In the end, he didn’t want the stallion to go the same way he had. The stooping, weathered man had been around the yard for so long that even Niall, Hazelhurst’s manager and resident stalwart of the stableyard, had no idea who he actually was or where he’d come from. Perhaps he’d always been there, had sprouted from the cracks in the yard’s foundations like the ivy that had been planted generations before but now couldn’t be displaced. He was known as Uncle Reg but no one knew his family, if indeed he had any left at all. His seventies had long since left him and he had come to an understanding with his eighties that had been borne of a long and easy familiarity. He simply came and went and they had all – secretaries, stable lads, jockeys, and trainers alike – come to accept him as an anomaly; a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a Barbour jacket.
For as many years as anyone cared to recall, Uncle Reg had made the care of the stallion his own personal duty. He took his responsibility as seriously as anyone on the yard, and the lads who rode out on the first set as the sun rose were more often than not greeted by the sight of him outlined against the post-and-rails, spectral in the morning mist as they clip-clopped back into the courtyard on the two-year-olds who blew hard, rattling breaths and champed against their snaffles, still buzzing with barely-contained kinetic energy. The lads had learned to sit tight and let the young horses dance beneath them, taking comfort in the knowledge that by next spring the animals would be three-year-olds and, as such, consummate professionals in the way that only young racehorses, like children too early exposed to the vulgarities of adulthood, can be. Uncle Reg would watch, one arthritic hand curled around a weatherworn lead rope and the other deep in his jacket pocket. Occasionally he would speak, in his own quiet, self-assured way, and though his voice was low and calm from a lifetime spent talking to Thoroughbreds, the young jockeys never strained to hear him.
“You need to keep a steadier contact, lad,” he would say, his soft brogue – was that a hint of an Irish accent? His voice sounded like tilled soil and sea air – making a meal of each simple syllable. “He’ll never learn to take hold for you if you insist on letting him flap about miles away from your hands. This one,” and here he would gesture behind him with the lead rope hand, “is the grandsire of that colt of yours, and he’d not more than a hint of boldness in him ‘til he could take confidence in a bit of contact.” Wisdom imparted, he would shuffle away to the back paddock, which had long since been set aside for him to work with his charge.
From season to season the lads and lasses would come and go in their little droves, but Uncle Reg’s affiliation never wavered. Niall, caught up in his own microcosm of paperwork and passports, took comfort in the man’s presence; he himself had been a part of the team at Hazelhurst for fourteen seasons and Reg had been there for every single one and countless prior. The old man’s pittance of a living wage bypassed the yard’s accountant and was paid directly out of each week’s winnings, and though Niall couldn’t say where it was he went home to, he could guarantee that seven days a week, come rain or shine, he would trudge back onto the yard, rope in hand, to work that stallion. Not even the promise of a strong cup of tea by the rattling space heater could lure Uncle Reg away from his work – was it work or was it pleasure? Or, for Uncle Reg and his stallion, were the two inexplicably intertwined? There was something admirable in that, Niall thought.
Sometimes he would allow himself pause from his frenetic pace (where exactly did the hours go?) and would lean, observing but never commenting, against the paddock fence. The rails needed replacing. Another job for another day.
“Uncle Reg? Is he your uncle, then?” The new crop of stable lads and apprentices always yielded one or two of the swaggering sorts of individuals who hadn’t yet learnt to keep their heads down and their minds on their work; this one, having invited himself to join Niall, was no exception.
“No one’s uncle, as far as we know. But he’s been here a damn sight longer than the rest of us and he’s forgotten more than the lot of us are ever likely to learn.”
The boy ignored Niall’s observation. “Surely he must have some family around somewhere? People aren’t just forgotten about like that.” Mancunian. He sounded brash without intending to.
Niall didn’t take his eyes off Uncle Reg, who was turning in stiff, resolute circles in the centre of the paddock, lunge line held loosely in hand, murmured words of encouragement spilling from his lips.
“Some people have to make a family out of what they’re left with.”
“What, like that stallion?”
“Like that stallion.”
The boy pushed himself off the fence, landing deftly on booted feet next to Niall.
“When I came in on Countdown Caper this morning, he told me the stallion was his grandsire.”
Niall chuckled. “Perhaps we should add a couple of generations and a pinch of salt to his estimation.”
“And he told me that that stallion won the National in 1959.”
“He’s not wrong.”
Nonplussed, the young, ginger-haired man – no, Niall couldn’t consider the apprentices men, no matter how determinedly they themselves did – stared at the solemn figure.
“So what? Was he there? Why does it matter so much?”
“Lad,” said Niall, “for all we know he was the one who got up on the damned horse and brought that trophy home. With any luck, you’ll see – these things never stop mattering.”
“So what happened?”
“The horse fell the next year and was retired to stud. In ’86 he was put down. And sometime between then and now, Uncle Reg lost everything except his moment of glory, and he’s been coming out to look after it ever since.”
The boy pondered this. Now, alone in the centre of the dusty circle, the old man stretched out a hand, slowly, painfully, and offered a sugar cube to the encroaching dusk. Unaware of his small audience, Uncle Reg met the last remnant of his lifetime’s memories and greeted it as an old friend, caressing the empty space around him with a fierce fondness in his rheumy eyes.
“But there’s nothing there,” the boy said.
“That’s how much it matters, lad. You can let everything else around you slip away to nothing and it’ll still be there. They get under your skin, these animals. The best horses never let you go, even once the rest of us have forgotten they ever lived.”
Written in January 2014.