The Winners 2012 Under 19 Runner-up

When I was about 10, the world exploded. Not literally, of course, but suddenly the world seemed a lot bigger than the four walls of my house and the five minute walk to school.

My mother became obsessed with our carbon footprint. She measured our energy consumption, compulsively turned off lights and sorted our rubbish into five different bins. To my dismay, father dutifully began spending our precious Sunday afternoons driving empty bottles down to the bottle bank, rather than playing with me in the garden. Once, I hid his car keys in the washing machine so that he could not go out. I didn’t understand. My mother’s parents had both died unexpectedly the year before. She hadn’t got on with them. Now it was as if she was trying to conserve everything, save everything. My father was just trying to conserve her.

One day, I confessed to my father that, by mistake, I had thrown away a jam jar rather than washing it up. He squeezed my hand and said that it didn’t matter. I demanded why we bothered to recycle anything, if that was the case. He told me that we did it because mother wanted us to. I asked him if he really thought it made a difference. He bent down and whispered that it’s impossible to reverse something that has already happened – it’s too late. I took it literally, and began ‘accidentally’ throwing the wrong rubbish in the wrong bins as part of my rebellion; a can in the glass bank, orange peel with the plastics. Father found me at it one evening; I was crying with laughter like a demented vandal. He sighed in exasperation, but all he said was ‘Don’t let mother see.’ At that moment her shadow crossed the window holding a rolling pin - she looked like the grim reaper. I cackled into the rubbish.

Mother was like a squirrel terrified of winter, always preparing for the future, but my father and I lived for the moment. At least, that’s what I thought. I developed an obsession with horse racing and so, on special occasions such as my birthday or the beginning of the holidays, father would let me place a bet of two pounds on any horse of my choice. I usually chose the favourite, but would spend hours thinking about it beforehand. I had a few lucky wins. Father, on the other hand, never won anything. He always insisted on going for the horse with the highest, most ridiculous odds. I never understood why he wouldn’t place a sensible bet on one of the horses that actually had a chance of winning. He told me that he wasn’t prepared to sign a manifesto for mediocrity – ‘What is ten quid when you could win two hundred?’ I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that he was watching the race with baited breath and the eternal hope of a discarded lover waiting for a call. I never realised that he didn’t want to win in the first place.

I never read the newspapers, apart from with father when we looked at the sports section and the racing results. But mother did - she was always coming out with lines from stories about ‘a kidnapped girl’ or ‘a seriously handicapped bus driver’ over supper. Once she gave us a lecture how one out of every hundred cars last year had been involved in some sort of accident. ‘Only one in a hundred cars crash?’ I said, grinning. ‘Bargain. Sounds like permission to speed!’

Mother got up from the table and stood by the sink with her back to us, breathing heavily. I glared at her worn yellow jumper, and then looked hopefully into my father’s eyes, as he contemplated his empty water glass. Seeing my distress, he gave me a half smile, and a wink. I thought that meant he agreed with me. I didn’t realise he was just protecting her.

She found out about the gambling. We were sitting on the sofa, each with a packet of crisps, waiting for the races to start. Mother was wearing a yellow dress that made her look like a lemon. She always wore yellow – perhaps she thought it would drive away her grief. Her eyes absorbed the television screen, and we knew we were busted. My father put a hand over his face. I slumped into the sofa, preparing myself for the icy blast. But it never came. We sat there, the silence so heavy it pressed on my ears. And despite the horrifically serious situation, despite the fact my chest was being compressed by the weight of the tension, I couldn’t help but flit my eyes to the screen. She dropped her hands and eyed my father accusingly. He was the adult, he was meant to be the responsible one. I should have apologised. I should have taken the blame. But I didn’t. Without a word, my father got to his feet and left. We listened to his car engine fade.

I checked the results of the race later on. My horse came second. A totally unheard of horse beat it. It was the one father had backed, with odds of a hundred to one. I stood up and screamed, but it was a lonely scream. His car was still absent from the driveway. He had been right, after all! Naively, I rushed down to tell mother. I thought that knowing we had won some money would make her happy. I thought it might cheer her up. She was sitting at the kitchen table, fingertips together like a wooden hut over her emotions. I was disappointed when she didn’t react to my excitement. Just clenched her fingers harder together and blinked vacantly. Mother and I ate supper alone together. It was the first of many, just her and me. Initially I was angry with her for being such a spoilsport. But her desperate silence made me feel so guilty that I was careful about the recycling that evening. I got even better at sorting the rubbish in the years that followed. But I never threw away the jam jars, and my father never came home.

When we got the car, it was a write-off – the door had crumpled like crepe paper. The policemen told us that he must have been driving over the limit. I was about to ask ‘How fast was he going?’ when it dawned on me that in fact he might not have been speeding for fun. He probably just needed to get away as fast as possible. I also realised that he hadn’t actually enjoyed gambling – he only did it to keep me happy. He thought he could hold her grief and indulge my rebellion. He thought that nobody would be lucky enough to win on odds of one in a hundred.

Then I finally knew what he had meant when I thought he was dismissing mother’s recycling. It’s impossible to reverse something that has already happened. It’s too late.