Jill Herring won the Prescot Festival Short Story Competition 2014 with this whimsical yet tender tale of two boys and their elderly grandmother. Click here for details of how to enter the 2015 contest.
THE WHEELBARROW RACE
By Jill Herring
ANNUAL VILLAGE FETE
SWINGS, RIFLE RANGE, KIDDIES’ TREASURE HUNT
GUESS THE WEIGHT OF THE PIG, WHEELBARROW RACE
PRIZES! PRIZES! PRIZES!
Mum looked up with a chuckle from stirring the lunchtime soup.
“I’m sorry, Tom, but you know what my knees are like. I’d never get out.”
“But all my mates are away on holidays, and everyone is paired up now.”
“And we only just found out that the wheelbarrow pusher AND the rider both have to be over 16, so I can’t do it,” said Bob. “It’s not fair!”
“Mum, there’s a prize of £10. You can have it if you’ll just say yes. Please!”
Mum laughed at her two sons’ eager faces.
“How old do you think I am?”
Tom turned slowly.
“Not a snowball’s chance in hell, son.”
The day of the Fete dawned warm.
“Find something useful to do”, said Mum as she set off for work. “I’m sure you’ve got holiday homework. And don’t forget Gran’s cuppa.”
Tom stood at the back door, looking at the barrow.
He turned back quickly.
“I’ll get it now,” said Bob.
“And I’ll get HER,” said Tom, weightily. “HER,” he repeated.
It took Bob a minute, then, “NO. You can’t!”
“Why not? You can run with us in case we have a spill. Get cushions. She never speaks, so Mum and Dad’ll never know.”
Gran seemed a little surprised but settled into the barrow nicely.
“Get the blanket round her. She might get cold.”
Setting off was tricky, but Gran didn’t murmur. In fact, her little bony hands clasped the sides of the barrow and she braced her legs against the front edge.
“She’s a pro!” laughed Bob, as they sped to the village centre.
As Tom lined up for the start of the race, Jimmy Jones pushed his barrow, containing brother Pete, next to him.
“All right, Tommo. I think you’ll find we’ll be taking this one.”
“I think not, my friend,” retorted Tom, happily judging Pete to be at least three times the weight of Gran. “You might be quick off the mark, but you’ll be eating my dust on those hills.”
Jimmy glanced down at the heavily muffled figure in Tom’s barrow.
“Who’ve you got there?”
Bob quickly edged in-between
“Just a friend.”
“ON YOUR MARKS. 3, 2, 1.”
The pistol startled Gran so much that she let out her first squeak in years.
The pace was cracking. Jimmy Jones and Pete edged ahead round the football pitch, gaining the inside position. Tom swore, then remembered and apologised to Gran.
At the first hill, Tom overtook Jimmy and went flying down the slope, the wind blowing back Gran’s blanket and whistling through her sparse, silvery locks. Bob could have sworn he heard a chuckle.
The school corner was tighter than expected, and the barrow began to lurch to the right.
Gran’s knuckles whitened as she leant into the bend like a TT rider.
A small crowd had collected there, no doubt hoping for a disaster, but they cheered and clapped just the same.
As the barrow straightened up, so did Gran. She clasped her hands over her head, grinning broadly at the spectators.
“Tommo,” gasped Bob, “we forgot to put her teeth in!”
Round the playground they hurtled, and Tom could see Green Hill ahead.
From nowhere, Jimmy appeared at Tom’s shoulder. It was neck-and-neck up the slope. Gran turned slowly to look at Jimmy. Tom and Bob could not see the look that Gran gave, but Jimmy turned white and immediately lost power, dropping back and almost overturning.
At last, the summit. Only a short way to the finish now.
Suddenly Gran’s arm raised to the side and pointed.
“There!” she ordered.
Tom and Bob almost fainted.
“There! I want to go there!”
A small lane off the road.
“We have to go on, Gran. To win.”
Jimmy and Pete were passing them.
Then, very quietly, “Please.”
Tom and Bob gaped at each other. No words were needed.
The lane was shady with trees, then suddenly it opened out into summer meadows. As they came to a small pond, Gran’s arm came out again.
At first there was silence, and then came the sound of the birds – a distant cuckoo, the blue tit’s “tsee tsee” and the skylark’s exuberant song, high above.
The hedgerows sighted softly, sending forth the sweet scent of dog rose.
A dragonfly zoomed overhead, sparkling blue, and while the distant trees rustled, poppies and cornflowers swayed, as if to their music.
Bob sat on the ground. Tom wiped his face with his sweaty tee-shirt and joined him. Then they heard a faint sound.
“Que sera sera, whatever will be will be…”
Gran was singing.
“Tommo, look at her.”
They had never seen Gran look like this. Almost like a young girl.
She held out her hands and they each took one.
Louder she sang, and shook their hands to make them join in.
They did. They had no idea what they were singing, but it didn’t matter. They laughed as they sang. Far in the distance, they could hear the winner of the race being cheered.