Mount! By Jilly Cooper: Book Review
Be still my beating heart (or should that be throbbing loins?) Jilly Cooper, queen of the bonkbuster, creator of the Rutshire Chronicles, and the woman from whose mischievous imagination sprang notorious playboy, cad and all-round unhealthy lust object Rupert Campbell-Black, is back.
But Rupert, now a still-got-it silver fox (naturally), has a rival for his "hottest stud in the stable" crown in the form of Gav, his assistant - a troubled genius with a vile wife.
What WILL happen next?
I'm sure you can't POSSIBLY imagine but I guarantee you'll have a bloody good time finding out.
Mount! By Jilly Cooper: Book Extract
The last race should have been called off, as the twin saboteurs, night and fog, crept stealthily over the course. Rutminster Cathedral spire, a landmark for miles around, was no longer visible. The Bishop of Rutminster, battling to ban racing, could identify neither rabble nor runners as he peered furiously out of his palace window.
Nor had bitter cold nor relentless drizzle dispersed a vast crowd, swarming round the betting posts, clamouring to watch the most eagerly awaited race in years – despite there being only two contenders.
The first was Rupert Black, a young adventurer, hellraiser, hard drinker and womanizer, who possessed the hauteur of beauty, but not of birth. His father was a small Northern racehorse trainer, and in the late eighteenth century, trainers were regarded as no higher than grooms.
Rupert Black had no income and fewer principles, but was such an amusing fellow that a fast aristocratic set had taken him up, welcomed him into their houses and let him advise them on bloodstock – about which he was clearly an expert.
Rupert Black had been called ‘Blackguard’ and ‘Black Sheep’, but was more often nicknamed ‘Rupert of the Roan’ because of his dashing cavalry charges on the hunting field and his beautiful blue roan mare, Sweet Azure, whom he was riding in the race ahead.
Pitted against him on a vastly superior horse called Spartan was the Hon. James Northfield, elder son of the fourth Baron Northfield, who owned 2,000 Cotswold acres, which included Rutminster Racecourse.
The austere, scholarly James, who had hitherto shown little interest in the estate or in women, had then outraged his parents and scandalized society by impregnating one of his mother’s kitchenmaids: a pretty Dutch girl called Gisela. Even more scandalously, he had then secretly married her.
The Hon. Rufus Northfield, except for having the same dark auburn hair, sallow complexion and close-set, fox-brown eyes, was a total contrast to his older brother James. A crack shot and rider, the inseparable crony of Rupert Black, Rufus loved the land and carousing with his father’s tenants. Despite his profligate behaviour, Rufus was showing signs of calming down, having just become betrothed to a rich and well-born local beauty.
At the ball given by Lord and Lady Northfield to celebrate this engagement, James’ new wife, Gisela, had nearly died of embarrassment after her husband had insisted she attend: only for her to be sneered at by the guests and served by the very servants on whom she had waited in the kitchen.
Worse was to come when the loathsome Rupert Black, already in his cups and having uttered the pulses of all the ladies, had wandered up to her. Sliding a too-high hand around her thickening waist and squeezing her breast, he mockingly handed her a late wedding present. It turned out to be a copy of Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s wildly popular novel about a servant girl fighting for her virtue in the house of a lecherous master.
‘Richardson could have been writing about you,’ drawled Rupert, causing a ripple of laughter to run through several female guests who’d gathered around.
To their disappointment, however, Rupert showed no desire to dance with any of them and instead retired to the gambling tables in an attempt to reduce his debts and finish paying for a colt called Third Leopard, whose owner was threatening to sell him elsewhere.
As he raked in his winnings – a pile of sovereigns as gold as his hair – Rupert Black was singing the praises of his mare Sweet Azure, whom he might have been forced to sell if things didn’t pick up.
‘Like all good fillies,’ he said insolently, so a passing James Northfield could hear, ‘she has the face of an angel and the posterior of a cook – not unlike your new wife, James.’
Looking down at Rupert’s cruel, unsmiling face, its beauty hardly impaired by bloodshot, slightly crossing blue eyes, James, who loved his wife, upended the table; and, as coins scattered all over the floor, he challenged Rupert to a duel.
‘A better idea,’ suggested Rupert to noisy cheers, ‘would be a match race between Spartan and Sweet Azure round Rutminster Racecourse on the old track through the woods, the loser giving the winner four thousand guineas.’ And, as the Northfields owned the racecourse, it was arranged in front of witnesses that the contest would take place after the final race on the following Saturday.
Throughout that Saturday, rumours swirled round more thickly than the fog. Many of the gentry rolled up on horseback after a day’s hunting and were instantly engulfed by pick-pockets, drunkards, prostitutes, cutpurses and gypsies telling fortunes, crowding round the betting posts as the money poured in.
Northfield had the finer horse, Black was the finer rider. But, although lithe and lean, at six feet tall, Rupert was twelve pounds heavier than the weedy James – twelve pounds which Sweet Azure, far smaller and slighter than Spartan, would have to carry over four miles. Yet Black was still the favourite.
The fog was thickening, ghost-grey, suffocating and blurring everything. As James pulled on his boots, he was reminded of Leonardo da Vinci’s treatise on painting, which claimed that objects seen through fog will loom larger than they are. In fact, James had been so busy writing his own treatise on Leonardo that, unlike Rupert Black, he hadn’t bothered to walk the course.
The only person apart from the Bishop of Rutminster not at the races was Gisela Northfield, who, fighting all-day sickness, was in the cathedral praying for her husband’s safe return. Down at the start in the water meadows, oak trunks darkened by rain, like towers in the twisting vapours, were just distinguishable from the black wooded hillside beyond. Once again, the starter questioned whether the race should be run.
‘I can see well enough,’ mocked Rupert Black, who was already mounted, ‘to notice the sweat of fear glistening on James Northfield’s face and to have no difficulty recognizing the winning post.’
James didn’t reply. He was having difficulty merely climbing aboard the plunging, insufficiently ridden Spartan. More so when Hibbert, his groom, let go of the reins in order to contain Seeker, James’ white mastiff, who was fighting to join the race and follow his master.
The crowd huddled together, unwilling to lose their places on the rail, blowing on their fingers, drinking from bottles which they might later throw at a losing horse, and shouting to keep warm. Their roar could almost be heard in Newmarket, miles away, as the two riders splashed off across the water meadows and up on to a track that ran round the wooded bowl of hills, before dropping back down to the water meadows for the finish.
It was colder and more claustrophobic up in the woods. The going was as slippery as the fat from the roasting capon Gisela had spilled over the floor, the first time shy James had stolen a kiss.
Leaves blew into the horses’ faces and lay in a treacherous carpet over arthritic roots, fallen twigs, Cotswold stones, rabbit holes and badger setts. Not to mention the sinister coils of Old Man’s Beard hanging from overhead branches, waiting to garrotte a passing rider. As the track grew narrower from being little used, James Northfield cursed himself for not walking the course.
The bellow of the impatient crowd rose to a deafening climax, then turned to a groan as a horse and rider eventually emerged from the woods, parting the thick grey curtain of mist and splashing back across the water meadows. Both were so coated with dark-brown mud, they were assumed to be James Northfield and Spartan. But as they galloped up the straight, the groan became a thunderous cheer again, as the mob distinguished the flying gold curls of a rider, almost too big for his gallant little mare. Instantly the jubilant mounted spectators peeled off to follow the pair up the course to the winning post.
But as time ticked away there was no sign of the Honourable James.
‘I lost him about two miles back, just above Walker’s Mill,’ Rupert told the stewards as he removed his saddle to weigh in.
Sweet Azure stood desperately panting with drooping head, steam pouring out of inflated red nostrils. From the wheals on her quarters and her bleeding flanks, it was clear that neither whip nor spur had been spared. Rufus Northfield, overjoyed because he’d backed his friend very heavily, ordered Rupert’s groom to cover the damage with a rug.
Then everyone waited and waited for James Northfield and Spartan, until Seeker the mastiff broke away from Hibbert the groom and plunged back into the dark in search of his master. No one else left. The crowd had closed round the betting posts to stop any bookmaker doing a runner. Then over the shouting and celebration came the unearthly howl of a dog.
It took time to light torches, then stumbling and sliding through the darkening woods, a party of mounted stewards set out. After two miles, they at last identified the ghostly white form of Seeker, still howling on the side of the track. As the distraught animal refused to let anyone closer, he had to be shot before Spartan’s body was discovered slumped at the bottom of a fifty-foot ravine. Beneath the horse, his back and neck broken, lay James Northfield.
Next day the fog cleared, but rumour writhed round more thickly and darkly, particularly when, by the ravine, two sets of hoof-prints were discovered side by side, accompanied by much skidding. Only the smaller set of footprints passed onwards.
But as Rupert Black, refusing to admit he had blue blood on his hands, pointed out, he and Sweet Azure must have passed the spot a good ten minutes before James and Spartan – and both riders must have taken an identical route to avoid a big sycamore branch that had fallen across the track.
Darker rumours suggested that Rupert could have been egged on by Rufus, whose extravagant tastes were hampered by the enforced poverty of a younger son. Any suggestions of foul play, however, were quashed by the Northfield family, who owned the racecourse and probably the local constabulary. Refusing to blame Rupert, they honourably paid him the four thousand guineas. This, added to his winnings from the vast sum he had wagered on himself and Sweet Azure, enabled him to complete the payments on Third Leopard.
Did the Northfields feel a secret relief? James had always been a difficult, introspective son. Rufus, particularly when guided by his sensible new wife, would run the estate far better. Privately, Lord North eld had never forgiven James for stealing from him the fair Gisela, on whom he too had had designs. After a few weeks, nemesis struck and his Lordship was punished by a fatal heart attack.
The timid, heartbroken Gisela was speedily paid off and sent packing back to Holland. Although she wrote occasionally to Mrs Jenkins the cook, by the time she gave birth, the title had already passed to Rufus.
Gisela, who had never ceased to mourn James, sank into despair and took her own life. No one in Rutminster bothered to find out if she had given birth to a daughter or a son.
Meanwhile, Third Leopard, who was both a direct descendant of the Darley Arabian and grandson of the mighty Eclipse, was trained by Rupert Black into a great horse, winning numerous races including the oldest classic, the St Leger, which had been established in 1776.
At stud, Third Leopard was even more successful, siring 400 sons and daughters, who in turn won many classics, notching up 822 victories. This for several years made the stallion the country’s Leading Sire, during which time his master Rupert was able to charge a massive stud fee of fifty guineas. With riches pouring in, Rupert Black became a grand gentleman, marrying, like Rufus Northfield, a rich, well-born beauty, a Miss Campbell, whose ancestors had fought bravely for the Royalists in the Civil War, and who joined her name with his. The Campbell-Blacks bought a beautiful house in Penscombe overlooking a wooded Gloucestershire valley, where horses have thrived ever since.
The marriage was successful. If Mrs Campbell-Black corrected her husband Rupert’s pronunciation a little too often, he could always find solace in the adulation of the neighbouring belles.
Such was his hubris, he and Third Leopard were even painted by Stubbs in a country landscape with a pale-gold house peering out of dark-green trees, with olive-green lawns owing down to a lake on which floated swans.
Normally Stubbs immortalized legendary racehorses held by grooms identified by name. But Rupert Black insisted on aping the Prince Regent. Like Prinny he was dressed in tight white breeches and brown topped boots, with a wide-brimmed hat tipped over his Greek nose and flaxen curls owing over the collar of a long, brass-buttoned riding coat, which emphasized his strong, lithe body. A frilled white shirt showed off the perfect jawline and a passionate but ruthless mouth. Rupert Black was also portrayed like Prinny, trotting past with a triumphant wave of his whip: ‘Haven’t I and this great horse done well.’
And yet to this day, no one – least of all Rupert Black’s descendants – likes to ride or walk in Rutminster woods at dusk. There have been too many sightings of pale riders on dark horses and howling white mastiffs. Even hounds in full cry on late winter afternoons have always turned away, whimpering, if a fox has run into the woods. Next chapter
On a stiflingly hot June evening, some 225 years later, Rupert Campbell-Black, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Rupert Black, looked out of his office in the west wing of the same pale-gold Queen Anne house at Penscombe.
The same lake still glittered as sweetly azure as his ancestor’s blue roan mare in the June sun, but to the right of the olive-green lawns and down the valley sprawled a giant complex of a racing yard, entitled Rupert Campbell-Black Racing. This was surrounded by a tangle of gallops for all weathers and distances, a stud farm, Penscombe Stud, helicopter pad, hangar, lorry park, staff cottages, and lush paddocks, with plenty of shade to safeguard every kind of racehorse: stallions, visiting mares, mares in foal or with foal, yearlings and horses in training.
But Rupert Black’s descendant didn’t feel any great pride as he scrolled through the emails still congratulating him on his three-thousandth win, or his Grand National victory with a mare called Mrs Wilkinson back in April or the 2000 Guineas back in May. He was merely irritated not to have won the Derby earlier in the month.
Nor did he bother to read more emails pouring in to congratulate him on the speech he’d made at Billy Lloyd-Foxe’s memorial service yesterday, a task he’d found harder than winning an Olympic Gold in Los Angeles with a trapped nerve years ago. He had never dreamed how wiped out he would be by Billy’s death. Billy, his inseparable companion of fifty years, joined at the hip, finishing each other’s jokes, rejoicing in every success.
Rupert looked down at his speech.
‘This was the noblest rider of them all,’ he had told a packed Rutminster Cathedral congregation which had spilled out over the water meadows. Then he had regaled them with stories about his and Billy’s antics at prep school and Harrow, hellraising on the showjumping circuit, fighting for a television franchise, moving on to Billy’s career as equine correspondent for the BBC.
‘Nothing in Billy’s life became him like the leaving of it,’ he had ended. ‘He bore pain and illness with equal fortitude, but the happiest moment of his life came at the end, when his daughter Amber won the Grand National on a little one-eyed mare called Mrs Wilkinson.
‘Billy had an equally marvellous little horse called The Bull on whom he’d won a silver medal. “I hope I see The Bull again,” were his last words. I’m sure Billy’s riding The Bull across the clouds. Lucky heaven, to have both of them.’ Bloody mawkish that, Rupert thought wryly.
The party afterwards, most of which he’d paid for, resulted in him having a blazing row with Billy’s widow Janey, who’d made a drunken and soppy speech, repeatedly quoting the line: ‘That’s the way for Billy and me’, while boasting of the over 3,019 letters of sympathy she had received. She was furious Rupert hadn’t praised her as a wonderful wife.
‘You were a fucking awful wife,’ Rupert had snarled back. ‘Billy’d be alive today if he hadn’t been permanently stressed by you squandering his money and fucking other men.’
This had also resulted in a rare screaming match between Rupert and his wife Taggie, who’d ticked him off before rushing away to comfort Janey.
Rupert was sure Janey would take the opportunity to solicit an invitation to move back into Lime Tree Cottage, the little seventeenth-century house in Rupert’s woods nearby, which she and Billy had lived in rent-free when they were first married. If Janey returned, Rupert knew she’d be hanging round, playing the grieving widow, reminding him of Billy for the rest of his life.
Last night’s row with Taggie had ended up with her sleeping in the spare room and their not speaking all day. He was tempted to ring her in the kitchen and make it up. Instead he poured himself another glass of whisky.
On the wall opposite were monitors on which he could watch his own horses and the progeny of his stallions and brood mares winning races all over the world. On the left wall, flanked by framed photographs of victorious horses, hung the Stubbs of Rupert Black and Third Leopard, winner of the St Leger and for five years Leading Sire.
Today there were two ways a horse could become Leading Sire: either if he were the stallion whose offspring had clocked up the most wins in a year, or, more importantly, if those offspring had earned the most prize money. Verdi’s Requiem, a dark-brown Irish Triple Crown winner, had topped the Leading Sire charts for Great Britain and Europe for fifteen years but now, aged twenty-five, his reign must be drawing to a close.
Opening the Racing Post, Rupert noted Bloodstock News had predicted a bloody battle to topple Verdi’s Requiem between Rupert Campbell-Black’s Love Rat and Isa Lovell’s Roberto’s Revenge. Rupert ground his teeth. Isa Lovell, ex-champion jockey and ex-son-in-law, had worked uneasily for Rupert for ten years, learning everything he could about training and breeding before defecting to start his own yard directly in competition with Rupert.
Even worse, Isa had joined forces with Cosmo Rannaldini, the fiendish little son of Rupert’s arch enemy, the late, great conductor Roberto Rannaldini. Married to Rupert’s first wife Helen, Roberto had not only tried to rape Rupert’s daughter Tabitha, but had managed to batter to death Taggie’s little mongrel Gertrude when she tried to protect Tabitha. In the Campbell-Black canon, it was arguable which was the greater crime.
Cosmo and Isa were proving maddeningly successful with the progeny of Roberto’s Revenge, particularly with a colt called Feud for Thought, which had just beaten Rupert’s colt Dardanius in the Derby. Cosmo had inherited a great deal of money from his father, but he and Isa were spending such a fortune on yearlings and two-year-olds that someone must be bankrolling them. Rupert would kill to stop them beating him to Leading Sire. Love Rat must topple Verdi’s Requiem.
In the still-baking evening, out in the fields he could see foals lying flat and motionless except for their frantically waving tails. Rupert’s four dogs: Jack Russells, Cuthbert and Gilchrist, a brindle greyhound called Forester and a black Labrador called Banquo, panted in their baskets.
Up on a monitor, evening racing had started at the Curragh, Ireland’s greatest racecourse. Rupert hoped one of Love Rat’s progeny, Promiscuous, would win a later race there.
Promiscuous had been trained by Rupert’s old stable jockey, the also lascivious Bluey Charteris, who’d married an Irish trainer’s daughter, and managed to stay faithful enough to take over his father-in-law’s yard. Bluey and Isa Lovell doing so well made Rupert feel old. Overwhelmed with sadness and restlessness, he rang Valent Edwards, who had just married Etta Bancroft, the owner of Grand National-winning Mrs Wilkinson, and who was now back from their honeymoon.
‘We ought to discuss Mrs Wilkinson,’ he said. ‘Come over and have a drink.’
The moment he rang off, the telephone rang again: ‘No, you can’t have a discount on three mares,’ said Rupert tersely, and poured himself another glass of whisky.
There was a knock on the door and a very pretty blonde, with an utterly deceptive air of innocence, walked in. Dora Belvedon was the eighteen-year-old daughter of Rupert’s late friend, Raymond Belvedon, and his much younger second wife, Anthea. A gold-digger and an absolute bitch, Anthea had never given Dora enough pocket money. As a result, Dora had supported herself, her dog Cadbury and her pony Loofah by flogging stories to the tabloids.
For the past two years, as well as acting sporadically as Rupert’s press officer, she had been ghosting his contentious, highly successful column in the Racing Post. She also wrote a column supposedly by Mrs Wilkinson’s stable companion, a goat called Chisolm, in the Daily Mirror.
Missing her sweet father desperately, an itinerant Dora found comfort spending time at Penscombe, where she could always grab a bed if needs be. In addition, she often stayed in Willowwood, in the cottage of Miss Painswick, the former secretary of her old boarding school.
Fearing that Mrs Wilkinson might be homesick just before the Grand National, when she had been moved to Penscombe to be trained by Rupert, Dora, in an incredibly daring move, had smuggled the little mare into the mighty Love Rat’s stallion paddock, and a joyful coupling had taken place.
Mrs Wilkinson’s dam had been a successful at horse called Usurper, and her sire was Rupert’s most successful stallion: the Derby and St Leger-winning Peppy Koala. As Love Rat had been a champion sprinter, who would add his lightning speed to Mrs Wilkinson’s stamina, any foal consequently should be a cracker. But as Dora had executed this move without Rupert’s permission, she was extremely anxious to avoid the subject of stud fees. Now, brandishing an Italian phrasebook, she said, ‘Poor Emilia was awfully low, but I’ve been talking to her in Italian and she’s really perked up’ – Emilia being a very good filly Rupert had bought cheap because of the collapsing Italian economy.
‘I’ve also been playing her La Traviata,’ babbled Dora, ‘and she loved it, particularly the bit that goes, “Da dum dum da de dum, da dum, dum da, de, dum”.’
‘Where the hell have you been?’ demanded Rupert, who adored Dora but felt she needed reining in.
Dora replied that she’d been in Sardinia with her actor boyfriend Paris, and housesitting Mrs Wilkinson while Etta her owner and her husband Valent were on their honeymoon.
‘It’s Mrs Wilkinson we’ve got to talk about,’ Rupert said.
‘I must get your Racing Post copy in by tomorrow afternoon,’ Dora said hastily. ‘I thought you might like to write about Roberto’s Revenge’s climb up the Leading Sire’s chart. Isa Lovell’s doing really well.’
‘I’m not doing any favours for that moody, vindictive little shit, or that oily little toad Cosmo.’
‘I quite like Cosmo,’ confessed Dora. ‘He’s funny and we both have mothers who are embarrassingly bats about you.’
‘Shut up, Dora,’ snapped Rupert. ‘We need to talk about Mrs Wilkinson.’
‘Did you see Amanda Platell’s piece in the Mail, about the doctors’ surgeries teeming with women suffering from loss of libido, and suggesting the perfect cure was Rupert Campbell-Black?’
‘Don’t be even more fatuous,’ said Rupert irritably. But he smirked slightly. ‘Now about this stolen service.’
On cue, Dora’s chocolate Labrador, Cadbury, wandered in from Taggie’s kitchen, and all Rupert’s dogs woke up and fell on him, barking joyously. ‘Go back to your boxes. Stop that bloody awful din!’ roared Rupert.
‘Din, because they want their dinner, ha, ha. Can Cadbury have some too?’
‘Shut up, Cuthbert.’ Rupert pulled a Jack Russell on to his knee, shutting its yapping jaws with his hand and asked: ‘Can you remember exactly what day Love Rat covered Mrs Wilkinson?’
‘About a fortnight before the National.’
Rupert looked up at the calendar. ‘Foal in February then.’
‘Mrs Wilkinson’s had a lovely day,’ sighed Dora, edging off the subject again, ‘opening a supermarket in Cotchester. Huge cheering crowds turned out to pat her and Chisolm. They do adore the attention.’
‘With a valuable foal inside, she ought to be taking it easy.’
‘Mares can run up to a hundred and twenty days,’ chided Dora. ‘Mrs Wilkinson’s a working mother, has to earn her keep.’ Then, deflecting Rupert’s shaft of disapproval: ‘And did you know that people are Skyping Chisolm from all over the world? She’s got a website called Skypegoat. Isn’t that a cool joke?’
‘Quite,’ said Rupert, who was then fortunately distracted by a monitor on which jockeys and horses were going down to the start of the Curragh. There was Promiscuous, son of Love Rat, looking really well.
Dora looked out of one window at the squirrels fighting in the angelic green of Rupert’s beechwoods, which formed a great crescent round the rear of the house.
Turning back to Dora, Rupert said: ‘Do you realize Love Rat’s stud fee is £100,000?’
‘Goodness,’ she said, then gave a sigh of relief as Valent walked in. ‘Hi, Valent, hope you had a lovely honeymoon. Mrs Wilkinson missed you both. Must go and counsel Emilia some more. Dum, da, da, dum de dum,’ sang Dora as beaming, followed by five dogs, she sidled out of the room. Next chapter
Rupert respected Valent Edwards. He couldn’t push him around and, despite being strong, tough and hugely successful, Valent didn’t take himself at all seriously; nor, although humble about his working-class origins, was he remotely chippy. An ex-Premier League footballer, whose legendary Cup Final-winning save was still remembered, Valent had been a great athlete who, like Rupert, on giving up had channelled his ambition and killer instinct into finding gaps in world markets. The fact that both men had made a huge amount of money didn’t deter them from being hell bent on beating their rivals and making a great deal more.
In his late sixties, tall, handsome, hefty of shoulder and square of jaw, with black eyebrows and grey hair rising thickly without the aid of any product, Valent had been described by Louise Malone, one of Rupert’s most comely stable lasses as: ‘A cross between my dad and my granddad, but you still want to shag him.’
Having married Mrs Wilkinson’s owner, Etta Bancroft, Valent had returned from a four-week honeymoon looking tanned and happy.
‘How was it?’ asked Rupert, handing him a can of beer.
‘Grite, went by in a flash.’
‘You were bloody lucky, it’s been raining since you left.’
Glancing round the room, Valent caught sight of the Stubbs. ‘Christ, that’s you.’
‘No, a distant ancestor, Rupert Black.’
Valent moved closer. ‘But he’s exactly like you,’ he said incredulously. ‘Where d’you get it from?’
‘It somehow got handed down to some queer uncle, who left it to me. Should have left it to my brother, Adrian, who’s an art dealer, but I’m better-looking. Adrian’s livid. Stubbs was a leftie and usually painted racehorses held by their stable lads, but Rupert Black was so up himself, he insisted on riding the horse – a Leading Sire, no less, called Third Leopard. Perhaps I ought to start riding Love Rat.’
Valent shook his head. ‘He is so like you.’
‘Classic case of pre-potency,’ explained Rupert. ‘Some stallions (like some men) have genes so strong, they imprint their looks and temperaments on succeeding generations. So for generations, the offspring are far more like them than their immediate fathers or grandfathers.’
Rupert, who hadn’t had any lunch, opened a tin of Pringles and handed them to Valent who, having put on ten pounds during his honeymoon, waved them away.
‘For example, two hundred-odd years later,’ went on Rupert, ‘I look far more like Rupert Black than my own father, while Tabitha and Perdita, my daughters, and Eddie, my grandson, are all the image of Rupert Black. They have also inherited his brilliance as a rider, his arrogance, his tricky temperament and the same killer instinct.’
‘And stooning looks.’ Although as the sun fell on the indigo shadows beneath Rupert’s eyes, Valent thought he looked desperately tired. ‘What do you know about him?’
‘Not a lot. His father was a trainer, and Rupert Black won a match race which apparently enabled him to buy Third Leopard. As I said, the horse became Leading Sire, making Rupert a fortune in stud fees. And talking of Leading Sires, one of Love Rat’s colts is in this race . . .’ Turning up the sound, Rupert became totally superglued to the television.
‘Come on, little boy, come on, little boy . . . come on, come on, come on!’ he yelled, giving a shout of joy as Promiscuous left the eld for dead and romped home by three lengths.
Through the open window, cheers could be heard from stable lads watching the race on television screens all over the yard and stud. Next moment, a bell rang to announce a winner, which always raised morale.
Looking out, Valent could see Rupert’s beautiful wife Taggie crossing the yard on her way to the stud to reward the winner’s sire Love Rat with a carrot.
‘Bloody good result. That’s two Group Ones and a Group Two won by Love Rat’s progeny this week,’ said Rupert happily. He picked up his mobile to share the news with Billy, who had also loved Promiscuous, then realized the futility. God, would it never stop hurting?
Valent, meanwhile, was thinking about Etta, his new wife, and dreading getting caught up in work again. They could have stayed away more than a month, but Etta couldn’t bear to be parted any longer from Priceless, her greyhound, Gwenny her cat, Mrs Wilkinson and her stable companion, Chisolm the goat, and the garden in the growing season.
There were, in fact, few places abroad where some stray dog or cat wouldn’t upset Etta. He longed to take her to China where he had been doing a huge amount of business, but felt a country where dogs were rammed into cages in the marketplace on the way to the dinner-table would finish her off completely. So they had returned home and it was blissful to be back at his house, Badger’s Court, in the nearby village of Willowwood. He had left Etta pruning roses and wailing at the bindweed toppling the delphiniums and the brown slugs, bigger than Dora’s chocolate Labrador, eating everything.
Suddenly he noticed a large, dark-brown horse with only one ear wandering out of his box in the direction of the feed room.
‘Loose horse,’ he said in alarm. Rupert glanced out.
‘No, that’s Safety Car – got the run of the yard.’
‘Why’s he only got one ear?’
‘Titus Andronicus, the yard sociopath, bit the other off and most of his tail.’
As Taggie came out of Love Rat’s box, she apologized to Safety Car for giving away her last carrot, then glanced tentatively up at the window, waving shyly at Valent before disappearing back into the house, followed purposefully by Safety Car.
‘We’d better talk about Mrs Wilkinson’s foal,’ said Valent.
Mrs Wilkinson had originally been rescued by Valent’s new wife Etta. Nursed back to health, she had turned out to have an immaculate pedigree. To afford to put her into training, Etta had formed a syndicate of fellow villagers living in Willowwood.
Back in March, after Mrs Wilkinson fell in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Valent had bought her to stop her being acquired by a very unpleasant rival owner. When Rupert suggested she had a crack at the National in three weeks’ time, Mrs Wilkinson, when transferred to Rupert’s yard, had detested the draconian regime. It was here, to cheer her up, that Dora had sneaked her into stallion Love Rat’s paddock. Thus encouraged, Mrs Wilkinson had gone on to win the National.
Rupert, in fact, had been winding Dora up about stud fees, because Mrs Wilkinson actually belonged to Valent, who would own any foal born and therefore be responsible for stud fees. Having handed Valent another beer, Rupert foxily announced that foal shares were standard these days, and that if he and Valent shared ownership of the foal, he would train it for nothing.
Valent liked and admired Rupert, whom he was also aware he couldn’t push around. He was also slightly edgy about him, not least because Rupert had been Etta’s long-term pin-up. But although it would be most women’s idea of heaven to share ownership of a potential superhorse with Rupert Campbell-Black, Valent knew that Etta felt Rupert was too rough on horses, regarding them as marketable stock rather than furry animals to be adored.
‘I’d also be waiving Love Rat’s £120,000 stud fee,’ Rupert added.
‘You told Dora £100,000.’
‘Varies,’ said Rupert airily. ‘What’s the state of play with that ghastly syndicate?’
‘They still own ten per cent of Mrs Wilkinson.’
‘Get rid of them, pay them off.’
‘Here’s the contract.’ Valent had some difficulty extracting it from the pocket of his newly tight trousers before handing it to Rupert, who scanned it.
‘Thank Christ, there’s nothing about breeding rights, so the foal’s ours.’
‘I’ll talk to Etta,’ said Valent firmly. ‘I gave Wilkie back to her as a wedding present.’
He then moved on to discuss China, where racing was almost entirely forbidden because the Communist regime, like the Bishop of Rutminster back in the eighteenth century, thought it a corrupting influence, particularly the betting side.
Hong Kong, however, which offered vast prize money, made more in tax on the day of the Hong Kong Cup than the country did in an entire year – money which also paid for all the hospitals. An impressed China was therefore seriously considering establishing an indigenous racing and breeding industry. There were already plans afoot to build two inter- national racecourses, five training tracks and to provide stabling and facilities for 4,000 horses.
‘The potential of this market is so vast,’ said Valent, starting on the Pringles, ‘with bloodstock agents all over the world salivating at the prospect of selling horses to China.’
‘The Irish and the Arabs are already doing deals and sending stallions,’ volunteered Rupert. ‘Imagine The Morning Line with 400 million viewers.’
‘I’ve got the contacts, but not the expert knowledge.’ ‘Then you’d better acquire some,’ said Rupert.
Rupert whisked Valent through the racing yard, into Penscombe Stud and past a row of boxes, known as Billionaire’s Row because it housed Rupert’s nest stallions, and included the house of Pat Inglis the Stallion Master, so he could keep an eye on them all. Each stallion had a brass plate with his name on attached to the cheek-piece of his head collar.
‘Much better than those name-badges at parties, when you have to surreptitiously glance down at a person’s bosom to check who they are,’ observed Valent. ‘Here you can look your stallion in the eye.’
Rupert, a gambler like his ancestor Rupert Black, had a few years ago had a successful bet that he could get a GCSE in English Literature as a very mature student. Acquiring a fondness for the subject, he had named his more recent horses after characters in Shakespeare.
Valent proceeded to admire Thane of Fife, dark brown and workmanlike, who had no trouble covering three mares a day, with a strike rate of getting 90 per cent of them in foal.
‘Didn’t win that many big races,’ explained Rupert, ‘so his stud fee is a third of Love Rat’s.’
Next Bassanio, who was very shy and could only perform if Dorothy the practice mare stood in the corner of the covering shed watching him.
Then prowling Titus Andronicus, a black brute who descended on mares like the Heavy Brigade, and who so terrified the stable lads, he was sometimes dispatched down a tunnel of cages to the covering shed.
‘One day he’ll have you against the wall, another he’ll be sweet as pie. I hope his foals don’t inherit his temperament,’ said Rupert.
They had reached the box of Hamlet’s Ghost, who only fancied greys.
‘The only way to get him to mount a mare of any other colour,’ Rupert told Valent, ‘is to put a white sheet over her.’
Enobarbus’s box was empty. He was spending a season in France and not enjoying it, because he couldn’t get a grip on the quarters of those slim French mares.
Valent shook his head. ‘They’re all different.’
‘And here’s Mrs Wilkinson’s sire, Peppy Koala,’ went on Rupert as a wild-eyed chestnut darted out his head and took a nip at Rupert’s sleeve. ‘Winner of the Derby and the St Leger, contender for Leading Sire. Stud fee even higher than Love Rat’s.
‘And talk of the angel, here is Mrs Wilkinson’s husband Love Rat,’ he added fondly, as they reached the last box. Valent admired the big grey with a long blond mane and tail, who nickered at Rupert and rubbed a whiskery soft pink nose against his face.
‘He’s the gentlest horse in the yard; any child would be safe in his box, always offering to babysit. His only problem,’ Rupert scratched Love Rat behind the ears, ‘is laziness. Unless he really fancies a mare, he’s a bit inclined to leave it in and let it soak. He’s got a waiting list of five hundred, but we limit him to ninety of the very best a season. If he’s going to make Leading Sire, we can’t have him wasting his somewhat selective libido on any riff-raff.’
Rupert consulted his iPhone. ‘He’s not covering anything this evening,’ he said.
‘That’ll please Mrs Wilkinson,’ said Valent.
‘Look behind you.’ Rupert nudged Valent. Valent did and burst out laughing. Big, one-eared Safety Car had picked up the handle of a large brush with his teeth and was attempting to sweep the yard.
‘He can’t bear attention on any other horse. He’ll play football for hours with Cuthbert and Gilchrist.’
‘I ought to get back,’ said Valent.
‘Come and watch a covering. Thane of Fife’s doing the honours.’
In a huge barn, with padded walls and a carpet of shredded black rubber – laughingly known as ‘shagpile’ – a lovely chestnut mare was being led in with a tiny grey foal trotting beside her.
‘That’s Cindy Bolton’s mare, Wages of Cindy, known as Katie,’ murmured Rupert. ‘Amazingly, she’s won a lot of races.’ And there up in the viewing platform, giggling and waving, was Cindy Bolton herself, a very blonde, world-famous porn star, who lived in Valent’s village of Willowwood. Accompanied by her dreadful, self-important, billionaire porn-merchant husband, Lester, she was now shrieking at the prospect of Rupert and sexual activity.
‘Hello, Valent, hello, Rupert – come and join us up here. Surely Foalie oughtn’t to see Mummy making babies,’ she squealed. ‘Someone ought to put their hands over his eyes.’
‘Some mares get inordinately upset if they’re separated from their foals,’ Rupert called up to her, preferring to lean against the wall with Valent. ‘And for Christ’s sake, keep your voice down.’
‘Isn’t he macho?’ sighed Cindy.
‘What are those two doing here?’ muttered Valent in horror.
‘If breeders are forking out a hundred grand for a shag, or in Fifey’s case twenty-five grand, they want to check it’s happened – and with the right mare.’
Wages of Cindy was now having protective boots put on her feet by a girl stud hand dressed in a hard hat and protective clothing.
‘Coverings can be very dangerous, and catastrophic for a stallion if a mare kicks out behind,’ said Rupert, nipping out of the barn to take a call.
Another stud hand led the grey foal away from the action but to a place where he could still see his mother. The ‘teaser’, whose job it was to arouse the mare, was led in. A sweet little bay pony called Gloucester, the teaser was a smooth operator with a shaggy black mane and tail, who proceeded to sniff and lick Wages of Cindy, nipping her gently on the neck, then moving down her body, getting her ready until the mare lifted her tail, parted her back legs and let out a stream of urine. Whereupon the poor teaser was whipped away and a huge grey stallion thundered in, blond mane and tail tossing even more than Cindy Bolton’s and giving great reverberating bellows.
Surely that’s Love Rat, not Thane of Fife, thought Valent.
But an army of stud hands, all in safety helmets, were concentrating too hard to notice. One was hanging on grimly to the stallion’s bridle, another was holding the mare’s tail out of the way, another was poised to guide in the penis, another to hold the base of the shaft to see if ejaculation had taken place, and yet another to wind a twitch of rope round Wages of Cindy’s nose and tighten it if she started playing up.
‘Poor girlie,’ wailed her mistress. ‘Don’t hurt her poor nosey. Goodness, what a winkle!’ Her voice rose to a shriek again, as the stallion flashed the most enormous penis, nearly two foot long, grey, and circled halfway down by a smart pink band.
‘Shut up,’ hissed a returning Rupert. Some stallions could be distracted by a sparrow flying up into the roof. Then he gave a howl of rage. ‘It’s the wrong fucking stallion! It should be Fifey, not Love Rat.’ Sprinting across the yard, hurling himself with huge courage at Love Rat’s bridle, he tried to haul him away. But it was too late. Love Rat, feeling randy for once, had plunged his mighty Tower of Pisa into the excited mare – ten massive thrusts and it was all over.
The stud hands glanced at each other in trepidation.
‘OK, he’s ejaculated,’ said one, feeling a shudder at the base of the shaft.
‘Who the fuck is responsible for this?’ said Rupert furiously. ‘Where’s Gavin?’
‘Couldn’t make it – wife trouble,’ muttered the penis-guider.
‘I don’t want to snitch, but Gav definitely said Love Rat,’ whispered the girl stud hand, releasing the twitch on the mare’s nose.
Valent was distracted by a moan from the gallery. Glancing up, he saw Cindy Bolton slumped on the rail, a glazed expression on her flushed face. Behind her, Lester was smoothing his comb-over and zipping up his trousers.
As Love Rat was led back to his box, to be washed down with lukewarm water, Wages of Cindy was united with her foal and led off to the box where she would board for a week to see if she was pregnant.
By some superhuman effort, Rupert managed not to erupt in rage. As the error was on Penscombe’s side, would he be able to sting Lester, as tight with money as Wages of Cindy’s twitch, for a further £75,000 to make up Love Rat’s fee? Would it be better, in fact, to abort the foal, who would only be the size of a fingernail, rather than have Love Rat’s name on its passport – and try again later with Fifey? Bloody, bloody Gav.
Straightening her clothes, Cindy came down from the viewing platform to pat her departing mare.
‘Good girlie, hope that didn’t hurt you so soon after having Foalie. I’ve brought my latest for your dad.’ She handed Rupert a DVD entitled Spanky Panky. ‘I hope you’ll have a little look.’
‘Thanks,’ said Rupert tersely as he pocketed it.
‘Thanks,’ echoed the girl stud hand, who’d taken off her hard hat, unleashing a cascade of shiny red hair, and who now accepted a leer and a £100 tip from Lester. ‘You’re welcome at Penscombe any time, Mr Bolton.’
‘I do hope you’ll train Foalie for us, Rupert,’ simpered Cindy. ‘And now I expect you’re going to offer us a nice glass of bubbly.’
‘I’m busy,’ snapped Rupert, relieved for once to hear cries of, ‘Cindy, Cindy,’ as his dotty old father Eddie wandered into the stud with his flies undone, crying, ‘Where’s my lovely boy, Love Rat? Come and see him, Cindy.’
Old Eddie adored Love Rat and drove Rupert crackers, hanging around the boxes or the stallion paddocks, plying him with Polos and often leaving his gate or stable door undone.
Rather ashamed at how aroused he’d been by the whole covering, and sensing that Rupert was about to explode, Valent told him he’d better get back to Etta and that he’d rm things up over Mrs Wilkinson’s foal in a few days. Next chapter
As Valent drove to Willowwood, its thousands of willows swayed like pale-gold fountains in the setting sun. Reaching Badger’s Court, he could hear strains of Bruckner’s Seventh, and breathed in the heady mingling smells of his new wife’s favourite scent, 24 Faubourg, of white philadelphus in a big emerald-green bowl on the kitchen table and garlic and parsley as Etta roasted a leg of lamb in happy memory of the first supper he had ever cooked for her.
Etta looked so adorable in a sky-blue dress he’d bought her in Paris and gave such a cry of joy as she ran to hug him, turning her face slightly away to hide the fact she’d just popped a piece of ripe Brie into her mouth.
‘I missed you,’ she said.
‘And I missed you. How did Wilkie get on, opening her supermarket?’
‘Brilliantly, loved every minute. Huge crowds and traffic at a standstill,’ Etta said, squeaking with laughter. ‘Chisolm ate the ribbon before anyone had time to cut it. Let me get you a drink.’
‘I’ll get you one.’
Both were still apprehensive of so much happiness. Both having been badly burned before, Valent couldn’t believe Etta could be so loving and unpicky, unlike his previous trophy girlfriend, nor Etta that Valent was so kind and approving, unlike her powerful, bullying late husband.
Both were amazed the other was so easy to live with. At first, toothpaste consumption had rocketed and Etta had kept running upstairs to wash between her legs – such bliss to have a bidet – in case Valent wanted to make love to her. She also washed her ears every night instead of twice a week, and with five loos in the house, she was no longer embarrassed at leaving a smell in one of them.
As Priceless the black greyhound pattered downstairs, flashing his teeth in a smile and rubbed himself against Valent, and Gwenny appeared mewing at the window, it was so lovely that he loved her animals too. He didn’t even mind Priceless taking over the spare room’s bed and all the sofas, nor a thunderously purring Gwenny landing on his ribs in the middle of the night.
As he helped himself to another beer and poured Etta a glass of Sauvignon, he noticed she had been simultaneously reading a Bill Le Grice rose catalogue, Country Life and a book called Equine Stud Management by Melanie Bailey.
‘It’s awfully good the vet’s coming to see Wilkie tomorrow. How was Rupert?’
‘Obviously gutted about Billy Lloyd-Foxe, and he went ballistic because some drunken stud hand screwed up and Love Rat covered the wrong mare.’
‘Golly, what did he say about Wilkie? I hope he doesn’t think she’s the wrong mare.’
‘Not at all. Would you mind being in partnership with him, both share her foal and he’ll train it for nothing?’
Etta took a great slug of Sauvignon and choked.
‘D’you think he’d be kind to the foal? Wilkie loathed being at Penscombe before.’
‘I think so.’ Valent sat down on a big, dark-red button-back sofa which had come from Etta’s house and made his kitchen much more cosy. ‘He’s obviously devoted to Love Rat and there was a grand horse called Safety Car wandering loose round the yard like a big dog. Evidently Love Rat’s a sprinter with a fantastic turn of foot and Mrs Wilkinson is both fast and a stayer, so the combination should be dynamite.’
Valent shuffled forward, as Priceless the greyhound edged on to the sofa behind him.
‘As Wilkie won’t be racing any more, he wants us to ditch her syndicate. Thank God they only own ten per cent.’
‘We can’t,’ gasped Etta, ‘they so want to be part of Wilkie’s foal. We can’t ditch Dora or Painswick or Woody or the vicar or my own son-in-law, or darling Alban,’ she added in distress.
‘At least we can dump the Major, and Shagger and Phoebe and Seth Bainton,’ said Valent craftily.
Etta shuddered. ‘Yes! We definitely don’t want Seth any more.’
Seth was the handsome, dissolute actor in his late forties who had impregnated Etta’s teenage granddaughter Trixie, whose baby was due in September.
‘Better to drop the lot of them,’ urged Valent, who very much wanted Rupert’s co-operation in pulling off a deal with China. ‘Clean break’s best – I’ll give them £5,000 each. They wouldn’t enjoy being lumbered with Love Rat’s £100,000 stud fees. They can still come and see Wilkie and her foal.’
Having put the lamb in the Aga and leaving the potatoes to brown, Etta started vigorously chopping parsley for the broad beans. Noticing how her body wiggled, Valent couldn’t resist coming up behind her, kissing her scented neck, feeling for her breasts which fitted so sweetly into his big, goalkeeper’s hands.
‘Oh Etta, d’you think dinner could wait half an hour?’
As they took their plates outside later, neither minded that the lamb was overcooked or that they had to cut the burnt bottoms off the roast potatoes.
They sat very close on a lichened bench looking down at a stream hurtling between banks of hostas and white and mauve irises, then reaching the fields between buttercups and green- ing cow parsley. Valent amused Etta with the antics of Cindy and Lester, then told her about the Stubbs, the spitting image of Rupert and just as ‘stunning’.
‘No one’s more stunning than you,’ she said loyally.
‘Must lose ten pounds.’ Valent patted his gut. ‘I bumped into your son in the village shop, and the cheeky monkey told me I ought to join W.O.O.’ This stood for War on Obesity, one of the charities for which Martin raised funds.
‘How dare he?’ stormed Etta. ‘I love you all hunky.’
‘Martin wants us to open the garden to raise money for W.O.O.’
‘It’s in no fit state,’ said Etta crossly, then as Valent slid a warm hand between her thighs, ‘I’m far too busy (oh, how lovely) opening my legs to open any garden.’
Meanwhile, back at Penscombe, Rupert had immediately gone on the warpath.
‘Where’s Gav, Celeste?’ he asked the minxy red-head as she settled Wages of Cindy and her foal back in their box.
‘He’s been drinking all day. I don’t want to drop him in it, but he caught his wife Bethany having it off with Brute Barraclough last night. They’d just parked up in the woods, a hundred yards from his house.’
Brute Barraclough was a rackety local racehorse trainer who enjoyed a lot of extra-marital sex. Rupert sighed. The trouble was that Gav was so bloody good. A beautiful rider with exquisite hands who could sort out and relax the most difficult horses, he knew exactly when they were ready for a race, and was a genius at spotting potential, advising Rupert which yearlings to keep. He was also invaluable where the sales were concerned, when Rupert needed help looking at some 3,000 horses a year.
Unlike most of his staff who either worked in the stud or the yard, resulting in great rivalry between the two, Gav was at ease in both. Even the trickiest stallions and most nervous foaling mares liked and trusted him. Terribly shy, he communicated with horses and was so abrupt with humans, he had been nicknamed Mr Lean and Moody. Yet he had such a spare, hard body, such a beautiful, haunted face beneath a mop of thick black curls, there wasn’t a single stable lass or visiting lady breeder who didn’t long to replace the feckless, constantly unfaithful Bethany.
‘A fellow damn’d in a fair wife,’ reflected Rupert. He wished he could discuss the matter with Billy, who had had drink problems himself, and who had been a huge fan of Gav’s.
Rupert found Gav passed out over his desk, where he’d been drawing up plans to send Rupert’s stallions abroad to cover mares in the Southern Hemisphere. He didn’t look beautiful now: pale skin threaded with red veins, bloodshot eyes puffy, reeking of drink, an empty bottle of Bell’s in the wastepaper-basket.
Shaking him till he woke up, Rupert said: ‘You’ve just lost us seventy-five grand, you little fucker. You’ve got two alternatives: you’re fired or you go into rehab for three months.’
Still in the kitchen, Taggie wondered whether to ring Rupert. She’d loathed last night’s row. She knew how bereft her husband was without Billy and wished she could comfort him. She’d ticked him off for chewing out Billy’s wife Janey yesterday. But Janey, who had also inveigled Taggie into secretly paying a lot towards the funeral and doing most of the catering, had always demoralized her. She too dreaded Janey moving back into Lime Tree Cottage and dropping in all the time.
Taggie had just finished feeding the dogs, who were back panting in their kitchen baskets, except for Forester, a gorgeous brindle rescue greyhound, her first, very own dog since Gertrude the mongrel. Forester now lay upside down on the dilapidated olive-green kitchen sofa, stretching out a paw to draw attention to himself every time she passed.
It was the perceived wisdom that because she had never been able to give birth herself, Taggie’s one delight was to look after other people’s children. As an indication of this, Rupert’s daughters Perdita and Tabitha and Taggie’s sister Caitlin all seemed to be having blips in their marriages, which necessitated dumping their offspring, dogs, even nannies, ‘to help you out’, so they could slope off and spend ‘us time’ with respective husbands.
The house was very big but it seemed overcrowded with Young Eddie, Rupert’s grandson, and his wild young friends, and Old Eddie and his carers, who invaded the kitchen stuffing their faces on Taggie’s wonderful cooking, and going on about ‘making a difference’. Taggie wished she were better at saying ‘no’.
Outside in the dusk in the cool of the evening, she could see the foals, who’d been lying out in the heat earlier with only their bottle-brush tails twitching, now frenziedly romping round on long stick legs. Taggie adored the foals and loathed it when, all polished and plumped up, they were sent off to the sales. Rupert had never shed a tear over a horse, although he did dote on Love Rat and Safety Car, who was now sticking his great white face in at the kitchen window for an apple.
Hoping it would cheer Rupert up, Taggie had roasted the tenderest piece of beef, with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, homemade horseradish sauce, runner beans, and apple charlotte for pudding.
‘That smells good, I’m starving,’ said a drooling Treasure, Old Eddie’s current carer, who Rupert claimed had all to be over eighty and eighteen stone, to deter his aged father from jumping on them.
Young Eddie had already ransacked the Aga and, living on protein to keep to a racing weight, had hacked off great slices of beef. Thank goodness Taggie had already secreted a large plate of everything in a second oven for Rupert.
Having bawled out Gav, Rupert looked at his watch. He knew he ought to go in for supper and make it up with Taggie, but he got caught up in affairs in the yard. Having checked on his favourite brood mare, My Child Cordelia, who’d won The Oaks five years ago and who was also due to produce a foal by Love Rat, but in January, he went back to his office to watch another race at Woodbine.
Rupert had recently come across an utterly brilliant saying by Havelock Ellis, that ‘What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.’
One nuisance recently had been the incessant wet weather, which had meant that horses, who prefer quick ground, hadn’t run at their best, or not at all. Another nuisance was Young Eddie, his grandson. Having been a successful at jockey in America, Eddie had grown too heavy and come over to England to try his luck over jumps. The fact had to be faced: he wasn’t good enough, his forte being split-second timing and the ability to ride a finish needed on the flat – like driving a Ferrari rather than the four-wheel-drive of jump racing. The opposite of Gavin Latton, who settled and relaxed whatever he was riding, Eddie over-egged horses and was screwing up too many of Rupert’s. Irresistible to most girls, Eddie had, however, grounded himself by acquiring an extremely pretty girlfriend, Etta Bancroft’s granddaughter, Trixie, who was about to have Seth Bainton’s baby. Rupert very much doubted if Eddie was stepfather any more than jump-jockey potential. Teenaged Trixie, who planned to go to Oxford, also seemed far too intellectual for him.
Old Eddie, Rupert’s father, was another nuisance. He was getting more and more senile, walking starkers into a stallion parade last year and cantering along beside his beloved Love Rat, whom he insisted on visiting every day, accompanied by one of his aggravating carers.
Having watched yet another race, Rupert then got caught up in the difficult birth of a very large, late foal. Finally, going back to the house to make it up with Taggie, he found curling roast beef in the oven, and Taggie fast asleep but still dressed on their bed. Even when he pulled off her clothes and admired her beautiful body, she didn’t stir. Putting a duvet over her, vowing to pay more attention to his marriage, Rupert returned to the stud office and settled down to working out which horses to run at Royal Ascot in order to make the most prize money to bump up Love Rat and Peppy Koala’s earnings.
Finding a bottle of water in Gavin’s drawer he took a swig and, encountering neat vodka, spat it out. Gavin would have to be sorted. Next chapter
Six months later, Gavin Latton celebrated (perhaps the wrong word) six months without a drink. Aware if he lapsed that Rupert, who’d paid for his three months in rehab, wouldn’t let him back on a horse, which was where his genius lay, he had opted to work over Christmas and on New Year’s Eve, when Team Campbell-Black were all getting hammered at the Dog and Trumpet down the road.
There should have been two of them on duty, but ‘Woluptuous, woluble’ Marketa from the Czech Republic, who couldn’t say her ‘vs’, hadn’t showed up. Gavin was relieved. Apart from a distant din of parties, the stud was quiet. No foals were expected. It was just a question of touring the boxes, filling up knocked-over water buckets, adjusting rugs and checking on one-eared Safety Car, who insisted on sleeping out in the fields, wrapped in his six sheep friends, with only a three-sided shed for cover. Safety Car whickered, nudged Gav in the belly and accepted a carrot, but the sleeping sheep didn’t stir.
Gavin looked up at the winter stars, a glittering zoo overhead. There was Lepus the Hare lurking out of the way of Orion’s Dogs, not to mention Taurus the Bull and Monoceros the Unicorn: constellations he’d taught himself during so many sleepless nights or when he had ridden out before the sun rose. He could see the russet glow of Rutminster and what, he wondered, would the New Year bring? He must accept that his marriage was over. Early on, Bethany had mocked him because desire had made him come too quickly. Later, drink, to blot out the pain of her infidelity, had rendered him impotent – mocked too by the plunging, potent stallions around him and the easy promiscuity of the stable lasses in the yard with their iron thighs and their thrusting movements.
‘Why don’t you go to a sex therapist?’ Bethany taunted him. ‘Or thera-pissed in your case.’ She wasn’t even satisfied when he stopped drinking. ‘At least you were fun when you were drunk.’
Ironically, even if it didn’t tempt Bethany, giving up the booze had given Gav back his looks. His thick dark hair was clean and glossy, his slate-grey eyes no longer puffy, though heavily shadowed, his eyeballs white, his olive skin clear, his stomach flat.
Now back in the stud office, he was surrounded by black leather head collars, grooming kits, first aid kits, Christmas cards and fridges full of colostrum: frozen mares’ milk to build up a newborn foal’s immunity. Reluctantly, because there was work to be done, he didn’t pick up Wilkie, the story of Mrs Wilkinson, by Etta’s son-in-law Alan Macbeth. The book was touching and very funny, especially the bits about the goat Chisolm, and had become a massive bestseller. Half the yard had given it to each other for Christmas.
Instead Gavin turned back to a pile of requests from breeders, avid – particularly if they were women – to bring their mares to Rupert’s stallions. His job was to check if the mares were good enough. Here was a chestnut who’d won three Group Two races and the Irish Oaks. Love Rat loved chestnuts, so a tick for her.
Gavin knew that Rupert was looking forward to the imminent birth of two foals: the first Mrs Wilkinson’s, the second to his favourite brood mare, My Child Cordelia, another chestnut who’d produced winner after winner. Both foals were likely to be future stars and boost Love Rat’s earnings and his popularity.
‘Coo-ee, coo-ee,’ cried a voice. Fuck it, it was Celeste, the stud nympho, hardly covered by a gold tunic, showing off a ravine of cleavage, beech-leaf red mane snaking nearly below the groin-level skirt, green eyes slightly glazed, but avid for plunder.
Oh Christ, thought Gavin as, tottering on seven-inch heels, she fell deliberately into his arms.
‘Marketa got hammered at lunchtime and carried on drinking. She’s out of it, so I offered to take her slot. Sorry I’m late.’
As she gave him a long wet kiss on the mouth, her tongue probing and exploring, she tasted of drink. Gavin recoiled in horror.
‘Stop being such a virgin,’ she chided. ‘I’ve brought some booze,’ she produced a bottle of brandy out of her bag, ‘to cheer you up.’
‘You know I don’t drink and I’m married,’ Gav tried to joke.
‘No point in being faithful when your slag of a wife had the gall to come into the pub with that vile Brute Barraclough. Don’t get what she sees in him when you’re so fit.’
‘A bloody good fuck, probably. No, I don’t want a drink. I’d better check the horses.’
‘Kiss me first.’ Celeste wound a hand round his neck. In those heels she was the same height as him. He felt her breasts squirming against him as she whispered, ‘There’s an empty box next door.’
She was very pretty. Gavin felt a flicker of lust but was not prepared to risk the humiliation of not getting it up. As he kissed her back, she was encouraged. If she couldn’t manage to pull Rupert and only occasionally Young Eddie, whose girlfriend had just had someone else’s baby, Mr Lean and Moody would do nicely, and it would give her a buzz to beat every other stable lass to getting him into his bed.
‘Stop it,’ he told her, removing a hand that was creeping inside his jeans. ‘We’re working.’
Setting out on his rounds of mares in foal, he was amazed to find Cordelia, who wasn’t due for another month, sweating up, pacing her box, looking at her belly and scraping her bed of straw. Next moment there was a giant splash as her waters broke.
‘Christ, she’s foaling – come quickly!’ Gavin shouted to Celeste.
‘Shall I ring Rupert, or the Dog and Trumpet?’ bleated Celeste in terror.
‘Too late, got to pitch in.’
It must have been the quickest birth in history. Cordelia hardly had time to push with her powerful abdominal muscles before a very small foal, feet first, its hooves under its nose, emerged into the world. After a few minutes Cordelia struggled to her feet, whickering with joy, and a moment later, the afterbirth followed. Gavin told Celeste to put it in a bucket and weigh it.
‘I think that’s everything out, beautiful little thing,’ he added in delight, ‘and, bloody marvellous, it’s a colt.’
Cordelia bent her head to examine a foal much darker than herself with a white star on his forehead and one white sock.
‘Oh how sweet,’ sighed Celeste, despite having blood all over her gold silk tunic.
After they had washed down mare and foal, both were installed in a huge bed of straw piled up high round the side of the box. Whickering with love and pride, Cordelia was licking the foal, who was sticking out his tongue, making sucking noises, and trying to clamber to his feet.
Then, while Celeste gave the mare a drink of water and a warm wet mash and the foal an enema to get rid of any harmful substances, Gav in the office next door filled in the Record of Foaling form. This was admittedly much easier now he didn’t drink, as he stated the time the waters had broken, the name of the sire, Love Rat, and the dam, My Child Cordelia, and the colour of the foal.
Any unusual behaviour in foaling? No. Presentation of foal? Normal. Time waters broke? 10.54. Time of foaling? 10.58. That was incredibly quick, reflected Gav. Time mare stood up? 11.10. Was mare quiet to foal and quiet with foal? ‘Yes, yes, the little darling,’ Gav wrote in joyfully.
As the foal struggled to his feet, found the nipple and began to suckle, dirty, bloodstained, triumphant, Gav and Celeste looked on and joyfully hugged each other.
‘We deserve a drink too,’ said Celeste, getting out her bottle of brandy as they returned to the office.
‘There’s probably some Coke in the fridge,’ said Gav, taking the bottle to fill up a mug for her.
Then he nearly dropped the bottle, as rollicking over the midnight air came the bells of All Saints Church, Penscombe, ringing in the New Year. Looking out of the cobweb-strewn window, he could see reworks exploding.
‘Oh fuck, fuck, fuck,’ groaned Gav. The worst had happened.
‘What’s the matter? It’s midnight now, so you can kiss me properly. Happy New Year.’
‘Don’t you realize, that little colt’s a year old now.’
‘Happy New Yearling,’ giggled Celeste.
‘Don’t be fucking stupid. Have you forgotten one of the silliest rules of racing? All horses have their birthday on January the first. This means that whatever day they are born on, the year before, they’re officially one on Jan One. So even though that foal’s hardly an hour old, as a racehorse he’s now one. Next January the first, when he’s only a yearling, he’ll be officially regarded as a two-year-old, expected to go into training and run in two-year-old races. Then on the next January the first, he’ll be not two, but officially three and expected to compete with three-year-olds in classics like the Guineas and the Derby. His career is fucked.’
‘Happy New Yearling,’ repeated Celeste, taking a slug of brandy out of the bottle. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Chuck away that form.’ Scrumpling it up, Gavin dropped it into the bin and hid it in a pile of bloodstained towels. ‘We’ve got to fill in another form, to say it was born after midnight.’ Then, when Celeste looked alarmed: ‘I’ll take the rap. You’ve just got to promise to keep your trap shut and no one will know.’
‘What happens if you’re found out?’
‘Rupert would get a hefty fine, might even lose his licence. That’s why he must never know, because any races the colt wins, posing as a two-year-old, would be disqualified.’
‘Do you think it’s safe?’ Celeste took another slug.
They looked into the box next door, where Cordelia was gazing down so proudly at the little colt who’d collapsed back on the straw.
‘Look at him, he deserves a future.’
Gav seized a new form, changing the date of birth to 1 January and recording that the waters broke at 12.16 and the foal was born at 12.20. By the time he’d finished filling it in, both he and Celeste were sweating more than the mare had done earlier.
‘Are you sure we won’t get into trouble? Rupert can’t blame us if she was born too early.’
‘We couldn’t have prevented it,’ Gav said. ‘Rupert’s been good to me, saved my career. I’m not going to fuck up the prospects of one of the best homebreds and his beloved Love Rat’s foal. I’d better go and ring him.’
Glad of an excuse to leave his in-laws’ party across the valley, Rupert came straight over. Even asleep in the straw with his coat ruffled and still a little damp, Rupert was ecstatic to recognize a ravishing colt. Taking the foaling record, however, and knowing how fatal would be the alternative, he raised an eyebrow.
‘Sure it was January the first?’
‘Quite sure – even Mrs Wilkinson’s book couldn’t keep me awake. I crashed out briefly, then suddenly, thank God, I was woken by the church bells, checked on the mares, saw Cordelia was sweating and pawing her belly. Then her waters broke, followed by the quickest birth ever.’
For a second, as he and Rupert looked at each other, Gav held his gaze.
‘Good, I’ll take your word for it.’ Rupert looked at the two glasses.
‘I was about to have a Coke. I wouldn’t have been able to fill in that form with a steady hand in the old days.’
‘Good, well done, well done, Celeste.’
‘She was terrific,’ said Gav. ‘First foaling, kept her cool.’
‘Good girl,’ said Rupert. ‘Sure it was January the first, not December?’
‘Of course.’ Celeste’s knowing green eyes were the picture of honesty. ‘I didn’t know it mattered until Gav explained about Jan first being their birthday. He came out so easily, we were so relieved everything went OK.’
‘Better call him New Year’s Dave,’ said Rupert. He looked at his watch. ‘The two o’clock shift’ll be on in a minute. You’d better both come and have a drink – or a cup of coffee,’ he added to Gav, who was reluctant to leave the colt.
Celeste, however, was dying to see inside Rupert’s house. He looked so lush in that dinner suit, and he might even open a bottle of bubbly.
‘We’d love to, just get my bag.’ She scuttled back into the office.
Rupert was euphoric. Not least that Gav hadn’t cracked under pressure and had a drink.
‘Christmas must be hell for you,’ he said. ‘But well done.’ He then added that Gav could start riding work, which meant exercising the horses, next week.
The evening had been such a strain, Gav clenched his jaw not to break down.
‘Thanks, he’s a lovely colt.’
‘Jan One also marks the start of the new Leading Sire season for Europe and GB. I’m going to need you to rake in the winners.’
Rupert had been desperate to get Gav right, not just to train and ride the horses but also to see that no star slipped through the net at the sales. It also gave Rupert the added satisfaction of rescuing him and profiting from his genius, when Cosmo Rannaldini and Isa Lovell, for whom Gav had worked previously, had so brutally discarded and demoralized him.
Seeing them deep in conversation, Celeste plunged her hand into the bin, scrabbling round to retrieve the bloodstained scrumpled-up form headed: Penscombe Stud, Record of Foaling, and thrust it into her frilly gold bra.
She could hear voices outside; the relief watch had arrived and New Year’s Dave was no doubt being shown off. With any luck Gavin might want to take her bra off later, reflected Celeste, and transferred the Record of Foaling instead to the inside pocket of her bag. One day it might come in useful.