July 21, 2011 by markstani
This is an excerpt from a novel-in-waiting called ‘Betsy’s Boys’. Any comments valued.
Largely thanks to Mr Holloway’s principled refusal ever to accept second best whatever the cost, Lady Priestman’s boasted an unparalleled tradition of regional sporting success.
Its football, hockey and cross-country teams consistently came out on top in their respective leagues, and Mr Holloway ensured their individual stars were feted in school assemblies and given all sorts of preferential treatment, guaranteeing disquiet over his notoriously gruelling training regimes was kept to a minimum.
But it was the swimming team which was most successful of all, and therefore closest to Mr Holloway’s heart. The Lady Priestman’s boys’ team had proved invincible in the annual inter-district gala for half a decade, and the girls’ only marginally more modest contribution ensured the silver plate which represented the prestigious overall title had gleamed brightly from Mr Holloway’s trophy cabinet in each of the last four years.
Each year, the names of new heroes were etched into the bulging assembly hall honours board alongside all-time Lady Priestman’s aquatics team greats like Ralph Patchwall and Harry The Dolphin.
Harry The Dolphin was a true school legend (in other words, approximately half of the anecdotes that follow are untrue). He didn’t boast the obvious physical characteristics normally associated with a finely honed athlete. He bumbled along the corridors with a half-stoned grin and a roll-up tucked expertly behind his left ear. He idly twiddled his shaggy shoulder-length hair in a way which brought sighs of approval from the gaggles of starry-eyed schoolgirls he hooked along permanently in his wake.
He flagrantly disregarded the school’s strict uniform policy by boasting open-toed sandals and bell-bottomed flares, and an open shirt proudly sprouting a mat of expertly cultivated chest hair and a glinting gold medallion.
He was prone to amble off unannounced in the middle of vitally important lessons and his impromptu exits were never challenged by his teachers who seemed equally captivated by his aura. One such absence lasted precisely seven days and ten minutes. Harry The Dolphin ambled back into the classroom in the following week’s equivalent lesson and casually sat back down as if nothing had happened. In fact, people might not have noticed anything was amiss did he not have a red-eyed and haggard-looking young French exchange student hanging limply off his arm.
Harry The Dolphin’s carefree attitude extended to the sporting stage. He turned up at one nail-biting gala straight from a three-day rock festival, taking a final swig from a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale as he clambered on the blocks. He duly proceeded to lead his team home to victory.
The following year, his intervention proved crucial to Lady Priestman’s retention of their overall title as he kept a star member of the leading rival girls’ team occupied in the changing rooms for the entire duration of the decisive freestyle relay.
It is easy to tell whom are the ladies who have just turned their half-centuries in Thornton-le-Dale today. They are the ones who still insist on squeezing themselves into faded denim, and tie flowers in their hair. They are the ones prone to random bouts of tearful frustration; the ones who enthusiastically arrange school reunions only to spend the evenings staring doe-eyed at the door. Dorothy Bostock said, ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about,’ but her horn-rimmed glasses steamed up visibly when we mentioned his name. Derek Green said, ‘of course she bloody knows who you’re talking about. Her and Harry The Dolphin used to get themselves in no end of trouble.’
This is all, however, a trifle misleading. The reason Harry The Dolphin did not possess the obvious physical characteristics normally associated with a finely honed athlete is because he wasn’t a finely honed athlete. He was a bloody awful swimmer. He didn’t derive his name from any aquatic talent he possessed, but because of the high-pitched squeals frequently emitted by the girls in his company. By the time the last leg of the relay came round, the trophy was more often than not already in the bag, and Ralph Patchwall had built up such a sizeable lead on the anchor leg that it was one even Harry The Dolphin could not squander.
Ralph Patchwall’s athletic achievements hugely eclipsed those of Harry The Dolphin, or anyone else for that matter. He was a three-times County champion, having sacrificed his teenage years to gruelling early morning training sessions and the single-minded pursuit of sporting excellence.
Dorothy Bostock said, ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about,’ again, but this time her glasses didn’t steam up. Derek Green said, ‘you’ve lost me there, son.’ The legend of Harry The Dolphin lived on. But nobody remembers Ralph Patchwall because he was such a boring twat.