At last, my mother is home from the hospital. I lie on her bed and talk of Michael Scudamore, who has died.
‘I can see him now,’ says my mother. ‘Sitting on the lawn, in a director’s chair, drinking Pimm’s.’
I think how racy my mother must have been, to have a director’s chair on the lawn in the late fifties.
‘He was a very good jockey,’ she says. ‘He rode with your father. But the real thing about him is that he was so nice. He was the nicest of them all.’
Nice is considered a poor word. Writing manuals strictly instruct you not to use it, not if you want to be taken seriously. I like it. It is a small, humble, unassuming word. It does not show-boat, or take up all the oxygen in a room. And it does, whatever the sneery received wisdom says, mean something.
When I was young and heedless, I suspect I probably agreed with the sneerers. Who wanted to be nice? It was so dull, so safe, so workaday. Much better to be charming or wild or reckless. Now I am older, and chipped around the edges, I crave niceness. How lovely and reassuring to be nice, in a rushing, technological world, where internecine battles break out at the drop of a hat, and trolls stalk the internet, spreading their bile.
He was a nice man, Mr Scudamore, and that is a proper epithet for a gentleman of the turf.
My mother tells me about Dave Dick, who was the joker of the pack, and drove a car like a maniac. ‘He never had his eye on the road,’ says my mother. ‘He was always looking at you to see if you got the joke of the week. Oh, I was so frightened.’
‘Fred Winter was my hero,’ says my mother. ‘Because of how he rode a horse. He was the most beautiful jockey I ever saw over a fence.’
She pauses, remembering. ‘Then Francome came along. And he was beautiful too.’
I remember watching John Francome ride. There was a poetry in it.
‘The one I love watching at the moment,’ I say, ‘on the flat, is Ryan Moore. I watched him educate a two-year-old colt in a race the other day. He took him through the whole thing, very gently, step by step, letting him find his stride, sitting perfectly still, and then picking him up a furlong out and letting him rock into a flying rhythm and showing him his business. He won, and he never picked up his whip, just hands and heels.’
‘So the horse would not know he had a race,’ says my mother, smiling. ‘Scobie Breasley used to do that. He was a genius with two-year-olds.’
We talk of the Hannon two-year-olds, and how beautiful they are. Many trainers have a stamp of a horse. You can often tell, seeing the mighty creatures in the paddock, which yard they come from. The Hannons love big, strong, close-coupled horses, very deep through the girth, with short, powerful necks and finely-carved heads. ‘And Mark Johnston,’ says my mother, ‘likes those honest, long horses, rather old-fashioned types.’
‘Who look as if they might go hurdling,’ I say.
Almost under her breath, almost wistful, my mother says: ‘The most beautiful of them all was Frankel.’
We remember Frankel, as if we are paying homage, which in a way we are.
‘They have a presence,’ I say. ‘Those great ones.’
‘Nijinsky had it,’ says my mother. ‘You could feel it the moment you stepped onto the course. Although he wasn’t much fun to see in the pre-parade ring.’
‘Because he got so lathered up?’ I ask.
‘Oh,’ says my mother, indulgently,as if describing a naughty schoolboy, ‘he got himself in such a state. But it never seemed to make any difference. He just went and won anyway.’
‘Michael Scudamore,’ says my mother, reverting to our point of origin, ‘made a dynasty. Imagine that. His grandson is riding now.’
‘Tom Scu,’ I say. ‘He’s a lovely jockey. And a gentleman too.’
We contemplate the Scudamores, the nicest of them all, a family which knows horses like sailors know the sea. I think of the brothers, who only this week carried the coffins of their grandfather and grandmother into a Norman church. The old lady died, and her husband followed her three days later.
What loss they must be feeling: two blows coming so close together, two mighty oaks felled. I look out at the sunshine. It was sunny like this when my father died, that impossible, improbable sun which is not supposed to shine on dear old Blighty, not on these islands of mist and rain. The Scudamores must have that same feeling of unreality that I remember so well. They must be looking out into the blinding light and waiting for the world to make sense again.
The red mare is having a well-deserved day off. Today, she just gets to be a horse, out in the long grass, with her dear friend for company and the sun on her back: