Authors: Jilly Cooper
‘It’s standard practice,’ insisted Rupert. ‘Mares come into season within eight days of foaling.’ Then, at Etta’s look of dismay, ‘What you must realize is that successful sires like Love Rat or Peppy Koala can produce thousands of foals in their lifetime. But the greatest mare, even if she’s fertile and robust, is unlikely to produce more than a dozen foals. Mrs Wilkinson mustn’t waste any time – we’re talking about a serious foal.’ Rupert, who as usual hadn’t eaten since breakfast, was hoovering up mushroom vol au vents. ‘If Mrs Wilkinson went under the hammer at Tattersalls now, she could fetch several million.’
‘We’re not selling her.’ Etta was aghast.
‘Course we’re not, I’m just pointing out how valuable she is.’ Better humour the silly cow. ‘I’ll send the lorry over tomorrow. She’ll see her father, just back from New Zealand and on top form, having covered 120 mares. How’s that for a holiday romance? He’s now rubbing his hooves at the prospect of another full book of mares at Penscombe.’
But Etta was not won over. Valent, meanwhile, gave a shout and punched the air as Searston Rovers scored in the closing seconds. ‘Bluddy marvellous.’
‘Oh Valent, Rupert wants Wilkie to foal at Penscombe.’ Etta was near to tears.
‘It’s sensible, luv,’ said Valent after Rupert explained the procedure. He sympathized with Etta, but the China bloodstock project was too important to risk falling out with Rupert. ‘Joost for a couple of weeks, don’t want to jeopardize anything.’
‘What about Chisolm?’ protested Etta, as on cue the little
white goat trotted in, helped herself to the last vol au vent and settled down on the sofa beside Valent to admire Ryan hugging his victorious team.
‘Wilkie loathes being parted from her,’ added Etta.
‘Wilkie’ll be far too interested in her own foal and should be left to bond with her. Chisolm had better go to kennels,’ said Rupert.
‘That’s ridiculous.’ Etta was losing her temper. ‘I’ve bought all this stuff.’
‘Any self-respecting foal seeing you in that kit would shoot straight back into the womb,’ said Rupert acidly.
‘Any thoughts of a name?’ asked Valent, who’d missed this exchange but sensed tension. ‘You like Shakespeare ones, don’t you, Rupert? If she’s a filly as fast as her mum, you could call her Mistress Quickly.’
‘I like wives better than mistresses,’ said Rupert, who was checking his iPhone. ‘Must get back to Taggie. It’s been madness since I got home from Dubai – I’ve hardly seen her. Thanks for the drink, I’ll send the lorry over tomorrow morning.’
Mrs Wilkinson, however, who had always been a very good listener, had absolutely no intention of going back to Penscombe. Valent, who’d downed a bottle of red to celebrate Ryan’s victory, fell asleep straight away that night. Etta didn’t: fretting about Wilkie being hijacked and, if she were truthful, humiliated by disdainful Rupert, catching her looking so repulsive.
Light was beginning to filter through the curtains when she was roused by frantic bleating. Pulling on a pink silk negligée, yet another present from Valent, she ran barefoot into the garden, through the rainbow sweeps of flowers. Panting to the top of the orchard, she heard deep joyful whickering and there, under the bowed pale-green lichened branches of the oldest pear tree, stood the proudest mother in the world gazing down at a beautiful chestnut foal, with Chisolm bleating and supervising beside her.
Having read that mares must be left alone, Etta retreated, belting back and waking Valent.
‘Quickly, quickly, Wilkie’s had the most gorgeous foal all by herself with no one to help her, and boo sucks to bloody Rupert. Come and have a quick peep.’
As Valent charged downstairs in birthday blue and white striped pyjamas, Etta smiled to see her pile of pregnancy kit still on the kitchen table. She doubted if a charity shop would take the orange overalls.
Chisholm, meanwhile, was back bleating in the doorway.
‘So clever of Wilkie to have a nanny in situ,’ giggled Etta, who was feeling euphorically light-headed.
As she and Valent crept up the dew-drenched hill, they found Mrs Wilkinson licking and nudging the foal. Looking up, she gave another great whicker of joy, metaphorically putting her hoof to her lips, as she caught sight of them.
‘Oh, you little beauty,’ breathed Valent.
‘I wonder what’s happened to the afterbirth,’ whispered Etta.
‘Chisolm probably flogged it to the nearest fox. We had better leave them to bond. I wonder what sex it is? Do you think it should be lying on the wet grass?’
As if listening, the foal opened an eye, leapt to its feet, tottering off drunkenly on long giraffe legs, then scampering back again, butting under Wilkie’s belly, finding the teat and starting to suckle.
‘It’s a colt,’ crowed Valent.
Despite the approach of day and a deafening dawn chorus, a gold sickle moon and a bright silver star were still visible above the trees.
‘The moon stayed out to welcome him. Oh Valent, isn’t he adorable, isn’t Wilkie clever?’
They turned to each other, tears streaming down their faces.
‘Homebred ones are the best,’ said Etta, then: ‘Oh, I love you so much.’
‘We’re too old for babies,’ said Valent, taking Etta’s hand. ‘But this is as good as it gets. I’m sorry I didn’t stand up to Rupert.’
‘I couldn’t either. He’s such a bully. We must stick together. Your first morning, little one,’ called out Etta, as the foal collapsed on the grass again.
Valent wiped his eye with his sleeve. ‘As he’s a colt, let’s call him Master Quickly.’
‘Perfect. Do you think we should ring Rupert?’ asked Etta as they reeled back to the house.
‘No, let’s keep it a secret for a bit.’
Fat chance. The moment the news reached Dora, texting and tweeting to rival any dawn chorus, the world knew.
IT’S A BOY
! shouted the headlines. N
DWARDS ANNOUNCE THE BIRTH OF
‘My adorable foal arrived at 5 a.m. local time and weighed in at 120 lbs,’ wrote Wilkie in her online diary. ‘He is chestnut now but will probably go grey like myself and his sire, drop-dead gorgeous Love Rat Campbell-Black.’
‘You’d think it was a royal birth,’ remarked the syndicate sourly, as the world’s press raced down to photograph dam and colt lying in a huge bed of straw with Priceless, Chisolm and Gwenny perched on Mrs Wilkinson’s back, flanking them as godparents.
Rupert was not amused, particularly when the
, who published Chisolm’s diary, printed a large unflattering picture of a yawning Love Rat with a caption ‘Who’s the Daddy?’
‘You said you were desperate to raise Love Rat’s profile,’ protested Dora.
The first time Rupert visited him at Badger’s Court, Master Quickly pretended to be fast asleep, then leaping to his feet, he snatched off Rupert’s cap and scampered away up the orchard. From the moment he was born, he had attitude.
There was a tradition that every time a boy was born in Willowwood, as part of his christening ceremony, a weeping willow would be planted for him in the churchyard. As Mrs Wilkinson had been such a local heroine, this honour was being bestowed on her son, Master Quickly, by the Lady of the Manor, Ione Travis-Lock. Born Ione Framlingham, she and her sister were the only descendants of Sir Francis Framlingham, who had once owned the village and whose stone effigy lay in the church with a little whippet at his feet.
Ione’s husband Alban, a charming ex-ambassador and reformed alcoholic like Gav Latton, had nobly driven the Willowwood syndicate minibus to the races. As he had been dumped along with other members of the syndicate, it was considered very magnanimous of his wife Ione to plant a willow for Quickly. In fact, the seriously green Ione had only agreed on condition Valent installed solar panelling at Badger’s Court.
‘Hurrah,’ said Dora, who’d set the whole thing up. ‘We can have a big christening party to celebrate.’
‘Not too big,’ pleaded Etta. ‘People can handle not being asked to a small party, but not a great big one.’
She was already tearing her newly streaked hair out over the guest list. Because the Travis-Locks and Niall and Woody were invited, she would have to ask the rest of the disgruntled syndicate, which included Seth Bainton, the egregious,
glamorous, middle-aged actor father of her granddaughter Trixie Macbeth’s baby. Seth’s mistress Corinna was such a famous actress and so self-obsessed, she hadn’t twigged that Seth was the father. The party, if Dora had anything to do with it, would be swarming with press to promote Love Rat as Quickly’s sire and Etta’s son-in-law Alan Macbeth’s biography of Mrs Wilkinson, which had just come out in paperback. And if a party were thrown to help Alan, Martin – Etta’s fundraiser son – would push even harder for Badger’s Court to be opened for one of his charity bashes. Etta hated her family imposing on Valent’s generosity.
Many of the female members of the syndicate had threatened to boycott the party until, learning that Rupert Campbell-Black had been invited, they changed their minds and rushed off to buy new dresses, followed by new coats, in case one got frost or snow in mid-April.
To Gav’s horror, Rupert had summoned him the evening before and ordered him to attend the christening in his place, virtuously claiming that he was taking Taggie away to France for a few days’ break: ‘She’s been looking very tired.’
Then, when Gav looked mutinous: ‘Need you to keep an eye on things. Quickly’s an extremely valuable colt, might easily get loose. I don’t trust that frightful syndicate not to sabotage things. And you’ll get a bloody good lunch.’ Seeing Gav looking even more sullen, he added, ‘Do you good to get your nose out of a book or a horse for an hour and meet a few people. Can’t live like a monk for ever.’
Bastard, thought Gav, behaving as though he was doing me a favour. Parties were torture. In the past, the only way he coped with his shyness and lack of small talk was to arrive three parts cut. Nor did a lovely evening with pink sky along the horizon, pale-green leaves blurring the trees or paths starry with primroses calm or cheer him, as he walked down to the Long Meadow by the lake, which was filled with foals and their mothers.
As he hung over the gate and whistled, his beloved New Year’s Dave bounded out of the herd to talk to him, ready for any amount of patting.
The little colt was such a dream, Gav lived in dread that someone might find out he had been born on New Year’s Eve. He’d managed to keep nympho Celeste at arm’s length, saying he didn’t want to provoke Bethany in the middle of a messy divorce, but he didn’t trust Celeste not to sneak if he showed interest in anyone else.
Dave jerked his head up, bounding away as a voice shouted, ‘Gav!’ It was Rupert’s grandson Young Eddie Alderton, deeply tanned from visiting his parents in Palm Beach. Even jet lag and nights of carousing didn’t dim his golden beauty.
‘What’s up?’ he asked, seeing Gav’s face looking longer than usual.
‘Gotta go to Master Quickly’s christening.’
‘I’ll look after you.’ Eddie pulled the invitation out of his jeans pocket. ‘I’ve been asked to the same bash. I’ll introduce you to Trixie. Are you up to Trix? She is so gorgeous. Etta’s granddaughter, doing her A-levels. You can rabbit on to her about literature. If she wasn’t only seventeen and a teenage mom, I’d be very serious about getting serious.’
‘Helluva. Don’t want to hurt her. Father of the baby screwed her over, but she’s special – and crazy about me.’ Eddie grinned and rolled his cornflower-blue eyes.
Gav liked Eddie, who was arrogant, spoilt, opinionated, identical in looks and as wild and ragingly promiscuous as Rupert had been in his youth. They often fell out when Eddie was too rough on horses, but the boy was fun, and Gav felt warmed by his high spirits.
‘I’m so pooped,’ announced Eddie as they walked back to the yard, ‘I’m going to bed alone for a change … or perhaps not,’ he added as Marketa, the ‘Woluptuous’ Czech stable lass came out of the tack room. ‘But I’ll take you to that party tomorrow. Dora’ll be there, you can drive the Ferrari and all the women’ll think it’s your car. Gramps is right, you need some fun.’
On the morning of the party Dora was in early, arranging a table with posters of Love Rat and Mrs Wilkinson, where Alan could sign copies of his book. Exciting the waiters who were lining up the Bollinger in the marquee, Trixie Macbeth, armed with a large vodka and tonic, strolled up to Dora’s table. Brown cowboy boots enhanced her endless legs, a pale-brown suede dress with a fringed skirt fell to luscious mid-thigh. Shiny dark plaits were kept in place with a scarlet silk bandeau round her forehead.
‘That kit would look ridiculous on anyone else,’ sighed Dora. ‘Red Indian above the knees, cowboy below.’
‘Minnehaha, Laughing Vodka,’ said Trixie, taking a slug. ‘That bandeau’s covering a zit.’
‘The press are bound to mob you, looking so good. Promise to keep saying Quickly’s the son of Love Rat,’ begged Dora, as Trixie glanced idly at the guest list to see if her baby’s father, Seth, was coming.
‘Seth and Corinna never answer,’ said Dora, reading her mind. ‘But as soon as they suss the number of press rolling up, they’ll be down here like a shot. Corinna can smell a photographer a hundred miles away. “I am recognized – therefore I am”.’
‘I’d just like Seth to see how cute Hereward is and how utterly I’m over
‘Hum,’ said Dora.
‘That’s why I’d like Eddie Alderton to be here,’ continued Trixie. ‘Has he answered?’
Dora shook her head, then as an outraged Valent stormed up, she said to him, ‘Doesn’t Trixie look fabulous?’
‘Taken enough bloody time on it,’ snapped Valent. ‘Hereward had Etta up twice in the night; she’s just changed and fed him, and wants to know if she’s dressed him in the right kit.’ Seizing Trixie’s arm, he frogmarched her back into the house. ‘That’s your job. Stop taking the piss. Etta’s really stressed over this party and she needs to get ready.’