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

Chapter 23
They Sweat

The next part of the ride is across a grassy paddock. I encourage Ben to walk a bit faster or perhaps Lily and Charlotte slow their horses but soon we are all walking together.

Charlotte, being the gifted encourager she is, launches into a tale about her first canter. It was on Ben up that hill no less. ‘For the first thirty seconds it was the best experience of my life. But then I fell off and broke my arm.’

Lily then has to tell her tale of misadventure. And yet again Ben plays a starring role. 

‘You must be a natural,’ Charlotte says.

‘You’ve got great balance,’ Lily adds.

My hand creeps down to stroke Ben’s neck. I can feel my cheeks burn red. I have just been shot at close range by two compliments. I do what every teenager does and deflect. ‘Ben was just feeling kind. He was taking it easy on me.’

Lily, being a normal teenager, like me, drops the topic. I can tell she fully understands compliment overload. On a good day, people like her and I may be able to cope with one compliment as long as it is mild and generic. Anymore than that and we just have to duck.

Charlotte, being Charlotte, doesn’t get it. She goes into rapid-fire compliment. ‘Nah, you are a complete natural. It’s not like Ben did anything wrong for Lily and I, we were just all over the place. But you—I saw you. You were still and centred in the saddle like you were glued there. It was great.’

I thread my fingers through Ben’s mane. I’m stalling, searching for a comeback line and wondering whether Charlotte is lying to be nice. It surprises me how much I want to believe her. It is like an ache in my heart. To be good at something, particularly something as crazy cool as horse riding, something no one else I know can do—how cool would that be?

‘I mean it,’ Charlotte insists.

‘Thanks,’ I whisper.

The rest of the ride is a bit mundane. We wander through more forest, cutting a broad arc back towards the house. No one suggests cantering again and I’m relieved. I want to keep my happy bubble un-popped. I have great balance, I repeat to myself. Take that you losers who think I’ll never amount to anything. Take that Mum—actually no, not Mum. For some reason that is beyond my reckoning, Mum always believes in me. She’s like one of those dolls you can’t knock over. No matter what evidence I provide to dissuade her—that F on my maths exam, my accidental overdose under the railway line bridge, even my non accidental overdose—up comes Mum again believing I’ll come good in the end.

No joke. I remember her driving me home from the hospital after the non-accidental overdose. She had wanted to put her hand on my leg but I don’t do touch. I’d moved my leg away and Mum’s hand had gone back to the steering wheel. ‘You can do it,’ she said. ‘You’re strong; you’ll get through this.’

I remember looking out the window, watching the houses flick past, pretending 1950’s brick veneer were a wonder of architecture, while a tear slid silently down each cheek. 

I realise that one hand has strayed back down to Ben’s neck. He is sweating, which is as gross as it sounds, but I have been absently stroking him. My hand is damp and sticky.

I say ‘remember’ as if it were ten years ago, as if I have to scratch my head and search the database. It wasn’t ten years ago. It was barely five weeks ago. And I remember far too well. My black tunnel had been so black I was sure there was no other option. Being by yourself at 2am under the railway bridge is a dark place. The others had pissed off home or wherever. Sure I’d been an idiot, too way uncool to be tolerated. But to leave me? I’d just taken the same shit as everyone else. Who knows what it was. The others just got a bit giggly and were having a good time. Me? I went over the top Weird, with a capital ‘W’, rolling in the dirt, laughing and laughing. Even the stray bits of road metal digging into my back were hilarious. Totally. I tried to explain to the others how funny those bits of rock were, all black and sharp. I remember dimly how their grins faded to grim lines. There were murmurs. It wasn’t funny. I wasn’t funny. They began to drift away. I tried to get my legs to follow them but they just kicked in the dirt. I tried pointing out to my dwindling audience how funny my kicking legs looked but they just kept drifting.

‘Don’t leave me,’ I whimpered as the last of them turned away and faded into the night. Somewhere around about then my laughter turned to sobbing and I pulled from my pocket the only solution that seemed appropriate for a complete little shit like me. I swallowed the lot, just to be sure.

The reason I am here today, telling you all this crap, is because apparently one of those losers fading into the dark called ‘000’ and left an anonymous tipoff.

Anonymous? So here I am alive but not even the best of them could admit to being my friend.

I inspect my hand that has been patting Ben’s neck. It is covered in brown smears. ‘You know Ben, that is truly disgusting.’

Ben ignores me. His ears are in resting position and don’t even bother to move when I speak. His gait never wavers. His reins are dangling almost down to his knees. He is a boy on his way home.

Whoever the anonymous caller was, he or she—probably she—never came to pay me a visit in hospital. And, needless to say, nor did any of the others. I had a couple of visitors though. Mum, of course. She was in and out. She did a lot of looking sad and sighing. I suspect she was exhausted with the effort of holding in her encouraging pet slogans such as ‘I told you so,’ ‘You’ll never amount to anything’ and ‘What on earth were you thinking?’ To her credit, she never said a word. Though I did help by glaring at her every time she opened her mouth. And, as she was not allowed to hold my hand, there was not much for her to do other than sigh and look sad. It has got to be the world’s worst job I reckon being my mum.

My other visitor was dear old Todd the Sod.

‘How did you get in here?’ I asked.

‘The reception staff told me which room.’

He’s very literal, is Todd. ‘I meant who told you I was in hospital?’

‘Your Mum rang me.’

I frowned. Mothers should know not to interfere. ‘You could have told her we were over, that I’d dumped you.’

He winced.

‘At least you wouldn’t have had to visit me then.’

‘I wanted to visit you.’

This sounded highly unlikely. More likely, from the way he hesitated near the door, he was the closest thing to a friend Mum could find and she had bribed him to come.

‘Well, job done now. You can go.’ I waved him away and flopped onto my side, listening for the click of the closing door.

I didn’t hear it.

‘Why did you do it?’

[Insert your choice of expletive].

‘Why didn’t you say something? I could’ve—I would’ve been there for you.’

I turn over to stare at him. ‘Say something? It’s not like I was planning on topping myself.’ If you ignore the minor detail of that little pack of pills I had been in the habit of carrying in case of emergencies, then what I said was true. True enough. I had not been planning anything. ‘Things just got out of hand. You know how these parties can be?’

‘No, no I don’t.’

Todd had left his post by the door and was inching closer to my bed. ‘Doesn’t sound like much of a party to me.’

‘Yeah, well—’ I tried to be infuriated but I couldn’t summon the energy. 

He sat down on the edge of my bed and pushed aside his comb over. ‘I really care for you, Ava. I want …’ 

But my eyes were fixated on his hand creeping over the covers towards mine. It was like a white worm, grotesque and menacing. 

Shithead #4 had been like that. Mr Niceguy. I remember Mum giggling, saying she thought he was the one. I remember almost being happy for her. Looking back, all Mum’s Shitheads had a few moves, a few grooves, a few smooth-talking moments. Shithead #4 just had more tricks than most and that didn’t make him any better. It made him way, way more dangerous. 

I snatched my hand away from Todd and began repeatedly pressing the buzzer.

‘Get this boy out of here,’ I yelled to the nurse. ‘Get him out.’

‘Ava wait! Stop!’

At the time I was consumed by the pounding in my chest, in my head, in my whole being. But here now, rocked by Ben’s swaying walk, I can hear the pain in Todd’s voice. ‘Please,’ he had said. ‘Please—‘ The nurse had shut the door on him, cutting him off.

‘Todd, I’m sorry.’ I whisper the words so quietly there’s barely a flicker of Ben’s ear. ‘I’m so sorry.’

We emerge from the forest by a different path. I look around surprised. It’s a good thing this was not a ride led by one of those wicked stepmothers we all hear so much about or I’d be lost forever in the bush.

Ben marches his way right up to his spot at the hitching rail and I slide down his side. I stand uncertainly, trying to regain the sense of terra firma. My bum feels like it will henceforth be permanently misshapen and my legs—you know the way the men walk in cowboy movies? I can tell you now, it is no act. To complete my new classy look I have two wet patches on my jeans where my calves have been touching Ben’s sweaty tummy. 

‘You’ll have to hose him down,’ Jenny says to me. ‘The girls will show you what to do.’

Believe me, ‘hosing down’ is as wet as it sounds. First I hold Mason while Lily squirts the hose at him. You’d think, given the size of a horse relative to the size of a human, the odds were that the horse would get wetter than the human. Not so dear punters. Either Mason is highly skilled at avoiding the hose or Lily has a visual impairment I had not noticed before but, by the end of hosing down Mason, I was dripping. Then, after Mason, it is apparently my job to hold Cinnamon while Charlotte hoses. Now I think you all know Charlotte well enough to guess how this is going to end up. She just sits back in her chair and sprays at random while Cinnamon and I dance around, both trying not to get wet or, in my case, wetter.

‘Hold her steady,’ Charlotte says. ‘I’m nearly done. I’ve just got one more bit to get.’

Compared to Charlotte, I am a naïve and trusting soul. Let me describe the ensuing scene. Charlotte sits bolt upright in her chair, grips the hose with both hands and takes aim. And not at the frigging horse. No. She aims for me and—bullseye—gets me full in the face and then descends into peels of laughter. Oh how very, very funny. Lily is holding Ben with one hand and holding in her laughter with the other.

‘Just let it out, Lily,’ I say. ‘Just let it all out.’

Because now it’s my turn. I take the hose from Charlotte. Wheelchair or no wheelchair. Anxiety, depression, anorexia, bulimia or whatever crazy illness you might or might not be afflicted with. That’s it you lot—you’re in for it. I point the hose straight into the air and water rains down on the lot of us. Ben gets a little bit wet but, judging from the shrieks, I think Lily and Charlotte get the wettest.

 

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