I sat down on the steps of the college. I was exhausted from being so terrifyingly noble. I’d managed to convince Mummy to go off to America, and not to stay and help me find Black Boy, and honestly, I wasn’t at all sure I’d done the right thing. It had always been just Mummy and me (well, nearly always) and now it wasn’t going to be, and that was all down to me. When you read about people in books being noble and self-sacrificing, they always seem to go about in a haze of golden joy, but it wasn’t like that for me, I can tell you. Mummy was now on her way to America, I was condemned to holidays with Aunt Primrose, and I still had no idea where Black Boy was. If that was where being noble got you, I thought, you could keep it.
I sat there for a bit longer, mulling over my drear thoughts. You may think I am utterly heartless, but the worst and most drear thing was Black Boy. Mummy likes nothing better than talking about her books, and though I couldn’t think of anything worse than being corralled up with a load of other hopeless souls all learning to write stuff with a vital, beating heart there were obviously plenty of people who liked that sort of thing and they and Mummy would get along fine. I can’t say I was looking forward to holidays with Aunt Primrose, because I wasn’t, but I’d survive. I’d been immured with Aunt Primrose and my cousin Cecilia on a few occasions before in my glittering career when Mummy had had to go away, and we don’t see eye to eye. Aunt Primrose hates doing anything out of doors unless it’s in a marquee, is frantically neat and tidy, and thinks horses and dogs are dirty, smelly, and best avoided. She also worships Cecilia, which I suppose is fair enough as Cecilia’s her daughter, but Cecilia and I have never got on. No matter how many chic haircuts I have and how much lipstick I put on, Cecilia always regards me as an uncivilised, horse-mad brat, who’s about twelve. One thing I have learned as I’ve trotted through life is that there are some things you can’t do much about, and Cecilia is one of them.
That left Black Boy. I was going to track Black Boy down if it was the last thing I did, and when I did, I’d buy him back, because if I had a job I could just about afford to keep him in London with me though I’d probably have to live in a rabbit hutch in someone’s back yard. But I couldn’t afford to keep them both. Making a big effort to look on the bright side (Mummy’s characters would be proud of me) I thought I could use the money from Rapide to pay livery fees for Black Boy if I had to until I’d finished college and got a job and could support him myself. I couldn’t ask Mummy for any help because I knew how rocky our finances were, and besides, there was a bit of me that thought I was grown up now, and I ought to be supporting my pony myself. But I would miss Rapide. After our rocky start, when I’d been convinced he hated me, we’d come to understand each other. I sighed. I could go and see him at Diana’s any time I wanted, but it wasn’t quite the same. I could see that Mummy might well have a bit to say about the whole thing, but I didn’t see why I couldn’t have a job and Black Boy.
I felt a bit better now I’d decided that, and I went back into college (fortunately Ann had left the door on the latch for me, because in all the emotion of the evening I’d forgotten my keys), and I went up to our eyrie. The light was on, but Ann was fast asleep, and snoring. I undressed and got into bed, and lay there looking at the night sky through the skylight. I felt that I’d never get to sleep, but now I’d reached the great age of seventeen, I knew that however much I felt like that, generally I would.
The next thing I knew was Ann shaking me by the shoulder.
“I thought you’d never wake up,” she said. “I’m longing to know how it all went, so the least you can do is join the land of the living and tell me. I’ve brought you up a cup of tea. It’s a bit cold now, but that’s your fault because you wouldn’t wake up. I’m sure it’s quite drinkable as long as you don’t think about it too much.”
“Thanks,” I said. Ann was right about the tea. Gulped down it was just about bearable.
“Mummy’s gone,” I said, “I was sickeningly noble and wouldn’t let her stay to help me look after Black Boy, so she’s gone.”
“Ah,” said Ann, in that way people do when you’ve just told them something that they simply can’t think of the right response to. I’ve often felt that way myself.
“What about Black Boy?” asked Ann. “Did we have the right address?”
“We did,” I said, as I groped on the bedside table for the receipt.
Ann took it from me. “How odd. That is definitely the address we went to, isn’t it?”
“It is,” I said. “I vote we beard Rosalie when she turns up and show her the letter.”
“Yes, let’s,” said Ann. “But it’s ages until college starts, and I’m starving, so let’s go and make some poached eggs on toast. We’ve still got some eggs left over from yesterday.”
“Okay,” I said, and off we went to the basement. It’s a bit odd to be eating shop-bought eggs all the time now, but I must say I don’t miss Mummy’s hens at all. They were soulless creatures, and always looked at me as if I was a particularly big worm they couldn’t eat, which to them was a shame. I wondered what Mummy had done with the hens, because she hadn’t mentioned them, but then hens aren’t like a pony or a dog, with feelings, and I don’t suppose the hens were bothered about anything except where their next meal was coming from.
I felt a bit better once we’d eaten, though still a bit worn out from all that nobility. Ann and I went and sat on the stairs in the hall, where we’d planned to kick our heels until everyone turned up for the first lesson of the day, which was shorthand. Unfortunately Miss Dodds was up and about early too, and she no sooner caught sight of us than she shunted us into the shorthand room to do sordid tasks like clean the board and put out copies of Pitman’s Guide to Shorthand on all the desks, because we were going to learn something new, and wasn’t that exciting? said Miss Dodds. I ask you.
That meant, of course, that we didn’t have a chance to say anything to Rosalie until break, because Ann and I lurk at the back of the classroom and Rosalie’s at the front. I kept on trying to give her meaningful glances every time she turned round but had to give that up when Miss Dodds asked did I have a pain?
If you’re interested, and if your mother is asking you what you’re reading, and wouldn’t you be better off doing something useful, tell her you’re reading about short forms in shorthand. Because that is what we were doing.
At long last we were released from the charnel house, and set off to the basement. Rosalie had already bagged a table, and she called us over.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “I thought you were going to expire, Jill. What on earth were you up to?”
“Trying to tell you we wanted to talk to you,” I said. “I saw Mummy last night. Oh!” A thought suddenly came to me. “Mummy gave me the manuscript of her latest book. You can read it first and tell me what you think.”
“Thanks,” said Rosalie, “But I wouldn’t dream of it.”
I shut up about that, because I didn’t want to waste any more time in one of those pointless sort of arguments where you’re going “Oh, but I insist,” and the other blot’s going “No, I insist,” because I had more important things to think about, namely Black Boy. I dug the receipt Mummy had given me out of my pocket.
“This is the receipt,” I said, and handed it over to Rosalie. She straightened it out, and read it.
“The address is right – I’m not arguing about that, but the name’s wrong. Our name’s Twist, not Smythe, and I can’t think of anyone of that name who kept the stables or had liveries with us, and after all with Pat Smythe being such a famous showjumper, you do rather notice anyone with a surname like that.”
“Could it be someone your brother knows, do you think?” I asked.
Rosalie frowned. “I suppose so,” she said. “Robin must know plenty of people I don’t. Look, Mummy’s been on at me to ask you over to supper. Why don’t you come tonight? Robin’s still living with us until he starts his new job, and we can see what he thinks.”
“Good idea,” I said, because frankly, there wasn’t anything else I could think of that would help. The one link we had with Black Boy was the address of the stables.
“Good,” said Rosalie. “Why don’t you come back with me this evening when college finishes?”
“Are you sure?” asked Ann, before I could shut her up. “Won’t your mother need time to prepare? Mine goes into fifty blue fits if someone turns up unexpectedly for supper.”
“Oh, we always have plenty of stuff about,” said Rosalie. “Don’t worry.”
With that, break finished, and off we went for the next episode in our glorious day, which at least was typing, which I could thereabouts do. I’m sure I must have said this before in my other books, in which case skip this bit and go off and have a cup of tea, but it’s funny how time absolutely crawls when you’re doing something dire. When I’m with the ponies, even things like mucking out fly, and holidays positively whizz, but time in the South Kensington Secretarial College for Girls seemed to have entered its own realm of sloth, and by the time the end of the day crawled up, I felt I’d lived another 20 years.
Rosalie said she’d hang about for us while we changed, which made Ann and I blench a bit, because frankly anywhere you go where you have to change for dinner sounds like hard work to me, but we had a noble mission before us – the pursuit of Black Boy – and so off we went. We dragged out our good skirts, brushed our hair and put on more lipstick and galloped off to find Rosalie.
We walked off down Queensberry Place past rows of identical smart white painted houses, and then turned the corner on to Queen’s Gate, which although it was only a couple of streets away, was somewhere I’d never been because I’d never needed to. On the corner was the tattiest house I’d ever seen. It was green: or at least bits of it were. The paint was hanging off it in festoons, and half of it was covered with ivy. Mummy gave me Edgar Allan Poe’s poems last year, and honestly, I expected ravens to fly out of this house squawking “Nevermore.” It was that sort of place.
“You can see why I call it the pits,” said Rosalie.