The Winners 2014 Under 26 Winner

The day after my death, there are no tears, only a booming silence. It reverberates throughout the house, at its loudest in the spaces I had most often frequented; my bedroom, the comfiest chair in the living room, the seat at the kitchen table which I had claimed as my own. I’d never realised how much a piece of furniture can become a person, or how vividly a room they once inhabited can become a shrine to that person’s memory, their dreams, their hopes, their ambitions. Strange, how quickly a house can feel so empty.

Three days after my death, the stupor breaks: that is when the tears come. For my mother, it will feel like an eternity before they stop. “Where is the justice in this?” she weeps to my father, who for the first time in his life has no answer. Unlike my mother he does not cry, and won’t for a long while. Grief is a peculiar thing, you see: it hits everyone in different ways. For my mother, it is uncontainable; it spills out of her in waves. My father though, he keeps it locked up inside himself. His heart becomes a prison from which the sadness cannot escape. While my mother, broken hearted but brave, faces those who visit the house bringing sympathy and attempting words of comfort, my father goes up to my bedroom, determined not to burden others with his pain, to bear it alone. He examines the pictures I had so lovingly collected over the years, tenderly brushing his fingers across their frames: Kauto Star, Denman, Frankel, AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh. Pictures that are now relics, stark remind ers that, while the sport in which I had so passionately invested my soul in life would continue, I will never again be around to see it. My father lifts my favourite photo, the image of the great champion jockey finally winning the Grand National, from where it holds pride of place on the windowsill. He sits on my bed, the sheets still untouched from when I last slept in them, and clutches it to his chest. He stays like that for a very long time.

One week after my death, I learn that funerals are not for the dead, but for the living. Had it been up to me, I would have banned people from wearing black at my funeral. It would have been compulsory for everyone to come dressed in jockeys’ silks and, instead of eulogies, the service would be a cinema style screen where replays of all my favourite races were shown. I’d have preferred to hear ‘AND KAUTO STAR IS STILL THE KING’ over the tears of my family and friends any day. But like I said, funerals are for those left behind. As it is, mine somehow manages to be at once tragically sad and strangely beautiful. It helps my parents too, even though their pain is still so raw, to see how much I was loved. Amongst the huge sense of loss, there is still so much love. That’s the thing about death: it extinguishes life, and laughter, and normality, but it does not, cannot, eliminate love. Love is a weapon which defends against the greatest of evils, and slays the mightiest of foes.

Two weeks after my death, my parents still find themselves experiencing brief, wonderful moments in which they forget what happened. My mother passes my bedroom door and for a few seconds imagines that she will look inside and, like always, see me sitting at my desk, studiously examining the entries for the upcoming weekend’s racing. She will teasingly warn me that addiction to gambling usually starts from a young age and I will just roll my eyes in exasperation, because I know my ‘bordering on obsessive’ love for horse racing is just something she cannot understand. My mother smiles at the image, until she recalls that now it is just a memory.

My father, he begins to see me in the strangest places: the double yolk in his egg at breakfast becomes a sign that I will come back to him. When he thinks he hears my voice as he reads my sister her bedtime story, it’s enough to make him wonder if maybe I’m still around. Never does he wonder whether he’s in fact going crazy. These ‘signs’ you see, they give him strength, a little hope that eventually this hurt will come to an end. And hope, well it is the best of things.

Four months after my death, my mother picks my little sister up from school for the first time since It happened. They walk home hand in hand, even stopping for ice cream at the van in the street. The last traces of summer have begun to disappear and the leaves on the trees are starting to turn brown. My sister licks her Cornetto in a thoughtful silence, then, with ice cream smeared across her face, she turns to my mother and asks if I were here, does she think I still would’ve ordered a choc ice? Although painful, the smile my mother answers with is real. “Yes. Yes I think she would’ve.”

Seven months after my death, my father quashes the ache in his heart and turns on the television on a Saturday afternoon. He sits in the comfiest chair in the living room, hands clasped tightly over his knees. The racing is from Cheltenham. Horses soar over the obstacles, powerful, majestic and bold, bodies steaming in the frigid winter air. The pain my father has been expecting, to his surprise, does not come. Instead, the knot he has carried in his chest for so long begins to loosen. He continues to watch until the very last race is over and the light has disappeared from the sky. Then he makes a decision.

Nine months after my death, they stand in a crowd, yet they are alone. They hold my sister’s hands, one each. I’m there too of course, even if they don’t quite realise it. It is the final day of ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’, the best jump racing anywhere in the world. Winter is almost over; the first glimpses of spring are beginning to appear. My parents stand a little apart, yet somehow they are together, their gazes fixed on the track ahead. All at once, there is a shift in the atmosphere and the crowd begins to shout; a rumble at first, which suddenly becomes a roar, and to their immense surprise, my parents find themselves cheering too. My mother, unsure of the etiquette at this particular brand of National Hunt meet, contents herself with waving her arms in a wild, ungainly manner, while my father yells and lifts my little sister onto his shoulders so she can see the horses battle up the hill, exhausted, battered, but unbowed. The noise reaches a crescendo as one horse pulls away from the rest and gallops across the line in glorious isolation, then it is over. Breathless, and finally understanding, my mother turns to look at my father, then takes his hand. In the fading light of the afternoon, there are tears streaming down his face.