Read Mount! Online

Authors: Jilly Cooper

Mount! (10 page)

‘It was very good, I enjoyed it.’

‘And he’s just shacked up with Tilda the village schoolmistress.’

Gavin shook his head. ‘Just like
The Deserted Village
.’

‘Oh, I love that poem too. “The bashful virgin’s side-long looks of love, The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove”. That sums up Direct Debbie Cunliffe, that old bat over there, who rushes round Willowwood disapproving of everything.’

As a waitress came up with more food, Trixie picked out the paté and the smoked salmon and the vol au vents for Gav. ‘You must be starving. I bet you got up at five. I didn’t know that people who rode, also read. You’re well-rode and well-read. Eddie doesn’t read.’

‘He reads the
Racing Post
.’

‘Only when they write about him. He’s divine but starry, and unlike the stars that appear to twinkle in the sky, the planets remain steady.’ Just for a second Trixie betrayed the hurt she’d suffered. ‘I want a planet. Was your wife nice?’

‘Not a planet.’ Gav was amazed he hadn’t bitten her head off.

‘How do you get over it?’

‘Not sure.’ Gavin had reached out for a vol au vent, when a blond child rushed up, scooping up canapés in both hands.

‘Where are your manners?’ snapped Trixie.

‘Gone on holiday.’ The child stuck a green tongue out at her and ran off.

‘That little toerag is Drummond, Hereward’s first cousin once removed – which is not nearly enough. That’s his awful father Martin who was hassling Granny.’

Valent meanwhile had sought out his wife, who had covered herself in a pashmina, which he promptly pulled off, saying, ‘Lunch is ready. You look so luvely, everyone’s OK.’

People were flowing into the marquee, carrying their glasses, admiring posters of Love Rat and expressing wonder at the pastel miracle Etta had wrought in Valent’s garden in only a year.

‘Needs more colour,’ said Direct Debbie sourly.

‘I wondered if we were ever going to get any lunch – and where’s Rupert?’ said Phoebe, another ex-syndicate member. ‘Shame when you think what fun we all had.’

‘Rather selfish of Etta to close down the syndicate and forget her old friends,’ grumbled Debbie. ‘I suppose she’s so rich now.’

Trixie, who was following them, had drunk a great deal of champagne on top of vodka.

‘How dare you slag off Granny,’ she shouted at Debbie. ‘You’re all bloody greedy. It was Granny who rescued Wilkie and nursed her back from the dead. You made a lot of money while she was racing. When Valent bought her for £600,000 we all cleaned up with £60,000 each. Valent flew up to the National,
gave us a lovely day out and then gave us £5,000 for our shares when Wilkie retired.’ Then, as a furiously mouthing Direct Debbie turned purple: ‘You’re an avaricious old bat.’

‘I will not be talked to like that.’

‘Why don’t you spend some of that money getting another horse? But you’re too bloody mean and lazy, you want everything done for you.’

‘Hold your tongue, young lady,’ cried Tilda, the schoolmistress, furiously. ‘Apologize to Debbie at once.’

‘You can’t boss me about just because you’re shagging my dad,’ yelled Trixie.

The crowd, transfixed with interest, were buckling behind the squawking match. The press had moved in, snapping furiously, holding out tape recorders to catch the expletives, when suddenly everyone was distracted by a dark-green Ferrari storming up the drive. Parking at an insolent angle on the edge of the lawn, a tall, undeniably gorgeous man jumped out. He was wearing a baseball cap, jeans, and a blue fleece with
Rupert Campbell-Black Racing
in emerald-green letters on the back.

‘Rupert!’ cried the ladies, forgetting the squawking match and diving into the bushes, compacts aloft to de-shine noses or fluff up hair, scent rising like incense. ‘He’s come, after all.’

The media were going crazy. ‘Isn’t he awesome,’ said the
Telegraph
.

‘Absolutely awesome,’ cried Trixie, racing over Etta’s spring flowers. Hearing her call out, the man turned towards her, whipping off his baseball cap.

‘Goodness, he’s young-looking,’ said
The Times
in amazement, as next moment, he gathered Trixie into a huge hug, kissing her on and on and on.

‘Little tramp,’ exploded Debbie. ‘Disgraceful. I thought he was supposed to be faithful to his wife.’

‘Hasn’t got a grey hair,’ said the
Daily Mail
in wonder.

‘Hardly surprising,’ giggled Dora. ‘That’s Eddie, Rupert’s grandson.’

‘Look who’s here, Granny,’ said Trixie, leading Eddie up to Etta.

‘I’m so sorry I’m late, Mrs Edwards, I overslept,’ apologized Eddie, wiping off lipstick.

‘I’m going to take Eddie upstairs, to see if Hereward’s awake,’ said Trixie, whisking him into the house.

As she passed the bar she grabbed a bottle of champagne. In the doorway, she and Eddie could be seen locked in another embrace.

Gav felt overwhelmed by jealousy and disappointment. Somehow sensing this, Etta put an arm through his, and when he froze: ‘Please come and have some lunch, you must be starving. I don’t know what’s become of Quickly.’

‘Probably being interviewed by the
Observer
,’ said Gav.

As people swarmed back towards the marquee, Etta thanked God she’d wildly overcatered. But as the waiters and waitresses had abandoned their posts to catch a glimpse of a suspected Rupert, Chisolm, Cadbury and Priceless the greyhound were having their own party, raiding the marquee, attacking the chicken Veronique, Chisolm particularly enjoying the grapes.

Quickly, meanwhile, after his earlier exertions had collapsed under a table laden with luscious puddings, then leaping to his feet, as the guests poured in, sent Pavlovas and chocolate roulades flying. Luckily, as he belted out of the tent in search of Mrs Wilkinson, who was talking to Sky, Gav managed again to catch his lead rope, walking him round and returning him to the orchard with his mother and Chisolm.

A couple of hours later, when tempers had calmed and everyone had drunk and eaten – except Etta, who’d been too busy scurrying – it was noticed that Eddie and Trixie had not reappeared, and a baby could be heard crying from an upstairs room.

Etta was about to belt upstairs when the crying stopped.

‘Leave him,’ ordered Valent. ‘It’s Trixie’s baby, she’s inside the house.’ Then, when Etta looked worried, ‘I’ll go up and check.’

Tiptoeing along the landing, Valent found little Hereward, lying in his cot. Awake but content, he smiled and waved at Valent. In the spare room next door on the sea-blue counterpane of a double bed, their clothes in a jumbled pile on the
floor, lay Trixie and Eddie, naked and asleep, in each other’s arms. Trixie’s body was as white as Eddie’s was brown. Even their beauty didn’t lessen Valent’s rage.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ he roared, then as Eddie opened an eye: ‘Get up now and I hope you wore a sock, lad – and I don’t mean on your foot.’

‘Thank God Rupert never turned up. He’d have been horrified,’ said Etta, as they closed the door on the last guest.

Next day, an ecstatic Dora rushed up to Gav, who was in a hut on wheels so it could be towed around, nicknamed the Love Tower, because staff often sloped off for a quick shag there. Gav, however, was watching the two-year-olds go up the gallops. Dora was brandishing a pile of press cuttings.

‘Just look at these! The
Mail
and the
Sun
have both got hilarious pictures of Quickly and Ione Travis-Lock with mud all over her face, and a lovely picture in the
Telegraph
of you and Trixie and lots of plugs for Love Rat.’

‘I’m busy,’ said Gav.

‘Trixie liked you very much.’

‘Good.’ Then, unable to contain his curiosity: ‘What happened to the baby’s father?’

‘Seth? Serial philanderer, kept by a much older mistress, Corinna Waters. After he dumped her, Etta and Valent took Trixie in, but she still holds a large flicker of a torch for him and he for her. And then she started seeing Young Eddie, who’s not ideal as a stepfather.’

At least ten two-year-olds had galloped past without Gav registering if they had wind problems or were ready to run.

‘She loved talking to you,’ persisted Dora. ‘Why don’t you ask her out?’

‘Bugger off,’ snapped Gav. ‘I’m not into cradle-snatching.’

11

Quickly’s behaviour did not improve, but his looks did as his patchy tufts of chestnut hair fell away to reveal a glossy iron-grey coat and a very fetching ash-blond tail and mane, which was beginning to turn over. Despite his small stature, his legs were long, his roving eyes large and lustrous and his long ears constantly pricked in curiosity. He possessed a terrible nosiness as he endlessly plotted how to get inside the house.

One early October evening, he achieved this by wriggling under the orchard gate, trotting up to the house, slipping in through another side door, over which one of Mrs Wilkinson’s Grand National shoes had been nailed.

Stopping to sniff the row of gumboots and Barbours hanging from the walls, he nudged open the kitchen door. Here he found Etta and Valent enjoying an early dinner and watching
University Challenge
, during which they had gentle rivalry as to who could answer the most questions: Etta, being better on books and music, Valent on history and science. Trixie, better than both of them, had gone out to a party with Young Eddie, leaving her grandmother to babysit Hereward the Awake, as he was known, who had for once fallen asleep upstairs.

Etta and Valent burst out laughing as Quickly edged cautiously into the room towards the table, stretching out his neck to plunge his nose into and sample, first apple crumble and then the remains of sticky toffee pudding, then a tub of vanilla
ice cream, curling his upper lip, then deciding he liked it, returning to the attack. Encouraged that Valent and Etta were now crying with laughter, he edged along the table, before trying a slab of cheddar.

‘Not sure about that,’ said Valent, wiping his eyes as Quickly’s lip curled up again.

‘Watch my glass,’ squeaked Etta. Next moment, Quickly had knocked it over and was greedily licking up sweet Sauterne. He then wandered over to the television, utterly fascinated, nudging Jeremy Paxman with his nose.

Quickly’s co-owner, Rupert, had not really forgiven Mrs Wilkinson for stealing a march or rather February on him. By giving birth in the orchard at Badger’s Court, she had avoided getting covered again by Love Rat at Penscombe. Rupert had seen enough pictures of Quickly in the papers, but beyond despatching Gav, who’d returned with uncharacteristically enthusiastic reports that the colt was thriving, he hadn’t bothered to visit Valent since.

He was soon off to the Far East for big race meetings in Hong Kong and Japan. As he was planning a detour into China, to investigate possible bloodstock deals, he needed Valent’s advice and contacts. Valent had been avid for them to collaborate but seemed, since he married his soppy wife, to have gone off the boil and be taking the project less and less seriously.

Rupert’s suspicions were confirmed, as he walked up Badger’s Court drive, to hear roars of laughter issuing from the kitchen. Going in, he found Etta and Valent in hysterics, obviously plastered, and Quickly transfixed by David Attenborough, interviewing baboons.

‘He found his way in,’ explained Etta as Valent poured Rupert a large glass of red. ‘Would you like some supper?’ she added, getting the remains of a quiche out of the oven.

‘Thanks, I’ve got dinner at home. I haven’t come for long.’

To Etta’s dismay, he had come to try and persuade Valent to join him on his trip to Hong Kong and then on to China.

‘Coolmore, the Irish megaliths,’ he announced, ‘are evidently planning to send mares to China to start up a stud farm.
Godolphin, their great rivals, have already been sending stallions from Dubai. We mustn’t miss the boat. France, New Zealand and Australia are all making overtures. Gav’s got the horses in really good shape. Love Rat’s colt Promiscuous has made a dazzling start at stud. Leading Sire for the year will be announced at the end of December. Both Peppy Koala and Love Rat have a great chance of knocking Valhalla’s star stallion, Roberto’s Revenge, out of contention and the smug smile off Cosmo’s face.’

The steel and passion in Rupert’s usually light, clipped voice betrayed how desperately he wanted the Leading Sire title.

‘How thrilling,’ cried Etta. ‘I’m so pleased Gav’s doing so well. Quickly adores him. We like him too, but he seems so sad and withdrawn.’

‘Been going through a hellish divorce,’ Rupert said, and glanced up at a lovely photograph of Gav and Quickly on the dresser. ‘Bethany, his adulterous bitch of a wife, is taking him to the cleaners.’

Once the divorce was through, Rupert planned to promote Gav and give him a socking great rise, but he was damned if he’d let Bethany take half of it.

‘Oh poor boy,’ sighed Etta. ‘We must ask him to supper. Why’s he so good?’

‘He knows exactly when a horse is ready, he’s in the yard at five in the morning. If the horse kicks over a bucket, he’ll wake and go and fill it. His hands are so gentle, horses must think he’s guiding them with a silk thread.’

Etta so wished Rupert would say something nice about Quickly. And Rupert wished she’d push off so he could put the pressure on Valent to accompany him to China. Having as usual not bothered with lunch, he absentmindedly helped himself to a piece of quiche.

‘He come here often?’ He nodded at Quickly.

‘No, it’s the first time,’ said Valent, as Quickly, bored with baboons and in need of another drink, returned to the table. Then, when Rupert refused to share his second piece of quiche with him, he plunged his teeth into Rupert’s arm, whereupon Rupert punched him hard on the nose.

‘Don’t hurt him!’ cried an appalled Etta.

‘Got to stand up to them,’ Rupert said sharply, as Quickly, rolling his watering eyes, attempted another dive at the quiche, ‘or he’ll get impossibly spoilt. No – bugger
off
!’ Rupert punched Quickly again.

‘Don’t, please!’ Etta jumped up and grabbed Quickly’s head collar. ‘There, poor little boy, I’ll take him out.’

They were distracted by a wail, as Hereward, awake again, appeared in the doorway, then gave a scream of joy. Half tottering, half crawling, he crossed the room and pulled himself up on Quickly’s leg, as turning his head, the colt nudged the child fondly.

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