The Winners 2008 Under 26 Winner

The modest, dark-clad crowd stand quietly beneath the ancient oak tree. A tree which, over the course of centuries, has gathered all the boughs of wisdom such a place has to offer. It has heard the desolate cries of anguish, the sobs of despair and loneliness; it has witnessed the carefree joys of human union and birth. And now it stands motionless, as ever, offering whispering shelter to all those who have come to mourn you.

Those carefully chosen words are muffled and carried by the bitter wind, reaching the ears of few who are stood near. Those who are able to depict them care little, so shocked are they at life’s terrible injustice. The icy rain falls relentlessly to mingle with plentiful tears; heartfelt sobs are stifled by the swishing of the leaves of that knowing old oak tree. And still, I feel nothing.

We stood here once before, you and I. Frightened, confused and alone, we clung to one another as they lowered her into the ground, both of us wondering how we could ever cope without her, and wondering why she had chosen to make us have to. And now I am here again, wondering once more why you have made the choice to follow her. My fingers brush lightly against the envelope in my pocket, and yet I still cannot bring myself to open it, for there can surely be no reason, no excuse for what you have done.

As a child, you were always vibrant and headstrong, yet the irony is that it was always me who dreamed of the bright lights. Dreams were all I would ever have, but you were the one who possessed the ability to follow them. Cool, confident and always grinning, you could scramble onto the back of the most unwilling pony and coax from it a seemingly unbelievable result. And you never felt any need to trumpet your success; your actions spoke louder than any words ever could.

Her death changed you. You lost that innocent sparkle, and the grin that once beamed out from every photograph became a dark, troubled stare. Yet your determination to succeed seemed to flourish; you were fearless in your pursuit of the ultimate goal, to the point that your self-preservation knew no boundaries. In the years to follow, we battled through, just the two of us, chasing a dream that we feared we had lost, determined that we should not lose our grasp on the precious foundations she had laid for us. And all the while, I knew it was only a matter of time before your compulsion became a reality.

Winning is not enough, you once said to me. You had just won your first major chase; the racing world were alerted to your presence that day, as they watched you urge home a decrepit old horse who never deserved to win. You stared down at me from the battered saddle – that long, intense stare that was to become your trademark – and your future intent burned bright as a beacon in your eyes.

From that day forth, your quest was not to beat the opposition, but to obliterate it. Victory never tasted sweet to you unless your rivals lagged ten lengths behind; to win by a mere nose or neck was, in your eyes, a failure on your part. You cultivated a reputation built upon the principles of hard labour and dedication, and as such, you could not cope with the fame that all your commitment brought upon you. And still, even when hailed as a national hero, you lived in denial of yourself.

For eight years, you reigned supreme in the sport of kings; for eight years, you struggled to cope in the world you had strived so hard to be a part of. Each time you set foot in the stirrup, it was as if you were willing to give your life for the cause. Deep down, I knew you were falling apart, but I was powerless to help you, for in shutting yourself away from the world, you closed the door to me, too. And now I am left alone, more isolated than ever, wondering what I could have done to drag you back from the brink.

My trembling fingers find the sealed envelope once more. I do not want to open it, but I know that I must. I am too scared of the reasons you will have tried to give, too afraid that a weak and pitiful excuse will make me want to hate you. And yet, when I lift the contents from the tattered little envelope, I find not a letter, but a photograph. It is not a recent image; yet the sandy shores of Lacken Strand are a sight that I recognise all too well.

From the photograph, your youthful face beams out, triumphant, carefree beneath an over-large skull cap, showing not a trace of the troubles that were forever more to plague you. That feisty, fine-blooded chestnut pony stands to your left, snaking his sweaty neck round to try to nibble the hard-earned trophy that is grasped firmly in your hands. And by your side, wearing handmade T-shirts crafted to match your green-and-yellow silks, our mother and I stand together.

For a second, I pause to wonder why it is that you would have chosen to leave me this. Did you do it knowing that, faced with such a stark reminder of a time when our turmoil lay only ahead of us, I would be forced to contrast the happy-go-lucky lad you were then, with the white-faced, troubled shadow of a man you became?

It puzzles me; this cryptic style is not your own. For all your faults, you always believed in honesty and forthrightness; leaving me guessing would not be your way. I turn the photograph over, and as I stare down at the flip side of the picture, I notice nine or ten lines of handwriting that simply could never be yours. Addressed to no-one, nor signed by anyone…yet, even though some characters are blotted and smudged, perhaps with tears, perhaps not, I know instinctively that the writing is hers. And the last line stands out from the rest:

Forgive me…it could never be enough.

The oak tree stands tall, unyielding, enduring. It shelters me from the biting wind; its leaves and limbs keep the rain at bay. For the past few minutes I have stood slumped against its massive trunk, trying to make some sense of the inconspicuous little document still clutched tightly to my heart. I realise now that you never felt you were good enough; nor did you believe that you could ever make yourself so. Her weakness, the weakness that I so despised and could never bring myself to fathom, was to prove to be your failing, too. Now you have followed her, having lived a life on the brink, a life that, no matter what, could never be enough for you. You lost your way in life, and in doing so, you sacrificed your grasp on the very concept that keeps us whole.

We are only mortal.