connecting wall.

They resumed playing in silence, lit only by the flashing TV screen. Sitting back on worn beanbags amid crumpled clothes and dirty plates. The air was musty and dank.

Now a fresh wind blows and Nick gulps it in. Declan is excused from the run due to asthma and diabetes. He is lucky to be so unlucky in health.

Nick passes the chrome tower for a second time. The windows of the classrooms where, day by day, he perfects a disappearing act. If they sold shirts and trousers the same colour as the wallpaper and chairs, he would wear them to lessons.

Out here he is exposed: running alone, in final place. And yet he has rarely felt better. Because here, at 800 metres, is the furthest point between the beginning and the end, between one hardship and another. Nothing here can trouble him: not the football goalposts, nor the wooden gate, approaching again.

Mr Rigby barely glances as Nick goes past, the stopwatch dangling from a frayed ribbon. The track curves and Nick spots, behind the assembly hall, a door propped open, a gateway to the cafeteria. He can smell pizza and grilled beef and… something else…

Watery deodorant. The scent blows past. Followed by a lithe body. Darren McCaffrey cranes his head as he overlaps Nick and spits in his path. A blob that fizzes as it hits the ground. Nick staggers, trying to avoid it.

Three more boys jump and hoot and rush past. Hyenas on the hunt. They run effortlessly, with time and grace to leer at the nubile hockey players. In their slipstream, another dust cloud. Nick swerves to one side and feels two heavy hands fixed to his back. “Move!” shouts Gary Berry. He pushes Nick aside. Gary Berry is over six feet tall and not a natural athlete. Where his friends grin inanely, Berry’s teeth are clenched, his nostrils flared.

A week ago Nick carried a chair from the store room to the drama studio to watch a rehearsal of the school play. Berry appeared in the half-light. “Give me that chair.” Nick assumed he was joking. “What are you smiling at, Crommy?” The nickname strangled of affection. “Give it me.” Nick stared up at the rafters and felt the chair leave his grasp.

That’s how they get you. There is nothing big enough to report, no bruises to point to, but he is undermined daily. They trip him in narrow corridors. They ask him crude sexual questions, which he knows how to answer but cannot do so without blushing. Death by a thousand cuts.

He watches them fly past the tower, which is dulled by gathering clouds. And for the first time, another 800 metres seems an impossible distance.

Picture your chest. That’s what the counsellor taught him, a meditation exercise. Picture your chest, the heart beating peacefully, the lungs working delicately. But the breaths come fast and shallow. His lungs look like shrivelled balloons.

Hockey sticks flash as they cut through the air. They strike down onto pale, pock-marked legs. A shrill scream echoes across the field. Nick averts his gaze instinctively. It is a whistle, he realises. Three girls stand over a fallen hockey player. Friends or enemies, he can’t tell.

Mrs Darlington joins them without haste. The other girls wait, muscles tensing and relaxing. Natasha among them, manicured fingers wrapped around her stick. Nick squints to see her.

Last summer in the park, as Declan flew a home-made helicopter over the lake, Nick squinted to see Natasha. Her hair glowed in the sun. He didn’t notice Darren McCaffrey sneak up, grab him and present him to her. “He was looking up your skirt!” he said.

“I wasn’t!” Nick protested.

“Why?” McCaffrey teased. “She not fit enough for you?” A redundant question. She had the beauty of a model and the body of an athlete. None of those words made it past his throat.

“Eugh,” said Natasha, “As if I’d go with you anyway.” She didn’t sound angry. Worse. She sounded hurt.

Thud-crunch, thud-crunch. Nick’s polished trainers jut into the dirt, disturb the gravel. He focuses on this. Thud-crunch, thud-crunch, rhythmic and musical.

Crunch-thud. Discord. More over-lappers, running deliberately close behind him. He manoeuvres left and right. Tripping on this surface is agonising. He slows. They slow. He dares not look around. His stomach churns.

Then, bored, the boys disengage and race on. “Say hi to your mum for me!” Sal Mahmud calls over his shoulder. His favourite innuendo, so overused that it should lose its sting. It should.

Four years ago Nick and his mother visited the school. They were both impressed. The teachers didn’t talk down to him. The buildings were sleek. And when they stepped out to the sports pitch, covered in winter mist, it was exciting and mysterious.

Now he knows every square inch of it. He runs through a shadow cast by the buckled goalposts: two bars becoming a scaffold. The gate, so close he can almost count the shards of splintered wood, marks the end of the third lap. A quarter of the run remaining. Four out of sixteen sounds even better. Sixteen sixty-fourths to go, he can count them down.

Mr Rigby straightens his back. He scans the track. He steps forward. “If anyone doesn’t finish,” he declaims, “You’re all going round again!”

There is furious protest from the runners who have completed the race. Nick’s head trembles. Stifled tears sting like antiseptic. The tower looms for the last time, a gothic castle set against stormy skies.

He thinks about song lyrics. The Smiths and Beach House. The music that gets him called a poof. He mutters prayers. The beliefs that get him called a Bible-basher. He curses and swears. Beaten down to their level.

“Go on the inside lane!” someone shouts as the track curves. He can barely co-ordinate his body to navigate it.

“Go inside!” they scream. No. There is nothing inside but fear.

The hockey game concludes. Mrs Darlington snatches coloured bibs from the girls, beautiful girls in tiny skirts and shorts.

Nick wheezes. His feet are leaden, they crunch raggedly. The last straight to the finish line is revealed. Angry teenage boys fringe the track. A gauntlet. Spiteful comments thrown like obstacles.

“Are you thick?” shouts McCaffrey, devoid of irony.

“What a loser!” laughs Sal.

“Hurry the fuck up!” Berry howls. “I’m not doing this again cos of you.”

Nick sees the cracked wooden gate. He feels the sweat pouring down his neck. Smells frying chips. Fast air. White noise. He disappears over the finish line, and peels away from the rest of his class, where he can recover alone, leaning forward, hands on his knees, regulating his breath in the way he remembers footballers doing, back when he and his Dad watched games together.

Mr Rigby joins him. “You okay, Nicholas?”

“Yes, sir,” he gasps.

“See that rush of happiness and calm you’re experiencing,” Rigby explains. “That’s caused by your brain releasing endorphins, chemicals which make you feel good. That’s the benefits of exercise.”

Nick knows his euphoria is sheer relief that the ordeal is over. But he smiles and nods in agreement. The teacher is only trying to make him feel better. Rigby pats him on the back and strides away.

On the dusty track, Nick’s classmates jostle and banter with each other.

“Yo, I said I’d beat you!”

“Nah, mate, you were lucky!”

“Rematch!”

They are bright-eyed, enlivened from their classroom catatonia. And for the first time Nick realises: they need the structure of competition to make sense of the world. Soon it will be taken from them. Nick is smothered by it. Soon he will breathe freely.

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This is an entry to The National Student's short story competition. The text has been edited for grammar and punctuation only. 

The National Student's short story competition is in association with the Home Entertainment release of Mistress America. Mistress America is available on Digital HD in the UK on 7th December, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Watch the trailer below: 




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