Read Racing Manhattan Online

Authors: Terence Blacker

Racing Manhattan (23 page)

‘You couldn't do that. Not to Dusty.'

‘I'm not doing it, love. You are.'

I stay silent, trying not to believe what I'm hearing.

‘And the way they kill them out there. Oh dear, oh dear. Barbaric isn't the word.'

I lie in my bed, eyes closed. I remember something my uncle once said to me as he drove me back from pony-racing one day. He said that the reason he got his way was that everyone knew that, if he had to, he would go further than most other people would dare. He said he didn't do reasonable. In fact, he did
un
reasonable. And he liked it.

‘Well?' There's a growl in his voice now.

So I say it, just to get him off the phone.

‘All right. I'll call you tomorrow.'

Something about the way Manhattan ran at York seems to lift the stable. She and I are at the front of first lot every morning. Normally, the Wilkinson horses can seem a bit sad compared to the glossy two-year-olds and three-year-olds of the bigger, smarter Newmarket yards. Now their lads look at us and take notice.

Mr Wilkinson begins to have winners. The prince's horse Ishtagah had finished third in the first Classic of the season, the 2000 Guineas. Drive On now wins a valuable race at Kempton Park. Horses which last season seemed useless are now picking up races across the country. There is talk in the racing papers about the ‘in-form Wilkinson stable'.

All this is excellent news for Uncle Bill.

Most evenings, I tell Auntie and Laura that I need a walk to clear my head. I make my way to the park nearby, sit on a bench on my own. Then I call Uncle Bill.

Every time I sit there, my eyes darting around to check that I am alone, I feel a twinge of guilt. Then I remind myself of the race I was meant to lose on Poptastic. If big trainers are breaking the rules, why shouldn't a lad?

I dial. Uncle Bill picks up on the first ring. ‘OK, doll,' he says. ‘What you got?'

I tell him in a quiet robot voice which horses are going well, if they like the ground soft or hard, who we expect to win.

‘Good girl.' I hear the scratch of his pencil as he makes notes. ‘Keep 'em coming. Dusty's well, by the way.'

It is easier to be a spy than you might think. The trick is to divide your life. I become two people. There is Jay, riding out in the mornings, chatting with the lads, wondering if the guv'nor is going to give her a ride in a race soon.

Then, for a few moments every day, there is Barton, sitting in a park alone, spilling secrets into her mobile phone.

Barton looks at Jay as if she were another person.

Jay tries not to think about Barton.

The.

Stranger.

The.

Spy.

A
BIT OF A PLAN

‘
AH. THE GREY
mare. How is she?'

It is evening stables, two weeks after the Middleton. Mr Wilkinson, with Bucknall and Angus, lingers in Manhattan's stable. Suddenly she matters to the stable.

Manhattan is looking impatient. I have stripped off her rug and the cool late-spring air is making her restless.

Mr Wilkinson runs a hand down her back, over her ribcage and then, carefully, down one front leg, then the other. She flattens her ears and swishes her tail but the trainer holds his ground.

‘Stop it. Silly mare.' His voice sounds almost affectionate.

‘She's just showing off,' I say.

‘And how's Bug?' he asks.

‘Fine, sir.'

‘Forgotten what the press wrote?'

‘Yes, sir.'

‘Just words,' he says. ‘Never trust words. Down with words.'

‘Yes, sir.'

‘Free tonight? After dinner? About nine?' The trainer doesn't bother to wait for a reply. ‘Mr Webber coming to dinner. Prince taking an interest. Plans for the mare. May involve you.'

‘Me, sir?'

He gazes at me for a moment. ‘Scrub up a bit. Try to look your best.'

A long time ago Uncle Bill once told me that I looked like a junkyard dog.

‘Lean and mean, like a junkyard dog' were his exact words. Tonight after dinner with Auntie and Laura, I prepare to go and see Mr and Mrs Wilkinson, and I hear his voice, the way he laughed.

I catch a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror on the back of the cupboard door. Even now, out of my work clothes and in my best (all right, only) jeans, I look like a skinny teen nobody.

My skin is hard and dry from riding out in the wind and rain. Between my eyebrows is the shadow of the scar caused by my fall from Norewest. I am thin and fit and strong, like someone you might see carrying something heavy out of a van.

I have the look of a delivery boy.

In the wardrobe, there is a cerise round-necked blouse I bought in the town before going out with Deej and Laura, but in the end didn't have the nerve to wear.

Too soft, too girly, I thought at the time. They would laugh at me.

Now I put it on. No more games. No more trying to fit in. I am beyond caring. In the top drawer, there is some make-up I brought with me from home but have never worn. Eye-liner. Mascara. Some lip gloss. Even a pair of small earrings in the shape of butterflies.

For this meeting, I am not going to be a lean, mean junkyard dog. I am not going to be Bug. I am me.

I am sneaking out of the hall when Auntie sees me.

‘Oh my,' she says. ‘The girl's looking smart for a change.' She stands between me and the front door. ‘Let me see you.'

She puts her big hands on my shoulders. Her eyes take in my make-up, my earrings.

‘Very nice.' She smiles. ‘Quite the young lady.'

‘I'm going to see Mr and Mrs Wilkinson. Prince Muqrin's racing manager is there tonight.'

Auntie is staring at my feet. I'm wearing a pair of old trainers – the only shoes I've got apart from my riding boots.

‘Oh no,' she says. ‘You can't go out in those.'

I laugh. ‘I don't have a choice.'

‘Wait.' Auntie trots heavily up the stairs. When she returns, she is carrying a pair of small, black leather shoes with laces and raised heels. ‘Jas gave them to me.' She wipes off the dust with a handkerchief, then shines them. ‘I used to wear them on special occasions.'

‘No, Auntie.'

‘Go on, girl. My feet are too fat for them these days.' She kneels down and unlaces my trainers.

Her smart, heavy black shoes make me look as if I'm going to church, and the hard leather rubs against my ankles but, as Auntie ties up the laces and gives them one last wipe, I have to admit they look better than my trainers.

‘Perfect.' Auntie stands back and smiles. ‘They could have been made for you. Off you go.'

I lean forward, give my landlady a kiss on the cheek, and I'm gone.

It is almost dark by the time I reach Edgecote House, and I'm beginning to regret borrowing the shoes. Every step is agony. I hobble my way up the path.

When she opens the front door, Mrs Wilkinson is looking different too. She is wearing a black evening skirt, and has even more make-up on her face than usual. A glass of wine is in her hand.

‘Jay, how nice.' The voice is less fierce than usual.

I follow her across the hall, Auntie's shoes clacking loudly on the stone.

Mrs Wilkinson looks back. ‘Are you injured?' she asks. ‘You seem to be going a bit lame.'

‘New shoes,' I say. ‘They're not exactly comfortable.'

Mrs Wilkinson laughs. ‘We have to suffer for our beauty, don't we?'

She leads me into the sitting room, where Mr Wilkinson and Mr Webber are sitting on each side of the fireplace. To my surprise, they stand up as I enter, almost as if I'm a proper guest.

‘Jay.' Mr Wilkinson waves in the direction of an armchair. I sit, nervously. ‘Or Bug? Not sure.'

‘I don't mind, sir.'

‘You remember Mr Webber.'

‘Yes, sir.'

The prince's racing manager gives me a cool, professional smile. I get the sense that he is weighing me up, assessing me as if I were at some kind of interview.

Mrs Wilkinson pours herself another drink at a table in the corner. ‘Wine, Jay?'

‘Just something soft, please.'

She pours me a fizzy water, gives me the glass, then ambles over to the desk in the corner where she takes up her usual place. She watches us, as if from a distance, now and then sipping at her wine.

‘The prince wanted me to thank you for the way you rode Manhattan the other day,' says Mr Webber. ‘She can be a tricky ride.'

‘She's really cool once you get to know her.' I blurt the words out, then realise that I am sounding a bit girlish and over-enthusiastic.

‘Cool?' mutters Mr Wilkinson. ‘
Cool?
'

Mr Webber sits forward in his chair. ‘D'you think we saw the best of Manhattan at York, Jay?'

‘No!' I almost shout the word, then bite my lip. ‘Sorry, but no. She hardly had a race. She is so much better than that.'

‘The prince thinks so too. He wants to give her one more run – a real test, then retire her. If she doesn't disgrace herself, he'll keep her as a mare and breed from her. Otherwise, she'll be sold.'

I nod, now nervous as to what I am about to be told.

‘Plan.' Mr Wilkinson takes a long sip at his whisky. ‘King George. Run her. Prince wants you on board.'

‘He was most impressed by the way you rode,' says Mr Webber. ‘And also the way you haven't been upset by what has been written in the papers. We thought that was very professional of you. Quite grown-up.' He frowns. ‘Are you feeling all right?'

For the first time, I realise that I am sitting, mouth open, with a stunned smile on my face. I actually feel slightly sick with excitement.

‘No. Yes. Thank you. I'm … fine, sir.'

‘The press thing is important.' Mr Webber glances at his watch. ‘Prince Muqrin has been having one or two problems at home. There are people in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East who don't exactly approve of girl jockeys.'

‘Saudi women aren't allowed to drive cars,' says Mrs Wilkinson from the shadows behind me. ‘So you can imagine what people think about a prince allowing a girl jockey to ride his horse. It has been a bit of a scandal.'

‘Keep your ride quiet,' says Mr Wilkinson. ‘Secret. Good at keeping secrets, Bug?'

For a brief moment, an image of me sitting in a park talking into a telephone flashes through my mind, and then is gone.

‘Yes, sir.'

‘We'll announce it. Last minute. Keep 'em guessing. No fuss about female jockey.'

Mr Webber stands. ‘I'd better be on my way back to London,' he says.

Something about what I am being told confuses me. ‘Who's King George?' I ask. ‘You mentioned something about Prince Muqrin and King George.'

The three of them laugh. I sit there, feeling foolish.

‘It's the race,' says Mr Webber. ‘The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. In July. Up for that, Jay?' He shakes my hand. I nod dumbly. ‘I'll see you again soon.'

As Mr and Mrs Wilkinson see Mr Webber to the front door, I sit taking in what I have just been told so casually.

‘King George,' I say the words out loud. ‘
That
King George.'

In the racing calendar, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes is one of the biggest races of the season. It is where the best of the year's three-year-olds race for the first time against the cream of the older horses.

I am thinking of the great champions who have won the race in the past. Ribot, Dancing Brave, The Minstrel, Shergar, Lammtarra, Nijinsky. It was the race where Petite Etoile was hot favourite and got beaten.

‘Not bad news, eh?' Mrs Wilkinson appears at the door. ‘We thought you'd be pleased. Now you won't be riding in races until then. We want you to concentrate on the mare. The prince is very important to this stable and he still seems to believe that Manhattan can win a decent race.'

‘So do I, Mrs Wilkinson.'

‘We're quite aware of that.' She smiles at me.

Back in his armchair, Mr Wilkinson mutters something to himself, then reaches for his whisky. I'm about to stand to leave when Mrs Wilkinson holds up a hand. ‘There was just one other little matter we wanted to ask you about since you're here. Absolutely in confidence.'

I sit back in my chair, suddenly on my guard.

‘Are you sure you don't want a glass of wine?'

‘No thanks, Mrs Wilkinson.'

She laughs. ‘Don't look so worried, Jay. We just thought you might be able to help us with a little problem we've got.'

‘Something happening. In the yard.' Mr Wilkinson gazes at the fire, the glass of whisky held between his hands. ‘Tips. Getting out. Bookmakers. Money. Not helping.'

‘Tips?' My mouth is suddenly dry, my voice strangled. ‘What kind of tips?'

‘Over the past few weeks, money has been going on our horses,' says Mrs Wilkinson. ‘We're pretty sure that someone working for us is leaking information.'

‘Bad for the yard,' mutters Mr Wilkinson. ‘Owners asking questions. Suspicions. Bad smell about the place. Whenever one of the horses runs. Stewards ask questions. Think we're in the pocket of the bookies.'

Mrs Wilkinson's eyes are fixed on me. ‘Jay, I'm afraid we have a spy in our midst,' she says.

I breathe evenly, my eyes not flickering in the slightest as I stare at her. When I speak, my words are as calm and cold as any spy could make them. ‘What makes you think that?'

‘Never mind that. You haven't heard or seen anything suspicious? None of the lads have said anything?'

‘No. Not at all.'

Mrs Wilkinson smiles, drains her glass and stands up. ‘Just a thought since you were here. If you hear anything, let us know, will you? These things need stamping out. A yard depends on trust.'

I stand. I say goodnight to Mr Wilkinson. He looks up, grunts, and a look crosses his crumpled features which might almost be a smile.

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