‘The Race of Men’ is the tenth piece in our Story: Retold series, published in association with the Rhys Davies Trust. It is inspired by the George Ewart Evans short story, ‘The Medal’.
You couldn’t come first because Shane always came first. Even on crutches he was dangerous. When he broke his leg he swiped your knees if you angered him, working his steel sticks with irked concentration, as if stirring a giant’s pot. We signed his plaster the way he wanted it: Get well Shane!
It worked. He healed in no time.
The girls swapped the names of boys they judged might beat him in a fight. With bright speculation they compared us. We took their fantasies as nonchalantly as we could, dreaming that they thought us tough, though they measured us only by height. Shane had two inches on everyone.
Everyone carried something that only friends were allowed to tease – Matthew was goggly, William was porky, Dai had his hair – only Shane was unmarked, and constantly watchful.
“You want to make something of it? You and whose army?” snapped his challenge, when an argument warmed up. It was very effective. He seemed like a teenager then, with his adder black eyes. When someone asked for it, when they made something of it, he cornered them. He had a tic, glances quick but careful over his shoulders, as the victim shrank and babbled, knowing what it meant. The blow came mercifully fast.
Shane sometimes smiled at those moments and the reciever often did, laughing in a squeaky hysteria of dread and excitement: these were dead arms, dead legs, punishments on the giggling side of pain. They were younger or markedly weaker, the ones with their backs to the coats, pinned below the hooks for the crime of being ‘cheeky’.
A lot of the little kids adored him. It was not just that he was the tallest in the school. He was kind to them. He noticed them in a way we did not and he looked after them, applying his justice to their obscure disputes. In the fluent way his shoulders moved under his grey school sweater, in the way his long gaze searched the playground, in the way his eyes narrowed to watch the flight of a ball he had struck or kicked was something of which attracted us, flecks of a future we craved unwittingly, something we sensed but never supposed was also ours.
It was a yellow summer. The little gap between the shed and the fence was sticky with juniper and a heat that made you prickle. Crian, Rhiannon or Anna, the ones who everyone fancied, might agree to kiss you there or something. They probably never did but the world tipped at the thought that they might. Nothing in the playground, the field or on the football pitch could hold us then. We tried Police and Pickets, running and scrapping until the game was banned and we milled about, passing rumours.
“I know someone who likes you.”
“Tell Crian I like her.”
“Matthew says he likes you…”
Carrying a message was almost as good as getting one. She looked up. Her eyes! What lit that dark and shining brown? She blew her hair.
“I don’t like him.”
“Who do you like?”
A look. A downward smile.
It was heaven.
Shane did not ask anyone to tell Rhiannon he liked her. Rhiannon was the prettiest girl in Wales, and the neatest. Once they sat together at the back of the class. With his untucked shirt and his arm around her shoulders he looked as relaxed and mighty as a man can. He had this way of small white spitting. Rhiannon bore the attention as though she was unaware of it. Charles and Lady Di never seemed more impressive.
We liked him. Since the trip to Llandudno when we almost took an airgun in someone’s luggage to shoot seagulls, and one of us did a shit two feet long, and I had to share a bed with Derek Stokes whose dad had the electrical shop, we were all close. For five years we had scratched at an order which no longer itched: Shane first, everyone else second equal.
And then it was the end of term, the end of school and everything we knew.
“Sports day tomorrow,” Mrs Thomas boomed. “Stop shouting Shane! We’ll have no Arthur Scargills here, thank you.”
She gave out instructions and took Dai Williams aside.
“Now you’re not going to be ill tomorrow, are you Dai? I know you don’t like Sports Day.”
The parents came, and the little brothers and sisters, and the aunts and uncles and some dogs. Nursery and Infants turned out and were herded. The headmaster wore his best brown shirt with the stripes that made him look sleeker. He smoothed his wide brown tie and made the most of his speeches. Every event from Harvest Festival to the Nativity Play began with humourous apologies.
Eggs and spoons, sack races, throwing the cricket ball: we did what we were asked without much bother, like champions playing kick-about. If you won you got a dull bronze medal, square with a blue ribbon. The one we minded was the boys’ hundred metres, the last race. Everything took a long time. Afternoons were as wide as hay fields then and the unmown grass by the track was meadow high. We lounged in it, playing cards – not top trumps, these days, proper cards. Most of us were going to the High School.
If you misbehaved at the High School they would come down on you like a ton of bricks, Mrs Thomas said. If you didn’t watch yourself there someone would put you straight.
Dai Williams had been to look around the High School with his mother. In one classroom he saw a wild boy, Jason who had left last year, doing Home Economics. Jason was slumped beyond boredom, resentfully indifferent in a plastic apron. He gave Dai a prisoner’s smile and stuck his fingers in a lump of dough as if he was giving it the vees. In the corridor a male teacher with a charged red face shouted at another boy Dai knew from the year above, Teifion.
“You ever do that again I’ll knock your bloody block off!”
Dai did not understand anything. Teifion had been his friend, a good lad, in the judgement of Mrs Thomas. He too looked mystified at the teacher’s fury, and when he saw Dai, embarrassed.
The girls ran their race and Anna won. She had come from another school with her curled red hair that Shane said was ginger. She was quickly one of the main girls, full of scandalised whispers and glances. They never seemed to pay much attention to us as we had the yo-yo craze, and the BMX craze, when you had to have a favourite, like a football team, even if your parents could not or would not get you the bike. The best was a Diamond Back, the Liverpool FC of cycles. None of us went to Liverpool or ever saw a Diamond Back but our allegiance with them made us bigger. The only thing everyone had was trainers, but nothing united girls and boys until Anna started the rollerskating. The lace-up boots made the girls taller with longer legs. From one day to the next, it seemed, they could all do it backwards. We joined in, lurching and sprawling, our palms and knees hatched with grazes. Dai turned up with a set of wheels which buckled to his shoes. Shane dubbed them ‘clunkers’.
“What are they! Give us a look. Did you make them yourself or what?”
“It’s because your mum’s poor isn’t it?” said Matthew, solemnly loyal to the last.
Dai blushed uncertain.
One day he had appeared with string instead of laces. He never learned to rollerskate. Perhaps you couldn’t do the tricks with those clashing wheels. For a short time we were like television Americans, everyone gliding and glamorous except Dai, who spent breaktimes clinging to the sports hall or crashing into the fence, his smile rigid with enjoyment.
They had planted young willow trees in a line along the bottom of the field. In the slight shade of a sapling we dealt and played our hands.
“Oh I see! A round of cards! Oh well! I thought they’re awfully quiet over there, I wonder what they’re up to now? They’re yours are they Shane? I think that’s lovely. You’re not gambling now are you?”
Shane had a splint of twig in his teeth. Mrs Thomas had her hands on her wide hips and she smiled on us like the sun. We felt proper men. By copying Shane we seemed to know how to be laconic, just like that. Laconically we answered and smiled and dealt again. There weren’t many men at sports day.
When you grew up you would get a job and a car. Dai wanted a Rangerover. When Matthew was having trouble with Shane, Matthew had consulted his parents. His Dad said, “You do your work and don’t mind him. One day you’ll be offering Rhiannon a lift in a Jag and that boy Shane will be lucky if he has a Mini.”
Matthew reported this. We all nodded. Life was an endless afternoon like sports day. It had an eventual justice like Star Wars. You might get frozen in carbon in the second part but by the end of the third you had your arm around Princess Leia, like Shane with Rhiannon that time. Nothing really ended or began. You put your arm around her if she liked you.
We did not have the vocabulary for going out with someone, or breaking up. We had heard the girls talking about French kissing, and seen them ‘practicing’, their lips to their fists. It was all mystery.
“Watch this right,” Shane said. He turned his back on us, reaching one hand over his shoulder and another around his waist. He bowed his head. His hands carressed him eagerly as he made soft smoochy noises, “Mmm, mmm.”
Even Mrs Thomas thought it was brilliant. No wonder.
And Rhiannon turned on her skates faster than a bird, her skirt flying, every summer there ever was in a whirl round her. She was going to be a doctor like her mother who drove a black MG. We had never met Rhiannon’s Dad, or Dai’s or Shane’s. Derwyn’s everyone knew: he had the butcher’s on the High Street; it was the heart of the town, with its happy greetings and its cold pink smell of meat.
Matthew’s Dad was a painter and we all knew him too. They lived near the school. What we knew of the world depended on whose houses we had been to for tea. From them we drew our bearings. In Michael’s house they said sauce, not ketchup. Peter Williams’ mum had a goat and a freezer containing iced lollies. Shane’s house was uphill on the other side of the school, towards the canal, but he wasn’t from there. He came from Devises. Devises was dark all day and night in winter, he said once, and Matthew laughed at him until Shane asked him if wanted to make something of it. Even if there was light in winter there it sounded mythical. Shane once told Lisa Jenkins she had an arse as big as the Mersey Tunnel, which we thought must be near Devises.
Shane had big older sisters, giant girls whose skills he acquired. He could rollerskate as well as anyone. He handled a skipping rope so that it slashed the ground. He was the striker, with his black Admiral boots as big as destiny. Derwyn was the goal keeper.
Derwyn was one of the first among the rest of us, with his slow smile and easy way of friendship with everybody, Joseph to Rhiannon’s Mary. Shane was the first of the Three Kings, with a golden cloak. He took theatre very seriously.
“Stop talking!” he hissed at the other two Kings and the three Pages. “Walk slowly in time with the music and don’t mess it up or I’ll pannel you right?”
Perhaps only the Kings and Pages saw that if you gave Shane responsibility he would square his shoulders to it. But beyond the Nativity there were no roles to give out. The cricket, football, rounders and netball teams had captains but they had no power or burden. Shane was the captain of football by common consent, though the title belonged to Derwyn. The incompetence of others made Shane cross but he was rarely unpleasant about it for long. He cared a too much not to play with a frown and a curse. There was no rugby team. The nearest we came to contact sport was snowball fights.
“Boy’s race! Come on boys, let’s have you!”
It was a long way to the starting line. The crowd around the finish looked huge.
There was no special kit for games; we would run as we played football and cricket, in whatever shorts and shirts our parents chose. We lined up. We had no way of knowing that you might meet the girl of your dreams and end up divorcing her, though we knew about divorce. Derwyn and his brother Aran would join their father behind the counter in the butchers, where they would be true celebrities, known and admired by hundreds. They would have many children and more than two marriages. We wanted to win, but as much as we ran for the finish line we ran away from the start, so as not to be left there, so as not to come in last to commiserating applause.
“On your marks!”
Our pale legs and our skinny arms had men inside them. Matthew would work for the Royal National Insitute of the Blind and fall in love with one of its finance officers. They would marry and live happily: Matthew had a predisposition to happiness. None of us would see much of Rhiannon after High School. She would be a doctor and a scientist. She would move to Zurich, have children and become an interior designer.
Behind us the wilderness of Park Farm shimmered dark in the sun, its Rhododendrons carved, if you knew where to look, with confessions of like and hate. Mrs Thatcher would fall, the Ford factory and Hoover would never replace the mines, Star Wars would be reborn without quite dying and the blue over Wales would thicken with jet trails going to America. Concorde’s boom would fall silent. Dai Williams would rollerblade in New York in a decade’s time and he would be just as bad at it then. He would still be in the wrong clothes.
The escarpment behind the school and the flat-topped hills across the river, the steeple, the dot of its weathervane and the shuffled deck of the roofs around it would hold their profile all our lives. Mrs Thomas would get two new hips.
You could not feel the ground passing under you when you ran like that. The start line was left for ever. You ran unfeeling of the effort, only conscious of a desperate want that your feet should fly. Shane was slightly in front, Derwyn was just there and you would not see the others again until it was over. We soared past the spot where we had the greatest snowball fight, past the little hillock with its crown of rocks over which we had butted each other like lambs. We flickered past the climbing frame where we had hung upside down by the backs of our knees. It took guts the first time. The girls couldn’t do it without a friend to keep their skirts up, except Maggie Richards, uncaring outcast, who did it alone with a triumphant shout and scorned us for caring what colour they were.
The middle section took huge long seconds but as we neared the end we seemed to go faster towards the faces, their mouths open, growing. An elderly man in a cardigan and tie leaned over his garden fence with a squint grin into the sun and a scaffold of bean poles behind him.
The sun would never be brighter than it was that day; the blue air held vapours measureable in parts per million which would never be fewer. A decade or so before this you were older at ten or eleven than we were now; the classrooms of the early seventies were stricter places than ours. And a decade later children the same age that we were would be older again, more knowing. Computers would spawn from the two BBC Basics in school, become Personal, make their way into bedrooms. We had heard of video nasties but never seen any. There was, for us, no word yet of AIDS or drugs. As long as there was no nuclear war there was nothing to worry about, that sports day. Normal wars ended with Britain beating Germany or Argentina. The map in the classroom was covered in Commonwealth pink.
Suddenly we were there, the tape curling away from us across Shane’s chest. He bowed his head to receive his medal and his applause. The rest of us panted quickly like dogs. Shane had a lovely smile at that moment. For a boy who received few congratulations he took them now like a man of accomplishment, modest and warm with a forgiving air, as though he did not blame adults for overreacting to things. Parents who had watched him grow and heard tales and complaints of him were pleased for him, for this boy whose eyes met theirs evenly.
There were no children more innocent in the all industrialised world at that time, even with what we had seen of Orgreave and the aftermath of Goose Green on the news, and no more sheltered place anywhere than that playing field under the sky. It seems a beautiful defiance to me now, a great fragile justice which time would grind to the dust of shared forgetting, that this was the end of our education in that Church in Wales Primary School, from the copperplate copying of the alphabet to the numbering of days in the months, from adding to long division, from tadpoles to frogs, from the spelling of witch to the joined-up writing of which, from sitting still listening to stories to writing them in near silence, from the Green Cross Code to the Puffin Book Club and Cycyling Proficiency – that all this should have culminated in a medal for Shane, who was a good lad really, in the judgement of Mrs Thomas. And it seems a monstrous and sardonic spite that the tiny chips of life we all carried were just a little bigger in him, their splinters worked a little further under the skin, and that in this was all the difference.
I heard he had some incidents at The Club, which was pool tables and fizzy drinks in the High School. It must have taken courage or madness to make something of it with the bigger boys there: perhaps they gave him no choice. I heard, years later, that he did some time, and I do in part believe it. I heard someone say he was trouble, always had been, which I know was false.
“Oh he’s a proper devil,” someone said, but though we use ‘devil’ lightly, for a mischevious dog, a bumptious child or a nut that wouldn’t shift, the man who said it did not say it that way.
Sometimes I think that if I knew what was happening to Shane, if I knew what it was that made our friend’s fingers so quick to bunch and curl, I would know the secret of the world. Sometimes I think that if I can just recall everything that happened that day, a day quite like any other, I will find that I do know it, that I have always known it.
We paid no more attention to the races, to the screech of the little kids, to the parents’ hoots and the little squalls of clapping than did the grasshoppers. Shane dealt the cards and coached us. He was patient and assiduous, leaning over:
“No, right, you play that one – that one! Dummy – and then you pick up.”
“Why can’t I play that one?”
“Because it’s the rules.”
“Shane’s rules,” Matthew put in.
“They’re not my rules! That’s how you play it!”
“Because he says so,” Derwyn said.
“Don’t you start.”
“I will in a minute!”
“Yeah,” I said, flopping backwards into the grass. “You think you’re hard?”
“Hard? Rock hard!”
He spoke through his teeth in a comic growl. He put up his left up like a boxer, clenched and ground tight knuckles into my upper arm. I giggled.
“Yeah, yeah. Get off!”
Shane put down a card. Matthew trumped it.
“You messed that up,” he said, “I win!”
“You’re asking for a bunch of fivers, Smith,” said Shane, displaying his champion’s paw with a mock fury that became a self-satirising grin which became a laugh out of nowhere, that burst of some pure thing which spins happiness out of the air entire and flings it wide, unrestrained and utter, quite wonderful and not at all uncommon in children under eleven.