Horses by John McGroarty

Sherbet was a man with a plan. He would make them treat him with respect. That was it, with respect, with fuckin’ awe. They would remain the losers they had always been, but they would recognise his superiority, see that he had been chosen. He would give them the one good win of their lives. The only time they would ever win anything. He was lucky, that’s what they said. Lucky cunt, that’s what they called him. And they had only seen a small part of it. A hundred quid here, fifty there. Fucking small potatoes. That lucky bastard Sherbet again. Sherbet. And they would call him by his name in future. Robert, no fuckin’ Sherbet. A grown man, worthy of the highest respect.

He had it all thought out. His vehicle, his fuckin’ Trojan horse into their midst, would be Gerry Welsh. Good man, Gerry Welsh. Good hard-working Corporation and union man, Gerry Welsh. Good mass-going, God-fearing, Gerry Welsh, the pride of that decent Catholic brood.

He remembered how his father had taken him to play with the Welsh children when he was a boy. His dad and Gerry’s were friends, worked in the steel works together, watched their team the gither and drank their ale the gither. Gerry’s father was a good man too. Felt sorry for little Robert McGuire, who didnae have a mammy. Some Saturday nights he spent the night and mother Welsh would put him in the bed with Gerry.

“Going tae mass the morrow, Gerry?” he would ask him.

“So are you, Sherbet.”

“Aye, but I’ll no be there the way you are.”

And then he would start.

“Who made ye? Eh, Gerry?”

There would be silence for a while and then Gerry could stay silent no longer. It was a conditioned response. Thou shalt not deny me. Part of the rite.

“God made me, and you,” he would say in the darkness.

Sherbet would smile, “An’ who made God?”

Gerry said nothing.

“There isnae a God,” said Sherbet, “You are alone in this world.”

“I wish I was alone in this bed,” said Gerry.

Sherbet half liked that.

“One day this planet will die, be consumed by the sun, an’ there’ll be no God to stop it. Who knows, maybe it’ll happen the morrow, eh Gerry?”

Brian Welsh, an elder member of the tribe, would tell Sherbet to shut it and there would be silence. But he knew that in the silence Gerry still felt sorry and was praying silently for his soul.

Aye, good man Gerry Welsh, his way into the group. He would make them all see his power. This done, he would take his winnings and leave them to their empty lives. Move south to a new life, leaving only the legend of that lucky cunt Sherbet.

Cat’s Eye. Twenty-six to one. That was the one that would do it. Number three in the accumulator. Lamb, five to four on; Poe, evens. And then Cat’s Eye. He could see their faces now. And the winner is Cat’s Eye! Fuck, they would all be saying to themselves, we could do it. Even the lassies at the payout would be looking nervous, might call out the boss, or even the area manager. Then down would swoop Praetorian Guard, two to one. They wouldnae be able to pronounce it, but they would be sweating and praying for it. It would be a sin that too. And last, the real test of the nerves, Martin Luther. Three to one, better odds than the old priest himself had had. Sherbet would like that one; all those Tims cheering Martin Luther on, probably wouldnae even know the significance of the name. Never mind, they would know the name Sherbet, the best punter ever to come out of that black hole of a scheme. And they would know the name and the significance of twenty thousand, two hundred and seventeen pounds and sixty pence. That would be, subjectively, three thousand, three hundred and sixty-nine pounds and sixty pence. They’d be hugging him and queuing up to buy him a pint. They’d be singing his praises from now to doomsday, their thoughts turning to the following Saturday. He would have disciples. But he wouldn’t want that. No. He would leave them to it. For after all, what does it benefit a man if he inherits the whole world and loses his soul?

On Monday evening Sherbet was waiting for the bus. The bus that brought Gerry Welsh back to his kith and kin. Less than kin and more than kind, Sherbet thought to himself. Fuckin’ kind indeed, over three grand kind. As always, it was raining. When Gerry got off, Sherbet snuck behind a fat woman waiting to get on. He watched him cross the road from afar, and then quickly caught him up. He covered Gerry with his brolly. Gerry managed to control his expression.

Forcing a weak smile he said, “Sherbet, how’s it going?”

“Very well, Gerry, very well indeed,” said Sherbet with a grin.

“Good, good,” said Gerry.

They walked in silence for a while. Gerry felt a little awkward.

“Where are you off to then, Sherbet?” he said.

“Who knows?” said Sherbet. “Do you?”

“I’m going home for my dinner,” said Gerry, not as convinced as before.

As they passed the pub Sherbet invited Gerry to a pint. An aperitif, he said.

Gerry assented, “Just the one.”

Sherbet held the door open for him. He sat down and Sherbet got the drinks. They drank in silence. At the length of half a pint Gerry said, “Been down the bookies the day, Sherbet?”

“Monday’s a good day for the bookies. It’s full of all Saturday’s losers with whatever they can scrape the gither. The real punters, the ones who can’t accept the rules.”

Gerry nodded and finished his beer. He stood up. “Well thanks for the pint,” he said.

“Wait a minute, Gerry. I have a proposition,” said Sherbet.

Gerry sat down. “I’ve got a job, Sherbet,” he began. “I don’t want to get involved in anything illegal. I don’t know where you get your money, I don’t care; I don’t want to get involved.”

Sherbet looked at him a little darkly. “You think I’m a criminal?” he said.

Gerry remained silent.

“I’m a punter, Gerry,” he went on, “and I’m a winner. I travel round the city placing bets. Sometimes I go to Edinburgh or Falkirk, a wee day out. And I win. I’ve won two hundred thousand pounds in the last three years.” He let the number sink in.

“Look,” he said, thrusting a bankbook into Gerry’s hands.

He turned it over in his hands. He looked at the name, and then at the page with the balance.

“It’s all mine, legal, tax paid,” said Sherbet. “If you like, I’ll show you the holes in my hands too.”

Sherbet had him.

“Another pint?” he said.

“Wit the hell,” said Gerry.

“Wit the hell indeed,” said Sherbet.

Sherbet got the pints and began to explain the accumulator he had planned for Saturday. He described every rise and fall of the horses’ hooves. The mud flying, the jockeys’ cursing, the thundering of the hooves, the lashing of the beasts, the blood, the dirt and the sweat of lady luck galloping home. The emotions, the heart beat, the breathing, the adrenalin rushing. The ecstasy of winning. How they would be kings for days, for weeks, months, after the win. How they would hold their heads up, shrink from no man, be gods for a while in this world.

Gerry was as fervent as Sherbet by the end.

“How much would we win?” he asked.

Sherbet smiled, “For two pounds you would take home over three grand.”

Gerry gulped down his pint. “You can count on me,” he said.

“Yes,” said Sherbet, “but I’ll only do it if all of your friends take part. If not, all bets are off.”

“Leave it to me,” said Gerry, “I’ll convince them.”

“Good man, Gerry Welsh, good man,” said Sherbet.

Sherbet passed the next couple of days in a state of ecstasy. He was unable to sleep. He kept thinking about Saturday and how they would all bow down before him. On Thursday he managed to calm down a little and take some practical steps. He walked into town, had a quick flutter on the horses and then booked a seat on the express coach to London for Saturday night. He then went to a travel agent’s to reserve a room in a fancy London hotel for a week. He would need somewhere to stay while he decided his next move. On Friday he was calm. Angelically calm. He caught the train through to Edinburgh and spent the day at the festival, taking in a play in the evening. He caught the last train home. His state was now serene. He contemplated his revenge coldly. He would take their praises and then solemnly announce that he was going to London that very night to start a new life. He saw it all. It would be like giving some sweeties to a group of children and then taking them away again immediately.

“Sorry, boys, you’re on yer own,” he said out loud. A middle aged couple sitting opposite gave him a look. He smiled. What did he care if some people he would never see again thought him a little mad?

Eddie Chambers, Edzo, Sherbet saw his triple chin droop as he spoke the words. Jacky McCarron, the first time he had ever won anything in his life. Joe Lynch. Not a bad lad, big Joe Lynch, the only one he would feel bad about. And Rab McTaggart. Tag. He was the one, the leader of the gang, the one who would whisper behind his back, make comments about him to the rest. He was the poison. And he would be the one to suffer the most. For Tag would see it. The rest would only get greedy; Tag would see it as his way out.

“Not fuckin’ likely, my friend,” he said. The couple got up and moved to a different seat. Sherbet put them out of his mind and thought about the play he had seen. Some modern thing about junkies written by a guy way a ticket oot. The middle-class audience loved it. Losers are cosmically tragic, he thought as he peered out the window to the dark countryside beyond.

The next morning Sherbet was up early. He showered and had a hearty breakfast. He went out for a paper and killed time doing the crosswords. At 12.30 prompt he was in the bookies. The first race was at 1.15. Joe Lynch was there. Sherbet strolled over casually and joined him.

Big Joe greeted him with a smile. They stood watching the telly together for a few minutes until Tag entered. Tag pulled Joe to one side giving Sherbet his usual contemptuous look. One by one the group came in and formed up in the corner. Gerry Welsh was the last to arrive. He nodded to Sherbet and joined his friends. Sherbet watched their conversation become more and more animated. Unable to contain himself any longer, Sherbet walked over.

“Well, Gerry,” he said, “have you put my proposition to your friends?”

“I’m game,” said Joe Lynch.

“Me too,” said Eddie.

Tag said without looking at Sherbet, “Cat’s Eye has never won a race in its life.”

“It’ll win today. Everybody has one day,” said Sherbet looking at Jackie McCarron.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” said Jackie, catching some of Sherbet’s confidence.

Tag remained silent glancing at his paper.

Gerry Welsh spoke up, “Fuck’s sake, Tag, it’s only two quid, what’ve ye got to lose? It’s true, I saw his bankbook.”

Sherbet looked at Tag for a minute and then turned to walk away.

Tag swung round. “Okay ye smart cunt,” he said and thrust two pounds into Sherbet’s hands.

Sherbet took the money from the rest and calmly placed the bet at the counter. They waited, Sherbet standing a little off. Lamb strolled home. Poe left the field behind and took the ribbon ten seconds before the next horse. The atmosphere was electric as Cat’s Eye went into the stalls. Sherbet remained calm. The boys were bobbing up and down on their stools, eyes glued to the screen. Cat’s Eye, in the most dramatic way, came from behind and took the prize at the wire. By this point they were all gathered around Sherbet. They cheered and cried tears of joy. Howled at the screen like madmen. Hugged Sherbet. Tag stood alone. Praetorian Guard won hands down. Tag joined the group. He smiled and nodded to Sherbet. There was a half an hour wait for Martin Luther. They were all completely convinced now. They talked excitedly about what they would do with the money. Tag was the only one not to get carried away.

“Of course,” he said, “this is only the beginning, eh Sherbet.”

“Robert,” he said.

“Robert,” agreed Tag.

He held out his hand. Sherbet took it.

They all turned to the screen as the horses were lining up. Sherbet’s nerve broke. He hadn’t expected total success before the final race.

“I’m going for a pish,” he announced. They were reluctant to let him go but he insisted. In the toilet he locked himself in the cubicle. He was sweating slightly. He looked at his watch. They were off. He could hear the rise and fall of voices from the betting floor. He watched the seconds tick by. The voices rose to a sustained cheer and then broke off. Sherbet composed himself. He had done it. He re-entered and there was a strange silence in the room. None of the boys would meet his eye.

“What,” he said, “we lost?”

Jackie McCarron was crying. They all turned their backs on him.

He tried to focus on the screen. He could hear the announcer talking about these extraordinary events at Ascot. There was a replay of the last part of the race. Martin Luther was twenty yards in front of the pack with the finishing line in sight. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, it swerved and charged towards one of the cameras. The jockey couldn’t control it and it hit the side fence at full gallop.

Sherbet watched in disbelief. The commentator continued his gruesome account. They’re both dead he was saying. Both necks snapped, horse and jockey.

Sherbet was alone in the middle of the room. He felt the universe spinning around him.
“I’m leaving,” he said, “going to London.”

“Good,” said Gerry Welsh. The rest were silent.

Everyone in the bookies was looking at him now. Sherbet backed out and hailed a taxi.

“The city centre, pal,” he said.

The driver was listening to the radio.

Disaster at the races, it said. The young jockey, twenty-seven, father of two little girls. His neck broken in two places. Dead he was, quite dead.

John McGroarty was born in Glasgow and now lives in Barcelona, where he works as an English teacher.  He has been writing short stories for many years.  His acclaimed long short story Rainbow is a McStorytellers publication.