Proof Dick Francis

ONE

Agony is socially unacceptable. One is not supposed to weep. Particularly is one not supposed to weep when one is moderately presentable and thirty-two. When one’s wife has been dead for six months and everyone else has done grieving.

Ah well, they say: he’ll get over it. There’s always another pretty lady. Time’s a great healer, they say. He’ll marry again one day, they say.

No doubt they’re right.

But oh dear God… the emptiness in my house. The devastating, weary, ultimate loneliness. The silence where there used to be laughter, the cold hearth that used to leap with fire for my return, the permanent blank in my bed.

Six months into unremitting ache I felt that my own immediate death would be no great disaster. Half of myself had gone; the fulfilled joyful investment of six years’ loving, gone into darkness. What was left simply suffered… and looked normal.

Habit kept me checking both ways when I crossed the road; and meanwhile I tended my shop and sold my wines, and smiled and smiled and smiled at the customers.

TWO

Customers came in all possible shapes, from the school children who bought crisps and cola because I was near the bus stop, to the sergeants’ mess of the local barracks: from pensioners saving for apologetic half bottles of gin to the knowledgeably lavish laying down port. Customers came once a year and daily, with ignorance and expertise, for happiness and comfort, in gloom and insobriety. Customers ranged from syrup to bitters, like their drinks.

My foremost customer, one Sunday morning that cold October, was a racehorse trainer splashing unstinted fizz over a hundred or so guests in his more or less annual celebration of the Flat races his stable had won during the passing season. Each autumn as his name came high on the winners’ list he gave thanks by inviting his owners, his jockeys, his ramifications of friends to share his satisfaction for joys past and to look forward and make plans for starting all over again the following spring.

Each September he would telephone in his perpetual state of rush. Tony? Three weeks on Sunday, right? Just the usual, in the tent. You’ll do the glasses? And sale or return, of course, right?’

‘Right,’ I would say, and he’d be gone before I could draw breath. It would be his wife Flora who later came to the shop smilingly with details.

Accordingly on that Sunday I drove to his place at ten o’clock and parked as close as I could to the large once-white marquee rising tautly from his back lawn. He came bustling out of his house the moment I stopped, as if he’d been looking out for me, which perhaps he had: Jack Hawthorn, maybe sixty, short, plump and shrewd.

‘Tony. Well done.’ He patted me lightly on the shoulder,his usual greeting, as he habitually avoided the social custom of shaking hands. Not, as I had originally guessed, because he feared to catch other people’s contagious germs but because, as an acid racing lady had enlightened me, he had ‘a grip like a defrosting jellyfish’ and hated to see people rub their palms on their clothes after touching him.

‘A good day for it,’ I said.

He glanced briefly at the clear sky. ‘We need rain. The ground’s like concrete.’ Racehorse trainers, like farmers, were never satisfied with the weather. ‘Did you bring any soft drinks? The Sheik’s coming, with his whole teetotal entourage. Forgot to tell you.’

I nodded. ‘Champagne, soft drinks and a box of oddments.’

‘Good. Right. I’ll leave you to it. The waitresses will be here at eleven, guests at twelve. And you’ll stay yourself, of course? My