Authors: Christina Jones
Tags: #General, #Fiction
Sympathy had been in pretty short supply today, Charlie thought, switching on the radio. What he needed now was a refreshing blast of Aerosmith to cheer him up.
"... so we can confirm that there were no fallers at the notorious Becher's Brook on the first circuit, and only three at the Canal Turn – all up on their feet. Horses and jockeys all okay. And now they're coming up to Valentine's for the first time! Barbara's Basket, the rank outsider, is still leading the field! Satchwa, King Rupert, and red-hot favourite Dragon Slayer, are tucked nicely into the middle of the chasing pack as they approach Aintree's third major challenge of the afternoon! Valentine's will sort out the men from the boys ..."
Oh, God! Not a bloody re-run! Charlie started station surfing. He certainly didn't need 5 Live's commentator to remind him ...
Satchwa had been bumping along beside them, having scrabbled amateurishly through the early fences, already tired. Charlie had eased Dragon Slayer away from the heaving flanks, feeling buoyant, and not a little smug. Dragon Slayer, over sixteen hands, almost jet black, proud and fearless, was as confident as himself, instinctively saving any real burst of energy for later when it mattered. This truly was the ride of his life. He'd never sat on a horse half so good. Mentally thanking Kath's regular jockey, Matt Garside, who had missed the ride because of injury, Charlie felt a surge of excitement. This was going to be his race. Dragon Slayer was a winner. He could feel it. He knew that all he had to do on this first circuit was sit tight and steer away from any danger.
King Rupert, chestnut and rangy, was just visible from the corner of his eye, but he wasn't a threat. Not yet, anyway. Both Charlie and Dragon Slayer knew Aintree's Grand National course well, but, confident as they were, this was still no time for complacency. King Rupert was second favourite, a Gold Cup winner and a known stayer. They'd have to look to their laurels on the run-in.
Still, so far, so good. They'd soared over the heart-stopping height of Becher's, Dragon Slayer planting his huge hooves exactly right for the take-off, the power in his bunched hindquarters leaving daylight above the brushwood, and landing with feet to spare. With only minimal encouragement from Charlie, Dragon Slayer was instantly right-legged into his stride, bowling immediately towards the Canal Turn; horse and rider in perfect harmony. No problems here. Charlie could hear horses crashing through the soft tops of the fence behind him, and the cursing of his fellow jockeys. He chuckled. He'd been lucky to get this ride on such a superb horse, he knew. And Kath Seaward was no push-over: she trained the best and expected even better.
Valentine's coming up ... Charlie concentrated even harder on keeping Dragon Slayer away from Satchwa's weaving backside, on holding his middle ground, on timing the take-off. This was his big chance after being laid-off for so long after last year's fall. This was his chance to prove to Kath Seaward that he was a natural replacement for Matt Garside in all his races until he was fit, and that he deserved his previous status of champion jockey. It was also his chance to reaffirm the belief of Drew Fitzgerald, the trainer who employed him as a stable jockey, that next year, with the right horse, they'd win at Cheltenham and Aintree. And, of course, there was Tina ...
He could see the jaunty hindquarters of Barbara's Basket – having his fifteen minutes of fame – blundering wildly across the course ahead with as much finesse as he'd smashed through the obstacles. Six – no, seven horses in front of him, all non-stayers. This was going so well... He could hear the distant halloo screams of the crowd all around him, and felt the rhythmic thud of hoof on turf. Dragon Slayer's motion was easy and assured. As long as they could take King Rupert on the run-in they were home and dry. Charlie began to relax.
'Stay out of trouble,' Kath had ordered in the parade ring. 'Keep him covered for the first circuit. No heroics. He jumps well and will want to be up with the leaders. You'll have to keep him in check and conserve your energy for the second circuit and the run-in. I expect you to keep him on his feet. He's never fallen. That's why he's favourite. Stay in the saddle and give him his head two from home. I expect you to be in the first three at the elbow. Okay?'
Charlie had agreed, the adrenaline already pumping round his veins. He'd touched his cap to Kath, and then he'd looked down at Tina, high-cheeked and beautiful, with the long red coat swishing against black boots and the black swansdown hat feathering around her blonde hair – a fashion statement on this course where nobody made them – and grinned.
She'd smiled back, the tip of her tongue protruding between her tiny teeth. 'You'd better win, darling. I can't wait to congratulate you ...'
Charlie had felt the rush of lust through his body at the memory, and in that instant, knew everything was going wrong.
Dragon Slayer, totally in tune with Charlie's thoughts, gave an almost imperceptible start. The long, confident stride faltered slightly. Charlie, cursing himself for falling into the amateur's trap of letting his mind stray, tried hard to get back on course. Satchwa was thumping along just in front of him, still swerving from left to right. King Rupert and several others, as yet unseen, were gaining on him from behind.
The fragile telepathic bond with Dragon Slayer had been broken in that one second's concentration lapse. Powering down the course, the rails merely a blur, Charlie was sitting on an unguided missile. Dragon Slayer had received the wrong signals and had no idea how to interpret them.
Barbara's Basket had already bashed over Valentine's – a terrifying slow-motion scramble of horse and humanity – which miraculously didn't result in a fall. The rest of the horses in front of him were already pouring raggedly over the obstacle like a liquid rainbow. Dragon Slayer was careering towards the fence, still twitchy, knowing what he had to do, but his brain totally at odds with Charlie's.
Immediately in front of them Satchwa, already exhausted, simply didn't jump at all, and crashed through the fence. Charlie, watching all this as if in slow motion, was hurtling towards certain disaster with every speeding stride.
'Shit... shit... shit...'
He gathered Dragon Slayer up, trying to steady him, but it was far, far, too late. Wrong-footed ... Wrong-footed ... They took off awkwardly, Dragon Slayer's legs clawing frantically in mid-air. The landing was a thump of pain.
'It's okay ...' Charlie muttered with watering eyes as Dragon Slayer's huge black neck smacked him on the nose. 'We've made it. Stay on your feet... Oh, Christ!'
Charlie could feel the world slip away from him as Dragon Slayer stumbled, pecked, and then bent gracefully at the knees. Amid the crescendo screams of half a dozen other horses and riders cursing and panting around him, Charlie shot from the saddle and catapulted over Dragon Slayer's head.
Instinctively relaxing his muscles, he hit the ground. The force knocked all the breath from him with a solar-plexus punch. Whatever had happened to his body, his brain was working at fever-pitch. Seven horses ahead of him; maybe the same number with him; that still left at least twenty to hurl themselves over the top of Valentine's ... Twenty odd horses to land on top of him ... Ten tons of death.
Curling into the tightest ball, protecting his head with his arms, the noises were terrifying. The thunderous echo of the approaching cavalry charge was like a tidal roar. The shouted curses and laboured breathing were magnified a million times. Every set of crashing, slashing hooves landing inches away from him seemed determined to crush him.
Charlie prayed. A faller now, on the leeward side of Valentine's, and it would be all over. Half a ton of rocket-propelled racehorse would break every bone in his body. It had happened like that to his father. An amateur steeplechase at Fairyhouse had meant that Barnaby Somerset, privileged only son complete with silver spoon, had lived what was left of his life in a wheelchair. Twenty years earlier, Charlie's paternal grandfather had been luckier. He'd been thrown during a Boxing Day meet and killed outright.
Was that to be his fate, too? A million memories fast-forwarded through Charlie's brain. Was this like drowning? Past life played in a split-second of slow motion? A selective re-run of previous generations? Was this the third time that the Somerset breeding, the expensive education, the cosseted upbringing in a minor stately home, would lead to death by horse?
Riding had been in his blood at birth; handed down at conception along with the fox-red hair and the classical bone-structure. It had made no difference how much his mother had begged him to do something different – become a barrister – a doctor ... He hadn't had the brains, anyway, and he had to ride. He had to. He'd been born to ride. And if he rode to his death – then wasn't that how it had been planned?
Charlie sucked in gulps of air. It tasted of blood.
Oh, God – Dragon Slayer? Was he all right? He'd die anyway if Dragon Slayer was fatally injured. He opened one eye, dreading the sight of the huge black flanks heaving, the long legs threshing, or worse ...
Oh, thank Christ ... Nothing. There was nothing. Just grass and mud and a ton of scattered branches.
It seemed like a lifetime later, or maybe a millisecond, Charlie wasn't sure. The drumbeat echo beneath him was growing fainter as the National field charged on towards the next fence. The banshee wail of the crowd was swelling again somewhere in the stratosphere. No other fallers ... Oh, thank you, God ...
He tentatively moved his arms and legs. At least they were still there and seemed to be operational.
'Okay, love?' A St John Ambulance lady – pretty, actually, despite the austere uniform, Charlie thought groggily – was bending over him. 'Walking wounded? Or do you need a stretcher?'
'The horse?' Charlie winced. His face ached. His lips were still bleeding. 'My horse – he's all right?'
'Just approaching the Chair I shouldn't wonder,' the St John Ambulance lady said, helping Charlie to his feet. 'Seems to enjoy the jumping much more now you're not on his back. He's fine, love. Now let's nip up into the meat wagon and get you back to the doc.'
Charlie had bumped miserably back to the Aintree course doctor in silent humiliation.
Kath Seaward was waiting for him outside the medical room door after his check-up.
'What the fuck were you doing?'
Charlie winced. His swollen lips made speaking difficult. 'I'm fine, thanks. No bones broken. No concussion. Passed fit to ride. How's Dragon Slayer?'
'We're not talking here!' Kath jerked her head at the posse of press. 'Not bloody here!'
The press, however, suddenly swooshed away in a jumble of Pentax and Nikon. The noise was deafening, the commentator's strangled screams lost against a wall of sound. With a lump in his throat Charlie watched the run-in on the massive Star Vision screen.
King Rupert, his jockey crouched low with exhaustion on his sweating neck, beat the still-weaving and completely unfashionable Satchwa by a short head.
Kath Seaward kept walking; a tall, gaunt figure in a ground-trailing trench coat, a maroon beret rammed on to dyed black hair. Kath swore more, smoked more, drank more neat whisky, and loved her horses more passionately, than any trainer Charlie had ever ridden for. She was one pretty scary lady.
'So?' She turned on him viperously. 'What went wrong?'
'Dragon Slayer?' Charlie mumbled again, running his tongue across his crooked teeth. They were still there. It was some small consolation. 'He's not hurt?'
'Decided he'd had enough after the first circuit. Jumped the Chair like a stag. Cleared the water jump and then buggered off back to the start like a lamb. The horse,' she glared at Charlie, 'managed to keep his brain between his ears, Somerset. Unlike you.'
It was so near the truth that Charlie closed his eyes. One of them felt as though it wasn't going to open again.
'So? Any explanations? Anything that might, just might, keep the racing press – not to mention the punters – from ripping me to bloody shreds?'
'None. I lost it. He pecked on landing and –'
'And you should have stayed in the fucking driving seat!' Kath lit a cigarette and blew a plume of ferocious smoke towards him. 'Jesus Christ! You had the bloody easy part! You've gone soft. You eat too much and drink too much – and you never wake up in your own bed!'
'That's hardly fair. I've stayed off the booze and I've been really careful –'
'Careful!' Kath spat the words round the filter tip. 'You need a proper regime, Somerset! You need to think and act like a bloody jockey – not a sodding playboy! Oh, fuck off out of my sight! Tell bloody Drew Fitzgerald he can keep your services in future! When I need a replacement jockey I'll engage a fucking professional!'
Charlie, literally cap in hand, had stood alone and watched her go. He felt like crying. There was a sting of truth in Kath's invective. He did overeat and he drank too much and he'd tried really hard to give up smoking again ... But he'd always been lucky. He'd always managed to starve enough before important races to beat the weighing room scales. Maybe the excesses had taken their toll. Maybe it was time to give up ... He wiped a muddy glove across his face and groaned as it caught on his mouth.
Sod it. He'd wanted this race so badly. The entire world was on the other side of the course congratulating the winner. King Rupert and Tony McCoy loomed large on the screen.
'Thanks for nothing.' Tina Maloret stalked towards him, two spots of colour accentuating the cheekbones. 'Pity your bedroom performance isn't echoed on the racecourse. Maybe you should think of abandoning being a jockey and think about becoming a gigolo. Not,' the eyes, now level with his own, flashed with venom, 'that you're first past the post there either!'
Charlie exhaled. There was nothing he could say. He understood her anger. Tina would calm down later. He knew he'd be able to charm her into giggling submission but Kath ... Kath was a different proposition. She'd trusted him and he'd let her down. He'd done his career no good at all. And Drew... Oh, God. What the hell was Drew going to say?