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.    

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