Isabel waded through thick black mud as she approached the dilapidated wooden field gate. Each step she took rendered a loud squelching noise as she fought to keep possession of her favourite Wellington boots – the ones covered with multi-coloured polka dots, with a fluffy lining. A stale, earthy smell filled her nostrils as she struggled further to untie the knotted bailer twine that secured the gate – in her gloved hands.
Isabel looked up at the black storm clouds and mumbled disappointedly, ‘Looks like more rain to come.’
She felt a shiver go down her back as she glanced at her phone and sighed. It was only 3pm and yet it was almost dark. She pulled her collar up, so she could feel the comfort of its warmth close around her neck. It triggered a flashback to her early childhood, to her mother’s words before sending her off to school on winter mornings: ‘You need to keep your collar up. It will keep the cold out!’ She pictured her mother’s kind eyes and warm smile as she used to wave her off to school from the front garden. But the close mother–daughter relationship didn’t last, and now Isabel missed that closeness more than words could express.
In response to a rustling sound, Isabel glanced behind her. There was nothing there, except for the hilly landscape, bleak in its winter clothing. The heath seemed to be so lifeless, dotted with gaunt, leafless trees; each of them leaning over, distorted, as a result of years of torment from biting coastal winds.
Isabel turned round and cupped her hands together: ‘Diana!’
There was a loud neigh in the distance, and then the dull thud of galloping hooves fast approaching. Isabel looked across the meadow in front of her, towards the salt marshes of the north Norfolk coastline. The flatness was only interrupted by the occasional ancient church, the remains of a windmill, a scattering of flint dwellings and barns, and a few solitary trees and bushes.
A very pretty 16.1hh skewbald horse came into view.
‘Come on, girl. Look at you. Your rug is filthy – you’ve been rolling again.’
Gently putting a leather headcollar onto the elegant head of the young, three-quarter-thoroughbred mare, Isabel prepared to return her treasured friend back to a warm stable. The horse nuzzled Isabel’s shoulder affectionately, and then snorted loudly.
‘Let’s get you home.’
Moments later, they approached the purpose-built stable yard, adjoining a 300-year-old white, rendered, thatched farmhouse. It was a curious mixture of ancient and modern. Heads popped over the stable doors as other horses looked out to investigate the sound of clattering metal shoes advancing on the concrete path outside. They began to call to each other, excitedly.
Isabel led the mare into her clean stable, breathing in the scent of fresh shavings. She could feel the warmth from the horses next door. Isabel tied up the mare, and then sighed again as she stretched her aching muscles. She had never imagined that her childhood dream to work with horses – recently come to fruition after leaving school at the age of eighteen – would be such hard work or such long hours… and very cold at times! But despite that, she smiled; she was so crazy about horses!
She threw her hands up into the air. ‘Thank You, God, for enabling me to work with horses!’
‘Isabel!’ a familiar voice called from across the yard. It was her employer and friend, Karen.
‘Over here!’ Isabel popped her head out over the door, removing her woollen hat. She brushed her dark hair back from her face with her hand. ‘Oh, I hate my hair; it’s like a bunch of dangly, coiled-up springs.’
‘I have to speak to you.’
Isabel sensed anxiety in Karen’s voice as the young woman approached without her usual self-confidence. She was clutching a large, brown envelope.
‘What is it? What’s wrong?’ Isabel asked. ‘That envelope looks very official.’
Karen shook her head. ‘I can’t tell you here; let’s go into the house.’
After quickly changing the mare’s rugs and removing the headcollar, Isabel nervously followed Karen into the farmhouse kitchen. There was a lingering aroma of burned toast. She stooped to miss the low beams, and then sat down at the large oak table, near the kitchen range. Isabel smiled anxiously at Ben, Karen’s husband, sitting in the old wooden armchair, eating a chocolate bar.
‘I don’t know where you put it all,’ she remarked, always envious that, despite eating a diet that seemed to consist mainly of cake, chocolate and sugary fizzy drinks, he never seemed to put on any weight.
He popped the last piece of chocolate into his mouth, then leaned forward. ‘Has she told you yet, Isabel?’
‘Told me what?’
Karen took a deep breath as she slowly removed the letter from the envelope. She studied the contents of the thick, gold-embossed notepaper for a moment, peering through her small, metallic-framed glasses, before beginning to read it out, slowly and clearly.
‘It is with deep regret that I write to inform you…’
At that moment, the door flew open.
‘Karen, you need to come quickly. I think Henry has got colic.’
Alec, a young groom who had recently joined the yard as an apprentice from the local equestrian college, was nervously fiddling with the door handle, looking paler than usual. Henry was a rather valuable 17hh chestnut Hanoverian stallion that belonged to Karen.
‘I’ll go out right away. We’ll have to speak later, Isabel.’
Karen bustled out of the house, followed closely by Isabel. By the time they reached the stable, Henry was in considerable discomfort. Karen was in tears so, not wasting any time, Isabel pulled out her phone to call James Monroe, the vet.
‘Be there as soon as I can,’ he promised. ‘Remove any food from the stable, keep an eye on the horse and make sure he doesn’t roll about and get cast or hurt himself. Under these circumstances, it is not uncommon for horses to get wedged in the stable, while they are rolling. You could try quietly walking him around the yard for a few minutes.’
It was a very tense half-hour as they waited for Mr Monroe to arrive, especially as walking Henry around didn’t seem to be helping. The two friends were all too aware of the possibly serious, and even life-threatening, effects of some forms of colic and the resulting issues.
‘It never rains, but it pours,’ Karen mumbled, shivering. ‘What with this, and the letter.’
Isabel put her arm affectionately around her friend. ‘What’s it all about?’
‘I can’t tell you now; we’ll speak later.’
At long last, a black 4×4 swerved into the yard, lights blazing, and a man in his mid-fifties jumped out. He grabbed his bag from the back seat and hurried over, standing head and shoulders above the two girls.
‘It’s no worse,’ Karen said with forced optimism. ‘I walked him around, but it didn’t help.’
‘I’ll go in and examine him,’ Mr Monroe replied.
Isabel grabbed a headcollar. ‘I’ll put this on and hold him while you examine him,’ she volunteered. ‘He can be a bit grumpy.’
Moments later the experienced equine vet emerged from the stable, followed by Isabel. He frowned as he took a deep breath.
‘How is he?’ Karen asked anxiously.
‘I need to go to my car,’ Mr Monroe replied. ‘I am going to have to use a stomach tube to get some fluids into him. There seems to be a blockage.’
It was not a process that the horse enjoyed. He snorted and threw his head up angrily as the vet and his two assistants grappled to try to get the tube in place, via one of his nostrils.
It was ten o’clock that night before Henry began to settle, much to everyone’s relief.
Isabel went to her room in the rambling old farmhouse and fell into bed, exhausted, too tired to even think about what was in the mysterious letter.
It was Isabel’s turn to do the early morning feeds. She didn’t mind: she had always been an early riser, and enjoyed watching the horses hungrily chasing the food around their feed bins with their prehensile lips. Henry was just having a bran mash after his attack of colic, according to Karen’s instructions. Isabel poured boiling water over the bran, mixing it carefully with a large wooden spoon. It smelled better than it would probably taste, she thought – at least for a human.
‘Not too wet,’ Isabel mumbled, as she put a cloth over the top of the bucket to let the bran mash steam.
Alec came running in, looking half asleep. ‘Sorry I’m late!’
‘No worries.’ Isabel understood; she had a younger brother who wasn’t a morning person either. ‘Would you take these feeds out to the front row, please?’
He yawned. ‘Have you seen anything of Karen this morning?’
Isabel shook her head. ‘I hope everything is all right.’
‘Shouldn’t it be?’
Using her discretion, Isabel made the excuse, ‘She was really worried about Henry having colic last night. You know how much she thinks of him.’
The young groom nodded. ‘I’ll take these feeds out, then.’ He grinned as he spotted the bran mash. ‘Our lecturer at college wouldn’t agree with using that.’
‘I’ll call you when it’s ready,’ Isabel replied. ‘The old remedies can still be the best!’
Henry was a lot better; he didn’t seem to think much of receiving nothing more than a bran mash for his breakfast. He was used to a large, high-protein feed; after all, he was a competition horse and should be having a selection of mares to be put in foal in a few weeks’ time.
Just as Isabel was clearing up the feed shed, she heard the back door of the house bang shut. She looked out just in time to see Karen hurrying across the yard, looking tense and anxious.
‘Have you been crying?’
‘Just a bit worried about Henry – you know!’
‘He’s fine now. You know that! What is it really? What’s that letter all about?’
‘Come over for breakfast in five minutes, we can talk then.’ Karen called out to Alec, ‘Breakfast in about half an hour! I need to talk to Isabel, confidentially.’
As Karen walked back towards the house, Alec spoke to Isabel. ‘Sounds ominous… What’s that all about, do you suppose?’
Isabel shrugged her shoulders. ‘I can’t imagine! But one thing is for sure… I’m soon going to find out.’
Isabel made sure that Basil, the stable cat, wasn’t asleep on one of the feed bags before she shut the feed shed door securely. Then she hurried across to the house.
As Isabel walked into the farmhouse kitchen, there was a wonderful smell of bacon, egg, sausage, beans and freshly brewed coffee.
‘Come and sit down,’ Karen greeted her.
‘Breakfast smells good, what are we celebrating?’ Then Isabel thought better of what she had said. ‘Sorry, that just slipped out.’
Karen brought two plates of food to the table. ‘Help yourself to coffee.’
‘Did Ben get away OK this morning? I know he had an early start.’
‘Business meeting in London,’ Karen nodded. ‘I’ll come straight to the point.’ She reached across to the dresser for the letter that she had started to read out on the previous day. She began, ‘It is with deep regret that I write to inform you of the sudden death of my client, Mr Richard Brooks.’
‘Who’s Richard Brooks?’
‘He owns all this,’ Karen pointed out of the window. ‘Well, he did: the house, the stable yard, the meadows… everything!’ Sudden tears glistened in her eyes. She poured some coffee, and continued. ‘The gist of the letter is that we have the option to buy, otherwise the whole place will be going up for auction on 15th August – with vacant possession.’
Isabel found she couldn’t speak. All of a sudden, she wasn’t hungry. She realised that ‘with vacant possession’ meant that they would all have to move out – horses and all!
‘It’s a long day ahead; I suppose we should try to eat something,’ Karen said.
‘How much do they want for this place?’
Karen sighed deeply. ‘More than we can afford. Market value, I expect. We’ve got just over six months to raise well over £500,000.’
Not a good start to the day, Isabel thought, grimly.
The following day was another early start for Isabel. It was Sunday morning, and that meant one thing.
‘It’s church today!’ she announced to Basil – not that he was bothered, as long as he had his breakfast. Isabel leaned forward with a cup full of cat biscuits, which she placed carefully into his well-worn dish. ‘Now, don’t gobble them down all at once and make yourself sick,’ she told him.
By the time Karen and Alec arrived at the yard, Isabel had almost finished doing the feeds.
‘Whatever time did you start work today, Isabel? It must have been at the crack of dawn!’ Alec commented. ‘Too early for me!’
‘She’s going God-bothering this morning,’ Karen quipped.
‘What?’ Alec looked confused for a moment, until the penny dropped. ‘Oh, you mean church?’
‘That’s not a very nice thing to say, Karen. I thought you were my friend!’ Isabel smiled, in the knowledge that it was just meant as harmless banter; still, it hurt. It reminded her of the critical way her mother used to speak about her faith.
‘It’s a joke. You need to learn to laugh at yourself.’
‘Didn’t sound very funny to me,’ Alec commented.
Karen gave him a look of disapproval, so he hurried off to start mucking out the stables.
‘Well, since you’re going to church, Isabel, perhaps you could say a prayer about the situation here. We certainly need it. Not that it will make any difference,’ Karen added, sceptically.
Ben had arrived, clasping a mug of steaming coffee. ‘There’s nothing to lose if she says a prayer, is there?’
‘You concentrate on getting your caffeine fix,’ Karen retorted, a little sharply.
Isabel tidied up the feed shed, feeling quite irritated by the comments that had been made, even if no malice was intended. She wanted to bang the lids down on the feed bins. She wanted people to hear that the comments crossed the line of respect and kindness. But she didn’t… she wouldn’t!
‘I’m not one to bear a grudge,’ Isabel said to herself, as she walked up the road later that morning. ‘And I suppose I can forgive them for what just happened.’
Isabel recalled the night she decided that Jesus was real and she wanted to follow Him, almost eight years earlier. She remembered her grandmother talking about how God forgives so we need to forgive too. It had been such a comfort at the time, after feeling she had been in the wrong so often, coming to the realisation that she could actually be forgiven; but since then, it had also become quite a challenge, because she felt an obligation to be forgiving towards others – people who had upset or hurt her in some way. ‘I suppose I’ve got to go on forgiving my work colleagues when they mock me for being a Christian – again and again!’
Hi, God. I’m feeling irritated… and maybe a little cross. Is it OK to get cross? Sorry if it’s not! Please help me not to hold a grudge against the people I work with, when they make fun of me for going to church and for spending time in prayer. It’s sometimes difficult to forgive!
She paused thoughtfully.
But I’m sure You know just how I feel! I know they probably don’t mean any harm… but it’s hurtful. It brings back memories of my mum’s harsh criticism when I was growing up. Still, they weren’t to know, I suppose. I know You like to help us, so I’ll leave it with You to deal with in the way that You think best. Amen.
That morning, Will, the minister at church, talked about the Old Testament story of David and Goliath.
‘Goliath was a really big guy. He loved confrontation, and was a bully,’ Will told the congregation, before picking up a plastic sword and shield, posing as a mighty warrior. ‘Goliath challenged someone to face him in combat – anyone! But everyone was afraid. Everyone except for this young lad who looked after sheep. He was called David. He believed God would win the victory for him; and He did.’ Pausing for a second, the young minister concluded, ‘God can win the victory for us.’
God can win the victory? Isabel sat up. She figured that maybe God could sort out the situation at the equestrian centre for them and decided to begin to pray regularly about it – starting from now. She’d told Karen and Ben she’d pray. So she did.
At lunchtime in the farmhouse, Isabel could feel tension left over from the conversation earlier that day. She felt awkward as she sat down at the table.
Ben, obviously trying to be friendly, started up a conversation. ‘Did you once say that you’ve been riding horses all your life, Isabel?’
Karen banged a large dish of mashed potato and another of cabbage onto the kitchen table, before sitting down with the instruction, ‘Help yourselves.’
Ben ignored his wife’s terseness and repeated his question. ‘Did you start riding horses when you were a really small child?’
‘I was only four years old when I started riding a tiny Shetland pony,’ Alec interjected, fumbling with his fork and dropping it onto the floor, ‘twelve years ago.’
Ben and Isabel exchanged smiles.
‘No, I didn’t ride horses when I was little,’ Isabel replied. ‘I’ve been riding for about five years now.’ She lowered her eyes, suddenly. ‘It was my lovely grandmother who took me to the stables, when I stayed with her in Lincolnshire – she was so generous. She died about a year ago and left me some money, with the instruction that I should use it to buy myself a horse and pay for its keep, until I could afford to fund it myself.’
‘Your grandmother sounds very special,’ Ben commented.
‘She was. I miss her so much. She was my constant support. And she always believed in me. She would have been so proud of me working with horses now; unlike…’
‘My dad was happy for me to do any job that I chose, as long it was to become a lawyer! He used to say, “That’s the kind of job our sort of people do” – whoever “our sort of people” might be.’
‘That’s rough,’ Alec commented. ‘My parents were just happy for me to get a job and bring some money into the household.’
‘My brother wants to do a law degree at Oxford so he’s been the favoured one for some time now,’ Isabel added.
Alec winked at her and passed the potatoes.
Over pudding, Karen examined the programme for the afternoon. ‘I’ve got a lesson to take at two. Perhaps you two could get the beds and hay nets ready for tonight?’
Isabel looked at her employer, as if she were waiting for something.
‘Please!’ Karen’s face broke into a smile.
Isabel grinned. ‘Of course we will.’
It was a cold, overcast afternoon when the three grooms bundled out of the back door. Isabel was desperately trying to pull on another coat.
‘However many layers have you got on this afternoon?’ Alec said, as he rubbed his hands together, trying to warm them up.
‘I’ve got an extra jumper, a waistcoat and a quilted jacket.’ Isabel paused before adding, ‘At least, I will have, just as soon as I can get the jacket on.’
They hurried into the tack room and all three came out equipped with a grooming kit in one hand, a bridle over the shoulder on the same side and a saddle over the opposite arm.
In unison, they called, ‘Back!’
Three horses and ponies moved away from their stable doors simultaneously, allowing a groom in to prepare them for their rider.
Once Karen’s lesson was underway, Alec and Isabel started filling up hay nets, clad in dust masks. It was quite hard and dusty work, shaking up the hay and squeezing it into the nets.
‘The nets never seem to be quite big enough,’ Isabel remarked.
Alec hooked the hay net he was filling on to the little spring balance hanging from the ceiling. ‘It needs another kilo in it,’ he moaned. ‘It’s no wonder we’re so strong – forcing so much hay into these little nets!’
‘I wish!’ Isabel squeezed another large handful of hay into the net she was filling. ‘Only another twelve nets after these two.’
‘So, is working with horses all that you hoped it would be, Isabel?’
She grinned. ‘Absolutely!’
‘Even with the cold, the mud, the long hours, the dust and the hard physical work?’
Isabel nodded. ‘Even with… whatever you said.’
Alec put his ear near to the door of the hay shed, obviously listening to make sure that Karen was still teaching in the outdoor school, before he mischievously whispered, ‘Even when Karen is having an off day?’
‘Even when…’ Isabel paused, and laughed. ‘Of course, even when Karen is having an off day.’
‘Come on; we need to get these hay nets done: we’ve still got to remove the droppings from the beds, fill the water buckets, tie up the hay nets, feed the horses and sweep the path.’
Later in the afternoon, when the lesson had finished, the horses and ponies were all put away for the night and Isabel had finished feeding and was just tidying up the feed shed, Karen swung open the door and came in.
‘Well done for getting the yard sorted out for the night – thank you.’ Karen seemed uncomfortable as she hovered there.
‘That’s OK,’ Isabel replied, as she made sure all the feed bins were shut.
‘Well, I just wanted to say that I didn’t mean to upset you this morning.’
Moments later, Alec popped in, as Karen hurried away across the yard.
Isabel shook her head and smiled. ‘I think Karen just apologised to me.’
That night, Isabel went to bed thinking about everything that had happened and wondering what the next few months had in store for the stables – and for her, in her first year of working with horses.
Hi God. I know You’ve got a good plan for my life. I believe horses are part of that plan. And I really believed that this was the right job, too… So, I’m beginning to struggle to understand how it’s all going to pan out, with that letter…