A LEGEND OF FAIR WOMEN AND BRAVE MEN
with all love
To avoid confusion, I should point out that although Polo brings back many of the characters from my earlier books Riders and Rivals, it is not, in the strictly chronological sense, a sequel. The story begins in the very early 1980s, a year after Riders ended and Rupert Campbell-Black split up from his wife Helen. It finishes in the late 80s, two years after the end of Rivals.
A word of explanation is in order about the handicapping system in polo which is at least as complicated as A level maths.
A full game of polo consists of six chukkas of approximately seven minutes each. There are four players in each team: a forward at No. 1, two midfield players at Nos. 2 and 3 and a back at No. 4. Every player has a rating known as a ‘handicap’, which is reassessed by the polo authorities twice a year. These handicaps reflect individual ability and range from minus two for an absolute beginner up to a maximum of ten for the very best players. No Englishman has been rated at ten since the Second World War.
The term ‘high-goal polo’ in England means that the aggregate handicap of a team entered for a particular tournament must be between 17 and 22. A 22-goal team, for example, could be composed of a forward with a handicap of two, two midfield players, each on eight, and a back on four. In Palm Beach, where the standard is higher, the ceiling for a high-goal side is 26, and in Argentina as high as the ultimate 40, with each of the members of the team on ten. No player can take part in high-goal polo unless he has at least a handicap of one.
In medium-goal matches the aggregate handicap of the team is normally between 16 and 12 and in low goal between 8 and 0.
Most tournaments are based on handicap. Thus the team with the higher aggregate concedes goals at the start of a match to the other side.
One of the joys of writing this book has been the friends I made during my research. I have seldom encountered more charming or helpful people than among the polo community. Travelling alone to strange places can be very daunting. I am therefore eternally grateful to Ronald Ferguson and Pilar Boxford for opening so many doors for me and, above all, to Geoffrey and Jorie Kent in Palm Beach and Jean-Jacques and Zou Zou de Wolff and their family in Argentina for offering me endless hospitality, the run of their yards, introductions to top-class players, grooms and ponies alike, and transforming what might have been a terrifying ordeal into a great adventure.
Many other people helped me. Like those referred to above, they are all skilled in their own fields, but, as I was writing fiction, I only heeded their advice in so far as it fitted my story. The accuracy of the book in no way reflects their expertise or their views. They include:
Anthony and Mary Abrahams, Sally Armstrong, Paula Atkins, Susan Barrantes, Garth and Diana Bearman, Steve and Sandi Berg, Garth and Pat Booth, Michael Brown, Nene Martinez Castro, Peter Cadbury, Johnnie Cahen-D’Anvers, Alina Carter, Charles and Tita Carter, Sarah Clark, Louise Cooper, Richard and Rosie Costelloe, Leone Cran, Francis Craven, John and Liza Crisp, Robert Cudmore, Kuldip Singh Dhillon, Gabriel Donoso, Richard Dunhill, Taylor Duvalle, John Ellis, Tom and Gilly Emerson, Susan Ferguson, Tom Fletcher, Tracy Forman, Edward Fursden, Cecil Gifford, Martin Glue, Peter and Elizabeth Grace and their daughters Jane, Pippa, Victoria and Katie, Edward Green, Janet Greep, Terry Hanlon, Ritchie Harrison, Anthony and Sue Hayden-Taylor, Felicity Higson, Howard and Camilla Hipwood, Julian and Patricia Hipwood, John Horswell, John Hunter, Richard Jarvis, Gregg Keating, Chrissie and Brett Kiely, Dee Kiely, Alan and Fiona Kent, Kate Kavanagh, Robert and Sandi Lacey, Manuel Lainez, Mary Latz, Philippe Leopold-Metzger, Robert and Barbara Lindemann, Norman and Aly Lobel, Stewart Lodge, Dora Lowenstein, William Lucas, Cassandra MacClancy, Stuart and Chrissie Mackenzie, the late Charles Mackenzie-Hill, Anthony Marangos, Cassandra Marchessini, David Marchwood, Ted Marriage, Gil Martin, Sherry Merica, George and Sarah Milford-Haven, Edgar Miller, Sheila Murphy, Caroline Neville, Alex Olmos, Joan Pardey, Andrew Parker-Bowles, David Phillips, Hilary Pilkington, Mike Ponting, Billy and Dawn Raab, Laura Lee Randall, Timmy Roach, Derek Russell-Stoneham, Edwina Sandays, Maggie, Allan and Warren Scherer, Andrew Seavill, Anthony Sebag-Montefiore, Sam and Angie Simmonds, J.P. Smail, Adam Snow, Scott Swedlin, Harriet Swift, Peter Thwaites, Henry and Mandy Tyrone, Andrea Vianini, Walter Wade Welsh, Alana Weston, Caroline Wheeler, Jack and Marjory Williams, Nick, Ginny, Zoe and Rod Williams, Francis Willey, and Paul Withers.
Nor as a writer does one automatically expect generosity from one’s own profession, but few could have been kinder or more unstinting with encouragement, time and advice than William and Lilo Loyd, John and Lavinia Watson, John and Cilla Lloyd, Hugh and Maria Ines Dawnay, and Michael Hobday.
Although I enjoyed hospitality in polo clubs internationally, I am especially privileged to live near one of the loveliest polo clubs in the world, Cirencester Park. I would therefore like to thank the Earl and Countess Bathurst, The Hon. Mark and Rosie Vestey and, particularly, Douglas and Sally Brown, Ronnie and Diana Scott, Alison Roeves, Eika Clark, Claire Millington, Sarah Ridley, Ted Allen and all the other staff and members of the club for all their tolerance, friendliness and co-operation.
I must also stress that Polo is a work of fiction, and none of the characters is based on anyone, except when they are so famous or so central to the polo world – as Ronald Ferguson or Terry Hanlon are – that they appear as themselves. Any resemblance to any living persons or organizations is purely coincidental and wholly unintentional. The polo world, however, is full of legends and wonderful anecdotes, and if an incident or a line of dialogue is attributed to a character in the book, this character is on no way intended to portray the original subject of the anecdote or the speaker of the line of dialogue.
Polo took a long time to write. I am therefore deeply grateful to my publishers at Transworld: Paul Scherer, Mark Barty-King, Patrick Janson-Smith, and all their staff for their kindness and encouragement. I also had marvellous editorial help from Diane Pearson, Broo Doherty and Tom Hartman.
In addition I am immeasurably lucky to have Desmond Elliott not only as my literary agent, but as my best friend.
Polo is a very big book and consequently I owe a vast debt of gratitude to Annette Xuereb-Brennan, Annalise Dobson and Anna Gibbs-Kennet, who bravely deciphered my ghastly handwriting and typed great chunks of the manuscript; and also to Beryl Hill, Diane Peter, Jane Brooks, Chris Ingersent, Verity Tilling and Catherine Parkin, who all typed individual chapters. Thanks should also go to Tony Hoskins and Diane Stevens for driving me to numerous polo matches.
Nor could the book ever have been written without the stoical back-up of Ann Mills, whose obstacle race over the piles of books and papers to clean my study resembled participation in the Grand National rather than a polo match, or Jane Watts, my PA, who spent hours collating manuscripts, transcribing corrections and generally providing cheer and comfort when I despaired the book would ever be finished.
It is not easy living with a writer, who is totally absorbed when a book is going well and suicidal when it is going badly. Therefore the lion’s share of my gratitude must go to my family, including my mongrel Barbara and her agent Gypsy (who met a very nice class of dog at polo matches) for their endless understanding and good cheer.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to all the gallant ponies who take part in the game and to the grooms who spend such long hours looking after them.
BART ALDERTON: An American airplane billionaire. Polo patron of the Alderton Flyers.
GRACE ALDERTON: His second wife.
LUKE ALDERTON: Bart's son by his first wife. A professional polo player.
RED ALDERTON: Bart's and Grace's son. An unprofessional polo player.
BIBI ALDERTON: Bart's and Grace's daughter – a poor little rich girl.
THE HONOURABLE BASIL: English polo player, BADDINGHAM: jack of all trades.
PHILIP BAGLEY: A vet.
DREW BENEDICT: English polo player and a dashing Captain in the Welsh Guards.
SUKEY BENEDICT: His wife. An English heiress and jolly good sort.
JAMES BENSON: A smooth private doctor.
MRS BODKIN: Rupert Campbell-Black's housekeeper.
MARGIE BRIDGWATER: An American lawyer.
JAIME CALAVESSI: An Argentine polo player.
RUPERT CAMPBELL-BLACK: Show-jumping ace, later MP for Chalford and Bisley and Minister for Sport.
TABITHA CAMPBELL-BLACK: His daughter.
BRIGADIER CANFORD: Chairman of the Pony Club and later of the British Polo Association.
DOMMIE AND SEB CARLISLE: English polo players – known as the Heavenly Twins.
WINSTON CHALMERS: A shit-hot American lawyer.
LUCY CHALMERS: His ravishing much younger wife.
DORIS CHOW: A Chinese hooker.
KEVIN COLEY: A petfood billionaire and polo patron of Doggie Dins.
ENID COLEY: His awful wife.
TRACE COLEY: His daughter.
CONCHITA: Bart Alderton's maid.
CAMERON COOK: Director of Programmes at Corinium Television.
JACKIE COSGRAVE: Hippy painter and art lecturer. Also proficient in the art of lechery.
BRAD DILLON: Team manager of the American polo team.
RICKY FRANCE-LYNCH: A nine-goal English polo player, nicknamed El Orgulloso – the proud one – by the other players.
CHESSIE FRANCE-LYNCH: His bored, but exquisitely beautiful, wife.
WILLIAM FRANCE-LYNCH: Their three-year-old son.
HERBERT FRANCE-LYNCH: Ricky's father. A tartar and former nine-goal polo player.
FRANCES: Ricky France-Lynch's head groom.
DINO FERRANTI: American show-jumper. Sales Director of Ferranti's Inc.
BOBBY FERRARO: An American polo player.
COMMANDER 'FATTY': Club Secretary of Rutshire HARRIS: Polo Club.
SIMPSON HASTINGS: A lethal American journalist.
PAUL HEDLEY: A member of the crack South Sussex Pony Club team.
BRIGADIER HUGHIE: Chairman of Rutshire Polo Club and the club bore.
MRS HUGHIE: His wife.
INOCENTA: A misnamed Argentine beauty.
JESUS: A nine-goal Chilean polo player given to telephonitis and treble-dating patrons.
JOEL: Ricky France-Lynch's farm manager.
BEATTIE JOHNSON: A seductive, unprincipled, Fleet Street columnist.
JOSÉ: A glamorous Mexican ringer.
VICTOR KAPUTNIK: A Hungarian pharmaceutical billionaire, patron of the Kaputnik Tigers.
SHARON KAPUTNIK: A nymphomaniac night-club hostess later married to Victor.
MARMADUKE KEMPTON: A tobacco baron.
AURIEL KINGHAM: A very famous American film star.
MISS LEDITSKY: Bart Alderton's secretary.
BILLY LLOYD-FOXE: Ex-England show-jumper and BBC Sports Presenter.
JANEY LLOYD-FOXE: A national newspaper columnist.
MISS LODSWORTH: Commissioner for Rutshire Girl Guides, hoary polo groupie and a rip-roaring busybody.
JUSTIN AND PATRICK
LOMBARD: Brothers and members of Rutshire Pony Club polo team.
LOUISA: One of Ricky France-Lynch's grooms.
HAMISH MACLEOD: A television producer.
DAISY MACLEOD: His wife, a painter.
PERDITA MACLEOD: Daisy's daughter.
VIOLET MACLEOD: Hamish's and Daisy's daughter.
EDDIE MACLEOD: Hamish's and Daisy's son.
BRIDGET MACLEOD: Hamish's mother, an absolute bitch.
'DANCER' MAITLAND: A cockney rock star. Lead singer of Apocalypse.
LIONEL MANNERING: A goaty psychiatrist.
PHILIPPA MANNERING: His man-eating wife.
MANUEL: Bart Alderton's groom.
LANDO MEDICI: A bent polo patron.
ALEJANDRO MENDOZA: A ten-goal Argentine polo player, the greatest back in the world.
CLAUDIA MENDOZA: His wife.
LORENZO, LUIS AND PATRICIO MENDOZA: Alejandro's elder sons. All polo players.
CASSANDRA MURDOCH: Luke Alderton's girlfriend.
BEN AND CHARLES NAPIER: Eight-goal English polo players and brothers known as the Unheavenly Twins.
SHARK NELLIGAN: A nine-goal American polo player.
SETH NEWCOMBE: An ace American bone surgeon.
JUAN O'BRIEN: A ten-goal Argentine polo player. David Waterlane's hired assassin.
MIGUEL O'BRIEN: Juan's elder brother. Another ten-goal polo player and David Waterlane's second hired assassin.
TINY O'BRIEN: Juan's wife known variously as Sitting Bully and the Policia.
ROSIE O'GRADY: A comely nurse.
DECLAN O'HARA: An Irish television megastar.
MAUD O'HARA: His actress wife.
PATRICK O'HARA: His son.
TAGGIE O'HARA: His elder daughter. An angel.
CAITLIN O'HARA: His younger daughter.
MRS PAGET: A committee member of a London Adoption Society.
HAL PETERS: An American automobile billionaire and born-again Christian. Polo patron of Peters' Cheetahs.
MYRTLE PETERS: His wife.
RAIMUNDO: Alejandro's peticero and Master of the Horse.
SAMANTHA: Shark Nelligan's glamorous groom.
RANDY SHERWOOD: A Pony Club Adonis, member of the crack South Sussex polo team.
MERLIN SHERWOOD: Randy's younger brother, another Adonis, playing for South Sussex.
MRS SHERWOOD: Their glamorous mother.
ANGEL SOLIS DE GONZALES: An Argentine polo player and Falklands war pilot, whose brother Pedro was shot down and killed.
BETTY SOLIS DE GONZALES: Angel's aunt.
UMBERTO: Alejandro's groom.
HELMET WALLSTEIN: Chief Executive, Euro-Electronics.
GISELA WALLSTEIN: His wife.
SIR DAVID WATERLANE, BART: Owner of Rutminster Hall, patron of Rutshire Hall polo team.
CLEMENCY WATERLANE: His wandering wife.
MIKE WATERLANE: His son, also a polo player.
WENDY: Hamish Macleod's PA.
Queen Augusta’s Boarding School for Girls has a splendid academic reputation, but on a sweltering afternoon in June one of its pupils was not paying attention to her English exam. While her classmates scribbled away, Perdita Macleod was drawing a polo pony. Outside, the scent of honeysuckle drifted in through the french windows, the cuckoo called from an acid-green poplar copse at the end of the lawn. Perdita, gazing out, thought longingly of the big tournament at Rutshire Polo Club where the semi-finals of the Rutshire Cup were being played. All her heroes were taking part: Ricky France-Lynch, Drew Benedict, Seb and Dommie Carlisle, the mighty Argentines, Miguel and Juan O’Brien, and, to crown it, the Prince of Wales.
Fretfully, Perdita glanced at her exam paper which began with a poem by Newbolt:
‘And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,’ she read,
‘Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote –
Play up! Play up! and play the game!’
‘Are Newbolt’s views of team spirit outdated?’ asked the first question. Perdita took a fresh sheet of paper and wrote ‘Yes’ in her disdainful blue scrawl, ‘the schoolboy in the poem must be an utter jerk and a poofter to boot to prefer his captain’s hand on his shoulder to a season’s fame and a ribboned coat.’
She put down her pen and thought how much she’d like a ribboned coat, one of those powder-blue blazers, braided with jade-green silk. Hamish, her ghastly stepfather, never gave her nearly a large enough allowance. Then she thought of fame. Perdita wanted to be a famous polo player more than anything else in the world. Being at a boarding school, she could not play in the term-time and had so far only achieved the first team of a suburban pony club of hopelessly low standard. When her family moved to their splendid new house in Rutshire in the autumn, however, she’d be able to have a pony and join a good club like Rutshire or Cirencester just over the border.
God, she was bored with this exam. She lit a cigarette, hoping it would encourage her form-mistress, who was adjudicating, to expel her. But, despite the furious wavings of paper by the swot on her right, her form-mistress didn’t react. She was far too engrossed in Perdita’s Jackie Collins, which she’d confiscated the day before and round which she’d now wrapped the dust jacket of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett.
Perdita took another drag and glanced at the next question: ‘Do you find the poems of Thomas Hardy unduly preoccupied with death?’
It wasn’t an afternoon for death. Perdita slid through the french windows across the sunlit lawn. Once out into Rutminster High Street, she tugged out the tails and undid the top buttons of her shirt, hitched up her navy-blue skirt a few inches and wrinkled her navy-blue socks. Conscious that men fancied schoolgirls, she left on her black and pink striped tie, but loosened her hair from its tortoiseshell clasp so it cascaded white-blond down her back, eliciting wolf-whistles from two workmen mending the road.
Perdita stuck her nose in the air; her sights were set higher than roadmenders. She was a big girl for fourteen, tall and broad in the shoulder, with pale, luminous skin and a full, sulky mouth. A long Greek nose and large, very wide-apart eyes, as dark as elderberries, gave her the look of a creature of fable, a unicorn that might vanish at any moment.
The main gates of Rutshire Polo Club were swarming with police because of the Prince’s visit. Taking a short cut, Perdita clambered over a wall to the right, fighting her way through the undergrowth, scratching her legs on brambles and stinging nettles, until she reached the outskirts of the club. A vast emerald-green ground stretched ahead of her. On the right were the pony lines, where incredibly polished ponies, tied to iron rails in the shade of a row of horse chestnuts, were stamping, nudging, flattening ears at each other and aiming kicks at any fly eating their bellies.
God, they were beautiful, thought Perdita longingly, and curiously naked and vulnerable with their hogged manes and bound-up tails.
Beyond the pony lines stood the little clubhouse with its British, American and Argentine flags. Beyond that reared the stands and the pink-and-white tent for the sponsors’ lunch before Sunday’s final. Cars for today’s semi-final already lined both sides of the field. Polo fever had reached an all-time high this season due to the Prince’s impending wedding to Lady Diana Spencer.
Ringing Ground One and Ground Two behind the clubhouse were massive ancient trees, their wonderful variety of green occasionally interrupted by the rhubarb-pink of a copper beech. With their lower branches nibbled level by itinerant cows, they looked like an army of dowagers in midi-dresses. To the north, through this splendidly impressive backdrop, could be glimpsed the rose-pink roof of Rutminster Hall, a charming Queen Anne manor house, home of Sir David Waterlane, a polo fanatic who owned the surrounding nine hundred acres.
Perdita scratched her nettle stings. The moment she was famous, she decided darkly, as an orange and black striped helicopter landed on the greensward behind the clubhouse, she would go everywhere by air. Envy turned to excitement as the helicopter doors burst open and two young players, both in evening shirts and dinner jacket trousers, jumped out. Instantly Perdita recognized Seb and Dommie Carlisle, otherwise known as the Heavenly Twins. Vastly brave, blond and stocky like two golden bear cubs, it was said that any girl in the twins’ lives, and there were legions, had to play second fiddle to polo and the other twin.
Next moment a small, fat, bald man with the tiny mean eyes and wide jaw of a bilious hippo, who was wearing an orange-and-black polo shirt and straining white breeches, charged up bellowing, ‘For Christ’s sake, hurry up. The umpires are waiting to go on. We should have started five minutes ago. Why are you so late?’
‘We started late,’ said Seb Carlisle, putting his arm round the fat man’s shoulders. ‘Dommie had this terrific redhead.’
‘No, Seb had this terrific brunette,’ came the muffled tones of Dommie Carlisle. Having whipped his shirt over his head to reveal a bronzed and incredibly muscular back, he nearly collided with the little fence round the clubhouse as he desperately tried to undo his cufflinks from the outside.
‘Well, if I can be on time, I can’t see why you bloody can’t,’ shouted the fat man, whom Perdita now identified as Victor Kaputnik. Originally Hungarian, Victor was a pharmaceutical billionaire and famous polo patron who employed the twins as professionals and whose helicopter and fuel had just transported them from London.
Polo players are rated by handicap, which ranges from minus two goals, which means an absolute beginner, to ten goals for the very top-class player. This has nothing to do with the number of goals they may score, but is an indication of their ability. Although only twenty, the twins already had four-goal handicaps. Much of their energy was spent ripping off Victor Kaputnik. Longingly, Perdita watched them sprint into the clubhouse.
Outside, people carrying glasses of Pimm’s or beer were drifting towards the stands. Perdita was dying for a Coke and a sandwich, but she hadn’t brought any money. She lit another fag to take the edge off her appetite. Looking at the scoreboard, she saw that today’s first semi-final was a needle match between Victor’s team, the Kaputnik Tigers, who were wearing orange-and-black shirts, and the Alderton Flyers, in duck-egg blue, who were all four sitting near a Lamborghini parked under a chestnut tree, zipping up their boots. There was The Hon. Basil Baddingham, a notorious roué with patent-leather hair and a laughing, swarthy face, who gave Perdita a terrific eyemeet, and Drew Benedict, a clashing blond captain in the Welsh Guards, with very regular features and eyes to match his blue shirt. And there, Perdita caught her breath, was her utter, utter God: Ricky France-Lynch, grimly fastening on his kneepads and refusing to exchange banter with the others. Ricky, who had the beautiful, lean, powerful body, the coarse, black curls and the sensitive, yet virile, features of a Russian ballet dancer, was the best-looking player in England, and had a nine-goal handicap. The most talented and dedicated player, he was also the most tricky. Not for nothing had the Argentine players nicknamed him El Orgulloso, the proud one.
Standing slightly apart from the other three, swinging a polo stick furiously round and round, and champing to get into the fray, was their patron, Bart Alderton. An American airplane billionaire and the owner of television stations and newspapers, Bart was a still strikingly handsome man in his late forties, with thick grey hair, tinged with red like a wolf’s pelt and a belligerent suntanned face. One of the most renowned and feared predators in the world markets, where he snapped up companies before they could even blink, Bart had houses and strings of polo ponies in five countries. Known as the artful tax dodger, he seldom paid tax in any of them.
Today Bart was determined to wipe the floor with his old rival Victor Kaputnik, whom Bart had taken a girl off many years ago, and who in revenge last year had appealed to the Monopolies Commission and blocked Bart’s taking over a leading British airplane manufacturer.
Victor had brought down a new bimbo who he was keen to impress and was equally anxious to win.
Bart had Drew Benedict, Basil Baddingham and Ricky France-Lynch on his team for the English season. Bart liked Drew and Bas, who were amateurs, suitably deferential and prepared to socialize with him for the sake of having all their bills picked up. Ricky, who earned a long salary playing for Bart as a professional, was an entirely different proposition. Bart resented Ricky’s arrogance and detachment. He was incommunicative before matches and disappeared home like smoke afterwards. Today he’d even refused to have a team meeting, arguing that there was no point when Bart never did anything he was told.
It further irritated Bart, as the teams walked down to the stretch of green behind the back line where the grooms were warming up their ponies for the first chukka, that all the girls gazed at Ricky, not at him.
The Alderton Flyers were shortly joined on the field by the Kaputnik Tigers, who consisted of Victor Kaputnik, who’d just taken out his teeth and had a slug of brandy to steady his nerves, the Carlisle twins, who erupted on to the field as joyous as otters, and a nine-goal Chilean player called Jesus, who lived in Victor’s house and coached him every day and with whom Victor had just had a blazing row, because the Chilean had run up a £5,000 telephone bill, ringing his girlfriend in Chile.
‘Talk about Chile con carphone,’ said Seb Carlisle, collapsing with laughter, as the two sides formed up on the halfway line.
A second later the umpire, in his striped shirt, had thrown the white ball in, sticks slashed and cracked, stirrups chinked and expletives flew as the players struggled to get it out, followed by a hailstorm of hooves on the dry ground as everyone hurtled towards goal.
Blocking a cut-shot from Jesus, Ricky took the ball back upfield, changing direction three times to fox the opposition. As he hurtled towards goal in a cloud of dust, the obvious pass was to Drew on his right. Looking towards Drew, Ricky flicked a lovely under-the-neck shot round to Bas, who slammed the ball between the posts.
‘Bloody marvellous,’ screamed Perdita, jumping up and down. The rest of the crowd clapped languidly.
As the Tigers edged ahead, however, it was plain to Perdita, who was watching every stroke, that Bart was a much better player than Victor, who despite the Chilean’s coaching, just cantered about getting in everyone’s way. Ricky, she realized, was much the best player, but his team-mate, the blue-eyed Drew Benedict, normally the most dependable of players, must have been celebrating too heavily last night. Missing pass after pass, he was having the greatest difficulty in controlling the Chilean’s dazzling aggression.
Sitting in the stands with the sun behind them, sat the wives and girlfriends of the players, but all wearing dark glasses, so no one could see if they were bored. Bart Alderton’s wife, Grace, a puritan mother in her forties, had breeding and old money and did a huge amount for charity. Marrying her after ditching his loyal and loving first wife had given Bart the connections and the extra cash to turn him into a billionaire. Described by Basil Baddingham as the only social grace Bart had acquired on the way up, Grace was wearing a Cartier watch, a string of pearls and a purple silk dress printed with pansies. Her dark hair was drawn back in a bun, and a straw hat with a purple silk band shaded her austere but beautiful face. Grace considered suntans both vulgar and ageing. In her soft white hands lay a red notebook in which she kept the score and recorded every botched shot and missed penalty during the game and the name of the Alderton Flyer responsible.
Next to Grace sat Sukey Elliott, who’d got engaged to Drew Benedict the day before – hence Drew’s hangover. She seemed to remember every match played and goal scored by Drew in the last two seasons. A keen horsewoman herself, Sukey was the sort of girl who could get up and do the ponies if Drew had a hangover. Sukey had a neat, rather than an exciting, figure, and a horsey, not unattractive, face. Her light brown hair was taken off her forehead by a velvet bow. She was wearing a blue-spotted shirt-waister dress for the party Lady Waterlane always gave in her beautiful house across the park on the Thursday evening of Rutshire Cup Week.
Sukey would make the perfect army wife, always showing a charming deference to the wives of superiors, in this case Grace Alderton. But even more valuable in Drew’s eyes, Sukey possessed a hefty private income which, after marriage, would enable him to resign his commission and play polo full time.
‘We’re thinking of having our wedding list at either the General Trading Company or Peter Jones or Harrods. Which would you suggest?’ Sukey asked Grace.
On Sukey’s left in the row below sat Victor’s bimbo, a red-headed night-club hostess called Sharon, whose heavy eye make-up was running and whose uplifted breasts were already burning.
‘Blimey it’s ’ot,’ she said to Sukey. ‘Why do the ’orses keep bumpin’ into each uvver?’
Grace would have ignored Sharon, regarding her as both common and part of the opposition. Sukey was kinder and enjoyed imparting information.
‘It’s called a ride-off,’ she explained. ‘When a ball is hit, it creates its own right of way, and the player who hit it is entitled to hit it again. But if another player puts his horse’s shoulder in front of that first player’s horse’s shoulder, and a good horse will feel the pressure and push the other horse off the line, then the second player takes up the right of way. If you cross too closely in front of another rider – like someone shooting out in front of you on the motorway – it’s a foul.’
‘Ow, I see,’ said Sharon, who plainly didn’t. ‘And why does the scoreboard say Victor’s team’s winning when there seem to have been more goals down the uvver end?’
‘That’s because they change ends after each goal,’ said Sukey kindly, ‘so no-one gets the benefit of the wind.’
‘I could do with the benefit of some wind,’ said Sharon, fanning herself with her programme. ‘It’s bleedin’ ’ot.’
‘It is,’ agreed Sukey. ‘Would you like to borrow my hat?’
Grace Alderton thought Sukey was a lovely young woman who would make a splendid wife for Drew. She did not feel at all the same about Chessie France-Lynch who rolled up halfway through the fourth chukka in a coloured vest, no bra, frayed denim bermudas and torn pink espadrilles, clutching a large glass of Pimm’s and a copy of Barchester Towers. Chessie, who had bruised, scabious-blue eyes, and looked like a Botticelli angel who’d had too much nectar at lunchtime, made no secret of the fact that she found polo irredeemably boring. Being stuck at home with a three-year-old son, William, polishing silver cups and taking burnt meat out of the oven, because Ricky hadn’t got back from a match or was coping with some crisis in the yard, was not Chessie’s idea of marriage.
‘You’ve missed an exciting match, Francesca,’ said Grace pointedly.
‘I’d have been on time,’ grumbled Chessie, ‘if that goon in the bar didn’t take half an hour to make a Pimm’s.’
‘Better go and help out,’ said Commander Harris, the club’s secretary, known as ‘Fatty’, waddling off to the bar.
‘To help himself to another drink, the disgusting old soak,’ said Chessie. ‘Congratulations,’ she went on, sitting down next to Sukey. ‘When are you getting married?’
‘In September, so that Drew can finish the polo season.’
‘When did he propose?’
‘On Sunday. It was so sweet. He asked me to look after his signet ring before the match, then put it on my wedding-ring finger, and said would I, and now he’s bought me this heavenly ring.’
‘Nice,’ said Chessie, admiring the large but conventional diamond and sapphires. ‘Drew must have had to flog at least one of Bart’s ponies to pay for that.’
Grace’s red lips tightened, and even more so when the players, who always seemed to be playing on some distant part of the field, for once surged over to the four-inch-high wooden boards (as the sidelines are known in polo) near the stands. Ignoring Ricky’s yells to leave the ball, Bart barged in, missed an easy shot and enabled Seb Carlisle to whip the ball away to Dommie, his twin, who took it down the field and scored.
‘When I say fucking leave it, Bart, for fuck’s sake leave it,’ Ricky’s bellow of exasperation rang round the field, eliciting a furious entry in Grace’s red book and an extremely beady glance from Miss Lodsworth, a local bossy boots and one of the whiskery old trouts always present at polo matches.
‘It was my ball,’ shouted Bart. ‘I paid for this fucking team, and I’m going to hit the goddam ball . . .’
To lighten the atmosphere, as the players cantered back to change ponies after the fourth chukka, Sukey warmly informed Chessie that Ricky had already scored two splendid goals.
‘Good,’ said Chessie lightly. ‘We might not have black gloom all the way home for a change. He still won’t talk, mind you. Even if he wins, he’s too hyped up to say anything.’
Sukey’s total recap of the match was mercifully cut short by the arrival of one of Bas Baddingham’s gorgeous mistresses, a long-haired blonde called Ritz Maclaren. She and Chessie proceeded to gossip noisily about their friends until Grace hushed them reprovingly and asked Chessie what she intended to wear for Lady Waterlane’s party that evening.
‘What I’ve got on,’ said Chessie. ‘Until Ricky’s father relents and gives us some cash, or Ricky gets his polo act together, I can’t see myself ever affording a new dress. It’s the ponies that get new shoes in our house’ – she waved a torn espadrille hanging on the end of a dusty foot at Grace – ‘not me.’
‘It’s not very respectful to Lady Waterlane not to change,’ reproved Grace. To which Chessie replied that Clemency Waterlane would be so busy wrapped round Juan O’Brien, her husband’s Argentine pro, that she would hardly notice.
‘I can’t think why David Waterlane doesn’t boot Clemency out,’ said Ritz Maclaren, who was calmly removing her tights.
‘Terrified Juan would go as well,’ said Chessie. ‘David told Ricky there was no problem getting another wife, but he’d never find another hired assassin as good as Juan.’
‘Oh, good shot, Ricky,’ cried Sukey. ‘Do watch, Chessie; your husband’s playing so well.’
As the bell went to end the fifth chukka, Perdita raced down to the pony lines to catch a glimpse of Matilda, Ricky France-Lynch’s legendary blue roan, whom he always saved for the last chukka.
Ponies that had played in the fifth chukka, which, except for Victor’s, had had every ounce of strength pushed out of them, were coming off the field, drenched in sweat, nostrils blood-red as poppies, veins standing up like a network of snakes. Bart’s horse, having been yanked around, was pouring blood from a cut mouth, sending scarlet froth flying everywhere.
Grooms instantly went into a frenzy of activity, untacking each pony, sponging it down, throwing water over its head, taking down its tail. Other grooms were loading already dried-off ponies from earlier chukkas into lorries for the journey home, while still others were leading them round, or just holding them as they waited to go on, quivering with pitch-fright, while their riders towelled off the sweat and discussed tactics for the last chukka.
‘That Ricky France-Lynch’s got a wonderful eye,’ said the security man who was looking after the Prince’s Jack Russell.
He’s got wonderful eyes, thought Perdita wistfully. Deep-set, watchful, dark green as bay leaves and now, as they lighted on Matilda, his favourite pony, amazingly softened.
Before a game Matilda got so excited that her groom could hardly hold her. Snorting, neighing shrilly, kicking up the dust with stamping feet, watching the action with pricked ears, her dark eyes searched everywhere for Ricky. As he walked over, she gave a great deep whicker of joy. They had hardly been separated a day since she was a foal. She was the fastest pony he’d ever ridden, turned at the gallop, and once, when she’d bucked him off in a fit of high spirits, had raced after the rider who had the ball and blocked the shot. There wasn’t a player in the world who didn’t covet Matilda. And now Ricky was going to need all her skills: the Alderton Flyers were three down.
The last chukka was decidedly stormy. Ricky scored two goals, then Drew and Bas one each, putting the Flyers ahead. Then Bart, frantic he was the only member of the team without a goal, missed an easy shot and took his whip to his little brown pony.
‘It was your bloody fault, not the pony’s,’ howled Ricky, to the edification of the entire stand, ‘and for Christ’s sake get back.’
Evading Drew’s clutches yet again, Jesus, the Chilean, thundered towards goal. In a mood of altruism and probably seeing a chance to be forgiven for the £5,000 telephone bill, he put the ball just in front of Victor, his patron, who, connecting for the first time in the match, tipped it between the posts and levelled the score to cheers and whoops from all round the ground. Victor immediately waved his stick exuberantly at his red-headed night-club hostess, who was just thinking how much better looking every man in the field was than Victor.
‘Why’s Victor’s ’orse wearing so many straps? It looks like a bondage victim,’ she asked Sukey.
‘The saddle has to hold if you’re going to lean out of it,’ explained Sukey patiently.
‘Ride hard, hit hard, and keep your temper,’ said Brigadier Hughie, the club chairman and bore who’d just arrived.
Contrary to this advice, Bart, incensed that Victor had scored, proceeded to ride the fat little Hungarian off the ball at such a dangerous angle that Bart was promptly fouled and the Tigers awarded a forty-yard penalty. Bart then swore so hard at the umpire that the penalty was upped to thirty yards, which Jesus had no difficulty driving between the posts, putting the Tigers ahead again.
In the closing, desperately fought seconds of the game Jesus got the ball and set off for goal, his bay mare’s hooves rattling like a firing squad on the dry ground. Ricky, on Matilda, belted after him and had caught up when the bay mare stumbled. As the bell went Matilda cannoned into her and ponies and riders crashed to the ground in front of the stands to the horrified gasps of the crowd. As the dust cleared, Ricky and Jesus could be seen to have got to their feet. The Chilean’s bay mare got up more slowly and, after an irritated shake, set off at a gallop for the pony lines. Matilda, however, made several abortive attempts and, when she finally lurched up, her off fore was hanging horribly.
Oblivious of the whiskery old trout Miss Lodsworth complaining noisily about the disgusting cruelty of the game, Perdita watched helplessly, tears streaming down her face. On came the vet’s van; the crowd fell silent. As screens were put round the pony, Fatty Harris, the club secretary, somewhat unsteadily joined the little group. Victorious but grim-faced, with Dommie Carlisle unashamedly wiping his eyes, the Kaputnik Tigers rode back to the pony lines where the grooms of the great Argentines, Juan and Miguel O’Brien, and their patron, Sir David Waterlane, were warming up ponies for the next match in which they were playing with the Prince of Wales.
Behind the screen, however, an argument was raging.
‘You’re not putting Mattie down,’ hissed Ricky. ‘If it’s a cannon bone, we can slap her into plaster. I want her X-rayed.’
‘She’ll be no use for polo,’ protested the vet.
‘Maybe not, but I’m bloody well going to breed from her. It’s all right, lovie,’ Ricky’s voice softened as he stroked the trembling mare.
‘Give her a shot of Buscopan,’ advised Fatty Harris.
‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ snapped Ricky. ‘If you kill the pain, she’ll tread on it and make it worse.’
‘Got to get her off the field, Ricky,’ said Fatty fussily, his breath stale from too many lunchtime whiskies. ‘Prince’s match is due to start in ten minutes. Can’t hold it up.’
Utterly indifferent to the fact that in the end he held up the Prince’s match for half an hour, and that most of the spectators and some of the players regarded him as appallingly callous for not putting Matilda out of her agony, Ricky, helped by Drew and Bas, gently coaxed the desperately hobbling mare into a driven-up horse box. Ricky would stay inside with her, while one of his grooms drove them the eight miles home, to where the vet would bring his X-ray equipment.
Green beneath his suntan, shaking violently and pouring with sweat, Ricky spoke briefly to his wife Chessie when she came over and hugged him. Chessie had often been jealous of Matilda in the past; now she could only pity Ricky’s anguish.
‘I’m desperately sorry, darling. When’ll you be back?’
‘Probably not at all. I’ll ring you.’
‘But what about Lady Waterlane’s reception?’ asked an outraged Bart, who had just joined them. ‘You can’t miss that.’
Ricky looked at Bart uncomprehendingly.
‘B-b-bugger Lady Waterlane,’ he said coldly.
Ricky had just climbed in beside the mare when a ripple of excitement ran through the crowd as a dark man in a cherry-red polo shirt pulled up his pony beside the lorry. His hazel eyes were on a level with Ricky’s as he called out: ‘Desperately sorry, Ricky. Ghastly thing to happen. Always liked Matilda – great character. Hope you manage to save her.’
Touched by the expression of genuine sympathy on the Prince’s face, Ricky forgot to bow.
‘Thank you, sir.’
Bart and Grace, who’d also joined him on the field, shot forward expectantly, avid to be presented, but it was too late.
Shouting back to Ricky to let him know the result of the X-ray, the Prince had moved off, hitting a ball ahead of him, cantering across the pitch and out of Bart’s life.
‘Why the hell didn’t you introduce us?’
‘It seemed irrelevant.’
As they raised the ramp of the horse box and shot the bolts, Bas and Drew shook their heads. They knew how devastated Ricky was, but he was pushing his luck.
Aubergine with rage, Bart turned to Chessie.
‘What the fuck does your husband think he’s playing at?’
‘Polo,’ said Chessie bitterly. ‘Absolutely nothing else.’
Bart’s resentment against Ricky was in no way abated when the Prince regretfully decided he wouldn’t have time to look in at Lady Waterlane’s party because his match had been delayed. Lady Waterlane, who didn’t find Latins at all lousy lovers, was so preoccupied with Juan O’Brien, her husband’s Argentine professional, that she hardly noticed the Prince’s absence.
A rather too relaxed hostess, besides feeding and watering her guests and giving them free access to the bedrooms where the four-posters hadn’t been made for weeks, Lady Waterlane expected people to get on with it.
Totally confident in the business world, Bart felt an outsider among the raffish and sometimes aristocratic members of the polo community who knew each other so well. He had expected Ricky to introduce him to everyone. Chessie, furious at having forked out for a baby-sitter and determined to stay for the party, could easily have fulfilled this function, but Bart had been so rude to her about Ricky’s arrogance, and the fact that she was dressed like a tramp, that she had stalked off to comfort Jesus the Chilean who was mortified his pony had caused Matilda’s fall.
Bart, however, was not left alone for long. June and July (when the mid-season’s handicaps were announced) were the months when dissatisfied patrons started looking round and wondering which players they would hire to make up their teams for next year.
Apart from the occasional amateur, like Bas and Drew, there are two kinds of players in polo – the patrons who have the money and the professionals who earn money playing for them. Professional players are only as good as their last three games; contracts rarely extend beyond a season. There is therefore collossal pressure to perform well. But, with one’s future at stake, diplomacy is almost more important than performance. Patrons not only like to win, but also to be taken to parties and treated as one of the boys.
During the season everyone had noticed the froideur between Ricky and Bart. Miguel O’Brien, known as the Godfather because he controlled the other Argentine players like the Mafia, was also grimly aware that with his handsome brother Juan constantly wrapped round Clemency Waterlane, David Waterlane might not be overkeen to employ them to play for Rutminster Hall next year. David was tricky and also very mean. Looking round the beautiful drawing room, Miguel’s conniving, dark little eyes noticed the damp patches on the faded yellow wallpaper and the tattered silk chaircovers, and saw that David’s ancestors on the walls could hardly see out through the layers of grime. He knew, too, that David owed thousands to Ladbroke’s and the taxman. Thinking how agreeable it would be next year to be sponsored by Bart’s millions, Miguel started chatting him up.
‘You ride very well for the leetle time you ’ave learn,’ purred Miguel. ‘Wiz zee right coaching you could be miles bettair, but success in polo is eighty per cent zee good ’orses.’
He hoped Bart and his beautiful wife would come and stay at his estancia in Argentina and try out some of the family’s superb ponies. Bart was flattered. Imagine the kudos of having the great O’Brien brothers playing on his team both in England and Palm Beach.
The Napier brothers, Ben and Charles, known as the Unheavenly Twins because of their cadaverous appearance, who’d been beaten by the O’Briens, David Waterlane and the Prince in the second match, were also at the party. Cruel to their horses and even crueller to their patron, a petfood billionaire who they’d ripped off so unmercifully that he was threatening to quit polo, the Napiers also tried to make their number with Bart during the evening. But they were pre-empted by Seb and Dommie Carlisle, who, having got drunk and appropriated Perdita after the match, came rushing up to Bart: ‘Oh, Mr Alderton, could you please take us into a corner and chat us up like mad, so Victor will get appallingly jealous and offer us three times as much next year?’
Bart was amused. The twins, he decided, would be far more fun to play with than Ricky or the Napiers.
Drew Benedict couldn’t stay long at the party, as he had to dine with Sukey’s parents, his future in-laws, but, ever diplomatic, he found time to talk to Bart, his patron, telling him how well he had played and how the team would never have reached the semi-finals without him.
‘It’s disappointing we didn’t make the finals, but a good thing from my point of view,’ added Drew philosophically. ‘I’m supposed to be guarding some nuclear weapons this weekend, and I’d have had difficulty getting leave on Sunday.’
Having mugged up on the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times every day, Drew was also able to comment on the progress of Bart’s latest take-over. Admiring Drew’s well-worn but beautifully cut suit, his striped shirt and blue silk tie, and his dependable handsome face with the turned-down blue eyes and juttingly determined jaw, Bart thought that he was quite the best kind of Englishman – a sort of butch Leslie Howard. Briefly he touched Drew’s pin-striped arm with the back of his hand, the nearest he ever got to intimacy with men.
‘The Army’s loss’ll be Sukey’s gain,’ he said roughly. ‘She’s a very lucky young woman.’
Drew grinned. ‘London’s fortune-hunters are out to lynch me.’
Having taught himself Spanish because he realized what an advantage it would be understanding what the Argentines were gabbling to each other on and off the field, Drew had also overheard Miguel talking to Juan. Before he left, he took Chessie on to the terrace. The setting sun was turning the house a warm peach and gilded the lake around which cows were lying down. Catmint brushed against Chessie’s legs as Drew adjusted the shoulder-strap of her coloured vest which had flopped down her arm.
‘As your husband’s best friend . . .’
‘ . . . You want me to stop flirting with Jesus!’
‘That too,’ said Drew. ‘Look I’ve just overheard that oily sod Miguel telling Juan that Bart’s fed up with Ricky and things look rosy for next year. Ricky should be here guarding his patch.’
‘Well, he’s not,’ snapped Chessie. ‘When did a party ever come before a pony? He’s just rung up to say they’ve X-rayed Matilda’s leg and it’s a cannon bone, so they’re going to slap it in plaster and then sling her up.’
‘Thank Christ, so he’ll be here soon.’
‘Some hope,’ said Chessie bitterly. ‘He prefers to stay with Mattie. He’s already collected Will from the baby-sitter. He’s so bloody arrogant, he’ll never dance to Bart’s tune.’
‘He who pays for the Piper Heidsieck calls the tune,’ said Drew, deheading a rose.
‘Drew-hoo, Drew-hoo,’ Sukey was calling from the french windows.
‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close,’ mocked Chessie.
‘Don’t be subversive,’ said Drew, kissing her on the cheek. ‘You’d better chat up Bart instead of Jesus, or your husband’s on a collision course.’
The party roared on. Coronation chicken was served, although Seb Carlisle was heard to remark that it was debatable whose coronation it was celebrating. A few bread rolls were thrown. Dommie Carlisle added to the rising damp by filling a condom with water and spraying it round the drawing room. All the players’ dogs, which followed them everywhere, lay around panting, finishing up the food and being tripped over.
In a dark corner Juan O’Brien, a beautiful animal with big, brown eyes, long, black curls and a vast, slightly bruised, lower lip, was gazing limpidly at Clemency Waterlane: ‘You haf the most wonderful eyes in the world. My best mare in Argentina ees due to foal soon. Eef it’s a filly, I shall call her Clarissa after you.’
‘Actually my name’s Clemency,’ said Lady Waterlane, ‘but it’s awfully sweet of you, Juan.’
Victor Kaputnik, the pharmaceutical billionaire, bald pate gleaming in the candlelight, black chest-hair spilling out of his unbuttoned shirt, was boasting in his thick Hungarian accent about his prowess as a businessman.
‘I have discovered a cure for the common cold,’ he was telling Fatty Harris, the club secretary.
‘I wish he’d find a cure for the common little man,’ muttered Seb Carlisle. ‘He’s an absolute pill.’
‘No, he makes pills,’ giggled Dommie, shooting a jet of water into the round red face of Fatty Harris who was too drunk to realize where it had come from.
Bart’s mood was not improving. Once a heavy drinker, he had cut out booze almost entirely, to improve his polo, but now really longed for a huge Scotch. Desperately dehydrated after the game, he had already drunk two bottles of Perrier. He was livid they’d lost the match, livid that Victor had scored that goal, which he was boasting to everyone about, livid that Victor had got into the final with the Prince, and might well appear photographed with the Prince and Lady Diana on the front of Monday’s Times, and livid that Victor was now dancing with his red-headed night-club hostess, his six o’clock shadow grating the sunburnt cleavage of her splendid breasts.
And there was Clemency Waterlane wrapped round Juan, and that ravishing schoolgirl bopping away with Dommie and Seb. Bart knew that Grace was a wonderful wife, but he had never forgiven her for being from a better class than him, and was fed up with her criticizing his polo, pointing out that if he hadn’t bumped Victor so hard today Jesus would never have been awarded that penalty. Now she was being charming to that old bore Brigadier Hughie, and his wife.
‘I’ve broken m’right leg twice, m’left leg once, my right shoulder three times, cracked three ribs and dislocated m’thumb and m’elbow,’ droned on Hughie.
‘Polo players are very brave people,’ said Mrs Hughie, who looked like an eager warthog.
‘Brave enough to face the Inland Revenue every year,’ drawled Chessie on her way to the bar.
Ignoring Chessie, Grace listened politely, thinking how dirty Clemency Waterlane’s house was and how much better she, Grace, could have arranged the flowers. Then, noticing Bart pouring himself a huge Scotch, she left Mrs Hughie in midflow, as she strode across the room.
‘Baby, we weren’t going to drink. Look, I’m exhausted. Shall we go?’
Bart said he wasn’t tired, and still had some business to discuss with Miguel. Why didn’t the pilot fly Grace home and come back for him in an hour.
Chessie France-Lynch, rather drunk, sat in the depths of a sofa, letting conversations drift over her. From a bench on the terrace, she heard an outraged squawk as Victor’s pudgy hand found the soft flesh between Sharon’s stockings and her suspender belt.
‘Hey, d’you fink I’m common or somefink, Victor? Tits first, please!’
In front of the fireplace still full of ash from a fire last March, four young bloods were discussing next week’s tournament in Cheshire.
‘Seb and Dommie are definitely coming and they’re mounted.’
‘Who’s going to mount Drew?’
‘Simon can’t, because he’s mounting Henry. Bas is mounting himself.’
‘Well, Bas will have to mount Drew too then.’
Nor did the young men deflect in the slightest from their conversation when David Waterlane, having found Juan mounting his beautiful wife in an upstairs four-poster, was forced to expel the frantically protesting Argentine from the house.
Clemency was sniffing in an armchair and receiving a pep talk from Brigadier Hughie, who felt that, as chairman of the club, he should provide moral guidance. ‘D’you really feel, Clemency, m’dear, that it’s worth leaving a tolerant husband, three lovely children and nine hundred acres for the sake of six inches of angry gristle?’
Clemency sniffed and said yes she did, that David could be very intolerant, and Juan’s gristle wasn’t angry and was considerably more than six inches.
Chessie found herself giggling so much that she had to leave the room and went slap into Bart Alderton, who was clutching another large Scotch. Chessie updated him on the Juan-Clemency saga.
‘She’s crazy,’ went on Chessie. ‘David puts up with murder, even if he is stingy, and he is loaded.’
‘Unlike your spouse,’ said Bart pointedly.
‘Ghastly word,’ said Chessie. ‘And I hear you’re not espousing his cause next year.’
Bart took her arm and frogmarched her outside on to the long grass beyond the lawn, away from a scuffling Victor and Sharon.
‘Who told you that?’ he said sharply.
‘Miguel was overheard boasting to Juan. I wish you the luck of them. Miguel will fleece you and Juan will no doubt offer Grace a good deal more than six inches. At least Ricky’s honest and hasn’t jumped on Grace.’
‘Why’s he so broke?’ snarled Bart. ‘He’s paid enough.’
Chessie put a hand on a stone lion. Though the sun was long set, it was still warm. The scent from a clump of philadelphus was almost overwhelming.
‘Stymied by a massive overdraft,’ she said. ‘He’s spent so much on the yard and ponies and a stick-and-ball field. And he’s no good at selling ponies on at a wicked profit like some people. He gets too fond of them, and always justifies not selling them by claiming they’ll go for three times as much next year, when he’s put more work into them. His father used to help him, but they fell out.’
‘Can’t say I blame his Daddy,’ said Bart heavily. ‘El Orgulloso, indeed.’
‘Actually Ricky’s very shy and introverted,’ protested Chessie. ‘He’s Aquarius you know – aloof glamour, but has difficulty expressing himself.’
‘What sign d’you think I was born under?’ asked Bart.
Chessie laughed. ‘A pound sign, I should think. I want another drink.’
Shrieks were coming from the swimming-pool as people, fully dressed, jumped into the icy water, which David Waterlane had been too mean to turn up until that morning.
Inside, Bart poured a glass of wine for Chessie and more whisky for himself.
‘I’m not sponsoring Ricky next season,’ he said brutally. ‘I’m crazy about my polo, but not with him. It’s costing me a million dollars a year, none of it disposable. Victor scores a goal today and all I get is abuse.’
‘He droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,’ said Chessie. Seeing her face was quite expressionless, Bart said, ‘He neglects you too.’
‘He prefers polo to sex,’ said Chessie flatly, ‘but what player doesn’t?’
‘I don’t,’ said Bart roughly, stroking her slender brown arm with the back of his hand. ‘I wouldn’t neglect anything as precious as you.’
‘Put me in a packing chest with the rest of your Renoirs, would you?’ taunted Chessie.
The Waterlanes’ ancient gramophone was now playing ‘Anything Goes’. Bart took Chessie off to dance.
‘Where’s Grace?’ murmured Chessie, deciding that Bart was rather excitingly built.
‘Gone home, she was pooped.’
‘Leaving you on the loose? That’s unwise.’
‘Unwise of Ricky and Grace,’ said Bart, drawing her close.
For the first time he looked her straight in the eye and kept on looking. Her skin was translucent, her hair tousled, her wanton sleepy eyes as violet as the shadows beneath them.
‘You could strip a man’s aftershave off with a look like that,’ said Bart.
‘Wish I could strip off Victor’s chest-hair. At least he has the manners to dance with his hostess,’ said Chessie drily as Sharon and Victor quickstepped past.
Gathered round a billiard table in the next room, Jesus, who’d just spent half an hour on David Waterlane’s telephone ringing Chile, Seb, Dommie and Perdita, who still hadn’t returned to her boarding school, were demonstrating polo plays with sugar lumps.
‘At the hit-in you should have tapped the ball to Seb and he’d have hit it to me,’ said Dommie, moving a sugar lump. ‘I was here.’
‘No, you was ’ere,’ said Jesus, moving it to the right.
‘And you should have been here,’ said Perdita, moving it back to the left.
‘You seem to know more about it than us,’ said Dommie, squeezing her waist.
‘I ought to go,’ said Perdita ruefully. ‘They lock the fire escape at midnight. We’ve got biology first thing tomorrow, and I haven’t revised at all.’
‘If you’re weak on the subject of human reproduction,’ said Seb, starting to plait her long, blond mane, ‘Dommie and I could give you a quick crash course. There are plenty of beds upstairs. How old are you?’
‘Fourteen,’ said Perdita.
‘Gaol bait as far as we’re concerned,’ sighed Dommie. ‘Come back in two years’ time. What are you going to do when you grow up?’
‘You’d do better as a stockbroker or a soccer player,’ said Seb. ‘There’s no money in polo.’
‘I know,’ said Perdita, ‘but at least I’d rub up against all the richest, most powerful men in the world.’
‘Like Mrs France-Lynch,’ said Dommie, watching Chessie rotating her flat, denimed belly against Bart’s crotch. ‘That looks like trouble to me.’
‘Bloody ’ell,’ said Jesus ruefully. If he hadn’t spent so long on the telephone, he might have scored there. He toyed with the idea of cutting in, then decided he might want to play for Bart one day.
Aware that they were being watched, Bart and Chessie retreated to David Waterlane’s study. Tearing himself away from the photographs of ponies and matches on the wall, Bart discovered Chessie looking down her vest examining her breasts.
‘They say everything you touch turns to gold. I wondered if I had.’
‘Let me try again.’ Bart slid his hands inside her vest. ‘Christ, you’re sexy.’
They were interrupted by Mrs Hughie, who, like the Brigadier, rather ineffectually tried to act as a custodian of morals at polo parties, and was now trying to foist strong black coffee on unwilling guests.
‘Hello, Chessie,’ she said, averting her eyes as Chessie re-inserted her left breast. ‘Jolly bad luck about Matilda. Ricky’s been playing so superbly too. I was trying to remember, what’s his handicap?’
‘His personality,’ said Bart bleakly.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that.’ Mrs Hughie gave a nervous laugh as she handed Chessie a cup.
‘D’you take sugar?’
Chessie looked straight at Bart.
‘Only in Daddies,’ she said softly.
‘I actually came to find you,’ said Mrs Hughie hastily, as the whoops increased next door. ‘I’m awfully fond of Seb and Dommie, but they have had a bit too much to drink, and they’re with a dear little soul called Perdita Macleod, who’s boarding at Queen Augusta’s. Could you possibly drop her off on your way home, Chessie?’
‘Thereby killing two birds who might otherwise get stoned,’ said Chessie.
Bart was absolutely furious, but as she and Perdita left the floodlit house for the moonlit night, Chessie reflected that Bart would be more likely to renew Ricky’s contract if she held out.
Storming up Ricky’s drive, twenty minutes later, twitching with desire and frustration, she was alarmed to find the house in darkness. Even worse, the front door was open and no-one was at home.
Panic turned to rage, however, when she discovered Ricky still in his breeches and blue polo shirt, fast asleep in the stable next to Matilda’s. Will, also asleep, lay in his arms. They were surrounded by two Labradors, a whippet, the stable cat, assorted plastic guns and dinky toys and a copy of Thomas the Tank Engine. The Labradors blinked sleepily and thumped their tails. Matilda, hanging from her sling, looked up watchfully. In Chessie she recognized a rival. But Ricky and Will didn’t stir.
Chessie woke at noon feeling hungover and guilty. She shouldn’t have got tight or off so publicly with Bart. Gossip spread round the polo community like napalm. If Ricky didn’t know by now, his grooms certainly would. Her fears were confirmed when Will wandered in later from playgroup, bearing paintings to be admired, stories to be read, and his hands crammed full of yellow roses pulled off by the head for her.
Stocky as a Welsh cob, Will had a round pink face and dark brown slanting eyes with long curly lashes tipping the blond fringe of his pudding-basin hair. No child could be more edible, even allowing for a mother’s bias. How could she have dallied with Bart and jeopardized this, thought Chessie, hugging him fiercely.
‘Did you bring me a present?’ demanded Will.
‘I didn’t go anywhere I could get you one,’ said Chessie. ‘Who brought you home from playgroup?’
‘Fuckies,’ said Will, who couldn’t pronounce Frances, the head groom’s name. ‘Fuckies say Mummy got pissed up last night.’
‘Mummy did not.’
‘Mattie got sore leggie,’ went on Will.
‘As if I didn’t know,’ snapped Chessie.
‘Want some crisps.’
‘Ask Daddy.’ Chessie snuggled down in bed.
‘Daddy gone to London.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Daddy loathes London.’
Ricky avoided London at all costs. Only his passion for Chessie after they’d first met had dragged him up to her flat in the Cadogans, and then he’d always got lost. As Will pottered off crispwards, Chessie thought about Bart. He reminded her of all those rich, ruthless, cynical, invariably married men whom she’d met and had affairs with when she used to cook directors’ lunches in the City. One of them had been about to set her up in her own restaurant in the Fulham Road, called Francesca’s, when she had met Ricky.
It had been at her rich grandparents’ golden wedding. With an eye to inheriting loot rather than a sense of duty, Chessie had reluctantly driven down from London expecting to be bored rigid. Instead she found that her plain, horsey cousin Harriet, who at twenty-five had never had a boyfriend, had turned up looking almost pretty and bursting out of her brown velvet dress with pride because she had Ricky in tow. Despite having absolutely no small talk and the trapped ferocity of a tiger whipped into doing tricks at the circus, he was the most attractive man Chessie had ever seen. It took her exactly fifteen minutes to take him off her poor cousin Harriet, gazing sleepily at him across the gold candles throughout dinner, then dancing all night with him. The chuntering of outraged relations was so loud, no-one could hear the cracking of poor Harriet’s heart.
Offhand with people to cover up his feelings, unused to giving or receiving affection, Ricky had not had an easy life. The France-Lynches had farmed land in Rutshire for generations. Horse-mad, their passion for hunting had been exceeded at the turn of the century by a passion for polo. Herbert, Ricky’s father, the greatest polo player of his day and a confirmed bachelor, had suddenly at fifty-five fallen madly in love with a twenty-year-old beauty. Sadly she died giving birth to Ricky, leaving her arrogant, crotchety, heartbroken husband to bring up the boy in the huge, draughty Georgian house, which was called Robinsgrove, because the robins in the woods around were supposed to sing more sweetly there than anywhere else on earth. Ricky needed that comfort. Determined that his son should follow in his footsteps, Herbert was appalled to discover that the boy was left-handed. This is not allowed in polo. Consequently Herbert spent the next years forcing Ricky to do everything right-handed to the extent of tying his left arm to his side for hours on end. As a result Ricky developed a bad stammer, for which he was terribly teased at school.
Although Herbert adored the boy, he couldn’t show it. Only by playing better polo could Ricky win his father’s approval. Herbert went to every match, yelling at Ricky in the pony lines. The cheers were louder off the field than on when Ricky started yelling back. Herbert’s vigilance was rewarded. At just twenty-three, when he met Chessie, Ricky’s handicap was six and he had already played for England.
To Chessie he was unlike anyone she had ever met. In the middle seventies, when men were getting in touch with their feelings and letting everything hang out, Ricky gave nothing away. A tense uncompromising loner, lack of love in his childhood had made him so unaware of his charms that he couldn’t imagine anyone minding being deprived of them.
Chessie had had to make all the running. Smitten by her, Ricky was terrified to feel so out of control and went into retreat. He was always away playing in matches or searching for new horses. He never rang because he was shy about his stammer, and he knew it would wreck his polo career to marry when he needed all his concentration to make the break. Gradually, persistently, Chessie broke down his resistance.
Herbert had been violently opposed to the marriage, but when the tetchy old eccentric met Chessie he was as bowled over as his son, even to the extent of moving out of Robinsgrove, which had grooms’ flats, stabling for twenty horses and four hundred acres of field and woodland, and moving into the Dower House two miles away, to make way for her and Ricky. At first the marriage was happy. Herbert went to matches with Chessie and enjoyed her cooking at least once a week, and when Chessie produced an heir two years later the old man was happier than he’d ever been.
But although Herbert had initially settled £200,000 on Ricky, Chessie, used to having her bills picked up and being showered with presents by besotted businessmen, soon went through it. The land, which included a large garden, a tennis court and a swimming-pool, needed maintaining and the house, with its vast rooms, needed a gas pipe direct from the North Sea to keep it warm.
Also Ricky’s dedication, aloofness and incredible courage on the field, which had attracted Chessie madly in the beginning, were not qualities she needed in a husband. Ricky adored Chessie, but he was far too locked into polo, and after the first two years too broke, to provide her with the constant approval, attention and material possessions she craved.
Resentful that Ricky wouldn’t pay for a nanny, Chessie was always palming Will off on his grooms. Most top-class players employ one groom to three ponies; Ricky’s grooms had to look after five, even six, but they never minded. They all adored Ricky who, beneath his brusqueness, was fair, kind and worked harder than anyone else, and they were proud to work for such a spellbinding player.
Chessie, a constant stranger to the truth, had also failed to tell Bart at the Waterlanes’ party that she had caused Ricky’s rift with his father. Gradually Herbert had recognized Chessie for what she was: selfish, manipulative, lotus-eating, narcissistic, unreliable and hopelessly spoilt. One rule in the France-Lynch family was that animals were fed before humans. Horrified one day when Ricky was away that the dogs had had no dinner by ten at night and the rabbit’s hutch hadn’t been cleaned out for days, Herbert had bawled Chessie out. Totally unable to take criticism, Chessie complained to Ricky when he came home, wildly exaggerating Herbert’s accusations, triggering off such a row between father and son that Herbert not only stopped the half-million he was about to settle on Ricky to avoid death duties, but cut Ricky out of his will.
Although both men longed to make it up, they were too proud. Ricky, whose family had always been the patrons, was forced to turn professional. Incapable of the tact needed to massage the egos of businessmen, desperately missing Herbert’s counsel, appallingly strapped for cash – Bart’s £25,000 for a season went nowhere when you were dealing with horses – Ricky threw himself more into polo and devoted less time to Chessie.
In Chessie’s defence, with a less complex man she might have been happy. She loved Ricky, but she burned with resentment, hating having to leave parties early because Ricky was playing the next day. Why, too, when there were ten other bedrooms in Robinsgrove with ravishing views over wooded valleys and the green ride down to the bustling Frogsmore stream, did Ricky insist on sleeping in the one room overlooking the stables? Here the window was always left open, so if Ricky heard any commotion he could be outside in a flash.
As she staggered downstairs to make some coffee, on every wall Chessie was assaulted by paintings of polo matches and photographs of Ricky, Herbert and his brothers, leaning out of their saddles like Cossacks, or lined up, their arrogant patrician faces unsmiling, as their polo sticks rested on their collar bones. Going through the dark, panelled hall, she glanced into the library and was reproached by a whole wall of polo cups grown yellow from lack of polish.
Oh God, thought Chessie hysterically, polo, polo, polo. Already on the wall was the draw of the British Open, known as the Gold Cup, the biggest tournament of the year. Starting next Thursday and running over three weeks, it would make Ricky more uptight than ever.
At least marriage had taught him domesticity. In the kitchen his white breeches were soaking in Banish to remove brown bootpolish and the grass stains from yesterday’s fall. From the egg yolk on the plates in the sink, he had obviously cooked breakfast for Will and himself, but Chessie only brooded that she was the only wife in polo without a washing-up machine. On the table was a note.
‘Darling,’ Ricky had written with one of Will’s crayons. ‘Gone to London, back late afternoon, didn’t want to wake you, Mattie’s bearing up. Love, Ricky.’
Other wives, thought Chessie, scrumpling up the note furiously, went to Paris for the collections. Ricky was so terrified of letting her loose in the shops, he wouldn’t even take her to London. At least it was a hot day. She might as well get a suntan. Going upstairs to fetch her bikini, she heard the telephone and took it in the drawing room. It was Grace, probably just back from a shopping binge at Ralph Lauren, sounding distinctly chilly. Learning Ricky was in London, she asked to ‘speak with Frances’.
‘Speak to, not with, you silly cow,’ muttered Chessie. ‘Doesn’t trust me to pass on messages.’
She was about to go in search of Frances when she noticed a lighter square in the rose silk wallpaper above the fireplace. It was a few seconds before she realized that the Munnings had gone. Valued at £30,000, it had been given to them as a wedding present and was a painting of Ricky’s Aunt Vera on a horse. Ricky must be flogging it in London in order to buy another pony.
‘I don’t believe it,’ screamed Chessie, storming into the hall, where she found Will applying strong-arm tactics to the frantically struggling stable cat as he tried to spray its armpits with Right Guard.
‘Stop it,’ howled Chessie, completely forgetting about Grace at the other end.
Ricky returned around six. He had managed to get £10,000 for the Munnings. He knew it was pathetically little, but at least it had enabled him to buy from Juan a dark brown mare called Kinta who’d previously been a race horse, whom he’d always fancied and with whom Juan had never clicked.
He felt absolutely shattered. Now yesterday’s adrenalin had receded, he could feel all the aches and pains. He was in agony where Jesus had swung his pony’s head into his kidneys and where a ball had hit his ribs. His stick hand was swollen where Victor had swiped at him, and there was a bruise black as midnight in the small of his back where Jesus’s bay mare had lashed out at him scrabbling to regain her feet after that last fall.
Chessie waited for him in the drawing room, fury fuelled by his checking Mattie and the other ponies before coming into the house.
‘Hi, darling,’ he said, ignoring the gap above the fireplace, ‘I’ve got another pony.’
‘How dare you flog Aunt Vera?’ thundered Chessie. ‘Half of that money belongs to me, how much did you get?’
‘You were robbed.’
At that moment Will erupted into the room.
‘Daddy bring me a present?’
‘Yes, I did,’ said Ricky, handing him a half-size polo stick for children.
Will gave a shout of delight, and, brandishing it, narrowly missed a Lalique bowl on the piano.
‘Just like Daddy now.’
Chessie clutched her head. ‘Oh, please, no,’ she screamed.
Chessie’s froideur with Ricky didn’t melt. But he was kept so busy getting acquainted with Kinta, now known as the ‘widow-maker’, tuning her and the other ponies up for the first Gold Cup match next Thursday, playing in medium-goal matches and worrying about Mattie, who didn’t seem to be responding to treatment, that he hardly noticed until he fell into bed. Then, when he was confronted by the Berlin Wall of Chessie’s back, he tended, after his hand had been shuddered off, to drop into an uneasy sleep, leaving Chessie twitching with resentful frustration all night.
Grace made it plain that she was livid with Chessie for leaving her hanging on the telephone. Bart had made absolutely no attempt to get in touch with Chessie – perhaps he was still sulking because she had thwarted his plans by giving Perdita a lift home. Surprised how anxious she was to see him again, Chessie went along to the Thursday match and deliberately dressed down, in a collarless shirt and frayed Bermudas, held up with Ricky’s red braces, to irritate Grace. Alas, the grooms were all tied up with the ponies and her baby-sitter had gone to Margate, so she was forced to take Will and his new, short polo stick with her.
Will was a menace at matches. Having grabbed a ball, he proceeded to drive it into Fatty Harris’s ankles, Brigadier Hughie’s ancient springer, David Waterlane’s Bentley, and finally a lot of little girls playing with a doll’s pram, who all burst into noisy sobs. This was drowned by Will’s even noisier sobs when he saw his father umpiring the first match between the Kaputnik Tigers and Rutminster Hall. Wriggling out of Chessie’s grasp, he rushed on to the field and was nearly run down by Jesus the Chilean. Juan and Miguel were on epic form, and after a frenzied last chukka of bumps and nearly fatal falls, Rutminster Hall ran out the winners by 10–6.
Victor Kaputnik, whose gloating when he won was only equalled by his rage when he lost, could be heard yelling furiously at the twins and Jesus as they came off the field. Chessie was about to wander down to the pony lines in search of Bart when he emerged out of a duck-egg blue helicopter, followed by Grace, extremely chic in brown boots, a brown trilby and a fur-lined trench coat, her glossy, dark hair drawn back in a French pleat.
After last week’s heatwave, a bitter north wind was flattening the yellowing corn fields, turning the huge trees inside out, driving icy rain into the eyes of the players and horses, and putting the easiest penalty in jeopardy. Despite this, there was a good crowd to watch the second match between the Alderton Flyers and the Doggie Dins Devils, who included the notorious Napier brothers, an underhandicapped Australian and Kevin Coley, their appalling petfood billionaire patron.
Not being able to face an hour with Grace, Chessie was thankful when the Carlisle twins bounded up, teeth brilliantly white in their mud-spattered faces, and insisted she watch from their car. Will, who adored the twins, immediately stopped crying.
‘Aren’t you flying home with Victor?’ asked Chessie.
‘No, he’s pissed off with us because we were late. I’ll go and get us a drink,’ said Seb.
As the Alderton Flyers rode on to the field, all wearing polo-necked jerseys under their shirts, Chessie was glad of the warmth of the twins’ Lotus. Listening to the whistling kettle sound of Victor’s black-and-orange helicopter soaring out of the trees, she turned to Dommie: ‘I don’t know why you’re looking so smug about losing.’
‘Oh, we’ll catch up,’ said Dommie. ‘There are four more matches in the draw. Don’t tell Victor. He thinks we were late because of the traffic. Actually we were selling a pony for about three thousand pounds more than it’s worth. Seb had just lied that its grandsire was Nijinsky when I walked in and said it was Mill Reef, but we got over that hurdle.’
‘Who bought it?’ asked Chessie idly.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Chessie. ‘He rang Ricky yesterday. Said he’d just sent the mare Ricky sold him in May to the knackers because she had back trouble and could he buy another. Ricky loved that mare so much he hung up on him. Now Phil’s bought one from you – Jesus!’
‘I don’t think your husband’s got his act together commercially,’ said Dommie. ‘He’s got to learn to care less about ponies and more about patrons. Victor is so thick we sold one of his own ponies to him the other day. Quick! Duck! Here comes the Head Girl!’
Through the driving rain, both suitably clad for the weather, came Sukey and Grace going towards Bart’s limo, which had been driven independently to the match for them to sit in. Grace nodded coolly. Sukey, who was carrying a camera, tapped on the window: ‘I was hoping to video the match, so Drew could isolate his mistakes afterwards, but the visibility’s so awful. Bad luck on losing, Seb.’
‘Oh, sorry. I can never tell you two apart.’
‘I’ve got the bigger cock,’ said Dommie.
Chessie giggled. Sukey firmly changed the subject. ‘We’ve had the Daily Express at home all morning, doing a feature on Drew. You’d never dream how many rolls of film they used.’
‘They wanted to do Ricky and me,’ said Chessie furiously, ‘but Ricky was far too uptight to let them in on the morning of a match.’
‘Oh, Drew’s managed to conquer his nerves,’ said Sukey. Then, looking at Chessie: ‘Aren’t you frozen?’
‘Not with me around,’ said Dommie, running his hands up and down her bare legs.
Before Sukey had time to look old-fashioned, Seb had arrived holding three Bloody Marys and a Coke in his hands, and a packet of crisps between his teeth for Will.
‘Christ, this weather’s awful. D’you want a drink, Sukey?’
‘No thanks, I’ve just had a cup of tea. There’s the throw-in. I must go and watch with Grace. Such a wonderful lady.’
‘Silly bitch,’ muttered Chessie, putting the Bloody Marys on the dashboard as Seb got in beside her. Next minute Bart thundered past them, eyes screwed up against the rain, swiping at the ball and missing completely. He was so bad, reflected Chessie, it was a turn-off to watch him. But not as bad as the petfood billionaire Kevin Coley, who was simultaneously hitting his poor pony round the legs with his stick, tugging on its mouth, and plunging huge spurs into its sides.
‘Dreadful rider,’ winced Seb.
‘He’s just given me a book on dog breeds,’ said Dommie, getting it out of his Barbour. ‘Seb and I are thinking of getting a pit bull.’
‘Jesus’s game is distinctly off today,’ said Seb.
‘Baby Jesus is a little bugger,’ said Will, his mouth full of crisps.
The conditions were worsening, the pitch was a black sea of mud. Beyond the clubhouse the pink-and-white sponsors’ tent strained at its moorings. By the third chukka the Alderton Flyers were leading by 8-4, not because of superior play, but because Juan, who was umpiring, was so anxious to curry favour with Bart that he hadn’t blown a single foul on him.
‘God,’ said Seb, as Bart crashed into Charles Napier at ninety degrees, ‘that should have been a goal to the other side.’
‘Shall we get a white or a brindle one?’ asked Dommie.
‘How’s your ravishing schoolgirl?’ asked Chessie.
‘Expelled, poor darling. We tried to take her out on Sunday. We were going to Windsor and thought she’d like a jaunt, but they wouldn’t even give us a forwarding address.’
‘Oh, she’ll turn up,’ said Chessie. ‘Those sort of girls always do.’
‘Ready for another drink?’ asked Seb, as the half-time bell went.
‘I quite like Basenjis,’ said Dommie, ‘but they don’t bark.’
He ran his hand down Chessie’s bare leg again.
‘Honestly, Mrs F-L, if you weren’t married to Ricky, I’d make such a play.’
‘Feel free,’ said Chessie, then jumped at a tap on the window.
‘Divot-stomping time, Francesca,’ ordered Grace Alderton, looking disapprovingly at the row of glasses on the dashboard.
Dommie lowered the window a centimetre.
‘It’s too cold. Mrs F-L isn’t dressed for treading in, and we’ve just got warm for the first time today.’
Grace didn’t actually flounce, but her body stiffened as she stalked off on to the pitch.
‘Good period, baby,’ she shouted to Bart, as he cantered back, muddy but elated, having scored a goal.
‘Can we get our diaries together when we get back to the car?’ Sukey asked Grace, as they trod back the divots. ‘I don’t want to have our wedding on a day when you won’t be in England.’
Will took a great slug of Dommie’s second Bloody Mary and started on a bag of Maltesers Seb had brought him.
‘Don’t let him eat them all,’ said Chessie. ‘He’ll be sick.’
Will ate four, then put the rest in the breast pocket of his shirt. ‘Allbody will think I’ve grown a tit.’
The twins roared with laughter.
Ricky’s breeches were black with mud as he came out for the fifth chukka. His spare sticks were in front of Dommie’s car, leaning against the little fence that ran along the edge of the pitch. Some players used the same length stick for every pony, but Ricky preferred longer sticks for taller ponies, and Kinta, the new dark brown thoroughbred was nearly sixteen hands. If he broke a stick, he expected Chessie to run out and hand him a new one.
‘Those are the fifty-ones on the left, and the fifty-twos on the right,’ he shouted to her as he cantered back for the throw-in.
‘Are you going to Deauville?’ Chessie asked the twins.
‘Shut up,’ said Seb. ‘I want to see how Ricky goes on Juan’s pony, and you can get your nose out of that book, Dom.’
Ricky was used to riding with his reins completely loose, the slightest pressure on his horses’ necks turning them to the left or right. Kinta, however, coming from the race track where horses are only expected to go one way and used to being yanked around by Juan, pulled like an express train and was almost impossible to stop.
‘Christ, Ricky won’t have any arms left,’ said Dommie, as Kinta easily outstripped Charles Napier’s fastest pony. ‘But she’s going bloody well for him. Juan must be as sick as a baby with its first cigar.’
Both sides were now squelching around the Doggie Dins’ goal. Bart should have dropped back and marked Ben Napier, but, instead, rushed into the mêlée and, losing control of his pony, mis-hit.
‘Get back, you stupid fucker,’ howled Ricky.
‘Interesting your husband never stammers when he’s shouting abuse,’ said Seb.
As Will took another slug of Bloody Mary, Ricky and Ben Napier both bounded forward trying to prise the ball out of the mud. There was a crack as Ricky’s stick broke. Swinging round, he galloped towards the boards.
‘He wants another stick,’ said Seb.
Reluctantly Chessie climbed out into the stabbing rain. Only the fence and the row of cars stopped Kinta.
‘Fifty-two,’ yelled Ricky.
‘Are you trying to tell me your age?’ drawled Chessie.
‘Give me my fucking fifty-two.’
‘Chess-ee, come on,’ said Seb disapprovingly.
‘Sthop sthouting, Daddy,’ said Will.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ howled Ricky.
‘Don’t be infantile,’ said a furious Grace, running forward and handing the stick to Ricky. Seizing it, he hurtled back into the game. But it was too late. Despite Kinta’s phenomenal speed, Doggie Dins had taken advantage of Ricky’s absence to score a goal.
‘Sthop sthouting,’ said Will, filling up his water-pistol from Seb’s Bloody Mary.
As the bell went for the end of the fifth chukka, Chessie caught sight of Grace’s face and was about to belt back into the smoky warmth of the twins’ car.
‘May I speak with you, Francesca?’
‘Shall we have a word after the match? I’m watching Ricky.’
‘Wee-wee,’ clamoured Will.
‘I’ve got to take Will to the loo,’ said Chessie.
‘Why don’t you let him pee in Fatty Harris’s rain gauge?’ said Dommie.
‘Then Fatty will be so horrified by the amount of rainfall, he’ll cancel Sunday’s match and we’ll have a day off,’ said Seb.
‘I quite like Rottweilers,’ said Dommie.
‘Wee-wee,’ said Will, dropping his Maltesers in the mud as he scrambled out of the car.
If Grace hadn’t been present, Chessie would have picked the Maltesers up. As she dragged Will away, he burst into tears.
‘I’ll take him to the lav,’ said Sukey. ‘Then you and Grace can chat.’
‘He won’t go with you,’ protested Chessie.
‘Come along, Will,’ said Sukey briskly. To Chessie’s amazement, Will trotted off with her.
‘You only have to use the right tone of voice,’ said Grace.
‘Do look,’ said Seb, nudging Dommie. ‘Grace is about to urge Mrs F-L to exercise a little decorum.’
‘Decorum’s a nice name for a dog,’ said Dommie. ‘Then I could exercise it.’
Inside Bart’s limo the new leather smelt like a tack shop. Grace had been a good wife to Bart. Twenty-one years ago, she had taken this roaring roughneck and turned him into a tycoon. She had provided him with the contacts, the friendships, the staff, the right silver and china at her dinner parties, where important people met the important people they wanted to meet. Grace was acutely aware of the social advantages of polo. She longed to invite the Prince to dine at one of her five houses, as much as she wanted her two children to make brilliant marriages. Grace’s every action, whether she was fund-raising at a calorie-conscious teetotal buffet lunch or reading biographies of famous people as she pedalled away on her exercise bicycle, was geared towards improvement.
She couldn’t understand Chessie’s lack of motivation, and had spent a lot of time this summer discussing both Chessie’s and Ricky’s shortcomings with Bart. But in the last week she had noticed Bart was slagging off Chessie less and less. He was even talking about bringing her and Ricky over to Palm Beach for the polo season in January. Having herself dreamt about Ricky last night, rather a disturbing dream, Grace had now decided that he was terribly misunderstood, and took a positive pleasure in giving his wife a pep talk.
‘Are you supporting Doggie Dins, Francesca?’
‘Of course not,’ snapped Chessie.
‘One could be fooled into thinking so. A married couple is two people, half a polo team, and you’re intelligent enough to know that you only win at polo and in life if you play as a team and support each other. Your behaviour towards Ricky is flip, destructive and totally unsupportive.’
Chessie yawned. ‘You’ve no idea how tricky he is. Women are always on Ricky’s side because he’s so good-looking.’
‘I am not Women,’ said Grace icily. ‘How many times have you failed to pass on messages, turned up late at matches, and showed no interest in the game? Look at you today, egging on the twins, dressed like a tramp, and now not giving Ricky his fifty-two. If the Flyers lose this match it’ll be entirely your fault. You’re twenty-seven, not seventeen, Francesca.’
‘When Ricky signed his contract with you,’ said Chessie furiously, ‘there was absolutely no clause about my turning up in a ball dress at every match. You’ve no idea what it’s like living with a man who’s totally obsessed with polo.’
‘If your husband’s going to succeed,’ Grace looked at Chessie’s mutinous profile, ‘you have to put up with loneliness. When Bart was building up the business, he often didn’t come home till two o’clock in the morning.’
‘Not surprised,’ said Chessie, ‘if you bent his ear like this.’
‘Don’t be impertinent.’
‘I don’t want to hear any more. You can buy Ricky but not me.’ Scrambling out of the limo, Chessie went slap into Sukey and Will who was still clutching his water-pistol.
‘All better,’ said Sukey. ‘Such a jolly little chap, I waited outside and didn’t miss a minute. Oh, well played, Drew darling, oh go on, go on.’
‘Stick ’em up,’ said Will, his eyes squinting through his blond fringe.
‘Don’t point guns at people, dear,’ said Grace.
Next minute Will had emptied a pistol full of Bloody Mary into her cream silk shirt. Grace gave a scream. Chessie made the mistake of laughing.
‘If you’d take your nose out of that book for one second,’ said Seb to Dommie, ‘you’d see Ricky finally losing his patron.’
As Chessie dragged Will off in search of Ricky, she could hear Sukey comforting Grace. ‘I’m sure Mrs Beeton will know how to get tomato juice out.’
Suddenly Chessie stopped laughing and started to cry. ‘That was naughty,’ she screamed at Will. ‘You may have been defending my honour but your methods were very extreme.’
‘Hi, honey,’ said a voice. ‘You’re getting soaked.’
It was Bart, coming off the field.
Delighted to have scored two goals and trounced Doggie Dins, he was in exultant form. Then he realized that the rain pouring down Chessie’s face was tears.
‘Hey – what’s the matter?’
‘Your ghastly wife’s been giving me a dressing-down for not dressing up, telling me what an awful wife I am.’
The icy wind was sweeping the drenched striped shirt against her breasts. ‘I tell you the only reason Frankenstein was a monster was because he was frank,’ she added furiously.
Just for a second they were hidden from the pitch by a home-going horse box. Bart put a warm sweating hand on Chessie’s neck and she felt her stomach disappear.
‘I’ve tried to put you out of my mind,’ he said roughly, ‘but I didn’t manage it. Grace and I are going back to the States tomorrow – for a wedding – one of the Biddies’ – even in the pursuit of love Bart had to name-drop – ‘I’ll be back on Wednesday. How about lunch on Thursday?’
‘Meet me at Rubens’ Retreat at one o’clock,’ said Bart and rode on.
Grace came forward as he reached the pony lines: ‘Well played, baby.’ Then, consulting her red book, ‘but you were loose in the fifth chukka.’
‘How dare you chew out Chessie France-Lynch?’ snarled Bart. ‘I run this team, OK, and don’t you forget it.’
Grace’s pep-talk only intensified Chessie’s desire to take her husband off her. The weather continued windy and very cold, and Chessie spent the next week sourly watching her suntan fade and thinking up alibis for Thursday lunchtime. Fortunately Ricky was being paid £1,000 to play in a charity match at the Guards Club that day, on the understanding that he stayed behind for drinks and allowed himself to be gawped at by all the sponsors’ rich clients. This meant he wouldn’t be home much before eight.
Ricky was loath to go. He was desperately worried about Mattie, who’d stopped eating and kept biting listlessly at her plaster. Her eyes were dull – always the first sign of pain in a horse. He was sure the plaster was beginning to smell, a sinister indication that infection or, even worse, gangrene, was setting in.
‘Pooh,’ said Will, coming into Chessie’s bedroom with his new polo stick, and breathing in the collective reek of Duo Tan, Immac and nail polish.
‘Don’t touch,’ screamed Chessie as he trotted purposefully towards the make-up bottles on her dressing table. She loathed being distracted when she was getting ready – it was all Ricky’s fault for not being able to afford a nanny. Nor could she start washing her hair until he’d gone. Then she found the water hadn’t been turned on. She also dried her hair upside down too long so it stood up like a porcupine. She didn’t know if she was more nervous of seeing Bart or Ricky finding out. It was so cold, she put on a pale pink cashmere dress, which was near enough flesh tones in colour, to make her look as though she was wearing nothing at all. Sticking her tongue out at Herbert’s portrait, she ran down the stairs.
Out in the yard, she was relieved to find that Louisa, Ricky’s youngest and most amenable groom, had been left in charge. Plump, pink-faced, always smiling, Louisa had been described by Chessie in a bitchier moment as looking like a piglet who’d just won the pools. She was a complete contrast to Ricky’s head groom, Frances, who, scrawny, angry and equally obsessed with Ricky and the horses, was always finding fault with the other grooms’ work. Chessie had nicknamed Frances and Louisa ‘Picky and Perky’. Perky was now trying to coax Mattie to eat a carrot.
‘Can you look after Will for a couple of hours?’ Chessie asked her. ‘I’m just popping out to lunch with a girlfriend.’
‘Pooh,’ said Will. ‘Mattie’s leg smells awful.’ Then, realizing Chessie was getting into the car without him, started to cry.
‘Mummy won’t be long. I’ll bring you a present,’ called Chessie as she drove off.
‘Girlfriend indeed,’ muttered Louisa, catching a whiff of Diorissimo. ‘Mummy’s gone a-hunting.’
Ten miles from Robinsgrove the wind dropped, the sun came out and the temperature rocketed, shrivelling the wild roses hanging from the hedgerows. Chessie could see her face reddening in the driving mirror and feel the sweat trickling down her ribs. It was all Ricky’s fault for not being able to afford a car with air-conditioning. There were no shops on the way for her to buy something cooler. Her mouth tasted acid with nerves.
Rubens’ Retreat, once a large country house, now an hotel, was set in lush parkland. Reputed to have the best food and the softest double beds in England, it was a favourite haunt of the rich and libidinous. Inside it was wonderfully cool. Chessie nipped into the Ladies to remove her stockings, tone down her flushed face and clean her teeth.
‘I’ve just had gastric flu and keep getting this terrible taste in my mouth,’ she explained to the attendant who’d seen it all before.
She found Bart in an alcove, screened by huge plants. On the telephone, he only paused to kiss her and wave her to the chair beside him. He was very brown and wearing a cream silk shirt, a pin-striped suit and an emerald-green tie, which matched the greensward on which naked ladies were sporting with cherubs on the mural round the walls.
‘I don’t care if the price is rising, keep buying, but spread it around; we should have control by tomorrow lunchtime,’ ordered Bart, waving to the waiter to pour Chessie a glass of champagne.
While half his mind wrestled with the complicated finances of one of the fiercest take-overs Wall Street had ever known, his eyes ran over Chessie. She was as flushed as a peony, that pink dress emphasized every curve like a second skin. As the waiter laid a dark green napkin across her crotch, it was as though he was putting on a fig leaf. Bart wanted to take her upstairs and screw her at once.
‘Sorry about that,’ he said as he came off the telephone.
‘Aren’t you drinking?’ asked Chessie, noticing his glass of Perrier.
‘Perrier don’t make you merrier,’ said Chessie idly.
‘Just looking at you makes me drunk,’ said Bart. ‘Where does Ricky think you are?’
‘At home. I was terrified the match might be cancelled.’
‘It isn’t. I checked it out,’ said Bart. ‘How is he?’
‘Preoccupied. Mattie’s deteriorating; Kinta won’t stop.’
‘Sure he hasn’t got a bit on the side?’ asked Bart as they studied the menu.
Chessie laughed sourly. ‘The only bits Ricky’s interested in go in horses’ mouths.’
‘How was he when you got home after Lady Waterlane’s reception?’
‘Asleep in the hay beside Mattie.’
‘That figures. He thinks he’s Jesus Christ anyway.’
The telephone rang.
‘Choose what you want to eat,’ said Bart picking up the receiver. ‘I’d like poached salmon, zucchini and no potatoes,’ he told the waiter.
‘Why are you so keen to take over this company?’ asked Chessie, as he came off the telephone five minutes later.
‘Chief Executive, Ashley Roberts, blackballed me at the Racquet Club ten years ago.’
‘You are into revenge,’ said Chessie, taking a slug of champagne.
‘Never forget a put-down. That all right?’ He brandished his fork in the direction of Chessie’s fish pâté.
‘Fraction too much fennel,’ said Chessie. ‘OK, OK, that wasn’t a put-down. I used to cook for a living before I got married. I’ll cook for you one day.’
Bart massaged her arm. ‘I sure hope so. I’m sorry about Grace.’
‘Did the Bloody Mary come out of her shirt?’
‘No. She called Ralph. He’s making her another one.’
‘I suppose that’s what shirty means. How was the wedding? Is Grace still Biddling while Rome burns?’
Bart tapped her nose with his finger. ‘You must not take the piss.’
‘How did you two meet?’ asked Chessie as the waiter took away her hardly touched pâté.
‘I was a test pilot at NASA. Great life, none of us thought we’d live beyond thirty. You can’t imagine the joy of testing an airplane, learning its personality, talking to it, poking and probing, finding new things. I was a little boy from nowhere, but when I flew I felt like a god.’
He blushed, ashamed of betraying emotion. ‘Grace came to visit the plant, and that was that. She grounded me but she backed me.’
Chessie was fascinated: ‘How come you got so rich?’
Bart shrugged. ‘I build the best airplanes and helicopters in the world and I bought land when it was worth $300 an acre. Now it’s going for $10,000. All markets go in cycles, the skill is knowing when to get in and when to get out.’
Chessie breathed in the sweet scent of white freesias and stocks in the centre of the dark green tablecloth.
‘How were your children when you went back?’
‘OK.’ Quite unselfconsciously Bart got photographs out of his wallet.
‘That’s Luke. He’s twenty-two.’
‘Nice face,’ said Chessie.
‘Comes from my first marriage. Doesn’t live with us. He’s been working his way up as a groom in a polo yard. Very proud. Won’t accept a cent from me.’
‘Sounds like Ricky.’
‘More sympatico than Ricky,’ said Bart flatly. ‘This is Red.’
Chessie whistled. ‘Wow, that’s an even nicer face. He really is beautiful.’ Then, sensing she’d said the wrong thing: ‘Nearly as good-looking as his father.’
Bart looked mollified: ‘All the girls are crazy for Red. He’s kinda wild. He got looped at the wedding, and threw his cookies all over his granny’s porch. Plays polo like an angel. If he’d quit partying he’d go to ten. And here’s my baby, Bibi.’ Bart’s voice softened.
‘Now she is like you,’ said Chessie. ‘What a clever, intelligent face.’
No one could call her pretty with that crinkly hair and heavy jaw.
‘Bibi is super-bright. Harvard Business School, only one interested in coming into the business. She’s Daddy’s girl. Doesn’t get on with Grace. She might relate to a younger woman,’ he added pointedly.
He is definitely putting out signals, thought Chessie, as their second course arrived.
‘D’you often have affairs with men who aren’t your husband?’ said Bart, forking up poached salmon.
‘Not since I was married. And you?’
‘Occasionally. They weren’t important.’
Chessie examined the oily sheen on a red leaf of radicchio.
‘I guess so. That’s why I didn’t call you before.’
Elated, Chessie regaled him with scurrilous polo gossip, knowing it would delight him to know how other players ripped off their patrons. Aware she was dropping the twins in it, and not caring, she told him about them selling one of Victor’s own horses back to him.
‘Are you going to Deauville?’ asked Bart as he came off the telephone for the third time.
‘Not unless Ricky forks out for a temporary nanny. The grooms get so bolshy about baby-sitting and Deauville’s no fun unless you can go out in the evening. We haven’t had a holiday since we were married,’ said Chessie bitterly and untruthfully.
Bart traced the violet circles under her eyes.
‘You need one. Don’t you ever get any sleep?’
‘Not since I met you,’ said Chessie, who had drunk almost an entire bottle of champagne.
It excited her wildly that this man at the same time as dealing in billions of dollars could give her his undivided attention. All her grievances came pouring out: ‘Having been dragged up by a succession of nannies himself, Ricky thinks Will ought to be brought up by his mother.’
‘Will’s a nice kid,’ said Bart. ‘He’s only whiny, over-adrenalized and super-aggressive because he’s picking up tensions from your marriage. You’re both too screwed up to give him enough attention.’
‘That’s not true.’ Chessie dropped her fork with a furious clatter. ‘If you’re going to talk to me like that, I’m going.’
Bart caught her wrist, pulling her back.
‘Stop over-reacting,’ he said sharply. ‘You haven’t done anything wrong. Will’s playing up because you’re miserable.’
‘Does your son Red throw up in porches and no doubt in Porsches because you and Grace aren’t happy?’ spat Chessie.
‘Grace no longer excites me. Let’s go upstairs,’ said Bart calmly and he opened a door hidden in the romping nymphs behind him which led straight into a lift. ‘The beauty of this place is you don’t have to go through Reception to get to the bedrooms.’
It was a most unsatisfactory coupling. Bart was too anxious to get at her. Chessie was too angry and uptight to get aroused. Despite her moans and writhings, Bart knew she hadn’t come. Sick with disappointment and frustration, she got dressed. Here was just one more failure because she was not able to tell people what she liked, that she never came from straight screwing, and never with Ricky.
‘Poor little Rick’s girl,’ said Bart, kissing her forehead.
It’s all over, thought Chessie miserably.
As they went outside, Bart’s telephone rang again. He talked so long that Chessie was about to wander off without even saying goodbye when he hung up in jubilation.
‘I’ve got forty-nine per cent. By tomorrow lunchtime I’ll have nailed him.’
‘What’s your next take-over target?’ asked Chessie sulkily.
‘You are,’ said Bart. He glanced at his watch. ‘They’ll just be throwing-in. We’re going for a ride.’
Like all polo players, he drove too fast, overtaking with split-second timing, one hand on the wheel, the other resting on Chessie’s thigh. As the limo swung round the hangar, the helicopter standing on the apron was as blue as the Flyer’s polo shirts and as the sky above. On its side in dark blue letters was written: ‘Alderton – your friend in high places’.
Chessie sat in the passenger seat with the full flight harness biting into her pink dress. Having gone round turning on switches and tightening screws as a pre-flight check, Bart had taken off his jacket and his green silk tie, and was secured by just a seat belt round his waist.
Satisfied everything was in order, he started up the engine. There was a thrilling roar as the jets took a grip on the rotors which quickly accelerated to their operating speed. With a last look round to see everything was clear, Bart alerted the control tower, who asked for his destination and initial reading.
‘We’re going to do local flying towards the south-east, not above a thousand feet,’ said Bart.
As they flew over yellowing fields and rain-drenched woods and villages, Chessie gave a scream of joy.
‘Isn’t it heaven, just like a child’s farm? If you picked up the houses they’d be hollow underneath.’
She longed to run her hand up and down Bart’s pin-striped thigh, hard as iron like Ricky’s.
‘There’s David Waterlane’s place,’ said Bart. ‘You can see them stick and balling.’
Down below Chessie could see the dark, silken flash of the lake flecked with duck, and the dark brown oval of the exercise ring.
‘If you look closely,’ she said, ‘you may see Clemency sunbathing in the nude, or Juan getting his back brown on top of her. Talk about One flew over the Cuckold’s Nest.’
Bart laughed. The sun was beating down on the glass bubble. Oh hell, I’m getting too hot again, thought Chessie.
Five minutes later Bart pointed out a beautiful, white house with a green roof, set in a clearing thickly ringed with woodland. He flew so low that Chessie could see the cars glittering outside the front door and white figures leaping on the tennis court. The swimming-pool glittered in the sunshine like an aquamarine.
‘Gorgeous place,’ breathed Chessie.
‘Belongs to Ashley Roberts,’ Bart’s voice thickened with excitement. ‘When I take him over tomorrow and fire him later this year, he’ll be forced to put it on the market. How’d you like to live there?’
Chessie went very still.
‘We rattle enough in our present house,’ she said lightly.
Ahead loomed a huge, apparently substantial, white-and-mushroom-brown cloud which had formed into turrets, icebergs and snow drifts.
‘Let’s go through that archway,’ said Bart, not even touching the snow-white edges. Now he was flying alongside a massive, pinky cliff, just clipping it, laughing as Chessie flinched away. ‘I used to play around for hours like this when I was a boy. Now I’m going right into this cloud. This is the most scary feeling in the world,’ he added, as they were enveloped in dense fog. ‘Even after years of flying it still scares the shit out of me. You can’t figure if you’re upside down. You have a total disregard of what the brain is telling you. It’s completely disorientating.’ Then, as he came out into brilliant sunshine, he smiled at her, powerful as he was handsome. ‘Pretty much like meeting you.’
He does like me, thought Chessie in ecstasy, and I’m mad about him. He’s tied up in a mega-take-over, and he’s fooling around in the air with me.
The sun was beating down on the bubble again. The shimmering fields and woods seemed to stretch for ever. Sheep huddled under the trees like lice.
‘I’m baking,’ gasped Chessie, wishing she could find some shade like them.
‘Take your dress off,’ said Bart idly. ‘Just undo the harness and take it off.
‘Ker-ist,’ he said a moment later, as Chessie threw the dress behind her seat. ‘Oh, Christ.’
She was only wearing a pair of rose-patterned white pants. The slenderness of her waist emphasized the fullness of her thighs, and her breasts soft and white-gold in the sunshine with the nipples pink and spread. Her cheeks were very flushed, her eyelids drooped over eyes leaden with lust.
She’d put Victor’s bimbo in the shade, thought Bart. She was more beautiful than any of the girls his son Red attracted.
‘Two joysticks,’ murmured Chessie, putting her hand on his cock. ‘I know which one I’d like best.’
Bart wanted her now, but, even on automatic pilot, making love in a helicopter is not in the flight manual.
‘We’re over Victor’s land,’ he said in amusement. ‘There’s a clearing in the wood where we can land. No one will find us. I’ll just tell them I’m going down.’
‘On me I hope,’ whispered Chessie.
Having cleared with flight control, Bart eased the power and headed for the trees. Chessie saw the clearing, a little sage-green disc, cut in half by a winding stream, flanked by willows. There were no houses near by. Switching off, Bart allowed the blades to stop before opening the door and jumping on to the lush green grass. Next moment he’d walked round to the other door, and his arms were deliciously full of Chessie.
‘Jesus, you’re lovely,’ he murmured, carrying her to the shade of a large oak tree. This time he was going to take it very slowly.
‘Why did you pretend you came before?’ he asked, as he laid her gently down in the groin of two huge roots.
Chessie opened her eyes in terror. ‘I didn’t,’ she stammered, ‘I came beautifully.’
‘Liar!’ Peeling down her pants, he slid his fingers into the oily cavern. ‘That’s better. I should put you across my knee for distracting me at nine hundred feet.’
Instantly, her breath quickened, her eyes went dull, her legs widened ecstatically. So that’s it, Bart thought in triumph, she wants to be treated like a naughty little girl. His hand slid to her bottom, exploring gently but persuasively.
‘Is that what you like?’ he whispered. ‘Your butt paddled?’ Repelled but wildly excited, Chessie squirmed against him.
‘Ricky’s too straight, huh?’
Chessie nodded helplessly. ‘I can’t talk to him.’
Slipping his hand under her buttocks, between her legs, he fingered the bud of her clitoris, and felt the flood of wetness as she gasped and came.
The sun had dropped behind the trees as he pulled out of her for the last time.
‘The skill,’ said Chessie, mocking to hide how moved she felt, ‘is knowing when to get in and when to get out.’
They didn’t talk on the way home. Mist was rising from the river. Bart dropped her off where her car was, at Rubens’ Retreat.
‘You’re going to be very late. What movie have you been to see?’
‘Gone with the Wind,’ said Chessie, ‘twice round.’
‘I guess this take-over’s going to take up so much of my time I won’t go to Deauville,’ said Bart. Then, getting a jewel box out of his briefcase, ‘I’ve got you a present.’
Chessie wasn’t really into costume jewellery, but for paste the diamonds were certainly beautifully set, and looked pretty round her neck in the driving mirror. She supposed the rich didn’t dare wear real jewels any more.
‘Thank you,’ she said, trying to simulate enthusiasm.
‘Are you going to be able to hide them from Ricky?’ asked Bart, cupping her groin with his hand.
Chessie glanced down.
‘I’d better shove them up there,’ she said bitterly. ‘That’s one place Ricky won’t look.’
As Ricky rode off the field at the end of the match at the Guards Club there was a message to ring Louisa.
‘Mattie’s worse,’ she said, trying to hold back the tears. ‘Her leg smells awful and her eyes are dead. Phil Bagley’s out on his rounds, but I got him on his bleeper. He’s coming as soon as possible.’
Mercifully, Major Ferguson, the Deputy Chairman and Polo Manager, understood.
‘Course you must go at once. I’ll explain to the sponsors.’
‘I’m s-s-sorry,’ mumbled Ricky. ‘S-s-suppose I shouldn’t have tried to save her.’
‘Done just the same myself,’ said Major Ferguson. ‘Mattie’s a legend – give anything for one of her foals. I’ll ring you in the morning – love to Chessie.’
If only Ricky’d had Bart’s helicopter. Limited in the horse box to forty miles an hour, going slap into rush-hour traffic, and trapped between returning tractors and hay lorries, he didn’t get home until nearly eight. Please God, save her, he prayed over and over again.
Phil Bagley was already in Mattie’s box. The stink of putrefaction was unmistakable, Mattie hung leaden in her sling. For the first time since she was a tiny foal, she didn’t whicker with delight to see Ricky. Phil Bagley looked up, shaking his head.
‘The leg’s completely cold below the plaster,’ he said brusquely, to hide his feelings. He loved Mattie, having treated her since she was a foal, and had rejoiced in her dazzling career. ‘I’ve been sticking needles in and she doesn’t feel anything, and her temperature’s right up, which indicates secondary infection as well as gangrene.’
Ricky crouched down beside Phil Bagley, feeling Mattie’s skin which had gone hard and crisp like parchment.
‘Is she in pain?’
‘Yup – considerable I’m afraid.’
‘There’s no way we can take off the plaster and clean it up?’
‘We can have a look.’
Ricky held Mattie’s head. Although her breath quickened, she made no attempt to fight, as Phil got to work. He only had to saw a few inches – the stink was appalling.
‘I’m sorry, Ricky. It’s completely putrid. If she were a dog or a human we could amputate.’
The fiercely impassive Frances, who was looking over the stable-door, gave a sob.
‘Of course.’ Ricky deliberately kept his voice steady. ‘You must do it at once.’ Then, without turning, ‘Frances, can you ask Louisa to see that Will’s well out of the way?’
As Phil went off for the humane killer, Ricky put his arms round Mattie’s neck, running his hand up the stubble of her mane.
‘Sorry I put you through it, sweetheart,’ he muttered. ‘I only wanted to save you.’ His voice broke, as she gently nudged him as if in forgiveness. Shutting his eyes, he scratched her gently behind the ears, putting his lips to the white star between her eyes, where the humane killer would go, until he felt Phil’s hand on his shoulder.
The sun had set but there was still a fiery glow in the West as Chessie stormed up the drive. Dog daisies lit up the verges and the air was heavy with the sweet scent of the lime tree flowers. She had hidden Bart’s necklace in the lining of her bag and, buying a Rutshire Echo, had memorized the synopsis of the Robert de Niro film she was supposed to have seen. Sober now, her earlier bravado evaporated, she was twitching with nerves. As she drew closer, she heard a muffled explosion and slammed her foot on the accelerator. The house was in darkness. Perhaps Will had got hold of one of Ricky’s guns. Then she saw the lorry parked crooked across the yard and panicked. Ricky was home already. Outside Mattie’s box, he was holding Frances in his arms.
‘Oh, charming,’ said Chessie acidly, ‘I thought you were wowing sponsors at Guards.’
Ricky looked round, his face ashen, his eyes huge, black holes. Then Chessie saw that Frances’s normally accusing, disapproving face was a blubbered, disintegrating mass of tears.
‘What on earth’s the matter?’
‘I’ve just put Mattie down,’ said Phil Bagley in a tight voice, as he emerged from Mattie’s box. ‘I’m terribly sorry.’
‘Oh, God,’ said Chessie, not knowing what to say, but feeling passionate relief that no-one would bother where she’d been. ‘For a terrible moment I thought it was Will.’
Shooting her a look of pure hatred, Ricky walked past her into the night. In the kitchen she found Will patting the plump shoulder of a frantically sobbing Louisa.
‘Mummy,’ he turned in delight, ‘Louisa crying. Did you bring me a present?’
‘Delicious sweeties,’ said Chessie, producing a handful of Rubens’ Retreat’s petits fours out of her bag.
‘Ugh,’ said Will spitting a marzipan banana out all over the floor.
Ricky didn’t come back all night. Chessie thought he must have gone to his father’s, until the telephone woke her at eight o’clock next morning.
‘Herbert here,’ barked a voice. Trust the old bugger not to apologize for ringing so early, or after so long. ‘Can I speak to Ricky?’
‘He’s not here.’
‘Well, tell him I’ve just heard about Mattie. Bloody shame. I’m very sorry.’
It must have cost Herbert a lot to ring, but Chessie decided not to pass on the message. She didn’t want him back in their lives, hanging around, restricting her freedom. Looking out of the window, she saw Ricky was back and with a couple of men from the village, was digging a grave in the orchard, where generations of dogs and stable cats had been buried. The two Labradors, tails wagging, were trying to join in, frantically scrabbling the earth with their paws. Wayne, Ricky’s second favourite pony, a custard-yellow gelding with lop ears who’d been devoted to Mattie, stood by the paddock gate, neighing hysterically.
Keen to escape such a house of mourning, longing to be alone to think about Bart, Chessie drove into Rutminster on the pretext of doing the weekend shopping. Out of curiosity, on the way home, she stopped off at a jeweller to get Bart’s necklace valued. The bumpy, veined, arthritic hands trembled slightly as they examined the stones.
‘Very, very nice,’ said the jeweller in reverent tones. ‘I’d be surprised if you’d get much change out of £100,000, might be even higher. Pretty stones, for a pretty lady,’ he added with a smile at Chessie’s gasp of amazement.
Chessie was so stunned she went straight out and committed the cardinal indiscretion of ringing Bart at home from a call box.
‘Pretend I’m a wrong number. Look, I’m sorry I was so horribly ungrateful. I’d no idea those diamonds were real.’
‘Like my love for you,’ said Bart softly. ‘I can’t talk now,’ and hung up.
‘Did you bring me a present?’ said Will when she got home.
Joyfully Chessie gathered him up, and swung him round till he screamed with laughter.
‘I’ve got a hunch,’ she murmured. ‘I may have got you a new Daddy.’
Bart rang her later. ‘Can you talk?’
‘I could talk when I was eighteen months,’ said Chessie, ‘but I’m precocious.’
Out of the window, she could see Louisa wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, as she planted primroses round Mattie’s grave.
‘Mattie had to be put down,’ she told Bart.
‘I’m sorry – she was a helluva horse. How’s Ricky taking it?’
‘Bottling it up as usual.’
‘Any repercussions last night?’
‘Ricky was too shell-shocked even to realize I’d been away. I forgot to ask yesterday. Are you still going to drop him?’
‘I guess I’m going to drop Ricky and Grace,’ said Bart.
The polo community were flabbergasted when Bart didn’t come to Deauville and allowed the team that he was forking out so much for to play without him. His place was taken by an underhandicapped Australian who interchanged so dazzlingly with Ricky that the Alderton Flyers clinched the French Championships after a very close fight against David Waterlane and the O’Brien brothers. Kinta, suddenly clicking with Ricky, won the Best Playing Pony award, to Juan’s fury. So much were the Flyers on form they were hotly tipped to win the French Gold Cup next Sunday.
Although Ricky desperately missed Mattie, he felt his luck was changing. During the endless barbecues and parties, the racing and gambling which characterize Deauville, players and patrons who aren’t rushing home every evening get a chance to talk. Ricky spent a lot of time with David Waterlane, and his son, Mike, a raw, silent, spotty youth, back from Harrow for the holidays. Hopelessly inhibited by his father, Mike showed considerable promise. Feeling the boy’s relationship with David was very like his own with Herbert, Ricky immediately struck up a rapport with Mike. They exercised their horses at dawn every day in the surf and stick and balled together. Mike’s game improved dramatically, and as a result David signed Ricky up as his senior pro for the next year. He and Ricky had been to the same school and understood each other. David was sick of the double-dealing and histrionics of the O’Briens.
Ricky had to confess that to the abscess-draining bliss of Bart’s absence was added the relief of not having Chessie with him. He could concentrate on his game, and not worry the whole time whether she was bored, or spending too much money, or sulking because she wasn’t spending money. He was well aware that his marriage was going badly, but being used to cold war over the years with Herbert, he didn’t feel it was the end of the world.
After drinking at least a bottle and a half of champagne after the French Championships, Ricky tried to ring home, but the telephone was dead – probably been cut off. Suddenly, missing Chessie like hell, he decided to accept Victor Kaputnik’s offer of a lift back to the Tiger’s yard at Newbury. Sukey and Drew, who were coming too, had parked their car there, and could give him a lift back to Rutshire. Buoyed up by champagne, ecstatic with victory, he bought a dark green cashmere jersey for Chessie, a cowboy suit for Will, and stopped off at the supermarket and loaded up with garlic sausage, salami, Toblerone, huge tomatoes, and the cheese which smelt like joggers’ socks which Chessie adored so much.
Victor’s helicopter seated eight, so drinking continued on the flight, and Sukey, who didn’t drink, drove Drew and Ricky back to Rutshire, so they were able to carry on boozing, reliving every chukka. Next Sunday’s Gold Cup seemed well within their grasp now. Ricky sat in the back addressing occasional fond and drunken remarks to the huge silver cup which he would have to hand over to Bart tomorrow.
‘We’re going to spend the second half of our honeymoon in Argentina and find Drew some really good ponies,’ said Sukey as she turned off the M4.
It must be nice having a wife who acted as chauffeur and remembered every shot you’d ever scored, thought Ricky. But he didn’t think he could bring himself to sleep with Sukey. He was overwhelmed again with longing for Chessie. He should have forked out for a temporary nanny. They needed to spend more time together.
My luck has turned, he told himself again, as Sukey drove up the lime avenue. I’m going to be a better husband from now on. Robinsgrove was in darkness. Perhaps Chessie’d gone to stay with her mother. As he stood reeling uncertainly in the yard, he suddenly felt a sword-thrust of misery that Mattie wasn’t there to welcome him. Then a white ghost shot out of the grooms’ flat. Millicent the whippet, frisking round his legs, was overjoyed he was home. She was shortly followed by the two Labradors, and Louisa, who was spilling out of a yellow sundress. Sounds of revelry were going on behind her.
‘Whatever are you doing back?’ she asked in horror.
‘Just for the night,’ said Ricky, clanking bottles as he searched in the carrier bag. ‘We won.’
‘Ohmigod, how wonderful,’ said Louisa, flinging her arms round his swaying body. He was absolutely plastered, bless him.
‘And Kinta won Best Playing Pony. Any problems?’
‘No, everything’s fine. They’re all turned out except Wallaby, and his hock’s much better. Come and have a drink to celebrate.’
The whoops and howls were increasing.
‘Who the fuck’s that?’ shouted a voice.
‘No thanks,’ said Ricky, handing Louisa a garlic sausage, and a bottle of Cointreau. ‘For you, where’s Chessie?’
Louisa looked guilty. Ricky thought it was because he’d caught her having a party.
‘Gosh thanks, she’s left a note on the kitchen table. Millicent hasn’t been eating,’ she called after Ricky, as he tottered towards the house. ‘But she will now you’re home.’
Ricky realized how drunk he was when he tripped up the back doorstep, and nearly dropped the cup. God, that cheese stank. There was no moon, so he spent ages finding his keys.
The kitchen was incredibly tidy. Usually by Sunday night it was a tip. He dumped the carrier bags on the table, poured himself a large whisky, and was just about to open a tin of Chappie for Millicent, when he saw Chessie’s letter. How odd, she’d put it in an envelope.
‘Dear Ricky,’ he read, ‘I’m leaving you. I can’t put up with a miserable, totally meaningless marriage any more. I’m taking Will. My lawyers will be in touch. Don’t try and find me. Yours, Chessie.’
Very carefully he spooned the contents of the Chappie tin into Millicent’s bowl and, putting it down, sprinkled biscuits over it. Then, as he walked towards the telephone and realized he’d scattered biscuits all over the floor, he started to shake, his thighs suddenly seemed to have a life of their own, leaping and trembling. His heart was crashing against his rib-cage.
The telephone was dead, so he went over to Louisa’s flat, where he found a young man in pink boxer shorts brandishing the garlic sausage, like a large cock, at a frantically giggling Louisa. Her giggles died when she saw Ricky.
‘Can I use your telephone?’
Louisa nodded. ‘Use the one in the bedroom.’
‘Chessie’s left me,’ Ricky told Drew over the telephone.
‘Christ – I am sorry.’
‘Did you know anything?’
‘I’d heard rumours.’
‘Why the fuck didn’t you warn me?’
‘I hoped it would blow over.’
‘Who’s the man?’
‘You’re not going to like this,’ Drew paused. ‘Bart Alderton.’
‘Bart,’ said Ricky incredulously, ‘but he’s old enough to be . . .’
‘Her sugar daddy; that’s what attracted her. Look, I’ll come over.’
‘No – I’m going round to kill him.’
‘For Christ’s sake, you’re in no condition.’
But Ricky’d hung up.
Louisa was standing in the doorway, her eyes filled with tears.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she stammered. ‘You oughtn’t to drive. Wait till morning.’
But Ricky pushed straight past her. Millicent, having wolfed her dinner and hoovered up the biscuits on the floor, was determined not to be left behind and jumped belching into the now mended BMW.
It was a warm night. The clouds had rolled back leaving brilliant stars and a rising moon. As Ricky couldn’t find the top of the whisky bottle, he wedged it in the side pocket, taking repeated slugs as he drove. He covered the twenty miles in as many minutes, overtaking two cars at once on the narrow roads, shooting crossroads. A cold rage had settled in. It wasn’t Chessie’s fault. Bart Alderton could corrupt anyone.
The electric gates had not yet been installed, so Ricky was able to open the iron ones. Deer and sheep blinked in the headlights as he drove up an avenue of chestnut trees. As he rattled over the second sheep grid, where the drive opened up into a big sweep of gravel, the beautiful seventeenth-century manor house, with its ruff of lavender and white roses clambering to the roof, was suddenly floodlit.
Little Millicent quivered in the back as four Rottweilers came roaring round the side of the house, fangs bared, growling horribly, scrabbling at the car’s paintwork with thick black claws. Taking another slug of whisky, Ricky got out of the car and, because he was totally unafraid, only stopping to pat a sleek, snarling head or mutter a casual ‘good dog’, was able to walk unscathed through the pack and ring the door bell.
A security guard answered. His shoulders seemed to fill the door.
‘Mrs France-Lynch?’ said Ricky.
‘You’ve got the wrong house, buddy.’
‘I’m coming in to wait for her.’
‘Who’s that?’ called Chessie’s voice.
For a second the security man was caught on the hop. Shoving him aside, Ricky walked into the house. Chessie looked floodlit too. She was wearing a red silk dress, long-sleeved, high-necked and slinky, black shoes with four-inch heels, and huge rubies at her ears, neck and wrists. Her hair had been newly streaked, cut shorter and swept off her flawless face. Ricky caught his breath. She looked staggering. The tramp had become a lady.
‘How dare you barge in here?’ Radiant with spite, Chessie moved towards him. ‘Get out. Bart’ll be back in a minute, then we’re going out – to Rubens’ Retreat.’ It was as though she was outlining the evening’s whereabouts for a baby-sitter.
‘How long’s this been going on?’
‘My being miserable? Since I met you, I guess.’
‘You’re coming home.’
‘To that dump! I’m bloody not.’
She caught a waft of whisky. Ricky was wearing a crumpled dark blue shirt and jeans. Unshaven, very brown, his black hair falling over his forehead, he looked savage and dangerous.
Ricky dropped his eyes first and, aware of the hovering guard, turned left into the drawing room which had been exquisitely furnished in soft corals and yellows by Grace. All the cushions looked as if they had been blown up with bicycle pumps.
‘L-l-look, I know things have been difficult, but I love you.’
‘Do you now?’
‘I’ve been spending so much time on the ponies, so we could get straight. Things’ll get better.’
‘Bullshit,’ screamed Chessie hysterically. ‘Polo’s a drug only curable by poverty or death, and you’re hooked.’
‘We won today.’
‘So fucking what?’ sneered Chessie. ‘Bart’s still going to drop you.’
Ricky bit his lip. ‘David’s going to sponsor me next year, and I’ve almost certainly got a patron for Palm Beach.’
‘That still won’t be enough to live on.’
‘I’ll tap my father.’
‘Your father’s a disgusting, crabby old man,’ taunted Chessie, ‘and you’re getting more like him every day. I’m not having you damaging Will, like Herbert damaged you, making you incapable of showing affection for anything but a horse. I’m surprised you noticed we’d gone.’
Under the chandelier in the centre of the room, he could see she was uncharacteristically wearing a lot of make-up – making her look much harder. Bart’s influence was already working.
‘And you think Bart’s the answer,’ said Ricky slowly. ‘I was fooled at the beginning. He’ll crucify you; he’s only interested in conquest. He beats up his horses; soon he’ll do the same to you.’
He already has, thought Chessie, stretching voluptuously. She could hardly sit down after Bart had spanked her that afternoon.
‘Bart’s the most considerate man I’ve ever met.’ Then, as Ricky raised his eyebrows, ‘and the best lover. He could give you a bit of coaching. I’m fed up with being married to a failure in and out of bed.’
Ricky clenched his fists. For a second Chessie thought he was going to hit her. Mocking him with her enhanced beauty, she sauntered over to the drinks trolley, and with a totally steady hand poured herself a vodka and tonic. Her dress was so low-cut at the back that Ricky could see a violet bruise above the cleft of her buttocks.
‘I’ll make a bargain with you,’ she said, swinging round. ‘I’ll come back to you the day you go to ten and win the Gold Cup.’ She ticked the conditions off with long, scarlet nails. ‘And the day England win back the Westchester.’
It was virtually an impossibility. No English player had gone to ten since before the war, and the Westchester Cup, the Holy Grail of Anglo-American polo, had remained uncontested in American hands since 1939.
‘You bitch,’ whispered Ricky.
‘I agree, it’s highly unlikely,’ said Chessie. Her laugh sounded horrible, almost mad.
‘Daddy! Daddy!’ Woken by the din, frightened by the shouting, Will, in pale blue pyjamas, trailing a huge, white, fluffy monkey, obviously the result of a trip to Harrods, ran into the room and threw himself into Ricky’s arms. He was so excited he couldn’t speak. Ricky clung on to his warm, chunky body, which smelt of talcum powder and shampoo, seeking sanity and comfort. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t let Chessie take Will away.
‘Did you bring me a present?’
The cowboy suit was at home. Putting his hand in his jeans’ pocket, Ricky pulled out a little silver pony with a detachable saddle and bridle that he’d been given as an extra prize for captaining the winning team. ‘Here you are.’
‘Horsie,’ said Will, enraptured. ‘Horsie like Mattie.’ Then, turning to Chessie: ‘Daddy stay the night?’
‘Daddy’s going,’ said Chessie icily, reaching for the bell.
‘Let me keep him for tonight.’
‘No,’ said Chessie alarmed. ‘You’ll kidnap him.’
‘What are you planning to do with him?’
‘Take him back to America of course, but we’ll be back and forth to England all the time. Bart does so much business. I’m sure the lawyers will grant you visitation rights.’
‘Visitation rights?’ said Ricky, enraged. ‘You’re even talking like a fucking American now. He’s my child, and I’m not having that bastard bringing him up. We’re going home,’ he said, pushing Will’s blond fringe out of his eyes. Then, when Will looked doubtful: ‘Millicent’s in the car and you can see Louisa.’
Aware of the security man hovering in the hall, Ricky made a dive for the french windows.
‘No,’ screamed Chessie.
‘Mummy,’ bellowed Will, suddenly scared.
‘Stop him,’ yelled Chessie.
But Ricky was already sprinting across the lawn, with Will bawling his head off, and next minute the BMW was careering down the drive, scattering Rottweilers. They met Bart coming the other way and had to mount the verge to pass him. Ricky was in luck. Bart, because he was coming to pick up Chessie, had left the gates open. Poor Millicent was bouncing around in the back.
As stone walls and dusty August trees flashed by, Ricky knew he ought to fasten Will’s seat belt, but all that seemed important for the moment was putting as much distance as possible between himself and Bart. There was a crossroads in half a mile where he could lose him. In mounting the verge he had spilt the whisky and the car reeked of drink.
‘Want Mummy!’ howled Will. ‘Want Mummy!’
‘It’s all right, darling, you’re safe. Daddy loves you, you’ll see Mummy soon. I’ve got a present for you at home.’
Will’s sobs subsided a little. Ahead the River Fleet gleamed in the moonlight. As they hurtled towards the bridge, Ricky put a hand on Will’s leg to steady and reassure him. Next moment the moon slid behind a big, black cloud. Too late, he saw, in the pale glow of the headlights, a fox cub racing down the middle of the bridge towards him, its eyes yellow and panic-stricken. Instinctively Ricky swung to the left and hit the side of the bridge head on. Over the almighty crunch, he heard Will scream, felt an agonizing pain in his elbow and then blackness.
The two speed cops reached him before Bart. Millicent was whimpering in the back. Will was killed outright, his neck broken by the impact of the dashboard. Ricky was unconscious, the gash down the side of his face pouring blood, his right arm in a curiously vulnerable position. You could smell whisky all over the car.
‘Plastered,’ said one of the traffic cops, shaking his head, ‘and neither of them wearing seat belts.’
Then, as the moon came out, he noticed the polo stickers on the windscreen and the little silver pony clutched in Will’s hand.
‘Christ, it’s Ricky France-Lynch,’ he said.
As his companion rang for an ambulance, he tried to coax Millicent out of the back. Seeing Ricky’s licence on the floor, he flipped through it.
‘Thought as much,’ he muttered. ‘Two drunk-driving charges already. They’ll clobber him for manslaughter, poor sod. He thought the world of that kid, poor little bugger.’
Nearly four months after William France-Lynch was killed in a car crash and his father arrested on charges of manslaughter and drunken driving, Perdita Macleod broke up for the Christmas holidays. Having been expelled from Queen Augusta’s for carousing with the Carlisle twins and walking out of her English exam, she had been dispatched to an even stricter and more expensive boarding school. Only the threat that she wouldn’t be given a polo pony for Christmas had prevented her running away.
To the bliss of breaking up was the added thrill that her mother and stepfather had at last moved into Brock House, a rambling medieval rectory on the Rutshire-Gloucestershire border. Six miles from Rutshire Polo Club, it was, even more excitingly, only two miles from Eldercombe, the village in which Ricky France-Lynch lived. Although the poor darling, Perdita reflected bitterly, was still cooling his heels in Rutminster gaol awaiting trial.
Terrified lest her mother would be eccentrically dressed or, even worse, blub in ‘Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem’, Perdita had failed to send home the invitation to the end-of-term carol service, merely telling her to pick her up afterwards. Perdita was normally too idle to lift anything heavier than a cigarette, but today, in the hope of a lightning getaway, she had lugged her trunk, her record player, carrier bags full of posters, dirty washing, polo magazines, holiday work (some hope), Vivaldi the hampster and a yucca called Kevin down three flights of stairs and piled them up outside her school house.
Alas, just as everyone was spilling out of chapel – identikit mothers in on-the-knee suits, identikit fathers in fawn coats with brown velvet collars – Perdita’s mother, Daisy, rolled up in an absolutely filthy, falling-apart Mini and immediately started tooting and waving like a rainbow windmill. Abandoning the car and blocking everyone’s way, she ran across the tarmac to fling her arms round her daughter.
Finally Perdita, crimson in the face, was able to wriggle free and start hurling carrier bags into the car, as the held-up traffic tooted and everyone, particularly the fawn-coated fathers, stared in amazement.
Why, thought Perdita savagely, does my mother have to be so wacky, and so demonstrative, and, even worse, look half the age of any of the other mothers? Daisy in fact looked adorable. In her early thirties, she had the round, grave, dark brown eyes, the rosy cheeks, the long, straight, shiny brown hair parted in the middle, and gaudy taste in clothes of a Matrioska doll.
But when she stopped worrying and smiled, her eyes had the joyous sparkle and her mouth the dark pink bewitching softness of Hogarth’s Shrimp Girl. Today she was less gaudy than usual. Trying to catch a landscape in a certain light before she left, she had forgotten to take off her painting smock or wash the Alizarin crimson off her hands and looked as if she’d been killing a pig. On her left cheek was a large splodge of burnt sienna, which she’d used to capture the faded ginger of the oak woods beneath the new house.
‘Oh look, there’s Blue Teddy,’ cried Daisy, in her slightly breathless voice which squeaked when she got excited. She propped Perdita’s ancient teddy bear up between Kevin the yucca and the record player. ‘Now he can see out of the window, it’s such a ravishing drive home. Oh, there’s Miss Osbourne,’ went on Daisy, scrabbling in the back as she saw Perdita’s house mistress bearing down on them. ‘I bought her a bottle of Bristol Cream.’
‘No, Mum, she’s an old bitch,’ hissed Perdita. ‘For Christ’s sake, get in, we’re holding up the traffic.’
‘Hi, Perdita! Have a good Christmas.’ A group of classmates, to whom Perdita, with her beauty, outward insouciance and murderous wit, was a source of constant fascination, peered in through the window.
‘Are you Perdita’s friends?’ asked Daisy, who’d never been allowed to meet any of them. ‘How lovely! We’ve just moved to Rutshire. Perhaps you’d like to come and stay in the holidays.’
The tooting was getting deafening.
‘Mum, for God’s sake,’ shrieked Perdita.
‘By-ee,’ shouted Daisy, windmilling to Miss Osbourne and the group of girls as she set off in a succession of jerks down the drive, narrowly avoiding ramming the car in front as she stopped to admire the trailing yellow twigs of a willow tree against an angry navy-blue sky.
‘Can’t think what’s wrong with the car,’ said Daisy as it ground to a halt and died just inside the school gates. The tooting became even more acrimonious as she frantically tried the ignition.
‘Need any help?’ The father of Lucinda Montague, Perdita’s sworn enemy, reeking of brandy from his office party, popped his head inside the car.
‘It won’t budge,’ said Daisy helplessly.
‘’Fraid you’ve run out of petrol.’
Daisy, who always found the wrong things funny, went off into peals of laughter. Perdita put her head in her hands. It was not until four fathers, all roaring with laughter, who’d also obviously been to office parties, lifted the Mini out of the way and Miss Osbourne had provided a can of petrol, and they’d reached the slow lane of the motorway, and Daisy’d apologized a hundred times, that Perdita thawed enough to light a cigarette and ask what the house was like.
‘Oh, gorgeous,’ said Daisy, thrilled to be forgiven. ‘You cannot believe the views. This morning the whole valley was palest cobalt green with frost, and the shadows of the bare trees were . . .’
‘Do Eddie and Violet like it?’ interrupted Perdita who was bored rigid by ‘Nature’.
‘Adore it! There’s so much space after London.’
‘I bet they’ve bagged the best rooms.’
‘Every room is best. We’re going to be so happy. You’ve already been asked to a Pony Club Barn Dance.’
‘I wouldn’t be seen dead,’ said Perdita scornfully. No-one who’d bopped the night away with Jesus and the Carlisle twins would lower herself to a Pony Club hop. ‘When can we get my pony?’
‘Well, I rang the twins as you suggested. They’re in Argentina, but their groom put me on to a man outside Rutminster, who’s got a bay mare. If you like her, subject to a vet’s certificate, you should be able to have her right away, although Daddy may think you should wait till Christmas Day.’
‘That’s stupid. Christmas isn’t for ten days. I could be schooling or even hunting her by then. How much are you prepared to pay?’
‘I can’t see Daddy going much above £500.’
‘You won’t get a three-legged donkey for that,’ snapped Perdita, stubbing out her cigarette and lighting another one.
‘The move’s been dreadfully expensive,’ began Daisy hopefully. ‘Perhaps if your report’s good . . .’
‘Don’t be fatuous. Daddy doesn’t give a shit about my reports! Now if it were Violet or Eddie . . .’
‘That’s not true,’ protested Daisy, knowing it was.
‘When’s Granny Macleod arriving?’
‘Twenty-third,’ said Daisy gloomily.
‘That’s all we need. Now she’s a widow, she’ll be more ghastly and self-obsessed than ever.’
Daisy knew she ought to reprove Perdita, but she had never got on with her mother-in-law herself and was dreading having her for Christmas. Bridget Macleod, in her turn, had never forgiven her daughter-in-law for having what she referred to as ‘a past’.
Nearly sixteen years ago, when she was only seventeen, Daisy had become pregnant while she was at art college. Her parents were so appalled when they learned the circumstances in which the baby was conceived that they threw Daisy out. Eventually Daisy gave birth to a daughter, and called her Perdita – ‘the lost one’ – because she knew she couldn’t afford to keep her. In utter despair, while going through the legal process of adoption, Daisy had met a trainee barrister, Hamish Macleod. Hamish was one of those stolid young men who grew a beard and had a flickering of social conscience during the sixties, which was firmly doused by the economic gloom of the seventies.
Moved by Daisy’s plight, rendered sleepless by her beauty, Hamish asked her to marry him so that she could keep the baby. Daisy had accepted with passionate gratitude. Hamish was good-looking and seemed kind; she was sure she could grow to love him – anything to keep Perdita. Hamish’s family – particularly his mother, Bridget – were appalled. Scottish, lower-middle class, rigidly respectable, they branded Daisy a whore who had blighted their only son’s dazzling career at the Bar. They had threatened to black the wedding unless Daisy put on a wedding ring and pretended that she was a young widow whose husband had been killed in a car crash.
Daisy, after fifteen years of marriage, still looked absurdly young. Kind, sympathetic, dreamy, hopelessly disorganized, she had become increasingly insecure, because Hamish, who had now left the Bar and become a successful television producer, never stopped putting her down and complaining about her ineptitude as a mother, her lack of domesticity and her lousy dress sense. Subconsciously, he’d never forgiven her for having Perdita illegitimately and hit the roof if she looked at other men at parties. He also ruthlessly discouraged her considerable gifts as a painter, because they reminded him of her rackety art-student past and because he considered there was no money in it.
Nor could he ever forgive Perdita for her strange beauty, her bolshiness and her dazzling athletic ability. Throughout the marriage he had pointedly lavished affection on the two children, Violet and Eddie, now aged thirteen and eight, whom he and Daisy had had subsequently. Less glamorous than Perdita, they were sweeter-tempered and better-adjusted.
Daisy’s fatal weakness was a reluctance to hurt anyone. She had tried and tried to screw up the courage to tell Perdita the truth about her birth, but, terrified of the tantrums this would trigger off, she had funked it, feeding her the official line that her father had been killed in a car crash. ‘We were so in love, darling, but he never knew I was pregnant.’
Daisy dreaded the day when Perdita might want to know the name of her real father. At least her blinkered obsession with polo and ponies had some advantages. Aware, however, that Hamish didn’t love her, Perdita tried to trigger off a response by behaving atrociously. Matters weren’t helped by Bridget Macleod’s ability to beam simultaneously at Hamish, Violet and Eddie, and freeze out Daisy and Perdita. This reduced Daisy to gibbering sycophancy and Perdita to utter outrageousness.
Dark thoughts about her mother-in-law’s impending visit occupied Daisy until darkness fell, by which time they had reached the village of Appleford where several cottages in the High Street already sported holly rings and the village shop window was bright with crackers and Christmas puddings. Brock House lay a quarter of a mile on, its gates flanked by pillars topped by stone badgers. Bumping down the pitted drive Daisy reached a fork. To the left, past vast unkept rose bushes and a dovecote, lay farm buildings which had been converted into garages, stables and a tackroom with paddocks behind. To the right, flowerbeds edged with box and a paved terrace led down stone steps to the back of Brock House. Shaggy with creepers, long and low, with its little lit-up windows, the house had a secretive air. On the far side, beyond a large lawn edged with herbaceous borders, the land dropped sharply into the Appleford Valley, thickly wooded with oaks and larches, and famous for its badger sets.
Inside was chaos. Daisy had made heroic attempts to get straight after moving, but now the children had come home bringing their own brand of mess. Violet and Eddie were in the kitchen, and greeted their elder sister guardedly.
‘What’s for supper?’ asked Eddie, who was circling advertisements in Exchange and Mart.
‘Chicken casserole and chocolate mousse to celebrate Perdita’s first night home,’ said Daisy.
‘There was,’ said Violet. ‘You left the larder door open and Gainsborough got at the chicken. Then he was sick. I cleared it up, and I got some sausages from the village shop.’
Thank God for Violet, thought Daisy. Violet Macleod had inherited Daisy’s sweet nature and round face and Hamish’s solid figure, freckles and curly, dark-red hair, which clashed with her high colour when she blushed. She also had beautifully turned-down amethyst eyes, which, she pointed out ruefully, matched her plump purple legs. Less bright than Perdita, she did much better at school because she was hard-working and methodical and because she knew you needed straight ‘A’s to become a vet. Violet spent much of her time sticking up for her father and grandmother and protecting her mother from Perdita’s tantrums. She was now combing the recently sick, long-haired ginger tomcat, Gainsborough, who was mewing horribly.
‘Stop it,’ said Violet firmly. ‘You know fur balls make you sick.’
Eddie, at eight, looked not unlike a bouncer in a night-club. Slightly dyslexic, hugely entertaining, he was interested in making a fast buck and enjoying himself. He had already found another prep schoolboy across the valley with whom to spend his time. His current ambition was to have a gun for Christmas. Daisy was dragging her feet because she felt Eddie might easily murder his elder sister.
‘Give us a fag, Perdita,’ said Eddie as Perdita got out a packet of Silk Cut.
‘Eddie!’ said Violet, shocked. ‘You are much too young.’
‘Want us to show you round?’ asked Eddie.
Unloading the car, listening to the thundering feet and yells of excitement as the children raced along the passages, Daisy prayed that in this house they would at last be a really happy family.
‘The stables are fantastic,’ said Perdita with rare enthusiasm when she returned twenty minutes later with the others.
When the telephone rang, Daisy answered. From the way their mother stiffened and her voice became nervous and conciliatory, the children knew it was their father. Now she was apologizing for forgetting to get his suit back from the cleaners.
‘I’ll pick it up first thing in the morning. Perdita’s home. Would you like a word?’ For a second Perdita’s normally dead-pan face was vulnerable and hopeful.
‘Well, you’ll see her later. Oh, I see, you must be frantic. See you tomorrow night then. He’s not coming home,’ explained Daisy, putting down the receiver.
‘Because he knows I’m back,’ said Perdita flatly.
‘Nonsense,’ blustered Daisy. ‘He sent tons of love.’
All three children knew she was lying.
‘He’s only got love for Eddie,’ sneered Perdita, ‘and not-so-shrinking Violet. Can I have a vodka and tonic? I am fifteen now.’
‘Oh, all right,’ said Daisy. Anything to keep the peace.
‘Dark, dark, dark,’ wailed Daisy a week later. ‘The Hoover’s gone phut, the washing machine’s broken down, Hamish says the place is a tip, and the kitchen brush has alopecia.’
‘I’m off.’ Perdita, dressed for hunting in boots, skin-tight breeches and a dark blue coat, went straight to the housekeeping jar.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Daisy.
‘I need money for the cap.’
‘You took a tenner yesterday.’
‘I’ll pay you back out of my Christmas present money,’ said Perdita, rushing off towards the stables.
‘Where’s my dark green sweater?’ bellowed Hamish from upstairs. ‘There are two buttons missing off my blazer and why the hell isn’t there any loo paper?’
Daisy sighed. Hamish had come back exhausted after a week’s filming last night to watch one of his programmes – a documentary on road haulage. Daisy hadn’t helped matters by falling asleep because it was so boring. The moment the final credits went up, Hamish’s mother was on the telephone telling him how wonderful it had been. When no-one else rang, Hamish, who was pathological about his beauty sleep, retired to bed. The telephone then started up again, but instead of being congratulations from Jeremy Isaacs and Alasdair Milne, it was friends of the children, catching up on gossip and wondering what life in the country was like, until Hamish was screaming with irritation.
Now he was downstairs bellyaching because Perdita had whipped the last of the housekeeping money. ‘I told you to always keep a float. I don’t know them well enough in the village shop to ask them to cash a cheque. What time’s Peter Pan?’
‘Oh, Christ,’ said Daisy hysterically. ‘I’d forgotten all about Peter Pan. I can’t go. I’ve got to get everything ready for your mother tomorrow, and do all the cooking, and shopping, and buy the stocking presents, and I haven’t wrapped any of the other presents, and I’ve got to stay in for the washing-machine man. We haven’t got any clean sheets.’
Hamish looked at her pityingly. ‘I can’t understand why you can’t treat Christmas like any other weekend. I suppose you’ve got your period coming.’
‘I’ve got your bloody mother coming,’ muttered Daisy into the sink.
‘Wendy can do the shopping,’ said Hamish loftily, ‘and the stocking presents. Give me the list.’
‘But she must be frantic,’ protested Daisy. Wendy was Hamish’s PA, who seemed to work for him twenty-four hours a day.
‘It’s always the busiest people who find the time,’ said Hamish sanctimoniously. ‘Wendy can take the children to Peter Pan. I’ll bring them and the shopping home afterwards. I hope,’ he added ominously, ‘you’re going to get things shipshape for Mother. She’s had a very stressful year and needs a rest.’
In the past, on hearing Hamish’s car draw up outside, Daisy had been known to take mugs out of the dish washer and frantically start washing them up in the sink, so much did Hamish hate to see her inactive. He was a successful film producer because he was good at keeping costs down, finicky about detail, and had brilliant empathy with his leading ladies who found him attractive because, to use one of his favourite phrases, he ‘targeted’ on them. Hamish, in fact, looked rather like an Old Testament prophet who regretted shaving off his beard for a bet. Copper-beech red hair rippling to his collar, a wide noble forehead, smouldering hazel eyes beneath jutting black brows, and a fine, hooked nose with flaring nostrils lapsed into a petulant mouth and a receding chin. Hamish also loved the sound of his own voice, which reminded him of brown burns tumbling over mossy rocks in the Highlands. Having muscular hips and good legs, he also wore a kilt on every possible occasion.
He was now, however, soberly dressed in grey flannels, and applying a clothes brush to the small of his blazered back, as he grumbled about cat hair. The moment he’d borne Eddie, Violet and the shopping list off to work, Daisy felt guilty about making such a scene. With the pressure off, she started reading the Daily Mail.
‘I believe it is possible,’ a young American girl was quoted as saying, ‘to have a caring, supportive husband, cherishing children, and a high octane career.’
I have none of these things, thought Daisy, I only want to paint.
Later that evening she and Violet decorated the house. Violet organized a bucket of earth and red crêpe paper for the tree, and Daisy was comforted by the rituals of hanging up the same plastic angel with both legs firmly stuck together and the tinsel with split ends and the coloured balls which had lost their hooks, and had to be tucked into the branches until they fell prey to Gainsborough.
In the alcove by the front door they set up the crib, which had been in the Macleod family for generations. There had nearly been a divorce the year Daisy painted the plain wooden figures, putting Mary in powder blue and Joseph in a rather ritzy orange.
‘Did you enjoy Peter Pan?’ asked Daisy, as she arranged straw from the stables in Baby Jesus’s manger.
‘It was fun,’ said Violet. ‘I’d forgotten Captain Hook went to Eton. Daddy loved it too.’
‘Daddy came with you?’ said Daisy in amazement.
‘Wendy got an extra ticket,’ explained Violet, standing on a chair to tie mistletoe to the hall light. ‘He gets on awfully well with Wendy. They’re always laughing.’
That’s nice, thought Daisy wistfully. Hamish seldom laughed at home.
‘The lost boys reminded me of Perdita,’ said Violet.
Life would be so peaceful, thought Daisy, if it were just her and Violet. Now they were alone, she could tell Violet how wonderful her report was.
Daisy also felt guilty that Perdita’s new pony had cost £1,500. A beautiful bay mare called Fresco, she had arrived with a saddle and a pound note tucked into her bridle for luck, which Perdita had nailed to the tackroom wall. But that was only the beginning. Fresco’s trousseau of rugs, so new they practically stood up by themselves, and headcollars and body brushes and curry combs, not to mention feed, had cost a fortune. At least Perdita was blissful. Having established an instant rapport with the pony, she was totally organized and reliable about looking after her. It was such a relief having her in a good mood and out of the house, hunting and exploring the countryside, particularly near Ricky France-Lynch’s land, but Daisy still felt she ought to buy better presents for the other two children.
Hamish had violently discouraged Daisy against taking any interest in money, on the grounds that she was too stupid to understand it. But she had felt mildly alarmed when he told her they were only going to rent Brock House, because he had invested almost the entire proceeds from the London house in a co-production with the Americans. The resulting movie, he assured her, would be such a sure-fire hit he’d recoup his original stake five times over and be able to buy Brock House or something far grander in a year or two. The spare cash left over gave Daisy the illusion that for once they were flush. She must find something more exciting for Violet than that Laura Ashley dress. Suddenly she had a brainwave.
At least Bridget coming made her tidy up, thought Daisy the following day, as she plumped the cushions in the drawing room and used eight fire-lighters and all yesterday’s Mail and Telegraph to light the logs Hamish had grudgingly chopped that morning. And at least they weren’t going to Bridget’s for Christmas. With a shiver, Daisy remembered the year when baby Eddie and Violet, and particularly Perdita, had trodden Lindt kittens into Bridget’s carpet and sacked her ultra-tidy house more effectively than any Hun or Visigoth.
Going into the garden to pick some pinched pink roses and winter jasmine for Bridget’s bedroom, Daisy breathed in the sweet, just freezing air, the acrid smell of bonfires and leaves moulding into the cocoa-brown earth.
The red had gone out of the woods now; they were uniformly dun and donkey brown, with the traveller’s joy glittering silken over the tops of the trees in the setting sun. In a fringe of beeches across the valley, rooks grumbled like waves scraping on shingle.
It was so beautiful. If only she could paint, but Hamish would be driving Biddy, as his mother was nicknamed, down from the airport now. I must try to be efficient and nice to her and forget about painting until she leaves, Daisy told herself firmly. I must be grateful for the millionth time to Hamish for saving me from solitary evenings in peeling bedsitters with one bar on the fire, and a forty-watt bulb and no money. And look at Perdita whom Hamish had enabled to live in this glorious house and hunt this wonderful pony. Every Macleod had a silver lining.
As always, she felt even guiltier when Hamish came through the door with his mother, such a frail little person with tears in her eyes who smelt of Tweed cologne and brought home-made fudge and shortbread and a bottle of whisky for Hamish.
How could I have turned her into such a monster, thought Daisy as she put on the kettle. There was a clatter of hooves outside and Perdita appeared at the back door.
‘I suppose there’s no hope the Glasgow shuttle crashed with no survivors?’ she asked.
‘Hush, she’s arrived,’ said Daisy. ‘You must try and be nice to Granny, and for God’s sake, tidy your room when you’ve sorted out Fresco. Daddy’s bound to show her round the house. Did you have a good day?’
‘Brilliant, we got three foxes. I got a brush.’ Perdita’s face was muddy, but her pale cheeks were for once flushed with colour and her dark eyes sparkled like jet.
‘Rupert Campbell-Black was out. Christ, he’s good-looking. He gave me several swigs of brandy, and Billy Lloyd-Foxe too; he’s really nice and gave me two fags, and they both said it wouldn’t hurt Fresco to hunt her and play polo. Hunting was the best way to get used to a young horse, and Rupert told me he was going to have one more crack at the World Championships next year, and then give up show-jumping. And Drew Benedict was there, and the twins. They’re off to Palm Beach just after Christmas, but we’re going to get together in the spring holidays, and Fresco jumped a bullfinch at least six foot high, and that journalist Beattie Johnson came to the meet. She said she was getting material for an in-depth interview with Ricky. Rupert pissed her up and said he was only interested in in-depth intercourse. Of course she was only digging up dirt. Evidently Ricky’s taken Will’s death terribly hard, and that bitch Chessie buggered off with all the France-Lynch jewellery, and when you think how rich Bart is. It’s all right, I’m coming, sweetheart,’ she turned back to Fresco. ‘I can’t tell you how much I like living in Rutshire. Rupert and Billy gave us a lift home in their lorry. We really must get a trailer.’
‘Not at the moment,’ said Daisy, coming out to give Fresco a piece of carrot.
‘Where’s the newly-wid now?’ asked Perdita.
‘She’s upstairs,’ Daisy giggled. ‘You mustn’t be naughty. It must be awful being widowed.’
‘Bet she’s knocked out. She can’t have loved Grandpa, the way she bossed him around. The poor old sod must be having the best Christmas ever, first time he’s rested in peace for forty years.’
By the time Biddy Macleod had expressed joy and amazement at the increased growth and splendour of Violet and Eddie, and at Hamish’s taste in putting up pictures (none of them Daisy’s) and arranging the furniture, although Aunt Madge’s chest of drawers in the spare room could do with a ‘guid’ polish, and come downstairs having unpacked – ‘I’m not happy till I get straight’ – and how it was late for tea at five, although flying made one work up a thirst, and what a nice young fellow had insisted on carrying her hand luggage at the airport, Daisy had decided Biddy was an absolute monster again.
And she didn’t look remotely frail any more – just a bossy old bag with mean little eyes like burnt currants, a tight white perm and a disapproving mouth like a puckered-up dog’s bum. She doesn’t mind being widowed at all, thought Daisy. It leaves her free to indulge her real passion: Hamish.
The first black Daisy put up was to forget Biddy had lemon in her tea.
‘Trust Hamish to remember,’ said Biddy, smiling mistily.
Chuntering, Daisy belted back to the kitchen, but got distracted. Through the clematis and winter jasmine which framed the hall window, she could see the red afterglow of the sunset, blackly striped by a poplar copse. I must remember it just like that, she thought, it wouldn’t be a cliché with the picture frame of creeper.
‘Mummy!’ called Violet. ‘You were getting Granny some lemon. Mummy was looking out of the window,’ she explained to her grandmother and Hamish. ‘She finds things so beautiful sometimes she forgets what she’s doing.’
Hamish’s and Biddy’s eyes met.
‘I must get that creeper cut back, it’s ruining the brickwork,’ said Hamish.
‘I got seventy-five Christmas cards,’ Biddy was boasting as Daisy came back having scraped the mould off a wizened slice of lemon. ‘I’d prefer it black,’ Biddy said pointedly.
‘Can’t you remember anything?’ snapped Hamish, glaring at Daisy.
‘As long as it’s wet and warm,’ said Biddy with a martyred sigh. ‘I was saying I got seventy-five Christmas cards. So many people wrote saying such nice things about your father, Hamish, I brought them with me.’
‘We didn’t get many this year,’ said Hamish petulantly. ‘Daisy was so late in sending out the change of address cards.’
As Daisy was clearing away the tea things and Biddy had been poured a wee glass of sherry, Hamish suddenly went to the gramophone and put on a record that had just reached Number One in the charts.
‘I must just play you this lovely record, Mother.’
It was some choirboy singing a poignant solo beginning, ‘If onlee your Christmas could be my Christmas,’ and going on to expound on the loneliness of being separated from loved ones during the festive season.
‘But you don’t like pop music, Daddy,’ said Violet in amazement.
‘I know, but I heard it on the car radio and fell in love with it. It’s great isn’t it, Mother?’
‘Very moving,’ said Biddy. ‘I love the sound of choirboys’ voices.’
At that moment Perdita walked in. Still flushed from hunting, still in her white shirt, tie, breeches and boots, she looked utterly ravishing. Surely Biddy will concede that, thought Daisy.
‘Hello, Granny,’ said Perdita guardedly, making no attempt to kiss her grandmother.
‘You’ve shot up,’ said Biddy accusingly. ‘I hear your father’s bought you a pony. I hope you realize what a lucky girl you are.’
‘She’s lovely,’ agreed Perdita. ‘What’s for supper, Mum? I’m starving.’
Going to the drinks tray, she poured herself a large vodka and tonic.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ thundered Hamish.
‘Mum always lets me.’
Biddy’s dog’s-bum mouth puckered up even more disapprovingly.
‘How’s your new school?’
‘And have you decided what you’re going to do when you grow up?’
Perdita smiled. ‘I’m going to get divorced.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I’m going to marry a mega-rich businessman, catch him cheating on me, and take him to the cleaners. Mum, I truly am going to need a trailer. The meets after Christmas are too far away to hack to.’
Biddy’s and Hamish’s simultaneous explosions were diverted by the doorbell. Thankful to escape from the fray, Daisy fled to answer it.
‘Oh, the little duck,’ they could hear her saying from the hall. ‘Violet darling, I’m sorry you had to have her before Christmas, but here’s your present.’
The next moment an English setter puppy had padded happily and confidently into the drawing room. She had a black patch over one eye like Nelson, black ears, a lean speckled body like a baby seal, and a tail which hadn’t unfurled its feathers, but which shook her whole body every time she wagged it.
‘Oh, Mummy,’ gasped Violet as the puppy joyfully licked her bright pink face. ‘She’s the loveliest thing in the world. I can’t believe it. Is she really mine? Oh, I love her.’
‘And who is going to look after her when Violet goes back to school?’ said Hamish furiously.
‘I am,’ said Daisy. ‘Then I won’t be lonely when you’re away so much. I’ve had a lot of dropped telephone calls this week, which I’m sure must be burglars checking up – a large dog’s a terrific deterrent.’
It was hard to tell who looked more disapproving, when having rushed round in excitement, and tried to snatch Biddy’s knitting, the puppy peed on the rug in front of the fire.
‘That rug was a wedding present from the McGaragles,’ thundered Hamish.
‘I’ll get a cloth,’ said Violet. ‘Oh, thank you, Mum, she’s the best present I’ve ever had.’
By the time Ethel, as the puppy was now called, had rampaged round the house, chased Gainsborough up the tree with subsequent loss of glass balls, peed again twice, had a bowl of scrambled egg, and fallen asleep on a cushion by the Aga, Daisy had managed to get supper ready.
It was the first time they had eaten in the dark green dining room with the big window looking over the valley and the red berries of the holly tucked behind every picture gleaming in the candlelight. Daisy had taken a lot of trouble to make coq au vin and a meringue and ice-cream pudding with raspberry purée. Hamish wasn’t going to have a public row with Daisy about the puppy; instead he pointedly ignored her, making no comment about the food and telling his mother at great length about the new film he was making on Robert Burns.
‘I’ve got no airpetite since your father passed away, but I must keep my strength up,’ said Biddy, piling a Matterhorn of mashed potato on to her plate. She had always been the most demonstrative leaver, always taking too much so she could leave a lot. Worst of all, she ate terribly slowly. Violet, who longed to play with the puppy, and Perdita and Eddie, who wanted to watch television, were nearly going crazy and only waited because they wanted some pudding.
Perdita lit a cigarette.
‘Put it out,’ thundered Hamish.
Perdita pretended to snore. Eddie got the giggles. Violet went bright crimson trying not to giggle. Daisy had to rush out of the room to get the pudding.
‘It’s absolutely yummy,’ said Violet, accepting a second helping.
‘Can we have it instead of Christmas pudding?’ asked Eddie.
Biddy Macleod said nothing. She wanted to leave it, but she was too greedy.
‘You must be tired, Mother,’ said Hamish. ‘Early bed with a hotty, I think.’
Biddy, who loved it when her son was masterful, admitted she was a little weary. ‘But before I turn in, I’d love to see your road haulage film again.’
‘But International Velvet’s on,’ protested Perdita.
‘You can watch it in your bedrooms,’ said Hamish heavily.
‘But we can’t tape it,’ wailed Eddie, ‘and my television shows snow storms on all four channels.’
‘Mine’s broken,’ said Perdita.
‘If your mother occasionally saw fit to get anything mended,’ said Hamish nastily, ‘you wouldn’t be in this predicament. For once you are not going to do everything you want.’
Biddy smiled at Violet. ‘Would you kindly make me a cup of Horlicks? I brought my own jar. It’s on the hall table. I didn’t think you’d have any here, although Hamish used to love a drink of Horlicks.’
Ignoring Perdita, who was looking at her with horror, a cold, blank stare coming straight off the North Pole, Biddy added, ‘And if you’re coming up, Eddie, there’s no waste-paper basket in the guest room, nor toilet paper in the guest bathroom.’
‘Where is Ethel going to sleep?’ said Daisy, as she wearily finished clearing up.
‘In my room,’ said Violet, who was gently teasing the diving, biting Ethel with an old slipper.
‘She is not,’ thundered Hamish, who had just dispatched Biddy to bed. ‘I am not having this house reduced to a urinal. How could you introduce a puppy at Christmas?’ he added to Daisy. ‘All the dog charities say it’s the worst time. She will sleep in the stables.’
Because he doted on Violet, he relented enough to allow Ethel to sleep in the kitchen with a ticking clock wrapped in a towel to simulate her mother’s heartbeat.
‘We must start as we mean to go on,’ said Hamish, getting into bed with his pyjamas buttoned up to the neck, and pointedly turning out the light on his side of the bed. A great howl rent the air.
‘Christ,’ said Hamish.
‘Oh, I love the sound of puppies’ voices,’ said Perdita from the television room, as an even more piteous howl rent the air.
‘Silent night, silent night,’ giggled Eddie from his bedroom.
‘Oh, poor Ethel,’ said Violet, from the landing, trying not to cry.
‘Typical,’ exploded Hamish. ‘My mother has come here for a rest, I am totally exhausted and have to be on location at six tomorrow, and you introduce that incontinent beast. I think you do these things deliberately.’
‘I truly don’t,’ said Daisy humbly. ‘I just thought Violet deserved something special.’
‘Because you’ve bankrupted me buying that pony for Perdita.’
Ethel’s howls were growing in volume.
‘Let Violet get her, just for tonight,’ pleaded Daisy.
‘No,’ said Hamish. ‘Will no-one listen to the voice of common sense? I hope you’re satisfied you’re ruining mine and my mother’s Christmas. There’s no way I’ll get to sleep now.’
As Daisy lay twitching in the darkness, waiting for the next explosion, Hamish started snoring. Unheard by her father, Violet had tiptoed downstairs and carried a delighted, wriggling Ethel upstairs to bed with her.
In the television room, unconcerned by any of the rumpus she had caused earlier, Perdita lit a cigarette and put in a tape of last year’s Polo International, freezing it every time Ricky hit the ball. One day she’d have a swing as good as his.
Christmas Eve started badly. Hamish buzzed off humming ‘If Onlee’, leaving Daisy with a mass of food to buy, all the presents to wrap up and dispatch, and Biddy Macleod to entertain. A hard overnight frost symbolized Biddy’s mood and put paid to any hunting, so Perdita was hanging around winding everyone up. The ever-tactful Violet took Biddy on an extended tour of the house. As some sort of death-wish, afterwards Daisy couldn’t resist showing Biddy the stables. Surely the old bag could find something nice to say about the immaculate tack room, and the gleaming, contented Fresco, fetlock deep in clean straw. But Biddy merely remarked it was a pity Perdita didn’t keep her bedroom like that and how ‘all that equipment must have cost puir Hamish a fortune’.
Daisy bit her lip.
‘But Fresco’s been a huge success, Perdita’s been so much easier since she’s got a real interest, and the children are fighting so much less,’ she protested.
‘Mummy, Mummy,’ yelled Violet from her bedroom window. ‘Quickly, Perdita’s killing Eddie.’
‘Whatever for?’ said Daisy, racing over the gravel.
‘He’s recorded The Wizard of Oz over her International tape.’
Christmas Eve deteriorated. After lunch Biddy solemnly rootled out Hamish’s mending and sourly sewed to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Ever-placating, Daisy kept rushing in, putting more logs on the fire and offering cups of tea. Hamish should have been back after lunch, but didn’t return until seven, singing ‘If Onlee’ and sucking extra strong mints.
‘At least, have a rest tomorrow and Boxing Day,’ Biddy implored him.
‘I’ll have to go in on Boxing Day and look at the rushes.’
‘You work too hard.’
Out of despair and to get her through the nightmare of packing presents, Daisy got stuck into the vodka and orange much too early. She made heroic attempts to have dinner bang on eight, leaving a beef casserole in the slow oven of the Aga. Then she discovered to her horror at ten to eight that Perdita had replaced the beef with some barley she was boiling overnight for Fresco.
‘You did it on purpose,’ yelled Hamish.
‘I did not,’ screamed Perdita. ‘I didn’t know it was for tonight.’
Daisy burst into tears. Biddy, who’d set like a jelly all day, suggested she rustle something up. Instead Hamish, with an air of martyrdom, swept Biddy, Violet and Eddie out to supper at the local pub, saying they’d go on to Midnight Mass afterwards. He refused to take Perdita. Seeing Perdita’s white, set face, Daisy said she had all the stockings to do and she’d skip supper and walk down to Midnight Mass later.
Upstairs in her bedroom, with a bottle of Benedictine, she started frantically cocooning presents with Sellotape. Biddy would be shocked; she believed in recycled paper and string.
It was past eleven-thirty by the time Daisy had finished the stockings. It’s the only time fat, lumpy legs are acceptable, she thought, laying them on the bed. She ought to get ready for church but she couldn’t find her boots anywhere.
Looking for them downstairs, she found Ethel crunching something up in the hall. She was so adorable with her thumping tail and speckled head. Then, as Ethel coughed up a piece of wood, which was definitely orange, Daisy let out a moan.
‘What’s up?’ said Perdita, who was eating Philadelphia cheese with a spoon in the kitchen.
‘Ethel’s eaten St Joseph,’ wailed Daisy. ‘Granny’ll have a heart attack.’
‘Hooray,’ said Perdita. ‘I’ve bought her the Jane Fonda Work Out Book for Christmas. Hopefully it’ll finish her off. It’s nearly midnight, let’s go out and see if Fresco’s kneeling down to honour the birth of Christ.’
The grey, lurex lawn crunched beneath their feet. Jupiter, Orion, Capella and the Dog Star blazed overhead. There were never such stars in London, thought Daisy. Fresco gave a low, deep whinny of welcome, but didn’t bother to get up as Perdita sat down beside her.
‘That means they’re happy and relaxed,’ said Perdita proudly. ‘If they lie down. Isn’t she beautiful? She’s the best friend I’ve ever had, thank you so much, Mum. I’ll be a great polo player one day, and then I can support you.’
Unbelievably touched, tight from tiredness and Benedictine, Daisy wandered away from the stable door. Then, behind her, from the black church spire, she heard the mad, romping din of the bells echoing down the white frozen valley, celebrating the birth of Christ.
The hopes and fears of all the years, thought Daisy, overwhelmed with a wave of loneliness and despair. How wonderful to love and be in love at Christmas. Then, wiping away the tears, she chided herself. How ridiculous to think there was more to life than a husband, children and a lovely house.
‘I do love you,’ she mumbled much later when Hamish came to bed.
‘Is that because you’ve drunk half a bottle of Benedictine? D’you want some sex, Daisy?’
Daisy didn’t. She was absolutely knackered, but she thought it might cheer Hamish up. Sex with him was always the same. Hand straight down to the clitoris, rubbing it until she was wet enough for him to go in, then ten brisk thrusts before he came.
Daisy’s hangover did not enhance Christmas morning for her. Nor did Eddie playing a computer game he’d got in his stocking, which squawked every time the monkey grabbed the banana on the palm tree, nor did Biddy yakking on and on and letting her croissant get cold.
Biddy had made a little stocking for Hamish, filled with socks, underpants, shaving soap, disposable razors and initialled handkerchiefs and, finally, a fawn jersey which he was now wearing – ‘All the things I know you need,’ Biddy had added pointedly.
Daisy, who longed to get everyone out of the kitchen so she could stuff the turkey, clutched her head as the telephone rang. Swearing and falling over the puppy, Hamish grabbed the receiver. It was his leading lady in the Robert Burns film, who’d found a tax bill among her Christmas cards.
Hamish turned on the charm. ‘But, darling, you’ll get repeat fees.’
And I ought to get re-heat fees, thought Daisy, as she shoved Biddy’s cooling croissant back in the oven for the third time.
‘That was Melanie,’ said Hamish coming off the telephone, switching on the kettle and dropping another herbal teabag into his cup.
‘Even on Christmas Day they pester you,’ sighed Biddy. ‘And you ought to eat a proper breakfast. You’ve lost so much weight.’
‘Seven pounds,’ said Hamish, smugly patting his concave stomach, then snatching up the telephone as it rang again.
‘Hamish Macleod, oh, hello, hello.’ Turning towards the window, Hamish hunched his broad shoulders over the telephone, jumping as Biddy leapt up to tuck in the Marks and Spencer tag sticking up from his jersey collar.
‘How are you?’ he went on. ‘No, not yet, we open ours at teatime. Lovely, it’s awfully sweet of you. I’ll try. Happy Christmas.’
Trying not to smirk, he put down the receiver. ‘Isn’t that sweet? That was Wendy ringing to wish us all Happy Christmas. She sent special love to you and Violet,’ he added to Eddie, ‘and hoped you enjoyed Peter Pan. She’s my PA,’ he added to Biddy. ‘Absolutely first rate. I hope you get a chance to meet before you go back.’
They were late opening their presents because Daisy was still stuffing the turkey and edging it into the Aga, which was harder than parking the Mini in Cheltenham on Christmas Eve.
‘Make a list,’ said Hamish bossily, as the children fell on their presents, ‘or we’ll never remember who gave who what, and get a bin for all the paper we can use again, and get that dog out of here,’ he added as Ethel pitched in joyously.
Biddy Macleod gave Eddie a camera, Violet a Walkman and Hamish some gold cufflinks to replace the ones Daisy had lost in the laundry. She gave Daisy a set of cake forks and Perdita two padded, satin coathangers.
‘Judging by your room, I thought you needed something to hang your clothes on,’ she told Perdita.
Daisy, shopping at the last moment, had overspent appallingly. Eddie was overwhelmed with the airgun.
Violet was too sweet not to pretend to be enchanted with the Laura Ashley dress, but Hamish wasn’t remotely pleased with his Barbour and green gumboots nor his silk shirts (after all it was his money Daisy was squandering), and when Biddy opened the box with the beautiful, pale grey silk nightie, she merely said, ‘Thank you,’ very quietly and put it to one side. She made no comment about the Jane Fonda Work Out Book, but went into raptures over Eddie and Violet’s massive box of chocolates, ‘I’m going to have one now,’ and then there was all the palaver of identifying a coffee creme from the chart.
‘Oh, come on,’ said Perdita.
Biddy went into orbit when Hamish handed her an envelope which told her that the tapes of all his programmes, including Road Haulage, and a video machine, would be waiting for her in Glasgow when she got home.
‘One more present,’ said Daisy, handing Biddy an unwieldy red parcel cocooned in Sellotape. ‘It says “Biddy love from Ethel”.’
In the end Hamish had to help Biddy rip it open. She gave a gasp as she extracted a pair of dusty, ancient, down-at-heel boots, one with a piece of chewing gum sticking to the toe.
‘What is the meaning of this?’
‘They’re Mummy’s boots,’ said Violet. ‘She’s been looking for them all day.’
‘I must have packed them by mistake,’ said Daisy in a small voice.
Everyone dressed for dinner. Daisy only had time to wriggle into an old purple-and-red caftan and tone down her scarlet cheeks. Perdita, in a black skirt and shirt that Daisy had given her, came into the kitchen as Daisy was draining the sprouts. Her clean white-blond hair hung in a long plait. With that lovely smooth, white forehead, and long, long, dark eyes, and the Greek nose, and the tiny, upper lip curving over the wonderful passionate mouth, she was pure Picasso, thought Daisy.
‘You look gorgeous,’ she said.
‘I wish Daddy and Granny thought so. That was inspired giving boots to an old boot.’
‘Hush,’ hissed Daisy. ‘It was totally unintentional.’
Violet, loyally wearing her new Laura Ashley, which was quite the wrong colour, and embarrassingly emphasized her emergent bust, was doing valiant work with Biddy Macleod in the sitting room. Biddy, who’d been down since half past seven, pointedly refused a second glass of sherry: ‘There’ll be wine at dinner.’
Violet admired Biddy’s shoes – black glacé kid with high heels to show off Biddy’s tiny feet.
‘I thought I disairved a treat.’
At that moment Hamish walked in expecting praise. He was wearing a frilly shirt, a black-velvet coat with silver buttons, a sporran, a heavy, closely pleated kilt, neat buckled shoes, and a silver dirk in his socks.
‘Oh, Hamish, you look glorious,’ said Biddy. ‘“Thou mindst me of departed joys, departed never to return”.’ She applied a handkerchief to her burnt currant eyes. ‘You look the image of your father.’
‘I didn’t mean to upset you, Mother.’
‘No, it makes me happy to see you carrying on the tradition.’
‘You look lovely in your scarlet, too.’
‘I didn’t want to spoil the feast,’ said Biddy.
‘What feast?’ said Hamish, looking at his watch. ‘It’s nearly nine o’clock. Are we ever going to eat?’ he demanded, marching into the kitchen, just as Daisy was carrying a swimming-pool of turkey fat to the sink. Her hair was dank with sweat, her cheeks carmine, only the dead white rings under her eyes showed how tired she was.
‘We’ll be about quarter of an hour.’
‘But everyone’s starving.’
‘Look at Dirk Bogarde,’ said Perdita, who was lounging against the Aga. ‘You should have put Man Tan on your knees.’
Hamish’s lips tightened. ‘You ought to be helping your mother.’
‘So ought you. I thought modern husbands were supposed to share the cooking.’
‘Few husbands work the hours I do. Ouch!’ screeched Hamish, as Ethel goosed him liberally.
‘You’ll never guess what Ethel’s done, Granny,’ said Perdita dreamily as they sat down to dinner. ‘She’s chewed up St Joseph.’
‘But that crib’s been in the family for generations,’ spluttered Biddy. ‘Is this true?’
‘Mary’s a single parent now,’ said Perdita. ‘Very topical, although I suppose God the Father’s floating about overseeing things so she’s not quite alone. I wonder how God impregnated her. AID or just miracles?’
‘Perdita,’ snarled Hamish, handing a large plate of breast to Biddy.
‘I wouldn’t mind God as a father,’ went on Perdita. ‘Just think of the things he could do: magic me up a trailer, flatten the top paddock into a stick-and-ball field; exterminate certain people.’ She smiled sweetly at Granny Macleod.
‘Be quiet,’ thundered Hamish, putting down the carving knife with a clatter. ‘I am going to beat that dog.’
‘Oh, no, Daddy,’ Violet turned pale. ‘She chewed it up yesterday. She’ll have no idea what she’s being beaten for. It is Christmas.’
Not a word of praise passed Biddy Macleod’s lips throughout Christmas dinner, although a great deal of food did. Now they were pulling crackers and Hamish was checking the angle of his blue paper Admiral’s hat in the big mirror over the fireplace. He had hardly eaten a thing.
Perdita pulled a cracker with Eddie and disappeared under the table to get the rolled-up hat and the motto. She emerged a minute later, elderberry dark eyes glittering, looking dangerously elated. Oh help, thought Daisy, I’ve seen that look before. Violet noticed it too and exchanged uneasy glances with Eddie who was on his fourth satsuma. Hamish poured glasses of brandy for himself and Biddy, and a very small one for Daisy.
‘We don’t want a repeat of last night. To absent friends,’ said Hamish raising his glass.
‘Indeed,’ said Biddy, ‘To my dear, dear Lochlan.’
Perdita refilled her glass with red wine.
‘To Ricky France-Lynch,’ she said and drained it.
Biddy’s mouth vanished and never came back.
‘I hope he gets ten years for merdering that poor wee bairn.’
‘He did not murder him,’ said Perdita ominously.
‘Perdita,’ murmured Daisy. Why, she wondered, was she frightened of everything, and Perdita of nothing – not bullfinches out hunting, nor Biddy Macleod.
‘Drunk driving to my mind is murder,’ went on Biddy. ‘No-one has any right to drive when they’re off their head with drink.’
‘He’d been celebrating,’ snapped Perdita. ‘He’d just won one of the biggest tournaments in the world.’
‘All polo players are the same to my mind,’ replied Biddy. ‘Spoilt, jet set, indulging airvery gratification.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Perdita furiously. ‘I bet if Grandpa Macleod had run off with some tart, taking Hamish with him when he was two, and you’d been to some Hogmanay piss-up, you’d have jumped into your Austin Seven and tried to get him back, and not given a stuff about drunk driving.’
Mouthing furiously, Biddy was too outraged to speak.
‘Go to your room,’ thundered Hamish, then turning to Daisy: ‘Will you control your child.’
‘She doesn’t have to,’ said Perdita, picking up her cigarettes. ‘I’m going. I’m not having anyone slagging off Ricky, that’s all. You shouldn’t judge people you don’t know.’
Pushing back her chair, she picked up the new black shoe which Biddy had kicked off because it was murdering her corns from under the table and threw it among the cracker remnants. The toe had been completely chewed off by Ethel. Biddy burst into tears and Ethel was shut howling in the utility room.
Daisy went out to the stable where she found Perdita mutinously cuddling Fresco.
‘Darling, how could you?’
‘How could I not? The bloody bitch, poor Ricky.’
‘She is Daddy’s mother.’
‘She’s your husband’s mother. Do you know what she said to Violet in the sitting room? “Isn’t it a funny thing, none of my grandchildren have fair hair like I did,” and Violet said: “But Perdita does”. And Bloody Macleod said smugly: “I mean my real grandchildren.”’
‘How horrible,’ said Daisy, totally unnerved by talk veering towards Perdita’s origins. ‘She’s never liked me, and secretly I think she’s jealous because you’re so much prettier than all her other grandchildren.’
Perdita waited until much later in the evening when Daisy and the children were watching The Magnificent Seven.
‘Mummy says Granny’s jealous because I’m so much better looking than you or Eddie.’
‘Oh, shut up,’ said Violet, who was red-eyed from Ethel’s banishment. ‘Mummy wouldn’t say a thing like that, would you, Mummy?’
‘Well,’ stammered Daisy. ‘Oh God, you’re a bitch sometimes, Perdita.’
On Boxing Day Hamish, reeking of Paco Rabanne, went off to the office. Another frost ruled out hunting. Instead Perdita, practising her swing on a tea chest on the lawn, hit a ball straight through the stained-glass window halfway up the stairs. Daisy forgot she’d put a chicken in the Aga for lunch, so it emerged as a charred wren and they had cold turkey and salad instead.
Swelling with turkey leftovers and righteous indignation, Biddy darned Hamish’s socks. If her beloved son was in financial straits, it was entirely due to Daisy’s mismanagement and extravagance.
The sky outside was turning yellow, the forecast said snow.
‘Wouldn’t it be lovely,’ said Violet, ‘if we got snowed up and you couldn’t go home, Granny?’
Daisy turned pale. Like an addict needing a fix, she thought she’d go mad if she didn’t paint. While Biddy had her sleep after lunch, she surreptitiously got out the sketch book Violet had given her for Christmas and drew Ethel and Gainsborough on their backs in front of the fire. Nor could she resist a quick sketch of Biddy Macleod, mouth open and snoring, chin doubled, two tweed spare tyres, legs apart showing three inches of doughy, white thigh between lisle stockings and wool knickers.
‘Christ, that’s good,’ said Perdita, creeping up. ‘Best thing you’ve done in years. You shouldn’t have flattered her so much.’
‘Hush,’ Daisy giggled, and, as Biddy was stirring, hid the drawing in the desk and went off to put the kettle on.
Away from the fire, she started shivering. She hoped she wasn’t getting ‘flu. She was just bringing in the tea things when she heard Perdita saying, ‘Do look at this really good drawing Mum’s done of you.’
‘It’s not you,’ squeaked Daisy, nearly dropping the tray. ‘It’s supposed to be an old girl who lives in the village.’
But Biddy Macleod had put on her spectacles.
‘I see,’ she said quietly. ‘Now I know what you really feel about a defenceless old woman, Daisy. But I shall behave with dignity, I’m going to pack my suitcase.’
‘Oh, please,’ gabbled Daisy, utterly distraught. ‘It wasn’t meant to be a likeness. Look at Picasso; look at Francis Bacon.’
‘There’s no need to explain yourself, Daisy.’
‘At least have a cup of tea.’
‘I don’t want anything.’ Slowly Biddy went out of the room.
‘That was stirring it,’ Daisy shouted at Perdita.
‘I don’t care. With any luck, we’ve got shot of her.’
When Biddy came downstairs with her suitcases she insisted on waiting in the hall for Hamish as the wind whistled through the broken stained-glass window. She had a long wait. Hamish, desperately late, sucking extra strong mints, took in the situation at once, led his mother into the study and left the door ajar.
‘I feel so unwelcome,’ sobbed Biddy. ‘It’s not you or Violet or little Eddie, but Daisy and that wicked, wicked girl.’
Hamish persuaded her to stay on.
‘Now you see what I have to put up with, Mother,’ Daisy heard him saying. ‘Please don’t go. I need you.’
Hostilities had to be suspended the following night because they had been asked to a party in Eldercombe by a bearded psychiatrist called Lionel Mannering, and Philippa, his rapacious wife. Daisy dreaded parties. In the past Hamish had got so insanely jealous if she spoke to other men that she’d completely lost the art of chatting anyone up. She also had a raging sore throat, and was so cold and shivery that she put on a crimson and white striped dress (which she’d never worn because it was too low-cut) and put a crimson mohair polo neck over the top as a suck-up gesture because Biddy had once knitted it for her. Unable to wash her hair because Biddy and Hamish had hogged the hot water, she decided to put it up.
‘You look great, Mother,’ said Hamish, helping Biddy out of the icy wind into the front seat of the car.
Sepia clouds raced across a disdainful white moon. Sitting in the back, Daisy, who was beginning to feel really ill, felt sweat cascading down her sides and soaking her fringe.
It was a large, noisy party with all the women in taffetas, satins and beautiful silk shirts. There were also loads of good-looking men for Daisy to avoid. The moment Hamish entered the room, he was off, delighted to be with his peers, as he called them, telling everyone he was in television, dumping Biddy on the hostess’s mother, and chatting up all the Rutshire wives, who were delighted to have some new talent, and even more delighted when Hamish’s busty wife with the red, shiny face in the awful clothes was pointed out to them.
The lean, rapacious hostess whisked everyone round introducing them as if she were doing a grand chain in an eightsome reel. Daisy talked to a sweet girl who was giggling with nervous relief because she’d just got rid of her mother-in-law. ‘I’m going to get seriously drunk.’
‘I can’t. Mine’s over there,’ said Daisy regretfully.
‘There’s Basil Baddingham. Look at the colour of him – he must’ve been skiing or playing polo abroad,’ said the girl. ‘He’ll know the latest on Ricky.’ Then, as all the Rutshire wives converged, shrieking, on Bas: ‘He’s so wicked, he must have had every woman in the room.’
‘Not me,’ said Daisy, almost regretfully.
The girl laughed. ‘It’s only a matter of time.’
Daisy was comforted to see people’s eyes glazing over at Biddy’s monologue.
‘My son’s in television,’ held them for five minutes, until they discovered Hamish wasn’t producing Rumpole and then drifted off. ‘This is my first Christmas as a widow,’ at least held the women for another five.
Daisy was so hot she thought she was going to faint. As Hamish was the other end of the room, she took off her crimson polo neck, which wiped off all her make-up and pulled the pins out of her hair, so it cascaded around her shoulders and splendid cleavage.
Bas, a connoisseur both of horse and female flesh, crossed the room. Hastily, Daisy slung the crimson polo neck round her shoulders, hiding her cleavage with the sleeves.
‘Shame to cover it up,’ said Bas, whose height gave him a good view. ‘You’re living in Brock House, aren’t you? I’ve seen you in the village, and I’ve met Perdita hunting. Christ, she’s pretty. Rupert and the twins and I are all drawing lots to take her out on her sixteenth birthday.’
‘That’s nice,’ said Daisy. ‘You’ll have to wait till next November.’
‘I like things on slow burn,’ said Bas idly. ‘I can see where Perdita gets her looks.’
‘Do you live near here?’ said Daisy hastily. He was so attractive, but it was difficult concentrating when little black spots seemed to be taking away half of his wickedly smiling face.
‘In Cotchester. I’ve got a wine bar. You must come and dine there one evening – er – when your husband’s away.’
It was definitely a come-on.
‘How’s Ricky France-Lynch?’ said Daisy, to change the subject.
Bas shook his head. ‘Fucking brave. I thought he’d top himself cooped up like that, and he’s already had three operations on his elbow.’
Daisy winced. ‘Will he be able to play again?’
Bas shrugged. ‘Won’t get much chance to find out if he’s convicted. The trial starts next month. I say, are you all right?’ He put a suntanned hand on Daisy’s forehead, then ran his fingers lingeringly down her cheek. ‘You’re absolutely baking. You ought to be in bed, preferably with me.’
As Daisy swayed, he pushed her gently down on the sofa. ‘Philippa,’ he yelled to his hostess, ‘have you got a thermometer?’
Turning round a couple of minutes later to check whether Biddy was all right, Hamish saw Daisy sitting on a sofa with a thermometer in her mouth, exposing her entire bosom to a tall, dark and very handsome man who was stroking her pulse. Hamish was across the room in a flash.
‘What’s going on?’ he said furiously.
‘You’re a lousy husband,’ accused Bas. ‘No, don’t try to talk,’ he chided Daisy. ‘You haven’t had it under your tongue for a minute.’
Through feverish, red-veined eyes Daisy looked beseechingly up at Hamish.
‘Why are you making a fuss, Daisy?’ asked Hamish coldly.
‘It’s no fuss,’ said Bas, whipping out the thermometer. ‘See for yourself, it’s nearly 104.’
‘You must take her home at once,’ insisted Philippa. ‘Poor darling, I expect you’re exhausted by Christmas and just moving in,’ then adding, as Biddy bustled up, ‘what a good thing you’ve got Mummy staying. You must keep her tucked up warm, Mummy, and not let her do a thing.’
Daisy didn’t dare look at Biddy.
‘See you when you’re better, darling,’ said Bas.
‘Do come back when you’ve dropped her and Mummy,’ Daisy heard Philippa say to Hamish.
Four days later, on New Year’s Eve, Daisy staggered up – only slightly comforted that she had lost seven pounds. Clutching on to the bedroom window, she could see Perdita stick and balling on the lawn in the fading light. She had used two of Eddie’s cricket stumps as goal posts. Now she was galloping flat out, then stopping, pirouetting Fresco round on her hocks, and shooting off in another direction, both their pony tails flying. On the last gallop, Fresco didn’t manage to stop and flat-footed all over the herbaceous border. Hamish would do his nut.
Jumping off, Perdita stuffed the pony with carrots, hugging her and covering her face with kisses. She’s never loved a human like that, thought Daisy sadly. If only Hamish ever showed a flicker of interest in her.
Clinging on to the banisters, Daisy staggered downstairs to an unrecognizable kitchen. Every surface was stripped and gleaming. Even the azalea Daisy’s mother had sent her from the alcoholic’s home looked quite sprightly. Drying-up cloths boiled briskly on top of the Aga, grey scum trembling on top. Humming ‘If Onlee’, Biddy was ironing a new emerald-green shirt which had somehow found its way into Hamish’s wardrobe. On the memo pad by the telephone, Biddy had jotted down Ajax, Domestos, Blue Loo, Shake and Vac, Freshaire x 3.
‘I can’t thank you enough for taking over,’ said Daisy as she collapsed into a chair.
‘Someone had to,’ said Biddy tersely.
‘Goodness, you iron well.’
Biddy had finished the green shirt and had started on Hamish’s Y-fronts. There was something obscene in the loving way she slid the hot iron with a hiss of steam into the crotch. Daisy could feel the sweat drenching her forehead.
‘I’m afraid I don’t bother to iron pants and socks,’ she mumbled apologetically. ‘Where’s Ethel?’
‘In her kennel outside, where she should be,’ said Biddy. ‘That’ll be Hamish.’ Her face really lit up as she heard wheels on the gravel.
Hamish, looking pale but elated, reeked of extra strong mints again.
‘You are a miracle,’ he said, kissing Biddy on the cheek. ‘Only you could get a polish like that on the front-door handle. We’ve sent your black shoes back to the manu-facturers and asked them to find an identical pair. Feeling better?’ he added turning to Daisy, but not looking at her. ‘You look much better.’
‘How was your day?’ asked Biddy. ‘Were you pleased with the rushes?’
‘Green grow the rushes oh, I love the lassies oh,’ said Daisy dreamily.
‘Better than I thought,’ said Hamish ignoring Daisy. ‘The bad news is that Melanie’s got flu, so we probably won’t be able to start shooting on Monday. The good news is that Wendy’s asked us to supper.’
Oh no, thought Daisy, I’m simply not up to it.
‘But Wendy’s been working all day,’ she protested. ‘She won’t want to be bothered.’
‘Course she will,’ said Hamish briskly. ‘I’ve accepted anyway. Good for you to get out, and Mother certainly needs a break.’
There was a mini-tantrum before they left because Gainsborough had shed ginger fur over the new green shirt which Biddy had ironed specially. Biddy also huffed and puffed because her stack-heeled brown shoes were less dressy with the red dress than the glacé kid.
Daisy knew she should have washed her hair but she felt too exhausted.
If Wendy had been working all day, reflected Daisy, it had been on the dinner party. The flat was gleaming, full of freesias, more tinselled and red-ribboned than Santa’s grotto in a department store, and the food exquisite and consisting of all Hamish’s favourite things.
Hamish, who’d brought lots of bottles, kept leaping up and filling glasses and clearing away as he never did at home. Wendy, whom Daisy vaguely remembered as a raver in black leather and chain belts, was dressed in a grey wool midi-dress with a white collar. Her long, dark hair, so shiny Biddy might have been polishing it all day, was held back by a black velvet ribbon. All evening she ‘targeted’ on Biddy, flattering her preposterously, laughing at her frightful jokes and displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of Hamish’s work.
‘Burns is going to be a seminal work, of course, but I think Haulage is my favourite,’ she was now saying, as Biddy greedily scraped up the remains of a second helping of passion fruit mousse. ‘Hamish is a cut above other producers because he’s so caring – not just for actors and directors, but the crew as well.’
And for you too, thought Daisy, watching Hamish’s enraptured face. Hamish had been given to crushes throughout their marriage, but Daisy had never seen him so besotted. Nor did Wendy make the mistake of ignoring Daisy. She kept suggesting other food when Daisy couldn’t manage to eat anything, bringing her into the conversation as a coarse fisherman occasionally pulls on a spare rod.
‘What a lovely meal,’ said Biddy, folding her napkin.
‘As it’s Hogmanay I should have served you haggis,’ said Wendy, ‘but I couldn’t get one. “Great chieftain of the pudding race”,’ she added skittishly to Hamish.
‘I see you know your Burns,’ said Biddy approvingly.
‘The Hag is astride, this night for a ride,’ muttered Daisy.
‘I really like that young person,’ yelled Biddy, when Wendy, refusing any help, went next door to make coffee.
‘What a poppet,’ yelled Wendy, as Biddy went off to the loo.
Daisy only started getting jumpy when Wendy, having asked Biddy if she’d like some background music, put on ‘If On-lee’.
‘I really love this tune,’ Wendy said, dancing a few steps. Her eyes shining, she couldn’t have been prettier.
If on-lee, sighed Daisy, I was at home in bed, but I suppose we’ll have to see in the New Year. Hamish, however, was most solicitous about getting her home early and sending her straight to bed.
Next morning Biddy left, hardly saying goodbye to Daisy or Perdita, but kissing Violet and Eddie very fondly.
‘I feel so much happier about things now,’ Daisy heard her saying to Hamish.
Daisy felt jumpy, but for the next few days screaming matches over thankyou letters and getting three trunks packed left her little time to think. Neither Violet nor Eddie wanted to go back to school and loathed being parted from Ethel and the airgun respectively, but Perdita was worst of all, clinging round Fresco’s neck, sobbing and sobbing. ‘I can’t leave her, Mum, please let me go to the local comprehensive. I promise I’ll work and pass my O levels.’
Once they were back, it was reversed-charge calls three times a day to see if Fresco and Ethel and the airgun were OK, driving Hamish demented.
The Sunday after term began the sky turned the colour of marzipan and it started to snow. By teatime it was drifting. Appleford was completely cut off and Hamish couldn’t get home for ten days. It was very cold, but Daisy lived on tins, Ethel tourneyed with the drifts, and fat Gainsborough tiptoed along the white fences using his ginger tail as a rudder. Daisy also painted maniacally and joyfully. Brought up in London, she was unused to snow like this.
The thaw brought a telephone call from Hamish, saying snow had held up filming, but he’d be back at the weekend. More sinister, the postman got through again, staggering under a pile of brown envelopes.
Daisy left them for Hamish as usual. Then a letter arrived to both of them, complaining that none of last term’s school fees had been paid and requesting settlement for the spring and winter terms at once. Pickfords were also agitating to be paid for the move. Even more alarming, all the cheques Daisy had written for Fresco and Ethel and Hamish’s silk shirts came winging back. Daisy rang up the bank manager.
‘I’m afraid there’s nothing to honour the cheques, Mrs Macleod, and now you’ve sold the London house, no security.’
‘I’ll talk to my husband this evening,’ whimpered Daisy.
In panic, detesting herself, Daisy went to Hamish’s desk and went through his bank statement – £35,075 in the red. How on earth had the penny-pinching Hamish managed that?
With frantically trembling hands, hating herself even more, Daisy went through Hamish’s American Express forms, and nearly fainted. The restaurant and hotel bills were astronomical, and he must have spent more at Interflora in a year than she’d spent on Perdita’s pony. She supposed leading ladies had to be kept sweet and suppressed the ignoble thought that Hamish had paid for all those freesias banked in Wendy’s flat.
There was also a £500 bill from Janet Reger for December, of which Daisy had never seen the fruits. Her heart cracking her ribs, she looked at the minicab bills. Hamish, terrified of losing his licence, never drove if he’d been drinking. Daisy went cold. The December account was for £450. Nearly every journey was to or from Wendy’s flat.
Hamish was always saying he had a bed in the office. Maybe he regarded Wendy’s flat as his office. She mustn’t over-react. But if she’d known how desperately they were in debt, she’d never have spent so much money at Christmas. She jumped guiltily as the telephone rang.
It was an old friend, Fiona, who’d always bossed Daisy about at school.
‘Can I come and spend the weekend?’
‘Of course.’ Daisy quailed at how irritated Hamish would be. ‘Did you have a good Christmas?’
‘Course not. You don’t if your lover’s married.’
Wendy seemed to manage, thought Daisy.
‘Fiona, have you heard anything about Hamish?’
‘Well, one’s heard he’s keen on some PA. But let’s face it, Hamish has always liked ladies. And no doubt in the end he’ll get as bored sexually with her as he did with you. Sit tight, don’t rock the boat. I’ll see what I can suss out before the weekend.’
Daisy sat down and cried, and Ethel, who’d been disembowelling one of Biddy’s stuffed coathangers, leant against her and licked her face. Daisy wasn’t raging with jealousy. Hamish had ‘stood by her’ as the papers called it for fifteen years. She couldn’t expect him to always lie on top of her as well. Then Hamish rang to tell her he didn’t want any supper, and not to wait up.
Next morning Daisy sat hunched over a cup of coffee, trying not to think about Wendy, listening to Hamish’s bath running out. Gainsborough was chattering at the window, crossly watching robins, tits and sparrows feeding on the bird table. Then a predatory magpie swooped down and they all scattered. ‘One for sorrow,’ said Daisy, crossing herself with a shiver. ‘Good morning Mr Magpie, how are your wife and children – and your mistress?’ she added as an afterthought.
Turning to the front page of the Daily Mail, she saw that Ricky France-Lynch had been sent down for manslaughter.
‘Orgulloso Gets Two Years,’ said the headline.
Bastard, thought Daisy, looking at the sensual yet implacable face of the judge.
‘Sir Anthony Wedgwood QC, defending,’ read Daisy, ‘said that his client had had extreme provocation. A wife he worshipped was taken off him by his patron, and he has been punished a million times by the death of a son he adored, and terrible injuries which have almost certainly put an end to his polo career.’
If that hasn’t, thought Daisy furiously, two years in jug certainly will.
The judge sounded just like Biddy Macleod.
‘The defendant,’ he had told the jury, ‘is a member of the jet set, the jeunesse dorée, who raised a thousand pounds a match playing for his patron. He may just have been left by his wife, but he was used to living in the fast lane, and already had convictions of speeding and drunken driving. I feel,’ went on the judge, ‘there should be some redress for his young wife, who has sustained the terrible loss of a child. Nor do I believe there should be one law for the rich.’
There were pictures of Ricky looking stony-faced and much, much thinner, arriving at court and, on the inside pages, of a bewitchingly glamorous Chessie and the adorable little boy, and also of Ricky’s friends: Basil Baddingham, Rupert Campbell-Black, David Waterlane and the twins, all looking boot-faced after the verdict.
Daisy’s eyes filled with tears. Poor Ricky, he was far, far worse off than she was. Outside the sky was leaden grey and a bitter north wind ruffled the hair of the wood, but at least the hazel catkins hung sulphur-yellow like a Tiffany lamp. Ricky can’t see any of that, thought Daisy, incarcerated in Rutminster prison.
‘Ricky France-Lynch got two years,’ she told Hamish, as she handed him a cup of herbal tea.
Hamish glanced at the paper. ‘He’s already done six months’ remand. If he behaves himself he’ll be up before the parole board in a few months. He’ll probably only do a year in the end.’
‘You are clever to know things like that.’
‘Wife’s bloody good-looking. I don’t blame Bart Alderton,’ said Hamish, helping himself to muesli.
Daisy was so busy reading all the details of the trial, and that Rupert and Bas were going to appeal, and wondering whether to send Ricky a food parcel, that it was a few minutes before she noticed two suitcases in the hall.
Oh God, Hamish must be off to recce some new film, and she’d been so preoccupied with penury and painting, she didn’t know what it was. He was bound to have told her, and he’d be livid because she hadn’t listened. She must be a better wife.
Putting his muesli bowl in the sink, Hamish removed some bottles of whisky and gin, given him by hopeful theatrical agents for Christmas, from the larder and asked Daisy if she’d got a carrier bag.
‘Here’s one from Liberty’s, rather suitable if you’re wanting your freedom,’ Daisy giggled nervously. ‘Going anywhere exciting?’
‘Very,’ said Hamish calmly. ‘I’m leaving you. I’m moving in with Wendy.’
For once the colour really drained from Daisy’s rosy cheeks.
‘For g-g-good?’ she whispered.
‘For my good,’ said Hamish. ‘I’m afraid I’ve come to the end of the road.’
Like Harry Lauder, thought Daisy wildly, Hamish should be wearing his kilt.
‘I can’t cope with your hopeless inefficiency any more,’ he went on. ‘The house is a tip. You never diary anything or pick up my cleaning. The children, particularly Perdita, are quite out of control. Their rooms are like cesspits. I owe it to my career. I can never invite backers or programme controllers, or anyone that matters, to the house. You can’t even cope with Mother for a few days. It isn’t as though you even worked.’
To justify leaving her, Hamish was deliberately pouring petrol on resentment that must have been smouldering for years.
‘I’m sorry,’ mumbled Daisy, ‘I will try and be more efficient, I keep thinking about painting.’
‘One wouldn’t mind,’ said Hamish with chilling dismissiveness, ‘if you were any good. I married you fifteen years ago because I felt sorry for you. I feel I deserve some happiness.’
He’s enjoying this, thought Daisy numbly. She could see Biddy Macleod crouched on top of the fridge like an old Buddha applauding him. Picking up her coffee cup she found the washing-up machine already full and clean, and started unloading it.
‘Until I met Wendy, I didn’t know what happiness was,’ said Hamish sententiously. ‘She makes me feel so alive.’
‘Alive, alive oh-ho,’ mumbled Daisy. ‘Cock-ups and muscles, alive, alive oh.’ I’m going mad, she thought, I can’t take this in.
‘Wendy’s so interested in everything I do.’
Easy to be interested when you’re in love, thought Daisy sadly. Trying to take ten mugs out of the machine, one finger through each handle, her hands were shaking so much, she dropped one on the stone floor.
‘See what I mean, you’re so hopeless,’ said Hamish smugly.
Sweeping up the pieces, Daisy cut herself and wound a drying-up cloth round her hand.
‘And frankly,’ glancing in the kitchen mirror Hamish extracted a piece of muesli from his teeth, ‘I can’t put up with Perdita any more. I have forked out for that little tramp till I’m bankrupt.’
‘Perdita,’ said Daisy, losing her temper, ‘would have been OK if you’d ever been nice to her.’
‘Mother thinks she’s seriously disturbed. There must be some bad blood somewhere.’
‘That was definitely below the belt.’ Daisy started throwing forks into the silver drawer.
‘That is family silver,’ said Hamish.
‘Not my family any more,’ screamed Daisy, and picking up the drawer she emptied it into the Liberty’s carrier bag beside the whisky and the gin. ‘Take the bloody stuff away. So you’re leaving me because I’m lousy at housework, and don’t help your career, and you can’t stand Perdita, and Wendy makes you feel so alive. Why can’t you tell the truth and just say you enjoy screwing Wendy.’
‘I knew you’d resort to cheap abuse.’
‘Nothing cheap about those bills. Minicabs must have found their way blindfold to Wendy’s and you must have kept Interflora in business. It ought to be re-named “Inter-Wendy” – you certainly were.’
‘You’ve been snooping,’ sighed Hamish. ‘I was trying to conduct this with dignity. I had hoped to avoid animosity for Eddie’s and Violet’s sake.’
Daisy’s eyes darted in terror. ‘You’re not going to take them away . . . ?’
‘Only if you really can’t cope,’ said Hamish loftily. ‘We’ll have them at weekends and for a good chunk of the holidays. You can certainly have custody of Perdita and that appalling dog.’
‘She’s not appalling,’ said Daisy, throwing Ethel a Bonio from the red box on top of the fridge. ‘What about the house? We’ve only just moved in, and until we pay Pickfords I don’t think they’ll move us again.’
‘You’ll have to rent somewhere cheaper.’
Watching Ethel slotting the Bonio between her paws and eating it like an ice-cream, Daisy wished Violet could see her. ‘What about the children?’
‘Wendy and I told Eddie and Violet last night. We drove over to see them.’
‘How did they take it?’ whispered Daisy. The blood was beginning to seep through the drying-up cloth.
‘Very calmly, as I expected. Once they realized they’d still see a great deal of me, they stopped worrying.’ He peered into the machine and picked out the potato peeler. ‘Wendy’s doesn’t work, so I’ll take this one.’ He dropped it into the carrier bag. ‘And how many times have I told you not to put bone-handled knives in – oh, what does it matter?’
Fluttering on the bottom window pane, Daisy suddenly saw a peacock butterfly which had survived the winter. Trying not to bruise it with her shaking hands, she let it out of the window.
It was Hamish’s calmness that paralysed her. He might have been explaining to his leading lady that he was dropping her mid-film. Wendy would be so much better in the part.
‘But I don’t know anything about money,’ she said in terror.
‘You better learn. It’s time you grew up.’
‘And we’re dreadfully overdrawn.’
‘Whose fault is that?’ said Hamish, gathering up his suitcases in the hall. ‘You didn’t exactly pull in your horns over Christmas. I can’t afford you, Daisy. You can contact me through my lawyers.’
Daisy started to shake.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you wanted a divorce, before we went through all this hassle of moving?’
‘I doubt if you’d have listened. You were so anxious to get here so Perdita could have her pony and you could paint, you couldn’t think about anything else.’ And he was gone.
The drying-up cloth round her hand was soaked with blood now. Looking out of the window, she gave a scream as Gainsborough pounced on the peacock butterfly and gobbled it up. It was no more good at coping with the outside world than she was.
Fifteen years of marriage to Hamish had made Daisy feel a total failure as a wife, but they had equipped her even less for a divorce. Hamish had never let her pay a bill, renew a car licence or an insurance policy or look at a tax document. The first crushing blow on visiting her solicitors was to discover that the Hollywood co-producers had decided to ground Hamish’s movie project and his entire £200,000 investment had gone up in smoke. A visit to the bank manager confirmed that there was not only no money, but massive debts. Hamish was OK. The co-producer of the movie, feeling guilty about Hamish’s losses, offered him work in LA for at least a year and had also taken on Wendy as a PA. This took Hamish outside the jurisdiction of the courts, so it would cost Daisy a fortune in lawyers’ fees to get a penny out of him.
Cruellest of all, now that Hamish had dumped Daisy, Biddy Macleod was quite prepared to subsidize him. For a start she was going to pay Violet’s and Eddie’s school fees and give them a fat allowance, but she refused to fork out anything for Perdita, which meant Perdita would have to leave her current boarding school – who were kindly allowing her to stay on until the end of term in late March.
As the creditors moved in, Daisy’s jewellery, the silver and pictures and the better pieces of furniture all had to be sold. The owner of Brock House, who lived abroad, said Daisy could stay until April, but he must have his rent. Investigating the possibility of a council house, Daisy was told she was at the bottom of the list.
Locals tended to ignore her, not knowing what to say. A few London friends rang for grisly details and gave her more grisly details of the women, usually themselves, that Hamish had tried to get into bed. Then they shrugged their shoulders. Daisy was always losing things; why not her husband as well?
‘Do ring us if you need us,’ they said.
But Daisy didn’t ring. However miserable she was inside, she projected an image of cheerfulness. Like her namesake already dotting the lawn outside, however much you mowed her down, she would pop up the next day.
Just before half-term Fresco’s owner, Tim Jeddings, came to re-possess her because she hadn’t been paid for either. Daisy couldn’t watch as the pony was loaded into the trailer. Merry-eyed, muddy, a little fat from no exercise, she had brought so much happiness.
Daisy’s plan had been to tell Perdita on the drive home, when no eye contact would make it easier. Then Perdita got a lift home with a schoolfriend, and instead of running into the house, headed straight for the stable, extracting a Granny Smith from her school skirt and joyfully screaming for Fresco.
It was a glorious day. The sun was lighting up the crimson buds on the beech trees; snowdrops spread like the Milky Way across the lawn.
‘Fresco, Fresco,’ Perdita’s cries rang round the valley, bouncing off stone walls and trees. By now, greedy and loving, Fresco should have been belting up the field. A minute later, Perdita had burst into the kitchen, her breath coming in great gasps, shuddering and shaking from head to foot.
‘Fresco must have jumped out of her field. We must get her a friend. Ring the police at once.’
‘Darling, I’m afraid she’s gone.’
‘What d’you mean, gone?’
‘Tim Jeddings took her back. The cheque bounced. We haven’t got enough money to pay for her.’
For a second Perdita stared at her, her face changing from alabaster to putty. ‘I don’t believe you. There must be money from selling this house.’
‘It’s only rented.’
‘You could have taken me away from school, I’d have got the money from somewhere. What about your jewels?’
Daisy held out her ringless hands. ‘They’ve all gone.’
Then Perdita screamed and screamed.
‘She’s gone to a wonderful home up North,’ babbled Daisy. ‘I didn’t want to tell you while you were at school.’
‘But I never said goodbye,’ screamed Perdita. ‘I don’t believe Tim’s sold her yet.’
Rushing into the hall, she found the telephone book. She was shaking so badly, she mis-dialled three times. ‘Mr Jeddings, Mummy’s lying. You haven’t sold Fresco on yet.’
There was a long pause. Perdita slumped against the wall.
‘You rotten bastard,’ she screeched and crashed down the receiver.
Hearing the din, Ethel came rushing in with a muddy nose and a dug-up dahlia root in her mouth, and threw herself delightedly on Perdita.
‘Go away,’ yelled Perdita, shoving Ethel violently away. ‘Why haven’t you sold her as well? Because she’s darling Violet’s dog, I suppose. Why the fuck can’t you go out to work and earn some money like everyone else’s mother, instead of producing crappy, awful paintings no-one wants?’
For half an hour she was so hysterical that Daisy was about to ring the doctor. Then she went silent, and wouldn’t talk to Daisy or the other children when they came home. Nor would she eat. After she’d taken all three children back to school on Tuesday night, Daisy went into Perdita’s room. Every cutting of Ricky France-Lynch, every photograph of Fresco, was ripped into tiny pieces all over the floor.
‘Oh God, what have I done,’ moaned Daisy, bursting into tears. She was interrupted half an hour later by the door bell. Imagining it was some creditor, she was just sidling downstairs intending to bolt the door when it opened and Basil Baddingham walked in. He looked so opulent with his patent leather hair and his even suntan and his wide, wolfish smile showing his perfect teeth, that he seemed to have come from another planet.
‘Please go away,’ said Daisy, clapping her hands over her blubbered, swollen face. ‘It’s not a good time.’
‘Always a good time for a drink,’ said Bas. Brandishing a bottle of Dom Perignon, he set off purposefully towards the kitchen where lunch still lay on the table and Gainsborough was thoughtfully licking up Perdita’s untouched shepherd’s pie.
‘I’m really not up to it,’ mumbled Daisy.
‘Get some glasses,’ said Bas, removing the gold paper from the bottle. ‘I am your knight in shining armour.’
‘I had one of those,’ said Daisy, ‘but he walked out because I didn’t keep it shining enough.’
‘I know. You’ve had a rotten time. But you’re well shot of him. I’d have been round sooner, but I’ve been in Palm Beach. Have you found somewhere to live?’
‘There’s a flat on the Bledisloe Estate.’
‘Won’t do, far too rough,’ said Bas. ‘You and Perdita’d be sitting ducks for all the yobbos.’
At the pop of the champagne cork, Gainsborough shot out of the room, sending the remains of the shepherd’s pie crashing to the floor.
‘Let’s go and sit somewhere slightly more comfortable,’ said Bas, filling up their glasses. There was still a sofa in the drawing room, but it was bitterly cold.
‘Bailiffs do this?’ asked Bas, then, as Daisy nodded: ‘You poor old thing.’
Under his gentle questioning, Daisy told him about the selling of Fresco and Hamish’s departure.
‘I know it seems like the end of the world,’ said Bas, ‘but you’re an extremely pretty lady, and scores of men are going to come running after you once you’ve got your confidence back, including me.’
Daisy giggled, feeling slightly happier.
‘I’ve got a much better idea,’ Bas went on. ‘You can’t move into the Bledisloe Estate. One of Ricky’s tenants finally kicked the bucket during the big freeze. He lived in a lovely little house, Snow Cottage, on the edge of Ricky’s land. Been there for thirty years. Only paid ten pounds a week. Ricky was too soft to put up the rent. Now he wants me to sell the house to some rich weekenders. It’s a bit tumbledown, but there are three bedrooms and an orchard, and the same stream that runs through Rupert’s land, so you’ll have condoms flowing past your door. The only problem is you’ll also have Philippa and Lionel Mannering – I met you at their party – gazing down at you from their awful house. But come the summer they won’t be able to see through the trees. Anyway, she’ll be far too interested in Ricky when he comes out of prison to waste much time on you.’
‘Won’t Ricky mind us living there?’ asked Daisy, hardly daring to hope.
‘He’s not minding anything much at the moment, poor bastard, except Will dying and Chessie buggering off. I’m sure he’ll let you stay for a year while you sort yourself out. I see no reason to alter the rent.’
‘But I thought he was desperately short of cash. Oughtn’t you to sell it for him?’
‘Certainly not,’ said Bas, filling up her glass. ‘It’s insane to sell anything at the moment. Since the Prince of Wales moved into the area, property’s going to quadruple in Rutshire over the next few years. I’ll take you to see it tomorrow.’
‘It’s a heavenly cottage,’ said Daisy brightly as she drove a stony-faced Perdita home at the beginning of the school holidays. ‘I know we’re all going to be terribly happy there.’
‘You said the same thing about Brock House,’ snapped Perdita.
She looked pinched and miserable, her hair had lost all its sheen, her eyes their jetty sparkle.
‘How many bedrooms are there?’
‘Three, so someone will have to share; perhaps you and Violet.’
‘We will not!’
‘Well, there’s a room off the sitting room we can use,’ said Daisy placatingly, wistfully bidding goodbye to a possible studio, ‘and it’s surrounded by fields, so perhaps one day we’ll be able to afford a pony again.’
Perdita shot her mother a black stare of hatred.
‘Shut up about that,’ she hissed.
The holidays were a nightmare. Daisy was so broke that they were living virtually on bread and jam, and Perdita’s hatred corroded everything. Although she had grumbled in the past about her boarding schools, she bitterly resented being sent to a comprehensive and was absolutely mortified that Biddy was forking out for Violet and Eddie.
Daisy felt awful and wished she could raise two fingers to Biddy and send all the children to the local comprehensive, but to make ends meet she was due to start a job as a filing clerk at a nearby Christmas pudding factory at the beginning of May, and she thought Eddie and Violet were too young to come home to an empty house every evening.
Besides, the women’s magazines all advised one to leave children at their schools: ‘At the time of divorce, school is often the only continuity.’
The day before Violet went back, she and Perdita had a terrible row. Perdita had just endured a week at her new school, where her strange set face and uppity manners had done nothing to endear her to her classmates. One boy had called her Turdita, and when she screamed at him, the others had taken up the refrain. Getting home, Perdita took it out on Violet, who’d just had a letter from Hamish announcing that Wendy was pregnant.
‘Disgusting letch,’ screamed Perdita. ‘Wendy’s a whore. And now she’s got a bun in the microwave, Hamish’ll favour the new brat and lose interest in you.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Violet furiously. ‘At least we know who our father was.’
‘What d’you mean?’ snarled Perdita.
‘Nothing,’ said Violet, realizing she’d gone too far.
‘My father was killed in a car crash.’
‘Of course he was,’ mumbled Violet. ‘I must go and finish packing.’
Half an hour after her mother had gone to bed that night, Perdita began searching. It had grown much colder, the wind had risen and creepers rattling long fingers against the windows kept making her jump. Her heart was beating so hard she felt it must wake her mother. The blood was pounding in her ears, her whole body was throbbing, as she crept downstairs into the study.
At least we know who our father is? What had Violet meant? What poison had she been fed by Hamish? Bugger, the overhead bulb had gone and they’d been too poor to replace it. Perdita crept round the room groping like a blind man, tripping over a small stool, at last finding the side light by the desk which was too eaten by woodworm for the bailiffs to take.
Only yesterday she’d come in and found her mother crying over a letter which Daisy had quickly stuffed into one of the drawers. Everything was in a frightful mess, but Perdita could only find bills and business correspondence. Her hands moved around, pressing drawers and shelves, frantic to find the pulse point that opened the secret drawer. At last her fingers rubbed against a little switch on the inside right of the top shelf, and the centre of the desk swung round. In a small drawer at the back was a bundle of papers tied up with a green ribbon. Icy with sweat, Perdita collapsed on to the wooden wing chair to read them.
On top was a photograph of Daisy in her teens. Even allowing for changes in fashion, she was unbelievably pretty, with her dark hair longer than her mini skirt. There were also some photographs of herself as a baby, and then a snapshot of a man surrounded by a group of students. On the back, Daisy had written, ‘Jackie being admired’. Her father had been called Jackie. Was that him? Perdita examined the man’s face again. It was handsome, slightly weak. Her hands were trembling so much she nearly tore the cutting from the Guardian. It was a review of Jackie Cosgrave’s exhibition. The reviewer thought well of his work. ‘Bold, brave and starkly original.’ The review contained another photograph of Jackie. He was handsome. Was that her name, Perdita Cosgrave?
Next she found a marriage certificate between Daisy James and Hamish Macleod on 14 December 1966, at Ayrshire Register Office. That was only fifteen years and four months ago. They’d certainly lied about the length of their marriage. A picture of Daisy and Hamish on their wedding day showed Hamish, with a beard, in an awful kilt, looking surprisingly happy and proud. Daisy looked awful, very peaky and thin in a ghastly pale coat and skirt, her hair tucked into an unbecoming hat. And here was a birth certificate.
‘Perdita James, born 6 November 1966.’ Her heart seemed to be pounding in her throat now. ‘Mother, Daisy James, father unknown.’
Perdita gave a croak of misery. At the bottom of the pile was a yellowing, torn, tear-stained letter dated 13 December 1966, which was from Hamish.
‘Darling Little Daisy,’ so he was capable of tenderness, ‘Tomorrow we will be married. Please don’t worry, my family will come round when they realize how adorable you are, and how happy you’re going to make me. Don’t torture yourself over Perdita’s parentage.’ The letter was shaking so much now she could hardly read. ‘It doesn’t matter, she’s the bonniest wee bairn in the world. I’ll be her father, and love her far more than whoever he is would ever have done. I will take care of you always, Hamish.’
The next minute, the outside drawer, which had been on her knee, crashed to the ground, scattering papers everywhere. There was a muffled bark from Daisy’s bedroom overhead.
Jumping up with the letter in her hand, Perdita thought she was going to black out. ‘Don’t torture yourself over Perdita’s parentage.’ Had her mother lied to Hamish about Jackie Cosgrave, had she been a prostitute or a nympho who’d bedded so many men she didn’t know who the father was? The next moment Perdita jumped out of her shuddering skin as a reluctant Ethel, shoved by a terrified Daisy, burst into the room.
‘We’ve got nothing for you to burgle,’ began Daisy, brandishing Eddie’s airgun – ‘Darling, what are you doing?’
‘What were you doing,’ hissed Perdita, ‘sixteen years ago? You told me Jackie had been killed in a car crash.’
‘He was,’ stammered Daisy, looking far more scared than by any burglar.
‘Don’t lie to me, or were you lying to Hamish to get him to marry you, poor sod? Who was my father?’ her voice rose to a shriek.
Daisy had gone deathly pale. Her teeth were chattering. ‘Shall we have a drink?’
‘No. For once we’re going to talk.’
‘I tried to tell you,’ sobbed Daisy. ‘Hamish thought it better not when you were younger, and then it was too late.’
‘You’d better tell me now.’ Perdita’s black brows were pulled right down over her furious, hating eyes. ‘Were you on the game, or raped by a gang of louts?’
‘No, no,’ Daisy shook her head. She was wearing a peach woollen nightdress she’d got for 20p in a jumble sale. Her hair was dragged back with an elastic band, her eyes popping out huge like a rabbit with myxomatosis. Ethel, gazing at them both soulfully, started to scratch.
‘I was just seventeen when I went to art college,’ mumbled Daisy. ‘Jackie was my art master. I fell madly in love with him. He was so frightfully attractive, all the class, irrespective of sex, had crushes on him, but for some reason he chose me. He was a very good painter.’
‘I saw the cutting.’
‘He was also divorced, heavily into drugs and the king of the swingers. He didn’t love me but he was flattered by my hero-worship. One evening he took me to a party in Chelsea. I’d never seen such people, only about a dozen of them, but so beautiful, sophisticated and jet set. They were all rock stars, actors and polo players. I was desperately shy. I’d hardly touched drink before, and never, never drugs. But I took both to please Jackie to show I was up to it and got absolutely stoned.’ Her voice faltered, so low now Perdita could hardly hear it over the moan of the wind. ‘I’m sorry to shock you, but I was very young.’
‘About a year and a half older than me,’ said Perdita spitefully.
‘The p-p-party degenerated into what people talk about as a typical sixties orgy,’ stammered Daisy. ‘At least it was the only one I ever went to. Everyone was, er, making love to everyone.’
‘Don’t you mean fucking?’ sneered Perdita.
‘Yes,’ whispered Daisy. ‘I know it’s awful, but I was so stoned I don’t remember anything about it.’
‘Inconvenient,’ said Perdita, lighting one cigarette from another. The wind was screaming down the chimney, thorns from the climbing rose outside were scraping the window-pane like fingernails.
‘I woke up next morning with a terrible hangover, lying on the host’s hearth rug, utterly appalled by what I remembered doing. Then horror turned to panic when I discovered I was pregnant. I went to Jackie. He refused to accept any responsibility.’
‘Can’t say I blame him,’ said Perdita tonelessly. ‘Any of the guys at the party could have been my father.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Daisy hung her head.
‘What happened then?’
‘I was devastated. I loved Jackie so much, I hoped he’d come round. I put off telling Granny and Granddaddy James because I was so frightened.’
‘Same old story,’ blazed Perdita. ‘You’re too worried to let down Jackie at the orgy, too wet to tell me about Fresco or my father, too wet to tell your parents – till it’s too fucking late.’
Daisy’s voice broke: ‘Granny and Granddaddy were sweet at first. They just couldn’t cope with me not knowing who your father was. They said I must have you somewhere else. So I went to this unmarried mothers’ home in Scotland.’
Huge tears were pouring down Daisy’s face now. ‘You were so beautiful, I wanted to keep you so badly. Then one bitterly cold day there was this big pond frozen over beside the unmarried mothers’ home. I looked out as I was feeding you. All the children were skating with their parents. One little girl was just sliding along shrieking with joy while her father held her hands. I felt it was so selfish to deprive you of two parents, and I must let you be adopted. There was this wonderful couple who wanted you, they were so longing to have a child. I knew I was going to lose you, that’s why I called you Perdita.’
‘The Lost One,’ said Perdita tonelessly.
‘Hamish’s firm was overseeing the adoption. He sought me out at the unmarried mothers’ home and offered to marry me. He was different in those days. He had ideals, he was so kind and so good-looking, I was sure I could grow to love him. Anyway I’d have married the devil, I was so desperate to keep you.’
‘No wonder Biddy looked so sour at the wedding,’ said Perdita savagely. ‘Did you tell her I was a little orgy bastard? No wonder she loathes me. What chance did I ever have? Hamish took me on because he had the temporary hots for you. Once he got bored, he got fed up with me.’
‘It’s all my fault and I’m sorry,’ sobbed Daisy. ‘I love you more than anything in the world. Please forgive me.’ Getting up, stumbling over a pile of art magazines, she fell towards Perdita, holding out her arms, frantic to comfort and be comforted. But Perdita, who’d always detested physical contact, shoved her away.
‘Don’t touch me, you disgusting slag. All those men in one night. I bet you loved it, and what’s more Violet knows.’
‘She doesn’t,’ said Daisy aghast. ‘I swear it.’
‘Bloody does. Biddy or probably Hamish tipped her off.’
‘Oh my God,’ whispered Daisy. ‘Oh, darling, I’m so sorry.’
‘Why the fuck didn’t you let that wonderful couple adopt me?’ hissed Perdita. ‘They’d have given me a much better life than you or Hamish have.’
For such a solitary and reserved introvert as Ricky France-Lynch prison was slightly less crucifying than it might have been because it made him feel in some infinitesimal way that he was atoning for the terrific wrongs he had done Chessie. Not only had he killed her child, but he was convinced she’d never intended to stay with Bart and could now only be miserable living with such a monster.
Even while recovering from horrific operations on his right elbow in the prison hospital, he wrote her endless letters with his left hand, begging, in a rare dropping of his guard, for her forgiveness and her return. Chessie answered none.
The one glimmer of cheer was that Herbert, his father, felt so sorry for Ricky that he changed his will yet again, leaving everything to Ricky instead of the local hunt, who were absolutely furious, which at least meant the bank came sweet and Ricky could turn his ponies out instead of selling them.
After the relative freedom of being on remand, where he could wear his own clothes, have visitors and go for walks outside, his worst time inside was the month after his conviction when for twenty-two hours a day with lights out at six, he was ‘banged up’ in a tiny cell in Rutminster Prison, with a burglar, a murderer and a GBH case.
He was next moved to Greenwood, an open prison on the Rutshire—Wiltshire border. The drive, with the sun warming the bare trees and snowy fields sparkling against a delphinium-blue sky, was tantalizingly beautiful. Near the prison was a large Elizabethan manor house with ramparts of yew overlooking a great frozen lake, which belonged to some cousins Herbert had fought with. What would they think, wondered Ricky, if he climbed over the wall and dropped in on them for tea?
The prison governor was a raging snob.
‘We’ve got six millionaires, four old Etonians, three Radleans, two solicitors, an archdeacon and a rock star, the lead singer of Apocalypse, in at the moment,’ he told Ricky, ‘so you’re pretty small fry. The rock star gets so much fan mail, he ought to be sewing his own mail bags. Sorry about your arm, bad business. We’ll find you something not too taxing to do, the library or the art department or a bit of gardening. I’m a racing man myself, but evidently the Scrubs has got a table completely set aside for polo players. Never knew there were so many bad hats in the game.’
Queueing up for lunch, Ricky felt sick. He dreaded having to adjust to a new set of people. He’d grown fond of his three previous cellmates, who’d been very tolerant, when, impossibly run down, he had kept them awake with his incessant coughing or his screaming nightmares.
Nor had he ever been intimidated at Rutminster. Just behind him in the queue on his first day, however, was a fat little man with strands of dyed black hair oiled across his bald patch and a puffy complexion like marshmallow. Flanked by four huge minions, he was making a lot of noise. Irritated that Ricky was ignoring him, he poked him in the ribs.
‘Howdy a get that?’ He pointed at Ricky’s elbow. ‘Is that sling ’olding up a limp wrist, or did we ’urt it raising our glass once too often to our mouth? Drunk driving wasn’t it? I ’ear we plays polo wiv Prince Charles.’
Ricky said nothing and, deciding against dishcloth-grey mutton and flooded yellow cabbage, helped himself to mashed potato.
‘Off our nosh, are we?’ went on the fat little man, drawing so close that Ricky could smell breath like too sweet cider. ‘Ay suppose we’re used to creamed potatoes at Buck House. Won’t be playin’ polo for a bit, will we? WILL WE?’ his voice rose threateningly.
For a second Ricky considered ramming the plate of mashed potato in his face. Instead he said, ‘Why don’t you piss off?’
‘Piss orf,’ mimicked his tormentor, turning to his four huge minions who shook with sycophantic laughter. ‘Oh, we are an ’ooray ’enry, aren’t we? Did we pick up that posh accent from Prince Charles? We better learn some manners.’ And mindful of his beefy entourage, he punched Ricky in the kidneys.
Not for nothing did Ricky have the fastest reflexes in polo. He was also instinctively left-handed. Next minute a left hook had sunk into the fat man’s marshmallow jaw and sent him flying across the canteen crashing to the ground. Strolling across the room, Ricky hauled him to his feet and smashed him against the wall.
‘Don’t ever speak to me like that again,’ he said softly, ‘or I’ll really hurt you,’ and dropped him back on the floor.
There was a stunned silence. Not a screw nor a minder moved.
‘More of an ’ooray ’enry Cooper,’ drawled a camp cockney voice.
Everyone cracked up and bellowed with approval as the fat little man struggled to his feet and shuffled out, threatening vengeance.
‘Dancer Maitland’, the owner of the camp cockney voice, held out a long, pale hand to Ricky. ‘Welcome to Greenwood.’
Ricky knew nothing of the music business, but the tousled mane of streaked shoulder-length hair, darkening at the roots and scraped back into a pony tail, and the heavily kohled, hypnotically decadent, frost-grey eyes hidden behind dark glasses told him at once that this must be the rock star of whom the governor had boasted.
Thin to the point of emaciation, in jeans and a black jersey, Dancer had a long mournful clown’s face, a pointed chin and a big pale mouth like a lifebelt. Intensely theatrical, giving off a suggestion of tragi-comic heights, he moved with feet turned out and pelvis thrust forward with the fluid grace of a ballet dancer. Gathering up Ricky’s plate of cooling mashed potato, he bore it off to a far table and, sitting down, patted the seat beside him. Unwilling to be charmed, Ricky sat opposite.
‘’Ooray ’enry, ’ip, ’ip, ’ooray. The ’ole prison will put up a plaque to you for flooring that fat queen.’
‘Who is he?’
‘You didn’t know? Marmaduke Kempton. That’s not his real name. Bent property developer. Terrorized the East End. In ’ere he’s a tobacco baron, known as the Duke, carrying on his reign of terror. Most powerful guy in the nick, or he was till you floored him. Now eat up your spuds,’ went on Dancer reprovingly, ‘although your strength doesn’t seem to need keeping up. The food’s atrocious in ’ere, but I’ve got a pet screw who smuggles fings in for me.’
Gazing at the night-black glasses, Ricky said nothing.
‘We’ve got Judge Bondage-Smith in common,’ drawled Dancer. Ricky looked blank.
‘He sent me down too – month before you. Made the same crack about living in the fast lane, “Who are Apocalypse” indeed?’ Dancer peered over his glasses, imitating the Judge. ‘Fucking ’ell, you’d have thought everyone ’ad ’eard of us.’
‘I hadn’t,’ confessed Ricky, straightening a prong of his fork.
Dancer grinned. His mouth, with its exquisitely capped teeth, seemed to light up his sad clown’s face like a semicircle of moon.
‘You’re better looking than Bondage-Smith, so I’ll forgive you. We’re in the same dormitory by the way. Very Enid Blyton – I didn’t bag you a bed by the window. The draught’d have given you earache.’ Then, seeing the wary expression on Ricky’s face, ‘I know you’re dyin’ to know what I was brought in for, but it ain’t that. Sex offenders and long-term murderers are all tucked away in another dorm, stockbrokers and accountants in the next.’
Encouraged by the slight lift at the corner of Ricky’s mouth, Dancer went on. ‘I was busted smuggling cocaine and heroin into England. Shame really. I’d gone cold turkey six months before; gone through all the screaming heeby-jeebies of coming off. I was just bringing in the stuff for a friend.’
‘What’s it like in here?’ Ricky removed a long, dark hair from his potato and put down his fork.
‘Triffic contacts,’ said Dancer. ‘My shares have rocketed. An’ the screws’ll do anything for a bit of dosh. You won’t have any ’assle with the inmates now you’ve taken out the Duke. The Padre’s a bugger, literally. Loves converting straight blokes, so keep your ass superglued to the wall when he’s around.’
‘You don’t seem to eat much either,’ said Ricky, looking at Dancer’s congealing mutton.
‘I’m so anorexic I have midnight fasts,’ said Dancer.
‘Have you – er – had lots of hits in the top twenty?’
‘Five number ones, the last one for twelve weeks, and fourteen weeks in the States,’ sighed Dancer, shaking his head. ‘Who are Apocalypse? indeed. My solicitor’s comin’ in ’ere for a stretch next week. No wonder I didn’t get off.’
Dancer saved Ricky’s sanity. He made him laugh and later he made him talk about polo, and slowly about Chessie, but never about Will. In return Dancer was incredibly frank about his own sexuality and the problems of a deprived childhood, followed by fame and colossal riches too early.
‘I was an East End kid. Suddenly we had a break. I was going everywhere, staying at the best hotels, meeting the best people, birds throwing themselves at me, smart parties. I got so I had to be high to go on stage, then I was getting so high on coke, I started taking heroin to calm me down, and ended up addicted to that as well.
‘You’ve gotta talk, Rick. Bottle it up and it comes out in uvver directions. The night my auntie died, my uncle went straight up the pub. Two months later, he went off his ’ead, and died of an ’eart attack.’
‘Thanks,’ said Ricky.
Anyone, claimed Evelyn Waugh, who has been to an English public school, feels comparatively at home in prison. For Ricky it was better. He’d been bullied at school. Here he was very popular. The inmates liked him because he didn’t show off or drop names or grumble, and because beneath his aloof, impassive manner, his grief was almost palpable. Once he started giving racing tips that worked, even the Duke forgave him and started asking him what Prince Charles was really like, and if he’d ever clapped eyes on Princess Diana.
There were terrible moments. He was plagued by feelings of utter worthlessness. He slept appallingly, still wracked by insomnia, followed by nightmares. He was consumed with desire for Chessie. He was crucified by the knowledge that Will’s last terrifying memory must have been Chessie and he screaming at each other, and being gathered into a car and hurtled to his death. He was also worried stiff about his arm. He still couldn’t move his fingers or pick up anything heavy.
But there were small victories, captaining the prisoners’ bowls team to a win against the screws, watching the wallflowers and forget-me-nots he’d planted come out in the bed by the visitors’ check-in gate.
All his free time was spent with Dancer. Mostly they talked about polo. Insatiable for knowledge, Dancer would demand again and again to hear how Mattie had died, and how Wayne, Mattie’s half-brother, had let himself out of his box and flooded the yard, and how Kinta, thundering unstoppable down the field at Deauville, enabled Ricky to score the winning goal. Night after night, with four white chess pieces for one team, and four black for the other, Ricky taught Dancer the rudiments of the game.
One late April evening when they could hear the robins singing outside, reminding Ricky unbearably of home, they got out the board and the eight black-and-white pieces.
‘Show me some sneaky moves,’ said Dancer.
‘Well, if black hits the ball upfield,’ began Ricky, ‘and the opposing white back and the black number one are in pursuit of the ball riding each other off,’ Ricky moved the black-and-white bishops forward so they clashed into each other, ‘if black number one judges himself beaten, he should move to the left and draw white off the line. Black number two, watching the play, charges up the line – Dancer, are you listening to me?’
‘I was finking how nice it’d be if you said Apocalypse instead of black.’
‘You thinking of taking up polo?’
‘I’ve got a lot of money I want to get rid of.’
‘If you teach me to make money,’ said Ricky, ‘I’ll teach you to play polo.’
‘Apocalypse is a great name for a polo team,’ said Dancer.
That night Ricky told Dancer about Chessie’s parting jibe: ‘She says she’ll only come back to me if I go to ten, and win the Gold Cup and England win back the Westchester.’
‘Piece a cake,’ said Dancer airily. ‘You said the teams with the longest purses win. I was goin’ to retire, but I’ll write anuvver song. It’ll go to number one, because everyone’s missed me while I’ve been inside. Then I’ll take up polo, and wiv me as your patron, we’ll take everyone out.’
Good as his word, Dancer abandoned his autobiography which he’d been scribbling in a red notebook and wrote a song called ‘Gaol Bird’ about a robin trapped in a cage. The tune was haunting. In the right mood, Dancer would sing it suddenly in bed at night. Few prisoners threw shoes at him, the words spoke for all of them.
In April they were all distracted by the Falklands War. A man in the dormitory had a son in the Paras. Ricky was worried about Drew Benedict who had resigned his commission and was due out of the Army in August, but who was now steaming out with the task force. Drew had the kind of crazy courage and lack of nerves to get himself killed. Ricky dropped a line to Sukey, who was no doubt now diligently schooling Drew’s new Argentine ponies and watching every bulletin.
In early May Ricky got a letter from his solicitor requesting a visit. The night before, he was lounging on his bed, watching the trees thickening with young leaves against a pale pink sunset. Dancer, peering in the mirror, was grumbling about his roots.
‘I wish you’d first seen me on stage wiv my hair all wild, and my make-up on, Rick. How can anyone operate wiv no eyeliner? Can’t even get your eyelashes dyed in this dump. When you were at boarding school did you try anyfink with blokes?’
‘Once or twice.’
‘You enjoy it?’
‘Not much,’ said Ricky, who was now concentrating on Polo magazine. ‘Better than nothing I suppose, staved off the loneliness.’
‘Might be better than nuffink here.’ Dancer put a hand on Ricky’s shoulder. ‘Want to try it sometime?’
There was a long pause. The prison building was turning a pale rose madder in the sun which was sinking like a blazing ruby into the far blue horizon. Chessie was wearing rubies the night Will died.
‘Not really,’ said Ricky. ‘I’m still married.’
‘Don’t mind my asking?’ Dancer’s drawl had a slight tremor.
‘Not at all. I just want Chessie back. But you’ve been fucking good to me, Dancer. I wouldn’t have survived the last months without you.’
The sunset was no longer responsible for the red glow which suffused Dancer’s long, sad face.
‘Now that is Enid Blyton,’ he said sardonically. ‘Ian’s coming to see me tomorrow. That’s why I’m uptight.’ Then, when Ricky raised his eyebrows, ‘Ian’s the bloke I smuggled the coke in for.’
There was no sun the next day. Thick mustard-yellow fog hung round the prison. The visitors’ room, with its potted plants and its bright mural of a farmyard and ‘No Smoking beyond this point’ sign, was a bit like an airport lounge. Children played underfoot. Wives and girlfriends with dyed hair, short skirts, no stockings and very high heels held hands with inmates, but said little. The screws delivered coffee and tea at 20p a cup. Martin, Ricky’s solicitor, in his dark grey suit, clinging to his ox-blood briefcase for extremely dear life, looked out of place.
‘No sugar for me,’ he said, dropping saccharin in his cup. ‘I envy you your waistline,’ he added heartily, privately thinking how thin and drawn Ricky looked, hoping he hadn’t caught something nasty in prison.
Across the room Ricky was aware of Dancer, coiled into a relaxed theatrical pose, hand exaggeratedly cupping his pointed chin to hide the tension as he chatted to a thickset, blond young man with a sulky face. This must be Ian. He was quite unlike the birds of paradise with their rainbow hair and tight leather trousers who usually visited Dancer.
‘The news is not exactly good,’ Martin was saying as he opened his briefcase. ‘I’m afraid Chessie’s filed for divorce. In fact I’ve got the papers and a letter for you here.’
Ricky went very still, but felt his heart was leading some crazed life of its own, trying to fight its way out of his ribs. The letter was written from Bart’s New York flat. The Palm Beach season would be over. Chessie’s small, almost illegible, writing only covered a quarter of the page.
‘Dear Ricky, Please sign these papers and give me a divorce. I think you owe it to me. I need to forget and everything about you reminds me of Will. I’m sorry. Yours, Chessie.’
Yours, Chessie, thought Ricky dully, what a ridiculous way to end a letter when she’s not mine any more. Borrowing Martin’s gold Cartier pen, he signed the papers.
‘I’m afraid the other bad news, which Frances told me to tell you, is that Millicent’s dead. She was run over.’
It seemed a kinder way than to tell Ricky the little whippet had simply stopped eating.
Christ, thought Ricky, another death. Dancer was always saying they went in threes: Matilda, then Will, now Millicent.
‘It was very quick – no one’s fault.’
Ricky put his head in his hands. He’d missed Millicent more than the ponies – the way she’d curled her silken body almost inside him, snaking her head into his hand, shivering with nerves and adoration. She was the thing he’d most looked forward to coming out to.
After that the fog seemed to invade his brain so he took in nothing, particularly that Bas in some ludicrous Robin Hood gesture had let Snow Cottage to someone called Daisy Macleod.
‘Ridiculous when your plan was to redecorate and sell it as soon as the existing tenant died,’ said Martin, thinking of his huge unpaid bill.
‘What’s up?’ said Dancer afterwards.
‘Nothing. How did it go?’
‘I wouldn’t give him any more dosh, so he got nasty, and said he’d got someone else. A plague on both your arses, I said. Fanks to you, Ricky, I don’t feel nuffink for him any more. What did your bloke say? You look as though your ’ouse burnt down.’
Ricky shrugged. ‘He brought divorce papers. I signed them.’
He couldn’t tell even Dancer about Millicent. He was terrified of breaking down.
‘Divorce is nuffink,’ said Dancer furiously. ‘Just a piece of paper. How can you fight when you’re stuck in here. But I promise you, Ricky, when we get out of ’ere we’ll buy the best ponies in the world and outmount everyone.’
In late August the Hon Basil Baddingham dropped in on his old friend, Rupert Campbell-Black, curious to see how Rupert was coping with one of his first surgeries as the new MP for Chalford and Bisley. Even before entering the constituency office, Bas was assaulted by wafts of scent. Being an expert on such matters, he identified Femme, Fracas, Joy and Diorella, before they all merged into one, totally eclipsing the tobacco-sweet smell of the large buddleia outside the door, although the dozens of peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies cruising over the long amethyst flowers, reflected Bas, were not unlike the gaudy constituents who thronged the waiting room, patting their hair and powdering their noses.
Bas had expected the people haunting MPs’ surgeries to be largely pensioners seeking smaller electricity bills and quicker hip replacements. This lot looked as though they needed a husband replacement, and as Rupert had just divorced his wife Helen, they must have high hopes. Some were very pretty. Perhaps I ought to go into politics, thought Bas.
‘I’m afraid if you haven’t an appointment there’s no way Mr Campbell-Black can see you,’ said the thoroughly flustered agent. ‘It’s like the first day of the sales here.’
‘I only dropped in socially,’ said Bas. ‘Just tell him I’m here.’
Finding himself a corner on the dark green leather seat, Bas picked up a July Horse and Hound which had a large photograph of himself, Kevin Coley of Doggie Dins and the disgusting Napier brothers jubilantly hoisting the Gold Cup above their heads.
‘Basil Baddingham, playing well above his handicap,’ said the copy, ‘found the flags twice in the crucial fifth chukka.’
Bas smirked and, glancing up, saw several of the occupants of the waiting room eyeing him with great interest. He smiled back at the prettiest one, who dropped her eyes, then looked again when she thought he wasn’t looking. Just back from Deauville, Bas was very brown.
Women got awfully restless in August, he thought. It was an awareness of summer running out and lovers being away with their wives and seemingly unending school holidays. The pretty one, who was wearing a pink cotton jersey cardigan and jeans, had just been summoned to see Rupert. She had a glorious bottom.
Bas was an ‘Hon’ because his official father had been ennobled for his work as a munitions manufacturer during the war. After twenty-three years of utter fidelity to Lord Pop Pop, as he was known, Bas’s mother had had a mad fling with an Argentine polo player. The result was Bas, who had inherited both his father’s amorous and equestrian skills. A very early marriage had ended in divorce and no children. Having no intention of getting caught again, at thirty-four Bas dabbled in property, ran a very successful wine bar, hunted all winter, played polo and was known, after Rupert Campbell-Black, as the worst rake in the West of England.
Having spent many happy autumns buying ponies and playing polo in the Argentine, Bas’s loyalties had been torn apart by the Falklands War. He had loathed seeing his second fatherland so humiliated. But Bas was a commercial animal and he was even more irritated that he was banned from buying Argentine ponies any more.
He had also recently bought a large tract of land round Rutshire Polo Club, on which he intended to build upmarket polo yards with glamorous houses attached, and flog them at a vast profit to poloholics like Victor Kaputnik and Bart Alderton. Unfortunately Rutshire Polo Club was not the draw it should have been. The bar was useless. The Argentine players, who had added such glamour, had been forced to turn back in mid-flight, and with Drew Benedict away in the Falklands and Ricky in prison, the attendance had dwindled drastically.
The scented ladies were getting restless. The girl in the pink cardigan had been in with Rupert for ages. When she came out, Bas’s expert eye noticed the flushed face and the buttons done up on the wrong holes.
‘Mr Baddingham,’ said the agent.
‘I was next,’ thundered a big woman in dungarees.
‘I’m afraid Mr Campbell-Black can’t see anyone else today,’ said the agent, desperately trying to stem the storm of protest. ‘He had to return to London for a crucial meeting with the PM.’
Grinning, Bas slid into Rupert’s office.
‘Bloody good winning the Gold Cup,’ said Rupert.
‘Bloody marvellous winning the World Championships,’ said Bas. ‘The ideal moment to retire.’
‘Not sure I should have done,’ said Rupert, looking ruefully at the pile of papers. ‘Show-jumping’s much easier than this. Facts at your fingertips indeed. My fingertips are more used to pleasuring other things.’
Rupert’s suntan from the World Championships didn’t altogether hide the dark circles under his eyes. Too much sex, recent divorce or withdrawal symptoms at announcing his retirement, wondered Bas.
‘I’ve only got ten minutes,’ said Rupert. ‘I’m going back to London.’
‘On a Friday night? She must be special. Who is she?’
‘Beattie Johnson.’ Rupert was unable to resist boasting.
Bas whistled. ‘Is that wise?’
‘Sensational in bed,’ said Rupert.
‘And utterly unscrupulous in print,’ said Bas disapprovingly.
‘It’s all right. She’s abandoned The Scorpion for six months to ghost my memoirs.’
‘A house ghost!’ said Bas. ‘Look, Ricky’s coming out of prison next month.’
Rupert raised his eyes to heaven: ‘Christ! Having jacked in show-jumping, I know exactly how he must feel not being able to play polo. We ought to join Hooked on Horses Anonymous.’
‘Wasn’t so bad in prison,’ said Bas. ‘He had a routine and people all round him. He liked the people.’
‘Well, he was brought up on a large estate,’ said Rupert. ‘He should know how to get on with the working classes.’
‘How’s he going to cope when he gets out?’ asked Bas. ‘That bloody great house, no Chessie, no Will. Look, I want to show you an amazing girl.’
‘I’ve got one.’ Rupert looked at his watch. ‘In London.’
‘It’s on your way,’ said Bas.
Down at Rutshire Polo Club, the huge trees in their midi-dresses were turning yellow. A scattering of mothers lined Ground Two.
‘This is the Pony Club,’ said Rupert, outraged. ‘I’m off.’
‘One chukka,’ said Bas soothingly. ‘Watch number three in the black shirt on the dark brown mare with the white blaze.’
Only the narrowness of the waist, the curl of the thigh and the slight fullness in the T-shirt indicated that the player was a girl.
Next moment Perdita had tapped the ball out of a jumble of sticks and stamping ponies’ legs, ridden off the opposing number three, dummied past the white number four and scored. Two minutes later she scored again with an incredible back shot from twenty yards.
‘Not only does she get to the ball in time to examine it for bugs,’ said Bas, ‘but she plays with five times more aggression than any of the boys.’
‘Not bad,’ said Rupert grudgingly. ‘In fact she’s almost as good as I was when I started. But the competition’s pathetic. She wouldn’t stand up even in low goal.’
‘Would if she were properly taught. She’s fantastic-looking close up. Just think what a draw she’d be here in a few years’ time. A really stunning good girl player.’
‘Just because you want to push up the price of the land round the club.’
‘You can buy in too,’ said Bas.
Thundering down the field, Perdita caught one of the opposition on the hop.
‘Get off my fucking line, you creaming little poofter,’ she screamed and, whipping the ball past him, flicked it between the posts.
‘Fine command of the English language,’ said Rupert, ‘and that’s an exceptionally nice mare.’
‘It’s Ricky’s,’ said Bas. ‘Since he’s been in prison his ponies have been turned out and Perdita’s been borrowing them all summer without asking. That happens to be Kinta; Best Playing Pony at Deauville last year.’
Rupert took another look at Perdita as she lined up for the throwin.
‘Didn’t she come out with the East Cotchester last year?’
‘That’s the one. Father walked out, lost all their money. Girl like that ought to be sponsored. She’s bankable – and bonkable. Has the Ministry for Sport got any spare cash?’
‘None,’ said Rupert, getting into his car. ‘Polo’s too elitist. Everything’s going to the Olympic Fund.’
‘Well, at least let’s give her to Ricky. He can’t play for ages because of his elbow. He can’t drive or go abroad for a year. If he’s not going to drink himself insensible, we’ve got to find him an interest.’
To avoid the press, Ricky was let out of prison by a side door two hours early. His tweed jacket hung off him, the faded brown cords were held up by an old school tie, the cuffs of his check shirt slipped over his knuckles like mittens. Once through the door, he took a great shuddering breath. A thrush was singing in the sycamores. The sun had just risen in a tidal wave of rose and turquoise, but dense inky blue storm clouds gathered menacingly in the West.
Ricky was expecting Joel, his farm manager, with the Land-Rover. Instead, spotlit against this thunderous backdrop, lounging around a vast open Bentley, like characters out of Scott Fitzgerald, were Rupert, Bas, Drew and a tousled but undeniably desirable blonde who was wearing Rupert’s dinner jacket over her rose-printed silk dress.
Bas, being half-Latin and the most demonstrative, came straight up, put his long muscular arms round Ricky and kissed him on both cheeks.
‘Welcome back, dear boy,’ he murmured in his husky, caressing, almost exaggeratedly English accent.
Drew, very brown from the troopship, but more reserved, relieved Ricky of his suitcase. Rupert, his blue eyes bloodshot and slightly off centre, lipstick all over his evening shirt, put an arm round Ricky’s shoulder, leading him to the car: ‘You made it, you poor sod. Christ, I’m glad you’re out.’ Then, drawing forward the tousled blonde, ‘This is Beattie Johnson.’
Ricky stiffened, his eyes wary and hostile. Beattie Johnson had written some vicious lies about him and Chessie during the trial.
‘It’s OK,’ said Rupert quickly. ‘She’s off duty.’
Although Rupert had kissed off all her make-up and reddened her face with his stubble, she was even sexier close up. Curling her arms round Ricky’s neck, she kissed him on the edge of his mouth.
‘You poor old thing, the nightmare’s over. I have to tell you, you’re much more glamorous in the flesh.’
Beattie’s flesh, in its clinging softness, reminded Ricky agonizingly of Chessie. Beneath the sharp tang of her scent, he caught the unmistakable fishlike reek of sex and nearly blacked out.
‘Leave him alone, Beattie,’ snapped Bas. ‘You sit in the front, Ricky. Isn’t this a truly terrific motor car?’
‘We decided it wasn’t worth going to bed,’ said Rupert, as he headed towards the motorway. ‘We thought we’d all have breakfast at Sheepfield Chase. Bas got them to lay on a private room, so you won’t get gorped at.’
‘And the uncondemned man is going to eat a hearty breakfast,’ said Beattie, putting her hands on Ricky’s shoulders. Ricky tried not to freeze away. Having taken a large swig out of a bottle of Krug, Bas handed it forward to him. Ricky shook his head.
‘Go on,’ chided Beattie. ‘You’re about three bottles behind the rest of us.’
‘No thanks,’ said Ricky. Looking down he saw Beattie’s rather dirty toe-nailed foot edging down the gear lever to rub against Rupert’s black thigh. Putting down a hand, Rupert caressed her instep.
‘Bugger off now,’ he said to her, ‘or I’ll be done for drunk driving. And for Christ’s sake, get that black tie off, Bas.’
Ricky wished he could go straight home. He needed to touch base, but it had been so kind of them to turn up, he must make an effort. He turned to Drew. ‘Glad you got back safely.’
‘Bloody nuisance missing a whole season,’ said Drew.
‘It must have been wonderful all those cheering crowds welcoming you back,’ gushed Beattie.
‘We’d no idea of the strength of feeling back home,’ said Drew. ‘It was a complete surprise. We were overwhelmed.’
‘How did you feel when the truce was finally signed in Port Stanley?’ went on Beattie. ‘Did you have a fantastic piss-up?’
‘No,’ said Drew. ‘We were simply glad to be alive.’
He’s changed, thought Ricky. The golden boy’s grown up and been jolted out of his habitual sang-froid.
‘Drew’s being recommended for an MC,’ said Bas.
‘Sukey must be thrilled,’ said Ricky.
They’ve all done so well, he thought wistfully – World Champions, Gold Cups, MCs.
The conversation inevitably got on to polo and what a bore it was not being able to buy ponies from Argentina any more.
‘I’m getting some from Australia,’ said Bas, ‘and the Prince of Wales.’ Then, realizing Beattie was listening, he started gabbling away in Spanish to Drew.
‘Speak English,’ said Beattie furiously, hearing the words, ‘Charles and Diana’. ‘It’s bloody rude.’
When she could get no change out of either Drew or Bas, she turned back to Ricky.
‘Did they give you a hard time inside because you were a gent?’
‘How was Dancer Maitland?’
‘Did he make a pass at you?’
‘Oh, shut up, Beattie,’ said Bas.
‘Well, he is a screaming pouf. I’d have made a pass at Ricky if I’d been in prison.’
‘Dancer’s f-f-fine,’ said Ricky, wanting to strangle Beattie. ‘He’s a lovely man. Everyone adored him.’
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Beattie writing ‘lovely man’ on her wrist with eye pencil. The inky black cloud had spread over the whole sky. They only just managed to reach the hotel and get the roof up when the heavens opened.
‘I guess MP stands for Moderately Pissed,’ said Rupert, as ravishing waitresses, hand-picked by Bas, brought more bottles of Krug into the private room. Ricky put his hand over his glass.
‘Go on,’ said Bas. ‘You must celebrate today.’
‘Honestly, I’ve given it up.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Rupert. ‘You used to drink for Rutshire.’
‘I don’t want a drink,’ said Ricky through gritted teeth. Then, lowering his voice, ‘I’m sorry, I just feel I owe it to Will.’
‘Ah,’ said Rupert, also dropping his voice, ‘I understand. Sorry. But don’t punish yourself too hard. Christ, look at the tits on that waitress.’
Attack came next from Ricky’s left.
‘You mustn’t be sad,’ said Beattie, pouring him a cup of coffee. ‘Spare men are at such a premium these days, you’ll be snapped up in a trice. I’ve got some stunning girlfriends. You must make up a four with Rupert and me.’
Her hot, brown eyes ran over him, telling him what fun they could have together. She’s not sure of Rupert and is trying to make him jealous, thought Ricky. God knows, he’d be impossible to hold.
‘Is it true,’ asked Beattie, ‘that Chessie said she’d only come back to you if you went to ten and won the Westchester?’
‘For fuck’s sake, shut up,’ snarled Rupert; then, turning back to Bas, ‘No, it was definitely half-brother to Nijinsky.’
Breakfast arrived – eggs, bacon, sausages, kidneys, cold ham and a mountain of kedgeree.
‘I’ll help you,’ said Beattie, piling up Ricky’s plate. ‘You definitely need feeding up.’
Then they all watched in horror as Ricky tried to cut up a piece of ham. His right arm simply wasn’t up to it.
‘I’ll do it for you,’ said Drew, taking Ricky’s knife and fork.
The prettiest waitress was already sitting on Bas’s knee, feeding him fried bread spread with marmalade.
‘They’re all booked for the morning,’ murmured Rupert, who had his hand halfway up Beattie’s skirt. ‘I’d go for that redhead over there.’
‘I’ve found an amazing girl for you to teach polo to,’ Bas called across the table.
‘Smile, please,’ said Beattie, who had suddenly produced a camera.
Ricky got to his feet, fried egg churning in his stomach. He only just reached the lavatory in time, then it was mostly bile he threw up. Drew was waiting as he came out, the blue eyes matter-of-fact, but not insensitive.
‘I’m sorry, we thought you needed cheering up. We went about it the wrong way. I’ll run you home.’
On the motorway the windscreen wipers fought a losing battle with the downpour and Drew talked idly about the Falklands.
‘Once we reached the actual island, I had the somewhat unenviable task – because I speak Spanish – of debriefing the Argie POWs. One of their pilots, shot down in the sea, was actually a polo player. Arrogant sod, although I must say British methods of obtaining information are somewhat reprehensible.’
‘So are Beattie Johnson’s,’ said Ricky. ‘Christ, she’s awful.’
‘Awful,’ agreed Drew. ‘Ever since Rupert packed in show-jumping he’s been drinking and screwing his brains out. I had a look at your ponies, by the way. They look very well. A season off’s probably done them good.’
‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to . . .’ Ricky’s voice trailed off.
‘Course you will. You’ve got to get to ten.’
Frances, the head groom, and Joel, Ricky’s farm manager, were furious to be caught on the hop. Not expecting Ricky for hours, and by then absolutely plastered, they hadn’t swept the yard. There was hay and straw everywhere, floating in huge puddles. Louisa was just furious that she’d failed to keep up the crash diet she’d started every morning for the last month in anticipation of Ricky’s return. But Ricky didn’t seem to notice anything. Having patted the Labradors, he said he wanted to be on his own for a bit and he’d see them later.
Inside the house, the emptiness hit him like a boxing glove. No silken whippet coiled herself round him, jumping for joy. His one craving was to look at Will’s photographs again. The one in his wallet had cracked and almost disintegrated. But on the piano in the drawing room he found only empty silver frames. Shaking, he opened the photograph album and found every picture of Will had been removed, and where there had been photographs of Ricky and Chessie together, Chessie had cut out herself.
As he looked round the room, he noticed pieces of furniture missing, pictures taken from the walls, huge gaps in the bookshelves. Churning inside, feeling bile rising in his mouth again, he raced upstairs. Someone had tactfully removed the child gate from across the top stair, but the rocking-horse with most of its paint chipped away by Will’s polo stick still stood on the landing.
Will’s bedroom had obviously been tidied up. Opening a drawer, he found the policeman’s helmet Will had been wearing when he squirted Grace with Bloody Mary. There were all the Dinky cars Will so adored. Snoopy lay spreadeagled on the bed, with his vast inflated belly.
‘Oh God,’ groaned Ricky, finding Will’s piggy bank empty on the window sill. Chessie’d even broken into that.
Stumbling into his dressing room, he found the photographs of his ponies still up, but the pictures of Chessie and Will once again removed. Next door, in the bedroom, he nearly fell over Millicent’s basket lined with his old dressing gown, but found all Chessie’s clothes and her jewellery gone. And there, mocking him, was the huge four-poster with its blue chintz curtains covered in pink peonies and roses – he remembered how she’d accused him in that terrible last row of being such a failure in bed. Hopelessly overexcited by her, he supposed he had often come too quickly. The glow-stars Chessie had stuck on the ceiling had long since lost their luminosity. Howling like a dog, Ricky threw himself down, burying his face in the pillow for some faint trace of the Diorissimo she always wore, but there was nothing.
Later in the day Ricky pulled himself together and had a bath. Outside the rain had stopped and everything dripped and sparkled in the hopelessly overgrown garden. Tortoiseshell butterflies rose indignantly as he picked Michaelmas daisies, honeysuckle and roses to put on Will’s grave in the little churchyard at Eldercombe, where generations of France-Lynches had been buried.
William Richard France-Lynch, 1978-81, said the newest headstone. The vicar, toddling past to choir practice, was about to stop and speak to Ricky, but, seeing his face, moved quickly away.
Towards sunset, missing Dancer’s prattle and overcome by restlessness, Ricky told Frances to saddle up Donaghue, his old hunter. Now was as good a time as any to see if he’d lost his nerve. Once mounted, the ground seemed miles away, the saddle impossibly slippery, so he tried to concentrate on his surroundings. Joel had got very slack; the fences were in a terrible state.
Bypassing the orchard and a field of stubble, he set out to look at his ponies which were turned out in the watermeadows at the bottom of the valley. After the rain, the ground steamed like a Grand National winner. The sinking yellow sun was turning the steam amber gold. Flocks of gulls were returning to the Bristol Channel after a day’s looting in the newly ploughed fields.
With only one arm working, Ricky had difficulty opening the gate leading to the valley. But Donaghue stood like a statue. Checking the sheep grid alongside the gate, Ricky was pleased to see that at least the wooden ramp which enabled field mice or hedgehogs to clamber out was still in position. The view down the valley, as always, took his breath away. On each steep side dense ashwoods plunged to fringes of reddening bracken, then into a green ride which was divided by a stream which hurtled down through caverns of wild rose, hawthorn and the elders the valley was named after, then raced on to meet the Frogsmore Stream where it flowed under Snow Cottage.
At least this is all still mine, thought Ricky, kicking Donaghue into a canter. Thank God there wasn’t anyone around to see him clinging to the horse’s mane. Relief on reaching the more level watermeadows turned to joy and a great lump rose in his throat as he saw Kinta, who’d kept carting him last summer, and Wayne, Mattie’s hideous custard-yellow admirer and the yard escapologist, standing together idly chewing and scratching each other’s necks. Their tails and their punk, growing-out manes were full of burrs. Then Ricky froze, for, on a stretch of grass eaten flat by sheep, some strange female was riding Pilgrim, his finest mare from Argentina. She was cantering bareback with just a headcollar, and with a polo stick, was tapping a ball in and out of a row of stones, presumably pinched from one of his walls. For a second, he was transfixed with pleasure by how well she rode, then as he drew nearer, and the ponies stopped grazing and looked up, he realized she was only a schoolgirl, with her skirt tucked into dark blue wool knickers, and her platinum-blond pony tail tied back with her school tie. For a further few seconds, he watched her execute a perfect figure of eight, changing legs in and out of a couple of stones. Then he flipped. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’
The roar was loud enough to send the ponies scuttling away, almost to start an avalanche of ash trees. Turning, the girl gave a gasp of horror, then swinging Pilgrim round, set off at a gallop up the valley. Ricky gave chase, all thought of his damaged arm forgotten. Donaghue was bigger and had a longer stride than Pilgrim, but the girl was lighter, and God, she made the pony shift. Oblivious of stones and rabbit holes, jumping over fallen logs, she reached the top of the hill and thundered towards the sheep grid.
‘Come back,’ howled Ricky. ‘Don’t be a bloody idiot.’
Perdita ignored him. Digging her heels into Pilgrim’s heaving sides, she put her straight at the sheep grid. For a second, the pony hesitated, then the iron bars flew beneath her and she had landed safely on the other side. By the time Ricky had gone through the side gate, he found Pilgrim running around the barley stubble, and the girl vanished into the beech woods like a gypsy’s lurcher.
Pilgrim was gratifyingly delighted to see her master, digging him in the ribs and searching his pockets for Polos, whickering with joy, until Donaghue was squealing and snapping with jealousy.
By some miracle Pilgrim seemed all right, but, as Ricky ran his hands down her delicate dark brown legs, he shuddered at the thought of them snapped by those murderous iron bars. Grimly he rode back to the stables to tell Joel what had happened.
‘Sounds like Perdita Macleod,’ said Joel.
‘Who the hell’s she?’
‘Daisy Macleod’s daughter. They’ve rented Snow Cottage.’
‘They what? I know nothing about it.’
‘You do,’ said Joel. ‘You signed the lease the day Martin came to see you. I guess you had a lot on your mind.’
‘Well, they’re not living there much longer,’ snapped Ricky.
‘I’d no idea she was riding the ponies,’ said Joel. ‘I haven’t been down that end of the valley for a few days.’
‘Well, you should have been; half the fences and walls are down.’
‘She’s a stuck-up bitch, that Perdita.’ Joel hastily changed the subject, ‘They can’t stand her at the village shop.’ Then, because he wanted an excuse to go and see Daisy, added, ‘I’ll pop down and have a word with her mother.’
‘I’m going to talk to her mother,’ said Ricky grimly.
‘I’ll drive you,’ said Joel.
‘No. I’ll walk down through the woods.’
Daisy Macleod had had a gruelling day. She absolutely loathed her new job. Her boss, Mr Bradley, the Christmas pudding manufacturer, was a revolting thick-voiced, potbellied letch, who was constantly chiding her because her typing and filing, particularly in her current state of post-divorce shock, were not up to scratch. Almost worse, he insisted she wore high heels and dresses to the office, adding that as a ‘Caring Chauvinist’, he was only making her dress as femininely as possible for her own good, so that she might one day attract a new husband. He made Daisy’s flesh creep, but she put up with it because she desperately needed the money, and the factory, on the far side of Eldercombe Village, was in walking distance, so she could rush home and take Ethel out during her lunch hour.
Now Eddie and Violet had gone back for the autumn term, Daisy had hoped Perdita would be less disruptive. She had got straight ‘U’s in her O levels, but any remonstrance from Daisy triggered off a storm of abuse. Then on the first Friday of term she was suspended for a week for punching a girl in the playground.
‘At least I wasn’t being laid by the art master,’ she screamed at Daisy when she got home. ‘I don’t take after you that much.’
Daisy knew that when Perdita was frightened she became more abusive – but it didn’t make things easier. Now, a fortnight later, Perdita should have been back at school, but, to the intense irritation of the Caring Chauvinist, the switchboard at the Christmas pudding factory had been besieged by calls all day – from mothers complaining that Perdita had terrorized their children, from the village shop grumbling that Perdita had walked out twice without paying and asking Daisy to settle a horrifying drink-and-cigarette bill, and, worst of all, from Perdita’s form mistress saying Perdita hadn’t been near the school since Tuesday and was supposed to be retaking her O levels, which didn’t bode well.
Walking wearily home along the cart track which ran alongside Ricky’s woods and at right-angles to the Eldercombe valley, Daisy kicked off her shoes. Although sharp pebbles cut her bare feet, anything was better than those punishing high heels. Even the undeniable prettiness of Snow Cottage didn’t cheer her up, because she was so aware of crumbling mossy walls that should be pointed, and hart’s tongue ferns growing out of the roof, and the hayfield of a lawn, and a door bell that didn’t work, and red apples littering the orchard floor, reproachfully waiting to be turned into pies.
There was no sign of Perdita, but at least Daisy got a wonderful welcome from Ethel, who whimpered and moved from foot to foot with joy, then bounded straight into the stream, splashing about, then shaking herself all over Daisy.
Daisy’s love for Ethel had deepened almost into idolatry over the last months, despite her frightful naughtiness and her great destructive paws. Ethel never seemed to mind how much Daisy sobbed into her shaggy shoulder, and this morning, to cheer Daisy up, she had even chewed up Hamish’s copy of Robert Burns.
Turning on the washing-up machine and looking out into the red twilight, Daisy decided that too many evenings since she moved in had been spent drinking too much vodka, when the budget ran to it, and trying to change television channels on the cordless telephone. Nor had she painted since she moved in, her inspiration seeming to have dried up. Tonight she would do something practical. Perdita was always grumbling she had nowhere to put her clothes. A cupboard on the landing was full of the children’s old toys. If Daisy put them in plastic bags they could be stored in the attic and Perdita would have a new cupboard.
Daisy had a bet with herself: a large vodka and orange if she could empty the cupboard in half an hour. But then the memories came flooding back of a time when Hamish and she had seemed happy, as she found corn dollies never made up, kites never built, jigsaws of Windsor Castle never even opened. She was so busy trying on Mickey Mouse masks, and plugging in clacking false teeth, and turning soapy liquid into a stream of bubbles, she didn’t notice Ethel beating a retreat downstairs with a large stuffed panda.
And there was one of Eddie’s all-time best presents – the plastic, bloodstained knife which hooked round the back, but looked as though it was going through the head. Putting it on, catching sight of herself in the landing mirror, Daisy burst into tears.
Wiping her eyes and rushing downstairs to answer the telephone, she found Perdita’s headmistress on the line. Her first fears were that Perdita had been expelled. Instead the headmistress gave her a pep-talk.
‘We don’t feel, Mrs Macleod, that Perdita is getting quite the right home back-up. It’s very hard being a latch-key child and the victim of a broken home. We do realize you have to earn your living, but I gather that Perdita never sees her father.’
‘They really don’t get on,’ said Daisy apologetically.
‘Are you sure you’re not letting your animosity towards your ex-husband poison your judgement? Perdita’s not a stupid child, just very disturbed. Perhaps if you could spend more time talking to her.’
Instead of slumped in front of the telly with a bottle of vodka, thought Daisy. In despair at the prospect of finding Perdita another school, she noticed the washing-up machine had stopped. It was so ancient, the door kept opening. Seeing Gainsborough sitting on the kitchen table with his back paw in the air like a leg of mutton, Daisy grabbed her sketching pad. Keeping the door of the washing-up machine shut with her bottom, she started drawing frantically. Next moment Ethel gave a bark of delight and Daisy steeled herself for another frightful row with Perdita. Instead, through the kitchen door, hardly knocking, came the most ravishing-looking man. Gosh, she thought, my luck has changed. Then as he turned towards her she noticed the long, livid scar running down the side of his face and realized to her horror that he must be Ricky France-Lynch, her landlord.
‘Oh dear,’ said Daisy, ‘I thought you were Perdita.’
‘It’s her I’ve come to talk about,’ said Ricky bleakly.
‘Join the queue,’ said Daisy helplessly, as the washing-up machine, changing direction, gave a great dragon’s roar. ‘What’s she done now?’
Stammering, Ricky told her about riding Pilgrim and jumping the sheep trap. ‘She could have killed herself and £10,000 worth of pony.’
‘I didn’t know she’d been riding them,’ said Daisy appalled. ‘I’m terribly sorry.’
‘She’s also been taking them to the pony club all summer.’
‘Oh my God,’ gasped Daisy. ‘She’s not here at the moment, but I promise it won’t happen again.’
‘I’ll t-t-take her to court if she doesn’t stop.’
‘I don’t blame you,’ said Daisy. ‘Look, do sit down.’
As she moved forward the washing-up machine stopped.
‘You have to lean against it,’ she explained. Then, her eyes falling on the breakfast and last night’s supper washing-up in the sink: ‘I’m afraid it’s an awful tip. Look, do have a drink, I’ve got some vodka, and I know Perdita’s got the remains of a bottle of Malibu. She certainly owes it you.’
Ricky shook his head. Just for a second he looked slightly less grim. ‘D’you always go around with knives through your head?’
‘I expect Perdita wishes I did.’ Crimson with embarrassment, Daisy tore the knife off. ‘I was sorting out the children’s toy cupboard. Oh hell, poor panda,’ she pointed helplessly at black-and-white fur and blue foam rubber littering the hall.
‘We’ve got so little space,’ she went on, ‘and you know how hopeless children are at allowing anything to be thrown away.’
‘Yes,’ said Ricky.
‘Oh, heavens,’ said Daisy, mortified as she remembered about Will. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s all right. Mind if I look round?’
Quailing, Daisy nodded. The only thing she’d done to the house was to put rose-printed paper up in Violet’s room, and the damp had come straight through.
‘We love it so much here.’ Her voice trailed off as she thought of the dreadful mess he’d find in the children’s bedrooms. Mindlessly, she drew in some whiskers on Gainsborough’s face and thickened his tail. It was no good, she’d have to have a drink. As she was tugging the ice tray out of the hopelessly frozen ice box, Ricky came downstairs looking grimmer than ever. ‘This place is an absolute disgrace.’
‘It is,’ agreed Daisy humbly. ‘Anarchy somehow broke out after my husband walked out.’
‘No, the state of it,’ said Ricky. ‘There’s damp in every room. That sink’s coming away from the wall. You need bookshelves and cupboards fitted in all the rooms. I’ve got builders starting in the yard tomorrow. I’ll send a couple down here to sort things out. They can probably mend the washing-up machine.’
‘Oh, thank you.’ Daisy had great difficulty not bursting into tears again. ‘Are you sure you don’t want a drink?’
Ricky shook his head. ‘I don’t – not since Will . . .’
‘Oh, how stupid of me,’ said Daisy, appalled. ‘How could I be so crass?’ And how awful too, she thought, for Ricky to be reminded of Will’s death by that scar every time he looked in the mirror.
She was amazed when he sat down at the kitchen table and started stroking Ethel’s lovely speckled head.
‘Why’s Perdita so screwed up?’
And he listened without interrupting while she told him about the failed O levels and having to sell Fresco, the first thing Perdita had really loved, and about Hamish never loving her and spoiling the other two.
‘He wasn’t Perdita’s father,’ Daisy blurted out.
‘Who was?’ asked Ricky.
‘Some other man,’ said Daisy, going scarlet. ‘But because aunts and grandmothers and teachers and family friends all prefer Violet and Eddie, I sort of over-compensate to make it up to her. You give in because it’s easier than facing one of her tantrums.’
Getting up, she put two pieces of melting ice into her glass of vodka, then, going to a yellow tin on the shelf, took out a tea bag and put it on top of the ice, then, unseeingly gazing out into the darkening garden, she switched on the kettle.
Taking the glass from her, Ricky removed the tea bag, switched off the kettle and, looking in the fridge and not finding any tonic, added orange juice to the vodka before handing it back.
Here’s someone in an even worse state than I am, he thought. To his amazement, he found himself saying, ‘Bas has already spoken to me about Perdita. He thinks she’s got fantastic potential. If she promises not to bunk out of school any more, and tries to get her O levels, I’ll give her a weekend job working in the yard. If she takes that seriously, and passes her O levels, I’ll teach her to play polo.’
For a second Daisy’s face quivered; then she blew her nose noisily on a piece of kitchen roll.
‘Are you sure it won’t be a bore?’
Ricky shook his head. ‘The probation officer’s keeping tabs on me, I can’t drive or leave the country for a year. Give me something to do.’
‘That is the nicest thing that’s ever happened,’ said Daisy slowly. Like a golden retriever searching for a sock to give a returning master, she looked frantically round the room. Then, ripping the drawing of Gainsborough from her sketching pad, she thrust it into his hand.
Perdita came in ten minutes after Ricky had left. She looked pale, truculent and dangerous.
‘Something wonderful’s happened,’ said Daisy.
‘You’ve found a lover,’ spat Perdita. ‘So what else is new?’
Daisy winced. ‘Ricky France-Lynch came round.’
‘So?’ For a second, Perdita looked terrified, then resumed her normal expression: furious dark eyes in a white, cold stony face.
‘You’re to go and see him at eleven on Saturday.’
‘He’s going to offer you a part-time job. And if you work hard and get your O levels, he’ll take you on full time.’
‘After the way he swore at me this afternoon I’m not sure I want it,’ said Perdita coldly.
Daisy resisted a desire to shake her. Instead, she asked what she wanted for supper.
‘I’m not hungry,’ snapped Perdita. Stepping over the toys Daisy had turned out, she flounced into her bedroom and slammed the door. Waltzing deliriously round the room, she pulled out the only photograph of Ricky she hadn’t ripped up and, whispering, ‘At last, at last,’ started covering it with kisses.
At a quarter to eleven next morning Perdita sauntered downstairs, reeking of the remnants of Daisy’s last bottle of Je Reviens. Her deliberately dishevelled, newly washed hair fell halfway down her back. Her normally alabaster skin was smothered in bronze base to hide two spots which had sprung up overnight on her nose and chin out of nerves. An excess of royal-blue eyeliner and mascara ringed her angry eyes. She wore no bra. Her breasts, as rounded as scoops of ice-cream, were emphasized by the tightest royal-blue T-shirt. No pants line marred the impossibly stretched navy-blue jodhpurs. Flicking her whip against gleaming brown boots, she posed in front of Daisy.
‘Dressed to kill,’ she said sarcastically.
Certain to kill any passion in Ricky, thought Daisy. Perdita was much too beautiful to smother herself in that muck, and the twelve pounds missing from the house-keeping must have paid for that T-shirt.
‘If I look like a whore,’ said Perdita, reading her mother’s thoughts, ‘I’m only taking after you. I’ve no idea when I’ll be back, if ever.’
Outside it was still hot. The sun had dried the dew, but the fields were still strewn with cobwebs. Forget-me-nots and jade-green watercress choked the stream. At the top of the ride Ricky’s house skulked like a grey battleship in its ocean of turning beech trees.
‘This should be fun,’ said Frances to Louisa, as Perdita strolled into the yard, cigarette still hanging from her lips. ‘Is she applying for a job as a hooker?’
The ponies, peering out over their bottle-green half-doors, however, made no secret of their delight at seeing Perdita, who had been stuffing them with carrots nicked from Philippa Mannering’s garden all summer.
‘It’ll be interesting to see how fit you’ve got them,’ said Frances nastily. ‘And I’d put that out,’ she added, pointing to a ‘No Smoking’ sign over the tack room door.
Chucking her lighted cigarette in a dark green tub of white geraniums, ignoring Frances’s look of disapproval, Perdita went up to each pony, hugging them and pulling their ears. Even Kinta, known to bite everyone, rested her face against Perdita’s, leaving a blob of green slime on her right nipple just as Ricky came out of the tack room. Yesterday his face had been animated with rage. Today it had resumed its normal impassivity. Close up, Perdita noticed the putty-grey pallor, the black hair flecked with grey, the livid scar running from right eyebrow to jawbone. His mouth had vanished in a grim line. Neither the thick, curly eyelashes nor the black rings underneath them tempered the bleak animosity of the slanting dark eyes above the hard Slav cheekbones.
Perdita felt a strange mixture of passion and compassion. I’ll make him better, she thought. He’s going to be my lover and the father I never had. I’m going to be the love of his life and the child he lost.
Ricky looked at Perdita. Even the crude make-up and the obscenely tight clothes could not really detract from her beauty. Yet in her wanton, blatant sexuality, she was terrifyingly close to both Beattie Johnson and Chessie. A waft of Je Reviens reached him, sickly sweet amid the stable smells of horse sweat, leather, straw and droppings. He was overcome with revulsion.
‘Tack up Sinatra,’ he said to Louisa.
Louisa and Frances exchanged awed but gleeful glances. Sinatra was the most difficult ride in the yard. He had to be gagged up to the eyeballs for anyone to control him. Bred in Kentucky, his coat had the mushroom-fawn silkiness of a Weimaraner. Brilliant on his day, he bucked under the saddle and pulled like the InterCity to London.
‘Leave off the running reins – and he doesn’t need a double bridle or that martingale,’ ordered Perdita, following Frances into Sinatra’s box.
‘We’re the best judge of that,’ snapped Frances. ‘He throws his head when he stops.’
‘I’ve been riding him in a headcollar all summer.’
‘On your swollen head be it. My God, is Ricky ever going to knock you into shape.’
‘Talking of shapes,’ drawled Perdita, staring contemptuously at the scrawny, hipless, bustless Frances, ‘yours leaves a great deal to be desired.’
Ricky made no comment about the lack of martingale, but handed her a hat as soon as she was mounted.
Aware it would flatten her hair, Perdita grumbled that she didn’t want to look like Mrs Thatcher going down a mine.
‘Put it on,’ said Ricky sharply.
Ricky stood in the middle of a sandy, oblong corral which was enclosed by post-and-rail fencing except for a gate at one end and a stretch of wall at the other. For a start he made her circle on different legs, leading to small circles, then into figures of eight. Each time Sinatra changed legs perfectly.
‘Blimey,’ said Louisa.
‘Keep your weight on the inside leg,’ said Ricky. ‘Now circle the ring at a gallop, then turn at the top sharply, changing legs.’
Knowing this was the most important move in polo, Perdita cantered round sweetly, calmly, then leaning right forward, she sent Sinatra thundering down the side of the ring, only just preventing him crashing into the wall. Going into a lightning turn which nearly brought the pony down, before Ricky could stop her, she careered back to the other end, executing a turn so sharp that Sinatra’s fawn nearside should have been full of splinters.
‘Stop showing off,’ howled Ricky.
‘Just proving he’s better in a snaffle.’
‘He only stopped to avoid c-c-concussing himself.’
‘Crap,’ said Perdita rudely, and, swinging round, galloped back, pulling Sinatra up five yards in front of the wall, turning so fast that for a second both pony and rider vanished in a cloud of brown dust. Emerging, she thundered up to Ricky, slithering to a halt three feet away from him, running her hand up and down Sinatra’s bristly poll to show him her appreciation.
‘Well?’ she taunted Ricky.
‘Your weight’s too far forward.’
‘It can’t be.’
‘Bloody can. If you hadn’t anticipated those stops, you’d have been right over his neck.’
After a quarter of an hour on Sinatra, by which time his silken coat was dark brown with sweat, Ricky changed her on to Kinta, the widow-maker, who required the brute strength of a Juan O’Brien to halt her wilful stampede.
‘This should be even more fun,’ hissed Frances to Louisa.
‘She rides jolly well,’ conceded Louisa.
‘Ricky’ll never put up with this kind of lip.’
Perdita’s method of stopping Kinta was simple. She rode her flat out at the brick wall at the end, which must have been five foot high. Sitting still in the saddle, she made no attempt to pull her up. Unable to stop, Kinta had no option but to hoist herself over the wall, just catching it with a cannon bone and pecking on landing.
‘I think we’ll walk back, you stupid bitch,’ Perdita chided the hobbling pony as she opened the gate and returned to the ring.
‘What the fuck d’you think you’re playing at?’ White with rage, Ricky bent down to examine Kinta’s leg.
‘Teaching her a lesson. Look how she’s learnt it.’ Swinging Kinta round, she hurtled her towards the wall.
‘Stop,’ yelled Ricky too late.
As if she were doing a dressage test, Kinta swivelled round, changing legs perfectly, hurtled down to the far corner and turned again.
‘Blimey cubed,’ said Louisa in amazement.
‘You keep forgetting to stop in a straight line,’ said Ricky, determined not to praise her, ‘and you never look round to check who’s behind you. Anyone coming down the line would take you clean out.’
‘Nobody here,’ shrugged Perdita.
‘It’s got to be instinctive for when there is someone,’ said Ricky. ‘Look, look and keep looking into the distance, never at your hands.’
At that moment a yellow-and-crimson hot-air balloon came over the hill, letting out a great recharging snort. Kinta, nervy at the best of times, jerked up her head, hitting Perdita smartly on the nose.
Totally unsympathetic, Ricky ordered her to go on circling the ring, doing small turns. For Perdita, frantically wiping away blood as it splattered her and Kinta, the session deteriorated sharply. Ten minutes more on Kinta were followed by twenty minutes on Wayne, Ricky’s favourite pony, still circling, turning, then swinging round and putting her left hand on Wayne’s custard-yellow right quarter at the trot, until her face and neck were streaming with sweat and blood, and her mascara and eyeliner were smeared and making her eyes sting.
Wayne flattened his big donkey ears and rolled his bruised dark eyes in martyrdom. Like an instinctive footballer who doesn’t need to train, he was appalled to be subjected to such boring manoeuvres. The sun grew hotter.
‘I will not give in, I will not give in,’ said Perdita through clenched teeth. Her tits were agony, bouncing around. But just as she was about to crack, Ricky signalled to Frances to bring in a bucket of polo balls. Wayne perked up as Ricky smoothed out the pitted sand in the centre with his boot and put down a ball.
‘We’ll start off with the nearside forehand, so you want him on the nearside leg.’
Desperate to show what she could do, Perdita completely mis-hit three balls in a row.
‘You’re not watching the ball.’
Wayne, getting crafty, skedaddled so near the ball that she couldn’t hit it without bashing his legs. She missed again.
‘Fucking hell,’ she screamed.
‘Now she’ll go to pieces,’ said Frances happily.
‘Come here,’ said Ricky.
Dripping with sweat and blood, make-up streaking her face like a clown caught in a deluge, Perdita rode sulkily up to him.
‘Calm down,’ he said gently. ‘You’re going too fast and getting uptight, and he knows it. And keep at him with your left leg or he’ll move in.’
Back she went, chattering with rage and panic. ‘Please God, or he’ll never take me on.’
Slowly Ricky took her through it. ‘Don’t cut the corner; up out of the saddle; bend over; look at the ball; begin your swing; keep watching the ball; head over the ball.’
Crack! Stick and ball connected in an exquisitely timed shot.
‘Bingo!’ Perdita threw her stick into the air, ten feet high, and caught it. ‘That was perfect.’
‘You hit it too late, and don’t throw your stick in the air. It’s dangerous.’
‘Better a stick in the air than a stick-in-the-mud!’
The galloping fox weather-vane was motionless in the swooning heat. Beneath it the stable clock said two fifteen. She had been riding for two hours, nearly twice the length of a normal match.
‘We’ll try one more thing,’ said Ricky.
Louisa led out two ponies – Willis, a huge bay, invaluable because he had the best brakes in Rutshire, and Hermia, a little chestnut mare Ricky had bought in Argentina in 1981, who was very green and terrified of everything.
Ricky mounted Willis. Perdita clambered wearily on to Hermia. Her ribs and shoulders were agony, her back ached, her thighs were raw where the sweating jodhpurs had rubbed them. Her hands could hardly hold Hermia’s reins as she followed Ricky a hundred yards down a wooded lane, past an empty, leaf-strewn swimming-pool. Here, in two and a half acres of lush, green grass, framed by midge-filled trees, lay Ricky’s stick-and-ball field.
Next year’s tiny catkins were already forming on the hazels. Ricky noticed the reddening haws and remembered how little Millicent used to shut her eyes to avoid the prickles as she delicately picked the berries off the thorn trees. Overwhelmed with bitterness at the hand fate had dealt him, he saw no reason why he should show others any mercy.
‘Now, do everything I tell you,’ he yelled to Perdita as he kicked Willis into a gallop. The big bay’s stride was longer than Hermia’s and Perdita had to really motor to keep up. Halfway up the field, Ricky shouted, ‘Turn!’
‘He’s crazy,’ raged Frances in anguish. ‘If he has a fall, his arm’s buggered for good.’
Four times Ricky raced up and down the field, executing sharper and sharper turns. Now he was hurtling towards two orange-and-white traffic bollards which served as goal posts up the other end.
‘Ride me off,’ he bellowed.
Perdita spurred Hermia on, but she was just too far behind. Ricky’s knee and the shoulder of his horse hit Hermia so hard that she seemed to fly four feet through the air. Perdita was still reeling when Ricky turned and was riding back. ‘Ride me off again.’
The fourth time Perdita was knocked clean out of the saddle and only stayed mounted by clinging to the mare’s neck.
‘Bastard,’ she screamed as she righted herself.
But by now Ricky had reached the opposite end of the field. ‘Now ride towards me. Towards me! Towards me! Don’t duck out! Keep going!’
The mighty Willis was thundering at them like a Volvo on the motorway. Perdita could feel Hermia quailing and about to bolt. It was all she could do to keep her on course.
She could see Willis’s red nostrils as big as traffic lights, his white-edged eyes, the flashing silver of his bit. They must crash, they must.
‘Stop,’ yelled Ricky, swinging Willis to the left. Obedient to their masters, Willis and Hermia skidded to a halt, so close that Hermia’s head brushed Willis’s quarters, and Perdita was deposited on the grass, all the breath knocked out of her aching body.
‘You bloody fool,’ she croaked.
‘I told you not to sit so far forward. Get up, you’re not hurt.’
‘I know I’m bloody not, but you might have been. You risked a head-on collision and wrecking your arm for ever, just for the sake of putting me down. You’re crazy.’
Just for a second Ricky smiled.
‘At least you’ve given me back my nerve. Go and have a shower and we’ll have lunch.’
‘Doesn’t look so sexy now, does she?’ said Frances spitefully, as a dusty, blood-stained Perdita hobbled into the yard, wincing as she led Hermia.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Joel.
‘She’s jolly brave,’ said Louisa. Kind-hearted and admiring, she followed Perdita into Hermia’s box.
‘Fine.’ Perdita leant against the wall, fighting back the tears.
‘I’ll see to Hermia,’ said Louisa, ‘and show you where the shower is.’
After she’d found Perdita a towel and some soap, she handed her a pair of pants and a long, white T-shirt with bananas and oranges embroidered on the front.
‘I thought you might want to change.’
‘Thanks,’ said Perdita slowly. ‘Sorry I was bloody beforehand. I was absolutely shit-scared.’
‘Needn’t have been,’ said Louisa. ‘Joel and I thought you did brilliant. The hot water’s erratic, but there’s plenty of cold.’
Twenty minutes later Perdita joined Ricky in the kitchen. He was drinking Coke, eating a slice of ham between two pieces of white sliced bread and reading The Times sports page. He rose six inches from his chair as she came in. At least he recognizes I’m female, thought Perdita, encouraged.
Louisa’s T-shirt, several sizes too big for her, fell to a couple of inches above her knees. Her hair, wet from the shower, was slicked back, the alabaster skin was without a scrap of make-up. Her nose was swollen, her big curved mouth looked as though bees had stung it, and her wary, dark eyes were still bloodshot from the dust.
‘That’s better. You look like a human,’ said Ricky. ‘If you ever turn up tarted up like that again, you go straight back to your play-pen. What d’you want to drink?’
‘Vodka and tonic,’ said Perdita, chancing her arm.
‘Not if you’re going to play polo. Most top players hardly drink or smoke,’ he added, removing her packet of cigarettes and throwing it in the bin.
‘There were four in there,’ said Perdita, outraged. ‘Anyway, the twins smoke.’
‘They’re not top players – yet.’
Armed with a glass of Perrier and a ham sandwich, Perdita wandered round the kitchen, stopping before a photograph of Herbert on a pony.
‘He was a nine,’ said Ricky. ‘Won the Inter-Regimental Cup seven times in a row and played in the Westchester.’
‘Oh,’ sighed Perdita.
‘Why d’you want to learn polo?’
‘I want to go to ten,’ said Perdita simply.
Looking down at the remains of his ham sandwich, Ricky found he was suddenly not hungry and threw it in the bin.
‘I don’t think it’s possible,’ he said. ‘With timing and skill a girl could hit the ball as far as a man. You could train your ponies even better, but it’s the riding-off and the violence that’s the problem.’
‘I’m nearly five foot seven,’ protested Perdita. ‘That’s bigger than lots of the Mexicans or Argentines.’
The telephone rang. One of the grooms must have picked it up because next moment a boot-faced Frances had put her head through the window.
‘It’s Philippa Mannering,’ she snapped at Ricky. ‘Would you like to go to kitchen supper tonight?’
‘Tomorrow? The next day?’
‘Sorry, I can’t.’
Frances shrugged her shoulders and disappeared.
‘Ghastly old bag, that Philippa,’ said Perdita. Then, when Ricky didn’t react, ‘Her house overlooks ours. She’s always peering through the trees with her binoculars. She wouldn’t suit you. She’s a nympho, wear you out in a week.’
‘Thank you for the advice,’ said Ricky tartly.
I fancy him so much, thought Perdita, I’ll never be able to eat again.
As if reading her mind, Ricky said, ‘Get one thing straight, I’m not interested in you sexually. If you work here, it’s as a groom.’
‘Are you after my mother?’ hissed Perdita.
‘Hardly. She’s not in a fit state to have anyone after her at the moment.’
‘You need a dog round here,’ said Perdita fretfully, as she also threw her uneaten ham sandwich in the bin. ‘It’s a crime to waste scraps like that.’
She gazed at Herbert’s unsmiling face again. ‘You’ve got to beat your father and go to ten too.’
Ricky thought of his damaged elbow which was now hurting like hell, and didn’t seem to be getting any better.
‘Yes,’ he said bleakly.
Because he wants Chessie back, thought Perdita, but I’ll get him long before that.
Alone in his large draughty house, mourning Will, desperate for Chessie, panicking about his arm, Ricky’s hatred for Bart, obsessive, primeval, poisoning, living deep within him, grew like a beast. And so he took it out on Perdita. She didn’t mind him making her clean all the tack, or skip out the horses, or scour the fields for lost balls, or even put all the bandages and saddle blankets through the ancient washing machine that kept breaking down. But sometimes he seemed to invent tasks deliberately, scrubbing the inside and outside of buckets, and even cleaning the bowl of the outside lavatory. Worst of all, he wouldn’t let her near a polo stick.
Perdita raged inside and took it out on Daisy at home. But at the yard she behaved herself, knowing it was her only chance. Once a week, too, the sullen, protective, scrawny Frances drove Ricky to Rutminster to see his probation officer, which gave Perdita the chance to stick and ball on the sly, while Louisa kept cave. Louisa and Perdita had become inseparable.
In the spring Perdita retook and passed seven O levels. As a reward, Ricky allowed her to help Louisa get the ponies fit for the coming season, riding them up and down the steep Rutshire hills, trotting them along the winding country lanes.
One April afternoon they were exercising ponies along the chocolate-brown earth track which ran round the huge field of young barley which Perdita had escaped into after jumping the sheep grid the year before. It was a still, muggy day. Wild garlic swept through the woods like an emerald-green tidal wave. The sweet scent of primroses and violets hung on the air.
‘No one’s ever loved anyone as much as I love Ricky,’ said Perdita restlessly.
‘He’s thirty and you’re sixteen,’ protested Louisa.
‘I don’t care. I’m still going to marry him when he grows up. Christ, look at that.’
Perdita took hold of little Hermia who was still very nervous and even Wayne rolled his black-ringed eyes and raised his donkey ears a centimetre as a vast black helicopter chugged up the valley. Almost grazing the tips of the ash woods, it flew round the paddocks, over the stick and ball field and circled the battlements of Robinsgrove like a malevolent crow.
Coming out of the forage room holding a bucket of stud nuts, Ricky, in a blinding flash of hope, thought it might be a returning Chessie. Then he saw the four horsemen of the Apocalypse on the side of the helicopter as it dropped into a paddock beyond the corral, scattering ponies.
As the rotors stilled, the door flew open and out stepped a lean, menacing figure, entirely clad in zips and black leather. Heavily suntanned, his eyes were hidden behind dark glasses and his blond-streaked mane far more teased and dishevelled than Perdita’s.
‘Blimey,’ squeaked Louisa. ‘It’s Dancer Maitland. Why didn’t I stick to that diet?’
Dancer was followed by two heavies in tweed suits, with bulging muscles and pockets, who had great difficulty squeezing out of the door. As he reached Ricky, Dancer removed his dark glasses. His heavily kohled, brilliant grey eyes glittered with excitement.
‘From you ’ave I been absent in the spring,’ he drawled, ‘“Gaol Bird” was number one on the US charts this morning, so I fort it was ‘igh time I took up polo.’
Ricky just gazed at him.
‘Knew you’d get a shock when you saw me done up,’ said Dancer, raking a heavily metalled hand through his blond curls. Then he put his arms round Ricky and hugged him.
‘Grite to see you, beauty.’
‘It’s w-w-wonderful to see you,’ stammered Ricky.
‘’Ave you missed me?’
Ricky nodded. ‘To tell the truth I bloody have.’
‘This is Paulie and this is Twinkle,’ said Dancer, waving airily at the two heavies who were gazing hungrily at Perdita. ‘Them’s my minders. Very amenable, if I feed them fresh Rottweilers every morning. This place is somefink else. The ’ouse, and all the trees and that ravine.’ He gazed down the valley.
‘We ’ad a cruise round,’ he went on. ‘Who owns the big house on the edge of the village?’
‘Eldercombe Manor?’ asked Ricky. ‘Some awful old fossil called Bentley.’
‘How much land?’
‘About two hundred acres, including the village cricket pitch.’
‘Perfect,’ said Dancer. ‘Now I want to see all the ponies. That’s Wayne wiv the floppy ears, an’ Kinta wiv the bad-tempered face and li-el Hermia, she’s the shy one. You see, I remember everyfink you told me.’
But when Ricky took him into a nearby paddock where a dozen ponies came racing up and, at the sight of Ricky’s bucket of stud nuts, started flattening their ears, barging and kicking out at each other, Dancer edged nervously closer to Ricky.
‘Can we get a taxi back to the yard?’
‘They won’t hurt you, although they might hurt each other,’ said Ricky. ‘Stop it,’ he snapped, punching Willis on the nose as the big bay lashed out at little Pilgrim.
Once he was safely on the other side of the post and rails, Dancer said that, now he was here, it was time for his first lesson. Four or five minutes later he emerged from the house with his hair tied back in a pony tail, wearing a black shirt, breeches and boots.
‘Look at the length of those legs,’ sighed Louisa, ‘I’m going to convert him.’
‘I’m surprised Ricky hasn’t ordered him to take off his make-up,’ snapped Perdita, who felt wildly jealous of Dancer.
‘Potential patron,’ explained Louisa. ‘Ricky wouldn’t mind if he wore blusher and a miniskirt.’
‘These boots ’ave never been on an ’orse before, and neither ’ave I,’ boasted Dancer, as Ricky took him through a games room, crammed with golf clubs, ski boots, tennis rackets and polo sticks, to a room with netting walls and floors sloping down to a flat oblong on which stood a wooden replica of a horse. Every time the ball was hit it rolled back so it could be hit again. Before he jiggered his arm, Ricky would spend half an hour a day in here practising his swing. Dancer on the wooden horse was a revelation – long legs gripping the slatted barrel, new boots in the stirrups, shifting effortlessly in the saddle. He had a marvellous eye and sense of timing; he met the ball right every time.
‘Cowdray an’ ten goal ’ere I come,’ he screamed, getting more and more excited. ‘I can fucking do it! We can start getting some ponies right away. Now let’s try a real ’orse.’
‘You may not find it quite so easy,’ said Ricky gently. ‘Tack up Geoffrey,’ he added to Perdita.
Geoffrey was known as the ‘hangover horse’ because he was the kindest, easiest ride in the yard and from the days when Ricky used to drink heavily, had always seemed to know when his master was somewhat the worse for wear. You could trust a dead baby on Geoffrey.
‘All right, gimme a stick,’ said Dancer, when Perdita had lengthened his stirrup leathers.
‘Try without one to begin with,’ advised Ricky.
‘Don’t be daft, I’ve cracked it,’ said Dancer, riding into the corral.
Even on the gentle Geoffrey, however, he fell off seven times, with escalating screams of rage and elation.
‘I can’t control this fucking machine,’ he yelled at Ricky. ‘It’s got no steering, no brakes, and I can’t get my foot off the accelerator. Give me another one.’
‘Just walk to start with,’ shouted Ricky, and, as Geoffrey jerked his black head to avoid being hit in the eye, he added, ‘Stop brandishing that stick like Ian Botham. You’ve got to take it slowly.’ He grabbed the relieved pony’s bridle and removed Dancer’s stick. ‘There’s no problem teaching you to play polo, but you’ve got to spend the next six months learning to ride. The aim is to keep the patron out of traction. Now get your ass down in the saddle, get your heels down and your knees in.’
By the end of an hour Dancer had fallen off twice more, was bruised as black as midnight and utterly hooked.
‘What d’you fink?’ he asked Perdita, as he rode into the yard. ‘Am I going to make it?’
‘Gaol Bird’ was blaring out of the tack room wireless.
‘You couldn’t be a worse polo player than you are a singer,’ snapped Perdita.
Back in his black leather trousers, wearing two of Ricky’s jerseys, Dancer prowled round the drawing room, clutching a huge Bacardi and Coke and looking at the cups and the photographs.
‘What an ’eritage! Christ, I ache all over, you fucker. When can we go and buy some ponies?’
‘We can’t yet.’ Ricky put another log on the fire. ‘We’ve got enough ponies here. If you’re serious we can spend the summer teaching you to ride, and if it works out, see about buying ponies in the autumn.’
‘You’re stalling,’ said Dancer, shivering and edging towards the fire. ‘Arm still playing up?’
Ricky shrugged. ‘I’ve still got no feeling and no strength in my last three fingers.’
‘I’ve got just the bloke for you.’
‘I’ve seen three specialists,’ said Ricky wearily. ‘They all say rest it.’
‘You could fucking rest it for ever,’ said Dancer. ‘We’ve got to get you to ten an’ get the Westchester back, an’ you’re not getting any younger. My friend Seth Newcombe practises in New York, best bone man in the world.’
‘I can’t leave the country.’
‘Mountain better come to Mahomet,’ said Dancer. ‘Seth’ll fly over if I ask him nicely. He’s been after me for years.’
‘I’m not being carved up by some old queen,’ said Ricky outraged.
‘Think he might deflower you under the anaesthetic?’ said Dancer. ‘Don’t be so pig-’eaded.’
Seth arrived in England by private jet the following Saturday. Dancer’s helicopter transported him and his X-ray equipment to Robinsgrove. A charming WASP with the gentlest hands and the whitest cuffs Ricky had ever seen, he examined Ricky’s arm for ten minutes, then said he’d like to operate immediately.
‘I think there’s a trapped nerve. You must be in a lot of pain.’
‘Can you guarantee a one hundred per cent success rate?’ asked Ricky belligerently.
‘No, but you won’t get the strength or feeling back into your hand if you just leave it. And you’ll certainly never get to ten, or nine, or eight, or even seven. I know a bit about polo. I used to play at the Myopia Club in Boston for years.’
‘Christ, I hope he wears spectacles when he carves me up,’ said Ricky.
A week later Ricky went into a clinic in Harley Street. The operation took several hours. Dancer and Perdita waited in a private room so Dancer wouldn’t get mobbed and, as the day wore on, Perdita’s animosity evaporated and she and Dancer clung to each other for reassurance. Perdita, despite Ricky’s admonition, smoked one cigarette after another. Dancer, stuck into Bacardi and Coke, was in an even worse state.
‘What happens if he’s really fucked up?’
‘Seth said he won’t,’ said Perdita.
‘He’s such a sod, I don’t know why we love him so much.’
‘I ache for him in bed every night,’ sighed Perdita.
‘I ache every night from falling off his bloody ’orses.’
‘Pity Seth can’t give him a heart transplant at the same time to get him over Chessie,’ said Perdita. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t like you to begin with. I guess I was jealous.’
‘I like you,’ said Dancer. ‘You’re going to play on my team when Ricky gets better. Black’s a great colour wiv your eyes.’
Both jumped as Seth came into the room still in his green gown. He looked elated but desperately tired, his eyes were bloodshot beneath the green cap.
‘Well, we untrapped the nerve – that prison hospital made the most godawful cock-up – and re-set the elbow. Touching wood,’ he leant down to touch the table and, realizing it was veneer, shuddered and touched a picture frame, ‘he should get back all the strength of his fingers and make a one hundred per cent recovery.’
Dancer burst into tears.
‘Can we see him?’ asked Perdita, as she and Seth mopped him up.
‘No point. He’ll be out like a light for the next few hours.’
‘When can he play again?’
‘Well, he’ll have to be patient. A little low goal next year, high goal perhaps in 1985.’
While Ricky was in hospital, Dancer had not been idle. Rolling up at his bedside a few days later, he looked very smug.
‘Well, I’ve got my yard,’ he said, putting a large jar of caviar and a bunch of yellow roses down on the bed.
‘Where is it?’ snapped Ricky.
‘Jesus! How did you fiddle that?’
‘I went to see Lady Bentley. Nice lady. Said she was fed up wiv providing tea for all the villagers and their visiting teams every Sunday. I told her, “That’s the trouble wiv noblesse oblige, it flamin’ nobbles you.” Anyway your mate Basil Baddingham has been very co-operative. He’s ’andled the deal and says I’ll get planning permission for everyfing.’
Ricky groaned. ‘You’re crazy.’
‘No, we’re not. All we need is a stack of brown envelopes filled wiv dosh. Bas says the Council’s completely bent, that’s why they’re called Councillors because they counts the money they get in bribes every day.’ Dancer roared with laughter.
‘How much did they sting you?’ asked Ricky, disapprovingly.
‘Nearly a million, but Bas reckons it’ll be worf four million by the end of the eighties. There’s rooms we can knock froo for a recording studio, and uvver rooms we can knock froo for parties. An’ a nice piece of flat land where we can build a polo field.’
‘The village have been playing cricket on that for generations.’
‘Well, they’ll have to watch polo now.’
‘And Miss Lodsworth, the village bossyboots, will be next door marshalling the Parish Council like a tiger. She’s not going to like her girl guides being corrupted by all your musicians.’
Dancer grinned. ‘Sounds kind of fun. Bas didn’t mention any incentives in the hand-out about under-age schoolgirls. And talking of schoolgirls, I just love that Perdita. I watched her stick and balling this morning. Never missed the goal posts once.’
‘She is not supposed to be playing.’
‘You can’t hold her back,’ protested Dancer. ‘Why are you so foul to her?’
‘Got to bash the stems of roses to get the water in,’ said Ricky flatly.
‘She told me about losing ’er pony,’ said Dancer. ‘Fort I might buy her another one.’
‘You will not,’ snapped Ricky, suddenly looking pale and tired. ‘I can only just control her as it is. I got complaints about her from Miss Lodsworth only last week – taking seven ponies up Eldercombe High Street to save making two journeys so she could get back and stick and ball. And she gives them too much road work, so they won’t get dirty and she won’t have to waste time scraping off the mud. Every time my back’s turned, she picks up a stick.’
‘Probably want to sleep wiv her,’ said Dancer slyly. ‘That’s why you’re so ’orrible.’
‘The only thing I’m interested in is getting Chessie back,’ snapped Ricky.
He was bitterly ashamed that, having been assured by Seth that his arm would recover, he was still overwhelmed with black gloom.
The day before Ricky was due home the ancient washing machine finally croaked because Perdita had overloaded it with saddle blankets and Frances had made such a scene that Dancer whipped Perdita off to Rutminster to buy Ricky a new one as a welcome-home present.
‘We don’t want him any crosser wiv you than he already is,’ said Dancer, as they stormed back to Eldercombe along the motorway.
Perdita adored Dancer’s car, a gold Ferrari, fitted with all the latest gadgets including a synthesizer, a CD player, whose speakers were blaring out ‘Gaol Bird’, and two telephones.
‘Let’s try ringing each other up,’ she suggested; then she gave a scream. ‘Look! There’s a little dog running along the verge. It must have been dumped. Stop, for Christ’s sake!’
‘Can’t stop ’ere,’ protested Dancer.
‘You bloody can. Get in the left-hand lane.’
Then, for a second the traffic slowed down to allow cars to turn off at Exit fifteen and Perdita was out of the Ferrari, narrowly avoiding being run down by a Lotus, and on to the grass track in the centre of the motorway. Tears streaming down her face, she belted back the way they had come, looking desperately for the little dog. Cars were hurtling past her in both directions. How could the little thing possibly survive? Her heart was crashing in her ribs as she stumbled over the uneven divots.
Just when she felt she couldn’t run another step, she saw the little dog again. He had huge terrified eyes with bags under them like a basset, and one ear that stuck up and the other down, and a long, dirty grey body and stumpy legs. He wore no collar, and was poised, absolutely terrified, on the far side of the right-hand traffic lane. Perdita didn’t call to him, but, seeing her, he suddenly dived into the traffic, narrowly missing a milk lorry and a BMW and only avoiding a Bentley because it swerved to the left, causing great hooting and screaming of brakes. Now the dog was racing down the green track ahead of her. Two hundred yards away loomed a Little Chef restaurant.
‘Oh, please God, let him make it,’ sobbed Perdita.
Stumbling on, ignoring the wolf whistles and yells of approval from passing drivers, she watched in anguish as the dog decided to make a dive and plunged into the traffic again. Trying to avoid a Volvo going at 100 m.p.h. he was hit by the front of an oil lorry which knocked it on to the hard shoulder.
Perdita gave a scream of horror, which turned into joy as the dog stumbled on to three legs and dragged himself into the safety of the restaurant.
Oblivious of cars, forgetting Dancer, Perdita somehow crossed the road and sprinted the last hundred yards. The dog was nowhere to be seen but, following a trail of blood, Perdita found him underneath a parked lorry. His eyes were terrified, his lip curling, his little back leg a bloody pulp.
‘It’s all right, darling.’ Gradually she edged towards him, but when she put out her hand, he snapped and cringed away. Perdita tried another tack. Crawling out, she explained what had happened to the driver of the lorry and asked if she could have a bit of his lunch. Grinning, he gave her half a pork pie. At first the dog looked dubious, then slowly edged forwards and gobbled it up, plainly starving.
‘More,’ yelled Perdita.
By the time the dog had finished the pork pie and eaten three beef sandwiches, several drivers were gathered round admiring Perdita’s legs.
‘You’ve got to help me catch him,’ she said, peering out, her cheeks streaked with oil. ‘He’ll bleed to death if we don’t get him to a vet.’
The dog was finally coaxed out with a bowl of water, so frantic was his thirst. The first lorry driver gave Perdita an old blanket to wrap him in, the second offered to drive her to the nearest vet and went off to borrow the Yellow Pages from the restaurant. The third was suggesting the RSPCA might be better when Dancer screamed up in his Ferrari.
‘Fuckin’ ’ell, Perdita, fort you’d been totalled.’
All the drivers had to have Dancer’s autograph for their wives and tell him what a bleedin’ shame he’d been put inside before he and Perdita finally set off for the vet’s. Perdita had to hold on to the little dog very tightly as he shuddered in her arms. Despite the blanket, he bled all over Dancer’s pale gold upholstery. Mercifully the vet was at the surgery. Putting the dog out, he operated at once. The leg needed sixty stitches. Once again Dancer and Perdita waited.
‘He won’t have to lose the leg,’ said the vet as he washed his hands afterwards, ‘but he’ll have very sore toes for a bit. You can pick him up tomorrow.’
‘What are you going to do with him?’ Dancer asked Perdita.
‘Give him to Ricky. He’s got to learn to love something new.’
Getting home to find Little Chef, as he was now known, in situ, Ricky was absolutely furious.
‘I do not want another dog, and, if I did, it would be a whippet. That must be the ugliest dog I’ve ever seen.’
‘He’s sweet,’ protested Perdita. ‘He’s had a bad time’ – like you have, she nearly added.
‘A dog is a tie.’
‘Not a very old school one in Little Chef’s case,’ admitted Perdita. ‘But mongrels are much brighter than breed dogs and you need something to guard the yard. Frances is getting very long in the tooth.’
Little Chef hobbled towards Ricky. The whites of his supplicating, pleading eyes were like pieces of boiled egg. His tail, instead of hanging between his legs, was beginning to curl.
‘I don’t want a dog,’ said Ricky sulkily. ‘It broke Millicent’s heart every time I went away. I’m not into the business of heart-breaking.’
‘Could have fooled me,’ drawled Dancer. ‘I’ve gotta go. I’ve got a concert.’
‘So have I. Dancer’s got me a ticket,’ said Perdita, scuttling out after him. ‘See you tomorrow. Just give him a chance.’
Left alone with Ricky, Little Chef limped to the door and whined for a bit. When it was time to go to bed, Ricky got Millicent’s basket down from the attic and put it in front of the Aga.
‘Stay,’ he said firmly.
Little Chef stayed.
Upstairs he had difficulty getting out of his clothes. Across the yard, he could see a light on in Frances’s flat. She’d be across in a flash if he asked her. Since the operation he’d had terrible trouble sleeping. To get comfortable he had to lie on his back with his left hand hanging out of the bed.
His body ached with longing for Chessie. For a second he thought of Perdita, then slammed his mind shut like a dungeon door. That could only lead to disaster. Frances’s scrawny body was always on offer, but on the one night when despair had driven him to avail himself of it he hadn’t even been able to get it up. That was why she was so bitter.
He turned out the light, breathing in the sweet soapy smell of hawthorn blossom. Through the open window the new moon was rising like a silver horn out of the jaws of the galloping fox weather-vane. Before he had time to wish, he jumped out of his skin as a rough tongue licked his hand. In the dim light he saw Little Chef gazing up at him beseechingly.
‘Go away,’ snapped Ricky. Then, as the dog slunk miserably away, ‘Oh all right, just this once.’
But when he patted the bed, Little Chef couldn’t make it, so Ricky reached down and helped him up. Immediately he snuggled against Ricky’s body, giving a sigh of happiness. For the first time in years, both of them slept in until lunchtime.
Within a week Little Chef was running the yard, bringing in the ponies from the fields, doing tricks for pony nuts, retrieving lost balls from the undergrowth, then running on to the field and dropping them when there was a pause in play.
He also learnt not to scrabble Dancer’s leather trousers and who was welcome in the yard, biting the ankles of visiting VAT men, growling at Philippa Mannering when, ever hopeful, she dropped in on Ricky, and lifting his leg on the probation officer’s bicycle.
He adored Perdita, but Ricky was his great love, and gradually as the ugly little dog limped after him, barking encouragement during practice chukkas, and even hitching a lift on the back of a pony in order not to be separated, Ricky succumbed totally to his charms.
And when the vet came to take out Little Chef’s stitches, it was Ricky who held the wildly trembling dog in his arms. Any visiting player who was foolish enough to make eyes at Perdita, or disparaging cracks about Little Chef’s appearance, got very short shrift.
By the beginning of August Ricky’s arm was so much better that he was able gently to stick and ball. By the end of August so excessive had been the overtime paid the builders and excavators that Dancer and his gaudy retinue were able to move into Eldercombe Manor.
Miss Lodsworth had a busy summer. When she wasn’t inveighing against cruelty to ponies and disgusting language at Rutshire Polo Club, and furiously ringing up Ricky to complain about Perdita thundering ponies five abreast down Eldercombe High Street, she was writing to Dancer, to grumble about cheeky builders, truculent security guards, and Alsatians chasing her cat, Smudge. Nor was she amused by helicopters with flashing lights landing like fireflies at all hours, nor the deafening boom of all-night recording sessions.
Worst of all, some sadist of a landscape designer had slapped down Dancer’s stick-and-ball field right next to her house, so she not only had fairies at the bottom of her garden, but also a microcosm of Rutshire Polo Club. As Commissioner for Rutshire, how could she hold dignified get-togethers with her guides when expletives and polo balls kept flying over her hawthorn hedge?
Nor did any of the rest of the Parish Council come to her aid. The Vicar, who was a closet gay, and the local solicitor, who reckoned that such development would triple the price of his house, both thought Dancer was splendid.
Dancer, however, was warned well in advance that Miss Lodsworth would be holding an All-Rutshire Jamboree in her garden on the first Saturday in September and had promised there would be no stick and balling that afternoon. A perfect day dawned. Rising early, Miss Lodsworth prayed that it would continue fine and her guides would find enjoyment as well as fulfilment in their Jamboree. Believing in economy, Miss Lodsworth had already baked rock and fairy cakes and spread hundreds of sandwiches with crusts still on with Marmite and plum jam which was cheaper than strawberry. Nor was Coca Cola or Seven-Up allowed. Her guides would have lemon squash because it was better for them and less expensive.
Creaking up from her knees, Miss Lodsworth snorted with indignation. Even on a Saturday Dancer’s bulldozers were still knocking down trees and flattening hillocks to extend one of the loveliest cricket grounds in England into a polo field. Just after lunch, as she was wriggling into her guide uniform, which had grown somewhat tight, Miss Lodsworth looked out of the window and saw a girl not wearing a hard hat clattering five ponies down the High Street.
It was that fiendish Perdita Macleod. Now she had pulled up outside the village shop and was yelling to them to bring her out an ice-cream. The Vicar’s wife, who had parked on a yellow line while her gay husband went into the shop to get a treacle tart, got such a shock when Wayne stuck his big, hairy white face in through the window that she jumped out and ran away. A traffic warden, finding an empty car, gave the Vicar a parking ticket.
Clattering on, trying to hold five ponies and eat an ice-cream, Perdita was not amused to hear whoops and noisy hooting behind her. It was Seb and Dommie Carlisle packed into their Lotus, with two sumptuous brunettes, and a bull terrier spilling out of the luggage compartment.
Aware that she was hot and sweaty and her hair was escaping from its towelling band, Perdita greeted them sulkily.
‘We’re going to see over Dancer’s palazzo,’ yelled Seb, ‘and swim in his pool, which is even bigger than Loch Lomond. Why don’t you come over?’
‘I haven’t got a bikini.’
‘That’s the last thing you’ll need. See you later.’
When she got back to the yard, however, Ricky had other ideas.
‘What the fuck were you doing taking out five ponies at once? I’ve just had Miss Lodsworth and the Vicar’s wife on the telephone. If you step out of line once more you’re fired. And don’t think you’re going to turn them out and slope off. I want each pony washed down and all the sweat scraped off. I’m going out to look at a pony, and don’t forget to double-lock Wayne’s door.’
The Jamboree was in full swing. Guides were marching, pow-wowing, flag-waving and singing stirring songs as Dancer showed the twins over a totally transformed Eldercombe Manor. As they progressed through the great hall, which was now a recording studio, and practice rooms and six master bedrooms, with bathrooms and jacuzzis en suite, and an intercom service so Dancer’s retinue could chatter to each other all night, the twins’ whoops of laughter and excitement grew in volume.
‘I want a mistress bedroom,’ said Seb, bouncing on one of the huge double beds.
Outside they admired a pink brick yard for twenty ponies, which looked like three sides of a Battenburg cake, and an indoor school, completely walled with bulletproof mirrors.
‘Bas said it looked like a tart’s bedroom,’ said Dancer cheerfully.
‘He’s seen enough of them,’ said Dommie. ‘How the hell did you get planning permission?’
‘Bas and I gave a little drinks party for all the local planning committee. An’ greased their palms so liberally their glasses kept sliding out of their ’ands.’
‘And there were German Shepherds abiding in the fields,’ said Seb, keeping a close hold on Decorum, his bull terrier, as Twinkie the security guard prowled past with an Alsatian. ‘But this is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’
‘It will be when my ponies arrive next week,’ said Dancer cosily.
Soon the twins and their brunettes and various glamorous hangers-on were all stripped off round the pool. Miss Lodsworth, exhorting her guides to greater endeavour in this modern world, was having great difficulty making herself heard over the din of Dancer’s group, who were warming up in the recording studio.
Seb, standing on the top board with binoculars, was peering into Miss Lodsworth’s garden in excitement.
‘That blonde one looks very prepared to me. Lend a hand, darling,’ he shouted. ‘Isn’t that what girl guides are supposed to do?’
‘I wish someone would lend me a farm hand,’ said Dancer’s interior designer sulkily. ‘Wilhelm won’t speak to me since I chucked his Filofax in the jacuzzi. He’s nice,’ he added, as one of Dancer’s workmen went past wielding his JCB like Ben Hur.
‘Now they’re doing semaphore,’ said Seb. ‘Get me a goal flag, Dancer, then I can signal, “Do you screw?” to that blonde.’
‘She’ll tie a clove hitch in your willy if you’re not careful,’ said Dommie.
‘Then it’ll be a guided missile!’ Collapsing off the diving board with laughter at his own joke, Seb just managed to keep the binoculars above the water level.
Meanwhile over in Snow Cottage, Daisy Macleod, trying to fill up her painting jar, found there was no water in the tap. In the house above her, Philippa Mannering, who wanted to wash her hair before the dinner party to which Ricky had refused to come yet again, found not only no water in the tap but that the washing-up machine had stopped in mid-cycle. Over at Robinsgrove, finding no water to hose down the ponies, Perdita put them in their boxes and, having given them their hay nets and filled up the water buckets from the water trough, raced off to Dancer’s for a swim.
Wayne, Ricky’s favourite pony, had such a low threshold of boredom that he had a special manger hooked over the half-door so he could eat and miss nothing in the yard at the same time. The yard escapologist, he had been known to turn on taps and flood the yard and, even worse, let other ponies out of their boxes when he got bored. At matches he had to be watched like a hawk in case he wriggled out of his headcollar, and set off for the tea tent, where his doleful yellow face and black-ringed eyes could coax sandwiches and cake out of the most stony-hearted waitress. Left to his own vices, deserted even by his friend Little Chef, who’d gone with Ricky, Wayne started to fiddle with the bolt.
At the Jamboree it was time for tea. The Marmite and plum jam sandwiches were already curling on the trestle table under the walnut tree. The guides were hot and thirsty, but as Miss Lodsworth went to the kitchen tap for water to fill up the jugs of concentrated lemon squash, only a trickle came out of the tap.
‘Please, Miss Lodsworth,’ said a pink-faced Pack Leader, ‘the upstairs toilet isn’t flushing.’
‘Nor’s the downstairs,’ said her friend.
Looking out across Dancer’s emerging polo fields, Miss Lodsworth first thought how beautiful as a huge fountain of water gushed a hundred feet into the air, throwing up rainbow lights in the sunshine against the yellowing trees.
Picking up the telephone, she was on to Dancer in a trice.
‘D’you realize,’ she spluttered, ‘that your bulldozers have gone slap through the chief water main? The whole village will be cut off, and my guides have nothing to drink.’ She couldn’t mention the question of lavatories to Dancer.
Round the pool they were all having hysterics as Dancer tried to calm her down.
‘I’ll get on to the emergency services immediately. Of course they work on a Saturday. An’ if it gets too bad, your little girls can come and drink out of the swimming-pool. And we’ve got plenty of Bourbon if you’re pushed.’
He had to hold the telephone away from his ear.
An hour later Perdita sidled into the yard with wet hair to be confronted by Frances quivering with ecstatic disapproval.
‘Why the hell didn’t you bother to dry off the ponies?’
‘I just nipped over to Dancer’s for a swim.’
‘Can’t keep away from the boys, can you? Did you turn Wayne out?’
‘No. Yes, I must have done.’ Perdita always blinked when she was lying. ‘Oh Christ, he must be in one of the paddocks or the garden.’
‘He isn’t, I’ve looked,’ sneered Frances. ‘Thank God Ricky’ll come to his senses and sack you now.’
‘Oh, please don’t tell him,’ pleaded Perdita. She hadn’t realized quite how much Frances detested her.
‘You stay here.’ Frances handed her Hermia’s lead rope. ‘I’ll take my car and go and look for him.’
‘I’ll go,’ sobbed Perdita, and, leaping on to Hermia’s back, she clattered off down the drive.
Perdita couldn’t get any sense out of the gaudy retinue round Dancer’s pool. They were all drunk or stoned.
‘Wayne’s gone missing,’ she screamed. ‘Please someone come and help me look for him.’
‘Probably gone to the Jamboree,’ said Dommie, looking up from his brunette. ‘Miss Lodsworth’ll be teaching him how to untie clove hitches.’
‘Don’t be so fucking flip.’
Pulling on a pair of Garfield boxer shorts, grumbling Dommie tiptoed barefoot across the gravel out to his Lotus.
‘You go west, I’ll go north.’
‘Have you seen a yellow pony with a white face? Have you seen a yellow pony with a white face?’ Getting more and more desperate, Perdita stopped at every house and scoured every field. Ricky would go apeshit if anything happened to Wayne. Then, as she entered Eldercombe Village, she saw a pile of droppings in the middle of the road.
‘Looking for a pony?’ said an old man. ‘He went into that garden.’
Perdita went as green as the guides’ unconsumed lemon squash. For there in the gateway, framed in an arch of clematis as purple as her face, stood Miss Lodsworth. She’d had to buy all her guides Coca Cola from guiding funds, and send them home early in a hired bus in case they electrocuted themselves storming the gates of Eldercombe Manor in search of Dancer. She would be eating Marmite sandwiches and rock buns for months.
‘Dancer Maitland has wrecked my Jamboree,’ roared Miss Lodsworth. ‘Your pony has wrecked my garden. He’s trampled on my alstroemerias and my dahlias, kicked out my cucumber frame and broken down the fence into the orchard.’
‘I’m terribly sorry. I’ll pay,’ begged Perdita. ‘Please don’t ring Ricky.’
‘I’m going to ring my solicitor.’
Wayne was enchanted to see Hermia and Perdita, and gave the appearance of having been searching for them all day. As she only had one lead rope, Perdita had to walk both ponies the mile and a half back to Robinsgrove. At the bottom of the drive, Wayne started to totter, and his yellow belly gave such a thunderous rumble, he started looking round at it in surprise and reproach.
Oh God, colic, thought Perdita; perhaps he’s eaten something he shouldn’t, I must get him home.
Halfway up the drive, Wayne started pawing his belly and rolling the whites of his eyes. Soon he was cannoning off lime trees and, as they passed the second gates, crashed into the left-hand gatepost. By the time he had staggered into the yard he could hardly stand up, hitting the ancient, mossy mounting block and tripping over one of the green tubs filled with white geraniums, as Little Chef came bounding out to lick him on the nose.
Perdita had never known Ricky so angry. Taking one look at the swaying Wayne, he yelled at Frances to ring Phil Bagley, the vet.
‘Tell him it may be a heart attack, or colic, or twisted gut. He could even have been hit by a car. Tell him to fucking hurry.’
Then, turning on Perdita: ‘You stupid b-b-bitch, I told you to double-bolt those doors.’
‘I know. I forgot.’
‘Well, you’ve forgotten once too often. Get out, you’re fired.’
‘Please let me see what Phil says,’ whispered Perdita, whose face was now as white as Wayne’s.
‘Get out,’ hissed Ricky, who needed all his strength to guide the staggering, crashing Wayne into his box. ‘Just fuck off.’
Phil Bagley arrived in a quarter of an hour.
‘I was delivering one of Mark Phillips’ calves,’ he said indignantly. ‘The things I do for you, Ricky. Now, where’s this pony?’
As he went into his box Wayne was still pawing his belly. Then, slumping against the wall, he crashed to the ground.
‘I’ll give him a massive jab of vitamin B,’ said Phil when he’d examined him, ‘and some Buscopan. It’s obviously hurting him. Then we’d better get some fluids inside him. I guess it’s twisted gut. Where’s he been?’
‘Escaped to Eldercombe, got into Miss L-L-Lodsworth’s garden.’
‘Jesus, you’d think he’d been programmed.’
As Phil loaded his syringe and Ricky tried to calm the terrified pony, whose eyes were quite glazed now, they heard frantic barking outside.
Next minute Miss Lodsworth’s head appeared over the half-door, looking even more like a horse than Wayne.
‘I’ve come to make a complaint.’
‘Not now,’ said Phil, who was holding the needle up to remove the air bubbles.
‘Piss off,’ muttered Ricky under his breath.
‘I must speak to someone.’
‘Can you wait somewhere else?’ snapped Phil. ‘I’m sorry, but we’ve got a critically sick horse here.’
‘Sick, my eye,’ thundered Miss Lodsworth, ‘That horse isn’t sick, it’s dead drunk. It’s just eaten all my cider apples.’ There was a long pause. Crouching down, Phil sniffed Wayne’s breath.
‘I do believe you’re right. How many apples d’you reckon he ate?’
‘Close on a hundred.’
Ricky never thought he’d want to hug Miss Lodsworth.
‘Are you sure?’ he said, getting to his feet.
As he plunged the needle into Wayne’s shoulder, Phil started to laugh. A second later, Dommie Carlisle, shivering slightly in just boxer shorts, appeared beside Miss Lodsworth.
‘You’ve found him. Thank Christ. I’ve been looking everywhere. What’s the matter with him?’
‘Pissed as a newt,’ said Ricky.
‘I’m surprised you treat the matter so lightly,’ bristled Miss Lodsworth. ‘What about my apples?’
‘He ought to have some painkillers,’ said Phil, ‘and we ought to get some fluids into him. Don’t want him to wreck his liver.’ But Wayne was sleeping peacefully.
‘Better lay on some Fernet Branca for the morning,’ said Dommie. ‘I think I deserve a drink, Ricky.’
‘You all deserve a drink,’ said Ricky turning to Miss Lodsworth. ‘I’m frightfully s-s-sorry. I’ll refund you for the apples, and any other damage. I haven’t got any cider, but I can offer you plenty of whisky.’
Miss Lodsworth had had a long day. ‘Oh all right, I haven’t been inside this house since I used to come here to dances when your father was a boy. Not that he ever danced with me.’
After Ricky’d settled them in the drawing room with drinks, he went in search of Perdita. She wasn’t on the wooden horse or in the yard or in the tack room. Little Chef tracked her down in the pink dusk at the bottom of the garden, with her arms round an apple tree, sobbing her heart out.
‘Please God, make Wayne better,’ she was saying over and over again, then started as Little Chef stood up on his stumpy back legs to lick her hand.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she wailed. ‘Please give me another chance. I love it here so much. I promise not to cheek Frances and cut corners. I just love the ponies and Cheffie – and you – so much,’ she couldn’t stop herself adding.
In a year of working for him she had never cried or apologized. She looked so forlorn, so utterly defeated, her head drooping like a snowdrop, her wonderfully lithe body clinging almost orgiastically to the tree trunk. Ricky had to steel himself not to take her in his arms, but he would have been putting a match to a petrol-soaked bonfire, and he didn’t want to hate himself any more than he did already.
‘It’s OK,’ he said gently. ‘He’s not ill, just drunk. He’d helped himself to Miss Lodsworth’s cider apples.’
‘Oh, my God! Will he be OK?’
‘Fine, except for a thumping hangover. But you can’t afford to make mistakes like that. He might have got on to the motorway.’
‘Like Little Chef,’ shuddered Perdita, starting to cry again. ‘That’s what makes it so awful.’
‘I over-reacted,’ said Ricky dropping a hand on her hair. ‘You can start full time next week if you like.’
‘Oh, you are lovely.’ Seizing his hand, Perdita covered it with kisses. ‘I could make you better. I really do love you.’
Ricky felt dizzy. It was so long since he’d wanted someone like this.
‘No, you don’t,’ he said firmly. ‘You ought to be meeting more boys your own age, not lechers like Bas and the twins. If you’re coming to work here full time, you’re bloody well going to join the Pony Club.’
Polo is largely a matter of pony power. Having left the Army, Drew Benedict had spent a great deal of Sukey’s money buying really good ponies. With these he turned his game around and was gratified when his handicap was raised to eight in the autumn listings a year later. The following year, after an excellent May and June playing for David Waterlane, Drew felt he ought to put something back into the game. He therefore agreed to coach the Rutshire Pony Club for the polo championships, the finals of which were held at Cowdray at the end of July. Drew also quite liked an excuse to get away from Sukey on summer evenings. Used to commanding platoons, he was determined to knock the Rutshire teams into shape. One of his crosses was Perdita Macleod, who had now been working full time for Ricky for nine months and felt she knew everything.
Perdita, on the other hand, even though she was playing with seventeen to twenty-one year olds, regarded playing for the Pony Club as deeply infra dig. She loathed being parted from Ricky for a second, and Felicia, the ponies Ricky and Drew had lent her were still very green.
Consequently she never stopped bellyaching to Daisy about how all the other Pony Club members had at least three ponies, and how humiliating it was having to hack to meetings when everyone else rolled up either in the latest horse boxes with grooms, or driving Porsches with telephones. Nor, she told Daisy, did that ‘bloody old geriatric’ Drew Benedict ever stop picking on her, and all the other boys in the team were such wimps. ‘One of them started crying yesterday, when I hit him with my stick. It was only because he was using his elbows all the time. I tried to explain to Drew, but he just sent me off.’
‘Aren’t any of the boys attractive?’ enquired Daisy hopefully.
‘Not compared with Ricky,’ snapped Perdita, ‘and they all think Drew’s absolutely marvellous, because he’s an eight and a Falklands hero and all. He’s such a bastard.’
‘You’re always saying that about Ricky,’ said Daisy reasonably.
‘But I’m madly in love with Ricky, so I put up with it.’
It was nearly two and a half years since Hamish had walked out on Daisy and she could no longer claim to be madly in love with him, but she missed the presence of a man in her life, and her self-confidence was in tatters. By some miracle she had hung on to her job with the Caring Chauvinist, but she found it exhausting coping with that, and running the house, and looking after Perdita, and more and more after Violet and Eddie. Now Wendy had a daughter, called Bridget, after Biddy Macleod, Hamish seemed less interested in his older children. Snow Cottage simply wasn’t big enough for all of them, particularly when Perdita, who still hadn’t forgiven her mother, was always banging doors and making scenes.
Daisy, ever hopeful and optimistic, however, still made heroic efforts to win Perdita round. She couldn’t afford a car yet, but on the day of the final trials for the Pony Club Championships, which were held at Rutshire Polo Ground, she and Ethel took two buses and walked a mile in pouring rain to lend Perdita support.
Perdita, however, was deeply embarrassed to see her mother arriving in unsuitably colourful clothes and dripping wet hair, like a superannuated hippie. Why the hell couldn’t she turn up in a Barbour, a headscarf and a Volvo like everyone else’s mother? Nervous because she was due to play in two chukkas’ time, Perdita refused even to acknowledge Daisy’s presence.
Momentarily the rain had stopped. It was a hot, very muggy evening. The sun, making a guest appearance between frowning petrol-blue clouds, floodlit the dog daisies and hogweed in the long grass and turned the pitch a stinging viridian. A sweet waft of lime blossom mingled with the rank, sexy smell of drying nettles and elder flowers.
Daisy had brought her sketch pad, but found it difficult to capture the action and hold on to a straining Ethel. Perhaps she could let Ethel off. There seemed to be an awful lot of dogs around for her to play with. Liberated, Ethel frisked with a Jack Russell in a red, spotted scarf and wolfed up a half-eaten beefburger bun. Then, as the players came thundering down the boards, she joined the stampede, trying to steal the ball and nearly bringing down the pony of a fat child with pigtails, whose mother promptly started yelling at Daisy.
Fortunately her torrent of abuse was diluted by a downpour of even more torrential rain. All the mothers raced for their Volvos as the players struggled over to another part of the field. Sheltering her sketch pad under her shirt, Daisy looked helplessly around. She had no mackintosh. She’d just managed to catch a joyously soaked Ethel when a blond man with a flat cap pulled over his straight nose asked her if she’d like to sit in his Land-Rover.
‘It’s all right. I don’t mind the dog.’
Ethel clambered into the back and slobbered down his neck.
‘You are kind,’ said Daisy gratefully. ‘Being a Pisces, I normally love rain, but this shirt’s a bit see-through when it’s wet.’
She was wearing a fringed dark purple midi-skirt and a pink muslin shirt from the early seventies, which had tiny mirrors sewn into it, and which was clinging unashamedly to her breasts. Her dark hair fell damp and straight, just grazing her nipples.
‘You look like Midi Ha Ha,’ said the blond man, smiling slightly, but when Daisy unearthed a bottle of made-up vodka and orange from the chaos of her bag he shook his head.
Helping herself, Daisy noticed he never took his eyes off the play and was now turning on the windscreen wipers to watch a dark-haired boy coax a fat roan pony down the field. ‘That child’s definitely team potential, but the pony’s an absolute bitch, I must have a word with his parents. And Christ, that pony’s improved since last year.’ Then, consulting a list on the dashboard, ‘No, it hasn’t, it’s another pony. Do you want my coat?’
‘I’m fine.’ Daisy took another swig out of her bottle. ‘Midi Ha Ha. Laughing Vodka. At least I can’t be done for being drunk in charge of a setter.’
‘Nice dog,’ said the blond man, putting back a hand and rubbing Ethel behind the ears.
‘Isn’t she?’ agreed Daisy, who was beginning to perk up.
She noticed that the man was very handsome in a stolid, heavy-lidded, way. She would have to mix Manganese blue with a little Payne’s grey to get the colour of his eyes. He had a lovely mouth and lovely muscular thighs. Daisy suddenly wanted to check her face, and when he went off at the end of the chukka to talk to the next group playing, which included Perdita, she toned down her rosy cheeks and drenched her neck with Je Reviens, but failed to put the top back on properly, so it stank out the Land-Rover.
‘Je Reviens,’ said the blond man, sniffing as he got back inside. ‘And I did.’
‘You’re too young to have a child playing?’ asked Daisy, fishing.
‘Yes.’ Checking the list of players again, he opened the car door, yelling, ‘For Christ’s sake, Mark, you’re not on your man.’
‘Ought to be called Un-Mark,’ said Daisy, taking another swig. ‘I’m dying to find out which is Drew Benedict.’
‘Ghastly old fossil,’ went on Daisy happily. ‘He’s giving Perdita such a hard time. I would have thought having worked for Ricky for nearly two years, she might be allowed to evolve her own style.’
She offered the diminishing bottle to him again.
Again he shook his head.
‘How’d you get on with Ricky?’ he asked.
‘Never see him. I just pay his farm manager our rent. He rides past occasionally. He still looks pretty miserable, but Dancer seems to have cheered him up, and the specialist says he’ll definitely be playing again next year.’
‘Then we’ll all have to look to our laurels,’ said the blond man, ‘but he’s not a good teacher. Too impatient and introverted, too obsessed with his own game.’
He’s got a sexy voice, thought Daisy, soft and very quiet. She wished she knew if he were married.
‘There are lots of boys playing,’ she said in surprise. ‘Perdita seems to be the only girl.’
‘Boys tend to avoid the Pony Club, because they’re always being told to keep their toes up and clean tack. Give them a stick and ball and it’s a different story. Some of them are pretty bloody impossible when they arrive. No idea how to play as a team or to think of other people. Most of them get far too much pocket money.’
‘Not Perdita’s problem,’ said Daisy.
‘Nor enough discipline. Parents’ marriages are so often breaking up.’
‘Hum – Perdita’s problem,’ sighed Daisy whose tongue had been totally loosened by drink on no lunch. ‘Everyone keeps telling me she needs a father. But it’s tricky if you’re a single parent – isn’t that a ghastly expression? If you go out at night looking for a father for your children, everyone brands you a whore. People like Philippa Mannering and Miss Lodsworth. D’you know them?’
‘Only too well.’
‘And if you’re too miserable because you’ve been deserted, people think you’re a drag and don’t ask you to parties. And if you’re too jolly, wives think you’re after their husbands. I feel like taking a pinger to parties to stop myself talking to anyone’s husband longer than two minutes. Even girlfriends I know really well get insanely jealous. Mind you, the husbands think you’re after them as well. If you don’t have a man, even the plainest ones think you’re dying for it.’
‘And are you?’ asked the blond man, who was watching Perdita jump the boards and execute a particularly dazzling back shot. ‘Good girl, she kept her head down.’
‘Not really, but on lovely days you’re suddenly overwhelmed with longing to be in love again.’
He turned and looked at her. Did she detect compassion or was it slight wistfulness in those incredibly direct blue eyes? She was just thinking how easy he’d be to fall in love with, and that she really mustn’t start cradle-snatching when he said, ‘Perdita’s seriously good. She’s already been picked for the Jack Gannon, that’s the eighteen to twenty-one group. But she ought to apply for a Pony Club polo scholarship.’
‘What’d that entail?’
‘Six months in New Zealand or Australia. The BPA pay for her ticket out there and put her in a yard. She’d get pocket money. In return she’d look after the ponies, school them and play polo.’
‘Oh, how wonderful,’ sighed Daisy, thinking longingly of the peace at home; then added hastily, ‘For Perdita, of course.’
‘They have to be heavily vetted beforehand, so they don’t let the side down. Some winners in the past have been temperamental and failed to get up in the morning, but on the whole they go out as boys and come back as men.’
‘I hope Perdita doesn’t grow hairs on her chest,’ giggled Daisy. ‘Sorry, I’m being silly. It’s a wonderful idea, but I’m sure Drew Benedict won’t allow it.’
‘He thinks she’s useless.’
The blond man looked faintly amused. ‘There’s the bell,’ then, as a woman strode past in plus fours with an Eton crop, added, ‘and there’s the DC. I’d better go and have a word with her.’
‘Looks more AC to me,’ said Daisy, draining the last of the vodka and orange.
The sinking sun had appeared again, gilding the wheat fields and splodging inky shadows in the rain-soaked trees. Daisy got unsteadily out of the Land-Rover. Next moment Ethel nearly pulled her over as Perdita galloped up.
‘Hello, Mum. You’ve got tomato skin on your front tooth. What on earth were you talking to Drew about for so long.’
‘Drew?’ said Daisy faintly. ‘But you said he was old.’
‘So he is, at least twenty-nine, but I really like him now. He’s picked me for the Jack Gannon, and I’m four months under age, and he says Hermia’s really improved.’
Daisy was almost too embarrassed to accept a lift home from Drew.
‘I had no idea,’ she mumbled.
‘I’ll have to be a bit nicer to Perdita in future,’ he said drily.
Perdita was in such a good mood that she and Daisy actually had supper together for the first time in months.
‘Er – is Drew Benedict married?’ asked Daisy as she mashed the potato.
‘To a terrific Sloane called Sukey,’ said Perdita, not looking up from Horse and Hound. ‘She’s just had a baby – it popped out during the semi-finals of the Queen’s Cup. If it had been a girl, Drew wanted to call her Chukka. Bas said it ought to be called Chuck-up because it’s always being sick.’
Daisy added too much milk to the potatoes. ‘Is she pretty?’
‘Sukey? No-oo,’ said Perdita scornfully. ‘Drew married her for her money.’
‘I thought he was gorg – I mean quite attractive,’ said Daisy.
‘Too straight for me,’ said Perdita. ‘I wonder if I ought to take up weight-lifting.’
Daisy nearly said Perdita could start off by weight lifting some of her belongings upstairs, but desisted because it was such heaven to be on speaking terms again.
Encouraged by Drew, Daisy applied for a Pony Club scholarship for Perdita, and they were duly summoned to Kirtlington to meet the Committee in early July. As their appointment wasn’t until the afternoon, Sukey Benedict asked them to lunch beforehand. To the Caring Chauvinist’s extreme irritation, Daisy took the day off and hired a car.
Very out of practice at driving, she had several near-misses on the motorway and her nerves weren’t helped by Perdita spending most of the journey with her hands over her eyes, as Daisy ground recalcitrant gears and proceeded in a succession of jerks down the High Streets of Oxfordshire villages.
Having thought about Drew Benedict rather too much in the last fortnight, Daisy was fascinated to see what Sukey was like. But, as she came down the steps of the beautiful russet Georgian house, first impressions were very depressing. Only five weeks after having a baby, Sukey’s figure was back to an enviable slimness. The perfect pink-and-white skin had no need of make-up. Her collar-length, mousey hair was drawn off her forehead. She wore a blue denim skirt on the knee and a striped shirt with the collar turned up. Noting the lack of creases, the air of calm efficiency, the brisk, high-pitched voice, Daisy thought gloomily that Sukey couldn’t be more different from her. If this was Drew’s type, she didn’t stand a chance. Then she felt desperately guilty. Who was she, who’d been crucified by Hamish’s departure, to hanker after someone else’s husband?
Escaping into the downstairs loo, which had photographs of Drew in various polo teams all over the walls, Daisy repaired her pink, shiny face. It was so hot outside that she had settled for an orange cheesecloth caftan, which she’d jacked in with a belt of linked gold hippos. The gathers over the bosom made her look as though she was the one breast-feeding. She wore brown sandals, and tried to arrange the cross-gartering over two scabs where she’d cut herself shaving. The telephone had rung just as she’d finished washing her hair, so it had dried all wild and was now held back with an orange-and-shocking-pink striped scarf, off which Ethel had chewed one of the corners. Gold-hooped earrings completed the picture. I look awful, thought Daisy, particularly as Perdita, who’d be expected to ride, looked absolutely ravishing in a dark blue shirt and white breeches.
Coming out of the loo, she found Drew, looking equally ravishing in a blue striped shirt rolled up to show very brown arms. He had that high-coloured English complexion, which looks so much better with a suntan.
He took her into the sitting room, which Daisy was comforted to see was absolute hell – far too much eau-de-Nil and yellow and ghastly paintings of polo matches interspersed with some excellent watercolours. Over the fireplace was a very glamorized portrait of Sukey in a pale blue ball dress and some very good sapphires. Over the desk was a portrait of Drew, probably painted in his late teens. He was wearing an open-necked shirt, and his blond hair flopped over his eyes, which were smiling with a lazy insolence.
‘Johnny Macklow?’ said Daisy, impressed.
Drew nodded. ‘Good girl. Only had one sitting, spent the whole time fending the old bugger off. Refused to go back for any more. My mother was furious. Vodka and orange, wasn’t it?’
‘Not too large,’ chided Sukey. ‘She’s got to talk sense to the Committee later.’
‘Need a stiff one to cope with that lot,’ said Drew.
Having handed the glass to Daisy, he turned to Perdita: ‘Like to come and see the yard?’
‘Lunch at one fifteen on the dot. Don’t be too long,’ ordered Sukey.
After they’d gone Sukey paced up and down sipping Evian water. Out of the window, Daisy admired the incredibly tidy garden. Not a weed dared to show its face. Beyond, a heat haze shimmered above the fields which sloped upwards to a wood which seemed about to explode in midgy darkness. On the piano was a picture of a baby in a silver frame.
‘He’s sweet,’ said Daisy.
‘Just beginning to smile,’ said Sukey, her voice softening.
‘And you’ve got your figure back so amazingly.’
‘Exercise and not drinking helps.’
‘It must,’ said Daisy guiltily, taking a huge gulp of her vodka and orange.
Sukey had reached the window in her pacing and was about to start on the return journey.
‘Look, I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but I know Drew’s frite-fly keen for Perdita to get this scholarship.’
‘He’s been so kind,’ mumbled Daisy.
‘But the Committee are really rather stuffy.’ Sukey was like a comely steamroller. ‘I honestly think you ought to wear something more conventional. That orange dress would be lovely at a party, but it makes you look a bit arty and hippy. And you should wear tights.’
‘They all had holes,’ said Daisy, flushing.
‘Let’s just pop upstairs and see if we can find something more suitable.’
‘But you’re miles thinner than me.’
Before she knew it Daisy was upstairs in the tidiest bedroom she had ever seen. Even the few pots of make-up on the blue-flowered dressing table seemed to be standing to attention. The double bed was huge too. Lucky thing to be made love to by Drew on it, Daisy was appalled to find herself thinking.
‘When I was having Jamie, I had this lovely dress, which I hardly got out of,’ said Sukey, raking coat hangers along a brass bar. ‘Ah, here it is.’
Triumphantly she extracted a navy-blue cotton dress with a big white sailor collar, presumably to distract from the bulge.
‘Oh, I couldn’t,’ protested Daisy.
But, as if mesmerized, she found herself getting out of her orange caftan and darting almost minnow-like into the navy-blue dress, so ashamed was she of the greyness of her pants, which had practically detached themselves from the elastic.
‘It really isn’t me,’ she protested.
‘It is. You need the whole look,’ insisted Sukey bossily. ‘Here’s a pair of tights. They’ve even got a darn; the Committee’ll like that and these shoes will be perfect. I love flatties, don’t you? But a little heel’s better for this dress. They do fit well. And the earrings don’t really go, or the scarf. Just let me brush your hair back and put on this Alice band. There! Don’t you look charming? Neat but not gaudy.’
Daisy gazed at herself in the mirror. Her forehead was unnaturally white where her fringe had been drawn back. She suppressed a terrible desire to fold her arms and break into a hornpipe.
‘It’s truly not me.’
‘It’ll certainly be the Committee,’ said Sukey firmly. ‘You want Perdita to get this scholarship, don’t you?’
There was a knock and a Filipino maid put a shiny dark head round the door.
‘It’s ready, is it, Conchita? We’ll be down in a sec. Can you tell Mr Benedict?’
Drew didn’t recognize Daisy when she crept in.
‘Where’s Daisy got to?’ he said, breaking off a grape.
‘Christ!’ said Perdita. ‘You’ve been Sloaned, Mum.’
‘Doesn’t she look nice?’ said Sukey.
‘She looks gross.’
Sukey’s lips tightened. Drew looked at Daisy incredulously, torn between rage and a desire to laugh. ‘But that’s your maternity dress,’ he added to Sukey.
‘And as my disgusting stepfather walked out two and a half years ago,’ pointed out Perdita, ‘the Committee are going to think it pretty odd that Mum’s got a bun in the oven.’
‘She doesn’t look at all pregnant,’ said Sukey.
‘She looks like Jolly Jack Tar,’ snapped Perdita. ‘Shiver your timbers, Mum.’
‘Shut up, Perdita.’ Fighting a fearful urge to burst into tears, Daisy giggled instead.
‘Daisy looked lovely before,’ said Sukey, plunging a knife into the yellow, red and green surface of the quiche, ‘but you know how stuffy Brigadier Canford and Major Ashton are.’
‘Charlie Canford’s such a DOM he’d have much preferred Daisy as she was,’ said Drew coldly.
No-one could have told from his face that he was absolutely livid with Sukey, but he didn’t want a row, which would upset Daisy and gee Perdita up before the interview.
Patting the chair beside him, he told Daisy, ‘If Perdita gets the scholarship, Sukey and I may well be going out to New Zealand at the same time to buy some ponies, so we can keep an eye on her.’
‘Not if you’re going to dress me in sailor suits,’ said Perdita, giving a bit of pastry to Drew’s slavering yellow Labrador.
‘I don’t think Perdita ought to have wine if she’s going to ride,’ said Sukey. ‘Would you like salad with or after, Daisy?’
Ignoring her, Drew filled up Perdita’s glass, then, seeing Daisy’s eyes had suddenly filled with tears, asked her if she’d like another vodka and orange.
‘Another thing to remember at the interview,’ said Sukey pointedly, ‘is to let Perdita do the talking. Some mothers answer all the time for the children, which makes the Committee think the child lacks initiative.’
‘What have you done to my Mum, Suke,’ sang Perdita.
‘Shut up, Perdita,’ said Drew and Daisy simultaneously.
‘And do try and appear really keen, Perdita,’ advised Sukey. ‘The Committee loves enthusiasm.’
The interview lasted half an hour. Very kindly, they asked Daisy about her financial circumstances. She stuck out her darned leg, hoping to give an impression of genteel poverty, smiled so much her face ached and, despite Sukey’s warnings, found herself talking too much to compensate for Perdita’s bored indifference.
Brigadier Canford, who was indeed a lover of pretty girls, looked at Perdita’s impassive, dead-pan face, and had a strange feeling he’d seen her before somewhere.
‘And what d’you want to get out of polo?’
‘I want to go to ten.’
‘Bit ambitious. Nearest a woman’s ever got is five.’
Out of the window Perdita could see children riding in pairs and dribbling balls in and out of soap boxes.
‘I know, but there was a piece in a polo magazine the other day saying many women were ten in beauty, but never could be ten in polo. Fucking patronizing.’
‘Perdita,’ murmured Daisy.
‘I hope you wouldn’t use language like that in New Zealand, young lady,’ said the Brigadier. ‘You’d be representing your country, you know.’
Later they watched her playing a chukka with seven other contenders for the scholarship.
Brigadier Canford admired the lightning reflexes, the way she adjusted to a not-very-easy pony in seconds and showed up the others as she ruthlessly shoved them out of the way and cat-and-mouse-whipped the ball away just as they were about to hit it.
‘Wow,’ he said, turning to Drew. ‘I’m not sure she couldn’t go to ten, and she’d certainly be ten in looks if she smiled more often.’
Puzzled, he shook his pewter-grey head. ‘I can’t think where I’ve seen her before.’
Apart from Perdita, the Rutshire team for the Jack Gannon Cup consisted of Justin and Patrick Lombard, farmer’s sons who’d spent their lives in the saddle and who made up for lack of finesse with dogged determination, and David Waterlane’s son, Mike, now nearly twenty-one, who played like an angel when his father wasn’t on the sideline bellowing at him.
In an exhausting, exhilarating fortnight, they moved round the country triumphing gloriously at Cheshire, being demoralized at Cirencester, where they drew against a vastly inferior team, cockahoop at Kirtlington, and nearly coming unstuck at Windsor, where Perdita was sent off for swearing, so Rutshire had to play the last chukka with only three men, and only just won.
On the first Friday in August they finally reached Cowdray and won the semi-finals by the skins of their gumshields. The Quorn, opposing them, had rumbled Drew’s Exocet weapon, and spent the match giving Perdita so much hassle that she only hit the ball twice. The Lombard brothers and Mike Waterlane, however, scored a goal apiece to put Rutshire into Sunday’s final against the mighty South Sussex, who hadn’t been beaten for three years.
The entire Championships were being sponsored by petfood billionaire and fitness freak, Kevin Coley, Chairman of Doggie Dins, Moggie Meal and the newly launched Fido-Fibre. Kevin had formerly sponsored show-jumping, but five years ago had run off with Janey, the wife of Billy Lloyd-Foxe, one of his professionals and Rupert Campbell-Black’s best friend. After Janey went back to Billy, Kevin had patched up his differences with his wife, Enid, but one of the conditions had been that Kevin would sponsor polo instead of show-jumping to avoid bumping into Janey on the circuit, and because their daughter, Tracey, would meet a nicer class of young man in polo. Trace – as she liked to be called – at eighteen was playing in the crack South Sussex team against Rutshire in the final. If she wasn’t quite up to her other team-mates, her presence there vastly increased her father’s generosity. The whole South Sussex team had been driving round the country in a vast aluminium horse box, evidently the latest thing in America, and Kevin had provided each player with four top-class ponies.
The South Sussex team was also more than compensated by the rock solidarity of a boy called Paul Hedley at back, and the dazzling Sherwood brothers, Randolph and Merlin, who’d pulled out of high goal polo for a fortnight to piss it up with the Pony Club.
Randy Sherwood, who was known as the Cock of the South, had a handicap of two and was so glamorous with his long, long legs and curly hair that fell perfectly into shape, that girls clamoured to groom for him for nothing. Merlin, who was quieter, but just as lethal, had pulled a different groupie every night of the Championships. Randy, going amazingly steady for him, had spent the fortnight screwing Trace Coley, who was as pretty as she was spoilt, because he’d heard rumours that Kevin was thinking of including him in his team next year.
Perdita and Trace had detested each other on sight and, together with Randy, Trace spent a lot of time when they weren’t screwing, winding Perdita up. Not only did they drench her in a water fight when she didn’t have a change of clothes and throw her on the muck heap, but on Friday evening offered her a roll filled with Doggie Dins, so she spent the rest of the night throwing up. Perdita reacted with screaming tantrums. Trace, suspecting Randy’s incessant baiting might have some basis in desire, stepped up the spite.
And now it was Finals’ Day and the number two Ambersham ground at Cowdray was a seething mass of caravans, tents, trailers, canvas loose-boxes for 200 ponies and rows of cars belonging to team managers and exhausted parents. Breakfast of sausage, egg and chips was sizzling over camp-fires. The mobile loos had worked until the day before, but now each bowl was an Everest of Bronco and the stench was getting worse.
With fifty teams present, there had also been one hell of a party the night before. Now, revellers nursed their hangovers. All the Beaufort and the VWH had been penalized for skinny-dipping. One of the Quorn had been discovered in a very loose-box with a girl from the Cotswold and dropped from his team. Perdita, not in a party mood, had stayed in her tent reading The Maltese Cat.
Daisy, having taken a fortnight’s holiday to drive Perdita around in yet another hired car, had never felt so shattered in her life. She spent the morning scrubbing out the ponies’ boxes because the Rutshire team manager, miffed that Drew seemed to have utterly taken over, threatened dire reprisals if a blade of straw was left on the floor. In despair at the greasiness of her hair, Daisy had washed it in the river – how the hell had women coped in biblical times? – and it had dried all crinkly. The cornflower-blue dress she had brought to wear at the finals had been slept on by Ethel and was impossibly creased, as was her face after two nights sleeping in the car. Her legs, not brown enough, were becoming bristly.
She was miserably aware of getting on Perdita’s nerves, and, as all the fathers had rolled up, of the loneliness of being a woman on one’s own. She was almost abject with gratitude to Drew who’d insisted she use his Land-Rover as her base, and who’d come up specially that morning to invite her to lunch and to watch the match with him and Sukey.
Among the Pony Club, Daisy noticed, Drew was a Superman. A fortnight ago he had played for England against America in the annual International. Only his two hard-fought goals and grimly consistent defence had prevented the game turning into a rout. Now he couldn’t move twenty yards without signing autographs. In his cool way Drew found this gratifying.
Marrying Sukey had admittedly enabled him to buy a string of cracking ponies and build a much-envied yard, but he was increasingly irked by the curbs on his freedom. Sukey raised eyebrows when he ordered rather too good a bottle of claret in restaurants. She winced at the size of his tailor’s bill and questioned him going to Harley Street to replace two teeth knocked out in the Gold Cup when there was a perfectly good National Health dentist down the road. And just because Miguel O’Brien had switched to a new, ludicrously expensive, lightweight saddle, why did all Drew’s ponies need one too?
Drew had never been extravagant, but he couldn’t see the point of parsimony for parsimony’s sake, so he had decided to look for a patron, some ignoramus who would pay him a long salary to coach him and look after his ponies. Kevin Coley was rumoured to be fed up with the dreadful Napiers and looking for a new senior professional. Trace Coley was impossibly spoilt, but Drew felt he could handle her. It was therefore in his interest to be the coach responsible for toppling South Sussex this afternoon.
While the South Sussex team, by invitation of Kevin, were all lunching on lobster, gulls’ eggs, out of season strawberries and champagne in the Doggie Dins’ Tent, half a mile away in one of Lord Cowdray’s cottages, the Rutshire were having a team meeting. The curtains were drawn so they could see the video that Drew was playing of their semi-final against the Quorn. Drew leant against the wall, his thumb on the control button.
‘Today we have one problem – you have to mark the other guys or we’ll lose. You should never be more than two horse-lengths away from your man at any time. You must concentrate. Justin. You were loose in the first chukka, so were you, Patrick.’ Drew froze the picture for a second. ‘Their Number Three was all on his own. If Randy Sherwood gets loose with the ball we’re lost. Trace Coley’s their weak link. You won’t have any trouble with her, Mike, so give Patrick all the back-up he needs and both mark the hell out of Randy.’
‘I’ll try,’ said Mike, who had a hoarse voice like a braying donkey, the gentle timidness of a Jersey cow, and blushed every time he was spoken to.
Drew turned to Perdita, who was deciding whether to race to the loo and be sick again.
‘Remember you’re playing polo, not solo, Perdita. Their back, Paul Hedley, is quite capable of storming through and scoring, so stay with him. And, above all, no tantrums. South Sussex may be ludicrously over-confident, but we can’t beat them with three players.’
Then, to Perdita’s squirming embarrassment, he replayed the clip of her rowing with the umpire three times, freezing the frame of her yelling with her mouth wide open, until her team-mates were howling with laughter and rolling round on the floor. A shaft of sunlight coming through the olive-green curtains wiped out the picture.
‘Let’s go and have lunch,’ said Drew.
Daisy hung about until Drew and the team came back to the Land-Rover. Sukey had done everyone proud, and the Lombard boys, who were Labradors when it came to food, were soon wolfing smoked salmon quiche, marinated breast of chicken, mozzarella in brown rolls, ratatouille and potato salad made with real mayonnaise.
Mike, who’d gone greener than the minted melon balls provided for pudding, and Perdita, who was lighting one cigarette from another, couldn’t eat a thing.
‘You must get something inside you,’ insisted Sukey bossily, ‘and you too, Daisy.’
I’d like your husband’s cock inside me, Daisy was absolutely horrified to find herself thinking. It was only because Drew had remembered she liked vodka and orange and had poured her two really strong ones. In her present vulnerable state she was hopelessly receptive to kindness.
‘Oh, where’s Ricky?’ moaned Perdita for the millionth time.
‘Don’t be too upset if he doesn’t come,’ said Drew in an undertone. ‘I know he wants to, but all these children riding and such family solidarity may be too much for him.’
He’s so sweet to her, thought Daisy gratefully, getting out her sketchbook as Drew took the team off to the pony lines to tack up.
Sukey firmly screwed the top on the vodka. ‘You’re driving. I expect you’d like coffee now instead of another drink.’
‘Aren’t you nervous?’ said Trace Coley fondly, as Randy accepted a glass of brandy.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Mike Waterlane’s their only decent player, and he’ll go to pieces as soon as his father turns up.’
David Waterlane drove his Rolls-Royce with the leaping silver polo pony on the front towards Cowdray. He had made the mistake of going via Salisbury because his bride of six months, who was twenty years younger than him, wanted to look at the cathedral. As they drove through rolling hills topped by Mohican clumps of trees and moved into the leafy green tunnels of Petersfield, his bride, who’d been primed by Drew, put her hand on her husband’s cock and suggested that it would be more fun to stop and have their picnic in a field than join the crowds at Cowdray. It was only two o’clock, they’d seen the parade many times before, and Mike’s match wouldn’t start before 4.15.
Ponies tacked up in the pony lines yawned with boredom as their owners gave them a last polish. Mothers cleared up the remnants of picnics. Fathers looked up at the uniform ceiling of grey cloud and decided to put on tweed caps instead of panamas.
Mrs Sherwood, Randy’s and Merlin’s mother, divorced, with a Brazilian lover, and too glamorous for words in a peach suede suit, was talking to Kevin Coley, who looked like a pig with a thatched, blond tea-cosy on its head. Kevin, in turn, was being watched by his wife, Enid, who had gaoler’s eyes, was more regal than the Queen, and in her spotted dress looked like a Sherman tank with measles. Daisy marvelled that she and Kevin could produce a daughter as pretty as Trace.
Cavalcades were riding quietly down to the ground, past trees indigo with recent rain, and cows and horses grazing alongside the faded grey ruins of the castle with its crenellated battlements and gaping windows. Of the fifty teams taking part in the parade, only eight were playing in the four finals, but there was still the prize for the best-turned-out team to be won.
The ground, a huge stretch of perfect emerald turf, was bordered to the north by fir trees and to the south by mothers having fearful squawking matches about the authenticity of various junior teams who weren’t allowed to ride bona fide polo ponies.
‘Tabitha Campbell-Black’s pony played high goal at Cirencester!’
‘No, it didn’t!’
‘Yes, it did!’
Brigadier Canford, Chairman of the Pony Club, and lover of pretty girls, was less amused to be stampeded by Valkyries.
‘The Beaufort are cheating. They’ve back-dated membership of their Number Four. He’s American and only been in the country two weeks.’
‘The Bicester are cheating too. I’ve just caught them trying to ditch their weak link and import a brilliant boy from Rhinefield Lower who doesn’t have a team.’
‘Ladies, ladies,’ said Enid Coley, joining the group of howling mothers. ‘Polo is only a game.’
‘And she’ll have the South Sussex team manager stoned to death at dawn with vegetarian Scotch eggs if they don’t win,’ murmured Bas Baddingham who’d just rolled up and was kissing Daisy.
At two forty-five the parade began. On they came: chestnut, bay, dark brown, dappled grey, palamino, the occasional extravagantly spotted Appaloosa, ears pricked, tack gleaming, stirrups and bits glittering.
Daisy marvelled at the shifting kaleidoscope of coloured shirts, and the great, ever-moving millipede of ponies’ legs in their coloured bandages. Many of the riders wore faceguards like visors in some medieval contest. Daisy wished she could paint it, but you’d need to be Lady Butler to capture that lot. Fatty Harris, Rutshire’s club secretary, seconded for the day to do the commentary, had had rather too good a lunch in the Doggie Dins’ Tent and was waxing lyrical over the ancient names.
‘Here comes the Beaufort, the Bicester, the Cotswold, the Vale of the White Horse, the Craven, the Shouth Shushex Shecond Team.’
‘Thought he’d have trouble with that one,’ said Bas.
‘And a big cheer for the Rutshire,’ went on Fatty Harris, ‘today’s finalists in the Jack Gannon.’
On came the Rutshire in their Prussian-blue shirts, Prussian-blue bandages on their ponies’ gleaming legs. Little Hermia, a changed pony after a fortnight’s attention from Perdita, danced and snatched at her bit in excitement.
‘She should have ridden Felicia in the parade,’ said Sukey disapprovingly. ‘Hermia doesn’t need hotting up.’
But Hermia’s the nearest she can get to Ricky, thought Daisy, and she’s still hoping he’ll turn up.
Next to Perdita rode Mike Waterlane on Dopey, a deceptively sleepy-looking pony, who was faster than a Ferrari and nipped all the opposition ponies in the line-out. Beyond him rode the Lombard brothers grinning broadly and enjoying themselves.
‘Oh, don’t they look lovely?’ Suddenly the tears spurted out of Daisy’s eyes and she had to turn away and bury her face in Drew’s Land-Rover. Next moment a large piece of kitchen roll had been shoved into her hand. A minute later, when she’d got control of herself, Drew was back with another glass of vodka and orange.
A great cheer rang out as Cowdray, the home team, came on in their orange shirts.
‘And here we have the other finalists in the Jack Gannon, unbeaten for the last three years, the South Shushex.’ Fatty Harris got it half right this time.
Randy, Merlin, Paul and Trace rode with a swagger and there was no doubt their ponies were the sleekest, fittest and most expensive of all.
‘I’m sure you all know that Trace Coley, the daughter of Kevin Coley, Chairman of Doggie Dins and our sponsor, is South Sussex’s Number One in the final today,’ announced Fatty Harris.
Kevin raised both clasped hands in a salute to acknowledge luke-warm cheers; Trace lifted her whip.
‘She’s left her hair loose, the little tart,’ said Perdita contemptuously. ‘That’ll cost them the turn-out prize even if they win everything else. Oh, I wish Ricky was here.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said Fatty Harris, ‘I give you the Pony Club.’
At the sight of these serried, beautifully turned-out ranks, this huge army with their polo sticks on their collarbones like bayonets, a deafening cheer went up. Fathers rushed about with video cameras, mothers wiped their eyes. Randy and Merlin Sherwood’s beautiful mother adjusted her mascara in the driving mirror and eyed Rupert Campbell-Black who’d just rolled up alone in a dark green Ferrari to watch his daughter, Tabitha, play in the first final for the under-fourteens. Rupert, who’d just been appointed Tory Minister for Sport, eyed Mrs Sherwood back.
Then, suddenly, out of the sky like a vast whirring hornet came a black helicopter. Perdita gave a gasp as it landed to the west of the pitch. The door flew open and, like a page from Nigel Dempster, out jumped the Carlisle twins, Seb carrying Decorum, their bull terrier, and Dommie helping out a redhead and a blonde whose skirts immediately blew above their heads to show off wonderful suntanned legs. They were followed by Dancer in dark glasses and black leather, Twinkle and Paulie, each with an Alsatian, and finally – Perdita gave a scream of delight – by Ricky with Little Chef in his arms.
‘Now, members of the Pony Club, will you please walk off the pitch,’ exhorted Fatty Harris. ‘We owe it to the Cowdray ground and to Lord Cowdray to walk off.’
In the past the temptation to gallop across the hallowed Cowdray turf, which so many of them were not going to have the chance to play on, had been too much for the teams. Dreadful stampedes had resulted, with the whole field being cut up before a ball had been hit, which had resulted in turn in threats of not being allowed back. The sight of Ricky, however, was too much for Perdita.
‘I’m here,’ she screamed, and digging her heels into Hermia, went straight into a gallop towards the helicopter, followed by 199 yelling Pony Club members, who fortunately veered off to the left, and didn’t trample the new arrivals to death.
‘Disgraceful,’ spluttered Sukey. ‘She should lose her scholarship for that.’
Drew shrugged. ‘The sooner she’s packed off to New Zealand away from Ricky the better.’
Seeing her master, Hermia ground to a halt and whinnied with pleasure. Little Chef leapt up and licked her nose.
Jumping off, Perdita threw herself into Dancer’s arms, hugged the twins, and then turned more shyly to Ricky. Her heart was crashing around like Big Ben about to strike.
‘Thank you so much. I never thought it’d make so much difference,’ she gabbled.
Ricky put up a hand and touched her cheek.
‘Hermia looks well,’ he said, ‘and much h-h-happier.’
‘She shakes hands for a Polo now,’ said Perdita.
‘You’d better win. We’ve all got money on it,’ said Dancer. ‘Can you get that crate of Moët out?’ he added to Twinkle.
The twins, who had only left the Pony Club two years ago, pushed off to see their old chums. Everyone else landed up beside Drew’s Land-Rover. Soon the autograph hunters were swarming round Drew, Bas and Dancer. It broke Perdita’s heart that Ricky, who’d only been out of top-class polo for three years, was totally ignored.
‘What a lovely shirt,’ said Sukey to Bas. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘Marks and Spencer, I think,’ said Bas.
‘There, you see,’ Sukey chided Drew. ‘I’m always telling you there’s no need to go to Harvie and Hudson.’
Seeing the flash of anger in Drew’s eyes, Bas tactfully enquired after the baby. He’d forgotten what sex it was.
‘Oh, Jamie’s at home,’ said Sukey. ‘I’m amazed how Drew dotes on him. Men love having a boy, don’t they?’ She turned to Ricky. ‘It matters so much to a man having an heir.’
For a second, as Ricky’s face went dead, Bas and Dancer exchanged horrified glances.
‘Isn’t that Tabitha Campbell-Black playing for the East Cotchester?’ said Bas, as a tiny figure, jaw thrust out, white stick-like legs flailing, thundered down the boards. ‘Come on, Tabitha.’
‘Man, man, man,’ screamed the tiny figure to the East Cotchester Number Three. ‘Take the fucking man, for Christ’s sake.’
The umpire blew his whistle. ‘That’ll be forty against you for swearing, young lady. Consider yourself lucky you haven’t been sent off.’
Bellowed on by her father, Tabitha scored three goals and East Cotchester won the Handley Cross.
Leaning against the Land-Rover, Daisy drew Rupert. Goodness, he had a beautiful face. Then she drew Ricky with his sombre, slanting dark eyes and then Drew twice, trying not to make him too handsome. In pencil, she could never capture the blueness of his eyes. Having sketched Bas as a merry Restoration rake, she had a crack at Sukey. Not easy – Sukey’s charm was all in her colouring. She had a long face and such a naked forehead, Daisy found herself turning her into a polo pony.
‘I’d hide that if I were you.’
Looking up with a start, Daisy saw that Ricky was actually smiling.
‘Oh my God.’ Daisy ripped out the page.
‘Very appropriate,’ said Ricky, taking it from her. ‘I’m sure Sukey turns on sixpence.’
‘She has a turn if Drew spends sixpence,’ said Bas, peering over Ricky’s shoulder. ‘Bloody good, that’s brilliant of Rupert. I’m much better looking than that.’
Giggling, Daisy stuffed the page into her pocket.
‘I’ve done a couple of Hermia, in fact several,’ she shoved the book at Ricky. He really was the most shy-making man.
Ricky flicked through, really looking. ‘You’ve got her, even that little scar over her eye. They’re marvellous.’
‘Keep them,’ said Daisy, blushing.
‘I framed your cat. You must come and see it.’
‘You must come and have supper sometime,’ Daisy was staggered to hear herself saying. It must be the vodka.
‘I’d like that,’ said Ricky.
And he always says no to Philippa Mannering, thought Daisy. Perhaps if he fancied Perdita he saw her as a potential mother-in-law.
‘Hello, Ricky,’ said a shrill voice. Grinning up at him, her two front teeth missing, was Tabitha Campbell-Black.
‘Hello, Tab. D’you know Mrs Macleod?’
‘You played very well,’ said Daisy.
‘I know. None of the others did.’ Tabitha, who had all the beauty and arrogance of her father, was now gouging out the centre of Sukey’s home-made fruitcake with both hands.
‘Have you had a good camp?’ asked Ricky.
‘Great. I haven’t cleaned my teeth for a week.’
‘They’ll fall out.’
‘No, they’re used to it.’
‘Where’s your father?’
‘Chatting up Randy Sherwood’s mother. He’s given Beattie Johnson the push, which is a shame. She never minded me getting into bed with her and Daddy.’
‘Has he bought any new horses?’
‘Yes, a stallion called Lord Thomas. He’s so good, I hold the mares when he mates with them. Lord Thomas is the perfect gentleman, he always licks the mares afterwards.’
‘Unlike his father,’ murmured Ricky to Daisy, as Tabitha scampered off.
The Rutshire and the South Sussex were warming up their ponies for the Jack Gannon. The long wait had told on Perdita’s nerves.
‘Think positive,’ she said through clattering teeth.
Mike Waterlane was grey. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to Daddy.’
‘Hopefully, he’s had a shunt,’ said Patrick Lombard, tightening his girths.
The pale yellow flowers of the traveller’s joy entwined in the hedgerows brought no happiness to David Waterlane stuck behind a convoy of cars on the Midhurst Road which was held up by a huge lorry with a sign saying ‘Horses’ on the back.
‘Bound to be show-jumpers – bloody yobbos,’ said David Waterlane apoplectically.
There was no way he was going to reach Cowdray nor his son’s match for the throw-in. The new Lady Waterlane, having drunk three-quarters of a bottle of Bollinger and achieved two and a half orgasms, was well content.
‘Go for the girl,’ ordered Randy Sherwood, as South Sussex rode on to the field. ‘Mark her stupid, bash the hell out of her. Once she loses her rag, they’ll all go to pieces.’
‘I want 5-0 on the scoreboard by half-time,’ Drew told Rutshire, ‘and don’t let Randy get loose.’
‘My son is one,’ announced a large mother, whose red veins matched her dress.
‘That’s a lovely age. Is he crawling?’ asked Seb Carlisle’s girlfriend.
‘She’s talking about his handicap,’ said Sukey in a low voice, and looked very disapproving when Daisy started to laugh.
To a whirring of cine-cameras and a gratifying clicking of Nikons, Enid Coley progressed graciously into the stands. No-one could see a thing round her big spotted hat. Kevin Coley was busy supervising four different video cameramen to capture Trace’s every stroke of genius on the field. Seeing Dancer and Drew talking to Mrs Sherwood and Rupert and, being a terrible star fucker, he barged into the group.
‘Let the best man win,’ he smirked at Drew.
‘Well, it certainly won’t be you,’ drawled Rupert.
Mrs Sherwood turned and smiled at Kevin. After all, he was picking up her sons’ expenses. ‘Do you know Dancer Maitland and Rupert Campbell-Black, Kevin?’
‘Rather too well,’ said the new Minister for Sport, his eyes like chips of ice.
‘Shut up,’ said Drew out of the corner of his mouth. ‘I hope he’s going to sponsor me.’
‘I wouldn’t advise it,’ went on Rupert, not lowering his voice at all. ‘Kevin sponsored a friend of mine a few years ago and took over his wife. If you’re going into business with Kev, I’d slap Sukey into a chastity belt pronto.’
‘That is quite uncalled for,’ spluttered Kevin.
‘They’re about to throw-in. Come on, Rutshire,’ shouted Bas, filling up everyone’s glasses.
‘Why are you wearing that wrist brace?’ Merlin asked Randy as he lined up behind Justin Lombard.
‘Too much wanking,’ said Mike Waterlane, going bright pink at his own daring.
‘I don’t need to wank, you little pipsqueak,’ snapped Randy, nodding and smirking in Trace’s direction. ‘I’ve got the real thing.’
‘I hope she’s better at screwing than polo,’ hissed Perdita, who, like a cat waiting to spring, was watching the umpire’s hand.
‘You bitch,’ squealed Trace.
The umpire, who was having great difficulty controlling his dapple-grey pony, hurled the ball in. Hermia hated throw-ins. It took all the strength of Perdita’s frantically squeezing legs to stop her ducking out. Reaching over, however, she managed to hook Randy’s stick, so Mike was able to tap the ball away. Thundering towards the centre of the field, giving two South Sussex players the slip, Perdita picked up a beautiful pass from Mike, skedaddled easily round Paul Hedley, hit two glorious offside forehands towards goal, before cutting the ball perfectly through the buttercup-yellow goal posts. Up went the yellow flag.
‘That’ll teach you to booze at lunchtime,’ she said sweetly to Randy as she cantered back.
After that Randy really had it in for her. Taking a pass from Patrick during the next chukka, she set out once more for goal.
‘Leave,’ brayed a hoarse donkey voice behind her, ‘leave, you bloody idiot.’
For a fatal second Perdita paused, thinking it was Mike shouting. Turning her head, she saw it was Randy Sherwood imitating Mike to muddle her, and that he was the only player in pursuit and had now gained valuable distance. The ball was ahead on her left. As she stood up in her stirrups, stretching over Hermia’s nearside shoulder to hit the forehand, her right leg automatically swivelled up in the air. Lined up along the south of the field, the crowd could only see her left side. One umpire was up the other end, the other was too busy controlling his refractory pony to watch what Randy was up to. A second later he had neatly kicked her right stirrup out. Perdita mis-hit wildly, and only by some miracle stayed in the saddle, by which time Randy had backed the ball upfield to Merlin, who scored.
‘Bastard,’ screamed Perdita, racing down the field, twirling her stick in the air, which was against the rules.
She also knew that she should have reported the foul to Mike, who would then make an official complaint to the umpire, but she was too angry.
‘The fucking, cheating bastard,’ she screamed. ‘He kicked out my stirrup.’
‘I what?’ asked Randy, the picture of innocence.
The umpires conferred, then, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee in their striped shirts, cantered over to the third man in the stands, who’d been gazing at Mrs Sherwood at the time and missed the incident altogether, and who now waved his down-turned palms back and forth to indicate no foul.
‘You’ve got to be joking,’ said Perdita hysterically. ‘Bloody, dirty cheat.’
The umpires awarded a thirty-yard penalty to South Sussex.
At the slowest, most mocking hand-canter Randy Sherwood circled and stroked the ball between the posts.
‘You’re making things seriously easy for us,’ he told a raging Perdita as he cantered back.
Despite dogged marking by Rutshire, the superior pony power of South Sussex was beginning to tell. They were six-five ahead and Drew and Ricky had their heads together at half-time. Then, as the Rutshire ponies’ girths were loosened and they were washed down, scraped and walked round by the grooms, Drew called a brief team meeting.
‘I’m going to swap you over,’ he said. ‘You’re going to Number Four, Justin, and you’re moving up to Number Two, Mike.’
Mike lowered the can of Coke which he’d been emptying down his parched throat.
‘I couldn’t. I’ll never hold Randy.’
‘Randy’s got a slower pony in this chukka, who won’t like Dopey taking a piece of him in the line-out one bit.’
It was a wise change. Randy’s late night and heavy lunch were telling on him. He was not seeing the ball so well. Like a fly on an open sore, Mike harassed him, the way Randy had harassed Perdita earlier, and was too busy to notice that his father had finally arrived. Randy got so mad, he slashed Mike across the knuckles with his stick. The umpire, who’d finally got control of his pony, gave Rutshire a penalty. Taking it, Mike hit the post, but a hovering Patrick Lombard slammed it in. Six all. The cheering was now non-stop.
Perdita had the line and was cantering a wilting Hermia down the boards, her roan coat turned the colour of red cabbage with sweat, her breath coming in huge gasps. Ahead, the ball was bumping and slowly losing momentum over the divots, and Paul Hedley, the South Sussex Number Four, was galloping over to ride her off and back the ball up the field. What was that fake she’d practised with Ricky and Dancer last week? She checked a grateful Hermia. Paul checked his big, black thoroughbred. Perdita checked Hermia even harder, Paul followed suit. Filled with the devil, Perdita swung Hermia even closer to the boards, so the ponies’ nearside hooves were scraping the paint off, and Paul, who’d been instructed to mark Perdita at all costs, stayed with her.
For a second his mind was off the ball, leaving it free for Patrick Lombard to belt in and whip it away, dribbling it for a few yards, then powering it to Mike, who, relishing his new freedom at Number Two, took it up field.
Merlin, who’d been covering for Paul and protecting the South Sussex’s goal, cleared once again, but Perdita blocked his shot. She could have tried for goal, but Mike had an easier shot so she gave him a lightning, nearside, under-the-neck pass. The whole ground groaned as Mike hit the post. Like Chrissie Evert executing an effortless backhand crosscourt volley at Wimbledon, Perdita shot forward and whacked the ball home. Seven-six, Rutshire were in the lead – the ground erupted, flat caps were being hurled in the air. Horns tooted. There were fifteen seconds left of play.
‘We can’t go to extra time,’ Drew muttered to Ricky. ‘Our ponies have had it.’
Realizing this, Randy shook off Mike at the throw-in and raced off to level the score.
‘Look at the ground opening up for Randy Sherwood,’ said Fatty Harris. ‘Watch him going into overdraught, whoops, I mean overdrive. Can Randy make it seven all?’
Randy felt he could. With Sherwood arrogance, he lifted his stick for the copybook cut shot. Next moment Perdita, streaking down the field, had thrown herself out of the saddle and clinging with her left hand round Hermia’s damp hot neck, hooked Randy as the final bell tolled for South Sussex. The crowd went crazy.
‘Ouch,’ howled Ricky.
‘Oh my God,’ gasped Daisy, letting him go. ‘Was that your bad arm?’
‘Nothing’s bad at this moment,’ said Ricky triumphantly.
‘Bloody marvellous,’ yelled Drew.
‘I knew they’d win easy,’ crowed Dancer.
‘Swap jerseys with me, I dare you,’ said Merlin Sherwood to Perdita. Without missing a beat, she whipped off her Prussian-blue shirt to show a flash of white breast and browny-pink nipple before she dived into Merlin’s olive-green jersey.
‘Did you see that?’ said Sukey in a shocked voice to Brigadier Canford.
‘Indeed I did,’ said the Brigadier. ‘Wish I’d brought binoculars. Damn fine little player.’
Stripped to the waist, brown from the Zimbabwe sun, Randy rode up to Perdita to shake her hand. Grabbing it, he pulled her towards him. For a second she felt his hot, strong sweaty body against hers, then he kissed her.
‘Well played, you stuck-up little bitch,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll get you in the end.’
Next minute Perdita had slapped him across the face.
‘Fuck off, you great oaf,’ she screamed.
Laughing, Randy cantered off. Trace Coley, who’d lost a match and a lover in as many minutes, burst into tears.
Dismounting to rest Hermia, Perdita walked off the field straight up to Ricky.
‘Was it OK?’
It was the first time she’d seen him look really happy.
‘It was f-fucking wonderful.’
Oh God, thought Daisy, he mustn’t smile at her like that, he’s utterly irresistible.
Kevin and Enid Coley were slightly compensated by the barrage of cameramen, particularly one from The Tatler, who photographed them talking to Lord Cowdray, and later handing out prizes and cups.
Tabitha Campbell-Black was livid because she won a bag of Bailey’s Performance Mix horse feed rather than a T-shirt with a picture of a polo pony on the front.
‘I’m sure your performance isn’t at all mixed,’ murmured Rupert to Mrs Sherwood who seemed to have accepted South Sussex’s defeat with great equanimity. The Brazilian lover was looking increasingly disconsolate.
The prize-giving was supposed to be compèred by Fatty Harris, but having taken so many nips while he was commentating, he had to pop into the Portaloo immediately after the match. He then had the humiliation of being locked in and towed away, with all the Pony Club screaming with delight at the sight of his vast red-nosed, anguished face and hammering fists at the window.
Horse boxes and cars were already driving off as Trace Coley, looking sexy in her father’s panama, sauntered up to receive a body brush and a blue rosette as one of the runners-up in the Jack Gannon.
Hastily scribbling out his copy for The Times on the bonnet of his car, J.N.P. Watson wrote:
‘The star of the side, however, was seventeen-year-old Perdita Macleod, the Rutshire Number One, who scored three goals. Working at Richard France-Lynch’s yard for the past two years, she showed much of the old France-Lynch magic, and must be regarded as high goal potential.’
‘And finally,’ announced Brigadier Canford, ‘we come to the Mary Tyler Award for the most promising girl player.’
Daisy watched an expectant Trace Coley re-arranging her panama in the driving mirror of her father’s Rolls as Brigadier Canford put on his spectacles to have a better look. Then he beamed with delight. ‘Which goes to Perdita Macleod.’
For a second Perdita froze as the reluctant cheers began to crescendo and stuffed her fists in her eyes, fighting back the tears. Then, immediately pulling herself together, she strolled up and thanked Kevin and Brigadier Canford very sweetly for her polo stick, before flicking a very obvious V-sign at Trace on the way back. Immediately Drew took her aside. ‘Will you bloody well pull yourself together. Non-stop swearing, stripping off on the field, making V-signs at the sponsor’s daughter. I saw you. Do you want that scholarship or not? After all the trouble your mother’s taken driving you round the country, why the hell are you deliberately trying to hurt her?’
‘So we’ll no more go a-Land-Roving so late into the night,’ sang Daisy five minutes later, as, dizzy with pride and vodka, she weaved back to Drew’s boot looking for her bag and went slap into Drew.
‘The Coleys have asked us back for drinks at Château Kitsch – that’s worth seeing anyway,’ he said, ‘but lots of potential patrons will be there and the Pony Club Committee, so it could be useful to Perdita. They’ve just confirmed her scholarship by the way, but don’t tell her or she might blow it. It’s nothing to cry about.’
‘I don’t know how to thank you, and I’ve got nothing to wear,’ mumbled Daisy.
‘You look fine. No one’ll change.’
Daisy wished just for once that Drew could see her when she wasn’t looking awful.
‘Are Ricky and Dancer going?’
‘They’ve gone home. Ricky’s just been even ruder to Kevin than Rupert was. Told him he didn’t want to accept hospitality from patrons who go round cuckolding their players. It gave him a ghastly feeling of déjà vu.’
‘Does Kevin know what déjà vu means?’
‘He does now. And Enid’s hopping.’
Half an hour later Enid had calmed down, at least on the surface, and changed into her aquamarine lurex hostess gown. As her hair had been squashed down by her David Shilling spotted hat, she put on her prettiest blond wig with the tendrils over the forehead. Drenched in Shalimar, wearing her pearls, because her diamonds might make people who’d been unable to change feel under-dressed, Enid awaited her guests, radiating regality.
‘I didn’t realize it was going to be a tented wank,’ said Drew, as Sukey applied a dash of pink lipstick. It was not yet dusk, but the drive up to Kevin’s mock Tudor house was lined with lit-up toadstools. The front door was flanked with the famous Moggie Meal cat and the Doggie Dins terrier. Six foot high and floodlit, they winked, mewed and yapped when the door bell was rung. Inside, maids in black took coats for tickets, and told everyone to go through the lounge as Mrs Coley was receiving in the pool area.
Perdita listened to her mother grinding gears and going on and on and on about how marvellously Perdita had played and how it had been the proudest moment of her life, and how everyone from Rupert to Brigadier Canford said what a great future she had and Drew this and Drew that. And of course, being Daisy, she was quite unable to resist telling Perdita the thrilling news which she mustn’t tell anyone, that she’d got the scholarship.
‘Just think,’ she raved on, as they drove past honey-suckled hedges and trees covered with reddening apples, ‘six months in New Zealand. Hot springs and Kiwis and,’ Daisy couldn’t remember anything else about New Zealand, ‘oh yes, Maoris, of course.’
‘Maori, Maori quite contrary,’ said Perdita gloomily.
Why wasn’t she flying back to Robinsgrove with Dancer and Ricky? She didn’t want to go to New Zealand. She’d die if she was parted from Ricky for five minutes. He’d been so lovely, and her shoulder still burned where he’d put a hand on it after the game. If she stayed in England with him, she’d learn much faster than shovelling horse-shit in New Zealand and being made to get up early in the morning. Getting up early was only worth it if she were going to see Ricky.
‘I wonder if you’ll be in South Island or North Island,’ said Daisy, narrowly avoiding ramming the car in front which had braked suddenly.
‘Oh, shut up, Mum, I want to think.’
By the pool at Château Kitsch, which was as blue as Enid Coley’s hostess gown, Trace, who’d changed into a slinky black dress, was having a row with Randy Sherwood.
‘How dare you kiss Perdita Macleod in front of everyone?’ she hissed.
‘Because I want to screw her,’ said Randy unrepentantly. ‘I bet she’s a virgin, and she’d be volcanic in the sack.’
Perdita had just walked in. She was still wearing muddy breeches, black socks and Merlin’s polo shirt. Her hair was scraped back in a pony tail, her face was smeared with mud. What was the point of tarting up if Ricky wasn’t there? Ignoring Randy’s imperious wave, she walked over to talk to Mike Waterlane.
On the edge of the pool, knowing there was a possibility of Kevin sponsoring Drew, Sukey was chatting up Enid Coley. Perdita remembered Sukey being just as deferential to Grace Alderton three years ago, the first time she’d seen Ricky in the flesh. I can’t go to New Zealand, she thought.
The food being handed round was quite awful – muesli sticks, unsalted nuts, prunes, figs, sliced bananas. Huge jugs of fruit juice were being pressed on guests, rather than booze.
Randy Sherwood edged up to Perdita.
‘My mother’s just gone off with Rupert Campbell-Black,’ he said. ‘I think he is the coolest guy in the world, and the richest. I wouldn’t mind him as a stepfather.’
Reaching out for a vegetarian Scotch egg, and hurling it at his brother, Randy added casually, ‘Will you have dinner with me tonight?’
But Perdita wasn’t listening; she was far too engrossed in Sukey’s conversation with Enid Coley.
‘When one thinks of the number of miserably displaced children from broken homes who’ve been given a sense of purpose by the Pony Club,’ Sukey was saying, then, lowering her voice, ‘take Perdita Macleod. She was a little horror when Drew took her over – but look how she played today.’
‘Given one or two shocking lapses of behaviour,’ snorted Enid Coley. ‘Mind you, it can’t have helped working all this time for Ricky France-Lynch. He is the rudest, most arrogant man I’ve ever met. I mean, who does he think he is? I totally understand his little wife going off with Bart Alderton. Kevin and Bart do a lot of business together.’
‘He did lose a child,’ said Sukey.
‘Because he was drunk. From all Bart says, he was rude and arrogant before that. That’s what stopped him getting to the top.’
‘What did you say?’ said an icy voice.
Beneath the mud smears, Perdita was as white as a new polo ball. She was shaking with rage, there was fifth-degree murder in her eyes.
Sukey started. ‘Oh, Perdita, I’d no idea you were there.’
‘We were saying,’ said Enid, without looking over her hefty lurex shoulder, ‘that Ricky France-Lynch’s personality stopped him getting to the top.’
‘Well, you’re going to the bottom, you disgusting old bag,’ screamed Perdita, and the next moment she had butted Enid in the small of a very large back right into the swimming-pool. Jumping in after her, Perdita pulled off Enid’s wig to reveal scant grey wisps and pushed her under the water, where the aquamarine hostess gown billowed up to display fawn pop socks at the end of fat, purple legs.
‘How dare you slag off Ricky?’ screamed Perdita. ‘How dare you? How dare you?’
Everyone was shouting. There were even some cheers. Next minute, Kevin, Drew and Randy Sherwood, who was laughing his handsome head off, had jumped into the pool and were trying to prise Perdita away.
‘Stop it,’ said Drew, pinning her arms behind her back and grimly increasing the pressure until she gasped with pain and let go.
‘Did you hear what she was saying about Ricky?’ she cried hysterically.
‘You’re not helping him by behaviour like this,’ snapped Drew.
For a second Perdita struggled with him, then watched with mixed emotions by Sukey, Daisy and a drenched Randy Sherwood, she collapsed sobbing in his arms. ‘No one understands Ricky like I do.’
Ricky was so furious with Perdita for deliberately sabotaging her scholarship that he gave her the sack.
Even the sight of Little Chef and the ponies longingly looking out for her every morning didn’t make him relent.
‘He’s a hard man,’ said plump Louisa, who also missed Perdita dreadfully. Only the sullen, scrawny Frances was delighted.
At home Perdita behaved more atrociously than ever before, storming round the house, refusing to get a job and screaming at Violet and Eddie when they returned bronzed from a month in LA with Hamish and Wendy. Nor were matters helped by Violet gaining ten ‘A’s in her O levels, losing a stone and getting her first boyfriend, who rang her constantly at all hours of the night from Beverly Hills. Violet and Eddie then went back to their respective boarding schools, paid for by Granny Macleod, which only stepped up Perdita’s paranoia and jealousy.
At the end of September Violet came home for a long weekend and Perdita was so bloody-minded that in despair Daisy escaped to Harvest Festival for an hour of peace. Eldercombe Church was packed. Miss Lodsworth, who organized the flower rota, had excelled herself. Huge tawny chrysanthemums big as setting suns, gold dahlias like lions’ manes, yellow roses, sheaves of corn, briar and elder glowing with berries all brought a glow to the ancient yellow stone. Every window-ledge was crammed with apples gleaming like rubies, vast vegetable marrows and pumpkins and, more prosaically, tinned fruit, sardines and baked beans. Some joker had even added a tin of Doggie Dins.
Daisy also noticed, as she slid into an empty pew at the back, that the church was unusually full of attractive women. There was Philippa Mannering looking avid in a beautifully cut check suit and a brown beret at a rakish angle. There was the pretty girl from the village shop wearing an emerald-green dress more suited to a wedding. Exotic scent mingled with the more religious smells of incense, furniture polish and veneration. Putting paid to Daisy’s hour of peace were also hoards of children clambering over pews, chasing each other down the aisles, punching their mothers, and having to be repeatedly hushed for talking. Not children used to being brought to church, thought Daisy. Then she realized she’d forgotten to kneel down when she came in, and blushing, sank to her knees.
Oh, please God, she prayed, shake Perdita out of this ghastly mood and make her happy again, and look after darling Violet and Eddie, and Gainsborough and Ethel, and please God, if you think it’s right, let me fall in love with a man who isn’t married, who falls in love with me and don’t make it too long.
Hell, she’d picked a pew next to the radiator. She’d be as red as those beetroots in the window in a minute. Please God, don’t make me so vain, she asked, scrambling to her feet with the rest of the congregation as the organ launched into ‘We plough the fields and scatter’.
Then Daisy twigged the reason for all those glammed-up women. Far ahead, in the France-Lynch pew, poignant because he was the sole inhabitant, stood Ricky. He was looking unusually smart in a pin-stripe suit and a black tie which was the only colour he’d worn since Will died. With the pile of huge marrows, the whole service seemed like some ancient fertility rite, with Ricky the unattainable corn king whom everyone wanted.
‘He only is the maker of all things near and far,’ bellowed Miss Lodsworth, totally out of tune. ‘He paints the wayside flower, He lights the evening star.’
Daisy’s eyes filled with tears. What beautiful words. Would she ever find time to paint wayside flowers again? Ricky certainly lit the Evening Star for Perdita. She must ask him round for a drink.
The gay Vicar, who loved the sound of his own voice, took a long time over the service and Daisy’s thoughts started to wander. Tears filled her eyes again as she thought of the little gravestone in the churchyard: In loving memory of William Richard France-Lynch, 1978–81.
Oh, poor Ricky. Daisy blew her nose on a piece of blue loo paper. She felt even sorrier for him with that stammer when he went up to read the first lesson, and had to announce that it came from the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, a word which took him four goes. His face was impassive, his hands steady. Only the long pin-striped right leg, shuddering uncontrollably, betrayed his nerves. Now he was wrestling with the bit about ‘God leading thee into the w-w-wilderness for forty years to humble thee and to p-p-prove thee.’
Comparing his grey frozen features with the carved stone angel beside the lectern, looking at the long lit-up scar, and the furrowed forehead as he wrestled with the difficult words, Daisy thought he didn’t need to humble or prove himself any more. She supposed because he was ostensibly Lord of the Manor, he felt he had to do it. Dancer would have had much more fun.
Daisy was sweating for him, and as he stumbled over the word ‘pomegranates’, she could feel the collective goodwill of the painted ladies in the congregation urging him home like the favourite in the Grand National.
The Vicar then took the text for his sermon from the second lesson, ‘God loveth a cheerful giver’, and was so carried away by his own rhetoric that he absent-mindedly helped himself to most of the grapes hanging down from the top of the pulpit.
Daisy was screwing up her courage to accost Ricky and ask him for a drink after church when the Vicar launched into the final prayer about being made flesh, and she suddenly remembered the vast ox heart cooking in the oven for Ethel, which would burn dry if it wasn’t taken out, so she belted home. Anyway Ricky had been buttonholed outside the church by the gay Vicar and scores of eager ladies.
‘Come to dinner this evening, just kitchen sups,’ Philippa was saying.
‘I’m afraid I’ve got to work,’ Ricky said brusquely.
‘I’d simply love to,’ said the Vicar.
Daisy was still giggling when she got home to Snow Cottage and made the mistake at lunch of telling Perdita that Ricky had read the lesson.
‘Did you speak to him?’ demanded Perdita, dropping her forkful of braised fennel with a clatter. ‘What did he say about me? Did you ask him for a drink?’
‘I didn’t get near him. He was surrounded . . .’ Daisy was about to say ‘by women’, but hastily changed it to ‘by members of the congregation as I was leaving, and I had to get back for Ethel’s heart.’
‘What about my fucking heart?’ screamed Perdita. ‘You don’t give a shit that it’s broken. You’re so bloody wet, one could grow waterlilies all over you,’ and, storming out of the kitchen, slammed the door behind her.
‘Why don’t you stand up to her, Mum?’ asked Violet.
I must not cry, Daisy gritted her teeth. After she’d cleared up lunch she hoisted Ethel’s huge ox heart out of its water on to the chopping board. Usually she got through cutting it up by fantasizing that she was Christian Barnard saving the life of Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud. Today it didn’t work, the tears started flowing again. I mustn’t go to pieces, she whispered, tomorrow I’ll be brave, and ask Ricky round for a drink.
Fortunately the Caring Chauvinist was away the following day, but Ricky’s number was always engaged. Only when she checked with directory enquiries did she learn that the receiver was off the hook.
Getting home from the office, she found Violet and Perdita having another screaming match.
‘I’m not coming home at half-term if she’s here, Mum,’ complained Violet. ‘She’s destroying all of us.’
Having cleaned her teeth, washed, put on a bit of make-up and brushed her hair, Daisy set out up the ride to Robinsgrove. The sun was sinking in a red glow, the lights were coming out in Eldercombe Village. Once more Daisy was knocked out by the fecundity of everything, the blackthorn purple with sloes, plump hazel nuts already shredded by squirrels, elderberries shiny as caviar hanging like shower fittings from their crimson stems. She ought to make elderberry wine, then she wouldn’t spend so much on vodka.
Ethel bounced ahead, crashing joyfully through the russet bracken, then splashing and rolling in the stream, spooking as ponies loomed out of the dusk. Ahead towered Robinsgrove – such a large house for one unhappy man.
I must be brave for Perdita’s sake, said Daisy through chattering teeth as she pressed the door bell. He can only tell me to eff off. Inside she heard frantic barking. The door opened an inch.
‘Yes,’ said an incredibly unfriendly voice.
Little Chef had other ideas. Barging through the gap, he hurled himself on Ethel in a frenzy of tightly curled tail-wagging. Then, on tiptoe with excitement, he danced round her licking her eyes and ears.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ said Ricky. ‘C-come in.’
‘She’s OK. Little Chef seems to like her.’
Following him through the dark, panelled and tapestried hall, Daisy noticed the telephone off the hook in the drawing room, then froze. Ahead on the kitchen table lay a twelve bore. Ricky must be about to commit suicide. She must get him out of the house.
‘I came to ask you to supper,’ she babbled looking back into the drawing room. ‘You must come at once. Autumn’s awfully depressing, it affects lots of people. I’m sure things’ll seem better tomorrow.’
Ricky followed her gaze.
‘Oh, that accounts for the peace today. I must have left it off the hook this morning. Rupert rang about a pony. I went out to the yard to check some detail.’
He replaced the receiver. Instantly it rang – Philippa trying to fix up a dinner date.
‘I’m working tonight,’ snapped Ricky, ‘and next week I’m going to Argentina.’ He slammed down the receiver. ‘Fucking woman.’
He was going to shoot himself and Little Chef, thought Daisy numbly.
‘I don’t think you should be on your own,’ she said in what she hoped was a calming voice. ‘I know you’ll never get over what’s happened. But nice things do happen. They played “Invitation to the Waltz” on Radio 3 this morning’ – she was speaking faster and faster, edging towards the gun – ‘such a heavenly tune, I played it at school, and suddenly found myself waltzing round the kitchen, then Ethel leapt up and waltzed with me, and I thought perhaps there is a life after Hamish. If you came to supper now, you could watch television, and Violet learnt how to play poker in California, she’s teaching me, we could have a game and Perdita would love to see you.’ Her voice trailed off when she saw Ricky looking at her in utter amazement.
‘What are you going on about?’
Daisy pointed nervously at the gun. ‘I think you should put that horrid thing away.’
Suddenly Ricky smiled with genuine amusement. It was as though the carved angel by the lectern had suddenly come to life.
‘You thought I was going to top myself. I’ve been shooting partridge with Rupert. I was cleaning my gun. Look.’ He held up his oily hands.
‘Oh, gosh,’ said Daisy appalled. ‘How stupid of me!’
‘Anyway, you can’t commit suicide with a twelve bore, although they’re always doing it in books. Look.’ He picked up the gun, and held it to his temples, ‘One’s arms simply aren’t long enough to pull the trigger.’
Daisy had gone absolutely scarlet.
‘I was just worried, with the telephone off the hook and all.’
‘I’m quite OK,’ said Ricky, slotting the gun back in its case, ‘and I would like to come to supper.’
‘You would?’ Daisy’s jaw dropped. All they had in the house was six eggs for scrambling and the remains of Ethel’s heart. As if reading her thoughts, Ricky said, ‘Better still, we’ll go out.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Daisy, appalled. ‘I didn’t mean that. I wouldn’t dream of foisting myself on you. And the children . . .’
‘Are quite capable of looking after themselves. I got my licence back last week, so it’s a treat to drive someone.’
‘I’m not dressed.’
‘Nor am I.’ He was wearing faded olive-green cords, a check shirt and a dark brown jersey.
Daisy would so like to have got tarted up, but at least her hair was newly washed that morning and her teeth were clean. But Perdita would never forgive her for going out with Ricky.
‘I’ll just wash,’ he said, ‘and you can ring home.’
Daisy was desperately relieved to get Violet, who was wildly encouraging. ‘Go for it, Mum, he’s gorgeous. Got yourself a decent date at last.’
Ricky took her to a French restaurant in Rutminster with low beams, scrubbed pine tables, sawdust on the floor, rooms leading one into another and mulberry red walls covered with hunting prints. The head waiter, enchanted to see Ricky after three years’ absence, kissed him on both cheeks, enquired after his elbow, and found him a quiet corner.
Daisy was mildly encouraged that Ricky deliberately sat on her right, on his non-scar side. He ordered her a large vodka and orange and Perrier for himself. At first the pauses were dreadfully long.
‘D’you miss not drinking very much?’
He nodded. ‘I’m lousy at small talk, and it helped.’
‘Couldn’t you just drink occasionally when you need it – like at parties?’
‘Once I start I can’t stop – like Kinta.’ He uncrossed a pair of knives.
‘I suppose you feel it’s a way of making sure it never happens again.’ She flushed as red as the mulberry walls. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t remind you.’
Ricky broke up a piece of brown bread, but didn’t eat it.
‘Does it get better?’ asked Daisy.
The flame from a scarlet candle lit up the stubble darkening his chin and the even blacker rings under his eyes.
Oh, Christ, that’s torn it, thought Daisy.
‘Are you ready to order, Meester France-Lynch?’ asked the head waiter. ‘The moules marinières are very very nice.’
‘I’ll have that,’ said Ricky, then turned to Daisy.
Oh help, she thought. One of the things that had driven Hamish crackers was her inability to make up her mind.
‘No hurry,’ said Ricky. ‘Give us a few more minutes.’
‘I’d like mushrooms à la grecque,’ said Daisy quickly,
‘And to follow, les perdreaux sont superbes. We serve them stuffed with foie gras and cooked in Madeira.’
‘Partridge,’ explained Ricky. ‘They do them very well here.’
Daisy nodded hastily. ‘I’d like that.’ Anything not to irritate.
‘And don’t overcook them,’ said Ricky. ‘And we’ll have a bottle of the Number Fourteen.’
‘I’ll be plastered,’ said Daisy, aghast.
‘No-one could accuse me of being a half-b-b-bottle man,’ said Ricky. ‘What was your husband like?’
‘Very half-bottle, very noble-looking, very serious. He thought I was too silly for words, but he made it possible for me to keep Perdita, so I’ll always be grateful.’
‘You miss him?’
‘I miss all the things he did – like policies and banks and keeping the children in order. And I miss having a pair of arms round me. It’s like being a house without a roof.’
She was boiling. She’d have to take off her thick blue jersey soon, and she couldn’t remember how many buttons had come off the shirt underneath, and it was sleeveless, and she hadn’t shaved her armpits since Philippa asked her to supper last week.
‘It’s such a pity,’ she gabbled on, ‘one can’t go out and buy a new husband or wife the next day, like you do with puppies or kittens. I’m sure it’d be much easier to help one get over things.’
‘I don’t want a new wife,’ said Ricky flatly.
‘No,’ said Daisy humbly, thinking of poor Perdita. ‘I can see that. Chessie was so beautiful. I’ve seen pictures.’
‘Better in the flesh. Her colouring was so p-p-perfect. It was my fault I neglected her. I was foul-tempered and arrogant and polo-mad. I never had any money to buy her the things she wanted.’
She had you, Daisy wanted to say. It was no good, she’d have to take her jersey off. Horrors, two middle buttons were missing to show an ancient grey bra. Hastily she breathed in and clamped her arms to her sides to hide the stubble. Then, seeing Ricky looking at her in amazement, said quickly, ‘Bart Alderton sounds hell.’
‘He’s a sadist,’ said Ricky as the waiter arrived with their first course. ‘That’s why I must get her back.’
And while the black mussel shells rose in the spare plate, like cars on a scrap heap, he told Daisy about Chessie’s last taunt.
‘But that’s wonderful,’ said Daisy, ‘so romantic. You can win the Gold Cup and the Westchester, and go to ten like the labours of Hercules. I’d rather do that than kill the Hydra. You must do it.’
Ricky passed Daisy a mussel. ‘They’re very good. I will if Dancer has anything to do with it. Now they’ve lifted the ban on my going abroad, I’m off to Argentina next month to squander his millions on some really good ponies.’
‘Perdita adored Dancer,’ said Daisy. ‘These mushrooms are bliss. In fact, the whole thing is a real treat.’ She took a huge gulp of wine.
‘How is she?’ asked Ricky casually.
‘Suffering from massive withdrawal symptoms. She misses you – all,’ she added hastily.
‘I miss her,’ said Ricky. ‘She’s a menace, but she makes me laugh.’
‘I wish she occasionally made us laugh at home,’ sighed Daisy.
‘Giving you a hard time, is she?’ Ricky filled up Daisy’s glass.
It was not in Daisy’s nature to bitch, but faced with Ricky’s almost clinical detachment, everything came pouring out – Perdita’s endless tantrums, her impossible demands, her spite to the other children.
‘I haven’t got many wits, but I’m at the end of them. That was lovely.’ She handed her plate to the waiter. ‘Hamish going affected her dreadfully. They fought the whole time, but underneath she was frantic for his love and approval.’
‘Who was her father?’
‘It’s so shaming,’ whispered Daisy.
‘Can’t be that bad.’
She was saved by the waiter shimmying up with the partridges, making a great show of how pink they were inside, pointing out the foie gras stuffing, the celeriac purée and the exquisitely dark and glistening Madeira sauce. But the moment he left Ricky returned to the attack.
‘So, what happened?’
Being Daisy, she blurted it all out. ‘I should have told Perdita years ago, but I’m such a drip I funked it.’
Tears were flooding her face and she wiped them frantically away with the sleeve of her jersey. Aware a drama was taking place and dying to know if this was Ricky’s latest, the waiter sidled over.
‘Everything all right, Meester Franch-Lynch?’
‘Perfect, now push off.’ Ricky put a hand over Daisy’s, a large rough hand with callouses beneath the base of each long finger from endlessly holding a polo stick.
‘You are a good mother,’ he said gently. ‘I can read between Perdita’s lies. I know what sacrifices you’ve made, working in that ghastly Christmas pudding factory, not buying any new clothes for years.’ He picked up the frayed, very pointed collar of her shirt.
‘I didn’t know I was going out to dinner,’ said Daisy defensively.
‘Course you didn’t.’
‘I don’t know what to do with her.’ Daisy blew her nose on her red-checked table napkin, then realized what she’d done. ‘Oh God, I’ll wash it and send it back.’
‘She needs polo,’ said Ricky, ‘but serious polo. She ought to be playing ten chukkas a day with really good players, and she ought to get miles away from you so she can’t kick the shit out of you.’ As he filled her glass again he knocked over the salt cellar and quickly chucked the spilt salt over his left shoulder. ‘Are you painting?’
‘Not much.’ Daisy was pleating the edge of the tablecloth. ‘All my inspiration seems to have dried up since Hamish left and I seem to have lost all my confidence as a woman. Not that I had much, anyway.’
‘In what way?’ Ricky was stripping the partridge leg with his teeth, very white and even except a front one chipped by a polo ball. ‘Come on, eat up.’
It is quite difficult cutting up a partridge when your elbows are glued to your ribs. Daisy started forking up celeriac.
‘Last week I went to dinner at Philippa’s. She insisted she’d got a lovely man for me. But it was just as an excuse to get her latest lover into the house. He wasn’t remotely interested in me and brought Philippa some goat’s cheese that looked like Tutankhamun’s brain. They disappeared for hours to look at some rare book and Lionel insisted on seeing me home.’ Her lip trembled. ‘I’m sorry, this is awfully boring.’
‘Horror films aren’t boring,’ said Ricky.
‘And suddenly he leapt on me.’
‘Disgusting old goat!’ Ricky was comfortingly furious.
‘Appropriate, really! He tasted of goat’s cheese. I’ve never been very good at rejecting people, so I told him I was frigid. He just leered and said, “I’m a psychiatrist, little girl. I can cure that.” ‘ Daisy gave a shudder.
‘I’ll chuck them out,’ said Ricky angrily.
‘Joel says they’re model tenants,’ said Daisy. ‘They’re always cutting their lawn.’
‘Can’t imagine Lionel modelling anything. You’re not to have anything more to do with them. Understand?’
Ricky put his knife and fork together. ‘Let’s get back to Perdita. I’ll take her to Argentina with me next week. No, it’s a good idea. You know Alejandro Mendoza?’ Then, with incredulity, ‘But he’s the greatest back in the world. The Mendozas are blood rivals of the O’Brien brothers, Juan and Miguel, who used to play for David Waterlane before the Argies were banned. They invariably end up on opposite sides in the Argentine Open. I’m going out to buy ponies from Alejandro. He takes a few players every year on his estancia. They bring on the young ponies and in return he teaches them. My handicap went up in twos the winters I spent with him. There are always young boys hanging round the place. Perdita needs a boyfriend. I’ll leave her with Alejandro till Christmas.’
‘We couldn’t possibly afford the plane fare,’ mumbled Daisy.
‘Dancer’ll pick that up,’ he said. ‘He wants Perdita to play for him next year. She’ll add some much-needed tone. He’s been nagging me to take her back for weeks. He can just advance her some salary. There’s no need to cry.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Daisy wiped her eyes on her sleeve again. ‘I ought to get the Niagara Falls Award for bawling. I’m just not used to lucky breaks. Are you sure?’
‘Positive. Now Rupert’s Minister for Sport, he can fiddle her a visa.’ As he smoothed back his dark hair, his signet ring caught the light.
‘What’s your motto?’ she asked.
‘Never surrender,’ said Ricky bleakly.
And he won’t until he gets Chessie back, thought Daisy. Three-quarters of a bottle of wine had loosened her tongue.
‘I’ve been moaning on about Perdita all evening, but at least she’s alive, whereas Will . . .’
‘ . . . isn’t,’ said Ricky watching the bubbles rise in his glass of Perrier. ‘Suffering’s supposed to make you nicer. Didn’t work for me. That’s probably why I’ve been so bloody to Perdita. The guilt still knocks me sideways – just being alive. Sometimes I panic because I can’t remember what he looked like. Chessie took all the photographs. She needed them. He’d be six now, old enough to start hitting a ball around. It comes in waves, doesn’t it?’ He glared at her. ‘Look, I really don’t want to talk about it.’
‘I just think you ought to try and forgive yourself,’ mumbled Daisy. We’re like two chickens side by side trying to defrost, she thought.
‘When are you coming back to England?’
‘February or March. I can’t stand another English winter. Dancer’s fixed up for me to make a bomb coaching movie stars in Palm Springs. My elbow still plays up when I play too long.’
After that they talked about Dancer and Ethel and Little Chef and Ricky’s ponies, and drank so many cups of coffee and Daisy even had a crème de menthe frappé that it was long after midnight when they left.
‘The colandered Barbour,’ said Ricky, holding out her coat for her. ‘You’ve been crawling through my barbed wire!’
Outside, in the back of the BMW, Ethel’s great spotted goofy face was grinning out. Beside her, his front paws on her shoulder, tail wagging his small body into a frenzy, was Little Chef.
‘It’s easy for dogs,’ said Daisy with a hiccup. ‘I’ve had such a lovely time,’ she said as Ethel fell on her in ecstasy, ‘and Ethel’s lick is much more efficient than cleansing cream.’
‘This road is awful,’ said Ricky as they bounced down the rough track to Snow Cottage. ‘I must get it fixed before the winter.’
Seeing all the lights on, Daisy quailed. Surely Perdita wouldn’t kick up when she knew she was going to Argentina. Desperate Ricky shouldn’t think she was giving him the come-on, she had the door open before the car stopped.
‘Do come in and tell Perdita. She’ll be so excited,’ she called back as she scuttled up the path. If Ricky was there Perdita might not make a scene, but he had paused to look at the front gate which needed mending.
Perdita sat on the kitchen table dressed all in black. She looked like a hell cat, sloe eyes glittering, teeth bared in a terrifying rictus grin, body rigid with loathing.
‘Darling – the most heavenly news,’ said Daisy.
‘How dare you go out to dinner with Ricky?’ screamed Perdita. ‘I bet his telephone wasn’t off the hook at all. You just wanted an excuse to vamp him. You can’t do without it, you bloody old tart, can you? I bet you asked him out.’
Next minute Ricky had walked into the room and slapped her across the face. ‘Don’t you ever talk to your mother like that again, you revolting little bitch,’ he howled. ‘Now go to bed!’
Perdita gazed at him, her white left cheek slowly turning bright scarlet, her eyes widening in horror.
‘Nothing wrong with your elbow if you can hit like that,’ she spat. ‘She’s poisoned you against me, I knew she would.’
‘I said go to bed,’ said Ricky harshly. ‘Go on, bugger off.’
With a stifled sob Perdita stumbled upstairs, slamming the door so hard that every ornament in the house shook.
There was a pause, then both Ricky and Daisy jumped at the sound of clapping. Slowly Violet walked into the room.
‘I always heard how marvellous you were,’ she said to Ricky, ‘but I’d no idea how marvellous. I’ve been waiting for years for someone to do that.’
‘Good,’ said Ricky, unmoved.
Then, slowly, he looked round the kitchen and the sitting room at the flowers painted all over the pale green walls, like a meadow in summer, at the dark green ivy crawling up the stairs and the bears and tigers and dragons decorating every piece of furniture.
‘Christ,’ he said in amazement.
‘I can always paint over it,’ said Daisy hastily.
‘It’s stunning. You said you hadn’t been painting. Stop shaking. It’ll be all right.’
‘Should I go to her?’
‘Leave her to stew,’ said Violet and Ricky in unison.
‘Oh, and by the way, Mum,’ went on Violet, ‘Philippa rang and said could you man the bric-à-brac stall on Saturday.’
‘No, she can’t,’ snapped Ricky.
‘I said you couldn’t,’ said Violet gleefully. ‘I told her you’d gone out to dinner with Ricky. She sounded put out.’
‘Oh goodness,’ said Daisy.
‘I’ve been hearing how marvellous you are,’ said Ricky drily to Violet, ‘but I’d no idea how marvellous. Might put the bloody nympho off.’
After he’d had another cup of coffee, he went up to see Perdita. She was crying great wracking despairing sobs into her pillow. Ricky sat down on her bed.
‘It’s me, Ricky.’
‘Fuck off even more. I hate you.’
‘You better stop sulking and apologize to your mother or I won’t take you to Argentina.’
‘I’ll never apologize to her,’ said Perdita tonelessly. ‘What did you say? How? When?’
‘Week after next, to stay with Alejandro. He’ll teach you a few manners and how to play polo properly.’
‘Oh, thank you!’ Perdita flung her arms round his neck.
He could feel her hot soaked cheeks, her wet hair, her lips against his cheek, the bars of her ribs, the softness of her breasts, the contrasting bullet hardness of her nipples.
‘And then can I come back to Robinsgrove?’
‘If you behave yourself.’
Still she clung. He could feel her heart pounding. She was so like Chessie. He’d never wanted to screw anyone more in his life, but gently he disengaged himself.
‘Go and apologize to your mother.’
Next day the weather turned cold, bitter winds systematically stripping the trees. Walking through Ricky’s woods, Daisy noticed ruby-red sticky buds thrusting out on the chestnuts, although many of the trees still clung on to their shrivelled brown leaves. Like Ricky and me clinging on to the past, thought Daisy.
Ten days later Ricky and Perdita left for Argentina.
‘I want to ask two f-f-favours,’ said Ricky as he put Perdita’s suitcases in a boot crammed with polo sticks. ‘Could you possibly put flowers on Will’s grave sometimes for me? And if Little Chef goes into a real decline will you promise to ring me?’
Perdita hardly bothered to kiss her mother goodbye. She hadn’t forgiven her her night out with Ricky. The wireless blared ‘I just called to say I love you’ as Daisy went back into the house. She couldn’t help envying Perdita.
It was a terribly long journey, even though they broke it in Florida. Ricky hardly took his nose out of a Frederick Forsyth novel. Perdita, bra-less, in a T-shirt and a skirt that buttoned up the front for easy access, writhed and burned beside him. She cleaned her teeth every three hours and had Juicyfruit continually at the ready in case he wanted to kiss her. She deliberately got a bit drunk at dinner and when the lights were switched out let her head fall on to his shoulder.
‘I’m cold,’ she murmured.
‘I’ll get you another blanket.’
As he would for any of his ponies, thought Perdita bitterly.
‘I’m still cold,’ she whispered half an hour later.
Ricky put an arm round her shoulders, but made no pass and eventually she fell asleep. Ricky gazed out of the window at stars as sleepless as himself. If he slept he might have nightmares about Will and Chessie. He couldn’t bear to wake up screaming on the plane as he so often did alone at night at Robinsgrove.
Ricky got very uptight at Miami Airport when his polo sticks were nearly put on a plane to Hawaii by mistake.
‘Expect the poor things needed a holiday. You work them hard enough,’ said Perdita. But even Ricky telling her not to be bloody silly couldn’t douse her sudden euphoria at the sight of the BA stickers being stamped on their luggage. She was going to Argentina, home of the greatest polo players and ponies in the world.
The Buenos Aires flight was delayed and the plane horribly hot, but this didn’t upset the passengers who seemed delighted to be going home. The men, very handsome and as many of them blond as dark, gathered at the back of the plane, embracing each other and eyeing Perdita with approval and chattering like a great drinks party. After a shamingly large second supper of chicken, sweetcorn and cake, a vast vodka and tonic and half a bottle of red wine, at one o’clock in the morning the chatter suddenly turned into the Frogsmore Stream running under Snow Cottage and she fell asleep until six to find the chatter going on as loud as ever.
Women passengers who’d nodded off in full make-up emerged with faces crumpled and ankles swollen. For breakfast they were offered cake again, this time with salt and pepper.
‘Bearing in mind the vast divide between rich and poor in Argentina, they presumably let them eat cake all the time,’ said Perdita.
Ricky didn’t smile. He’d had another sleepless night and ahead lay customs, who couldn’t be expected to be exactly pro-British, and because of post and telephone strikes in Argentina, he hadn’t been able to confirm the flight with Alejandro, so they’d have to go through the hassle of hiring a car to drive the 330 kilometres out to his estancia.
Perdita, however, was excitedly looking down on vast faded pink rivers curling through spinach-green forest, and the blue shadow of their plane lying across Buenos Aires. Now she could see red houses, swimming-pools, race tracks, skyscrapers sticking up like teeth, and roads and railways so uniformly crisscross they seemed like tiles on a vast kitchen floor.
Rupert had also pulled some powerful strings. After a lightning whip through immigration, an official located all their luggage and polo sticks and whizzed them through customs. As they came through the exit doors, Ricky looked wearily round for an Avis sign. Perdita, in a faded purple T-shirt and sawn-off pale pink jeans, was pleasantly aware of all the men staring unashamedly at her. Then a young man in a blue shirt rushed up to his arriving girlfriend with a huge bunch of hyacinths and daffodils. Abandoning the English winter, Perdita realized she and Ricky had gone slap into the Argentine spring.
Next minute a tall, blond boy with a bull-dog jaw and massive shoulders walked up to them, looking slightly apprehensive.
‘Hi, Ricky,’ he said in a deep Florida drawl. ‘Don’t know if you remember me, Luke Alderton. If you want to hit me across the airport, I’ll understand, OK, but I’m staying with Alejandro. Thought you might like a ride out to the estancia.’
For a second, Ricky glared at him, then he smiled. ‘I never had any fight with you, Luke. It’s incredibly kind of you to meet us on the offchance. This is Perdita.’
Perdita found her hand being engulfed in an incredibly strong grip, and Luke looked down at her, grinning lazily and appreciatively.
‘What are you doing here?’ asked Ricky.
‘Being used as cheap labour to break Alejandro’s ponies,’ said Luke, taking Perdita’s suitcases from her, ‘in return for picking up a few tips from the master.’ (He pronounced it masster.)
‘Thank Christ for that,’ said Ricky. ‘You can look after Perdita.’
‘Shouldn’t be too much of a hardship,’ said Luke, then eyeing Perdita’s slender arms, ‘but she better start pumping iron if she’s going to play high goal.’
As he sorted out the porter with amazingly fluent Spanish, Perdita noticed he was wearing a bomber jacket with US Open printed on the back.
‘Who’s he?’ she whispered to Ricky.
‘Bart’s son by a previous marriage,’ said Ricky. ‘Potentially the best back in the world.’
Within seconds they’d piled into a battered Mercedes and were fighting their way out on to the airport road. Luke pointed to a red spotted scarf gathering dust up on the dashboard.
‘You may want to put that over your eyes, the driving’s kinda crazy here,’ he said as ten cars hurtled forward with absolutely no lane discipline, and all went straight through a red light with furious honking. Next moment a huge bus with Jumbo El Rapido on the side tore past overtaking and cutting in front.
‘Christ,’ muttered Perdita.
‘Good training for the polo here,’ said Luke. ‘The Carlisle twins and my brother Red were down here last week with Victor Kaputnik. They came out of a restaurant and had a race with Juan O’Brien and two of his cousins. Victor nearly had a triple by-pass. He jumped out of Red’s car yelling, “Taxi, taxi”. He was so frightened he wouldn’t let the driver go across a green light in case he hit Red and the twins coming the other way.’ Luke shook with laughter.
‘Who’s staying with Alejandro?’ asked Ricky.
‘Well, one guy couldn’t stand the pace and Ray Walter broke his wrist and went home, and there’s an Argie, Angel Solis de Gonzales, ex-Mirage pilot, trying to make it as a pro. Not wildly pro-Brit understandably.’
‘Any good?’ asked Ricky.
‘Awesome. He’s only been playing seriously for a couple of years,’ said Luke, hardly flinching as a car cut right in front of him, missing them by millimetres. Leaning out of the window, he let loose a stream of abuse.
‘How come you speak such good Spanish?’ asked Perdita.
‘Last time I was here it rained for forty days. The only answer was to learn Spanish. They say my accent is ’orrible, but at least I can understand what they’re saying on the pitch and suss out their Machiavellian little games.’
They were into flat, open country now. Perdita looked at the huge puddles reflecting a vast expanse of sky.
‘I’m really, really here.’
Luke smiled. ‘You will fall madly in love with Argentina,’ he said in his deep husky voice, which had a slight break in it, ‘with the wild life, the birds, the open spaces. But you will find it unconquerable, the extremes, the ferocity, the apparent heartlessness, the hailstorms that can wipe out a crop in half an hour. People own masses of land, not developing it or working it. It’s just there.’
‘How very un-American,’ said Perdita.
Looking sideways at Luke, she decided that he wasn’t at all good-looking but definitely attractive. A tawny giant with shoulders and arms like a blacksmith’s, he had lean hips, more freckles than a gull’s egg, a snub nose, sleepy honey-coloured eyes, Bart’s pugnacious jaw and red-gold hair sticking up like a Dandy brush. He was also attractive because he was so reassuring.
On top of the dashboard was a poem called Martin Fierro and a Spanish dictionary lying with its spine up, to which he must have been referring as he waited.
‘It’s the great Gaucho poem,’ he told her. ‘Martin Fierro’s aim in life was to sleep on a bed of clover, look up at the stars, and live as free as a bird in the sky. He put his horse and his dog a long way before his wife.’
‘You don’t look as though you read poetry,’ said Perdita in amazement, ‘and Martin’s a very naff name for a Gaucho.’
Ricky, sharing the back with two polo helmets, a new saddle and numerous carrier bags of shopping, was beginning to relax.
‘Probably had ten more kids since you were last here. Argentines adore their kids,’ Luke told Perdita. ‘Their big interest is the family. They won’t pay taxes, and they never stop at red lights.’ He put out a huge hand to shield Perdita as a car shot out.
‘Who are you playing for next year?’ asked Ricky.
‘Hal Peters – the automobile king – nice guy,’ said Luke. ‘Thought about nothing but cars for the first twenty-five years of his life, now he thinks about nothing but polo. He’s given me a free hand to buy horses. But every time I show any interest Alejandro quadruples the price. I guess I’m lucky to be working. Young American players are really feeling the cold at the moment. They can’t get sponsorship, because all the patrons think it’s chic to have an Argie on their side.’
‘Your father has three,’ said Ricky bleakly. ‘What’s Red’s handicap now?’
‘Six, should be higher. He hates to stick and ball. His mother allowed him to sit out college for a year and he never went back. He won MVP awards – Most Valuable Player,’ he explained to Perdita, ‘all summer, then blows it by testing positive for drugs the day before the US Open. Gets suspended and fined $5,000.’
‘Is he coming down here?’
‘Well, he’s always expected, like the Messiah,’ Luke grinned at Perdita. ‘My kid brother’s kind of wild. Like Richard Cory he glitters and flutters pulses as he walks. Look, heron on the edge of that alfalfa field.’
With the amazing eyesight that had helped him become a great player, Luke pointed out egrets, storks and even a snake that whisked into its hole before Perdita could see it.
Passing through a town, Perdita noticed someone had painted a blue-and-white flag and a ‘Malvinas belong to Argentina’ slogan on the plinth of a statue of a general.
‘For Christ’s sake, keep your trap shut about the Falklands when we get there,’ said Ricky.
‘Alejandro’s not anti-Brit,’ said Luke. ‘He likes anyone he can sell horses to. He still talks mistily about Cowdray, and Guards and the parties, and the hospitality, and the women you didn’t have to date twenty-two times before laying them.’
They were deep in the country now, driving through absolutely flat land like a table top. Slowly Perdita was trying to absorb the immensity of the pampas. The vast unclouded duck-egg-blue semi-circle of sky, like a protractor on the horizon, was only broken by the occasional windmill or fringe of acid-yellow poplars or milk-green gum trees. The grass seemed to flow on for ever like a millpond sea. Occasionally, like a liner, they passed an estancia with stables and a drive flanked by poplars and sailed on. At last Luke swung on to a dirt road potted with huge holes. His left elbow, sticking out of the window, was soon spattered with mud as they shattered vast puddles reflecting the blue of the sky.
‘Sorry,’ he said as Perdita nearly hit the ceiling. ‘You should have taken a sleeping pill.’
On the right was a sunlit village with square white houses like a Western shanty town.
‘This place is called General Piran after some top brass who defended his country against the marauding British. It’s the nearest civilization to Alejandro’s place,’ explained Luke. ‘That’s the phone exchange which never works. That’s the fire station. They’ve got two fire stations, but all the houses are so far away they never get there in time. The teachers are all on strike, hardly surprising when they’re only paid a hundred dollars a month, so all Alejandro’s kids are at home getting under their mother’s feet.’
He is nice, thought Perdita. How did anyone as vile as Bart produce a son like that?
‘Alejandro’s land begins here at the water.’ He pronounced it ‘wott-urr’. ‘He owns everything in front of us as far as the eye can see.’
They had swung into an avenue lined with gums, their stark, white trunks rising like pillars. At the end on the left was a stick-and-ball field, a polo field covered with gulls, paddocks full of polished horses, then a group of red modern buildings. ‘Barns to the right, grooms’ quarters to the left, Alejandro’s straight ahead,’ said Luke as he drove up to a large ugly mulberry-red house with flowerbeds full of clashing red tulips, primulas and wallflowers, and a water tower completely submerged in variegated ivy.
Instantly out of the front door charged a man a foot smaller than Luke, but with a barrel-chest as big. He had a huge Beethoven head of black curls, a brown face scorched with wrinkles by an unrelenting sun, small dark eyes and a smile like a slice of water melon, which showed a lot of gold fillings. He wore old jeans, espadrilles and a torn blue T-shirt through which spilled a lot of black chest-hair. Throwing open his arms, he gave a great roar of laughter.
‘El Orgulloso,’ he shouted, ‘El Orgulloso. Mountain Everest, he come to Mahomet at last,’ and he folded Ricky in a vast hot embrace. ‘Welcome, we are so please to see you.’
Then, peering round the side of Ricky’s arm, he caught sight of Perdita and his little black eyes brightened even more.
‘And this is Perdita. She is certainly very OK.’ Seizing her hand, he looked her up and down. ‘Why you waste your life on polo? Find a nice billionaire instead.’
‘I want both,’ said Perdita.
Alejandro gave another bellow of laughter.
‘Good girl, good girl. I speak very well English, don’t you theenk? Come and see my ponies.’ About to lead them back towards the stables, he lowered his voice and said to Luke, ‘Did you get it?’
Luke nodded and, getting a red jewel box out of his jeans’ pocket, handed it to Alejandro just before a beautiful woman came out of the house. She had heavy lids above huge, dark, mournful eyes, a wonderful sculptured, aquiline nose, a big, sad, red mouth and long, shiny, blond hair with dark roots showing down the middle parting. She also had a wonderful bosom, a thickening waist and very slim brown legs in leather sandals.
‘Reeky,’ she hugged him. ‘It has been so long, and this must be Perdita.’ A shadow of apprehension crossed her face, immediately replaced by a warm and welcoming smile. ‘What a beauty,’ she said, kissing Perdita on both cheeks. ‘I am Claudia, Alejandro’s wife. Let me show you your room. You must be tired.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Alejandro.
‘She ’as come ’alfway across the world,’ protested Claudia.
‘To see my horses,’ said Alejandro.
They went across a lawn down an avenue of mulberry trees, past a thickly planted orange grove.
‘To ’ide the chickens,’ explained Alejandro.
To the right, a lot of youths building a swimming-pool eyed Perdita with interest. Alejandro snapped at them to get on with their work. The stables were far more primitive than Perdita expected. A few words in Spanish had been painted on the tack-room roof.
‘It says, “Please don’t tether any horses to this roof, or they’ll pull it off’,’ translated Luke.
Dancer’s latest hit single, ‘Girl Guide’, was belting out of the tack room. A pack of emaciated lurchers with burrs in their rough dusty coats charged forward, whimpering and weaving against Perdita’s legs. But as she bent to cuddle them a small boy, brushing down a pony, picked up a lump of mud and hurled it at the dogs to drive them off. Perdita was about to yell at him when her attention was distracted by a man with a cruel leathery face wearing gaucho pants and a white shirt who was galloping a pony very fast round a tiny corral. The horse’s nostrils were vastly inflated and it was panting rhythmically as its hooves struck the hard ground. The man’s control was undeniable. She could hear the horse groan as he squeezed it with his calves.
‘That’s Raimundo the peticero, master of the horse,’ said Luke, with a slight edge to his voice.
‘Looks a nasty piece of work.’
‘Work isn’t the operative word. He’s acting busy because Alejandro’s here.’
In the yard an old man in a beret was clipping a pony’s mane. The pony was rolling its eyes but stood motionless because a young boy relentlessly twisted its ear. Other horses wandered loose among the gum trees, while still others were muzzled and tied up. They looked very thin, but well-muscled.
‘They’re playing this afternoon,’ explained Luke. ‘Argentines don’t feed or water their horses eight hours before a match. I guess they are thin, but again Argentines don’t like their horses to carry a lot of weight.’
Perdita grew increasingly boot-faced when every pony she tried to cuddle cringed away with terror.
‘They’re all headshy,’ she complained furiously.
‘Shut up,’ said Luke. ‘You’re here to learn not beef.’
Fortunately Alejandro was concentrating on Ricky, boasting that every pony in the yard had been entirely responsible for clinching last year’s Argentine Open. They were distracted by a boy in his twenties cantering into the yard on a beautiful red chestnut. He had a bony, tortured face, angry, slanting peacock-blue eyes, bronze curls and a sallow complexion.
Wow! thought Perdita.
‘Angel,’ yelled Alejandro, ‘breeng that mare ’ere. I want Reeky to see ’er.’ Then with a touch of malice, ‘These are my friends, Reeky and Perdeeta. Isn’t she beautiful? Won’t she need the charity belt?’
Angel pulled up in horror and a cloud of dust, growled something incomprehensible, but undeniably insulting, threw down the reins, kicked his right foot out of the stirrup and, swinging it over the horse’s withers, jumped to the ground and ran into the house.
‘Zat is Angel,’ said Alejandro with a shrug, ‘still fighting zee Falklands War.’
Amazing cooking smells were drifting from the kitchen. Seeing Perdita beginning to wilt, Luke took her back to the house.
Ricky and Alejandro had to be dragged away from the horses to a lunch laid out on a blue-and-white checked tablecloth under the gum trees. They needed two tables to accommodate the ten children.
Ranging from twenty-one downwards, there were three boys, Patricio Maria, Luis Maria and Lorenzo Maria, followed by three ravishing plump girls, followed by four more boys, the youngest being little Pablo, who was three. All had the dark eyes and dark curls of their father.
Claudia exclaimed in delight over the presents Ricky had brought, which included a dark red cashmere jersey, a length of Harris Tweed, a striped silk Turnbull and Asser dressing gown and a Herbert Johnson tweed cap for Alejandro. Then she introduced her children to Perdita.
‘Don’t warry,’ said Alejandro with his great laugh. ‘I don’t recognize them myself sometime.’
‘Only the ones that play polo,’ said Claudia without rancour.
‘Have a wheesky, Ricky,’ said Alejandro, brandishing Ricky’s duty-free Bourbon. Then, when Ricky shook his head, ‘But you used to dreenk half a bottle before chukkas. It was your petrol.’
‘Luke?’ asked Alejandro.
‘Not if I’ve gotta play this afternoon,’ said Luke, sitting down next to Perdita.
‘You are, because I’m not,’ said Alejandro, splashing whisky into his glass. ‘The opposition’s very weak today,’ he explained to Ricky, ‘but Luke is a good back. I must look after my laurel.’
Two silent maids served them. Perdita felt too tired to eat, but when she tried her steak it was pure poetry, tender as velvet, juicy as an orange, and so exploding with flavour that she was soon piling her plate with potato purée, tomato salad and geranium-red barbecue sauce.
‘I can’t believe this food,’ she said to Claudia five minutes later. ‘It’s wonderful.’
‘We in Argentina are very like the Breetish except in their cooking, which is ’orrible,’ said Alejandro, who was now wearing both his new dressing gown and the tweed cap over his black gollywog curls. ‘I like to dress like an Englishman.’
The talk was all of polo. Claudia didn’t contribute and concentrated on the younger children.
‘I love to play again in England,’ Alejandro said to Ricky. ‘When you theenk the ban will be lifted?’
‘I don’t know,’ sighed Ricky, who was eating hardly anything. ‘Prince Charles is Colonel of the Welsh Guards, which makes it very difficult for him. And there’s the security problem.’
‘That is a point,’ said Alejandro, looking round. ‘Where’s Angel?’
‘Not ’ungry,’ said Claudia, trying to force potato purée into little Paolo.
‘Not ’ungry, angry. Angel,’ he explained to Ricky, ‘was an ex-Mirage pilot. He ’ate the English, but when he gets to know Perdita,’ Alejandro smiled at her from under the peak of his cap, ‘he will forgeeve.’
Perdita, having taken far too much, was now feeding the rest of the steak to the shaggy lurchers who ringed the table, but kept their distance.
‘They’re so thin,’ she protested to Alejandro.
‘Raimundo don’t feed them. They live on hares and badgers they catch out in the pampas.’
Perdita didn’t think she could eat another thing, but the figs in syrup that followed were so delicious she was soon piling on great dollops of cream.
‘Angel is stupid,’ went on Alejandro. ‘The rest of us in Argentina ’ave forgiven you for the Falklands War.’
‘Oh good,’ said Perdita, brightening up. ‘Why is that?’
‘Because of Benny Hill,’ said Alejandro. ‘We love heem, and all those lovely girls with no clothes on. I love Eenglish programmes, Upper Stairs, Down Stairs. The only thing I watch else is polo on cable, and we’ve got a veedeo of last year’s Open. I’ll show it to you, Reeky.’
‘And you can point out all the ponies you’ve just showed me who allegedly played in it,’ said Ricky drily.
Alejandro giggled. ‘Some was previous year.’
‘Our doctor has tiny plane that was conscripted during the Malvinas War,’ said Claudia. ‘The military say they want to fly rockets on it, but when they see ’ow small it was, it didn’t get called up.’
‘All the food parcels people sent us from abroad was stolen by the post office,’ said Alejandro.
What heavenly people, thought Perdita. They’re so merry and funny.
The spear-shaped leaves of the gum tree were dappling their faces as the sun moved towards the Andes. A dragonfly was bombing the table. Luke pointed out a stork, black and white between the silver trunks. Beyond, the pampas seemed to swim in the midday heat.
‘Ow long are you weeth us, Reeky?’ asked Claudia, who’d had a secret crush on him in the old days and was appalled to see how grey and tense he looked.
‘Probably the day after tomorrow.’
‘But you said you’d stay a week,’ said Perdita in horror.
‘Where are you going next?’ asked Luke.
‘That’s great,’ said Luke. ‘My half-sister Bibi’s out there. Working in LA. You must call her. She doesn’t get out enough. She’s on a zero handicap, but she’d play super if she played more.’
‘Who’s your patron now, Reeky?’ asked Alejandro.
‘Dancer Maitland,’ chipped in Perdita proudly.
Alejandro nearly fell off his seat. All the Mendoza children were roused out of their pallid apathy.
‘You get his autograph?’
‘You send us records?’
‘He numero uno this week.’
‘Is he nice? Please breeng ’im ’ere.’
‘He’s a sweet man,’ admitted Ricky. ‘But he’s very busy, and has difficulty even finding time to stick and ball. You stupid bitch,’ he murmured furiously under his breath to Perdita, ‘now Alejandro’ll quadruple his prices.’
‘Please stay, Reeky,’ pleaded Claudia. ‘You need a holiday. Let us pamper you.’
‘Let them pampas you,’ said Perdita bitterly.
She loves him, thought Luke. Perdita was very pale now, her skin the parchment colour of her white-blond mane. She’ll be like a little palomino when she turns brown, he thought.
‘Have a siesta,’ Claudia urged her as they’d finished coffee.
‘No, I want to look at the ponies with Ricky,’ said Perdita, frantic not to miss a minute.
‘Just for an hour. We all do,’ said Claudia soothingly.
Upstairs, feeling utterly suicidal, Perdita looked round her tiny bare room. The only furniture was a wardrobe, a chest of drawers with no lining paper, a straight-backed wooden chair and a narrow single bed with a carved headboard. There was an overhead light with no lampshade and a bedside lamp on the floor which didn’t work. The only colour came from a picture of a gaucho cracking a whip, a tiny red mat and a shocking pink counterpane. She ought to unpack, but she only got as far as getting out Ricky’s photograph in its blue silk frame and putting it beside the bed. The thought of all those blonde movie stars in Palm Springs pursuing him made her feel quite sick. She’d gone off Luke since he suggested Ricky ring his sister.
She’d just lie on the bed for a minute. Did she imagine it or did a head of bronze curls pop round the door, and were a pair of peacock-blue eyes gazing at her with implacable hatred? Then the door slammed shut and next moment she was asleep.
Waking the next morning, she was outraged that they’d left her to sleep. Luke and Alejandro’s three eldest sons had won their match. The teachers had suddenly ended their strike, and the four youngest children had gone back to school. Ricky, exhausted but elated after haggling all night with Alejandro, had bought eight horses.
Perdita, not in the best mood after a cold shower, found him having breakfast.
‘You promised to wake me.’
‘You needed sleep.’
He poured her some black coffee. Sulkily she added milk and buttered a croissant.
‘Nice family,’ said Ricky.
‘Very,’ said Perdita. ‘I’m not sure about that Angel. He looks as though he wants to Exocet me.’
‘Luke’ll look after you,’ said Ricky. ‘Look, I’m leaving at teatime – catching the eight o’clock flight.’
‘You can’t,’ said Perdita hysterically.
‘I’ve got the horses I need. Luke’s going to get them into America. From there we’ll fly them to England.’
‘But why so early, for Christ’s sake?’
‘Alejandro’s got business in Buenos Aires. He’s giving me a lift to the airport.’
Whatever Alejandro’s business was in BA, it necessitated a silk shirt, light grey trousers, a jacket hanging from a coathanger in the back of the car, his Herbert Johnson cap and about fifteen pints of Aramis.
Perdita cried unashamedly after they left, fleeing to her bare room and hurling herself down on the pink counterpane. Half an hour later there was a knock on the door.
‘Bugger off,’ she howled.
It was Luke. ‘Poor baby. Feeling homesick?’
‘No, Ricky sick,’ sobbed Perdita. ‘I can’t live without him.’
Luke sat down on the bed and put a huge arm round her.
‘You’ll see him in less than three months.’
‘That’s a whole school term. I don’t want it,’ she snapped as he handed her a large vodka and tonic, then took such a huge gulp that she nearly choked.
‘Isn’t Ricky kind of old to play Florizel?’ asked Luke.
‘Not having a father, I’m only attracted to older men,’ said Perdita.
‘I used to hero-worship the guy when he played for my father,’ said Luke. ‘He was awesome. I watched him yesterday. He’ll be as good as ever when his elbow heals. He must go to ten.’
‘All he’s interested in is getting bloody Chessie back.’
‘She’s not bloody.’
‘How’s she getting on with your ghastly father?’
‘Pretty happy, I guess. Doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to quit.’
Perdita sat up, blew her nose and looked at him with red, swollen eyes.
‘Jolly odd having a stepmother the same age as you. D’you fancy her?’
‘Couldn’t help it at first, but we’ve become friends. Her marrying Dad didn’t screw me up like the other two. Red and Bibi have given her hell.’
‘Serve her right.’
‘She lost a kid,’ said Luke reasonably.
‘Does she still miss Will?’
‘Yeah, but she won’t show it.’
‘Like Ricky. He’s so good at bottling things up, he ought to work in a ketchup factory.’
Luke picked up Ricky’s photograph. ‘You gotta treat being down here as a chance to learn polo. Meet them halfway and you’ll improve out of all recognition. And you’ll like it here; it’s kinda fun.’
‘How come you’re so nice?’ asked Perdita.
Luke yawned. ‘My brother Red’s better-looking than me. He gets all the girls – very good for the character. Dinner’s about ten, I’ll boil up some water so you can have a shower.’
‘What time do we get up here?’
‘Six o’clock. And on the horses by seven.’
‘God!’ said Perdita, appalled. ‘What else do we have to do?’
‘Shift the cattle, work the horses, stick and ball, come back for lunch, an hour’s siesta, and you go out like a light I can tell you, then we play chukkas in the afternoon. At least you won’t be roped in to build the swimming-pool.’
He left her not much happier. She tried to sleep, but she was desperately nervous about tomorrow. What if she made a complete fool of herself and let Ricky down? At least he wouldn’t be here to witness it. She felt twitchy about that vile Angel who hovered shadowy in the background, waiting to perform some dreadful mischief. She started violently at a knock on the door. Frantically wiping her eyes, she went to answer it and found Luke with only a small towel round his waist. For a terrifying moment Perdita thought he was going to pounce on her. Instead the bull-dog face creased into a huge smile.
‘Honey, I am absolutely shit-scared of spiders, and there’s the biggest son-of-a-bitch in the shower. Could you possibly remove it for me?’
Giving a scream of laughter, Perdita felt better.
Luke Alderton had been only three years old when Bart dumped his mother for Grace and his first memories were of tears and endless shouting. Grace had proceeded to have two children, Red and Bibi, whom she and Bart adored and spoilt impossibly. Grace, however, tended to ignore Luke when he came to stay, doing her duty without love or warmth. Then his mother had married again, to a PT instructor who beat Luke up so badly that a court ruled he should go and live with Bart full time. Here he had always felt an outsider.
At eighteen, because they wouldn’t let him read Polo at Yale, he chucked up any thought of an academic career. Determined to be utterly independent of Bart, he slowly worked his way up, starting as a groom and finally getting his own yard, buying ponies cheap off the race track, or from other players who couldn’t get a tune out of them, making them, and selling them on, which he detested because he got so fond of them. Invariably riding green ponies, his handicap at six was lower than it should have been. He didn’t have the natural ability of his brother, Red, but he was bigger and stronger. You didn’t want to be in the way when Luke hit the ball.
Because he’d missed out on higher education, and because he could seldom afford to go out on the town with the other players, he spent his evenings listening to music and devouring the classics. On long journeys in the lorry he’d keep the rest of the team entertained reciting great screeds of poetry, Longfellow, Macaulay, whole scenes from Shakespeare, now even bits of Martin Fierro, in an ’orrible accent.
All the Argentines adored him and nicknamed him Señor Gracias because he was so grateful for the smallest favour. It was the same in the States. He was always in work because he was cheerful, absolutely straight and very good company. But although he smiled in the face of the direst provocation, underneath he was as determined as Ricky to go to ten.
After such a lousy start in life, and not a penny of the Alderton millions, people often expressed amazement that he was so unchippy. The answer was always the same. ‘There’s nothing to be gained from blaming your background or other people. You’ve got to get out and help yourself.’
A second after Perdita fell asleep, it seemed Luke was banging on the door telling her to get up and to wear a sweater as it was cold first thing. Out in the yard, Alejandro had turned from the charming rogue of yesterday into a roaring tyrant, bellowing instructions to all the boys. In the corral the ponies waited, mostly chestnut, all young and timid, ducking nervously behind each other to avoid being caught. When Alejandro yelled at Perdita to tack up a little chestnut gelding, she was so nervous she could hardly do up the throat lash or adjust the stirrups. Once up, she felt she was straddling an eel. Every male from the neighbouring estancias, except Luke, who was off moving the cattle, seemed to be gathered round the paddock to watch her as she set off in the milky, misty morning light towards a row of poplar trees. Alejandro shouted after her to do turns at the canter.
‘I’ll show them,’ she thought, shoving her nose in the air. ‘Don’t jibe at me, Argentina.’
Reaching the middle of the field, she laid the nearside rein on the chestnut’s neck to tell him to go right. Instantly he did a lightning U-turn and set out back to the stables, leaving Perdita swearing on the stone-hard ground while all the onlookers roared with laughter and Alejandro shouted in broken English at her. She had three more falls before she and a handful of other players started stick and balling. She was just getting used to the chestnut when Alejandro moved her on to a dark brown mare who, when it wasn’t bucking, shied at the ball, and then on to another chestnut, whom she had great difficulty in holding.
She was also staggered by how energetically the Argentines played, hitting balls up in the air, juggling and tapping them, twisting, turning and stopping, followed by Ferrari bursts of acceleration before circling again. Then they did the whole thing all over again without stirrups, and all the time talking and shouting to one another. She was also aware of Angel, the Brit-hater, who hadn’t once eaten at the same table as her since she arrived, who was now riding harder and turning faster than any of the others, urging his pony on with great pelvic thrusts. It seemed he was deliberately galloping very close past her to upset her chestnut mare, who kept taking off into the pampas.
She had fallen off twice more and ridden twelve different ponies by lunchtime and was so tired she could hardly eat. Although Luke translated the whole time for her, she felt desperately isolated and sick with longing for Ricky. He must have nearly reached Palm Springs by now.
Tugged out of her siesta like a back tooth, she staggered groggily out to the yard. The sun was shining platinum rather than gold now, and beating down on her head. To her intense humiliation, Luke, Angel, Alejandro, three of Alejandro’s sons, and two of their friends who’d come to lunch were playing on one pitch while Perdita had been put on another with Alejandro’s three younger sons and four of their cousins – none of them a day over twelve.
‘Talk about going back to playgroup,’ snarled Perdita.
The ponies were tied up in the shade to the branches of a row of gum trees which divided the two pitches. Gulls flapped around uttering their strange cry of ‘Tero, Tero’, and swooping down to scavenge whenever play moved on. A strong lemon smell, from a local herb known as black branch, hung on the hot steamy air. The mosquitoes went to work on any available flesh. After the throw-in the ball came out miraculously in Perdita’s direction.
Now I’ll show them, she thought, lifting her stick for a flawless offside drive. Next second she gave a scream of rage as she was hooked by an eleven-year-old cousin, who then proceeded to whip the ball away down field. One of Alejandro’s sons playing back rode him off for the backhand and hit it up the field to his brother who dribbled it a few yards, then sliced it to Perdita. Instantly an eleven-year-old cousin pounced on her, shielding her from the ball and riding her off.
All of them played with such ferocious energy and skill that, for the next nightmarish seven minutes, she didn’t touch the ball.
‘Faulazo,’ they yelled, as they teased her into crossing in front of them.
‘Dejala,’ they yelled as she rode in for the big swipe and missed it.
‘Hombre, hombre, hombre,’ they chorused, urging her to take her man, and ‘Que lenta,’ they screamed when she failed to catch up with her number four, and he went up the field and scored to loud cheers. A huge cow bell was rung at the end of the chukka, but the boys went on playing.
‘Perdita,’ yelled Alejandro, ‘change the horse.’
‘Better change the rider,’ said Perdita, fighting back the tears. She was sore all over, out of breath, pouring with sweat, and there were three more chukkas to go. ‘I don’t want to play with kids,’ she screamed at Luke. ‘They’re all laughing at me.’
‘Not at you,’ said Luke soothingly, while saddling up a black mare with a white star for her. ‘They always talk and joke among themselves. You’re over-reacting. This pony’s much easier. She follows the ball and positions herself for every shot. Just leave it to her.’
Perdita was settling down and had even hit a respectable forehand which only just missed the goal when Alejandro, out of some devilry, swopped one of his sons and a cousin for Luke and Angel.
Angel proceeded to put on an incredible display of histrionics, peacock-blue eyes flashing, nostrils flaring above his furiously pouting mouth, as he shouted and swore at Alejandro.
‘What’s he saying?’ Perdita asked Alejandro’s twelve year old, who blushed. ‘He say he no want to play with Eeenglish – er – scum.’
‘Charming,’ snapped Perdita.
‘Choto,’ Angel swore at her as he galloped past to defend his goal and, however much Luke set up shots for her, Angel rode her off. Then, after a whispered word with one of the cousins, Angel and he galloped up on either side of her and neatly lifted her off the little black mare.
‘Bastards,’ howled Perdita, sitting on the painfully hard ground, and bashing it with her stick, ‘fucking bastards.’
‘No understand Eeenglish,’ mocked Angel. ‘Go back home,’ and launched into a stream of expletives in Spanish. Perdita replied in equally basic English.
Next minute Luke had cantered up with Perdita’s black pony. ‘I’m not going to translate for either of you,’ he said softly. Then, turning furiously on Angel, ‘For Chrissake, pack it in.’
Five minutes later Luke blocked a brilliant goal from the youngest cousin and cleared. Christ, he really can smite the ball almost the length of the pitch, marvelled Perdita. Angel, racing towards the enemy goal, tried to intercept with an air shot. Missing, he swung his pony round in pursuit, and when it didn’t turn quickly enough, clouted it very hard round the head with his stick. In a flash Perdita closed on him and bashed him across the knuckles with her stick.
‘You triple bastard! I’ll report you to the RSPCA.’
Turning, realizing it was Perdita, Angel gave a howl of rage and set off in pursuit. So blackly venomous was his expression that Perdita fled towards the next pitch, scattering the polo balls which lay like a hatch of goose eggs near the goal posts. Angel, on a faster pony and using his whip, had nearly caught her up when Luke thundered up and rode him off. Such was the force of the bump that Angel’s horse crashed to the ground, temporarily winded.
Leaping to his feet, Angel charged Luke, about to drag him off his horse.
‘I wouldn’t,’ said Luke raising his stick. ‘Stop behaving like a two year old. She’s a woman.’
‘She’s a beetch, and English beetch, like Margaret Thatcher,’ growled Angel. ‘I keel her when I catch her.’
‘You’ve been winding her up all day,’ shouted Luke. ‘D’you want to put her off completely?’
‘Yes,’ hissed Angel, looking at his bleeding knuckles. ‘Then she’ll go home for good.’
For a second they glared at each other. Then Angel vaulted back on to his pony, which had just tottered groggily to its feet, and galloped back to the stables.
Back in her room, Perdita fell on her bed, too despairing and exhausted even to cry. She’d been a disaster and let Ricky down. They’d pack her back to England.
There was a knock on the door. It was Luke again.
‘Baby, it’s OK.’ He took her in his arms.
‘Ouch,’ grumbled Perdita. ‘You’ve got hands like sandpaper.’
‘To rub off all your rough edges,’ said Luke.
‘I made such an idiot of myself. Those were children. The standard is ludicrous. I’ll never cope.’
‘Hush, hush,’ said Luke. ‘Argentines learn polo like a language. Those boys have been playing with a short mallet since they were two. By the time they’re ten or eleven they’re on a six handicap. Look, you’re jet lagged. You couldn’t understand what they were saying. There’s hours till dinner. Let’s go into General Piran and I’ll buy you a drink.’
It was so hot that Perdita would have liked to have worn shorts or a dress, but her mosquito bites had come up in huge red bumps and were oozing and itching like mad, so she settled for her pale pink jeans and a dark blue shirt. A huge yellow sun was gilding the puddles and turning the poplars the colour of lemon sherbets. A cloud like a fluffy white crocodile basked at the bottom of the vast open fan of fading turquoise sky. Luke drove slowly to avoid the potholes, just two thumbs on the steering wheel.
‘I had one hell of a hassle when I first came out. I was used to riding with my reins hanging in festoons. Alejandro and his son all stop horses with five-inch curbs and send them on with spurs about the same length. I kept being carted all the way to Buenos Aires.’
Perdita stared moodily at the horizon.
‘You’ll be playing in matches soon. You’ll enjoy that. You can’t go back to England without taking some Argentine silver.’
To distract Perdita’s attention from a terrified stray dog that was cringing on the right of the road, Luke pointed out three tumbledown houses on the left.
‘Known as Death Row. In that house lived a bricklayer who murdered the baker because he thought he’d stolen one of his pigs. Then four brothers turned up in a bus and killed three brothers who lived in that house next door. Then the grocer who lived in the third house shot himself.’
‘If you hadn’t bumped that sodding Angel there’d have been another murder this afternoon,’ said Perdita sulkily. ‘What a dinky little country this is. What a dump,’ she added as they entered the village.
Luke pointed out the little white church, with its red corrugated roof, that was always having its windows broken by the football pitch next door.
‘At least it provides air-conditioning in summer,’ he went on. ‘And that’s the gas station. The prettiest girl works there. Angel’s dating her and spends his time filling up Alejandro’s truck. The gasoline bill at the end of the month is going to be something else!’ He shook with laughter.