Ann was still lying on her bed, and I sat down on mine. I was flummoxed, which is a lovely word I’ve always wanted to use but never have, but now that I was flummoxed I wished I wasn’t. I simply didn’t know what to say. It was the sort of thing I used to dream about. When I was a kid, and I’d only just got Black Boy, Mrs Darcy asked me to help out at the stables in return for Black Boy’s keep during the winter. I’d done it, though it had been horribly hard work, getting up in the still dark watches of the night so I could go and muck out and feed before school, and then doing it all again after school before I went back to do my homework. When I was mucking out, I used to dream about helping Mrs Darcy run the stables, but then Captain Cholly-Sawcutt had had said he’d give me a job when I left school, and I’d rather let the Mrs Darcy dream go. Besides, Wendy had been helping Mrs Darcy, and just to dream of running Mrs Darcy’s seemed like treading on Wendy’s toes.
And now here it all was, large as life and being offered to me on a plate, and I’d just accepted another job.
“You’re awfully quiet,” said Ann, bouncing up and clasping her hands round her knees.
“I –” I said, but I didn’t get any further, because Ann bounced a bit more and simply swept on.
“Oh Jill, Robin was so happy when I spoke to him! When he first met this chap in Harrogate it all sounded wonderful, but when he went to work there it soon became clear that all the chap was after was someone he could string along to work there, paying almost nothing, with dreams of signing the stables over. Robin said he felt like a prize mug, but he simply didn’t know what else to do.
“Robin’s coming down to Chatton straightaway to meet Mrs Darcy, and they’re going to try and get everything signed as soon as possible. Robin says it’s going to be wonderful working with us as instructors, and we already know everyone horsey for about a twenty mile radius so that will make everything easier. Oh, and he’s going to be able to take over all the horses and ponies, and he’s really looking forward to riding Blue Smoke, and he’s already planning to jump her at the White City.”
“But isn’t that terribly unfair on James?” I said. “He’s ridden Blue Smoke for Mrs Darcy for years now.”
“Don’t be silly Jill,” said Ann, staring at me. “Of course Robin will take over Blue Smoke. Why ever wouldn’t he? He’s a marvellous rider.”
I’d never seen him ride, and neither had Ann, as far as I knew, and the whole thing about Blue Smoke seemed jolly unfair to me. Ann didn’t give it a second thought, but set off again, and was busy telling me about the hunt balls she and Robin would go to.
Frankly it was just as well Ann wasn’t letting me get a word in edgeways, because I didn’t know what I was going to say to her. The obvious thing to do would be to write to Captain Williams again and tell him I’d changed my mind, but just when I thought I had this settled, up would jump my conscience, and it was as though I could hear Mummy telling me about not letting people down, and sticking with a thing once I’d begun it, and making the most of the opportunities she’d never had, and then I’d think that she’d never had the opportunity of running a riding school either. And back I would go again.
Fortunately Ann was happy to talk on and on about her plans, and all she needed from me was the odd “Yes” and “No”. We got ready for bed. Ann said that she was far too excited to sleep, but the moment she closed her eyes, she was off. I lay there, staring into the darkness. My thoughts churned on and on, and what with them, and Ann’s snoring, I simply couldn’t sleep. I so wanted to talk to Mummy. I sat up. I couldn’t talk to Mummy, but I could write to her. I crept out of bed and fetched my writing things from the top of the chest of drawers, and I went downstairs to the basement, where I could write without waking Ann. I’ve never noticed before, but the stairs in college are tremendously creaky, and with every step I took, it sounded as if a rifle was going off. It didn’t wake Ann, who can sleep through anything.
The basement wasn’t exactly warm, and I wished I’d worn my slippers, but I’d had a lot worse than cold feet before, and I had a job to do so I sat down and poured out my heart to Mummy. I’d just finished, and was reading back what I’d written, when the basement door opened. Miss Potts peered through.
“Is there anything the matter, dear?” she asked.
“Thank you, I’m fine,” I said. “I just wanted to write to my mother.”
“Of course you do,” said Miss Potts, displaying an understanding I hadn’t suspected her of in shorthand classes. “I’ll fetch you a cup of tea, and then when you’ve finished, you can go back upstairs and try and get some sleep before the labours of the day.”
Miss Potts brought me the tea, and then trotted back to her flat. I felt better now I’d told Mummy all about it, so I creaked my way back up to the eyrie, and got back into bed. The alarm clock went what seemed like five minutes later and I lay there, looking at our curtains billowing in the gales coming through the windows. The thing about the eyrie was that you never had to wonder what the weather was doing outside, because most of it was inside with you. I lay back and considered my inner self, which was feeling a lot better about life than it had in the still dark watches of the night. Now that I’d written everything down in my letter to Mummy, I felt much clearer about what I should do.
Ann had slept straight through the alarm, so I turned over and shook her arm, which was hanging over the side of the bed. She said, ugh, and what did I think I was doing? and sat up and rubbed her eyes. She yawned.
“Gosh, Jill! I can hardly believe yesterday happened. As soon as the college headmistress is in, let’s go and tell her we’re leaving.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I can’t.” I hadn’t intended to blurt it out like that, and I had a speech all prepared with which I was going to slay Ann, but none of that came out.
Ann looked at me. “What?” she said. “But we’re going to be instructors with Robin. At Mrs Darcy’s. Weren’t you listening?”
“Of course I was. But Ann, I’ve been thinking it over nearly all night, and I don’t think I can leave college early. I can’t just throw it all up when it was such a struggle for Mummy to pay for me to come. I know I’m useless I am at shorthand, and I may never get beyond forty words per minute, but there’s only a few months to go, and it seems a bit mere to give up. I don’t want to let Mummy down, because it means so much to her that I get a qualification. And I’ve been offered a job. And I said I’d do it.”
“What job?” said Ann. “And why can’t you just tell them you can’t do it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I just can’t.”
There was a very, very long silence.
“Oh,” said Ann, at last. “Oh. But I can’t do it without you. We need to go and take over now, because Robin still has to work out his notice. I can’t possibly do it on my own. You’ve got to come. If you can’t come, none of it will work.”
Ann’s chin was wobbling.
I sat there, not saying anything, though I was within a hairsbreadth of saying okay, let’s do what you want, because I hated to see Ann so upset.
“But Jill, hasn’t it been our dream?” she said. “And you know I don’t want to do flower arranging, or be a deb, or marry Susan’s brother, or any of the other horrors Mummy’s dreamed up for me. And this will help Robin. And I thought it was what you wanted too. I can’t believe you want to stay at this stuffy old college and not help us.”
I’ve never wished more that Mummy was there. As you will know by now, words are not my problem. I always have more than enough, but just then, I was struck dumb.
“Oh, just say something, Jill!” said Ann. “What on earth’s the matter with you?”
“I –” I said.
But I didn’t get any further. Ann sprang up.
“You’re not going to do it, are you? I can see by your face. Whatever happened to the Jill who was devoted to the noble cause of equitation? And the Jill who dropped everything when Mrs Darcy needed help? Well, you can keep your prissy shorthand and your flower arranging, because I’m going to go and rescue Mrs Darcy on my own if I have to. And you can bet no one in Chatton’s going to be impressed when I tell them about you.”
She grabbed her coat and shoes, and stormed out of the room without another word.
I couldn’t believe everything had suddenly gone so horribly wrong. I hadn’t even told Ann about the horse show job, but I didn’t think it would have made much difference if I had. I wondered if I should go after her, but then I thought perhaps I should wait until she’d calmed down and then try and explain. I hung about the eyrie for a bit, but Ann didn’t come back. I got dressed and went down to the basement, but she wasn’t there. I had a solitary breakfast, and even though the milk and the bread and butter were still fresh, they tasted like ashes in my mouth.
Ann wasn’t there in typing, which was the first lesson, either. She turned up half way through, and went and sat next to Susan. Susan turned round and looked at me, and pulled one of those faces that says what’s going on?, but there wasn’t a lot I could say as we were in class, so I just pulled a face back. When the lesson finished, Ann steamed off without a word, grabbing Rosalie by the arm and pulling her out of the room. Susan strolled up to me.
“What’s biting her?” she asked. “Have you two had a row? I thought you’d outgrown all that sort of thing.”
I said: “Oh, dry up, Susan,” and Susan gave me an offended glare, tossed her hair and set off after Ann and Rosalie.
I hung about for a bit wondering if I’d better go and face the music and go down to the basement, and then I wandered out into the hall.
Rosalie was sitting on the stairs.
“Are you all right?” she asked. “Ann told me what she’d done. I must say I think she’s being an utter nit. I can’t imagine why she wants you hanging round with her and Robin.”
“Whatever do you mean?” I said. Rosalie frowned, and looked at me, and then shook her head and said:
“So are you going to leave, like Ann wants?”
“No,” I said, “I think I’d better tell Ann.”
“Yes,” agreed Rosalie, “though I warn you, she’s sitting in the basement with a face like thunder, and Susan’s flapping round her like a goose.”
Rosalie and I went down to the basement. I must admit I felt rather sick at the thought of facing Ann. We’d had rows in the past, and sometimes it was something Ann had said, and sometimes it was something I’d said, but we’d always got over it pretty quickly. I hoped this row would be the same, but it wasn’t quite like the rows we’d had as kids. I took a deep breath on the bottom stair, and walked in.
Ann wasn’t there.
“Where’s Ann?” I said.
“She said she had to go out,” Susan replied. “There was a letter from her mother waiting when we got out of typing.”
“Oh,” I said.
“And before you ask, I have absolutely no idea what it said. I did ask, but all Ann did was grunt, so I don’t suppose for a moment it’s good news. And Jill, what is going on with you and the riding school? My mother rang me last night. Apparently it’s all round Chatton that your mother’s married a millionaire from Yorkshire, and she’s bought the riding school for you and Ann.”
“Gosh, I wish you’d said,” said Rosalie. “I could have told you that wasn’t true.”
“No,” I said. “Mummy hasn’t married anyone. Mrs Darcy’s going to rent the riding school to Robin, and Ann’s plan is that she and I will go and be assistant instructors straightaway.”
“Oh,” said Susan. “You don’t seem terribly cheerful about it, I must say. I’d have thought it would be right up your street, spending the rest of your days bossing ghastly kids on fat ponies.”
I thought of several very squashing things I could say to Susan, but I bit them all back.
“There are many ways of serving the noble cause of equitation,” I said.
“Oh really?” said Susan. “What exactly?”
“How about teaching you to drive your greys?” asked Rosalie.
Susan glowered, because she knew, and we knew, that her first driving lesson, and her second, and her third, and her fourth, had been a disaster.
“Oh that,” she said. “Daddy’s decided that driving in the Park is frightfully out of date. He’s going to sell the greys, and buy me an Alfa Romeo sports car.”
“Oh,” I said. This wasn’t a surprise, because Susan’s turnover of horses had always been terribly high, but I made a note to be careful about crossing roads when she started driving. “How about Beauty?” I asked.
“Beauty’s not being sold,” Susan said. “I told Daddy that if he sold her I would move up to Scotland and join a fishing boat and I would never, ever be a deb.”
I couldn’t, for the life of me, see Susan on a trawler, and I didn’t imagine her father could either, but I hoped he’d get the point, and not sell Beauty.
“So when are you leaving, Jill?” Susan asked.
“The thing is,” I said, “I’m not leaving. I’m going to stay until the end of the course.”
“I thought you might,” said Susan. “You always were a sticker at things, although you did choose some jolly odd things to stick at. Does Ann know?”
I didn’t particularly want to tell Susan the grim and grisly details of what had happened between me and Ann, so I asked did anyone want a bun before they all went, and jumped up and fetched some. Thankfully, Susan didn’t press me any further, but chattered on about the modelling she was doing the next day. Ann hadn’t appeared by the end of break, so we all trailed in to shorthand. Miss Potts had just written up some more short forms on the board when the door opened and Ann came in. She muttered sorry at Miss Potts, and sat down at the front of the class. The lesson crawled on, and Ann remained hunched over her books. I stayed hunched over mine too, in the hope that Miss Potts wouldn’t ask me anything as all I could think about was whether I could patch things up with Ann. I was so overwrought by the end of the lesson I dropped my pencil case and all its contents on the floor. As I was scrabbling about trying to find everything, a pair of neat black court shoes came into view. I looked up.
“Jill, I want to talk to you,” said Ann.
“Okay,” I said. Ann walked out without another word, heading towards the front door. I looked at Ann as we walked out of college, and her face was absolutely set. I couldn’t read it at all. She had that tight-lipped look people get when the last thing they want you to do is say something cheery about the weather, or actually anything at all, so I stayed mute, and we walked along to the museum gardens in silence. Ann sat down on the first bench we came too, and sighed.
“Jill, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I can’t think what got into me. I was so excited about saving the stables, and it didn’t occur to me for a minute that you wouldn’t feel the same way.”
“Oh gosh,” I said, “That’s not …”
“No, Jill. Please let me finish. I thought you were just being Jill-ish, and that you’d come round and you’d see my way of thinking sooner or later.”
I wondered quite what Ann meant by Jill-ish. Something told me this wasn’t the right time to go into that, but I filed it away for later.
“It all seemed like a dream come true. Robin would have a stable again, and you and I wouldn’t have to stay here, and we could work with horses as we’d dreamed. Of course it’s all round Chatton, and I didn’t get chance to ring Mummy and she heard about it from Mrs Darcy, and I got a letter from her this morning. She’s absolutely furious with me, and no, not about you, because she said if I’d dragged you into something, you were perfectly capable of dragging yourself out again. It’s Wendy. If we go to be instructors, there won’t be a place for Wendy. It’s terribly difficult for the Meads at the moment because Mr Mead’s ill, and the farm’s not doing very well and they need every penny that Wendy earns. I’d thought that she could go and help out on the farm, but Mummy told me she can’t. Mummy said I was being absolutely heartless, and she was ashamed of me.”
There is room for one of us, but not both, and now I’ve hauled you out of college, and so I want you to have the job. I’ll stay here and carry on with college and perhaps by the time I finish the stables will be so busy there’ll be room for me.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ve been offered a job by Major Trelawney, the chap who was running the Horse of the Year Show, but he wants me to finish my course. That’s the job I’m going to do. You can still go and work at the stables.”
“I can’t,” said Ann. “At least, not yet. Mummy went off the deep end. She says I have to stay until the course ends, whatever you do, and then, if I still want to, I can take the BHS examinations. But if you’re not going to Mrs Darcy’s, that means it will just be Robin and Wendy on their own.”
“I’m sure they’ll cope,” I said. Ann stared at the floor.
“Wendy’s awfully pretty, isn’t she?” she said.
“I’ve never really thought about it, but I suppose she is,” I said. I must admit it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about. Wendy was Wendy, in my book. I mean, your dazzling beauty doesn’t make any difference to how well you can ride, does it? Or else Cecilia would be in the British team by now.
“Um,” said Ann, again.
“I’m sure it’ll be all right,” I said.
“Really?” said Ann, looking at me with one of those expressions dogs get when you’ve got a biscuit they want.
“Really,” I said. “I’m sure Wendy’s not the sort to suddenly decide she can’t muck out because she’s just done her nails.”
Ann said oh, again, and narrowed her eyes, and just stared at me. Then she shook her head, and sighed. She didn’t seem inclined to say anything else, and I couldn’t think of anything to say about the whole riding school thing that wasn’t something I’d already said.
“Look,” I said. “All this emotion has given me the most tremendous appetite. Why don’t we get a milkshake from the milk bar on the corner? And something to eat?”
So that’s what we did.