Terror and awe. I was on my white mare.
I had had a romantic ideal of a beautiful white horse, maybe a Lipizzana or stallion was in my mind when I formed this visual in my teens. My white mare had crusty sunburnt skin on her piggy pink snout, around her watery bulging eyes, and on the tips of her bacon rasher ears. No matter how much factor 50 I slathered on her in the mornings, she was a disgrace. Her thin coat revealed blotchy Dalmatian marks when I bathed her. No sooner was she let loose she’d be dyed pink again by the red Devon clay.
I remember exactly where we were. There had always been something unhinged about her, some switch flicked in her head and she was gone beyond reason or reaching. The shutters would come down behind her eyes and she’d bolt. She was known for it. She came cheap because of it. She was a smooth ride, ideal for jumps and dressage (not my idea of fun). I’d take her miles, hacking through private woodlands and trespassing any field with an open gate.
This day we were in the bluebell wood, where the recent loggers had left devastation, and wide cleared tracks; ideal for riding. As we ascended the hill adjoining the farmland of my grandparents, it happened. Whatever fault was at work in her, her brain switched and she was lost to me. Her head raised, the reins came short and ineffective in my hands, I yelled in fear and anger but she was gone beyond reaching. As she galloped down the steep mud track, me a hapless passenger at sea, I saw them. A crowd of deer, russet red, like the clay of the fields, they rose in terror at our sudden, noisy arrival and joined us in our run from imagined dangers. Their shockingly fresh white rumps rising up and down around me, like a mad, over-fast carousel. I was on my machine horse among them, sailing steeply down in terror and awe among wild beasts. I couldn’t even guess how many there were, enough to fill me with a wild, free ecstasy. The deer flanked both sides of the horse.
Looking ahead, to my horror, I saw a wall of rough wood the loggers had built as a rudimentary crash barrier for their machines in the recent winter conditions. The horse hadn’t seemed to register it.
The deer bounded, effortlessly up and over and all around, floating like gravity has no hold, like they are made of starlight and imagination, utterly immaterial. At the moment we crashed, heavily and full-blown, the huge herd of deer ceased to exist like only deer can, melting into the fabric of reality, crossing over.
I dismounted. The horse had sharp logs and shards of rough discarded wood jutting into her legs and guts, somehow she had her forelegs on the other side of this barrier. In my rage, fear and untethered teenage emotions I beat her. She stood unflinching as I scream and hit her face. Nothing. No one at home. She stood quivering and sweating, her eyes unseeing fish eyes. I sat, recovered myself. And finally, as she returned to her mind, I disentangled her. Incredibly there were no injuries.
Now I wander if she didn’t have a brain tumour, or something that caused these events. It was never malicious, it was like a short circuit.
Riding her taught me to fall.
It’s night when I most feel the need to write.
I’m painting small pictures of frogs. The paper is cheap and the water causes it to buckle unsatisfyingly. All artists seem to have a jealous hoarding desire for paper. It physically effects me to waste or witness unnecessary waste of paper; a turning of the stomach. I’ve never known an artist who doesn’t covet even the crappiest of paper as if it’s of incredible value. Notes, phone numbers and shopping lists, written on impossibly small, illegible scraps.
The last few nights I’ve been hearing what sounds to me like a turkey in the garden. The quiet mewing of a hen bird talking lovingly to her chicks. Of course it isn’t, I’m in a village too far from any farm to hear such a delicate, private call and it’s the wrong season, but that is exactly what it reminds me of. I don’t know what it is. A pheasant?
I heard gleanies in the valley the other day. I struggled on my crippled feet down to the large immaculate estate; all sharp vibrant green lawns and asphalt lanes, ugly and uninspiring. I can’t be bothered by minimalism. Diggers have scrapped away winter cover around the now heavily gushing stream. Wild pockets of bramble and habitat devastated to reveal bare earth like slick chocolate, heavy tyres slewing their tracks through the mud, destroying generations of bulbs and mychorrhizal fungus networks.
To hear gleanies made me realise I haven’t heard them for years. Sounds, like smells, can shock you back to memories you didn’t even know you’d lost. My grandmother kept gleanies at the farm, or Guinea Fowl as they’re more rightly known, I assume to assert her claim as a royalist. Embarrassing badges of honour for aspiring neocolonialists; as British as lions.
Like this phantom night turkey I can now hear, to hear gleanies makes me feel 10 again.
I will paint frogs tomorrow. Not for any reason. Just a yearning and because I can. The one I’ve started isn’t very good but I’ll pursue it. I never paint on the thicker watercolour paper I have stashed away. The reason being every piece of art I’ve ever started is the draft for the real thing. I’ve never started a real painting yet.
Frogs are living watercolours. Their natural wet-varnish texture means they need to be painted in the medium of water. They are water. Like glistening iridescent jewels of impossible colours, their eyes are pools of amber with living green-gold flecks, their skin is mineral glitter and their toes, translucent fungal probes.
Early in my uni days, when I was struggling to settle into city ways as much as general homesickness, my mother, paraphrasing Dolly Parton, told me, that I am a country girl. Which means I can do anything; I can drive tractors or sit in fancy cocktail bars. City girls can’t. It was said to give me conviction, confidence. Strength.
I still think of that at times, when I have found new circumstances challenging or slightly beyond me, it has consoled me.
By the time I started uni I had years of drinking under my belt. I had been served in rural pubs from 15, in full school uniform no less. That was before bar staff might be convicted of fined for serving underage drinkers.
I remember in a city bar full of masculine men, I was playing the part of bored, dutiful girl friend, when I was challenged to a doubles pool game. No one wanted to be on my team, including the boyfriend. The astonishment at my adeptness far outweighed my skill and the then boyfriend even appeared to take pride in my ability, like it somehow reflected well on him. I had honestly claimed I didn’t know pool, having never played the game before. I had however played snooker for years. My brother and I had played on a damp table in a huge disused shed in the farm yard at home. Whole Sundays, hours and hours, relentlessly, never tiring, we played game after game. The table (or possibly the shed) was pitched at an angle, so in play one had to counteract the slope of the table. We both mastered using the puckers and raised mounds of moss and damp in the table felt, to advance our shots. Every match we fought for the better queue, a fight I invariable lost, and I mastered the scoring system and rules as I was always elected score keeper, being the youngest. I have no doubt I was a superior player for all the disadvantages of our stolen, gleaned and faulty equipment. I was 16 when I retired, or, more likely, when the shed was dismantled and the table finally burned.
The same was true of darts and shooting.
A later boyfriend and his friends were disturbing my university study in his trailer, by firing a rifle from the doorstep at a target. It went on and on and I couldn’t concentrate. Eventually I came out to watch. How can you keep doing it? I asked. There’s no challenge, doesn’t it get boring? I was immediately handed the gun with jeers and jokes that I might not accident shoot one of them in my ignorance. I had asked sincerely, I genuinely could see no fun or challenge in their game, the target was too close and unobstructed. It consisted of little cut out metal shapes with weights, so that when one was hit accurately it lay down out of sight. A row of metal duck shapes in the forefront, 2 pigs in the middle, and in the shadowy recesses of the contraption, the little silhouette of a man.
I hadn’t held a rifle for as much as 7 years (I was now 21). When I had last played with a gun, I had lain in the mud on my belly beside my brother and his friends, always treated like an equal despite a 6 year age gap, shooting at tin cans or (if there was no wind) plastic bottles from behind a feed trough, as though to protect ourselves from enemy fire. The barrel of the gun was slightly bent, so you had to check you target a touch to the right to take a clean hit. The boys or myself would run as the cans went down, rearrange them at different places and distances and then dart away for the next assault (though in truth reloading took time). For this reason the targets were never fixed, unlike this joyless (no doubt expensive) device I was now faced with. Needless to say, I hit all the ducks, pigs and man; never missing a single aim. I repeated my previous questions as their smiles faded and as I walked back inside to my study. Their raucous fun dyed away quite rapidly after this and they soon left, one by one in their embarrassingly oversized Mitsubishi Warriors; beer cans and spaniels sliding around helplessly in the pickup beds.
These bragging, work-shy men, the sons of land owners disguised as farmers. My brother’s friends; estate kids, and us the ‘free school meal’ grandchildren of tenant farmers.
In some circumstances it’s ok to be smug.
Neil Young is playing somewhere in the cottage, leaking up through the floorboards. Outside there is a tempting winter sun, turning browns gold and shimmering. I wish I could walk. Take a stroll. Face the pain. 31 and housebound.
The tin-can clink of blackbirds’ calls punctuate the quiet of dusk.
Plumes of crows boiled up into the sky this afternoon, sharp, black, paper-cut silhouettes, scattered over a blinding white sky. Everything looks drained of colour, bleached out, as if preempting snow.
Distant sounds; a dog barking, an intermittent chainsaw working lower in the valley, a front door closing in a yard, travel clearer in the winter air.