To Beryl Hill,
the Artur Rubinstein of the typewriter,
with love and gratitude
An enormous number of people helped me write Riders. They were all experts in their fields. But this being a work of fiction, I took their advice only as far as it suited my plot, and the accuracy of the book in no way reflected on their expertise!
They included Ronnie Massarella, Caroline Silver, Alan Smith, Brian Giles, Douglas Bunn, Michael Clayton, Alan Oliver, Bridget Le Good, John Burbidge, Diana Downie, Raymond Brooks-Ward, Harvey Smith, Dr. Hubert and Mrs. Bessie Crouch, Dr. Timothy Evans, Heather Ross, Caroline Akrill, Dick Stilwell, Sue Clarke, Sue Gibson, Andrew Parker-Bowles, John and Tory Oaksey, Marion Ivey, Rosemary Nunelly, Elizabeth Richardson, Elizabeth Hopkins, Julia Longland, Susan Blair, Ann Martin, Kate O’Sullivan, Marcy Drummond, John and Michael Whitaker, David Broome, and Malcolm Pyrah.
I owed a special debt of gratitude to dear Sighle Gogan, who spent so many hours talking to me about show jumping, and arranged for me to meet so many of the people who helped me, but who tragically died in January 1984.
I also had cause to thank my bank manager, James Atkinson, for being so patient and Paul Scherer and Alan Earney of Corgi Books for being so continually encouraging, and Tom Hartman for being one of those rare people who actually makes authors enjoy having their books edited.
An award for gallantry weny to the nine ladies who all worked fantastically long hours over Christmas, deciphering my appalling handwriting and typing the 340,000-word manuscript. They included Beryl Hill, Anna Gibbs-Kennet, Sue Moore, Margaret McKellican, Corinne Monhaghan, Julie Payne, Nicky Greenshield, Patricia Quatermass, and my own wonderful secretary, Diane Peter.
The lion’s share of my gratitude went to Desmond Elliott for masterminding the whole operation so engagingly, and to all his staff at Arlington, who worked so hard to produce such a huge book in under five months.
Finally there were really no words adequate to thank my husband, Leo, and my children, Felix and Emily, except to say that without their support, good cheer, and continued unselfishness the book would never have been finished.
— England, 2007
Because he had to get up unusually early on Saturday, Jake Lovell kept waking up throughout the night, racked by terrifying dreams about being late. In the first dream he couldn’t find his breeches when the collecting ring steward called his number; in the second he couldn’t catch any of the riding school ponies to take them to the show; in the third Africa slipped her head collar and escaped; and in the fourth, the most terrifying of all, he was back in the children’s home screaming and clawing at locked iron gates, while Rupert Campbell-Black rode Africa off down the High Street, until turning with that hateful, sneering smile, he’d shouted: “You’ll never get out of that place now, Gyppo; it’s where you belong.”
Jake woke sobbing, heart bursting, drenched in sweat, paralyzed with fear. It was half a minute before he could reach out and switch on the bedside lamp. He lit a cigarette with a trembling hand. Gradually the familiar objects in the room reasserted themselves: the Lionel Edwards prints on the walls, the tattered piles of Horse and Hound, the books on show jumping hopelessly overcrowding the bookshelves, the wash basin, the faded photographs of his mother and father. Hanging in the wardrobe was the check riding coat Mrs. Wilton had rather grudgingly given him for his twenty-first birthday. Beneath it stood the scratched but gleaming pair of brown-topped boots he’d picked up secondhand last week.
In the stall below he could hear a horse snorting and a crash as another horse kicked over its water bucket.
Far too slowly his panic subsided. Prep school and Rupert Campbell-Black were things of the past. It was 1970 and he had been out of the children’s home for four years now. He mostly forgot them during the day; it was only in dreams they came back to torment him. He shivered; the sheets were still damp with sweat. Four-thirty, said his alarm clock; there were already fingers of light under the thin yellow curtains. He didn’t have to get up for half an hour, but he was too scared to go back to sleep. He could hear the rain pattering on the roof outside and dripping from the gutter, muting the chatter of the sparrows.
He tried to concentrate on the day ahead, which didn’t make him feel much more cheerful. One of the worst things about working in a riding school was having to take pupils to horse shows. Few of them could control the bored, broken-down ponies. Many were spoilt; others, terrified, were only riding at all because their frightful mothers were using horses to grapple their way up the social scale, giving them an excuse to put a hard hat in the back window of the Jaguar and slap gymkhana stickers on the windscreen.
What made Jake sick with nerves, however, was that, unknown to his boss, Mrs. Wilton, he intended to take Africa to the show and enter her for the open jumping. Mrs. Wilton didn’t allow Jake to compete in shows. He might get too big for his boots. His job was to act as constant nursemaid to the pupils, not to jump valuable horses behind her back.
Usually, Mrs. Wilton turned up at shows in the afternoon and strutted about chatting up the mothers. But today, because she was driving down to Brighton to chat up some rich uncle who had no children, she wouldn’t be putting in an appearance. If Jake didn’t try out Africa today, he wouldn’t have another chance for weeks.
Africa was a livery horse, looked after at the riding school, but owned by an actor named Bobby Cotterel, who’d bought her in a fit of enthusiasm after starring in Dick Turpin. A few weeks later he had bought a Ferrari and, apart from still paying her livery fees, had forgotten about Africa, which had given Jake the perfect opportunity to teach her to jump on the quiet.
She was only six, but every day Jake became more convinced that she had the makings of a great show jumper. It was not just her larkiness and courage, her fantastic turn of speed and huge jump. She also had an ability to get herself out of trouble which counterbalanced her impetuosity.
Jake adored her — more than any person or animal he had known in his life. If Mrs. Wilton discovered he’d taken her to a show, she’d probably sack him. He dreaded losing a job which had brought him his first security in years, but the prospect of losing Africa was infinitely worse.
The alarm made him jump. It was still raining; the horror of the dream gripped him again. What would happen if Africa slipped when she was taking off or landing? He dressed and, lifting up the trapdoor at the bottom of his bed, climbed down the stairs into the tackroom, inhaling the smell of warm horse leather, saddle soap, and dung, which never failed to excite him. Hearing him mixing the feeds, horses’ heads came out over the half-doors, calling, whickering, stamping their hooves.
Dandelion, the skewbald, the greediest pony in the yard, his mane and back covered in straw from lying down, yelled shrilly, demanding to be fed first. As he added extra vitamins, nuts, and oats to Africa’s bowl, Jake thought it was hardly surprising she looked well. Mrs. Wilton would have a fit if she knew.
It was seven-thirty before he had mucked out and fed all the horses. Africa, feed finished, blinking her big, dark blue eyes in the low-angled sun, hung out of her box, catching his sleeve between her lips each time he went past, shaking gently, never nipping the skin. Mrs. Wilton had been out to dinner the night before; it was unlikely she’d surface before half-past eight; that gave him an hour to groom Africa.
Rolling up his sleeves, chattering nonsense to her all the time, Jake got to work. She was a beautiful horse, very dark brown, her coat looking almost indigo in the shadows. She had two white socks, a spillikin of white down her forehead, a chest like a channel steamer funnel, huge shoulders and quarters above lean strong legs. Her ears twitched and turned all the time, as sensitive as radar.
He started when the stable cat, a fat tabby with huge whiskers, appeared on top of the stable door and, after glancing at a couple of pigeons scratching for corn, dropped down into the straw and curled up in the discarded warmth of Africa’s rug.
Suddenly Africa jerked up her head and listened. Jake stepped outside nervously; the curtains were still drawn in Mrs. Wilton’s house. He’d wanted to plait Africa’s mane, but he didn’t dare. It would unplait all curly and he might be caught out. He went back to work.
“Surely you’re not taking Africa to the show?” said a shrill voice. Jake jumped out of his skin and Africa tossed up her head, banging him on the nose.
Just able to look over the half-door was one of his pupils, Fenella Maxwell, her face as freckled as a robin’s egg, her flaxen hair already escaping from its elastic bands.
“What the hell are you doing here?” said Jake furiously, his eyes watering. “I said no one was allowed here till ten and it can’t be eight yet. Push off home.”
“I’ve come to help,” said Fenella, gazing at him with huge, Cambridge-blue eyes fringed with thick blond lashes. Totally unabashed, she moved a boiled sweet to the other side of her face.
“I know you’re by yourself till Alison comes. I’ll get Dandelion ready…please,” she added. “I want him to look as beautiful as Africa.”
“Shut up,” hissed Jake. “Now shove off.”
“Please let me stay. There’s nothing to do at home. I couldn’t sleep. I will help. Oh, doesn’t Smokey look sweet curled up in the rug? Are you really taking Africa?”
“Mind your own business,” said Jake.
Fen took the boiled sweet out of her mouth and gave it to Dandelion, who was slavering over the next half-door, then kissed him on the nose. Her shirt was already escaping from the jeans which she wore over her jodhpurs to keep them clean.
“Does Mrs. Wilton know?” she asked.
“No,” said Jake.
“I won’t tell her,” said Fen, swinging on Africa’s door. “Patty Beasley might, though, or Sally Ann; she’s always sneaking about something.”
Jake had already sweated uncomfortably over this possibility.
“They’re probably too thick to notice,” she went on. “Shall I make you a cup of tea? Four spoonfuls of sugar, isn’t it?”
Jake relented. She was a good kid, cheerful and full of guts, with an instinct for horses and a knowledge way beyond her nine years.
“You can stay if you keep your trap shut,” he said. “I don’t want Mrs. Wilton waking up yet.”
After she had spilt most of the tea in the saucer, Fen tied Dandelion up outside Africa’s box and settled down to washing his white patches, managing to get more water over herself than the pony.
Jake half-listened as she chattered on incessantly about her sister Tory, who was doing the season but not enjoying the parties at all, and who often had red eyes from crying in the morning.
“She’s coming to the show later.”
“Does your mother know you’re here?” asked Jake.
“She wouldn’t notice if I wasn’t. She’s got a new boyfriend named Colonel Carter. Colonel Cart-ah, he calls himself. He laughs all the time when he’s talking to Mummy and he’s got big yellow teeth like Dandelion, but somehow they look better on a horse.
“They’re coming to the show, too. Colonel Carter is bringing a lot of soldiers and guns to do a display after the open jumping. He and Mummy and Tory are going to lunch up at the Hall. Mummy bought a new blue dress specially; it’s lovely, but Tory said it was jolly expensive, so I don’t expect she’ll be able to afford to buy me a pony yet; anyway she says Tory being a deb is costing a fortune.”
“Shampoo and set, darling,” she said to Dandelion twenty minutes later as she stuck the pony’s tail in a bucket of hot, soapy water. “Oh, look, Africa’s making faces; isn’t she sweet?” The next moment Dandelion had whisked his tail at a fly, sending soapy water all over Fen, Africa’s rug, and the stable cat, who retreated in high dudgeon.
“For God’s sake, concentrate,” snapped Jake.
“Mummy’s picture’s in The Tatler again this week,” said Fen. “She gets in much more often than poor Tory. She says Tory’s got to go on a diet next week, so she’ll be thin for her drinks’ party next month. Oh cave, Mrs. Wilton’s drawing back the kitchen curtains.”
Hastily Jake replaced Africa’s rug and came out of her box.
Inside the kitchen, beneath the ramparts of honeysuckle, he could see Mrs. Wilton, her brick red face flushed from the previous night’s drinking, dropping Alka-Seltzer into a glass of water. Christ, he hoped she’d get a move on to Brighton and wouldn’t hang around. Picking up the brush and the curry comb he started on one of the ponies.
Mrs. Wilton came out of the house, followed by her arthritic yellow labrador, who lifted his leg stiffly on the mounting block, then as a formality bounded after the stable cat.
Mrs. Wilton was never known to have been on a horse in her life. Stocky, with a face squashed in like a bulldog, she had short pepper and salt hair, a blotchy complexion like salami, and a deep bass voice. All the same, she had had more success with the opposite sex than her masculine appearance would suggest.
“Jake!” she bellowed.
He came out, curry comb in one hand, brush in the other.
“Yes, Mrs. Wilton,” though she’d repeatedly asked him to call her Joyce.
They gazed at each other with the dislike of the unwillingly but mutually dependent. Mrs. Wilton knew that having lost both his parents and spent much of his life in a children’s home, Jake clung on to the security of a living-in job. As her husband was away so much on business, Mrs. Wilton had often suggested Jake might be more comfortable living in the house with her. But, aware that he would have to share a bathroom and, if Mrs. W. had her way, a bedroom, Jake had repeatedly refused. Mrs. Wilton was old enough to be his mother.
But, despite finding him sullen and withdrawn to the point of insolence, she had to admit that the horses had never been better looked after. As a result of his encyclopedic knowledge of plants and wildflowers, and his incredible gypsy remedies, she hadn’t had a vet’s bill since he’d arrived, and because he was frightened of losing this substitute home, she could get away with paying him a pittance. She found herself doing less and less. She didn’t want to revert to getting up at six and mucking out a dozen horses, and it was good to be able to go away, like today, and not worry.
On the other hand, if he was a miracle with animals, he was hell with parents, refusing to suck up to them, positively rude to the sillier ones. A lot had defected and gone to Mrs. Haley across the valley, who charged twice as much.
“How many ponies are you taking?” she demanded.
“Six,” said Jake, walking towards the tackroom, praying she’d follow him.
“And you’ll get Mrs. Thomson to bring the head collars and the water buckets in her car. Do try to be polite for once, although I know how hard you find it.”
Jake stared at her, unsmiling. He had a curiously immobile face, everything in the right place, but without animation. The swarthy features were pale today, the full lips set in an uncompromising line. Slanting, secretive, dark eyes looked out from beneath a frowning line of brow, practically concealed by the thick thatch of almost black hair. He was small, not more than five foot seven, and very thin, a good jockey’s weight. The only note of frivolity was the gold rings in his ears. There was something watchful and controled about him that didn’t go with youth. Despite the heat of the day, his shirt collar was turned up as if against some imagined storm.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said, looking down the row of loose boxes.
Suddenly her eyes lit on Africa.
“What’s she doing inside?”
“I brought her in this morning,” he lied easily. “She yells her head off if she’s separated from Dandelion and I thought you’d like a lie in.”
“Well, put her out again when you go. I’m not having her eating her head off.”
Despite the fat fee paid by Bobby Gotterel, thought Jake.
She peered into the loose box. For an appalling moment he thought she was going to peel back the rug.
“Hello, Mrs. Wilton,” shrieked Fen. “Come and look at Dandelion. Doesn’t he look smart?”
Distracted, Mrs. Wilton turned away from Africa.
“Hello, Fen, dear, you’re an early bird. He does look nice; you’ve even oiled his hooves. Perhaps you’ll bring home a rosette.”
“Shouldn’t think so,” said Fen gloomily. “Last time he ate all the potatoes in the potato race.”
“Phew, that was a near one,” said Fen, as Mrs. Wilton’s car, with the labrador’s head sticking out of the window, disappeared down the road.
“Come on,” said Jake. “I’ll make you some breakfast.”
Dressing later before he set out for the show, Jake transferred the crushed and faded yellow tansy flower from the bottom of his left gum boot to his left riding boot. Tansy warded off evil. Jake was full of superstitions. The royal gypsy blood of the Lovells didn’t flow through his veins for nothing.
By midday, a blazing sun shone relentlessly out of a speedwell blue sky, warming the russet stone of Bilborough Hall as it dreamed above its dark green moat. To the right on the terrace, great yews cut in the shape of peacocks seemed about to strut across the shaven lawns, down into the valley where blue-green wheat fields merged into meadows of pale silver-green hay. In the park the trees in the angelic softness of their new spring growth looked as if the rain had not only washed them but fabric conditioned them as well. Dark purple copper beeches and cochinealred may added a touch of color.
To the left, the show ring was already circled two deep with cars, and more cars in a long gleaming crocodile were still inching slowly through the main gate, on either side of which two stone lions reared up clenching red and white bunting between their teeth.
The headscarf brigade were out in full force, caught on the hop by the first hot day of the year, their arms pale in sleeveless dresses, silk-lined bottoms spilling over shooting sticks, shouting to one another as they unpacked picnics from their cars. Hunt terriers yapped, labradors panted. Food in dog bowls, remaining untouched because of the heat, gathered flies.
Beyond the cars, crowds milled round the stalls selling horsiana, moving aside to avoid the occasional competitors riding through with numbers on their backs. Children mindlessly consumed crisps, clamored for ices, balloons, and pony rides. Fathers hung with cameras, wearing creased lightweight suits smelling of mothballs, wished they could escape back to the office, and, for consolation, eyed the inevitable hordes of nubile fourteen-year-old girls, with long wavy hair and very tight breeches, who seem to parade permanently up and down at horse shows.
Bilborough Hall was owned by Sir William Blake, no relation to the poet, but nicknamed “Tiger” at school. Mingling with the crowds, he gossiped to friends, raised his hat to people he didn’t know, and told everyone that in twenty years there had only been one wet Bilborough show. His wife, a J.P. in drooping tweeds and a felt hat, whose passion was gardening, sighed inwardly at the ground already gray and pitted with hoof marks. Between each year, like childbirth, nature seemed to obliterate the full horror of the Bilborough show. She had already instructed the undergardener, to his intense embarrassment, to go around with a spade and gather up all the manure before it was trodden into the ground.
“Oh, there you are, William,” she said to her husband, who was genially trying to guess the weight of a piglet. “People are already arriving for luncheon; we’d better go and do our stuff.”
Down by the horse lines, Jake Lovell, tying up a weedy gray pony more securely, was slowly reaching screaming point. The family of the unspeakably hopeless Patty Beasley (none of whom had ever been on a horse) had all turned up in jodhpurs. Sally Ann Thomson’s frightful mother hung around the whole time, talking at the top of her voice, so all the other competitors turned around and laughed at her.
“It doesn’t matter about winning, dear,” she was now telling Sally Ann. “Competing and having fun is all that matters.”
Bloody rubbish, thought Jake. They all sulk if they’re not placed.
After Sally Ann’s pony had bolted with her, and Patty Beasley’s cob had had a kicking match with the priceless winner of the under 13.2 showing class, causing loss of temper on all sides, Jake had refused to let any of the children ride their ponies until the jumping in the afternoon. He had nearly had a mutiny on his hands.
“Why can’t I do some practice jumps on Syrup?”
“Why can’t I ride Stardust over to get an ice cream?”
“Oh, Snowball’s trodden on my toe.”
“How d’you rate Sally Ann’s chances in the junior jumping?” asked Mrs. Thomson, sweating in an emerald green wool suit.
“Nonexistent,” snapped Jake.
“Joyce Wilton said Sally Ann was the best little horsewoman in Surrey.”
“Can Patty enter for the potato race?” asked Mrs. Beasley.
“If she wants to waste her money, the secretary’s tent’s over there.”
Sally Ann’s mother returned to the attack: “We’ve paid for the pony all day.” (Mrs. Wilton charged £12 a gymkhana.) “My little girl should be able to ride as much as she likes.”
Jake’s head throbbed with the effort of filtering out conversation. The clamor went on, deafening, shrill, and demanding. He might as well get a job as a nanny. No wonder sheepdogs had nervous breakdowns. No wonder mothers battered babies and babies battered mothers. He wanted to turn off the din, like the wireless, and lie down in the long lush grass by the river and go to sleep.
His eye ran over the row of bored, depressed-looking ponies standing on three legs, tails swishing ineffectually against the flies, occasionally flattening their ears at one another. They’re trapped like me, he thought.
His face became less frosty as he came to little Fenella Maxwell, standing on a bucket, replaiting the long-suffering Dandelion’s mane for the third time. She was a good kid. Surprisingly she wasn’t spoilt by her bitch of a mother, who would be guzzling champagne up at the big house with the nobs by now.
His eyes softened even more when they came to rest on Africa. Not dozing like the ponies, she looked around with her huge eyes, taking everything in, reassuring herself constantly that Jake was still there.
The prospect of the open jumping and the risk he was running made him steadily more sick with nerves. He lit another cigarette.
Next time a huge horse box drew up, a groom got out, unfastened the ramp, and led out a beautifully plaited-up gray, sweating in a crimson rug with dark blue binding. A girl wearing a white shirt, a black coat, skintight breeches, and long black boots walked over and looked the horse over critically. She had a haughty pink and white face. Jake thought how attractive some women looked in riding clothes, the austerity and severity of the uniform contrasting with the wild wantonness beneath. He imagined her long thighs threshing in ecstasy, while the hat, tie, and haughty pink and white face remained primly in place. He imagined laying her on a bed of straw, as tempting as a newly made bed.
As if aware of Jake’s scrutiny, she turned around. Jake looked away quickly, determined not to give her the satisfaction of knowing she was being fancied.
“Lavinia!” A handsome dark boy, white teeth gleaming in his suntanned face, pulled up his huge chestnut horse beside her.
“Christopher. Hello. I thought you were in Marbella.”
“Just got back.”
“Come and have a dwink.” She couldn’t say her Rs. “Mummy’s parked the car by the collecting wing.”
“Love to.” He rode on.
Bloody upper classes, thought Jake, all making so much bloody noise. He was fed up with wearing a cheap riding coat and thirdhand boots that were already killing him. He wanted a horse box, and a groom whisking out different horses like a conjurer producing colored handkerchiefs, and a tackroom wall papered with red rosettes, and a beautiful pink and white girl asking him respectfully how many strides there were between the gate and the rustic poles.
A shrill piping voice brought him back to earth.
“I’ve bought you an ice cream,” said Fenella Maxwell. “You ought to keep up your strength. Oh, look, they’re bringing out the jumps for the junior jumping. I know I’m going to let Dandelion down. Mummy and Tory’ll miss it if they don’t stop stuffing themselves.”
Inside Bilborough Hall, Tory Maxwell, Fenella’s elder sister, looked up at a large Rubens, in which a huge pink fleshy Venus was being pursued by half the satyr population of Ancient Greece, while adoring cherubs arranged her rippling pearl-strewn hair. She’s much fatter than me, thought Tory wistfully. Why wasn’t I born in the seventeenth century?
She had huge gray eyes and long, straight, light brown hair, which her mother insisted she wore drawn back off her forehead and temples and tied in a bow on the crown of her head. A style which made her round, pleading, peony red face look bigger than ever. She was tallish and big-boned, with a huge bust that bounced up and down as she walked. However she stood on the scales, she weighed eleven stone.
She’d just got the curse, which made her feel even fatter, and, however many layers of Erace she put on, a large red spot on her chin glowed through like a lighthouse. She was getting hotter and hotter, but she couldn’t take off the jacket of her red suit because the skirt was fastened precariously by a safety pin. Her ankles had swelled and, having kicked off her tight shoes, she wondered if she’d ever be able to get back into them again. She wondered if she’d ever been more miserable in her life. Then, with a stab of pain, she remembered last night’s dance and decided she was comparatively blessed.
During the weekdays she was at a finishing school in London, learning to cook, to type, and to arrange flowers by ramming bits of rhubarb into chicken mesh. By night she practiced the art of wallflower arrangement, going to drinks’ parties and dances, and trying to appear as though she belonged to one of those chattering, laughing groups of debs and their admirers. Occasionally, hostesses took pity on her and brought up wilting, reluctant young men who talked politely or danced one dance, then drifted away.
The more miserable she got, the more she ate. But never at dances, never in front of her mother. She would wait for everyone to go out or to bed, then wolf three bowls of cornflakes swimming in heavy cream. Yesterday, she’d eaten a whole box of chocolates, which had been given to her mother by an admirer, and then had to rush out to the shops to buy another box to replace it before her mother got back.
Why couldn’t she be like Fen, and have something like horses to be interested in passionately and keep her nose out of the trough? Why did she have to stay inside on this lovely day when she wanted to be outside, picnicking with Fen and Jake? At the thought of Jake, dark-faced and unpredictable, whom she had never spoken to, her stomach felt weak, her mouth dry. Oh Jake! At night she wrote him long passionate letters which she always tore up. Small men were supposed to like big girls; look at D. H. Lawrence and Stanley Spencer. Perhaps having no parents, and being brought up in a children’s home, he might be looking for a mother figure, but he didn’t seem to be showing any signs so far.
Tory’s mother, Molly Maxwell, had enjoyed her lunch enormously. She was delighted to be asked. Colonel Carter, who had accompanied her, had enjoyed himself, too. It had been fun being able to introduce him to Sir William, and they’d got on well talking about the war. She combed her hair surreptitiously; Gerald had done it beautifully this week. Why was Tory hanging round like a wet blanket? Sir William’s sons were there. All of them Old Etonians, nice looking and so suitable, and Tory hadn’t addressed a word to any of them all through lunch, just sitting like a pig, and taking a second helping of pudding when she thought her mother wasn’t looking.
“Poor Molly,” she could imagine people saying, “poor Molly to be saddled with such a lump.”
“No, I won’t have any more wine, thank you, Sir William.” She didn’t want to get red in the face. Her new, silk-lined dress and jacket in periwinkle blue was most becoming. This afternoon she’d probably take the jacket off; her arms were still slender and already turning brown.
She was really enjoying Tory doing the season. “Jennifer’s Diary,” this week, had described her as the chic and most attractive mother of Tory Maxwell. At least one deb’s delight and several fathers had declared themselves madly in love with her. And now Colonel Carter was getting really keen and sending roses twice a week.
To top everything, last night she had heard two young bloods discussing Tory.
“Wonder if it would be worth marrying her for her money,” said the first.
“I’d certainly marry her for her mummy,” said the second. “Molly Maxwell is absolutely gorgeous.”
Molly thought that was too amusing for words.
Molly was a bit short of cash at the moment. Her rather stolid husband had paid her a great deal of alimony, but when he inconveniently died, he had left all his money, unaccountably, in trust for Tory. That was another grudge; what did Tory want with an income of £5,000 a year?
Tory looked across at her mother. I’m the fruit of her womb, and I hate her, hate her, hate her, she thought, for her ankles slender as a gazelle’s, and her flexible high insteps, and thin Knights-bridge legs, and her painted malicious face, and her shrill clipped voice, not unlike Fen’s! Look at Sir William bending over her.
“No, really,” Molly was saying, “is it by Ferneley? How fascinating. No, do tell me.”
And that dreadful Colonel Carter, Colonel Bogus more likely, handsome as an aging movie star, matinee-idling about, a cliché of chauvinism, his large yellow teeth gleaming amicably beneath his graying mustache, as he blamed even the weather on the Socialists.
“No, my younger daughter Fen’s riding,” Molly was saying to Sir William. “She’s absolutely horse-mad; up first thing mucking out, never get her to wear a dress. Oh, I see you take The Tatler, too; not for the articles really; but it’s such fun to see which of one’s chums are in this week.”
“No, not my only child,” Tory could hear her mother going on. “There’s Tory over there; yes, she’s more like her father…Yes, just eighteen…Well, how kind of you to say so. I suppose I was rather young when I got married.”
“Mustn’t monopolize you,” said Sir William, getting up from his chair and noticing Colonel Carter hovering. “Come and sit down, Carter; can’t say I blame you.”
Next moment, Sir William was hurrying across the room to welcome the two judges, Malise Gordon and Miss Squires, who, on a tight schedule, had only time for a quick bite. Malise Gordon, having accepted a weak whisky and soda, refused to follow it with any wine. He took a small helping of salmon but no potatoes, not because he was worried about getting fat, but because he liked to practice asceticism. An ex-Cavalry officer, much medaled after a good war, Colonel Gordon not only farmed but also judged at shows all around the country during the summer, and was kept busy in the winter as the local master of fox hounds. He was inclined to apply army discipline to the hunting field to great effect and told people exactly what he thought of them if they talked at the covert side, rode over seeds, or left gates open. In addition to these activities, he played the flute, restored pictures in his spare time, and wrote poetry and books on military history. Just turned fifty, he was tall and lean with a handsome, hawklike face, high cheekbones, and dark hair hardly touched with gray.
That is easily the most attractive man in the room, thought Molly Maxwell, eyeing him speculatively as she accepted Colonel Carter’s heavy pleasantries, and let her laugh tinkle again and again round the room. Malise Gordon was now talking to Sir William’s wife, Lady Dorothy. What an old frump, thought Molly Maxwell. That dreadful fawn cardigan with marks on it and lace-up shoes and the sort of baggy tweed skirt you’d feed the chickens in.
As an excuse to be introduced to Malise, Molly got up and, wandering over to Lady Dorothy, thanked her for a delicious lunch.
“Absolutely first rate,” agreed Colonel Carter, who’d followed her.
“Would you like to see around the garden?” said Lady Dorothy.
Malise Gordon looked at his watch.
“We better go and supervise the junior jumping,” he said to Miss Squires.
“Oh, my daughter’s in that,” said Molly Maxwell, giving Malise Gordon a dazzling smile. “I hope you’ll turn a blind eye if she knocks anything down. It would be such a thrill if she got a rosette.”
Malise Gordon didn’t smile back. He had heard Molly’s laugh once too often and thought her very silly.
“Fortunately, jumping is the one event in which one can’t possibly display any favoritism.”
Colonel Carter, aware that his beloved had been snubbed, decided Malise Gordon needed taking down a peg.
“What’s the order for this afternoon?” he asked.
“Junior jumping, open jumping, then gymkhana events in ring three, then your show in ring two, Carter.”
A keen territorial, Colonel Carter was organizing a recruiting display which included firing twenty-five pounders.
“We’re scheduled for seventeen hundred hours,” snapped Colonel Carter. “Hope you’ll have wound your jumping up by then, Gordon. My chaps like to kick off on time.”
“I hope you won’t do anything silly like firing off blanks while there are horses in the ring,” said Malise brusquely. “It could be extremely dangerous.”
“Thanks, Dorothy, for a splendid lunch,” he added, kissing Lady Dorothy on the cheek. “The garden’s looking marvelous.”
Colonel Carter turned purple. What an arrogant bastard, he thought, glaring after Malise’s broad, very straight back as he followed Miss Squires briskly out of the drawing room. But then the cavalry always gave themselves airs. Earlier, at the briefing, Malise had had the ill manners to point out that he thought a horse show was hardly the place to introduce a lot of people who had nothing better to do with their afternoons than play soldiers. “I’ll show him,” fumed Colonel Carter.
Outside, hackney carriages were bouncing around the ring, drawn by high-stepping horses, rosettes streaming from their striped browbands, while junior riders crashed their ponies over the practice fence. By some monumental inefficiency, the organizers of the show had also ended up with three celebrities, who’d all arrived to present the prizes and needed looking after.
Bobby Cotterel, Africa’s owner, had originally been allotted the task, but at the last moment he’d pushed off to France, and such was the panic of finding a replacement that three other celebrities had been booked and accepted. The first was the Lady Mayoress, who’d opened the show and toured the exhibits and who had now been borne off to inspect the guides. The second was Miss Bilborough 1970, whose all-day-long makeup had not stood up to the heat. The third was a radio celebrity, with uniformly gray hair and a black treacle voice named Dudley Diplock. Having played a doctor in a long-running serial, he talked at the top of his voice all the time in the hope that the public might recognize him. He had now commandeered the microphone for the junior jumping.
Fen felt her stomach getting hollower and hollower. The jumps looked huge. The first fence was as big as Epping Forest.
“Please, God, let me not have three refusals, let me not let Dandelion down.”
“Oh, here comes Tory,” she said as Jake helped her saddle up Dandelion. “She went to a dance last night but I don’t think she enjoyed it; her eyes were awfully red this morning.”
Jake watched the plump, anxious-faced Tory wincing over the churned-up ground in her tight shoes. She didn’t look like a girl who enjoyed anything very much.
“Did you have a nice lunch? I bet you had strawberries,” shrieked Fen, climbing onto Dandelion and gathering up the reins. “I’m just going to put Dandelion over a practice fence.
“This is my sister, Tory,” she added.
Jake looked at Tory with that measure of disapproval he always bestowed on strangers.
“It’s very hot,” stammered Tory.
“Very,” said Jake.
There didn’t seem much else to say.
Fortunately, Tory was saved by the microphone calling the competitors into the collecting ring.
“Mr. Lovell, I can’t get Stardust’s girths to meet, she’s blown herself out,” wailed Patty Beasley.
Jake went over and gave Stardust a hefty knee-up in the belly.
Fen came back from jumping the practice fence. Immediately Dandelion’s head went down, snatching at the grass.
“You pig,” squealed Fen, jumping off and pulling bits out of his mouth. “I just cleaned that bit. Where’s Mummy?” she added to Tory.
“Going over the garden with Lady Dorothy,” said Tory.
“She must be bored,” said Fen. “No, there she is over on the other side of the ring.”
Looking across, they could see Mrs. Maxwell standing beside Sally Ann Thomson’s mother, while Colonel Carter adjusted her deck chair.
“Colonel Carter stayed last night,” said Fen in disgust. “I couldn’t sleep and I looked out of the window at about five o’clock and saw him go. He looked up at Mummy’s bedroom and blew her a great soppy kiss. Think of kissing a man with an awful, droopy mustache like that. I suppose there’s no accounting for tastes.”
“Fen,” said Tory, blushing scarlet. She looked at Jake out of the corner of her eye to see if he was registering shock or amusement, but his face was quite expressionless.
“Number Fifty-eight,” called out the collecting ring steward.
A girl in a dark blue riding coat on a very shiny bay mare went in and jumped clear. Some nearby drunks in a Bentley, whose boot groaned with booze, hooted loudly on their horn.
“How was her ladyship’s garden?” asked Colonel Carter.
“I think I was given a tour of every petal,” said Molly Maxwell.
“You must have been the fairest flower,” said the colonel, putting his deck chair as close to hers as possible. “My people used to have a lovely garden in Hampshar.”
The radio personality, Dudley Diplock, having mastered the microphone, was now thoroughly enjoying himself.
“Here comes the junior champion for Surrey,” he said. “Miss Cock, Miss Sarah Cock on Topsy.”
A girl with buckteeth rode in. Despite her frenziedly flailing legs the pony ground to a halt three times in front of the first fence.
“Jolly bad luck, Topsy,” said the radio personality. “Oh, I beg your pardon, here comes Miss Sarah Cock, I mean Cook, on Topsy.”
A girl on a heavily bandaged dappled gray came in and jumped a brisk clear round.
Next came Sally Ann Thomson.
“Here’s my little girl,” said Mrs. Thomson, pausing for a moment in her discussion of hats with Mrs. Maxwell. “I wonder if Stardust will go better in a running martingale.”
Stardust decided not and refused three times at the first fence.
“We really ought to buy her a pony of her own,” said Mrs. Thomson. “Even the best riders can’t do much on riding-school hacks.”
Mrs. Maxwell winked at Colonel Carter.
Round followed round; everyone agreed the standard was frightful.
“And here we have yet another competitor from Brook Farm Riding School: Miss Patty Beasley on Swindle.”
Swindle trotted dejectedly into the ring, rolling-eyed and thin-legged, like a horse in a medieval tapestry. Then, like a car running out of petrol, she ground to a halt in front of the first fence.
Jake raised his eyes to heaven.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered.
Swindle’s third refusal was too much for Patty’s father, who’d bought breeches specially to attend the show. Rushing across the grass he brandished a shooting stick shouting, “Geron.” Terrified, Swindle rose like a stag from the hard ground and took a great leap over the brush fence, whereupon Patty fell off and burst into tears.
“Another competitor from Brook Farm Riding School eliminated,” said Dudley Diplock.
“Teach them to fall off there, don’t they?” said a wag.
The crowd guffawed. Jake gritted his teeth. He was aware of Tory standing beside him and, sensing her sympathy, was grateful.
“It’s your turn next,” said Jake, going up to Fen and checking Dandelion’s girths. “Take the double slowly. Everyone else has come round the corner too fast and not given themselves enough time. Off you go,” he added, gently pulling Dandelion’s ears.
“Please, God, I’ll never be bad again,” prayed Fen. “I won’t be foul to Sally Ann or call Patty a drip, or be rude to Mummy. Just let me get round.”
Ignoring the cries of good luck, desperately trying to remember everything Jake had told her, Fen rode into the ring with a set expression on her face.
“Miss Fenella Maxwell, from Brook Farm Riding School,” said the radio personality. “Let’s have a round of applause for our youngest competitor.”
The crowd, scenting carnage, clapped lethargically. Dandelion, his brown and white patches gleaming like a conker that had been opened too early, gave a good-natured buck.
“Isn’t that your little girl?” said Mrs. Thomson.
“So it is,” said Molly Maxwell, “Oh look, her pony’s going to the lav. Don’t horses have an awful sense of timing?”
The first fence loomed as high as Becher’s Brook and Fen used her legs so fiercely, Dandelion rose into the air, clearing it by a foot.
Fen was slightly unseated and unable to get straight in the saddle to ride Dandelion properly at the gate. He slowed down and refused; when Fen whacked him he rolled his eyes, swished his tail, and started to graze. The crowd laughed; Fen went crimson.
“Oh, poor thing,” murmured Tory in anguish.
Fen pulled his head up and let him examine the gate. Dandelion sniffed, decided it was harmless and, with a whisk of his fat rump, flew over and went bucketing on to clear the stile, at which Fen lost her stirrup, then cleared the parallel bars, where she lost the other stirrup. Rounding the corner for home, Dandelion stepped up the pace. Fen checked him, her hat falling over her nose, as he bounded towards the road-closed sign. Dandelion, fighting for his head, rapped the fence, but it stayed put.
I can’t bear to look, thought Tory, shutting her eyes.
Fen had lost her hat now and, plaits flying, raced towards the triple. Jake watched her strain every nerve to get the takeoff right. Dandelion cleared it by inches and galloped out of the ring to loud applause.
“Miss Fenella Maxwell on Dandelion, only three faults for a refusal; jolly good round,” coughed the microphone.
“I had no idea she’d improved so much,” said Tory, turning a pink, ecstatic face towards Jake.
Fen cantered up, grinning from ear to ear.
“Wasn’t Dandelion wonderful?” she said, jumping off, flinging her arms round his neck, covering him with kisses, and stuffing him with sugar lumps.
She looked up at Jake inquiringly: “Well?”
“We could see half the show ground between your knees and the saddle, and you took him too fast at the gate, but not bad,” he said.
For the first time that day he looked cheerful, and Tory thought how nice he was.
“I must go and congratulate Fen,” said Mrs. Maxwell, delicately picking her way through the dung that Manners had not yet gathered.
“Well done, darling,” she shrieked in a loud voice, which made all the nearby horses jump. “What a good boy,” she added, gingerly patting Dandelion’s nose with a gloved hand. “He is a boy, isn’t he?” She tilted her head sideways to look.
“Awfully good show,” said Colonel Carter. “My sister used to jump on horseback in Hampshar.”
Mrs. Maxwell turned to Jake, enveloping him in a sickening waft of Arpège.
“Fen really has come on. I do hope she isn’t too much of a nuisance down at the stables all day, but she is utterly pony-mad. Every sentence begins, ‘Jake said this, Jake says that’; you’ve become quite an ogre in our home.”
“Oh, Mummy,” groaned Fen.
Jake, thinking how silly she was and unable to think of anything to say in reply, remained silent.
How gauche he is, thought Molly Maxwell.
The junior class, having finished jumping off, were riding into the ring to collect their rosettes.
“Number Eighty-six,” howled the collecting ring steward. “Number Eighty-six.”
“That’s you, Fen,” said Tory in excitement.
“It couldn’t be. I had a refusal.”
“You’re fourth,” said Jake, “go on.”
“I couldn’t be.”
“Number Eighty-six, for the last time,” bellowed the ring steward.
“It is me,” said Fen, and scrambling onto Dandelion, plonking her hat on her head, and not wearing a riding coat, she cantered into the ring, where she thanked Miss Bilborough three times for her rosette. Success went to Dandelion’s head and his feet. Thinking the lap of honor was a race, he barged ahead of the other three winners, carting Fen out of the ring and galloping half round the show ground before she could pull him to a halt in front of Jake. He shook his head disapprovingly.
Fen giggled. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if Africa got one too?”
The afternoon wore on, getting hotter. The Lady Mayoress, sweating in her scarlet robes, had a bright yellow nose from sniffing Lady Dorothy’s lilies. The band was playing “Land of Hope and Glory” in the main ring as the fences for the open jumping were put up, the sun glinting on their brass instruments. Mrs. Thomson and Mrs. Maxwell moved their deck chairs to the right, following the sun, and agreed that Jake was extremely rude.
“I’m going to have a word with Joyce Wilton about it,” said Molly Maxwell.
“Horse, horse, horse,” said Mr. Thomson.
“I can never get Fen to wear a dress; she’s never been interested in dolls,” said Molly Maxwell, who was still crowing over Fen’s rosette.
“I’m pleased Sally Ann has not lost her femininity,” said Mrs. Thomson.
“It’s extraordinary how many people read The Tatler,” said Mrs. Maxwell.
“Mrs. Squires to the judges’ tent,” announced the address system.
“Miss Squires, Miss Squires,” snapped the hairnetted lady judge, stumping across the ring.
“Wasn’t Dandelion wonderful?” said Fen for the hundreth time.
Tory could feel the sweat dripping between her breasts and down her ribs. She’d taken off her red jacket and hung her white shirt outside, over the straining safety pin.
Competitors in the open jumping were pulling on long black boots, the women tucking long hair into hairnets and hotting up their horses over the practice fence. With £100 first prize there was a lot of competition from neighboring counties. Two well-known show jumpers, Lavinia Greenslade and Christopher Crossley, who’d both jumped at Wembley and for the British junior team, had entered, but local hopes were pinned on Sir William’s son, Michael, who was riding a gray six-year-old called Prescott.
Armored cars and tanks had started driving up the hill for the dry shoot and the recruiting display. Soldiers, sweating in battle dress, were assembling twenty-five pounders in ring two.
“Christ, here comes Carter’s circus,” said Malise Gordon to Miss Squires.
“Hope he can keep them under control.”
“My chaps have arrived,” said Colonel Carter to Mrs. Maxwell. “I’m just going to wander over and see that everything’s all right.”
Jake gave Africa a last polish. Tory, noticing his dead white face, shaking hands, and chattering teeth, realized how terrified he was and felt sorry for him. He put a foot in the stirrup and was up.
If only I weren’t so frightened of horses I might not be frightened of life, thought Tory, cringing against the rope to avoid these great snorting beasts with their huge iron feet and so much power in their gleaming, barging quarters.
The band went out to much applause and, to everyone’s dismay, came back again. Jake rode up to Tory and jumped off.
“Can you hold her for a minute?” he said, hurling the reins at her.
He only just made the Gents’ in time.
Looking into the deep, dark dell of the Elsan, and catching a whiff of the contents, he was violently sick again. He must pull himself together or Africa would sense his nerves. Mrs. Wilton wouldn’t find out; the kids could cope in the gymkhana events for half an hour by themselves. He’d be all right once he got into the ring. He’d walked the course; there was nothing Africa couldn’t jump if he put her right. He leant against the canvas and wondered if he dared risk another cigarette.
Tory was not happy. Excited by the microphone and the armored cars and the crowds, Africa pulled and fretted as she jogged up and down.
“Thanks very much,” said Jake, taking the horse from her.
Tory looked at his white face and chattering teeth and felt so sorry for him. “I get just the same before dances,” she blurted out.
Jake smiled slightly.
“Take your partners for the torture chamber,” he said, mounting Africa again.
He rode very short, almost jockey length, crouching over the mare like a cat, settling down into the creaking leather. Africa, a netted cord of veins rippling under her shining coat, tugged at the reins, now this way, now that. Trying to catch Jake out, she danced over the grass, shying at the tea tent, the ladies’ lavatory, the flags. Jake didn’t move in the saddle.
Christopher Crossley, the good-looking boy on the chestnut with four white socks, cantered past, startling Africa, who bucked and swished her tail. Jake swore at him.
“Jake rides lovely, doesn’t he?” sighed Fen.
Even Tory’s uncritical eye could see that he rode wonderfully lightly; his hands hardly touched Africa’s mouth. Taking her away from the crowd, he popped her over a couple of practice fences.
Colonel Carter sat down beside Molly Maxwell, announcing that his chaps were itching to get started. At that moment a competitor on a huge gray paused in front of them to chat to some friends. The gray promptly stuck out its penis. Mrs. Maxwell caught the colonel’s eye and giggled.
“Aren’t horses rude?”
The colonel gave a bark of embarrassed laughter. Mrs. Maxwell found she couldn’t stop giggling. Tears were making her mascara run.
The band was playing a selection from The Merry Widow.
“Delia, oh Delia,” sang Colonel Carter, brushing his khaki leg against her silken thigh.
“Will you be able to get out again this evening?” he asked.
Molly stopped giggling with a little hiccup. “Oh, Tory’ll babysit. That’s one way she’s useful. Oh dear, I don’t mean to be bitchy.”
“You never say an unkind word about anyone.”
No, thought Molly, perhaps I don’t.
The colonel looked at his watch.
“Half an hour to blast off,” he said. “I hope Malise Gordon gets his finger out.”
There were nine jumps in all: a brush fence, a stile, a gate, parallel bars, the road-closed sign put up to a nasty five foot, another brush with a pole on top, a water jump which had been drained by various dogs, a wall, and a triple.
The two stars, Lavinia Greenslade and Christopher Crossley, stood side by side slightly apart from the other competitors.
“The jumps are much too low and flimsy,” said Lavinia. “Bound to be loads of clear wounds. We won’t get away for at least an hour and I did want to look in at Henwietta’s dwinks’ party.”
“Not much competition anyway,” said Christopher, adding to the groom, who was holding his horse, “Cindy, can you adjust that bandage?”
The first competitor trotted out, an enormously fat girl with a huge bosom.
“Give herself a couple of black eyes every time she jumps with those boobs,” said Christopher.
The girl went clear.
“I told you there were going to be loads of clear wounds,” said Lavinia petulantly.
“I can’t see, I can’t see,” said Fen in a shrill voice.
“You come through here then,” said a man on a shooting stick, making a gap in the crowd through which Fen dragged a desperately embarrassed Tory to the ropes.
A chestnut came in, ridden by a boy with a big nose who jabbed his horse in the mouth over every fence.
“Jumps well,” said Tory.
“Horse does,” said Fen. “Rider should be shot. Bloody hell,” she added as he went clear. The man on the shooting stick who’d let Fen through looked at her with less indulgence.
Lavinia Greenslade was next, the gray peering seductively through the long forelock of its mane, Arab ears curling upwards like eyelashes.
“Her father spends a fortune on her horses,” said Fen. “That one was third at the Horse of the Year Show last year.”
Sure enough, the gray bounced serenely round the course like a Ping-Pong ball, followed by Sir William’s son, who also went clear.
To the course builders’ relief a man came in on a horse wearing so much leather it looked like a bondage victim and proceeded to demolish the course completely. Fear traveled through the collecting ring and for a dozen rounds no one went clear. The wall, the principal bogey, had to be laboriously rebuilt each time.
Colonel Carter looked at his watch. Five minutes to go. Time and the colonel waited for no Malise Gordon.
Lavinia’s boyfriend, Christopher, then went in and killed the jinx by jumping a very fast clear round. Jake envied the casual way he threw his whip to his groom, slid off the horse, and went back to the ringside to join Lavinia and watch the rest of the rounds.
The next competitor was an old woman in a hairnet with raddled face, scarlet lipstick, and withered cheeks embedded with rouge.
“She’s only seven stone,” said the man who’d let Fen through.
“Half of that’s makeup,” muttered Fen.
The old lady rode as if she was steering a Rolls-Royce. Her cob went clear without any visible effort.
“Jake’s after this,” said Fen, as a girl with a bun escaping from her hairnet came in on a mangy brown mare and proceeded to scatter every fence. As she came to the wall the mare dug in her toes and skidded four feet into the wall; then, as the bricks collapsed around her, she bolted on to totally demolish the triple.
“Oh, poor Jake,” said Fen, as they waited and waited for the course to be repaired.
At last they called Number 195. Out came Jake from the gap in the crowds, his face a gray mask. By contrast, Africa, who danced and plunged, merry eyes gleaming at the crowd, coat rippling like a furniture polish advertisement, looked the picture of joy.
“Jack Lovette,” said Dudley Diplock. “From Brook Farm Riding School.”
“Not another one,” Malise Gordon groaned inwardly.
Tory could see Jake’s lips constantly moving as he reassured Africa.
“Only time he talks is to horses,” grumbled Fen.
Once in the ring, Jake found his nerves had gone. He shortened his reins and stood up in the stirrups. Africa bounded towards the first fence.
“Too quick,” muttered Fen.
But Africa was over safely and Jake’s eyes were already trained on the post and rails ahead, which she cleared easily. At the gate, catching sight of a balloon in the crowd, she stopped concentrating and rapped her hock hard. The gate swung, but miraculously didn’t come down.
“That’ll teach her,” said Fen, as Africa dragged her leg for a couple of paces.
“Rides well,” said a voice in the crowd.
“Horse carrying a lot of condition.”
“Isn’t that Jake Lovell?” said Molly Maxwell.
Africa slowed down at the wall, then changed her mind and cleared it with a violent jerky cat jump, which would have unseated most riders.
Haven’t seen that boy before, thought Malise. Handles that horse very well. She’s not at all an easy ride. With increasing pleasure he watched Africa clear the post and rails and the parallel bars and sail over the water jump and the wall.
But, as Jake turned her towards the triple, Malise realized it was unnaturally high. One of the arena stewards, who’d been crossed in love and in the beer tent all afternoon, had just seen his beloved saunter past on the arm of a rival and had put the top bar up to six feet.
Malise Gordon stepped forward to protest but it was too late. Africa had turned and was approaching the triple at a steeple-chaser’s pace, her feet drumming on the ground, fighting for her head.
“Steady, darling,” crooned Jake.
The top bar, white against pitted gray-green turf, was higher than Africa’s ears. For a second she hesitated, caught on a short stride, then, like a helicopter, rising off her hocks, she made a colossal jump. It seemed to the gaping crowd that she had taken off like a bird into the sky and bore no relation to the white poles below her.
“Christ,” said Malise.
At the same time Sir William’s binoculars fastened on Africa. He checked his program: From Brook Farm Riding School, of all unlikely places. She might do very well for Mikey next season.
The crowd gave a long sigh of rapture and sent up a great cheer.
Colonel Carter looked at his watch.
“Bloody good round,” said Christopher Crossley.
Jake jumped off Africa, patting her, determined not to betray the surge of exultation that was sweeping over him.
“That’s it,” Malise Gordon told the arena party. “Restrict it to six jumps, raise the pole over the first jump and the gate, put another row of bricks on the wall, and put the triple at five feet. Buck up, or Carter will start letting off his guns.”
“That’s seven clear rounds,” said Fen, counting on her fingers.
Colonel Carter heaved himself out of his deck chair.
“Are you off?” said Molly.
“Enemy wouldn’t wait, would they? The men will start the display in ten minutes,” he said, striding past Malise.
“Don’t be bloody silly,” snapped Malise. “If you fire a single shot before the last horse has jumped, you’ll cause chaos — and accidents.”
“Quarter of an hour; should give you ample time.”
“I’ll send someone to give you the okay.”
Colonel Carter ground his big yellow teeth. He was tired. Last night, with Molly, had been wonderful but rather exhausting. He hadn’t had much sleep; the effects of Sir William’s hospitality at lunchtime had worn off and, worst of all, he resented Malise’s complete refusal to take his display seriously.
In ring three, near the chestnut trees, the gymkhana events were already starting, with a burst of music for musical chairs.
“Can you help me saddle up Swindle, Mr. Lovell?” said Patty Beasley.
“Give me quarter of an hour,” said Jake.
The horses waited in the collecting ring, maddened by flies, the heat, and the rumble of approaching thunder.
“If you win, will you tell Mrs. Wilton?” asked Fen.
“God, no. If she knew how good Africa was, she’d persuade Bobby to sell. Wish I could buy her myself, but I’d have to win the football pools or marry an heiress.”
“Marry Tory,” said Fen with a giggle. “She’s going to be frightfully rich one day, and you could keep lots of horses, and I could come and live with you.”
“Fen,” said Tory, going crimson.
She was a champion blusher, thought Jake.
Fen watched Sally Ann Thomson bumping off to take part in the musical chairs.
“Good thing Mrs. Wilton’s in Brighton,” she said. “She’d be jolly cross if she knew you weren’t keeping your eyes on her darling pupils.”
Mrs. Wilton eased her car through the traffic. It had been a most unsatisfactory day. Her rich homosexual uncle, irritated by the heat and the stubbornness of his male hairdresser friend, had been so quarrelsome at lunchtime that she had walked out in a huff. One look at Brighton beach, packed with day trippers avid for time in the sun, and she had decided to drive back home to avoid the rush-hour traffic. The journey, in fact, had been so easy that she decided to look in at the Bilborough show. It never hurt to turn up unexpectedly; it kept Jake up to the mark. She rummaged in her bag for lipstick and applied it without even looking in the mirror.
Colonel Carter’s blood pressure rose with the temperature. Bugger Malise Gordon. He would not only lose the respect of his soldiers, dying of the heat in their battle dress, but also of the sizable crowd, who’d turned up at five to witness some bangs and were now drifting away.
“People are getting bored with waiting, sir,” said his adjutant.
“Take this to Colonel Gordon,” said Colonel Carter, handing him a note: “The guns will be fired at seventeen-twenty hours. Carter.”
It was just like the Charge of the Light Brigade, thought the young soldier, as he returned two minutes later with the same bit of paper, on the back of which Malise Gordon had scrawled: “Imperative to wait end of last round. Gordon.”
Colonel Carter tore up the note in a fury.
The girl with the big boobs had seven faults, Sir William’s son had eight. The horse whose rider jabbed him in the mouth had had enough and refused the brush fence twice, the stile once, and was eliminated. The old lady covered in makeup went next; she took a brick off the wall and knocked the bar of the triple.
Mrs. Wilton parked her car. It looked as though the open jumping was still going. Colonel Carter examined his watch.
Christopher Crossley was about to start his round.
“Shall we divide, Lavinia,” he said, “if we both go clear?”
“Fire!” The word of command rang out on the midgy, steamy air. Crash went the twenty-five pounders, causing immediate pandemonium in the collecting rings, horses rearing, bucking, plunging, and scattering the crowd.
Lavinia Greenslade’s gray was barging about like a dodgem car with rabies. Jake jumped straight off Africa and was clinging on to her bridle trying to calm her.
White with anger, Malise Gordon left Miss Squires and the green baize table and sprinted across to ring two, where he was joined by Sir William asking, “What the hell is going on?”
“That megalomaniac Carter,” said Malise, striding up to Colonel Carter. “What the bloody hell are you playing at? Stop those guns at once!”
Colonel Carter’s reply was drowned in another crash.
A horse that had dumped its rider bolted past them reins and stirrups flying, followed by the girl with the big boobs who was also being carted.
“Look at that,” said Malise. “There’ll be a serious accident in a minute.”
“Your people should be able to control their mounts,” said Colonel Carter. “If you’re incapable of keeping to a time schedule, you should accept the consequences.”
Another gun exploded.
“Think you might hang on five minutes, Carter,” said Sir William. “Only three horses left to jump.”
“Hold your fire, Colonel,” said the Lady Mayoress, who had put her hands over her ears.
Carter decided he was outnumbered.
“All right, if you want to make a mockery of the whole display we’ll wait another ten minutes.”
“Maniac,” said Christopher Crossley, whose horse was leaping around as if someone was burning the grass under its feet, its nostrils as red as a poppy. Jake, who was trying to sooth a trembling, sweating Africa, admired the way Christopher went into the ring, and jumped a beautiful round, only taking a brick out of the wall.
Lavinia Greenslade’s gray, however, who’d been completely unhinged by the guns, crashed round the course, leaving it as if an earthquake had hit it.
Once again Jake had to wait until it was repaired, the strain telling on both his and Africa’s nerves.
“Bad luck,” said Christopher Crossley, as Lavinia rode out, looking furious.
“I’m going to object,” she said.
Molly Maxwell joined Colonel Carter.
“Are you having a cease-fire?” she said with a giggle.
“Bloody Gordon, insisted on finishing his jumping.”
“You should have started half an hour ago,” said Molly. “I wouldn’t stand for that. Wellington would never have taken Waterloo that way.”
“Oh, my God,” gasped Fen, seeing Mrs. Wilton pushing briskly through the crowd. “Look who’s over there, Tory. She’ll go potty if she sees Jake. We’d better distract her. Hello, Mrs. Wilton, we thought you were in Brighton.”
“Decided to come back. Had a good day?”
“I was fourth in the junior jumping.”
“Your first rosette. Well done. Has anyone else done anything?”
Fen shook her head.
“Supervising the gymkhana events, I think,” said Tory desperately.
“Yes, he is. Come and find him, and on the way you can see how sweet Dandelion looks in his rosette,” said Fen, seizing Mrs. Wilton’s red hand. “And then come and see Mummy. I know she wants to buy you a drink. You must be hot after your journey.” She looked a picture of guilt as the words came tumbling out.
“What happened in the open jumping?”
“It’s finished,” said Fen.
The course had been set to rights.
“In you go,” said the collecting ring steward.
Jake rode quietly into the ring.
That’s a nice horse, thought Malise.
“Oh there’s one more competitor,” said Mrs. Wilton.
“Come and see Dandelion,” said Fen desperately.
“Why, it’s Jake,” said Mrs. Wilton in tones of outrage, “and he’s riding Africa.”
Africa bounded up to the first fence, as tense as a catapult at full stretch.
The ten minutes were up. “Fire!” said Colonel Carter for the second time.
The gun went off like a clap of thunder.
A dog bolted into the ring, barking hysterically, a child dropped its ice cream and let out a wail of rage. Africa went straight up on her hind legs, eyes rolling in terror, and dropping again, with a bound bolted towards the first fence clearing it by inches.
Jake sat down in the saddle and tried to hold her. Another gun went off. Africa crashed into the gate and sent the stile flying.
The crowd looked on, helpless. Tory and Fen watched, frozen with horror, as the maddened mare swung around the corner, with Jake hauling futilely on the bit, aware only of Africa’s hooves thundering on the dry earth and the white terrified faces flashing past.
As she raced for the triple, ten yards off, another gun went off. Jake tried to check her, but she’d missed her stride and took it completely wrong, jumping sideways and catching her foreleg in the wing of the jump. The crowd gave a moan of terror.
Africa lay under three poles, legs flailing like a centipede, making desperate attempts to get up. Jake staggered groggily to his feet, stars in his head. Praying against hope that Africa hadn’t broken a leg, he lurched towards her still holding on to the reins.
Another gun went off; Africa threw off the poles and struggled to her feet, standing trembling all over, holding up her off hind hoof.
Malise ran up.
“You all right?” he said.
Jake nodded. “Not so sure about the horse; can’t put her foot down.”
Malise took Africa’s bridle, stroking her gently, then he led her forward a step. Africa hobbled, then stopped. Malise ran his hand down the foot; she winced, but let him touch it.
“Nothing broken. Might have pulled a tendon. Better get the vet.”
Another gun went off. Africa trembled violently but was finished.
“Sorry about that,” said Malise. “She jumped very well in the first round. Look, sit down on the grass,” he added as Jake started to sway.
But the next moment Mrs. Wilton rolled up, marching with a far more military stride than Colonel Carter.
“So this is what you get up to when I’m away,” she shouted. “How dare you jump that horse, how dare you?”
Jake looked at her. Through a haze of pain he saw her red angry face like a baron of beef receding and coming towards him.
“Leave him alone,” snapped Malise. “Can’t you see he’s in a state of shock.”
Mrs. Wilton turned on Malise furiously.
Jake said nothing and, after another look at Africa’s foot, led her hobbling out of the ring. Mrs. Wilton followed him, shouting abuse. She wanted to sack him on the spot, but she couldn’t afford to, as there’d be no one except that halfwit, Alison, who only worked part time, to look after the horses. Grooms were so hard to get. She’d have to ask her copywriting brother to write a witty advertisement for Horse and Hound. She supposed it was her fault for being too lenient with Jake; she should never have offered him a drink in the evenings. As he came out of the ring, Fen rushed forward.
“Oh, poor Jake; are you all right? Are you concussed? Can you remember what day of the week it is and what you had for lunch?”
Next minute Mrs. Thomson came roaring up.
“There was no one to help Sally Ann in the bending. She’s fallen off and hurt her arm. Oh, you’re back, Joyce,” she added in relief. “Things will go more smoothly from now on.” Tory felt so sorry for Jake, gray and shaking and the recipient of such a torrent of abuse from Mrs. Wilton and Mrs. Thomson.
Christopher Crossley passed them going into the ring to collect first prize. He pulled up his chestnut horse for a minute.
“That was bloody bad luck,” he said, “and that’s a very nice mare. If you ever want to sell her I’m in the North Hampshire telephone directory under Crossley. Those bloody soldiers should turn the guns on themselves.”
As they approached the horse lines, Fen gave a scream.
“Dandelion — he’s not there!”
Rushing forward, she found his head collar still tied to the fence.
“He’s a valuable horse now that he’s a prize winner,” she wailed. “He’s probably been kidnapped.”
After a nasty quarter of an hour, in which Mrs. Wilton trailed after Jake, calling him every name under the sun, Dandelion was discovered in the brave new world of Lady Dorothy’s vegetable garden. Having laid waste to the herbaceous border, dug holes in the newly sprinkled lawn, cut a swathe through the rose beds and deformalized the formal garden, Dandelion was now imitating an untamed bronco, galloping about, snorting, showing the whites of his eyes, with a large carrot sticking out of his mouth like a cigar.
Every time Jake or Fen got close he whisked out of range, snatching bites to eat.
“He looks like the Hamlet advertisement,” said Fen, quite hysterical with giggles.
By the time Jake had caught him, abuse — from Lady Dorothy, Mrs. Wilton, and Mrs. Thomson — was cascading over his head like Niagara.
At last it was time to go home. Africa had been checked by the vet, who said she was suffering a bad sprain, no more, and should be rested. Malise Gordon then hurried home himself because he was going to the theater. Fen had come second in the potato race and was in a state of ecstasy. Miss Bilborough had a date with one of Colonel Carter’s men. Dudley Diplock had been asked for his autograph three times, but had not been thanked for doing the commentary.
Back at Brook Farm Riding School, a still dizzy Jake was sorting out the ponies.
“Hear you’re in the doghouse,” said Alison, the Irish girl who helped out at weekends. “Old Ma Wilton’s hopping. I knew she’d catch you out sooner or later.”
Jake didn’t answer; he was putting a poultice on Africa. He’d already rubbed one of his gypsy medicines (ointment made from marshmallow flowers) gently into her leg. He was finally sweeping up at about nine-thirty, when Mrs. Wilton turned up. Her faced looked unappetizingly magenta in the naked lightbulb of the tackroom and he could smell whisky on her breath.
“I want to talk to you, Jake,” she said, speaking slowly to show she was quite sober. “Do you realize you’ve ruined the reputation of Brook Farm Riding School?”
“What reputation?” said Jake. “You can’t descend from the basement.”
“Don’t be cheeky. No need to answer back.”
Jake swept up the straw on the floor. Phrases like “absolute shambles,” “endangering best horse in the yard,” and “duty to our young pupils” flowed over his head. His face had taken on an almost Asiatic aloofness.
Why can’t he ever show any contrition? thought Mrs. Wilton. If he apologized just once it would make a difference.
The diatribe continued: “Taking advantage,” “wonder who’s employing whom,” “use my house as an hotel,” “after all I’ve done for you.” Jake mimicked her under his breath.
Oh, God, she was getting very close now; he hoped she wasn’t going to start anything.
“I’m very disappointed in you, Jake,” she went on. “I really trusted you, gave you some responsibility and you just kick me in the teeth. Yet I still feel deep down that you really like me.” For a second her voice was almost obscenely conciliatory.
“No, I don’t,” Jake said flatly. “Deep down it’s much worse.”
Mrs. Wilton caught her breath. Next minute, vindictiveness was warming her blood. She played her trump card. “You’d better get Africa’s leg better; she won’t be with us much longer.”
Jake looked up, eyes narrowed.
That jolted him, she thought.
“Sir William’s just rung. I thought he was going to raise hell about Lady Dorothy’s garden, but he only wanted to know how Africa was and if we’d be interested in selling. He wants her for his youngest son to hunt next season. She might do very well with a decent rider on her back.”
Turning, she walked unsteadily out of the tackroom. Jake felt suddenly exhausted, near to tears, overwhelmed with black despair.
Going out of the tackroom, he walked down past the loose boxes until he came to Africa. Even though she was feeding, she left her manger and hobbled over to him, whickering with joy, nuzzling at his pockets. He put his arms round her neck and she laid her head against his cheek. Soppy old thing; she’d stay like that for hours, breathing softly while he scratched her behind the ears.
In his mind, he jumped that beautiful first round again, reliving that wonderful, amazing last jump. What a star she was; he couldn’t give her up, and he knew more than ever that the only thing he could ever be in this world was a show jumper. Working for Mrs. Wilton for over a year, he was constantly aware of time running past, time wasted. He had left the orphanage at eighteen and spent two years in a racing stable. It was there he made the discovery that difficult horses became easy when he rode them, and that he could communicate with them as he never could with people. Even having his first girl, and subsequently others, wasn’t nearly as exciting as that sudden breakthrough when a horse that had been written off as hopeless became responsive under his touch. Finally there was the joy, over the past months, of discovering Africa and slowly realizing how good she was. It was worth putting up with the horrible little girls and their frightful mothers. No mother had ever protected and fussed over him like they did, he thought bitterly.
And now he’d blown it; it was only a matter of time before Mrs. Wilton sacked him. He supposed he could get another job as a groom, but not as a rider. Africa nuzzled him gently.
I’m still here, she seemed to say.
“But not for much longer,” sighed Jake, “although I’ll fight like a bugger to keep you.”
Tory Maxwell lay on her bed, bitterly ashamed of herself for eating three helpings of strawberries and cream. She looked around her extremely tidy bedroom and wished she had a photograph of Jake. The scent of lilac and lilies of the valley kept drifting in from outside, as insistently he kept drifting into her thoughts. Not that he had noticed her. His eyes had flickered over her as a man flips past the woman’s fashion page in his daily paper, knowing it has nothing to interest him.
Her mother had gone out with that monstrous murderer, Colonel Carter. After what he’d done to Jake, Tory couldn’t bring herself even to talk to him. How could her mother sleep with him? She imagined him climbing on top of her like an ancient dinosaur.
Looking in the mirror, she tried on a different colored lipstick and put her hands over the sides of her round face. If she were thinner, she might just be pretty. Out of the window, against a brilliant, drained sapphire sky, she could see the sliver of a pale new moon, followed by a little star. Just like me following Jake, she thought.
“Oh, please,” she prayed, “give me Jake Lovell, and then I could buy him all the horses he wants.”
Colonel Carter and Mrs. Maxwell were on their third gin and tonic in the bar of the Grand Hotel, Guildford. They had pulled Malise and Jake to shreds, had a good bitch about Sir William and Lady Dorothy, and were in a mood of great mutual self-congratulation about having found each other.
“You’re looking particularly lovely tonight,” said Colonel Carter.
He always says that, thought Molly, but then perhaps it’s true. She caught sight of her glossy reflection in the rose-tinted bar mirror. What should she wear to get married in? Perhaps oyster silk with a matching hat; it couldn’t be the same thing she wore to Tory’s party.
In future the colonel could cope with all her bills.
In the corner, the pianist, who had unnaturally vermilion hair, was playing “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
“Just a little lamb that’s lost in the wood,” sang the colonel.
It was nice to take an attractive woman out again. He had always been unfaithful to Jennifer, his wife, but it had been a shock when she died. She’d done everything for him.
“I was very lonely when Jennifer died,” he said.
“I was very lonely when Alastair died,” said Molly. No reason to add that she and Alastair had been divorced for six years before he was killed in that car crash. It was so much more romantic to be a widow than a divorcée.
The waiter presented them with a huge menu, which they studied with too much attention (Colonel Carter in particular noting the prices) for people in love.
“I’m glad I stood up to that bastard, Gordon,” he said.
“I wish I knew where I’d gone wrong with Tory,” said Molly Maxwell.
In the bedroom down the passage from Tory’s lay Fen. She’d been sent to bed in disgrace for cheeking Colonel Carter about frightening Africa with his twenty-five pounders. Her bed was full of biscuit crumbs and she was reading The Maltese Cat for the hundredth time with a flashlight. She turned the flashlight on her rosettes, white and blue, then looking out of the window, caught sight of the new moon.
“Make me the greatest show jumper in the world,” she wished.
Sunday started badly for Tory Maxwell. Unable to sleep, she had heard the floorboards outside her room creaking as the colonel crept out at dawn. But he was back by twelve-thirty, spruced up in clean clothes, mustache brushed, and bearing a bottle of gin, and he and Molly Maxwell sat out on the terrace drinking dry martinis while Tory cooked the lunch.
“As I have to fork out so much for this cookery and typing course,” said Molly, “I might as well make use of her.”
“What a charming garden,” said the colonel.
“The lawn needs mowing,” hinted Molly Maxwell. “But I seem to have so little time this summer.”
The white sauce for the cauliflower went lumpy because Tory was trying, at the same time, to read a piece in one of the color supplements on deb’s delights. The piece included a profile of Rupert Campbell-Black. After three years in the Blues, he was now too busy making a name for himself as a show jumper to go to many deb parties, but whenever he did he caused a rumpus.
“You can say that again,” sighed Tory, adding more milk to the sauce. She had been a victim of Rupert’s bitchy asides on numerous occasions. He had got that blank stare of complete indifference to perfection. The sight of his cold, arrogant face looking out at her made her feel quite sick. Particularly as her mother thought he was absolutely charming and kept nagging Tory to ring him up and make sure he’d got the invitation and was coming to Tory’s drinks’ party.
Tory was dreading the party. She didn’t think anyone would come and she was sensitive enough to realize that, although some of the fathers and the young men flirted with her mother, the mothers thought her pushy and jumped up.
At one-thirty, although Fen still wasn’t back from the stables, they started lunch. Colonel Carter carved. Conditioned by wartime austerity, he cut very thin slices. Tory noticed he touched her mother’s hand when he passed her a plate. She knew they found her presence a strain. Her mother found fault with everything. The white sauce was too lumpy and thin, the meat overdone, and the roast potatoes soggy. Molly, who wanted the colonel to think she had an appetite like a sparrow, pushed hers to the side of her plate.
“I don’t mean to nag,” she said to Tory, “but one day you’ll get married and have to cook for some chap, and he’ll expect decent grub.”
Some hope, thought Tory. As she cleared away in an excess of misery, she ate the two roast potatoes her mother had rejected and two more left in the dish. When her mother came in, weighed down by the gravy boat, as an excuse to powder her nose in the kitchen mirror, Tory had to swallow frantically.
Halfway through the pudding, when Molly was grumbling that the meringue was just like toffee, Fen walked in with a filthy face and hands and the same shirt she’d been wearing the day before, so triggering off a storm of reproof which Fen accepted with equanimity. The colonel droned on about bridge.
“Jolly good roast potatoes,” said Fen. “Are there any more?”
“There were two in the dish,” said Molly.
Tory blushed. “I threw them away.”
“I bet you ate them,” snapped Molly. “Really, Tory. D’you want to look like a house for your drinks party?”
“Did you have a good ride, Fenella?” asked Colonel Carter.
“Not very,” said Fen. “Jake was in a foul temper.”
“Nothing new,” said Molly. “Would you like some Stilton, Bernard?”
“Hardly surprising,” said Fen, glaring at Colonel Carter. “Africa might have been ruined for life.”
“Shut up,” snapped her mother.
“Malise Gordon dropped in to see if Africa was all right, but Jake says both he and Sir William are after her. It’s a rotten shame. Jake’s worked so hard on her; no one gets her going better than he does. And he’s got the most awful lot to take out this afternoon — fat grown-ups who can’t ride, and in this heat, they’ve booked for a whole two hours. I’m going back to help him after lunch.”
“You are not,” said Molly Maxwell firmly. “You spend too much time hanging round that place. You’re coming out to eat with the Braithwaites.”
“Whatever for?” wailed Fen.
“Because they asked us.”
“Tory as well?”
“No. Tory’s got to do her homework and write her thank-you letters.”
“It’s not fair. I loathe Melanie Braithwaite. She’s a drip and she’s not my age.”
Molly Maxwell insisted on taking Fen with them, as otherwise she would have had to go back to the colonel’s house on the way home and spend an hour in bed with him. That was the tiresome thing about men, she thought. They always wanted bed all the time and she so much preferred the flirting and the wining and dining.
Tory watched Fen, scrubbed and mutinous in a new dress, being dragged off to the Braithwaites. She then wrote five thank-you letters in her round, careful hand, and then accepted four more invitations. Being fat and plain and no threat to prettier girls, and because many of the debs’ mothers had known and liked her father, she was asked to quite a lot of parties. Each one spelled disaster.
I’m like a terrible first night, but first nights are lucky enough to fold, while I have to flop on forever, she said to herself.
Letters finished, she started on her homework, gazing at a page of shorthand until the heavy and light lines swam before her eyes.
“We are in receipt of your favor, yours faithfully, yours truly,” she wrote.
Oh, she’d be faithful and true to Jake. Then she wrote “Jake” in shorthand, the dark backward sloping J and light horizontal K on the line, with two little commas underneath to show it was a proper name. Then she wrote “Lovell”; it was the same sign as Lovely. He was lovely, too. She tried to visualize his face, but she could only picture his body and a blur. She felt impossibly restless. The telephone interrupted her daydreams; perhaps by a miracle it might be him, but it was only her mother saying that the Braithwaites wanted to play bridge and had pressed them to stay on for an early supper, so they’d be home at about ten, and could Tory do Fen’s packed lunch and see that she had a clean tunic and leotard for tomorrow? Poor trapped Fen, thought Tory.
The evening stretched ahead of her. Jake would be back from his ride now and settling the horses. The longing became too much for her. She’d nip down to the stables on the excuse that Fen might have left her whip behind.
Quickly, she washed her hair. Her mother liked it drawn back from her forehead, but today she was jolly well going to let it flop loose. If only she had a slimming black dress, but her mother said she was too young and anyway she couldn’t go down to the stables dressed as though for a funeral. Ponchos were fashionable; as if they covered all the spare tires; but when they slid down on the shoulders they showed her bra straps, and if she didn’t wear a bra she flopped all over the place. If only she had a waist, she could wear a long skirt to cover her fat legs, but it made her look like a barrel. In the end she gave up and wore a navy blue T-shirt outside her jeans. Her hand was shaking so much she couldn’t do up the clasp of her pearls, so she left them off. In a fit of loathing, she drenched herself in her mother’s scent and, as it was drizzling slightly, borrowed her mother’s white trench coat, with the belt trendily done up at the back. It didn’t matter if it didn’t meet over her bust.
As she passed the church, people were coming out of Evensong, putting up umbrellas. On the village green, cricketers huddled disconsolately into the pavilion, hoping the apricot glow on the horizon meant that the rain was about to stop and they could finish their game.
The Brook Farm Riding School tackroom was overcrowded but very tidy — saddles and bridles occupying one wall, food bins another, and medicines, principally Jake’s gypsy remedies, yet another. Room had also been found for a few faded rosettes and old calendars. The order book was open. Sunday, full of bookings, had been crossed off. Monday was comparatively empty, except for a group of children who wanted to ride after school. Jake sat on a rickety chair, cleaning a bridle and reading the color supplement piece on Rupert Campbell-Black. The bastard was obviously going to make it in show jumping, just when Jake’s world seemed to be falling apart, throwing him straight down to the bottom of the ladder, without even being within clutching distance of the first rung. The two-hour ride had really taken it out of him; his head was pounding and every muscle in his body felt bruised by the fall yesterday.
After a night’s rest and Jake’s marshmallow ointment, Africa’s lameness had nearly gone. Mrs. Wilton had gloatingly told him of Malise’s interest that morning and Sir William had just rung again. No one could do anything about it, as Bobby Cotterel was in France till the end of the week, but it was only a matter of time.
He heard a step and, looking up through the dusty cobwebbed window, saw Fen’s fat sister approaching. That was all he needed. Now she was stopping to comb her hair. Then her great blushing face, like a dutch cheese, appeared round the door.
“Yes?” he said bleakly.
“Did, I mean, I was wondering,” she stammered, “if Fen left her whip here?” The feebleness of the excuse made her blush even more. “It was — er — one our grandmother — gave her for Christmas, so she was worried.”
“I haven’t seen it. She’s so scatty, she probably dropped it on the way home.”
How pinched and dark under the eyes he looked, thought Tory, the red check shirt and the black hair only emphasizing his pallor. Sympathy overcame her shyness. “I’m so sorry about people wanting to buy Africa. Fen told me.”
Jake nodded. She shifted from one foot to another and Jake was enveloped in a waft of Molly’s scent, which did not evoke happy memories.
“Is her leg better?”
“She’s all right.”
Why was she hanging round like a great blancmange? Getting up, he ran the sponge under the tap and plunged it into the saddle soap, adding: “The whip — it isn’t here.”
Tory gazed at her feet, twisting a button on Mrs. Maxwell’s mac. Then she noticed what he was reading.
“Oh, there’s Rupert Campbell-Black. Horrible man.”
Jake looked up, slightly more accommodating. Tory blushed again.
“I’m sorry. Is he a friend of yours?”
There was a pause.
“I hate his guts,” said Jake.
“Oh, so do I,” said Tory. “He’s so vicious and contemptuous and, well, bloody-minded. How did you come across him?”
“We were at school together.”
Tory looked amazed.
“Prep school,” added Jake. “I was a day boy. Mum was the cook, so the headmaster let me in free.”
“Oh, goodness, he must have been an absolutely poisonous small boy.”
Taking a nail, Jake pushed out the saddle soap that had got stuck in the cheek-strap holes.
“Poisonous,” he agreed. “He made Eichmann look like a fairy godmother.”
“He’s so rich,” said Tory, “that lots of mothers are after him, but he’s only after one thing.”
“What’s that?” said Jake, to embarrass her.
Tory swallowed. “Well, bed and things. He’s awfully promiscuous.” She pronounced it promise-kew-us. “And he never answers invitations; just rolls up with his current girlfriend and leaves after half an hour if he’s bored. He let off thunderflashes at Queen Charlotte’s. Lady Surrey was livid.”
“He obviously hasn’t changed,” said Jake. “I should have thought Harrow or the army might have knocked it out of him.”
“I think it made him worse,” sighed Tory. “He gets a little gang of cronies round him and manages to be even nastier.”
Nothing unites people like a good bitch. Jake let her rattle on as he put the bridle together again and hung it up. Then he went to reapply Africa’s poultice. Tory followed him, longingly watching the tender way his hands ran over the mare, caressing her polished shoulder and her sleek veined legs. Africa nuzzled him, breathing through her velvet nostrils with love and trust.
“She’s so beautiful,” said Tory wistfully.
The swelling had practically disappeared. Jake redid the bandages and readjusted her summer rug. He wished Tory would buzz off and leave him alone to nurse his misery. As he came out of the stable, shutting the door behind him, the rain stopped. He looked at her round, anxious face, her clean flopping hair and enormous bosom straining against the dark blue T-shirt. There was kindness in her eyes. He looked at his watch.
“Let’s go and have a drink.”
Tory looked at him stupidly.
“A drink,” he repeated mockingly. “The pubs are open. You’re eighteen, aren’t you?”
“Yes, of course I am. Gosh, thanks awfully.”
As they walked to the pub, Jake noticed the hawthorns were rusting slightly but still smelt like fresh soap, and the wet, hot nettles gave off a heady blackcurrant scent. The cricketers were running out onto the pitch, anxious to get all the game they could into the last half hour.
It was the first time Tory had been taken by a man into a pub; in fact, the first time a man had voluntarily asked her out at all. My first date, she thought excitedly. An old woman was buying Guinness and putting it in a black canvas bag. In the corner, two men with sun-reddened faces, their wives wearing white cardigans and lots of cheap jewelry, had decided to break their journey on the way back to London and were drinking Pimm’s. What on earth was she going to drink? She hated beer, her mother said gin and orange was common, and she knew Buck’s Fizz involved champagne, which was expensive. Her mind was a complete blank. She looked desperately around.
“I’d like a Pimm’s,” she said.
Jake sighed. He’d hoped she’d drink something cheap, like cider, or better still, orange juice. That meant he’d have to have beer instead of the double whisky he so badly needed.
Tory sat down, the furry moquette of the bench seat scratching her thighs. The pub was cool and dark and restful inside; the side door had been fastened back, and outside was a little garden full of wallflowers and irises and pale pink clematis scrambling over some rustic poles.
At first, the conversation was very stilted, but after a couple of Pimm’s, Tory’s tongue was loosened and suddenly, like a washing machine that’s been tugged open halfway through its cycle, everything came gushing out. What a disaster she was at dances, how she hated her finishing school, how ghastly Colonel Carter was, and how she couldn’t get on with her mother.
“Mummy likes Fen, because she’s pretty and funny and because she’s so young, but I’m an embarrassment to her and living proof that she’s over forty-five.”
“She made you go to all these dances because she’s looking for a husband,” said Jake. “D’you think she’s found one?”
“Oh, I hope not,” said Tory. “He’s so phony. He was hanging a picture for Mummy the other day and hit his thumb with the hammer and,” she went even redder, “he said booger instead of bugger.”
Jake hadn’t even brushed his hair before he came out, but it fell into place automatically. Tory ached to touch it. She felt as if someone had bewitched her, as if she was drowning and there was no coming up even for the third time. In a panic, she noticed he’d finished his drink. She’d been reading about Women’s Lib and someone called Germaine Greer. It was all right for women to buy drinks these days. She got a fiver out of her bag and handed it to Jake.
“Go on,” she said with a giggle, “we’re all equal.”
Jake shrugged and went to the bar. The cricketers had finished their game and flocked into the pub, and the barmaid was serving them with huge jugs of beer to pass around, so it was a few minutes before Jake got served. Tory sat in a haze of happiness; the longer he took, the longer they’d have. She looked at him slumped against the bar. He was so thin beside the beefy cricketers; she wished she could feed him up; she was sure he wouldn’t grumble about overdone beef and soggy potatoes. On the door near the Ladies’, a group of men were playing darts. Oh, dear, Cupid had scored a double top, straight into her heart.
Jake returned with the drinks and a packet of crisps.
“I don’t know why I’ve been telling you all these things,” said Tory. “You’re the one who needs cheering up. But you’re such a good listener.”
“I get plenty of practice. When you’ve got to take stupid women on long rides you develop a listener’s face. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re listening.”
Tory’s face fell. “I’m sorry,” she said humbly, starting to eat the crisps. “I didn’t mean to bore you.”
“You haven’t,” he said irritably.
“Who taught you to ride?” she asked.
“My father. He put me on a pony almost before I could walk.”
“How long ago did he die?” said Tory.
“I don’t know that he’s dead.”
Tory looked startled.
“He was a gypsy. He met my mother when he was hop-picking on part-time work. Her father was the keeper at the big house. He tried to settle down with my mother and get a steady job, but it was like caging a lark. One day, the wanderlust became too strong, so he walked out when I was about eight years old.”
“You must have missed him.”
“I did.” The third pint of beer had loosened his tongue and the world seemed a more hospitable place.
“So did my mother. She cried a lot, behind locked doors, and my grandfather went through all the photograph albums cutting my father’s picture out of the family groups.”
“So you might suddenly bump into him one day?”
“I doubt it,” said Jake, although he never passed a gypsy encampment or a fairground without having a look.
“Was he very good-looking?”
“My mother thought so. Two years after he left she waved me off to school and said she’d be in to cook the school dinner later. Then she put some cushions in front of the gas oven and that was that. All I remember is that all the masters and boys were particularly put out because we were supposed to be having treacle pudding that day.”
He suddenly glared at Tory, whose eyes had filled with tears. What the hell was he telling the soppy cow all this for? He hadn’t talked about his mother for years.
Tory couldn’t bear it. He’d lost his mother and his father and now he was going to lose Africa.
“Do you think Bobby Cotterel will really sell her?” she asked.
“ ’Course he will; doesn’t give a damn about her. He was grumbling the other day because Mrs. Wilton was threatening to put up the livery fees.”
The pub was filling up now and becoming noisy and clamorous. Tory looked at an obscene, pink pile of sausages, greasily glinting under a cover on the bar. How lovely to see food and for once not feel hungry.
“What will you do if Africa goes?”
“Get another job.”
“No, up north probably. I doubt if Mrs. Wilton will give me a reference.”
“Oh, you mustn’t,” said Tory, aghast. “I mean — it’s so cold up north. I must go to the loo.”
She had difficulty negotiating the way to the Ladies’, cannoning off tables and cricketers like a baby elephant.
Oh, hell, thought Jake, as she narrowly missed a flying dart, she’s pissed.
Tory collapsed onto the loo and realized with the shock from the cold slab under her bottom that the seat cover was still down. She lifted it up. If I can manage to go on peeing for over twenty seconds, Jake will take me out again, she said to herself. By wriggling she made it last for twenty-two.
When she found she had put her bag in the basin and washed her hands over it, she realized she was very tight. She couldn’t bear Jake to go away. She pressed her hot forehead against the mirror. “Gypsy Jake,” she murmured to herself.
Then it became plain that she must buy Africa. She had the money. Jake could pay her back, or she could be the owner and he the jockey. She had visions of herself in a big primrose yellow hat, leading Africa into the winner’s enclosure with two mounted policemen on either side. She was a bit hazy about what went on in show jumping. She looked in the telephone directory, but there was no Bobby Cotterel. He must be ex-directory; but the Mayhews had had the house before Bobby Cotterel. She spent ages finding the M’s. They did come after L, didn’t they? Oh God, the page was missing, No, it was the first number on the next page. Sir Edward Mayhew, Bandit’s Court. Her hand was shaking so much she could hardly dial the number.
“Hello,” said a brusque voice.
She was so surprised she couldn’t speak.
“If that’s burglars,” said the voice, “I’m here plus fifteen guard dogs and you can fuck off.”
Tory gasped. “No, it isn’t,” she said. “Is that Mr. Cotterel?” She must speak very slowly and try to sound businesslike.
Jake, having finished his glass of beer and ordered a large whisky, gazed at his reflection, framed by mahogany and surrounded by upside-down bottles in the mirror behind the bar. Totally without vanity, he looked in mirrors only for identity. He had spent too many Sundays at the children’s home, with scrubbed face and hair plastered down with water in the hope of charming some visitor into fostering or adopting him, to have any illusions about his attractiveness.
“Come here often?” said the barmaid, who worked in the pub on Sunday to boost her wages and in the hope of finding a new boyfriend.
“No,” said Jake.
He glanced at his watch. Tory had been away for nearly a quarter of an hour now. He hoped the stupid cow hadn’t passed out. He’d need a forklift truck to carry her home. He went out to look for her. She was standing by the telephone in the passage with her shoes off.
“That’s fine,” she was saying in a careful voice.
If Bobby Cotterel had not come back a week early from the South of France because it was so expensive, and been promptly faced with a large income-tax bill, he might not have been in such a receptive mood. Africa troubled his conscience, like his daughter’s guinea pig, whose cage, now she’d gone back to boarding school, needed cleaning out. He was not an unkind man. This girl sounded a “gent,” and was so anxious to buy Africa for four times the price he’d paid for her, and he wouldn’t have to pay any commission to Mrs. Wilton.
“The livery fee’s paid up for another three weeks,” he said.
“I’ll take that over,” said Tory.
“No, I’ll be happy to stand it to you, darling.”
“Can we come round and give you the check now?”
“Of course. Come and have a drink, but for Christ’s sake don’t tell anyone I’m back.”
Tory had had her first date, and been called darling and invited for a drink by Bobby Cotterel.
She turned towards Jake with shining eyes.
If she lost a couple of hundredweight, she’d be quite pretty, he thought sourly. What the hell had she got to look so cheerful about?
“Wonderful. I’ve just bought Africa.”
“Whatever for? You don’t like horses.”
“For you, of course. You can pay me back slowly, a pound a week, or we can go into partnership. I’ll own her, you can ride her.”
A dull red flush had spread across Jake’s face.
“You’re crazy. How much did you pay?”
“I offered eight hundred and he accepted. He’s just had a bill for his income tax. I said we’d take the check around now, before Mrs. Wilton starts blabbing about Sir William and Malise Gordon.”
“Have you got that amount in the bank?”
“Oh, yes, I got £5,000 on my birthday, and lots of shares.”
“Your mother’ll bust a gut.”
“Hooray,” said Tory.
“She’ll say I got you plastered.”
“No, you did not. I did it all off my own bat, like those cricketers in the bar.”
She cannoned off a hatstand as she went out of the door.
Jake was finding it impossible to clamber out of the pit of despair so quickly. He might at least say thank you, thought Tory.
They walked to Bobby Cotterel’s house and handed over the check. Armed with a receipt, he walked her home, both of them following the white lines in the middle of the road. Half-shafts of moonlight found their way through the beech trees on either side of the road, shimmering on their dark gray-green trunks. Fortunately the house was still dark.
“Oh good,” said Tory, “I can put back Mummy’s mac before she finds out it’s missing. I’m going to London tomorrow. I’ve got two awful drinks’ parties, then a dance on Wednesday, but I’ll be home on Thursday. Mummy and Colonel Carter are going out to dinner. I’ve got to babysit. Perhaps you could come around, after they’ve gone out, and we can decide what to do.”
“I think it may be a bit more problematical than that,” said Jake.
He took the key, opened the door for her, and turned on the hall light. Oh God, thought Tory miserably, there was Fen’s whip lying on the hall table, beside a wilting bowl of pink peonies. Jake turned to her, a slight smile touching his lips. Was it contempt, or pity, or mockery?
“Thank you very much,” he said, and was gone.
Fighting back her disappointment that he hadn’t attempted to kiss her, Tory then reflected that she would probably have tasted of onion-flavored crisps.
The drinks’ parties on Monday and Tuesday were bad enough for Tory. But the dance on Wednesday was a nightmare. At the dinner party beforehand, some sadist had seated her next to Rupert Campbell-Black. On his right was a ravishing girl named Melanie Potter, whom all the girls were absolutely furious about. Melanie had upstaged everyone by turning up, several weeks after the season began, with a suntan acquired from a month in the Bahamas.
Rupert had arrived late, parking his filthy Rolls-Royce, with the blacked-out windows, across the pavement. He then demanded tomato ketchup in the middle of dinner, and proceeded to drench his sea trout with it, which everyone except his hostess and Tory thought wildly funny. Naturally he’d ignored Tory all the way through dinner. But there was something menacing about that broad black back and beautifully shaped blond head, a totally deceptive languor concealing the rampant sexuality. She wondered what he would have done if she’d tapped him on the shoulder and told him she was the owner of an £800 horse.
Then they went on to the dance and she somehow found herself piled into Rupert’s Rolls-Royce, driving through the laburnumand lilac-lined streets of Chelsea. She had to sit on some young boy’s knee, trying to put her feet on the ground and all her weight on them. But she still heard him complaining to Rupert afterwards that his legs were completely numb and about to drop off.
The hostess was kind, but too distraught about gate-crashers to introduce Tory to more than two young men, who both, as usual, danced one dance, then led her back and propped her against a pillar like an old umbrella, pretending they were just off to get her a drink or had to dance with their hostess. Thinking about Jake nonstop didn’t insulate her from the misery of it all. It made it almost worse. Obviously it was impossible that he should ever care for her. If no one else wanted her, why should he? Feeling about as desirable as a Christmas tree on Twelfth Night, she was sitting by herself at the edge of the ballroom when a handsome boy sauntered towards her. Reprieve at last.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“Oh, yes, please,” said Tory.
“If no one’s using this,” he said, “could I possibly borrow it?” and, picking up the chair beside her, he carried it back across the room and sat down on the edge of the yelling group around Rupert Campbell-Black. As soon as they got to the dance, Rupert had abandoned his dinner party and, taking Melanie, had gone off to get drunk with his inseparable chum, Billy Lloyd-Foxe, who was in another party. Now he was sitting, cigar drooping out of his handsome, curling mouth, wearing Melanie’s feather boa, while she sat on his knee, shrieking with laughter, with the pink rose from his buttonhole behind her ear.
Later Billy Lloyd-Foxe passed Tory on the way to the lavatory and on the way back, struck by conscience, asked her to dance. She liked Billy; everyone did; she liked his turned-down eyes and his broken nose and his air of life being a little bit too much for him. But everything was spoilt when Rupert and Melanie got onto the floor: Rupert, his blue eyes glittering, swinging Melanie’s boa round like the pantomime cat’s tail, had danced around behind Tory’s back, pulling faces and puffing out his cheeks to look fat like Tory and make Billy laugh.
Tory escaped to the loo, shaking. She found her dinner party hostess’s daughter repairing her makeup and chuntering with a couple of friends over the effrontery of Melanie Potter.
“Her mother did it on purpose. What chance have any of us got against a suntan like that? She turned up at the Patelys’ drinks’ party wearing jeans. Lady Surrey was absolutely livid.”
At that moment Melanie Potter walked in and went over to the mirror, where she examined a huge love bite on her shoulder and tried to cover it with powder.
“You haven’t got anything stronger, have you?” she asked Tory.
Humbly, Tory passed her a stick of Erace.
“Oh, how marvelous; that’s amazingly kind. You were on Rupert’s other side at dinner, weren’t you?” she added, wincing as she blotted out the red oval of tooth marks. “Isn’t he a sod? I’ve just emptied a bucket of ice over him for biting me.”
She handed back the Erace to Tory and combed her platinum blond hair more seductively over one eye. “He and Billy are taking me to Tramps now; why don’t you come too? David Bailey’s going to be there. Rupe wants him to photograph me.”
And when Tory refused, insisting she was going home now because she had a headache, she only just persuaded Melanie not to make Rupert give her a lift home.
Unfortunately, Tory found a taxi all too easily. When she got back to the flat, which Molly Maxwell had borrowed from a friend for the summer, it was only eleven-thirty. She found her mother and the colonel on the sofa. The colonel was wearing a lot more lipstick than her mother.
Tory went to her room and as quietly as possible cried herself to sleep. She woke, as she had on the last four mornings, with a terrible sense of unease — that her mother would find out about Africa.
She came home in the evening to babysit and went up to her room to change and have a bath. It was still ludicrously hot.
“Don’t use all the water,” called out her mother. Through the crack in the door Tory could see her lying on her peach chintz counterpane, rigid under a face pack.
Tory was undressed down to her bra and panties, and hoping, as she’d hardly eaten since her evening with Jake, that she might have lost a bit of weight, when she heard the telephone ring and her mother answering it in a self-consciously seductive voice: “Hello.” Then, more matter-of-fact, “Oh hello, Mrs. Wilton, how are you?”
There was a long pause, then Molly said, “No, it couldn’t possibly be her. Tory’s terrified of horses. Maxwell’s quite a common name, you know. Well, just wait while I shut the door.”
Tory felt as though icy water was being dripped slowly down her spine. She was tempted to climb out of the window down the clematis; instead she got into bed, pulled the duvet over her head, and started to shake.
Five minutes later her mother barged in, ripping the bedclothes off the bed. She was still wearing her face pack like some malignant mime of catastrophe. At first she was so angry she couldn’t get the words out.
“Did you or did you not ring up Bobby Cotterel on Sunday and buy Africa?” she sputtered.
“I don’t know what you mean,” mumbled Tory.
“Don’t lie to me; who put you up to it?”
“No one. It’s my money. Why shouldn’t I buy a horse if I want to?”
“And I can’t afford to buy little Fen a little pony.” Molly spat out the “little.” “Get up, you fat lump.” She reached forward and tugged Tory to her feet by her hair.
“It was that little swine, Jake Lovell, wasn’t it?”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“ ’Course it was.” Molly Maxwell was shaking Tory by the shoulders until she thought her head would snap off. “He’s obsessed with that horse, spends all his time on it. But he won’t much longer,” she added, her eyes suddenly lighting up with venom. “Mrs. Wilton’s just given him the sack.”
“Oh, no,” said Tory, aghast. “It was nothing to do with him. I rang Bobby Cotterel. I did everything myself.”
“Why?” hissed Molly, powder from her drying, cracking face pack drifting down to the floor. “You’ve got a crush on that boy. I saw you mooning over him on Saturday at the show. That’s why you’ve been such a colossal flop at all those dances, not trying with all those suitable young men, because you’ve got hot pants for some common stable boy. Well, you won’t get him by buying him expensive presents.”
Tory couldn’t bear to look at her mother anymore, the hideous contrast with the twitching, disintegrating white face and the angry red turkey neck. She gazed down at her mother’s feet, noticing the newly painted scarlet nails, cotton wool keeping each toe apart.
“He’s a friend,’ she sobbed. “Nothing more.”
“Well, he’s not having Africa. He’s going back.”
“He’s a she and she’s not.”
“Sir William and Colonel Gordon are both prepared to top your offer. I’m going around to see Bobby Cotterel to make him tear up that check.”
Molly pictured herself, in a new dress, rather low cut, driving up to Bobby Cotterel’s house and pleading with him.
“My daughter’s not responsible for her actions.”
And Bobby Cotterel, who she suspected was between marriages, would pour her a stiff drink and comfortingly say, “Tell me all about it, preferably over dinner.”
She was brought back from her reverie by Tory sobbing. “It’s my money and I can do what I like with it.”
“And how are you going to look after a horse?” hissed Molly. “It can’t live in the potting shed, and now Jake Lovell’s lost his job, he’ll be moving on.”
Tory was in such despair she hardly heard her mother’s tirade about all the expense and trouble she’d gone to to give Tory a season until, catching sight of her face which resembled a dried-up riverbed, in the mirror, Molly realized she had better get her pack off. Tugging open the door, she found Fen, who’d been listening avidly at the keyhole and nearly fell into the room on top of her. Fen gave a giggle and, waving in time with a half-eaten frozen lolly, started singing: “My mother said that I never should play with the gypsies in the wood.”
“Shut up,” screeched Molly. “It’s your fault too for always hanging round the stables. You’re not going down there tonight. Go to your room, do your homework, and don’t talk to Tory. I must ring Bernard. I can’t possibly go out and play bridge after all this.”
“Want to bet?” said Fen, as her mother went into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Immediately they heard the ping of the telephone, followed at intervals by other pings.
Molly couldn’t get through to Bobby Cotterel but, if she couldn’t get him to tear up the check, there was always the possibility of reselling Africa to Sir William or Malise.
That had possibilities, too, she reflected. She’d like to meet Sir William again and for Malise Gordon she still had the hankering of the summarily rejected. She saw herself with less makeup and a higher neckline than for Bobby Cotterel, and Malise’s hawklike face softening, as he took her hand, saying: “When I first met you at Bilborough, I thought you were just a lovely face.”
After all, Colonel Carter hadn’t popped the question; it would be good to make him jealous.
As Tory predicted, the colonel talked her mother into going out for dinner.
“Bernard’s friends have gone to a lot of trouble cooking and they’d be so disappointed if we cried off at the last moment,” she told Tory coldly, as if she was making a supreme effort to go out. Not that she’d enjoy a second of it, with all this worry (as well as Bernard’s friends’ cooking) on her plate.
Tory was still sitting on her bed, in her bra and panties, as if turned to stone.
“Do you hear me, Tory? I’m putting you on your honor not to talk to Fen and not to telephone anyone or put a foot outside the house while I’m away.”
She said it three times, but she wasn’t sure it had registered.
Jake sat in the tackroom, chain-smoking, and watching the moon peering in through the window. Round and pink, with turned-down eyes in an anxious chubby face, it reminded him of Tory. Poor kid, he hoped that cow of a mother wasn’t giving her too bad a time. He’d like to have got in touch with her to find out the score, but he didn’t dare ring the house. Africa was much better; he’d turned her out for a few hours and just laid down thick clean straw in her loose box next to the tackroom. He was just going to fetch her when he heard a step outside, and Tory came timidly through the door. Christ, she looked all blotchy like a swede that’s been beaten up by the frost. The next minute, she was sobbing in his arms.
“I’m so sorry I got you sacked.”
“Doesn’t matter. I was going to leave anyway. Plenty more fishwives in the sea.”
“But you haven’t anywhere to go.”
“Mrs. Wilton can’t chuck me out till she’s found someone else; she’s too idle, and it’s too late to put an ad in Horse and Hound this week, so I’ve got a bit of time. Did your mother give you a hard time?”
Tory nodded. “She’s determined to give Africa back, or sell her.”
She was shaking so violently, Jake sat her down on the rickety chair and made her a strong cup of coffee with four tablespoons of sugar. She didn’t normally take sugar, but she found the sweetness comforting.
Jake lounged against the food bin, watching her.
“Look,” he said, dropping his half-smoked cigarette down the sink, “why did you buy me that horse?”
Tory lowered her eyes. “Because I like you,” she whispered.
Jake took her hands, which felt damp and chilled.
“How much?” he said gently.
Tory glanced up. He was so beautiful with his thin watchful face and his glinting earrings.
“Oh, so very much,” she said.
And suddenly, like a horse that’s been locked up in a stable for a long time and sees the door opening onto a huge field of clover, the idea that he’d been battling against all week overwhelmed him. A rich wife, that’s what he needed. Not very rich, but enough to buy him a few horses and give him a start, so he could get to the top and wipe that self-satisfied smile off Rupert Campbell-Black’s face.
And rather in the way a swimmer holds his nose and plunges into the water and finds it pleasantly warm, his arms were suddenly full of Tory. She was kissing him, sucking at him like a great vacuum cleaner — Christ, she’d pull his teeth out soon — and her arms had him in a vise and the huge friendly breasts were pressing against him.
“Oh, Jake, oh, Jake.”
Without fumbling, he undid the buttons of her dress and switched off the light, and they were on the bed of deep clean straw, with the light of the moon now filtering in through the skylight. He unfastened her bra and the splendid breasts overflowed, soft and sweet-swelling, like a river bursting its dam.
For a small, slight man, Jake was sexually well endowed, but he spent enough time fingering a spot which Tory afterwards discovered was her clitoris, and she was so slippery with longing that she hardly felt any pain after that first sharp thrust inside her. She’d always heard it was awful the first time, but despite the scratching of the straw on her bare back she felt only ecstasy.
“Now I know why it’s called a loose box,” said Jake, extracting himself and wiping her with a handful of hay from the rack.
“Any minute Africa’ll wander in and say, who’s been sleeping in my bed,” said Tory with a giggle.
“Not much sleeping,” said Jake.
He rested his head on her breasts. Actually she was much less fat without her clothes on; rather splendid, in fact.
“I didn’t hurt you too much?”
“No, no. It was lovely.”
“And you do like me?” he said.
Tory nodded in the dark, then kissed him passionately, adoringly uncritical, like a dog greeting a returning master.
“Enough to marry me?”
Tory gasped, and stopped kissing him.
“I know I can make big money out of horses, once I get started,” Jake said. “I just need a break.”
“I’ll help you,” said Tory in excitement. “I’ve got £5,000 a year.” Admittedly a lot of that had gone on Africa and been given to her mother for new clothes and the cocktail party. But if she married Jake, she wouldn’t have to go to her own cocktail party or to any more dances.
Five thousand a year, thought Jake. That must mean at least £100,000 in the bank. If only he could get his hands on that, they could buy a place and a dozen horses.
“We’ve got to find somewhere to live,” he said. “There’s no point in getting anywhere too small. We need stables and at least fourteen acres; the house needn’t be big.”
“I could paint it,” said Tory.
“And I could build the jumps,” said Jake.
She could feel him hot with excitement beside her.
“The only trouble is that I’ve only got about £1,500 in the bank at the moment. That won’t buy us a house, and everything else is tied up in trust till I’m twenty-one.”
Back came the black gloom, the pit, the despair; the stable door was locked and bolted on him again. It wasn’t going to be any good after all. Jake slumped back on the straw.
Then he realized that Tory was full of plans to break the trust.
“The capital’s mine. After all, Daddy left it to me. It’s just sitting there, and there’s a whole lot more to come when Granny dies.”
It was as though she was talking about having a good crop of runner beans in the garden and another crop coming up in a few months.
“I can’t just take your money,” he said.
“Of course you can,” she said. “I’m only crying because I’m so happy. We’ll go and talk to Granny Maxwell. She’ll help us.”
They tried to keep their visit to Granny Maxwell secret. Tory arranged to go and see her the following Saturday. Alison, the stable girl, would lend them her car to drive up to Warwickshire. Molly, however, distrusting Tory’s almost too passive acquiescence, guessed something was up and intercepted a letter from Tory to Jake which fell out of Fen’s pocket on the way to the stables.
The letter spoke of them marrying, as well as the visit to Granny Maxwell, and the scenes that followed were terrible. Molly’s hysteria knew no bounds. How could Tory be ungrateful and stupid enough to throw herself away on this penniless, illegitimate nobody? In fact, Molly suddenly realized that she would no longer have her daughter as an unpaid babysitter, cook, cleaner, shopper, and errand runner. She would have no one on whom to vent her rage, to grumble to and about, no one so easy to cadge money off. She was in danger of losing her whipping boy and she didn’t like it one bit.
She dispatched a reluctant Colonel Carter to have a blimp-to-man talk with Jake. But, as Jake saw the colonel as that monster who’d nearly destroyed Africa, the meeting wasn’t a success. “Dumb insolence” were the colonel’s words for it. “Fellow just gazed out of the window and read the paper upside down. Anyway, how can you expect a chap who wears earrings and hair over his collar to see reason?” Molly felt the colonel had failed her. Malise Gordon would have had much more success.
In the face of Tory’s intransigence, Molly buried her pride and rang Granny Maxwell, her ex-mother-
in-law, whom she’d always hated and suspected of plotting against her.
“Yes, I can see he doesn’t sound very suitable,” said Granny Maxwell, “but I prefer to judge for myself. Tory is bringing him down to meet me on Saturday.”
And Molly, for once curbing the fountain of invective surging up inside her, felt silenced and snubbed.
Fen, although horrified at dropping the letter, was thoroughly overexcited by the whole thing.
“I wish I was old enough to marry him. You are lucky, Tory. Have you mated with him yet? I can’t think why Mummy minds so much about his being intermediate.”
The heatwave continued, making the long drive up to Warwickshire sweaty and unpleasant. The sun blazed down on the top of the car, until Tory longed to escape down some woodland glade or picnic in a field by a winding river. The white chestnut candles lit up the valley, the bluebells making an exquisite contrast to the saffron of the young oaks. Cow parsley rampaged along every verge, but Jake was not interested in scenery. He seemed to find Alison’s car difficult to drive and kept grinding the gears and stopping in fits and starts. Probably hasn’t had much practice, thought Tory, watching his bitten-nail hands clenching the wheel. He answered all her questions in monosyllables, so she fell silent. She was dreading the meeting with her grandmother, who could be very rude and difficult. She couldn’t see Jake getting on with her if he was in this mood. And if she won’t help us, thought Tory in panic, perhaps he won’t want to marry me after all. Then again, what did she know about this strange taciturn young man with whom she was hoping to spend the rest of her life? At least she’d shed nine pounds since she met him, and now could get easily into a size sixteen skirt.
Dozing, then waking up, she realized they’d just gone through Cirencester. She looked at the map. “Aren’t we a little off course?”
“No,” said Jake curtly, putting his foot on the accelerator.
Climbing to the top of a very steep hill, he pulled into the side of the road, saying: “Get out for a minute.”
They had a magical view across the valley to where a golden-gray manor house lay dreaming against its pillow of beech woods. In front was lush, stream-laced parkland dotted with big bell-shaped trees, under which horses sought the shade, swishing their tails against the flies. To the left, a good deal of building and excavations were going on. But here, one large flat field had been left unplowed; on it every kind of colored jump was set up. Jake studied the place at length through binoculars.
“Where are we?” asked Tory. The last signpost had been buried in cow parsley.
“Penscombe.” Jake suddenly looked drawn, a muscle was flickering in his cheek. “Rupert Campbell-Black’s place.”
Going back to the car, he scooped all the rubbish off the floor and from the ashtrays, which brimmed with cigarette butts, and tipped it over the wall into Rupert’s land. One of the workmen, looking across, shook his fist at their departing car.
“Serves him right,” said Tory with a giggle. But when she looked at Jake she saw he was not smiling.
Tory’s grandmother lived sixty-five miles on in an equally beautiful but more sheltered position. Gabled and russet, the house peered out from its unkempt mane of Virginia creeper like a Yorkshire terrier.
A troupe of pekes and pugs came yapping round the side to welcome them. Despite the beauty of the day, they found Granny Maxwell sitting in the drawing room, watching racing on the television. She was also trying to read Horse and Hound, Somerville and Ross, and a gardening book at the same time, with three pairs of spectacles hanging round her neck like trapezes. She had a strong face, broad-browed, hook-nosed, the peaty-brown eyes glittering imperiously beneath their black brows, the wrinkles deeply etched round the wide mouth. On her head she wore a gray-green curly wig, slightly askew and held on with sticky tape.
“You’re wearing your nightgown, child,” she said, looking at Tory’s floating white dress. “I like your blue pants.”
Then she held out a wrinkled, black-nailed hand to Jake.
“I assume this is Mr. Wrong,” she added, with a cackle of laughter.
“Granny,” said Tory, blushing.
“Sit down, sit down; no, not in that chair,” she said, as Jake was almost bitten by an ancient, rheumy-eyed Jack Russell already sprawled on it.
All the other pekes and pugs lay at her feet snuffling and panting. She wore an ancient cardigan, a lace shirt, obviously for the second or third day, and a tweed skirt with a droopy, descending hem.
She and Lady Dorothy must go to the same tailor, thought Jake. But aquamarines and diamonds flashed on the grimy hands as she talked, and the pearls round her neck were each as big as a mistletoe berry.
“I suppose you want a drink; young people drink at the most extraordinary hours these days. There are some tins of iced beer in the fridge, Mr. Lovell. Unless you’d like something stronger? Then, go and get them, Tory.”
The room had the glorious, overcrowded look resulting from an exodus from a larger country house. Jake’s hands rested on the rough carved mane of a lion. The carpet was the blurred pink and green of an Impressionist painting.
As Tory went out, Granny Maxwell studied Jake, who was surreptitiously looking at the horses circling at the start. At least he didn’t fidget.
“Epsom,” she said, handing him the paper, “I’ve had a bet in this race. Any tips for the three-thirty?”
Jake glanced at the runners.
“I’d have a fiver on Mal le Maison.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t chosen Marriage of Convenience. Or how about Fortune Hunter?” she added maliciously. “He’s a hundred to one.”
Jake looked at her steadily.
“I’ll stick with Mal le Maison,” he said flatly. “And if I wanted to pick an outsider, I’d choose Whirlwind Courtship.”
“You haven’t known Tory long, have you?”
“Not very long, but I like outsiders.”
At least he’s not frightened of me, thought Granny Maxwell; that in itself is a novelty. Old and bored and waiting for death, she was aware that her family only came to see her when they were in financial trouble. She sometimes felt she was only kept alive by feuds and tyranny.
Tory came back with the cans of beer and a glass, and was immediately sent up to talk to Mrs. Maggs, who was sorting out the hot cupboard.
“She’s made you lardy cake and gingerbread men for tea. She thinks you’re still eight. You look very tired, child,” she added in a gentler voice, “and you’ve lost a lot of weight.”
She turned to Jake. “Bring your glass of beer and let’s walk round the garden,” she said, struggling to her feet. She walked very stiffly and had to be helped over the step. One hip was obviously very painful.
“Rheumatism,” she explained. “It’s difficult to be a very nice old woman when everything hurts.”
Having picked several heads off a coral pink geranium, she set off along the herbaceous border. It was the most glorious, over-packed garden; peonies jostled with huge Oriental poppies, lupins, and irises. Catmint, not yet out, stroked their legs as they passed.
The pack of dogs, some on three legs, panted after them grumbling and yapping.
“This is what I call a beautiful garden,” said Jake.
“As opposed to what?”
“To Tory’s mother’s. All the flowers seem to stand in their own patch of earth there, in serried ranks. Thou shalt not touch.”
“Like a park,” said Granny Maxwell.
A bird flashed by, yellow as laburnum.
“Yellowhammer,” said Granny Maxwell.
“Golden oriole, I think,” said Jake. “Very rare in these parts; it must be the heat.”
Suddenly a jaunty mongrel with a tight brindle coat came bounding across the lawn and was greeted by much yapping and every sign of delight by the pack, particularly a little blond peke, who wagged her tail and kissed him. Granny Maxwell turned to Jake.
“We used to call them ‘butcher’s dogs’ in my day, because they followed the butcher’s van. Owners get very fussed when mongrels try to mate with their pedigree dogs. I imagine that’s why my daughter-in-law is making such a fuss about you. I made a fuss when my son threw himself away on Molly. Her father was a hairdresser. Remember that, if you ever think about her.”
“I try not to,” said Jake.
“She never got over being the toast of Hong Kong.”
“Now she’s the sliced bread of Bilborough.”
Mrs. Maxwell gave a cackle of laughter.
“Tell me about yourself. You had polio as a child?”
He nodded. “When I was six I was in the hospital for eighteen months, learning to walk again. It left me with a wasted leg.”
“And a raging desire to prove yourself, presumably,” said Granny Maxwell dryly. “And your father was a gypsy?”
“My mother’s family tried to resettle him, but he missed the wandering life and the horses. He was a genius with horses. So he pushed off soon after I came out of the hospital.”
“And your mother committed suicide. You blamed yourself for that, I suppose?”
“I think she was let down by some chap who she took up with after my father left, but I didn’t know that at the time.”
“What happened after she died?”
“The school where I went free as a day boy made me board. I hated it, so I ran away and joined a group of gypsies. They taught me all I know, to poach and to look after horses and train dogs. There was an old grandmother there; she taught me about all the medicines she’d learnt from her great-grandmother.”
He took Granny Maxwell’s arm and guided her down some stone steps to a pond filled with irises and marsh marigolds. She caught her breath at the pain.
“An infusion of the leaves of Traveler’s Joy works wonders for rheumatism,” he said. “I’ll make you some up to try, or if you prefer, you can carry the skin of a dead frog against your skin.”
Granny Maxwell watched the dogs lapping out of the pond. The mongrel got into the water, drinking, paddling, and making a lot of splashing.
“I always feel very badly about the gypsies,” she sighed. “It’s one of the great unnecessary tragedies of progress. They should never have been forced into compounds to settle and sell scrap metal. But it’s always the same story today of harassment from the police and from farmers. Before the war they always used to park in our fields for the seasonal piecework. My father often kept them employed from March until Christmas.
“I miss the sight of their fires at twilight, with that marvelous smell of rabbit stew, and the gaudy washing on the line, and the shaggy horses and silent, lean dogs. They knew a thing or two, those dogs.”
Jake didn’t say anything, but felt an emotion, almost love, stronger than he had ever felt for another human being.
“How long were you with the gypsies?”
“Three years. Then I was picked up by the police and put in an orphanage.”
“Can’t have been much fun.”
“It was better than prep school. The kids were less vicious. They even accused me of having a posh accent.”
They walked back across the burnt lawn.
“We need rain badly. And what about this horse Tory appears to have bought?”
When he spoke about Africa, his face took on a tinge of color.
“She’s just the best horse I’ve ever ridden; she’s got so much potential and such a lovely nature.”
“Are you sure you don’t love her more than Tory?”
Jake thought for a minute, frowning, then he said: “I’m not sure, but if I take care of Tory as well as I look after Africa she won’t do too badly. Anyway, she couldn’t be worse off than she is at the moment with that bitch of a mother. She’ll have a nervous breakdown if she has to go to many more of those smart parties. It’s like putting a carthorse in a hack class, then beating it if it doesn’t win.”
“And I gather Molly has a new boyfriend, some colonel?”
“He’s a jerk; they don’t want Tory.”
“Why are they so reluctant to let her go, then?”
“Molly likes something to sharpen her claws on. Tory’s her cat-scratching board.”
She bent down to pull a bit of groundsel, then asked Jake to uproot a thread of bindweed that was toppling a lupin.
“It’s hell getting old. I can only prune sitting down now. And what’s in it for you?” she asked.
“I couldn’t marry her if she weren’t rich. I’ve got to get started somehow. And I think Tory and I could make each other happy. Neither of us has ever really had a home before.”
That was the nearest he was going to get to placating her.
“Aren’t you banking too much on that horse being a winner? She might break a leg tomorrow.”
“I’ll get more horses. This is only the beginning. To make it work as a show jumper, you’ve got to have at least half a dozen top horses and novices coming on all the time. The gypsies taught me how to recognize a good horse, and I can ride them, and I’ve got patience.”
“Let’s go and watch the three-thirty,” said Granny Maxwell.
Mal le Maison was second, Whirlwind Courtship nowhere. That’s torn it, thought Jake. At that moment, Tory came in with a tray.
“Are you ready for tea yet, Granny?”
“Put the tray down on this table in front of me, thank you, and sit down. I have something to say to you both.”
For a minute she looked at them both with speculative eyes.
“I’m not going to give you any money. Young people should get along by themselves. Tory has a considerable income and you’ll soon save enough to buy and sell a few horses.”
Jake’s face was expressionless. That was that. His hopes crashed.
“I’ve no intention of breaking the trust,” Granny Maxwell went on, picking up the blond peke and rolling it onto its back, “until I see if you’re capable of making Tory happy. In three years’ time, she’ll get the money anyway. However…”
Jake stiffened, fighting back hope, as with maddening deliberation Granny Maxwell poured tea into three cups, and went into a long “would anyone like milk, sugar, or lemon” routine, and then handed out plates, and asked whether anyone would like a sandwich.
“However,” she repeated, “Mr. Binlock is retiring to a cottage in the middle of June, which means the Mill House at Withrington — that’s about twenty miles north of here — will be empty. You can have that.”
Tory turned pale. “But Granny, it’s got stables and fields,” she stammered.
“Exactly, but it’s tumbledown and very damp. I hope you haven’t got a weak chest,” she added to Jake, “but it’s yours if you want it.”
“Oh, Granny, darling,” said Tory, crossing the room and flinging her arms round her grandmother.
“Don’t smother me, child, and there’s no need to cry. And as you don’t appear to have any transport, I’ll buy you a decent horse box for a wedding present.”
Jake shook his head. “I can’t believe it,” he said.
“There’s one condition,” Granny Maxwell went on with a cackle of laughter. “That the first time you appear at Wembley, you buy me a seat in the front row. I’m a bored old woman. In time, if you do well, I might buy a couple of horses and let you ride them for me.”
“If you really are going to buy us a horse box,” said Jake, “I’d better learn to drive properly and take a test.”
Six long months after she arrived in London in 1972, Helen Macaulay met Rupert Campbell-Black. Born in Florida, the eldest daughter of a successful dentist, Helen was considered the brilliant child of the family. Her mother, a passionate Anglophile and the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, was constantly reminding people of her English ancestry. In fact, a distant connection had come over, if not on the Mayflower, perhaps by the next boat. Mrs. Macaulay glossed over this fact and from an early age encouraged the young Helen to read English novels and poetry and admire all things English. Later, Helen majored in English Literature at the University of Tampa, where she was confidently expected to get a brilliant degree.
Deeply romantic on the one hand, Helen was also repressed by the rigid respectability of her family. The only proof that her parents had ever copulated at all were the four Macaulay daughters. Helen had never heard her mother and father row, or seen either of them naked. Her mother, who always insisted on women doctors, never mentioned sex, except to imply that it was degrading and wicked. Neither of her parents ever told her she was beautiful. Work to keep sin at bay, feel guilty if you slack, was the Macaulay motto.
Until she was nineteen, Helen never gave her parents a moment’s trouble. She worked at school, helped her mother in the house, never had acne or gained weight, and never answered back. At Tampa, at the beginning of the seventies, however, she came under the influence of the women’s movement — anathema to her mother, who believed a woman’s place was in the home. Her mother did, however, support the feminists’ view that a woman should never allow herself to be treated as a sex object, nor be admired for her body rather than her mind.
To her parents’ horror, Helen started getting caught up in student protest movements, demonstrating against the Vietnam war and joining civil rights marches. Even worse, she came home on vacation and said disparaging things about Richard Nixon. But far worse was to come. During her third year, Helen flunked out with a nervous breakdown, pregnant by her English professor, Harold Mountjoy.
Heavily married, but accustomed to the easy conquest of female students, Harold Mountjoy was quite unprepared for the torrent of emotion he unleashed in Helen Macaulay. It was Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Charlotte Brontë and her professor all over again. Except that Helen was a beauty. Only a tremendous earnestness and dedication to study had kept her on the straight and narrow so long at Tampa. On campus she was known as the fair Miss Frigidaire. Harold Mountjoy set about defrosting her. Seeing her huge hazel eyes fixed on him, like amber traffic lights, during lectures he should have read caution. Instead, one day after class, he kept her back to answer a complicated question on Browning’s “Paracelsus.”
Discussing ambition in life, Harold had lightly quoted: “ ‘I am he that aspired to know, and thou?’ ” To which Helen had instantly, almost despairingly, quoted back: “ ‘I would love infinitely, and be loved!’ ”
Harold Mountjoy realized he was on to a good thing and asked her for a drink. Secret meetings followed; self-conscious letters weighed down by literary allusions were exchanged, and finally Helen’s virginity was lost in a motel twenty-five miles from the campus, followed by fearful guilt, followed by more motels and more guilt. Under Harold’s radical guidance, Helen embraced radical causes and on vacation shocked her parents even more.
Finally, towards the end of the summer term, Helen fainted in class. Her roommate, who, despite Helen’s attempts at secrecy, had regularly been reading her diary, went to the head of the faculty. He, in turn, was highly delighted, because for years he had been looking for an excuse to dump Harold Mountjoy, whom he regarded as not only immoral but, far worse, intellectually suspect. Helen’s parents were summoned. Appalled, they removed her from college. Her father, being a dentist, had the medical contacts to organize a discreet abortion. Helen and Harold were forbidden to see one another again. Harold, clinging to his job, terrified his wife would find out, complied with the request. This was the last straw for Helen. Losing her virginity had meant total commitment. She had expected Harold to tell her to keep the baby and to divorce his wife.
Desperately worried about her, her parents, who were kindly if rigid people, packed her off to England in the hope that this other great imagined love of her life would distract her. She was to stay for at least a year. Helen rang Harold Mountjoy in despair. He urged her to go. They would both write. In time they would meet again. There was a possibility he’d get over to England in August. At last Helen agreed.
The head of the faculty wrote to his London publishers, giving Helen an excellent reference and praising her diligence, and they agreed to give her a job, reading manuscripts, writing blurbs, and copyediting. He also fixed her up with digs with a female author in Hampstead.
So Helen pieced her broken heart together and came to England in October, unable to suppress a feeling of excitement that she would soon be able to visit St. Paul’s, where John Donne had preached, and Wimpole Street, where Robert Browning had courted Elizabeth Barrett. She might even get up to the Lakes to see Wordsworth’s cottage, or Haworth, home of the Brontës.
Sadly, England proved a disappointment. Accustomed to year-round Florida sunshine, Helen arrived at the beginning of the worst winter for years. She couldn’t believe how cold it was.
By day she froze in her publishing house, by night she froze at her digs, which were awful. The female author was an ancient lesbian who watched her every move. Upstairs was a lecherous lodger who made eyes at her at mealtimes and kept coming into her room on trumped-up excuses. The place was filthy and reeked of a tomcat, which her landlady refused to castrate. The landlady also used the same dishcloth to wash up the cat’s plates and the humans’ plates. The food was awful; they seemed to eat carbohydrates with carbohydrates in England. She found herself eating cookies and candy to keep out the cold, put on ten pounds, and panicked.
At the weekends she froze on sightseeing tours, shivering at Stratford, at the Tower, and on the train down to Hampton Court, and in numerous art galleries.
The English men were a bitter disappointment, too. None of them looked like Darcy, or Rochester, or Heathcliff, or Burgo Fitzgerald, or Sebastian Flyte. None of them washed their hair often enough; she never dared look in their ears in the subway. They also seemed de-sexed by the cold weather. They never gazed or whistled at her in the street. Anyway, Helen was not the sort of girl who would have picked up men. As the days passed, she grew more and more lonely.
Harold Mountjoy was another disappointment. After one letter: “Darling girl, forgive a scribbled note, but you are too precious to have brief letters. It would take a month to tell you all I feel about you, and I don’t have the time,” he didn’t write at Christmas or remember her birthday or even Valentine’s Day.
Finally, at the beginning of March, Helen decided she could bear her digs no longer. On the same day that her landlady used a cat-food-encrusted spoon to stir the beef stew with, and the tomcat invaded her room for the hundredth time and sprayed on her typewriter cover, she moved into Regina House, an all-female hostel in Hammersmith, which catered exclusively for visiting academics, and was at least clean and warm.
Nor was her job in publishing very exciting. The initial bliss of being paid to read all day soon palled because of the almost universal awfulness of the manuscripts submitted. To begin with, Helen wrote the authors polite letters of rejection, whereupon they all wrote back, sending her other unpublished works and pestering her to publish them; so finally she resorted, like everyone else, to rejection slips.
Her two bosses took very extended lunch hours and spent long weekends at their houses in the country. One of the director’s sons, having ignored her in the office, asked her out to dinner one evening and lunged so ferociously in the car going home that Helen was forced to slap his face. From then on he went back to ignoring her.
The only other unmarried man in the office was a science graduate in his late twenties named Nigel, a vegetarian with brushed-forward fawn hair, a straggly beard, a thin neck like a goose, and spectacles. For six months, Helen and he had been stepping round each other, she out of loneliness, and he out of desire. They had long political arguments and grumbled about their capitalist bosses. Nigel introduced her to Orwell and bombarded her with leftist literature.
He was also heavily involved with the anti-fox hunting movement and seemed to spend an exciting resistance life on weekends rescuing foxes and hares from ravening packs of hounds, harassing hunt balls with tear gas, and descending by helicopter into the middle of coursing meetings. He was constantly on the telephone to various cronies named Paul and Dave, arranging dead-of-night rendezvous to unblock earths. Often he came in on Monday with a black eye or bandaged wrist, after scuffles with hunt supporters.
One Friday, towards the end of March, he asked Helen out to lunch. He was wearing a yellow corduroy coat, a black shirt, had clean hair, and looked less unattractive than usual. Inevitably, the conversation got around to blood sports.
“They think we’re all lefties or students on the dole living in towns,” he said, whipping off his spectacles. “But we come from all walks of life. You see, the fox,” he went on in his flat Northern accent, “beautiful, dirty, hard-pressed with so many people after him, hounds, foot-followers, riders, horses, terriers, he needs us on his side to tip the balance a little.”
Helen’s huge eyes filled with tears. For a moment, in his blaze of conviction, Nigel reminded her of Harold Mountjoy. He speared a piece of stuffed eggplant with his fork. “Why don’t you come out with us tomorrow? We’re driving down to Gloucestershire to rot up the Chalford and Bisley. It’s the last meet of the season. Dave’s got hold of a lot of fireworks; it should be a good day.”
Helen, unable to face another weekend on her own, trailing round galleries or visiting the house of some long-dead writer, said she’d love to.
“And afterwards, we might have dinner in Oxford,” said Nigel. “They’ve opened a good vegetarian restaurant in the High.”
And now she was rattling down the M4 to Gloucestershire and wondering why the hell she’d agreed to come. The dilapidated car was driven by a bearded young zoology graduate named Paul, who had cotton wool in his ears and was already losing his hair. Beside him sat Nigel. Both men were wearing gum boots and khaki combat kit, and khaki, she decided, simply wasn’t Nigel’s color.
Even worse, she had to sit in the back with Paul’s girlfriend, Maureen, who was large, dismissive, and aggressively unglamorous, with dirty dark brown hair, black fingernails, and no makeup on her shiny white face. Between her heavy lace-up boots and the bottom of the khaki trousers were two inches of hairy, unshaven leg. She was also wearing a voluminous white sheepskin coat which stank as it dried off. It was rather like sharing the back with a large unfriendly dog. Even worse, she insisted on referring to Helen as Ellen.
Taking one look at Helen’s rust corduroy trousers tucked into brown shiny boots, dark green cashmere turtleneck jersey, and brown herringbone jacket, she said, “I don’t expect you’ve ever demonstrated against anything in your life, Ellen.”
Helen replied, somewhat frostily, that she’d been on several anti-Vietnam war marches, which launched Maureen, Nigel, and Paul into an unprovoked attack on America and Nixon and Watergate, and how corrupt the Americans were, which irritated Helen to death. It was all right for her to go on about corruption in America, but not at all okay for the Brits to take it for granted.
Sulkily, she buried herself in a piece in the paper speculating as to whether Princess Anne was going to marry Captain Mark Phillips. She’d been following conflicting reports of the romance with shamefaced interest. Mark Phillips was so good-looking, with his neat smooth head, and gleaming dark hair, so much more attractive than Nigel and Paul’s straggly locks. In America, hair like theirs had long gone out of fashion, other than for aging hippies.
They were off the motorway now, driving past hedgerows starry with primroses. Buds were beginning to soften and blur the trees against a clear blue sky. Flocks of pigeons rose like smoke from the newly plowed fields. Helen felt tears stinging her eyes once more.
“Spring returns, but not my friend,” she murmured, thinking sadly of Harold Mountjoy.
“I suppose foxes do have to be kept down somehow,” she said out loud, feeling she ought to contribute something to the discussion. “They do kill chickens.”
“Rubbish,” snapped Maureen. “These days, chickens are safely trapped in battery houses.”
“And Ellen,” said Paul earnestly, “only five percent of foxes ever touch chicken.”
Helen had a sudden vision of the five percent sitting down to coq au vin with knives and forks.
Now Maureen, Paul, and Nigel were slagging someone they referred to as R.C.B.
“Who’s R.C.B.?” asked Helen, and was told it was Rupert Campbell-Black, the one the Antis hated most.
“Male chauvinist pig of the worst kind,” said Maureen.
“Upper-class shit who makes Hitler look like Nestlé’s milk,” said Paul.
“Always rides his horses straight at us,” said Nigel. “Broke Paul’s wrist with his whip last autumn.”
“Remember that hunt ball when he smashed a champagne bottle on the table and threatened you with it, Nige?” said Maureen.
“What does he do?” asked Helen.
“Show jumps internationally,” said Paul, “and allegedly beats up his horses. But he’s so loaded, he doesn’t need to do anything very much.”
Helen noticed the curling copies of the New Statesman and Tribune on the backseat and a tattered copy of Bertolt Brecht in the pocket of Maureen’s coat. These are people who care about things, she reproved herself, I must try to like them better.
“What do we do when we get there?” she asked.
“The basic idea, Ellen,” said Maureen, “is to copy everything the huntsmen do. We bring our own horns — Paul here actually plays the horn in an orchestra — and use them to split the pack. We’ve perfected our view halloos, and we also spray the meet with a special mixture called Anti-mate, which confuses the hounds.”
Nigel looked at his watch, which he wore ten minutes fast, on the inside of his wrist. “Nearly there,” he said.
Helen got out her mirror, added some blusher to her pale, freckled cheeks, ran a comb through her gleaming dark red page boy, and rearranged the tortoiseshell headband that kept it off her forehead.
“You’re not going to a party,” reproved Maureen.
Defiantly, Helen sprayed on some scent.
“Nice pong,” said Paul, wrinkling his long nose. “D’you know the one about the Irish saboteurs, Ellen? They spent all day trying to sabotage a drag hunt.”
“Don’t tell ethnic jokes, Paul,” said Nigel, smiling as widely as his small mouth would allow.
They were beginning to overtake riders and horses hacking to the meet. A pretty blonde on an overexcited chestnut waved them past.
“You’ve no idea how we’re going to cook your goose later, my beauty,” Nigel gloated.
Soon the road was lined with boxes and trailers, and Paul drove faster through the deep brown puddles in order to splash all those riders in clean white breeches standing on the grass verge. Now he was fuming at being stuck at ten mph behind a huge horse box which kept crashing against the overhanging ash trees.
The meet was held in one of those sleepy Cotswold villages, with a village green flanked by golden-gray cottages, a lichened church knee-deep in daffodils, and a pub called the Goat in Boots. A large crowd had gathered to watch the riders in their black and scarlet coats saddling up, supervising the unboxing of their horses and grumbling about their hangovers.
“What a darling place,” said Helen, as the sun came out. The Antis, however, had no time for esthetic appreciation. Paul parked his car on the edge of the green and, getting out, they all surged forward to exchange firm handshakes and straight glances with other saboteurs. Both sexes were wearing khaki anoraks or combat kit as camouflage, but with their gray faces and long straggly hair and beards, they couldn’t have stood out more beside the fresh-faced, clean-cut locals.
“Here’s your own supply of Anti-mate,” said Nigel, dropping two aerosol cans into the pockets of Helen’s coat. “Spray it on hounds or riders, whenever you get the chance.”
Helen thought irritably that the cans would ruin the line of her coat, and when Nigel insisted on pinning two badges saying “Hounds Off Our Wild Life” and “Only Rotters Hunt Otters” on the lapels of her coat, she wondered if it was necessary for him to take so long and press his skinny hands quite so hard against her breast. Perhaps she’d have to use the Anti-mate on him.
Two sinister-looking men walked by with a quartet of small bright-eyed yapping dogs.
“Those are the terriers they use to dig out the fox,” whispered Maureen.
Helen also noticed several crimson-faced colonels and braying ladies on shooting sticks giving her dirty looks. A group of men in deerstalkers and dung-colored suits stood grimly beside a Land Rover.
“They’re paid by the hunt to sabotage us,” explained Maureen indignantly. “Given a chance, they’ll block the road and ram us with that Land Rover.”
Helen was beginning to feel distinctly uneasy. She edged slightly away from the group of saboteurs, then said to herself firmly, “I am a creative writer. Here is a golden opportunity to study the British in one of their most primitive rituals.”
Listening to the anxious whinnying from the boxes, she breathed in the heady smell of sweating horse, dung, and damp earth. The landlord of the pub was dispensing free drinks on a silver tray. His wife followed with a tray of sandwiches and sausage rolls. Helen, who had had no breakfast, was dying to tuck in, but felt, being part of the enemy, that she shouldn’t.
Nigel and Maureen had no such scruples.
“Good crowd,” said Nigel, greedily helping himself to three sandwiches. “Oh dear, they’re ham,” he added disapprovingly, and, removing the fillings, he dropped them disdainfully on the ground where they were devoured by a passing labrador.
Suddenly, as the gold hand of the church clock edged towards eleven o’clock, there was a murmur of excitement as a dark blue Porsche drew up.
“There he is,” hissed Maureen, as two men got out. Helen caught a glimpse of gleaming blond hair and haughty, suntanned features, as the taller of the two men vanished in a screaming tidal wave of teenagers brandishing autograph books. Others stood on the bonnets of their parents’ cars, or clambered onto each others’ shoulders trying to take photographs or get a better look.
“Worse than that Dick Jagger,” snorted an old lady, who’d been nearly knocked off her shooting stick by the rush.
A girl stumbled out of the melée, her face as bright pink as the page of the autograph book she was kissing. Half a minute later she was followed by her friend.
“He used this pen,” she sighed ecstatically. “I’m never going to use it again.”
Gradually the crowd dispersed and through a gap Helen was able to get a better look. The man had thick blond hair, brushed straight back and in two wings above the ears, emphasizing the clear, smooth forehead and the beautiful shape of his head. His face, with its Greek nose, high cheekbones, and long, denim blue eyes, was saved from effeminacy by a square jaw and a very determined mouth.
Totally oblivious of the mayhem he had caused, he was lounging against the Porsche, talking continuously but hardly moving his lips, to a stocky young man with light brown curly hair, a broken nose, sleepy eyes, and a noticeably green complexion. The blond man was signing autograph books so automatically and handing them onto his companion, that when the queue dried up, he held his hand out for another pen and a book.
“What a beautiful, beautiful guy,” gasped Helen.
“Yes, and knows it,” snapped Maureen. “That’s R.C.B. and his shadow, Billy Lloyd-Foxe.”
The landlord pressed forward with the tray.
“Morning Rupe, morning Billy. Want a hair of the dog?”
“Christ, yes.” Reaching out, the stocky, light-brown-haired boy grabbed two glasses, one of which he handed to Rupert. Then, getting out a tenner and two flasks from his pocket, he handed them to the landlord, adding: “Could you bear to fill them up with brandy, Les? I’ll never fight my way through Rupe’s admirers.”
“Bit under the weather, are you, Billy?” said the landlord.
“Terrible. If I open my eyes, I’ll bleed to death.”
A groom was lowering the ramp of a nearby box and unloading a magnificent bay mare, sweating in a dark blue rug edged with emerald green with the initials R.C.B. in the corner, and looking back into the box, whinnying imperiously for her stable companions. Rupert turned around.
“How is she, Frenchie?”
“Bit over the top, sir,” said the groom. “She could use the exercise.”
He swept the rug off the sweating, shuddering mare and slapped on a saddle. Suddenly she started to hump her back with excitement, dancing on the spot as the hunt arrived in a flood of scarlet coats, burnished horses, and jolly, grinning hounds, tails wagging frenziedly, circling merrily, looking curiously naked without any collars.
Helen felt her heart lift; how beautiful and glamorous they all looked.
“Little people get on big horses and think they’re gods,” said Nigel thickly in her ear. “Those hounds haven’t been fed for three days.”
But Helen was gazing at Rupert Campbell-Black, who was taking off his navy blue jersey and shrugging himself into a red coat. Goodness, he was well constructed. Usually, men with such long legs had short bodies, but Rupert, from the broad flat shoulders to the lean muscular hips and powerful thighs, seemed perfectly in proportion.
Just as he and Billy mounted their horses the local photographer arrived, pushing his way through the ring of admirers.
“Hello, Rupert, can I have a photograph of you and Billy?”
“Okay,” said Rupert, gazing unsmiling into the camera.
“I’m not looking my best,” grumbled Billy. “I haven’t washed my hair.”
“Good chance for publicity,” said Maureen sententiously, and barging her way through, she handed Rupert an anti-hunting leaflet.
“Thank you very much,” he said politely. “Can I have one for Billy?”
Maureen turned round to face the camera between them.
“Can I borrow your lighter, Billy?” said Rupert. Next minute he had set fire to the two leaflets and dropped them flaming at Maureen’s feet.
“You’re not even man enough to read them,” she said furiously.
Rupert looked her up and down. “It’s rather hard to tell what sex you are,” he drawled, “but you’re certainly not good-looking enough to hold such extreme views. Go away, you’re frightening my horse.”
The crowd screamed with laughter. Maureen flounced back to Helen. “The bastard, did you hear what he said?”
Over Maureen’s head, for a second, Rupert’s eyes met Helen’s. Then he looked away without interest. They’re right. He’s poisonous, she thought.
At that moment a beautiful, but over-made-up woman, her black coat straining over a splendid bosom, trotted up to Rupert with a proprietorial air.
“Darling, how are you feeling? I actually made it.”
Simultaneously the landlord arrived with the two filled flasks. As he handed one of them to Rupert she grabbed it, taking a large swig.
“Don’t drink it all,” snapped Rupert.
“Darling,” she said fondly, screwing back the top, and handing it to him, “you can come home later and drink as much of ours as you like.”
Rupert put a long booted leg forward and pulled up the mare’s girths.
“I don’t know if I’ll need Monty as well,” he said to the groom. “With these bloody hunt saboteurs about, we may not get much action. If you lose us, wait at the Spotted Cow.”
The next moment the hunt clattered off. Helen was amazed to see Nigel suddenly leap out of a hawthorn bush and squirt the hounds with Anti-mate. Next minute a little girl had rushed up and kicked him so hard on the ankles that he dropped the aerosol can with a yell.
“Stop it, you horrid man,” she screamed.
Rupert Campbell-Black, who was passing, grinned down at her: “Well done, angel. I’ll marry you when you grow up.”
The saboteurs leapt into their five cars.
“Keep your eyes peeled for foxes,” hissed Paul. Nigel was still grumbling about his ankle.
Hurtling down a country lane, sending the catkins shivering, they found hounds being put into the palest green larch covert. The saboteurs parked above it and the next moment a posse, including Nigel and Paul, vaulted over the fence and, armed with Anti-mate, disappeared after them. Judging by the expletives and the shaking of fists, they were causing havoc in the woods. The master decided to move on.
“Out of my way,” he said bossily to a group of girl riders, “you’re not with the pony club now. I expect you’ve only come out to gaze at Rupert Campbell-Black.”
The saboteurs moved off in search of fresh sport. Stopping in a layby to spray pepper, they got stuck in the mud. Two foot-followers, not realizing who they were, pushed them out.
The next two hours were like being at a race meeting, permanently under starter’s orders. Every time the hunt picked up a scent the Antis managed to foil them.
Later, Maureen and Helen hung over a gate watching a sluggish stream choking its way through overhanging osiers and pussy willows. Fat celandines were pushing their way through the dead leaves. Helen gloried in the spring sunshine beating through her dark green jersey.
“Are the saboteurs anti-fishing as well?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” said Maureen earnestly. “Our more extreme members feel it’s cruel to the worm.”
Helen’s stomach gave an ominous rumble.
“I’m starving,” said Maureen. “Thank God I had a cooked breakfast. We’re all rendezvousing at the Spotted Cow at one o’clock.”
Helen, who had had no breakfast and only scrambled eggs the previous night, had visions of gins and tonics and pub steak and kidney pudding. The plowed brown fields in their evenness reminded her of mince. Perhaps there’d be shepherd’s pie for lunch.
But in the end, they only stopped at the village shop to buy oranges and some Perrier.
“Can’t squander the saboteurs’ funds on food and drink,” said Nigel, offering her his bottle of Perrier.
Helen suddenly thought how much she’d prefer to share a flask of brandy with Rupert Campbell-Black. If she’d been out with him, she figured, he’d have made sure she was properly looked after.
The saboteurs were parked outside the Spotted Cow as the hunt came past, looking understandably bootfaced after such an abortive morning.
“Pull the choke out,” whispered Paul. “It’ll muddle the hounds.”
On the other side of another wood, the hats of the riders could be seen moving ceaselessly back and forth.
Another posse of saboteurs moved in from the right, view-hallooing to distract the hounds and throwing in a couple of firecrackers, which set the already excited horses plunging.
“Pa, pa, pa, pa,” came the tender melancholy note of the horn.
“Oh, good. I mean, oh dear!” said Helen. “They’ve found a fox.”
“That’s Paul,” said Maureen smugly. “He can blow a horn as well as any huntsman.”
Two women supporters in green quilted coats and tweed skirts parked nearby and got out of their car.
“Bloody Antis,” said one, incongruously smoothing a wildlife sanctuary sticker on her windscreen.
“Have you heard how the Paignton-Laceys” dance went?” said her friend.
“Fiona’s not up yet this morning, but I saw Primrose, who said it was frightfully good. More chaps than girls for a change. Rupert Campbell-Black disgraced himself as usual. Got off with Gabriella. Evidently they disappeared for hours and hours. Charlie got quite frantic. They’ve only been married a year.”
“Better than Marcia’s dance,” said the first one. “Evidently he got simply plastered and docked the tails of all the yew peacocks; I mean they’ve taken literally hundreds of years to grow. I’d have sued the little beast.”
“He gets away with it,” said the first one, “because he is so frightfully attractive.”
Suddenly she gave an enraged bellow as Nigel and Paul, spattered with mud, their hands cut and bleeding from the under-growth, tore up the hill with the heavies hot on their trail, and leapt into the car.
Taking off, Paul shook off the heavies, finally stopping at the edge of a beech wood looking down a valley. In the back, Nigel was noisily sucking an orange. Getting out of the car, Helen caught her breath, for there, slowly riding up the hill, came Rupert Campbell-Black, his gleaming bay mare and his red coat the only splashes of color against the greens and browns. Gaining the top of the hill, he paused, trying to work out which way the hounds might run. The sun, which had been hovering in the wings like an actor waiting to make an entrance, broke away from the clouds, warming the brown fields. Nigel got out of the car, wiping his hands on his trousers.
“ ‘To one who has been long in city pent,’ ” he said pompously as he edged towards Helen: “ ‘ ’Tis very sweet to look into the fair and open face of heaven.’ ”
Helen, who privately thought it would be much sweeter to look into the fair and very close face of Rupert Campbell-Black, edged away again.
“I think they’re going to draw this covert,” said Nigel, vanishing into the beech copse, followed by Paul.
A hound spoke. Then the triumphant chorus rang out and there was the wild cry of the true horn. Suddenly, with the master cheering them on the line, hounds streamed down the valley in a dappled cloud. Then came the field, galloping, jumping, barging through gates with a clash of stirrups. There was Rupert, looking in a completely different class to the others, riding so easily and fluidly, almost nibbling his horse’s ears as he seemed to lift her over a huge hedge.
“Wire on the other side,” he yelled back to Billy, who gathered his black cob together and cleared it just as easily. There was a clattering of hooves as they jumped into the road and out again, and set off towards the beech copse, which had been liberally sprayed with pepper and Anti-mate. As they entered the copse, Nigel and Paul stood on a nearby fence and started to blow a horn concerto, utterly muddling the hounds who, distracted by the pepper and the Anti-mate, charged around, frenziedly zigzagging back and forth, whimpering with frustration as they tried to pick up the scent.
Helen suddenly felt furious with Nigel and Paul. What right had they to spoil everyone’s day? She and Maureen were standing in the field skirting the copse when suddenly Nigel came hurtling out of the wood, followed by Paul. The next minute Rupert Campbell-Black galloped around the corner, riding straight at them, his eyes blazing.
“He won’t touch the girls,” screamed Nigel, promptly plunging his horn down Helen’s new dark green cashmere jersey, stretching the neckband, and disappearing over the hedge. “Chivalry will prevent him,” he called over his shoulder.
Chivalry prevented Rupert doing no such thing. He rode straight up to Helen, reined in the plunging mare, and, before Helen could stop him, leaned over, put a warm hand down the front of her jersey, and retrieved the horn.
“A good-looking Anti,” he said in mock-wonder. “I never expected to see one. What’s a pretty girl like you doing, getting mixed up with a desiccated creep like Nigel?”
“How dare you?” gasped Helen, hand to her breast as though she’d been violated.
“How dare you?” said Rupert. “This is private property. You’re trespassing. I’d go back to London and not get involved with a lot of rent-a-crowd lefties.”
“All right, Helen?” asked Nigel, emerging from the under-growth.
“She’s not getting much help from you, you little rat,” said Rupert. “She’s got a very good body, though.”
Blushing crimson, hopelessly aware how unbecoming it was with her red hair, Helen gazed fixedly at Rupert’s highly polished boot.
“Don’t you insult my girlfriend,” said Nigel, striding up, slipping in a cowpat and putting his arm round Helen’s shoulders.
Equally furiously, she shrugged him off.
“On the contrary,” said Rupert, pocketing the horn. “I was being excessively polite, telling her she’s the only decent-looking girl I’d ever seen out with the Antis.” He nodded in Maureen’s direction. “What d’you use that one for, breaking down lift doors?”
For a second he made the mare plunge towards Nigel, who retreated into the hedge, then, wheeling round, he was off.
“I’ll get even with you,” screeched Nigel.
As they set off again, Helen sat in the back, stunned. Rupert was simply the most wrong but entirely romantic person she’d ever met. She was appalled how violently she felt attracted to him. She could still feel the warmth of his leisurely hand and remember the way the brilliant blue eyes had moved over her, assessing, absorbing data like a computer.
“ ‘My only love sprang from my only hate,’ ” she whispered.
As Rupert cantered back to join the despondent remains of the hunt, Gabriella, who’d earlier helped herself to his hip flask, caught up with him.
“Coo-ee, darling, where have you been?”
One of the added irritations caused by the saboteurs, thought Rupert, was that it had been impossible to shake Gabriella off. Last night, belonging to someone else, with her magnificent white bosom rising out of plunging black lace, she had been a far more desirable proposition. He had taken her in a cordoned-off bedroom, hung around with tapestries. In the middle, a long line of foot-followers had actually congaed unknowing through the room, whooping and yelling and reducing them both to helpless laughter. Today, red-veined from an excess of wine, with her makeup running, her hair coming down in a lacquered mass, and her bulky thighs in too-tight breeches, she had lost all her charm, though none of her ardor. Rupert had a sudden yearning for the whippet-slim Anti, with her hair the color of the bracken still strewing the rides.
“What a bloody useless day,” he said.
“It could be improved dramatically,” said Gabriella, riding her horse alongside him. “Why don’t we slip home? Charlie’s gone shooting.”
“Probably like to count me as part of the bag,” said Rupert, looking at his watch. “It’s only a quarter to three. Worth giving it another hour.”
He was relieved to see Billy emerging from the wood, his head buried in his horse’s neck to avoid the branches.
“I feel better,” said Billy. “I’ve just been sick behind a holly bush. Have you got any brandy left, Rupe?”
“Not much,” said Rupert, handing him the flask. “Better finish it.”
Rupert’s fiendish behavior was soon relayed with relish to the rest of the Antis. Helen, unable to work up any indignation at all, picked a bunch of primroses and wrapped them in a paper handkerchief dipped in a puddle.
Briefly, Paul and Nigel had lost the hounds, but had found them again in full cry within the walls of some huge estate. Unable to get at them physically, the saboteurs launched their toughest offensive. All hell broke loose as smoke bombs and thunderflashes exploded, foghorns wailed, and horns and whistles were blown.
“Jesus Christ! Some buggers are shooting in the covert. Pull hounds out,” yelled a huntsman.
Helen hid behind an ash tree, saying her prayers as the saboteurs charged about, yelling, screaming, slipping on wet leaves, tripping over bramble cables and the long silver roots of beech trees. Hounds had gone to pieces. All Helen could hear was whimpering. Nigel shimmied up the wall to look.
“Master’s lost control,” he said happily.
To the left, the Land Rovers with the heavies were moving in threateningly. Paul seized Helen, bustling her into the front of the car.
“Let’s beat it,” he said.
“Where are Maureen and Nigel?”
“Mo’s in one of the other cars,” Paul put his foot down on the accelerator, “and Nigel’s got some ingenious plot of his own, but my lips are sealed. He’s taken Fiona’s car; said he’d join us later.”
It had started to spit with rain. Old ladies hurried home, putting on headscarves. Women rushed out into the cottage gardens, taking in washing.
“You’re not wearing your safety belt, Ellen,” said Paul. “Wouldn’t want an attractive young lady to come to any harm.”
Turning on Radio Three, he accompanied a Beethoven sonata in a reedy tenor. Helen had a feeling he was glad they’d shed the others.
“I know you’re Nige’s girl,” he said throatily.
“I am not,” said Helen tartly. “There is nothing between us.”
“That makes a difference. Didn’t want to tread on anyone’s corns. I happen to be playing at a concert at the Festival Hall next Saturday. Wonder if you’d care to come. We could have an Indian afterwards.”
Helen, who hated curry, said she’d look in her diary, which he seemed to regard as a satisfactory answer. As he rabbited on about the orchestra and the paper he was writing on shrews, Helen found it was unnecessary to make any other comment than the occasional “um.” Breathing in the apricot dusk, she wondered what Rupert Campbell-Black was doing now.
Rupert and Billy hacked back to their horse box through the pouring rain, discussing which horses they should take to the Crittleden Easter Meeting, which started on Friday. Billy, who’d put his collar up and turned his hat back to front to stop the rain running down his neck, was trying to light a cigarette.
“Did you see the girl with the Antis?” asked Rupert, in that deceptively casual way that meant he was interested.
“Bit thin,” said Billy.
“Marvelous face, though. Doesn’t sound English. How the hell did Nigel get hold of her?”
“Perhaps she likes his mind.”
“Hardly likely to be anything else.”
Rounding the corner, fifty yards away, they saw Nigel busily letting down the tires of Rupert’s horse box. Riding on the verge, he hadn’t heard them coming.
“Leave this to me,” said Rupert softly.
Sliding off the mare, throwing the reins to Billy, he sprinted down the road and, taking a flying leap, landed on Nigel with a crash, knocking the breath out of his body. Next minute he had dragged him up a grassy side lane and was systematically beating him to a pulp. It was Billy who dragged Rupert off.
“For God’s sake, that’s enough. You don’t want to be done for murder.”
At that moment Frenchie, the groom, woke up from sleeping off his lunch and appeared out of the front of the horse box, rubbing his eyes.
“Where the hell have you been?” snarled Rupert. “Getting pissed as usual, I suppose. Here, take the horses and get me some rope.”
Pulling off his hunting tie, he stuffed it into Nigel’s mouth, then systematically stripped off Nigel’s clothes, looking down with distaste at the white skinny body. As Rupert tied his hands and feet with spare head-collar ropes, Nigel gave a groan and started to wriggle.
“Think he’ll be all right?” said Billy.
“Sadly, yes, the little shit,” said Rupert, giving him a kick in the ribs. “It’ll take him half an hour to wriggle down the road. It’ll still be light; someone’ll pick him up. Pity it’s such a warm night.”
He picked up Nigel’s combat jacket and removed his address book from the inside pocket. As he flipped through it, they hitched a lift in the horse box back to the blue Porsche.
“How riveting,” said Rupert. “He’s got Fiona’s telephone number, and mine, the little bastard, and yours too. What did he call that girl? Helen, I think. Here’s one. Helen Macaulay, Regina House, W. Fourteen. Where the hell’s that?”
“Shepherd’s Bush or Hammersmith.”
“Frightfully unsmart,” said Rupert. “I wonder if that’s her.”
Helen got in around midnight. The walnut and cottage cheese paté and the vegetable curry had been disgusting. She’d hardly eaten anything, but, still dazed by Rupert Campbell-Black, had drunk more cheap elderberry wine than was good for her.
Maureen had glared at her all evening; Nigel had never turned up and Paul had somehow engineered that he drop her off at Regina House after dropping Maureen at her digs.
“I won’t come up for a coffee, Mo. I expect you’re tired,” he said.
Helen suspected that Maureen, standing in her furry coat like a disgruntled Pyrenean mountain dog, was no such thing. Outside Regina House Paul said, “May I kiss you, Ellen?” and lunged goatily. His beard tickled, he had B.O., and his breath smelled of curry. Helen lost her temper.
“You’re too sanctimonious for words, right. You had a glorious day playing cops and robbers and feeling smug to boot, and what’s more I’d like to report you to the RSPCA for being horrible to hounds.” Leaping out, she slammed the car door in his face.
Now she sat in her room feeling ashamed of herself and gazing at Harold Mountjoy’s photograph, which seemed to have lost all its appeal. She noticed the spoilt, slightly weak expression, the hair carefully combed forward to cover the lined forehead and crow’s-feet round the eyes.
“ ‘My only love sprang from my only hate,’ ” she whispered. She’d never see Rupert again. He obviously had millions of girls after him and, anyway, he was thoroughly spoilt. She looked at the primroses in the tooth mug with the ochre centers and pastel petals. She’d have to put him in her novel, then she could dream about him. Slowly she undressed, gazing at her body in the mirror. She’d never really studied it before, and yet he’d said it was beautiful. She found she’d put her nightdress on inside out; that was supposed to be lucky. She could do with some luck. She jumped at a sudden pounding on the door. It was the principal of the hostel in a camel hair dressing gown, hair in a net.
“Telephone,” she snapped. “Person says it’s an emergency. Can’t see how it can be.”
Helen sighed; it must be Nigel. Perhaps he’d been arrested and needed bailing out, or was grumbling because Paul had driven off without him. At least he couldn’t accuse her of getting off with Paul.
In the telephone booth someone had left a copy of Lorca. Helen picked up the receiver: “Hello.”
“May I speak to Helen Macaulay,” said a voice. She’d recognize that clipped, light drawl anywhere. Her palms went damp, her knees turned to jelly.
“This is she.”
“Well, this is the enemy speaking — Rupert Campbell-Black.”
“How did you get my number?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Is Nigel all right?”
“As right as he ever could be. What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Going to church in the morning.”
In the background she could hear the sounds of music and revelry.
“Shut up, you maniacs,” yelled Rupert. “Look, I’ll take you to church, then I’ll give you lunch. I’ll pick you up at half-past ten.”
She liked the way he pronounced it: “H’pp’st’n.”
Oblivious to the continued grumbling of the head of the hostel, who was still hovering in the hall, Helen fled upstairs to her room and rushed to the mirror, just to reassure herself that she was still there and that such a thing could have happened.
“He called,” she whispered, “he really called.”
With all those girls chasing after him, he’d bothered to get her phone number from Nigel. Then she buried her face in the primroses, breathing in their faint sweet smell, before collapsing onto the bed.
She must pull herself together. Rupert was a terrible rake, who attracted females far too effortlessly, no doubt leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, like Macheath. And what about the dreadful sexist things he’d said to Maureen, and what about married Gabriella, with whom he’d vanished for two hours at the ball? Perhaps she shouldn’t go; her heart hadn’t mended after Harold Mountjoy; a second break would be far more difficult to repair. But the thought of not seeing him made her faint with horror. She felt quite out of control, swept along like a branch chucked into a raging torrent.
Besides, there was no way she could get in touch with him to say she had changed her mind; and would she ever be any good as a writer if she didn’t experience life?
It had been a very long day. If she didn’t want black circles under bug eyes the next morning, she ought to get some sleep, but instead she sat down at her typewriter and covered six pages of foolscap describing the day. These she slotted into a folder marked “England 1973.” Then she cleaned her teeth for two minutes, using dental floss between each tooth, and sank to her knees to say her prayers. A convinced conservationist who believed in husbanding nature’s resources, she was horrified, when she got to her feet, to see that she’d left the tap running.
She woke in wild excitement. But elation soon gave way to panic as clothes littered the normally tidy room.
On and off, and on and off went the gray angora dress, which went best with her hair, but might be too hot if they went to a crowded restaurant. On and off went the crocus yellow silk shirt which brought out the color of her eyes, but, worn with a gray suit, made her look too much like an efficient secretary. The rust suit was too autumnal, the steel blue wool dress was lovely, but she was perspiring so much with nerves she might have great embarrassing dark circles under the arms. Finally she settled for the kilt and matching beret and green velvet coat she had bought from the Scotch House, worn with a frilly white shirt.
Then, what about makeup? She knew you shouldn’t wear much for church, but too much for God would be too little for Rupert. Really, it was very hard dressing for both, like having God and the Devil to dinner. Perfume was wrong for church, too Delilah-ish, so she settled for pouring half a bottle of cologne over herself instead. Much against her principles, she’d taken one of the tranquilizers she’d been given when she split up with Harold Mountjoy. It was having no effect at all. When she found herself rubbing deodorant into her cheeks and moisturizer under her arms, she realized she was really over the top.
She was ready by ten-fifteen, waiting in the dark polished hall. Various dowdy lady academics were milling around, getting ready for outings to museums or galleries. If only one of them would tell her she looked nice; but lady academics don’t notice such trivialities.
She took a surreptitious glance in the full-length mirror and suddenly decided that she looked ludicrous in the matching tartan beret and kilt, just like an air hostess. Racing upstairs, she changed back into the gray angora dress. Oh God, there was lipstick on it. She covered the mark with a pearl brooch, which looked ridiculous just above her left nipple. Her newly washed hair was all over the place from so much dressing and undressing. She rammed it down with a gray velvet hairband.
She couldn’t stop shaking. It was now twenty-five to eleven. At first the minutes crawled by, then they started to gallop. He couldn’t be coming; it was ten-fifty. Perhaps she’d heard him wrong, but she was sure he’d said half-past ten. She tried to read a long analysis of the Watergate crisis in the Sunday Times, but the words kept blurring, so she gave up and gazed at some horrible shocking pink hyacinths that were twitching outside in the cold wind.
Perhaps, in her state of cardiac arrest, she’d given him the wrong directions to Regina House, saying left when she meant right. It was two minutes to eleven; she musn’t cry, it would make her mascara run, but what did it matter when he obviously wasn’t coming anyway? It was just some diabolical plot to raise her hopes and then dump on her from a great height because she was part of the saboteurs.
The club secretary had just pinned the lunchtime menu on the board and several of the inmates surged forward, trying not to look too eager, watering at the mouth at the prospect of roast beef and treacle pudding to liven up their uneventful lives. In utter despair, fighting back the tears, Helen turned to stumble upstairs, but just as the hall grandfather clock struck eleven the front door pushed open and Rubert walked in, coming towards her with that lovely loping athlete’s stride. Unlike most people, he didn’t automatically lower his voice when he entered an institution.
“Darling, darling, I’m desperately sorry. I had to look at a horse in Newbury on the way up; the traffic was frightful,” he lied. “Are you all right? Did you think I wasn’t coming?”
He walked up to her and, taking her hand, kissed her on the cheek.
Helen gazed up at him, unable to get a word out. Overnight, she’d changed him, in his red coat, into some kind of devil, and here he was turning up, looking just the sort of preppy young man of whom her parents would approve. The severity of the impeccably cut dark suit, striped shirt, and blue tie only served to set off the dazzling good looks. A shaft of pale sunlight coming through the window gilded the smooth blond hair. It was as though a light had been turned on in the dark hall. Even the dingy academics gathered around the notice board changed the object of the salivating, gazing at him unashamedly.
“You want to go to church, don’t you?”
Helen nodded, still speechless.
“Well, it’s not too late. We’ll probably miss the B-film and the ads, but get in for the big picture,” he said, putting his arm through hers.
“I’ve never been to Hammersmith before,” he said, opening the car door for her.
“It’s a fascinating ethnic cross section,” said Helen earnestly.
In the back of the Porsche, sitting muddily on a huge pile of unopened letters, newspapers, and old copies of Horse and Hound, sat a grinning black labrador.
“This is Badger,” said Rupert. “He’s the only being in the world who thinks I can do no wrong.”
Badger thumped his thick black tail joyfully, scattering the letters, and, leaning forward, gave Helen a great slobbery kiss.
“Don’t preempt me, Badger,” said Rupert, driving off so fast that the dog nearly fell off the backseat.
“Badger insisted on coming today,” Rupert went on, “to see if you were as pretty as I said you were.”
Embarrassed, Helen said, “Don’t you ever open your mail?”
“Not if I can help it. It’s always people wanting my money or my life.”
He drove her at great speed to the Guards’ Chapel. Immediately they’d crept into a back pew, Helen sank to her knees. Rupert, sitting sideways to accommodate his long legs, noticed she really prayed, eyes shut, lips moving. Confessing in advance the sins she’s going to commit later this afternoon, he thought dryly. While she was kneeling, he examined the freckled hands with their slender wrists and colorless nail polish, the small beaky nose, the very clean ears, the lipstick drawn not quite to the edges to disguise a large mouth, the frightful Alice band holding back the gorgeous, dark red hair — it was the color of drenched fox rather than bracken. Wondering if she had a ginger bush, he felt the stirrings of lust. He’d tank her up at lunchtime and take her back to his mother’s house. As she sat up, he noticed the perfect ankles, slightly freckled beneath the pale tights.
“Nice scent,” he whispered.
For a second she looked at him, her huge wide-apart yellow eyes flecked like a conference pear, then smiled shyly.
Christ, she’s adorable, he said to himself.
He had deliberately not picked up a hymn book on the way in so he could share hers. As their hands touched she jumped as if burnt, then, realizing she was overreacting, tried to relax.
“Forty days and forty nights, tempted and yet undefiled,” sang Rupert loudly and quite out of tune.
During the sermon, Helen found her thoughts straying as she glanced at the crimson and gold banners topped with little gold lions with crowns on their heads, and breathed in the scent of a nearby arrangement of white lilac and narcissi. Among the congregation were several grayhound men in dark suits, with lean, carved features and very straight backs, accompanied by conservatively dressed women with good enough cheekbones to get away with turbans or hats with no hair showing. The altar was draped with purple for Lent. Helen was horrified to find herself wondering whether a dress in that color would suit her. She must concentrate.
Rupert had no such intentions. After staring at the priest for a few minutes with half-closed eyes, he extracted a paint chart out of his pocket and studied the colors, finally marking a Prussian blue square with a cross. Then he produced yesterday’s evening paper and, folding it up into a small square, started to read the racing results.
“Hooray,” he whispered, “I’ve won £50—it’ll pay for a lunch.”
Helen tried to ignore him and stared stonily in front of her. But as the sermon droned on a loud snore suddenly rent the air. Rupert had fallen asleep and the next moment his head had flopped onto her shoulder. Several of the grayhound men, and a woman in a red turban like piped fish paste, glanced around in disapproval. Helen nudged Rupert sharply in the ribs. He woke up with a start, glanced round in bewilderment, and then grinned at her totally without contrition. The smile suddenly softening the arrogant deadpan features and creasing up the long blue eyes, reduced her to complete panic. Harold Mountjoy had never affected her like this.
She was relieved when the organ galloped through the last hymn and they surged out into the sunshine. Rupert nodded to several of the congregation, but didn’t stop to talk until one of the grayhound men called out to him.
Rupert stopped, said, “Hello, Tommy,” and introduced Helen.
After the inevitable brisk swapping of mutual acquaintances, Tommy said, “You’ve been doing very well; meant to come and buy you a drink at Olympia. Look,” he added, lowering his voice, “there’s a horse that might interest you at the barracks. Bought him in Ireland just before Christmas — make a top-class puissance horse.”
“Can I come and look at him after lunch?”
Helen wondered if she were included in the invitation and was shocked by her relief when Rupert said, “We’ll be there.”
Before lunch he insisted on taking Badger for a walk in the park. It was a perfect spring day. Thickening crimson buds fretted a love-in-the-mist blue sky. The banks were draped with crocuses of the same Lenten purple as the altar cloth. A host of golden daffodils, retarded by the bitter winter, had just reached their prime and nodded their pale heads in approval. Helen longed to dawdle. But there was no chance of wandering lonely as a cloud. Rupert, with his brisk military walk, set off at a cracking pace. Helen, her high heels pegged by the soft grass, was soon panting to keep up.
“Did you buy the horse you looked at this morning?” she asked.
“It was a retired racehorse,” said Rupert. “After flattening four fences it suddenly decided to stage a comeback and carted me halfway to London. Couldn’t stop the bugger and I’m pretty strong.”
“Fortunately the London-Newbury express thundered straight across our bows, the horse decided he wasn’t ready to be strawberry jam and skidded to a halt. Must say I was shit-scared.”
Brought up that no gentleman swears in front of a lady, Helen wished he would not use such bad language.
“I’m starving,” he said. “Let’s go and have some lunch.”
“Will it be very smart?” asked Helen.
“Not until we get there,” said Rupert.
The restaurant, despite being sandbagged up to the gutters against IRA bomb attacks, was extremely smart inside with cane chairs and tables, a black and white check floor, and a forest of glossy tropical plants, emphasizing the jungle atmosphere. From the kitchen came a heady waft of garlic and herbs and from the dining room the same swooping my dear-punctuated roar of a successful drinks’ party.
The head waiter rushed forward.
“Meester Campbell-Black,” he said reproachfully. “You deedn’t book.”
“I never book,” said Rupert.
“But I ’ave no tables.”
“I’m sure you can find us one, nice and private. We don’t want people bothering us.”
“And you cannot bring dogs in ’ere. The health inspectors, they will shoot me.”
“Badger’s different,” said Rupert. “He’s a guide dog for the blind drunk. Now, buck up, Luigi, don’t keep us waiting.”
Sure enough, within half a minute, Luigi beckoned. It was quite an experience walking through a restaurant with Rupert and Badger. Every head turned, necks cricked, nudges were exchanged, as people looked first at him, then at Helen, trying to work out who she was, if anyone. The restaurant seemed to be packed with beautiful people, the girls all wearing fashionable flared trousers down to the ground with never a boot showing, their red nails tapping on their slim thighs, smoothing back their streaked hair and calling, “Hi, Rupe” as he passed.
Luigi installed them at a table divided from the rest of the restaurant by a dark green wall of tropical plants. Immediately Helen fled to the Ladies’. She felt so drab in her gray dress, with her pale church face gazing back from the mirror. Savagely, she ringed her eyes with pencil, added a coral splodge of blusher to each cheekbone, painted her mouth to match, and emptied so much Miss Dior over herself that it made her sneeze.
Back at the table, Rupert had ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon and removed his tie. Badger, lying at his feet, thumped his tail. Breathing in the newly applied Miss Dior, Rupert noticed the additional makeup. All good signs.
“I haven’t been in London on a Sunday for ages,” he said. “It’s nice, and it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to look at you properly — that’s even nicer. You’re really an astonishingly beautiful girl. What the hell were you doing with Nige?”
“We work together.”
“I read manuscripts and write blurbs. Actually,” she blushed, “I’m also working on a novel.”
“Can I read it?”
“It’s only in draft form.”
“Well, you must put me in it, then. I’ll be Prince Charming. Nigel can be the toad. You’re not really his girlfriend?”
“No, I am not,” said Helen with some asperity. “He just asked me out with the Antis yesterday. How did you get my phone number?”
“Well, Billy and I found Nigel letting down the tires of our lorry, so I shook him till his lentils rattled, then left him trussed up like a Christmas turkey and appropriated his address book. What did you think of your day out?”
“Very cruel. All those people tearing after a poor defenseless fox, ripping it apart for fun.”
“Have you ever seen a chicken coop after a fox has been, all with their heads bitten off and left? Foxes kill for the hell of it, too.”
“The fox doesn’t get a chance,” protested Helen, “with you blocking up their earths and digging them out with terriers after they’ve gone to ground.”
Rupert shrugged his shoulders. “Farmers wouldn’t let us hunt across their land if we didn’t.”
He filled her glass, although she’d drunk only half of it, looking at her meditatively.
“Hunting’s like adultery,” he said. “Endless hanging about, interspersed with frenzied moments of excitement, very expensive and morally indefensible.”
“Why d’you do it, then?” asked Helen primly.
“Hunt or commit adultery? Because I enjoy them both. I fancy other people’s wives from time to time. I enjoy riding hell for leather across country. It’s one of the best ways of teaching young horses to jump anything; or stop an older horse getting stale. Horses love it, so do hounds, so do the people doing it. You just don’t like to see people enjoying themselves.”
“It’s still wrong for people to get all dressed up for the pleasure of killing something,” said Helen, hotly.
“Darling love, the saboteurs had far more fun than we did yesterday. Billy, my mate, always says if ever they abolish hunting he’s going to join the Antis.”
Helen, remembering how she’d attacked Paul last night, had to concede he was right.
“But Nigel does have principles,” she protested. “He’s a strict Vegan.”
“Farts all day in the office, I suppose,” said Rupert, yawning.
Helen blushed, but refused to be deflected.
“Nigel,” she went on earnestly, “has not eaten anything that moves for ten years.”
“Not even jelly?” asked Rupert.
Helen tried to look disapproving and giggled. “You’re impossible.”
“Impassible, am I?” said Rupert, mocking her pronunciation. “Well, you certainly won’t get past me in a hurry.”
Luigi arrived with the menu. Helen noticed there were no prices.
“What are you going to eat? I’m sure Luigi can flambé you some nut cutlets, but why not be really decadent and have a large rare steak?”
Luigi particularly recommended the scampi served with a cream pernod sauce or the filets of wild duck with juniper berry sauce.
“No, I don’t want any of your mucked-about rubbish, Luigi. My guest would like…” He turned to Helen.
“Oh, pâté, and a small steak and a green salad.”
“And I’ll have smoked salmon, and grilled lamb chops, very rare, with some fried potatoes, and can you bring an extra steak for Badger? He likes it well done, and we’ll have a bottle of Number Six, and another bottle of this while we’re waiting.”
While he was ordering, she admired the beautifully lean curve of his jaw. Unlike most Englishmen, and particularly ones who spent so much time out of doors, there was no red tinge to his complexion which, even without the suntan, would have been pale olive. Glancing around, he caught her gazing at him. “Well?” he said.
“You’re very tanned.”
“Skiing last month.”
“I hear you’re an expert at horseback riding.”
Rupert grinned. “You could call it that. The show jumping season’s about to start in earnest. It’s Crittleden next weekend. Why don’t you come down on Saturday?”
He was touched to see how thrilled she was.
“I’d just love to. I’d so enjoy seeing one of your performances.”
“With any luck you might be seeing one of those before that,” he said, smiling at her with those wicked, dangerously direct eyes. Helen chose to ignore the innuendo. Was it Badger or Rupert under the table, pressing against her leg?
“How did you get into that terrible coven?”
Helen looked disapproving.
“Regina House is a very distinguished institution. It was founded to accommodate women of substance.”
“Oh, that’s what’s the matter with them,” said Rupert. “I thought they all looked like that frightful harridan that was out with you yesterday, the one with more spare tires than the Firestone factory.”
Under the influence of the wine, Helen found herself more and more at ease, minding less and less about his flip remarks. As their first course arrived, she found herself telling him about her first digs and the unfixed tom and the lecherous lodger.
“I gained ten pounds.”
“Well, it seems to have gone in the right places,” said Rupert, gazing at her breasts. He ate very fast, finishing his smoked salmon before she was a quarter way through her pâté.
“This is excellent paté.” She pronounced it “part-ay.” He wondered idly if her accent would get on his nerves. “I’m afraid I can’t finish it, I’m awfully sorry.”
Off her grub, thought Rupert; another good sign.
“Now is the time for all good dogs to come to the aid of the partay,” he said, spearing it with his knife and handing it under the table to Badger, who gobbled it up with more thumping.
As their second course arrived, she tried to steer the conversation on to more academic lines. Did he enjoy reading?
“Not a lot. The best book I’ve read in years is The Moon’s a Balloon.”
“Do you go to the theater a lot?”
“Well, I went once,” said Rupert.
Helen determinedly didn’t look shocked. Writers had to accept all kinds of people.
Rupert was picking his chop bones now, tearing the meat off with very strong white teeth; particularly good teeth, she noticed, for an Englishman.
“Have you any siblings?”
“Brothers and sisters,” she explained.
“Only one. A brother, Adrian. Very bright. My mother’s favorite. He runs an art gallery.”
“Oh, which one?” asked Helen eagerly.
“The Bellingham; specializes in modern stuff.”
Helen said she’d been there often.
“Awful tripe, don’t you think?” said Rupert. “Adrian gets frightfully miffed when I tell him Badger could do better with his tail dipped in a paint pot.”
All these remarks were drawled out with a completely deadpan face. She couldn’t tell if he was sending her up.
“At least you must go to the cinema?”
“No,” said Rupert. “Quite honestly, if you’ve got nearly thirty horses, as Billy and I have, many of them novices that need bringing on, or top-class horses that need keeping up to the mark, you don’t get much time for anything else. We’ve got a man and three girl grooms, but we still get up at six-thirty and seldom leave the yard before nine or ten at night. Horses still need looking after on weekends. And you’ve got to keep looking at other horses all the time in case you miss something. Nearly all the year round we’re traveling nonstop from show to show all over the world. You don’t get to the top by going to French films or hanging around art galleries.”
“I’m sorry,” said Helen, feeling corrected. “Do you do the same sort of thing as Mark Phillips?”
“He events, I show jump. Ours is the serious stuff; eventing’s for gifted amateurs.”
“Do you know Mr. Phillips?” Helen felt ashamed for asking.
“Yes, he’s a very nice bloke.”
“Will he marry Princess Anne?”
“So he tells me,” said Rupert, filling up her glass. Helen tried not to betray how impressed she felt.
She couldn’t eat any more of her second course than her first. Rupert gave her steak to Badger.
“It’s so expensive, it’s awful,” said Helen in distress.
“It isn’t offal, it’s steak,” said Rupert, again imitating her accent.
“Did you go to Eton College?” she asked.
“Lord Byron went there,” said Helen excitedly. “He was an extraordinarily fine poet.”
“Pulled some amazing girls, too.”
“His letters are fascinating.”
“Supposed to have had his half-sister.”
Luigi brought brandy for Rupert and coffee and chocolate peppermint creams for Helen.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I’ve given up candy for Lent.”
“I’ve given up women,” said Rupert, taking her hand, “except you.”
Almost on cue an exquisitely beautiful girl with long, blue-black hair barged into their jungle glade.
“Rupert Bear,” she screamed, “what are you doing, skulking away like a babe in the wood? Aren’t you frightened of all the wild animals?” she added to Helen.
But before Helen could answer, the girl had rattled on.
“Nicky Cripps is absolutely livid with you, Rupe. He booked this table weeks ago and you just pinch it from under his nose. Aren’t you going to offer me a drink, Rupert Bear, just for old times’ sake?”
“Beat it,” said Rupert icily.
“Oh, well, I’ll have to help myself,” and, picking up Rupert’s glass of brandy with a shaking hand, she drained it. Suddenly there was a tremendous thump from under the table and Badger emerged grinning, pressing his black face into the girl’s crotch.
“Hello, Badger,” she said in a choked voice. “You’ve always been keener on me than Rupert Bear is.”
Glancing at Rupert’s face, Helen tried to lighten the atmosphere.
“Why do you call him Rupert Bear?” she asked.
The girl looked at her pityingly. “Don’t you know? Rupert BA-R-E, because he spends so much time with his clothes off.” Reaching over, she picked up the cross that hung round Helen’s neck. “And don’t think that’ll keep you safe. You won’t be able to ward him off any more than anyone else, and afterwards he’ll spit you out like a grape pip.”
Rupert got to his feet. “Get out,” he said in a voice that made Helen shiver. “You’re drunk and you’re boring us.”
The girl gave a sob and fled. Helen escaped to the loo. She felt quite sick. Her face was flushed, her eyes inflamed.
As she slapped on some makeup, two girls came in, heading for the loos, shouting to each other over the partition.
“Bianca’s just had a showdown with Rupert Bear,” said the first. “And all in front of his new girlfriend.”
“She won’t be new by next week,” said the second, “she’ll be an ex like the rest of us.”
As she emerged from the loo, Rupert, having paid the bill, was waiting for her.
“What’s the matter? You’re shaking.”
“I want to go home.”
“Don’t be silly.” Taking her hand, he led her back to the car.
“Now, what happened?”
“Two girls were talking in the john.”
“What did they say?”
Helen told him.
Rupert took her hands again, holding them tightly.
“Look, I’m sure it upset you, and what Bianca said, too. But if you and I are going to have anything going together, and I feel we can, you must shut your eyes and ears to gossip. If you’re any kind of celebrity, which I suppose Billy and I are, people will always bitch about you. If they don’t know you, they make it up; if they catch you snapping at a traffic warden because your mother’s just died, they’ll assume you’re always bloody-minded. I had a brief walkout with Bianca. I broke it off. I’ve even had girls accusing Billy and me of being queer because I haven’t made a pass at them. You listen to me, not anyone else. Is that clear?”
Helen nodded, speechless.
“You’re terribly sweet.” Leaning forward, he kissed her very gently. At first she resisted, then, as her lips parted, he drew away.
“Come on, we’ve got to see that horse.”
“Jesus, Tommy,” he said a quarter of an hour later, as a huge black horse with a white face clattered out of the stable, tugging a helpless, terrified trooper on the end of a rope, “are you trying to sell me an elephant?”
“He’s a good horse,” said Tommy. “Jump the Harrods building with all four feet tied together.”
Going up to the plunging animal, ignoring its rolling eyes and snapping teeth, Tommy caught the other side of the head collar. Together, he and the trooper managed to steady him.
“Come and have a look,” he said.
From a safe distance, Helen watched Rupert’s practiced hands moving over the horse, running down a leg here, picking up a hoof there, examining his teeth, looking at him from front and back.
“Lovely courageous head,” said Tommy, dodging hastily sideways to avoid a diving nip.
“What’s his background?”
“Dam was an Irish draft mare, father was clean bred, won a few races in Ireland. We got him from Jock O’Hara.”
“Doesn’t usually miss a good horse,” said Rupert, walking around him again.
“His wife was having a baby at the time. He was a bit more distracted than usual.”
“And he’s being discharged? What’s wrong with him?”
“Well, quite honestly, he’s a bit of a bugger; run away with nearly every trooper in the regiment, fidgets on parade, breaks ranks, naps on duty, and won’t obey orders.”
Rupert laughed. “And you’re suggesting I buy him?”
“You could always sort out difficult horses and I promise you he can jump. He carted a trooper in the King’s Road last week. A milk float was crossing the road; old Satan stood back on his hocks and cleared it by inches. Several witnesses saw him. That has to be some horse.”
“Okay,” said Rupert, taking off his coat, “tack him up.”
A trooper stood nervously in the center of the indoor school, waiting for Rupert’s orders. Tommy and Helen, to her relief, watched from the gallery. At first, Satan walked around as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth; only his eyes rolled and his tail twitched. His white face and the one white sock that came above knee and hock gave him a comic appearance. Rupert pushed him into a canter; with his huge stride he circled the school in seconds. Then, suddenly, the horse seemed to gather itself together and, as they rounded the top end, he humped his back in a series of devastating bucks which would have unseated any rodeo rider.
Helen gave a gasp, putting her hands over her eyes.
“It’s all right,” said Tommy. “He’s still there.”
“Okay,” said Rupert to the trooper, “put all the fences up to four foot six.”
Tommy got out a silver cigarette case and handed it to Helen, who shook her head. “Watch this,” he said.
As Satan bucketed towards the upright, Rupert put him at exactly the right spot and he cleared it by a foot. It was the same with the parallels.
“Put them up to five foot six,” said Rupert.
“Known Rupert long?” asked Tommy.
“No,” said Helen, “and it won’t be much longer at this rate,” she added nervously as Satan thundered towards the upright, then put in a terrific stop. The next moment Rupert was beating the hell out of the horse.
“Poor Satan,” murmured Helen.
Rupert turned him again. Satan cleared the upright, then, careless, stargazing at some pigeons in the roof, he rapped the parallel so hard that only Rupert’s immaculate riding held him together and saved them both from crashing to the ground.
“Put it up to six foot,” said Rupert to the white-faced trooper.
“Crazy,” agreed Tommy, “but he always liked riding something over the top.”
This time Rupert cantered down quietly and Satan cleared the upright with several inches to spare. Rupert pulled him up. Coming out of the school the horse appeared positively docile. Sliding off, Rupert reached for his coat pocket which was hanging on the door and, taking out a packet of Polos, gave a couple to Satan, who looked at him suspiciously, then ate them, curling his upper lip in the air.
“I think we’ll get along,” he said. “I’ll buy him, Tommy. You’ll discharge him as uncontrollable, will you? And I’ll have a word with Colonel Cory up at Melton Mowbray.”
Helen was ashamed how much the sight of Rupert mastering that huge, half-wild horse had excited her. He might not have heard of François Truffaut or Kandinsky, but when it came to horses he was obviously a genius. Suddenly, she felt a spark of pure envy; however much she slaved at her novel, she could never display such joyful, spontaneous talent as Rupert.
The sun was going down now, firing the barracks windows. Dog walkers were hurrying home from the park. As Rupert sorted out the details of the sale with Tommy, Helen did her face yet again. She turned on the car radio and found the middle movement of Schumann’s piano concerto. Listening to the rippling, romantic music she looked uneasily at the pile of mail on the backseat. Many of the envelopes were mauve, or peppermint green, or shocking pink. Someone had addressed a letter: “To Rupert Campbell-Black, the handsomest man in England.”
And so he was, thought Helen, as he walked back to the car, Badger at his heels. He looked very happy.
“That is one hell of a good horse. I reckon I could take him to the Olympics if he doesn’t kill me first. Let’s go and have a drink at my mother’s house.”
“That’d be nice,” said Helen. Privately, she didn’t feel quite up to meeting Rupert’s mother. She’d have to talk out of the corner of her mouth to hide the drink fumes.
Rupert listened to the piano concerto for a minute. “I suppose this is the sort of music you like?”
“Yes,” said Helen. “Are your parents happily married?”
“Yes,” said Rupert.
“How lovely,” said Helen.
“But not to each other. My mother’s on her third marriage. My father on his fourth.”
“Were you very traumatized when your parents split up?” she asked.
Rupert looked surprised: “Not at all. I stayed with Mummy and Nanny.”
“But you must have had endless replacement parents?”
“Stepmothers and — fathers.”
“Weren’t they very unkind to you?”
“I was very unkind to them. I was a little sod when I was young. They got their own back by never taking me out when I was at school.”
“So you never went out?” said Helen, her eyes filling with tears.
“Nanny came down by train occasionally and brought me fruit cakes. I spent most leave-outs and a lot of the holidays with Billy’s family.”
“What about Adrian?”
“Oh, he was my mother’s darling — far too delicate and sensitive to go to boarding school.”
Rupert spoke without bitterness or self-pity. He was not given to introspection and never considered anything his parents had done might have affected his behavior in life.
Helen, who’d studied psychology, felt differently. Still hazy and emotional from an excess of champagne, she was flooded with compassion for poor, poor Rupert. Parents who’d never loved him, stepparents who neglected him, a mother who preferred his younger brother. No wonder he felt the need to beat other riders all the time; and to seduce women to bolster his self-confidence; then, unused to a loving relationship, break it off the moment things became heavy. I could change him, she thought expansively. I could arrest the rake’s progress and show him what real love is like.
Rupert’s mother lived in one of those large white Georgian houses looking onto an emerald green railed-in square. The garden was filled with grape hyacinths, scillas, and white daffodils. An almond tree was already scattering pink petals on the sleekly shaven lawn. Every window was barred. Rupert opened the door with several keys and sprinted in to switch off the alarm.
“Well, your mother certainly won’t get burglarized,” said Helen.
“No, but you’re just about to, my treasure,” said Rupert under his breath.
They went into the drawing room. As Rupert switched on the lights, Helen gave a cry of pleasure.
“What an exquisite room.”
There were pale primrose walls and carpets, old gold watered silk curtains, and sofas and armchairs covered in faded pale blue and rose chintzes. Two tables with long, pale rose tablecloths were covered in snuffboxes. The walls were covered in portraits of handsome arrogant men and beautiful women, their faces lit up by fat strings of pearls. Orchids in pots added to the exotic atmosphere. On the draped grand piano were photographs — one of Rupert’s mother as a deb and others of several men in uniform who were presumably replacement fathers. There was also a picture of Rupert on a horse being handed a cup by Princess Margaret. What caught the eye was a photograph of an extraordinarily beautiful youth, very like Rupert, but more fragile of feature.
“That’s my kid brother,” said Rupert. “What d’you want to drink?”
Helen shook her head. As Rupert poured himself a large glass of brandy, Helen caught sight of a study next door, the walls lined with books, all behind grilles.
“May I look?”
“Of course. Most of those on the left are first editions.”
Helen gave a cry of excitement: “Why, here’s Keats’ Endymion, and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and Mansfield Park. Oh, wow! Your mother must be a very cultured woman.”
This seemed to amuse Rupert. “She’s never read any of them.”
“But that’s awful. Is there a key?”
“Somewhere, I expect.”
She got to her feet reluctantly. On the study desk was a huge pile of letters.
“Doesn’t your mother open her mail either?”
“It’s a family failing.”
“Will she be home soon?”
“She’s not here,” said Rupert, draining his glass of brandy. “She’s in the Bahamas escaping from the tax man.”
Helen looked at him, appalled.
“I must go. If I’d known she wasn’t going to be here, I’d never have come.”
“You haven’t come yet, sweetheart,” said Rupert softly, taking her in his arms, “but you soon will, I promise.”
She was almost overwhelmed by the warmth and sheer power of him, so different from Harold Mountjoy, who’d been a bit of a weed.
“No,” she yelped.
“Yes,” said Rupert into her hair. “You need some material for your ‘narvel.’ ”
“You shouldn’t have pretended your mother was here.” She struggled to get away from him.
“I didn’t. Anyway, all’s fair in love and war and I don’t imagine it’s going to be war between us,” and he bent his head and kissed her. For a few seconds she kept her lips rigid, then, powerless, she found herself kissing him back, her hands moving up to the sleek, surprisingly silky hair.
Rupert pulled her down on the faded rose pink sofa.
“I haven’t stopped thinking about you for a moment since I first saw you,” he said. He was running his hands over her back now, assessing the amount of underwear, planning where the next assault should come from. There were no clips on the gray dress which would have to come over her head, which might frighten her if removed too soon. Over her shoulder he met the jovial eyes of one of his forebears. “Atta boy,” he seemed to say.
“No,” said Helen, trying to prise off the hand barnacled over her left breast.
“You’re repeating yourself, angel. You must realize I’m unfixed, like your landlady’s tomcat.”
Through her dress he expertly undid her bra with his left hand. The thumb of his right hand began to strafe her nipple.
“No, I’m not like that.”
“Like what?” whispered Rupert. “D’you want to spend the rest of your life behind bars, unopened like those first editions?”
Helen burst into tears. At first she was crying so hard, Rupert couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then the first storm of weeping gave way to shuddering sobs and gradually the whole story came pouring out. How respectable her family were, what a terrible shock it had been when she became pregnant by a married man and flunked her finals. How her parents had been real supportive sending her to Europe to get over it all.
“This afternoon you appeared to be getting over it very well,” said Rupert. “Perhaps I should send your father a bill. What did you say this married man was called?”
“Should have been called Mount Helen.”
Helen sniffed. “He’s a very distinguished writer,” she said reprovingly. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard of his work.”
“You must know I haven’t heard of anyone,” said Rupert.
“I loved him,” said Helen. “I thought he loved me. But he only wrote once. He forgot Christmas, my birthday, Valentine’s Day.”
“Mothering Sunday?” asked Rupert, grinning.
“The pregnancy was terminated,” said Helen with dignity.
“I promise I won’t let you get pregnant,” said Rupert gravely.
“That’s not the point. I don’t want to be treated like a sex object.”
“Because you object to sex?”
“Oh, don’t be so flip,” wailed Helen.
Rupert got out a blue silk handkerchief and wiped away the mascara that was running down her cheeks. He had enough experience of women to realize that if you backed off and were kind and considerate on a first occasion, they dropped into the palm of your hand on the next.
More important, he suddenly felt terribly tired. Phenomenally strong, he could go for long periods without sleep, but he realized that, apart from a two-hour marathon in the four-poster with Gabriella on Friday night, he hadn’t been to bed for three days. He had to drive home to Gloucestershire that night, a dealer was coming to see him first thing in the morning, and he wanted to buy Satan quickly before the Army started producing all kinds of red tape. He also had a string of novices to take to an indoor show the following evening.
“All right,” he said, getting to his feet, “go home to your narvel. Let me put on a jersey and I’ll drive you back to your coven.”
Helen felt absolutely miserable, convinced that she’d lost him. The sun had set and the trees and the houses, losing their distinctive features, were darkening against a glowing turquoise sky. Rupert didn’t speak on the way to Regina House, nor did he say anything about taking her to Crittleden. Let her work up a good lather of anxiety, he thought. Helen got lower and lower. Perhaps he was hurt by her saying she couldn’t sleep with him because she didn’t love him, but she felt it was just too soon.
All the lights were on in Regina House as they drew up. A blackbird was singing in a nearby plane tree. Helen sat for a second, overwhelmed with anticlimax and despair, tears about to spill over again. The women’s movement was always urging one to be assertive and make the running, but in practice it wasn’t easy.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a choked voice. “I didn’t mean to give you a hard time.”
“On the contrary, sweetheart, it was me intending to give you a hard time.”
He got out of the car, but before he could open the door for her she had scrambled out, standing up so they faced each other a foot apart.
“Good night,” he said brusquely, intending to get back into the car and drive straight off.
But suddenly the bells of a nearby church, carried by the west wind, drifted through the muzzy gray twilight. Rupert shivered, suddenly reminded of the desolation of Sunday nights at school, summoned by bells to Evensong, followed by cold ham and bread and marge for supper, and everyone else coming back feeling homesick from days out with their parents. Rupert had never really had a proper home to feel sick about.
“I w-will see you again, won’t I?” she stammered.
Her face, with its vast, brimming, mascara-smudged eyes, had lost all its color in the dusk. He took it in his hands.
“Of course you will, my little red fox. I’ve let you escape this time, but I’ll get you in the end. Try and go to ground, you’ll find the earth blocked; disappear down another earth, I’ll get the terrier men to dig you out.”
His white teeth gleamed. As he bent and kissed her, Helen trembled with fear and longing.
“Don’t listen to Nige,” he said, getting back into the car. “He’s not my greatest fan. I’ll ring you later in the week about Crittleden,” and he was gone.
Helen stood in the twilight, listening to the bells, thinking about weddings and the attraction of opposites.
Rupert drove down the M4 thinking about Satan. He toyed with the idea of stopping off at the Newbury turn to see a married girlfriend whose husband was away, but he was too tired. At Exit 15 sleep overcame him and the moment he was off the motorway he pulled into a layby, climbed into the back, and, hugging Badger for warmth, fell asleep.
The Frogsmore Valley is considered by many to be the most beautiful in the Cotswolds. On either side, fields, checkered by pale stone walls and dotted by lush woodland and the occasional farm, fall steeply down to jade green water meadows, divided by the briskly bustling Frogsmore stream.
At the top of the valley, curling round like a horseshoe, lies the ancient village of Penscombe. Here, for the past hundred and twenty years, the Campbell-Blacks had made their home, alternately scandalizing and captivating the local community by their outrageous behavior. On Rupert’s twenty-first birthday, a month before he came out of the Army, his father, Edward Campbell-Black, had made over to him the house, Penscombe Court, and its surrounding two hundred acres. The motive for this altruistic gesture was that Edward had just further scandalized the community by leaving his wife and running off with the beautiful Italian wife of one of his Gloucestershire shooting cronies. On reflection too, Eddie decided he was bored with running the estate at a thumping loss, and his beautiful Italian prospective bride decided that neither of them could stand the bitter west winds which sweep straight off the Bristol Channel up the Frogsmore Valley to howl round Penscombe Court throughout the winter. So they decamped permanently to the South of France.
Young Rupert further scandalized the community by moving back into the house with his friend Billy Lloyd-Foxe and a floating population of dogs and shapely girl grooms. Even worse, hellbent on making the place profitable, Rupert promptly dug up the famous rose garden and the orchard, built stables for thirty horses, turned the cricket pitch, where the village used to play regularly, into a show-jumping ring, and put up an indoor school beyond the stables to buttress them from the bitter winds.
Gradually over the next four years, the chuntering subsided as Rupert and Billy started winning and were frequently seen on television clearing vast fences and being awarded silver cups by members of the Royal family. Journalists and television crews came down and raved about the charms of the village and the valley. Suddenly Penscombe had two local heroes and found itself on the map.
Penscombe Court was, fortunately, situated on the north side of the valley, half a mile from the end of the village, so any late-night revelry was deadened by surrounding woodland and didn’t keep the village or the neighboring farmers awake too often. Rupert was generally considered capricious and arrogant, but Billy, who loved gossip and spent a lot of time in the village shop and the pub chattering to the locals, was universally adored. Any inseparable friend of Billy, it was felt, couldn’t be all bad; besides, the locals had known Rupert since he was a child and had seen stepparents come and go with alarming regularity and, being a tolerant and generous community, felt allowances should be made. They also realized that Rupert, like the rest of his family, was indifferent to public opinion, so that their disapproval would not make a hap’orth of difference.
Just before midnight Rupert woke up from his nap in the layby and set off for home. He never saw the signposts to Penscombe’s without a leap of joy and recognition. As he drove along the top of the south side of the valley, Badger woke up and started snuffling excitedly at the crack of an open window. Ahead in the moonlight gleamed Penscombe’s church spire. Although it was after midnight, Rupert looked across to the north side and cursed in irritation to see half the lights in the house blazing. Billy must have gone to bed plastered without switching them off.
As he stormed up the drive through the chestnut avenue planted by his great-grandfather, he could see the pale green leaves opening like parachutes. Behind white railings, three dozing horses in New Zealand rugs blinked as he passed. The car crunched on the gravel in front of the house. There was a great baying and yapping. As Rupert opened the front door, two Jack Russells, a Springer spaniel, a yellow labrador, and a blond mongrel with a tightly curled tail threw themselves on him in delight, growling and fighting each other. Finally they all started rubbishing Badger, jealous because he’d been the one to go on a jaunt. Rupert kicked them gently out of the way. His suitcase was still lying in the hall where he’d left it that morning. In the drawing room the fire was going out, Sunday papers half-read and a pile of entrance forms lay scattered over the sofa. One of the dogs had shredded his hunting tie on the rug in front of the fire.
“Jesus,” said Rupert, slamming the door shut.
In the kitchen he found Billy trying to read Horse and Hound, clean the brown tops of a pair of black boots, drink whisky, and fork oysters out of a tin, all at the same time.
“Hi,” he said, looking up. “How did it go? Have you joined the Antis?”
Billy was not a handsome young man, for his nose was broken and his sleepy dark brown eyes were seldom visible because they were always creased up with laughter, but he had a smile that could melt the Arctic Circle. Rupert, however, was not in a mood to be melted.
“This place is a tip,” he snapped, pointing to the sink which was piled high with plates, glasses, and dog bowls. “Can’t you even put things in the dishwasher?”
“It’s full,” said Billy calmly.
“Or in the dustbin,” went on Rupert, pointing to the empty tins of dog food and milk cartons littering the shelf.
“That’s full too,” said Billy.
“And one of your dogs has crapped in the hall.”
“It was one of your dogs,” said Billy without rancor. “Anyway, I’ve been bloody busy.”
“Drinking my whisky and reading the Sunday papers.”
“The hell I have. By the way, there’s a nice piece about you in The Observer.”
“What did it say?”
“Oh, some sycophantic rubbish about you being the best rider in England.”
“Don’t try to placate me, and why’s the telephone off the hook?”
“To stop Bianca, and Gabriella, and goodness knows who else ringing up.”
Rupert replaced the receiver. Five seconds later the telephone rang.
“See what I mean?”
Rupert picked it up. Both of them could hear squawking. Putting the receiver in a nearby cupboard, Rupert shut the door.
Billy grinned: “Anyway, I repeat, I’ve been bloody busy.”
“Taking care of the entire yard single-handed. I’ve even sold a couple of horses for you.”
“How much d’you get?”
“Ten grand for Padua and eight for the gray with the ewe neck.”
“Not enough,” said Rupert, looking slightly mollified.
“Never is for you, and I worked everything we’re going to need tomorrow. Admittedly I was so hungover first thing I saw four ears every time I looked down a horse’s neck.”
He speared up another oyster. “And I think I’ve sorted out why The Bull keeps stopping. He’s terrified of water.”
“So am I,” said Rupert, “unless it’s got whisky in it.”
He picked up the bottle and, not finding any clean glasses in the cupboard, poured it into a teacup.
“Where the hell was Diane today?”
“Said she’s got the curse, soldiered on for a couple of hours, then collapsed into bed.”
“Rubbish,” said Rupert. “She had it a fortnight ago. She’d have stayed working if I’d been here. And Tracey?”
“It’s her day off.”
“Gave in her notice and flatly refused to work. She was pissed off because you forgot to take her to some party on Saturday night. She’s been ringing Sits Vac in Horse and Hound all day and left them deliberately lying on the table for us to find.”
He handed the magazine to Rupert.
“ ‘Cheerful, capable groom,’ ” read out Rupert incredulously. “Cheerful! Christ! She’s about as cheerful as Blackpool lights during a power cut. ‘Experienced girl groom required for hunters and stud work. Opportunity to further breeding knowledge.’ She doesn’t have anything to learn about breeding either. Oh hell, let her go, I’m fed up with her tantrums.”
“You cause most of them,” said Billy reasonably. “You know perfectly well that Mayfair and Belgravia, not to mention The Bull and Kitchener, will all go into a decline if she leaves. And we can’t afford that at the beginning of the season.”
He held out his glass for Rupert to fill up.
“And just remember how tremendous she is with customs men. They’re so transfixed by her boobs they never bother to even glance at our papers.”
“Are you after her or something?” said Rupert.
“No, my heart belongs entirely to Mavis,” said Billy, looking down at the blond mongrel who was now curled up on his knee, slanting eyes closed, head resting on his collarbone.
“Oh, all right,” said Rupert. “I’ll go and see her in a minute.”
“She’ll be asleep by now.”
“Not her, she’ll be tossing and turning with desire and frustration.”
From the pantry next door the washing machine was thundering to a halt. Wiping the boot polish off his hands onto Mavis’s blond coat, Billy set her gently down on the floor. Opening the machine, he removed a tangle of white ties, shirts, breeches, socks, and underpants and threw them into the dryer.
Rupert looked disapprovingly round the kitchen which was low-beamed with a flagstone floor and a window looking over the valley. A bridle hung from a meat hook; every shelf seemed to be covered with spilling ashtrays and unopened bills.
“We must get a housekeeper. I’m fed up with chaos.”
“It’s pointless,” said Billy. “You’d only employ pretty ones, then you couldn’t resist screwing them and they’d get bolshy. Mrs. Burroughs is coming in the morning. She’ll tidy the place up.”
“I want it straight on weekends. Perhaps we ought to get Nanny back.”
“She’d have a heart attack at the goings-on. Perhaps you ought to get married. Wives are supposed to do this sort of thing. How was your redheaded Anti?”
“Interesting. Very uptight.”
“Not the easy lay you expected?”
“You’ve put your finger on the spot,” said Rupert, draining his whisky, “which is certainly more than I did. She’s rather sweet, but frightfully intense; kept wanting to talk about books and the theater.”
“Must have taxed your brain. Are you going to see her again?”
“I might. I don’t like unfinished business. By the way, I bought a bloody good horse today from the barracks. No one was about, so Tommy let me try him on the Q.T. Never seen a big horse so good in front. Despite his size he jumps like a pony. Need some sorting out though.”
“Don’t make me tired. I’ve done enough sorting out for one day,” said Billy, picking up the yellow mongrel. “Mavis and I are off to bed. See you in the morning.”
“I’ll go and placate Marion,” said Rupert.
He went upstairs, brushed his teeth and his hair, then took the dogs out.
At the end of the lawn two black yew trees crouched like great gelded tomcats. Behind the house rose the wood, stretching for half a mile. Four vast Lawson cypresses rose in front of the bare beech trees like spires of a cathedral. Moonlight flooded the valley, silvering the lake and blanching the first daffodils. On the opposite side a car driving along the top towards Penscombe lit up the trees lining the road like a firefly. Rupert felt his heart expand with pride and love. This was his home and his land to do what he wanted with. He must keep on winning to keep it going, to make it better and better.
The dogs weaved about lifting their legs on rosebushes and young trees. From the stables he could hear the occasional snort and stamp, and resisted the temptation to go and wake the horses up. As he expected, the light was still on in Marion’s flat over the tackroom. He shut the dogs in the house. Marion took a long time to answer the door. She was pale and puffy-eyed, but nothing could disguise the voluptuousness of her body, nor the length of leg revealed by the clinging nightshirt with the baleful figure of Snoopy on the front.
“What d’you want?” she asked in a choked voice.
“You,” said Rupert.
“Bastard.” Snoopy rose and fell as her breast heaved.
“That’s no way to address one’s boss.”
“You’re not my boss anymore. I’ve given in my notice. Didn’t Billy tell you?”
“Yes,” said Rupert moving towards her and putting a hand between her legs. “And I haven’t accepted it.”
“Don’t touch me,” she sobbed.
But as he splayed out his fingers and increased the pressure she collapsed into his arms.
Helen found the next week extraordinarily trying. She could think of nothing but Rupert, which made sleep, work and very existence impossible.
In the evenings at Regina House she read endless love poetry and played Schumann’s piano concerto, being the only music she and Rupert had in common, over and over again, very quietly with her door an inch open, in case she missed the telephone ringing downstairs.
By day she had to put up with Nigel. He limped in after lunch on Monday with a black eye and two cracked ribs. She was appalled by his detailed account of the brutality of the beating up. But when he started describing how he’d been tied up and left naked behind a hedge she suddenly remembered Rupert’s remark about trussing a Christmas turkey and had to gaze out of the window so Nigel wouldn’t see her laughing. Fortunately, the self-obsessed Nigel mistook her shaking shoulders for sobbing.
She now realized how difficult it must have been for Juliet loving a Montagu while living in the Capulet camp. She found herself jumping and blushing scarlet as Nigel, who was suffering from acute telephonitis, exchanged lengthy indignation meetings on Rupert’s dreadful behavior with Dave and Paul and Maureen, and evidently every other saboteur in and around the country. There was brave talk of taking Rupert to court, but as the other Antis pointed out, Rupert, being as rich as Croesus, would employ the best lawyer in town and as Nigel had been letting down Rupert’s tires, witnessed by Rupert and Billy and later the groom, he was on weak ground.
“Even worse, Helen,” Nigel added, his piggy unblacked eye gleaming behind his thick spectacles, “R.C.B. appropriated my address book.”
“Oh dear,” said Helen, starting guiltily, “will he find any important numbers?”
“Crucial,” said Nigel sententiously. “That book contains the numbers of every resistance fighter in the UK, people who are believed to belong to the hunting fraternity, but who are really one of us and supply us with vital information. Fiona Westbury, the daughter of Saturday’s master, is a classic example, and the secretary of the Chairman of the British Field Sports, who’s been one of us for years. With that book in his hands, R.C.B. can smash our entire network. I’m sure he beat me up because he was so anxious to get his hands on it.”
“Rather like Watergate,” said Helen, again fighting a terrible desire to giggle.
As the week crawled by, she was filled with an increasing restlessness and sat at her typewriter playing he loves me, he loves me not with the raindrops cascading down the window from the incessant April showers, quite incapable even of typing “Dear Sir,” because the only sir who was dear to her still hadn’t rung.
She’d learnt from the paper that the Crittleden meeting started on Good Friday and lasted over the Easter weekend.
On Thursday at lunchtime, in anticipation of seeing Rupert, she went out and spent nearly three weeks’ salary on the softest beige suede midi dress. Coming through the door of the office, she found Nigel holding out the telephone receiver and looking boot-faced.
“Some man with a foreign accent asking for you, says it’s personal.”
Helen felt her knees give way, her cheeks flame. She could hardly cross the room, then found herself positively winded by the thud of disappointment because it was Paul on the other end.
“I put on a French accent to deceive Nigel,” he said, laughing heartily. “How about that concert on Saturday night?”
Almost in tears, Helen had told him she was going away for the whole weekend.
“That’s a shame,” said Nigel as she came off the telephone. “I was going to a CND rally in Hyde Park on Sunday. I hoped you’d accompany me.”
“And I was hoping to see R.C.B at Crittleden,” Helen wanted to scream at him, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen either.”
She spent a miserable Good Friday going to the three-hour service, praying for resignation and trying not to ask God to remind Rupert to ring.
On Saturday afternoon she went downstairs and, sitting on a hard-backed chair in the television room, tried to watch Crittleden, but had to wait until some Charlie Chaplin film had finished on the other channel before she could switch over. By this time the BBC had left Crittleden and gone over to some extremely noisy motor race. Seeing the pained expressions on the lady academics’ faces, Helen explained that a friend of hers was jumping at Crittleden, which should be on any minute.
At last they went over to the show ground. It was pouring with rain and it was not until the last five riders, none of them Rupert, had demolished the course, that the announcer told them that the winner was a German rider who had produced the only clear. An Irishman was second with four faults, and Rupert Campbell-Black for Great Britain was third with eight faults: Billy Lloyd-Foxe and three other riders had tied for fourth place with twelve faults apiece.
After the incessant rain, said the announcer, the Crittleden arena was like a quagmire and any rider who got round was to be congratulated. Through the downpour the German rider came into the ring, followed by the Irish rider in his holly green coat. Helen’s heart started thumping, her mouth went dry, as Rupert followed them on a huge chestnut. The black collar of his red coat was turned up, his white breeches splattered with mud.
As they lined up, a man in a tweed suit and a bowler hat came out holding an umbrella over an attractive, middle-aged blonde in a dark gray suit, who delicately picked her way through the mud. Another bowler-hatted man in a tweed suit followed them, carrying a huge silver cup and shielding a tray of rosettes from the rain under his coat.
“Here comes Lady Pringle, a fine horsewoman in her own right, to present the prizes,” said the announcer. Helen could see Rupert chatting and laughing with Billy and, as Lady Pringle reached him, he took off his hat and, bending down, kissed her on both cheeks.
“Lady Pringle and Rupert Campbell-Black are obviously old friends,” said the announcer as she handed him a lemon yellow rosette, “and she’s obviously delighted to have a British rider in the first three.”
“Isn’t that the young man who picked you up last Sunday?” said one of the female anthropologists, changing her spectacles to have a better look. But Helen had fled upstairs to sob her heart out on her bed. How could Rupert look so cheerful and carefree when she’d been going through such hell waiting for him to call?
“Lady Pringle, indeed,” she sobbed and, taking the photograph of Rupert which she’d surreptitiously cut out from one of Nigel’s Horse and Hounds out of her diary, she tore it into tiny pieces. He was nothing but a stud.
She was crying so hard, at first she didn’t hear the knock on the door.
“Telephone,” said a voice.
When she got downstairs it was Rupert.
“Angel, I’m sorry I haven’t rung before. I left your number at home and I’ve only just remembered the name of your coven. We’ve been up at the South Lancashire show and the lorry blew out on the way down, so we only arrived in time for the big class.”
“How did you get on?” asked Helen. She was damned if she was going to let him know she’d been watching.
“Not bad. I was third, Billy fourth. We had to unload the horses straight out of the lorry, and the going was terrible, nogs in front of every fence. Are you coming down?”
“I d-don’t know,” said Helen, thinking of her swollen eyes and lack of sleep. “I can’t tonight.”
“Come down tomorrow. I’d come and collect you, but I’ve got classes in the morning. Get a taxi.”
“But it’s miles,” said Helen, appalled thinking of all the money she’d squandered on the midi dress.
“It’s only an hour from London. I’ll pay,” said Rupert. “Come to the main entrance. I’ll leave the cash and a ticket with the man on the gate.”
Rupert’s estimate of the time it would take to drive down to Crittleden was very different from the taxi driver’s. No doubt he shifted that Porsche at a hundred and twenty miles an hour the moment he got on the motorway, thought Helen, as she nervously watched the fare jerk up and up. £25—£35! She was sure the driver wouldn’t take an American check and she couldn’t ring up her bank as it was Sunday. Scrabbling round in her purse she found only £1.30. Perhaps he’d accept her gold watch until she could find Rupert. Even worse, two miles from Crittleden they ran into a huge traffic jam. A glorious mild day had followed yesterday’s downpour. Every young green leaf and blade of new grass sparkled with raindrops and all the people who’d given the show a miss yesterday seemed to have decided to go today. For the thousandth time Helen checked her face in the mirror. Her hair had gone right, the suede dress brought out the amber of her eyes, but she still looked tired.
“Got him bad, ’ave you?” said the taxi driver as the third application of Miss Dior in ten minutes fought with the diesel fumes. She’d looked rich enough when she’d got into the car; that dress must have cost a packet, and Americans were rarely short of a few bob.
“Been to Crittleden before?”
Helen shook her head. “One of the show jumpers has invited me. You may have heard of him, Rupert Campbell-Black.”
“Rupert Campbell-Black,” said the driver. “I know Rupert, ’ad him in the cab, and his mate, Billy Lloyd-Foxe. ’E’s a lad, is Rupert. Did you see him at the ’orse of the Year Show in one of the novelty classes on the last day? Dressed up as Miss World, wiv coconuts in his dress. They fell out as he rode over the jumps, brought the ’ouse down. ’E’s a lad, is Rupert. I got ’is autograph for my missis; she’s mad about Rupert, she is.”
And Lady Pringle and Gabriella and Bianca too, thought Helen bleakly.
At last they reached the main gates.
Help, thought Helen in panic. There seemed to be half a dozen men in yellow coats on the gate.
The taxi driver had no such reserve. Winding down the window he shouted: “I’ve got a lidy here for Rupert.”
Immediately one of the yellow-coated men leapt forward and peered into the cab.
“Might ’ave guessed it,” he said with a gap-toothed grin. “Rupert certainly goes for lookers,” and getting a sheaf of tenners out of his pocket he handed them to Helen. “I think he’s given me most of his winnings yesterday. If you hang on quarter of an hour, mate, I’ll get you a fare back to London.”
After Helen had paid the taximan sixty pounds, which seemed an appalling amount of money, the man in the yellow coat took her off to find Rupert. It was so muddy she was thankful she’d worn boots.
“I’m a bit late,” she said.
“Not surprised in that traffic. Got a good crowd here today, although it looks like rain later.” He pointed to indigo clouds which were beginning to mass on the horizon above the pale acid green elm wood.
They found Rupert in the practice ring, cantering very slowly round on a magnificent bay gelding, totally oblivious of the crowd, mostly nubile teenagers, who were gazing at him.
The man in the yellow coat was about to call out when Helen stopped him. “I want to watch for a second,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
Rupert was wearing green cords tucked into gum boots, a dark blue quilted waistcoat over a dark blue jersey, and no hat.
“I told you he was lovely,” said a teenage girl eating an ice cream.
“I never thought he’d be that lovely,” said her friend.
“That’s his groom, Marion,” said the first girl, pointing to a sulky-looking blonde who was standing by the practice fence. “She was interviewed in Honey about what it’s like working for Rupert. She said he doesn’t get enough sleep.”
At a word from Rupert the sulky blonde, who was wearing a red T-shirt with “I only sleep with the best people” printed across her bosom, put up the pole to five foot. Rupert cleared it effortlessly.
“Wish I was the horse,” said the girl with rippling hair.
Helen had had enough.
“Rupert,” she called as he came past.
It was some comfort that he seemed so pleased to see her. Instantly sliding off the bay gelding and handing him to the sulky blonde, he ducked under the railings to join her. Immediately the autograph hunters surged forward.
“Bugger off,” snapped Rupert. “Can’t you see I’m busy?” and, putting his arm round Helen’s shoulders, he pushed impatiently through the crowd.
“How are you?” he said.
“Wonderful,” said Helen, suddenly realizing she was.
“You certainly look it,” he said, running his hand down her suede arm. “I adore that dress. It’s the same texture as Belgravia when he’s just been clipped, but I don’t like that bloody Alice band,” and, removing it from her hair, he tossed it into a nearby dustbin.
Helen gave a cry of protest and ran towards the bin to find the hairband nestling among the remains of hamburger buns and Kentucky fried chicken.
“That was my favorite hairband,” she said, outraged.
“And your last one,” said Rupert.
And he turned her round to face him, running his hands through her red mane so it fell tousled and shining over her forehead and round her face.
For a second she gazed at him mutinously, then she laughed.
“Christ,” said Rupert. “I’d forgotten how beautiful you were,” and drawing her towards him, he kissed her full on the mouth, in front of the crowds.
“We can’t here,” she said, pulling away, blushing furiously.
“We can absolutely anywhere,” said Rupert. “Come on, let’s go back to the caravan and have a drink.” He looked at his watch. “I’ve got a class in an hour and a half.”
On their way they passed the stables. Horses lolled their heads over the half-doors, gnawing at the wood, flattening their ears at each other and at passersby.
A crowd of people were hanging round one box stable. “That’s Belgravia,” said Rupert.
As he went towards the half-door the crowd dispersed to a respectful distance, but the horse rolled its eyes and took a threatening nip at Rupert’s sleeve.
“Ungrateful sod,” said Rupert, punching him gently on the neck. “He doesn’t like me; I mean hard work to him. You’d better be on form this afternoon.”
Leaving the horses, they walked through the mud up the hill to the caravan village in which the riders lived during the show. Rupert’s was easily the biggest caravan and the only one painted dark blue piped with emerald. In the window hung a string of rosettes.
“We had a good morning,” said Rupert.
Inside the caravan Badger thumped his tail joyfully and, wriggling up to Helen, goosed her briskly. On the table sat Billy Lloyd-Foxe. Mavis, the yellow mongrel, sat perched on his knee being fed pieces of Easter egg. On the bench seats sat a mousy-haired man with big ears and his mouth open, a fat man with short legs, and a pretty brunette with a notepad. They were all watching yesterday’s competition on the video machine. Billy’s horse was coming up to a big oxer and scattering poles.
“Freeze it,” said the fat man. “You went in too close, Billy.”
“Not enough impulsion,” said Rupert. “Got to jump an extra foot in mud like that. I wish you’d all stop cluttering up my caravan. This is Helen Macaulay.”
They all stared at her.
“This,” continued Rupert, “is my unstable companion Billy Lloyd-Foxe.”
Billy grinned. “Hi. I saw you across a crowded meet, but sadly Rupe got in first.”
“This is Joanna Battle from the Chronicle, who’s interviewing Billy,” said Rupert, introducing the dark girl, “and Humpty Hamilton.” The fat man nodded. “And this is Ivor Braine, singularly misnamed because he’s so thick.” The man with big ears opened his mouth even wider.
Rupert got down two glasses and another bottle.
“I wish you’d stop feeding that bloody dog my Easter egg. She’ll get spots.”
“And turn into a Dalmatian,” said Billy. Mavis was now lying on her back, with her legs apart, and her head on his shoulder. “Wish I had this effect on women,” he went on, smiling at Helen.
Once Helen had been given a drink they all ignored her and went back to watching the video, tearing everyone’s round to shreds, which gave her a chance to look at the caravan. It was extremely luxurious with an oven, a fridge, a washing machine, bench seats, a double bed that folded up completely, and a great deal of cupboard space.
At the end of the tape Rupert switched over to racing, picking up the paper in order to look at his horoscope.
“ ‘Good day for shopping,’ ” he read. “Perhaps I’d better buy that gray gelding. ‘Evening starred for romance.’ ” He grinned at Helen. “I should bloody well hope so.”
At that moment Marion walked in, still looking sulky. She was chewing gum, which gave her a particularly insolent air.
“Have you rung Ladbroke’s?” asked Rupert.
“I haven’t had time,” snapped Marion.
“Better buck up. You’ll miss the first race.”
“Put a fiver each way on Red Chaffinch,” said Billy.
“Come on, William,” said Joanna Battie, picking up her notebook. “This is going to be a bum interview. Isn’t there anyone, or anything, you dislike in show jumping?”
“You should have interviewed Rupert,” said Billy, undoing the purple paper from one of the chocolates inside the egg and giving it to Mavis.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with show jumping,” said Rupert, filling up Helen’s glass. “Why don’t the big shows provide the stabling free for the top riders? Cattle and sheep never have to pay a penny for accommodation. They ought to waive our entrance fees too, and pay us appearance money. Our names go on every press release. The crowds have come here to watch Billy, Humpty, Ivor, and mostly me.”
“You’re so modest,” said Joanna.
“And another thing,” said Rupert, warming to his subject, “French, German, and Irish riders get a grand every time they win abroad. We don’t get a bean. We’ll never smash the Kraut ascendancy until they start paying us decent money.”
“Do you agree with this, Billy?” asked Joanna.
“Well, I don’t feel as strongly as Rupert. Probably because I’m not a member of the British team.”
“And because you never worry about money,” snapped Rupert. “People who claim not to be interested in money are always bloody good at spending other people’s.”
“If you want to be a top show jumper,” said Billy, winking at Helen, “you don’t need to ride well, just be Olympic level at bellyaching.”
Marion came off the telephone to Ladbroke’s.
“You haven’t met Helen Macaulay, Marion,” said Rupert, a slight note of malice creeping into his voice.
“I’ve met her namesake,” said Marion sourly. “Arrived Friday morning; bitten me three times already.”
“My namesake?” asked Helen, bewildered.
“The black horse I bought at the barracks. He’s been showing Marion who’s boss. I decided to call him Macaulay.”
Helen blushed crimson. “Oh, how darling of you.”
“Are you going to make us something to eat?” said Rupert.
“Haven’t got time,” said Marion. “Class starts in three-quarters of an hour. I’ve got to help Tracey tack up Belgravia and The Bull. There’s smoked salmon in the fridge and brown bread in the bin,” and she flounced out of the caravan, slamming the door behind her.
“What a lovely nature that girl’s got,” Humpty said, getting up. “We’d better go, Ivor. Thanks for the drink.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Joanna. “You’ll want to get changed. I presume you’re all going to Grania Pringle’s party tonight. Okay then, I’ll have half an hour there with you, Billy. Good luck, both of you.”
“Do you want me to go out while you change?” asked Helen.
“As long as you don’t mind underpants,” said Rupert.
“I’ll make you some sandwiches.” She went to the fridge which was packed with an upmarket medley of pâté, smoked salmon, smoked turkey, and several bottles of champagne. She also noticed a great many empties already in the trash can.
“Bread’s in the bin on the right,” said Rupert. Lifting her hair, he planted a kiss on the back of her neck, then when she swung round, he kissed her on the mouth, his hands feeling for her breasts. Helen tried to leap away but she was rammed against the oven.
Rupert laughed and let her go. “Mustn’t raise my blood pressure too much before a class.”
As Helen spread unsalted butter on slices of bread and placed smoked salmon, red pepper, and a squirt of lemon on top, she allowed herself the brief fantasy of living with Rupert in the little caravan like a couple of gypsies, cooking him ingenious dinners on the stove each night, shutting out the rest of the horsey world except Billy. Billy, she decided, was really nice.
“How’s Nige?” asked Rupert.
“Very overadrenalized,” said Helen, cutting the crusts off the sandwiches, “and overly concerned that you’ve appropriated his address book and now have access to all the names and addresses of the saboteur underground.”
“The only name and add-ress I was after,” said Rupert, mimicking her accent again, “was yours. After that I threw the book into the Thames, so no doubt a lot of fishes are about to reveal the Antis’ darkest secrets in the Angling Times.”
Helen turned round with the plate of sandwiches to find Billy already dressed in breeches and shirt, tying his white tie, and Rupert wearing nothing at all. She nearly dropped the sandwiches on the floor. Shoving the plate down on the table, she turned back to tidy up and found herself putting the crusts in the fridge.
“Very good sandwiches,” said Rupert. “D’you want some, Billy?”
“No thanks,” said Billy, lighting a cigarette. “It never fails to amaze me how you can eat before a big class. I’m about to throw up last night’s dinner.”
“Nigel had two broken ribs, a black eye, and multiple bruises,” said Helen reprovingly.
“You ought to have brought me a color photograph,” said Rupert, who was pulling on his boots.
There was a bang on the door. It was Humpty Hamilton.
“We can walk the course in five minutes,” he said. “It looks a sod.”
“I’m definitely going to ask Lavinia Greenslade out tonight,” said Billy, shrugging into his red coat.
“You’ll have to take her parents along as well,” said Rupert, seizing a couple more sandwiches as they went out of the caravan.
Helen, as a result of three glasses of wine and no sandwiches, was feeling very unsteady. She was glad Rupert took a firm hold of her arm.
“Can you remember where I’m jumping?” he asked Billy.
“Fifteen,” said Billy, “I’ve got to wait until thirty. I’m last. Christ, look at that upright.”
They left Helen in the riders’ stand while they walked the course. She saw Joanna, the deadpan girl from the Chronicle, pointing her out to some of the other journalists who laughed and shrugged their shoulders. She wished she’d brought a coat; the suede dress wasn’t very warm.
She watched the riders splaying out over the emerald green arena. There were a few girls in black or very dark navy blue coats, several Irish riders in Army uniform or holly green, but the majority wore coats as red as an Armistice Day poppy. Some of them were pacing out the number of strides between jumps, like seconds in a duel, others put their hands up to rattle a pole to check how firm it was in the cup, others stood eyeing a turn or an angle, seeing how safe it was to cut a corner or come in sharply.
Several riders climbed up the famous Crittleden bank, like a turned-out avocado mousse, to examine the fence halfway across on the top. The jumps were absolutely colossal. Humpty Hamilton, looking stouter than ever in a quilted waistcoat, couldn’t even see over half of them.
And there was Billy, pulling on yet another cigarette, gloomily examining the water jump, while Mavis, thirsty from all that Easter egg, drank frantically, trying to lower the water level.
The indigo clouds had rolled away, leaving the softest pale blue sky above the acid green wood which had only a few sad gray streaks where the odd tree had died of Dutch elm disease. On the hill she could see the gleaming armadillo of parked cars and the caravan village.
Mostly her eyes were drawn to Rupert, who seemed to be spending more time ribbing his fellow competitors than studying the course. Unlike the others, he didn’t look bandy-legged or stout, or diminished by not being on a horse. All round the ring, crowds were gathering with binoculars. Helen reluctantly imagined every eye was on Rupert.
Two men in check suits and bowler hats, flushed from lunch, were going up into the judges’ box.
As the riders came out joking and laughing on the nervous high before a big class, the cameramen went in, most of them in jeans, gathering round the water jump. A large lady with a huge bust strode round the course with a tape measure, checking the height of each jump.
Tracey and Marion rode down to the collecting ring, one on the dark bay, Allenby, nicknamed The Bull, the other on the chestnut, Belgravia.
“God, I hate Rupe before big classes,” said Marion. “He’s so picky, checking and rechecking everything. Stop it, you monster,” she snapped, as Belgravia, oated up to the eyeballs, fidgeted and spooked at everything he passed, scattering the crowd with his huge feet and quarters.
“Seems on top of the world,” said Tracey.
“Wish I was,” said Marion gloomily. “You haven’t seen Rupe’s new girlfriend.”
“What’s she like?”
“Not really his type: redheaded, breedy-looking, quivering with nerves rather like Belgravia. I suppose he is mad about chestnuts and she’s mad about him, but trying desperately to hide it.”
“Sounds like all the rest,” said Tracey.
“Even worse, she’s called Macaulay.”
“Blimey,” said Tracey, leaning forward and giving the last bit of her Wimpy bun to The Bull. “He’s never done that before. Don’t worry, I expect she’ll go the way of all the others. He can’t be that smitten if he was fooling about with Grania Pringle last night.”
Helen was joined by Rupert, Billy, and Mavis in the riders’ stand.
“I wish you’d leave that dog behind, Billy,” said a steward fussily.
“She brings me luck.”
“Can’t see why she can’t bring you luck in your caravan.”
The first riders were crashing their horses over jumps in the practice ring under the oak trees. Members of the public leaned forward to pat their equine heroes as they passed in their colored rugs.
“What was the course like?” asked Helen.
“Bloody. You can park a double-decker bus between the parallel bars,” said Rupert. “There are only two and a half strides between the double, and the wall isn’t as solid as it looks. If you catch it on the way up, you’re in dead trouble.”
“Zee vater must be at least six meters,” said a German rider gloomily. Billy looked green and lit another cigarette.
A man in a felt hat, with long sideburns and a raffish face, stopped on the way to the commentary box. “Hello, boys,” he said in a carefully modulated put-on voice. “Are you going to show them how to do it again today, Rupert?”
“I might, if you don’t describe me as our most brilliant young rider as I come into the ring, in which case I’ll knock up a cricket score.”
The raffish man laughed. “I’d better get upstairs, we’re on the air in two minutes. How did the course walk?”
“Not very good. I don’t like banks in the high street or in a jumping ring, but it may ride better than it walks,” said Rupert.
Surely ride and walk aren’t transitive verbs, thought Helen. “Who’s that?” she asked as he moved on.
“Dudley Diplock — does all the commentaries. He’s a pratt, knows bugger-all about show jumping.”
Everything went quiet as the first rider came in — yesterday’s winner, Ludwig von Schellenberg on Brahms, a splendid horse, impeccably schooled.
“He’s the one to watch,” Billy told Helen. “He’s the best rider in the world, and was virtually unbeaten last season.”
“Kraut horses learn obedience the moment they come out of the womb,” said Rupert.
British spirits were not raised, however, when the mighty Ludwig had a most uncharacteristic twelve faults.
“Shows how bloody difficult the course must be,” said Rupert.
“We’ll all be up in the fifties,” said Billy.
“And here comes the despair of the pony club,” said Rupert, as Ludwig was followed by Humpty Hamilton on Porky Boy.
Humpty certainly rode in a very unorthodox fashion, pouter pigeon chest stuck out, hands held high, feet pointing down like a dancing master, showing a great patch of blue sky as he rose nearly a foot and a half out of the saddle over every fence. Nevertheless he acquitted himself well over the punishing course, and only had two fences down and a foot in the water for the same number of faults as Ludwig.
After that everyone went to pieces. Disastrous round followed disastrous round, slowing the proceedings up because the course had to be rebuilt every time.
Rupert got to his feet. “I’d better go and show them how to do it,” he said.
He kissed Helen on the cheek. “I won’t be long, darling.”
Without his red-hot presence beside her, Helen suddenly felt cold. A brisk wind was unfurling the flags and spreading out the horses’ tails. On television it had looked like a game for children with toy horses and toy fences. The camera had caught nothing of the colossal height of the jumps, the pounding hooves, the heroic splendor and sheer size of the horses thundering about like some Battle of Borodino. Suddenly Helen felt scared for Rupert.
“Aren’t you terrified?”
“Terrified,” said Billy, clutching Mavis for comfort and lighting another cigarette, “particularly as Malise Gordon has just arrived and parked himself below us.”
“One of the selectors and the new chef d’equipe. He manages the British team and goes abroad with them to keep them in order.”
“What’s he like?” said Helen, admiring the taut aquiline features, the high complexion, and the dark hair graying at the temples. “He looks kind of attractive.”
“Bit of a tartar, stickler for discipline, always has spats with Rupe — well, you can never exactly tell what Rupe’s going to do next. Going to bed sober, early, and alone has never been his strong point. Although I’m sure,” Billy added hastily, worried that he might have hurt Helen, “now he’s met you, he’ll mend his ways. Mind you, it’s getting to the stage when Rupe’s so good, Malise can’t afford to leave him out.”
Helen watched Rupert saunter across the concrete below them, then vault over the fence into the collecting ring. Goodness, he must be fit. He walked up to Marion and Belgravia, bending down to adjust the bandages on the horse’s front legs.
“Is he that good?” Helen longed to talk about him.
“Christ, yes. Doesn’t have any nerves, cool as an icicle before every class, and he’s so fast and he meets every fence just right. Knows what risks he can take too. And he’s got the killer instinct. Even in novice classes he’s always out to win.”
Ivor Braine was in the middle of a good round. The television man ran nimbly after him with the boom, recording the grunts and snorts of his horse.
“Sounds like a live sex show,” said Billy. “We always say it’s Ivor’s Dumbo ears that carry him round.”
Ivor was followed by a handsome Frenchman in a blue coat with a crimson collar, who proceeded to demolish the course. As he came thundering down to the water the horse jammed on its brakes and the Frenchman took a leisurely somersault through the air, landing with a huge splash.
“Il est tombé dans l’eau,” said Billy. “I know that’s going to happen to me and The Bull. Now they’ll have to rebuild the course and Belgravia won’t like the wait.”
In the collecting ring the horse was plunging round, eyes rolling, nostrils flaring, flecks of foam going everywhere.
A colossal cheer went up as Rupert erupted into the ring through the red brick arch. In the private boxes people came out onto the balconies to watch, clutching their gin and tonics. Helen was sure she could detect some Beatle-screaming. Belgravia stood still just long enough for Rupert to take his hat off, fidgeting and stamping to be allowed into action.
Humpty Hamilton sat down beside Helen.
“Belgravia looks completely over the top. Is it true, Billy, his half brother was second in the Grand National?”
Belgravia gave three colossal bucks. Rupert laughed and didn’t move in the saddle. As the Klaxon went off with its eldritch screech the horse bounded forward.
“Complete tearaway,” muttered Humpty. “Steerable, but not stoppable.”
That horse would benefit from some dressage, thought Malise Gordon disapprovingly. “If it weren’t for Rupert’s colossal strength, he’d be quite out of control.”
Over the brush sailed Belgravia, over the post and rails, over the rustic poles, driven on by Rupert’s erotic pelvic thrusts. When he came to the massive upright he flew over it as though it was a tiny log.
At the gate with Crittleden written across it in large red letters he came in too fast, slipped, just righted himself, and rapped the fence hard as he went over. For a second it swung back and forth, making Rupert’s fans gasp, Rupert didn’t even bother to glance round. With his long stride, Belgravia managed the double in three strides. Now he was rounding the corner. Next moment Helen saw Belgravia’s pricked ginger ears appearing over the top of the bank, then his lovely head with the white star, and then Rupert. They were on top, popping over the little fence, then tobogganing down the other side, Belgravia on his haunches. Only Rupert’s superhuman strength again stopped the horse running into the fence at the bottom. He was over; the crowd gave a cheer. Over the wall and the combination, which caused him no trouble. Then he kicked Belgravia into a gallop and sailed over the water, yanking him back to get him in line for the final triple.
“Too fast,” said Billy in anguish. “He’s going to hit it.”
Helen shut her eyes, listening to the thundering hooves, waiting for the sickening thud of falling poles and the groans of the crowd. Instead there was a mighty roar of applause. Helen opened her eyes.
“Ouch,” said Billy.
Looking down, Helen realized she’d been gripping his arm.
“I’m really sorry.”
“Be my guest. Brilliant round, wasn’t it?”
“Wonderful.” Helen watched a delighted Rupert letting his rein go slack and walking Belgravia out of the ring, slapping his lathered neck, pulling the ginger ears with joy. Belgravia’s coat, dark, bronzed, and shiny with sweat, looked like uncooked liver.
“That puts me in joint second, which means £500, but there are still fifteen to go,” said Humpty.
Helen noticed the arrogant way Rupert ignored the cheers. Sliding to the ground, he patted the horse once more and turned towards the riders’ stand. Stopped by admirers on the way, in an exultant mood, he was prepared to sign autographs.
“Once you get a clear, people realize it can be jumped and you’ll probably get a lot more,” said Billy. “If I watch any more rounds I’ll start getting the heeby-jeebies.”
He lit another cigarette. Mavis closed her slanting eyes to avoid the smoke.
“How long has your mount suffered from hydrophobia?” asked Helen.
“What?” Billy looked alarmed.
“Been frightened of water.”
“Oh, ever since I had him. I think he might have nearly drowned in some tiny river when he was a foal because it really scares him. Last week I managed to get him over a six-foot stream at home, but he trembled for ages afterwards. I just don’t know how he’ll go today. He’s such a good horse,” he went on, his face lighting up. “So kind, and such a trier, he’ll get himself into all sorts of trouble rather than duck out, and he’s so bright. Over and over I put him wrong and he just brakes at the last moment and sails over, and he’s so cheerful, never moody, and so gentle, a child could lead him up to London on a piece of string like a little dog.”
Helen smiled. “I think Mavis is getting jealous,” she said.
“Oh, Mavis knows she’s my favorite dog, and there goes my favorite girl,” said Billy, as a blonde with a pink and white complexion on a gray horse waited to go into the ring.
“Look at her bloody father telling her to give it a whack at the water, and her mother telling her not to. Poor girl’s in such a muddle. I could sort her out,” he said longingly. “Good luck, darling,” he called down. Lavinia looked up, waved her whip, and smiled. Her parents looked simply furious.
How nice he is, thought Helen, and he’s Rupert’s best friend. There couldn’t be much wrong with Rupert if he inspired friendship like this. In anguish, Billy watched poor Lavinia, after a nervous, tentative round, meet the same fate as the Frenchman, flying through the air into the water.
“At least she won’t have to wash her hair before she goes out with you this evening,” said an amused voice. It was Rupert. He was eating an ice cream.
“Congratulations,” said Helen.
“Bloody well done,” said Billy.
“That should wrap the whole thing up,” said Rupert, shooting a sideways glance at Billy. “Don’t imagine there’ll be any more clears.”
“Thanks a lot,” said Billy. “I’ve still got to jump. Oh, look at poor darling Lavinia coming out in tears.”
“She looks like a seal,” said Rupert. “She may just be dwipping water, not cwying. Lavinia,” he added to Helen, “can’t say her Rs.”
“It was a good round until she came to the water,” protested Billy.
“That girl couldn’t ride in a taxi with the door shut,” said Rupert. “They ought to pay her disappearance money.”
Billy got up. “Can you hold Mavis for me?” he asked Helen.
“Good luck,” said Rupert.
As he went downstairs the dog whined and strained after him.
“Shut up,” snapped Rupert. Mavis gave him a cold stare, then climbed onto Helen’s knees and settled down with a sigh of deep martyrdom.
Helen, though not wild about dogs, was grateful for the warmth. Seeing she was shivering, Rupert put his red coat round her shoulders. The heat still left from his body was like a caress. Riders kept returning to the stand, many of them on twelve faults. Everyone congratulated Rupert. He was in tearing spirits until Malise Gordon came over and sat down on his other side. Rupert was about to introduce Helen when Malise said, “Not a bad round, but a bit hit and miss.”
Rupert’s lips tightened, his face suddenly expressionless.
“Belgravia could do with a lot more work on the flat,” went on Malise, “and a lot less corn.”
“He never felt in any danger to me,” said Rupert coldly.
“You were very lucky at the gate, and at the rail after the bank, and you came in much too fast at the triple. That’s a good horse, but you won’t get him out of trouble every time.”
Rupert stared stonily ahead.
“We ought to be thinking of him in terms of the Olympics or the World Championships,” said Malise in a slightly more conciliatory tone.
“Belgravia’d be the ideal horse,” said Rupert, relenting slightly, too. “In the World Championship,” he explained to Helen, “the four finalists have to jump each other’s horses. Belgravia’s such a sod, no one would have a hope on him.”
“Hardly cricket,” said Malise.
“ ’Course it isn’t,” said Rupert insolently. “I thought we were talking about show jumping.”
“By the way,” asked Malise, “have you come across a rider called Jake Lovell? He’s been jumping on the northern circuit. I think he’s very good.”
Rupert paused for a second. “No. Is he good enough to make the British team?”
“He will be in a year or two.”
“You’d do much better with Billy,” said Rupert quickly.
“Billy has yet to convince me he has the killer instinct,” said Malise, standing up. “I’ll probably see you at Grania’s.”
Helen could see exactly why he and Rupert struck sparks off each other.
Down in the collecting ring Billy went up to Lavinia Greenslade and commiserated with her.
“Same thing’s bound to happen to me,” he said. He was just about to ask her out when her mother came up. “Wish you wouldn’t call out to Lavinia just as she’s going into the ring,” she snapped. “Completely put her off her stroke.”
“Sorry,” muttered Billy.
Winking at Lavinia, he walked over to The Bull, who whickered with joy and stuck his nose inside Billy’s coat. Built like an oak tree with a vast girth, short, wide-apart well-shaped legs, and surprisingly small feet, it was the wide forehead and rather small eyes that made him look like a bull. The wide blaze down his forehead gave him an added appearance of placid contentment.
“How is he?” he asked Tracey.
“Gorgeous,” said Tracey. “Always is. Didn’t Rupert jump champion?”
Billy rode off, trying to control his nerves. Rupert had been so cockahoop, he felt needled into producing something better. Other riders, having finished jumping, were all too ready to offer him advice. But it was no good listening to other people at this stage; he’d only get muddled. Over the years he’d schooled himself to tackle the problem by himself. In the ring you were on your own.
The German number two rider, Hans Schmidt, came out. An Irish rider was next, then Billy.
“How did you get on?” he asked Hans.
“Von stop at zee vater,” said the German despondently, “and zee gate and zee wall down, puts me in second place viz Ludvig and Humpty.”
“Bloody good,” said Billy.
“Zee Bull looks vell, put on a lot of condition.”
“Thanks,” said Billy.
The collecting ring steward called his number. Good lucks came from all round. Billy was very popular.
As he waited for the Irishman to come out, a little girl bent over and stroked The Bull’s nose.
“Good luck, Bull,” she said shyly.
Billy smiled and thanked her, wishing the butterflies in his stomach would go away. He couldn’t even remember which fence to jump first. The Bull, however, showed no such fears, striding out briskly, ears pricked, tail up, merry eyes sparkling, taking everything in.
“Take your hat off, Billy,” whispered a ring steward.
The crowd roared with laughter as Billy started and hastily whipped off his hat, damp curls sticking to his forehead. Malise stopped talking to Grania Pringle in the president’s box.
“I want to watch this round,” he said. “Must say The Bull looks marvelous.”
“More than can be said for Billy,” said Grania. “He’s pea green.”
“Take it slowly,” Billy told himself over and over again. If you can go clear, even with time faults, you’ll be second. “You’re the best, you’re the best,” he whispered to The Bull as he leaned forward and started cantering as the Klaxon went.
The Bull bucketed over the first three fences, giving huge scary leaps with inches to spare, then he settled down, trundling merrily along, little legs going like pistons, meeting everything just right.
“God, that horse has improved,” said Malise, as he flew over the double. “Billy’s really been working on him.”
Helen held her breath as The Bull scrambled up the bank which, after much use, was extremely slippery. On the top Billy steadied him. Just for a second The Bull looked dubious. The crowd crossed their fingers in case he stepped back, which would have constituted a stop, costing Billy three faults, but he popped over, tobogganed down the other side, and took a huge jump out over the tiny rail, snorting with disapproval, ears flat, tail swishing.
“Didn’t enjoy that,” laughed Humpty. “Look at his old tail going. Who did you say his dam was, Rupert?”
“Probably a cow,” said Rupert.
The combination, three good solid fences, held no fears for The Bull.
“He’s faster than you,” said Humpty with some satisfaction.
“I know,” said Rupert coldly.
Now it was only the water, and the final triple. Turning The Bull, Billy thundered down, his red coat like a spot of blood against the dappled crowd.
“Come on, Billy,” howled Rupert.
Ahead Billy saw the water glinting as wide and as blue as the Serpentine. On each side huddled the photographers, waiting for the third ducking.
“Go on, go on,” Billy whispered, “you’re a star, you can do it, we can do it.”
He felt The Bull tense. He’s probably thinking it’s twenty feet deep, thought Billy. Just for a second the horse hesitated. Then suddenly he seemed to relax and put his trust in Billy.
“If you think it’s okay,” he seemed to say, “let’s give it a whirl.” People who were close swear to this day that The Bull closed his eyes. Standing back, he took a mighty leap off his hocks, soaring about six feet in the air, and landed three feet beyond the tape on the other side. People claim it was the longest jump they had ever seen. As he landed, the ring erupted in a bellow of cheers: “Go on, Billy, you can do it, go on.”
He had only the triple to jump and that had caused no problems to anyone. But to the crowd’s amazement, Billy suddenly pulled The Bull up, hugging him, patting him, running his hand up and down his mane, and telling him what a king he was.
“You’ve got one more fence to jump,” yelled the photographers.
“You’ve missed the last fence. Go back. You’ve still got time,” shouted the ring steward who’d reminded him to take his hat off.
“I know,” said Billy, and, raising his whip to the judges to show he was retiring, he cantered slowly out of the ring in front of the stunned crowd.
Rupert met him in the collecting ring, absolutely white with rage.
“Bloody maniac, what the fuck are you playing at? You’ve just chucked away £1,000 or £750. It was only you and me in the jump-off.”
“I know,” said Billy, “but he was so frightened, and he jumped the water so bravely, I thought I’d call it a day, so he could remember how good he’d been.”
Rupert looked at him incredulously. “You must be crazy.”
Billy slid off The Bull, burying his face in the brown shiny shoulder, hugging him, patting his chest.
“Good boy, clever boy.”
Rupert suddenly realized Billy’s eyes were filled with tears. Tracey rushed up and, removing the rug which she’d been wearing round her shoulders for warmth, put it over The Bull.
“What happened?” she said in concern. “Did he hurt himself?”
Billy shook his head.
“No,” he said in a choked voice, undoing a packet of Polos, all of which he gave to The Bull. “I was so pleased with him, winning didn’t seem to matter anymore.”
Rupert sighed. “I’m afraid Malise Gordon will feel differently,” he said. “I hope you realize you’ve blown your chances of going to Rome.”
He put an arm round Billy’s shoulders. “All the same, it was a bloody good round. You were up on the clock on me.”
Marion came up with Belgravia. “They want you in the ring, Rupert.”
As Rupert rode off to collect his first prize, Billy turned to Tracey.
“I’m sorry,” he said humbly. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have done it.”
“ ’Course you should. He’s got years ahead. Look how pleased he is.”
The next minute they went slap into Malise, who took Billy and The Bull aside.
“That was a bloody silly thing to do,” he said.
Billy hung his head.
“I’m sorry, but it’s the first time he’s ever jumped water and it was such a tremendous jump.”
“Well, don’t do it again.” Malise patted The Bull. “I must say he looks terrific. So don’t get carried away and overjump him in the next three weeks. I’ll certainly be needing him for Rome, if not for Madrid.”
Billy looked up incredulously.
“What did you say?”
“Don’t go blathering it around to everyone, but I’d like you to bring him to Rome.” He gave The Bull another pat and stalked off.
“Whatever did he say to you?” said Tracey. Then, seeing there were tears in Billy’s eyes again, “Did he bawl you out?”
“No, yes, no, I don’t know,” said Billy in a dazed voice. “I think I’ll ride The Bull back to the stable myself.”
After winning a major competition, Rupert was usually in a manic mood. But today he felt that Billy had somehow stolen his thunder. Malise Gordon’s remarks had niggled him. He resented the implication that Belgravia’s win had been a matter of luck. If Billy hadn’t pulled The Bull up in that stupid fashion, Rupert would have been able to prove Malise wrong by trouncing Billy in the jump-off against the clock. Anyway, he’d like to see Malise or anyone else controlling Belgravia. And all that fuss about dressage, it was no more than bloody Come Dancing.
He was further irritated that Billy, despite having chucked away £750 prize money without a thought, was behaving as though Malise had kissed him under the mistletoe. Rupert loved Billy, but he was constantly irked by Billy’s hazy assumption that the Lord or Rupert Campbell-Black would provide. Like many generous people, Rupert liked to have the monopoly of the expansive gesture. Billy’s £750 could have gone a long way towards repainting the yard. It never occurred to Rupert that Billy might have beaten him.
After the competition, the heavens opened and journalists and other riders crowded into Rupert’s caravan to get out of the rain. But after drinking Rupert’s health in Rupert’s champagne out of the huge silver cup he had just won, they were far more interested in talking about The Bull’s amazing jump and Billy’s retirement. Rupert loved Billy, but he did not like playing second fiddle. He might have been indifferent to public adulation, but he liked it to be there, so he could be indifferent to it.
Leaving them all gassing together, he took half a bottle of champagne into the shower. As the drumming of raindrops on the caravan roof drowned the noise of the hot water, he was gripped by the lust that always overwhelmed him after a big class. Normally he would have screwed Marion in the back of the horse box, but he doubted if she would oblige with a quickie with Helen around. Anyway, he didn’t want Marion; he was amazed by his violent craving for Helen. He must get her into bed soon. Only that could restore his amour propre and remove the ache from his loins. He’d already told Billy to find somewhere else to shack up for the night as he needed the caravan for Helen and himself. But, although he knew she was hooked on him, he was by no means sure she was going to be a pushover. He’d have to make her jealous. He knew Grania Pringle would oblige.
Helen, in fact, was feeling absolutely miserable. She knew Rupert was busy, that this was his world, but he had this ability to be all over her one moment and virtually oblivious of her the next. Since he’d won the cup, he’d been completely withdrawn. And now all these people were guzzling his drink, talking shop, and ignoring her. Only the German, Hans Schmidt, who had rather mad arctic blue eyes, had made any attempt to chat her up.
But he hadn’t seen any of the German movies she so admired and when she got him on to writers it was even worse.
“I just adore Brecht,” she said with enthusiasm.
“I too am a great admirer of breasts,” said Hans, brightening perceptibly and gazing at her bosom.
“No, Brecht, the writer.”
“Ya, ya,” said Hans. “Small breasts, big breasts, it’s quite all right viz me for zee ladies to like other ladies’ breasts.”
Helen went pink and hastily started talking about Gunther Grass. She thought she was making progress. The German seemed most interested until he suddenly said, “Vot is zis grass? Is it some kind of hay which Rupert feed his horses?”
So she gave up and he turned back to Humpty Hamilton, who was having an argument with the man from the Daily Telegraph about dust allergy.
Billy still being interviewed by Joanna Battie from the Chronicle, who was showing all the intensity of someone who realizes they’ve stumbled on a really good story, could do little more than smile apologetically and shove the bottle in Helen’s direction from time to time.
Unaware of the taciturnity and habitual suspicion towards outsiders of all show-jumping people, Helen felt she must have lost her sex appeal. Nor did she realize they were too wary of Rupert to chat up one of his girlfriends.
She longed to be able to shower and change before Lady Pringle’s party. She’d never met a member of the British aristocracy before and wondered if she ought to curtsey, and how she should address her. Her mother always emphasized the importance of using people’s names when you talked to them. Was it milady, or your grace, or what? She’d liked to have asked Joanna or Marion, who had just returned exhausted from settling the horses, but they both looked at her with such hostility. To hell with them all, she thought, helping herself to another drink. I am a writer, I must observe life and listen to British dialogue.
One of the journalists was ringing his newspaper on Rupert’s telephone.
“I’m sure he was half brother to Arctic Prince,” said Humpty.
“He was own brother,” said Ivor sullenly.
“Own brother. I ought to know, I rode the horse.”
“I must use the telephone next to ring my news desk,” said the man from the Telegraph.
At this moment Rupert came out of the shower, a dark blue towel round his hips, blond hair dark and otter sleek. Helen felt her stomach give way.
“I want to change, so would you all fuck off?” he said coldly.
“Don’t mind us,” said Humpty. “You never have before. Wasn’t Polar Pete half brother to Arctic Prince?”
“I don’t care. Get out—all of you. And get off my telephone, Malcolm.”
He ripped the telephone wire out of its socket.
“I was on to the news desk, singing your praises,” said Malcolm indignantly.
“I don’t care. Beat it.”
Grumbling, they all dispersed into the sheeting rain, running with their coats over their heads, until only Billy and Helen were left. Rupert replugged the telephone. It rang immediately. At a nod from Rupert, Billy picked it up. Rupert came over and kissed Helen. He tasted of toothpaste and smelt faintly of eau de cologne. In the safety of Billy’s chaperonage, she allowed herself to melt against him, kissing him back until she could hardly stand. Rupert put a hand on her breast.
“I can feel your heart,” he said softly, “and it sure is racing.”
“Ahem,” said Billy. “Sorry to interrupt, but it’s Dick Brandon. He wants to drop in for a drink.”
“Hell! Oh, all right, tell him to come over. Go and have a shower, darling, the water’s baking.”
“Will it be very fancy tonight?”
“Shall I wear pants?”
Rupert’s eyes gleamed. That was getting somewhere. “Certainly not,” he said.
Helen was relieved to find that the shower, unlike the showers at Regina House, gushed out constant hot water. But there was no lock on the door and Helen imagined Rupert barging in, so she showered with frantic haste. She put on a black silk jersey dress with a discreetly low back and pale gray tights which stuck to her legs because they were still wet.
Outside, she found that the double bed had been let down from the wall. Joining the two bench seats, it formed a huge area. On top of the dark blue duvet lounged Rupert, wearing a striped shirt and gray trousers. Perching on the edge of the bed were Billy and a man in a light check suit with an expansive red-veined face, bags under his eyes, and blond hair going gray. They were three-quarters of the way down another bottle of champagne. Rupert’s eyes were beginning to glitter slightly.
“Well, if the horse is so bloody good, I can’t see why you’re selling her,” said Brandon.
“She’s not quite up to my weight and she’s too sensitive for me. You know what I feel about mares.”
Suddenly they all noticed Helen standing there, white skin flushed from the shower, brilliant red hair falling over her forehead, the perfect contrast to the black dress. The man in the check suit whistled.
“Oh boy,” he said. “Come here, sweetheart.”
As she came towards him, he ran his hand down her pearly gray stockinged leg as if she were a horse.
“Now this I’m really prepared to offer for.”
Rupert laughed and, reaching out for Helen, pulled her down beside him, offering her his glass to drink out of. Then he ruffled her hair, gazing into the huge shy bruised eyes.
“I’m afraid this one’s definitely not for sale, Dick,” he said.
Christ, Rupe is a lucky sod, thought Billy. She gets more stunning by the minute.
Another bottle of champagne was consumed and the rain had stopped before they set out for Grania Pringle’s party. The setting sun was firing the puddles and bathing the dripping trees with a soft pink light.
Rupert and Billy, both already slightly tight and in raging spirits, walked on either side of Helen, putting their inside arms through hers and lifting her over the muddier ground.
“Where my caravan has rested, Flowers I leave you on the grass,” caroled Billy in a quavering baritone as they walked past the caravan village. Mavis ran on ahead, picking up her blond feet like a hackney pony, delicately tiptoeing along the runnels of the puddles.
On the way they stopped to check the horses, who were dozing in nine inches of wood shavings. The Bull was looking out of his box and Mavis scampered up and licked him on the nose. Helen couldn’t help noticing how both The Bull and Kitchener whickered with pleasure to see Billy, nudging at his pockets for Polos, but both Belgravia and Mayfair and the younger novice horses flattened their ears and backed off as Rupert approached.
“Got to show them who’s boss,” said Rupert lightly, but, adding that it was getting chilly, he put an extra rug on Belgravia.
“Don’t forget the antifreeze,” said Billy, and promptly burst into song again. Then he said, “I’m going to make the most enormous play for Lavinia Greenslade tonight.”
“Wavish her in the whododendwons,” said Rupert. “Like hell you will. I’ll give you a tenner if you get to first base.”
The Pringles lived in a large Georgian house behind the Crittleden elm wood, looking over a lake and a cherry orchard whose white blossom was now tinged almond pink by the last rays of the sun.
Helen gave a gasp of pleasure.
“ ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,’ ” she gushed expansively, “ ‘is hung with bloom along the bough.’ ”
“Hung with bloomers,” said Rupert, deliberately mishearing her. “Sounds just like Nanny. What were those bloody great things she insisted on wearing winter and summer?”
“Directoire knickers,” said Billy.
“That’s right. When she hung them on the line on washday we always thought they’d carry the house away like an air balloon.”
They both collapsed with laughter.
In order not to be a spoilsport, Helen tried to join in.
From the noise issuing from the front door the party was obviously well under way. As Helen changed out of mud-spattered boots into black high-heeled shoes, a handsome blonde, scent rising like incense from the cleavage of her splendid bosom, came out to welcome them.
“Rupert, darling, how lovely to see you.”
She gathered him into a braceleted embrace. Over his shoulder her sootily mascaraed eyes appraised the rest of them, affording Helen and Mavis about the same amount of enthusiasm.
That’s Grania Pringle, thought Helen. Close up she didn’t look very ladylike.
“Must you bring that creature in here?” she said to Billy.
“Love me, love my dog,” said Billy unrepentantly. “Sorry, Grania, but she howls the caravan down if I leave her behind.”
“Well, I don’t have any difficulty loving you, but I do draw the line at Mavis.”
“You haven’t met Helen Macaulay,” said Rupert, extracting himself from her clutches. “She comes from Florida, where tomatoes, she informs me, are their tertiary industry.”
“Tomatoes,” said Lady Pringle. “How extraordinary. Your mother gave me a marvelous recipe for tomato provençale last time I saw her, Rupe. We all stank of garlic for weeks afterwards, but it was simply delicious.” She turned back to Helen. “Are you a horsey gel?”
“No, thank God,” said Rupert, “she works in publishing. And she’s absolutely fed up with Humpty Hamilton and Ivor Braine and Billy gassing about bloodlines all afternoon. Have you invited any intellectuals for her to talk to?”
“Only Malise Gordon,” said Grania. “He writes books, frightfully clever chap, you must meet him. But he’s rather hemmed in by Lavinia Greenslade’s parents, who are twying to persuade him to take Lavinia to Wome.”
“Must be mad,” said Rupert. “She couldn’t even stay on the wocking horse at Hawwods.”
“Shut up,” said Billy, grinning.
“Billy’s rather a fan of Lavinia’s,” explained Rupert. “He’s longing to wape her.”
“And Lavinia’s Daddy will be so cwoss, he’ll come and wun me over in his Wolls-Woyce,” said Billy.
Grania screamed with laughter. She was already beginning to get seriously on Helen’s nerves.
“You boys are awful. Come and have a drink.”
“If Greenslade mère and père are bending Malise’s ear, that means Lavinia must be unchaperoned for a second and I’m off,” said Billy, and vanished into the crowd in the next room.
“I’m afraid I’ve hidden the whisky, Rupert,” said Grania. “You know what pigs this lot are, but you’ll find some in the decanter in the library and there’s another bottle in the kitchen cupboard.”
Whisky, however, was only for Rupert. Helen had to make do with a glass of very indifferent sparkling wine. The next moment Grania had swept her away from Rupert and thrust her into a loudly arguing group consisting of several show jumpers and Joanna Battie.
“Now then, Joanna,” said Grania briskly, “you can’t monopolize all these delicious chaps. This is Helen Macaulay, boys; she’s frightfully clever and works for a publisher in London. Now I know all you show jumpers are writing your autobiographies, so why don’t you get her to publish yours? Come along, Rupert, my sister’s dying to meet you.”
And off she swept, leaving Helen scarlet with embarrassment. “Hi, again,” she mumbled to Joanna. “Are you all writing books?” she asked the ring of men.
“Too busy keeping them,” said a man with brushed-forward hair and a pale, pinched, disapproving face who was drinking tomato juice. “Joanna’s the writer round here, aren’t you, Joe? Except she gets it all wrong.”
“Never met a journalist who got anything right,” grumbled Humpty Hamilton. “Last week the Telegraph said Porky Boy was out of Sally in Our Alley. I mean, everyone knows Windsor Lass was his dam.”
“Oh, shut up, Humpty,” snapped the man with brushed-forward hair. “You told us that yesterday.”
“You should come off the wagon, Driffield,” said Humpty. “It’s making you very bad-tempered.”
“I’ve lost twelve pounds, which is more than I can say for you, Humpty. You look five months gone in that sweater.”
“How much d’you reckon Rupert weighs?” said Ivor Braine, who was gazing at Helen with his mouth open.
“Helen should know,” said Joanna acidly.
“About twelve stone, I should think,” said Humpty.
“And eleven stone of that is pieces of paper with girls’ phone numbers on,” said Joanna.
Helen flushed. She hated Joanna, and her flat little voice, and hair drawn back from her forehead. She was more deadpan even than the show jumpers.
“How long have you been reducing for?” she asked Driffield.
“About a month.”
“You must have terrific control.”
“No!” he cut right across her, “that’s wrong, Humpty, he went clear.”
“No, he didn’t, he had four faults, and he was at least a quarter of a second slower than Rupert against the clock.”
Helen gritted her teeth. Across the room, as the horsey chat ebbed and flowed endlessly round her, she could see Rupert talking to Dick Brandon, hemmed in by women, all braying like Grania. Every few minutes, she noticed, Grania fed in another one and saw to it that Rupert’s glass of whisky was constantly topped up. Every so often he looked across and mouthed “All right?” to Helen and pride made her nod back.
She was certain Grania had deliberately thrust her into a group of small men. She topped all of them in her high heels. Separated from Rupert, she wanted him to be able to see her as the center of attention, being madly chatted up, but among this lot she felt about as attractive as a spayed Great Dane among a lot of Jack Russells. She bent her legs slightly.
Now they were discussing who’d bought what horses during the winter and which looked as though they were going to be the most promising novices. Hans Schmidt, wearing slightly too fitted and too bright blue a blazer, came up, clicked his heels, and kissed Helen’s hand.
“Ha, Mees Helen of Troy,” he said.
Helen turned to him gratefully, but next minute he was caught up with the others, discussing some potentially unbeatable Hanoverian mare.
Over in the corner Billy was hanging over the back of an armchair shared by Mavis and Lavinia Greenslade. After her dunking in the water she’d rewashed and curled her hair. A belted peacock blue dress showed off her tiny waist. Her small hand rested on Mavis’s head. Billy and she’ll have very curly-haired children, thought Helen. She wished Rupert would look after her like that. She must pull herself together and try and be more extrovert.
The group had moved on to discussing the best routes to take to the next show, which was in the West Country.
“The A40’s much quicker,” said Humpty Hamilton.
Suddenly they were joined by an amazing woman of about sixty. Squat, with a discernible black mustache on her upper lip, she was wearing a hairnet, a red flannel nightgown, bedroom slippers, and looked, thought Helen, not unlike President Nixon in drag.
“Hello, boys,” she said in her deep voice. “If we don’t get something to eat soon, you’ll have to carry me home.” She was just about to move on when she caught sight of Helen, gave her the most enthusiastic eye-meet she’d received all evening, and joined the group.
“Who’s that?” whispered Helen, holding out her glass to a passing waitress.
“Monica Carlton,” whispered Humpty. “Law unto herself, breeds Welsh cobs, always comes to parties in her nightgown, then can get absolutely plastered and doesn’t have the hassle of undressing when she gets back to her caravan.”
“While that waitress is here, she might as well fill me up too,” said Miss Carlton, thrusting her glass at Humpty. “You look familiar,” she added to Joanna Battie.
“We met at Olympia last Christmas,” said Joanna. “I write for the Chronicle.”
“Dreadful rag,” boomed Miss Carlton, retrieving her full glass. “Still, it comes in useful for wiping up puppies’ widdle.”
Helen giggled. Scenting enthusiasm, Miss Carlton turned towards her. “You’re a lovely little thing,” she went on. “We certainly haven’t met. I’d have remembered you.” She looked Helen up and down approvingly. “Don’t belong to any of these boring little farts, do you? Might have guessed it; too good for any of them.”
“I resent that,” said Humpty. “The amount of times I’ve given you a fireman’s lift home after parties, Monica.”
“Well, perhaps you’re better than some. Now, where are you from, my beauty?” she said, turning her full attention on Helen. “Are you going to be here tomorrow?”
“I don’t know,” stammered Helen.
“Well, if you are, I’ll take you for a spin round the countryside in my trap. You’d enjoy that. My two chaps travel at a spanking pace.”
And she was off, describing the merits of her two cobs who, it seemed, had won prizes at every show in England. As she talked, her eyes wandered over Helen’s body and the hand not clutching a glass squeezed Helen’s waist on every possible opportunity. Around them, Helen was vaguely aware of all the show jumpers creasing themselves with laughter. None of them was prepared to rescue her.
“Everyone all right?” It was Grania flitting past.
“Just admiring your antiques,” called out Helen desperately. “I’m a real Chippendale freak.”
“Oh, you Americans are always mad about old things; you must meet my husband. I see you’ve already met naughty Monica.” She patted Miss Carlton’s bristly cheek. “Grub’s up downstairs, by the way.”
“Thank God for that,” said Humpty. “I’m starving. Come on, everyone.”
Rupert caught up with her just as she was entering the dining room. “All right, darling? Sorry to neglect you; I’m in the process of selling a horse.”
“I’m fine,” said Helen, hardly able to trust herself to speak. “Just fine.”
“You must be starving. I’ll get you a plate.”
But the next moment he’d been lassooed by a large woman in red, asking him what had happened to some horse she’d sold him last year. Next minute the crowds had closed around him. Turning around, Helen saw Miss Carlton bearing down on her with two huge plates of chicken and rice. “Coo-ee,” she shouted.
Desperately, Helen fled in the other direction where she could see Billy and Mavis and Lavinia sharing another armchair. She’d just have to play gooseberry.
“Please,” she rushed up to them, “can I talk with you? Rupert’s with some woman, and Miss Carlton’s on the warpath.”
“Of course.” Billy got to this feet. “You haven’t met Lavinia, have you? Are you having an awful party?”
“I haven’t seen much of Rupert,” she said, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
“I know. I’m sorry. He’s still haggling with Dick Brandon and it’s the first real show of the season. No one’s seen each other all together for ages, if you know what I mean. They’ve got a lot to catch up on.”
“Oh, Billy, darling,” said Lavinia, “I’ve forgotten to put any Fwench dwessing on my lettuce. Can you get me some, and do see if there’s any more of that delicious garlic bwead.”
For a second Helen’s eyes met Billy’s, but both of them managed not to giggle.
“Well, if Monica comes up, you must protect Helen.”
“He’s weally nice, isn’t he?” said Lavinia dreamily. “Mummy doesn’t approve because he’s such a fwiend of Wupert’s. Not but what Wupert isn’t very attwactive,” she added hastily, “but Mummy thinks Wupert leads Billy astway. Is this your first date with him?”
“No,” said Helen, finding herself chewing and chewing on the same piece of chicken, “my second.”
“Goodness,” said Lavinia, her china blue eyes widening, “that must be a wecord.”
Billy came back and they were joined by Humpty and Ivor Braine with a bottle of red.
“I say, Helen,” said Humpty, going rather pink, “you certainly made a hit with Monica.”
“Oh dear,” said Helen, blushing.
“Thinks you’re the prettiest filly she’s seen in years,” said Ivor and roared with laughter. “Going to take you in her trap tomorrow, she says.”
“Well, don’t get twapped in her twap,” said Lavinia. “She chased me round the tackwoom once.”
“Better watch out. She breeds her own Welsh cobs; they say she doesn’t even need a stallion,” said Billy.
“Well at least she’s better than Driffield,” grumbled Ivor. “Since he’s given up booze he’s got so bad-tempered.”
“The big fairy,” said Humpty. “Let’s chuck him in the lake after dinner.”
Next moment Hans joined them carrying a plate of trifle.
“Mind my dog,” said Billy, as the German prepared to sit heavily on the sleeping Mavis.
Hans rolled his eyes in the air. “Always zee same, zee English, zee dog sleep in zee chair or zee bed, zee husband sleep on the floor. You are American, Fraulein Helen. Are zey not crazy people? Why not come back to Germany wiz me?”
“I say, Hans off,” said Humpty. “You’ll have to fight a duel with Monica.”
“You might also have Rupert to contend with,” said Billy, giving Mavis the rest of his chicken.
“No, Rupert is no problem. I can beat him any day of zee week, how do you say it, against zee cock? But Monica, she is different proposition, she is Superman. If Monica stake a claim, I can only love you from afar.”
Helen felt suddenly happy. She hadn’t been a flop after all. In their clumsy way they were paying her attention, accepting her, ragging her as they ragged each other.
“Oh blast,” said Lavinia, “here come Mummy and Daddy. They’ve been talking to Malise an awfully long time. Talk to me like mad, Helen. And, Billy, you turn away and talk like mad to Humpty and Hans and Geoff. Then perhaps they won’t suspect anything. Where did you get that lovely dwess, Helen?”
“Bus Stop,” said Helen. “My mother doesn’t really approve of me wearing black.”
“Nor mine,” said Lavinia. “If you’re here tomowwow you must come and have a cup of tea in our cawavan. It’s not gwand like Wupert’s.”
Once again, Helen felt overwhelmed with pleasure, particularly when Driffield suddenly brought her a plate of fruit salad.
“This moment must go down in history,” said Humpty. “It is the first time Driffield has ever done anything for anyone else in his life. Where’s Joanna? She must put it in the Chronicle.”
“Are you feeling all right, Driffield?” said Billy.
“He’s dwunk too much tomato juice,” said Lavinia.
Driffield went scarlet and looked irritated and pleased at the same time. They were all laughing. Then Helen looked across the room and her happiness evaporated. There was Rupert standing by the sofa signing autographs for some girl and still talking to Dick Brandon, who was sitting down. Beside Brandon sat Grania talking to another woman. Helen watched frozen as she saw Grania slide her hand up and down the inside of Rupert’s thigh, those beautiful brown muscular thighs she’d seen earlier. Rupert did not move. Grania carried on. Leaping to her feet and spilling the fruit salad mostly over the carpet and Mavis, Helen fled from the room.
“Darling!” yelled Rupert as she passed. He caught up with her in the hall.
“Where are you off to?” Then, seeing her stricken face, “What’s the matter?” and, taking her hand, he pulled her into a nearby room which turned out to be an office with desks and ledgers and a calendar of spiky-legged racehorses on the wall.
Rupert leant against the door.
“Now, what’s the matter? I thought you were having a good time.”
Helen backed away until she found herself sitting in a wire basket.
“I’m fed up with all these people treating you like public property,” she said.
Rupert shrugged. “Come back to the caravan now and I promise you my undivided attention until morning.”
“Like hell! In five minutes someone’ll be banging on the door trying to sell you a horse, or asking for your autograph for their great aunt.”
Rupert laughed. “Temper, temper. I’m sorry about all these people.”
“It was positively obscene, all those women hanging round you like wasps round a molasses tin.”
Rupert felt a surge of triumph. It had worked. She really was jealous.
“I’m fed up with them all. Gabriella, and Bianca, and that obnoxious Joanna,” she emphasized all the “a’s, “and Marion looking daggers at me all afternoon, and worst of all Grania; if she’s a lady, I’m the queen of Sheba.”
“Don’t be silly. No one ever suggested she was. Her father made his fortune flogging laxatives. Do you honestly think I fancy her? She’s like some geriatric canary.”
“You didn’t think so two minutes ago when she was running her hand up and down your thigh like an adrenalized tarantula.”
“I was hemmed in. Autograph hunter to the right, prospective buyer to the left, I couldn’t just prise her off. It might have distracted Dick Brandon. Do you realize I’ve just made twenty grand?”
“Bully for you; you’ve also just lost a girlfriend.”
He put his head on one side and grinned at her.
“A girlfriend, have I just?” he said mockingly. Then his voice softened. “Don’t be such a crosspatch,” and he came towards her, pinning her against the table so she couldn’t escape.
“Now you’re hemmed in, and don’t you like it?” he said, drawing her towards him until he was holding her tight against his body, which was so smooth and hard it seemed to curve into hers like expensive soap.
For a second she melted, her longing for him was so strong, her relief to be in his arms. Gently he pulled down the shoulder of her dress and began to kiss her along her collarbone.
The other hand glided over her bottom: “Chicken, you are wearing pants.”
“I am not, I’m wearing a dress.”
“What’s this then?” he pinged the elastic.
“Panties,” said Helen quickly.
Rupert sighed. “There is a language barrier,” he said.
Helen suddenly twigged. “You thought I’d go to a party without panties?” she said in a shocked voice.
“I hoped you might, seeing as how you’re going to take off all your clothes for me later this evening.”
“No,” said Helen, struggling away. “I’m not going to be another of your fancy bits, just to be spat out like chewing gum when the flavor’s gone.”
Rupert started to laugh. “Fancy bit, what an extraordinary phrase. Sounds like a gag snaffle. And I don’t like chewing gum very much. Nanny always said it was common.”
“Why do you trivialize everything?” wailed Helen. “I just don’t want to be rushed.”
“Oh really,” drawled Rupert. “Would you rather we made a date for the year 2000? Would January fifth be okay, or would the sixth suit you better? I’m afraid I can’t make the seventh. Perhaps you could check in your diary.”
“Oh, stop it. I just don’t believe in jumping into bed with people who don’t give a damn for me.”
“You haven’t given me much chance. You can hardly expect me to swear eternal devotion on the second date.”
“I don’t,” sobbed Helen, “I truly don’t. I just don’t want to get hurt again. Harold Mountjoy…”
“Oh dear, now we’re going to be subjected to another sermon on the Mountjoy. Is that it? You only go to bed with married men? If I get married to someone else, then can I fuck you?”
“Please don’t use that kind of language.”
“What’s wrong with the word fuck? That’s what we’re discussing, aren’t we? Stop being so bloody middle class.”
“I am middle class.”
“Personally I think prick-teaser is a much worse word than fuck. Why the hell did you come down here, then?”
“I wanted to see you.”
“You can, all of me. Come back to the caravan.”
“No!” screamed Helen. “I’m going back to London.”
“How?” asked Rupert.
“Where’s the nearest railroad station?”
“About ten miles away. And, frankly, I’m not going to drive you. Nor am I going to lend you one of my horses, although I suppose you could borrow a bike from one of Grania’s children. Or perhaps Monica could whizz you home in her trap.”
Helen burst into tears. Running to the door, she went slap into Grania Pringle.
“Oh, there you are, darling. I’ve been looking for you everywhere, Rupert. Can I borrow you for a sec?”
Helen gave a sob and fled down the passage. She locked herself in the john. Twice someone came and rattled the door, then went away again. The party was still roaring away downstairs and, from the shouts and catcalls, seemed to be spilling out into the garden. Feeling suicidal, she washed her face and combed her hair.
Creeping out into the passage she saw the huge red nightgowned back of Monica Carlton. She was talking to Mrs. Greenslade. Terrified, Helen shot into reverse, taking the nearest door on her left.
Helen pushed open the door and found herself in a library where the only gaps in the walls not covered with books were filled with vast family portraits. In one corner on a revolving stand stood a globe of the world with the map of America turned towards her, the states all blurred together and sepia with age. A fire leaping in the grate gave off a sweet, tart smell of apple logs, reminding her of her grandmother’s house in the mountains, and filling her with such homesickness that she had to choke back her sobs and blow her nose several times on an overworked paper handkerchief.
Drawn instinctively towards the bookshelves, she was halfway across the room before she realized a man was sitting in an armchair in front of the fire, reading.
“I am sorry,” she said with a gulp. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“You’re not. I’m hiding.”
“From Mrs. Greenslade?”
“Et alia. We weren’t introduced this afternoon. Malise Gordon.”
He put out his hand.
“Helen Macaulay,” she mumbled.
“Sit down. I’ll get you a glass of Algie’s brandy.”
“Please don’t bother.”
He didn’t answer and went over to the drinks trolley. He was wearing a pinstripe suit, threadbare but well cut across the shoulders, with turn-ups and a fob watch. She noticed the upright, military bearing, the thin mouth, the eyes, courtesy of British Steel Corporation. He was the kind of Englishman one used to see in old war movies, Trevor Howard or Michael Redgrave, who hid any emotion behind a clipped voice, a stiff upper lip, and sangfroid.
“What were you reading?” she asked.
“Oh,” said Helen in surprise, “how lovely. There’s one Rupert Brooke poem I really love. How does it go?
“ ‘These laid the world away’, ”
she began in her soft voice,
“ ‘poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.’ ”
Her voice broke as she was suddenly stabbed with grief at the thought of Harold Mountjoy’s child that she had lost.
“It’s so beautiful, and so sad,” she went on.
For a second the color seemed to drain out of Malise Gordon’s face. Then he handed Helen the glass of brandy.
“How extraordinary,” he said. “I was just reading that poem. My father was at school with Rupert Brooke.”
“What was he like?”
“Oh, awfully nice, according to my mother.”
“Your father must have some marvelous stories about him.”
“Probably did. Unfortunately he was killed in 1918 in the last advance of the war.”
“That’s just terrible. You never knew your father. Did you go to Rugby too?”
“I so enjoy the Rugby poets,” said Helen. “Walter Savage Landor, Clough, Arnold, they have a deep melancholy about them which I find very appealing. I did the Victorian poets for my major. I think Matthew Arnold is by far the most interesting.”
Seeing her curled up on the sofa, having kicked off her shoes, the firelight flickering on her pale face, Malise thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Her ankles were so slender, he wondered how they could bear the weight of her body, or her long slender neck the weight of that glorious Titian hair. Quivering with misery, she was like a beech leaf suddenly blown by the gale against a wall; he had the feeling that, at any moment, the gale might whisk her away again. He would like to have painted her, just like that, against the faded gold sofa.
“Where is Rupert?” he asked.
“Being enjoyed by his adoring public. Actually, he’s just been ‘borrowed’ by Lady Pringle.”
“She’s never been very scrupulous about giving people back.”
“She’s kinda glamorous, but very old,” said Helen. Then, realizing that Grania must be younger than Malise Gordon, added hastily, “for a woman, I mean — or rather a Lady.”
“Hardly,” said Malise, echoing Rupert.
“Oh, I know about the laxatives,” said Helen, “but all these ancestors?” She waved a hand round the walls.
“All fakes,” said Malise, cutting the end off a cigar. “I restore pictures as a sideline. Grania’s great-grandmother over there,” he pointed to a bosomy Victorian lady, “was actually painted in 1963.”
Helen giggled, feeling more cheerful.
“You and Rupert just had a row?”
“He wants to go to the max.”
Malise raised his eyebrows.
“In England I think you call it the whole hog.”
“He’s so arrogant. He ignores me all evening, selling some horse, then expects me to go meekly back and spend the night in his caravan. I said I was going back to London, so he told me to find my own way. I just don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll take you. I’m going back to London tonight.”
“But I live in Shepherd’s Bush; it’s way out. Rupert claims he’s never heard of it.”
“Rupert on occasions can be very affected. It’s about a mile from my flat. It couldn’t be easier to drop you off.”
Cutting through her stammerings of gratitude, he started to ask her about herself, about America, her family, her university, her ambitions to be a writer, and her job. He even knew her boss.
“Nice chap. Never read a book in his life.”
“But no one seems interested in books over here,” sighed Helen, picking up the Rupert Brooke. “This is a first edition and they haven’t even bothered to cut the pages. I don’t understand the British, I mean they have all this marvelous culture on their doorsteps and they’re quite indifferent to it. Half the office hasn’t even been inside St. Paul’s, and John Donne actually preached there. Rupert’s mother has shelves full of first editions. No one ever reads them. She keeps them behind bars, as though they were dangerous animals full of subversive ideas. They never even know who’s painted their ancestors.”
“Unless it’s a Gainsborough they’re going to flog at Christies for half a million,” said Malise. “Then they’re fairly sharp.”
“That lot out there can’t talk about anything but horses,” said Helen bitterly.
“You mustn’t blame them,” said Malise. “For most of the season, which goes on sadly for most of the year now, they’re spending twenty-four hours a day with those horses, studying them, schooling, worrying about their health, chauffeuring them from one show to another. That lot you met next door have battled their way to the top against the fiercest competition. And it hasn’t been easy. We’re in the middle of a recession; petrol prices are rocketing; overheads are colossal. Show jumping’s a very tough competitive sport and only a few make it, and unless they keep on winning, they don’t survive.”
He got up and walked over to the globe and spun it round, pointing to the tiny faded pink shrimp that was England.
“Most of them would never have left the villages they were born in if they hadn’t been brilliant horsemen. Now, as a result of this brilliance, they are kings to the public, household names, ambassadors to their country all over the world. Rome today, Madrid tomorrow, New York the day after, constantly on television; yet most of them haven’t an “O” level between them.
“Often you’ll hear the winner of a competition gabbling to his horses all the way round, coaxing him over those huge jumps. Yet, ask him to describe that round in a television interview afterwards and he’ll be completely tongue-tied. They’re physical people, and they think in physical terms, and they’re far more at home with horses than they are with humans, and they distrust anyone with any kind of learning, because it makes them feel inadequate. But don’t underestimate them. Because they lack the gift of tongues, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel things deeply.”
He paused, frowning at her, then smiled.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to lecture you. I know what you’ve been going through today. Ever since I was appointed chef d’equipe last year I’ve been trying to break down these barriers of suspicion. You simply can’t apply Army discipline and expect them to jump into line. They are all deeply individualistic, chippy, very highly strung. Despite their deadpan exteriors, they get terribly het up before a big class. But once they accept you, you’re in for keeps unless you do something very silly.”
He thought it was time to change the subject. “Is your firm publishing any decent books this summer?”
And they went back to talking about literature, which Malise enjoyed because she was so adorably pompous and earnest, and because he could see how she was relaxing and gaining confidence, and just watching that exquisite face gave him pleasure. He was tempted to ask her to sit for him.
“I wish I could meet someone like Rupert Brooke,” she was saying. “I guess he can be regarded as the most charismatic personality of his generation.”
Malise Gordon winced and put another log on the fire. “I wish your generation wouldn’t so willfully misuse words.”
Helen laughed. “I guess then that Rupert was the most glamorous character of his generation.”
“Taking my name in vain,” said a voice. Rupert was standing in the doorway, his face quite expressionless.
“No,” said Malise Gordon. “We were discussing another Rupert — a poet.”
“Quite unlike me,” said Rupert lightly. “Helen knows I’m an intellectual dolt, don’t you, darling?” He turned to Helen, still smiling, but she knew beneath that bland exterior he was angry. “I wondered where you’d got to.”
“Talking to me, since Grania — er — borrowed you.”
“How nice,” said Rupert. “So no doubt you’ve discussed every exhibition and play and foreign film on in London. Perhaps you’ve even graduated to Henry James.”
“We hadn’t got round to him yet,” said Malise.
“That’ll have to wait till next time,” said Rupert. “Come and dance,” he added to Helen. It was definitely an order. But before she could move, a sound of screams, whoops, and catcalls rent the air, drowning the deafening pounding of music. The noise was coming from outside. Malise drew back the heavy dark green velvet curtains. A group of men were running through the moonlit cherry orchard carrying something that was wriggling frantically, like a sheep about to be dipped.
“They’re throwing Driffield in the lake,” said Rupert.
“Isn’t that lake polluted?” asked Helen in worried tones.
Rupert laughed. “It soon will be, if they throw Driffield in.” He took Helen’s wrist. “Come on, darling.”
Malise took his watch out of his waistcoat pocket.
“We ought to head for home,” he said.
“We?” asked Rupert, his fingers tightening on Helen’s wrist.
Then she said, all in a rush, “Colonel Gordon’s going back to London tonight. He’s very kindly offered me a lift.”
“There isn’t anywhere for me to sleep.”
“Grania’ll give you a bed. Party’s hardly got going yet.”
“Events would bely that,” said Malise, as bellows, guffaws, and sounds of splashing issued from the lake. “I hope Driffield doesn’t catch cold. It’s hardly the weather for midnight bathing. As for Grania putting Helen up, I’m sure every bed and sofa in the house is already heaving with occupants. Shall we go?” he turned to Helen.
She nodded, unable to speak. Part of her longed to stay with Rupert. She’d never seen anyone so angry. His blue eyes narrowed to slits, his face pale as marble. He picked a white narcissus out of the flower vase, examining the crinkly orange center.
“I’ll drive you back to Vagina House,” he said.
“Don’t be silly,” said Malise crushingly, “you’ve got classes early tomorrow and you’ve had far too much to drink. Police always patrol the Worthing-London road at this hour of night. Not worth risking your license. You can’t afford to be off the road for a year.”
“I am quite capable of driving,” said Rupert through gritted teeth.
“And then you’d have to turn round and drive all the way back. Be reasonable.”
Rupert turned to Helen. “You really want to go?”
“I guess so.”
Looking down, Rupert found he had shredded the narcissus. One petal was left. “She loves me not,” he said.
“I’ll get my coat,” said Helen.
Fleeing from the room, she nearly fell over Monica Carlton, fast asleep in her red nightgown, propped against the gong. On her lap lay a plate of chocolate mousse which Mavis was busy finishing up.
In the room where she’d left her coat and boots a couple were heaving on the bed.
“Billy, we must be careful,” said a voice. “Mummy will be fuwious if she catches us.”
Billy was going to win his tenner, thought Helen. As she grabbed her belongings and let herself out of the room, Mavis shot through her feet to join in the fun.
Outside she found Hans Schmidt swaying in front of her.
“Fraulein Helen,” he said triumphantly, “come and dance wiz me.” He was just about to drag her off in the direction of the music when Malise and Rupert came out of the library, both looking wintry. To make matters worse, Hans insisted on coming out to the car with them and roaring with laughter when he discovered what was going on.
“You are losing zee touch, Rupert,” he kept saying.
“Fuck off,” snarled Rupert. Then, as Helen got into the car, “Your things are still in the caravan.”
“Only my suede dress,” said Helen.
“I’ll get Marion to post it on to you,” said Rupert and, without even saying good-bye, turned on his heel and stalked back into the house.
“There’s absolutely no need to cry,” said Malise, as the headlights lit up the grass verge and the pale green undersides of the spring trees. “That’s definitely thirty-love to you.”
“D’you think he’ll ever call me again?” said Helen with a sniff.
“ ’Course he will. It’s a completely new experience to Rupert, not getting his own way. Very good for him.”
Malise slipped a Beethoven quintet into the stereo. Helen lay back, reveling in the music and thinking how much Rupert would hate it. Ahead along the winding road she watched the cats’ eyes light up as their car approached.
“All right?” said Malise.
“Sure. I was thinking the cats’ eyes were like girls, all lighting up as Rupert approached.”
“And Rupert never dims his headlights,” said Malise.
“Is it worth it? Me going on with him, that is if he does ring me?”
“Depends if you’ve reached the stage when you can’t not. In which case any advice I give you will be meaningless.”
“Explain him to me,” pleaded Helen. “All I hear is gossip from people who hardly know him.”
“I’ve known his family for years. Rupert’s mother was exquisitely beautiful but deeply silly. She couldn’t cope with Rupert at all and abandoned him to a series of nannies, who all spoilt him because they were frightened of him, or felt sorry for him. He learnt far too early in life that, by making himself unpleasant, he could get his own way. The only decent relationship he had was with old Nanny Heald, and she was his father’s old nanny, so she didn’t look after Rupert very long. Rupert’s mother, of course, was besotted with Adrian, Rupert’s younger brother, who was sweet, curly-haired, plump, easygoing, and who, of course, has turned into a roaring pansy.
“As a result I don’t think Rupert really likes women. He certainly doesn’t trust them. Subconsciously, I think he enjoys kicking them in the teeth, just to pay them back as a sex for letting him down when he was a child. He’s bright, though, and enormously talented. Funnily enough, the one thing that might save him could be a good marriage. But she’d have to be a very remarkable girl to take the flak.”
As they reached the motorway, he put his foot on the accelerator.
“Wouldn’t it be easier,” he said, “to find a respectably rising barrister or some bright young publisher?”
Helen shrugged. “I guess so, but he is kind of addictive. You take a lot of trouble with all these guys. Have you got kids of your own?”
“We’ve got a daughter. She events.”
“Oh,” said Helen, “that’s what Mark Phillips does, as opposed to Rupert.”
“No.” There was a pause. Then he said in a measured, deliberately matter-of-fact voice. “We had a boy. He was killed in Northern Ireland last year.”
“Oh,” said Helen, aghast, “I’m desperately sorry.”
“He drove into a booby trap, killed outright, which I suppose was a mercy.”
“But not for you,” said Helen. “You weren’t able to say good-bye.”
Oh hell, she said to herself, that’s why he was reading that Rupert Brooke poem. And I came barging in with all my problems.
“Were you very close?” she asked.
“Yes, I think so. The awful thing was that I’m not sure he really wanted to go into the Army at all. Just felt he ought to because my father had a dazzling war and…”
“And you got an MC, Billy told me.”
“But Timmy was really rather a rebel. We had an awful row. He’d got some waitress pregnant, felt he ought to marry her. He didn’t love her, he just had principles. We tried to dissuade him. His last leave was all rows, my wife in hysterics.”
“What happened to the baby?”
“It was a false alarm, which made the whole thing more ironic. Now I wish it hadn’t been. At least we’d have something of him left.”
They had reached London now. When they got to Regina House he got out as well. A few stars had managed to pierce the russet haze hanging over London. Lit from behind by the street-light, there were no lines on his face.
Helen swallowed, took a deep breath to conquer her shyness, and stammered, “I always dreamed English men would be just like you, and it’s taken me six months in this country to find one,” and, putting her hand on his shoulder, she kissed him quickly on the cheek. “Thank you so much for my lift. I do hope we meet again.”
“Absolutely no doubt about that,” said Malise. “Young Rupert’ll be on the warpath in no time. But listen to an old campaigner: play it cool, don’t let him have it all his own way.”
Malise let himself into his Lowndes Street flat and switched off the burglar alarm. It was a cheerless place. His wife had conventional tastes, tending to eau de nil wallpaper, overhead lights, and Sloane Square chintz. She was away in the country, eventing with their daughter. The marriage had not been a success. They had stayed together because of the children, but now there was only Henrietta left. In the drawing room, on an easel standing on a dust sheet, was an oil painting of a hunting scene Malise was restoring. He could finish it in two hours. He didn’t feel tired. Instead, he poured himself a glass of brandy and set to work, thinking about that exquisite redhead. She was wasted on Rupert. He was not entirely sure of his motives in whisking her back to London. Was it a desire to put Rupert down, or because he couldn’t bear the thought of Rupert sleeping with her tonight, forcing his drunken hamfisted attentions on her? For a minute he imagined painting her in his studio, not bothering to turn on the lights as dusk fell, then taking her across to the narrow bed in the corner and making love to her so slowly and gently she wouldn’t realize it had been miraculous until it was all over.
He cursed himself for being a fool. He was fifty-two, thirty years her senior, probably a disgusting old man in her eyes. Yet she had stirred him more than any woman he had met for years.
She’d have done for Timmy. He picked up the photograph on the piano. The features that smiled back at him were very like his own, but less grim and austere, more clear-eyed and trusting.
Were Rupert and Billy and Humpty merely Timmy substitutes? Was that why he’d taken the job of chef d’equipe? After six months he was surprised, almost indignant, at the pain. Putting the photograph down, he slumped on the sofa, his face in his hands.
As Helen let herself into Regina House the telephone was ringing. “Shush, shush,” she pleaded, and, rushing forward, reached the receiver just before the principal of the hostel, furious and bristling in her hairnet.
“It’s one o’clock in the morning,” she hissed, “I won’t have people ringing so late.”
But Helen ignored her, hunching herself over the telephone to ward off the outside world. Praying as she’d never prayed before, she put it to her ear.
“Hello,” said a slightly slurred voice, “can I speak to Helen Macaulay?”
“Oh yes, you can, this is she.”
“Bloody bitch,” said Rupert, “waltzing off with the one man in the room I can’t afford to punch on the nose.”
Helen leant joyously against the wall, oblivious of the gesticulating crone in the hairnet.
“Are you okay?” Rupert went on.
“Fine. Where are you?”
“Back in my horrible little caravan — alone. I’ve got your dress here, like a shed snakeskin. It reeks of your scent. I wish you were here to fill it.”
“Oh, so do I,” said Helen. Again at a distance, she felt free to come on more strongly.
“Look, I’m on the road this week and most of next. I haven’t really got myself together, but I’ll ring you towards the end of the week, and I’ll try and get up to London on Monday or Tuesday.”
“Rupert,” she pleaded, “I didn’t want to go off with Malise. It was just that you seemed so otherwise engaged all evening.”
“Trying to make you jealous didn’t work, did it? Won’t try that again in a hurry.”
For the next few weeks Rupert laid siege to Helen, throwing her into total confusion. On the one hand he epitomized everything she disapproved of. He was flip — except about winning — spoilt, philistine, hedonistic, immoral, and very right-wing — eating South African oranges just to irritate her, and in the street, which her mother had drummed into her one must never do. The few dates they were able to snatch in between Rupert’s punishing show-jumping schedule and Helen’s job always ended in rows because she wouldn’t sleep with him.
On the other hand she had very much taken to heart Malise’s remarks about Rupert’s disturbed childhood and the possibility that he might be redeemed by a good marriage. Could she be the one to transform this wild boy into the greatest show jumper of his age? There was a strong element of reforming zeal in Helen’s character; she had a great urge to do good.
Princess Anne had also just announced her engagement to Mark Phillips and every girl in England was in love with the handsome captain, who looked so macho in his uniform and who, despite being pretty unforthcoming when interviewed on television, was obviously a genius with horses. Princess Anne looked blissfully happy. And when one considered Rupert was just as beautiful as Captain Phillips, and extremely articulate when interviewed about anything, did it matter, pondered Helen as she tossed and turned in her narrow bed in Regina House, reading A. E. Housman and Matthew Arnold, that she and Rupert couldn’t talk about Sartre and Henry James? He was young. He could learn. Malise said he was bright.
Anyway, all this fretting was academic because Rupert hadn’t mentioned marriage or said that he loved her. But he rang her from all over Europe and managed to snatch an evening, however embattled, with her about once a fortnight, and he had invited her to fly out to Lucerne for a big show at the beginning of June, so she had plenty of hope to sustain her.
Meanwhile the IRA were very active in London, exploding bombs; everyone was very jumpy, and her mother wrote her endless letters, saying that she need no longer stay in England a year, that things sounded very hazardous, and why didn’t she come home. Helen, who would have leapt at the chance all through the winter, wrote back saying she was fine and that she had a new beau.
Rupert sat with his feet up on the balcony of his hotel bedroom overlooking the Bois de Boulogne. After a class at the Paris show that ended at midnight the previous night, he was eating a late breakfast. Wearing nothing but a bath towel, his bare shoulders already turning dark brown, he was eating a croissant with apricot jam and trying to read War and Peace.
“I can’t understand this bloody book,” he yelled back into the room. “All the characters have three names.”
“So do you,” said Billy, coming out onto the balcony, dripping from the bath and also wrapped in a towel. He looked at the spine of the book. “It might help if you started with Volume One, not Volume Two.”
“Fucking hell,” said Rupert, throwing the book into the bosky depths of the Bois and endangering the lives of two squirrels, “that’s what comes of asking Marion to get out books from the library.”
“Why are you reading that junk anyway?”
Rupert poured himself another cup of coffee. “Helen says I’m a philistine.”
“She thinks you’re Jewish?” said Billy. “You don’t look it.”
“I thought it meant something to do with Sodom and Gomorrah until I looked it up,” said Rupert, “but it just means you’re pig ignorant, deficient in culture, and don’t read enough.”
“You read Horse and Hound,” said Billy indignantly, “and your horoscope and the racing results, and Dick Francis.”
“Or go to the the-ater, as she calls it.”
“I should think not after that rubbish she dragged us to the other night. Anyway, you went to a strip club in Hamburg last week. I’ve heard people call you a lot of things, but not stupid.”
He bent down to pick up his hairbrush which had dropped on the floor, and winced. “I don’t know what they put in those drinks last night but I feel like hell.”
“I feel like Helen,” said Rupert. “I spent all last night trying to ring her up. I got hold of the London directory, but I couldn’t find Vagina House anywhere.”
“Probably looked it up under ‘cunt,’ ” said Billy.
Rupert laughed. Then a look of determination came over his face. “I’ll show her. I’ll write her a really intellectual letter.” He got Helen’s last letter, all ten pages of it, out of his wallet. “I can hardly understand hers — it’s so full of long words.” He smoothed out the first page. “She hopes we take in the Comédie Française and the Louvre, and then says that just looking at me elevates her temperature. Christ, what have I landed myself with?”
“Don’t forget to put ‘Ms.’ on the envelope,” said Billy.
“Marion even got me a book of quotations,” said Rupert, extracting a couple of sheets of hotel writing paper from the leather folder in the chest of drawers. “Now, ought I to address her as Dear or Dearest?”
“You ‘darling’ her all the time when you’re with her.”
“Don’t want to compromise myself on paper.” Rupert picked up the quote book. “I’ll bloody outquote her. Let’s look up Helen.” He ran his fingers down the Index. “Helen, here we are, ‘I wish I knew where Helen lies,’ not with me, unfortunately. ‘Sweet Helen make me immortal with a kiss.’ That’s not going nearly far enough.”
“Are you going to buy Con O’Hara’s chestnut?” asked Billy, who was trying to cut the nails on his right hand.
“Not for the price he’s asking. It’s got a terrible stop. ‘Helen thy beauty is to me.’ That sounds more promising.” He flipped over the pages to find the reference. “ ‘Helen thy beauty is to me…Hyacinth hair.’ Hyacinths are pink and blue, not hair-colored. Christ, these poets get away with murder.”
“Why don’t you just say you’re missing her?” asked Billy reasonably.
“That’s what she wants to hear. If I could only bed her, I could forget about her.”
“Sensible girl,” said Billy, “Knows if she gives in she’ll lose you. Hardly blame her. You haven’t exactly got a reputation for fidelity.”
“I have,” said Rupert, outraged. “I was faithful to Bianca for at least two months.”
“While having Marion on the side.”
“Grooms don’t count. They simply exist for the recreation of the rider. Helen’s not even my type if you analyze her feature by feature. Her clothes are terrible. Like all American women, she always wears trousers, or pants, as she so delightfully calls them, two sizes too big.”
“Methinks the laddy does protest too much. Why don’t you pack her in?”
“I’m buggered if I’ll give up so easily. I’ve never not got anyone I really wanted.”
“What about that nun in Rome?” said Billy, who was lighting a cigarette.
“Nuns don’t count.”
“Like grooms, I suppose.”
“ ‘Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,’ ” read Rupert. “ ‘Her lips suck forth my soul. Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.’ ”
“That’s a bit strong,” said Billy. “Who wrote that?”
“Chap called Marlowe. Anyway it’s not my soul I want her to suck.”
Billy started to laugh and choked on his cigarette.
Rupert looked at him beadily. “Honestly, William, I don’t know why you don’t empty the entire packet of cigarettes onto a plate and eat them with a knife and fork. You ought to cut down.” He returned to the quote book. “This bit’s better: ‘Thou art fairer than the evening air, clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.’ That’s very pretty. Reminds me of Penscombe on a clear night.” He wrote it down in his flamboyant royal blue scrawl, practically taking up half the page.
“That’ll wow her. Anyway, I should be able to pull her in Lucerne. She’s coming out for a whole week.”
“D’you know what I think?” said Billy.
“Not until you tell me.”
“Unlike most of the girls you’ve run around with, Helen’s serious. She’s absolutely crazy about you, genuinely in love, and she won’t sleep with you not because she wants to trap you, but because she believes it’s wrong. She’s a middle-class American girl and they’re very, very respectable.”
“You reckon she’s crazy about me?”
“I reckon. Christ, Rupe, you’re actually blushing.”
Rupert soon recovered.
“What are we going to do this evening?” he asked.
“Go to bed early and no booze, according to Malise. We’ve got a Nations’ Cup tomorrow.”
“Sod that,” said Rupert, putting his letter into an envelope. “There’s a stunning girl who’s come out from The Tatler to cover the — er — social side of show jumping. I would not mind covering her. I thought we could show her Paris.”
“Sure,” sighed Billy, “and she’s brought a dog of a female photographer with her, and guess who’ll end up with her? I wish to Christ Malise would pick Lavinia for Lucerne.”
“Not while he’s imposing all this Kraut discipline and trying to keep his squad pure, he won’t,” said Rupert. He looked at his watch. “We’ve got three hours.”
“I’m going to give The Bull a workout.”
“Tracey can do that. Let’s go and spend an hour at the Louvre.”
After a couple of good classes in which they were both placed, Rupert and Billy felt like celebrating. Pretending to go to bed dutifully at eleven o’clock, they waited half an hour, then crept out down the back stairs, aided by a chambermaid. It was unfortunate that Malise, getting up very early to explore Paris, caught Rupert coming out of the Tatler girl’s bedroom.
In the Nations’ Cup later in the day Rupert jumped appallingly and had over twenty faults in each round. In the evening Malise called him to his room and gave him the worst dressing-down of his life. Rupert was irresponsible, insubordinate, undisciplined, a disruptive influence on the team, and a disgrace to his country.
“And what’s more,” thundered Malise, “I’m not having you back in the team until you’ve learnt to behave yourself.”
Helen sat in the London Library checking the quotations in a manuscript on Disraeli before sending it to press. Goodness, authors are inaccurate! This one got everything wrong: changing words, leaving out huge chunks, paraphrasing long paragraphs to suit his argument. All the same, she was glad to be out of the office. Nigel, having recently discovered she was going out with Rupert, made her life a misery, saying awful things about him all the time. In the middle of a heatwave, the London Library was one of the coolest places in the West End. Helen was always inspired, too, by the air of cloistered quiet and erudition. Those rows and rows of wonderful books, and the photographs of famous writers on the stairs: T. S. Eliot, Harold Nicolson, Rudyard Kipling. One day, if she persevered with her novel, she might join them.
Being a great writer, however, didn’t seem nearly as important at the moment as seeing Rupert again. She hadn’t heard from him for a fortnight, not a telephone call nor a letter. Next Monday she was supposed to be flying out to Lucerne to spend a week with him, and it was already Wednesday. She’d asked for the week off and she knew how Nigel would sneer if she suddenly announced she wouldn’t be going after all. And if he did ring, and she did go, wasn’t she compromising herself? Would she be able to hold him off in all that heady Swiss air? God, life was difficult. A bluebottle was bashing abortively against the windowpane. At a nearby desk a horrible old man, sweating in a check wool suit, with eyebrows as big as mustaches, was leering at her. Suddenly she hated academics, beastly goaty things with inflated ideas of their own sex appeal, like Nigel and Paul, and even Harold Mountjoy. She wanted to get out and live her life; she was trapped like that bluebottle.
“Have you any books on copulation?” said a voice.
“I’m afraid I don’t work here,” said Helen. Then she started violently, for there, tanned and gloriously unacademic, stood Rupert.
Her next thought was how unfair it was that he should have caught her with two-day-old hair, a shiny face, and no makeup. The next moment she was in his arms.
“Angel,” he said, kissing her, “did you get my letter?”
“No, I left before the post this morning.”
“Sssh,” said the man with mustache eyebrows disapprovingly. “People are trying to work.”
“Are you coming out for a drink?” said Rupert, only slightly lowering his voice.
“I’d just love it. I’ve got one more quote to check. I’ll be with you in ten minutes.”
“I’ll wander round,” said Rupert.
Helen found the quotation, and was surreptitiously combing her hair and powdering her nose behind a pillar when she heard a loud and unmistakable voice saying: “Hello, is that Ladbroke’s’? My account number’s 8KY85982. I want a tenner each way on Brass Monkey in the two o’clock at Kempton, and twenty each way on Bob Martin in the two-thirty. He’s been scratched, has he? Change it to Sam the Spy then, but only a tenner each way.”
Crimson with embarrassment, Helen longed to disappear into one of the card index drawers. How dare Rupert disturb such a hallowed seat of learning?
“Funny places you work in,” he said, as they went out into the sunshine. “I bet Nige feels at home in there. Come on, let’s go to the Ritz.”
They sat in the downstairs bar, Helen drinking Buck’s Fizz, Rupert drinking whisky.
“Don’t go and get tarted up,” he said, as she was about to rush off to the powder room. “I like you without makeup sometimes. Reminds me of what you might look like in the mornings.” He ran the back of his fingers down her cheek. “I’ve missed you.”
“And I’ve missed you. How was Paris?”
“I read the papers. Belgravia was off form.”
“Something like that. I bought you a present. They’re all the rage in Paris.”
It was an ivory silk shirt that tied under the bust, leaving a bare midriff.
“Oh, it’s just gorgeous,” said Helen. “I’ll just never take it off.”
“Hm, we’ll see about that.”
“Such beautiful workmanship,” said Helen, examining it in ecstasy. “It’ll be marvelous for Lucerne. I’ve bought so many clothes. I do hope the weather’s nice.”
Rupert’s fingers drummed on the bar. He beckoned for the barman to fill up his glass.
“There isn’t going to be any Lucerne.”
“Why ever not?” Helen was quite unable to hide her disappointment.
“I’ve been dropped,” said Rupert bleakly.
“For a couple of bad rounds in a Nations’ Cup? That’s insane. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Well, it was actually. Malise told us to go to bed early. I never sleep before a Nations’ Cup, so I took Billy out on the tiles. We got more smashed than we meant to. Next day, every double was a quadruple.”
“Oh, Rupert,” wailed Helen, “how could you when you were jumping for Great Britain? Surely you could have gone to bed early one night? And to involve Billy. Malise must have been so disappointed.”
Rupert had expected sympathy, not reproach bordering on disapproval.
“Poor Malise, who’s he going to put in your place?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
Helen could see he was mad, but could not stop herself saying, “I’m just so disappointed. I so wanted to go to Lucerne.”
“We’ll go some other time. Look, I’m off to the Royal Plymouth tomorrow morning. It’s an agricultural and flower show with only a couple of big show-jumping classes a day, so I shan’t be overoccupied. Why don’t you take the rest of the week off and come too?”
Helen was sorely tempted.
“When were you thinking of leaving?”
“Now. I want to avoid the rush hour and I’ve got a lot to catch up on tonight after three weeks away.”
“I’ve got an editorial meeting at three o’clock, and I’ve got to get this manuscript off to the press by Friday. I was planning to have everything clear before Lucerne.”
“And I’ve screwed up your little jaunt. Well, I’m sorry.” He certainly didn’t sound it. Helen warmed to her subject.
“And I do have some sort of responsibility towards my colleagues, unlike you. To go and get drunk before a Nations’ Cup is just infantile. And Malise said you could be the finest rider in Britain if you took it a bit more seriously.”
“Did he indeed?” said Rupert, dangerously quiet. Draining his glass and getting a tenner out of his notecase, he handed it to the barman. “Well, it’s no bloody business of yours or his to discuss me.”
He got to his feet. Helen realized she’d gone too far.
“Malise and I only want what’s best for you,” she stammered.
“Sweet of you both,” said Rupert. “Have a nice meeting. It’s high time you took up with Nige again. You two really suit each other.”
And he was gone.
Rupert returned to Penscombe at eight o’clock the following morning, just as Marion and Tracey were loading up the lorry for the four-hour drive down to Plymouth. He looked terrible and proceeded to complain bitterly about everything in the yard; then went inside to have a bath and emerged twenty minutes later looking very pale but quite under control.
“What’s up with him?” said Tracey.
“Had a tiff with the flame-haired virgin, I should think,” said Marion.
Her suspicions were confirmed when Rupert started to quibble about the order in which the horses were being loaded.
“Who are you putting next to The Bull?”
“Macaulay. I thought it would settle him.”
“Don’t call him that. I’m not having him named after that bitch anymore. He can go back to being Satan. Suits him much better.”
With Billy driving, Rupert slept most of the way down to Plymouth. The showground was half a mile outside the town. It was a glorious day. Dazzling white little clouds scampered as gaily across a butcher blue sky as boats with colored sails danced on the sparkling aquamarine ocean. The horses, clattering down the ramp, sniffed the salty air appreciatively. Once in the caravan which Marion had driven down, Rupert poured himself a large measure of whisky.
“Tears before sunset,” said Marion to Tracey.
On their way to the secretary’s tent to declare, Billy was telling Rupert about Ivor Braine’s latest ineptitude.
“He was popping out to the shops, and I asked him to get me a packet of Rothman’s. I said, ‘If you can’t get Rothman’s, get me anything,’ and he comes back with a bloody pork pie.”
Billy suddenly realized he had lost his audience. Glancing round, he noticed that very still, watchful, predatory expression on Rupert’s face, like a leopard who’s just sighted a plump impala. Following Rupert’s gaze, he saw a suntanned blonde in a pale pink sleeveless dress. Probably in her midthirties, she was laying out green baize on a table.
“Gorgeous,” murmured Rupert.
“Married,” said Billy.
“Good,” said Rupert. “I’m fed up with born-again virgins.”
The blonde looked up. She was really very pretty, Billy decided.
Rupert smiled at her. She smiled back, half-puzzled, assuming, because his face was so familiar, that they’d met before. On the way back from declaring, they found her lugging a huge challenge cup out from the car. Other cups were already lined up on the table.
“Let me,” said Rupert, sprinting forward and seizing the cup.
“Oh,” she jumped, “how very kind. Oh, it’s you.” Suddenly, as she realized who Rupert was, she blushed crimson. “I expect you’ll win it later.”
“Hope so,” said Rupert, setting it on the green baize. Then he looked at the inscription. “This one’s actually for lightweight hunters. I’m certainly a hunter,” he shot her an appraising glance, “when the prey’s attractive enough. But not that lightweight.”
She seemed to think this was very funny. It was nice to have someone who laughed at his jokes.
“Shouldn’t your husband be helping you unload this stuff?” He handed her another cup.
“He’s away in Madrid. Some trouble over an order. He had to fly out this morning.”
Better and better, thought Rupert, running his eye over the outline of her round, tight buttocks, as she peered into the back of the car.
“Blast,” she said. “I picked a big bunch of sweetpeas for the table. I must have left them in the porch.”
“They might have slipped under the front seat,” said Rupert, affording himself another good view.
“No.” She emerged, flushed and ruffled. “Oh, dear, and I was going to tie them up with ribbon, as a bouquet for the mayoress.”
“I’ll drive back and pick them up for you.”
“You can’t. It’s awfully sweet of you, but it’s twenty miles.”
Rupert patted her arm. “Leave it with me. I’ll find you a bouquet.”
He went back to the caravan and had another couple of stiff whiskies and then went on the prowl. He peered into the horticultural tent; it was dark and cool, and smelled like a greenhouse, the huge flower arrangements making a rainbow blaze of color. Up at the far end he could see a group of judges poring over some marrows, handling them like vast Indian clubs.
It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for: a deeply scented bunch of huge, dark crimson roses, with a red first-prize card, and a championship card beside them. Without anyone noticing, he seized the roses and slid out of the tent. No one was about except a large woman in a porkpie hat giving her two Rotweillers a run.
Back at the caravan he put the roses in a pint mug.
“Where did you get those?” demanded Billy, who was pulling on his breeches.
“Never you mind.”
“Inconstant Spry,” said Billy, as Rupert arranged them, then poured himself another whisky.
“You better lay off that stuff,” warned Billy. “And don’t get carried away. We’ve got a class in three-quarters of an hour.”
“Here you are,” Rupert said to the pretty blonde.
“Oh, they’re lovely,” she said. “Ena Harkness, I think, and they smell out of this world. You didn’t go and buy them?”
Rupert smirked noncommittally.
“You did, and you’ve even beaten the stems so they won’t wilt. I’ve got some ribbon in the glove compartment. I’ll hide them in the shade for the moment. I must repay you. Come and have a drink after you’ve finished your class. My name’s Laura Bridges, by the way.”
Rumor raced round the collecting ring as the riders warmed up their horses.
“I hear Rupert’s been dropped,” Driffield said to Billy with some satisfaction.
“Is it twue Malise caught him in bed with a weporter from The Tatler?” giggled Lavinia. “He is awful.”
“For Christ’s sake, don’t say anything to Rupe,” said Billy. “He’s not in the sunniest of moods.”
“What about that gorgeous redhead?” said Humpty. “I wouldn’t mind having a crack at her myself.”
“Nor would I,” said Driffield, “but I gather she doesn’t put out.”
“Shut up,” said Billy. “Here he comes.”
As Rupert cantered up on Macaulay, scattering onlookers, Humpty said, “That horse is new.”
“Where d’you get him?” sneered Driffield. “At a pig fair?”
Everyone laughed, but the smiles were wiped off their faces halfway through the class when Rupert came in and jumped clear. He had reached that pitch of drunkenness when he rode brilliantly, total lack of inhibition giving an edge to his timing. He also made the discovery that Macaulay loved crowds. Used to the adulation of being a troop horse through the streets of London, he really caught fire and become a different animal once he got into the ring and heard applause.
“If you’re going to be that good, perhaps it’s unfair to call you Satan again,” Rupert said as he rode out, patting the horse delightedly.
Over the crowd he could see that the mayoress had arrived and, surrounded by officials, was progressing towards Laura Bridges’s green baize table, no doubt to receive her bouquet. Vaulting off Macaulay, he handed him to Marion and ran off to have a look.
Mr. Harold Maynard, horticultural king of Plymouth, had won the rose championship at the Royal Show for the past five years. Going into the tent, confident he had swept the board for the sixth year, he was thunderstruck to find his prize exhibit missing. He was about to report the loss to the show secretary and get it paged over the loudspeaker, when he suddenly saw his lovingly tended Ena Harkness roses, now done up with a scarlet bow, being handed over to the mayoress by a curtseying Brownie.
“What very choice blooms,” said the mayoress, who prided herself on being good with kiddies. “I’ve never seen roses so lovely.”
With a bellow of rage, Mr. Maynard pushed through the crowd and seized the roses.
“How dare you steal my Ena Harkness?” he shouted.
The mayoress swelled. “They’ve just been presented to me by this young lady.”
“And where did you get them from?” Mr. Maynard turned furiously to the quailing Brownie.
“Mrs. Bridges gave them to me,” she whispered.
“And who may she be?” roared Mr. Maynard, brandishing the roses like a policeman’s truncheon.
“I’m me,” said Laura Bridges, “and don’t shout at that poor child.”
Rupert arrived to find Laura Bridges, Harold Maynard, a number of Harold’s horticultural chums from the allotments, several show officials, and the lady mayoress in the middle of a full-dress row. The Brownie was bawling her head off.
“What’s up?” he said.
“This lady’s stolen my Ena Harkness,” bellowed Mr. Maynard, glaring furiously at Laura Bridges.
Next minute, Rupert had grabbed him by his coat collar. “Don’t you speak to her like that, you revolting little shit. She did not steal them, and you bloody well apologize.”
“Those are my roses, and don’t use foul language. I’m calling the police,” yelled Mr. Maynard.
“You are bloody not,” said Rupert and, picking Mr. Maynard up, he hurled him backwards into the nearby horticultural and produce tent. A second later four of Mr. Maynard’s chums from the allotments had landed on Rupert. Shaking them off, he dove into the tent after Mr. Maynard, picking up a lemon meringue pie and smashing it in his red roaring face. Turning, Rupert started pelting Mr. Maynard’s cronies, who were trying to storm the tent in pursuit, with iced cakes. Next minute a Bakewell tart flew over their heads and hit the mayoress slap in the face. Just as the allotment contingent were advancing on Rupert, menacingly brandishing huge marrows, reinforcements arrived in the form of Billy, Humpty, Ivor Braine, and Driffield, who, picking up everything they could find, hurled them at Mr. Maynard’s chums. Carrots, turnips, cabbages, rhubarb pies, and fairy cakes flew through the air.
“What the hell’s going on?” Humpty asked Billy. “We’ve got to jump off in a few minutes.”
The next minute a vast Black Forest gateau, hurled by Mr. Maynard and meant for Rupert, hit Humpty in the middle of his forehead. Roaring like a little bull, rubbing cream out of his eyes, Humpty jumped on Mr. Maynard, hammering him with his fists. Driffield, behind the safety of a long white table, was lobbing sponge cakes into the mêlée, stopping to take a bite from time to time. Three of the allotment chums had Billy on the ground now and were belaboring him with parsnips.
“Stop it, you wotten cowards,” screamed Lavinia Greenslade. “Thwee against one isn’t fair.” And, having kicked them all in the bum, she picked up a chair and bashed it over their heads.
Suddenly there was the wail of police cars.
“We better beat it,” said Humpty reluctantly.
“Come on,” said Driffield, stuffing pieces of shortcake into his pockets and running towards the tent opening. But they were too late, for the next minute the tent had filled with policemen. Slowly show jumpers and horticulturalists picked themselves off the floor.
“Now, who started this fight?” said the sergeant, getting out a notebook. “Morning, Mr. Lloyd-Foxe, morning, Mr. Hamilton.”
For a minute no one said anything. Then, from the corner, pulling himself up by the trestle table, Rupert staggered to his feet.
“I did, officer,” he said, weaving towards them. “But he provoked me,” and picking up the last prize-winning fruit cake, he flung it at Mr. Maynard. Unfortunately it missed, knocking off a policeman’s helmet.
“Book him,” said the sergeant.
“You can’t,” said Humpty in tones of outrage, wiping chocolate icing out of his hair. “He’s got to jump-off.”
A noisy argument ensued, only ended by the police threatening to book all the show jumpers.
“You can’t do that,” said the show secretary in horror. “The public have come specially to see them. They’ve got two more big classes after the jump-off.”
“Well, I’m booking him,” said the sergeant, slapping handcuffs on Rupert. “Never heard such abusive language in my life.”
On the way out, Laura Bridges stopped him.
“I’m so sorry. It was all my fault.”
Rupert grinned. “Don’t give it a thought, sweetheart.”
“I’ll get you out of there,” promised Billy. “Not now,” said Humpty. “Bail him out after the classes.”
In the early evening Billy and Laura Bridges, who’d pulled every string in the book, arrived at the police station. The police agreed to let Rupert go as long as he appeared in court first thing tomorrow. They found him sobering up in the cells and playing poker with a couple of constables who happened to be show-jumping fans. The story had made the late editions of the evening papers and the showground and the front of the station were swarming with press. Rupert was smuggled out of the back door.
Despite the heat, he was shivering like a rain-soaked puppy. He looked terrible.
“Better come home with me,” said Laura. “Keep the press out of your hair and at least give you a decent night’s sleep.”
Billy, who wanted to see Lavinia, went back to the showground.
In the car, Rupert lay back and shut his eyes.
“How d’you feel?”
“Bit of a headache. Don’t know if it’s hangover or flying marrows.”
“Presumably you did take those roses from the tent?”
She patted his knee. “It was very sweet of you.”
“Can I go and have a bath?” he said when he got to her house. “Just to wash the rainbow cake out of my hair.”
Downstairs, changed into a sweater and jeans brought by Billy, he found her in the kitchen. She had changed, too, into a long pale blue cotton dress with a halter neck, which showed off her beautiful brown shoulders.
“When did you last have something to eat?” she asked.
“I don’t remember.”
She gave him a glass of ice cold milk. “Do you good,” and got a large piece of steak out of the larder.
“You can put this on your eye if you like, or I can grill it for you.”
Rupert decided he was very hungry.
“Two newspapers rang for you while you were in the bath,” she said, as she switched on the grill. “I said you’d gone to stay with friends in Exeter.”
Rupert went up to her, dropping a kiss on the bare shoulder.
“What a very, very nice lady you are.”
They ate outside in the dusk, hardly talking, but allowing the silence to be companionable. Afterwards Rupert wandered into the drawing room and examined the photograph of the man on the desk.
She nodded. “My Charlie.”
“Good-looking bloke. You happy with him?”
She also had three children. The last had just gone to prep school. “I love them, but you’ve no idea the bliss, after thirteen years of marriage, of having the house to ourselves.”
She was swinging gently on the hammock seat. Every time she came forward her blond hair gleamed in the light from the window. Rupert longed to sit down beside her, but thought the swaying back and forth might make him sick.
“Ever get bored with each other sexually?”
She shook her head.
Reaching down, he took her hands, pulling her to her feet. She felt so honey soft and nicely fleshed. His hand crept round to the back of her neck where the halter was knotted.
“I’m not sure you should,” she said. “After that fight you can’t be feeling very well.”
“I know the one thing that’d make me better.”
Slowly he unknotted the halter, allowing her dress to slither to the ground. Underneath she was quite naked. On her warm golden breasts there were delicate blue lines. She had full thighs, and round curving hips. In a few years her body would collapse like a peony. Now it was superb. And, knowing it, she gazed back at him without embarrassment.
Rupert pulled her towards him.
“I want to give you the best time in the world,” he murmured. “Tell me what turns you on.”
At three o’clock in the morning the telephone rang.
Laura stretched out an arm.
“Charlie, darling, where are you?” she asked with simulated sleepiness. “Oh, that’s lovely. You can get a flight to Plymouth. I’ll come and meet you. What an hour! You must be exhausted. Yes, I’ve been fine. The show was a great success. Love you, darling, all news when I see you. Bye.”
“Where is he?” asked Rupert.
“Madrid. He’ll be back in three hours. He’s got his own plane.”
Rupert laughed. “Good thing he didn’t parachute in unexpectedly.”
“I’ll drive you back to the showground on the way.”
Rupert snuggled up against her splendid breasts. “Come on, we don’t want to waste any time.”
It was another beautiful day. An innocent cerulean sky hung over the deep green fountain of the oak trees. As they left the house dawn was just breaking. Rupert breathed in a smell of dust, roses, and approaching rain.
“Laura,” he said, as they reached the outskirts of Plymouth, “I was at a pretty low ebb when I met you yesterday. You’ve been very good to me. Feel I ought to write Charlie a thank-you letter.”
“Have you got a steady girlfriend?” she asked. “Apart from the multitudes, I mean.”
“We’ve just packed it in.”
“She’s too serious-minded, and she won’t sleep with me.”
Laura braked at the lights. “Must be crazy. You’re the eighth wonder of the world.”
“I am when I’m with you.” He put his hand between her legs, pressing gently. “That must have been one of the most glorious fucks I’ve ever had. If I wasn’t absolutely knackered, I’d drag you back to the caravan for another go. D’you ever get away to London, or Gloucestershire?” he asked, as she drew up at the showground.
“Sometimes, usually with Charlie.”
“There’ll be next year’s show.”
“Charlie’ll probably be here next time.”
He took her face in his hands and kissed her.
“We’ll get together again sometime. I won’t forget you in a hurry.”
Laura watched him walking across the dew-laden grass, with that lovely athlete’s lope, red coat slung over his shoulder. As he turned and waved, she thought it was a very good thing Charlie was coming back. The boy was quite irresistible. Underneath the macho exterior, he was very vulnerable. I could straighten him out, she thought wistfully.
Rupert headed for the stables. He couldn’t ever remember having been so tired in his life. Due in court at nine, he must get a couple of hours’ sleep beforehand. He hoped the press weren’t going to make too much of a meal of it. He might even get suspended for a year. Malise would be charmed.
No one was about yet. Belgravia and Mayfair were lying down. Macaulay, however, who missed life at the barracks, welcomed any interruption and stuck his head out, nudging Rupert for Polos.
“From what I can remember,” Rupert told him, “you jumped bloody well yesterday. Over the next few months you and I are going to raise two hooves to Malise Gordon, until he can’t afford not to have us back in the team. We’d better think up a new name for you; perhaps we ought to call you Bridges.”
But as he walked wearily towards the caravan, remembering the day he had bought Macaulay, he felt kneed in the groin with longing for Helen. It must be tiredness that made it hurt so much. His resistance was weakened. Bloody hell, there was a light on in the caravan. Billy must have gone to bed drunk. He found the key behind the left front wheel, where it was always left. He let himself in cautiously. Billy might be shacked up with Lavinia.
For a minute he thought he was hallucinating. For there, lying in the double bed, apparently naked, dark blue duvet over her breasts, lay Helen. There were huge circles under her eyes, and she’d obviously been crying. She looked waiflike and terrified. Not a muscle flickered in Rupert’s face. For a few seconds he gazed at her.
“How did you get in here?” he said coldly.
Then, as the tears began to roll down her cheeks, he crossed the caravan, taking her in his arms. After Laura’s opulent curves she felt as frail as a child.
“Sweetheart, it’s all right.”
“I’m so desperately sorry,” she sobbed. “I know you g-got drunk, and into that dreadful fight, because I was real mean to you the day before yesterday.”
“I was, too. You were down because you’d been dropped, and all I did was come on sanctimonious and blame you. I should have been supportive and kind. You’re right; I am a prude. I don’t love Harold at all. I love you and and it’s stupid to pretend I don’t.”
She was crying really hard now. Rupert got out his handkerchief, then not able to remember whether he’d used it to clean up Laura Bridges, shoved it hastily away and grabbed a handful of Kleenex from the box on the side.
“You can make love with me whenever you want to,” she said.
“Only if you want to,” he said gently.
“I do,” her lip trembled, “more than anything else in the world. I’m just so scared of losing you.”
Rupert tightened his grip on her. “You’re not going to.”
“I want you so much now,” she pleaded.
Christ, Rupert said to himself, I come home smelling like an old dog fox, and I’m so pooped I can’t do a thing.
He took her hands. “I respect you far too much to force you,” he said gravely.
“You don’t have to be kind. I really want it.”
“It wouldn’t be right.” Then he had a brainwave. “Why don’t we get married?”
“Married?” she whispered incredulously.
“Why not? It’s different.”
“Are you sure you’re not still…”
“Drunk? Not at all, I haven’t had a drop since yesterday lunchtime.” He pulled off his boots, then collapsed into bed beside her.
Then, removing his signet ring, he slid it onto her wedding ring finger. “That’ll have to do, ’til I get you an engagement ring.”
She gazed at it, speechless, turning it over and over.
“You really mean it?”
“Really.” He lay back and laughed. “I was so mad at you yesterday morning, I even changed Macaulay’s name. Now you’ll be changing yours, perhaps I’d better call him Campbell-Black. Christ, you’re beautiful. I can fall asleep for the rest of my life counting freckles.”
Next minute he was fast asleep.
He was woken by Helen an hour before the court case.
“My God,” he said, startled. Then, seeing his signet ring on her finger, he gradually brought the last few days’ events into focus.
“Rupert,” she said, frantically twisting the ring around and around, “when you came in this morning you asked me to marry you. But honestly, I’ll understand if you’ve decided against it.”
“Darling.” As he pulled her into his arms he could smell toothpaste and clean-scented flesh. She must have been up for hours. “Of course I meant it. There’s only one obstacle.”
“What’s that?” she said, going pale.
“I don’t remember you accepting.”
Helen flung her arms round his neck, kissing him fiercely. “Oh, yes, please. I promise I’ll be supportive. I’ll learn about horses and be a real help in your career.”
Rupert looked alarmed. “You don’t have to go that far. I must go and have a pee.”
When he came back her arms closed round him like a vise. He pushed her away. “Wait. I want to look at you first.”
She was so so shy, hanging her head, as he admired the slender arms, the tapering waist, the jutting hip bones. Very gently he stroked the little snow white breasts.
“They’re beautiful,” he murmured.
“Too small,” she muttered. “I wish I had a wonderful forty-inch bust, the kind like pillows you could fall asleep on.”
“Nanny always claimed it was much better for one’s back to sleep without pillows,” said Rupert. Then, realizing it was not the time for jokes, he kissed each chestnut nipple, waiting for them to stiffen under his tongue.
With a colossal feeling of triumph he pushed her back onto the bed and began to move downwards, kissing her ribs, then her belly.
“No,” she gasped, grabbing his head.
Firmly he removed her hands. “Shut up. You’re mine now, to do exactly what I like with.”
Feeling her quivering frantically with desire, he progressed down to the ginger bush. Then, suddenly, he encountered a sticky, lacquered mass, like a hedgehog.
“What the bloody hell?” he yelled. “Are you trying to poison me?”
“It’s only vaginal deodorant,” stammered Helen.
“It is bloody not, sweetheart, you’ve used hair lacquer by mistake.”
Picking her up screaming, he carried her into the shower and held her under until he washed it off, then threw her dripping onto the bed.
“Now, let’s get one thing straight. I like the taste of you. And I don’t want it diluted by any damned deodorants. I’m going to wipe out that New England puritanism if it kills me.”
In court he got off with a hefty fine. His lawyer, used to Rupert’s scrapes, had traveled down overnight. Mr. Campbell-Black, he said, had had a row with his girlfriend the day before, which had upset him so much he’d proceeded to get drunk. Now the row was made up and he and his girlfriend were planning to get married. His client was very sorry. It wouldn’t happen again. The press were so captivated by the news that they concentrated on the engagement rather than on the fight.
Later, between classes, Rupert bumped into Laura, who introduced her husband, Charlie. Conversation was very amicable. As Charlie moved on to talk to some friends, Laura said in a low voice: “I’m so glad you’re getting married to her.”
Rupert grinned. “Will you sleep with me again as a wedding present?”
Laura looked reproving. “Your new wife wouldn’t like that very much.”
“Ah,” said Rupert lightly, “she’ll have to take me as she finds me, if she can find me.”
Nearly two years later Helen stood in the middle of her bedroom at Penscombe, tearing her hair and trying to decide what she should pack for Rome and then Madrid. She and Rupert would be away for nearly three weeks, so she would need at least three cases to carry all the different clothes for sightseeing, swimming, sunbathing, watching Rupert in the ring, and for the string of parties and dinners which always coincided with international shows abroad. She had started a hundred lists, then scrumpled them up.
But even clothes littering every available surface couldn’t detract from the beauty of the room with its high ceilings, huge Jacobean four-poster, old rose walls, pale yellow and pink silk striped curtains, and fluffy amber carpet. On the dressing table and beside the bed were great bunches of yellow irises. The general effect of a sunrise provided the perfect foil for Helen’s coloring. Or so the woman from House and Garden had said last week when she came down to photograph the house and the dramatic changes Helen had made to it.
On the primrose yellow silk chaise longue lay a copy of this month’s Vogue, with a photographic feature on the new beauties. Most beautiful of them all was undoubtedly Mrs. Rupert Campbell-Black, showing Helen, huge-eyed, swan-necked, her Titian hair spread by a wind machine, Rupert’s diamonds gleaming at her ears and throat. Also on the chaise longue were guidebooks for Rome and Madrid and Italian and Spanish phrase books. Helen took her trips abroad very seriously, sightseeing and trying to learn as much of the language as possible. Beside the books lay Helen’s journal. It was the same dark green notebook she’d had in Regina House. She was ashamed that since she’d married Rupert she’d filled in less than a half of it, only sketchily recording events in what had certainly been the most exciting years of her life. But she’d been so busy living, she didn’t seem to have had much time to write about it.
She remembered the day Rupert had asked her to marry him. In the afternoon she’d been sitting in the stands with Doreen, Humpty Hamilton’s even fatter, bouncier wife, mother of two children, watching Rupert and Humpty jump in a class. Helen, delirious with happiness, couldn’t resist telling Doreen she was engaged. Doreen Hamilton was delighted at the news and promptly bore Helen off to the bar for a celebration drink, then offered her a word of advice.
“If you marry a show jumper,” she said, “involve yourself in his career as much as possible and travel with him as much as you can, even if it means sleeping in lorries, or caravans, or frightful pokey foreign hotels. And if he suddenly rings up when you’re at home and says come out to Rome, or drive down to Windsor, or to Crittleden, always go — at once, even if you’ve just washed your hair and put it in curlers, or you’ve just got the baby to sleep. Because if you don’t, there’ll always be others queuing up to take your place.”
Helen, cocooned in the miracle of her new and reciprocated love for Rupert, was unable to imagine him loving anyone else, or any girl queuing up for fat little Humpty, but she had heeded the advice and gone with Rupert to as many shows as possible. Not that this involved much hardship; his caravan was extremely luxurious and when they went abroad Rupert insisted on staying in decent hotels or with rich jet-set friends who seemed to surface, crying welcome, in every country they visited. But it meant she always had to look her best.
Going to the window, with its rampaging frame of scented palest pink clematis, she gazed out across the valley, emerald green from weeks of heavy rain, remembering the first time she’d seen the house. Rupert and Billy, having both won big classes on the final day of the Royal Plymouth, decided to stay on for the closing party that night. After intensive revelry, Rupert suddenly turned to Helen and said, “I think it’s time you had a look at my bachelor pad,” and they loaded up the horse box and set out for Gloucestershire, Rupert driving, Helen sitting warm between the two men. “An exquisite sliver of smoked salmon between two very old stale pieces of bread,” said Billy.
Helen went to sleep and woke up as they drove up the valley towards Penscombe. The sun had just risen, firing a denim blue sky with ripples of crimson and reddening the ramparts of cow parsley on either side of the road. Suddenly the horses started pawing the floorboards in the back and Mavis and Badger, who were sprawled across Billy’s and Helen’s knees in the front, woke up and started sniffing excitedly.
“Ouch,” said Billy as Badger stepped heavily across him. “Get off my crotch. Why the hell don’t you get his claws cut, Rupe?”
Helen looked across the valley at the honey gold house leaning back against its pale green pillow of beech trees.
“What a beautiful mansion,” she gasped. “I wonder who lives there?”
“You do,” said Rupert. “That’s your new home,” and he and Billy laughed to see how speechless she was.
“I can’t believe it,” she whispered. “It’s so old and so beautiful. It’s a stately home.”
“You may not find it quite so splendid when you get close to,” said Rupert, slowing down as they entered the village.
He took the lorry straight round to the stables, where Marion and Tracey, who’d driven home the night before with the caravan, were waiting to unload the horses. Leaving Billy to check everything was all right, Rupert whipped into the house, collected a bottle of champagne and two glasses, and took Helen out on the terrace.
Below them lay the valley, drenched white with dew, softened by the palest gray mist rising from the stream that ran along the bottom. On the opposite hillside, the sun was filtering thick biblical rays through the trees, which in turn cast long powder blue shadows down the fields. And, sauntering leisurely down one of these rays like horses of the dawn, came three of Rupert’s sleek and beautiful thoroughbreds, two grays and a chestnut. Tossing their heads, they broke into a gallop and careered joyously down the white valley, vanishing into the mist like a dream.
Leaning on the stone balustrade on the edge of the terrace, Helen gazed and gazed. Behind her the wood was filled with bluebells; thrushes were singing out of a clump of white lilacs to the left. Badger, after the long journey, wandered around lifting his leg on bright yellow irises, before happily plunging into the lake.
“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” she breathed. “You’re not a closet earl or anything, are you? I feel like King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid.”
“King who?” asked Rupert, hitching a hip onto the lichened balustrade and edging open the champagne with his thumbs. The cork flew through the air, landing in a rosebush.
“Is it all yours?”
“As far as that village on the right.” He filled a glass and handed it to her.
“Anyway it’s yours too now, darling, every inch of it.”
Looking up, she saw he was smiling. Even an eighth of an inch of blond stubble, and a slight puffiness round the wickedly sparkling eyes, couldn’t diminish his beauty.
“Just as every single inch of you belongs to me from now on,” he added softly.
Then she realized it was not King Cophetua he reminded her of, but the Devil tempting Christ in the wilderness, saying, “All this will I give you.”
Just for a second she had a premonition of unease. Then Rupert chinked his glass against hers and, draining it, said, “Let’s go to bed.”
“We can’t,” stammered Helen. “What will everyone think?”
“That we’ve gone to bed,” said Rupert.
Upstairs he pulled the telephone out, but didn’t bother to lock the door.
“Well, at least I’m going to draw the curtains,” said Helen.
“I wouldn’t,” said Rupert.
But the next minute she’d given the dark red velvet a vigorous tug and the whole thing descended, curtain rail and all, on her head in a huge cloud of dust. In fits of laughter, Rupert extracted her.
“I told you not to pull it!” Then, seeing her hair covered in dust, “My God you’ve gone white overnight. Must be the effect of saying you’ll marry me.”
He pulled her into the shade of the great ancient four-poster and began unbuttoning her shirt. Next minute she leapt out of her skin as the door opened. But it was only Badger, dripping from the lake, trying to join them in bed.
“Basket,” snapped Rupert. “And you might bloody well shut the door,” he added, kicking it shut.
After Rupert had come, with that splendid driving flourish of staccato thrusts which reminded Helen of the end of a Beethoven symphony, he fell into a deep sleep. Helen, lying in his arms, had been far too tense and nervous of interruption to gain any satisfaction. Looking around the room, she took in the mothy fox masks leering down from the walls, the Munnings and the Lionel Edwards, and surely that was a Stubbs in the corner, very much in need of a clean. All the furniture in the room was old and handsome, but it too was desperately in need of a polish, and all the chairs and the sofa needed reupholstering. There were angora rabbits of dust on top of every picture, and sailors could have climbed up the rigging of cobwebs in the corners. Judging by the color of the bed linen, it hadn’t seen a washing machine for weeks. Helen began to itch and edged out of Rupert’s embrace. She was touched to see a copy of War and Peace by the bedside table. At least he was trying to educate himself. Writing “I love you” in the dust, she wandered off to find a bathroom.
She found the john first, and was less touched to find a framed photograph on the wall of Rupert on a horse, being presented with a cup by Grania Pringle. Along the bottom Grania had written, “So happy to mount you — love Grania.” That’s one for the jumble sale, thought Helen, taking it off the wall.
The bathroom made her faint. A great white bath, standing six inches off the ground on legs shaped like lion’s paws, was ringed with grime like a rugger sweater. Above it, a geyser on the wall spat out dust and then boiling water. The ceiling was black with dirt, the paint peeling like the surface of the moon. On another beautiful chest of drawers, which was warping from the damp, stood empty bottles, mugs, and two ashtrays brimming over with cigarette stubs.
Having found a moderately clean towel and spent nearly an hour cleaning the bath, she had one herself, then set out to explore the house, finding bedroom after bedroom filled with wonderful furniture, carpets, and china, with many of the beds recently slept in but not made. At the end of the passage she discovered a room which was obviously Billy’s. On the chest of drawers was a large photograph in a frame of Lavinia Greenslade, and an even larger one of Mavis. There were glasses by the bed and drink rings on everything.
A bridle hung from the four-poster. There were sporting prints on the wall and more framed photographs of horses jumping, galloping, standing still, and being presented with rosettes. On the chest of drawers was a pile of unopened brown envelopes and more overflowing ashtrays.
Descending the splendid staircase with a fat crimson cord attached to the wall to cling on to, she admired a huge painting of Badger in the hall. Underneath it two Jack Russells were having a fight. She found a pair of Springer Spaniels shut in the drawing room. Every beautiful faded chair and sofa seemed to be upholstered in dog hair. On the wall was a large lighter patch where a painting had been sold. The rest of the walls were covered, among other things, by a Romney, a Gainsborough, a Lely, and a Thomas Lawrence. Next door, behind the inevitable wire cages, was the library. No wonder Rupert was indifferent to culture; it was all around him, to be taken for granted. For a minute, looking at more cobwebs and dust, she thought she’d strayed into Miss Haversham’s house.
Then she trod on something that squelched.
“Oh my God,” she screamed.
“What’s the matter?” asked Billy, coming through the door, holding a pile of entry forms and a checkbook.
“One of those damned dogs has gone to the bathroom in the living room.”
She couldn’t understand why Billy laughed so much.
“It’s not funny,” she said. “I’ve never seen such a dump. Doesn’t anyone ever clean it? It’s an arachnophobe’s nightmare. Marion and Tracey must be the most awful slobs to let it get into such a state.”
“Suppose it is a bit of a mess,” said Billy apologetically. “But we’re not in the house much during the day and one never notices dust at night. We had a char. She wasn’t very good, but Rupert kept her on because she made him laugh. He said she had charisma. Then he came back and found her in one of the spare room beds drinking gin with the electric blanket on. After that even he had to sack her, so we haven’t had anyone for about six weeks.”
“Doesn’t look as though you’ve had anyone for six years,” said Helen, scraping her shoe on the gravel outside.
“Come and look at the stables; that should cheer you up. Is Rupert asleep?”
“I know it’s a mess,” he said, putting his arm through Helen’s and leading her across the lawn, passing overgrown shrub roses that hadn’t seen a pruner in years and pink scented peonies collapsing on the grass. “But we’re so frightfully busy, we haven’t really got time to organize the house. That’s why Rupert desperately needs a wife,” he went on, squeezing her hand. “Not only are you the most adorably beautiful girl we’ve ever seen, but we really need you to look after us.”
“Thanks,” said Helen. “So in fact I’m really marrying two riders, four grooms, thirty horses, a million dogs, and a stable cat. I feel like Milly in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But it’s such a beautiful house, and it could be made so gorgeous.”
“And I’m quite confident you’ll be able to do it,” said Billy happily.
The stables were built of the same honey-colored stone as the house, the doors painted the same dark blue Rupert had chosen on the color chart in church on their first date. Horses looked out inquisitively, eager for any diversion. Brick red geraniums bloomed in blue and white striped tubs. There was not a blade of straw or a speck of dust anywhere. In the center was a circle of grass beautifully mown round an ancient mulberry tree. It was like a toy stable.
Billy introduced her to the junior grooms, Susie and Janis, two more pretty shapely blondes. Tracey and Marion, having the afternoon off, had collapsed into bed, Marion, Helen suspected, to cry her eyes out. She hadn’t addressed a word to Rupert since she heard he was getting married.
Billy led her into the tackroom, which was beautifully kept. The tack was dark and gleaming, the bits shining, every inch of wall lined with rosettes. Helen breathed in the smell of leather, linseed oil, saddle soap. “But I don’t understand,” she said. “It’s as neat as a new pin here. Why is the house such a mess?”
Billy shrugged. “This is where the action is. If I were you I’d move into Macaulay’s box. At least you’d get clean straw and regular meals.”
After a good night’s sleep, Helen felt more able to cope. Next day she went back to Regina House and the office. Despite Rupert’s outraged protests, she felt she ought to get things straight and tidy up. Nigel, when he heard she was going to marry Rupert, was even more outraged.
“You’d think Rupert was General Franco or Oswald Mosley,” she grumbled.
“Jolly nearly,” hissed Nigel. “I’m ashamed of you, Helen.”
The next day the IRA blew up a shop and then a hamburger bar in London, not far from Helen’s office. Rupert was at a show in the West Country, but he was on to Helen immediately.
“Are you all right, darling? Christ, I’ve been worried. Look, I’m not leaving you in London anymore. You must move in at once. I can’t bear another night away from you.”
“But what am I going to do with myself all day?”
“You can organize my life.”
“Can I redecorate your house?”
“If it makes you happy, as long as you let me burn your entire wardrobe, and promise never to buy any more clothes without my coming too. I haven’t got a show next Monday,” he went on. “I thought we might get married.”
And so they were married at Gloucester Registry office. Helen wore a gray silk suit chosen by Rupert. Billy and Humpty were witnesses.
They set off to Yorkshire on their honeymoon, staying in an old pub in the middle of the moors. On the Tuesday Rupert went to look at a horse which he decided not to buy. On Thursday he said he was fed up with the pub and knew a better one over the Pennines.
As they were driving there Helen suddenly noticed AA signs and advertising posters: “The great Lancashire show starts today.” She said idly to Rupert, “Is Billy going?”
“Yes,” said Rupert, leaning across and kissing her, “and so are we.”
When they reached the show, there were Billy and Tracey looking sheepish, and Marion looking bootfaced, and, surprise surprise, Mayfair and Macaulay and Rupert’s riding clothes. Helen looked down at the huge unusual ring of sapphires and emeralds which Rupert had given her as an engagement ring and remembered what Doreen Hamilton had said about being a show jumper’s wife, and laughed instead of cried.
“Darling Mother,” she wrote home that evening, “I got married on Monday. My husband is called Rupert Campbell-Black. He is real handsome and very famous in England, because he is a stadium jumping star. In England it is called show jumping, and a big sport rather like baseball. He has the most beautiful stately home near Shakespeare’s birthplace, you will just go crazy about it. It is so old, and the village he lives in looks as though none of the houses have been touched since Elizabeth Ist’s day. I enclose photographs of the house and of Rupert. I know you wanted me to get married in Florida and in white, Mother, but I promise you I am truly truly happy. I never believed being in love could be like this. Rupert had a very traumatic childhood, I’m surprised he hasn’t been in analysis for years, but he is very normal. His mother lives in the Bahamas and is on her third husband, and his father is on his fourth wife.
“I haven’t met them yet. But soon I’m going to meet Rupert’s old Nanny, who is really the person who brought him up, and gave him security. He thinks the world of her. I’m going to make him happy. I love him so much I long to have you meet him, but the summer is Rupert’s busy time. At the moment he is at shows all the week and at weekends, but I promise the first weekend we get free, we’ll fly out and see you. All love, Helen.”
Rupert’s meeting with Helen’s parents didn’t take place until August and was not a success. The plan was that Helen should fly direct to Florida and Rupert, having looked at some horses in Kentucky, should join her a couple of days later. As it was in the middle of the show-jumping season, Helen explained, he would be able to stay only for the weekend before flying back to Europe for the Dublin Horse Show, where, having been forgiven at last by Malise, he had been picked to jump for Great Britain, but at least it would give her parents the chance to meet him.
Arriving home, Helen was appalled to find her mother had arranged a full-scale wedding party, with three hundred guests to meet Helen’s handsome English husband, with even a minister coming to the house to perform a service beforehand, in which the happy couple would be blessed.
“I just don’t feel you’re married after a registry office ceremony,” said her mother.
“Rupert’ll absolutely freak out,” protested Helen. “He hasn’t brought a cutaway, or even a dinner jacket.”
“He can always hire one, or borrow one from Father,” said her mother.
With a growing feeling of apprehension, Helen watched the preparations. In fact, her mother was so well organized that on Friday afternoon she and her four daughters were able to slip down to the beach below their house for a couple of hours’ sun. Helen’s three sisters, all lithe and beautiful, awaited Rupert’s arrival that evening with intense excitement. They were amazed at the change in Helen. She looked so beautiful and happy, and so much more self-assured.
“Look at that dreamy yacht,” said Esme, the younger sister, as a big boat with bright blue sails crowded with bronzed, half-naked people tacked close to the shore. The next moment one of them had jumped ship. Wading through the shallows carrying a case, he turned as he reached the sand and, brandishing it, shouted, “Thanks for the lift.”
“Are you ready for that?” said Milly, the second sister, in wonder.
“It’s Rupert,” gasped Helen.
He was as blond and as brown as a beach boy, and he was wearing nothing except a rather small United States flag draped round his loins.
“Jesus,” said Claudia, the third sister.
“Don’t swear, Claudia,” said Mrs. Macaulay.
Helen hurtled down the beach, flung her arms round Rupert’s neck, and only just stopped the American flag tumbling to half-mast.
“Darling, we were expecting you tonight.”
“I got a lift with some chums. I missed you.”
On Palm Beach, home of the beautiful, he was still the most beautiful of all.
“Mother, this is Rupert,” said Helen.
Mrs. Macaulay was vain enough not to be very pleased at having to meet her new son-in-law when she was scarlet and sweating from the heat. She would have preferred to have parted the wisteria on the terrace, welcoming him in a pretty dress, hair newly set, makeup light but perfect. But she knew one must behave like a lady at all times, so she radiated graciousness.
“Hi, Rupert,” she said, holding out a hand slippery with suntan oil and trying not to look at the American flag. “I’m so pleased to welcome you as our son. I hope you’ll call me Mother.”
Rupert, in fact, never managed to call her anything. He didn’t even kiss her; both felt it would have been too sweaty an embrace. He looked at her handsome, rigid, determined face with the graying red hair. He took in the well-controlled figure in its skirted bathing dress, he noticed the gold cross hanging between the crepey breasts, and he shuddered and vowed he would never let Helen get like that. Mrs. Macaulay averted her eyes and noted Rupert was not wearing a wedding ring. Father must find him one before tomorrow.
“I’m not going to hire a morning coat,” snapped Rupert, when at last he and Helen were alone in their bedroom, “nor am I going to be blessed by some Yankee poofter. We were married in England; that’s enough for me.”
“Hush, darling, they’ll hear you, and it’s worth it for all the wedding gifts.”
“Not if you look at them closely. Six magazine racks, two sets of monogrammed highball glasses, twelve egg coddlers, a dozen staghorn steak knives. Jesus! Two sets of glasses with polo players on. Polo, I ask you.”
“Oh, that was darling Great-Aunt Grace. Doesn’t know the difference between show jumping and polo. She was doing her best. There’s a lovely dinner service, and some beautiful cachepots, and glass. The problem is how to get them all home.”
“We’ll have to hire a plane and hope it crashes on takeoff.”
Helen giggled, but she felt defensive about her parents and their friends. If only he would behave for the wedding, she knew everyone would love him. Rupert went moodily to the window.
“God, I miss Badger. Why don’t your parents have a dog? I am not going through with this party. If I do I’ll wear a suit.”
“All right,” said Helen soothingly. “But please, darling, be nice just this once. Mother’s been arranging it for weeks and Milly’s going to sing “What Is Life to Me Without You.” Mother’s been coaching her for weeks, and Dad’s even been out and bought himself an Ascot and some striped pants. All you’ve got to do is show up and be polite.”
Rupert behaved rather well during the service. Later everyone crowded onto the lawn, and after champagne had been drunk for an hour or so, the most distinguished male relation rose to praise Helen, and to welcome Rupert to the family. Afterwards there was a pause.
“Speech, speech,” shouted all the relations and friends and the large sprinkling of Mr. Macaulay’s patients, flashing their beautifully capped teeth. Rupert, wearing a dark suit and not wearing the wedding ring his father-in-law had pressed on him that morning, rose to his feet.
“My heart is in my mouth at this wonderful party,” he said charmingly, “but as my Nanny always told me not to talk with my mouth full, I’m not going to say anything, except to thank Mr. and Mrs. Macaulay. I could tell jokes about gay Irish dentists, but I don’t think my father-in-law would like that. Thank you all for your wonderful presents,” and with that he quietly slid under the table.
“But you weren’t even drunk,” said Helen, still furious, as their plane took off for England.
“I know, but I was bored. I’m sorry, darling, but the only relations I like are sexual relations.”
“And you’ve left Aunt Martha’s paintings behind.”
“I know,” said Rupert. “I was terrified they might frighten the dogs.”
Rupert’s parents both wrote Helen delightfully vague letters. Rupert’s mother sent her a diamond brooch with a broken clasp, Rupert’s father a jar of caviar. Both promised they’d be over sometime — probably when they want to borrow money, said Rupert — and wished them every happiness.
Helen’s meeting with Rupert’s old Nanny was hardly more successful.
“What shall I wear?” she asked Billy beforehand.
“A skirt with horizontal stripes. All Nanny cares about is good childbearing hips.”
Nanny’s cottage in Wiltshire had been bought and furnished by the Campbell-Black family. They had filled it with pieces from their various houses which were far too large. It was an obstacle race to get across the sitting room. Nanny, almost the largest thing in the cottage, stood six feet tall, with big ears, a whiskery seamed face, a boxer’s jaw, and shrewd, tough little brown eyes like Henry VII. She was wearing a shiny high-necked navy blue dress with a white collar, which gave the impression of a uniform. Although it was a very hot day, she was watching fireworks on a black and white television with the central heating at full blast and none of the windows open. Perhaps years of Campbell-Black austerity and indifference to the cold had unhinged her, thought Helen. Every surface in the room was covered in photographs of babies in long white dresses. The only others were of Rupert at every stage of his career, as a solemn blue-eyed baby, at St. Augustine’s, Harrow, in the Blues, and, mostly, of him show jumping. Otherwise there was no evidence that she was remotely pleased to see him.
She hardly thanked him for the half-dozen bottles of her favorite, disgustingly sweet sherry that he brought her. Pouring out three glasses, she gave much the smallest to Helen.
“Isn’t Helen beautiful?” said Rupert.
Nanny looked Helen up and down and sniffed. “Very beautiful face,” she said.
“She’s got a beautiful figure too,” protested Rupert, laughing. “I know you’d have only been happy if I’d married some Flanders mare producing sons every eight months.”
Nanny snorted and proceeded to tear Rupert off a strip for hell-raising in Paris and getting arrested at Plymouth and getting married without a proper wedding. Rupert accepted it with amazing mildness.
“I’m sorry we didn’t ask you to the wedding; we didn’t ask anyone. I couldn’t face all my stepparents muscling in on the act. And my mother would have been bored to have been reminded of all her weddings.”
“Who’s your father married to at the moment?” said Nanny.
“Some Italian whore,” said Rupert.
“I suppose you had to get married?” asked Nanny.
“No, we did not.”
“Whatever happened to Bianca? And Melanie Potter? She was a bonny girl.”
“She’s married with two daughters. I told you last time.”
Nanny knew everything about him, and every round he’d jumped in the last two years.
“Your mother remembered my birthday,” she said accusingly. “More than you did, and so did your brother Adrian. I hear he’s got a girlfriend.”
“Are you sure?” said Rupert in amazement. “I don’t think so.”
“Never knew he was bispectacled,” said Nanny.
Helen didn’t dare look at Rupert.
“Helen’s American,” said Rupert.
“So I read,” said Nanny. “Never thought you’d end up with a foreigner. I’ve read about Watergate,” she added, as though Helen were personally responsible.
Helen was so hot she took off her jersey, revealing her slender brown arms and waist.
“Not much of her, is there?” said Nanny. “Anorexic, I suppose.”
Finally, when Helen thought she’d faint from the heat, she said, “I think we ought to go, Rupert.”
Nanny was not at all upset; she didn’t even come to the door. Desperate to get out into the fresh air, Helen made her good-byes and fled, but not before she heard Nanny say, “Got money, I suppose? Only reason for marrying a foreigner really.”
“Isn’t she a gem?” said Rupert on the way home.
“She’s a Machiavellian old monster,” said Helen.
“Doesn’t mean it; she’s nearly eighty. All the same I can’t wait for you to have a baby so we can get her out of mothballs to look after it.”
It was plain, in fact, as the months went by, that Rupert and Helen were very different. Rupert was spoilt, easily irritated, and didn’t flinch from showing it. His ambition in life was to get his own way and beat the hell out of the opposition. He had many moments of frustration and boredom in life, but very few of self-doubt.
Helen, on the other hand, was riddled with self-doubt. She believed that one should not only constantly strive to improve oneself and others, but that work would indeed keep the devil at bay.
To begin with, therefore, she made heroic efforts to interest herself in horses and learn to ride, but she was too tense and nervous and the horses sensed this, and the way she always caught her breath got on Rupert’s nerves. Then Marion (Helen never knew if it were deliberate) put her up on one of the novices, who carted her through a wood with low-hanging branches and finally deposited her on the tarmac of the village street. Helen bruised herself very badly and after that gave up trying to ride.
She still took an interest in show jumping, however, reading every book on the subject, scanning the papers for horsey news. She even started reading dressage books and discussing her theories with Rupert, trying to show him where he was going wrong. Rupert was not amused. He did not want gratuitous advice that Macaulay might go better in a running martingale, or Belgravia might profit from learning to execute half-passes.
“When all’s said and done,” he told her sharply, “I’m riding the fucking horse, not you, so belt up.”
Helen, during the long, long hours that Rupert and Billy were occupied with the horses, turned her attention to the house and soon had the place swarming with builders, plumbers, electricians, and painters.
“You’d think they were building the Pyramids,” grumbled Rupert.
But gradually the damp and the dry rot were eradicated, and a new heating and wiring system installed. Pastel colors replaced the crimson and dark green wallpapers and old brocades. Tattered silks and moth-eaten tapestries were succeeded by new pale silks, glazed chintz, and Laura Ashley flower prints.
Helen also employed a decent cleaner, Mrs. Bodkin, paid her well, and managed to keep her. Mrs. Bodkin admired Helen. She found her formal and distant and not given to gossip, but she was kind, straight, listened to Mrs. Bodkin’s problems, and was prepared to muck in with the cleaning.
She certainly needed to. Rupert and Billy were appallingly untidy. Both dropped their clothes where they took them off, never brought a cup or glass downstairs, and, if they couldn’t find a boot jack at the front or back door, trailed mud all over the hall and the new carpet, followed by a convoy of dogs with dirty paws.
The dogs drove Helen increasingly crackers, shedding hair, barking, fighting, claiming Rupert’s attention. Also, the colder the winter got, and the last one was a killer (you could skate on the water in the john) the more the dogs tried to climb into bed with them. Rupert, who fell asleep the moment his head touched the pillow, didn’t notice or mind Badger lying across his feet, or a Springer Spaniel curled up in the warmth of his back. Helen, a nervous insomniac, was kept awake night after night, shoving the dogs out of bed and listening to them licking themselves or scratching interminably in creaking baskets.
As the winter got colder, and the winds blew off the Bristol Channel, and the central heating was not yet installed, poor Florida-reared Helen developed a hacking cough. Rupert, who like most very healthy people, lacked sympathy with illness, suggested she should get a job coughing between movements on Radio Three.
And that was another problem. Culturally they were so different. Every time she wanted to listen to classical music, Rupert turned on Radio One. Every week she determinedly read the Times Literary Supplement, Encounter, and New Society. She started to read the New Statesman, but Rupert canceled it; he was not having subversive Trotskyite rubbish corrupting the dogs, he said.
Then there was the matter of the Augustus John drawing. Helen, having spent a long time deciding what would really please Rupert for a wedding present, spent her entire savings on a drawing of a horse by Augustus John.
Rupert was enchanted.
“I think that was the old roué who had a walkout with my grandmother.”
He was studying the drawing in great detail when the doorbell rang. It was a man about the washing machine. When Helen returned quarter of an hour later, Rupert had propped the drawing on the sofa and was looking at it with satisfaction.
“What?” said Helen. Then, noticing a pencil and rubber in Rupert’s hand, gave a gasp of horror. “What have you done?”
“Redrawn the near side hock. Chap simply hadn’t got it right.”
“But you can’t tamper with the work of great artists,” said Helen, appalled.
“I can, when they can’t draw,” said Rupert.
Although he insisted on buying her a completely new wardrobe, making her look, he’d told Billy, like the aristocrat she plainly isn’t, on the whole he approved of the changes she made to the house. But he drew the line at mats under glasses to stop the drink rings, and he tore down the net curtains in the first-floor bedrooms and the downstairs loo, and he threw all the artificial flowers she bought to brighten up the dark hall into the boiler.
Their worst row was triggered off, however, when Helen introduced discs into the lavatory cisterns to disinfect the water and dye it blue. Rupert came roaring into the kitchen, one of the blue discs in his hand, dripping dye all over the floor.
“What the fuck is this?” he howled. “Have you gone mad? Are you trying to poison my dogs?”
“They shouldn’t drink out of the john,” screamed Helen. “Then they go and lick everyone. It’s disgusting. They’ve got water bowls in the kitchen, and a water trough, and a lake in the garden. Why do they bother with the john?”
“Because they always have. I’m not having you introducing any more of your dinky little American ideas. It’ll be chiming doorbells and musical lavatory paper next. I want the water clear by the time I get home, and if any of the dogs get ill, I’ll report you to the RSPCA.” And he stormed out, slamming the door. Helen and Mrs. Bodkin removed the blue discs.
Poor Helen tried and failed to impose gracious living on Billy and Rupert. She yearned for candlelit dinners with the silver out, damask napkins, intelligent conversation, and lingering over coffee and liqueurs. But, looking after horses, there was no guarantee what time Rupert and Billy would get in. After three attempts at boeuf en croute that turned out tougher than a tramp’s boots, Helen found out that all they really wanted was sausages and mash, or Irish stew on their knees, slumped in front of the television. Usually they argued across the program about the day’s events, or some horse they were thinking of buying. Rupert bolted his food, hardly noticing what he ate. She was often tempted to offer him Chappie and Winalot. Often they were so tired, they fell asleep in the middle of a meal.
But however much Rupert fell asleep over the television, he always woke up and wanted sex when they went to bed, and again in the morning, and often popping in, if he wasn’t at a show, in the middle of the day. “I’m happy as long as I’m mounted,” he used to say, “and you’re so compulsively ridable, my darling.”
If they ever had a row, Rupert had to make it up because he wanted to sleep with her. If she found his demands excessive, and she frequently didn’t achieve orgasm herself, she never said so. But after nearly a year she still grabbed a towel when he walked into the bedroom and found her naked. She always locked the lavatory door, and she only really liked sex if she’d just had a bath. She was embarrassed by his unashamed delight in her body. She still couldn’t convince herself that he really enjoyed doing those things he insisted he liked doing long enough to make her come, so she often wriggled away pretending she had, then felt desperately ashamed of faking. But she found him irresistible and she needed his constant assaults as evidence that he still doted on her.
For there was oodles of competition. Wherever they were, girls ran after Rupert, clamoring for his autograph, mobbing him at parties, even pulling hairs out of his horses’ tails as souvenirs, until they were almost bald. And although she got kudos, wherever she went, as Rupert’s beautiful wife, and there was a great feeling of mutual congratulation in being such a handsome couple, it was Rupert people really wanted to see.
Marion troubled her too. She longed for Rupert to sack her (as he was always threatening to do) but was too tactful to say anything. But she remembered Marion’s reddened eyes, particularly after their wedding. She tried to be particularly nice to the girl, giving her a beautiful black cashmere jersey for her birthday, which Marion never wore, and was constantly urging Rupert to ask her to dinner and suggesting handsome young men to meet her. But Marion politely refused and kept her distance, gazing at Helen with the hostile somber eyes of a prisoner of war.
Billy explained to Helen that Marion was so good with the horses that it was worthwhile putting up with her moods. Billy was such a comfort. He’d offered to move out when Helen and Rupert got married, but neither of them could bear to lose him. After all, he and Rupert had been inseparable since they were eight, and they were business partners, and Rupert needed someone to talk horses with. As the weeks passed Helen decided Billy was simply the nicest person she’d ever met. He was so kind, funny, easygoing, and, she flattered herself, just a tiny bit in love with her. If she had a row with Rupert, Billy stuck up for her. If Rupert was irritable because the horses were going badly, she could dump on Billy, knowing she wasn’t being disloyal, because Billy understood Rupert and loved him, at the same time as knowing all his faults. It was a very happy arrangement. Billy obviously wasn’t serious about Lavinia Greenslade and wouldn’t get married for years.
Rupert sometimes complained of being gentrified, but he and Billy soon found it a boon that the house was run like clockwork, that their suits and red coats were always back from the cleaner’s, that there were always enough clean white shirts, ties, and breeches, that their boots were mended, that the house was ordered and tidy, that entry forms were filled in, that fan mail was answered, and endless requests to speak or open fêtes and supermarkets were politely refused by return of post.
This left Rupert and Billy to concentrate on the horses, which they certainly needed to do. The three-day week brought extra costs. Petrol prices in particular shot up. There were forecasts of economic doom for years to come, and, with the Socialists coming to power, there was more chilling talk of a wealth tax, which would cripple Rupert’s income. It became increasingly vital to win and win. And they did. There was no doubt that since Rupert married Helen he and Billy had calmed down, and were now both regular fixtures in the British team.
So now Helen, on the eve of leaving for Rome and Madrid, gazed out on the green valley. She was really looking forward to the trip. For the first time she felt she could leave the house without the workmen doing something frightful. She loved going abroad, picking up antiques and pieces for the house, visiting galleries and museums, learning new languages. Also it meant a holiday from all the dogs in the bed, and as Rupert was far less famous abroad they weren’t constantly besieged by groupies (or “Rupies” as Billy called them). And Malise Gordon was there. She always enjoyed spending time with him. They often went to galleries and museums together when they were away, making Rupert slightly edgy. He was jealous of something that Malise and Helen shared that he couldn’t give her, so he continually mocked it.
Helen turned back to all the beautiful clothes Rupert had bought her. She realized above all that it was important to him that other men admired and fancied her, but like Meissen china in a glass case, the admiration had to be kept at a distance. Last year in Rotterdam, when a rather inebriated Dutchman asked her to dance in a nightclub, it had only been Billy’s half nelson that had stopped Rupert knocking him across the room. A slightly more persistent admirer at one of the Dublin Horse Show balls had been less lucky and ended up with a fractured jaw.
Jake Lovell rode across his fields at a leisurely pace. When he came to a hedge or a wall he popped the gray gelding over it, but he was in no hurry. He’d already worked all the novice horses that morning, and the Grade A horses were having a rest after a three-day show. Besides, it was a beautiful day and the cuckoo was yelling its head off in the hazel wood nearby. Wolf, Jake’s shaggy adoring lurcher, was chasing rabbits but never letting his master out of his sight for very long, and Jake wanted to think.
It was nearly five years since he had married Tory, and Granny Maxwell had given them the Mill House at Withrington. And although there had been years of hard work and struggle, Jake knew they had been the happiest in his life. The Mill had been in a dilapidated state when they moved in, but gradually he and Tory had painted the rooms, and gradually they had scraped together enough money to pull down the old stables and build new ones, so they now kept a dozen horses.
There had been terrible setbacks. Two Mays ago he’d been selected to ride for Great Britain for the first time, but the day he was due to leave, Africa stepped on a rusty nail, which put her out of action for several months. One of the young novices, a really promising gray thoroughbred, had jumped out of its field, escaped onto the motorway, been hit by a lorry, and had to be destroyed. Then, as Tory had inherited the bulk of her capital by then and Africa was out of action, Jake had spent rather too much money on a top-class horse to fill the gap, which had broken its leg and had to be put down at the first show he took it to.
Things had not gone according to plan in other directions either. At the start of their marriage, Tory had worked as a secretary to a local solicitor, her salary being the main contribution that had saved her, Jake, and the horses from starvation. For months they seemed to live on pork pies and baked beans bought with her luncheon vouchers. But within a year and a quarter she was pregnant, and in July of the following year she produced a son. They called him Isa, short for Isaac, after Jake’s lost gypsy father, and Jake, who’d been very apprehensive, not particularly liking children and feeling most unready to be a father, found himself utterly besotted with the child. Perhaps it was because little Isa was his only blood relation, or because the boy was so beautiful, with his huge black eyes and white blond hair; or because he was so sturdy and merry and placid and seemed positively to thrive in a cold damp house, and being permanently carted from show to show in a carrycot.
Jake was also pleasantly surprised to find how easy it was to be married to Tory, who was the ideal show-jumper’s wife. She never made him feel guilty if he were late back from shows or up all night tending a sick horse. When he came in she always provided him with good food, a sympathetic ear, and sex if he wanted, but was never offended if he didn’t. She understood his terrible nerves before big classes, and why often, if he were sorting out his relationship with a particular horse, he could be withdrawn and taciturn. She coped with all the paperwork, paying bills, and sending off entry forms. When they married, she’d been terrified of horses, but Jake had helped her to overcome this, and although she’d never be much good as a rider, she soon picked up the rudiments of feeding and looking after a string, fussing over each animal as if she was its mother. So all the horses were happy and the yard ran like clockwork even when he was away.
She was also passionately proud of everything he did and nailed up every new rosette with joy, so a whole wall of the tackroom was now covered. Most important of all, she understood that his character was like a stray dog’s rescued from Battersea dogs’ home. Constantly moving from one show to another satisfied some nomadic gypsy wanderlust in his blood, but he only felt safe doing this knowing he had a safe, loving home to come back to. Like many wanderers, only by going away would he test that home would still be there when he returned.
Two years before he had had a special stroke of luck. He had gone to a horse sale in Warwick, not one of his favorite pastimes. He tried not to be anthropomorphic about horses, but sales always reminded him of the children’s home. All those horses, bewildered, frightened, displaced, often coming from cosseted homes or, after years of hard work, to be sold to the knacker’s yard, or to people who didn’t know how to look after them, or who would abuse their willing natures.
The mare he’d been tipped off about went for more than he could afford, but suddenly he heard a horse squealing his head off. Get me out of this horrible place, he seemed to be saying. Wandering down the horse lines, Jake found a half-starved, dirty, flea-bitten gray gelding, standing about 16.3, with a walleye, big feet, a coarse head, huge ears flapping like a mule’s, and ribs sticking out like a plate rack. He had to be the ugliest horse Jake had ever seen. He was obviously starving. But Jake looked at his teeth and was surprised to see the horse was only six or seven. He looked a hundred, but his legs were clean and strong, and when he was petted and scratched behind the ear, he stopped screaming and accepted Jake’s attention with obvious pleasure.
“What’s his history?” Jake asked the dealer who trotted him up and down.
“Some old nutter bought him as a pet for his wife, who had one foot in the grave anyway. They called him Sailor. One day the horse stopped suddenly in the yard and she fell off, catching her head on the mounting block, and croaked two days later. The old nutter was heartbroken, but too mean to have the horse put down, so he left him in a tiny yard, virtually starving him to death.
“Finally the old nutter died. When they discovered his body, they found the horse. The only thing he had to drink out of was a rusty bucket, with two inches of rainwater filled with dead wasps. As you can see, it’s a case for the RSPCA, but you can’t prosecute a dead man.”
For a second, Jake felt choked with rage.
“Poor old sod,” he said stroking the ugly gray head, “had a bad time, have you?”
He had to pay £150 in order to outbid the horsemeat dealers, which he could ill afford at the time. Once home, he stuffed Sailor full of food and, during the day, turned him out with Africa. After three months he took him hunting and had one of the best days of his life. Sailor still looked like nothing on earth — it was always impossible to get any condition on him — but he could jump anything you put him at and keep going all day. And Jake experienced a surge of excitement he had not felt since he first jumped Africa.
Jake had had many arguments with Granny Maxwell because he refused to overface his horses and did not bring them on fast enough. But there was no need to bring Sailor on slowly. By the end of the next season he had been placed in every class he entered and had lifted himself to Grade A. The Northern show jumping fraternity, who were a hard-boiled bunch, not easily impressed, laughed at Sailor when they first saw such an extraordinarily unprepossessing horse, but stayed to pray once they had seen him jump.
He was also the cleverest horse in the yard and, when he was bored, would unbolt his stable door and wander over to the house, putting his flea-bitten head in through the kitchen window, hoping for an apple or a piece of chocolate — always milk, he wouldn’t touch plain — but just as happy with a petting. He never strayed beyond the yard. It was as though he couldn’t believe his luck in having found a good home. He was also the gentlest horse, devoted to Africa, and Wolf the lurcher, and Tory’s Jack Russell, Horace, who could lead him in from the fields tugging at the head-collar rope with his teeth. He was also a marvelous babysitter. Tory found she could leave baby Isa in Sailor’s box, playing round the manger, clinging onto Sailor’s legs and often pulling himself up by the horse’s rather skimpy tail. If he fell over and cried, Sailor would nudge him gently, breathing on him, until he laughed and got up again.
Today, on this ravishing day, Jake was hacking Sailor round the fields just to check that all the fences were safe. He had a feeling things were at last coming good for him. Africa was fit again and jumping like a kangaroo. She had won two big classes in Birmingham last week, even beating the mighty Humpty Hamilton against the clock, and Sailor had been placed three times. It had helped this year that he could at last afford to take on a full-time groom, a girl called Tanya, who was as good at riding as at stable management. The idea was that Jake could now concentrate on schooling and competing, but he still found it hard to delegate, believing that no one understood or could look after his horses as he could.
Over the past four years he had traveled the Northern and Midland circuits, never venturing South, because it was expensive in petrol, because he hated staying away from home for the night, and because some niggling fear told him that he and his horses weren’t yet quite ready to beat the hell out of Rupert Campbell-Black.
Rupert had never been far from his thoughts, however. He had watched him obsessively whenever shows were televised, and read every word about him in the papers, as one outrageous scrape followed another. In fact Jake suspected he had only been picked for the team the May before last (when he’d had to drop out because Africa was unfit) because Rupert and Billy had both been dropped for hell-raising in Paris, and then later getting into some frightful fight at the Royal Plymouth.
Soon afterwards, as though realizing he’d gone too far, Rupert had suddenly married a gorgeous American redhead, who seemed to have had a dramatic effect on his behavior. Gone were the days of womanizing and wild drinking. Rupert appeared less and less often in the gossip pages and more and more on the sports pages, cleaning up at shows all over Europe, appearing as a regular fixture in the British team, and even being tipped as a Probable for the Olympic Games the following year. Jake gnashed his teeth. He had a feeling that Rupert was pulling further and further away from him, that he would never catch up now.
Still, it was too nice a day to worry about Rupert. Ahead, flanked by pale green willows, he could see the Mill House, its ancient red brick weathered to strawberry roan, tossing its shaggy mane of white roses, which no one had time to prune. It was a long low house. He, Tory, little Isa, and Tanya the groom lived on the left-hand side. The right contained the old mill, with its storerooms and huge stone wheel which, fifty years before, had been turned by a fast-rushing stream which still hurtled under the house, through the garden, and eventually into the River Trent.
Behind the house, hidden from view, were the stables, and beyond that a ring of oak trees with huge acid green lichened trunks, which protected them all from the vicious north winds.
Jake’s ambition this year was to build an indoor school. There were too many days in winter, with the dark mornings and long nights, or when it was frosty, wet, or slippery underfoot, when it was impossible to work the horses outside. He’d eaten into Tory’s capital so much, he’d have to get a loan from the bank. But ever since the three-day week and the Socialists coming to power and the economic gloom, the banks had clamped down and were lending money only at colossal interest. He didn’t want to sell more shares at the moment, as they’d have nothing to fall back on and nothing to secure any further borrowing they might need.
He was so deep in thought that it was a few seconds before he realized that Sailor had pricked up his lop ears, Wolf was bounding forward, and Tory was shouting from the house. Popping Sailor across the stream, he cantered up the lawn, which was more of a hayfield these days, as no one had time to mow it.
“Telephone,” she yelled. “Hurry!”
She was standing by the willow tree, which permanently dangled its leaves in the stream. Eight months pregnant with their second child, she was about as fat now as she had been when he first met her. Her face was pink with excitement.
“Who is it?” he said, sliding off Sailor.
“Malise Gordon, ringing from London. I’ll take Sailor.”
Jake handed her the horse and ran into the house as fast as his limp would allow. He mustn’t sound too eager. Probably Malise only wished to say he was coming north on a recce, to watch Jake at some show. The telephone was in the hall, which Tory had painted duck-egg blue last February. Damp patches were already showing through. One day they might be able to afford a carpet.
“Hello,” he said curtly.
“Hello, how are you?” said Malise in his brisk military tones, not stopping for an answer. “You had a good show at Birmingham, I hear. Glad Africa got her form back. Humpty was very irritated to be beaten, but very impressed how she was going.”
“Thanks,” said Jake, feeling Wolf curl up around his feet as he leafed through the neatly typed envelopes on the hall table. Tory had been busy sending off entry forms to the various show secretaries.
“You can’t hide your light under a bushel forever,” said Malise in a slightly hearty voice. “You ought to try some shows further south.”
“I thought of having a crack at Crittleden in July, and perhaps Wembley in October.”
Malise laughed. “I was thinking of much further south. How about coming to Madrid?”
It was a moment Jake had dreamed about for so long. His throat went dry and he had to clutch onto the rickety table for support.
“Madrid?” he croaked.
“Yep, sorry it’s such short notice. Ivor Braine’s horses have all got the cough, and Driffield broke his arm over the weekend, so I thought you might like to go in his place.”
Jake didn’t answer, his mind careering from terror to elation.
“Hello, are you still there?”
“Just,” said Jake. “I’d like to.” Then, as an afterthought, “Thanks very much.”
“The rest of the team’ll be coming on from Rome,” said Malise, “except for Humpty, who’s flying from Heathrow and sending his groom down by train with the horses. It’s a bugger of a journey, takes three or four days, so I suggest you put your groom and your horses in Humpty’s box. His groom, Bridie, can collect yours on the way and they can travel as far as Dunkirk together, then take the train the rest of the way. You can fly out to Madrid with Humpty,” he went on, “and meet the horses there. No point both you and the horses arriving exhausted.”
“No,” said Jake sharply, “I want to travel with the horses.”
“I really wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Anyway I can’t spare my groom. Tory’s about to have a baby and she can’t look after the yard on her own.”
“Are you sure? You really won’t enjoy that flog.”
“I don’t mind.” Jake had never been abroad and the thought of letting his precious horses out of sight for a second on foreign soil filled him with horror.
“And you’ll bring Valerian and Africa?” asked Malise.
“Valerian’s been a bit pulled down by some virus. I’ve got a much better horse. He was placed in three classes at Birmingham.”
“Okay,” said Malise, “you know your own horses. If we need you for the Nations’ Cup you can jump Africa.”
In the kitchen Jake found Tory talking to Wolf, who was sitting on the kitchen table. She was also opening a bottle of champagne.
“Where did that come from?” he said, shocked at such extravagance.
“Granny Maxwell gave it to me just before she died. She said I wasn’t to open it until you were selected. She had faith in you, too. Oh, Jake,” she put down the bottle and flung her arms around his neck and he could feel the tears on her cheeks. “I’m so, so proud of you.”
In the week that followed, Jake was almost too busy to be nervous. Although Tory repeatedly nagged him, he’d never bothered to get a passport, thinking it was tempting providence until he was actually picked. Now all sorts of strings had to be pulled by the BSJA and trips taken to the passport office. Africa and Sailor had to have passports, too, which included a drawing of the horse. However many times Jake redrew Sailor, he still looked like an old Billy goat. They also had to have blood tests, and their health papers had to be stamped. Then shows had to be canceled and Jake and the horses had to be packed for. With a four-day journey there and possibly back, he would be away for nearly three weeks. He would liked to have rung Humpty and asked his advice about foreign customs and what to wear, but he was too proud. Meanwhile the village dressmaker sat up late every night making him a red coat.
He tried the coat on the night before he left, wishing he was taller and broader in the shoulders. At least he didn’t have a turkey red face that clashed with it, like Humpty.
Tory was putting Isa to bed. Wolf, the lurcher, sat on his curved tail, shivering on Jake’s suitcase, the picture of desolation. Normally he went with Jake to every show, but some sixth sense told him he was going to be left behind tomorrow.
Next minute Isa wandered in, in blue pajamas with a Womble on the front and a policeman’s helmet on his head which he wore all day and in bed at night. His left wrist was handcuffed to a large teddy bear. He was at the age when he kept acquiring new words, and copied everything Jake and Tory said.
“Daddy going hunting,” he announced, seeing the red coat.
“Not exactly,” said Jake. “I’m going away for a few days to Spain, and you must take care of Mummy.”
“Will you be back before Mummy gets her baby out? Will you bring me a present?”
Jake turned so he could look at the coat from the back. He wished he knew how hot it would be in Spain.
“What d’you want?”
“You’ve got about ten,” said Jake. “For Christ’s sake, don’t touch that briefcase.”
“Where is Pain?” said Isa, ignoring Jake and spreading out the notes.
“Over the seas. I said leave that case alone.”
Normally he hated snapping at Isa, but last-minute nerves were getting to him.
“Daddy have a whicksey,” said Isa, who regarded a stiff drink as the cure to all grown-up ills, “and get pissed up.”
“I said go and find Mummy.” Jake retrieved the notes and the health papers.
“Mummy’s crying,” said Isa.
Jake felt a burst of irritation. He felt guilty about leaving her, but what else could he do? She wanted him to get on; what the hell was she crying for? He found her in the bathroom bending her bulk down slowly to retrieve plastic ducks, boats, and sodden towels. Her swollen ankles were spilling over her slip-on shoes. She had had those shoes since he married her.
“What’s the matter?” he snapped.
“Nothing.” She concentrated on squeezing out a flannel.
“What the hell’s the matter? I can’t help going.” His guilt at leaving her made him speak more harshly than he’d meant to. “It’s not going to be much fun for me; fifteen hundred miles on the train in the blazing heat with two horses.”
It was part of the bargain of their marriage that she never clung to him or betrayed her desperate dependency.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I’m over the moon that you’re going. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
Her lip trembled. Jake put his arm round her, feeling the solid shape of the baby inside her, pressing against him. For a second she clung to him, lowering her guard.
“It’s just that I’m going to miss you so much.”
“It’ll go very quickly,” he said. “I’ll ring you the moment I get to Madrid.”
Next minute they heard a terrific banging, and Wolf barking. Looking out, they saw Tanya, obviously having to stand on a bucket, peering out of the tiny high tackroom window.
“Will someone come and rescue me? Your wretched son’s just locked me in.”
And yet next morning, getting up at first light, with the rising sun touching the willows and the pale gray fields, the Mill House looked so beautiful that Jake wondered how he could bear to leave it. Tanya had already been up for two hours getting the horses ready. She had even borrowed two milk churns from a nearby dairy to carry water, in case Jake ran out on the train journey.
“I’m sorry you’re not coming,” he said.
“You can take me next time.”
“If there is a next time,” said Jake, lighting a cigarette.
Africa heard Humpty’s lorry before Jake did. She had changed over the years, growing stronger, more muscular, and filling out behind the saddle. She was more demanding and less sociable, and could be moody and impatient, especially if she was in season. Now, aware that something was up, she darted to her half-door to look out, eyes bold, ears flattened, pawing at her straw, stamping with her forelegs. The other horses put their heads out of the boxes, ready to be jealous because they were not included in the trip. Only Sailor stayed in his box, calmly finishing off his feed. Sailor calmed Africa down. But Jake was her big love.
Both Tory and Tanya felt a stab of relief that Bridie, Humpty’s groom, wasn’t at all pretty. Plump, with mouse brown curls, she had a greasy skin and a large bottom.
Just my luck to be stuck for four days with that, thought Jake.
Inside the lorry they could see Humpty’s three horses, with the resplendent Porky Boy on the outside, coat gleaming like a conker. By comparison, Sailor, shuffling up the ramp, looked as though he was going on his last journey. At least Africa, in her dark beauty, whinnying and prancing up the ramp, slightly redeemed the yard.
“Well, I don’t think you need have any worries about Jake getting off with that,” said Tanya, as the lorry heaved its way over the bridge, rattling against the willow branches.
“The forecast’s awful,” Bridie told Jake cheerfully. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a terrible crossing.”
In fact the entire journey was a nightmare. The horse box moved like a snail. A storm blew up in midchannel and the boat nearly turned back. Jake spent the entire journey trying to calm the horses. The crossing took so long they missed the train at Dunkirk and had to wait twelve hours before they caught another one, which took them to the Spanish border quite smoothly. There they got into trouble with both French and Spanish customs, who took exception to Jake’s emergency passport. Jake, speaking no languages at all, and Bridie, who had only a few words of Spanish, found themselves shunted off to a siding for a day and a half, fast running out of food. Bridie, who was quite used to such delays, whiled the time away reading Mills and Boon novels and being chatted up by handsome customs officials who didn’t seem remotely put off by her size.
Jake nearly went crazy, pacing up and down, smoking packet after packet of cigarettes, trying to telephone England.
“If you’re abroad, there are always holdups,” said Bridie philosophically. “You’ll just have to get used to them.” He’s as uptight as a tick, that one, she thought. Any minute he’ll snap.
At last Jake got on to Tory, who managed to trace Malise in Rome, who pulled more strings and eventually arranged for them to take the next Madrid-bound train. In the ensuing wait, Jake started reading Mills and Boon novels, too, not realizing that only now was the real nightmare about to begin.
Their transport turned out to be cattle trucks, with Humpty’s three horses and Bridie in one, and Jake, Africa, and Sailor in another. There were no windows in the trucks, just air vents and a sliding door. “Porky Boy won’t like this,” said Bridie. “He’s used to a light in his box.”
After lots of shunting and banging back and forth, until every bone in Jake’s body was jarred, they were then hitched to a Spanish passenger express. Once the train started there was no communication with the outside world. No one to talk to, just total blackness and occasional flashes as stations flew past. The whiplash effect was appalling. Jake knew exactly what it was like to be a dry martini shuddering in a cocktail shaker.
As they slowed down outside a big station, Jake heard crashing and banging from Bridie’s truck next door.
“Porky Boy’s gone off his head,” she yelled. “I can’t hold him still enough to dope him.”
Risking his life and eternal abandonment in the middle of Spain, Jake leapt out of his truck and ran along to Bridie’s, only making it just in time, and narrowly avoiding being crushed to death by a maddened Porky Boy. Somehow, with the flashlight between his teeth, he managed to fill the syringe, jab it into the terrified plunging animal, and cling on, soothing and talking to him, until he calmed down.
Bridie was tearful in her gratitude. Frantic about Africa and Sailor, Jake then had to wait until the milky white light of morning revealed rolling hills, dotted with olive trees, flattening out to the dusty, leathery plains around Madrid, before the train slowed down enough for him to get back to them. He was so proud. Africa had a cut knee where she had fallen down, and both were obviously saddened by his absence, but delighted to welcome him back. They swayed from side to side keeping their footing. If they could, he thought, they would have got out and pulled the cattle trucks themselves.
When they finally reached Madrid, the trucks were pulled into the passenger station. Jake and Bridie found the platform packed with chic Spanish commuters, soberly dressed for the office, and looking with astonishment on two such travel-worn wrecks and their shabby horses.
After such a hellish journey, Jake was prepared for hen coops in which to stable the horses. But the Madrid showground turned out to be the last word in luxury, with a sumptuous clubhouse, swimming pools and squash courts, and a huge jumping arena next to an even bigger practice ring containing more than fifty different jumps.
“Humpty says it’s worth coming to Madrid just to practice over these fences,” said Bridie as she unloaded a stiff, weary, chastened Porky Boy.
Even better, each foreign team had been given its own private yard with splendid loose boxes. Next door, the victorious German team had just arrived from Rome and were unloading their huge horses and making a lot of noise. Jake recognized Ludwig von Schellenberg and Hans Schmidt, two riders he’d worshiped for years. Tomorrow, he thought with a thud of fear, he’d be competing against them.
He was distracted from his fears by another crisis. The loose boxes were all bedded with thick straw, which was no good for greedy Sailor, who always guzzled straw and blew himself out. Jake had run out of wood shavings on the journey down. How could he possibly explain to these charming, smiling, but uncomprehending Spaniards what he wanted? Bridie’s dictionary had “wood” but not “shavings.” He felt a great weariness.
“Can I help?” said a voice.
It was Malise Gordon, who had just flown in from Rome, his high complexion tanned by the Italian sun, wearing a lightweight suit and looking handsome and authoritative. Jake was never so pleased to see anyone.
Immediately Malise broke into fluent Spanish and sorted everything out.
“You look absolutely shattered,” he said to Jake. “Sorry it was a bloody journey, but I warned you. Still, it was as well you were there to look after Porky Boy last night. Are your horses okay?”
While the Spanish grooms put down the wood shavings for Sailor, Jake showed Malise Africa’s knee, which mercifully hadn’t swollen up.
“Where’s your other horse?”
“Here. They’ve got his box ready.”
Sailor, a messy eater, had tipped all his feed into the wood shavings and was busily picking it out. He gave Malise a baleful look out of his walleye. After the four-day journey he looked perfectly dreadful.
Christ, thought Malise, we’ll be a laughingstock entering something like that. But, he supposed, in the remote chance of Jake having to compete in the Nations’ Cup, he could always ride Africa. Anyway, the boy looked all in. No point in saying anything now.
“I’ll take you back to the hotel. You’d better get some sleep.” Malise looked at his watch. “It’s only ten o’clock now. The rest of the team won’t arrive till this afternoon. I suggest we meet in the bar around nine P.M. Then we can have dinner together and you can meet them all.”
To Jake, who had never slept in a hotel, the bedroom seemed the height of luxury. There was a bathroom with a shower, and a bath and a loo, and free soap and bubble bath, and a bathcap, and three white towels. In the bedroom there was a television, a wireless, a telephone, and a huge double bed. He was dying for some coffee but he didn’t dare pick up the telephone in case they couldn’t understand him. French windows led out onto a bosomy balcony which looked over a park. To the left, if he leaned out, he could see a street full of shops and cafés with tables outside. Already smells of olive oil, pimentos, and saffron were drifting up from the kitchen. Drawing the thick purple curtains and only bothering to take off his shoes, Jake fell onto the surprisingly hard bed. The picture on the wall, of a matador in obscenely tight pink trousers shoving what looked like knitting needles into the neck of a bull, swam before his eyes and he was asleep.
Despite his exhaustion, however, he slept only fitfully. His dreams of disastrous rounds kept being interrupted by bursts of flamenco music or the screams of children playing in the park. By six the city had woken up and stretched itself after its siesta and Jake decided to abandon any hope of sleep. Outside, the streets were packed with cars rattling over the cobbles, hardly restrained at all by lights or frantically whistling policemen. Tables along the pavement were beginning to fill up, crowds to parade up and down. Looking across at the park, he saw a small child racing after a red ball, then tripping over a gamboling dog, falling flat on his face and bursting into noisy sobs. Next moment a pretty dark-haired mother had rushed forward, sworn at the dog, and gathered up the child, covering him with kisses. Jake was suddenly flattened with longing for Isa and Tory. He was desperate to ring home, but he didn’t know how to, nor did he dare pick up the telephone and ask for some tea.
Instead, raging with thirst, he drank a couple of mugs of water out of the tap, then unpacked, showered, and, wrapped only in one of the white towels, wandered out onto the balcony. Instantly he stepped back, for there on the next balcony was a beautiful girl painting her toenails coral pink and soaking up the slanting rays of the early evening sun.
She was impossibly slender, with long legs and arms, which, despite being covered in freckles, were already tanning becomingly to the color of weak tea. She wore a saffron yellow bikini and her hair was hidden by a big yellow towel. Beside her lay the catalogue of some art gallery, a Spanish dictionary, what looked like a book of poetry, and a half-finished glass of orange juice. Obviously she could make Reception understand her. The whole impression was of a marvelously pampered and overbred racehorse. As she stretched luxuriously, enjoying the sensation of being warm and alive, Jake felt a stab of lust. Why didn’t one ever see girls like that in Warwickshire? He wished she would pick her nose or scratch her crotch, anything to make her more normal and less desirable.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the corridor. The girl jumped up. A man’s voice could be heard shouting in the passage, “Okay, we’ll see you in the bar about nine.”
The girl in the saffron bikini could be heard calling out in an American accent, “Darling, it’s so good to see you.”
There was a long pause. Then he heard the man’s voice more clearly. It was a flat distinctive drawl which he would recognize anywhere and which made his knees disappear and the hairs prickle on the back of his neck.
“Bloody awful journey,” said the voice. “Lorry kept overheating. We’ve been on the road for nearly thirty-six hours.”
“Sweetheart,” said the girl, “I’m so sorry. You must be exhausted.”
Another pause followed, then the voice said sharply, “I don’t care how fucking exhausted I am, get that bikini off.”
The girl started protesting, but not for long. Next moment there were sounds of lovemaking, with the bed banging against the wall so hard that Jake felt he was back in the cattle truck. Mercifully it lasted only five minutes. Any more evidence of Rupert’s superstud servicing would have finished Jake off altogether. Almost worse was the splashing and laughter as later they had a bath together. It was still desperately hot. Jake made his bed neatly and, soaked with sweat, had another shower and changed his shirt, for something to do. He’d have liked to have washed some underpants and shirts and hung them out on the balcony, but he could imagine Rupert’s derisive comments. Later he heard them having a drink on the balcony.
“Better get a few quick ones under my belt, so Malise doesn’t think I’m alcoholic.”
By nine o’clock Jake was so crucified by nerves and waiting that he couldn’t bring himself to go downstairs, until Malise rang up from Reception saying they were all in the bar, and had he overslept? Malise met him as he came out of the lift. Noticing the set face, the black rings under the eyes, the obvious tension, he said, “Don’t worry, they’re all very unalarming.”
There they were — all his heroes. Humpty Hamilton, puce from the heat, drinking lager. Lavinia Greenslade, whom he remembered from the first Bilborough show. She was even prettier now that she’d lightened her hair, and wore it shorter and curlier. On either side, like two guard dogs, sat her mother, who wore too much cheap jewelry, and her father, who had ginger sideburns and a stomach spilling over his trousers. They didn’t smile. Lavinia was too recent a cap herself for them to regard any new member of the team with enthusiasm. Billy Lloyd-Foxe had filled out and broken his nose since prep school days, but looked more or less the same. He was laughing with a most beautiful redheaded girl, who was wearing black flared trousers and a white silk shirt tied under her breasts and showing off her smooth bare midriff. By her freckled arms and her coral pink toenails, Jake identified the girl on the balcony. Rupert had his back turned as he paid for a round of drinks and signed an autograph for the barman, but Jake immediately recognized the back of that smooth blond head and the broad blue striped shoulders. He felt a wave of horror and loathing.
“This is Jake Lovell,” said Malise. “I’m sure he knows who all of you are.”
Rupert swung round, smiling. In his brown face his eyes were as brilliantly blue as a jay’s wing.
“Hi,” he said. “Welcome to alcoholics not at all anonymous. I hear you had a worse journey than us, which seems impossible. What are you going to drink?”
Jake, who’d rehearsed this moment so often, and who was prepared to be icily aloof, found himself totally disarmed by such friendliness and muttered he’d like some Scotch. Billy got to his feet and shook Jake’s hand.
“You’ve been cleaning up on the Northern circuit. Don’t venture up there often myself, too easy to get beaten.”
“That was a good horse you were jumping at Birmingham,” said Humpty, patting the empty seat beside him. “What’s she called, Australia?”
“Africa,” said Jake.
“Looks almost clean bred. Who was her sire?”
“And her dam?”
“Don’t know that either.”
“Oh, shut up, Humpty,” said Rupert, handing Jake a very large glass of whisky, which made Malise frown slightly.
Rupert lifted his glass to Jake. “Welcome to the British squad,” he said. “Hope it’s the first of many.”
“Thanks,” said Jake. He took a slug of his whisky, which was so strong it made his eyes water. He put his glass down at once, so they shouldn’t see how much his hand was shaking.
“Lavinia’s been capped for Great Britain six times,” said her mother defensively.
“Oh, please, Mummy.”
“You should be proud of the fact,” went on her mother. “The only girl in the team.”
“What about Driffield?” said Rupert. “I’ve always thought his sex was slightly in question.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Humpty. “I’ve shared a room with him.”
“That’s enough,” said Malise.
“Did you get to the Prado this afternoon?” Helen asked him.
Malise shook his head.
“I spent a couple of hours there,” she said. “The Velasquez are out of this world. Such power. I only managed to do two rooms, but I also looked at the cathedral. The nave is just wonderful.”
Rupert stifled a yawn. “I prefer navels,” he said, running his hand over his wife’s midriff. Then, pushing down her black trousers, he fingered her belly button. “Particularly yours.”
It was definitely a gesture of possession and he smiled across at Jake with that bullying, mocking, appraising look that Jake remembered so well.
Humpty turned back to Jake. “By the way, thanks for looking after Porky on the way down. Bridie said he might have damaged himself and her very badly if you hadn’t stepped in.”
“The train driver ought to be shot,” said Jake.
“Spaniards don’t like animals,” said Humpty. “Porky’s highly strung of course, but so was his dam.”
And Humpty was off on a long involved dissertation on Porky Boy’s breeding. Jake appeared to listen and studied the others. Mr. and Mrs. Greenslade were discussing what horses Lavinia ought to jump, across Lavinia, who was gazing surreptitiously at Billy. Billy was arguing fairly amicably with Rupert about whether a particular mare was worth selling and how much they’d get for her. Helen and Malise, having exhausted Velasquez, had moved on to Spanish poetry. She was an astonishingly beautiful girl, thought Jake, but too fragile for Rupert. Jake couldn’t imagine him handling anyone with care for very long.
“I just adore Lorca,” Helen was saying. “He’s so passionate and basic; that poem that starts ‘Green, Green, I want you Green.’ ”
“Sounds like Billy,” said Rupert, “only in his case it’s Gweenslade, Gweenslade, I want you Gweenslade.”
“Shut up,” hissed Billy, shooting a nervous glance in the direction of Lavinia’s mother.
“Not unless you buy me a drink,” said Rupert, handing Billy his empty glass.
“Okay,” said Billy, getting up. “Who needs a refill?”
“Jake does,” said Rupert.
Unable and not particularly wanting to get a word in edgeways while Humpty talked, Jake had had plenty of time to finish his whisky. Having not had anything to eat for at least thirty-six hours, he was beginning to feel very tight. But before he could protest, Rupert had whipped his glass away and handed it to Billy.
“Not as strong as the last one, then,” said Malise firmly. “That was a quadruple.”
“He’s not eighteen, you know,” said Rupert softly.
“How old are you?” asked Humpty.
“Twenty-six,” said Jake.
“Same as me and Rupe,” said Billy, hailing the waiter.
“It’s funny we haven’t heard of you before,” said Lavinia. “Awfully womantic, to be suddenly picked out of the blue like that.”
“I started late,” said Jake.
“But I’m sure I’ve seen you before,” said Billy, puzzled, as he handed double whiskies to Jake and Rupert.
“Pwobably in Horse and Hound, or Widing magazine,” said Lavinia.
No it wasn’t, thought Billy to himself. There was something about Jake that made him feel uneasy, layers of memory being slowly peeled back like an onion, not very happy memories, the kind you tucked into a corner of your mind and tried to forget.
They dined in a taverna a couple of streets away. The walls were covered in fans and castanets and pictures of ladies in mantillas. In a corner a fat tenor in a rather dirty white frilly shirt, and with greasy patent leather hair, was dispiritedly strumming a guitar. The owner rushed out, shaking hands with Malise, Humpty, Rupert, and Billy and showing them their signed photographs on the wall, then going into a frenzy of ecstasy over Lavinia’s blond beauty. Redheads were less rare in Madrid than blondes, and Helen was a little too thin for Spanish tastes.
Jake was beginning to feel distinctly odd. He must get some food inside him. He found himself with Lavinia on his left and Mr. Greenslade on his right. Bottles were put on the table and Rupert immediately filled everyone’s glasses. Completely incomprehensible menus came round.
“What’s gazpacho?” he asked Lavinia.
“Tomato soup,” said Rupert.
That sounded gentle and stomach-settling.
“Some sort of pasta,” said Rupert.
“I’ll have that,” said Jake.
Suddenly he noticed Billy’s hand caressing Lavinia’s thigh under the table, where her mother and father couldn’t see. The waiter arrived for their order. Firmly Jake said he’d like gazpacho and polpi.
“I’d like a large steak and chips,” said Humpty.
“So would I,” said Billy, “but not chips, just a salad — my trousers are getting disgustingly tight — and Mediterranean prawns to start.”
“You shouldn’t drink so much,” said Rupert, filling up his glass.
Helen turned to the waiter and started to address him in Spanish.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” said Rupert irritably, “they all speak English.”
“Spanish is the native language of approximately two hundred million people throughout the world,” said Helen, flushing slightly. “That can’t be all bad.”
“At least she can translate your horoscope in the Spanish papers,” said Billy.
“And jolly useful at customs,” said Mrs. Greenslade, who admired Helen.
“We’ve got Marion for that,” said Rupert. “She’s got big boobs, which is more a language the customs officers understand.”
Apart from his hand stroking her thigh, Billy was studiously avoiding Lavinia for the benefit of her parents, so she turned to Jake.
“How did you get on in Rome?” he said. “I haven’t seen any papers.”
“I got a second and a third. Wupert did best. He won two classes and got a clear wound in the Nations’ Cup. But we were still thwashed by the Germans and the Fwench. I don’t think we’ll ever beat them. Ludwig and Hans Schmidt are like computers: they just pwogwam their horses and wound they go.”
Jake was eating bread, desperate to mop up some alcohol. The fat flamenco singer, after a lot of stamping, launched into some mournful ditty.
“Sounds like Grand Hotel,” said Rupert.
Now he’d had a lot to drink, Jake found his eyes continually drawn to Rupert, like a rabbit to a snake. He still felt the same sick churning inside. Rupert’s whiplash tongue was still there. Soon he knew he’d be the recipient. He realized again what an evil man Rupert was behind his offhand jokey exterior.
It was very hot in the restaurant. Jake was drenched with sweat.
“Okay?” asked Malise. “Grub should be up in a minute. That’s one of the maddening things about Spain: no one dines before ten o’clock. At least we get a nice late start.”
“I’m going to spend tomowwow morning sunbathing,” said Lavinia.
“You are not,” said her father. “You’ll sort out that stop of Snowstorm’s. We’re not risking him ducking out again.”
At last food began to arrive. A plate of soup was put in front of Jake. A great waft of garlic made him feel distinctly queasy. God knows what was in it. Little bits of fried bread, green peppers, and cucumbers floated on top.
“This is a most interesting paella,” Helen was saying as she speared a large mussel. Feeling slightly sick, Jake took a mouthful of soup and only just avoided spitting it out. It was stone cold and heavily garlicked. He put his spoon down and took a huge gulp of wine, then a piece of bread to take the taste away.
What was he to do? Was it some diabolical plan of Rupert’s, telling the waiter to bring him cold soup, so he could laugh like a drain when Jake ate it?
“What’s the matter?” said Malise.
“Nothing,” said Jake. He mustn’t betray weakness. He took another mouthful and very nearly threw up. Glancing up, he saw Rupert eyeing him speculatively.
“Gazpacho good?” he asked.
“It’s stone cold, if you want to know,” said Jake. “They’ve forgotten to heat it up.”
Rupert grinned. “It’s meant to be,” he said gently. “I should have warned you. It’s a Spanish national dish, no doubt enjoyed throughout the world by approximately two hundred million people.”
Jake gripped the sides of the plate. For a second he felt such a wave of hatred he nearly hurled it in Rupert’s face.
“I’ll have the gazpacho,” said Billy, leaning over, whipping away Jake’s plate and handing him the Mediterranean prawns in return.
“Then you’ll sleep alone,” said Rupert.
“It seems I have no other choice,” said Billy, smiling blandly at Mrs. Greenslade, and squeezing Lavinia’s thigh a bit harder.
Rupert started discussing bullfights with Humpty Hamilton.
“We’ll go to one later in the week.”
“I’m not going,” said Lavinia. “I thinks it’s vewy cwuel.”
“Have you ever seen one?” asked Rupert.
“You’re just like Helen. She was out with the Antis when I first met her.”
She looks like a fox, thought Jake, beautiful, nervous, wistful, with those haunted yellow eyes, a tamed fox that might bolt at any minute.
“The El Grecos are wonderful,” she was saying to Malise. “You look like an El Greco yourself, kind of lean and distinguished.”
Malise, Jake noticed, blushed slightly and looked not unpleased.
“I’m going back tomorrow morning. Why don’t you come too?” she went on.
“Tomorrow, my angel,” said Rupert with a distinct edge to his voice, “you are going to spend the morning in bed with me.”
The second courses were arriving. Jake felt the mayonnaise and prawns mixing unhappily with the whisky and wine in his stomach. Pasta was just the thing to settle it. Next moment a plate was put down in front of him. He nearly heaved at the sight; it was full of octopus.
“I didn’t order this!”
“Sí, señor, polpi.”
Jake turned dark red. “You said it was pasta,” he hissed at Rupert.
“How silly of me,” drawled Rupert. “Of course, polpi, octopus. I’d forgotten. What a pity you didn’t ask Helen or Malise.”
“You’re a shit, Rupert,” said Billy. “Look,” he added to the waiter, “take this back and get some risotto, or would you rather have a steak?”
Jake shook his head. He was feeling awful.
“I think I’ve had enough.”
“Have some of my wice and chicken,” said Lavinia, tipping it onto his side plate. “It’s weally good, but I’ll never get thwough it all. Did you know there were two men in the Spanish team called Angel and Maria?”
Dinner dragged on. Jake was dropping now. He picked at the rice Lavinia had given him but didn’t manage to finish it. Once again he was overwhelmed with such homesickness he almost wept. If he was home now, he’d probably have just come in from a show. Tory would be waiting and together they’d go up and gloat over the sleeping Isa.
“Anyone want pudding?” asked Malise.
“I’d love some berries,” said Helen. “Have they any fresh berries?”
“In English you specify them,” said Rupert through gritted teeth. “Strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries.”
“I’m sure there are some strawberries,” said Malise, smiling at Helen.
“What about you, Jake?”
Jake shook his head and got to his feet. “Thank you for dinner. I’m off to bed,” he said. “Can I settle up with you in the morning?”
“This is on the BSJA,” said Malise.
“Well, thanks,” said Jake.
“Sleep well,” said Malise. “Order breakfast from Reception. They all speak English, and for Christ’s sake don’t drink the water in the taps.”
“You going to bed?” said Rupert in surprise. “Sorry about the polpi and the gazpacho. New boy’s tease, you know.”
“I know,” said Jake bleakly, “only too well.”
Looking at the set white face, in a flash Billy remembered. Lovell, J. Of course! He knew he’d seen him before. He was the gypsy boy at St. Augustine’s, Gyppo Jake, whom he and Rupert had bullied unmercifully until he ran away. It was the one thing in his life he’d always been ashamed of. He wanted to say something to Jake, to apologize for the teasing at dinner, but it was too late. He’d gone.
Outside Jake took a taxi down to the showground. Fortunately he’d remembered his pass and the guards let him in. He realized he was very drunk.
The Great Bear overhead kept disintegrating and reforming, like a swarm of illuminated gnats. Crossing the exercise ring, he threw up behind a large Spanish chestnut. As he covered it with sand, he hoped one of Rupert’s bloody horses would slip on it tomorrow.
Bastard, bastard, bastard, he hadn’t changed at all. New boy’s tease indeed. Nausea overwhelmed him again. He leant against an oak feeling dizzy. Finally he made the stables. It was a comfort that Africa and Sailor were so pleased to see him. Blinking sleepily, they smelt of hay and contentment. One arm round each of their necks, he clung onto them, desperate for reassurance. They were his horses from his yard.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “we’ll go out and lynch him.”
Jake never knew if it was a result of meeting Rupert again, or because he drank too much tap water, but in the early hours of the morning he was laid low with a vicious attack of gyppy tummy. For the first few days of the show, it was all he could do to struggle up and crawl down to the stables to look after Africa and Sailor. Later in the day, he was either eliminated or knocked up a cricket score of faults in every class he entered. The jumps were huge and solid, with the poles fitting deeply into the cups, and the competition was fierce. Both Africa and Sailor were out of sorts after the long journey. Jake was so strung-up, he transmitted his nerves to the horses, who jumped worse and worse as the week went on.
To make matters worse, none of the classes started before three o’clock in the afternoon, with an evening performance beginning at 11 P.M. By the time the final National Anthem had been played it was 3 A.M. and usually four o’clock before Jake fell into bed, to wake like a stone at six in the morning, his usual time for getting up, after which he couldn’t get back to sleep again.
A doctor was summoned and gave him pills and advised forty-eight hours’ rest. But for a workaholic like Jake, this was impossible. He couldn’t bear to be parted from his horses, his one link with home. He had no desire to sightsee with Malise or Helen, or lounge round the pool sunbathing with the others and be confronted with the contemptuous bronzed beauty of Rupert Campbell-Black.
So while the others relaxed and enjoyed themselves, Jake didn’t miss a round jumped by another rider, or a workout in the warm-up area. He was learning all the time, but not to his advantage. There were too many of his heroes around to influence him, and he got increasingly muddled as first he tried to ride like the Italians, then like the dashing Spaniards, then like the mighty Germans.
The rest of the team, except Rupert, tried to be friendly and helpful. They were all relieved he was not the white-hot savior predicted by Malise, but as one catastrophic round followed another and he became more monosyllabic and withdrawn, they gave up.
Rupert, on the other hand, was openly hostile. On the morning after they arrived in Madrid, he was riding round the practice ring when Billy said, “You know that new chap?”
“The great gourmet and conversationalist?” said Rupert scornfully.
“Don’t you recognize him. He’s the same Gyppo Lovell who was at St. Augustine’s with us.”
“Bloody is. Don’t you remember his mother was the cook. Mrs. Lovell? She did herself in.”
“Hardly surprising after producing an undersized little runt like that. Didn’t he become a boarder?”
“Yes,” said Billy bleakly. “He was in our dormitory. We gave him such hell he ran away.”
“Perhaps we should repeat the experiment. With any luck he might do it again.”
“You didn’t help much last night,” snapped Billy. “Making him order octopus. Poor sod, he’s never been abroad before.”
“Certainly doesn’t know how to behave in a hotel,” said Rupert. “I caught him making his bed this morning.”
For a few minutes they rode on in silence, then Billy said, “I feel I ought to make it up to him somehow for being such a shit at St. Augustine’s.”
Rupert started to play on an imaginary violin. “Don’t be so bloody wet. Little creeps like that deserve to be hammered. How the hell did he get started anyway?”
“Well that’s the interesting part. D’you remember a hugely fat deb named Tory Maxwell?”
Rupert shuddered. “Only too vividly. Maxwell big as a house — unable to turn round without the use of tugs.” He glanced sideways at Billy, relieved to see he had made him laugh. “And quite rich.”
“That’s the one. Well, Jake Lovell married her and evidently used all her cash to get started.”
“No wonder he’s undersized; squashed flat in the sack. Must be like going to bed with a steamroller. Who told you all this?”
“Malise. Last night. He thinks Lovell’s brilliant.”
“Well, he’s wrong. Lovell’s just about as insipid as the mince his mother used to cook. And, what’s more, he kept Helen and me awake all night throwing up.”
To rub salt into Jake’s wounds, all the other members of the team were jumping well and in the money, particularly Rupert, who won a Vespa on the third day and insisted on roaring round the showground on it, to everyone’s amusement and irritation. Jake’s was the only part of the British tackroom without its share of rosettes.
Rupert never lost an opportunity to put the boot in. On the third day, just before the competition, he persuaded Marion to hide all Jake’s breeches and his red coat and fill up his trunk with frilly underwear.
Marion was only too happy to oblige. Wandering round, heavily curvaceous in pink hot pants and a sleeveless pink T-shirt, she was the toast of the showground, always followed by a swarm of admiring tongue-clicking Spaniards, and the recipient of endless bonhomie from the other male international riders.
Jake, resentful that Rupert not only had an exquisite wife but a spectacular groom, ignored Marion, a reaction to which she was unused.
“He went bananas when he found his clothes missing,” she told Rupert gleefully. “He’s not as cool as he makes out.”
Although Marion soon returned his clothes, what upset Jake more was that the yellow tansy flower he always wore in the heel of his left boot to bring him luck had somehow vanished. Without his talisman, his luck was bound to plummet and as a result he lost even more confidence.
Most of all he was upset by Rupert’s constant cracks about Sailor — that he must be a mule or a camel, and no wonder he’d frightened them at customs; they must have thought they were letting a dinosaur into the country. Jake felt very protective towards Sailor, whom he loved very deeply, and his heart blackened against Rupert.
On the fifth day Malise announced the British team: Rupert, Billy, Humpty Hamilton, and Lavinia, with Jake as reserve. In the evening he took Jake out for a drink and explained there was nothing else he could do on Jake’s current form.
“Don’t worry,” he said, spearing an olive out of his very dry martini. “This often happens to new caps.”
“Not as badly as this,” said Jake, gazing gloomily into a glass of soda water. He still felt too sick even to smoke. His eyes seemed three inches deep in his face. His face was gray and seamed with exhaustion; he must have lost half a stone.
“It’s a vicious circle,” said Malise gently. “Everyone talks about the killer instinct and being hungry enough to go out and win, but you’re so snarled up inside you’re frightening the hell out of your horses. I know the fences seem huge and you’re worried about overfacing them, but you must be more aggressive. The only way to tackle those fences is to attack. Be accurate, but ride on all the time. Those big heavy poles are so firm you can afford to clout them. Africa should be able to sail over them anyway.”
Jake’s face registered no emotion. A fly was buzzing round their heads. Malise flicked it away with a copy of The Times.
“Spanish fly,” said Jake suddenly, with the ghost of a smile. “S’pposed to be good for sex, isn’t it?”
Malise laughed. “Never tried it myself, more Rupert’s province. Expect you’re feeling homesick, too, missing Tory and the baby, and you’re pulled down looking after the horses by yourself. It’s amazing how your first win will buck you up.”
“If I ever do win.”
“My dear boy, I’ve seen you on form. I know you’re good. You’ve just got to calm down.”
Jake suddenly felt an emotion close to adulation. He could imagine following Malise into battle without a qualm. If only he’d had a father like that, or even a father like Mr. Greenslade, who bossed you around all the time because he minded about you. There he was buying himself a drink at the bar, and about to come and join them.
“I’m going to be very unorthodox,” said Malise. He handed Jake a bottle with some red pills in. “Those’ll make you sleep; put you out like a light. Don’t tell the rest of the team I’ve given them to you. They’ll play havoc with your reflexes, but you’re not jumping tomorrow or in the Nations’ Cup, and a couple of good nights’ sleep’ll put you right for the Grand Prix on Saturday. And don’t tell me you don’t approve of sleeping pills. Nor do I, except in an emergency. Tomorrow you’re not going anywhere near the stables. Marion and Tracey will look after Africa and Sailor. You can go on the sightseeing jaunt with the rest of the team.”
After fourteen hours’ sleep, Jake woke feeling much better. He didn’t know whether Malise had had a word with them, but all the team were particularly nice to him as they set off out of Madrid in an old bus, across dusty plains, like the hide of a great slaughtered bull, then through rolling hills dotted with olive trees and orange groves. The road was full of potholes, sending sledgehammer blows up Jake’s spine as the back wheels went over them. Rupert sat next to Helen with his arm along the back of the seat, but not touching her because it was too hot. Billy sat in front, talking constantly to them, refereeing any squabbles, sticking up for Helen. Lavinia Greenslade sat with her father. Humpty sat with Jake and talked nonstop about Porky Boy.
Only Rupert didn’t let up in his needling. Every donkey or mule or depressed-looking horse they passed reminded him of Sailor or “Jake’s Joke,” as he now called him.
They lunched at a very good restaurant, sitting outside under the plane trees, eating cochinella or roast suckling pig. It was the first square meal Jake had been able to keep down since he arrived. While they were having coffee, a particularly revolting old gypsy woman came up and tried to read their fortunes.
“Do tell your ghastly relation to go away, Jake,” said Rupert.
Helen, beautiful, radiant, and clinging, was surprised Rupert was being so poisonous to this taciturn newcomer. She tried to talk to Jake and ask him about his horses, but, aware that he was being patronized, he answered abruptly and left her in midsentence.
Afterwards they went to a bull farm and tried playing with the young bulls and heifers with padded horns and a cape. Rupert and Billy, who’d both had a fair amount to drink at lunchtime, were only too anxious to have a go. Humpty, who’d eaten too much suckling pig (“You might pop if a horn grazed you,” said Rupert), refused to try, and so did Jake.
Side by side, but both feeling very different emotions, Jake and Helen watched Rupert, tall and lean, a natural at any sport, swinging away as the little bull hurtled towards him. Determined to excel, he was already getting competitive. Billy, fooling around, couldn’t stop laughing, and was finally sent flying and only pulled out of danger just in time by Rupert. In the end Rupert only allowed himself to be dragged away because they had to be in Madrid to watch a bullfight at six. Before the fight, they were shown the chapel where the matadors pray before the fight.
“Do with a session in there before tomorrow afternoon,” said Billy. “Dear God, make us beat the Germans.”
The bullfight nauseated Jake, particularly when the picadors came on, riding their pathetic, broken-down, insufficiently padded horses. If they were gored, according to Humpty, they were patched up and sent down into the ring to face the ordeal again. They were so thin they were in no condition to run away. The way, too, that the picadors were tossing their goads into the bull’s neck to break his muscles reminded Jake of Rupert’s method of bullying.
The cochinella was already churning inside him.
“I say, Jake,” Rupert’s voice carried down the row, “doesn’t that picador’s horse remind you of Sailor. If you popped down to the Plaza de Toros later this evening, I’m sure they’d give you a few pesetas for him.”
Jake gritted his teeth and said nothing.
“That’s wight,” whispered Lavinia, who was sitting next to him. “Don’t wise. It’s the only way to tweat Wupert.”
Jake felt more cheerful, particularly when, the next moment, Lavinia plucked at his sleeve, saying, “Can I wush past you quickly? I’m going to be sick.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Jake.
Neither of them was sick but on the way home enjoyed a good bitch about Rupert. The rest of the team went out to a party at the Embassy. Jake followed Malise’s advice and went to bed early again.
On the morning of the Nations’ Cup, Jake woke feeling better in body but not in mind. The sight of fan mail and invitations so overcrowding Rupert’s pigeonhole that they spilled over into Humpty’s and Lavinia’s on either side gave him a frightful stab of jealousy.
Then in his own pigeonhole he found a letter from Tory, which filled him equally with remorse and homesickness. “Darling Jake,” she wrote in her round, childish hand, “Isa and Wolf and all the horses and Tanya and most of all me (or should it be I) are missing you dreadfully. But I keep telling myself that it’s all in a good cause, and that by the time you get this letter, you’ll have really made all the other riders sit up, particularly Rupert. Is he still as horrible or has marriage mellowed him? I know you’re going to do really well.”
Jake couldn’t bear to read any more. He scrumpled up the letter and put it in his hip pocket. Skipping breakfast, he went straight down to the stables. He wanted to work the horses before it got too punishingly hot.
Walking into the British tackroom, he steeled himself for whatever grisly practical joke was on the menu today, but he found everything in place. Because it was Nations’ Cup Day, everyone was far too preoccupied. The grooms were tense and distracted, the horses edgy. They knew something was up. Jake worked both the horses and was pleased to find Sailor had recovered from the bout of colic he’d had earlier in the week, and Africa’s leg was better.
Back in the yard he cooled down Sailor’s legs with a hose, amused by the besotted expression on the horse’s long speckled face. Nearby, Tracey was washing The Bull’s tail. Beyond her, Rupert’s groom, Marion, was standing on a hay bale to plait the mighty Macaulay’s mane, showing off her long brown legs in the shortest pale blue hot pants and grumbling about the amount of work she had to get through. Macaulay was so over the top that, rather than risk hotting him up, Rupert had decided to ride Belgravia in the parade beforehand and bring out Macaulay only for the actual class. This meant Marion had two horses to get ready.
Jake, who’d been carefully studying Rupert’s horses, thought they were getting too many oats. No one could deny Rupert’s genius as a rider, but his horses were not happy. He had surreptitiously watched Rupert take Mayfair, Belgravia, and Macaulay off to a secluded corner of the huge practice ring and seen how he made Tracey and Marion each hold the end of the top pole of a fence, lifting it as the horses went over to give them a sharp rap on the shins, however high they jumped. This was meant to make them pick up their feet even higher the next time. The practice, known as rapping, was strictly illegal in England.
Jake, however, was most interested in Macaulay. He was a brilliant horse, but still young and inexperienced. Jake felt he was being brought on too fast.
In the yard the wireless was belching out Spanish pop music.
“I do miss Radio One,” said Tracey.
The Italian team came past, their beautifully streaked hair as well cut as their jeans, and stopped to exchange backchat with Marion and Tracey.
As Jake started to dry Sailor’s legs, the horse nudged at his pocket for Polos.
“How long have we got?” Tracey asked Marion.
“About an hour and a half before the parade.”
“Christ,” said Tracey, plaiting faster. “I’m never going to be ready in time. Give over Bull, keep still.” The Bull looked up with kind, shining eyes.
“You want a hand?” asked Jake. “I’ve nearly finished Sailor.”
“You haven’t,” said a voice behind him.
It was Malise Gordon, looking elegant, even in this heat, in a pale gray suit, but extremely grim.
“You’re going to have to jump after all,” he said. “That stupid idiot, Billy, sloped off this morning with Rupert to have another crack at bullfighting and got himself knocked out cold.”
Tracey gave a wail and dropped her comb. The Bull jerked up his head.
“It’s all right. He’ll live,” said Malise irritably. “The doctor doesn’t think it’s serious, but Billy certainly doesn’t know what day of the week it is and there’s no chance of him riding.”
Tracey burst into tears. Marion stopped plaiting and put her arms round Tracey, glaring at Jake as though it was his fault.
“He’s got a head like a bullet; don’t worry,” Marion said soothingly.
“Come on,” said Malise, not unkindly. “Pull yourself together; put The Bull back in his box and get moving on whoever Jake’s going to ride. Africa, I presume.”
Jake shook his head. “Her leg’s not right. I’m not risking it. I’ll ride Sailor.”
For a second Malise hesitated. “You don’t want to jump The Bull?”
Catching Tracey’s and Marion’s looks of horror, Jake shook his head. If by the remotest chance he didn’t let the side down, he was bloody well not having it attributed to the fact that he wasn’t riding his own horse.
“All right, you’d better get changed. You’re meant to be walking the course in an hour, but with the general coming and Spanish dilatoriness it’s impossible to be sure.”
Luckily Jake didn’t have time to panic. Tracey sewed the Union Jack onto his red coat. Normally he would have been fretting around, trying to find the socks, the breeches, the shirt and the white tie which he wore when he last won a class. But as it was so long since he had won anything, he’d forgotten which was the last set of clothes that worked. His face looked gray and contrasted with the whiteness of his shirt like a before-and-after laundry detergent ad. His hands were trembling so much he could hardly tie his tie, and his red coat, which fitted him before he left England, was now too loose. Then suddenly, when he dropped a peseta and was searching for it under the forage bin, he found his tansy flower, slightly battered but intact. Overjoyed, he slipped it into his left boot. Aware of it, a tiny bump under his heel, he felt perhaps his luck might be turning at last.
Rupert arrived at the showground in a foul temper. He’d just had a dressing-down from Malise for going bullfighting on the morning of a Nations’ Cup. He was worried about Billy and he realized, with Billy gone, that their chances of even being placed were negligible. Normally he didn’t need to distance himself before a big class, but Helen’s chatter about El Grecos and Goyas, and her trip to Toledo, “with the old houses silhouetted against the skyline,” got on his nerves and he’d snapped at her unnecessarily.
She’d hoped to win him over in a new dress — a Laura Ashley white smock dotted with yellow buttercups, worn with a huge yellow straw hat — but he had merely snapped, “What on earth are you wearing that for?”
“It’s the latest milkmaid look,” said Helen.
“I don’t like milkmaids, only whisky maids; and you’re going to obscure about fifteen people’s view in that hat. No, there isn’t time to change; we’re late as it is.”
“God, it’s hot,” said Lavinia Greenslade, as they sweated in the unrelenting sun, waiting for the go-ahead to walk the course. Her eyes were swollen and pink from crying over Billy’s concussion. It had taken all Malise Gordon’s steely persuasion, coupled with her parents’ ranting, to make her agree to ride.
The rotund Humpty was sweating so profusely that great damp patches had seeped through his red coat under the arms and down the spine.
“Wish we could jump in our shirtsleeves,” he grumbled.
“Not in fwont of the genewal,” said Lavinia. “He’s weally hot on pwotocol.”
Jake clenched his teeth together, so the others couldn’t hear them chattering like castanets. Walking the course didn’t improve his nerves. The fourteen jumps were enormous — most of them bigger than he was — with a huge combination in the middle and a double at the end with an awkward distance. You could either take three small strides between the two jumps or two long ones. He tried to concentrate on what Malise was saying as they paced out the distances.
In a Nations’ Cup, four riders on four horses jump for each country, jumping two rounds each over the same course. There is a draw for the order in which the nations jump. Today it was France, Italy, Spain, Germany then Great Britain last, which meant that a French rider would jump first, followed by an Italian, then a Spaniard, a German, and finally a British rider. Then the second French rider would jump followed by the second Italian, and so on until all the riders had jumped. Each nation would then total the scores of its three best riders, discarding the worst score. The nation with the lowest number of faults would then be in the lead at half time. The whole process is then repeated, each rider jumping in the same order. Once again the three lowest scores are totted up and the nation with the lowest total over the two rounds wins the cup. If two countries tie there is a jump-off. Nations’ Cup matches are held all over Europe throughout the summer and autumn and the side that notches up the most points during the year is awarded the President’s Cup. For the last two years this had been won by Germany.
Malise gave the order for the British team to jump: Humpty, Lavinia, Rupert, Jake.
“If you get a double clear,” Humpty told Jake as they came out of the ring, “you get a free red coat.”
“Can’t see myself having much chance of wearing out this one,” said Jake.
He thought so even more a few seconds later as Lavinia gave a shriek of relieved joy, bounded towards Billy, as he stood swaying slightly at the entrance to the arena, and flung her arms round him.
“Lavinia,” thundered her mother and father simultaneously.
Lavinia ignored them. “Are you all wight? You shouldn’t have come out in this heat. Does your poor head hurt?”
Billy was deathly pale, but he steadied himself against Lavinia and grinned sheepishly at Malise. “I’m terribly sorry.”
“T’riffic,” said Rupert. “You can ride after all.”
“No, he can’t,” said Malise firmly. “Go and sit in the shade, Billy, and take my hat.” He removed his panama and handed it to Billy.