Saturday was, mayhap, the most bustling day of the week. No school and no work, hence people was seen moving everywhere on the streets; some doing their usual marketing, some leisurely touring the town, while others strolled around idle, killing abundant time. There were joggers, pedestrians, and not missing out some teenagers hanging out at their favourite cafeteria. Not a hectic day it was, but everywhere seemed to be flooded with people. Most of the crowd were found at favourite spots, for instance, the cinema, the shopping complexes, and the entertainment park. While offices and schools were left empty.
Traffic was busy, but not in secluded areas. Some roads were quite deserted, especially ones situated near schools. Thus people might observe vehicles that drove past their residents, and would not miss an eye-catching scarlet convertible that travelled buoyantly in the tranquil neighbourhood. The red car sped fast, and made an abrupt turn at a junction into Beckerham Alley. Then, it accelerated to about several miles per hour more, and then screeched to a halt in front of a green gate.
The driver was Phillip, with red hair quite ruffled after driving in the breezy atmosphere, who stepped out of the unique unsheltered vehicle and waited at the small entrance. He did not attempt to go in, nor did he call for anyone, for Elyn had hastily rushed out from her house to greet him.
“You’re early, Phil’. I’d never expect you at eight!”
“Always remember, if you’re going any where, you’ll have to be this early to beat the traffic. So are you ready?” asked Phillip, but unnecessarily, because it was understood when Elyn had already dressed herself in a striking, blue shirt and a trendy overall over her shoulders, matching her tight jeans. She looked cherry-red under the morning sunshine, and her healthy hair sparkled with radiance; attractive, she was, for a young girl of fifteen.
The two friends hopped inside the car – one the driver, another a tour guide. Though Phillip was quite fascinated with the new surroundings, but Elyn knew the place too well, like she knew it before she was even born. Therefore Phillip steered, while she gave the instructions, twisting and turning the car into highways and alleys.
The day before they had determined their destination, they had a long discussion about it. At first Elyn suggested to visit Oslo, capital of Norway, but Phillip hoped for a more peaceful and serene place. At last they resorted to a morning picnic at the countryside, near unexplored forests covering the land acres and acres.
A fine day it was for a little excursion. As the breeze blew, they enjoyed circulating air blowing at their hair and scalp (of course they did because the cover of the car had been folded up). Phillip never bothered to slide the roof over them, because the morning was too fine and sunny for them to creep inside a boxy container; rather, they wanted a breath of fresh air. As they neared the outskirts away from the hectic city, they felt more relaxed and excited; population became fewer, and buildings were built in isolated spots.
The natural lake was situated not far from town, and it only took roughly five minutes to reach there. Though not quite a distance from the city, nobody visited the beautiful environment; though once a popular fishing park for anglers and a favourite location for holiday-makers, avid cyclists, nature lovers and some amateur scientists who came to collect wild specimens, now, the whole place was deserted, ever since the setting up of new amusement parks and artificial fish-breeding pools and other flower parks and gardens inside the city; no one ever thought of going to that area again.
However, that day, the lake had two visitors.
Both adventurers were thrilled at the amazing sight of the scenery. Appalled. Immediately, they just jumped off the car and ran about crazily, shouting with glee. Their car was parked about some metres away at the roadside; hence they carried their things with them to the lake.
They happily treaded on the soft grasslands. There never happened to be still air, for wind kept blowing, dancing through the vast space of vacant land. And when it zoomed past the forest, the trees rustled, and swirling leaves sprung out from them, colourful and animated.
Elyn stood at the brink of the huge pool, mesmerising the wonderful place that once had been her playground during childhood. The fascinating view of the immense forests at the other side of the lake and the clear water had her captivated for a while. Until Phillip arrived beside her and heaved a deep sigh, “wow”, Elyn remembered about him and introduced the place.
“I think this will suit you, Phil,” said Elyn, “maybe it will seem a little too quiet. But I have lots of happy memories here – with my father.”
The lake was long and wide, but they managed to cross to the other side using a small stone bridge that was erected decades ago. While on the bridge, they startled a number of small fishes, which then jumped and wriggled from the calm water and created splashes. Birds perching on the bridge chirping and singing scattered and entered into the gloomy jungle. Besides those commotions, there were no people around.
They settled down on a shady ground at the fringes of the forest. Unpacking their things, consisting of a few snacks and drinking water, they laid them down on a white sheet of tablecloth, which Elyn brought from home. When all were ready, they rested on the ground, enjoying the meals and feasting upon the enthralling view of the lake, satisfied.
Phillip strolled a little, down to the lake to stretch his stiff muscles. After feeling somewhat comfortable, he walked back to the resting spot, and commented about the place to Elyn who was preparing some hot coffee, “what a beautiful garden of Eden! Thanks for showing me around, Elyn.”
“It’s just a pity that there are so few people like you, who understood and enjoyed nature’s beauty,” replied Elyn, sort of an appreciation to Phillip, “but I’m glad I befriended one!” she said, and smiled.
Then here should be it!” cried Phillip triumphantly, like he had found some answers to a big problem. However, Elyn perceived nothing about Phillip's remark, and curiously asked, “should be what?”
“Err…” Phillip thought for a moment, trying to figure out a best and simple way to explain, “let’s just say here will be the place we shall visit often,” and winked an affectionate glance to Elyn. Elyn blushed, and chortled to herself shyly. She had never expected a relationship to grow that fast, especially if they were to see each other more frequently, other than in school. Everything was turning out to be fine, as she had hoped for.
Hot, steaming black coffee was served. Vapours arising from the boiling beverage were warm enough to heathen the morning chilliness. Phillip treated himself a sip from the cup, relished and contended. He seemed troubled moments ago, or days ago, but now he was temporarily putting away the burden of which he might have been bearing, and in turn allocated some time for his relaxation.
The day as forecasted was just calm and windy. Azure sky, cool sunlight and greening landscape were all there for a comfortable, mild adventure. Birds chirruped, and crickets hummed their tune. Morning was lively.
Elyn and Phillip lazed around their picnic ground, sipping from cups and munching buttered-sandwiches, inhaling natural sweet scent of the wild. A mixed aroma of green plants and cherry blossom and fresh lake water filled the air. They felt delighted, however, got bored after a few sessions. Occasionally wandering about was fine, for it was a good exercise. Time was wasted idly, though. They felt that they ought to accomplish something in this fine sunny day, or at least spend their time more efficiently.
Litter was common, every here and there pieces of rubbish, especially paper bits scattered around was not abnormal. Even in abandoned places like Starvane Lake where both Elyn and Phillip were outing, still there were odd pieces of paper strewn on the grass, obviously carried to the less habituated area by the rough wind from the city. As wind blew, some of them flew around, like dry, withered leaves fluttering about, carried by the circulating air, before they dropped to the ground.
Nothing intentional, just out of boringness, Elyn reached out her hand and caught hold of a piece of leaflet. She took a sharp glance through at the type of the page. Something interesting, she thought. The article was about a horseracing tournament that was open to the public, dated on that very day. The venue was not far away, just a two-minute drive more from the lake would reach there. Then suddenly, a strong urge came to her that they must make a trip to the racecourse. After all, viewing a horserace might be more entertaining than scouring the entire estate of trees and vegetation. Immediately, she handed the leaflet to Phillip and suggested that they paid a visit.
“How about going to Forx Valley grounds?” proposed Elyn, “the annual championship is on, and I think it’ll be worth a watch. Besides, if you are interested, everyone is eligible to enter for the match.”
“Mmm…” thought Phillip indecisively, “personally talking, I’m not quite into horseracing for now. But since it’s a big match, then why not?”
The agreement was achieved, so they packed their things and returned to their red convertible. And the engine rumbled. Thus, they started off from where they had stopped into another brand new trip off the roads.
From afar from inside the car they could see the tiny ulterior entrance of the racecourse. As the car approached the destination, the view was clearer and better. Well decorated with colourful ribbons and cloths and balloons of sizes hanging along the repainted fences bearing the plaque of the name of the place “Forx Valley Racecourse”, the event was grand indeed. Though the tournament had been started a while ago, still, crowd of people flocked at the entrance, waiting to buy tickets. The championship was ceremoniously organised in a big scale.
Both of them made a beeline to the ticket booth, and queued for an approximate one minute before they managed to obtain two tickets. Then, they had to push among the crowd before they could finally enter the ground. Along the main pathway that was an extension road from the entrance, numerous stalls and booths were erected to make a one-day profitable business. Of various types, the stalls comprises drinks dispensers, fast food outlets, arcade games (mostly of horseracing), souvenir shops, and not missing some accessories shops which sold horseracing equipment to last-minute contestants and riders. The stalls were commonly seen at all grand-scaled functions.
Down along the road where the number of stalls eventually decreased to one or two, there was a junction, which the sign said that one was to ‘Spectators Benches’, and the other to the Participants Registration Office’. Elyn nudged Phillip to accompany her to the registration office to enquire about the contest. Phillip, decision less, decided to tag along.
It was a narrow flag-stoned path, where two sides were planted with leafy trees, neatly arranged along the curves of the road and provided a cooling shelter from the blazing sun. The road ended up at a small wooden gate, and beyond it was a fenced big lawn, obviously a place for horses to gallop away after resting in dark stables for a long period, stretching their agitated muscles, breathing fresh air and greeting the sunshine. Just outside from that lawn, there was a small concrete building erected near the gates, and was the office of the stable keepers. Elyn and Phillip walked up to the door, knocked three times, and like magic the door flung open; greeting them was a man of medium height, dark eyes and a smiling face.
“Hullo! What can I do for you?” the man, dressed in jackets, leather pants and boots, politely asked. “Oh, nothing much, just visiting,” declared Elyn.
“Then I believe you’re here to watch the horses, young woman? And this fine man here! Ha, well all are welcome, come with me!”
The bubbly man led them into the fields, and moved to the small stable that was built for the horses of Forx Valley. It was not a big stable, but more of a makeshift structure to accommodate the animals temporarily while the race was held. Their real barnyard was a few kilometres away from the racecourse.
Most of the horses were already participating in the match, and left were a few unfit horses, or those that suffered casualty in the tournament. From the building, stuck out three horse heads, each staring out at the vast tract of grassy field from their booths. One of them was dark-black, the other nut-brown, and the last was grey. The dark stallion had a bad fall, while the grey mare seemed pale; however, the brown colt was still healthy and robust, beaming with energy.
“Well, we have three horses here,” introduced the man, “first we have Black Beauty, a fast sprinter but sadly, he had broken his leg last autumn. Then we have Halo, caught a horse flue lately. And lastly, this is Muffin, a grown boy for his age. You can take him for the competition if you want, but he is a beginner, so don’t expect much out of him.”
“I’m sorry sir, but you’re mistaken,” interrupted Elyn, “we’re just looking around.”
“Looking around? But don’t you two want to give it a try on horseback? It’s fun, you know. Don’t worry, admission is free. Anyone, especially this man?”
“No thanks, sir,” declined Phillip, “I’m not in a mood of galloping yet.”
Elyn inspected the horses while there was a long silence. Among the horses, she was more interested in the brown colt. Muffin was fine, a strong and active horse of his age. He was covered with a smooth skin from head to legs, had two solid hooves, and a silky mane and tail. He was quite friendly and indulging, for when Elyn got close to him and stroked his mane, he playfully fondled with the girl’s hair with his twitching nose, wanting serious attention. Seeing the cute little fellow, Elyn pondered for a while, and finally said, “I changed my mind. Can I have a ride with him?” then looked earnestly at the horse attendee and Phillip, seeking their approval.
“Of course you can! I’ll get him out in no time.”
The man went into the stables to unlock the doors of Muffin’s booth. While then, Phillip nodded to Elyn's wishes, “you may go, but be careful on the horseback,” smiling approvingly. “I will, thanks Phil.”
The man emerged from the stables with the young horse, and helped Elyn onto him. Then, he fastened the harness, and checked on the horse to see if everything was secure. Then, with a hard slap on the back of Muffin and shouting, “giddy up,” the horse galloped away with speed to the race track, farther and farther away, running with the winds.
Phillip walked alone back to the spectators’ ring. Whilst Elyn left for the match, Phillip went to see her performance, and he could cheer for her, or give some support. Although there were no intentions of winning the race, it was still fun to be able to contest.
All seats were taken. The crowd was unbelievably massive that day, not to mention the heat and sweat perspired under the hot sun, emitting unbearable stench, foul smell. The air was dense and stinky, making it uncomfortable for everybody. Phillip knew it was not wise to join the crowd, so he squeezed his way through, down from the ring to flat ground, and towards the fencing that encircled the racing area. There he stood, waiting for the race to begin, quite impatiently.
Meanwhile, Elyn was seen galloping into the arena with her horse. They were co-operating very fine; no doubt Elyn was a great kinship to animals. Both rider and horse entered a vacant booth (on top of it, which bore the number seven), and waited. Beside them to the left and right were other contestants, all in grand jockey-outfits, jockstraps, caps and gloves, looking high and mighty. Of all jockeys and jokettes, Elyn was the youngest jokette in line, and her horse the smallest in size. It was unlikely to have Muffin a winner in the contest, but still it was worth a try.
Moments later, from the loud speakers, boomed the voice of the host of the games, “and now, we enter the fourth session of the preliminary round. The winners of this session will stand a chance to participate in the quarterfinals. Get ready, on your mark… Go!”
The gates of the booths opened, and all chargers sprang into action. The stamping of the forty-eight hooves and horseshoes made a furore, but Elyn managed to keep up in pace. As Muffin shot along the track, Elyn sat jouncing up and down the horse-seat, grasping very tightly at the harness.
The games had begun.
Crammed the area it was. Lots of interesting people were there at the match. Individuals ranging from men to women, adults to children, large hunks to skinny weeds and modest spectators to filthy mongrels, all sardines packed in a can watching the sports event.
Among the pack, one peculiar man eased himself on a seat on the third top row of the ring. He was the strangest, for he was clothed in a long drape suit buttoned tightly; yet no one saw his face (even though his alien attire under the hot sun received lots of attention), for a broad-brimmed fedora he wore covered his face, hiding his appearance. However when the competition began, all attentions turned to the jockeys and jokettes, leaving the eccentric man alone.
However, a commoner the man was not, instead, someone who was frightening. He sat stiffly with no movement, and one would mistake him for a dummy. Once he sniggered, quite faintly and wickedly, and his gleaming eyes shone with terror. Uncannier he had been when his menacing stare turned red – his eyes were flickering red. Mysterious and evil.
Meanwhile, Elyn was riding on Muffin, skilful and witty. Though incompatible with professional horse riders, still she performed amazingly without expertise training, achieving an unexpected result next to mastery. She coordinated well with the young steed, flexibly manoeuvred the reins of the harness, nimbly jumping off hurdles and making turns. She had a good score too – maintaining inconsistent position between sixth and eighth of the other eleven.
But then, during the fifth lap, a bizarre calamity befell….
All along, Muffin was energetic and athletic, for he never had been tired out nor slowed in the race. His continuous rhythmic gallops and constant speed did not fail him to overtake a few large yet lame brothers; in addition to Elyn's clever guidance on the path, he was unlikely to lose. Still in high spirits, Muffin charged on.
Yet, for a certain period of time, an uncanny disturbance kept boggling the mind of the colt. A strong aura of evilness enwrapped Muffin. Then a slight dizziness occurred. Next, concentration began to disseminate from his focus, and after that he was in control by a supernatural force and lost his mind. The steed’s eyes started flickering with redness, and moments later, Muffin went mad, jolting up and about, throwing a tantrum.
Elyn was deeply surprised by his sudden change of behaviour. Grasping tightly to Muffin’s neck, Elyn prevented herself from falling off from the seat. Muffin’s condition worsened, jumping here and there and shrugging his head crazily. Then he started trying to kick off his rider from his back. Elyn was alarmed and frightened. Muffin continued to neigh and act wildly, while the whole scenario perplexed onlookers.
Few caretakers tried to help, but none dared to approach the horse, for fear they might be caught in the tumult and injured themselves. And Elyn clung helplessly to the horse, petrified by the frightful experience she was enduring.
Phillip, standing by the fence, saw everything. Nevertheless, he kept his calm, and closed his eyes, apparently meditating or praying for Elyn's safety. Then, even more stranger, when his eyelids opened, a faint blue light emitted from his sockets. The stare met the estranged colt, and like a tranquillizer, Muffin gradually came back to his senses. The fury of the horse’s eyes reverted to a shining blue light, and then back to its original black, beady eyes.
When the commotion subsided, Muffin continued the race, while Elyn, mollified from the tension, managed the reins again with composure. Phillip, on the other hand, nodded with relief, however, still worried about misfortunes that were bound to happen.
The last lap finished at about near the afternoon. The sun began to shimmer with extreme heat. Under the glaring sun, Elyn alighted from the mount at the finishing line. On-duty horse grooms then attended Muffin. Elyn consolingly patted Muffin’s head as a warm farewell bid, and the brown colt was led away by a man. Tired and exhausted, Elyn moved away from the racecourse through a little exit gate, Phillip waiting at the gates.
Smilingly, Elyn greeted Phillip, “that was one thrilling ride, Phil. I stand sixth, and I’m out!”
“Sixth is okay,” said Phillip, “but you really scared me just now. What happened to the horse?”
“I don’t know either,” Elyn shrugged, “he just go havoc, but anyway he was back to normal again. Maybe it is the heat that is driving animals crazy,” she pointed to the fiery sun in the sky.
“Just promised me you’ll watch yourself.”
Elyn nodded assuringly.
They both left the crowded arena, and headed for a small complex that was built two roads away from the racecourse. On the way, they met with the previous horse attendee, who asked Elyn about the race. Then the three parted with a goodbye after some chats, and went their own ways.
The complex was large; there was practically everything in the building. Shopping malls and eateries occupied every lot of the complex. The two friends stopped by a little attractive indoor restaurant, namely ‘Calre’s Galore’. Through the glass pane, they could see many little tables and chairs nicely arranged, and a food counter selling all kinds of delicacies. Quite a lot of people were having tea inside.
“How about some sundae? My treat!” offered Phillip. Definitely Elyn must agree, so they went in the snack bar, and found a place to sit by the window, which they could extend their view to the outside and watch people walking around.
A young lady, who was the waitress of the restaurant, approached them with a memo on her hand and a felt-tip pen waiting to jot down orders, “anything you would like, Sir and Miss?”
“A sundae for her and iced lemonade for me,” Phillip said.
Very soon, both orders were served to them. Immediately, each took a taste of their refreshers, which seemed very delicious due to the hot weather. Elyn took a little bite of the white cream. Tasty it was, sweet and chilly cold. Three scoops she served them into her mouth, then paused, looking at Phillip. Phillip, still sucking his drink with the straw, noticed her staring and asked, “is your cream alright?”
“Sure, tastes fine. I just have a question.”
“Free to ask, I’ll help you with whatever I should know,” answered Phillip.
“It’s like this: sometimes I feel that we are great friends, we get along very fine; but the fact is I know very little about you. You are still a complete stranger to me, but I still sense that you care very much about me, everything about me.”
“Your question is very… difficult,” Phillip sat upright and went into a daze, “how would I explain?” then with his arms folded on the table, “I’m a lonely man in this lonely town, and so I’m just seeking a friend to talk to, to accompany me. Who else I’m not concern of my only friend I have here?”
Elyn understood and smiled gaily. “But can you please tell me more about yourself? Where are your other friends?”
“Not very near here.”
“Not very near here either.”
The duo remained quiet again. Elyn continued with her ice cream, while Phillip drank his fruit juice. Both had been unspoken for a while.
Sometimes, Elyn would take a glimpse at Phillip, a very quick stealing glance. She felt interested with Phillip, and thought he possessed an extraordinary character. A man who did not talk much about himself was a very special personality, sometimes was very high and mighty, other times very enigmatic and moody. Moreover, he seemed to care only for her, Elyn thought. Though, she questioned no further, for she liked him, and would not want desperate force to break up the steady relationship, it was too much a risk to bear.
Still Elyn observed him, watching every movement he made. His gleaming red hair shine with lustre; a few strands drooped down to his face – a handsome face. Down to his neck where the collar of his shirt was left unbuttoned, she saw something shining, something he was wearing that was reflecting the sunlight, like a pendant of some sort.
“What’s that?” asked Elyn, pointing at the sparkling object. Phillip took out the pendant. “This?” he said, and held the pendant in his hands, “oh! You mean this good luck charm. I had it for many, many year, and it served me well all the time.”
He unworn the pendant from his neck. Then, standing up from his chair, he walked towards Elyn. Behind her back still standing, he wore the necklace around her, and fastened the buckle. “I’ll give it to you, as a little present.”
“Why, thank you. But are you sure you don’t want it anymore?”
“Not, for a good course! I think you need it badly, and staying here with me all round long don’t serve any purpose,” Phillip squinted and grinned.
A faint smile Elyn made, for she understood what Phillip meant. She had been very unlucky for a period, especially during the horse race. Bad things come in three they say, therefore it was better to prevent than cure.
“I won’t be that unfortunate next time!” Elyn retorted.
At the end of the day, Elyn returned home, feeling tired yet cheerful, waved good bye to Phillip and thanked him for such a wonderful day.
As she retired to her bed, she took out the pendant that Phillip gave. Till then she noticed there was something unique about the necklace. The little ornament was shaped like a little hammer, and there were strange inscriptions on the outer ring that encircled the hammer. Strung up with the metal chain, the necklace looked very old and antique.
Elyn put the pendant back underneath her shirt, and slept.