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Second Place

written by: Adam Nelson

 

They say that your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. That the brain panics when it realises that it can’t think of a way out of its current predicament. It races through your memories to find a solution.
Only one image litters my mind, my sister Sandra, older by five years and always the favourite. Everyone loves Sandra. The high flying, high achieving, ne’er do wrong Sandra. She could never put a foot out of line, no matter what she did. If she cocked up royally it was a misunderstanding, a wobble, nothing to worry about.
It drives me fucking nuts how they all hold her in such high esteem. Bitch.
I always had to fight harder. Do more to get attention. Do more to be held in the same high regard. Second child syndrome is what our mum used to call it. I wanted attention because I was the second child. That’s not true. I was better and I wanted them to see it. I did everything I could to be better than Sandra.
Was Sandra in the highest sets at school? I had to be in the highest sets too, and I got into a gifted and talented class, just to rub salt in the wound.
Sandra got seven A* - C in her GCSES? I got thirteen, and eight of those were A* or A grades.
Sandra went to college to study a BTEC? I took A-Levels, the superior qualification. Five of them, because that’s the most you can do and a BTEC is only worth three.
Sandra gets a triple distinction? I got four As and a B.
Sandra went to university after a five-year break, so we were there at the same time. She went to the local one, the one that would allow her to stay at home as she studied. I could have gone to any university I wanted to, but I stayed at the local one too. I had to track her progress. Had to make sure I was doing better than she was.
Sandra did a degree in child development, a soft subject. I chose English, the king of subjects. “Do a degree in English language and you can do anything.” One of my A-Level teachers used to say.
I worked harder and faster than she ever did. Staying focused on my goal. Not allowing myself to get distracted by the whimsical nature of the university. Do I want to go out partying during fresher’s week? Do I fuck! I need to get everything together. Get it in one place so that I can start in earnest on the first class degree. I’ve already got the first books on the reading list from the library. I’ve been going over them, making notes of the most important facts.
Fresher’s week came and went. The others bonded, got to know one another and had fun. I had my own fun. Swarmed by the words of my books. Seeing it all come together in front of me. I knew that I would be okay, as long as I stayed focused I wouldn’t have any problems.
This is how university went for me most of the time. I stayed on task, kept to the mission. Whilst Sandra was out having fun, partying and shagging around, I locked myself in my room. I studied and kept the faith. Even this wasn’t enough.
Everyone told me I should lighten up. Have some fun. That’s what university is for, after all, learning about who you are. The degree is icing on the cake of fulfillment that comes from self-growth. What do they know? Neither of my parents has degrees. They don’t understand what it’s like to feel second best. They are the ones who put me in this position after all, by positioning me as the second child. Second place all the way.
Sandra never faltered. She never slipped. She went from strength to strength. Even with her partying, fucking and messing around she hit all her targets: minimum 2:1 grades in her modules across the board, and a few firsts. I got a 2:2 in one module. I demanded the opportunity to re-sit. Even though my tutor told me that a 2:2 in one module wouldn’t stop me getting a first overall. A 2:2 was a sign of failure. If Sandra had gotten a 2:2 I could have accepted it, but she never seemed to slip at all. They let me re-sit and I gained a first for the module. A win for me.
We were drawing close to the end. We were both predicted firsts for our final grade. Everything hinged on the results from our dissertations. I came a hair’s distance from offering to blow my tutor to ensure I got the right grade. Sandra spurred on by the possibility of getting a first, dropped her promiscuous, hard-partying ways. I knew it would be close. To Sandra, it was hard work, but to me it was war.
We broke even. The same mark. I hated the way she congratulated me on achieving a first. Deep down I knew it was a sarcastic dig. I’d be second best again. Not good enough to beat my sister.
Sandra already knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to teach, and so she signed up to the university’s PGCE programme right away. I didn’t have the energy. I’d lost my drive. After all this time and all that effort, we’d broken even. It hardly seemed fair. I consoled myself with my loss. Watching as they all feigned over Sandra and her success as a teacher. It didn’t take long for the spark to reignite after I received the letter from the education department. They were looking for specialists in English. There was a shortage of English teachers and they were offering to pay me a grant and bursary if I chose to study there. I signed up straight away.
Sandra passed her post-grad course with flying colours of course. Then she opted not to complete the optional module, the one that upgraded the PGCE to a master’s degree. I knew what I had to do. If I could get my masters, that would show everyone that I’m better than Sandra, that I’m not second place. No one cares when I sign up. My aunt even made a sarcastic comment about how I’m just copying my sister. She said that I don’t need to do another course. I need to go out and live.
Sandra actually agrees with my aunt. She says I should travel. Meet new people. Have some new experiences. She reminds me that I left university with fewer friends than when I started. She tells me that I missed the point of going. I tell her to fuck off.
I start the course. Everything goes well. It’s only a year and most of it is on the job training. I spend three days a week in a placement and the other two at the university. There’s talk of people getting offered jobs at the school’s where they take their placements. I’m pretty sure that I’ll get that. They can’t deny my work ethic. I get on well with the people on the course and the staff at the school I’m placed at. I wouldn’t go as far as to call them my friends, but they're okay. I don’t hang around after placement. I don’t socialise with the others on the course. I spend all my time focusing on the essays I have to do, especially the dissertation that will earn me the masters. I passed with flying colours, of course.
I spent the summer relaxing. I took Sandra’s advice and went on holiday, a nice two-week break to relax after the struggle. I didn’t hear from the school, but that didn’t bother me. I convinced myself that they don’t want to contact me until after the summer. I took time to relax. I’d won. I’d beaten Sandra. I’d done something she couldn’t.
The new school year started. I still hadn’t heard from the school. Four weeks into the term. Still nothing. I assured myself that they must be waiting for the half term. The half term came and went, and yet I still hadn’t heard from them. I figured the best thing I can do is seem proactive, so I went in to see them.
What I found turned my stomach. They had the chance to hire me, but instead, they picked someone else, another member of my course. He had a placement at another school but turned down an offer of a job there because this school is closer to home. I demanded to know what happened. They told me straight. I was good at my job and I’m very skilled, but I don’t fit in. I wasn't 'part of the team.' They wanted someone who was good at their job and would fit in with the department’s ethos. Whatever the fuck that means.
Another step back. I’d done well on the course but didn’t have a job. I needed to do something. I worked hard on transforming my image. I became ‘nicer,’ someone who would fit in with the team. It took me six months, but I finally secured a post. That’s when the odds tipped very much in my favour.
Sandra fell pregnant. Twins. Fathered by some dick-head who couldn’t stomach the thought of being a father and ran off as soon as he could. He left Sandra with nothing. It became my time to shine. I stepped in, ready to help at a moment’s notice. I became the top dog. I was the one that everyone held in high regard. I moved in with Sandra. Took a part-time position at the school so that I could be there for her and the children two days a week. Sandra was the bottom of the pile now. The victory was mine. Finally.
Things continued this way for a few years. Everyone talked about my sacrifice, putting my career on hold for Sandra. Not marrying and having children of my own so that I could support my dear sister. In turn, I was helping her reclaim her place in the world. She had a part-time teaching position. She was going back to work and getting back out there. There was talk that she would meet someone who could look after her and the twins, allowing me to reclaim my life. Even after she was back on her feet everyone would still see me as the victor.
Things like this are never meant to last. Everything changed a few months later. Sandra did indeed meet someone, someone who was prepared to look after her and the twins. They moved quickly. She had him move into the house. They handed me my marching orders, but at least she had the decency to help me look for a place of my own. It all helped my cause, she was caring and helpful, but I was still the martyr. The one who had given up everything to help Sandra.
Turns out prince charming, wasn’t so princely after all. In fact, he had a penchant for the booze, especially at inopportune moments. That’s what happened on that April afternoon, a beer or two before my sister called for a lift. No harm was done.
They smashed through the road barrier, rolled over six times before they hit the base of the hill. Everyone was dead. Prince charming, Sandra, the kids, dead. It was painful at first. I may not have liked the way everyone made me feel around Sandra, but I never wished her dead. Never. I felt like something had been taken from me. She had been my whole purpose for being. I had no husband, no children, very few friends, and only a part-time job. A job that I only had because I’d been competing with Sandra, now it all seemed worthless.
Family and friends came to commiserate. They wished us all well. Told us how wonderful of a human being Sandra had been. I felt a burning in my stomach begin to grow. Now she was the martyr. She was the one who’d given it all up. I was second place again. I ran out of the church. It had all become too much.
I often wonder what flashed before my sister’s eyes before she died. I wonder if it was me. I wonder if she ever knew how much I wanted to prove that I was as good as her. She was such a saint, something like that would never even cross her mind. We all flashed in front of my sister’s eyes before she died. It gave them all the excuse they needed to put her up on a pedestal again.
I’ll show them.
I look down at the traffic below. I take a second to ask myself if it’s worth it. Then I step off the roof and plummet towards the ground below.
I’ll really show them this time.

Adam Nelson

Adam Nelson

Adam Nelson is a writer and filmmaker from Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. His films Little Pieces and Emotional Motor Unit have won praise and awards around the world. He is currently adapting Lost Seoul, the true story of Jin Stearns, to the screen. Creative Writing is all he was ever good at.
Adam Nelson

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