What with one thing and another, it had been quite a long time since I’d gone to visit the Lowes’ house. I’d been to stay with them when Mummy and I had first moved to Chatton, and Mummy had needed to go into hospital, and although Mrs Lowe did tend to treat me as if I’d been about six, she and Mr Lowe had both been very kind. Mummy and Martin had only moved in recently, as they’d been having renovations done, which had taken, as these things always seem to do, a lot longer than they’d been supposed to, but now Martin had a proper bathroom he could use without a struggle, and a stairlift, and the floor levels had been altered so he could get about in his chair without waiting for someone to help him, and all sorts of other things.
Mr Lowe was still breeding Hackneys, though not as many, and was still buying and selling horses and ponies. Mummy set off to the kitchen, and she didn’t want me to help, so Martin and I set off to see the ponies.
“Do you remember Silvio?” Martin asked, as he pushed his wheelchair along the path to the stables.
“My Russian rabbits, of course I do,” I said. “I just couldn’t get him to jump. He was so different from Black Boy, and I was too green to have worked out that you needed to ride different ponies in different ways.”
“Don’t forget that you did manage to find a way to ride him that worked,” said Martin. “It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Anyway, Silvio’s still here. I know you’re not getting Black Boy down for another couple of weeks, so I wondered if you’d like to take Silvio out and about? Our staff here really only have time to work with the mares and foals, and to start the youngsters off that we’re keeping, and poor old Silvio really just hangs around doing nothing apart from acting as a wise uncle to all the foals, and occasionally taking me out in the trap.”
Take him out in the paddock and see how you get on with him. If you like him, take him home with you. We had your paddock topped for you a few weeks back, so it’s in good order, and I can get one of the men to drop off some fodder, hay and bedding for you. We could send a couple of the three-year-olds with you too so he has some company. They’ve just been started off, but we’ve turned them away now to put on some muscle.”
What do you think?”
“Oh goodness,” I said. “That would be wonderful – to look out of my bedroom window and see ponies in the paddock instead of a green stretch of nothing would be wonderful. Thank you so much.” And then I was so overcome with this amazing generosity that I came to a complete stop, and stood there, my mind filled with visions of ponies’ heads looking over my loose box doors once more.
“Well, off you go then,” said Martin, breaking into my reverie. “Don’t hang around staring at me with your mouth open. The tack room’s not moved – you’ll find plenty of headcollars and lead ropes in there.”
I came too with a start, and went off to the tack room as Martin had told me and found a headcollar and a lead rope, all neatly twirled round itself in that way I have never managed to master myself.
Silvio, who was a roan of about 14 hh, was in the paddock nearest the stable yard, and I could see him, grazing with some of the other ponies not too far from the nearest fence line. Holding the headcollar firmly behind my back, I set off towards the group of ponies, though I aimed for one of the ones who didn’t look up at me and was carrying on grazing. One thing I have found out in my long career with ponies is that if a pony is tricky to catch nothing is worse than giving it the idea that he’s the pony you’re heading for. I reached a nice looking bay, and stood next to him and scratched him at the base of his withers. He turned round, blew down his nose at me, and then got back on with grazing. I moved slowly towards Silvio, stroking the other ponies as I went, and once they’d realised I wasn’t going to catch them, they all ignored me. I reached Silvio, stood by his side, and then quietly put the lead rope around his neck. If ponies could speak, the look Silvio gave me at that point would have said, “You rat,” but he didn’t protest as I put the headcollar on and led him away from his fellows and back towards Martin.
“Well done, Jill,” called Martin as I opened the gate and let Silvio and myself through. “He can be a bit tricky sometimes if he’s not done anything for a while. You handled that beautifully.”
Martin wheeled his chair round, and Silvio and I kept pace with him as we went back to the stable yard.
“How long will it be till supper?” I asked. “Usually I like to put them in the stable for a bit and not ride straight out of the field – do you think we’ve got time?”
“Oh, I think he’d be all right if you just stuck to a walk. Do some loose rein walking around the school – and maybe try and see how he feels about coming on to the bit and do some changes of rein and perhaps a circle or two. Just to get the feel of him.”
“OK,” I said, so I found Silvio’s tack, which was easy as every bridle hook and saddle rack had a little metal holder next to it in which you could slide a name card, and all the tack was in alphabetical order. He had a nice eggbutt snaffle, and a beautiful forward cut saddle that looked new. Silvio was a dream to tack up: unlike Rapide, who would stick his head as far up as it would go and snort at you while looking at you out of the corner of his eye, Silvio was just like Black Boy and dropped his head and obligingly opened his mouth so I could slip the bit in and get the headpiece over his ears.
I led him out to the mounting block – I had got very used to using the mounting block when I was helping out at the Park mews. Again, Silvio was beautifully behaved, and didn’t decide to step out sideways or move off the moment he felt my weight in the stirrup, which I have known many another pony to do.
He stood like a rock while I sorted out my stirrup length, and, remembering what he’d been like when I first rode him, I gave him a firmer aid to walk off than I’d have given Black Boy, and he started off like a dream.
It was interesting riding Silvio, as it had been so many years since I had. Then, I’d expected him to be just like Black Boy, and when he hadn’t obeyed the aids in the same way that Black Boy had, I’d been terribly flustered and thought I must be the worst rider in the world. Now, I could feel him waiting for me to tell him what to do as we rode off. He was quite different to Black Boy, who I felt I would advise what to do. Silvio expected everything to be spelled out. As long as I concentrated, we were fine, but if I felt my thoughts drift off to my jobless state, or what we were having for supper, Silvio picked it up straightaway and would either dawdle along or just plain stop.
“Not so much leg,” Martin called, as Silvio bustled into a trot after one such occasion. “You need to keep your leg on him all the time to reassure him, and then give him a gentle aid, not blast in out of nowhere. He’s not the sort of pony that makes up his own mind. He draws his confidence from his rider, so you’ve got to work on keeping your leg on the whole time so that he knows you’re thinking about him. Don’t push, push, push – just keep the leg on.
That’s it – there – did you feel how he responded to that gentler aid?”
I nodded. Martin was absolutely right, and I remembered what a good and patient teacher he’d been to me when I first had Black Boy, despite how utterly useless I was.
I rode round for another few minutes, trying as hard as I could not to drift off into a dream. It was amazing how much of a bad habit I’d got into now that I was really only riding Black Boy. I rode up the centre line of the school, and asked Silvio to halt, and like the good pony he was, he came to a nice, square halt, with all his hooves where they should be, so I thought we’d stop then, when we were ending on a good note. I rode him out of the school, and then got off him and ran the stirrups up so that I could talk to Martin without him having to crane his neck all the way up to me.
“What do you think?” Martin asked. “Would you like to have him at Pool Cottage for a bit?”
“I’d absolutely love it,” I said. “Thank you so much. It’s most tremendously kind of you.”
“Yes, isn’t it!” said Martin, and we both laughed.
“I’m sorry you’re having such a struggle finding a job,” Martin said.
“I know,” I said. “It’s that wretched shorthand. It does me down every time.”
“I did ask round at the Foreign Office,” said Martin, “but the only openings are for people who have typing and shorthand. I know you get a bit of money from your last book, but it’s not much, is it?”
“No,” I said. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I had the money from all of them, but royalties from the ones I did when I was at school all go into a trust fund, and I can’t touch it until I’m twenty-one. And that’s three years away. And even if I write another book in double-quick time, it’ll be months until I see any money from it, even it it’s a best seller.”
Martin sighed. “Yes, I know,” he said. “It’s tricky. You do know your mother and I are very happy to support you?”
“Of course I do, “ I said, “but I like being able to support myself. I mean, I grew up watching Mummy support us both all those years, and I like being independent.”
“I know what you mean,” said Martin. “After my accident, it seemed like everyone wanted to help me, when all I wanted was to learn how to do things on my own. It was one of the things I so liked about meeting you and your mother – you both treated me like a normal human being and let me get on with things in my own way.”
After I’d brushed Silvio down and turned him back out, Martin and I went back to the house, and I went upstairs to change out of my jodphurs. My one good tweed skirt was still just about hanging on, which was just as well as my jobless state meant I couldn’t see myself dashing into Madame Paris in Ryechester and replacing it any time soon.
Downstairs I could hear the sound of people talking, as Mr and Mrs Lowe had come up from the dower house to supper. I went downstairs, and then we had a session of the sort of conversation that you have if you haven’t seen people for a while, and it’s rather dull, so I won’t bore you with it. I’m sure you’ve had similar conversations yourselves.
Now, one thing I have noticed in my career is that when people have something in mind that they want to say to you, they look at you in a very particular way. And after I’d explained all about my job, and how my books were, or to be more accurate, weren’t, going, Mr Lowe was looking at me in that very particular way. I knew that something was coming my way, and I suppose I should at least have been grateful that Mr Lowe did at least let me get myself outside the soup, which was tomato, and jolly good, and made from proper tomatoes out of the greenhouse and not just the stuff out of the tin, before he started.
“Jill, my dear,” he said once we’d eaten the soup and I had helped Mummy take the dishes out to the kitchen, and helped her bring in a very nice stew and baked potatoes. “Your mother tells me that you’re looking for ideas for your next book.”
I glanced quickly at Mummy, because I hadn’t told her anything of the sort, but she was looking very firmly at her plate, and not at me.
“Oh, do leave Jill alone, dear,” said Mrs Lowe. “Jill’s always been a very capable girl, and I’m sure she’ll make up her own mind on what she wants to do.”
“Ah, but I do have an idea,” said Mr Lowe.
“Oh,” I said.
“How about a girl who hasn’t got a pony, but who is simply longing for one?” asked Mr Lowe.
“Well, yes … “ I said. “It’s a good suggestion, but I think it has been done before.”
“Hasn’t stopped them selling,” broke in Martin. “I Just Need a Saddle, Mary and the Win-a-Pony Competition, If Only I Had a Pony … There’s hundreds of them in the saddlers.”
“It doesn’t mean they’re selling,” I said. “And I’m sure you’re making those titles up.”
“Well, Jill, I don’t read these things, and I’m sure you know best,” said Mr Lowe, “but I think you could write a really jolly book about a girl who doesn’t have a pony, and saves and saves until she does get the pony. You could have her knowing nothing about riding – that would be realistic, wouldn’t it, and I know these publisher fellows like things being realistic – and then you could have her pottering along on her pony and not knowing what she was doing and having everyone in the neighbourhood laughing at her because she hasn’t a clue.”
Mummy gave me a rather panicked look across the table.
“Something else you could do,” Mr Lowe carried on, “is have someone ex-Army, because there are plenty of ex-cavalry chaps about, who could teach your heroine how to look after the pony and how to ride. Get in some good, solid instruction – that ought to appeal to the Pony Club types.”
Martin looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
And another thing you could do,” Mr Lowe went on, “is have a villain in the book. I always liked a good villain when I was a lad.”
“Oh, I know – ” I said. “How about someone who’s got pots of money but no idea how to ride?”
“Yes – you’ve got it! That should do the trick. And another thing you could put in …”
“I think, dear,” Mrs Lowe said, “that Jill can probably work all these things out for herself. She has, after all, written several very successful pony stories already.”
“Has she?” asked Mr Lowe. “What about?”
No one said anything.
“Oh,” said Mr Lowe.
“Would anyone like pudding?” asked Mummy.