My friend Tessa and I were having an on-line discussion about cake, as you do. She had just finished the mammoth task of baking (and was partway through the delicious task of eating) a Ten Layer Russian Burnt Honey Cake, with frosted layers of condensed milk and whipped cream topped with burnt caramel crumbs. For someone with a bakery-tooth like me, the photo of it was pure straight-from-the-oven porn.
Tessa was saying how lockdown led her to cake-making adventures, which ranged from buying miniature Bundt tins, to baking the ten layers of sweet-tooth bliss, and then inviting far-flung family and friends (some flung as far away as heaven), to assemble for taste testing. I love the idea of wishfully-thought guests having an imaginary kitchen tea party.
All this mouth-watering talk made me evaluate my own bake-my-way-out-of-a-crisis default setting, because when dire straits loom, I stock the freezer. Chocolate orange cake and banana bread, cheese scones, marmalade loaf and jam roly-poly. Knowing comforting fare is lurking among the frozen peas is sustenance in itself. When we got married I baked my wedding cake, and then I baked my wedding reception, with scones and clotted cream and jam, and enough cake to feed an army. Dainty canapes are SO not me. With all the emotion my wedding brought, following a recipe in the kitchen became my ten-step programme to calm. I regained my composure with the rhythmic ritual of beating air into eggs and sifting my flour.
Maybe it’s a Jewish thing, or maybe it’s just a woman thing untainted by race, but at the first sniff of crisis I head to the kitchen. Lockdown became bakedown, chemotherapy became cookotherapy and recuperation became recookeration. When I left my first marriage I took my horse, my cats, my collection of Victorian photograph albums and some (very mumsy) clothes that I never wore again. I later snuck back when I knew the house was empty and retrieved my baking tins. As far as I could recall, in fifteen years of marriage my then-husband had never baked a thing, but being pan-less left him distraught. More distraught than being wife-less. Another transgression to add to my unreasonable behaviour. And adultery. And cancer.
Cooking is for sharing, but baking is for giving. I once spent a pleasant hour with the psychotherapist exploring why I rarely bake for myself, and at the next session I took her a lemon drizzle cake. Cake currency is like that, it’s both a Please and a Thankyou, but most often it’s a Just Because. Baking a cake is never a chore, just like eating one is never unpleasant, because homemade cake has equal parts flour eggs sugar and fat, but most part love; it’s the love that gives them their rise, and sometimes their fall, but most of all their ability to please.
My kitchen is not gadgety, some would say it’s positively archaic. My pride-and-joy is an original seventies orange Kenwood mixer which belonged to the mother of a dear friend, and was an overwhelmingly generous birthday gift. The kitchen has a reclaimed white stone butler sink, floor-to-ceiling dresser which is original to the 1879 house, a scrub-top pine table bought for £10 in a junk shop in 1978, and an oil-fired Rayburn range cooker, which is an Aga’s poor relation. I have the joy of a walk-in larder with enough room for the fridge-freezer and microwave, and shelves to store drinking glasses and Tupperware. My kitchen doubles as craft space, sewing space, office space and cat refuge. It’s also provided warm refuge for poorly hens who needed a little TLC.
Despite the words in the manufacturer’s cookbook, the Rayburn does limit cake baking to more robust confections. It excels at puddings tarts and pies, fruit cakes and cookies are divine, but Swiss roll and light sponge cakes have a pudding-y demeanour which you either learn to love or stop baking them. The warming oven is perfect for overnight meringues. Macarons, and anything with a hint of patisserie are too precise for the rather pedestrian temperature gauge, and a southwesterly wind blowing down the chimney damps-down proceedings entirely.
My baking repertoire consists of Mark’s favourites, and childhood memories- not so much things my mother made, because she hated baking anything apart from flourless Plava cake at Passover, and Baked Alaska for a special dessert, but reminiscences of the shakily-iced efforts I conjured up in our blue-and-white kitchen with pet dogs Danny and Lulu sleeping under the table. Chocolate fairy cakes sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands, and buttercream filled butterfly cakes topped with pink jelly-tots. That kitchen had a walk-in larder too, and a proper Aga cooker. I loved Domestic Science classes at school, and still make pastry the way Mrs. Staunton taught us. I’ve never dared to see what happens if you flour the pastry instead of the board, it would be committing a cardinal sin.
I often dream of the gateaux I would create, and the things I could do with tempered chocolate if I had more workspace, or an oven that hadn’t been fitted without first levelling the floor; leaning cakes are my speciality. But it’s not eye-candy I’m after, it’s the comfort of a loving mouthful. Of giving something, feeding someone with the added gift of love. Although I have to confess, baking a ten-layer version of that gift is definitely food for thought . . .
P.S. who would you invite for your imaginary cake taste-testing party?
‘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.
Do we write blogs for ourselves or our readers? Are blogs a way of legitimising thoughts in full view of the world while kidding ourselves we’re Very Private People, or are we secret divas playing to an audience, giving readers what we think they want?
Previously I had a business blog. It was a great selling tool to showcase Etsy and Ebay wares. I curated perfect posts of my home and surrounding countryside accessorised by vintage florals and chippy paintwork, with no mention of real life to spoil the ambient dream. It was idyllic, I would like to have lived there myself.
This blog was born from a necessity for discipline. I’ve been writing ever since I learned how, but it wasn’t until I took a writing course with Anna Blake that the benefits of editing-with-a-chainsaw were explained. Using one word instead of five made me think about each sentence, and the impact was impressive. I wanted to write more but Busy is my middle name and there was never time to do something I considered ‘doing nothing’. Having cancer, having a horse and home and running a business were all time-consuming and I also like to sleep, so where could writing fit?
Steroids provided the answer. Perhaps a tad extreme but the Universe works in strange ways. Along with chemotherapy treatment I had high-dose steroids and being awake at 4 a.m. was the norm. With a quiet house and Mark asleep, I had precious time to I escape into words, silently venting thoughts on the laptop keys. The more I wrote, the more I wrote, and the more I wrote the clearer my thoughts became. When I had a chemo break I slept through 4a.m and got busy again, because I didn’t want to face my thoughts. I couldn’t process the words Incurable Diagnosis, let alone commit them to paper.
Panacea: Noun. A solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases.
The Million Dollar Question: If my panacea was within reach, why wasn’t I reaching for it?
The Cheap-Seats Answer: Because it would unlock a Pandora’s Box of emotions I didn’t want to face.
Anna nagged me to write, and set little challenges she didn’t think I knew were challenges but yes, emails also count as writing. Then I opened a new Word document; the cathartic stuff came first and it wasn’t pretty. The self-pity was downright ugly and the dark humour was bitter and very, very dark. I used the chainsaw as a weapon against the words I’d written, and most of them lay headless in the recycle bin. I emptied the bin. I emptied myself. I wrote myself empty.
Nature abhors a void. Once I’d trashed the vehemence and spite I felt like I’d had a re-boot, and the words that fell out of my fingers surprised no-one more than me. Writing became important but I needed a discipline because I work best to a deadline. One morning, the answer came with the words Horse Husband and Cancer, and once you have a title, you have a task. The first hurdle was ‘coming out’ as a cancerous person, the second hurdle was building a WordPress site. The latter took more determination than I knew I had.
Why do we read blogs? Because we’re nosey, or connect with the writer, or find security in someone else’s thoughts? Does misery love company, or is it solidarity with like-minded folk? Do a group of blogging introverts create one outrovert, a tribe that’s greater than the individuals? Or do we just like what certain bloggers write.
Recently I wrote three posts about my horse Bruce. They were my first foray into semi-fiction, a completely indulgent experiment of true facts and modified characters. Many of my readers aren’t horsey, so apologies if they’re not what you signed-up for. I was more surprised than anyone how well the stories read, but the greater surprise was how much I enjoyed writing them; I discovered a confidence in storytelling that was previously missing. Creating something fresh is immensely exciting, whereas translating thoughts to paper can be quite draining.
So where is this blog going? I’m on a flow writing Bruce’s story interwoven with my own, and if it looks good I’ll publish what I’ve written so far. Meanwhile I’ll continue to share when the real world intervenes or my soap-box beckons; this blog is going to go where it wants. I could pull rank and say “It’s my blog” but actually, it’s OUR blog because you’re all part of it. In answer to my first question, by writing for myself I found you, and by writing for you I found myself. Neat huh.
James and his new wife married in late February. A week later they drove from London to Dorset, ready for hunting on Saturday. Rosanna was older than James and disguised it well. Tall and willowy with expensively coloured blonde hair and enough charm to make sure she got what she wanted, she liked to have attention and didn’t mind being a work widow, but she had no experience of horses or hunting, and needed to assess her rival.
Saturday morning, the groom overslept. She cussed as she opened her eyes and again as she looked at the clock. She had bought a bottle of good wine to leave at the house as a wedding present for James, but changed her mind and drank it herself. Hopelessly hungover, she threw on clothes and boots, threw up, made strong black coffee and stumbled out to the stable. The fog was thick and the cold air sobered her quicker than coffee as she began her tasks on auto-pilot. She saved time by not giving Bruce his breakfast, justified it by skipping her own, and decided to muck-out when she got back from driving Bruce to the meet. She tied Bruce up on a short rope and flicked the grooming brush over his clipped coat, luckily he’d stayed clean under his rugs. His hogged mane didn’t need attention and she plaited his tail into a mud-knot, securing it with rubber bands instead of sewn stitches and spraying hairspray to flatten the strands she’d missed. She splashed hoof oil on each foot and fetched his clean tack from the saddle room. He wouldn’t win any prizes for turn-out, but she hoped no-one would notice in the fog. She buckled a travel rug over the top of his saddle and left him tied while she hitched-up the Landrover and trailer.
It took six attempts to align the towbar correctly to the trailer, and she cussed it wasn’t left ready-hitched last night. Bruce always loaded perfectly, but this morning’s missed breakfast upset his routine and he danced sideways and backward instead of walking up the ramp. The lights were on at the house and she wanted to get away before James or Rosanna came out; she needed to have Bruce ready at the meet for when James arrived. She got rough, and Bruce was sweating profusely by the time he loaded. Quickly throwing some hay over the stable door for her own horse, she checked her watch jumped into the driver’s seat and set off.
Dark wet trees overhung the narrow lane leading to the main road and visibility was scarily poor. She thought she hit something in the road as Bruce shifted his weight and the trailer wheels lifted on one side. Maybe an animal, or perhaps the grass bank which she couldn’t see, but she didn’t have time to check. The car crawled forwards in the fog until suddenly the road junction sign appeared out of the gloom, and she had to brake quickly to turn right. She checked her watch again as she turned onto the main road, and as she her swore at the lateness, the noise of screeching brakes and breaking glass tore through the foggy silence. The Landrover spun up the far bank, as the car she hadn’t seen hit the trailer side-on, crushing the wheels into the body and leaving it wrecked and overturned in the centre of the road. The airbags inflated and everything fell silent again. In the other car the driver was unconscious, and inside the trailer, Bruce lay trapped under the crushed breast bar. With a deep sigh, and a flap of his lips he lay still because it was impossible to struggle in his wrecked partition. No hunting today.
After a night in hospital with concussion, the groom was arrested for dangerous drunken driving and James dismissed her immediately. The car driver, airlifted to a specialist spinal unit had life changing injuries, and Bruce spent a week in veterinary hospital with cuts and a fractured pelvis. The nurses adored him and their care did much to help him heal; the prognosis was good with a full recovery expected after three months box-rest and a slow return to work. James moved him to a livery yard to recuperate, and Bruce came back into work in June ready for autumn hunting in September. Rosanna decided, with more pluck than anyone expected, that ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ and bought everything one person could need to ride a horse. She took a crash-course of riding lessons in London, determined to ride Bruce and join her husband hunting.
Bill Blackwood spent endless hours hill-working Bruce to get him as fit as possible for the upcoming season, making no allowances for his new rider’s lack of ability. By the time Rosanna’s September hunting debut arrived the horse was sound and raring to go but Rosanna was not; reality was larger than resolve. She needed a hipflask of brandy before she even got on the horse and nervously chain-smoked through her first early morning meet. As hounds moved off, Bruce broke into a slow trot and she grabbed his reins with hands clenched into iron fists. Bruce was honest enough to follow the horses in front over the first few fences as his rider had her eyes clamped shut, and hipflasks sloshed in every pocket as she rose from the saddle and landed back with a sickening jolt. London riding school lessons and gentle hacks in Richmond Park hadn’t quite prepared her for the hunting field, and riding school horses behaved differently to a fresh, super-fit cob. After an hour’s riding she was exhausted, couldn’t face crossing the stream ahead and really wanted to go home. She didn’t like hunting or horses, and if this was a quiet meet she didn’t want to experience a fast one. Her husband had disappeared to join his friends at the front, and no-one was paying her any attention. Needing to pee and seeing she was alone, she gratefully slipped from the saddle and squatted behind a tree, holding Bruce, taking a gulp of brandy from the flask and lighting a cigarette at the same time. As she hastily tucked her shirt back in to her expensively tailored breeches, two riders trotted past and stopped to ask if she was ok.
“Yah fine, I just don’t wanna jump that stream”
“Oh follow us, there’s a concrete bridge ahead. We never jump anything unless we have too!”
Hooking the reins over her arm and lighting one cigarette from the other as she answered her mobile phone, Rosanna walked behind the girls across the narrow bridge, leading Bruce. With no side supports and having made the crossing many times before, the girls kept their horses to the centre and walked on ahead. Engrossed in her phone conversation, Rosanna paid no heed to Bruce as he jogged sideways behind her, anxious to stay in sight of the other horses. Rosanna was laughing at the drama of her best friend’s divorce as Bruce slipped off the edge of the bridge into the watery ditch.
In 2004 my wonderful horse Teddy died. My mum died, and I had a cancer recurrence. After thirty-five years I decided to give up horse-owning but still wanted to ride, and a mutual friend put me in touch with Bill Blackwood. Bill’s stableyard, situated at the back of an industrial estate consisted of an open-fronted tractor shed and haybarn facing eachother, with broken hardstanding between. The twelve looseboxes were roughly built inside with pallets and concrete blocks, mostly held together with baler twine. Bill rarely had time for sweeping or the niceties of appearance, in fact he barely had time for speaking, but his horse knowledge was legendary, his horses at peak fitness, and rumour said he accepted bribes when clients wanted him to take a horse, although if that was true it was difficult to see where he spent the money. Bill wanted help exercising horses, and thought I might be capable of doing the tedious hill walking. I liked Bill, he was fair but firm, and I realise now he was taciturn because he was entirely focused on the horse, and horses thrive on a quiet mind and actions. I became expert at riding one horse while leading two, and the hours I spent in the saddle on the Dorset hills was a profound way to process grief. I rode Bill’s horses for the next two years.
In 2008 the phone rang. “Bill here, you busy?”
“Not especially” I replied, although I was immersed in internet selling.
“Need some help. You on?”
I looked at the boxes of vintage fabrics piled high in the sitting room, waiting to be photographed and listed on Etsy. I looked at the sold stock, waiting to be laundered and packaged. I’m proudly conscientious, but riding won. “Yup, I’ll help. See you tomorrow.”
To say I fell in love with Bruce the moment I saw his handsome head would be a major understatement. Our eyes met across the stable door and no other introduction was needed. I lifted a hand to touch his neck, he swayed on his heavily bandaged legs, flapped his lips together and breathed on my cheek.
“No time for gawking” said Bill standing behind me. “Horses to do.”
“Oh, hi Bill” I replied pointedly. “How are you?”
His ironic smile creased the corner of a bottom lip. “Horses ready, I’ll come with, see you’re still on the job.”
As our cavalcade of six clattered out of the yard and along the forest track, I organised my reins and lead-lines and settled in the saddle. “Tell me about the cob” I said to Bill.
“Owner got more money than sense” he spat the words. “Perfect good hunter, ruined. Came last year as vet rehab, this year they stick a novice woman on ‘im. Fell off a bridge. Horse not woman. Not right in the head.”
“The woman or the horse?”
“Skin, maybe bone chip, fire brigade keep pulling him out of accidents, they’ll have ‘im as a mascot.” Bill laughed at his own joke. “Won’t settle. Nice horse. Patch him up, he’ll go back out.” Bill sat back and didn’t speak again.
True to his word, Bill patched-up Bruce’s wounds and he resumed weekly hunting. I looked forward to seeing him on the days I rode. I can’t explain what pulled me towards him because he bore no similarity to Teddy, my ‘horse-of-a-lifetime’. I wasn’t allowed to ride him and the only time I went into his stable to groom, I felt very intimidated by his incessant movements and sheer size- it was as if, shut-down and physically hurting, all the space around him filled with his machismo presence. Maybe girls just love to love a bad boy.
The Farmer’s Meet is a hunting tradition, where local farmers who allow hounds to cross their land are given a horse to hunt for the day. In his ninth hunting season Bruce was lent to a stout gentleman farmer (who laughingly told everyone he was wearing his wife’s breeches), and he rode the fifteen year old horse in a relaxed and unhurried way. He liked the black cob and simply wanted to enjoy a rare day on horseback. Apart from the relentless rain the day would have been unremarkable, had the farmer not chosen to jump a gate as an easier option to the high hedge on either side. Unfortunately the churned gateway was deeply poached, tearing a tendon in the cob’s back leg as he took off from the holding mud. Bruce’s ninth hunting season was his last.
“Why’s the vet out for Bruce?” I asked Bill when I next rode, nodding towards the stable.
“Done a tendon scan” he replied without lifting his eyes from cleaning tack. “Farmers Meet, last time out this season. Couldn’t keep him safe.” He threw the soapy sponge in the bucket of scummy water and walked out the tackroom.
“What’s happening with Bruce?” I asked Bill on my next visit, nodding towards the bandaged horse’s hind leg.
“Deep digital tendon tear. Won’t hunt again. Owner’s gonna write him off, too old, too crocked. Nice horse.”
“Whaddya mean write him off? They don’t need the insurance money do they?”
“Don’t need any money as far as I can see, just some horse sense.”
“I’ll have him.” I heard the words and turned around to see who spoke them. What idiot would say they wanted a troubled, lame, horse?
Bill was standing looking at me, I saw the corner of his lip quiver. “Yeah, thought you might. I’ll tell James.”
“You know I didn’t want to get another horse,” I said to Mark over dinner that night.
“Yes . . .”
“I’ve got one.”
“Yes . . .”
“You like big horses. Teddy was big.”
“This is different big.”
“It’ll make a change if he’s already lame instead of going lame.”
“I think we can get him sound.”
“Free. It’s me or a bullet.”
“Ah, he does need rescuing.”
“Do you mind?”
“Probably. What’s his name?”
Our lives were about to change, and I thought I was rescuing him.
Last week I wrote the beginning of Bruce’s story, weaving the facts I know into fiction. I felt elated and a tad overwhelmed when many of you asked for more, so I had a chat with Bruce. He seemed unconcerned with the past, and asked me to scratch the itchy spot on his shoulder that was bothering him now. It’s good to feel he’s let go of his past, and that shoulder scritches are what’s important.
The huge transporter truck carried a cargo of nine Irish horses, and the journey to England by road and sea was long. Loaded in order of geographical drop-off, Ned was flanked by a grey heavyweight cob also acquired by his new owner, who ran a classy hunter dealing yard in affluent Oxfordshire. They were loaded first and would be the last consignment delivered. A nervous young thoroughbred had trouble keeping his balance in the confined partition space and thrashed about with each rolling turn. Fretting at the distress, Ned was unable to relieve tension with teeth rasping, so he gently swayed from one foot to another. In the time it took to cross the Irish Sea he had taught himself another calming technique.
Two girl grooms wearing smart green sweatshirts with an entwined ‘FFK’ logo were waiting as the transporter drove through the ornate iron gates of Frank Fyford-Knox’s dealing yard. They quietly untied Ned and the grey horse, spoke some soft words between them, and led the horses down the ramp of the empty lorry. The horses blinked in the evening sunlight, bodies wobbling as their legs adjusted to terra firma, and the girls let them stand a moment to re-balance, before walking across the immaculate courtyard to a block of Victorian stables with hayloft and clock tower above. Timeworn cobbles formed an apron in front of the stables, swept clean without a wisp of hay to be seen. A Victorian water trough, overflowing with brightly coloured flowers was the only concession to frivolity in an otherwise mellow colour scheme. Frank Fyford-Knox personally sourced horses for money-rich-time-poor clients, and charged them handsomely for the privilege. His reputation was impeccable, his client list always full, and his staff of experienced grooms and younger working pupils provided the highest standards of turnout and professionalism. At the back of the farm there was a field for landing helicopters, and the elegant manor house dining hall hosted lavish lunches for prospective buyers.
The two new horses were led into large looseboxes where rubber-matted floors had deep beds of shavings. Plump haynets and automatic drinkers were in one corner and the back windows looked out to paddocks beyond. As their headcollars were removed, both horses sank to the ground grunting and rolling to relieve the stresses of their journey. Then, rising in unison and shaking vigorously, they walked to their water and drank deeply before tucking into nets of sweet haylage. The grooms left them alone to settle for the night. Early next morning they found the grey asleep and snoring, and the black cob, having re-decorated the walls of his box with rasping teeth marks, calmly shredding the front of his cotton stable rug into thin strips.
After two days grazing together in the paddock, Frank’s head lad rode both horses in the Olympic-sized arena and jumped them over some stout fences. He felt the black cob was a little sensitive in the mouth for a novice rider to hunt, but as opinions didn’t please his boss he kept his thoughts to himself. Later that week after trying their mounts and being wined and dined, the prospective owners paid the full asking prices subject to positive vetting. Both horses passed the vet tests with flying colours, and when the grey left the field to travel to his new home, Bruce continued grazing, viewing the expanse of grass he could now eat without interruption. It was a yard custom for the grooms to name their charges, and the black cob was now called Bruce. Next morning Bruce flapped his lips as he journeyed south to his new hunting home in Dorset. It was his fourth move and he was six years old.
Horses are flight animals, flight is their saviour. The only time horses run together en-masse is to escape predators or perceived danger. Humans have harnessed the power of this fastest-horse-doesn’t-get-eaten instinct into horse racing, and the other sport where horses all gallop together, flat-out in an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy is hunting.
The foxhunting season starts in August, with Autumn Hunting to train young hounds. Hunting proper begins with Opening Meet in late October, runs through to April the following year and most hunts meet twice weekly. In the melee of the hunting field experienced riders, novice riders, novice horses, novice riders who think they’re experienced, and horses and riders who are out of control all mix together. Jumps are usually taken faster than advisable, if a horse refuses or falls it can lead to a pile-up where horses get rammed from behind, and riders often come off. Going through gates can cause an impatient bottleneck of excitable horses, with predictable results. The aim of the Huntsman is to prevent hounds getting trampled and kicked, and allow them to do their job to the best of their ability. The Fieldmaster needs to control the followers, and they need to obey his directions. The hunt Master is responsible for everything, and you do not want to get in his way. Bruce hunted for nine seasons.
Hunting is now an emotive political debate which I’m not going to join. I hunted occasionally, the excitement is incomparable but the joy of watching hounds work is like learning a hidden language. One day, standing in the pouring rain with water dripping down my neck, my horse Teddy shifted against the weather as hounds cast in circles for an eternity, trying to pick up scent. From this soggy perspective I had an overwhelming feeling it wasn’t the right thing for me any longer; I didn’t feel morally comfortable, so I went home. I’m not anti-hunting, I support all the benefits of countryside conservancy, but I’m happier sitting on the fence.
When it came to money, Bruce’s new owner was a very clever man. The knowledge of a forensic accountant and the acumen of a venture capitalist, coupled with a titled heritage and connections forged within the highest level of public schooling, allowed him access to the pinnacle of world finance. He worked in the City as CEO of a bond-trading organisation, lived in a penthouse overlooking the river Thames, and drove an Aston Martin which earned him the nickname James Bond. His two passions were wives, and foxhunting. At weekends he would leave London and ride with some of the finest hunts in the country, mounted on been-there-done-everything hireling horses, and while he was in-between wives, he decided to buy his own hunter and a country house in Dorset. An exquisitely re-built historic home with its own stables and paddocks alongside a leisure complex fitted the bill, and he hired a live-in groom to keep his horse. No cost was spared on his new commodity.
Bruce is a stoic horse, he aims to please and does everything to the best of his ability. If you ask more, he does more. Because stoics don’t express discomfort doesn’t mean they don’t feel it, it just stays inside. His new owner was a thoughtless rider and wanted a stalwart horse who could ignore heavy hands jabbing at his sensitive mouth, and jump everything without guidance or balance. Bruce wanted a rider who gave him confidence to face what he didn’t know, and leadership to quell his ever-rising anxiety. The rider wasn’t going to change, and the horse had live with his circumstances. He did as he was asked time and time again, he got no thanks, no praise, and he didn’t know if he’d done right but he continued trying.
Six times a month Bruce went hunting. Impeccably turned out, his coat shone mirror-like, reflecting hours of attention and every muscle in his super-fit body was majestically defined. James sat at the back of his custom-made saddle, with immaculately booted legs stuck forward, one hand nonchalantly holding the buckle-end of his plaited leather reins while the other idly brought a cigarette to his lips. Anxious to please, Bruce stood stock still and watched which way hounds were working, to avoid being barged by other horses when everyone set off. Suddenly a searing pain shot through his mouth, up his cheeks and across his head as James, cigarette finished, hauled heavily on the reins. With a sharp dig of spurs he turned Bruce abruptly, bumping into the adjoining horse. Bruce threw his head as high as possible to avoid James using his mouth as a balancing prop, but the short martingale limited head movement, as did the tightly tied noseband binding his mouth firmly shut.
“Don’t do that” growled James, digging him again in the sides and then hauling back on the reins as Bruce shot forwards to the kick, and ran backwards against the pull. “I said don’t bloody mess me about!” James turned Bruce alongside the hedge where, with a hefty kick and wallop of the stick, he galloped the horse up and down the headland until the clear cry of hounds on a scent cut through the air, and Bruce joined the throng of jostling horses being ridden towards the first jump.
Initial energy and enthusiasm spent, Bruce knuckled down to the job in hand. The fence was a neatly laid hedge and he saw no wire. Trying to steady himself in order not to shoulder the horse in front, he pricked his ears and leapt, landing clear with head down to minimise the pain as James steadied his entire bodyweight against the reins, legs still stuck hopelessly forward. Other jumps followed, some higher, wider and trickier as the pack streamed westward across the open galloping countryside of the Blackmore Vale. At each jump the black cob had seconds to calculate his self-preservation, seconds to adjust his jumping style, prepare himself for the strain of a muddy take-off, stretch sinews and twist tired muscles away from dangerous drops and taut wire, and land galloping. The man precariously perched atop never shifted his inhibiting weight from the back of the saddle, other than when he unwittingly slumped to the side, as the tired horse scrambled over a huge blackthorn hedge which had almost floored the Master’s horse jumping in front. The day drew to a close and most riders loosened their horse’s girths and thanked their steeds for a job well done. James puffed on his cigarettes and Bruce thought about his feed.
Bruce was not well suited to hunting the fast country and steep hedges of the Vale. He was a sturdy conveyance for a man who could neither ride nor read the countryside, but he would never be in the first flush and still able to gallop at the end of the day. After enduring six season’s hunting with James, the strain of his master’s incompetence and the adrenaline of the field was tipping Bruce over the brink and he began refusing jumps. Things came to a head during a very fast hunt. Hounds found their scent immediately and as hedges came and went James clung on, but instead of letting Bruce sort himself out he decided to take charge at the fourth fence, and ploughed Bruce through the top of the hedge. The horse was lucky to stay upright but received a sharp kick for his endeavours, and when a horse sideswiped him at the next fence, he received punishment for that too. As he approached a post-and-rail fence, the horse in front of him fell, and with lightness of foot due entirely to Hilary Marson’s schooling, Bruce was able to turn quickly and avoid trampling floundering horse and fallen rider. He received a beating for his refusal and was re-faced at the rails, almost underneath the fence and too close to take-off. With the whip beating, the horse’s ears flicked back and forth and legs flailed helplessly in a vain attempt to go over the obstacle. In the end he crashed straight through the splintering wood.
They say that horses forgive anything, but as the colic spasms swept through his body that night and sweat on his dark coat stung the deep weals, Bruce couldn’t reach the bottomless pit of absolution. The flesh wounds eventually healed but his spirit never quite recovered. James bought a faster, bigger horse, a proven hunter costing thousands of pounds, who would gallop and jump in spite of the man on his back (that was the theory anyhow) and Bruce became second horse.
The groom had just two horses to look after, the stables were purpose-built to house every mod-con, she was was well paid and had beautiful living accommodation, but she had a troubled love-life which included falling in love with James. James, the consummate professional, never mixed business with pleasure; his rebuff was tactfully direct. Overwhelmed with jealousy when James married his third wife, the groom vented her pain on Bruce, who became frightened of her presence and developed a repertoire of displacement activities; shaking his head, rattling the door bolt, box walking, and frenzied lip flapping. He learnt the quickest way to diffuse a situation that might mean getting hit was playing the fool, and he retreated further into his own world. Bullying his field companion became his release as anxiety worsened, and they were quickly separated by an electric fence. For the first time in his life Bruce stopped eating and spent his turnout time pacing the fenceline, flapping his lips.
Like all ‘kept’ animals, horses are prisoners of their keeper’s personality. In order to feel safe a herd animal needs a dependable leader, we consider ourselves that leader but we’re not dependable; we have a miasma of drama and confusion which horses don’t understand, and they’re unable to read our inconsistent energy and act appropriately. Depending on how we’re feeling, we present them with a different version of ourselves each day, expecting them to bear the brunt of our impatience and anger, and then to heal it. We shout louder when they don’t respond to a command and use stronger training aids when they won’t bend to our will. When domination fails, we call them a Problem Horse. Sometimes they carry on trying, sometimes they simply shut down. In order to survive, Bruce shut down.
“Good people get cheated, just as good horses get ridden” ~ Chinese proverb
Through the records in his Irish Horse Passport, I traced Bruce’s early years in Ireland. A previous owner sent me this photo of him as a five-year old. With allowances for creative licence, I’ve dabbled with fiction and written his story:
Southern Ireland is famous for the craic, the Guinness and the rainfall but even by Irish standards, the spring of 1994 was unseasonably wet and cold. In a field where coastline meets countryside, and horizontal shards of rain drive straight from the sea, the foal was born on a moonless May night. He was a large foal and although his mother had produced many before him, this one came at great cost to her elderly body. She was too weak to lick her newborn let alone encourage him to suckle, and they lay together in the wet grass until daybreak, when the farmer found them on his early morning rounds.
Cussing that his inattention could cost him dearly, he hoisted the foal up onto his shoulders, and with the mare following, took them to a waiting barn where old straw was piled up high to make a warm bed. What the bed lacked in freshness it gained in depth. He twisted straw into a rope, and then into a pad and roughly massaged the mother and foal. As warmth returned to the mare’s body so did maternal instinct, and she began to wash her foal. The farmer sat back on his haunches in the straw to have a closer look at his ill-advised ‘investment’.
The standing foal wobbled and fell and wobbled again before finding his mother’s udder. He suckled noisily, his feather-duster of a tail bobbing up and down as he grabbed greedily for milk. As the farmer noted his handsome head with bright white star shining like a beacon, his soft pink muzzle surrounded by a web of spidery whiskers, huge shoulder sloping like an anvil, disproportionately large backend and four white socks, he mentally ran through the ancient adage “one white sock keep him all your life, two white socks give him to your wife, three white socks give him to your man, four white socks sell him if you can.” Well that was the plan; the mare’s value was in her foal fathered by a local Irish Draught stallion, and she had the graceful thoroughbred bloodlines to soften any plain traits passed down with the sire’s strength. Pleased with the look of this foal, the farmer almost allowed himself to pet the mare for her effort. He wasn’t a cruel man, just ignorant; he had bought the broodmare cheaply at the sales, wanting to make as much money as he could with as little effort as possible.
The mare and foal spent the rest of that summer alone in the boggy paddock. Without a helping human hand to provide extra food, the mother struggled to produce milk and neither of them thrived. The mother could barely look after herself let alone teach her foal valuable life lessons, and the foal hung back, absorbing her anxiety instead of pushing boundaries in what should have been a confidence-building new world full of wonder. He was always hungry.
As late autumn headed towards winter, the cold wind blew in from the coast and the old mare lost what little bodyweight remained. The farmer slipped a halter over her scraggy head, led her into the same barn (with the same bedding) and the foal followed at a cautious distance. Once the foal was inside the barn, the mare was quickly pulled away, the door boarded up and the foal left alone in the dark to scream and holler. The mare was led into the waiting lorry and taken to the hunt kennels. By lunchtime she was dead, leaving hounds complaining about their sparse rations. In her youth she’d won many races, and as she aged she’d bred many fine foals. She’d done her job and the circle of life was complete.
In the dark stable the foal begged for his mother, begged for comfort, begged for milk and vainly flapped his lips together . . . a habit that would last a lifetime.
After his traumatic weaning, the black colt retreated within himself, alone in the paddock for two long winters. When the farmer and a companion visited one morning, he registered little interest and continued grazing at a distance. Giving himself time to watch the farmer whom he dismissed with disdain, he noted that the companion trod with the ease of someone totally in charge, and spoke softly as if he had something interesting to say. The colt flicked one ear forward and momentarily stopped eating. He felt a primeval need for a safe leader surge through his body, rippling his thin coat and making him shiver with anticipation.
The man spoke to him so quietly, the colt had to move alongside to hear the tone, and he stood calmly as the quiet man ran the palm of his hand softly down his neck. It reminded him of how his mother had licked him, and he liked it. As he stood, he noticed the man’s coat smelt of nice things, and he liked that too. The dealer’s hands felt his legs, his rump and his ribcage, and the colt felt warm and secure.
Suddenly, the farmer waved his arms and shouted, and slapped the colt to make him run away. Bucking and kicking, he galloped to the far end of the field, wheeled round in a large arc and trotted back to the dealer man, who smiled and nodded, and breathed out slowly in answer to the colt’s anxious breath. A rapid exchange of words passed between the two men, concluding with a wad of notes being pressed into the farmer’s hand. The farmer brought the mare’s old halter from the barn, and before the colt knew what was happening, he was manhandled into a trailer and driven away from a life he never quite forgot.
After travelling for about an hour, the Landrover and trailer turned through metal gates and parked in a large well fenced field. The colt was loose inside the trailer, and the ramp was barely down before he fled its confines. The grass under his feet was long, lush and green. He put his head down and ate, great tufts of goodness torn nervously and devoured greedily. He continued eating as five field-mates cantered towards him, bucking leaping and running amok like a bunch of carefree hooligans. They squealed to a halt at the fenceline before wheeling round in unison, and trotted towards the shade of the trees. Four of the colts began to graze with apparent nonchalance but the fifth, a stocky bay who was large in stature if not in size, walked towards the black colt with the swagger of a born leader and barged straight into him.
The black colt’s teeth were momentarily separated from the grass. A challenge was annoying enough, but any interruption that stopped him eating was far more irksome. The two colts faced each other. The black colt had no confidence, no experience of other horses and no social skills but he had greed, and great strength comes with any kind of greed, so he promptly turned his back on the bay colt and let fly with both back legs powered by his disproportionately large backend. The bay reeled in indignation and pain as a flying hoof made contact with his shoulder, but came straight back to do battle. Refusing to be side-tracked, the black colt waved a back leg with threatening intent and flattened his ears flat against his head, and continued eating. The bay had no option but to rejoin his friends and no-one bothered the black colt again. He didn’t play, he didn’t enjoy mutual grooming, he didn’t help swish flies or gallop with the wind in his tail, didn’t bite and nip and test the pecking order or look for imaginary monsters. He just ate.
The black colt lived among but not ‘with’ the others for two more winters. They were all gelded together, returning to the field somewhat more subdued and the black felt most pain and took longest to recover. He remembered his mother and flapped his lips for comfort. All six boys had daily lessons learning how to walk in-hand, carry a saddle and wear a bridle. The girl grooms leant across their backs and they were long-reined with sacks tied to the saddle. The farrier trimmed their feet and they became accustomed to cars and tractors. The black horse was eager to please, very quick to learn and more compliant than his classmates and the girls loved him. He liked being petted and he liked to have someone in charge but most of all he liked to eat. He didn’t like being scolded or having his thin coat brushed with rough brushes and he didn’t like being shut in a stable.
Appraising his crop of youngsters in the summer of their fourth year, Ned Mahoney smiled with satisfaction at a job well done. They had grown fat and sleek. The young black cob was the pick of the bunch and looked outstanding with his arched neck, deep body, broad chest, strong loins and hugely powerful backside. His mother’s thoroughbred breeding showed in his clean featherless legs and elegant head, silky coat and well set tail, but most of her characteristics had channelled themselves into his temperament. With some trepidation, Ned recognised that this middleweight cob was more like a thoroughbred than many racehorses he’d known, and wondered what life would be like for one so sensitive. With the Irish showing season about to begin he moved the black horse, the bay, and a nicely marked piebald into a field alongside the road where he’d replaced the high hedge with a post and rail fence. Three fine youngsters for sale to suit all tastes, and he believed in giving prospective purchasers a roadside view.
In the early morning mist, Hilary Marson loaded her two show horses into the lorry, closed the ramp and hoisted herself into the cab. Another showing season, another batch of young horses for training and selling, and hopefully enough money earned to pay for a long-awaited roof repair on her house. Having done a days work before the sun came up, she contemplated the competition ahead and thought ruefully of her comfy bed and assorted dogs still sleeping there. Taking the top road out of the village she had just enough time to drive past Ned’s farm and see what was in the viewing field.
You had to be quick with Ned. His sales patter might always begin with the line “I’d have kept this ‘un if only I had the room . . .” but as a middleman able to see potential in a gangly youngster, he had the best horses for miles around, flourishing (he said) on fields fed by holy wells. Whatever his secret, many champions had come from his farm. Gently shifting the lorry’s gears in order not to jolt her precious cargo, Hilary reached the field and saw two horses snoozing side by side; a nice bay somewhat light of bone for her taste and a piebald with a ponyish head. She had her foot back on the gas ready to drive on when she noticed the black horse grazing slightly away from the others, head down tucking into a dewy breakfast. She turned the steering wheel and headed the lorry up the farm drive.
The deal was sealed within thirty minutes. As the black horse was loaded into Hilary’s lorry, he flapped his lips with anxiety but didn’t call out. The two horses already standing tied in the lorry flared their noses in greeting and remembered the morning they too had come from the same field. Hilary named the black cob Ned after the dealer, but with his flapping lips, he was registered in his passport as ‘Look Who’s Talking’.
Ned thrived with Hilary and her dedicated team. He overcame his fear of being stabled but at the first sign of anything stressful he would rasp the walls with his teeth creating great gashes across the wood panelling. He loved the grooming massages with soft brushes, and his silky coat shone beneath the groom’s powerful hands. He had a season’s hunting with Hilary’s head girl who found him excitable but controllable, and with his sensitive mouth there was no need for a strong bit to give extra brakes. He took to jumping like a duck to water, and as long as his jockey gave clear instructions he would face any obstacle with confidence, leaping hedges and rails, gates and ditches like an old-timer with athleticism that belied his stocky frame!
Hilary taught him balance and cadence and delighted in the lightness of foot his schoolwork brought. His barrel body became toned and honed, his neck increased its magnificent arch and his bottom developed a deep cleavage. Measuring 15.3hh he was perfectly proportioned for a maxi cob, echoing the judges from yesteryear who decreed a show cob should have “the face of a duchess and the backside of a cook.”
His manners were impeccable. He automatically stood square, galloped like a seasoned hunter and won every cob class he entered, charming judges and spectators alike by flapping his lips with perfect comic timing at the prize-giving. Throughout the year Hilary turned down many requests to buy Ned, but as he left the ring at Dublin Show decked in his winning ribbons, the deal offered by the Englishman could not be bettered. She put Ned’s saddle back in the lorry and watched with great sadness as he was led away. As she began her journey back to her quiet village, the black cob began his journey to his new life in England.
Being introduced to someone because we both have cancer is something I’ve studiously avoided. I would prefer we be ‘friends’ via another connection, rather than both being skewered by the Sword of Damocles, partnered like kebabs awaiting the barbecue.
Some years ago my oncologist prescribed Eribulin chemotherapy which had just been approved for metastatic breast cancer treatment, and I joined an online peer-support group started by a woman who was on her second cycle and wanted buddies. Big mistake for me. I quickly discovered practical solutions are not the reply a comment is asking for, and I’m not suited to being sympathetic. But I persevered because I had easy anecdotal access to side-effect symptoms.
The group founder and I became friends, I think. She liked a good whinge and I don’t, but we stepped along together easily enough until her cancer spread to her brain, and my liver tumours cleared. I agreed with her that it was unjust, and her direct-message rants were understandable but it wasn’t actually my fault. I took a break from the group, and chemo, and she died. When I revisited the group a few years later I was the only original member still surviving.
We cancer people lug our medical history around with us. It’s the benchmark of our success to date, and the way we remember times dates and years. When we meet, we invariably dump the load on middle ground. We give ourselves respite in empathetic company, and display our longevity as other woman would flaunt a diamond bracelet. In our case, years are a girl’s best friend. I generally find other people’s medical history more fascinating than them, but sometimes conversation connects beyond pharmaceuticals, and a little flutter of recognition ignites, beginning a kinship not be defined by disease. You swipe right and see what happens.
Starting this blog was a leap into the unknown. Kimberly likened it to opening a flasher’s raincoat and exposing everything naked inside. That raincoat had successfully hidden my nakedness from people who thought they knew me, and now I was proclaiming I have incurable cancer and saying how I feel about it. The unexpected side effect of writing is that I’ve also told myself how I feel; for the first time, I’ve found my cancer (and myself) quite interesting. If I met me at a party I think we’d eat all the cheese straws, dispense with small talk and still be sitting on the sofa, chatting meaningfully at 3 a.m.
I love words, everything about words. I found once I applied a bit of discipline to writing I couldn’t stop. I don’t want to stop. My discipline is simply writing it down instead of talking about doing it. I love playing with words, savouring the way they sound and look on paper. I argue with the grammar checker over semi-colons, and concur that ‘concur’ might be a complex word, but I’m keeping it. I play comma hokey-cokey and always manage to end up with some, to, spare. Nutall’s Concise Synonym and Antonym Book is my bedtime reading just because I love the title. Through my writing I’m able to give something back when I have nothing to give but my experiences. There’s an age-old joke about the flasher who went out in midwinter but it was too cold to flash, so he just stood under the trees and described it to passers-by. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing.
The added bonus of writing the blog is the people who read it. The deep core friends, the ones I love, have smiled and said “you did it.” Acquaintances who I’ve kept at arm’s length have said “we never knew what you were going through,” and having aired my thoughts in a constructive way, I have no embarrassment knowing they’ve seen the wrinkled (and scarred) flesh. Special people have danced tentative intro steps with me, and applauded when we got through to the next round. These people have become very special. And new people are following all the time, people whom I don’t yet know but I might yet meet with an open heart and a more open mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the Mother Confessor, and my boundaries are quite clear on not being an Agony Aunt, but who knew blogging would be as much about the readers as the writing. Maybe I’ll write a book about it . . .
I’ve always thought of stubbornness as a fault. An annoying, narrow-minded short-sighted fault. Stains and screws that won’t come out are stubborn, stubbornness is the strength of the weak and the dictionary defines stubborn as grim and implacable. (N.B we exclude donkeys and mules from any of these definitions because they have their own agenda).
Last week Gilly gave me food for thought when she said “I was thinking what is obstinacy, it is not just a negative state it is also being able to look after and respect one’s boundaries.”
I had to ponder that for a while.
We draw a line in the sand with our heel and mark our border. One side is safe, the other is not and we are unwilling to cross the line. Is that stubbornness or self-preservation? A few years ago I was at a horse show, watching a woman try to load her horse into a trailer. The horse was well-mannered and amiable and approached the trailer happily, but for no visible reason stopped abruptly, about six feet away from the bottom of the ramp. Cajoling, berating and tempting wouldn’t budge him. He wasn’t agitated and things didn’t escalate until ropes were used behind him and he began to kick. His owner was wise enough to stop. It seemed the invisible line was the problem, not the trailer, and a bystander suggested she reverse the trailer back over the ‘line’. Her horse watched with interest, and as soon as the ramp came down he walked straight in. Only the horse knows why he couldn’t cross that line, and he’d probably forgotten by the time he got home.
If we feel our lives run more smoothly with a routine, especially as we get older, are we obstinately clinging to order or simply preserving energy? Just like the reactive “sorry?” providing another few seconds to compose an answer when someone asks us a question, routine gives us space to think in-between actions. Have you ever considered chores like methodically folding laundry are actually a space to re-boot our minds; maybe our mothers knew more than we thought!
Does refusal to wear a cycle or riding helmet despite evidence showing the risk, count as stubbornness or free-expression? The opportunity for free-expression is definitely waning as we straddle nanny laws and peer judgement, but at what cost to ourselves and others.
Do we build boundaries to keep people out or keep ourselves in? Wrapping ourselves tightly in swaddling clothes for a feeling of security, safe within our limits because we’ll never explore what lies beyond. To us, the grass is never greener on the other side. Are we truly content where we’ve placed ourselves, or have we managed to cull confidence along with adventure. Could altering our perspective be a way of opening up the boundary?
Crossing a boundary, whether self-inflicted or imposed by others, is truly frightening. I prefer to think of it as going through a gate that swings lightly on its hinges and has an easy-to-open catch so we can return as quickly as we arrived. But remember we are not trespassing, we have our own permission to cross our own limits.
Other people might disagree but I don’t consider myself stubborn in the stain-like sense. Dogged and determined yes, but I hope I’m open to new ideas whatever they involve. However, my cancer is stubborn and in order to survive I’ve often had to respond in like. I have been very obstinate about dying; it’s not that I won’t die, I’d just prefer do it on my terms and not have a disease bamboozle me into submission. I also stubbornly refuse to become a victim, although on my off-days I’ve been known to help them out! I like boundaries because they stop drama and I’m happy to say no if too much is asked of me. I don’t have to save everyone, and my ego doesn’t crave stoking by other people’s gratitude. I’ll dip a toe in anything, because I count not trying as failure.
The opposite of obstinacy is compliance, and that could also be a negative trait. No-one knows where they stand when a person bends every-which-way to remain agreeable, and heaven only knows how that person behaves towards themselves. Does the ultimate compliant behaviour become stoicism, and instead of being restrained by boundaries, the compliant person restrains themselves by keeping everything inside until they implode?
Of course we can swing whichever way we want to navigate life. We know a balance twixt the two extremes serves us best, but it’s a see-saw ride and we’re not always aware if we’re on the see or saw. Luckily there’s a third alternative, No-Mans-Land, which the Cambridge dictionary defines as ‘an area of activity where there are no rules, or that no one understands or controls because it belongs neither to one type nor another’. It might be a good place to hang out for a while. See you there?
Mark and I were getting on each other’s nerves. Not a lot, but enough to make snappy, slightly-too-sharp replies. Neither of us are confrontational and we don’t argue much, but he thought I was having a go at him and I thought he was being stubborn. Neither of us wanted to talk about the real issue.
Over the years and through the troubles, we’ve drifted into a comfortable friend/lover/partner-in-crime combo, built on mutual respect and a huge dose of humour. We’ve become an Old Married Couple. How that happened I have no idea; two rebels aren’t supposed to mellow into Mr & Mrs Boring, but boring we are, and it turns out that eating dinner on a tray in front of the TV (me wearing my pyjamas) isn’t such a bad thing after all.
It was time to do something a bit special so I decided to make a proper roast beef dinner with Yorkshire puddings, onion gravy, and all the delicious trimmings. On Saturday night our oil-fired Rayburn range was due to be turned out for its summer holiday. The continuous heat is necessary in the cold, but too stifling for warmer weather. It would be the last opportunity before we swap to hob and microwave cooking, and Mark’s eyes lit up at the plan. We decided to dress for dinner, there might even be a glass of champagne. Time to re-claim a bit of ‘us’.
Spring grass is Bruce’s nemesis, he eats too much too quickly without a pause. Spring grass is unforgiving and he gets colic. If I strip graze him he will limbo-dance under the electric fence to reach the grass, and if I graze him in a bare paddock he jumps out. Over the years I’ve tried pretty much all the preventives . . . but he still gets colic, especially if it rains. I’ve become attuned to his behaviour, spot warning signs early, and he responds well to a couple of homeopathic treatments and a sachet of painkiller. We do our deep breathing together, a little Reiki (from a distance if he wants to be alone) and if he’s still bad, the vet comes with IV pain relief and cramp-relieving Buscopan. It’s comforting to have a plan.
On Saturday evening, the colic arrived. After a long dry spell we’d had light rain mid-week, I didn’t think it was enough to make a difference but it must’ve given the grass a growth spurt. Having done dinner prep and put the pot-roast in the oven, I drove to the stables to bring Bruce in, give him a quick groom and be back home in time for a fragrant shower. I’d even painted my nails! Bruce was listless and kept resting his forehead against my chest, a sure sign he needed me to know something. He had a lot of gassy wind, but ate his bucket feed with customary greed, so I gave him the homeopathic pills as a safeguard, and phoned Mark to say I was going to stay for an hour. Mark was in the bath and memorised the veg instructions, if he felt disappointed or annoyed he hid it well. When I gave Bruce his hay, he pricked his ears and leaned forward for a sniff, then uttered a deep guttural groan and dropped to the ground in front of me. I thought he’d died. He laid, heaving and moaning with his legs stretched rigid as the colic spasmed through his body. It was a fearful sight, I’ve seen him do it before but familiarity isn’t a shield; his pain looked horrific. I tried to distance my emotion, deal with the practicalities and phone the vet. The receptionist knows his name and my voice, respects my diagnosis that it’s an emergency and says Maria will be with us ASAP. Now we just have to wait. I pray to the horse gods to help the colic pass; I don’t dare think maybe this one won’t. I update Mark, he sounds disappointed and offers to come over. Bless that man.
Bruce is standing again now, breathing hard but not sweating. The cacophony of gut sound is drowned-out by his farts, and I tell him what a good boy he is to expel all that gas. He walks towards me and rests his forehead on my chest, and we stand in silence before I feel him tense with the next wave, and as his legs fold underneath him he goes down. He doesn’t roll, he just braces himself against the cramp so I see no reason not to let him lay down. I’ve tried walking him to ease the pain but it doesn’t help. I empty a water bucket, turn it upside down and sit in the corner of his stable. His eye flicks towards me, saying my presence is okay.
This horse. I’ve had some good horses over the years, but Bruce held the key that unlocked my future. He led me to the changes that unleashed a real, better me and accept what that entailed. And I thought I was saving him. Thinking back to his predecessor the big, wise Teddy, it seems horses take us on a path and it’s our choice whether or not to listen. Bruce is up again and standing in front of me, nose on my knee. I silently say the words good boy.
A few weeks ago when I was grooming Bruce, I found a cluster of raised lumps around his bottom. They weren’t scabby or infected, and my first panicked thought was MELANOMA. I went hot-and-cold; please don’t let my boy have anything cancerous. I sent some photos to Kirsty, and her quiet opinion reassured me that they probably weren’t melanoma, but even if they were they would be slow-growing. Has this colic got anything to do with the lumps?
I recall how the seasons affect Bruce more than any horse I’ve had, or maybe nowadays I just notice these things better. The summer is too hot for his bulky bod and he has a paranoid hatred of flies, so he spends daytime dozing in the shade of his stable and grazes the paddock at night. In winter he detests the rain and despite being insulated with waterproof rugs, shows his grumpiness with impatience and tantrums. He’s at his best in the autumn; as the sun cools, his hoofbeats sound less like a plod and more like a happy dance, and vigour refreshes his body. His countenance dips at ‘blackberry time’ when the fruits ripen and his coat gains a bloom of fuzzy growth, but once he’s adjusted to the change, he’s back behaving like a youngster and generally forgetting his manners. I’m pleased to see him jolly and know manners will only momentarily have slipped his mind. I’m in awe of this horse with his gleaming coat, and ready aptitude to have a go at whatever task I suggest, be it my madcap idea of walking into his stable backwards to improve his core stability, or being solid enough to nanny a nervous horse through traffic in the village.
And now he lays like a beached whale. I owe him such a debt but I can’t help him through this pain. I watch his breath rise and fall, and wonder how he got old? How we both got old. Whispers of grey hair have gathered around his eyes and muzzle, and his unshod hooves have spread to counteract the uneven placement of his back legs. We’ve stopped and restarted so many times over the years, his life must be like Groundhog Day, but he always shows the same enthusiasm for work, the same stoicism. He wears his Elder Statesman countenance like a medal.
Twenty minutes later Maria arrives and sets the routine into action. She checks his heart rate, gut noises and temperature before administering the drugs. He flinches to register discomfort. I tell him what a good boy he is and Maria strokes his neck before performing a rectal exam. The drugs start to kick-in and he stands quietly while she reaches inside. No tumours, no impacted blockage. We both allow ourselves a small smile. He once needed hydration fluids pumped through a tube in his nose, it was touch-and-go and I don’t want that again. We chat about something, I have no idea what, until Maria is happy the drugs have worked, and when he relaxes sufficiently to doze she packs her equipment and leaves. I stay awhile watching him carefully and then go home for dinner.
Mark has ‘rescued’ the beef too early and it is tough, the potatoes are bullets and the Yorkshire puddings doughy, but he saved the veg and the gravy is tasty. We eat on trays in front of the TV and the champagne stays in the fridge. I grab a chocolate bar and eat it on the way back to the stable. Bruce is waiting at the door asking for his hay and his heavily lidded eyes are brighter. I’m relieved, but that night I don’t sleep very well. Next morning he’s still drowsy, the stable is full of poop and his gut is quiet. We both agree the best medicine is turnout in his paddock. Later that day he’s as bright as a button, and I when tie him outside his stable, a steady stream of stableyard visitors arrive to ask after his health. News travels fast.
He greets them gregariously, with all the grace of an old pro. “Oh, I’m much better, thank you for asking. It was very painful, but nothing for an old hand like me. Now, have you brought me any get-well gifts? Fruit? No? Oh well, move along then please, the next in line may have food . . .”
Everyone loves Bruce. Most of all me. That night we have cold beef, new potatoes and pickled red cabbage. We open the champagne. I sleep better. And we’ve stopped annoying each other. Just like the colic, whatever caused the blockage has cleared.
It is a fitful sleep that I’m relieved to be out of. I wiggle my fingers and feel my hands, reassured that they’re still attached to my arms and not performing a solo tap-dance routine, on stage at The London Palladium. Where does all this random stuff come from? I wonder if dreams are really a parallel universe that you slip into with each sleep, picking personal details from an avatar list like the latest Facebook game. I sigh. Too much thought too early in the day.
I lean across Mark’s sleeping shoulder to look at the time. With vibrant green luminosity the alarm clock declares it’s Four In The Morning, and the song of the same name jumps into my mind, trying to become today’s earworm. Thankfully I’m lucid enough to decline. I sigh again; it’s my morning off and I didn’t want to wake up early, I don’t want lucidity at four in the morning I want sleep.
Dawn Light is just visible through the gap in the curtain. What a good stage name that would be for someone. I mentally go through the alphabet concocting witty stage names, but it’s not sleep inducing and it gets a bit hysterical when W is Willy Wanker. Then the pre-dawn-chorus blackbird begins his solo serenade; exquisite notes from tiny lungs finding their way through the open bedroom window, catching heartstrings like a choirboy in a cathedral. Hoping his lullaby will lull me back to sleep, I snuggle under the duvet, but my eyes are too wide open and my brain too willing to invite every fret to a conference call.
How did we all become so comfortable with abnormal, and accept a situation none of us dreamt possible? Ordinary and normal feel like old-fashioned words, words we only use in a past tense. Here in my precious corner of Dorset (and especially here, under the duvet in my bed) the real world feels as far away as an open hairdresser. Everything simply gets on with living, despite to the mayhem the newspapers tell us is happening elsewhere. Our hedgerows are alive with blossom, the roadside verges awash with wild flowers, and you can literally hear the grass grow. Swallows have returned from migration oblivious to anything except their routine, and trees return to leaf just as trees always do. So why am I so unsettled?
I jerk with alarm at the guttural noises before realising it’s a pair of badgers squabbling in the garden, right under the bedroom window. Loudly and vehemently they’re arguing over a slug. Unkindly, I think about the government TB badger cull and try to go back to the blackbird song, but he’s found a quieter roost to greet the dawn. Even my fretting can’t compete with the raucous squeals. Luckily, the garden has enough slugs to placate the entire badger population, and the argument is soon forgotten as the enemies eat their fill, and snuffle back home to the woods before daytime arrives.
Inquisitive about the commotion, I hear the cats leave their beds downstairs in the utility room, and go out to the garden through the cat flap. Sammy jumps from the wall to the shed, and climbs on to the roof, where he takes the scenic route across the house, slip-sliding on the slates until he reaches the cast iron gutter. His four legs ooplonk two-up-two-down around the edge until he gets to the open bedroom window, and I see from the shadow on the curtain that he’s adjacent to the windowpane. I hold my breath as he mutters a plaintive MIAOW, but instead of trying to squeeze through the gap, he moves along and perches on the chimney breast outside the bathroom.
Ok, if I shut my eyes tight and practise slow breaths, I can get back to sleep. In the distance I hear a dog fox shouting his staccato bark. It goes on and on and on some more, getting ever closer and ever louder, and unfortunately not in sync with my breathing pattern. Unkindly I think about foxhunting days from the past. The fox disturbs the matron of the Red Devon Cattle who graze the field outside the house. Matron always heralds the dawn in case no-one has noticed daylight has arrived, and this morning, with a full herd of mothers and new calves, she is especially vigilant and vociferous with her greeting. LADIES!! BE VERY VERY AWARE DAYLIGHT IS HERE! Unfortunately those mothers need a lot of telling until daylight seeps into their psyche. Eventually, they answer the prompt with a united fanfare WE ARE AWARE!! WE SEE THE DAWN!! THANKYOUUUUUUUUUU. My thoughts shift from fox hunting to roast beef. Note to self: what happened to Loving Kindness?
Sleep. Try again for sleep. I decide to count my blessings but the joy of simple pleasures is tinged with immense sadness, which I feel in the depths of my heart and soul, but which I dare not acknowledge for fear of never coming up for air. I dare not allow myself the pleasure of grief because it would swallow me whole, and I cannot risk empathies because I would need to revisit dark places, and they are still too dark. To put it bluntly, my compassion has compassed. I’m sorry people are dying without a loved one to hold their hand; my mother died like that. I’m sorry family members are dying too young; Mark’s sister died of cancer at 51. I’m sorry people have lost jobs and businesses; we are both self-employed and living off meagre savings is precarious. I’m not moaning because this is my life and I’m supposed to be counting my blessings, but these are my early morning thoughts and I can feel sorry for myself if I want. And I haven’t even begun worrying about what my cancer’s doing.
Outside, I hear a sudden hiss and spit and caterwaul, and know that Sooty, the feral cat from the farm has over-strayed onto our cat’s territory. I know Sammy will guard the chimneybreast while his brave little sister Rita will fluff her tail into bottlebrush mode, and face her foe with arched stance. There’s a lot of hissing, and then quiet. Sooty has retreated and the chimneybreast did not fall into enemy hands.
Then suddenly, as if at the tap of an invisible conductor’s baton, the Dawn Chorus strikes up, every bird finding its place in the nature scale. Wrens and blackbirds, thrushes and finches harmonise alongside, and those with less melodious songs chirrup and tweet the background beat. The Jackdaws emerge from their tree-hole nests to settle arguments from the night before, and the automatic crow-scarer across the valley fires its first volley of sound.
Faron Young, Willie Nelson and, surprisingly, Johnny Cash join together for a full rendition of Four In The Morning. The earworm is planted. The blackbird has flown. The badgers and fox are blissfully ASLEEP in their dens. The cats are hunting for a pre-breakfast snack. The cows feeding their calves. Beside me, my husband gently snores. And so, on this rare morning off I get up at five o’clock and drink two mugs of tea. The cats greet me with thinly disguised cupboard love. I Google earplugs on Amazon and put them in my basket. At checkout I think twice. I guess everyone needs a Noisy Neighbour story in their repertoire. It stopped me worrying, and the cats are so pleased to be fed early.