Authors: Terence Blacker
I pestered Ted to let me jump logs and low post-and-rails when we were out together. When out riding with Michaela, I would try to get Tinker to gallop.
âGo easy,' Ted would tell me. âYou're not a jockey yet, young lady.'
Uncle Bill said I was pony-mad, but there was more to it than that. I dreamed of riding, and jumping, even being a jockey. I found an old book on a shelf in Coddington Hall called
Great Ladies: The Wonder Fillies of History
, and kept it in my room, reading every night about horses who had raced years ago.
When I went to my new school in the autumn, my thoughts were never far from Tinker and Lysander. In lessons, I was in a world of my own and drew pictures of ponies when I was meant to be working. For maths, I looked at the racing paper Uncle Bill received every day, and studied which horses ran best over what distance. I would have been the despair of the teachers, if it had not been for the big, dark shadow of personal tragedy that was hanging over me.
Everyone thought that my obsession with riding and ponies was my way of escaping from the pain of what I was going through. It took most of that first year for them to discover that I wasn't cracking up at all. Riding made me stronger. I was not running away from anything because every moment of every day my mother's voice, one word at a time, was there with me, keeping me calm, reminding me that I was never truly alone.
BY THE TIME
I reach the end of my first year of pony-racing, a lot has changed.
At my new school, there is no Michaela to be my friend and keep me supplied with second-hand cool and glamour. I am a misfit, even in sport. Because I am faster and stronger than boys of my age, they think I am weird, half-boy and half-girl. I have a nickname, âthe Freak'. I am âFreaky Barton'.
Michaela, on the other hand, is happy at her private school, Northfield Lodge. The two or three years when we were the Bartons, winning at the local gymkhanas, seem a long time ago. Something is different between us.
Nothing alters more than her attitude to riding. At the very moment when I am becoming more interested in racing, she heads in the other direction. For her, ponies are for grooming and fussing over, for looking pretty and neat when we are out riding.
I want to go fast and to win, and, now that I am winning, she finds that completely ridiculous.
âIt is kind of weird how much coming first matters to you,' she says in the strange, sing-song voice she seems to have picked up from her school. âI mean, there's a whole world out there which has nothing to do with horses. Maybe you should try it some time.'
For the briefest moment, I am about to try to explain to her how I feel, but it passes. No point. Waste of breath.
We are drifting apart, my best friend and me. Pony-racing has toughened me up. I was never good at chat about parties or boys or celebrities, but there was a time when I used to try and tag along. Now I don't bother. For Michaela, those things seem to matter more than ever. Almost every day, she tries to talk to me about something I don't care about before giving up in despair. I have zero conversational skills, she says.
Maybe it's true. Two years ago, we talked all the time â Uncle Bill called us âthe wall of sound'. Now we sometimes struggle to find anything we have in common.
The days I spend racing with Uncle Bill make things worse. Michaela never mentions them, even when I have â
when I have â won, but I sense that it annoys her that I am doing something successful with her father in a world she doesn't understand.
In fact, my life at Coddington Hall is different all round. The more I talk and think about riding, the more I irritate my aunt. She jokes to her friends, âJay might as well
a horse,' and laughs in a slightly embarrassed way.
These days Uncle Bill spends more time in his office. Sometimes he seems almost out of place when he is with Aunt Elaine and Michaela. If he is feeling brave, he might joke about how he's not posh enough for them, with a little secret wink in my direction. He only truly relaxes when we are off racing, and that worries me too. It is as if we are becoming two families.
I don't fit in at school, and now I don't really fit in at home either.
It is early summer and Uncle and I have had a good week. Two race meetings, three winners.
That weekend, two girls from Michaela's school come to stay â Emma (tall with dark hair which she swishes around as if she's in a shampoo commercial) and Flossie (loud voice, large, likes to think of herself as something of a character).
I have learned over the past year that they are a school gang. They have their own private jokes, bits of stupid-sounding slang from âthe Lodge' which I don't understand. They chatter away together like three happy songbirds. Beside them, I feel like a scruffy little sparrow.
I try to join in, but I get a full range of unfriendly looks â the âwho-are-you-again?' look, the âand-what-do-you-know-about-this?' look, the âare-you-still here?' look.
I can handle that. The weekends when the âgang' are staying, I go about my business, spending more time on my own. There's always something I can do in the stables.
That Saturday, after breakfast, I'm in the stable yard, saddling up Dusty for our morning ride, but there's no sign of Michaela, Emma or Flossie. When I go into the house, I find them watching TV.
âI'm going riding. Anyone coming?'
No answer. All eyes on the screen.
âEr, hello. Anyone?'
At this point, Michaela stretches. Without looking at me, she says, âCould you tack up Marius for me?'
âOh, and Lucky as well while you're at it. Em's riding Dusty, by the way.'
âMichaela, what is this?'
I stand there for a moment while the three of them gaze at the screen. I'm aware that I seem to be trembling. Flossie clears her throat and murmurs to Michaela, âDon't look now, Mick, but she's still here.' The other one, Emma, gives a little laugh.
Michaela glances at me. âWe'll be out when this is over. Oh, and make sure you remember to put a drop-noseband on Marius.'
I leave, but I don't go to the stables. I go to my room, then down the back stairs to find out whether the gang are more talkative now than when I was there.
âIt's embarrassing,' Michaela is saying. âShe behaves as if she's one of the family when she's so not.'
âIsn't she your cousin?' The question is murmured. I think it's from Emma.
âCousins don't count as family.' Michaela gives a little laugh. âShe doesn't anyway. She's basically a stable girl. She's here to look after the ponies.'
âSo why does she stay in the house and eat with the family?' asks Flossie.
âWe used to go to school together. There was this big tragedy. Her father had walked out. Then her mum â my dad's sister â died of cancer and she had to stay with us.' Michaela drops her voice. âMy dad has always wanted me to treat her like one of us â like a friend. He didn't want me to grow up to be a snobby bitch, basically.'
âThat's going well,' Flossie mutters, and they all giggle.
âNo, seriously.' Michaela drops her voice, but I can still hear every word. âShe and her mum used to live in this block of flats where the stairs smelled of like, you know, toilets. And her mother was always in trouble. I feel sorry for Jay and all that, but the fact is she's really lucky to be here. She's like our private charity case.'
âAaaah,' coos Emma. âThat is so nice of you guys.'
âYeah, and my stepmother says it's important we don't make her feel like a servant,' says Michaela. âAlthough she is, totally. She goes to these gypsy races and makes loads of money for my dad.'
There is a roaring in my ears. Red fire. I back away towards a side door leading to the stables. I've heard enough.
That's the answer to those moments when life becomes too much. I can't use my anger now but there is always that.
In the wind, the air, looking ahead, a pony beneath you. It simplifies things. It clears away the rubbish. It reminds you of what matters.
Ride, ride, ride.
I walk quickly to the stables and make my way to Dusty's stable. Whatever the weather, he will come out of his box, looking about him, ready for the excitements of the day.
âOthers coming, are they?'
Unusually, Ted appears as I'm putting on Dusty's bridle. The sun is behind him as he stands at the door, a shadowy figure with bow legs, like a comedy cowboy.
I glance towards him, too angry to speak.
âAre you all right, jockey? You look a little flushed.'
âYeah. I'm fine, thanks.' I tighten the girth roughly, and Dusty grunts.
âEasy, girl. Don't take it out on the pony.'
I nod, muttering âSorry' to both Ted and to Dusty.
I walk Dusty to the door.
âI'll be back later, Ted,' I manage to say.
âGo easy then.'
It is his favourite phrase. He uses it with humans and, more often, with the ponies. He gives me a leg-up.
âEasy, girl. Go easy.'
We trot briskly through the woods, through a gate and into a sunlit field beyond. There's a slight rise in the ground. I click my teeth and Dusty breaks into a canter, then a gallop. As the wind hits my face, I open my mouth and scream, letting it all out. There's a jump in the fence at the end of the field â an oxer made out of dead elm trunks. Dusty soars over it.
After a while we are no longer on Uncle Bill's land. Feeling calmer now, I cross a field where the hay has been cut, until we reach a small country road. I think about my life. School, Freaky Barton, Uncle Bill, Aunt Elaine, Michaela and her private charity case. I can see clearly now.
The further we go, the more Dusty is enjoying our ride. Whoa, a bridge â that's interesting! Crossing a river now â scary at first, but that's cool too! Hey, look at all these cars and lorries! Watch out, a pheasant's getting up in front of us! Where are we going to next?
Come on, Dusty. Let's forget about them all.
IT IS NOT
running away. It is running to. As soon as the idea is in my mind during the long ride on Dusty, there is no escaping it. I begin to work on my plan.
Over the past few months I have been saving the money that Uncle Bill has given me for riding in races â Â£10, sometimes Â£20, if I have ridden a winner. I have Â£230 in a purse in my drawer, enough to get me away.
By the time summer is over, I will be sixteen. The moment has come for me to start a new life where I am not in the way, a nuisance, a freak, a bad influence, where I can be myself, where there are other people with the same dreams and hopes as me.
I am going to the home of racing.
It is still dark the next morning when my mobile phone vibrates softly beneath my pillow. I get up silently, get dressed. One more time, I check my rucksack. Spare clothes. Money. A diary with telephone numbers in the back. My battered copy of
Great Ladies: The Wonder Fillies of History.
Make the bed, slip the mobile phone into my pocket. Out to the stables to say goodbye to Dusty.
I'm going, boy, but I'll never forget you.
Dusty looks at me, surprised to have woken up to find a human with her arms around his neck, her face pressed against him.
You taught me. When things are going wrong, you have a choice. You can keep going and hope things will work out. Or you can jump.
The pony gives a long, patient sigh. This is not what he wants in the early hours of the morning.
From now on, I'll remember the Dusty way of doing things. Ears pricked, head high, eyes on the way ahead.
I hold him close and, at that moment, I hear a sound outside. I stay still for one minute, two.
Silently, I let myself out of the stable. The door to the tack room is open.
I sense that I am being watched. Ted has come to work early. I raise a finger to my lips, then walk softly out of the stable yard and down the drive.
It is light by the time I reach the bus stop in the local village. A young couple on their way to work glance at me without any particular curiosity.
It is on time. We travel from village to village until we reach the town. I walk to the station. It is already full of people going to work, too absorbed in their own private worlds to pay any attention to me.
I buy a ticket, get on the train, open my copy of
. I keep my head down as the train pulls out of the station and gathers speed, taking me away from the past. With every mile, I feel as if a weight is being lifted off my shoulders.
I smile. The train hurtles onwards.
After we have been travelling for an hour, I take out my mobile phone. I tap up Uncle Bill's number and tap out a text.
hi uncle bill.
gone to get a holiday job. be in touch when i've sorted things out. plse don't worry about me. i know how to look out for myself!
love to michaela & aunt elaine
I press âsend' and gaze at the screen for a moment before switching off the power. Casually, I walk down the carriage. I open one of the windows between the carriages and, after checking that no one is watching me, I hurl the mobile into space, then walk quickly back to my seat.
Gazing out at the fields racing by, I think of my mother.
IN MY MIND
, I know what Newmarket will be like. It is the place where some of the biggest, most famous trainers have their stables, where thoroughbred racing started and has its home.