“I’d read them myself but someone’s had my glasses,” he said, patting his pockets and making slow movements to feel down the sides of the chair. “They’ll be round here somewhere,” I said, flicking through the paper to the racing pages, “We’ll have a look for them in a minute.”
Truth was he didn’t want to hold the paper in front of me. The arthritis meant he couldn’t flex his fingers and the Parkinson’s meant the print shook too much for him to see. And then there was the glass eye. When I was little he used to let me touch it and I’d let my tiny finger-tip touch the smooth white surface before running off with an excited scream. He said he’d lost it at sea, and I imagined him battling pirates and walking the plank.
“2.20 at Wetherby? That the one?” “Aye, that’s it lass, let’s be having them,” he said, nodding his head and closing his eyes while I read.
“Tipperary…Silver Dagger…Runariot…Stroke of Twelve…Clover Foot…Pearl Fisher…”
“That’s him, he’s the one. Pearl Fisher, like the opera. Lovely bit of music that. Beautiful.”
“Do you want me to put the money on, Granddad?” I asked.
We did this every week. He gave me a fiver and I’d pretend that I was going to the bookies for him. When he fell asleep, as he always did, I’d sneak the money back into his wallet. It was the same fiver he gave me each time. He thought he still lived on Melville Street, in the two-up, two-down he shared with Grandma. There’d been a betting shop on the corner 30 years ago and he’d gone in every Saturday to place his bet. The bookie, Geoff Dixon, had taken a sudden heart attack when I was six and the doors had been closed since then. But Granddad still asked me to pass his regards to Mr Dixon as I left the room.
I nipped into the visitors’ loos while I was in the corridor. When I came out, one of the carers, Julie, was folding towels on a wheeled trolley nearby.
“Putting your Granddad’s bet on love?” she said with a smile. She knew the routine.
“Yeah, Pearl Fisher again.”
“If that horse really had been coming first every week, he’d be a millionaire by now,” she said, turning the trolley round to push it to the store cupboard.
I laughed and opened the door back into his room.
“Come on, race’s started,” he called, “We’ve got ourselves a good view of the action here.”
He was staring at the window and the TV was silent. The paper I’d read from was dated 18 months previously and the race was long finished. Six months after that particular 2.20 at Wetherby, Pearl Fisher had suffered a nasty fall. I never mentioned it; it was the name Granddad liked. And if I had told him, he might still have forgotten by the next week.
“Can you see him?” he asked, pointing at the pane of glass, “There he is, out in front.”
“I can see him Granddad,” I replied, “He’s running well.”
The visions of the horses had marked the beginning of the illness. Now he saw them often, running on the imaginary racecourse outside his window. Sometimes the racecourse turned into moorland and the horses ran wild and Granddad would become wistful as he watched them fly over the heather with the wind at their feet. Beautiful, he’d say. Beautiful creatures.
“Go on lad!” he shouted, urging the image of Pearl Fisher onwards, “Nearly there, c’mon…yes! That’s my boy.” He smacked the arms of his chair twice with the palms of his hands and turned to grin at me.
“Done it again Granddad, still on that winning streak eh?”
“Aye, I always did have a talent for spotting winners. Knew that one would do well, his name reminded me of something…”
“That’s it, the song. Lovely bit of music that. Beautiful. Think I might have it on cassette round here somewhere…” He started to rise. “It’s ok Granddad, I’ll see if I can find it,” I said, going to the radio cassette player he’d brought from the old house. The Pearl Fishers by Bizet was the only music he listened to anymore. Every time was like the first time. I pressed play and the famous duet began. Granddad closed his eyes again and folded his hands in his lap. He’d be asleep in a minute. I stayed for a while, until I heard his breathing deepen, then I left.
They came to me that night. I knew they were same ones - they looked just how Granddad described them. Dark and sleek, the moonlight highlighting every curve of muscle with silver. I was stood on the moor and they were a short distance away, too far to touch but near enough for me to see their breath in the air and the slow blinks of their long-lashed eyes. A keen wind ruffled tails and manes but they seemed unbothered and I edged my way closer. One or two brown eyes glanced sideways at me, without fear, and I was soon amongst them, stroking smooth flanks with delicate caresses. Then I was on the back of one, no saddle or bridle, galloping over the gorse and shrub-land with only the sky and the stars above me. Their hooves made no sound. Each was as fast as the other, all equal in size, all the same bluish-black. The landscape seemed never-ending, stretching out in front and behind, and I rested my head on my horse’s neck as my eyes began to close.
The next day, Sunday, I got dressed as usual, the dream nothing more than a vague memory. On Sundays I could take him out in his chair. We liked to go and get fish & chips and sit by the seafront.
I arrived at the home and made my way upstairs. A doctor passed me, going down. I walked along the corridor and saw Julie coming out of Granddad’s room. She looked up and saw me and I knew from her expression the news she was about to give. She had the same look the nurses had when Grandma went into hospital.
“Oh pet,” she said, shaking her head in sorrow, “I was just going to ring you…”
After she’d told me the particulars, she said I could go in the room if I wanted. She’d just finished changing him after the doctor had gone. He was laid neatly in bed, arms on top of the sheets, blankets folded down in sharp creases. Julie had done a good job, combed his hair and given him clean pyjamas.
I knew he was gone. I stroked his hand and turned to the window with silent tears on my cheeks. A small carving of a horse, made of green jade, sat on the windowsill. I remembered it from childhood, the way it felt smooth and cold in my hand. I picked it up and the weight of it still surprised me. It always reminded me of Granddad – no-one else ever seemed to think much of it. I pressed play and The Pearl Fishers filled room.