Jenny Wiffen watched with affectionate indulgence as her husband Fred made his preparations for the 2015 Fathers Race. He limbered. He lunged. He stayed up late Googling wind resistance and “drive phase”. He studied videos of Usain Bolt, pored over diagrams of foot positions and browsed the latest hi-tech muscle-warming leggings.
Sports Day at the Clifton Kingsland Academy – fees £34,228 per annum – was an ultra-competitive affair. Parents still talked about the time, three sports days ago, when one father – a stout hedgie whose bald pink head was noted for its powers of perspiration – took a tumble moments after the starting pistol, clutching his leg in agony. The rumour was he’d done it deliberately. There were those who swore they’d seen his rictus of pain give way to a smirk as his private sports physio – familiar from the previous year’s Premier League final – trotted on in a tracksuit and went to work on his calf.
Fred – and it was this sense of honour that Jenny loved in him – was determined to win the old-fashioned way: by putting one foot in front of the other faster than the next man. And win he must, as “the next man” was Bernard Holmes, an old university contemporary with whom he now regularly crossed swords at the Metal Exchange.
But winning fair and square did not preclude Fred bribing one of the guys from his IT department to hack Bernard’s corporate intranet. Discovering that Bernard had run the 100m in 13.09 at the SaxCorp Staff Fun Day, he was only momentarily downcast. Challenge was the spur to greatness.
He moved his daily sessions with the personal trainer from 6am to 5.30am and slotted an extra one in each week. His concentration was fierce. The day he managed 12.57, he came into the kitchen where Jenny and the kids were eating poached eggs and did a Rocky Balboa dance round the breakfast bar.
Sports Day dawned, the school athletics track emerald in the bright sunshine. Jaguars and Bentleys sat in their ranks on the adjacent cricket pitch, and a couple of helicopters descended to the pad on the other side of the poplars. And, a little away from the crowd, there was Fred – warming up. From a distance you might have thought he was doing a bizarre cross between tai chi and an impression of Kate Bush’s Babooshka.
And then it was time. “Fathers Race,” crackled the announcement. Fred did the last of his contortions, removed his tracksuit bottoms and lined up.
“Bernard,” said Fred, his voice taking on a calculated but understated edge of steel.
“Fred,” said Bernard, eyes narrowing to chinks as if sizing up a killing in aluminium futures.
At the crack of the starting pistol, they took off. Bernard pulled ahead. Fred dug deeper. Bernard gasped. Fred grunted. Bernard lunged. Fred bounded. And then – surely, if only by a fraction of an inch – victory was his!
Jenny was cheering. Fred was panting. And Bernard? Well, Bernard was bellowing. With a red face and McEnroe- like demeanour, he appealed with wild gesticulations to the headmaster, who was invigilating the race.
“I was across the line!” Bernard boomed. He was demanding – demanding! – the race be rerun. But Fred knew what he’d seen. It all hung on whether the headmaster had the right angle…
“I don’t think there’ll be any need for that, Mr Holmes,” said the headmaster with condescending suavity. He started tapping on his smartphone. “State of the art,” he said. “First chance we’ve had to use it.”
“It” was a laser-triggered 3,000 frame per second photo-finish camera the school had just installed after a generous endowment from an alumnus.
“Ah, yes. And as I think you can see…”
Bernard’s face fell.
On the big screens trackside, an image – razor sharp – showed Fred and Bernard labouring through the tape side by side in slow motion… just as the egg, tumbling from Bernard’s spoon, touched down on the wrong side of the finish line.
Fred raised his right arm above his head in triumph, spoon in fist. Bernard said something unrepeatable and stalked off.
“My hero,” cooed Jenny.