Shakespeare is worth it but……

William Shakespeare is famous for his plots and sub-plots. This is part of the fascination. His gift for knitting together the most extraordinary expositions, developments and outcomes graced with exquisite expressionism, keeps him at the forefront of the literary and dramatic world. His work is power.

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If you want some of this power, you have to embark on some course of learning. You may wish to do it collectively with like-minded people, under the tutelage of an experienced Shakespearean aficionado. Or you could go it alone. There is a wealth of information online or hiding on the dustier shelves of our great libraries; kept discreetly apart from the Catherine Cooksons or Philip Pullmans. Either way, with some level of determination you can begin to gain some foothold into the man’s genius and realise just how damn sexy he is. I mean that in an artistic sense of course.download

Similarly, I could eulogise about the music of Mozart, a man who was still writing the overture to the Magic Flute the night before its first performance. Now there’s one complicated plot. It is too complex for me; complexity for the sake of complexity.

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Papageno with his flute.

I like the word though; it has a hint of the onomatopoeia about it. But it goes deeper than splash, is a little more expressive that bash and carries more impact than grunt. Now, can we think of a current over-complex plot? How about the upcoming drama of the referendum on the European Union.

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While it’s plot may be more complex than The Tempest, I find no desire to begin unpicking it for any traces of enlightenment. The reason? Well as my late Grandmother would have said: “It’s all my arse and Paddy’s elbow.”

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Now that is a brilliant description of complexity for its own sake. Yes, the European debate has taken on new levels of complication. The real issues appear to have been hidden by the  politicians’ tendency for making things personal. Is this more about a struggle for power? Can you imagine the respective outcomes of in or out?

We vote in: Cameron gets a PHd in smugness as his already over-inflated idea of self-importance goes into re-heat.

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Gove, Johnson and the other worms begin eating each other before finally emerging from the tin with their own ideas of healing the wounds of opportunistic ambition. Cameron’s face, as he looks at them crawling out back into the light: “Go on, slime balls, make yourselves prime minister after that!” Imagine the wailings of Farage.

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You may have already noticed how much his head bobbles sharply when he talks. It would probably go into some turbo-charged Tarantella before bursting into flames.

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The vote is out: All change. Johnson struts majestically about the corridors of Parliament with Gove just behind him, trying desperately to keep in step.

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Then Duncan Smith morphs into his evil alter-ego as he finds ways of making everyone “pay” for chasing him out of office.

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Cameron is seen momentarily scurrying about on a different floor, trailing brown slime and enquiring about advances in gunpowder technology. This is before having to face questions about getting into bed with the enemy.

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And Farage? You may have already noticed how much his head bobbles sharply when he talks. It would probably go into some turbo-charged Tarantella before bursting into flames.

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Somehow I get the idea of same old same old with the glorious leader of the memberless party. I know they have one MP but he hates him anyway. So with each camp winding up the electorate with issues fuelled by basic instincts and emotion, they are engaging in a squabble of unprecedented political magnitude.

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All I can say is vote against the people you like the least. Difficult isn’t it? I suspect that despite its top-billing it will make little difference either way. What have I just said? There are so many genuine day to day issues which give credence to either vote. The questions of immigration, jobs, exports and that transatlantic trade deal will affect us ordinary humble folk. But for the fat cats? And I include the politicians. I doubt it would make any difference to their gathering of extreme wealth. Oh, and how about Gideon, the smiling assassin? Perhaps he’ll just continue his stealth offensive between sniffs; systematically eliminating each opponent before he is the only possible candidate for the next Conservative leader.

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So I say vote with your heart because like so many other people I’ve spoken to, it’s doing my head in.

The Realisation Part Three.

We may talk about the abyss. The living hell, the fate worse than death or the end of the world. A local newspaper announced that a six-month bridge closure in the town would mean “carmageddon.” Ha-ha very funny; some tin-pot journalist from the local rag is now feeling very smug with that term. But it’s serious. People will be stuck in their cars. There will be queues. There will be outrage. Men who consider themselves very important will be delayed. There will be nothing they can do about it. No amount of six figure salary is going to make it any easier.

Grosvenor Road Bridge, Tunbridge Wells.
Grosvenor Road Bridge, Tunbridge Wells.

Two miles from home and they will be stuck. Oh the horrors.

And I wonder; what the hell do they know? It’s not going to change their lives. But they’ll still get road-rage. Big deal, I’ve got function rage. I rage at being stuck in a chair or stuck on the floor because I made a vain attempt to get to the bathroom and did one of my famous one-way slow motion capitulations. I rage at not being able to walk. I look at all the cars outside the local primary school and wonder how many of those parents were too lazy to walk.

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Then I put the news on and look at other people. They are in war zones in fear of their life watching people around them get shot and blown up. They are trudging mournfully across Europe or dying in rafts trying to get across the Mediterranean Sea. I breathe a sigh of relief. News gives you perspective; from the squabbling politicians to the worst acts of human indecency, it enables us to evaluate and appreciate what we have.

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Since diagnosis there have been some key moments. At school we were going to do an overnight trip somewhere in the Kent countryside. The first activity was a walk along the coast. I thought I could do it. I didn’t even make it out of the lane. Everyone was puzzled. They didn’t know about my condition. One of the other teachers thought I was lazy and just didn’t fancy it. The following year I went on more trips but was “excused” from any walking. And I was criticised for turning down the opportunity to referee for the football team.

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I was reluctant to come clean. When I started at that school I had replaced a teacher who had to retire because of MS. No need to explain my reticence. Once I arrived at Alicante Airport ready to pick up my hire car. The clutch was awkward. Well it wasn’t. My left foot was becoming downright disobedient. It wasn’t long before I found an automatic car.

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I’d always been keen on going to football matches. I have been to over fifty different grounds. At Ipswich, I had a seat in the top tier to see them play my team, Everton. Yes the stairs went well. I was slow and steady, holding on firmly to the hand rail. Then on the way to the seat, I ran out of support rail. I couldn’t move. Thank goodness for helpful stewards. No-one accused me of being drunk. It’s worth having a stick just to escape the great “misunderstanding”.

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Another moment was at work. I was beginning to struggle with walking short distances. On summer days, the heat would exacerbate my condition. I couldn’t put it off any longer; I went in with my walking stick. I taught wonderful children. Instantly they became helpful and did not want me to lift or carry anything. One young chap quietly told me that he was going to bring in an old walking stick from home so that I could use it. What reason do I have to rage?

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Heat was becoming a vital factor. Heat is now the devil’s work. One very hot day, my year group were doing a singing day in a local christian centre. It was air-conditioned. What a joy. I felt normal. At the end of the day, I went back to my classroom to do an hour’s marking. I just didn’t notice. When I tried to get up I sort of melted into a heap. I didn’t get home that day. I spent the night courtesy of the NHS in an acute stroke ward. I thought I’d had one. It was the heat. After a hot sleepless night, I vowed that even if I did have a stroke, I was going to refuse to accept it. There were six beds in the ward. Half of them had had their lives devastated in an instant.

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This brings me to the end of the teaching career. You spend all that time making excuses for yourself, explaining why you’re having a bit of difficulty coping with carrying a file or trying to move things about the classroom. Was it not enough that it was now physically impossible to play the piano? It took firm words before I realised. I was referred to occupational health. In the meeting with the health worker, she concluded by declaring: “I’m going to declare you unfit to teach.” It was pure relief.

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That was nearly four years ago. It has been a long road piecing together the resolve and resources to make my life a life and not a sentence. What would I do without a battery or the support of my wife and others who have lived through my physical decline? I have had a lot of support and both appreciate and remember it. There has been so much to realise. But the main thing is for me to realise what I still have and what I can still do. Believe me, I’m one lucky son of a twitch. (MS joke.) Thank-you for reading.

The realisation part 2

You know when something is wrong. I could party all night. I could walk or cycle for miles. I was at university doing my PGCE. I had wanted to be a teacher for years and I was finally going to do it. I was sharing a house with an old friend who had a dog. Obviously, I liked taking the big fellow for a walk. But one day I struggled. I just had to sit down. It was distressing. I used to bound up stairs like a gazelle. Now flat surfaces were turning into endless staircases. Later in the year, I tried playing five-a-side. It was hopeless. I was carrying two bricks for feet.

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Fast forward to a holiday in France. I went on a beautiful walk along a dribbling river bed. It had been a dry summer. The sense of escape and freedom was memorable. But then so was walking up the final hill to the car park. I couldn’t do it. My friends thought I was joking. Now, here I was with disobedient limbs. After a very long time, I’d inched up the slope to collapse in the car. And it was there, somewhere in the Pyrenees Atlantique by Orthez, that I knew I really needed help.

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The other memorable part of that holiday was visiting an old castle on a hilltop. It was history all around me. I stood there on the battlements looking into the distance feeling the sense of waiting and forboding; dreaming I was ready to defend my freedom. I could almost hear the roar of the charging English. There was a moment of silent drama as my heartbeat raced expecting to see the sight of the first soldier emerging under the grey leaden sky.

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In contrast to the previous incident I was telling myself not to be so weak minded. All I needed was exercise. But when I came back from the holiday I made an appointment with my GP. I wasn’t expecting much. My previous attempts at unravelling the mysteries of my encroaching disorder had failed: “You drink too much,” was the common response. I was for ever being passed on to the practice nurse who would go off on one about abusing the weekly alcohol limit.

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Personally I think they were just shirking responsibility. I was a young single professional; of course I drank too much. It was the lowest common denominator.

So this appointment arrived. Stone me it was Nicole. I knew her. She was standing in for my new GP whom I’d never met.  That was it. She listened to me and started the ball rolling. Neurologist, CSF, MRI and some weird thing in a darkened room when I had electrodes on my head.

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When Mr Blobby was the Christmas number one, my neurologist was beginning to hint at the outcome of my tests. It took until the following March before he confirmed it. It was a glorious day. I had the day off work. For once I wasn’t getting up int the middle of the night to claw my way thirty-eight miles through urban chaos to knock up the caretaker to let me in. It was one of those single storey primary schools flanked by high-rise flats. A symphony of grey with a thousand blank eyes staring down on the playground. We gave our children six hours of hope and encouragement before unleashing them back into their jungles of alcohol and drug abuse. Needles littered the walkways. And there were lads on street corners.

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On that glorious day in March, I received my news and drove out to a friend’s. But on the way, I heard Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in A major. It was a wow moment. My friend asked me about the appointment but all I did was rave about the music. “Oh yeah, he said it was MS,” I eventually admitted. My friend was stunned. “But I’ve got the rest of my life to worry about that. I’m going into town to order that CD.” I have since loved that piece of music. And that’s how I end part two; with a huge smile and wave of joy.

 

 It’s the first and second of the four pieces in this extract. Thank-you for reading.

The Realisation.

The hottest property in the sixties was Jaqueline Du Pre. Well, the hottest property in the world of classical music that is. Up to then, soloists were generally wrapped in the blanket of tradition and conformity. They would perform with the face of smugness born from a lifetime of adoration and sycophancy.

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Jaqueline was a cellist. After the emergence of Paul Tortelier as a soloist of flair and flamboyance, Du Pre brought a refreshing wave of youthful intensity. She was young , attractive and gifted.

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Along with her new husband, Daniel Barenboim she represented a new generation of dynamic performers ready to engage the young and smash the stoic grey sheen surrounding post-war classical music. She had enough competition. The Beatles were reaching incredible new heights in the world of popular music. There had also been a steady rise in easy listening. There was Mantovani, Manuel and his music of the mountains and Semprini. They were already icons of the middle of the road crew.

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Mantovani

 As a teenager learning the cello I couldn’t get enough of her. I scoured the radio and television listings hoping for a Du Pre fix. Then there was the shocking news; Jaqueline Du Pre could no longer play the cello. After a lifetime with the instrument she loved, she was no longer able to play it. It was the first time I’d heard of Multiple Sclerosis. On the radio, there were brief descriptions of what the illness did to people.

I took note. It sounded awful. You could think it but you couldn’t do it. It gave you disobedient lazy limbs. Why couldn’t they just do as they were told? I looked at my fingers. I moved them about in a sort of playing an instrument fashion. It was inconceivable. They were my bits. They did as I asked.

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Jaqueline Du Pre died in 1987. By that time, I had seen some signs. The first signs were gentle if rather puzzling. On a few occasions in the very early eighties, I noticed my tingling legs. It was nothing and I joked with myself that it was the first signs of Multiple Sclerosis. That is no joke. I distinctly remember walking home after a Sunday night at the King’s Arms in Seacombe. It was early spring and mild. I wore a reversible jacket with Lee jeans and Levi boots.

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It went through my mind. But I was still playing tennis and cycling everywhere. Then in May of 1983, a lot of my left-hand side felt numb and tingly. It didn’t last but my first reaction was to exercise more. I thought it was something to do with my over-indulgence. After all, I’d bought a car so I was less active. Then there was an incident in 1986. I was in Leicester for a football match. I’d had a skinful at lunch-time and I don’t really remember the game. What I do remember is feeling myself collapse and planting my chin into the bottom of a lamp-post. Ouch!

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The following year, I had developed a funny sort of spasm down my right-hand side. “It doesn’t make sense,” was the total sum of my GPs analysis. And there ends the first part of my journey into the abyss. Thank-you for reading.

Just so terribly nice.

Yes, it was just so terribly, terribly nice. An afternoon of spring warmth and sunshine at Wakehurst Place. Wakehurst is part of Kew Gardens. It holds an incredible seed bank for countless genii of the world’s plants. It also has many varieties on display around its gardens.

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At this time of year, the whole place is alive with new growth. As we went along its gently sloping paths, my wife, Rose and I took in some heady scents and aromas. For me, the man of the match was the walled garden. For Rose perhaps it was the ham sandwich, consumed with a marked degree of avarice. Even the journey to and from Wakehurst is a pleasant affair; traversing the Ashdown Forest and twisting through the leafy lanes of  West Sussex. Rose sat in the back humming away. Jo has discovered a real gem of a ruse for our daughter in the car. It’s called Walk the Moon’s Talking is Hard. A fair album.

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There’s something really exciting about spring and it was encapsulated in today’s trip. There are two things which really establish Wakehurst Place as one of my favourite destinations; I could borrow a mobility scooter and there is an abundance of toilets. It is hard for me to deviate from further eulogies involving a plethora of superlatives but I feel I must try.

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I wondered about the other people there. The were all polite, considerate and friendly. I saw one or two herberts strutting about with their coffee cups trying to look familiar and in tune with nature but it was no big deal. There were also some yummy mummies around lecturing their tiny ones about the life of the seed but it can only be expected. There was nothing offensive or objectionable about them and if that is how they are I have no problem at all.

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But the fact is, it’s just so middle class. I thought about how many of those children would be allowed out to go and play football with their mates in the street or on a bit of scrub land or on a car park. There are plenty of children I have had the pleasure of teaching who would have loved an opportunity to spend a couple of hours wandering aimlessly in this haven of beauty and tranquillity. I doubt if they ever will have a chance. They might not ever think about it. And that’s a key point. They might never ever think about it.

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You could argue that it may not appeal to them Maybe they want to spend all their time hanging around a shopping centre, the local park, the street corner or a noisy household with their X boxes avoiding sunlight and all human contact. I think it would be a shame for any child to miss out on a good breadth of experiences. What stops people? Now I could look down my nose and think that certain levels on the socio-economic ladder would choke at the idea of paying to go to a park; a very nice park but a park all the same. No,they would rather sit at home avoiding the opportunity for constructive conversation and parent-child bonding. After all, they want to make the best use of their massive televisions and channel subscriptions.

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But let’s not go there. It’s a cheap shot. I would just like to think that the future may hold such opportunities. I cannot generalise. These were just things going through my mind today. I don’t want to be categorising types of people and judging them through the standards I have set for myself.

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Snowdon over Llyn Llydaw – snow.

Once I took two lads up Snowdon. They were teenagers from the youth club where I worked. They were street kids. I wanted to give someone the chance I had when I was their age. It blew their mind. I have no idea if they ever went there again but I am sure they still remember it thirty-six years on.

Thank-you for reading.

Stop, I want to get off.

Tom looked ahead. It was a strain to bend his neck. Then he remembered his father’s words:

“Don’t waste time or energy looking at the finish. Look at the ground and open your ears; you’ll look ahead when you need to.”

On the sound of the gun, he flew from the blocks. With arms pumping and legs pounding, Tom eventually looked to the line. There was no-one in front of him. He could hear the frantic pulses of his punching breath. The line came and went. Tom tumbled onto the track. He lay there panting, looking at the sky.

“Have I won?” It was only a passing thought. Tom didn’t care. He was just glad it was over. All that training; hour upon hour running up and down while the world lay sleeping. Days in the rain and wind, fighting the stopwatch, trying not to answer back to his over critical coach. Then he remembered his father and what he would have to deal with. Win or lose, the consequences filled Tom with a sense of dread. As stared blankly at the swirling clouds overhead, he felt the approaching march of his father’s footsteps. He could see a tall dark-suited figure tower above him Tom still didn’t care about the result. Then he heard the sigh.

“What did I say? What did I say?” Tom’s dad had an annoying habit of repeating himself. Tom closed his eyes. “You jumped off the blocks, you just jumped out of them. Then you missed your rhythm; missed your rhythm and ended up flapping your arms. After a strained pause, he looked at his father silhouetted against the fluid sky. “Flapping your arms.” He walked off. Tom sat up to see his coach bounding towards him.

“Nice one Thommo. I’ll check the time again but it looks like you’re below eleven.” Tom smiled back. He didn’t like his father or his coach. The worked him, punished him and always criticised.

“Did I win?”

“Yes, you stormed it,” replied the coach, making a running gesture with his arms.

Tom let his head drop. Despite winning, his coach and his father would find something to criticise.

“You’ve got hockey tonight.” Tom looked to his father. “Hockey, tonight.” Tom sighed a silent sigh. It was no good arguing or trying to say that he was too tired or had no real interest in chasing a vicious hard ball round a field with a big stick. This is what is was like. Every day of the week had some extra little activity. “It won’t do you any harm Thomas. It’s good to keep busy. We’re known as a sporting family. And you will get your time below the under-sixteen record.”

Tom was finding it hard. He liked doing things and keeping busy. He liked the friendships he had made. He even liked winning things and being on show. But once in a while, all he wanted to do was go home and do nothing. Tom was not into gaming or ploughing through social media. In fact, he hated his phone. While almost everyone he knew would spend every spare minute of their spare time with their noses buried in their tiny screens; laughing or shouting “Oh my god” with their virtual friends, Tom kept his own phone in his bag. Days would go by without it being switched on.

On those rare occasions when there was no after-school club to go to and everyone would be doing their own thing, Tom liked to read about the countryside around him. Whether it was in a book or online, he wanted to know where every street and footpath would lead to. He was constantly playing different birdsong so he could recognise it when he heard it live.

“Can you hear that chaffinch?” Tom would say. No-one ever answered him. Mum was always texting and Dad would give him the look of death before launching into a rant about his training.

“You’ve got the nationals next week.” Tom would close his eyes as he heard his father’s reiteration. “Next week! You can’t let your training go.” His look of passive resignation always prompted more: “See if you don’t impress in the nationals you won’t get the opportunities for the training. They want boys who are keen and hungry.”

“But I am keen,” Tom would reply. “You’re keenly complacent.” His father’s comments prompted a long silence. But it was no a calm silence. This was a sharpened spring-loaded mousetrap of a silence. Tom certainly felt trapped. If he tried to break out the jaws of his father’s discipline would snap around him. Tom’s whole life was being mapped out before him and there was nothing he could do about it.

The journey between the track and home went through Hunger’s Woods. The road would twist and turn amongst the bright green tangle of trees. Just before the top of the hill, the road began to descend into town. At this point, there was a clear path leading to the highest point. It was not much higher than the road but Tom knew it gave a great view over town and beyond; at least that was what Danielle had said. Danielle was the nine-year-old daughter of Andy and Donna, the next door neighbours. She would chat to Tom while both fathers bragged to each other about their sons’ sporting prowess. She liked to talk about the walks she did with her mum and Monkey, their grey Lurcher.

“Can we stop here so I can see the view?” Tom was always wary of being ridiculed. Tom did not know why he asked on that occasion; the mocking followed immediately

“Views are for girls.” Tom said nothing. The mousetrap returned.

“It’s a wonder he didn’t take off.” Tom’s mum looked up from her magazine. “He was flapping that much it’s a wonder he didn’t take off.” Mum looked back down.

Upstairs, Tom sat on the edge of his bed and stared at the house across the road. The front garden was divided into four sections. Separated by a low hedge, each quarter had a centrepiece. Tom’s favourite was the one with the rose covered archway. The man he saw was always trimming a branch and gently caressing each flower head. Tom did not know who he was. Father did not talk to the people across the road. They had a bigger house.

“Clarinet.” Father’s voice boomed from the bottom of the stairs. “I can’t hear the clarinet.” Reluctantly Tom put the three pieces of his clarinet together and began to play one of his old tunes. It was a jolly piece from an old exam book. He didn’t need the music. The door burst open.

“You’ve got your grade five in two weeks.” Tom stopped and drooped his head. “Grade five. Where are your scales?” Tom kept his eyes closed for a few seconds. He returned the mouthpiece to his lips and started one of his dreadful scales. The door closed and he was left alone. But he wasn’t alone. He couldn’t even play for pleasure without incurring his father’s criticism. Yes he did have an exam coming up. Yes he did have to practice his scales. But why could he not do it his own way? Why was his father constantly on his back?

“Are you ready for hockey?” The sudden booming of his father’s voice made Tom jump. He was lost; lost in his imaginary wanderings. After some pained clarinet scales, Tom had immersed himself in some local mapping. He had the satellite map of the hill in Hunger’s Woods. With his finger, Tom traced the route he wanted to take. He was trying to memorise it.

The week before, Danielle and her mum called at Tom’s house. They were going to take their dog for a walk and thought they’d offer him the chance to join them. Tom did not know this at the time. He had heard the door bell but had no idea who it was. He had no idea that his father had been downright rude to them, announcing that his son had far more important things to do. Dog walking was a pointless exercise for a future champion.

It was only when he was being packed into the car along with his kit that Danielle came bounding down the driveway.

“Tom, Tom. We’re taking Monkey to the hill. Do you want to come?” Tom looked at his father. “I told you before.” His father’s face grew red. “He doesn’t do dog-walking.” Danielle waved to Tom as they drove past her and raced off along the road.

“Had she asked before?” Tom asked after a long strained silence. His father mumbled disapprovingly. “When did she ask before?” Tom rarely pressed his father. There was a long sigh.

“The other day.” He turned to his son. “And?” The silence returned. It remained until the end of hockey, when there were things to be said about Tom’s deteriorating technique and how he was becoming prone to distraction.

But Tom began to mull over it. It went round and round, churning in his brain. He missed a chance to go up the hill. He missed it because his father did not bother telling him. It raged on through every waking hour. Firstly it was distress. He was distressed because it was a missed chance. Then distress became determination. He was going to go up that hill.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Tom went onto his pad. With the mapping programme, he began to plan his escape. “Four point three miles? I can run that.” Although Tom’s strength was speed, he was a natural athlete. Running was second nature. At school he often went on cross-country sessions. He liked the solitude. There was no-one around to bark their pathetic orders. Then thought about running times. “How long would it take me? Half an hour? Forty minutes?” It was turning into a masterpiece of meticulous preparation. As he was finishing, the morning light began to appear behind the curtains. There was one last thing to be decided; when?. Tom thought carefully about an opportune time. He had even prepared his road running gear for a quick getaway. Then without any more thought he put it on, crept out of the house and began to run.

Outside the air was clear and fresh. An early morning shower had left the verges glowing with spring moisture. Tom went into his cross-country rhythm. This was better than school. This was better than a sarcastic coach or a father too wrapped up in his own little cloud of self-importance. Going up the hill, Tom felt the pressure from his legs. It was the pressure of the sprint but in slow motion. He had memorised his route. There was only a mile on the road. Before long he was running over the soft green carpet of bright glistening grass. The occasional splash of ground water and the shivery streak of long grass and fern gave an instant of refreshing coolness.

The hill was getting steeper. Up ahead was the top. Tom sprinted. As he reached the highest point he was laughing uncontrollably. Still laughing, he turned round to take in the view. He gasped. It was magnificent. Below him was the sleepy little town. The daylight had arrived and tiny figures were beginning to scuttle about as the day was starting. Tom sat down. He was sweating from the run. The dampness did not matter. This was the most joyous moment of Tom’s short life.

Tom was six when the news came. His brother Simon was at the hospital. He was having tests. That is what he was told. Tom could not remember the details but he could recall missing Simon not being at home. They ran and played together. Simon knew all sorts of secret places they could hide in. But Tom didn’t know what a tumour was. No-one explained it to him. But he knew where the brain was. He wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital. There were hours and days spent with Aunt Lindsey. Film after film, board game after board game and late night after late night. Tom never had fun with Aunt Lindsey. Her boyfriend Darren hated him being there.

One day Tom’s mum took him aside and told him Simon was never going to come back home. She looked dreadful; even to the eyes of a six year-old boy. Her hair was greasy and her face was thin and tight. She stank of cigarette smoke. Long nights followed. These were nights of tears, tempers and an absent father. Tom’s father smelt of whisky.

After they moved to their new house next to Danielle and monkey, Tom’s father began to come home at the right time. It was in time to eat as a family and in time to take Tom to training. The training became constant. Even at the age of seven, Tom found himself embroiled in an intense round of daily work-outs. When the hockey started, the weekends began to disappear. Like every young boy, Tom wanted to please his parents. He took part without complaint. But it was too much. He was not Simon. Like his brother he was now fourteen and wanted to do his own thing. He loved the country. He loved nature. He loved his own company. He did not want to be a champion sprinter. He would look at pictures of athletes’ distorted bodies. The last thing Tom wanted was a neck like a tree-trunk.

When the morning sun warm the ground and pockets of steam rose all around him, there was a familiar voice.

“Monkey fetch.” The laughter was unmistakable. Donna, Danielle and monkey came over the brow of the hill. Donna was surprised; Danielle was delighted.

“Look mummy, Tom’s here.” Donna looked at Tom.

“Shall I tell them?” asked Donna. Tom nodded. She produced her phone and took a few steps back down. She tilted her head and placed the phone against her ear. She stretched out with her other hand at some unseen object and raised her eyebrows. Tom smiled. It was not the sort of thing he’d noticed before but every woman or young girl he knew used their phone in the same way. The style was identical. He took a deep breath. There was going to be some explaining to do.

Danielle tried to show Tom how Monkey could catch his ball. She tried a couple of times before she sat down next to her big friend.

“Do you like it here?” she asked.

“I love it here,” replied Tom with his eyes fixed on some distant object.

“I love it too,” said Danielle looking the same way. She sat down next to his and rested her head on his shoulder. Donna came back up the hill to join them

“I’ll take you home if you like.” She looked up at the blue morning sky. “When we’ve finished here.”

Stop, I want to get off.

Tom looked ahead to the tape. It was a strain to bend his neck. Then he remembered his father’s words:

“Don’t waste time or energy looking at the finish. Look at the ground and open your ears; you’ll look ahead when you need to.”

“Trust your body,” thought Tom. On the sound of the gun he flew from the blocks. With arms pumping and legs pounding, Tom eventually looked to the line. There was no-one in front of him. He could hear the frantic pulses of his punching breath. The line came and went. Tom tumbled onto the track. He lay there panting, looking at the sky.

“Have I won?” It was only a passing thought. Tom didn’t care. He was just glad it was over. All that training; hour upon hour running up and down while the world lay sleeping. Days in the rain and wind, fighting the stopwatch, trying not to answer back to his over critical coach. Then he remembered his father and what he would have to deal with. Win or lose, the consequences filled Tom with a sense of dread. Then as he began to notice the patterns forming in the clouds overhead, he felt the approaching march of his father’s footsteps. He could see a tall dark-suited figure tower above him Tom still didn’t care about the result. Then he heard the sigh.

“What did I say? What did I say?” Tom’s dad had an annoying habit of repeating himself. Tom closed his eyes. “You jumped off the blocks, you just jumped out of them. Then you missed your rhythm; missed your rhythm and ended up flapping your arms. After a strained pause, he looked at his father silhouetted against the fluid sky. “Flapping your arms.” He walked off. Tom sat up to see his coach bounding towards him.

“Nice one Thommo. I’ll check the time again but it looks like you’re below eleven.” Tom smiled back. He didn’t like his father or his coach. The worked him, punished him and always criticised.

“Did I win?”

“Yes, you stormed it,” replied the coach, making a running gesture with his arms.

Tom was used to it. While he kept winning his races, his coach would over-enthuse and his father would find something to criticise.

“You’ve got hockey tonight.” Tom looked to his father. “Hockey, tonight.” Tom sighed a silent sigh. It was no good arguing or trying to say that he was too tired or had no real interest in chasing a vicious hard ball round a field with a big stick. This is what is was like. Every day of the week had some extra little activity. “It won’t do you any harm Thomas. It’s good to keep busy. We’re known as a sporting family. And you will get your time below the under-sixteen record.”

Tom was finding it hard. He liked doing things and keeping busy. He liked the friendships he had made. He even liked winning things or playing in front of an audience. But once in a while, all he wanted to do was go home and do nothing. Tom was not into gaming or ploughing through social media. In fact he hated his phone. While almost everyone he knew would spend every spare minute of their spare time with their noses buried in their tiny screens; laughing or shouting “Oh my god” with their imaginary friends, Tom kept his own phone in his bag. Days would go by without it being switched on.

On those rare occasions when there was no after-school club to go to and everyone would be doing their own thing, Tom liked to read about the countryside around him. Whether it was in a book or online, he wanted to know where every street and footpath would lead to. He was constantly playing different birdsong so he could recognise it when he heard it live.

“Can you hear that chaffinch?” Tom would say. No-one ever answered him. Mum was always texting and Dad would give him the look of death before launching into a rant about how he was neglecting his training.

“You’ve got the nationals next week.” Tom would close his eyes as he heard his father’s reiteration. “Next week! You can’t let your training go.” His look of passive resignation always prompted more: “See if you don’t impress in the nationals you won’t get the opportunities for the training. They want boys who are keen and hungry.”

“But I am keen,” Tom would reply. “You’re keenly complacent,” his dad always commented. Tom felt trapped. His whole life was being mapped out before him and there was nothing he could do about it.

The journey between the track and home went through Hunger’s Woods. The road would twist and turn amongst the bright green tangle of trees. Just before the top of the hill, the road began to descend into town. At this point, there was a clear footpath leading to the highest point. It was not much higher than the road but Tom knew it gave a great view over town and beyond; at least that was what Danielle had said. Danielle was the nine-year-old daughter of Andy, the next door neighbour. She was sometimes chat to Tom while both fathers bragged to each other about their sons’ sporting prowess. She liked to tell Tom about the walks she did with her mum and Monkey, their grey Lurcher.

“Can we stop here so I can see the view?” Tom was always wary of making a direct request to his father. It was usually ridiculed. Tom did not know why he asked; maybe he found some reassurance in the way his father taunted him with his answer:

“Views are for girls.” Tom said nothing. The car eventually reversed into the driveway.

“It’s a wonder he didn’t take off.” Tom’s mum looked up from her magazine. “He was flapping that much it’s a wonder he didn’t take off.” Mum looked back down.

Upstairs, Tom sat on the edge of his bed and stared at the house across the road. The front garden was divide into four sections. Separated by a low hedge, each quarter had a centrepiece. Tom’s favourite was the one with the rose covered archway. The man he would often see there was always trimming a branch and gently caressing each flower head. Tom did not know who he was. Father did not talk to the people across the road. They had a bigger house.

“Clarinet.” Father’s voice boomed from the bottom of the stairs. “I can’t hear the clarinet” Reluctantly Tom put the three pieces of his clarinet together and began to play one of his old tunes. It was a jolly piece from an old exam book. He didn’t need the music. The door burst open.

“You’ve got your grade five in two weeks.” Tom stopped and drooped his head. “Grade five. Where are your scales?” Tom kept his eyes closed for a few seconds. He returned the mouthpiece to his lips and started one of his dreadful scales. The door closed and he was left alons. But he wasn’t alone. He couldn’t even play for pleasure without his father’s criticism. Yes he did have an exam coming up. Yes he did have to practice his scales. But why could he not do it his own way? Why was his father constantly on his back?