Flying Finish, p.1Dick Francis
The Dick Francis Library
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
With my thanks to
THE BRITISH BLOODSTOCK AGENCY
OF LEP TRANSPORT
OF C.S.E. AVIATION
I assure them that everyone
in this book is imaginary
‘You’re a spoilt bad-tempered bastard,’ my sister said, and jolted me into a course I nearly died of.
I carried her furious unattractive face down to the station and into the steamed-up compartment of Monday gloom and half done crosswords and all across London to my unloved office.
Bastard I was not: not with parents joined by bishop with half Debrett and Burke in the pews. And if spoilt, it was their doing, their legacy to an heir born accidentally at the last possible minute when earlier intended pregnancies had produced five daughters. My frail eighty-six year old father in his second childhood saw me chiefly as the means whereby a much hated cousin was to be done out of an earldom he had coveted: my father delighted in my existence and I remained to him a symbol.
My mother had been forty-seven at my birth and was now seventy-three. With a mind which had to all intents stopped developing round about Armistice Day 1918, she had been for as long as I could remember completely batty. Eccentric, her acquaintances more kindly said. Anyway, one of the first things I ever learnt was that age had nothing to do with wisdom.
Too old to want a young child around them, they had brought me up and educated me at arms length – nurse-maids, prep school and Eton – and in my hearing had regretted the length of the school holidays. Our relationship was one of politeness and duty, but not of affection. They didn’t even seem to expect me to love them, and I didn’t. I didn’t love anyone. I hadn’t had any practice.
I was first at the office as usual. I collected the key from the caretaker’s cubbyhole, walked unhurriedly down the long echoing hall, up the gritty stone staircase, down a narrow dark corridor, and at the far end of it unlocked the heavily brown varnished front door of the Anglia Bloodstock Agency. Inside, typical of the old London warren-type blocks of offices, comfort took over from barracks. The several rooms opening right and left from the passage were close carpeted, white painted, each with the occupant’s name in neat black on the door. The desks ran to extravagances like tooled leather tops, and there were sporting prints on the wall. I had not yet, however, risen to this success bracket.
The room where I had worked (on and off) for nearly six years lay at the far end, past the reference room and the pantry. ‘Transport’ it said, on the half-open door. I pushed it wide. Nothing had changed from Friday. The three desks looked the same as usual: Christopher’s, with thick uneven piles of papers held down by cricket balls; Maggie’s with the typewriter cover askew, carbons screwed up beside it, and a vase of dead chrysanthemums dropping petals into a scummy teacup; and mine, bare.
I hung up my coat, sat down, opened my desk drawers one by one and uselessly straightened the already tidy contents. I checked that it was precisely eight minutes to nine by my accurate watch, which made the office clock two minutes slow. After this activity I stared straight ahead unseeingly at the calendar on the pale green wall.
A spoilt bad-tempered bastard, my sister said.
I didn’t like it. I was not bad-tempered, I assured myself defensively. I was not. But my thoughts carried no conviction. I decided to break with tradition and refrain from reminding Maggie that I found her slovenly habits irritating.
Christopher and Maggie arrived together, laughing, at ten past nine.
‘Hullo,’ said Christopher cheerfully, hanging up his coat. ‘I see you lost on Saturday.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed.
‘Better luck next time,’ said Maggie automatically, blowing the sodden petals out of the cup on to the floor. I bit my tongue to keep it still. Maggie picked up the vase and made for the pantry, scattering petals as she went. Presently she came back with the vase, fumbled it, and left a dripping trail of Friday’s tea across my desk. In silence I took some white blotting paper from the drawer, mopped up the spots, and threw the blotting paper in the waste basket. Christopher watched in sardonic amusement, pale eyes crinkling behind thick spectacles.
‘A short head, I believe?’ he said, lifting one of the cricket balls and going through the motions of bowling it through the window.
‘A short head,’ I agreed. All the same if it had been ten lengths, I thought sourly. You got no present for losing, whatever the margin.
‘My uncle had a fiver on you.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said formally.
Christopher pivoted on one toe and let go: the cricket ball crashed into the wall, leaving a mark. He saw me frowning at it and laughed. He had come straight into the office from Cambridge two months before, robbed of a cricket blue through deteriorating eyesight and having failed his finals into the bargain. He remained always in better spirits than I, who had suffered no similar reverses. We tolerated each other. I found it difficult, as always, to make friends, and he had given up trying.
Maggie came back from the pantry, sat down at her desk, took her nail varnish out of the stationery drawer and began brushing on the silvery pink. She was a large assured girl from Surbiton with a naturally unkind tongue and a suspect talent for registering remorse immediately after the barbs were securely in.
The cricket ball slipped out of Christopher’s hand and rolled across Maggie’s desk. Lunging after it, he brushed one of his heaps of letters into a fluttering muddle on the floor, and the ball knocked over Maggie’s bottle of varnish, which scattered pretty pink viscous blobs all over the ‘We have r
‘God-damn,’ said Christopher with feeling.
Old Cooper who dealt with insurance came into the room at his doddery pace and looked at the mess with cross disgust and pinched nostrils. He held out to me the sheaf of papers he had brought.
‘Your pigeon, Henry. Fix it up for the earliest possible.’
As he turned to go he said to Christopher and Maggie in a complaining voice certain to annoy them, ‘Why can’t you two be as efficient as Henry? He’s never late, he’s never untidy, his work is always correct and always done on time. Why don’t you try to be more like him?’
I winced inwardly and waited for Maggie’s inevitable retaliation. She would be in good form: it was Monday morning.
‘I wouldn’t want to be like Henry in a thousand years,’ she said sharply. ‘He’s a prim, dim, sexless nothing. He’s not alive.’
Not my day, definitely.
‘He rides those races, though,’ said Christopher in mild defence.
‘And if he fell off and broke both his legs, all he’d care about would be seeing they got the bandages straight.’
‘The bones,’ I said.
‘The bones straight.’
Christopher blinked and laughed. ‘Well, well, what do you know? The still waters of Henry might just possibly be running deep.’
‘Deep, nothing,’ said Maggie. ‘A stagnant pond, more like.’
‘Slimy and smelly?’ I suggested.
‘No … oh dear … I mean, I’m sorry …’
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Never mind.’ I looked at the paper in my hand and picked up the telephone.
‘Henry …’ said Maggie desperately. ‘I didn’t mean it.’
Old Cooper tut-tutted and doddered away along the passage, and Christopher began sorting his varnished letters. I got through to Yardman Transport and asked for Simon Searle. ‘Four yearlings from the Newmarket sales to go to Buenos Aires as soon as possible,’ I said.
‘There might be a delay.’
‘We’ve lost Peters.’
‘Careless,’ I remarked.
‘Has he left?’
Simon hesitated perceptibly. ‘It looks like it.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘He didn’t come back from one of the trips. Last Monday. Just never turned up for the flight back, and hasn’t been seen or heard of since.’
‘Hospitals?’ I said.
‘We checked those, of course. And the morgue, and the jail. Nothing. He just vanished. And as he hasn’t done anything wrong the police aren’t interested in finding him. No police would be, it isn’t criminal to leave your job without notice. They say he fell for a girl, very likely, and decided not to go home.’
‘Is he married?’
‘No.’ He sighed. ‘Well, I’ll get on with your yearlings, but I can’t give you even an approximate date.’
‘Simon,’ I said slowly. ‘Didn’t something like this happen before?’
‘Er … do you mean Ballard?’
‘One of your liaison men,’ I said.
‘Yes. Well … I suppose so.’
‘In Italy?’ I suggested gently.
There was a short silence the other end. ‘I hadn’t thought of it,’ he said. ‘Funny coincidence. Well … I’ll let you know about the yearlings.’
‘I’ll have to get on to Clarksons if you can’t manage it.’
He sighed. ‘I’ll do my best. I’ll ring you back tomorrow.’
I put down the receiver and started on a large batch of customs declarations, and the long morning disintegrated towards the lunch hour. Maggie and I said nothing at all to each other and Christopher cursed steadily over his letters. At one sharp I beat even Maggie in the rush to the door.
Outside, the December sun was shining. On impulse I jumped on to a passing bus, got off at Marble Arch, and walked slowly through the park to the Serpentine. I was still there, sitting on a bench, watching the sun ripple on the water, when the hands on my watch read two o’clock. I was still there at half past. At a quarter to three I threw some stones with force into the lake, and a park keeper told me not to.
A spoilt bad-tempered bastard. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she had been used to saying things like that, but she was a gentle see-no-evil person who had been made to wash her mouth out with soap for swearing as a child and had never taken the risk again. She was my youngest sister, fifteen years my elder, unmarried, plain, and quietly intelligent. She had reversed roles with our parents: she ran the house and managed them as her children. She also to a great extent managed me, and always had.
A repressed, quiet, ‘good’ little boy I had been: and a quiet, withdrawn, secretive man I had become. I was almost pathologically tidy and methodical, early for every appointment, controlled alike in behaviour, hand-writing and sex. A prim dim nothing, as Maggie said. The fact that for some months now I had not felt in the least like that inside was confusing, and getting more so.
I looked up into the blue gold-washed sky. Only there, I thought with a fleeting inward smile, only there am I my own man. And perhaps in steeplechases. Perhaps there too, sometimes.
She had been waiting for me as usual at breakfast, her face fresh from her early walk with the dogs. I had seen little of her over the week end: I’d been racing on Saturday, and on Sunday I’d left home before breakfast and gone back late.
‘Where did you go yesterday?’ she asked.
I poured some coffee and didn’t answer. She was used to that, however.
‘Mother wanted to speak to you.’
‘She has asked the Filyhoughs to lunch next Sunday.’
I tidily ate my bacon and egg. I said calmly, ‘That coy spotty Angela. It’s a waste of time. I won’t be here anyway.’
‘Angela will inherit half a million,’ she said earnestly.
‘And we have beetles in the roof,’ I agreed dryly.
‘Mother wants to see you married.’
‘Only to a very rich girl.’
My sister acknowledged that this was true, but saw nothing particularly wrong in it. The family fortunes were waning: as my parents saw it, the swop of a future title for a future fortune was a suitable bargain. They didn’t seem to realise that a rich girl nowadays had more sense than to hand over her wealth to her husband, and could leave with it intact if she felt like it.
‘Mother told Angela you would be here.’
‘That was silly of her.’
‘I do not like Angela,’ I said coldly. ‘I do not intend to be here for lunch next Sunday. Is that quite clear?’
‘But you must … you can’t leave me to deal with them all alone.’
‘You’ll just have to restrain Mother from issuing these stupid invitations. Angela is the umpteenth unattractive heiress she’s invited this year. I’m fed up with it.’
‘We need …’
‘I am not,’ I said stiffly, ‘a prostitute.’
She stood up, bitterly offended. ‘That’s unkind.’
‘And while we are at it, I wish the beetles good luck. This damp decaying pile of a house eats up every penny we’ve got and if it fell down tomorrow we’d all be far better off.’
‘It’s our home,’ she said, as if that was the final word.
When it was mine, I would get rid of it; but I didn’t say that, and encouraged by my silence she tried persuasion. ‘Henry, please be here for the Filyhoughs.’
‘No,’ I said forcefully. ‘I won’t. I want to do something else next Sunday. You can count me right out.’
She suddenly and completely lost her temper. Shaking she said, ‘I cannot stand much more of your damned autistic behaviour. You’re a spoilt, bad-tempered bastard …’
Hell, I thought by the Serpentine, was I really? And if so, why?
At three, with the air growing cold,
At one end of the wharf, on an old bombed site, a small square concrete building had been thrown up shortly after the war and shoddily maintained ever since. Its drab walls, striped by rust from leaking gutters, badly needed a coat of ‘Snowcem’; its rectangular metal windows were grimed and flaking, and no one had polished the brass door fittings since my previous visit six months ago. There was no need here to put on a plushy front for the customers; the customers were not expected to come.
I walked up the uncarpeted stairs, across the eight foot square of linoleumed landing and through the open door of Simon Searle’s room. He looked up from some complicated doodling on a memo pad, lumbered to his feet and greeted me with a huge handshake and a wide grin. As he was the only person who ever gave me this sort of welcome I came as near to unbending with him as with anyone. But we had never done more than meet now and again on business and occasionally repair to a pub afterwards. There he was inclined to lots of beer and bonhomie, and I to a single whisky, and that was that.
‘You haven’t trekked all the way down here about those yearlings?’ he protested. ‘I told you …’
‘No,’ I said, coming to the point abruptly. ‘I came to find out if Yardman would give me a job.’
‘You,’ said Simon, ‘want to work here?’
‘Well I’m damned.’ Simon sat down on the edge of his desk and his bulk settled and spread comfortably around him. He was a vast shambling man somewhere in the doldrums between thirty-five and forty-five, bald on top, bohemian, in dress and broad of mind.
‘Why, for God’s sake?’ he said, looking me up and down. A more thorough contrast than me in my charcoal worsted to him in his baggy green corduroys would have been hard to find.
‘I need a change.’
‘For the worse?’ He was sardonic.
‘Of course not. And I’d like the chance of a bit of globe-trotting now and then.’
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