The Winners 2017 Under 18 Winner

He stares at the damp patch on the far wall, trying to remember when he had opened his eyes. He twists out of the strangle of blankets and steps on his ash-tray. In the kitchen the plastic windows show the slate grey sky’s cold darkness and the alien eyes of the digital clock read 04:17.

He picks out the chocolate that was stuck to the top of his mouth and dropped his first cigarette into the dregs of bitter coffee. The blue hue of his phone scans emails onto his wall, just two, bills. He moves out of their way and knocks back the rest of his coffee, forgetting the smouldering stub.

Sat in his car, he rolls down the stiff window and chimneys a cigarette out the gap. He turns on his phone again and skims through Facebook and all the people he can see still see but never hears. He inspects the picture of that girl he used to talk to and her new boyfriend. Then it’s the turn of Twitter to tell him that Manchester United drew away to Hull, that 80 people are waiting on hospital trolleys and that some anonymous punter reckons he gave his last ride absolutely no chance and hoped he ended up paralysing himself in a fall.

He switches off the phone and closes his eyes. An eternity passes where his foot cramps up and he pretends he’s not thinking about checking the time. He wakes from a bitter respite and turns the keys. The rusted exhaust hacks and chokes into an unhealthy drown and he drives out of the collection of small rented semi-Ds twenty minutes earlier than planned.

The nondescript trail of tarmac spewed out through the cold hard countryside. He can’t see the skeletal branches dropping overhead but their fingernails drag over the top his car. He pulls into a layby to burn some time. He did not want to arrive so early and appear over eager to please. The lads wouldn’t take to that. His sighs fog up the inside of the windscreen and his arms ache.

He rummages through the collection of items built up in the foot well of his car. The old copy of the Racing Post dating from his last winner. He gazes at the streaking muscular shape of some Godolphin sprinting hero on the cover, framed by the rich colours of the dresses and velvet trimmed hats in the background. Reminding him long ago it was. He lifts it up to find a sales catalogue underneath. He feels his stomach tumble below his ankles as he recalls the promise made to a friend, to buy a horse together, to ride it to endless victories and impossible dreams. He quickly lets the yellowed newspaper fall back over the catalogue so it wouldn’t see his indifference.

He opens the glovebox and a half empty bottle of Jameson makes his heart twist like a gyroscope in his motionless body. His stomach, still firmly at his ankles, now fills with a black fire of shame and malicious confusion. He closes the glovebox and stares out at the frosty landscape, the valley sloping down to his right, barely visible in the early morning black.

The drive, the broken promise, the drink all flitter through his mind but he lies unmoving, lacking energy to even focus on any of them. He studies the broken visor and felt his life stretch out before him like a great ocean, completely flat and devoid of feature. He starts, opens the glovebox, takes a slug of whiskey and sets off.

The nondescript road led to a blank yard of characterless barns and concrete slick with mud. He fetches his helmet from the torn upholstery of the back seats and walks through the breeze blocks and steel latches, watching his meditations bounce from stable to stable. Sleepwalking through his early morning rituals only stopping to give some equally listless mare a limp stroke.

He listens with a full ear but empty head to the sharp chat of the other lads, laughing when required, but his mouth feels dry afterwards. He lights another cigarette and the smoke climbs and mingles with the clouded remnants of other seared lungs. The other riders’ faces are shrouded by the lack of the light but still the same features are recognisable. The yellowing teeth and fingers, their eyes cherrying out from rings of insomnia. The quick mouths and quicker minds. All of them chained between vicious competitors and accepting friends.

The hollow light of day is just setting the damp frost ablaze as they set out with the first lot. He rolls in the saddle, feet lolling out of the stirrups and the cigarette pincered lazily between his fingers. He stares across the undulating pastures, his eyelids, thick like duvets, pillowing his bleary eyes. He never sees the darting blackbird, nor senses his mount’s fright. He only becomes aware as he is thrown into the biting morning air, the leather reins grab and burn his hands, his fingernail cracks and spits blood from underneath. The slimy ground seems to welcome him until it slams its full weight into the small of his back, his head following his torso’s demise with a blunt lurch.

He lies on his back, the horse trots away friskily to the sounds of worried hands and cooing voices. The dark clouds drift like soft sludge out of reach. He doesn’t want to get up. The smouldering cigarette pricks his nose. His mind plunges upwards and downwards straining to find something to curl around but nothing offers itself. The barren ocean of his mind floods out tear by tear.