“The next one, or never! Harry.”
It was a lot of money for one message.
His horse, bored of standing still, shifted uncomfortably and tossed her head. She’d heard him shout and felt him stiffen in the saddle. And she was cold too.
The ripples died away and the moon reformed on the surface; a single, solid shape, unchanged as though the phone and its text had never existed.
Zac picked up his reins, shortening them through his fingers until he felt the contact in her mouth again. Then he looked ahead, away from the river and told her with his legs that it was time to go home. Rusty leapt forward, delighted to be moving again and trotting barely two paces before breaking into canter. Zac kept her head up, pushed her on more and then rose in the stirrups, crouching forward to give her an easy time over the uneven ground. He let her go fast, fury dulling reason on the dark ribbon of pasture and felt her respond, the old horse running for home with the huge, exuberant strides of a sixteen hand thoroughbred. Zac listened to the regular four time of her gallop, felt the wind sting his cheeks and closed his mind to the impossibility ahead.
But two miles of grass were not enough and he was still mad as he turned onto the lane. Zac eased Rusty back to a trot, gave her a long rein and shivered while the horse cooled down, stretching her neck and snorting clouds of hot steam. He gritted his teeth as his own sweat cooled; the cross country shirt was stuck to him now and dew was dripping off his hair. The track was round the next bend though, the fifty yards of ruts and potholes that led to the livery yard. Zac thought of a hot shower and turned the corner.
They splashed through the puddles, Rusty enjoying herself and not wanting to walk the last few yards sedately. Zac stopped her close to her box and paused, upright in the saddle and looking straight ahead at an imaginary dressage judge. The habit was hard to kick; he’d spent years teaching horses to stop “full square”, their hooves forming a rectangle, and then to stand still. Rusty, still snorting, concentrated for three seconds and then stepped forward, tossing her head cheerfully. He patted her again and took his feet out of the stirrups. Why the hell was he still practising?
Then the stable girl appeared, as if she’d been waiting, so he jumped down, handed her the reins and pulled off his crash hat, fumbling the buckle with fingers that were numb. He ran them through his hair, pulling out the tangles and pushing the curls back off his face.
Zac shivered again as more dew dripped from his hair, peeled off his gloves and dropped them into his hat.
‘Freezing. And the bloody–.’ He stopped himself: none of this was her fault. Zac took a deep breath and spoke again more quietly. ‘Yes, thank you, and I’ve worked her hard. So just a thin rug now and put the quilted one on later? It’ll be cold all day.’ He was as careful with his horses as his cars. He unzipped the inside pocket of his riding jacket, handed her a crumpled ten pound note and stroked the horse’s neck once again. ‘And sorry about the early start. See you, Rusty.’
She took it and smiled her thanks. ‘Why’s she called Rusty?’
‘She’s owned by my company. I restore old cars. It’s only her stable name; her real one’s on her passport.’ Zac patted Rusty one more time and headed for the changing rooms.
‘What’s her real name?’
He turned back and grinned despite everything. ‘Creative Accounting!’
He was proud of that name; it had a real ring over the Tannoy. “Zac Zender, on Creative Accounting, nursing that excellent dressage score and on his way now to another clear round”. He’d seen ripples of amusement from the crowd as he’d hurtled past and had sometimes even found time to smile and wave as he slowed for a fence.
The stable girl had a nice smile too. They looked at each other and Zac forgot his anger for a moment. Then he turned away sharply, before she did, taking the last three strides to the warmth of the changing rooms. Inside, his breath no longer showed but the place smelled musty so he stripped off quickly, adjusted the shower and stood underneath, the peaceful aftermath of hard exercise fading all too fast. Zac winced as the water seesawed between just too cool and rather too hot, soaped himself quickly and wished he could ride again soon. He loved being out really early.
The water ran cold, suddenly and with intent so he gave up, half rinsed, shook his head and jumped out to drip on the cracked tiled floor while he rummaged for his towel. Thanks to that bloody message, his next ride would be weeks away now. And by then he would be either a millionaire or a bankrupt. He rubbed himself over with the damp towel and decided that the chances were only about even.
Fifty-fifty! After all they’d done. He flung on his clothes, still furious, stood his boots under his locker and went outside. Rusty was feeding quietly in her box but the girl was still there, pushing the last shovelful of muck around the stable floor and glancing up at intervals. Zac, not wanting another conversation, looked away and unlocked his car.
He folded himself into the seat, reached down into the footwell and twisted the battery switch with his right hand. The knob was grey and smooth from thirty years of use but still had a solid, mechanical feel and he knew that, if ever it did break, he would be able to repair it. Like the rest of the car, it was built to last and the thought reassured him every day as he drove to work, enjoying the hard suspension, the stark cockpit and, above all, the exhaust note. His clients loved it.
‘Clients.’ The thought brought him back to reality and he turned the key, suddenly aware of the time. Zac revved the engine and let the clutch in firmly, scattering gravel behind him. ‘Bloody clients!’
A horse whinnied and he eased off instantly, hating to scare the animals he loved. Zac took a deep breath and drove down the pot-holed track carefully, watching the stable girl’s face recede in the mirror.
He reached the gateway, looked both ways and swung out fast onto the road, pushing the car as hard as the horse now, revving the engine freely to the point where other manufacturers would have placed a red line on the tachometer dial. Aston Martin recommended five thousand rpm in the handbook, but left the decision to the owner.
The road was wetter than he’d realised though and he nearly overshot the first roundabout, teetering in with the back wheels locked and the car slewing sideways. It was a tricky turn with lousy camber and he’d been out once with a client, trying out an old Mercedes, who’d skidded straight on, pulling up with a sheepish grin to make a ‘U’ turn further down the road.
Zac turned right, as he’d intended to, by stabbing the gas and spinning the wheel the other way to keep the big car straight. He accelerated away and smiled grimly; his racing days might be over but he could still do it.
It was ten twisty miles to Torsen, seven minutes in the wet, on his own. Today, anger sliced off another minute and he was feeling better as the first houses appeared. Zac slowed reluctantly to near legal speeds and was thinking the dual carriageway a waste at eighty-five when the lorry pulled out of a hidden side turning, straight ahead of him.
He jerked the wheel right, swerving towards the fast lane and then instantly back. There was something there, a shadow, something fast in his blind spot. A motorbike? Suddenly there was nowhere to go but into the back of the lorry.
“Kicking the Tyres” was first published in 2006 and is now serialised for Kindle. Part 1 (Nearside Front!) is available now.