He pulls the bolt back quietly and slips in through the crack. It’s gloomy, and the straw on the ground smells of sweet urine and wood. He sinks into a crouch and drinks in the quiet, and watches flecks of dust turn in a slice of sunlight. Beside him two water buckets are unblinking eyes.
She is beautiful in the shadows; a pewter figurine. The landscape of her body, undulating, lean and exact, rises and falls as she breathes. Her eyes are gently set upon him, her head low, her bottom lip a quivering scoop. One hoof is cocked, resting on the iron rim of her shoe and subconsciously a reflex teases her tail into a twitch, and the length of it ripples like a low tide. He savours the quiet, the stillness between them. Across the peak of her shoulders, around her chest and quarters, an armour of muscle flexes, but despite her strength she manages an elegance, a gamine beauty.
He reaches out to touch her, smoothing her mahogany coat with his finger tips, following the contours of her neck to her withers, the heavy pad of muscle above her foreleg and back to her ears, the beautiful rise of her eyes and across her nose; hot breath on his hands.
‘Are you hiding from me Jack?’ a voice stabs. He exhales. Her head yanks.
He stands and hears a bone crack, and steps into the frame of the stable door. Pat watches him, his mouth taut.
‘Or do you fancy yourself as a Whisperer?’ His breath is sour.
Jack reaches over the door and lets himself out. He doesn’t reply, but shows a careful smile. Pat Myther, seasoned and almost spent, has never forgiven himself for losing this ride, nor Jack for gaining it. He is a stark man, so thin that his collarbone juts like a stirrup iron, and his skin is a weathered canvas across his bones. The intensity of his jealousy makes him volatile, a reputation of which he is proud.
‘I didn’t think you would be here,’ Jack says quietly.
‘You hoped I wouldn’t.’ He pauses. ‘How’s she looking anyway?’ It isn’t a question he wants Jack to answer. He rolls onto his toes and searches the darkness, his eyes snagging, pulling. She stirs.
‘Fancy your chances?’
‘Of course,’ Jack replies, ‘as much as the next man. The softer ground suits her.’
Pat doesn’t hear him.
‘Gerry always used to be on at me – keep her steady until the last minute, let her feel the competition, and then hit the accelerator with the line in sight. Of course, you know all of this, don’t you? You’re the greatest jockey Gerry has ever had!’ A shrapnel of saliva shoots from his mouth.
Jack moves from one foot to the other.
‘Gerry’s not a problem I’ll miss.’
‘But you will miss her,’ Jack thinks, as Pat pulls his eyes from the stable. ‘Good luck then.’ He smacks his boot with his whip so the leather shouts, ‘I’ll be looking out for you.’ He turns and walks away, twisted in a yanking limp.
Jack finds Gerry and Catherine watching the horses parade, both swollen with pride. The pearls in Catherine’s ears quiver as she laughs, Gerry’s hand tucked into the curve of her back, his other clutching his race card. Jack touches the peak of his hat and ducks into the enclosure.
‘If you pulled her skin back you’d find a DB7 engine and a tank of petrol, and full suspension in them skinny legs n’all.’ Gerry is saying, jabbing his elbow into the arm of a companion.
‘You would that,’ Jack says quietly as he approaches, holding out his hand. ‘Ah, the man himself!’ Gerry bellows, thumping Jack’s back heartily. Jack flinches. He feels his bones smart. Catherine kisses him warmly on both cheeks, all fuchsia lips and heady scent.
‘How’s she doing Jack?’
‘Pretty good. She’s relaxed, and she’s fitter than she’s ever been,’ Jack nods, his eyes following her as she moves fluidly around the perimeter. ‘Cathy’s got a good feeling about today,’ Gerry beams, rubbing his hands together, ‘but just try and stay out of his way,’ he adds in a whisper as Pat passes with his eyes low.
‘I’ve been told that he’s taken to more than the odd drink in the mornings since we took him off Nemesis. Make sure he doesn’t get too close.’
A wind pulls in, scorching his cheeks, creeping beneath the crimson silk. To the east the crowd rumbles, pressing to the railings and scrambling up the concrete banks, squinting beneath their caps and hoods to make out numbers and colours. Ragged crops of upturned faces watch bookies’ agents standing on stepladders to shout the odds, as fists of notes pump the air. Over the speakers a nasal voice booms, but the words are lost in the whipping breeze. Vinegar and lager.
Her ears swivel. She lifts her nose above the metal gates with nostrils round as apples, and watches a line of crows lift from the track rail and drift over the grandstand. Her eyes are as quick as her feet. To the right, the final gate is slammed shut on a frantic youngster, whipping and ducking, the froth from his grinding mouth falls like ash. Somewhere along the row, he can sense Pat’s eyes upon him, hot and dark. Jack sinks low onto her back and whispers to settle her, and waits in the jostling silence, his hands still. A moment passes, and then the gates boom and he’s lifted from the saddle into a space of nothingness. His knees connect again and he shifts right up on her neck, his hands almost at her ears and begins to feel for her rhythm as she scorches down the track in the thick of the thundering crowd.
He needs to keep her close to the rail, so he searches the pack for an opening, teasing the left rein and moving across her back, until there’s a gap to be taken. She slots in. In front of him a threshing chestnut is setting the pace, but Jack knows he will burn out; to his right a grey, its pumping nose level with Jack’s shoulder, is a possible threat, and the rest of them are just behind. He can hear the earth thundering, and raking breath, discs of turf flung into the air land far behind them, and the crowd has become just a static fizz. They curve into the first turn, winding like a steam train as one pulsing body and he feels her begin to ask, to push for speed, but he holds her. Not yet.
The pack shifts and the order turns, and suddenly Pat is close. Jack feels his stomach roll. He knows that for Pat there is no chance of winning, but that victory for him means something else. He is almost touching distance, wrenching and pummelling to catch Nemesis, his voice above the wind screaming for speed. His horse is almost failing, eyes huge and terrified, its lips pulled back against Pat’s frenzied attack. Beneath the beating whip plump blisters are puckering.
Jack has no moment to consider his response. Tucked against the rail, there is nowhere to go.
Pat lurches across the margin between them, raises his whip high above his head and brings it down as hard as he can manage right across Nemesis’s rump, and the wide leather paddle scorches like a branding iron. Her head jerks, knocking Jack hard onto her back; the reins slip like ribbon through his hands, and in that instant, she is lost. He feels her quarters bunch beneath her before she launches like a cannon into the pack. Jack scrambles, fumbling for the reins, but they are loose and seem impossibly long. With his legs tucked up beneath him, he is nothing but a stranded passenger.
He doesn’t hear their hooves connect, but he will do in his dreams. He doesn’t see Catherine’s mouth form a perfect O behind her hands, or the crowd ripple like an aftershock, nor her hoof flapping like sodden fabric. He feels the pull of her towards the ground, her shoulder drop and her pace slow.
‘Shheeeshh,’ someone hisses in the press box, scrambling for a radio, ‘Nemesis is breaking down!’
He stands, lifting his weight off her back, and tries to pull her up. Despite her pain, her eyes follow the disappearing race, her legs still beating in a
jarring lope to be amongst them. As she slows into a jog, he jumps, landing roughly on his ankle, and grabs the bit in her mouth, hauling at it to make her stop, pushing his body into her shoulder.
She lifts the damaged leg, and tucks it up beneath her. He catches sight of it and gags onto the grass, still pushing himself into her twitching shoulder until she drops onto her knees and lets her body roll onto its side. Blood thick as paint has smudged the torn earth and her swimming legs. It flows from the gash in her ankle where the bone that has pierced her skin juts like a tusk.
They are alone.
Jack folds onto the turf and listens to her breath roll and catch. Sweat has peaked into flotsam at the skin beneath the saddle. He pulls at the buckle and loosens the girth, as much for her comfort as his own occupation, and begins to stroke her neck with fluttering hands: her turning ears, the contours of her face, her tangled mane. All the while her eyes search, wide in suffering, hunting the empty track for a release from this moment.
Suddenly they are upon them like birds and she is lost beneath a shell of arching backs and busy hands, distracted by a twist of hay.
Jack stands a little way away, his ears humming. His eyes see nothing but the pile of bodies tending to her and in a blinking gap between them, her face, alive with panic.
Rain begins, rolling in across the open track. The crowd shifts and changes. Umbrellas flash and shoulders hunch, and the grandstand fills with sheltering voyeurs who gaze at the big screens. Mothers curl around their children; men rub their jaws.
‘Give her a blanket,’ Jack says into the breeze. He can see her tail tangled on the grass. ‘Give her a blanket.’
He feels fingers on his arm. A radio tucked into the vet’s waistband splutters.
‘That’s confirmation,’ someone says.
Bodies straighten up. Two men struggle with a tarpaulin that catches and jerks in the wind. A lanky steward sprints to the vet’s truck and returns with two syringes full of rose pink liquor.
The track minister kneels beside her and closes his eyes. His lips flicker but his words are lost to the squalling rain. Jack will often wonder what he said.
He moves forward towards her and drops to his knees.
Her terror has subsided. Her breath barely lifts her chest, passing like a whisper. He pulls the blanket from around his shoulders and lays it across her body, tucking it around her back and up on to her neck. If she feels him, she cannot answer. Her face is stretched away from him, upon the seeping earth.
He watches as the vet leans across and pushes the needle into her throat. Her eyes flash and the vein swells.
Some kick. Some spasm. Others barely register. But she lifts her head from the bitter ground and calls out, the sound of pealing church bells.
They would have heard it in the grandstand, above the rumbling crowds. They would have heard it in the stable blocks above the clattering hooves. Pat hears it in the jockeys’ room above the shuffling silence and vomits straight onto his knees, a crowd of eyes upon him.