Racing: part one
The whistle blew and they were running, with a flurry of limbs and a gentle splattering sound as seventeen pairs of trainers hit the grass, still soft from last night’s rain. As always, the girls hung together as they leaned into the curve of the track, with only two stragglers and one girl who shot out in front. The outcome was predictable. Clare, the leader, dominated every sporting event; to her this was not a race but a training session. Her long, perfectly straight hair was pulled back into a ponytail that whipped from side to side as her feet pounded the floor, and she sped forward. The other girls watched her retreating back with envy and wished they could be her, entertaining fantasies of standing on the winner’s podium at the County Championship, imagining themselves up front.
Ellen was not at the front. She chose to stay in the middle where she was safe and anonymous. She paid no attention to who was first and last, and she didn’t much care how she measured up to her classmates. She could run if she wanted, but running by herself through the meadows by her house, wallowing in the solitude, was different to this. There was no beauty in the white lines of the athletics track. She saw no reason to exert herself here.
It was early. January fog was clung to the edge of the field, obscuring the school buildings and covering the track farther ahead. Like the markings on an unlit country road at night, for every inch of ground travelled over, more appeared in front.
As they moved onto a straight the group began to space out, leaving a bigger gap between Ellen and the girls nearest her. She had warmed up now, but her arms were red with cold and each time she exhaled she could see a cloud of condensation in front of her. She concentrated on her breathing: in through the nose, out through the mouth, one breath for every two footfalls, her natural rhythm. She concentrated on this so that she could not think about the changing rooms by the gym, where seventeen school uniforms were hanging from the rows of hooks, where seventeen girls would return at the end of the race to shower.
The girls’ changing rooms smelled of sickly-sweet body spray, a permanent and overwhelming scent. The boys’ smelled of lingering body odour; they knew this because a wave of it would greet anyone unlucky enough to be standing nearby when the doors opened. Inside, they probably looked identical: wooden benches, cold metal hooks, an open shower room off to one side with a sloping floor and a drain in the middle that was usually clogged with hair. The water was never hot, so the girls would stand under the spray for the shortest amount of time they could manage without Mrs Bull, The Bull, sending them back in. In the winter they were always slower getting dressed, their icy fingers struggling with the buttons on their blue shirts, longing for the warmth of the Bunsen burners in the science lab next lesson.
Ellen could no longer feel her fingertips. She had curled them into her hands to try to keep them warm but numbness had set in anyway; she was glad the rest of her body was moving. She could feel the air entering her lungs with every breath. Her eyes watered.
Across the field, through the fog, shadowy figures stood by the sandbox. The boys were practising the long jump. She felt sorry for them, having to spend all that time waiting for a turn, shivering in their shorts and t-shirts.
Up ahead, Clare had crossed the finish line and was pacing alongside the track, slowing gradually and stretching her limbs as she cooled down. As she turned towards the oncoming runners, Ellen could see her face set blankly. She had won by a comfortable margin.
Others were finishing now, and Ellen herself could see the bold chalk line approaching, The Bull’s stocky figure at the track’s edge, holding a stopwatch. She shouted each girl’s time as they flew past: “Two minutes fifteen! Two minutes eighteen! Two minutes twenty-four!” As Ellen crossed the line (“Two twenty-nine, don’t slow up until you’re over the line!”), she heard three or four of her classmates whisper to each other, their voices deliberately loud enough to carry but quiet enough to mask the words, before an outbreak of stifled giggling. She walked away from the group, catching her breath, her cheeks burning red.