The Winners 2014 Under 19 Runner-up

"Johnny!..." I try not to hear him. "Johnny! Come here!" I hurry into the bathroom, and turn the shower on. "Johnny! Come here right now!" That"s the third time. He doesn"t like to ask for things more than once, let alone more than thrice. Especially on days like this. I turn off the shower, and wipe away the condensation on the mirror, so that I can stare at myself; prepare myself; tell myself that it won"t happen again.

I trundle down the stairs and into the living room. The whole room is acrid with the stagnant smell of cigarette smoke and, by the look of the ashtray on the coffee table, he"s onto his third packet of Benson & Hedges. That"s more than usual. He must be nervous. There"s a thin beam of belligerent sunlight fighting its way through the smeared window. The smoke and the dust particles dance in it delicately.

"Ah Johnny there you are. Come and sit by your old man... No not there, over here. Sit up straight. Right angles boy... yes that"s it. Right angles..."

I can tell by the perfectly perpendicular items on the coffee table that there is a lot resting on this race. He doesn't always lose. In fact, a couple of years ago he won 10,000 pounds. But you only have to look at where we live to see that that is a distant memory. The room is bare and grimy. Our sofa once had a bright floral cover that mum had made, but years of sitting, sleeping and spillages has made any pattern as faded as the memory of her.

I focus on the television - the only other item in the living room with any real use. They"re talking about the horses. Who"s going to win. Who"s not going to win. Who might just win. Every so often Dad will nod and agree and make a noise of stern approval. But every so often he will slam his hand on the coffee table, stand up and scream expletives at the screen, then quickly realise he"s shifted the objects out of line, straighten them and sit back down. I try not to let what I know is the truth come creeping into my head. I push it out, but it"s like pushing against a locked door.

I have to get out before the race starts. I look at the digital clock on the bottom left hand side of the television. Four minutes until the start. I slowly stand up. "Ah Johnny, you"ve got the idea, get your old man a drink will you? And the glass - the one in the top cupboard. It"ll be a special day Johnny, worth starting to celebrate now." My stomach plunges like lead sinking through mud. I nod and walk through to the kitchen. "Just bring through the glass and the bottle will you, Johnny?"

I oblige, and return to the living room, where, with shaking hands, he pours himself a confident glass of whiskey, and takes a replenishing gulp from the golden elixir. I realise that there is no way out now. I"m trapped like a rat in a cage. As he takes another gulp, and another, and another, and, trembling, pours himself another, I numbly accept the inevitable. It will not be the first time or the last time, just another step in the inescapable life cycle of chronic gamblers - and their families.

And they"re off. He starts breathing heavily, holding every muscle tense and still, eyes fixed on the television like a predator on its prey. The thunder of hooves and the cacophony of commentators merge into one solid drone in my ears, getting louder and louder, in a crescendo of pressure, closing in on this house, this room, these peeling yellowing four walls, this faded smoke-saturated sofa. I don't even know which horse he"s bet on.

But it hasn"t won.

The televised cheers are drowned out by the deafening silence. He searches for something in the nothingness, his eyes twitching this way and that. He flickers between the television and the coffee table. His eyes hang onto something, and he drags his lips above his buttery teeth in a well-practised snarl. "What glass did I ask you to bring me Johnny?" I look at the glass. It is a glass from the top cupboard. He"d asked for a glass from the top cupboard hadn"t he? "Is that your Grandfather"s glass Johnny? The one I drank from three years ago? The one I drink from every single race?" He slams his hands on the table and stands up, looming over me, his fingers twitching.

"Well? Is it?"

He throws the condemning glass against the wall. Shards, splinters and whiskey droplets fly outwards like an explosion. His eyes, blackened with hatred , pierce mine, at the realisation that he has just lost, and it was all because of me, because I got the wrong glass, and now he is being punished for my mistake, for my stupidity. He drags me up, his filthy fingernails scraping my neck, and pushes me up against the window. He roars at me. "Don"t you understand? Don"t you care?" He"s so close to my face that specks of saliva fly out of his mouth in a torrent of his rancid, pungent breath and land on me, spattering me with his disappointment. In a bid to pacify the situation, I avoid his gaze, attempting to behave like a frequently beaten dog, cowering from its owner, but this only reignites his rage. Gripping my collar with one hand, he clasps my jaw with the other, so we are face to face, noses almost touching.

"Look me in the eye when I talk to you boy." With no other option I stare back at him. I take in his scarlet face, burdened with sweat and abhorrence. With heavy realisation, I gather my strength for the traditional punishment, which is undoubtedly to come.



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