Saturday, 8 January 2011
Where would I be now if . . .
I had taken that job at the Shetland Pony Stud in Dorset, back in 1968? It makes you wonder doesn't it? Roads not taken, and all that . . .
I had never been away from home before. It was a beautiful manor house, grey stone, in the middle of nowhere - or so it seemed to my suburbian eyes. There was a long driveway, and the manor nestled in a fold of the hills: beautiful downland studded with gorse bushes, and bridleways through the woodland in the valley bottom. It was to be a working weekend, so I got to display what (little!, in a practical sense - lots on paper!) I knew about horses, and how well I rode (rubbish), and to see whether it was the job for me.
I was shown the Shetlands - dozens of them it seemed - as we walked round the stud, followed by various Alsations and a huge Pyrenean Mountain Dog. I was told that every summer we would go up to Scotland to show the ponies, which sounded such fun. In the event, it was another 30 years before I got to Scotland . . .
I was shown to an attic bedroom, with quite the hardest bed I have ever had the misfortune to sleep on. I don't remember curtains, but perhaps there were some. All I remember is that is was pitch black - no lights at all - and I was used to street lights (what a wimp I was!) I had bought the Pan Book of Horror Stories to read on the train . . . so my bedtime reading that night set me up for a Horror Story all of my own. There was a tree outside the window, and a breeze made it tap with wayward twigs on the window all night long. It was like being a terrifed (rather than love-struck) Heathcliffe with Cathy tapping at the window, desperate to get in. I didn't sleep well . . .
We went for a ride. It was a beautiful Easter morning in late March, with the valley lit with that wonderful clear March light captured so beautifully by certain Pre-Raphaelites artists. I was given an aged dark bay gelding to ride, who had once been a Grade A showjumper. He was a sweetheart and looked after me. As we rode off the bridleway onto the downs, I remember a fox curled up asleep in the sunshine, the light striking flame-sparks from his deep red pelt and the blossom on the gorse bushes the deepest sulphur yellow and smelling of coconut.
I was shown the stables, which were wonderful, but unfortunately I had the most dreadful asthma attack and was barely able to take anything in. I didn't know it was asthma - only that I couldn't breath and it was so scarey.
I said that I wouldn't be taking the job because of being ill and asked to use their phone as I couldn't bear the thought of staying another night in that ghastly bedroom. As I phoned my dad to come and pick me up that evening (something he was very cross about as he had to drive all the way into the setting sun, which half-blinded him), I looked across at the throws across the sofas. They looked strangely familiar, and then with horror I realized that they were the pelts of deceased Alsations . . . .