Authors: Terence Blacker
Behind me, Liam and Davy lift a zinc bath, full of a dark, oily liquid, into the centre of the room.
âTractor oil.' Pete step forward. âUsed. A bit dirty. You're going in there. Then you're going to be locked in the feed house with the rats overnight.'
There's laughter from one of the older lads standing at the doorway, looking on.
âNice one,' somebody says.
âThen, in the morning, you'll be what we call “schooled”. You'll be part of the yard. All right, Bug?'
âWhat about Mr Wilkinson? Angus?'
âThey know about schooling. It's part of racing. They leave us lads to sort it out. In our own way.'
I stare deep into his eyes. In my mind, I see Manhattan, her ears flat back against her head, the whites of her eyes flashing. My skin is burning now. I taste revenge at the back of my throat.
âWhat?' Pete glowers at me, as if I have just insulted his mother. âWhat did you just say, Bug?'
His eyes glittering with threat, Pete speaks more quietly. âYou don't understand? Have I made it too complicated for you?'
I stay silent, waiting for my moment.
âHere's the thing with schooling, Bugster,' says Pete. âIt can be done the easy way. Or â¦ not.'
He wanders across the tack room, a big, stupid smile on his face. Leaning against the saddle-rack is his favourite weapon, a pitchfork. He takes it, weighs it in his right hand like a spear, then ambles back to me.
He is relaxed, enjoying the moment. That's a mistake. As he approaches, he glances in the direction of the lads watching him. In that instant, I step forward and grab the pitchfork. Trying to hold onto it, he loses balance, and at that moment I kick his legs from under him.
There is such a thing as justice. Falling, Pete hits his head on the side of the zinc bath. As he lands on the floor, he lies dazed just long enough for me to push the points of the pitchfork against his neck, holding him down. I press downwards. Pete's eyes stare up at me.
The red fire is raging.
âHow about the easy way, Pete?' I say. âShall we try that?'
He looks up at me, then his eyes dart helplessly at the other lads. None of them makes a move.
More weight on the pitchfork. The skin of his neck is white where the points press into the flesh. Pete raises his hands, like someone out of a cowboy film.
âEasy, Bug,' someone calls out.
âThis is for Manhattan.' I hiss the words.
âWhaâ?' It is a croak of fear.
âLeave her alone.' The words are a hiss of rage. âRight?'
âRight.' His face is going red.
âAm I schooled now?' I ask, my face close to his.
Pete opens his mouth, but seems unable to speak.
âSo everyone can go home?'
Pete is recovering himself. Never drop your hands before the winning post. I give the pitchfork a little push against his throat.
I allow my eyes to take in the rest of the room.
Slowly, I take the pitchfork away from Pete's neck. Then, carrying it in my hand, I walk calmly across the room. The lads make way for me as I pass. I glance back at Pete, sitting on the floor, rubbing his neck. Then I push open the door and walk into the daylight.
Outside, I lean the pitchfork against a wall, feeling suddenly tired and sad. I walk in silence out of the yard.
THE NEXT MORNING
, on the way to work, I tell Laura what has happened. She gives me a funny look when I mention holding Pete down with a pitchfork.
âWhoa, psychobabe,' she says. I get the feeling it is not a compliment.
âWhat else could I do? I had to teach Pete a lesson.'
Laura looks away. âTrouble is, you taught everyone else a lesson too. They won't like that, believe me.'
She is right. I go to the tack room to look at the List. My name is nowhere to be seen. As I stand there, checking it once again, Amit and Liam walk in. They ignore me. I go to Ocean Pacific's box and I find Davy mucking out. He tells me he has been asked to do my horse today. The other two are being done by Tommy and Deej.
Walking more slowly now, I make my way into the main yard.
Angus emerges from one of the stables and brushes past me as if I'm not there.
âMy name doesn't seem to be on the List, Angus.' He keeps walking, so I follow him. âAm I riding out?'
âNo.' The word is spoken quietly. âAnd you're not doing your horses, either.'
âSo what should I do?'
âMuck out all the horses in the back yard, except the grey. Then go home and pack your bags. You're out, girl. You've gone too far. Go to see the guv'nor at six tonight.'
âI had to do something, Angus. First Norewest, then Manhattan.'
Angus shakes his head. âWhy couldn't you just leave it to me?'
Because you had done nothing. Because Pete was still mistreating Manhattan. Because I couldn't wait any longer. These are some of the things I could have said to Angus, but didn't.
âTime,' he mutters. âThese things take time.'
âAh. It's Bug Barton.' Opening the door to Edgecote House that evening, Mrs Wilkinson gazes at me with chilly disapproval. I step into the hall. With the usual mustiness, there is another smell, one that I recognise.
I hear men's voices from the sitting room along the corridor. Mrs Wilkinson leads me into the room. There, sitting on a chair beside the fireplace, a cigar between his fingers, is the man who, in the whole wide world, I least want to see right now.
âUncle Bill. I don't understand.'
My uncle winks, as if we are both enjoying a secret joke. âAll right, doll?' he says.
Mr Wilkinson, sitting in his normal chair, waves in the direction of the sofa. âSeat. Barton. Won't keep you long,' he says.
I notice that there is half-f glass of what looks like whisky on the table beside his chair.
âClive and Rosemary have been telling me how you've been getting on,' says Uncle Bill in his best fake-relaxed voice. It's as if he's popped in to meet the teachers on parents' evening. âBit of a mixed bag, it sounds like.'
âHow did you know I was here?'
âDetective work, girl. I knew you'd go to Newmarket. I got my contacts to ask around. New girl in town. Nice little rider. Small, dark-haired, young. You know me, doll. What I want I get.'
There is an awkward silence in the room. For the first time, I realise that my uncle is wearing a bright green tweed jacket and smart trousers with a crease. I have a horrible feeling he thinks this is what you should wear when visiting a racing stable.
âYour uncle has been in touch with us for a while,' says Mrs Wilkinson. âAfter Angus told us about your behaviour yesterday, we asked him to come over to collect you.'
A low rumbling noise comes from Mr Wilkinson. âHave to fit in. Racing game. Not just about riding well. Attitude. Like the 'orses. Ability? Not enough. Character. Can't go off like a two-bob rocket.'
âThe kid's got loads of character,' says Uncle Bill. âToo much bloody character sometimes.' He winks at me. âEh, doll?'
Now all three adults are looking at me, as if expecting me to say something.
âI'm sorry about what happened to Pete,' I say quietly. âIt was just that Manhattanâ'
Mrs Wilkinson groans. âLeave that animal out of it,' she drawls. âShe's cost her owner a fortune, she's useless on the racecourse, and is vicious in the stable. If the lads are a little tough on her, I don't blame them frankly.'
âAnd before that, there was Norewest. I didn't want to tell you this.' I look at Mrs Wilkinson, then Mr Wilkinson. Their faces are telling me the same thing. âYou knew.'
âWe're not idiots,' says Mrs Wilkinson. âBut it's more complicated than you think. Pete's father worked here for years. The family have been very loyal to the yard. We've been looking for a job for Pete away from horses. After the Norewest thing, we gave him a final warning.'
âRacing family,' mutters Mr Wilkinson. âCan't throw 'em out on the street.'
âWhat about Manhattan? Doesn't she count too? I was told that horses came first in this yard.' My words are an angry wail.
There is a moment's silence.
âGirl's got a bit of a temper on her,' says Uncle Bill, trying to cover for me. âToo emotional for her own good sometimes.'
âWe noticed,' says Mrs Wilkinson.
âHorses is horses.' The cold, watery eyes of Mr Wilkinson are fixed on mine. âMare. Jinxed. Nothing but trouble.'
I know there is nothing I can say. Any words that leave my mouth seem to make the end of my life in racing more certain.
âHad your chance,' says Mr Wilkinson. âMessed it up.'
âBig time,' says Uncle Bill.
And I am. I'm sorry for Manhattan and Norewest. I'm sorry for all the horses in the world who have to suffer the cruelty of the human beings who control their lives. I'm sorry that caring about animals has brought me to this.
âReally?' Mr Wilkinson can see the defiance in my eyes.
âYes, guv'nor.' I manage the lie quite impressively under the circumstances. âReally.'
âLearns her lesson.' A big, chummy smile is on Uncle Bill's face. âTypical teenager.'
Mrs Wilkinson sits forward in her chair. âYou ran away from home. You turned up on our doorstep and demanded a job.'
âShut up and listen, Jay. You had a crashing fall and rode out the next day. You've got the most hopeless animal in the yard going rather well for you. You've' â there's an irritated twitch to Mrs Wilkinson's lips â âstood your corner with the other lads who are stronger and older than you.'
âThe girl's tough,' says Uncle Bill. âYou've got to give her that.'
Mrs Wilkinson ignores him. âHere's what we're going to do. Your uncle will take you home.' She holds up a hand to fend off any interruption. âAt the beginning of next month, there's a course at the British Racing School just outside Newmarket. We've got you a place on something called a Level Two Apprenticeship in Racehorse Care. It's not just learning about racing. You'll do some school work there â this is still part of your education because you can't work full-time until you're eighteen. If you pass the course, you'll complete your apprenticeship here.'
âWhat?' I swallow hard, unable to believe what I'm hearing.
âTold your school back home,' says Uncle Bill. âThey were not exactly heartbroken.'
âYou meanâ?' I look from the trainer to the trainer's wife and back again. âI'm being given a second chance?'
âNo,' says Mrs Wilkinson in her coldest voice. âYou're being given a last chance.'
I smile uncertainly at Mr Wilkinson. âThank you, guv'nor.'
âDon't thank me. Not my decision.' Mr Wilkinson suddenly looks annoyed, as if he has been tricked into making a decision he will regret later. âBehave yourself. Do what you're told. Keep your mouth shut.'
Uncle Bill stands up, eager to get me out of there before I say the wrong thing again. âBetter be making tracks,' he says.
âYou shall not visit this yard again until after you have finished Racing School,' says Mrs Wilkinson.
âOf course,' I say. âAnd what will happen toâ?'
âQuestions?' It's an angry grunt from Mr Wilkinson. âBloomin' cheek. Yes, sir. No, sir. Thank you, sir. All I want to hear.'
âI suspect she was going to ask us about Manhattan.' Mrs Wilkinson sits back in her chair. âRight, Jay?'
âSomeone told me she might be put down.'
âEnd of the season soon.' Mr Wilkinson drains his drink. âOwner's got bigger problems. Decision over the winter.'
âAnd of course Pete will continue to be her lad,' says Mrs Wilkinson. âUnderstood?'
Clenching my jaw to keep the words back, I nod miserably.
âGot owners to call.' Mr Wilkinson struggles to his feet. âWasted enough time.' He shakes Uncle Bill's hand. Ignoring me, he mutters to himself, âWomen' and stomps out of the room.
Uncle Bill and I are shown to the front door by Mrs Wilkinson. Gazing over my head towards the yard, she says almost casually, âI've given you another chance. Do not let me down.'
âThank you, Mrs Wilkinson.'
Looking away, she says goodbye to Uncle Bill, then closes the door behind us. Uncle Bill walks ahead, but I stand for a moment on the front doorstep of Edgecote House. I look down the path towards the stables, and think of Manhattan.
AS UNCLE BILL'S
car turns into the driveway of Coddington Hall, it is as if the strangest of dreams is beginning to vanish from my mind. Manhattan, the yard, Newmarket, the lads, the horses on the heath â suddenly they all feel distant. They are slipping away from me.
âHome at last,' says Uncle Bill. He has been unusually silent during the drive home. I sense that he is angry with me for putting him through the meeting with the Wilkinsons. He has had to be polite and grateful, like a man looking for a favour, and that is not exactly his normal style.
I'm not feeling chatty, either. Fact is, he tracked me down â he stalked me, spied on me. For him, I'm just an annoying kid to be brought back into line.
As the car draws up in front of the house, Michaela appears at the front door. Her arms are spread wide, and a big welcome-home smile is on her face. She is taller than she was and her hair has been cut short. She looks even cooler than I remember her.
âHey, cuz!' As I get out of the car, she hugs me.
âHello, M.' I manage a chilly smile.