safer all of a sudden and he’s carping a lot to the old man about fees. Another day or two, I give it, and there won’t be no one holding his hand at night. Anyway, I’ve been pulled off it. I’m flying from Newmarket to Ireland tomorrow, sharing a stall with a hundred thousand pounds’ worth of stallion.’

Escort duty was another little job I never did. Chico liked it, and went often. As he had once thrown a fifteen stone would-be nobbier over a seven foot wall, he was always much in demand.

‘You ought to come back,’ he said suddenly.

‘Why?’ I was surprised.

‘I don’t know…’ he grinned. ‘Silly, really, when you do sweet eff-all, but everybody seems to have got used to you being around. You’re missed, kiddo, you’d be surprised.’

‘You’re joking, of course.’

‘Yeah…’ He undid the knots in the window cord, shrugged, and thrust his hands into his trouser pockets. ‘God, this place gives you the willies. It reeks of warm disinfectant. Creepy. How much longer are you going to lie here rotting?’

‘Days,’ I said mildly. ‘Have a good trip.’

‘See you.’ He nodded, drifting in relief to the door. ‘Do you want anything? I mean, books or anything?’

‘Nothing, thanks.’

‘Nothing… that’s just your form, Sid, mate. You don’t want nothing.’ He grinned and went.

I wanted nothing. My form. My trouble. I’d had what I wanted most in the world and lost it irrevocably. I’d found nothing else to want. I stared at the ceiling, waiting for time to pass. All I wanted was to get back on to my feet and stop feeling as though I had eaten a hundredweight of green apples.

Three weeks after the shooting I had a visit from my father-in-law. He came in the late afternoon, bringing with him a small parcel which he put without comment on the table beside the bed.

‘Well, Sid, how are you?’ He settled himself into an easy chair, crossed his legs and lit a cigar.

‘Cured, more or less. I’ll be out of here soon.’

‘Good. Good. And your plans are…?’

‘I haven’t any.’

‘You can’t go back to the agency without some… er… convalescence,’ he remarked.

‘I suppose not.’

‘You might prefer somewhere in the sun,’ he said, studying the cigar. ‘But I would like it if you could spend some time with me at Aynsford.’

I didn’t answer immediately.

‘Will…?’ I began and stopped, wavering.

‘No,’ he said. ‘She won’t be there. She’s gone out to Athens to stay with Jill and Tony. I saw her off yesterday. She sent you her regards.’

‘Thanks,’ I said dryly. As usual I did not know whether to be glad or sorry that I was not going to meet my wife. Nor was I sure that this trip to see her sister Jill was not as diplomatic as Tony’s job in the Corps.

‘You’ll come, then? Mrs Cross will look after you splendidly.’

‘Yes, Charles, thank you. I’d like to come for a little while.’

He gripped the cigar in his teeth, squinted through the smoke, and took out his diary.

‘Let’s see, suppose you leave here in, say, another week… No point in hurrying out before you’re fit to go… that brings us to the twenty-sixth… hm… now, suppose you come down a week on Sunday, I’ll be at home all that day. Will that suit you?’

‘Yes, fine, if the doctors agree.’

‘Right, then.’ He wrote in the diary, put it away and took the cigar carefully out of his mouth, smiling at me with the usual inscrutable blankness in his eyes. He sat easily in his dark city suit, Rear-Admiral Charles Roland, R.N., retired, a man carrying his sixty-six years lightly. War photographs showed him tall, straight, bony almost, with a high forehead and thick dark hair. Time had greyed the hair, which in receding left his forehead higher than ever, and had added weight where it did no harm. His manner was ordinarily extremely charming and occasionally patronisingly offensive. I had been on the receiving end of both.

He relaxed in the arm-chair, talking unhurriedly about steeplechasing.

‘What do you think of that new race at Sandown? I don’t know about you, but I think it’s framed rather awkwardly. They’re bound to get a tiny field with those conditions, and if Devil’s Dyke doesn’t run after all the whole thing will be a non-crowd puller par excellence.’

His interest in the game only dated back a few years, but recently to his pleasure he had been invited by one or two courses to act as a Steward. Listening to his easy familiarity with racing problems and racing jargon, I was in a quiet inward way amused. It was impossible to forget his reaction long ago to Jenny’s engagement to a jockey, his unfriendly rejection of me as a future son-in-law, his absence from our wedding, the months afterwards of frigid disapproval, the way he had seldom spoken to or even looked at me.

I believed at the time that it was sheer snobbery, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Certainly he didn’t think me good enough, but not only, or even mainly, on a class distinction level; and probably we would never have understood each other, or come eventually to like each other, had it not been for a wet afternoon and a game of chess.

Jenny and I went to Aynsford for one of our rare, painful Sunday visits. We ate our roast beef in near silence, Jenny’s father staring rudely out of the window and drumming his fingers on the table. I made up my mind that we wouldn’t go again. I’d had enough. Jenny could visit him alone.

After lunch she said she wanted to sort out some of her books now that we had a new book-case, and disappeared upstairs. Charles Roland and I looked at each other in dislike, the afternoon stretching drearily ahead and the downpour outside barring retreat into the garden and park beyond.

‘Do you play chess?’ he asked in a bored, expecting-the-answer-no voice.

‘I know the moves,’ I said.

He shrugged (it was more like a squirm), but clearly thinking that it would be less trouble than making conversation, he brought a chess set out and gestured to me to sit opposite him. He was normally a good player, but that afternoon he was bored and irritated and inattentive, and I beat him quite early in the game. He couldn’t believe it. He sat staring at the board, fingering the bishop with which I’d got him in a classic discovered check.

‘Where did you learn?’ he said eventually, still looking down.

‘Out of a book.’

‘Have you played a great deal?’

‘No, not much. Here and there.’ But I’d played with some good players.

‘Hm.’ He paused. ‘Will you play again?’

‘Yes, if you like.’

We played. It was a long game and ended in a draw, with practically every piece off the board. A fortnight later he rang up and asked us, next time we came, to stay overnight. It was the first twig of the olive branch. We went more often and more willingly to Aynsford after that. Charles and I played chess occasionally and won a roughly equal number of games, and he began rather tentatively to go to the races. Ironically from then on our mutual respect grew strong enough to survive even the crash of Jenny’s and my marriage, and Charles’ interest in racing expanded and deepened with every passing year.

‘I went to Ascot yesterday,’ he was saying, tapping ash off his cigar. ‘It wasn’t a bad crowd, considering the weather. I had a drink with that handicapper fellow, John Pagan. Nice chap. He was very pleased with himself because he got six abreast over the last in the handicap hurdle. There was an objection after the three mile chase — flagrant bit of crossing on the run-in. Carter swore blind he was leaning and couldn’t help it, but you can never believe a word he says. Anyway, the Stewards took it away from him. The only thing they could do. Wally Gibbons rode a brilliant finish in the handicap hurdle and then made an almighty hash of the novice chase.’

‘He’s heavy-handed with novices,’ I agreed.

‘Wonderful course, that.’

‘The tops.’ A wave of weakness flowed outwards from my stomach. My legs trembled under the bedclothes. It was always happening. Infuriating.

‘Good job it belongs to the Queen and is safe from the land-grabbers.’ He smiled.

‘Yes, I suppose so…’

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