Authors: Jilly Cooper
‘We deserve a drink too,’ said Celeste, getting out her bottle of brandy as they returned to the office.
‘There’s probably some Coke in the fridge,’ said Gav, taking the bottle to fill up a mug for her.
Then he nearly dropped the bottle, as rollicking over the midnight air came the bells of All Saints Church, Penscombe, ringing in the New Year. Looking out of the cobweb-strewn window, he could see fireworks exploding.
‘Oh fuck, fuck, fuck,’ groaned Gav. The worst had happened.
‘What’s the matter? It’s midnight now, so you can kiss me properly. Happy New Year.’
‘Don’t you realize, that little colt’s a year old now.’
‘Happy New Yearling,’ giggled Celeste.
‘Don’t be fucking stupid. Have you forgotten one of the silliest rules of racing? All horses have their birthday on January the first. This means that whatever day they are born on, the year before, they’re officially one on Jan One. So even though that foal’s hardly an hour old, as a racehorse he’s now one. Next January the first, when he’s only a yearling, he’ll be officially regarded as a two-year-old, expected to go into training and run in two-year-old races. Then on the
January the first, he’ll be not two, but officially three and expected to compete with three-year-olds in classics like the Guineas and the Derby. His career is fucked.’
‘Happy New Yearling,’ repeated Celeste, taking a slug of brandy out of the bottle. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Chuck away that form.’ Scrumpling it up, Gavin dropped it into the bin and hid it in a pile of bloodstained towels. ‘We’ve got to fill in another form, to say it was born after midnight.’ Then, when Celeste looked alarmed: ‘I’ll take the rap. You’ve just got to promise to keep your trap shut and no one will know.’
‘What happens if you’re found out?’
‘Rupert would get a hefty fine, might even lose his licence. That’s why he must never know, because any races the colt wins, posing as a two-year-old, would be disqualified.’
‘Do you think it’s safe?’ Celeste took another slug.
They looked into the box next door, where Cordelia was gazing down so proudly at the little colt who’d collapsed back on the straw.
‘Look at him, he deserves a future.’
Gav seized a new form, changing the date of birth to 1 January and recording that the waters broke at 12.16 and the foal was born at 12.20. By the time he’d finished filling it in, both he and Celeste were sweating more than the mare had done earlier.
‘Are you sure we won’t get into trouble? Rupert can’t blame us if she was born too early.’
‘We couldn’t have prevented it,’ Gav said. ‘Rupert’s been good to me, saved my career. I’m not going to fuck up the prospects of one of the best homebreds and his beloved Love Rat’s foal. I’d better go and ring him.’
Glad of an excuse to leave his in-laws’ party across the valley, Rupert came straight over. Even asleep in the straw with his coat ruffled and still a little damp, Rupert was ecstatic to recognize a ravishing colt. Taking the foaling record, however, and knowing how fatal would be the alternative, he raised an eyebrow.
‘Sure it was January the first?’
‘Quite sure – even Mrs Wilkinson’s book couldn’t keep me awake. I crashed out briefly, then suddenly, thank God, I was woken by the church bells, checked on the mares, saw Cordelia was sweating and pawing her belly. Then her waters broke, followed by the quickest birth ever.’
For a second, as he and Rupert looked at each other, Gav held his gaze.
‘Good, I’ll take your word for it.’ Rupert looked at the two glasses.
‘I was about to have a Coke. I wouldn’t have been able to fill in that form with a steady hand in the old days.’
‘Good, well done, well done, Celeste.’
‘She was terrific,’ said Gav. ‘First foaling, kept her cool.’
‘Good girl,’ said Rupert. ‘Sure it was January the first, not December?’
‘Of course.’ Celeste’s knowing green eyes were the picture of honesty. ‘I didn’t know it mattered until Gav explained about
Jan first being their birthday. He came out so easily, we were so relieved everything went OK.’
‘Better call him New Year’s Dave,’ said Rupert. He looked at his watch. ‘The two o’clock shift’ll be on in a minute. You’d better both come and have a drink – or a cup of coffee,’ he added to Gav, who was reluctant to leave the colt.
Celeste, however, was dying to see inside Rupert’s house. He looked so lush in that dinner suit, and he might even open a bottle of bubbly.
‘We’d love to, just get my bag.’ She scuttled back into the office.
Rupert was euphoric. Not least that Gav hadn’t cracked under pressure and had a drink.
‘Christmas must be hell for you,’ he said. ‘But well done.’ He then added that Gav could start riding work, which meant exercising the horses, next week.
The evening had been such a strain, Gav clenched his jaw not to break down.
‘Thanks, he’s a lovely colt.’
‘Jan One also marks the start of the new Leading Sire season for Europe and GB. I’m going to need you to rake in the winners.’
Rupert had been desperate to get Gav right, not just to train and ride the horses but also to see that no star slipped through the net at the sales. It also gave Rupert the added satisfaction of rescuing him and profiting from his genius, when Cosmo Rannaldini and Isa Lovell, for whom Gav had worked previously, had so brutally discarded and demoralized him.
Seeing them deep in conversation, Celeste plunged her hand into the bin, scrabbling round to retrieve the bloodstained scrumpled-up form headed:
Penscombe Stud, Record of Foaling
, and thrust it into her frilly gold bra.
She could hear voices outside; the relief watch had arrived and New Year’s Dave was no doubt being shown off. With any luck Gavin might want to take her bra off later, reflected Celeste, and transferred the
Record of Foaling
instead to the inside pocket of her bag. One day it might come in useful.
An irritating, often bewildering aspect of Rupert’s character was the way he tolerated people like porn star Cindy Bolton because she was so dreadful, she made him laugh. On the other hand, he didn’t like Etta, who he thought was a drip – this because she had so disapproved of his training methods that when her now-husband Valent had transferred Mrs Wilkinson to Penscombe before the Grand National, she had boycotted the race.
Nor could he understand why Valent had dumped Bonny, his ravishingly pretty actress girlfriend, for such a dog as Etta; pity she couldn’t be dumped like the rest of the Willowwood syndicate. However, love me, love my dog. Rupert realized that Valent was bats about Etta and if he wanted control of Mrs Wilkinson and her impending foal and any deal in China, he had better win her over and take her a present.
After New Year’s Dave’s unexpectedly early arrival, Rupert was determined to take no chances with Mrs Wilkinson’s foal. But he got caught up with flying eight horses out to the Meydan carnival in Dubai in search of decent prize money. All the world’s star jockeys were out there, and Rupert was delighted when his stable jockey, Lionel ‘Lion’ O’Connor, fought off many other overseas riders to win seven races.
Back in England, Rupert set out on the day after Valentine’s Day, which marked the beginning of the covering season, to visit Etta in Willowwood.
Despite being paid £5,000 each by Valent for their individual shares, Mrs Wilkinson’s syndicate had not been pleased to be discarded, particularly on learning that Rupert, who had the Midas touch, was involved. When she wasn’t scuttling along with her granddaughter, Trixie’s new baby, in his pram down Willowwood High Street to avoid them, Etta had been kept very busy making sure Valent’s first birthday since their marriage, which fell on Valentine’s Day, had been particularly special and excitedly getting ready for Mrs Wilkinson’s foal.
For this she had ensured she had brought in suitable mineral and vegetable supplements. Plenty of colostrum to strengthen the foal’s immunity was stored in the fridge. She had mugged up on the care of the udder. On the kitchen table she had amassed a basic kit of tail bandages and bin liners for the afterbirth, disposable gloves, antiseptics for the navel dressing, enemas for the foal, two buckets in different shades of purple for water and for feed, and a set of bright-orange over-trousers and over-shirt topped by a matching baseball cap to keep her hair out of the way. These Etta couldn’t resist trying on. As the mirror in Valent’s kitchen had been hung for a man and he was a good eight inches taller than her, she clambered on to the dark-red sofa to have a look. The orange clashed hideously with her pink face, but everyone would be looking at the foal.
‘Aren’t they awful?’ she sighed to Valent, who replied: ‘I’ve never understood roober fetishes.’ Etta was so pretty, but even she couldn’t redeem those overalls.
He was watching Searston Rovers, his son Ryan’s football team, putting up a great fight against Millwall. He and Ryan would talk after the game. One of the lovely things about Etta was that she’d embraced his family and they all adored her.
She’d also transformed his kitchen which, because his former girlfriend Bonny had hardly ever eaten, had been like a laboratory. Now there were bowls of hyacinths and narcissi everywhere, every ledge was covered with birthday cards, and on the walls were framed blow-ups of all their grandchildren, including one of Trixie’s new baby, great footballing moments and of Valent, who was now wearing a new birthday shirt in pink and grey stripes from Harvie & Hudson.
All the windows were open on a wonderfully mild evening. Across the lawn spread a rainbow sweep of mauve crocuses, primroses, grape hyacinths, pink polyanthus and sky-blue scillas. A thrush was serenading them, shaking the pale-pink petals from an almond tree as it repeated its exquisite trill.
Etta was again poring over
Equine Stud Management
‘Large studs have oxygen available, obstetrical rope, sedatives and antibiotics,’ she read in a worried voice. ‘Do you think we should get some? And oh Valent, it says unless veterinary attendance is guaranteed within fifteen minutes, such specialist equipment can save life.’ Then she giggled. ‘Within five minutes of the birth, the foal must have his first drink. Do you think he’d like a gin and tonic?’
‘You need a first drink,’ said Valent.
‘Before that, I must get out of these hideous garments,’ said Etta, then gasped in dismay for sauntering up the drive, tanned dark brown and white blond from the Dubai sun, came Rupert Campbell-Black.
It had been so mild, Wilkie and Chisolm were out in the orchard. Chisolm, always the opportunist, scampered bleating up to the fence to greet Rupert. Mrs Wilkinson, not a fan, bustled off to the far end of the orchard.
‘Rupert’s here!’ cried Etta, tearing off the baseball cap in horror.
‘Sorry, luv, I forgot to tell you,’ said Valent.
And Etta was horned by dilemma. She longed to belt upstairs, tear off her awful orange overalls, tone down her flushed face, comb her ruffled hair and slap on some scent, but knowing dearest Valent was a bit uptight about Rupert, she didn’t want to unnerve him. She had never actually spoken to Rupert before, and hadn’t expected him to be quite so disconcertingly shy-making.
When she stammeringly asked him what he’d like to drink, Rupert said he’d like first to check on Mrs Wilkinson. Valent could take him, thought Etta hopefully, while she de-repulsived herself, but Valent was punching the air because Searston Rovers had just scored. So she had to squelch round the orchard after Wilkie, who, displaying aesthetic sensibility, didn’t like
the orange overalls either, and cantered about refusing to be caught.
‘She had such a wonderful signing session at Waterstones, Cheltenham, this afternoon,’ babbled Etta. ‘Over five hundred copies of my son-in-law’s book sold – it’s probably gone to her head.’
‘Shouldn’t be jazzing around at this late stage,’ said Rupert disapprovingly, as Mrs Wilkinson trundled past them again.
When Etta finally cornered her, she rolled her eyes and trembled ostentatiously as Rupert examined her.
‘Her udders are swollen, I don’t think it’ll be long. They often want to be alone and retire to a quiet corner, like she’s doing now.’
‘That is because she doesn’t like you,’ Etta just managed to stop herself saying.
Back in the kitchen, Rupert rendered Etta speechless by presenting her with a beautiful pale blue, silver-threaded scarf from Dubai, which actually Taggie had bought in New Look. He then accepted a large mahogany whisky and a plateful of mushroom vol au vents straight from the Aga, which Etta had been warming up as a starter to her and Valent’s supper.
‘With you in a minute, game’s nearly finished,’ called out Valent, thinking it would be a treat for Etta to have Rupert to herself.
Rupert then dropped the bombshell that it was high time Mrs Wilkinson moved into a foaling box at Penscombe so she could settle in.
‘She’s due in another fortnight. She’ll be surrounded by experts. CCTV’ll tell us exactly when she’s about to foal. With such a valuable foal, you don’t want anything to go wrong. And your security’s non-existent here – I walked straight in.’
Etta forbore to explain that Valent had abandoned his electric gates so Chisolm and Priceless the greyhound could push their way back in after escaping on jaunts.
‘Any member of the public has access to her along the footpath.’ Rupert’s light, clipped voice was relentless.
‘Wilkie loves that,’ insisted Etta.
‘Well, it’s lunatic – easily get stolen. She’ll be safe at Penscombe,
then eight days after the birth, Love Rat can cover her again.’
‘No!’ gasped a horrified Etta, who had cystitis from a surfeit of Valent; then wincing further, as she remembered how she’d been ripped apart giving birth to vast twins, Martin and Carrie, more than forty years ago, with Sampson reclaiming his marital rights three weeks later.
‘She can’t have sex so soon, she’s too little. We must wait a few weeks so she’s healed up.’ She looked frantically across at Valent, but Ryan’s match had gone into injury time.
‘Coom on lads, coom on lads.’