Trial Run, p.1Dick Francis
THE DICK FRANCIS LIBRARY
Books by Dick Francis
THE SPORT OF QUEENS (autobiography)
IN THE FRAME
LESTER: The Official Biography
I could think of three good reasons for not going to Moscow, one of which was twenty-six, blonde, and upstairs unpacking her suitcase.
‘I can’t speak Russian,’ I said.
‘Of course not.’
My visitor took a genteel sip of pink gin, sighing slightly over my obtuseness. His voice was condescending.
‘No one would expect you to speak Russian.’
He had come by appointment, introduced on the telephone by the friend of a friend. He said his name was Rupert Hughes-Beckett; that it was a matter of some… ah… delicacy. That he would be glad of my help, if I could spare him half an hour.
The word ‘mandarin’ had drifted into my mind when I opened the front door to his ring, and every gesture, every intonation since then had deepened the impression. A man of about fifty, tall and spare, with uncreased clothes and quiet shoes. An aura of unflappable civilised composure. A cultivated voice speaking without much lip movement, as if a muscular tightening round the mouth area could in itself prevent the issue of incautious words. There was control, too, in every movement of his hands and even in the way he used his eyes, rationing their forays into small courteous glances at my background between longer disciplined concentrations on my face, the backs of his own hands, or the glass holding his drink.
I had met many men of his type, and liked many, too, but to Rupert Hughes-Beckett I felt an antipathy I couldn’t pin down. Its effect however was all too plain: I wished to say no to his proposals.
‘It would not take a great deal of your time,’ he said patiently. ‘A week… two weeks, we calculate, at a maximum.’
I mustered a careful politeness to match his own. ‘Why don’t you go yourself?’ I said. ‘You would have better access than I.’
The faintest hint of impatience twitched in his eyes. ‘It is thought better to send someone who is intimate with… ah… horses.’
Ribald replies got no further than a laugh in the mind. Rupert Hughes-Beckett would not have been amused. I perceived also, from the disapproving way he said ‘horses’ that he was as unenthusiastic about his present errand as I was. It did nothing to warm me towards him, but at least it explained why I instinctively disliked him. He had done his well-trained best, but hadn’t in that one word been able to disguise his inner feeling of superciliousness: and I had met that stance far too often to mistake it.
‘No cavaliers in the Foreign Office?’ I said flippantly.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Why me?’ I said: and heard in the question all the despair of the unwillingly chosen. Why me? I don’t want it. Take it away. Pick someone else. Leave me alone.
‘I gather it was felt you should be approached because you have… ah… status,’ he said, and smiled faintly as if deprecating such an extravagant statement. ‘And, of course,’ he added, ‘the time.’
A right kick in the guts, I thought; and kept my face flat and still. Then I took off my glasses and squinted at them against the light, as if trying to see if they were clean, and then put them back on again. It was a delaying tactic I had used all my life, most often unconsciously, to give myself a space for thought: a habit that had started when I was about six and a schoolmaster asked me in an arithmetic lesson what I had done with the multiplicand.
I had pulled off my owl-like silver rims and stared at his suddenly fuzzy outline while I thought wild panicky thoughts. What on earth was a multiplicand?
‘I haven’t seen it, sir. It wasn’t me, sir.’
His sardonic laugh had stayed with me down the years. I had exchanged the silver rims for gold, and then for plastic, and finally for tortoiseshell, but I still took them off when I couldn’t answer.
‘I’ve got a cough,’ I said. ‘And it is November.’
The frivolousness of this excuse was measured by a deepening silence and a gradual reverential bowing of the Hughes-Beckett head over the crystal tumbler.
‘I’m afraid that the answer is no,’ I said.
He raised his head and gave me a calm civil inspection. ‘There will be some disappointment,’ he said. ‘I might almost go as far as to say… ah… dismay.’
‘Flatter someone else,’ I said.
‘It was felt that you…’ He left the words unfinished, hanging in the air.
‘Who felt?’ I asked. ‘Who, exactly, felt?’
He shook his head gently, put down the emptied glass, and rose to his feet.
‘I will convey your reply.’
‘And regrets,’ I said.
‘Very well, Mr Drew.’
‘I wouldn’t have been successful,’ I said. ‘I’m not an investigator. I’m a farmer.’
He gave me a sort of sideways down-the-nose look where a less inhibited man would have said, ‘Come off it.’
I walked with him into the hall, helped him on with his coat, opened the front door, and watched him walk bareheaded through the icy dark to his waiting chauffeur-driven Daimler. He gave me, by way of farewell, merely a five-second full-frontal view of his bland expression through the window. Then the big car crunched away on the gravel towards the gate, and I coughed in the cold air and went back inside.
Emma was walking down the oval sweep of Regency staircase in her Friday evening come-for-the-weekend clothes: jeans, cotton check shirt, baggy sweater and cowboy boots. I wondered fleetingly whether, if the house stood for as long again, the girls of the twenty-second century would look as incongruous against those gracefully curving walls.
‘Fish fingers and the telly, then?’ she said.
‘More or less.’
‘You’ve got bronchitis again.’
‘It isn’t catching.’
She reached the bottom of the stairs and made without pause towards the kitchen. It always took a while with her for the brittle stresses of the week to drop away, and I was used to the jerky arrivals and the spiky brush-offs of the first few hours. I no longer tried to greet her with warmth. She wouldn’t be kissed much before ten, nor loved before midnight, and she wouldn’t relax until Saturday tea-time. Sunday we would slop a
Lady Emma Louders-Allen-Croft, daughter, sister and aunt of dukes, was ‘into’, as she would say, ‘the working girl ethos’. She was employed full-time, no favours, in a bustling London department store, where, despite her search for social abasement, she had recently been promoted to bed linen buyer on the second floor. Emma, blessed with organisational skills above the average, was troubled about her rise, a screw-up one could trace back directly to her own schooling, where she, in an expensive boarding-school for highborn young ladies, had been taught in fierily left-wing sociology lessons that brains were elitist and that manual work was the noble path to heaven.
Her search for immolation, which had led to exhausting years of serving at tables in cafés as well as behind the counters in shops, seemed to be as strong as ever. She would in no way have starved without employment, but might quite likely have gone to drink or pot.
I believed, and she knew I did, that someone with her abilities and restless drive should have taken a proper training, or at least gone to university, and contributed more than a pair of hands; but I had learned not to talk about it, as it was one of the many no-man’s-lands which led to shrieks and sulks.
‘Why the hell do you bother with that mixed-up kook?’ my step-brother frequently asked. Because, as I never told him, a shot of undiluted life-force every couple of weekends was better for the heart than his monotonous daily jogging.
Emma was looking into the refrigerator, the light shining out of it on to her fine-boned face and thick platinum hair. Her eyebrows were so pale as to be invisible without pencil, and her lashes the same without mascara. Sometimes she made up her eyes like sunbursts; sometimes, like that evening, she let nature take its course. It depended on the tide of ideas.
‘Haven’t you any yoghurt?’ she demanded.
I sighed. A flood of health foods was not my favourite. ‘Nor wheatgerm either,’ I said.
‘Kelp,’ she said firmly.
‘Seaweed. Compressed into tablets. Very good for you.’
‘Apple cider vinegar. Honey. Organically grown vegetables.’
‘Are we off avocadoes and hearts of palm?’
She pulled out a chunk of Dutch cheese and scowled at it. ‘They’re imported. We should limit imports. We need a siege economy.’
‘No more caviar?’
‘Caviar is immoral.’
‘Would it be immoral if it was plentiful and cheap?’
‘Stop arguing. What did your visitor want? Are these crème caramels for supper?’
‘Yes, they are,’ I said. ‘He wanted me to go to Moscow.’
She straightened up and glared at me. ‘That’s not very funny.’
‘A month ago you said crème caramels were food for angels.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
‘He said he wanted me to go to Moscow. On an errand, not to embrace the Marxist – Leninist philosophy.’
She slowly shut the refrigerator door.
‘What sort of errand?’
‘He wanted me to look for somebody. But I’m not going.’
‘He didn’t say.’ I turned away from her. ‘Come and have a drink in the sitting-room. There’s a fire in there.’
She followed me back through the hall and folded herself into a large armchair with a glass of white wine.
‘How are the pigs, geese, and mangold-wurzels?’
‘Coming along nicely,’ I said.
I had no pigs, geese, or, indeed, mangold-wurzels. I had a lot of beef cattle, three square miles of Warwickshire, and all the modern problems of the food producer. I had grown used to measuring yield in tonnes per hectare but was still unconvinced by government policies which paid me sometimes not to grow certain crops, and threatened to prosecute me if I did.
‘And the horses?’ Emma said.
I stretched out lazily in my chair and watched the light from the table lamp fall on her silvery head, and decided it was really high time I stopped wincing over the thought that I would be riding in no more races.
‘I suppose I’ll sell the horses,’ I said.
‘There’s still hunting.’
‘It’s not the same. And these are not hunters. They’re race-horses. They should be on a track.’
‘You’ve trained them all these years… why don’t you just get someone else to ride them?’
‘I only trained them because I was riding them. I don’t want to do it for anyone else.’
She frowned. ‘I can’t imagine you without horses.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘nor can I.’
‘It’s a bloody shame.’
‘I thought you subscribed to the “we know what’s best for you and you’ll damn well put up with it” school of thought.’
‘People have to be protected from themselves,’ she said.
She stared. ‘Of course they do.’
‘Safety precautions are a growth industry,’ I said with some bitterness. ‘Masses of restrictive legislation to stop people taking everyday risks… and accidents go right on happening, and we have terrorists besides.’
‘You’re still in a right tizz, aren’t you?’
‘I thought you’d got over it.’
‘The first fury may have worn off,’ I said. ‘The resentment will last for ever.’
I had been lucky in my racing, lucky in my horses, and steeplechasing had taken me, as it had so many others, to soul-filling heights and depths of passion and fear and triumphant exaltation. Left to myself I would in that autumn have been busily racing at every opportunity and fixing my sights as usual on the big amateur events in the spring; for, while I hadn’t the world’s toughest physique when it came to chest infections, to which I was as maddeningly prone as cars to rust, I was still, at thirty-two, as muscularly strong as I would ever be. But someone, somewhere, had recently dreamed up the nannying concept that people should no longer be allowed to ride in jump races wearing glasses.
Of course a lot of people thought it daft for anyone to race in glasses anyway, and I daresay they were right: but although I’d broken a few frames and suffered a few superficial cuts from them, I’d never damaged my actual eyes. And they were my eyes, God dammit.
There were restrictions now on contact lenses, though not a total ban: but although I had tried and persevered to the point of perpetual inflammation, my eyes and contacts remained incompatible. So if I couldn’t wear contacts, I could no longer race. So goodbye to twelve years’ fun. Goodbye to endeavour, to speed, to mind-blowing exhilaration. Too bad, too bad about your misery, it’s all for your own good.
The weekend drifted along on its normal course. A drive round the farm on Saturday morning, visit to the local Stratford-upon-Avon races in the afternoon, dinner with friends in the evening. Sunday morning, getting up late, we sprawled in the sitting-room with logs on the fire, newspapers around like snow, and the prospect of toasted ham sandwiches for lunch. Two satisfactory nights had been passed, with another, one hoped, ahead. Emma was at her softest, and we were as near to a married state as we were ever likely to get.
Into this domestic calm drove Hughes-Beckett in his Daimler. The wheels crunched on the gravel: I stood up to see who had arrived, and Emma also. We watched the chauffeur and a man sitting beside him get out of the car and open the two rear doors. From one stepped Hughes-Beckett, looking apprehensively up the façade of the house, and from the other…
Emma’s eyes widened. ‘My God… isn’t that…?’
‘Yes, it is.’
She swept a wild look round the cosy untidy room. ‘You can’t bring them in here.’
‘No. The drawing-room.’
‘But… did you know they were coming?’
‘Of course not.’
We watched the
‘Well, go on,’ said Emma. ‘See what they want.’
‘I know what they want. You sit here by the fire and do the crossword while I think of ways of telling them they can’t have it.’
I went to the front door and opened it.
‘Randall,’ said the Prince, holding out his hand to be shaken. ‘Well, at least you’re at home. Can we come in?’
‘Of course, sir.’
Hughes-Beckett followed him over the threshold with an expression compounded of humiliation and triumph: he might not have been able to persuade me himself, but he was going to take joy in seeing me capitulate to someone else.
I led them into the blue and gold formal drawing-room where at least the radiators were functioning even if there was no welcoming fire.
‘Now, Randall,’ said the Prince. ‘Please go to Moscow.’
‘Can I offer your Royal Highness a drink?’ I said.
‘No, you can’t. Now, Randall, sit down and listen, and stop beating about the bush.’
The cousin of the monarch parked his backside firmly on a silk-covered Regency sofa and waved Hughes-Beckett and me towards adjoining chairs. He was of my generation, though a year or two older, and we had met countless times over the years because of our common pleasure in horses. His taste had taken him more to hounds and to polo than racing, although we had galloped alongside in several point-to-points. He was strong-minded and direct, and could be bracing to the point of bossiness, but I had also seen his tears over the broken-necked body of his favourite hunter.
We had met from time to time on indoor social occasions, but we were not close private personal friends, and before that day he had not been to my house, nor I to his.
‘My wife’s brother,’ he said. ‘Johnny Farringford. You know him, don’t you?’
‘We’ve met,’ I said. ‘I don’t really know him.’
‘He wants to ride in the next Olympics. In Moscow.’
‘Yes, sir. So Mr Hughes-Beckett said.’
‘In the Three-Day-Event.’
‘Well, Randall, there’s this problem… what you might call, a question-mark… We can’t let him go to Russia unless it’s cleared up. We simply can’t… or at least, I simply won’t… have him going there if the whole thing is going to blow up in our faces. I am not, positively not, going to let him go if there is any chance of an… incident... which would be in a way embarrassing to… er… other members of my family. Or to the British nation as a whole.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Now I know Johnny is not in line to the throne or anything like that, but he is after all an earl and my brother-in-law, and as far as the Press of the world is concerned, that’s fair game.’
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