Read Racing Manhattan Online

Authors: Terence Blacker

Racing Manhattan (11 page)

‘Glad you're back. In one piece.'

When the string files out of the yard into the sunlight, I pull Manhattan aside and let the others pass so that she can take her normal place at the back.

Today I find that I no longer have to coax and kick her along to make her walk out. I talk to her as we go. She relaxes, looking about her and taking an interest in what is going on.

There is a surprise on the gallops. The trainer is standing by the rails about halfway up the all-weather track.

‘We're doing a half-speed,' Deej calls back. ‘Keep twenty lengths between you. Bring Manhattan up last. If she won't start, we'll meet you back here.'

We circle at the start of the track. One after the other, the horses set off. Ahead of me, Liam looks over his shoulder.

‘She won't go, Bug. Last time she dug her toes in.'

Four horses left, three. I feel Manhattan tense beneath me. I lay a hand on her shoulder. I trace the heart.

Liam calls back, ‘See you back here, Bug.'

All right, girl. Our first canter. Let's make this good.

I lead her towards the track. Her ears flick back uncertainly.

Forget the memories, Hat. This is different.

She is walking stiff-legged now. Liam is ten lengths ahead of us. I gather up my reins and, for a moment, Manhattan stops in her tracks.

Come on, girl. For me.

I click my teeth, as I used to with Dusty. The ears go forward. With an unladylike grunt, Manhattan sets off.

Her head is low and she takes a strong hold of the bit. There is a sharp twinge in my back from the fall yesterday. She has such a giant stride that it takes me about fifty metres before I realise that, even though she is only cantering, we are closing on the horse in front.

Easy, Hat.

I take a pull on the reins and she slows, as graceful as a ballet dancer. By the time we pass Mr Wilkinson, standing on the rails, a smile is on my face, the aches in my body forgotten.

It is only a canter but, at the top of the hill, Manhattan behaves as if she has just won a race. She shakes her head like a two-year-old, jogs sideways.

You like stretching your legs, don't you, girl?

Ahead of me, Liam shakes his head, ‘Are you giving that horse drugs?' he says. ‘I've never seen her do that before.'

She has calmed slightly by the time we file past the trainer on our way back down the hill.

‘All right, Deej?'

‘Yes, sir.'

‘Tommy?'

‘Yes, sir.'

I've noticed that when Mr Wilkinson asks how a horse has gone, he is not looking for conversation. Unless the horse has coughed or gone lame, there is only one answer he is looking for.

‘All right, Liam?'

‘Yes, sir.'

‘All right, Jay?'

‘Yes, sir.'

The trainer follows Manhattan with his eyes. He murmurs something to himself, then turns to walk back to his car.

‘All done.' That's what I think he said. Or it might have been, ‘Well done.'

The sun is shining on the heath, skylarks are singing in the blue sky. On our way home, the lads include me in their chat. I'm Bug, I'm one of them. Quietly, so that no one except my horse can hear me, I sing one of the songs that my mum used to love.

Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.

I'm still humming as we walk down the horse path towards the main yard. I loosen Manhattan's girths and give her a pat on the neck but, as we get closer to the stables, her ears flicker back and the spring goes out of her step.

There is a movement in the shadowy passageway leading into the back yard. Briefly, I see the outline of a figure carrying a pitchfork.

Eyes.

Watching.

Us.

R
ED FIRE

THE WOUND ABOVE
my eyes grows crusty. The scab comes off. The scar grows paler until it becomes a slash of white on my sunburned face. Summer passes.

Now and then, when I'm feeling lonely, memories of the past appear in my mind like uninvited guests. Drawing back the curtains in my room to see Dusty looking up at me from the stable yard. Riding across the fields with Michaela. Being driven home from pony-racing by Uncle Bill. The voice of Aunt Elaine from the next-door room.
Jay might as well
be
a horse.
It is strange how distant it all feels.

Because now I am a real stable lad in Newmarket. Somewhere along the line, the idea that I am a kid on trial has faded like the morning mist on the heath. This is my new life.

My body is getting stronger. These days I ride out with all three lots. I have taken to spending an hour every evening at the Racing Centre in the centre of the town. There is a gym there where I keep fit. I work out on the running and rowing machines. I do weights. I spend time on the racehorse simulator – a mechanical saddle which helps you strengthen the muscles used when riding a racehorse at speed.

Not that my life is easy. ‘Teasing is part of racing,' Laura once told me. ‘Having a laugh is how we get through the early mornings, the cold, the long days. And sometimes the laughs are at someone else's expense.'

‘Particularly if that someone is a girl?'

‘You got it.'

I'm not only a girl. I'm young, skinny. I'm often annoyingly cheerful when I'm with the horses.

Soon after the Norewest incident, Tommy tells me that some new protective gear has arrived for the lads. When I open the chest in the tack room, watched by several of the other lads, I find a padded bra. There are jeers and laughter and shouts.

‘Bug in a bra!'

‘Put it on!'

‘You need it, girl!'

Then the niggle is about Manhattan. In the early days, I find myself getting a bit annoyed when someone uses her nickname ‘Nelly'. Big mistake. From then on, the tune of ‘Nelly the Elephant' follows me around – hummed, whistled, sung. Some of the lads even take to calling me Nelly too.

Sometimes, as we ride out, one of the lads tells me a crude joke about women. It is a test that I can't win. If I laugh, I'm going along with the sexism. If I don't, I can't take a joke and I get teased even more.

So it goes on, day after day. Now and then, I catch Laura's eye while this stuff is happening. She shows no reaction – not a smile, not a laugh, not a look. It is a useful lesson which over that long summer I begin to learn.

Don't let them get under your skin. Refuse to play their game. Ignore.

Angus has taken to putting me on different horses for first lot. At first, I think it is because I am the youngest person working here and have to fit in with the others, but gradually I realise that I am being given the experience of different rides – the mad, the lazy, the tricky, the scared. It is the Wilkinson yard's rough and ready version of training.

On third lot, I am always on Manhattan. It is the best part of the day. She has discovered that she likes being out, stretching her legs, looking about her, feeling the warmth of the sun on her beautiful coat. I keep her at the back of the string where she has her own space. She walks briskly, occasionally shaking her head like a two-year-old.

My hope, my dream, is that one day Mr Wilkinson will see how she is changing, how her giant stride eats up the ground on the gallops, but it is me he watches. His old turtle eyes look away from Manhattan, as if she reminds him of something bad – failure, perhaps.

Pete is still her lad. When I ask Deej whether I should ask Angus if I could do Manhattan, he shakes his head.

‘Give up on the mare,' he says. ‘She's finished. Look after yourself.'

Later, it occurs to me that it was a slightly weird thing to say.

Why should I have to look after myself?

It is late one morning, one day at the end of August. After third lot, I am checking on Ocean Pacific in the main yard when there is a clattering of hooves on concrete and raised voices from the back yard. I hurry towards the sound, a feeling of dread within me. As I enter the yard, I hear the snorting of a horse, half threatening, half fearful.

A group of lads are gathered around Manhattan's stable.

To my relief, Angus strides past me, an angry look on his face. He reaches the stable before me.

‘Is she playing up again, Pete?' Angus looks over the stable door.

‘Yeah. She had a go at me. I'm sorting her out for good and all this time.'

Over Angus's shoulder, I can see that Pete is standing like an old-fashioned soldier in battle. Only it is not a bayonet in his hands but a pitchfork.

Manhattan is on the other side of the box. Now and then she swings her hindquarters towards Pete. As he scrambles for safety, there is more laughter from the lads watching.

‘What's happened?' I ask Liam.

‘She's had a go at him,' he says. ‘Pete's teaching her a lesson.'

‘She's just frightened.' I say the words loudly. ‘Where's Mr Wilkinson? Bucknall?'

Liam glances towards the main yard. ‘They've all gone to lunch.'

Manhattan has turned to face Pete. The whites of her eyes flash in the gloom. I can see – anyone could see – that she's terrified.

‘What are you doing?' I ask the question loudly to the whole group. ‘I rode her this morning. She was fine.'

‘Leave it, Bug,' Liam warns me. ‘This is Pete's business.'

‘She turned on him,' another of the lads, Tommy, calls out. ‘She can be vicious, that one.'

‘She's just afraid.' I raise my voice. ‘You should leave her alone.'

Pete looks over his shoulder. ‘Who let the little girl in?' he jeers. He raises the pitchfork sharply and Manhattan throws her head up. ‘Bloomin' freak,' he calls out. ‘Shall I give her one?'

I feel a lurch of anger within me. ‘Angus, please!' I'm shouting now, and one or two of the lads are looking nervous. ‘This is wrong.'

To my amazement, the emotion in my voice has an effect.

‘Aye, game over.' Angus raps the stable door. ‘You'll be late for lunch, Pete.'

The lads behind me begin to wander off. ‘Lunch time, Pete,' one calls out.

Sensing that he has lost his audience, Pete backs towards the door and lets himself out.

He brushes past me, bumping my shoulder as he heads back to the feed room, the pitchfork hanging in his right hand. Angus and the other lads follow him.

I look into the box. Manhattan has her back to me, her hind leg twitches nervously.

There you are, Hat. You're going to be all right. He's gone now.

Her ears, half back, are motionless. I don't exist for her.

I spend the afternoon in her stable. I talk, I groom, but for Manhattan I have become one of the enemy. Now and then, her ears go flat against her neck and she swings her hindquarters threateningly towards me, but I hold my ground.

I know. You want me to leave. But I'm staying with you.

The red fire is there, but it's different from the past, slower, more dangerous. It smoulders quietly within me all afternoon. I only realise that I have entered the danger zone when I notice that my hand holding the body brush is trembling violently. In the past, I've been afraid of what the flames will make me do when I am in this state.

Now I welcome them. Rage makes me strong.

I am just preparing to leave for the evening when one of the younger lads, Davy, calls me from the door of the tack room.

‘Hey, Bug. A few of us are going out tonight. D'you fancy joining us?'

As politely as I can, I tell him I'll be staying in. He beckons me over. There's something odd about this.

As I approach the tack room, Davy ducks inside. I hear voices. Normally I would be more careful, but not tonight.

I push the door open.

There are five of them, lounging against the far wall. They are the younger lads, except for Pete, who is at the end of the row, examining his fingernails like some bad guy in an old-fashioned film.

‘Hey, Bug,' he says.

I look to the right, where there is a doorway leading to the feed room. There are more lads, mostly the older ones – the spectators. I look around for Deej and Laura but they must have left.

The door closes behind me.

Trouble.

Oh yes, thank you. Trouble is on the way.

Among the lads over by the feed room, someone starts softly whistling ‘Nelly the Elephant'. I glance in that direction and the tune quietly fades.

I step into the centre of the room. The red fire is crackling, burning, gaining strength. All the pain I have felt within me since seeing Manhattan being taunted this morning is concentrated in the core of my being.

I smile at the lads in front of me.

‘We're not here for a joke, Bug.' Pete speaks in a low, tough-guy voice.

‘No?'

‘We're here for a bit of schooling. You know what this is, don't you?'

‘Schooling? You mean, like you were schooling Manhattan this morning?'

Pete frowns. ‘What are you talking about? Schooling is the name we give to initiating you into the yard. It's traditional in racing yards – just a little game. A ritual. I got all my hair shaved off and a bit of carpet glued to my skull. We've all had it.'

I look about me. There is something wolf-like in the way those eyes are looking at me.

‘Have I done something wrong?' I ask.

Pete ignores the question. ‘Normally we wait a bit longer before we school someone, but we've decided to make an exception in your case.'

‘Take it as a compliment,' someone says behind me. I can hear the excitement in his voice.

Now I see the set-up. The younger ones, like Davy, Liam and Amit, are here to prove themselves. The older lads looking on from next door are enjoying the laugh. Angus has left for the night.

There is only one person behind this, and he's the bully of the Wilkinson yard.

Pete.

‘So here's what we are going to do to get the little Bugster schooled.' He rolls his shoulders and sticks out his chin, reminding me of something you might see behind bars in a zoo. He sniffs, then smiles at the other lads. ‘Bring out the bath.'

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