The Racing Finn
A lone short story
© Lyz Russo, 2008
Some say it was the Lady’s fault. Then others ask, which lady, because in fact there were two. Then the first reply, och don’t go splitting hairs now, yer big droonk galoots, and how about buying me another round! In any case it was an event that lingered in pub-side discussion long after the autumn leaves started blowing through the two streets of Kilkee, and was revived like a poor captive zombie year after year whenever it was that time again. It was the race during which the commentator’s voice broke.
Kilkee, though it was so small it was nearly off the landscape, never mind the map, nevertheless proudly owned two significant things: Seasonal horseracing, and Lady Millennia Adenoidia Mont Nifty. It was a tradition that Lady Millen, as everyone knew her, and her horse “Lady”, won this event; not only because it was proper, but because the Lady was the finest mare in all of County Clare.
Now on that particular morning in April, Finnegan o’ Flanagan had been lamenting the loss of his latest lady love over some ale. And then some more ale, and then some pure Irish whiskey. He wouldn’t have been able to afford all this if it weren’t for the steady gig he had at the same place, The Lucky Shamrock, every Friday night. And as he didn’t normally like the pure stuff much, it hit him harder than he was prepared to admit.
The barkeep, Mr Tim o’ Hagan, knew the whole story about how Amanda, current love of Finn’s life, had deserted the poor musician for a rich American adventurer who stayed at the local inn. And as O’ Hagan also owned the inn, he felt somewhat guilty. When the police had checked in last night for curfew and questioned the presence of Finn, O’ Hagan had taken the young officer aside and explained to him. And as Sandy o’ Neill had a heart too, he’d left Finn in peace.
But now the morning sun was painting a faint splotch on the dark wooden floor, and O’ Hagan was trying to find a means to gently throw this melancholy soul out of his pub so he himself could catch a few winks before opening time. Right then the door flew open and the Lady Millen swept inside. She had been carefully coached in the art of sweeping into rooms in a Limerick finishing school and could do it so impressively that she appeared quite huge for a second, until you recognized her and she shrunk back to her own diminutive stature. She went right up to Finnegan and stomped her petite foot. She nearly stomped a dent into the five-hundred year old floorboards. The pub shook in its foundations. Finn rose out of his drunk-depressive stupor.
“Millen,” mumbled Finn. “Thish really ishn’t the time for a young lady such ash yourshelf to be out pub-crawling!”
“And what might the right time be, Finnegan o’ Flanagan? It’s eight in the morning, I’ll have you know! In two hours it’s the Great Race!”
Finn squinted at the doorway. The sunlight poured in with a blinding lack of regard for sore heads and fragile stomachs. He groaned faintly.
“Finn, I need your help,” stated Lady Millen. She made it sound like an order. “The Lady is running today. I need a jockey.”
Finn nodded, and immediately regretted this. He groaned again. In any case he didn’t understand the request. Nobody could tame the Lady. Nobody understood her the way Lady Millen did. They were one in spirit and in mind. The two were rumoured to have been foaled by the same mare.
The trouble was, as a lady, Lady Millen couldn’t be seen riding her Lady in horse races that were aimed at gambling and profit-mongering. It was socially unacceptable. Her mother and father had quite forbidden her! So at the quarterly races she always had a jockey riding the Lady, and she herself stood in her booth in the front row of the Grandstand – or the Medium Stand, in the case of the Kilkee Horse Races – waving wildly and egging her mare and jockey on at the top of her voice. This was socially acceptable.
“Sir Donovan?” suggested Finn, cradling his face in his hands to protect it from the harsh Irish sunlight.
“No good,” sighed Lady Millen. “Yesterday when I turned down his marriage proposal, the Lady stomped him one in the knee, so badly he can’t even move right now. They got him down at the General Hospital in Limerick. Overreacted, if you’re asking me. Some people will do anything for the attention!” And she stomped the floorboards again, in a show of distaste. “Finn, you’re the only friend I’ve ever had. You MUST ride the Lady for me.”
Finn’s alcoholic content evaporated so fast that the world started spinning. “Millen,” he gasped, his voice lapsing into Celine Dion-style overtones, “nobody rides the Lady!”
“Och, don’t be such a ninny,” she scolded. “Sir Donovan rode her, and he’s a wimp! There’s nothing to it! She knows that track like my back pocket! She wins the race all by herself, and all you do is see you don’t topple off!”
Images of being trampled by twelve horses flashed through Finn’s mind.
“Anyway you can do wi’ the boost,” coaxed Lady Millen. “Show that Amanda what a silly cow she was to abandon you. Because you’re a hero, Finnegan. You’re MY hero anyway!”
Now who could resist such sweet-talk from the fiery Lady Millen? She whose sharp tongue was more in the habit of cutting others to ribbons, had gifted him two compliments in the span of a few minutes! Finn’s heart swelled.
“I’ll do it,” he proclaimed and completely missed the way Tim o’ Hagan crossed himself and rolled his eyes skywards.
The impetuous Lady Millen bestowed a tight hug on him. “Och, my friend!” Finn noticed for the first time, on her front side, two enticing little breasts. He grinned. She who was so recently out of childhood, was clearly unaware of them. He’d better not mention them, lest they get amputated!
Lady Millen dragged him out of the pub, her hand around his wrist like a handcuff. Behind them Tim o’ Hagan breathed a loud sigh of relief and locked the door. The Lady steered Finn into the Golden Bean and forced him to drink a serial espresso, until he thought he’d throw up and begged her that he was quite fine and they could carry on with the agenda. By now he was at the level of wide-awake drunk.
The next step was to befriend the Lady – the mare, who decided that Finn was probably the man her mistress ought to marry, and if she didn’t, she, Lady, the horse, would. This having been achieved, Finn had to force his long, lean musician’s limbs into the jockey’s outfit of Sir Donovan Crowley – a squat, muscular man whose main sport next to quaffing was womanising. Or had been, before he had been immobilized by one opinionated horse. Lady Millen bravely fought down her fits of giggles about the hairy arms and legs sticking out and forced Finn into the Sir’s boots. These were too small and pinched like a leprechaun’s tricks, but Lady Millen reminded Finn that he wouldn’t be touching ground in them anyway, not if he knew what was good for him. Then she laughed loudly and placed a kiss on his cheek. “For luck,” she said. Finn felt extremely lucky that moment.
Finnegan knew the race track. Like everybody, he had played here as a child, and some years back had his first encounters of the opposite kind here. The track was round, circling a Racing Green on which he had held a free performance once. Already spectators were gathering for the race, and the betting office was open and serving a queue. Lady Millen with Finn limping after her, walked straight to the till, ignoring the queue, which ignored her back, and bet a sizeable sum on her horse and rider. Finn shuddered.
She took him to her front-row booth and showed him the racetrack. Her eyes strayed to the horses that were being led around the track. “Oh dear.”
“What?” asked Finn.
“That huge stallion there,” she commented. “Haven’t seen him here before.” Her red eyebrows furrowed in annoyance. “Can’t let that American hoodlum win this! Get to the inside o’ the track and stick there,” she advised, then glanced at him and changed her mind. “Stay on top. Be sure to remember this.”
It being Kilkee, the Grandstand doubled for all sorts of other purposes, and its top row was actually a platform a metre wide. What had been the idea of this broad isle nobody could really remember, except that the whole town was inordinately proud of its unique stadium. Next to the stairs ran a comparatively shallow ramp, enabling the wheelchair-bound Sir Niall Mont Nifty, the Lady Millen’s father, to pick a seat anywhere on the top of the Grandstand, a vantage point he preferred. Another ramp led down the back of the seating area – the Sir didn’t always stay the whole race, especially if it seemed as though his horse was losing. Which happened regularly whenever he bet on anyone other than the Lady.
Finn took it in with aching eyes. Some days it felt to him as though it wasn’t really his life; he was just the poor puppet doing the living. The stadium was filling up; all of Kilkee watched this event. The commentator called the jockeys to the starting boxes.
Finnegan o’ Flanagan climbed precariously onto the Lady’s back, with Lady Millen steadying her horse, quite unnecessarily. The Lady turned a soft brown eye to Finn. “You’re once, twice, three times a lady…” he crooned at her. The horse liked that.
“That’s good,” said Lady Millen, “keep singing.”
Then the doors were flung wide and the horses lunged forward into the din of the cheering multitude of Kilkee.
“Break a leg!” yelled Lady Millen after Finn. His stomach lurched.
Clinging on became easier after the first round. The Lady was clearly enjoying the race, and so was her mistress, although Finn couldn’t make out what she was yelling at him every time he passed her booth. The alcohol had by now taken a necessary backseat, and Finn was beginning to relax. Perhaps the stories about the Lady being all that wild, were a bit overblown.
They had left most horses behind, and the only contestant for the first prize was now that huge black stallion of the American. Finn urged the Lady on, singing “there’s a hero” into her ears. The two horses were nose to nose now, with the American whipping and spurning his poor stallion to greater speed. All Finnegan did, was sing.
And then he made a lethal mistake and burped. The Lady’s ears flattened. Her nostrils quivered. She didn’t like what she heard and smelled there. It scared her. She responded in a primal way and bucked.
Finn clung. It didn’t matter about winning now; it mattered about staying on top. The Lady panicked and bolted. She had been running swiftly, elegantly before the dread noise; now she was stampeding. She flew past the American like a bullet, ran the round of the course and came up to the horses from behind. Several followed their herd instinct and panicked with her. Over the pounding hooves and the panting of the horses and the roaring of his own blood in his ears, Finnegan heard the commentator’s voice jabber on.
“…AND it looks as though Finnegan on the Lady is in the lead… the Lady is leading… Jono Cartwright on Stardust hard on her heels – oy, what’s happening there? Here comes Sean on Little Wing, it looks as though he has trouble controlling his horse… Lady still in the lead… what’s going on there? Jono Cartwright has jumped off Stardust! Into the Grandstand, there’s someone rushing to help him… There’s Eamus going flying – Nasturtium has thrown him off, ladies… paramedic Kerin Kilkenny is on the job, helping him off the track – oy, close one there for her… there’s Keagan, jumping too… what are they doing? This is a race, not show jumping!”
The Lady passed the winning pole for the eight time. She had technically won the race twice by now and was in no mood yet for slowing down.
“There goes Brian, thrown by his mare Eagle’s Eye… hoy! The Lady is leading the herd to the ramp!”
Spectators splashed out of the way to all sides as the Lady thundered up the broad wooden ramp, leading the entire stampeding herd behind her. In the fog of her primeval brain only one thing registered right now, like a red flashing alarm. She was trapped! Where was the way out? Onlookers cleared the Grandstand in ripples and poured into the deserted race track. The race thundered along the broad wooden walkway on the top of the Grandstand. Finn clung on, eyes shut tightly, hanging desperately onto the horse, his sanity and his stomach contents.
The Lady completed the round of the Grandstand when a whiff of something caught her nostrils. She glanced in the direction of the white crests on green waves, clearly visible from up here. The Sea! Water! Rolling in the water ought to dislodge this tenacious predator on her back! She stormed down the ramp, hooves clattering like fireworks on the wood, and led the whole mindless herd in the direction of the beach, followed by a noisy crowd of screaming human monkeys. Sea sand whipped up under her hooves, and then beautiful cold saltwater splashed and sprayed as she bolted into the surf with the herd around her. She attempted to roll, got out of her depth, a wave unbalanced her… when she had struggled back to her feet, the water had washed all the stampeding out of her and she was once again the Lady. And the Lady knew one thing: She had abandoned a race she was supposed to win. Without the slightest heed to her coughing and choking human burden she turned about and headed back up the beach.
And then a small, authoritative figure stepped right into her way and held up a hand.
The fog lifted from the Lady’s brain. There, like a sunbeam, stood her mistress, her blood sister. She halted and nuzzled Lady Millen’s hand in a rush of affection. The stampeding herd milled to a halt around them.
“You silly girl,” smiled Lady Millen, then turned to Finnegan. “What the hell were you doing, Finn? You’ve frightened the Lady out o’ her wits!”
Finn fell off the horse like a brick. He lay in the sand like an odd piece of driftwood, his mind about the same, his face fixed into an idiotic smile. Lady Millen hugged the head of her horse. “Are you alive, sweetie?” she whispered at the mare.
“Did we win?” asked Finn just before he passed out.
To Lady Millen’s credit it has to be mentioned here that she fussed over him quite a bit, after she finished fussing over her horse. For weeks afterwards the commentator was still sucking liquorice bonbons in a futile attempt to get his voice back down into the tenor range. Finnegan made the local newspapers and got an extra gig out of it, and Lady Millen’s undying friendship. But he has no memories of the event, other than being tied hand and foot to a steamroller.