Today I did something I was afraid of. I jumped a course of jumps.
Last year I signed up for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event. I haven’t done dressage or cross-country or show-jumping since I was fifteen and I’m now fifty. Since getting my red mare I went back to scratch and educated myself in an entire new school of horsemanship, which I’m just getting the hang of. She herself was bred for the flat, went for polo after racing, and has never competed in a show in her life.
Of course we would sign up. It’s for charity.
The jumping scares me witless. It scares me because I’m afraid of having a crash and wounding myself and not being able to look after the animals and it scares me because I’m afraid that I will make a fool of myself in front of people. You’d think I’d be used to making a fool of myself but apparently I’m not. Or there are some fools that are more equal than others. Or something.
Despite all this, today the mare and I rode three miles down the valley and jumped a course, in front of many people and with many, many opportunities for folly. And I did not fall off and we did not have a crash and I was so enchanted with the brilliance of the red mare that I did not care what anyone thought.
It was very wonderful and I did a lot of whooping and felt quite proud because I had faced my fears, but the big life lesson is that I did not do it on my own. I had a teacher. I accepted help. I am very, very bad at accepting help. I have some bizarre need to do everything on my own. I don’t want to be that demanding, needy, hopeless person who haunts my imagination like a cautionary tale.
One day, I shall get it into my thick head that everyone can’t do everything by themselves. No man is an island, and no woman either.
There are lots of interesting and clever tactics to boost one’s own confidence and many psychological aspects to ponder and many books to read. Such things should be pondered. If one can make a thing better, so one should. But nothing, nothing, builds confidence like someone who has faith in you. And I mean proper faith. Not mimsy, molly-coddling, oh you sweet thing of course you can do it kind of bollocks. That’s no good. The gentle hand on the shoulder, the sympathetic look in the eye, the consoling note in the voice that teeters on the abyss of the patronising – no, no, none of that is what you need. What is required, what makes all the difference, is someone who stands on the ground and shouts: ‘Ride straight.’ Because that person knows you can ride straight, and wants you to ride straight, and has the belief that you can ride straight, and then, suddenly, like a flapping great miracle straight from flappy old heaven, with celestial choirs singing their heads off and everyone playing their harps, you ride straight. Yes, you damn well do.
I don’t really know how it works. Some people simply are great teachers. I had one, years ago, who made me feel I could do anything. He was called Mr Woodhouse and I can see him now, with his quizzical look and that faintly fanatical gleam in his eye. All the other teachers thought I worked hard but missed the top grade. (Eager, but a little bit second-rate, intellectually.) Mr Woodhouse thought I could go all the way. And when I walked through the great arch into Canterbury Quad for the first time, it was completely because of him.
University wasn’t a thing in my family. My brothers and sister did not go. My mother did not go. My dad went for about five minutes, found it all ‘far too difficult’ and gave up academic work and ran the drag and went for sherry once a week with Hugh Trevor-Roper (‘have you heard of him, darling?’) until it was decided with great goodwill and enormous mutual relief that he should go down. I had one eccentric Irish godmother who insisted I should go to Oxford but everything thought that a tremendous joke until Mr Woodhouse, who was a very serious man indeed, coached me through the exam and got me there.
Some teachers just have that gift, that special extra something, the thing that does not quite go neatly into words. They look like everyone else and they sound like everyone else and they don’t seem to do anything extraordinary, but it’s all Dead Poets’ Society with them. It’s Captain my bloody Captain and standing on the desks and thinking perhaps one can be remarkable after all.
And that is why I did the thing I was afraid of today, not because I was brave, or I was clever, or I was bold, but because there was one of those talented ones, on the ground, shouting ‘Ride straight.’
They were tiny little fences. This charity thing is entirely obscure and will be over in the blink of an eye and people will hardly know it even happened. But it’s huge to me. It’s quite weird when both your parents die. It’s so normal and natural and expected. It’s what happens to everyone. You are fifty years old and you know how life works; you know about funerals and grief and letting go of the Dear Departeds. Inside, however, there is a voice that is wailing: I’m an orphan, I’m on my own, I don’t know what happens next. No wonder I ran headlong into a challenge. It was some kind of existential howl of mere presence: look at me, I am not nothing, I can do stuff.
I feel as if I have to reinvent my life now out of whole cloth. Everyone has gone. The dear Stepftather has gone to the south and the nieces have gone to the south and my sister and brother-in-law have gone to the south. There was a family enclave and now there is me and the lurchers and the two mares. I don’t know that I leaned on that family but it was there and it felt like something. My mother was a quarter of a mile away and I saw her every morning. I made her breakfast and I made her laugh. And now that’s all gone and all changed and there are great open spaces where people once were.
So I have to learn to ride straight. I have to make new paths in those open spaces, carve new tracks in the trackless wastes. I need confidence for that, and hope, and a voice in my head that says you can do this, just like I had today, over those absurdly small jumps that frighten me so much.
Ride straight, my darlings; ride straight.