Saturday, 22 October 2016

This is your life.

In two days, I think, it will be the anniversary of my mother’s death. Anniversaries are stupid things, I think; you don’t need a special day to miss someone. I look up, into the furry belly of my brown mare, who is already growing her winter coat and is as soft as a teddy bear. I am on one knee in the mud, wrangling with a recalcitrant rug strap. The mare stands sweetly, like a benign rock of ages, dreaming her morning away. Both horses are very still. They are like that, some days. They beam peace into the air. I have no idea how they do this but it is as palpable as an embrace. I stand with them for a while, moving gently from one to the other, a scratch here, a rub there. They blink their liquid eyes and breathe gently through their nostrils. I stop missing my mother and feel part of the living world.

A faint gleam of light breaks through the flat sky and I walk down to the village to get my Racing Post. I ring up the dear Stepfather. He has been out and about, seeing all his old friends. I hated saying goodbye to him when he went back to the south; it was one of the greatest wrenches of my life. But I hoped this was exactly what would happen: he would have the balm of all those long friendships. And so he has. He told me of a dinner he went to with four widows. How lovely, I thought, people who really know about death. I imagined them swapping bereavement stories, feeling passionately relieved that they did not have to explain themselves. Loss is an awful sort of club; only when you get your membership card will the doorman lift the velvet rope.

 ‘Did you talk about death?’ I say, half laughing.
 ‘No,’ he says. ‘We didn’t mention it.             
I laugh properly. ‘So sorry,’ I say. ‘I forgot you were all British.’ (He is in fact half Canadian, but has lived in Britain for so many years that he has become the very epitome of the English gentleman. He still puts on a tie every day.) My generation do speak of sex and death and politics at the dinner table. For that generation, the eighty-somethings, those three subjects are utterly forbidden.

We talk about other things and then I say, quietly: ‘I miss Mum very much.’
He says: ‘So do I.’

I stop and look at the burn. It runs, brown with peat and glittering with light, against a line of old stones at that point, and makes a singing, rushing sound as it hits them. This is your life, right this minute, I think: the hills and the trees and the water and a dear voice on the telephone and a heart that still aches and a laugh that can still laugh.

I’ll take that, I think. It’s not so dusty.

And then I go home to watch Cheltenham. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

My work is done.

I finished my big polish and have no more words and no more brain left. The sun shone. The autumn leaves are suddenly growing vivid and gaudy. The red mare’s young friend came for a ride. The dogs danced up and down the burn as if they were inventing choreography in their doggy heads. 

A dear friend sent me a lovely message to say he has read The Happy Horse and had loved it. This was incredibly touching for two reasons. He is a writer and a reviewer and he has a vast amount to read for his work. And although he was once a very fine amateur jockey, he has not sat on a horse for years. So that was a true act of friendship.

Across the way, a wedding is taking place, and happy people in kilts are smiling at the good weather and the joy and the love. 

I squint, with the last that is left of my cognitive function, at the first meeting of the season at Cheltenham, where the equine athletes stretch and gallop and soar
under the benign gaze of Cleeve Hill. A faint shadow of melancholy falls on me as I think how much my mother loved this meeting. One is reunited with old friends, back from their summer holidays, and one gets a dazzling glimpse of the new stars, the young ones brought over from France or the novices who are just graduating to hurdles. ‘Very bonny,’ I write about one fella in my notebook, under Horses to Follow. ‘A little sprinkle of stardust perhaps.’

It’s been a long week and I feel a bit like Joey Ramone when he sang: I guess I’ll have to tell them that I got no cerebellum. Which is one of my favourite lyrics of all time. But I got my work done.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Words and smiles and conkers.

Today, I have been going through a manuscript removing the words ‘however’, ‘only’ and ‘just’. As in: however, just concentrating on the small things does not only bring you joy. (That is a terrible example, but my brain is fried from concentration and I can’t construct an orderly sentence.) I’ve also taken out about twenty uses of the word ‘horrid’. For some reason, I seem very fond of that word. I have replaced it with beastly and ghastly and awful and desperate and foul and detestable and heinous and hideous. My thesaurus is so tired that it is considering taking up mountain climbing, as this would be less exhausting.

Why does it matter that sometimes I just use the word just? This is a world of smallness where smallness needs a new definition.

It matters. Too much repetition, too many redundant words, too many qualifications, and the brilliant subliminal mind of the Dear Reader starts to lift its head like a questing vole. The reader gives the writer trust; if you abuse that gift, it will be lost. If the sentences are not clean, the reader begins to get a falling sense of disappointment, even if she does not quite know why. It’s so subtle that it is almost visceral.

Also, the rhythm of the sentence may be lost, that alluring syncopated beat which makes prose dance off the page. I listen to sentences like I listen to music. A syllable too many, and I sadly put my tap shoes away.

I write here in first draft. I give it a quick look to make sure there is nothing too awful and send it out into the world on a wing and prayer. I have faith that people who read blogs know they are of a different order than books. Books must be polished like gleaming gems. They are precious, and require precision and care. They demand the jeweller’s loupe.

In the real world, the sun shone on the field and I walked down this morning to find two enchanting and unexpected visitors. The red mare has a new friend who lives in the next valley along. The new friend is eleven years old, and it turns out that what she most loves to do is ride a thoroughbred. (She has very good taste.) So we brushed off the mud and saddled up and the happy pair went out into the meadows and woods and hills. The mother and I walked ahead, talking about all our favourite people and how remarkable they are. ‘She has a core of steel,’ we said of one person, ‘and she is so kind at the same time. Everything about her is kindness. It’s an unbeatable combination.’ This kind of conversation, I suddenly realised, is my favourite. I enjoy it even more than trying to unravel the mysteries of Donald Trump’s strange psyche or how the electoral college really works.

Each time I looked back, there would be the beaming face of the young rider and the sweet white blaze of the red mare. She had her neck stretched out and her head low and she was wandering along like a Quarter Horse. ‘There,’ I would say. ‘You two are a partnership now.’

When we finished, the young friend ran about collecting conkers. ‘This is a really outstanding conker tree,’ she said, with her flashing smile. I thought how glorious the days were when happiness depended on finding the good conkers.
            ‘Can we come back tomorrow?’ they said.

            I felt my heart lift. ‘Come back every day,’ I said.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Two small things for the price of one.

 Two small, illuminating things happened today.

I overslept. I’ve had a massive attack of sciatica and have been on the hard-core drugs and my mind and body are rather bashed and exhausted. The oversleeping made me cross. I had not started the day and I was already running late. Small, potent pleasures like walking the dogs and feeding the horses suddenly became beastly chores.

As I was stumping furiously out into the low Scottish gloom, my brother rang up. He wanted to talk about a horse we both love who ran on Saturday. What made the moment particularly thrilling was that The Beloved Cousin is in a syndicate, and she owns a hoof of this bold, bonny fella, and she had taken the whole family to see him run. He was in one of the hottest races of the season. All the stars had come to Ascot to glitter and gleam. The Tin Man was 7-1 for a reason. I adore him, with his kind, determined, handsome face and his determination and his tenacity. I slapped a tenner on him out of loyalty, but I thought he would do well to finish in the first four.

He floated out of the stalls and got into a lovely rhythm and when Tom Queally asked him the question he said yes. He surged past some of the best horses in Europe with the smooth acceleration of a Maserati and kept his dear head in front to the line.
            ‘The Tin Man,’ said my brother, down the telephone. ‘What about that?’
            ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘He was mighty.’

And then we were off to the races. We talked about Willie Mullins and we talked about human health and we talked about age and we talked about gratitude. We talked about the family. We were serious and we made jokes.

I snapped the telephone shut and realised that I was no longer cross. The day was saved. All it took was a fond voice and some happy memories. Such a little, ordinary thing, I thought; such a miraculous effect.

Someone sent me flowers yesterday, because I had been under the weather. That was a small thing too, but I found it amazingly touching. They sit on my desk as I write and I think: somebody took the time and thought to do that. It makes me smile.

The second small thing was to do with trying your best. I’m a huge believer in trying, although I don’t always live up to my best.

I’ve got another secret project on the go. The first secret project is no longer secret. It exists in the world. It is a book called The Happy Horse and I published it myself on Amazon because I could not face the doleful meetings with the traditional publishers. (‘You’re writing about a happy what????’) It is now galloping about under its own steam and real people are reading it and enjoying it and leaving kind reviews about it.

Self-publishing is terrifying and liberating at the same time. I have two manuscripts going through the conventional route, and that route is so slow and littered with potholes that I start the secret projects to keep me from running mad. The second secret project is going to go out on Amazon just like its sister. I’ve written a book about horses; now I’m doing one about humans.

The temptation was to press the button as quickly as possible. Apparently, once you exist in the world of the e-book, you have to get as much ‘product’ out there as you can. So I was dashing and rushing and ready to go. I had done my five drafts; I had done my platitude edit. And then I stopped, and took a deep breath, and decided to give it another polish. Do your best, I thought. Just because you have no editor, just because this is not an official, papery book, it does not mean you can fall into the slipshod.

And suddenly my stern eye saw all manner of the slightly second-rate. There were repeated phrases, the worn ones I get so fond of I use them over and over again. There were redundant adjectives. There was, I’m afraid to say, self-indulgence. There was a rather shaming amount of throat-clearing. (If in doubt, cut it out, shouted the joyful critics in my head.) Some of the paragraphing was frankly peculiar.

All the changes I am making are small changes: a word here, a sentence there. Probably, nobody would have noticed hugely if I had let the things stand. But perhaps, like a tiny mouse-scratch in the back of the mind, there would have been the falling sense that this was not quite as good as it could have been.

I don’t want the Dear Readers to have mice in their poor brains.

So I’m going through, a page at a time, looking not for the all right, not for the that will do, not for the just about cuts it. I’m looking for the best.  

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Small Things.

I am back. The blog has a new name. The thing itself is not new and improved, because I’m not twenty-two and can’t be reinventing myself all the time, but all the same, it feels a little like a new start.

I went away for ten different reasons. I was writing two books at once and I had taken on a new challenge with my mare, to train for a one-day-event for charity, so I had to think about getting fit and teaching her to jump. I was dealing with a certain amount of convoluted emotional stuff. Something had to give, and it was this.

It was oddly hard to come back. What is the point? I wondered. Does the world really need a blog by me in it? No, is the glorious answer, but writing is never to do with the world. It is to do with the mazy spaces of the frontal cortex. And the human heart, of course.

Sitting and thinking about things, one of my favourite hobbies, can be fatal. I thought of the sick in the bucket person. I thought: it really is not my aim in life to make people want to vomit. One of the things I try to teach myself is everyone must say what they say and think what they think and it has nothing to do with me. When someone comes in, all guns blazing, the trick is to let them. Ah yes, you tell yourself, there they are, and there they go, and now I’m off to look at a tree. Not getting bashed up by the opinions of critics is one of the marks of being a grown up. The not minding is easy if you are having a butch day. If you are having a vulnerable day, it’s not so easy.

Did I really want to open myself up to all that again? Why not simply shut up shop and let the armchair jockeys go and pick apart another race?

In the end, I came back because of a waitress. I was listening to the Today programme this morning and there was a story about a very old lady who used to go into her local café every day. Suddenly, she stopped.  The waitress got worried and called the police. The coppers went to the old lady’s house and found that she was stuck in the bath. She had been stuck for four days. Apparently, and this is where all my hats come off, she told herself to stay calm and be patient and not to panic. She kept the hot tap going to keep warm and drank from the cold tap to stay hydrated. I can’t remember exactly how old she was, but I think they said eighty-seven. She is one of the ones who would remember the Blitz, and rationing, and the nuclear panic, and the Cold War, and the three-day-week. That generation never fails to fill me with wonder and awe. If I could be a quarter as stoical as they are, I should think I had achieved something in life.

The waitress was interviewed about how she had saved this incredible lady’s life. She told her story without any showboat or swagger. ‘I was very pleased to see her again,’ she said. ‘I’m happy,’ she said, ‘that she is alive.’ Sarah Montague was practically in tears. She’d been doing stories about Mosul and ISIS all morning, and now she had the wonderful waitress and the doughty, courageous lady and it was almost too much for her. It was almost too much for me.

That, I thought, is the point of it all. That’s why the voices in my head say: write it down, write it down. In six weeks, or six months, or a year, when I have quite forgotten that shooting star of a story, that dazzling gleam of humanity, I shall be able to look back and remember. When the rain is falling, I shall have sunshine, in words.

The small things are what I cherish now. I used to run, full bore, into the big things. I thought that was what all my education was for. I must disentangle the Four Last  Things, and the Four Noble Truths, and the meaning of life if it kills me. Now I think: I have absolutely no clue about the big things. They are my Gordian knot, and my sword is not sharp enough. But oh, oh, the small things. I know the small things and love the small things and take comfort from the small things. I am the small things.

This blog is, to my sudden, flinging delight, going to get smaller and smaller. Eventually it will be so tiny that only bats can hear it. If you want the big things, there is always The Economist or the works of Aristotle. If you want the small things, this is your place.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Balance and flow.

So sorry there has been no blog lately. I’ve been in a maelstrom of work, dealing with a sick horse, keeping up with my HorseBack work, and adjusting to a very new daily routine. In times like this, something always has to give. Just at the moment, it is this poor old blog.

There has been sunshine in Scotland lately, and the dogs race around with joy in the light, and Darwin the Dog hurls himself into the burn for his morning swim. The swimming is a new thing, and he is vastly proud of his moves. Stanley, who is not a water dog, watches with maiden aunt disapproval.

As I learn to school my emotions, to deal with the fact that my mother’s house now has someone else in it, to face the absence of my dear stepfather, I pour all my energy into my book and my horse. I write thousands of words, my fingers bashing over the keys like crazy things. Words will keep me safe, says the magical thinking part of my brain. As long as I have words, everything will be all right. Words are my totem, my touchstone, my church.

The good red mare, who remains ruthlessly healthy as her little friend is fighting ailments on every front, is my other touchstone. I work her and teach her and learn from her and pour all my heart into her. I realise, as I ride, that she produces what the clever psychologists call Flow. This is that mental state when you are doing something which is just on the edge of your capabilities, something that stretches every sinew and every neurone, something demanding and meaningful. The idea is that when you are in Flow, you are as close to human happiness as it is possible to be. All the frets and sorrows fall away, because your mind is concentrated on this one grand thing. It’s a slight paradox: happiness is not the object, yet happiness is the result.

I get that, for two hours, every day. I sometimes laugh, thinking of the brilliant Hungarian who invented the notion of Flow. I’m not certain that, when he came up with the idea, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would have imagined that his theory might end up in a green Scottish field on the back of a thoroughbred mare. But so it has.

In my human life, I’m bashing about trying to find balance. Honest emotions must be honoured, but sometimes one simply has to let things go. Absence must be marked, but self-indulgence is the very devil. Present loveliness must be seen and appreciated and felt, but the missed voices of the past must be heard and cherished. It’s all balance. Sometimes I find the fulcrum I seek, and stand tall. Sometimes I topple over with a crash. I suppose that’s as good a description of being human as any other.

One of the Dear Readers asked where she would find the red mare, who has been officially banished from these pages, although, as you can see, she sometimes does gallop in for an unscheduled guest appearance. (She is very grand, and has ideas of her own, and cannot always be corralled.) She is the beat of my heart, but I understand that not every heart beats in time to mine. And there is only so much beating that the poor reader can take.

Anyway, to answer that question, she now lives here, in a quiet corner of the internet, where those humans who choose to may come to her paddock and feed her metaphorical carrots.

I'm going to take a few more days off, and normal, horse-free service will be resumed next week. 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The dance.

Across the way from me, a highland ball is going on. I hear the music, and I think: I’ll take the dogs out for a look.

I put my hat on. Obviously. This is no moment to forget one’s hat.

We stand quietly, secretly, in front the of the open French windows, watching the dancing. I can never remember the names of the dances, even though I know how to do some of them. This is the one where the gentleman, in very courtly fashion, introduces the lady to another gentleman, does a little bow, then turns and dances with the lady behind him.

Darwin and Stanley are bewitched.

I am bewitched.

There are the ones who have clearly been dancing these dances since they were old enough to walk. There are the ones who have been dancing together since they were five years old and know each other's every move. There are the ones who like to swagger and sway and showboat. There are the ones who are patently the Best in Show, but are so confident in their brilliance that they contain it, do no whirling or whooping, but simply live the dance. I think those are the ones I love the best.

And then there are the ones who have absolutely no idea what they are doing. They go the wrong way, hit the wrong beat, laugh all over their faces as they charge towards the wrong partner. I smile a twisted smile. I was once one of those, being gently and politely guided by the good dancers who knew what they were doing.

I was so lost in watching that I was caught by surprise when the music stopped and the crowd spilled out to embrace the cool night air.

Darwin the Dog went mad. HUMANS!!! IN KILTS!!! WHOM I HAVE NEVER MET BEFORE!!!!

I tried to calm him but that ship had sailed merrily out to sea.

The very lovely thing about the kind of people who go to highland dances is that they are dog people. They, like me, are stuck on Dog Island with no chance of a ferry home. They clustered around the beautiful boy and gentled him and kindly subdued his leaps of joy. ‘What is he?’ they said. ‘Is he a lurcher? Are you going to work him? Oh, how bonny he is.’

Stanley the Manly, who is not so certain of crowds, stood back, by my side, letting his compadre get the attention. Darwin the Dog danced into the spotlight, adoring every moment.

One fine man cast aside all thoughts of the party and hunkered down on his knees, talking to D the D as if he were a Best Beloved, stroking his head, admiring his athletic physique. That, I thought, is a proper person. 

‘He’s half Lab, half lurcher,’ I said, smiling and laughing, to two particularly charming gentlemen. They squared their shoulders and swished their kilts and grinned all over their happy faces. ‘Look at him,’ they said. ' All over the place. We know the feeling.' 

Darwin gazed up at them with slavish admiration. He knew a proper highland pair. 'He is an English dog,' I said. 'This is his first Scottish dance.'

One of the fine highland men clapped his friend on the shoulder, and gave him a look of ineffable fondness. ‘Tail up,' he said, 'just like you.’
Happy boys, I thought. Grand Scottish boys. ‘Ah,’ I said. ‘That’s friendship for you. You know how to pay a compliment. Tail up.’

And then we all laughed at each other in the black Scottish night and I tipped my hat to them and walked back home. 

People say, after all this time, because I am still, in their minds, a soft southern girl: what are you doing all the way up there? This is what I am doing.  

Friday, 26 August 2016

That is where they live.

Out of the wreckage, rising from the ashes, a new life emerges. 

It is a great change. For years, my day revolved around going down to my mother’s house to cook the breakfast for her and the dear Stepfather. Then, for many months, it was just breakfast for him. This was a new twist and a new job: to keep him going, to raise a smile on his bereaved face, to bring some sound and life to a house which seemed now so silent and empty. The feeling of absence in that house after she died was as palpable as weather.

This was the daily anchor in my existence. It was a deep habit, a customary pleasure, an instinctive routine.

I was very afraid, as the house was packed up and the day of departure drew near, that without that anchor I should simply float out to sea.

It turns out that, somewhere hidden deep in a dusty old locker, I did have another set of charts. I have plotted a new course, and the dear, leaky, battered old ship is sailing on.

I think of that great truth, which I know but do not always believe, about how the dreading of something is often worse than the thing itself.

I miss them. I miss them like rocks and stones and arrows to the heart. I miss that sweet start to the day. But missing, as I suppose I discovered with my dad, can be faced. I think you have to embrace it rather than fight it. It is, and there’s no point in pretending it isn’t. It’s a real run but can’t hide number.

So, yes, there is the missing. But, amazingly, there is also the living, the laughing, the working, the talking, the striving. There are the good canines and the good equines. There is the physical work, each morning, which I bless with all my heart. I am incurably lazy by nature, and the idea of going for a run or doing pilates or attending a gym makes me want to chew my own arm off. But if you have horses to care for and to ride, you have to get outside and get moving. You have to embrace the day.

There are the books to write, so that I can pay the hay bill. I appear to be writing three at the moment, which is really not what one should be doing, but fuck it. This week, I wrote eight thousand words. Not all of them were bad words. I did my HorseBack stuff, which gives me a small weekly glow of achievement. People on the internet were kind and funny. I quite often cheer myself up by posting pictures of the red mare doing wonderful things, and generous strangers are kind enough to celebrate her as if she were their own. I can’t tell you how much this makes me smile.

I took the little brown mare up to the vet for her sarcoid treatment, and as he got to work, he said something about Donald Trump, and we galloped off into a tremendous exploration of the curiosities and drama of the American political system. Last week, I lost my wallet. (It turned out to be in the top paddock. Darwin the Dog had taken it from the feed shed and tenderly placed it two fields away, by the mounting block. He is very busy like that.) The vet at once fished in his pocket and gave me a hundred quid, so I could put petrol in the car and get to the station to collect a friend and then buy that friend some food to eat. He not only gives micro-loans, but he can talk about one of my favourite subjects. So, I gave him his money back and we discussed the madness of The Donald and I thought: write this down, because all these good things add up.

The red mare, of course, was at her crest and peak of magnificence, but I write about her elsewhere now, so we don’t have to go into the weeds of the equine love. Yet love it was and love it is, of the purest and most galvanising kind. 

Darwin the Dog and Stanley the Man made Pearl the Postwoman laugh. Pearl is the nicest woman in Aberdeenshire, and she always gives the dogs a biscuit, and each morning we have a talk and a laugh and I feel grateful that it is she who brings my deliveries of Manuka honey for the brown mare’s wound and think how lucky I am to have that smiling face each day. She is one of those humans who makes you feel better about everything simply by her very presence.

A very old friend rang up. I had not spoken to him for months, but we picked up exactly where we left off, as if it had been five minutes. I felt the history and fondness between us run back and forth down the invisible telephone line, and I thought of how we first met when we were eighteen, and how dashing he looked in his rowing kit, and how all the girls used to make Chariots of Fire jokes as he ran through the quad on his way to the river. And here we are, fifty now, still talking, still making each other laugh, still tied together by many memories and profound affection, so that distance does not matter.

Write all this down, I think, so when you are old and grey and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, you can take down this book and slowly read.

There is the missing. But there is an awful lot of having, of filling, of living. The lost ones slide away, into their own twilight. I watch them go, and then I stretch out my hand and take them and stitch them into my heart. That is where they live now.

That is where they live.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The past.

The sun shines. People appear, from my past. Rather amazingly, they have business with HorseBack, so, five hundred miles away from the old Lambourn valley I am reunited with people who knew that place, who loved my father, who grew up with and loved all the people I grew up with and loved. 

I am so excited to see the people and so avid to catch up that I do my fatal thing of talking slightly too loudly and very, very fast. They, being kind and generous, smile at me and put up with it. I do sometimes wish though that I could be self-contained and talk at a reasonable volume. I fear that ship may have sailed.

We go for a walk in the gleaming sun. I take the red mare with us, because she loves a walk and I haven’t had time to ride her today, and insist on stopping so she can say hello to small children. She is like a politician: she has never met a baby she did not want to kiss.

The lovely people from my past ask all about the family. Don’t ask me questions, a faint voice in the dusty corridors of my mind says, because I will answer them. I do answer them. I race through the last thirty years of the mother, the brothers, the sister, touch on the nieces, get to the grandmother, almost go on to the great-aunts.

Then we move on to racing, because that is our love and our history and we all adore nothing in the world like the thoroughbred. So you may imagine that was a happy conversation.

At one point, we speak in low voices of the ones who did not make it. There is a sad litany of those, shining stars from our young days, whose light was extinguished cruelly and too soon. A parade of remembered faces runs before my eyes, a smiling array of fond humans who are no longer here. There is a small pause, in the bright air, as if we are doffing our hats to the Dear Departeds, and then we change the subject and speak of happier things.

I like the idea of not getting stuck in the past, of living in the moment, of not carrying around too much baggage like a poor old pit pony. But there was a lot of happiness and wonder in that past, and I like to remember it and to pay it tribute. It was enchanting to see these people for their own selves, but it was intensely sweet and touching for me because they both knew and adored my father, and as we talked of him and laughed about him it was as if he were with us, alive again, vivid and real in all his eccentric, funny, brave, colourful glory. There was nobody quite like him, and they brought him with them, all the way from the south.

Friday, 19 August 2016

That will do for me.

HorseBack ate my day. This is not a bad thing to chew up a day.

Every Friday, I sit down to edit the week’s HorseBack photographs and write suitable vignettes about them. I do a main blog and various other briefer snippets. I feel a huge responsibility as I do this, despite the fact that it is just for a little Facebook page which flies out into the vast spaces of the internet. Every single like or share or comment, every cheerful thumbs up – each one means a vast amount to me. The veterans whose experiences I am trying to illuminate have gone through things I cannot imagine and seen things no human eye should have to see. I have to put on my Best In Show hat for them. I grit my teeth and strain every sinew. There are some things in life that matter. This matters.

As I sit down, I think: today I will be efficient. I’ll get it done in an hour flat. The temporal angels laugh their heads off. Four hours later, I’m still sitting there, wrangling away. I feel glad that I have recorded the racing, because there is no way I can stop now, even to have a peek at the big race at York. Some of my best beloveds are running today, but dear Clever Cookie and sweet Easton Angel and dazzling Limato will have to wait.

Down in the field this morning, Darwin the Dog was chasing swallows. This feels to me like a vast metaphor for something, but I’m not quite sure what. There is my lovely thing, I think. Every day must have a lovely thing. If I can mark one lovely thing, then I shall keep on sailing over this sometimes stormy sea.

At this time of year, all the swallows stage a muster. They come from all over my little patch – from my own shed, from the garage outside what was once my mother’s house, from my sister’s old place, from down in the horses' field. In May, when they arrived, there was one pair who flew around the set-aside as I worked the mares. Now they have brought their friends down with them and fill the air, practising their serious flying for the long journey to Africa. They will leave soon, and that day of departure is always bitter-sweet for me. I love to think of them going to their balmy winter quarters, but I miss them sorely when they are gone. The sudden still where there was antic noise and motion has a melancholy note.

As the swallows flew, and Darwin danced, the three mares stood by their humans in the open field and went to sleep on their legs. We decided that they must have been up all night, partying. Three years ago, there was a techno techno rave up in the next field, and we went down in the dark to see what they were making of the flashing lights and thumping music. They seemed mildly amused. We’ve been making slightly tragic jokes about them having techno parties ever since.

My friend and I talked of cabbages and kings. Actually, we did not mention cabbages. We talked of the swallows, and the comical dozing mares, and Alfred Hitchcock, and Grace Kelly in High Society, and grammar, and the young people of today. The two thoroughbreds and the Paint slept through it all.

I felt a slight sense of shift this morning, a faint, glimmering sense of possibility and renewed hope. Someone quite unexpected paid me a quite unexpected compliment. It was brief, and low-key, and entirely heartfelt, and I took it away and gazed at it and treasured it and wore it like a medal on my chest. The man who paid it had absolutely no idea what he had just done, and I could not have explained it to him. But it was my own personal best, my Olympic gold, my mark of excellence.

What he said to me was: ‘That helped.’

I think: every day there must be one lovely thing. And every day, I would like to go to bed knowing that I have said a single sentence, or made a small action, or offered a piece of myself that helped. It’s odd how ambitions change with age. I used to want prizes and glory and the admiration of my peers. Now I want one lovely thing and a feeling of having been useful, even if that usefulness is so tiny that it can hardly be seen by the naked eye. That will do for me. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

A new kind of people.

I couldn’t really write this week because I did not know what to say. You really can’t bore them with that, said the stern voices. So I did not bore them with that.

I’m not sure what the that was. It still feels very strange and not quite real. There has been a seismic change in my life, almost a defining change, and yet the sun still shines and the Ebor meeting goes on and Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro win the gold medal whilst I watch with tears in my eyes.

There are great prairies of the unknown. I canter around in them, a bit baffled, not quite sure of my sense of direction. When I have enough of those endless prairies, I read Trollope and watch the racing, to take my mind off the unmapped space.

There is a balance. I’m always looking for balance. You have to feel the thing. You have to look it in the whites of its eyes and mark it. You can’t pretend it is not there or stuff it down inside. But you can’t fall into a vortex of self-indulgence and wailing. You’ve got to crack on, said one of the veterans I have known the longest, as we leaned on the gate this morning and watched the HorseBack horses do their drill. The riders had a box-set of physical and mental injuries. But the sound, in that gentle Scottish morning, was the sound of laughter.

Those HorseBack horses set me to rights. A little while before, my own horses had set me to rights. The red mare did walk to canter to walk transitions, from voice, which were so lovely they made me cry. (We are inspired by the Olympics. Next week, we’ll revert to herding imaginary cows.) A lot of people don’t get horses in general, or the humans who love them. A lot of people don’t get me in particular, and the horses I love. I am used to this, although sometimes I yearn to be got.

I said something I thought was quite normal this morning, and the veteran I was talking to looked at me with an almost literary combination of wonder, amusement, fondness and a very, very slight tinge of sympathy, and raised his eyebrows and said: ‘You’re not quite right, are you?’ I shouted with laughter. I took this as a compliment. I spend half my life now with people who are not quite right, who have the voices of the post-traumatic stress howling in their head. I feel oddly at home with them, although mental illness used to scare the crap out of me. They are my people now, and I am their people. I always felt happiest with the ones who did not quite fit in. Convention alarms me, because I had no experience of it, growing up. It’s not something I know.

My own people have gone. This little corner of Scotland used to have my family in it: two nieces, one with her husband; my sister and my brother-in-law, my mother and my stepfather. The nieces and the sister have gone south, my mother died, my stepfather has returned to Gloucestershire, where he came from. It’s just me now, and the dogs and the mares. My abandonment issues are going nuts. So, I think, I have to make a new herd. There are my HorseBack people, and those good horses, who literally save lives. There is the extended family, with the great-nieces and nephew. There is my friend whose Paint mare shares our paddock, who said something so kind to me this morning that I practically fell over. Everybody needs their people. It feels as if mine are all gone, but they are not, in fact. I still have people, after all. They are just different people.

Monday, 8 August 2016

One lovely thing.

Dear Stepfather's family at the field this morning. Little brown mare on the right, Darwin the Dog in the middle, me on the far left with my mighty red mare.

The dear Stepfather came down to say goodbye to the horses, which was stupidly sad. I would often ride the red mare up to his front door and he would come out with perfectly cut-up pieces of apple for her. (She is very grand and does not like eating whole apples.) They had a whole little thing going on. ‘It’s been a pleasure to know you,’ he said, ‘and I’m sorry there will be no more apples.’ She nodded and blinked her eyes at him and he stroked her kind face.

I collected the very last of my mother’s things. A blanket, a log basket, some hats. The packers were in the house, very cheerful. Stanley the Dog had already bust in on them, giving them a little surprise. ‘He has never met a door he could not open,’ I said. I did not explain that he used to go and see my mum when he was in the mood. She would be watching television in her special chair and look down to see Stanley sitting quietly beside her. They had a thing going on, too.

Do one lovely thing, said a voice in my head. When there are sorrowful days, make sure you do one lovely thing. A gale had blown in out of the west and the Wellingtonias were swaying around like drunken sailors. I felt a slight Chicken Licken doubt. It would be quite bonkers at this stage if a tree fell on my head. Defying the elements, I got on my little brown mare, and we trotted off through the long grass. She didn’t care about the gales. She cruised through the weather as if she was on a mission. She was, without doubt, a lovely thing. She’s very sensitive and will pick up on my moods. If I carry tension, she starts revving her Ferrari engine. But today, despite the howling winds, despite my frame of mind, despite everything, she carried me with tenderness and grace.

One lovely thing. Every damn day. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Climbing the stairs.

As the long goodbye goes on and the day of the dear Stepfather’s departure draws near, I can put the good face on for about forty-five minutes. For half an hour, I’m breezing, on the bridle. For the next fifteen minutes, I’m under a strong drive, desperately hoping the winning post will come. After that, I’m blown. I’m like a suspect stayer, who is never going to get two miles, who gives all for a mile and six and then has no more.

So I go and sit very quietly in a silent room and recruit my resources. The silent room is very important. Some people find a quiet room a sad thing; I find solitude the most profound balm. I have to get everything sorted out in my head and I can’t do that when I am putting on the good face.

I’ll watch a bit of the dressage later, on the second day of the Olympic three-day-event. I will marvel at the honesty and willingness of the horses, those great equine athletes who carry their countries’ hopes on their brave backs. They have flown in from all around the world, faced all the heat and the atmosphere and the razzmatazz, will tomorrow go out over huge fences and up steep hills at a fast gallop, and today are asked to settle themselves and perform movements as precise and delicate as the ballet. I watch them giving their riders everything and I find it intensely moving. It’s the kind of thing that would have made my mother put that special look on her face and say, with a dying fall, ‘Oh, those horses.’

It’s an event which makes me think a lot about resolution and endurance, which are qualities I need just now. The man at the top of the leader board is a tall fellow, very dry and self-effacing. In every interview, he says: I’m very lucky. He means, I think, that he is lucky to have had the career he has had, to have had the mighty horses, the loyal support team, the strong and loving family. But a lot of people would say his luck ran out when he fell on his head nine months ago and was put in an induced coma. I would not have felt very lucky if I found, as he did, that I could not climb the stairs or see straight. I might have drawn stumps then, thinking I had had my luck and there was no more.

But great champions are made of steely stuff. They may, like this tall man, be true gentlemen, polite and sporting, but inside there is that absolute core of titanium, a secret unconquerable self, that competitor who never gives up. So William Fox-Pitt, who probably shouldn’t really be riding a horse at all, rode out into the gleaming Brazilian sunshine and outdazzled it, with a test of such ease and grace that it made me catch my breath. He can climb the stairs now, that is for sure.

I used to tell my mother that when I was face down in the dirt I would ask myself: ‘What would AP do?’ I would think of that other steely horseman, who never knew when he was beaten. ‘And what would AP do?’ she would say, with a quizzical smile on her face. ‘He would get right back up and ride another winner,’ I would tell her, with a smile of my own.

I like admiring people. I like looking up to the best, being inspired by them, hanging on their coat-tails, thinking if I could summon a tenth of their brilliance and resolution then I would be all right. Everyone needs someone to look up to. I’ll take Fox-Pitt for my inspiration this week, not just because he has quietly staged the sporting comeback of the year, but because he seems to manage to be a fierce competitor whilst also being a proper human being. If I feel a little melancholy, I will look up pictures of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, waiting in the wings for their moment in the sun, which will come later. She’s another champion who combines rock-hard dedication with smiling humanity, and she’s as goofily in love with her world-beating horse as I am with my dear red mare.

Look up, I think, and climb the stairs.

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Last Breakfast.

Today was the last breakfast I would make for the Dear Stepfather. I was looking forward to it and dreading it at the same time. His family come later to help him pack up and this was our final morning when it would be just the two of us. I used to make breakfast for him and my mother every day, and since she died I kept up the tradition. At first, we were very quiet, whacked about with grief, putting on our good brave faces, conversation sometimes a little stilted, running into the sands. I would quite often have to turn my face away, or stop half-way through a sentence, or leave the room on some pretext.

Then it got better. I rallied and made it my job to bring a smile to his face. If I could coax one true laugh out of him, my work would be done. We talked of politics, because we had always loved talking of politics. We had waded through the weeds of the Scottish independence vote and bashed through the tangled thickets of Brexit. I remember first hitting the bullseye of that proper laugh with a Donald Trump joke. I can’t recall what I said, but I remember the laugh. I have that one thing to thank the Donald for. (That was when he still seemed a joke, instead of a runaway train threatening Western civilisation.)

I loved those breakfasts. I’m going to miss them like the blazes. Nothing will ever be the same.

But today went wrong. The great-nieces pitched up to ride a little later than I had expected and we got lost in our lessons. Then HorseBack ate up a huge chunk of the morning. So in the end, I could only run in, make a fast omelette with herbs from the garden, the lovely sage and chives and parsley that my mother planted in elegant tubs, talk about logistics, and run out again. ‘Perhaps it is just as well,’ I said. ‘So we don’t get sentimental.’

And that was that.

I went home to edit the HorseBack pictures and write their blog for them. I thought it would take an hour, but it took four. It was good to do something which had nothing to do with me. I present HorseBack to the world, so people can know about the work that happens there, and the intense challenges our veterans face. I try to demystify Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and take the sting and stigma out of life-changing injury. I could not dwell on loss, because I had to step up for people who know losses and traumas that I can hardly imagine.

The thing will happen soon, and then it will be done. On Tuesday, the cars and moving vans will roll away, to the south, and there will be a final rupture and then a new beginning. I feel very raw and very vulnerable, but I believe in new starts and I must hold on to this one.

Yesterday, I made a last supper of Aberdeen Angus steak and new potatoes with mint and baby carrots and leeks in white sauce. The Dear Stepfather got out the very last bottle of the Cheval Blanc which my mother had cannily bought, with her elegant taste for proper wine. Life, says the Dear Stepfather, is too short to drink bad wine. This was very fine, an august, velvety claret, a knowing old wine, a wine for remembrance. The Stepfather told me stories of his great-grandfather and his grandfather in Canada. I love hearing about the ancestors. Last week he showed me his paternal great-grandfather’s medals from the Crimean War. There they were, two solid silver discs with Crimea and Sebastapol written on them, and the date, 1856. I stared at them in wonder, those little slivers of history, sitting quietly in a Scottish room.

So we drank the claret and ate the beef and talked of the past and touched on my mother and swerved away again, because the wound, which was healing, has become raw with this new parting.

Soon it will be done. And I have books to write, and the HorseBack work to do, and animals to look after and thoughts to think. But no more breakfast to make. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2016


More last things. Today, it was hats. A top cupboard had been opened to reveal a hitherto unperceived collection.

The hats rescued me. I went in to breakfast this morning on a rising tide of tearfulness. As I left the field where I had been tending the horses, a line ran through my head. It said: I am heartbroken. This packing up, this end of my mother’s house, this four days until the dear Stepfather leaves forever is breaking my heart. I feel as filled with impossible emotion as I did in the first days after my mother’s death. It is as if it is happening all over again, and it was bad enough the first time. I don’t know if I have enough heart left to feel this for a second time.

Butch up, butch up, I told myself, hiding my face as I made the eggs. People go through worse things than this.

And then there were the hats. And they were beautiful and eccentric and funny and I thought one day, if I ever get south again, I’ll wear them to the races and think of Mum looking down on me with delight. And I did not want to cry.

Among her lovely hats was a very smart topper. It was the Stepfather’s top hat, a proper article in deep black, made by Mr Lock. Mr Lock, like Mr Kipling, makes exceedingly good hats. ‘I don’t want it,’ said the stepfather. ‘I’ll never wear it again.’ I felt an absurd jolt of happiness. ‘Can I have it?’ I said.

He said I could have it. I put it on. It looked splendid. ‘It’s a bit too big,’ said the Stepfather, doubtfully. I took it off and examined the little leather band inside the crown, which acts as a small, circular pocket. ‘I’ll stuff it,’ I said. And then I opened the band and there, inside, were some folded pieces of paper. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘You stuffed it.’

The folded papers were pages from a racecard. The Royal Hunt Cup, at the Royal Meeting, from many years ago. I loved that it was the Royal Hunt Cup, one of the most impossible to solve handicaps of the entire meeting. It was won a couple of years ago by a dear friend of mine. We used to go and watch Desert Orchid together, when we were blithe twenty-somethings. He always loved racing with a burning passion, and one day he threw up his respectable day job and took out a training licence. I saw him a few months after that glorious victory, with his dear old handicapper, Belgian Bill, and congratulated him with fervour. He smiled all over his dear face. ‘I’m living the dream,’ he said.

The Stepfather said: ‘I went last with your darling mother.’ I thought of them at that storied meeting. I thought of the memories my mother must have had, of the days when she used to go and watch Nijinksy and Mill Reef and the great Brigadier. She saw so many of the great ones, and she remembered them all and talked of them as if they were old friends. Horses like that do feel like old friends.

So, I did not cry, in the end. I’m carrying a lot of tears with me just now, but this morning they did not spill over. The hats saw to that. I went home and wrote three thousand words of book and took a deep breath. This will be over soon, and I can start again. 


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