The Winners 2013 Under 19 Runner-up

“I used to think that they noticed, you know, the horses, that they were running around in circles. Well, I assumed they did. Smart creatures. What would the point be otherwise? At least when you’re running around in circles you know where you’re coming back to. That’s what I used to joke to him, on the settee in the front room.

Are you married? I’m not. Sure, I wear a ring. It’s just a ring though. I was too young for it to mean anything when I first got it, and much too knowledgeable for it to mean anything now I’m old. To me, it’s just the cool, metallic bite of habit that weighs my left hand down.

My dad smoked. He was an ‘intellectual’. That’s what mum said anyway. I never knew him well enough to make a judgement to be honest. Writer turned bank accountant. Misery in a corduroy coat. But he always smelled like cigars, and peppermint. Or maybe I made that up. I forget the difference. I can’t stand the smell of cigars now. Sometimes, when I’d fallen asleep on his velvet shoulder, I’d wake up in my bed, the door opened just a crack so I could tell how dark my room was, the jacket’s paternal imprint still on my face. Then, it was my favourite smell in the whole world.

He didn’t come to the wedding. He wouldn’t have known that it was happening. Mum did. Suppose she had to. She gave us a huge, bronze clock, with painted Roman numerals marking the edges, and sculpted, silver hands, tarnished , tracing the circle with a loving caress that transfixed me. It was a gift from her mother, she’d said, for her wedding day. But she’d never married, so she’d locked it in the attic. To me, it glowed, no, it shone like the sun. It’s never ticked, really, but has always let out a sort of rattle, like the labored breaths of an asthmatic. Disturbingly loud, but reassuring in their regularity. I put it on the mantlepiece. He doesn’t like it much, thinks it’s ugly. Doesn’t like the colour bronze.

Erol, enin, cockle. It’s like he spoke another language. Odds had me especially stumped. He always got so angry when I asked. I could never watch the races with him. I used to try, back when I still had faith. I’d watch the women in the spectator stand, with hats the size of warrior shields, and the horses running in terror from the men, men attached to their backs. I used to ask whether he ever thought about what was on the other side of the screen? He showed me, his face red, and we had to buy a new t.v. I don’t watch with him anymore. I can’t bear the noise he makes. The scream of a drill. The whine of a stray. The roar as a train derails. Sounds my hands won’t drown out. And all the while, he jumps and claps. A child again. I can’t bear to watch that childhood leave, become corrupted by the tracks, the words of the commentator that I don’t understand, that he echoes, his lips an unshaven ‘o’ that says it all, and yet nothing at all. Each time it’s like watching an ant dance under a magnifying glass, before being burnt to ash.

Gambling, betting, bet. The word still gives me chills. I remember, that was the first time he hit me. I’d told time ‘bete’, in French, meant animal, but was used colloquially to insult one’s intelligence. Right hand, open palm, across my cheek. Smack.

He started smoking a few weeks after that night. Cheap cigars. Putrid. How he coughed at first. Perhaps I should have laughed then, early, with him. His voice was hoarse for months. He said if it was good enough for bankers, then it was good enough for him. Counting slips, calculating odds. He didn’t listen when I told him to open a window. I didn’t care when they found out that smoking caused lung cancer. Much anyway. I think he started it to hide from me, behind a screen of smoke. It coloured his skin to rain cloud, and glassed his eyes over. I don’t think I ever saw behind that screen again, or if I ever had.

Parallel universes, I sometimes think, really aren’t such a hard thing to believe. Ours centered around our bed, dry, chaste, and cold white. An open sail, anchored to the floor of our room. ‘Was I happy?’ My mother always used to ask. Down to earth, hands lined, lemon scented, rough like freshly washed sheets. I would laugh at her. ‘Happiness is relative’, then holding her hand in St Grace’s hospital, feeling their warmth one last time, ‘I’ll be fine’.

Two weeks later was our first run in. Well, his I should say. Bets and debts. Should be funny. It was funny, watching his nose break. Not as terrifying as I made it out to be, to the police when they asked me questions, his glare over their shoulder, to the friends later on. Sure, I put my hands over my eyes and screamed, pleaded, collapsed to the floor. But I felt calm inside. Maybe I’d already left him then, I doubt it though. The time rattled half past three, Sunday night. ‘I know ‘cos I set the clock straight,’ I told them ‘just before they came’. They used a fire poker. Ornamental. We didn’t actually have a fire place. I picked it up later, cleaning, after they’d all gone. The metal chilled my palms.

The world’s a circle, so I’m told. You wouldn’t know by the horizon though. It seems it stretches on forever. In fact, I wish it did. I’d never have to see the finish line. I could begin again forever. Maybe some day I’ll travel to the North Pole, plant myself knee deep in snow, and spin. After all, how much closer to the sky can you get?

I miss that clock though. My mother’s clock. He smashed it, of course he did. In a row over I can’t remember what. It faded as we looked at those shards on the floor. Maybe he saw his reflection. Maybe I saw mine. That’s when it was over. I cried for the first time in 6 years. I remember that because, when I used to get bored, I’d count my tears. Drip. Drop. They’d stain the carpet for a while, before they vanished, the carpet a patterned blank once more. I got on a ship to America. The whole way I never once held the railing. They told me I was a natural. I told them, simply, I’d had enough metal bars for a life time. That rattle haunts me still, and I remember the bent and useless angle those hands pointed. Overboard, white horses reared their heads over the waves, chasing me all the way there.

I sometimes watch the races now, alone. They can’t know, the horses, about the circles that they run, about the infinite corners they cannot see around. Who’s to say where a circle leads? And who’s to blame them when they can’t?