Whip Hand, p.1Dick Francis
an imprint of
Books by Dick Francis and Felix Francis
Books by Dick Francis
THE SPORT OF QUEENS (autobiography)
IN THE FRAME
LESTER: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY
COME TO GRIEF
TO THE HILT
FIELD OF 13
this book is for
Mike Gwilym Actor
Jacky Stoller Producer
with gratitude and affection
I dreamed I was riding in a race.
Nothing odd in that. I’d ridden in thousands.
There were fences to jump. There were horses, and jockeys in a rainbow of colours, and miles of green grass. There were massed banks of people, with pink oval faces, indistinguishable pink blobs from where I crouched in the stirrups, galloping past, straining with speed.
Their mouths were open, and although I could hear no sound I knew they were shouting.
Shouting my name, to make me win.
Winning was all. Winning was my function. What I was there for. What I wanted. What I was born for.
In the dream, I won the race. The shouting turned to cheering, and the cheering lifted me up on its wings, like a wave. But the winning was all; not the cheering.
I woke in the dark, as I often did, at four in the morning.
There was silence. No cheering. Just silence.
I could still feel the way I’d moved with the horse, the ripple of muscle through both of the striving bodies, uniting in one. I could still feel the irons round my feet, the calves of my legs gripping, the balance, the nearness to my head of the stretching brown neck, the mane blowing in my mouth, my hands on the reins.
There came, at that point, the second awakening. The real one. The moment in which I first moved, and opened my eyes, and remembered that I wouldn’t ride any more races, ever. The wrench of loss came again as a fresh grief. The dream was a dream for whole men.
I dreamed it quite often.
Damned senseless thing to do.
Living, of course, was quite different. One discarded dreams, and got dressed, and made what one could of the day.
I took the battery out of my arm and fed it into the recharger, and only realized I’d done it when ten seconds later the fingers wouldn’t work.
How odd, I thought. Recharging the battery, and the manoeuvre needed to accomplish it, had become such second nature that I had done them instinctively, without conscious decision, like brushing my teeth. And I realized for the first time that I had finally squared my subconscious, at least when I was awake, to the fact that what I now had as a left hand was a matter of metal and plastic, not muscle and bone and blood.
I pulled my tie off and flung it haphazardly on to my jacket, which lay over the leather arm of the sofa: stretched and sighed with the ease of homecoming: listened to the familiar silences of the flat; and as usual felt the welcoming peace unlock the gritty tensions of the outside world.
I suppose that that flat was more of a haven than a home. Comfortable certainly, but not slowly and lovingly put together. Furnished, rather, on one brisk unemotional afternoon in one store: ‘I’ll have that, that, that and that … and send them as soon as possible.’ The collection had gelled, more or less, but I now owned nothing whose loss I would ache over; and if that was a defence mechanism, at least I knew it.
Contentedly padding around in shirt sleeves and socks, I switched on the warm pools of table lights, encouraged the television with a practised slap, poured a soothing Scotch, and decided not to do yesterday’s washing up. There was steak in the fridge and money in the bank, and who needed an aim in life anyway?
I tended nowadays to do most things one-handed, because it was quicker. My ingenious false hand, which worked via solenoids from electrical impulses in what was left of my forearm, would open and close in a fairly vice-like grip, but at its own pace. It did look like a real hand, though, to the extent that people sometimes didn’t notice. There were shapes like fingernails, and ridges for tendons, and blue lines for veins. When I was alone I seemed to use it less and less, but it pleased me better to see it on than off.
I shaped up to that evening as to many another. On the sofa, feet up, knees bent, in contact with a chunky tumbler and happy to live vicariously via the small screen: and I was mildly irritated when halfway through a decent comedy the door bell rang.
With more reluctance than curiosity I stood up, parked the glass, fumbled through my jacket pockets for the spare battery I’d been carrying there, and snapped it into the socket in my arm. Then, buttoning the shirt cuff down over the plastic wrist, I went out into the small hall and took a look through the spyhole in the door.
There was no trouble on the mat, unless trouble had taken the shape of a middle-aged lady in a blue headscarf. I opened the door and said politely, ‘Good evening, can I help you?’
‘Sid,’ she said. ‘Can I come in?’
I looked at her, thinking that I didn’t know her. But then a good many people whom I didn’t know called me Sid, and I’d always taken it as a compliment.
Coarse dark curls showed under the headscarf, a pair of tinted glasses hid her eyes, and heavy crimson lipstick focussed attention on her mouth. There was embarrassment in her manner and she seemed to be trembling inside her loose fawn raincoat. She still appeared to expect me to recognize her, but it was not until she looked nervously over her shoulder, and I saw her profile against the light, that I actually did.
Even then I said incredulously, tentatively, ‘Rosemary?’
‘Look,’ she said, brushing past me as I opened the door more widely. ‘I simply must talk to you.’
‘Well … come in.’
While I closed the door behind us she stopped in front of the looking glass in the hall and started to untie the headscarf.
‘My God, whatever do I look like?’
I saw that her fingers were shaking too much to undo the knot, and finally with a frustrated little moan she stretched over her head, grasped the points of the scar
‘My God,’ she said again, putting the tinted glasses away in her handbag and fetching out a tissue to wipe off the worst of the gleaming lipstick. ‘I had to come. I had to come.’
I watched the tremors in her hands and listened to the jerkiness in her voice, and reflected that I’d seen a whole procession of people in this state since I’d drifted into the trade of sorting out trouble and disaster.
‘Come on in and have a drink,’ I said, knowing it was what she both needed and expected, and sighing internally over the ruins of my quiet evening. ‘Whisky or gin?’
‘Gin … tonic … anything.’
Still wearing the raincoat she followed me into the sitting room and sat abruptly on the sofa as if her knees had given way beneath her. I looked briefly at the vague eyes, switched off the laughter on the television and poured her a tranquillizing dose of mothers’ ruin.
‘Here,’ I said, handing her the tumbler. ‘So what’s the problem?’
‘Problem!’ she was transitorily indignant. ‘It’s more than that.’
I picked up my own drink and carried it round to sit in an armchair opposite her.
‘I saw you in the distance at the races today,’ I said. ‘Did the problem exist at that point?’
She took a large gulp from her glass. ‘Yes, it damn well did. And why do you think I came creeping around at night searching for your damn flat in this ropey wig if I could have walked straight up to you at the races?’
‘Well … why?’
‘Because the last person I can be seen talking to on a racecourse or off it is Sid Halley.’
I had ridden a few times for her husband away back in the past. In the days when I was a jockey. When I was still light enough for Flat racing and hadn’t taken to steeplechasing. In the days before success and glory and falls and smashed hands … and all that. To Sid Halley, ex-jockey, she could have talked publicly forever. To Sid Halley, recently changed into a sort of all-purpose investigator, she had come in darkness and fright.
Forty-fivish, I suppose, thinking about it for the first time, and realizing that although I had known her casually for years I had never before looked long enough or closely enough at her face to see it feature by feature. The general impression of thin elegance had always been strong. The drooping lines of eyebrow and eyelid, the small scar on the chin, the fine noticeable down on the sides of the jaw, these were new territory.
She raised her eyes suddenly and gave me the same sort of inspection, as if she’d never really seen me before: and I guessed that for her it was a much more radical reassessment. I was no longer the boy she’d once rather brusquely issued with riding instructions, but a man she had come to in trouble. I was accustomed, by now, to seeing this new view of me supplant older and easier relationships, and although I might often regret it, there seemed no way of going back.
‘Everyone says …’ she began doubtfully. ‘I mean … over this past year, I keep hearing …’ She cleared her throat. They say you’re good … very good … at this sort of thing. But I don’t know … now I’m here … it doesn’t seem … I mean … you’re a jockey.’
‘Was,’ I said succinctly.
She glanced vaguely at my left hand, but made no other comment. She knew all about that. As racing gossip goes, it was last year’s news.
‘Why don’t you tell me what you want done?’ I said. ‘If I can’t help, I’ll say so.’
The idea that I couldn’t help after all reawoke her alarm and set her shivering again inside the raincoat.
‘There’s no one else.’ she said. ‘I can’t go to anyone else. I have to believe … I have to … that you can do … all they say.’
‘I’m no superman,’ I protested. ‘I just snoop around a bit.’
‘Well … Oh God …’ The glass rattled against her teeth as she emptied it to the dregs. ‘I hope to God …’
‘Take your coat off,’ I said persuasively. ‘Have another gin. Sit back on the sofa, and start at the beginning.’
As if dazed she stood up, undid the buttons, shed the coat, and sat down again.
‘There isn’t a beginning.’
She took the refilled glass and hugged it to her chest. The newly revealed clothes were a cream silk shirt under a rust-coloured cashmere-looking sweater, a heavy gold chain, and a well-cut black skirt: the everyday expression of no financial anxieties.
‘George is at a dinner,’ she said. ‘We’re staying here in London overnight … He thinks I’ve gone to a film.’
George, her husband, ranked in the top three of British racecourse trainers and probably in the top ten internationally. On racecourses from Hong Kong to Kentucky he was revered as one of the greats. At Newmarket, where he lived, he was king. If his horses won the Derby, the Arc de Triomphe, the Washington International, no one was surprised. Some of the cream of the world’s bloodstock floated year by year to his stable, and even having a horse in his yard gave the owner a certain standing. George Caspar could afford to turn down any horse or any man. Rumour said he rarely turned down any woman: and if that was Rosemary’s problem it was one I couldn’t solve.
‘He mustn’t know,’ she said nervously. ‘You’ll have to promise not to tell him I came here.’
‘I’ll promise provisionally,’ I said.
‘That’s not enough.’
‘It’ll have to be.’
‘You’ll see,’ she said. ‘You’ll see why …’ She took a drink. ‘He may not like it, but he’s worried to death.’
‘Who … George?’
‘Of course George. Who else? Don’t be so damned stupid. For who else would I risk coming here on this damn charade?’ The brittleness shrilled in her voice and seemed to surprise her. She visibly took some deep breaths, and started again. ‘What did you think of Gleaner?’
‘Er …’ I said. ‘Disappointing.’
‘A damned disaster,’ she said. ‘You know it was.’
‘One of those things,’ I said.
‘No, it was not one of those things. One of the best two-year-olds George ever had. Won three brilliant two-year-old races. Then all that winter, favourite for the Guineas and the Derby. Going to be the tops, everyone said. Going to be marvellous.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I remember.’
‘And then what? Last spring he ran in the Guineas. Fizzled out. Total flop. And he never even got within sight of the Derby.’
‘It happens,’ I said.
She looked at me impatiently, compressing her lips. ‘And Zingaloo?’ she said. ‘Was that, too, just one of those things? The two best colts in the country, both brilliant at two, both in our yard. And neither of them won a damn penny last year as three-year-olds. They just stood there in their boxes, looking well, eating their heads off, and totally damn bloody useless.’
‘It was a puzzler,’ I agreed, but without much conviction. Horses which didn’t come up to expectations were as normal as rain on Sundays.
‘And what about Bethesda, the year before?’ She glared at me vehemently. ‘Top two-year-old filly. Favourite for months for the One Thousand and the Oaks. Terrific. She went down to the start of the One Thousand looking a million dollars, and she finished tenth. Tenth, I ask you!’
‘George must have had them all checked,’ I said mildly.
‘Of course he did. Damn vets crawling all round the place for weeks on. end. Dope tests. Everything. All negative. Three brilliant horses all gone useless. And no damned explanation. Nothing!’
I sighed slightly. It sounded to me more like the story of most trainers’ lives, not a matter for melodramatic visits in false wigs.
‘And now,’ she said, casually dropping the bomb, ‘there is Tri-Nitro.’
I let out an involuntarily audible breath, halfway to a grunt. Tri-Nitro filled columns just then on every racing page, hailed as
‘The Guineas is only a fortnight away,’ Rosemary said. ‘Two weeks today, in fact. Suppose something happens … suppose it’s just as bad … what if he fails, like the others …?’
She was trembling again, but when I opened my mouth to speak she rushed on at a higher pitch. ‘Tonight was the only chance … the only night I could come here … and George would be livid. He says nothing can happen to the horse, no one can get at him, the security’s too good. But he’s scared, I know he is. Strung up. Screwed up tight. I suggested he called you in to guard the horse and he nearly went berserk. I don’t know why. I’ve never seen him in such a fury.’
‘Rosemary,’ I began, shaking my head.
‘Listen,’ she interrupted. ‘I want you to make sure nothing happens to Tri-Nitro before the Guineas. That’s all.’
‘It’s no good wishing afterwards … if somebody tries something … that I’d asked you. I couldn’t stand that. So I had to come. I had to. So say you’ll do it. Say how much you want, and I’ll pay it.’
‘It’s not money,’ I said. ‘Look … there’s no way I can guard Tri-Nitro without George knowing and approving. It’s impossible.’
‘You can do it. I’m sure you can. You’ve done things before that people said couldn’t be done. I had to come. I can’t face it … George can’t face it … not three years in a row. Tri-Nitro has got to win. You’ve got to make sure nothing happens. You’ve got to.’
She was suddenly shaking worse than ever and looked well down the road to hysteria. More to calm her than from any thought of being able in fact to do what she wanted, I said ‘Rosemary … all right. I’ll try to do something.’
‘He’s got to win,’ she said.
I said soothingly ‘I don’t see why he shouldn’t.’
She picked up unerringly the undertone I hadn’t known would creep into my voice: the scepticism, the easy complacent tendency to discount her urgency as the fantasies of an excitable woman. I heard the nuances myself, and saw them uncomfortably through her eyes.
Whip Hand by Dick Francis / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes