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Mrs Kerry Sanders looked like no Angel of Death.
Mrs Kerry Sanders looked like a rich cross American lady opening a transparent umbrella against a spatter of cold rain.
‘This,’ she said in disbelief, ‘Is Ascot goddam Sales?’
She was small and exquisitely packaged in suede with mink trimmings. Her skin put peaches to rout and her scent easily prevailed over British October weather and a hundred nearby horses. With forty years behind her she wore assurance as naturally as diamonds; and she wore diamonds like crusty knuckle-dusters across the base of all her fingers.
‘Ascot?’ she said, her voice brimming with overtones of silk hats, champagne and Royal Lawns, ‘This depressing dump?’
‘I did try to warn you,’ I said with mild apology.
She gave me a sharp unfriendly glance. ‘You didn’t say it was like something out of Dickens.’
I looked across at the primitive sale ring: eight metres in diameter, open to the skies. A patch of rough field grass in the centre encircled by an asphalt path for the horses to walk on, and surrounding that, for the comfort of the customers, an elementary wooden shelter, backed and roofed with planks.
Plans for a bright new tomorrow were already past the drawing board stage, but on that day the future warm brick building with civilised armchairs was still a twinkle in the architect’s eye. The only available seating was a six inch wide wooden shelf running round the inside wall of the shelter at hip height, upon which few people ever rested for long owing to the local numbness it induced.
Throughout the sale ring’s wooden O the wind whistled with enthusiasm, but it was just possible when it was raining to find dry patches if you beat everyone else to them first.
‘It used to be worse,’ I said.
‘There used to be no shelter at all.’
She diagnosed the amusement in my voice and if anything it made her more annoyed.
‘It’s all very well for you. You’re used to a rough life.’
‘Yes… Well,’ I said. ‘Do you want to see this horse?’
‘Now that I’m here,’ she said grudgingly.
To one side of the sale ring, and built to a specification as Upstairs as the wooden circle was Downstairs, was a magnificent turn of the century stable yard, paved and tidy, with rows of neat-doored boxes round a spacious quadrangle. There was intricate stone carving on the arches into the yard, and charming little ventilation turrets along the roofs, and Mrs Kerry Sanders began to look more secure about the whole excursion.
The horses stabled in these prime quarters were in general those offered for sale last on the programme. Unfortunately the horse she had insisted on inspecting before I bought it for her came earlier and with a small sigh I wheeled her round in the opposite direction.
Thunder clouds immediately gathered again in the blue-green eyes, and two vertical lines appeared sharply between her eyebrows. Before her lay an expanse of scrubby wet grass with rows of functional black wooden stabling on the far side. The rain fell suddenly more heavily on the shiny umbrella, and the fine-grained leather of her boots was staining dark and muddy round the edges.
‘It’s too much,’ she said.
I simply waited. She was there by her own choice, and I had used absolutely no pressure for or against.
‘I guess I can see it in the ring,’ she said, which was no way to buy a horse. ‘How long before they sell it?’
‘About an hour.’
‘Then let’s get out of this goddam rain.’
The alternative to the open air was the moderately new wooden building housing coffee urns at one end and a bar at the other. The Sanders nose wrinkled automatically at the press of damp humanity within, and I noticed, as one does when seeing through the eyes of visitors, that the board floor was scattered more liberally than usual with discarded plastic drinking cups and the wrappers from the sandwiches.
‘Gin,’ Kerry Sanders said belligerently without waiting to be asked.
I gave her a brief meant-to-be-encouraging smile and joined the scrum to the bar. Someone slopped beer down my sleeve and the man in front of me bought five assorted drinks and argued about his change: there had to be better ways, I thought resignedly, of passing Wednesday afternoons.
‘Jonah,’ said a voice in my ear. ‘Not like you, chum, to chase the booze.’
I glanced back to where Kerry Sanders sat at a small table looking disgusted. The other eyes at my shoulder followed in her direction and the voice chuckled lewdly. ‘Some lay,’ he said.
‘That chicken,’ I said, ‘is a customer.’
‘Oh sure. Sure.’ The hasty retreat from offence, the placatory grin, the old-pals slap on the shoulder, I disliked them all yet was aware they
were only the desperate papering over no self-confidence. I had known him for years and we had jumped many a fence alongside: Jiminy Bell, one-time steeplechase jockey, currently drifting around horse places hoping for hand-outs. Where, but for the grace…
‘Drink?’ I suggested, and pitied the brightening eyes.
‘Brandy,’ he said. ‘Large, if you could.’
I gave him a treble and a fiver. He took both with the usual mix of shame and bravado, consoling himself inwardly with the conviction that I could afford it.
‘What do you know of the Ten Trees Stud?’ he asked, which was much like asking what one knew of the Bank of England. ‘I’ve been offered a job there.’
If it had been a good job, he wouldn’t be asking my opinion. I said, ‘What as?’
‘Assistant.’ He made a face over the brandy, not from the taste but from the realities of life. ‘Assistant stud groom,’ he said.
I paused. It wasn’t much.
‘Better than nothing, perhaps.’
‘Do you think so?’ he asked earnestly.
‘It’s what you are,’ I said. ‘Not what you do.’
He nodded gloomily, and I wondered if he were thinking as I was that it was really what you had been that mattered when you came face to face with the future. Without his ten years as a name in the sports pages he would have settled happily for what he now saw as disgrace.
Through a gap in the crowd I saw Kerry Sanders staring at me crossly and tapping her fingers on the table.
‘See you,’ I said to Jiminy Bell. ‘Let me know how you get on.’
I elbowed back to the lady. Gin and jollying softened the Sales’ impact and eventually she recovered some of the fizz with which she had set out from London in my car. We had come to buy a steeplechaser as a gift for a young man, and she had made it delicately clear that it was not the young man himself that she was attached to, but his father. Pre-marital negotiations, I gathered, were in an advanced stage, but she had been reticent about names. She had been recommended to me, and me to her, by a mutual American acquaintance, a bloodstock agent called Pauli Teksa, and until two days earlier I had not known of her existence. Since then, she had filled my telephone.
‘He will like it, don’t you think?’ she asked now for the seventh or eighth time, seeking admiration more than reassurance.
‘It’s a fantastic present,’ I said obligingly, and wondered if the young man would accept it cynically or with joy. I hoped for her sake he would understand she wanted to please him more than bribe him, even if a bit of both.
‘I think,’ I said, ‘that I ought to go over and take a quick look at the horse before it comes into the ring, just to make sure it hasn’t bowed any tendons or grown any warts since I saw it last.’
She glanced out at the rain. ‘I’ll stay here.’
I squelched down to the drab old stables and found Box 126 with Lot 126 duly inside, shifting around on his straw and looking bored. Lot 126 was a five-year-old hurdler which someone with a macabre sense of humour had named Hearse Puller, and in a way one could see why. Glossy dark brown all over, he was slightly flashy looking, holding his head high as if preening. All he needed was a black plume on his head and he’d have been fine for Victorian trips to the cemetery.
Kerry Sanders had stipulated that her gift should be a young good-looking past winner, with cast-iron future prospects. Also that in all its races it should never have fallen. Also that it should be of a calibre pleasing to the father even though it was to be given to the son. Also that it should be interesting, well bred, sensible, brave, bursting with health and keen to race: in short, the perfect chaser. Also that it should be bought by Friday which was the young man’s birthday. Also it should cost no more than six or seven thousand dollars.
That had been the gist of her first call to me on Monday afternoon. She had conceived the idea of the gift at two o’clock, found my name by two-ten, and talked to me by two-twenty. She saw no reason why I should not put the same sort of hustle on and seemed delighted when I suggested Ascot Sales. Which was, of course, before she went there.
No one buys the perfect novice steeplechaser for seven thousand dollars. Most of my time since Monday had been taken both by persuading her to settle for a fifty per cent reduction on perfection and by searching through the Ascot catalogue for a cut-price paragon. I had come up finally with Hearse Puller, knowing that she would object to the name. It had no breeding to speak of but I had seen it race and knew it had guts, which was half the battle, and it was trained by a nervy trainer which meant it might do better somewhere more relaxed.
I felt the Hearse Puller legs and peered at the tonsils and went back and told Kerry Sanders that her money was on the way.
‘You think we’ll get him, then?’ she asked.
‘As long as no one else wants him very badly.’
‘Do you think they will?’
‘Can’t tell,’ I said, and wondered how many times every year I had this same conversation. Nothing warned me there was anything different this time.
The rain had slackened to drizzle by the time we went over to the ring but even so it was difficult to find room for Kerry Sanders in a dry spot. No one in the rain-coated assembly looked much except miserable. They stood with hunched shoulders, coat collars turned up, hands in pockets, the usual collection of bloodstock agents, racehorse trainers, breeders and hopeful would-be purchasers all out on the same trail of winners and loot.
Lot 122, a sad looking chestnut, plodded round the asphalt path and failed to reach his reserve despite the auctioneer’s cajoling. I told Kerry Sanders I would be back in a minute, and went to watch 126 being led round in the collecting ring as he waited his turn. He carried himself well enough but he looked a little too excited and I thought that the rain was probably hiding the fact that he was sweating.
‘You interested in that black peacock?’ said a voice at my shoulder, and there again was Jiminy Bell, following the direction of my eyes and giving me the benefit of the treble brandy at close quarters.
‘Not specially,’ I said, and knew he couldn’t have read anything from my face. Nothing like bloodstock dealing for encouraging an expression to make poker players look indiscreet.
Hearse Puller pranced past and I switched my attention to 127 coming along next.
‘Now that one,’ Jiminy said approvingly. ‘Bit of class there.’
I grunted noncommittally and turned towards him. He made way for me with a half-aggressive half-ingratiating smile, a short man with greying hair, deeply wrinkled skin, and teeth too good to be true. Four or five years out of the saddle had put weight on him like a padded coat and all his past pride in being able to do a job well had evaporated from his general carriage and the way he held his head. But feel sorry for him as I might, I had no intention of telling him in advance in which direction my interest lay: he was well into the stage of trotting off with the news to the vendor and asking a commission for bidding the price up high.
‘I’m waiting for number one four two,’ I said, and as soon as I walked off he started busily looking it up in the catalogue. When I glanced briefly back he was staring after me in amazement so I looked up 142 out of curiosity and found it was a crib-biting point-to-pointer still a maiden at ten.
Laughing inwardly I rejoined Kerry Sanders and watched the determined auctioneer wring twelve hundred pounds out of the U.K. Bloodstock Agency for the sinewy chestnut mare who was Lot 125. As she was led out I felt Kerry Sanders stir beside me with her intentions showing to all and sundry like a flourish of trumpets. Inexperienced customers always did this if they came to the sales and it cost them a good deal of money.
Hearse Puller was led into the ring and the auctioneer checked his number against his notes.
‘Bit on the leg,’ a man behind us said disparagingly.
‘Is that bad?’ Kerry Sanders asked anxiously, overhearing.
‘It means his legs are long in propor
tion to his body. It’s not ideal, but some good chasers are like that.’
Hearse Puller tossed his head and regarded the scene with eyes filled with alarm, a sign of waywardness which made me wonder if that were the basic reason for selling him.
Kerry Sanders’ anxiety grew a little.
‘Do you think he’ll be able to manage him?’
‘His new owner, of course. He looks damn wild.’
The auctioneer began his spiel, reeling off the gelding’s origins and history. ‘Who’ll start me at a thousand? A thousand anywhere? Come along now, he’d look cheap at that wouldn’t he? A thousand? Well, five hundred then. Someone start me at five hundred…’
I said to Kerry Sanders, ‘Do you mean the young man is going to ride him himself? In races?’
‘You didn’t tell me that.’
‘Didn’t I?’ She knew she hadn’t.
‘Why didn’t you, for heaven’s sake?’
‘Five hundred,’ said the auctioneer. ‘Thank you sir. Five hundred I have. That’s nowhere near his value. Come along now. Five hundred. Six. Thank you sir. Six… Seven… Eight… against you sir…’
‘I just…’ She hesitated, then said, ‘What difference does it make?’
‘Is he an amateur?’
She nodded. ‘But he’s got what it takes.’
Hearse Puller was no armchair ride and I would be doing my job badly if I bought him for the sort of amateur who bumped around half fit. The customer’s insistence on the horse never having fallen suddenly made a lot of sense.
‘Twelve hundred. Fourteen. Against you at the back, sir. Fourteen. Come along now, you’re losing him…’
‘You’ll have to tell me who it’s for,’ I said.
She shook her head.
‘If you don’t, I won’t buy it for you,’ I said, trying with a smile to take the discourtesy out of the words.
She stared at me. ‘I can buy it myself.’
The auctioneer was warming up. ‘Eighteen… can I make it two thousand? Two thousand, thank you sir. Selling all the time now. Two thousand… against you in front… Shall I say two thousand two? Two thousand one… thank you sir. Two thousand one… Two… Three…’