Alec is not here, Alec is never here, Sorrel cannot remember exactly why, a meeting, a conference call, some vital event that can only happen in his presence, it’s enough that he is absent.
In fairness, he has probably described to her, in jaw aching detail, exactly what he is doing today, but she, already in the throes of the relatively new, but sadly increasingly familiar stomach churning terror, has failed to pay even the partial attention she normally manages to give his many and varied activities.
It is enough that he is not here and that todays’ horrors will have to be faced alone. Sorrel corrects herself, no, not alone, that would actually be preferable. Today will have to be managed under the watchful and judgemental eyes of the yummy mummies, the horsey women and most critically, in every meaning of that word, by Alice, her 10 year old step-daughter, equestrienne and wunder-kind of the local pony club.
Sorrel has fallen at the very first fence, under-going the indignity of having the plaiting bands pulled out of her fumbling fingers by a pocket-sized torturer
“Mummy knew how to sew them in, so that they stayed in all night”
There is a pause and Sorrel finds herself agreeing that yes that sounds much better, although she has no idea how this could be achieved. The nearest experience she can match to this is her one disastrous excursion into real hair extensions, when the large and loud Afro-Caribbean hairdresser spent 8 hours sewing someone else’s hair onto Sorrels’ own. Sorrel is not sure, but she cannot believe that this is the same process used on horses, particularly this one, who she must remember to describe as a pony, who reacts to any attention from Sorrel with what she can only describe as naked hatred.
Now Alice is inspecting the saddle and bridle and other bits of leather and metal, which Sorrel was instructed to clean last night
“You haven’t done under the saddle flaps” – she rolls her eyes and points an accusatory finger
Sorrel tries to look repentant
“but you can’t even see that bit” she says
Alice looks at her, her blue eyes blaze with hatred
“they always check that bit” she sniffs and walks off stiff backed and sturdy.
Finally, Alice deems that the horse, sorry pony, is ready to leave. Sorrels’ heart sinks for this means that she has to attach the horse trailer to the 4×4 and then drive this cumbersome combination of huge vehicle and even larger add-on to a field somewhere.
On previous outings, she has sat happily in the car while Alec and his daughter, their matching blond hair touching as they bend down to do something mysterious and complicated to link pony and car. She has quite enjoyed these outings, feeling very much a proper country dweller as they drive down tiny country lanes while Alice provides a running commentary on the days’ equine event.
It takes Sorrel 5 attempts to reverse the Landrover so that the clippy bit – she is sure it has a proper name, she is discovering that everything in this world has a proper name, is in the right place to attach the trailer. Small beads of sweat are running down her back and she is sure that her make-up is starting to slip.
Eventually the horse, no pony, she MUST remember, it is a pony and a terrifying amount of stuff are safely stowed away, Alice looks her up and down
“aren’t you going to change?”
Sorrel is genuinely surprised, she prides herself on her dress sense and secretly is rather pleased with this outfit, her chocolate brown Kurt Geiger suede boots, a new butter squash soft leather jacket and her Armani jeans seem to hit exactly the right autumnal rural note.
Alice looks at her watch, her mothers’ watch which she makes a pint of wearing every day and removing only in the bath, although it is far too big for her, she shrugs
“We don’t have time anyway; we need to go right away”
They are just about to pull away from the house when Alice snaps suddenly
“gloves, I need gloves”
Sorrel digs deep into her enormous tote bag and pulls out a pair of soft red leather gloves, left over from when she experimenting with accent colour. There is a pause and Alice looks away and mumbles something, Sorrel doesn’t hear her and has to ask her to repeat whatever she said. Alice turns to face her, she enunciates slowly and clearly as if to a foreigner
“It’s OK. It doesn’t matter. Harriet’s’ mum always brings spares of everything”
They drive in silence to the venue, Sorrel because, quite frankly, this towing lark is so alien and terrifying that she can hardly breathe, let alone speak and Alice because she is buried in mobile world, the only sign of her presence, the occasional ping to notify her that she has received yet another text.
“Here, we have to turn here, now”
Sorrel jerks in shock, there is a tiny orange flag tied to a branch next to a farm track, she manages to turn the truck and trailer, narrowly missing the ditch and breathes a sigh of relief. They have arrived.
The car park is full of mud spattered 4x4s, lorries, children, ponies and mummies, lots and lots of mummies. Sorrel parks by the simple process of turning off the engine. Alice looks up
“Aren’t you going to reverse in next to Harriet’s mummy?”
Sorrel feels her heart sink even further, Harriet’s mummy belongs to the more terrifying of the two tribes of pony mummies – the women who ride themselves, they are even more daunting than the pony club mummies, those at least wear make-up and don’t cut their own hair.
Alice is competently unloading her pony and tying it to the side of the trailer; Sorrel is unsure what to do and stands awkwardly next to the car, waiting for somebody to tell her where she needs to go. She is almost relieved when a fleece clad woman, sporting a no –nonsense hair do and brandishing a clipboard, bustles up, she greets Alice effusively and then pats the pony, who, to Sorrels’ surprise, makes no attempt to bite or maim her.
“We need mummies to fence judge” she says and then pauses while she takes in Sorrels’ outfit, “perhaps not”, she walks off briskly, pausing only to call over her shoulder to Alice “Harriet, Rowena and Abbey are warming up over there”, she points to a corner of the field, indistinguishable to Sorrel from any other part of the field, but Alice nods, smiles and grabs the pony, leaving Sorrel alone next to the car.
For a moment or two she busies herself checking her own phone, but looking up, she realises that she is the only person still in the car park; she needs to show an interest.
“Positive mental attitude” she intones and squaring her shoulders she walks briskly, well as briskly as she can, the kitten heels on her boots, whilst gorgeous ,are not well designed for the terrain, towards where a knot of mummies are gathered watching children on ponies career round a course of jumps.
Alice and the pony run past her, Alice’s face is serious, puckered in concentration as she heads towards what looks to Sorrel like a huge wooden fence, she can hardly watch and almost forgets to breathe. Alice looks so tiny and seems to be moving so fast, Sorrel cannot believe that the other mummies seem so unconcerned, children could die doing this.
Suddenly, something goes wrong, Alice is on the ground, not moving. Sorrel cannot help herself, in a second she has ducked under the tape and is running as fast as she can towards the child. Her boots are slowing her down, the heels embedding in the mud, pausing only to tug them off, she continues running
“Alice” she screams “Alice”, all around her the mummies are pointing and looking, but she doesn’t care, she just needs to get to the child. Sorrel arrives as Alice sits up, stands up, rubs the mud off her jodphurs and looks around for her pony. She looks in surprise at Sorrel, barefoot, leather jacket hanging off one shoulder, tote bag and its contents tracking the path of Sorrels’ run.
“I’m fine” she mumbles, “don’t make a fuss, please”
Alice, re-united with the pony canters off while Sorrel re-traces her steps, collecting up her boots, make up bag, mobile phone and secret packet of cigarettes.
Later, driving home, they are silent, Sorrel stares down at the ruined chocolate brown boots, Alice stares out of the window, her mobile phone quiet. They are almost home when Alice leans forward and rests her hand on Sorrels’ shoulder
“ I really was fine, it didn’t hurt at all she says” and for a nano-second, her hand remains on Sorrels ‘ shoulder after she has finished speaking.
Alice looks out of the window as they arrive home
“Oh goody” she says, “Daddy’s home”, she jumps out of the car, leaving Sorrel to put the pony away.
Sorrel is unsurprised when the pony bites her, hard, as she leads it out to its field.