Authors: Terence Blacker
In the early days, Uncle Bill insists that I wear the same clothes, with the same tattered riding hat, that I wore on Dusty's day of glory. He can get fancy odds on a hairy nag ridden by a small, dark-haired nothing of a girl who looks as if she should be out herding sheep on a farm.
The regulars are not taken in for long. I hear them muttering as I go past â âThere she is, the little scruff' â and some of the other jockeys start dressing down too, as if what they wear will help their luck. Just for a while, untidy is the hot new look on the pony-racing circuit.
I love it all â when I am in the paddock, slipping my feet into the stirrups, checking the girths, getting the feel of the pony I'm riding (the way it moves, how fit and how strong, whether it is brave or scared). Soon the human world, with all its worries and problems, falls away. I enjoy the best view in the world: a racetrack, seen through the pricked ears of a pony.
âYou know why I like you, girl?' In the car, on the way home from the races, he turns down the sound system and looks across at me as he drives.
âI hadn't noticed you did like me, Uncle Bill.'
âYou're a funny little thing â not much to look at, a scruffy, snot-nosed kid with as much charm as an alley cat.'
âNo offence, but you'll never have what Michaela has. She just has to smile, and doors open for her. She's got the personality thing. Her mum had it too. It's what I fell for.'
âI've got personality too.' I say the words quietly.
âDifferent kind of personality, doll. Everything about you says you're just another no-hope kid. Your father did a runner. Your mother, God bless her, was a bit too easily led for her own good. You've got zilch going for you. And yet you're a winner. It's in your bones.' He looks across and smiles. âD'you know who you remind me of?'
âSurprise me, Uncle Bill.'
âMe. Yours truly. You're a chip off the old block.'
âOh, great. This just gets better and better.'
He laughs and, I can't help it, I find myself laughing too.
I'm fourteen. I've bunked off school. I'm doing what I was put on earth to do.
IMAGINE YOU ARE
looking at a film on a screen and, right in the middle, there is a big, black square of nothingness. You can see what is going on around the square. You can try to imagine what is happening behind it. But you can never tell what the film is really about because at the centre of it all is this big square blotting it out.
It is time to tell you about my mother.
Her name was Debs. For the first eight years of my life she was the best mother in the world. We lived together in a small, second-floor flat in Peckham in South London. She was like me in many ways â quiet, untidy, a bit distrustful, not at her best with strangers.
âUs against the world, babe,' she used to say, putting me to bed, and that felt just fine. We may have been alone (she never talked about my dad except to say he was very nice but moved abroad before I was born), and we may not have been rich but, with each other, we were strong.
I had started school and Mum was working part-time in a local shop. I had discovered that I loved sport â I could beat any boy of my age at running. Now and then, she talked about moving to a bigger flat. âMaybe your Uncle Bill will help,' she said. âYou'll meet him one day. He's â¦ quite a character.'
Mum preferred to avoid people who had authority. âMen in suits,' she called them, even if they weren't men and they weren't in suits.
The people who collected the rent on our flat were men in suits. So were the teachers at my school. So were social workers. So were doctors.
For that reason, I was a bit surprised when she told me, one day after school, that she had been to the local health centre. Then she told me that she had been having âtummy troubles' and âaches and pains'. She said she probably needed a few vitamins, but that the doctor wanted her to have some tests at the hospital.
âBloomin' men in suits,' she said. But she didn't laugh this time, and neither did I.
I knew something was wrong as soon as I came out of school that day. She had been at the hospital, and somehow looked paler and iller than she had been that morning.
She was loving and tender to me when I walked up to the door â too loving and tender. She fussed over me. Her eyes followed me whatever I was doing.
I asked her about the tests. She said everything was going to be all right. Yes, everything was going to be all right. Even at the age of eight, I could tell that saying something twice made it less true, not more.
We were going to be fine. She kept saying that. Us against the world.
This is where we get to the centre of the dark square on the screen. The next day, when I returned from school, there was a man and a woman in the kitchen with Mum.
He was tall and grey-haired. She was small, and pretty in a not-a-hair-out-of-place, pointy-nosed way. They looked as if they would prefer to be anywhere but in the kitchen of our flat.
I remember thinking that the woman was judging us. Her eyes took in the washing-up that had been left in the sink, the tracksuit my mother was wearing, me. She seemed not to put her whole weight on the chair, as if she were afraid that there might be something unpleasant on the seat. The man, across the table from her, sat silently with a dead-eyed look on his face.
âThis is your Uncle Bill. You meet at last.' There was a desperate, let's-all-make-the-best-of-this cheerfulness in Mum's voice. âAnd this is Aunty Elaine.'
âAunt Elaine,' said the woman with an insincere smile. âAunty's a bit common, isn't it?'
âI'm quite happy with Uncle Bill.' The man stood up and â what was going on here? â hugged me. His clothes smelled of stale tobacco.
âWe have something very important to talk about,' Mum spoke in an oh-by-the-way voice that didn't fool me for a second. âYou'd probably better sit down.'
And into the darkness we went. More serious than she had ever been before, my mother told me that we all have something called a pancreas and that there was a rather serious problem with hers. âThe doctor said it's a bit of a nasty one.' She laughed. It breaks my heart to remember that laugh.
That was when I heard a new, frightening word. Cancer. I noticed that the grown-ups tried to avoid using the actual word when they were talking about the situation. It was as if not saying those two little syllables out loud would help keep it away from us.
In the coming weeks, when I had gone to stay with Uncle Bill and Aunt Elaine, there would be miserable conversations about âit'.
It was advancing. It would be quite quick. It was getting worse. There was nothing anyone could do about it.
But the sicker my mother got, the less they wanted to talk about her. Aunt Elaine would frown and glance in my direction. It was as if cancer was a bit vulgar and lower-class.
I would visit Mum at the nursing home where she now lived and, in the early days, we were able to talk almost normally.
For the first time in my life, she seemed to want to tell me about my father.
âHe was funny, strong â like no one else I had met.'
âWhat did he do?'
âMusician. He was in a very wild band. We met after one of his concerts. We just stayed together after that. We were soulmates.'
âWhat was his name?'
âJerzy. He was Polish. I called him “J”.'
âAnd that's whyâ'
âYes. That's why you're Jay. Sometimes I can see him in you.'
There was a long silence.
âI'll never know why he left me. He just disappeared a few weeks before you were born.'
âMaybe he was frightened.'
Mum shifted in her bed. âI don't think so. He was looking forward to being a father. Something happened.'
She looked so sad that I changed the subject.
After a few weeks, talking became difficult for her. The smile on her pale face was more strained, more like a wince of pain. One Saturday, I went to see her to find that â how could that happen overnight? â her face had changed. Suddenly she had the look of someone who was dying.
We sat in silence. She smiled at me. All the life in her was in those dark, sparkling eyes.
âYou're. Special. Jay.'
Each word was spoken as if it had in it enough sentences to fill a book if only she had the time and the breath in her body.
âNever. Forget. That.'
âI won't, Mum. You're tired. Rest.'
The next time I saw her, she could hardly talk. Each word was an effort.
She frowned with concentration.
I told her to rest. She didn't need to talk. I understood. But the words kept coming, in gasping breaths.
I told her she was the best mother in the world.
I knew even then that her words would stay with me for the rest of my life.
After a while, she grew tired and fell asleep. Uncle Bill took me back to Coddington Hall. As soon as I was there, I went out to the stables.
In those days, even before I knew how to ride, the presence of horses soothed me. Their soft eyes, their smell, the gentle curiosity, the smooth warmth of their coat. Something about their silent strength made me feel stronger too. I felt more at ease in the stables than in the house.
Michaela had a black New Forest pony called Tinker. We got on well, Tinker and me.
I opened the stable door, and rested my face against his neck.
Hey, boy. You understand, don't you? I'm going to tell you about my mum.
I spent the afternoon in Tinker's stable, sitting in a corner, thinking about my mother, hearing her words in my head. Now and then, Michaela came by to see that I was all right.
Sometime later, Uncle Bill looked over the stable door. His face told me all I needed to know.
IT WAS A
strange time after my mum died. I was in the countryside, in a big house, with a family I hardly knew. My uncle was busy doing his deals, making money. Aunt Elaine never liked me. Even in those early days when she was being all sympathetic and kind, there was something a bit forced about her friendship. It was like a pat on the head that is slightly too hard.
âI'm not your aunt. I'm your step-aunt,' she once said to me. âIt's important to get these things right.'
Michaela was different. She talked to me, filling in the silences of my life, chatting away about her school where I would be going that autumn too. She told me about how she missed her own mother every day, but her happiness reminded me that life goes on, even through the dark days.
We both loved ponies. Every morning when I got up, the first thing I would do was to look out of my window towards the stables where Tinker, Lysander and Elaine's horse, Humphrey, would be looking over their stable doors. Those summer holidays, Michaela and I spent most of the day fussing over them, grooming them, plaiting their manes, picking their hooves.
Michaela had been taught by expensive riding instructors, but I learned everything that was needed from Ted, their Irish groom.
I had the better deal. A man in his fifties, Ted was taken for granted by Uncle Bill and Aunt Elaine. He was dark, quiet, and talked more to the ponies than he did to people. He walked with a limp caused by a leg injury he had suffered when he was a boy.
It was Ted who first put me on Tinker in the
, a small paddock behind the stables. He told me how to hold the reins, how my feet should be in the stirrups, how to make a pony go forward, stop, respond to the commands in your legs and hands.
âQuick learner,' he would murmur to himself as I circled around him first at a walk, then at a trot, and it was true that he never had to tell me something twice. I felt at ease, as comfortable in the saddle as I was on my own two feet. It was as if this was something I had done in a previous life and my lessons were little more than reminders.
The ponies went for me. We understood each other from the start. I sensed how each of them needed a different touch on the reins or with my heels. Tinker needed to be kept up to the bridle, Lysander had to be settled. There was trust there, even when I was learning.
Now and then, I would notice that Ted was smiling as I circled the
. He was mock-angry when I asked him to give me extra lessons, but he always agreed. I would pester him to allow me to go the next step. When I was walking, I wanted to trot. When I was cantering, I longed to gallop.
Once, after taking Tinker over some trotting poles on the ground, I turned him towards a low jump called a cavaletti and popped him over it. There was a shout of annoyance from Ted, but soon he was showing how to give with my hands when a pony was jumping.
âOne step at a time, jockey. It's like with young horses. Overface them â do too much too soon â and you can spoil them for life.'
After a while, the three of us could go for rides together around the fields â Ted on Humphrey, Michaela on Lysander, me on Tinker. âHeels down,' he would say as we went. âSqueeze your legs. Give with your hands. Get him on the bridle. Wake him up, jockey. Trot on.'
I did what I was told. Sometimes, even when I ride today, I can hear that soft Irish brogue in my head.
That's it, jockey. Settle him down. You'll be all right.