Delirium brings comfort to the dying.
I had lived in an ordered world. Salary had mattered, and timetables. My grandmother belonged there with her fears.
‘But isn’t there a risk?’ she asked.
You bet your life there’s a risk.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No risk.’
‘Surely flying into a hurricane must be risky?’
‘I’ll come back safe,’ I said.
But now, as near dead as dammit, I tumbled like a rag-doll piece of flotsam in towering gale-driven seas that sucked unimaginable tons of water from the deeps and hurled them along in liquid mountains faster than a Derby gallop. Sometimes the colossal waves swept me inexorably with them. Sometimes they buried me until my agonized lungs begged the ultimate relief of inhaling anything, even water, when only air would keep the engine turning.
I’d swallowed gagging amounts of Caribbean salt.
It had been night for hours, with no gleam anywhere. I was losing all perception of which way was up. Which way was air. My arms and legs had bit by bit stopped working.
An increasingly out-of-order brain had begun seeing visions that shimmered and played in colours inside my head.
I could see my dry-land grandmother clearly. Her wheelchair. Her silver shoes. Her round anxious eyes and her miserable foreboding.
‘Don’t go, Perry. It gives me the heebie-jeebies.’
Whoever listens to grandmothers.
When she spoke in my head, her mouth was out of sync with her voice.
I’m drowning, I thought. The waves are bigger. The storm is worse. I’ll go to sleep soon.
Delirium brings comfort at the end.
CHAPTER ONE At the beginning it was a bit of fun.
Kris Ironside and I, both single, both thirty-one, both meteorologists employed to interpret the invisible swings and buffets of global air for television and radio audience consumption, both of us found without excitement that some of the holiday weeks allotted to us overlapped.
We both worked in the Weather Centre of the British Broadcasting Corporation, taking it in turns with several other forecasters to deliver the good or bad weather news to the nation. From breakfast to midnight our voices sounded familiar and our faces smiled or frowned into millions of homes until we could go nowhere at all without recognition.
Kris rather enjoyed it, and so had I once, but I had long gone beyond any depth of gratification and sometimes found the instant identification a positive drawback.
‘Yes, I guess so.’
I used to go for holidays to lands that didn’t know me. A week in Greece. Elephants in the Serengeti. By dug-out canoe up the Orinoco. Small adventures. No grand or gasp-worthy dangers. I lived an ordered life.
Kris stabbed with his thumb the roster pinned to the department notice board. Disgust shook his hand.
‘October and November!’ he grumbled. ‘And I asked for August.’
It was January at the time: August tended to be given to those with school-age children. Kris’s chances of August had always realistically been zero, but with Kris hope often outweighed common sense.
It was his streak of wild unpredictability – the manic side of his character – that made him a good evening pub companion, but a week in his company once in the foothills of the Himalayas had left me glad to return to home soil.
My own name, Perry Stuart, appeared alphabetically near the bottom of the list, ahead only of Williams and Yates. In late October, I saw, I could take the ten working days still owing to me by then and return to the screen on the eve of Fireworks Night, November 5th. I shrugged and sighed. Year after year I got especially chosen and, I supposed, honoured to deal with the rain-or-no-rain million-dollar gamble on fine weather for the night the skies blazed with the multicoloured firework starbursts sent up in memory of Guy Fawkes and his blow-up-Parliament gunpowder plot. Year after year, if I got downpours right, I winced over sackloads of letters from reproachful children who reckoned their disappointment to be my fault.
Kris followed my gaze down the list and tapped my name with his finger.
‘October and November,’ he pronounced without surprise. ‘Don’t tell me! You’ll waste half of that leave on your grandmother again.’
‘I expect so.’
He protested, ‘But you see her every week.’
Where Kris had parents, brothers and a coven of cousins, I had a grandmother. She had literally plucked me as an infant out of the ruins of a gas-exploded house, and had dried her grief for my dead parents in order to bring me up.
Where batches of my meteorological colleagues had wives, husbands, live-ins and one-nighters I had – sometimes – my grandmother’s nurses. I wasn’t unmarried by design: more by lack of urgency or the advent of Cinderella.
As autumn approached the Ironside manic-depressive gloom intensified downwards. Kris’s latest girlfriend left him, and the Norwegian pessimism he’d inherited from his mother, along with his pale skin, lengthy jaw and ectomorph physique, was leading him to predict cyclones more often than usual at the drop of a single millibar.
Small groups of the great wide public with special needs tended to gravitate to particular forecasters. One associate, Beryl Yates, had cornered weddings, for instance, and Sonny Rae spent his spare time advising builders and house painters, and pompous old George told local councils when they might dryly dig up their water mains.
Landowners, great and small, felt comfortable with Kris, and would cut their hay to the half-hour on his say-so.
As Kris’s main compulsive personal hobby was flying his own light aircraft, he spent many of his free days lunching with far-flung but welcoming farmers. They cleared their sheep out of fields to give him landing room and had been known to pollard a row of willows to provide a safe low-trajectory take-off.
I had flown with him three times on these farming jaunts, though my own bunch of followers, apart from children with garden birthday parties, had proved to be involved with horses. I seemed particularly to be consulted by racehorse trainers seeking perfect underfoot conditions for their speedy hopefuls, even though we did run forecasts dedicated to particular events.
By voice transfer on a message machine a trainer might say, ‘I’ve a fancied runner at Windsor on Wednesday evening, what are the chances of firm ground?’ or ‘I’m not declaring my three-mile chaser to run tomorrow unless you swear it’ll rain overnight.’ They might be Pony Club camp organizers or horse show promoters, or even polo entrepreneurs, begging for the promise of sunshine. They might be shippers of brood mares to Ireland anxious for a calm sea-crossing, and they might above all be racecourse managers wanting advice on whether or not to water their turf for good going in the days ahead. The prospect of good going encouraged trainers to send their horses. The prospect of many runners encouraged spectators to arrive in crowds.
‘Good going’ was gold dust to the racing industry; and woe betide the forecaster who misread the clouds.
But no weather-man, however profound his knowledge or intuition, could guess the skies right all the time and, as over the British Isles especially, the fickle winds could change direction without giving notice, to be accurate eighty-five per cent of the time was miraculous.
Kris’s early autumnal depression intensified day by day and it was from some vague impulse to cheer him up that I agreed to his suggestion of a Sunday-lunch flight to New-market. Our host, Kris assured me, would be catering for at least twenty guests, so my presence would hardly overload the arrangements. ‘And besides,’ Kris added with mild routine sarcasm, ‘your face is your fortune, you can’t get away from it. Caspar will slobber all over you.’
‘Caspar Harvey, it’s his lunch.’
Caspar Harvey might be one of Kris’s wealthiest farming cronies, but he also owned three or four racehorses whose trainer twittered in nervous sound-bites in my ears from Monday to Sunday. Oliver Quigley, the trainer, tem-peramentally unsuited to any stressful way of life, let alone the nerve-breaking day-to-day of the thoroughbred circuit, was, on his messages system, audibly in awe of Caspar Harvey, which was hardly the best basis for an owner-trainer relationship.
I had met neither man face to face and didn’t much want to, but as the day of the lunch approached I kept coming across references to ‘that gift to racing, Caspar Harvey’ or ‘Caspar Harvey in final dash to honours on the winning owners’ list’ or ‘Caspar Harvey pays millions at the Yearling Sales for Derby hopes’, and as my knowledge and curiosity grew, so did my understanding of the Quigley jitters.
The week before the Caspar Harvey lunch was one of those times when I gave the top two forecasts, at six-thirty and nine-thirty each evening, daily working out the probable path of air masses and going in front of the cameras at peak times to put my assessments on the line. Many people used to think that all Kris and I and other forecasters did was to read out from someone else’s script: there was often surprise when we explained that we were in actual fact forecasters, that it was we who predicted the weather ourselves, using the information gathered from distant weather stations and having discussed it with colleagues. We then went ‘live’ and unscripted – and usually alone – into a very small studio where we ourselves placed the computerized weather symbols on the background screen map of Britain.
There are well over two hundred weather stations covering the British Isles, each reporting local wind speeds and direction and barometric pressure into a large central computer housed in the main Meteorological Office in Bracknell, near Ascot, west of London. Into that computer too came data from all over the world, and one could draw from it everything the world’s weather was likely to do in the next forty-eight hours. But nothing was ever certain, and a lurch of high atmosphere pressure could let in a polar gust that would refrigerate our cheerful expectations into unconvincing explanations.
The late September Sunday of Caspar Harvey’s lunch, though, dawned fine and clear with a chilly wind from the east, conditions that would remain that way all day while the farmers of East Anglia harvested their late-ripening barley. ‘Perfect for flying,’ Kris said.
Kris’s aeroplane, a low-winged single-engined Piper Cherokee, was approximately thirty years old. He, he frankly acknowledged, was its fourth owner, the third being a flying club that had sometimes put six hours a day on the propeller log (Kris’s only gripe) and rubbed old-age patches into the cracked leather seats.
My first reaction to the antique rig a couple of years earlier had been, ‘No thanks, I’ll stay on the ground’, but in his home airfield’s echoing hangar Kris had introduced me to a mechanic who understood the relationship between loose screws and sudden death. I’d put my life in Kris’s hands on the mechanic’s assurance that old though the Piper might be, it was airworthy to the last rivet.
Kris, in fact, had turned out to be a surprisingly competent pilot. I’d expected him to be as volatile in the air as in his general behaviour but instead he was soberly responsible at the controls and only as high as a radiosonde balloon afterwards.
Many of our colleagues found Kris a difficult companion and asked me in mild exasperation how I dealt with his obvious leaning towards my company. I usually answered truthfully that I enjoyed his slightly weird views on life, and I didn’t mention that in his depressive periods he talked familiarly about suicide as if discussing an unimportant life choice like what tie to wear for early breakfast broadcasts.
It was regard for his parents, and for his father in particular, that deterred him from the final jump into the path of a train (his preferred method of exit), and I reckoned that he had less self-hatred and more courageous staying power than many who’d given in to a death wish.
At the time of Caspar Harvey’s lunch party, Kris Iron-side at thirty-one had outlasted the macabre instincts of a succession of young women who had temporarily found the idea of suicide fascinating, and was beginning to face the possibility that he might yet make it to middle age.
In appearance, apart from the overall tall and willowy build, he was noticeably good-looking with pale blue intelligent eyes, wiry blond stick-out hair that refused help from barbers, a strong blond moustache and, on screen particularly, a sort of half-grin that dared you not to believe his every word.
He kept his flying pride and joy on White Waltham airfield and to its upkeep devoted the bulk of his income, gleefully informing anyone who would listen that it left aerobic exercises out of sight as a keep-fit heart-stresser. He greeted me at White Waltham with what I knew from experience to be super-charged happiness. His Cherokee, parked by the petrol pumps, was taking aboard fuel that was no more stable than himself, each wing tank being filled to overflowing to expel any water formed there by hot saturated air condensing as the aircraft cooled after last time out.
Kris, never one of the old goggles-and-white-silk-scarf variety of pilots, was wearing a plaid heavy wool shirt with a Norwegian-knit sweater on top. He eyed my dark trousers, white shirt and navy jacket and nodded approval: in some way he considered my all too conventional appearance to be a licence for his own eccentricity to flourish.
He finished the refuelling, checked that the two wing tank-caps were screwed on tight and then, having with my help pushed the little white aeroplane a short distance from the pumps (a small courtesy to other refuellers), he methodically walked around the whole machine, intoning his checklist to himself as he touched each vital part. As usual, he finished by unclipping and opening backwards each half of the engine cowling, checking that the mechanic hadn’t left a rag in the works (as if he would!) and also wiping the dipstick clean before re-inserting it down into the sump, to make sure there was a satisfactorily deep lake of oil there to lubricate the engine. Kris had never been one to take foolish chances when it came to flying.
Once aboard and sitting in the left-hand (captain’s) seat he equally seriously completed his pre-starting checks – all switches in good order, and things like that – and finally started the engine, gazing concentratedly at its gauges.
Used to his meticulous ways, I sat placidly waiting for satisfaction to relax the tension in his backbone and hands, until at last he grunted, switched on his radio, and informed the Sunday controller up in his glass tower that Ironside in his Cherokee required take-off clearance for a simple flight to Newmarket, return expected at about seventeen hundred hours local time. Kris and the controller knew each other well; the exchange of information was a courtesy, more than an obligation. Cleared to taxi, allowed the tower. ‘Thanks, kiddo,’ the pilot said.
Kris was right, it was a lovely day for flying. The Cherokee lifted off light-heartedly with its easy load and swung round towards the north as it climbed away from base. The noise of the engine in a cross between a growl and clatter made casual conversation difficult, but talking anyway was ever superfluous up there higher than eagles. Pleasure as always sat like a balloon in my mind, and I checked our progress against the map on my knees with unalloyed contentment. Maybe one of these days . . . why didn’t I . . . learn to fly?
Kris had drawn two straight lines on the wipe-clean surface of the air map, a dog-leg route to lunch. It was he who steered by the direction indicator, allowing for magnetic variation and a crosswind, and I with small triumphs who checked our passage over the roads and rivers two thousand feet below and pointed them out to him, earning grins and nods.
From White Waltham we flew north to avoid crossing straight over London, turning north-east where the north-heading multi-lane M1 motorway reached the outskirts of the sprawling town of Luton, with its busy airport to the east.
Kris yearned for some of the expensive avionic packages that would give him access to all the latest equipment that made air navigation easier. It cost him every spare cent, however, just to keep flying, so he navigated by dead reckoning and sharp-eyed passengers, and only once, he said, had he been disastrously lost.
Dead reckoning delivered us safely alive into the New-market area, where he sought out a large house some way south of the town and, descending to a thousand feet or so, circled round it twice, causing figures below to appear waving in the garden.
‘Caspar Harvey’s house,’ Kris shouted unnecessarily.
I nodded OK; and as he was circling clockwise, with the wing on my side low to give me a good view, I brought out the handy little camera I carried with me always and took enough shots, I reckoned, to thank and please our host.
Kris, breaking off from the circling, ascended again a few hundred more feet and gave me a Cherokee-eye view of the purpose-built town that the racing world called ‘Headquarters’. I’d talked a hundred or more times on the telephone or voicemail to the trainers who worked there. I’d corresponded with e-mail by the electronic ton. I knew voices and knew characters, and it wasn’t only Oliver Quigley whose sharp anxieties begged assurances from me that I couldn’t give.
Neither Kris nor I, as I’d checked with him before the flight, knew which of the many stable-yards in Newmarket were identifiable from the air, and once over the place and thundering along at a hundred and twenty knots, I found I was sure only of one or two of the biggest.
Oliver Quigley had often told me that his string could trot straight from his yard onto Warren Hill, but with the speed and the sunshine and my ground-to-air ignorance of the town’s geography, I wasn’t at all sure in which quadrangle stable-yard stood Caspar Harvey’s equine investments, not to mention a filly due to run on Friday. To be on the safe side of pleasing the trainer, therefore, I snapped as many stable-yards as I could.
There wasn’t a horse to be seen, neither on the well-marked gallops nor in the stable-yards nor on the horse-walks (special paths for horses) which laced the town. There were upwards of twelve hundred aristocratic thoroughbreds down there somewhere, but at lunch time on a Sunday they weren’t doing much but dream.
Kris looked at his watch and headed south of the town, where he put the wheels down sweetly on the official grass strip that ran beside the part of the racecourse used in high summer – the July course. The Jockey Club not only allowed this but, to Kris’s indignation, charged a fee.
He taxied back fast to where a Land Rover waited with a young woman in an ultra short skirt leaning against it.
‘Shit,’ Kris said forcefully.
‘He’s sent his daughter. He promised she wouldn’t be here.’
‘She looks OK to me.’
Kris said ‘Huh’ with pity for my ignorance and slowed the Cherokee and, swinging it round neatly into a tidy configuration for parking, cut the engine.
‘Her name’s Belladonna,’ Kris said. ‘Poison.’
I unclipped my seat-belt, unlatched the door, climbed out and jumped down from the wing. Kris, having checked his switches, scrambled after. I wasn’t sure he meant it about her name but he casually introduced us. ‘Bell, this is Perry. Perry . . . Belladonna. Call her Bell.’
I shook her hand. She said, eyebrows lifting, ‘Aren’t you . . .?’
‘I expect so,’ I said.
She looked sugar-sweet, not deadly. Fair hair, more wispy than regulated. Blue eyes with innocuously blinking lids. Pink-outlined lips with a smile that never quite left them. Even without Kris’s comment, I’d have been aware of witchcraft.
‘Climb in,’ she invited, gesturing to the Land Rover. ‘Dad heard you circling overhead and sent me along. He’s mulling wine. He’d never leave with cinnamon floating.’
Kris, apparently deaf to the instruction, was walking round his aircraft and patting it with approval, listening to the small cracking noises of the metal cooling. Its white-painted fuselage gleamed in the sun along with the dark blue personalized insignia of a lightning flash and the registration letters that identified Kris worldwide: and in fact he had flown in enough countries to be known (not without respect) as ‘the fussy English’. After his final landing on wet days he sponged and dried the undersides of the wings, not just the tops, to get rid of any mud thrown up by the wheels.
‘Get in, do,’ Bell told him, opening the Land Rover’s front passenger door for him. ‘This party’s today, not tomorrow.’
The antagonism between them was faint but positive. I sat in the rear seat for the five-mile drive to Caspar Harvey’s house, listening to the semi-polite exchanges and wondering how far their mutual dislike would go, such as, would they save each other if it risked themselves.
Caspar Harvey’s home proved to be more than half way to grand but just definitely on the under side of ostentatious. The front, with small-scale Palladian pillars, seemed imposing, but the inside was only one room deep, and no one had tried to pretend otherwise. Entrance hall and sitting-room, combined by a wall of arches, made a single space ample enough for the gathering of upwards of thirty people who stood around drinking hot red wine, eating handfuls of peanuts and talking about Newmarket’s main profitable crop – racehorses.
Caspar Harvey, noticing Kris’s arrival, eeled his way, drink held high, until he could greet his guest within shouting distance in the throng.
‘I heard your overhead pass,’ he nodded to Kris. ‘And welcome to you, too,’ he added in my direction. ‘My trainer swears by your nose for rain. He’s here somewhere. Do I run my filly on Friday? My wife puts her faith in the stars. Have some wine.’
I accepted the wine, which tasted melodiously of cinnamon and sugar, and followed his identifying finger to his trainer across the crowd, Oliver Quigley, a-quiver and visibly ill at ease.
‘Tell him it will be dry until Friday,’ Harvey said. ‘Tell him to run my horse.’
He was enjoying, I thought, his role of lavish host. Reprehensible of me to think also that the role itself meant more to him than his guests. His expansive gestures were like his setting: a conscious indication of wealth and achievement, but one that carefully fell short of a flourish of trumpets.
I told him I’d taken aerial photos of his house and would send them to him and, pleased, he invited me to take as many shots of his guests as they would allow.
In body he was as substantial as in means, a heavy-shouldered presence with a thick neck and a trim grey grizzled beard. Shorter by only three inches than Kris’s willowy extent – as I was myself – Caspar Harvey would nevertheless have been noticeable at any height, or lack of it: he had, strongly developed, the indefinable aura that comes with success. I took his picture. He posed again, and nodded benignly at the flash.
Kris drank Coca-Cola as a good little pilot should and kept his manic extravagance within bounds. It was definitely an ‘up’ day in his psyche; good for wit and laughter and with no question of despairing walks along railway tracks.
The non-poisonous Belladonna, appearing at my side and pouring from a steaming jug of replenishment, asked me baldly why a sensible-looking person like myself should bother with Ironside’s mental switch-back.
‘He’s clever,’ I said neutrally.
‘Is that enough?’
‘Why don’t you like him?’ I asked.
‘Like him? I loved the bastard once.’ She gave me a twitch of a deeper smile and a shrug of shoulders and poured reinforcements for others, and I, as one does at such events, in time fetched up in a chatting bunch that contained the ever-worried trainer, Oliver Quigley. What about this wind, he wanted to know. ‘It’s cold,’ he said.
My harmless actual tangible presence – especially with camera – seemed to upset him. I was used to aggression and disbelief from the sort of horse-oriented people who seemed to think (like children) that bad weather was somehow my fault. I was accustomed to being the unpopular messenger who brought the bad news of battles lost, and I’d been often enough cursed for smiling while I forecast blizzards; but on the whole I’d not caused what looked unexpectedly like fear.
I must be misreading him, I thought. But then, I knew him only as an agitated weather-obsessed horse trainer, and he could have – who knew – all sorts of other problems.
‘It depends on the Urals,’ I said soothingly.
He was mystified. ‘What does?’
‘The wind from the east. It’s early in the year for a polar continental blast like this, but there may be a clear dry day for Caspar Harvey’s filly, if it goes on blowing until Friday.’
‘And will it?’ The question was put slightly pugnaciously by a grey-haired fiftyish imposing American-sounding woman who’d joined the group with three rows of pearls and an apologetic husband.
‘Evelyn dear...’ he murmured patiently.
She persevered with questions. ‘And what do you mean by Urals?’
Her husband, a small round man in heavy dark spectacle frames, answered her smoothly. ‘Evelyn, dear, the Urals are mountains in Russia. On a straight line from the Urals to London, there is no high ground to get in the way. Nothing to divert or deflect an east wind from Siberia.’ He assessed me with shrewd but amiable brown eyes behind the heavy-duty lenses. He said, ‘Aren’t you the young man who flew here with the meteorologist?’
Before I could agree that yes, I was, Oliver Quigley told him with rapid emphasis and energetic hands that I too forecast the weather and was probably even better known to the television public than Kris himself. ‘Robin and Evelyn,’ he assured me, anxious to be understood, ‘are American, of course, and as they live mostly in Florida, they don’t see much British TV.’
‘Darcy,’ said the small man, completing the introduction by shifting his wine glass carefully to his left hand and offering me the right, ‘Robin Darcy.’ He made lunch-party small talk in a subdued Boston-type accent. ‘And will you be along with Kris Ironside on his vacation?’
Not that I knew of. ‘I don’t think so,’ I replied. Robin, I thought, had just enquired very delicately about my sexual preference. And what, I wondered, was his own? Evelyn, matronly in black and seemingly older than her husband, was nobody’s idea of a trophy bimbo.
‘Be sure to look us up,’ she said automatically, but insincerely.
‘Love to.’ I sounded falsely eager, as one does.
Her husband rocked a little on heels and toes, his wrists folded over each other low on his stomach. His interest in me, slight in the first place, was fading rapidly, and presently he drifted off, Evelyn in tow, in search of more responsive brains.
Belladonna reappeared with her jug, her gaze ahead on the Darcys. ‘If you like cleverness, he’s your man.’
‘He’s clever at what?’
Bell’s pale eyelids fluttered. ‘It’s like beauty. Born in him. He just is.’
Darcy wandered around, however, looking insignificant and unimpressive. Evelyn’s socializing voice was the one that prevailed.
‘Don’t be fooled,’ Bell said.
‘Kris said you saved his life a couple of times.’
After a pause, I said, ‘He liked to play with trains.’
‘Less and less.’
‘I wouldn’t fly with him,’ she said. ‘So we quarrelled.’
After a silence she added, ‘It finished us. Doesn’t he scare you?’
There had been a time only a year ago when the trains had all but won; when I’d sat with him all night while he curled like a foetus and moaned with pain; when the only word he’d said, in a sort of anguish, had been ‘Poison’.
A couple of paces away Kris was at the top of his upswing, telling a flying joke and raising eye-crinkling laughter. ‘So the air hostess said, “Yes, Miss Greer, of course you can go up to the cockpit during this flight and talk to our lady captain and our lady first officer, but there’s just one thing, with our all-female flight crew we don’t call it a cockpit any more”...’
‘God,’ Bell groaned. ‘I told him that bit of feminism yonks ago.’
‘Good jokes never die.’
‘Did you know that sometimes he writes verses?’
‘Mm.’ I paused. ‘Scientific, mostly.’
‘I’ve seen him tear them up,’ Bell said.
So had I. A form of suicide, I’d thought: but better to kill a poem than himself.
Bell turned her back on Kris and said there was food in the dining-room. There were also white-clothed tables and caterers’ gold chairs and an autumnal buffet suitable for millionaires and hungry weather-men. I collected a disgracefully full plate and was welcomed by an insistent Evelyn Darcy into a space on a round table where her husband and four other guests were munching roast grouse with concentration.
The four unknowns and I went through the usual recog-nition routine and a promise that it wouldn’t rain before bedtime; and I smiled and answered them placidly because in fact I liked my job very much, and good public relations never hurt.
Two of the unknowns slowly identified themselves as George Loricroft, distinguished, forty-five, top-dog racehorse trainer, and his blonde and over-shapely young wife, Glenda. Every time Glenda spoke, her dominating husband either contradicted or interrupted her. Glenda’s nervous titter hid some razor-sharp resentment, I’d have said.
Evelyn Darcy who, beside the three rows of pearls, the black dress and the grey-silver over-lacquered hair, was decidedly nosy, had no inhibitions about question time. She wanted to know – and used her loud voice to get attention
– whether Kris and I earned a fortune for our many on-screen appearances. How else could Kris afford the upkeep of an airplane?
Everyone heard her. Kris across the room gave me a comical look, half choked with laughter and yelled her an answer.
‘We’re both civil servants. We get civil service pay. You all pay us . . . and it’s not enough to fund a month of condoms.’
Reactions to this intimate and inaccurate revelation varied from laughter among the guests to distaste and embarrassment. I peacefully ate my grouse. Being a friend of Kris meant being willing to accept the whole package. He could have said far worse. He had done, in the past.
Evelyn Darcy enjoyed the ripples. Robin looked long-suffering at her side. George Loricroft, the constant wife repressor, checked with me that we did indeed get civil service pay and I unexcitedly agreed that yes we did, and why not, we gave a public service.
Oliver Quigley at that point inserted a chair where there was hardly enough space for it between Evelyn and myself and behaved in general as if the military police were hot on his trail for unspeakable offences. Did the man never relax?
‘I wanted to say to you,’ he more or less stuttered into my lunch, ‘that I had a sort of pamphlet in the post yesterday from a new sort of organization that offers . . . er, well, I mean, it’s worth a try, you know...’
‘Offers what?’ I asked without pressing interest as he rambled to a halt.
‘Well . . . er . . . a personalized reading of the weather.’
‘A private firm?’ I asked. ‘Is that it?’
‘Well . . . yes. You give the . . . er, by e-mail of course . . . the time and place where you want to know what weather to expect and you get the answer back at once.’
‘Fascinating,’ I said dryly.
‘Haven’t you heard of it? Bit of competition for you, isn’t it?’
If he’d had more courage, what he’d said would have neared sarcasm. As it was, I finished the excellent grouse and fried breadcrumbs and smiled without annoyance.
‘You go ahead and sign on with them, Mr Quigley,’ I said. ‘Fine.’
‘I didn’t expect you to say that!’ he exclaimed. ‘I mean . . . don’t you mind?’
‘Not in the least.’
Robin Darcy leaned forward and asked me from across his wife and the shaky trainer, ‘How much do you charge Mr Quigley for saying to run Caspar’s filly on Friday?’
Oliver Quigley might be nervous, but not stupid. He listened, and understood. He opened and closed his mouth and would, I knew, continue to tap me for accurate gen that he didn’t have to pay for.
Robin Darcy, with seemingly genuine interest, then asked me politely when I’d first become interested in the weather, and I told him, as I’d explained a hundred times before, that I’d watched the clouds since I was six, and had never wanted a different life.
His amiability, I thought, was built on his certainty of his own mental superiority. I had long ago learned to leave that sort of belief unchallenged, and had received a couple of advancements in consequence. Only to myself could I admit my reprehensible cynicism. And to myself, often enough, I could also, with humility, admit that I’d more than met my match. I smiled weakly at Robin Darcy and couldn’t decide where his cleverness ended – or began.
Evelyn asked, ‘Where did you go to learn meteorology? Is there a special school for it?’
I said, ‘It’s called standing out in the rain.’
Kris, on the move back to the buffet, overheard both question and answer and replied to her over his shoulder, ‘Don’t listen to him. He’s a physicist. Dr Perry Stuart, no less.’
Robin yawned and closed his myopic eyes, but somewhere in that sharp brain there had been a quickening. I had seen it and could feel it, and didn’t know why he wanted to hide it.
Oliver Quigley hastened to assure me with many a quiver that he hadn’t meant to insult me by considering an outside firm better, when we both knew he had come darned near to it. The difference was that although he appeared vastly disturbed by it, I didn’t care at all. If Oliver Quigley would only take his shivery nerves and dump them on someone else’s doorstep, I would be delighted.
Caspar Harvey played the genial host faultlessly to give his guests good memories, collecting me from table, taking me in tow and introducing me to everyone in turn, persuading them to let me take their photo. Those who disliked the idea were overridden: Caspar offered refilled glasses, and got his way.
I snapped Quigley and Loricroft together, the pair of racehorse trainers topping up on crisp roast potatoes and pausing briefly in passing to discuss their trade. I heard snatches of Quigley – ‘he never pays on time’ – and then Loricroft – ‘my runner at Baden-Baden got bumped at the start.’
Loricroft’s bosomy wife confided proudly to others at the table, ‘George goes to Germany often and wins races there, don’t you, George?’ But Loricroft, coldly undermining her enthusiasm, cut the ‘often’ to ‘only once’ during the past season. ‘I win far more races in France, but I can’t expect my dear wife to get things right.’
He looked around to gather sympathetic responses and smiled with superiority down his nose. I thought Glenda a pain but her dear George an agony.
The splendid lunch narrowed down to coffee and worth-while port and eventually, with regret, the guests began to leave. Kris and I needed transport back to the Cherokee, though, and Bell was nowhere to be seen.
Caspar Harvey himself put an end to my hovering on one foot by halting in front of me and saying decisively, ‘While you’re here in Newmarket you may as well take a peek at my filly. Take her photo, too. Then you’ll know what’s at stake when you’re looking at Friday.’
He put a tugging hand on my arm and made it downright rude for me to pull away: but I had no reason not to see the filly, if that was what he wanted, and felt it a small enough courtesy after such a lunch, if Kris were not pressed for time for flying home before dark.
It wasn’t time that upset Kris, but the realization that he was expected to travel in the Land Rover again with Bell. There seemed no logical reason for four of us to travel in two cars to see the filly, but that was clearly what Caspar Harvey wanted; and when he’d cordially waved a temporary adieu to Oliver Quigley, his last departing guest, that was what Caspar Harvey got.
He drove out through the front gates, following Quigley’s pale blue Volvo, and leaving behind Kris for his daughter to bring in the Land Rover.
With a journey of only six or so miles to go, Caspar Harvey lost no time in saying what he’d manoeuvred me into hearing.
‘How unstable is your friend Kris?’
I said vaguely, ‘Um...’
Harvey announced, ‘I don’t want him as a son-in-law.’
‘At the moment,’ I said, ‘it doesn’t look probable.’
‘Rubbish! The girl’s besotted. A year ago they fought like cats, and I’ll tell you, I was glad of it. Not that he’s not a brilliant forecaster; he is. So I went on acting on his weather advice and he’s saved me thousands, literally thousands.’
He paused, finding the question difficult, I guessed, but asking it just the same.
‘Can you tell him to leave my daughter alone?’
The short answer was of course no, I couldn’t. It didn’t seem to me, though, to be the right question.
When I didn’t answer at once Harvey said, ‘A year ago she was spitting mad. She went off and got a job in Spain. Then six weeks ago she came back wanting me to arrange today’s lunch and not to tell Kris she’d be here, and I did it for her, God knows why, thinking she’d thoroughly got over him, and I was wrong. She hasn’t.’
He paused gloomily, his big car purring, eating up the miles. ‘He asked if he could bring a friend to navigate today and when I saw you . . . and you’re obviously sensible – not like him – I thought of getting you to tell him not to upset Bell all over again . . . but I suppose you’ll think it was a bad idea...’
I said a shade helplessly, ‘They’ll work it out for themselves...’
It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, and we finished the six miles in mutually unsatisfied silence.
Oliver Quigley’s stable-yard, it transpired, was on the far side of the town where shops and hotels gave way to the essential business of the place, to boxes for polished horses, and to the Heath galloping grounds where they could practise winning and turn their gloss into procreation.
Quigley the trainer drove his pale blue Volvo into his own domain, and even there he looked ill at ease. The big quadrangle stable-yard was alive with lads fetching hay and water to each horse, and putting the straw floor-covering clean and comfortable for the night. The lad in authority – clearly the foreman, the head lad – was doling out scoops of food for each horse. Some of the stable boxes had open doors, some had interior lights on, some were altogether closed and dark. There was an air of wanting to finish the Sunday afternoon programme and get off as soon as possible for more enjoyable pursuits.
Caspar Harvey had stopped his car beside Quigley’s and made no more reference to his daughter’s feelings for Kris.
There was a notable smartening of body language among the lads at the sight of the two most powerful men in their lives, Oliver Quigley the trainer (and never mind his self-conscious fluttering, it was he who paid the wages), and Caspar Harvey, owner of four superstars that gave kudos not only to Quigley’s stable, but to the whole sport of racing.
The filly who might run on Friday was to be found, it seemed, behind one of the closed doors, not yet put right for the night.
Caspar Harvey with pleased anticipation strode over to a row of six boxes separated from the others on one side by the path leading out from the yard and down towards the Warren Hill gallops, and on the other side by a path giving on to the large house where it seemed Quigley lived.
‘This is the filly’s box,’ he said, beckoning to me to come as he unlatched the bolts of the top half of the split stable door. ‘She’s in here.’
And so she was. But she wouldn’t race on Friday.
I watched Harvey’s face change from pride to horror. I saw his throat constrict as he groped for air. His treasure, the Friday filly, the two-year-old preparing to take the females’ crown, the possible over-winter favourite for the following year’s 1,000 Guineas and Oaks, the future dam of champions, the golden chestnut with a single small white star on her forehead, this fast and famous athlete was down on her knees and groaning, sweat darkening her flanks.
While Harvey, Quigley and I watched in long stunned seconds she toppled over onto her side, laboured breath wheezing, her pain obvious.
She looked on the point of death, but she didn’t die.