We’re delighted to publish The Race by Alice Fowler, the winner of the Historical Writers’ Association Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Prize for 2020. The judges praised the “sheer brilliance” of the premise and her “mastery” in “building atmosphere that tracks with the story’s mounting tension”. We hope you enjoy it, too.
And the 2021 HWA/DD Short Story Competition is now open for entries. Full details are at the bottom of the page.
The Hurtwood, Surrey, 1928.
I stand, pinned to the spot, not certain if I’ve heard the whistle.
That’s Jack, my little brother, startling me to life.
My eyes turn up the track. The village girls are five yards out, eating up the ground. Lorrie Chandler’s out in front. I remember her from last year. Legs like they’re sprouting from her armpits; running like it’s for England, not to put some gypsies in their place.
That’s my teacher, Mr Milner, in his shirt and knitted tie. Kind, patient, never shouts. If he says go, I’m off.
I run, brown legs taut as wire. I’m like a deer, Ma says: bounding, like I’m trying to see to the next place. Thin arms paddling, like I’m pulling back the air.
‘Try your best, children,’ Mr Milner told us, in the run-up to the race.
That’s all right for him. He ain’t running barefoot, ’gainst them village kids in shoes. Bodies white and doughy, all flashing teeth and hair; us, dark and scrawny, our limbs like knotted string.
Two laps round the track, a race for girls and one for boys. After that it’s tea, to make it worth our while. Sandwiches, cakes, do have another. ‘You look hungry, little girl, how about one of these?’ Brown bread, white bread, crusts cut off; egg mushed with something so delicious I can taste it for a year. Ham, cheese, tomatoes, butter, slimy discs of something green. The ladies in their drop waist dresses giving out their smiles. The day they forget the ‘gypsy nuisance’ and act like we’re all friends.
There’s a girl not far ahead, fists clenched, blowing like a horse. Her shoes are black and rubbery and flapping at her heels. Me, I like to feel the grass, the dust, the little stones. How can you run, if your feet can’t read the ground?
Our school, it’s the first for gypsies in the land. Imagine that: me, Mags Hoadley, ten years old, picked out to get some learning. Mr Milner shows us pictures: dog, horse, tree. Next thing, we’ve got a board and chalk to scratch our names. Lines, curves, letters, numbers. More than Pa can do, or Ma. Then Mr Milner says he’ll give a penny for each word we learn right. Well, that gets us trying. Soon Mr Milner’s feeling poorer and his wife says, could he stop?
Pa tries to make out he don’t like the school. Says, what do we need with reading, writing and counting? We’re Gypsies. We’ve got more important things to know.
That’s what he tells us, but I don’t believe him. Why else are we pitched up at the Hurtwood? Us and 20 other tents nestled in the pines; going nowhere, smoke twisting from our roofs? We ain’t here to see Sir Reginald, that’s for sure.
Sir Reggie: I see him, as I run around the bend. He’s standing by the food tent like he owns it: which, most like, he does. These woods and heaths, they’re his, far as any eye can see. He owns the sandy land we camp on, the water from the well. He owns the heather and the bracken, the hidden hollow ways. He owns the purple berries we stuff into our mouths.
Hat, moustache, round specs and beady eyes. A nose that’s bigger than it should be, for poking into our affairs. ‘Five shillings, for a licence,’ that’s what he said to Pa. ‘You’re a strain on resources, Mr. Hoadley. Paying up is only fair.’
Fair? When he owns so many thousand acres, and we have none at all? Pa’s fist twitched. For decades – centuries – we Hoadleys been camping at the Hurtwood. Picking fruit, picking hops, working where we’re wanted. Welcomed, not made to pay. No trouble to anyone, so long as we’re not bothered.
Pa, he don’t have five shillings, not that’s going spare. I saw him talking to the other men, cooking up a plan. That night, Reggie’s pheasants took a culling. Fat feathered bodies off to Dorking market; by evening, five shillings pushed into his lordship’s palm.
‘Won’t he notice his birds are gone a-missing?’ I asked Ma. Ma gave her don’t-ask-questions look. ‘Shush, Mags. He’ll learn.’
We’re running faster now: dust rising, feet pounding in the earth. Lorrie Chandler, she’s way out in the lead. Where are my friends, Jess and Sarah, who should be running with me? I look behind. Jess is sitting down, holding up her foot. Sarah’s stopped to help her, like she’s searching for a thorn. That won’t beat Lorrie Chandler. I’ll have to do it on my own.
Jack, my little brother, he can’t run ten yards without a break. His chest’s too weak to fill his head with learning. That’s what Ma said, anyways; though seemed to me she weren’t happy unless she had him close.
Mr Milner, he acts like he don’t know that. He comes up to our tent, like he’s feeling right at home. It’s a bender: hazel poles curved over, pegged into the ground; sacks tied on to make a roof, dried heather on the top. ‘Mrs Hoadley,’ he says, polite. ‘Your son needs an education as much as any child in Surrey. More so, Mrs Hoadley, if I may say so. Not being strong, he will have to use his brain.’
‘Use his brain’ – that got to Ma. She knows Jack’s brain is bigger than the King of England’s. Next day, Jack’s up and dressed, hair brushed, kerchief at his neck. He’s sitting at his school desk doing lessons while Pa’s still hawking by the fire.
The girl ahead is slowing. I pass her on a bend.
The school, it ain’t Sir Reggie’s, though he likes to make out that it is. Each week he comes a-rapping, like he wants to catch us out. ‘Good morning, children,’ he says, voice deeper than my Pa’s. Then he stalks around us, peering at our work. Me, I move my arm back so he can see it. I want him to read where Mr Milner’s written ‘Excellent’, and pencilled me a star.
The County Council, they’re the ones who’ve given us the school. Each day we thank them in our prayers. We’re an experiment, Mr Milner tells us, when he’s in a special, dreamy mood. If we try hard at our lessons, gypsies round the country may get schools as fine as ours.
He tells us stories about kings and Romans, shows us maps of far-off lands. We teach him songs and how to track a foxcub through the snow. We show him the old coins you find in Jelly’s Hollow; which root to stop a toothache. He can’t stop asking questions. ‘Who’s teaching who?’ he says.
Mr Milner – he’s beside me, fingers clasped. ‘Come on, Maggie,’ he calls, as I pass by. ‘Keep going, you can do it.’
Can I? That’s not what Ma says. Miss Fingers and Thumbs, she calls me. Not like Bess, my big sister, who can charm the birds down from the trees. Or my other sister Annie, who’ll make a stew of ’em, feed six of us a week.
Me? I’m the useless one. That’s what I used to think – until our school on wheels rolled up. Until I learnt to read.
I’m on the second lap now: legs slicing, blood pounding in my head. That man there, with the rose-bud in his buttonhole, that’s Councillor Stone. Every Sunday afternoon he comes up to the camp to see us. Rain or shine he’s here, with oranges and sweets. Wants us to talk to him. Wants to teach us songs about fighting the good fight.
This day – this race – it’s down to him. He wants us and the village to be neighbours. He hopes one day we’ll all be friends. Sir, I think, you don’t know about the gypsy nuisance. You ain’t seen them hold their noses, complaining that we stink.
I see Jack cut up towards me. ‘You can do it, Mags,’ he squeaks.
Ma goes to the school now, two evenings every week. Pa don’t like it, says she shouldn’t go.
‘All I do is look at pictures, Tom,’ she tells him back. ‘It don’t do any harm.’
Ma’s brain’s as big as Jack’s, I’m sure of it. Just spent her whole life scraping blackened cooking pots and looking after Pa.
This lap, it’s the one that really counts. I see the village kids ahead, throwing out their legs. There’s a magic makes each stride of theirs twice as wide as ours.
Jess says you run faster if you think of cake. I try it – cream cakes, turnovers, tarts and buns – all the sweet treats in the baker’s that Ma won’t let us buy. Once, I saw a paper bag, folded over, left outside his shop. ‘Yesterday’s: 2d: for the birds’, I spelled out, scrawled in pencil on the side.
My brain added more words of its own: ‘For the birds, or the gypsies, or whoever else is hungry’. Quick as a flash, I grabbed it and set off up the street. Too slow, for next thing there’s a holler: ‘Thieving gypsy! Give that back!’
I ran, o’ course, fast as I am now. Didn’t know hidden eyes were watching. Didn’t know Pa would hear of it, and thrash me, so hard I couldn’t walk.
She’s tiring, the girl ahead of me: shoes scuffing on the ground. I move out wide. Then I’m off, past her and away, toes splayed out in triumph. If I keep going, I’ll be third.
Third! Third means a rosette, pinned on by Councillor Stone. No gypsy’s ever won one. That’s against the rules.
Heavy breath comes at my shoulder. While I’ve been dreaming, that girl’s been catching up.
It’s Jack, with Jess and Sarah. They’re right beside me, shouting, like they think that I can win. Win? Some power inside me surges. The village girl drops back, as though she’s standing still. I catch sight of Pa. He’s standing, smoking, with the other men. Not looking. A clutch of them, by the tents. Stirring trouble, I can tell that much from here.
I look back at the track. Pine trees to my right, needles thick beneath my feet: dried out, like orange kindling. They stab between my toes but I don’t feel it. I’m running like I’ve never run before: like there’s a spring inside, that’s been coiled back; released, so I’m flung forward, so fast that I can’t stop.
The ladies of the village, they’re doing their slow clap. The clap that says: ‘Well done for taking part, children’; and ‘Praise God we’ve done our duty, and dear Lorrie’s going to win.’
Perhaps she is, but that won’t stop me from trying. I’m running for the deer and rabbits, for the adders that streak across the heaths and the slow worms that curl beneath our tent. I’m running for Jack, as he can’t run himself. I’m running for Ma. For Mr Milner. Not Pa, though: I ain’t done that for years.
The girl ahead, she’s slowing. That, or I’ve speeded up. Somehow I’m gaining ground. Faces lift. A hush. The old gals look up from their knitting. Only Pa’s got his head down, kicking at the dirt.
A few strides further and I’m at her shoulder. She starts like she’s frightened; like she never thought I could be there. ‘A gypsy girl can’t overtake me,’ her eyes say, looking into mine.
In a moment I’ve gone past her. Mouths hang open, like they’ve forgotten what to say. Then the shouting starts, all around: ‘Lorr-ie, Lorr-ie!’
She’s off, strides longer than before. She’s a motor-car that turns out from the village and roars off up an empty road. She’s a horse, set loose from its tethers. A dog that’s seen a rabbit too far from its hole.
I’m running just behind her, faster than I’ve ever run before. ‘Lorr-ie, Lorr-ie!’
There’s an edge to their voices, like something’s going wrong. We’re the thieving gypsies. We aren’t meant to win.
Where’s Mr Milner? I pick out his straw hat, bobbing in the crowd. I strain to hear his voice. ‘Magg-ie, Magg-ie!’ It isn’t there. I turn my head towards him. He’s smiling; smiling, like he’s had the best news in the world.
I’m the stag that sprints off from the field edge, when Pa comes with his gun. I’m the swift that skims the corn-field. Bounding, swooping, dipping, twisting: running for my life.
My toe strikes stone. A rock, thrown out on the track. A rock that wasn’t there last time I passed, that’s meant to bring me down.
Pain shrieks. My toe, it’s bleeding. The nail hangs, half ripped off. I can’t put my foot down. I’m going to have to stop.
It’s Jack’s voice. Somehow he’s beside me, pushing through the crowd.
‘Don’t stop, Maggie! Run!’
His face is scrunched, like he’s trying not to cry. Jack hasn’t stopped, I think. I’ve seen him laid out on his death-bed, Ma weeping, like he’ll never rise again. Each time, he snatches for more air. Each time, when Pa’s already drinking off his sorrows, Jack holds Ma’s hand and won’t give in.
I run. A hundred yards to go.
Lorrie, from the ooh-ing and the aah-ing, she must know that I’ve been hurt. She’s slowed, a victor’s trot, waving to the crowd. My toe grinds into the earth, blood mixing with the dust. I’m used to being hurt, out in the woods. Keep going. I won’t feel it till I stop.
I see the muscles clenching in her calves, skirt blowing in the wind. I see the pattern on her laced-up shoes: rippled, like a stream.
I go quietly, keeping my breath in. She’s a rabbit that I’m stalking, that’s forgotten that I’m there. Then her head tilts and she scents the air. The crowd cries out in warning. Her heels kick up once more.
I run like I’ve never run before. I’m a bicycle, free-wheeling down Pitch Hill. I’m the horse Pa saw win the Derby up at Epsom. I’m an aeroplane, wings spread, silver in the sun.
Suddenly Ma’s here beside me, knees up, skirts flouncing, bloomers on display. I’ve never seen her move so fast. I never knew that she could run.
My legs have gone to lead. Heart pounding, like it’s going to explode.
Sarah, Jack, the gypsy kids – they’re here from nowhere, yelling. The ladies on their feet. Sir Reggie, pulling at his collar, like he’s coming up with some new rule to stop me. Mr Milner at the finish: that big smile across his face.
And Pa? Pa’s coming down the field towards me. He grins, gap-toothed. ‘Come on, Maggie, lass,’ he shouts.
Inch by inch I’m making ground. I see the pale frizz on her neck, the freckles on her arm.
Then she’s behind me. The finish tape is moving, like it’s getting closer by itself.
I’m going to do it. I’m going to shake Lorrie Chandler’s hand and say: ‘Well run. Bad luck. I’m sure you’ll beat me next time.’ I’m the girl who will be gracious. I’m the girl who’ll make Ma proud. I’m the girl who’ll reach the end and discover it’s the start.
About Alice Fowler: I write historical fiction, often inspired by places I know well. I am drawn to writing about outsiders: people who, for different reasons, are on the edges of society. Landscape and the natural world are other powerful sources of inspiration. Having worked for national newspapers, mainly as a feature writer, I am used to writing ‘to length’ and enjoy the economy of the short story form. I also like the structural opportunities that it offers.
I was longlisted for the Dorothy Dunnett Society HWA Short Story Award in 2019 and have twice been shortlisted for the Harper’s Bazaar short story prize. I am currently writing a historical novel, Beneath the Chalk, set in Surrey in 1868, based on two real-life characters and drawing inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement. I live in Guildford with my husband and twin teenage sons.
See more about the 2020 HWA/DDSS Awards, including the shortlisted entries.
The HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Prize for 2021 is now open for entries.
Can you transport a reader into the past? Can you tell a story which will grip the reader while immersing them in another time? Do you want the voices and the stories of the past to find a new audience in the modern world? Enter the HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Prize for 2021.
Stories must be set at least 35 years in the past.
The entry fee is £5. The word limit’s 3,500. Closing date: 1 July, 2021.
Longlist announced: 15 September. Shortlist and winners announced: 1 October, 2021.
For full details, including how to enter and terms and conditions, go to the announcement on the HWA website.
Five schoolgirl athletes enjoy a glass of lemonade: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr
Hop picking: via Flickr
Detail from fashion plates, 1880–1939: Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries
Details from classroom spinning and weaving demonstration: Iowa Digital Library via Flickr
1890-1920 (c) Travellers lived on the Black Patch off Foundry Lane: via Wikimedia
Digging potatoes 1920s: curtis roberts via Flickr
Eloy District, Pinal County, Arizona. Seven-thirty A.M. Migratory cotton picker’s children come out by Dorothea Lange: via Wikimedia
Postcard of Mount Farm c 1920s potato picking © R Dunning Selby: Geoffrey Shearsmith for Escrick Heritage
Photo of Alice Fowler: supplied by author