You might be wondering if Ann and I were the only people at this secretarial college. We weren’t, of course, but we were the only ones who lived in the attics and that mattered to the people who didn’t. Not that they were all bad, because they weren’t. One of the quite human ones, Rosalie, hung back from the chattering horde as we made our way out of the typing room (well, there were five others besides us which isn’t exactly a horde, but horde sounds better).
“I say,” she said. “Don’t you two know Susan Pyke?”
“You could say that,” said Ann. Susan Pyke had been a thorn in mine and Ann’s sides since we were but infants. When I moved to Pool Cottage, Susan Pyke was the golden girl. There was I, mucking about on Black Boy without a clue what to do to look after him or how to ride him, and there was Susan, with a lovely pony and winning every rosette in sight. It didn’t last, because when Susan’s parents sold that pony, whatever else they bought her (and they bought her a lot, believe me) it went wrong. Susan just couldn’t ride it. The last I heard, she’d gone off to some finishing school in Switzerland.
“Sort of,” I said, in a final sort of way, because although Rosalie seemed quite human, Ann and I had a job to do, and that was find Black Boy, and that came first.
“She’s my cousin,” said Rosalie. Ann and I looked at her with sympathy. I mean, I’ve got Cecilia, so I know what blots cousins can be. “She writes to me quite often, and she asked me to look out for you two, and now I have.”
“Yes,” said Ann, and after that we all shuffled about a bit, because I couldn’t, at that moment, think of anything to say about Susan that wouldn’t have horribly offended her nearest and dearest, and I guessed Ann was the same, and Rosalie seemed to be thinking better of her kind impulse and was looking over her shoulder to see where the others had gone.
“Well, say hello to Susan,” Ann said. “I hope you won’t think we’re frightfully rude, but we have something very important to be getting on with,” and with that, we all smiled at each other in a rather forced way, and then Ann and I trudged off out of the South Kensington Secretarial College for Girls (as if, I meant to say, it would be anything else – have you ever heard of a Secretarial College for Camels?) and down to the garden in front of the Natural History Museum, which was only a few minutes away and was a jolly nice place to sit. Even that though, seemed grey and mere in my pony-less state. We sat down and Ann got out her A–Z of London.
I wondered what Black Boy was up to, hoping that he wasn’t having to suffer some lumpen rider who wouldn’t understand him, because he’d had enough of that with me. In my dim and dark past, Black Boy had had to put up with a lot. I was the worst sort of beginner. It makes me shudder now when I think of what I got up to, and how I hurt him by not having a clue. I didn’t even know how to saddle or bridle Black Boy properly, or that he needed grooming until Martin Lowe took pity on me and taught me what was what. Martin had been a marvellous friend to me and Mummy when we first moved to Chatton, but we hadn’t seen much of him for years because he’d gone away to London, to work in the War Office. Then he’d been sent out with the Foreign Office to work in America, and he didn’t get back much.
I emerged from my unhappy thoughts, and realised Ann was speaking.
“Jill, Park Lane’s just the other side of the Park. It’ll only take us quarter of an hour or so. We’ve got about an hour until we have to be back for secretarial practice. Come on,” and she dragged me up off the bench and off we set.
There are not many good things about London, as far as I’m concerned. You can’t wander off and go and sit on a gate and contemplate Life. Sitting on a park bench isn’t quite the same. The dogs in London all seem to be terrifyingly well behaved as well; not the snuffly, happy sort who climb all over you, like Diana Bush’s cairns.
The one thing I don’t mind in London is the Park. It’s not the country, but it’s green, and you can see horses on Rotten Row, as long as you don’t mind dodging the parades of nannies with their regimented children. I expect you’ve heard of Rotten Row, and you probably have a thousand relatives who ride there all the time in immaculate breeches and jackets with improbably gleaming horses (which is another thing I got from a book – I’ve often wondered how they got the horses to improbably gleam, because there are limits to what you can do with a body brush) but it was all new to me. It seemed a bit tame, riding round in a thoroughly orderly fashion, but it was as near as Ann and I were going to get to a horse in London. There was a ride going down the Row as Ann and I walked towards the edge of the Park. You never did see in all your life such a lot of correct riding and correct riding clothes. Every single one of those riders looked as they’d just stepped straight out of the window of a smart tailor in Bond Street. All the horses and ponies looked as if they’d never seen a speck of dust in their lives and all the manes were those beautifully pulled ones that flop gently on the right side. The ride was being led by a terribly smart man on a terribly smart grey horse. The horse looked at us and decided we weren’t worth bothering with, and the terribly smart man touched his bowler hat at us and nodded. The ride clopped off and turned off the Park, crossed the road and in through an arch.
“Do you think that’s the Park Lane Riding Stables?” I said.
“I think it could be,” said Ann, as she heaved the A-Z out of her pocked, where she’d shoved it. She peered at the map. “No, that’s Clifton Mews – that’s the one we tried to help at. Park Lane Mews is down Park Lane a bit. Come on!”
We took our lives in our hands, and ran across the road. In Chatton, cars are good on zebra crossings and always stop for you. In London, you never know what’s going to happen. The cars might stop, and they might not. Ann and I had got quite good at leaping for our lives. We reached the other side in one piece and ran down the road. I almost felt I could see Black Boy: that he might walk out from one of the side roads, and give that funny little harrumph to say that he’d seen me, and did I have an apple?
We crossed one of the side roads, and then there it was: a white sign on the corner of the road pointing to Park Lane Mews. There was an arch leading into a wide cobbled yard with coach houses and stables on either side, and through it all came the faint, but magical, scent of horse. Everything was still and quiet: in fact, as we walked further in, we realised it was silent: there weren’t any of those lovely sounds you associate with a stable: no one lugging hay nets around, or chatting as they soaped saddles.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here,” I said to Ann.
“I think you’re right,” said Ann. “It’s so utterly quiet. You know, I don’t get the feeling that they’ve just gone out for a ride. It’s as if everyone’s vanished.”
And that was just what it was like. “Let’s look for the tack room,” I said. “If that’s empty, then we’ll know.”
The tack room had a handy sign on the door saying “Tack Room” so we beetled over and tried the door. It opened, and we jumped, and so did the person inside.
“What on earth are you two doing here?” said Rosalie.
“How about you?” I said. “Last time we saw you, you were off to lunch at the hostel, and now you’re here.”
“I could say the same of you,” Rosalie said. “You said you had something frightfully important to do.”
“We do,” Ann said. “We’re looking for Jill’s pony, Black Boy. He’s been sold to the Park Lane Mews Riding Stables.”
Rosalie looked up and frowned. “He can’t have been,” she said.
“He was,” I said. “James bribed the auction clerk with a box of Milk Tray and she gave him the address on the receipt.”
“When was he sold? Rosalie asked.
“Only a few days ago,” I replied.
“He can’t have been sold here,” said Rosalie. “The place has been shut for a month. My brother used to run it, but the lease ran out and a developer bought it. All the horses and ponies were sold weeks ago. I don’t know where your pony is, but he’s definitely not here. You can have a look if you like. Everything’s empty. Robin sold the tack off last week. There’s not even a hoof pick left.”
Rosalie was right. When we looked about the tack room we could see that all the pegs were empty, and even the cupboards were bare.
Rosalie jumped down from the saddle horse where she’d been perching.
“Look,” she said. “I’m really sorry. I know what it’s like to have your pony sold: my Swallow had to go too, because once this place was sold I didn’t have anywhere to keep him. If I were you, I’d check what the address was on that receipt. It might not even be London – perhaps there’s a stable with the same name in Brighton or somewhere.” She looked at her watch.
“Hadn’t we better be getting back? We’ll be in trouble with the powers that be. I’ve already had the riot act read this week for getting back late from lunch.”
She opened the tack room door, and stood by it, expectantly. Ann and I trailed out.