Reflex, p.1Dick Francis
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A JOVE Book / published by arrangement with the author
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Copyright © 1981 by Dick Francis
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Electronic Edition: September, 2003
Titles by Dick Francis
FIELD OF THIRTEEN
10 LB. PENALTY
TO THE HILT
COME TO GRIEF
A JOCKEY’S LIFE
IN THE FRAME
THE SPORT OF QUEENS
My thanks to the
who made me the puzzles
Winded and coughing, I lay on one elbow and spat out a mouthful of grass and mud. The horse I’d been riding raised its weight off my ankle, scrambled untidily to its feet and departed at an unfeeling gallop. I waited for things to settle: chest heaving, bones still rattling from the bang, sense of balance recovering from a thirty-mile-an-hour somersault and a few tumbling rolls. No harm done. Nothing broken. Just another fall.
Time and place: sixteenth fence, three-mile steeplechase, Sandown Park racecourse, Friday, November, in thin, cold, persistent rain. At the return of breath and energy I stood wearily up and thought with intensity that this was a damn silly way for a grown man to be spending his life.
The thought itself was a jolt. Not one I’d ever thought before. Riding horses at high speed over various jumps was the only way I knew of making a living, and it was a job one couldn’t do if one’s heart wasn’t in it. The chilling flicker of disillusion nudged like the first twinge of toothache, unexpected, unwelcome, an uneasy hint of possible trouble.
I repressed it without much alarm. Reassured myself that I loved the life, of course I did, the way I always had. Believed quite easily that nothing was wrong except the weather, the fall, the lost race . . . minor, everyday stuff, business as usual.
Squelching uphill to the stands in paper-thin racing boots unsuitable for hiking I thought only and firmly about the horse I’d started out on, sorting out what I might and might not say to its trainer. Discarded “How do you expect it to jump if you don’t school it properly?” in favor of “The experience will do him good.” Thought better of “useless, panicky, hard-mouthed, underfed dog,” and decided on “might try him in blinkers.” The trainer, anyway, would blame me for the fall and tell the owner I’d misjudged the pace. He was that sort of trainer. Every crash was a pilot error.
I thanked heaven in a mild way that I didn’t ride often for that stable, and had been engaged on that day only because Steve Millace, its usual jockey, had gone to his father’s funeral. Spare rides, even with disaster staring up from the form books, were not lightly to be turned down. Not if you needed the money, which I did. And not if, like me, you needed your name up on the number boards as often as possible, to show you were useful and wanted and there.
The only good thing, I supposed, about my descent at the fence was that Steve Millace’s father hadn’t been there to record it. George Millace, pitiless photographer of moments all jockeys preferred to ignore, was safe in his box and approximately at that moment being lowered underground to his long sleep. And good riddance, I thought uncharitably. Goodbye to the snide sneering pleasure George got from delivering to owners the irrefutable evidence of their jockeys’ failings. Goodbye to the motorized camera catching at three-and-a-half frames per second one’s balance in the wrong place, one’s arms in the air, one’s face in the mud.
Where other sports photographers played fair and shot you winning from time to time, George trafficked exclusively in ignominy and humiliation. George was a natural-born dragger-down. Newspapers might mourn the passing of his snigger-raising pictures, but there had been little sorrow in the changing room the day Steve told us his father had driven into a tree.
Out of liking for Steve himself, no one had said much. He had listened to the silence, though, and he knew. He had been anxiously defending his father for years; and he knew.
Trudging back in the rain it seemed odd to me still that we wouldn’t actually be seeing George Millace again. His image, too familiar for too long, rose sharply in the mind: bright clever eyes, long nose, drooping moustache, twisted mouth sourly smiling. A terrific photographer, one had to admit, with an exceptional talent for anticipation and timing, his lens always pointing in the right direction at the right moment. A comic, too, in his way, showing me less than a week ago a black-and-white glossy of me taking a dive, nose to ground, bottom up, with a caption written on the back: “Philip Nore, arse high to a grasshopper.” One would have laughed but for the genuine ill will which had prompted his humor. One might have at least tolerated his debunking approach but for the cruelty sliding out of his eyes. He had been a mental thrower of banana skins, lying in wait to scoff at the hurt; and he would be missed with thankfulness.
When I finally reached the shelter of the verandah outside the weighing room, the trainer and owner were waiting there with the expected accusing expressions.
“Misjudged things pretty badly, didn’t you?” said the trainer aggressively.
“He took off a stride too soon.”
“Your job to put him right.”
“Might try him in blinkers,” I said.
“I’ll decide about that,” said the trainer sharply.
“Not hurt, are you?” asked the owner timidly.
I shook my head. The trainer brusquely stamped on this humane jockey-oriented enquiry and wheeled his money-source away from the danger that I might say something truthful about why the horse wouldn’t jump when asked. I watched them go without rancor and turned towards the weighing-room door.
“I say,” said a young man, stepping in front of me, “are you Philip Nore?”
“Well . . . could I have a word with you?”
He was about twenty-five, tall as a stork and earnest, with office-colored skin. Charcoal flannel suit, striped tie, no binoculars, and no air of belonging where he stood, in the business-only section of the racecourse.
“Sure,” I said. “If you’ll wait while I check with the doctor and get into something dry.”
“Doctor?” He looked alarmed.
“Oh, routine. After a fall. I shan’t be long.”
When I went out again, warmed and in street clothes, he was still waiting; and he was more or less alone on the verandah, as nearly everyone else had gone to watch the last race, already in progress.
“I . . . er . . . my name is Jeremy Folk.” He produced a card from inside the charcoal jacket and held it out to me. I took it, and read:
Folk, Langley, Son and Folk.
Solicitors. Address in St. Albans, Hertfordshire.
“That last folk,” said Jeremy, pointing diffidently, “is me.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
He gave me an anxious half-smile and cleared his throat.
“I’ve been sent . . . er . . . I’ve come to ask you to . . . er . . .” He stopped, looking helpless and not in the least like a solicitor.
“To what?” I said encouragingly.
“They said you wouldn’t like . . . but well . . . I’ve been sent to ask you . . . er . . .”
“Do get on with it,” I said.
“To come and see your grandmother.” The words came out in a nervous rush, and he seemed relieved to be rid of them.
“No,” I said.
He scanned my face and seemed to take heart from its calmness.
“She’s dying,” he said. “And she wants to see you.”
Death all around, I thought. George Millace and my mother’s mother. Negative grief in both cases.
“Did you hear?” he said.
“Now, then? I mean, today?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not going.”
“But you must.” He looked troubled. “I mean . . . she’s old . . . and she’s dying . . . and she wants you . . .”
“And if I don’t persuade you, my uncle . . . that’s Son . . .” He pointed to the card again, getting flustered. “Er. Folk is my grandfather and Langley is my great-uncle, and . . . er . . . they sent me . . .” He swallowed. “They think I’m frightfully useless, to be honest.”
“And that’s blackmail,” I said.
A faint glint in his eyes told me that he wasn’t basically as silly as he made out.
“I don’t want to see her,” I said.
“But she is dying.”
“Have you yourself seen her . . . dying?”
“Er . . . no. . .”
“I’ll bet she isn’t. If she wants to see me, she would say she was dying just to fetch me, because she’d guess nothing else would.”
He looked shocked. “She’s seventy-eight, after all.”
I looked gloomily out at the nonstop rain. I had never met my grandmother and I didn’t want to, dying or dead. I didn’t approve of deathbed repentances, last-minute insurances at the gates of hell. It was too damned late.
“The answer,” I said, “is still no.”
He shrugged dispiritedly and seemed to give up. Walked a few steps out into the rain, bareheaded, vulnerable, with no umbrella. Turned around after ten paces and came tentatively back again.
“Look . . . she really needs you, my uncle says.” He was as earnest, as intense, as a missionary. “You can’t just let her die.”
“Where is she?” I said.
He brightened. “In a nursing home.” He fished in another pocket. “I’ve got the address. But I’ll lead you there, straight away, if you’ll come. It’s in St. Albans. You live in Lambourn, don’t you? So it isn’t so terribly far out of your way, is it? I mean, not a hundred miles, or anything like that.”
“A good fifty, though.”
“Well . . . I mean . . . you always do drive around an awful lot.”
I sighed. The options were rotten. A choice between meek capitulation or stony rejection. Both unpalatable. That she had dished out to me stony rejection from my birth gave me no excuse, I supposed, for doing it to her at her death. Also I could hardly go on smugly despising her, as I had done for years, if I followed her example. Irritating, that.
The winter afternoon was already fading, with electric lights growing brighter by the minute, shining fuzzily through the rain. I thought of my empty cottage; of nothing much to fill the evening: of two eggs, a piece of cheese and black coffee for supper; of wanting to eat more and not doing so. If I went, I thought, it would at least take my mind off food, and anything which helped with the perennial fight against weight couldn’t be wholly bad. Not even meeting my grandmother.
“All right,” I said, resignedly. “Lead on.”
The old woman sat upright in bed staring at me, and if she was dying it wasn’t going to be on that evening, for sure. The life force was strong in the dark eyes and there was no mortal weakness in her voice.
“Philip,” she said, making it a statement and looking me up and down.
The explosive sound contained both triumph and contempt and was everything I would have expected. Her ramrod will had devastated my childhood and done worse damage to her own daughter, and there was to be, I was relieved to see, no maudlin plea for forgiveness. Rejection, even if in a moderated form, was still in operation.
“I knew you’d come running,” she said, “when you heard about the money.” As a cold sneer it was pretty unbeatable.
“The hundred thousand pounds, of course.”
“No one,” I said, “has mentioned any money.”
“Don’t lie. Why else would you come?”
“They said you were dying.”
She gave me a startled and malevolent flash of the eyes and a baring of teeth which had nothing to do with smiling. “So I am. So are we all.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and all at the same rate. One day at a time.”
She was no one’s idea of a sweet little pink-cheeked grannie. A strong stubborn face with disapproval lines cut deep around the mouth. Iron gray hair still vigorous, clean and well shaped. Blotchy freckles of age showing brown on an otherwise pale skin, and dark ridged veins on the backs of the hands. A thin woman, almost gaunt; and tall, as far as I could judge.
The large room where she lay was furnished more as a sitting room with a bed in it than as a hospital room, which was all of a piece with what I’d seen of the place on the way in. A country house put to new use: hotel with nurses. Carpets everywhere, long chintz curtains, armchairs for visitors, vases of flowers. Gracious dying, I thought.
“I instructed Mr. Folk,” she said, “to make you the offer.”
I reflected. “Young Mr. Folk? About twenty-five? Jeremy?”
“Of course not.” She was impatient. “Mr. Folk, my solicitor. I told him to get you here. And he did. Here you are.”
“He sent his grandson.”
I turned away from her and sat unasked i
My grandmother stared at me steadily with no sign of affection, and I stared as steadily back. I disliked her certainty that she could buy me. I was repelled by her contempt, and mistrusted her intentions.
“I will leave you a hundred thousand pounds in my will, upon certain conditions,” she said.
“No, you won’t,” I said.
“I beg your pardon?” Icy voice, stony look.
“I said no. No money. No conditions.”
“You haven’t heard my proposition.”
I said nothing. I felt, in fact, the first stirrings of curiosity, but I was definitely not going to let her see it. Since she seemed in no hurry, the silence lengthened. More stocktaking on her part, perhaps. Simple patience on mine. One thing my haphazard upbringing had given me was an almost limitless capacity for waiting. Waiting for people to come, who didn’t; and for promises to be fulfilled, that weren’t.
Finally she said, “You’re taller than I expected. And tougher.”
I waited some more.
“Where is your mother?” she said.
My mother, her daughter. “Scattered on the winds,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I think she’s dead.”
“Think!” She looked more annoyed than anxious. “Don’t you know?”
“She didn’t exactly write to me to say she’d died; no.”
“Your flippancy is disgraceful.”
“Your behavior since before my birth,” I said, “gives you no right to say so.”
She blinked. Her mouth opened, and stayed open for fully five seconds. Then it shut tight with rigid muscles showing along the jaw, and she stared at me darkly in a daunting mixture of fury and ferocity. I saw, in that expression, what my poor young mother had had to face, and felt a great uprush of sympathy for the feckless butterfly who’d borne me.
There had been a day, when I was quite small, that I had been dressed in new clothes and told to be exceptionally good as I was going with my mother to see my grandmother. My mother had collected me from where I was living and we had traveled by car to a large house, where I was left alone in the hall, to wait. Behind a white-painted closed door there had been a lot of shouting. Then my mother had come out, crying, and had grabbed me by the hand, and pulled me after her to the car.
Reflex by Dick Francis / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes