Peering out from underneath the too-big hat, Tom tethered his imaginary steed. He eyed the sun nervously before making a split-second dash towards the garage, whipping around at the last second so he could feel the cold stone wall through his T-shirt. Arms splayed against the granite, he edged sideways, careful not to let his toes poke beyond the few inches of shade. He guessed that he had approximately five minutes before the sun disappeared behind that cloud. But Grandpa was in the greenhouse already and Mum would be here at any moment.
With a final yank, toppling the flimsy hat forward over his eyes, he took a flying leap through the glass door and landed by the marrows.
"Not again Tom lad," scolded Grandpa, heaving him up with a shaky arm and breathing through his teeth against the strain. "What have I told you about wearing this? It's my good hat for the races. It's not meant for little boys." Tom shrieked in protest and grabbed onto the rim, successfully pre-empting Grandpa's attempts to pluck it back. Defeated, Grandpa sighed. "OK five more minutes. But if you've bent that Panama you've had it." Satisfied, Tom began their weekly ritual. With one hand he fidgeted in his back pocket for the ruler, and poked it into the soil of the big plant pot with his name on it.
"That's two more centimetres Grandpa," he beamed, noting it on the clipboard on the wall. "Brilliant lad," said Grandpa. "That's the magic of the greenhouse for you." A car trundling over the gravel driveway broke the silence. "Right - give that hat back now." But Tom was off, galloping his invisible horse back into the house to get his schoolbag.
With Tom safely in the car, and hat dutifully returned to the coat hook, Grandpa leaned against the doorframe to look at his daughter. She was the very image of Tom, with the same sweeping blonde fringe and scattering of freckles across her nose. "And how was he tonight?" she asked, reluctantly. "The same?"
It had all started three months before. Tom's dad had finally walked out and, apart from the occasional phone call and trip to Burger King, Tom had not seen much of him. There had been the usual tantrums and tears that you would expect from a five-year-old, struggling to comprehend the adult world. But his behaviour had become, frankly, rather odd.
He refused to go outside without the hood of his coat pulled down over his eyes. He alienated his friends by preferring to lurk beside walls instead of joining in games at playtime. And then there was the invisible horse which clip-clopped alongside him silently, wherever they went. Making Tom walk at all was miraculous, for he wanted to gallop everywhere at top speed. Getting around Asda was becoming a nightmare. His mother had been most alarmed to find him curled into a ball and squeezed into the dark corner of the linen cupboard one day, instead of playing in the garden as she had thought. "Just because," he'd shrugged.
"I'm worried," she said to her father, for what seemed the umpteenth time. "He's only five. He should be running around playing football with his pals, not hanging out in greenhouses with old men." "No offence," she added hastily. "None taken," said Grandpa, raising his eyebrows. "But he seems happy enough here with me. Is that so bad?" "Yes. All you talk to him about is gardening and horse racing. He's just a wee boy. “
But with childminding costs being what they were and only one income to speak of, Tom arrived at Grandpa’s bright and early that Saturday. “Take him to the park or something,” she suggested. Grandpa had other ideas. They stood by the window, waving at the car as it turned out of the cul-de-sac. “Right lad, we’re going racing.”
With the Panama hat planted firmly on his head - Grandpa kindly surrendered it in favour of a trilby for the occasion - Tom arrived at the race course. Indeed he would have looked quite the country gent were it not for his constant galloping atop an invisible stallion all the way to the gate. But as they got closer to the throng of people, he slowed to a canter, and then stopped. His open-mouthed stare and wide eyes barely concealed his excitement. He’d watched racing on TV with Grandpa before, but actually being there made his head swim. He didn’t know where to look first. There was a sea of people stretching from the gate in front of him, all the way up to a white fence that stretched so far off into the distance that Tom couldn’t see where it ended. All around him people were laughing and drinking from plastic cups. On his left a man studied a newspaper and scratched his head. To his right a lady held her long pink skirt down as the wind blew it all around.
But what Tom wanted to see were the horses. “This is my best day ever,” he said, seeming to forget his own horse for a moment as he dragged Grandpa through the crowds. But a few minutes later he was off again – bolting towards a flash of purple in the distance. “Tom!” shouted Grandpa. “Wait!” But he was gone.
The lone jockey was pacing back and forth by the paddock, trying to get a signal on his mobile phone, when a flushed-looking Tom pulled up. “Can I help you young man?” said the jockey, looking around for the boy’s parents. Apart from an elderly man, still some way in the distance, there was no-one else around. “Excuse me mister, are you a jockey?” panted Tom, hat perched so far back on his head that his face looked like the centre of a sunflower. He was still holding his imaginary reins. “I surely am,” the jockey replied, looking amused. “Where are your mum and dad?” “I’m going to be like you when I grow up,” said Tom, ignoring the question. “And I’m practicing already.” “Is that so?” said the jockey. “Are you in training?” “I am mister,” said Tom. “I’ve been making sure I don’t grow any more. I always stay in the dark and if I have to go into the sun, I stay all covered up. The jockey looked confused.
“Grandpa says the sun is magic and makes everything grow up tall. And if you go in a greenhouse you get really tall. “But not my Grandpa - he doesn’t grow anymore because he’s old.” “Oh son, that’s not the way to become a jockey,” the man replied. “A boy like you needs to be outside playing. The sun will make your bones strong. “That’s the only way to become a jockey.”
By the time Grandpa caught up, Tom was engaged in an imaginary race with the jockey. Together they galloped, invisible whips poised above invisible horses’ hindquarters. “Grandpa, look!” shouted Tom as his stallion edged out, a nose ahead of the jockey’s filly. “And hold this,” he squealed as the Panama hat missile sailed overhead. “It’s too big!”