Everyone says, looking at the sky, British stoicism in their voices: ‘The snow is coming.’ It’s hard to believe as I stand in the warm field with my dozy mare. The sun on her back has sent her into a dream of pleasure and everything about her is soft and relaxed. All is good in her world.
I run up to HorseBack to do my work there. One of the lovely things it has taught me is not to be afraid of people with damaged bodies. I used to have an embarrassed terror of what I once called disability. I didn’t know where to look or how to act. I tried so hard to be normal that I fell into a high-voiced phoniness, overcompensating to beat the band. Now I’m so used to it that I genuinely don’t notice it. The prosthetic is registered, and after that I just see the person. There is no voice in my head shouting, at crazed Basil Fawlty pitch: ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T MENTION THE LEG.’
Volunteering for a charity can sound terribly pious and po-faced. Oh, oh, look at me, doing good. In fact, I think it’s one of the most selfish things I’ve ever done. I do get the gift of feeling I’m putting some tiny thing into the world, but the gift is much, much more than that. My mind, which I had not even realised was closed, has been cranked wide open. I have listened to stories and heard perspectives and seen attitudes which I would never have known otherwise. I may now converse with any human missing any part of the anatomy without falling into a sinkhole of terror that I shall say the wrong thing. These people turned me authentic where I was once artificial. That is one of the greatest presents you can give to a human being.
I think a lot about language. Language is one of my great loves, my enduring delights. I never lose my awe and wonder at what words can do. They are worm-holers, time-travellers, scene-setters. Tiny black scratches on a page can take you to 19th century Russia or 25th century Mars. They may transport the reader into other minds and other worlds. Those scratches may cause water to come out of human eyes, or provoke laughter to make the stomach ache. They can enlighten, soothe, galvanise, reassure. The act of writing itself can release anger, cure angst, calm a harried mind. Write it down, write it down, sing my better angels. These little words I play with every day make a record of my love for my dear red mare, so that when she is only a memory I shall still have her with me. She will always exist, in the language of Shakespeare and Milton.
Because of going to HorseBack every week, I don’t use the word disability. It’s not out of some mealy-mouthed political correctness. It’s because I have come to realise that it is not the right word. Language matters. These men and women are the least disabled people I have ever met. They might have been blown to smithereens by roadside bombs, but they can still climb Ben Nevis in the rain and the murk. They work with horses and make unrepeatable jokes and carry themselves with no trace of self-pity. They do bear scars in their bodies and in their minds which mean that they may struggle with things which other people might take for granted. Just because I do not focus on their wounds does not mean that I do not appreciate the challenges they face. But disability is not the word. I prefer to describe the thing as it is. There is a limb missing; the fingers are gone; the Post-Traumatic Stress includes hyper-vigilance and agoraphobia. I don’t think that one word, that single label, is insulting or demeaning or belittling; it just doesn’t tell the thing like it is. The choice is my own, and it means something to me. It’s a decision, not a judgement.
Oddly enough, as I was writing this the telephone rang. It was a nice man called Pete from Action Aid. Apparently I have been supporting Action Aid for twenty-two years. Pete, who sounded as if he was not born when I set up my first direct debit, had amazement in his voice. (I had a rueful moment of thinking the astonishment was that anyone could be that old.)
I remember the impulse as if it were yesterday. All my life, I have carried the hum of First World guilt in my ears. I shall never quite understand why I had the luck to be born in a liberal democracy with running water and a temperate climate and a roof over my head. In a shameless manner, I thought that if I whacked some money each month to a good cause then I might ease that guilt. It was not the most salutary reason in the world, but, anyway, Pete seemed pleased.
He was ringing to tell me about disaster prevention and told me of a family in Vietman who had spent three days on the roof of their house as the flood waters rose. Could I spare another two pounds a month so that they could have an early warning system? Yes, I could. How can I say no to two pounds when I am about to shell out fifty times that for some hay for my horse?
HorseBack, however, has nothing to do with assuaging guilt. There is no consciousness of others not having the fortune I have. It’s part of my life. It’s hard work. Far from feeling saintly, I sometimes get scratchy and manic and even grumpy about the demands on my time, even though it’s entirely my own choice to do it. It’s an eye-opener, a mind-expander, a weekly perspective police. I don’t feel like a good person when I am there; I am far too busy being interested and laughing my head off and listening to things I should never hear anywhere else. I canter about and make bad jokes (‘Are we playing innuendo bingo?’ I hollered, at one point this morning) and frown as I try to get a good angle with the camera and give my favourite horses a good scratch and catch up with the returning veterans.
I suppose I sometimes feel useful, part of something bigger than my own small self, but mostly I feel galvanised. There is a reason that people say there is a paradox in volunteering. The paradox is this: the more you give, the more you get. It’s that damn simple. And I love it.
HorseBack UK course, this morning. All these veterans have gone through life-changing injury, physical and mental. They have seen things no human eye should see. Until they came here, most of them had never even met a horse. And here they are:
At one point, I started faffing around with angles, trying to get arty. These pictures are not technical successes, because the focus is all wrong, but I rather love them anyway:
Back in her quiet, sunny field, the duchess is enjoying her Thunderbrook’s. This is a top-quality feed which I have shipped in at vast expense, by couriers who believe I live in the Highlands, however often I tell them I don’t, so that they can charge me an extra premium. I don’t care. Only the best is good enough for the red mare:
The peace is coming off her in waves. She is my own little Zen mistress and she was at her most Zennish today:
Meanwhile, Stan the Man is HUNTING. Again, not the best picture I ever took but I like it because you can see the determination. He is a very busy dog. Some days, he can’t even stop to say hello because he has jobs to finish: