I’ve promised my kitchen crockery, or rather my dead mother-in-law’s kitchen crockery, for the coronation party. As usual with community events, awkwardness niggles at me. It’s not that people can’t be trusted with plates, bowls, teacups and saucers, but the village has centrifugal force. Anything loaned to the church fete or the boy scouts has a way of travelling to far-flung cottages and bungalows. Several weeks later I stand on doorsteps and am told, ‘Oh, sorry, Mrs Davidson. I hadn’t realised it was yours.’
‘Well, it was my mother-in-law’s,’ say I, trying to make a point about ownership but only sounding apologetic.
I go to the post-office for stamps. Stuck to the door is a poster showing cakes and jellies, crowns and ribbons, all jumping up and down. I don’t look at it in case someone notices and asks another favour.
The postmistress says, ‘Ah, Mrs Davidson. We were wondering if you could take Billy in for a while? Until he’s sold.’
‘I’ve come for some stamps,’ I say, with a prickling sense of failure hobbled to noblesse oblige.
A day later, Billy, piebald and shaggy, stands in the stable yard. My two bay dressage horses lift their heads over their doors and stare. Billy has been trained to pull a milk float and wait at people’s front gates, and now he relaxes a back leg and nods off. I stroke his thick-coated shoulder and tell myself not to feel put upon. A horse is a horse, the milkman died suddenly from a cardiac arrest, and Billy might be missing him. What’s more I have a yard with a spare loose-box, though none of it feels like mine. Everything belongs to the house my husband has inherited from his parents.
I lead Billy into the loose-box. He tugs hay from a net and I listen to his rhythmic chomps and soft churn of saliva. A horse eating is always like balm. I’ve told Mike, my husband, that a sales notice for Billy will go in the local paper next week.
‘There won’t be any time to run up bills,’ I said.
Two years of marriage yet it still seizes me that he pays for everything.
‘Stop worrying,’ Mike says, as if I haven’t adapted to married life fast enough.
The large house is full of rooms and corners that don’t welcome me.
Next to the yard is a spare field and I lead Billy into it. It has a view across more fields. Billy looks at the grassy horizon as if seeing far-off plains.
I know that horses trained to pull carts and carriages must learn your voice; it is how they receive commands.
‘A penny for your thoughts,’ I say.
He bends his head to the grass.
Billy is so easy to manage – never skittish, nor needing to learn complicated steps. A few days later, in the field, I tell him, ‘I’d buy you if I had the money.’
It’s a relief to say it out loud. I don’t have money even though the village sees me as the lady of the manor and implies I have everything.
Billy is gazing far away again.
The voice seems to come from his throat. His mouth hasn’t moved.
I’m steady with children. And good in traffic.
The voice is deep and rolling. His lips are closed.
I’ve spent too long on my own, with Mike at work all day and only horses for company. Even so I ask out loud, ‘But can you do paces?’
I’m a horse.
I pat him and walk away, a bit shaky.
Later, going to the field to bring him in, I hear the voice calling.
You’ll need a notebook for remembering who’s asked for what, and a bag for the money.
I look at him but he’s motionless, gazing into the distance again.
I put a different advert in the paper. When the children start coming they stroke Billy. ‘He’s so warm,’ say the girls and boys, fingertips buried in his coat. The girls kiss his nose and he stands looking patient and noble. I have a growing feeling he knows exactly what he’s doing.
The parents trust my reputation as a horsewoman. One boy brings back a camp-bed I’d lent to the scouts.
‘We’ll have to go to the coronation party,’ says Mike.
His parents would have gone, of course.
Mike will need to make a speech. I tell Billy that I’m not looking forward to the attention, to being judged whether I’m a suitable wife for Mike and inhabitant of the village.
I like an outing, he says.
When the day comes I saddle him up and put bunting round his neck. Mike walks beside us to the village green.
A woman from the party committee says, ‘Not on one of you show horses, Mrs Davidson? For the new Queen?’
The sarcasm is as clear as the glass tumblers lined up on a table, waiting to be filled with lemonade.
‘Naturally,’ I tell her, ‘I thought about it. But Billy is calmer.’
A group of children runs screaming past us.
‘Well, yes,’ she says. ‘Of course.’
She walks off and Mike whispers up to me, ‘She’s always been a so-and-so.’
By the afternoon’s end all the home-made food has been eaten and the drinks – soft and alcoholic – have been drunk. Mike has made his speech about the importance of tradition and identity.
In the bright sunshine I’ve left Billy grazing under the shade of a tree. A few women are putting the crockery into boxes to be taken away for washing up. One of them comes up to me.
‘I don’t know if I’ve eaten too much jelly,’ she says, ‘but I heard a voice telling me all these plates and bowls and everything must go back to you. Is it all yours? It’s very generous of you to lend so much.’
I smile and say, ‘Yes, it’s mine.’
Mike tells me he’s going to help fold up tables and he will follow Billy and me later.
I get on Billy and we walk home.