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Sport 7: Winter 1991


When I arrived in Melbourne on my fourth visit, my brother showed me the Melbourne Sunday Herald colour supplement in which there was an article about the writer who lived on Falcon Street, McLeod. I have kept the article not for the words but for the photos; the writer holding up his personalised racing silks to the camera; the writer, wearing his favourite hat with the feather in its band, picked out by the camera in a crowd at the racetrack. On my return to Wellington, my newly-married friends wanted the silks photograph from this magazine but I told them I was keeping the lot. I was aware just now when I wrote about the silks photograph that this photograph is on the wall of the room in which I am writing this story. Over the next week while I was in Melbourne more articles appeared. They appeared everywhere. They appeared in newspapers and in entertainment guides. I remember thinking that the editors of all of the city's publications must have been conspiring that week to provide me, and only me, with the pleasure to be had from reading about the writer and looking at photographs of him. And yet, because I was the only one who truly loved the writer's books, I was also saddened to see his name in print in so many places. I felt indignant whenever an article appeared containing a biographical or bibliographical mistake and outraged when the hack journalist and the half-asleep sub-editor failed to allow the writer's extreme care to influence their own work.

On this fourth visit of mine to Melbourne in November 1989, my brother and I, together with some friends of my brother's, though not including the woman who had sat a little way away from us in the backyard of the house in Brunswick, went to Flemington Race Track on Derby Day. Near the back of the racebook which my brother had bought to help us in page 34 our selections of horses was an advertisement for a film about the writer. Why such a film was advertised in the unlikely pages of a racebook could be guessed from sections of the film about the writer's life, in which mention was made of free lectures given by the writer to the jockeys of the Melbourne Jockey Federation on the subject of English Composition.

The woman who had chosen not to come with us to the races had done so because she said it was too good a day to waste watching horses and that her plan of driving to the coast somewhere was infinitely better than ours of wasting the day in a crowd of people all intent on losing their money. I remember thinking that her plan had merit and that if anyone else had proposed it we would have had to consider the plan seriously. I knew, however, that there would never be a time when the woman and myself could drive to the coast on a fine day and enjoy in any measure each other's company. The woman also knew this. She had proposed her plan on an impulse, as it were, to rival our well-established plan of going to the races, although I believed she had had it in her mind to make her impulsive declaration of the senselessness of the Flemington Race Track for several days. The success of her proposal lay not in its adoption by us but in the shadow it would throw over our day at the races. She told us on the morning of the day we had planned to go to the races, as we were preparing the food we would take with us in the kitchen of my brother's house, that it was a stupid idea to go to the races on such a day.

My brother and I looked for the writer on Derby Day in the Members' area, but without any luck. The writer was everywhere except there. We looked through my brother's racing binoculars at the crowd in the Members' area from our position on the other side of the fence, within the public enclosure. We looked for his distinctive hat with the feather in it but saw instead the tanned dome of a prominent New Zealand businessman who had recently married and separated from an Australian socialite, causing the couple to appear in all the pages of newspapers and magazines, rivalling the coverage given even to the writer whom editors, for this one glorious week, had decided was worthy of space in the pages of their publications, and whom we were convinced was present that day, somewhere in the Members' area.

I remember placing my first bet of this Carnival Week, as the week leading up to the running of the most famous race of the Southern Hemisphere, the Fosters Melbourne Cup, is known, on this day beneath a page 35 sky of brilliant, unbroken blue. This was also my first ever bet with a bookie. Five dollars a win on Gin Rhythm. It was only when I was walking away, having paid over my money to the bookie's assistant and having watched my five dollar note go into the leather bag whose brown-colouring reminded me of the colour of horses' flanks, if that was the word for the area just below where the saddle sat, that I realised the bookie had thought I had said five dollars a win Impressionism. He had misheard my flattened vowels, though, in fact, when I'd been placing the bet I had been thinking about Impressionism. I was too humiliated to go back to my first ever bookie and tell him about the mistake. Anyway, I considered that by going to the bookie with thoughts of Impressionism in my mind when I wished to place my first ever bookie-bet on the horse called Gin Rhythm, I had contributed to the misunderstanding.

My sister, who also lives in Melbourne, had been standing behind me in line for the same bookie and had put a dollar each way on Impressionism. My sister had lived in Melbourne for several years and pronounced her words so that Melbourne bookies were able to allot the correct ticket. The race was number three on the programme and it was called the Hilton on the Park Stakes. Gin Rhythm takes it from Impressionism at the post.

I remember being so excited at the close finish of the race and the fact that it included both the horses' names I had been thinking about—Gin Rhythm and Impressionism—that, for several moments, I could separate in my mind neither the horses' names, nor the order in which they had finished—nor could I decipher the name of the horse which the bookie had scribbled on the ticket he had handed me in exchange for my five dollars. Indeed, I still count that as my first and only win of the day, if that Aussie bookie had cleaned out his ears.