Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2007 Results




The Parable of the Talents

Copyright © B. J. Stirling 2007


Sid Knickers, jockey extraordinaire, was not usually to be found at home on a Wednesday afternoon. His normal situation would be astride some equine aristocrat, hurtling around the track in pursuit of fame and fortune. Unfortunately a recent difference of opinion with the stewards had resulted in him being suspended for two weeks so he was spending this particular Wednesday sitting in the sun by his swimming pool, while listening to the race broadcast, sipping a cold beer and reading the Sporting News.

Sid had appeared at many an enquiry, been pelted with beer cans after an unpopular loss and even survived an assassination attempt. Only rarely had he been proved to be at fault. The suspension he had incurred on this occasion was quite unjust. It was the jockey whose horse collided with his at the barrier who had been paid to fix the race. Clumsy idiot!

Somewhere in the Bible it says that it isn’t possible to serve both God and mammon but Sid came close to managing it. Not that he was overtly religious. I mean, he never thanked God after winning a race or anything like that, although he was sometimes heard to utter what some people assumed to be blasphemies but which might have been prayers.

Well, perhaps.

As far as Sid was concerned the winning or not winning of a race had nothing to do with God. It had everything to do with his superb horsemanship and how much he was being paid to win.

Or lose.

On the other hand, although this was known to very few, he regularly attended church in the company of his most recent wife who was a practicing Anglo-Catholic. Those who were aware of the phenomenon probably thought he was getting his fingers into the collection plate.

Sid had never been a great one for the scriptures until he married Brenda. It was she who started him off on reading the Bible. The Old Testament interested him professionally because it described a number of instances where some very dirty players got off scot-free because they somehow managed to stay on the right side of God.

As for the New Testament, while he had a number of reservations about much of the information it contained – I mean, what idiot ever would turn the other cheek? - advice like giving unto Rome that which is Rome’s (read, give unto Sid that which is Sid’s) seemed sensible enough. But it was in the gospel of St Luke that he found a truly inspirational story about a bloke who goes really spare when one of his menials is given some cash to turn over and lets it lie idle.

Sid would have invested it on whatever long shots he knew were going to win. The backer would have been delighted with his profit and Sid would have been happy with whatever percentage he discreetly managed to retain for himself. After all, ripping off a patron isn’t smart, not least because information vengefully leaked to the stewards can create career problems.

In the racing game if you kept on the right side of whoever was paying you, they (usually) did the right thing by you, so it seemed obvious to Sid that if he did the right thing by God, God would look after him. Probably more reliably than some he could have named.

And might under certain circumstances.

Theology, of course, was not Sid’s strong point.

The only things Sid really understood were horses and, as a corollary, horse racing.

He could interpret every nuance of equine behaviour and had a natural talent for financial wheeling and dealing. With the right education he might have become a merchant banker who played polo on weekends, but unfortunately he left school at fourteen to become a stable lad.

Apart from horses and all that they offered, the only other things that had ever really interested him were tall blondes. The two that he married had moved on to better things, greatly assisted by their substantial alimony. Where tall blondes were concerned Sid was more likely to be generous than not. Besides, he could afford it, as the girls’ solicitors well knew.

Brenda, on the other hand, was a small brunette. She was not particularly pretty but she enjoyed horse racing and had a smile that could light up a room. He met her at a party and fell for her like a ton of bricks. It was only after he had persuaded her to go out with him that he discovered she was religious and by that time it was too late. She was definitely the only woman he could ever really love. Strangely enough, the feeling was reciprocated.

Father James had been a bit dubious about the bishop’s reaction if he married Brenda to a two time (and two timing) loser in the marriage stakes but he was fond of the girl and disarmed by Sid – an emotion certain stewards had occasionally experienced, greatly to their chagrin - so the priest crossed his fingers and gave the union his blessing.

He also, a few months later, confirmed Sid’s entry into the Anglican community, which surprised just about everyone but Sid, who would do anything to please his lady, even unto learning the Nicene Creed by heart. Things that might worry her were never discussed. Like fixing races. That would have worried her a lot since Brenda naively assumed that the racing game was strictly on the up and up.

Accompanied by Brenda, Sid attended High Mass every Sunday and on high days. He also turned up to regularly to confession every Friday. But he had never made his first communion.

Because...

Well, really because he was unable to give up the habits of a lifetime. He would front up to confession and explain to Father James that someone had offered him princely sums to win, lose or otherwise tamper with the natural course of a race and every Friday without fail Father James would explain that it wasn’t possible to take communion if you promised God that you wouldn’t and then you did.

So he remained uncommunicated. He told Brenda that he didn’t think the time was right, which of course it wasn’t, but he didn’t actually explain why.

* * *

Christian charity was not included in his feelings for the brother jock who had brought about his present dilemma, but there was one consolation. This Friday he would make no promises that he couldn’t keep. No racing, no broken promise, no sin. This Sunday is it, he thought. Communion at last.

* * *

“Sid, look at Fluffy!” cried Brenda, destroying his reverie.

* * *

Now, during these months of Sid’s non-communication, certain changes had occurred in the church. The peeling frescoes were restored. The bell ropes were renewed. A new representation of Our Lady appeared in her chapel and the organ restoration fund had got a boost. However on the Sunday after Sid’s downfall – which occurred after the second race and before Sid was able to do what he’d been paid to do in the third – the golden chalice in which the consecrated wine was served had disappeared from the altar. It seemed that for some reason Father James was using an old football trophy.

Sid was uneducated but no fool. When he thought about this he realised what had happened. Father James had been using the information he received in the confessional to boost the parish finances. Perfectly okay according to St Luke. Not to have done so would have been a violation of Holy Writ. Sid always found the parable of the talents a useful guide.

But the matter of the gold chalice was nagging at his conscience.

* * *

Sid! Look at Fluffy!”

Sid raised his eyes from the newspaper. He’d been reading about a very second rate horse that was being brought to Sydney for a major race the following Saturday. He wondered why they were bothering and whether there was anything in it for him. He really didn’t give a stuff about Fluffy who was a cat and had no Melbourne Cup potential.

Fluffy had recently been diagnosed with arthritis. Sid suggested – and he meant well but Brenda didn’t quite see it that way – that Fluffy should be put down. They hadn’t spoken for several uncomfortable days during which the cat was taken to the vet for treatment and given a course of a powerful new drug.

He almost dropped his beer in astonishment. Fluffy was streaking across the lawn like Makybe Diva, pursuing a sparrow that was taking advantage of his presumed disability.

“Fucking hell!” ejaculated Sid, risking a further week’s silence from Brenda who didn’t approve of him swearing.

“I told you the vet would fix him,” she cried triumphantly, either mishearing Sid’s comment or choosing to ignore it.

One of those.

“They should use that drug on humans,” Brenda continued. “I’ve never seen such an amazing recovery.”

“Yeah,” agreed Sid, absently, because he was remembering something. A Melbourne mate had told him that Thunderball, the second rater that was coming to Sydney for Saturday’s big race was rumoured to suffer from arthritis. He took another look at Fluffy who was administering the coup de grace to the unfortunate sparrow.

“Brenda love,” he said, “give that vet a ring to thank him and, ah, ask him if they use that drug on horses at all.”

* * *

The vet confirmed that the wonder drug had been indeed been used on horses with great success and Sid was wearing a very smug expression.

“Sid dear, you’re not thinking of doing anything unethical are you?” asked Brenda, who occasionally wondered about her husband’s activities, as well she might, all things considered.

“Who, me?”

* * *

At confession the following Friday Sid posed a problem to Father James. “Just suppose I knew that a horse, say that useless bugger Thunderball, was going to win tomorrow, spiked with a drug the stewards haven’t got onto yet - what should I do about it?”

“You must consult your conscience Sid,” explained the priest, patiently. “We’ve discussed these matters before.”

* * *

On Saturday, Thunderball won by ten lengths at twenty five to one. Sid bought Fluffy a box of live white mice which Brenda promptly confiscated.

* * *

On Sunday, the golden chalice was back in use but Sid remained in his pew as the rest of the faithful approached the communion rail.