Daniel Roke
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Extract From For Kicks

'You're a spoilt bad-tempered bastard,' my sister said, and jolted me into a course I nearly died of.

I carried her furious unattractive face down to the station and into the steamed-up compartment of Monday gloom and half done crosswords and all across London to my unloved office.

Bastard I was not: not with parents joined by a bishop with half Debrett and Burke in the pews. And if spoilt, it was their doing, their legacy to an heir born accidentally at the last possible minute when earlier intended pregnancies had produced five daughters. My frail eighty-six-year-old father in his second childhood saw me chiefly as the means whereby a much hated cousin was to be done out of an earldom he had coveted: my father delighted in my existence and I remained to him a symbol.

My mother had been forty-seven at my birth and was now seventy-three. With a mind which had to all intents stopped developing round about Armistice Day 1918, she had been for as long as I could remember completely batty. Eccentric, her acquaintances more kindly said. Anyway, one of the first things I ever learnt was that age had nothing to do with wisdom.

Too old to want a young child around them, they had brought me up and educated me at arm's length – nursemaids, prep school and Eton – and in my hearing had regretted the length of the school holidays. Our relationship was one of politeness and duty, but not of affection. They didn't even seem to expect me to love them, and I didn't. I didn't love anyone. I hadn't had any practice.

I was first at the office as usual. I collected the key from the caretaker's cubbyhole, walked unhurriedly down the long echoing hall, up the gritty stone staircase, down a narrow dark corridor, and at the far end of it unlocked the heavily brown varnished front door of the Anglia Bloodstock Agency. Inside, typical of the old London warren-type blocks of offices, comfort took over from barracks. The several rooms opening right and left from the passage were close carpeted, white painted, each with the occupant's name in neat black on the door. The desks ran to extravagances like tooled leather tops, and there were sporting prints on the wall. I had not yet, however, risen to this success bracket.

The room where I had worked (on and off) for nearly six years lay at the far end, past the reference room and the pantry. 'Transport' it said, on the half-open door. I pushed it wide. Nothing had changed from Friday. The three desks looked the same as usual: Christopher's, with thick uneven piles of papers held down by cricket balls; Maggie's typewriter cover askew, carbons screwed up beside it, and a vase of dead chrys-anthemums dropping petals into a scummy teacup; and mine, bare.

I hung up my coat, sat down, opened my desk drawers one by one and uselessly straightened the already tidy contents. I checked that it was precisely eight minutes to nine by my accurate watch, which made the office clock two minutes slow. After this activity I stared straight ahead unseeingly at the calendar on the pale green wall.

A spoilt bad-tempered bastard, my sister said.

I didn't like it. I was not bad-tempered, I assured myself defensively. I was not. But my thoughts carried no conviction. I decided to break with tradition and refrain from reminding Maggie that I found her slovenly habits irritating.

Christopher and Maggie arrived together, laughing, at ten past nine.

'Hullo,' said Christopher cheerfully, hanging up his coat. 'I see you lost on Saturday.'

'Yes,' I agreed.

'Better luck next time,' said Maggie automatically, blowing the sodden petals out of the cup on to the floor. I bit my tongue to keep it still. Maggie picked up the vase and made for the pantry, scattering petals as she went. Presently she came back with the vase, fumbled it, and left a dripping trail of Friday's tea across my desk. In silence I took some white blotting paper from the drawer, mopped up the spots, and threw the blotting paper in the waste basket. Christopher watched in sardonic amusement, pale eyes crinkling behind thick spectacles.

'A short head, I believe?' he said, lifting one of the cricket balls and going through the motions of bowling it through the window.

'A short head,' I agreed. All the same if it had been ten lengths, I thought sourly. You got no present for losing, whatever the margin.

'My uncle had a fiver on you.'

'I'm sorry,' I said formally.

Christopher pivoted on one toe and let go: the cricket ball crashed into the wall, leaving a mark. He saw me frowning at it and laughed. He had come straight into the office from Cambridge two months before, robbed of a cricket blue through deteriorating eyesight and having failed his finals into the bargain. He remained always in better spirits than I, who had suffered no similar reverses. We tolerated each other. I found it difficult, as always, to make friends, and he had given up trying.

Maggie came back from the pantry, sat down at her desk, took her nail varnish out of the stationery drawer and began brushing on the silvery pink. She was a large assured girl from Surbiton with a naturally unkind tongue and a suspect talent for registering remorse immediately after the barbs were securely in.

The cricket ball slipped out of Christopher's hand and rolled across Maggie's desk. Lunging after it, he brushed one of his heaps of letters into a fluttering muddle on the floor, and the ball knocked over Maggie's bottle of varnish, which scattered pretty pink viscous blobs all over the 'We have received yours of the fourteenth ult.'

'God-damn,' said Christopher with feeling.

Old Cooper who dealt with insurance came into the room at his doddery pace and looked at the mess with cross disgust and pinched nostrils. He held out to me the sheaf of papers he had brought.

'Your pigeon, Henry. Fix it up for the earliest possible.'


As he turned to go he said to Christopher and Maggie in a complaining voice certain to annoy them, 'Why can't you two be as efficient as Henry? He's never late, he's never untidy, his work is always correct and always done in time. Why don't you try to be more like him?'

I winced inwardly and waited for Maggie's inevitable retaliation. She would be in good form: it was Monday morning.

'I wouldn't want to be like Henry in a thousand years,' she said sharply. 'He's a prim, dim, sexless nothing. He's not alive.'

Not my day, definitely.

'He rides those races, though,' said Christopher in mild defence.

'And if he fell off and broke both his legs, all he'd care about would be seeing they got the bandages straight.'

'The bones,' I said.


'The bones straight.'

Christopher blinked and laughed. 'Well, well, what do you know? The still waters of Henry might just possibly be running deep.'

'Deep, nothing,' said Maggie. 'A stagnant pond, more like.'

'Slimy and smelly?' I suggested.

'No... oh dear... I mean, I'm sorry...'

'Never mind,' I said. 'Never mind.' I looked at the paper in my hand and picked up the telephone.

'Henry...' said Maggie desperately. 'I didn't mean it.'

Old Cooper tut-tutted and doddered away along the passage, and Christopher began sorting his varnished letters. I got through to Yardman Transport and asked for Simon Searle. 'Four yearlings from the Newmarket sales to go to Buenos Aires as soon as possible,' I said.

'There might be a delay.'


'We've lost Peters.'

'Careless,' I remarked.

'Oh, ha-ha.'

'Has he left?'

Simon hesitated perceptibly. 'It looks like it.'

'How do you mean?'

'He didn't come back from one of the trips. Last Monday. Just never turned up for the flight back, and hasn't been seen or heard of since.'

'Hospitals?' I said.

'We checked those, of course. And the morgue, and the gaol. Nothing. He just vanished. And as he hasn't done anything wrong the police aren't interested in finding him. No police would be, it isn't criminal to leave your job without notice. They say he fell for a girl, very likely, and decided not to go home.'

'Is he married?'

'No.' He sighed. 'Well, I'll get on with your yearlings, but I can't give you even an approximate date.'

'Simon,' I said slowly. 'Didn't something like this happen before?'

'Er... do you mean Ballard?'

'One of your liaison men,' I said.

'Yes. Well . . . I suppose so.'

'In Italy?' I suggested gently.

There was a short silence the other end. 'I hadn't thought of it,' he said. 'Funny coincidence. Well... I'll let you know about the yearlings.'

'I'll have to get on to Clarksons if you can't manage it.'

He sighed. 'I'll do my best. I'll ring you back tomorrow.'

I put down the receiver and started on a large batch of customs declarations, and the long morning disintegrated towards the lunch hour. Maggie and I said nothing at all to each other and Christopher cursed steadily over his letters. At one sharp I beat even Maggie in the rush to the door.

Outside, the December sun was shining. On impulse I jumped on to a passing bus, got off at Marble Arch, and walked slowly through the park to the Serpentine. I was still there, sitting on a bench, watching the sun ripple on the water, when the hands on my watch read two o'clock. I was still there at half past. At a quarter to three I threw some stones with force into the lake, and a park keeper told me not to.

A spoilt bad-tempered bastard. It wouldn't have been so bad if she had been used to saying things like that, but she was a gentle see-no-evil person who had been made to wash her mouth out with soap for swearing as a child and had never taken the risk again. She was my youngest sister, fifteen years my elder, unmarried, plain, and quietly intelligent. She had reversed roles with our parents: she ran the house and managed them as her children. She also to a great extent managed me, and always had.

A repressed, quiet, 'good' little boy I had been: and a quiet, withdrawn, secretive man I had become. I was almost pathologically tidy and methodical, early for every appointment, controlled alike in behaviour, handwriting and sex. A prim dim nothing, as Maggie said. The fact that for some months now I had not felt in the least like that inside was confusing, and getting more so.

I looked up into the blue gold-washed sky. Only there, I thought with a fleeting inward smile, only there am I my own man. And perhaps in steeplechases. Perhaps there too, sometimes.

She had been waiting for me as usual at breakfast, her face fresh from her early walk with the dogs. I had seen little of her over the weekend: I'd been racing on Saturday, and on Sunday I'd left home before breakfast and gone back late.

'Where did you go yesterday?' she asked.

I poured some coffee and didn't answer. She was used to that, however.

'Mother wanted to speak to you.'

'What about?'

'She has asked the Filyhoughs to lunch next Sunday.'

I tidily ate my bacon and egg. I said calmly, 'That coy spotty Angela. It's a waste of time. I won't be here anyway.'

'Angela will inherit half a million,' she said earnestly.

'And we have beetles in the roof,' I agreed dryly.

'Mother wants to see you married.'

'Only to a very rich girl.'

My sister acknowledged that this was true, but saw nothing particularly wrong in it. The family fortunes were waning: as my parents saw it, the swop of a future title for a future fortune was a suitable bargain. They didn't seem to realize that a rich girl nowadays had more sense than to hand over her wealth to her husband, and could leave with it intact if she felt like it.

'Mother told Angela you would be here.'

'That was silly of her.'


'I do not like Angela,' I said coldly. 'I do not intend to be here for lunch next Sunday. Is that quite clear?'

'But you must... you can't leave me to deal with them all alone.'

'You'll just have to restrain Mother from issuing these stupid invitations. Angela is the umpteenth unattractive heiress she's invited this year. I'm fed up with it.'

'We need...'

'I am not,' I said stiffly, 'a prostitute.'

She stood up, bitterly offended. 'That's unkind.'

'And while we are at it, I wish the beetles good luck. This damp decaying pile of a house eats up every penny we've got and if it fell down tomorrow we'd all be far better off.'

'It's our home,' she said, as if that was the final word.

When it was mine, I would get rid of it; but I didn't say that, and encouraged by my silence she tried persuasion. 'Henry, please be here for the Filyhoughs.'

'No,' I said forcefully. 'I won't. I want to do something else next Sunday. You can count me right out.'

She suddenly and completely lost her temper. Shaking she said, 'I cannot stand much more of your damned autistic behaviour. You're a spoilt, bad-tempered bastard ...'

Hell, I thought by the Serpentine, was I really? And if so, why?

At three, with the air growing cold, I got up and left the park, but the office I went to was not the elegant suite of Anglia Bloodstock in Hanover Square. There, I thought, they could go on wondering why the ever-punctual Henry hadn't returned from lunch. I went instead by taxi to a small dilapidated rubbish-strewn wharf down in the Pool, where the smell of Thames mud at low tide rose earthily into my nostrils as I paid the fare.

At one end of the wharf, on an old bombed site, a small square concrete building had been thrown up shortly after the war and shoddily maintained ever since. Its drab walls, striped by rust from leaking gutters, badly needed a coat of 'Snowcem'; its rectangular metal windows were grimed and flaking. and no one had polished the brass door fittings since my previous visit six months ago. There was no need here to put on a plushy front for the customers; the customers were not expected to come.

I walked up the uncarpeted stairs, across the eight foot square of linoleumed landing and through the open door of Simon Searle's room. He looked up from some complicated doodling on a memo pad, lumbered to his feet and greeted me with a huge handshake and a wide grin. As he was the only person who ever gave me this sort of welcome I came as near to unbending with him as with anyone. But we had never done more than meet now and again on business and occasionally repair to a pub afterwards. There he was inclined to lots of beer and bonhomie, and I to a single whisky, and that was that.

'You haven't trekked all the way down here about those yearlings?' he protested. 'I told you...'

'No,' I said, coming to the point abruptly. 'I came to find out if Yardman would give me a job.'

'You,' said Simon, 'want to work here?'

'That's right.'

'Well I'm damned.' Simon sat down on the edge of his desk and his bulk settled and spread comfortably around him. He was a vast shambling man somewhere in the doldrums between thirty-five and forty-five, bald on top, bohemian in dress and broad of mind.

'Why, for God's sake?' he said, looking me up and down. A more thorough contrast than me in my charcoal worsted to him in his baggy green corduroys would have been hard to find.

'I need a change.'

'For the worse?' He was sardonic.

'Of course not. And I'd like the chance of a bit of globe-trotting now and then.'

'You can afford to do that in comfort. You don't have to do it on a horse transport.'

Like so many other people, he took it for granted that I had money. I hadn't. I had only my salary from Anglia, and what I could earn by being frankly, almost notoriously, a shamateur jockey. Every penny I got was earmarked. From my father I took only my food and the beetle-infested roof over my head, and neither expected nor asked for anything else.

'I imagine I would like horse transport,' I said equably. 'What are the chances?'

'Oh,' Simon laughed. 'You've only to ask. I can't see him turning you down.'

But Yardman very nearly did turn me down, because he couldn't believe I really meant it.

'My dear boy, now think carefully, I do beg you. Anglia Bloodstock is surely a better place for you? However well you might do here, there isn't any power or any prestige...We must face facts, we must indeed.'

'I don't particularly care for power and prestige.'

He sighed deeply. 'There speaks one to whom they come by birth. Others of us are not so fortunate as to be able to despise them.'

'I don't despise them. Also I don't want them. Or not yet.'

He lit a dark cigar with slow care. I watched him, taking him in. I hadn't met him before, and as he came from a different mould from the top men of Anglia I found that I didn't instinctively know how his mind worked. After years of being employed by people of my own sort of background, where much that was understood never needed to be stated, Yardman was a foreign country.

He was being heavily paternal, which somehow came oddly from a thin man. He wore black-rimmed spectacles on a strong beaky nose. His cheeks were hollowed, and his mouth in consequence seemed to have to stretch to cover his teeth and gums. His lips curved downwards strongly at the corners, giving him at times a disagreeable and at times a sad expression. He was bald on the crown of his head, which was not noticeable at first sight, and his skin looked unhealthy. But his voice and his fingers were strong, and as I grew to acknowledge, his will and character also.

He puffed slowly at the cigar, a slim fierce-looking thing with an aroma to match. From behind the glasses his eyes considered me without haste. I hadn't a clue as to what he was thinking.

'All right,' he said at last. 'I'll take you on as an assistant to Searle, and we'll see how it goes.'

'Well... thank you,' I answered. 'But what I really came to ask for was Peters's job.'

'Peters's . . .' His mouth literally fell open, revealing a bottom row of regular false teeth. He shut it with a snap. 'Don't be silly, my boy. You can't have Peters's job.'

'Searle says he has left.'

'I dare say, but that's not the point, is it?'

I said calmly, 'I've been in the Transport Section of Anglia for more than five years, so I know all the technical side of it, and I've ridden horses all my life,

so I know how to look after them. I agree that I haven't any practical experience, but I could learn very quickly.'

'Lord Grey,' he said, shaking his head, 'I don't think you realize just what Peters's job was.'

'Of course I do,' I said. 'He travelled on the planes with the horses and saw they arrived safely and well. He saw that they passed the Customs all right at both ends and that the correct people collected them, and where necessary saw that another load of horses was brought safely back again. It is a responsible job and it entails a lot of travelling and I am seriously applying for it.'

'You don't understand,' he said with some impatience. 'Peters was a travelling head groom.'

'I know.'

He smoked, inscrutable. Three puffs. I waited, quiet and still.

'You're not... er... in any trouble, at Anglia?'

'No. I've grown tired of a desk job, that's all.' I had been tired of it from the day I started, to be exact.

'How about racing?'

'I have Saturdays off at Anglia, and I take my three weeks annual holiday in separate days during the winter and spring. And they have been very considerate about extra half-days.'

'Worth it to them in terms of trade, I dare say.' He tapped off the ash absentmindedly into the inkwell. 'Are you thinking of giving it up?'


'Mm...ifyou work for me, would I get any increase in business from your racing connections?'

'I'd see you did,' I said.

He turned his head away and looked out of the window. The river tide was sluggishly at the ebb, and away over on the other side a row of cranes stood like red meccano toys in the beginnings of dusk. I couldn't even guess then at the calculations clicking away at high speed in Yardman's nimble brain, though I've often thought about those few minutes since.

'I think you are being unwise, my dear boy. Youth... youth...' He sighed, straightened his shoulders and turned the beaky nose back in my direction. His shadowed greenish eyes regarded me steadily from deep sockets, and he told me what Peters had been earning: fifteen pounds a trip plus three pounds expenses for each overnight stop. He clearly thought that that would deter me; and it nearly did.

'How many trips a week?' I asked, frowning.

'It depends on the time of year. You know that of course. After the yearling sales, and when the brood mares come over, it might be three trips. To France, perhaps even four. Usually two, sometimes none.'

There was a pause. We looked at each other. I learned nothing.

'All right,' I said abruptly. 'Can I have the job?'

His lips twisted in a curious expression which I later came to recognize as an ironic smile.

'You can try it,' he said. 'If you like.'