Once upon a time there was a girl who wrote stories. They were mostly stories about ponies. One day in school her teacher asked her to read her essay out loud to the class. The girl stood proudly and read clearly. A lot of the other little girls were also pony-mad so the story was well received.
When she had finished reading the teacher said “A good essay Elaine, well written and well read. But why do you always write a pony story?”
“Because I love ponies,” replied the little girl.
“But the subject for this essay was My Best Friend, and you’ve given me a story about an imaginary pony,” said Miss Turner.
“He is my best friend,” replied the little girl, with no hint of defiance.
“From now on, I’d like you to consider other subjects, other things to write about. I don’t want another pony story.”
“Yes Miss Turner,” replied the little girl with a faintly wobbly bottom lip. She didn’t understand why was being shamed in front of the whole class. Then her true character erupted, just like it would for the rest of her life, and she stood up again with a straight back and a strong voice. “But I like writing about ponies, and if you give us a title it’s up to us how we write about it. It might be your title but they’re our stories.”
The little girl was eight years old.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve written stories and eventually I wrote about things other than ponies. When I was eleven, I won a writing competition with a piece called ‘After the Storm’, describing a sudden rainstorm, and how everything smelt in the aftermath. Miss Turner would’ve been proud of me. I wrote little caricature stories for friends, painting in words a picture of their endearing foibles or family tiffs. In my early twenties when I had a falling-out with my friend Jimmy, a story about a fairy and a frog said sorry more eloquently than I could’ve spoken. I began to write a book on my portable Brother typewriter. I’ve no recollection what it was about but written to the soundtrack of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and overdoses of Neil Young, I expect it was full of angst. I must’ve been serious though, because I bought a Writers Yearbook listing all the publishers, and a Dictionary of Synonyms which I still use today.
Fast forward to 2017. I followed Anna Blake’s blog, and when she put forward the idea of starting a writing group, I signed-up pronto. I love words, especially wordy words, and my writing was very wordy. Why use one word when an artful pronouncement would illustrate the point with literary eloquence worthy of scholars? Weird really, because I don’t talk like that. Thinking my unbridled enthusiasm for the Oxford Dictionary would stand me in good stead, my weekly assignments flourished until we got to Editing. I got the biggest shock of my writing life when Anna decreed shorter is better. How could that be? why would there be so many lovely long words if you didn’t need to use them? Anna suggested taking a paragraph and honing it down to five important words. Five. Fifty-five was better, but no, she was adamant five would do. And take a chainsaw to the rest. Ouch that hurt.
I spent weeks describing, and thinking about things in five words. As I sought the essence of what I needed to say, my writing began to change. I discovered words weren’t just a garnish, they actually mattered, and the fewer you used the more power they held. As we built a safe place to share penmanship, the like-minded women in the writing group gelled into friends and writing styles gained confidence. Comments were encouraging but honest, and when Katie repeatedly asked me to stop rushing and find a flow, I began be aware of my breath as I wrote, and my pace became a rhythmic trot and not a hollow canter speeding towards to the last paragraph. I wrote and wrote, even on days when I didn’t want to write, until I found I couldn’t not write. I started this blog in order to create discipline, and when writing for you became so enjoyable, I began to write Bruce’s story, and my story, and Mark’s story, and intertwine the three.
Anna Blake and Crissi McDonald are two women whom I greatly respect. Together they formed Lilith House Press to mentor women authors, and when they invited submissions for an anthology of women’s writing I sent two essays. I’ve had them both accepted for publication. I’m going to be an author!
The book cover of What She Wrote is designed by Jane Dixon Smith, ‘my’ editor, MaxieJane Frasier of BirchBark Editing guided me through the on-line editing process, and taught me about presentation for a future book submission, and I’ve also learnt about book formatting . . .information I hope I can put to good use in the future.
The release date for What She Wrote is November 9th! It will be available from Lilith House Press and through Amazon in print and as an ebook, and signed copies will be available through my blog. Signed copies. An author. Get me!
Like all the other waifs and strays, HennyPenny limped into our life a mere shadow of her former self. We should have a sign on our house saying ‘Soft Touch Suckers Live Here’.
I answered a knock at the door to a woman whom I vaguely knew through another friend, but it took a moment to figure out who she was. Seeing my confusion, she re-balanced the box she was holding in both hands and said “Hi, I’m Eve’s friend Jo.”
Eve sold free-range eggs at the Farmers Market. We’d been chatting and I told her Mark and I wanted to get some hens. I asked Jo if she’d like to come in.
“Well, no,” she said, looking embarrassed. “You see, I’m probably being pushy coming to see you, but you’re the last hope.”
“Sounds intriguing,” I replied, intrigued.
“Our house backs onto a chicken farm,” she continued, “and they cleared out the battery hens. Trucks came and took them for slaughter. Except this one escaped.” She pushed the box she was holding towards me. “We found her yesterday under our hedge, she was cold and wet so we took her in, but we can’t keep her. I thought Eve would want her, but she doesn’t, so she suggested you . . .” She pushed the box further towards me until it was impossible for me not to take it, like being served legal papers.
“Oh, right,” I said dubiously, looking down at the weightless box I was now holding. “So the chicken is in here?”
“Yes,” said Jo looking very relieved. “The chicken is in the box. We called her HennyPenny.”
I peered though the gap in the top of the box and saw HennyPenny’s glassy eyes peering back at me, her pale pink comb hanging listlessly to one side. She nestled on a bed of straw, and apart from three straggly feathers protruding from where her tail should be, she was completely naked. I understood why Eve didn’t want her. “I see.” I said to Jo. “She looks a bit sorry for herself, doesn’t she?”
Jo smiled and nodded, anxious to leave before I changed my mind or the chicken died, which looked imminent. I carried the box indoors, opened the top flaps and set it down next to the warm Rayburn. HennyPenny might look plucked and oven-ready, but there wasn’t enough meat on her to feed a mouse. I fetched an old wool sweater and wrapped it round her, and placed a dish of bread and milk in her box. The least I could do was help her die comfortably.
Later that evening I found Mark sitting on the floor next to the box, telling HennyPenny a bedtime story about earthworms. Her comb was the most pitiful sight. It should’ve been bright red standing proudly atop her feathered head, but instead it hung limply, faded to anaemic pink with brown tinged edges. She was literally fading away.
Overnight Henny ate another dish of bread and milk, drank a bowl of water, and looked very surprised to still be alive. My friend Sadie came and gave her a Reiki treatment, using her hands to spread healing around HennyPenny’s frail body. The chicken sat motionless on Sadie’s lap with her head tucked into her chest and eyes tightly shut. Afterwards, we placed her back in the box and re-wrapped her sweater while she continued to sleep. Not wanting to disturb her, Sadie and I took our tea into the other room.
“What do you think her chances are?” I asked.
“Not much,” sighed Sadie. “To be honest, I think she’s almost gone.”
We agreed that at least she’d tasted freedom of sorts, and drank our tea in silence.
Henny slept that whole day, and the next morning she tried to preen her three feathers. Mark found her a larger box which we filled with lots of fresh straw and breadcrumbs, and put her outside in the sunshine. She pecked some crumbs, nestled in the straw and bathed in sunshine and fresh air. Each day she ate a little more, and grew a little stronger. HennyPenny was a fighter.
When Sadie visited the following week, HennyPenny raised her head at the sound of a voice she knew. As Sadie walked in the kitchen, the chicken stood up in her box and shook her little body, ruffling imaginary feathers. Sadie greeted her with a cheery hello, and Henny stretched one wing, then the other wing, and then lifted each scrawny foot, flexing her toes. Then she turned and looked at Sadie. Sadie knelt over the box sending healing energy, and HennyPenny’s eyes fixed on Sadie, locked on to the radiowaves of Reiki. It was a sight I’ll never forget. Sadie and I looked at eachother, shrugged and smiled. Henny coopied down and went back to sleep.
HennyPenny continued to thrive and it was joyful watching her become a ‘proper’ chicken again. As she began walking about it was obvious she was lame on one leg, but it didn’t stop her helping us in the garden, and she quickly learnt to scratch the soil and dig for insects. Serendipitously one afternoon I met Martin, who ran a chick-rearing unit nearby. He asked me if I wanted an odd hen who had escaped from the unit and evaded capture until he saw her roosting on the front gate. If I had any use for her, he’d take her to the farm. That evening I returned home with HennyPenny’s new housemate, Martina.
Mark built Henny and Martina a chicken palace at the top of the garden. They had a large wire-covered run, with a little ramp leading up to a hen sized door in the side of the garden shed. The first time we put them in and carefully shut the gate, Martina demonstrated her Houdini technique, squeezed through the wire and did a victory dance on the roof while Henny watched in awe from below. The escapee was swiftly recaptured and Mark re-enforced the wire mesh while Martina stalked the boundary searching for another flaw in the fortifications, strutting about like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.
As dusk fell, Mark and I quietly walked up to the chicken house to check the girls had found their way inside and feed their night-time corn. Martina was squawking at Henny, who couldn’t figure out how to walk up the ramp. Martina did a demo walk strutting like a supermodel on the catwalk. At the top, she stood by the door and flapped her wings while Henny watched from the ground, but Henny kept walking under the ramp. Martina marched back down and pecked the old chicken until she was facing the correct direction. Then Martina pushed Henny up the ramp in a display of chicken wrangling at its best. Our chicken had her own carer.
HennyPenny and Martina were inseparable. They devoured all the weeds snails and slugs in the garden, and most of the flowers, while chattering to eachother in a soft question-and-answer rhythm. When the morning sun moved round to face the hedge, they’d scoop a dug-out in the soil and settle down for a nap, but if Martina saw a frog or a mouse in the undergrowth she’d launch herself like an Exocet missile, running, flapping her wings and semi-flying until she caught it and ate it with a satisfying gulp. One lucky frog was rescued when he defiantly spread-eagled himself across her mouth and refused to be swallowed. That afternoon when Martina stood on the kitchen windowsill pecking at the window, we took our tea and biscuits outside, and she sat on Mark’s lap drinking tea from a saucer and eating custard creams while Henny nibbled cake crumbs. Afternoon tea was so much tastier than a frog.
Martina laid a large brown egg each day, and heralded its arrival with a fanfare of squawks while Henny stood chirruping encouragement; Henny’s eggs were tiny inedible ‘fart eggs’ but we made a fuss over them and praised her because the old girl did her best. Home-baked cakes rose to great heights, with saffron-yellow sponge, and omelettes took on a whole new dimension. If you added the cost of chicken corn to the time spent tending the girls, they would probably be the most expensive eggs in the world, but they were our eggs from our hen, and they were priceless.
One afternoon while Mark was at work, the girls were sleeping under the front hedge while I painted furniture in the garden. The phone rang and I went indoors, and when I came out the girls had gone. I called but no answer . . . and then I saw Henny’s feathers by the dugout and another pile of feathers by the chicken coop. The fox had been. Henny would have been an easy lunch as she sat still and awaited her fate, but Martina had made a run for safety, her stick-legs racing across the garden to the chicken coop, but she couldn’t outrun the fox. Nature is cruel and the garden fell silent.
When life is so full of heartbreak and death, it’s difficult to find importance in the demise of two chickens. Mark and I wept at their departure but kept our grief between ourselves. When the bigger picture is too daunting to contemplate, you bury your feelings in something more personal, something that you can actually feel. In processing the smaller picture, the larger one becomes more bearable.
We had other chickens after Henny and Martina but they were ‘just chickens’ and while their eggs were every bit as large and brown, they were ‘just eggs’. People, animals, events come in and out of life and we can’t stop change any more than we can halt time. Cakes still rise and the world still spins. In the words of Rumi:
‘This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.’
Do you ever wonder if penguins stand around laughing while one of them pretends to walk like a person? The thought hadn’t crossed my mind either until I tried (in vain) to distract myself this week from real life, and real feelings.
Meditation has been too scary because I don’t want to be alone in my head. Going for a walk seems pointless without a destination, and although people irritate me like never before, I’ve leant on shoulders from four corners of the world and sighed as friends caressed me with words, hugs, cups of tea and compassionate silence. And goats. Mark has shown a depth of love I’m incapable of reciprocating, and as each shard of my grief bought another ticket and re-joined the queue, I felt it say to Mark: “When she goes, you’ll feel like this too.” Just as money goes to money, death highlights death.
Kirsty’s goats deserve more than a passing mention because goat solidarity is very solid. Lupin, whose mother was the sagacious Libby, has inherited her mother’s serenity and happily shared what she could spare. Kokomo the kid bounced about demonstrating life with a carefree heart, and Honeybee the movie star, who views the world as only a diva can, stood quietly offering no opinion, just support. The other herd members cudded thoughtfully, radiating constancy. Thankyou goats.
It seems I’m the only person surprised at how shaken I am. Astra, Barley, Paddy, Barney, Will-Be and Teddy lamely answer “Gone” when their names appear on my own euthanised roll-call, and I thought their numbers would numb the blow when it came to Bruce. I’ve stood with others as they died, some I knew, and some I only met just before the ceremony like an ironic arranged marriage, and while no death is easy I stood firm. This time, I can feel my bedrock crumbling.
For the past few years it’s been a toss-up whether Bruce died first or I did, and statistically it should’ve been me. In the eleven years we were together I had three cancer recurrences in the first seven years and have been ‘incurable’ for the past four. Bruce preferred me to stay in the present moment so morbid thoughts became black jokes and the future wasn’t a place we explored. With his death a significant part of my world closed (I’m the mistress of re-invention so don’t start muttering about one door closes blah blah) which deserves some grieving of its own. My life keeps shrinking. I feel like I’m being funnelled into a concentration to discover my essence, and I’m a tad concerned what happens when the distillation is complete. Physically I’m incapable of doing what I did, but mentally I’m still a horse person. I don’t want the sheer hard work of keeping another horse, nor the responsibility, but I want the connection and I want to put stuff Bruce taught me back into the world.
Meanwhile, Bruce is gone. His bridle, which I spent too much money having made-to-measure, hangs on its hook but he’ll never wear it again. All of my horses have worn hand-me-downs and hand-me-ups and I never throw anything away that’s repairable. Having a traditional bridle made from best English leather that fitted Bruce’s head perfectly was my gift to him. The plain cavesson noseband took three fittings to ascertain the perfect width, and cut-outs on the headpiece meant the base of his broad ears would never pinch. It was a bridle that signified we were working together in a way neither of us had done with another partner, it was a bridle worthy of the horse that wore it.
My health is having a bit of a wobble. I’m desperate to come off my steroid meds, but the low dose hasn’t controlled inflammation levels and instead of respite, the rheumatologist has increased the dose. I sought out the best medical practitioners for treatment so I can’t complain when pharmaceuticals are their weapon of choice, but by stopping my over-active immune system behaving like a drama queen, what does that leave me with to fight everything else? For the first time since I began this blog I’m actually feeling sorry for myself.
Not fitting my daily life around Bruce has created a new routine of having time, and maybe time is what I need right now. Time to do nothing, time to just be because there’s nowhere left to run. Time to write? Doing nothing, trying less and noticing what happens was my first big Bruce lesson. The concept is as scary as it is compelling, but it was Bruce’s parting gift and if there’s one single thing he taught me, it was to listen. And to trust what I heard. And to stop feeling sorry for myself because an answer will come.
“The horses at Rainbow Bridge play together in the sunshine until each of their owners comes to claim them, as the owners themselves pass away. The souls of horses and their owners finally reunite and cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.”
To take responsibility for ending your own life is tough, but if it’s the wrong decision you only have yourself to blame. To end someone else’s life with or without their agreement is illegal, although Death Row and warfare continue. But to snuff out the soft breath of one so dear that the mere thought of it leaves you feeling like you’ve been eviscerated with a blunt fingernail, is the task we horse carers accept each time four hooves and a velvety nose nuzzle their way into our hearts.
It is our job to order destruction of the life that lives above those hooves, and forever close the eyes of the soul we have worked so hard to keep safe. There will be no more silken coat to groom, no more smell in which to bury our face, and we will never again see the blink of trust that passes between two opposing species. When we nod our head to signal the felling of the body beside us, the world instantly changes. Is becomes was, and wisps of memory are the bittersweet legacy of love.
I’m So Sorry are the three words you never want your vet to say, because There’s Nothing Else We Can Do completes the sentence. It’s not a life sentence it’s a death sentence. You nod, and as you mime an answer, trying to swallow rising bile, find a spare breath, and fight against the urge to run away, three huge tears plop out of your eyes and your horse turns to look at you. The vet stands back until you win your fight for air, and when you can agree coherently she brings you the death warrant to sign and you can’t write your own name. We have the idea that living creatures deserve a good death, but many didn’t even get a good life. You can only do the best you can do and there’s a whole future ahead to beat yourself up with what-ifs. Doing the best by your horse is commitment to love even when sparing him pain means sacrificing his life.
Death and sex (which ironically started the dying process the moment it gave life) are very similar. In reality neither actually resemble the misty-hued scenes depicted in the movies, but they do both leave you feeling totally exhausted, or disconsolate because the end came too soon. From Here to Eternity has the right title, but in death the waves only ebb and the tide never returns to the shore.
Euthanising a horse is not a pretty sight. Don’t let the Rainbow Bridge fool you for a minute, because horses don’t really metamorphose into a unicorn and trot across the coloured arch to heaven. I’ve stood with enough horses as they received anaesthetic overdose or bolt gun to know they all die as individually as they lived. Some struggle with surprise or fight to stay alive, some are thankful to go and some hardly notice. The sight that is unreal, and the one that I can never un-see is half a ton of horseflesh laid dead with its tongue lolling to one side. If you need to sob into a still-warm neck before your own heart breaks, brace yourself against the sight of a corpse because this is your last opportunity. You’ve held it together this long, and the vet will busy herself checking his pulse and heart even though you all know he’s dead. Touch his body, smooth his coat and stroke his ears. Whisper the prayer or the thankyou or tell him he’s a good boy because part of him might still be watching you, just like he always watched from the gate until you were out of sight.
He’s free at last. This magical creature had such a strong will to survive evolution, he paid for domesticity with his freedom, his ability to roam in a herd, and his fundamental right to just be a horse. He buried his wants, forgave constantly and learned to work through pain. He served people as best he could, if he was lucky he got his own girl and when she heaped the worries of her world on him, he carried them as stoically as he carried her. Mankind wanted a horse that suited their needs, not his, and the horse has made all the compromises. It’s not wrong to want something back from our horses, but don’t assume because you pay the bills and make the decisions, you own them.
We want a partnership but how many people communicate with their horse in his language? If you scratched his withers in a one-sided attempt at mutual grooming it’s a start, but then you put him back in his solitary paddock. Horses acquiesce and dominate and find safety in the herd pecking order, but we humanise their reactions and ‘protect’ them with fences. We leave a flight animal to watch 24/7 for imaginary predators instead of having a herd leader to do it for them, and then wonder why they get anxiety, or fat because they aren’t moving with interaction. Connect with your horse in his language while he’s still alive. Lower your eyes, lower your expectations, empty your mind and take the opportunity to just be with him, breathe with him and be quiet. Give him a holiday from your constant chatter, verbal and mental. Knowing that you’ve tried to meet him halfway will mean more to him than all the treats and titbits, and when the end comes he’ll know you know that the weakest has to leave the herd and he’ll trust you to be the swiftest predator.
“The horses at Rainbow Bridge play together in the sunshine until each of their owners comes to claim them, as the owners themselves pass away. The souls of horses and their owners finally reunite and cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.” Don’t make Bruce wait for me, he’s done his time with people clinging to him and claiming him and his soul is his not mine. Just as he lived, he died with a force that shouted “That’s it, I’m off,” but this time I bailed out and let him run because there was no reason for him to stop. I might have paid the bills and taken responsibilty but I never owned one single hair on his body. How can anyone own magnificence?
Back in April, Bruce and his horse-neighbour Winston broke their dividing fence, and hoolied around the field like a couple of youngsters. Things sobered up when Bruce got kicked on his hock, and I found him standing by the gate looking very sorry for himself.
The joint swelled and subsided, puffy became the new normal, and Bruce walked a tad stiffly but appeared unconcerned. Last week his displeasure at being out in the wind and rain erupted in an awesome acrobatic display, cantering back and forth with sliding stops and handbrake turns. Then he suddenly found he couldn’t put his hind leg to the ground, and what had been a ligament strain got a whole lot worse.
I’ve spent a week of worry on auto-pilot. The torn ligament, mega-swelling, and Bruce’s age, were all cause for concern and I was reluctant to have the joint drained because of possible infection, and the high likelihood of the fluid returning. I’m realistic about movement-limiting injuries and euthanasia, but Bruce is as much part of me as my own arm or leg, and I don’t know how I’d manage without one of them either.
Last night Bruce laid down in his stable for the first time, but more importantly he managed to get back up. He turned the corner to recovery and I breathed again.
Today is Thursday. I got up early to write my blog and sat with tea and toast wondering what to write. Then it occurred to me. How often do we actually worry about what we’re worried about?
I’ll let those words sit for a moment because they surprised me too.
At the moment we’re all worried about Covid, and that worry has given the green light for all other worries to become important. We’re on permanent alert lest a stranger sneezes, and making sense of government guidance (I use the word ironically) is like doing a cryptic crossword in Ancient Urdu. A lot of people met their own mortality for the first time, and even though they didn’t shake hands it wasn’t an amiable introduction.
Worrying about things out of our control makes us feel stressed, but stress has become such a dirty word it’ll soon be unmentionable. It’s overtaken smoking, eating or sitting down as something you Must Not Do, and soon we’ll have a government minister in charge of it. But without stress I think we’d probably crumple; just like tension on a high-wire, stress counter-balances all the blah emotions. If only life could be one long scented bath, but in order to get more hot water we have to get out some time and stoke the boiler.
Are we ignoring the real worry and worrying that we can’t control the outcome, which is change. Change is a ‘C’ word more graphic than the anatomical one we don’t say unless in the company of our sluttiest girlfriends. Change means facing up to fears of the unknown, and the unknown is the nemesis of mankind.
So, if the unknown is too immense to think about, we find something smaller on which to pin our fret, because worrying about something tangible is more controllable. We rant about things like chocolate bars getting smaller, or beat ourselves up for hugging a friend. We worry about our horses/dogs/cats eating properly, when really we’re wondering who will look after them if we can’t, and we worry about our sore knee when we’re wondering who will look after us if we can’t. Or our partner. Or both of us at the same time.
So let’s make time for small worries. Let’s recognise them as big worries in drag, trying their best to put some glitz into pathos. Let’s accept them, acknowledge them, and at three o’clock in the morning, try to let them go. We can’t change change because it’ll happen whatever. But we can cut ourselves some slack, eat two chocolate bars instead of one, and make the best of what we have in front of us because sooner or later that will change too. And that’ll be a whole new load of stuff to worry about.
The blog is short rambling and random this week with not much editing. Normal service will resume asap. Blame Bruce? Never.
New Years Day 2012 was sullen and grey, and so was I. Viewing my ashen face in the mirror, I grimaced at the chemotherapy residue and tried to focus my bloodshot eyes on something positive.
“Stop brooding! Get yourself together and do something.” I said sharply to my pale reflection, pulling on a pair of jeans that hung like pantaloons, and swamping my small frame with two thick sweaters. The clothes were cosy but inwardly I still shivered.
It was cold at the farm. Sheila’s horses had their backs to the wind in the paddock, and Bruce stood quietly in his stable munching hay. He acknowledged my presence without missing a mouthful, like a diner would greet an acquaintance by raising their eyes and nodding. He had been with me for nearly three years, and while his tendon repair had been straightforward, I still struggled with his complex character. In the beginning I did what I knew and he did what he knew, because neither of us knew what else to do, but as our understanding grew, glimmers of partnership shone and waned like a flickering lightbulb. I hoped a brisk in-hand walk would be a good start to the New Year so I removed his rugs, buckled his bridle and decided to go along the stony track and across the ‘naughty field’ where he’d previously run away on a ride. Hopefully I could show him there was no need for panic.
Bruce walked exuberantly in-hand, but we’d not been out for a while and the connection we lost during my raging anxiety still discoloured our relationship, so I talked quietly, trying to settle his dancing feet. As we opened the gate at the top the forty-acre field, I stood for a minute to catch the breeze and loosen my jacket, while Bruce pawed the ground. The field sloped dramatically downhill and the marked path was slippery, so I turned to the right and followed the unploughed headland along the fence. Bruce’s pace quickened on the grass. With ears pricked and muscles trembling he jogged sideways with head held high to evade the bridle contact. As the long weeds tickled his belly and aggravated his excitement he began to trot, and keeping my footing was difficult while I clung to the reins. I tried circling him which created a whirling equine vortex, and I have no recollection how we reached the bottom of the field.
We were both hot, sweaty, thoroughly wound up, and I was scared. I caught my breath as Bruce stopped to eat the hedge, and I tactfully ignored his misdemeanour of eating while being led. We could sensibly have exited through the bottom gate and walked back to the stables along the stony track, but with false bravado I felt I had to regain the upper hand, and took the ploughed path running up the centre of the field to the top gate. As we turned, Bruce barged right through me. Shouting a sharp reprimand I asked him to step backwards but he planted four feet firmly on the ground and shoved his nose hard into my chest. Gasping for breath I told him to back up again, and again, both requests met with blunt refusal.
“Right, I’ve had enough. We’ll bloody well sort this out!” I shouted as I yanked the reins and shoved him back with an elbow in the chest. He reluctantly shuffled two hind feet, and in view of the situation I decided that was sufficient.
Bruce also decided he’d had enough and sorted it out the best way he knew. He stood up on his hind legs and spun round to face home. As the force of his rearing-up knocked me sideways, he galloped off at full pelt. I swung from the reins like a ragdoll in a child’s hand, before realising I was going to get dragged. So I let go. In the gleeful spirit of freedom, Bruce let fly with an almighty buck. I trust it wasn’t aimed at me, but I probably flatter myself.
Wedged between half a ton of fleeing horse and a wire fence, there was no escaping the trajectory of his back feet. Time stopped and I froze as the underside of his perfectly shaped hooves swung towards me. I felt the impact of his feet and then the impact of the ground and then I lay in the mud listening to a tractor engine humming in the distance. From the intense pain in my chest I figured I was still alive, and if I was alive I’d better catch my loose horse. I gingerly tested body parts; Legs were mobile, my neck and hip felt like they had dislocated from my body, and my head throbbed to a resounding reggae beat. Moving anything above the waist caused racking waves of pain across my chest, but the pain lessened if I bent double, so I rolled and made a hundred little shuffles, and struggled to my feet staying folded at the waist (thank you Pilates).
Lurching sideways with hands on knees, I looked down at the ploughed earth, gritted my teeth and made one step after another until I reached the top of the hill. Bruce was watching from the gateway, nonchalantly resting a back leg, with the remains of his bridle hanging down his neck. He lowered his head and I took hold, struggled to open the gate, and we slowly walked through together, closing it firmly behind us.
Stooped over, and stopping often so I could ease the racking pain, we walked the mile home side by side, Bruce steadying his pace to match mine, head down mimicking my stance. When we reached the safety of his stable I realised the bridle had fallen off and I hadn’t been leading him. Bruce resumed eating his morning hay, and I dragged his stable rug partly over his back to keep him warm. Then I began shivering and slumped in the corner of the stable, which is where Sheila found me when she came to do her horses.
I recalled scant details of our accident as Sheila helped me into her car, but I couldn’t speak much and crying was too painful. I was grateful for silence as she drove me home, one hand on the wheel, the other holding mine. The colour drained from Mark’s face when we arrived back. He made me a cup of tea and took me to hospital Accident & Emergency, where the young doctor listened aghast at the story.
“Tell me again what happened,” she asked, trying to maintain a practised expression of non-expression.
“I got kicked in the chest by my horse,” I repeated for the second time. “I think I’ve ruptured my mastectomy implant and broken my ribs.” I paused, wondering if I should bother to say more. “I landed on my hip and banged my head. I don’t think I blacked out but my shoulder and neck are really sore. And my arm doesn’t feel connected.”
She rolled her eyes, collected her thoughts, and systematically checked my breathing, sight and cognitive function. Her conclusion was minor concussion, whiplash to my neck, severe bruising to my hip, possible ligament damage to my arm, broken top ribs, and a completely ruptured mastectomy implant. I made a weak joke about being fitted with airbags. Nobody laughed.
“We don’t x-ray for broken ribs,” the doctor sighed. “If you rest, everything should heal in the next six weeks, but see your GP if you get further pain, dizziness or shortness of breath.” She showed me the door. “Take painkillers if you need them, and . . . be careful.”
“Happy New Year.” I muttered weakly as I left.
There’s no point trying to make light of this serious accident. Like most accidents, it could’ve been far more serious, but it was pretty bad as it was. Bruce drew his line of tolerance, I disregarded it and suffered the consequences. The strange thing was that it literally booted the past into the past. All the cancer stuff, all the anxiety and chemotherapy detritus, and all the negativity I felt towards my own failings.
I thought I was working progressively with Kirsty’s guidance because I’d made huge changes, but I was going by rote and not by feeling, and I misread a lot in my haste to look like I was doing right. We all have to start somewhere but Bruce was way ahead of me, and to have any chance of catching him up I had to let go of expectations and a great deal of ego. Cancer makes things all about me; how I’m feeling, how I’m surviving, what’s my latest prognosis. The preceding two years of cancer treatment had taken a toll on both of us, but Bruce’s primary concern was his own survival. He didn’t pander to my weakness, he needed capability.
My father had been a do-as-I-say disciplinarian, demanding submission from his family. Our punishment for not reaching his high expectations or following his rules was to live with his sulks. We weren’t abused, but the strain of living with totally inflexible standards eventually made me run for my life. If I wanted to regain equilibrium with my horse, I had to take the plunge and accept some things would always be beyond my control, and inflexibility was not the answer. I had to be honest and acknowledge things as they were, not bury them under false bravado.
There had to be a middle way of training where I could set out my non-negotiables, and then negotiate a balance where both Bruce and I felt comfortable; I guess you call it a partnership. Kirsty began the process, I carried it, and Bruce showed me how to let go the only way he knew. He knocked the old way into oblivion, and there was no going back.
Would I have preferred a horse that I could just get on and ride, the same as I had always done? Yes I would, because the enjoyment and freedom exploring picture-perfect countryside with a steady companion has no equal. Would I have still felt the bond of togetherness that ties me to Bruce’s heart? Yes, I probably would. Do I regret the way things turned out? Bruce was a gift horse. I might not have known at the time he was something I wanted, let alone something I would treasure, but the people Bruce brought into my life, and the person I have become because of him, are gifts beyond compare. The gift horse who brought gifts. Non, je ne regrette rien.
I love a free offer. But when it’s another life-limiting disease I should have read the label before I put it in my shopping basket. Greed will be my downfall.
The new recruit goes under the name Polyarteritis Nordosa. Polyarteritis Nordosa is a rare inflammation of the arteries, caused by a malfunctioning immune system. My immune system was sheltering between a rock and a hard place, killing off stray cancer cells with accurate sniper fire. Now it’s come out all guns blazing, shooting at the cancer, the drug that keeps the cancer stable, or anything else in its sights. Imagine Gunfight at the OK Corral meets Reservoir Dogs; apart from Val Kilmer, it aint a pretty sight.
Polyarteritis Nordosa showed up for duty about a year ago, bringing with it mysterious bruises that wouldn’t fade, and fingertip-size red lesions on my legs. It quickly added a random purple pattern to my thighs which looked like crazy-paving, and, just for good measure, a strong dose of swollen aching joints and hit-the-brick-wall-fatigue. If this was cancer’s new buddy I hoped the courtship would be brief, but alas, they’ve become besties.
The London oncology professor diagnosed the problem at first sight, but it took months of different opinions, investigations and skin biopsies to confirm his suspicion. Now he and a wonderful London rheumatology professor are working (gloved) hand-in-hand to stabilise my condition. I was a multi-disciplinary medical case, now I’m a multi-professor medical case.
The inflammatory levels in my blood are ridiculously high. I’m an over-achiever but this is silly even for me. Large doses of steroids reduced the inflammation but caused a major flare-up when I came off them, and now I’m on longer-term low dose steroids. I have a love-hate relationship with steroids, which varies from trying to conquer the world with manic activity, to sleeplessness and mood swings that drive me crazy. Or crazier.
Playing host to two serious diseases isn’t a barrel of laughs but it does have its lighter moments. I wonder how/if they consider eachother; do they fight to invade my body space or do they divvy-up areas aren’t already diminished and toss a coin? If my waistline is the border, will cancer cells attempt risky crossings in a migrant dinghy to reach my pelvis, and will Polyarteritis Nordosa send an army to my upper torso, like the Romans marching north to crazy-pave Hadrian’s Wall?
Last week I had a phone consultation with the rheumatology professor. We both agreed there wasn’t much to do at the moment except watch the situation, which I’ve learnt over the years means they’re working on best-guess scenario. I don’t have a problem with that. When you go past your expiry date you can’t expect instant answers because there aren’t any. I never set out to be pioneer woman, in fact I’ve always thought this heap of shit is pretty much wasted on me because I’ve got more important things to do, but hey, next person in line gets the benefit of my experiences, and that’s the most positive spin I can muster for this situation.
Before we finished the consultation I asked the professor if he was happy to continue overseeing my treatment.
“Yes of course,” he replied. “I’m more than happy. I specialize in rare and esoteric diseases, which you have, and I’m very interested in your case.”
“I seem to specialize in them too,” I replied flippantly, and he laughed out loud; the rheumatologist has a similarly dry sense of humour.
For some reason, between thanking him and scheduling our next appointment, the word esoteric escaped me and I thought he said erotic. Rare and erotic disease.
“What did he say?” asked Mark as I put the phone down.
“I have a rare and erotic disease.” I replied, shrugging my shoulders nonchalantly. I quite liked being rare and erotic. For a moment I had visions of turning into a burlesque dancer until I remembered my crazy-paved thighs.
“What did he say?” Texted my friend.
“I have a rare and erotic disease.” I texted back.
She replied with **???!!
I feel a tad disloyal towards the cancer. We’ve been together for so long, how do I explain I’m having a fling with a younger disease? I’m no cougar but Polyarteritis Nordosa sounds more outlandish than stage 4 cancer, and definitely more erotic!
My plan for terminal cancer was neater than this. I’d have some good times, then things would get worse, then worse would become the good times. Eventually my organs would pack-up and I’d die, and I hadn’t calculated on something else elbowing its way in. After all this time, cancer should at least get the credit because having an understudy steal the limelight as the curtain falls would be ironic. I hadn’t expected to die of something randomly erotic, but maybe I’d prefer multi orgasm failure to multi organ failure? Just sayin’.
It seems obvious now how similar Bruce and I were. Anxiety overruled logic, we both cloaked ourselves in an armour of false bravado and we were both in permanent flight from our demons. Bruce might have four legs, but I was running as fast from cancer as he was from his nemesis. Kirsty’s ‘quiet place’ would prove as mind-quenching for me as it did for him.
How do you find a quiet place? I began by Googling ‘meditation Dorset’ and found a local MBSR course. Mindfulness Based Stress Release is awareness through paying attention, non-judgementally in the present moment, based on the teachings of John Kabat-Zinn, who ‘brought Buddhism to the West’. I’d got frustrated with meditation before and given up, but it’s easier to do something for someone else than for yourself, so I joined the weekly group to discover what a quiet place looked like, and how I could give it to Bruce. It was hard going! I abhorred silence and always considered my razor-sharp reactions a blessing, so why would I want to pause first? Mindfully chewing raisins wasn’t what I’d expected but I’d paid for the course so I listened to the reasoning, and gradually learnt how to unhook and release the tangle of what-ifs in my mind; when you stop paying attention to the voices, they stop chattering. Mindfulness gave me the simplest coping tool, breathing, and over the years mindful breathing has changed my life. Pause Breathe Smile. Yay raisins!
Breathing with Bruce was miraculous. While I groomed him I focused on my breath and spontaneously, great sighs of emotion rose from the pit of my stomach and fell from my mouth like forgotten prisoners fleeing their dungeon. At first, Bruce snorted and cleared his nose, then he yawned. Then he rubbed his nose on his knee, letting out a long out-breath and swishing his tail until it ceased. I thought it was coincidence, but each day I tried to do the same breathing pattern and sometimes he followed suit. Sometimes he just flapped his lips and sometimes he pawed the ground, but he made an action that acknowledged my breathing. (Writing this, I sighed those long out-breaths again without realising!)
With all the vigour of the newly converted, I practised groundwork with Bruce, trying to breathe steadily and stop my mind wandering to a million different locations. Kirsty had me holding the reins as if I was riding, making me aware of how my hands wandered alongside my busy mind. I was also confusing Bruce because I gave no forethought to my directives. Like a garbled phone message, he got snippets of conversation and had to guess the rest. To direct him clearly, I had to set him up not to fail. It sounded straightforward but it meant unlearning everything I knew. Along with Bruce I was also starting again.
After several weeks of practise and teaching sessions, Kirsty suggested Bruce might like to move on. I hadn’t ridden since the Tractor Dash and was determined to look good, but as the old saying warns us, ‘pride goes only as far as one can spit’. I did however learn the biggest lesson, the art of doing less. Kirsty stood by the fence as I walked and trotted Bruce around the paddock, changing direction and awaiting instruction. I hoped she’d tell me what to do, but as she just stood and watched I thought maybe the lesson hadn’t started yet. Then she walked into the centre.
“What are you asking for?” she said, as Bruce and I laboured around the arena in a vaguely defined circle.
“A loose trot,” I gasped between rising and sitting. “With a good bend,” I added, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing.
“And is it working?”
I rode two more laps while I fought the inevitable answer. “No.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“Because I don’t know what else to do.” The truth in those words stung me to the quick, my ego as flat as Bruce’s footfall.
“Have you tried doing nothing?” Said Kirsty, with the merest hint of smile.
Needless to say, I’d never considered doing nothing.
On our next lesson, Kirsty asked me to rise one beat and sit two at the trot. I understood the action but my body was clumsy. Sauntering round, Bruce seemed happy not doing anything strenuous but his mood suddenly switched, as if he decided he was being ignored and might just as well go home. He sprang into a gazelle leap and galloped towards the gate. I couldn’t see enough space to stop and prepared myself for a fall, but with cadence that would’ve impressed a dressage judge, he halted square from a gallop and stood quietly with his chest against the gate. I wriggled back into the saddle, open-mouthed and speechless.
Kirsty walked unhurried across the field. “Nice halt.” She said.
“Do you think I could get a stronger bit?” I asked her. “He can’t keep tanking-off with me.”
“Doesn’t matter what you put in his mouth you won’t stop him if he wants to go.” She replied.
I felt crestfallen, more at her seeming lack of concern than my predicament.
“But of course,” she continued, “you can always learn to turn him and that’ll stop anything.”
“Turn him?” I replied, puzzled. “He doesn’t turn.”
“Oh, I think he will if you ask in a way he understands. Tom Dorrance, who was the master of enlightened cowboy training had a phrase called double-your-colt. Basically, if you disengage a horse’s hindquarters and ask them to move laterally, they can’t go forward. It’s a way of directing when things start to go shit-shape. Instead of waiting for Bruce to gallop off and try to stop, be ready to turn as he lands from his leap, keep his quarters moving across, and you’ll slow on a circle and stop. Eventually, you’ll be able to bring his head round as soon as you feel the danger signs.”
I looked at Kirsty, she looked at me and we both grinned. “What are we waiting for?” I said. “Let’s get learning!”
Bruce didn’t stop running away, but with Kirsty’s help I began to see things from a different perspective. His running wasn’t an act of disobedience and it wasn’t directed at me personally. He was running because that’s what flight animals do when they’re terrified, and he was terrified; just because I couldn’t see the danger didn’t make it any less frightening. (Years later I discovered that when he was hunting, James galloped him up and down the field, beating him at every turn as a punishment for not standing still. The turn was the trigger, especially in open countryside, and for him it was as real as the days it happened).
I stopped calling Bruce’s escapades bad behaviour and re-named them ‘expressing his opinion,’ and they became a lot less scary. I didn’t know if I could actually alter a situation by approaching it differently, or if I was sidestepping the obvious to avoid misery, but I felt I had a choice. I couldn’t change the situation but I could change the way I looked at it and labelled it, and that was something to being going on with.
Mindfulness helped me clear my head and make room for response, instead of disciplinary reactions towards Bruce. To help him relax I had know what I wanted to do, and I began visualising my request so he received clear instruction. When he got anxious and needed to move his feet it was more sensible to direct him somewhere than try to stop him, and working with my breath meant my hands didn’t grab his sensitive mouth. I also tried to take emotion out of the equation, but that’s still a work in progress. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all panacea, but it helped, and our confidence grew. Kirsty lent me Mark Rashid’s book Life Lessons from a Ranch Horse, and as I read about Mark’s experiences with his horse Buck, thoughts I’d had back in the nineties with Teddy began to re-surface. At the time I’d wanted to make my horse feel better about his life but I didn’t know how. Monty Roberts burst on to the scene in a blaze of join-up glory, along with Parelli instructors in cowboy hats, and I’d watched clinics, read the books and bought the halter, but that new environment was alien. I lacked the courage to travel unfamiliar paths back then, but the seed was sown and now those thoughts were ripening. They might even bear fruit.
In one lesson I rode Bruce bareback; I slid onto his vast, naked back, and as we gradually overcame the trepidation and found our balance it became intensely intimate. Kirsty asked me to focus on my legs being his back legs, and two bodies – one trying to summon intent and stillness, and the other trying to respond and relax – moved as one, like a centaur. At the end of the session Bruce stood still and listened while Kirsty and I chatted, and I loved him even more.
Kirsty always began lessons by asking me what I’d like to do or aim for. Initially, it surprised me because she was the teacher, and I thought she should know what to teach me, but it gave me focus on what I wanted from myself and Bruce. On our next lesson I asked if we could jump.
“What would you like to jump?” She asked.
“I’ve put some branches by the hedge, and there’s some buckets for stands.”
“One jump or a course?”
“Just one will be enough.”
“Okay, you shorten your stirrups and ask for a nice forward trot on a circle, and I’ll set it up.” She quickly arranged a row of poles along one side of our working space, with a small brush jump in the centre. “Trot over the poles a few times from both directions, and remember, not any old trot but the trot you want!”
Bruce pricked his ears as we trotted over the poles, raising his back and lowering his neck. I tried to make my breath slow and steady because I was horribly nervous.
Once she was satisfied we were ready, Kirsty gave instructions. “Next time, come round to the brush after the row of poles, still trotting,” she said. “What’s your plan after you land?”
“Err, I don’t have one.”
“You’d better think of one before you try. We haven’t done this before and we don’t know what he’ll do.”
“I’ll be ready to turn him” I said smugly. “And then we’ll stop.”
Kirsty looked up and smiled. “Good plan.”
I never thought we’d do it but we did, and Bruce carried me like I was precious cargo. It was only a little jump but to me it was like jumping the moon. As we landed, Bruce shot into the air with ears flat back and I sat still and brought him onto a circle because that’s how confident I felt after jumping the moon. The second time was in canter, and he didn’t panic afterwards. Kirsty’s word rang in my ears, “know what you want, set it up and let it happen.” Jumping branches balanced on buckets, in the corner of a sloping field, on a horse who had been written-off meant everything I had wished for this horse came true.
Emboldened by new-found confidence, I entered a local in-hand show. On the morning of the show I got to Sheila’s at the crack of dawn, bathed and polished Bruce until he shone, and plaited his tail to show-off his wonderful backside. He was an Adonis and I was a nervous wreck. Sheila drove us to the show in her battered old trailer, and regaled me with showing stories from her youth. She’d lent me her ‘lucky’ tweed jacket with assurances it had never let her down. It wasn’t the jacket that worried me.
The other entrants in the cob class were all gypsy cobs with flowing manes. Their naturally hairy legs feathered out at the hoof like seventies bell-bottoms, and Bruce was the only maxi-cob, with a traditional hogged mane and clean-shaven legs. His paces were faultless, but he obviously wasn’t the type of cob the judge favoured. As we came out of the ring proudly clutching our 5th place rosette, an elderly countryman stopped us. “Excuse me,” he said with a broad Irish accent, putting a hand out to my arm “I hope you know you were the real winner there.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, slightly confused.
“Yours was the only horse who moved like a cob should move. The horses above him only shuffled. Judge didn’t know what she was doing. She should see more proper cobs. Don’t get many like yours these days, he’s made like they should be. Like they used to be.”
“Oh THANKYOU, how very lovely of you to say that!” I was truly overwhelmed.
“I wasn’t the only one stood here who thought it.”
“Thankyou, you’ve made our day. But the judge was fair, she said he had hock spavins. Mind you after nine years hunting he’s entitled to have arthritis in his joints.”
As the stranger studied the offending pair of hocks, Bruce stood as still and square as he had for the judge, flicking his ears backwards as the man spoke. “They don’t look too bad to me, and they’re far enough from his heart not to cause any trouble. As I said, judge knows nothing about cobs.” He ran his hand softly down Bruce’s neck and looked him in the eye. Bruce held his head by the man’s arm and smelt something familiar that he couldn’t place. Then he flapped his lips.
Bruce and I were on a high, after a fearful first year we were finding our way of working together. I couldn’t say I trusted him, and he certainly didn’t trust me, but we had compromised to find a way to keep moving forward and still breathe. My next goal was riding a walk-and-trot dressage test. But once again, cancer got in the way of plans.
This month would’ve been my friend Jimmy’s birthday. Jimmy spent his life helping people. He was a hub of energy and generosity and his friends spun around him like satellites, reflecting and repaying his support by thriving under his guidance, while he basked in their glow.
By choice, he died alone and his funeral was a beautiful service with very thoughtful readings, and as testament to his generosity the crematorium was packed to overflowing. People from all walks of life filled the seats and aisles, spilled into the foyer, and outside to the car park.
Back in 1971 I was sitting on the grass in Bournemouth Pleasure Gardens, considering my options. My feet were bare and I can still remember how warm the grass felt between my toes. I’d spent the afternoon getting stoned with my hippy friends, listening to Neil Young’s new album ‘After the Goldrush’, on an ancient mono record player in someone’s bedsit, where the air was heavy with the smell of patchouli oil and joss sticks. Cody, who was American and doing a Foundation Year at the local Art College strummed along on guitar. He looked a lot like James Taylor and I fancied the pants off him, but he saved his crooning for Michelle and I couldn’t compete with her Joni Mitchell blondness.
It was my Ethereal Phase and I was wearing a long black silk skirt with silver stars, and a peach satin blouse with Guinevere sleeves that dipped down to my knees. Jimmy sat down on the grass beside me and we smiled. He admired my skirt, and in that blissed-out way you can’t stop babbling when you’re stoned, I told him how I’d printed it myself with a potato cut into star shape, and dipped in shoe dye to get the silver colour. We carried on talking, he rolled more joints and we carried on talking more. He told me he’d been in the London cast of the musical Hair, but the musical director said he couldn’t work alongside people with the star-sign Leo, so he let Jimmy go. He was heartbroken. We talked about everything and nothing until it got dark.
Apart from two major tiffs (one his fault, one mine) we didn’t stop talking for the next forty-four years. We shared pivotal times as we changed styles and persona. We morphed from hippies to punk, dressing in outfits from Malcolm Mclaren’s famous boutique in London’s Kings Road. We became disco divas and went clubbing; invariably fancying the same men. We saw iconic rock bands play live, and Ella Fitzgerald accompanied on the piano by Count Basie. We shared the heartache of our love lives, worked together selling antiques, and were beside eachother when plans and marriages collapsed, and when parents died. We shared more than half a lifetime.
Somehow without any of us noticing, Jimmy’s resources drained. He was unable to replenish, revitalise and reconnect his amazing energy, and without giving, he felt he couldn’t continue living. With careful planning he took his own life; on a cold February morning he walked a long way across the heathland to a lone tree where he hung himself. I know he wouldn’t have thought of me, of us, any more than he could’ve thought of any of the people who mourned at his funeral because that would have been too painful, and he had something to do that morning which required single-minded determination. And courage.
So, take time today. Take however much time you need to be kind, gentle and nurturing to yourself. Take time to be selfish and remember that by always putting others first, you are teaching them to put you last. Do all the things that make you feel good, feel alive and replenished. Remember you are loved by others and remember to love yourself because you are all you have.
And remember to Let the Sun Shine In, especially when the clouds feel feel like they will never lift.