Kill Your Darlings are delighted to support the QUT Postgraduate Creative Writing Prize, and to publish the two winning stories on Killings.
Ben Goodfellow’s story, ‘Your Mother Was a Dancer’, was joint winner of the 2014 QUT Postgraduate Creative Writing Prize. Read Laura Elvery’s story here.
Of the inspiration behind his story, Ben says, ‘I don’t remember exactly what “inspired” this story, except that I started writing it after trying to write a bunch of super-charming, irreverent, funny stories – something which I obviously realised I couldn’t do. I also remember that I wrote it over two or three days, locked in my room in Brisbane, while it stormed.’
Your Mother Was a Dancer
Jake and I met Laurie in the car park. He was in the passenger seat of his old Commodore with the door open and the stereo turned up, drinking from a bottle of scotch. The car park was mostly deserted. Behind us, behind the racetrack and the high-rises in the distance, the day was grey with rainclouds.
‘Gentlemen!’ Laurie said, when he saw us. He got out of the car and pushed the bottle of scotch towards me. ‘Gentlemen, start your engines.’
I took the bottle, which was almost half empty, and Laurie gave Jake a bear hug, lifting him clean off the ground. When he let him go I made a show of drinking the scotch in order to avoid the same treatment. Laurie compensated for this by slapping me on the back.
‘You boys ready to make some money?’ he said.
‘You bet,’ said Jake.
‘Well, that’s the plan,’ Laurie said, and he fell about laughing.
‘What do I know about it?’ I had said, when Jake had called me that morning. ‘What does anyone know about horse-racing?’
But those sorts of questions were lost on Jake, who had recently married his high-school sweetheart, and could muster enthusiasm for just about anything that came his way. I didn’t have the energy to talk him down, so I had hung up and found a long-sleeved shirt.
Unbeknown to either of my friends, two weeks ago, far away in another city, someone I was deeply in love with had died.
At the gate the security guard gave us yellow wristbands in exchange for our tickets. He seemed very pleased about having something to do and offered to put the bands on for us.
‘They can be tricky little buggers,’ he said. Laurie, and then Jake, held out their hands. Then it was my turn. ‘I can do it myself,’ I said.
‘Nah, go on,’ he said, reaching for my sleeve. ‘No one ever gets it first go.’
I snatched the wristband off him, and Laurie and Jake gave me looks, but didn’t say anything.
We went past the portable toilets, and came to a makeshift bar. The men there were spread out on tables, studying form guides and drinking beer from plastic cups. Most of them looked to be in their fifties, dressed casually. I had expected, from the way Jake had pressured me on the phone, for this to be a big deal: a mob of suits, women in dresses with glasses of champagne. And while that idea had not exactly encouraged me, the fact that the place was empty was somehow worse. Part of it was my guiltiness at being there, and part of it was a feeling I couldn’t quite articulate – I had felt it once before, having gone alone into an empty chapel. It was a sinking feeling. The feeling of someone getting one over you. Laurie went to get us a jug of beer.
While we waited Jake pointed out an elderly couple at the end of the bar. They were holding hands. The man had a pair of binoculars to his face with his free hand and he was watching one of the screens showing the races from all around the country. It was ten metres in front of him. Jake got a good laugh out of that.
Laurie came back with the beer and the cups and we started drinking. Jake asked Laurie how his brother got into horses.
‘Fucking syndicate,’ Laurie said, pausing to burp. ‘Don’t ask me how much it’s costing him, ‘cause he won’t say. But he’s no fool.’
He lowered his voice, and lent across the table. ‘Colt’s the full brother of Seneca’s Son.’
Jake reeled back in his chair. ‘Piss off.’
‘Who’s Seneca’s Son?’ I said.
Laurie laughed. ‘You watch the news? He just won the Caulfield Cup by three lengths. First race back in Oz. Before that he was over in ol’ Kentucky, winning their Derby. Heard of that one, I spose?’
‘Wow,’ I said, though I couldn’t care less. ‘So your brother’s horse will be the favourite then?’
Laurie leaned in again. ‘Nope. And that’s the point. This is his first real outing. Everybody’s putting a lot of effort into keeping his lineage quiet. They’ve even changed his name a bunch of times. But after today the word will be out. That’s why we’re gonna be betting heavy on him while we can still get something decent back for it.’
‘And you’re sure he’s going to win?’ Jake said.
‘He’s been aimed at this race. It’s got a couple of decent names in it so the money will mostly go to them. But, trust me, I’ve seen this pony run, and once it gets going, none of these horses will get even close to staying with it.’
Jake nodded, real serious, and we were quiet for a while. Jake had two little daughters with hair the colour of straw. I thought of them sitting in a park somewhere with their mother, watching the dark clouds roll in and asking, despite having already been told, where their father was.
Then I said, ‘What’s the horse’s name?’
‘Tidy Dancer,’ Laurie said.
I laughed. ‘Is it supposed to be a joke? Tidy Dancer?’
‘Fuck you,’ Laurie said. ‘Your mother was a dancer.’
I laughed in spite of myself, but something snagged on a corner of my mind: a piece of knowledge I would have to stretch for to grasp. I didn’t have the energy.
Laurie topped up our cups and we followed him out to the stands. On the way I saw her ghost in another girl’s face. The girl was in a grey dress, lighting a cigarette in the designated smoking area, and she caught me standing there looking at her.
‘What are you doing?’ Jake said, tugging at my sleeve.
Despite being friends with her for years I had never known very much about her. I knew she liked to rise early, to paint as the sun came up, and that she was quick to laugh, quick to cry. It had been enough.
Laurie’s brother was out on the grass in front of the stands. He was wearing expensive looking sunglasses and had his jacket slung over his shoulder.
‘Damien,’ he said with an easy smile, shaking our hands. He was several years older than Laurie and to look at them you wouldn’t know the two were related. Laurie tried to push a cup of beer onto him, but Damien waved it away.
‘How long till we’re on, then?’ Laurie said.
‘Race after next,’ said Damien.
‘Then what are we standing here for?’ Laurie ushered us over to the bar. The bartender served us cans of Draught with an unrestrained contempt.
‘Don’t like the look of this weather,’ Damien said. The air had the clean, cold smell of an imminent storm. Damien asked us polite questions about our lives and soon he and Jake got to talking about their respective children.
‘Better syphon the python before the action starts,’ Laurie declared abruptly, before wandering off. Damien watched him go with a stare.
‘Needs to get his shit together, that one,’ he said. ‘You know if he’s working at the moment?’
Jake and I shook our heads. Laurie hadn’t been able to hold down a job since leaving university. His problem was that when he was working he’d get this overblown sense of entitlement and drink himself stupid every night, until he eventually got laid off. Then, he’d drink from the depression of it.
Damien sighed. ‘Don’t know if I did the right thing, bringing him here today.’
Jake and I pretended we didn’t know what he was talking about and Damien didn’t say any more. It was the way our friendship worked, that problems such as Laurie’s were left well alone, and it suited me just fine.
The race preceding Tidy Dancer’s was won by a horse called King of Midnight. Laurie made it back from the toilets in time for it and the four of us watched from the fence, as the horses thundered down the straight. There was a violence that you couldn’t appreciate through the TV: the booming of all that weight coming down, the horses inches from each other, the sound of the turf being ripped apart and left scattered in the animals’ wake. When it ended I realised my heart was beating harder than it should have been, and I drank to steady myself.
Damien glanced at the sky. ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘Now if you’re having a bet, and you’re gonna bet big, make sure you spread out between the bookies. There’s never a sure thing in horse racing, but I give you my word: the jockey’s sound, and there isn’t a horse here today that can stay with this colt.’
We thanked him and he excused himself to go and find his associates.
Laurie immediately strode towards the bookies at the foot of the stands, but Jake hung around, as if he wanted my permission. He wasn’t looking at me but I sensed that he was counting in his head.
‘Just don’t go crazy,’ I said. Jake nodded, still without looking at me, and walked after Laurie.
I sat down on the grass and felt the first drops of rain on the back of my neck. It wasn’t about the money; I just knew that the satisfaction of winning would manage to twist itself into guilt – I’d get home and look at the cash and I’d see the girl in the grey dress again.
I’d see her.
As the starting gun was fired into the sky, the rain came plummeting down. Tidy Dancer had drawn a wide barrier but quickly made his way to the fence. He sat there, in the last of the group as they rounded the first bend.
‘What’s he doing?’ Jake said. We were on the fence again. My shirt was already soaked and it was hard to see which horse was which, now that they were on the back straight.
‘Don’t worry,’ Laurie said. ‘He’s sitting pretty. Don’t want to go too soon.’
And, sure enough, as they went into the last bend, Tidy Dancer started coming.
He moved off the fence and started overtaking them on the outside, as they came around the bend. Then they were on the straight, coming towards us, and suddenly he was mid-pack, and then he was past, coming to the front, and he was moving beautifully, so differently to the others – his strides were longer, and more powerful, and he was only getting faster.
‘Come on you fucker!’ Laurie cried.
‘I don’t believe it. He’s going, he’s going,’ Jake said, and I thought, yes, please, just let this horse win this fucking race.
As he came past us Tidy Dancer had four horses in front of him, and he went around the outside of the first two, the jockey giving him the whip with all he had, and then he slowed. Suddenly, inexplicably, the jockey was pitching forward, almost gone, just hanging on, as the horse slowed to limp.
‘Oh, no,’ Jake said. ‘No, no, no, no.’
I felt a cold that had nothing to do with the rain as I stood there looking at Laurie with his eyes still on the finish line, and then at the can that had fallen from his hand, beer flowing slowly into the sodden grass.
‘We should find your brother,’ I said to him. Laurie turned to me, dead-eyed, and nodded.
‘What happens now?’ Jake said.
‘What do you think happens to a horse with a broken leg?’ Laurie croaked.
The grass had turned to mud by the time we got to the side of the barn. They were keeping Tidy Dancer in a van, to shield him from the rain. Damien was there, along with his associates, and a man I took to be the vet. They stood about shaking their heads and throwing up their hands until Damien saw us and came over.
‘Well, there you go,’ he said, bitterly. ‘That’s what happens in racing. You got a prince? You can bet he’ll die young, like a prince.’
Jake said how terrible it was and Damien seemed to collect himself.
‘I hope you boys didn’t lose too much money,’ he said.
‘Nah,’ Jake said. ‘We’re OK.’
Damien turned to Laurie. ‘What about you?’
Laurie looked at his brother, all the colour gone from his face. He took a flask from his pocket and drank. ‘I’m… I’m….’
And then Laurie’s legs gave way and he was on the ground, on his back, in the mud.
‘I’m no good,’ he said, over and over again, his hands pushing mud up into his temples. ‘It’s no good… it’s no good. I’m no good. I’m not… good.’
‘Hey,’ Damien said, glancing around. ‘Come on, get up.’
He grabbed at his brother’s collar, but I pushed him away. I bent down and gave Laurie my hand and I heard myself say, ‘You have to tell people these things. You have to tell us if you’re not OK.’
Laurie looked at me, blinking hard, like I’d slapped him. Then he reached out and took my wrist in a monkey grip. The pain pierced through immediately, but along with it came something else: a yearning that hadn’t existed before, to know all the things that go unknown. As I brought him to his feet, I thought about what Laurie had said to me at the table, and I wondered, sincerely, if any of our mothers had been dancers.
‘It’s such a waste,’ someone said, as we stood there in the mud. Tidy Dancer was led out of the van. He tossed his head in the rain as the doctor moved closer.
And everyone just stood there, watching the vet test his needle, as if we were required to bear witness. But I didn’t. I opened up my mind and allowed myself to imagine a woman waiting in an empty room, her bare feet on the cold, wooden floor. I concentrated on her with everything I had. In that room, the morning sun is rising through the window. Soon, a slow, mournful song will fill the space, but before she will move, the woman will close her eyes for a moment, as if something is washing over her, warming her, bringing her back to life.