We walked back across the Park. I was struck dumb with misery. We were all silent, as a matter of fact, because I could see that Ann and Rosalie didn’t know what to say to me.
“Gosh, Jill,” said Ann, at last. “I wish I could think of something to do, but I can’t.”
“Why don’t you check what it said on the receipt?” asked Rosalie.
I started to say what a good idea, and then it struck me with an awful force. Even if I did ring Pool Cottage, Mrs Crosby probably wouldn’t be there, and neither would Mummy. She’d could well have flown off to America by now, and I hadn’t even said good bye.
“Mummy’s probably already left,” I said. “There’s some ghastly artist staying there now.”
“I’m sure your mother didn’t say she was going so soon,” said Ann. “Actually, I don’t think she mentioned when she was going. Mummy didn’t say anything when I rang up.”
“So you’re on the phone, Ann?” asked Rosalie. “There’s a phone box over there. If anyone has any money we could ring your mother, Ann. Where’s your mother going, Jill?”
“America,” I said, shortly. “Mummy’s an author – Catherine Crewe. You’ve probably read some of her books. Basil the Birdsong Boy? The Little House of Smiles?”
“Oh,” said Rosalie. “My Aunt Beatrice loves them and bought them for me every birthday. I think I must have everything she ever wrote.”
“Oh,” said Ann.
“Oh,” I said.
I don’t know about you, but I just can’t get on with Mummy’s books. They always have frightfully good reviews, which buck Mummy up no end, but they are filled with hordes of angelic little children struggling to bring happiness into a horrible world, and the children are, well, irredeemably wet. It doesn’t matter what happens to them (and you’d be surprised by some of the horrors Mummy visited upon Basil), they look up to the sky, with their pure, shining little faces, suffer nobly and eventually bring a ray of light into the general gloom. I’ve read them all, because I always do read everything Mummy writes, but they’re all just the same. A frightfully important critic called them “a vital, beating heart; a mirror held up to the catastrophe of our modern existence.” Mummy has the quote pinned up above her typewriter so she can look at it when she gets stuck, but frankly I don’t see it at all, because if you’re wet you’re wet, but there you are.
All my life I’ve had people virtually pass out with joy when they find out that Mummy is Catherine Crewe – yes, that Catherine Crewe, and then go on and on about what an inspiration Basil, or Winnie Wish-too-Much or whoever has been in their lives, and how much they look forward to the next book. I thought, rather bitterly, that if all these people had been a bit more inspired and had bought The Charms of Cosy Cottage, Mummy might not have been in such a state and missed the message, and then my ponies might not have been sold.
I looked up and saw Rosalie and Ann were looking at me rather oddly.
“Are you all right?” asked Ann. “Because we’ve been trying to get you to come over to the phone box, and you’ve just been standing there, in a trance.”
“Oh,” I said. “Just thinking about Mummy’s books.”
Rosalie muttered something.
“What?” I said.
“Oh, nothing,” said Rosalie. “Have you got any coppers or haven’t you? Because Ann and I have been through our pockets while you’ve been in your trance, and we’ve got one penny, three toffees and a very old handkerchief between us, and frankly, that’s not going to get us very far.”
I investigated the pockets of my cardigan. I knew there wasn’t any money in the right hand pocket, because that was the pocket that had some oats in, and a few bits of hay, which I brought out to smell when I was feeling particularly battered by the shorthand. Out of the left-hand pocket came a hoof pick (because you never know), another rather elderly handkerchief, a very sticky humbug, and once I’d dislodged that, a collection of pennies. After we’d washed them under the drinking fountain, we managed to prise them apart, and then off we headed for the phone box.
Ann dialled her number, and then shoved some pennies in, and after a bit the operator put her through.
“Hello Mummy?” she said. “It’s me.”
“Mummy, I know you told me not to say ‘It’s me’, but I’m in a frightful hurry and I don’t have much money, so can we just talk about it later?”
I could hear Mrs Derry squawking at the other end of the phone. She doesn’t tend to take it very well when Ann disagrees with her, and she wasn’t taking it well now.
“Say sorry,” I hissed. “Or we’ll never get anywhere.”
“What?” said Ann. “Oh, sorry Mummy. Jill just said something to me. Yes of course, that Jill. What other Jill might it have been?”
Mrs Derry went off into another fusillade of squawks. She was interrupted by the operator. Ann shoved more pennies into the phone, and leaped in before Mrs Derry could recover from having been stopped mid-flow.
“Mummy, has Mrs Crewe left for America yet?” she asked. After some more mumbling on the other end of the phone that I couldn’t quite hear, Ann turned to me and shook her head. “No,” she mouthed. “Oh, okay, Mummy, thank you. I’ll tell her. No, I’m sorry, I’ll try not to say okay. I have something really important to ask: do you know who bought Black Boy and where he’s gone?”
If I’d been on a seat I’d have been on the edge of it. I tried to make out what Mrs Derry was saying, but I couldn’t.
“Honestly, Mummy, yes, that is really important,” said Ann. “Of course I want to know how Pam is, and of course I care more about my own sisters than I do about Jill’s ponies, but just at the moment …”
Ann stopped, as another Mrs Derry flood hit her ears. Again Mrs Derry was stopped by the operator, and Ann put in more pennies.
“Mummy, that’s my last bit of money. I’m terribly sorry Spot bucked Pam off, but if she will haul at his mouth and dig him in the ribs when she wants to do a collected trot, what does she expect? Why don’t you take her up to Mrs Darcy’s for a lesson? And please, please, can you tell me if you know anything about Black Boy?”
I heard Mrs Derry chattering on again, and then the operator butted in, and that was that. Ann put the phone down.
“Well?” I said.
“Your mother hasn’t gone yet,” Ann said. “The cottage is all packed up, and she’s flying out tomorrow. She’s coming up to London this afternoon, and wants to see you this evening. Apparently she’s been trying to ring the college but hasn’t been able to get through.”
I was delighted I would see Mummy again before she flew off, but it was going to be a very tricky meeting, because what do you say to the mother who’s just missed the fact your beloved ponies were to be sold? I didn’t want to upset Mummy before she went, so I could see I was going to have to do some very hard work on my expressions indeed.
“What about Black Boy?” I asked.
“Mummy doesn’t know who bought him. She said your mother was quite upset and she didn’t want to make it worse by asking. She’s quite upset herself because if she’d known, she’d have bought Black Boy for Brenda.”
“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t help but think, it was all very well for Mummy and Mrs Derry to be upset, but what about me?
“You know,” Ann said thoughtfully, “Even though she’s my sister, I don’t know that I’d want to let Brenda loose on Black Boy.”
I saw what Ann meant. Ann’s other sister, Pam, had gone to The Pines School for Girls in Chatton, like me and Ann, but Brenda had been sent off to boarding school, because she’d been too much for The Pines. She’d been too much for her boarding school too. Mind you, she was hardly ever there. She had a whole network of escape routes, most of them over the roof, which she used to get out and see her aged aunt, who lived in the same town as the school, and who used to boot Brenda back when she’d had enough of her. When her aunt had finally put her foot down, Brenda told the school she’d got a place in the Guides company in the town, and had been allowed out two evenings a week to go to meetings. Those mistresses must have been a bit slow, if you ask me, because none of them had ever asked why Brenda didn’t have a uniform, and why she didn’t appear to have any of those badges Guides are always so keen on getting. Anyway, it was when Brenda had lit a fire and burned down the pavilion that the school suggested that Brenda might be happier at home, having not believed Brenda when she said she was practising for her woodcraft badge.
So Brenda, as you can see, was hot stuff, and what she might have got Black Boy into I shudder to think.