I rose early this morning, as I have done every Sunday for 20 years. The old hip was a bit stiff, and a familiar twinge in the left calf reminded me that these days I ought to sit down before putting on my running shoes.
I sifted through a heap of faded T-shirts, finally settling for the 1984 South Downs 10. A moth had dined extensively on the course map, cutting Brighton off from Hove. Nevertheless, as I eased the fragile garment over my head, I could almost smell the wild flowers on the high chalk downs, and hear the unceasing piccolo of larksong. Nothing takes you back like an old shirt.
There were no larks this morning. The day was veiled by a curtain of drizzle, and even Oscar The World’s Fittest Dog looked dubious as he sniffed at the open door. I noticed, for the first time, a peppering of grey about his muzzle. As I limped down the hill, I was overtaken by a pack of athletic snails.
Nowadays it takes a good 10 minutes before the sharp pain in my right knee subsides to a dull, manageable ache. In an attempt to work around this chronic injury, I have devised a weird, contorted gait – like that of Quasimodo tiptoeing barefoot across a lawn of razorblades.
I shivered. An enormous percentage (I forget just how enormous) of the body’s heat is lost through the head. And since my pate is now virtually threadbare, I really should invest in a woolly hat.
I glanced at my watch. If the boys were on schedule, they should pour out of Big Wood in around three minutes.
They were late, and when they did appear, they hardly poured. Three feeble old harriers can’t pour. Pouring was what we did in the 1980s, when 30 would show up for the Sunday Morning Run and there was a Fast Group, a Middle Group and a Slow Group, and the Slow Group was twice as fast as today’s sorry bunch.
“Ah! Good morrow, Mister Blackford!” At least Norman managed a semblance of cheery bonhomie. Harry just grunted at the dog, and Big Ron barely raised a grimace.
“You’re slow today,” I replied as I tagged on to their flank.
“It’s me back,” muttered Big Ron. “It hasn’t been right since London.”
Good Lord, someone had actually run a race! Perhaps there was hope for us yet!
“You never told me you were doing the London, Ron. How did you get on?”
“Not this year,” he snapped. “1996.”
“1994, Ron,” corrected Henry. “It was the year I did my Achilles.”
We wheezed and hobbled rheumatically along the little path by the river as we had done since before our children were born. The talk, once of weddings and christenings, was now of hospitals and funerals.
My mind drifted back 20 years, to when dear old Welsh Bob would regale us with tales of his wild nights on the town with Psycho Terry… “Trouble is, Terry can’t take his drink. After 13 pints, he just snaps.”
I caught sight of a small, wizened figure in the distance. “Is that Brian?”
“What – Brian Baldry?”
“No, what’s-his-name. Hernia Brian.”
“Hello, boys,” croaked Brian as he approached. “Mind if I join you? I’ve just seen Malcolm Turby. Remember Malc? He’s had to pack it in. Angina. He told me about Maurice.”
“What about him?” I asked, my heart already sinking.
“Gone. Just like that!” Hernia Brian snapped his fingers. “Embolism, they said. Only 58.”
That did it. “Oscar!” I called. “Come on. We’re going home.”
Harry smirked. “Pace too hot for you, is it?”
“No, mate,” I replied. “I’ve got a bloke coming over to install the stair lift. See you next Sunday!”