Back in the Saddle
based on Dick Francis’s 10lb Penalty
Eight months after my father became Prime Minister,
he called a general election.
There were those who felt that he should have done so sooner. However, he did not feel it
appropriate to ride high on the sympathy vote—his son still in hospital; the man who had tried
to kill him on remand. At least, that was how he put it in parliament and to the
press. Privately, on one of his frequent visits to the rehab clinic where I was learning
how to walk with a crippled leg, he said that he couldn’t take the chance of his opponents
using that same sympathy vote against him, especially when I was better and Wyvern convicted.
In the mean time, I struggled to get my right leg to bear my weight, staggered with braces,
limped with a cane, and eventually strode out more or less normally. Somewhere in there, I
returned to work. I got a fair measure of sympathy (which I suspect I received with unmerited
grumpiness), and threw myself back into the evaluation of suspect insurance claims.
I wouldn’t race again. The doctors had been clear about that from the start. In fact, I
should consider myself lucky not to have lost the leg altogether, that was their opinion. I
suppose I was fortunate, in a way. I certainly had no wish to be strapping on a prosthetic
each morning before I dressed. I was unreservedly glad to see, not a stump, but a
leg ending in a perfecly normal foot, properly fringed with the correct complement of
toes. Nevertheless, as my eye skipped over the mess of my upper leg to focus on that
uninjured, unscarred foot below, I ached to slide it into a boot. Instead, each day, I
laced it depressingly into Oxfords, and went to Weatherbys instead of the track.
Part of the trouble, of course, was the frustrating fact that—once through my protracted
convalescence—I could walk with no trace of a limp. Dressed, with my scars out of sight,
I felt perfectly normal. Well, ‘normal’ as long as I didn’t try a
cross-country hike over rough ground. Or take my legs out for an afternoon
knocking, as I discovered when I went canvassing once again in Hoopwestern. As party leader and
sitting PM, my father had to be everywhere at once, coast to coast to coast; and not leaving out the hinterland,
either. Certainly, he had to spend some time in his own riding. However, to a great
extent, he left running his personal re-election campaign to the local committee. And, of
course to me. He needed Polly at his side, I knew that, which left me as the only Juliard
to fly the flag for him on home turf. So I took my annual leave early.
It was my second weekend in Hoopwestern that the invitation came to join the Duke in the
Stewards’ Box at the Dorset County racecourse. I was not happy about it. I hadn’t been to
the track since my father’s race for the leadership; I was not at all eager to return there,
a mere member of the public for now and evermore, barred from the change room, never again to
weigh in. Orinda was there when the invitation arrived, and was adamant that I should go. I
could not explain my reservations to her. They were too embarrassing.
She was always good at summing people up. “If you’ve had a fall, you have to get back in the
saddle,” was all she said—a truism from a woman who I suspected had never been on a horse in
So I went. Orinda did not come with me: she planned to spend the day chatting up people at
the local farmer’s market before heading to an election dinner that evening in the county
town. The Duke’s invitation was rather more subtle. There was no overt electioneering; all
was low-key. Still, I recognized far too many of the faces in the room to imagine that I
had been invited for my own entertainment. I summed up the room at a glance, and prepared
to spend the afternoon pressing palms between races.
Then I saw Eddie, the Duke’s son—still an ardent amateur rider when he could find the
time. He made his way across to me, spent a quarter hour in reminiscences of racetracks we
both knew, and, an hour or so later, invited me to spend the next few days at the Ducal
Seat. This I had never seen (nor ever expected to); but he sounded sincere. I rather got
the impression that he rarely had the opportunity to talk about his avocation.
I found myself, therefore, whisked away in his car down a maze of lanes. Eventually, we
turned in at a high wrought-iron gate that opened automatically as we approached, and then
crunched up a long gravelled road lined with an avenue of ancient trees. This curved round
to the façade of a stately home built of pale stone, fronted with a marble balustrade and a
carved portico with a great oak door. It was all very much like a BBC mystery series:
Inspector Morse or Midsomer Murders, or some such.
Even with his vast personal fortune, the Duke was unable to afford the sort of household
of servants that once must have maintained the property. Still, we were met at the door
by a butler; someone whisked the car off to a garage; and, when I was shown to an enormous
bedroom, I was asked if I wanted a bath to be drawn. That evening I set my shoes outside
the door with every hope that I would find them cleaned in the morning; and I rose to find
that they were, indeed, polished to a gleam.
Eddie had been unexpectedly tactful about my injury; but that didn’t stop him offering me a
ride. “He’s a quiet old hack,” he said, with a sympathetic grimace, “but I know
you’re barely out of hospital, after all.”
I pointed out that I didn’t have my boots with me; but I was promptly told that that would be
no problem. In fact, before I could come up with a coherent protest, I found myself kitted out
from head to foot in riding gear that actually fit reasonably well.
“We often have guests, sir,” I was told by the butler in restrained tones that somehow intimated
mortal insult at the suggestion of unreadiness.
So, for the first time in months, I mounted up—albeit with the aid of a groom, given the
uncertain strength of my bad leg. The horse was, as advertised, a ‘quiet old hack’. A dark
bay with signs of greying round his muzzle, he had probably been hauled out of retirement in
a comfortable paddock. He certainly gave me an easy ride. Which was just as well, really,
for I was sadly out of practice. I started to feel it within minutes; and, when I returned
after a couple of hours riding round the estate, I was more than a little sore. I found that
my clothes had been cleaned when I'd been out, changed, and went downstairs. However, my
legs creaked alarmingly all evening; and, that night, I soaked in a long hot bath before putting
on a pair of borrowed pyjamas. The boots, I left outside the door with my shoes. I resolved
that, the following day, I would return everything with my thanks, phone the new riding office
for a lift, and head back to my duties.
I assumed that, tired as I was, I would sleep like a log. Still, I woke well before dawn. I
had opened the curtains before going to bed; so I could see that the sky was still dark. Even
so, I checked my watch to confirm the time. Then I lay back, expecting to fall asleep again
almost immediately. Instead, though, I lay wakeful for what seemed a long time; so I rose
and dressed, and headed out to the barn. None of the grooms stirred as I went in, flicking
on the lights. It was a large old brick structure, clearly built the better part of a century ago at least.
Half the row of stalls was empty. Nowadays there were no teams of carriage horses; nor did
the Duke hunt as much as he had in his youth. Nevertheless, the sound of my footsteps brought a
few inquisitive heads poking out; and I had no difficulty spotting the stall I wanted. I led
out the sturdy chestnut, tacked him up, and led him outside. He seemed rather doubtful
about finding himself outside in the dark; but he trusted me, as he always had. I mounted, and
rode him at a safe walk up to the downs. By the time we got there, the sky had lightened to
a pale pre-dawn silver; and I kicked him into a canter.
We rode, it seemed, for hours. The sun rose on one of those blue, nearly cloudless summer
days. Sometimes, in the distance, I could see a string of horses at exercise; but no one came
near. We seemed to have the world to ourselves. It was utterly satisfying.
Finally, I turned Sarah’s Fortune. We rode off the rolling downs and along the path back
home, through the woods and round to the stable. There I dismounted, gave him a pat on his
nose and a carrot, which he snuffled off my hand; and his regular groom took him away. I made
my way through the mansion to my room….
I woke with the rising sun slanted across my eyes. I was more than a little puzzled, for I
had no memory of lying down again. What could the time be? I checked my watch. Surely, I
could not have slept the clock round? Someone would have, must have, come to wake me for dinner.
It took me a long moment to realize that I had, of course, been dreaming.
I sat fully up, swung my legs out of bed (finding, thankfully, that the previous day’s aches and
stiffness had eased), and put on my borrowed dressing gown to go and wash. As I came back, I
picked up my freshly polished shoes, brought them into the bedroom, and started to dress. Putting
on my trousers was, as always now, rather a chore. None of that simple step-one,
step-t’other, pull up and zip: the bad leg couldn’t keep my balance, and I had to sit
on the bed. After that, I reached for my shoes.
And saw, under the chair, the pair of borrowed riding boots.
I picked them up and saw stable dirt on the soles. Damn. I’d forgotten to put them out the
previous night to be cleaned.
There was a knock at the door: my wake-up call, I assumed. I collected the borrowed jodhpurs
and jacket of yesterday to hand over before going down for breakfast, and opened the door,
ready with apologies for the nuisance. Certainly, they would need a good cleaning, for they
were liberally sprinkled with horse hair from the elderly bay.
And then I looked more closely.