Authors: Terence Blacker
âShe's the best landlady in Newmarket,' says Laura. âShe's been in the local paper.'
âStop it now, load of nonsense.' Auntie waves a hand, as if brushing away her fame, but there is a smile on her face. She stands up. âLaura will show you the ropes. She's a good girl. And you can start by doing the washing-up.'
After supper, as Auntie stays inside watching television, Laura and I sit in the little back garden, mugs of tea in our hands.
She chats casually about the Wilkinson yard. It's one of the oldest stables in Newmarket, she tells me, then laughs. âAnd it feels it.'
âBut he's famous, Mr Wilkinson.'
âHe had his glory days.' Laura sips at her tea. âTrouble is, they were a bit of a long time ago. Racing's moved on, and he hasn't.'
In the gloomy evening light, she tells me that these days there is only one decent owner who has horses with Mr Wilkinson, a Saudi prince, and that even he is rumoured to be about to take his horses away.
âToo many has-beens and losers,' she says rather cheerfully. âAnd that's just the humans.'
âWhat about the horses?'
âCouple of half-decent two-year-olds, but there's a lot of rubbish in those stables. They're just kept for theâ' She rubs the fingers of her left hand together.
âThe grey, Manhattan,' I say casually. âIs she rubbish?'
âWorse than rubbish. You don't want to waste your time on that big freak. She's the joke of the yard, Nelly.'
âThat's what we call her. Someone said she looks like a giraffe. Someone remembered that kids' song “Nelly the Elephant”. So Nelly it was.'
âWhat's wrong with her?'
âYou'll find out.' Laura stands up and drains her tea. She suddenly seems a bit uncomfortable by the way our conversation has gone. âNew lads get a little bit of a test. It involves the mare.' She speaks in a low voice, as if one of Auntie's neighbours could be listening in.
âDon't worry about it. Just keep your nose clean and you'll be all right. I'll see you in the morning.'
Alone in the little garden, I listen to the distant sounds of Newmarket â some music, a train racing by, the occasional raised voice.
I have a job. I am in racing. There are all sorts of mysterious tests ahead of me. And I'm not a stable lass.
AND SO MY
life as a stable lad begins.
I feel odd and out of place at first. The breeches, boots and crash-hat Deej has found for me in the tack room are slightly too big and have the stale smell of someone else's sweat.
Deej and Laura look out for me, but always quietly. I sense that if I make a mistake I will be on my own.
Although they mostly ignore me, I get to know the other lads.
There's Liam, an Irishman in his twenties who was once a promising apprentice but became too heavy to make it as a jockey, and Tommy â older, balding â who tells bad jokes. Amit is a good-looking Indian guy who looks neat on a horse but has soft, scared eyes. Davy, one of the younger lads, can never stop talking.
Then there is Pete, broad-shouldered and with a harsh buzz-cut which makes his head look like some kind of missile. He is older than I first thought â probably in his late thirties â and there is something about him which seems to scare the other lads. They laugh at his jokes, step out of his way when he enters the tack room.
I'm curious about him. He doesn't seem to like horses and, to judge by the way he slumps in the saddle, he sees riding as a chore. Deej is reluctant to talk about him. âComes from London,' he says, adding as a casual afterthought, âit's best to keep on the right side of old Pete.'
Sometimes as I go about my work, I notice that Angus, the head lad, is watching me. He has given me the heaviest, nastiest jobs. I lug bales of hay my first morning. When I finish, Angus hands me a bucket and scrubbing brush.
âToilet duty,' he says. âGive the lads' lavatory a good going over, will you, lassie?'
As he walks away, he passes Pete and says something which makes them both laugh.
There is no riding for those first two days. I watch as the early-morning string of horses â âfirst lot', it is called â go to the covered yard where Mr Wilkinson waits for them, a matchstick in the side of his mouth. I see them walk out to the heath.
Second lot, for the horses that are not racing in the near future, goes out at 8.45. Later in the morning, there is third lot â the two-year-olds who are still too weak to be galloping, and horses that are recovering from injury.
I look out for the big grey, Manhattan, but the only time I see her is being led by Pete to the walker, a circular moving floor that exercises horses for forty-five minutes without their having to be ridden.
It is after two days as the ignored dogsbody of the Wilkinson yard that I get the chance to show anyone that I can ride.
I am on the stack in the hay barn when Mrs Wilkinson appears. As usual, she doesn't exactly fit the image of a trainer's wife. In tight designer jeans, a well-ironed white shirt and shiny boots, she looks more like a busy city type on a weekend break in the country.
âI think it's time to find out if you're any good, Miss Barton,' she booms. âTack up Athlone Boy, Mr Bucknall's hunter. Use his hunting saddle. I'll see you at the covered ride in fifteen minutes prompt.'
She walks briskly out of the yard.
I'm already halfway down the ladder.
Athlone Boy is a heavy, sleepy cob with a slightly bored look about him. When going out to the gallops with the string, he and Bucknall, with their two big bottoms and a slow waddling stride, look strange and out of place. It is as if a couple of hippopotamuses have wandered into a ballet class. Right now he is none too thrilled at being asked to work for the second time in the day.
âWake him up, Jay!' Mrs Wilkinson watches me, arms crossed, as I take Athlone Boy round the outside of the big barn where the string gathers every morning before going on the heath. âYou're like a sack of potatoes.'
I give the old horse a kick in the ribs.
Come on, boy. Stop taking the mick.
With an impatient grunt, Athlone Boy trots on. I give him another harder kick, clicking my teeth, and he breaks into a canter, grunting with every stride. It is good to be back in the saddle.
You can tell that he is used to being ridden badly. At first, he is unresponsive and determined to go at his own pace, but I squeeze him up to the bridle, slap him on the shoulder with the end of the reins. He needs to know who's boss. Soon I have him going easily.
That's it. This is how it goes with me. It's more fun, isn't it?
After circling and doing some figures of eight, I even pop him over a low triple bar that is in the centre of the ride.
Out of the covered school, Mrs Wilkinson walks in silence beside me. Now and then she glances in my direction. As we enter the back yard, Angus appears.
âThe girl's not bad.' Mrs Wilkinson nods in my direction. âStrong legs, good hands, got the old boy going nicely. I think she should ride out tomorrow. Put her on something quiet.'
âAlready, Mrs Wilkinson? She's just a wee slip ofâ'
âGood to see what she's made of.'
The head lad looks away sharply in irritation, then says quietly, âI'd probably best wait for Mr Wilkinson's instructions on that, ma'am.'
âNo need.' A quick cold smile flashes across Mrs Wilkinson's face. âI'll tell him myself.'
She walks off, her boots echoing on the concrete.
I arrive at the yard early on my fourth day of work, and go straight to the tack room to look at the List. Those are our orders for the day, put up last thing at night.
The List has all the names of the horses in the yard, and beside each of them the lads who will be riding them that day first, second and third lot. If there are special instructions about blinkers or if a horse should wear a certain bridle or martingale, that will be on the List too.
My name is nowhere to be seen. I have no choice but to stay in the tack room until Angus tells me what to do.
When he arrives, later than usual, he behaves as if I am invisible. He collects his saddle and bridle. As he is about to leave, he mutters, âOh yes, there's you, girly. Muck out Liam's and Amit's horses, will you? They're going racing today.'
âExcuse me, Angus,' I call after him.
He turns. âAye?'
âI thought I was riding out today.'
He walks slowly back to me. âThird lot. But your friend Mrs Wilkinson won't be around to look after you. They'll be off racing by late morning.'
âGreat. Who am I riding?'
An odd little smile appears on his face. âOh, maybe you can ride Nelly. Let Pete tack her up for you.'
âNelly to her friends. If she had any.'
âYou're welcome.' He reaches for one of the whips which are hanging on a hook beside the saddles. âYou'll need this.'
I'm confused. I have been told by Deej that only lads who are experienced enough to ride work on a horse on the gallops are allowed to carry a whip.
âSpecial rule,' Angus explains. âYou won't be carrying a whip normally. But you'll need it on the mare.'
There is an odd atmosphere at the yard later that morning. The Wilkinsons have left for the races after first lot. There is more noise and laughter in the yard than usual.
Another odd thing. I am no longer invisible.
âWhat's going on?' I ask Deej after he returns from second lot. âWhy are people smiling at me?'
âJust do your best on the mare,' he says.
âI heard that new lads get a test.'
Deej gives me an odd look. I sense he would like to tell me more but hasn't quite got the nerve.
âWe all need a laugh now and then,' he says. âDon't worry about it.'
At 10.45, I put on my crash-hat and, feeling a bit self-conscious, I make my way to Manhattan's box, the whip in my hand.
To my surprise, Pete has her saddled and bridled already. She seems calmer than when I last saw her. In fact, she is more than calm â she looks half asleep.
âWhat's she like as a ride?' I ask Pete as I look over the stable door.
He tightens the girth. âThat's for you to find out, isn't it?'
I walk into the stable. For the first time, I see how big she is. She must be over seventeen hands.
When Pete gives me a leg-up, it is as if he is lifting me through the roof. I land in the saddle, heavily. To my surprise, Manhattan shows no reaction.
Pete leads me slowly out of the stable. The mare puts one foot in front of the other as if every step is an effort for her. Looking down, I feel small and slightly ridiculous. Several of the lads are standing around the back yard, as if waiting for this moment.
âOff you go then,' says Pete, taking his hand off the reins.
I give Manhattan a kick. She plants her feet firmly on the ground. Her ears twitch backwards.
Come on, girl. Let's go.
There are jeers around the yard.
âWhat's up, Barton?' Pete calls out. âGot a problem? We heard you could ride.'
âGive her one, girl,' somebody shouts. âBloomin' freak, Nelly. She's trying it on.'
I see Laura crossing the yard, carrying a saddle propped against her hip. She stares ahead of her as if nothing is happening. I slap Manhattan gently on the shoulder with the whip. Now her ears are flat back against her head.
We're not freaks, are we, girl?
The words come from somewhere deep within me. I know how Manhattan is feeling, surrounded by laughing, scornful humans.
I take my feet out of the stirrups, slide the long way down to the ground. I put down the whip beside the stable door and lead her towards the covered ride.
When we enter, the six other horses going out on third lot are walking around the outside. Bucknall is standing where Mr Wilkinson normally stands. I lead Manhattan towards him.
âHaving problems already, Jasmine?' he says, a little smile on his face.
I stand beside Manhattan and raise my left leg. âJust a leg-up please, Mr Bucknall,' I say.
The assistant trainer hikes me into the saddle. âBlimey,' he says, looking up at me. âTalk about the Little and Large Show. You've got a long way to fall, Jasmine. Where's your whip?'
âShe doesn't like it. I could tell when I slapped her on the shoulder.'
âNot a clue,' Bucknall mutters. âHopeless little schoolgirl.'
Manhattan is doing her statue act again. I think of Ted, and wonder what he would do. Then I remember the heart trick.
I place my hand on her shoulder.
Just you and me. Forget everyone else. It's us.
I draw the shape of a heart on her coat. The ears flicker uncertainly.
Again, I trace the heart, pressing into her skin.
You're safe with me, girl.
âCome on, new girl,' I hear one of the lads calling out. âLet's see how you ride.'
I ignore him.
Don't worry, Manhattan. I won't hit you.
I sense the slightest relaxation in the horse's giant frame. I apply the gentlest pressure on her mouth and click my teeth.
Slowly, reluctantly, like a grandma with arthritis, she walks forward. I join the rest of the string.
It is a tough hour and a half. Manhattan is tense, as if expecting to be hit at any moment. As we follow far behind the other horses, there is a temptation to get angry with her, kick her up into the bridle.
But I talk in a low voice, all the way up the horse path towards the heath.
As I join the other horses on the gallops, Laura â who is riding a two-year-old called Crazy Days â glances at me and winks, a little smile on her face. I sense that the other lads are losing interest in the Manhattan and Jay Barton Show.