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The Prize by John P

© John P

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"We've won," his mother said. "I don't believe it."

She read the letter carefully, holding it in her right hand. Her left hand covered her mouth.

To Edward the scene resembled one of the photographs in his grandmother's album; shades of brown, images of other times and places. He saw the buff envelope, torn and discarded on the table next to the ring of coffee left by a breakfast cup, the chestnut of his mother's hair, which normally touched her shoulders but was now pinned up, the cream of her dressing gown and the pale yellow rays of early morning sunlight that were creeping into the backyard.

The cry of his mother, as she had taken out the single sheet of paper and started to read, had brought a halt to a spoonful of breakfast cereal midway between his bowl and his mouth. He waited, watching her, as she finished the letter and looked at him.

"Would you believe it? We've won a telly." She waved the letter at him. "It says here. Look."

She put it down on the table next to his cereal bowl and read aloud, her finger underlining those all important words.

"Who's got a clever mother, then?" she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. Going over to the kitchen door she shouted, "Mum, come here quickly. We've got a surprise for you.”

The boy and his mother smiled at each other. They had a secret. And she was happy which made him feel happy too.

He looked again at the letter that had so brightened up their morning. Some of the kids in his class had televisions and sometimes they were allowed to invite their friends to watch the children's programmes. No one had ever invited him, but he had heard them talking about what they had seen and he envied them. Now they were to have a television of their own and maybe he would be able to invite his friends to watch programmes with him.

This unexpected news had certainly taken his mind off that day’s school sports, and the final of the fifty metre sprint in which he was set to run. It was to be something of an occasion because, normally, he did not excel at sports. He didn’t like them, especially team games, even though he joined in the lunch time football in the schoolyard. He would run around a lot and sweat as much as anyone, but that had more to do with avoiding the ball than trying to score. If, by some misfortune, the ball did appear at his feet, he would kick it as hard as he could in the direction he happened to be facing, even if that was towards his own end. His one concern was to avoid being tackled, pushed, elbowed, or punched by the opposition players in the mêlée. He played because he wanted the other boys to accept him and not pick on him as they picked on Simon Rogers and Colin Peacock, but he realised he was fooling nobody as, when the two captains picked their teams, he was usually one of the last to be chosen.

Truth be told, he was a coward. He knew it and was ashamed. Many times he had resolved to be braver, to push, elbow, kick and fight back like the others, but his nerve always failed him at the crucial moment.

Throughout the autumn and winter he hated P.E., but the summer term meant athletics and cricket, which was a bit better. When it came to running, he was faster than any of the other boys, as he had shown in the previous week’s heats for the sprint. He had not been worried. He had known he would qualify easily.

They had trouped up to the park and had gathered around Mr. Bell, clamouring to know when they would run. When everyone was quiet and sitting on the grass, he explained that they were to run three races with six boys in each. The two winners of each heat would run in the final on Sports Day. He read out the names for the three races. Edward would be in the second.

The day was pleasantly warm. Edward sat on the grass and watched Mr. Bell measure out the distance. The six boys for the first heat were gathered near the start. Some of them were doing warm-up exercises, clearly copying their heroes in the local football team, while others were looking bored, or, like Brian Cook, trying to dump onto the ground anyone foolish enough to be standing nearby.

"Ready.......steady......" The blast from the whistle shot them forwards as one.

Edward watched them approach from his position at the side of the track, saw the effort on their faces, heard their plimsolls slapping the ground and the gasps of breath as the swept past him and on towards the finish line.

The first heat over and the winners decided, it was Edward's turn and he trotted up to the start. At the word from Mr.Bell, he placed the toe of his plimsoll on the chalk line and waited.

"Ready. . ." He leaned forward, taking most of his weight on his front leg. "Steady..."

He got off to a good start and was clear of the others after only a few strides. He was flying, barely conscious of the touch of his feet on the ground or of the other boys watching from the side of the track. He was only aware of the finishing line getting closer. He felt exhilarated, as he did when he set himself challenges such as trying to reach a corner before a lady who was almost there. He often made bets with God on the outcome of such races.

"If I win, Mum'll take me to the pictures on Saturday afternoon." Or, "If I do it, Mum'll stop seeing Norman."

He was beginning to doubt the existence of God though, as the bets were rarely honoured. Even so, it felt good to set yourself a challenge and see it through.

He was feeling like that as he neared the finish, when he sensed someone running close to his left shoulder. He turned his head and saw Billy Richards, face red, eyes bulging, mouth gaping. Billy was good at most sports, one of the stars of the school football team, and a self-appointed captain in their lunchtime games. He was not so good in lessons however. Barely a day went by without him being in some kind of trouble, and Mr Bell's ruler had played a repertoire of tunes on the palms of his hands.

Edward was not unduly concerned by this late challenge, knowing that he could run even faster if necessary. In any case, the first two in each heat would run in the final. He kicked for the line and crossed it just ahead of Billy.

He bent over, hands on knees, until his breathing had returned to normal, then he resumed his place at the side of the track to watch the final heat, feeling rather pleased with himself. As he was sitting there, someone approached him from behind, He sensed it rather than saw the person, so that when he felt the pain of a knee thrust deliberately into his back between his shoulder blades he cried out and scrambled round to face his attacker. The red, sweating face of Billy Richards sneered at him.

“Reckon you’re good, don’t you? If you beat me in the final next week, you won’t be feeling so good. Think on.” He turned and walked away before Edward had a chance to reply.

All the pleasure that Edward had been feeling vanished. He knew very well what would happen if he dared beat Billy on sports day; he would have to fight him. The very thought made him nauseous.

Two kinds of fight occurred from time to time at his school. The first was spontaneous and could explode at any time for any reason; a push, a taunt, and tempers could snap. The familiar cry of "Fight! Fight!" would begin with a few bystanders. It would spread outwards and grow in volume as everyone rushed to get a glimpse. Then it would reach the ears of the duty teacher who would force a way through with slaps and shoves, break up the spectacle and march the guilty pair off for punishment.

The other sort was planned and these usually came about as a result of a grudge or simply to decide who was the better fighter. They took place after school in the park. Word of these contests tended to spread from class to class throughout the day until no one remained ignorant of what was going to happen. The excitement would increase as the last lesson neared its end, then a crowd of children would surround the two fighters and accompany them to the park, chattering cheerfully, some offering advice whilst others debated the probable outcome.

It was this that Edward feared. The public spectacle. He would have been happy to fight Billy without a crowd, just the two of them somewhere, slogging it out, trading blows without all the fuss. That he could handle, win or lose. He was not afraid of Billy, but the thought of a planned fight, which it would undoubtedly be, left him feeling chilled to the bone. As the contestants of the third heat thundered past, Edward came to a decision. He would have to let Billy win the race. If it meant that much to him to win the stupid race, then let him. It meant very little to Edward and, besides, they both knew who was the faster runner. That was what really mattered.

During the past week, however, he had felt a growing unease about what he planned to do. Nor could he talk it over with his mother, gran, grandad, anyone, because he knew what they would say which was not what he wished to hear. They would tell him to go ahead and win, not to give in to the threats of someone like Billy. Then he would have no choice or they would find out that he was a coward and question whether he really was his father’s son.

That night after getting into bed and before switching off the light, he had studied the photograph on his bedside table, the photo with the medal hanging from one corner by a brightly coloured ribbon. His father had been awarded that medal posthumously. He knew what the word meant. His mother had explained it to him, when she thought he was old enough to understand. His father had died in one of the final bombing raids of the war. His plane had never returned. Everyone said he was a war hero. Edward had spoken to the face in the photo and asked him to understand why he had to lose the race. He had never felt more alone.

Now he watched his mother showing the letter to his grandma, laughing, talking excitedly. It helped take his mind off the race, but not entirely. She was going to be there to watch him, despite his efforts to dissuade her.

"I don't think I'll win, Mum. I'm not the best runner.”

She told him it was enough if he did his best, win or lose. He had got to the final and she was proud of him. She wanted to be there. At least Norman wouldn't be there to see him lose because he couldn't get the time off work.

"Just think, a television," his grandma was saying. "The Edwards who live next door to the undertakers have one. I remember some men coming to put the thing up on their roof about three months ago. As far as I know, they're the only ones in the street to have one. What do you think Edward?"

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, leaving an uncomfortable wetness which he did not rub dry because his mother had told him it was rude.

"What's all the racket?" said his grandad grumpily, entering the kitchen and pouring hot water from the kettle into a bowl for his shave.

"Jenny's won a television. In a competition on the back of a cereal packet," Grandma told him.

Edward watched as his grandad spread the white shaving foam around his face and neck.

“Oh aye, and what about when it goes wrong. Who pays? They say they're forever going wrong. And you need an aerial fixing up on the roof. Does it include that?"

He began scraping away the whiteness with his razor. Edward saw the anger flash in his mother's eyes.

"Go on spoil it like you always do," she shouted. "The one good thing that's happened since I don't know when and you have to find some fault."

“Nothing wrong with winning if you don't have to start paying out afterwards. That's all I'm saying. Damn!" The white foam was stained with red where the razor had slipped.

"Don't pay him any attention," his grandmother said. "You know what he's like. I bet he'll be the first one with his feet up in front of the fire watching it."

"Not me," he said, dabbing at his cheek with a towel. "I've heard there's nothing worth seeing anyway."

His mother telling him to get ready for school prevented him from hearing the final stages of the argument but he hoped that she and grandma won. It would be good to have a television. He would be able to tell his friends at school about the programmes he watched. Perhaps his mother would let him invite Keith to watch a programme with him sometimes.

As he put his shorts, vest and plimsolls into his P.E. bag, the race was forced back into his mind. He wished that his mother was not going to be there.

When he returned to the kitchen, his grandad had gone to work, his grandma was sitting at the table sipping at a cup of tea and his mother stood by the sink doing the washing up.

"Ready?" she asked him. "Got everything?"

She kissed him on the cheek, wished him luck and said that she would see him later. He tried a final plea but she told him not to be silly, that she would not miss it for the world. He stepped into the sunlight of the backyard and then into the back street where one or two women were already hanging out the washing.

Mr. Thomas from number 24 was about a hundred metres ahead, probably on his way to work. If I can get to the street before him, Edward thought. He began to run.

End.

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