SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 11
For the first time in a week the sky cleared. The wan rays of November sunshine found their way through the clouds, and the spectators at the Visby trotting track turned their faces with yearning up toward the sun. It was the last race of the season, and there was a sense of anticipation in the air, mixed with a touch of melancholy. A chilly but enthusiastic crowd had gathered in the grandstands. They were drinking beer and hot coffee from plastic cups, eating hot dogs, and making notes in their track programs.
Henry “Flash” Dahlstrom got out his hip flask and took a good swig of his home-brewed liquor. It made him grimace, but it also warmed him nicely. With him in the stands sat the whole gang: Bengan, Gunsan, Monica, and Kjelle. All of them were rapidly advancing toward various states of intoxication.
The procession had just started. The snorting standardbreds, glossy with sweat, were lined up and prancing forward as the music blared from the loudspeakers. The drivers, with their legs wide apart, were firmly seated in their lightweight sulkies.
The odds were posted on a black tote board out near the track, with the numbers ticking past.
Henry leafed through the racing program. He ought to place a bet on Ginger Star, running in race number seven. No one else seemed to believe in her. She was only a three-year-old. He had followed the horse during the summer races, and even though she had a tendency to break into a gallop, she kept on getting better.
“Hey, Flash, take a look at Pita Queen. She’s a beauty, don’t you think?” Bengan slurred his words as he reached for the hip flask.
Henry had been given the nickname Flash because he had worked as a photographer for Gotlands Tidningar for many years before alcohol took over his life full-time.
“You’re damn right. With that trainer…” he replied and then stood up to take his racing card to the window.
There was a line of betting windows, all with open wooden hatches. Wallets were eagerly pulled out, banknotes changed hands, and cards were handed in. One flight up was the track restaurant, where invited guests ate steak and drank strongbeer. Honored big-time players puffed on cigars, discussing the current condition of the horses and the technique of the drivers.
The race was about to begin. The first driver politely saluted the judges by giving a brief nod toward the judging tower. Over the loudspeakers the announcer called for the horses to take their places.
After four races Henry had an equal number of wins on his card. If luck was with him, he could win the jackpot with five in a row. Since he had also bet on the long shot Ginger Star in the last race, the winnings ought to be significant. If only she came up to his expectations.
The race began and he followed the sulkies on the track as closely as he could after consuming eight strongbeers and a countless number of shots. When the bell for the final lap rang, his pulse quickened. Ginger Star was running well, damned well, as a matter of fact. With each stride she closed in on the two favorites in the lead, and he seemed to be seeing her more clearly. The powerful neck, the snorting nostrils, and the ears pointing straight forward. She could do it.
Don’t start galloping now, do not gallop. He was muttering this plea to himself like a mantra. His eyes were fixed on the young filly, who with furious energy was closing in on the leaders. Now she passed one of her rivals. Suddenly he became aware of the weight of the camera around his neck, and he was reminded that he had planned to take pictures. He snapped several photos, his hands relatively steady.
The red sand of the trotting track spurted up around the hooves that were pounding forward at breakneck speed. The drivers were using their whips on the horses, and the excitement rose among the spectators. Many in the stands were on their feet, some of them clapping, others shouting.
Ginger Star pulled forward on the outside and was now even with the horse in the lead. Then her driver used his whip for the first time. Dahlstrom stood up as he followed the horse through the lens of his camera.
When Ginger Star crossed the finish line ahead of the big favorite by a nose, a sigh of disappointment passed through the crowd. Dahlstrom was aware of scattered comments: “What the hell?” “It can’t be true!” “Unbelievable!” “Damn it!”
But he dropped down onto the bench.
He had won all five races in a row.
The only audible sound was the sweep of the broom across the stable floor and the grinding jaws of the horses as they chewed their evening oats. Calm had settled in after the hectic race day. Fanny Jansson was sweeping with brisk, rhythmic strokes. Her body ached after all the hard work, and when she was done, she sank down onto a feed box outside Regina’s stall. The horse peered out, and Fanny stuck her hand through the bars to stroke the horse’s nose.
The slender, dark-skinned girl was alone in the stable. She had declined an invitation to join the others at a local restaurant to celebrate the end of the season. She could just imagine how rowdy it was bound to get. Worse than usual. She had been there several times before but didn’t enjoy it. The horse owners would drink too much and try to hit on her. They called her “princess,” pulled her onto their laps, and pinched her on the rear.
Some got bolder the more they drank. They would make comments about her body, both verbally and with their eyes. They were a pack of dirty old men.
She yawned, but she had no desire to bike home, either. Not really. Her mother had the day off from her job, and there was a good chance that she was drunk. If she was alone she would be sitting on the sofa with her mouth turned down in a sullen frown, with a bottle of wine in front of her. As usual, Fanny would feel guilty because she hadn’t spent the day with her mother instead of with the horses. Her mother couldn’t care less that it was a race day with tons of work to do. Nor did she understand that Fanny needed to get away from home. The stable was her lifeline. If she didn’t have the horses, she didn’t know what she would do.
Uneasiness seized her as she imagined an even worse scenario: that her mother might not be alone. If her so-called boyfriend, Jack, was there, they would get even drunker, and Fanny would have a hard time sleeping.
Tomorrow she had to be at school early, and she needed to get some sleep. Ninth grade was a torment that she wanted to get through as fast as possible. Fanny had tried to do her best when the term started, but things just kept getting worse. She was having a hard time concentrating, and she had started cutting classes fairly often. She just couldn’t face it.
She had enough troubles outside of school.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 12
A bubble of saliva had formed at the corner of his mouth. With each exhalation it grew bigger until it burst and dribbled down his chin and onto the pillowcase.
The room was very bright. The blinds were rolled up and the dirty streaks on the windowpane were clearly visible. On the windowsill stood a solitary pot with an African violet that had long since perished.
Henry Dahlstrom slowly regained consciousness as the urgent ringing of the phone cut through the thick silence. The sound echoed off the walls in the shabby two-room apartment, persisting until it finally won out over sleep. Disconnected thoughts popped up in his mind, relentlessly bringing him back to reality. He had a vague feeling of happiness but couldn’t remember what it was from.
The headache started the minute he swung his legs over the side of the bed. Cautiously he sat up. His vision blurred the pattern of the bedspread. Thirst made him get to his feet and stagger out to the kitchen. The floor swayed beneath him. He leaned against the door frame and looked at the chaos.
The kitchen cupboards stood wide open and the counter was covered with dirty glasses and plates, as well