|Extract from Chantilly Dawns|
Longchamp racecourse, even at eleven in the morning, had a magical quality. The stands were deserted, yet the familiar atmosphere of the race crowds hung in the air. Marcel Dessaint walked through the centre of the silent grandstand, down to the racecourse rails, and gazed out across the course. Behind the winning post, above the yellowing autumnal trees, the Eiffel Tower could be seen, the leafy canopy of the Bois de Boulogne encompassing the course. Marcel’s eyes swept round the circuit of the course, as though following the progress of an imaginary race, and finally came back to rest on the winning post. The grinding misery that had been with him since his entry to the racecourse suddenly became more than he could bear, and he turned abruptly away. The stands were as empty as his heart. He didn’t belong here; not anymore. Pausing to adjust the collar of his expensively tailored coat, as an unusually icy October wind renewed its attack, Marcel wandered to the far end of the parade ring, to the gates that marked the entrance to the racecourse stables. As he gazed longingly through the wrought ironwork, several lads passed him by, carrying rugs and buckets and joking cheerfully to each other. Their cheeriness turned instantly to chilling silence the moment they saw him. Most looked to be about his own age—twenty-six—yet he shared nothing in common with them. They fitted easily into the closed ranks of this racing world and were part of the racecourse, just as Marcel had once been. He had taken his position for granted; in fact, he had never really been aware of it. He was an outcast in the only world he knew. He was distracted from his thoughts by the voice of an English lad, leading a horse across to its stable.
‘Walk on, you old sod!’ The horse stood still and eyed Marcel inquisitively. The lad looked across and waved in instant recognition. ‘Hiya; how’s it going?’ Marcel merely smiled and nodded, his surprise at the friendly gesture tinged with apprehension. ‘Sorry to hear about your news,’ the lad called across cheerfully. ‘Hope it all gets sorted okay.’ He clicked to the horse repeatedly until it grew bored of Marcel, and walked slowly away. Marcel watched him disappear from view—the first person to have wished him well since the fateful enquiry four days earlier. The contact, however brief, drew him momentarily out of himself, conjuring in his mind a comfort zone he hadn’t actively sought. He remembered with pleasure his regular trips to England and the camaraderie of his British counterparts. He decided to forget this ridiculous attempt to lose himself in the day’s racing and to travel, instead, to England. As the stablelad had just demonstrated, there he would be looked upon simply as Marcel Dessaint, not as a crooked jockey. A crooked jockey. He shuddered. Summoning the last reserves of his courage, he turned to face the glass-fronted weighing room, walking under the steps leading down into the parade ring which he had trodden so many times. Within the weighing room a door had been left ajar, and Marcel could see the rows of saddles stacked up on the shelves in the back room. Though they all looked identical, he recognised most of them. He knew each of the stories behind the wear and tear and the cracks and scuffs of the leather. He could smell the aroma of pigskin and oils and hear the murmur of his colleagues’ voices in the jockeys’ room. He didn’t need to look at the empty rooms to be tortured by such memories. ‘Marcel Dessaint?’ He swung round, startled. ‘Would you sign my racecard?’
Two English racegoers faced him, one holding out the programme for the afternoon’s racing. He took it, and the pen proffered, and signed it hesitantly, aware that his hand was shaking. ‘Great rides at Ascot last Saturday,’ remarked one of the pair. ‘I did all three of yours in a treble. We wouldn’t be here today but for that.’ Marcel raised a smile as he handed back the card, the races he’d won somehow forgotten among those he’d lost. ‘Yeah, cheers, mate.’ They leaned over the card and proudly examined the autograph—two foreign racegoers, ignorant of his fall from grace, lost in the reserved enclosure where they had no right to be. They could so easily have been baying for his blood, not his autograph….