As far as Mr Worthington’s memory or mine can be relied upon – and, in my case, at least, it’s a faculty that you wouldn’t necessarily want to have to rely on in a court of law – Mr Woolner had placed the flyer on the table in the staff-room just after we had returned to school after the Christmas break. Members of staff had returned after the period of rest and recuperation and were determined, with, it has to be admitted, varying degrees of conviction, to start the year with laudable resolutions to reform themselves in one way or another; some people like a challenge.
Mr Worthington and I had avoided making any reference to the leaflet, which lay accusingly on the table. It was a female member of staff who drew attention to the piece of paper one Friday lunchtime. (This is a time when we are at our most vulnerable. There we are, sitting more or less comfortably, replete after having eaten our lunches, savouring the thought that there were only another couple of hours left until the haven of the weekend would be reached and we could claim that we had survived another week without a major mishap on what can be a tempestuous sea.)
“So, boys, (she has a charming, if infantilizing, way of referring to her male colleagues) are you taking part in this man trek?” imparting a derisive emphasis to the last two words.
“Of course, I am,” I blurted out, without allowing myself a moment for thoughtful reflection before answering.
“And what about you, Mr Woolner?”
“I received the leaflet and have registered already,” said Mr Woolner. “I left the leaflet on the table in the hope that Mr Worthington and Mr L might be interested in joining me. The event is in support of the North Devon Hospice.”
“Thanks, Mr Woolner,” I muttered to myself. Even the mask of inscrutability that Mr Worthington had adopted slipped momentarily to reveal a smile of discomfiture that had to have been painfully squeezed out.
Mr Worthington and I were left with no choice. We declared, there and then in front of witnesses, that we would be delighted to join Mr Woolner on the Man Trek. There, do you see? As soon we had agreed to take part in the event, the first letters of the words became capital letters. In fact, the whole of both words were changed to capital letters, but Mr Woolner suggested that I write only the first letters as capitals. Having the words written with the first letters as capitals was bad enough. What would people think if all the letters were revealed to have been capitalized? (It is with insights such as this that we realized why Mr Woolner is a head teacher and Mr Worthington and I are mere underlings.) By the end of school that day, Mr Worthington and I had sent off to register for the charity walk – sorry, Man Trek.
The weather of the preceding weekend had been, needless to say, fine; the sun had even shone for part of it. In the week before the Sunday of the event, we had scrutinized the weather forecasts four or five times a day. Whichever outlet we consulted, the same forecast was published: rain. As the weekend drew closer, it was being predicted, with increasing confidence on the part of the prognosticators, that rain was a certainty. But, hey! Were we mice or were we men? Well, if I’m being candid, I was aware that a little rodent-like timidity was creeping into my mind; but I couldn’t, and wasn’t going to, let the other guys down.
We three, we happy, if small, band of brothers, arranged to rendezvous at Red Post. I rode in Mr Woolner’s car, while Mr Worthington trailed behind us in his small but rugged Jimny. At this stage in our adventure, the rain wasn’t too heavy, but as we followed the exposed route to Barnstaple, the number and size of the drops of rain increased. As we reached the heights overlooking the Torridge valley, Mr Woolner, ever the optimist, said that he thought the rain was easing up and that ahead of us the sky seemed to be brightening. This was an opinion that seemed to fly in the face of the evidence; as the slapping windscreen wipers were frantically struggling to cope with the volume of water, I doubted that Mr Woolner could see, with any degree of clarity, much farther than a few yards beyond the bonnet of the vehicle. However, when we arrived at Barnstaple Rugby Club (where the walk (sorry, Man Trek) would end), we found that the rain had eased – a bit, at least – and this raised our depressed spirits – a little.
We crammed ourselves into Mr Worthington’s Jimny and went to Bideford, from where the walk (sorry, Man Trek) was to start. Mr Woolner walked (sorry, Man Trekked) the short distance to the place where registered participants had to present themselves and collect their passes for a complimentary pasty and pint. Why didn’t Mr Worthington and I have to go and have a tick placed beside our names on the clipped-boarded sheets? Well, it’s a long story, but suffice it to say that we were too late in submitting our applications to be registered: there was a limit on the number who could be admitted safely to the rugby club to watch England’s international match against Italy, and by the time we submitted our entries this number had been exceeded. (You see what honourable gentlemen Mr Worthington and I are: we said we would support Mr Woolner on the walk (sorry, Man Trek) and we did so, even though we weren’t officially registered!)
We set off from the Pill at Bideford, crossed the ancient, many-arched bridge and joined the old railway track just past the old Bideford station in East the Water. We reached the old track way inordinately pleased with ourselves for getting this far without sustaining an injury, or aggravating existing ones, or our spirits being dampened any more than they were already. “Only ten and three-quarters miles to go!” said Mr Worthington, with an enthusiasm that was, I felt, more feigned than it was real.
It can’t have been more than two minutes into the first stage of the walk (sorry, Man Trek), when Mr Woolner stopped. “Do you realize that we don’t have a name?” he said. “I’m quite happy with mine,” said Mr Worthington. “What about you, Mr L?”
I had to admit that I was not unhappy with the choice my parents had made on my behalf. Count yourself lucky that you didn’t have some embarrassing nickname, like, for example… No! Let’s not be unkind. No. No. We mustn’t.
“You know perfectly well that I mean we don’t have a group name,” said Mr Woolner, in that exasperated tone of voice that teachers have to perfect before they can call themselves proper teachers, that and an inflection suggestive of an irony that falls just short of a spirit-crushing sarcasm.
“What about The Amblers?” suggested Mr Worthington.
“That doesn’t quite convey the sense of urgency that our target time of under three hours implies,” I countered. “What about The Sore-footed? Surely the sore-footed must be among the blessed.”
“The Pre-Cognitive Brotherhood,” said Mr Woolner.
“Well, as it seems that neither Mr Worthington nor I knew that you were going to say that I don’t think that that’s such a good choice, either,” I said.
“The Whitstone Boot Boys,” said Mr Worthington, without warning.
“Where?” I said, not a little alarmed.
“For our name. For our name,” said Mr Worthington, unnecessarily repeating himself. “We’re wasting time,” said Mr Woolner.
“Shall we move on?” I urged. “I’m sure a name will come to us before we reach the end of the walk.”
“You mean before we reach the end of the Man Trek, don’t you?” said Mr Woolner. “Sorry, Mr Woolner!”
We set off again, trying to get our steps in step with each other. At first, we found this difficult, as the pace shifted erratically owing to the variation in our heights. Eventually, we found and kept up a pace consistent with our individual dimensions, and one which, nevertheless, did not compromise the achieving of our target time.
We had been told to look out for an unusual sight on the new road bridge over the Torridge. And when we arrived at the bridge, there it was on one of its piers – a mermaid in a diving helmet. We gave her a wave, but she didn’t wave back. We weren’t too disappointed; we were, after all, men on a mission, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be distracted from attaining the prize.
We reached the station at Instow in good time. At Instow, where the waters of the Torridge and the Taw begin to consort with each other, the track crosses Marine Drive. Where once cars had to give way to trains that crossed at this point, now pedestrians, on this occasion loosely coupled together into trains of walkers (sorry Man Trekkers), have to face the hazard and give way to cars. On the other side of the road, the path passes through a short tunnel and cutting. We were soon through the tunnel and out of the cutting and the brief respite they had afforded us from the elements and again exposed to the wind and rain. As we walked along engaged in desultory conversation, we spied some Canada geese cropping the grass in the lee of some dunes. On seeing us, they raised their heads in a synchronized gesture of indignation and voiced their complaints about the weather. The geese’s honking disturbed a conclave of starlings that had, eerily, arranged themselves into an almost perfect circle in the field on the opposite side of the track. Quickly passing by this unnerving phenomenon, we soon arrived at Fremington Quay, where the saltings are interrupted by a stretch of estuarine sand and mud. Gusts of the plaintive song of the red shank were carried to us on the wind.
“That’s it!” barked Mr Woolner.
This vehement utterance of Mr Woolner’s roused both Mr Worthington and me from the zone of concentration we had fallen into as the result of the rhythm of our walking.
“The name for our group,” said Mr Woolner. “The Red Shanks.”
The Red Shanks.
Neither Mr Worthington nor I had sufficient energy to raise any objections; and I certainly wasn’t going to allude to the uncomfortable chafing resulting from an ill-fitting pair of waterproof trousers. So, for better or for worse, without any protestation from either Mr Worthington or me, we were now, by default, The Red Shanks.
Fremington was where Mr Woolner could, and did, claim his pasty. While he ate his pasty, and Mr Worthington and I ate our sandwiches, we were entertained - if that’s quite the right word in the circumstances - by a pipe band, whose members had been provided with inadequate shelter under an awning that seemed in danger of being blown away at any moment. As the players blew away the notes of what proved to be the last number of this particular gig, one of our fellow walkers swore, with hand on heart, that he had seen bubbles coming out of one of the bagpipes. We almost believed him.
It was time to be on our way again, with the final stage of the walk (sorry, Man Trek) in our sights. Within a short period of time, we were on the new road bridge over the Taw at Sticklepath. We crossed the bridge in a formation based on our relative heights (shortest at the front), heads bowed, with the wind now blowing in our faces.
As we crossed the potholed car park behind the rugby club at Barnstaple, I checked my watch: two hours, fifty-two minutes. I gave my fellow Red Shanks the good news. We felt a manly, understated satisfaction that we had achieved our goal. Yet there was something nagging us: we could boast that we had completed the walk (sorry, Man Trek) in under three hours, but would we be able to endure the ridicule of our female colleagues if they were to find out that we had called ourselves The Red Shanks? Without a moment’s hesitation, we swore to each other in that puddled car park that we would take the secret with us to our graves.