"HULLO!" I said to my friend Ann Derry as we met after school one afternoon. "How's the Best Dressed Child feeling today?"
For answer she pulled the hair ribbon off my plait and threw it into the road where it was squashed flat by a passing car.
"You asked for it," she said.
We were referring to an event which had just taken place in the village of Chatton where we live and where everybody rides and there are lots of pony shows and other horsy events such as I have described in my other book Jill's Gymkhana.
A woman called Mrs. Beverley had had the bright idea of offering a special prize for the best dressed child rider, the idea being to add a bit of interest to the Rectory garden party in aid of mending the church steeple which it badly needed. Actually it was a frightfully silly sort of prize, but everybody seemed to get very excited over it. I decided not to compete myself, as the clothes I wear are adequate for the kind of riding I do but far from showy, but some of the girls at school and their mothers went simply crackers. For days people were talking about what they were going to wear, or else telling you it was a grim secret, and some girls' mothers rushed them off to London to exclusive tailors who usually only make for the nobility. I should think the amount of money that was spent on those tailors would have built fourteen new steeples for the church, never mind repairing the old one.
There was a girl in our school called Susan Pyke, about whom I have told you in my other book, who said she was absolutely certain of getting the prize, which was distinctly off-putting for all the others if they had believed her, but nobody did.
My friend Ann told me rather apologetically that her mother was making her enter for this Best Dressed event, and knowing Mrs. Derry I wasn't really surprised. Thank goodness my mother is much more sensible. I said to Ann, "Well, for heaven's sake don't let her get you up as Bonnie Prince Charlie or anything like that."
Ann said no, she was simply having new cord breeches and boots and a covert coat and a new white shirt and string gloves and a bowler, and she wasn't even trying because she thought the whole thing was absolutely potty and just the sort of thing that Mrs. Beverley - who turned out to be Susan Pyke's aunt - would think of.
Well, when the competitors rode into the ring on the day it was terrific and more like a fancy dress parade than just child riders.
There was one girl got up in a Charles the Second huntswoman outfit, all flowing green velvet with ostrich feathers in her hat, which fell off the second time round the ring and the pony behind trod on it; and there was another wearing scarlet jodhpurs with a sort of white Hussar tunic, and then all this extra special hunting kit from the exclusive London tailors.
Everybody was gasping, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself and having a good laugh as I leaned over the rails, when Susan Pyke rode in.
She did look marvellous, all in black and with silver epaulettes and a silver stripe down her breeches, and her boots were actually patent leather and the whole thing was crowned with a woman's hunting topper and she had gloves with enormous gauntlets like a Guardsman's. She was riding her father's black horse, Punch, which was seventeen hands and much too big for her, and unfortunately she got on his neck and couldn't get back again and then she lost her stirrups and after that she didn't look so good and the judges lost interest in her.
I will say for the judges, they had good sense. In spite of it being such a silly prize they didn't lose their heads and they weren't impressed by all the glamour that people had put on. When my friend Ann Derry rode into the ring I couldn't help feeling proud for she actually was without question the best dressed child rider that you could hope to see in the whole of England. And the judges knew it. Her pony, Seraphine, a grey, was beautifully groomed and Ann rode her with the utmost confidence. From head to foot she was perfectly and unobtrusively dressed, just right, and just as I should want to be dressed if I ever rode at Olympia or with the Quorn, which I never expect I shall do.
She so obviously deserved the prize that everybody clapped, and the judges gave it to her, and it was five pounds and a certificate. But after that I used to rag her by calling her the Best Dressed Child, which always got her goat.
It was the end of the summer term and we were having exams, which are always revolting but in this case were more revolting than usual as they had been devised by some fiend in human shape.
"What was your paper like?" yelled Ann as we whizzed down Orchard Road on our bikes.
"Sickening," I said. "History. What was the Treaty of Utrecht?"
"Search me!" shouted Ann.
Then she turned off for her home and I went on to our cottage and burst into the kitchen and threw my school case on the floor. There was just time to saddle up and have a ride before supper.
Just then Mummy came into the kitchen with a letter in her hand and a strange look on her face. I knew at once that something was up though I do not claim to be physical, or whatever they call it.
"Gosh!" I said. "Is it good or bad?"
"I don't know whether you'd call it good or bad, Jill," she said. "But it's rather terrific."
My mother is very well known as a writer of children's books, and I suppose some children must buy her books and read them - or else their aunts buy them for them for birthday presents to go in the bookcase - because simply huge numbers of them are sold and keep Mummy and me and the cottage and Black Boy, my pony, going; but the fact is I can't get on with them at all, they are so whimsical, and the children in them, though considered sweet, are I think perfectly revolting.
"It's books," I said. "It's another publisher wants another serial."
"Oh no," she said. "It's much more than that. They want me to go to America for three months, to visit summer camps and tell stories to the children. They'll pay all my expenses and give me a lot of money as well. What am I to say, Jill?"
"Why, you'll go, of course," I said promptly. "It'll be marvellous for you, and I'll be all right. It'll be the summer holidays anyway, and I'll make my meals when I feel like it and ride most of the day and dust every morning. It'll be fun."
"But you can't possibly stay here by yourself," said Mummy.
I knew that was coming. And I knew that however much I argued, Mummy wouldn't change her mind.
"Oh," I said, coldly. "What happens then?"
"That's just the trouble. I hate to leave you, Jill, because I know you won't like -"
"Not Cecilia's!" I said. "Oh Mummy! How perfectly foul!"
Cecilia is my cousin and an absolute blot.
"I think I'd better not go to America," said Mummy.
"Okay," I said, and went out to the orchard where Black Boy, my pony, was waiting for me. He came to me at once and nuzzled my shoulder, making lovely snuffling noises from sheer pleasure. I stroked his neck and pretended to chew his forelock, and he said as plainly as anything, "Are we going to ride today?"
I knew I was being a beast, and I knew that it wouldn't be a bit of good going on being a beast because I am not the kind of person that can be a beast and be happy at the same time.
So I went back to the house and put my head in at the door of the sitting-room where Mummy was sitting in front of her typewriter looking thoughtful, and I said, "You've jolly well got to go to America whatever happens, and I'll even go to Cecilia's. It can't be worse than the dungeons under the Tower of London and people lived for years in them."
"You are a dear," said Mummy, smiling happily at me. "I do want to go. But, Jill, there's something awful you haven't thought of and I hardly dare say it - you won't be able to take Black Boy to Cecilia's. You'll have to leave him at the riding school. Mrs. Darcy will be glad to have him and he'll be well looked after and exercised."
"But - but -" I stammered.
It was terrible. No Black Boy? No riding? I choked, and dashed up to my small bedroom. This was what you got for being noble. I was being noble about Mummy going to America, and I might just as well be going to a dungeon myself. On my chest of drawers were the cups I had won with Black Boy, and his rosettes made a gay pattern pinned over the mantelpiece, and I should miss the last two shows of the season and I had been nearly certain of winning the under fourteen jumping and next year I should be too old, and if you can think of anything more utterly dismal than that you don't know anything about riding.
I did my level best to look on the Bright Side, only I honestly couldn't find one to look on. There was a book of Mummy's called "Barbie Bright-Side" about a girl who had both her legs cut off in a motor smash and got such a name for looking on the Bright Side that practically everybody in the town used to come to her and ask her to find a Bright Side for them too, and she always did.
"Gosh!" I said aloud. "If Barbie could find a Bright Side in this she ought to get the V.C."
Because funnily enough it is always easier to see a Bright Side for other people than it is for yourself.
I am sorry this book is starting in such a melancholy way, but that is how things did start, though it will get a bit better later on if you can hang out so long.
To think was to act with my mother, and to make a long story short, a week later school had broken up for the holidays, and Mummy had had a letter from Aunt Primrose, Cecilia's mother, to say "we shall be only too glad to have dear little Jill for seven weeks or as long as you like," and I was all packed for the dreadful fray.
The worst moment - here I go all dismal again - was when Mrs. Darcy's girl groom, Angela, came to take Black Boy away because one thing I had drawn the line at doing was taking him myself. I sat on the end of my bed and didn't even look out of the window to see him go and an air of heart-rending despair filled the cottage.
However I bucked up after a bit and went down and gave Mummy the farewell present I had bought for her, which was a Horselover's Calendar with a super photograph of a horse on every page and the date underneath, and I told her to keep it and bring it back for me when she had done with it.
She said, "You've been awfully good about all this, Jill, and I want to give you a reward. We've talked about you having another pony -"
I knew what was coming then and I was thrilled. Black Boy had done awfully well for me, but he wasn't up to the higher jumps which I hoped soon to be taking when I got into the under-sixteens; and besides when you only have one pony you sometimes get let down, for instance when Black Boy went off colour the day before the Lynbourne show and I had to scratch though I had entered for everything and Susan Pyke got three Firsts and told everybody at school that I had funked it when I saw what I was up against, which was absolute rot because I had beaten her heaps of times.
So I brightened up when Mummy said that and wondered what was coming next.
She brought her hand from behind her back and in it there was a small black leather wallet.
"I have been talking to Mrs. Darcy," she said, "and to Martin, and they both have a good deal of confidence in your judgment. You have been very sensible and reliable, Jill, and I feel I can trust you with money. So in this wallet I have put thirty pounds -"
"Yes, it is a lot of money," went on Mummy, "and I want you to give it to Auntie or Uncle to take care of it for you. But I thought that if by any chance you should hear of or see a suitable pony while I'm away you would have the means to buy it. You ought to get a decent pony for thirty pounds. Anyway, it will be something to brighten up your exile, and here is another two pounds for your pocket money. Now do take care of it until you get to White Ferry."
"Oh how wizard!" I cried and gave Mummy a huge hug.
So when the taxi came for me next day I felt a bit better about going, and was already making up a story in which I went to an auction and a magnificent chestnut show-jumper was put up and it just happened that there weren't many bidders that day and I got him for thirty pounds.