The Winners 2007 Under 19 Winner

Tears sprang from his eyes; unchecked, they trickled down his face and onto his jutting nose, a ridged ski jump broken again and again. He noiselessly groped for the remote. Switching it off, he turned slowly; he was still slow even after so many years, and retraced his path, following the ruts in the carpet that he had made again and again, from television box to kitchen and back. He shook his head and scowled, embarrassed that after so many hours he still had tears left for Black Beauty. He couldn’t determine which was more pathetic, watching Black Beauty in the first place or crying at its ending.

Roland picked up his cat and stroked him, his finger like a snug gun under Seamus’ ear. He smiled bitterly; it was an obvious situation. The invalid, talking only to his cat, playing chess with solely himself as opponent, flipping through countless novels and countless photograph albums, always searching and never finding. Roland saw himself as a Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, one of his favourite novels, found on the bottom shelf, easy to reach, with broken back and peeling cover. ‘One of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at 21 that everything afterward savours of anti-climax;’ that was the line he self-deprecatingly allowed himself to wallow in.

A sense of aching regret had always haunted his musings. Earlier that day he had laid waste to, ravaged, and scattered his early morning resolve, shifting it to the back of his mind, and numbly watched Black Beauty instead, his only comfort at times like these. He must get a grip. Do as Gatsby did, he told himself, do not give up.

For months after the accident Roland had spoken little. The overwhelming stream of friends, admirers and well wishers had, after offering condolences and sending flowers and chocolates, trickled slowly to a stop. There had been something gorgeous about him, something so successful and so full of life that men and women had been drawn to him, wanting to share some of his unequivocal passion, to dance as if some part of him were transplanted in them. They had not stopped visiting because the bed was on the highest floor, nor because London was awful in the winter, as the nurses had explained. They had stopped because the passion he had once possessed had been snuffed out like a candle, as if at the same moment as the wind had been knocked from his lungs and his knees had been crushed underneath him. He had become another of the faceless casualties; he had often wondered half jokingly why there had not been a memorial made for men like him.

An Injured Jockey’s Fund almoner had come to the house, “The first years are always the hardest,” he had said, before walking back to his car with both legs intact.

For Roland the sheer surrealism of the whole situation had made him uneasy. Being in a wheelchair had its ups. His father could park in the disabled slots with his son’s sticker, and Roland could be rude and obnoxious if he felt like it, without being challenged by an insult in return. The little things, however clichéd it might have seemed at the time, annoyed Roland most. The pounds piling up, the feeling of lethargy, the inability to play any of the sports he used to love, and most agonisingly: the torment of having to endure embarrassed silences and furtive glances.
Roland was 26 when it happened, and like most his age enjoyed boozing and wild romantic flings. None of his friends could imagine dancing in a club with a paraplegic; nor could any of the girls he knew, the shallow, vain, beautiful girls, see themselves in the arms of a disabled bloke.

Instead of turning to drink as so many had done before him, he read. First it was Dick Francis, Jilly Cooper, and John Francome; then, once his father had died, Roland started measuring time by the number of serious novels he had read.

Now, hoary white and as battered as Captain Cook’s sails, he took with shaking hands the slice of banana bread presented to him by Juliet. Though thankful, he saw her pitying smiles and hated them; he saw through her façade and imagined saying to her, not in a lecturing tone but in a fiery one: “Do not judge me with your eyes, do not imagine that you could understand.”

Roland accepted and ate the banana bread every day, hating it for what it represented but savouring it for the human contact it brought with it. He was fascinated and repelled by Juliet. While there were no delicate qualities to her, he liked her for bringing society into his dust-grey flat. Though her chat was peppered with “don’t you know…know what I mean” and ”like”, she amused him with her naïve chitchat. Roland had, in younger years, perceived himself as a George Clooney look-a-like and though flattered by Juliet’s remarks he entertained no hopes on the matter, realising that perhaps he was presuming too much.

First name terms had been established some 20 years before. At first, the situation was tense; Juliet had delivered for many others before him. Some had grown indecorously fond of her and had declared their eternal devotion to her. However, she realised that they did not love her specifically, but her reliability and what she actually delivered. She had kept her job for so long, not because she was an excellent cook but because she had always been a particular favourite with clients.

Roland could not cook, and had never tried; and anyway, Juliet with Meals on Wheels would always save him from emaciation. Juliet herself had always been cheerful and loud around Roland, realising through his silence and through the countless photographs that he was a man very much alone with his guilt. A framed photograph had always dominated the wall above the fireplace. It was of Roland as a young man, with a black racehorse nuzzling his cheeks. It was a common enough photograph: both man and horse splattered with mud, the man’s goggles askew, a whole-hearted smile upon his face. What had always struck Juliet about the photo were Roland’s eyes. His eyes were like no others. Their deep azure did not only display the elation of having won, even though the picture was taken in the winner’s enclosure; they also expressed the sheer delight of being there in silks and boots next to a horse with whom he had so obvious a connection.

She guessed that this was the horse upon whose back Roland had ridden his last race. She guessed that this horse had died in the same moment as Roland felt his legs give way. She guessed that Roland had felt the burden not of his own injury but of the horse’s death. Standing there inside the living room with a cup of tea in her hand, Juliet saw the lighter patch of wall above the fireplace, and guessed, correctly, that Roland’s long purgatory was over; he had forgiven himself.