Read I Own the Racecourse! Online

Authors: Patricia Wrightson

Tags: #Children's Fiction

I Own the Racecourse! (13 page)

BOOK: I Own the Racecourse!

The carton was full of paper streamers. Some had been used and were stuffed loosely into the box, making the heap of colour that had caught Andy's eye; but underneath there were others, still in their tight rolls. The rolls were faded and dusty on the outside, old stock that couldn't be sold; but when Andy unrolled a foot or so from one of them the bright, watery green inside was as gay as it could have been. There were blue, red, purple, some pink and orange, and a few of tarnished tinsel. Andy unrolled a little from this one and a little from that. The gay colours fluttered and curled about his fingers, teasing and exciting. They looked like Christmas and birthdays.

Andy forgot about his friends and the model plane. He couldn't leave the streamers in the alley to be thrown away, but the carton was too heavy to lift. He found a smaller box on one of the heaps of rubbish, and filled it with rolls of colour. He started to carry it home, but in a little while his feet changed direction and turned towards Beecham Park. Christmas and birthdays, Joe's birthday. On Saturday, when the trotters were running.

Boxful by boxful, Andy took the streamers to Beecham Park and hid them behind the old stand. On the second trip he passed Bert Hammond watering the garden.

‘Nice day,' said Bert. ‘Doing a bit of work over there?'

Andy nodded and chuckled, spikes of hair making a crest on the back of his head. ‘Surprise,' he said mysteriously.

He brought some more streamers down the next afternoon, but after that the carton vanished from the alley. It didn't really matter, for by then it was almost empty. Andy wandered about the racecourse wondering what to do with a great pile of coloured streamers.

‘There'll be something,' he thought comfortably. ‘It's not till Saturday.' He went off to the workshop in O'Days' back yard.

Mike was delicately cutting out shapes traced on a sheet of balsa wood while Matt watched him, absorbed. Terry and Joe were gluing pieces together, Joe holding the glued pieces carefully while Terry arranged tins, boxes and books to keep them in position while they set. Andy slid quietly past them and crouched against the wall to watch.

‘Hey, Joe, I bet you wish it was Saturday…Don't you wish it was Saturday, Joe?'

‘Yeah,' said Joe, holding the tail assembly of the plane as if it might explode.

‘Watch that glue,' said Mike. ‘It's got to balance.'

‘It's gotta hold, too,' grunted Terry.

‘I bet you get a surprise on your birthday, Joe. I got something to show you on your birthday, down at my racecourse…You gotta come down and see, Joe, it's special.'

Absorbed in the model plane, the boys hardly heard him at first, but Andy was not discouraged. For the next few days he returned to his theme whenever he saw Joe. Joe would frown in a puzzled way, while Mike looked on in silence and Terry and Matt with curiosity.

‘You going?' asked Terry softly on Friday afternoon.

‘I wish he'd give up,' said Joe crossly. ‘I don't know what he's got in his head.'

‘All of you can come,' said Andy kindly, ‘only Joe's gotta.' He chuckled with excitement.

On Saturday afternoon, while the others were trickling fuel into the new motor of Joe's plane and trying it out, Andy was not there. He was in fact perched on the roof of the old stand at Beecham Park, having decided at last to use his streamers on the place that seemed to need them most. There was also the fact that the streamers were there, right behind the stand. The ground was highest at this point. He had only to hoist a boxful of streamers to the top of a fence-post, climb up on the roof and lift the box across.

The beams that supported the iron roof rested on a bearer across the open front of the stand, and the bearer rested on supporting posts. By lying on the flat, sloping roof, Andy could easily reach the beams at the sides and the bearer in front. He began to festoon his streamers across the front of the stand, unrolling them as he went, looping and twisting them round the bearer or the ends of the beams. One streamer didn't go very far, but it didn't matter because there were such a lot of them. Sometimes he would tie an end round one of the upright posts; and once, when he was doing this, he dropped the whole roll to the ground. At first he tried to haul it up, but of course it simply unwound as he pulled.

‘Doesn't matter,' he told himself. ‘It can go round the post.' After a while he went back over his tracks and tied more streamers to the posts, dropping the rolls to the ground.

At first the streamers hung in sparse, untidy garlands between the electric lamps on the front of the stand. Then they grew into thick festoons of tangled colour—red, blue, mauve, green and orange, with a touch of tinsel here and there. Andy chuckled with excitement and delight as he fetched another boxful. He was too intent to notice the man in overalls who paused and stared, running his fingers through his hair.

After a time there were several men gazing up at the stand, grinning or looking uncertain.

‘Well, I dunno…'

‘Not doing any harm that
can see.'

‘Brightening up the old Leger. That'll make 'em think.'

‘What about the blokes cleaning up tomorrow?'

‘I'm one. They won't mind.'

‘Well, I dunno…'

‘I want to see Marsden's face when he spots this lot.' The grins widened.

‘Do you think Bert Hammond's going to let it go that far? Not a chance, mate.'

‘Yeah? I reckon we can handle Bert.'

When Andy had used up all the streamers he climbed down and admired his work from the ground. He collected the rolls he had dropped from above and wound those streamers round and round the posts, tying them at the bottom. The men came wandering by, one by one, calling friendly greetings.

‘Brightening her up a bit, boss?'

‘That's a bit of all right. They'll think it's Christmas.'

Andy would pause and give them his shy, direct smile. ‘It's Joe's birthday. He's my friend.'

‘That so? Friend's birthday, eh? He'll get a surprise, then.'

Andy never saw Bert Hammond come striding across, for Bert ran into a solid wall of men who closed him round. Neither did Andy hear the scraps of talk that drifted his way, for his mind was fixed on the work his hands were doing.

‘…can't see the harm in it…not getting in anyone's way…' And then, more strongly, ‘You just tell 'em if they don't like it they can start looking for someone else to put on the gates tonight; and do the cleaning in the morning, too.' Finally, in a voice that held something like scorn, ‘They'll never notice, Bert. They don't care what goes on in the Leger.'

Andy, with a last excited chuckle, walked straight past the group of men and went home for his dinner. Bert went off more nervously to wait for the Secretary of the Committee.

That evening Andy burst into O'Days' back yard before the first car of the evening had been trapped, and set the yard throbbing with his eager impatience. ‘Are you coming down, Joe? Hey, Joe? You'll get a surprise if you do. Aren't you coming, Joe?'

‘You'll have to tell him,' whispered Mike. ‘He'll burst if you don't.'

all right!
' cried Joe at last. ‘Put a sock in it, can't you, Andy? I'll come.' It was not really Andy's insistence that exasperated him. It was because he knew he really had no choice—he couldn't hurt Andy by refusing.

‘Good on you, Joe!' cried Andy, hugging himself. ‘I bet you'll be glad. You coming too, Mike? Eh, Matt? Eh, Terry?'

In the end, of course, they all went, feeling guilty but full of curiosity about Andy's surprise.

‘I bet he's giving you this week's rent,' whispered Matt. It seemed to all of them the most likely surprise.

The man on the turnstile was a little startled to see so many of them, but he let them all through. Matt and Terry, not having been inside before, stared at the crowd, at the great floating grandstand, and at the dark, rippling pool inside the track. Andy led them straight to the small stand.

It was even better than he remembered. Now the strings of lights had been switched on. They glowed among the tangled streamers that stirred and rustled in the breeze, lighting the colours to brilliance and throwing on the ground shadows that moved a little like snakes. The shabby old stand seemed to be dressed up for a play. People were staring at it and chattering in a lively way. Andy's blue eyes were round and shining. He was almost as astonished as the people.

‘I forgot!' he said. ‘I never thought of the lights. Gee, it's good, isn't it? Are you glad, Joe? I did it for your birthday. See, I
I had a surprise. Do you like it, Joe?'

‘Andy! You didn't do that?'

‘I did, though. Found 'em at the back of Blessings—put out for the garbage, they were. Good, aren't they?'

Joe's face was red and embarrassed, Terry's and Matt's blank with shock, but Mike was grinning. A voice in the crowd said,
the owner. How you going, boss?'

‘Honest, now Andy,' said Mike, ‘did you do it off your own bat?'

‘I said already. For Joe's birthday. Aren't you glad, Joe?'

Joe wore a hunted expression; but he made an effort and said, ‘Gee, Andy, I never had a surprise like that. Thanks, boy. Let's—let's get a bit farther away—where we can see it better.'

Across the lighted circle of the track and on the other side of the course, an expensively dressed gentleman in a bowler hat was speaking to another. ‘What's going on in the Leger tonight, Marsden? I don't think very highly of that stand—who's responsible for it?'

The Secretary of the Committee shifted unhappily. ‘I understand the men are celebrating something. Hammond reports that they threatened to walk off if it was interfered with. It seemed wiser not to create a disturbance when the gates were due to open in half an hour.'

The expensive gentleman frowned, staring across the course at the tangled colours that glowed and shifted between the lights. ‘The men took a bit of a liberty, it seems to me. If we get complaints from patrons on that side, the Committee will want to hear more about it.'

On their side of the course, Andy's friends waited with him to see one race and to collect his rent from the two stalls; but Mike and Joe were uneasy in case their parents should hear of this adventure. It wasn't safe to be here with Andy. There were too many smiles, too many cheerful remarks about the decorations, too many good-natured voices following them.

‘Stand back, mate—let the owner through.'

‘There you are, boss. Big gala night tonight, eh?'

The trouble was, thought Joe, that most of these people
Andy to be the owner. As soon as he could, he said, ‘Well, thanks, boy, that was great. Only I better get home now, or there'll be a row.'

Andy dealt out potato crisps from one of his bags. ‘I better get home myself, even. Have to be down early tomorrow and clean up those streamers.'

They trudged up Blunt Street, crunching potato crisps as they went. When Andy went loping away down his own street, Matt sighed deeply and spoke his first words since entering Beecham Park.

‘I never saw anything like that. That's—that's—well, I know what Mike means for once. He owns the place. He does.'

Terry said sourly, ‘At two bags of chips a week he'll even make a profit in the end. If it goes on long enough.'

Strange Characters

Andy went down to the racecourse early next morning and began to take down the streamers. He was pulling down those that were twisted round the upright posts when the cleaners began to arrive. They shouted cheerfully to him and each other.

‘What did I tell you? Cleaning up his own mess, see?'

‘How did your friend like his birthday surprise, boss?'

George, the small man with lively brown eyes, insisted on climbing to the roof himself, to tear down the streamers from above.

‘You don't want to bother,' said Andy. ‘I put 'em up, didn't I?'

‘That's all right, mate—can't have the owner breaking his neck. You don't want to keep a dog and bark yourself. I'll just drop the lot down, and you can shove it in the bins.'

So George went up a ladder and threw down armfuls of coloured paper quicker than Andy could gather them up. Sometimes he would aim them at Andy so that he was draped in coils of orange, purple and green. Andy would laugh until he almost fell down, and the other men would pause in their work and grin. The job was soon done, and Andy and George helped with the sweeping in the ordinary way.

Not only here, but outside the walls of Beecham Park, people seemed to have enjoyed Joe's birthday surprise. Wherever Andy went they would speak to him about it in much the same way as the sweepers had. He began to see that the whole thing was more important than he had thought, and even rather clever.

‘That brightened her up, that did,' said Andy proudly, swaggering down Wattle Road with his hands in his pockets. Then he frowned heavily, trying to think of some other important, exciting thing that an owner could do with a racecourse.

Ahead of him, four figures that he knew well turned from Blunt Street into Wattle Road and walked down towards the park. Andy hurried to catch them up. Joe's model plane, fully assembled and already past its first test light, was about to be tested again.

To Andy, the flying of the plane was a small and perfect miracle. He followed, watched and listened, so quiet that his friends hardly knew he was there. He never once called to them, never once laughed or chuckled. He only watched, listened and followed.

‘We'll have to keep her out of the way of that kite. Through the arches—there'll be more room there.'

Andy went with them through one wide arch of the railway crossing to the broad, sunny stretch beyond.

‘Down here away from the trees. Look out, you're spilling the fuel.'

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