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The noonday sun is high and fierce, the air thick with drifting pollen. Inside the stables it’s uncomfortably close. The hum of hay and horse shit is louder than ever. We’re all of us drowsy – the men, the horses. Peering out from under drooping eyelids, we wade through the treacle-coloured light that drips from the rafters. Even the flies are affected. They turn lazy figure 8s above the horses’ backsides. I reach out and snatch one out of the air. It throbs angrily inside my fist. I open my palm and it flies away.
Then the wind changes, and with it everything else.
One by one the horses’ heads rise up, eyes and nostrils dilated. Their necks are straight and taut, all of them pointing the exact same way: towards the house on the hill. They begin to stamp and snort. Some whinny to each other and rise up on their hind legs. Others turn around in their stalls, around and around, looking for some way out. They know what is coming. And by now, so do we.
We open up the main doors just in time to see the car crest the hill. The rattling of its axles on the bumpy road down to the yard causes the horses to kick out at their stalls. The sound is like the fall of a woodsman’s axe. Thock. Thock. Thock.
We send Jacob away to the storeroom at the rear to fetch the master’s saddle. He scurries away without a backwards glance, leaving Aaron and I to choose.
‘The white one?’ ventures Aaron, nodding at the stall nearest the door.
Damn. The white one. I always liked the white one, though I’m not sure I ever realised until now. I try hard not to let it show. ‘Ok, the white one,’ I say, nodding vigorously. Perhaps a little too vigorously, for Aaron’s face stiffens. He catches my eye.
‘Or, you know, one of the others? The brown one?’
‘Which brown one?’ I say, looking around at the stalls. There are at least four different horses that could be described that way.
‘The mare with the white mark right here,’ says Aaron. He gestures at his right buttock, drawing a rough circle in the air above it.
‘Oh, that one.’ Angel is what I’d call her, if we were still in the habit of naming the horses. Though Aaron wasn’t keen, I always did favour names with an ironical twist. Trixie for the carthorse, Hermes for the short-legged shetland, Angel for the wild one with the halo on her arse. Last month she bit my little finger down to the bone when I went to attach the nosebag. The wound throbs with the memory. I clutch it to me. Not a smart move to bite the hand that feeds, especially not in these stables.
Except that, when it comes to it, I find that I like her too. Angel. No, not Angel; the brown one with the white mark on her hind parts. One time she took a dump directly on to Jacob’s head while he was mucking out her stall. We still laugh about that, Aaron and I. Jacob doesn’t, understandably, and that only makes it funnier. Lord knows we could use a laugh round here.
‘What’s so funny?’ says Aaron.
‘Nothing,’ I say, wiping the smile off my face with my hand.
‘So which is it?’
I don’t know what to say.
Aaron is looking at me. I know exactly what he’s thinking; we’ve been doing this together so long. He’s thinking, ‘Don’t make me choose. Not again. Not this time. You bastard. You’re going to make me do it, aren’t you?’
Over his shoulder I see the car pull up in the yard, just as Jacob arrives with the saddle. The engine snorts and grumbles, then dies.
‘The white one,’ I say. Aaron looks relieved. He takes the saddle from Jacob and disappears into the stall nearest the door. Jacob stares after him, his mouth drooping at the corners. He liked the white one too, it seems. Nevermind. It’s done. Spilt milk and all that.
Out in the yard the car sparkles and gleams in the sun. Mr. Gormley, the driver, opens his door and climbs down with long spidery limbs. He dusts off his trousers, lifts the hat from his head – though not on our account. Not hardly. Sweat glistens on his pasty dome, runs in little gullies down the grooves of his face. Grimacing, he pulls a faded hanky from his pocket and wipes himself from brow to chin. The now sweat-dampened hanky returns to the pocket. The hat takes its rightful place on his head. He adjusts it slightly, turning it a little to the right, as if he were screwing it in place. Then he moves towards the rear door. ‘Deep breath,’ I tell Jacob out of the corner of my mouth. The boy takes a generous swallow of air. Mr. Gormley’s fingers close around the handle and the door swings open.
There is nothing behind it. In the bright noonday sun, the aperture presents as solid black. Three blessed seconds pass without event, then it hits us like a wave. The stench. It is thick and sweet, like clotted cream gone wrong. We reel but keep our feet. Jacob gags. I don’t. The horses in the stable erupt in snorts and whinnies. We turn as the white one rears in its stall. ‘Woah! Hey! Shushushush!’ says Aaron. He pivots away from the horse’s flailing forehooves and grabs the halter. Jacob retches a second time and brings the back of his hand to his mouth.
‘You’re standing in a forest on a mountain. Thick carpet of pine needles underfoot. Can you smell them?’
‘Close your eyes.’ Jacob does. He takes a breath.
‘The ocean,’ he says.
‘Whatever works, lad.’
We hear the soughing of oats in the stall by the main door, the splash and gurgle of whiskey as it empties from the bottle. Aaron’s voice whispers encouragement. ‘There you go, that’s it, down the hatch, that’s right.’ The soft pat of his hand on the horse’s neck. He straightens, his head and shoulders rising into view above the stall, his sleeve across his mouth and nose. ‘You all right?’ I mouth at him.
There’s no time for him to answer. A painful creaking in the yard is like a fish hook in my ear; it jerks my attention away.
The car is rocking now from side to side. The wood groans and sighs from the strain. We look on as the car wobbles and lists towards us. We peer into the black void within. Like a kraken surfacing from the depths, an enormous whey-coloured hand emerges and grasps the frame of the door. Then a head the size of a quarter barrel keg comes panting and squinting into the light. Its hair is matted. The bags under its eyes are so large that they resemble overripe fruit. Mr. Gormley rushes to offer his support. The hand detaches from the door frame and grasps him by the elbow. Leaning heavily on the driver, who staggers under his master’s weight, Mr Routledge attempts to alight. With his other hand, he plants the ferrule of his walking stick into the dirt of the yard. His bad leg is splinted and wrapped in a yellow-stained towel. He lowers it gingerly to the earth. Then he stands there, wheezing, shoulders heaving, sweating like a ball of butter as he tries to catch his breath.
Mr. Gormley is plainly struggling. He’s doing his very best, but the weight is too much for him to bear. His knees buckle, first the left and then the right. Mr. Routledge begins to list to one side. Jacob and I rush over to help. But Mr. Gormley is proud. He waves us away with aggressive jerks of his chin, even as his body folds up like a suitcase. ‘I’ve got him,’ he says in a strangulated voice. Jacob muscles him out of the way. At fifteen he is two-thirds as tall as the driver, but easily three times as broad. He takes the weight – with a grunt and a grimace, but he takes it. The coachman sprawls in the dirt, fighting for breath. I take Mr Routledge’s other side. He seems not to register the change, staring straight ahead of him, his eyes like undercooked eggs. He mutters something in a ghost of a whisper. I can’t catch it. I look over at Jacob and he shakes his head, just as Mr. Routledge’s feet start to move. It takes us by surprise. We lurch to the left, but somehow – between Jacob and I and the stick – we manage to keep him upright. Mr. Routledge gives a satisfied grunt. I think I’ve pulled a muscle in my lower back.
The crane is no more than fifty yards away. It takes us the best part of five minutes to reach it. We have to stop three times to rest along the way, and still our knees are screaming by the time we arrive. Mr. Gormley, now recovered, is waiting for us there, beside the dangling harness. He stands sentinel-like, hands clasped behind his back, the nubbin he calls a chin thrust out – though the effect is somewhat spoiled by the little bits of hay in his moustaches.
We bring Mr. Routledge to a halt just in front of him, closer than is strictly necessary. Mr. Gormley’s nose twitches; he can’t help it. His lips shrivel like a chilled nipple, but he holds his position. He snatches up the harness and unbuckles the straps, which are longer than most men are tall. Between the three of us we manage to fasten it around Mr. Routledge, working in silence as he sways and nods. ‘That’s it, yes,’ he croaks as I tighten the final strap. ‘Now hoist me,’ he says. ‘Hoist me up.’
Jacob and I head around to the side of the crane to man the windlass. Mr. Gormley remains by Mr Routledge’s side. Jacob spits in his hands and rubs them together. I rotate my shoulders a few times and crack my neck. I claim the left hand position. Jacob takes the right. Hunkering down low, we grasp the spokes of the wheel. ‘Ready?’ I ask Jacob. He nods, his face set. ‘Ready!’ I shout. Nothing for a beat, and then:
‘Hoist!’ comes the call from Mr Routledge.
The first turn is easy. We take up the slack until the rope grows taut. There’s an audible grunt from Mr. Routledge as the harness rises into his crotch. We pause for a moment as he adjusts his person. The second turn tests our strength. I have to put my shoulder to the wheel to get it to move. It groans as it turns and so do we. Mr. Routledge rises onto his tiptoes. Another turn of the wheel lifts him up into the air, where he spins, globe-like, until Mr. Gormley’s hand stays him. Ten turns later and he’s over Mr. Gormley’s head. ‘That’ll do,’ says the voice from on high. We secure the rope and stand back, bent double, hands on knees, exhausted – I a little more than Jacob, it seems. He stretches and straightens. I ease myself down to the ground.
‘Tell Aaron it’s time,’ I say, flat on my back.
Jacob scampers off, back across the yard to the stables. I watch the clouds pass overhead. Mr Routledge’s shadow fidgets on the ground beside me. It sways in the meagre breeze. I close my eyes. I can hear the rope creaking. Mr Gormley stifles a sneeze. When I open them again, there is Jacob looming over me, dark against the blue of the sky. He holds out his hand and I take it. He pulls me to my feet. There’s the soft sound of hoofbeats now, slow and halting. I look across the yard. There’s Aaron. He has the white one on a short lead. Full cup blinkers. Its gait is loose and uncertain. It staggers once, twice – a little too much medicine, not that it matters really.
The lads from the gluemakers, Richard and Andy Burnham, are reclining on their cart outside the gate. A trail of blue-grey smoke rises from Richard’s pipe. Andy sends a cheery wave our way. I raise a hand and so does Jacob as we take up our positions at the windlass. The soles of Mr. Routledge’s boots skim the white one’s ears, which twitch, as Aaron leads it underneath him.
‘Ready, sir?’ says Mr Gormley, when the horse is in position. Mr Routledge grunts his assent. Jacob is looking up at me now, waiting to see what I do. It’s an innocent, questioning look. I know that if I were to walk away now, he would come with me. But then, who is there for me to follow?
Together we tighten our grip on the wheel and commence to let the rope out.
Charlie Galbraith lives and works in London, but would really rather he didn't. His writing has previously appeared in Structo, 3AM Magazine, Word Riot, and Popshot, among others.