Sandra Coffey is a writer from Galway. A former journalist, Sandra is inspired by her upbringing on a farm, quirky stories and her time working for regional and national newspapers. When not writing, she is a solo singer who released her debut album, Morning Zoo, last year.
By Sandra Coffey
The oil from the bicycle spokes dripped thickly onto the concrete. I replaced the red oil canister and put it back on its shelf, remembering Father’s words to place its handle facing outwards. I felt ready for what lay ahead; a race course put together from a pencil drawing and a list of unused items that lay around the farmyard I knew every bump of. The drawing was folded out neatly by my older sister Gwen who drew it out with the precision of a woman 10 years her elder.
Fences were numbered one to 10 and a list of items needed for each one was written in brackets. Square bales of straw were lifted out from the shed. Planks of wood were placed on either side. An old hen house door, destined for the scrap man, was being put to use as a ramp over a set of four tractor tyres. Tyres were kicked as they lay on the ground to check their hardness. Some had green around the edges having spent the winter housing fallen leaves.
The visitors would be arriving soon. Although they were cousins who lived four miles away, they were always spoken of as “the visitors”. It was a habit passed down to us from our parents. We walked the course, counting our steps between fences. We nudged the already fixed tyres and slapped a hand down on the bales securing them in place. I wondered what fences could separate the gutsy-stayers from the rest. Gwen stood with arms on her hips. She admired her work thinking it looked like a point-to-point course from nearby Ahamount Races.
Gwen looked at her watch. It was half past three and time to go inside. There was just enough time to get an ice cold drink and take our seats in the back kitchen to watch the steeplechase event of the year. Gwen had looked through the list for the Aintree Grand National. Party Politics was her loyal bet.
Keepthewolffromthedoor, 1F5644P. Pulled up, fourth, fourth, sixth, fifth, fall and a win. This was how our analysis began earlier that day as we picked our horses and Mum wrote them on a notepad.
‘Going for the biggest horse in the race, means it takes more effort for him to get around’, I spoke then as the knowledgeable younger brother, the master of ceremonies in the school playground. The five year gap in age had not awarded Gwen any superiority that came with the tag of older sister.
‘Party Politics has a tube inserted in his windpipe to help him breathe. Other jockeys can hear him coming a mile off.’ Gwen slapped her palm down on her knee and continued to stare at the tv screen.
The procession began and the jockeys and their horses were introduced to the crowd. We never travelled to the Grand National and we never felt the urge to make our parents bring us there. April was the busy lambing season. We knew better than to ask. Father placed his wellingtons in the enclaves by the Stanley range and positioned himself between the fire and the television, to get the best of both.
Peter Bromley’s voice gradually quietened ours as he showed off his weeks of preparation with details of this horse and that fence. Party Politics stood at 17 hands tall and his jockey wore purple and baby pink colours so he was easy to spot among the large field of runners. I could see my choice, Royal Athlete in the red cap and black and white colours. Class name, I thought. The horses began to leave the parade ring. In front of the stands, their hooves played a staccato tune that tore the grass open.
‘And they’re off in the national!’ announced Bromley. The jockeying from side to side wove colours together like a piecemeal dinner set being laid on the table. Gwen would gradually lean outwards from her chair. I watched it standing up. I still do.
The camera panned across white tents that were folded by the side of the track. Four were used last year to put around horses that died trying to get finish.
‘Does the horse get a funeral when the tent goes up? Was it blessed?’ These were questions I don’t remember any commentator having the answer for.
First time jockeys guided their mounts over the five foot high fences only to realise the scale of the near seven foot drops on the landing side. I wondered what the jockeys chatted about as they go around the track. Do you think they even talk to each other? I asked Gwen but she gave no reply.
‘Giveamanakick followed closely by Whats Another Year, Bringingitallbackhome, Romany King, Snowy Day, Autumn, and Joe’s Day Out. A good length’s clear of Cool Ground, Craggy Island, and Kentucky Morning.’
That was how the commentary spilled out.
‘Over the Melling Road.’
The camera flicked briefly to the stands. Crowds waved, gave peace signs or called out their horses’ name. ‘Who is still in the race? Father shouted. Mum’s horse had been pulled up early. As she prodded the potatoes with a fork, she asked us to shout for her when the winner was coming in, so she could see the style of the winning connections.
‘I see the purple colours of my horse,’ Gwen’s voice rose sharply like a scale, relieved that she could spot Party Politics among the stream of horses that galloped towards the Chair. Why on earth would anyone call a fence the Chair? It’s funny, surely.
‘Beautiful camera work,’ Gwen felt the need to confirm what we were all looking at as Party Politics’ lightly brushed the top of the fence with his belly. By now, horses had separated into pockets of threes and fours. Horses without their jockeys straddled the edges of the track, avoiding the fences. A loose horse was the only thing that caused us more worry than the fences.
‘Is there such thing as horse goodies? That would tempt them off the track,’ Gwen declared, convinced that this method should be tried.
And now back to Peter O’Sullevan. The television volume was only this high for the Angelus or the lotto numbers. We knew the run-in was near.
‘They’re coming down towards the final fence now, Royal Athlete edging into the lead, to the right is Master Oats and Party Politics who is making good ground. Royal Athlete has more left, it’s between these two now. Could this be a second win for Party Politics? Royal Athlete has gone past, past Party Politics, who has no answer.
‘Royal Athlete is the winner. Royal Athlete is the winner. Royal Athlete arrives home to rapturous rounds of applause from the crowd. Royal Athlete has won the National in stunning fashion.’
The television picture shook slightly with the delighted punch I gave the cabinet.
‘I won, I won.’ Mum came rushing in and went straight to the bowl of keys to check the odds. ‘14/1 odds Tommy. You’ll be able to buy yourself that guitar you were after.’
I was skipping around the room. On the tv, the winning connections came rushing out. A reporter stood by waiting to ask questions. I began to work out how much I was set to make.
‘You’d better be getting ready for your own race,’ Father said turning away from the television as if the rain and wind was at his back. Mum kept an eye on the style as she plated up. ‘The visitors will be arriving shortly,’ she said.
The back door slammed. ‘All is set for the Knockmeddan Champion Chase. I just came up with that name,’ I said to Gwen as we ran around the side of our house, down the steps and into the yard. Gwen had a new bike this year, a second hand racer, owned by a young teenager who sold it after she got pregnant. Gwen carried the newspaper and scissors out to the yard and started to cut around the edges of the colours of our mounts. With sellotape, we stuck it to the back of our saddles. When the visitors arrived they would do the same.
‘We need to sort out the line-up for the race,’ I pointed to the lines of bricks that doubled as bike lanes at the start line. With his hands off the handlebars, Cuddy rode in on his mount Aldanti, circling round Gwen before he stopped.
‘I’ve already got my colours on,’ said he smiling. Gwen knew this as Aldanti had not run at Aintree for many years but his win was often talked about during lulls in commentary.
‘I saw the rest getting ready at Badger’s place. They’re coming behind me.,’ Cuddy said as he dismounted.
In they came, one by one, doing a circle before they came to a stop. Gwen worked out the line-up, deciding that last year’s top three should be in spots three, four and five. That was me, Cuddy and John. Gwen was quick to spot Denise’s new bike complete with sporty stickers.
‘Nice stickers Denise.’
‘The bike is brand new too.’
With my thumb on my bike bell, I asked for quiet so all racers could hear the countdown.
“1,2,3 – off!”
Gwen took off but failed to get her right foot up on the pedal and immediately lost the vigour her effort should have given. I took an early lead as the race entered the gates into the haggard and on to the first fence. The old henhouse door made for an easy introduction. Up and over.
‘Peasy!’ yelled Cuddy.
Denise had started to run in the school athletic club and her fitness level was bound to be up on previous years. Our tyres rattled over the metal bars and on past the cattle crush. Badger or Ollie, as we called him after Mass, lurked in the middle of the pack.
As we rounded the hen house, the sunlight hit hard and I longed for the shade of the trees behind the hayshed. Some splashes from the morning’s rain sprinkled a light brown coating over the tyres. The grass track wielded its way around the side of the hayshed and out to the pump field, named by Father as it had a pump in it that propelled water around the farm. He had a knack of naming fields so it was easy to say where animals where and how he wanted them moved. From the pump field, go left through the hay field and on to the long field was how he described their movements to us.
The pump field made for an ideal race track as it didn’t hold much water and had a hill on the home stretch. Tractors going up and down meant it had a track beaten in to it. We went down on the left side and up on the right. Six straw bales, packed on their bellies with a sheet of plywood as a ramp was what was next. All riders went safely over.
A screech of brakes from John’s bike almost cost Denise her perfectly timed run in to the third fence.
‘Could you keep back, the field is big enough,’ Denise pedalled on quicker, trying to get away. Her black bottoms and white top matched the colours of her mount, Cool Running.
We passed under the shade of a cluster of trees. For as long as I can remember this shelter belt was the first warm home to new born lambs. It was where they prepared for their move further up the land. The long bend across the top of the field gave us a rest from the fences. Cuddy was yelling that Badger was invading his cycling space.
‘There’s no such thing!’ yelled Badger.
I looked back to find Gwen. I figured this would be her last time in the race. She must have been thinking of how close Party Politics came to winning. I reminded myself to chat to her afterwards during supper. I thought of how we could share my winnings in Finnegan’s Music Shop.
Cuddy had a steady pace. He tracked John for the early stages but now strode out on his own. Smart move, I thought. Focus, I shouted in my head. Gwen had every reason to feel pleased with her design of the next fence. It looked like it could belong in some design fair such was the attention she paid to it. It came about after a visit to the Dublin Horse Show.
‘We should put two fences close together,’ was how she began to describe it to me. Two rows of small tractor tyres formed a set of smiling lips. One huge smile. There was old dung placed inside, to keep them from stirring.
Badger started to sidle close to Denise.
‘You cut me off. You’ve cut me,’ she cried as she hit the floor before reaching Gwen’s masterpiece. ‘You okay?’ Gwen cried out to her. She got no reply. Denise’s pouched cheeks shored up her glassy eyes as she watched the rest of the race from a rear angle.
Cuddy got off his saddle. I was close behind. We waved our arms as if we had whips in our hands. The chain came off Badger’s bike. In the seconds it took him to notice, he pedalled on, then looked down with the surprise of people who get fooled on Beadles About. Myself and Cuddy were yelping as we jostled past him. As he dismounted, he blocked Gwen’s path. I heard her scream tail off in the wind. Cuddy had a narrow lead.
I could see that the sheet of plywood on the final fence had almost become displaced. Hang on just for a couple more minutes, I pleaded. Cuddy: over. Me: over. Frantic pedalling to the line. We were both up off the saddles, me picturing Stephen Roche climbing mountains in France.
‘You only win on the tv,’ Cuddy shouted.
Just then, I thought of when I had seen him and Gwen behind the school shed. I wanted to listen in but was dragged away by a football which swept in at my feet. The finish line was coming fast. I glanced back quickly looking for Gwen. Was she hurt? I wanted us to still be friends after she went to England with mum.
Cuddy won. He got up off his saddle with one arm in the air, giving the beck to the others and shouting ‘Aldanti does it again.’ I crossed the line and waited for Gwen there.
‘Let’s do something else next year,’ she said. I longed never to leave the farm. School was asking what we wanted to be and I didn’t have ideas. The next year, I raised some pet lambs and there was good money in it too.
Gwen never said what she spoke to Cuddy about. I knew it had something to do with her leaving with mum to visit our sick granny in England. Gwen told me it was for the best, the best for a while. Father swallowed up his new role, practising home economics recipes on me. I wrote letters to Gwen and signed them from the both of us. Her replies had different hospital addresses printed on the top left corner. I never asked her why. Many years later, I pressed Father about it and he told me.
Gwen’s make-up looks perfect. It’s almost as if she did it herself. The subtle rouge of her cheeks lingers like red seaweed reaching to the surface of still water. Women approach, their faces askew. Some touch her hair, others her forehead. Scented candles surround the condolence book.
Cuddy with his wavy hair and three shirt buttons open walked in. I allowed my eyes wander over to see who was talking to him and if he will have the gall to come over. The stiff smile on Gwen’s face reminds me of when we went to christenings of our own children. Afterwards, we’d sit and laugh at old photos. We’d look at ones of us on our bikes, wearing tatty clothes faded by the summer sun.
Outstretched arms come at me one by one. Cuddy made his way around and heads towards me. Sturdy men’s hands grip mine and I thank them for coming. Another hand leaps in.
‘Well, I’m very sorry,’ he said to me as he approached.
‘We all are.’
‘It wasn’t easy for her,’ he adds, feeling the silence in the room.
‘It was all sorted out for you. She never got over it.’ I long for him to step on past. People would stop staring at us. The shame of two cousins having a child together was too much for our mother who died not long after Gwen’s son came knocking on our door.
‘She’s gone now,’ he turns his head back at me.
I walk slowly towards Gwen’s coffin and give a small nod to the undertaker who held the lid of her coffin. Softly, softly, he taps on the corners of the lid as it sinks into positi