Off to the Races

When I was working on writing one piece of fiction a day, I occasionally had help from my lovely husband who would suggest a topic.  This added another layer to the challenge as I tried to develop a story around an abstract concept. When possible, I also tried to experiment with different writing techniques, and what follows managed to combine both of these targets into one (rather long) short story.

It was inspired by a drive through Wiltshire and passing near the village of Bromham.  There were signs for Bromham Races, and my husband turned to me and said, “That’s what I’d like you to write about, the Bromham Races.”  I had recently read Daphne Du Maurier’s short story “The Old Man” and loved how she plays with the reader’s expectations.  While no where near her calibre, I had a lot of fun with this one and it turned out to be one of my husband’s favourites.

*** I feel I should add the disclaimer that, to the best of my knowledge, this bears absolutely no resemblance to the real Bromham Races.  Also, I was serious about it being rather long so please click the link to continue! ***

“Hey, Ted!  What are you doing here?  Mind if I have a seat?” Will was already sitting down as he asked, and Ted just smiled in acknowledgement.  “Aren’t you participating in the race this year?”

Ted shook his head. “No, not this year.  I’m getting too old for it, really.  My son’s going to enter though.”

“Really?  Little Teddy?”

Ted laughed.  “Well, he just returned from his first year at Uni and isn’t so little anymore, but yeah, he’s been looking forward to it all year. He’s even been doing a special diet and training and everything.”

“Really?  How does that work?”

“I’m not sure exactly. But I imagine it’s plenty of greens and a bit of exercise.” Ted thought for a moment.  “And avoiding salt and beer of course.”  They both burst out laughing.

“Speaking of which, could I buy you a pint?” Will asked, gesturing to Ted’s nearly empty glass.

“Oh, make it a half, thanks,” Ted said.  Will disappeared to the bar and Ted drained his glass. He checked his watch; still an hour before the race, plenty of time for a chinwag before heading out to watch his son compete.

“Cheers,” he said when Will returned.  “Here’s to Teddy and his first Bromham race,” Will said, and they clinked glasses. “Do you remember your first race?”

Ted thought for a moment. “Let’s see … I was twelve.  No, maybe, thirteen. They didn’t have the age requirement like they do now.  Health and safety, you know,” both men snorted at this. “I was so nervous the night before I couldn’t sleep, then couldn’t eat the next day. My mother said I needed to keep my strength up, but I was just so worried that something would go wrong.” He laughed. “It didn’t of course, everyone made a good showing.”

“Do you know how long it’s been going on? I remember my granddad telling me the race was already well established in his time.”

“Hmmm, I think it became an official part of the fete in 1879, 1880, something like that. Women weren’t allowed to enter until 1973 though, can you believe that?”

“Did they really want to?” Will asked.  They both laughed again.

“Well, maybe not, but my mother always seemed interested in it.  She said she lost her chance at Bromham fame as the change in rules came too late for her.”

Will raised an eyebrow. “Come on, can anyone ever really be too old for it though? Jackie Corland enters every year and he’s 86.”

“I know, I know. I thought the same thing, but I think you just feel silly about it after a while. And you have to admit, Jackie has talent. He rarely places below fourth.”

“True,” Will finished off his pint. “Do you want to head over to the grounds?”

They left the pub and headed over to the village green. It was a riot of colour, people, scents, and sounds. The Midsummer Fete was the highlight of the village’s social calendar, and it looked like everyone had turned out for the festivities. Marquees dotted the green, and children ran through the crowds carrying candy floss and wearing glow-in-the-dark jewellery. Booths were set up for locals to sell homemade products, and Ted and Will sampled their way towards the main tent, tasting honey, chutney, and cheese along their way.

“Who do you fancy this year?” Will asked, popping a fudge sample in his mouth.

“Well, besides Teddy of course, I think Jackie will continue to work his magic.  I think he’ll at least place. And, don’t tell Teddy or Alice, but I’m having a flutter on Becca Cookson. Her time last year was fantastic.”

Will struggled to swallow the fudge and, after several seconds, finally answered. “Yeah, nearly a record wasn’t it?”

They had reached the tent and race entrants were milling around, waiting to be given entry. Teddy was pacing on the edge of the crowd, a box clutched tightly to his chest. “Hey, dad, thanks for coming out for this. Hi, Mr. Smithfield, nice to see you.” He reached out to shake Will’s hand, careful not to jar the box or its contents.

“Your dad was saying you’ve been training for this. Good luck with it, I’m sure you’ll do well,” he pulled out his phone to check the time. “I need to have a quick meeting with Buddy, but I’ll catch up with you later.”

Buddy Carmichael was Bromham’s unofficial official bookie for the race, and it was a widely known secret that more money changed hands in the lead up to the race than during the World Cup. Will disappeared into the crowd, and Ted patted his son on the shoulder. “It’ll all be fine. You’ve prepared for this.  And don’t worry if you don’t win, or even place.  Finishing is the main thing.”

Teddy nodded. “Yeah, I know.” A bell sounded. That was the signal that competitors were allowed to enter the tent, and it would be followed in five minutes by a second bell, one that indicated that spectators were allowed to take their seats.  Ten minutes after that, the race would begin.

“Good luck!” Ted called as Teddy ducked inside. The atmosphere had changed in subtle ways with the ringing of the bell. It was quieter, but full of anticipation. People began to drift over to where Ted stood and an orderly queue began to form. He could see the vendors begin to put produce away and pack up their booth in the hopes they would make it to the race’s start. It was a mark of pride for a Bromham resident to say they had been there for the whole thing.

The second bell rang, and Ted and the others walked inside. His eyes adjusted to the shade and he noticed they had set the projector up again. Good.
It would make things much easier to see, and he felt safe in taking a seat away from the main ring. There had been talk of having the race streamed online, but it just didn’t happen this year.  Alice, his wife, was on a business trip and disappointed to be missing Teddy’s first race; she asked that he take pictures and he got his phone out in preparation.

Ted himself was starting to get that old feeling of excitement and nervousness that always happened before a race. He could see the contestants gather in a circle in the centre of the tent, and the mayor was going over the rules with them. Spectators were still trickling in, and the tent had filled up quickly, as it always did.

Two minutes before the start, the mayor took a microphone and the contestants lined up. Ted took a photo, and echoing flashes went off around the tent; it seemed that everyone had a phone, tablet, or camera aimed towards the centre, where the action would be.

“Welcome to this year’s Bromham race!” the mayor said, her voice echoing in the microphone.  There was a brief round of applause.  “I’m sure you’re all wondering if Becca will beat her record of 4 hours and 10 minutes,” a small section of the audience erupted in cheers and applause, “and we have
several new faces this year, including Teddy Wright, son of three-time champion Ted Wright; does he have the ‘wright’ stuff to follow in his father’s
footsteps?” Ted felt himself blushing as whoops broke out in the crowd, and he could see Teddy’s face redden as well on the big screen.  “But that’s enough from me.  I know what you’re all waiting for – let the race commence!”

Some villages raced horses, others dogs. Ted had heard of villages racing turtles and snails. But, to the best of his knowledge, Bromham was unique. It raced slugs.

The contestants opened their boxes, and placed the competitors on the table. First one to cross the line won, and its owner wouldn’t have to buy drinks for the next year at least. The tent began to fill with more applause, foot stamping and hollers.

It was going to be a long, slow night, and that’s just how Bromham liked it.

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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