A short story by Jonathan Chamberlain
Bet 1: There were six races on the card, but running late I gave the first one a miss. True to form, the horse I would have backed romped home, or so I pretended to myself later. She was a scrawny, commonplace little thing called Helen of Troy. My ex-wife is called Helen. You see how my mind works. She was just as scrawny and commonplace, but at least the horse could run. My ex-wife couldn’t do anything very much except bitch and whine and generally make a nuisance of herself. I never saw or heard from her again, not even a letter, except one from her lawyer saying she wanted half of everything I owned. As I owned, and still own, nothing, I agreed. Though fifteen years have passed since, every so often one of the lawyer’s letters reaches me wherever I happen to be in the world: Belmont Park, Longchamp, Redcar. I used to keep them to read at night when I had had a bad day at the course and needed a good laugh. Now I just chuck them away.
Bet 2: I am not what you would call a painstaking man. In fact, what the pundits label ‘form’ bores me. So in the second race, for no better reason than my mother’s maiden name was Morgan, I backed a horse called Morgan’s Reef. It finished, needless to say, second to last, in much the same way, if I’m being entirely honest about it, that my mother’s family invariably finish in the same place. If I had a philosophy of life (which I don’t) then it would go something like this: Better to be last than second to last. Last is something. Second to last is nothing.
Bet 3: In the paddock a small chestnut filly with a sweet expression caught my eye and I went in feet first. Pebbles was her name. Nice name. Nice filly. Just the job. She finished fourth, outside the money. She didn’t look so sweet to me then, splattered in mud, sweating, chomping at the bit. I considered abusing the jockey as he unsaddled her but you can get chucked out for that sort of thing nowadays. And jockeys aren’t as small as they used to be. Still, I am a big man, and if the jockey had decided to make something of it I am confident I could have comfortably kicked the crap out of him. Except that type of behaviour doesn’t go down particularly well in the bar afterwards. ‘You did what? You beat up a defenceless little jockey? Jeessus wept, how low can you get.’
Bet 4: I had a double brandy to soften my loss and watched the rain start up again over the grey English fields. I thought of sitting this one out as I had done the first, but gamblers have a name for that: it’s called being a coward. So I put twenty quid on the favourite, which is what you do when you’ve run out of ideas or inspiration. As ever, whenever I back the favourite, it came nowhere. Not even last or second to last. Just nowhere. Silver Streak, it was called. Ha bloody ha! This time I did abuse the jockey, but only because everyone else who’d backed it was also abusing him and I could do it anonymously so to speak. The jockey jumped from the horse, turned menacingly and told us all to ‘Fuck Off’ in a Cork accent, which is, of course, what we did. I heard a man behind me say it was a disgrace and he should be reported to the Jockey Club. But then there’s always someone saying that at a racecourse. Back, as they say, to the drawing board.
Bet 5: Another double brandy, another race, only now the sun appeared briefly over the distant woods, like a watery mirage. I decided for once to forgo instinct and use my brain. Always a bad idea. So I bought a Racing Post and spent twenty minutes scrutinizing the form of each horse in the next race, trying to make it look like I knew what I was doing. As if anyone cared! The thing that strikes me when I’m at a race meeting is that it is a collective effort but everyone seems almost supernaturally alone, locked, with the horse, in a dour, symbiotic battle of wills. But the universe, and, of course, horses, are resistant to human will and know only facts. The fact being, in this case, that after all my analysis I chose a horse called Riddings Meadow who came in sixth.
Bet 6: The last race of the day and nothing to show. I had been here too many times before to panic. But panic, strangely, is what I did. Now, in the English fashion, the sun shone brightly and it began to thrash with rain. A vast rainbow appeared over the course from start to finish. Surely, I heard someone say, an omen, and finding a nice secluded corner I took out my metaphorical pin and plunged it into the Racing Post. The horse it pricked was called Goodbye Helen, too much of a coincidence I decided to take seriously and I was on the verge of striking again when I thought what the hell, skipped over to the Tote window and stuck fifty quid on her nose. Then I watched as she stormed home, the little darling, by five lengths. As the jockey jumped off, I noticed it was the same one I had abused earlier, the one who told me, and everyone else, to Fuck Off. This time he just looked bored. I wanted to kiss him, and if it were possible to propose marriage to a horse I would have done so there and then. It was only later, as I celebrated my win in the racecourse bar, that I realised my ex-wife had never really gone away and remained camped tenaciously in my heart like an unwanted tenant.
Jonathan Chamberlain lives and works in Ludlow, Shropshire. His fiction has been published in the London Magazine and Panurge among others. He has also written and published two guides to the internet. He is putting together a collection of longer short stories, Bread or Byzantium?, as well as a novel, The Paddington Basin.