Authors: Terence Blacker
I WALK DOWN
the pathway into the stable yard. It is as old and ramshackle as the house, with an overgrown lawn at its centre, surrounded by pathways of black stable bricks. From stables on every side of the yard, horses watch me.
Hey, guys, I'm here.
I feel stronger than when I was in the house moments ago. There is something about the presence of horses which makes me more at ease. Right now I may be alone in the world, but those eyes following me, those pricked ears, give me strength.
I walk to the corner of the yard where there is a small door marked âOffice'. I knock.
I knock again.
After my third knock, there's an angry âYes! Are you deaf?' from inside.
The small room is more like a ship's cabin than an office. Behind a table, there sits a man in his thirties. He is reading a newspaper and ignores me.
I smile politely. âMr Wilkinson sent me.'
The man looks up slowly, and runs a hand through his heavy, slicked-back hair. He has a reddish cheeks and a big face with sleepy eyes. He yawns, mouth uncovered, as I stand there.
Mr Harry Bucknall, the assistant trainer.
âAre you Jasmine?' he drawls. Jyaaasmine.
âThey call me Jay.'
âDo they now? Well, I prefer Jasmine. Friend of the missus, are you? Bit of
going on, is there?' A cold sarcastic smile appears on his face.
âI don't know.'
âOh, come on, Jasmine. How else could you have got a job here without even an interview with me? It's your friend, the Empress Josephine in there â interfering as usual.' He makes a sneering face and puts on a trilling, womanish voice. âOh, we've got to have more girls here, Harry. It's about equal opportunities these days. Girls are just as good as boys with horses, Harry.'
I say nothing.
âWhat does she know?'
âI don't know,' I mumble.
âWe've had quite a few girls here, in fact. They just don't seem to want to stay. Can't think why.' Suddenly he seems bored by the conversation. âCan you ride?' he asks.
âNot little ponies, Jasmine. I mean really ride â horses.'
âI've ridden winners in pony races.'
âOooh.' He makes a mocking little noise, then stands up, reaching for a tweed jacket which is hanging on a nail in the wall. âBetter find someone to show you around.' He strides towards the door. âNot that you'll be here for long.'
We step out into the sunlight.
âMain yard. For the better horses,' he says. âYou won't be here.' He walks towards an archway, his heavy shoes echoing on the bricks. A passage leads to a second, smaller yard. There is no lawn here, no hedge or stable bricks. The stables are smaller, with a sad farmyard look to them. In the far corner, steam is rising from a heap of manure.
âBack yard,' Mr Bucknall mutters. He looks down at me. âYou look like a back yard sort of person, Jasmine,' he says, and laughs as if at some private joke that I wouldn't understand.
I notice one stable, set back from the others and slightly larger, which has a grille across it. For some reason, I'm curious about it.
The assistant trainer notices where I am looking. âKeep away from that stable,' he says. Before I can ask why, he has pushed open a door in the wall beside him. âTack roomâ' He walks into a room with rows of saddles, bridles, rugs, head collars, bandages and boots along the walls.
Seated on a chair at the far end of the tack room is a slight, long-haired man in his twenties. A tin of saddle soap is on the table in front of him and he has a small sponge in one hand, a bridle in the other.
âOn tack duty, eh, Deej?'
The man called Deej ignores him and nods at me. I smile.
âNow, Deej. This little toe-rag here is called Jasmine. For reasons which remain mysterious, she been taken on by Mrs Wilkinson for a few days.'
âI like to be called Jay,' I say. âAnd it was Mr Wilkinson who took me on.'
âI don't mind a bit of totty in the yard,' Bucknall murmurs to Deej. âBut this one looks like something the cat brought in.'
Deej smiles at me and shakes his head.
âI'd like you to show Jasmine the ropes, tell her what's what. Apparently, she's staying at Auntie's place.'
Deej continues to clean the bridle. âHow's that working then?' he asks casually. âWith the rent.'
âWe pay the rent, Jasmine.' The assistant trainer clears his throat. âIt gets taken out of your pay. Understood?'
I glance at Deej, sensing that he is looking after my interests. He gives a little nod.
âThat sounds good,' I say.
âRight.' Bucknall puts his hands together in a nervous clapping movement. âI'll leave you to it.'
As the door closes, Deej shakes his head. âEejit,' he mutters, and we both laugh. He hands me a sponge and a bar of saddle soap. âYou can make yourself useful, Jay,' he says.
I spit on the saddle soap and get to work on a bridle.
Deej looks surprised.
âSorry, not very ladylike,' I say.
He reaches down for a bucket of water and places it between us. âSave your spit,' he says. âYou're at Wilkinson's yard now.'
âYeah. Magic Wilkinson. I can't believe it.'
Deej gives a little laugh. âDon't hold your breath for any magic,' he says, frowning as he rubs down a brow-band. âJust do your best one day at a time, keep on the right side of Angus, and take it from there.'
âWhat's he like?'
Deej thinks for a moment. âHe's OK. Scottish. Bit old and grumpy. He has issues.' Deej laughs, as if something has just occurred to him. âPretty much everyone has issues at Wilkinson's. Humans, horses, the lot.' There are voices from outside. Deej glances at his watch. âEvening stables. Stick with me and keep your mouth shut.'
Outside, there is an atmosphere of quiet activity in the yard, lads carrying buckets, pushing wheelbarrows. I notice that there's no shouting, that when the lads speak to one another, it is in low voices.
âHorses come first,' Deej explains as we make our way into the main yard. âIt's the guv'nor's golden rule. Lads can come and go. There can be all kinds of human stuff going on. But nothing must ever be allowed to disturb the horses. No mobiles in the yard. No smoking. No shouting.'
A couple of lads walk by us. They greet Deej and glance briefly in my direction.
Over the next half an hour we look after the three horses Deej âdoes' â that is, looks after. We give them fresh hay and water, and muck them out, then tie them up ready for Mr Wilkinson's evening inspection. I do as Deej has told me â I do what he tells me and keep my mouth shut. It is like being at a new school where you know no one.
Fetching a bag of bedding from the barn, I pass by the corner of the yard where earlier I noticed the strange, cage-like grille on a stable door.
I hear Bucknall's words in my head.
Keep away from that stable.
Glancing around to check that no one is looking, I approach it. The stable is out of the sun and has no windows. It is as dark as a cave inside. At first, peering through the bars, I can see no sign of life.
So why should I keep away from it?
Then, as I stand there, I see a movement, like a dappling of light in the darkness where none should be.
Another movement. There's a horse in there â a big grey. A glint of a dark eye catches the light. From the shadows, there comes low, loud breathing, almost like the growl of a beast.
Who are you?
The eye gazes back at me. Whatever is in there shifts slightly. The splashes of brightness in the gloom catch the light for a second and quiver like sunlight on water.
âWhat the blazes are you doing?'
It is a low angry rasp, in a strong Scottish accent from ten metres behind me. I turn to see a small, wiry man standing, hands on hips. He is wearing dark blue exercise breeches and looks much older than the other lads. His grey hair is neatly parted, like a character out of an old-fashioned film. Angus.
âI was just looking.'
He strides towards me like an angry bantam cockerel. And stands uncomfortably close to me. âAnd who the blazing blazes might you be?'
âI'm Jay. I'm new.'
âWho the blazes says so?'
(I should explain that Angus never actually uses the word âblazes'. He is the sweariest person I have ever met. He swears like other people breathe.)
âI saw Mr Wilkinson this afternoon. He saidâ'
âHe'd take you on for some holiday work, I know.' Angus laughs wearily. From the far side of the yard, a lad â dark-haired and with a powerful, stocky build â walks towards us, carrying a bucket of feed. He whistles loudly and out of tune, and as he passes us, he says, âPony club day, is it, Angus?'
The head lad laughs. âEvening, Pete.'
The lad called Pete heads for the stable containing the big grey. He reaches for the pitchfork and, entering the stable, makes a rasping growl. There is a clatter of horse's hooves from within the stable, followed by curses.
Angus glances at me. âGet on with your work, girl,' he says.
âWhich horse is in that stable?'
âA psycho called Manhattan.'
There is more commotion from the box, and then Pete emerges with the bucket, now empty.
âA psycho? How is he a psycho?'
Angus raises his eyebrows. Then, to my surprise, he smiles.
YOU DON'T WANT
to worry too much about Angus. He's not as fierce as he tries to make out.'
Enter Laura â small, broad-shouldered and tough. Her blonde hair is cut short, but the look in her eye and the muscles in her arms will tell you that she's as tough as any of the lads. As we walk together to the hostel they call âAuntie's', she chats away, staring ahead of her as if she doesn't want to seem too friendly too quickly.
âDoes he ride out?'
âHe does. He rides an old handicapper called Andy's Pet. He's a bit of a legend in his own way, Angus. He was a top apprentice in Mr Wilkinson's early days as a trainer. He sacrificed everything for racing â his wife walked out, his marriage broke up, he had nothing to do with his kids. He has always lived for the game.'
âBut he never made it as a jockey.'
âHe didn't. Had a fall. Lost his nerve. You hear a lot of that in this town.'
Laura strides ahead of me in silence for a few moments. She walks so quickly that I have to jog now and then to keep up with her.
âHe's all right, old Angus, but he won't do you any favours. He's a tad bitter and twisted about women since his wife left him.'
âIs that why you're the only girl in the yard?'
âCould be. Just be polite and don't let the lads wind you up. I'm sure you'll be fine.' I hear the doubt in her voice.
We walk down the high street, then take a turning towards a housing estate. In the distance, I can see the heath where twelve hours ago I was sleeping.
âD'you like being a stable lass?' I ask.
âStable lass?' She laughs. âWe don't call them that. Everyone's a lad in Newmarket â even the girls.'
âBut you like it.'
âYeah,' she says. âIt's a bit of a weird place, Wilkinson's. Old school. Once you know that and look out for yourself, you'll be fine.'
âI've already had Angus on my case.'
âIt's not him you should watch out for.'
I think of the lad who took a pitchfork into the stable of the horse he was doing. âPete?'
âHere's rule number one at Wilkinson's. Keep clear of Pete. Even Angus is scared of him. He would have been out on his ear long ago in any other yard.'
We are on a housing estate. Laura leads me up a short path, then unlocks the front door of a small house.
âNew girl,' she calls out.
âAnother new girl?' The voice has an Indian accent. âWhat's going on?'
Laura and I walk into a brightly-lit kitchen. A woman in a sari stands in front of a cooker, her broad back to us. âHonestly,' she is muttering. âAll this coming and going. I don't know. How long's this one going to last?'
She turns and looks at us. There is something about the fake-angry expression on her face that makes me smile.
âOh, my goodness,' she says. âThey're getting younger all the time. You should be at school, young lady.'
âThis is Jay,' Laura says to her. âThe latest victim.'
âJay, this is Auntie.'
I learn quite a bit about Auntie that evening. She likes to combine English and Indian food in a way that only sometimes works. Over sausage biryani, she tells me how she came to Newmarket as a young girl, when she was married to Jasminder, who called himself âJas'. Newmarket is full of Asians now, but when Mr Wilkinson took him on, he was one of the first to be employed here.
âThose were the days when Mr Wilkinson was big news,' says Auntie. âOne moment, he is just “the guv'nor”. The next he is “Magic”. It is Magic-this and Magic-that. The press were crazy about him, I tell you.'
Laura listens, a smile on her face. I get the sense that she has heard this story many times before.
Auntie's real name is Sowjanya but no one could remember that, so when her three children, a boy and two girls, grew up and left home, she was happy for her family nickname âAuntie' to be used by her guests.
About ten years ago Jas decided he wanted to return to India. âI told him straight out. I'm not going. I'm happy here. Vamoose.' She waves a hand dismissively. âThat's what I said to him. You've done your bit. Now it is my turn.' It was Mrs Wilkinson who suggested she should be a landlady. âThe rest is history.'