Jeremy Clarke

All hands to the pump

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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Wind-driven rain beats on the windscreen. There’s tree debris in the road and standing water in all the usual places when it rains as hard and as long as this. The fuel gauge is resting on empty but I make it to the garage, which is still open. All the pumps are free except one, which has a horse standing next to it. I draw up at the next one and bung in a tenner’s worth.

Three people are clustered round this horse. A man in overalls is kneeling on the concrete and doing something to its hoof; a woman in jodhpurs and an expensive hair-do is stroking its head and talking to it; and an oppressed-looking boy with a sharp, upper-class face is standing back and watching the man. The horse’s jacket of orange, yellow and black horizontal stripes looks glamorous under the forecourt’s halogen lighting. The horse is standing quietly, with dignity.

While I’m filling up, I notice also that the garage forecourt is awash with blood. I would have noticed it at first, but the blood is black under the bright artificial lights and I’d mistaken the puddles of blood for oil or rainwater. I try to put the petrol in as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the horse, but the whirring of the pump and the clatter of replacing the nozzle for some reason is always louder after dark.

Before going inside to pay, I stroll over and ask the people clustered round the horse what happened to the horse. They all three of them start telling me at once, then the woman with the big hair, then the kneeling man drop out, leaving the boy to explain. They’d taken the bend too fast, he says, and the horse fell over in the horse-box, cutting his leg open. It’s easy to tell which leg. The blood is pumping out of it in spurts and splashing down on to the concrete. The woman with the hair-do is watching me look. She shoots me a happy smile. It might be a terrible situation, says the smile, but she is too much aware of the bigger picture to let herself get upset over it. Even a beautiful, noble horse like the one bleeding all over the forecourt here, is just an animal after all. We can’t do any more than we’re doing at the moment. One might as well be happy as sad.

The kneeling man is trying to staunch the flow of blood. ‘Is that the vet?’ I ask the boy.

‘No,’ he says. ‘It’s the petrol-pump attendant.’ They all laugh. ‘Of course it’s the vet, you silly man!’ says the woman. ‘At least, that’s what he told me when he arrived. You are a vet, aren’t you?’ she says, bending down and examining the man’s face. I ask if the wound is as serious as it looks, and the vet, reaching now for a syringe, says, ‘Yes, it’s going to cost a small fortune.’

Working the till on the evening shift at the garage is Roger. When I go inside to pay, Roger, late-fifties, picking himself up after an acrimonious divorce, is reading a soft-porn magazine. I ask him about the assault and arrest at the garage I’d read about in the local paper. A road-rage incident had led to a car chase. The victim had pulled into the garage and taken refuge in the shop. His pursuer had followed him in, chased him round the shop and assaulted him beside the counter.

Roger was working that day, he said. The worst thing about the assault from his point of view was the clearing up he’d had to do afterwards. The thug only punched his victim the once, he said, but it sent the bloke crashing backwards into the chewing-gum stand and he’d spent the rest of his shift sorting the Air Waves from the Sugar Free, and the Cool Mint from the Juicy Fruit, then restacking them all.

And on top of that, he said, the bloke’s nose was broken and he bled all over the shop. ‘And now I’ve got a horse, a horse, bleeding all over the forecourt.’

Before driving away I stand and watch the vet working on the horse for a while. He hasn’t stopped the bleeding and the pool of blood on the concrete is now more like a small pond. The horse is calm. He’s just standing there. The vet is calm too. But he’s working fast. The woman is stroking the horse’s neck and whispering in its ear. The boy opens a bag of crisps and offers them round. The vet shoves a bloody hand into the packet and pulls out a clutch of red crisps. Then he offers me one as well. ‘What flavour are they?’ I say. ‘Prawn cocktail and horse’s blood,’ he says, deadpan.

‘My favourite!’ I say.