First prize for determination

Category C: First Place (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition

Author:  Michael Doyle

Title:  First prize for determination


Fifty years of marriage and he still didn’t know how it had happened. Kim looked at the photograph of his dead wife and again struggled to understand.  How was it that he’d fallen in love with her all those years ago?  He knew that somehow she’d been responsible for them coming together.  But how did she do it?  She had always been the clever one.  He’d been a talented sportsman, whilst she’d been a renowned physicist. He carefully placed the framed photo back on the shelf alongside his running trophies and adjacent to her acclaimed book, ‘Light – Its Speed and Potential Uses.’

The marriage had been a good one. Ups and downs of course, as they say, Kim thought to himself.  No real secrets.  Just this one mystery which he’d never been able to ask her about. Why not?  Perhaps it would have spoilt the magic.  Perhaps, since he had never raised the subject, she assumed that he knew.  The obvious thing would have been to discuss it.  But it was too late now, and he found himself wallowing in the luxury of ignorance.  Somehow, all those years ago, she had managed to make him realise that she was the only person in the world with whom he could be truly happy.   How?  How had she done it?    

At 17 years of age he was certain that Claire Thompson was the most perfect girl that had ever lived.  Unfortunately, there were plenty of others at Brompton High School who thought the same.  His otherwise best friend Jack was similarly smitten.  Besotted.  Infatuated.  Whatever. And Claire knew that they were competing for her favour but she had yet to indicate which of them was her choice.  It wasn’t that she didn’t care or was overly aware of her desirability.  She was simply confused and couldn’t make up her mind.   

The annual cross-country race was to be run on Friday afternoon.  Excitement and anticipation had been intense.  At the start of the year Jack and Kim were similar in build and they almost took it in turns to win the weekly running sessions. But then Jack seemed to change every day.  His voice deepened and suddenly he was tallest in the class by 20 centimetres.  Kim hadn’t changed much.  He was still wearing the same trousers that he’d worn in 7th Grade, others seemed to find his voice amusing, and there was no sign of anything hair-like on his face.  Worst of all, and not surprisingly, Kim was now finding it very difficult to keep up with Jack over the 5 kilometre course. 

Everyone knew that school tradition decreed whoever was first across the line would accompany the Head Girl to the Graduation Ball.  And Claire was Head Girl.  The second place getter would have to make do with whoever came top in Literature.   So the heart of the matter seemed to be decided and apparently everything was already settled.

But it wasn’t, of course.  Kim couldn’t just given up.  There were two things in his favour.  Firstly, he knew that Jack was becoming foolishly over-confident and had already told classmates how much he was looking forward to dancing with Claire.  Secondly, and more importantly, Kim had something which he intended to use to his utmost advantage.  He had always known that, if it came to the crunch, whenever there was the slightest chance to achieve something that he really wanted, he would never stop trying.  Even if he had reached the limit of everything, he could summon an extra few grams of determination.  But only when it was really needed.  Jack, on the other hand, was different.  He had a level of desperation, it’s true, and would continue running even when the pain was at its worst.  But there was always a doubt about him when under real pressure.  Simply put, Kim had the most determination when it really mattered.

It was raining on Friday morning and Kim thanked the heavens.  The mud would make it that much harder for Jack to carry his bulk over the undulating course.  Unfortunately, Melbourne’s weather played its usual tricks and by the start of the race the hot sun was shining with an intensity that seemed to burn into the back of their brains.  The sky was now cloudless and the boys waiting at the start jostled and screwed their eyes in the glaring light.

The gym master insisted on, again, explaining the rather meaningless rules of the race.  Basically, no pushing or shoving.  Nobody paid any attention.  He savoured his moment of importance and then fired a starting pistol, which seemed to be disappointingly quiet, and 60 young men cascaded down a grassy slope.  It was just like the Melbourne Cup with almost everybody wanting to be at the front.  Pushing and shoving.  Bumping and bustling.  A few stumbled and fell, whilst several sprinted far into the distance.  Jack and Kim were the only ones who started with a fast but steady trot, running side by side.  Soon enough, they were a hundred metres in front of all the other runners.   Those that had dashed away dropped their heads and lost interest in competing.

Kim looked sideways and tried to assess how much strength was left in Jack.  They were panting in unison and running robotically.   It was as if their arms and legs were relentlessly keeping time with a crazy metronome.  800 metres from home and approaching a hill.  The pain was becoming unbearable.  Kim forced himself to focus and to screw out some extra effort.  He imperceptibly turned up the tempo.  His taller rival immediately sensed the change and managed to increase his own speed.  They were still pounding away, side by side, in complete synchronisation.  Except that Kim had become aware of an alteration in the breathing of his companion.   It was almost the same as his own.  But not exactly.  There was a tiny, tiny, difference.  Just a little more laboured and demanding.  Even so, Jack was still keeping pace with him.

300 metres from the finish and Kim knew that he was going to have to run faster than he had ever done before.  Although his heart was thumping and there was a screaming agony somewhere in his chest, now was the time to accelerate.  As much as he tried, there was still the sound of heavy breathing just behind him.    Suddenly, Jack was alongside and then moving past.  Kim felt his own feet moving up and down but to little effect, Jack’s lead was growing.   Was Claire going to be his or Jack’s?  There was nothing for it.   Kim would have to use what was his only advantage.  He knew now that his determination was greater than that of Jack.  He just needed to catch him and put him under real pressure. Easier said than done. One hundred metres to the finish. There was a small crowd of parents, students, and teachers seemingly getting nearer and nearer.  The sun was behind the two racers and, for the watchers struggling to identify who was winning, Jack and Kim must have appeared like a frustrating mirage shimmering beneath the sun.  The eyes of the two runners were fixed on the red brick school buildings and the manicured lawn where they knew, somewhere in the cool shadows, a white tape was waiting for them.  What had before been a confused muttering coming from the distant crowd was now becoming louder.   Kim bit his lip and forced his legs to move faster.   He could hear the shouting and cheering, some for him and some for Jack.  “You’ve got him, Kim!”  “Come on Jack, you can do it!”  “Faster!   Nearly here!”  “Come on!”   Time seemed to go in slow motion as he caught up to Jack, shoulder to shoulder.  Kim knew that Jack was hurting every bit as much as he was.  After the briefest contention, he was in front.  This was it.   Jack must have known he was beaten.   They were less than 30 metres from the tape.   Jack was so very close behind, but also obviously beaten.  Despite the hot sun boring its rays into the back of his head, Kim felt as though he could run forever.  He would be with Claire at the Ball.  He had won her.  He knew it for certain.

But he was wrong.  Something broke his concentration.  It was only for a fraction of a second. He couldn’t see.  He shielded his eyes, staggered, and kept running, even as Jack’s gasping but exultant breaths passed him.  Jack as was in front now. And the race was over. 

Claire accompanied Jack to the Graduation Ball and both seemed quite happy.  Though not as happy as Kim.  The girl, Indira, with whom he went to the Ball was the happiest of them all.  Her favourite subject might have been Physics but she was capable of studying and swotting harder than anybody else.  It was through sheer determination that she had won the prize for Literature. After that, she had to rely on the weather report being accurate and contrived to watch the end of the race, on her own, from a second floor window of the school science block.  It was a little underhand to flash the mirror into Kim’s eyes just at that crucial moment.  But then determination is not the monopoly of males. Indira had simply made sure that she, not Claire, would go to the Ball with Kim. The boy whom she loved and was determined to marry.

Now, 50 years later, Kim was thinking of his wife and all those wonderful years that they had shared. He looked at the book that Indira had written and realised, with a slight tremor of shame, that he had never really read it.   He’d tried of course but always gave up after the first few chapters. And Indira had, several times, gently attempted to explain the various concepts. She had once said that she was certain that he’d understand eventually. This time he turned to the back and read the conclusion.  It said that Physics was a desperately rewarding subject and the world has barely understood the smallest portion of its potential.  In particular, the fact that Light could be used to transmit energy in a way that that altered the lives of individuals.   It even, Indira had written, could provide the power to communicate across time. The next paragraph was a simple statement of thanks to her husband, Kim, for his love, support, and ability to see the Light when it really mattered.

Kim read the words again. And understood.



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Last updated: 02 September 2021