Peter Lovesey: Wobble to Death

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Peter Lovesey Wobble to Death
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    Wobble to Death
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Peter Lovesey

Wobble to Death


The 12.05 A.M. trundled out of Highbury and Islington station and along the line. Its rhythmic snorts were replaced by unmechanical sounds. Harsh, stomach-wrenching coughs echoed in the tunnel leading to the platform. Then the clatter of heavily shod boots and shoes. The unexpected influx of midnight passengers massed at the barrier, every one muffled to the eyebrows and topped with a cap or bowler. A ticket collector, scowling under his cheese-cutter, came out to draw back the grille. They filed through, out of the booking-hall and into a dense fog.

Several clustered under a lamp, lighting cigars. They had arrived together and they chatted as old friends. One shouted into the mist for a cab. Minutes passed and none came. Their talk became less spirited, and they gave more attention to the business of getting hansoms. Rather than stand shivering any longer they resigned themselves to groping for half a mile along Upper Street after the others.

They were the Press.

In the covered way leading from Islington Green to the Agricultural Hall, where the fog had penetrated, but less densely, other men of poorer class, bowed by the weight of sacks or battered portmanteaux, slunk along the passage forming a grotesque caravan.

They were the athletes.

Inside the Hall at this first hour on a Monday morning in November 1879 the scene was almost as murky as the streets. The large star chandeliers, fourteen of them with forty-eight burners on each, were alight, but the gas was turned low. The mist around each flame formed a bluish nebula, a will-o’-the-wisp hovering in mid-air.

In these conditions one could not appreciate the vast-ness of the building, for its opposite end was obscured by the fog. But if a man had walked for a minute towards the Liverpool Road end its glass and iron facade would have appeared through the gloom; the Hall was nearly four hundred feet long. When it was built in the sixties the con-tractors used over a thousand tons of iron for the frame-work. No one estimated the weight of the glass in the building, but its arched roof, 76 feet high, and spanning 130 feet, was fully glazed. It gave splendid illumination during daylight. At night, in this November fog, it might not have been there.

The reporters sacrificed none of their time inspecting the arena erected for the week’s entertainment. They headed for the bar at the opposite side of the Hall. There-in atmos-phere made denser by tobacco smoke-beer and boisterous conversation revived them and some of the athletes as well. Others, more Spartan in their preparation, found their quarters, where their trainers began massaging them with flesh-brushes. The race was due to start at one, in fifteen minutes, and continue until the following Saturday night.

‘Seen some lively shows in this building,’ the Illustrated London News man announced between cognacs. ‘Any of you here in sixty-four when the twelve-foot croc got out of its tank? It stood over there by the Berners Road entrance, swinging its tail vicious enough to snap a man’s two legs. Only a month or two before that Patti gave a concert from almost the same spot. Not ten years back we had the bull fights. Remember?’

‘Bloody fiasco that was.’

‘Oh, I’ll grant you that. All I’m saying is every kind of show’s been tried here. Remember the royal ball in the sixties, when they did the place up so you’d not know it? Palatial it was.’

‘There were them bible-thumping meetings, four years back,’ another voice added. ‘Ten weeks I had listening to them blooming Yankees, Sankey and Moody. Scarcely a night away from it. My editor had me there on my first job, night after bloody night looking for a story. I know this blooming place all right.’

‘But even so,’ the Illustrated London News man interpolated, ‘in fifteen years of reporting exhibitions and spectacles in this deuced Hall, I’ve seen nothing so infernally barbarous as a six-day race. For cruelty, knuckle-fighting don’t compare with it.’

A row of a dozen wood-and-canvas huts lined the end of the Hall farthest from the main entrance. In one of these nine-foot-square shacks three men were making final prepa-rations. One embrocated his legs with whisky, which he fre-quently upended and drank. The others, twin brothers, discussed strategy. The dominant twin had appointed him-self trainer. He spent these last minutes heaping reassurance on his brother, watched with amusement by the hardened old runner who shared the hut.

‘You got to take the first hundred fast. Get well in front, Bill, and we’ll ease up later. When we’re a hundred in credit I’ll see what shape you’re in, mate, and plan the next couple of days according.’

Billy Reid, strong, burly, but an innocent, nodded glumly. ‘And don’t take account of no one but me, Bill. Them as offer advice do it for no good reason. I’ve seen some here as crooked as rattlesnakes. We got our plan, boy, and we hold to it. You’re shivering, mate. Here, I’ll give your shoulders a rub with the horsehair gloves.’

Billy submitted to vigorous massage.

‘You got my gruel ready for when I need it, Jack? I’ll try to take it on the run. Wash it down with egg and port.’

‘It’ll be ready when you want it, mate. Not till you’ve earned it, mind. Put your legs up and I’ll loosen them a bit.’ The Reids’ room-mate tipped the residue of the liniment down his gullet and belched gratifyingly.

‘This your first mix, son?’

‘Well, I done fifty on the Warford Road last year-’

‘He’s all right for five hundred easy,’ broke in Jack Reid. ‘Like a bloody bull, this boy is, ain’t you? I never seen him tire yet.’

‘This your first mix?’ repeated the other, unimpressed, ignoring Jack.

Billy nodded.

‘What’s your training been?’

‘The bloody best,’ Jack affirmed. ‘No butter, sugar or cheese since August. Purging with Cockle’s pills. His feet won’t blister, neither. We’ve had them in alum and water regular. And he’s run on the roads two hours daily these six weeks.’

‘Backed him, have you?’

‘Course I have. Billy can’t lose.’

‘You ever seen a six-day before?’

Jack Reid was impervious to the sarcasm in these questions. ‘No need, mate. We know what needs to be done. Billy’s got five hundred in him easy. He won’t quit.’

The older runner eyed Billy’s muscled physique before delivering his verdict.

‘If you make two-fifty you’ll be on your bloody knees.’

In the hall the gas was being turned up, a cue for competi-tors and officials to make their way to the start. Glasses were emptied at the bar. The Press representatives emerged warmer and more receptive. Through the mist in the direction of the huts came the athletes. The majority moved more like sacrificial victims than gladiators striding into the arena. Even allowing for pre-race nerves and the numbing cold, they made a bizarre spectacle. Several were clearly overweight for dis-tance running. Others were emaciated and senile by sporting standards. Perhaps eight, including Billy Reid, looked likely to survive the first few hours of the race. With trainers in atten-dance, applying frantic eleventh-hour massage, they grouped apprehensively in the centre of the arena like penned sheep.

The better lighting revealed the preparations made for this promotion. High wooden stands surrounded two con-centric tracks of loam, faced with sifted gravel. The outer circuit was fenced with 3-foot 6-inch wooden palings. There was room in front of the stands for several thousand stand-ing spectators. Hundreds more could watch from the gallery above the stands. Below the grand organ at the Islington Green end there was an arena reserved for the band, who would play during the day and evening. Flags of the Empire hung from many of the girders.

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