Authors: Philippa Gregory
‘I don’t belong here,’ I said to myself. Before I even opened my eyes.
It was my morning ritual. To ward off the smell and the dirt and the fights and the noise of the day. To keep me in that bright green place in my mind which had no proper name; I called it ‘Wide’.
‘I don’t belong here,’ I said again. A dirty-faced fifteen-year-old girl frowsy-eyed from sleep, blinking at the hard grey light filtering through the grimy window. I looked up to the arched ceiling of the caravan, the damp sacking near my face as I lay on the top bunk; and then I glanced quickly to my left to the bunk to see if Dandy was awake.
Dandy: my black-eyed, black-haired, equally dirty-faced sister. Dandy, the lazy one, the liar, the thief.
Her eyes, dark as blackberries, twinkled at me.
‘I don’t belong here,’ I whispered once more to the dream world of Wide which faded even as I called to it. Then I said aloud to Dandy:
‘Did you dream of it – Sarah?’ she asked me softly, calling me by my magic secret name. The name I knew from my dreams of Wide. The magic name I use in that magic land.
‘Yes,’ I said, and I turned my face away from her to the stained wall and tried not to mind that Wide was just a dream and a pretence. That the real world was here. Here where they knew nothing of Wide, had never even heard of such a place. Where, except for Dandy, they would not call me Sarah when I had once asked. They had laughed at me and gone on calling me by my real name, Meridon.
‘What did you dream?’ Dandy probed. She was not cruel, but she was too curious to spare me.
‘I dreamed I had a father, a great big fair-headed man and he lifted me up. High, high up on to his horse. And I rode before him, down a lane away from our house and past some fields. Then up a path which went higher and higher, and through a wood and out to the very top of the fields, and he pointed his horse to look back down the way we had come, and I saw our house: a lovely square yellow house, small as a toy house on the green below us.’
‘Go on,’ said Dandy.
‘Shut up you two,’ a muffled voice growled in the half-light of the caravan. ‘It’s still night.’
‘It ain’t,’ I said, instantly argumentative. My father’s dark, tousled head peered around the head of his bunk and scowled at me. ‘I’ll strap you,’ he warned me. ‘Go to sleep.’
I said not another word. Dandy waited and in a few moments she said, in a whisper so soft that our da – his head buried beneath the dirty blankets – could not hear, ‘What then?’
‘We rode home,’ I said, screwing my eyes tight to re-live the vision of the little red-headed girl and the fair man and the great horse and the cool green of the arching beech trees over the drive. ‘And then he let me ride alone.’
Dandy nodded, but she was unimpressed. We had both been on and around horses since we were weaned. And I had no words to convey the delight of the great strides of the horse in the dream.
‘He was telling me how to ride,’ I said. My voice went quieter still, and my throat tightened. ‘He loved me,’ I said miserably. ‘He did. I could tell by the way he spoke to me. He was my da – but he loved me.’
‘And then?’ said Dandy, impatient.
‘I woke up,’ I said. ‘That was all.’
‘Didn’t you see the house, or your clothes or the food?’ she asked disappointed.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not this time.’
‘Oh,’ she said and was silent a moment. ‘I wish I could dream of it like you do,’ she said longingly. ‘’Taint fair.’
A warning grunt from the bed made us lower our voices again.
‘I wish I could see it,’ she said.
‘You will,’ I promised. ‘It is a real place. It is real somewhere. I know that somewhere it is a real place. And we will both be there, someday.’
‘Wide,’ she said. ‘It’s a funny name.’
‘That’s not the whole name,’ I said cautiously. ‘Not quite Wide. Maybe it’s something-Wide. I never hear it clear enough. I listen and I listen but I’m never quite sure of it. But it’s a real place. It is real somewhere. And it’s where I belong.’
I lay on my back and looked at the stains on the sacking roof of the caravan and smelled the stink of four people sleeping close with no windows open, the acid smell of stale urine from last night’s pot.
‘It’s real somewhere,’ I said to myself. ‘It has to be.’
There were three good things in my life, that dirty painful life of a gypsy child with a father who cared nothing for her, and a stepmother who cared less. There was Dandy my twin sister – as unlike me as if I were a changeling. There were the horses we trained and sold. And there was the dream of Wide.
If it had not been for Dandy I think I would have run away as soon as I was old enough to leave. I would have upped and gone, run off to one of the sleepy little villages in the New Forest in that hot summer of 1805 when I was fifteen. That was the summer I turned on Da and stood up to him for the first time ever.
We had been breaking a pony to sell as a lady’s ride. I said the horse was not ready for a rider. Da swore she was. He was wrong. Anyone but an idiot could have seen that the horse was nervy and half wild. But Da had put her on the lunge rein two or three times and she had gone well enough. He wanted to put me up on her. He didn’t waste his breath asking Dandy to do it. She would have smiled one of her sweet slow smiles and disappeared off for the rest of the day with a hunk of bread and rind of cheese in her pocket. She’d come back in the evening with a dead chicken tucked in her shawl so there was never a beating for Dandy.
But he ordered me up on the animal. A half-wild, half-foolish foal too young to be broke, too frightened to be ridden.
‘She’s not ready,’ I said looking at the flaring nostrils and the rolling whites of her eyes and smelling that special acrid smell of fearful sweat.
‘She’ll do,’ Da said. ‘Get up on her.’
I looked at Da, not at the horse. Da’s dark eyes were red rimmed, the stubble on his chin stained his face blue. The red kerchief at his neck showed bright against his pallor. He had been drinking last night and I guessed he felt ill. He had no patience to stand in the midday sunshine with a skittish pony on a lunge rein.
‘I’ll lunge her,’ I offered. ‘I’ll train her for you.’
‘You’ll ride her, you cheeky dog,’ he said to me harshly. ‘No whelp tells me how to train a horse.’
‘What’s the hurry?’ I asked, backing out of arm’s reach. Da had to hold the horse and could not grab me.
‘I got a buyer,’ he said. ‘A farmer at Beaulieu wants her for his daughter. But he wants her next week for her birthday or summat. So she’s got to be ready for then.’
‘I’ll lunge her,’ I offered again. ‘I’ll work her all day, and tomorrow or the day after I’ll get up on her.’
‘You get up now,’ he said harshly. Then he raised his voice and yelled: ‘Zima!’ and my stepmother came out into the sunshine from the gloomy caravan. ‘Hold ‘er,’ he said nodding at the horse and she jumped down from the caravan step, and went past me without a word.
‘I want summat inside the wagon,’ he said under his breath and I stood aside like a fool to let him go past me. But as soon as he was near he grabbed me with one hard grimy hand and twisted my arm behind my back so hard that I could hear the bone creak and I squeaked between clenched teeth for the pain.
‘Get up on ‘er,’ he said softly in my ear; his breath foul. ‘Or I’ll beat you till you can’t ride ‘er, nor any other for a week.’
I jerked away from him: sullen, ineffective. And I scowled at my stepmother who stood, picking her teeth with her free hand and watching this scene. She had never stood between me and him in my life. She had seen him beat me until I went down on my knees and cried and cried for him to stop. The most she had
ever done for me was to tell him to stop because the noise of my sobbing was disturbing her own baby. I felt that I was utterly unloved, utterly uncared for; and that was no foolish girl’s fear. That was the bitter truth.
‘Get up,’ Da said again, and came to the horse’s head.
I looked at him with a gaze as flinty as his own. ‘I’ll get up and she’ll throw me,’ I said. ‘You know that, so do I. And then I’ll get on her again and again and again. We’ll never train her like that. If you had as much brains inside you as you have beer, you’d let me train her. Then at least we’d have a sweet-natured animal to show this farmer. The way you want to do it we’ll show him a whipped idiot.’
I had never spoken to him like that before. My voice was steady but my belly quivered with fright at my daring.
He looked at me for a long hard moment.
‘Get up,’ he said. Nothing had changed.
I waited for one moment, in case I had a chance, or even half a chance to win my way in this. His face was flinty-hard, and I was only a young girl. I met his gaze for a moment. He could see the fight go out of me.
I checked he was holding the horse tight at the head and then I turned and gripped hold of the saddle and sprang up.
As soon as she felt the weight of me on her back she leaped like a mountain goat, stiff-legged sideways; and stood there trembling like a leaf with the shock. Then, as if she had only waited to see that it was not some terrible nightmare, she reared bolt upright to her full height, dragging the reins from Da’s hands. Da, like a fool, let go – as I had known all along he would – and there was nothing then to control the animal except the halter around her neck. I clung on like a limpet, gripping the pommel of the saddle while she went like a sprinting bullock – alternately head down and hooves up bucking, and then standing high on her hind legs and clawing the air with her front hooves in an effort to be rid of me. There was nothing in the world to do but to cling on like grim death and hope that Da would be quick enough to catch the trailing reins and get the animal under control before I came off. I saw him coming towards the animal,
and he was quite close. But the brute wheeled with an awkward sideways shy which nearly unseated me. I was off-balance and grabbing for the pommel of the saddle to get myself into the middle of her back again when she did one of her mighty rears and I went rolling backwards off her back to the hard ground below.
I bunched up as I fell, in an instinctive crouch, fearing the flailing hooves. I felt the air whistle as she kicked out over my head but she missed by an inch and galloped away to the other side of the field. Da, cursing aloud, went after her, running past me without even a glance in my direction to see how I fared.
I sat up. My stepmother Zima looked at me without interest.
I got wearily to my feet. I was shaken but not hurt except for the bruises on my back where I had hit the ground. Da had hold of the reins and was whipping the poor animal around the head while she reared and screamed in protest. I watched stony-faced. You’d never catch me wasting sympathy on a horse which had thrown me. Or on anything else.
‘Get up,’ he said without looking around for me.
I walked up behind him and looked at the horse. She was a pretty enough animal, half New Forest, half some bigger breed. Dainty, with a bright bay-coloured coat which glowed in the sunlight. Her mane and tail were black, coarse and knotted now, but I would wash her before the buyer came. I saw that Da had whipped her near the eye and a piece of the delicate eyelid was bleeding slightly.
‘You fool,’ I said in cold disgust. ‘Now you’ve hurt her, and it’ll show when the buyer comes.’
‘Don’t you call me a fool, my girl,’ he said rounding on me, the whip still in his hands. ‘Another word out of you and you get a beating you won’t forget. I’ve had enough from you for one day. Now get up on that horse and stay on this time.’
I looked at him with the blank insolence which I knew drove him into mindless temper with me. I pushed the tangled mass of my copper-coloured hair away from my face and stared at him with my green eyes as inscrutable as a cat. I saw his hand tighten on the whip and I smiled at him, delighting in my power; even if it lasted for no more than this morning.
‘And who’d ride her then?’ I taunted. ‘I don’t see you getting up on an unbroke horse. And Zima couldn’t get on a donkey with a ladder against its side. There’s no one who can ride her but me. And I don’t choose to this morning. I’ll do it this afternoon.’
With that, I turned on my heel and walked away from him, swaying my hips in as close an imitation of my stepmother’s languorous slink as I could manage. Done by a skinny fifteen year old in a skirt which barely covered her calves it was far from sensual. But it spoke volumes of defiance to my da who let out a great bellow of rage and dropped the horse’s reins and came after me.
He spun me around and shook me until my hair fell over my face and I could hardly see his red angry face.
‘You’ll do as I order or I’ll throw you out!’ he said in utter rage. ‘You’ll do as I order or I’ll beat you as soon as the horse is sold. You’d better remember that I am as ready to beat you tomorrow night as I am today. I have a long memory for you.’
I shook my head to get the hair out of my eyes, and to clear my mind. I was only fifteen and I could not hold on to courage against Da when he started bullying me. My shoulders slumped and my face lost its arrogance. I knew he would remember this defiance if I did not surrender now. I knew that he would beat me – not only when the horse was sold, but again every time he remembered it.
‘All right,’ I said sullenly. ‘All right. I’ll ride her.’
Together we cornered her in the edge of the field and this time he held tighter on to the reins when I was on her back. I stayed on a little longer but again and again she threw me. By the time Dandy was home with a vague secretive smile and a rabbit stolen from someone else’s snare dangling from her hand, I was in my bunk covered with bruises, my head thudding with the pain of falling over and over again.
She brought me a plate of rabbit stew where I lay.
‘Come on out,’ she invited. ‘He’s all right, he’s drinking. And he’s got some beer for Zima too, so she’s all right. Come on out and we can go down to the river and swim. That’ll help your bruising.’
‘No,’ I said sullenly. ‘I’m going to sleep. I don’t want to come out and I don’t care whether he’s fair or foul. I hate him. I wish he was dead. And stupid Zima too. I’m staying here, and I’m going to sleep.’