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Dick Francis

Whip Hand

The second book in the Sid Halley series, 1979


I dreamed I was riding in a race.

Nothing odd in that. I'd ridden in thousands.

There were fences to jump. There were horses, and jockeys in a rainbow of colours, and miles of green grass. There were massed banks of people, with pink oval faces, indistinguishable pink blobs from where I crouched in the stirrups, galloping past, straining with speed.

Their mouths were open, and although I could hear no sound I knew they were shouting.

Shouting my name, to make me win.

Winning was all. Winning was my function. What I was there for. What I wanted. What I was born for.

In the dream, I won the race. The shouting turned to cheering, and the cheering lifted me up on its wings, like a wave. But the winning was all; not the cheering. I woke in the dark, as I often did, at four in the morning.

There was silence. No cheering. Just silence.

I could still feel the way I'd moved with the horse, the ripple of muscle through both of the striving bodies, uniting in one. I could still feel the irons round my feet, the calves of my legs gripping, the balance, the nearness to my head of the stretching brown neck, the mane blowing in my mouth, my hands on the reins.

There came, at that point, the second awakening. The real one. The moment in which I first moved, and opened my eyes, and remembered that I wouldn't ride any more races, ever. The wrench of loss came again as a fresh grief. The dream was a dream for whole men.

I dreamed it quite often.

Damned senseless thing to do.

Living, of course, was quite different. One discarded dreams, and got dressed, and made what one could of the day.


I took the battery out of my arm and fed it into the re-charger, and only realised I'd done it when ten seconds later the fingers wouldn't work.

How odd, I thought. Recharging the battery, and the manoeuvre needed to accomplish it, had become such second nature that I had done them instinctively, without conscious decision, like brushing my teeth. And I realised for the first time that I had finally squared my subconscious, at least when I was awake, to the fact that what I now had as a left hand was a matter of metal and plastic, not muscle and bone and blood.

I pulled my tie off and flung it haphazardly onto my jacket, which lay over the leather arm of the sofa: stretched and sighed with the ease of homecoming: listened to the familiar silences of the flat; and as usual felt the welcoming peace unlock the gritty tensions of the outside world.

I suppose that that flat was more of a haven than a home. Comfortable certainly, but not slowly and lovingly put together. Furnished, rather, on one brisk unemotional afternoon in one store: 'I'll have that, that, that and that… and send them as soon as possible.' The collection had gelled, more or less, but I now owned nothing whose loss I would ache over; and if that was a defence mechanism, at least I knew it.

Contentedly padding around in shirt sleeves and socks, I switched on the warm pools of tablelights, encouraged the television with a practised slap, poured a soothing Scotch, and decided not to do yesterday's washing up. There was steak in the fridge and money in the bank, and who needed an aim in life anyway?

I tended nowadays to do most things one-handed, because it was quicker. My ingenious false hand, which worked via solenoids from electrical impulses in what was left of my forearm, would open and close in a fairly vice-like grip, but at its own pace. It did look like a real hand, though, to the extent that people sometimes didn't notice. There were shapes like fingernails, and ridges for tendons, and blue lines for veins. When I was alone I seemed to use it less and less, but it pleased me better to see it on than off.

I shaped up to that evening as to many another. On the sofa, feet up, knees bent, in contact with a chunky tumbler and happy to live vicariously via the small screen: and I was mildly irritated when halfway through a decent comedy the door bell rang.

With more reluctance than curiosity I stood up, parked the glass, fumbled through my jacket pockets for the spare battery I'd been carrying there, and snapped it into the socket in my arm. Then, buttoning the shirt cuff down over the plastic wrist, I went out into the small hall and took a look through the spyhole in the door.

There was no trouble on the mat, unless trouble had taken the shape of a middle-aged lady in a blue headscarf. I opened the door and said politely, 'Good evening, can I help you?'

'Sid,' she said. 'Can I come in?' I looked at her, thinking that I didn't know her. But then a good many people whom I didn't know called me Sid, and I'd always taken it as a compliment.

Coarse dark curls showed under the headscarf, a pair of tinted glasses hid her eyes, and heavy crimson lipstick focussed attention on her mouth. There was embarrassment in her manner and she seemed to be trembling inside her loose fawn raincoat. She still appeared to expect me to recognise her, but it was not until she looked nervously over her shoulder, and I saw her profile against the light, that I actually did.

Even then I said incredulously, tentatively, 'Rosemary?'

'Look,' she said, brushing past me as I opened the door more widely. 'I simply must talk to you.'

'Well… come in.'

While I closed the door behind us she stopped in front of the looking glass in the hall and started to untie the headscarf.

'My God, whatever do I look like?'

I saw that her fingers were shaking too much to undo the knot, and finally with a frustrated little moan she stretched over her head, grasped the points of the scarf, and forcefully pulled the whole thing forward. Off with the scarf came all the black curls, and out shook the more familiar chestnut mane of Rosemary Caspar, who had called me Sid for fifteen years.

'My God,' she said again, putting the tinted glasses away in her handbag and fetching out a tissue to wipe off the worst of the gleaming lipstick. 'I had to come. I had to come.'

I watched the tremors in her hands and listened to the jerkiness in her voice, and reflected that I'd seen a whole procession of people in this state since I'd drifted into the trade of sorting out trouble and disaster.

'Come on in and have a drink,' I said, knowing it was what she both needed and expected, and sighing internally over the ruins of my quiet evening. 'Whisky or gin?'

'Gin… tonic… anything.'

Still wearing the raincoat she followed me into the sitting room and sat abruptly on the sofa as if her knees had given way beneath her. I looked briefly at the vague eyes, switched off the laughter on the television and poured her a tranquillising dose of mothers' ruin.

'Here,' I said, handing her the tumbler. 'So what's the problem?'

'Problem!' she was transitorily indignant. 'It's more than that.'

I picked up my own drink and carried it round to sit in an armchair opposite her.

'I saw you in the distance at the races today.' I said. 'Did the problem exist at that point?'

She took a large gulp from her glass. 'Yes, it damn well did. And why do you think I came creeping around at night searching for your damn flat in this ropey wig if I could have walked straight up to you at the races?'

'Well… why?'

'Because the last person I can be seen talking to on a racecourse or off it is Sid Halley.'

I had ridden a few times for her husband away back in the past. In the days when I was a jockey. When I was still light enough for Flat racing and hadn't taken to steeplechasing. In the days before success and glory and falls and smashed hands… and all that. To Sid Halley, ex-jockey, she could have talked publicly forever. To Sid Halley, recently changed into a sort of all-purpose investigator, she had come in darkness and fright.