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?