THE TOUGH OF THE TRACK
episode (first series) taken from The Rover No. 1244 -
Meet Alf Tupper, the outcast of the running track.
His bitter struggle from the backstreets to the forefront of British athletics will grip you as no other story has ever done!
THE FIGHT IN THE FOUR-FORTY
When the runners in the 440 Yards were called for at the Greystone Harriers’ sports, Alf Tupper pulled off his ragged jacket, tossed it on to the ground and trotted to the starting line. “Hullo,” he said to Vic Mason, the Harriers’ best quarter-miler. Mason’s nod was curt. No fashion-plate athlete was Alf. He would never have been chosen to carry the Flame at the Olympic Games. His hair wanted cutting and he was wearing an old under-vest as a singlet. His hands were blackened and hard as a result of his job in Ike Smith’s two-man welding shop under a railway arch in the town.
Mr Jack Pearce, the Starter, loaded his pistol. It was just an evening meeting and only members of the Harriers were competing. Alf, who was nearly nineteen, had been a member for about three weeks. It had taken him the best part of the winter to scrape together the half-guinea subscription, for he was apprenticed to Ike Smith and his wages only came to twenty-five shillings a week. Of this sum, a big cut went to his Aunt Meg with whom he stayed down Anchor Alley.
“On your marks!” Pearce shouted. Alf dug himself a starting hole. He was next to Mason, and three other runners were outside him on the rather rough cinder track. Alf put his left foot behind the line and knelt on his right knee. He looked clumsy compared with the taller, well-balanced Mason. At school, one of the teachers had been a pretty good coach and his advice about running had been the only lesson that Alf had remembered.
The Starter raised the gun. “Get set!” he shouted. Mason sprang away and an instant later the pistol banged. A shout broke from Alf, but the Starter did not call a false start. “You ain’t getting away with that, Mason!” yelled Alf, and put his foot between Mason’s striding legs. Mason stumbled and crashed to the cinders. Officials shouted and ran towards the scene. With fury on his face, Mason scrambled up. “You dirty dog!” he shouted. “You’re the dirty dog!” snarled Alf. “You jumped the blooming gun!” Mason swung at him. Alf ducked and then smashed his fist against the other runner’s nose. Bob Richards, the honorary secretary, grabbed Alf’s arm and pulled him back. “None of that!” he snapped angrily. Alf pointed at the Starter. “He’s a bald-headed, old twister,” he growled. “He knew it was a false start, but he never fetched Mason back.” Mr Ken Roberts, an old runner and now the chairman of the club, hurried to the spot. “Get off the track, Tupper!” he rapped out. “Get off! You’re out of the race.” “Yes, and I can tell you that your behaviour will be considered by the Committee,” added Richards, curtly. Alf looked at the Starter and muttered something out of the corner of his mouth as he walked off the track. Mason, surrounded by sympathetic officials, wiped a smear of blood from his nose and said he was ready to go. Alf stood sullenly as the Starter told the four runners to get on their marks. “Get set!”
At the bang of the pistol, Mason and the other runners burst away from the line. Shouts broke out from the indignant officials as Alf, on the grass on the outer edge of the track, went into his stride and started as well. “What’s his idea?” exclaimed Roberts. “Silly fool!” There were jeers as well as indignant remarks for, outside there, Alf had at least twenty yards further to run than Mason on the inside of the track. With Alf plugging along on his own, Mason cut away from the other competitors. With an easy, balanced stride, his arms moving smoothly, he padded along. Alf looked hunched, for he ducked his head down as if he had to butt his way along and his arm movements were jerky. At halfway, Mason had a five-yards lead on the next man—but Alf was level with him on the outside. The Harriers’ crack runner sped on. Alf was not shaken off. He plugged along and he was still there, thirty yards from the tape. Mason cut loose and spurted. He worked up his finishing dash and went all out for the tape. He was two strides away, when a figure swerved on to the track and carried the tape away round his chest. It was Alf round whom the tape was dangling. He turned and his lips shaped for a razzberry. This he delivered with loud effect. Then snatching up his jacket, he stamped away.
THE ATLETICS CENTRE
The din kicked up by Alf’s vehicle caused people to turn and signal him to stop. He pulled up. He had had no idea that his errand would clash with the opening ceremony of the new institution. The Mayor’s voice boomed out in his concluding words. “It is particularly gratifying,” he said, “that the Warden is to be Commander Harold Churcher who, upon his retirement from the Royal Navy, has made the future of British athletics his principal work. I do not have to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that Commander Churcher was himself a runner of note and was a member of the British team that won an Olympic Games Relay race. I am now going to ask him to tell us what his plans are for the Granton Hall Athletics Centre.”
“Gosh, Commander Churcher!”
muttered Alf. “I never knew he was coming here.” Commander Churcher, an
extremely fit-looking man of about forty, looked down at his audience from the
terrace. He was bare-headed and wearing a dark red blazer and white flannels.
“If I were to ask you why
Churcher waited for the applause to die down.
“I hope that before you go you will inspect our equipment and lay-out,” he said. “Here, again, we are striving to be a model for the country with out splendid running track and up-to-date timing equipment, our gymnasium, our baths, our massage rooms, out lecture hall, and our cinema. I would like now to introduce the members of my staff.”
Behind the Commander stood a row of men, each of whom wore a dark red blazer and badge, sweater and white flannel trousers. He introduced, amid bursts of applause, Frank Hamilton, track coach; Peter Boyd, the swimming instructor; Vince Rogers, the field sports coach; Bob Ellis, the P.T. instructor; George Whittaker, the massage and heat therapy expert; and Royce Vardon, who was in charge of the camaras, timing apparatus and other scientific equipment. Churcher then invited the visitors to split up into parties for conducted tours of the new establishment. Alf abandoned the handcart and attached himself to a group of people who had Vince Rogers as their guide.
First of all he took them into the field. The oval track, he said, was equal in quality to that which gained so many compliments at Wembley. The closely mown turf inside the oval was, he stated, good enough for championship lawn tennis. He showed them the jumping pits and then took them into the box where the timing equipment was installed. Then he took his party back across the field to the gymnasium that was fitted-up with every modern appliance. A visitor was interested in the boxing ring. The coach said that though boxing was not on the schedule, it would be used as a contribution to training. He took them on into the cinema and then into the lecture hall. He showed them the massage rooms and the heat therapy department. At the kitchen door he handed them on to Dr Bryant, the medical officer and diet expert of the establishment. When the latter started to talk about calories and vitamins, Alf ceased to be interested and slipped out to fetch the handcart and push it round to the back door.
He was just going to unload the radiator when a fellow about his own age, wearing a dark red blazer and flannel trousers, hurried across the courtyard. Alf blinked. “Howard, what are you doing here?” he exclaimed, for Howard Potter had been at the same school as Alf. “I’m on the staff,” he said. “What’s you job, cleaning out the drains?” asked Alf. “I am in the office,” retorted Howard. “Chase me, you don’t half look a sight in them togs,” growled Alf. “Who parted your hair for you?” “You’d like to be here,” Howard said indignantly. “Me?” Alf uttered a sarcastic laugh. “I wouldn’t be seen dead in them togs. I ain’t no cissy.” Turning his back on Howard Potter, Alf started to unload the radiator.
ANOTHER SCALP FOR ALF
Next morning Alf, half-asleep, heard the stairs creak under Aunt Meg’s weight. Their place in Anchor Alley had one room up and one down. His bed was a mattress on the kitchen floor. “Get up, you lazy young hound,” bawled Aunt Meg, a big brawny woman, with her hair hanging over her red, bad-tempered face. “Get up!” She padded across the dirty flagstones in her bare feet and started to poke at the ashes under the copper. She took in washing and the continuous steam in the air kept the walls running with water. Alf stood up. He rolled up the mattress and pushed it under the table. He had slept in his shirt and trousers. Now he stuck his feet in his boots, picked up a bucket and went out to fill it at the tap down the yard. He had a swill while he was out there. Then he took the bucket back into the house. Aunt Meg had made the tea. She took half a loaf and a greasy package of “marge” from a cupboard and put them on the dirty sheet of newspaper that served for a tablecloth. Alf was eating a thick piece of bread when there was a tap at the door. When he opened it, he was surprised to see the postman holding out a letter.
The letter bore the heading of the Greystone Harriers. Alf’s face was fierce as he read:-
“I am directed by the Committee to instruct you to return your membership card herewith.
Your violent behaviour was not in keeping with the standards expected of a Harrier, and your membership is hereby cancelled.
With a growl, Alf crunched up the letter and slung it into the fire. The loss of his membership meant that now he had nowhere to do his training. The Harriers were the only local athletic club. Aunt Meg scowled at her nephew. “Going to hang about here all morning?” she shouted through the thickening steam. “Get along to your work!” Alf hacked himself a slice off the loaf, spread it with margarine, and tore a strip off the “tablecloth” to wrap it up in. Then he went off to the workshop, riding the ramshackle bike he had had for years and which had been old when he got it off a rubbish heap.
There was work to do on some angle pipes for the Granton Hall heating system. He and Ike Smith finished that job in the middle of the morning and the boss told him to take them along. Alf tied the pipes to the handlebars and pedalled away to Granton Hall. Over the hedge, he saw that running and jumping was going on in the field. According to a paragraph he had seen in Ike Smith’s newspaper, twelve athletes were now staying permanently at the Hall, while another twenty had arrived on a fortnight’s course. He had just turned into the drive when the boom of loudspeakers startled him and caused him to swerve.
“Will everybody come to the cinema please,” requested the announcer. “Please assemble in the cinema.” Alf put a leg out to regain his balance and pulled up. From all directions, coaches and students were cantering towards the cinema. As he stood astride the bike in the drive, he looked towards the now deserted field and at the reddish track curving away round the closely-mown grass. Alf’s eyes flashed. “Nuts to the Harriers!” he muttered, as he leaned the bike against a tree. “Let ‘em keep their blooming cinders!” He pushed his way through the bushes lining the drive and vaulted the fence into the field. Off came his jacket and then his boots. There were so many holes in his socks that he was practically in his bare feet. He trotted on to the track and sampled the hard, true surface with a toe. Off he went round the track, warming up and taking it easily. He carried on steadily and was breathing easily when he finished the quarter-mile circuit. He did two laps of alternate jogging and sprinting. He had a breather and felt fine. Turning on to the grass, he ran towards one of the long-jump pits, worked up speed, took off and flopped down opposite the 21ft mark. The bar of the high jump frame had been left on the pegs at 5ft 10in. “I reckon I can jump that,” sniffed Alf—and then did it. A javelin had been left about. Alf picked it up. He had never had a javelin in his hand before, but that did not stop him swinging it back and having a throw. He was watching it fly away, when an angry voice rang out. Howard Potter came running towards him. “Get out of here!” he shouted. “Get out, you cheeky dog!” “Did you call me a cheeky dog?” snarled Alf. “You heard me!” said the bigger youth. “Oh!” Alf swung out with his fist and his knuckles clipped Howard’s chin. “All right, you’ve asked for it!” Potter exclaimed. “If you want a good hiding, you can have it!” Alf made a rush at Howard. He left himself wide open to anyone with any knowledge of boxing, and the punch he received cut his lip. Howard was strong. He had some skill as a boxer and was being coached by Bob Ellis. He hit Alf on the chin and sent him down on his knees. In a moment Alf was up and going for Howard again. He ran his chin into a straight left and dropped. He scrambled up. Howard darted in and again put him down. Commander Churcher ran into the field shouting. “Stop it! Stop it!” he exclaimed. Alf shook his head and got on to his feet. He had been learning. He tucked his chin behind his left shoulder and worked in close. He let out with a sudden right that walloped Howard in the mouth and he knew he had him. Howard winced and forgot his craft. Alf slung another punch and hit his opponent on the ear. When a punch followed to his nose, the other fellow had had enough and backed away, gasping out, “Stop it!” Alf stared round and had a blurred glimpse of Churcher striding towards him. He dodged away, snatched up his boots and jacket and bolted.
A SHOCK FOR CHURCHER
About a week later, Commander Churcher lectured on athletic fitness in the cinema. At the end of his talk he asked Clem Gatacre to come up to his office. Gatacre was the young athlete chosen to be the Granton Hall captain. He was tall and fair-haired and looked superbly fit. He was one of the permanent pupils at Granton as he was training to become an expert in the scientific side of athletics. “I’ve one or two things to talk about,” said the Commander. “We have been invited, by the way, to enter a team in the Town Sports, and, through it’s small stuff, I think we should stay on friendly terms with our neighbours. “Yes, sir, we don’t want to appear stand-offish,” agreed Gatacre. “After all, we—” He was interrupted by the Commander, who had glanced out of the window. “Well I’m blowed, he’s at it again!” the Commander snapped. Gatacre hurried to the window. It gave a view of the field. There, jogging round the track was a lone runner. “Go and catch him!” exclaimed the Commander. “It’s that fellow from the town again.”
Gatacre nodded and slipped out of the room. Churcher remained at the window. He watched Alf lap the track—and then saw Gatacre enter the field. The Commander saw Alf glance over his shoulder, snatch up his jacket and run towards the gate on the far side of the field. Gatacre broke into his long, flowing stride and went after him. The phone rang, and Churcher turned from the window. He was wondering how to deal with the trespasser. It seemed a trifle heavy-handed to threaten him with prosecution, but all the same he was not going to tolerate this continual trespassing. Churcher moved towards his desk and was engaged on the phone for a couple of minutes. The door opened. Gatacre, red in the face, walked in breathlessly. “Well, where is he?” snapped Churcher. Gatacre looked decidedly shamefaced. “I couldn’t catch him,” he said. “You couldn’t catch him?” gasped Churcher. “Of course, I wasn’t in running togs,” began Gatacre. “Neither was he!” retorted the Commander. “You couldn’t catch him, you said?” “He jumped the gate,” replied Gatacre. “His bike was waiting and he was off like a shot.” “Umphm, surprising!” said Churcher. “Well, next time he comes we’ll make sure he doesn’t have the chance to run away.”
THE TOWN SPORTS
On Friday night, Aunt Meg’s voice rang out angrily in the kitchen. Here eyes were fierce as she looked at the money Alf had just handed over. It was the day he got his wages. “Where’s the other half-dollar?” she demanded. “There’s only a quid here out of your twenty-five bob.” Alf shifted round to the other side of the table. “I want five bob,” he said. “I’m running in the Town Sports to-morrow, and I want to enter in the Two-Twenty Yards and the Quarter-Mile. They touch you half-a-crown a time as the entry fee.” “Bah, you hand it over, Alf Tupper!” shouted Aunt Meg. “I lets you keep half-a-crown, don’t I?” “I tell you, I want five bob!” retorted Alf. “If you don’t give it me, don’t you come in this house again!” screeched Aunt Meg. “I kept you long enough before you earned any wages, didn’t I? Come on, hand it over.” Alf pushed his hand into his pocket took out two shillings and a sixpence, and threw them down on the table. Alf shrugged. “What’s for supper?” he asked. “I’ve got nothing in,” said Aunt Meg. “You’ve got money in your pocket, ain’t you? Go and get your own supper.” Alf slouched out of the house into the shadows of Anchor Alley.
The darkness was broken by the bright light shining through one of the windows. People were dotted around there and there was the unmistakable smell of fish and chips. Alf sniffed and moved towards the doorway of the fried fish and chips shop. Bert Bivens, a chap he knew, was in the shop, and asked Mrs Spicer for six-penn’orth of chips and a piece.” Mrs Spicer dug her scoop into the gleaming container and brought it out full of golden chips. With the deftness of long practice, she slid the chips on to a piece of paper. On the top she dropped a piece of fish. Alf did not miss a detail. Bert sprinkled salt and vinegar over his chips, then walked out of the shop, and stood on the pavement to eat his supper. Alf’s hand was in his pocket and his fingers shut round his half-crown. Bert’s jaws moved busily. “Had your supper, Alf?” he asked. Alf looked hungrily at the chips in Bert’s piece of newspaper. “Not yet,” he said. “I don’t know that I want any to-night.” “Ain’t you hungry?” inquired Bert. “Maybe a bit, but I’m in training,” replied Alf. “It’s the sports to-morrow.” “Come off it, a few chips won’t spoil your wind,” said Bert. Alf opened his fingers. He let the half-crown slip back into his pocket. With a farewell nod to Bert, he shuffled off up the alley.
The secretary of the Town Sports, sitting at a trestle table in the committee tent, was busy receiving the late entries. He was an impatient sort of man and frowned when the youth who had just come in seemed to be tongue-tied. “Well, make up your mind,” he snapped. Alf hesitated. “I’m just wondering whether to go in for the Quarter-Mile or the Two-Twenty,” he muttered. “I can’t wait here all day while you decide!” exclaimed the secretary. Alf threw down his half-crown. “Make it the Quarter-Mile, mister,” he said. “Name and club?” asked the secretary. “Alf Tupper—and I don’t belong to any club,” replied Alf. The secretary scooped the half-crown into the cash box and picked up his pen to attend to the next entrant.
The big crowd gathered in the small stadium had a thrill when the Granton Hall contingent arrived. Commander Churcher was a firm believer that a smart display was good for morale. He himself led the twenty athletes who were to represent Granton Hall. Clem Gatacre carried the red and gold standard and was followed by the others, wearing their dark red blazers and white flannel trousers. Alf sniffed as he watched. “Swankers!” he growled. “What’s the sense of all that dressing-up?”
The parade turned towards the pavilion and when next the athletes appeared they were muffled up in track suits. Alf grinned again. He was used to the cold wind whistling round his legs. The starters for the 100 Yards heats were called. Howard Potter who was in attendance, dashed off to the starting line and took charge of the track suits as the Granton Hall entrants peeled them off. The running kit of the Granton men consisted of white singlets with badges and dark red borders, white shorts and dark red socks.
Somebody dropped a programme and Alf whipped it up. The information was not complete, but it did state that in the Quarter-Mile the Granton Hall representative would be Len Rayner, a former Public Schools Champion over the distance. The invitation to Granton Hall to enter men in the sports did not seem to be such a good idea when they won event after event so easily that it became monotonous. Alf’s patched jacket was off in a second when the loudspeaker called up the starters in the Quarter-Mile. Len Rayner, a dark, handsome fellow, zipped off his track suit and handed it to Howard. Vic Mason, who was running for the Harriers, stared coldly at Alf. Alf was drawn between Rayner and Mason. At the gun, Rayner was away to a streamlined start.
He snatched a narrow lead from Mason and held it in the early stages of the race. Alf lost a bit of ground in getting away. He was third at the end of sixty yards. The pace surprised Alf for it was the first time he had been in class company. He felt that he could hold it and followed Mason round. By halfway, the patter of the feet behind him was fading. Th spectators started to shout as the three runners came round close enough for a tablecloth to have covered the lot of them, but with Rayner still comfortable in the lead. Forty yards to go, Rayner quickened his stride into a spurt and went hard for the tape. Mason was out of it and dropped back. Alf took second place.
Commander Churcher, standing near the finishing line, stop-watch in hand, was calmly timing Rayner, when he saw a runner whom he recognised as the trespasser, come up level with the leader and start to fight it out with him over the last ten yards. Rayner flung himself at the tape, but Alf was up with him, and only spectators who were in a direct line with the tape were able to pick out the winner. There was a hush as the judges’ announcement was awaited. Alf, breathing fast, brushed back his tangled hair with his forearm. The loudspeaker boomed.
“The placings in the Quarter-Mile were: First—Rayner; Second—Tupper; Third—Mason,” roared the announcer.
Alf was turning away to pick up his jacket when he found Commander Churcher in front of him. “What have you done to yourself, my lad?” demanded the Commander. Alf looked down at the bloodstains spreading across his left shoe. “Aw, I spiked myself on the first bend,” he muttered. “One of my spikes came right through my shoe.” The Commander glanced at his stopwatch, and then lifted his gaze to stare after Alf with a look of bewilderment on his face. This youngster had approached record time with an injured foot! What would he have done if he’d been perfectly fit?
The Tough of the Track (1st series) 32 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1244 - 1275
The Tough of the Track (2nd series) 30 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1295 - 1324
The Tough of the Track (3rd series) 10 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1331 - 1340
The Tough of the Track (4th series) 12 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1350 - 1361
The Tough of the Track (5th series) 20 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1404 - 1423
The Tough of the Track (6th series) 22 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1434 - 1455
The Tough of the Track (7th series) 13 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1460 - 1472
The Tough of the Track (8th series) 22 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1503 - 1524
He’s in the Army Now (9th series) 31 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1543 - 1573
The Tough of the Track (10th series) 22 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1646 – 1667
© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd
Vic Whittle 2006