I’ve been thinking about cross-country running a lot recently. Running that I did 30 years ago.
By the time I reached the sixth form, I had no interest in school sports. The school didn’t have much interest in me as a footballer, on merit, and rather than play cricket for the school I preferred having a Saturday job where I earned the money to go drinking with my Club cricket pals after Sunday matches.
Double games on Friday afternoons was a permissive business. I was allowed to jog off into the Buckinghamshire countryside, returning an hour later, changing and heading off for the weekend. Looking back, the surprise is that I did often go running. Not always.
Some weeks, two or three of us would visit a friend from the girls school, who had lost interest in school and whose Mum was happy to have her home for company. We would have tea and biscuits with them before jogging back to school.
What brings back these memories is something that happens a lot with both of my sons. With the older boy, typically we will be in the car, me driving and him in the passenger seat. The radio will be on, a window open. He’ll make a comment or ask a question. “Sorry,” I’ll say, “What was that you said?” Whole journeys will progress like this, with me straining and failing to pick up what he’s saying, asking for him to repeat himself.
The answer could lie in a trip to the doctor’s for a hearing test. I don’t think so, though. My wife, my daughter, my work colleagues, touchline pals and cricket club cronies can all be heard clearly.
With the younger son, the situation is also when we’re on the move. Walking to school, along suburban pavements, he’ll mutter something looking down into the gutter. Or, time his interjection for the moment that a car passes. Then he’ll look up at me. “Sorry. What was that? I couldn’t hear you.” He’ll look down and away and repeat his comment. “What? I couldn’t hear you.”
The temptation, and this is when the cross-country memory comes most strongly, is to nod and smile, give an affirmative indication, not let on that I’ve not a clue what he’s going on about.
On one of the surprisingly many Friday afternoons as a sixth former that I really did go running, I had taken a route with two or three others through a beech wood. We had cut back alongside the road that led up a steep hill back towards school. We made our way along an embankment a couple of meters above the road, until the path disappeared and we had to scramble down to the road. I went down ahead of Mark, reaching the road on the inside of a bend, and let my momentum carry me on up the road.
Behind me Mark shouted something that I didn’t hear. I turned and he shouted, incomprehensibly to me, again. “Yeah,” I replied to the unknown question. He pitched forward, ready to launch himself down the slope to the road when a car tore around the bend from behind him and up the hill. With a cold jolt I realised he had wanted to know if the coast was clear.
It was, in the language of health and safety, a near miss. There was no incident. I had beckoned a schoolmate into the path of a speeding car, but he had seen the danger just as he was about to charge down the slope to the road, trusting the clearance he thought I had given him.
When I strain to hear something my sons have muttered, that has floated away in the wind, I think of Mark’s near miss. I fight the temptation to nod, to let a matter of no consequence pass with a pretend acquiescence.
I don’t fear that I am going to usher them blindly into oncoming traffic. But I do worry. I worry that I might miss a sentence of import:
“Dad, there’s this girl..”
“I’m really frightened to go to school..”
“Daddy, what does.. mean..”
“Dad, I need some money..”
And if I don’t hear it and ask too bluntly for a repetition, it might be followed by, “Nothing, it doesn’t matter.” But it might matter, long after my cloth ears missed their chance.