Authors: Terence Blacker
âSave your money, mate,' says Uncle Bill. âHe's got no chance.'
The men lose interest, and wander off.
âHe might win, Dad,' mutters Michaela. âYou never know.'
âMight?' Uncle Bill laughs. âWill, more like.'
âSo why did you say he had no chance?'
There is a tight little smile on Uncle Bill's face, and suddenly I understand his plan.
âThe fewer people who bet on you, the better your odds will be at the bookmakers,' I say. âSo, if you win, anyone who has bet on you makes more money.'
âNever mind all that.' Uncle Bill gives Michaela the leg-up, and, as she puts her feet in the stirrups, Marius looks about him with a slightly superior air. Horse and jockey look magnificent.
âJog him about a bit, love,' Uncle Bill says to Michaela. âWarm him up.' He watches her go, then turns to me. âYou know too much, girl,' he mutters.
Smiling, I go to fetch Dusty. He looks about him, taking an interest in his surroundings at last. Uncle Bill slips the bridle over his head and I saddle him up, talking to him all the while.
This is your day, boy. You're the one nobody thinks will win. We've got a little surprise for them, haven't we?
Dusty nuzzles me. A stranger might think he's after a sugar lump. I know it's because he's listening to me.
As Uncle Bill takes the reins and holds his head, I brush some straw out of his thick tail with a dandy brush, then run a hand down his flank behind the saddle. Half-Connemara and half-thoroughbred, he is no looker, but he is faster than he looks.
âBeauty is as beauty does,' Ted likes to say.
I jump onto Dusty's back and put my feet in the stirrups.
Looks aren't everything, are they, boy?
Uncle Bill shakes his head. âYou and that pony â you're as daft as each other,' he says.
Ignore him, Dusty. He doesn't know you like I know you.
âListen up, kid.' Uncle Bill speaks in a low casual voice as he checks my girth is tight enough. âYou keep out of Michaela's way, right? If she's coming up on the inside, let her through. Do not take her ground. Just don't get in her way. Understood? Be a good girl. Today's Marius's day.'
âYou want me to lose?'
âI want Michaela to win.' He gives one of his trademark winks.
I feel a familiar lurch of rage within me. It is like a match being put to petrol.
' Uncle Bill repeats the word with a don't-mess-with-me harshness in his voice.
I clench my jaw and manage to nod. My hands are tight around the reins.
Red mist, it was called when I was younger. âWatch out for Jay when the red mist falls,' my mum used to say. âShe becomes a different person.' But my anger, when it comes, is not a like a mist at all. It's a red fire, raging in a forest in a high wind. It's dangerous, unstoppable.
Sitting there on Dusty, I hear in my mind the voices I have heard all my life at home and at school. Be a good girl. Know your place. Keep out of the way. Don't worry about Jay. Ignore her. She's nothing.
The red fire still burning within me, I canter Dusty down to the start. As we circle around, I breathe deeply and then, coldly and calmly, I pull my goggles down. There are eight runners in our race â five boys, a plump, scared-looking girl I recognise from gymkhanas, Michaela and me.
Today's not our day, is it? Well, it is now.
As we circle around at the start, I notice that most of the ponies are tough, shaggy customers, a bit like Dusty. Beside them, Marius looks like a film star who has just dropped into a local job centre.
But I like the way Dusty is feeling. He's a moody old sort, and not the fastest, but I know one thing from riding him in gymkhanas. He likes to have his nose in front when it matters. He may not look the part, but he has racing in his blood. He feels alive beneath me, as if the fire that is still roaring quietly within me has somehow reached him.
Use your anger. That's what Mum used to say, Dusty.
I trace a heart shape with my finger on his shoulder.
We're about to give them all a surprise.
We line up beside a man holding up a red flag. Michaela has been told to keep out of trouble, and now she takes Marius to the outside. Dusty and I, ignored by the others, are next to the tape.
When the flag falls, the starter roars, âCome on!'
I give him a dig in the ribs. He takes off as well as he can but, after a few strides, all we can see are tails. The boys are bumping and pushing for position but it's the girl who has the inside rail. I notice Marius and Michaela going easily, slightly away from the pack to the right, as if the chestnut is enjoying his own private canter. I'm having to push Dusty along, like someone scrubbing the floor, just to keep in touch with the others.
Take your time. They'll come back to us. Let them run their race.
Dusty can't win. Of course he can't. The others are younger and faster than he is. Except â¦
They are also going too fast for themselves. The boys are riding a finish and we've only just passed the halfway mark. The girl's pony on the inside is already losing ground. Marius, though, is still cantering, well within himself.
As we approach the final bend, I am three lengths behind the field which is tightly bunched. The ponies are tiring and so are some of the jockeys. They drift away from the inside tape towards the heavier ground. It's our moment.
Not that way, boy. Here we go.
The forest fire is raging now. It makes me stronger, more focused, than anyone could believe. I pull Dusty so close to the tape that I feel the posts banging against my left foot. I don't feel the pain. We've found a narrow strip of good ground which everyone else has missed.
This is where we start racing. Come on, boyâ
Dusty seems to sense that the other ponies are faltering in the mud across the centre of the track. As he feels the firmer ground beneath him, he lengthens his stride and puts his old head down, like a hound finding the scent.
I yell as I change my grip on the reins, and suddenly we're flying.
As we enter the final straight, the other jockeys get their ponies back to the inside tape â and find themselves looking at the broad hindquarters of an old pony called Dusty. Before the bend we were last, now we're first. It is as if some strange magic trick has taken place.
Keep going. Don't break your stride, boy.
Dusty is tiring, but he's always been a brave little pony. Two hundred metres to the post. 150. I know what to expect and am ready for it. I hear the pounding of hooves behind me and, out of the corner of my eye, a bright chestnut shape appears, gaining on us at speed.
As Marius's head reaches my right knee, instinct kicks in. I wave my arm and yell, â
' like a jockey riding a finish.
Marius may look good, but he's no hero. My waving arm and my crazy battle-cry spook him for a moment. He checks his stride, ears pricked in alarm. Michaela tries to get him going again but, by the time she does, it is too late. I flash past the winning post, a winner by half a length.
We did it, Dusty.
I pull up, patting my pony's neck as Michaela canters past me. Her shaded goggles are around her neck.
âWhat were you doing?' she shouts. âYou scared Marius. You stopped us winning.'
I shake my head and shrug, as if I have no idea what she is talking about.
But I do. The fire within me is dying fast now, becoming no more than the warm glow of victory. In my heart, I know that what I have just done wasn't exactly fair â maybe I was even a bit out of control for a moment â but there is nothing in the rules about a jockey waving an arm and shouting a bit.
I hear mutterings as I trot past the spectators. It seems that no one had their money on Dusty and me. For the first time since I pulled up after the race, I'm aware that my left foot is throbbing with pain from where the wooden poles banged against my trainers.
Uncle Bill appears from out of nowhere. His face and neck are flushed a dark, dangerous red. He grabs the reins so sharply that Dusty throws his head up in alarm.
âGet off,' he says to me.
I slide out of the saddle. My left foot hurts so much as I touch the ground that I almost fall over.
âWhat did I tell you?'
I shake my head, looking him straight in the eye.
âI said, don't get in her way, right?'
A large man in a sheepskin coat wanders up and lays a hand on Uncle Bill's shoulder. âWell done, mate,' he says. âYour daughter rode a blinder.'
âDaughter? You're joking.' The words are sharp, angry, like the crack of a whip.
Taken aback, the man holds up two hands in mock surrender, and walks off.
âSo.' Uncle Bill drops his voice. âDid you forget or what?'
âI was riding a finish, that's all.'
âWaving your arm and shouting. That's just â¦ cheating.'
I dart him a look. Uncle Bill worrying about cheating? I've heard it all now.
âI got six to one on Michaela,' he hisses. âI could have bought another pony with my winnings.'
âSorry about that.'
' He says the word between gritted teeth, his face close to mine. I can smell the sweat on him. âAfter everything I've done for you, the money I've spent on ponies, you're
? You littleâ'
Without a word, I take the reins from his hand and hobble off with Dusty. My pony needs a drink. The fire has gone now. To tell the truth, I'm beginning to feel a twinge of guilt about what I've done â I never wanted to upset Michaela.
âYou said you understood,' he calls after me.
And I did, I think to myself.
I understood that I was going to do whatever it took to win.
I understood that, if you're second, you're just the best loser.
I understood that no one was going to stop me doing my best.
We drive home in the black and gold horsebox. There's silence in the cab â Michaela upset, Uncle Bill steaming, me a little bit frightened about what I've just done. My left little toe seems to be swelling up in my trainers, but somehow it doesn't seem the moment to talk about a pain in my foot.
It is as we reach the village of Coddington, about a mile from the hall, that Michaela, sitting on the middle seat between her dad and me, murmurs something to her father about giving me some of the prize money.
Uncle Bill gives an angry little laugh. âYou're joking, I hope.'
âI don't want any money, Uncle Bill,' I say. âIt's OK.'
âCome on, Dad,' says Michaela. âIt was a hundred pounds first prize.'
âI lost a hell of a lot more than that betting on you.'
Michaela looks away. âJay didn't know that.'
Uncle Bill shakes his head. âI can't believe you,' he says. âYou're actually sticking up for the person who beat you.'
âPlease, Dad. For me.'
Uncle Bill sets his face, jaw clenched, and stares ahead. I watch him for a few moments, suddenly feeling sad at the distance he keeps from me. I used to wonder what it was like being Michaela and having a dad to say âyes' and âno' in your life, helping you, making decisions. When I was younger, I even tried to pretend to myself that my uncle was a sort of father to me, that he filled the great dad-gap in my life, but it never really worked. Uncle Bill made sure of that.
I turn to Michaela and say out loud the words I have been thinking all the way home. âI'm sorry, M. I wasn't just riding a finish like I said. I knew what I was doing. I spooked Marius on purpose.'
Michaela looks at her hands, frowning. I know that I have hurt her.
âWhy would you want to do that?' she asks quietly.
âI just have to win. It's in me, like a disease. Even when I know it won't do me any good, I can't help myself.'
Uncle Bill glances across at me. There is a curiosity in his eyes, as if he is seeing me for the first time. âAnd when someone tells you to lose, that just makes you more determined, right?' he asks quietly. âYou've got the rage. You're going to show them. You couldn't lose if you tried.'
âYes.' I nod. âHow did you know that?'
He shrugs. âJust a guess,' he mutters as we turn into the long drive of Coddington Hall. âAll I know is it's cost me a packet. Your aunt's right. You're a money-pit. Everything you do costs us money.'
âI won, Uncle Bill. What more could I do?'
The horsebox draws up in front of the stables. âIn this life, doll,' he says, âyou can win and still lose.' He stares at me. I stare back. âNo need to sort the ponies, Michaela,' he says, his eyes still fixed on me. âJay will do it.'
He gets out of the horsebox and walks away, his boots crunching on the gravel.
âThat's not fair, Dad,' Michaela calls out. âShe's got a bad foot.'
âLeave her.' He speaks the words without turning around.
With a little wince of apology to me, Michaela follows him.
I get out, gasping as my foot touches the ground. My toe feels so swollen that I dare not take off my trainer before the ponies have been unloaded, rubbed down, fed and watered for the night.
I let down the ramp at the back of the horsebox, then the small door at the front. Dusty, mud-spattered but content, is half asleep. Marius is still warm and sweating up.
There you go, boys. Let's get you out.
I back Marius out and lead him to his stable, then turn my attention to Dusty. It will be an hour or so before I can go to the house and bathe my foot, but there is the trace of a smile on my face as Dusty backs down the ramp.
NOW THAT IS
the most revolting thing I have seen for a long, long time.'