I sat grumpily in my wheelchair, my arms folded across my chest, my pancakes going cold in front of me. All week long, my parents had been hinting at a ‘special treat’ on Sunday, in the kind of voice that suggests that not only will it not be special; it will probably not be much fun either. And sure enough, at breakfast my mother announced that we were going to the horse races today. I hate these big events; these public affairs full of sympathetic eyes and hushed murmurs as my brother pushes my chair through the crowd. I hate the way people part like the Red sea, and the way the attendants always talk to me in that syrupy voice that makes me feel sick to my stomach. I begged and pleaded with my parents, but to no avail.
“It’ll be fun,” they smiled. “Its good for you to get out of the house.”
“Then I’ll go into the backyard,” I retorted.
“Don’t be silly, Nat,” they said. “Come on now.” And with that they pulled out my wheelchair and bundled me into the car. There’s another reason I detest wheelchairs –there can be no clinging-on-the-doorframe tantrums for me, no locking myself in the bathroom. If my parents want me to come, compliance is merely a push away.
I stared out the window in sullen silence the whole way, and as the race-track approached I felt the first pangs of dread deep in my belly. Our car pulled up and my parents opened the door and lowered me onto the ground. I braced myself for the whispers of the ground. But they did not come. Startled, I looked around. People were everywhere, filling the air the a hum of anticipation. Women barely spared me a glance before rushing off with great smiles on their faces, clutching scraps of white paper in their fists. Men strode around, laughing nervously with their friends as they checked then rechecked their watches. Despite myself, I felt a bubble of excitement rise from my chest. I turned to my parents.
“Can we go in now?” I asked. Dad smiled.
“No. I’m just bored hanging about in the parking lot.” Dad just grinned wider, then grabbed my chair handles and manoeuvred me towards the stands.
By the time we were settled in our seats, the thrum of excitement had reached fever pitch. Most people were on their feet, peering through binoculars at the horses before rushing off to make last minute bets. I clasped my fingers in anticipation. A voice blared over the loudspeakers, announcing the start of the first race. The noise died down, leaving just electric silence hanging in the space. There was a loud bang, and suddenly the stand erupted in roars and cheers. I simply sat entranced, watching the horses run. Their hooves pounded the ground and their bodies stretched into chestnut blurs above the track. Their eyes flashed with each new bellow from the ground, as if they could hear us, and feel our energy. Wind ripped past their faces, blowing their manes back from their eyes. But their legs were what hypnotized me. They beat one-two, one-two against the ground, swinging in great powerful arcs that seemed to lift them off the ground and onto a great balloon of air which carried them towards the finish line. The jockeys dig their heels into their mounts, their eyes steel, focused on the goal. As the horses reach the final stretch, the noise grows until the ground shakes. People are jumping up and down, screaming encouragement and shouting at their horses. And suddenly I am at the edge of my seat, straining upward with all my might and shrieking along with them, although I do not know why. I catch Dad’s eye and see him laugh, and I join in although the sound is lost with the crowd as the first horse finishes, then the second, then the third. The crowd roars its approval as the results are called out over the loudspeaker. The adrenaline courses through my blood. The horses have wound to a halt, those magnificent legs slowing coming to a halt. I close my eyes and imagine myself seated on their broad backs, clinging onto their manes. The roar of the crowd is in our ears and as the stalls burst open we are running, and I am running, for the first time running, feeling the wind sting my eyes and the ground fly away. It is the quiet, rather than the noise, that brings me back to reality, and I realise the race has finished completely. I turn impatiently to Dad. “When does the next race start?”