JUST look at that title! You see, I am the Jill concerned, and quite honestly if anyone had told me three years ago that anything so terrific as a gymkhana would ever be associated with my name I should have thought them completely mad. Yet such was to be my destiny.
(That lovely phrase is not my own, I got it out of a library novel that Mummy is reading.)
I was only eleven, three years ago, when Mummy and I came to live at Pool Cottage, Chatton, and I quickly noticed that for all the children in that part of the world the one thing seemed to be riding. Every day I would hear the clop of many hoofs coming nearer, and I would rush to the window and see a riding school go by with a string of ponies ridden by children of all ages from six to sixteen.
So after a while I said, "Oh, Mummy, do you think I could possibly have riding lessons? All the children here seem to ride."
Mummy sighed, and then she said, "Jill, I hate to have to, but you know what I'm going to say, don't you?"
"Yes," I said. "We can't afford it. O.K."
And that was that.
Now before we go any further I had better say that if you are blasé about ponies you had better put this book down, because you will be infuriated to find that most of it is about a beginner, namely Me. And the same thing applies if you are one of those people who was practically born in the saddle; or if you ride nothing but blood ponies; or if you happen to be the fastest woman over timber in East Woldshire; or if your father buys all his horses at Tattersall's. It will be too simple for you. You see, my pony — but I'm going miles ahead.
When my father was alive we lived in a white house that was big and rambling, at the foot of a hill in Wales. Daddy didn't ride, but he loved horses above all animals. When we went out for a walk he would never pass a field with a horse in it, but he would call the horse and somehow it would come to him, and he would stroke its nose and talk to it, and it was almost as though he and the horse knew each other's language.
One day when my father was stroking a horse's nose a farmer came by and said, "Look-you-now!" (Which is a Welsh way of saying Gosh.) The reason was that this particular horse was supposed to be a nasty creature that its owner couldn't do anything with. But my father could, and that was why the farmer said, "Look-you-now!"
So I naturally grew up with the idea that horses were animals to be fond of, and Daddy promised that someday I should have riding lessons. But just about then he had to go to West Africa on business for his firm, and later we got a cable to say that he had fever. And he never came back to us.
Unfortunately there was very little money for Mummy and me, so Mummy sold our house and with what money she had she bought Pool Cottage at Chatton — which is quite a decent place really — and then she only had the little that was left and what she got from writing her children's books.
It seems awful to say it, but I never could get on with Mummy's books at all. They are all terribly up in the air and symbolic, about very whimsy children who are lured away by the Elves of Discontent to the Forest of Tears from whence they are rescued by Fairy Hopeful, and so on. I suppose some children must like these books and buy them or Mummy wouldn't get the cheques she does get; or perhaps it is that their aunts buy them and give them to the children for birthday presents. Anyway, so as not to hurt Mummy's feelings I always read every word of her books as they come out, and try to say something appreciative, but honestly they leave me cold. I would rather have Out With Romany, or The Phoenix and the Carpet, or even something highbrow like The Horse in Sickness and in Health.
We had only just come to Chatton and our cottage was actually about two miles from the shops, and we didn't know anybody and it was still the summer holidays, so apart from helping Mummy with beds and dusting and things like that I hadn't much to do. Mummy did things in the house every morning and cooked the dinner; and after dinner she got out her typewriter and settled down to work while I just went out and meandered about.
Not very far from our cottage there was a farm, and next to the farm was a paddock, and in the paddock was a black pony. He was sturdy but graceful, about fourteen hands, with a nice action and a very intelligent face; but his mane and tail were ragged and he looked a bit out of condition. This wasn't surprising when I discovered from observation that he spent his entire life in that paddock and nobody ever exercised him, or even worked him, or seemed to bother with him at all.
One day when I was leaning over the gate, as I got into the habit of doing, I called the pony in the way Daddy used to call. He lifted his head from cropping and looked at me, but he didn't come. However I persevered, and at last he came up to within about two yards of me, looked at me in a puzzled way, and then with rather a disappointed expression turned away.
Of course! I ought to have brought him something. I rushed home, and shouted, "Mummy! Can I take some lump sugar for a pony up the road?"
Mummy said, "Oh, must you! I'm right in the middle of a sentence . . . I don't think the farmers like you to give them sugar, dear, but there are some carrots in a bag in the scullery. Wash them first . . . oh, I've forgotten how that sentence was going to end now!"
I took three of the best carrots, washed them under the tap, and went charging back to the paddock on my bike. I was quite excited when I hung over the gate and called to the pony. To my surprise he came at once, at a lovely trot. When he was about two yards away he stood still, as he had done before, but this time I held out my hand with the carrot placed temptingly on my open palm. His face lighted up, as you know ponies' faces do. He looked simply thrilled, and he came and took the carrot gently while his velvety lips brushed my hand. There he stood chewing, sublimely happy, and while he chewed I stroked his nose and cheeks.
Then I gave him the other two carrots, and said good-bye, and rode off on my bike. I nearly over-balanced looking back, and he was standing at the gate looking longingly after me.
After that Mummy simply never had a carrot left; I took them all for Blackie, as I called him. Of course I told her I had more or less adopted this pony, and that now he recognised me as soon as my bike hove in sight, and he would stop cropping grass and dash to the gate to meet me and the carrots.
I asked her too, to see if she could find out anything about Blackie and why his owner left him alone in that paddock all day; and at last the milkman told us that Farmer Clay had taken the pony in payment of a bad debt, thinking that perhaps his daughter would like to ride, but the girl didn't care about riding — can you imagine? I could just picture the fat, stodgy thing! — so Farmer Clay being easy-going, Blackie just stayed in the paddock where he was and nobody bothered about him at all.
I went to see Blackie every day, sometimes twice, and the rest of the time I just messed about and wished I knew somebody.
Then one day when I had reached the pony's gate I noticed that the farmer was in the paddock and was coming towards me. I thought perhaps he was angry, but he wasn't. He just said, "Good day," and I said, "Good day," and he said, "You like the pony?" and I said, "I should jolly well think I do."
He said, "I notice you've been round here a lot. That's a nice riding pony, well mannered and plenty of spirit. Just right for you. Why don't you ask your Ma to buy him for you?"
The idea gave me such a shock that I goggled at him like a fish.
"He'd make a jumper, he would, if he was trained," said Farmer Clay. "A grand little pony and no mistake. You just ask your Ma what about it."
My head was spinning round by now at the very thought of being able to own Blackie.
"How — how much would he cost?" I stuttered.
Farmer Clay thought for a minute.
"Well, shall we say twelve pound? Twelve pound, and that's a bargain, I can tell you. But he's on my hands, as you might say."
Of course he might as well have said twelve hundred, or even twelve thousand.
"Thanks very much," I said. "I think I'd better be going home now."
"You ask your Ma now."
"Yes," I said. "Yes I will."
But as soon as I had got away I realised that I wouldn't, because I had enough sense not to worry Mummy about something that was quite impossible. So I decided that I would never go and see Blackie again.
Four awful days went by. I didn't know what to do with the time, because I could only go to Chatton if I didn't want to pass Blackie's field, so I mooched about the house, plunged in blackest gloom. Then one night Mummy, who was very noticing, said, "Has anything happened to your friend the pony, Jill?"
"How do you mean?" I said, turning red.
"Only that my carrot bag is quite full. You haven't been to see Blackie for days. Now there is something the matter! Out with it."
So I shrugged my shoulders, and then told her all. When I had finished she said, "Poor Jill, I wish I could buy you the pony, you know I do. But twelve pounds! If I had that much money to spare I'd get the scullery floor relaid, and the garden dug over, and some apple trees put in, and a new roof for the hens, and the chimneys pointed, and -"
"I know, Mummy," I said. "It's O.K. But, oh gosh, if I could only have had Blackie! You see, he's used to being out of doors and he could live in our orchard, and I'd look after him and everything."
"He'd cost a lot to feed, especially in the winter."
"I thought of that," I said. (Actually I'd thought of everything in the silent watches of the night.) "I thought I might lend him to one of the riding schools to use, on condition that they fed and stabled him in the winter."
"You've never been taught to ride, Jill."
"I could teach myself."
"It isn't as easy as you think, and riding lessons are expensive."
"Perhaps they would let me work at the riding school, mucking out stables and so on, in return for riding lessons?"
Mummy shook her head.
"You know it's all impossible. Why are we talking about it? Oh dear, I wish you could have got interested in anything else but horses. Some girls just love doing lino cuts."
"Lino cuts!" I said, my voice quivering with disgust; and I went up to my room and sat on the bed and thought of Blackie all alone in the paddock watching in vain for me. This brought a lump into my throat, so I finished up with a good howl, and then I felt better and went down and made some toast for tea.