By Anne Goodwin
It is said that when someone is drowning they see their whole life pass before their eyes. I once had a boyfriend who was obsessed with that idea. He wanted to know what it would feel like, what thoughts would go through a person’s mind when they came to watch the ultimate biopic.
I ditched him, of course. I could never get used to him springing up coughing and spluttering from six inches of bathwater every time I went to brush my teeth. “What’s the point?” I said. “Once you get the answer, you’re dead.”
What I longed to know was what would go through my mind in those few seconds between the announcement of the winner and the presentation of the prize. In a way it was the flipside of my philosophical boyfriend’s question; it was only on the good days I believed I’d get to find out.
Yet here I am standing in a line of contestants on the stage of the Alhambra with the thunder of applause in my ears. Filling my senses like the rush of water that blocks out all other sound for the drowning man. And what am I thinking? I’m thinking of my photo on the front page of the Evening Post. I’m thinking of the write-up eulogising my talents, outlining my edge over the opposition, expounding the rightfulness of my success.
I’m thinking of certain people discovering they were wrong about me all along. Brian Fothergill who chucked me on Valentine’s Day. Rosemary Sanderson who made playtimes hell at Westfield First School. Cheryl Hills who told me that the spare room in her flat had already been taken, but paid for the advert to stay in the newsagent’s window for another three weeks.
I’m thinking about people being made to eat their words. I’m thinking about ripping up the newspaper with my photo on the front page and stuffing it into the mouths of all those teachers at Middlestock High School who said You’ll never amount to anything. And I’m thinking about my mother.
My mother didn’t say You’ll never amount to anything. She said You’ve got to try and make a success of yourself. And smiled as she sewed shame into the shapeless dresses I wore, poured failure over my cornflakes, and papered the walls of my bedroom with disappointment, so that all I heard was that rush of the ocean in my ears.
So now I’m standing for the very last moment among all the Didn’t-Quite-Make-Its and the Better-Luck-Next-Times before I have to go to the front of the stage to be presented with my trophy, and what strikes me is the complete absence of resentment. All around me the other contestants are cheering and smiling and applauding, and I’m starting to feel quite humble. I’m thinking that if they can be noble in defeat, then I can be magnanimous in victory. The most wonderful thing, the thing I could never have anticipated, is that now I’m here tasting success, the bitterness flows away from me, gentle as the receding tide. If Rosemary Sanderson or Brian Fothergill or even Cheryl Hills were to walk up to me now, I would happily shake their hands.
I take a step forward. On my right, Contestant Number 9 starts to giggle. Contestant Number 7 grabs my arm roughly and pulls me back. Further along to the left, a fissure opens up in the line and Contestant Number 4 makes her way to the front of the stage like a bride going down the aisle. There’s a buzzing in my ears and a trickle of sweat runs down my back. Contestant Number 4 accepts the trophy and lifts it triumphantly above her head. Contestants 7 and 9 each hold onto one of my arms, ready to catch me if I should faint.
I’m thinking I might look out that old boyfriend, tell him I know the answer to his question. I know what goes on in a person’s mind before they drown.