Sunday, 1 May 2011

24. A Familiar Stranger

‘…come on, come on! The lesson started five minutes ago! Just get on and sort your stirrups once you’re in the school!’

David rolled his eyes. Unusually for Izzy, she’d arrived late to the stables and Abigail was running around the yard like a headless chicken in response. He held Callisto while the girl got on, apologising profusely, and waved them off half a minute later when she clicked to her mount and trotted off to the school, Abigail following on, grumbling to herself.

With the yard clear of kids and flustered yard managers, David started on his duties. Tamarind and Kestral both needed their stables mucked out and he’d been putting it off all morning. Finally resigned to the fact that if he didn’t do it, no one else would, he collected the equipment from the tackroom and peered into Kestral’s box.

At close on four months old, Axel was getting big and a lot bolder, though thankfully he hadn’t inherited his sire’s lack of decorum when turned loose.

‘Good girl Kes, come on then, let’s get that stable cleared eh?’
Clipping the leadrope onto her headcollar, he led her out into the yard, her glossy chestnut coat gleaming in the mid morning sun. He gave her a pat and tied her up, leaving Axel to snuffle around the yard in search of dropped polo mints left by the kids.

He was just about to get started when he heard a quiet cough from behind him. He wheeled around.

‘Hello.’ said the stranger. ‘I have been told to come and speak to Abigail. Do you know where she is?’
David nodded. ‘She’s taking a lesson at the moment and it’s running late so she won’t be free for another hour at least. Is there anything I can do?’
The man shook his head and spoke, his heavily accented voice flowing over the vowels like honey.
‘No, I must speak to her directly, I will wait.’
David paused for a moment. ‘Tell you what, do you want a cup of tea or something while you wait for her? It’s no trouble.’

Again, the man shook his head. ‘No, it is ok, I will wait.’ And with that, he turned on his heels and left the yard.
‘Suit yourself’ David muttered, and flicked a large pile of soiled bedding into the wheelbarrow. Ten minutes later, the box was clean and tidy and Kestral and Axel were ready to go back inside. Tamarind was up next. David smiled as he tied the stallion up where moments before, Kestral had been standing. He was being remarkably calm today, not so much as a bite or grumpy face.
He finished Tam’s box almost quarter of an hour later after discovering that it wasn’t quite as clean as he’d thought it was. He was just about to step outside and bring Tam back inside when he was greeted, once again, by the strange man from earlier.

‘Is Abigail finished yet? I must speak to her’

David shook his head and propped the brush back up against the wall. ‘No, look I’ve told you before, she’s busy at the moment. If you want to book a lesson or something then I can do that for you. If you’d just let me…’
‘No.’ The man cut him off mid sentence. ‘It is to her that I must speak to. No one else.’ David shrugged. ‘Alright then, but she’ll be at least another..’ he glanced at his watch before continuing ‘half an hour, give or take. You can wait in the office if you like?’ The stranger shook his head and headed towards the car park again, though this time there was a small smile on his face. ‘Nice horse.’ He nodded towards Tamarind and then he was gone.

David sighed exasperatedly. He just couldn’t win!
After checking that the other stables on the yard were clean, he headed off to the little feedroom to get Tam and Kes their lunch. She was given a small bucket of mare and foal mix every morning as a little extra to keep her and Axel in good condition. Technically Tamarind didn’t really need anything but he worked himself up over not getting fed when his neighbour was so it was a bribe more than anything else. He tipped the fragrant mixture into the big red bucket in their box and moved on to Tam’s stable, armed with a small amount of pony nuts and chaff. He was just about to open the door when he sighted a familiar shape coming towards him from the other side of the yard.

Oh for god’s sake, not again!

‘Look, I’ve told you before! Abigail isn’t here yet, she’s…oh. er…hi Abigail…what happened to Izzy?’

The yard manager stepped forward with a slight grin forming on her face. ‘Oh she’s fine, I told her to stick Cally out in the field after she’d got off and untacked. Anyway, could you go and get Jaconelli in for me please?’

‘Er…yeah, ok. Do you want him tacked up?’

‘What? Oh, yes please, that would be brilliant thanks. Now, where were we?” she asked the tall man who shrugged at her. ‘Ah yes, I remember now, if you’ll come into the office with me we can get things sorted out…’

David walked to Jac’s field with an increasingly puzzled expression on his face. Just who was this guy?
A few minutes later, he eventually caught the stallion, who was hiding at the very back of the field; a trick, which David was sure had been taught to him by a certain Lusitano…
He tied the luckless horse to the wall and quickly groomed and tacked him up, finishing just as Abigail and her unknown guest stepped outside, The man’s face lit up as soon as he saw Jaconelli and the stallion pricked his ears and whinnied shrilly - a sound which sent goosebumps down David’s spine.

‘Abigail? I don’t mean to be rude but er…who is this guy?’
Chuckling to herself, Abigail produced a slightly crumpled looking envelope from her pocket and handed it to him. ‘This should explain everything. I was going to tell you earlier but we were running late as you know so I didn’t get a chance.’
David thanked her and took a look at the piece of paper inside it, after practically throwing Tam’s bucket into his stable to stop him from trying to knaw at his shoulder. It was a letter, addressed to Abigail and written in a beautifully fine script.

‘To my dearest friend Abigail,

I write to you with much affection and the promise of good tidings!
I have decided to finally settle down somewhere – all this moving around all the time is not good for the bones! I have a small house in Cairbre so I will be close enough to visit and reminisce about the old times.
Since I was forced to give up the menagerie, several of my most valued trainers and performers have left and moved on to other circuses and shows as well. It saddens me to see this, as we have become family over the years. But, out of all of them, the leaving that saddened me the most was that of Nikolai.

Nikolai Volkov and I go way back – I gave him a job at the age of sixteen tending to the horses and he has never yet let me down. He has a way with them unlike that of any other horsemaster I have seen. He knows what they are thinking and what they will do and yet, he never uses this to his advantage. Never once have I seen him hit a horse, not even for bad behaviour. He has other ways of discipline that are twice as effective and do the horse no harm. It’s like he can read their very minds! I remember, scarcely days after he first joined our troupe, he stopped a wild horse from attacking a child in the showground. It was rearing and bolting all over the place and no one yet had been able to get close to it. Nikolai just walked up to it as though it was no more than a playful foal and spoke to it. No one knows what it is that he whispers to them, but whatever it is, it must be magic of some kind because he surely has a gift.

The seasons went by as they must surely do and we came upon need of more horses for our shows. We stopped off at a market in Poland – one of my old haunts – and started looking. We found many good animals there, but none were quite right for what we had in mind. Suddenly, Nikolai stopped whatever he was doing and set off in the opposite direction from the rest of us – back the way we had come. I told him to come back but he just kept going, so, curious, myself and the rest of the troupe followed. He had found a horse, certainly but it did not look like what we had hoped. It had a deformity in its mouth, made worse by bad bridling by the looks of it and he was covered in mud and looked underfed. I could tell that it would polish up nicely but I didn’t think it would be right for the menagerie. The man at the stall told me ‘ah, this one’s damaged – I sell him for 150, or he goes to the meat-man’ It was a shame certainly, but I couldn’t afford to take pity on him as money was tight. I was about to turn away when Nikolai stepped forward and touched the horse’s muzzle. He flinched back like he’d been touched with a hot iron but as soon as Nikolai started his whispers, he relaxed instantly. Within a few minutes he had him trotting beside him, completely loose and he looked as though he’d been doing it his whole life. The man at the stall was amazed and changed his tune pretty quickly. ‘500! I’ll take no less than 500 for a beast of this quality!’

By now convinced, I decided to buy him, although we managed to get the seller back down to his original price and even then, I was able to knock off a third by proclaiming loudly how badly treated the animal was! When we got him back to the camp, we realised what a bargain we had managed to acquire. His paces were flawless, his conformation outstanding and the only thing that spoiled it was his mouth, although as it didn’t appear to be causing him any pain, we took that as a good omen. Nikolai trained him well and it was clear that although he loved all of the horses in the circus, it was to Jaconelli that he had the closest bond.

When we closed down, Nikolai was one of the first to leave. I think he wanted to make a clean break so the hurt was less. I was going to offer Jaconelli to him but he left so quickly and in the middle of the night as well, so I didn’t get the chance to ask. A couple of weeks ago, he appeared on my doorstep, tired and hungry. He had tried to get a job in a training yard, but found their methods too painful and corrupt to ever use. He wanted my advice, yet more than anything, he wanted to be reunited with his favourite horse. He was saddened to know that I did not possess him anymore but when I told him where he was he brightened up. I told him about your yard and the horses and he sounded very keen to meet you and your team. I know that you do not advocate violence as a method of training – one of Nikolai’s strongest principles - and I also know that you are always in need of some more help around the yard so I gave him directions and I hope you do not mind, but I told him to go and see you about a job. If nothing else, he will be able to see Jaconelli one last time before he leaves for another job somewhere.

Yours always,

Jarek Janelli’

David folded the letter up again and replaced it in the envelope. So that’s who he was and why he seemed so familiar – he’d worked for the circus where they’d got Jac from! Now that he knew his name and a little more about him, Nikolai didn’t seem quite so haughty. From the way he looked at the horses, David could tell that he was much more at ease in their company than that of people.

David was just about to apologise for snapping at him when Nikolai approached him.

‘I am sorry if I dismissed you earlier, I eh…well, let’s just say I’m not too good with other people. I wanted to make a good impression on the yard owner but I seem to have made a bad one on the rest of the staff!’ His English was flawless, yet heavily accented, with the Russian, Polish and Ukrainian inflections that he had picked up through the years of being in the company of people from varying parts of eastern Europe. David shook his head. ‘Nah, it’s ok. I wasn’t exactly all that welcoming either to be honest.’
Nikolai smiled. ‘It is nice here. I have very good feelings about this place.’
He turned to Abigail and gestured towards the Knabstrupper. ‘May I?’
‘Oh, certainly! If everything works out well, he’ll be more or less yours from now on anyway’

David frowned until he remembered the part of the letter which mentioned employment. Abigail must have offered him a job and if, like she said, it worked out well, Jaconelli would be his staff horse, just as Tamarind was his.

‘You know something?’ he said thoughtfully. ‘I don’t need any of this stuff.’ He unbuckled the girth and took off Jac’s saddle, followed closely with the bridle. Instead he produced a headcollar and put it on him, whispering to him in Russian and giving him a pat at the same time. Suddenly, Nikolai vaulted on from a standstill. David stared. He hadn’t been able to do that ever – not even as a kid.

Marian, who had only recently started taking lessons at the yard, admired the pair from a distance, although it was not obvious which of the two she seemed to be taking the most interest in…

Nikolai laughed and clapped Jac on the neck affectionately. ‘Nice horse, ah? Do you want to see what he can do?’
Marian nodded. She’d ridden Jac once before and loved him instantly, although she felt that her lack of riding ability rather undermined his talent.
‘Ok then, Jac? Hup!’
The stallion arched his neck and danced on his toes for the briefest of seconds before he reared, kicking his forelegs out in front of him, all the while Nikolai sat perfectly balanced over his withers.

Marian let out a faint scream as the Knabstrupper pranced about, mere feet in front of her.

‘Ok, easy boy, caaaaaalm, caalm…’
Almost as soon as he heard his rider’s voice, Jac dropped back down to the floor. ‘Good boy, gooood’ Nikolai said softly, rubbing his neck and ruffling his multicoloured mane. He glanced up at Marian who still looked a little shocked. Perhaps a rear wasn’t quite the best start…

‘Trust me, this horse is as safe as how do you say? Homes? See, look!’
He let go of the leadropes and shifted position until he was sitting back to front. With a grin, he clicked to Jac, who broke into a steady trot. Nikolai crossed his arms, seemingly steering with nothing more than his seat and proceeded to tell her more about his horse.

When they reached the end of the yard he turned and in one fluid movement, was facing the normal way and urging Jac on into a gallop.

Marian looked positively terrified but she needn’t have worried. At a simple word from Nikolai, Jac stopped dead, barely showing any exertion. No sooner had the stallion come to a halt, Nikolai swung his legs over and got off, praising his mount in what sounded like a mixture of Polish and Russian.

He turned to look at the small group of people and smiled.

‘Oh yes, I think I am going to like it here very much.’

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