Knock Down - By Dick Francis
Mrs Kerry Sanders looked like no Angel of Death.
Mrs Kerry Sanders looked like a rich cross American lady opening a transparent umbrella against a spatter of cold rain.
‘This,’ she said in disbelief, ‘Is Ascot goddam Sales?’
She was small and exquisitely packaged in suede with mink trimmings. Her skin put peaches to rout and her scent easily prevailed over British October weather and a hundred nearby horses. With forty years behind her she wore assurance as naturally as diamonds; and she wore diamonds like crusty knuckle-dusters across the base of all her fingers.
‘Ascot?’ she said, her voice brimming with overtones of silk hats, champagne and Royal Lawns, ‘This depressing dump?’
‘I did try to warn you,’ I said with mild apology.
She gave me a sharp unfriendly glance. ‘You didn’t say it was like something out of Dickens.’
I looked across at the primitive sale ring: eight metres in diameter, open to the skies. A patch of rough field grass in the centre encircled by an asphalt path for the horses to walk on, and surrounding that, for the comfort of the customers, an elementary wooden shelter, backed and roofed with planks.
Plans for a bright new tomorrow were already past the drawing board stage, but on that day the future warm brick building with civilised armchairs was still a twinkle in the architect’s eye. The only available seating was a six inch wide wooden shelf running round the inside wall of the shelter at hip height, upon which few people ever rested for long owing to the local numbness it induced.
Throughout the sale ring’s wooden O the wind whistled with enthusiasm, but it was just possible when it was raining to find dry patches if you beat everyone else to them first.
‘It used to be worse,’ I said.
‘There used to be no shelter at all.’
She diagnosed the amusement in my voice and if anything it made her more annoyed.
‘It’s all very well for you. You’re used to a rough life.’
‘Yes… Well,’ I said. ‘Do you want to see this horse?’
‘Now that I’m here,’ she said grudgingly.
To one side of the sale ring, and built to a specification as Upstairs as the wooden circle was Downstairs, was a magnificent turn of the century stable yard, paved and tidy, with rows of neat-doored boxes round a spacious quadrangle. There was intricate stone carving on the arches into the yard, and charming little ventilation turrets along the roofs, and Mrs Kerry Sanders began to look more secure about the whole excursion.
The horses stabled in these prime quarters were in general those offered for sale last on the programme. Unfortunately the horse she had insisted on inspecting before I bought it for her came earlier and with a small sigh I wheeled her round in the opposite direction.
Thunder clouds immediately gathered again in the blue-green eyes, and two vertical lines appeared sharply between her eyebrows. Before her lay an expanse of scrubby wet grass with rows of functional black wooden stabling on the far side. The rain fell suddenly more heavily on the shiny umbrella, and the fine-grained leather of her boots was staining dark and muddy round the edges.
‘It’s too much,’ she said.
I simply waited. She was there by her own choice, and I had used absolutely no pressure for or against.
‘I guess I can see it in the ring,’ she said, which was no way to buy a horse. ‘How long before they sell it?’
‘About an hour.’
‘Then let’s get out of this goddam rain.’
The alternative to the open air was the moderately new wooden building housing coffee urns at one end and a bar at the other. The Sanders nose wrinkled automatically at the press of damp humanity within, and I noticed, as one does when seeing through the eyes of visitors, that the board floor was scattered more liberally than usual with discarded plastic drinking cups and the wrappers from the sandwiches.
‘Gin,’ Kerry Sanders said belligerently without waiting to be asked.
I gave her a brief meant-to-be-encouraging smile and joined the scrum to the bar. Someone slopped beer down my sleeve and the man in front of me bought five assorted drinks and argued about his change: there had to be better ways, I thought resignedly, of passing Wednesday afternoons.
‘Jonah,’ said a voice in my ear. ‘Not like you, chum, to chase the booze.’
I glanced back to where Kerry Sanders sat at a small table looking disgusted. The other eyes at my shoulder followed in her direction and the voice chuckled lewdly. ‘Some lay,’ he said.