“Stupid, meddling brother,” I mutter under my breath as I storm upstairs, my initial excitement gradually giving way to anger. On a Sunday morning, five minutes before I have to leave for a Pony Club rally, the last thing I need is the disappearance of my riding hat. Actually, let me rephrase that: the theft of my riding hat.
“Natalie!” I hear Mum shout from downstairs. “Where are you? We have to leave now, and Seamus still has a two-foot-long grass stain on his shoulder.” My Mum’s lovely, but she has two intensely annoying habits: stating the obvious and fussing.
Seamus is grey, completely adorable, and the best horse I have ever owned, apart from his tendency to get muddy at important times. We’ve formed a strong bond, although I’ve only had him for a couple of months. Well, when I say ‘strong bond’, I mean he hasn’t tried to kick me for a while.
I barge into Jack’s room without knocking, ignoring the one supreme rule he has drummed into me all my life. He’s lying flat on his bed, texting someone with one hand and idly flicking the bedside light on and off with the other. “This had better be urgent,” he mutters, not looking up from his phone. “I’ve told you about knocking loads of times.” Meet my brother, the charmer.
“I do live here, you know,” I retort. “I have as much right to be in here as you.”
He half sits up and tosses his phone to the end of his bed. “Whatever. What do you want then?”
I narrow my eyes threateningly. “My hat,” I reply, trying to be as intimidating as possible. It’s quite hard, since he’s about six foot two, and taller than me even when he’s sitting down.
“Is that all? That’s not urgent. Being on fire qualifies as urgent. You losing your stuff doesn’t.”
“I know you’ve got it,” I carry on, ignoring his comment. He smirks in reply.
Jack looks increasingly amused as I tear around the room, rummaging through everything my hands touch. I even lift our elderly tabby cat Delilah out of her favourite spot in his pile of dirty laundry (who would choose to sit there?) and poke through the clothes with my foot. My hat eventually makes its appearance under his bed and, throwing a pen in the direction of his head, I leave the room. I’ll retaliate properly later.
I quickly tie Seamus to the ring on the horse box and wave to my friends, Lisa and Milly, across the field. Lisa is competing on her horse Sovereign, Seamus’ field mate, and Milly has just come along to offer her support.
Lisa and Milly are both my best friends, but they couldn’t be more different. Lisa looks so cute, with her wide grey eyes, short blonde hair and big smile, and she’s a lot of fun to be with. She’s a total daredevil and absolutely fearless. Milly, on the other hand, while she’s really sweet to everyone, is meek and very quiet. She never gets into arguments or anything. Nobody would notice her if she wasn’t five foot eleven.
They weave their way towards me across the field. I greet them both, then look at Lisa properly for the first time and grin in amusement. “Your jodhpurs are grey,” I giggle, pointing at her stone-coloured legs and looking down at my own – surprisingly immaculate – white jodhpurs.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Lisa says, rolling her eyes. “You aren’t the first one to point it out. I put them in the washing machine with my black jacket and – well, they changed colour. I tried all this fabric whitening stuff but it just blocked the machine up. My parents had a right moan about it.”
Milly and I laugh at this classic Lisa tale of blunders and comical parental trouble. Stories like this are just the pure encapsulation of her life.
We sit on the ramp of the horsebox and chat for a bit. Then I hear an announcement from the commentator’s box (also known as an old horsebox rigged up with an annoyingly unreliable microphone) on the other side of the field. I can’t hear anything except a general murmur mixed in with a bit of feedback, but I see a few people who I met at Pony Club camp a couple of months ago heading towards the jumping ring, so I guess it’s time for our age group to start.
Lisa obviously grasps the idea too and pulls her riding hat on over her tousled hair. “Time to go?” she asks, fumbling with the chin strap and pulling a piece of straw out of her fringe.
I nod. “Good luck.”
I swing myself on to Seamus’ back as Lisa and Milly hurry away across the field, flicking his mane so that it lies on the right side. I was going to plait it, but he kept trying to eat the plaiting bands, so I decided he knew best and gave up. Lisa’s just heading into the ring and Sovereign is positively gleaming in the sun. No doubt Lisa spent about five minutes brushing her this morning. Dark ponies are so low maintenance. Dirt never shows up on them.
Lisa and Sovereign are both powerful and headstrong, so they make a great team. What they lack in grace, they make up for in sheer force. Lisa finishes with just eight faults, moving her to second place. I have time to canter Seamus over a couple more practice jumps before I’m called into the ring. I look at every jump, taking note of any tight corners or places to save time. I pat Seamus reassuringly on the neck and squeeze him into a trot.
The whole course is pretty easy, smaller than the practice course I set up in our field at home. Despite a sticky moment by the fifth fence when Seamus decides that the jump wings must be about to eat him, I finish clear in one minute and twenty seconds. Whether it’s the best round or not, I have no idea.
I leave the ring and hang around for a while. I can’t see Mum or Lisa or Milly. I start by watching the final few rounds, but eventually slip off into my own thoughts. There’s a deliciously warm breeze and a sweet smell of horse and leather. Seamus shifts his weight under me and rests a hind leg. I’m almost about to drift off to sleep, when I hear them announcing the results for my age group. This isn’t a big rally, so the results aren’t really major issues for anyone. Only the people around the ring listen. Everybody else perches on their car bonnets with their friends, eating, or chatting, or grooming their horses and warming up for the next round.
In third place is a girl called Katie McDonald, a tall girl with an elegant chestnut horse, and a boy called Henry takes second place with his short-but-speedy tricolour pony. When the instructor announces first place, I start a little at the sound of my own name, wondering, like an idiot, if I know any Pony Club members, in my age group, called Natalie...
I sit for a few more seconds before I realise what she is saying. Gathering up Seamus’s reins quickly, making him toss his head, we trot into the ring. I collect my rosette and follow the others in a lap of honour, where Seamus promptly overtakes the other horses, putting in a few playful bucks for good measure. He is enjoying every minute of this and is on such a high after the rally that we can hardly get him into the trailer. It takes three people, a bucket of feed, Lisa’s leftover apple core and a lot of shoving.
I fix my royal blue rosette proudly on my pin board when I arrive home. My room’s great – it’s quite big, and it’s got a sloping ceiling because it’s set so high up in the house. Framed posters and photos are scattered around, and I’ve got a string of fairy lights under the window. I suddenly notice how dark my room is. It’s only early evening, but the approaching storm clouds make it much darker than it should be now in late May. I decide that I ought to retrieve Seamus’s grooming kit from the yard before the rain arrives. I left it there this morning, but Mum insists that I keep it at home. I don’t know why. Our village isn’t exactly packed full of thieves, hungry for stolen horse paraphernalia which, in my case, is encrusted with mud and horsehair.
I leave the house, not bothering to mention that I’m going out. The yard is close; I’ll be back in about two minutes. It’s even darker now and freezing cold. I pull my jacket around me, for all the good it will do. Not for the first time, I’m glad I live practically next door to the yard. You walk, either through two fields or up the road, into a tiny car park, and then you’re there. Lisa isn’t so lucky. She lives about thirty minutes away, so her mum has to drive her here.
It starts to rain just as I reach the car park. I run through the hay barn, across the yard and into the stable block, waiting for the worst to pass. The honey-coloured buildings are in a U-shape: two stable blocks opposite each other, with a hay barn on the third side. There isn’t much here, just a hosepipe and a metal rail where we tie the horses up. There’s a tiny hay loft above one of the stable blocks, reached by a flight of half-eroded stone stairs. Our yard is small, old and invariably hidden under a mess of straw and general horsey clutter, but I love being here.
I wander up and down the row of stables, feeding Candy, Ebony and Oliver a mint each. An indignant whinny from across the yard indicates that another horse –who reveals herself to be Minnie when her delicate brown head appears over one of the doors – is unwilling to be excluded from this unexpected feast. Seamus is in his field, so the other four empty stables mean that Sovereign, Funny, Celt and Jerry must be out in their fields too. Poor things, they’ll be soaked.
After five minutes, the rain seems to be getting heavier, so I decide I might as well get wet. I dart across the yard, into the other stable block and grab Seamus’s blue grooming box from the windowsill. As I scurry back across the yard, eyes squinted against the driving rain, I hear a banging sound from above my head. The door to the hay loft has blown open and is hitting the wall with every gust of wind. I set the grooming box down by the wall, out of the rain, and pick my way up the stairs. I’ve never been inside the hayloft before. I don’t even know if I’m allowed to. I curiously poke my head around the door and stifle a scream.