They had almost escaped. The hands of the clock inched towards eleven; the coal was just crumbling to ash in the grate; the television set fizzed as they watched the news through a blizzard. Miners' wives, elbow-high in unfed kiddies; union flags fettering empty factories; Harold Wilson on the hardship of the people. Some new-fangled group – Sludge, was it? - crooned it would be Lonely this Christmas. Dan and May Haggert watched in darkness – the lights were dutifully switched off – with her squatting down by the hearth, polishing off a box of Mr. Kipling's finest mince pies, and him in the armchair.
It was the first time he'd sat still since coming home from the yard. Wall to wall like a caged animal, rattling the telephone cord as if he'd caught it dozing, waiting, hanging on for the word that didn't come. May was almost sure, now – there'd be no trip to Kempton on Boxing Day, no rider's fee to tide them over till New Year's. It was killing him. She couldn't have been happier.
The telephone screeched. The sound went through her, harpooned her rising heart to the pit of her belly; Dan was out of the chair in an instant and stumbling across the room, kicking at the tree as it tried to block him.
“On Christmas Eve!” she exclaimed. Ignoring her, Dan silenced the phone mid-cry.
May swallowed her last sticky mouthful with effort. She didn't have to listen to the conversation to know who had telephoned, and what for – it had been too much to hope she might have Dan to herself, just for a few days. That the last fall had been the end of it.
“No, it won't be a problem. Listen – thanks. I won't let you down.” He replaced the receiver, fingers lingering on the green plastic mouthpiece as on the flesh of a lover. “That was John.”
“I know,” May sighed. “Bank up the fire, shall I?”
“Love.” He caught her wrist in a grip that was hard, urgent. “It's the ten past one – the novice hurdle. It was Richie’s but he came off yesterday – done his ribs in.”
“Poor lad. That's awful.”
“Is it?” The thinning firelight squirmed in the crevices of Dan’s face, forming red rivulets where the skin sucked, far too sharp, to the bone. It was as if he was wearing his veins inside-out. “This is my chance. I'm not through yet.”
He pecked her cheek, smiled, then padded out into the hall; she saw his knuckles were white on the banister as he laboured up the stairs. “Aren't you, love?” she whispered. “Aren't you?”
It had been fifteen years since May Beattie became Mrs. Daniel Haggert. A summer wedding – her trainer father, her jockey brothers, the up-and-coming groom himself, had all been able to attend. Of course, that hadn't stopped her brothers downing half the punch and getting into a brawl over who'd sired Golden Miller. But it had been a good day – salmon sandwiches at the reception, and a cake with pink icing. She and Dan had cut the cake together, though he hadn't eaten any – he was five foot ten inches and there were four pounds to lose. She'd had his slice, save wasting it.
Since then every Christmas dinner had been the same. Now she dutifully followed the routine, bustling through the kitchen as the pipework heaved and spluttered. Dan was in the bath, squeezing off what weight still clung to him. Past years he might have been in there three hours or more, and she would traipse upstairs with steaming kettlefuls that braised him lobster-red.
Two plates, piping hot. Onto her plate went slabs of chicken, yellow-streaked rashers plastered to its golden skin; she heaped up sprouts, carrots, springy cabbage; roasties that glittered salt and butter. She doused the lot in thick gravy. On his plate she laid a sliver of breast, three sprouts, a handful of carrots. A slice of white bread, paper-thin, completed the feast.
As always, they were silent for a while. May focused on the food, while he pushed the sprouts round his plate. “How much d'you have to go?” she asked, helping herself to more stuffing.
“I'll be fine.” His leg was giving him jip – May could tell by the way he sat, skewed in his chair with the offending limb thrust away. Dan caught his wife's gaze. “We need this. We need the money-”
“I know, love. It's just - a rider's fee isn’t going to keep us fed, is it? And it's so soon after the fall – you're barely mended. Maybe – maybe it's time, like we talked about. Maybe you've taken all you can take.”
She regretted it as soon as she’d spoken. His eyes clouded over, jaw tightening; his cutlery hit the plate with a clatter. He started up, but he moved too quickly and his leg twisted under him so that he fell heavily against the table. “It's my body!” he snarled, struggling upright, “God damn it, it'll take what I give it – and if it breaks, then it'll bloody well mend!”
“Because it's all about you, isn't it?” Suddenly she was angry, too – angry for the frost-bitten mornings on the gallops, angry with the sleepless nights beside hospital beds, angry at having to knock door-to-door and embarrass her neighbours into handing over washing when her factory shift didn't cover the bills. “Go ahead, break your bones – but my heart won't be so easy to stick back together once it splits over you, you and your racing!”
He was gone, storming out through the back door with a slam. May was left, shaking; there was a box of Roses open on the table and she clawed at it without looking, stuffed the sweet – a Bourneville – into her mouth. It was bitter, it burned her throat as she swallowed, but she was already reaching for another. She only realised she was crying when the chocolate began to taste of salt.
“Perhaps we make too much of what is wrong and too little of what is right.”
May started; they had left the television on, and the mono-colour face of the Queen was surveying her calmly from across the room.“There are indeed real dangers and there are real fears, and we will never overcome them if we turn against each other with angry accusations.”
May was already across the room and struggling into her coat.
She found Dan at the end of the lane, leaning against the gate, watching the horses. It was getting dark: the last spits of sun turned the treetops gold, and a mist was furling through the animals' legs as they grazed. He'd come without his coat, but he didn't shiver: he'd spent his life outdoors, breathing his passion and loving every moment of it. May slipped her hand into her husband's. His fingers tightened around hers.
“So,” she said, “Pendil for the King George tomorrow?”
“Captain Christy,” Dan replied, without hesitation.
“That horse is half-mad.”
“He's a fighter.” May rested her head on Dan's shoulder, and with his free hand he stroked her hand. “He'll come through. Wait and see.”