Winner of the 2023 Lewis Edwards Memorial Prize
Pollyanna Jackson is an English Literature student based in Edinburgh & Oxfordshire. She was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2022, and selected by Mark Gatiss for his writing programme with the Dartington Trust that same year. She enjoys writing fiction and literary criticism, and is currently working on a literary fiction novel. She is extremely good at getting thrown off horses.
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Pollyanna says: Working essentially as a crash jockey has always kept me well-acquainted with my mortality, and at a considerable remove from my sanity. “Georgie” is inspired by my many years riding difficult horses, attempting to keep all my limbs intact, and the unflinching bravado necessary to the job- and what happens when that is shaken. The rodeo to me reflects that culture of ‘just getting on with it’ which seems to permeate the rural landscape, faced with the very real and forgotten danger of agricultural life in the Wild West (of South Oxfordshire…).
All a life is balance. The dirt’ll teach you that for nothing.
The balance between up and down, ‘tween forward and back, ‘tween two fence posts and twisting on the wire, ‘tween living and the— other part. The balance you got in your own two feet shoved as far down as they’ll go beneath you, and one arm thrown back— reachin’ up to God, that’s what they say. The hand that reaches to be pulled up to the afterlife stead of trampled down into it. Balance is all you got at the end of the day that keeps you out the dust.
“Got six, Georgie.”
“Sure thing.” That’s six minutes.
“Got a real hot one for ya today.”
“That’s alright, Cal.”
Cal is in the business a telling me the same thing every damn day a his life. Stands there at the door a my trailer and rocks back on his heels to spur the dirt and tells me just how bad a time I’m gonna have today. Says he’s motivating me to zip up my vest real tight, but the way I see it, no matter how the draw goes he’s gonna say I’ve got the wildest bronc of the lot. According to Cal every horse I ever sat on killed at least twelve afore it got around to getting me.
Now Cal don’t run shit around here, maybe think he does, but he’s just a regular old roughstock like me who spends more a his time scaring us than he do sat on any horse’s back.
I bend down to buckle up my spurs and get my chaps laying nice an flat how they should and I’m as ready as I can be for six minutes to go. We’re expected down at the chute but I won’t be on til near the back end of the hour— figure I can walk over slow as I like and maybe miss the first couple a riders, ain’t feeling all that competitive today anyway. I got a good bit a cash saved up last three days and I’ll get by for the next week.
Hot damn I gotta get a fuckin’ beer down my throat I’m thinking as I open up the trailer, sun on the door so hot it’s come right through to the interior an I just about woulda burnt my hand if I didn’t got my gloves on. Spit into the dirt beneath my boots. Hot as a whorehouse out here.
“Hey, Georgie, you got some new chaps on?”
Mack’s a real old one. More buckles’n I’ll ever see in my whole life, Mack Tanner been on the circuit since— well shit, since I ever think about gettin on it. Since I was shitting in diapers. Since Pops was still riding bulls. He’s sat outside his chrome trailer now, Stetson old as him low over his drawn face, brim drooped in line with his stache, never been a looker has
Mack but he’s a good fella.
I drum my thighs. “Just about wore the old ones out.”
“Well, good on ya, son. How’s your old man?”
“Ah, you know. Gettin’ by. More time out fishin’ than home these days.”
Mack spreads two dry lips over gapped teeth and waves me on. “You go’n get your ass in that saddle now, boy. Do him proud.”
“That I’ll do, Mack, that I’ll do.”
I still got a couple drops a whiskey in the flask tucked into my vest.
My walk to the ring takes me down past the stalls. Out here, sweet taste a hay dawdling on the dust up in the air, muzzles rested on doors, haunches kiltered one way, they don’t seem too bad. Course most a these is just the ropers, the barrel horses, the pole benders, whatever, all a them. Gentled, backed, broke. Ears flick towards me as I walk past. All half-asleep in the afternoon smog. Wish I coulda stayed out with them, the nice ones, the ones don’t wanna put my bones out into the sand. At night, when I don’t hear nobody about round the stalls, knowing night checks been done and everything fed an watered, I like to come out with a bag of carrots— flirt up the broncs in their pens. I give em a carrot maybe they won’t be so hard on me next day when they feel my weight ease onto their backs in the chute. Maybe. Prolly not. Man’s gotta hope.
I stop by Cal’s new roper in its stall. Full mustang, he been going round telling. Tries to put it over us he’s trained himself up a real genuine mustang like he’s goddamn Monty Roberts or some shit, an we all know Cal couldn’t train no monkey to pick its own ass, that’s a half goddamn quarter horse he’s got in his stall an no kiddin’.
“Hey fella,” I say to the thing, give it a scratch behind the ear. Dopey as anything.
“Mustang, huh, I’ll eat my hat, you a mustang I’m a Kennedy.”
Must be coming up on my six now so I get myself on to the ring where Cal’s waving me to the fencing. The men are all lined up against it, or sat on it, heels of their boots balancing their denim legs over the line between safe and trample town. Couple a new faces. One of em heads on towards the chute after a while, the rest all clap him on the back and say— I can’t hear but I know anyway they’re all saying what we say to every new kid;
“You gon be alright.”
“You just scratch’im.”
“Hold on tight, now.”
Same thing I heard the first few times I was put up to the chute. My legs barely beneath me they trembled so bad, Pops out in the stands, he always gotta watch from the stands, I never had nobody’s hand to hold back here with the boys. Nobody does. Ain’t that kinda place. Leave your boyhood down where you pick up your spurs. I could barely get myself over the railing that first time, they had to lift me by my vest. Old Mack gave me a leg up from beneath, patted my calf and told me to give em hell. Wish Mack woulda been here now, tell me the same thing up here, not out there, not out where the horses are all asleep.
The paint they’ve pushed into the chute is white-eyed and heaving. God this kid’s real young, I think, can’t be more’n sixteen, what, seventeen maybe? I started at fifteen. Pops was putting me on any screws-loose thing he could find back then anyway, wasn’t no different for me, but this kid seems younger somehow, I don’t know. Big ol’ apple cheeks. Buck teeth. Older I get younger they look. I don’t hit thirty for a couple a years yet, how’m I gonna see ‘em when I get to Mack’s age? He must look at me like a bunch a spring shoots.
I reckon on the kid staying maybe four seconds, paint looks about fired up to hell anyways, and soon as he gets flung I’m looking to get myself up there an ready.
Except shit, kid gets flung real hard. Real hard. Not like when you get chucked out just ‘cause you lost your grip, ‘cause you maybe had a couple too many night before an you can’t balance like maybe you should, so you bite some dirt off the ground. Nope, this kid lands like the ground hit him back— and straight into it, no roll, no bounce, all crumpled into it. Kinda fall that gets a hush spread over everybody and not even the commentator got any idea what to say now, we all just wait a few seconds while we can’t even breathe, see if the kid’ll shift to his side and groan and get to his feet. But this kid ain’t moving, not the fingers, not the feet. He’s in the dirt and the horse, now he’s got a whiff a freedom, well he’s off around the ring four feet in the air, head in his knees ’til suddenly he gets bored and drops hisself against
They’re all around the kid now, our guys. More a shield than any help. Nobody came here to see that. When we hurt ourselves, they like to see us get up and spit out blood, hang an arm awkward to the side.
An we won’t speak ’til he’s got up.
Except Cal opens his big mouth an says, “What a show. Figure he even hit two seconds?”
“Dammit Cal, he’s just a kid,” I say and he holds up a hand.
“Kid’ll be fine. You still gettin’ on?”
I look back to the ring, to the kid. He’s laid flat. Knocked out, that’s for sure.
Mack’s in there, he musta come over, he’s giving orders. He’s seen his wrecks.
The kid gets carried out but I don’t get to see where he’s taken, if they wanna sit him down for a couple minutes get him to wake up, or if they gonna take him off in the flatbed a somebody’s truck somewhere. I don’t see shit ‘cause I’m already in the chute now, somehow I’m lowering myself into the saddle and my legs know what they gotta do, they already braced, my hand gripped on good an tight ’til they open that damn gate.
“You got this, Georgie,” they tellin’ me but blood in my ears so damn loud, boy just got carried out I can hear his mama wailing somewhere on the side an I got five seconds or something ’til somebody gonna open up the chute and this horse beneath me gon turn hisself inside out an the inevitable is that I’m gonna taste that sand.
May god help me an put all the balance he got in the world right into this vessel.
“Here comes man a the hour,” Cal is telling the bunnies lined up at the bar. “Gonna get him a whiskey, his ass gotta be sore, he hit it hard enough. Break into the seventies on your score today or what?”
They look back at me and laugh, I tip my hat.
“Don’t listen to this fool,” I warn them and drop my hat on the bar. “You still ridin’ your quarter horse, Cal?”
He sniffs and sticks an elbow out on the bar. “Now that’s a purebred mustang an you know
“Purebred? This a mustang we’re talking about an you think you’re getting a sire stamped?”
“Ah, you’re one jealous son of a bitch, Georgie, you can’t afford no quarter horse, no mustang, no nothin’ at all. Hell, you’d be lucky if anybody gave you a mule.”
I get myself a beer and another to follow it up. Get a whiskey. Drink em like water. Long days like this the heat and dust and fear dive themselves down so far in you there’s nothing else to flush it out but beer after beer after funnelled beer— and then maybe a couple tequila shots, hell why not, few bits a this an that, whatever they got. I’m getting myself turned over in this place, maybe get a girl back to my trailer, needing something tonight to shove that kid outta my mind, can’t be thinking that when tomorrow I gotta get back in that saddle.
Mack comes in roundabout ten and gets hisself a table an waves us on over. We bring him a beer.
“You hear anything bout that kid?” Cal says ‘fore we’ve even sat down and I step on his toes but his boots so thick he’s not feeling it.
“Sure did. Lou’s boy, you know Lou? Came on over here a couple years back with Billy Newett, he was their kid. Real sweet boy. Nice boy.” Mack dunks the ends of his stache into his beer thoughtfully and slugs half of it down. “Yeah. Good kid that was.”
“He not riding again, then?” Cal asks.
The ends pull up like a pair of white legs, dripping foam down onto Mack’s chin. His lips are a hard line. I know already what he’s fixed to tell us.
“Cal, the kid got killed.”
“Shit, you don’t say.” Cal whistles and looks behind hisself as if somebody gonna come up and say didn’t he know. “What was it?”
“Neck broke. Dead afore they got him out the ring. Course we tell all ‘em good folk come for a nice day out he’s gonna be just fine, but naw, that kid got killed real fast.”
I swallow down the jet of saliva rolling from my tongue. I want another beer. I want more tequila. I wanna stick my head in a barrel a whisky. I want my Pops to come get me.
“Damn shame,” Mack says. “Damn shame.”
Cal can’t leave the damn thing alone. He’s like a dog on a scent about it and I’m just sick a him when we’re walking back.
“Shit, I mean, think he knew it? Afore he got on?”
“I dun wanna talk’bout it, Cal, just let’s shut up bout it.”
“You’re real sensitive, you know, Georgie, ain’t you?”
There’s a little sliver of sun come up on the horizon, enough that I can see Cal’s shit-eating grin all over his face, Christ what I’d give just to knock his jaw sideways one time.
“Mack said he tried to pick the kid up an then his fuckin’ head just rolled back, you think that’s ‘cause he broke his neck, you think it’d work like that, his head almost come off?”
“Would you just shut up about it now?”
Cal rolls back on his heels but he’s drunk and without his spurs on to poke the dirt so he just about falls over backwards and I grab him by the neck a his shirt. He grins, muck in his teeth, pats me on the back.
“I never seen a dead body before,” he says. “You?”
Dead body. That wasn’t a kid I was looking at on the ground, wasn’t a kid I saw getting carried out, all those big men stood about him, wasn’t a kid no more it was just a body they had to get outta there. A something. No someone left. I rode over that same sand he disappeared on. I watched somebody killed that quick. I seen people die before but it was always slow.
I’m on the ground myself ‘fore I know it and I’m spittin up into it, whole body lurching forwards as my stomach heaves itself and I choke, splutter, scrape fingernails through the
“Aw, fuckin’ man up, Georgie, where’d your balls go, huh?”
I can barely get my head up to speak. “Shut it, Cal, I mean it.”
“You better get up. I ain’t carrying you back.”
Living outta my trailer I guess I got used to the idea I could go anywhere I wanted whenever I wanted. Pick up and go kinda life. Leave it all on the road kinda life. Except it ain’t nothing like that, now I think about it, now I lie in my lumpy made-up bed and watch shadows roosting on the ceiling where I can’t block out all the light.
What if I told Pops.
“I don’t wanna do it no more,” I tell him and he probably punches me square ‘cross the face and I deserve it since he’s made so much of me being his son.
“I don’t like it,” I say and he tells me I am just about the worst kid any man could wish for.
“I never liked it,” I admit and he says I’m a goddamn coward sissy, I never did a thing for myself.
Pops stopped ‘cause he got in a wreck. Like that kid today only he’s still with us, Pops is, only he knew what he was doing. Pops wasn’t young when he got in that wreck. One of his hands is a claw now. So maybe I go and get one a the horses out the stalls, one with the eye reflecting most moonlight, and I climb up on its back and I kick it until it hates me and I get to hit the dirt the exact way I’m so terrified of. Can’t feel my legs. Can’t feel nothing below my stomach.
Or what if I just up and drove away. But where’s a broke-down cowboy go? Ranching somewhere I guess. Hell I could always throw it all out, buy a house somewhere north, get a job that means something. I unhitch my truck and get on the road and swear to god I never touch a drop a whiskey again. Find a girl. Let her love me outta this.
An we all got guns. I know Mack’s got six shored up in that trailer a his, he takes em out to polish when it’s not so hot the metal gonna burn his hands, once I seen him chase a guy through the lot with one in each hand, screaming something murder after him. If it’s gonna happen anyway let it be on my own terms.
Tomorrow I’m gonna be a new man any a these ways.
Then I get up in the morning, take down my hat, fasten on my spurs. Gonna be a hot one.
Better leave a couple beers in the cooler. Better fill up that flask.