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Chapter 1 - Ruth's Day Out


THE little green book was very dog-eared. Ruth lay prone on the floor, the book propped up on the fender, studying intently a photograph of a blurry-faced woman riding a horse. The caption to the photograph read: ‘This picture shows the horse pushed evenly into the trot by the rider’s leg-aids and seat. Note the happy look of the horse, and the true movements of the diagonal legs (the off-fore and near-hind on the ground, whilst the near-fore and off-hind have simultaneously left the ground). Compare with plates 16, 17 and 18.’

‘Dinner’s ready,’ her mother said. ‘Get up off the floor, Ruth. It’s draughty.’

‘It isn’t,’ Ruth said.

Her seventeen-year-old brother, Ted, home from work for the dinner-hour, peered over her shoulder, grinning. Ruth put her hand over the book. Ted sat down at the dinner-table and as Ruth got up to join him he said, ‘Note the happy look of the child, and the true movements of her diagonal legs as she crosses the floor.’

Ruth scowled furiously.

‘Sitting down on her well-rounded hind quarters, she picks up the fork with her near-fore —’

‘Ted, give over,’ said his mother.

Ted said, not teasing any more, ‘I passed a lot of kids dashing about on ponies on the way home. In a big field. Pony Club Trials or something. There was a notice up.’

Ruth looked up avidly. ‘Where? Near here?’

‘Brierley way. Jumping and all that.’

‘Oh!’ Ruth’s scowl vanished and her face became all passionate anxiety. ‘If I’d known!’ She glanced at the clock. ‘Do you think it’ll still be on? If I go —’

‘I’ll drop you there on the way back to work if you like.’

‘Yes, of course! Oh, yes, I could!’

Her mother looked at her doubtfully. ‘How are you going to get home?’

‘Oh, I’ll walk or find a bus or something.’

‘If you find a bus round these God-forsaken parts you’ll be lucky,’ Mrs. Hollis said with a sniff.

But Ruth had no thought for afterwards. To get there was all that possessed her. She ate hurriedly, taking no notice of her mother’s disapproval. Her mother was disapproving by nature, and did not like the new place they had come to live in, which had made her more disapproving still. Mr. Hollis, a born optimist and peacemaker, said she would get used to it, but Mrs. Hollis said how could she get used to only three shops, five miles to any more and three buses a day to get there? Their house was in the middle of a new ‘development of Sunny, Spacious Homes’ that had been grafted somewhat incongruously on to the edge of an untidy village in East Anglia. The Sunnyside Estate had a concrete road and concrete lamp-posts and open-plan front gardens, but the rest of the village had gritty tarmac full of pot-holes, or mere mud, and gardens overgrown with gnarled pear trees and sour apples.

‘The sooner you go back to school the better,’ Mrs. Hollis said to Ruth. ‘Moping round all day with nothing to do.’

‘But I have something to do now,’ Ruth pointed out. She did not like her new school much.

‘Hmm,’ said Mrs. Hollis.

Ruth finished her pudding and said to Ted, ‘Can we go now?’

‘Oh, give me a chance,’ Ted said, but pushed his chair back from the table in a hopeful manner. ‘The old sausages have got to meet the digestive juices.’

‘I’ll get ready,’ Ruth said. She did not want her mother or Ted to see how excited she felt, and she knew it showed. She walked nonchalantly out of the room. She could feel the hot pounding of her joy in her inside: a great flushing of gorgeous anticipation. The unexpectedness of it unnerved her; usually such days, like the never-to-be-forgotten day at the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley, and the day at the Royal Windsor two years ago, were ringed on a calendar weeks before, and approached with a maximum of anticipatory sensation — so great at times as to make her feel sick and almost incapacitate her for the great moment. Her father told her she cared too much. ‘Nothing matters that much,’ he said to her quite often. But wanting a pony did. Ruth used to cry in bed at night after going to a horse show, because she did not have a pony. ‘When we go to live in the country, perhaps you can have a pony,’ her father had said. They had lived in the country for two months now, but he had not said any more about it. Ruth wanted to ask him, but she was so frightened that he would dash her hopes that she did not dare to. She was afraid it had just been a prevaricating thing to say, and that if she asked again he would think of something else, like not being able to afford it. But soon she would ask him, Ruth thought, because it was all she thought about. She was nearly twelve, and soon it might be too late: she would grow too tall and need a horse that would certainly eat too much for her father to afford. According to a book Ruth had (a very old one that her father had bought in a junk-shop), people should start riding at ten. If you did not learn to ride as a child you would never acquire a good seat, it said, unless you joined the cavalry and received military training. Ruth realized there was no possibility of her ever joining the cavalry — she wondered if there was such a thing as a mounted policewoman? — and meanwhile, as far as she could see, her life was being wasted. If she were to say that to her father, he would laugh and say she had no sense of humour. ‘Well, I haven’t,’ Ruth thought. Her only consolation was that, for her age, she was small and thin. Pony-sized for a few years yet.

She pulled her anorak off the hook on her bedroom door. She was already wearing jeans and a blue polo-necked jersey, so getting ready did not take long. Ted started putting on his motor-bike clothes. Ruth fetched the old crash-helmet she wore when she rode pillion, and her mother gave her her bus fare home. ‘If you can find a bus,’ she said, ‘which I doubt. Now, mind how you go, Ted. You’re not in a hurry.’

It was cold on the back of the motor bike. Ruth pressed up close to Ted, her thumbs hooked in his belt, her nose full of the oily smell of his coat. The bike crackled through the village, bounced over the level-crossing, then roared away with the ear-splitting din that Ted loved up the hill and into the country. Through streaming eyes, Ruth saw the Friesian cows, the bare elms and the rolling pastures that fell away to the flat, ditch-seamed marshes and the shining thread of the tidal river. She grinned into Ted’s coat, for having come to live in such a place, after London. She saw herself riding along the sea-walls on her pony, a gleaming, eager little beast, ears pricked up, the wind in his tail... ‘Oh, I must!’ she said into Ted’s coat.

After some twenty minutes of wild swooping along narrow lanes, Ted turned and shouted something. He was slowing down. Ruth lifted her head and peered over his shoulder. She saw a flag flying at the gateway of a field, purple, pale blue, and gold, and in the field a lot of ponies being ridden, and horse-boxes parked in a row by the hedge.

‘Here you are,’ said Ted, pulling up by the gate. ‘All right?’

‘Yes.’ Ruth got off, shivering.

‘I’ll look out for you on the way home, in case you’re still walking.’

‘I’ll manage,’ Ruth said. She pulled off her crash-helmet. ‘Here, what shall I do with this?’ She looked round in dismay. Nothing would have induced her to enter the field wearing anything as inappropriate as a motor-bike helmet. ‘Can’t you take it?’

‘I can’t wear two, can I? Stick it in the hedge. Don’t leave it behind, though. Cheerio.’

With a blast of noise he was gone. Ruth, nervously fumbling the helmet, walked through the gate. There was nobody to take any money, or tell her to go away; nobody took any notice of her at all. The field was huge and open, on the top of a hill, and the cold Easter wind swept it. All the adults Ruth could see wore suede coats with sheepskin linings, but they looked cold, and stamped their feet. An enclosure was roped off not far from the gate, which Ruth took to be a collecting-ring, for it was full of ponies and riders, standing or walking about, and from it at intervals a pony would go out and a loudspeaker would give its name and number, and the name of its rider. It would then canter off across the field, jump (or refuse to jump) some rails into an adjoining field, and canter away up this field to disappear over a brush jump and into a wood in the middle distance.

‘It’s Hunter Trials,’ Ruth decided.

She surreptitiously hid the crash-helmet in the hedge, and walked over to the collecting-ring, shivering with cold and excitement. She half expected to be told to leave by one of the cold adults, but she was ignored. The girls on the ponies looked at her without expression. This suited Ruth very well. She did not want to be noticed. She only wanted to look at the ponies.

The ponies were a mixed bag. Quite a few of them, when it was their turn, cantered stickily away from the collecting-ring, refused the first jump three times, and then, on being eliminated, cantered eagerly back to their friends. Ruth’s heart bled for their riders, who tried not to look as if they minded. ‘If I had a pony,’ she thought, ‘he would jump that jump.’ She was sure she could make him. It was an easy one. She pushed her cold hands into her anorak pockets, and saw herself galloping up the hill towards the wood. ‘Like that,’ she said to herself, when a boy on a flaxen-maned chestnut did as she would do. The pony went like a tongue of flame over the bright grass. The girls in the collecting-ring watched him, scowling. Ruth heard one of them say, ‘Oh, that Peter McNair!’

Peter McNair was better than any of the girls. His pony (Toadhill Flax, according to a programme Ruth caught blowing across the grass) was a Welsh cob with cream feather, like an Agincourt charger, and a white mane that fell down to his shoulder. The course was over two miles long, and the middle part ran through a wood that straggled down the valley just below the collecting-ring. The ponies had to go through it at the top, out into the country and back into it at the bottom before the fast finish over two of the big fences left over from the point-to-point, but squished down in the middle with regard for the smaller animals. Ruth watched Peter McNair disappear at the top end, and ran down across the grass to the bottom end of the wood to watch him come through. There was nobody there except a woman on a folding chair, taking the score, and stamping her feet in the leaf-mould. She took no notice of Ruth, who stationed herself where the course came out of the wood. The way in was through a gate, which had to be opened and closed again, through some trees and over a stream, then round over a log, over the stream again and immediately up a steep muddy bank and out over a rail at the top.

‘Tricky,’ Ruth thought, imagining. Most of the competitors got off for the gate, but Peter McNair did it all from the saddle. Toadhill Flax skidded to a halt alongside, tearing great streamers out of the grass, and his rider leant down and pulled off the loop of string. The pony, having covered most of the last one and a half miles at a gallop, danced through, quivering with excitement, but Peter McNair held him with one hand, and turned him with his legs, and got him to stand while he dropped the string back. Ruth, watching, thought it was done by magic. Everyone else had had terrible trouble with the gate, pulling their ponies through, and then not being able to get near enough to shut it again, or not being able to remount for the whirling of the excited pony. But Toadhill Flax, as if held on a thread, trembling with excitement, pivoted on his forehand for Peter McNair to put the string back. The cold wind tossed through the wood. Ruth shivered, her eyes riveted on the beauty of Toadhill Flax. She saw Peter McNair just then, easing the chestnut so that from his quivering immobility he leapt into life again, with a great churning of mud, down the bank and over the stream. Instantly he was caught up, to trot neatly through the trees, over the log, and back to the stream, beautifully in hand. Peter McNair pressed him on then, three strides from the stream, and he was over it with a fine stretch and a lifting of the white mane, and up the bank like a trained commando, his rider well forward and with him, ready for the awkward rail at the top. ‘Up, Toad!’ Peter McNair shouted, and Toad jumped, neat as a cat, springing from his muscled hocks, his tail streaming in the wind. Then out into the open again, at a flat gallop. Ruth ran after them, to watch them finish, entranced by the display of perfect control. ‘That’s how I would do it,’ she said to herself. And, even though her father said she had no sense of humour, she grinned, mocking herself. ‘Ruth McNair Hollis,’ she thought, ‘on Sunnyside Semi-Detached... Oh, how can I ever? Without a pony at all?’

To order your copy of Fly-By-Night see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.