“Hello,” I said. Mummy looked up from the menu she’d been studying.
“Jill!” she said, as she leaped up. “I’ve ordered you a coffee. You do still like milky coffee? You haven’t gone terribly sophisticated since you’ve been in London and only drink espresso?”
“No,” I said, and sat down.
“What would you like to eat?” asked Mummy.
I wasn’t terribly hungry, but I said, “Oh, ham and eggs if they’ve got it,” which they had, so Mummy ordered it and we sat there and looked at each other.
“I don’t really know where to start,” said Mummy. “I hope I can explain.”
“I’m sorry it’s all been such a horrible rush. When the American offer came, it seemed like the answer to a prayer, because my sales have been so bad for the previous year I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t give up writing and look for some other way of keeping us going, though I couldn’t imagine what.”
You can imagine what I thought then. Why stagger on in London? “But Mummy,” I said, “If it’s such a struggle, can’t I come home? I can look after the cottage, and I’m sure I can get a job with Mrs Darcy, and then I can buy the ponies back.”
Mummy looked at me. “Jill, if you went back to the cottage, I should still have to support you. And I do very much want to go to America. It’s a great honour to be asked, and you see, I should enjoy being able to discuss literature all day and not be thought a little odd.”
Of course, I didn’t want to stop Mummy doing something that meant such a lot to her, and of course she was right. The money did have to come from somewhere. I swallowed down everything I wanted to say, and I wanted to say quite a lot. Mummy carried on:
“It matters so much to me that you do this course, Jill. When I was young, girls weren’t expected to have an education, or be qualified for any career. When your father died, it was sheer good fortune that I managed to sell some of my stories, and carry on supporting us.”
Mummy stopped, and I could see that she was looking back through the years to the horrible time just after Daddy had died. We’d had to sell our lovely house in Wales, because we had no money other than what Daddy earned, and that of course had died with him. I’d known things were difficult for us, and although I wanted, more than anything, to say, well, I’ll come back and you won’t have to pay to put me through this course, I saw that that would only upset Mummy more, because she’s always been so keen on me being able to earn my own living.
Mummy sat up, and started off again.
“You see, Jill, I want you to have the opportunities that I didn’t have: to get qualifications that will be useful to you throughout your life; to live in London and see what life’s like from a different point of view from yours. It’s very easy to get narrow and think there’s only one way of life, and that’s the one we know. Do you understand what I mean?”
I sighed. “I suppose so,” I said.
“Thank you. I had hoped you would. But oh, Jill – the ponies. I keep on going over and over it and wishing that I’d checked before I’d put the manuscript down. And I certainly can’t blame Mrs Crosby because she put the message where she always does leave them. I simply didn’t look. No one could have predicted that such a terrible muddle would be made. Apparently Wendy Mead, who’s working with Mrs Darcy again, did think it was odd, but when Angela (that’s Mrs Darcy’s sister) told her that I’d given my permission, she thought you were loving things in London and had decided it was time for the ponies to go. After all, Jill, you wouldn’t be the first. I hadn’t given my permission of course, but sadly Angela simply assumed my lack of response was the same as my saying yes.
“And as I said, Jill, although it’s the most frightful shock, and certainly not what either of us would have chosen to do, eventually you would have had to decide what was going to happen to the ponies. For you will get a job when you leave college, and if you want to work for the Prime Minister, as you say you do, you’ll have to work in London. It simply wouldn’t be fair on the ponies for them to be in Chatton and you here, and you seeing them on the odd weekend.”
Well, I sort of saw. Bits of me thought, “Poor Mummy,” but quite a lot of other bits were thinking that Mummy had got it all wrong, and of course I wouldn’t have sold the ponies, not for anything. Even if I did end up with a job in London, I could sort something out with someone. I mean I know all the horse people for miles around, and someone could have helped. Mummy was sitting looking at me with a sort of desperate look on her face that reminded me for a horrible moment of one of her chickens when it’s seen the fox, so I swallowed down everything I was thinking, and said, “I do understand a bit, Mummy, but it was such a horrible shock, and the worst thing is not knowing what’s happened to Black Boy.”
“Yes, I know, Jill,” said Mummy. “I’m sure you know by now that Rapide’s gone to Diana, so you’ll be able to see him. I do wish Black Boy could have gone to someone nearer. I brought their address with me.”
I didn’t think this was the time to tell Mummy about James bribing the auction clerk with Milk Tray, so I sat there while she heaved her handbag up from under the table and rustled around in it.
“Oh by the way – here’s my latest book, Clarrie’s Little Cake of Happiness. I had another typed up for you to read.” Mummy plonked the manuscript on the table, and dived back into her bag, and so fortunately missed the look on my face, which I hadn’t quite been able to hide as it was getting a bit tired now from all the expression-schooling, which frankly it wasn’t used to.
“Ah, here we are,” she said, handing me a piece of paper.
It was like being handed a death warrant, seeing “SOLD: one 13.2 black Welsh cross pony” written on the receipt. The name and address of the buyer was:
Park Lane Mews Riding Stables
Park Lane Mews
“Oh,” I said.
“What’s the matter?” asked Mummy.
“Diana knew where he’d gone, and told us. We went there this morning. Mummy, the stables are all closed up and have been for a month.”
Mummy went white.
“But Jill, whatever do you mean? Are you sure you went to the right place?”
“Yes,” I said. “Ann went with me, and it was the right place, and there’s a girl at the college whose brother used to own the stables, and she said he’d sold them weeks ago. The stables were completely empty, Mummy. There wasn’t even so much as a hoof pick.”
“Oh Jill,” said Mummy. “I’m so sorry. I simply don’t understand what’s happened.”
She reached out and put her hand on mine.
“Jill, I can’t leave things like this. I’ll cancel my flight and tell the American people I can’t come. I feel bad enough having been responsible for the ponies being sold: I simply can’t leave you not even knowing where Black Boy is. The one thing that was making me feel even a little better was the fact that you’d be able to see Rapide and Black Boy again.”
Well, I nearly howled then, but I made heroic efforts and got myself back under control.
“No, Mummy,” I said. “We have to face it. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to find Black Boy. He’s vanished.”
Mummy looked as if she was going to howl herself. We both sat there staring at our coffees, and then my ham and eggs arrived, and Mummy’s omelette, so we started pushing the food around the plates.
“Mummy, do go,” I said. “I’ve got a year here, so you might as well, and you’ll love talking about your books. You were right when you said I hadn’t thought about what would happen to the ponies when I got older.”
Mummy squeezed my hand, and nodded. Neither of us could say a thing. We both sniffed a bit, and pushed our food around our plates some more until Mummy said it was time to go. She paid the bill and called a taxi, and in what seemed like seconds, we drew up outside the college.
I let go of Mummy’s hand, and got out and shut the door. Mummy turned round and waved frantically at me out of the back window of the taxi as it turned the corner. And that was that.