Rick woke up, rolled over, and collided with something solid. Stretching out a shaking hand, he opened his eyes. He was facing the oak tree in the front garden. Rainwater dripped onto him from the branches. A moment of calm, then images of the night before tried to shove their feet in the doorway of his memory. He groaned, and tried to get up.
Francine stuck her head out of the bedroom window, her mouth pursed up like a cat’s backside. She was saying something he couldn’t hear. Touching his ear, he looked up at her and shrugged his shoulders: no hearing aid. Rick clenched his right fist and rubbed it in a circle on his upper chest:
Francine didn’t understand sign language but it couldn’t do any harm. Bit like praying, really.
He’d only recently got this new hearing aid, and it wouldn’t stay in properly whatever he did. In these days of health cuts, would they give him another? The best cost thousands, if you went private. He’d been paid last week but was still overdrawn. And only another £500 to spend on the credit card.
Francine tiptoed round the puddles. Rick lip-read ‘pissed’, ‘knob head’ (she had her own sign for that) and ‘AGAIN’. He turned away. She walked round till she was facing him.
“Stag night. You’d better not act like that on yours. And I suppose you didn’t hear all that thunder. Silly bugger, picking the most dangerous place to lie, under a tree. Why didn’t you come in?”
“I couldn’t find the keyhole.” He could just about hear his own voice, sounding as though it came from the other side of the house, via socks stuffed in his ears. “Stop shouting—it’s impossible to lip-read. Shut up and let me get my head down. See you tomorrow. Unless I die first, please God.” He staggered into the house.
“Jeez, I can’t even do that,” he said, shaking off Francine’s hand clutching at his arm. “I’ll have to see if the hospital will give me another aid, spin them some sob story.”
“Oh no, not today,” said Francine. “Tomorrow you can go and get an ear trumpet for all I care, but in half an hour you and I are off to Aintree. It’s the Grand National, and I bust a gut getting these tickets. Remember?”
Rick held his head and groaned.
“Get out of those wet things, have a shower, put on something smart,” Francine said. “I’ll see if I can find your hearing aid out the front. Hurry up, the cab’ll be here soon.”
Rick pulled random items of clothing out of the wardrobe onto the floor, looking for something that complied with the ‘no dress code but smart is preferable’ nonsense on the Aintree website. Francine’s fancy hat was on the bed, ‘showcasing her favourite race day outfit’ (website again). Someone should tell her it made a short girl look like a hallucinogenic mushroom. Someone.
Francine came in, holding out her hand.
“It was in a puddle by the tree. Hope it never got struck by lightning. Have to let it dry naturally, like that mobile phone you dropped down the bog.”
“No time—I want to be able to hear the racing commentary. You know how it is—the horses go past in a whoosh,” he swept his arm round, the sudden movement making him stagger, “then you don’t see them till the end.”
He wiped the aid on his sleeve then inserted it, poking the soft dome on the end of the tube as far inside as it would go. It made him cough. It’d be a miracle if it worked.
“WELL?” Francine asked.
“It’s okay, stop shouting.”
“Great, maybe it’s our lucky day.” She shoved the hat onto the back of her head so that it looked like a halo and went downstairs.
Francine opened the cab door and turned ‘round. Bending her knees slightly, she shuffled backwards till she was sitting on the seat, then swung her legs inside.
“What are you doing? Trying to stop your drawers falling down?”
The driver laughed, then seeing Francine’s expression, turned it into a cough.
“Don’t show me up,” she said. ‘It’s the only way to get into a car with a skirt like-this-one.” She gave the offending garment staccato tugs as she spoke.
Rick closed the door. As he walked round the cab, a hiss came through the hearing aid. Then a high-pitched voice.
“Lamppost, lamppost, schnell, schnell!”
“What?” Rick turned round.
“Nothing, boss,” said the younger of two boys, chasing past him after a dachshund.
Hearing aid’s picking up radio now, Rick thought. Shame it’s not the racing.
The boys came back, carrying the dog between them. It stared at Rick.
“That was me, mein Herr,” said the radio voice again, “and I’m dog-tired after that run.”
You’re not the only one, Rick thought, getting into the cab and closing his eyes.
The bigger of the two lads pointed at Francine.
“Look at Lady Muck of Turd Hill!”
“Take your hat off, Fra,” Rick said.
“No chance! I paid good money for this, and I’m going to get some wear out of it. You never take me anywhere I can show it off.”
“Don’t you be minding them hardfaced little so-and-sos,” the driver said, starting the engine. “Who do you fancy in the National? Samarium?”
“No, he’s carrying too much weight,” Francine replied. “I’ve got a twenty quid each way on Algol, the favourite. Although the going’s a bit soft for him now, after that rain.”
“Yes. I’m not one of those silly buggers who pick horses just because they like the name.”
She nudged Rick. “Remember that spavined old nag you fancied at Cheltenham? Good for nothing but the glue factory.”
It was going to be a long day.
Francine and the driver debated the merits of Yankee, Trixie and Heinz bets. She’d always been good at maths—it was marvellous really, all these hard sums she could do in her head.
They arrived during the first race.
“You should put a bet on for later,” Francine said.
“No cash, and I don’t suppose these blokes take credit cards,” Rick said, inclining his head towards a bookie. “I’ve brought my Blackberry, I might do it online.”
“Well, ask me first—don’t make a mug of yourself. Let’s get something to eat.”
“Not me.” Rick leaned back in his seat and stretched out his legs. “You go, I’ll just rest my eyes for a bit.”
What felt like five minutes later, Francine shook him.
“Wake up! Eeyew, you’ve been dribbling. The National starts in 10 minutes, let’s go and watch the horses in the Parade Ring.”
Francine pointed at a black horse. “That’s mine!” She walked ‘round to the other side of the ring, following the horse.
Rick heard the hiss again, followed by voices introducing themselves.
“Combat Kid here.”
“Afternoon, Combie. Algol here.”
He didn’t think jockeys called each other by their horses’ names. And none of their lips were moving.
Rick took the hearing aid out—the voices stopped. He replaced it.
He’d have to see if the hospital could fix the stupid thing; tell them it fell into the bath or something. The voices continued.
“Fine, thanks. But the handicappers have got me dragging 9 stone ‘round today—I just can’t be bothered.”
“Same here! Mud clogging my hooves, so hard to get going. I don’t feel like anyone’s favourite today. How about you, Clarry? CLARRY!”
“Oh! You gave me a fright. And, my name’s Clarification. Perfectly good name. I just wish we could get started. I’ve been building up to this for weeks, I’m so nervy.”
“We thoroughbreds are meant to be highly strung. And we all are, don’t worry. Well, except for Iffy. Should have called him Dobbin, the plodder.”
The horses were looking at each other and nodding whenever Rick heard a voice. He must have had a very bad pint the night before. He poked the aid as far in as it would go, with the aid of his index fingernail.
“Look at him digging inside his ear, filthy creature!”
Rick whipped his finger out again and shoved his hand in his pocket. Francine was on the other side of the ring and nobody else was looking at him.
“Oh come on Clarry—sorry, Clarification, wouldn’t you love to be able to do that when you’ve got an itch? Anyway, he’s taken it out now.”
So the aid’s picking up a radio play that just happens to have characters with the same name as these horses, Rick thought, and who just happen to be talking about racing.
The other spectators were either silent, or discussing the horses.
Hearing voices was a sign of madness, he told himself, Francine wouldn’t want to know him if he’d lost it. She’d find someone else. He shuddered, trying desperately to think of another explanation.
“If I’m really picking up you horses’ thoughts, tell me somehow,” he muttered.
Nothing. Did they make hearing aids for animals?
“Corazon here. Why don’t we let Iffy win? That’ll teach all those greedy so-and-sos not to gamble.”
“Great! Shall we go the wrong way?”
“Yah, some of us. The rest can throw our men off, stuff like that. Or we could run on once we’re loose, that’d really annoy them. Daybreak can start it.”
“Great, but don’t get hurt. We don’t want anyone leaving here hooves first. You okay with that, Iffy? Just try to stay upright for once.”
A horse on the far side, with the number 6, looked up.
“Iffy here. I’m game, as long as I don’t have to gallop too fast.”
“See what I mean? You’re such a lump, Iffy. You’d never think you had any Arabian in you. Yes, you’re the horse for the job this time.”
If talking to the horses didn’t work, maybe thinking at them would. CAN YOU HEAR ME? Rick held his breath and squeezed his stomach muscles, bearing down till his face was red, trying to project his thoughts.
“Diaghilev here. Look at the ear-poking man, his face is like a beetroot. You’d almost think he could hear us!”
“Don’t be stupid. Looks more like constipation. Needs a dose of liquid paraffin.”
Francine came back.
“What’s the matter? Headache?”
“Quick! Which horse is number 6?”
Francine looked at her race card. “It’s If At First. On at 100 to 1. Forget him, he’s a carthorse.”
Rick pulled out his Blackberry and pushed the buttons that transferred £500 from his credit card to his online betting account, and from there to If At First. To win.
The horses walked down to the starting tape.
“You’ve put a bet on, haven’t you?” said Francine, grabbing the Blackberry. “If At First. I might have known—he’s 100 to 1 for a reason, you berk. How much did you put on?”
“Fifty quid. To win.”
The tape went up, and the horses ran.
“You divvy,” Francine shouted. “If you wanted to chuck fifty in the bin you should have put twenty-five on each way. Then at least you might have got six hundred and fifty if he placed. But he won’t, unless all the others drop dead.”
The horses came to the first fence.
“…and Daybreak has unseated his rider, all the rest are over,” the commentator said.
The horses cleared the next fence. And the next. On they ran, with If At First at the back. They came to the 23rd fence.
“Oh, this is remarkable!” shouted the commentator. “A loose horse called Daybreak has veered across the leading group! They’ve all stopped, or unseated their riders. Daybreak has cut down the leaders like a row of thistles. Some horses have even turned round and run the wrong way! Others have wandered off and are grazing!”
“That’s my forty quid down the drain!” Francine said.
The commentator continued, “Corazon has been hampered, and Dukeries, and Clarification; Samarium has fallen, Algol has fallen, Green Army has fallen, Diaghilev has fallen, there’s a right pile-up…and now, in all this chaos, If At First has gone off on his own! He’s in front!”
They strained to see but the horses were too far away.
“…and here is If At First, preceded only by loose horses, chased by Combat Kid but he’s 100 yards away… they’re coming to the elbow.”
A horse approached, at a slow gallop.
“Just a furlong now between If At First and a Grand National triumph! He gets a tremendous reception, I’ve never heard one like it at Liverpool…and If At First wins the National!”
For the first time in her life, Francine was speechless. Almost.
“You’ve won five thousand quid! No, I tell a lie, hang on,” she pursed her lips and looked upwards, counting on her fingers at the same time. “It’s five thousand and fifty!”
And you could add a zero to that, thought Rick. If you ever found out.
“Give me a minute before we go for the bus,” Francine said.
“Gerroff—we can do better than that. We’ll get a cab!”
She took his hand.
“What will you do with the money, love? Get a better hearing aid? You can afford top of the range, now.”
“Nah, I think I’ll hang onto this one,” Rick replied with a grin, patting his ear. “Here, Fra—do you fancy going to the dogs next week?”
JUDITH FIELD lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. She’s a pharmacist, medical writer, editor and indexer, and in 2009 she made a New Year resolution to start writing fiction and get published within the year. Pretty soon she realised how unrealistic that was but, in fact, it sort of worked: she got a slot to write a weekly column in a local paper shortly before Christmas of 2009 and that ran for several years. She still writes occasional feature articles for the paper. She has two daughters, a son, a granddaughter and a grandson. Her fiction, mainly speculative, has appeared in a variety of publications, mainly in the USA. When she’s not working or writing, she’s studying part-time for a degree in English. She speaks five languages and can say, “Please publish this story” in all of them. She blogs at www.millil.blogspot.com.