Last Race at Dederang

Winner of the Cadenza Open Short Story Competition, 2002

If you want to find Dederang on the map, you’d better have good eyesight and a bloody big atlas. Mind you, it can be found in two different places and only one of them is definable by geography. That one lies in the Kiewa Valley, midway between the Snowy Mountains and the Mighty Murray. But Dederang also exists in another dimension, in an elusive, legendary land that politicians seeking the core white vote often call ‘The Real Australia’.

Seven of us set out to find it that day in January. Probably the only one who knew exactly how to get there was Pete, our driver. Yet finding it on the map was easy compared to penetrating that other dimension. For no one can enter the land of legend unless they first add something to the legends that have created it.

It was Pete and Fran’s idea. For them the trip was an off-duty outing and I was touched that they included me in the invitation. The winery tour I’d taken with them had ended before Christmas but I had stayed on, partly out of an interest in small town Australia and partly because of an interest in one particular small town Australian girl.

‘Mate,’ said Pete over a beer on New Year’s Eve, ‘if you want to experience rural Australia, come with us to Dederang. It’ll be awesome.’

‘It’s a race meeting, right?’

Pete’s a lean, leathery kind of bloke, with a gravelly laugh that implied there was a bit more to it than that. He and his wife each believed that they alone understood the deeper meanings of Australian life, so Fran couldn’t resist intervening.

‘It’s everything all in one. Out here, every little town needs something to pull in the crowds. Chiltern has the world’s largest grapevine, Holbrook has a submarine stuck in the town lawn – and Dederang has its races.’

 ‘What it is, mate,’ Pete interrupted, ‘is a bloody pilgrimage. We go to Dederang once a year to pay homage to the Australian Way of Life.’

‘We go to Dederang to get pissed out of our brains, stuff ourselves stupid and lose our shirt on a bunch of old nags,’ was Fran’s retort.

Privately I wondered if there was any real distinction between the two. But there was something else on my mind.

‘Who else is coming?’

‘Lou and Gregsy, they’re friends from Albury. And Norm, you’ll love him.’

‘And Newt,‘ said Fran. ‘She’s coming, too.’

Love is a four-letter word. And in this case the Aussie predilection for nicknames was spot on: Newt was so petite she made Kylie Minogue look like a lardarse. I didn’t need any further encouragement and I didn’t care that they knew it.

Something else they knew was that it was going to be what Pete called, ‘quite warm.’ Hearing an Aussie say that, I mentally went over my survival checklist: hat, sunnies, sunscreen, insect repellent, water. If you’re out all day and you forget one of those things, you’re in trouble. But most important of all is the “Esky”. If the Australians didn’t invent the cool box, they certainly perfected its application. When we picked up Newt outside her lodgings, she was cooling her bum on the biggest Esky I’d ever seen.

Like me, she was wearing shorts, tee shirt, baseball cap and trainers – but while I looked a mess, she looked stunning. I suppose I was a bit eager getting out to help.

‘Whoa!’ cried Pete. ‘Would passengers please wait until the train has stopped before disembarking?’

‘Sorry. How are you doing, Newt?’

‘G’day, Gumpy. I’m good, thanks.’

I was christened Stephen Forrest but my year Down Under coincided with the release of a movie that marked my card forever. After it came out, every Aussie I met called me Gump (or, if they were feeling particularly affectionate, Gumpy.) There is no way of escaping your tag: the right response is to embrace it and be thankful for the acceptance that it implies. Gumpy. That was good.

‘Can I help you with this? What have you got in there?’

‘Six bottles of champagne and some fizzy water. Full of sparkle, just like me.’

Somehow, Newt could get away with that. As could our last pickup, who had no less effervescence but a lot more weight.

‘G’day, mates,’ said Norm, heaving himself aboard. His belly was so huge that he evidently felt the need to introduce it separately. Winking at Newt he said, ‘Blow me, girl, Billy here’s bigger than you are.’

‘Yeah,’ she grinned back, ‘but not half so good looking.’

Norm squeezed himself in beside Newt while I sat next to Gregsy, a pleasant young bloke who didn’t talk much except about sport. Lou, his girlfriend, had dark, Aboriginal eyes and a tumbling mass of black hair. Where Gregsy was taciturn, she managed to be simultaneously both terse and talkative.

‘You The Gump?’

‘That’s me.’

‘Looking forward to see you run.’

‘Pardon?’

‘You got the legs for it.’

I gave a polite laugh, the kind I use when I don’t really get the joke. She glanced at Newt and changed the subject.

The van wound its way up the valley of the Kiewa, across rolling countryside bounded by the foothills of the Snowies. It was a landscape of pure Australian colours; the long grass burned golden-brown by the sun and studded by the deep green of the gum trees. Finally we bumped our way into Dederang race ground and began unloading the van. It was only ten o’clock but the picnic area was almost full and as Gregsy and I struggled to erect the sunshades, I had a good look at the panoply all around.

The place was awash with colour but in fashion terms the relationship to Royal Ascot was distant. There were some fine hats but from the neck down their owners wore styles that varied from casual chic to downright feral. On one side of us a gaggle of girls in mini-dresses reclined beneath a portable marquee, looking like a page from Vogue. On the other side a family of farmers squatted beneath a gum tree, looking like the Beverly Hillbillies. Most of the men wore light, casual clothes suitable for a day that was forecast to reach a hundred and eight degrees in the shade. But one thing united them all; male or female, rich or poor: they all drank as if their lives depended on it.

It was Norm who gave this meaning. He was bending over an Esky as he spoke, rooting around in it for a really cold one.

‘In New South Wales it’s illegal to consume alcohol at a horse race on a Sunday.’

‘Really?’

‘Whereas here in Victoria, they reckon it’s a crime not to. That’s why we’re here, Gumpy: to restore the balance.’

By eleven o’clock it was so hot that I was downing glass after glass of chilled champagne and looking longingly at the ice in the Eskies. The rays came right through the parasol and there were flies everywhere: Fran and Lou were constantly waving them away from the food but everything had to be eaten the second it was uncovered. I smothered myself in sunscreen and Mosiguard, wanting to scream and thrash at the flies but the heat was so intense that any movement threatened spontaneous combustion. For a moment I almost lost it: I could feel panic rising inside me at the thought of being boiled alive in my own blood.

‘You look hot, Gumpy. Fancy a bit of a walkabout?’

It was Pete, coming to the rescue with the well-honed instincts of the professional tour guide.

‘Isn’t it even hotter out there?’

‘Not if you do this first.’ He stooped over Newt’s Esky, dunked his hat in the ice water, then put it straight back onto his head. I followed his example, yelping at the shocking ecstasy of it.

Norm joined us and we headed up the crowded slopes towards the bookies’ stands. I hadn’t placed a bet since I was at college twenty years earlier and I took a while to study the programme.

‘So, six races, with the first at 12:30 and the last at 4pm.’

‘No mate,’ said Norm, ‘the last race at Dederang is at five o’clock.’

Something in his voice made me look up and something in his eye made me glance at Pete, who nodded agreement.

‘That’s right. The seventh race doesn’t run until the sun slacks off.’

‘But there’s only six races in the programme.’

‘That’s because the last race is for animals with two legs. It’s open to all comers, Gumpy. They call it the Mad Mile.’

‘You don’t mean people actually run the course in this heat?’

 ‘Oh yeah. They come from miles around to run the Mad Mile.’

‘They must be…’ And then it hit me. ‘You don’t mean me? You can’t be serious?’

‘How much did Newt say we should put on The Gump to win?’ grinned Norm. ‘Fifty bucks, wasn’t it?’

‘Yeah. And fifty each from Franny and Lou.’

They kept the wind-up going for a good ten minutes before they let me off the hook and it was such an effective distraction that when we rejoined the others for the first race, the heat seemed less oppressive. Even the flies had gone, in search of fresh pickings.

‘Wha’d you bet?’ asked Lou.

‘Ten bucks on Field of Dreams at five to one. I plan to lose a hundred bucks today and I am going to enjoy every cent.’

‘Now that’s what I call a good attitude,’ laughed Newt. ‘Will you put my bets on for me, Gumpy? If I go up there among the ferals, I’ll have claw marks on my arse all week.’

‘At least they have good taste. Are you coming to see the start?’

‘It’s too hot, Gump.’

She was right about that. The moment I got beyond the eucalyptus trees the temperature soared to well over 130 degrees. I oozed my way over to the course, examining the field as I went. One of the charms of Dederang was that the racetrack encompassed the golf course. To add interest, the whole thing was on a slope and the starting gate on the far side was hidden by trees.

It made for an anticlimactic start but excitement mounted as the first horses came into sight and by the time they reached the final straight I was screaming out for Field of Dreams like a man possessed. He was firm favourite and with fifty yards to go he was ahead by three lengths. At which point he parted company with his jockey, left the track altogether and was last seen going strongly for the New South Wales border.

The girls were keen to offer their condolences. I shared another bottle of champagne with Newt, while Fran filled me up with cake. All in all, the day seemed to be going rather well.

‘How much are we going to lose on the next one, Gumpy?’

‘I thought twenty bucks on a rank outsider to win?’

‘Sounds good to me. And by the way, we expect to see a good turnout from you blokes for the Mad Mile.’

Before I could say anything, Gregsy piped up like an enthusiastic Kamikaze pilot.

‘No worries: we’ll be there.’

‘Yeah,’ said Pete, ‘Team effort.’

All of a sudden, all eyes were on someone who could never resist a challenge, no matter how dumb or crazy. Me.

‘Bloody right, guys: we’ll cruise it.’

‘How about you, Norm?’

‘Bugger off,’ replied the big man. ‘I haven’t even seen my toes since 1993.’

After the second bottle of champagne, running the Mad Mile actually seemed like a good idea. After the third it seemed positively brilliant: entering into the spirit of the day and all that. The girls seemed to expect it, too. But as the afternoon wore on, doubts started to creep in.

Firstly, there was a problem with the track. I’d already noticed that the final straight was uphill. With each subsequent race I saw how the horses laboured up those last two hundred yards. And the Mad Mile was a full circuit, which meant that the start was uphill, too.

On the other hand, it was downhill the rest of the way. Probably I was worrying too much. In any case, by three o’clock I was too pissed to care and my spirits rose further when I backed two consecutive winners and got into one of those dangerous mindsets where you think you’re invincible.

In contrast, the others began to drop away. Evidently it had never been a serious suggestion – for them. By a process that I couldn’t fathom, I had become group representative in the Mad Mile.

‘Good on you, Gump,’ said Lou, patting me on the back. ‘You’re a bonzer bloke for a Pom.’

After an accolade like that, backing down was impossible. So I began to sober up, drinking as much water as I could.

‘How long is it since you’ve run a mile, Gumpy?’

It was the first time I’d seen concern on Newt’s face and it provoked a wild mix of emotions.

‘Twenty six years.’

‘Bloody hell!’

‘I was more of a sprinter. But don’t worry, I’ll be OK.’

She put her hand on my knee. ‘You don’t have to do it, you know?’

‘I’ll be fine. It’ll stop me turning into Billy the Belly, eh?’

She laughed but it didn’t reach her eyes. And perversely, that was when I first began to believe that I might actually win something here. Of course I was also seriously concerned about dying of heat stroke, so I quietly determined to amble round at whatever speed I could manage.

The last horse race of the day was a complete farce. Two horses were withdrawn at the last minute and a third threw its rider at the starting gate. I managed to put all my winnings on the losing horse out of a field of four. It seemed ominous.

My eyes went over to Newt, who was absorbed in licking the cream topping from a cake. I watched, mesmerised, as she was rendered child-like by the sun in her hair and a blob of cream on the end of her nose. It brought a stabbing pain to my heart, the realisation of too many years gone by, of too many opportunities lost, of last chances and fleeting hours. 

‘How old are you, Steve?’

Startled, I looked round to see Norm, slumped in his chair but evidently wide-awake.

‘Forty-three.’

‘Bugger me. Same age as me and you look ten years younger.’

‘Well I feel knackered.’

‘Sight of the fillies still gets your blood up, though. And you still rise to the occasion, I’ll bet.’

I laughed, unsure how to reply.

‘Especially for young Newt, eh?’

‘Chance’d be a fine thing.’

‘Reckon this is the best chance you’ll get.’

‘You really think she’ll be impressed by me being stupid enough to run some ridiculous race in heat like this against a bunch of blokes half my age?’

‘Well now, I reckon that’s what you think, or why else would you be doing it?’

‘It just sort of happened. And I can’t back down now…’

‘Let me explain something to you, Gumpy. She’s an Aussie chick. One half of her is all feminism and independence. That half’s pretty keen on this educated Pom who knows how to laugh at himself. The other half is Australian Women’s Weekly and screaming herself hoarse watching blokes in tight pants playing Aussie Rules. That half hasn’t made up its mind about you yet. So if you want to get her, you’d better get out on that racetrack and show her there’s still fire in your belly. Even if it kills you.’

I was impressed. This was the longest speech I’d ever heard from an Australian male. And any remaining doubt was promptly removed by an announcement over the loudspeakers.

‘Would all contestants for the Mad Mile please come to the starting gate. This year we are delighted to announce that it will be an international event. Please join us in welcoming Mr Steve Forrest from London, whose friends have asked me to say that he is not, repeat not, to be called Gump.’

The three girls let out a roar of laughter, followed by pretty much the whole crowd. Newt shot me a grin and raised her glass. That was when Pete dropped his next little bombshell.

‘I don’t want to pressure you, mate, but it would be great if you could finish in the first three. We’ve got a kitty of five hundred dollars riding on it.’

‘The first three? You want me to die of a heart attack?’

‘Don’t worry, Gumpy,’ said Fran. ‘Nobody has ever actually died during the Mad Mile.’

‘So far,’ added Newt.

‘Oh well, if I’m going, I suppose I may as well go in style.’

I took a last drink, dunked my hat in the nearest Esky and set off towards the starting line.

There was a good field, half of them kids. The Under Sixteen’s race went first, followed by the adults. I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only oldie to enter: there were several other mature contestants. The next oldest was twenty-eight if he was a day.

My support group was leaning up against the fence, cameras and champagne glasses in hand. I tried not to think about how much champagne I’d drunk, how much cake I’d eaten, how hot it was… 

Then they started up the chant. Softly at first but getting steadily louder. ‘Forrest! Forrest! Forrest!’

I tried to pretend I wasn’t there. The bloke next to me said,

 ‘You the one from England?’

 I nodded, miserably.

 ‘Good luck to you, mate.’

 I looked back at him in surprise.

 ‘Thanks. And to you.’

And then we were under starter’s orders. The first person over the line was a kid of four. The race marshal gave him thirty-second’s head start, then sent a pack of six year olds after him. The rest of the kids went at intervals until they were spread out for three hundred yards ahead of us.

‘On your marks. Get Set. Go!’

I knew it was a bad idea within twenty yards. The slope was worse than I’d imagined and a hard core of serious contestants formed a fast moving pack before I realised what was happening. I was knocked up before I even reached the top of the hill, leaving me no choice but to throttle back.

Combined with the level ground, the effect was immediate and I found myself able to relax into a steady jog. It was fine for maybe 200 yards until my breathing became laboured and I had to force the air out of my lungs with a conscious effort. Worse, the air I sucked in was searingly hot and full of dust.

By the time I closed on the laggard kids I sounded like Puffing Billy and they were looking round to see what the noise was, yet I had found a kind of rhythm and sensed that I could make it. But could I get into the winning three?

There were about thirty adults in the race and I’d passed a dozen in the first quarter mile, most of whom had given up. But when I reached the third straight I was reassured to see a lot of runners ahead of me who were obviously blown or struggling.

Right about then I began to seriously overheat. The sweat was pouring off me in rivers, my chest hurt like hell and to make matters worse I hit bad ground where the horses had churned up the surface. By the time I regained clear turf I had lost my rhythm – and the final stretch loomed like a mountain.

Everything started to go wrong. I willed myself to a faster pace but my legs wouldn’t respond. I was relying on a final sprint to catch the leaders but now, when I needed it most, I had nothing left.

To add insult to injury, that was when I passed the four year old. The sight of him almost broke me – but as I glanced ahead I saw the spectators at the finishing line and above the tortured gasp of my own breathing I could just hear the girls chanting out my name.

‘Run, Gumpy, run!’

I summoned up one last effort but it was agonising now, every step forced against failing muscles and screaming lungs and a hundred yards short of the line I realised that I wasn’t going to make it. My legs were turning to treacle beneath me, my feet were starting to scuff and trip and the pain in my lungs had spread until it felt as if my whole chest was bursting.

I blundered past the next runner and suddenly there was a clear field all the way to the finish. In the same instant I saw a flash of blonde hair in the crowd and heard her shout, clear above the roar.

‘Come on, Gumpy, come on!

My legs started moving again with an unknown power. It was a horrible, ungainly sprint that I made over those last fifty yards but there were 600 people lining the track, all cheering me on.

‘Run, Gumpy, run!’

I stumbled just short of the finishing line, recovered, staggered on a few paces – and then everything blurred. I knew only a rushing in my ears, a terrible pain in my chest and a frantic struggle to suck in enough air.

Then Newt was beside me, helping me back to the shade, my lungs still shrieking for air. People kept saying, ‘Good effort, mate,’ but I couldn’t speak, could only stagger to Newt’s Esky and stick my head right into it, splashing the glorious, freezing water over my face. When I could finally talk again, there was only one thing I wanted to know.

‘Did I win?’

‘Bloody right you did,’ said Pete.

‘I don’t know how. They were all ahead of me and I thought I was going to die and then suddenly there was nobody between me and the finishing line and I just went for it.’

There was a moment’s pause and I was aware of sideways glances. I looked at Newt but she wouldn’t return my gaze.

‘What? What is it?’

Then, finally, she hit me with it. ‘You came tenth.’

‘Tenth? But there was nobody ahead of me.’

‘Not by the time you got to the final straight. The first nine were already off the field by then.’

‘Then why were you all jumping up and down and saying I’d won?’

Newt came over and sat beside me, wiping my forehead with a cold cloth as she spoke. ‘We didn’t bet on you to come in the first three, Gumpy. We bet you’d get round in under nine minutes and not collapse.’

‘Oh.’ I let this sink in. ‘How’d I do?’

‘Eight minutes fifty eight seconds.’

‘What odds did you get?’

‘Three to one.’

‘That’s a thousand dollars profit.’

‘That’s right, mate,’ said Pete.

And suddenly Newt was on my lap, waving a great wad of notes under my nose. ‘A thousand bucks!’ she announced in delight. She took my face between her two hands, looked at me for a moment and said, as if in wonder, ‘Gumpy’.  Then she kissed me – and said the magic words.

‘You bloody legend.’

———————-

Today, there’s a special cup for the oldest contestant to run the Mad Mile. To win it, all you have to do is run right round the track and not die. It’s become a part of local folklore and naturally enough, it has a name.

It’s called The Gump.