Authors: Kate Thompson
Versions of this song, some under the title ‘Allan Water’, date back as far as the late seventeenth century. It was collected by Francis James Child in the 1890s and published in volume 4 of
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
. I first heard it sung by Phil Callery in Kinvara a few years ago. He has recorded it, as ‘Annan Waters’, on his CD
From the Edges of Memory
, which was released in 1999. It is his version of the song that is used in the book.
Kate Thompson, 2004
ICHAEL WAS IN NO
doubt that the mare would jump the gate. Even though he had turned her head away from it, he could tell that she was still thinking about it. She fretted and snatched at the bit, her hocks under her, her front feet barely making contact with the wet ground. Beside her the big chestnut cob stood like a rock, wasting no energy. Michael tugged at his bridle, trying to wake him up and prepare him for what he was required to do.
The mare plunged forward, wrenching Michael’s shoulder and almost tearing the cob’s reins out of his hand. He pulled her up. She was getting into a stew, defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. He slackened the reins and spoke softly. The mare relaxed, but her ears still twitched. She hadn’t forgotten the gate.
Michael hadn’t either. He looked back at it.
There was no way of opening it without the right tools. Wire had been wrapped around the posts at both ends and stapled to the wood. It no longer functioned as a gate, but as part of a boundary, separating the land his parents were renting from the next farm. But there had been a time, not all that long ago perhaps, when the green lane he could see on the other side of it had been a thoroughfare. It was overgrown now with low branches and reaching brambles, and it was impossible for Michael to see how far it went before it petered out, or met a metalled road. He wanted to find out.
‘Take her out for a hack today,’ Jean had said. ‘Sweeten her up a bit.’
After yesterday. For two hours he had ridden her in the jumps paddock beneath his mother’s expert eye. Circling and circling and circling; winding the mare down, trying to get her steady and concentrated. Every time she came within reach of a fence she gathered herself, her head went up, she began to track sideways. And every time, Jean had said the same thing.
‘Circle her again. Nice and tight. Outside leg.’
The mare was brilliant; a jumping genius. She never stopped, and never touched a pole unless it was the rider’s fault. But she was giddy as a gadfly; perpetually on the boil. She was already a Grade A jumping pony when they bought her, but she was cheap all the same. She had changed hands some time before, and her new rider had been too inexperienced to handle a pony with her temperament. She had been over-jumped and under-schooled. When Jean and Frank bought her six months ago, she was completely unmanageable. It was Michael’s job to sort her out.
She was getting there. In a few days’ time they would be taking her to a show for the first time since they got her. That was why they had worked her so intensively the day before. That was why Jean had sent her out with Michael for a quiet hack.
‘You can take Bandit with you,’ she had said. ‘If he doesn’t steady her, nothing will.’
Michael looked at him, standing patiently beside the fidgeting mare, resting a hind leg. If ever a horse was misnamed, it was him. There was no more gentlemanly horse in the yard. From time to time Michael rode him in the Grade D and E classes at the shows. He jumped perfectly every time; never put a foot wrong. But his size was against him. He was a heavy cob, not far from a draught horse, and he didn’t have the speed and agility that was needed to win a jump-off. Out hunting he was like a tank; anything he couldn’t get over, he went through. He would have made a brilliant horse for a keen amateur rider, but his type was out of fashion. He’d been in the string for a year, and despite their best efforts they couldn’t find a buyer for him.
Michael wouldn’t have considered jumping the gate leading any other horse. It was a seriously risky undertaking. But Bandit had brains and he used them. If any horse would do it, he would. Michael glanced back at it again. If they didn’t go over the gate, he would have to go back to the yard and hack out along the main road. It was the one thing his parents hadn’t taken into account when they rented the farm at the beginning of the year. In Yorkshire, where they had lived before, there was a maze of small country lanes around their yard, ideal for riding out. But although there were small roads here, there was no way of getting to them without going a good distance along the trunk road.
It didn’t seem to bother Jean and Frank. Horses had broken most of the bones in their bodies. Horses had broken their hearts as well, when their youngest daughter had been dragged to her death by a bolting pony. Only their nerves remained intact. They both seemed immune to danger. Michael had never seen either of them afraid of any horse in the yard, and there had been some pretty bad ones, even within his memory. When it came to the roads, their attitudes corresponded to their general philosophy. If a horse was afraid of traffic, what better way to cure him than to take him into the thick of it?
Michael didn’t share their views. Hunting or jumping, he was as courageous as either of them, but he’d had some close calls out exercising on the roads, and he saw no sense in looking for trouble. That was why he was there, measuring up the gate yet again; longing to explore the peaceful lane beyond it.
He made up his mind; backtracked a short distance, tightened his girth, gave Bandit a few digs with his toe in the hope of waking him up. It made no perceptible difference, but the pony picked up on the tension and was already bouncing on the spot when Michael turned her. She reared and leaped forward into a bucketing canter. There was a momentary resistance from the cob, and then he was alongside. Two strides before the jump, Michael sat deep into the saddle and pushed the mare on. She stood way off the gate; took a great lion’s leap at it; cleared it by yards. The gelding was in the air beside her, taking the five bars in his usual, economical style.
They were over.
The green track stretched away ahead of them, and the little mare reached for it like a thoroughbred on the gallops. Michael wrestled with her and, when all else failed, turned her head into the hedgerow. She fought him, trying to keep racing on crabwise, but she couldn’t keep it up. She had to stop.
It wasn’t until then that a tide of emotions, entirely unexpected, rolled in upon Michael. There was relief, at having got over the gate so easily, but even stronger than that was a sense of elation, as though that jump had freed him from a lot more than the traffic on the A72. There had been something illicit—illegal even—about the decision; the leap; the secrecy of it all. Between these high hedges he was invisible; a free and independent spirit in a world of his own, new and unexplored.
He praised the mare and tugged at her ear. He flattered the cob as well, liking him suddenly; sorry for him because his plain looks concealed such an honest and generous heart.
T WAS CLEAR THAT THE
track hadn’t been used for years. Beyond the first bend it narrowed even further. Ash and hawthorn reached in from either side and made an irregular arch, beneath which Michael had to duck from time to time. At the most overgrown parts, even the horses had to drop their heads and push through, ears first. Brambles and blackthorn snagged Michael’s jacket and leggings. He had to keep his arm up to shield his face, and could hardly see where he was going. But the mare seemed to be as thrilled by the adventure as he was and pushed impetuously on. Bandit fell in behind her, taking the slaps from the whipping-back branches with no complaint beyond the occasional long-suffering sigh.
Michael was afraid that the path would end too soon, and his freedom along with it. For a stretch it became even more choked, with tall, dark weeds underfoot and every kind of thorny shrub competing for the scant light. Then, without warning, the way ahead was clear. There was a gateway into a field on the right-hand side, and tractor tyres had formed deep ruts right up to it from the other, unknown end of the track. Scraps of black silage wrapping clung to the roughly trimmed hedges. A few muddy cattle stood in a corner of the field and watched the horses with mild curiosity.
Between the tyre tracks, the grass was short and the ground was firm. The mare was already skittering sideways, itching to get up some speed. Michael shortened his reins and let her canter on, but cautiously; steadily. The cob fell in alongside, foot perfect despite being half in and half out of the muddy ruts.
The lane swung this way and that, almost animate in its twisting and turning and tempting. Through gaps in the bushes, Michael could see farmland on either side, tired grassland mostly, waiting for the spring. There were sheep with new lambs in one of the meadows. They scattered in surprise, making the mare shy, then bleated after them reproachfully.
The grassy lane invited them on. The pony would have lobbed along for ever, enjoying the novelty, if Michael hadn’t noticed that she was breaking into a sweat and remembered that she was supposed to be having an easy day. He pulled her up.
She was reluctant to stop, but as soon as she did, she relaxed, as though she had let off her surplus steam and was grateful for the rare opportunity to walk. Michael kicked his feet out of their stirrups and let his long legs dangle. His feet almost reached the mare’s knees. It embarrassed him that he was so tall, but still not out of ponies yet.
The track wandered on between the fields. Michael found a contentment he hadn’t known for years, and as though to confirm him in it, the sun found a gap in the clouds and spilled through, marbling the ground with the shadows of the bare branches. After another half a mile or so they came to a narrow, tarmacked road, but even that wasn’t the end of the path. On the opposite side it ran on again and, as though the pony was as curious about it as her rider, she looked neither right nor left along the road but crossed straight over.
More hedges, more gates, more twists and turns. The sun went in again and a few drops of rain splashed off Michael’s oilskin. It didn’t matter. He had learned not to care about rain. His parents rarely took account of the weather. Like traffic, it was one of the irritations of the business, not to be allowed to interfere with routine.
‘If God had intended us to stay out of the rain, why did He make us waterproof?’
Michael had heard Frank say it far too often. Even thinking about it threatened to put him in a foul mood. He looked at his watch. He had already been out for more than an hour, and it would take him as long to get back. He must have covered three or four miles already.
He decided to give it another fifteen minutes, but it didn’t take that long. As they rounded a long, sweeping curve Michael saw the wet grey gleam of another metalled road, bordered on its far side by a stone wall. When they reached it, the mare hesitated, as though bewildered by the sudden return to the present day. She didn’t stop, though, but turned to her right and set out purposefully, her feet clacking on the tarmac.