Classes had ended early for the day and the boys had been given the afternoon off because today was the day of the school cross-country race. There were to be no rugby practices or other distractions because everyone was expected to either take part, or cheer on the contestants.
Thirteen-year-old Roger Mitty had girded his loins for the occasion and was viewing the results in the dorm’s mirror just after the rowdy mob of other contestants had departed. Anyone looking over Roger’s shoulder would have seen the reflection of a small, skinny lad wearing a white vest, black rugby shorts, short white socks and a pair of freshly whitened tackies.
But Roger didn’t always view things the same way that others did. His lively fantasy world helped him forget the jibes and bullying he had to put up with from classmates who all seemed to be bigger than him, and who resented the new boy with a slightly posh accent.
When he looked in the mirror he saw a tall well-muscled Roman Centurion about to go into battle – with feathered helmet, sword and gleaming breastplate. Today he was going to lead his men to victory, or die in the attempt. “Take no prisoners,” Roger muttered to himself as he hurried down to the starting line on the school’s back field.
He was surprised to see more than half the senior school gathered there, and quite a few juniors – laughing and jostling each other. Apparently some people viewed this annual event as a “jol”.
The gun cracked and the mob set off. Roger had been forced to start near the back, and had to be content to jog very slowly until he squeezed out of the back-field gates and onto the open road. There he was able to ease his way past the back markers as he got into a steady rhythm. He seemed to glide along as he lengthened his stride and passed fellow players in his under-14 rugby team and started to haul in the bigger boys in standards eight and nine. Some of them shot him rather sharp looks as he slid past. “Good”, he thought.
A small group of schoolgirls stood and watched as Roger and a knot of older boys ran by. The prettiest girl said something to the others from behind a cupped hand and they burst into a fit of giggles. Then Roger heard some Eastern music and turned round to see the pretty one with a veil held to half-cover her face as she swayed her hips to the haunting music. He blinked hard and snapped his head away from temptation. No Nymphs or Sirens were going to sully this day.
As Roger forged his way through the field he noticed groups of boys who had already given up, taking short cuts through the golf course back to school. Others, who were obviously merely spectators, gave jeering encouragement while pretending to take long draws on imaginary cigarettes. And the brazen ones displayed smouldering stompies concealed in their cupped hands to their cronies hobbling past. Some sweat trickled into Roger’s eyes and he saw victory bonfires burning in the distance . . .
Somehow he had caught up with the leading group of about 10 runners, and the jeers of the spectators were turning to cheers. He was by far the youngest in the group.
As they entered the back field and onto the cinder 440-yard track surrounding it the school cross-country champion pulled away from Roger’s group and started to build up a sizeable lead. They realised it was useless to chase him, but there was still honour to be had in coming second . . .
Roger was hemmed in by the school’s half-mile and quarter-mile specialists, and some of the first rugby team. He looked up at the stand and saw that it was filled to capacity. In the top row he could just make out the loo lurkers and rookers who used to give him a hard time when the prefects weren’t around. Below them were the plebs cheering their heroes on. Through the haze Roger saw a toga-clad multitude with green wreaths on their heads rising to their feet as the winner crossed the finish line.
He couldn’t let his loyal subjects down. He elbowed his way out of the group hemming him in and gulped a deep breath as adrenalin coursed through his veins. His knees pumped like pistons and he summoned his last ounce of strength. The cheers got louder as he forged past one rugby player, then another. He blinked away the sweat to see that only the school mile champion was ahead of him. He gritted his teeth and lurched forward . . .
As he flashed past the winning post there was a deafening roar, and garlands of flowers landed at his feet.
Roger knew that things were going to be different from now on.