It was on a dried out school playing field that had bleached to the colour of pale mustard. It began with eight boys on the starting line of a hundred metres running track. Each boy was as hungry for victory as wolves chasing a lamb. Exchanging last minute glances left and right, the boys sized up their competition by noting whose legs looked the strongest and who was likely to drop behind from the start.
'On your marks'
The starter, a trim-moustached teacher with sports shirt tucked into blue track-suit bottoms and a pair of training shoes he'd bought specifically for the occassion, held a clip-board in one hand and a whistle in the other. He surveyed the boys in front of him daring any to overstep the line. He wiped beads of sweat off his brow.
The boys waited tensely, holding fast their breaths, ready to bolt up the track. The starter held the pause for a few more seconds... The boys stared ahead up the lanes... The spectators stared at the boys... All was silent.
The boys leapt forward. The race had begun.
Johnny ran as though for his life, feeling the rush of wind upon his face, leading the pack from the start. Thirty metres up the track he gasped for air as his arms pumped furiously at his sides and his feet pounded hard upon the sun-scorched grass. And with his knees bouncing high and his elbows swinging low, his head was determinedly set forward towards that finishing line.
'Go Johnny, go!' Somebody shouted from the side. He went, like a bullet, flying through the air to its target.
Streaking ahead, Johnny left the others behind. For like any true athelete, Johnny was giving it his all, determined to be first past the finishing post. The handful of spectators at the track-side cheered like the roar of fifty thousand voices at an Olympic stadium encouraging him on to even greater efforts.
'Go Johnny, go', the voices all cried hurrying him on towards the end. He went, like a cheetah, with speed and gritted teeth.
Eighty metres up the track the tape approached. Johnny could now see it clearly and sense its conquest. It was his for the taking. Just a few more metres to go as he gulped in air and forced onwards his legs to the rising crescendo of noise from the crowd.
'Go Johnny, go,' they yelled. He went.
The tape arrived. Johnny held up his arms and flashed through it feeling the thrill of victory course through his veins and catching a glimpse of his mother's proud smiling face amongst the crowd. What a tale she'd have to tell his father that evening! And how he could later boast to his brother and sisters! His legs slowed to a jog, then came to a halt and he slumped down upon the grass to recover, catching his breath with his heart still pumping fast.
A long minute passed before Johnny raised himself up twenty metres down from the finishing line. Flushed and grinning with success, he brushed off strands of freshly-cut grass from his knees, wiped his brow, and faced the spectator-lined track to begin his triumphant return.
Arriving back at the finishing line with expectant glee of the honours to be heaped upon him, Johnny held his head up high. The end of the track was crowded with parents proudly patting the backs of their sons. Two or three wore medals already pinned to their puffed-out chests and were showing them off with pride to a group of girls in their summer dresses. Approaching the gathered throng Johnny waited to hear the cheers and hoorahs reserved for a heros return.
'When Johnny comes marching home again,' he heard ringing in his ears with fifty drums thumping and a hundred voices singing out in chorus:
'The men will cheer and the boys will shout,
They ladies they will all turn out.
When Johnny comes marching home.'
It had always been one of his favourite songs.
Johnny now felt that inward pleasure known only to victors as he drew close to his crown. But to Johnny's disappointment there was no great acclamation as he approached. No look of appreciation from the girls, no hurrahs and not even any welcoming faces turned towards him. This, he couldn't understand. So he raised his arms up high in the air as he had in crossing the finishing line and with a whoop cried out:
'Hey, the winner is here'.
His pronouncement fell as flat as a whistle in a storm, being lost in the noisy fray that bubbled around the end of the track where mothers were beginning to usher their medal-sporting sons away.
Johnny pushed his way into the crowd where he found the track-suited man holding a clip-board in his hand. He recognized him as the man who had lined up the runners at the start of the race and went and stood resolutely before him.
'Yes, son?' The clip-board man asked unable to avoid Johnny's presence.
'I won the race,' little Johnny replied looking up at him.
'Oh, did you really?' The clip-board man enquired in a jocular tone. 'Well, I don't think you did for the medals have all been handed out'.
'But I won the race,' Johnny said again, fearing that his victory was being stolen from him.
'I don't think so, lad.' Clip-board man firmly countered. 'Now, why don't you go find your mother? Is she around here somewhere?'
'But the boy did win the race,' a lone voice from the side quietly assured, 'by quite a fair margin too'.
Clip-board man stood stock-still, absorbing this unwelcome comment with discomfort. For even without looking at its source it evidently came from an adult. He studiously consulted his clip-board upon which race results had been so neatly notated and was therefore the ultimate guide to consult. Johnny waited. The lone voice waited. And the clip-board man awkwardly shuffled his feet whilst staring at the race results.
'Can I have my medal, please?' Johnny asked, breaking the silence.
Clip-board man blew out in exasperation.
'I'm sorry,' he finally said, 'but the medals have all gone.'
'But I won the race,' firmly announced Johnny.
'Yes, he did,' added the lone voice from the side.
Clip-board man looked hard at Johnny, frowning severely yet unable to avoid that lone voice at his side which he wished would just go away and leave him to deal with the boy alone. Then he could go and find some shade.
'So where were you when the medals were given out?' He thrust accusingly.
Johnny pointed: 'Down there, getting my breath back'.
'That's true,' confirmed the lone voice, 'so he was'.
Clip-board man reddened. Around his neck hung his shiny whistle attached to a long, rainbow-coloured ribbon. He toyed with it between his fingers, feeling the metal hot to his touch as he examined Johnny standing before him.
'Hmm. I see.' He muttered, momentarily lost for an appropriate response.
But his years of teaching had taught him how to deal with such boys and with a flash of inspiration he applied some masterly logic of which he knew boys severly lacked.
'O.k, son,' he stated bluntly, 'so how come, if you won the race, your name is not marked down on my record sheet as the winner, eh?'
He felt mighty superior in posing this conundrum and patiently waited for Johnny's reply whilst twiddling his whistle and adopting his favourite teacher's pose: Legs astride, hands resting on hips. Then seeing that Johnny was lost for words and the battle of wits won, he softened his eyes to show paternal concern, relieved that the issue was now calmly resolved.
'The boy's name is not on your record sheet because you didn't add it there', the lone voice at the side quietly suggested.
'Blast him!' Clip-board man silently fumed whilst refusing to turn round and face the imposter. 'What a nerve! Interfering parents are always the worst.'
He now adopted a stoney, stern face:
'I'm sorry son, but there's now nothing I can do. Just run along now and find your mum.'
And he tapped his clip-board with his knuckles to show that final judgement had been pronounced.
'But I won the the race', Johnny retorted, his voice beginning to crack and fail. 'I was the winner'. He could feel tears begin to well up at the injustice of it all. Tears of frustration. Tears of knowing the hopelessness of combatting adults. Tears of defeat. But he moved not. His feet refused to turn and walk him away.
A silence between them ensued, made more silent by the fact that the crowd at the end of the track had begun to slip away, whilst in the distance could be heard the sound of the school's public address system announcing the next race and an ice-cream van arriving at the school gates: A prolonged stalemate, watched by the lone voice at the side.
Then, from behind, a smooth, gentle hand slipped over Johnny's and took it softly in hers. It was his mother's. She smiled an apologetic welcome at the clip-board man as she joined the gathering. Johnny turned towards her.
'I won the race, mum, and he won't give me my medal,' he cried with tears in his eyes.
'I know, Johnny,' his mum soothed, 'never mind'.
She exchanged another friendly, knowing smile with the clip-board man - as adults do between themselves when handling children's problems. Then turning back to Johnny she added:
'Do you know your sister's about to play her violin in the school outdoor concert? Shall we go and see?'
'Perhaps we can get an ice-cream first. Would you like one?'
Johnny, beaten, was quietly led away, his head hanging low.
The clip-board man exhaled and the lone-voice drifted off.
Now, many years later, Johnny wonders whether he won the race or not.
Guess I'll never know.