The Edge - By Dick Francis


I was following Derry Welfram at a prudent fifty paces when he stumbled, fell face down on the wet tarmac and lay still. I stopped, watching, as nearer hands stretched to help him up, and saw the doubt, the apprehension, the shock flower in the opening mouths of the faces around him. The word that formed in consequence in my own brain was violent, of four letters and unexpressed.

Derry Welfram lay face down, unmoving, while the fourteen runners for the three-thirty race at York stalked closely past him, the damp jockeys looking down and back with muted curiosity, minds on the business ahead, bodies shivering in the cold near-drizzle of early October. The man was drunk. One could read their minds. Mid-afternoon falling-down drunks were hardly unknown on racecourses. It was a miserable, uncomfortable afternoon. Good luck to him, the drunk.

I retreated a few unobtrusive steps and went on watching. Some of the group who had been nearest to Welfram when he fell were edging away, looking at the departing horses, wanting to leave, to see the race. A few shuffled from foot to foot, caught between a wish to desert and shame at doing so, and one, more civic-minded, scuttled off for help.

I drifted over to the open door of the paddock bar, from where several customers looked out on the scene. Inside, the place was full of dryish people watching life on closed-circuit television, life at second hand.

One of the group in the doorway said to me, ‘What’s the matter with him?’

‘I’ve no idea.’ I shrugged. ‘Drunk, I dare say.’

I stood there quietly, part of the scenery, not pushing through into the bar but standing just outside the door under the eaves of the overhanging roof, trying not to let the occasional drips from above fall down my neck.

The civic-minded man came back at a run, followed by a heavy man in a St John’s Ambulance uniform. People had by now half-turned Welfram and loosened his tie, but seemed to step back gladly at the approach of officialdom. The St John’s man rolled Welfram fully onto his back and spoke decisively into a walkie-talkie. Then he bent Welfram’s head backwards and tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

I couldn’t think of any circumstance which would have persuaded me to put my mouth on Welfram’s. Perhaps it was easier between absolute strangers. Not even to save his life, I thought, though I’d have preferred him alive.

Another man arrived in a hurry, a thin rain-coated man I knew by sight to be the racecourse doctor. He tapped the ambulance man on the shoulder, telling him to discontinue, and himself laid first his fingers against Welfram’s neck, then his stethoscope against the chest inside the opened shirt. After a long listening pause, perhaps as much as half a minute, he straightened and spoke to the ambulance man, meanwhile stuffing the stethoscope into his raincoat pocket. Then he departed, again at a hurry, because the race was about to begin and the racecourse doctor, during each running, had to be out on the course to succour the jockeys.

The ambulance man held a further conversation with his walkie-talkie but tried no more to blow air into unresponsive lungs, and presently some colleagues of his arrived with a stretcher and covering blanket, and loaded up and carried away, decently hidden, the silver hair, the bulging navy blue suit and the stilled heart of a heartless man.

The group that had stood near him broke up with relief, two or three of them heading straight for the bar.

The man who had earlier asked me, asked the newcomers the same question. ‘What’s the matter with him?’

‘He’s dead,’ one of them said briefly and unnecessarily. ‘God, I need a drink.’ He pushed his way into the bar, with the doorway spectators, me among them, following him inside to listen. ‘He just fell down and died.’ He shook his head, ‘Strewth, it makes you think.’ He tried to catch the barman’s eye. ‘You could hear his breath rattling … then it just stopped … he was dead before the St John’s man got there.… Barman, a double gin … make it a treble …’

‘Was there any blood?’ I asked.

‘Blood?’ He half looked in my direction, ‘Course not. You don’t get blood with heart attacks.… Barman, a gin and tonic … not much tonic … get a shunt on, will you?’

‘Who was he?’ someone said.

‘Search me. Just some poor mug.’

On the television the race began, and everyone, including myself, swivelled round to watch, though