Jasper stood on the edge of the muddy playing field. The other boys had streaked off ahead, their red shirts scattering like wildfire across the pitch. He couldn’t hope to catch up, and even if he could they wouldn’t want him to.
It had always been like this. From his very first day at Thorpe Elementary School for Boys, Jasper had stood out as being different. In truth he could see why. The other boys were slim and lean, whereas he was blubbery as a whale. He did try to eat less, to look more normal, but his mum would dish up a second helping and reassure him he was ‘just big boned,’ and his dad would tell him ‘real men’ didn’t ‘eat like sparrows.’
It was starting to rain now, little spots which Jasper first mistook for midges tapping at his skin, but which soon became fat splodges that splashed onto his forehead and plopped down onto his cheeks. He trudged over to the kit bag, pulled out the shin pads and began the painstaking process of attaching them to his chubby legs. He was half way through when he heard a shout.
“Wait!” It was Mister Johnston, the PE teacher. “Not today Barnes, I’m putting you up front.”
Jasper’s mouth fell open and he dropped the shin pad he was holding in his hand onto the soggy ground.
“Williams can go in goal today,” Mister Johnston continued, unperturbed.
A ripple of dissent ran through the boys on the pitch.
“But Sir,” Brian Williams went to protest, but Mister Johnston held his hand up in a way that told him this was not up for negotiation. He pointed to the goal, and Brian scowled as he took his allotted place.
Jasper removed the shin pad from his left leg, his mind racing. This was unusual. He always played goalkeeper. It was just the natural order of things – put the fat kid in the goal, he can’t run far or fast enough to be a striker. He’d always just accepted it. Why was he being given this chance?
As he passed Mister Johnston the teacher gave him a conspiratorial wink.
Half an hour later the game was drawing to a close. Jasper, who had tried to grasp the opportunity that had presented itself with both hands, had been thwarted by his lack of stamina and inexperience in any position other than the one to which he was accustomed. He stood at the side of the pitch, bent double and wheezing. He was cold and dirty. Mud clung to his legs with the kind of hope he’d clung to as he’d started out thirty minutes previously. But all was lost.
Suddenly, the ball was coming towards him at speed. Jasper looked around him. He was by far the nearest person to it. He looked towards the goal at the far end of the pitch and did a calculation. If he started running now he might just make it.
So he ran, as if his life depended on it. He ran until he had gone past all the other boys and all that stood between him and the goal was Phil Bardsley, the opposing team’s keeper. Phil’s silver braces flashed in warning as Jasper pulled his leg back and delivered an almighty kick to the ball. But there was nothing that could stop the ball in its trajectory to the back of the net.
And from this moment onwards, Jasper had the strangest feeling that there would be nothing stopping him.