Dan by PhilipCatshill
The day they put the horse in the field, I must have been seven, or I might have been eight. We had a couple of fields in those days. I think my dad had toyed with the idea of being a market gardener at some time, but it didn’t happen. Instead, a few shillings each week from one of our more affluent neighbours secured the field for this horse’s pasture.
Now he was big, that horse. He was big, white and a stallion. Dad explained that he wasn’t actually a stallion, but really, he was a gelding. “What’s the difference?” I asked in innocence.
“A gelding is a stallion with its bits cut off,” was the less than helpful explanation. Now, at seven or I might have been eight, I was worldly wise. I knew of course that the bit was something that went in the horse’s mouth. “So,” I declared all knowingly, “A gelding is a stallion who's had his tonsils out.” As a child, I could never understand why adults found it so easy to laugh.
Dan could become invisible!
Dan also had another quality. He was able to shrink by a good number of hands so that I could sit astride him while keeping my feet firmly on the ground. Every morning, well every school morning that is, I would walk into the field, cast the magic spell and mount my invisible steed. After trotting down the edge of the road, remembering to pat his neck whenever a car came into view, I would lead him across the playground and tether him behind the toilets. Sometimes, if he had been especially good, I would rip a handful of grass and present it to him, keeping my hand flat and my fingers straight. Dan didn’t like being fed by hand, so I would leave a little pile of fresh grass just within his reach. Dan would happily spend all day behind the school toilets and sometimes neighed when I gave him a reassuring pat at playtime. At the end of an arduous school day, I would return him to the field, remove his invisible tack, brush him with an invisible brush and magically, once again restore him to visibility.
Richard was annoying, or at least his dad was. According to Richard, his dad had been on the wireless and had starred in a cowboy film. He had been brought up by red Indians in America and came to England on a submarine. Richard told me his dad had dinner with Mr Eisenhower, who was the president at that time. Richard’s dad had been to the Arctic, the Antarctic and Timbuktu, to Winnipeg, Ontario and other places too. When I was seven, or I might have been eight, Richard told me privately, that his dad was a specially trained policeman, working undercover for the government of Spain. This worried me at the time, because Richard’s dad was masquerading as the man who delivered the milk, happily bringing our daily four pints and the occasional cream to the doorstep. Despite my desperate warnings, my dad still greeted him with a hearty ‘Hello’ whenever he saw him. My dad had another favourite saying which he’d utter as soon as the milkman was out of earshot. “They’ll catch him at it one day,” he’d say. “You mark my words.” For variety, he’d occasionally add “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” Dad was full of little sayings in those days. I’d always nod in agreement even though I hadn’t a clue what he meant.
Apart from his boasts and stories about his dad, Richard had never expressed any interest in numbering himself amongst my small list of friends. That changed when I rode the horse to school. Richard lived just one street away from us. I guess it was inevitable that we would see each other on our way to school.
“I want to ride him,” he demanded persistently almost every day. “Let me ride him,” he’d insist.
Even though he knew all about horses because his dad had been an Indian scout in the US cavalry I didn't think it wise. “Well, you can’t.” I explained just as often. “He is wild and will only let me ride him.”
Although I was later numbered as one of Richard’s “gang”, Dan the horse was responsible for putting our friendship under strain, but it was Richard’s fault, not mine. His hand shot in the air one day, the prerequisite to speaking demanded by our teacher.
“Yes Richard,” she enquired in not the softest of tones.
He turned his head towards me and smiled the way that traitors do, and said, “Philip’s brought his horse to school and has tied him up behind the toilets.”
That teacher glared at me with small, black accusatory eyes that penetrated into my soul and sent coldness down my spine. I was never amongst her favourites; that had been Richard’s claim.
“Is this true?” She demanded.
“No,” I shook my head and felt a convincing tear leave my eye.
“You had better show me.” Together we walked, or rather Richard skipped gleefully, the teacher walked, and I was somehow dragged reluctantly behind, across the wide expanse of tarmac with its painted lines depicting where the girls would play netball, until we reached the toilet block and the little heap of grass behind.
“Where?” asked the teacher staring at the space.
“There!” Richard said, pointing towards the invisible horse. “There!” he yelled with his index finger wavering at thin air.
I don’t think teachers are allowed to strike the pupils nowadays. They probably weren’t then either. To be honest, I don’t know whether she did, but our solemn procession returned to the class with Richard bellowing loudly and holding his hand on his ear. Somehow, the skip had left his step.
That playtime, the playtime that followed, I patted the invisible neck of my horse and carefully removed his invisible harness. I tried to be especially gentle as I took the bit from his mouth because his tonsils might still have been sore. With tears flooding down my cheeks, I gave Dan one final pat on his rump. I cried, but sensing that the magic was over, Dan trotted a few feet away, turned for one last neigh, and galloped away.
That big, white faithful Dan was back in his field when I got home, and that’s where he stayed. I must have been seven or I might have been eight, but after that day, I never saw that horse become invisible again.
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