At The Races

Alfie called in sick to work at midday, claiming that he’d had a stomach bug so strong he hadn’t been able to reach the phone before that; that he was suffering from exhaustion, hence his slurred words and mumbling. He didn’t really feel too concerned whether his manager believed him or not; last year he’d exceeded all his targets, hardly taken a day off even for holidays, so he deserved the odd ersatz sick day.

They had pushed the sofa back into place, but after that he didn’t really want to be in the apartment any longer, to be reminded of Barnsie, so instead they had left, taking Esther’s suitcase with them. As he only had the one bedroom, and the living room was ruined, it would be best to find a hotel for her.

Esther had not chosen the best week to arrive in Hong Kong. With the Sevens starting on Friday, most hotels were already fully booked. They had started in Central and gradually moved outwards, until they took the last room available at a modern place overlooking the race-course in Happy Valley. It was a fairly charmless room, but at least it didn’t have the aftermath of a drunkard littered across the floor.

The slight buzz in his head from the bottle of beer he’d drunk that morning was beginning to wear off, and his night without sleep and food was catching up with him. Esther was looking rough too – first class travel can do a lot, but it cannot fully compensate for the rigours of jet lag – so she slept on the bed and he passed out in a chair facing the window.

When he woke up, his head was filled with cotton wool and his face was a size tighter than he remembered. Night had fallen, although with the amount of light glaring up from the streets, that didn’t make much difference.

“Ess?”

She mumbled and stuffed the pillow over her face.

“Ess, wake up. It’s – ” He looked at his watch. “It’s seven o’clock. The horse racing is starting up soon.”

It was ten minutes from the hotel to the race course entrance – it would have been five minutes if they hadn’t had to use the pedestrian tunnel under four lanes of traffic to get there. The stands were full – at one end with the usual army of taxi drivers, studying form intently, and at the other end, rank after rank of sunburnt Westerners, faces glistening with the first flush of alcohol. Down by the rail that ringed the track were a long line of beer tents, doing brisk business even though the stadium had only just opened. Esther and Alfie threaded their way through the throng, past a scrum of men in bright green fezes and matching t-shirts, each with their name written on the back, singing ‘Jerusalem’ and to the San Miguel tent, where they were efficiently provided with a plastic jug of lager and two plastic glasses in a matter of moments.

“Here”, Alfie said. “Drink this, it will kill off the jet lag, and then we can go put some bets down.”

Alfie bet on every race at Happy Valley, more from a sense that this demonstrated commitment to the event in a way than solely turning up and drinking beer would not. He never bet large amounts, a hundred or two hundred dollars at a time, and he never bothered to study the form guide. All those variables, the thumbs up, the ticks and crosses and numbers, he didn’t care for. He had to think enough in the hours that he was sat at his desk in the office; he wasn’t going to spend his evenings being analytical if he could help it. Like every gambler, Alfie did have a system, but he felt it pure in its simplicity and idealism. He would pick the horse with the name that he felt was the stupidest, the most inappropriate for half a ton of horsemeat propelling itself around a track. On most nights, this left him a few hundred dollars up at the end of the evening.

In the first race, Gleaming Surprise beat Funky Chicken by a nose. In the second, Alfie triumphed when Mr Moneybags came from the back of the field to sprint past the others in the last hundred yards. They had to refuel then as the beer jug was empty. The crowds at the beer tent had thickened since they had first arrived, and it was now a struggle to push through and get served. The women in tight plastic dresses behind the counter were beginning to look more harried and worn out than when they had started, their synthetic smiles looking slightly less than perfect.

This could have been because the Party Stage had started up – a trailer, backed up adjacent to the beer tents, carrying a badly configured PA system, some dancing nitwits and a MC who kept yelling for Hong Kong to give it up. Alfie found himself wishing that the MC would give it up; there was no need to ruin a night’s drinking with the constant bellowing of a drunken egomaniac.

When he got back to Esther, he found another drunken egomaniac had beaten him to it; or rather, two drunken egomaniacs, fresh from work, dressed in identical pinstripes, identikit bankers, only distinguishable because one had decided that he’d tie his tie around his head like a bourgoeis Rambo. Alfie wondered if the Stallone wannabe thought he was an innovator and nobody had ever done this before him.

Esther had always drawn attention; it wasn’t just her height, or the blonde hair, although Alfie accepted they had something to do with it. There was something else about her that just signalled to men that they should try their luck; maybe it was the look she had, of waiting for somebody to come and entertain her, those eyes that often seemed a little vacant. It was part of her wiles, he supposed – Esther knew what she was doing, seemed happy to project this docile, dumb blonde image, wait for somebody to play up to it, and then dash their hopes on the rocks.

Alfie had been rather disappointed when she hadn’t pushed Dennis away; Dennis seemed the sort of guy that didn’t really deserve his sister, but that was her business. Then again, she was here on her own, without giving any sense that she was visiting on a business trip. Alfie wondered if everything was fine at home, found himself hoping that it wasn’t. He stopped himself immediately. If Dennis was the person to make Esther happy, then he was not going to get in the way of that.

Rambo was boasting to Esther about how much money he made for the Swiss bank he worked for. Esther regarded him drily, not bothering to mention that he was worth only a minor fraction of what she was responsible for. Banker Number Two was there as his wingman, to chortle when Rambo made a ‘joke’ and otherwise amplify his companion’s attractiveness by comparison. They weren’t ugly men; clothed in well-tailored suits, still young, still slim, a few years away from finding they had no further time for rugby on Saturday afternoons and that their waistlines had run away from them. But they had nothing to say to her. As Alfie returned, she took him by the arm and guided him away towards the betting offices.

“Please, don’t do that again, Alfie.”

“Do what.”

“Leave me alone with such ghastly people. I thought I flew here to get away from that sort of person.”

“Never mind, Ess. You’re just unlucky. There’s lots of people like that in Hong Kong, but half of them don’t speak English – guess you just suffered from the rule of large numbers. Anyway, drink this down – we need to get a bet on Windy Horizon before the bell goes.”

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