Hypothetical Racehorses


 Hypothetical Racehorses


    It’s quite surreal. Here we are: four women travelling together in one car, and not one of us with a single word to say. It’s not as if we’re not all acquainted. His sister is driving, my sister is the front-seat passenger, and the driver’s teenage daughter – who is forever on her iPhone – is sitting in the back beside me. My sister is also busily scrolling through her phone, but I think I know what she is doing. I’m not complaining, mind you: talking is the last thing I want to do right now – with anybody. What I’d really like to do is scream… or swear… or shout… or… No! I couldn’t, not now, not here, not even hysterically: his sister is a nervous driver at the best of times. Biting my lower lip, I gaze out through the rain-streaked side window of her silver Focus, mildly surprised that the town seems perfectly normal for a Friday afternoon in late September.

    It’s that little period of readjustment: after the summer visitors have gone back to their real worlds and the returned natives have tired of retelling, or listening to, exaggerated highlights of recent trips abroad. Although the suntans have paled and the outrageous summer garments have been consigned to their mothball-infested crypts, one can still spot an occasional pair of sunglasses incongruously perched on a rain-dampened crown. Very soon, unprinted digital photos and persistent credit card bills will be their only reminders of those manic days of upheaval at the mercy of unaccustomed heat and unpronounceable menus. Thankfully, he has never complained about my apathy towards his frequent trips abroad, nor has he bored me with details of his weeks of golf in Spain or Portugal, or horseracing at Epsom or Cheltenham – nor have I asked. No, I’ve been quite content for him to do his thing while enjoying the autonomy his absences have afforded me.    

    Personally, I’ve never seen the point of skimping and saving for months on end just to be jolted out of my comfort zone by hours of air travel, haphazard accommodation, and new-found friends – many of whom are even more boring than the ones I try to avoid at home. Home? Will it always be his home: where he was born and reared, where his parents have lived and died, where his three emigrant brothers continue to holiday each summer as if nothing has changed since his bachelor days? They never stay with their sister – the driver – whose much larger house is situated almost within spitting distance of their cousin’s pub. Their visits with her are brief in the extreme, usually just a quick hello on their way over to us. Us? Oh, and just as soon as a brother – with or without a partner or brood – has unloaded his car, she’ll flounce in through the kitchen door for a marathon catch-up with everybody.

    “You f… f… flippin’ idiot,” shattering the silence, she brakes hard. The car slews slightly towards the footpath; “why don’t people look where they’re going? Bloody morons; they’re everywhere!” Nobody comments, but both her daughter and my sister are briefly distracted from their screens; I feel two pairs of eyes momentarily flash in my direction. Determined not to react, I continue to gaze through the car window and realise that I’ve been staring right through everything – and at nothing.          

    “Everywhere,” I hear myself echo, as we resume at a crawl. Resisting the temptation to risk a peep at her rearview mirror, I’m suddenly aware that I may the subject of a discussion taking place beneath the awning of a nearby betting office. There are three of them: thirty-something mummies, each with a toddler by the hand while a little melee of four-to-six-year-old boys jiggles and jostles around their feet. The women’s eyes remain on me as we inch forward. At least, I assume they are ogling me: nobody else in the car has as much as glanced in their direction. Self-consciously, I avert my focus to the motley collection of smoking males loitering between the entrance to the bookies and the pub next-door. A thin little elderly man in a soiled white tee-shirt is in a half-crouch, his reedy arms pumping back and forth in the manner of a jockey riding a driving finish. As the car swings around a corner, I can almost hear the laughter of his companions when he springs upright and triumphantly thrusts his clenched right fist in the air. I grit my teeth and grip my seat belt buckle even more tightly than before.

    The rain has stopped; the footpath is a roiling sea of teal and sky blues. Trying to isolate individual features from the blur of faces above the school uniforms, I find myself empathising with the travails of hungry lionesses attempting to identify a vulnerable individual amid a herd of wary Serengeti zebra. What am I hoping to see, anyway: a flash of blue eyes; a bounce of blondie curls; or a turned-up elfin nose leaning towards a handheld screen? What year would she be in now? I mentally count fingers. No, she would have finished secondary school – unless she might have chosen to do transition year, or perhaps repeat her Leaving Cert. Can it really be that long since I’ve thought of her – or him? No, I’d have known if I’d been carrying his son for those eleven weeks. Should I have told him? Should I have told his sister? Was I wrong to swear my own sister to secrecy? Would he have been empathetic, devastated, or relieved? I shudder at the thought.

   The car comes to an abrupt, bouncing stop. I’m vaguely aware of the driver’s window whirring shut against the grating staccatos of pneumatic drills, the beep-beeping of reversing plant machine engines, the fumes of diesel, hydraulic fluid and boiling tar, and the acrid tang of consaw dust. My sister-in-law is muttering something about the lack of joined-up thinking where roadworks are concerned. While I find myself nodding in agreement, I wonder what her hurry is. Every minute we waste here is one I won’t have to spend fielding the questions of gossip-starved neighbours on my return to the house.

    A lone school girl brushes past my window. I can’t see her eyes, but her coils of blondie curls rise and fall with each jaunty stride. As she approaches the works’ safety barrier, she waves animatedly towards the hi-vis vested road crew. A middle-aged man nudges a younger colleague and inclines his head towards the girl. The youth leans his shovel against a hoarding and then, exaggeratedly rotating his right arm, turns to face the girl. A pearly grin brightening his stubbled visage; he removes his yellow hardhat to release a thick shock of dark shoulder-length hair. After a quick snog across the barrier, he ducks beneath it and produces a pack of cigarettes from inside his vest. He hands her a cigarette and then lights them both up. Under swirling wisps of smoke, they huddle shoulder to shoulder to watch something on her phone. His niece is also glued to her screen. I can imagine the tinkle of the blonde girl’s laughter as she waves animatedly towards our car. Suppressing a giggle, his niece waves back as we begin to move forward again.

    I swivel my neck in an effort to continue watching the dynamic between the young couple. I get a momentary glimpse of her eyes: they are just as blue as the shirt collar that protrudes above the neck of her navy jacket. I feel a dull ache in the pit of my stomach. I want to be her, right now, if only for a moment. I want to feel the sting of her cigarette smoke deep inside my lungs. I want to smell his musky sweat and feel the strength of his grimy fingers on my arm. My sister asks if I’m okay. Momentarily thrown, I mutter something about the magic of young love. Apparently reassured, she nods and then averts her face. As the car rounds a corner, I feel his niece’s fingers briefly squeeze my elbow. Too late, I take a final furtive backward glance.

    I find myself wondering how old the girl might be; fourteen, perhaps fifteen? She certainly is no more than sixteen. It’s so difficult to tell, these days. Give a twelve-year-old a handful of cosmetics and a mirror, and in ten minutes she can look twenty-one. Boys are so much easier to gauge. Her lad is older: probably late teens, perhaps even twenty: a throwback to the days when being part of the workforce was the norm for his age group. To her, he is a man of the world, assertive, self-reliant, not dependant on the whim of a parent for pocket money. She could have been me, twenty-five years ago, when the future shone bright with boundless possibility, and nothing had yet been lost.

    I toy with the idea of asking my sister-in-law to stop the car, to let me get off right here. I am overcome with the desire to dwell a little longer in the girl’s moment – her Friday feeling. Are they making plans for the weekend; arranging a trip to the movies, or to a disco? Will they hang out with other teens, drinking cans in an alleyway, or by the river, or in the Millennium Garden – where his niece sometimes goes when she is supposed to be visiting me? No, I don’t think so, he will be beyond all of that; he will already have waded his way from the shallows into the mainstream; very few bartenders or bouncers would ask him for ID. Perhaps the young lovers have a system: they might meet at some teenage hangout in town, or in a lane near her house, or behind the playground in the park – just the two of them – until her curfew time. Do teens still have curfews? He certainly won’t have one; his Friday night won’t climax until several hours after hers has ended. She needs to be warned; made to understand that they are not playing on a level field.

    My urge to return is stronger now, but as a mentor rather than a voyeur. Would she listen? I doubt it; I hadn’t. I suppose we must all make our own mistakes. Most will recover and move on, all the stronger for their experiences, but it is the way of the world, the law of the human jungle, that while some scars heal more quickly than others, there will always be one or two that must be carried all the way to the grave. I steal a glance at his niece. She is grinning broadly at some video on her phone, listening through her earphones. I take no pleasure in knowing more about her than does her mother. I suppose that due to the many layers of complexity in human relationships, no two of us can ever know any other person in exactly the same way.

    The car stops. I’m mildly surprised to see his Audi parked in the garage. Then I remember: my car is still at the hospital – where I drove him, less than four hours ago. It was what our GP had suggested over the phone: to get him to A&E as soon as possible, rather than wait for an ambulance. When I think back on it now, he must have been feeling seriously unwell to agree to travel in my little Starlet. Or maybe he simply didn’t trust me to drive his precious nine-month-old Audi. Nine months doesn’t sound like a long time, yet it is the incubation period of all human life. I wonder if the term nine months had ever resonated with him; if he’d ever regretted not being a parent. If he had, he certainly hadn’t shared his feelings with me. He had always given me the impression that his life was complete just as it was: he had his work, his colleagues, his sister, his brothers, his golf, his horseracing… I find myself wondering if I now own a leg of a racehorse. No, he wouldn’t be happy with just a leg, or even two legs: he would have to own all of it… Is there a racehorse stabled somewhere waiting to be claimed by me, or maybe more than one? It wouldn’t surprise me: the more I think about it, the more I realise how little I know about the man with whom I’ve shared all of my adult life. I am, however, pretty certain that he wouldn’t volunteer to change nappies or do 4 am feeds. I could never imagine him finding the time to check out crèches, drive to music, ballet or drama classes, or even Saturday football training, not to mention attending school concerts, parent/teacher meetings or school fundraising events.

    I’m the last to leave the car. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to drive myself back from the hospital, not after his sister had taken charge of everything else. As I disembark, I wonder why she is unlocking my hall door. Has she taken possession of his keys, or has she always had her own key to my home? Why not? His brothers have continually come and gone as they’ve pleased; I suppose the house will be full of them by this time tomorrow. No, that hall door is only two years old; why would he have given her a new key? Perhaps he also gave her the second key to his Audi; will she commandeer it tonight, or tomorrow, and drive it to her house? Will she organise a round-up of his racehorses for some time next week – after the funeral, whenever she decides to hold it? Will there be a post mortem? I have no idea, but I’m sure she knows. How long will it take for the brothers to arrange flights? Through an undulating haze, I watch my sister heft and shake my electric kettle. I don’t say anything, even though I know the kettle is full. It had just come to the boil when...

    His second heart attack must have occurred when I’d run to the Spar ATM to get cash for the hospital car park. I’ve still got the unredeemed ticket in my purse. I dread to think how much the fee will now be; I’ll have to ask my sister to drive me back to reclaim my car as soon as his sister has dropped her home. I can’t ask his sister, I wouldn’t want her to spot the Seattle coffee cup still sitting in its holder beside the driver’s seat: she couldn’t possibly understand how badly I’d needed that caffeine boost during my drive to the hospital.

    My sister is pouring mugs of tea; his niece is shaking chocolate fingers on to one of my wedding present china plates. Idly, I wonder to whom his sister is speaking on my landline. I’m sure she phoned all three brothers while at the hospital. I’d kept my distance then; I’d thought it best to leave her to it, as I’d done when she’d spoken with the cardiology team. I’d felt like an intruder, as though the moment had been hers, and hers alone. Had the medics simply assumed her to be his next of kin… or had she…? Christ, perhaps she actually is his designated next of kin. She has just dialled another number. Maybe she is making arrangements with the undertaker, or updating one of her committees or other covens, or her hairstylist; or perhaps she is quizzing his solicitor about hypothetical racehorses. It’s not even as if I actually care, just as long as she is not speaking to me.           


Neil Brosnan


From Listowel, Ireland, Neil Brosnan’s short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, both in print and electronic format, in Ireland, UK, Europe and the US. He is the author of two collections: ‘Fresh Water & other stories’, 2010, and ‘Neap Tide & other stories’, 2013. He is a former winner of the Bryan MacMahon award, and a twice winner of both the Maurice Walsh and Ireland’s Own short story awards.




New Binary Press, Listowel Writers’ Week winners’ anthology, Ireland’s Own Winners’ Anthology, Brilliant Flash Fiction (USA), Darkhouse Books(USA), North West Words, Read Wave (USA), The Golden Pen, The Galway Review, Under the Fable, Arachne Press (UK), 5 Stop Stories (UK), Splinters Anthology UK (Bill Naughton), RTE Penguin, Balbriggan Short Story, The First Cut, Kerry Co Council Anthology of new writing(’09), Familienanthologie  (Germany), Kerryman/Corkman and Independent newspapers, in addition to numerous periodicals and journals.

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