“I ran so fast, my feet had wings.”
Seeing the distant look in Aunt Alice’s eyes, I knew she had travelled back to her youth.
“Racing was on a Thursday. It turned ordinary days into something special: water into wine, silver into gold…. I can’t believe our racecourse has closed. “
A tear like a silver bead of dew fell on the lawn where we sat drinking tea. Alice began her tale. Then “It was just before Hitler got started … “
… The coins in my pocket made a strange jangling noise which never seemed to happen anywhere else. Every sense came alive with anticipation: The smell of fish and chips in the air, my feet crunching on the poorly laid stones of the road from the station. My Father saying something about a particular horse he wanted to back; I was a 13 year old sponge absorbing everything and everyone. He used to say:
“There will always be racing here, Alice, don’t you think?”
The parade ring was my favourite place, with the air of buzzing expectation, the vivid colours of the jockeys’ silks, and the horses proudly strutting like warriors ready for battle. From the minute we bought our racecard, the sometimes dull routine of my teenage life was transformed. The cheers when the race started made the hair on the back of my neck stand to attention; whilst the dash for the finishing line made the breath catch in my throat.
Suddenly, it was all over. Discarded newspapers blowing away in the wind, a sad symbol of the day’s magic disappearing. Just time for one look back at the green turf, stretching beyond the horizon to infinity. Was the sky always blue? How come days like this could last a whole lifetime?
“ Well, Alice, did you have a good time? ”
My Father always asked this question at exactly the same moment as we stood on the small country station waiting for the train home. My smile said more than any words: I was already looking forward to the next time …
… It was a gorgeous spring morning, the cloudless blue sky shot through with strands of woven gold. There was only one place to go.
“ Aunt Alice, how do you fancy a little adventure? ”
My Aunt looked curiously at me for a moment, and then nodded with a twinkle in her eye. She knew what I was thinking. Alice didn’t walk too well, but it wasn’t far from her bungalow to the railway station. The train journey took 20 minutes, but seemed much longer. People say your eyes are a gateway to the soul. Looking across at my Aunt, eyes sparkling like magic emerald lanterns, as the racecourse came into view, I felt this may well be true.
Arriving at the racecourse, we found a chain link fence and a big sign reading:
“CLOSED. NO ENTRY.”,
I looked for savage Alsatians or aggressive security guards. But we were alone. Just a profoundly sad silence all around. .
“Have you got a pen and paper, dear?” Alice asked. She quickly wrote a message and fixed it on to the bottom of the sign:
There is a magic here which can’t be made or unmade, it just is. Dreams never die.”
Doubtless it would be torn down when the workmen arrived to demolish the grandstand and other buildings which had survived two World Wars. Nonetheless, Alice was looking triumphant; and I quickly took out my phone for a photo of her standing proudly next to the defiant message. Saved for all time!
It was time to go, but Alice pointed across the green turf, radiant in the late morning sun.
“Can you hear it? The echo getting closer; galloping hooves in the final furlong one last time?”
I don’t know whether it was my imagination playing tricks but for a split second, far removed from 21st century time and space, I really could hear hooves drumming a victory beat. We stared at one another in a silent tribute to a proud piece of English tradition passing into history. Back on the station, I turned to my Aunt:
“Did you have a good time today?”
She didn’t reply, just smiled as our train approached and we prepared to depart from Alice’s magic world forever. The rhythm of the train wheels seemed to be echoing my great uncle: There will always be a racecourse here. History appears to have proved him wrong. Yet the spirit of horses racing across the green under deep blue skies will surely live on for eternity in the hearts of so many people.
This is what my Aunt Alice believes. So do I.