In a class of my own: Trevor

People of a certain age will remember when Biafra – now a state in Nigeria – was synonymous with famine. Children with matchstick arms and legs appeared on TV screens with regularity. Their hardship was brought about by civil war in Nigeria and the appeal for financial and practical help was international.

Even his school friends would call Trevor a Biafran. He was in fact a lad of West Indian ethnicity and I was amazed when he turned up for the first session of my school running club. He looked as though he would never hold together for the first hundred yards much less the two mile run I was proposing to take them on.

First years (or Year Sevens as they are now called) were always keen to sign up for the sports teams and it helped that ‘Sir’ was prepared to go out running with them . I was a decent runner myself in those days and the idea was to select a school cross country running team. The city had an active cross country league that was split into large and small secondary divisions.

Each cross country race consisted of hundreds of kids; at the finish they ran into a funnel where they were given a number disc bearing their position. The six runners per team then handed the discs to the teacher in charge. He would put them in an envelope after adding the numbers together. Lowest total won.

I set the boys off on the two mile practice course, using it for my own training by sprinting up to the leaders then dropping back for the stragglers. We were only a small school of 400 children so I was pleased that over a dozen had turned up for the session. Trevor was the slightest kid of the lot and I expected him to have trouble keeping up, but no he effortlessly galloped alongside me. Whereas others kids were wheezing and gasping, Trevor ran in near silence. He wasn’t even out of first gear yet.

Selecting him for the first schools league match was a no brainer. I had clearly stumbled upon a gem. He may not look the part but the proof was in the pudding. His tiny lean frame had the most powerful engine imaginable and I couldn’t wait to see how he performed against the best in the city.

About three hundred boys lined up along the rugby pitch and Trevor was by some margin the smallest of the lot. He only had a singlet and outsize shorts which flapped in the wind and you could see by the way he kept slapping his upper body with his hands that he was freezing and wished the starter would get the race under way. Trevor was wearing a pair of well-worn plimsolls that had seen better days. Further down the line the footwear was studs and spikes that had cost parents a penny or two.

‘Bang’ they were away and Trevor was swallowed up by the frantic rush for the narrow opening into the woodland where the bulk of the race would take place. I caught glimpses of him being bashed and buffeted by those around him. He was certainly in the back half of the field when they disappeared from view.

I managed to jump over a couple of fences and pick up the race as it wound its way through the trees. Trevor had recovered well and I cheered him wildly as he passed me in 20th place. “Keep going, Trev” I yelled and he looked back at me with disdain, as if to say ‘What else would I do, you stupid man?’

10 minutes later I was back on the rugby field, ready to cheer on my boys for the last 100 yards into the finishing funnel. A shout went up as the leaders emerged from the wood. To my utter amazement, Trevor had battled up to third though he looked like an infant prodigy against the two youths who led the way in. They both wore spikes and immaculate running gear; Trev’s outsize vest and shorts flapped madly in the wind and his battle-scarred  plimmy’s could get no purchase on the sodden grass. With no chance of catching them, they sped away from him on the run-in.

Nevertheless third was outstanding and I eulogised about his performance while he stood there like he was waiting for a bus.

“Sir, I’m freezing. Can I have my jumper back?”

Trevor was utterly unimpressed by his own brilliance and when I picked him two weeks later for the second league race he was pretty nonchalant. Still, he put up another great performance, this time in pouring rain, and came in second.

“We’ll have that bloke next time, Trev. I’ll get you some spikes”

But Trev seemed quite indifferent so I drafted his cousin Leaford into the team so he would have some company on race day. Leaford was no runner but he was enthusiastic and had a sunny disposition. He seemed absolutely thrilled that he had been picked for a school team.

On the Saturday morning, there was no sign of either Trevor or Leaford and the minibus had to leave without them. Obviously the team scored a lot more points and we slipped down the league table. I was furious at being let down and sent for both boys first thing on Monday morning.

I gave them a lecture about how they had let me and the team down.

I looked Trevor in the eye and asked him why he hadn’t turned up.

“Me and Leaford, sir, we don’t like running. It hurts too much. We want to be footballers so we went to play footie with our mates.”

It was honest, but that didn’t stop it being painful. I explained to Trevor that he had it in him to be a top class runner but he would never be anything other than a very average footballer.

“But, sir, I like football” he said and I knew my little Biafran was lost to the sport of running.       African boy running


© Alan Combes, 2017. All Rights Reserved

Alan Combes