Missed chapter one? It’s here.
I put my pen down and stared at what was before me. I had never been good at drawing ponies, and after a couple of hours of solid practice, it was obvious that I hadn’t got any better. In my days at the charnel house that was The Pines School for Girls, I would often while away a boring lesson by drawing horses in my rough book, which was the one in which you made notes on your essays and tried to work out arithmetic problems before writing them up, and the mistresses didn’t get to see it. It passed the time rather well until the dread day when we had our Commemoration ceremony. This was something that happened every year to celebrate the foundation of the school, and to which parents came, and a load of old girls, and at which we sang Nymphs and shepherds, come away, come away, Nymphs and shepherds come away, come, come, come, come aWAAAAAAAAAAAAy. Every single year.
But I am wavering from the point. At Commem our parents could look at our exercise books and marvel at the beauties of our algebraic workings out and Latin conjugations and I had forgotten to hide my rough book in the book cupboard, which I usually did. Of course when Mummy saw it she had not been at all pleased and once she had finished telling me what she thought of me for wasting the educational opportunities that I had that many other girls didn’t, and which she was working her fingers to the bone to pay for, I felt so mere, low, and wormlike that I gave up drawing ponies in my rough book and that had been that as far as my artistic career went up until now.
Sitting staring at my horribly blank writing pad, I’d thought I could inspire myself by drawing an actual pony, and if I could see a pony in front of me, I would be able to think of a story. So I had drawn a building which looked, if you squinted quite hard, a bit like the The Pines, and had then tried to draw some ponies in the hope I might get an idea for a schoolish pony story. But not only could I not draw ponies, or even schools, I hadn’t the faintest idea for a story either.
It wasn’t as if I could go out and look at Black Boy grazing in the orchard for inspiration, because Black Boy was still in London.
I’d come down on the train yesterday, but Black Boy wasn’t coming down until next week. Captain Williams, who owned the livery stables of Park Lane where I kept Black Boy, had asked me if he could hire Black Boy for the two weeks of the Easter holidays. Things had got so bad that I couldn’t in fact pay for Black Boy’s train fare down to Chatton unless he did his job of work for the stables, so that all pretty much decided itself. Once the holidays were over, Black Boy would be taken over to St Pancras and he’d be loaded on to a horse van and sent off to Chatton.
I sighed, and wondered if there was any mileage in writing a pony story that had no ponies appearing in it at all, because if I based it on my life at the moment, that’s what it would be.
It was just as well that the front doorbell went at that point.
I shoved a cushion on top of my papers, because I didn’t want anyone seeing just how little I’d done, and went and answered the door.
“Hello, darling,” said Mummy.
“Mummy!” I said “Why ever didn’t you just come in? It’s your house.”
“It’s yours while you need it, Jill,” said Mummy. “Now, darling – let’s go and make a cup of tea. I’ve brought round my latest manuscript so you can have a look at that when you want a break from your own writing.”
“Oh,” I said.
Mummy stopped in the doorway of the kitchen and turned round and looked at me. “Oh, I see,” she said.
“The thing is… “ I said.
“It’s all right, Jill. You don’t have to explain. I know exactly what it’s like. The difficulties I had when I was writing Basil the Birdsong Boy … “
The thought that popped into my mind was that those difficulties were as nothing compared to the ones I’d had reading it, but then I thought that was unfair of me, because even though I didn’t like Basil, plenty of other people did, and after all, Basil and his bird chums had paid for my ponies and me.
“I’ve been thinking,” Mummy went on, as she found the cups
and set the kettle boiling on the stove. “I think I have a much better idea than you writing about ponies and school.”
I put on what I thought was an intelligent expression, and said, “Oh?” again.
“A pony who talks,” she said.
“What?” I said. “You mean one who talks to people, or one who talks to other ponies?”
“Oh,” I said again, at which point the kettle boiled.
“Yes,” said Mummy, and she gave me one of those hard stares that mean she is waiting for me to come to a conclusion without her having to ram it down my throat. I mean, I do appreciate that Mummy is not like Mrs Derry, who hovers over Ann and her other two daughters, Brenda and Pam, as if they would rush over the nearest cliff if she were not there to advise them against it, but sometimes it would just make life a little easier if Mummy would sometimes do as she used to do when I was small and explain clearly what she wants me to do.
“Well,” I said, balancing the tea things on a tray and taking them into the sitting room. “How about a book where the pony talks to the girl who’s learning to ride on it, and gives her lots of good advice on how to ride and on how ponies really think? And she meets other people at this magical riding school, and they have lots of adventures?”
“Oh no,” said Mummy, pulling a face as she sat down. “I really don’t think people would like that sort of thing at all. No, the sort of book I think you should write is something that will inspire people. Something like Basil the Birdsong Boy.”
“Mummy,” I said, “Ponies don’t sing. And no one allows them in laundries.”
“Of course not, darling,” said Mummy. “Just listen. I think you could take a pony – a little pony … a …”
“A Shetland,” I said.
“Yes,” said Mummy. “That’s right, darling – you see you can do it, if you put your mind to it – and the pony pulls a little cart around the town, piled with vegetables, and whenever a sad child comes and sees the pony, when he stands near the pony’s head and strokes it, the pony talks to it and gives it some soothing words of wisdom …”
At this point Mummy’s voice drifted to a stop, and I could see that she was lost in a world of lilac mist where little ponies spoke Great Truths and made suffering lives better. If you ask me, every Shetland I’ve ever known was an unmitigated fiend who would barge any child over as soon as look at it, and I certainly couldn’t see any of them imparting any truths, great or otherwise. There had been one called Bunny at Mrs Darcy’s riding school when I first went there, and he had been a monster. Mrs Darcy had had to put a notice on his stable door saying “Open with care,” and only the experienced staff were allowed to go and tack Bunny up because he sensed weakness and would flatten you in his charge out of the door unless you were very careful and very, very quick. But Bunny was quite a different pony when a child was on his back and there must have been lots of Chatton children whose fond parents had a photograph with them on Bunny, with no idea of the fiend that lurked beneath the hairy chestnut charm. Bunny had moved on from Mrs Darcy’s pretty quickly.
Mummy gave herself a little shake and turned to me. “And there could be a special password that the children pass on so that all suffering children will be able to go up to a pony and say the words that will let the pony pass on its words of wisdom.”
“How about silver carrots?” I said.
“Oh Jill,” said Mummy. “You’re really not taking this seriously.”
“I’m sorry, Mummy,” I said. “I do think it’s a good idea, really I do. I just don’t think I’m the person to write it. And I’d always feel it was your idea.”
“Well,” said Mummy, thoughtfully. “Maybe you’re right. But you will think about it, won’t you, Jill? I really do think that you have it in you to write great things. But I mustn’t forget …” she said, getting up and smoothing out her skirt, “Besides your writing, I also came to tell you that the telephone here will be re-connected on Wednesday, and to invite you for supper tonight. I’ll run you back, or you’d be very welcome to stay with us.”
“That would be lovely,” I said. “What time is supper?”
“Let’s say seven o’clock, shall we?” said Mummy. “Now do you want to come back with me now, in the car? Or if you’re busy, you can come over later.”
The thought of returning my grim notebook with its complete lack of any story that might earn me anything wasn’t exactly appealing, and so 20 minutes later, we were turning in to the gateway of The Grange, where Mummy and Martin now lived.
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