Authors: Jilly Cooper
‘Not nearly enuff. We’re happy to give you a home, Trix, but not if you’re going to constantly abuse your grandmother’s hopelessly kind heart.’
Trixie found Etta with her dress over her head trying not to get make-up on it or dislodge her Carmen rollers.
‘So sorry to desert you. Sorry, Granny.’
Hereward sat cooing in his chair, wearing little jeans, trainers and a T-shirt saying
Aren’t you glad you backed me.
He smiled in delight to see his mother and waved a football rattle given him by Valent.
‘He looks perfect, and that is a fuck-off dress,’ noted Trixie, pulling down Etta’s frock and zipping up the back.
But an alarmed Etta was looking in the mirror. The dress was a deep hyacinth blue, perfect with her big blue eyes and apple blossom complexion, but she’d only tried it on in a hurry, over tracksuit bottoms when she hadn’t been wearing a bra, and hadn’t realized how short or low-cut or tight it was.
‘It’s the age of the cleave,’ said Trixie.
‘Mine’s too wrinkly.’
‘No, it isn’t. Dress it up with Valent’s sapphires.’ Trixie put the necklace on Etta and did up the clasp. ‘I’d do anything to have a cleavage, I’d flaunt it all the time.’
Over at Penscombe, Eddie didn’t show up and had switched off his mobile, so a reluctant Gav set off alone driving the twenty miles to Willowwood in his battered, filthy Golf – hardly a pussy
magnet. Fractionally cheered up by the beauty of the day, with bluebells flecking the wild garlic and blackthorn foaming in white waves along the hedgerows, he was interested to drive past the yard of Marius Oakridge, who had trained Mrs Wilkinson.
Dropping down, he passed the heraldic gates of Badger’s Court, a ravishing Georgian house surrounded by parkland, with the orchard in bloom, goal-posts on the lawn for grandchildren, and people scurrying in and out of a huge marquee. Gav started to shake. ‘Shyness is a lack of interest in people,’ Bethany used to chide him. ‘Look into people’s eyes. Ask them where they live, what do they do, have they come far?’ Methinks, it is no journey.
Willowwood was such a lovely village, with willows, their gold stems hidden by feathery green leaves and yellow catkins, hurtling down to the River Fleet. He passed the Wilkinson Arms sporting Mrs Wilkinson’s sweet face on its inn sign and a statue of a handsome Cavalier, Sir Francis Framlingham, who’d planted the first willows. To the right was the church with its soaring spire and gold weathercock, and – oh God! – a churchyard swarming with people.
Everyone had agreed it was big-hearted of Ione Travis-Lock, fearsome termagent, who roared round Willowwood bellowing at people for not recycling or turning off lights, to plant a willow for Master Quickly.
They felt it was even more gracious of Niall Forbes, the ex-vicar of Willowwood and now a canon, who had blessed Mrs Wilkinson with such success before every race, to return and christen Master Quickly, when he and his boyfriend, tree surgeon Woody Adams, had also been dumped as syndicate members.
Pink-faced, boyish Niall could only feel relief that he no longer had to preach sermons under the beady eye of Ione Travis-Lock. He now felt free to amend the words of the prayer book for this sweet little foal and beamed at Etta as she led Master Quickly forward, to a flickering of cameras.
Niall then exhorted Quickly to renounce the devil and the sinful lusts of the flesh.
‘Can’t see that happening,’ Trixie whispered to Dora.
‘Not when he goes to stud,’ whispered back Dora. ‘Did you ever see so much press?’
‘Grant that the old Adam in this colt may be buried and that the new horse be raised in him … ouch!’ cried Niall, as Quickly deliberately trod on his toe. ‘Grant that he may have power and strength to have victory.’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ muttered Valent, thinking how gorgeous Etta looked.
‘And to triumph against the world, the flesh and the devil.’
Quickly, however, was bored, and having tried to drink the holy water in which Niall was dowsing him, started to eat his gold embroidered scarf.
‘That’s enough, Horse,’ ordered Ione Travis-Lock. Seizing the willow sapling by its slender trunk, she planted it in the large hole, dug and well watered for her by her gardener Mr Pocock, another dumped member of the syndicate. Then she picked up a spade to fill in the earth. Quickly, alas, had been taught by Chisolm to butt. Spying Ione’s large tweed bottom, he gave it a sharp nip before shoving her into the hole.
‘Quickly!’ cried Etta in horror, as everyone else tried not to laugh. Click, click, click went the cameras.
‘You little monster,’ bellowed Ione. Struggling out, plastered in mud like a jump jockey, she brandished her spade at him, whereupon Quickly spooked and took off round the churchyard, narrowly missing screaming onlookers and tombstones, little feet hardly touching turf, soft and springy from being fertilized by the dead beneath.
‘Christ, he’s fast,’ said Niall’s tree surgeon, Woody, in wonder. ‘Won’t have any difficulty winning the Derby.’
‘But not for us,’ said the syndicate sourly.
‘He’s going to trip over his lead rope,’ wailed Etta in anguish, as Quickly only just missed the rusty iron spiked fence surrounding a flat, mossy tombstone.
Next moment, Gav, who’d been lurking behind a plaguestone, dived forward and grabbed Quickly’s lead rope, and after being dragged a few feet, tugged the foal to a halt, stroking his neck, talking to him quietly, circling him until he calmed down.
Then Mrs Wilkinson trundled up with an ‘I’ve been searching for you all day’ look on her face, whickering and nuzzling Quickly, who proceeded to have a good suck as Gav took hold of Mrs Wilkinson.
‘Isn’t he very small,’ said Direct Debbie, the ultra-tactless wife of Major Cunliffe, the syndicate’s bank manager treasurer.
‘Rupert won’t allow work riders to be more than ten stone,’ said Dora.
‘No, the foal,’ said Debbie scornfully.
‘First foals are often small,’ Dora countered.
Seeing Quickly was safely moored by rather an attractive man, and that Ione had finished filling in earth round the willow tree, Niall addressed the embattled syndicate.
‘I’d like to thank Mrs Travis-Lock so much for planting a willow for Master Quickly and to end with a special prayer, asking all of you to pray for your neighbours. Even those,’ he added, ‘you are fighting with, because like you, that neighbour is one of God’s children.’
‘Very debatable,’ said Ione’s gardener, glaring at Major Cunliffe, who’d failed to include breeding rights in the contract.
‘Very,’ agreed Alan Macbeth, Trixie’s father and Etta’s son-in-law. Then, as Quickly lashed out with both back legs at the Major, ‘That colt’s clearly a child of Satan.’
Quickly then turned back to his mother for another suck and Valent said, ‘I think we all need a drink too.’
Wild garlic, warmed by the sun and trampled on by the crowds, gave off a heady smell, which made everyone hungry for lunch.
‘I’ll walk the horses and Chisolm back to Badger’s Court,’ said Gav. Anything to delay tackling that bunfight.
‘Oh, would you?’ said Etta. ‘It was a bit of a hassle getting them into the bus, and you seem to have a magical effect on Quickly.’
‘Lucky Quickly,’ said Trixie in admiration. ‘That guy’s well fit.’
‘Yeah, he is,’ said Dora as Gav set off. ‘Been screwed up by an awful marriage. Please look after him at lunch.’
‘What’s his name?’
Trixie laughed. ‘Small Latton and less Geek.’
By the time Gav reached Badger’s Court, without incident except for Chisolm nicking a bunch of grapes from the village shop, a roaring party was under way.
Having tarted up in the portaloo in anticipation of Rupert, the ladies of Willowwood had joined their other halves on the lawn, and were getting stuck into the Bollinger.
‘Well done, Gav,’ said Dora, whisking Quickly and Mrs Wilkinson off to meet the press.
New blood, thought the ladies, eyeing up Gav. Tugging her skirt down and her top up, Etta rushed over to welcome him.
‘Thank you so much for sorting out Quickly – such a showoff. You deserve an enormous drink.’
‘I don’t drink,’ said Gav curtly.
‘Oh poor you.’ There was a long, long pause. Then Etta stammered: ‘Quickly does love an audience, just like his mother.’
Seeing the sweetness in her face, Gav volunteered that Quickly was a beautiful colt.
‘Soon get rid of that baby fur. Got a terrific walk like that greyhound,’ he noted, as Priceless sauntered past and lifted his leg on the generator.
‘I hope that won’t fuse all the caterers’ equipment,’ giggled Etta. ‘I do want Rupert to like Quickly. He is coming, isn’t he?’ she asked anxiously.
‘’Fraid not, can’t make it, had to go abroad.’ Gav paused, then added untruthfully, ‘Sent his apologies.’
‘Oh dear.’ The delight faded from Etta’s face. ‘Everyone’s so longing to meet him.’ Then as a ravishingly pretty, slender girl with her dark hair in two long plaits, drifted over, Etta told her, ‘Gavin works for Rupert, who sadly can’t make it.’
So this is Eddie’s girlfriend. She’s heartbreaking, thought Gav – if I had any heart left to break.
‘Don’t tell anyone he’s not coming,’ advised Trixie. ‘They’ll soon be too hammered to mind.’ And, turning to Gav, ‘You’re just as good-looking and much younger.’
A touch of colour stole into Gav’s cheeks as she handed him a glass of champagne and, when he shook his head, drained it herself before summoning a waitress to bring a refill for herself and a glass of orange juice for Gav. As Etta rushed off to look after everyone Trixie asked him: ‘What d’you do for Rupert?’
‘Go to the sales, sort out tricky horses.’
‘You’ll have your work cut out with Quickly. He bites.’
‘Like my husband Chippy Hackee,’ said Gav idly.
I love that book,’ cried Trixie. ‘Singing in high squirrel voices, like all men out on the toot. But I don’t like Rupert, even though I know he’s your boss. I looked after a horse called Furious when he won the Gold Cup, but when he and Mrs Wilkinson were moved to Penscombe for the National, Rupert let Wilkie’s stable lad move in and look after her, but he wouldn’t let a stupid schoolgirl like me near the place.’
Gav said nothing; his silences made Trixie gabble. He was very handsome, she thought. If only his beautiful grey eyes with their thick black lashes would meet hers occasionally. Then he suddenly said, ‘Rupert’s been good to me. He looks after his own. His jockeys jump through fire for him.’
Trixie shrugged. ‘Probably the preferable alternative.’ Then, ultra-casual, ‘Is Eddie coming?’
‘Said he was. Promised to give me a lift, but didn’t show. Probably jet-lagged.’
‘Did he have a good time in America?’ Trixie smiled at the press who were snapping away.
Gav, turning his back on them, said, ‘He did, but he’s decided to do another stint at Penscombe.’
‘Oh really?’ The tension seeped out of Trixie. ‘Do you think he’ll crack jump racing?’
‘Not sure if he’s got the patience or the discipline.’
‘“Ride ten thousand days and nights, Till old age has snow white hairs on thee” – hmm, it’s not quite Eddie.’ Trixie grabbed another glass from a passing waitress then, taking a whole plate of canapés from another, she led Gavin to a bench under a cherry tree that was idly raining down pink blossom.
‘Look at Wilkie,’ she added fondly as Mrs Wilkinson wandered around, touchingly pleased to see her old syndicate friends. ‘She’s such a hostess, like Granny,’ as Etta raced around, seeing glasses were full, offering food, gathering up anyone who looked lonely. As they watched, a tall, good-looking but self-important man bore down on her and, not seeing Gav and Trixie under the cherry tree, drew her in their direction.
‘That’s Granny’s ghastly son Martin,’ whispered Trixie. ‘He’s a fundraiser, always on the scrounge. No charity in his heart.’
‘Now you’ve opened Badger’s Court to the masses, Mother, we must earmark some dates for charity functions,’ Martin began hectoring her. ‘And make sure you introduce me to Rupert C-B the minute he arrives. I’ve got a proposal he’ll find hard to resist.’ Then, taking in Etta’s cleavage: ‘Not sure about that dress, Mother – it’s much too short and low-cut. You’re seventy now, try and act your age.’
‘Bastard,’ snapped Trixie as a crestfallen Etta, tugging down and pulling up simultaneously, rushed off to welcome some new arrivals.
‘“The truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent” – except it’s not the truth. Granny looks gorgeous. “A robin redbreast in a cage puts all Heaven in a rage”,’ she went on.
‘“A dog starved at his master’s gate predicts the ruin of the state”,’ quoted back Gav.
‘“A horse misused upon the road calls to Heaven for human blood”,’ ended Trixie in delight. ‘That is such a good poem. I’m doing Blake for A-levels. He ought to be running the RSPCA
– wouldn’t squander fortunes attacking hunting and the Grand National.’
‘Blake probably wouldn’t have been very keen on hunting. What other stuff are you doing?’
Kubla Khan, The Prelude, The Waste Land.
God, I adore this girl, thought Gavin in bewilderment. Everything turns upwards, her eyelashes, her little nose, her dark slanting eyes, her mouth when she smiles, her nipples lifting the soft brown suede. If she were lying in bed beside me, just talking and reading, holding hands, no pressure, I’m sure in time I’d be able to get it up. God, she was sweet. Look at the freckles on her nose and the little bitten nails.
‘What happens after A-levels?’ he asked.
‘I’d like to go to Oxford, but I’ve got a baby of six months – called Hereward. I ought to go and check him,’ she said reluctantly. ‘Would you like to see him?’ She flashed a white blob on her telephone.
‘Sweet. Why didn’t you have him christened today?’
‘It’s rather complicated. His father’s an actor, who’s known locally as Mr Bulging Crotchester.’
Unlike me, thought Gavin wearily.
‘And I don’t want to upstage Quickly.’ As she reached out and brushed cherry blossom from Gav’s hair, a 100 volts went through him. ‘My father’s a good writer, he’s done really well with a book about Mrs Wilkinson.’