Healing Charlie – the Second Ballyloch Story
It’s two weeks since I released the first Ballyloch story, Lucky in Life, here and on Amazon. A big thank you to everyone who made nice comments about it, I really do appreciate them! And thank you to the people who bought it, despite it being available here for free. Your charity is much appreciated.
Don’t forget the Mugnificent Giveaway, which finishes tomorrow (Friday 3rd April). Thanks to the lovely people at Zazzle, I am giving away three mugs with the Ballyloch logo to celebrate the launch of the Ballyloch Stories – Tails from the Stables. Find out how to enter here : Ballyloch Giveaway
I am determined to be organised and regular about this writing lark. My aim is to release a story every two weeks for the next couple of months. So now it’s time to give you the second story, Healing Charlie. It’s available here on Amazon for €0.99 if you would like to download it to your Kindle.
So, here’s Healing Charlie. I hope you like it.
A Ballyloch Story
My life stopped the day I ceased to be a mother.
It’s not the natural way of things. We are not meant to outlive our children. How can anyone survive such grief, such loss, such guilt? But it seems I had no choice in the matter, and survive I did. My beautiful, funny, charming, intelligent girl was gone, but I still existed. Where’s the sense in that?
A month after Jenny’s death, my husband Frank came into the lounge where I was sitting, gazing out the window, seeing nothing.
“I had a phone call from Liz,” he started.
“Liz?” I asked.
“Yes, Liz. From the riding school. It’s about Charlie.”
Charlie. Jenny’s beloved horse, her friend, companion and confidante for almost five years. But he hadn’t been able to save her, either…
“Is there something wrong?” I asked.
“No, no, he’s fine. She said… well, she said that she understands that we’re not in a place where we’re ready to make decisions about Charlie, but -“
“Decisions about Charlie?” I interrupted.
“About whether we’ll sell him or not -“
“We won’t,” I butted in again. “He’s Jenny’s.”
“No, no, there’s no need to think about that now. That’s what she was saying. But she suggested that we might consider loaning him to someone for a while. She has a youngster who’s looking for a horse, but the parents aren’t ready to buy.”
I looked at him, trying to absorb what he was saying.
“It would be the best thing for Charlie,” he continued. “You know how he loved to be active. And it would give us some breathing space. And she said we can be sure he’ll be well looked after and loved.”
Breathing space. Breathing was for the living, wasn’t it? Why would I need breathing space when my life was over? But Charlie would be well looked after. And loved… God, how she loved that horse…
“Ok.” My voice came out as barely a whisper as my throat closed up again and my eyes filled up once more. Had they ever been empty? I stood up and left the room, leaving Frank standing, lost and helpless, in the middle of the floor.
Jenny and Charlie, Charlie and Jenny. I walked into her room, sat down on the bed with its bright daisy print bedspread. The walls were covered with photos of Charlie and Jenny, the headboard festooned with ribbons that they had won together. I remembered the day we surprised her with him, two days before her twelfth birthday. We arrived at the riding school for Jenny’s lesson. Jenny was all excited because Frank had a rare afternoon off and had come along to watch her ride.
Liz was in on our surprise, of course. She had found Charlie for us through a friend who taught in the local pony club.
“Oh, Jenny,” she said nonchalantly. “You’re on the new guy. Bay cob, third stall down.”
Jenny walked down and introduced herself to the solid little horse in the third stall, taking off his head collar and preparing to lead him back up the corridor to the indoor school. She hadn’t noticed the personalised saddle cloth yet – it said “Charlie” on the right hand side and “Jenny Dugan” on the left.
“Nice saddle cloth,” I remarked.
She glanced at it and looked away. It was blue and unremarkable except for the embroidery. She stopped dead and turned and looked again, then she looked at me, eyes shining.
“Really, Mum? Is he – is he?” she was afraid to say the word “mine” in case I said no, her present was the saddle cloth!
“Yes, love, he’s yours,” I said, close to tears as I saw the sheer joy in her face.
She threw her arms around Charlie’s neck and hugged him hard. And damned if that little horse didn’t turn his head around, wrap his neck around her slim little body and hug her right back.
“Horse hugs are the best!” exclaimed Jenny, and Frank and I blinked happy tears from our eyes and agreed with her.
Was it really possible that we had once been so happy?
I looked at the photos on the bedroom wall. Charlie and Jenny at their first Christmas show in the riding school, festooned with tinsel and glitter. Charlie and Jenny jumping in the mini section at the local hunter trials, the two of them literally beaming from ear to ear. Show jumping in the summer. Proudly holding a trophy while Charlie chewed on a red rosette. That was the day she had beaten all the kids on their fast horses at pony club, just because Charlie was so well tuned into her that she was able to ride a turn that shaved six seconds off the fastest time.
She had loved Charlie and Charlie had loved her. When did that cease to matter?
Months rolled by. Friends and family stopped ‘letting me grieve’ and started to encourage me to take an interest in life again. They would gaze at me, eyes full of pity, good intentions shining out like laser beams.
Come out for a meal, they would say. Or we can go to the cinema – there’s that new Meryl Streep movie out.
I would put something like a smile on my face and shake my head. My days were full. There were my tablets to take. My counsellor to visit. Meals to cook. Cups of tea to sip from and leave to go cold. Housework to do. Groceries to buy. My husband wafted in and out of my awareness, substituting overwork for grief.
Pushing my trolley around the supermarket one day, my eyes were caught by the gaudy colours of the Easter egg display. Could it be Easter so soon? That was when it had all begun, so subtly, so insidiously, so deadly.
I was putting the rubbish out, the week after Easter. The bag already in the bin was torn, with brightly coloured tin foil showing through. Idly, I poked at it, wondering what it was. It was solid – oh! It was an Easter egg! A little more rummaging revealed another three chocolate eggs, mixed up with tissues and makeup removal pads from Jenny’s room. Why on earth had she thrown out her eggs?
I asked her that evening, as she sat in the corner of the kitchen cleaning her bridle.
“Oh, I’m sorry Mum,” she smiled. “It was a mad moment. I had pigged out on the first one and I had a pain in my tummy so in a fit of temper I just chucked the whole lot into the bin in my room.”
“I was sorry afterwards,” she continued, “but they reeked of nail polish remover so there was no way I was going to touch them!”
I laughed and dismissed the incident. But oh, how I regretted my easy acceptance of her excuse later on.
Anorexia. Bulimia. Binging. Eating disorders. We read all about them every day. I never dreamed an eating disorder would take my sweet, beautiful, funny little girl away from me, but that’s what happened.
I finally realised what was going on when I happened to go into the loo right after Jenny on Christmas day.
Oh, she didn’t flush properly, I thought.
Then I looked again. Partially digested carrots and brussels sprouts floated around in the water, mixed with raisins from the Christmas pudding. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. The Jenny I knew would have told me she was feeling ill. This had to be deliberate. This had to be faced.
I spoke to Frank. We spoke to our GP. He spoke to Jenny and suggested a counsellor. The counsellor spoke to Jenny, but she didn’t say much in return. Later, we learned that this particular counsellor was not best equipped for dealing with teenage eating disorders. Her advice was a food diary and diet sheets. A food diary? Ha, Jenny had been keeping one of them for over a year at that stage!
It spiralled out of control from there. She literally wasted away in front of our eyes, became nervous and twitchy, scratched her arms incessantly, leaving raw red marks on them. She was in and out of hospital, put on drips, put on anti-depressants, spoon fed by patient nurses. Only with Charlie did she seem to relax and behave normally again, but she was soon too weak to spend more than twenty minutes at a time with him.
Our last resort was a specialist clinic in London.
Our daughter’s last weeks were spent in a specialist clinic in London.
My life stopped in a specialist clinic in London.
Was it really almost a year ago? How did it get to be May all of a sudden? My mind started to torture me, playing and replaying ‘This Day a Year Ago’ as the days ticked by.
This day a year ago, they told us that they could do no more for her.
This day a year ago, they told us that her kidneys and liver were shutting down.
This day a year ago, she help my hand and whispered “I’m scared, Mum.”
This day a year ago, she slipped into a coma.
This day a year ago, my life stopped.
My mobile rang on a rainy January afternoon. Who was this, I wondered. Frank, ringing to say he’d be home late again? No, it was a number I didn’t recognise.
“Hello, Marie? It’s Liz.” Liz’ no-nonsense, tobacco softened voice jolted me with its familiarity.
“Oh, hello Liz. Is Charlie ok? I keep meaning to go and see him, but I never seem to have time…” My voice dwindled away as even I realised how pathetic I sounded.
“Yes, yes, he’s fine,” she replied briskly. “It’s just that Susie – you know, the girl you loaned Charlie to…”
No, I hadn’t known her name, I realised. Liz continued,
“She’s lost interest, I’m afraid. She’s discovered boys and gone a bit mad. Anyway, she’s hardly been near Charlie for a couple of months now, so her parents have told me that they’re not prepared to pay for his livery anymore.”
Liz paused, presumably to give me time to take in what she was telling me.
“So I was wondering if you’ve had time to think about Charlie. Whether you’ll sell him or not. You know he’s eleven years old now, still in his prime. You’d sell him easily at the moment, but it will be a lot harder in a year or two. And you’ve got to think what’s best for him, too. He hates to be idle.”
“It’s still really hard, Liz,” I said. I surprised myself with the strength in my voice. Where was my customary wobble?
“I don’t think I’m ready yet,” I added.
“Well, would you come out and see him?“ she asked.
Go to the riding school? See Charlie? Face all those memories?
“Sure,” I said. I’d be doing it for Jenny, not for myself.
A week later, on a dreary Tuesday morning, I steeled myself for the ordeal and presented myself at the riding school. It all looked the same – the crooked sign saying “Ballyloch Riding School,” the pot-holed, rutted driveway, the faded wooden fencing, the battered corrugated shed that housed the dusty indoor arena. Everything the same, but different. Liz greeted me cheerfully but didn’t engage me in small talk or ask “How ARE you?” with a sympathetic smile. Thank heaven for small mercies, I thought grimly.
She picked up a bucket of nuts and walked with me to the paddock where Charlie lived with three other livery geldings, her little terrier trotting along at our heels. I didn’t recognise Charlie at first but by a process of elimination, I came to the conclusion that he must be the smallest one. The fattest one. The one with the longest mane and tail and the thickest coating of mud on his rug.
Liz rattled the bucket and the four horses squelched their way towards us through the sea of mud that was their paddock. Charlie grabbed a mouthful of nuts and then backed off respectfully when the biggest gelding pinned his ears back and glared at him. He remained in the background and I scrutinised him from a distance as I leaned on the gate.
Where was the glossy coat? Or the neat mane, kept short so that The Groom (aka Mum) could plait it quickly? His thick black tail trailed in the mud, twigs and briars dangling from it. Even his rug, bought three winters before, looked tatty and torn.
“He looks a bit sad,” was all I could think of saying.
She looked sharply at me.
“I think he is a bit sad,” she replied. “He misses having a special person in his life. He’s just that kind of horse.”
I digested what she had said.
“So you think we should sell him?” I asked.
“Your decision,” she replied, lighting a cigarette as she attempted to share the nuts out between the three more dominant horses.
I looked at Charlie again.
“He needs to be cleaned up a bit,” I said.
She exhaled, smoke drifting away into the misty rain as she spoke.
“He does. You’d need to do that before you try to sell him.”
“I’ll come back some day next week,” I said. “I’ll tidy up his mane and tail at least.”
“Tuesdays are good,” she said. “Not many people around on Tuesdays. You can just work away by yourself.”
She greeted me the following Tuesday with “I’ve got a lot to do this morning. You know, stables and stuff. I’ve brought Charlie in for you, so you can get to work. And I can turn him out when you’re finished.”
Charlie was standing in a stall, tied onto a ring in the wall. He ignored me as I approached. I patted his neck. He continued to ignore me. I tried to analyse how I felt about him. He had been such a huge part of my life with Jenny for five years. I had gone everywhere with them, as driver, groom, chief horse-holder and supplier of picnics. I should love him, after all that, I thought, but I felt nothing. He was just a horse. I picked up the curry comb Liz had given me and set to work.
Liz may have had a lot to do, but she didn’t miss anything. When Charlie ducked his head under the tie rope and got it caught up behind his ears, she was there in an instant to sort him out. When I forgot to open the leg straps on his rug and was about to pull it off, leaving it hooked onto his hind legs, she said “Leg straps” as she passed with a wheelbarrow full of manure. And when he steadfastly refused to pick up his left front foot so I could pick it out, she growled “UP” from the far end of the stables, causing Charlie to instantly snap up his hoof.
I brushed out his mane and picked the briars out of his tail, scraped the mud off the thick hair on his neck and his legs. Then I removed his rug and gave him a quick brush all over, marvelling at the dust and scurf that had accumulated under his rug. I looked at my watch. An hour had magically disappeared. I had to rush home to make my lunch and sit alone, in silence, for the afternoon.
“I’d better go,” I said. “But I’ll come back to pull his mane and trim his tail in a day or two.”
“Whatever you like,” said Liz. “Mornings are better. No kids around.”
No kids around. None of Jenny’s friends, she meant. It was probably better that way. I rubbed Charlie’s neck and got the same reaction as I would have received from a bale of straw. Nothing.
Three days later, I was back again, armed with scissors and a mane comb. Liz had once again brought Charlie in and I set to work. The weather had been relatively dry since my last visit, so he wasn’t too muddy. I took off the rug, making a mental note to dig out his old spare so I could get the dirty one washed and repaired. I trimmed his tail to just above his fetlocks and set to work on his mane. Charlie had always loved having his mane pulled – to him, it was like having the best scratch ever. He used to stretch his head forward, upper lip twitching as I tugged at his mane. Not this time, though. He didn’t object or barge about, he just shook his head a few times and then stood quietly. Ignoring me. Or shutting me out?
He looked a lot neater when I had finished and I stepped back, admiring my handiwork.
Liz’ spiky blond head popped up over a stable door nearby.
“He looks better now,” she said gruffly. “Why don’t you take him down the lane for a pick of grass? There’s no grass in their paddock, poor buggers. He’d love a bit of green.”
I untied Charlie and walked down the lane, allowing him to nibble whenever he spotted a blade of green showing through the dead, brown leaves. Liz’ little dog came with us, checking for rabbits in the bushes on either side as we meandered along. All was peaceful and still in the weak February sunshine. An early blackbird whistled and sang from the top of a nearby tree. What was that poem again?
Stop, stop and listen
For the bough top is whistling
And the sun is brighter than God’s own shadow in the cup now…
Austin Clarke, I recalled. Jenny had learned it for a school concert, years ago. A lovely poem, I mused. I must look up the rest of it when I get home. I scratched behind Charlie’s ears thoughtfully. He moved away. He just didn’t seem to like me. Maybe it was time to admit that the thread that linked him to Jenny was severed. At the end of the day, he was only a horse, after all.
I looked for Liz in the yard.
“I’ve been thinking about selling him,” I said. “I think you’re right, it’s the best thing to do, and I know it’s what Frank wants. Can you help us to do it?”
Her face was devoid of expression as she said “Sure. I’ll draft up an ad and I’ll have it ready for you to check next time you come.”
She peered at me. “You will keep him tidy, yeah? I can get one of the kids to sit up on him and get him a little bit fit again, but I don’t have time for faffing around grooming him.”
“Of course. It’s the least I can do,” I assured her.
The following Tuesday, I was back at the riding school, sitting in the tack room, drinking milky tea and perusing the ad Liz had prepared.
“Eleven year old bay cob, 15.3hh. Gelding. Bombproof. Has hunted, show jumped, hunter trialled, pony clubbed. Suit any rider, beginner to intermediate. No vices.”
It was brief and to the point, much like Liz herself. I read it again. One word leaped out at me. Beginner.
“You say he’s suitable for a beginner,” I began. “Jenny was a good rider. Would he really suit a beginner. Like… say, someone like me?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “He’s a lovely horse. Very gentle.”
Her cigarette sat untouched in the ashtray, smoke curling lazily upwards.
“Do you want to try him?”
What on earth had possessed me to say yes?
I was standing in the indoor arena, while Liz manoeuvred Charlie into position beside the mounting block. A borrowed riding hat felt strange and restrictive, as did the suede chaps Liz had loaned me.
Charlie stood patiently beside the block, eyes half closed, lower lip drooping. I listened to Liz’ instructions and wondered once again why I was doing this, as I put my left foot into the stirrup and swung my right leg over Charlie’s back.
Half an hour later, Liz said “I think that’s enough for your first time.”
I looked at the dust-covered clock at the far end of the arena and was shocked to see how much time had elapsed. I had spent the entire lesson in walk, but I had been completely absorbed in taking in instructions and trying to convince my body to follow them. Charlie had trudged around dutifully beside Liz as she told me how sit, where my legs should be and how to hold my hands. I patted his neck.
“He was very good,” I said.
Liz snorted. “Asleep, more like it! But that’s what you want in a beginner’s horse.”
She left me to untack him and put him back in his field. I offered him a carrot when I took his head collar off. He sniffed at it first, then accepted it politely, his whiskers tickling my hand as he did so.
I watched him walk away and then went in search of Liz. I found her sweeping the concrete floor in front of the stables.
She works so hard, I thought. I picked up a broom and helped her. When we had finished, she stopped and lit a cigarette.
“Same time tomorrow?” she asked.
Without agreeing anything formal, we settled into a routine. Most mornings, I would arrive at Ballyloch at 8.30am, just after Liz had finished feeding the stabled horses. She would turn some of the horses out and I would clean their empty stables, while she worked on the stables still occupied. Whoever finished their stables first started sweeping, to be joined by the other soon after. Then we would have a cup of tea in the tack room. Every day, I brought Charlie in from the field and groomed him. Some days, I took him for a walk and a pick of grass. A couple of days a week, Liz spent time with Charlie and I. She showed me how to lunge him and how to tack up correctly. She also continued to give me riding lessons, first on a lead rein and then on the lunge. On the fourth lesson, I attempted to trot, and was shocked by how uncomfortable it was. I seemed to be bouncing all over the place and I just couldn’t find any rhythm to Charlie’s gait.
“How do the kids make this look so easy,” I groaned, as I sat there red-faced and puffing.
“You’ll get there,” she replied confidently.
She was right. Two lessons later, everything fell into place and I found myself posting effortlessly up and down as Charlie trotted around at the end of the lunge rope. I felt ridiculously proud of myself. And of Charlie. I was proud of Charlie for tolerating my ineptness.
But Charlie himself remained aloof and distanced. He never willingly approached me and I could not catch him without a bucket of nuts as a bribe. I always had the feeling that he tolerated my presence, whereas he had seemed to enjoy being with Jenny. Heck, he used to watch her every move, turning his head this way and that so he could keep her in sight when he was tied up.
The days and weeks continued to roll past. Easter came and went. I ignored the gaudy displays of chocolate in the supermarket but I could not ignore the calendar. May was fast approaching.
This day two years ago, we went to London.
I found it harder and harder to get enthusiastic about anything and my visits to Ballyloch petered out. Charlie didn’t need me, after all. Nor did Liz, for that matter. They had both managed fine without me before and they’d both manage fine without me now.
My phone rang at eight one morning, dragging me from a hazy state of wakefulness. It was Liz. She wasted no time.
“Marie? It’s about Charlie. He’s been kicked by one of the other horses. He has a nasty cut on his leg. I’ve called the vet.”
I was surprised at how my heart lurched when she gave me the news.
“I’ll be right there,” I said.
Charlie was in a stable, head facing into the back corner. I could see from the stable door that his left foreleg was swollen above the knee. I went in for a closer look. He hobbled away from me as I approached. I didn’t need to get close to see the damage. The cut was deep and surprisingly long, with a steady trickle of bloody fluid oozing from it. It looked serious to me.
The vet was remarkably calm about it. He clipped the hair around the wound and then cleaned it as best he could, flushing it out with saline solution afterwards. No stitches, he said. He was afraid that there might be dirt inside it and it would be best to leave it drain. He put a dressing over it and bandaged it all up.
“That will need to be changed every day,” he said.
“I can do that.” I spoke before Liz asked me.
This day two years ago, she held my hand and…
I forced the thought from my mind and sat up. It was 7am. I had to get up, get dressed, look after Charlie. There would be time to think later on.
I arrived at Ballyloch. Liz was nowhere to be seen. Good. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. It was difficult just being there when I wanted to be at home, sitting in a silent room, alone with my thoughts.
I entered Charlie’s stable, carrying a bottle of iodine and a bag containing cotton wool, a sterile dressing and a clean bandage. Once again, he was standing with his head in the corner. I set everything down in the corner by the door and took his head collar from the hook outside.
I approached him, he moved away.
“Oh come on Charlie, not this. I haven’t got time for this.” I reached for his head as I spoke and he whirled away, spinning around the stable. The bottle of iodine and my bag of clean, sterile paraphernalia were churned up by his hooves and scattered in all directions.
No, no, no. I can’t do this, I thought. I just can’t. Not today, of all days. He doesn’t like me; he won’t come near me. Why should I bother? Just because my Jenny loved him? I slumped down in a corner of the stable and wept, head in hands, shoulders shaking as I sobbed and sobbed.
I don’t know how long I was there, but I gradually became aware of a presence. I opened my eyes and saw two large, feathered hooves on the stable floor in front of me. Then I felt a gentle touch on top of my head as Charlie nuzzled at my hair. I stayed still and he lowered his head, breathing gently against the side of my face. I raised my hand, touched his nose. Lifted my face and looked into his huge brown eyes. I saw no pity there, no sympathy, no good intentions. Just a calm acceptance of who I was.
Finally, I stood up and wrapped my arms around his neck. And I held myself still, so still, as I felt him wrap his neck around my body. Hugging me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my life started again on a dreary January day, as I leaned on a gate looking at a fat, untidy horse who needed someone to love.
The Ballyloch Stories are based around the clients of the fictitious Ballyloch Riding School, near the non-fictitious city of Cork, Ireland. Each story is intended to stand alone, but the reader may prefer to read Lucky in Life first, as it describes the beginnings of Ballyloch Riding School.
Although the stories are inspired by the author’s experiences during her time running a livery stables near Cork, all of them are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. None of the human characters are intended to resemble any person, living or dead, and any such resemblance is entirely coincidental. Some of the equine characters depicted are based on real horses the author has known over the years but are always presented in a fictitious way.
Copyright 2015 © Martine Greenlee
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages embodied in critical articles or in a review.
Trademarked names may appear in this story. Rather than use a trademark symbol with every occurrence of a trademarked name, names are used in an editorial fashion, with no intention of infringement of the respective owner’s trademark.