I always walked oddly.
Archie, with whom I walked hundreds of miles (on one trek, a hundred and ten miles in five days), used to say that it was like walking with a duck. In the time I was covering the counties of Ulster with Archie, it was easy to laugh at such comments (walking from Co Donegal to Co Down on one occasion, it would have been hard if I had not enjoyed his company).
In days at primary school, being mocked for the way I walked was not so much fun. “Jelly Feet” was the nickname used by some of the people in the class, even those who were friends. It was assumed by everyone, even by me, that I was no good at sports. Along with my ducklike way of walking, I lacked the hand/eye co-ordination required to be good in the games of cricket or rounders that filled many afternoons during the summer term.
Miss Rabbage, our teacher, used to practice inclusivity in times before the word was known. The junior sports day for the area was an occasion when she would try to ensure everyone was entered for at least one event. My race was the sack race, it being commented by classmates that my feet pointed the right way for the corners of the sack
Briefly, though, for just one summer, “jelly feet” disappeared. It was a surprise for everyone, particularly for me. Entry to the serious events, those requiring the ability to sprint or to jump long or high, was determined by competition within the school.
The junior class boys were lined up to decide which of us would be entered for the individual sprint and which of us would be chosen for the relay team. The word “go” was shouted and, head down, I seemed to run faster than I had ever done in my life. I finished second, no-one being more surprised than me. There was a conferring between the staff and it was announced that the race would be run again. I came second for a second time.
At the Langport Area Junior Sports day, I ran the third leg of the relay. I can still remember the delight of that moment. Our team did not win, but we did better than we had ever done before. There were great congratulations and a fine certificate to take home.
And I was still entered for the sack race. The red certificate for coming third in it seemed insignificant compared with the turquoise confirmation that I could sprint.