Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Crossroads (5 of 5)


All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order.

This one started with a Facebook status I read one morning at work. It was written by my wife.

'Had such a hard few weeks, but today we have reached a crossroads and had to make a decision. Life is never easy, but sometimes that just makes it more interesting.'

Always on the lookout for an idea for a story, I resolved to start with the predicament we found ourselves in at the present, but look backwards, taking a snapshot of certain times in my life when I'd been faced with potentially life-changing decisions.

The stories came easily, but I knew by writing them in a series, the expectation would always be that the final instalment would be the one that counted. This sense of expectation was confirmed by the odd comment from friends after earlier instalments were posted.

'An inspiring read, but start from 1 of 5. 5 still to come,' read one, referring to part 4.

'Part 5 is the clincher. Come on Saleby, don't keep us waiting. Revelations I hope!' read another.

In my head, I'd written and re-written the final part several times over, without actually putting ball-point pen to white copier paper.

Maybe that was a good job. Because sitting on the shores of Ennerdale Water on Saturday, I realised that the end of this particular story was just a beginning, and that a different story altogether was the one I needed to tell all along.

I have two names for it. I'm unsure of where they came from, but they seemed to capture the essence of what I was feeling inside: 'Keep On Burning' and 'The Sound Of Fire'. Although I didn't understand it at all for many years, I know now that they were always the flip sides of the same coin.

'Keep On Burning' was the positive manifestation. The motivational force that pushed me on to challenge myself, prove myself, do crazy things, stay up all night, look for adventure. I wrote about it once.

'The Sound Of Fire' was its negative alter-ego. This was the static that bred restlessness. The creak and crackle of burning timber that goaded me, reminded me that whatever I did, it would never be good enough. The encroaching wall of flame that drowned out mindfulness and, for no apparent reason, cast hopeful days under clouds of dense smoke.

I'd lived with both for many years. They'd shaped the majority of my adult life, and a part of me was content to let them dictate the rest. It wasn't until I reached the crossroads, however, that I knew that I couldn't let this continue.

Just over a year ago, a friend took his own life. He left behind a daughter a year older than our own little girl. I thought of little else for some time, but remained quiet whenever people spoke about his death. For most, suicide is impossible to comprehend. Some of us, however, understand just a tiny bit, because we've been to the dark place and been blessed to come back.

A couple of weeks after Robbie's death, we attended an end-of-term concert at primary school. As I watched the show, my mind kept returning to the same scenarios. If it hadn't been for a stranger on a beach, Lightning and Whirlwind - a fizz and bluster of unstoppable and eager energy - would never have been created. I thought of them, and I imagined Tammy speaking the same impossible words to our children as Robbie's wife had had to speak to their girl. It was just too much to take.

They say that people take their own lives when their fear of living is more than their fear of dying. I'd been spared the ultimate decision by the four throw-away words of an old man. I'd been lucky. But as I watched that concert, listened to the choir end the show with a rendition of Gary Barlow's 'Sing', I realised that I'd lived my whole life in fear. A fear that drove me to seek solace in running, alcohol and social isolation. A fear that had sought release in eating disorders and self-harm, and had paralysed me into making the wrong decisions time and time again. A fear that had led me to a beach and, even now, clouded my vision to the fact that I had as close to everything as anyone could get.

It doesn't take a choir long to sing a Gary Barlow song, but by the time they had, I knew what I must do and I knew I was strong enough to do it. It was then that I saw the little blond boy for the first time. Sitting on the edge of the stage, dirty black plimsolls dangling on the end of skinny legs, I was surprised at how much he looked like Lightning. But, of course, he wasn't Lightning. The boy was me.

Secrets are poison, and the truth sets you free. I would tell the truth about my guilty secret in a series of stories, just as I have for 'Crossroads'. I had no doubt that they would make people view me in a different way, that they'd cause embarrassment and unease. I had no doubt that the process would be difficult. But I knew I was strong now, and I knew it was the right thing to do.

'The Sound Of Fire (Part One): Four Songs By Gary Barlow' told the middle of my story. The Sound Of Fire (Part Two): The Rainbow told the end. Another story - 'Little Blond Boy' - my most brutally honest piece of writing and the work I'm most proud of - never made it through. Ironic, of course, because these were the words that told the beginning of the story. These were the words that told the truth.

I was seven years old. The story is simple. Take a little blond boy - a quiet little boy who smiles a lot, tries hard at school and is always running. Introduce him to an older man. An older man who flirts with housewives, spends the weekends 'fucking birds' on Butlins and who, surely, for the love of God, should have known better. For the six long weeks of a primary school summer holiday, have the man befriend the little boy, take him on day trips to Skegness and buy him books to read. Then have him repeatedly sexually abuse the little boy, and see where the story takes you next.

Seven years old.

The story will be long and complex, touched at times by ecstacy, but washed through with despair, self-doubt and self-hatred. The minor character will disappear at the end of the summer and, no doubt, continue living his life in the way he sees fit. The other will end up, nearly forty years later, watching a choir sing a Gary Barlow song and know that redemption will only be found by telling the truth.

This story was 'Little Blond Boy'. They say that Paul McCartney wrote 'Yesterday' in five minutes flat - that you know your writing is good because it just pours out and you can't stop it. I wrote my story in a single week-day early-morning sitting. I knew it would be hard to read, but I was unprepared for the depth of reaction from Tammy when I handed it over.

My guilty secret.

Of course, Tammy had been one of only very few people I'd ever mentioned it to. At the time it was happening, I'd told no-one, not even my Mum or twin brother. As I'd got older, I'd attempted to clumsily raise the subject, usually when I was drunk, but really got nowhere. In my late twenties, I'd seen a doctor, told him the thoughts I was having, the things I was doing to myself, and begged him to find me someone to speak to. I only visited the psychiatrist once, his proposed solution being a prescription for Cypramil and the words, 'Take these according to the dose on the label. You'll soon feel better.' I didn't. I did what I'd always done. Kept it to myself and just got on with it.

The act of writing is a cathartic process. Sometimes it's rewarding to know that other people will read your work. At other times, the fact that no-one will ever read it doesn't matter one bit. After speaking to Tammy for hours one night, I decided not to post 'Little Blond Boy'. It's currently folded up untidily in a clear plastic envelope in the kitchen cupboard, sandwiched between an old Lakeland 50 road book and a tatty copy of a Harvey's Paddy Buckley Round map.

With that simple act of writing, the sound of fire stopped. It had taken a lifetime to rid myself of my guilty secret. Now it was no longer a secret at all. And, more importantly, I was able to view the past with a clear perspective. Guilty secret? Seven years old. A little boy. All the guilt was his.

On looking back upon the crossroads of my life, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I'd taken a different path than the one I did. Where would that path have taken me? However, more times than not, I accept the decisions I made - after all, they led me eventually to a place I always wanted to be.

I look back on that summer with the same sense of acceptance. What happened didn't ruin my life, it merely led me a different way. It made things difficult at times, but now I'm free of its burden I can view things with a detachment I've never experienced before.

Would I have become a different person if the past had been different? It's impossible to know. Strangely, I'd like to think that it wouldn't be so. For without this past, I wouldn't be who I am. And, for the first time in my life, that person is one I'm happy to be.

Crossroads become important when they're overshadowed with fear. From almost the moment we're born, we're conditioned to take a certain path. Societal norms, parental expectations, schooling, government and the crushing grip of corporate advertising brainwash us to believe that one certain path is the right one to follow. And follow we do, for the main part, because it's easy. And because, eventually, after following this path for so long, we become scared to leave it.

When people speak of crossroads, they usually refer to a crisis in their existence - a point in which they realise the path they're treading is the wrong one, and they know, deep down, that they have to choose another. It's an intimidating scenario - it's scary - involving, as it inevitably does, leaving someone, something or some previous way of life behind. The crossroads I've described in my stories have all been examples of this scenario.

However, now that the sound of fire has gone, now I am no longer guilty, no longer scared, I've come to view crossroads in a different way. Whereas previously I'd avoid them, only making an important decision when the situation offered no other choice, now I welcome them. In a personal paradigm shift, a crossroads is no longer a crisis to be periodically endured, but the promise of opportunity that should be actively embraced.

I've reached plenty more crossroads since the day I told the truth, but now I tend to focus on the positives that might result from a difficult decision rather than fear straying from 'the path'. It's the same with our latest.

This one involves our livelihood and lots of pedantic and tedious legislative documents with titles such as The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, The Trade Marks Act 1994 and The Toys (Safety) Regulations 2011. It involves the reclassification of a children's colouring board from 'a stationery item' into 'a children's toy', and it means that, having built a successful business within a slightly 'grey' area, European directives dictate that we're now going to totally change our business strategy, or simply give up. 'Grey' areas have become 'black' or 'white'.

The paths from this particular crossroad may lead to a scaling-down of our operation or bankruptcy. They may lead to new markets, increased success and higher profits. They might lead to a new life doing something unimagined, exciting and totally different. Who knows? It's still too early to tell. For now, we'll do whatever's necessary to secure the jobs of the people we employ and make a reasoned decision - with a clear head, without fear - in the fullness of time.

Which takes me to the end of this story, the beginning, on the shores of Ennerdale Water.

A narrow, muddy trod leads through the tall grass from the main path to the shore of the lake.

It's mid-morning, and the view we're greeted by is breath-taking.

Before long, the superheroes are in their swimming clothes and gingerly wading out into the water. Tam lays down a couple of towels on the pebbly shore as I lie down, pleasantly exhausted.

After a 1.45am alarm call, I'd met a friend of a friend at Dunmail and spent the following six hours supporting him over Leg 3 of his Bob Graham Round. Having been welcomed by a stunning sunrise, we'd run across the roof of England, climbed Broad Stand and entered Wasdale well up on schedule. It had been a fantastic morning.

Nourished by bacon cobs and sweet tea, we'd left an hour later, but decided to make the short detour to Ennerdale Bridge on our way back to Keswick for a spot of post-run recovery.

As I drift into sleep, the sun on my face, the sound of children's laughter in the warm air, I can't help but think that life can't get much better.

I wake sometime later, disorientated but refreshed. Sitting up, I look out to the lake. Whirlwind's got a tennis ball. She throws it across the water and yells, 'Fetch, doggie!' Obediently, Lightning splashes across the water, barking as he goes. He grabs the ball, hands it back to Whirlwind, who pats him on the head and says, 'Good doggie!'

They continue the same game for a bit before changing to giving each other piggybacks. While Whirlwind's on Lightning's back, I reach for my phone and take a picture.

Tam leans over and gives me a kiss.

'They're good kids aren't they?' she says.

It's then  that I think of the crossroads we've visited and the ones we're still to visit. The Facebook post that inspired recent words comes to mind, and I remember the extra sentence she'd written on the end.

'As long as I have Chris and the kids, then nothing else matters x.'

So true, I can't help but think. So true.

Every moment is a crossroads. Every thought. Every decision. Every yes, no or maybe.

Sometimes we'll get it right.

Sometimes we'll get it wrong.

But that's ok. It's the way it should be.

After a while, the superheroes get bored. The sun's disappeared behind cloud and we're all hungry.

We get changed and while towels and clothes are being stuffed away in bags, I paddle out into the cool water and look down the valley.

After a moment I hear a lazy ripple of sound as Tam joins me.

She wraps her arms around my waist and draws me close.

Then she whispers, 'So, what we doing next, Mr Rainbow?'

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Crossroads (4 of 5)


I wake early on the morning after the fire and am filled with a feeling I can't describe. Everything I'd worked for over the past five years had gone. There was nothing left.

A couple of hours later, I meet Our Kid at the corner caff. I usually eat cereal, but after last night's events, I'm in the mood to throw caution to the wind. I go to the hatch and order two large coffees and a couple of egg and bacon baps.

We sit outside around a dirty wooden table for a fair while and take in the sights of the early morning market. All around us shutters are being opened, boxes unloaded from the back of white vans, cheap clothes being hung from plastic hangers and placed on display under hastily written 'ANY 2 ITEMS - £10' signs. It's a scene we were usually a part of. But not today. We've got nothing more to sell.

A steady stream of traders make their condolences as they order their breakfasts in preparation for a busy day.

'Really sorry about the fire, twins.'

'Gutted for you boys.'

'All your stock gone eh lads? Can't fuckin' believe it! Lost a fair few readies an' all I hear?'

'If you need anyone you two, you know where we are.'

We listen to the usual mix of genuine upset, touching concern and vacuous bullshit, and decide to sit a little longer with another brew. There's no hurry.

The tensions and heightened emotions of the previous evening have mellowed into something slightly calmer. If this is how losing everything feels, I think, then losing everything doesn't feel so bad.

Eventually we make our way down the top aisle. Red and white tape cordons off an area a few hundred yards long. On the other side of the tape, the remains of a dozen or so shop units and shipping containers smoulder. Angular bare limbs of metalwork stand twisted, bent by unthinkable heat to the shapes of dented dreams.

The stench of fire is still strong. We poke about the blackened unit in the same way we'd prod sticks at bonfires as kids. Market bars and wire dump bins have melted to the concrete they stood on. Thousands of pounds' worth of children's toys are now just ash.

By the back wall, a yellow kiss of colour catches my eye. I walk over to take a look. I know what it is before I get there, but I need just to double check.

Reaching down, I pick up the little yellow sports car. The headlights are broken and the side doors have melted shut, but, in the midst of devastation, it's remained remarkably intact. I turn it over and slide open the battery compartment, clocking the two Duracells inside. Then, hoping for a sign, I slide it shut, press a button on the side on the car, OFF to ON, and place it on the floor.

The car springs to life. Its wheels rotate and it careers around in a crazy, hypnotic bump 'n' go action. Then it stops.

But only for a second.

I'm waiting for headlights to flash, doors to open and the roof to retract like I'd seen so many times in previous weeks. But not this time.

Instead, accompanied by warped music, a mutant, whining slow-mo voice starts repeating inane lyrics from a nauseating pop song.

'I'm a Barbie girl
 In a Barbie world,
 Life in plastic

As suddenly as it's started, the sound cuts to silence.

I glance up from the car to look at Our Kid. He's smiling.

A small crowd has gathered. Stallholders. Some who've lost it all, like us. Others who have been lucky.

Mr King from across the aisle downs the dregs of coffee from a Styrofoam cup and says, 'Isn't that amazing?'

I nod, thinking the same as all of us. In a fire which had destroyed all before it, by a miracle this one little yellow plastic car had remained relatively unscathed.

Mr King squashes the cup in his right hand as I look back down at the car. A piece of worthless plastic. A sign that, whatever, we'd be fine.

'So, what you going to do next?' he asks.

My eyes rise to meet his. 'I don't know,' I tell him, 'I just don't know.'

I run along the seafront that night, back from work to the small house I rent in Chapel with my new wife and our year-old son. I'm unsure why I feel compelled to do so - after all, I've barely run a step in years. But it just seems right.

There's no hurry. The sun skids off the sea's surface, reflecting rainbows and memories.

I'd returned from The Run For Africa early, my dignity intact. 'A clash of personalities' I tended to refer to my failure as due to, although the official line was different. In a press release and during an interview with the Daily Mail, the expedition leader cited the reasons for my withdrawal from the project as 'mental problems'. Devastated, but brave, I clung on for several months, teaching part-time whilst joining my brother as partner in his market business.

But the black night would always come. It was written.

I owe my life to an elderly gentleman I met for the first, and only, time on a lonely beach. And to four flippant words that gifted me a realisation that I just could not give up. 'Keep it up, son,' he'd told me. 'Keep it up.'

There's always calmness after a storm. Once the dark clouds had burst, life was hard, but different. The air had a new clarity. I'd been to a place where many people go, but some never return. I'd been there, stared at the impossible blackness and been saved by a single spark. I knew something now - a knowledge that could only help me grow. No matter what happened in the future, nothing would ever be so bad. For the rest of my life, I knew nothing could ever take me back.

And I felt this, believed in this, despite the noise that continued to grow louder. That continued to taunt me like a painful tooth. Background noise. A tinnitus ringing. The sound of fire.

From the earliest age, I knew I would find her. Be patient, stay around, and the paths we chose at our own crossroads would bring us together. We'd met in the summer of 1999. We'd married in the winter of 2001. A year later, a beautiful boy had been born.

Love brings happiness. My addiction fell away.

For the last five years, running had ceased to be important. I'd filled my days with getting somewhere. Business had been good. Me and Our Kid knew how to work and work breeds success. Impossibly long hours brought days that were absolutely full of not much, but the monetary rewards were outstanding. After a lifetime of being skint, it felt good to have money.

But money is pressed by sacrifice, and recently I'd begun to question the morality of the motives of a chase for more. I'd no desire for the ostentatious shit of success, and now we'd earn enough to live a simple, but comfortable, life, the thought of grafting as hard as I had done for the foreseeable future made me uneasy. 'The most precious gift you can give a child is your time', I'd read somewhere, and that phrase would niggle at me more and more as I left my loved ones before dawn, not to return till way past dark.

Decisions are hard to make, however -  even if you know you're right. The inertia of living is a powerful force. Fortunately, sometimes decisions are made for you.

We'd watched our livelihoods burn last night, and although there had been arguments and tears, for the most part we'd viewed the tragic spectacle with the same detachment as we had last November as we'd supped a couple of pints while watching the fireworks.

'Everything we have is in that fire,' we'd said to countless well-wishers and the odd gloating, nosy bastard who's own lives were so dull they got their kicks through the misfortune of others. 'Everything we've worked so hard for is in there.'

It happens, though, that words and feelings are different. And just what was I feeling? As Our Kid shadow-boxed his way across the car-park at 2 am, as his yells of 'Keep On Burning!' echoed around the now-deserted complex, as our laughter pinballed between the huge steel legs of the Millenium Roller Coaster, just what was I feeling?

It's a perfect late August night. A lovely night for a run. As I slowly clip off the miles, the realisation comes that I've been given yet another chance. I did things better this time round, but they still weren't right. How will I use this clean slate?

Lost in a whirl of probable and improbable scenarios, a phrase appears in my head, as they often used to back in the days when I was a runner.

Empty miles.

I hold it for a while, toss it around, explore it. In my past it had been aimed at me with such negative connotations. I wonder why it's here, now, of all times?

But in the next few thousand steps, I understand.

At this moment - on this evening - for the first time in my life, I am just running. Before I've always wanted something from it - escape, a boost to my ego, transcendence on the step. Now, for the first time, I ask for nothing. Now, for the first time, I think of home and realise I've everything already.

After years of looking for something in the miles I'd covered, I've finally found what I really needed in some place totally different. Those miles were, indeed, empty.

Things are not the same as they were. I feel it. I hear it in the slow, laboured footfall of an out-of-shape man who used to be a runner, but isn't anymore.

Right then, I know that I'll run much more. That this totally pointless act of putting one foot in front of the other will be important again. And I wonder, now I'm no longer looking, just how surprised I'll be at what I find?

The phrases we repeated last night enter my head again as the sun sinks lower.

'Everything we have is in that fire.'

'We've lost everything.'

But now I know it's not true. This first short run in five years has taught me that. What we lost last night was just paper and plastic. Cardboard and glass. The phony promise of a future I didn't care for. The chains that bound me. What we lost last night was nothing.

And the feeling I had when I watched it all go? That was the joy of freedom. A freedom derived from the knowledge that love is everything, that love is the meaning of it all, and the rest of it - the money, the job, the house, the stuff you surround yourself with - well, the rest of it doesn't matter one bit.

I reach the dip at Chapel Pullover and turn off the seafront to head through the village, dodging the prams and mobility scooters littering the front of amusement arcades.

This road I'm on, I wonder, where will it take me?

Perhaps it's better not to know.

And right now, it doesn't matter either. Right now, I'm going home.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Crossroads (3 of 5)


I look over towards Wayne - this year's newly qualified teacher and supreme staffroom piss-taker. He's talking to kindly old Yvonne from Year 2 on the subject of vegetarianism.

As she gets up to make a cup of tea and turns her back to him, he casts me a sly glance and winks.

'My daughter's been a vegetarian for nearly fifteen years,' Yvonne says as she sits back down.

'Well, I've thought about it now and again,' Wayne replies, 'but I love meat too much.'

'Ohh, I know what you mean,' Yvonne carries on. 'I don't have it a lot, but I couldn't do without it at least a couple of times a week.'

'Sunday mornings!' Wayne exclaims and looks at me again, smiling. 'I love a bit of meat on a Sunday morning!'

'Bacon sandwiches!' gushes Yvonne.

'Oh, I know,' Wayne continues. 'But do you know what? Sometimes you just can't beat a nice ham shank.'

He looks back at me, grinning, while Yvonne looks bemused.

I laugh as I get up from my chair and leave the room, giving him an undetected thumbs-up. Unfortunately, as far as the Kirton Primary School staffroom goes, this entertainment is as good as it gets.

Knowing my class will be out in the playground, I return to my empty classroom and ponder this evening's appointment with the Head.

I've been here for over five years now. It's demanding, time-consuming, all-consuming at times, but not without rewards. I'd been surprised at first at how much I'd enjoyed teaching, but recently - as always - I'd begun to want more.

I'd run away from the Riverton Bridge that night and straight into a future. This was that future. Had I made the right decision? Probably not.

Arriving back at the caravan at the end of my run, I'd thrown on a jacket and legged it to the hardware store in Rossmoyne to collect the Australian Girl as she finished her shift. I'd told her that I'd changed my mind. That to be with her was worth any sacrifice. I'd finish my course, we'd move back to England where I'd become a teacher and pay off debts. Then I'd emigrate to Australia and we'd start our new life.

She seemed fairly pleased with my decision.

I'd worked harder than ever to secure a High Distinction - the only one of the year's intake to achieve such an honour - and had quickly found a job on our return to Blighty in a primary school a short distance from my childhood home. All the sacrifice had been worth it.

When she'd left me two weeks before our wedding, I'd really not seen it coming. She'd started saying stuff like, 'You think more of your running than you do of me,' recently, but I'd never imagined she was unhappy.

That was four years ago now, and, although I kidded myself that I was ok, I knew deep down that I was dying bit by bit by little bit. Loss had become my companion as the people most important to me went away. I'd watched my Dad die of lung cancer, looked at a girl I loved for the very last time, and then taken an early morning phone call from my Mum which broke my heart.

After pulling her life around, she'd met a man she adored, got married for the second time and become happier than I'd seen her for many a year. The phone never rings at 5 o'clock in the morning unless it's bad news. As I picked up the receiver and heard Mum's voice, something in me knew what she was going to tell me. During the night, her husband of five weeks had died in her arms.

Dark clouds were gathering. A storm was approaching. A black night was going to come. Its timing was uncertain, but it would come. It was written.

There's a phrase used in France - 'la petite mort'. Translated as 'the little death', it's generally used as a euphemism for orgasm. It's a phrase I'd come across first around the time of that delicious trainee-teacher at the Grammar School, and was born more from wishful thinking than an interest in foreign languages. 'La petite mort', however, can mean much more. It also describes the brief period of spiritual release or transcendence experienced after any activity where a part of your 'life-force' - your very essence - is expended.

For four years I'd stayed alive by dying just a bit at a time. I'd nothing left, or so it seemed, except these brief periods when, just for a while, things felt bearable.

Richey Edwards had used the phrase in an NME interview I'd read referring to the 4REAL incident. In 1991, as The Manic Street Preachers spat out 'Motown Junk', he'd picked up a razor blade in front of Steve Lamacq - a music journalist who had dared to question his integrity - and carved the legend into his left forearm. The wounds later required 18 stitches. He'd spoken not of pain afterwards, but of calm in his world of chaos.

I wasn't ready, yet, for self-mutilation, but there were other ways. For some, alcohol, drugs and one-night stands produced similar effects. I'd tried all of them in varying degrees, but I was too vain to be a drunk, too driven to be a regular drug-user and too incompetent to be a womaniser. So my little deaths were found somewhere else. On the step. At the end of a run.

For four years, I had run more than I had ever run before. At first, I'd considered it a force for good. Hooking up with a friend and running partner who was quicker than me, I'd trained with a discipline and intensity that was new to me. In the space of a year, I'd lowered my best times for 5k, 5 miles, 10k, 10 miles, half-marathon and marathon, whilst being selected to run for Lincolnshire over cross-country and on the road. For those viewing my performances as a springboard to another level, however, there would only be frustration and disappointment.

As my life had become increasingly empty, the nature of my running had changed. Just as the heroin addict needs more regular fixes to chase the initial transcendence of the early hits, so it was the same with me. After a while, performance was no longer a factor I considered. Volume, regularity and a constant chase for that feeling on the step were all that mattered.

I'd drifted away from club athletics, from running with friends or in a group, and started to run exclusively by myself. I needed the little deaths that only long runs could bring me close to feeling.

It wasn't too long before I withdrew into my '30' routine. At weekends, I'd wake early, eat and run 10 miles. Returning, I'd take a bath, eat and sleep. At mid-day, I'd do the same again. And in the evening, I'd repeat once more.

I'd finally found the hollow life that was dumb,worthless, pointless, but capable of sustaining me. A life in which there were no loved ones leaving, no insecurities to tear myself down with - no need to face the adult world for just these short, sweet, precious intervals of time.

I'd moved on eventually - helpless, loser, junky - to the full weeks or fortnights of school holidays, cocooned in this soft world that protected me. And for six weeks one glorious summer, I'd run 30 miles a day from one end of the mainland to the other and had felt safe, numb and beautiful.

A Monday would always arrive, however, when I'd need to step out of my bubble and return to the world that I was finding increasingly hard to cope with. A Monday when I'd no longer be just a Runner, but a teacher, a role-model, a friend, a normal human being. A Monday when I'd hang on by bloody fingertips trying desperately to make it to Friday night.

Sitting on the edge of my teacher's desk, I open the top drawer and pull out the envelope hidden underneath the register. I take out the short letter and read through it, satisfied it says everything I need to.

Dangling my legs, I think of the times I'd sit with my brother, two young boys on sea-front railings. I think of the time I sat on a bridge at sunset six years ago, of a half-empty book of photographs, of cracks in fragile porcelain.

I look out the window to the children who admire me because they know no better.

I listen to the sound of fire, pushing me ever-closer to the ledge, a lonely beach, the edge of who-knows-where.

Then I rummage through the piles of marking for a ball-point pen.

I've kept The Run For Africa quiet until now. But now it's been confirmed that I've been chosen as a runner on the expedition, I have to take the appropriate steps.

For eight months, I will climb into my bubble. Eight months of running 45 miles a day. Just running. Nothing else.

And while I'm away, the world will change.

And while I'm away, I'll change too.

And when I get back, everything will be alright again.

The pen I find's not working. I scribble with it on a piece of scrap card until the ink starts flowing. Then I put my signature on the paper in front.

The bell rings to signal the end of dinner break and I hear my class line up noisily on the playground outside. I fold the paper, place it back inside the envelope, put my resignation letter back into the top drawer of my desk, and then go out to meet them.    

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Crossroads (2 of 5)


I'm sat, leant against the wall of a corridor in Perth's Curtin University. I've been here the best part of an hour.

Across the corridor, there's a door with a small sign attached. 'Senior Course Administrator', it says. For some reason, it reminds me of that poky little careers room at Skeggy Grammar. I close my eyes as a memory appears from nowhere. A young, beautiful French lady breathlessly whispering, 'Bonjour Christophe,' before licking her lips suggestively and giving me a look that can only mean I want you. I bathe in the recollection for a bit, before opening my eyes to the sterile serenity of this academic office building. I'd never seen that trainee French teacher again after that time in the Careers Room. Maybe she'd gone back to France or got the sack. If only I'd been a couple of years older back then, I kid myself, then I wouldn't be sat here now trying to wiggle my way out of this latest personal disaster.

The talk with the careers lady hadn't had its desired effect. I'd worked hard at my 'A' Levels, but eventually had found myself at a loss when my future direction was next questioned. I just wanted to run. That's all. No job had held any interest whatsoever. On a whim, I'd decided to study Sports Science at university, content in the knowledge that with a full grant I wouldn't be forced to pay off student debts when I finished the course. I'd secured a place on a degree course at Birmingham and become a student in the art of falling apart. 'Your university days are the best of your life,' people kept telling me, even those who had never been. Mine were the worst so far - no mean feat considering the fact that the ones before hadn't seemed all that brilliant.

It had taken me a couple of weeks to work out that, besides running, I didn't care at all for any other sports. It had taken me less than a week to ascertain that the university population contained more than its fair share of wankers than the general population.

For three years I'd taken refuge in running, experimenting with extreme training methods and extreme diets, clocking up huge mileages but enjoying only limited success. 'You leave all your best performances in your training,' they said. 'You run too many empty miles.'

For three years, I survived - barely - buoyed only by the hope that the next long run promised.

For three years, I was that kid. The weird kid who didn't fit in, stayed in his room, never went to parties. The one who never talked, had only a couple of friends, who you only ever saw walking by himself.

Towards the end of the final year, big companies descended on the campus for the recruitment shin-dig called the 'milk round'. We were all encouraged to go - after all, securing a job with United Biscuits, Imperial Tobacco, ICI or Barclays bank was something every young person desired in life. Right?

I went home that week, unsure of what I wanted in life, but sure that it wasn't that. The final year had brought home some truths which I had long suspected but done a decent job at ignoring. My times were no good. I had nowhere near the talent. Go to America? Scrape a living on the US road-running circuit? Forget it. Maybe it had been a crazy dream from the start, but crazy dreams sustain you. The prospect of a career with United Biscuits certainly didn't.

A couple of months later, armed with 8 'O' Levels (6 A's, 2 B's), 4 'A' Levels (3 A's, 1 B) and a respectable 2.1 degree, I was skint and desperate and clueless. Having spent  many hours applying for jobs where qualifications were more a hindrance than a help, I eventually struck lucky, blagging a dead-end position as floorwalker in a Skeggy seafront arcade. Once I'd stepped onto the careers ladder, there might have been no stopping me. But, in no time at all, I'd missed a rung, slipped from my lowly spot to the very bottom, and ended up, somehow, as a member of a cauliflower cutting gang.

Field work had been hard, but I'd loved it more often than I'd hated it. It was gruelling, lowly-paid (unless you were good at it) and strangely satisfying. But, eventually, not satisfying enough. For 8 months I lived the life of a peasant, and then new horizons beckoned.

Our Kid had gone travelling to Australia months previously and it wasn't long before his letters stirred the feeling that that's where I should be too. I'd dreamed of running across the Portsea dunes, of jogging in the shore-break of the Indian Ocean, of finding something worthwhile. I'd be happy in Australia. Surely? I had to go.

And go I did. But, whilst things started well enough, it wasn't long before Fate's cruel push landed me in the shit again. I met a girl and fell in love. At the end of the year, when my working holiday visa expired, I made one of those rash decisions I'm so prone to making. If I returned to the UK, it would be 6 months before I could get back into Australia on a holiday visa. That was too long. But if I secured a student visa, I could return straight away. The thought of a second round of university education wasn't the most appealing prospect, but if I picked an easy course, it couldn't possibly be too bad.

After watching Craig Mclachlan's inspiring performance as the new teacher at Summer Bay High one evening, I started contemplating entering a secondary education programme. Good sense eventually prevailed. A secondary school teaching course would almost certainly involve lots of work. No, what I'd do was teach primary. It'd be a doddle. Reading books, painting pictures, piece of piss.

So here I am now. Waiting for the Senior Course Administrator. Waiting to tell her that I've made a mistake. Trying to wiggle my way out of this latest personal disaster.

I'm three months into my course. The workload is unbelievable. I'm doing well - really well - but I'm worn-out, disillusioned, done in. Each day is a struggle to squeeze everything I need to do into not enough hours to do them. And it's my own doing - I know that. That's what does my head in. The 'student visa option'  wasn't a smart one after all.

I'd managed to raise the $10,000 overseas student course fees by accepting money from anyone who'd been gracious enough to lend me some - my family, my girlfriend's family, various banks - but now I'm in a big hole, trying desperately to repay my debts as well as pay my dues. I'm living in a tiny caravan with no electric in the back yard of my girlfriend's family's house. I'm attempting to juggle university attendance, completion of assignments and teaching practice with a dish-washing job in a Northfield restaurant that takes up 6 hours, 4 nights a week and all day on Saturday and Sundays. I'm cycling the hours journey from the suburbs to work each time, and I'm cycling the hour's journey back. It's the same with University - a good half-hour from my caravan. I'm fit, but living in a constant state of knackeredness. My running has become sporadic at best, non-existent at worst. I've had it.

And recently, the doubts have started to eat at me, chip away - little voices getting louder, leading me to this corridor and that door.

Little voices. Taunting questions.

'Is this all worth it?'
'Is this what you want?'
'How much do you really love her?'

And recently, the words of others I respect - words I'd disregarded previously in the hope that I knew what I was doing - have started to resurface.

Words which questioned the wisdom of a year abroad built on money I didn't have.

'Chris- you'll have no other option when you finish that course - you'll have to get a proper job.'

Words which questioned my choice of 'career'.

'Chris- you know as well as I do that hardly anyone becomes a teacher because they really want to. They do it because they're not intelligent enough or imaginative enough to do what they really want. Teaching - it's a second-choice profession full of second-rate people.'

At first, these voices were whispers. But now they scream. Sitting in that silent corridor, the noise is so loud that I'm just a click from crying. But I've made my decision. A decision that I have to make. A decision that will make everything better.

I'm giving up.

It's the only thing I can do.

I've gone to the University building to tell them that I'm done. I'm leaving the course, and then I'll leave the country. And when I leave the country, I'll leave the girl who I love, but thought I loved more than I do.

The Senior Course Administrator's secretary told me an hour ago that Doctor Evans would be back from lunch in ten minutes. I hear footsteps and look up - my moment of reckoning is here. But it's only the secretary again. She reminds me of Joe Mangel's wife off 'Neighbours'.

'Sorry to have kept you waiting there,' she says, 'but Doctor Evan's won't be back in this afternoon. Could you call back tomorrow?'

I assure her I can, make my way to the bike compound and pedal back to my van. Once there, I sleep for a while, making the most of my evening off from pot-washing. When I wake, it's late in the day. It won't be long before it's dark. It's then that I go for a run.

Cutting across the Shelley Oval, I'm soon on the path by the Canning River. It's a while since I've done this and my breathing feels strained, forced instead of natural. But I'm doing what I was born to do, and soon I'm part of the beat of movement.

 The sunset stains the water red as I head towards Riverton Bridge. I'm alone on the path - too early for the drunken kids, too late for the well-to-do power walkers. Lost in now, before I know it, I'm there. I stop running, edge my way along the wrong side of the railings and sit in the middle of the old wooden bridge, my legs dangling over the river.

In less than half-an-hour, the fog of recent days has cleared slightly. For just this moment, things seem so much clearer.

I sit for an hour. I watch the birds make ripples on the still water. I watch the headlights and tail lights - the comings and goings of life - on the Leach Highway flyover. I think about where my journey's taking me.

Then I run again. Back home. Straight into what's still to come.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Crossroads (1 of 5)


'Had such a hard few weeks, but today we have reached a crossroads and had to make a decision. Life is never easy, but sometimes that just makes it more interesting.'

Facebook status, Tammy Rainbow, 12th June 2013


I've only ever been in this room once. Buried at the back of the school on the way to the Biology lab and the fourth year toilets, it's small, poky and painted pale blue. There's above sign on the door outside it. It says 'CAREERS ADVICE'.

As I'm called in and invited to sit at a desk, I briefly recall my last visit a few months previously. The school had hired a trainee teacher from France for a year. The idea was that she'd take small groups of 'O' and 'A' Level students from time to time, and talk with them, thereby improving their linguistic skills in French conversation.

I'd a big thing for French girls, the highlight of my almost non-existent social calendar being the one time each year when the school's annual French exchange students descended on the local roller rink on the night before they boarded their coach and hopped off over the channel. In terms of romance, it was never a successful night unfortunately. Fisherman's jumpers tucked into stretch jeans, Our Kid, Yorkie and myself would endeavour to make an impression by lapping the rink with nonchalance, with the odd attempt at skating backwards, whilst being studiously ignored by the very girls we were trying to woo.

The French conversation class had been similarly successful. As a shy and awkward 15-year old, I found it impossible to talk in English to reasonably pretty English girls, nevermind talking in a foreign language to a gorgeous French mademoiselle in her early 20s. I'd managed to stutter, 'Bonjour. Je m'appelle Christophe,' at the beginning of the session - my only words of conversation for the best part of an hour - but had then fallen into a glorious reverie, gazing at this exquisite vision in front of me whilst just two thoughts jousted for prominence in my head. 'Isn't she beautiful?' was the first. 'What the hell is she talking about?' was the other.

Now, sitting behind that desk, an overweight middle-aged woman is hoping to steer me towards the correct path in life. Her faint smile only partially hides a look of terminal boredom. She talks to me in that kindly, patronising way that nurses have mastered when speaking to a patient or care-workers have finely tuned when conversing with the elderly.

'Well. Have you any thoughts about where you see yourself going in the future?'

As is often the case when I'm trying to hold a conversation, the internal dialogue running through my head bears little resemblance to what I actually say.

I'd like to be a runner. Yeah, I know that it's impossible to earn a living at running, but it's the only thing I can see myself doing.

I pause.

Well, apart from being in a band. We've got a Moog synthesiser set up in the garage at home. And a coronet from when we used to be in the Salvation Army. And a set of drums. I've already learnt the synth part to Soft Cell's 'Sex Dwarf' and the drumming part from Blondie's 'Sunday Girl'. Woody's on about joining and writing us a song. A bit underground, you know. Like B-Movie or The Associates.

The woman's waiting for an answer.

'Errr...not really,' I tell her.

She studies a computer print-out in front of her. It's got my name on it. Christopher Martin Rainbow. Class 5B.

'That's a strange choice of 'A' Levels. Biology, History and Economics. A science, a humanity and something in between. Do you realise such a hotch-potch of subjects might limit your future career prospects?'

Career prospects? Career prospects! Listen, I chose those subjects because I'm good at them. And because they're marginally more interesting than the rest of the drivel they force-feed us with here at one of Lincolnshire's most prestigious establishments.

She's waiting again, but I've not finished.

Oh...and because Babe from 'The Marathon Man' studied History. I thought it would be cool. I love that book. Don't suppose you've read it? You might have seen the film. It stars Dustin Hoffman. Ace it is. I love Dustin Hoffman. 

Ok, I've finished now.

'Errr...not really,' I tell her.

She turns over a page of the print-out and studies the results of that questionnaire we all had to fill in last week. Hobbies. Interests. Row after row of pointless questions and 'Circle A, B, C or D's.

'According to your interests and hobbies, I've two main job suggestions you might like to consider.'

Fuck me, here we go.

' A librarian..'

Jesus Christ.

'...or a teacher.'

Even worse. 

'Have you ever thought about either of these as a future career?'

'Err...not really,' I tell her.

'Well, maybe you should,' she replies.

In an instant, a sinking depression fall upon me. I've reached the crossroads that we all come to when we grow up - the point where all the things that make who you are are expected to be tossed aside while people who know fuck all about you encourage you to become something that, frankly, you'd rather not. The point in life when the signpost you've reached has just two fingers pointing in opposite directions, one saying 'Dreams' and the other saying 'Job'.

 A job? I don't want a job.

For the first time in my young adult life, the crushing inevitability of what my future holds hits home.

There's a small window behind the woman. As she goes on and on, I stare blankly in the direction of the dirty glass pane. Outside, it's raining.

Is this it? When it boils down to it, is this what it's all about? Is this what we're supposed to bow down to? Respectability and a pay packet? No wonder all the adults I know are so fucking miserable. 

Heaven knows I'm miserable now too.

She's about done when there's a knock on the door.

At the second hesitant knock, I turn round. The door opens slightly and the French mademoiselle pops her lovely head through the gap. She's got a group of 'A' Level students in tow. Obviously thought the room was unused.

'Oh, excuse me,' she says, apologetic and embarrassed.

She goes to close the door, but not before she sees me. I manage a small smile before I have to look down.

'Oh, bonjour Christophe!' she sings in the way that pretty young French girls do in late-night films on BBC 2.

Alright gorgeous!

I try to reply but, tongue-tied, I can't get any words out before she's shut the door.

The woman across the desk brings our interview to a close and pushes over a pile of leaflets for me to look through. I thank her, stand up, stick the leaflets in my Head bag and make for the door, daydreaming.

I hear her voice again. 'Oh, bonjour Christophe!' And I see her smiling face. She obviously fancies me.

I leave the room labelled 'CAREERS ADVICE' and lope down the corridor, a swing in my step, thinking not of my future career but the living that lies in front of me.

Suddenly, the future doesn't seem so bleak.