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Pulling in One’s Horse as He Is Leaping
Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, took the stairs two at a time, a tin of Erinmore Flake in one hand, and went straight into the upstairs lounge at Number One Main to pour himself a Jameson. As he unscrewed the cap from the bottle, the extension phone rang. “I’m home from the tobacconist, Kitty,” he yelled in his best quarterdeck voice. “I’ll answer it.”
“All right, but hurry, Fingal, the race is about to begin,” came her voice from the television room as O’Reilly answered the phone.
“Lars. You’re back.”
“Yes, Myrna and I got home from Villefranche last Saturday. We had a wonderful time. Sorry I haven’t called sooner but it’s been—excuse me—” O’Reilly heard a mighty sneeze through the phone line. “Sorry about that. A touch of hay fever.”
“Hay fever in April?” O’Reilly laughed.
“It’s been bedlam around here, with … with … work mostly. Look, I know it’s short notice, but I wonder, can you and Kitty pop down to Portaferry tomorrow for lunch? There’s something I need to discuss with you both and I’d rather not do it over the phone.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.” Was the usually reticent Lars, Fingal’s elder brother, having trouble with his romance with Lady Myrna Ferguson, the Marquis of Ballybucklebo’s widowed sister? She and Lars had been in his summer house in France for a fortnight.
“No, no, nothing serious. We’re both fine. It’s just … I’ll explain tomorrow. Can you come?”
“I’ll ask Kitty,” O’Reilly said, “phone you back. The Grand National’s about to run and I’ve a houseful of guests. But I’m pretty sure we’re free.”
“Fine.” The phone went dead. O’Reilly shook his head, replaced the receiver, and returned to the sideboard to finish pouring his drink. Grasping his glass, he went down to a lower landing where a photograph of his old battleship, HMS Warspite, hung on one wall and went into the room. “I’m back,” he announced to the little group seated in a semicircle around the Phillips black-and-white and plunked himself down between Kitty and Barry Laverty. “Who was on the phone?” she asked.
“Lars. He’s home. They had a wonderful time and he’d like us down for lunch tomorrow.”
“Lovely. I can’t wait to hear all about it,” she said.
“Great,” O’Reilly said. “I’ll let him know after the race.” He peered at the screen and then at his watch. “Should be starting soon.” And when it’s over, he thought, with a twenty-pound bet to win on the favourite, Honey End, at odds of fifteen to two, my return should be 170 pounds. More than enough for the new record player he coveted. Sure the sound was good from his old Pye Black Box. But ever since he’d heard Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major on one of the new long-playing recordings at Solly Lipsitz’s Belfast music shop, O’Reilly had wanted to own a stereo player. They were not cheap, but he was going to get one courtesy of Honey End.
He grinned and rubbed his hands. All the touts and tipsters were extolling the virtues of the animal. It seemed like such a sure thing, he hadn’t even bothered investing another twenty quid in case the horse only placed.
On-screen was the ever-suave Peter O’Sullevan, a BBC commentator born in Kerry but raised in England. “Welcome on this Saturday, April the eighth, 1967, to Aintree Racecourse and the one hundred and twenty-first running, here on Merseyside just outside Liverpool, of the famous Grand National steeplechase, a race of four miles, two furlongs, and seventy-four yards. In all, the horses must clear thirty obstacles before racing for the finish line. Quite the test of endurance for horse and jockey.”
“It is that.” O’Reilly sipped his Jameson and surveyed his friends. O’Reilly’s housekeeper, Kinky Auchinleck, sat next to her second husband, Archie, at the left end of the semicircle. O’Reilly knew how much she enjoyed watching horse racing, and particularly the annual running of the National. He’d invited the Auchinlecks round. “So, Kinky,” he said, beaming at her, “are you two having a flutter?”
“We are, so.” Her dark eyes looked serious as she patted her silver chignon and stroked O’Reilly’s white cat, Lady Macbeth, who was curled up on Kinky’s lap. “There’s a nice little black Irish gelding called Foinavon. We have four pounds on the animal to win at a hundred to one.” Her County Cork brogue was as soft and melodious as when she had left her home in Ring thirty-eight years ago to come north. She sipped an orange squash.
Archie, a usually reserved man, smiled and nodded, holding a glass of Harp lager in both hands.
O’Reilly made a mental note to find some pretence to add the money she surely was going to lose to her next pay packet. It was a lot of money for a milkman and his wife. O’Reilly’d not miss it from the profit he was going to make. “And you, Nonie?”
Doctor Nonie Stevenson, the practice’s new assistant, sat beside Archie. She’d been on call and busy last night, not rising from her attic bedroom until noon. She’d cooked herself a late breakfast and happily accepted an invitation to stay and watch the race. She had no plans, she’d told him, until that evening, when she and her new boyfriend were going to see The Sand Pebbles at Belfast’s Hippodrome. She held her favourite tipple, what she called a “Cuba Libre.” O’Reilly himself had little time for the fashionable rum and Coke mixes or Babychams favoured by modern young women, but he was a considerate host and kept his sideboard well stocked.
She grinned at him. “Four bob each way on Red Alligator at thirty to one.”
“Last of the big spenders, Nonie?” Barry asked, and laughed.
She smiled at him. “Trying to save a bit for my mum’s fiftieth birthday present. I’ll be happy to collect at those odds if my horse comes first, second, or even third … It’ll help, but I can afford to lose four shillings if it doesn’t.”
“Fair play to you, Nonie,” O’Reilly said. Her mum’s fiftieth? Damn it all, he’d be fifty-seven in October. Where had the years gone? He shook his head. “I’m sorry you’re only going to place. Nothing can beat Honey End.” He sipped his whiskey and glanced at Kitty.
Kitty O’Reilly née O’Hallorhan sat between Nonie and O’Reilly. Her eyes, a soft grey flecked with amber, shone when she said, “Fingal’s got twenty quid on the favourite. I haven’t made up my mind where I’d like him to take me for a holiday yet, but it’ll be somewhere warm and sunny.”
O’Reilly spluttered on his whiskey. A few drops got into the back of his nose and his sneeze must have been heard in Carrickfergus on the far shore of Belfast Lough.
Lady Macbeth let out a yowl like a banshee with her arm caught in a combine harvester and, tail fluffed up, fled from the room. He hauled out a red-spotted hanky and honked into it before saying, “Will it, by God? I actually had some thoughts about replacing my record player, but I’m sure we can agree on a good use for my winnings.”
He saw Kinky’s almost imperceptible shake of her head. He knew the Corkwoman was fey, but she always said her ma had told her the gift was never to be used for personal gain, and Kinky had never done so. Mind you, she had a brother-in-law, Malachy Aherne, whose last name in Irish, Echtigerna, meant “lord of the horses,” and she always swore she’d learnt from him how to pick winners. Could she be right today? Nah. Honey End was a sure thing. He’d done his research about the race. “Honey End’s a stallion out of Fair Donation by Honeyway and they’ve pedigrees going back to the 1880s. Her jockey, Josh Gifford, has been National Hunt champion twice already and he’s only twenty-six. I wish your horse good luck, Kinky, but I think mine’s going to give yours a run for your money.”
“I know what you’re thinking, Doctor dear, that three jockeys turned down the chance to ride Foinavon and that the owner, Mister Cyril Watkins, has so little faith in his own horse he’s not even at the course today, so. But isn’t it just the fun of watching the race and cheering on your horse?”
“It is indeed, Kinky. Best of luck.”
She smiled and turned back to the television, where Peter O’Sullevan was saying, “And now over to Michael O’Hehir. He and his camera crew will be covering the track between Becher’s Brook and Valentine’s. Michael?”
O’Hehir, a Dublin man with a thick brogue, said, “Thank you, Peter. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Aintree and the famous, or should I say infamous, Becher’s Brook, named for Captain Becher, who fell here during the first-ever Grand National in 1839 and took shelter in the water from the other horses.”
Behind him the camera panned across an eight-foot-wide brook with the fence set three feet back from the water.
“This is a particularly difficult jump because the landing area is three feet lower than the takeoff.”
Sue Nolan, Barry Laverty’s fiancée, sat to Barry’s right, cradling a small sherry. “More horses have fallen at that fence than any other two put together. I love horses, you all know that, and I’m no protester, but I wish the racecourse owners would make that jump simpler.”
“It had better not make my pick, Kirtle Lad, go down,” Barry said. “I’ve a pound on the horse, and if it wins you and I are going for a slap-up dinner at the Culloden, Sue.”
“Yum,” she said, and winked at him as he took a sip of his white lemonade. He was on call today and ready to leave if the phone rang.
“What about you, Ronald?” said O’Reilly. Doctor Ronald Hercules Fitzpatrick, a classmate from medical school in the ’30s, was a GP in the Kinnegar and now a member of the combined on-call rota. He was nursing a shandy. His prominent Adam’s apple bobbed as he spoke. “I don’t usually bet,” he said, and blushed. “At one time in my younger days, I managed to run up a considerable debt on horses and dogs.”
O’Reilly sat back in his chair. “You, Ronald? A gambling man? I had no idea.”
“It started in medical school and it’s not something I’ve wanted to advertise, but I am proud to say I was able to delve into my interest in things Japanese, found some aspects of Buddhism a great comfort, and with their help overcame my silliness.” He coughed. “Having said that, I have allowed myself a wager. I too have picked Foinavon.” He laughed a dry, cackling noise. “Long odds always did appeal.”
“More power to your wheel, Ronald,” O’Reilly said, “but you’ll be out of luck today. It’s Honey End. Just you watch.” Then his gaze went back to the screen. The camera showed the horses behind the start line. Jockeys clad in the racing silks of their owners, hard-peaked hats, jodhpurs, and English riding boots jostled for position at the start line. The course was open. There were none of the fancy starting gates favoured by the Americans. A flag was hoisted on a raised platform at the start.
“They’re under starter’s orders,” O’Sullevan said. Horses and riders settled. The flag flashed down and forty-four horses bounded forward. O’Sullevan yelled, “They’re off,” then adopted the horse-racing commentator’s breathless cadences and inflexions. “Aaaand it’s Rondettos in the lead by a nose. Rondettos. Kirtle Lad’s next aaaand, I think, yes, yes, it’s Leedsy, Leedsy close behind in third. There’s a group two lengths back and Honey End the favourite—”
“Go on, you boy-you,” O’Reilly yelled.
“There’s quite a bunch farther back,” O’Sullevan said, “as they come to the first fence, aaaand bringing up the rear is Foinavon.”
O’Reilly stole a glance at Kinky, who was sitting, hands in lap, with a tiny smile on her face.
“Oh dear,” continued O’Sullevan. “Popham Down’s been hampered at the first.”
O’Reilly had seen another horse obstructing the now-fallen animal.
“Aaaand Popham Down’s jockey, Macer Gifford, has been unseated. He’s all right, walking away, but the horse is back up and continuing to run with the pack.”
O’Reilly became oblivious to those around him as the horses soared over jumps and charged along the straight from fence to fence, sod flying from their pounding hooves. In his mind he could hear the thunder of hooves, the great beasts snorting. He imagined he could smell their sweat. Across from the racetrack tall terrace houses behind the track seemed to flash away in the opposite direction.
At each fence, some horses refused or pulled up. Others fell, threw their jockeys, or were brought down in collision with another animal. Riderless horses charged on with the rest. Some, no longer burdened by a rider, were right at the front.
“The field is thinning, but Honey End is still going strong,” said O’Sullevan.
O’Reilly winked at Kitty.
“As are Kirtle Lad and—”
“Go on, boy,” Sue called, bouncing in her seat.
“Several riderless horses are up with the front runners, Red Alligator, Greek Scholar, Aussie. Poor old Foinavon is manfully trying but is well back.”
O’Reilly stole another look at Kinky. He hated to see her being disappointed, but she was expressionless. Had she, perhaps, used her gift of the sight? He couldn’t believe it. Not Kinky.
In what seemed like no time, the cameras had switched to Becher’s Brook for the second time and Michael O’Hehir’s Dublin twang took over the commentary. “Of a field of forty-four, twenty-eight competitors have safely cleared Becher’s and are heading for fence twenty-three. The riderless Popham Down leads the field from near the left-hand boundary.”
“What?” O’Reilly yelled. He leaned forward and stared at the screen. “Holy thundering Mother of God.” Something was going horribly wrong. The leading riderless horse had turned to its right just before the twenty-third jump and had run directly across the bows of the rest. Horses reared, stopped dead. Some were running the wrong way. Honey End’s jockey, Josh Gifford, had been unseated in the fray but was hanging on to the reins, frantically trying to remount. “Bloody hell. Get on your horse, you great bollix,” O’Reilly yelled. “It’s my twenty quid at stake.”
As calmly as if he were commentating on the usually sedate Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race, O’Hehir said, “Rutherfords has been hampered, and so has Castle Falls; Rondetto has fallen, Princeful has fallen, Norther has fallen, Kirtle Lad has fallen.”
“Damnation,” said Barry.
“The Fossa has fallen. There’s a right pileup. Leedsy has climbed over the fence and left his jockey there. And now, with all this mayhem, Foinavon has gone off on his own. He’s about fifty lengths in front of everything else.”
O’Reilly had watched it all in wonder. Foinavon had been so far behind, his jockey had been able to avoid the melée at jump twenty-three and find a way clear in which to jump. The black gelding was now well on its way to Canal Turn. And still not another single horse had cleared twenty-three. Riderless mounts milled about. Unhorsed jockeys ran along the track.
“Come on. Come on,” O’Reilly growled. Josh Gifford, Honey End’s jockey, had now remounted, and yes, yes, Honey End had cleared the fence and was in furious pursuit of Foinavon. “Oh, for a horse with wings,” O’Reilly said, hoping that Honey End could be able to catch Foinavon before the finish, but fearing he might soon be feeling an ache in his wallet.
“Shakespeare, Cymbelline, Act two,” Barry said, “Imogen.” He grinned at O’Reilly. “At least your horse is likely to finish. Might win yet. Mine’s a dead duck.”
“Thanks, Barry,” O’Reilly said, looking at Kinky. Her features were composed and he would have expected no less. Kinky Auchinleck was too much of a lady to gloat.
“That was tough luck, Barry,” Nonie said.
Barry shrugged. “My dad always said, ‘Never lend or bet more than you can afford to lose, son.’”
“And that, I think,” said O’Hehir from the television, “is the last horse that’s going to clear twenty-three. And now back to Peter O’Sullevan at the finish.”
“Thank you, Michael. Aaand it’s Foinavon just clearing the Chair, the final jump. I don’t know how his jockey has done it, but somehow the gelding has found the reserves for a final burst of speed, because he is being pressed by Honey End, who is catching up, but still lags by about fifteen lengths.”
“Come on, Foinavon—” yelled Sue, then stopped and turned to O’Reilly. “For Kinky and Ronald.”
O’Reilly glanced from Kinky, who had a gentle smile on her face, to Ronald, who was leaning so far forward that he almost touched the screen.
The room broke into a chant of “Go on Foinavon” that ended only when O’Sullevan said, “Aaand it’s Foinavon, Foinavon, at one hundred to one crossing the finish line to win this year’s Grand National, Honey End second at fifteen to two, and Red Alligator in third place at thirty to one…” Everyone in the room clapped.
O’Reilly rose now, ignoring the post-race festivities on the screen. “Well done, Kinky. That’s a tidy sum you’ve won. Congratulations.” Indeed it was. Four hundred pounds was probably close to a year’s wages for Archie. He drank to her. “And to you, Nonie. And to you, Ronald. But if you don’t mind a bit of free medical advice from one friend to another, if you’ve had trouble with gambling before, don’t go back to it.”
For a moment Ronald seemed not to hear O’Reilly, then blurted, “I’ll not. I promise, Fingal.” He swallowed and his voice had a dreamy tone. “But it was fun. Great fun.”
Kitty crossed to bend and give Kinky a hug. “We are delighted for you and Archie.”
“Thank you, Kitty. But there’s something I want to say.” She stood, her voice low and very serious. For someone who had just won four hundred pounds, she looked sad, not jubilant.
She used the gift and now she’s ashamed, O’Reilly thought.
“You all know, except saving your presences, Doctors Nolan and Fitzpatrick, that I do be fey…”
“Good gracious,” Fitzpatrick said. “Well, I never.”
Nonie’s hand flew to her mouth.
“I got the gift from my ma. I have told Doctor O’Reilly it is never to be used for personal gain. I want to reassure you all that it was not. I told no one else the winner, even though the horse’s name came to me a month ago. It saddened me to know my doctors, except Doctor Stevenson, were going to lose money and I do be pleased for Doctor Fitzpatrick. I ask for your trust because this time I did look ahead again. Now, the gift’s not a telescope. I don’t see everything and when I do I usually only see things in blurs, but just this morning I saw something very specific, that in this village there was going to be a desperate need for about four hundred pounds, so I said to Archie when I told him, ‘I know we weren’t going to bet because I saw the winner, but now I think we should.’”
“And I agreed,” Archie said.
“Archie and I will take back our stake money, but not a penny more. The rest will be kept in the bank until I find out who needs the money badly. Now, if it please you all, Archie did place our bet at Ladbroke’s in Belfast. When the need comes for the money to be spent, we do not want it known that it came from our wager, or indeed from us.”
“That’s very gracious of you, Kinky,” Kitty said.
“Thank you, Kitty. Now I wondered about coming today, but,” she looked around the small semicircle, “Archie and I think of you all as our family here at Number One Main,” she giggled, “and you, Doctor Fitzpatrick, as a close cousin…”
“I’m flattered,” he said.
“But it does be said if more than one knows a secret it is no longer a secret.” She allowed herself a little smile. “In our case, Archie and I count as one, so.”
Archie nodded in agreement.
“Thank you for telling us, Kinky,” O’Reilly said. “I’m sure I can speak for everyone here. You have our complete trust. Always have.”
There was a general murmuring of assent.
“Thank you all,” Kinky said, “and I’m sorry for your losing, Doctor Laverty. And your loss, Doctor O’Reilly, sir, would have been less if you did bet both ways, so.”
O’Reilly shook his shaggy head and harumphed before saying, “’Fraid not.” He was about to ask, as a good host, if anyone wanted another drink, but the insistent double ringing of the telephone extension in the lounge interrupted.
“That’s probably for me,” said Barry. “Maybe a dejected patient who lost more money than you, Fingal.” With a swift kiss to the top of Sue’s copper-haired head, he left.
“No rest for the wicked,” O’Reilly said, sipping his drink and thinking, not for the first time, how pleasant life had become since he had first taken young Barry Laverty as an assistant in 1964, then as a partner in ’66. O’Reilly glanced at Kitty. Now if only he could get her to slow down too. He’d been working on that for several months but with little progress.
Barry stuck his head round the door. “Mrs. Galvin’s a bit off colour. Doesn’t sound too serious. And here’s Saturday’s post.” Barry dropped an envelope into O’Reilly’s lap. Stamped on the outside was the coat of arms of Queen’s University, beneath it the words “Department of General Practice.” He shoved it into an inside pocket of his sports jacket. It could wait.
“You mean Seamus Galvin’s mum? That buck eejit of a carpenter who took his family to California three years ago?” O’Reilly asked.
“That’s her,” Barry said. “See you all soon.” He vanished.
Fingal O’Reilly lifted his glass to his departing friend and colleague, then rose and switched off the telly. It had been a great start to the afternoon. Close friends enjoying the race, Nonie and Ronald making a bob or two. And he was delighted to know Kinky and Archie had made a killing for a mysterious good cause. O’Reilly would have given all his winnings—if he had won—to find out what Kinky and Archie’s “good cause” was, but fully understood that he must bide until she was good and ready to tell him.
Copyright © 2017 by Ballybucklebo Stories Corp.