Author’s note: this is stupidly long. And this is the edited version. You might like to sit down with a nice biscuit.
Today was a HorseBack UK day. I almost called to cancel, because I’ve now got the clock ticking down, and every minute with the old dog is precious. But it’s important that the Mother and Stepfather get some time with her too, and she adores them, so she would spend the morning there.
It was a good decision. First of all, they are really nice people who know all about animals, and the love. Second of all, it’s a place of profound authenticity. I remember this when I was grieving my dad; I craved authenticity like a drug. I can’t really explain it. There’s a crashing feeling of: there is life, love, death, and, in my case, trees, and everything else is bullshit. I can’t be doing with the bullshit when life gets this real.
Third of all, there are horses; fourth of all, there are hills. We drove up to look at the winter quarters, where the herd shall go in a week or two. The road runs through thick Scottish woods and then breaks out at the top of a rise, and you turn in, and suddenly all the mountains open like a book, rolling in high blue waves, so beautiful and majestic it makes me catch my breath. It was that with which I fell in love when I first came here; it was why I threw everything up in the south and made the whimsical move north.
Back at headquarters, one of the volunteers, whom I had not met before, approached me. The way this operation works is very clever. There are specific courses for wounded servicemen and women, which are important in themselves, but almost more important is the voluntary programme. Those wounded in war, with scars internal or external, come back to this extraordinary place, with its beauty and its peace, and do all kinds of work, with the horses, on the buildings, and find a safe place, where they do not have to explain themselves. It is the most potent therapeutic tool, and brilliantly organic and real.
Anyway, one of these fellows came up to me and said: ‘You’re the blogging lady, aren’t you?’
‘I am,’ I said.
He looked rather grave, and I had a sudden terror that he was going to say, oh please don’t write that, or don’t use this word, or just: you’ve got it all wrong. Every time I sit down to write about all this, I have a keen sense of responsibility. These are people who have experienced things I can hardly stretch my brain to imagine. I am acutely aware of the spaces of my ignorance. It is a delicate subject, and one to which I must do justice. More than in any other area of my writing life, I feel it is vital not to get it wrong.
In fact, the grave look was because he was filled with seriousness of purpose. He had embarked on a fund-raising exercise, and now was the moment he was to present the cheque. He was giving something back, for all that HorseBack had given him. He wanted me to record it.
I felt stupidly, absurdly humbled. Also: honoured. I damn well was the blogging lady, and I was going to be able to show the lovely virtuous circle that exists in this place.
The gentleman told me, with the ready honesty that I find everywhere here, of his history. He served in the first Gulf War and in Northern Ireland. He had PTSD, which suddenly morphed itself into acute agoraphobia.
‘I did not go outside for six years,’ he said.
I’m getting reasonably good at this now. I do not exclaim, or say oh no poor you, or put on the pity face. I sense, without having to be told, that the pity face is the last thing any of them want. Although pity can come from the good human emotion of sympathy, it can also be patronising and distancing. Now, when people say things like this to me, I nod, seriously, and take it on the chin, and listen, and let them tell me their story.
Six years inside is a long time. Now, this gentleman was lifting his eyes to the distant hills, at home in his surroundings. Now, he was working with horses, which he had no experience of until he came here.
‘I could hardly lift my head up,’ he said. ‘The horses taught me to raise my head.’
I nodded, on easier ground now. I know horses.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘because you have to.’
‘Because you have to,’ he said.
You know what I said yesterday about the Perspective Police sending me a note? This was the note. My heart will break, but hearts mend. Perspective does not lessen grief, but it bloody well makes me realise all the good fortune I have, and reminds me not to throw out babies with bathwater. It restores sanity. Everything will not end.
The cheque presentation was lovely. The amazing fund-raising gentleman said to me, out of the corner of his mouth, as we all went into the office: ‘Sometimes I’m not very good at talking to one person, let alone a whole room.’ But his short speech was gracious and fluent and perfect. ‘The first thing I felt when I left,’ he said, ‘was that I had to give something back.’ And so he did, over eight hundred whole pounds, which means a huge amount to this organisation.
The boss stood up to take the cheque. ‘It’s not often I’m lost for words,’ he said truthfully. There was a pause, whilst he found some good ones. At the end, he looked at the gathered veterans and said: ‘It’s a real privilege to work with you guys.’ Right on the money. Everyone clapped and I quite wanted to whoop and holler, but I restrained myself. I took some pictures instead.
There is a slight hippy dippy idea that the universe sends you the things you need, when you need them. I’m not quite sure about that, but Jung had a similar idea, which he called synchronicity, and the Buddhists go there too. There might just be a grain of rational truth in it. I don’t know who sends what: universe, fate, give it the name you like. But I got sent something really good. If it had not been for the mare, I might never have discovered HorseBack, and it is the absolute definition of a one true thing, and it really is a privilege to work with those guys, just like the man said.
I got home to my Pigeon. She was a bit dopey and wobbly after her anaesthetic yesterday. She gave me the Disney eyes and I fed her treats and stroked her and made encouraging noises and told her she was a very marvellous creature indeed. The Playwright called, with jokes and words of wisdom and the exact right combination of understanding and encouragement. Also, there was a call from one of the very old friends who has known the Pidge since the very day she arrived in our lives, a small bundle of black fur. The old friend is the mother of my goddaughter M. ‘The Pigeon is M’s favourite dog in the whole world,’ said the old friend. ‘Even more of a favourite than our own dog.’ She laughed. She sent love.
And talking of love, the thing that never fails to astonish me is the kindness and love sent by the Dear Readers. You did this after the old Duchess went, and you do it again now. It touches and cheers me more than perhaps you know. If it had not been a HorseBack day, this entire post would have been devoted to the miraculous nature of the Dear Readers. Who knew so much generosity of spirit and cleverness and kindness was out there, on the wilder shores of the world wide web?
After Frankel won the Lockinge, Tom Queally said: ‘He belongs to racing now.’ In my fanciful mind, I think: the Pigeon belongs to the internet. I did not expect to have a dog who was beloved from the Antipodes to America, but it turns out that is what I do have. That’s a lot of love. Thank you for it.
The old lady is chasing rabbits in her sleep now. I take this as a GOOD SIGN. We’ll bugger on for a few days yet, I think.
The happy HorseBack horses:
The view from the top of the hill:
The cheque presentation:
My sweet girls:
The Pigeon, after I brought her home from the vet last night, swaddled in blankets: