Back in the olden days when the world was in black and white (a student of mine genuinely believed this – I’m using it in a story) I was good at a couple of things: running very fast, often in circles, and bending over backwards. I had the legs of a greyhound and a pipe cleaner spine. These talents have generally been more or less useless when negotiating the stormy seas of adulthood and middle age. Good for a wry metaphor and languid sigh, but that’s about it.
Running fast is impossible now, so I have a Mazda Mx5 for speed and wind-in-the hair-purposes. It’s great. (The guy who sold it to me said that the handling is so good I wouldn’t need to brake when going round corners. Well, quelle surprise – I heartily recommend braking when going round corners, and at many other opportunities). But I remember the feeling of running – I can actually still feel the feeling of running – of that almost weightless fleet-footedness, of the strength in my muscles, of running as fast as my dog, downhill, almost cartwheeling into disaster – cowpats, thistles, barbed wire – as my legs almost didn’t keep up with gravity, momentum, with some law of physics that would forever lie way beyond my understanding. But somehow they did. Somehow my legs could carry me at great speed over long distances. There’s really nothing that troubles me about ageing – it’s privilege and luck still to be alive and more or less intact – but I miss being fast. I miss feeling as though I’m a human comet, a bullet from a gun, a cheetah.
When you’re young, you have other people making decisions about what you should do with your talents, and the people around me decided that because I could run very fast with my dog, I should run competitively, and that I should be concerned about winning, about beating other people, about being the best. This was not negotiable. I didn’t agree, or see the point, or enjoy it, or want to do it, or care, or have any interest in winning at all. None. Why would I want to spend weekend after weekend, year after year, being drunkenly driven around the county to competitions which meant nothing, being lined up on a hard asphalt track and not bouncy summer, cowpatty grass, with a dozen other trembling girls, all of whom I guarantee would rather have been anywhere else? But it was not negotiable.
So someone fires a starting pistol and off we go, as though we really could be shot, sprinting like the little greyhounds we are. Round and round the hard asphalt track, once for 400m, twice for 800m, four times for the 1500m, fire in the lungs, elbows like pistons. And at some point, someone wins the race. Everyone else loses. And then it’s over. One winner, a lot of losers. And we all have new labels, just like that.
I did win a race once, a cross country race. We’d been slogging across fields and along muddy paths for a number of painful miles when I realised that as the finish line approached I was on my own. There was no one in front of me. I didn’t like it. I slowed down and looked behind me. The nearest people were maybe 20, 50 yards away over the field. Some of them were walking. I didn’t know what to do. It was embarrassing and lonely, and I almost stopped to let them catch up, but the people who make decisions were standing along the route and shouted very, very loudly for me to hurry up. Not negotiable. So I crossed the finish line first, the winner, and felt nothing but loneliness and exhaustion.
Which gets me to the point I’m making here. I won a competition recently which, for only the second time in my life, actually means something, personally, deeply. In my heart. The first time was almost exactly this time last year, when the first chapter of my first novel got a first prize. Now, that first chapter of my first novel has won another first prize, and because I care enormously about my story, about my imaginary friends in their imaginary world, and because I am the decision-maker now, I decide what to do with my talents, I choose this, negotiate my time, my days, my weekends; because I do it myself, no one else does, it’s my adventure and my risk, and my energy and muscles and furrowed brow and backache and fattening backside that has put it all together – because of all that, it’s ok to win. It’s ok. It’s a start.