Dark Horse

by M.J. Hearle

The Melbourne Cup was on Tuesday.

For my international readers, it’s commonly known here in Oz as the race that stops the nation. Offices close at lunch time, the streets empty, and children are left stranded at school while parents gather to drink, eat, dress up in their fanciest duds and watch a bunch of horses gallop around a track. It’s a lot of fun, even if you don’t like gambling.

The company I work for hired a room in the local pub for the occasion. We were given as much alcohol as we wanted to drink, and the opportunity to eat. I use the word ‘opportunity’ because there was absolutely no guarantee you would get any food unless you were fast enough to tackle one of the fleet-footed waiters circulating through the room.

As I wandered about, struggling to have conversations with my workmates that weren’t about ‘work’, I bumped into one of the copywriters at my agency. Let’s call him Dave. He asked about Winter’s Shadow and confessed that he has always harboured secret ambitions to write a book himself. He asked how I got an agent (this seems to be the one question I get asked more than any other), snagged a publisher – basically all the boring backend stuff and then the conversation turned to a potentially awkward topic – money.

‘So…ballpark figure, how much have you made off the book so far?’ was the question Dave asked that gave me pause.

I’m always wary of answering these sorts of questions – talking about money is right up there with ‘politics’ as a social etiquette faux pas – but I like Dave, so figured it couldn’t hurt.

‘Well, it’s about (figure deleted so as not to discourage potential writers),’ I answered.

During my brief writing career I’ve returned to certain descriptive phrases time and time again – partly because I dig the way they read, and partly because I’m not that clever. One such phrase is his/her face drained of colour. If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to use it again:

Dave’s face drained of colour. ‘Is that all? But all those weeks and months of writing…it doesn’t seem worth it? I mean, that doesn’t even work out to be –’

I cut him off explaining I knew exactly how little it was if you broke it down to an hourly rate and that the money wasn’t the point. Finishing the book and having people read it and enjoy it was the big reward. This response didn’t seem to sit well with Dave, so I went on to tentatively add that there was always the chance of making a decent living off my writing in the future – a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. Dave simply nodded, finished his drink and wandered off looking thoughtful. I suspect he’ll never end up writing that book of his.

It’s true, I haven’t earned a fortune, but that’s cool I never expected to. Sure, it would be nice not to have to work full time anymore, to be able to spend my days writing books instead of designing ads, but you won’t hear me complaining. My life’s pretty damn good all things considered. Besides, while I’m not rich off the book that doesn’t mean it hasn’t brought me riches. I wasn’t exaggerating to Dave – walking into a bookstore and seeing Winter’s Shadow is a huge thrill. Getting dozens upon dozens of positive emails from readers all around the world ain’t so bad either.

In the end, the Cup was won by a horse called Dunaden, an outside favourite. Unfortunately, this was not the horse I’d put money on so I went away empty handed. I’ve got a soft spot for dark horses, the guys nobody expects to win, so I bet on a horse called Shamrocker (I have Irish blood – sue me). I lost some cash but this didn’t bother me as much as it might have. The amount I’d gambled was pretty small and besides I had a great time watching the race knowing I had a chance of winning. A slim chance but a chance nonetheless.

I overheard Dave later in the evening gloating to someone about how he didn’t lose any money because he was smart enough not to put anything down. Gambling’s for suckers, he said. He’s right, of course, gambling is for suckers, but tell that to the guy who pegged Dunaden as the winner. Sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut and take a chance.

After all, you can’t win a race if you don’t have a horse in it.

M. J.