Image By Pixabay

Footsteps funnelled in through the paint-peeled gates of Burlington Danes as they did on any other Monday to Friday; the cloud-stained skies bearing their usual pattern above the West London skyline, the horde of lags and louts sporting their prison issue tracksuits creating a cloud of their own, raining terror near the school as it sat in the shadow of Wormwood Scrubs.

Yet this day was a Saturday, and the funnelled footsteps were not those of the Academy’s usual 11-18 year old population, much rather those of the year 9 boys’ football team, destination – the Canteen.

The usual aromas of cheese-drenched pepperoni pizza and warm Victoria sponge drizzled in vanilla custard were absent as the young squad entered the space; in their place were whiffs of domestic bleach and the scent of freshly cleaned metal appliances. At the centre of the maze which served as the hall’s tables and chairs sat a figure all too familiar to the troop – his feet were laced in classic Asics all-purpose trainers, the type that seem to be of standard-issue for England’s middle-aged teachers; royal blue tracksuit bottoms, each leg featuring three white stripes, waist to ankle length down the side; the crimson Welsh national team jersey, sitting firm on his torso as he greeted the batch as they entered.

Mr Berry had always maintained a close relationship with the students, his fellow love for all things banter and ball helped him to stand out as a sympathetic figure among the teachers, and if that didn’t do the job, his bald head – accompanied with a thick crackled scar crosswise across his scalp, made certain he stood out regardless.

The Welshman was affectionately referred to as ‘Mr B’ – the students would let you know themselves that it stood for the obvious, or ‘Bald’ as some would cheekily proclaim, but Berry himself would swear that it stood for ‘Brazilian’ – in honour of his (not so) Samba-esque skills on the football field. In truth, he was employed as a member of the Science department rather than the Physical Education his outfit suggested, and had wound up as the Coach on the back of every other member of staff profusely rejecting the positon; “Far too rowdy”, “Year 9 boys fail to follow instructions”, “Their behaviour does not warrant the opportunity of extra-curricular activities” – these were just some of the excuses provided when a simple “no” just didn’t suffice.

“Now lads, as you all well know, I’ve gone through a lot of trouble and arm-bending in order to secure this trip for us, so I ask you all to be on your best behaviour, represent the Academy and your mothers and fathers. But most importantly, enjoy it yeah. It’s not every day you get to spend term time in Swansea!” chuckled Berry as he stood and straightened himself out. “And for those of you who are not familiar with this face right here, this is Mr Preston – 9B’s advisor who will be joining us on a trip to my motherland”. The tips of the Science teacher’s fingers met the figure on the rather large side of life. If Mr Berry’s bald head were representative of a hard-boiled egg, then Mr Preston’s would be the softest egg, the type of egg your gran would crack the top off of and let you dip strips of warm buttered toast into.

If Mr Berry’s pale scalp made him look as tough as nails (well girls do love a guy who can pull off the ‘bad boy’ look), the gleaming crown of Mr Preston was as soft as the tomatoes stored in the kitchen behind them, with a maroon tone, highlighted by the strands of silver hair that looped his head. Bar the omission of a tie, you would have been forgiven for thinking the Lancashire native were on his way to a high-street office rather than a school trip. A loose-fit cream shirt filled the few spaces that remained between his gut and the waistband of his khaki corduroy jeans, low and behold a pair of all-purpose Asics trainers laced firmly around his feet.

The sharp beep of a horn broke the focus of the troop, and a beeline was made for the bus and its coveted back row of seats – a feat many realised was out of reach as they bustled aboard. An array of snacks began to present themselves from within the boys’ bags as the bus made progress along the M4 – multi-packs of Mars bars, Walkers Crisps, Orange Lucozade, even miniature chocolate cakes were thrown and tossed in the name of trade, the boisterous banter you’d expect was in full swing, the chuckles and bursts of laughter quelled only by the resulting fatigue of a sugar-rush during a 193.2 mile trip.

Those who managed not to succumb to the sweet lure of sleep were either lost in their own world (earphones in and eyes out gazing out at the Great British towns and cities of Slough, Reading and Bristol to name but a few), or had their faces buried in one of the various portable games consoles popular amongst the youth when traveling, only stirring to slap those who had managed to drift off into their dreams.

The constant clicking of ‘X’, ‘O’ or any other shape and letter assigned by Nintendo and Sony filled the void of noise when 70mph of rubber on tarmac didn’t do so. Only the crossing into Newport – and thus leaving the court of the Queen for the land of the sheep – stirred the spirits of the bus and its occupants once more to a bustle of merry men. In the shadow of the Millennium Stadium, the topic of football didn’t take long to fester amongst the company, “Sir, I swear that’s where they held the FA Cup when Wembley was being fixed?” could be heard from the back row as the bus journeyed on into the Welsh sun. “Aye boy it is! Now put your backside back into that seat or this’ll be the last time you get to see that beautiful stadium!” Berry volleyed back, prompting a chorus of “Ohhhhhhh” and laughter ringing about the bus; the chins of Mr Preston bounced in humorous applause for his fellow teacher.

What felt like way over four hours had elapsed as Burlington Danes Academy’s representatives stretched their legs. The Marriott Hotel lay waiting their arrival just a few feet away, seagulls squawked and circled above the Marina as Mr Berry made haste for the hotel entrance. Who knew the air could be so fresh outside of London’s blanket of pollution? Clusters of no more than three or four boys formed in preparation for the return of Mr Berry, the race for the bus’s back row was one thing, but here and now before them stood the task of delegating the sleeping arrangements. Flash glances and grinning nods of acknowledgment were shared between the players as their Welsh teacher loped back down the five steps at the hotel entrance. A handful of white room card-keys, each inside an A5 piece of card, were grasped in Berry’s left hand; a bar menu half-read in his right hand.

“Now boys, the receptionist has let me know that the rooms aren’t going to be ready for a couple of hours, so we’re gonna put our bags and what not back on the bus, chill out a bit in the bar, let your mothers know you got here in one piece, do whatever you like, just no pissing about alright? And no trying to buy a beer when our backs are turned either!” he smiled, eyes firmly fixed on the two white players at the front of the group.

The automatic doors at the entrance opened to reveal a sight uncommon to the young members of the troop: a cream marbled floor spread out into all four corners of the reception area, a chandelier hung from above, and each opening of the automatic doors invited a gust of Welsh wind in to dance with the light and let its crystals clink and clank for a few moments.

All followed Berry and Preston through the set of doors to their left, where the marbled flooring beneath their soles altered into a patterned carpet awash with blue, green and red, the type you’d expect to find in a classic East End pub, minus the black veil of nicotine accustomed to stain such places. Multiple screens, identical in make yet varied in size hung mounted from the walls, with a 50” Toshiba screen hogging the limelight on the largest wall. Nigeria’s emerald Super Eagles were already one down against Maradona-managed Argentina, the forward line led by none other than Lionel Messi – the man regarded as his manager’s heir to the footballing throne. Only 11 minutes had lapsed during the first-half, but already those of Nigerian origin amongst the Academy’s students began to voice their distress at the sight.

“Come on man, Nigeria can’t be making us look bad like this, sir you know they should have picked me to go the World Cup init?!” joked the tallest of the students, his melanin cloaked arm nudging into Preston’s bulging stomach in search of a reply, which came in the form of groans from within the teacher’s torso.

“I think that’s a no from my stomach there,” the Lancashire-man quipped back, even getting a laugh out of an over-listening barmaid as she placed a pint of freshly pulled Carlsberg in front of a guest.

***

The match had long since come to an end, its result the same after 90 minutes as it was after 11. The scarce plug sockets the boys had managed to find to charge life into their various devices were occupied. Those unfortunate enough to be unable to prevent the loss of life to said devices were half asleep on the sofas, boredom being the reason for this slumber where fatigue held no place. Confirmation that the rooms were awaiting their arrival had reached the two teachers, their booming voices signalling the boys to rise with their belongings. The few moans and groans of shifting out of comfort were quickly quashed by a beady-eyed stare down from Mr Berry. Key-cards ranging from Rooms 107-110 were placed in each student’s palms as they passed him by. No more than a quarter of an hour had passed before eight loud knocks rang aloud along the hotel’s first floor, two knocks for each door from 107-110. Each opening of a door met with the instruction to meet outside the hotel’s entrance in five minutes.

“Those who aren’t there in five will stay here and miss the game tomorrow!” signed off the Welshman each time a door opened.

Outside the Marriott’s décor, the crisp freshness of Swansea’s air struck the Londoners’ nostrils once more, a deep inhalation of this new lease of life was treasured as each member made their way back onto the trusted bus, a mutual agreement of ‘the same seats’ put into place to quell any disruptions to the journey.

“Sir where are we going?” was a question frequently asked over the next third of an hour, a question which received no answer other than “Wait and see” from Berry. As we coasted along the Swansea scene, the free-roaming cows made a nice visual change from the rumbling red buses back home; the further the troop travelled from the city’s civilization, the more pristine the air became.

Each inhalation and exhalation made us appreciate the last one a little more. A cloud of dust gathered as the bus slowed to a halt, its jolted stop returning many of the passengers back to reality from the worlds to which their minds drifted. Nothing notable could be seen as far as the eye could see. The squawking of a buzzard above in the mesh of trees rang loud, as if it were letting the Gower know it had guests.

Mr Preston’s pink fleshy palm wiped the streaks of sweat that had formed on his forehead, his laced up Asics making haste for a mossy sign, bearing the letters ‘P-W-L-L D-U B-A-Y’. Berry chuffed in amusement as his fellow comrade and class rattled their brains in an attempt to make sense of the letters. Even his offer of £10 for anyone to pronounce or translate the term couldn’t spark any bilingual skills amongst them. ’”What, like the team that plays in the Prem sir?” was the instinctive reply from the football-mad troop as the Welshman revealed its translation to be ‘Black pool Bay’.

A slight opening appeared through the towering trees towards which the group went, the ever-narrowing path prompting Berry and the boys to adopt an almost military single-file formation. Those few flecks of the sun’s rays which managed to filter through the mile-high leaves danced atop the scalps of Berry and Preston, the latter rounding off the group’s trail through the Gower’s growth with his disgruntled breathing. An arm outstretched to a shoulder served as each man’s map and compass, each buckle of trainer under tree-root, caused at the human-chain’s front, toppled through to its end as if they were dominoes. Mr Preston’s gut and girth maintained the group’s course any moment when it seemed they would succumb to the slender route.

The Gower’s presence grew trenchant as they neared a clearing a mere hundred metres ahead, its summit conjoined by a concurrent path either flank of Berry and the boys. The feathered hazel and caramel concoction of the buzzard’s breast soaring though the tree-tops was a sight of wonder the whole length of the party trail. As the sun’s rare rays increased with each progressive step, the Burlington Danes outfit drew charge from this light. As they piled out from the Gower’s wardrobe of trees, the frosted blanket of Narnia each man’s childhood self half-expected to step out into did not appear, but the muddy tri-path of Pwll Du Bay gave way beneath their soles to a sandy bed of shells and stones, the miniscule bumps beneath them unable to sway their focus from savouring the crisp Welsh air in all its glory once more.

If C. S. Lewis’ first instalment of his famous Chronicles did not draw inspiration from this site, then most certain the second novel did – a ruined castle sat wedged in the mountain side to the far left, its spirited stature resembled that of Cair Paravel, the pebble-ridden sands spanned the entirety of their view right the way over, its golden palette soaked by the waves as they washed up ashore. In those few emergent moments, it was as if you could hear everything yet nothing at the same time – wave after wave of fresh salt pinched at the noses as the waters dressed the rocky shore. It was clear to see why the area was regarded as Britain’s first ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’!

“Last one with their feet in that water there is gonna give me 50 press-ups… GO!” Berry broke the natural silence, his challenge met with the frantic clatter of bags plummeting to the floor, shoe laces half undone in anticipation, the murky waters pointed out by the Welshman sat propped in the middle of the beach, its onyx liquid giving insight into its native translation.

As the youths made haste, their guardians stood on, their bowels stirred with the humorous attempts to run whilst removing your trainers, a feat proven all but impossible judging from the tumbles taken, “Do you know what Andrew, I have to give it to you sir, you really pulled this one out the bag for the boys, it might not have been the Holland/Belgium tour we had hoped for, but just look at the smiles on their faces, they won’t ever forget coming here… and neither will I. Thank you”.

Preston’s endearment was a statement of truth worth his weight in gold, for nearly a decade on, the visit to the ‘land of sheep’ still burns bright within the hearts and minds of Berry’s boys.

 

 

 

Leshae Reid-Clementson

Leshae Reid-Clementson

Flying the flag for the West side of the Thames, Leshae is always impressed by the South Bank and its surrounding vibrancy and eye-catching landmarks. An avid fan of Greek mythology and non-fiction, the works of Ben Kane and Anton Gill spring to mind when thinking of authorial influences, with a career in the world’s ever-growing media or teaching profession the long-term goal for the born and bred Londoner. After making Mum proud of gaining a degree, of course.