When I moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, aged nineteen, I thought I was an adult. I had financial independence. I had moved out of home. I owned a 1981 Toyota Starlet. My life bore all the markers of adulthood. I believed I was an adult. I was wrong.
My first day in the city was a cold, bright Sunday in September. I woke up with a shameful headache. My bare-walled student room was full of boxes. I decided to get some air.
Outside, the streets were quiet enough to hear a strange commotion drifting from the motorway over the houses. The clanking of metal, the high-pitched tone of vehicles reversing, the tinny sound of vocals - one two, one two - through a public address system.
I walked along Castle Leazes moor and up onto the pedestrian bridge to investigate. The motorway was closed and lined with metal barriers. TV trucks with satellite dishes were being parked in front of an enormous timing board while marshalls in yellow jackets rushed about. A stage was being constructed and across it hung a huge banner:
THE GREAT NORTH RUN.
I stood on the bridge and watched the runners slowly assemble at the start line. The Great North Run is the largest half marathon in the world. I used to watch it on television. As a child, I was a promising long-distance runner. I thought back to that time as I looked at the athletes, they looked so self-assured and intent. They were not all going to win. But they carried themselves with the confidence of people who knew what they had to do. The confidence of adults. I could run that race, I thought. I walked home, smoked a joint, and went back to bed.
That afternoon, I found a pair of old trainers and a black t-shirt in one of the boxes in my room. The t-shirt’s print depicted a snake slithering through a skull’s hollow eye socket. Not exactly standard Olympic kit, but a start. Further inspection revealed that I did not own a pair of shorts. I was one garment away from becoming the best possible version of myself.
The first sports shop I found in the city centre was cavernous and disorientating. The circular racks were loaded with clothes designed for purposes unknown. No-one knows you here, I reassured myself. You could become anyone. Calming my nerves, I navigated to the running section and grabbed the first pair of shorts I saw. The label said MEDIUM, a size even I could understand. They were grey and inoffensive enough.
I despise trying on clothes in shops. Locating the changing rooms is a nightmare. On the way, you inevitably encounter a shop assistant who tries to help but only confuses you further. Inside the dank, windowless cubicle, you try to forget that you are, essentially, getting undressed in public. You attempt to take some of your clothes off, but not too many. All the while you look for somewhere other than the floor to stash your wallet so it can’t be stolen while you are outside in ill-fitting clothes, loathing yourself in the mirror, parading around the shop in front of smirking teenagers. Fuck that, I thought. I went directly to the cashier’s desk.
A shop assistant stood at the till. He wore a replica England kit and sported a budget version of the mohawk hairstyle popularised by footballer David Beckham, but on a head entirely too small for his body. His badge said Trainee Manager. He looked twelve years old.
Budget Beckham took the garment from me, scanned it, and nodded at the price on the cash register. I handed over a ten pound note and he stuffed the shorts into a blue plastic bag.
“There’s your change,” he said, cheerfully. “The receipt is in the bag.”
“Can I bring them back if they’re not the right size?”
“Afraid not. You’ll have to keep them forever.”
“Keep them? Forever?”
“Jokes! Course you can bring them back. Just keep the receipt.” Beckham handed the plastic bag to me. “Keep them forever! Your face!”
At home, I tried the shorts on. They were too small. I could barely get my right leg in. I looked inside the plastic bag. The receipt was not there.
The Great North Run was supposed to be an outpost for my own maturity, a demonstration of the adult I wanted to be. A person of assuredness and intent, waiting calmly at the start line of life, the timing board counting down to my new future. Tomorrow was the first day of the rest of my life and it needed to begin with a run. The contents of this blue plastic bag were required to take me there.
Back at the sports shop, the shutters were already half down. I could see movement inside and so I ducked under them.
Beckham was larking about amongst the clothes racks. I waited next to the till, hoping they would notice me, while also hoping they would not.
“Sorry, we’re closed!” Beckham yelled at me. “Oh, its you. Mr Keep-Em-Forever! Sal, look who’s back!”
His colleague popped his head up above a clothes rack.
“Me again” I said. I shrugged and looked at the tired trainers on my feet.
“What can I do for you, then?” said Beckham.
“I bought these earlier. But they’re too small.”
“No worries, mate. What do you want? The size up?”
“Yeah, maybe? The trouble is I have lost the - ”
“No problem, just go and get a bigger pair.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled. I took a deep breath and looked around. There was no-one else in the shop.
I walked over to the running section and exchanged the shorts for a pair with LARGE written on the label. I looked at the shorts, I looked at my legs. These shorts were definitely a better fit. I am a person of assuredness and intent, I said to myself. I am waiting calmly at the start line of life. I decided to try the shorts on.
“Need help, mate?” said Sal.
“No, I’ve got this,” I said, projecting confidence. “Where are your changing rooms? I’d like to try these on.”
Sal looked at me like I had asked him to marry me.
“These are for you?”
I might not look a runner now, Sal, I thought. But just you wait.
“It won’t take long,” I said.
Sal’s eyes widened. “Help yourself mate, they’re just over there.”
Inside the changing room, the lock was broken, the hook on the back of the door had fallen off, and some kind of substance gripped the soles of my shoes. My nightmares had become manifest. Sal hovered outside the door. I felt like he might burst in at any moment to prank me, so I quickly took my wallet, removed my trousers and shoes, and laid the whole lot on the floor, making a mental note to disinfect them later.
I stood there in my underwear, listening for noises through the door. Nothing. I pulled the shorts onto my right leg and then, with some difficulty, stepped through them with my left leg. I tried to hike them up to my waist.
The crotch of the shorts barely made it past my knees.
“Everything alright in there, mate?” said Sal.
If I pulled the shorts up any further, I was in danger of cutting off the blood supply to my feet.
“I’ll be out in a second.”
My voice trembled. Losing my nerve, I took the shorts off, pulled my trousers back on, and tied my shoes. I walked out of the changing room and then immediately went back to retrieve my wallet from the sticky floor. No wonder I’d lost that receipt. I’d lose my head if it wasn’t screwed on.
On the shop floor, Budget Beckham and Sal were standing behind the till, nudging one another.
“How were they, mate?” asked Beckham. “Good fit?”
Sal put one hand over his mouth and hit the trainee manager with the other.
“Not exactly,” I said. “These are also too small.”
Sal turned to face the wall and began to breathe deeply.
“Really?” said Beckham.
“Yeah, what’s up with these sizes?” I said.
“Nothing wrong with the sizes, mate.” Sal broke and doubled over with laughter, almost on the floor.
“So, then what’s the issue?” I said.
“We didn’t realise these were for you,” said Beckham.
“You’ve been trying on kid’s trousers.”
Sal could not contain himself any more and fell to the floor, howling.
I looked at the garment in my hand. The waist was tiny and the proportions were all wrong. The label said KIDS KLUB. These weren’t shorts for an adult.
I had, quite clearly and most indisputably, been trying on tracksuit trousers for a child.
My self-esteem floated off into the distance. I could run that race. I could become anyone. The start line of life. I stood in silence as Sal hyperventilated somewhere on the floor behind the till.
After an age, Beckham managed to claw himself to a standing position. He looked at me, holding his side, tears streaming down his face.
“Do you want Sal to help you pick something else out?” said Beckham, kindly, perhaps sensing my existential crisis.
“No thanks,” I said, defeated. “Can I just get a refund?”
“Sure thing, mate,” he said. “Do you still have the receipt?”
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