‘There’s many a slip between cup and lip’ is one of the truest sayings. Once James agreed to a new home for Bruce instead of euthanasia, he offered the horse to everyone, and a friend of Rosanna’s accepted the offer. Bill Blackwood was livid and I was heartbroken, not so much at not having him myself, but at where he was going. Rosanna’s friend had ridden as a child. She had a weekend cottage with a large field and a bucolic vision of Bruce grazing happily for the rest of his days. In order to give Bruce’s tendon the best chance of healing, James generously paid for debridement surgery to remove injured and scarred tissue, followed by post-op care with Bill. That this fine horse was sentenced to life as a solitary field ornament left me numb, my belief in Divine Intervention crumbled. I needn’t have worried.
Bruce loved all the unaccustomed grass. He loved being able to walk through flimsy fences to the organic veg plot and fruit bushes and he particularly loved the apple orchard, until the bucolic dream became spasmodic colic and a neighbour called the vet. Rosanna’s friend’s husband was livid at her stupidity (and the £200 vet bill) and Bruce arrived back at Bill’s six weeks later, a lot fatter than when he left. James wanted rid of him quickly and Bill phoned me.
“Horse is back. If you still want him, act fast.”
Mark and I acted fast. I phoned the livery yard I’d previously arranged for Bruce but they’d filled the vacancy. I phoned the stables where I’d kept Teddy but they were full, as were five other local DIY yards. There was room for him at a farm within walking distance of home, but the stable was for a small pony and he wouldn’t have got through the doorway with his hips intact! I found two lovely places but they only accepted horses at full livery; apart from wanting to care for my horse, I couldn’t afford the cost. Anxiety set in followed by frustration. There are lots of private homes near us that keep horses, so I delivered a printed a letter to them all asking if they had room for one more, but nobody replied. I put cards in shop windows and a strange man contacted me, saying he had a chicken shed at the end of his garden, and he wouldn’t want payment if I stayed as well. It was doubtful Bruce would fit in a chicken shed.
On Friday afternoon I answered my phone to a woman who spoke with a cut glass accent. “Hello, I’m standing outside the Post Office reading your card regarding stabling. I’ve just moved from London to Dorset and my new house has two brand new stables and two acres. Might that suit your requirements?”
“It definitely might.” I replied, writing down her address. With indecent haste Mark and I went to view, and it was perfect. Completely and utterly perfect, and she was happy for me to sub-let the other stable so Bruce had company. Then she told us the monthly rent, and I thought she was joking but she wasn’t. Feeling this dream slipping away, I tactfully said prices in Dorset were a lot lower than London, and she must’ve seen my disappointment because she dropped five pounds a month, but her expectations were completely unrealistic. She thanked me for my time and we left. The stables remained empty for two years, then she sold the house and they were converted into a granny annexe.
On Saturday, one of the livery yard owners phoned. “Hi, Lou here, have you found a stable yet?” I recounted a short history of my failures and Lou commiserated.
“I might be able to help. I’ve just spoken to my old friend Sheel, she’s thinking about renting her spare stable. D’ya want her number?”
“Text her then. She wants someone responsible who knows what they’re doing, I said you fitted the bill. Her stables are a bit out the back of beyond, a bit basic, but go see for yourself.”
“Thanks Lou, really appreciated.” I texted Sheel immediately and the answer pinged back within five minutes, with a time to visit and directions.
Old Barrow Farm was a ten-minute drive from home, along pitted gravel tracks between massive arable fields at the back of Badbury Rings, an ancient Iron Age hill fort. Prehistoric tumuli scattered the fields, rising from the flat cultivated soil in unkempt mounds of scrub and trees, a permanent reminder of those who laid buried under this vast expanse of sky. Mark and I had cycled across these tracks, and both agreed the boundless space had an indescribably eerie atmosphere.
I parked at the farm and opened the truck door. Sheel walked out to meet me and with split-second recognition, we both laughed with joy. “Elaine, it’s YOU!” she gasped, hugging my waist.
“Sheila, it’s YOU!!” I shouted in disbelief, returning the hug.
Sheila was a no-nonsense old school horsewoman. Handsome features, with steel grey hair swept into a precisely pinned bun (I’d never seen her hair styled any other way) and a complexion that defied fifty years spent outdoors. We shared a birthday and she was exactly ten years older than me. We’d been friends since the 1970s when she bought my pony Jimmy for her riding school. We had kept in touch until 2000 when she closed the riding school and moved; I don’t know whether she lost my address or me hers. We both started talking at once, then both became tongue-tied, and still shaking our heads in disbelief she showed me around. Used for storing machinery, the near-derelict farm had a row of four stables housed in an old building, with a wide walkway at the front and a bay at the far end for feed and hay storage. Outside were three turn-out paddocks with a high beech hedge at the bottom forming a solid windbreak, a small well-drained area I could use to ride, and a neatly squared-off muckheap. Sheila owned a broodmare and two younger horses, and lived in a caravan behind the barn. The farm was more ramshackle and a lot more remote than I’d envisaged, but I knew we’d be safe and comfortable with Sheila, and a quiet atmosphere was what Bruce needed. The arrangement was DIY Livery but Sheila was happy to do Bruce for me at any time, and gave me a handwritten price-list of services; a business footing makes things simpler even between old friends. We shook hands and hugged again. We had found our home.
On Wednesday, Midsummers Eve 2009 Bruce came to me. The big old cattletruck grated to a halt, Bill Blackwood jumped out of the cab, opened the rear ramp and Bruce clattered stiffly down the metal slope. The black horse stood, looked at his new surroundings and let out a long sigh. Bill echoed the sigh, turned his shoulders, and without any pressure on the leadrope Bruce followed him into the stable, which Mark had cleaned and given a fresh coat of white paint. Bill stood the horse to face him and unbuckled the headcolllar. I was waiting outside the door and could’ve sworn I heard Bill whisper “Safe now. Don’t be frightened,” but they were such unlikely words for him I must’ve misheard. Bill handed me the headcollar, walked back to the lorry and pulled out a patched turnout rug and a bridle in one hand, and Bruce’s Irish Horse Passport in the other, together with a bundle of vet reports tied with baler twine.
“Useful?” he said.
“Very,” I replied with a grin, picking up the bottle of wine I had for him, and an envelope with a thankyou card and money for diesel. We walked towards eachother bearing our gifts like one of those weird East-West spy swaps where neither party wants to act first, and we laughed awkwardly until he put the rug on the ground, I handed him the bottle in his free hand, he gave me the bridle and I gave him the card. I wanted to hug him but I don’t think he’s a huggy person, so we tried to shake hands which meant juggling the gifts about again until we touched fingertips.
“Thankyou Bill, for everything” I said, feeling a bit overwhelmed.
“Nice horse,” he said gruffly. “He’ll be fine for you.” He looked at me and nodded, and his eyes were twinklier than I’d noticed before. He got back into the lorry, crashed through the gears and drove off.
“Dear Bill,” said the card, which had a cartoon of a sleeping horse dreaming of carrots, and the caption ‘I like doing nothing.’ “It was really kind of you to deliver Bruce, here’s money for diesel. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for him, and all your help persuading James, which I know caused you a lot of work. Thankyou so much. I’ve loved riding your horses and I’ve learnt a lot. If I can ever return the favour please ask. Kindest wishes, Elaine.” I had toyed with the idea of a x but decided not.
The mission was complete. Bruce was here in the stable fate had found for him, and my overwhelming feeling was relief (reality and panic would follow in due course). He was lame on his left hind leg, both hocks were stiff with arthritic changes (spavins and thoroughpins) and his dodgy hip affected how he bore his weight. Euthanasia was still possible if the tendon didn’t heal and he was in pain, but his ‘rescue’ wasn’t a re-run of Black Beauty and he wasn’t emaciated or cowering in a corner. It wasn’t until I got a real sense of his distress that I even considered the word rescue, and then hastily un-considered it because labelling him a rescue-case is as bad as calling me a cancer sufferer.
It was eight o’clock when I settled Bruce with lots of hay and Sheila’s broodmare stabled alongside for company. Through the freshly cleaned stable window he could see her two young horses grazing in their field. I left him for the night and drove home, lost in thought and the beautiful skyscape. Mark handed me a glass of wine as I walked through the back door.
“How did it go?” he asked excitedly.
“It went good. He looks bigger than I remember. I can’t believe I’ve got him after everything. Bill found me a rug and a bridle, and here’s his vet reports.” I put the bundle of papers on the kitchen table and sank down on a chair, drained of energy. “Sheila said she’d check him before she went to bed.”
“You look exhausted,” said Mark. “Go have a bath. Egg and chips for tea, I’ll make a start.”
I love my husband. I love egg and chips.
As I soaked in the bath I fretted about Bruce. Would he settle, would he come sound, had I taken on too much, was he worried in his new surroundings? The answer to everything was yes. I was so concerned about getting him but I had no idea if I was capable of riding him. He’d tanked off across open ground the only time Bill let me exercise him, and we’d spent ages going round in circles until he slowed down. How had I conveniently forgotten that episode? Mark came in with wine to top-up my glass and a magazine to read. I was going to tell him what had happened, but changed my mind.
“Here, read this,” he said, handing me a Spirit & Destiny magazine and pouring the wine. “Sara gave me some magazines for you when I saw her this-morning. It’s a bit airy-fairy but it’ll take your mind off things. Food in twenty minutes.”
As I said, I love my husband. I opened the magazine and skimmed the pages until an article about angels caught my interest. Different angels do different jobs, and they like being asked for help. Archangel Michael is the biblical Angel of Protection and the writer gave a simple invocation to harness Michael’s great protective power. I read the words, thought of Bruce, read the words again, decided I had nothing to lose and spoke the invocation. Just to be safe I said it twice.
The next morning Bruce had his head over the stable door watching Sheila groom the mare, the sound of his flapping lips keeping time with the brush, and echoing around the high roof beams. His churned stable showed he’d spent the night pacing to-and-fro. Sheila and I exchanged hellos, and I remembered she’s not a morning person so I didn’t chat. I looked at my horse and a wave of excitement ran through my body. My horse! Sheila looked up and caught my eye and we grinned at eachother in companionable silence. As I slipped Bruce’s headcollar over his nose he grabbed the buckle and chewed it nervously, then held it in his teeth. I wrestled it out followed by the leadrope which was also in his mouth, and led him outside. He walked politely, stood to open the field gate, turned and faced me and as I undid his headcollar he stood up on his hind legs, spun round and galloped off bucking and squealing. Taken completely unawares I ducked away from his front foot waving in my face, stumbled backwards and fell over. Not a good start. I brushed myself off, retrieved the headcollar from where it had fallen and went back to the stable. I hoped Sheila hadn’t seen my first attempt at knowing what I’m doing, but luckily she’d gone into her caravan for breakfast.
The stable building was quiet, just the sound of birdsong and the hum of a distant tractor filtered through the open doorway. I looked out Bruce’s window, watching him graze in his own paddock while the neighbouring horses stood at the fence waiting to speak. I began mucking, thinking through the week’s rollercoaster events that had led me and a horse that I thought was lost, to find an old friend. When everything was clean and swept I re-laid the shavings bed, and lifted the water bucket from the corner of the stable. On the floor behind the bucket were two white feathers. I bent down to look more closely, raised the edge of the rubber mat to check underneath, and ran my hands along the wall in case they’d fallen from the brickwork. Then I wrapped them carefully in a tissue and put them in my pocket. So Archangel Michael had heard after all. Maybe things were going to be okay.