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  • “And again. Tuck those heels down. You’ll get nowhere riding like a jockey.” Mark pointed to my feet as I cantered Omar around the outdoor school and I didn’t even need to read his lips to know the words he'd spoken. Since I’d come to Carron Nichols’ showjumping stud three months before I was always conscious of my feet. Having gone by the white five-bar gate scores of times, always taking an envious peek as I passed and filling my nose with the rich ripe scent of horses, hay and manure, I could never work up the guts to go in and ask if there was any room for a little groom.

    Two years before on my thirteenth birthday, I’d got my first ‘job’ and wrangled the use of a small bay horse called Harvey who’d been forgotten by his teenage owner Wendy, the daughter of our local publican at The Kentish Horse. The pub owner had taken pity on me and I was free to ride Harvey whenever I wished in return for taking care of him and two Shetland ponies Strawberry and the unbroken Camilla who lived in the paddocks behind the beer garden. On Harvey’s back out in the fields and woods or hacking along the country lanes, I hadn’t paid much attention to riding ettiquette, caring only for my relationship with the horse, paying little heed to anything but traffic and the pressure exerted on the bit of the bridle. At 14.3h to my own 5’3”, Harvey was solid as a rock and just a bit too big, which made me take safety very seriously. I was learning to ride unsupervised and knew any stupid mistake or silly stunt could see me dashed to the ground, dragged or trampled, escaping at the least with bruises or a broken wrist, at the worst a fractured skull. Not once did he ever let me fall though, and with the expanse of Kentish countryside at our disposal we ran and jumped for days, weeks, months. Rides that were only supposed to be a half-mile and back turned into excursions as I discovered new bridle paths, and I’d lead him back through the car park in the evenings, holding the reins under his chin so they didn’t jingle and give away how late we were. After unsaddling and returning the tack to the old horsebox full of dusty, dirty horse regalia I’d look at the clusters of rosettes Wendy had won at horse shows and wondered if I’d ever have anything so proud. I took some into school and told my friends that I was going to be a showjumper and compete for Ireland in the Olympics. It all went horribly wrong when the girls accosted my sister in a corridor and demanded to know if it was true I had a horse. Poor Pat was 11 and clueless and stuttered a negative reply. It really didn’t help that everyone at school now thought I was a liar too but soon their opinions counted for little. I was expelled from St Gregory’s nine months later, at the same time that Paul and Wendy had sold The Kentish Horse and new homes were found for Harvey, Strawberry and Milly.

    Less than a year later in April ’95, I learned from a girl in the village that Carron was looking for a groom. Desperately missing the musty smell of horse, I asked if I could help out as a stable hand in return for jumping lessons. It was the first convincing proof that chancing my luck could really work, a lesson so valuable it outweighed all the hours of work I put in. Now I was getting jumping lessons from proper riders and I seemed to be making a dozen rookie mistakes. Already trying to point my heels downwards, I strained further to stretch my calves into the long stirrups but other riders had years of experience on me and it was going to take time.
    Turning into the straight, I lined Omar up with the two fences that lay ahead. It was July, boiling hot and sweat was beginning to drip from the brim of the hard hat protecting my head in case I took a spill.
    “Right,” Mark called across the ring. “Through the middle of the cross rail now, keep him straight. Good...good! That’s it. Speed up, straight on to the vertical, take him over nice and clean. Good girl! That was great. Now do it again.”
    For the next 40 minutes we sailed over the jumps, each about three feet high. Mark and Carron could do double that height. My right hand was dominant and I tended to lean, so I needed to practice on the cross rail in order to learn to jump straight through the centre of each fence. A magnificent beast, I barely had to guide Omar and knew the reason we’d made such a clear go of the cross rails was not down to any skill of mine as a rider. He just couldn’t put a foot wrong. Gathering the reins, I patted the warm chestnut slab of his neck. The sun was beating down but he wasn’t even panting. Mark was in shorts and trainers and I longed to chuck my hard hat into the sand, or kick Omar over the rails that bound the menage, into the grass and down to the dark green woodland at the bottom of the field. It would be so cool there. My mind wandered. If I could even dunk my head in the trough in the yard full of blessed, cold water....
    “Nay! Keep it together. Take him back around and go for the oxer.”
    “Shit Mark, can we not just move the other two a bit closer?”
    “Yeah later but first, you’re doing that spread. It’s why the centre aim is so important, to cover the most distance. Come on. And keep those heels down. Think of them as a second pair of reins. That’s it, keep them tucked down...we’ll kick those bad habits out in no time.”

    Two hours later even Omar had broken a sweat from the work-out when a lorry beeped at the gate announcing the hay delivery. As Mark dashed off to guide the driver around to the barn I pulled off the hat with relief, dismounted and led Omar to the tap for a drink and the hose to cool him down. Unfastening the cheek strap of the bridle, I switched it for a halter with a lead rein and tied him to a post, then moved to undo the buckles of the girth, hauling the saddle over his broad brown back and dropping it softly to the ground. A dark oval of sweat showed where I’d sat and I raised the hose, letting water trickle over his clipped sorrel coat. A squirt of Morning Fresh was enough to lather through the sweat and I breathed in deeply. Other yards sometimes used special equestrian shampoo but the washing up liquid worked fine for us. It smelled so distinctive that I’d got Mum to buy some for the house because it made doing the dishes a much nicer chore even though it was cheap detergent and dried my callousing hands to an even rougher grade.
    Over the last hour Mark had gradually raised the jumps to four feet and I’d only messed up once, coming in too fast over the parallel poles of the oxer which caused the horse to stumble softly as he landed in the sand. Wincing, I whispered a silent apology to the big throroughbred gelding who was used to expert riders, not this sloppy girl jerking in the saddle like a riding school mope. It had been a good lesson, longer and free of interruptions, made better because Mark and I had the yard to ourselves. Carron had gone to look at a horse near Hove and the South African groom Sonya had the day off. There was nothing to do except wait for the delivery so Mark had offered to put me through my paces. I decided that I didn’t fancy him nearly as much when he was yelling at me like a quartermaster across the ring.

    There were eight horses stabled in Carron Nichol’s yard and another half-dozen out to graze including Molly, a mare heavily in foal who required forty gallons of fresh water every day which I carried the quarter mile to her paddock in the mornings, a five-gallon bucket in each hand. Sonya, who lived in, was only just getting up when I arrived around 8am and the horses would whicker and whinny from their stalls in greeting. After a quick stroll around to check the hay loft and barn - we were all mindful of the devastating loss of life amongst the horses that could occur with a fire - I’d go back around to the feed store behind the tackroom. It was attatched to the U-shaped stable block with another row of four stalls around the side that faced the menage and fields beyond. I’d check to see how the hay and water had lasted over the night, opening top doors so the horses could look out across the yard. On my rounds I’d spill a few pony nuts into each feed tray but there were special dietary needs which Carron kept carefully recorded in one of the big ledgers crammed on a shelf above her desk in the tackroom. Hard feeds for hot-bloods who competed regularly like Ferdy, her prized Arabian stallion, I left to one of the others: those horses were fed careful measures of special supplements that aided their performance and recovery rates. Along with hay and water the livery horses boarding in the yard all required a scoop of sweet sugar beet pellets in the morning and evenings which I undertook with confidence. I only had to be told or shown something once and for this reason my face was always a mask of seriousness as I listened intently to every word, hating the dumbass feeling of asking questions when I hadn’t heard.

    Top on my list of priorities was Henry. 18 hands of proud horseflesh, he towered over me in the tiny corner stall he’d been given across from the others. Sired by a champion winner, at two years old he’d attempted to jump a barbed wire fence and gashed a knee so badly that he would never make a career in racing. Surgery repaired the worst damage but if not for the fact that fence he’d cleared was almost 7 feet high and he hadn’t been gelded, he would have been declared useless and euthanised by the vet, despite being one of the most beautiful and strong animals I’d ever seen. A chestnut like Omar with a white blaze that led to a velvety-soft pink muzzle, Carron had bought him for stud and I took to caring for him as if he were my own, checking the wound for signs of infection, feeling the cannon bone and pasterns for a high temperature or swelling. Sometimes on rainy afternoons when every stall was spotless and there was no more tack left to clean, I’d creep into Henry’s box and find a comfy place in the straw as he lay opposite. There I’d sit with a Jilly Cooper or Stephen King novel or my sketchbook, day-dreaming about dressage, jumping and polo, wondering how many stalls I’d have to skip before I could afford a pony and a yard of my own.
    Later in the morning when the others had taken the horses out for exercise it was my job to clean out each stall, carting the precious horse poo into the small trailer we used as a skip. The more the manure rotted, the better the quality, so the trailer was only emptied every two weeks and by late afternoons in the high heat, it was a buzzing, living mound of stench but I never minded much. The feeling of hard work was like a little shield against the smell, tiredness, frustration and everything else that came from six twelve-hour days each week. From learning how to walk a course, knowing the difference between a snaffle and a gag bit, understanding the purpose of each strap and buckle of the tack to recognising a horse that was walking lame, I was finally using my brain with the enthusiasm and fascination I just couldn’t muster at school. The physical satisfaction of tying expert knots to restrain the mounts, having the upper body strength to give any rider a leg-up, learning to wrist-twist the pitchfork as I quickly skipped straw bedding to one side and the ease at which I could brush down, saddle up and stud a horse before shows, it all empowered me. I left the house each morning in the time it took to brush my teeth while the toaster browned two pieces of bread for the walk down the road and when I got home I fell asleep three pages into whatever book I picked up. Here was a place where I mattered and in return, was given everything I asked for: freedom. Expelled from school, ostracised by my family, isolated in a tiny village, there were twelve hours every day when I was free to leave all that behind, do some work and be myself. My hands were rough but I was strong, and if I could stick out living at home for just another year, the prospect of a real dream was just within my reach. I wasn’t boasting when I told the girls at school that I wanted to be a showjumper. I'd been trying to cement the idea as a fact in reality.

    Mark barred the white gate behind the departing lorry and pulled at the collar of his polo neck. “Gosh, it’s scorching. I’d love a beer.”
    “Yeah, me too.”
    “Shut up!” He laughed. “Fourteen year olds don’t drink beer.”
    “I’m fifteen!” It was my birthday last month.” I gave a buck-toothed grin. “You’re right. But a bottle of Hooch...I forget it’s an alcopop, it just tastes like amazing bitter lemon.”
    “You serious? Go down to the Greyhound and get a couple of bottles to take out if you like. I’ll give you the money.”
    “It’s all right, I’ve got some. What will I get?”
    “Three bottled Bud for me. Carron won’t mind but those bales back there won’t stack themselves. Oh, get some crisps as well. Salt & Vinegar. Steve won’t give you any trouble but if he asks, just tell him I sent you.”
    The Belgian owner of The Greyhound a quarter-mile away in Hever filled the order without question, thankfully recognising me from the yard and not by the resemblance to my mother, who’d been barred from the pub shortly after we moved up to Markbeech. Dragging two chairs from the tackroom into the centre of the courtyard to face the sun, we dumped four bottles into the trough, switched on the radio and cracked open the two remaining. The ascerbic tang of Hooch was delicious, its stark, chemical aftertaste kicking in as the bubbles dissipated. The same super-catchy song that had been playing all summer came on the radio again.
    “This song again...” Mark grumbled. “Zigazig-ah. That makes no sense. Is it a euphemism for sex?”
    “Yeah supposedly, it’s meant to be about sexual freedom. The Spice Girls say they’re into girl power: they want everything a man’s got.”
    “Well, more power to them.” Looking impressed, Mark tipped his bottle in a tiny salute.
    “Heh, do you have a favourite?”
    “Nah. Well, the posh one is cool. She looks like you!”
    “Oh shut up. You said I look like Bjork yesterday.”
    “Yeah like a mix of both. Just add mad eyebrows.”
    “Piss off! At least I don’t have bulldog chops.”
    “What?!” Mark feigned hurt amazement and got to his feet.
    “Yeah. And your hair’s at least two years out of style. So there!”
    “Bitch.” He pretended to fish a bottle of Budweiser from the trough and I didn’t see the spray of droplets fanning my way.
    “Oh that’s freeezing! You bastard, I’ll get you!” He danced away as I lunged out of the chair. Reaching for the hose, I cackled. “You asked for it!” In a stall behind us one of the horses gave its halter a shake and snorted as if to show disapproval at the silliness of humans.

    Darting around with lighthearted teenage abandon, neither Mark or I noticed the clouds that crept up until they filled the sky like a growing grey forest. Fat drops fell just as I realised the sun had gone and goosepimples jumped up all over my flesh. I shivered. Just a few minutes before my t-shirt had felt damp and marvellously cool but with the sudden loss of heat it became a cold, wet rag that hung and clung in the wrong places. If only I lived in, it wouldn’t be a problem, I thought disgruntedly as I hurried to return the chairs to the tackroom but a second later Mark appeared in the doorway and all thoughts vanished.
    “The hay! It can’t get wet, we have to bring it into the barn before the rain gets any worse.” He looked almost frantic.“Fuck, I hope Carron’s on her way back, she didn’t leave a number. The seller’s just some randomer from Horse & Hound.”
    “What happens if it gets wet?”
    “It can spontaneously combust! I’m not joking.”
    “Better hurry then.” I was at his side in two strides.
    Despite the tension, he smiled. “Ha, not that immediate a threat. It’s a chemical reaction that happens afterwards when it’s stored and breaks down. 99% of the time it’ll be fine but we can’t take the chance.” He left the tackroom and I followed as he headed for the barn. Thunder rumbled overhead and puddles were already forming on the stony ground. A golden mountain loomed against the darkening sky, an unhitched flatbed lorry holding a hundred 50kg hay bales, exposed to the elements. There was another crash of thunder and the grazers whinnied from the cover of the woods.
    “There’s so many, it’s going to take forever.” Daunted, Mark was almost yelling over the din but then checked himself. “It looks bad, but it’s not as bad as it looks. I could have been on my own!” With skin almost as thin as an Arabian’s and feeling like a drowned rat, my sympathetic look wasn’t very convincing.
    At first it was agonisingly slow going. We couldn't just kick the bales off the lorry because of the puddles and they were awkwardly bulky to carry over the short distance to the barn. We laboured on in the heavy downpour but the first wave of discomfort ebbed away after about twenty minutes and we built up a rhythm. The corrugated metal roof thrummed like a rapid timer, urging us on faster as the rain fell harder. The main priority was to get the hay under cover and with no regard for neatness, we went like the clappers for almost an hour, ignoring the rasp of plastic packing tape as it sawed through our palms. Still clad in shorts, Mark was bleeding from the shins and calves where stalks and tape had chafed his skin raw. Rivulets of water ran miserably from my hair, down my spine and between my shoulders, which felt as though they’d snap loose at the blades. I tried to steel myself through the burn, gritting my teeth, promising an hour-long shower as a reward. Eventually all the hay was safe under the tall tin roof and we collapsed back wordlessly. Envisioning hot water and dinner, steaming mashed potatoes and piping casserole even though it was July, I almost wished I was at home. It was a far cry from melting in the menage such a short while earlier but instead of losing heart, I realised I’d got exactly what I’d asked for, albeit in a totally unexpected manner. Water. I stifled a wry bark of a laugh and even though it felt like suicide, roused myself to stand up a moment later.
    “We better get these stacked up. Another fire hazard, blocking the way.”
    “Ugh.” Mark groaned, drawing himself up. “You’re too damn conscientious.”
    “Ah, the worst is over. We can take our time. Here, you’re stronger. Hop up there and I’ll pass them up, you build the pyramid.” The rectangular bales were easily arranged, widest at the base and ascending with narrowing levels.
    “Right. I’ll help a bit first.” One by one, we began to shunt the messy pile over to the existing structure. “But listen Nay, I’m splitting my wages with you this week. I don’t know how to thank you.”
    “Ah it’s fine. You’d do the same.” I shrugged but he looked doubtful. Normally the idea of a few bob would be welcome but it hadn’t occured to me to ask for money and for that reason, I didn’t want it. In some weird way, I’d enjoyed the graft, and I knew Mark and I had bonded as tightly as the plastic tape that held the hay together. After a rest this particular buzz of hard work was going to last a little longer than usual.
    “Well, more school time at least. I’ll let you ride Fern.” He added. Fern was his horse, a dainty 15.2hh bay mare with a fuzz of black mane more luxurious than a well-tended afro.
    “Will you stop? You know I ride Omar. Fern’s gorgeous though. Told you that.”
    “Yeah.” Mark went quiet. We worked in companionable silence. I wondered anxiously if I’d remembered to bring my cigarettes in with the chairs, and admired the way he tossed the bales of hay around despite being just a few inches taller than me.
    “It’s a pity you don’t have your own pony.” He said after a while. “How come your parents never let you ride? They must know how good you are. Too expensive?”
    “Yeah, they haven’t got the money. Plus I’m in loads of trouble at school. They’d say I don’t deserve one.”
    “What happened at school? You seem really smart.”
    “Oh...I got expelled.” In a small voice, I added, “twice.”
    “Holy shit. What did you do? It must have been awful. Were you dealing drugs or something?”
    “Drugs!” I laughed. “No! What makes you say that?”
    “Well you sound like you’re up to no good with that Cockney accent. So what was it?”
    I could feel myself growing tense, hating to admit the truth. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, just awful trivial shit. Playing pranks, bunking off. I can’t function in school, I’m a horrible little bitch.”
    “I don’t believe that.” His face was blank, as if speaking to a stranger. “You’re not like that.”
    “I can be, when I’m unhappy. But hey!” I swung another bale up and grabbed the chance to change the subject. “Wanna know a secret?”
    “Go on. What?”
    “My ‘drug dealer’’s just a habit.” I switched to my mother tongue and Dublin’s heavy, long vowels. “This is how I talk. ‘Come away O human child, to the water and the wild...’” I recited with a laugh as I looked at the column of water cascading from the edge of the roof. “I don’t think this is what Yeats had in mind.”
    “Oh my god, you really are Irish.” He stopped and stood up in amazement. “Better not let the other riders find out. They’ll start baying like hounds for you to come and work for them. The Irish are good luck. Hey, that’s my new nickname for you! You’re my Lucky Charm!”
    “Sod orf.” I slipped back into my English accent. “Two words for you: British bulldog.” I yelped as he pretended to kick hay in my direction. He was handsome really, seventeen and slight like a jockey with blue eyes, curtains of brown hair and prominent canine teeth that stretched his smile wide. I wouldn’t dream of telling him I had a crush: he’d probably call me a madwoman and lock me in a stall. “Do you really think I’m a good rider? Could I get a job? Don’t be nice just cos I helped you.”
    He grinned. “I’ll tell you cos you helped me. Yeah, you’re good. I dunno what you were doing on your own with that horse up the road but it was right. You ride more easily than girls I know for years. You hold the reins right, by the withers, you wouldn’t believe how many people can't even get that right.”
    “Oh?” I tried to hide the blush of pride in my voice.
    “Most of all though, you’re brave. Fearless almost, Carron said the same thing after you tried out here that day. She couldn’t believe a kid who’d never had a lesson could clear a set of jumps so well. She took a real shine to you.”
    “Come off it, she yells at me all the time. I dropped a pole from the cup at the practice ring in Lingfield last week, it hit me on the hip so hard I thought I was gonna cry and she just called me out for being slow.”
    “Course she does, you’re a novice and her groom. She’ll definitely keep you on here but get used to being shouted at. Horsey people believe in tough love.”
    “Doesn’t get much tougher than this.” I winced as the last bale cut deep into the web of my thumb.
    “You poor thing.” I looked up sharply, expecting sarcasm but there was none. “You’ve done more than enough for one day. Go home Nay, I’ll make sure Carron knows about this.”
    “Err...okay.” I knew I should stay until he’d finished placing the very last bale on the top of the pile but my hands and back were throbbing, on top of the aches that had begun to creep into my thighs from the two hours in the saddle. “Let me say ‘bye to Henry. I’ll see you in the morning for the Westerham fair? You’re competing aren’t you? You should really get some rest yourself.” I folded myself under Mark’s outstretched arms for a hug. He gave me a squeeze, which flattened my clammy shirt to my skin and I peeled away quickly, cold and conscious of holding on too tight.
    “I’ll be fine. Hey, wait.” He smiled and extended his hand. I half-hoped he’d brush my cheek affectionately, or cup my chin for a kiss, but he only plucked a wisp of hay from my hair. “Thanks again Nay. I owe you.”
    I smiled a silent reply. Chuckling to myself as I passed the abandoned bottles of booze at the bottom of the rain-rippled water trough, I fled into the gloom, exhausted and inexplicably happy.
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