Kate’s radiant smile had made her briefly beautiful; she stopped and left a seat for Zoe to come and rest on the way to the race… had she wanted to. Some people left those rare empty spaces for others, be they elderly or in some way disadvantaged, but today, since the spectators had been prevented from the front seats, only parents and participants would be allowed to take a place in the front row.
It was a bush setting; the oval no longer green since winter rains had turned turf into mud. Only the front row was sheltering under the cover of corrugated cement sheets and then further-on, the stretched blue tarpaulins the wind had already shredded at their ends. The tiny eatery at the rear only dispensing lukewarm pies and freezing cold coke, sometimes sweets for free if a donor wished to celebrate a kid’s birthday, or for the return of an injured footballer after an absence that could have been weeks.
Kate and Zoe were best friends, had been waiting for this event counting the days, enthusiasm surging, frothing and boiling all along, yet feeling hardly prepared to sustain the brunt of competition.
“G’day! I’m Mr Denton, the assistant coach!” he was loud, “Mr Telly is indisposed and I’m to take his place.” He had vapour out of his mouth, the colour of the nose the perfect thermometer to gauge the cold.
“So, young ladies, I will see you through the warm-up exercise and assess your suitability for today’s track disciplines.” The muffled giggle coming from the girls proof of a paradox in which the word ‘track’ didn’t jell to the muddy trail around the oval.
Warm-up completed, Denton gently pulled aside the one that had a heavy cold and another whose split shoe had no hope of holding a foot.
“Are you up to it? Perhaps be best you retired.” Softly, softly, as if to prevent disappointment which could easily start the tears; then walked where the other girls waited after forming a circle.
“So young ladies, if I could have you jogging on the spot to get your circulation going, we’d be just about ready to start. And if the result is not what you planned, may I remind you that a tree is best measured when it’s down.” Adding the little coda to an announcement which might prove an omen. His voice at liberty to assess while sounding like the premonition of musical notes after freshly tickled chimes.
Parents watched; a grey sky threatening rain! And studying the group from higher on the moll, the small rowdy crowd could be seen clapping, other kids kicking a ball, and a few jumping on muddy puddles as if a blue rimmed swimming pool. It was, after all, an occasion long awaited, to be enjoyed, and for some, perhaps to prove a point.
The entrants came back to the starting line; Zoe playing her usual trick by stepping up to Kate and showing to be a whole inch higher, which in her mind had to account for something. Next to her, Kate seemed as if assembled in the dark out of spare parts: teeth a little forward and the nose in her face easily adapt to pucker.
Zoe looked into her eyes, her face one inch away from hers.
“Who are you, really?” puffing her cheeks to gain the upper hand, “and don’t think I’ll make it easier for you!” Kate in turn sending back the usual placatory smile, even conveying a kiss from the peppery skin of her own lips.
A parent in the background had found the encounter a tad hostile, had been quick to rise to her feet and shout: “Stop it, stop it now you two!” Harshly told in the grey light of a tedious afternoon, the kind that brings corpulent visitors with carrier bags full of Coke and assorted packets of salted chips.
But then, as time to run arrived, things soon changed. The mood around the oval matching the type of day, when competitors and onlookers might have been reminded of God’s presence and that he does indeed bestow gifts to those who care acting as guarantors to the school’s neighbourhood respectability.
They were ready! Knees bent and toes digging in the mud, muscles about to explode and then the noise: a magnificent crescendo of expectation for the edgy preparation. The substitute coach’s hunch had already picked the winner, the prime gladiator which would get the shiny medal he had bought with his own money. The shop was full of such trinkets and cups, but should one wish to bestow a greater compliment on the winner, then the gold urn with intaglio, calligraphy and turned handles, could be had for the appropriate outlay. He’d taken a long look, but then since finding his loose change not on par with the ticketed price, he’d chosen the medal.
“Ready… set… go!” Relaying only on the loud clap of his hands.
The run would last less than few minutes, but arriving at those moments had begun much before the day; hours of confrontations mixed with affection and loathe, spirited aggression and silent curse, then making-up as if Kate and Zoe kept spinning constantly in a circle, matching each other’s breath with burning breath, stride for gazelle-like stride and then, as many times before, going as fast as their lungs would allow. The burning sensation to be ignored until one was first across the line, to win or lose by a solitary inch even when the run was only to practise!
At the start they were side by side. At mid-race, Kate looked around her shoulder, saw Zoe beside her, everything about body-language pointing to her physical advantage; she could feel some kind superior force flowing through her legs and most of all, her will to win which had to be the result of her nightly prayers before falling asleep.
“What the heck are you doing here?” Kate heard Zoe mocking her, and yet at this stage Zoe was on the inside lane still beside her, not yet a winner and perhaps saving the sprint for the final thirty metres. Kate saw mud splashing, felt grit in her eye, a shoelace coming undone… the rain pelting down assisted by that brutal headwind… a wobble… Kate fell! Fell the wrong way and instantly obstructing Zoe in her lane. In turn tumbling over her, face in the mud to suffer the coarse mix of wet gritty soil. And while people watched like stone gargoyles grimacing at passers by, the race came to its end. The flag falling amongst the yelling of many and with two frantic mums running to help.
Mr Denton had been waiting at the finish: “Well done, girls. Never mind the accident, you did your best.” His voice strangled in the effort to rise above the noise, lost for words until he found an expression of martyrdom which he offered to the two girls. “Don’t feel badly, there’s always another chance.” Then badly pretending not to notice Kate and Zoë’s tears and walking away to console those two mums.
They were made to sit; the medal had been won by another, excitable parents embracing the winner. Then, if anyone had bothered to notice the two, a muddy Zoe was talking to an equally muddy Kate, her face in need to be cleaned: “I believe it wasn’t your fault Kate, and also believe you would have won.” The look on her face as if her heart would float upward through her throat.
“I’ve never met anyone like you, Zoë!”
“I know, that’s why you are happy to know me… and it wasn’t my fault.” A certain homespun charm responsible for her quick blush.
Being chased down by another human is something frightening, though it’s vital not to show weakness and never give an inch; it’s when you’re down that the timber of your soul dances around you. It’s there to be seen, assessed and measured. But then, since the victor’s place is reserved for those who win regardless of concern or feelings, it pays to be prepared even when your mind has seen things it could never believe.