Chapter 1 – Jill at Pool Cottage
I was sitting on the gate of Pool Cottage, the five-barred one that leads out on to the road. It was a lovely day, the blue and green sort at the beginning of summer where it is not too hot, and not too cold, and the birds are singing and everything seems all right with the world. If someone had been walking along the road, they would have been singing. Or whistling. But there was no one walking along the road. There wasn’t anyone in the cottage either, and there weren’t any ponies in the orchard, or even any hens grubbing around in the garden. There was only me.
It had been very odd walking up the lane to Pool Cottage. I hadn’t been back for ages because it had been rented out while Mummy was in America and I’d been at secretarial college in London, and the tenant had only just left. I’d been back to see Mummy and Martin, of course, since they were married and had moved into Martin’s parents’ old house, The Grange. While I was there I’d walked along to see the cottage, just to see how it looked, but I had got to the end of the road and no further. That was as far as I could go. I’d turned round and got the train back to London and my job, and that was it.
And now I was back, and this time I had to go in.
When you think of the place where you grew up, you think of it as you saw it last. That’s how I expected Pool Cottage to be, just like it was when I’d left it, but when I opened the door I noticed straight away that the little table in the hall we’d always put the post on had gone. And so had Mummy’s desk, and her chair. When I went to make myself breakfast, I found out that even our Cona coffee maker had gone with Mummy. The thing that most upset me, and I expect you will be snorting into your coffee when you read this, is that Mummy had taken her napkin ring with her. We both had ones with our initials on, and they always came out at every single mealtime but now mine was the only one left in the drawer.
Breakfast on my own in Pool Cottage seemed very strange. There was no Mrs Crosby banging around in the kitchen, and no Mummy sitting opposite me at the old table we’d brought with us from Wales when Daddy died and we’d moved to Chatton. Outside wasn’t any better, with no ponies looking over the doors of the looseboxes. If I tell you I even missed the yelling of the hens when they contributed their morning egg, you will know how bad I was feeling.
So what with one thing and another, I wasn’t what you’d call inspiring company.
Then I heard the sound of hooves, and there is nothing quite like the sound of a horse to cheer you up. I looked up, and round the corner appeared Ann Derry on a nice looking chestnut horse, at the head of a whole herd of children on ponies. “Ann!” I yipped.
“Hello, you mutt,” said Ann as soon as she got within talking distance. Turning round, she shouted, “Ride, prepare to halt! And halt!” And they did. Good distances between them and everything, and no one letting their pony have a crafty nip of grass. I have to say that ride was an absolute credit to Ann.
“What on earth are you doing there?” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“Sitting here is better than being inside,” I said. “Inside reminds me that I’m there on my own and I haven’t got a job, and it’s all frankly making me feel rather low.”
Ann frowned. “What do you mean? What’s happened? Why haven’t you got a job?”
“Well…” I said. And that was as far as I got. There was a wail from the back of the ride, and Ann and I turned round to see a tot at the back on a little grey Welsh pony yelling as he put his head down to eat and she slipped down his neck.
“Let go of the reins, Patricia!” Ann shouted. “Let go! Let the reins go through your fingers … Oh, for goodness’ sake – sorry, Jill, I’d better get them moving. Give me a ring in the evening.”
And with that, she trotted off to the end of the ride, being watched by a lot of wide-eyed riders, all making sure that their ponies weren’t snatching a crafty mouthful, and all glad they weren’t the one that Miss Derry was giving the sharp end of her tongue to. I leant back against the gate as Ann trotted back to the front, now with the naughty grey on a leading rein and the tot looking very subdued on his back. She gave me a grin as she went past, and one by one, as they trotted past, all the riders turned round and looked at me. I felt like an exhibit in the zoo.
When they’d gone, peace descended on the lane again.
I don’t know if you’ve even been without a job, but if you have, you’ll know that everyone else you know appears to be gainfully employed. Although I had plenty of friends still in Chatton, there was no point my trying to see any of them, as they’d all be working. Diana and James Bush would be working on the farm, and Wendy would be up with Ann and Robin at the stables, which they were running now Mrs Darcy had retired and had gone to live on her father’s estate on the other side of Rychester. Val and Jack Heath were living in Paris, where, according to Ann, their father had packed them off as he’d got so annoyed with them arguing all the time. I didn’t want to drift round to Mummy and Martin’s because Martin would have gone up to the Foreign Office now he’d been transferred back to London and Mummy would be writing. And after all, it wasn’t as if I was six anymore and could expect Mummy to entertain me.
I gave a very deep sigh, the sort that comes up from your boots, and went back into the cottage, where I sat down in the sitting room, and picked up my writing pad and my pen. And then I put it down again. Besides my job, I also wrote books about my adventures with my ponies, and the income from those books made life a bit easier for me. But sales of the sort of book I write hadn’t been going well. An article I’d read in one of the literary supplements said, “you could have sold Richard III if you had given it the right wrapper and called it A Pony for Richard,” but from my point of view, it was obviously thinking of some golden time when pony books had sold well. My publisher was making dark mutterings about falling sales and things not being the way they were when it came to pony books, and really, I ought to try something else.
When I’d gone to see him just before I’d left London, he had told me that school stories were selling terribly well, and why didn’t I try one of those? I’d told him that I’d hated school, and that I was sure that anyone who loved that sort of story would have picked up straight away that my heart wasn’t in it, and he’d said, well, why not give it a try? Because I never knew. Now that I am older I know that there are times when it is best not to say what you want to say. I crammed my less than golden words back into my brain and smiled, only by the look on the publisher’s face, I don’t think a smile was quite what I managed.
Perhaps, the publisher had said, when he’d recovered a bit, I could try combining ponies and school. That hadn’t been done before. One of their writers had done very well with a book that featured cricket and a girls’ school, and he could just see people absolutely loving a series where girls could take their ponies to school. I’d said yes, but there would still have to be some school, and I couldn’t think of anything more dreary than describing a miserable round of lessons and teachers and people getting detention and throwing bread rolls at each other at meal times, or whatever it was people got up to at boarding school, because that was another thing. I’d never been to a boarding school in my life. Neither had anyone I knew, except for James Bush, and he’d been to a boys’ boarding school, and I thought that whatever girls’ schools got up to, they wouldn’t have got up to what James and his friends got up to. Or at least what he said they got up to. Which may well, of course, have been two entirely different things.
I still had a row of school stories up in the bookcase in my room at Pool Cottage, which my cousin Cecilia and Aunt Primrose had given me at various times in my glorious career. I had tried to read some of them. Although they were absolutely not the sort of book I usually read, I do think that if someone has been kind enough to give you a book, you should at least try to read it, but I had failed completely. For one thing, in one of the books, the story didn’t really seem to be about the school at all, but about one of the old girls who was still hanging about the place long after any sane person would have left. And another one I tried had people who were well and truly married and not at school at all but who seemed to spend all their time organising country dance festivals and marrying Lords.
My books, you see, are about me and the things I’ve done, which makes them very easy to write because I’m just telling you what I’ve done, and there’s nothing particularly clever or imaginative about that. I’d suggested to my publisher that I write one about my life after secretarial college as someone working with horses, but he’d pulled a face at that, and said no, because he liked children’s series where the children stayed as children, and that was the sort of book children bought.
Now I don’t know about you, but I would have been very happy if someone was writing about people like me who were just starting off in their lives and how they were doing, but my publisher disagreed. He said that he thought it was all very well for children to take over a riding stable, but not to have one of their own when they were grown up. Now I had in fact, in my dim and distant past, started up a stable of my own with some friends, and you can read all about it in A Stable for Jill, and that had sold quite well, as I reminded my publisher. He pulled a face again, and said well, yes, but you were still a child then, dear, weren’t you, and you were always going to go back to school, weren’t you?
And so I said, well, why not have one about someone who was a former pupil of a riding school but who was still involved with the school? One of those school series Cecilia liked had someone just like that, and for book after book she’d not actually been at the school at all. Then she’d had thousands of children, and they’d all gone to the riding school, I mean the school, and that had gone on for books and books and no one seemed to mind.
And the publisher had sniffed again and said that well, that was different, and adults didn’t like to read about riding schools, and I should come up with a good mystery story or a story about terrible goings on at a racing stable. Or perhaps, he said, looking at me with a fixed stare, I could come up with a romance? I could set that at a stable. I was just the age of person who ought to be thinking about settling down and finding a husband, and perhaps I could write the sort of light and amusing romance that several of his authors specialised in? I could make them historical romances if I really wanted to get horses in somewhere. Because it wasn’t as if I was a serious writer, like my mother, dear, was it? The Times Literary Supplement was hardly likely to review me, was it?
This, of course, was true. The frightfully serious and important papers that liked to review the children’s books Mummy wrote hadn’t generally been keen on reviewing anything I wrote. In fact, they hadn’t reviewed me at all. There didn’t seem much else I could say to my publisher after that, so I said thank you, and he said thank you, and off I went. And here I was now, sitting in Pool Cottage and mulling over our conversation.
You see, good reviews are all very well, but good reviews hadn’t meant that Mummy’s books had sold well – in fact her last one, The Charms of Cosy Cottage, had sold so badly that it had led to Mummy going to lecture in America and my ponies being sold, and that had led to a whole load of trouble that you can read about in Jill and the Lost Ponies. In case you haven’t read it, the upshot of it all was that James and Diana Bush had bought Rapide, and I had eventually managed to find Black Boy myself.
Since Mummy married Martin (who, in case you have forgotten, taught me to ride when I was a rank and awful beginner and still doing things like putting Black Boy’s bridle on wrong and not knowing that he needed grooming) she had carried on writing. That, I must tell you, was bothering me a bit, because Mummy had a new book on the go, and I knew I would have to read it. I always read Mummy’s books, because I do try and support Mummy even though I just can’t get on with her stories, which are all about desperately good children who suffer terribly but manage to bring light and joy to all despite their horrible lives.
Basil the Birdsong Boy was just one example of Mummy’s deathless prose. Basil was an orphan who was born in a beautiful village in the countryside to lovely parents who both died very young and Basil was shipped off to a horrible orphanage. I don’t know if you have ever read Nicholas Nickleby or Jane Eyre, but this orphanage made Lowood and Dotheboys Hall look like happy holiday camps.
But Basil, although often sad and lonely, had one great gift. He could remember every song of every bird he had ever heard during his short time in the country, and he would sing birdsongs. He sang them whenever the other orphans were unhappy, which they often were, or whenever they were struggling with the city’s dreadful washing in the orphanage’s laundry. The strains of birdsong would rise up with the rank and smelly steam to the rafters and the orphans would find the strength to carry on. There was a lot more like this – I have only got you to about halfway through the book with this summary, but I will leave it to you to fill in the rest of it for yourself, which you might like to do when you are particularly bored, or when you have been trying to teach your pony the turn on the forehand and have given up and gone off to sit in a hedge and sulk.
And so here I was, staring at a blank sheet of paper with my publisher’s words ringing in my ears, and for the first time in my life, no idea of what to write.
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