Authors: Terence Blacker
We are in the kitchen the following morning. Aunt Elaine and Michaela are inspecting the red and blue mess that used to be my little toe.
âIt throbs a bit,' I say.
Aunt Elaine gives a weary sigh. I am used to that sound.
âIt always happens to you, doesn't it, Jay?' She stares down at my foot with an I-think-I'm-going-to-be-sick look on her face. âI do worry about you sometimes.'
That's my step-aunt for you. The fact that I have won a race means nothing to her. It is my messy toe that she sees. She believes that girls should be soft-skinned and as ladylike as she thinks she is, and that is something I can never quite manage.
I am small, strong, and wear my dark hair cut short. I can carry a bale of hay on my shoulders as easily as an adult. When I ride the ponies, I like to go fast, jump logs that are around the estate. I am most at home in the stables. Nothing about me is the slightest bit ladylike.
âIs it broken?' Michaela is looking more closely at the toe.
âMaybe,' I say.
Aunt Elaine winces. âDon't get too close, darling.'
Michaela smiles at me. âI don't think you can actually catch broken toes, Elaine,' she says, but returns to her seat.
âYou know exactly what I mean.'
We all know what she means. I'm different from them. What she could catch is me.
It is as if I am a part of the Barton family's past which Aunt Elaine would prefer to forget. Michaela's mother Maria ran off with a Brazilian pop star and now lives in South America. Uncle Bill was what she calls âa little rough around the edges'. His sister Debs, my mother, had a life that was full of problems.
Aunt Elaine had been at Coddington three years when I arrived. Looking back now, I think maybe she believed that the family was just beginning to change thanks to her ladylike ways.
Then, suddenly and without warning, my mum died and I was there â unrespectable, unable to change, fatherless and now motherless, an everyday reminder of the way the Bartons used to be before she came along.
These days, she likes to describe Uncle Bill as âan entrepreneur', while Michaela is becoming âquite the young lady'. They all live at âthe hall', which has âa bit of land' and âjust a few horses'.
But there is nothing she can do about me. When my mother's name comes up in conversation, my step-aunt quickly changes the subject. My father is never mentioned.
Two years ago, when Michaela and I finished primary school, it was decided that Michaela would be sent off to a private weekly boarding school while I would go to the local high school. According to Aunt Elaine, Michaela had been picking up âunfortunate habits' from the âkids' (she used the word as if she was picking up something unpleasant with tongs). It was time for her to become âmotivated', to learn how to be a lady.
And what about me? It was never spelled out because it never had to be. I was one of the kids. My unfortunate habits were just part of me. There was nothing to be done about them.
These days I feel like an outsider at Coddington, a cuckoo in the nest. If it were not for the ponies and for Michaela, who is a real friend and always sticks up for me, I don't know what I would have done.
I finish my breakfast and hobble out of the kitchen. Behind me, I hear murmuring voices.
âOne has to make allowances, I suppose,' Aunt Elaine is saying. âGiven the circumstances.'
I do my chores. Feed the hens, collect the eggs, brush the small yard in front of the stable, feed and water the five ponies and Elaine's horse, Humphrey. A constant refrain over the past year is how much looking after me has cost. Without being asked to, I have begun to do more work in the stables and around the fields. I try to earn my keep.
There was a time when Michaela and I did these things together. We both loved riding and going to the local shows and gymkhanas with Ted. Looking after the animals wasn't work. It was fun.
For a while we had quite a name in these parts, competing in pairs events in hunter trials. We were the Bartons â same age, same height, same surname but very different in every other way. Michaela used to ride Lysander, a brilliant half-Arab bay, while I was on Tinker, slower, less fancy but reliable. We were a good team.
There are photographs in the house of us receiving prizes â Michaela, blonde, neat, smiling at the camera, and me, dark-haired, scruffy and straight-faced.
It has changed a bit since then. These days Michaela rides with her new school friends over the weekend. She says she prefers to ride round the fields to competing in shows. She has already told me that she will never race again. âIt's so
,' is the way she put it this morning. I laughed, but felt sad. We used to do so much together.
I muck out Dusty, Marius, Humphrey, Cardsharp, Lucky and Bantry Bay as they look out of their stables. As I brush the yard, I wonder if Michaela has begun to think of riding in the same way as Aunt Elaine does. Something to dress up for, to be seen doing by one's friends, to talk about at smart parties.
âNo stopping the jockey, eh?'
I turn to see Uncle Bill watching me as he leans on the gate which leads from the garden to the stables. The first cigar of the day is in his hand. After what happened yesterday, I am surprised to see him.
âI can't exercise them today,' I say. âMy toeâ'
âNever mind that.' Uncle Bill sounds impatient, but then, as if remembering his manners, he smiles at me.
Now I know he is up to no good.
âD'you mind doing this stuff?' He nods at the brush in my hand. âLooking after the animals?'
âOf course not. I love being with the ponies. It gets me out of the house.'
Uncle Bill raises his eyebrows. âIt's that bad, eh?'
âI mean, I like being in the house, butâ'
âI know what you meant.' Uncle Bill opens the gate and wanders towards me. âI wanted to apologise to you, girl,' he says. âSpoke out of turn yesterday. Said stuff. Lost it for a moment. Sometimes I get a bit carried away.'
âI know how that feels.'
He laughs. âWe noticed.'
âI'm sorry I upset Michaela.'
Uncle Bill shrugs. âYou're a winner. Found the best ground. Took your chance. That little pony had no right to win.'
âHe's faster than you think.'
âNah.' Uncle Bill takes a long pull at his cigar. âI was an idiot. I should have put my money on you. You would have won on any of the ponies in that race.'
âD'you really think that?' I look away and start brushing the concrete so that he won't notice the smile on my face.
âYou showed the older kids how it's done.'
âThanks, Uncle Bill.'
I wait. There is something else coming, I know. My uncle has never been one to stand around, handing out compliments for no reason.
âThere are other race meetings like that.' He speaks casually. âLittle pop-up events all year round, organised outside the system.'
âI think you could do well in them. I'll get you a few rides. Drive you there. You'd have to bunk off school now and then. Is that a problem?'
It's my turn to shrug.
âWe could make a bit of money between us.' He makes a chirpy little clicking noise with his teeth. âWhat d'you think, Jay? Are you in?'
FOR THE NEXT
eighteen months, my life changes. I enter the world of what Uncle Bill calls âunofficial' pony races.
By âunofficial', he means illegal.
Some of the most interesting hobbies are unofficial, Uncle Bill tells me. Hares are hunted by greyhounds. Men wrestle and fight. Ponies race. People gamble.
I go along with it, but the truth is, I don't like the men and sometimes the children I meet at the unofficial pony races. They have a wild, dangerous look to them. When they get together, on some big field or disused airfield, it is as if they have stepped out of normal everyday life for a few hours into a world where there is only one rule.
Winning. Making money.
They make jokes, slap each other on the back, but there is always that scary, hard look in their eyes.
Uncle Bill actually becomes more Uncle Bill-like when he is racing. Away from Aunt Elaine, he is louder, ruder, swearier. He seems more alive. His light-blue eyes flash with pleasure.
âYou know what I like about pony-racing?' We're in the car, driving home one day after I've ridden a wall-eyed piebald to victory on a disused greyhound track in deepest Essex. My uncle has the smile on his face which tells me his back pocket is bulging with twenty-pound notes.
He laughs. âMore than that. It takes me back to when I was young, getting on in the world. Before life became all respectable and boring.'
I decide that it's best to say nothing.
âI like it when you know where you stand.' He speaks as if he has forgotten I am there. âNo messing about. No nannies. No rules about this and that. It's â cleaner.'
âWhat were you doing then?' I ask the question that many people have wondered, but very few have the nerve to ask.
âHm?' He looks at me, as if surprised to hear my voice.
âYou said you were getting on in the world. What were you doing?'
He shrugs. âUsual stuff. Import, export. Development. Bit of buying and selling. Same as anyone else, really. Only better.' He laughs again.
âAnd unofficial,' I say.
He gives an Uncle-Bill wink. âAttagirl,' he says, and switches on the sound system in the car. He likes disco tunes from the 1980s. Sometimes he sings along. He sounds like a performing seal.
Maybe, I think to myself now and then, this is what a gangster looks like. He's not like in the films â wearing dark glasses, with a big hat over his eyes and a pistol in his belt. In real life, a gangster might wear a sheepskin coat and like disco music, and have a big house in the country, with stables and ponies out the back.
He seems to make a good living, but he worries about money all the time. On his way to and from race meetings, he makes calls on his car phone.
He has his own way of talking on the telephone. It mainly involves long, threatening silences. Sometimes I hear the other person squawking away until he runs out of words or finally gets interrupted by Uncle Bill â just a few words, delivered in a low, angry tone like a punch to the stomach.
He never seems to lose these conversations. He talks about âmerchandise', and âsatisfactory financial arrangements'. When the squawking dies down, he'll ask, âSo do we have a deal?' And he always does.
After the call ends, the cold look on his face remains for a few seconds, then slowly he remembers that I am there and that today is a race day.
âGoodnight, nurse,' he'll say.
Or: âGame over.'
Or: âAnother one bites the dust.'
When Uncle Bill and I set off to the day's race meeting, there are no ponies with us. They will be supplied by their trainers.
There is no telling what kind of pony will be standing in front of me in the paddock. A few (a very few) are bright in the eye and well-groomed. Most have that sorry, woebegone look of ponies whose lives have taught them that nothing good is likely to come from humans. Many are wild and shaggy, their coats crusty with mud or manure. Some, I swear, have hardly been broken in. They behave as if they have never been ridden before.
It's all right, pony. You're with me. I'll look after you in the race. Leave this to me.
I feel them trembling beneath me, and I calm them as we wait at the start with a method which Ted has taught me. I trace with the finger of my right hand the shape of a heart on their shoulders, just below the withers.
âI call it the heart trick,' Ted says. âIt's where a mare nibbles her foal when they're in a field. It's comforting. Takes their mind off the job.'
And each of the ponies changes me. As soon as I am in the saddle, my feet in the stirrups, I am no longer a scrap, a wisp, the kid in the shadows that nobody notices. I draw strength from the shaggy quivering body beneath me. Like the pony I'm riding, I may be nothing in the eyes of strangers but I have my own strength. I look down on the world, clear-eyed and determined.
Uncle Bill has bought me a racing saddle and I begin to experiment, pulling up my leathers so that my knees are near the top of the saddle, and I am lighter on the pony's back. The other riders are told by their trainers not to ride short, like professional jockeys do, but it works for me. I can balance the pony better.
Almost by instinct, I learn how to get the best out of a pony. Be quiet. Use soft hands on the reins. Don't let it use up energy fighting against you. Make it feel as if it is not at work at all, but galloping free across a sunlit field. When a pony forgets that a human is on its back, it relaxes, settles. Only at the finish do I remind it that racing is work too.
I become an expert at avoiding trouble. The best way to ride, I discover, is not to be noticed, except where it matters â as we pass the winning post.
I am a ghost on the racetrack, a ghost that wins.
Now and then, in the early days, one of the older jockeys makes the mistake of thinking that, because I'm small and young, I can be scared or pushed around on the track. They try to put me off by saying something nasty in the middle of a race, or they bump my pony deliberately, or cross in front of me, causing me to snatch up my reins.
The red fire flares. I get my own back. They learn quickly that I can look after myself and my pony on the racetrack. The word spreads: don't mess with that one, she's a nutter. They keep clear of me.
My average is good. Most kid jockeys are too excited, too tense, to let their ponies settle, to wait for the moment, to be cool. I specialise in the longer-distance races â the ones where tactics count.