The Tortoise And The Hair
Vic didn’t slow down when he reached the pet shop.
‘Mind your backs,’ he called out as he sprinted straight inside. ‘Urgent delivery coming through.’
Vic knew kids weren’t meant to run in shops, and he knew at this speed there was a danger of tripping over a kennel and ending up nose-first in a sack of pigs’ ears. But he had to take the risk. He was seriously late.
Nothing must slow him down.
Please don’t stutter, thought Vic as he thudded into the counter. Please don’t stutter, please don’t stutter, please don’t stutter.
Behind the counter, Mr Pappadopoulis looked up, frowned at Vic and began to stutter.
‘H – h – h – h – h – h – h – h – h –’
No, thought Vic. Please. I haven’t got time for this.
‘H – h – h – h – h – h – h – h – h –’
Vic knew what Mr Pappadopoulis was trying to say.
‘Hello,’ said Vic, getting in first to save Mr Pappadopoulis the trouble and more importantly to save time.
‘W – w – w – w – w – w – w – w – w –’
Please, begged Vic silently. Let me do the talking. Mr Pappadopoulis didn’t.
‘W – w – w – w – w – w – w – w – w –’
Once again, Vic guessed what Mr Pappadopoulis was trying to say.
‘What,’ said Vic, ‘can you do for me? Thanks for asking.’
He reached into his sports bag and took out Monty.
‘Gran’s tortoise needs a clip,’ he said.
Mr Pappadopoulis peered at Monty and frowned again.
‘T – t – t – t – t – t – t –,’ he said. ‘T – t – t – t – t –’
‘Toenails, that’s right,’ said Vic. ‘Gran’s hoping you can do it. Her hands shake too much and the last time I tried, I accidently dropped Monty into a laundry bucket full of starch.’
So did Mr Pappadopoulis.
‘I know,’ said Vic. ‘Poor Monty. The last thing a tortoise needs is to end up stiffer and even slower. But I was in a rush and I slipped.’
‘S – s – s – s – s – s – s –,’ said Mr Pappadopoulis.
Vic was puzzled for a moment, then got it.
‘Sling him over to you? Thanks, Mr P,’ said Vic, handing Monty to Mr Pappadopoulis. ‘Sorry I can’t stay to chat, I’m in the school athletics team and I’m late for the District Championships. My phone number’s on Monty’s tummy. Bye.’
As Vic sprinted out of the shop, he glimpsed puppies, fish, guinea pigs and terrapins all looking at him disapprovingly.
That was a bit unkind, the pets’ faces said. Don’t you know anything about stuttering? Don’t you know that rushing a stutterer is the worst thing you can do?
Vic pushed the guilt away and sprinted down the street. Those puppies and fish and guinea pigs and terrapins obviously didn’t know anything about being in a district championship relay team.
Vic glanced at his watch.
Twenty-eight minutes till the team bus left. Enough time.
The tortoise was done, only the hair to go.
Please don’t gossip, thought Vic as he rushed into Uncle Riad’s hair salon. Please don’t gossip, please don’t gossip, please don’t gossip.
Uncle Riad was with a customer, blow-drying a cascade of Beyoncé curls. He looked up, saw Vic and gave him a grin.
‘How’s the champ?’ he said. ‘I was just telling Leonie here what a killer you are on the track. How you’re gunna blow the opposition away today. Wipe the track with ’em. Bring home a fistful of trophies. Even better, those engraved silver carving platters.’
‘I’m only in the relay team,’ muttered Vic.
‘Vic runs the final legs of all the relays,’ said Uncle Riad to Leonie. ‘The four times one hundred metres, the four times two hundred metres and, wait for it, the four times four hundred metres. Creams ’em every time.’
Leonie looked impressed.
‘Thanks, Uncle Riad,’ said Vic. ‘But I’m in a bit of a hurry.’ He took Gran’s wig from his sports bag and held it out. ‘Gran says it needs a trim.’
Uncle Riad didn’t even look at the wig, just kept on gossiping to Leonie.
‘You’d never have guessed,’ said Uncle Riad, ‘if you’d seen his wobbly thighs when he was little. He didn’t walk till he was two and a half.’
Vic wondered if Uncle Riad had heard any part of ‘needs a trim’ and ‘bit of a hurry’. Maybe Uncle Riad had a build-up of hair clippings in his ears.
‘Vic’s parents would be so proud if they could see him now,’ Uncle Riad was saying to Leonie. ‘Be a winner, that’s what they always told him. That’s why they called him Victor.’
Take the wig, begged Vic silently. Please take it.
‘Throw yourself at life,’ said Uncle Riad, looking fondly at Vic. ‘That’s what his dad always said. Go full pelt. Do whatever it takes to get in front of the other mongrels.’
Take it, pleaded Vic. Take it, take it, take it.
‘If only his parents were still here to see what a champ their son has turned into,’ said Uncle Riad. He sighed. ‘If only they hadn’t driven quite so fast. Through that red light.’
Vic glanced at his watch.
Thirteen minutes till the bus left.
He stuffed the wig into Uncle Riad’s hands.
Uncle Riad stared at it, frowning.
‘What happened?’ he said.
‘Got a bit melted in the toaster,’ said Vic. ‘I was in a hurry, making Gran’s toast and trimming her split ends at the same time. Bye.’
He turned and sprinted out of the salon.
The sounds of the hair dryer and Uncle Riad’s voice drifted after him.
‘Blow ’em away, champ.’
Please don’t be gone, thought Vic as he ran towards the school gate. Please don’t be gone, please don’t be gone, please don’t be gone.
If the bus was gone, so was his place in the team. Mr Callaghan the sports teacher was fanatical about being on time. He didn’t like lateness at the finishing line, or anywhere.
Vic’s chest was hurting with effort and stress.
Thirteen minutes from Uncle Riad’s salon should have been plenty, he thought bitterly. It would have, if the streets hadn’t been jammed with dawdlers and slowcoaches.
Old people who needed to peer into every shop window, probably looking for a product that would get starch out of their pants.
Gangs of teenagers meandering along, gawking at their phones, probably checking the Guinness Book Of Records website to see if they’d broken the record for the slowest dawdle through a shopping centre.
Families pausing all over the footpath to taste each other’s ice-creams.
Vic had very nearly crashed into a mum and dad and kids with chocolate and pistachio moustaches, and he’d felt a bit jealous. Then, as he’d pushed past them, a bit sticky.
Please don’t be gone, begged Vic again.
He sprinted through the school gate and round the corner of the library to the staff carpark.
There it was. The team bus.
He’d made it.
‘Victor,’ said a voice. ‘What are you doing here?’ Vic stopped and turned round.
Mr Downie the principal was coming out of the library.
‘Didn’t you get our message?’ said Mr Downie. Vic looked at him, confused.
‘We sent you a text last night,’ said Mr Downie.
‘You’re not running today. Sorry.’ Vic stared.
‘I discussed it with Mr Callaghan,’ said Mr Downie. ‘We agreed you haven’t been putting in your best times lately and you could do with a rest. Didn’t you look at your phone?’
Vic was so dazed he could hardly think.
He had to admit he probably hadn’t looked at his phone last night, what with his evening training program and cooking Gran’s tea and Uncle Riad coming round and challenging him to an arm wrestle.
‘Have the weekend off, Victor,’ said Mr Downie. ‘Do something relaxing. Take it easy.’
The principal went back into the library.
Vic slumped against the wall. It was true, his times had dropped lately. But he’d hoped it was just temporary while he was saving up for new running shoes. Which had taken longer than he’d planned because he hadn’t wanted to put extra financial pressure on Gran. It was hard enough for her, with all the debts Mum and Dad had left.
The strange thing, though, was that even when Uncle Riad had found out he needed new running shoes and bought him a pair, plus a luminous green singlet that said Champ, his times hadn’t picked up.
That was very strange.
Vic stared numbly across the carpark.
Mr Callaghan was getting onto the bus. He gave Vic an embarrassed wave. The bus door closed behind him. Vic could see the faces of the athletics team silhouetted in the windows.
The bus started to drive away.
Vic heard a voice inside his head.
‘Be a winner,’ said the voice. ‘Because if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser.’
He wasn’t sure if it was his dad’s voice, or Uncle Riad’s, or Donald Trump’s.
Vic didn’t care.
He gripped his sports bag and ran after the bus.
By the time Vic caught up with the bus, it was going quite fast.
It had started slowly, turning a few corners, but now it was on a long straight downhill street and was already in third gear.
Vic was running the race of his life.
He’d stopped feeling the pain in his legs several hundred metres back. All he could feel now was a searing fire in his chest and the blood pounding in his head and his eardrums about to explode.
And lower down, in his guts, sadness.
Which he wasn’t surprised by.
He’d been dumped. Dumped by the team he’d done so much for. Including giving up ice-cream because of the risk of flab.
Vic was tempted to stop running and give the sticky patch of chocolate and pistachio on his shoulder a good lick and just enjoy it.
But he didn’t.
He forced a last spurt of effort into his legs, ignored the agony in his lungs, caught up with the bus and pounded on the back window.
In the driver’s-side rear-vision mirror he saw the driver’s face go wide-eyed with shock, and Vic remembered just in time to drop back as the driver hit the brakes.
As Vic staggered up the steps onto the bus, he saw it wasn’t just the driver who was in shock.
Mr Callaghan and all the kids were staring at him too. Mouths almost as wide as his, and he was the one gasping for air.
As soon as Vic saw Mr Callaghan’s face, he knew he was going to get his place in the team back. And he did. Mr Callaghan started giving it to him even before the bus door was closed.
‘That was amazing, young man. An amazing piece of running. In the light of such an improved performance ...’
Vic tried to let Mr Callaghan know that he needed to sit down.
He couldn’t speak for the moment, so he let Mr Callaghan know by getting very dizzy and dropping his bag and almost fainting.
Mr Callaghan jumped up and lowered Vic into his seat.
‘Head between your legs,’ said Mr Callaghan. ‘Get some blood back to your brain.’
Vic leant forward and lowered his head.
He found himself looking at his bag on the floor between his feet. It was half open and he could see his phone.
There was a message on the screen from Mr Pappadopoulis.
The bus was moving again now and Vic was still a bit dizzy, so the words in the message were blurry and hard to make out.
Monty must be finished, thought Vic. Trimmed and ready to be picked up. Gee, that was quick.
He blinked a few times and suddenly he could read the message clearly.
Have you thought of slowing down?
Winning isn’t the only thing in life.
Take time to decide what’s important to you.
Vic stared at the message. There was something about the first letter of each sentence ...
Then he remembered what Mr Pappadopoulis had stammered in the pet shop.
H – h – h – h –h –
W – w –w –w – w –
T–t –t –t – t –
Vic had thought in the shop he’d known what Mr Pappadopoulis was trying to say, but he hadn’t.
He did now.
It was here, in the message.
Vic read the message again. And again.
He kept on reading it until Mr Callaghan started booming in his ear.
‘How are you feeling, lad? Back to your senses?’
‘Yes, Mr Callaghan,’ said Vic quietly. ‘I am.’
‘Good to hear,’ said Mr Callaghan. ‘Because in the light of your performance today, you’re back in the team.’
Vic looked around the bus. All the kids were nodding. Except one.
Garth must be his replacement.
‘What about Garth?’ said Vic to Mr Callaghan. ‘Garth won’t mind stepping down,’ said Mr Callaghan. ‘In the circumstances.’
Vic could see that Garth did mind.
Vic zipped up his sports bag.
‘Thanks for the offer,’ he said to Mr Callaghan.
‘But I’ve decided not to be in the team any more.’ Mr Callaghan stared at him.
‘Can I get off the bus please?’ said Vic.
‘No,’ said Mr Callaghan. ‘You can’t.’
Vic could see from Mr Callaghan’s face that Mr Callaghan was going to try to make him stay in the team. Vic didn’t want to have to sit through that. He had more important things to do.
He stood up and smashed the emergency glass panel with his phone and pulled the emergency lever.
An alarm went off and the driver swore loudly and pulled over to the side of the road. The bus door opened with a hiss. Even as the driver was turning round to see what the trouble was, Vic was stepping past him and out the door.
‘Sorry about the glass panel,’ said Vic.
‘Make sure you haven’t left anything on the bus,’ muttered the driver.
Vic didn’t reply.
He had left some things on the bus. Not his sports bag or phone. A couple of things he didn’t need any more.
Years later he would tell his own kids how much better his life had been after he’d left those things on the bus. After he’d left behind the dopey idea that if you run fast enough, you can get away from sadness. And after he’d ditched the desperate hope that if you run even faster, you can catch up with what you’ve lost and get it back.
Get them back.
Vic walked slowly away from the bus.
He ignored Mr Callaghan’s angry shouts, which stopped eventually when the bus engine started up again.
There was no hurry.
Vic had the whole day ahead of him. With not a lot planned.
He fancied some quiet time with Gran. Washing her wig, with a bit of conditioner to add bounce and vitality.
Then a stroll with Monty, who’d probably be keen to check out the back garden now his toenails were in working order.
And this evening, a couple of hours on his own with Gran’s family photo album.
Just taking it slowly.
But first, a cup of tea with Mr Pappadopoulis. And a relaxed chat.
It didn’t have to be a long one.
Vic didn’t need to say much. He didn’t need to say please don’t stutter or please don’t gossip or please don’t be gone.
Just two words.
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