I blow out, watching my breath steam in the icy air of Stella’s office. We call it her office, but really it’s another stall, stabling her desk instead of a horse. Stella reads from a hand-written list to the queue of girls. I stand at the back, pleased with my dragon breaths, and straighten a postcard on the noticeboard.
‘Misty and Sparkle need to go out. Juno, Faber and Buddy must be in and tacked for the group at ten.’ Stella’s narrow eyes search me out. ‘Kerry’s still off with that bug. Pip, you’ll have to take her client this morning.’
I hang back to plead with Stella as the others file past me. I can list the names, age, hand height and feeding regime for every pony and horse in the riding school. I couldn’t tell you about the girls as they all look and sound the same. Stella decreed my yard name as ‘Pip’, possibly after hearing ‘pip-pip-Pippa’ trailing me like an old joke. Everyone knows Stella’s bite is worse than her bark, which is why I pick at my gloves and scuffle the concrete floor with the tip of my boot. The only heat comes from the kettle on the floor, constantly in use, boiling up a brew.
Her voice is like the rest of her: pointy and sharp. Stella tells me the client doesn’t need a lesson. He knows his way round a grooming kit, and is basically happy to spend quiet time with Tallulah. ‘He can talk but doesn’t like to, bit like…’ she stops and her sentence floats away as she begins to shuffle the papers on the desk.
I groan. Tallulah lives up to her sex and can be a right mare at times. She once stood on Kerry’s foot, shifted all her weight and wouldn’t budge. Kerry’s little toe turned blueberry black and dropped off – her nail that is, not the whole toe. You have to secure Tallulah’s head when tacking up. I got lax with my knots once and she nipped me on the bum as I tightened her girth. Didn’t break the skin, but the multi-coloured bruise ached for weeks.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ I ask Stella. She arches an eyebrow. This is a signal I can’t read. She’s unhappy or angry with me, but I don’t know which or why.
‘Not all our special clients have problems you can see,’ she answers, then adds with a softening sigh, ‘If you have to talk to him, Philippa, then try not to instruct or admonish.’ Seeing my face, Stella explains: ‘Don’t scold. Treat him like you would a pony. Be kind.’ She knows I’m nicer to the yard horses than the other girls.
Dad says I’ve a kind heart too and calls me a blessing. Mum says I was an accident and claims I only have two operating modes: overly intense or intensely disinterested. She calls Stella an angel in jodhpurs for what she gives back to the community. Dad reckons Stella’s worked a nifty fiddle with her special clients, which is when Mum flicks his ear and reminds him loudly how Stella ‘don’t charge those poor kids.’
Dad is a stockman, always has been. Mum works at The Red Lion, behind the bar and serving food. When I left school she got me a job in the kitchen; I’m too young to serve drinks and I prefer to be out of sight. The kitchen’s noisy and hot, but an island of calm compared to the restaurant where people expect you to understand their needs without saying. Stella took me on at the yard during the day. Horses don’t care how many GCSEs you’ve passed, or not. Horses don’t even need words, it’s the tone and volume of your voice that matters. The softness of your hands. The love in your heart.
In the yard the riding school ponies droop their heads, the older timers dozing, the newbies following the yard traffic of people, horses and terriers with dancing eyes and ears. The boy, Kerry’s client, is called Xavier. I have to get Stella to write it down for me, then repeat the name several times. I don’t want to try saying it. Why give such a complicated name to a kid with problems? Though I can’t work out his problem. Xavier walks normally, his feet don’t stick out and his head is straight not bobbing like the plastic bulldog on Mum’s dashboard. The boy’s pinprick eyes don’t quite meet mine, but that’s okay. In Tallulah’s box he gets straight to work on cleaning her feet with the hoof pick. His mum leaves him with me, then heads back to the warmth of her car.
Xavier makes a clicking sound with his tongue and Tallulah lifts up her left hind leg. Usually I have to try to knock her off balance to get a chance of lifting her hoof. He works methodically round all four feet, not talking, but singing a silly tune and calling her ‘Lulu’. I try to tell him that’s not her name: ‘She’s T-ta-lu-lah.’ But he doesn’t listen and she doesn’t seem to mind. He moves on to work through her tail and mane with the curry comb, pulling out tangles and letting the wiry brown hairs slip through his fingers. Tallulah blows out a sigh as her head bows lower, pale muzzle almost touching the straw bedding.
I watch from the corner of the stable as the boy packs away the brushes. He rests his head against the pony’s flank and begins to make swirly patterns in her coat with his finger. Tallulah’s eyelids can’t stay open, she can’t fight the urge to sleep. Xavier’s head rises and falls, matching each slow breath of the pony.
Moving to her other side, I mirror the boy’s stance, my cheek and mouth against Tallulah’s warmth. All three of us are quiet.
TRACY FELLS lives close to the South Downs in West Sussex. She has won awards for both fiction and drama. Her short stories have appeared in Firewords and Popshot magazines, online at Litro New York, Short Story Sunday and in anthologies such as Fugue, Rattle Tales and A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed (National Flash Fiction Day anthology). She was the 2017 Regional Winner (Canada and Europe) for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth, Fish, Bridport, Brighton and Willesden Herald Prizes. Tracy has an MA in Creative Writing from Chichester University and is currently seeking a publisher for her short story collection. She tweets as @theliterarypig