The Winners 2013 Under 26 Winner

That must be him. I’d recognize that curly blond hair anywhere. He used to play with it constantly, twisting the front of his fringe around his left index finger. Yes, of course. He was my best friend, when we were eight. In the middle of page four of the Telegraph, in front of the VIP tent at the ˜20th BMT Commemoration Race”. Funny. I thought that he hated horses. He always said that horse riding was a girly thing to do. But even my eight-year-old self knew that was not quite the truth. When we went to Saddler’s Farm Fun-Park, he always refused to sit in the horse-drawn cart. Underneath the childish boldness was fear: he was afraid of the big whinnying animals. Yet now he’s gathering sponsorship at some charity horse race, enticing the wealthy to pay extra for the VIP marquee. I wonder how much they charged per ticket. And why support a horse race? Maybe he is now a seasoned gambler. Or rich. Or both. I had no idea.

He used to like horse racing I suppose. Well, in a sense. Whenever he came round we’d play Totopoly. It’s an old-fashioned horse racing board game. He liked the way that the game has two halves; on one side of the board you train your horses, on the other you race them. Before the race you bet on which horse is going to win. All the horses have different names, and the more we played, the more the horses developed distinct personalities: we knew that the number one, Dark Warrior, was brilliant, and poor old Elton, the twelfth horse, was useless. It’s a great game. Only, he had this tatty rag doll that came everywhere with him. It had a name “Bertie”. And whenever we played Totopoly, Bertie had to have a horse as well. It so annoyed me. Why did Bertie have to have a horse? Why couldn’t it just be us playing? I had no idea.

Totopoly was a fairly innocent game. But there was one dangerous square: ˜Broken Rein: Out of Race”. That’s it: the horse is taken off the board. I’ll never forget the time that Bertie’s horse landed on it. At first I was secretly pleased. Just this once, for a short while, Bertie wouldn’t have a horse. ˜At least it’s not yours,” I said, pretending to be sympathetic. He was terribly upset. Wanted to roll again. Wanted to sacrifice his horse instead. Wanted to restart the race. I got annoyed. That tatty rag doll. Ruining the game. ˜Don’t be a wimp”, I said, in my eight-year-old lisp. ˜It’s not like Bertie is real”. He winced like he’d been winded. ˜I don’t want to play anymore.” He shook the board angrily so that all the horses fell over and got muddled up. I couldn’t understand it. All I had done was ask a simple question. And after that, he refused to play ever again. Seriously. Why such a strong reaction? I had no idea.

Somehow things were never the same between us. I should have apologized. But I didn’t. I hadn’t insulted him. I had just pointed out the truth about his toy. Then he gradually stopped coming round. Made different friends. We lost contact when we moved to secondary school. When we said goodbye it was awkward. I couldn’t meet his gaze. He couldn’t speak. Just mumbled ˜Totopoly! I remember”. I wasn’t sure if he was remembering the fun games, or the fact that we fell out over it. The old Totopoly set had sat unused in the cupboard ever since we stopped playing. Sometimes I thought about playing it, but I couldn’t bear getting out Dark Warrior and Elton. Not without him. I occasionally thought about him as I grew up. What was he doing? Did he still play with his hair? I didn’t know what happened to him. Or even what school he was at. I had no idea.

As I walked home I passed the old athletics track. It’s like a blown up version of the Totopoly board. When we were eight, it was huge. Far too big for us to run around. We’d race a little bit, get too tired, give up. Now it seems rather small. Not even full size. Maybe that’s the thing. If only I’d seen it like that before. Surmountable. We could have overcome it. And the Totopoly board is so small. Sometimes friendships don’t work out. Like a relay when the baton gets dropped between runners. Or maybe it’s like a horse race. Horses trip: jockeys slip. You can never run that race again. But I was the one who insulted Bertie. Could I do anything now? It happened when we were eight. So long ago yet so concrete. Childish blindness. If only we’d been able to communicate better. Things could have been so different. I had no idea.

Back home I reread the article. It’s not just him in the picture, it’s his whole family. They are all smiling determinedly, like they are in charge. Yes. Apparently they run the BMT Trust, whatever it is. This year is particularly important: it’s the twentieth anniversary. Meant to raise a lot of money for the charity. So they’d been running it for years. Even when we were friends, he never told me. We didn’t talk about things like that. I suppose I wasn’t expected to know, when we were eight. We played board games like Totopoly, and went to Saddler’s Farm Fun-Park. There were a few sentences at the end quoting him. I can hear his voice, all grown up but with the same lisp. ˜We’d like to thank everybody for all their support. This year has been fantastic. And the trust means a lot of us. We work with disabled children, teaching them to ride. It’s in memory of Bertie.” My heart thuds into my mouth. ˜My big sister.” So, Bertie wasn’t a toy. She loved riding, always wanted to be a jockey. But there was an accident when she was eight. The horse bolted and she lost control. She sustained significant injuries to the head and never came out of hospital. Numbly, I reach for my cheque book. I had no idea.