Authors: Terence Blacker
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Epub ISBN: 9781448188437
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First published in 2016 by
Andersen Press Limited
20 Vauxhall Bridge Road
London SW1V 2SA
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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher.
The right of Terence Blacker to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
Copyright Â© Terence Blacker, 2016
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available.
ISBN 978 1 78344 401 4
To the memory of my good pal, Paul Sidey
A TALL, GREY-HAIRED
man in a heavy sheepskin coat is standing on the edge of his lawn. Beyond him there are fields, leading down into a wood. Now and then he puffs at a cigar in his hand.
My uncle. Bill Barton. Uncle Bill.
I watch him for a moment, a hay-net over my shoulders, as I stand by his gold and black horsebox. The two ponies in the lorry are going racing today. There are three more ponies, and a horse belonging to Uncle Bill's wife Elaine, in a row of stables beyond.
I can hear, above the early morning birdsong, the sound of Uncle Bill's groom Ted as he mucks out one of the stables.
Across a gravel yard stands Uncle Bill's big modern house, Coddington Hall. An old, historic building with that name used to be here but, shortly after my uncle bought it, a fire just accidentally happened to break out in the kitchen and the place burnt to the ground.
âEvery cloud has a silver lining,' Uncle Bill says now when he talks about it. âCollected the insurance. Built a new house. Modern. Great facilities. Games room. More my style. Bish bosh done.'
That's Uncle Bill's way. He is a determined man. Things don't stand in his way for long. If someone disagrees with him, he gives them the look. There's something about Uncle Bill's look that persuades people to change their mind.
He turns, zipping himself up (that's what he was doing there, like a big silver fox marking his territory). I hurriedly put the hay-net in the back of the horsebox.
A few moments later, Michaela â Uncle Bill's daughter, my cousin and my most-of-the-time best friend â ambles from the house towards the horsebox. She looks amazing. Breeches. Shining boots. Silks in Uncle Bill's black and gold colours. She could be a real jockey, except in miniature and with long blonde hair.
She checks her reflection in one of the wing mirrors.
âLooking good, M,' I say.
âCheers, Jay.' She smiles, then notices what I'm wearing. Trainers. Jeans. Faded black T-shirt. The crash-hat on my head has a moth-eaten velvet covering and an old-fashioned peak. It looks like something out of
The Antiques Roadshow
âI could have lent you some stuff,' she says, frowning.
âNo, it's fine. I'm comfortable.'
Michaela does an odd little pouty thing with her mouth, a gesture she has picked up recently at her new school.
' she murmurs. âWhat's comfort got to do with it?'
Now Uncle Bill is by the horsebox. A proud-dad smile appears on his face when he looks at Michaela. It vanishes when he catches sight of me.
âBlimey, girl,' he says in that rasping voice of his. âDress-down Friday, is it?'
âI had to get the ponies ready, Uncle Bill.'
He swears quietly and gets into the car.
I take one last look in the back of the horsebox.
Hey, boys. Everything all right here?
Marius is looking restless. Dusty munches sleepily at his hay-net.
That's the way, Dusty.
Uncle Bill toots impatiently at the horn.
I close the horsebox door. A movement in one of the house's upstairs windows catches my eye. My aunt Elaine stands there in a silk dressing gown, her hands around a mug of tea. She is Uncle Bill's second wife, Michaela's stepmother, and is not exactly keen on the idea of our going racing. I wave goodbye to her. She looks away.
I step into the cab, which is already thick with cigar smoke.
Uncle Bill looks across at us, grinning. âReady for the races, girls?'
âRaces, yay.' Michaela punches the air. âI'm so excited.'
âYou've double-checked everything's in the back, Jay?' he asks, putting the horsebox into gear.
âYes, Uncle Bill.'
WE DRIVE FOR
an hour or so. Beside me, Michaela chatters about the ponies, about school, about her friends. I can tell she's nervous.
My mind is fixed on the race ahead. I've been around Uncle Bill long enough to know that whatever he is planning, there will probably be something dodgy about it. He calls it âworking the system'.
I turn towards him. âTell us about the races, Uncle Bill,' I say.
He draws on his fat cigar and exhales. Gasping, Michaela puts her head out of the window.
âIt's mainly a bit of fun,' he says. âWith a little betting on the side to make it interesting for the grown-ups.'
Here's a tip about my uncle. To get at the truth, you sometimes need to listen very carefully to what he says and then turn it upside-down. Or inside-out. Or back-to-front. Anything but the way he's told it.
These pony races, I'm now guessing, are mainly about betting. With a little fun on the side to make it interesting for the kids.
We bump down a long track until we reach a closed gate. Two men in combat jackets and dark glasses are standing in front of it. There is something about their body language which is not exactly welcoming. As we approach, they see who is driving and quickly stand back to open the gate.
A big, open field stretches before us.
âWhere are we?' Michaela sounds a bit scared.
âThis was once an air station,' says Uncle Bill. âNow it's just derelict land. All sorts of naughty stuff goes on here. Raves. Hare coursing. The odd bare-knuckle fight.'
' I look to see whether he's joking. He isn't. âWhat about the police, Uncle Bill?'
He gives a little between-you-and-me laugh. âThey don't seem to bother with this for some reason.' He winks at me. âIt's a sort of no-man's-land, law-wise.'
âOh, right. I see.' (I don't but, with Uncle Bill, it's best not to ask too many questions.)
A few hundred metres away, there is a strip of old road where horseboxes, trailers and vans are parked. This is different from the gymkhanas Michaela and I have been to in the past. No tents. No ring surrounded by straw bales, no jolly picnics, no man with a posh voice making announcements, no proud parents leading small ponies with plaited manes.
Round the outside of the field I can see poles and a white tape. The racetrack.
âLooks a bit serious,' Michaela murmurs to me.
âIt does.' I smile to myself.
I feel like I've come home.
I get into the horsebox to check the ponies. Marius, a light chestnut Arab gelding, is trembling with excitement while Dusty â dark bay, hairy-heeled, big-bummed (my favourite pony in the world) â shows no sign of waking up.
You can probably guess which one I'm riding.
From the outside, Uncle Bills calls out, âLet's walk the course, jockeys.'
He strides towards the white tape. As the three of us follow the track around the field, he points out to Michaela where the good ground is. He tells her that our race is longer than most, that she must wait to make her move. Marius has a turn of foot â he can beat any pony for speed at the finish â but he gets bored when he's in front.
I listen. Sometimes it can be useful, not being noticed.
There are three races before ours. Michaela stays at the horsebox with Marius. I watch the bigger ponies carefully. Most of the kid jockeys are going too fast too soon. They have forgotten that it has rained during the week. The track is narrow in places and already the ground is muddier. With every race, the final bend is looking more and more like a ploughed field in a thunderstorm.
Where the cars are parked, money is changing hands, and there seems to be quite a lot of drinking going on too. This isn't playtime, that's for sure. It's serious.
I like that.
When we get Marius out of the horsebox and saddle him up, one or two of the gamblers come over to look at him.
âWhat race is he in, mate?' one calls out to Bill.
âWorth a pony on the nose, is he?'
Uncle Bill is tightening the girth. He ignores them.
âWhat's a pony, Dad?' asks Michaela.
âJust a little bet, love â twenty-five quid,' says the man watching us. âWhat d'you say, pal?' He calls out more loudly to Uncle Bill. âWorth a tickle, is he?'