The Winner Takes Nothing by Norah Jansen

“Please Mummy, please, please.”

My four year-old daughter’s pleading was getting on my nerves. She wanted me to say I would win a race at her school sports day. I didn’t mind running but winning was a different matter, particularly since most of the other mothers were gym bunnies. I sarcastically called them the Beautiful People but I have no illusions about myself and I knew I didn’t like them because they were everything I’m not, and never was.

“Molly!” my voice was sharper than I’d intended but I was at the end of my tether.

“I’ll do it okay? But I probably won’t win!”

She jumped up and raced to fling her arms around my calves.

“Oh you will Mummy. You’re the best!” Tears filled my eyes at the extent of her belief in me and I hugged her tightly before I sent her back to her toys.

“Leave me alone now to finish preparing the dinner.”

She settled down, still muttering to herself.

“Thank you Mummy, thank you Mummy.”

What had I got myself into? I hadn’t had exercise more strenuous than a walk since my second child, Jay, was born a year ago. I had lost the baby weight and I kept so busy around the house and garden I felt I didn’t need more, but who was I kidding? My boobs were sagging a bit and my behind had definitely seen better days.

And now I had to run a hundred metres against women who always seemed to get that last parking space in the mornings while looking as if they’d just spent an hour in a beauty salon, after they’d been to the gym!

I looked down at my ratty sweatpants and then checked the calendar. I had eight days to practice! My heart fluttered in my stomach and I forced myself to breathe deeply. I hadn’t had a panic attack since I was an ugly teenager with braces, and spots for the whole of Europe and I forced myself to calm down. I would focus on my daughter, not the clones of my childhood bullies.  The baby began to cry so I put running out of my mind and didn’t think about it again until I sank onto the sofa beside my dozing husband hours later.

“I’ve let Molly persuade me to run in the mother’s race at the school fair.” I groaned into my hands, and poked his foot with mine when I felt him laughing silently beside me.

“NOT funny Raymond!”

“Oh but it is Melissa!”

We grinned at each other. We rarely used our full names.

“Oh Ray, what am I going to do? All the Beautiful People will be running, to show off their tans and muscled calves.

“What does that matter? You’re only doing it for Molly.”

“It does matter – she wants me to win, and I want to win for her”

Ray gathered me into his embrace and kissed the top of my head.

“Molly would only be upset if you didn’t do it. She won’t care if you come in last!”

I looked at him disbelievingly. He really didn’t know our daughter at all.

The day of the fair dawned bright and clear. Molly left the house in a high state of excitement, promising to wait at the finish line for me.

I’d trained as often as I could, racing up and down the footpath while the baby slept, and Ray helped me with my sprint starts. Molly was so proud of her mother and stretched along with me after each bout of practice, but still I worried that it wasn’t enough. All I could do was wish bad luck on the Beautiful People and hope for the best.

I warmed up as I watched the Beautiful People approach in their lurid gym gear. All blonde ponytails and sunbed tans as they deliberately ignored everyone else.

There were a few others who looked just as uncomfortable as me but I took neither solace nor sisterhood from them. This was me against the Beautiful People and I was finally going to have the last laugh I used to daydream about as I hid in the library from the bullies.

We lined up at the starting point and listened to a short speech from the headmistress about how taking part was everything and everyone was a winner. I couldn’t stop myself from rolling my eyes. What a load of codswallop. The Beautiful People giggled and didn’t bother to hide their disdain.

We got into our starting positions and after a few seconds of absolute terror the headmistress blew her whistle and we were off.

I focused on Molly’s blonde head with the big red bow as she jumped up and down with encouragement, and after only a few metres I was leading the field. Heavy breathing on my right and a quick glance showed me Kayley’s mother, leader of the Beautiful People. As she drew level she glanced at me with her top lip curled into a sneer and I knew I couldn’t let her beat me. This race wasn’t just for Molly now—I had to win for me.

I didn’t think about consequences.  I dropped back a pace and let her pull ahead, and then I put on a burst of speed until I was at her shoulder. I stuck out my elbow and hit her in the ribs as she pumped her arms. She screamed behind me as I raced on. I felt the tape at the finish line and I jumped for joy, my arms in the air.

The judge was coming towards me with a frown on her face but I ignored her. I looked for Molly in the now-silent crowd and saw her staring at me, her big blue eyes wide with horror. And I knew, too late, that there were worse things than losing.


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