Authors: Terence Blacker
âI'll be fine. Honestly.'
I MUST BE
more shaken than I thought, because as soon as Auntie closes the curtains that morning I fall into a deep sleep.
Some time that afternoon, I open my eyes. It is still daytime outside and the big, reassuring shape of Auntie is sitting on the end of my bed.
âIt's alive,' she says, and I hear the smile in her voice. âI just wanted to check that you're all right.'
I try to sit up but small stabs of pain all over my body make me fall back on my pillow. âOw,' I say weakly.
Auntie lays a cool hand above the cut on my forehead in a way which reminds me of my mother when I was small. âYou weren't knocked out, were you?'
I shake my head and wince at a sharp ache in my neck. âNo. The hedge broke my fall.'
âThat cut looks nasty. You should have it looked at.'
âIt's all right. I wasn't planning to be a model.'
Auntie hands me a cup. âTulsi tea,' she says. âSpecial herbal tea from back home. I used to give it to Jas when he had a fall.'
I sip at the tea. It has an odd taste, sweet but with a tang of bitterness.
Laura appears at the door. âYou all right?' she asks.
âGlad you're OK.' She looks at me for a moment, and is gone, leaving me with the niggling idea that I've let her down in some way.
Auntie goes to shut the door, then returns to the bed. âMaybe you should be doing all this racing stuff a little later.' She speaks casually, picking at a loose thread on the bed cover. âYou're so young and small. It's tough, that business. The horses. The falls. The bully-boys.' She looks at me. âIt's not much of a holiday job.'
âNo.' I speak the word with quiet certainty. âIt's not a holiday job. This is my life now. I can't go back.'
âThink about it.' Auntie stands and looks down at me. âSleep on it.'
After she has left, the tulsi tea has its effect. I doze off.
When I wake, it is the middle of the night. I lie, wide-eyed and alert in my bed. The events of the day seem clearer now. Nothing about what happened on the gallops makes any sense. Why did Angus let Pete adjust my girth? How could I have put it on twisted? I think of the wink that Pete gave me after he had given me the leg-up, almost as if we were sharing some secret joke. What made Norewest change so quickly? What did I do to upset him?
I get out of bed and stare out at the lights of Newmarket. When I first rode ponies, Ted used to tell me that when jockeys fall, they want to get back in the saddle as soon as possible.
The clock beside my bed shows 2 a.m. Four more hours and I will be back in the yard. Back in the saddle.
I leave early for work.
As I walk slowly and painfully towards the stables, I catch sight of myself in a shop window. I'm hobbling along as if I've just been hit by a lorry. My face is a tangled cobweb of scratches. I look like something out of a horror movie. I'd laugh if it wasn't too painful.
The gates are open, but none of the lads are here yet. I hear someone in the forage room and, as I pass, I see Michael, the feed man, stacking sacks of horse nuts.
I walk to the tack room to see the List. My name is nowhere to be seen.
I walk to the main entrance to the yard, and wait. The first lads to arrive at work, Liam and Amit, laugh when they see me at the gate.
âWhoa, it's Bug,' says Amit. âStraight out of
Night of the Living Dead
âGlutton for punishment, aren't you, Bug?' Liam laughs as he walks on, but admiration is in his voice.
Who, exactly, is Bug?
Deej explains it to me when he arrives. It seems I have a new nickname. âSomeone said you'd been clinging on like a limpet,' he says. âLimpet became Bug. It's a good sign, getting a nickname. Bug Barton. It could be worse.'
Angus is less pleased that I am here. He stops when he sees me, and stands, hands on hips.
âWhat the blazes are you doing here, lassie?'
âI'm working. I was hoping to ride out.'
âAfter yesterday? Are you kidding me?'
âI could ride Norewest.'
âYou're blazing joking. He's staying in today, thanks to you.'
âIs he injured?'
The head lad looks away. âYou can muck out the boxes in the back yard if you're so blazing keen,' he says.
After the first lot have pulled out, I walk into the main yard. The only person there is Frank, the old ex-jockey who is now the stable's yard man. I tell him that I'm going to check on Norewest.
Frank leans on his broom, smiling. âLooks like you're the one who came off worst,' he says.
He walks with me to Norewest's box. The horse is calmly eating hay.
âAre you all right, boy?' Frank opens the stable door, walks in and runs an expert hand down the horse's front legs. âNo warmth there. He seemsâ' Grunting, he slips down on one knee and looks more closely at Norewest's stomach. He reaches out to touch a spot behind the horse's front legs. There is a dark stain there, where purple iodine has been sprayed.
âHas he cut himself?' I ask.
âOh dear, oh dear.' Frank is shaking his head. âI've not seen this for a while. Let me see the girth you wore yesterday.'
We walk to the tack room. My saddle is on its rack as usual, but something has changed. Yesterday, there was a yellow elastic girth on it. Now it has a leather one.
Frank looks into the big wooden chest where spare tack is kept. There, on the top, is my girth. He picks it up and smiles grimly. Halfway along its length, there is a dark stain, which is still damp. He touches it, then looks at his fingertip. It is red. Blood.
âNasty old racing trick, that is. Someone slipped a filed-down tack into the girth sheath. As soon as the girth was tightened â well, there's why your horse bolted. Seems like you might have an enemy in the yard,' he says, wandering off. There's no way he is going to get involved in any of this.
When first lot returns, I wait until the lads are leaving for their breakfast before following Angus into the tack room. He is looking at the List as I enter.
âI've seen Norewest,' I say.
âI'd concentrate on your own horses if I were you, girly,' he says quietly without turning round. âYou've done enough harm as it is.'
âHis stomach has been injured, Angus. Where the girth was.'
âOh aye? You're a vet now, are you?' I sense a hint of concern in Angus's voice.
I walk to the tack chest, open it and take out the yellow girth. I hold it out.
âSomeone put something sharp in the girth sheath. When I tightened it, Norewest was stabbed in the stomach. That's why he bolted.'
Angus turns, looks down at the girth, then at me. âPut the girth back, girl.' He speaks in a low, level voice.
âI could have got badly hurt. The horse could have injured himself. It's cruel.'
âPete told me the girth was twisted.' He says the words quietly, almost talking to himself.
âI just wanted you to know.'
âYes. Thank you. Let's keep this to ourselves, shall we?' Angus looks at me for a few seconds. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, he adds, âWill you be all right on Manhattan for third lot?'
âThat's good then.'
He struts away and, in my mind, I hear Laura's words of advice to me.
AFTER FIRST LOT
has pulled out and the yard is quiet, I make my slow, painful way to Manhattan's stable.
She stands with her head in the corner, resting one leg. Her ears go back as I enter the box but, when I ignore her, she returns to her sad, sleepy state. I lay a hand on her neck.
We're both alone, aren't we? And no one quite gets us.
She tenses slightly. She has seen too much of human beings to trust any of them, but there is something about me today â maybe my voice, perhaps the slow and painful way that I move â which seems to calm her.
That's my girl. We're in the same boat.
I've taken my grooming kit with me. When Mr Wilkinson does his evening inspection, I've noticed that he never spends long at this stable. All the other horses have been groomed so that they shine when their lad takes their rugs off. Because the trainer never casts more than a glance at Manhattan, Pete hardly bothers with her.
There you go. This will make you feel better.
Every move makes me wince, but I fetch a bucket and stand on it so that I can reach the top of her back. Gasping from the pain, I run a dandy brush over her. I start gently and, after a few minutes, the aching in my muscles eases. Manhattan allows herself to be groomed, almost as if she can sense that I am in no state to deal with her mad-dragon act.
Soon the stable is thick with dust and dirt. The gleaming colour of her coat begins to come through as I pick up the body brush. Her body is dark with small, delicate blotches of lightness, like the sun shining through thundery clouds, and her tail goes from black at the top to the palest grey at its tip. Her head and mane are a lighter colour, and she has a wild blaze of whiteness between her eyes and spilling down to her nose, as if someone has thrown a pot of paint at her. She has the longest eyelashes I have seen on any horse, and they are pure white. She is the most beautiful horse I have ever seen.
You like being pampered, don't you?
Her eyes, dark against the whiteness, half close as I run the brush over her.
You're tired of being fierce. You don't want to fight everyone.
When I reach for the curry comb, and start working on her mane, she sighs wearily. Perhaps she is thinking of what her life should have been.
Since Pete told me that she was going to be put down, I have asked around. I now know the sad story of Manhattan.
One of the lads, Liam, has told me that she is the best-bred horse in the yard. Her pedigree goes way back to a horse called The Tetrarch, another dark grey, who was a brilliant colt a century ago and became one of the greatest stallions in the history of racing. Fillies bred from The Tetrarch, or from his equally brilliant daughter Mumtaz Mahal, share the dark dappled grey colour and are big, strong and fast.
She was bred by the yard's best owner, Prince Ahmed, who was a member of the royal family in Saudi Arabia. The week that she was born, the prince had a heart attack. He died a week later.
When she came to the yard as a yearling, she belonged to Prince Muqrin, Ahmed's son, a man in his twenties. The lads remember how she was bigger and stronger than any other yearling that year. Mr Wilkinson gave her to one of his best lads, a man called Charlie, to break in. He was leading her up in the covered yard when he was found unconscious. When he came round, Charlie couldn't remember anything that had happened.
Her owner had died. Her lad was badly injured. People in racing are superstitious, and the big yearling began to get a name for bringing bad luck. She had a jinx on her, the lads said. She was a hoodoo horse.
Trouble, I was told, followed her. She was too strong for most of the lads on the gallops. She went mad when the vet or the blacksmith came near her. She was somehow different from any other horse, and usually in the worst possible way.
But she had talent. Before she raced as a two-year-old, the stable thought it had a future Classics winner. Even at that age, she was fast and strong and could gallop other horses into the ground. But when she first appeared on the racecourse, she sweated up in the paddock, reared up on the way to the start, and raced with her ears flat back. She finished ten lengths behind the rest of the field, tailed off. She ran three times as a two-year-old, each time worse than the last.
There was a rumour that something was wrong with her. She has a strange way of walking and trotting, even now. Her front legs swing outwards â âplaiting', it's called. Whatever the problem, whether it was in her body or her head, the result was the same. She was a big, expensive flop.
Manhattan. It's a great name, but I'm going to call you âHat'.
I have finished. Her coat gleams. I want to put oil on her hooves but she lifts her feet nervously as soon as I go near them, and I'm not in the mood to insist. I put on her rug. She takes a carrot from me, and I tug at her light grey velvet ears. I stand back to look at her.
What Pete said was right. Her career is over. She is now five, quite old for a flat-racer. Most owners would quietly sell her off to go hurdling or to race in Hong Kong or somewhere, maybe breed from her. But the Saudis are great believers in bloodlines. No bad blood, or dodgy genes, should be passed down to future generations of thoroughbreds.
Manhattan has had her chance. It is just a matter of time before she is taken away to be destroyed.
I won't let it happen, Manhattan. We'll be in this together.
Later that morning, we join the six other horses in the yard for third lot. Laura's there, and Deej, Tommy, Amit, Liam and one of the younger lads, Fergus.
They glance at me, surprised, as I enter.
âGiving us another show today, are you, Bug?' Tommy calls out.
âNah, I think I'll take it a bit easier,' I say.
âShe's almost as tough as you, Laura,' says Amit.
Laura smiles at him, but avoids looking at me. âDon't mess with the girls,' she says.
The guv'nor walks in, hands in pockets, and stands in the centre of the ride, watching us.
âAll right, Jay?' he calls out.
âYes, sir. Fine.'
âAngus spoke to me. Said business with Norewest not your fault. Horse spooked by something. Got a bit of a saddle sore. Noticed last night.'