Following our humiliating marching experiences, a short break was scheduled. The timetable allowed five minutes for us to get into running gear and meet Tendril on the volleyball court. Our break was therefore spent in a huge rush to fetch our gear from vehicles and transferred to our new residences. I naïvely threw my uniform onto the bright yellow bed, inserted myself at lightning speed into my sports gear and emerged breathlessly onto the landing at approximately the same time as the rest of the gang. Following a very brief debate on the matter, we abandoned the elevator and hurtled down the lethal concrete stairwell to the ground floor.
Once we arrived upon the parade square we were examined for cleanliness and suitability for public consumption. Tendril had, without any warning whatsoever, appeared in a white singlet and very tiny 1980s shorts. They may have been purpose-made, but since I’ve always considered recreational long-distance running to be a socialized form of masochism, it was a shock. Completing his ensemble were garish, fluorescent, proper running shoes. This, I deduced, did not bode well. Running shoes are, I have since learned, never a good thing to see on the feet of someone in a position of authority. Such people have a distressing tendency to assume – erroneously – that running for extended periods upon hard surfaces is both beneficial and fun. They seem unable to understand any other perspective; for example, that running on concrete is, in principle, a very silly idea.
The most striking aspect of Tendril’s appearance was the alarming exposure of the man’s skin. From the neck up – in uniform at least – his skin tone, although suspiciously orangey, had not seemed so noticeable, but now with much more of him exposed to the atmosphere, it was evident that he had at some time in the not-too-distant past been deep-fried. Not only that; he had been left in the hot oil for way too long. A disturbing Trumpy-orange all over, his skin had the texture of an over-cooked Christmas turkey (without the bacon strips, and let’s not even think about the whole stuffing thing) fresh from the oven. The effect was enhanced by thin, stringy arms which looked exactly like shrivelled chicken wings.
With little further warning, we were then introduced to the delights of one of Tendril’s favourite pastimes. No, I do not mean rubbing himself against his glossy boots in an unholy way. This was far more indecent: the cross-country run. Since the grim expanse of Crumpton is almost exactly in the middle of beautiful, rural Crumbleshire, finding some ‘country’ to run ‘across’ in an island of industrialisation presented a slight problem. Green space in this thoroughly dodgy landscape consisted mainly of school football pitches or municipal parks, both of which, it would turn out, were liberally covered in broken glass or ripped-up porn magazine pages and an enormous variety (size, consistency, colour) of dog crap. On reflection, this was probably the most colourful thing about the place.
In order to reach any genuine countryside, we were obliged to find our way – by a ridiculously complicated route – through scruffy residential and industrial streets and out of town on unyielding paved footpaths. The footpaths also presented an obstacle course of canine waste, broken glass and worst of all, grumpy, unmoving Crumptonians. Most of them were utterly absorbed in the town’s favourite pastime of standing still and hating everything. After what seemed like a ridiculous distance/length of time, a relatively healthy-looking tree hove into view. This was slowly followed by a farmer’s field – identified by being a large, mostly green and flat space with no obvious buildings or abandoned cars and dotted with unhappy-looking sheep. It felt as if a curtain had been pulled aside to allow us to see the real world once again. It was inspiring and depressing at the same time.
Already desperate for oxygen by this point, I was appalled when the distant head of the column promptly turned around and ran away from England’s green fields and past me in the opposite direction. We were, then, only halfway through the torture. At least, I thought as I dragged my carcass back through those miserable streets past the same immobile, hateful Crumptonians, we were breathing more noxious traffic fumes than was humanly possible, and my suffering would therefore soon be at an end. Two things were clear: firstly, I wasn’t nearly as fit as I had thought I was. Secondly, the deep-fried Tendril was extremely fit. I initially wondered how he did it at his advanced age – and almost worked myself into respecting him for it – but with the passage of only a few days, it would become apparent that apart from the first few days with us, he had very little else to occupy his time except to keep himself fit. It was, I thought, a nice job if you could get it.
Mark and I brought up the rear of the group, just about keeping Alan in sight just to avoid getting lost. I was at that time reasonably well-conditioned (I thought) but it was extremely uncomfortable to run on hard pavement, and as a result, I was suffering from a lot of pain in my lower back. There may have been a little bit of feeble whimpering, folks. Mark also hated running on the streets and was suffering his own woes. Despite his denials, I was sure that his main problem was the drag from his outstanding ears. Such was the effect of the huge amounts of air colliding with his flappers, the poor lad was forced to resort to running bent at almost ninety degrees to present a more aerodynamically efficient profile to the atmosphere. He balanced this with the very real danger of taking off, hang glider-style. If I’d had the breath to make fun of him, I would have.
All I wanted to do was stop. I needed, as a matter of urgency, some relief from the pain in my kidney area, but a combination of pride, fear of the consequences and a total lack of knowledge about where I was, prevented me from doing so. It would, after all, have been a little embarrassing, as a prospective police officer, to have to ask for directions back to the FTC. There was also the prospect – slender but enough to frighten me – of being kidnapped and having my DNA harvested should I end up wandering those mirthless streets alone…All they would have found of me was an empty skin. In addition, being male also meant that to admit to being lost would go against millennia of genetic encoding which prevented me from ever acknowledging that I had even slightly lost my sense of direction. The immediate choice facing me, therefore, was to keep going, or else die a lonely death filled with shame. I preferred the former option.
After approximately half a lifetime of keeping one another moving and a rather desperate and disturbingly ugly version of a sprint finish when I made a poorly judged bid to not finish last, Mark and I arrived back at the front doors of the training centre in a tangle of limbs and a state of near collapse. There, our instructor stood, barely out of breath and with our colleagues in varying degrees of respiratory distress alongside him. Recognising our supreme effort and sacrifice, the kindly Tendril granted us a whole fifteen-minute break to shower and dress in our new uniforms, thence to reappear in class once again. Arse.