CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Sitting back in the saddle, the rider shifted uneasily as sweat-soaked jodhpurs met perspiring leather. His hands fidgeted impatiently as he waited for the presentations. A bloodied and dirt-blackened nail dug at a silver ring on a heat-swollen finger, prizing it up to allow the tiniest breath of air to soothe the deep mark it had caused. The same muddy fingers delicately held the rosette. Then, with a kiss of his spurs on the horse’s flank they moved off towards the paddock.

Picking their way through the nomadic camp of horseboxes, vacant rectangles of yellowing grass told of trailers which had loaded early. A rider sat on the tailgate of a Mercedes estate car, thoughtfully staring at the empty space, disappointed at her horse’s elimination in the final stage of the three-day Event. Past the First Aid tent, with its stinging reek of antiseptic, watched by the sorrowful black eyes of the ambulance, its X-ray dark windows capturing their image as they rode by. Away from the crowds, they stopped by a gate, worn smooth by cows rubbing horns and necks on countless summer days, the thick mud around the gate a dangerous grid of deep hoof prints, cast in wet but now sun-burnt and hard. Beyond was a meadow. Above, high woods rolled down the hills like giant breaking waves of green, drawing the smooth field like an undertow tightly into itself.

The rider lifted the rosette to his lips and kissed it. The blue ribbons fluttered in front of his eyes. The new smell and satin touch of it reminded him of her.

Turning from the gate, he walked his horse along the broad avenue of hospitality marquees where businessmen and clients sipped Champagne and ate sun-curled sandwiches, oblivious to the dangers and hardships endured by the riders who appeared almost as extras at their social gatherings. People busy shopping in the trade stands stopped for a moment to look up at the unknown competitor, the Stars and Stripes emblem on this saddle the only clue to his identity.

On finding his trailer, his groom jumped up to greet him. The rider slid wearily to the ground and instinctively ran the stirrup irons up the leathers before letting the groom take over; pulling off the saddle and blanket she threw a bucket of cold water over the horse’s steaming back, checking its legs were still sound, inspecting the strange inverted “E” shape on its hoof that the blacksmith had made by burning bars across it to bind a vicious sand crack. She tossed a faded green head collar over the horse's neck and, reaching up, buckled the collar at the dark mark and worn eyelet where it usually fastened. Giving the horse a pat and a mint, she clipped a blue lead rope to the brass D ring on the collar and tied the end to a loop of orange twine that hung from a rusty ring on the side of the trailer. The horse, a three-quarter thoroughbred, sent a ripple across its back to rid himself of invading flies that took off only to regroup and land on the same spot. The dark bay gelding flicked its black tail and kicked at the ground. Finding the hay net, he eagerly dragged mouthfuls through the large holes. Bored with the dry hay, he tugged on  the lead rope to nibble the fresh grass underfoot. The orange twine snapped like a cotton thread as the horse swung its head in frustration.

“Hey, let’s think of getting that horse loaded,” yelled the rider, who had been taking a shower in the trailer and now appeared at the door with a towel around his waist. He flicked soapy fingers at the blushing blonde groom who blinked her green eyes, and, pushing a tangled mass of blonde hair off her face, began padding the horse’s legs for the journey home.

As the trailer lurched along country lanes, the rider rested his boot on the dash and looked out across the soft down meadows and potbellied fields. Driving through a beautiful village, a woman’s cricket team in white skirts and pads played on the green in the fading glow of summer. He thought of how people would soon be making their way home and getting ready for the evening. It was then that he decided he would ring her, as soon as they reached London. He wished they could get more speed out of the old horsebox, but refrained from saying so. Earlier in the day he had tried driving the horsebox himself, but, unused to driving on the left hand side of the road, he’d constantly bashed the top of it against overhanging trees until, finally, embarrassed but not reluctantly, he had handed over the wheel to the groom. After arriving at the yard and stabling the horses for the night, he strode down to the local pub, and putting his cell phone down on the bar, selected her number and pressed.

She answered immediately… he picked up the phone.

“Hi Tomasey, it’s Harry... from New York.”

“Oh my God… Oh Hi.”

The particular tone of her “Oh, Hi,” made him feel uneasy. He cleared his throat and tried to sound upbeat.

“I’m over here, and I’m coming to see you.”

“Are you?” was the reply.

“Yeah. Perhaps on Sunday.”

“Well, it’s a long way.”

“Well, I’ve come nearly three-thousand miles, so I am sure I can manage the rest.”

He sensed there was someone with her, and thought of ringing off. After a pause, she finally said, “Harry, I’ve got to go now, but I might see you on Sunday. Bye.”

 

The crestfallen young American lent heavily against the bar. Suddenly, he felt tired. He was a long way from home and needed to hear a few kind words from her. He told himself he wasn’t going down on Sunday, but knew he would.

“Time, please, Ladies and Gentlemen,” bellowed the landlord, clanging a brass bell that shifted the last stubborn drinkers.

 

The next day, the American was found by his landlady asleep on his bed, fully dressed with the lights still on.

 

After lunch on Sunday, he set off for Claverdon, the Event yard in the country where Tomasey both worked and lodged. He hadn’t asked for directions, or listened when he had been offered them; he would stop and find his way on the map, once he was on the open road. It felt good to be on his own for a while, and he put his foot down and sped along the country lanes. The little red Peugeot  hire car hugged the road as it twisted through chilly woods and along empty hilltops; the sun catching Harry’s face through the open window. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the breath-taking beauty of England, and slowed as he drove along an avenue of stately oaks. Fields of bright yellow rape swept across the hills. The banks and ditches beside him were covered in a jumble of dog roses and barbed brambles -vivid blue flowers peeped out from their protection. A heat haze shimmered above the melting liquorice of the gray tarmac road.

Looking out for landmarks, he arrived at the Blade and Bones pub. A few miles further on, he found the flaking black and white sign set in the hedgerow that pointed to a concealed entrance leading to a long bridle path that plunged into a wood. At the end of the drive he came to double iron gates. Dogs rushed to them as soon as he got out of the car. A stable girl appeared and, shushing the dogs, showed him around to the side entrance. “Is Tomasey about?” he asked, looking past the girl up towards the big house.

“Yes, she’s in there,” said the girl, pointing to the gatehouse, before disappearing into the tack room. Feeling a little disappointed that he wouldn’t be making a grand entrance at the big house, Harry bowed his head under the low porch and knocked on the door of the little flint and brick-built gatehouse.

 

Tomasey’s brown hair was as shiny as he remembered. The outdoor life had showered freckles across her nose, and, enchantingly he noticed, across her breasts as she lent down to hold a puppy back from the door. Standing up, she put a hand on his shoulder as they kissed. He wanted to embrace her, but found it difficult because of their different heights, unless she stood on tiptoe and put her arms around his neck as she had done when they were together. They went inside and sat on the bed, then got up again.

“Let me show you around,” she said, pulling him up from the bed and leading him into a tiny kitchen which had an enormous cooker, and an even smaller bathroom, and then back into the same room to sit on the bed again.

“That’s it? It’s great… no, really,” he genuinely loved it. As they sat on the bed, they both stroked the puppy that scrambled between them. Behind Tomasey, Harry noticed a snapshot stuck to the fridge door by a magnetic Snoopy – of her with a grinning male rider. He didn’t let curiosity get the better of him, and instead asked if she would like to go out to dinner. “Yes, Okay, but I hope you have got some money, because I am absolutely penniless.”

Harry had gone to the bank in the high street, and had got enough money out of the cash point to make sure he had money for the weekend. Pushing the whining pup inside, they crossed the yard, and Tomasey swung back two big garage doors, propping them open with bricks. Inside was a black Bentley belonging to the yard’s owner, Alex De Vere; the cracked leather seats covered in a thin layer of dust. Coke cans and show guides of past Events littered the floor. Tomasey folded a New Zealand rug and placed it on the driver’s seat, and, climbing in, she reversed the stately relic out of the garage. She drove them to the village of Bray, past the church, its gray buttresses dappled with green moss, bleached frost white by the sun. They parked on the end of a long row of cars strung out along the narrow street. The Waterside Inn, set like a jewel by the river, the smooth surface reflecting a dramatic sunset of warm pink sky threatened by black thunder clouds. Scattered showers made dimples on the water, sending summer dragonflies skimming for the cover of the trailing willows.

Seated in the restaurant of the Inn, Tomasey ordered for them both. Harry talked excitedly of how he had learned to ride, progressing from his early indoor lessons with his instructor to his first novice Horse Trials. “…and all because of me,” she said triumphantly, stirring her cocktail stick nonchalantly in her tall glass.

Harry took a gulp of his drink. Did he really think that he had spent all those cold days hacking out, learning to ride and compete, and risking his neck for any other reason than to be closer to her and her world? Could he have hidden his real motives from someone as pretty and perceptive as her? He tried not to rise to the bait, and said, in a voice that hardly sounded convincing, that sure, seeing her ride had made him think he would like to learn, but it was something he had always wanted to do.

Searching through the inside pocket of his jacket hanging on the back of his chair, he pulled out a photo folder. “I’ve got some pictures of my horse back in the States. Would you like to see them?” Not really waiting for an answer, he handed them across. Tomasey looked at the first couple of prints in which a blonde girl wearing a large T-shirt was draping a bronzed arm around the horse’s neck. She quickly shuffled through the rest of the prints like a stack of cards, and replaced them in the folder. “Mmm, he looks like a good one,” was her only comment.

During coffee, Harry asked for the check. “…the bill” said Tomasey, laughing at Harry’s Americanism, and giving him a teasing smile.

Outside, they wandered back to the Bentley, which now stood alone at the end of an empty street.

At the stables, Harry got out of the car as Tomasey drove into the garage and turned off the lights. He strolled across the yard and surveyed the grounds that were now bathed in moonlight. Below where he stood, a flight of stone steps covered in a tangle of ivy led down to a swimming pool.

How often this setting had come to him in dreams;  from the pages of Tomasey’s letters, he could almost taste the barbecue and the wood fire, see her being dangled over the pool by a new boyfriend, hear the sounds of summer parties, where waiters in starched white collars served Champagne from silver trays to her guests and famous Event riders.

Harry’s look of remembered pain of missing her turned slowly to a smile as he looked at the Grand Pool, a wooden frame covered in sagging blue plastic, stagnant leaves clogging the surface. A rusty rake lay beside it in the grip of long, uncut grass.

He threw back his head and laughed aloud at Tomasey’s subtle deceptions and his own vivid imagination.

“What are you laughing about?” asked Tomasey, walking up from the garage.

“Oh, nothing,” said Harry, ducking through the bushes to join her.

Inside the gatehouse they sat on the bed, Tomasey asking if Harry would like some more coffee. “No, thanks. Boy, it’s been a long day. I suppose you haven’t got a spare stable I could sleep in tonight,” he said, testing the ground.

“No, the only place is here,” she said, patting the bed on which they sat, “…and you’re not sleeping here.” The phone rang. Her “Oh, Hi,” sounded excited, attentive. She uncurled her legs and sat on the edge of the bed. She chuckled to the person on the end of the phone, twisting the cord around her fingers.

Harry remembered the long talks they used to have together in New York, the sudden rushes of conversation, the long lulls when they could think of nothing to say, when she would just hum a tune she had heard on the radio.

“He’s just leaving,” said Tomasey, blowing a kiss down the phone.

Damned right he’s just leaving… said Harry to himself, getting to his feet and walking outside. Putting down the phone, she followed him to his car.

“Thanks for coming to see me.”

Harry, not wanting her to see how hurt he was, kissed her and held her momentarily, looking for something, however slight, that would tell him what she felt for him …

He jumped into his car and drove quickly up the lane. As he turned the corner, he instinctively reached up to stop his sunglasses sliding off the dash into his lap.

“Damn!” he’d left them on the bed. They were his good RayBans. Damned if he was going to leave them behind. He turned the car around and, on reaching the cottage, went in without knocking and retrieved his glasses. Tomasey had crossed the yard to tend to the horses. She didn’t look up, and Harry’s last view of her was digging a yellow bucket into a bin of feed under a bright yard light.

 

Driving back, he was despondent, thinking of all the cold afternoons hacking out, dreaming of the day he could be with her. He switched on the radio and twiddled the knob through crackly classical music: a French station to a sports program. The announcer said, “Looking forward to this year’s three-day Event at Badminton. Among the riders, England’s young hope, Tomasey, up against the diehards of the international circuit, and a young rider from New York, Henry Hunter, who had to cut through a lot of red tape to compete in this year’s Event. Well, we’re once again beaten by the clock, but join us next week, when we’ll be bringing you live coverage of the Formula One Grand Prix from Monaco.”

Harry pulled into a lay-by and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. The whole plan had been to come to England to surprise Tomasey at Badminton, unable to wait until then, he had phoned her. But that surprise was still intact. He put the car into gear and drove off at a more moderate pace.

When he got in, there was a note on his bed saying that Eventing Magazine had called while he was out, and a girl called Tomasey had rung and that she would try again later.

At ten to twelve the phone rang in the hallway.

Harry folded his arms behind his head and lay back on his bed in the dark and stared at the shaft of light coming from under the door. He did not answer the landlady's call for him.