I’m working on a collection of short stories, based around the fictitious Ballyloch Riding School, which is somewhere near the non-fictitious Cork City. As a Christmas present, here’s a taster. I hope you enjoy it. It’s dedicated to the real Jane and Amy – they’re the best!
The Christmas Pony
…Oh come let us adore Him,
Oh come let us adore Him,
Oh come let us adooore Hi-im,
I belted out the words, feigning enthusiasm, keeping my mind empty. Don’t think, man, just sing!
Even so, there was a lump forming in my throat. I swallowed it down and forced out the last line :
Chri-ist the Lord!
The last notes of the organ faded away into the growing hubbub, as people started to shift in their seats, shaking hands and exchanging Christmas greetings with one another. I smiled at the large lady beside me.
“Happy Christmas,” I said, holding out my hand.
“And happy Christmas to you, too,” she said, taking my hand and squeezing it a little too much as she shook it.
Ok, she knew who I was. The bereaved husband. Father of the motherless child. That poor guy. There but for the grace of God…
No, I was reading too much into it. She turned her back and started to shuffle out of the pew in the wake of her husband. I followed and we gradually melded into the throng of people who were filling the central aisle of the old stone church, inching our way towards the arched doorway. The rector and his deacons were waiting in the porch, shaking hands with the members of the congregation, as we made our way out into the crisp, clear night. He’s a practical chap, the rector, and he didn’t try to engage me in conversation. Just said he hoped we had a good Christmas and left it at that.
I made my way to the car, sat inside and turned the heater on while I waited for Allie. Another milestone passed, I mused. The second school Carol Service since Mary died. Now we were heading, full steam ahead, into the second Christmas without her.
I barely remembered the previous one. Even though it had already been five months since Mary’s death, our first Christmas without her had passed in a blur. My sister Katie and her family had been great, inviting us to join them for the day. Allie had played happily enough with her cousins, but there was an air of stillness and a gravity about her which you don’t expect to see in an eleven-year old at Christmas time. Every so often, I’d catch her eye and she would look away, as if she was afraid of what she might see in my expression. Driving home that night, we’d both been silent, lost in our own thoughts of Christmas Past.
Now, a year later, we had moved on through the stages of grief. It’s funny how you hear about the five stages of grief, but you never realise just how real they are until you’re going through them. We had moved our way along, and I was pretty sure we were at Acceptance now. This Christmas was going to be about new starts and looking ahead to the future. I had a great surprise planned for my little girl, one that I was certain was going to make her happy for many years to come. I had bought her a pony. Not any old pony, but her absolute favourite pony from the riding school – Bubbles, a handsome dapple-grey Connemara. I’d had a tough time persuading Liz to sell him, but we had eventually come to an agreement that Bubbles would still be used in the riding school, three days a week. It would be best for everyone, she had said. He’d be exercised on the days Allie couldn’t ride him and she’d still have him available for her better riders. I had agreed, just glad that I had finally convinced her to sell him!
I heard the chatter of girlish voices and looked in the wing mirror. There she was, arm in arm with her best friends, Amy and Jane, giggling as they walked along the gravel footpath towards the car park. I rolled down the window as they hugged each other goodbye.
“Happy Christmas, girls,” I called.
“Happy Christmas, Mr Moore,” they chorused. Jane winked at me as they turned and walked to where her parents were waiting and I smiled. They were in on the secret, of course. On Christmas Eve, they were going to decorate Bubbles with tinsel and glitter, so he’d be all ready to surprise Allie on Christmas morning.
“He’ll be so Christmassy that Santa will think he’s a reindeer,” Amy had laughed when I had asked them to help.
Allie settled into the front seat beside me and clicked her seat-belt shut.
“Did you have fun?” I asked, as we joined the line of cars making their way out of the church ground.
“Yeah, it was good,” she replied. She looked out of the window into the darkness for a moment, then her hand went into her pocket and she fished out her phone. Her fingers flew over the touch screen as she joined her friends on Facebook and I sighed.
We drove the rest of the way home in silence.
“It’s not you,” Katie said. “It’s just the whole puberty thing, on top of the loss of her mother. Right now, she’s a seething mess of hormones with a whole lot of grief thrown in for good measure. Sheesh, it’s a moody age at the best of times. Don’t you remember what I was like?”
Yes, I did. I was just two years older than Katie, and by God we’d had some massive rows in our early teens.
“But she’s so…” I struggled for words. “She’s so SPIKEY. She used to be such a cuddly kid. Now it’s like there’s some kind of force field around her. Any time I hug her, it’s like she blocks me, and she can’t get out of it quickly enough. And she hardly speaks to me now, she’s stuck to her phone all day long, Facebooking or texting.”
“Look Mike, you have to accept that she’s growing up.”
Katie topped up my tea without asking, as she continued “She’s well on her way to being a woman now.”
I smiled at her. “Yes, I am grateful for your help with that! I couldn’t very well advise her on tampons now, could I!”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” laughed Katie, “I’m just saying she’s changing. It’s part of life. Your relationship will change, because she’s not a little girl any more.”
“Humph,” I replied. “She’ll always be my little girl.”
Katie shook her head, but said no more. I changed the subject.
“Let me tell you all about this pony,” I began.
My phone chimed on Christmas eve. I picked it up. There was a message from Jane – a photograph! Jane and Amy, pink-cheeked and bundled up in warm coats, hats and scarves, standing on either side of a grey pony. His mane was plaited and the girls had twisted gold and red tinsel through the plaits. Matching tinsel was wrapped around his head collar and lead rope. His white tail was neatly brushed out and he wore a brand new rug. O Brien’s Saddlery had delivered, so. Fair play to them, I thought. And fair play to the girls, they had done a great job. Bubbles looked fantastic! Allie would be thrilled, I thought, as I replied to Jane.
Well done girls. Thanks a million. Mike
I glanced at Allie, curled up in the corner of the couch, one eye on the TV and the other eye on her phone. She was going to get the surprise of her life tomorrow.
I was back in the hospital, sitting beside Mary’s bed, holding her hand. She lay unmoving, her yellow-tinged skin taut over her fine features, her breathing slow and laboured. The heart monitor beside her bleeped steadily.
Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep. BLEEP-BLEEP. BLEEP-BLEEP!
There was a wasp in the room, flying over my head, buzzing in time with the heart monitor. I tried to shoo it away and it zoomed straight at my face -
I shook myself awake. My phone was ringing, vibrating noisily on the bedside table beside me as it did so. I reached for it and pressed the answer button, registering the time as I did so. 7.30am. Christmas morning.
“Michael Moore,” I said automatically.
“Mike, it’s Liz at the riding school. I thought I’d better let you know as soon as possible. Bubbles has a colic. I’ve called the vet.”
“What?” My sleep fuddled brain struggled to make sense of her words. Wasn’t colic something that babies get?
“Colic,” said Liz patiently. “It’s a thing that horses get sometimes. Usually there’s a reason, like something unusual that they’ve eaten, but sometimes it just happens. It’s very painful and can be serious.”
“How serious?” I asked, feeling suddenly more awake.
“Very serious,” she replied. “Life threatening. I never mess around with colic. That’s why I’ve called the vet.”
“Ok. Thanks,” I said, my brain finally kicking into gear. “Should I bring Allie up or call off the surprise?”
“That’s up to you,” said Liz. “I’ll look after him one way or another. And the vet will be here within an hour.”
I thanked her again and hung up.
Now what was I going to do? Say nothing to Allie until I knew the pony would pull through? Fob her off with a small present and say there was a surprise coming later? That sounded like a good idea. I didn’t want her to spend Christmas Day worrying about whether her surprise pony was going to live or die.
Then I remembered. Mary and I talking just after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. We were trying to figure out how much to tell Allie.
“I think we tell her the truth,” Mary had said. “In terms she can understand. She’s mature enough to hear the truth. No lies, Mike.”
That had become our mantra throughout the deadly vortex that Mary’s illness became. No lies. Allie knew what was going on every step of the way. I wasn’t going to change things now.
I dressed quickly and stepped out onto the landing. I reached for the door knob on Allie’s bedroom door and stopped. Knock first, I reminded myself.
I knocked gently.
I opened the door and stuck my head in. She was sitting up in bed, phone in hand. At seven thirty on Christmas morning? I shrugged off the thought.
“Al,” I began, entering the room. “Allie, I’ve something to say.”
She stared at me, wide-eyed and fearful, as I sat on her bed. Oh no, I’d just frightened the hell out of her.
“It’s ok,” I said. “Well, I hope it’ll be ok.”
She looked a little less scared. “What’s up?” she asked.
“I’ve arranged a Christmas surprise for you. I bought Bubbles for you.”
“Aw wow, DAD!” she exclaimed. Then she saw my face. “But -?” she asked.
“It was supposed to be a big surprise, I wasn’t going to tell you like this,” I admitted “but Liz just called. Bubbles is sick. He has colic. She said it could be very serious. She’s called the vet. We should go out there.”
She was dressed in no time and came downstairs just as I was making tea. Neither of us looked into the living room, where the gaily decorated tree and brightly wrapped presents sat in the darkness. She ate a banana and drank some milk while I washed down some toast with half a cup of tea. Within minutes, we were pulling on our coats and heading out to the car.
There had been a hard frost overnight and everything was white-rimed in the early morning light. The roads were dry, thank goodness – there was no risk of ice. By 8.30, we were driving through the gates of Ballyloch and zig-zagging our way along the pot-holed drive. A silver Landcruiser was parked in front of the corrugated shed that housed the indoor school and the stables. It seemed the vet had arrived ahead of us. I parked the car and we made our way inside.
Bubbles was in the third stable down. His smart new rug was folded on the ground in front of his door and had been taken over by one of the stable cats. I felt Allie take my hand and I squeezed hers gently as we looked over the door. There was Bubbles, wearing his brightly decorated head collar, tinsel woven into his mane, Liz holding the lead rope as the vet pulled a long tube out of the pony’s left nostril. Even being totally unhorsey, I could see that this was a sick pony. His head hung low and his neck and sides were coated with sweat. His air of dejection was a sharp contrast to the bright tinsel and glittering stars which decorated the walls of the stable. Amy and Jane had been hard at work, indeed. Liz nodded at us, face expressionless, as the vet continued to work. When he was finished, Liz removed the head collar and introduced us.
I listened while he spoke about what he had done. Low gut sound. No obstruction found. Anti-spasmodic injection. Liquid paraffin. Tubed. None of it made sense to me, but I nodded when he had finished.
“And now what?” I asked.
“Well, hopefully, whatever is causing the problem will just clear out. Literally.”
Liz made it simple for us. “Most likely, he’ll do a big fart, pass some droppings and he’ll be right as rain after that.”
Allie giggled, despite the seriousness of the situation.
“So we’re waiting for him to poop?” she asked.
“Basically, yes,” said Liz. “But you don’t have to stay. He’s calm now, not in any pain. I can check in on him throughout the day.”
I looked at Allie’s anxious little face and knew what she wanted to do.
“We’ll stay,” I said.
Allie cleaned out Bubbles’ stable and shook down some fresh straw. When she had finished, Bubbles paced around the stable a couple of times and then started to dig at the straw.
“If he starts rolling again, you’ll have to walk him, Allie,” said Liz. “I have to look after the other horses.”
We all watched as Bubble carefully lowered himself to the ground. He lay upright for a moment, before settling onto his side with a sigh. Allie and I watched until it became clear that he wasn’t going to roll, he just wanted to lie down; then she started to help Liz with the other horses. I watched her work, feeling somewhat useless, but I soon realised I could assist by emptying the wheel-barrow onto the muck heap for them, which I did. We all glanced into Bubbles every time we passed, but he stayed immobile, seemingly asleep.
Finally, all the work was done. Liz looked at us.
“I’m supposed to go to my brother’s house for the day,” she said. “I can stay -“
“No, no,” I stopped her. “We’ll keep an eye on him. I have your number and I have the vet’s number. I’ll keep you posted.”
She hesitated a moment, before saying “Okay. I’m only five minutes away if you need me. If he starts to roll or gets agitated again, walk him until I get here.”
She left, leaving Allie and I alone. All was quiet, except for the peaceful munching of fifteen horses working their way through their morning rations. We sat on a bale of hay that Liz had left in front of the stable. Allie pulled out her phone and looked at her messages.
“Jane and Amy knew?” she asked.
“Yes,” I confessed. “They decorated him last night for you.”
“They’re the best!” she said. “I’ll let them know what’s happened.”
Her fingers moved rapidly over the screen. The morning was still cold and seemed even darker than before. I reached for Bubbles’ new rug and spread it over us. Amy put her phone down and leaned into me, wrapping her arms around my waist.
“Thanks, Dad,” she said hesitantly. “He’s a great present. Even if… you know…”
I put my arms around her shoulders and hugged her. Somehow, I knew I was speaking the truth as I said, “He’s going to be okay. Really.”
She looked up at me and met my eyes. I think she could see the certainty in them – she could see that I really did believe that Bubbles would pull through. Then she leaned her head against my chest with a sigh and I rested my chin on top of her hair. A memory came unbidden, of Allie in a baby sling, snuggled underneath my coat on a winter morning, her silky-soft baby hair underneath my chin as we sat on a park bench, Mary’s hand in mine. A good memory. I could almost feel her fingers between mine. I smiled.
I felt Allie’s shoulders shaking. Was she crying?
No, she was giggling.
“I guess we’re not the first people to spend Christmas in a stable,” she said. “But I bet Joseph and Mary weren’t waiting for a pony to fart!”
I started to laugh, too. Then her phone bleeped as Jane or Amy replied to her message and took her away from me again. I took out my own phone and called Katie to let her know what was happening.
“We’ll come over once we know the pony is okay,” I assured her.
We sat in silence for some time. Finally, we heard a rustling from the stable behind us and we stood up to look in on Bubbles. He had lifted himself up again, so he was lying on his chest and, as we watched him, he stood up, front legs first and then, with a glorious, rapid-fire series of farts, the back legs straightened out too. He shook himself, arched his neck and stretched. Then he regarded us imperiously and marched to the stable door.
“I think he’s better!” exclaimed Allie.
“I think he’s hungry,” I remarked, as Bubbles stretched his head towards the bale we had been sitting on.
“No food for you,” she wagged her finger at Bubbles. “Liz said you have to wait a while and then you can have a bran mash!” She looked at me. “He has to poop first,” she explained.
We had to wait another twenty minutes before Bubbles finally lifted his tail and obliged with a heap of shiny, liquid paraffin-coated droppings.
“Hooray,” I cheered.
“Clever boy,” laughed Allie. “Now you can have your mash.”
She busied herself in the feed room, scooping warm, sloppy bran into a bucket and then carrying it to Bubbles’ stable. She stood by him while he ate. I watched her, thinking how mature she had become. I’d been amazed at her self-assurance and confidence as she had helped Liz earlier, and now I saw the truth of Katie’s words.
She’s not a little girl any more, I thought. She’s not a woman, either, but she’s a wonderful, kind, confident, intelligent young person. I’m lucky to have her in my life.
Her phone bleeped and she took it out of her pocket to read the message.
Hmm, I thought, I’m lucky to have her in my life, even if I do have to share her with that damn phone!
Bubbles licked the bucket clean and lifted his head. Allie put her arms around his neck and hugged him. She turned her face towards me, beaming that face-splitting smile I’d known and loved for twelve years.
“Thanks Dad. Best present ever!”
We put his smart new rug back on him and phoned Liz. She would check on the horses in an hour or so, she said, but it really sounded like Bubbles would be fine. Allie put the feed bucket away, topped up Bubbles’ water and kissed his bran-covered nose as we said goodbye.
Fat, slow flakes of snow were starting to fall as we locked the big sliding door behind us.
“A white Christmas! Perfect!” exclaimed Allie.
She took my hand and, all of a sudden, she was a little girl again. Without a word being said, we both started to skip through the snow to the car, laughing as we went. And was it my imagination, or did I feel a feather-light touch in my empty hand? Did I hear the faintest swish of a third pair of feet, dancing through the snow beside us? Did I hear a beloved voice on the wind, whispering “Happy Christmas…. love you both…always…”
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