Today is the great Athletics Tournament, with which the daughters have been preoccupied for days.
The Warriner School in Bloxham is holding its afternoon of athletic endeavour in their cavernous sport’s hall. This year, there are to be 7 primary schools taking part, including Hornton’s arch-rivals, Shennington. Jess is particularly excited, and keeps telling us she can’t believe she was picked for the team. Hornton Primary is sending thirteen pupils, and Jess (aged 8) is one of the youngest and definitely the smallest.
‘We’ll race against Year Sixes,’ she tells us at breakfast. ‘So we’ll lose. But as long as we try our best, it doesn’t matter if we don’t win.’
I slap hands across my mouth as Stevie agrees with her – that’s right, my darling. He sends me a Significant Look.
So now I’ve arrived in Bloxham, thanking the Parking Angel for guarding me a space on the muddy lane. As I get out of the car, I can hear that particular shrieky noise of massed primary school children – like hunt kennels the morning of a meet.
The huge sports hall is across the car park, and as I walk towards it, two Warriner pupils in duck-egg blue go to dash out of the door. They jam the brakes on when they see me, and let me go first.
Inside the hall, the noise becomes more distinct, in waves, corresponding to some sort of action. The whole space is full of dashing figures in bright colours; cherry red, satsuma-orange, the egg-yolk yellow of Shennington. Warriner pupils are supervising, and two Warriner PE teachers are waving their arms and calling encouragement. The one nearest to me has short, sandy hair and good legs.
Parents are gathered in the viewing corridor that runs along the hall, watching their children through green netting, chattering, laughing. I wriggle amongst them, smiling apologies for jostled elbows.
I spot the royal-blue of Hornton in the far right corner. Some Hornton School mum-chums are on the bench against the wall – Tightie and Damage. They’re talking to Mr. Green, Hornton’s Head, who is looking very serious. He is holding a clipboard. The children are racing up and down in front of them, practising running and turning on the push-off boards against the walls of the hall, and I see a tiny figure streaking backwards and forwards, long pony tail flying. It’s Jess, and I give an inward groan. She’s the only child in the whole place wearing pink and navy-striped leggings.
Around me, the strange mums are talking about the same things Hornton mums always talk about: swimming lessons clashing with ballet, babysitters cancelling last minute, and did you watch the One Show yesterday? A good-looking father arrives in a navy overcoat. ‘Made it,’ he says to a woman in a Joules gilet. ‘Not been here before. Rather smart for a comp.’
You can hear the hiss from the mums, feel the cringe of the wife.
Husbands should be seen and not heard.
A whistle is blown by a very tall man in racy red socks. The children are to line up on their benches against the far wall.
It’s now time for the relay race, and mats are put out in a line down the centre of the hall. Each school are to field four children, running from one end of the hall to the other, before passing a baton. The Warriner pupils do a demonstration, genuinely racing, putting their all in; their trainers thumping like police-kicks on the push-off boards.
The PE teacher with the good legs comes to announce the parents’ race through the netting. For a moment, I ridiculously imagine kicking off my boots and socks for better floor-purchase and increased speed. I forget I’m thirty-four and not wearing adequate rigging. The other parents all laugh, knowing he was joking, and he goes away, smiling.
The primary schools are to go now, and I squeak with excitement when I see Jess standing up, then giving it the Tiggers, boinging on the spot. She seems to be leading a team, and is marching towards a mat with a fellow Year 4 and two Year 6’s. She sees me, but only gives a blink of recognition; too cool to wave to mummy.
Jess is the first to run, and I can feel my own heart-beat start to thump as she gets in position, baton poised. The other children racing are at least two-heads taller; gigantic children in orange and yellow. A Warriner pupil starts the race and they’re off, running flat-out to the push-boards – the noise of the supporting crowds is ear-shearing. Quick turn then they’re up our end, Jess’ pink and navy leggings blurred with speed, ponytail a caramel banner. I think I might pop with pride.
I think Jess’ team have come third, but before I can find out, the next lot of teams are lining up, Hornton racing in the lane closest to us. Hornton’ve put up their speediest Year 6’s, and we’re level-pegging with the orange children when disaster happens. Hornton’s last runner turns on the push-off boards and somehow drops her baton or trips, either way, the baton hits the floor with a bell-like clink, and the runner is down, landing heavily on her hands and knees. The cheers turn off like a switch, and there’s a collective gasp. But then the Hornton runner staggers to her feet in the silence, obviously hurting, and runs for the finish line. The cheers almost take the roof off.
‘Brave little girl,’ says the mother next to me.
We watch as she finishes, disappears into the comforting arms of her team. She’s crying now, ow,ow,ow, but post-race tears in no way detract from the fact she got back up, finished the race.
There’s another few more heats to go, and then the whistle’s blown and the children all waved to a huddle. There’s rousing words and certificates, and lots of applause and modestly-pleased faces. The PE teacher in the racy red socks announces the overall winners, and the fact that Hornton came bottom to last. I join the other Hornton mums, and we all lean together, exchanging gossip and pointing out each other’s children.
‘And,’ we whisper, knowing it’s bad form, but unable to resist. ‘We weren’t last. We beat Shennington-‘
Then we all cheer for the jolly PE teachers who worked with the Warriner pupils in organising the whole thing, and we cheer the children themselves.
‘Very good!’ we say, clapping.
M, the glamorous daughter of Damage, speaks sotto voce at my shoulder. ‘Them ones that won have different outfits for each sport. Like cricket and that. I was talking to them before.’
I boggle at the thought of increased uniform costs. ‘Golly,’ I say.
Now the children are starting to leave, and I step back, out of the mum’s circle, looking for Elle and Jess. Jess is a bullet, straight into my arms. She gives me a bone-crunching hug, then grabs my hands, so I listen.
‘Mummy!’ she says, squeezing. ‘Great news! I beat a Year Six!’
Elle slopes up, gloomy after having her events cancelled. ‘Whoop dee doo.’ she says, deadpan. ‘It’s the doing your best that counts.’
‘No it isn’t,’ says Jess, suddenly very fierce. ‘It’s the winning. Isn’t it, Mum? It’s the winning.’
‘Um,’ I say. Oh, what the hell. I return her squeeze. ‘Yes, darling. It is really. All about the winning.’