Todays post is dedicated to Natalya. A beautiful person, a stunning dressage rider, horsewoman and an excellent coach. Once, one of the mothers at Saturday riding said that horses were stupid creatures.
“No,” said Natalya, “They’re actually incredibly sensitive” and I loved her even more.
When I was about 14, life in Lae, where I grew up was getting a bit scary. There were more and more violent attacks against women; the stories of rape and murder too close to home. That was part of the scenery in that beautiful place. Violence, unrest. Contrast, corruptions; trouble in paradise. There were riots and curfews, the township windows were all boarded up. We had a security guard and a razor wire fence. Expats were leaving in droves.
Among them were our friends who had recently moved back to Melbourne. Their kids were all at the same school there. The school also took co-ed boarders; a happy coincidence. See, our older siblings were already through their schooling, but Brett and I weren’t. I had plans.
It was decided that my brother and I would go to that school in Melbourne, as boarders. It was 3448km away. But I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. It’s not like Mum and Dad exactly planned for that. Perhaps I had read altogether too many “In a Pickle at Mallory Towers” style books, but I was convinced that boarding school would be smashing fun! All pillow fights and jolly good lacrosse games. I pictured myself resplendent in serge tunic, opening care packages from home and sharing out toffees. I would be the new girl everyone wanted to be friends with and my new uniform would make me look magically slender and effortlessly attractive. All the boys would be nice. And one of them would fall in love with me, pledge to marry me and we’d eventually move to a big house in the country.
So I got my friend’s mum to send the prospectus to my folks. I had already tried and failed in my bid to go to another Australian boarding schools for girls. What made this plan so perfect was that my brother could come too, Mum and Dad were sure to go for that! I possibly wheedled and nagged for a few solid months. I may even have filled in the forms and got their signatures under duress. Cracking effort really. I got my way. And away we went.
Melbourne was about as different to Papua New Guinea as you could get. There was no security fence around the boarding house. There was only one lock on the door. No dead bolt, no security guard. We were allowed to walk to the shops. We caught trains and buses. We went into Croydon for hot chips (and sneaky cigarettes). There was an enormous amount of freedom. At first I found that really hard, I felt insecure in the truest sense of the word. My homesickness was a shock to me. Mallory Towers was a crock. My new school was actually excellent, the other boarders and house mistresses were (mostly) lovely… but it just wasn’t what I had dreamed up in my Enid Blyton imaginations.
Down at the bottom of the school, beyond the sports field, there was a paddock. It’s all built up and developed now, but back then, there it was. I would wander, cold and displaced, down to the bottom field after school finished for the day. The other girls would be whacking a ball around the tennis courts, or chatting, or doing homework, or watching RAGE. I’d grab an apple and head down there, away from everyone. Toward solace. I had a secret friend down there. A big bay horse with giant molten black eyes. I called him Licorice. Mostly for those delicious eyes. He’d see me coming and trot over to the fence, whinnying a greeting across the field. He wanted my apple, but I felt like he wanted to see me. To wuffle his warm whiskery breath into my palm and push against me with his heavy head. I’d talk to him; all about it. About all of the strangeness I was finding. About my little lost self. About missing my home. About how I made a mistake pushing them to send me away. He’d listen and nudge me, knowing. Sometimes, he’d rest his head over my shoulder. I loved that horse. He was only there for a few weeks. Or maybe it was that I only needed him for a few weeks; I remember going to see him and he was gone.
And it was strangely, okay. I’d found my way.
I walk into the stable yard of my daughter’s riding school, and take in a big deep, satisfied breath. Horses smell of warmth and hay, of dust and the sunshine. I am pushing myself this morning. But it is worth it. My girl has such a passion for horses, they are her everything. Her face is transformed, completely absorbed already; fingers wrapped in mane, face against warm neck. We’ve just arrived and she is home, right there in the loose box, lost in the love of a horse that will never be hers. My stomach lurches and I struggle to stand upright, I look for a spot to lean. And I see him, the horse in the neighbouring pen. He’s new to the riding school, there on trial. He bends his beautiful head down toward my tummy, pushing gently against me. Hello, I croon. You are new here. They’re nice you know, they’ll look after you, Beautiful Boy. He keeps wuffling against my tummy. Blowing warm breath into my jumper.
He looks directly into my eyes. I know, he thinks in my direction. It hurts. And there I am, back there with my Boarding School bay. I reach up and stroke the soft spot under his forelock. Thank you, I think back. The ‘knowing’ is the same gift I received in that paddock, twenty five years ago. But the pains are different, then and now.
Then, the pain of regret, the loneliness of a child-woman.
Now, the pain of illness, the knowing of a woman-child.
And here, this horse, this beautiful, clever horse.
Where did I put that apple?
The first photo in this piece is by Be Couper. The one above of me was taken by my daughter Bee last weekend. I took the one of her; we’re with Trina. She is not the horse I mention here, but is also totally divine. Thank you Evie for letting us smooch with her and go all papparazzi. The picture of Bee was taken by me.