Johnnersintheraw's Blog

June 1, 2010

FloatYourBoat

My Seaworthless life with Ships and the Sea

Considering I do not come from a seafaring family and have never been particularly interested in nautical themes, there is a certain strand that weaves through my life, and it has to do with boats.  Big boats and little boats and salt boats and powerboats and punts.  And even the odd canoe and kayak thrown in for good measure, possibly to torment me.

For whatever reason – perhaps because nobody else in our landlocked family wanted it – my early years (right up until my father died) – were blessed by an ancient deep-water ocean-going ketch.  The vessel had been built some time before the last war, and of course she was built of timber and acres of brass fittings.  And when moored in her accustomed berth on the south coast, she was possibly the most beautiful and graceful old lady for miles around.

My father was very attached to her, and I believe before he married my mother he used to sail her regularly.  And because she was a deepwater craft built for the southern oceans, it did not occur to anyone to sail her down to the Mediterranean and tootle round the various islands and hop off every day or so to sample what local delicacies were on offer at watering holes and ports of call.

Not a bit of it.  She was, after all, over one hundred metres long from stem to stern.  She had her pride.  And wherever her skipper happened to be heading when he set sail, you’d better believe that before he knew it she would be in mid-Atlantic and Patagonia-bound.

In other words, she was not some millionaire’s plaything – not like those floating gold-plated palaces owned by Greek shipping tycoons or Middle Eastern potentates.  She was sea-worthy and – to put in bluntly – the other ones were fit only for a paddling pool.

For years she had shared a mooring with another vessel, this one belonging to our dentist.  Now don’t get excited.  He may have been a reasonably proficient dentist, and I believe he actually had a surgery in either Harley Street or somewhere just around the corner.  In other words, he had a good income, which meant he paid most of it to the government in taxes;  whatever was left over he used to support a wife and two sons – both of which were in good, if minor, public schools.  For his sins, this dentist also owned a couple of shares in one of my family’s no-hoper steeplechasers.  But that was all in good fun, and in any case, he always looked forward to watching me race.  As he put it, “One of these days, Minger’s going to knock out all of his teeth, and that will make up for the money I’ve lost on that bloody horse you made me buy.”  But you know what they say about wishes.  I never obliged.  And in the end he got so desperate that he bought a leg and a tail of another horse, this one even less athletic and more hopeless than the first.   But he never learned.  He was hoping, of course, he would live to see the day when I would finally pay off the mortgage of his dental surgery, but – alas – the only damage I ever did to myself was south of my neck.  My teeth – much to his chagrin – ended up the same old teeth as the ones I had started out with.

Anyway, back to his boat.  Unlike ours, which was built for racing and for braving the South Atlantic swells, his was the ultimate in pleasure palaces.  The fittings were, of course, gold, and while it had masts fore and aft it was powered by an ill-tempered coal-fired furnace – and because of that it had a small but elegant funnel – painted white with gold bands.  Needless to say, our lovely lady (who was of the old school and who believed no yacht would be caught dead with an engine) looked down her graceful bow at her neighbour – as if it was some sort of flash playboy from the lower end of the village who’d won the football pools.    

The dentist never took this beautiful monstrosity out to sea.  In fact, when his great uncle (whose yacht it had been and who had had it built to his own specification) set off on his very first sea voyage from Portsmouth  to Monte Carlo, the vessel proved to be so heavy that it wasted no time in sinking to the bottom of the harbour.  The team that salvaged it merely shook their heads and murmured, “We told him so.”

When our dentist inherited the craft he had immediately put it on the market.  But it seemed no one wanted to buy a yacht, no matter how beautiful it may have been, if it couldn’t stay afloat.  And so what he did was to hire a birth next to my father’s sleek utilitarian ocean-going thoroughbred.  And then he rented the pleasure palace out as a honeymoon retreat or for dirty weekends to other dentists that were looking to impress their latest chorus girls.

Eventually – after a few years had passed, came the day when our dentist faced the expense and inconvenience of putting his white elephant in dry dock in order to have its ‘bottom scraped’.  Or as the dentist liked to put it, “the bloody thing has got to have its teeth cleaned, and it’s not even on the National Health.”

But then came one of those miracles every one of us is always hoping for but rarely encounters.  A young man walked into the surgery and offered to take the yacht off the dentist’s hands.  It goes without saying that the dentist was flabbergasted.  I believe he even said, “You know, of course, that it will bloody well sink.”

But apparently, the young man knew all that.  He simply wanted it as a folly.  It was beautiful, he said.  And since he could afford it that was enough.  But there was a hitch.  It seemed he had an island in The Seychelles he wished to unload.  Would the dentist be interested in a swap?  The dentist asked him if this particular island had a fresh water supply, and if it was on the route of any of the mail boats.  “Yes,” replied the young man.  The upshot was that the dentist inspected the island – accompanied by a lawyer and the appropriate authorities – and he ended up with a tropical paradise of his own.  He loved it so much that he moved into a shack that was on a cove on the eastern side facing the Indian Ocean; and before the first year was out, he had planted gardens and built shelters for domestic livestock.  And from then on, the dentist spent at least three months of every year as a lotus-eater in paradise.  And our ketch?  It lost its companion.  However, because it had always had to work for its keep – yachts being the money-pits they are – it continued to spend every single month of the year under charter. Eventually, the boat proved to be so popular with the charter company’s clients that it was relocated to Ushuaia on the tip of Argentina, where it stayed for the rest of my father’s life.  And after he died, the charter company bought it.  And I believe it’s still in service – or perhaps even enjoying a happy retirement at the bottom of the South Atlantic.

But do you want to know something?  Not once in the entire time that we owned the ketch did I even once get to sail in her – not even round the harbour or over to the Isle of Wight.  We simply could not afford to have her around as a ‘kept woman’.  The slut had to earn her keep – and she did.  And besides, I had the horses.

So much for my history as a yachtsman.

And now we come to cargo vessels of the tramp-steamer variety, as well as to those that regularly sank.

My uncle, who had lived his entire adult life in Mexico and who was one of those ‘man’s men’ of which certain novelists used to be so enamoured, was incredibly fond of the rickety old steamers that sailed between the salt mines on Baja California and a port on the southern Sonora coast.  For years he had spent his annual monthly holidays shuttling back and forth, getting drunk as a skunk with the captains and crews and raising hell.  To claim that these vessels were ancient would be an understatement. In fact, they leaked like sieves and were in such disrepair that they sank like clockwork.  Of course, it goes without saying that God loves a good-natured drunk; and as proof of this, none of the crew-members on board – all of whom were smashed out of their minds – ever got drowned during any one of the sinkings.  They simply drifted ashore on a raft of booze and with the Blessings of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and had the vessels – which were actually converted coastal steamers – refloated.  Again and again and again.

Eventually, my uncle bought two of them.  His retirement was not too far off, and he had it in mind to spend the rest of his life transporting salt back and forth across the Sea of Cortes in these banged up and rusting little hulks.

Sadly, that never happened.  His health broke down and his doctor ordered him to give up drinking; for his family’s sake he did.  However, without the booze spurring him on, he simply was not the same. He lost his zest for life. In fact, he became quite boring and conservative.  And after a while even his wife and daughter regretted that he had followed his doctor’s orders.  For the fun had all but left him.  And as for my mother (who had loved him perhaps more than any other person), she was heard to mutter that dying in his bed was not what he had had in mind – even if it meant being surrounded by his family.  And that what would have pleased him most was to have kicked the bucket drinking mezcal with his compañeros while aboard one of his pinche little coal scuttles.

And the pinche little coal scuttles?  Well, they kept sailing back and forth and back and forth, same as always;  the skippers and crews continued to drink each other under the table, and the boats ended their days on the bottom of the Sea of Cortes.  They are now reefs for the fish and toys for the baby grey whales.

Then there were the proper freighters that sailed the China route from Liverpool to Hong Kong and back again.  They were, of course, part of a small fleet belonging to a shipping company; it just so happened that some of our cousins had won two of them in a wager.  And having gained at least partial control of them, they leased them back to the company in question.  Which means they did rather well for themselves.

Naturally, all this didn’t have anything to do with us.  However, after my brother was killed in a motoring accident and my mother was unable to mourn, my father rang the cousins in question and struck a deal.  At the time he had part-interest in a tiny, mosquito-infested island off the coast of Sweden (yes, another island) and he said he would lease this island to the cousins in return for a favour.  Simply put, he wanted free passage for himself and for my mother and for me on one of the freighters from Liverpool to Hong Kong.  Return.  And so a month or so later, there we were on the docks in Liverpool, complete with a great many trunks (including one for my schoolbooks).  The three of us – plus a tutor for me for the outward bound leg – set sail and didn’t return for eight months – give or take a week.  As for the tutor, she got herself a free trip to Hong Kong plus expenses for her return journey.  A return journey, I might add, that she never made, for she fell in love with one of the stewards, got married, and settled down in Kowloon.

Unfortunately, I simply didn’t pay much attention to that period in my life (partly because I was forced to study day and night if I didn’t want to be shipped back home).  I do recall certain ports, among them  Port Said, but the reason that particular one stands out in my mind is that because our vessel was flying the Union Jack and the Suez crisis was still fresh in everyone’s memories; none of us was allowed by the Egyptian authorities to go ashore.  And vendors were not permitted on board.  However, a Gully-Gully man (whose family had worked the ships for generations and who – I believe – even had a Greek passport) spent a few hours with us in the smoking room.  But other than the fact that he was wonderfully funny and that his close-up magic was better than any I have seen to this day, I cannot remember what any of his tricks were, nor can I recall any of his patter.

We did linger at least two weeks in Port Swettenham, not an unusual occurrence.  For the port was very narrow and only a certain number of leiters were allowed for the off-loading of cargo.  I remember spending a day or two swimming at the officers’ club, after which we (along with my bloody books) went to stay with an Irish rubber planter and his Malaysian wife at a plantation in Jahore.  It was simply enchanting.  Typically – because of the climate – most of the exterior walls of the house folded back like louvers so that the breezes could blow through.  And I also remember they had built a swimming pool in the middle of a stream.  Which meant it was icy and fresh and cured what ailed you.

We then rejoined the ship and sailed to Singapore (where I was taken to lunch with Charlie Chaplin – who was not very nice, but who might have been nicer if I had been even nicer to him) and then on to Manila.  We arrived in the Philippines at the tail-end of a typhoon, which as far as I was concerned was rather fun – because to disembark we had to go down a very small ladder and leap across the churning swells on to very small boats.  And after we were ashore, we were packed into an ancient Cadillac limousine and taken up to the rim of a volcano – where we were treated to a cock-fight and then got to eat the loser.  Those were the days, my friend.  But never mind; in the interim the volcano blew its top and buried at least one hundred thousand people. Revenge is sweet.

The highlights of the entire voyage (as far as I was concerned) were that I got to ‘ride out’ at stud farms in both Singapore and Honk Kong.  And since I hadn’t been near a horse for what seemed an eternity, it was bliss!

The return journey – all four months of it – seems to have been one solid monsoon from the first day until the last, and seemed to consist of one endless game of mah-jong.  At least, when I was released from my ‘penal’ study servitude.  At the time I remember thinking I would have been much happier staying in Switzerland.

What else was there in my seafaring life?  Well, when I was in my late teens and putting serious thought into the prospects of becoming either a jockey or a show-jumper, my parents arranged with an American-based trainer to take me on (on approval, as it were).  Even though I had already lived away from home a great deal due to the fact that I had gone to boarding school, they thought it would be a good idea for me to put distance between myself and the trainers I had previously worked with. For I had never been able to work in a really first-class operation, and a first-class operation is a whole new ball game.  So off I went, and sailed to New York on the old Queen Mary (the one that is now a hotel in Long Beach, California).  I had an amazing few months, during which time I got incredible fit – fitter that I had ever been before – and decided to hold off any ideas I might have had about turning pro for another two three years.  I was all too aware of my limitations, and if nothing else the life of a jockey makes an honest man out of you.  Anyway, nothing having been settle either here or there,  I sailed back to England (this time on the old Queen Elisabeth (not the QE2, which is currently in Dubai, but the glorious old lady who now lies at the bottom of Hong Kong harbour) and got on with my life.  And in the process, I grew up a lot. At least temporarily.

Let us skip forward a few thousand decades.  When I was on the island a few years ago, a friend of a friend asked me if I wanted to join him and a few other strange people and tootle round the Atlantic in a converted trawler.  Well, I thought, why the hell not.  After all, I had grown up with a yacht I was never allowed to sail on, so why not make up for it now.  And everything was fine and dandy for about a week and a half.  And then – wouldn’t you know it – the craft foundered.  And not only did it founder, but it chose to founder off the coast of a country off of which one would never wish to founder.  Needless to say, because we were all idiots and if nothing else, God seems to love idiots (as well as happy drunks), all of us floated to shore – cling to bits of the wreckage – but very much alive. And with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises and a painful concussion for me – no one was hurt.  However, we were rounded up by some very solemn-looking very, very young boys wielding very serious machine guns.  And after they’d ordered us about for a little while and blew up a tree with one of their grenades, we were taken to an accommodation that looked suspiciously like it had formerly been used for pigs.  And there we stayed.  And we were fed yams and glowered at by the increasingly venomous young boys with the machine guns and grenades. They seemed fixated with waving their weapons in our faces and with shouting increasingly un-politically-correct slogans and with ordering us to march back and forth for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, after which they took to fondling lengths of rope.  They would then sit on the ground and glower some more and – at odd intervals – shoot a few rounds at the shed where we slept and explode a grenade or two.  And this would continue with great monotony until the next day when it was time for them to start the cycle of yams and strangeness all over again. I might as well tell you now, that eventually they seemed to have gotten bored with simply unloading a magazine into an empty shed and blowing up chickens with grenades, and so they decided to see what would happen if they put us into the shed before shelling it with bullets.  And if that wasn’t enough to put us off our yams, their obsessive noose-making started to get up our noses – especially when they started using our necks to model their nooses, whilst simultaneously pointing to the nearest tree.  And spitting.  After a while we got religion; it wasn’t that we wanted be saved, but we wanted the boys simply to get on with it.  And we really started to dread the sight of yams.  I fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that at the very mention of yet another round of yams we would start to twitch, for the yams only heralded yet another afternoon in the pig pen. To this day, whenever I see a yam – even if it’s sautéed with ginger – I want to run for the hills.

Of course, because I am here and telling the story – I did not end my life there.  But the end was really rather an anti-climax. There was no rescue; no fight to the death; no histrionics! I mean, where was Vin Diesel when we needed him?  Where was Bruce Willis? All we got was the Woody Allen version!  In fact, it all ended with such a pathetic whimper that – had it been in a movie – it would have been laughed out of every theatre in every Cineplex in the world.  Even the climax of the Sound of Music was more nail-biting!  All that happened was that a couple of old men pulled up in three taxis.  They started yelling at the boys, who in turn simply dropped  their sub-machine guns and ran away into the bush.  The old men then proceeded to usher us into the taxis, and took us into town and gave us hotel rooms. With honest-to-goodness toilets, which almost even flushed!  And a meal without even a single yam.

And the first thing the next morning, they put us on a plane.  Not  a word was spoken.  It was almost as bizarre as a French film.

It goes without saying that since we were lost souls without passports or any other form of identification, there followed a great deal of humming and hawing, as well as interviews with a great many men and women in suits.  But eventually – I suppose because we had shown ourselves to be such complete imbeciles in the first place by tootling round the Atlantic in a leaky reconditioned trawler – they came to the conclusion that we had been kidnapped by aliens and that our brains had been replaced by those of Daffy Duck – and that talking to us was giving them a headache.  And so they send us home and told us not to do it again.  Just like they do on the M1 when you are stopped for exceeding the speed limit.

Oh, yes, there are one or two other boating adventures – my favourite of which involves a punt and a fiendishly attractive other person and a tomato sandwich thrown from a bridge – but I think you have had as much excitement as you can take for today.  Ciao.

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May 25, 2010

SmackThePony

Wanking and the Minger’s ‘Sin’ List

I don’t know about ‘me’.  I’ve been around for an awfully long time; I’ve lived in virtually every part of the globe.  I have seen a lot, and have avoided seeing even more – especially when it came to things that I wouldn’t have wanted to see in the first place.  Just call me lucky.  And, yes, I have also done a lot of things – perhaps not very well and perhaps I never tried hard enough.  But I cannot complain, and if I could, what would I complain about?   What would I have to complain about?  I only have myself to blame.  For you see, I have managed to pack an incredible amount into a life in which I have done absolutely nothing.  I kid you not!

The first time I shot a gun; I simply aimed at the target and pulled the trigger.  Bulls-eye! But then, the second time, instead of merely aiming and shooting, I started to think about the mechanics of what I was doing.  Should I aim higher?  Should I aim lower?  How many yards away was the target?  And, of course, I seldom ever hit the target after that – at least not until I’d put in a great many hours of practice. But even then, I the bulls-eye always managed to be in another place from where I’d fired the bullet.

So, too, with my sex life.  Whereas I knew from a very early age that life was a banquet and that every single platter was literally dripping with the choicest morsels, I simply forgot why my first experience had been so simple.  Because I had simply done it.  But do you want to know what I did immediately after I had done it and had enjoyed it and had found that it was very simply indeed?  I forgot how easy it was and started to think about how difficult it was.  Consequently, I missed out on a whole lot of fun when I needn’t have missed out on it.  After all, I lived in the ‘West’.  I had not been indoctrinated by any punitive ideology to speak of.  Yes, I was brought up with a sense of responsibility, but that is how it should be.  Or at least how it ought to be.  As far as I remember there was never any talk of sin.  It was always, “think about the consequences.”   So what went wrong?  Instead of remembering what made me tick (like even the average intelligent mosquito would have done), the only incident I remembered – and which I remember to this very day – was the time my father snapped at me when I was fondling myself.  Now, I don’t think he called it ‘dirty’ as so many parents so, but whatever he did say became the all encompassing cloud which overshadowed my entire childhood.  And from that very moment, I started to cultivate my own ideology – one which was every bit as narrow and punitive as any to be found in any organised religion.  And do you something?  I have never forgiven my father.  And this, of course, means that I have never forgiven myself for granting him so much power in the first place.

When I first started to become sexually active, I instantly cultivated something we never had a home.  A sense of sin.  And why should I have cultivated this?  It wasn’t as if I ever went to church – except occasionally at evensong, for the music.  And it wasn’t as though I knew anybody who actually went to church, or who even went in for that sort of thing.  I don’t think I really even knew what ‘sin’ was.  Perhaps I thought I was missing out on something I didn’t have?  And so I wanted it.  So I immediately set about punishing myself; in other words, I decided to repress myself.  

Like all healthy young men on the cusp of manhood, I was a mass of jangling, postulating hormones. I didn’t need a reason to get erections. They simply happened, and if I didn’t take care of them, they took care of themselves. Riding a horse?  Yes, I think we might say that many a pair of breeches were smuggled in to the washing machine and laundered without the benefit of my mother’s help.  Mucking out stalls?  Yes.  You might say that many a pile of manure got improved by my tiny contributions.  And, for God’s sake, if ever I happened to be grooming one of our stallions and he became aroused, I went through agonies.  Which reminds me that when our stallions were put out to stud, they normally stood at out trainer’s breeding facilities.  Now, I was no stranger to the mating of horses or dogs or pigs or even camels or elephants, and so I took their acrobatics for granted.  Which means that, then as now, my voyeurism was focussed on single individuals (fortunately of the human-kind) –   and when it came to two or more participants, I was not interested in it as a spectator sport. Either I was or am a party to it, or forget it.  

But to get back to our stallions and their lives as rent boys and sperm-donors:  I remember when mares were brought to our stallions and the owners would choose to be present to ‘witness’ the act.  And every so often these owners, if they were new at the game and hadn’t really seen it before, would develop a certain ‘glow’.  Now, I should make it clear that they would have been watching from behind a window in a ‘viewing room’ on the next floor.  Very often, the ‘glow’ that some of these inexperienced new owners were feeling, would grow into a shining beacon. Now there was a large sofa in this room. And more than once, these owners very quickly forgot to observe what they had come to observe.  As our trainer once remarked to me (for I would usually be the one to tell him, and also to describe in grossly unnecessary and vivid detail what the owners had done), “we could’a bred her to the bull, and saved your lad for a more appreciative audience.” For ‘our lad’ wasn’t getting any younger, and couldn’t always get it up when we wanted him to.  And, as for the bull, the trainer had a small dairy herd, and kept a Limousin to keep the cows ‘interested’; he, unlike our stallion, was ready to go anytime, anyplace, and with anything.  And he even drooled.

Sadly for me, when one of our animals was either mounting or being mounted, those were about the only times nothing happened in my nether regions.  In fact, they were, perhaps, the only times – other than when I was doing my naturism thing around the house or at the beach – when I didn’t think about sex.

I remember one time we were cleaning out the septic tank, and our ‘hand’ (one was all we ever had – not counting my father) snuck up behind me and pushed me in.  All very funny.  Everyone laughed.  And then I stripped off my clothing and stormed off to the grooming stall, where there was a shower. On the way to the shower, I got so unaccountable horny – I mean rampantly horny – that I blew my wad before I had walked thirty feet. It was probably the most powerful ejaculation I had ever experienced, and it just kept going on and on and on.  And, because I was covered with shite from head to toe, it wasn’t as though I was touching anything. But never mind.  However I should mention that I had – not one – but two wet-dreams the following night.  So if you are having ‘trouble’, just think about your septic tank.

If only most of my sexual experiences with other people had been as good.       

There was a reason why it was not – and this is really pathetic – because from the moment I proudly grew my first really grownup-looking pubic hair, my newly cultivated sense of ‘sin’ already had a stranglehold on me.  But only when it came to certain things that I decided to classify as ‘sins’.  Namely masturbating on school-nights. And before riding in a point-to-point or race (but not before dressage, before which the more wanking I did, the better). And being caught by my parents.  Especially by my father, for by that time he was deeply worried about me, and by the fact that I didn’t seem to be cultivating any girlfriends.  Never mind that I was going to boarding school, because – to his knowledge – boarding school didn’t seem to prevent any of my friends from rogering each and every girl they encountered.  I simply didn’t seem to care. In any case, why did I want to fuck a girl in a ditch by the road?  Was that supposed to be appealing or something?  But of course, unbeknownst to my father, I had ‘Dickie’ to keep me busy.  And who had time for a girlfriend when I had ‘Dickie’ ready and willing and by my side (and besides, he never asked me to make promises).  And let me tell you this: come hell or high water, ‘Dickie’ never made in on to my  ‘sin’ list.

Now, I haven’t mentioned ‘Dickie’ before.  Dickie was not part of my crowd; he didn’t ride; he wasn’t interesting in racing.  In fact, he was only interested in going into the army, and after the army, in taking over his father’s farm.  I had known him for quite a long time, and we were always good mates. We were also the same age.  Then one day, without any particular preamble, or without even talking about it, we simply started masturbating each other whenever we happened to get together.  When we first started this routine, he had not quite entered puberty, and so when he reached his climax, it almost invariably resulted in urination.  But it didn’t bother either of us – because we both knew that given time, the ‘right stuff’ would – as they say – come out.  Now I want to be clear about this.  There was no love between us.  No crush.  At no time did we want to have sex together. We just liked wanking.  And since we both liked wanking a lot, we did a lot of it. And it wasn’t as though we were even turned on by each other’s penises.  To tell you the truth, I don’t think we ever took any interested in looking each other’s anatomical enhancements.  It was all about the wank.  Every time we saw each other, it was straight out to the barn.  And out they would come. And we would finish up (it was always fast and to the point), and then go our separate ways – ‘Dickie’ back to his father’s cows, and me back to the horses.  And I don’t think either of us gave each other a second thought when we were not together.  I seem to recall he was very good-looking and had everything in the right place, but I certainly never fanaticised about him.  Not like I did about Sheila (but never mind about her – I am saving her for another chapter).

I well remember when our wanking days were over, and it coincided with ‘Dickie’s blossoming into full-fledged puberty. I had been away at school for two terms, after which I had been absent from home for an additional eight months following the death of my brother (the one that had been – when he was alive – ‘the other one’).  His death was a tragedy that seemed to provide as good an excuse as any to scrounge cabins on a distant cousin’s tramp-steamer bound for Hong Kong (a voyage which spawned a second voyage – this one for the return journey – on a second and even more decrepit vessel than the first one).  On neither journey did I find so much as a single wanking-mate.  But, then again, neither of the tubs carried more than six or eight passengers (including the three of us), and all the other passengers seemed to be either antediluvian tea-planters or members of the diplomatic corps on leave.  It was a lonely time.  And I seem to remember filling the empty hours doing lessons (so ‘thoughtfully’ provided by the school, and which I mailed back to the headmaster from various ports of call), as well as playing endless games of cribbage with the chief steward, playing endless games of bridge and mah-jong with our fellow passengers, and in marching round the boat deck with a woman who was employed by one of the Intelligence services, and who had figured out exactly just how many circuits equalled five miles.

Anyway, we finally got back home, and before I had even gone out to the yard to say ‘hello’ to the horses I received a call from ‘Dickie’.  “Meet me at the usual spot in ten minutes!” And so I did.  The ‘Dickie’ whom I had known before was not the ‘Dickie’ who greeted me out back of the barn. Yes, he had the same face and the same goofy smile, and his accent was the same, but other than that, the boy had been supplanted by a man.  He was now close on six foot one (whereas I was  at the time five foot five and determined not to grow another inch); his face, though still lean and boyish – for after all, he was still only sixteen – was leaner around the jaw-line, and on his chin was a fine beginning of a beard.

“I got somat to show you,” he said, and with that he stepped out of his trousers and presented an erection that was nothing like that I had ever seen on him before.  “What d’ya think?”  And I had to admit he had grown into a fine-looking hunk of man.

“And wot about you?” he said with a leer.  “Still the little same-o-same-o?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “The little same-o-same-o’s the same as ever.”

And that was that.  ‘Dickie’ had grown up and could – as they say – get it up without any help from me.  He had a girlfriend from the next village; he never went into the army, but he did take over the farm.  And after a while – in the way of all things – he and his girlfriend got married, had a son and a daughter, and then a divorce.

And I’m glad it ended there, because it was just a phase, and phases are better outgrown.

No, ‘Dickie’ was never counted as a sin.  But somehow masturbating on school nights still remained a bugbear, and so did looking at porn.  And so did a long list of other things, some of which I have never outgrown.  And so did ‘yes’ when and if I was approached on the street or in a cafe or in a bar by a stranger.  And by a stranger, I mean a stranger of either sex.  Because, to tell the truth, both are the same under their respective skins, and make absolutely no difference to me. Besides, my willy is definitely an equal-opportunity player. But be that as it may, let a stranger come up to me, and he or she are bound to be met by my special ‘frozen’ stare.

I continue to feel annoyed with my poor father, even though he has been dead for over thirty years.  For I can still hear him telling me not to touch myself.  And I also can hear him asking me once when I was twenty-three or four, if I had ever had a girlfriend?  At the time, I was taking a shower and enjoying the pleasures of the warm water as it flowed down my skin, and he had walked in on me – apparently feeling I was going beyond the point of no-return.  He had always tried so hard to be a good father, but he tried so hard he always overstepped the mark.  And my problem was I was so bloody well brought up, it didn’t occur to me to tell him to “fuck off.”  I can’t remember what I said in return.  The word ‘yes’, however, was included, but otherwise it was very, and very distant.  And sometimes I wonder if that is one of the reasons I have never had children?  Would I have made the same mistakes as he?  It was one thing to go through it myself, but quite another to pass it along.  And you see, I have never entirely trusted myself.

In conclusion, what else was on my ‘sin’ list?  And for that matter, what did the ‘sin’ in ‘sin’ list actually mean?  I had made it up, after all; it wasn’t one of those things I had got out of a book, or which I had been threatened with from a pulpit.  If it had been forced upon me from either of those sources, I don’t think it would have been as bad.  However, when I had somehow ‘fixed’ on the word, I had given it a particularly evil connotation.  For you see, in the ‘Church of Me’, a ‘sin’ was something you did before all your luck ran out.  In other words, if I sinned on a school night, I would fail not only the next day’s tutorial but the entire term.  If I sinned the night before a race or a point-to-point, I was guaranteed to break half the bones in my body.  If I sinned before going out on a date, the date would inevitably have the clap or fancy someone else at the next table.  And then, of course, being the idiot that I am, I was compelled to enlarge upon my list of ‘sin’, until it encompassed almost everything, including ‘asking someone home for the night’,  ‘spending the night at someone else’s house’, ‘happiness’, ‘looking forward to anything (good or bad), ‘wanting to earn money’, and – last but not least – ‘actually doing anything that I was good at and doing it well’.  In other words, in my book of ‘sins’ I had all the bases covered.

That being said, the one activity that never made it on to the list was sex with another person.  And I rather imagine the reason I neglected to put it on the list was because I’d always thought of myself as a bit of a minger that nobody could possibly want.  However, I shall let you in on a secret:  in spite of my being a minger, and in spite of my being a hopeless tosser and absolute rubbish at anything and everything I had tried, the very fact that sex with another person never made it on to my  ‘sin’ list, meant that I have done it a great many times – more times, in fact, than most people I’ve known.  But, alas, not as many times as I could have, for although sex with others does not count as a sin, I have these pesky things called ‘hackles’, and the ‘hackles’ are accompanied by ‘alarm bells’.  And just when I find someone really raunchy and downright filthy – with whom sex might even be so good it would count as a ‘sin’ – my ‘hackles’ and my ‘alarm bells’ get all hoity-toity and schoolmarmish.  And they remind me that once I have had sex with another that is so good that it counts as a sin, I couldn’t ever have sex with another ‘another’ again. Or at least not without another seven years of bad luck.  Or something equally as bad.

May 24, 2010

The Knackers

An old house, an old Horse, and a very young Turnip

Quick, scampering footsteps echoing from high above their heads, after which – as though they were the rhythm section bringing up the rear – there followed the heavier, more ponderous footfalls of something larger and slightly ungainly. With clompy feet. Sometimes the larger of the beasts – the one with the clompy feet – was prone to lumber, and perhaps to limp just a little bit.  But at other times its gate was spritely, like a dancer, and well-collected as though the beast was preparing for a race.

“What is that, papa?” asked the little boy, cocking his head to one side and gazing up at his father.

“It is a ghost,” replied the father in a quiet, thoughtful whisper.  And he gave the little boy a fatherly hug.

“What sort of ghost?” demanded the child. “And may we go and see it?”

“No,” whispered the father, in a voice so low that not even the ancient walls of the house could overhear.

“But why not?” demanded the little boy.

“Shhh…” interjected the father.  “Let me put you to bed and I shall tell you a little story.”

“Please, papa,” whimpered the lad. “Not another story!  Not when there are ghosts about, and in the rooftop of our very own house.”

The father hugged his little son to his chest and lifted him into his arms. “Come along, my son. Time for bed.”

The little boy started to whine, but his father put his finger to his lips, “Shhhhhhh,” he murmured mysteriously, and then with his forefinger he pointed towards the ceiling.  “You don’t want them to hear you, do you?”

The father carried his son, wrapped in a blanket against the chill of the evening, and climbed the old staircase up to the next floor.  “Where are we going?” whispered the boy.

The father merely shook his head, and walked to the far end of the first floor gallery and to a small, green baize-covered door.  He inserted an old skeleton key into the lock.  And, surprisingly – for it looked like it hadn’t been opened for fifty years or more – the door swung open (silently, with but a whisper) on well-oiled hinges. The corridor beyond – a high narrow passageway such as those the housemaids might have used in bygone days to carry copper urns of boiling water up to the bedrooms – was surprisingly free of dust.

The little boy craned his neck to see where they were going, but his father held him close and shielded his eyes.

“Keep your eyes closed, my son.” whispered the father.

“But why?” answered the son in rebuke.

“Because this part of the house belongs to the ghosts,” replied the father solemnly. “And if you open your eyes, you might frighten them away.”

“Oh, very well.  If I must!”  said the son impatiently, for he was a curious bright-eyed lad and didn’t like to be kept in the dark.

On and on along the dingy passageway they walked and walked and walked, and the father was careful to make no noise.  He even avoided those places where the floorboards creaked.

The little boy looked at him in wonder.  “Why are you walking in such a funny way, papa? Are you playing hopscotch?”

To which his father whispered in his ear, “Parts of the floor are asleep, my son.  And if I step on their heads and wake them up, they will rouse the whole house.”

“You mean they will scream the house down!” trilled the little boy.  But then catching sight of his father’s pained expression, he thought of the punishments in store if he didn’t mind his manners.  “I don’t really fancy one of father’s spankings,” he said to himself.  And so to save face, he looked gravely up at his father and frowned.  “You’re silly!” he scowled in a gravelly voice.  After that, they continued walking down the hallway of shadows in silence.

At the end of this very, very long and high-ceilinged corridor they came to another door – a tall, narrow door – and again the father took the old key from his pocket, and put it into the lock.  And once again, the door opened like butter.  And when it had swung open it revealed yet another long corridor – this one as clean as the last – only, unlike the passageway they had just left behind, this one had a steep and ancient staircase leading up from the opposite end to the attics above.                                                                           

The house in the woods was a very old house, with gables and chimney pots and ill-fitting leaded windows with hand-blown panes cut like diamonds.  Windows – so many windows – all of which rattled and slammed both from the wind outside, and from the howling draughts within that prowled the vast, empty spaces like ravening wolves.

The house had – not counting those chambers and offices that did not count as rooms themselves – forty-four rooms – big and small.  And in each one of these forty-four rooms was a fireplace – plus two fireplaces in the hall and three in the ballroom.  And in even those rooms which did not count as rooms – such as the servant’s hall next to the kitchen or the servants’ bedrooms themselves – there were smaller hearths.  In the servants’ bedrooms, they were not really large enough to combat the winter’s gales, but sufficient to break the chill and for warming a body slightly before climbing into bed.   

The wall-to-wall hearth in the large, vaulted kitchen had long-since been bricked up and in its recess was a combination coal-burning/gas-burning range – powerful enough to heat the water for the house’s needs and to fill all the housemaids’ pitchers four or five times a day.  However, even this giant of an Aga had been rendered redundant with the passage of time;   in the more modern sinks and showers installed to meet the more modern trends, this method of heating water had been supplanted by the more economical and convenient ascots.  And a cooker – a smallish, chrome-plated, arrogant post-modern appliance that cocked its snoot at the ancient range – was used for most of the cooking.   

The family that lived in the house, unlike so many of their generation, were sentimental when it came to both the cavernous kitchen and to the many other rooms that fanned out from it in every direction – rooms (that were not really counted as room) such the pantry and the larder and the bakery and the silver and china vaults, as well as the high narrow chamber where the glassware was kept.  Adjoining the vaults was the Butler’s pantry, a good-sized sitting room-cum-office which had served the house as both a ship’s bridge and its engine room; for if it was those ‘upstairs’ who supposedly ‘ruled’, it was the butler who was the prime minister and who kept the ship of state’s many departments running as smooth as silk. Next to the butler’s pantry, was the office and sitting room of the deputy leader:  the house-keeper.  These latter two rooms had proper fireplaces of their own, as well as small cloakrooms. However, once again, these fireplaces did not count in the inventory as being among the forty-nine proper fireplaces, for these rooms – although the nerve centres of the house – were not really rooms at all.  They were, after all, below stairs. – and although their fireplaces were in every sense proper fireplaces, they did not count among the forty-nine, having been more recent additions.  Besides which, since they had been among the first to have been converted to gas no one ever thought of them as fireplaces, but as gas fires.

On the opposite side of the kitchen from the nerve-centres, was a very long, wide and gloomy corridor which lead to such offices as the scullery and laundry and buttery, and from there to the time capsules of a long-forgotten world: to the butchery and the dairy and to a door leading to the kitchen gardens and greenhouses.  And to the all-important flower-room.

Along this wide, gloomy, ill-lit corridor were sixteen bathrooms, and since all sixteen had been built according to specifications provided by the United States government during the Second World War – when the house had been requisitioned as a rehabilitation centre for wounded American pilots – each of these sixteen bathrooms had a toilet. To the ancient retainers who were still living on the property during the war and who had been re-housed in the tiny labourers’ cottages down by the farm – these bathrooms were both a scandal and an abomination, and they caused them much distress.  As far as they were concerned, these American-style bathrooms reeked of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon – for their architect was a Catholic of Italian descent – and foretold the beginning of end of the world “as we know it.” In short, they were the thin edge of the wedge.

After the war when the family was allowed to reclaim their property, they had asked that these additional bathrooms be removed.  However, somehow – what with one thing and another and the squabbling between the two governments over who would foot the bill – they remained where they stood.  And became repositories for dust and grime and such junk as abandoned rooms are known to attract.  But fortunately, by that time, the ancient retainers were all long-term residents of the churchyard; they didn’t have to suffer this additional humiliation – at least not on this side of the grave.

Such modernisations that had been carried out after the war mainly centred on the replacement of the lead which had for centuries kept the rain from getting in and ruining the fabric of the ancient house. Again there was squabbling amongst the various government ministries, and between the two countries.  More and more squabbling.  More and more bickering.  Seemingly endless squabbling and bickering. For the Americans – who had stripped the roof in order to sell the lead to buy fuel to burn in the fireplaces – vehemently denied any knowledge of the vandalism.  “We will, of course, look into the matter. But according to our records, it never happened.” But when it was pointed out that they had also burned a considerable portion of the panelling, as well as most of the first-editions in the library – a claim that was verified by several of the soldiers who had been a party to the whole affair, the US Government agreed to cover the damages.  However, since the money was eventually re-directed to help pay the interest on the US war loans, not a farthing ever made it to the house.

Not that had mattered much.  For the family was simply happy to have their home back and more or less in one piece. They sold part of the land to pay for the re-sealing of the roof, and still another parcel or two for such modernisations as would make the old building feasible.  They laid on gas fires in the four or five rooms in which they lived, added two extra bathrooms and toilets for such staff as they could afford, and two bathrooms (with adjacent toilets) for themselves.  They also built a small kitchen for everyday use in an old storage room off the scullery, again laying on gas and electricity and all the mod-cons. 

The four or five rooms in which the family now lived were in a small wing on the ground floor to the rear of the house, facing the rose garden.  Or what had been the rose garden before it had been given over to the planting of root vegetables.  The rooms on the first and second floors were kept in good repair for they were graceful and well-proportioned and might one day – or so the family hoped – prove to be useful.   

The third floor and the attics were not used at all, and because of the damages inflicted on the roofs far above, they quickly fell into disrepair. And it was in these dark and abandoned parts of the house that the rooms and passageway offered shelter to such displaced ghosts and spirits as were seeking a place to lay their weary heads.  If only because in such an ancient and crumbling ruin, no one would think to bother them.  

Some years after the war, the main stair case leading to the third floor fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed, leaving only the small back service stairs for access. This back stairwell could be reached through a back hall on the ground floor – the utility passageway that led to the stable yard and smithy and to the maintenance sheds, and from there down the lane to the farm itself.  The one door that led from this hallway out into the stable yard had – for reasons it kept to itself – jammed itself shut and no force on earth could open it.  The principal reason for its behaviour was that it was a selfish and crabbed old door that did not like to be disturbed – besides which, it suffered much from rising damp and the rheumatics, causing its hinges to swell up ‘something awful’.  For more than twenty-five years (not counting the time some village rowdies broke it down for a lark and spray-painted slogans on the William Morris wallpaper in the old morning room) this temperamental oak door had kept itself locked and barred against all intruders.  The family, who were sympathetic to the door, had long-since given up on it; they simply used the French doors in the room that was now serving as their drawing room.

Perhaps they knew – or suspected – that the door had a secret.  Perhaps they knew that its hinges only appeared to be swollen and locked in place.  And perhaps its condition was a message to the family and others of the human race.  After all, hadn’t humans always abused the door – kicking it open and slamming it shut and knocking things against its panels?  Such treatment was all very well when a door was younger and when its paint was fresh, but quite another after so many centuries had passed.  For nobody – not even the most sympathetic member of the family – seemed to care how an old door looked or how it felt.  And since it was far older than they – by at least four hundred years – it felt it had a right to be treated with a certain amount of respect.  And when no one obliged it, it simply shut itself up tight, swelled its ancient timbers, and became immovable.  “Let them that wants to go in and out, find another way. I’ve retired!”  But this was only where human beings were concerned.  For the ghosts of the house it was another matter – for they were the ones who waxed its oak panels and polished its brass knocker and kept its hinges oiled ‘a treat’.

But who were these ghosts that haunted the upper corridors and who scampered and danced whenever the chill winter winds swept through the crumbling rooms up next to the roof?  And where did they come from?

Their names – for, indeed, names they had – were Misther and Missus Knacker.  Now, to the world outside their appearance might have been surprising, for they were small and round, and each of them had two little tiny feet at his and her narrow, tapering bottom end – the end that would have reached the floor had not their tiny feet been encased in stout wooden clogs.  On the under-sole of each clog was a little silver bell – and it was these bells that could be heard twinkling and clicking as the two little Knackers scampered back and forth along the principal passageway of the top-most floor.

But who was the other personage that lived under the rooftop and who clomped and strutted and pranced each day when he took his exercise?

His name was Summer Lightning (otherwise known as ‘Slow’) and he was a horse.  Perhaps the best forgotten chaser in the history of chasers.

Old ‘Slow’ (back before he had acquired his nickname, when both his owners and his trainer called him ‘Fast’) had in his time won no fewer than six Gold Cups (in England and Ireland and France and Scotland) and one Grand National Chase in each of those nations.  He was feted and celebrated from one end of the racing world to the other, and had even had a chocolate bar named in his honour (the ‘Fast Bar’, because it went down so fast that one had to buy a second one just to prove to oneself that one had eaten one).

Then one day, whilst grazing in his paddock and talking things over with his companion donkey (‘named ‘Old Ass-‘ole’), ‘Fast’ felt a disturbance in his intestine.  And not wanting to trouble his lad or the trainer, he said nothing.  For the lad was having troubles of his own, having been jilted by his girlfriend, and the owner had awoken one morning with a phobia of horses.  The upshot was that ‘Fast’ was left alone with his twisted intestines, and nearly died.  It was also the end of his illustrious career, for on every one of his subsequent races he could barely make it over the first fence, and always came in a half-hour after the race itself had finish.  Old ‘Fast’ became a laughing-stock.  His ‘trainer’ – who took to breeding Chihuahuas, because – although fierce – they were smaller and could be stepped on in a pinch – started making fun of the horse and calling him ‘Slow’ to his face.  The lad – who was ultimately blamed for the horse’s new-found lethargy – quite racing and joined his father’s investment bank.  And as for the owner (who was the father of the lad), he lost interest, and ordered the trainer to send the former Gold-Cup winner to ‘the knackers’.

For the two days that followed, all the other horses in the yard, as well as the companion donkeys (who, after all, could always get a good job pulling carts for fat men in Egypt) called the newly rechristened ‘Slow’ every name under the, sun, and from dawn ‘til dusk they jeered at him and abused him with the following chant, “To the knackers, to the knackers, to the knackers for you”.  And the owner, who was a greedy ill-spirited brute with two left feet and a snake for a tongue, searched all round the countryside checking out the best per-pound price for a used-up race horse with no bottle and with not an ounce of fat on his bones.  In the end, all he was offered was one pound three shillings and five-pence three farthings, and that from a knackers somewhere near far-distant York.  But it was too little, too late, and so he ordered the trainer (who in the mean time had taken to swilling gin and wormwood-infused tonic water) to do the knackering himself, and to sell the meat to the Doggie Deluxe Dog Food Company, the hide to the Fashion Deluxe Horse Skin Jacket Company, and the bones to the Bony Deluxe Bone Meal Company.

And all the while, over in the yard, the whole world seemed to be chanting “To the knackers, to the knackers, to the knackers for you.”

Needless to say, there were two tiny individuals who did not appreciate the attention.  It was bad enough that they had been born turnips and had been forced to flee for their lives to avoid being added to a cauldron of soup, but now it appeared that the whole world knew where they were!  But, as old Misther Knacker said to old Missus Knacker on more than one occasion, “If they be wantin’ us so bad, why don’t they come up and get us?” To which Missus Turnip replied, “beats me, Elmer.”

It was about then that the youngest of the Knackers’ fifty-seven children, took it upon himself to investigate the situation.  After all, he was very small – practically the size of a walnut – and he was not afraid of anyone. “Let ‘em just try puttin’ ME in a stew,” he liked to say.  And so he waited until long after dark and snuck down the back stairs and out through a crack in the old door.

Within less than fifteen minutes (for even the fastest of turnips cannot run very fast) he had reached the stable yard.  And there – sure enough – were all the foul-smelling villagers of the county, dancing round a campfire and waving their pitchfork in the air.  And on a high platform over the flames, was ‘Slow’, trembling and shaking and sweating and wondering what on earth he had done to deserve such a fate.

The tiny turnip, who was curious about what was going one (for he had never attended a barbeque before) asked one of the revellers (a baby poisonous mushroom that was hoping to volunteer to poison the noisy throng – for they had kept his mam from sleeping), “What’s Up, Ol’ Toadstool, my friend?”

And the toadstool said, in a voice both cruel and loud, “They’re gonna send him to the knackers!”

To which the turnip replied, point up at the house, “But the Knackers aren’t over here!  They’re up there!”

“You sure?” cried the revellers upon hearing the news.

“Yeah, I’m sure!” trumpeted the baby turnip, “and I’ve got my driver’s licence to prove who I am.”  And he showed it to them. 

“His name is Knacker!” yelled the crowd.

And so it was that the chief among the revellers (a potato named ‘Bismuth’) heard about their mistake.  And not wanting to get in any trouble, he ordered the crowd to extinguish the fire and return to their homes.

Within twelve and half minutes, the yard was deserted, leaving only the baby turnip and the horse who had once been known as Summer Lightning.  And the horse told the tiny Knacker his sad story, and asked, “What is to become of me?”

You see,” he said, “I don’t really want to go to the knacker’s yard.  I don’t want to end up as dog meat or a leather jacket or in a bucket of bone meal.  Please don’t make me go!  If you save me I shall be your friend for life – for unless I’m mistaken – a turnip does not have many friends to call his own.  And I promise you this: even though I am partial to turnips myself, I shall never eat you.”

And with that, the baby turnip jumped up on the horse’s back and gave him the biggest hug in the world.  And he said, “But you misunderstand, my sweet friend!”  We are not the knackers; out name is Knacker, and we live peacefully on top of that big house,”

Needless to say, without even being asked, the old door opened wide and let the horse and the turnip enter the house.  And because in his heart Summer Lightning was still the same athlete he had always been, he leaped up the stairs (taking twelve steps at a time) all the way to the attic.  He found there a home, and in all the years since he has remained in those rooms up under the roof.  Just himself and the Knackers and all of the ghosts.  And because it is such an old house and is falling to bits, no one ever goes up to see how they are.  And because they have the wind and the rain and the winter storms to keep them from getting restive, that suits them just fine.

The little boy lay asleep in his father’s lap, his six-year-old head cradled in the crook of his arm.  He had slept through every word of the story his father had told him, but there was no harm in that.  For deep down inside he had heard every word, and for the rest of his life, whenever the wind did blow through the rafters and shake the old windows, and whenever there was heard a mad scuffling of little feet dancing, and the drumbeat of hooves prancing high above his head, the boy always said to himself – and later to his children and to the children they themselves spawned.  “Up there is where the Knackers live, and the drummer who is drumming is the old Gold Cup winner, himself – none other than brave Summer Lightning – he who’d been lost before he was found.  And saved by the love of a turnip.”   

May 4, 2010

My Mother Had a Little Mare…

A short verse and a little story about a wee foul beastie disguised as a sweet little chestnut mare:

My mother had a little mare

Her blaze was white as snow,

And everywhere my mother went,

The mare would surely go.

My mother was not a particularly willing horsewoman.  Riding was something she had always done, but that was more because she had grown up in the country and it was either that or helping to pull up bindweed in the garden or practising her viola.  And since she already had to slog away at the latter for twelve hours a day, the bindweed was going to be left to its own devices.  Besides, her mother was a devoted gardener, and a daughter never wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps, any more than a son wants to do his father’s bidding.  And so, horses it was.

To be fair to her, when it came to large animals, my mother was a little on the timorous side, especially when it came to doing things which involved a proximity to a horse’s hindquarters. After all, horses’ hooves are very hard, their legs are very strong, and they are not always shy about making their feelings known.  On the other hand, my mother was very small and didn’t weight very much.  In other words, one well-place kick from a horse, and she would have sailed over the wall and into the next county.

Nikki was a little mare,

She smelled just like a bear.

Whenever someone passed her by,

They’d check their underwear.

My mother was what I might call a careful rider.  In other words, she didn’t take a lot of unnecessary risks, and she would never ask a horse to do anything that frightened it.  Furthermore, although she might have been a rampaging tiger when it came to other humans, my mother never raised her voice around a horse.  She was very firm, but always fair.  And as a consequence, she was always obeyed.  And if they happened to shy at something, she was very good at calming their fears.  They adored her.

Now, my mother wasn’t one of those county girls who spent all their time riding to the hounds and point-to-pointing and mucking out and hanging round youthful OE polo-players and buying the latest hats for Ascot.  First of all, she spent most of her days at a very strict boarding school, where she learned how to slam doors in people’s faces, smoke cigarettes, swear like a navvy and call a spade a spade.  Secondly, when not perfecting the aforementioned activities, she was – as ever – practising her viola.  And anyone who has ever seriously studied music knows, your instrument has got to be your total focus.  In other words, it’s four fuck-buddy.  Thirdly, my mother had a couple of serious brain-cells; she was determined to go to university, which was something of a tradition with women in her family.  And keep in mind that those were the days when it was a minefield for women bent on earning a degree, and if they wanted a place at university at all, they had to be bloody good.  And then, lastly, my mother wasn’t one who suffered fools gladly, and even had she been attracted to an OE polo player, he – in spite of his dazzlingly glorious and predatory ways – would have found her a bit of a handful.

So anyway, my mother’s horseback riding was pretty much confined to holidays and half-terms, but even then her chosen modes of transportation were her father’s dog cart or coach and four, in which the two of them competed in agricultural shows.  She was also drawn to her mother’s tiny bi-plane and a little two-seater Panhard roadster.  As far as I know, however, her only real ‘country pursuit’ was sheepdog trials, and they became a lifelong love.

To cut a long story short, she went to university, continued on to music school – where she learned that she simply couldn’t cut the mustard.  Besides which, at that time there were no openings for women in orchestras or professional ensembles, and she was damned if she was going to teach a bunch of unwilling and whiny, snot-nosed brats.  And as far as she was concerned, she hadn’t been beavering away on the viola for sixteen years, merely to twiddle her bow in tea salons with other, similarly disgruntled and displaced young ladies, or to perform at some dreadful tableaux vivant at garden fêtes.  So she went back to university and studied subjects in which she might one day be able to earn a living. In other words, something in the ‘hard’ sciences.

I know this sounds like gibberings out of an Edwardian sit-com, or what you might see in a magic lantern, but it wasn’t.  In fact, it was at a time when the world was dragging itself out of a deep depression, and most other girls her age couldn’t get a job for love or money, so she was lucky she had a choice.

Needless to say, my mother fell in mutual ‘like’ with a not-too-objectionable young man and they eventually decided they might think about spending the rest of their lives together.  And so, after weighing the pros and cons for a couple of years and tossing a coin, they did.  And, five or six years after that, they had a son, and then a few years later, by some miracle or other, I popped out –  after which they decided they wouldn’t push their luck any more.

Nikki was a little shit,

Her brains were clotted cream.

And every time you said, “Wa-HAY,”

She’d kick you in the spleen.

When I was about ten, my mother happened to be visiting a neighbour who had a large number of hunters, as well as some Welch Cobs and six or seven Irish Draughts in training. As I remember it, the whole point of our visit was to find a nice, safe, scopy jumper for me.

But of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.  The neighbours’ trainer, who knew my strengths and weaknesses as a rider, was talking to me about a certain cob mare.  This was, of course, back when they still had docked tails; she was well-muscled, moved like she was on springs, was fearless, and absolutely loved to jump.  Just about the time the trainer was about to ask me how I felt about her – for although kid-friendly, she was also somewhat temperamental – we heard some rather bizarre whinnies, snortings and lugubrious sighs coming from behind us.

And there, having appeared from nowhere like some daemon in a pantomime, was this rather ugly little pepper pot of a chestnut mare.  Her head was curling round my mother’s neck.  Her eyes were closed, and she was moaning.

The trainer look one look, promptly forgot all about me and the cob, and said firmly, “You are never going to leave here without her.”  And we didn’t.

Nikki hated viral men,

She had a muscled loin

And when a man would pass her stall,

She’d bite him in the groin.

And now we come to the bit where we talk about who actually owns who. And for anyone who has ever kept an animal, this might ring a bell. You see, my mother didn’t actually want a horse of her own.  After all, we had a barn full of them, and most of them had quite agreeable natures. She also had a very busy life and a lot of interests, including her border collies, her partnership in a breeding program of standard poodles and Afghan hounds, her music, her love of books, her two sons – one of whom (the other one, ‘ol Whatsisname) was actually doing well in school and even studied without being yelled at.  Plus, there were the inevitable dog obedience classes and trials and the sundry other canine-related activities for which my father was forever raising funds.  And then, there was the constant shepherding of yours truly to a never-ending round of pony races, show jumping competitions, point-to-points, fox hunts, and, of course, the sort of cross-country events that always seemed to land me in hospital. Now, to give her credit where credit is due, my mother liked to watch me go over hurdles, but somehow always managed to hide out in the tea tent when it came to a chase.  After all, we weren’t exactly a racing family, which meant she hadn’t been born with a stomach of iron, plus, she didn’t have a spare string of sons to take my place. In other words, living with me brought her into close contact with terror.

So the last thing my mother really wanted was the responsibility of looking after her own personal horse, especially one who was clearly besotted with her, and who would throw tantrums if my mother didn’t constantly soothe her fevered brow.  But since Nikki wanted her, and Nikki nearly always got her own way, my mother was stuck with this emotionally needy, clinging, possessive, psychopathic and totally demanding brat of a daughter she’d never asked for.  Plus the fact that Nikki was as ugly as sin.  Even in summer and even when groomed to perfection, she had the appearance of a woolly pig who’s been rolling in the mud; her head was shaped more like a dented urn than a head; each leg was pointed in a different direction – sort of like a compass rose – and as for her eyes, let us just say they were the stuff of nightmares. I mean, I have never in my life – even in a Disney movie – seen such innocence.  In other words, you knew that danger lurked behind those suspiciously long auburn lashes.  And it wasn’t that she was wall-eyed; it was the way she transfixed you with her stare, as if to say, “You’re all mine!” 

But anyway,  being the good sport that she was, my mother always gave her newly-adopted daughter a daily counselling session, after which she would ride her out and groom her and let her know that sooner or later she would have to start being nice to a small number of other humans, even though they happened to be men.  You know the humans I’m talking about: my father, me (a suggestion to which Nikki never really agreed), and the sundry others who were actually paid to make the likes of Nikki clean and comfortable. And if you are worried about my mother’s other son (you know, ol’ Whathsisname), don’t.  He was one of those whose only interest was an arcane branch of mathematics, and I don’t think he’d ever even seen the outdoors, much less a horse.

Her eyes they were like gimlets

Upon the briny sea,

And she was like a banshee,

She’d eat your nose for tea.   

Naturally, when it came to the other horses – a sort of ever-changing assortment of shapes and sizes and temperaments and abilities – Nikki was fine.  But firm.  Although she was just over fourteen and a half hands high in stilettos, she was the big cheese.  And heaven help any other horse who didn’t remember it.  Because, you see, Nikki was relentless.  And very much like a dervish.  Just let one horse make a disparaging remark about her appearance (and she really did look like a furry, ginger toad), and she would materialise from nowhere (her one real talent) and let them know in no uncertain terms who had the sharpest hooves and, as a consequence, was mistress of her domain.  And so the other members of our equine family kept their distance (and it was another reason why our show horses and racing no-hopers chose to board elsewhere with trainers). Now, picture this: it is a nice summer’s day, the grass is green, the sky is blue, and a small herd of mares and foals and a gelding or two are lounging in one of our large paddocks.  Now, down at one end, near where a tiny brook babbled and a couple of ancient oaks provided a respite from heat of the day, the mares and foals and geldings are enjoying a tea party and singing a joyful ‘Mares Eat Oats’. But down at the other end, in a muddy sinkhole overgrown with gorse and brambles, one would find Nikki, alone in her miserable isolation and having a jolly good sulk. Now my mother, who had a good heart, and who was also anti-social, decided to try something out: she started keeping Nikki segregated from the others, and even presented her with two special friends of her own: a small kitten and a miniature goat. From then on, the little mare was transformed.  She had her own friends, and she didn’t have to compete.  Needless to say, it wasn’t long before one of our cockerels joined in, but Nikki seemed not to mind.  After all, the cockerel’s tantrums weren’t any worse than her own, and it wasn’t as though he shat in her morning oats very often.

Nikki loved her little goat,

Its name was Thora Groat,

And when it finally died its death,

She went and found a stoat.

And yes, my friends, there really was a ferret later on, and they all got on famously.  The only remaining issues were that Nikki loathed men with a passion (possibly she had been abused, and possibly she just found them incredibly boring) and that she persisted in treating the other members of her own species as though they were beneath her, sort of like kitchen maids.  Left with her own coterie, however, where she would behave very much like a mother hen, she eventually started to let my mother off the leash – at least for meals.  You know, so that my mother could actually eat lunch in the house without Nikki staring balefully at her through the window and grinding her teeth.

Now, my mother had a number of friends who had taken a fancy to the little mare, and were always asking if they could ride her.  Now, Nikki was very well-trained, and with my mother, at least, her manners were impeccable.  So after a while, providing these ladies knew their way round horses, and providing Nikki approved of them, my mother would concur.

Now, I mentioned before that Nikki was nothing if not devious. And also my mother had a great sense of humour (which is why they got on so well).  And together, they started a partnership of sorts, a partnership that continued for a good year and a half.  Nikki very quickly decided upon a plan of action, and it was very much like a bottom-of-the-bill act in a very low class carnival sideshow.

What it amounted to was this.  Nikki would be brought out into the ménage, nicely groomed and saddled (and with her coat plastered down with glue).  My mother’s friend would get to know her – and here I should emphasize that only one friend was allowed per visit and only as a very special treat. For it was certainly not like a five shillings-a-ride petting-zoo attraction that you see at County Shows.  You know the ones: for raising money for the restoration of the church’s stained glass windows and new cassocks for the mixed boy’s and girl’s choir?

But back to Nikki’s and my mother’s routine and the very first time it was performed.  For whatever reason – pure devilment or perhaps the lady in question had inadvertently spooked her – the minute the friend (whose name was Lois, by the way) mounted, Nikki took off like a bat out of hell.  Fortunately, she didn’t jump the fence (she didn’t like jumping at all), but rather swerved round through an open gate and headed straight for her barn.  Now, Nikki (who always had the best of everything) had her own stable, with its own tack room and grooming stall (she really was a spoiled little brat).  There were two entrances into her box: one from the grooming area and one leading out to a small paddock.  There was also a window at the back of the loose box, which opened out into the countryside (Nikki always did like her own private view).  Now when her box was cleaned, everything was simply shovelled out the back window, and from there it would be transported to a compost area near our greenhouse (my parents being inveterate gardeners).  Now, as you all know, horses have extremely active bowels, and during the course of a day they can and do provide a great deal of manure.  Consequently, after a few days, a manure pile can grow into a fair sized mountain.

Anyway, one this particular day, Nikki took off like a shot (and thank God the woman didn’t fall off), and charged full-tilt around the back of her barn, and tossed the lady like a sack of potatoes into her personal manure pile.  Which, of course, made my mother laugh (thus proving to Nikki that it was a good idea).  And slowly but surely, this got to be a routine, and also a popular way for county ladies to break up the monotony of their lives).  And some of these ladies, who must have led desperately boring existences, even came back at a later for a second go around.  Now, the little beast knew better than to try this with my mother, or with the stable lass.  But whenever someone outside of our immediate circle got on her back, there was only one possible outcome.  And it became a game.  And, although I might be accused of anthropomorphic sentimentality and wishful thinking, I really think it did a lot towards curing the little mare of her inner daemons, as well as giving her a soupçon of self-respect.  She even started to tolerate my presence in her field of vision (providing I was wearing a lady’s wig).  And while it was sort of a back-handed compliment, it did make me feel less like an unwanted child.

Nikki was a little beast,

She wasn’t very nice.

For Nikki chose to live alone,

And give you all her lice.

And that’s about all I can say about Nikki.  She lived with us quite happily for several years.  And then one day, she fell in love with the young daughter of a friend – who, by the way, was an excellent equestrian – and followed her home, exactly in the same way she’d attached herself to me mother.  And the thing is, after she had transferred her affections, she completely ignored my mother. And my mother, who was very much of a pragmatist, said, yes, that Nikki ought to go to her new home, and it was all right with her.  And then, of course, she went out and got pissed and celebrated her new-found freedom.

Nikki was a fickle shit,

Her heart was on her sleeve,

And every time she’d lose her heart,

She’d simply up and leave.

And I seem to remember, Nikki did this a couple more times before she died.  She simply was one of those strange little people who was rotten at long-term relationships. And I know there are those of you that will say, “She was only a fucking spoiled brat of horse.  Stop giving her human attributes.”

And to this I’m not going reply.  Because I do know that – somewhere out there – Nikki is lurking in a shady bog end of the celestial paddock, together with her ferret and her cockerel and her goat and perhaps her little kitten.  And if you don’t start saying something nice about her, she will be waiting for you.  And remember this: the heavenly manure pile must be very large and noisome by now – and very much like one of those industrial slurry pits.  And do you want to know something else?   This time around, I might even be up there and laughing along with her.

May 3, 2010

Have You Ever Seen Your Horse Naked?

 What a certain colt told me about a certain race, and why you’ll never see a stallion or a mare posing for Playcolt or Playfilly:

Have you ever seen your horse naked? I don’t mean with their manes hogged… although come to think of it, I have seen a horse with a hog on its back. It was not a perfect exercise in compromise, for although the hog was perfectly content to straddle the horse like Edward VII and simply bounce up and down, the horse ended up in the hospital, where the doctors insisted he wear one of those back-braces. You know the ones I’m talking about: all the warehousemen in Asda wear them. They are those humiliating black, harness-like contraptions that make even the most inflated of steroid inhalers look like a greeter at a Star Trek convention. But to get back to my question: have you ever seen a horse naked? I have and believe me they are just as spectacular without the flesh as they are when they are wearing it. And if it were up to man, there would be no end of equine nudist paddocks and naked pony support groups and internet horse porn sites and X-rated Point-to-Pointer dating services. However, when it comes right down to it, horses do not want these things; they know how irredeemably sleazy we are. In other words, they take it for granted that humans will exploit anything and anyone, especially if there is money or notoriety involved. And if we can find a way to indulge in a little pay-per-view inter-species sex at the same time, so much the better. Horses, on the other hand, are very private creatures, and are possessed of a strong moral code and a sense of family. Horses are patient and willing to compromise. They are also, on the whole, extremely intelligent, as well as realistic, which means that even the no-hopers that have trouble finishing fifteenth in a field of two, still possess a certain self-awareness and dignity, as well as a greater sense of perspective than that exhibited by their owners (after all, it is only a race, and the horse is more interested in chatting up that new filly back at the yard). And they also have a sense of what is right. Take St. Nicholas Abbey, for instance. Now, for months and months, the commentators and bookies have been salivating over this colt, rubbing their hands in premature glee over the money he’s going to make for them. However, he is a very wise and self-possessed young colt, and don’t forget he comes from a good family and has been to a good school. He’s also had to work very hard, but because of his family connections he knows that one day, he’ll get all the prettiest girls. But, as I have intimated, he is a deep thinker. He’s talked to his older and more illustrious neighbours, and he’s texted back and forth with such celebrities as Kauto Star and Denman. He has also communicated (via automatic writing) with the likes of George Washington, Horacio Nelson and Shergar. And along the way, he came to certain conclusions. The most obvious was that celebrity is not all that it is cracked up to be, and that the only reason you are constantly on page three of The Sun is that you are going to make a lot of punters rich. You have never met any of these punters yourself and, furthermore, you are becoming increasingly aware that almost all of them would confuse you with a candidate for the knackers’ yard if they saw you hanging out at the pony races and keeping company with a hard-drinking harness horse. Because, you see, they‘ve never really looked at you as you. Without your colours and pet jockey and glamorous trainer, you are nothing – like Katie Price when she takes off her boobs and goes to Home Depot in a Jaeger twin-set and a funny-looking bald man wearing Bermuda shorts and a string vest. Now, after months and months of being the bee’s knees, all the hype starts to wear on you. It’s all very well, you say, looking ahead to a life of rumpy-pumpy with the richest and prettiest of the hotties. But in the back of your mind is that certain niggling “what if…? what if…?” St. Nicholas Abbey suddenly thought of Horacio Nelson and certain other ill-fated young colts who, for all intents and purposes, had had the world as their oyster. But just as they had been entering the home straight of the fame and fortune stakes, their bodies had broken down or they had tripped on a punter’s cigar or they lost had their concentration when a massively endowed bimbo from Beachy Head hung her tits over the rail and simpered, “Go get’em big fella.” Young St. Nicholas tried to put himself in the place of Horacio Nelson. I mean, could he really blame him? In his place – being a red-blooded male himself – if he had to decide between winning the Epsom Derby and making a home with Katie Price – where all he would have to do is play a few chukkas of polo now and then in front of the cameras and perhaps teach her the finer points of dressage and how to make a flying leap wearing a mini-skirt – which would he really prefer? I mean, being a good-looking, dapper lad, he could always pull the chicks wherever he went, so that wasn’t an issue. But, then, of course, alas for young Horacio, he had been so transfixed by that bimbo’s décolletage, that in the middle of the Derby his mind forgot what his legs were supposed to be doing, and he fell apart… And the rest, as they say, is history So anyway, while St. Nicholas Abbey’s was mulling over Horacio Nelson’s story from beyond the grave, who should interrupt but George Washington. This, of course, should come as no surprise, seeing as how he had never been known for his modesty when it came to expressing his opinion. Now, young George had a very different story to tell. Shall we say a different slant on things. A much more edgy type of cautionary tale. Unlike Horacio Nelson, George had always ignored the blatant, waggling distractions offered by female temptresses of various species. It goes without saying that he occasionally got carried away with his own magnificence and in gazing at his feral muscularity as it flashed by on the many wide-screen televisions positioned from one end of the track to the other. And yes, sometimes his very perfection caused in him to forget that he was only there to make the punters happy and to make his owners richer than they already were. However (thanks to his trainer’s counselling sessions) he did remember to win a sufficient number of classics to guarantee him a long, happy, healthy, and overcrowded sex life with the best mares from around the world. Except, of course, from Dubai, but that didn’t bother him, because he was never overly attracted to fillies wearing veils. But then young George retired. He was, of course, very wealthy by now, and he wasted no time in relocating to the Monte Carlo of the thoroughbred world, where he was placed in the hands of makeover experts. Glossy extensions were woven into his mane – for in spite of his magnificence, the young hunk was showing signs of male pattern baldness. His muscles were toned, and he was groomed to gleaming perfection, his penis was polished, and he was prescribed with courses of vitamins and maximum-strength Viagra. He was also given elocution lessons, for in spite of his good background and excellent schooling, young George had taken to speaking in the guttural and incomprehensible accents of the Tipperary traveller ponies with whom he routinely went out binge-drinking and set-dancing on Saturday nights. It was during his elocution lessons, given of course, by Clare Balding, that George started to re-examine his priorities. Did he really want to be the big man about town? Now, Ms. Balding is a very intelligent and perceptive young woman, and she herself had been going through certain realignments in her own life. She was aware of emotional conflicts and sexual uncertainties. Therefore, she couldn’t help but notice that young George was going through a similar set of crises. Being the positive sort of person she is, she confronted him and offered to help. And while what the young colt told her didn’t come as a complete surprise, it did knock her back on her heals a bit. For George had broken down and confessed that all he really wanted in his life was to run away and share a small hill farm with… Yeats. “Yeats?” she gasped, breaking out in a sweat and swooning from the images that flashed through her mind. “Yeats!” roared George Washington, his voice vibrating with ecstasy, “He is the man I love! “But isn’t he…? stammered Ms. Balding. “Yes!” cried George. “He may be a big brute of a man and he may look like a rugby player, but I’ll make him love me!” And then he cried out in great, shuddering sobs and threw himself on to the ground in despair. “But he doesn’t want me. All he thinks about is Zarkava and Ouija Board!” Here the colt bolted and bashed his head against a tree. And then he whispered, as though his heart were braking, “He is an unfaithful bigamist and a bully, that’s what he is! And I hate him!” Anyway, to cut a long story short, young George threw his Viagra out the window, along with all his vitamins, and we all know what happened after that. He couldn’t do it with the girls, and when he did, all he fired was blanks. And he couldn’t get the man he loved. And so it went. One tragedy followed another, and the telling of it left young St. Nicholas Abbey in a pool of tears. It goes without saying that at this point, Shergar chimed in with a few suggestions of his own, such as how to disappear in the dead of night. However, St. Nicholas Abbey wasn’t altogether certain he wanted to end his days working with The Bearded Lady in a Bulgarian Circus, so he thanked Shergar and told him that, if he really wanted to do something positive, he might ring up and explain himself to The Aga Khan. He then paid off the automatic-writing lady (hired for the afternoon from the pony racing circuit) and settled down to think. In the end, of course, St. Nicholas Abbey realised that what he really needed was a short respite from the media glare. And the only way he could do that was simply not to win. And so he didn’t. And while he knew he would be in deep doodoo if he did a Twist Magic and sat down at the off, he took a leaf from the lives of Kauto Star and Denman and so many others, and in the process showed them he was not a machine and did not have to sell his soul for the sake of a few pieces of silver. After all, there was always another race. Now, in order to explain how he actually came to his decision we must go back to the issue of horses and nakedness. Exactly one week before the Guineas, a certain representative of a certain media empire sidled up to St. Nicholas Abbey’s paddock when he was basking in the hot Irish sun and enjoying a few quiet moments of solitude. The colt had finished his workout, Aiden had had his little chat with him, Johnny had given him an extra treat, and the colt was in a good frame of mind. And that being so, he decided that – since no one was around and he was a lifelong naturist – he would quietly slip out of his clothes and soak up a few rays. It was then he heard a twig snap. He turned his head and saw – not only a single paparazzo – but a whole camera crew from one of the gutter satellite channels. And that was when St. Nicholas Abbey decided to the only thing to do was to throw the race. For if he won, the image of him – naked as a jaybird and playing volleyball with one of the barn cats – would be flashed around the world. But, on the other hand, if he lost, he would be yesterday’s news. And so, then and there and without telling anyone, he made his decision. But why is it that we humans, who certainly win no beauty prizes when we disrobe, have never ever seen a horse in the altogether? Is it that they are ashamed? It is that they actually look like boiled chickens when their coats are off being cleaned? Or is it that they simply don’t trust us? Horses have been studying people for a good many centuries, and certain episodes are bound to have left a bad taste in their mouths. As I said before, horses are intelligent; they are sensitive. And they are also pragmatists. Long ago they reasoned that perhaps it was better to humour us than it was to end up like just so many faceless farm animals, namely pigs and sheep and cows. But always at the back every horse’s racial memory there are certain historical episodes that illustrated man’s inhumanity to the horse. And I am not talking about the eating of equine flesh in French restaurants, or bull-fights or the genocide of the abattoirs, or even the mass slaughter on the myriad killing fields of war – for horses fully understand the basic cruelty of the human species, and are simply biding their until we finally finish each other off. What I am referring to now can be summed up in two names: Caligula and Catherine the Great. No! No self-respect horse will ever disrobe in front of a human being. It is not as though they look like boiled chickens – for they most certainly do not – they simply know what we are like. And if you don’t know what we are like, why don’t you close down your computer, go out to the barn, and ask the ewe with the red ribbon tied round her neck to remind you what you did to her last night. Does that answer your question?

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