When I woke up the next day, which thankfully was Saturday, the sun was shining in through our curtains, which were so thin they might not have been there at all. I fumbled for my alarm clock, which was a present Mummy had given me when I started college. It was still early, so I pulled the covers back up to my chin and thought about how marvellous it would be if I could walk into the stables across the Park and see Black Boy watching for me over his stable door. I spent quite a long time thinking about him, and I must have drifted off, because the next thing I knew, Ann was shaking my shoulder and dragging me out of a dream in which Black Boy and I were leading a ride along Rotten Row, and I’d just told off Wilf White and Nizefella for galloping.
Ann plonked herself down on my bed. “I’ve brought you a cup of tea. Don’t you think it’s about time you stirred? And whatever were you dreaming about? Who were you telling to walk?”
“Oh, Wilf White,” I said.
“I should have guessed,” Anne replied. “Only you could be telling Wilf White to walk.”
“I might have to,” I said, as I sat up and sipped my tea. “Who knows who we’ll have on our rides? It could be anyone. Maybe even the Queen. I say, this is jolly good tea. Have we got any bread? I could murder some toast.”
Ann said no, we didn’t, and we hadn’t yesterday either when I’d moaned about having to eat scrambled egg without toast, and how did I think she’d managed to get any more, because she’d been working just as long hours as me, and I hadn’t had any chance to get out.
This was of course true. Ann frowned, and then kicked my slippers across the floor.
“The fact is, with all the excitement we’ve been having, we’ve run a bit low on stores. Apart from tea, and a bit of milk Miss Potts gave me when I went and begged for some, we have a tin of condensed soup, and that’s it. Not even any eggs.”
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t suppose there’s anything lurking in the basement?”
“No – I checked. Not so much as a crumb.”
“Oh,” I said again. “I suppose it’s soup for breakfast then.”
And it was. The thing about soup is that it doesn’t fill you up for long, and South Kensington is a bit short of the sort of corner shop that sells bread and milk, and the shops that it does have don’t open until well after breakfast time. We resigned ourselves to being empty, and dressed ourselves in our decent riding clothes, which we’d brought with us, because of course you never know. Ann said that we needed to make a good impression, so how about some lipstick? Mummy had given me a lovely Revlon Fire and Ice lipstick for my birthday, which I only used on special occasions, so we put on some of that, and some powder and hoped we both looked like hard women to hounds and responsible takers out of rides.
So, feeling nervous, and a bit empty, we set off for the stables. We were aiming to get there before the rides started so that we could get the feel of the place and help out, and of course we wanted to put in a few hours of work, as there is nothing more mere than simply turning up to a stables expecting your horse to be ready for you without you having to lift a finger. We walked through the archway into the mews, and were met by Alison, who was rushing across the yard, looking rather fraught. “Thank goodness you’re here,” she said. “We’ve just had three new horses arrive a month sooner than we expected, and there’s nothing ready for them; our groom has food poisoning, I’ve only mucked out half the stables and there are eight horses needed for the first ride.”
Of course we were only too delighted to help. Alison showed us where all the tools were kept, and where the muck was stored, and was about to shoot off, when she stopped and said:
“Can you put beds down in the three empty stables down there at the end please? I’ve got these three wretched horses tied up in the carriage house, and if they were just stowed away somewhere it would make life so much easier.”
Once we’d worked out where the straw was kept, it didn’t take us long to put three beds down and fill the lovely heavy teak water buckets Captain Williams used. As we came out of the last stable, Alison whizzed past again carrying a saddle and bridle.
“Oh good,” she said. “I’ll just stow these in the tack room and get some headcollars, and then we can get the three new horses in.”
We followed her as she shot off in the direction of the tack room, and then took the headcollars she handed us. The three horses were beautiful: two dapple greys who looked like twins, and a pretty black mare who snuffled in Ann’s pockets, just in case she had something interesting in them. There were three huge trunks stacked up against the wall. Alison saw me looking at them and said, “Oh, they have every horsey thing known to man, these three. And all brand new.”
“Jill,” Ann said, “Have a look at the monogram on those trunks.”
I looked, and saw something I’d seen at just about every gymkhana and show I’d ever been to. SP. Susan Pyke.
“Are these Susan Pyke’s horses?” Ann asked.
“Oh yes – do you know her?” Alison asked. “Her father said it would take him a few weeks to find her some horses, but then he bought these from a friend who was selling up and going abroad and here we are. It does mean we’re absolutely bursting at the seams of course – not a spare stable anywhere.”
It was just like Susan to turn up to London with three horses. I felt a momentary pang, because of course I didn’t even have one pony, and I still hadn’t found Black Boy. Thankfully there was so much to do, I didn’t have time to mope. Between us we mucked out the stables Alison hadn’t done, groomed three ponies each and tacked up. People had started to turn up, and we brought out the horses and ponies they were due to ride.
Alison called out to me and Ann: “I’ll be back in an hour and then we’ll sort out who you’ll ride.”
Of course we were only too delighted to hear this, but there was still work to do before the ride went out. I led out a grey Welsh pony out for a little girl. The kid was actually quite sweet, and hung on to my legs as I sorted out the girth and safety stirrups. I saw why she was hanging onto my legs when her mother turned up. It was Angela, pull your jodhpurs up, Angela, straighten your tie, Angela, where are your gloves, Angela, put your hat straight – what will people say? The poor kid looked smart and workmanlike to me, if a bit bowed down, but you couldn’t blame her for that.
She mounted the grey pony very smartly, and gathered up her reins neatly. The pony looked up in that way ponies do when they know they’ve got someone aboard who can ride. The kid turned round and gave me a great big beam, and I was glad that that noble creature the horse was giving this kid some respite from her ghastly mother. She was following the pony as the ride went out, still yipping instructions, but Angela appeared to have gone deaf and was staring straight between her pony’s ears.
Angela’s mother waited until she couldn’t see the ride any longer, and then started looking round the yard, in that way people do when they want to buttonhole someone. I was quite keen that someone wasn’t me, so I grabbed a brush and started sweeping the yard, which is always a dusty job no matter how recently you did it, and Angela’s mother skipped away from the clouds of dust pretty smartly and trit-trotted out of the mews.
“Thank goodness for that!” Ann popped her head up from behind the stable door where she’d been hiding. “I did feel sorry for that kid.”
I stopped brushing the yard and leant on my brush. “Hmm,” I said. “And I do like the way you vanish and leave me the only one in sight.”
Ann smirked. “I knew you’d think of something to get rid of her,” she said. “Now, come on and let’s go and look at Susan’s marvellous steeds.”
My, they really were splendid. The greys were around 15hh and were beautiful dapples, and, as far as my expert eye could tell, around eight. The black mare looked a little older. She snorted with pleasure when we walked round to her stable and checked all our pockets for treats. Even though she didn’t find any, she didn’t pin her ears back and pull faces, as some horses do when you have nothing for them, but stayed with us, occasionally blowing a long gusty breath over our shoulders.
“Shall we groom her?” Ann said. “Because I don’t know about you, but I’m dying to see what’s in those trunks.”
So was I, of course, and I was quite sure Susan wouldn’t want her horses groomed with any brush that had touched the hide of any other horse, no matter how splendid the mews in which it lived, so if you look on it that way, we were doing her a favour. Fortunately for our cunning plan, the trunks weren’t locked. Three beautiful grooming kits in leather bags were in the top trunk, but they weren’t the only things.
“Well, strike me pink,” I said. “Driving harness! Do you think Susan’s going to drive the greys round the Park?”
Ann smiled. “It makes sense – matched pair of greys and all that. Can she drive?”
“Don’t expect so for a moment,” I said, “but that’s never stopped her in the past. I can just see the headlines in those society magazines – can’t you? Deb drives matched greys round the Park.”
“I’m sure that’s why she’s doing it,” Ann replied. “You know, I think I’m going to try and persuade Mummy I should be a deb. If she wants to keep up with the Pykes, I might get a pair of matched greys out of it.”
I could just see Mrs Derry fluttering round trying to convince Ann’s father that Ann should be a deb, but what I couldn’t see was Mr Derry agreeing to it, unless Ann thought she wanted to do it too, in which case Mr Derry had no chance against the combined might of Ann and her mother.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “Do you really want to be a deb? Spend your life getting dressed up and going to dances?”
Ann pulled a face. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m going to have to do something once I finish college. I’m not like you, Jill. I can’t write. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life arranging flowers and running a flower shop.”
I thought to myself that there wasn’t a lot of chance of that happening, as I didn’t think the person had been born who would want to buy one of Ann’s creations, but I kept that to myself, and we went off and started grooming the black mare. I was working over her with the stable rubber as Ann brushed out her tail when we heard footsteps. I looked up, and there was Susan.
“Hello Jill, hello Ann,” she said. “Have you seen my horses? Daddy wants me to drive a phaeton round the Park. He says no one can fail to notice me then, and I’ll be on the front cover of The Tatler.”
I thought Susan was right, but probably not for the reasons she was imagining. The headline I could see in my mind’s eye read “Deb causes chaos when she gallops up Park Lane.” I was nearly bursting from the effort of not saying all this, when Susan said:
“Isn’t Beauty lovely? You know she’s the first horse I’ve ever chosen for myself. After Daddy sold Dear Arab I never had another horse or pony I felt was really mine.”
Just as I was starting to feel sorry for Susan, because I can’t think of anything more drear than having your beloved pony sold from under you, and after all I should know, she carried on:
“I went off gymkhanas when I was about eleven, so all those jumping ponies were wasted on me. Really, I can’t see why you two were so obsessed by shows – running around all summer getting hot and sweaty and worrying about what rosettes you were going to win.”
“At least we won some,” said Ann. “And if I remember rightly you were actually pretty keen on winning Best Dressed Child Rider whenever some poor misguided sap put one of those on.”
Susan, with a tinkling laugh, said, “I know – wasn’t it silly? I suppose you did all your competitions for the greater good of equitation.”
“Yes, we did,” I said. “We didn’t go in for competitions just to win. We did it because we wanted to carry on learning and to work on riding our ponies as well as we possibly could. If we won any rosettes it was a bonus. I don’t think you ever stop learning.”
“Well said,” came a tweedy male voice, and blow me down, if it wasn’t Captain Cholly-Sawcutt. “I’ve never stopped learning, and if ever I think I’m doing particularly well, you can guarantee I’ll ride into an International and have three refusals at the first fence. Or my daughters will ride their ponies backwards into the ring.”
Susan looked rather flattened at this.
“Now,” he said. “Are you taking the next ride out?”
“I think we are,” I said. “Why? Do you want to come?”
“You know, I think I will,” he said. “I’m sure Tom has a well behaved Park hack that won’t turf me off.”
If you’d told me last week that Ann and I would be leading a ride round the Park that included Captain Cholly-Sawcutt, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s exactly what we did. Susan came too, on Beauty. I rode Alison’s lovely grey mare, Florence, and Ann had a rather contrary Fell pony called Jack who’d only just arrived. Ann had rather the worst of it because her Fell didn’t approve of going at the back of the ride, and it took all Ann’s skill and control to make him behave. I had a wonderful ride on Florence, who was one of those horses who simply don’t know how to misbehave. The rest of the ride all came from nearby offices, and didn’t seem to mind being taken out by me and Ann, but rode along chatting to each other. I was jolly glad Ann and I had decided to go out in our best riding clothes, because the kit this lot had was blinding: all glossy, handmade boots and immaculate black jackets.
When we got back, Captain Williams had appeared with his nephew, and they took over from me and Ann. After Captain Williams and Captain Cholly-Sawcutt had insulted each other for a bit, as they’d known each other since school and that was apparently what they did, we arranged that we’d come and lead rides out each evening the stables was open, which was Tuesday to Sunday.
“I knew you two would fall on your feet,” Captain Cholly-Sawcutt said. “Now, what do you say to some lunch?”
Well of course we said yes. You can do a lot on a breakfast of soup, but I was hungry enough by this time to tuck into one of the horse’s hay nets. Susan was standing around looking rather forlorn, so Captain Cholly-Sawcutt invited her too. If you’ve stuck with me this far, you must think that the only thing I ever think about is food, but if all you had was the poor scroungings of the stuff that was left at the end of the day in the local shop, so would you. We had soup to start, which was a particularly good tomato and worlds away from our condensed soup breakfast, then steak and then some really marvellous ices which came in a tall glass with cream on the top and those lovely chocolate logs. In between making the most of all this, because who knew when we’d get another decent meal, I explained about Black Boy. Captain Cholly-Sawcutt frowned and said it had been jolly bad luck, and that he’d ask all his friends to keep a look out for Black Boy. This was jolly good of him, but I thought that the likelihood of my pony ending up in the sort of stellar jumping stables that Captain Cholly-Sawcutt’s friends had wasn’t very likely. The Captain looked at my face, and said:
“Well, I know what’ll take your mind off it. Why don’t you all come with me to Harringay? I’m not competing because both my top horses are lame, and Tom’s jumping the youngsters, but I’m going along anyway. What do you think?”
Well, I wasn’t about to turn down the chance of the wealth of horse that was Harringay, however blue I felt about Black Boy, and neither was Ann. And who knew? Maybe someone there would know what had happened to him.