The Winners 2007 Under 19 Highly Commended

Darkness, and the crunch of popcorn, and empty cartons of Haagen Dazs discarded under seats upholstered - why? - in blue and orange swirls. A few feet rest on empty chair-backs, but the place is almost deserted - one man in an anorak and tartan trousers, asleep; a scattering of 11-year olds who shouldn't be here; and the couple at the back, too obviously in love, whom everyone pretends to ignore. 'Seabiscuit' is about halfway through. It's been quite good so far; bit slow, maybe. But the climactic match race is finally on, and brown and black bodies sheer across the screen.

The girl sits a few rows from the front, her eyes intent, the fingers of both hands crossed, her shoulders strained forwards as if she can transmit the energy of her will into the legs of the little brown racehorse, pounding, pounding down the track to the beat of her quickened breathing, her heartbeat galloping in sympathy with hooves that trample on time so that, when he locks eyes with his rival, the ecstasy of the moment hangs in the air as though seen in slow-motion.

As he bursts over the line, her hand punches the air in triumph - and she finds there are tears, ridiculously, spilling down her nose, inconvenient, obscuring screen, rider and horse. The tartan man gives a snorting snore, and the girls behind him titter. Tears?

She looks away from the screen, confused, and the head next to her turns in answer. She sees green-brown eyes, warm as a horse's, and her own tears reflected there over smile mirroring smile, and a voice says softly, "Aren't they beautiful?"

And with a sudden clarity of understanding, she slips her hand into her mother's hand, and echoes, "Yes. Beautiful. "

*

After that, they went riding every Sunday, a half-hour car journey each way, hour lesson, sometimes the jumping class, for a treat. Her mother hadn't ridden for years, the girl, never; hadn't even been interested in horses, not till now. But now! Jodhpurs for Christmas, foal calendars hung in every room, a woollen horse ('Dessie', after Desert Orchid), knitted by the gas-fire to Radio Four. Hacking in the spring, spotting herons along the riverside. They watched the dressage competitions and the races together, usually on TV, occasionally by the track, inevitable tears smudging each victory - "Aren't they beautiful?" - "Beautiful. "

They saw dancing horses at Lipica, mock-jousts in Italy. The girl watched her mother, face intent, make the canter circle, the figure-of-eight: they would dissect their progress on the journey home. "Was I sitting up straight?"

Sometimes, she would miss a lesson - exam revision, or homework, or the effort of shaking off Sunday inactivity. Those times, her mother would go alone, because she said that riding simplified like nothing else. "I feel peaceful. I just feel happy. " She had started after the first operation. She gave up after the second, but got restive. So they went back, though now she sat more carefully, and sometimes her side would ache, but she wouldn't give up; she was riding the same as ever a fortnight before she went in for the last check-up that wasn't a check-up. She always brought peppermints for the horses. The two of them would fantasise about owning horses of their own and riding out over suburban fields. The girl said that when she grew up, she'd buy them a whole stable, six heads in a row looking out sociably from their looseboxes; they would be proper equestriennes and ride together every day, when she grew up; her mother didn't say anything.

*

Darkness, and running feet in a corridor, and empty Kleenex boxes and thermoses of hot water, and biscuits, a never-ending supply, she hasn't tried Rich Teas in ages, now can't get enough. Winter sun in a grey room. The bed looks like a bed but there's no mattress: there needn't be, of course, but she gets a shock all the same when she touches it and it's just wooden board under the sheet. A plastic lily on the pillow; an arm laid on the coverlet. Over and over comes a hissing noise, breath indrawn for a sob, that could be in her ears, or perhaps just in her head. People stand and kneel around the bed. The face they bend to is smooth lily-plastic, worry-lines and smile-lines really wiped away: that's not just a cliche in sentimental novels, then. A voice, muftled in handkerchiefs, keeps repeating, "Isn't she beautiful?"

The girl says nothing. When she holds the hand on the coverlet in both hers, it almost feels warm.

*

After the funeral, everything went on much as before. This had been unthinkable. Meals were for three instead of four; but the dog didn't even seem to notice.

The girl hugged her woollen horse in bed. She stopped riding, but only because it was too expensive on a filing temp's salary. She and her father went back to work; her younger sister went back to school; they were subdued, they lived, they held hands over the gear-stick. 
But there were times for all three when they wanted to be alone. The girl had found that you can be most alone in a crowd, and sometimes she would go to a full church service, or a club, or a shopping-centre, to walk and think.

Once, too, she did go back to the races. She wriggled through the packed spectators and stood by the tape, with the press of noise and people muted about her. She saw the riders with their rainbow silks and impossible balance. And beneath them, she saw the muscled sheen of the horses as they galloped past, straining to the moment with the completeness and intensity that draws it out until it seems for an instant that they can conquer time, conquer death. 
"Yes, " she said aloud. "Yes. Beautiful. "



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