The reluctant hero and the new kid in town
Robbie White’s stomach churned as he took his place on the track at the two hundred metres start. In stark contrast to the other finalists, he wore no running shoes and the starting blocks that his shaking hands had clumsily positioned had been borrowed from his school. With legs that felt as though they had turned to jelly, he nervously awaited the starter’s call, wondering for at least the hundredth time in his career why on earth he tortured himself in this way.
“Take your marks… Set…”
As the crack of the starting pistol reverberated around the stadium, Robbie left the blocks with remarkable acceleration and precisely twenty-two seconds later he had crossed the finish line.
The stadium now thundered with the cheering and applause of an enthusiastic crowd. But the acclamation was not for Robbie - two other boys had finished ahead of him.
Feeling an immense sense of relief, Robbie shook hands with as many of his fellow competitors as were gracious enough, in victory or defeat, to do so. Then followed his usual post-race ritual: Clutching a handkerchief to his mouth he rushed off to the toilet block and spent the next fifteen minutes being violently ill.
Robbie loved running and keeping fit, but he hated competition and the pressure that the expectations of others placed upon him was sometimes more than he could bear. Back at his small country high school in Springdale his athletic ability had made him something of a celebrity. Kids he didn’t even know often said “hi” to him and treated him with a surprising degree of respect; and some of his classmates, he suspected, were actually in awe of him. How much more, he thought with little satisfaction, would this iconic status grow when he returned to school next week with a bronze medal from the National Championships?
Later that day, after the medal presentation, Robbie was approached by an official whom he knew to be a coach at one of the big sports academies in Sydney. “You’ve turned in amazing performances at this meet,” the man said. “How on earth anyone could take out a fourth in the hundred metres and a third in the two hundred metres in bare feet is beyond me. There’s a place for you at my school as a boarder any time you want it. With a bit of professional coaching you could be national under-seventeen champion next year.”
“Thanks for the offer and for taking an interest in me,” said Robbie politely, “but I’m not all that keen on competition and I would never leave my home or my current school. Besides, I don’t really have the time to spare for serious training.”
The man stared at him in disbelief and, shaking his head, said “Well, it’s your decision, son, but if I may say so, what a waste!”
Robbie didn’t think it a waste at all. He had spoken the truth: He had other interests that he regarded as far more important than sport. In fact, he was top of his year in English and History and thought it rather ironic that no one ever seemed to care about that – and it would certainly never make him popular. Then there was his music: He was currently studying for his sixth grade piano and musicianship exams. This one was such a non-starter in the popularity stakes that he had deliberately never even mentioned it at school.
The fact was that Robbie had never wanted to be an athletics hero. Despite his popularity he was very much what most people would call a ‘loner’ and had no really close friends. He took no interest in a lot of the things that many other boys his age seemed to like such as parties, sport and girlfriends, preferring to spend time with his parents on their quiet dairy farm. He did the things he liked to do and never, ever, let peer pressure influence him.
As he packed his bag in preparation for the long train journey back to Springdale and the accolades of his fellow students, Robbie reflected that life had dealt him a pretty good hand.
“I guess I’m not bad looking,” he thought modestly, examining his tall, well-proportioned body, sandy hair and blue eyes in the dressing table mirror. I’m okay at playing the piano, I’m good at schoolwork; and now I’ve got this,” he added, holding the bronze medal up to the mirror. “Just wish I had someone who understood me!”
While Robbie sat waiting for his train at Central Station on that Saturday evening in December, three hundred kilometres away in Canberra, fourteen-year-old Nathan Deane had just received the news that he would be changing schools after the summer holidays. His father, who worked in local government, had been successful in securing a post in a country town and they were to move there at the end of January.
Nathan was not sure how he felt about this upheaval in his life - a new school and a country lifestyle to adjust to, not to mention having to make new friends.
“Oh, you’ll take it in your stride,” said his grandmother, who was visiting them from Brisbane for Christmas. “You make friends easily… and I’ll bet you’ll soon be breaking all the girls’ hearts, too!” she continued, gazing fondly at her dark-haired, handsome grandson who seemed to possess more than his fair share of good qualities.
Nathan smiled indulgently at his Gran. She was probably right about making friends, but he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in girls. Well, not in the way she meant, anyway. But let her think what she liked.
“And they’ve got a very active church youth group up there,” said his father who had just returned, full of enthusiasm, from a trip to their new home in Southwell. I spoke to the minister and he said…”
Mr. Deane spent the next five minutes extolling the virtues of the Springdale District church and its younger members while Nathan listened with polite boredom. People referred to the Deanes as a ‘religious’ family: They attended church every Sunday and Mr. and Mrs. Deane were heavily involved in parish affairs. Nathan, on the other hand, had been forced from an early age to join in various church youth activities, for which he had developed a distinct dislike. It wasn’t so much what the youth group did that he objected to, but the fact that they were kids who he didn’t particularly like and certainly didn’t want to spend time with.
“I don’t really think I’ll want to join the youth group,” he said quietly, but firmly. “I’d rather just make friends at school and…”
“Not join the youth group!” his father repeated incredulously. “What nonsense! You’ll have a wonderful time with them.”
“But I don’t want…”
“I think, Nathan, you will do as you’re told,” said Mr. Deane with an edge to his voice. And that was the end of the matter.
“Why can’t people just let me be myself?” Nathan thought angrily. “This move may not be such a bad thing after all. I’ll be fifteen in a couple of months and that’s old enough for me to start making my own decisions. There’s going to be some big changes in my life when I leave Canberra.
It wasn’t that Nathan was a rebellious boy - quite the opposite. He loved and respected his parents. But he was growing up and starting to question many things that he had previously taken for granted. His parents would, for example, have been horrified to learn that he had recently rejected many of the teachings of the church. He was also dissatisfied with his personal relationships. His quick wit, sharp intelligence and ability to excel at practically anything he turned his hand to had always ensured that he was never short of friends; but he now saw these friendships as rather shallow and superficial.
“I don’t have any friends I can really relate to,” he mused. “There’s not one of them that I can share my thoughts and interests with. But maybe that will change when I start at Springdale High…”
It was early February, the third week of first term, and Robbie White was already fed up with the behaviour of some of the kids on the school bus.
Robbie lived on a dairy farm about fifteen kilometres from Springdale. The nearest bus stop was five kilometres away and he had to ride his bike that distance to catch it. He and a dozen or so other boys and girls from the surrounding farms were the first on the bus and so had the pick of the seats. By the time they reached Southwell, three kilometres down the road, several more farm children had boarded and most seats had a single occupant.
It was, however, the Southwell kids that annoyed Robbie. There were about thirty of them and well before the bus had stopped they would rush at the door, grabbing at the hand rail, trying to be first onboard and get the best seats.
This was a very dangerous practice and the bus driver was forever warning them not to do it. It was all so pointless, anyway, because the driver never opened the door until the bus was completely stationary. Last year, a local police officer had lectured them sternly about it. This had had some immediate effect but within a few days his warnings were forgotten. The thing was, there were no older students there to supervise them. All of the Year 11 and 12 students from Southwell drove cars to school or else got lifts with their mates. And all three Year 10-ers from Southwell were as stupid as the younger kids.
Robbie felt very sorry for the driver who had no way of controlling the situation and who, of course, would be blamed if some idiot fell under the wheels or slipped while the bus was still moving.
This Monday was no different and Robbie sighed as he watched the seething mass of bodies and backpacks in the doorway. Was it really that important to be ahead of everyone else?
As the jam cleared Robbie noticed, standing quietly at the end of the line, a boy of about his own age whom he had never seen before. The boy mounted the steps, smiled and said “hi” to the harassed-looking driver and sat down next to Robbie. “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” he said incredulously.
“Happens every morning,” said Robbie grimly. “One day someone’s going to get hurt.”
“Anyway, I’m Nathan,” said the boy offering his hand.
Robbie shook it firmly. “Robbie White,” he said. “I haven’t seen you at school before.”
“Only starting today,” Nathan replied. “We’ve just moved here from Canberra – a bit later than we expected.”
Robbie felt a strong and immediate attraction to this handsome, friendly, confident boy and it was not long before they were chatting as though they had known each other all their lives.
During the half hour trip to school Nathan learned a great deal about what to expect at Springdale High, while Robbie learned that Nathan would be in Year 9 – a great disappointment as he had hoped they would be in the same class, that he was an only child, his father worked as a clerk, his favourite subject was English, he had a racing bike that he enjoyed riding and he liked reading all kinds of books.
Nathan had been told to report to the main office first thing. So, as soon as they got off the bus, Robbie took him there and introduced him to Mrs. MacGregor, the receptionist. He then had to leave him as it was nearly time for the bell.
“Well, good luck,” Robbie said as they parted and then added, rather shyly, “I usually finish a bit early on Mondays. I’ll save you a seat on the bus if you like.”
“Great,” Nathan grinned, “see you then. That’s if I manage to survive the rest of the day.”
Mrs. MacGregor smiled. “He’s a lovely boy that Robbie White,” she said. “You could do a lot worse than have him for a friend.”
Nathan smiled and nodded – he already knew she was right.
As he waited outside the office while his enrolment was being finalised, Nathan’s eyes strayed over the honour rolls that adorned the walls and on the athletics champions’ board, he saw the name Robbie White listed for the past three years. He had no time to digest this information as Mrs. MacGregor reappeared and whisked him off to the 9A classroom where he was introduced to Mr. Simmonds, the English teacher, and the students. His first class at Springdale High had begun...
That afternoon, 10A had PE last period and their teacher, Mr. Brinkwell, always made them run two laps of the oval at the end of the lesson. Robbie knew that if he ran as fast as he could, he could be changed and on the bus before the rest of the school came out.
“Hey Robbie, what’s the hurry,” yelled at Sam Jackson as he sped away from the leading group of boys, “you’re not in a race now, you know!”
“Just want to get out of the changing-room before you take your sneakers off, Sam,” Robbie shouted over his shoulder.
The other boys in the group laughed. “Yeah, good thinking, Rob,” said one, “wish I could run as fast as you!”
Nathan was quite late getting on the bus as he had had to pick up some paperwork from the office to take home for his parents to sign. But Robbie had planted his backpack firmly on the seat next to him and did not remove it until Nathan climbed aboard – despite the fact that a couple of younger boys were standing. “Thanks heaps,” said Nathan as he eased himself into the seat.
“No prob,” Robbie said. “Maybe one of us could do this every day.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” Nathan replied. “I’d be honoured to save a seat for the school athletics champion.”
Robbie blushed. “How did you know about that?”
“How come you didn’t mention it this morning?” Nathan retorted.
“Well, thing is,” said Robbie, “I don’t enjoy it all that much, really. I’m hopeless at any other sport, so I suppose I should be glad that I can run pretty fast. But it’s not a thing you can be really proud of – not like if you were dux of the school or something like that.”
Nathan was not sure how to respond to this. He had never met anyone quite so unassuming as Robbie before.
“Anyway,” Robbie continued, before he could say anything, “I’ll bet you’re good at sport. What did you do at your old school?”
“Oh, not a lot, really,” Nathan replied modestly. “Usually swimming in summer and soccer in winter. I played soccer on Saturdays for a while, but I’m not that keen on team sports and some people take it all just a bit too seriously for my liking. It’s good to keep fit, though.”
“Yeah, that’s one thing about athletics: keeps you fit and at least you aren’t getting injured all the time.”
“Can you do athletics as a sport at Springdale, then?” Nathan asked.
“Yep, both summer and winter,” said Robbie. “They introduced it a couple of years ago when a few of us made it through to the state championships. Did me a big favour: before that I had to take cricket and basketball and I was pathetic at both of them. I used to dread Wednesday afternoons.”
“I wouldn’t mind having a go at athletics myself,” Nathan said. “We didn’t have it at my old school… Swimming’s all right but it can get a bit boring if you’re not a top swimmer. I’m supposed to see someone called Mr. Brinkwell about sport tomorrow.”
“Yeah, he’s the sports master and he’s okay,” Robbie said. “It would be great if you did athletics,” he added enthusiastically, thinking that any opportunity to spend more time with his new acquaintance could only be a good thing. Strangely enough, Nathan’s thoughts were in precisely the same direction.
By the time the bus reached Southwell, the basis of a firm friendship had been established. As a mass of thirty bodies rudely pushed and shoved their way through the door in an almost direct repetition of the morning’s debacle, Nathan quietly stood up and, smiling at Robbie as he hitched on his backpack, said, “Thanks heaps for everything: see you tomorrow.” As he stepped off the bus he also thanked the driver, who looked totally bewildered. No Southwell kid had ever spoken politely to him before, much less thanked him. It would not be long before people were describing Nathan Deane as a ‘lovely boy', too.
It was Friday afternoon. Robbie and Nathan were now best friends and spent as much time together as they possibly could. But it wasn’t easy: they were in different classes and really only saw each other on the bus and for about half an hour during lunchtime when they could find a quiet corner in the library.
Robbie was a great help to Nathan who, with someone to show him the ropes, settled into life at Springdale High remarkably quickly. On Tuesday he had been to see Mr. Brinkwell, who was delighted to sign him up for the athletics squad. Not as delighted as Robbie was, though.
So, as the week sped by, they discovered more and more about each other and the more they discovered, the stronger their friendship became. For Nathan, Robbie could do no wrong and Robbie admired everything about Nathan so much that he almost worshipped the ground he walked on.
On Wednesday afternoon they had done athletics together and, although Nathan was not in Robbie’s league, Mr. Woods, the coach, could see that here was a boy who would be an asset to any sporting team.
Nathan really enjoyed himself as he found Mr. Woods’s approach very informal and aimed far more at keeping fit and healthy than trying to produce champions. He could see that quite apart from any benefits to his own fitness, it was an opportunity to spend more time with Robbie and maybe even help him to train.
By Thursday, Robbie was finding it difficult to imagine what his world would be like without Nathan. As they sat together on the bus he said rather shyly “Would you like to come to my place over the weekend?” To his delight Nathan replied unhesitatingly, “That would be fantastic.” But then he added, “But, I’m really sorry, we’re visiting my grandmother in Brisbane this weekend. Can we make it next weekend instead?”
Robbie was disappointed and excited at the same time. “No problem,” he said, “I’ll really look forward to it.”
And so it was that the following afternoon, these two boys who, less than a week ago, had never so much as met, parted sadly when the school bus pulled into Southwell.
“Wish I didn’t have to go to Brisbane,” Nathan lamented as he picked up his backpack.
“Well, I’ll bet your Gran will be pleased,” Robbie said. “Have a safe trip and I’ll see you on Monday.”
And then Nathan was gone and the bus moved on.