One lone figure was silhouetted against the rosy sky. It shuffled along, seeming so frail and insignificant in the shadow of the mighty grandstand. To its left, solid white railings guided a long torn up stretch of turf. Proud brush hedges protruded from the ground, imposing and vast.
Charlie Higgin’s face was lined and weathered, creases running across his tough old skin. Although a battered green cap sat loosely on his head, several greying strands of hair were visible as they curled down his neck. He was slightly stooped, the fraying navy bomber jacket he wore curving along his back. Though he might have once been a strong young man, old age had left him quietly diminished. His honest blue eyes seemed pensive as they surveyed the clear afternoon sky.
Indeed, Charlie was in a rather philosophical mood as he wandered towards the main stand, his black bin bag trailing along the ground. He was too deep in thought to notice the cold, although his breath was billowing into clouds in the sharp air. However, as he reached the stand, the job he was there to do brought him down to earth. Trusty mottled brush in hand, he began to brush the ground, sweeping away the mud. Colourful sweet wrappers were strewn across the dull grey of the concrete. Amongst them were screwed up betting slips – failed hopes hurled aside with bitter disappointment.
Charlie worked slowly and methodically, with the air of a man who was not in a hurry. He gazed up at the stand; it was so empty, deserted and silent. Yet a matter of hours ago, it had been full to the brim, bustling, cheery and loud. Charlie could almost hear the echoes of the crowd reverberating off the walls as he imagined it.
He moved up the stand, between the white plastic seats. Discarded bottles stood dotted around, balanced precariously on the upturned chairs. Charlie swept them unceremoniously into the black bin bag, where they lay, rustling dejectedly.
A tiny green coat was draped in the far corner, lost and forgotten. He picked it up and slung it over his shoulder. It would be taken to Lost Property, where it would lie amongst all the other lost items, gathering dust. Charlie made his way down the concrete steps, where he discarded the bag and began to brush the pathway.
By the time he had finished a glorious sunset had filled the sky. Crimson, orange and gold merged together, seeping across the heavens like a watercolour painting. Charlie meandered along the swept pathway, the now full bin bag strung over his shoulder. He reached the white railings of the track and glanced around him warily. Confident that no one was watching, he threw the bag over the railings airily and hoisted himself and the brush over, with surprising agility.
As he retrieved the bag, Charlie’s eyes wandered to the strong birch fence which had claimed several victims in the last race. It stood innocently; the muddy skid marks stretched around it the only indication that it was the most difficult fence on the course. Tall and formidable, it loomed over a gaping ditch. Charlie could only imagine what it would be like to soar over it, the cheers of the crowd in his heart, courage running through his veins.
Yet he’d seen it, watched in awe as the final race of the day reached its climax. Although it saddened him that he had no money to bet with, the pull of the horses was too strong, and Charlie always arrived in time to see the last race.
And what a race it had been. The favourite, a stunning dappled grey who stood out like a beacon against the other bays, had taken the lead early on. Charlie’s breath had been taken away as the horses came galloping past, their hooves pounding the turf in a frenzy. An unknown outsider had pulled to the front and fence after fence it and the grey had flown over, leaving the rest of the field in their wake.
As the other horses had fallen thick and fast, the two leaders had held up, battling with all their valour. As it came to the last fence they were still neck and neck, a good ten lengths ahead of the noticeably diminished field. They both soared over, tails dancing in the wind, but as they landed, the bay stumbled; his jockey gathered him up frantically, but it was too late. The grey had pulled away in that moment and it galloped across the line in first place to a deafening roar from the crowd. The bay had managed to hang on to second, its chest heaving, utterly exhausted.
Charlie smiled as he remembered it. Shaking his head he continued across the track. He wandered along, the rich green smell of the turf filling his nostrils. When he was about halfway across a small object lodged in the turf caught his eye as it sparkled in the soft golden light. He crouched down and slid it from the earth.
It was a racing plate. A racehorse’s shoe left behind as it thundered past, as fast as the wind which streamed through its mane. It felt cold in Charlie’s hand as he held it to the light, surveying its smooth curves and quiet beauty.
A horseshoe. A sign of good luck. Charlie snorted as he thought of this. Where had luck left him in this world? Clearing up rubbish from a racecourse. If he were lucky he would be drinking champagne, celebrating victory. He would have a wad of money I his pocket, a trophy of a well-placed bet. He would be a winning trainer, whispering in the ear of a champion thoroughbred. He would be anywhere but where he was now.
Yet even as he thought these things, as he stared down at the horseshoe, somewhere in the back of his mind he didn’t really believe in what he was thinking. He had his health. And a loving family. There might be a long way up, but, as Charlie reflected, there’s a long way down.
With that, Charlie, picked up his bin bag and set off across the track again, humming absent-mindedly. He casually slipped the horseshoe into his pocket and ambled along, feeling like the luckiest man in the world.