This morning, in the shop, there is a boy dressed in a tight, sharp black suit and pointed black shoes. It is as unexpected as an Eames chair in a farmyard.
It’s almost a mod look, but not quite mod. It is inflected with a faint hint of Goth, which is highlighted by the trace of eyeliner. It is all urban. Those drainpipe trousers and winklepickers are not what we usually see, in these parts.
In these parts, people tend to dress according to their tribe. There is the tweedy lot, with their LandRovers and their corduroy; the sporty lot, who go to one of those shops that sell something I think is called outerwear and is made of the kind of fabric that people go to space in; the tidy lot, who are always immaculate and respectable and perfectly pressed and make me feel very scruffy indeed. Then there is my tribe, which is what I think of, in the nicest possible way, the dirty lot. These are the people who work outside, who have mud on their boots and their hands and sometimes, as in my case, their faces, whose clothes have nothing sartorial about them, but are purely practical, built to withstand livestock and weather. We do not have young men in sharp black suits.
I smile. I remember those boys. I think I used to kiss those boys. They were the ones who loved vinyl, and spent a lot of time listening to old Nick Drake and Gram Parsons records. They loved Van Morrison, but not the famous tracks, the obscure difficult Van at his most Vannish tracks, like TB Sheets, which they put on every mix tape they made.
I’m at the age now where my youth is far enough away for the string to snap. I realise that I spent a lot of time pulled back into the past. I think I defined myself by the things I did in my late teens and early twenties. This summer, when I went back to Oxford for my gaudy, I realised it was not mine any more. I’d always been so proud of Oxford. I was not supposed to be clever enough to go, but there was a muddle in the headmaster’s office, and I ended up going back for my seventh term by mistake, to cram for the exam. Might as well have a go at it, I thought, although all my teachers said that it was a bridge too far. I was all prepared for Bristol, hoping I might find a nice room in Clifton, when the letter came. My mother stood at the bottom of the stairs, gazing at the thin piece of paper. ‘What is an exhibition?’ she said.
That was a defining feature for a long time, as all the girly swotting finally paid off. This summer, I let it go. I gave those golden stones and stately quads back to the young people who own them now. It was melancholy and liberating at the same time. I don’t need this any more, I thought. You can’t go around your whole life thinking: well, look at me, I went to university.
I think it was a thing in my mind because I did not come from an academic background. I lived among horse people, and they really did only talk about horses. My father could work out of the odds of a five-race accumulator in under a minute, but he had no idea who John Stuart Mill was. The people of the Lambourn valley did not read de Toqueville, so it felt very novel and thrilling to me as I sat in tutorials about him, with the venerable old prof who knew him as well as a brother.
The boy in the black suit was a whistle from that distant past. For a moment, I remembered it all. Then I had a nice conversation with the lady in the shop about the weather – ‘blowing in from the Atlantic,’ she said; ‘I hope we don’t get hit too hard,’ – and went to make sure the red mare was settled for the storm to come.
Ready for the storm:
This is Red’s stern predator alert face. She knows she has a job to do:
The dramatic idea of Preparing for the Storm is of course absurd, because all it means is rugs and a slightly bigger than usual breakfast. The girls are perfectly able to deal with the weather themselves. The red mare takes up her position at the highest point of the field, well away from dangerous branches, and watches for mountain lions, whilst, in her shadow, the little Paint safely grazes. Horses are much tougher than one thinks. It is the humans who are frail, and fret. Or this human, anyway.