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Chapter 1 - A Disappointed Jumper


I WAS sitting on a pile of gravel outside a field gate feeling absolutely browned off. I don't mean a bit fed up, I mean practically crying like a small kid. I wouldn't have wished my worst enemy to feel so awful, not even Susan Pyke or my cousin Cecilia and they are the worst blots I know.

It was the day of Chatton Show, the biggest event of the riding year in our part of the world, and every single person I knew would be there — except Me.

I had got a strained wrist. Not anything really bad like a fracture or even a sprain, but just a stupid strained muscle; and I hadn't even got it out riding, I had got it by swinging the bucket too far when I came back from feeding Mummy's unspeakable hens.

I always swing an empty bucket, and I dare say you do too, and all I can say is — don't, if you want to have any chance of riding your pony for days after.

The only thing I had thought of and talked about for a long time before this vile and shattering accident was Chatton Show. (That is to say, I had thought in slight spasms about the end-of-term-exams, though not very much, according to my headmistress, who wrote unsympathetically on my report, "Jill can do anything she gives her mind to and would be advised to give it more consistently to Mathematics, History, and French." What I admire about Miss Grange-Dudley is the marvellous way she expresses herself, like Shakespeare.)

It was my last chance to win the fourteen-and-under jumping, so of course I intended to do it. Next year I would be fifteen and competing with a crowd of very hard sixteen-year-olds who had gained all their experience in bigger shows than Chatton.

When I swung the bucket and my arm hurt, I just said Ouch! and took no more notice, but you can imagine my feelings when I woke up on the morning before the show with an arm like a Swiss roll.

I rushed into Mummy's room with a face lined and drawn with horror, as it says in thrillers, and cried, "Mummy! Do something about my arm. Get it down or scrape it or something!"

She looked at it and said, "Oh, dear. I'm afraid it's not much good, Jill. You should have gone to the doctor last night, as I seem to remember suggesting."

"It wasn't bad last night," I mumbled. "It hardly hurt at all."

I didn't want to admit that Mummy had known best, as she usually did.

"I'll go to the doctor now," I said hopefully.

"Yes, do," she said, not so hopefully.

So I went. I wore my jodhpurs and my fawn coat and my new red and fawn checked tie to show that I was a serious-minded person, and I sat in Dr. Fisher's waiting-room for half an hour with two old women who were doing a sniffing duet, and a dim sort of boy with a dirty bandage on his leg, and some other faded-looking characters.

At last it was my turn. When I got home, Mummy said, "Cheer up, Jill. I was afraid it wasn't going to be good news."

"It isn't going to be any use for four days," I said, and added, "I don't want to go on living." I then rushed upstairs and lay across my bed and wondered if anybody in the world had ever been so miserable before.

Mummy shouted upstairs, "Are you coming down, Jill? Ann and Diana are here." (My two riding friends.)

I yelled, "Tell them to go away."

But they didn't go away. They came up and said all the usual things. The more people tell you how sorry they are for you the worse you feel and the more you want to slay them.

"How dreary having to stand by the rails and watch us ride," said Diana.

"I shan't," I said. "I'm not going."

"Not going!" said Ann. "You don't mean you're not going to Chatton Show?"

"I'd die," I said.

"Well, you know best," said Diana, "but if it was me wild horses wouldn't keep me away. I mean, missing Chatton Show!"

I told her she needn't keep saying it.

"If you don't go, you'll wish you'd gone," said Ann.

"I shan't," I said.

"But what on earth will you do?" said Diana. "I mean, there isn't anything on earth to do tomorrow but go to Chatton Show."

"I'll read a good book," I said bitterly. "And I wish you'd both go away. I hate you."

"Oh, we are sorry for you," said Ann. "We think it's the most beastly bad luck that ever happened to anybody in the world."

"And it's your last chance in the under-fourteens," said Diana.

"Really?" I said sarcastically. "I hadn't thought of that." (Actually I hadn't thought of anything else.)

When I told Mummy I wasn't going to the show she said, "I think you're being awfully silly."

"I couldn't bear it," I said in a sort of night-must-fall voice.

"But wouldn't you like to go with Mrs. Lowe and Martin and me in the car and watch, and have a chicken lunch and ices, and see the Open Jumping?"

"No," I croaked.

"Oh, Jill, you are a fool."

"Okay," I said.

"But what will you do? You can't just hang about the cottage alone. Everybody will be at the show. You'll be bored stiff."

I gave an awful gulp, like an expiring cow, and dashed upstairs again to bury my head in the pillow.

Of course the day of the show had to be the most gorgeous summer's day you ever saw. I tried not to notice the blue, blue sky and the bits of cottonwool cloud, and the sunshine spilling gold on the fields and the warm smell of grass and flowers. I wasn't quite such a beast as to wish it was raining to spoil the show for everybody else, but I did think Nature needn't have been quite so mean to me.

I got up and put on my gingham school dress and some pretty-far-gone gym shoes, and tried not to think of my beloved riding clothes hanging spruce and brushed in the cupboard.

At a quarter past ten the Lowes drove up in their car to call for Mummy. There were Mr. and Mrs. Lowe and Martin, all in light summer clothes. I tried to look cool and don't-carish. I thought, if they tell me to Look on the Bright Side and Some-girls-haven't-got-any-arms-at-all I'd burst into flames, but they didn't.

Mrs. Lowe said, "Not going, Jill?" and Martin said, "Well, nobody's going to make you."

Mummy got into the car in her cool cream shantung coat and skirt and pretty straw hat, and said, "Now do eat a proper lunch, Jill, it's all in the fridge, not just toast and jam," and I said, "All right," and looked heroic and waved them off with my good hand.

And the minute they were gone, believe it or believe it not, I wished with all my heart I had gone too and hadn't been such a fool.

I thought of a few other things as I walked slowly down to the orchard to my puzzled-looking ponies, who, of course, were wondering why they weren't going to the show for which they had been practising for weeks. Black Boy and Rapide lifted their heads from cropping the sweet orchard grass and fixed four lovely dark eyes on me. I was remembering how when I was a raw kid of ten and had just bought my first pony, and couldn't afford riding lessons and didn't even know how I was going to stable and feed Black Boy in the winter, Martin Lowe had made himself my friend and taught me to ride and helped me to solve all my problems. And he did it from a wheel chair too, because he couldn't walk any more after his bomber crashed in the war.

Mr. and Mrs. Lowe had been marvellous to me too, and invited me to their beautiful horsy home where there were lovely papers lying about, like Horse and Hound and Riding, not the dreary magazines you find in most people's houses, all about knitting and love and how to make puddings.

So by now I was feeling the pangs of remorse, and I didn't even want the block of milk chocolate which Mummy had left on the kitchen table for a surprise for me.

The ponies looked a bit ragged, but I didn't see how I could groom them with only one hand. I fetched them some water, after sloshing a lot of it over my feet, and listened to them happily blowing into the bucket.

Black Boy was a bit small for me now but I could still make him do anything I wanted. I knew he would have won the under-fourteen jumping for me, and I had entered Rapide as my second horse, because on his day he could be brilliant. They were both trained to the last inch. But it wasn't much good thinking about things like that.

1 waggled my wrist. It felt a bit better. I thought, it would! And I'll be jumping again in a week when it doesn't matter.

The morning seemed endless. I tried to read a thriller, but could only think what a din our help, Mrs. Crosby, was making with the Hoover. Every time she passed the sitting-room door she shoved her head in and said, "Having a nice read, dear? Why not go out and get a bit of fresh air? It don't do to brood."

I said sarkily, "Are you addressing a hen?" and she said, "You don't know what real trouble is, you don't," and I said, "Oh, dry up!" — for which Mummy would have given me a good telling off if she had heard me.

That infuriated Mrs. C. who said, "And you've left your room in a shocking mess, I must say," and I said, "Well, what can I do with only one arm?" and that was asking for it, because she began to tell me about the daughter of the woman that her sister worked for who had both arms in splints for months and taught herself to paint pictures with her toes — "lovely lifelike apples, ever so rosy" — and in the middle I got up and walked out, and Mrs. Crosby said, "If there's one thing I can't stick it's a great baby!"

In spite of what Mummy had said I didn't want any lunch. I took a pear and some biscuits and walked along the lane until I got to the heap of gravel which the roadmenders had dumped outside a field gate. I sat down on it and thought, Help! There's hours and hours to wait yet.

And this is where you came in.

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