Authors: Jilly Cooper
Brute Barraclough was a rackety local racehorse trainer who enjoyed a lot of extra-marital sex. Rupert sighed. The trouble was that Gav was so bloody good. A beautiful rider with exquisite hands who could sort out and relax the most difficult horses, he knew exactly when they were ready for a race, and was a genius at spotting potential, advising Rupert which yearlings to keep. He was also invaluable where the sales were concerned, when Rupert needed help looking at some 3,000 horses a year.
Unlike most of his staff who either worked in the stud or the yard, resulting in great rivalry between the two, Gav was at ease in both. Even the trickiest stallions and most nervous foaling mares liked and trusted him. Terribly shy, he communicated with horses and was so abrupt with humans, he had been nicknamed Mr Lean and Moody. Yet he had such a spare, hard body, such a beautiful, haunted face beneath a mop of thick black curls, there wasn’t a single stable lass or visiting lady breeder who didn’t long to replace the feckless, constantly unfaithful Bethany.
‘A fellow damn’d in a fair wife,’ reflected Rupert. He wished he could discuss the matter with Billy, who had had drink problems himself, and who had been a huge fan of Gav’s.
Rupert found Gav passed out over his desk, where he’d been drawing up plans to send Rupert’s stallions abroad to cover
mares in the Southern Hemisphere. He didn’t look beautiful now: pale skin threaded with red veins, bloodshot eyes puffy, reeking of drink, an empty bottle of Bell’s in the wastepaper-basket.
Shaking him till he woke up, Rupert said: ‘You’ve just lost us seventy-five grand, you little fucker. You’ve got two alternatives: you’re fired or you go into rehab for three months.’
Still in the kitchen, Taggie wondered whether to ring Rupert. She’d loathed last night’s row. She knew how bereft her husband was without Billy and wished she could comfort him. She’d ticked him off for chewing out Billy’s wife Janey yesterday. But Janey, who had also inveigled Taggie into secretly paying a lot towards the funeral and doing most of the catering, had always demoralized her. She too dreaded Janey moving back into Lime Tree Cottage and dropping in all the time.
Taggie had just finished feeding the dogs, who were back panting in their kitchen baskets, except for Forester, a gorgeous brindle rescue greyhound, her first, very own dog since Gertrude the mongrel. Forester now lay upside down on the dilapidated olive-green kitchen sofa, stretching out a paw to draw attention to himself every time she passed.
It was the perceived wisdom that because she had never been able to give birth herself, Taggie’s one delight was to look after other people’s children. As an indication of this, Rupert’s daughters Perdita and Tabitha and Taggie’s sister Caitlin all seemed to be having blips in their marriages, which necessitated dumping their offspring, dogs, even nannies, ‘to help you out’, so they could slope off and spend ‘us time’ with respective husbands.
The house was very big but it seemed overcrowded with Young Eddie, Rupert’s grandson, and his wild young friends, and Old Eddie and his carers, who invaded the kitchen stuffing their faces on Taggie’s wonderful cooking, and going on about ‘making a difference’. Taggie wished she were better at saying ‘no’.
Outside in the dusk in the cool of the evening, she could see the foals, who’d been lying out in the heat earlier with only
their bottle-brush tails twitching, now frenziedly romping round on long stick legs. Taggie adored the foals and loathed it when, all polished and plumped up, they were sent off to the sales. Rupert had never shed a tear over a horse, although he did dote on Love Rat and Safety Car, who was now sticking his great white face in at the kitchen window for an apple.
Hoping it would cheer Rupert up, Taggie had roasted the tenderest piece of beef, with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, homemade horseradish sauce, runner beans, and apple charlotte for pudding.
‘That smells good, I’m starving,’ said a drooling Treasure, Old Eddie’s current carer, who Rupert claimed had all to be over eighty and eighteen stone, to deter his aged father from jumping on them.
Young Eddie had already ransacked the Aga and, living on protein to keep to a racing weight, had hacked off great slices of beef. Thank goodness Taggie had already secreted a large plate of everything in a second oven for Rupert.
Having bawled out Gav, Rupert looked at his watch. He knew he ought to go in for supper and make it up with Taggie, but he got caught up in affairs in the yard. Having checked on his favourite brood mare, My Child Cordelia, who’d won The Oaks five years ago and who was also due to produce a foal by Love Rat, but in January, he went back to his office to watch another race at Woodbine.
Rupert had recently come across an utterly brilliant saying by Havelock Ellis, that ‘What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.’
One nuisance recently had been the incessant wet weather, which had meant that horses, who prefer quick ground, hadn’t run at their best, or not at all. Another nuisance was Young Eddie, his grandson. Having been a successful flat jockey in America, Eddie had grown too heavy and come over to England to try his luck over jumps. The fact had to be faced: he wasn’t good enough, his forte being split-second timing and the ability to ride a finish needed on the flat – like driving a Ferrari rather than the four-wheel-drive of jump racing. The opposite of
Gavin Latton, who settled and relaxed whatever he was riding, Eddie over-egged horses and was screwing up too many of Rupert’s. Irresistible to most girls, Eddie had, however, grounded himself by acquiring an extremely pretty girlfriend, Etta Bancroft’s granddaughter, Trixie, who was about to have Seth Bainton’s baby. Rupert very much doubted if Eddie was stepfather any more than jump-jockey potential. Teenaged Trixie, who planned to go to Oxford, also seemed far too intellectual for him.
Old Eddie, Rupert’s father, was another nuisance. He was getting more and more senile, walking starkers into a stallion parade last year and cantering along beside his beloved Love Rat, whom he insisted on visiting every day, accompanied by one of his aggravating carers.
Having watched yet another race, Rupert then got caught up in the difficult birth of a very large, late foal. Finally, going back to the house to make it up with Taggie, he found curling roast beef in the oven, and Taggie fast asleep but still dressed on their bed. Even when he pulled off her clothes and admired her beautiful body, she didn’t stir. Putting a duvet over her, vowing to pay more attention to his marriage, Rupert returned to the stud office and settled down to working out which horses to run at Royal Ascot in order to make the most prize money to bump up Love Rat and Peppy Koala’s earnings.
Finding a bottle of water in Gavin’s drawer he took a swig and, encountering neat vodka, spat it out. Gavin would have to be sorted.
Six months later, Gavin Latton celebrated (perhaps the wrong word) six months without a drink. Aware if he lapsed that Rupert, who’d paid for his three months in rehab, wouldn’t let him back on a horse, which was where his genius lay, he had opted to work over Christmas and on New Year’s Eve, when Team Campbell-Black were all getting hammered at the Dog and Trumpet down the road.
There should have been two of them on duty, but ‘Woluptuous, woluble’ Marketa from the Czech Republic, who couldn’t say her ‘vs’, hadn’t showed up. Gavin was relieved. Apart from a distant din of parties, the stud was quiet. No foals were expected. It was just a question of touring the boxes, filling up knocked-over water buckets, adjusting rugs and checking on one-eared Safety Car, who insisted on sleeping out in the fields, wrapped in his six sheep friends, with only a three-sided shed for cover. Safety Car whickered, nudged Gav in the belly and accepted a carrot, but the sleeping sheep didn’t stir.
Gavin looked up at the winter stars, a glittering zoo overhead. There was Lepus the Hare lurking out of the way of Orion’s Dogs, not to mention Taurus the Bull and Monoceros the Unicorn: constellations he’d taught himself during so many sleepless nights or when he had ridden out before the sun rose. He could see the russet glow of Rutminster and what, he wondered, would the New Year bring? He must accept that his
marriage was over. Early on, Bethany had mocked him because desire had made him come too quickly. Later, drink, to blot out the pain of her infidelity, had rendered him impotent – mocked too by the plunging, potent stallions around him and the easy promiscuity of the stable lasses in the yard with their iron thighs and their thrusting movements.
‘Why don’t you go to a sex therapist?’ Bethany taunted him. ‘Or thera-pissed in your case.’ She wasn’t even satisfied when he stopped drinking. ‘At least you were fun when you were drunk.’
Ironically, even if it didn’t tempt Bethany, giving up the booze had given Gav back his looks. His thick dark hair was clean and glossy, his slate-grey eyes no longer puffy, though heavily shadowed, his eyeballs white, his olive skin clear, his stomach flat.
Now back in the stud office, he was surrounded by black leather head collars, grooming kits, first aid kits, Christmas cards and fridges full of colostrum: frozen mares’ milk to build up a newborn foal’s immunity. Reluctantly, because there was work to be done, he didn’t pick up
, the story of Mrs Wilkinson, by Etta’s son-in-law Alan Macbeth. The book was touching and very funny, especially the bits about the goat Chisolm, and had become a massive bestseller. Half the yard had given it to each other for Christmas.
Instead Gavin turned back to a pile of requests from breeders, avid – particularly if they were women – to bring their mares to Rupert’s stallions. His job was to check if the mares were good enough. Here was a chestnut who’d won three Group Two races and the Irish Oaks. Love Rat loved chestnuts, so a tick for her.
Gavin knew that Rupert was looking forward to the imminent birth of two foals: the first Mrs Wilkinson’s, the second to his favourite brood mare, My Child Cordelia, another chestnut who’d produced winner after winner. Both foals were likely to be future stars and boost Love Rat’s earnings and his popularity.
‘Coo-ee, coo-ee,’ cried a voice. Fuck it, it was Celeste, the stud nympho, hardly covered by a gold tunic, showing off a ravine of cleavage, beech-leaf red mane snaking nearly below the
groin-level skirt, green eyes slightly glazed, but avid for plunder.
Oh Christ, thought Gavin as, tottering on seven-inch heels, she fell deliberately into his arms.
‘Marketa got hammered at lunchtime and carried on drinking. She’s out of it, so I offered to take her slot. Sorry I’m late.’
As she gave him a long wet kiss on the mouth, her tongue probing and exploring, she tasted of drink. Gavin recoiled in horror.
‘Stop being such a virgin,’ she chided. ‘I’ve brought some booze,’ she produced a bottle of brandy out of her bag, ‘to cheer you up.’
‘You know I don’t drink and I’m married,’ Gav tried to joke.
‘No point in being faithful when your slag of a wife had the gall to come into the pub with that vile Brute Barraclough. Don’t get what she sees in him when you’re so fit.’
‘A bloody good fuck, probably. No, I
want a drink. I’d better check the horses.’
‘Kiss me first.’ Celeste wound a hand round his neck. In those heels she was the same height as him. He felt her breasts squirming against him as she whispered, ‘There’s an empty box next door.’
She was very pretty. Gavin felt a flicker of lust but was not prepared to risk the humiliation of not getting it up. As he kissed her back, she was encouraged. If she couldn’t manage to pull Rupert and only occasionally Young Eddie, whose girlfriend had just had someone else’s baby, Mr Lean and Moody would do nicely, and it would give her a buzz to beat every other stable lass to getting him into his bed.
‘Stop it,’ he told her, removing a hand that was creeping inside his jeans. ‘We’re working.’
Setting out on his rounds of mares in foal, he was amazed to find Cordelia, who wasn’t due for another month, sweating up, pacing her box, looking at her belly and scraping her bed of straw. Next moment there was a giant splash as her waters broke.
‘Christ, she’s foaling – come quickly!’ Gavin shouted to Celeste.
‘Shall I ring Rupert, or the Dog and Trumpet?’ bleated Celeste in terror.
‘Too late, got to pitch in.’
It must have been the quickest birth in history. Cordelia hardly had time to push with her powerful abdominal muscles before a very small foal, feet first, its hooves under its nose, emerged into the world. After a few minutes Cordelia struggled to her feet, whickering with joy, and a moment later, the afterbirth followed. Gavin told Celeste to put it in a bucket and weigh it.
‘I think that’s everything out, beautiful little thing,’ he added in delight, ‘and, bloody marvellous, it’s a colt.’
Cordelia bent her head to examine a foal much darker than herself with a white star on his forehead and one white sock.
‘Oh how sweet,’ sighed Celeste, despite having blood all over her gold silk tunic.
After they had washed down mare and foal, both were installed in a huge bed of straw piled up high round the side of the box. Whickering with love and pride, Cordelia was licking the foal, who was sticking out his tongue, making sucking noises, and trying to clamber to his feet.
Then, while Celeste gave the mare a drink of water and a warm wet mash and the foal an enema to get rid of any harmful substances, Gav in the office next door filled in the
Record of Foaling
form. This was admittedly much easier now he didn’t drink, as he stated the time the waters had broken, the name of the sire, Love Rat, and the dam, My Child Cordelia, and the colour of the foal.
Any unusual behaviour in foaling? No. Presentation of foal? Normal. Time waters broke? 10.54. Time of foaling? 10.58. That was incredibly quick, reflected Gav. Time mare stood up? 11.10. Was mare quiet to foal and quiet with foal? ‘Yes, yes, the little darling,’ Gav wrote in joyfully.
As the foal struggled to his feet, found the nipple and began to suckle, dirty, bloodstained, triumphant, Gav and Celeste looked on and joyfully hugged each other.