Authors: Terence Blacker
âWhy, it's Jasmine.' Aunt Elaine appears at the front door and walks towards me. She gives me the lightest of kisses on the cheek.
âCome and see Dusty.' Michaela grabs my hand.
âYes, go and see the pony,' says Aunt Elaine, and gives a great, long sigh.
Michaela stays close to me those first two days at Coddington. She gossips about her school, asks me about whether there were parties in Newmarket, what the stable lads are like, whether there is anyone special in my life.
To a stranger, we would look like best, most loyal of friends.
But we aren't. Michaela has always been able to behave as if things said and done in the past never really happened, but I have never managed that trick.
For me, something said is said for ever. The nicer Michaela is to me now, the more precisely I remember what she once said about me to her friends.
Servant. Private charity case. Lucky to be here.
Eventually, I crack and say what is on my mind. We are sitting on a slope on the lawn, looking down to a field below where Humphrey and Bantry Bay are grazing.
âIt's so great your being back.' Michaela sighs with fake happiness. âIt hasn't been the same without you.'
I turn to her, and look deep into her eyes. âYou don't have to do this, you know. I'll be all right.'
âDo what? You're my bestie. You're the Jayster.'
âYou know what I'm talking about.'
She looks away, and I'm expecting her to start crying. Whenever Michaela is in trouble or embarrassed or doesn't quite know what to do next, she brings out her not-so-secret weapon â tears.
But now she stays dry-eyed.
âYou heard me, didn't you? When I was with Emma and Flossie.'
âAnd that's why you left.'
I shrug. Right now, I don't feel like sharing how I felt that day with anyone, least of all Michaela.
She is staring at the ground. âI'm so sorry,' she murmurs. âI'd do anything to take back what I said. I was just showing off.'
I'm not convinced by this excuse, and my face shows it.
âAll the other girls at my school are so confident,' she says. âThey've got these amazing families, with au pairs and housekeepers and people who help with the cooking. I was just trying to keep up.'
âI embarrassed you.'
âI was such an idiot. I wish I could tell you how sorry I am.'
We sit in silence for a while. I'm just thinking to myself that being a bit embarrassed is not the best excuse for betraying your best friend when she says something that surprises me.
âThe truth is I was jealous of you.'
. You? Jealous of me? How does that work exactly?'
âI still am. You're lucky. You've got something you're really good at. I had been riding all my life when you came along, and suddenly you were better than me. Everyone was looking at you, not me. You were “a natural”, they said. Like I was an unnatural. And you just had to be riding a pony to be happy â I so envied you.'
âThat's ridiculous, M.'
âEven my father treated you differently.'
âBut your dad worships you.'
âI'm his princess, right? But you're the one who does stuff. Princesses don't do anything. They just get adored.'
I look at Michaela, and realise that it has taken a lot for her to make this confession. I shake my head, unable to keep the smile off my face. âI don't believe it. You're almost as much of a mess as I am.'
We both laugh at the madness of life. I open my arms and we hug, just like the old days.
âI really have missed you,' she says into my shoulder. âThe way we can talk about anything.'
âStuff that's really secret.'
It has taken a while, but slowly I'm beginning to get the hint. Michaela has something to tell me. âEr, things? Stuff?'
âI shouldn't say.' She moves away from me. The smile is back on her face. âI've promised.'
âThat's what I can't say.'
âFine. Keep it to yourself.'
âNo!' She gives a great, dramatic sigh and gazes into the distance. Then, in a breathy voice, she says, âJean-Paul.'
âJean-Paul. He's French.' She looks back to the house. She's actually blushing. âYou've got to
not to tell.'
It had to happen. Michaela is in love.
Jean-Paul was in the sixth form at her school. He had talked to her once or twice during the summer term. Now he has left school and wants to meet up. There has been a big texting thing going on between them.
I ask what he's like. Tall, athletic, dark-brown eyes, belongs to a rich family. Very charming. Plans to become a film director. Dreamy. Hunky. Sporty, but kind of arty too.
âI think he really loves me,' she says. âHe's got a motorbike. He makes the boys our age seem like kids.'
âBut he lives in France.'
Michaela smiles, then reaches for the mobile phone which is lying on the grass nearby. She goes to the message page and shows me the screen:
Party next Friday in Kensington at my friend's house. No parents. Sleepover???
Je t'embrasse xxxx
âThat means “I kiss you” in French,' says Michaela.
Now I'm worried for my friend. âSleepover? You know what that means. You can't, Michaela. What will you tell Elaine?'
âI'm staying with Emma, aren't I? Nothing wrong with that. She's not going to check up on me in the middle of the night, is she?'
âYou really don't know this guy. Maybe he's not' â suddenly I feel a bit young and stupid â ârespectful.'
âCourse he is. He's really grown-up for eighteen.' Laughing, she grabs the phone from me. âYou're good at horses. Now I've found something I'm good at. Parties!' With a crazy smile on her face, she jabs at the keyboard, tapping out a quick, brief message. Then presses âsend'.
The phone gives a ping.
She holds out the phone so that I can read her reply on the screen:
I miss Manhattan. It is like an ache which is always there. Lying in bed in the early morning, I wonder what is happening to her, whether she is all right. I think of her beautiful, shining grey coat the afternoon when I first groomed her. One night, thumbing through my copy of
Great Ladies: The Wonder Fillies of History
, I come across a picture that makes me gasp.
It is a photograph, taken at Ascot, of a filly called Petite Etoile. She is on her way to the start, ridden by my favourite jockey from the past, Lester Piggott. She looks big and is dark, mottled grey. Her ears are pricked and she has a proud, don't-mess-with-me look in her eyes.
She is the spitting image of Manhattan.
I read how, over 50 years ago, she was the queen of racing, winning the Coronation Cup two years running in 1960 and 1961, beating the colts. She was âfamously moody', according to the writer. She was not an easy horse to train, and was said to be ferocious in the stable. Once, when she was racing in America, the assistant to her trainer Noel Murless poked her in the ribs, commenting to her lad that she was carrying too much weight on her. The wonder filly picked him up by the shoulder of his jacket and threw him across the box! In an interview, Murless described the filly as âa peculiar animal â¦ unique in every way'.
At the back of the book, there are charts of the wonder fillies' pedigrees. I look for that of Petite Etoile. Her breeding went back to Mumtaz Mahal, the âFlying Filly' who was sired by The Tetrarch. Petite Etoile was related to Manhattan.
I'm so excited by this news that I lower my guard. That evening, at dinner with Uncle Bill, Aunt Elaine and Michaela, I tell them about Petite Etoile.
Uncle Bill is amused by my interest. âGlad you've read one book anyway, doll,' he says. Michaela listens as I speak, but I can tell that she is in the small, locked room in her mind which is marked âJean-Paul'.
âEven if that book is only about racing,' says Aunt Elaine, a strained smile on her face. She turns away from me as if I no longer exist. âHow has your day been, darling?' she asks Michaela.
At that moment, there is a soft, electronic âping'. It comes from Michaela's mobile phone which has been left on the sideboard. Elaine has recently banned mobiles from the dining-room table while we're eating. She reaches for it before Michaela has time to react.
âElaine, give me my phone, please.' There is quiet panic in Michaela's voice.
Uncle Bill frowns. âYou do not speak to your stepmother like that.'
Elaine looks at the message which has just come in. Her face, lit up by the screen in front of her, goes even paler than it normally is. She scrolls down the screen and reads some more.
Michaela sits, head down, eyes closed, waiting for the axe to fall.
âI thought there was a no looking-at-mobiles-at-table rule,' Uncle Bill says, winking at me.
Elaine is now staring at Michaela.
âYou have a text message, Michaela.' Her voice is quiet, threatening. âShall I read it to you?'
âNo. Please, Elaine.'
âYes, I think I will. It says, let me see â ah yes, here we are. “See ya there, sexy. We're gonna parteeeee.” There are several exclamation marks followed by something I don't quite understand.
,' says Michaela quickly. âIt's French for “yours sincerely”.'
Uncle Bill is giving Michaela a hard look. âFrench has never been my strong point,' he says. âBut I'm pretty sure that's not quite the right translation there.'
âSexy?' says Aunt Elaine. âAnd what “parteeee” is this?'
There is a moment's silence around the table, just long enough for me to make my decision.
âSorry.' My voice sounds weirdly chirpy. âDidn't I mention it?'
All heads turn towards me.
âI wanted to go to a party. With my friend. I borrowed the phone to send a text. Thanks, M.' I smile at her.
Michaela's eyes widen with surprise and relief. âYou're welcome,' she says quietly.
Uncle Bill is looking at us both suspiciously. âSo what's all the French stuff?'
I shrug, trying (not very successfully) to look like a so-what-it's-just-another-guy party girl. âHe's this French jockey who works in Newmarket. We hooked at a lads' party.'
That doesn't sound quite right somehow.
âHooked up,' Michaela murmurs.
âYeah, hooked up, that's what I meant. We hooked up big-time.'
Aunt Elaine dabs at her mouth with a napkin. âI suppose that's all one can expect from someone working in a stable yard,' she says quietly. She darts a look towards Uncle Bill. âI'm really not sure that this is the kind of thing Michaela should be exposed to.'
âElaineâ' Michaela looks desperately at me.
âDon't stick up for her, darling. She's old enough to speak up for herself.' Uncle Bill's eyes are on me. âWhat have you got to say for yourself, young lady?'
I shrug, and reach as casually as I am able for the mobile phone. âSorry, Uncle Bill,' I say, glancing at the texts between Jean-Paul and Michaela. There are a lot of kisses and pink hearts, I notice. And he certainly likes his
's. I press âdelete'.
âAll gone,' I say.
âKindly leave the table.' Elaine closes her eyes. âI think we've heard quite enough for one meal.'
âSorry about that, Aunt Elaine.' I stand up.
My step-aunt shakes her head. âSo like her mother,' she murmurs to Uncle Bill. âNo better than she should be.'
âIt could be my father,' I say, trying to lighten things up.
âQuite possibly,' says Aunt Elaine. âThey were as bad as each other.'
âYou never even met my dad.'
âNo. He ran away before I had that pleasure. But he left quite a reputation behind him.'
The match. The flame. I feel the familiar sudden lurch of rage, deep in the pit of my stomach. My muscles tense, and just for a split-second, I have a vision of myself stepping forward and sweeping all the plates and knives and forks and glasses off her precious dinner table onto the floor.
No. No. No. I hold myself where I am.
Swaying, eyes wide, I breathe deeply, close my eyes.
Slowly the raging fire within me begins to die down.
I open my eyes. Aunt Elaine is casually brushing a speck of dust from the table.
Somehow I manage to dart a not-your-fault smile in Michaela's direction. Then I'm gone.
A door closes that night. If I ever belonged here, I don't any more. There are eight days before I leave for Racing School, but in my mind I am already there.
Aunt Elaine has never liked me, and now she has her reason. Even if she were to know that the dodgy texts were not for me but her innocent little stepdaughter, nothing would change.
âOnce I know something in my heart,' she likes to say, âthere's no changing me. That's just the way I am.'
She and Uncle Bill make sure the last few days of Michaela's holidays are full of activities. She is taken by some neighbours to an exhibition in London. She stays with some family friends who live nearby. She goes with Uncle Bill to a county show.
Anything that keeps her away from my evil influence is just fine, in other words.
Uncle Bill talks to me now and then, but in a weird, new way â cheery, loud, with lots of winks and jokes which I don't understand. I notice that when Aunt Elaine is around, he becomes strangely distant and quiet.
I have taken to eating my meals in the kitchen. If they want me to be a stable girl, that's how I'll be. Sometimes as I eat, I hear Aunt Elaine talking about me to Uncle Bill. She makes no effort to keep her voice down.