She battled her way through the regiments of cars which covered the slope below the race course, remorse bitterly tainting her mouth and disappointment hunching her shoulders, as if bracing her against a gale. The elation mingled with relief, that she had felt seeing St Petersburg Passion triumph in the final furlong, had evaporated. She cursed herself for being so stupid.
Hearing the announcement that the school was taking her class to Russia, she had felt a surge of joy, which soon faltered when her mother informed her that they simply couldn’t afford it. She had gone to Cheltenham Racecourse that day with a fool’s ambition and a child’s hope. Her love for Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ and Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ had led her to believe that she could, and would, win enough money betting on a horse for her ‘trip of a lifetime’. So enamoured was she with the idea of seeing the embalmed corpse of Lenin and the Tsar’s Winter Palace, that workers had so bravely stormed on the frozen evening of Bloody Sunday, that she had quite forgotten that she was well under the age at which she could legally place a bet.
‘Sorry, Love, better get your Dad to come back and place the bet for you.’ The bookie had responded, his neutral words seeming cruel and taunting. But when a ruddy-cheeked man, clad in the traditional racing gear of a tweed cap and barbour, had offered to put the money on the horse for her, her heart leapt again, full confidence restored.
‘On St Petersburg Passion, please.’ She had chosen the horse on name alone, feeling that it must be some sort of omen. Her trust had been confirmed when she spied the horse, striding energetically round the enclosure, almost pulling its despairing groom off his feet despite being smaller than all the other runners. She could easily imagine it with a Cossack in thick fur hat sitting forcefully on its back. Perhaps it was its small stature that decided its odds at an enticing 25:1. The man had taken her crumpled £20 note and informed her that he would find her back here after the race, if her gamble had been successful. She had beamed and trotted off ecstatically to position herself in an optimum viewing point for the impending race. Darting and weaving, she had pushed herself through the cheerful Saturday crowd, stuffing their Racing Posts back into their pockets as they fervently discussed the prospects of the favourite.
Apart from the final stretch, the race was a blur to her, and she remembered nothing except that the horse had stayed comfortably in the middle of the field, until it slowly, cautiously almost, began to ease ahead. The result was a nerve-wracking face-off between her horse and the favourite, the jockeys, perching precariously on the horses’ necks, whips flailing madly, both attempting to inch their horses into the lead and finally vanquish the competition. To the tumultuous approval of the crowd, the outsider’s nose edged in front as they galloped past the winning post. With a scream of delight, she had hurtled down the slippery steps and hovered expectantly around the bookmaker’s stall where the bet had originally been placed.
But the man had not appeared. Every so often, a man in a cap would catch her searching eye, but it was never her man; the cap a different check, the coat a darker shade. Taken the winnings for himself, she finally had to concede. After half an hour, during which she had felt herself grow steadily colder and sicker, sure that everyone milling around her knew her to be a silly school girl, who had been taken in by a not-so-artful conman, she had given up and began the weary trudge towards her bus stop.
Feeling a warm hand on her shoulder, she whirled around, startled. With a crooked smile, the man held out a wad of notes; crushed and dirty, but as precious as a Faberge egg.