Authors: Terence Blacker
I am watching the dark grey ears in front of me. I have never known a horse with such expressive ears. They tremble, flicker backwards or forwards, as if listening out for a signal no one else can hear.
She lays them back if another horse comes too close to her or if she senses that I am becoming impatient. I go still in the saddle, lay a hand on her shoulder, talk to her in a low voice.
You're all right, girl.
At first, as we walk along an exercise path on the heath, she is slow, almost sleepy. Then, as the string gets further ahead of us, she begins to look around her.
At some point, the other horses break into a trot. I give her a light squeeze of the legs, and immediately sense rebellion beneath me.
Come on, girl. Don't let me down. Not now.
I drop my hands and let her stop. I hear the laughter of the lads, who have noticed what is happening.
I click my teeth. Slowly, the ears flicker forward. Manhattan walks and then, with a grunt that is almost human in its grumpiness, she breaks into a long, loping trot.
Liam, the lad in front of me, glances over his shoulder. I can see surprise on his face. He says something to Tommy, who is in front of him, and the word goes up the string.
The freaks are doing all right, girl.
By the time we return to the yard, Manhattan is walking a little more easily. She is still wary of me, but more relaxed. She goes better, I have discovered, when allowed her own space at the back of the string. She likes to be alone.
Angus watches as we come in, his face showing no expression. âStop,' he says to me. I stand in front of him, Manhattan posing, head high, as if she were the star of the stable. âHow did she go, lassie?'
âShe went quite well, thank you, Angus.'
A look of surprise crosses Angus's face. âWell, you'd better get your parachute and come down to earth. Off you get.'
I slip out of the saddle and carefully let myself down the great height from Manhattan's back. I'm leading her towards the stable when Pete arrives.
Without a word, he takes the reins from me. Manhattan's ears go back and she lowers her head. Suddenly there's a mulish look in her eye. Pete tugs downwards at the reins, and she jerks her head up in alarm.
As he leads her into the stable, he calls over his shoulder, âStay out, if you don't want to get hurt.'
As Pete reaches for the girth, Manhattan arches her neck and bares her teeth. Swearing at her, Pete manages to get the saddle off just before Manhattan kicks forward, the hind leg only narrowly missing him.
âCow-kick, they call that,' Pete says grimly. âAnd she's a cow, all right.'
Angus walks over and stands beside me at the door. âLook and learn, lassie.' He nods in Pete's direction. âThis is how you handle a difficult racehorse.'
I want to point out that I've just handled a difficult racehorse pretty well, but I don't. âYes, Angus,' I say.
Pete is trying to reach Manhattan's bridle. He has managed to unfasten the throat-lash, so that he now just has to take the top of the bridle and slip it off her head.
But Manhattan is having none of it. She holds her head high, and she is so tall that Pete is unable to reach her. The more he curses, the more she throws her head in the air.
âSort her out, Pete.' Angus is irritated that the lesson is not going as well as he planned. âIt's the only way with mares.'
âCould I have a go?' I ask the question quietly.
âThis isn't the Pony Club, lassie,' says Angus.
âI know.' I draw back the latch on the stable door.
Pete glances towards me, then at Angus.
To my surprise, the head lad nods. âLet her make a fool of herself, Pete. If she gets hurt â well, we warned her.'
Pete pushes his way past me. Watched by the two men, I walk slowly into the stable and stand beside Manhattan, my hand on her neck, murmuring quietly to her.
OK, Manhattan. This is the part where you don't show me up.
She stands still, her neck tensed. She trusts no one.
You know what? I've got a carrot in this jacket.
I reach into my pocket. There's the tiniest flicker of interest from Manhattan's ears.
âWaste of time,' Pete says from the stable door.
Angus says nothing.
I hold the carrot in the palm of my hand, near Manhattan's head. She can smell it, but at first is too proud to take it from me.
We stand motionless for a moment. Then, slowly, Manhattan takes the carrot and crunches it, more relaxed now.
âGrab the bridle â her head's down,' says Pete.
I remain motionless, for a few seconds.
While Manhattan is looking for another carrot, I run my hand up her neck and tug at her ears, then rest it on the top of the bridle. Waiting until she has finished her carrot, I slip it off slowly, then pat her neck.
That's my girl.
I look towards the door. Angus has gone. Pete is staring hard at me.
âLike her, do you?'
âI've never seen a horse like her.'
âEnjoy her while you can. Any day now she'll be taken away to the vet. One-way ticket. The bullet. They're putting her down â it's been decided.'
âWhat?' I look at Pete to see if this is one of his nasty jokes. It isn't.
âAsk the others,' he says. âShe'll be dog meat soon.'
There is a sick, empty feeling in my stomach. âBut why?' I try to sound as careless as he is, but my voice cracks.
âShe's useless. And dangerous. The owner won't breed from her with that kind of temperament. Nobody likes her in the yard.'
âI like her.'
Pete makes a pistol shape with his hand, puts it against the side of his head and pulls the trigger. âBoom! Dead as mutton,' he says. With a little laugh, he walks off.
Manhattan stirs and looks towards me, expecting another carrot.
No. It can't be true.
THE NEXT MORNING
, I get a surprise. My name is on the List for first lot, beside that of a four-year-old called Norewest.
I have seen him out with the string. He is big and angular with a slightly downtrodden look. He has never won a race and belongs to an owner who has better, faster horses.
There is a chill in the air and a low mist hangs over the gallops when the fifteen horses make their way onto the heath. The lads, slumped and still sleepy, ride in silence. Occasionally, there's a bit of disturbance in the string when one of the horses plays up. Tommy, the oldest lad in the yard, swears and gives a tug on the reins, and calm returns.
We circle at the start of the all-weather track with rails on each side. It leads away from the town into the mist.
Deej has told me that the only horses who will be doing serious work will be going out with the second string. We'll be doing a gentle half-speed â fast canter, really â leaving about a gap of around fifty metres between each horse.
To our left, beyond some rails on the road, I see the battered old estate car I had seen outside Mr Wilkinson's house. The trainer and his wife are walking towards a point halfway up the gallops.
Ahead of me, Tommy mutters, âThe missus is out.'
As Mr and Mrs Wilkinson arrive and stand, and we circle around them, I notice that Pete is following me with his eyes. He says something in a low voice to Angus, who is in front of him.
âNew girl. Barton,' he calls out. âGet off that horse and let Pete sort out its tack.'
Puzzled, I bring Norewest into the centre of the circle and get out of the saddle. I hold Pete's horse as he looks at my girth.
âShe's only gone and put it on twisted.' Pete's voice is loud, an announcement to the string. He glances in my direction. âDon't they teach you anything at Pony Club?'
I say nothing but I'm confused. There was nothing wrong with the way Norewest was saddled. I'm sure of that.
Pete unfastens the girth and, with much sighing and generally fiddling about, adjusts it. âPull the girth tight before you're on your way,' he says, giving me a leg-up. Then, weirdly, he winks at me as if we share a secret.
I nod, putting my feet in the stirrups.
Norewest seems to have been upset by the interruption. He prances about restlessly as the first horses set off.
âSettle that horse down, Jay,' Mr Wilkinson mutters irritably.
Four horses have peeled off and are cantering away from us down the track. Soon it will be my turn.
I lift my left leg in front of the saddle, and pull the girth as tight as I can.
With a sharp, pig-like squeal, Norewest launches himself as if a rocket has been let off behind him. He bucks and twists as he goes, sending the other horses scattering. I cling on desperately.
I've managed to recover the reins but I've lost my stirrups. Norewest is careering towards the road. Somehow I manage to haul him in the direction of the gallops towards where Mr and Mrs Wilkinson are standing.
We head off, parallel to the track, galloping as if something terrifying is on our tail.
Easy, boy, easy â easy, easy.
I see the white faces of the trainer and his wife who have turned to watch my progress. Because I've lost my irons, I can put no weight on the reins. Even if I could, it would make no difference. I might as well not be there. The horse beneath me has gone mad.
We pass another trainer's string who have just pulled up from their work. I hear laughter as we pass them.
I look ahead of me. The heath stretches into the distance, but there is a high hawthorn hedge to my left between the heath and a wood. I manage to steer him in that direction, then pull him round, back towards where the Wilkinson string is circling in the distance.
Easy. Back we go to the string.
My arms are aching, my legs weakening from the effort of staying in the saddle, but Norewest shows no sign of slowing down.
Once, again like a crazy comedy act, we pass the Wilkinsons, then reach the string heading towards the town. One of the lads calls out, âCome in, number nine, your time is up.'
Norewest is wet with lather now. He is so crazed that I'm afraid he'll have a heart attack or break a leg before I can stop him. I manage to turn him away from the town, back towards the wood. It's time for drastic action.
I guide him, straight at the hawthorn hedge, not allowing him this time to head back towards the string.
For a moment, I fear that he is going to take on the hedge â try to jump it or burst through it like a cartoon figure running through a wall, but, at the very last moment, he stabs his front feet into the turn. Emergency stop.
There is a moment, like something out of a dream, when I feel myself sailing through the air.
Then the world explodes.
Followed by silence.
I'm conscious. I'm breathing. I'm alive. I try to move my arms, then my legs. Nothing seems to be broken. I can move my head.
And I'm deep, deep in a hedge. This fact enters my brain a split second before pain tears through my body, the sharp agony of hundreds of sharp thorns tearing and gouging my flesh.
Behind me I hear a low snort. The surprise of seeing his jockey in a hedge seems to have released Norewest from whatever madness was gripping him.
He gives a little âharrumph'. Then I hear him trotting away from me.
Closing my mind to the pain, I move one arm, then the other. I writhe and turn, eyes shut, one hand in front of my face. Slowly I back my way out of the hedge.
I am just emerging, unsteady and covered in blood, as the trainer's car rattles into view.
Mr Wilkinson gets out, ignoring me and scanning the horizon for Norewest.
âHorse all right. Heading back to the stables,' he says.
Mrs Wilkinson stands by the car. Her face is not exactly a picture of sympathy. âWell, that was bloody unimpressive, I must say.' She glances at my face. âYou look a mess.'
âI'm sorry.' The words come from me breathlessly, like a sob. âI don't know what happened.'
Mrs Wilkinson smiles sarcastically. âWhat happened is that you rode a racehorse and were unable to control it.'
My eyes sting from what I take to be sweat but, when I run the back of my hand across my forehead it is red with blood.
Mr Wilkinson has returned to the car. His wife looks at my face more closely. âYou should probably get that stitched,' she says.
She smiles coldly. âSuit yourself.' She turns back to the car and opens the back door. âSit on the rug,' she says as I climb in. âDo
bleed on the car.'
As we drive at speed down a lane and on the road leading back to the town, the trainer and his wife converse as if I am not there.
âShe said she could ride,' mutters the trainer. âShouldn't listen to you. Another useless girl.'
âShe looked perfectly competent in the school.'
âManaged to spook Norewest. Takes some doing.'
âAt least she did the sensible thing and pointed the horse at the hedge.' Mrs Wilkinson glances at me. âGave herself a soft landing, if a bit sharp.'
The trainer is shaking his head. âLiability. Blinkin' hopeless.'
âThank you, Clive. That'll be enough.' The voice is quiet but firm.
Mr Wilkinson mutters briefly, then falls silent.
The car draws up outside Auntie's house. I get out and, as the car takes off behind me, I hobble my way up the path. Every inch of my body seems to be aching.
I ring the bell.
Auntie opens the door. âOh, my goodness, what's happened to you?'
âSorry, Auntie. I left my keys at the stable.'
She steps back and I walk in.
Standing in the hall, I try to sound carefree. âHad a bit of a tumble.'
âStay there.' She looks more closely at my face. âNasty cut above your eye. Maybe I should take you to hospital.'