I always think that the last day of the year should be a banner day. Something tremendous and meaningful and symbolic should happen. We must go out with a bang, not a whimper.
I was lounging about in bed with the dogs, trying to put together a photo montage of 2021, when the telephone went. It was the youngest great-niece. She had a friend with her. ‘Can we go riding?’ she said.
I leapt out of bed. ‘Of course!’ I cried, delighted.
Down at the field, I found the two small people, wearing a pair of tremendous bobble hats. ‘This is Iris,’ said the smallest great-niece. Iris beamed at me, not remotely shy. I immediately told her everything about the mares and she politely pretended to be interested.
We got the horses in and gave them a snack and did some grooming and I spoke to Iris of the red mare and how her grandfather won the Derby in 1970 and that the thoroughbred was a very special breed of horse indeed. ‘Racing horses,’ I said. ‘Although,’ I added, lowering my voice so the red mare would not hear, ‘this one didn’t race very fast.’
The red mare did hear, and rolled her eyes at me. She would like me to know that it wasn’t so much that she was slow as a boat, she simply couldn’t see the point of all the vulgar hullabaloo.
‘Do you have a pony?’ I asked Iris.
She shook her head dolefully.
‘Would you like one?’ I said.
She looked up at me, her eyes as wide and gleaming as planets in the night sky. Her entire face lit up. A slow, dreaming smile spread over her face.
‘Oh!’ I cried. ‘Yes, you would.’
I am fifty-four, but I still remember being the pony-dream girl, the one to whom nothing else mattered. I think perhaps all of us who love horses remember being pony girls. And pony boys, too.
Iris, I saw, was one of my people.
She hadn’t ridden since February, she told me, but she hopped up onto the red mare as if she rode work every day. She had a lovely natural seat and she showed no trepidation. She sat, smiling and relaxed in the saddle. The red mare sighed happily and put her head down. I knew, in that moment, that everything was going to be marvellous.
The smallest great-niece had put the saddle on Florence for a bit of saddle practice and led her out in hand. I had Iris on the rope, and watched her carefully for any signs of danger. The red mare walked beside me, as carefully as if she were carrying an entire set of Dresden china. There would be no danger, I thought. My old lady will guard her precious cargo with her life.
So out into the big meadow we went, a merry band, chattering non-stop, laughing, asking each other questions. I confined myself heroically to only one brief disquisition on the nature of the prey animal. I managed not to get on to evolutionary biology and the dawn horses, who were the size of dogs and scampered about on four toes fifty-five million years ago.
The red mare breathed out her peace and ease. Iris beamed and gleamed. The smallest great-niece had a whole little horse-whispery thing going on with Florence.
A group of wild children were blissfully charging about on quad bikes, but neither of the horses blinked an eye. I thought of all the months and months of training - training their bodies, training their minds, training their emotions - and I felt pride. They could deal with anything.
‘Are you all right, up there?’ I asked Iris. ‘She’s very comfortable, isn’t she?’
Iris smiled and smiled.
‘I never want to get off,’ she said.
When we got back to the shed, Iris spotted her parents and waved at them. I waved at them, even though we had never met before. I wanted them to see their intrepid horsewoman on her sixteen hand thoroughbred.
They did seem very pleased. They were lovely people, open and friendly. I told them all about our adventure, my words tumbling over themselves. I didn’t care that I was wearing my oldest, most squashed hat and that I’d got dressed in such a hurry that I looked like Worzel Gummidge. I wanted them to know of their daughter’s brilliance.
As we turned to go, Iris’s father said, ‘Thank you. That will have made her year.’
‘It’s made mine,’ I said.
That was my bang. That was 2021, going out on a roar. It’s what the red mare does best: make people happy. She especially loves making children happy. She gives confidence and smiles and joy. She has so much in her gift, and she gives it all, without hesitation. I wish I had the words to tell you what it feels like, when I watch her doing that. But the English language fails me. She needs new words. It is an oceanic delight; a delight of universes and solar systems and milky ways. It’s a delight from before the world began and after it ends. It is almost too much for one human body to contain.
Iris led the thoroughbred back into her field and gave her a stroke and a rub and the last of her blinding smiles. The red mare dropped her head politely so the small child could reach and then wandered off to her hay. Her work was done. She had made the world a better place, and now she could rest.