It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?
I live five miles from Cheltenham. I love the Cheltenham Literature Festival. I also love the races. Now the clever planners at the #CheltLitFest have moved the Festival date so that I can enjoy both.
Here’s a scene I wrote about the races.
The man called The Ox was standing trackside at Kempton Races. He was almost close enough to touch the last hurdle. Close enough to be hit by mud and sweat and spit and turf as a hundred hooves kicked and fought for position on their way past him. Close enough to get a sense of the horses’ grace and power as they launched over the last fence. He could have leant over the white railings and grabbed one as they thundered past if he’d wanted. He was probably heavy enough to have pulled one up single handed.
Punters standing near to the Ox could hear the jockeys shouting at each other and at their mounts as they jumped. They heard the complaints of leather and metal clashing and straining and the deep laboured grunts of the powerful beasts as they threw themselves implausibly through the air. The sounds of bones hitting wood. The cheers and screams of excitement from the crowds. The Ox heard none of it.
He was well past his prime and no longer an athlete. He had little appreciation for the beauty of the horses as they pelted past. Straining sinew and flaring nostrils and wild eyes full of fire and fear were wasted on him as they stretched their bodies mid air over the last fence, their front hooves clawing out for one last safe landing. The Ox missed all of that.
He was in a world of his own as he stood against the rails next to the last jump with his leather collar up against the fine drizzle which was slowly getting under his shirt. Behind him, hundreds of punters were yelling from the grandstand. In front of him, the floodlights flung theatrical colour over the racetrack.
The Ox saw nothing, and heard nothing, and thought about nothing except for the horse he was backing in the next race. The theatre and the excitement and the screams and the form and the beauty meant nothing to him. It was just about winning his bet. All about the money.
He’d fallen into a rhythm of double whiskeys between each race which kept out the cold and dulled the noise of the people around him, but from the moment that the doors had opened and the horses had thundered from the stalls, the Ox sobered up and focussed on his horse. In the orgy of colours that exploded from the start, he only saw one bright red silk. He had no idea of its name. No idea when it last raced. No idea who was on its back. No idea if it had ever won before. In fact, until it broke from the stalls, the Ox couldn’t honestly have been sure that it even had four legs.
He chose the horse because he liked the odds. Short, but not too short. Better than evens. The bookies in the floodlit pit were offering fours or more on everything else in the field. The Ox was a mug punter who usually went long and got steadily more frustrated through the day. Occasionally one of his outside chances would scrape home fourth or fifth, but fourth or fifth doesn’t pay the rent. The Ox would grumble to himself and head back to the pit, money in hand, chasing his losses.
Tonight was different though. He’d bet more sensibly than usual, going each way on horses that had an outside chance of coming home in the money. Horses at sixes and sevens, strong but unfancied. He’d stuck a pony on each of them. Twenty five pounds. His father used to do the same. Wet Saturday afternoons, off to stick a pony on an ‘orse.
When the Ox’s father won, he’d celebrate in the pub all night and then come home and beat the Ox’s mother senseless. When he lost, which happened more often than not, he’d go to the pub to drown his sorrows and then come home and beat the Ox’s mother even harder.
The Ox woke up to the sound of his mother being beaten every Sunday morning. Until he grew. Until he showed his father what a beating really was. Then it stopped, for good.
Tonight, the Ox had been lucky. His ponies had mostly come in, sometimes winning, sometimes placed. His places had earned him thirty or fourty quid each, but the winners had been more. One of them came in at nines, and a disgruntled bookie exchanged his soggy betting ticket for nearly two hundred pounds.
By the time the last race came round the Ox had six hundred pounds of pure blind luck in his back pocket, and should have known it was time to stop. But he didn’t. The bookies saw him coming, lumbering over to them with a thick wad of cash in his meaty hand.
The one who eventually took his bet eyed up the punter dubiously. He was standing on his wooden box, but still the Ox was nearly eye to eye with him. Twice as broad, and mirthless. He’d been winning long odds all night but had shown no signs of enjoyment or pleasure. Now he was in for a monkey on the last race of the night.
A monkey is an Indian phrase. Londoners think it’s theirs, but it’s not. Indian rupee banknotes used to have animals on them, and monkeys were printed on the front of the five hundred rupee note. The phrase came to London in the eighteen hundreds, along with traders and spices and silver and silk.
So the Ox held up a monkey for the short odds favourite to win the last race. If it won, he’d get a grand back. Even if it lost, he still had a hundred quid in his back pocket which was all he’d arrived with. He wouldn’t be going home a loser. The bookie handed him a two inch wide slip of paper in return for his five hundred quid. Neither man thanked the other, or even acknowledged their presence in any meaningful way.
“A monkey on number eight” was all the Ox had grunted. One word for each hundred pounds he was placing. The bookie’s mate had counted and confirmed the bet with a grunt, and the third member of the team adjusted the odds to cover the bet. Between them, they could deal with the big guy if he lost and turned ugly. He was a mountain, but he was panting and sweating just from walking up the slight incline from the track to the pit. He’d probably drop from a heart attack before he threw his second punch. The bookie watched the Ox lumber back through the drizzle to his spot by the last hurdle.
He stood there as the stalls burst open, and he watching as the horses muscled for position. Not hearing the crowd. Not feeling the rain. His eye sought out the red silk of the jockey on top of his horse. His thousand pounds. It settled mid pack and travelled well over the first few jumps. The Ox held his breath each time it took flight, and felt a tug of adrenalin each time its hooves clipped the top of the fence. He breathed out again each time it landed.
They came closer and closer until the sound of the pack was replaced by something more physical. The Ox could feel the stampeed as they approached the last fence. Up close he could hear the brush and feel them thudding back down as they cleared the jump. He could see them stumble and readjust. But all he watched for was his horse. Still it the middle of the pack, still looking poised. Nothing to worry about.
Then they disappeared to the far side of the course, still bathed in the light but too distant to make out. The crowds behind the Ox looked up at the huge screen which was projecting the race in more detail. The Ox didn’t. His eyes didn’t move from the red silk on the far side. He didn’t blink. Watched the red dot lengthen its stride and muscle past a few tiring competitors. Into fifth, then fourth.
The crowd cheered on the favourite, but the Ox remained silent. His whole body clenched each time the horse took off over a jump, and he never quite unclenched as it landed. He just became progressively more tightly wound as his thousand pounds came closer to home. It rounded the final corner and switched gear. The commentator’s echoing voice notched up an octave as they straightened and headed for home. Three furlongs to go. It jumped well over the third from last fence, landed in a perfect rhythm and sailed into second place.
It reached the leader’s shoulder, but then seemed unable to pass. The Ox ground his teeth in silent anguish. Kick on, you fucker. Kick on. It didn’t. It matched the leader stride but couldn’t pass. The jockey in the red silk gave him a sharp reminder, but the horse didn’t have another gear. It made a mistake at the penultimate hurdle, stumbling as it landed and causing a few punters in the stands to scream. By the time it recovered, he was three lengths off the pace.
The Ox was sweating under his leather jacket and breathing hard. It looked like he’d jumped each hurdle himself. He clenched his betting slip in his fist, but didn’t throw it down. He was a mug punter hoping for a miracle. He stared down the track, watching the leader barrelling down to the last fence. He was stood so close to the fence that the horse disappeared behind it for a moment and then burst through it like he was taking off into the black sky. He hung in the flurescent light for an eternity and then fell back towards the turf, steaming forwards.
But the jockey was too far forward. He was already sliding up the animal’s neck. The horse twisted sideways as the momentum of its rear continued to plough forward. The impending disaster hung mid air. The crowd gasped. Shouted. Screamed. Time stopped. The Ox smiled.
The jockey was wearing purple and green silks quartered like a rugby shift. The Ox would probably have made a powerful second row forward ten years ago, before he went to seed. The jockey wouldn’t. He was much too small to be a rugby player, and he skidded through the mud and turf as though he’d just been tackled hard.
The ground was wet and the jockey skidded fast across it. But the horse was faster and heavier. One of its front legs was twisted uncomfortably under his heavy frame, while its back flayed dangerously into the air at a frightening angle, all bone and metal hoof. The horse rolled like a car crash straight over the jockey who yelled in pain. Horse and rider stayed down and the crowd held their breath. The Ox was no more than two metres from where the twisted mess of jockey and horse had come to rest, but he ignored them.
He was looking down the home straight at the red silk which was ten lengths clear, leading the race. He was running the race with the horse, willing him home. The four hooves beating the same pattern as the pumping chambers of the Ox’s heart. The horse took off over the final fence. The beating stopped.
The Ox saw his thousand pounds disappear for a moment and then burst through the fence, cutting into the night air. For that split second, the Ox was content. Years of regrets and disappointments fell away. For a brief suspended moment the horse hung gloriously in the air, and the Ox felt contentment and achievement. Hope, even. This could be the start of something good.
For a gambler, the moment of realising that you’re going to win is better than the winning itself. The moment fate swings irreversibly towards you. Vindication. Success. But the Ox had felt it too soon. Before the jockey in the red silk had even reached the apex of his jump, the elixir was already turning sour.
The jockey wore light goggles with thick black rims, and his eyes were full of fire and fear, the same as the horses. His was staring at the fallen horse and rider lying prone on the ground in front of him. There was no way round them, and his horse reared up, trying to avoid disaster. No wonder the bookies had offered short odds. It landed nimbly and skilfully and stayed on its feet, regaining its power and poise and stride. It passed the finishing post first, but the jockey had not been so competent. He’d been unseated as his mount landed awkwardly, and tumbled to the floor near to the other rider, rolling under the barrier to safety. He skidded to a halt right next to the Ox.
A few people in the crowd screamed wildly as a no hope came in to win at thirty threes. The kind of bet the Ox usually placed at the end of the night. Lightening quick, he calculated the seventeen grand he would have won if he’d bet on the outsider. He felt angry more than miserable. Cheated. Full of adrenalin that had nowhere to go. Thought about punching the jockey in the red silk who had just cost him a grand.
He’d been a boxer, once. Nothing fancy, but a local hero in his own corner of the East End. Could have been a contender. Eventually though he slowed down, and taken to drinking more than he should. Worked security. Went inside for a stretch. Now he’d let himself go so much that people weren’t sure whether his name was a compliment or an insult.
Instead of punching the jockey, the Ox offered him a hand up. Left him with his scrunched up betting ticket in his palm which said that the jockey had cost him a monkey. As the jockey looked down to see what the boulder of a man had pushed into his hand, the Ox sneered at him.
“Merry fucking Christmas” he said, gruffly.
Brando, DeNiro, eat your hearts out. Then he walked off through the rain, wheezing.