Fred Nerk and the Valley of Doom

 

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1

Aidan Andrews hated his name. He always had, ever since he could remember. Other kids made fun of it - some called him Ade, lemon-ade or, because he had red hair, orange-ade. One of his teachers said it was a good example of alliteration (he looked that up in the dictionary and discovered it meant words that begin with the same letter). That was even worse as he was the only kid in his class with that kind of name.

His middle name didn't help either. It was Dennis, after his Dad, a name he thought was almost as dorky as Aidan. One of the girls in his class found out his middle name and said she had a great-aunt Ada; she started calling him Ada. When some of the boys started in on it too, Aidan decided he had had enough. There were some fights, and finally a visit to the Head's office and a letter home.

That was when he had the big row with his Dad. That was the beginning of Fred Nerk. That was really the beginning of this story. It went something like this...

Dad: "This letter from the Head says you've been fighting almost constantly for the last two weeks - what's this all about Aidan?"

Aidan: "Names."

Dad: "Aren't you old enough not to be bothered if other kids call you silly names?"

Aidan: "They're not calling me silly names; they're calling me that stupid, dorky, dumb name you gave me!"

His Mum: "What, Aidan? It's a lovely name."

Aidan: "No it's not - it's a stupid name - especially when your last name is Andrews, and even more especially when your middle name is Dennis!"

Dad: "Hey, steady on that's my name -”

Aidan (angry): "Then you keep it - I don't want it, or stupid Aidan. Why did you give me such dumb names? Couldn't you think of any other names for a boy? Anything would have been better!"

Dad (angry too): "Oh anything would have been better would it? How about if we'd called you Fred Nerk, eh? How would you like that then? Hey, Fred? How's that for a name?"

So that's how it went - Dad was angry and Mum was upset.

"It's better than Aidan Andrews - it'll do until I think of something else." Said Aidan (oops, I mean Fred).

So Fred Nerk was born.

All that evening he wouldn't answer to Aidan. Finally, his father lost his temper (again!).

“If you are going to be totally puerile about it,” (he had to look that word up later - if you want to know what it means get out your own dictionary!) “Your mother and I will send a note back to the Head. You can be known as Fred Nerk from now on. I hope this means no more name-calling or fighting.”

Fred shrugged.

"I won't have to fight about stupid Aidan anyway - I can't promise about anything else."

His Dad went right off at that and sent him to bed early as a punishment.

His Mum then had a big row with his Dad in which the ‘puerile’ word seemed to feature, especially about his Dad.

Later when he was lying in bed in the dark, his Mum came in to see him and "have a little chat" as she called it. He had noticed that the frequency of these chats had increased recently and the topics had changed, too. They were becoming more often about the kind of embarrassing things they talked about in the life ed. lessons at school - the last thing he would talk about with his mum! This wasn't one of the “relationship” chats though.

“Aidan, dear I really think you should still call yourself by the name we gave you.”

“It just gets me into trouble. Fred’s okay.”

“Just because your father made a silly comment doesn’t mean you have to call yourself the first name he thought of!”

“Mum, I don’t want to talk about it.”

His mother sat on the bed for a minute then sighed and kissed him goodnight.

 He heard her having another go at his Dad when she went back into the lounge room and he fell asleep to the sound of his mother's voice, louder and more annoyed than usual, occasionally interrupted by defensive grunts from his Dad.

 

2

The next day was one of the weirdest days in his life. It started with his Dad at breakfast.

“Do you still want to go through with this juvenile charade?”

(More words he didn't know - if his Dad was going to stay mad at him he'd have to start carrying a dictionary!).

“I’m not going to be Aidan any more – it’s dorky.”

His Dad gave him an envelope with the head teacher's name on it.

“Have a nice day,” he said in a sarcastic voice.

Fred’s mother just sighed and gave his Dad another killer look (about the tenth of the morning - his dad was really in the doghouse) and his sister just looked puzzled; but then she was only a grade two and didn't understand anything.

On his way to school Fred met Trevor, one of the few kids who hadn't teased him about his name. Mind you being called Trevor is almost as bad as being called Aidan, although Trev never seemed bothered about his name. All the kids called him Trev and the teachers called him Trevor. No one took the mickey out of him - it wasn't worth it as Trev obviously didn’t care about it.

As Trev caught him up he called out "Ade" several times then finally ran to arrive panting next to Fred. He fell into step and looked at him.

"What's the matter with you, I was shouting your name all the way down the street."

"I heard you shouting, but it's not my name any more so I don't answer to it."

"What do you mean not your name? Course it's your name, your parents gave it to you when you were born, you're stuck with it!"

"It's caused me so much trouble that I told my dad I hated it and didn't want it, so he said..." and Fred told Trev the whole story of the previous evening. He finished by waving the letter to the Principal under Trev's nose as they entered the schoolyard.

"What's it say?" asked Trev.

"Dunno."

"Jeeze - I wouldn't let my mum write a letter to school that I hadn't seen, could get you into all kinds of trouble."

Fred remembered his dad's sarcastic voice at breakfast and felt a bit sick.

"My mum didn't write it, my dad did."

Trev looked at him, then shook his head slowly, like someone farewelling a soldier on a suicide mission.

"Your dad!" His eyes widened. "And he didn't show it to you. You could be dropped right in it, Ad- I mean Fred. You better take it to the office. I'll see you in class... I suppose...." Trev sounded like he didn't expect to see Fred ever again.

Fred made his way to the office on leaden feet. He handed the letter to Mrs Atkins, the school secretary, and turned to go. Her sharp voice halted him.

"Wait here Aidan. I assume this is your parents' reply to the Principal's letter?"

He nodded, too scared to speak.

"I'm sure the Mrs Stewart will want to discuss this with you so I'll take it straight in."

Fred stood there wondering what the letter said. His father had probably set him up for even more humiliation than the Ada stuff - his dad hated him after all: he had given him those names, when anybody could have seen the trouble they would cause.

His reverie of self-pity (Still got your dictionary out?) was abruptly interrupted by Mrs Atkins emerging from the Principal's office with a broad grin on her face.

"Fred, Mrs Stewart will see you now."

He was almost through the door when he realised that Mrs Atkins had called him Fred. His stomach turned over again.

"Come in, Fred." The Principal's voice reminded him where he was and the peril he was in forced him to concentrate. She was holding the letter from his Dad and Fred felt really sick. He wished he hadn't eaten breakfast, although he thought he might not have it long - his stomach was threatening to leave it on the carpet...

"Your father says in this letter that as you appear not to be able to answer to your given name he has reluctantly agreed on a 'nom d'ecole'.”

 (Bloody hell, thought Fred, now the Principal is talking like a dictionary!)

“He says you are to be known as Fred Nerk for the present." She looked at him over her glasses. "Not a name I would have chosen."

"Huh, I didn't choose it! It was my dad's idea when I told him about the fights. My mum's not too happy either."

"I'm not surprised - I thought you were more mature than this but apparently not."

"No! She's more mad at my dad than at me." Why did grown-ups always think it was you that was in trouble? The Principal gave him that teacher kind of look and sighed.

"Alright Fred, I'll send a note to your teacher about this. You'd better get along to class."

As Fred walked across the playground he realised that his knees were shaking, but at least he hadn't thrown up on the Principal's floor. When he got over to the classroom Trevor was waiting for him by the coat hooks. He looked a bit surprised to see him in one piece and without any obvious damage.

“What did the Mrs Stewart say? Did she show you the letter? What'd it say?"

"Not much. No she didn't show it to me. I think it said something about me being a prat, but I told her my mum was madder at my dad than at me."

"That won't help - grown-ups always stick together so she's gonna be on your dad's team anyway."

“Well she's going to send a note to Mrs Willmot so I'll find out what she thinks soon enough."

 

3

The two boys went into class as the bell sounded. Just after Mrs Willmot got out the roll there was a knock on the door and two Grade Four girls handed her a note. Mrs Willmot read it and her eyebrows went up.

She read it again, pausing to look at Fred in the middle of reading. She read it a third time and her eyebrows went even further up. She looked up and by this time her eyebrows had just about disappeared under her fringe.

"Well it seems that the roll is a bit different now." She bent over the folder, crossed something out and wrote something in.

Mrs Willmott started calling the roll with Brian who was usually the second name. When she had called Edmund and Emily and should have called Gregory she said, very clearly, "Fred".

Fred looked up and said "Here" aware that the whole class was looking at him. In fact they had been looking at him since Mrs Willmot had started the roll with Brian and not Aidan. There was a short buzz of conversation, which the teacher quickly shushed.

The rest of the morning was difficult for Fred as kids kept asking him about his name and Mrs Willmot just kept telling them to get on with their work. Finally the bell went for break and Fred dashed for the door surrounded by a clamouring group of classmates.

"Fred!" Mrs Willmot's voice stopped him in his tracks. "Don't run!" Fred slowed to a walk and ambled out to his bag ignoring the questioning crowd around him. He got his playlunch out and strolled to the outside door. As he reached it he sprinted off across the asphalt, swerved around a couple of preps and disappeared around the corner of the building.

Trev and Ed found him a little while later sitting behind the big tree across the far side of the oval. Trev stood and looked at him, lost for words for the first time since Fred had known him - and they had been at kinder together, so that was a long time.

Ed spoke: "What'd you run off for Ad-er-Fred? Everyone wanted to talk to you."

"I didn't want to talk to them."

"Great, you shoot off and then they all start asking me questions!" said Trev. "Someone said they saw me come into school with you so they reckon I must know all about it."

"You do."

“Huh, I'm surprised you've got any friends." Trev aimed a grumpy kick at a stone, missed and turned away, but stayed there.

"So is it true - have you changed your name to Fred like Trev said?" asked Ed.

"Yep."

"How come? I mean why? I mean you can't just pick a name like Fred and call yourself it - can you?"

"Well I didn't pick it, my dad did - and my parents gave me those other stupid names so I guess they can change them."

Brian appeared around the tree and saw Fred.

“There you are! That new P.E. teacher's looking for you - you know, Mr Hardin."

"Mr Hard-run more likely - what's he want? No, wait, let me guess. Its winter term so it must be cross-country. Am I right?"

"S'pose so - he said he wants you to try out for something at lunchtime. He still thinks you're called Aidan though"

"That's OK then, there isn't any Aidan any more so I don't have to run in his stupid cross-country at lunchtime."

Brian looked at him with his head on one side.

"This different name thing - are you trying to be a different person too?"

"Not really, why?"

"Cause you used to like running, 'specially cross-country."

Fred considered this for a moment, sighed, and got up from his spot by the tree.

"Where is he?"

"Over by the cricket nets with some of the aths team - they're doing practice starts or something."

Ed chuckled. "It's not their start that’s the problem - it's the rest of their races!"

Fred loped across to the oval. The other boys trailed after him, catching up as he stopped by the cricket nets and stood watching the school athletics team practising starts to Mr Hardin's shouted instructions. The PE teacher spotted him and waved a hand at him.

"Ah, Aidan - just a minute - BANG!" he suddenly shouted to the motley assembly of athletes. They sprinted off in a ragged line. Mr Hardin let them get about twenty metres then shouted "STOP!" As they slowed and turned to come back, the fastest ones were already ten metres ahead of the slowest. Ed shook his head sadly as he watched, although his stocky build and short legs meant he was unlikely to challenge even the slowest of the group over anything more than ten metres.

Like all the kids that Fred hung around with, Ed was sports mad, and he was one of the toughest football players in the school. Built like a barrel on legs Ed hit the packs like a cannonball, brushing much bigger kids aside as he scrapped for the ball, which he got hold of more than half the time. To Fred, who mostly lurked around on the edge of the big pack that followed the ball, the chance to wax with Ed meant he got many more kicks than he would have otherwise.

Fred liked kicking the footy, but he wasn't that keen on throwing his tall, skinny body into the milling group to get it. He preferred to take the occasional speccie at the back of the pack using his long arms and legs to best advantage. In the interschool football matches the coach usually parked him at full forward where his reach made him a target and his good kick was useful. One game they had tried him in the ruck, but he was too easily brushed aside by bigger kids, so they stuck him in the goals where he hung about until Ed and the others fired the ball down in his direction.

Mr Hardin turned to Fred as the group of runners slowly drifted back.

"Now Aidan - it is Aidan isn't it? Some boy said it was Fred, but that can't be right can it, you won the district cross-country last year, and your name is Aidan in the list so you must be Aidan, eh?"

"No." said Fred without elaborating.

"No what?" said the PE teacher. "You didn't win the cross-country last year?"

Fred looked at Trev and raised his eyebrows. Trev, who could talk most of the teachers to a standstill, came to his rescue.

"Mr Hardin, sir, he did win the cross-country last year, but his name then was Aidan, but it isn't now, now it's Fred, don't ask me why, it's a long story but it's true, he's the same kid just with a different name and the principal sent a note to our teacher about it and she's changed the roll, so it's kind of official - sir." He stopped to draw breath and the PE teacher took the opportunity to get a word in.

"Oh, right, different name, same boy, Head sent a note, right." He looked confused, and took refuge in ordering the sprinters about for a moment. He shouted "Bang" at them and they scattered away from the start even more raggedly than before. He turned back to the four boys, leaving the sprinters to run the length of the oval.

"Now, right, ahh, Fred, right - cross-country tryouts at lunchtime, right?" He looked up and spotted the sprinters disappearing into the distance. "STOOPPP!" He shouted and waved his arms vigorously, beckoning them back. Ed by this time was just about bent double with laughter as he watched the widely scattered group turn and slowly drag themselves back towards the cricket nets. Luckily for everyone, especially Mr Hardin, the bell went and they all headed back to class.

 

4

When they got back to the classroom Mrs Willmot had a surprise for Fred. During break she had made a brightly coloured stick-on badge, which said ‘Just call me Fred’, which she gave him to wear in class. She also told the class she did not want any more talking to Fred about his name during class time.

"If you have any questions you can ask him at lunchtime - if you can catch him. I believe it's the cross-country trials then." She smiled and settled them down to work. Although there was still a lot of whispering to Fred, the time between break and lunch seemed to pass even more slowly than usual. They were doing maths and that was usually one of his favourite subjects but this day he could not get interested in the work sheets - not even in the problem solving which he was good at and was often first to finish. Amelia who worked with him got annoyed with him.

“Fred – keep up, we’re only halfway through. Even Trev is ahead of us.”

Fred could not concentrate and they were almost last to finish. Mind you, while they were working Amelia asked Fred about his name.

Fred looked at her, raised an eyebrow and explained. This was part of the reason why they did not get all their maths done.

Mrs Willmot watched him with a little frown and made a mental note to speak to the Principal if things did not improve the rest of the day.

When the bell went for lunch Fred had only just finished checking his maths and was a bit annoyed to find he had got three wrong out of the eighteen he had done. For the first time in ages he hadn't even finished the work sheet. He wondered what Mrs Willmot would say when she checked their workbooks - probably give him one of those 'I'm disappointed in you' looks and suggest that he concentrate on his work more...

The bell was a relief to Fred - they packed up work and got their lunches out, although he wasn't that hungry and didn't eat much. This was not a big problem though because he had to run the cross-country trial for Mr Hardin. To avoid any more questions he told Mrs Willmot he had to warm up for the cross-country and nipped out into the empty playground. To make it appear as if he meant what he said, he jogged around the netball court and did a bit of stretching. On his third time around the court he noticed Mrs Willmot glance out the classroom door at him so he did a few high-stepping knee lifts, like he'd seen the runners on TV do.

Just before the second lunch bell Mr. Hardin came out in his tracksuit. Fred sighed a big inward sigh - he wasn’t sure he liked Mr. Hardin. He was new and keen on swimming and athletics rather than footy or cricket. Fred had liked the previous P.E. teacher, Mr Strong, who had encouraged Fred and his friends to take up different sports like cross-country. Mr Strong and Mrs Able, the deputy head in charge of the girls' sports teams, had put together Grade Six and Grade Five sports teams that included almost all the kids in those classes.

It was Mr Strong who had worked out that with his long reach Fred was best left one out in the goal square in footy matches. He could usually outmark one opponent but was too easily pushed off the ball in the packs. Fred was a reliable kick up to about thirty-five metres which meant he could lead out from the goal square, take a mark and score most times the team got the ball down to him.

At the start of the footy season this year Mr Hardin had moved everybody around in the team but they got thrashed in the first match. Terry Phillips, the boys’ school captain and footy captain, because he was the best player in the school, and Ed, who would have been the best player in the school except that Terry was almost a foot taller than him, went to see Mr Hardin.

Fred asked Ed what they had talked to the PE teacher about.

"Tactics"

“What d’you mean?”

"You'll see."

When the team was posted up on the Grade Six notice board Fred saw. Apart from Gregory Simpson, the new kid, at centre half back, everybody was in their old positions. After a game at centre half forward where he played rubbish, Fred was back in the goal square. With Ed’s little brother Andrew crumbing from the pocket if he missed the mark, Fred had kicked 23 goals so far and they had won the next three matches by big scores.

Mr Hardin waved at him. Fred jogged across the netball court to where the PE teacher stood with his clipboard and whistle. Mr Hardin consulted his clipboard and then looked over it at Fred.

“We’ll just wait for the others to come out, Ad-er-Fred; and then we’ll get started. I have marked out a course around the school grounds which I will explain when we are all here.”

 

5

Just after the second bell went a small group of grade five and six kids had formed around the PE teacher. Mr Hardin explained the course he had set out around the school grounds. Last year Mr Strong had got them to run endlessly around the oval and selected the team on how many laps they managed. Aidan (before Fred…) had lapped every other runner except Jo Weston who was only half a lap behind him at the end of the trial. Mr Hardin had a different course.

“The District athletics committee heard that the State championships are being held on a hilly course, so they decided to run the District cross-country around Wattle Park as it is hilly and will give us the best team to go through to the Regionals and the States. So I have set out a hilly course for you to make sure that our school is represented by our best runners for a hilly course.”

Mr Hardin led them over to the edge of the oval and pointed out the course. He had outlined it with cones and yellow tape. It ran around the oval and along the side of the school by the fence behind the houses; turning round the corner past the staff room it went down across the front of the portables, turned again and then up the long hill to the netball courts at the edge of the oval.

“Right,” said Mr Hardin, enthusiastically, “You should be able to get around there at least three times before the bell goes – this will give you a feeling of what you are up against in the districts in a couple of weeks.”

Fred stood on the edge of the group flexing his muscles and noticed that a couple of kids drifted away when Mr Hardin pointed out the hilly course. In the end there were about twenty starters lined up between the first cones. Mr Hardin stood slightly on side and in front with his arm raised. A small crowd of kids had gathered to watch the start and they cheered as he called: “Ready, set – GO!” and dropped his arm.

The runners set off in a scattered group, some of the younger ones sprinting to the front as they ran along the edge of the oval. Fred settled into his own pace: a steady, long stride that began to take him past the other runners and soon had him up with the leaders.

By the end of the first lap he was out in front and pretty much on his own but he found the hilly bits harder than he expected: both up and down upset the rhythm he usually had and he wondered if maybe he wasn’t as fit as he thought.

Last year when they just ran around the oval he had settled into his steady pace and ran away from everyone else. This time though a couple of other kids broke from the pack. By the second lap the kids playing on the oval stopped their games and watched as two very different runners set out in pursuit of Fred. The first was Jo Weston, one of the twins in Fred’s class, the girls’ school captain and the best girl runner in the school. She was tall and lean with a long stride like Fred’s but lighter, and she floated over the ground as she went clear of the pack. Jo ran the up and down hills better than Fred, though, and began to catch him on the second lap.

The second chaser was more surprising. It was Andrew, Ed’s little brother (though he was not that much smaller than Ed) a grade five whose chunky build and powerful legs were an advantage on the hills. He charged up and sprinted down and by the end of the second lap he was a clear third, red faced and sweating, breathing hard but just behind Jo and closing the gap on Fred. Next lap, on the downhill past the portables, Andrew sprinted past Jo and set out after Fred who found the slope slowing his natural rhythm. Jo kept pace with Andrew and as the two closed on Fred most of the kids had stopped to watch the race to the finish.

As they all turned the corner at the bottom of the hill they were just behind Fred. He tried to accelerate and stumbled. Andrew put his head down and charged past up the hill. Jo followed and Fred suddenly found himself third – being beaten by a grade five and a girl! Again he tried to accelerate, but he could not take those shorter, quicker steps, his legs just would not work that way. So he went back to his one-paced, long stride and suddenly he was gaining on Jo. Up the hill he stretched, breathing hard, but closing on the two in front. He passed Jo and came up to the leader. Andrew put his head down and tried to stay ahead, getting even redder in the face than he was already. As the course levelled out onto the oval Fred sailed past to win by twenty metres. Once on the flat Jo’s light, long stride took her past Andrew as well and his brief moment of glory was gone.

As Fred crossed the line Mr Hardin called him over. He walked across and stood, bent over puffing.

“You don’t seem to have a kick, Fred.”

“A - what?”

Fred looked up, puzzled. Mr Hardin jogged on the spot then pumped his legs faster in a mime.

“A kick, a sprint at the finish - and you don’t have a change of pace for the hills. You’ll need to do some serious training if you want to win the district this year.” Mr Hardin turned away and went to say well done to Jo and Andrew.

Fred looked at him in amazement – training?!? He’d always been able to run – he had never trained for races: at least not beyond all the daily running around after a football or cricket ball and the occasional jog to school if he was late. He shook his head and went to find the other kids.

 

6

The rest of the day drifted by for Fred in idle, puzzled thoughts of kick-finishes. (Mrs Willmott decided to speak to the Head after school. Fred was obviously having problems at home – maybe he would need to see the school counsellor if things didn’t settle down soon. She would keep an eye on him in any case – so many boys went a bit off the rails in grade six.)

Totally unaware of the thoughts going through his teacher’s mind, Fred heard the final bell with relief and headed for the door with the others. Mrs Willmott’s voice halted  his attempt to escape.

“Fred, wait a moment will you? I want a word please.” His shoulders slumped – it had been a crap day and he just wanted to get out of it – grownups were such a drag…..

Mrs Willmott noticed Fred’s reluctant attitude and became even more convinced that there were problems at home affecting one of her better pupils. She waited until everyone else had left then sat down at her desk and motioned Fred over to the chair in front of it. He sat down thinking he was going to get a bit of a talking to about his maths before lunchtime. Mrs Willmott looked at him earnestly for a moment then spoke.

“Aid- sorry, Fred, is everything alright at home at the moment?”

Fred’s head shot up and he stared at his teacher like she had just arrived from Mars.

“Home? Yeah, fine- the same, no different … yeah okay I guess…”  Fred scratched his head – what was she on about, she’d obviously seen the note his dad had sent: he began to have a sinking feeling about what could have been in it. He tried to look earnest and interested – this was like his mum’s talks – the sooner the grownup was happy the quicker it finished.

“It’s just that you seem a bit distracted lately, it’s not like you to fight and your maths today was not up to your ability (there it was, thought Fred – it was the maths!) Are you having some problems at home?”

“No, home’s fine, just the same really – well except my dad said I could be Fred not Aidan, but you know about that, and the fights were just about Aidan, so that’s not a problem anymore so everything’s fine now and I’m sorry about the maths, I’ll do better tomorrow I promise.”

Fred smiled his most winning smile (which had never won him anything…) and sat there hoping he had said enough, and not too much.

Mrs Willmott smiled back – why did boys grin at you like that? – and sighed.

“Alright Fred you had better get off home then.”

Fred disappeared in a flash, like a genie - only leaving a strong, sweaty-boy smell behind him rather than a puff of smoke. Mrs Willmott went in search of the Head.

 

7

That night Fred decided he would keep his head down and not upset his parents if he could help it. He arrived home had some afternoon tea and went to his room to do his homework until his mum called him to help set the table for dinner. The evening seemed to be going well until his mum asked him how school went. He mumbled something and thought he was safe until, Laura, his little sister, piped up.

“Aidan nearly got beaten in a running race today – by a girl and a grade five!”

Fred glared at her.

“But I didn’t – I won anyway”

His dad looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“I thought you were the best runner in the school?”

“I am – I won the cross-country tryouts, just like last year”

“But a girl and a grade five passed you up the hill – you nearly got beaten!” insisted his sister.

“It was just because Mr Hardin made us run up and down the hilly bit – I still won!”

 Fred was getting annoyed with his sister now but he could see his mum frowning so he decided to leave it. His dad got interested though and chipped in.

“Why did the teacher have you running up and down the hilly bits?”

Deep inside himself, Fred sighed.

“He’s on some aths. committee and he said that they are using a hilly course this year so he wanted to make sure he picked kids for the team who could run up and down the hills. I won so I’ll be in the team.” He looked up at his mum and dad and smiled his winning smile again.

“A hilly course eh?” said his dad. “The only one I know around here is Wattle Park.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” said Fred. “That’s where he said it was going to be this year – Wattle Park – he said they hadn’t used it for a while, but it used to be a good course.”

“It was a tough course,” said his dad, “we used to annoy the golfers when we ran it for training – I didn’t know they still used it.”

“Did you run cross-country too, Daddy?” piped up Laura, “did you win races like Aidan?”

Fred glared at his sister – he was the runner in the family, not his dad.

His dad looked at him strangely for a moment, then shook his head and half smiled.

“No, I couldn’t run like your brother – I was a bit of a plodder, all grit but no pace.”

Fred’s mum chimed in at this point. She couldn’t remember this amount of conversation around the dinner table for years…..

“But you ran that course when you were a schoolboy – you could give Ad-er-Fred some idea of how to tackle it if it’s different to what he’s used to”

Fred’s sigh was not as deep inside this time and his mother gave him one of her looks. His dad didn’t seem interested though and just shrugged and grunted in his usual way. Luckily for Fred the rest of the meal and the evening passed normally and he managed to keep out of the way until bedtime. Even more luckily, his mum didn’t appear for another of her little chats, she just kissed him goodnight and turned out his light.

 

8

The next day, Fred went to school thinking things would be back to normal. Wrong. Mrs Willmott had been talking to the Head and the school counsellor. He found he was getting much more attention from his teacher and was determined to get on top of his maths before lunch to keep her happy. Mr Hardin had posted the cross-country team on the grade six noticeboard with a note saying there would be training (training? thought Fred – they never used to do training…) at lunchtime. Most of the other kids left him alone at break and no one said anything when Mrs Willmott read out the roll. He concentrated on his maths, even helping Amelia with some of the hard problems, and managed to finish everything and get it all right. So far so good.

Fred turned up at the oval after eating his lunch and found himself running up and down the hill at the side of the netball courts while the PE teacher observed and shouted instructions.

“Lift your knees, Fred! Use your arms, Andrew! Step up the hill, Jo, that’s right – helps you take shorter steps and accelerate up the hill.”

All these instructions were accompanied by vigorous arm and leg movements that were so funny that Fred and the others found it difficult to run, and a crowd of other kids gathered to watch. Fred realised that if he followed Mr Hardin’s instructions it was easier to run up the hill although he still felt out of control on the down slope, where his legs seemed to get away from the rest of his body and his head threatened to revolve around his knees.

“Focus, Fred! There’s no point getting to the bottom quickly if you arrive in a heap with a sprained ankle.” Mr Hardin was shouting again and giving a fantastic impersonation of one of the orang utans Fred had seen at the zoo – hunched over, arms held low, body leaning slightly back for balance. By this stage most of the watching crowd had drifted away but Ed was among the remaining few and laughed so much at this that he fell over and rolled down the hill in front of the runners, several of whom tripped over him, so the session ended with half of them in a heap at the bottom of the hill, and Mr Hardin scratching his head at the top. Fred leapt over the crash, his long legs taking him clear of Ed and the fallen runners. Luckily no one was hurt, and even more luckily for Mr Hardin the bell went for the end of lunch and they headed back to class.

Not long after lunch Fred got a cramp in his leg. His left calf muscle developed a shooting pain and he tried to relieve it by moving his leg. The trouble was that these days his legs were too long for the table and it was hard to get enough space to move it around without bumping the table. Amelia who was sitting next to him elbowed him and hissed at him to sit still. Fred tried, but then his leg got really twitchy and then he got a cramp in his right leg.

Mrs Willmott was standing by her desk at the front of the class when she suddenly saw Fred leap up in the air, knocking over his chair and bumping the table and dance around making strange whooping noises. Her eyebrows disappeared into her fringe as she stared at Fred, until she realised what he was saying.

“Owwhh, cramp, Mrs W, cramp – in both legs, oowwwowwhh!” Fred continued his dance.

“Go for a walk and get a drink Fred, it’s probably all that running at lunchtime – and pick up your chair.”

Fred put his chair back in its place by the table and limped out of the classroom. Mrs Willmott sent Trevor out to look after him with instructions to walk Fred around the netball court a couple of times and bring him back. While he was out Mrs Willmott wrote a note to the Head and sent Amelia to deliver it. By the time Fred returned to the classroom Amelia was back and Mrs Willmott had her answer. At the end of school Mrs Willmott gave Fred a sealed envelope addressed to his parents. He stuffed it in his bag and walked home.

 

9

Fred forgot about the envelope until nearly dinnertime when his mum asked whether he had any homework. He went to get his books from his bag, found the envelope and gave it to his mum. A few minutes later his mum looked around the door of his room.

“How was school today, dear?” She had a strange look on her face, which puzzled Fred.

“Okay, Mr Hardin had us running up and down hills at lunchtime and I got a cramp in my leg after lunch.” Fred rubbed his calf in memory. “But it’s okay now.” He added.

His mum nodded and went back to getting dinner. Fred went back to his homework. Dinner was quiet; Fred’s dad was working late and did not arrive home until much later. Fred was watching television and his mum was supervising his sister’s bedtime. His dad stuck his head in the lounge and said hello as he came in the house.

“How was school?”

Fred looked up - why were all the grownups so interested in school all of a sudden?

“Okay - Mr Hardin had us running up and down hills at lunchtime as practice for the district cross-country, and I got a cramp in my leg after lunch – but it’s okay now.” He rubbed his leg again. His dad smiled at him.

“Watch those hills – you probably need to get a bit of practice in on the ups and downs.”

Later that evening, lying in bed, Fred heard his mum and dad talking. He only caught bits of what they said but it seemed to be about the letter he brought home. He heard his mum say “letter from school…” and his dad said “let’s have a look at it” then there was silence and then his dad said “load of rubbish” – something he didn’t catch and “teachers need to get into the real world – nothing wrong with him – same as I was when I was his age”. As Fred drifted off to sleep his mum seemed to be arguing with his dad (again…) only this time his dad seemed to be winning.

The next morning Fred’s dad had left for work before Fred had appeared for breakfast and his mum gave him a couple of those puzzling, strange looks he saw last night. She didn’t say anything about the letter though, so Fred just put it down to grown-ups stuff and went off to school. He met Trev on the way and they went in together, dashing into the classroom as the bell went. After she had called the roll and they settled into some project work for SOSE Mrs Willmott called Fred up to her desk.

“Did you give that letter to your parents, Fred?” She asked.

Fred nodded. “Yes, Miss.” He said.

Mrs Willmott looked at him. “Did they say anything to you about it? Or give you anything for me or the Principal?”

“No, Mrs W.”

Mrs Willmott sent him back to his seat and Fred thought no more about it. When a Grade Four brought a note to Mrs Willmott before break it didn’t occur to Fred that it might be about him….. But it was. He noticed the look on Mrs Willmott’s face as she read the note – her eyebrows went up again. She looked at Fred, frowned and put the note in her folder. The rest of the day went by as normal – at least, as normal as Fred’s days seemed to be these days. By home-time Fred was feeling a bit more relaxed; his legs ached a bit from Mr Hardin’s training at lunchtime, but at least he had not got any cramps like yesterday. So he was a bit surprised when Mrs Willmott dropped another letter on his desk as she gave out the weekly bulletins.

“Make sure that gets straight to your mum, please, Fred.”

“Yes Mrs W.

Fred began to worry about all these letters from Mrs Willmott to his parents – it was causing him nothing but trouble and for a short moment he thought he might put the letter in the bin on the way home, but he decided that would bring him even more trouble than he had at the moment. He also wondered why Mrs Willmott seemed so down on him – she had usually been nice in the past, but for the last couple of days she had been really hard on him. And apart from the Fred thing he couldn’t see that anything was different, and that was his dad’s fault anyway. Fred walked home lost in thought and puzzled about the last couple of days. Still it was Friday and the weekend promised some relief. Also, Trev was coming over later to stay the night so he would have something to do, and his mum always left him alone when he had a friend to stay, so no little bedtime chat tonight, thank goodness. That evening Fred and Trev had pizza for tea and watched the footy with Fred’s dad then talked a bit until mum told them to go to sleep. A normal evening, when someone stayed over. Fred thought, as he fell asleep, that he could use a bit more normal at the moment.

 

10

The next morning Trev came with them when Fred and his dad went to buy some timber for some DIY his dad planned. On the way there they went past Wattle Park and Fred’s dad pointed it out to them. As they went down the steepest hill Fred had ever seen and up an even steeper one his dad waved an arm at the grass and trees with golfers dotted among them.

“That’s Wattle Park – the old cross-country course used to run around the outside. This was the worst bit; we called it the Valley of Doom because everybody reckoned that some kids never made it up the other side and just disappeared in the creek at the bottom.”

“You ran up that?” Trev was awestruck. “No-one could run up there – You would die!”

Fred’s dad laughed. “Oh, some of us ran up it – a lot of the flashy, fast runners couldn’t but slow old plodders like me passed a lot of other kids going up that hill. That’s probably why your sports teacher has you running up and down hills at school. You’ll make up a lot of places if you can run up there.”

Fred had not said anything, just looked out the car window at the steep slope, both up and down and thought about how he would manage it. Finally he spoke.

“What was it like running down the hill?”

“Ah,” said his dad, “that’s a good question – you could lose control of your legs on the way down if you weren’t careful. Lots of runners slipped and fell before they got to the bottom. You had to be very careful on the down slope then dig in and push all the way up the other side. I did much better here than on the track because I could run up the hill – let’s have a walk up it”

Fred’s dad stopped the car at the bottom of the hill and they got out. They stood on the footpath for a moment looking up at the hill, and then started to walk. After about twenty metres Fred could feel the strain in his legs, especially in his calves and the front of his thighs as he lengthened his stride to keep up with his dad. Behind him he could hear Trev puffing like a steam train. Fred’s dad looked around and smiled at Trev panting along behind.

“Move your arms, Trev – lean forward into the hill like Fred - then every step takes you up as well as forward and your weight is in front not pulling you back down the hill.” He grinned at Fred. “He’s not a runner, your mate, eh?”

Fred grinned back. “Nah, not much, but he’s a mate.”

“Yeah,” said his dad, “that’s more important.”

They strode up in a friendly silence to the top and sat for a few minutes to rest then jogged gently down to the car and drove on to the DIY superstore for the timber. Much to Fred’s surprise, when he thought about it later, he spent the rest of the day working happily with his dad on several projects – a new hutch for his little sister’s guinea pig, fixing a leak in the shed roof and putting some paving down near the clothes line. Trev went home after lunch, but Fred didn’t really notice his absence as he and his dad worked steadily through the afternoon until it got too cold and dark to continue. Fred’s mum came out to call them in just as his dad was dropping the last paver into place. Fred and his dad stood back as his mum admired their handiwork.

“You’ve done so much work today – you must both be exhausted. You’d better come in and get cleaned up for dinner. Who’s going to have the first shower?” She put an arm around each of them as they went inside. Fred felt tired but not too tired as his mum squeezed his shoulders gently. His dad looked across his mum’s head and raised an eyebrow. Fred got the message – his dad was desperate for a beer.

“I’ll go in first, then dad can – I’m quicker!” He winked at his dad who aimed a playful swipe at his ear as he wriggled away from his mum and headed for the bathroom.

“You boys seem to be getting along well today.” He heard his mum say to his dad but his dad just grunted. No change there, then, he thought.

 

11

The next day Fred had a project to finish for homework and asked his mum if he could use her computer to type up some of the writing for it. She was sorting out the ironing and just nodded absently at him so he went into the spare room and sat down at her desk. Half an hour later he had a page and a half of neatly typed text to put in his project and decided to print it out. He turned the printer on and pressed print on the screen. The first page came out very quickly and then two more which confused him so he looked carefully at what he had printed. The top two pages were his work but the first page that came out looked like an email from his dad to his mum, sent on Friday. He was just going to leave it on his mum’s desk when he caught sight of his name: or at least his old name.

“….Aidan is behaving perfectly normally for a boy approaching secondary school” he read, “he is bored by some of his school work, challenging in his behaviour, and full of energy that needs some kind of outlet. He is also lacking self-confidence. He is a lot like I was at his age. He certainly doesn’t need the school counsellor – I wish those busybody teachers would concentrate on preparing the grade six kids for secondary school. I think you should ring the head, thank her for her concern, tell her Aidan is fine and all he needs is to be kept busy.”

The rest of the email was something about work and when his dad would be home so he left it carefully in the printer, as if it had just come out and took his work back to his bedroom. He decided to take his dad’s advice and kept himself busy the rest of the afternoon working on his project until Trev called round with Ed and a footy. They went around to the park and played kick-to-kick until dinnertime.

Lying in bed that night Fred thought about what his dad had said in the email to his mum. He had said Fred was normal – in fact he said he was like his dad was when he was in grade six! Fred was surprised his dad could remember grade six, but he obviously knew what grade six boys were like because when Fred thought about what his dad said about him he was pretty much spot-on. Maybe that was why he always seemed to know what Fred was up to: he had done all those things too. Fred realised he would have to be a bit smarter if he was going to get away with anything when his dad was around. He wasn’t worried about his mum, he could always get around her, but he would have to be on his toes with his dad. He smiled at the thought of trying to get one over his dad and fell asleep.

 

12

The next morning Fred went to school feeling a bit better – if his mum had rung the school on Friday as his dad had suggested, Mrs Willmott would leave him alone. Well she would probably push him to work harder – especially in maths which he knew was his best subject. That was okay though, he wouldn’t mind a bit of normal teacher stuff.

The day rolled on as usual until lunchtime when Mr Hardin had another cross-country training session. They did some stretches and then ran up and down the little hill by the netball courts under the PE teacher’s instructions.

“Right,” called Mr Hardin, “I want you to run a couple of laps of the oval – a steady pace, not too fast. Jo, Fred - wait a moment; I want a quick word with you both. I’m sure you will catch the others up.”

He looked at Fred for a moment (Fred looked back, wondering what the PE teacher was going to say) then smiled at Jo and said:

“I have decided to make you two the team captains for the cross-country. I know you, Jo, are the girls’ school captain and a very good role model and leader for the younger girls in the school, so I have no doubt you will know what your responsibilities are.” He looked at them both again. “I have chosen you, Fred, as boys’ cross-country captain for two reasons: first you are the best runner in the school and all the other boys look up to you – you may well look surprised” (Fred’s eyebrows had mimicked Mrs Willmott’s and shot up towards his fringe) “but it’s true – whether you like it or not you have set the standard for all the other athletes in the school over the last two years; the other reason is that when I asked your teacher whether I should make you boys’ team captain she was very enthusiastic and said it was a brilliant idea.” He frowned at Fred. “So I expect you to live up to her expectation. I am sure Jo will help you with what is expected of a captain in this situation. You had better catch up to your teams. Off you go!”

Fred and Jo set off after the others. Fred sighed as they jogged away from the PE teacher.

“What did he make me captain for? I bet Mrs Willmott suggested it – she’s really got it in for me these days.” He sighed again. Jo looked at him curiously.

“Aren’t you pleased to be captain? I am.”

“Yeah, but you’re captain of everything for the girls, you’re used to it. I just want to run in the race because I like running and I’m good at it – I won’t know what to do as captain anyway.” Fred jogged gloomily on, frowning.

Jo glanced at him, running beside her, looking down at his feet.

“You’re a funny boy, Fred,” she grinned mischievously, “that’s probably why all the girls like you.”

Fred looked up with a scared expression on his face.

“Can you imagine if Mr Hardin made Peter Newton captain of anything? Nobody would want to be in his team.”

Peter Newton was the boy Fred had had fights with about names. Jo’s comment made him smile, and he looked across at her running easily alongside him.

“Well I certainly wouldn’t – not even if it was cross-country. Anyway he’s not the best runner in the school.”

“No, you are, and that’s the main reason why Mr. Hardin made you captain. All the other kids look up to you because you’re the best. But it’s not just because you’re the best – it’s because you don’t boast about it all the time. No-one likes a big mouth, even if they are best at something.”

Fred looked at Jo again, and wondered how someone the same age as himself could be so confident and sensible. Then he remembered that she said all the girls liked him, and he blushed – he wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or terrified – he certainly wouldn’t tell his friends that bit! Just then, Jo swung away from him, did two perfect cartwheels and sprinted after the main group, laughing over her shoulder as he tried to catch up. When the group had done two laps of the oval Mr Hardin called them together and announced Jo and Fred as the two team captains and all the others clapped.

 

13

Fred noticed when they were running with the group that Jo moved back and forth among all the girls, encouraging some to keep up and getting the faster ones to run a more even pace so the group stayed together. He wasn’t sure he could be that kind of captain: all grown up and encouraging. He didn’t think the boys in the team would respond to that so he jogged to the front. Then he slowed the faster boys down by getting them to move their arms and change the length of their stride so they ran like they would run up the hill. He also told them he had walked up it on the weekend, how steep it was and how difficult it would be to run down without falling over. This kept the boys together and Fred was able to set a pace they could all keep up.

When the bell went Fred walked back to the classroom with Jo and the other grade six kids.

“What’s the hill like?” someone asked.

“Really steep, but my dad says it’s harder to run down ‘cause you can slip.”

Fred found himself the centre of attention, an instant expert on how to run up and down hills. It made him feel a bit uncomfortable, everyone listening and expecting him to tell them the best way to tackle the hilly course.

The only one in the group who was not firing questions at him was Jo. She just strolled along with them, listening, with a little smile on her face, as Fred tried to describe the hill. When they were settled back in the classroom, after Mrs Willmott had checked the roll, the teacher announced that Jo and Fred had been made cross- country team captains. The class applauded and there were a few glances at Fred. Amelia elbowed him and whispered:

“Didn’t think you were the captain type, Fred.”

“Neither did I.” hissed Fred. “Mrs Willmott dobbed me in to Mr Hardin – I don’t think she likes me at the moment.”

“If she didn’t like you she wouldn’t be bothered,” replied Amelia, to which Fred could only grunt in reply. Jeez, how come he hadn’t thought that – the girls in his class really seemed to know what the grown-ups were thinking.

At dinner that night, Fred nervously announced that he had been made captain of the boys’ cross-country team. His dad looked up and grinned at him, raised his eyebrows and said:

“Captain, eh? Well done, Fred.”

“Who’s the girls’ captain?” asked his mum.

“Jo Weston – she’s captain of almost everything for the girls.”

“Isn’t she one of the twins?”

“Yeah, but her sister, Sam, is totally different – Jo’s really sporty and Sam – well, Sam is just Sam…”

“Their brother is in my class, his name is William – he gets sick sometimes and they come and collect him,” said his sister.

“Oh yes,” said Mum. “He has diabetes. It must be very difficult for him – I wonder what they will do next year when the girls are in high school?”

The rest of dinner they talked about other kids at school and which high schools the grade sixes might be going to. Fred even found himself telling some stories about cross-country training, including Jo’s two cartwheels while they were running.

 

14

That night before he went to sleep Fred thought about the day. He didn’t seem to have normal days anymore, there was always something happening. At least being made cross-country captain was different to getting into trouble – he hoped the letters from the school to his parents had stopped - he could do without any more of that. Thinking about being captain he thought about Jo, her sister Sam and how different they were.

Sam and Jo were twins. Identical except for their eyes: Jo had blue eyes but Sam had one blue and one green eye. They both had blonde hair but wore it in different styles – Jo always had a ponytail but Sam changed between bunches, plaits and keeping it down, depending on her mood. They were also quite different in the way they behaved and the things they liked doing. Jo was very sporty and practical, like her ponytail, and Sam was much more dramatic and moody.

The twins had an older sister called Jenny who was at high school, and a younger brother, William, who was in grade two. William was a bit different to most kids in his class, because he had diabetes and had to have daily injections of insulin and a special diet. The twins looked after him at school and, although he was pretty good at keeping track of what he ate and how he felt, there had been times when they had been called to his class to look after him. Despite the differences in their personalities and friends they always came together to look after William.

Twins are often put in the same class when they start school so they don’t feel lonely and then separated later on when they make friends – parents and teachers seem to worry about those things… Sam and Jo broke all these rules. If they didn’t look so alike you would not have known they were sisters. They were both popular but didn’t have the same friends, and they were interested in different things.

Jo was captain of the netball team and the best girl runner in the school – faster than anyone, even most of the boys; the only better runner was Fred, who was better than anyone else. Jo was also very grown up, friendly and popular and was the runaway winner for girls’ school captain with Terry Phillips, who got all the boys’ votes - they both got the teachers’ votes. Jo was much more like her older sister Jenny who had also been school captain three years before, and was now state running champion for her age.

Sam was the exception: how she was depended on her mood - and if she wanted to be on her own it was very obvious! Despite her moods she had lots of friends; they were just different kids to those that were Jo’s friends. Sam was funny. The older kids still talked about the time she arrived at the end of year assembly doing cartwheels and hand stands – the story was six of each – across the front of the class groups. She only did things like this when she was in the mood, though. Her sports were ones that you could do on your own – gymnastics and diving, for although Sam loved swimming and the water she liked the freedom of the high board rather than the endless laps the swim squad kids did. Jo had been in swim squad but had dropped swimming to concentrate on her netball and athletics.

Thinking about Sam and Jo reminded Fred of what Jo had said about all the girls liking him – and he still couldn’t decide whether he was pleased or worried – although to be honest, apart from being on the cross-country team he couldn’t think of any time out of class when he was with girls.

It was different in class: Mrs Willmott moved them around each term and there were always girls and boys at each table. He had sat at the same table as Amelia since she started halfway through first term, and Mrs Willmott encouraged them to work together on maths and English because he was good at maths and Amelia was brilliant at English. Amelia was all right (for a girl) he thought – she could kick the footy as well as most of the boys and was a bit wacky and moody, which made their table an interesting one. He remembered that he had shared a table with Sam in Grade Five, but he had never sat at the same table as Jo – he fell asleep wondering what she was like to work with….

 

15

The next few days passed by fairly normally; that’s if you could call Mr Hardin’s cross-country training normal! He had them running every lunchtime, including up and down the hill by the netball courts. Fred found himself helping the other runners with their technique. Some of them still ran too fast down the hill, and tripped before the bottom, but nobody hurt themselves. Mr Hardin jumped up and down and waved his arms about to indicate how they should run downhill.

“If you trip over and arrive in a heap at the bottom of the hill you will lose time picking yourself up – that is if you’re not injured from falling – and other runners will get past you and you will have to catch them all over again. It would be much better to be more careful on the way down and be able to pass other runners on the up slope.” He looked around, his hands on his head.

“Fred!” He barked. “You can do it properly – show the others the right way to run down and up the hill.”

Fred demonstrated a safe but quick way of getting down and up the hill a couple of times then staged a pretend fall on the third go which made everyone laugh, even Mr Hardin.

Fred found he liked helping the other kids, especially the younger ones; he noticed how confident and grown-up a captain Jo was, encouraging other runners but still staying concentrated on her own running. He still didn’t really feel like the captain – the boys’ team didn’t seem much like a team anyway – some of them spent most of their time messing about: trying to push each other over on the hill; barging into each other or just being silly – anything but running. Mr Hardin spent a lot of time shouting at ones who were particularly annoying but they took no notice.

The only time any of them actually looked like they were sorry for messing about was when two of them were barging into each other and knocked one of the girls over. Jo went over and started telling them off, but even then they were answering back. Fred thought he ought to support her as boys’ captain so he went across and stood behind the boys. Jo saw him and looked past the boys, so he cleared his throat and stood up straight. The two turned and saw Fred looming up over their shoulders. Suddenly they went quiet, and Jo finished telling them off. Mr Hardin had come over to see what was going on and told them off too.

“Fred I would like you to take these boys for a couple of extra laps of the oval – they obviously need to get used to running properly.”

Fred thought this was a great idea and ran the two boys around at a rapid pace. At the end of two fast laps the boys collapsed and lay flat on the grass. Fred just jogged lightly on the spot to warm down. Mr Hardin came over to them again and gathered the group together.

“You two miscreants” (Yes - look it up yourself!) “ought to get more training. Instead of messing about you need to focus your energy on your running. Look at Fred – not even out of breath. If you want to represent the school to the best of your ability you need to remember why you’re doing this.”

Luckily, for the two exhausted runners the bell went and they dragged themselves off to class. Fred, Jo and the rest of the grade sixes headed off in a group.

“Thanks, Fred.” said Jo.

“What for?” asked Fred, surprised.

“Being a captain, you dope! Supporting me with those two.”

“Oh, fine, that’s alright…no probs….” Said Fred, who was still a bit lost with the conversation. Jo just grinned and shook her head at him. Fred went into the classroom still puzzled about what they’d been talking about, but soon forgot about it as the afternoon passed in a happy mix of project work and quiet reading. He was out the door and halfway across the playground with Trev when Jo came running after him.

“Fred!” She called his name and he turned and waited for her. Trev strolled on towards the school gate as Jo caught up and fell in beside him.

“Did you want me for something? Mrs Willmott didn’t send you after me, did she?”

Jo looked at him, a little frown on her forehead, and then smiled.

“She’s not really that bad, is she? Anyway, I wanted to ask you something, well if you wanted to do something, with me, I mean…” Fred noticed Jo suddenly sounded much less confident than usual, but he wasn’t quite sure why. “You know my sister Jenny – used to be here, she’s in year nine now – well she goes for a run most nights, ‘cause she’s in the state aths squad – anyway, she said I could train with her for the cross-country, and I wondered whether you wanted to join up with us for a run later…” Jo had stopped walking and was looking at Fred with a sort of funny, half-questioning, half-hopeful face, which also was slightly pink – probably from dashing across the playground, thought Fred.

“When?” said Fred, getting right to the main question because he couldn’t follow the rest of what Jo said.

“I don’t know – I’ll see Jenny when she gets home and give you a ring, but it will be before dinner. You’ll come, that’s great, I’ll call you. Bye!” She dashed off to catch up with her friends. Fred looked after her and shrugged – a lot of fuss about a run: he’d go for a run anytime, he loved running – he jogged off to catch up to Trev, collecting his sister at the school gate on the way.

 

16

When Fred got home he took some biscuits and a drink into his room and did some homework for a while. He was working on his English project when his mum called him.

“It’s Jo,” his mum said as she handed him the phone, raising an eyebrow slightly.

“It’s about running.” said Fred. “Hello. Oh hi, Jo – yeah, what time? Okay, I’ll just check with mum.”

He put his hand over the phone and turned to see his mum still standing there, listening.

“It’s Jo, she and her sister, Jenny, are going for a run before dinner, training for cross-country, and she wants to know if I can come.”

“Do you want to go?”

“Yeah – it’ll be good – better than running around the oval at lunchtime!”

“Well as long as you’re back well before dinner – that’s at half-past six – so you would need to be back by six.”

Fred nodded and went back to the phone. “My mum says that’s okay – I have to be back by six.” He listened and nodded then said “Okay, see you then.”

“They’ll come past at five o’clock.” He handed the phone to his mum and went back to his homework, leaving her standing there.

Just before five o’clock Fred appeared again in the kitchen dressed in tracky-dacks, runners and a t-shirt. His mum looked at him.

“Will you be warm enough? Don’t you need a jumper? It is winter, you know.”

“Mum!” Fred gave her a look. “I’ll be running – Jenny will probably have us working harder than Mr Hardin.”

The doorbell went and Fred went to answer it.

“It’s Jo,” he called down the hallway. “We’re going.”

His mother appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a tea towel, and smiled at Jo and Jenny.

“Hello girls,” she said, “This is a bit energetic – have a good run.”

Fred waved, closed the door and followed Jenny and Jo down the path to the gate. Jenny set a fast pace and Fred realised she was a better runner than he had thought. He only vaguely remembered her from three years ago – she was school captain and always up at assembly, talking about sports team successes or to get some award for her athletics or as team captain. She wasn’t any taller than Jo but where Jo was lean with a long-legged stride, Jenny was chunkier and ran powerfully with her whole body. They ran in silence for a few blocks until they settled to an even pace, Jenny slightly ahead while Jo and Fred kept stride together. After a while, Jenny spoke.

“Jo says you’re still the best runner in the school, Fred. Do you think you can win the district cross-country again this year?”

“Dunno,” said Fred, “depends on who’s there from the other schools – there were a few annoyed grade sixes there last year when I won, but the other schools know about me now so they might have found someone better than me.”

Jenny laughed. “You think they might have found a surprise grade five like you, who’ll run away from the older runners?”

“Gee, I hope not – that’d be like revenge wouldn’t it?” Fred looked worried for a moment.

“I think Mr Hardin would know who’s going to be there from the other schools – he’s on the committee isn’t he, and he knew about the state course as well.” Jo spoke for the first time, and Fred remembered she had been running quietly alongside him all the way.

“Who’s Mr Hardin?” asked Jenny.

“He’s our new PE teacher – Mr Strong left to be deputy head at some other school.”

“What’s he like?”

“A bit strange…”

“No - Weird!”

Jo and Fred spoke at the same time and grinned at each other’s description of the PE teacher.

“How do you mean?” asked Jenny.

“Oh he’s just trying too hard,” said Jo.

“No, he’s seriously mad.” Fred launched into a hilarious description of Mr Hardin training them to run up and down hills, complete with actions that had the girls laughing so much they had to stop running to recover. They jogged on until they reached the local park and Jenny set Fred and Jo on a series of slow and fast laps of the oval.

“Jo said you didn’t have a kick finish, Fred,” said Jenny, “Even in cross-country that’s important – imagine how you’d feel if you led all the way only for some other runner to run past in the finishing straight. You need to be able to dig in and produce that burst that kills off the finishing speed other runners might have.”

“How d’you do that?” Fred looked at Jenny with a frown.

“The coach at the aths. club calls it ‘surging’ – it’s like speeding up then dropping back to your regular pace, then speeding up again to gain a break so the other runners always feel they’re trying to catch up and they get tired mentally as well as physically.” She looked at Fred hopefully, then a worried look crossed her face as she realised that he did not really know what she was talking about.

“How long since you were beaten in a race, Fred?”

“Dunno,” Fred scratched his head. “Couple of years – grade three, maybe – why?”

Jenny rolled her eyes.

“Take my word for it – surging works, if you can do it – but you need the endurance to be able to do it. Anyway try some faster laps in between some normal paced laps.”

Fred and Jo set out on the first lap with Jenny pacing them on the inside. At the end of the first lap she suddenly accelerated and urged them on. Fred once again found himself third as Jo stretched her legs and floated past. He dug in and put his head down to catch them, seeing the difference between Jenny’s smooth, powerful surge and Jo’s light, long stride. He tried to sprint, taking shorter, quicker steps, but his long legs didn’t work properly like that and he struggled to catch the other two. Jenny looked back and slowed to a jog, waiting for him and Jo to catch up. She looked across at him:

“See what I mean – how do you feel now?’

“A bit puffed...”

“But you shouldn’t be, you’re the kind of runner who can run all day if you get to set your own pace. It’s all in your mind, feeling puffed, because you usually just run away from everybody else and they feel puffed watching you disappear into the distance. Thing is, if someone doesn’t, and they’re still on your shoulder at the end they might just run right past you in the final straight.”

She looked across at Jo. “D’you feel puffed?”

 

Jo shook her head. “Not really – I was just starting to enjoy it – I like that speeding up, the way you can just stretch your legs and go faster.”

“That’s the difference, you see, Fred – Jo has worked out how to go faster when she wants to but I don’t think you have.” Jenny looked at him for a moment, and then nodded, sort of to herself. “But you did, didn’t you – because Jo and one of the others passed you in the school trials, but you still won. What did you do then?”

Fred slowed to a walk, it was hard to think and run at the same time, it gave him brain ache. He thought back to the school trial and frowned.

“I tried to sprint, like just then, but it didn’t work for me then either so I just gave up and went back to my own way of running and that seemed to work, ‘cos I passed Jo and Andrew.” He raised his eyebrows and shrugged, obviously confused by the point that Jenny was trying to make.

“Did you run any faster?”

“I don’t know – I was puffed at the end so I suppose I must have – but Mr Hardin said I didn’t have a kick so maybe I didn’t….” Fred was even more confused.

Jo piped up.

“How do you kick all those goals in footy, Fred?”

“What? I get the ball and I kick it -” Jeez, these girls were all over the place – “What’s that got to do with running?”

“Sorry – I meant do you know how you get the ball – I’ve seen you at lunchtime sometimes.” (Whoa! She was watching him too – was everybody watching him?) “You lead out suddenly, really quickly when you want to; most of the other kids can’t catch you, because you decide when you’re going to run. I just think that’s what Jenny means – if you are in front and you decide to speed up the others struggle to catch you - so you have the advantage because you’re in control and they know it. They think you can speed up any time you want, and that makes them tired.”

She looked across at Jenny, leaning against the fence where they had stopped.

“Is that right – you make all the other runners think you can speed up any time?”

Fred noticed Jo’s face had gone pink again – she must have run harder than she said, he thought.

“Sort of,” Jenny said, “Our coach at the aths. club says you have to make it obvious you can run faster by doing it, and that also makes the other runners feel they can’t catch you anyway. Let’s try again.”

Jenny started jogging off again and built up speed until they were running at a steady pace. Fred stayed on her shoulder, running easily and thinking how to speed up – it was obvious he couldn’t dig in and sprint like Jenny, so maybe Jo’s method of just stretching her stride would work. As he was thinking of it he realised he was doing it and had overtaken Jenny. He stretched his stride and cruised into the lead and began to pull away, although he didn’t think he could leave Jenny far behind. Sure enough she came up on his shoulder, with Jo just behind, so he stretched his stride again – Jo was right it was really cool, you just cover so much ground when you just take longer steps. He pulled away from the girls a bit once again and then backed off to let them catch him up.

“How did you work that out Jo?” he asked as she came up onto his shoulder. “It really works, it’s so cool.”

Jo grinned at him and rolled her eyes at Jenny who paced them on the inside again.

“The trouble with you Fred is you can beat most other kids without trying too hard – how did you win last year with all those grade six kids in the race?”

Fred shrugged. “I don’t know – Mr Strong just said to go out and run my own race – whatever that meant – so I just ran the way I like to run and I ended up winning. It was a bit lucky I suppose…”

Jenny nodded slowly and looked thoughtful.

“What was lucky was that most of the other runners and schools didn’t think a grade five could win and they didn’t take you seriously enough – so you probably just ran away from them and they couldn’t catch you. Is that right?”

“I dunno,” said Fred, “Mr Strong said afterwards that I had got away early from the others – but that the course suited me because it was flat – I hadn’t really thought about last year. It’s going to be totally different this year, because of the hills, and all the other schools will be looking out for me I guess.”

Fred didn’t sound keen on being seen as the favourite and Jo looked at him with a sort of half smile that Jenny noticed but Fred didn’t. Jenny raised her eyebrows at Jo and Jo went pink again and looked away from both of them.

“Yeah, but you’ll be better prepared because your teacher has been training you, and you know more about running this year - especially your own way of running. Come on, let’s go home.”

Jenny turned and headed across the oval back the way they had come. The girls left Fred at his gate and jogged on down the street.

 

17

Jenny turned to Jo after a few houses and looked at her.

“You like him don’t you?”

“Who?” said Jo, going pink again.

Jenny smiled. “Fred - it’s alright – he’s a bit clueless but he’s okay for a boy – at least he’s not full of himself like most of them are. And he’s not a geek, either! You do like him, don’t you?”

“I do, he’s about the only nice, normal boy in grade six, although most people think he’s a bit odd.”

“Is his name really Fred? I thought it was Andrew or something.”

“Aidan – his name’s really Aidan – but kids kept teasing him about it - he had a fight with that creepy Peter Newton, two fights actually, but Fred gave him a blood nose so no-one teases him any more. Anyway for some reason he’s called Fred now, but I don’t know all the details. The boys know but none of the girls do...”

“Why not?”

“Because Fred told Trevor, and Trevor told the boys but the girls don’t talk to Trevor, and Fred won’t say, so none of the girls know.”

“Don’t any of the girls talk to any of the boys – someone must know – have a boyfriend or something...?”

Jo looked horrified, “I don’t think so – not in our class, anyway. The girls in the other class are a bit wild but I don’t know if they know. They wouldn’t be interested anyway!”

“Oooh, miaouw! All good girls in your class are you?”

Jo gave a rueful grin. “I didn’t mean that – just that most of the kids in the other class probably haven’t heard anyway; and in our class there aren’t really any boy and girl friends.”

“Except you and Fred…” said Jenny with a little smile.

“Jen! I like Fred – but he’s, well like a friend, I guess.”

“Except Fred doesn’t know you’re interested. You are interested, aren’t you?”

Jo looked at her feet running lightly over the concrete for a few minutes, then looked across at her older sister.

“I like him, he’s nice, he’s funny but pretty smart, and he’s not totally boyish – in fact most of the girls like him – at least the ones with any sense do.”

“Does he know that they do?”

“Ahh…., yes,” Jo replied slowly, “I told him the other day – he looked terrified.”

Jenny laughed so much she had to stop running.

“So it doesn’t sound as if he’s going to chase after other girls, Jo! He’s all yours if you want him.”

Jo looked at her sister, with a terrified look on her face.

“Jenny – it’s not like I’m chasing him -” she suddenly grinned –“although I’m probably the only girl in the school who could catch him!”

They were both still laughing when they got home and had to explain the joke to Sam after dinner. Sam laughed too then said:

“I know why he’s changed his name – at least part of why.”

“How - I mean, why? Who told you?” asked Jo, torn between wanting to know and annoyed that Sam knew something she didn’t.

“Amelia told me – she asked him, and got some of the rest from Trevor.”

“I thought the girls in your class didn’t talk to the boys,” said Jenny with a grin. They were in the twins’ bedroom and she was perched on the chair by Jo’s desk while Jo sat on her bed and Sam curled like a cat in the beanbag by the heater.

“Who said that?” asked Sam. “Of course we do – but Amelia’s the only one with enough cred with the boys to ask those kinds of things.”

“Who’s Amelia?”

“Oh, she’s a new girl – came in first term.” said Jo. “She’s okay when you get to know her, but she’s a bit full on – she flattened one of the boys in the other class last term, so most kids leave her alone. Anyway, Sam, what did she say about Fred?”

“Well you know Mrs Willmott put her and Fred together for Maths – well she asked him why he’d changed his name.”

“And…” Sam knew the other two were desperate to hear the story so she spun it out.

“Well, you know he had those fights with Peter Newton…” the others nodded. “Well the head sent a note home and apparently Fred had a big row with his dad about names, and… now he calls himself Fred.” She finished lamely. Her sisters looked a bit dissatisfied with this, especially Jo, who wondered how she could pump Amelia for more information.

“Is that all he told her?” asked Jenny, “There must be more to it than that. What did Trevor tell her?”

“He said the same thing, but as well Fred’s dad sent a letter to the head saying that Fred was to be called Fred not Aidan in future. I don’t think Mrs Willmott’s too happy about it either.”

“No,” said Jo, “Fred thinks Mrs Willmott is picking on him since he changed his name, too.”

“Oh, all grade six teachers get ratty at this time of the year,” said Jenny in a kind of bored, year-nine-been-there-done-that voice. “And all grade six kids, especially boys, are a pain. Maybe that’s what the Fred thing is about.” She got up and went off to her own room to do her homework.

 

18

The next week and a bit seemed to rocket by for Fred. He went running with Jo and Jenny a couple more times after school, played school footy and stayed over at Trevor’s on the weekend. Before he knew it, Friday was the next day, and it was race day.

On the Thursday evening they had a big pasta bake for dinner. It was one of his mum’s specialities and both Fred and his dad liked it a lot. Fred had two helpings, because Mr Hardin had told them that pasta was a good thing for runners to eat – it gave you energy and staying power. (Actually Fred would have had two helpings anyway, because he loved his mum’s pasta bake, but it was good to be able to say that Mr Hardin had recommended eating pasta the night before.)

He watched a bit of TV: Mrs Willmott had let the cross-country team off homework as they wouldn’t be in school much the next day anyway, and then got ready for bed.

He packed his sports bag carefully: shorts, school t-shirt, two pairs of socks – a thin pair he would wear inside his best and most comfortable sports socks – and his trainers. His mum came in while he was finishing.

Oh my goodness, Aidan, we should have got you some new trainers.”

“Why? These are really comfortable.”

 But you can’t wear those for the race! They’re terribly scruffy.” She frowned and reached out to pick them up. “Perhaps I can get you some first thing in the morning”

Fred grabbed them and put them in the bag.

“No, not yet,” he said. “If I get through to the regionals I could get some new ones and break them in. I’d get blisters if I wore new trainers for a race like this.”

“Oh,” said his mum. “Only those ones are a bit the worse for wear – people might think we can’t afford to get you new ones...”

Fred smiled. His mum was a bit fussy, and she always worried about how they looked: but she also wanted him and his sister, and his dad for that matter, to look their best.

“If I win no-one will care what I’m wearing. I can get new ones after this race.”

Reluctantly his mum left him to get ready for bed.

Later his dad came in to say goodnight and sat on the end of his bed.

“Nervous?”

“A bit - not much – I just want to run my best – I don’t know who else will be there so there’s not much point wondering if they’re better.”

“That’s the way: just do your best – you know what your grandad used to say to me and your uncle Ron when we played football?”

“No, what?”

“Be true to your ability, however little you have.”

“What did he mean?”

“Just do your best.”

“Oh; but didn’t you always?”

“Yes, but I was a terrible footballer.” (they both smiled in the dark, because it was true – Fred had seen his dad play football for the parents against the teachers). “What he really meant was that often people don’t, and you’ll give yourself more of a chance of success.”

“So were you successful?”

“I tried, all the time, as hard as I could – that’s why I was in the cross country team. I wasn’t even the fourth fastest runner in the school but I never stopped and I never gave up. So I suppose I was – I took what little talent I had and stretched it as far as I could. If you stretch yours you’ll go a lot further than I ever did.”

His dad got up from the bed and bent to ruffle his hair.

“I’ve got to go to work early in the morning so I’ll say good luck now. Goodnight.”

“Night Dad – Thanks.”

 

19

The next morning was one of those cool grey winter mornings, windy but not likely to rain. Fred repacked his bag carefully added his lunch and a couple of water bottles and headed for school.

His mum wanted him to wait and walk with her and his sister, but he said he was meeting Trev so he went on ahead – she would only fuss when they got to school and he didn’t want the distraction today. His dad had gone to work by the time he got up which disappointed him a bit, but he shrugged it off and jogged up the road to meet Trev.

The morning seemed to drag, even though the team got to eat their lunch at break, because the bus was coming before lunch and they had to be at the course by half past twelve. Finally the time came to leave and Mrs Willmott let them get changed and meet Mr Hardin and Mrs Able by the office.

“Good luck, Fred, good luck Jo.” She said as they left the classroom with the others. Some of the class called out “Good luck!” as well as they went out the door.

On the bus ride to Wattle Park Fred sat with Ed’s brother, Andrew. They mostly talked about football. About halfway there, Fred noticed the two grade five boys in front of them annoying the girls in the seat in front of them, so he leaned forward and tapped one of them on the shoulder.

The boy looked around, ready to say something, saw it was Fred and nudged his companion. The other boy looked around at Fred and then the two of them slumped back in their seats and looked out the window.

Andrew chuckled and winked at Fred, who just raised his eyebrows. Jo, sitting on the other side of the bus a couple of rows back, smiled quietly to herself and carried on talking to the girl she was sitting next to.

When they arrived at the course, the teachers took them across to register and get their race numbers. Then they had to split up into girls and boys because they started in separate groups. The boys’ group started a few minutes before the girls and were mostly well out of the way of them for pretty much all of the race, although the faster girls, like Jo could expect to catch the slower boys on the second lap.

As they lined up Fred positioned himself wide out towards the outside of the front line, staying away from the group he knew would be jostling for the inside at the first corner. It was a long race and he was confident that once things settled down he would be up with the leading group. He looked across at the starter, standing with one arm raised, holding the starting pistol, and the microphone to his mouth with the other.

“Ready!” The starter called and Fred crouched.

“Set!” He tensed his body and focussed on the three hundred metre stretch to the first corner.

Bang!

The starting gun went and Fred pushed off his back foot and stretched his legs to stay clear of the runners around him. He settled into a long easy stride, keeping to the outside of the group as he moved towards the front.

As they turned the first corner and the track narrowed most of the boys who had sprinted for the first part were already dropping back and there were only about five or six runners ahead of Fred. He caught up to the leaders and noticed that a couple of other runners had kept pace with him as he had moved past the field. They stayed just behind Fred as he took the lead, both running easily as far as he could tell but not passing him at this stage.

He remembered what Jenny had said and wondered if these two fancied their chances in a sprint finish. He decided to test them out and stretched his legs along the track between the trees, moving easily into a ten metre lead, stretched it again to twenty and then thirty metres and kept it at that for a while.

The course came out of the trees and skirted the open ground, rolling up and down the gentle hills between the fence and the golf course. Fred lifted his pace again, knowing that the steep down slope to the ‘valley of doom’ lay ahead, followed by the even steeper climb up to the highest point of the course. He wanted to have a good lead by then and be well ahead as they finished the first lap.

As he turned the corner at the end of the long straight by the fence he looked back and saw that the two behind him were nearly a hundred metres back. He looked ahead again and plunged into the valley.

Down he went, leaning back against the force of gravity that threatened to pull his head out over his feet and send him tumbling to the bottom. Carefully he picked his way down the narrow winding path to the bottom, splashed across the creek and started up the other side. His dad had told him a trick that he had learned from his coach when he was running around here all those years ago.

“Don’t look up the hill.” His dad had said. “Glance up to see where you’re going, but focus on a spot about a stride ahead of your feet.”

“Why?” asked Fred. “Don’t you need to see how far you’ve got to go?”

“That’s the point: looking up makes you feel more tired – partly because you can see how far you still have to run, but it also throws you off balance and makes it harder to run. If you keep focussed on your stride you just run, and before you know it, you are at the top and you feel the ground change. Then when you look up you feel fresher and that lifts you and running feels easier.”

Fred glanced up at the track in front of him and then focussed on a spot just in front of his feet, watching his leading foot alternate in and out of his sight as he stuck to his rhythm and dug in up the hill, using his arms to push his running. Just once he glanced back over his shoulder as he heard the sounds of splashing as the runners just behind him crossed the creek. He saw them both start powerfully up the hill behind him, so he concentrated on his own running. Up he climbed, pushing strongly into the hill, feeling the strain in his legs and his chest as he dragged the air into his lungs.

Suddenly Fred felt the slope change and the breeze hit his face. He looked up and saw the course flatten out and then slope down gently along and above the road. His stride lengthened, it seemed like he was floating along and running had never felt better. Fred eased back as he approached the bottom of the slope and turned to head up the long winding track across to the end of the lap.

As Fred came through the start-finish line he saw the crowd of parents, teachers and younger kids watching and cheering. He noticed Mr Hardin running along with him, waving his arms and encouraging, and laughed out loud at how funny he was. Then he was coming up to the corner, and just as he did he heard the crowd around the start-finish line cheering on the runners behind him. He lengthened his stride as he ran down between the trees for the second time, trying to gain some more distance on the next runners.

Along the winding track ran Fred, noticing that it was muddy and trampled this lap as all the runners, both boys and girls had run over it now. Just before he came out of the trees he almost slipped on a big muddy patch that covered the whole track and he was lucky to keep his balance. The grassy track up alongside the golf course was trampled and muddy too, making it harder to run along there: the ground felt heavier and rougher and Fred slowed a bit as he carefully avoided the worst patches. When he reached the end of this stretch and approached the turn to the valley a marshal told him to watch his step as it was slippery on the hill.

Fred turned the corner and began to pick his way down the muddy track, carefully watching where he stepped. He was so busy watching his feet and the track that it wasn’t until he was nearly at the bottom that he noticed there was a small crowd near the edge of the track. On the last lap there had only been a couple of marshals and a few spectators, but now there were several more grown-ups and some runners - three girls sitting or lying on the ground and two boys sitting separately. He looked across and realised that one of the girls, lying down, was Jo. He swerved across and bent down to her – she looked pale and had her eyes half closed.

“Jo – what happened? Are you alright?"

Jo opened her eyes and looked up at him.

“Fred – have you finished – no, you can’t have – I slipped, hurt my ankle – keep going. You have to win. I’ll be alright.”

“Are you sure?” Fred looked anxiously at Jo. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a familiar voice.

“Go on, son, you heard Jo – you can win if you want to.”

“Dad? What are you doing here?” Fred looked around, totally surprised to see his dad standing there.

“I came to see you win this race, so you’d better get a move on. We’ll look after Jo.”

Fred looked up to see the two other runners splash through the creek and then two more follow. He shrugged at his dad waved at Jo and started off again.

His legs felt stiff from the stop and he looked up to see the hill stretching out in front of him. The leaders were now about halfway up the hill with the next runners about thirty metres behind.

Fred took a deep breath and began to watch his feet as they stepped up the hill. He leaned into his run, dug in and began to gain on the two in front of him. He passed them before halfway up the hill and set out after the leaders who were nearly at the top when he was only two-thirds of the way up.

He pushed on again, and reached the top to see them thirty metres clear of him and running fast along the top above the road. Fred lengthened his stride – this wasn’t how the race was supposed to go – they were supposed to be trying to catch him not the other way around…

Fred stretched again and saw that one of the leaders had got a bit of a break on the other who was dropping back towards him. He passed this one before the bottom of the hill and set out after the leader. He was closing on him as they ran up across the slope towards the finish.

Fred didn’t think he would catch the leader but then he saw this mad figure jumping up and down on the side of the track, shouting and waving his arms at him. It was Mr Hardin and Fred realise that he was shouting “Goal!” at him. Suddenly Fred imagined a ball heading out of the centre and he sprinted as if he was leading out from the goal square to mark it.

He swept up the finishing straight and passed the other runner five metres before the line. He had won! He stumbled as he crossed the line and almost fell but Mrs Able stepped out and caught him. Mr Hardin dashed up and clapped Fred on the back.

“Well done, Fred – but where did they pass you? You were miles ahead after the first lap, what happened?”

Fred, still gasping for breath was about to explain, when one of the officials came up and drew Mrs Able aside. She listened intently, nodded, asked a few questions then came back to Mr Hardin and Fred. She looked at Fred for a moment.

“Apparently Jo had a fall in the valley – did you stop to help, Fred?”

“Is she alright? My dad was there too – it was weird.” said Fred.

“They think she has sprained her ankle, the paramedics are looking at her over in the first aid tent. It was your dad who drove her and the other girls back around here. You can go and see her after the presentations. You know you’re the only boy to win this race twice in a row?”

“Really?” Said Fred. “How come?”

“Because you were only the second grade five to win and the other boy apparently didn’t win the next year.” Said Mrs Able as they walked to wards the presentation area.

Fred hung around while all the grown-ups made speeches then presented him and the other placegetters with their medals. Finally it was all finished and he looked around for the school team. He saw his dad waving and jogged over. His dad gave him a hug.

“Well done, Fred – you had to come from behind for that one.”

Fred grinned. “Yeah, I was going stay out in front until I saw Jo – What are you doing here any way?”

His dad grinned back. “I came to watch you, of course.” He looked around.

I'll see you at home later. You'd better get back to the bus or they'll leave you behind!"

 

20

Fred looked over towards the bus and saw most of the team standing by the door. He dashed off to the competitors' tent, collected his bag and joined them. When he got on the bus he saw that Jo wasn't with the group.

"Where's Jo?" he asked Mrs Able.

"I was just about to explain that to the team," Mrs Able smiled at him and clapped her hands for some quiet.

"Everybody, quiet please. As you can see our girls' team captain Jo Weston isn't on the bus with us. As most of you probably know Jo fell on the first lap as a result of which she hurt her ankle."

There was a collective intake of breath and a little murmur of 'ohh' which the deputy head waited for before continuing.

"The paramedics think it is just a bad sprain but they are taking her to get it x-rayed as a precaution so she won't be coming back to school with us on the bus. However, I'm sure she'll be back at school on Monday. Now, I think Mr Hardin has something to say about the results."

The PE teacher stood up and held up a hand to quieten the buzz of conversation that had broken out.

"Well, girls and boys, we have done better than we could have expected, especially as we lost our best girl runner. The rest of the girls ran really well and finished third in the teams' championship. I've no doubt that Jo would have finished first or second, and that would have taken us certainly to second in the teams.

As far as the boys' team went, they were a very close second to Wattle Park, who, let's face it do have a fair amount of local knowledge. Fred won - we probably all thought he would but not quite in the way he did - and young Andrew made it to eighth. All our other runners finished in the top twenty, which was really excellent! So," He reached down into his sports bag and produced a huge tin of sweets, "Who wants a lolly?"

He offered the tin to Mrs Able first and then progressed noisily down the bus, congratulating everyone individually and allowing them each to take a handful. He sat down near the back, over the aisle from Fred and Andrew and looked across at them.

“Well Fred – it looks like you might have a kick finish after all. I thought you might be just a front runner. You still haven’t told me what happened and how come they passed you.”

Fred looked out the window for a moment trying to understand what had happened in the race, He still didn’t know what had happened to Jo – there were three girls who looked as though they had fallen, and what were those two boys doing there? They looked like grade fives from one of the other schools but they didn’t look as though they had hurt themselves. He looked back across the aisle at the PE teacher.

“When I came around on the second lap – I got down to the valley (Valley of Doom his dad had called it – sure was for Jo…) and saw Jo lying on the ground – so I stopped to see if she was okay. Then my dad turned up, I still don’t know how come he was there, and they both told me to keep going. But by then the next four runners had got ahead of me but I caught two on the way up the hill. Anyway I won. I don’t think I’ve really got a kick finish – Jenny, Jo’s big sister said I should run hard early to break the other runners, so I didn’t need one.”

He stopped and looked across at Mr Hardin. Andrew looked at him with a surprised look on his face.

“What’s in your lollies, Fred – talk juice?”

Fred looked at him, grinned and shrugged. Mr. Hardin shook his head at them both.

“Well Fred that makes your run even more amazing. And as for you young Andrew, if you could grow longer legs you’d be a great runner – your energy and stamina are very good. Well done both of you.”

Just as he finished speaking the bus pulled up outside the school and they all got off and went to get changed.

 

21

Fred and the others got back to the classroom just before the bell ended lessons for the ten minute packing up and notices period. The first notice that came over the PA was from Mr Hardin giving the results of the cross country.

When Fred was announced as the winner of the boys’ race there was a big cheer across the whole school, followed by a smaller one from the grade five classrooms when Andrew’s result was announced. The class groaned when Mr Hardin announced that Jo had hurt her ankle and not finished the girls’ race.

Amelia turned to ask Fred what happened but was shushed by Mrs Willmott until the notices were finished. Fred had looked across the room for Sam when he came in the door, but she wasn’t in her usual seat. She came back into the classroom just before the final bell, spoke to Mrs Willmott then came across to Fred.

“Hi Fred, my mum has rung the office – she’s gone to the hospital to sort out Jo, and Charlie and me are going home with you and your little sister until Jenny gets back.”

“Okay,” said Fred. “Annie waits by the portables, where do you collect Charlie?”

“Oh, he usually waits by the library.” Said Sam. “We can collect him on the way.”

Fred carried Jo’s bag as well as his own and told Sam what he knew about Jo’s injury as they walked through the playground with Trevor, collecting the little ones on the way.

When they went through the school gate to the crossing, Annie and Charlie held hands crossing the road which made the older ones smile, especially as this was repeated when they crossed the side street on their way to Fred’s house. Fred’s mum gave him a big hug and kiss for winning then gave them all afternoon tea and they hung about watching TV until Jenny turned up to collect Sam and Charlie. She asked Fred how he had gone in the race and when he said he had won, also gave him a big hug, which really embarrassed him!

He was almost as embarrassed when his dad got home from work and gave him a big hug too, although it was a sort of man-to-man hug, not the kissy-cuddly kind his dad gave his mum and his sister straight after. His mum had obviously spoken to his dad and after he changed and had a quick beer, he took Fred with him to collect a big parcel of fish and chips. Dinner was a happy, noisy meal and Fred’s mum had two glasses of wine. Fred had some questions for his dad.

“What were you doing down in the valley, Dad?”

His dad looked a bit sheepish. “Well it was always my favourite bit, because I could pass other runners up the hill – our coach used to say it was the bit that sorted the mountain goats from the sheep. I wanted to see how you ran it.”

“What did you think?”

“Well the first lap you looked pretty comfortable, but you were out on your own – it was the second lap that really showed what kind of runner you could be – you really dug in and made up a lot of ground up that hill. You ran it really well.”

“I did what you said I should, one step at a time.”

His dad smiled at him. “So you do listen to your old man then?”

Fred grinned back. “Only when he talks sense.”

 

22

Later that evening, after his mum had put his sister to bed, Fred went to find her. She was in the kitchen clearing up, so he helped her by loading the dishwasher.

“Mum,” he said as he carried dishes over from the table to the bench and stacked them in the machine. “Do you think Jo’s ankle is broken? Only, dad didn’t know and neither did Jenny when she picked up Sam and Charlie.”

“I don’t know dear,” said his mum as she wiped the stove and stacked dirty pots in the sink. “From what your father said I don’t think it is but you just don’t know with those until you get them x-rayed. Why don’t you give her a ring and find out?”

“Ring her? I hadn’t thought of that – but if it’s broken she won’t want to talk to anybody will she?”

“Well at least Sam or Jenny or her mother will tell you how she is. Go on – off you go – I’ll finish up here.”

Fred went out and found the phone in the hall, then realised he didn’t know Jo’s number. He went back to the kitchen.

“Ahh, mum...”

“The class list of telephone numbers is there on the front of the fridge,” said his mum without turning around. How did grown-ups know things like that, Fred wondered as he took the list back to the hallway. He dialled the number and heard it ring.

“Hello!” said a girl’s voice.

“Jo?” said Fred tentatively.

“No this is Sam.” replied the voice. “Is that you Fred!?”

“Yeah,” said Fred, “Can I speak to Jo?”

“Mmm, sure, she’s lying down, I’ll just get her.”

“Oh, don’t get her up!” said Fred hurriedly, “I just wanted to find out if she was alright.”

“Oh, no I’ll take the phone in – it’s one of those cordless ones. Hang on.”

Fred could hear footsteps and then some quiet words he didn’t quite catch, then an explosion of giggling and a voice saying “Sam – just give me the phone and go away!”

“Hello? Fred? Are you still there?”

“Jo?”

“Hi – sorry about Sam – she has these blonde moments every so often.”

“A - what?”

“A blonde moment – oh, it’s a girl thing, you know blonde, bubbles for brains – like you had those redheaded moments when kids teased you about your name…”

Fred was quiet for a moment, thinking about red hair and his outbursts of anger.

“Fred? Are you there? I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“That’s okay, now I know what blonde moments are. Do you have them?” He heard Jo giggle. “I just rang up to see how your ankle was. Is it broken?”

“No, it’s just badly sprained, but one of the other girls has got a broken wrist. Those boys – if I ever see them again, I’ll give them a piece of my mind!”

Fred suddenly remembered the two boys he had seen sitting together and thought he needed to find out from Jo what actually happened.

“So what happened?” he asked.

“Well,” said Jo, “I was coming down the hill with the other two girls and we caught up to those two boys just near the top  - they were actually walking, but when we passed them they started running, like real idiots and caught up with us at that bumpy bit near the bottom. They crashed into one of the girls, the one who broke her wrist and sent her flying, and pushed past the other one, and she slipped. I jumped out of the way, but I stumbled on a rough bit and sprained my ankle.”

“So how come the boys were still there?” asked Fred.

Jo laughed. “That was your dad – he really yelled at them and they stopped like sheep and he sat them down. The marshal was really annoyed with them too. She said she would report them to their PE teacher.”

Half an hour later, Fred hung up the phone and went to tell his mum about Jo’s ankle.

“You were a long time, dear,” his mum said, “what were you talking about?”

“I don’t know” said Fred (and he didn’t!), “just things, I guess.”

 

23

For Fred the rest of the weekend passed like most others; he slept late on Saturday and his dad had gone to work so Fred went around to have lunch at Trevor’s before they went up to the park to watch the local football team play and kick the footy around. Fred found that his legs were stiff and aching and when he mentioned it that night his dad said it was the hill.

“Running up and down a hill really makes your legs ache – both ways put pressure on your leg muscles – I’m not surprised you’re sore. Make sure you have a nice hot bath before you go to bed.”

Fred was surprised to get a phone call from Jo on Sunday night. His mum called to him from the hall (very embarrassing!) and he tried to wave her away, but she stood there like she was going to listen. Luckily his Dad called her into the kitchen, and before Fred answered the call he heard his dad say something to his mum about busybodies and space in a sort of telling off voice. He couldn’t hear what his mum said in reply, but she didn’t sound happy.

“Hullo? Jo?” said Fred into the phone.

“Hi Fred, I just wanted to check that you were bringing your medal tomorrow for assembly.”

Fred groaned. “Do we have to get up there and talk?”

“Of course,” said Jo, “We’re the team captains. I don’t know what you’re worried about; I have to do it every week.”

“That’s what I mean,” replied Fred. “You do it every week, so you’re used to it. I hate all that standing up in front of the school stuff – it’s so embarrassing!”

“Don’t worry – they’ll all be looking at me standing up there on my crutches!”

“I didn’t know you had crutches – I thought your ankle was just sprained.”

“It is, but quite badly so I need to stay off it for at least a week, and I don’t want to stay home so I need the crutches to go to school.”

Fred thought about a week at home for a moment, and then remembered the fuss his mum made in grade five when he broke his wrist. School seemed like a good option.

“What’s your mum say – does she mind you going to school on crutches?”

“No. I think she knows I’d go nuts at home for a week, and we’ve always got one or other of us injured so she’s used to it.”

“Gee, your mum sounds a bit different to mine – Mum would have me in bed for the whole week if I did something like that. She’s really annoying when we’re sick, especially with me and my sister. My dad won’t let her fuss over him.”

Jo laughed a rich, throaty chuckle.

“My mum is a nurse and my dad says her rule is ‘If you’re upright and breathing you’re not sick.’ He’s probably right, except for Charlie.”

“Does your mum worry about him? I mean I know you and Sam look after him at school, but he’s still ill isn’t he?”

“Well, he’s not ill in a sick sort of sense. My mum says he’s got a manageable condition, which means that as long as he keeps his treatment going and watches his diet he can lead a relatively normal life.”

“Yeah,” said Fred, “But you and Sam still have to go out of class and look after him sometimes, don’t you?”

“Mmmm,” said Jo, “but it’s only been a couple of times this year: he’s got much better at looking after himself.” Fred remembered what his mum had said at dinner the other night and asked the obvious question.

“What’s going to happen when you two go to high school next year?”

“Well, I don’t know - I think he’ll be alright, but mum will probably make sure she’s around if there’s any problems.”

They chatted for a few minutes longer then Fred heard Jo’s mother in the background and Jo said she had to go.

“Don’t forget your medal.” She reminded him. Fred gave a mock groan and hung up. His mother materialised in the hall, and Fred was half convinced that she had been invisibly there all the time.

“How’s Jo?” she asked.

“She’s got crutches, but she’s going to school tomorrow.”

His mother looked horrified. “Goodness – and her mother is a nurse, too. I don’t think I would let you go to school in that state!”

“Yeah, that’s what I told Jo. She said they have to be really sick before her mum keeps them home.”

Fred went off to get ready for bed leaving his mum looking a bit puzzled. When his dad came in to see him and say goodnight he was holding a funny broken piece of wood. He held it out to Fred who took it and looked at it curiously.

“What is it?” he asked his dad.

“It’s a broken bit of a boomerang – I found it in the valley of doom. I thought you might want to give it to Jo.”

“Thanks dad – that’s cool,” said Fred.

Later, lying in bed thinking before he went to sleep, Fred thought about the girls in his class. He decided that there were two kinds of girls – those who he liked because they were just normal and those he didn’t like because they were a bit, well, too girly and only wanted you to do things for them. He had noticed this sometimes in class if he shared a table with one of the girly ones. They would only speak to you when they wanted and it was always to try to get you to do things for them otherwise they would act like you had warts or something.

For instance, Fred wondered why someone would want you to pick up their pencil when it was under their own chair - which is what Lori asked Trevor to do the other day (actually her name wasn’t really Lori, it was Laura, but she called herself Lori because someone on the TV was called that; Fred thought that was a bit silly, Laura was a perfectly good name which quite a few girls in the school were called). Trevor told her to pick it up herself because she was closer.

Fred watched the dramatic performance as Lori made a sarky comment to Trevor, rolled her eyes at her best friend Sharyn and reached around and under her chair to get the pencil. As she did, Willy, who sat next to her, hooked his foot around the front leg of her chair and lifted it, tipping Lori onto the floor. By the time she had picked herself up Fred, Willy and Trevor were roaring with laughter and Amelia was giggling. Sharyn was pointing at Willy saying “He did it – I saw him, he pushed you off!”

Lori got up, her face all red, Fred wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment or anger – probably both, and she looked like she was going to hit Willy except he was twice her size and would probably have hit her back. By this time Mrs Willmott had come over and told Lori to sit down (except she called her Laura…) and go on with her work and took Willy up to her desk for “a word with you, please, William.” Willy came back a few minutes later with a lunchtime detention, closely followed by Mrs Willmott with a warning for Lori and Sharyn to settle down and for the whole table to get on with their work.

Still thinking about girls, Fred fell asleep. The next morning he made sure he had his winner’s medal packed carefully in his bag before he went to school.

 

24

On the way to school Fred met Trevor and they walked the rest of the way together. When they got to the classroom Sam and Jo were already there and Jo’s crutches were propped against the table beside her. She waved to Fred and he smiled back at her, not feeling quite as embarrassed as he thought. He went across to her and pulled the bit of boomerang out of his pocket and held it out. Jo looked at it curiously then raised her eyebrows.

“What is it?”

Fred wondered for a moment if his dad’s idea had been such a good one after all.

“It’s a broken boomerang – my dad found it in the valley, you know, where you sprained your ankle. He said I should give it to you, sort of like a trophy, I guess.”

Jo smiled at him then and Fred realised that his dad was pretty smart, after all.

“Oh isn’t that nice! That’s really nice, Fred – your dad’s really sweet. Tell him thanks very much.”  She smiled up at him again and Fred had a fleeting, terrifying thought that she was going to kiss him and only her ankle saved him. He smiled back at her and moved out of range.

Fred and Trevor went over to the windows where Willy and Ed were standing and joined in their conversation about the weekend footy until the bell went for assembly.

As they were all leaving the classroom, Fred waited for Jo who was remarkably skilful on her crutches, keeping up with everyone quite easily as they went over to the hall.

“Did you bring your medal?” asked Jo. Fred noticed she was slightly pink again; maybe her leg was hurting her more than she let on.

“Yeah, it’s in my pocket – do you want to see it?”

“No, you dope - I’ve seen it! You need to hold it up when you come out the front to talk about the cross-country.”

Fred groaned. “Maybe I should just wear it around my neck…”

“Oh yes! Put it on now!” Jo almost jumped off her crutches in excitement. Then she saw the horrified look on Fred’s face.

“Oh – you were joking weren’t you, right?” Fred nodded, thinking he should keep his mouth shut.

“Never mind,” said Jo, “Are you going to come up the front with us at the beginning or come up when we do the sports stuff?”

“I’m not sure I want to be up there all the time with everyone looking at me,” said Fred cautiously.

“I told you, they won’t be looking at you – I’m the one on crutches; besides, there’s always loads of people up there for assembly. You’ll feel more people looking at you if you have to be called up on your own.”

Wow, Jo was so sensible, Fred would never have realised that you could hide up the front.

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll come up with you now and hide in the crowd.” He grinned at her; suddenly feeling much more relaxed about the assembly. Jo smiled back and Fred followed her up the side of the hall to the stage.

Jo was right: being up the front was easy – there was so much going on, teachers and kids were coming and going constantly. Jo and Terry, as school captains, linked it all together, announcing each different person in turn, and keeping the whole event running smoothly. Fred was amazed at how they did it – they were so confident, passing the microphone back and forth and sorting out the different announcements and participants. Eventually it was sports time and after a few announcements about netball and footy, Terry said:

“On Friday the district cross-country was run at Wattle Park. The cross-country captains, Jo and Fred, will tell you how we went.” He looked over at Fred who walked out to the centre of the stage.

Jo handed him the mike and the sheet with the results on it. Fred felt a sudden wave of panic. He lifted the mike to his lips and cleared his throat. The sound echoed around the hall – bad move Fred, he thought, looking down at the sheet of paper again. Why had Jo given it to him? She was used to all this: he looked across at her and she smiled encouragingly and waved a crutch. There was a titter, and Fred relaxed a bit and smiled at the rows of children sitting on the floor in front of him.

“Thanks Terry. On Friday we went to Wattle Park for the district cross-country and we had a bit of a mixed day. The girls’ team did really well except that their captain had an accident and had to drop out with a badly sprained ankle…” Jo waved her crutch again and the audience cheered. “The girls still finished third which was really good running by the rest of them. Can the rest of the team stand up as I read out the names?” Fred read the names out and grade five and six girls stood up and smiled in a shy way as everyone clapped them. Fred handed the sheet and microphone back to Jo.

“You do the boys, Jo.”

Jo smiled at him and nodded.

“We all know Fred is a good runner but he is actually now the only person who has won the district cross-country two years in a row. What’s more, he stopped to see if I was alright and still won, so I think he deserves a big clap for his running on Friday. Have you got your medal Fred?”

While Jo was talking, Fred had unzipped his school bomber jacket to reveal the medal around his neck and he lifted it up slowly in the way he had seen the runners on TV do: the audience erupted into cheers and clapping and Jo looked at him not sure whether to be pleased or surprised. Finally Fred lowered the medal and made sshhing motions with his hands. The kids settled again and Jo went on to announce the other results for the boys’ team.

After they finished assembly Fred and Jo walked back to class together, Jo swinging along on her crutches.

“When did you put the medal on?” Jo asked.

“Ohh while you and Terry were up there rabbiting on about stuff.” Said Fred. “I thought it was a good idea to actually wear it, so kids could see it instead of just pulling it out of my pocket.”

“It was a great idea.” said Jo.

 

THE END

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