Horses: Everything You Never Wanted to Know
Author: Reb Hay

Chapter 19
As Unlikely as it Seems, Sometimes They are There for You

I get back to my feet and walk up the hill. When I reach Ben’s paddock, I unlatch the gate and go in. I can see him, just. He can see me but he’s struggling to make me out because he seems to think I’m an alien from outer space. He could hardly have his head higher in the air nor his ears further forward. His snorts punctuate the quiet. Horses can be very eloquent. 

I begin to explain in a soothing voice that I am not in fact an alien species. ‘It’s okay, buddy. It’s just me. I’m not going to hurt you.’ For a guilty moment I wonder if he can sense what I have just done to Charlotte. Or rather—tried to do. 

He dips and snakes his head as if he’s trying to size me up from a few different angles. Then he flings up his heels and starts prancing in a circle around me. It’s cute; it’s all cute. But my heart sinks. Stupid Shitter. Right now all I want is a friend. Not a circus performance. 

Maybe he gets it—I like to think so—because pretty soon he quits the funny stuff and comes in to me. 

I let him sniff my hand. ‘See it’s me, Ava. Not alien.’ 

He lowers his head and I scratch him behind the ears. Then I stroke his neck. I wrap my arms around him and sob stupid fat wet tears into his warm fur. 

Ben’s probably thinking: What the—? Might even be thinking: Who the—? But he stands there. Just stands. Just is. And that’s a big ask. I’ve never managed it. 

I don’t expect to be left for long and I’m not. I hear voices coming back up the hill and notice the dancing torch. I press my face deeper into Ben’s neck, ignoring the tickle of his fur. The chain on the gate clinks as someone unlatches it. Presumably The Frisker. I so don’t want to see her and even more so don’t want her to see me. I pull away from Ben and rub my face with my hands. At least it’s dark. She won’t be able to see the full snotty, blotchy glory. I keep my body averted as someone approaches.

‘Ben’s a bit wet.’ The voice startles me—Charlotte.

I half smile, relieved. It seems The Frisker has sent in the pro. ‘Must have been raining,’ I say.

‘Must have been,’ Charlotte agrees. Her hand reaches out to me again; her fingers circle mine. ‘It’s okay. You’re doing fine.’

Her fingers are warm and soft; mine feel like a pile of sticks. Rigid and unyielding.

I don’t bother to answer her. Standards must be pretty low, if I’m doing fine. 

‘Really,’ she insists. ‘Everyone knows how tough it is, especially coming to camp for the first time. We’ve all been there.’

I’m still struggling with the feel of Charlotte’s hand so I know I’m not at my creative best, but I just can’t imagine Charlotte having any idea. Lily sure. But Charlotte? No way. She’s too cool. Nothing scares Charlotte.

Charlotte squeezes my hand and says a bunch of stuff that I don’t hear. I’m too busy freaking. I try to subtly wriggle free but she’s got me in a death grip. I try pointedly clearing my throat. It sounds like a squeak and apparently conveys nothing.

Charlotte continues to hold my hand and her stream of words continues to bounce off my consciousness. Stupid camp. Stupid horses. Stupid touchy-feely inmates who have no sense of boundaries. My free hand is still clinging on to Ben; my fingers are entwined in his mane. He reminds me of this by shifting his head.

‘How about you let him go?’ Charlotte says.

How about you let me go? But as this is the only thing she’s said that makes any sense, I try to disentangle my fingers. Easier said than done.

Two things happen that shift my world onto firmer ground. First, Charlotte lets go of my hand and I whisk it away, pretending it urgently needs to help free my other hand. Second, Charlotte laughs. Now, I know previously I’ve warned about laughing at me. But this sound is like—well, it’s like not being laughed at. It’s like stumbling on something about life that is actually funny.

Ben shakes his head after I manage to extract myself and wanders off. Obviously he has done his share of empathy for one night. He drops his head to graze.

‘Let’s go,’ Charlotte says. It seems weird to push her chair but she insists. ‘Come on, you lazy sod.’

I laugh but one thing I wouldn’t expect Charlotte to ever understand—not in a million years—is how much easier it is to push her chair than it is to walk beside her where her eyes can see my face. My fingers close around the chair’s cool, impersonal handles and I relax into the sheltered workshop world of purpose without fear. 

Charlotte tucks her hands safely in her lap and resumes her effortless chatter. ‘Ben’s good with tears. He fully gets it. You should have seen one girl. She was so distraught, Ben spent the entire week covered in snot.’

I’m not sure whether this tidbit is supposed to make me feel better or not. I let it wash over me. Sheltered workshoppers aren’t expected to make polite conversation.

Charlotte doesn’t seem to notice. ‘Cinnamon’s hopeless with tears. Way too impatient. She nearly knocked me out of my chair last time I tried it.’

I attempt to picture Charlotte crying. It’s a struggle. A tear maybe but the full-on snot and blotch—I can’t see it. I wonder if Mason is any good at empathy or if Lily has to creep into Ben’s paddock whenever she needs a cuddle. Life could get quite busy for Ben, if he’s the only one.

We are passing the sheds, nearly to the house. The outside light shines out towards us and I’m not sure if it’s a welcome sign or a search beacon for escaped felons. Jenny might be waiting. There might be explaining to do and I just can’t think of anything rational to say. I could probably come up with something irrational. I could spin a story. Heck, that possum could have bitten me. It could have had rabies. I could have rabies. From my dim memory of studying that Mocking Bird book that every high school student in the entire world studies, I think I should be foaming at the mouth but I have no idea how to manufacture the look. It’s not something I’ve had to try before. 

I can see a shadow in the doorway. As Charlotte and I enter the circle of light, the shadow morphs into a solid figure stepping out towards us. Jenny is waiting. 

I swallow. I’m having trouble manufacturing spit; there’s no way I can conjure foam. Maybe inmates who crack the shits get given drugs? Vallium and a good night’s sleep? That I could cope with. I drive the chair up to Jenny and come to a stop.

‘Found her,’ Charlotte pipes, making me sound refreshingly like a lost treasure.

I feel Jenny’s eyes on me. I’m not sure she’s so enthusiastic. Surely, it’s good to have me back though? There is less explaining to do to the authorities, if all the inmates are accounted for.

‘Are you okay?’ Jenny asks.

I nod. 

‘How about you come into the kitchen and I’ll make us hot chocolate?’

‘Sure thing!’ That was Charlotte. The dear naïve sweet thing doesn’t realise Instructor Woman was only asking me and ‘hot chocolate’ is code for getting me alone so she can interrogate me.

‘I’m good,’ I say. ‘Just a bit tired. I think I’ll go to bed.’

‘Nah. Jenny makes the best hot chocolate. She even puts in marshmallows.’ Charlotte has taken charge of her machine and is wheeling in through the door Instructor Woman holds open for her.

‘Coming?’ Jenny smiles a sinister smile.

I walk in and the door shuts behind me.

‘Can you get the milk?’ Jenny says.

Safe enough so far.

The fridge is about five hundred times bigger than ours at home. The light streaming out of it is vaguely comforting. I have often—usually around two in the morning— stood in the puddle of light that comes from our fridge. I stand there, staring inside, willing it to contain more than a half empty, out-of-date carton of skinny milk. I stand there for about a billion years, my bare feet slowly turning to ice on the tiles, but no miracles occur. There’s no changing that carton of milk into Connoisseur’s Triple Chocolate Delight. Not even single chocolate. I always find myself padding back to bed disappointed.

The light flooding from this fridge forms an Olympic-sized pool at my feet and inside it is stacked with real food—as in meat, vegetables and cheese. If our fridge ever contains anything, it’s a sagging cardboard pizza box with one little slice of pizza, colonising the empty space with the smell of anchovies and onions. 

This fridge also contains about five hundred litres of milk.

‘There should be an open one in the door.’ Jenny’s voice startles me.

I grab the first I see. I don’t check the use by date nor the fat content. I don’t even look for strawberry jam smeared down the side. I hand the carton to Jenny, careful to not let our hands brush, and sidle over to Charlotte.

She is spooning chocolate into three mugs. ‘You can put the marshmallows in, if you want.’

‘Shouldn’t we put the milk in first?’

‘Not the way Jenny makes it.’ Charlotte hands me a packet of marshmallows.

‘How many in each?’

‘Two of course.’

Why two, I wonder, and why “of course”? Have I missed something? Out of my peripheral vision, I see Jenny heating the milk on the stove. I feel like an alien being from the planet popularly known as ‘out-of-date skinny milk’. Where I come from we do microwaves, skinny milk and no marshmallows. Where I come from we worry about things going straight to our hips and we inevitably get distracted and boil the milk over. Where I come from, hot chocolate is more about cleaning the microwave before Mum sees than it is about hot beverages.

I pull a pink marshmallow from the packet and drop it in the first mug. A puff of chocolate powder greets it.

‘How did you feel today when Ben started listening to you?’ Jenny asks.

I select a white marshmallow this time and drop it in the mug. I’m not sure if the question is a trick or not. I shrug. ‘Didn’t really feel anything.’

‘Really?’ Charlotte says. ‘I love it when a horse starts responding to me. I feel like I’ve made a connection, like someone understands me.’

As you can see, Charlotte doesn’t get what’s going on. This is not idle chit-chat; this is Instructor Woman prodding me, poking, looking for the weak spot. But hey, if what Charlotte said is the right answer, then I’m with her. Of course, I loved having Ben move with me. More than that—I loved feeling safe with him. More even than that—I think he felt safe with me. And that’s what I loved the most.

‘Yeah, most kids think it’s pretty neat.’ Jenny is nodding, almost to herself, while she stirs the milk. She’s not even looking at me. ‘More than anything, it’s having confidence in yourself. And you can take that feeling with you, you know. You can take that confidence with you back home, to school, anywhere.’

I reach my hand back into the packet. I’m not really OCD but I’m looking for a pink one, then a white one. I hear the click as Jenny turns the stove off.

‘Are you two ready with the mugs?’ Jenny is standing there with the steaming saucepan of milk.

I’m fossicking around in the packet. I need another pink marshmallow and then a white one. There’s something I’m not quite getting. Jenny is by my side now, pouring milk into the first mug and then into the second mug. I find the pink marshmallow then the white one, drop them into the last mug and step back. Something doesn’t quite make sense. I watch as Jenny pours the milk into the last mug. It’s the exact right amount. None of it has boiled over or spilled across the floor.

Finally I get it, I find the flaw in the argument so to speak and I blurt it out before I have the chance to tell myself to shut the F—k up. ‘But I—I don’t have confidence in myself.’

‘Really?’ Jenny puts the saucepan in the sink and hands me a mug. ‘Horses reflect what they sense coming from the person. Ben thinks you have confidence in yourself so you must.’

I smile. I actually want to laugh out loud but I’m scared of spilling my hot chocolate. Great—a horse disagrees with my own self-assessment and, it seems, we’re going with the horse. ‘So Ben is always right?’ I ask.

Jenny laughs. She has already settled at the table and is looking pretty sure of herself. ‘He’s not right about everything but he’s good with kids.’

Kids? What about mature young women who are just here to help out? I suddenly realise how sick I am of that person, whoever she is. I sit down next to Jenny, pull my chair in close and take a sip from my mug.

 

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