Authors: Terence Blacker
I follow Mrs Wilkinson to the front door. We say goodnight. The door closes behind me. I stand for a moment, gazing across the stable yard, lit up by moonlight.
I think of a conversation I had with Mr Wilkinson when I arrived here. He said he expected two things above all from his lads â that they were punctual, and they always told him the truth. âDon't have to be the best,' he said. âOn time. Straight with me. That's what matters.'
I trudge slowly down the steps, Auntie's shoes knocking on the stone like the crack of doom.
THE WORLD CLOSES
in. It should be the best moment in my life, and yet it is the worst.
Every day I ride a great grey miracle of a horse. Together we feel as if we can conquer the world.
Every week, I take her out on Wednesday afternoons to work away from the prying eyes of the journalists and tipsters who watch the morning gallops through binoculars from the road. Manhattan covers five or six furlongs with the best sprinters in the yard and makes them look slow. When she gallops over longer distances with the milers and Classic hopefuls, Ishtagah and Drive On, she is pulling my arms out at the finish.
Every morning I awake long before the alarm goes off and lie there, taking time to believe the impossible. I, Jay Barton, am going to ride a brilliant horse in one of the biggest races in the British racing season.
And yet, always within me, there is the knowledge that it could all disappear if it is discovered that I am a traitor.
Uncle Bill talks to me now in the way that I heard him doing to his business partners and enemies back in the old days. He's in a dangerous, goodnight-nurse mood.
I beg him to leave me alone. Surely, I say, I have done enough to save Dusty.
âNever mind Dusty,' he says. âYou stop helping me, and I'll tell my pal Clive Wilkinson about what you've been doing.'
âBut that will incriminate you too.'
âGot nothing to lose, girl.'
âWhat proof have you got?'
He laughs as if I have said something genuinely funny, then drops his voice. âYou must think I just got off the bus, love. I've been recording these calls. I've got evidence here, on my phone.' He pauses. âSo, no more funny business, eh? What can you tell me this week?'
I'm trapped, Hat.
I can't talk to Laura or Deej or Auntie. They are all good friends now, but none of them can help me.
I talk to a horse instead.
We'll win. That will be my escape. Once we've shown the world what we can do, I'll be strong. I'll tell Mr Wilkinson. I'll come clean. Whatever he does then, he won't be able to take away what we do at Ascot.
Manhattan looks at me, ears pricked, as if to tell me I've got nothing to worry about.
Oh, Hat. I wish you could understand.
She makes me feel ashamed. She has come through by being strong, being herself. I have betrayed everyone, including me.
Michaela calls more often, and that's not the only surprise. She talks less about herself than in the old days, asking questions about my life.
We have been through some tough times. We've both been selfish in our way. But a friend is a friend and Michaela, for better or for worse, is the best I've got.
Sometimes I have a niggling sense that she is trying to find out something about me. Could she be acting for her dad? Nothing would surprise me with him, but surely Michaela wouldn't play Uncle Bill's game. Perhaps that's what happens with spying. We catch it from each other without noticing.
One night I'm talking to her just before I go to sleep when she mentions something in a suspiciously fake-casual tone of voice that she has a project at school about family history.
âYes, why not?' Michaela is on the defensive. âAfter exams, we've had to choose some project to keep us busy until the end of term. I chose family heritage.'
I can imagine Michaela choosing many projects (boys, parties, dancing) but family heritage would be pretty near the bottom of the list.
âI've been researching my dad and your mum,' says Michaela. âIt's kind of interesting, actually.'
She is right about that. Bill and his younger sister Debs were left alone in the world when he was twenty-two and she was nineteen. Their parents, taking their first holiday alone for years, were killed in a crash with a lorry in northern Spain. Their house was sold and the money made from it was divided between Bill and Debs.
âWhat really surprised me,' Michaela is saying, âis that they were really close as children.'
âBut he's always so mean about my mother. And so is Elaine.'
âHe's been talking about that recently. This whole situation he's in has made him a bit more open about the past somehow. He says that he and your mum were both really hit hard. He says they each reacted differently. He invested the money in houses and stuff and became a full-time businessman.'
âHe turned into Uncle Bill.'
ââ and she, your mum, went a bit crazy. It was as if nothing mattered to her. She spent the money on having a good time. That was when she and my dad drifted apart.'
I remember Debs' parties, how I learned to be invisible, like a cat. There were mornings when she was ill from drinking too much the night before. Now and then, I found myself having breakfast with a man I had never met before. It's a part of my mother that I have tried to forget.
âI'm glad she had fun,' I say quietly. âWhile she could.'
âIt was your dad I was wondering about.'
âMy dad?' I tense up. Mention of my father makes me feel vulnerable in a way I really don't want to be right now. âWhat about him?'
âWhat did your mum say about him?'
âJust that he was foreign â Polish. He was a musician of some kind. She said that they loved each other very much, but when she found she was going to have a baby, he suddenly disappeared out of her life. He was gone before I was born.'
âMaybe he's in Poland now, and we could find him. You might have half-brothers and sisters. How cool would that be?'
I have heard enough. âMichaela, what is this? What's going on here?'
âIt's just interesting. How we become what we are.'
âYeah, well I'm concentrating on the present. I've got a race to think about.'
There is a silence from the other end of the phone.
âI'd better turn in, M.'
âJust stay strong, Jay.' She speaks quietly, and just for a moment I wonder if she has a suspicion about the calls that her father makes to me. âThat's what I keep thinking when I'm working on this family heritage thing. We have to be ourselves â whatever the pressure.'
We say goodnight. I switch off the light, and in the darkness thoughts of my mother crowd in. I could do without Michaela investigating our family past right now but I begin to wonder about my father â where he is, what he is like, whether he ever thinks of me, if he even knows I exist.
IN JUNE, SOMETHING
Prince Muqrin's three-year-old Ishtagah runs a brilliant race in the Derby at Epsom.
In the Wilkinson yard we thought the colt was in with a chance. He had come on since he ran well in the 2000 Guineas, and the longer trip â the Derby is half a mile further â would suit him.
The experts, on TV and in the press, disagreed. A brilliant Irish horse, Mountain High, unbeaten both as a two-year-old and this year, started hot favourite, while a French-trained runner Positano was also fancied.
Ishtagah, they said, had âsomething about him', and was âas game as the day is long', but lacked the class. One journalist mentioned that the Wilkinson yard had not had a Group One winner since the last century.
I watch the race in the packed bar at the Racing Centre with a few of the other lads from the yard â Amit, Laura, Tommy and Liam.
There is a strong pace, which suits Ishtagah, and as the field sweeps round Tattenham Corner, he is about eighth or ninth but hopelessly placed on the inside rail.
O'Brian is waiting for the gaps to open up as they enter the straight and horses begin to tire.
They do, but too late for Ishtagah. Three furlongs from home, the Derby has become a two-horse race, with Mountain High and Positano going six, seven, eight lengths clear from the rest of the field.
Watching as O'Brian tries to find a way through the pack, we curse the bad draw our horse has been given.
Then, a furlong and a half from home, he sees daylight and bursts his way to freedom.
Now the bar is roaring him on, the horse from Newmarket challenging the best from Ireland and from France. With Mountain High and Positano locked together on the rails, the Wilkinson horse is storming up the centre of the track, with O'Brian riding a wild, showy finish.
As the three horses flash past the winning post, it is impossible to separate them, but the TV replay calls it before the official result of the photo-finish has been announced.
Positano has won by a short head from Mountain High. Ishtagah is a neck away in third place.
After the race, Prince Muqrin is asked by a TV interviewer if this is the best horse he has ever owned.
He thinks for a moment. âCertainly one of the best.' There is laughter in the winners' enclosure.
I glance at Laura, and we both smile. We know the prince was not joking.
The next morning, after second lot, I am in Manhattan's stable when Mr Wilkinson pays an unscheduled visit.
âThe mare. How is she?' he says, looking over the stable door.
âShe's full of it, sir. Can't wait to get back on the racecourse.'
The trainer opens the door, glancing behind him as he does so. I know Mr Wilkinson well enough by now. He has something to tell me. He sniffs. âOther horse going to run in the King George,' he says. âIshtagah. Time to take on the older horses.'
I must have gone pale because the trainer watches me for a moment through his hooded eyes.
âSporting owner. The prince.' He speaks even more softly than usual. âWants to run both horses. Pat's made his choice.' He actually smiles, a rare and slightly worrying event. âYou still up to ride the mare?' he asks.
âI'll announce it tomorrow.'
He walks to the stable door and lets himself out.
âWe've been thinking about her shoes,' he says, peering over the stable door. âCan't run in a big race without plates.'
âShe'll sulk if Ivor does them.'
Mr Wilkinson shakes his head. âMare doesn't like men. Mrs Wilkinson had an idea. Woman farrier. She found one. Jean. Coming tomorrow. By the time of the race they'll know each other.'
He is about to go when he remembers something else.
âJournalists. Don't talk to them. Understood? Think they know best. They'll look at the field. See Ishtagah's in with a chance. Manhattan? Never won a race. She must be running as Ishtagah's pacemaker.'
âPacemaker? You mean she would just be there to make sure the race is run fast enough to suit Ishtagah?'
He silences me with an odd twitch of his facial muscles.
âMight tell Angus same thing. Mare's in the race to help Ishtagah, I'll say. Word spreads in the yard. Grey mare's a pacemaker for the colt. Confuse our spy. He'll leak the wrong information.'
âSo she's not just a pacemaker? We're in the race to win it.'
âToo right we are. Secret between us. Not even Mr Bucknall will know. So keep your bloomin' mouth shut. Understood?'
The next day, when the newspapers report that Prince Muqrin will have two horses in the big Ascot race, every single one of them assumes that Manhattan is only there to make the pace for her brilliant stable-mate Ishtagah.
The lads are excited too. There is a plan. Manhattan will take the King George field at a brisk pace. Ishtagah will stay on as she fades. In the string, there's talk of teamwork, tactics.
They watch Manhattan with more interest now â her springy step, her grey coat which in high summer seems to glow like hot metal, the way she looks about her. As if she can sense that a great test is ahead of her, she is more of a handful when we work, and now and then I have difficulty pulling her up.
âThere's a skill to making the running,' Angus tells me as we take the horses home one morning after second lot. âToo fast, and they'll all ignore you, let you run your own race. Too slow, and you're not doing your job.' He manages a craggy smile. âBut she'll be a great pacemaker, the mare.'
I say nothing, hating the secret I have to keep. It feels as if I'm betraying the brilliant, bright horse beneath me. Even at a walk, she is telling the world that that she is not the type to fade at the end of a race in order to help another horse to victory.
She is a winner and always will be, whatever games the humans may be playing.
I concentrate on the big race. I ride out three lots. Manhattan does her work once a week in the afternoon. Most evenings I am in the gym, working on my strength and fitness.
Then I stop taking Uncle Bill's calls. I stay strong, as Michaela has told me. This turns out to be a mistake.
Outside the Racing Museum. 2.50 pm tomorrow. Be there or you'll regret it.
This text from my uncle arrives late one night, and I know that a no-show tomorrow is not an option. Uncle Bill is not someone you can ignore and hope will go away.
When he arrives, I notice that his small car has a few more dents than it had the last time I saw it. When I get into the passenger seat, I almost gag at the sour smell of stale tobacco and human sweat.
âHullo, Uncle Bill.'
Without looking at me, he accelerates away from the kerb.
âI have to be back by four,' I say. âEvening stables.'