The thudding on the door sounded louder than ever. I shoved my head under the pillow and hugged it to my ears. I had gone to sleep horribly late the night before as Silvio and the two three-year-olds still hadn’t settled, and every time I’d drifted off to sleep they’d woken me up by galloping round the orchard again and yelling to each other like mastodon calling to mastodon over a prehistoric swamp. It had all been very wearing. By the time they had finally shut up, I was wide awake, and every time I shut my eyes they pinged open again. In the end I gave up, put the light on and sat up, and I had then had a very unproductive time trying to think what to call the three-year-olds, because I couldn’t go on calling them Blue and Shiney, which were the rather drear names they had arrived with. As my brain had all the perky liveliness of one of Mrs Crosby’s more unsuccessful rice puddings I had got absolutely nowhere. And then, as rosy-fingered dawn crept over the horizon, I had finally fallen asleep.
I groaned as the hammering on the front door got even louder.
The hammering carried on. And then I heard the peculiar squeak our letter box makes when you open it.
“Jill!” yelled a voice. “I know you’re in there. Come down and let me in!”
Whimpering, I threw the pillow on the floor, hauled myself out of my blankety pit, and stomped downstairs. I could see a pair of eyes watching me through the letterbox.
“About time too,” said the person behind the door, straightening up as I opened it.
“Hello Ann,” I said.
“I thought I was going to have to break the door down” she said, as she stepped into the hall. “I’ve been trying to ring you ever since I saw you. Well, not quite ever since, because obviously I had to get the ride back and then sort everyone out and do evening stables. But since then. What on earth is wrong with your phone?”
“Mummy had it disconnected when the last tenant left, and the GPO won’t put it on again until Wednesday. You have to book ahead about a million years.”
“Oh,” said Ann. “That explains it. And you’ve got a lot more to explain – who are those ponies in the orchard? Where’s Black Boy?”
“Black Boy’s still in London – Captain Williams is using him over the Easter holidays. And the other ponies are Silvio, and Blue, and Shiny. They’ve come over from Martin’s.”
“Oh, well, I suppose that makes sense until you’re back in London.”
“But I’m not going back to London. I haven’t got a job any more. I told you.”
“Oh,” said Ann. “When you said you hadn’t got a job I somehow didn’t think you had no job at all, if you see what I mean. I thought you were just having a bit of a blip before you bounced back in your usual spectacular Jill fashion. So, come on then. Tell me what’s up. What happened to the brilliant job sorting out all the big London shows?”
“Major Trelawney had a huge argument with the powers-that-be who ran the show, and they sacked him. And then they sacked me.”
“What on earth for?” asked Ann.
“Well, not because I’d done anything wrong, but just because the powers-that-be didn’t want anyone around who reminded them of Major Trelawney.”
“But can they do that?”
“I did ask Martin, and he asked a solicitor friend of his and he said that there was nothing anyone could do. It wasn’t fair, but that was how it went.”
Ann pulled a face.
“When did all this happen?” she asked.
“A couple of months ago.”
“And you’ve had nothing since then?”
“Just a typing job for an author,” I said. “But apart from that not the merest vestige of a bounce. I’m unemployable, it seems.”
“Oh, my goodness,” said Ann. “Well, we can’t stay standing in the hall for ever. Come on, let’s put the coffee on.”
She walked into the kitchen and started opening cupboards. “Where’s the Cona? Did you break the flask again?”
“No,” I said. “Mummy’s got it. I’ve got some coffee essence in the pantry – we’ll have to have that.”
Ann pulled a face. “Tea?” she asked.
“No milk,” I said.
“Coffee essence it is then,” said Ann.
I filled the kettle and put it on the stove while Ann found some cups and saucers. She pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down.
“Gosh,” she said. “Do you remember when we used to clean our tack in here and then we’d have to try and make sure we put everything back as it was so Mrs C didn’t spot we’d been in? It seems like years ago.”
“I know,” I said. “So much has changed since then.”
“Well, there are always horses,” said Ann. “Weren’t there any jobs going in any of the London stables?”
I shook my head.
“What, nothing? Not in any of the stables?”
“No. No one has a thing.”
“Well, you’ve got experience now,” Ann replied. “Surely there must be lots of organising things you could do. Or secretarial.”
I explained to Ann that sadly it didn’t seem that there were. I’d pretty much worn out the soles of my shoes traipsing round from stable to stable asking about horsy jobs, but there were none. After my job had finished, I’d managed to get some temporary work doing typing, but the thing with doing any sort of secretarial job was the dreaded shorthand test. Almost all the jobs that were advertised wanted you to be a specific speed. And I knew, and everyone who’d tried to teach me shorthand knew, that the 40 words per minute I could do when I was at the absolute top of my form was nowhere near the 100 words per minute that every single job, and every single secretarial agency, seemed to be looking for. I could rattle along on the typewriter at a pretty whizzy pace, but not even my nearest and dearest would pay me good money to do any sort of shorthand dictation for them.
“Oh,” said Ann. “Oh, I see. So why didn’t you come back here
straight away? I mean, your mother and Martin have got masses of room.”
This was true, of course. I could have come back to Chatton straightaway. There was plenty of space at The Grange now Martin’s parents had moved out to the lodge at the end of the drive, and it wasn’t as if Mummy and Martin didn’t want me and Black Boy, because they did. It was me. I’d got used to being able to pay my own bills, and look after Black Boy and myself with my own money, and I liked it. My room may have been small and freezing in winter, but it was my room, and I’d paid for it myself with the sweat of my brow and my honest toil and I’d kept myself and Black Boy going without having to ask Mummy for anything.
I did still have a little money from my last book, of course. But the man who wrote in an article I’d read in one of the literary supplements that “you could have sold Richard III if you had given it the right wrapper and called it A Pony for Richard,” was obviously thinking of some golden time when pony books had sold well, because my publishers were making dark mutterings about falling sales and things not being the way they were when it came to pony books.
And now my last typing job had come to an end, and I hadn’t had any work for weeks. My next royalty cheque wouldn’t arrive until January, and I simply didn’t have enough to get by. While I was in London, I still had to pay my landlady for my poky little room and the shared bathroom, I still had to eat, and more importantly, I had to pay Black Boy’s livery at the Clifton Mews stables off Park Lane.
And that was why I was back in Chatton and back at Pool Cottage. Because I couldn’t do any of those things on my own anymore.
I didn’t feel that I could explain all this to Ann as it would make me feel even more mere that I felt already, so I mumbled something about wanting to be independent.
Ann frowned. “I see what you mean. I’m sure that we can find you something at the stables. Now that Robin’s built the cross country course we’ve had quite a few more adult riders and we need someone to take out a few rides.”
“That’s really kind of you,” I said, “but doesn’t Wendy do that sort of thing?”
Ann shifted in her seat. “Yes,” she said, “but not that often now that her father’s better and they’ve enlarged the dairy herd.“
“Thank you,” I said, “It’s kind of you. And it’s better than nothing.”
“Well, look,” said Ann, getting up. “I’d better go now because I’ve got a ride at 10 o’ clock. But Robin said to come up for supper. If you’re there, I can be there too as it’ll stop Mummy throwing a fit at me being there on my own with only wicked Lothario Robin.”
“I’d like that,” I said. “But before you go, just tell me quickly how the stables is going.”
“It’s going well, I think,” said Ann. “We had a bit of a wobble at first when Mrs Darcy retired and Robin took over and I was still at that wretched secretarial college in London. You know what people can be like – they can take time to get used to someone new.
And then when I finished and came down to help Robin there was a lot of gossip about how I shouldn’t be working there alone with him. Mind you, I think a lot of that was down to Mummy, because she has a complete thing about Robin, and she seems to spend all of her time plotting with Susan Pyke’s mother to throw me and Susan’s wretched brother together. But once people realised that Robin and I weren’t living in a den of iniquity and hadn’t brought wild London ways down with us, they all calmed down a bit. Honestly, Jill, I can’t tell you how horrible I find people at times.
Anyway, I’d better go. Oh, before I do – I had an idea about something you could write. But it can wait until this evening.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks a lot,” as I waved Ann off. I stood watching her as she flung herself onto her bike.
“And get dressed!” she yelled. “Are you going to spend all day in your dressing gown?” And off she hared down the road, in a rush to do something useful.
It was amazing how so many other people had ideas for books, when I had absolutely none. But then I have noticed in life that when people find out you have written a book, ten to one they will tell you that they have the most marvellous idea for a book that they would have dashed off before now if only it weren’t for their most frantically busy life. And of course, it’s easy enough for me, writing something like a pony book which can take no time at all. If only they knew, I thought, with a hollow laugh.
I closed the front door behind me and walked round to the orchard. I was sure the horses wouldn’t mind me still being in my dressing gown, which was a solid and worthy tweedy one that my godmother had sent me last Christmas. It did have a tendency for the belt to come undone, so I tied it in a large and unlovely knot around my middle and set off for the orchard.
The moment they caught sight of me and my dressing gown the three-year-olds took off to the other side of the orchard, utterly horrified at this tweed-covered monster who had come into their midst. I sighed. They were obviously fine, but I thought I’d better get into some more conventional clothing before I went and checked them over in case they keeled over and expired at being approached by the terrible vision that was me. Silvio was made of sterner stuff. He came and snuffled in my pockets as I checked the ponies’ water trough.
Well, I could always go out for a ride, I thought, as I stood there scratching Silvio at the base of his mane. It was dreadfully ironic that when I was still at school I simply didn’t have enough time to do all the things I wanted to do, and the idea of having all day, every day just to ride seemed like a dream of utter bliss. And now here I was, with all day every day stretching before me, and all I felt about the idea of riding was a shattering sense of guilt. Because I really ought to be doing something useful about getting a job, or writing, and not being out enjoying myself.
Sighing, I trudged over to the tack room and found a halter, sighed again and went back to the orchard to fetch Silvio. I tied him up outside the looseboxes, and went to rummage in the tack room for my grooming kit, which seemed to have disappeared since I’d used it last. I eventually found it, sitting in a bucket.
Silvio was one of those very easy ponies, to groom, as he drifted off into a doze, like Black Boy, without trying to take a crafty nip out of you, as Rapide would do if he got the chance. I was working on some of his stable stains with the body brush, which is always harder work than you think it will be, but worth doing because if you do it for long enough it’s amazing what you can brush out. I was getting quite hot in my tweed, and I was wondering whether I could risk taking it off altogether and grooming in my pyjamas, when I heard steps coming across to the loosebox.
It was James Bush.
I had hoped that the next time I saw James that it would have been as a dashing woman clearing everything at the Grade C at Chatton Show.
“Hello Jill,” he said, staring at me. “What is that thing round your middle?”
I looked down at the huge knot, which had acquired a coating of grey pony hair and an attractive dash of pony slobber.
“Hello James,” I said. “It’s a knot. It keeps my dressing gown on.”
“If you say so,” said James. “And who’s this?”
“It’s Silvio,” I said. “I’ve borrowed him from Martin. And the three-year-olds to keep him company.”
“Nice sorts,” said James, as he wandered over to the orchard fence. The three-year-olds, in that lowering way that horses often have, had decided that James had come here to save them from the mad woman in her dressing gown, and were mobbing him at the gates.
“I heard you were back,” said James.
“Yes,” I said. “Lost my job.”
“Yes, I heard that too,” said James. “Tough.”
“It is,” I said. And with that, the conversation faltered to a stop. It is ironic that when someone turns up who you’d really like to see that you are desperate for them to go so that you can go and turn yourself into something that looks vaguely human, but I have often noticed that life is like that.
“Well,” I said, “I’m going to go and get dressed and then go for a ride.” I untied Silvio, and turned him into the loosebox. The three-year-olds took one look at me now the comforting presence of Silvio had been removed and fled.
James made a noise that I hoped was not someone suppressing a laugh. He cleared his throat and said, “Perhaps we can go for a ride together at some point?”
“Oh,” I said. “It’d be lovely to see Rapide again.” Which was not what I meant to say at all, because after all, who wants to think they’re playing second fiddle to a pony? But I’d said it now. And it would be lovely to see Rapide again.
James frowned. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I suppose it would. I’ll give you a ring, shall I?” He stood there, looking at me with a rather puzzled expression.
“Yes, do,” I said. “I really do need to get on.”
“Of course,” said James, who was obviously wondering what I as someone with no job, actually had to get on with, but was too polite to say. He turned and went out through the gate, and I set off down the path to the cottage. The three-year-olds, who had crept nearer the gate while James and I had been talking, snorted in horror and careered off again. James waved and set off down the road, and I went in, catching a glance of myself in the hall mirror as I went. I really couldn’t blame the three-year-olds, I thought. I’d have careered off too if I’d caught sight of myself.