The Meet at Cabinteely
PLEASURS AND PLACES
by EDWIN O’CONNOR
EDWIN O’COXNOU is a critic and norelist whose light prose has frequently appeared in these pages. He returned recently from a leisurely stay in Dublin which produced this account of a country race meeting.
WE LEFT Dublin on a shining, cloudless afternoon, bound for Cabinteely. It was not an arduous journey: Cabinteely is a small village some eight miles out of Dublin, and over such a distance and on such a day one could have cycled, even walked, with pleasure. We, however, drove: we drove swiftly and at what seemed to me to he some peril. My host, a Dublin attorney, maneuvered his small ear in a strange pattern of abrupt diagonals, as if he were a yachtsman trying to catch a favoring breeze. As he drove he talked, and he talked mostly about the Point-toPoint.
“The origin of all horse racing,”he declared. “Sport for the sake of sport.”
It was something new to me, this Point-to-Point; two nights before I had explained that it was not a form of racing widely known in America, and now, as then, my host in turn explained just what it was that we had been neglecting. It was racing in its purest form, he said: no stands, no stables, no railings, no paddocks; only the’ horses and t heir jockeys.
“And of course, the bookmakers,”ho added thoughtfully. “They’ll be there. Naturally. But you’ll see for yourself. Here’s whore we turn.”
We turned sharply off the highway into a dirt lane scarcely wider than the car, and lined on both sides by stone walls and tall wild shrubs. Three men with signs and arm bands, who had been posted across the lane some twenty feet ahead, began to walk towards us.
“Ah,” said my host. “Now this is interesting. You see, there’s really no admission charged to a Point-to-Point like this. That is, to the races as such. But in order to see the races you have to get to them, and it so happens that the only way to get to them is up this road. Hence these men: they’re here to collect a toll fee for the use of the road. Theoretically, that money will then be turned over to the club holding the meet. I emphasize the ‘theoretically.'”
One of the men approaehed the ear and said genially, “It’s a grand day, sir. Are you for the Point-to-Point?”
“ We are,”said my host, and put his hand in his pocket.
The man rubbed his chin. “Well now,”he said, “ it’s a terrible distance from here to the horses. If you might give us a lift, it would cost you nothing to pass, do y’ see?”
My host saw. He took his hand out of Ids pocket, (lung open the door, the three men threw signs and arm bands into the shrubbery, jumped into the car, and we roared off up the impossible alley. We climbed at great speed; the branches on both sides slashed the ear wickedly. I said uneasily, “What happens if we meet a car coming the other way?”
My host looked puzzled. “Well, we’re hardly likely to do that, are we?" he asked reasonably. “I mean, the point is that people are going In the races, not coming from them. Bight?”
The guest who is also a foreigner does not argue against such logic; I said, “Right.”One of the men in back then observed that this was a terrible road for the smashes. His companions agreed; one of them supplied the details of a particularly revolting smash that he himself had witnessed here, just a year ago. My host drove on, whistling pleasantly.
Suddenly we came upon a man standing in the middle of the road; he too wore an arm band and carried a sign. He waved to us to stop.
“What’s this, what’s this?" said my host, scenting betrayal, and turning accusingly to the back seat.
“Ah, it’s only Dan, sir,”said the leader soothingly. “It’ll be fine once he secs who we are. All right, Dan!" he bawled, leaning out the window.
Dan’s response was prompt: he scowled forbiddingly and the signaling to stop became more agitated. The man in back immediately sized up the situation for what it was: Dan was treachorously proving a slave to responsibility.
“Go right around him, sir,”he said urgently. “Very quick now!”
We went, around Dan; the car seemed to tilt alarmingly, and Dan jumped back, shouting loudly. I looked through the rear window, and through the dust I could see him running down the road after us, his arms waving in a semaphore of outrage. My host said that it was curious. The man in back said softly that Dan was a queer sort of a man, and the others, consenting to this, began to recall queer things done by Dan in the past.
Abruptly the road ceased; we had come to the edge of wide, rolling, deep-green fields. Dead ahead they sloped upwards into a low mountain, the green turning to lawny near the summit; on the right a level stretch had been converted into a parking lot: it was crammed with Austins, Ronaults, Hillmans, Volkswagens. And out beyond the cars were the people: a crowd of several hundred, noisy and quite decentralized. Although the main body had located itself on the side of a hill overlooking most of the course, numerous small parties had detached themselves from this parent group and were camped in independent clumps over the fields where, conceivably, along with the hedges, drop hanks, and fences, they were counted as legitimate obstacles.
The men in the rear seat leaped from the car and hurried towards the crowd, shouting back their thanks on the way. As we followed, my host explained the course.
“They must go around those markers, you see,” he said, pointing to a series of widely separated flags which had been stuck in the ground. “It’s a bit like sailing in that respect. There’s no fixed track at all: just over the fields, over the jumps, take in all the markers, and no short cuts allowed. The whole thing comes to something more than three miles. Hello, look at the bookmakers!”
The bookmakers were worth looking at. Upon this small, country meeting, they had descended in full strength; they stretched in a long line across the grass halfway up the hill, and at right angles to this line was another of equal length. I counted sixty of them: each stood on a small platform, a blackboard before him, on which were the entries for the next race and the tentative odds. Now, as we came nearer, the bookmakers began to chant their hoarse siren calls, the odds began to shift, and the crowd, making ready for the coming race, began to move towards the betting lines.
We moved with it. The crowd was not at all fashionable; it was not at all that kind of race meeting. It was, instead, a spirited, highly goodhumored gathering of country people and farmers, out for a day’s sport. Mixed in with these were a few Dubliners and an occasional horse. Women selling flowers, oranges, apples, ice cream, and candy were present in great numbers; on top of the hill a pair of refreshment tents had been pitched. A larger tent next to these served ns a temporary headquarters for the horses and I heir jockeys. All around were simple games of chance, the most popular of which seemed to be a kind of primitive roulette.
It was the atmosphere of the fair, and the family fair at that: games had also been provided for the children.
One of these consisted of a large wooden backdrop, to which had been attached a half-dozen balloons. A soccer ball was placed on the ground some fifteen feet away; the object was to kick the ball with sufficient force and accuracy to break a balloon. We watched the game for some time; no prizes were awarded.
“A most successful game,” said my host approvingly. “It keeps the children from plaguing the bookmakers. I don’t imagine anyone ever wins much of anything at it.”
Post time drew nearer. We had arrived late; it was the third race now coming up. We placed our bets on a horse of my host’s choice, then went down to the hedge which served as the first jump, about two hundred yards from the starting line. Due to an epidemic of last-minute withdrawals, there were now but two horses in the race: ours, and a horse ridden by one McGahan, a jockey who had won the previous race.
“A good man,”said my host, “but a spirit less animal. No chance at all.”
The horses were off. They took the first jump and then, to my horror, swerved to one side and bore down hard on a group of children who, with an elderly woman, stood directly in their path. At what seemed the last possible moment, the elderly woman sprinted nimbly to one side, followed by the children, and the horses rushed pasl, leaving them unharmed. The near-miss left me slightly shaken; my host was a fleeted somewhat differently. He chuckled admiringly.
“Very nimble,” he said. “These people all know what they’re about, even the youngest. I expect they do it simply for amusement. Come along, let’s go up the hill and see how we’re coming on.”
As it turned out, we came on badly; McGahan, spiritless animal and all, romped home an easy winner. My host was philosophic. “Had it won, it would have paid nothing,”he said.
A small, mournful-faced man came up to us at the finish line. “Ah, Scan,”he said to my host.
“Terry,”my host said. Introductions were made; the small man said, “Did you have it in the last?”
“No, no,” said my host. “ The wrong one altogether, I’m sorry to say. And yourself?”
The small man shrugged. “Not a winner for weeks,” he said, “and on them every blessed day.”
“Ah well,”said my host, “as long as you can afford it.”
“But I can’t!"said the small man vehemently. “God knows I can’t. The pity of it is I’m on the tiger’s back. Do you understand me?” he said suddenly to me.
I said, “I’m not quite sure . .
“On the hack of the tiger,” he said. “A terrible place to be. You can’t get off because the tiger’s there, you see. You don’t quite dare. That’s the way with myself and the races. I’m on the tiger’s back and I can’t get down. That’s the pity of it.” He shrugged. “Ah well,” he said, “all the best. He shook hands and went
off; my host watched him thoughtfully.
“A most promising poet, really,” he said, “and the man who blew up the post office in Coventry some years ago. Come along, let’s stroll around.”
We strolled around. It was an afternoon of undisturbed beauty, rare in Ireland. The usual afternoon shower was nowhere in sight, and as we walked over the rich, rain-watered land, the warm air had a soft, grassy smell, faintly touched with smoke. Merely to breathe felt good. We walked up the hill to the large stable lent; inside, the horses, owners, and jockeys were preparing for the next race. No one seemed in any hurry. We walked by the refreshment tent for youngsters; it was crowded. We walked by the refreshment tent for adults; it was more so. Down the hill the children seemed to have abandoned the balloon-and-soceer game as a bad job, and were now occupied with simpler pleasures of their own dev ising: running merely for the sake of running, pummeling each other with bits of sod, playing catch with a Jaffa orange. Suddenly my host grabbed my arm.
“See there!" he said, pointing to a small circle of people on our left. “ That will be the three-card man. You must see him; he’s a great at - traction.”
We hurried over to the circle. In the center was, indeed, the three-card man: he was it large, burly figure with a puffed, weather-beaten face and a dirty cap pulled down over one eye. Three playing cards were spread, face down, on a small, cloth-covered stand before him; the three-card man was manipulating them rapidly, inviting his audience to tell him, for a price, which one was the queen of spades.
He was, my host informed me, a prime favorite at all Point-to-Points, all the more so because his operations were banned by the police.
Suddenly there were sounds of warning and alarm. The three-card man looked up quickly; in a flash the
cards were in his pocket, the cloth covering of the stand was whisked away, and the stand it sell —a collapsible frame of light metal — was miraculously folded into something that looked like an outsized shootingstick. The three-card man, using it as a cane, moved slowly away, limping noticeably. I turned and looked behind me; a policeman was strolling towards us, smiling sardonically at the pantomime. My host nodded.
“Obviously in secret sympathy,”he said. “ The three-card man is extremely popular. He’ll just wait a bit now, then he’ll set up shop somewhere else,”
I pointed out that there was a certain in justice in barring the three-card man from an arena in which a number of other gambling games flourished. My host disagreed.
“You see, you do have some chance of winning at them,”he said. “With the three-card man, there’s no chance at all. It’s a great swindle. Shouldn’t we be looking into the next race, by the way? We might put a bit on McGahan; he’s up again and it’s quite obviously his day.”
We put a bit on Mcdahan. As the horses took the first jump, the salmon-pink silks of Mcdahan were in front; as they went over the second and down into the valley, out of sight, the lead had increased.
“He’s on a splendid animal, my host said. “It’s purely a question of the margin of victory.”
It was at the stone wall jump, a half-mile away across the fields, that catastrophe occurred. The horses went up and over; when they came down, there was a groan from the crowd. One of the horses had fallen;
it was difficult, from where we stood, to tell which one. Still, I could no longer see the salmon-pink colors.
My host said calmly, “I missed that.”Who fell?”
I said tentatively, “I think it may have been our man.
He shook his head. “No no, he said. “Mcdahan doesn’t, fall; he’s the steadiest man in the country. It’s impossible to tell from this distance; we’ll have to find someone wit h glasses.” We looked about, searching for binoculars; twenty yards to our right a man was slowly lowering a pair from his eyes. We ran towards him; my host said, “Who was it who fell?”
The man gave him a bitter look. “Who was it who would fall?" he said rhetorically. “Mcdahan, that s who.”
My host was thunderstruck. “M.cGahan!” he said. “Why would he fall?”
The man laughed savagely. “Why would he fall?” he repeated scornfully. “Answer me this: Why did his father fall before himP”
Memories run long in Ireland. My host put his hands in his pockets and stared out at the course. Far out on the course a solitary horse was ambling homewards slowly, a small shape in salmon-pink on its back. My host said, “A great pity. Entirely unforeseeable. Still, it really doesn’t matter. The winning, I mean. Not at a Point-to-Point.”
“Sport for t lie sake of sport.”I said.
He looked at me quickly, even suspiciously. “Yes,”he said. “More or less, that is. Naturally.”
There were two more races, but McGahan did not ride again; his work for the afternoon was over. And the afternoon itself was drawing to a close; the light, although still bright, was softer, less direct, the grass a shade darker. The bookmakers alone maintained their pace; the rest of the crowd, and in particular the children, had grow n quieter; as always, enthusiasm was wearing aw ay with the day. Even as the final race began, the first handfuls of people were making for their ears, eager for the precious head slart down the narrow lane.
We left slowly, caught in the flow of departure. Already, on the top of the hill, the refreshment tents were being struck; farther down, the balloon-andsoccer game had gone. The bookmakers, silent now, were making final payments; the flower women, still hopeful, were hurrying along with the crowd, hawking their faded merchandise. Almost at the edge of the parking lot, we came upon the three-card man. He was now a disconsolate figure: it developed that at last he had been apprehended, not by his acknowledged adversary, the uniformed policeman, but by a plainclothes man, whose approach he had not suspected. He sat now on the ground, surrounded by old victims, dejectedly chewing on a blade of grass.
One man said sympathetically, “And did he take all your dom cards?”
The three-card man nodded mournfully. “Every dom one,” he said. “Every blessed dom one.”
As we got into our car my host said, “That plain-clothes business is bad, very bad. It’s never been done before.”
There was a small delay while ears jockeyed their way out of the parking lot; then we were in the dirt lane once more, going bumper-tobumper, at a pace much slower yet more reassuring than that at which we had arrived. We passed the spot where Dan, the faithful sentry, had stood; he was gone now and I wondered if he had seen the Point-toPoint at all. We moved slowly but steadily; in a surprisingly short time we turned out onto the highway, and in a few minutes more we were out of Cabinteely, going back to Dublin.
I was sunburned, relaxed, and a little sleepy; it had been a fine day. We did not talk; my host, free now of annoying traffic restrictions, drove swiftly, lacking from side to side in his familiar fashion. As he drove he whislled softly, almost to himself; finally lie said aloud, “But still, it really was extraordinary.”
I said drowsily, “What was?” “Why,” he said, “that Mcdahan should fall at all. That was most extraordinary. Don’t you agree'” I agreed that it had all been most extraordinary indeed.