Looked up at the squeak. The door opened: grey eyes brimming soft as she said: “Have you got everything then?” Stuffing socks in corners, books between the layers, a muddle of colours in the frame of bluegrey and we two looked together at the open jaws waiting gently to close and shut the things away. “I think that’s it now.” Smiling, “I’m sure I must have forgotten something though.” Eighteen, the smile struggling behind an anxious expression. They squashed shut the case and sat there looking again, the mother child line still not broken, there in the bedroom with the years and their earmarks. Pictures at school, a hockey stick, books scribbled on, titles changed, in precious moments of defiance. “David Copperfield” reduced to “Avid D. Crippletoed”, “Far from the Madding Crowd” to “Near to the Damning Droves”. Pictures, posters, flowers pressed to the walls; bedroom her bedroom but those things all pressed, the pictures, the posters, the books they kept a secret. They all whispered together, they all hummed in the night as she lay there sighing dreaming at the ceiling where danced the magic, tripped light-limbed from corner to picture rail and up around the light hung central dreamy that series, whispering across the space of skylike magic vaulting this, her young girl’s world. “Horses” whispered they. All the books, the pictures, posters, shoes, coats, hairbrushes, mirrors, radiators, windows, doorknobs, everything whispered “horses”.
So there they were. “Here we are”, she sniffing through soggy tissue smiled motherly charm once more. “Are you sure, are you quite, quite ….” and then the quick staccato “I am and I know what I want to do, please don’t worry.” And all those times run one behind the other, all the words the cries the “if yous …” the alls and nothings lined up row upon row pushing gently all together behind their eyes the tears to roll.
They drove down with the suitcases from Wimbledon to Dorking with a halfway stop for lunch together the final family time all together, nearly all under one roof. There in the White Horse. They smiled at the name the mother father sister and even the very little sister and her. She was the oldest. When once we were five now are we four and it doesn’t fit. They all asked again. “They have sixteen horses in training and five brood mares and two yearling colts.” All excited as she chewed her potatoes and cabbage, edge of chair fidgeting elbows, jerking, scraping, pushing the mouthfuls ready on the fork. She spoke of the coming season over hurdles and fences, the hopes the trainer had for her. She spoke of the rightness of her choice while they watched on in sad silence. They dropped her off at the tied cottage that was to be her new home, one mile from the stables. They went home straight after tea while she, waving on the step as the car rolled away, wondered at the view from her new world.
The first day’s golden warm dawn broke with new noises, dream noises, larks’ and sparrows’ noises through an open window, looking over the little village green and the summer trees. A morning with horses, and they all so friendly helper her along, showed her the hay barn, the feed bins, the paddocks and the rolling hills where the gallops ran.
Trit trot out of the yard the first string, she on black shiney colt, knees up high, feet in the short little stirrups. The dark gleaming mane bouncing with the rhythm, the champing noise of horse with bit to chew and the beauty of those glossy hides the brave brown eyes the cadence and the balance of their strides. As they rode through the morning air, dappled sunlight patterned their way. The clip clop jig jog they laughed at the dancing horses breaking beat to hop and sideways sail, a half canter rocking horse stride; they chattered and joked, they went along. As the gallops neared they all grew quieter. The five or so horses now settled to a steady walking stride, controlled, hesitant. The gallops sandy and long, running through the Ministry’s pine trees, were firebreakers. The hooves muffled in the sand and the early morning silence watching, waiting. As he turned, the trainer up front lit his cigarette and seemed to say “alright then”. And suddenly speed. They five galloped all in his wake, the horses straining hard against the already aching arms, legs and backs. The breathing hard pounding the air, the hooves the ground in solid two two time and rhyme they banged the soundless air the walls around a windfilled vacuum, resounding through the trees the noise of it. She there too arms stretched the horse moving with her strong into the bridle so full and so fast. And gradually they slowed gently down, to a long and lazy canter and steadily they rolled along and soon they found their walking clef again. The voices came back one by one and the cigarettes lit one by one and they chattered and laughed, loosened the girths and patted the steaming shoulders. Let down those too high stirrups, let down their tired legs and stiffening knees and leaned to hug those warm and sweating necks, to hear the snuffles and the snorts and the deepening breaths of those their noble mounts.
Every morning they rode, through and around the village. Every morning she had breakfast with the lads and the trainer. He told her of the races she might ride in. Told her what she did wrong why she didn’t need a whip, why she did, why to let them run on was wrong and cruel, why the racaehorses raced and where the magic lie. Her evenings faded into her nights and she slept soundly watching the ceiling again and hearing the shadowy voices again and every day through the brilliantly setting summer she was happy with her choice and happy that she had shown them that their fears were unfounded, for she was happy.
As the weeks passed the golden yellows shifted to ambers reds and gradual browns. They rode through the misty autumn rain, they watched her graceful dance and the colours as they went from greengolds to greybrowns in a cloudy drizzle that hung everywhere. As winter drew on the chortly summer tones slowly faded and the winter’s sense, cold and without sympathy, became theirs. There were accidents on the ice, people hurting themselves, horses being hurt. And still they rode, still they worried for the next lot, and the horse box that arrived at two, and who would bring the brood mares in. There were weekends at home that seemed so tragically short. Thirteen days at work and then a precious thirtysix hours respite. Half a day spent in travelling on a rumbly old bus from the village to the town, from town to London and from London to Wimbledon. And half a day back again and half a day in the middle to share the thirteen with her family. “I know it’s what I want.” “But are you really sure?” The conversation had taken place so many times, they had thrown it back and forth before but now she had hooks on which to hang their questions and the books and the pictures and posters were somehow silent. “Mum …..do you think I can get out of it?” “With the trainer I mean. Perhaps if I wasn’t so far away from home?” her mother could only sigh and wonder why her daughter only looked at things instead of around them. “You wanted this so badly, you had made up your mind so definitely, what are you really asking me?” The two looked across their stretched out line swinging with the unseen weights and measures. She went back down that evening and tried to think it out.
They said so many times she shouldn’t, they said so many times forget it until you have the choice to choose the this over the that, they said. Riding alone the next time, a horse whose fragile frame wanted to wander through the winter woods with her in a secret, muted cloud. They two paced along. Steamy breaths, the echo of the wood pigeons, the lonely leafless branches still in the soundless fog. Her thoughts trod the beat of the muffled pacing hooves. Perhaps there was no reason for doubt, perhaps if she retook the A levels. Perhaps if she studied in her spare time, to fulfill that ideal they were so anxious about. With a drifting cloud they climbed the hill behind the stables and looked down across the valley and the clustered farm below, pondering. They didn’t ever say what they wanted but they wanted her to be “something”. They said “don’t waste your mind, you are gifted don’t belittle that gift” but they didn’t count this horse thing as that. And she wondered as she wandered down the winter slope.
After all they didn’t really understand it, they couldn’t they were frightened of horses and they always worried so much, always wanting her to take the safest route, they were always so careful. Yet as she wondered, at the back of all the wondering there nestled a little voice that didn’t whisper but that somehow was inaudible. Then they clip-clopped into the yard and there was no chance of even noticing that little sound, and still less of actually listening to it. Jumped down and being busy again, and not asking any more until, then watching the swish of her favourite tail that voice loud and clear did say “university” very, very loud and behind its echo all the voices and the noises and the arguments, and there with the smell of the horses and the miserable, damp morning rising around her, she started to cry very softly and quietly and all to herself.
She ’phoned her parents that night and they talked all three on the telephone and she tried to apologise for her years of temper and her anger and her defiance and asked them why this horse thing wasn’t really working out, and they said in return, we’ll talk about it at the weekend. So on Sunday afternoon the family tried to talk things out again as they had before but this time there seemed more sense. She accepted it, her sadness and her loneliness, she accepted that they were probably right when they told her she’d get tired, that the challenge would soon wear thin, and she accepted when they said “how about finishing the apprenticeship and then going to college the following year or so? Perhaps the trainer will let you off with a two year apprenticeship.” There, all at the table they were as one unit again and the leaded widow panes of the dining room dappled the table cloth and patterned their faces making mockery of solid reality. Their separation and the anger and arguments faded, and the bitterness dissolved. Grey eyes brimming soft as she said: “We do love you Louise; you do know that, don’t you?”
On Monday morning the air was cold and crisp, the sky an icy blue and as the sun climbed higher the day sparkled and glittered as the frost melted and the sunlight refracted through the thousands of water droplets. Louise rode out the first lot up front with the trainer and explained her predicament. She was lucky, the man was fond of her and although he was keen for her to ride for him, he accepted her point of view. Compromise smiled through his old blue eyes. That evening they two went over their agreement and made the tentative changes to her contract that the lawyer would have to make official. Suddenly Louise had her ceiling full when she slept, and the whispers came back and the world of horses was once again on its axis. She daydreamed of college now much as she had day dreamed of racing while still at school. Now there was purpose she told herself and the lads at the barn all thought her very funny. When she slipped on the ice it didn’t matter, when the two year old filly they were backing reared over on her it didn’t matter. Nor when her toes got frostbitten did it matter, for things were in perspective, out of a cloud and into clear new dayness. She wasn’t trapped with her ideal, they two walked side by side. So safe she was there with her plan on her arm, so safe with the documents all corrected and so safe as she set off with the string with silly chatter about maybe being a vet or maybe a stud manager; so silly as they jig jogged along.
She sat up there with a snugly hat and freezing toes, jogging along so dozey daydreaming. Silly girl on the gallop with a nine year old mare, a chaser pulling hard, pulling stronger and she looking through the flying black strands ofthe steeplechaser’s mane could see something little and blue away up ahead, and as she steadied as steady as she could, they two pounding on brought the focus sharper and the little shape in his blue anorak was picking something up and couldn’t see or hear them as his little face searched the sand for something he had dropped. As Louise drew closer and closer, every stride stretching further, pulling harder she saw him and tried to steer her mare to one side and it seemed he moved and then with no other choice she stood up high and screamed out “David! Looki out!” and her voice hit hard the morning air and he looked up and moved slowly away as she thundered past. Now at full speed they were moving into the final two furlongs of the three mile gallop, and that mare whose distance was four miles had heard the voice, felt the shift of weight and was pounding. Her breathing sounding hard, her rhythm stronger with every stride, and with no chance of ever slowing down they came off the gallop onto the tarmac road that led back to the stables. It was only a stretch of a couple of hundred yards or so through the winter trees, and it got very steep as they came to the home paddock. The steep hill was a useful safety measure and she tried just to keep the mare as balanced as possible on the slippery road. As they came through the trees she could see the home paddock and its steep incline and she saw the gate, closed. And saw again that little blue doll as he must have looked struggling to shut it just like his dad told him he should shut the gates and mind no cows or horses got out. As they approached the gate the mare steadied and they two grew closer together to take the jump. Five solid bars and they going so fast and coming in so close to take off, and they nearly cleared it and would’ve landed safe and sound if it had stood firm. Those little eight year old fingers couldn’t do the bolt, his little arms couldn’t lift the heavy gate to loop the extra safety catch. And as they perched there ridiculous and so still, she saw for a split second black strands silouetted againast a bright blue line.
As they filtered back the shattered fragments put together a picture that she couldn’t recognise, and she didn’t know where she was, who was telling her not to move and why it was so cold. The mare was fine they said, sore heels and a bit bruised but fine. And they kept on saying don’t worry, these people, this funny old man and the two young ones and they called her Louise and asked her what her dad’s office phone number was, and have you had a tetanus injection, and just try to relax. She silent looking up and there was nothing there to tell her what had happened.
Two months had lapsed and she was still prone. With pieces in her spine crushed, and weekly visits to the doctors and X-rays and all the dreams and hopes collapsed around her like poleless tents. Louise was reading and listening to the radio, the Cheltenham Gold Cup was being run and in the field was a nine year old mare pulling hard they said, showing promise as they cleared the second to last. Still daydreaming and watching the ceiling and anxious when she could go back to it all. They had said six months and she was doing very well, and the damage was gradually mending and she would soon be strong again. As she listened to the closing stages and looked around her at the posters and pictures and fading flowers pressed to the wall she started to cry again, very softly again and quietly all to herself.
Her mother brought her tea the next morning hurrying up the stairs calling as she came to her daughter “Louise wake up, wake up. there’s a letter here from London University. Open it quick.” Louise sighed awake to see her mother’s outstretched hand and a shiney new day pusing its way in through the curtains.